Chapter 22: Burning Me Like an Ember
~SOUNDTRACK: Fleurie – Fire in my bones~
It wasn’t easy. Nothing about this was easy. There were still so many things to talk about, with Max, with Kaleb, with Christopher, with her siblings once she’d get back. Gods above, the little ones were dragons, too. And yet again, it was up to her to guide them, to offer them the choice of having the spell that kept their powers dormant lifted and she’d be there for them as no one had been for her, if the time were to come.
But for now, talking was no priority. For now, the clock kept ticking on them and Ember heard it loud in her head, resonating with every heartbeat. Tick. Tock.
And yet, nothing was the same. Everything had taken a dramatic turn and Ember found she was no longer afraid. For the first time in her life, she knew exactly who she was. And perhaps Daughter of Scorching Flames and Charcoal Dust was not precisely what she’d had in mind, but having the power to set on fire everything that stood against her and anyone who dared to threaten her family again was rather convenient. She would see her kin risen from the ashes. She promised herself she would use the heights she soared through as a reminder of what she had to reestablish.
So Ember spread her wings and let go, shutting down her brain and giving in to her instincts. She felt Kaleb by her side and she knew their minds were in sync right now. They were buried within their memories, letting the wind point them in the right direction.
She was already recognizing the view. The air smelled different, it held an ashen scent, a scent filled with thick smoke rising to greet them. The sky was turning a little grayer and grand mountains stood tall before them. Ember recognized the woods. Gods above, she and Kaleb had played here for days when they were little. She knew every path, every clearing, every river stream. She looked sideways at Kaleb and by the way his thick, scaled skin parted to reveal his fangs in a beastly sort of smile, she could tell he was making his way through the same recollection. She couldn’t help but feel as if things had shifted once again, as if a new link had been tied between them, and she was more terrified of it than ever. Her feelings had changed, too, ever since she’d left Thebbington Abbey, and she wasn’t sure where she and Kaleb stood right now. But the newly discovered knowledge hung above her head like a blade ready to drop. Knowing their story had been crafted by the dragon clans and that they were so much more than just kids who had fallen for each other in a market, in a field of poppies, in the rain, it all felt like it pressured her to feel a certain way. And while it was more than clear that Kaleb did, she was not quite there.
They circled the area for a few more times, trying to find a place to land. The Onyx Valley was actually an island covered in green, in waterfalls and cliffs. It looked so pure, so untouched, so isolated by everything that was on the other shore of this sea. But it was all too quiet now. The way Ember remembered it, it used to buzz with life, with energy, there used to be little children running, people crossing paths and dragons conquering the skies above it. Now, it was as dead as the rest of her family. And yet, nature found a way to go on.
Ember and Kaleb landed in a clearing, and flashbacks flooded them both.
~SOUNDTRACK: Taylor Swift – Out of the Woods (at Grammy Museum)~
“That cloud looks like a heart,” 10-year old Ember stated happily. Lying on his back, by her side, sat Kaleb Middleton, frowning up to the sky.
“It looks like a sheep to me,” he spoke shyly and Ember scoffed.
“They all look like sheep to you.”
“But it’s confusing,” he turned to look at her. “They’re white and fluffy. What else are they supposed to look like?”
Ember giggled at his cluelessness. Kaleb had gotten to be her best friend and she could not be more grateful for him. There was a calmness to their friendship that settled her, and she’d made good on the promise she’d made to her mother of going easy on him. Though she sometimes wished he’d get a bit more excited about… well, about pretty much anything.
“Ember?” she heard him call her name sheepishly. She turned to him curious just to find him watching her as well, a concerned look to his gaze.
“Aren’t you afraid?” he inquired, and she frowned.
“Afraid of what? Our parents are powerful clan leaders. We don’t have to be afraid. We’re well protected. You need not be afraid.”
“I didn’t mean that,” he hurried to clarify. “I know our clan can protect us. But our parents talk of some great destinies to be fulfilled. Of how we’ll rule the clans together. Doesn’t that scare you?”
“Not at all,” she replied serenely. “And you shouldn’t be either. You know why?”
She smiled brightly at him and Kaleb shied away from the intensity of his best friend’s gaze.
“Because we get to do it together, silly,” Ember shrugged like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “We’ll rule side by side. And you will not have to be afraid because you will have me to watch your back. As you’ll watch mine, I trust.”
Fangs turned back into teeth, flesh replaced scales and claws went back to thin fingers. Ember looked at Kaleb just to find him already back to his human form, looking around with a small smile on his face.
“You remember it, too?” she asked him, and he nodded once.
“Those clouds still look like sheep to me,” he stated, and Ember burst out into giggles.
“You never did have a bright imagination.”
Kaleb simply shrugged. “You had it for both of us. Gods above, you scared me half the time. Always so full of life and so happy.” He paused and looked her dead in the eye, a sad look on his face that made Ember flinch. “You still do. Scare me most of the time, that is. But it’s different now.”
Ember ran a hand through her hair and averted her gaze, deciding to move past the awkward moment. Heavens. It’s like she didn’t know how to talk to him anymore. Every feeling from the past couple of months came rushing back at her, hitting her with raw force and she more than often found herself having trouble breathing. What had happened to her? It was like, throughout all the clarity, Kaleb, the only one left of her kin, the only one she was supposed to relate to, didn’t shine as bright as she’d seen him at first. She’d expected him to be the moon, back when they’d gotten together. Back when she found out who they truly were. But in fact, he’d turned out to be just a lonely star.
“It would appear that future you were so afraid of finally happened,” she told him. “And I must say, it is a bit darker than I would have imagined.”
Kaleb sighed. “Scarier than never,” he admitted. “We’re to rule over a race that’s perished.”
“No,” Ember shook her head at him. “We’re to watch it rise and restore it to its former glory. We’re simply a bit lonelier than I’d have expected.”
“So it’s still the two of us,” he dared mutter under his breath. “You and me, side by side. I never would have thought this would be the scariest part.”
Ember felt it snap inside her, like glass shattering. She bit her lip and tried to ignore the sense of dread mustering in the depth of her chest. She deserved his harsh words. She’d disappointed him and she’d turned her back on him when he’d needed her the most. He would’ve never done that to her. And as if that hadn’t been enough, she betrayed him in the worst way possible.
We’ll rule side by side. And you will not have to be afraid because you will have me to watch your back. As you’ll watch mine, I trust.
It all felt like a lie now. She cared about Kaleb, she did, and the only way they could see their kin be reborn would be together. But she was still working through that one. It still felt like too much pressure that kicked the air out of her lungs.
“We’ll make it work,” she turned to him, trying to believe it. “We’re the only hope, Kaleb.”
“You make it sound like you don’t have a choice,” he smiled sadly. “And I’m having trouble believing that’s how it is supposed to be. You see, I want to make it work not because we’re the only hope. I want to make it work because you’re my hope and I love you.”
Ember sighed and felt her eyes fill with tears. She bit her lip.
“There is a choice,” she muttered. “There is always a choice, Kaleb. And I chose you. I chose not to walk away from it. I chose to stand and fight by your side, fight for our survival and for our race’s revival. I will do all that and I will do it as I vowed to. With you. But don’t say you love me and expect me to give you that in return.”
Kaleb laughed humorlessly. “Because of the pirate.”
“No, Kaleb,” she said through gritted teeth. “Because I take my time sorting out my feelings. And they have been giving me hell lately. Because I will not be pushed to confess feelings I’m not certain of. And I’m sorry if I hurt you, Kaleb. It has never been my intention. I do care for you, more than you can know. But I am having a hard time placing that properly within the chambers of my heart. And I promise you, this has nothing to do with Max. There is nothing going on between me and him.”
Kaleb watched her with pursed lips until she finished talking. Then he simply smiled sadly at her and turned his back on her, clenching and unclenching his fists. Eventually, he looked over his shoulder and spoke one single word before turning back into a dragon and fleeing.
~SOUNDTRACK: Matt Cardle & Melanie C – Loving you~
Ember and Kaleb landed on Max’s ship less than an hour later and Kaleb hurried to tell Christopher that they had found the Onyx Valley. Ember suspected he was eager to get away from her after their earlier talk, but she didn’t have to energy to keep having the same conversation over and over again. So she figured she had to go tell Max in what direction to set sail, too.
She headed towards his cabin and gulped. She found his door half open and she paused for a heartbeat, pulling herself together. This would be the first time they’d be alone together ever since that kiss, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about that. Or to face its aftermath. Gods above, she’d told Kaleb there was nothing going on between her and Max, and out of everything, this felt like the biggest lie. Max was the main reason why her feelings were so tangled up right now. Even if they didn’t end up talking about that heated kiss, there was tangible tension between them that she could no longer ignore. It was like her skin itched every time their skin brushed accidentally, and she’d gotten to learn most of those accidents weren’t than ‘accidental’ either. It was like they kept being drawn to each other, like magnets. It was like nothing she’d ever felt before. His mere presence intoxicated her, made her whole body heat up and long for his touch. Now more than ever, considering she’d felt his touch exploring her skin in ways that had made her week around the knees. Gods above, she’d have to make him sleep on the floor again, because there was no way she’d be able to share a bed with him in this condition.
She took a deep breath and walked inside, finding Max crouched over a map on his table. He raised his head the second she walked in and Ember saw his eyes darken with hunger the same way she assumed hers did. Oh, they were buried in some deep trouble. For a long minute, they just stood there, drowning in each other’s presence.
“Any luck?” he broke the silence first after clearing his voice. Ember sighed shakily before answering.
“Yes, actually. We found the place. In fact, I came here to give you the directions.”
Reluctantly, she moved in front of the map and he moved a few inches away to make room for her. But Lord, oh Lord, she felt his warm breath against the nape of her neck and all she could think about was the way her head had been spinning at how his uneven breath had sounded against her skin as he’d kissed his way down her jaw. She cleared her throat and hated how her voice was still shaking when she started speaking.
“We should be right about here now, is that correct?” she asked, pointing at a spot on the map and she felt him nodding behind her.
“Right. So if we go north from here and we go with the currents, we should make it there by morning. Tell your men to keep their eyes open for land. It’s an island, covered in thick vegetation. Impossible to miss. Kaleb and I believe we can locate the cave easily once we’re there.”
“Understood,” he replied, his voice low, making Ember shuddered. “We should probably talk, you know.”
There he went. The exact words she did not want to hear. The ones she’d been dreading to hear. She knew they were coming, but at the moment, she decided talking about it was the worst idea possible. She hadn’t anticipated the intensity of the tension lingering between them and she wasn’t ready to pull at that fine thread separating them. Because once that broke, there would be nothing keeping her from falling into his arms and surrendering to this insane passion setting her veins on fire.
She turned on her heels, facing him. Big mistake. He was standing so close that their lips were dangerously close to each other and, for a second, she forgot what point she was trying to make. She shook her head and averted her gaze.
“No,” she tried to snap, but it didn’t come out so sure. “No, we don’t. There is nothing to talk about.”
The captain raised an eyebrow, licking his lips. Oh, the bastard was thinking about it the same way she did. And he didn’t look as if he were trying too hard to keep it under control, his eyes roaming all across her body and his fingertips twitching, willing to reach for her.
“Is it not?” he questioned, fixating his gaze on her. Ember almost broke under the crystal blue of his eyes.
“No,” she repeated, just as weak. “And stop looking at me like that.”
He leaned a bit closer, until Ember was practically sitting on the table. He braced each arm on one side of her until he had her caged. Just as he’d hoped to, she presumed. He was a hunter, and she was his prey. As helpless as a mouse.
“Like what?” he asked, as if he didn’t know all too well.
“Like this. I cannot breathe with you looking at me like this.”
He leaned even closer, his lips moving to her cheek without actually touching it, though she wanted them to. Oh, how she wanted to. It was like she was dying and his lips held the antidote and she needed to taste it on them. He took his time caressing her cheek with his charged breath and then he moved to her ear, sending waves to her spine.
“Like what?” he repeated the question. “Like I keep thinking about last time when we were in this cabin? Like I lie awake at night, remembering the feeling of your soft lips against mine? Like all I’ve been wanting to do ever since was to push you against that wall again and finish what we started? Like I’ve never wanted another woman the way I want you, fire breather? Like you’ve set my head on fire? Is that what you mean?”
His hand went to grip her waist and she arched into his touch, one hand gripping his shoulder, wishing his words would just end up on her lips already to stop this awful agony.
“Like that, Ember?” he prompted, moving his head to look at her, his blue eyes darkened, their lips barely grazing.
“Y-yes,” she managed to get out. “Like that.”
“Well, that’s too bad, love,” he tightened his grip on her, his other hand cupping her cheek. “I can’t do that. I can’t pretend that never happened. And I can’t pretend I don’t want you. Because I bloody do.”
And she couldn’t pretend either. Gods above, she couldn’t. She could deny it all she wanted, but the truth threatened to break the surface of her skin and set this whole ship on fire. Max was an obnoxious bastard. But she wanted him with the power of devastating hurricanes and she hated every second of it. She hated that she loved it.
“Max—“ she whispered breathlessly and the pirate pulled back a little.
“I won’t push you,” he blurted out. “You want to deny it? Go on and deny it. But I know you feel it, too. It thickens the air whenever we’re near each other. I can feel your skin respond to my touch. And you’ll eventually give in to it. I won’t have to force it out of you and I won’t have to push you against a wall to get a response out of you. When you finally give in to these flames, Ember, it’ll be because you’ll have finally seen it for yourself. It’ll be because you want me.”
And without another word, he let go of her and rushed out of the door, leaving her cold and frustrated, wondering what the hell she was supposed to do with all of this fire burning up her lungs from inside out. And as it kept roasting everything in its path, the ashes that remained in her veins spelled Maxwell Lockhart’s name.
~SOUNDTRACK: Imagine Dragons – Who we are~
They made it to the Onyx Valley in the morning, just like Ember had predicted. As they made their way through the thick vegetation, following the path she and Kaleb claimed it took to the cave, Ember and Max kept a safe distance from each other, though they were constantly aware of each other’s presence. If Kaleb noticed the charged tension, he didn’t say so, and Christopher kept shooting the three of them curious glances.
“Are you certain you know where we’re going?” the demon asked eventually. “I’d hate to get bored or annoyed. I tend to start killing.”
Ember nearly rolled her eyes. She’d gotten rather used to his threats by now. Kaleb sighed and answered.
“This is the way. The cave is uphill, I recall.”
She did, too. They were vague memories in which they’d relied more on instinct, but the reflexes kicked in and the sights started feeling familiar.
In no time, they made it to the entrance of a cave exactly like that from their memories. It was dark inside and no one seemed too eager to go in. None of them knew what could be in there. After all, who’s to say what a dragon truly hoards? And even as beasts, they were intelligent creatures. There could be traps inside, or there could be other creatures, waiting to crawl from the darkness and attack.
Eventually, Ember was the one who threw her hands in the air and stepped forward.
“Oh, for the love of God,” she exclaimed. “Let’s get this over with.”
Reluctantly, everyone else followed. As they advanced further, the darkness only got thicker and thicker and they felt less and less secure about continuing.
“Having an actual fire breather suddenly seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?” Max remarked, and Ember stopped mid-walking, causing Kaleb and a few of Max’s pirates to bump into her.
“Oh,” she muttered. “It actually does. Perhaps I can help with that.”
She heard Max and his pirates gasp a little and Kaleb caught her wrist as they realized what she meant. But what were they so scared of? It was a good idea.
“Ember,” Kaleb whispered. “It’s ill-advised. We’re not in full control of our powers yet.”
She gently unclasped her wrist from his palm and scoffed.
“Please,” she brushed him off. “Everybody go outside and grab a wooden stick. Largest one you can find.”
Max’s pirates, himself included, came back minutes later with the wooden sticks she’d requested. She took a deep breath, finally getting to second doubting her idea.
“Ember, are you sure?” Kaleb muttered once again.
“Calm down, little Lahey,” she tried to joke. “I know what I’m doing.”
Not wasting another breath, she shifted into her dragon form, enjoying the way her whole body buzzed with heat and power until the beast took over. And she loved letting the beast take over. It gave her a sense of freedom she’d never before felt.
In dragon form, her senses were enhanced and her eyes could see through the darkness. So this would be even easier than expected, granted she managed to call out to that power she wished to use. She took a deep breath and became aware of every part of her body, from the tip of her claws to the tip of her tail. And then she searched within her, deep down, until she found the source of the heat. She breathed in. It was like a bonfire, sending sparks to the surface, and it burned bright. She called to it and the fire was quick to answer. She breathed out and the flames came.
“Well, wasn’t that spectacular,” Christopher mocked in a bored voice just minutes later, when Ember was already back to her human form. “You certainly have a taste from dramatics, love.”
Ember stared at the wooden sticks turned into torches by the flames she’d breathed out and at the mesmerized faces of the sailors, Max included. She had to admit, it was pride, that emotion surging through her right now. It was good to know at least she and her powers were in sync.
“It got the job done,” she replied to the demon. “Now let’s find that cup, shall we?”
She finally turned around, too, and she realized that the pirates weren’t mesmerized by her spitting fire. She let out a loud gasp. There were mountains of gold. Jewelry and tools of all sorts, just piled over each other. She’d heard the stories about dragons hoarding gold and he had vague memories of it, too, but to think there was so much of it… No wonder Max wanted to get his hands on this treasure.
“Anytime now, love,” Christopher moved past her. “There’s plenty of cups for you to choose. And we’re on a clock, I believe.”