Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 23: Radioactive Paradise

~SOUNDTRACK: Rachel Rabin – Raise the dead~

Ember looked around, too mesmerized to even think about looking for a cup they could use for the spell. Gods above, there was so much gold. So much gold that she had hoarded, hers for the taking, hers to put an end to half a lifetime of misery for her and her family.

She turned around to see Max rolling a few golden coins between his fingers, his expressions most likely mirroring hers.

“I understand now,” she told him, and he turned around to look at her curiously. “Your great treasure hunt, this crusade of yours. I presume everything was worth it. You’ve reached your purpose.”

He sighed and tossed the coins back into the pile and his features twisted into an almost disgusted expression. Ember frowned. This was not exactly the reaction she would have expected of a man who had spent so much time in the pursuit of this exact moment.

“Aye, I have,” he whispered, averting his gaze. “I’m only now learning that some of my purposes have changed along the way.”

Three heartbeats later when Ember remembered how to breathe, she opened her mouth to respond to that. Though she didn’t know how. It appeared that Max had no trouble whatsoever speaking up his mind and his feelings, but she was not quite ready to even face those. She never got the chance to speak, when Kaleb’s voice rang from behind them.

“Will this one do the job?” he asked, holding up a golden cup for Christopher to inspect.

“It should,” the demon spoke. “Let us begin then, shall we?”

Four people stood around a goblet made of gold, filled with all sorts of herbs and mystical ingredients. The demon spoke a few words in Latin that neither the dragons, nor the pirate recognized. Ember expected an explosion, a fire, colorful smoke, something in the least bit spectacular, yet nothing happened.

Christopher sighed.

“I can lead the spell, but I cannot perform it,” he explained. “My connection to you is null. It takes great implication and a soul that can serve as a tether to you.”

Ember ran a hand through her hair as she thought the demon’s words through and with the corner of her eyes, she saw Kaleb stepping forward to volunteer to cast the spell.

“I’ll do it.”

Ember flinched. The words hadn’t come from Kaleb. Instead, she saw Max shrugging like it was no big deal, but she knew better and she saw it in his eyes. Connection, a great implication, a soul that could serve as a tether to her, Christopher had said. By stepping forward, Max was waving a red flag over everything that they had and that they had yet to admit, to figure out. She heard Kaleb growl by her side.

“Like hell you will,” he spat.

Ember’s eyebrows flew up. She’d heard him cuss before, but never with such intensity and so articulate. The words sounded strange on his lips, and it occurred to her that maybe she had underestimated his hatred for the pirate. Not that she blamed him. Max’s presence in her life, her being on his ship and sharing a bed with him, this inexplicable attraction that kept drawing her to him was what had her question her feelings for the little Lahey in the first place.

“Perhaps now would be the time to mention,” Christopher’s wicked smirk interrupted the staring contest going on between Kaleb and Max, “that the spell is rather risky. If the connection isn’t strong enough, it won’t work and it’ll likely kill you in the process, as well as accelerating the hex and having our dragons dead within minutes.”

Max didn’t move a muscle and Ember started biting her lip. Kaleb was shaking violently, gesturing and pacing back and forth.

“You are not doing this,” he pointed a finger at the pirate. “I am not willing to bet my life on a tantrum of yours. Are you willing to bet hers?”

He waved a hand towards Ember. She clenched her fists. Was he really flaunting her like she was a piece of meat to be debated over? She saw Max’s eyes dart towards her, clouded and unreadable.

“Aye,” he whispered. “I believe in what’s unfolding before my own eyes, dragon boy. Unlike you.”

Ember gulped. Dangerous statement, her head screamed, but her heart was beating so fast is threatened to jump out of her chest. He was admitting the fact that he felt things, and that things were happening, and she saw it in his eyes that Kaleb acknowledged that, too. He turned to her.

“Ember,” he nearly begged. “Are you letting him go through with this? Our life is on the line. Are you truly placing it in the hands of a pirate with questionable intentions?”

She ran a hand through her hair and let out a shaky breath.

I’m only now learning that some of my purposes have changed along the way.

Max’s words rang in her head, like a broken echo she heard while being submerged underwater. But Kaleb’s statement had hit closer to what Max had said than he would ever know. But this pirate’s intentions had always been questionable. Even now, even earlier, even days ago when she’d been in his arms, she could never truly be sure what it was that he wanted from her. But he’d made her a promise. And he was still here. Even with all this gold around him, with all the treasure he’d dreamed of for so long, his eyes were still glued to hers, pupils bloated, the blue of his irises dancing a dizzying dance that knocked the air out of her lungs. Questionable intentions or not, one thing was certain. She trusted him and she trusted whatever connection was between them.

Before she knew it, Ember was nodding.

“That is precisely what I shall do,” she spoke fiercely, taking out the Hope Diamond and placing it in Max’s extended hand.

His fingers fastened around it and there was a small smile, almost imperceptible, lifting up the corners of his lips. Not much of a smile, but one meant for her only. He was accepting her trust and vowed to make good use of it.

He moved to stand over the goblet and Christopher spoke the incantation again. Only this time, when Max repeated it, blue flames arose. Ember let out a breath. It was working.

“Drop the necklace into the fire and repeat after me,” Christopher instructed, then proceeded to speak in Latin once more. Max did as said, and when the necklace touched the flames, the whole cup was swallowed by a blue fire and its content disappeared into a blinding light.

Kaleb and Ember let out a soft growl and their eyes glowed, then the cave went back to pitch black, only the sound of their ragged breaths filling the silence.

“Did it work?” Max was the one to break it.

Christopher let out a low, frightening chuckle. “I believe so. They’re alive, aren’t they? Now let’s go find that bloody witch so that I can free myself from this headache of a deal.”

“I second that,” Kaleb said breathlessly. “Now what?”

“Now we go home,” Ember replied, her voice fierce. “We go back for my siblings. And once I know they’re safe, we find the bloody witch who did this to us and we kill her.”

~SOUNDTRACK: Birdy – Terrible love~

They made it back to Max’s ship safe and sound, discussing strategy on how to track down the Hades Brides all the way there. But Ember was having trouble thinking clearly knowing her siblings were out of reach for now, so she put it off until she’d hold them in her arms again. Kaleb stayed silent the whole way back, and Ember was partly grateful for that. She assumed he’d bite her head off again when they were alone, for trusting Max and for the solace she sought in him. But he was so oblivious to it. The more Kaleb pushed her to see Max’s true nature and to sort out her feelings, the more he pushed her away. Perhaps it had been a bit desperate and ill-advised to rely on Max in the first place, but back when Kaleb’s shoulders had been too weak and unsteady to support her weight, Max had swept her in his arms and carried her through quite a few storms. She owed him this much. And in the process, that debt had snuck into her heart and had bloomed out of her control, while Kaleb had allowed himself to stay covered in thorns.

As soon as they were back on the ship, Kaleb excused himself and Christopher disappeared as he always did, not wanting to be bothered. That left Max and Ember shifting their weight from one foot to another awkwardly, not sure what to say. Eventually, Max’s eyes grazed the horizon, taking in the sight.

“Sun’s setting,” he commented, then turned to look at her with a nervous half smile. “Shall we go to our spot to watch it together? I’m bringing rum. For old times’ sake.”

Ember couldn’t help but chuckle a little.

“Old times’ sake was less than a week ago, captain,” she narrowed her eyes at him playfully. He rolled his.

“Well, they’re gone, ain’t them?” he crossed his arms over his chest. “They’re old. Just go, you infuriating woman. I’ll meet you there.”

Ember turned on her heels and left, still giggling. A part of her hummed in delight. With everything that had happened between them for the past few days, what with the jumping off a cliff, the intense kissing, admissions, teasing that set her head on fire, placing her life in his hands, it was good to know she could still count on their odd friendship. Even if their relationship was slowly stretching outside the lines of friendship. But as long as she knew they could come back to dusk spent together over a bottle of rum, bantering and bad jokes, then perhaps they would be fine. Because while she never would have seen it coming, she wished for Maxwell Lockhart to stay in her life.

The sun waved goodbye to her by painting the horizon into a dozen bright colors and the sea served him as a mirror as he descended beneath the line where the sky met the waves. She ached to spread her wings and to offer the sun a spectacle to remember until tomorrow morning, but her muscles were still a bit sore from overusing her newly found powers.

“I brought the rum,” Max announced from behind her before taking his regular place by her side and he extended the bottle.

“You have turned me into an obnoxious rum drinker who dances at silly parties like a savage,” she teased before bringing the bottle to her lips. “I’m disgusted.”

“I’m impressed,” Max commented, grinning. “It took little work, really. You were already a savage, fire breather. I just brought it out of you.”

Ember rolled her eyes. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” she muttered under her breath, but she was sure the bastard had heard her.

“Can I ask you something?” he spoke a few minutes later.

“It’s not like my answer has ever stopped you before,” Ember sighed.

“You trusted me with your life just now,” he said in a low voice, his tone serious. “Earlier, at the cave. You trusted me not bring death upon you. Why? Did you truly believe our connection was strong enough?”

Ember bit her lip. She couldn’t even begin to explain to him every single feeling that had surged through her heart back in that cave. She couldn’t tell him what realization she’d come to, because every word she’d voice would paint itself on their skin like a tattoo, visible to the eye, and she could not bring herself to have it catching her eye every minute of every day. It was not the time.

“I don’t know,” she lied. “Things are, well, changing. We’re changing.”

Max looked at her for a long moment and she refused to meet his gaze. Eventually, he drank from the bottle and turned to look at the sunset, as well.

“Ain’t that the truth,” he muttered under his breath.

More moments passed and Ember finally noticed he’d come back carrying a big bag with him that he’d let at their feet. She frowned.

“What’s that?” she inquired, pointing at the sack and to her utter shock, she got to see Maxwell Lockhart’s ears turn pink.

“Oh, this,” he fidgeted. “I had one of my men run some errands for me.”

He scratched the back of his head awkwardly, still not making any move to pick up the sack. Oh, this had to be good. What had gotten the almighty captain so flustered?

“Well?” she prompted. “Are you going to show me?”

He sighed and crouched, opening the bag. Ember followed his lead and gasped out loud when she saw what was inside. Textiles. Quality textiles, actual canvas that real painters painted on. Gods above, and oils and paints and brushes. They were art tools.

“M-Max—“ she stumbled over her words. “What is the meaning of this?”

“Well, I remember you telling me you haven’t stolen art tools in years,” he explained, shrugging one shoulder. “And I believe I told you you’ve got to hold on to the things that make you feel alive and happy. Considering I’ve now got the location of a gigantic treasure, it was the least I could do for you. You deserve being granted the solace of the small things.”

Ember took a brush in her shaky fingers and felt her eyes watering up. She looked at Max and saw that he was looking at her with the same intensity that made her stomach clench. In no longer than a second, though, his expression shifted back to his buffoon self.

“And I was thinking you could paint me. I would love nothing more than to hang a portrait of this handsome face in my cabin. Something to admire before I lay down to sleep. Nude, preferably.”

Ember chuckled. She thought about capturing those sapphire eyes on canvas and her heart skipped a beat. Oh, she would love nothing more, either.

“I will,” she promised. “Once this is over. I’ll paint you your portrait.”

Max frowned. “Once it’s over?” he inquired. Oh, of course. So many factors to take into consideration. Her siblings. Kaleb. And yet, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made.

“Oh, yes,” she grinned up at him. “I believe we were supposed to unravel the world together, captain Lockhart.”

~SOUNDTRACK: Linkin Park – Castle of glass~

When Ember’s feet touched the shore, she was engulfed by the same feeling she’d had back when Max had brought her to see her siblings the first time. She was home. She’d get them to safety and then she could unleash hell upon those damned witches. But for now, she just had to feel them in her arms and to know they’d survive this.

Four silhouettes strode down the shore with steady steps, thoroughly calculating their next move. From now on, they were at war.

“I’m heading to Clarissa’s shop,” Ember announced over her shoulder. “If she got the letter, the little ones should be with her. I’ll fetch them and meet you at my house.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Max caught her elbow just as she was about to leave them behind, and Ember tried hard to ignore the humming surging through her body at his touch and Kaleb’s glares that threw daggers at the captain.

“No, it’s fine,” she reassured him. “Take a safe route to my house and keep out of sight. I will be there as soon as I can.”

Max let go of her elbow and nodded once. “Take care, fire breather.”

Ember rolled her eyes. “Careful, captain. One might be led to believe you are actually concerned.”

“Hell, no,” the pirate teased back. “I’ve just gotten used to you cleaning up my cabin. It smells rather nice these days.”

Ember chuckled and turned on her heels. She didn’t look at Kaleb to see the judgmental look on his face. She didn’t look at Christopher to see he was bored and exasperated. She held on to the image of Max’s boyish grin until she reached Clarissa’s shop.

Gods above, it felt so odd now. It was like going back to the days before learning the truth, when she stood in this exact same place, worrying her head off about what her tomorrows might have brought. She was here now, still drowning in uncertainties, but with her life on the line for a change and many odds against her. So much had changed for the past two months and yet she closed her eyes before walking inside, allowing herself for a second to pretend that everything was the same. That she’d make her usual deals with Clare, that she’d go back home with some food, never enough food, but enough to make her siblings’ eyes light up a little. That she’d play with them for the rest of the day and go to sleep wrapped in their tiny arms.

Then she opened her eyes. Things were not like that anymore. She had to save their lives now, as well as hers. She would not let some bored witches – she found herself repeating Max’s words – get their dirty claws on her family. A fierce look on her face, Ember walked inside the shop, finding her old friend behind the counter. Clare’s eyes sparkled at her sight.

“Ember!” she exclaimed and moved to hug her; Ember returned the hug tightly, letting out a sharp breath. “Oh, Ember. I was so worried about you. I haven’t heard from you in weeks. What happened, sugar? Are you alright? Oh, I’m so happy to see you.”

Ember smiled widely. “You, too, Clare. You’ve no idea how happy I am to see you. I’ll tell you all about it when it’s over. I can’t stay for now.”

Clarissa frowned and gave Ember’s hands a firm squeeze.

“Tell me all about what? When what’s over? Gods above, Ember, what have you gotten yourself into? You’re not making any sense.”

“I know, I know,” Ember rubbed her temples. “I promise, I’ll come back to you with explanations and one hell of a story. For now, I just need to see Charles and the girls. I only came by to take them home.”

Clarissa’s eyes widened and she took a step backwards, confusion written all over her face. Ember felt her knees go weak, a dark premonition crawling in the depth of her chest.

“Take them home?” Clare asked quietly. “What do you mean? Ember, I haven’t seen your siblings in as long as I haven’t seen you.”

Ember gripped the edge of the counter for balance, feeling the world spinning around her. No. No. This couldn’t happen. This was just a huge misunderstanding.

“N-No, C-Clare,” she stammered, her whole body shaking. “I sent them to you. With, with money, and, and a letter. Asking you to take care of them while I’m gone.”

Clarissa moved to grip her shoulders tight, panic in her eyes, but a stoic expression on her face.

“Ember,” she raised her voice. “Ember. I’m sorry, but they never made it to me. I don’t know where your siblings are.”

Ember didn’t stick around for another explanation. Suddenly, the air became hard to breathe. She vaguely heard Clarissa calling her name, but she didn’t stop running.

They never made it to me.

I don’t know where your siblings are.

Brick by brick, the walls of the castle Ember had built in her heart started crumbling. One by one, the army she’d built within herself to help her move through this nightmare turned against her.

They had them. Those bloody witches had her siblings. She’d been wrong. It hadn’t been war before. But it was war now. If she had to rip their limbs off one by one, she’d destroy the Hades Brides for daring to lay a single finger on the four little Blackthorns. For this, they would learn the name Ember Blackthorn for it would be the last name on their lips as they’d draw their dying breath.

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