Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 24: Holes In My Soul

SOUNDTRACK: Cloves – Don’t forget about me~

Ember’s head was spinning at nauseating speed. She couldn’t precisely recall how she’d gotten back home. She was stuck between scorching rage, a compelling murderous instinct, and dark despair. But she had to choose which one she would give in to.

So she chose. She would not weep just yet. Her siblings weren’t gone just yet. She felt it in her bones. The witches wanted her and her only, so she dared to hope they would not harm innocent children. No, she would not weep for now. For now, she would curse the stars and every God she knew, she would scream and hit whatever stood in her way, for she would not rest until she scorched everything in her path, until she found her siblings.

She rushed inside her house, cheeks flushed and panting, eyes red and puffy and unfocused. Max and Kaleb jumped to their feet while Christopher simply watched her with eyebrows raised.

“What’s the matter?” Kaleb asked. “Where are Charles and the girls?”

Ember closed the door behind her and let herself drop to the floor, trying to regain her composure, but the world was spinning fast and she hugged her knees to keep herself from falling apart.

“They took them,” she gripped a handful of her hair. “Bloody witches took them.”

She saw Kaleb fall into a chair, eyes wide and lips trembling and she could tell he was as shaken up about it as she was. Understandable. She knew Kaleb loved her siblings with all of his heart. But for now, she didn’t need this. She couldn’t bear any more falling apart. Not her own, not anyone’s. She buried her head between her knees again and focused on taking shallow breaths and stopping her body from shaking. She saw Max’s boots as he walked towards her, but she didn’t raise her head. Shallow breaths. No more shaking. No more bloody shaking. Just rage, so much rage that she let boil within her, wishing it would just break the surface and erupt so that she could just go after those damned witches and watch them be swallowed by flames.

She felt two steady hands on her shoulders, but she still refused to raise her head. She was in no mood for a pep talk. Max’s grip tightened and she wanted to shrug his hands off, but instead of asking her to look up and comforting her, Max gripped her forcefully and pulled her up on her feet. She let out a small gasp.

“Let go of me,” she hissed at him, shying away from his touch. “My siblings—“

“Are gone, I know,” he cut her off. “I’m aware of that. We heard you the first time. So what are you going to do about it, Ember?”

“Let it go, Max,” she tried to move away from him. “I don’t need a motivational speech. They have my siblings and they could kill them any minute. I think I’m entitled to a moment of pulling myself together.”

He gripped her shoulder again and shoved her against the door, half expecting Kaleb to jump up and bite his head off about it. But looking briefly over his shoulder, he saw Kaleb in his chair, shaking and trying to process. Little boy. He was way in over his head.

“Listen to yourself, Ember,” he raised his voice. “They have your siblings. They could kill them any minute. That moment of pulling yourself together? You don’t get that, little dragon. That moment of yours could be the last one for your siblings. You want to save them? Then bloody pull yourself together along the way and let’s go kick some witchy arses. Like the bloody beast you are.”

She glared at him and was on the verge of retorting, but she paused before the words could leave her tongue. She wasn’t shaking anymore. Her vision was no longer blurred and she saw clearly. And what she saw was that Max was right. What was she doing? She’d just promised herself she wouldn’t weep. She was an Onyx Dragon, Dragon of Scorching Flames and Charcoal Dust. She wasn’t breaking down.

SOUNDTRACK: Fleurie – Soldier

“Right,” she nodded. “You’re right. We need to regroup in order to find them. So what do we do?”

Christopher cleared his throat behind them, making Ember flinch. Gods above, sometimes she forgot he was even here. He just lingered in the back, hiding in the shadows with his all-too observing gray gaze, enjoying the drama like a bored spectator and intervening at his convenience. But she couldn’t complain. He’d turned out quite useful and while she was still waiting for the catch, he hadn’t broken their trust. Yet.

“Might I suggest a solution?” he asked. “It’s rather simplistic, but then I presume you’ll have no issue against it. For now, all we can do is scout. We split up and go search the village, asking questions. Perhaps someone’s noticed something unusual that can lead us to our witches.”

“So we find them,” Max crossed his arms over his chest. “And then what? We march on them? You’re a demon and Ember and rosy cheeks back there are dragons. But they’re ancient witches and it’s four of us. I believe we’re a tad bit outnumbered.”

“We shall discuss this later,” Christopher sneered at him; but Ember had to give it to Max, at least he’d grown the guts to stand up to a demon he’d feared no long ago. “For now, your priority is tracking them down and getting those children out.”

“I agree,” Ember found herself saying. “We’ll find a way. Let’s worry about finding them.”

Max sighed. “Alright. So be it. Where do we start?”

Ember bit her nail. She would have lied if she said she didn’t have her theories and that she hadn’t given it a lot of thought before. It had been what had kept her up at night for a while now. For the witches to know her life so well, it couldn’t have been a coincidence. They knew about Kaleb, about the children, about the ball and the necklace. They’d have had to be rather close.

“I’ve been thinking,” she found herself saying out loud. “What if it’s someone we know? What if it’s one of the villagers who got close enough to us to learn information about our lives? Their way of acting and the way the hex was cast suggest so.”

“You have your answer, pirate,” Christopher retorted. “We start by presuming everyone’s a suspect.”

“That should narrow it down,” Max whispered under his breath, then raised his voice. “Shall we?”

“I should stay behind,” Ember mumbled, not too thrilled with the idea of staying behind, useless. “Last time I was among them, the villagers didn’t receive me too well. And they clearly won’t tell me a thing. I pray you’ll be more successful. Go ahead and I’ll find you later.”

Max looked at her for a moment, seeming in deep thought. He wasn’t too thrilled about leaving her behind, either. It had gotten into his system, this instinct of having her within reach, in his sight, where he could protect her. It was rather silly, really. She was strong enough and he was quite certain she didn’t need him protecting her anymore. But it struck him dumb how invested he’d become in her story. He couldn’t walk away from it now even if he wanted to. But bloody hell, he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to walk away. He wanted to keep walking towards her. And he wanted her to walk towards him, too, until their bodies crashed together and melted into one. And it scared the living shit out of him. He wasn’t used to women having more than a temporary effect on him, and certainly not of this intensity. But she was like a bottomless well, and the deeper he dug, the more he discovered she was nothing like the arrogant, self-centered prick who acted like she knew it all and like she had all the answers he’d thought her to be. Ember Blackthorn was far too wise for her age. She’d been through hell, so he understood why the flames no longer frightened her, but it was the fire that feared her. She was no damsel in distress. She was no scared princess. She didn’t need saving. She was a bloody fiery queen. A dragon queen. And he was the fool pirate who watched her just a little too dearly.

He cleared his throat.

“Aye. As you wish.” He turned to Kaleb. “Rosy cheeks. Stay with her. Should any harm come to her, even a scrape or a bruise, I’m holding you responsible and feeding you to the sharks.”

“Max!” Ember scolded, but Kaleb simply shot him an annoyed smile.

“I would love to see you try.”

Max blinked for a few seconds, before breaking into a smile of his own. Huh. So the little cat had claws. He had to give him credit for mustering some guts. Still smiling to himself, Max followed Christopher out of the hut and closed the door behind him, leaving Ember with Kaleb.

~SOUNDTRACK: Rhodes – Your soul

Ember stood there, petrified, unsure as what to say. Silence lingered between the two of them, pressing over their shoulders heavily. How had they gotten to the point of not knowing what to say to each other? Gods above, it had been so easy before. When they were just a boy and a girl, so in love and full of hope. Back when they weren’t yet dragons, when they were no more than kids who could feel the joy of walking in the rain. Back when their universe was just as wide as a field of poppies.

Ember sighed and sat in a chair in front of Kaleb.

Back when Maxwell Lockhart hadn’t made an appearance in her life and heart.

Back when she hadn’t had Kaleb thrown in a dungeon for six weeks.

Back when she hadn’t defended the man who had made them jump off a cliff.

Back when her siblings hadn’t been kidnapped by evil witches.

She ran a hand through her hair and looked at him. He was still a confused boy. As much as she’d changed, he’d stayed just the same. He was still little Lahey. And he was so scared. In all the haze, she hadn’t had the time to sit him down and reassure him and he’d had to catch up along the way. And while Ember had had Max to lean on, as crazy and unexpected as that had been, the same pirate had been the reason why Kaleb couldn’t lean on her. With all the fighting and misunderstandings and constantly being on different pages, she hadn’t for a second stopped to consider that he was in over his head.

“How are you holding up?” she mustered the courage to ask him.

Kaleb raised an eyebrow. “I believe it should be me asking you that question. It would appear that you’re handling the disappearance of your siblings rather well.”

“What other choice do I have?” she shrugged helplessly. “Max is right. I cannot afford to break down. I’ve had my fair share of that. I’ll find the children and I will rip those witches to shreds. The problem has just become a lot simpler in what concerns me.”

Kaleb sighed and met her gaze. “But?”

Ember shot him a sad smile. Of course he did. Of course he saw through her. Maybe she’d changed. Maybe while he was still little Lahey, she wasn’t the same girl who had fallen in love with him. But that didn’t change the fact that deep to the core, they shared a connection that could not be undone. And it also didn’t change the fact that he’d been her best friend for half her life and would probably be so for the rest of it.

“But,” she conceded, “you haven’t had the privilege of breaking down. We’re going to war, Kaleb. And it will not be pretty and blood will be spilt and we will not get out of it as sane as we started it. And I think you’ve kept it all boiling up inside you, burning you from inside out. I don’t think you’ve come to terms with everything that’s been happening to us. And I cannot force you to fight a battle that you’re not prepared to fight.”

“Your worry is touching, but misplaced nonetheless,” he replied and shot her a smile that Ember could tell was forced; she’d read through him with the precision of an arrow hitting bull’s eye. “This is not just your war, Ember. Once we’ll have gotten your siblings back, we’ll be fighting for our people. Need I remind you it’s up to us to carry on the legacy of an entire race?”

Ember smiled sadly and dared to lay a hand over his.

“That’s too heavy a burden for you to carry, little Lahey. You may be right. It’s our war and our duty towards our kin to fulfill. But for starters, figure out a way to win the war against yourself.”

Silence fell and, with every passing moment, she saw his defenses fall and his true emotions gathered in the depth of his eyes. And Ember finale saw the true despair that lied with him. She’d been right about everything.

Kaleb let out a deep, shaky sigh. “Everything has changed, hasn’t it?”

Ember nodded. “It has. And I’m sorry, Kaleb. I wish to help you, I do. But I can’t stay behind anymore. I need to keep moving and you need to give yourself the chance to answer those questions nudging at the back of your mind.”

He gulped and opened and closed his mouth a few times before speaking again.

“I know we’re supposed to be in this together,” he said. “But I feel as if out of everything, you’ve changed the most.”

Ember stayed quiet for a few moments. She wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and mostly because these were the truest words that had been spoken in this entire conversation. But for Kaleb to point it out so bluntly, it allowed the realization to settle in slowly and brutally, like a snowstorm. And it broke her heart a little.

“I did,” she muttered eventually. “But for that, I can’t apologize. I won’t. You’re my best friend, Kaleb. Regardless of everything that’s happened, you’re still my best friend. But I’ve been making apologies my whole life. I’m done saying sorry for being who I am.”

Kaleb looked at her hand over his for a few seconds. Ember was afraid that her words had hurt him again, and that was the last thing she wanted. But even if they did, she would not take them back. She’d meant them. Not once again would she ever feel bad for letting herself be who she needed to be. She bit her lip and, only moments later, Kaleb placed his other hand over hers and one corner of his mouth lifted in that boyish grin she’d come to love so much.

“I love you, you know,” he whispered, and Ember’s heart clenched; that, she couldn’t say back now.

“I know,” she replied, her voice breaking a little. “I pray it’s enough for us to survive through this.”

“It will be. Maybe we’ll win this war against those darned witches. Maybe we’ll die trying. Maybe our kin will truly go extinct, or maybe you and I will restore it to its former glory. Maybe you’ll sail into the sunset with your handsome pirate. Whatever your choice, I needed to lay it out here. I love you. And this will never cease to be true. It’s on the table. You get to decide what you want to do with it.”

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