Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 25: Fire Across the Horizon

~SOUNDTRACK: The Script – Howl at the moon~

It was getting really late and Max and Christopher weren’t back yet. Ember paced back and forth, worried out of her mind. She and Kaleb hadn’t uttered another word to each other after his great confession and, truth be told, she preferred it this way. Her mind was busy crafting a plan to get a hold of the pirate and the demon. Clearly something must have happened to prevent them from being back.

Unable to take it anymore, she announced Kaleb she was going to find them and, despite his insistences that she was putting herself in danger, she was out the door in no time. The moon was up in the sky already and the night was quiet, stars gazing down on her. She remembered those nights she spent as a dragon, before waking up in the woods. She could see them clearly now. There was something exhilarating about spreading your wings and soaring high under the millions of stars. She’d used to fantasize about flying high enough to greet the moon from up close. The moon and a Daughter of the Sun itself. How could she be born into flames and yet to prefer being a creature of the night sky and of the pitch black darkness that the nights provided?

She found Max not much time later, on a cliff just outside the village, staring upon the velvet black of the night sea. If he heard her approach, he showed no sign of it. So Ember stepped lightly, like a predator cornering its prey. If she was lucky enough, she could give him the scare of his life.

“If your intention is to scare me, fire breather, you’re doing an awfully poor job.”

She let out a loud sigh and went to stand by his side.

“Bastard,” she mumbled under her breath. “How did you hear me?”

He simply shrugged. “I just did. How did you find me?”

Ember smiled wickedly and bumped him with her shoulder. “I just did.”

They slipped into comfortable silence and sat on the grass, looking into the distance. They didn’t need to fill the emptiness of the night with words, for the song of the waves and the wind ruffling the tree branches served them as the perfect soundtrack.

“What are you doing up here?” Ember asked eventually, and Max looked sideways at her.

“Just craving for a little peace and quiet. Things are about to go south real quick from here forth.”

“It would appear you nurse a soft spot for cliffs,” she narrowed her eyes playfully at him, and he chuckled.

“I was waiting for you to mention that,” he replied. “Figured you were still mad.”

Ember huffed. “Mad? Oh, Maxwell. If we make it out alive, I shall bring hell’s wrath upon your arse. I figured if we’re to die, it would be poor luck to die on bad terms with the man who saved my life once or twice just because he happened to endanger it on one occasion.”

Max laughed whole heartedly. “A wise conclusion,” he stated, then grew serious. “We won’t die, Ember. I know things seem so grim right now, but we’ll make it through, because I’m holding you to that promise about traveling to the four corners of the world together. You’re not getting out of that one. We won’t die. And you can’t die because you still have hell to give me for making you jump off that cliff.”

Ember found herself chuckling. “I’ll be looking forward for it.”

Silence fell over them once again. Max was having trouble keeping his eyes glued to the night sky, not when she sat beside him, a silhouette likely fallen from the edge of these very stars that gazed upon them right now. She was a bloody constellation. He looked sideways at her in awe. How far they’d come. Now, he had nothing less than respect and admiration towards her. Perhaps something else besides those, as well. But the little scared girl who’d trembled on his deck when he’d killed that obnoxious sailor had grown into her beast side and he learned that there was grace to her ferocity. And this was something that attracted him to her like nothing ever before. Looking at her now, he saw such beauty and delicacy in those features of hers. It was like she was made of porcelain. But he knew better. She was made of scales and claws and onyx. And for some reason, this drew him to her even more.

“You know,” her voice brought him out of his reverie, “I feel guilty right now. Sitting here with you, stargazing, while my siblings may be facing threats beyond what we can even fathom. I should be out there, cutting and burning my way through to finding them.”

“No,” he dared to reach and take her hand in his; to his surprise, she didn’t fight him and they intertwined their fingers. “No, there is nothing you can do. My part was a dead end, but I’m sure Christopher and his devilish charms have had more luck. Besides, the witches would have no use of them dead, not if they can still be used as a weapon against you. We’ll find them. And you can cut and burn your way through then. For now, don’t beat yourself up. Myself, I’m rather looking forward to the cutting and burning part. Badass Ember makes me all tingly.”

“Lots of things make you tingly,” she rolled her eyes, fighting a smile, and he shot her a wicked smile that made her body hum in response to him.

“Oh, little fire breather, little do you know. Perhaps when we’re done with this whole war business, we can start discovering exactly what fires we can ignite.”

His eyes stared deeply into hers, wide and sparkling in the dark, and Ember was grateful he couldn’t see the way she was blushing right now. She shifted and Max must have sensed her distress, because he chuckled and brushed it off. He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze and turned his attention back to the moon again.

“You know, when I was a little boy—“

“You were a little prick and bullied other kids into giving you their candies,” she cut him off mockingly. “Oh no, I know. You were small and defenseless and you were the bullied one, so you grew up to be a pirate and fed those bullies to the sharks.”

“Brat,” he muttered under his breath. “None of that. When I was a little boy, my mother used to tell me this story. Long, long ago, there were two moons watching over the night sky. But they were, in fact, nothing less than dragon eggs. And one day, one of them roamed too close to the sun. And because of the heat, the shell cracked and thousands of little dragons fell down to earth. As far as legend goes, dragons still haunt the night sky and you can hear them roar as a calling to their brothers and sisters still caught under the shell of the moon.”

Ember smiled sadly. “Little do they know,” she mumbled. “We’re no longer in numbers of thousands. We haunt the night sky. And we call, perhaps. But no one’s there to answer.”

He squeezed her hand again and Ember faced him. It occurred to her that they kept leaning forward towards each other, as if they couldn’t take the distance for too long before giving in to the gravity.

“No, love,” he whispered, and his warm breath sent tingles down her spine. “You may be outnumbered. But your call didn’t go unanswered. I don’t believe in many things, fire breather. I gave up any sort of faith long ago. But if anything, I do believe our meeting wasn’t by chance. Like an answer to callings neither of us was aware of. Something’s brought you to me.”

Ember chuckled nervously and leaned his forehead against his, both of them breathing the same charged air.

“That’s because you kidnapped me, captain,” she teased, and he laughed whole-heartedly.

They sat like that, forehead to forehead, eye to eye, nose to nose, moving closer and closer by the second. Max’s hand cupped her cheek and her hand settled on his shoulder. She remembered his words from not long ago.

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.

Oh, she wanted him. She wasn’t sure where she stood with Kaleb and her feelings towards Max were most certainly different. Good different. Bad different. She couldn’t tell. They struck her dumb every time they hit her. But Gods above, she wanted him. Maxwell Lockhart was a man made of flames himself and she was no longer afraid of those. She ached for fire and he was precisely that. Yes. She saw it. She wanted to give in to the flames. She wanted him.

They leaned closer and closer and she could tell that he was hesitating, remembering that promise, as well. He’d promised not to push her. He’d handed her the reins and she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do with them. So she shut down her brain and leaned closer and closer until she felt the ghost of his kiss hovering above her lips.

And then, suddenly, he pulled away, his eyes grazing the woods behind them. Her heart clenched. Yes, perhaps this wasn’t the best time. But he’d been so valiant in his efforts of seducing her. She couldn’t help but feel a little hurt that, now that she was responding to him, he rejected her.

But his eyes flew back to her and Ember saw panic in them, so she knew she had misread the situation. She looked behind her at the woods as well, but she saw nothing.

~SOUNDTRACK: Thirteen Senses – Into the fire~

“Did you hear that?” he lowered his voice, speaking in a hushed tone, and she frowned.

“Heard what?”

“Keep your voice down,” he urged her. “And get behind those bushes. I think I heard someone coming.”

Ember did as told, more confused than ever. If there was someone coming, had she been so captivated by their little moment that she hadn’t heard it? Her hearing was sharper than Max’s. It concerned her a little that he had this kind of power over her, to numb her senses enough until she knew nothing else but him.

She crouched behind those bushes Max had pointed at and listened closely. She heard footsteps indeed and she saw Max moving towards the road and signaling for her to stay quiet. She waited, not daring to move a muscle until she heard a voice.

“L-Lord Covington,” the voice exclaimed. “Heavens! Is that really you? I did not expect to encounter you here. I haven’t seen you since you were a little boy.”

Covington? How many people were even out there? And where had Ember heard that name before?

“Old man,” she stifled a gasp when she heard Max’s voice reply; what was he thinking, letting himself be seen like that? “Sir Gregory, is it? Yes, I remember you well. You were my father’s most trusted advisor, weren’t you?”

Ember’s eyes widened. Max’s words played in her head a few times, but they were having trouble registering. Surely she must have heard wrong. She held her breath and listened on, clear now that it was just the old man and Max talking.

“I was, may the Gods rest his soul,” the man replied. “I never thought I’d live to see you again, my Lord. It’s been so long.”

“Too long, Sir Gregory,” Max’s response came. “But I’m afraid I’m not here to stay. It’s quite clear to me I’m not welcome amidst my remaining living relatives.”

“Perhaps if you’d meet them again, my Lord—“ the old man tried, but Max was quick to cut him off.

“I’ll hear no more of it. But you should be on your way, Sir Gregory. It’s late and the night hides great threats. You’re not safe here.”

“As you wish, my Lord,” Ember heard Sir Gregory lower his voice in what she assumed was disappointment. “I shall thank the Gods for the chance to lay my eyes on you once more. And when I shall meet with your father again in the afterlife, I shall tell him what a handsome and remarkable young man you’ve grown to be.”

Ember heard Max shift a little before replying.

“Thank you, Sir Gregory. You’re most kind. Now be on your way.”

“Farewell, Lord Covington.”

Ember stayed put for a few more minutes, not daring to come out of her hiding spot until she was sure it was safe. Eventually, she heard Max’s voice call her.

“You may come out now, fire breather. It’s clear.”

Ember stood up and went to face him, wide-eyed and a million questions lingering on the top of her tongue. Max sighed and rubbed his eyes when he saw her, already anticipating the intense debriefing that was to follow.

“Lord Covington?” she shrieked. “What is the meaning of this? Were you royalty of some sorts?”

Max put his hands on his hips, looking tired. “Not exactly.”

“Not exactly?” Ember glared at him. “It sounded quite royal to me.”

“Royal, no. Noble, more likely.”

“Noble,” Ember repeated, and her eyes widened in utter surprise as she connected the dots. “Covington. I know this name. They’re a noble family in the village. Max, I sneaked into their ball and I stole from them.”

Max fought a chuckle and failed miserably. “Impressive,” he commented.

“You’re related to those people?” Ember inquired, still trying to wrap her head around everything.

“You could say that,” he shrugged. “Distant relatives. Never even met the lads.”

Ember shook her head and he turned around, moving to gaze at the sea once more. Oh, she could tell. There was more to this story than he let on, and the troubled expression on his face told her so.

“Tell me, then,” she prompted, moving to stand by his side. “How exactly did a nobleman become a pirate?”

Max sighed. “A mercenary. I followed the calling of the sea right after my entire family, save for those baboons with sticks up their asses you claim to have stolen from, was brutally murdered.”

Ember’s eyes widened and she instinctively searched for his hand and squeezed it. This time, he didn’t squeeze back. Gods above. They were more alike than she would’ve thought. They both carried the burden of loneliness. They were both damaged orphans who had found damaging ways to cope.

“Oh,” she whispered. “Max. I’m, I’m so sorry. What happened?”

He looked straight ahead as he replied, “The Covington clan were dragon hunters.”

Dragon hunters. Ember let his hand fall from hers. Dragon hunters. She could swear the cliff was crumbling beneath her feet and that she would let the sea swallow her. Dragon hunters. The words echoed in her head and while some pieces of herself fell apart, other pieces of the puzzles fell together. Gods, this explained so much, starting with everything that Max knew about the supernatural world. Of course he knew. Dragons, demons, witches, everything. He’d been raised to know of these things. To hunt them.

“Oh,” her voice broke a little. “Hunters. Did they—“

He turned to her so quick she stumbled backwards a little and he caught her by the shoulders.

“No, Ember, no,” he spoke through gritted teeth. “I swear to you. My family had nothing to do with the death of yours. All of that was the fault of the Hades Brides. They’re to blame. Believe me. I wouldn’t stand before you today knowing I carry part of the blame of having condemned you to the same lonely fate I’ve lived.”

Ember blinked back tears and released a breath she didn’t know she was holding.

“I-I see,” she managed to let out. “So how did it happen, then?”

He dropped his hands from her shoulders and averted his gaze, running a hand over his face. “They perished by being slaughtered by a herd of dragons. I was young and alone. I swore to achieve vengeance and to extinguish every last individual of that dragon bloodline.”

Ember gulped. So his kin had played no part in the murder of hers. But her kin was to blame for murdering his. She felt her knees weaken.

“And what happened?” she repeated again, the words shaking on her lips.

He turned to her and the intensity in his eyes made her take a step backwards. It wasn’t blame that she read in those sapphire eyes. It was something more than that, something she could not name. But she saw the struggle, the battle he fought against himself and against his own feelings. He sighed before replying.

“I started sharing a bed with one of them.”

“Gods above,” she muttered and she started pacing back and forth, running her hands through her hair. So much made sense right now. “That’s—that’s why you said we’re enemies. Why you said we’re supposed to be hating each other.”

“There’s a long list of ‘supposed to’ points, Ember,” he spoke in a lowered voice, without looking at her. “Since I met you, I dragged all of them through mud. I was supposed to drive a blade through you the moment I laid my eyes upon you, making good on my promise. I was supposed to honor my vow before heading off to treasure hunts. I was supposed to gloat over the Hades Brides’ victory over your kin, not helping you beat them. And I sure as hell wasn’t supposed to start sharing rum and heated kisses with you.”

Perhaps she was supposed to be hurt by his words, but reaching in, all that Ember felt was anger. She was angry with him for feeling this way. For Heaven’s sake, they’d only been children when their families fought wars and had one another killed. Were they to blame for the actions of peoples long since gone? Wasn’t this their new start? Didn’t they hold the promise of a brand new world they’d live in peace, making sure not to make the same mistakes that had gotten their clans murdered?

“To hell with those,” she moved to stand in front of him. “I don’t believe in your ‘supposed to’ points. I know you need a villain to blame. And if you couldn’t make me one, then you decided you’d be that villain in my story. I don’t believe that. All of those little schemes of yours, murdering your pirates in front of me, summoning demons, making me jump off cliffs? I call bullshit on every single thing you did that was supposed to make me hate you. I don’t hate you for what your family did. And I sure as hell know you don’t hate me, either.”

“I don’t,” he was quick to reply, moving so close she could feel the heat radiating out of him. “You know I don’t hate you. But I begged you to. That’s how it was supposed to go. And where did that get us, fire breather? Perhaps neither of us is a villain, but we’re still enemies by nature. So what do we do with all these feelings now?”

She shrugged and let a small smile bloom on her lips.

“Fighting them got us nowhere, as well, didn’t it?” she joked. “Enemies by nature. Then the nature must have a wicked sense of humor, drawing us together like that.”

The torment in his eyes faded away by the second, revealing a little more of the bastard of a pirate that had gotten under her skin. Eventually, he allowed himself to smile back.

“It’s nice to finally hear you admit it,” he mumbled just a breath away from her lips and Ember stepped away from his touch, enjoying the look of utter shock crossing his features.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she teased.

Oh, there was a lot of bloody history upon their shoulders. And a lot of fiery history they kept building between the two of them. But what was slowly blossoming here was way past the point of denying.

“I’ve got one more question, though,” Ember tilted her head. “Clearly, your name isn’t Maxwell Lockhart. What’s your real name?”

He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Maximilian Covington.”

Ember chuckled. “That’s a mouthful.”

“Yeah, well—“

But she didn’t hear a word coming out of his mouth. Whatever Max was telling her, she didn’t hear it, because her eyes widened as she caught sight of whatever was that she saw over his shoulder. Gods above. Max finally noticed she wasn’t listening and frowned.

“What? What is it, Ember? Are you alright?”

“Max—“ she shook her head and stepped backwards, her whole body shaking.

Max’s frown deepened and he finally turned around. Ember saw him flinch, too.

“Bloody hell,” he cursed.

It must have been dozens of them. Ember didn’t even know how to call them. They were far too huge to be birds and far too horrifying. They weren’t regular animals. They were giant as bears, with scaled wings and they screeched so loud and high pitched, Ember swore her ears would bleed.

“What in the name of hell are those?” she mumbled.

“We have to run,” Max caught her shoulder and pushed her backwards. “Now, Ember.”

“But why?” she asked again, obeying him nonetheless and running like hell. “Max, what are they?”

He turned to her and the look of utter terror on his face terrified her more than those creatures themselves.

“Skinwalkers.”

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