Chapter 26: Out of the Darkness Into the Fire
~SOUNDTRACK: Les Friction – World on fire~
Christopher was on his way to the dragon girl’s hut when he saw them. Ugly as he would’ve expected. And yet, while he’d seen quite a few skinwalkers in this long existence of his, there had been none like these. These were monstrosities, even more than usual.
The demon’s gray eyes stayed glued to the horizon as the foul creatures’ shrieks pierced through the night. Yes, perhaps Christopher himself was the kind of creature fear was afraid of, but had his blood still been warm, those shrieks would’ve made it run cold.
He sighed and turned on his heels. There was nothing he could do to help now. This whole situation was already more than what he’d signed up for. That dragon tear had already cost him quite a lot. But still he stayed, because if he had to be entirely honest, he did have his own agenda, and getting rid of the Hades Brides came in rather handy. And the trio that the two dragons and the pirate formed was indeed entertaining. Like a puppet show to keep him from withering of boredom.
His back turned from the skinwalkers, he walked back to the hut, expecting to find the three of them there, still sulking over the disappearance of some children that were apparently important to the dragon girl. He didn’t expect them to have found anything in their search. Providing information had proved rather difficult for himself, despite the power of his compulsion. But luckily for his little toys, he had some experience when it came to dealing with this sort of things. In the end, humans were willing to talk if you applied the right amount of pressure over their tormented souls. And reading their auras made the game so unsatisfyingly simple.
It took him by surprise when he walked inside the hut and only found the anxious lad at a table, biting on his nails anxiously.
“Dragon boy,” Christopher’s eyebrows knitted together. “Where might the rest of your posse be?”
He saw the boy try to glare, but he was clearly too intimidated to do just so. Quite understandable, considering all the times when Christopher had threatened his life.
“I don’t know,” the boy replied in a small voice, anxiety floating and embracing his words. “The pirate hasn’t come back, and Ember went to find him.”
Christopher sighed and threw his arms in the air in exasperation. Trying to keep his end of the bargain proved tiringly difficult these days if they kept running in the arms of danger repeatedly. How does one keep safe a worthless human who constantly sought death?
“Well, that’s rather unfortunate,” he commented in his usual neutral tone. “I suggest you make yourself comfortable, dragon boy. A long night awaits.”
The boy frowned up at him. “W-Why? Has something happened to them?”
“Not yet, I presume,” Christopher pursed his lips pensively. “But I also presume you’ll keep your eyes glued to the door to see if your friends make it back alive. I’m looking forward myself to seeing how they manage to evade the bloodthirsty monsters on their tails.”
Skinwalkers, Max had said. What in the name of seven hells was that supposed to mean? What new threat hung above their heads now? Ember didn’t have the time to filter through these thoughts, because once again, they were running for their lives.
She felt Max’s sweaty hand in hers and her lungs burned in need for air. Her legs hurt, but she couldn’t stop. All she heard were those unhuman noises that those bird-like creatures made.
Someone else to want them dead. As if there weren’t enough already.
She heard the screeches closer and closer with every step and, in the back of her mind, realization settled in. There was no possible, logical way they could outrun them. She looked sideways at Max and saw the same thought mirrored in his eyes.
“We must do something,” he yelled at her breathlessly, still running.
“We can’t,” Ember whimpered with desperate helplessness and she felt her knees grow weaker under the heaviness of the words. “There’s nothing we can’t do. Max, we can’t outrun them. We’ll never make it.”
He came to a halt abruptly and Ember’s eyes widened. Well, she hadn’t meant that if she thought they’d never make it, they couldn’t even try.
“What are you doing?” she shrieked. “Do you have a death wish?”
“We can’t outrun them,” he repeated her words. “But you can outfly them. You can torch them.”
Her brows furrowed. “Outfly them? You want me to turn and leave you alone? Max, there’s no time.”
There was no time. No time. No time. The skinwalkers were closer by the second, she felt the shockwaves that the flap of their wings sent along with the breeze. She felt their foul smell. And those noises. Gods above, she was sure she’d never be able to get those shrieks out of her nightmares.
“You’re right, there isn’t,” he caught her shoulders urgently. “This is the only way, Ember. They stand no chance against an Onyx Dragon. Set those bastards on fire and meet me at the hut.”
She shook her head violently. “No, you’re mad. I’m not leaving you.”
“Ember,” he hissed, urgency sparkling in his sapphire eyes. “It’s not me they’re after. I’ll be safe.”
He could see she still wasn’t convinced. It was moving that she didn’t want to leave him behind, but stupid nonetheless. He let go of her shoulders and caught her hand, giving it a squeeze.
“Go, fire breather,” he urged her, moving closer and stopping one breath away from her lips. “Torch those bastards. And make it safe back to me.”
She grabbed him by the collar and closed the distance between them for a short kiss, breathless, half a heartbeat long that knocked the sense from his brain for a while. When he pulled himself back together, she already had her back turned on him and walking away.
Within the minute, a dragon black as the night took over the sky. The skinwalkers screeched back at her, louder, fiercer, but while they screeched, she roared. And then they attacked. Long wings flapped and the lunged for her, their ugly beaks pricking at her thick skin. Ember let out a heart-wrenching scream in pain as claws dug into her flesh, but she wouldn’t let herself be taken down by some cheap hybrids. She spread her wings and soared high with a few skinwalkers still clawed to her, so fast until she lost them, and then she let herself free fall through the air until she was back among them, surrounded by these creatures bred by the darkest corners of the night, where the moon didn’t reach and under rocks where the stars were too afraid to look.
So she unleashed hell upon them. She let the fire build up within her, let it fill every inch of her body and scorch everything in its path. It was a part of her. Each flame knew its place and each flame sent tingles down her spine as it made its way out. When her insides felt hot enough as a bonfire, she let the flames out. She sent them flying towards the skinwalkers and she kept it coming until she felt the scent of ashes in the air. The burned flesh smelled rotten and it gagged her, but she never faltered.
The skinwalkers were many and they were vicious, predators of the darkness, but Ember knew darkness herself. And she knew how to light it up.
It’s not me they’re after. I’ll be safe.
Of course, Max hadn’t been entirely frank with her. Skinwalkers were after her. That bit was true. But he was a fool to believe they’d leave him alone. He witnessed the glorious battle happening above his head in awe, he followed every flame that Ember threw those bastards’ way and he watched in satisfaction as they perished in a ball of fire and screaming in pain.
But they were so many. Ember killed an impressive lot, but so many got away. Max’s breath hitched in his throat when he saw a handful of them coming his way, closer and closer. At first, he was too shocked to react, his muscles refusing to listen to him. And all he could do was stand still, frozen, as their monstrous shapes became bigger before his eyes. They were big as bears, with dirty fur, but with claws and wings like bats and rotten eyes.
He held his breath as they attacked. In the periphery of his vision, he still caught glimpse of flames and he still heard Ember roar. Good. At least she’d be safe. This had been the sole purpose of this. But somehow, he’d always expected his end to find him more prepared. More grand. It felt like a cheap death, a poorly written epilogue to the legendary tale of Captain Maxwell Lockhart.
He clenched his teeth and found enough energy in his bones to draw his sword. He’d be damned if he just stood around and waited for these bastards to take a bite of his fine arse. His vision was blurred by dark fur and scaly wings, but he waved his sword around, feeling it as it dug into rotten flesh and as he drew it back covered in black ooze. How was he even supposed to kill something that didn’t bleed?
He held his own until he couldn’t anymore and he collapsed to one knee as the arm holding the sword started to go numb. He felt his shirt soaked with blood, though he couldn’t tell exactly where it came from exactly. Everything hurt. Blood ran over his face and blurred his vision. He could tell he didn’t have long now.
Bloody hell. Such a pathetic way to die. Alone. As a meal for ugly dumb witch toys. With so many things left untold. He tried to catch glimpse of Ember again, but the night was once again dark and blood clouded his eyes and she was nowhere in sight. That was a pity. He would’ve liked to see her one last time. But, groaning in pain as a skinwalker ripped a chunk of flesh from his shoulder, he shut his eyes tight and pictured her with black curls dancing in the wind under the dim light of dusk, he pictured her with flushed cheeks and green eyes filled with desire and swollen lips in his cabin after the kissed they’d shared, he pictured how alive he felt when she kissed him, touched him, looked at him, annoyed him, frustrated him, exasperated him, smiled at him. And that was it. He was good to go.
~SOUNDTRACK: The Cloves – Frail love~
Ember’s blood ran cold.
She landed swiftly on hard ground and shifted back to human form, covered in ashes and smoke. She’d made sure to torch each and every last skinwalker in her path.
Or so she’d thought.
That is, until she took in the scene before her and she swore she’d forgotten how to draw in a single breath.
Gods above, there was so much blood. Her mind refused to graze the possibility of it, but no one could have still been alive after losing that amount of blood. And at least three skinwalkers, as far as she could count, still plucking at his flesh. Ember couldn’t see Max, but she prayed to every God who listened that he was still alive and breathing. She couldn’t fathom going on with this fight, with this miserable crusade and existence of hers without him.
She drew out her dagger without a second thought and she lunged. She didn’t know if it was enough, but she couldn’t risk turning back into a dragon and burning Max along with the monsters. She ran and flung her knife left and right, dropping heads. Common sense told her even mystical creatures bred by the darkest of magic couldn’t hurt you without a head. She was covered in sticky black ooze and her breath came fast and ragged, desperation flowing through her veins.
With one last scream of agony, she dropped the last head. She stood there, surrounded by atrocious bodies without heads, the foul rotten smell flooding her lungs. But she couldn’t think about anything else but Max’s body lying on the ground, still gripping his sword tight, in a pool of his own blood.
Ember fell to her knees. Oh, but of course. How could her pain in the arse of a pirate go down without a fight? She felt tears streaming down her cheeks and mixing with the black substance that served those creatures as blood. She ran her hands all over Max’s body in desperation. She didn’t even know where he was bleeding from. Because he was bleeding from everywhere.
“No,” she whispered to herself. “No, no. Max. Max, wake up. Wake up, wake up. Bloody hell, Maxwell, don’t make me slap you. Come on, you’ll be fine.”
She started applying pressure on different points, but she knew it was pointless. He needed a healer. That was if—
Gods above, she couldn’t even think it. She lowered her head and pressed her ear to his chest, holding her breath. For a few seconds, she didn’t sense a thing. A black hole was starting to creep in her own chest.
“Come on, Max,” she found his hand and squeezed hand. “Don’t be a bloody bastard. Wake up.”
She kept listening, hope leaving her bit by bit. No. He could not be dead. He was Captain Maxwell Lockhart. He was damn near invincible. He was a cocky pirate with a giant ego and a filthy mouth, with flexible morals and a heart that Ember now knew rested in her pocket. He could not be dead.
But then she felt it.
It wasn’t much. It was weak. But it was a heartbeat. She jumped back and watched his chest attentively. It was rising and falling. Unperceptively, but it was.
She let out a loud breath. He was alive.
She was making plans as to how to carry him back to the hut and find a way to fix him, when she heard him groan and she felt his hand move in hers.
“Max!” she shrieked in relief. She nearly threw her arms around him, but he was still badly hurt. “You scared the living hell out of me.”
He started coughing blood. “Am I—Am I dead? Am I in heaven?” he managed to get out, and Ember let out a breathless laugh.
“Such wishful thinking,” she spoke between whimpers. “You wish heaven looked as pretty as me.”
He groaned in pain and grabbed his side, wincing. Maybe he was alive now, but there was no telling how much time he had. He’d lost so much blood.
“It would seem,” he paused to cough one more time, “I’m a hard one to get rid of.”
“Let’s keep it that way,” Ember helped him sit up. “Can you walk? I’ll take you home and we’ll tend to your wounds.”
He struggled to get to his feet and stumbled for a few steps. He was clearly in no condition to walk by himself. Ember hurried to his side and placed one of his arms around her shoulders. He let most of his weight fall on her, but Ember didn’t complain. He was too weak from all the blood loss, and she had supernatural strength.
“I got you,” she told him, moving slowly and not hurrying him. She just prayed he wouldn’t pass out on her until they got home. “It’s alright. I got you.”
He coughed again, more blood spurting out of his mouth. “You were quite worried about me, weren’t you? On the verge of tears, I would say.”
Ember bit her lip. No need to tell him she’d cried rivers by the time he woke up. Better to let those sheltered in the night. But worried, yes, she had been. She was still worried. There was no denying that.
“Worried like never before, Maxwell,” she admitted. “So humor me and stay alive a little longer. I cannot lose you.”
~SOUNDTRACK: Smokey Fingers – Ride of love~
The door burst open. Kaleb stopped breathing and Christopher raised his eyebrows expectantly. Ember stumbled in, carrying with her a bleeding Max who looked like he was having trouble staying in one piece.
Kaleb hurried to Ember’s side and helped her carry Max and to sit him on her bed. Gods above, he barely looked alive. His side was in shreds and his face was full of scratches, each wound pulsating with blood. How had he been able to walk all the way here?
“What happened to him?” Kaleb asked incredulously. How had the pirate managed to get himself in such a bad state? And why did Ember look like she had just climbed out of fire, her hair full of ashes, her skin smudged with black ooze and smoke?
“We were attacked,” she said simply. “There’s no time. We need a healer, fast, or I don’t think he’ll make it through the night.”
Kaleb looked the pirate over and shook his head. He’d passed out the minute his back hit the hard mattress and his breathing was turning more and more shallow by the second.
“Ember, I don’t think he’ll make it through the hour,” he said in a small voice. “Let alone until we manage to convince a healer to come to the home of the village’s thief to tend to a pirate.”
“This is no time for judgments, Kaleb,” she snapped. “I can’t let him just die. We must save him.”
“I wasn’t judging, Ember,” he tried to reason with her. “But these are the facts. He doesn’t have much time left. No healer can help him now.”
He saw Ember shake her head. He could tell she was panicked out of her mind, that the pirate’s life weighed a lot in her eyes. She couldn’t be reasoned with at the moment.
“I’m not letting him die,” she repeated helplessly.
“I’m not saying we should. There is something I might able to do.”
Ember met his eyes with hope and curiosity. Kaleb bit his lip anxiously.
“Do you remember how I told you I’ve always wanted to be a healer?” She nodded reluctantly. “I know the basics of how his wounds should be tended to. I can clean them and bandage them, and from there forth, you can pray that he’s strong enough to fight for his life.”
Ember nodded fiercely. “He will. You do what you need to do.”
That was all that Kaleb needed. Without a second thought, he cut through Max’s shirt and grabbed the sheets closest to him. Ember watched him as he moved with precision and capable hands she had no idea he had. She had to turn her head when Kaleb was cleaning the wounds, not because she felt sensitive at the sight of blood, but because it was Max’s blood. The idea of him so helpless, so vulnerable, in so much pain, it tormented her to no end to see him like that. So as Kaleb ripped pieces of her sheets and wrapped them around Max’s torso and limbs tight enough to stop the bleeding, she turned to Christopher.
“What do you know about skinwalkers?” she inquired without wasting a breath.
Christopher pursed his lips and tucked his hands behind his back.
“What I know of them applies very little to the ones you saw tonight.”
Ember raised her eyebrows. “You’ve seen them, too?”
“I have, yes,” the demon answered. “But there was nothing I could do to help. Skinwalkers are typically hard to kill, but quite harmless. They are the kind of supernatural creatures better left alone. There was nothing I could do against an army of them on my own.”
“I see,” Ember sighed. “But what are they? Where did they even come from?”
“Normally, skinwalkers are humans with the ability to shapeshift into an animal of their choosing. People who can walk in several other skins. But these… These were something else.”
“What do you mean?” Ember frowned.
“Tell me, dragon girl, what did they look like?”
“It’s hard to explain,” she ran a hand through her hair. “Their bodies were covered in fur, like bears of some sort. But they had claws and wings like bats. And beaks like birds. They were like more animals merged into a monstrous one.”
“Precisely,” Christopher nodded once. “By my guess, the Hades Brides have altered this ability with black magic by taking humans and transforming them in that. By being their makers, I presume they are also the ones who can control them. This is why they came after you.”
“Gods above,” Ember muttered.
They were humans. Regular humans, with regular lives, with regular families, who had just happened to end up in the hands of evil witches. Had they no regard for the human lives? Was their purpose worth mutilating so many innocent beings?
“They must be stopped,” she muttered, more to herself than to Christopher, looking at Max.
She’d come so close to losing Max tonight that it struck here with deadly force how much she could not let that happen. Whatever those Hades Brides wanted from her, it kept getting more and more personal. First her siblings. And now Max.
If it was the last thing she did, she vowed on Max’s dried blood on her hands. She would stop them.