Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 28: Raven Black

~SOUNDTRACK: Matthew and The Atlas – I followed fires~

They spent the whole day in Max’s cabin, discussing. Christopher let them in on every little detail he’d been able to manipulate out of the clueless villagers of Thebbington Abbey, but none of it was enough. They were outnumbered and outsmarted. All of Ember’s flames couldn’t bring her little siblings back and panic crept in with every passing minute.

“We’ve been at it for hours,” Kaleb sighed exasperated as Max dug into a new bottle of rum. “It’s already dark outside and it feels like we’re back where we started. With nothing.”

“Hate to agree with you, rosy cheeks,” Max clicked his tongue. “But all the time we spend strategizing, without actually strategizing, naturally, cannot help us whilst skinwalkers are still out there.”

“But I’ve burned them,” Ember argued. “They’re gone.”

“Aye, you burned them. But do you truly believe the Hades Brides don’t have the means or the guts to send more after us? It’s them we have to go through first, if we want to get to those bloody witches.”

“They’re not invincible, pirate,” Christopher spoke from afar, no obvious infliction to his tone. “I have yet to encounter something that doesn’t burn when set aflame.”

“So you’re suggesting we just torch our way to my siblings?” Ember threw her hands in the air, but she was rewarded with one of Christopher’s wicked smirks that made her blood run cold and her heart beat faster with excitement she could not comprehend.

“Little dragon, that is precisely what I suggest we do.”

Max shrugged and Ember could see that same glint of excitement dancing in his blue eyes. He was clearly content with whatever bloodshed as long as the purpose was reached. And Ember found herself being alright with it, too. She was done playing nice, considering it brought her nowhere. And she had to admit it. The dirty way was so much more fun. She smiled at Max and the acknowledgement was passed between them through the glance they shared.

“Fine by me,” Max concluded. “And what about the witch in Thebbington Abbey? How do we find her and cut her connection to the coven?”

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Kaleb cut in. “The only way we can get to her is through the Hope Diamond, which we know is the object she used to cast the hex on me and Ember.”

“The Hope Diamond is destroyed, dragon boy,” Christopher interjected sharply. “Vital moment in the story, had you paid more attention.”

“And besides, Kaleb,” Ember intervened, “I don’t know how useful that would’ve been. Whoever this witch is, she covered her tracks well. She was good. You and I were the only people who came in contact with the stone. Dead end.”

Kaleb froze in place and all eyes went to him. His eyes widened and he let out a small gasp. How could he have missed this? It had all happened right under their noses, they’d fallen into every single one of her traps time and again and she must have taken such delight into fooling them. Gods above, this changed everything. He was horrified at the realization.

“We weren’t the only people who came in contact with the stone, Ember,” he announced grimly. “I bought it to make it into a necklace.”

“You bought it?” Ember’s eyebrows shot up. “Who could you have bought it from? There’s no one in this area who would have such a gem for sale, except for—“

She trailed off, and Kaleb could see the realization in her eyes as terror crept in. She’d figured it out.

“Clarissa,” she breathed out and the thought hit her with such force, it knocked the air out of her lungs and she fell into the closest chair. “Clarissa’s the witch.”

Max caught her elbow, concern obvious in his features. “Your friend? The one you entrusted your siblings to?”

Ember nodded tired, her whole body shaking, and she ran her hands through her hair in utter despair. The one she’d entrusted her siblings to. No. The one who had taken advantage of the situation and kidnapped the children. Her best friend. Her only friend. Yet no friend at all. The one who’d tried to kill her and Kaleb.

Clarissa was a Hades Bride.

“Awkward,” Christopher whispered under his breath, and Ember glared at him. Awkward didn’t begin to cover it. Could she truly trust no one? Would everyone she loved end up betraying her?

She looked around at the faces in the cabin. Her closest companions. Kaleb, who was her dearest friend and whom she loved beyond compare. Max, her confidante and a man she still felt burning in her veins, who’d had her back time and again, around every corner. And Christopher, a demon bound to her by oath. She supposed she trusted them. Blindly, mostly. But then again, she’d trusted Clarissa blindly, too. She’d thought her to be the hand that constantly picked her up when she was down and beaten like a rabid dog. And Clarissa, the very one whose trust she’d never second guessed had ended up being the one to betray it.

She looked up. The three men looked at her cautiously.

“What do we do now?” Max asked slowly and Ember gritted her teeth.

“We find her,” she spoke in a low, fierce voice. “And we kill her.”

“Ember—“ Kaleb tried to reason, but she wouldn’t have it.

“No, Kaleb. This isn’t Clarissa that we know. She’s some evil creature and she has taken enough from me. I’m getting the children back. And I won’t grant her the luxury of mercy.”

Before any of the men could reply and as Ember tried to cool her blood enough to think clearly, the door to Max’s cabin burst open and Billy ran in, gasping, his cheeks flushed. But his eyes were wide and pupils dilated as if he’d seen a ghost.

“Billy,” Max scolded him for having interrupted, but then he saw how disheveled the pirate looked. “What’s happened?”

“Captain,” Billy hissed breathlessly. “I ain’t even sure whata’ tell ya. You gon’ wanna see this for yourself.”

All four of them exchanged glances and ran off after Billy, frowning.

On deck, the situation was out of control. Sailors ran back and forth aimlessly, shouting and cussing for no obvious reason that Ember could reckon. She felt the air a bit cooler around her skin that it usually was and a sense of wrongness pricked her skin, but she was having trouble pinpointing it. Finally, her eye caught what Billy was trying to show them, and her breath hitched in her throat.

“Skinwalkers,” Max muttered under his breath before she got the chance.

“Those are it?” Kaleb stumbled over his words. “But there’s so many of them.”

It wasn’t like last time. They weren’t the same bear shaped creatures with beaks and wings. These looked like crows, like regular crows. Ember would’ve easily mistaken them for ravens, hadn’t it been for their red eyes glowing in the night and the wide opening of their putrid wings. Skinwalkers ridiculously and dangerously resembled corpses. And Kaleb had spoken truth. They must have been in the number of thousands, clouding the night sky and blocking moonlight and stars to the point of drowning the ship in a numb pitch black that sent chills creeping down on Ember’s spine.

“What do we do, captain?” Billy shouted at his captain. “They gon’ eat us alive. They gon’ claw our eyes out.”

Ember saw Max grit his teeth, his grip on the edge of the ship so tight, she feared he would break the bones in his fingers. Eventually, he turned to Billy, fury in his eyes and venom in his voice.

“Now we do what we do best, mate. We sail.”

Ember hurried to catch his arm before he got the chance to keep his word on that. “Have you lost your mind? You think you can outrun them?”

He shrugged indifferently, but Ember knew better. She could tell by the tension in his shoulders and the stiffness in his posture. Maxwell Lockhart was scared.

“I’m a hell of captain,” he replied, but Ember glared.

“You can’t outrun them, Max. You told me so yourself.”

“Ember, it’s our only option. Even you can’t torch them all.”

She paused for a second, considering. Either way, they were doomed. You cannot outrun a bird that flies alongside wind. And she feared all of her flames wouldn’t be enough. But what choice did they have? They couldn’t just stand around and wait for those crows to devour them. They had to at least try.

“Perhaps there’s more than one option,” Kaleb chimed in reluctantly. “Perhaps we can merge your ideas into a bigger plan.”

All eyes turned to him, and Max spoke. “Care to explain before we end up crow dinner?”

“Look, captain, you said Ember can’t torch them all. So she needs assistance. Get your gunpowder and your best men. Christopher can conduct a firestorm on them. You can light up those that manage to get past Ember. I’ll help. In the meantime, you can focus on getting us as far as you can from them. You’re a hell of a captain, I hear.”

They considered. Kaleb’s plan was solid. Working together as a surviving device meant to get them out alive. But as far as Ember could see, there was only one improvement she could make.

“I have a better idea,” she cut in. “Torch them yourself, little Lahey. You can do the job as well as me.”

“Or you can both go up there and spit fire around,” Max rolled his eyes. “Two dragons are better than one.”

Ember shook her head. “We’d get in each other’s way. But if you can handle the part with setting the skinwalkers on fire and if Max can get me a bow and arrows, I can be of more help down here than you would.”

Kaleb pondered the choice. Ember could see him hesitate, still feeling somewhat unsure of his powers. And Ember could understand that. She’d had weeks to get used to the idea. He’d been thrown headfirst in the water and they all expected him to figure out how to swim before drowning. Eventually, she saw the decision being made in his eyes. He knew the strategy made sense.

“Are you certain?” he couldn’t help himself but ask, and Ember forced a small smile.

“Light ‘em up, little Lahey,” she gave his hand a small squeeze, and that was the only reassurance he needed before she saw his eyes turn gold, scales replace his skin and two black wings expand. Kaleb took off and, within seconds, the night sky was lit up by his flames. Ember watched with pride as Kaleb torched skinwalker after skinwalker, never hesitating, never faltering. He was quickly growing into who he was supposed to be. Her little Lahey – or should she have said little Middleton? – appeared to be a late bloomer.

Before she could finish her thought, Max reemerged at her side, carrying a bow and a quiver full of arrows.

“These will do?” he asked, handing them to her, and Ember hesitated. It wasn’t the best wood and the tips looked shaky and rusty, but they were all they got.

“They’ll have to.”

“I’ll have my men bring more arrows to you as you run out of them. It’s a limited stock, but I trust you’ll make the most of it.”

“I will,” she nodded. “Now go sail this beauty as far away from here, captain.”

She shot a smile in his direction that she expected him to return it, but his features remained sharp and focused and he still didn’t move. There was chaos and panic around them, but his blue eyes looked so still and yet so tormented.

“Max, go! What are you waiting for?”

The pirate gulped. “Will you be alright?”

Ember’s eyes widened and she threw her arms up in exasperation. “Max, there’s no time for this nonsense!”

“I know, I know. But—“ he trailed off, struggling to find his words. “Just… don’t die just yet.”

She meant to snap at him again, but seeing the look in his eyes, she couldn’t bring herself to. Instead, she felt a few tears prick at the corner of her eyes. She dropped her cloak from her shoulders, fastening the quiver around them instead before looking at Max sideways. She refused to linger. She would not say goodbye, because they’d survive this. She was fueled by friendship almost as long as her own life. By the few people who had her back. By the desire to save her family. By the desire to protect the little family she’d found on this ship. And now, by revenge against her who she’d called friend and who had betrayed every ounce of her trust. They would survive tonight. And then she was ready to raise hell.

“I have no intention of dying, captain,” she replied sharply. “See you later.”

Max gulped, and she could say he wasn’t convinced. But for her benefit, perhaps, he answered, “I’m holding you to that.”

~SOUNDTRACK: Pink – Just like fire (Warriors Light ‘Em Up) ft. Fall Out Boy, Imagine Dragons~

Kaleb wasted no breath. He’d spent quite a while utterly afraid of who he was supposed to become, but no more. This was no longer only Ember’s war, it was his as well, and it was about damn time to act the part. So he spread his wings wide and soared high, letting the flames heat his insides up and burst out of him. And he found it was exhilarating. He’d never before felt so alive, and he now understood Ember and how she’d truly embraced the beast within. The beast wasn’t one to tame or keep on a leash. It was one to set loose and to drown in the mayhem it brought upon those who meant them harm.

He did his best to burn as many skinwalkers as possible, to make sure not too many managed to get past him and trouble the captain and his crew in the attempt to get as far away as fast. But there were so many damn crows and they were so small and his aim could still use improvement. But he never stopped. He never paused. He never faltered.

Should it be the first and the last time he let the beast loose, he’d set the sky ablaze. Whether he took down a dozen, a hundred or a thousand skinwalkers.

The sea was wild tonight and Max cursed his luck. He didn’t know whether it was a natural cause for its restlessness, or if the Hades Brides toyed with the phenomenon in order to make them all easy bait for their crows. Regardless of the reason, he couldn’t lose a single breath. So many lives depended on how he sailed tonight.

And only one he gave a damn about.

He was low on sailors, considering so many of them were down there with Ember, helping her take down the crows that managed to go past Kaleb. He heard barrels of gunpowder fly and explode in the distance. He heard arrows leap through the air and he spared a moment to look at Ember and to gasp in amazement. Bloody hell, she was deadly and so precise it hurt to even look. But he couldn’t afford losing too much time admiring her technique. He went back to barking orders to his sailors and focusing on how to sail as far away from here.

He gritted his teeth and gave his undivided attention to taming this hurricane, this wild tide, sailing away from the chaos burning just behind his shoulders.

For Christopher, it was rather irritating that these bloody sailors were so terrified of him. Perhaps, had he known the survival of those humans would depend on his leadership skills, he would’ve treated these rats a little… Well, not better, but perhaps not as bad.

Too late, he told himself. You can’t ask a lion not to roar. So now he was stuck with these skittish mice with shaking bones and eyes blurry from rum. But the deal he’d made demanded that he made use of any means necessary to keep the little dragons and their captain friend alive. Even if it meant ordering around a bunch of drunken pirates.

He let the dragon girl do her arrow-shooting thing and he watched over as the sailors brought barrels full of gunpowder on deck and loaded them on catapults. He had to give these pirates some credit. They were terrified, but they were exceptionally good at following orders.

“Ready!” he yelled, raising his arm and waited for the sailors to load the catapults. “Aim! Loose!”

He dropped his arm and the barrels flew through the air, making contact with the crow skinwalkers and exploding in a blinding spectacle of lights. Christopher smirked as the flames reflected in his gray eyes.

This deal had surely been inconvenient from the very beginning and he couldn’t remember the last time when he’d made a deal that would request so much of his time and effort. But also, he couldn’t remember the last time when he’d had so much fun.

With a lazy wicked grin, he let his arm drop once again and another set of barrels flew and set the night sky ablaze in the distance.

Ember set another arrow loose and, by the time it left the string, she pulled out another one and nocked it. She was unstoppable, breathing fast and arrow by arrow flew as her lungs expanded and deflated.

Crows fell down by one and her eyes travelled swiftly over her next targets. Where Kaleb’s flames faltered or where the barrels of gunpowder missed, her arrows hit with perfect precision.

One of Max’s sailors kept her replenished on arrows, but she could tell she was starting to run low on them, so she changed her strategy. Her body moved back and forth, trying to align and to find the perfect angle and soon, she started to take two, even three crows at a time. And their numbers were thinning out, it was clear to the naked eye. But it was still not enough. And at this point, not enough would end up being what got them killed.

“Them coming less and less every time, m’lady,” the pirate who kept bringing her arrows commented as Ember set loose another breath and another arrow. “We’re winnin’.”

“Not just yet, sailor,” she hissed and drew her hand backwards only to find the quiver empty. She cursed under her breath. “It would appear we have to do this the old fashioned way.”

She reached inside her boot and drew out her dagger, then turned to Max’s pirates, feeling the flap of wings closer and closer and the remaining crows surrounded them.

“Sailors,” she yelled from the top of her lungs, and those who weren’t helping Christopher with the gun powder turned to her. “Draw your swords! We end it now.”

She would’ve expected them to look reluctant, to hesitate before taking orders from a woman, from the woman they believed had seduced their captain. She would’ve expected them to back away and she was already preparing a speech in her head to motivate them. But she underestimated how much these pirates had taken to her. She was no longer the woman who had seduced their captain. She was the woman who had shed some light upon a ship inhabited by shadows and who had softened their captain’s heart.

Before she even realized what was happening, the sailors let out a battle cry and they drew their swords just around the time when the crows attacked the ship. And one by one, they fell. Black feathers flew around, carried by the restless sea currents and black ooze dirtied their boots and their deck. Kaleb’s flames, rarer and less focused by the second, lit up the battlefield that Max’s ship had become and Ember kept swinging her dagger back and forth, dropping skinwalker by skinwalker.

Within the minute, she felt Max’s presence as he fell in step with her. It was unmistakable. Her body recognized his before she could even turn around. And there he was, his sword drawn, his cheeks darkened by that dark liquid that served those monsters as blood.

“What are you doing?” she yelled at him to cover that chaos around them. “You were supposed to sail this thing away!”

“Figured you could use a hand,” he smirked through his deadly dance against the crows. “We’re winning this, fire breather. Keep swinging.”

And so they kept dancing. On and on, until their muscles knew the motions by heart, until they were out of air, until the first rays of dawn crept over the horizon. Ember, Max and the sailors let out cry by cry, urging their bodies to keep fighting. They were so close. They couldn’t give up now. They were close.

And just before their bodies could have the chance to shut down, the sun peaked from beneath the sea. And before their eyes, every mutant crow let out a piercing scream and their malformed bodies turned to ash. They fell one by one, untouched, until they left nothing behind but piles of ashes and a rotten smell.

Ember let out a breathless laugh, looking around to see that all the expressions mirrored hers. Kaleb landed on deck, taking his human form again, and he looked just as perplexed as the rest of them.

“What just happened?” Ember asked, raising her arms, but no one had the answer.

“That was us, winning,” Christopher emerged from the crowd. Ember noticed he had a small dagger, quite creepy-looking, in his hand, and black ooze darkened his sand-colored locks. “Skinwalkers are creatures of the night. Daylight is lethal to them.”

A few relieved gasps were heard from the crowd, and Ember felt her shoulders dropping. It was a small victory, but she would take any victory at this point.

“So we’ve really won?” Kaleb dared to inquire.

“For now,” Max replied. “The Hades Brides will send skinwalkers again tonight, after nightfall. We can’t beat them and we can’t keep standing up to them considering we don’t have the means. We must strike now. We win this war today or we won’t live to see tomorrow’s dawn.”

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