Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 31: No Rest For the Wicked

~SOUNDTRACK: Jennifer Lawrence – The hanging tree~

Ember refused vehemently to look over her shoulder, back to where Max’s ship still watched over her departure. It was as if she could still feel those blue eyes digging into the back of her head, trying to muster the force to turn that boat around. In fact, Ember refused to look anywhere but straight ahead. Kaleb was watching her closely, as if he knew exactly and in accurate details what had happened between her and Max last night. Perhaps he did know. She didn’t care. She believed she’d been clear both in her choices and in her prioritizing the war before the drama. She was aware of Christopher working his magic, literally or not, to find her family with that blood spell and thus, the Hades Brides. A three-people army. But truly, a one-woman army only. She relied on no one else but herself to end this. She was fire, pain and chaos. An Onyx Dragon, Daughter of Scorching Flames and Charcoal Dust. She was going to give them hell.

“I have a location,” Christopher spoke eventually as Kaleb kept oaring. “It’s not far from Thebbington Abbey. The heart of a forest a couples of miles away, and from what I hear of their preferences, it’s bound to be a cave of some sorts and it must be around a place where they can absorb the energy of the dead. Cemeteries or old war zones. What do you know of it?”

Ember sighed. “The Salvation Graveyard. I know exactly where it is. Close to Portham, right outside some thick woods.”

Those woods had been perfect for her business not long ago. The trees were deep and dense enough for no one to be able to see her coming and the spot had quickly become one of her favorite ones. How far away those times seemed at the moment.

“Very well,” Christopher conceded. “We’re headed there, then.”

“Do we have a plan?” Kaleb chimed in, and both men looked at Ember expectantly. She shrugged simply.

“Attack. Get the children out then torch every breathing soul.”

“You truly think it’ll be so easy?” Kaleb dared to question. “They have ancient magic on their side.”

“As a demon I have made my acquaintance once said, I have yet to meet a creature that doesn’t burn when set ablaze.”

Christopher smirked and Kaleb seemed to be content with her answer, so they left it at that. The winds of war were upon them and they could feel them sharp as blades across their cheeks. They didn’t dare bearing hopes or cracking jokes or offering words of consolation, because these little nothings seemed so weightless in the face of potential death.

As they pulled the boat ashore and as their feet hit solid ground, Ember caught sight of a silhouette standing a few feet away. It was too far for even her supernatural eyes to tell who it was, so she squinted. She would’ve hoped that there weren’t any witnesses around so that she and Kaleb could fly to the witches’ nest, but perhaps she should’ve thought better before letting such things in the hands of wishful thinking. She sighed and shielded her eyes from the sun with the back of her hand, but Kaleb was the one who recognized the silhouette first.

“Nana?” he whispered breathlessly, and Ember simply blinked. Indeed, as the woman started making her way towards them, she saw the familiar shape of Kaleb’s old nan, wrinkled, short and a bit rough around the edges.

“What’s she doing here?” she hissed at Kaleb, who looked just as fazed as her.

“I have no clue. I haven’t been at my father’s… at the Lahey residence in very long. Perhaps she grew worried.”

“At the exact time when we’re to fight the war against a coven of witches?” Ember retorted. “What are the odds?”

Before they could argue further, Nana reached them and prompted herself in front of them and watched them expectantly, with eyes than suddenly grew thousands of years older. With eyes than suddenly silenced Kaleb and Ember, who fell at loss for words under the heaviness of her gaze upon them.

“It was about time, my dear children,” she spoke eventually. “I have been waited for this day to come for many years.”

The two dragons frowned and Christopher regarded her curiously.

“Have you?” Ember question wearily.

“I’ve seen it happening,” Nana replied. “Long ago. In a dream. I’ve watched a race fall. And I’ve been doomed to await its rebirth.”

Kaleb and Ember thought her words through, trying to make sense of them and failing successfully. It was rather remarkable that, after all they’d been through, there were still new things to learn and to be shocked by at every turn. Because what Nana suggested—

“You know what we are,” Ember was the first to state, her words empty and dull, hiding the storm that was obvious behind her eyes.

“I do,” Nana replied.

“You were there when they died.”

“I was.”

“And you saw us coming,” was Kaleb’s turn to comment. “Long ago. In a dream. You made all those prophecies.”

“I did,” the old woman answered. “And I was spared, perhaps by the same fate that binds you together and that decided you were to survive and see your kin reestablished. I was spared, if only to protect you and to guide you. How miserably I’ve failed. But I’m here now. I will see your family saved, Lady Blackthorn, and you will be sat on that throne of ashes that was meant for you and my Lord Middleton all along.”

Silence fell, during which Kaleb tried to pull himself together. He’d lived with this woman for 18 years. His whole life, really. He could not remember a time when Nana hadn’t been around. She’d been his shelter, his safe haven back when William Lahey unleashed his wrath upon him. Better days will come, little Lord, she said, but he never understood what kind of useless hope she was bearing. He understood now. She’d seen in happening. She knew for a fact that better days were coming, under his rule and Ember’s, because she’d been the one who had predicted them. That was why she’d been so easy to convince to care for the little Blackthorns. Why she hadn’t questioned it. She was merely watching over the pieces as they fell into place. Gods above. He was growing dizzy by the second.

“Don’t call me that,” was all that Ember said. “You are a little late for the game, though. We could’ve used your help long ago. Back when I had to rely on a pirate to tell me the truth about what I am. When he had to walk me through the motions. When I threw Kaleb in a dungeon because I had no idea he was like me.” Kaleb flinched a little at the memory. “And when those bloody witches took my family.”

“I know,” Nana lowered her gaze. “I wasn’t allowed to speak of the prophecy, by laws of magic. But I should have been there for you. And for that, I am sorry.”

“Save your apologies, old woman,” Ember offered a feral smile that, in her own way, meant she bore no hard feelings. “There’ll be time for that later. We could use you now. It’ll be good for the children to be entrusted to a familiar figure while I stay behind and end this war.”

Nana bowed her head in gratitude and respect, and Ember didn’t quite know what to do with those. She was no ruler. She was no queen. She was no lady. She was still a thief, and she was unworthy of such pleasantries. She could be a dragon. She could save her family and her race. She could rule over a newly reborn kin. But she would never outgrow the thief she’d grown into. There’s no running and there’s no escaping who you are and who you built yourself into. There’s just adding it to the list of things that define you. And she was fine with it.

Ember nodded to Kaleb and Christopher to let them know they were fine and that the plan was still standing and, reluctantly, with one last gaze in Nana’s direction, they got going. When Ember noticed Nana wasn’t following, however, she turned around and raised her eyebrows at the old woman, who just sat behind, a sad expression painted across her features.

“You’re fighting a dangerous war, child,” Nana said, and Ember stifled a groan.

“Yes. I am aware. I got the concept while I was battling armies of skinwalkers.”

“Victorious wars claim sacrifices,” the woman continued as if Ember hadn’t talked. “Are you prepared to make them? Are you prepared to pay the costs?”

Ember refused to answer her question. She didn’t want to think about sacrifices that needed to be made because she could not bear the thought of losing anyone else. She preferred to think of this war as a victory the universe or the fate or destiny, however it was called, owed her. After all that she’d lost, a win was long overdue. So she turned on her heels and was about to leave, letting Nana decide whether to follow or to stay behind and preach some more nonsense, when the old woman caught her wrist and spun her around.

“You will return in fewer numbers, child. Not all of your soldiers will make it out alive. In all my visions, you return victor, but you return alone.”

This time, it was Nana who walked past her, following Kaleb and the demon and leaving Ember to be endlessly haunted by her words. And she wondered, if tragedies are bound to happen, shouldn’t we be granted the privilege of at least going on a little longer without knowing?

~SOUNDTRACK: Tyler Ward, Kina Grannis, Lindsey Stirling – The scientist~

The four of them walked down the deserted road, going over the plan times and again until they had it flawlessly figured out. But it still wasn’t enough. Nana’s words still rang through Ember’s ears. You return victor, but you return alone. But she didn’t dwell on it for too long. If Nana was truly the one who’d made those prophecies so many years ago, then she’d been the one who’d predicted Kaleb being Ember’s soulmate, and that had gone particularly splendid so far. Or so she liked to tell herself. Because accepting that there was even the slightest amount of danger that the woman’s words held some truth meant going out of her mind, and Ember didn’t afford breaking down.

Without a single warning, Ember came to a halt in the middle of the road, her whole body freezing and her muscles tensing in anticipation.

“What is it, Ember?” Kaleb inquired, and she shushed him.

“We’re being followed,” she whispered, and listened carefully, and there it was. That ruffling of leaves not far behind, the subtle sound the ground made beneath leather boots.

“Are you certain?” the demon asked, and Ember saw him take a fighting stance as well. In all honesty, she felt bad for the poor bastard who ended up in Christopher’s hands. She could hold her own in a battle and cause some serious harm, perhaps even bring herself to kill, should the circumstances ask for it, but the demon was forged to torture.

“You hear that?” she turned to him, and Christopher and Kaleb tried to follow her lead. It was unmistakable. Footsteps approaching. Ember pulled out her dagger. “You three stay put. I’m going after them.”

“Ember,” Kaleb tried to catch her arm, but changed his mind halfway through the motion. “What if they’re the witches and they’ve caught our trail? It could be an ambush.”

You return victor, but you return alone.

Not all of your soldiers will make it out alive.

Ember pursed her lips and forced a nonchalant shrug.

“Then I presume our war’s just off to a more sudden start than anticipated,” she tried to joke, but Kaleb glared with worry clouding his eyes. “Worry not, little Lahey. I’m not dying just yet. I don’t need to worry about these witches. But they should bloody well worry about me.”

Or so Nana claimed. She’d walk away from this war if she was right. So she’d do her best to ensure that the others stayed put and let her get her hands dirty. Without another word, she turned on her heels and headed for the woods.

Her feet were steady, fingers clutched tight around her dagger as she made her way between the trees, her instincts switched on. She moved quiet, but sure as a cat, her eyes never ceasing to scan her surroundings, ears searching for noises to guide her. If there was truly one of those witches on her tail, she’d make good on her promise and send her back to her coven in bits and pieces. But as she listened closely, it occurred to her that there was some sort of familiarity in the presence nearby. Her whole body tensed. Was it Clarissa? No, it couldn’t be. It didn’t feel like her. She sniffed the air, allowing the way her supernatural powers enhanced every sense to guide her. It definitely wasn’t Clarissa. And she knew the smell, but it was still too far and too weak to be able to pin point it.

She turned around on her heels, studying the woods unraveling before her eyes. There was no one in sight just yet. She allowed her instincts to guide her forward and forward until the smell became pregnant enough for Ember to know the intruder was nearby. She froze, recognizing his smell before she heard his voice behind her.

“This whole hunter/prey game gets me tingly. You look ravishing all tense and focused like that. Like a tigress. Or a dragon.”

“Max,” she breathed, in shock for a second before trying to make up her mind whether to punch him or kiss him. “Gods above, what are you doing here? I thought we agreed—“

“We never did agree, though,” he cut her off. “You made the call. Didn’t it occur to you that I caved in too easily? Come on, fire breather, you know me better than that.”

She huffed and tucked her dagger away. Though she was still having second thoughts whether she’d need to use it on him.

“So you decided to follow me instead?”

Max shrugged. “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. You would have never agreed to it. And I couldn’t leave you alone, Ember. I would’ve gone out of my bloody mind knowing you here, in danger, and that I wouldn’t be here to protect you.”

You return victor, but you return alone.

“You shouldn’t have come,” she whispered, her voice broken, and Max caught her hand. She tried to pull away, unable to hold his gaze what with the heaviness of Nana’s words pushing on her shoulders, but Max wouldn’t have it. He held on to her wrist until he managed to intertwine their fingers. Finally, Ember looked up.

“Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?”

“You shouldn’t have come,” she said again, stepping closer and pressing a chaste kiss to his lips. Then she unclasped her hand from his and walked away.

One, two, three, for, five heartbeats later, he followed.

~SOUNDTRACK: Sofia Karlberg – Smells like teen spirit~

“Exquisite,” Christopher fake cheered when he caught sight of Max. “The pirate is back. The posse is thus complete.”

Ember rolled her eyes and looked sideways at Nana, whose face was grim and judgmental.

You return victor, but you return alone.

Yes, she remembered the warning all too well. Max was just another potential victim, another person she could lose in this war. And the most unbearable one to think about at that.

“The more, the merrier,” she forced herself to whisper and she ignored Kaleb’s and Max’s inquiring looks. “Let’s get going.”

They set a steady, wordless pace, and the tension was palpable, but none of them addressed it. It was rather understandable that each of them had some heavy baggage to carry, considering they were marching to potential death. So they allowed each other to wallow in their own puddle of misery.

The woods grew thicker and thicker with every step, and all of them found it hard to ignore the forest’s grimness. The air grew heavier, their surroundings grew quieter and Ember could feel dark magic pulsating all around. They were closing in.

“We’re near,” she whispered to the others and instantly realized the uselessness of the statement. Of course the others sensed it, too. Even without supernatural instincts, the black powers in the air they breathed were palpable.

They kept going until birds no longer chirped and wind no longer blew and insects no longer buzzed. Until it looked like the middle of the night, even though they were well aware it was not even noon yet. Until they arrived in the middle of a clearing that seemed fallen off the pages of a haunted tale.

“It shouldn’t be far now,” Christopher announced, and before Ember could reply, she sensed another presence nearby. Just like when she’d heard Max following them. But it was different now.

She came to a halt and all four of them stopped to watch her carefully as she tensed and looked around. The presence she felt was so grand and suffocating it nearly choked her. And frustratingly familiar. She reached for her dagger, though her instincts told her it would be of no use up against what she felt nearby. She reached inside her for the dragon, but she remembered it was not according to plan. Not until they got her siblings out.

“Fancy seeing you here, sugar.”

Ember froze and turned around, gasping in shock. She’d known all along, but she’d underestimated how deep the cut truly ran. A few feet away stood Clarissa, and through the haze of the realization, Ember had the time to wonder how it could have been that she’d missed it for so long. The Clarissa she knew, her best friend and her only ally in Thebbington Abbey was a nice girl, in the most literal way. She was sweet, with cheeks always flushed and eyes always bright and lips always smiling, with hair red as dawn and warmth to her persona. This was not Clarissa. Not with auburn hair dark as night and lips curled in feral, cruel, ruthless smile, with red eyes tainted by darkness and black magic. This Clarissa was a monster.

“I told the coven it was just a matter of time,” she spoke. “A matter of drawing you out. How marvelous that worked for me. Come out, girls. Tonight, we feast on dragons.”

As soon as she spoke the words, new silhouettes showed themselves from all parts of the meadow. They were surrounded. Dozens of them stepped forward, a few livid rays of sunshine illuminating their pale faces. They were surrounded. And dragging them in chains, a few of the witches brought forward Charles and the girls.

Ember gasped and lunged forward towards her siblings, dead set on killing everyone who stood in her path just to free them, when Max’s arms wrapped around her and stopped her in place. Surely she knew she stood no chance against all of the Hades Brides, but she had to try. She couldn’t just leave her family in their claws, not after seeing how the twins trembled, utterly terrified, or how Charles, with dark circles under his eyes and his cheeks sucked in and thinner than she’d ever seen him sat with his sisters, playing brave and keeping his arms around them protectively, or how Cathy just sat there, staring into the void with empty eyes.

“Let them go,” Ember roared, and Clarissa giggled with satisfaction at seeing her beg. “Clarissa, please. We were friends. You watched them grow up before your eyes. You helped me feed them. They’re innocent, it’s me you want. Let. Them. Go.”

Clarissa chuckled and waved her off. “Oh, please. Like I ever cared. Let me tell you a thing, sugar. Let me tell you how the Hades Brides work.” She stepped forward. “We don’t simply take what we want. We break you first. Until there’s not much left of you, or not much left to lose, and that is when we step in, feeding on despair and pain and chaos. You’ve got no idea how much power there is in suffering, Ember Blackthorn. It’s raw magic.”

She paused for effect, and Ember felt Christopher stepping closer to her, whispering in her ear low enough to stay out of ear shot.

“Say the word, love. I’ll behead them one by one. I will rip them apart. Just say when.”

“Not yet,” she whispered back. “Not while they still have my family. Not just yet.”

~SOUNDTRACK: These New Puritans – We want war

Clarissa sighed loudly and excitedly and Ember watched a few more of her coven sisters step closer to her and Ember tensed as fire ignited around them in the shape of a pentagram.

“I will strip all of you of everything you hold dear,” Clarissa spoke in a low voice as magic surged through her in the shape of scarlet clouds. “We will feed on your ancient magic, old woman. I will send you crawling back to hell, demon. Dear Kaleb will have to watch you die, sugar, before we harvest all that dragon magic scale by scale, flame by flame, claw by claw and tear by tear. But I believe I will start with you, pirate. Tell me, what is it that makes you a captain?”

Max froze and none of them spoke, supposing Clarissa’s question was rhetorical. They heard the sound of leaves and branches rustling and, when they looked to their right, they saw that the trees had moved to offer the sight of the sea and Max’s ship anchored not far from the shore. They gulped and Clarissa answered her own question.

“Why, his ship and his crew of course.”

As soon as her words were out, the horizon was conquered by a loud, deafening boom and the five of them watched as Max’s ship exploded in a blast of raw power and flames and smoke rose to the sky. Max loosened a breath and Ember watched as his knees buckled.

“M-My ship,” he whispered helplessly. “My people. My crew.”

The Crimson Dagger. Her home. The only place she could go back to. Max’s home. Their safe haven. Now nothing more than ashes in the wind and a wreck at the bottom of the sea. And all of Max’s crew. Dozens of burnt bodies. Gods above.

“Now that we’ve settled this,” Clarissa spoke as Max fell to his knees, his eyes following the patterns that the smoke drew on the sky before the trees closed in again and trapped them with the witches, with nowhere to go. “Your little pirate band, gone. The Lahey family, gone.” Ember watched Kaleb’s face going livid at the mention of his old abusive adoptive father and weak-willed mother. Two more deaths on her conscience. “I believe that would be all. The little Blackthorns will serve us as decent magic snacks until they come of age and unlock their powers, then they can meet the same fate as you will now. Because you see, sugar, it is time.”

The flames of her fire pentagram rose higher and Ember could tell it was now or never. Her eyes glowed gold in the dark and from here forth, everyone knew their part. She just prayed it all played out flawlessly that, should she die, Christopher would at least get her family to safety. She and Kaleb were just about to turn, the witches were wrapped in smokes of dark magic and flames, and Ember had the ‘now-or-never’ feeling deep in her gut. They were just about to collide, a dance of witches and witches and dragons, a waltz of dark smoke and bright flames, when from the trees emerged a little kitten, ruffled and trembling.

“Bandit,” Ember whispered, distracted for a second by the sight of her cat in the middle of a battle, and she could hear Clarissa’s laughter roar through her bones.

“Is that your weapon, Ember? A scared kitten?”

For a minute, it was the most anticlimactic moment in this whole war. Titans were about to clash, and then a scared kitten appears. But half a heartbeat later, Ember saw Bandit’s eyes glow gold in the darkness and everything happened in the blink of an eye, before she even had the time to process or to react. Bandit’s fur grew thicker and thicker and he grew fangs and he started getting bigger and bigger, until his eyes became two balls of shiny gold in the dark. She loosed a breath.

“Bandit,” she whispered breathlessly.

“He’s a skinwalker,” she heard Nana state from behind her, and Ember turned around with raised eyebrows. “I sent him to you for protection.”

“A skinwalker,” she repeated dumb-folded, and before she could say anything else, Bandit, who was now a deadly terrifying ten-feet creature, lunged towards the witches who held the little Blackthorns captive in chains.

And then all hell broke loose.

Bandit jumped for the throats and Ember could barely wrap her head around what was going on before blood splattered everywhere and her siblings yelled in terror. Limbs fell and the witches screamed in terror while Clarissa directed her attack at Bandit, but the not-so-little-anymore kitten was unstoppable. He snarled and Ember could swear that the whole forest bowed to his rage as he deflected attacks and flames.

“Max, the kids!” she screamed over Bandit’s roars, and the pirate’s eyes glinted in acknowledgement. They both looked over at the little Blackthorns, who kept crawling farther and farther away from the chaos, as if willing the ground to split open and swallow them whole.

Ember and Max were by their side a heartbeat later, panting and praying to every God that listened that the witches didn’t pay attention to them right now.

“Hey, monkeys,” she tried to keep her shaky voice under control as she kneeled before her siblings. “Look, I know this is all very scary for you. But Max and Nana will get you out now. They’ll take you somewhere safe and I’ll come get you later, alright?”

The poor souls nodded reluctantly and Ember wished she could kiss each of their foreheads, since it might have been the last time, but there was no time. She turned to Max and he and Nana, who had somehow gotten by their side in the meantime, grabbed hold of their shaking hands. Nana took the twins and as she bid her goodbye to Charles and Cathy, Ember noticed Max hesitating. She glared and looked behind her, seeing that the witches were still trying to bring down Bandit. She mentally sent the kitten some encouragements, willing him to hold on just a little longer.

“Max, go!” she hissed at him. “There’s no time.”

“I know,” he said helplessly. “But I—“

“For the love of God, Max, what is it? Do you want a love confession or something? There is no time.

He remained silent, but pursed his lips, which was something he usually did when she struck close to a nerve.

“Oh,” she mumbled. “I love you. Now go.”

He loosed a breath and placed a quick kiss on her lips.

“I love you, too, you maddening fire breather. Stay alive. And find me.”

She nodded fast, trying to hold back tears, because there was no time. He rushed Charles and Cathy forward until they were by Nana’s side and dared to take one last look back.

His fatal mistake.

“Not so fast, Captain Eye-Patch,” Ember heard Clarissa’s voice right behind her and she looked from her extended arm to Max’s frozen mid-movement figure. She was holding him captive.

You return victor, but you return alone.

No. She would not lose Max. Her eyes glowed gold yet again when she turned to Clarissa.

“Clarissa, let him go,” she roared. “This is our war, not his.

Clarissa laughed mischievously. “Oh, don’t worry, sugar. I’m letting him go. I make no promises for the state he’s in upon departure.”

“You’re letting him go?” another witch reached Clarissa’s side, grabbing her elbow, but she didn’t seem fazed. “Are you insane? No one leaves here alive.”

“Oh, please. Killing him would be delicious, yes. But setting him free to go wherever he pleases, with a broken spirit? Always seeking without knowing for what, always longing, always miserable? And our little dragon, knowing he’s out there but he does not remember her? Oh, imagine the pain, imagine the despair. I can taste it already.”

Ember wanted to scream. She wanted to plead. She wanted to gauge Clarissa’s eyes out, she wanted to burn her alive, she wanted to break her, to kill her slowly and to enjoy doing so. She would’ve rather destroyed herself in the process before allowing these witches to break Max. But one is faced with certain moments when you turn into a tragic spectator with no help to offer, but only with tears to roll down helplessly. And she realized Clarissa held control of her body when her muscles were tense with the power of the leap she didn’t get to take. All of that anger, concealed. And when Max collapsed to his knees, screaming in pain and clawing at his own temples, Ember could only return his screams with those of her own.

“No!” she yelled, but no one listened. “Max! Clarissa, stop it! Let him go!”

Clarissa simply shrugged and released the tension in her arm. “As you wish,” she replied casually, and Max fell face-first into the dirt.

When Ember realized she’d regained control over her body, she rushed to his side. He was unconscious, but breathing.

“What did you do to him?” she hissed up at her, and Clarissa circled her with steps steady as a cat’s before crouching and speaking slowly in her face, a feral smile on her lips.

“I. Broke. Him.”

You return victor, but you return alone.

Ember felt something snapping right beneath her eyes. There was no knowing for sure what she’d done to Max, but there were fair guesses to be made. Altered memories, for once. The man she loved no longer knew he loved her back, but at least he was alive. She was vaguely aware of Christopher appearing at her side and grabbing Max, throwing him over his shoulders and disappearing in an instant, but not before leaning shortly to whisper in her ear.

“Your family is safe. I’ll make sure your pirate is, too. My deal has been completed. Give them hell, little dragon.”

And so Ember let the beast inside snap through her skin and it had never felt more liberating. Now, she fought for surviving, she fought for protecting those she loved, she fought for ensuring safety and she fought for vengeance.

As the Onyx Dragon, Daughter of Scorching Flames and Charcoal Dust roared, an entire forest bowed to her and a few of the witched shuddered in terror. And with fair reason. She’d return alone, but she’d return victor.

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