Chapter 32: Up in Flames
~SOUNDTRACK: Hozier – Arsonist’s lullaby~
Deep down in the heart of some remote woods, a dragon roared as flames circled her. Ember wept for what she had lost and for all that she could yet still lose. She spread her wings and let the flames surround her, bathing in them like they were her home. Because they were, truly, after the only homes she’d known had disappeared with the Onyx Valley, the Crimson Dagger and Max.
She saw that Kaleb had already turned and he was already struggling with half a dozen witches coming at him. Ember let her flames bubble up inside her until their temperature matched her sorrow and her rage, and then she let them out in true firestorms. But she learned that the Hades Brides knew how to fight fire with fire.
The flames of Clarissa’s pentagram changed shapes and color and ranged from burning red to green and to blue and rose high to chase the thrill of spilling dragon blood. But Ember and Kaleb also rose to meet their destinies. They’d been born for this battle. The stars would watch over them as they tore those witches apart one by one.
Flames met flames as the two dragons set witch after witch on fire, but the remaining ones never faltered in their efforts. Still, what was born in fire cannot be destroyed by it. And Ember was having a hard time deciding which side benefited from that. The woods soon became a hellhole, the dancefloor of a thousand fires.
Ember was cornered from all sides and she tried hard to hold her own, let alone try to have Kaleb’s back. The witches kept coming at her relentlessly and she could tell there was a burn out to her powers when her flames started making her insides feel dried up. She willed herself to go that extra mile and muster every drop of energy there was still left in her, when she heard a cry of pain and she turned to her left.
Had she been in human form, she would’ve gasped in terror. An army of skinwalkers marched upon the clearing, and the agonizing cry had come from Bandit. Ember let out a growl of despair as she flew back and forth, trying to fight the right angle to set those bastards on fire as they teared into Bandit, ripping flesh away and spilling his blood like he was a worthless beast such as themselves. Through the chaos and the agony, Ember focused her hearing, making it sharper than ever. And when Bandit drew his last breath under the claws of those horrifying skinwalkers, another bit of herself died. She was surprised there was still some of herself left. Max was gone. His crew, dead. Her family, in hiding. Bandit, dead. What ushers you on when you’re not so sure what you’re fighting for? Not dying? Having something to die for sure felt glorious, but she was fresh low on reasons to live for.
Ember! she heard Kaleb’s voice in her head clear as bells and she turned to look at him. She found his golden eyes surrounded by scales dark as the night looking straight at her, fiercer than she’d ever seen him, steady and brave, if not a little dangerous.
Here’s one, she told herself, and she couldn’t tell if it was really Kaleb in her head or her conscience spoke in his soothing voice. Here’s a reason to live for. Kaleb Middleton. We’ll get out of this. We’ll survive, and then we’ll set off to a fresh start. Clean up the past and start building the future.
Ember bared her teeth in a feral smile and let out a dangerous growl. Max. Her siblings. Nana. The Crimson Dagger. Billy Long-Legs and an entire crew of innocent pirates. For every person they’d made suffer, Ember would make every single witch pay the debt in the black ooze they called blood.
Her trail of thought was broken by Clarissa stepping forward, laughing so clearly, it was as if the whole battlefield had grown silent just to grant her the privilege of that laugh. She walked on red flames, fearing nothing and capable of everything.
“It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad,” she spoke amused. “You two actually believe you stand a chance. That gross thing when you made eyes at each other just now? Disgustingly cute. And that fierceness on you, Ember. It’s remarkable how driven by revenge you strike me as. Am I in trouble for frying your pirate’s brain? Or ship? Or for killing your kitty? Oh, you’ve got another great thing coming, sugar. I’m not done with you yet.”
Ember let out another snarl and lunged at her, but she soon learned that those red flames of Clarissa’s weren’t as harmless to her as hers were to the witch. Her scales burned as if they were being ripped off her skin one by one, and Clarissa just laughed as Ember grew angrier and angrier in her attempts to get to her and failing miserably to break her shields each and every time.
“I’m not finished breaking you, sugar,” Clarissa continued, as if Ember was simply a buffoon playing an entertaining part. “But I’m almost there. I said I would strip you of everything you love. Your magic will be most delicious when harvested from your moments of deepest despair, at the point of having nothing else to lose. And after all, one dragon should be more than enough.”
Ember was having a hard time following her speech as she kept hitting those magic shields with everything she had, not caring how much harm came to herself in the process. But Clarissa’s last words, they rang loud and clear in her head until they overpowered those of Nana’s.
~SOUNDTRACK: Rachel Taylor – Light a fire~
You return victor, but you return alone.
I said I would strip you of everything you love.
One dragon should be more than enough.
No! Ember cried in her head as she realized, but the dragon had no voice. It began with Clarissa’s laughter and Ember watched in slow motion as the witches, though in fewer numbers, but still all too powerful, stepped forward.
She struggled, but it was as if being stuck in a cage, like in one of those dreams when you’re chased or in danger, but your muscles don’t work. You have to run, but your feet don’t listen. You want to scream, but your throat is tight. And you stay helpless, waiting for it to go away. Except it wouldn’t go away now. The big finale of this chapter ended in yet another loss for her, and she would not be able to prevent it.
She watched in terror as Kaleb tried to spit fire at the witches, but whatever magic they had, Ember could tell it hurt him to get too close, too. The rest happened so fast. Ember saw the red magic in the tips of their fingers. Then in their hands. Then extending from their arms like thunderbolts and hitting Kaleb fully. He let out a cry of agony – Ember was quite sure she did, too – and as soon as the blast made contact with him, he glowed bright red and it was over in the blink of an eye. One moment, he was there. The next one, he was nothing but ash carried away by the breeze.
The clearing fell silent for a heartbeat or two. Then Ember raised her head to the little spot of clear sky she could see and let out a deafening howl. She felt the dragon caving under the pressure. In spite of the ways in which she loved Kaleb and though they’d been different from how he’d hoped them to be, the absence of her soulmate, of her equal, of her best friend hit Ember forcefully. Like a hand reaching inside to her core and ripping out a part of her very essence. Kaleb was gone. And her magic was numb. She howled until claws began to turn back into hands and feet, until scales became smooth skin and until golden eyes went back to smoldering green. She howled until the howl turned into nothing more than a heart-wrenching, weak, tired cry of a little broken human.
She ended up a tiny figure on the grass, in the middle of the clearing, weeping for all that she’d lost. Kaleb was gone, too, and half of her heart, gone along with him. Now she was truly alone. She screamed until her voice became hoarse and she dug her fingers into the dirt until she couldn’t tell whether she still had fingernails, she tried to call for the dragon to rise back to the surface and come to her aid, but her call remained unanswered. There was no one else. No one else to die for. No one else to live for. No one else to fight alongside her. Now she was completely and utterly alone.
As Clarissa approached her with satisfaction bathing her features, Ember knew for a fact she was going to die. And she was so numb inside, she found it hard to muster a single feeling in that matter. It made no difference to her now, none whatsoever. They could have her body, they could have her magic, they could have her spirit. There wasn’t much left of it anyway.
“Good girl,” Clarissa praised her, crouching in front of Ember’s shivering body. “Let it all out, sugar. Your pain is exhilarating. Your jeweler lover may have been a total loss, but you absolutely make up for him in despair and misery.”
“Go to hell,” Ember managed to get out between sobs, but Clarissa only laughed.
“Oh, sugar. But judging by how you look and how your emotions scream at me, I would say you’ve already brought it to us.”
Clarissa stepped backwards and the rest of the witches – about ten or twelve of them only – formed a circle around her and started chanting, that same red magic they’d used to kill Kaleb flowing out of them. Ember let out a tired gasp and collapsed to the ground. She could feel as the power was being slowly drawn out of her, how every breath became laborious. She felt every drop of pain being drunk out of her body until she became a lump of dry tears and numbness. She welcomed death as one would an old friend. She had feared this moment for so long, only to now learn it came as a liberation. It was reassuring to know she would finally be set free, even if she hadn’t asked for it, not this way.
So she let go. Slowly, surely. She let her heart beat weaker and her chest take shallower breaths. She let herself close her eyes and go to her safe place once more. She let herself say their names once more.
Nana, with her Charles, Cathy, Mary, Elizabeth, somewhere safe and far away hopefully.
The Crimson Dagger, Billy Long-Legs and the whole crew on board.
She kept all of their faces tattooed on the back of her head, looking down on her as she drew her last breaths. But something was wrong, she realized. They didn’t look peaceful, or as if they were saying goodbye. They looked judgmental and cruel. They looked disappointed. And for that matter only, a greater void opened in the middle of Ember’s chest wider than the one their loss had just caused. For that only, she could not die just yet. She would not give those bloody witches the satisfaction of winning, she would not let them break every single person she loved and then just walk away from it.
She opened her eyes. She tensed her muscles. She stood up and started breathing faster. She had to do this. If it destroyed her in the process, she would break those who had broken her. She stood on shaky feet and stared Clarissa deep in her eyes filled with rage. The red tainted magic kept coming her way and took the blows courageously, if not a little heroically, as she focused intensely. She closed her eyes yet again and ignored the pain. She searched deep down, because she knew the beast was still there.
Come on, you pretentious bitch, she willed the dragon. Come out. Come up here one last time and let’s raise hell. For the kids. For Nana. For Max’s crew. For Kaleb. For Max.
And the beast was tired. So tired. The beast wished to rest, to lay down on the grass for a moment, for a night, forever, maybe. But still, the dragon answered. It was weak, and she had to pull it out by scaly wings, but she pulled and pulled and pulled until she was out of breath.
And when she opened her eyes into Clarissa’s, they were golden.
~SOUNDTRACK: Fall Out Boy – Centuries~
Ember saw her freeze. She would’ve lied to say that now, in the eleventh hour, she didn’t feel a pang of satisfaction from knowing she made them afraid. As they should be. She was the fire, the pain and the chaos. And she would show them no mercy.
The transformation happened almost in slow motion and Ember felt it bit by bit in her broken body, fueling it with a limping spirit, but she pulled through. It started from her toes growing claws and she felt the onyx black scales climbing up her legs and up her thighs. She felt her backbone twist and elongate into a strong tail. Her body grew in size until the Hades Brides had to tilt their heads to look up at her. Arms became claws, too and her teeth sharpened into deadly fangs. Her eyes drew back on her head and into their orbits and her ears grew pointed tips. And as the last drop of magic traveled through her veins and completed the shift, she drew her head backwards and let out the loudest, most painful and sorrow-filled, angriest roar. She was a glorious dragon. Scarred and broken inside, but still deadly.
Silence fell over the clearing for a few second, tomb silence, like no one was even breathing. And then it all exploded. Everything hurt, but nothing stopped Ember. She flew high and dropped low and spit fire endlessly until she could swear the flames were tainted with her own blood. The witches kept coming at her, fiercely and deadlier than before, but when you’ve got nothing left to lose, when you’ve got no other purpose than pure blood spill and murder, you find it’s easy to disregard every clean rule about playing dirty.
Their magic hit her over and over again, but she barely felt it anymore. She sensed the blood flowing down her sides and wide, deep gashes covered in ashes, but no pain of her body could match the pain inside. And she made it a point to prove that. With every single body she dropped.
Twelve witches. Fire ball.
Eleven witches. Trees on fire falling down.
Nine witches. Fire, fire, fire.
Six witches. She bared her fangs deep into a witch’s torso until she tasted her rotten blood on the back of her tongue. She gagged, but kept going.
Five witches. Her insides burned hotter than the woods, but she spit a fire ball again.
Four witches. She grabbed one witch in her claws and flew high, then dropped her to the ground, enjoying the sound her broken bones made as they made impact with the soil.
Three witches. She was growing tired, but so were they. There were more pentagrams on the ground now than she could count, and she could tell they were still trying to draw power from her, to fasten her journey to a complete burn out. The bad thing was that she could feel them managing to do that and her powers were growing weaker by the second. The good thing was that it drained them, too. It wouldn’t be longer now.
A red blast from the magic of all three of them hit Ember. A roar. Flying around until her wings were sore, trying to dodge them. Red blast after red blast. An opening. Ember grabbed one witch by the hair and threw her in a tree. A witch body twisted in two like a broken doll.
Two witches. They separated and hit Ember from different directions so that she couldn’t evade both of them. But she was smarter than that. She let the fire burn her throat one more time and flew in a circle until the flames surrounded her. She let them rose high and the smoke filled the clearing. She took advantage of the opening and lunged upwards from the ring of fire she’d created, then she grabbed a solid burning branch and, before the witch could realize what was happening, Ember dropped it on her.
Ember panted. She was so tired. She wasn’t certain whether she could talk her body into spreading those wings one more time. But she had to. This was it. She could taste the sweet revenge on the tip of her tongue. She could feel it tickling her fingertips. She only needed to reach out and grab it.
She settled herself in the middle of the burning clearing and studied Clarissa. Her auburn hair was tangled and burned at the tips, her face was bloody, covered in scrapes her bruises, as were her arms and her shoulders, clothes torn. Ember tried to encourage herself by thinking that maybe the witch was just as worn out as she was. That maybe, if she could push her limits and go that extra mile one more time, she could win this easily.
Clarissa hissed at her through gritted teeth. “You destroyed my coven.”
You destroyed my family. You destroyed my home. You destroyed my life, Ember thought, wishing she could say it out loud. But then Clarissa surprised her even more by bursting into hysterical laughter.
“No worries,” she yelled. “More power for me once I kill you. That grief and thirst for revenge are like music to my ears. I shall bathe in it for centuries. And I’ll build myself another coven. You’ll be a legend, Ember Blackthorn. A tough bitch to kill, but whose fire I managed to put out and feast on for the next hundreds of years.”
Ember called on the fire, wishing she could just torch her here and now, mid-sentence and trembling. But she realized Clarissa wasn’t shaking in fear. She was shaking in excitement and anticipation and rush. She knew it wouldn’t be so easy. She had to think this one through hardly.
“I cannot believe it’s time, finally,” Clarissa burst into another round of hysterical giggles. “I have been waiting for years. For years, just to harvest your powers.” Her voice rose higher and higher until she was yelling. “Years, Ember! I’ve had to stand there and try not to gag you and kick your self-pity ass. And now, now I’m gonna take all that glory and keep it all to myself. I’ll see you in hell, bitch!”
She let out a maddening cry and fell on her knees and magic exploded out of her. Red magic tainted with black rising high, clouding the sky, filling the clear, coming Ember’s way fast and deadly. And Ember knew she stood no chance against it. She felt its raw power before the waves even left Clarissa’s body. She spread her wings and flew away, but there was no escaping. Clarissa kept screaming and power kept surging out of her and Ember was no longer capable to outrun it anymore.
She froze into place and let it come at her. She was too tired to run anymore. This ended now, no matter who emerged victor. She stopped and turned to face the magic waves face first. She took a deep breath and let the flames rise up in her chest, then she let them out in an explosion like she’d never managed before. The fire hit the magic waves in a blinding blast that made Ember close her eyes, focusing on keeping the flames coming before she’d burn out for good.
And so she did. She kept spitting fire until her throat went dry and her insides burned. Until the scales turned back into skin and fangs into teeth and claws into fingers and she had no more flames. She fell to her knees and waited for the wave of magic, but it never hit. The woods burned around her, but everything was still and calm. She raised her head and opened her eyes. The red magic was gone and Clarissa sat on her knees as well, mirroring her position, a few feet away.
Ember stood up, taking the witch in. They were both at their edges. There was no fight in them left. The dragon and the witch were gone, but the difference between them was that Ember Blackthorn the human was just as dangerous. She walked until she stood in front of Clarissa, looking down at her bloodied face and eyes unfocused in the absence of her filthy magic.
Without waiting for a single heartbeat longer for the one thing she still had to do, she grabbed Clarissa’s head and snapped her neck in one swift motion.
~SOUNDTRACK: Jill Andrews – Lost it all~
Christopher stood on a hill, looking down at the forest burning beneath his feet. The trees were knocked down and on fire and it all looked like hell had rained fire upon it. And in the middle of it all stood Ember.
He had taken care of getting those kids to safety. The old woman and the little dragon spawns were in the Onyx Valley, cloaked against any foreign presence that might have taken any interest in them. Not that there were any worries anymore. Ember seemed to have taken care of foreign threats all too well herself.
The demon had arrived just in time to see human Ember snap that witch leader’s neck and he had to admit, he’d felt an odd surge of pride running him through at the sight. She was alone, so she could only assume everybody else was dead, or worse. He knew for a fact there were worse fates than death. Perhaps he’d meet that pirate of hers again down in hell.
With one last look down at Ember, Christopher knew there was nothing left for him to do for her. She was broken and she’d lost close to everything. But she was alive and the witches were defeated. She would live a long life and maybe join her potentially dead pirate back in hell.
His deal had ended.
The woods burned around her. Dozens of burned bodies and bloody corpses lay around her. Clarissa’s dead body lay at her feet, her eyes wide and empty. Ember would’ve expected to feel a little more satisfied, victorious. But there was no victory here.
She turned her back on Clarissa’s corpse and stepped through the flames. She’d been the fire, the pain and the chaos. She’d fulfilled her task and had gotten revenge for her loved ones and safety for her family. She let her eyes wander across the burning trees, the remainings of the Crimson Dagger in the distance and the flames surrounding her. She had emerged victor. And she had lost everything to do so. But in hindsight, she knew that she had sought to destroy her enemies and she had ended up destroying herself.
The smoke cleared. She stood tall. But she stood alone.