Chapter no 37 – PUDDLE

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

Later that night, Isla stood in her room, holding her starstick.

Before the Centennial had even started, she’d promised herself she wouldn’t use the relic to look at her home. Part of her feared she would miss the Wildling newland so much, she would make a rash decision and leave the game, portaling away.

Now, so much had changed. She wasn’t the same person who had arrived on the island two months prior.

Before, she had never even spoken to a man unsupervised for more than a few minutes. Now, one had touched her up and down her body.

Before, she thought she would cower before the rulers. Now, she had beaten them in trials. Threatened them. She had even saved the king.

Before, she believed it was wrong to want anything other than to break her and her realm’s curses.

Now, she wanted everything.

She drew her puddle of stars, almost hoping that her old self would click back into place at the sight of her realm and people.

The edges quivered, alive—spilled ink and diamonds. The stars faded into different colors, the hues sputtering and forming quickly before her eyes. They scattered until she was looking at Wildling.

Blood drained from her face. Her heart became all she could hear, beating unsteadily in her chest.

It was gone.

The forests had been razed. The Wildling palace was nearly destroyed.

Villages were empty.

This had to be a trick—an illusion.

Her hand trembled as she touched the starstick, leading it somewhere else. The colors scattered until she was looking at a woman, sprawled across what was left of the forest floor. Her tan skin had hardened, turned to sheets of bark. Strands of her hair had become vines. One hand was already roots in the ground.

It was Terra.

Isla stopped breathing.

Her guardian had started to be taken by nature, just like the Eldress. The first steps of a Wildling death. Isla’s stomach went watery, her mouth went dry, her vision blurred—

She was about to jump into the puddle, to go to Terra, but forced herself still.

There was nothing she could do. She was powerless. Reversing a Wildling death that had already begun required endless ability and enchantment.

And her realm had none of that to spare.

Terra. Her fighting instructor, the closest person to her in the world. The one who had taught her nearly everything she knew.

Poppy was kneeling next to her, applying an elixir that would delay the transition. But it wouldn’t save her. It wouldn’t save their realm.

“I reach my hand into the dirt, to speak to the trees,” Terra told Poppy, voice frailer than Isla thought possible. “But the dirt is dead in my hand.”

Poppy held Terra’s few soft fingers. “We still have time,” she said. “Our little bird is still fighting for us.”

Terra only closed her eyes. “How many more are like this?” she asked. “Almost all of them,” Poppy answered.

Isla had thought her people would be just the way she had left them.

Wildling had weakened during her reign, but it had been gradual.

How was this possible?

The land had been without power for too long. The ground was demanding its due. Taking powerful Wildlings, one by one.

Breaking her curse and theirs wouldn’t save them. The Wildling realm was too far gone. Even the powers she was supposed to have been born with wouldn’t be enough. Not when they had weakened with every ruler’s generation.

To save them all, she needed more—more than even a single ruler could give.

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Isla remembered the prize. The single person who broke the curses was fated to be gifted immeasurable ability— more power than the realms had ever seen. The type that could save the Wildlings. The type that could save Terra. The entire Centennial, Isla had been focused on making sure she didn’t lose.

Now, she knew she had to win.

Isla felt like she was going to be sick. She had cried for so long, it didn’t seem possible her body had any liquid left.

“What happened?” Oro’s voice was surprisingly gentle when she found him, pacing around a room in the Mainland castle. “I just saw you a couple of hours ago,” he said in confusion, in anger, muttering almost to himself.

Her eyes must have still been swollen. She didn’t answer his question. “Does your offer still stand?”

Oro seemed to know she meant the one he had extended in the cave. To her relief, he nodded.

A tear ran down her cheek. “Can I trust you?” she asked.

Oro stared at her. “Yes. I’ve never lied to you, Isla. Not once.”

She hoped that was true. Her stomach felt like it was flipping inside out. If Celeste knew she had willingly shared her greatest secret with the king, she would be furious. But the Starling would understand.

Isla had no choice now.

Oro was directly in front of her. His hand went to her forehead. He was frowning. Did he think she was sick? He studied her body quickly, clinically, looking for damage. Did he think she was injured?

She wished she was. Physical pain would hurt less than this.

Isla couldn’t believe she was going to tell him her secret. She closed her eyes, unable to look at him as she did. Every bone in her body and vein and muscle and swath of skin screamed against it.

Your secret is your greatest weakness. You can never reveal it. The rule was like a favorite blanket. She had learned it before she had learned anything else. All other lessons were birthed from it. She needed to know how to fight because she was powerless. She needed to hide in her room because she was powerless. She couldn’t meet anyone alone because she was powerless.

She was a disappointment because she was powerless. She had to follow the rules because she was powerless.

Terra and Poppy had to rule in her stead because she was powerless.

She had to survive the Centennial and lie, cheat, steal, and kill because she was powerless.

No. She forced her eyes open. Forced herself to look right at the king as she said the words she had built her entire life around—the foundation of everything.

“I was born powerless.”

There. The words were out. Birds let free. Their cage propped open.

Nothing and no one could take them back.

Oro went still. She could see it in his eyes—he had expected anything but that.

His brow creased, confused. He squinted at her.

A million thoughts were going through his head, and Isla imagined none of them were good.

It was too much to ask for her to stand there in the aftermath. She was strong enough to say the words—but not enough to stay.

Isla turned on her heel, but Oro stopped her with a gentle hand.

He looked strange. Slightly horrified. “Are you saying you have never used power?” he demanded.

She blinked. Was she going to have to repeat it? “Yes,” she said, her voice trembling. She swallowed. “You can’t use something you don’t have.”

For once, Oro was speechless. She might have enjoyed seeing him so flustered if she wasn’t having the worst day of her life.

And she supposed the oracle had been right. Her secret was revealed. Just not in the way she would have ever imagined.

She turned to leave again.

And this time the king did not stop her.

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