Chapter no 42 – CLEO

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

The island was built from hearts and bones and blood. Death was at its very core, from the duel that had killed Cronan Malvere to the lives lost since. For the three days after Juniper was found dead, Isla remained in the Place of Mirrors, knowing she was next.

Cleo hadn’t killed her yet—but her influence was everywhere. She had intercepted Isla’s note or found out about it somehow. No communication was safe. And her bloody message was clear.

The Moonling hadn’t come for her yet . . . but she would.

Sometimes, late at night or early in the morning, Isla slipped out of the Wildling palace and ran. It was the only activity lately that cleared her head of the never-ending images of her realm dying. Every day she went farther, risking venturing deep into the wicked forest. To the cliff. To the outskirts of the castle, even.

At least it made her feel something. She felt useless, doing nothing to win.

But where would she start? Oro hadn’t—purposefully—shared the remaining locations on Moon Isle where darkness met light. She couldn’t go search them herself. Even if she did know where they were, Oro and Cleo had likely already looked. Which meant they must have the heart . . . or must be close to getting it.

Guilt piled onto her shoulders and stacked high, weighing down her every step. She had failed her people. She had failed her guardians.

And she had failed Juniper. Cleo had killed the barkeep because of her

—because of the knowledge he had been about to share.

Which meant his clue had been important.

Isla wouldn’t let Juniper’s death be for nothing. And, as she ran through the woods, she felt a tinge of hope.

If Cleo and Oro had already found the heart, the Moonling ruler wouldn’t have bothered sabotaging Isla. Something had gone wrong . . . which meant maybe there was still a chance to right everything.

The island was a pastry, crumbling into the sea, day by day. But at dusk, it was pretty. The sun was a running yolk, smearing gold and orange and red across the sky, as if desperate to leave its mark. The clouds were cotton dipped in pink dye.

Isla watched the sunset from a cliff, hands on her knees, panting. She had just run for over an hour. The roots of her hair were wet with sweat, the day’s heat reminding her of Wildling. A salty breeze blew her braid back and receded, sticking her hair to the side of her face.

She was wearing the clothes the tailor had made her during her first week on the island. Clothes meant for running and fighting. The fabric was thin but offered protection against the elements. Isla had planned to wear this same outfit to find the heart—


She sat down as the last of the sun reluctantly dipped below the horizon. Her hands gripped the grass, and she felt it—power, coursing through the soil, though weaker than before. Power she could not access.

“Mom,” she said to the incoming darkness. “I don’t blame you.” She spoke to her sometimes.

Isla had never known her mother. She was killed the day Isla was born, by Isla’s father, before he had turned the knife on himself. Both were victims of the Wildling curse. Her mother had refused to kill her love, so the curse had demanded its blood.

And their daughter was born without abilities. “I couldn’t do it either,” she said quietly.

Isla thought about it, sometimes. The impossible choice. Killing a beloved . . . or dying. Before, it had seemed obvious. Now she knew she could never kill the person she loved.

Perhaps that made her mortal. Perhaps that made her weak.

No. Not weak. A weak ruler wouldn’t have made it this far into the Centennial without powers.

“I understand you. And I don’t blame you. And . . .” Her voice shook for just a moment before smoothing again. “And I wish I’d known you.”

By the time she walked back into the woods, the moon was a wide eye in the sky, watching her. She sneaked through the shadows, keeping at its perimeter, watching the Mainland castle through the darkness.

She missed her room there. She missed her secret and the safety it had allowed.

Isla was about to turn back into the Mainland forest when she saw her. Cleo.

Her first reaction was to freeze, draw her dagger. But the Moonling hadn’t spotted her. She was too far away.

As Isla watched Cleo slip through the night, her white cape pale as bone, her fear dimmed.

Celeste was right. She had sulked for too long.

Soon, she would be forced out of hiding anyway for Carmel, the twenty-four-hour-long celebration that took place on the seventy-fifth day. Attendance was mandatory, lest she wish to officially take herself out of the game.

She couldn’t. Not with the state of her realm being what it was.

Isla would be forced to face Cleo there. Part of her wondered if that was when Oro and the Moonling planned on killing her—if they wanted to make it dramatic, in front of the attending islanders. Her heart hammered at the thought.

She wouldn’t live any more days afraid. If her destiny was to die, she would face it head-on.

Sweat sticky on her forehead, Isla began to trail the Moonling ruler through the night.

Perhaps she would lead her right to the heart.

Cleo swept across the Mainland, white clothes shining through the night, illuminated by the spotlight that was the moon. The Moonling ruler basked in it, stopping for a moment to roll her shoulders back and lift her face to it. It was said that Moonling had become the strongest realm since the curses had been spun. Unlike Sunling or Nightshade, they could still access their power source. And, unlike Starling, many of their members were still ancient. Their curse, if anything, affected them the least. Thousands of Moonlings had died at the hands of the sea over the years, that was true, but the survivors hadn’t been physically weakened.

Isla’s stomach twisted. She didn’t know how she hadn’t thought of it before.

Cleo must have spun the curses. That was what Juniper had tried to tell her. That was why the Moonling killed him.

Had she created the curses and given her realm one to erase suspicion?

A curse that wouldn’t weaken her in the slightest?

She hadn’t suffered at all. She was still as strong as ever. If that was true . . .

Cleo wouldn’t want the curses to be broken.

Did Oro know? Was that why they hadn’t yet wielded the heart? Was Cleo making sure Oro never did?

Isla was breathing too quickly. Cleo was dangerous. Deadly. But she did not turn around and go back to the castle, to Grim or Celeste.

She followed Cleo to the Moon Isle bridge.

For the first time, there were no guards there. The Moonling ruler must have removed them after she and Oro had been paired. Why?

She didn’t have time to wonder and took their absence as a positive sign.

Isla waited a few minutes for Cleo to disappear down the bridge. Then she crossed it.


Cleo walked past her palace. Isla trailed her through the same forest she and Oro had visited two weeks before. Where was she going?

The Moonling’s white dress floated gently above the foliage, not staining in the dirt or getting wet in the weaving streams. The water shifted its current in her direction as she passed—called to her, it seemed.

Isla’s outfit kept away much of the cold. Her cheeks and nose stung, but her chest was warm. Her boots kept out the frost. Cleo walked easily, unbothered by the snow. Perhaps it invigorated her, the same way the moon did.

Without warning, Cleo stopped, and Isla stilled before diving back into the cover of the forest. The Moonling ruler had paused before a mountain, coated in ice like armor. Her arms raised overhead, fingers splaying—and she dropped them with the grace of a snowflake falling from the sky.

Instantly, the ice began to thaw, slipping down in sheets that hit the ground, then hardened again. Isla squinted through the darkness. What was Cleo doing?

She needed a closer view. Isla stepped forward, one foot out of the forest. She squinted as the ice continued to fall, revealing a hole, almost like

a portal. Or a hidden passageway. Her eyes narrowed. Was this where she and Oro met? Was it where she was keeping the heart? Or something else entirely?

Isla took another step—and a loud screech pierced the air.

The dark-blue bird from before swooped through the trees, aimed right at her head. She ducked just in time, but it looped back around, snapping its beak wildly. It squawked loudly—an alarm, Isla realized too late. The bird was a spy for Cleo, alerting its master that she was being followed.

Isla dared a look up. The Moonling ruler had turned. They locked eyes.

In a flash of crystal blue, she was hurtled through the air by a thick sheet of water. Her breath was ripped from her chest. Cleo flung her against the side of the frost-coated mountain, and Isla cried out as her spine seemed to shatter. The pain was shocking, blinding, and she screamed again just as the water that had flung her back crackled into ice.

Cleo stepped forward, looking surprised.

“I have to admit,” she said, “I’m impressed by your stupidity. A powerless ruler, following me onto my own isle?”

She was going to kill her. Just like she killed Juniper. Isla tore against the ice—

But it might as well have been iron.

“Oh, as the night grows colder, the ice will only get stronger,” Cleo purred. “Now tell me, Wildling, why have you followed me here?”

She had to be smart, keep Cleo talking as long as she could. And pray it would give her enough time to come up with a plan.

“I know,” Isla said, her voice coming out deep and fractured. She took a shaking breath, the pain in her back like daggers through the gaps in her spine. “I know why you killed Juniper.”

Cleo looked curious. She took a step closer to Isla. Her white hair glimmered in the moonlight as she shook her head. “You are a fool.” Fool. The word was an old friend, or maybe an enemy, waving hello. Though she had done foolish things, Isla was not a fool. “But a courageous one, showing up to the Centennial without abilities . . .” She raised an eyebrow. “And using the skin gloves to get into protected sections of our castles? Ingenious.” She pursed her lips. “Let’s see if you are clever enough to get yourself out of this mess.”

The Moonling snapped her fingers, and the ice keeping her in place expanded. Thickened.

Anger warmed her core, though not enough to keep the frost from turning her numb. Her lips were two chips of ice when she whispered. “You’re afraid,” she said. “Because I know . . . I know you spun the curses.” Isla raged against the ice, pounding over and over. But it was no use. “I know, and if a fool could figure it out, so can anyone else.”

Cleo raised a hand, and the ice traveled from Isla’s collarbones all the way up her neck, like a crystal choker. Isla gasped, every breath now frozen. “You don’t know what you think you do, Wildling,” she said. “But even if you did . . .” She smiled. “Corpses can’t talk. And corpses can’t break curses, can they?”

With that, Cleo smirked before disappearing into the icy hole.

Time ticked differently when you were dying, Isla realized. The seconds were miles long, and the minutes were endless howls of wind. It might have been hours, or only half a chime, but soon, Isla stopped feeling the pain in her back like a hundred knives. The ice had frozen it over, just like it had muted the limited heat that her outfit had provided.

She remembered the first time she had portaled to the Moonling realm. How she had hated it. The snow and ice and frozen everything had looked beautiful—but had felt like a bite. Mosquitoes, all over her body. She had only stayed minutes, which was long enough to watch the full moon swallow a ship whole.

Never did she think that something as simple and natural as the cold would be the thing that ended her. A curse or a blade to the heart, maybe. But never the cold.

First Isla was sad. Then she was afraid. And then she was angry again.

Cleo was right . . . she was a fool. She had followed the Moonling ruler without a plan, so desperate to get answers. And the heart.

And revenge.

She took all the words to her mother back, calling them from the sky, roping her prayers down. If she had powers, she could maybe lift a finger and access the rock deep below the ice. Or a tree. Or call to an animal that would help her free.

I do blame you, she said in her head. If I die, I blame you. What kind of Wildling falls in love, knowing the costs? She wondered what her mother would look like now. An older version of herself, she supposed. Once a ruler had children, they began to age more properly, looking older and older the more their family line grew. Each family only had access to so much power. After the curses, the island and realms grew weaker. But in a way, some people, by losing their families, became stronger.

Isla had no family. And she was still weak. Alone.

No . . . not alone.

Her necklace. Grim had told her to touch it any time she needed him. He could save her. Her hands were too far—she had no chance of breaking them free. But her chin—maybe she could touch it to the chain . . .

A sound from deep in her throat echoed against the surrounding mountains as she strained, the nerves at the base of her neck crying out in pain. She angled her head the farthest she could, head pounding.

But with the ice Cleo had trailed up her throat, it was not enough.

She collapsed, her head hitting the back of the mountain. She barely processed the ache. Even if somehow she could touch the necklace, Grim couldn’t be out at night, she realized. He couldn’t get to her until morning.

And by morning she would be dead.

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