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Chapter no 46 – POISON

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

Everything changed in an instant. Now, Isla wasn’t just fighting for herself, or Terra, or her people.

She was fighting for Celeste.

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she left the castle just past dawn. Isla had failed her friend in so many ways—and she had been blind to it until now. Seeing Terra slowly die should have reminded her that her friend would suffer the same fate if they weren’t successful. Instead, she had quickly abandoned the plan they had spent years formulating, partly because it wouldn’t benefit her realm. She hadn’t thought enough about Celeste’s.

She couldn’t fix the past, but she could try to help Celeste now.

Oro claimed that she couldn’t be healed by Moonling ability . . . but perhaps she could be by Wildling remedy.

Soon she was cutting through a path covered by wild grass. Through a forest that seemed determined to mark her skin a thousand times. Crossing a perilous bridge.

Until she saw herself reflected in the barren woods. Against the Place of Mirrors.

She had to open that vault. By any means necessary. There could be ancient Wildling remedies inside, plants that could draw Celeste’s poison out. She hadn’t seen any in the oasis Oro had taken her to so many weeks before, but perhaps they had been locked away here instead.

Isla knew the door wanted her to open it for a reason. Maybe this was it.

She walked steadily to the wall, not willing to leave without figuring out the lock. It was a strange, long shape. First she tried her fingers. Stuck them in painfully, shoving part of her palm inside to fill the gaps. But when she tried to twist her hand, all she did was scream out as her skin got caught in the metal. It took her nearly an hour to free herself, and by that time, she had cuts across her hand, dripping blood.

She did not give up. She searched every room of the enormous palace that had been her home for weeks. There were strange, curved weapons.

Instruments she didn’t know how to play. One, a thin wooden box with holes, she shoved into the lock so forcefully it broke. So, she spent a while trying to get the splinters out, cutting her fingers again in the process.

By noon, she was furious.

Vowing to return, she went back to the castle empty-handed.

Isla had wanted to kill Cleo for a long time. Especially after the assassination attempt at the harbor.

But now . . . seeing Celeste lifeless, floating like a specter, wrapped in webbing . . .

Now she wanted to kill Cleo and take a long time doing it.

Isla was thinking about all the ways she would make the Moonling ruler suffer as she stepped foot onto Moon Isle with Oro by her side.

Two more places, she told herself. Celeste couldn’t play the game anymore. Isla would have to play for both of them—make sure she won and saved her friend’s realm. It was all that mattered now.

Only two more places left to look.

Snow fell with the hurry of rain, soaking into the crown of her head and dripping in streaks down her cheeks. This time she had worn a thick cape over her long-sleeved shirt and pants to shield her from the cold. Still, it didn’t do much, and she didn’t veer far from Oro, who radiated heat like a sun that had slid down from the sky.

Soon they came upon a tower sticking out of a mountain of snow. Oro climbed through its only entrance, a window, and she followed him inside, down, then through a hall, until she realized they weren’t in a tower at all.

They were in a palace.

It was abandoned but still ornate, built completely out of white marble. They had entered from its highest peak—the rest was buried in ice, trapped in the forever winter that was Moon Isle. She followed Oro down floor by floor until they reached the top of a grand staircase.

The wide steps led down to what must have been the main floor once upon a time.

Now it was completely underwater.

Somehow, the furniture remained tethered; everything in the room below looked perfectly in place. Just . . . submerged.

Oro began taking off his clothing.

Isla whirled to face him. “What are you doing?”

He glanced at her. “There are creatures in that water that won’t be easy to face. I don’t need to be weighed down or give them something to choke me with.” His cape was now discarded on the ground. His shirt soon joined it.

Isla stared, though everything in her mind told her not to. Oro looked remarkably like the marble statues on Moon Isle, his chest and arms muscled like a warrior, toned as sharply as a blade.

More than half of him had now been overcome by the bluish gray. He was part gold, part ice sculpture. She studied him, wondering if it hurt to lose one’s powers, to die slowly, inch by inch.

She looked for other reasons too.

Oro stared back at her, surprised. “I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of bodies before,” he said flatly.

Isla bristled. He hadn’t said it meanly, more matter-of-factly, and she supposed she couldn’t blame his assumption. A true Wildling, even a powerless one, would have seen countless naked bodies. They were famed for their romantic conquests.

A fact—nothing more.

Isla swallowed. “Of course I have,” she said a bit too quickly.

Oro raised an eyebrow, sensing her lack of curse wasn’t the only thing that distinguished her from her people.

He took a step forward, still shirtless. Tilted his golden head at her. “Tell me, Wildling . . . how many people have you been with?”

Isla’s face flushed. She barely resisted the urge to slap him. “What kind of question is that?” she demanded. In her realm, love was forbidden. But intimacy was not shied away from. It was celebrated.

He seemed to know it, and his expression became even more surprised. “A curious one.” He shrugged. “I’ve been with many women. It’s not something I deny.”

Isla sneered at him. “Well, that must have been a long time ago, judging by how uptight and insufferable you are.”

The sides of Oro’s mouth twitched. Amused. “That might be so. But you didn’t answer my question.”

“And I won’t,” she said, glaring at him. He grinned. Was he laughing at her?

For some reason, she was compelled to prove him wrong. To wipe the smirk off his wretched face. Without breaking Oro’s gaze, she unbuttoned her cape and let it fall to the floor. She slipped off her oversize shirt and pants until she was only in the clothes she wore beneath, over her underclothes. A tiny tank top that reached just above her navel and a pair of high-waisted, tight shorts that ended high on her thigh.

She wasn’t in her underwear, but only wearing scraps of fabric, she felt bare in front of him.

Oro stood very still.

She shrugged, trying her best to look carefree. “It’s just skin,” she said, her voice slightly breathless.

“Just skin,” he repeated, his mouth barely moving.

She walked past him, down the steps of the stairs. Until her feet splashed. Until the water reached her knees. She heard him slip off his pants, then socks, then shoes. She shivered, the cold biting every inch of exposed skin.

A moment later he was by her side, just in undershorts. This time, she looked away. A bit reluctantly.

“Water lilies grow here,” he said, not looking at her either. “The ones you pointed out in the mountain.” Isla remembered that day, which seemed realms away. “You said something like the heart might attach to their roots, correct?”

He glanced at her, and she simply nodded.

“These waters house ancient, vicious creatures,” he said. “Be on guard.” The water rippled as he dived into it. Isla took a deep breath and followed him. He swam quickly, out of the main hall and into the corridor. She stayed near the stairs. The ceiling was fifty feet tall, and she was at the top of it, diving down toward a room that looked nearly perfect except for a painting that had slices through it, ribbons of what had been a landscape

curling in the water.

Her gaze traced the edges of the floor, beneath the furniture. No sign of any plant. She turned, to try a different room, and almost swallowed a mouthful of water in shock.

A face, lovely and vicious as a nightmare, floated before her.

Half of the girl’s face was scaled; half of her hair had the transparent silkiness of a koi fish’s tail. Her arms and legs were scaled too, creating the

effect of submerged silk around her limbs.

Mesmerizing.

Isla squinted. Her mind had suddenly become just as murky as the water. She was there for something . . . but she couldn’t quite remember what that was.

The girl smiled and reached out a scale-covered hand with nails sharp as knives. To help, Isla realized.

She didn’t know why . . . but she took it.

And the girl led her deep below. Through a bedroom, into a hall. Isla saw the water lilies then, sunken, their roots like braids that went down for yards. Something about them seemed important, but she didn’t know what.

Luckily, she had the girl to lead her. Lead her where, though? she wondered.

Something drummed in her ears, an echoing or roaring, as her chest contracted. The pain was muted, as far away as the surface. But the beating continued. Beating like . . .

The heart. That was what they were there for, Isla remembered now. She stopped following, and the girl whipped around. Pulled at her arm.

Isla shook her head, the movement making her dizzy. Her eyes had started to close. She needed something . . . air, maybe.

The girl was insistent. She yanked her arm, yanking Isla along. Something wasn’t right. Isla slipped out of the girl’s grip.

The creature didn’t like that. She whirled around and sliced across Isla’s middle with her razor-sharp nails.

Clouds of crimson stained the water like blotches of ink.

Isla began swimming out of the room again, not knowing anything, but knowing she needed to get away. She made it through the door, back through the bedroom, until she could see the stairs. But the steps were too far, and her legs had gone stiff.

She wasn’t here alone though, she realized, the fog in her mind thinning. She could call to him—

Something pulled her foot so sharply she gasped, swallowing water, and sank again.

It was fire in her throat, burning her lungs, the salt water straight from the sea. She jerked, her organs pleading for air, for relief, just as she turned to look at her feet, at the girl who had claimed her once more.

She grabbed the dagger she had hidden in the middle of her chest, tucked in the wiring of her bra—dropped it. Her free foot caught the blade with her toes.

And she stabbed the dark figure right in the eye. It hissed, disappearing far below in a flash.

She was at the top of the stone stairs in an instant, coughing up the water from her lungs.

In the air, her head cleared completely.

What happened? she wondered. Why had she followed the girl like a fool?

“That was a night creature,” Oro said somewhere close by. His voice was tight. “They can invade your mind. Shut it down completely.”

He knelt beside her, and she wondered why until she screamed out, her pain rushing at her in full force. There was a long gash along her side where the girl had cut her.

Oro made a gentle, calming sound that seemed totally at odds with his hulking presence. He towered over her even on his knees.

She shivered on the cold stone floor, and he placed a hand against her bare stomach. At once, heat flooded her core, followed by a sting—he was healing her. Oro made the calming sound once more when she flinched, and Isla looked at him, really looked at him, grimacing as her skin knitted itself back together. He stared back.

Something about his proximity, maybe, or his hands on her—or the blood she had lost, more likely—made her feel a little dizzy.

Isla groaned again, the healing like electricity against her skin. He flinched as her hand came over his own, both pressed against her wound. It was hot as a coal beneath her fingers, and enormous, spanning almost fully across her stomach. Before long, it moved.

She watched his knuckles trail down her ribs, healing the very edges of the wound.

“Finished,” he said, just as Isla braced herself for another sting.

Isla blinked at him. She had been panting, the salt in her wound like flames against her skin. Now, her breathing settled.

Oro slowly removed his hands from her bare skin. As soon as he did, she shivered, the cold rushing back.

At that, he touched her again, this time against her knee.

She straightened, willing her strange thoughts away, remembering why they were in the wretched palace in the first place. “Did you find it?” she asked, eyes wide. Desperate.

Oro’s gaze darkened. “No,” he said. “It wasn’t there.”

She closed her eyes, disappointment hurting almost as much as her wound had. She was Celeste’s and her people’s only hope. She couldn’t fail, not again. When she opened them, she forced herself to look more confident than she felt. “It can only be in one place, then, right?”

“Yes. But that place is one I had hoped to avoid.” “Why?”

“It’s right at the center of Vinderland territory,” he said. Her face scrunched in confusion.

“The group that tried to kill you.”

Oh.

“Who were they?” she asked. She hadn’t seen them, but their voices . . . what they had wanted to do to her . . .

Oro blinked. “I thought you knew.”

Knew what?

“They were Wildlings.”

What? Her face twisted. “There aren’t any left on the island, and they were men—”

“There aren’t any left. They were Wildlings. Their group left your realm long before even the curses. They had already renounced their power, so their kind wasn’t affected.”

So, they ate hearts and flesh out of desire . . . not because of a curse.

She shuddered. There was so much about the Wildlings she didn’t know.

Why had the group left their realm in the first place?

“I can go alone,” Oro said. Unlike every time he had said similar words before, there was no mean edge to his voice. “If you would prefer not to take the risk.”

But she had made it this far. If she was going to win, if she was going to save the people she loved most, she needed to be there when they found the heart. “I’m coming,” she said.

That same night, Oro took her to a place she never would have expected to be invited to—the castle’s ancient store of weaponry. She grabbed too

many things—arrows, bows, knives, throwing stars, swords. Celeste and Terra were on her mind—the strongest people she knew.

She left the vault ready for the next day.

Ready to take on the former Wildlings who had almost picked her apart.

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