Chapter no 15 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌LYNX

Nightbane (The Lightlark Saga Book 2)

By the time the volunteers left, the Wildlings had their homes fixed, a steady food supply, new skills, and resources. Isla decided to stay behind for a couple of days, to spend time with her people. She sent Ciel and Avel back to Lightlark, to help in Azul’s search for the rebels. Oro had insisted on staying, not wanting to leave her alone, but she knew he had spent too much time on her already. She told him to trust her, and he did. On the Wildling newland, she felt safe.

She got to know each of the Wildlings in the village and ventured to other settlements close by. Wren took Isla into the forest and taught her a few Wildling wielding techniques, including stances, arm movements, and uses of ability. They spoke for hours.

At the end of one of these lessons, she caught Wren studying her, and said, “What is it?”

Wren shook her head. “It’s just—we always wondered why you never came to see us,” she said. “I know why now, but before . . . we were confused. Your mother is the only other ruler I’ve ever known, and she was always there. Playing in the village. Talking to us. She knew everyone. Everyone loved her.”

Her mother.

“What—what was she like?” Isla asked, her voice small. She felt like a child again, clinging to any mention of her mother. Terra and Poppy almost never spoke about her.

Wren smiled. “She was extraordinary,” she said. “Fearless. Reckless, at times.” Her smile faded. “We grieved her immensely and hoped to know you too. But . . .” She shrugged. “I suppose we did know something must be going on,” she said. “We were curious . . . when you didn’t take a bonded.”

Isla’s brows came together. “Take a what?”

“A bonded,” Wren said. She lifted her arm, and a massive hawk with a stripe of orange on its back came soaring down from the treetops, landing

on her sleeve. The bird blinked at her with its sharp eyes. “Oh, an animal companion,” Isla said.

“A bonded,” Wren repeated. Isla didn’t know why it seemed to be important to Wren, but if taking one showed that Isla was a Wildling, even though she hadn’t had their curse or powers up until recently—

“I’ll take one,” Isla said. “If it’s not too late.” It might be a pain to transport the creature with her everywhere, and she didn’t know how Oro would feel about an animal residing in the Mainland castle, but she would figure that out later. Gaining her people’s trust was more important.

Wren seemed surprised. “You would do the ceremony?”

Isla didn’t know anything about a ceremony, but she said, “Of course.” Wren smiled. “Then I will announce it,” she said. She looked around,

felt a leaf between two fingers, and studied the treetops. “Tonight is a good

night . . . yes, tonight will work.”


Okay. Isla could do tonight. “So . . .” she said. “I can pick anything? An insect”—that would be easier to carry around—“a bird”—could be useful to transport messages—“a . . . butterfly?”

Wren shook her head sharply. “A bonded reflects the disposition of a person. For rulers, it represents their power and strength.”

So, Isla would be expected to bond with a larger animal. Great. That would make things more difficult, but she couldn’t very well back out now.

“And you don’t pick your bonded,” Wren continued. “It’s the other way around.” Her eyes were fierce. “The bonded chooses you.”

. . .

Isla was wading in water up to her knees. The ceremony, it turned out, was far more complicated than she had anticipated. This was a sacred part of the newland, Wren told her, the oldest part, born of seeds and creatures taken straight from Lightlark. It was a swamp, with grass that grew taller than her, water lilies as large as rugs, mud that seeped between her bare toes, and slick creatures that moved below the dark water, smoothing around her ankles.

She was at the very front, a leader who had no idea where she was going. She should have asked more questions, she thought bitterly, though they would have revealed how little she knew about her people and their customs.

She risked a quick look over her shoulder and saw the Wildlings silently wading behind her, faces illuminated by the fireflies they held in their palms. Their bonded were with them, swimming alongside, flying above, or watching from the thin strips of bare land at their sides.

One of them caught her eye, and she whipped back around. Her head was beginning to itch. She scratched just below the crown of flowers her people had made her for the occasion—purple larkspur, in honor of her ancestor, Lark Crown, one of the three original creators of Lightlark. She had spent hours sitting still as her people made bracelets down her arms from the rare varieties of larkspur, its color so concentrated, it stained parts of her skin purple, an honor reserved for a ruler. It was a valiant color. The color of a leader and warrior.

Isla didn’t feel like either as she carefully stepped across the muddy ground, wincing anytime her foot sank too deep or connected with something solid. She was so focused on stepping around a strange clump of rocks that it took her a while to notice the wading behind her had all but quieted.

She turned to see the Wildlings were retreating, the light of their fireflies getting dimmer and dimmer.

Only Wren approached. “This is where we leave you,” she said. Perhaps it was Isla’s eyes widening, but Wren seemed to sense she needed more instruction. Her head dipped low. Her tone was sharp. “You don’t come back until the morning. You don’t come back without a bonded.” Isla swallowed. What if none of the creatures wanted her? Wren handed her a bow and a single arrow.

“What is this for?”

“It’s tradition, for a ruler’s hunt for their bonded. For the rest of us, we simply must catch our animals, to show our worthiness. Rulers must put an arrow through theirs.” Wren’s eyes darted around nervously, and that’s when Isla’s stomach began to sink in earnest. The Wildling looked afraid.

Of what?

“I thought—I thought you said the creature chooses me.”

“It does,” Wren explained. “The creatures out here . . . if you’re able to wound one . . . it’s because it allows you to.”

Isla took the bow and single arrow with trembling fingers. As soon as they were out of her hands, Wren gave a sharp nod, then began to hurry away, toward the others.

She watched them go, her confidence shrinking along with their silhouettes, until she couldn’t see them anymore.

With a shaking breath, she turned around to face the heart of the swamp.

The swamp turned back to forest, though none of it was familiar.

She climbed out of the water and stilled—the trees lining the marsh . . . they were in the shape of people. Their arms made up the main branches, green sprouted from the crowns of their heads, their bodies formed the trunks, and their legs, the exposed roots that went straight into the dark water. They were frozen in strange movements, their faces carved into the wood. Some had mouths stretched far too wide, like they had been screaming.

Isla swallowed and kept moving. Wren had been clear. She couldn’t return without a bonded. It would make her look weak, unworthy of ruling her realm.

The forest was quiet. She walked until she reached a massive tree that had tipped over on its side. Its branches were large enough to be entire pathways, rising into the air, going as far as she could see. They were covered in a thin layer of moss. She jumped, gripping the soft edge with her fingers, then pulled the rest of her body onto the lowest one. With a quick assessment of her surroundings, she followed the path, into the core of the tree.

It was far too silent. Isla had the uncomfortable feeling that there were eyes everywhere, watching her, yet every time she turned around, she was alone.

Alone. No one understood her, not really. Oro tried, he really did, but there were parts of her she would never let him see.

She wondered if a bonded animal would be able to sense every aspect of her—the good and the bad. The potential. The idea of someone or something seeing her for what she could be, instead of what she was . . .

Or maybe the creatures of the forest had already assessed her, and rejected her, just like the vault. It wasn’t enough for her to feel the connection. According to Wren, the animal decided.

For now, it seemed, they had decided against her.

A rustle, and she turned to find herself facing a wolf, covered in moss and greenery instead of fur. Its tail was made of long reeds. Isla raised her arrow. Hope built in her chest. The wolf wasn’t large, but at least it was something.

Before she could let her arrow loose, the wolf was gone.

Her fingers curled painfully around the bow. Slow, she had been too slow. Is that why it had run away?

What if she didn’t see another creature?

Moments later, she realized that wouldn’t be an issue. A spider with legs as tall as trees walked by, its body casting a thick shadow around her. Isla didn’t even raise her weapon. The spider was massive, but she felt no connection to the creature whatsoever.

She just needed to keep going, she told herself. There was a bonded for her here. She just needed to find it.

Her bare feet were soundless against the moss of the branch. Tiny flowers bloomed with her every step, painting the greenery. The occasional bird swooped down to study her, before flying away. She walked down the path as it curved into a forest floor shaded by a massive canopy of treetops. A giant rib cage greeted her, with flowers growing out of its bones—the remains of a creature so large, she couldn’t even imagine what it had looked like alive.

Just then, a stag with branches for horns stepped into her path. It stared at her, tilting its head in wonder.

It was beautiful. Something in her chest thrummed to life as if welcoming the connection. She slowly raised her bow, clicked her arrow into place—

The stag stepped toward her, then froze. Its eyes focused on a place behind her. It shuffled back in fear.

What was—

A deafening roar shook the trees at her sides. Birds flew away, in the opposite direction. Hot breath heated her body as she was covered in spit.

Slowly, arrow still raised, Isla turned around and looked up. And up.

And up.

A giant bear stood on its two feet, with a crown of horns that could skewer her in a moment.

Was this her creature? It would certainly mark her as a strong ruler. Isla released the arrow, trying her chance, but the bear knocked it away with a paw, breaking the wood in two.

Her only arrow, gone.

Isla wasn’t thinking about the fact that she wouldn’t be able to find a bonded now. Panic had taken over. She dropped the bow. The bear roared again, getting close to blowing out her hearing, and Isla realized why Wren had seemed so intent on leaving the swamp.

Venturing to this area of the newland was a risk. Her people were endangering their own lives by letting her complete the ceremony.

This was the first step in them trusting her, she realized. A leap of faith.

They believed she was strong enough to survive it.

So, she would.

The bear was too large, there was no hope in outrunning it. Just as it reached back its clawed hand to rip her to ribbons, she darted between its feet and ran up into the treetops. The bear couldn’t climb; it was too heavy, it would break the branches. That was what she told herself as she climbed as fast as ever, purple rings of flowers down her arms seeming to glow in the dark.

She scurried up, higher and higher, and risked a look behind— Only to see the bear’s horns inches away, as it climbed after her.

Nature. She was in nature. Her heart was beating too wildly to form a connection to the woods the way she had before. She gritted her teeth, trying to focus. Her arm shot out, and she managed to make a few smaller branches fall in the bear’s path, but it did nothing to slow it down.

She needed to break the branches below the bear. That way, it would fall through the treetops. She threw her powers out, but panic had clouded her mind, weakening her hold on her abilities. The branches creaked but did not crack.

The bear growled, and Isla began climbing once more. Heart echoing through her ears, she squinted through the night and saw that the branches

became much thinner farther up the tree. She threw out her power, and one broke. It would have to be one of those, then.

Isla reached for the next branch—and roared as the bear’s horns flayed the back of her calf open.

Her scream echoed through the woods, and she continued to climb, dragging herself up, one of her legs now useless, fighting her way to the top. If she could just make it a little higher. A little—

A crack. The first crack beneath the bear’s weight as they traveled up to the thinner branches. It didn’t seem to notice as its horns broke through the foliage, as it bared its teeth, chomping at the air.

Her leg was on fire; she couldn’t think around the pain. She felt her grip on her powers almost completely slipping. She didn’t have the strength left to break several branches. It would have to be one strategic cut. She stopped climbing and watched the bear get closer. Closer. She took a breath. In. Out. Attempted to focus as much as she could. Narrowed all her energy to one spot, one particularly thin branch, right in the bear’s path. It kept going. It was just feet away. Then inches. She outstretched her hand. Nothing.

Come on.


She felt its breath on her face, saw its tongue in its mouth as it parted its teeth and roared—


Her power split the branch in half, and the bear immediately fell out of view. Cracks sang through the woods as the bear broke everything in its path, and then there was a final thunderous echo as it landed.


Isla panted. Too close. She risked a look down at her leg and tensed. The skin was split and she could see muscle. Blood was smeared across the tree. Other creatures would find her—

Just as she had the thought, two large eyes glowed through the night, in the tree across the way. They were looking at her. She scrambled back on her branch, arm raised, willing any of her power to rise.

The creature stepped out of the shadows, and Isla gasped.

It was a massive black leopard. Standing, she wouldn’t even reach the top of its leg. It had bright-green eyes and teeth the size of her skull.

She looked down at her calf, then at the creature. It had smelled the blood. She was injured, an easy target.

It stalked toward her, head bent low, assessing. It looked ready to lean back on its haunches and strike.

She tried her best to focus on the forest, to form a connection, to beg it to protect her, but the pain in her leg had become a complete distraction.

The leopard should have been too heavy for the branches, but it leaped gracefully until it was right in front of her.

Isla’s entire body shook as it leaned down far too close—and sniffed


She swallowed, hoping for the life of her that she smelled unappetizing.

It opened its mouth, revealing its monstrous fangs. Then, it did something unexpected.

The leopard begrudgingly leaned its head down, as if bowing before her. Isla blinked. Had it . . . had it accepted her?

She didn’t have her arrow . . . the bear had split it into two. She couldn’t

The leopard made what seemed like an annoyed sound as it waited.

What did it want? It leaned down lower, and no . . . it couldn’t . . .

Did it want her to get on its back?

She was bleeding too much; she needed the wound closed soon. She fought to stand, gritting her teeth against the pain, and limped over to the leopard’s side. She tried to climb up its fur, but she kept slipping, her blood getting everywhere. Eventually the leopard seemed to get tired of waiting, because it gripped the back of her shirt with its frightening teeth and flung her over. She landed painfully on its spine and fought for purchase, gripping its dark hair in her fists.

The leopard didn’t give her even a second to get used to it. Before she could test her position, it leaped off the branch.

Her stomach was in her throat, her eyes burned against the air, she was floating off its back—then roughly landing again, her leg roaring in pain.

With a few jumps that made her want to retch, the leopard finally landed on the forest floor. It stalked around, head bent low, as if looking for something. Finally, it paused and tipped over to the side. Isla slipped off its back in the most undignified way imaginable.

Exasperated, the leopard motioned with its head toward something on the ground. Her arrow. Half of it, at least.

It was telling her to complete the ceremony. Somehow, it knew that to claim it, she had to shoot it.

The bow would be useless now. She leaned down, grabbed the broken arrow, and approached the creature.

It watched her warily.

“This is . . . this is going to hurt . . .” she said.

The leopard regarded her in a way that hinted at disdain. Great. Her own bonded didn’t seem to like her.

Then why choose her? Why let her do what she had to do next?

Isla winced before reaching her arm back and putting all of her remaining strength into stabbing the leopard in the leg with the arrow.

It didn’t even move or make a sound. It simply reached down, grabbed Isla by the back of the shirt again, and threw her behind its head.

“Hey!” she said, wincing. “Stop doing that! It—”

Before she finished her sentence, the leopard took off. She yelped and held on tightly, ducking her head down, lest a branch behead her. The leopard raced like lightning, jumping over roots, traversing around trees. The world moved so quickly around her, she buried her face in its surprisingly soft fur, until the leopard finally slowed.

It had brought her to the center of the village. She sat up as the leopard walked down the streets and watched as her people left their homes, staring at her in clear wonder.

It stopped in front of Wren, whose eyes were wide. Her voice was thick with emotion. “I wondered . . .” she said. “I—I didn’t dare hope.”

Isla slid off the leopard’s back and nearly collapsed on the road, her leg covered in fur that had stuck to the blood. She looked from the animal to Wren. “Wondered what?”

“Isla,” Wren said. “Lynx was your mother’s.”

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