Chapter no 18 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌BEFORE

Nightbane (The Lightlark Saga Book 2)

Isla was a fool.

That was what her own mind told herself, anyway, repeatedly, its favorite lullaby. Terra might have judged her harshly, but Isla was her own worst critic.

She was trying to be nicer to herself lately, so she might have convinced herself she was not a fool if she wasn’t objectively doing something astronomically foolish.

Her puddle of stars rippled before her, a slice of midnight. Her guardians were away for the day, visiting a local village. This was her chance. Before she could stop herself, she threw herself through, right into the Nightshade ruler’s room.

It was just how she remembered it.

Black marble floors. High, vaulted ceilings. A bed with simple black sheets.

Only one thing was missing: the towering ruler who had pressed her against that very wall, and—

She shook the thought away and gripped the vial in her hand. She was here for a very specific, very stupid reason. A few days prior, the Nightshade had appeared in her room and tricked her into revealing her portaling device. Before he could take it from her, she had cried and begged him to let her keep it. It hadn’t been one of her proudest moments.

Grim had called it his, and after witnessing his portaling power, she could only conclude that he must have enchanted it. Objects could be infused with power, she knew. It had a cost, though, shortened life, depending on how much ability was given.

Why had Grim made a portaling device? And how had it ended up in her room?

In the end—shocking her and likely him—he had disappeared, without taking it . . . which made her feel inexplicably guilty about having stabbed

him in the chest. She didn’t like to be in someone’s debt, so she had brought something for him, as a peace offering.

So where was he?

Isla stood in the center of his room for half an hour, pulse racing, expecting to find a blade against her throat at any moment. Every minute that passed convinced her more how foolish this errand was. The starstick was hers now, but somehow she had convinced herself that him not stealing it from her was something to be thankful for.

Stupid. The more she thought about it, the more ridiculous it seemed. She was just about to form her puddle of stars and retreat to her room when she heard his voice.

It was joined by another. A man. She could barely make out their words.

They were discussing some sort of strategy.

And both were getting closer. Closer.

Her starstick was lifeless in her lap. Of course it was. Of course. No time to try to coax it into working. She had to hide.

There was barely any furniture in the room. No desk to duck beneath.

The bed didn’t have enough room under it.

But there was another door. She threw herself through it just as the men entered the room.

A bathroom. All black as well, though here the black marble floor was threaded through with silver veins. A massive onyx tub sat at the center. Its spout was located on the ceiling, twenty feet above. Under normal circumstances, Isla might have marveled at it—it truly was a beautiful concept, a stream of water falling from such a height into a tub, like a miniature waterfall—but right now, it was her hiding place. She tucked herself into the basin and brandished the starstick.

It was dead in her hands. Something about this place must make it difficult to use, she thought, which she probably should have considered before portaling herself here.

“Stupid,” she called herself as she willed the starstick to glow again. “Not you,” she whispered. “You’re brilliant.” The enchantment still didn’t light up. “Unless, of course, you don’t work—then you’re stupid too.”

The starstick was still dim when the bathroom door suddenly creaked open.

Isla didn’t dare take a breath. She closed her eyes tightly. Listened.

Leave, please leave . . .

The opposite of leaving. The sound of something light hitting the floor.

A pause.

One step. Another.

Then, the stab of something sharp right through her chest— Isla screamed.

Her dress was soaked through. But not with blood. She had been pierced by the cascade of water.

The stream abruptly shut off, and Isla sat up, only to come face-to-face with a ruler with a horrified expression on his face.

“Have you lost your mind?” he asked, the words sharp and filled with malice. He was shirtless.

Isla quickly looked away. She held something out toward him, palm open. “I—I came to give you something. As a thank-you—” No, she had already decided she didn’t need to thank him for not taking the thing she held most dear away from her. “—I mean, a peace offering. Here.”

She threw it in his general direction, and the only indication that he had caught it was the fact that no glass shattered against the smooth floor. After a few moments of silence, she dared look back at him. He was frowning down at the vial, which looked laughably small in his hand.

The elixir was something the Wildlings had been developing. The bud of a certain rare flower, when extracted correctly, produced an elixir that healed all wounds. There were only two problems. The first was that each flower produced only a tiny amount of useful nectar. The other was that the serum did nothing to remove pain.

“It’s a healing ointment. For—” She motioned toward his chest and winced. “For that.” Silence. He looked like a sculpture she had seen in a Wildling garden, perfect and almost scarless except for that massive cut right next to his heart. It was clear he had a Moonling treating him, or that would have been impossible. So, why hadn’t he fully treated this one yet? “For the scar,” she clarified, thinking he must be confused. “Listen. I didn’t mean to portal here before; it was a mistake. I didn’t plan on stabbing you. It was just—an instinct?” She spoke too quickly, trying to get the words out. “I came to offer peace. We don’t need to be enemies.”

I don’t need you as an enemy was what she didn’t say. The Centennial will be hard enough for me as it is.

The Nightshade didn’t say a word as he dropped the vial into the sink.

She winced as the glass shattered.

Then he said, “Get out.”

The venom that filled his voice . . . He was disgusted by her. So disgusted, he had refused her gift. No, he had ruined it.

This was her fault. She was a fool to have wasted it on him.

She wanted to follow his command, get out and never come back. But, as insufferable as he was, she needed him to agree to peace. She didn’t want to live looking over her shoulder, waiting for the Nightshade to exact revenge. “What do you want, then?” she asked. “What can I give you?”

He paused. He was already halfway to the door, and she watched the muscles in his back tense. Without turning around, he said, “You are incapable of giving me anything of value.”

His words were like a slap to the face, because they were true. She was a powerless ruler of a steadily dying realm. But he didn’t know that.

“Then let’s settle it with a duel,” she said, the words tumbling out of her before she could stop them. “If I win, all ill will between us is forgotten. We can begin anew at the Centennial.”

That made him turn around. He was glaring at her. “Only a fool would believe they could best me in a duel.” He looked her up and down, his distaste only deepening.

She glared back at him, even as her confidence wavered. He was right. Why did she suggest this? It seemed impossible to beat him, but now, she had to try. “Wildlings are warriors, just like you.”

His lip curled with humor. “No, Hearteater,” he spat. “Not just like me.” He picked up his shirt from the floor and slipped it back on. “Fine. When I win, you will never return here again. I’ve tired of you.”

Demon. An easy promise to make. She slowly climbed out of the tub, and walked with as much dignity as she could muster in a wet dress, until she was right in front of him. He roughly took her hand. His hands were freezing. Enormous.

“My swords are in my room,” she said.

A moment later, she was back in the Wildling newland.

Impossible. He really did have the power of her starstick. That was how he had appeared so easily in her Wildling palace, twice now.

“How—” she said, but he was dropping her hand like her touch was poison.

“I have more important matters to attend to,” he bit out.

She didn’t need to be told to hurry. Isla reached for her favorite sword. “Let’s go into the forest,” she said. It was still day. She estimated they

had about an hour of sunlight left until the Nightshade had to be indoors


He walked steadily toward the glass wall, toward the woods—then walked through it. Another rare Nightshade ability she had heard about but that seemed impossible until she had seen it with her own eyes.

What would she do with a power like that? She would never be trapped in her room again. She wouldn’t need to sneak through the very inconvenient and nearly too-small window like she did now, on her stomach, the bottom of her still-wet dress catching and ripping on the way out.

Grim stared down at her, unimpressed, then walked into the forest like it wasn’t a mess of vines and roots that could suffocate him if they wished.

With every step the Nightshade took, the shadows in the woods seemed to lengthen toward him.

If Isla had Wildling power, would the plants reach toward her the way the shadows did for him? Did he notice that they didn’t?

Grim whipped around and struck.

He would have sliced her right across the middle if she hadn’t practiced every day for nearly two decades for the Centennial. It was one of the few times she was let out of her quarters and permitted to enjoy the castle grounds. She had thrown herself into it, relishing the way her body moved more and more deftly at her command.

Instinct made her own sword—her favorite, a blade half the size of the one the Nightshade was using—meet his own.

A clash, another, and the Nightshade advanced so forcibly, Isla wondered if he was trying to ensure she would never bother him again, not by winning the duel but by killing her. She was forced to retreat farther into the forest. Only knowing the maze of this slice of the forest kept her from tripping over vines. This was where she and Terra trained, almost every day. The forest might not listen to her, but she knew its every detail.

Grim frowned as he followed her. “This is a duel, not a scenic stroll,” he said.

Isla tried her best to stand her ground. At the force of his next hit, she dug her heels into the dirt instead of retreating. She felt the strength of his blow in her teeth.

Maybe she wasn’t as good at swordplay as she thought. What was she thinking, suggesting a duel?

He’d had five hundred years and active experience in battle to perfect his fighting. Where Isla had to think about each move, his every advance seemed mindless, simple, natural. She gritted her teeth, but he was expressionless, like this wasn’t taking even a scrap of his energy.

Her skill was nothing.

A sharp sting across her arm—she’d been cut. She didn’t dare look down at it; she couldn’t afford even half a second of distraction.

You need to win, the voice in her mind said. Grim is too strong to be an enemy at the Centennial. Or an enemy at all, really.

But winning seemed impossible. No—not impossible.

She knew the forest. That was her advantage.

Isla’s mouth twitched. This forest was dangerous. And Grim was about to find out how.

“You look far too confident for someone with such a lack of skill,” he said.

And he looked far too smug for someone who was about to be flat on his back, Isla thought.

Renewed with determination, she matched each of his blows, again, again, again, their swords clashing together like lovers, the sound of metal against metal echoing through the forest. The Nightshade didn’t even seem to notice that they were moving in a specific direction. He didn’t even look at the ground until it was too late.

Isla swept around a tree, inviting him to lurch forward in attack— Straight into a slice of bog sand.

It decorated this forest in patches, strong enough to trap animals in its clutches.

And, apparently, surly Nightshade rulers.

Once he was in it to his ankles, Grim couldn’t move his legs. He made to move, then startled, staring down at his feet and still annoyingly blocking her advances. He wasn’t even looking! When he realized he would no longer be able to move his feet while they dueled, he bared his teeth at her.

“You know I could portal out of this,” he said. “If I believed it would in any way impact my chances of winning.”

“I believe that would be considered cheating.”

Grim gave her an incredulous look. “And trapping me in this vile substance isn’t?”

Angry, he swung his blade harder than ever, and she met him stroke for stroke, her feet just inches away from the bog sand’s clutches. The tree hunched above them was trimmed of some of its leaves as their blades clashed at an impossible speed. Isla was afraid to blink lest she miss one of his blows, and by the set of his eyes, Grim almost looked . . . impressed that she could keep up.

Then, without warning, he reached his other hand between their blades, grabbed her by the front of the shirt, fell back, and pulled her atop him.

She would have been skewered on his sword if he hadn’t been holding her up with a firm hand against her chest. His blade’s tip was positioned right against her heart.

He had won.

“I don’t ever want to see you in my lands again,” he said.

Then, he vanished, leaving Isla to fall face-first into the bog sand.

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