Chapter no 26 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌BEFORE

Nightbane (The Lightlark Saga Book 2)

She was doing it. She was really going to work with . . . him. The Nightshade appeared in the corner of her room, as if emerging from her thoughts, shadow melting into a ruler dressed all in black.

He didn’t say a word. He just looked at her, frowning, as though he found every part of her disappointing.

Isla glared at him. “You do know you asked to work with me,” she said.

Grim frowned even more. She hadn’t known a frown of that magnitude was even possible. “I am aware,” he said curtly.

With about as much revulsion as possible, he outstretched his hand. It was gloved this time, as if he couldn’t bear having his skin touch hers.

He hated her. She didn’t really understand why. Was it because she was Wildling? Was it because she had seriously injured him during their first meeting?

It didn’t matter. She had been raised to hate him too. Nightshades were villains. Theirs was the only realm that drew power from darkness. Their abilities were mysterious, intrusive, vile. They had the power to spin curses. Most people thought he was responsible for them.

She reminded herself that working with him meant he wouldn’t become her enemy during the Centennial. He could be the only reason she actually survived it.

“Wait,” she said. “If my guardians come in and see I’m gone—” They usually granted her privacy after training, but it wasn’t night yet. They could very well check in on her while she was away.

“I’m going to set an illusion in your room.”

Oh. She supposed he had thought of nearly everything. So why did he need her? It didn’t make any sense.

“Great. Let’s get this over with,” she said, taking his hand. Before the final word left her mouth, they were gone.

They landed on the edge of a cliffside made up of lustrous black rocks, crudely puzzled together. Ocean crashed hundreds of feet high, so close she could smell the sea spray. Rain instantly flattened her hair against her face in wild strands. It soaked her to the bone. She shivered immediately.

Isla heard the unforgiving sound of iron banging against iron, far above.

They were on a ledge.

“Where are we?” she asked, gasping through the wind and cold. She wasn’t sure where she was expecting Grim to take her first on their search, but it wasn’t here.

“Before we look for the sword, I need to pay a little visit to its creator,” he said simply. “The blacksmith.”

From Grim’s mouth the title sounded ancient.

“We’ll have to climb the rest of the way to his forge,” Grim said before stepping in front of her, toward the next wall of dark rocks. He didn’t offer an explanation. Could he not use his abilities close by? Did he not want the blacksmith to sense him coming? With one gloved hand on the rocks, he suddenly turned as if in afterthought and said, “Don’t let the rocks cut you.”

Grim started up the wall. She reluctantly followed.

The rocks were slippery in the rain. Isla grabbed one and had to strain the muscles in her fingers just to hold on. By the time she moved a few feet, she looked up to see that Grim was already almost halfway up. Demon. He would leave her if she wasn’t quick enough.

She squinted through the rain as she fought to grasp the next rock. The next. Her shoes were made with special bark at the bottom that had a good grip, at least. She climbed higher. Higher.

While she moved her feet into their next positions, her fingers suddenly slipped, and her heart seemed lodged in her throat in the slice of a second it took to find another hold. She grabbed it desperately, without caring about the sharp corners.

Blood seeped down her hand, warm against the freezing rain. So much for not cutting herself. The rocks were sharp as knives. She risked a quick look down and swallowed. From this height, scraping against them would disembowel her before the fall would kill her.

Her gaze traveled up. And up. She was less than halfway done. There was no way she could make it, not without slipping again.

Isla closed her eyes. Her mind was running wild with fear and a thousand stressful scenarios that hadn’t happened yet, so she focused on her breathing. This was unfamiliar terrain, but she had climbed her entire life. Terra would have told her that any climb could be broken into smaller steps. She started up again, concentrating only on the path right in front of her. And breathing.

She inched up the rock face, fingers carefully dodging the sharpest points of the stones. They were each long and narrow, a thousand giant crystals crushed together to form a wall. Her hand screamed in pain, and red kept streaming, even after the rain cleaned it, again and again. She would need to use her Wildling healing elixir when she returned to her room.

Almost there.

Before she could reach for the final few rocks, strong arms pulled her up the rest of the way, careful not to drag her against the cliffside. Then she was unceremoniously discarded on the ground. Mud squelched below her. She imagined she was now caked in it.

She glared at Grim, hovering above. His dark hair was plastered down his forehead, over his eyes, down half of the bridge of his nose. Even without his armor, he looked terrifying. She thought about the rumor that he had killed thousands with his blade, and the fact that this might have been their last sight. A towering shadow. “You are an exceptionally slow climber,” he said. “I should have left you behind.”

He turned on his heel and continued the rest of the way.

Isla muttered words that Poppy and Terra certainly didn’t know she used as she followed him.

The banging of steel now rang through the rain, so loud, Isla winced as they got closer. Thunder rumbled above as if warring with the sound. The very ground seemed to tremble.

They climbed at a sharp incline, until finally, at the top of the hill, a structure came into view. Grim paused, his black cape whipping wildly in the wind.

The blacksmith’s house was no more than a shed. It was made of the same stone that had cut her hand, and she could only imagine the type of tools necessary to be able to not just forage those rocks . . . but build from them.

The door was open, and flashes of red flickered through the entrance.

Sparks from the molten-hot flames. Abruptly, the banging stopped.

Grim slowly turned to face her. His eyes found her hand, still dripping in blood. “You fool,” he muttered. “He will try to kill you.”

Then Grim vanished.

Isla was alone. She looked down at her hand. It had already dripped a small puddle of blood below her. Could the blacksmith sense blood?

Was he a creature?

Her eyes searched through the rain, but she couldn’t see anything. There was only one thought in her mind, carved from basic instinct and training.


She took off down the side of the hill, into a forest. She didn’t know if nature was dangerous everywhere, but she would rather take the risk of the woods hurting her over a blacksmith who sensed blood.

Her heart drummed in her ears as she fought her way through the thicket. The branches cut through her clothes. She used her arms as shields, barreling her way through.

She felt the moment the creature entered the woods. All her senses seemed to heighten in warning. The forest itself seemed to still. Chills swept down her spine. It was as if her body knew there was a predator. And she was being hunted.

There was the crack of splitting bark as an arrow lodged itself an inch to her right, into the tree at her side. It was metal tipped. It would have gone right through her neck, with better aim. She gasped and took off again.

Another arrow whizzed by, and Isla didn’t even bother to look where it went. She just ran and ran, crashing through branches and jumping over snaking vines.

The forest dipped low, and she lost her footing.

Suddenly, she was falling. She screamed out as her shoulder crunched painfully, her elbow scraped against a rock, her leg moved in an awkward direction. Her body tumbled quickly, only stopping when she hit a tree.

Then, silence as the world stilled and her pain caught up with her. She screamed soundlessly against the back of her hand. Dirt and mud caked her

every inch. Her shoulder—something was wrong with it. Her entire body felt like a bruise.

Get up, that instinct in her mind said. It was too late.

Footsteps sounded close by. Heavy steps that she heard even through the rain. Isla didn’t dare move a muscle as the predator inched closer. Closer.

He stopped right in front of her.

The blacksmith leaned down, crouched to look upon the heap that was her broken body.

That was when she struck. She gripped the dagger she always kept on her and stabbed the blacksmith right through the eye.

He roared, and Isla scrambled to her feet. It took one step to realize something had happened to her ankle. She couldn’t move—

She had to move.

Isla spotted a fence and limped forward. It was high. The gate was open. If she could just get through, maybe she could get it closed. Maybe she could figure out a plan.

She could hear the blacksmith getting up. He roared words into the rain that she didn’t understand. She didn’t dare turn around.

The whistle of an arrow, and she ducked low. It skimmed right above her head. She leaped to the side—her shoulder and ankle screaming in pain

—behind a tree, and another arrow flew past.

She ran the last few steps, dragging her foot behind her, until she was past the fence. Her shaking hands hauled the gate closed and she collapsed against it.

Her teeth gritted against the pain. She closed her eyes as her body trembled against the gate. Hopefully it would hold. Her hands ran down its strange pattern. It was so smooth. Made of mismatched parts. So—

She opened her eyes. Looked behind her at the gate. And found that the entire fence was made of melded skulls and bones.

A yelp escaped her throat, and she scrambled back on the muddy ground, her fingers sinking into it. Her back crashed into something solid, and she screamed again.

Just then, the entire gate ripped off its hinges.

The blacksmith stood there, her dagger still lodged through his eye.

He was the most muscular man Isla had ever seen. His arms were enormous. He was holding a massive hammer that looked like it would go right through her body if she was hit with it. He had long, flowing black hair. Skin the pallor of a corpse.

Isla scrambled back against the other wall she had hit, a scream lodged in her throat.

The wall spoke. It sounded bored. “You can’t have her, Baron. At least

. . . not yet.” She looked up and saw Grim frowning down at her. Not a wall. She had crashed into his legs. He raised an eyebrow. “I told you not to cut yourself, Hearteater.”

The overwhelming urge to put a dagger through his eye filled her, but she couldn’t stand again if she tried.

The blacksmith—Baron—hissed and returned the hammer to a holster on his back. “Ruler,” he said, bending onto a knee. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Black diamond hilt. Twin blades. You know the sword.”

The blacksmith smiled proudly. Isla wondered if he was ever going to take the blade out of his eye. “I do. A very special weapon indeed. Among my best work.”

Grim motioned toward her. “You’ve sensed her blood. Can she help me find it?”

The blacksmith pursed his lips. Considered. “She can.”

This was why he needed her. Isla was trembling on the ground, but she found her voice long enough to say, “Why can’t he find it himself?” She wondered if the blacksmith would answer her after she stabbed him in the face. Or if Grim would even allow him to.

The blacksmith met her gaze with his now single eye, and a shiver snaked down her spine. After a moment, he said, “The sword was cursed so no Nightshade ruler can claim it. If the sword so much as senses his ability, it will disappear.”

So Grim couldn’t use his powers to find it. This was why he needed her

. . . though that didn’t make sense.

Why not force one of his people to search for it? Why choose one of his rivals in the Centennial?

Before she could ask anything else, Grim said, “Do you know where it is?”

“Decades ago, I heard it had been stolen from a Skyling market. I sensed it return here, to Nightshade. Since then, nothing.” He frowned. “I can’t feel it anymore. Wherever it is . . . it’s slumbering.”

“Is there anything else we should know?”

The blacksmith opened his mouth again. His eyes darted to Isla. Then he closed his mouth. “Nothing else,” he said.

“Good. Now, return the dagger. We’ll be going.”

The blacksmith roughly pulled Isla’s weapon from his eye. What was left . . . Isla looked away to keep from retching.

He bent low to return it to her. Isla reached out with shaking fingers.

Dark blood coated her blade. The rain only partially washed it away.

Before he handed it back, the blacksmith said, “You weren’t supposed to be able to do that.”

Then he walked back up through the forest to his forge, and Isla was left with burning questions.

And anger.

She turned on the ground to face Grim. “You demon. You almost got me killed. You—”

He rolled his eyes. “I was there. You were never in any danger.”

Isla’s entire body shook with her fury. “Never in any danger? My ankle

—something is wrong with it. And my shoulder.” She shook her head. “Why? Why let him hunt me?”

Grim shrugged. “I wanted to see how you would fare without me. Call it curiosity.”

“Curiosity? Curiosity?” She attempted to stand, dagger gripped tightly in her hand, but her ankle rolled, and she nearly fell over.

Grim caught her beneath the arms. She tried to shake herself away, but it was no use. His grip was hard as marble.

“Why didn’t you use your Wildling powers in the forest?” he asked.

The lie came easily. “You didn’t portal directly to the house. You didn’t use your own powers. I figured . . . there was a reason.”

He just stared down at her.

She tried to move away again, then grimaced as pain shot down her shoulder. Grim held her still. He frowned. “It’s out of its socket. I have to right it.” Grim twisted her around, so her back was to him. He leaned down and said, “This will hurt.”

Before she could object, his hands twisted, and she screamed so loudly, it hurt her own ears.

“Done,” he said. “Now, there’s nothing I can do about that ankle.” “Just—just portal me to my room,” she said. The Wildling healing elixir

would take care of the swelling, but it would be weeks before she walked

the same again. She would have to come up with an excuse for Terra and Poppy. Pretend she had sprained it in training, or something else.

Her teeth gritted against the pain that roared again with their landing. She looked down at herself. She was a mess. Covered in dirt and mud. She would need about a thousand baths, and a quarter vial of healing elixir.

Tears stung as she closed her eyes. Was this what it would be like working with the Nightshade demon? Getting hurt? Running for her life from an ancient being for curiosity’s sake?

She opened her eyes again and was surprised to see the Nightshade was still in the center of her room, leaking darkness everywhere.

“Can you not do that?” she snapped, watching the shadows uncurl, spreading themselves all over her stuff, only to return and repeat the process.

The shadows twitched, as if they had heard her and were offended.

Stupid. A shadow can’t have its feelings hurt.

Grim looked appalled. “You do not give me orders, witch.”

She glared at him. “I thought I was Hearteater,” she said, in about the most syrupy tone she could manage.

He glared back.

This was her chance to get answers. “Why did he have so many bones?” “The blacksmith kills people with unique abilities and makes weapons from their blood and bones. He senses blood close by and kills anyone he can find, on the off chance they are useful.” So why had he seemed

desperate to have her blood?

Isla swallowed. She could have very well joined the fence of bones and skulls. Her people would have fallen. The blacksmith was ancient. He’d seemed surprised that she was able to harm him. She had never been more grateful to have her dagger.

“So you can’t use your abilities during our search. You will have to be powerless.”

Grim said nothing.

Why was Grim the one looking for this sword? Not using his powers seemed like a massive inconvenience. Didn’t he have people for that? Didn’t he have far better things to do? She asked all these questions, in quick succession, and Grim’s annoyance grew.

“You talk too much,” he growled, and, for some reason, that stung.

Isla’s chest felt as if someone were sitting on it. “I don’t usually have people to talk to,” she murmured.

His tone didn’t get any gentler as he said, “This is too important for me to tell anyone in my court. I can’t risk sending someone else or trusting them with any of my information.” He hesitated before saying, “I’ve been betrayed in the search for the sword before.”

Someone betrayed him? Why? Would he betray her?

Isla turned to him, an eyebrow raised. “But you trust me?”

“Absolutely not.” He took a step toward her. Another. “If you have any desire at all to survive the Centennial, you will not tell anyone in your court either.”

Her court. She didn’t even know what that was. Celeste didn’t have a court, just her string of guardians who died every few years and were replaced, an endless cycle. Terra and Poppy were the only people Isla saw regularly.

As if she would ever tell any of them. They would all call her a fool for working with the Nightshade. They would ensure she could never leave her room again until the Centennial.

“What about the blacksmith? He knows we’re looking for it.” Grim shook his head gruffly. “He won’t remember.”

She tilted her head at him. “Why?”

“Few people are foolish enough to visit him in the first place. But, in an abundance of caution, I took his memories away.”

Isla blinked. “That’s something . . . you can do?”

He nodded, as if it were not the cruelest power in the world. “It’s . . . permanent?”

“If I want it to be.”

She shivered. There were still so many unanswered questions. If he needed the sword so badly, why didn’t he look for it before? Why now? What had changed?

Isla wondered if she should back out. Grim was clearly using her. Now she wasn’t even sure if what he had promised was worth the risk.

She and Celeste had a plan for the Centennial. She hadn’t managed to find the skin gloves, but there was still time. Almost a year.

Isla looked around her room. The glass cage. Grim was insufferable, but the search for the sword promised something she had longed for since she was a child. Freedom. Escape, for just a while.

“So . . .” she said, wondering if she was making a huge mistake. The blacksmith had said the sword was stolen and last sensed on Grim’s territory. “Who are the best thieves on Nightshade?”

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