Chapter no 28 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌BEFORE

Nightbane (The Lightlark Saga Book 2)

Poppy and Terra had sealed the loose pane in her room. She’d had to tell them about it in an elaborate story to explain her sprained ankle. For hours, Terra had screamed at her about how foolish she was.

Poppy wrapped her ankle in medicinal bark, and as punishment, Terra trained her harder in ways that didn’t require putting weight on her legs. It took ten days for her to walk close to normally again. She wondered if Grim would look for the sword without her, but he waited until she was almost fully healed.

He didn’t do it out of the kindness of his heart, she knew. It was because he needed her. She was integral to his search. She just needed to figure out how she fit into his plan.

Grim appeared in her room. He had a hold on his powers. The shadows that typically leaked from his feet were gone. His crown and cape were missing. He might not have worn his emblems as a ruler, but he was still unmistakably terrifying.

The blacksmith had told them the sword had been stolen, and, according to Grim, there was a notorious thieving group on his lands. They had a base on the other side of Nightshade. He wordlessly took her arm.

They portaled to the edge of a fishing town. The air was thick with salt and rotten catch. The streets were empty. Every curtain was closed. Of course, it was night—

Isla tensed. Panic gripped her chest.

Your curse,” she said, words sputtering out of her. She pointed at the moon, like a fool, then, at him. “You can’t—”

Grim wore a bored expression. “Go outside at night?” She nodded.

“That won’t be a problem.” Then he turned back around.

Not a problem? “Even you are not powerful enough to escape the curses.”

He sighed in clear irritation that she kept insisting on speaking to him. “No,” he admitted. “But someone else was, and they made me this.” He clutched at something below the collar of his shirt, some sort of charm, then instantly turned his attention away from her.

That didn’t satiate her curiosity or confusion at all. How was it possible that a simple strand allowed Grim to be immune from his curse? It didn’t make any sense. It should be impossible—

“While I am flattered by your concern about my well-being,” he said, in about the most pompous tone possible, “focus on finding the sword. Not me.”

She shut her mouth but wondered about the charm. Why didn’t he make one for every Nightshade? Was it rare? Did he want his people to stay cursed?

A small boat with paddles floated at the docks, waiting for them. Grim couldn’t portal them to the thieves, lest the sword be there and sense his power. Isla had asked if she could use her starstick, and he had said no.

She tried to grab one of the paddles, but he snatched it out of her hand. She sat behind him, watching his back as the muscles rolled. The sight should have disgusted her.

She wished it disgusted her.

It was miles to the isle. His paddling never weakened.

“It’s surprising,” she said, staring at him. The ocean was dark as ink around them. The moon was a paltry crescent.

She thought he was going to ignore her, but after a few minutes, he said in an annoyed voice, “What, pray tell, is so surprising?”

He was facing the opposite direction. She couldn’t see his expression, and perhaps that made her bold. “Your flair is portaling. You can go anywhere without lifting a finger. Yet . . . you climb quickly. You can paddle well. You are . . . muscled.”

“Ogling my body, Hearteater?” he asked.

Isla’s cheeks burned. She was suddenly extremely grateful they weren’t facing each other. “Only in your dreams,” she said.

He sighed. “Is there a question?”

“Yes. It’s been hundreds of years since war. You can portal anywhere with half a thought. Why keep up with your . . . fitness regimens? Why . . . when you have so much ability?”

“I have never relied solely on my powers,” he said. “A person’s mettle is determined by who they are beneath them.” He turned to look at her, lip curled in disgust. “And only a fool waits to prepare for a war until one is declared.”

She was silent after that, until the boat roughly washed up onto the pebbled rocks of the isle.

He turned to look at her. “I won’t save you,” he warned. “If it’s you or the sword, it will not be a difficult decision. I will find a way to get it without you.”

“I am aware,” she said through her teeth. “Good.”

The thieves’ base was a tall structure with long and rectangular windows, all covered with thick fabric, which made their approach much easier.

“We look for the sword. If we don’t find it, we get information,” he said.

The first window they approached was unlocked and unguarded. Grim opened it from the bottom, and they slipped through without issue. Isla supposed the thieves weren’t worried about any Nightshade visiting their isle at night. Who would be able to?

Inside, there was only silence.

“I’ll search the top floors,” Grim said. He swept past her, leaving her alone. The room was unremarkable. Just a place to store supplies, by the looks of it. She removed the top of a barrel and found some sort of alcohol. Before she left, she listened.

There wasn’t any noise in the hall either. Maybe the thieves were asleep?

She crept along the first floor, going from room to room. One looked like a kitchen. One had a few tables. The walls were stone. Wind whistled through large cracks. It was freezing.

Isla finally reached a hall, lined in windows. She carefully pulled part of one of the curtains away. The sea crashed nearby. The slice of moon illuminated the water. She saw its reflection in the waves.

She pushed the curtain back into place, then walked backward, admiring the high ceiling. Wondering if Grim was almost done searching the top floors.

She didn’t even hear them coming until a blade was already against her throat. “I wonder what you might go for,” the voice in her ear said.

Training overruled panic. In a flash, she grabbed his arms with both hands and pulled, giving some distance between the blade and her neck. She curved her shoulder up, bent under his arms, hands still gripped on his wrists, twisted to his side—and stabbed him with his own dagger, over and over and over. Terra had tested her in this exact scenario.

The man slumped to the ground. He looked surprised to see blood puddling next to him. He was still alive, just in shock. She couldn’t afford to be. She took a step, and two more Nightshades were on her.

She reached for her blade, and they reached for theirs.

They struck first. Isla dodged the first man’s blows, steel echoing through the room. More would come. She knew that.

Where was Grim? Had he searched the floors already? Had he run into his own trouble?

She remembered his words. He wouldn’t save her. She needed to save herself.

The next man struck, and Isla raced to defend from both sides. Sweat shot down her temple. She had never fought like this before. Training was one thing . . . real fighting was another. One of the Nightshades aimed for her head and just barely missed.

Her fingers felt around the side of her pants, slipping into the specially designed pockets that held her throwing blades. It wasn’t her dominant hand, but Terra had ensured she was proficient in both. She gripped the blades between her fingers and threw them at one of the men, just as he was going for another blow.

One landed in the middle of his chest. The other landed in the middle of his throat. He looked down briefly before falling forward, accidentally impaling himself on his own sword.

Nausea rolled through her stomach. She had just killed her first person that she knew of . . . Should she feel guilty? He had been attacking her. But she had invaded his home . . .

The blow came out of nowhere. The other man struck the side of her head with the hilt of his blade, and she immediately fell to the floor. Her ears rang. Blood dripped down her temple.

He could have killed her, but he didn’t. Which meant he was thinking of other uses for her. Anger and fear made her breathing uneven.

In the fall, she had dropped her sword. The Nightshade approached. He kicked her weapon out of reach, and the metal clattered against the marble floor. He smiled as he walked toward her. His eyes roamed down her body in a way that made her want to retch.

“I think I’ll keep you for myself,” he said. “I like them with a little fight.”

Grim. Where was he? Was he coming?

The man stepped forward. From this angle, he was framed by the window curtain behind him. He grinned as he approached. He wanted to be closer to her. He wanted to be pressed against her.

She decided to give him exactly what he wanted.

Before she could have second thoughts, Isla rushed to her feet and shoved herself against him with a roar, his blade slicing her arm in the process. He tensed in confusion. She pushed as hard as she could—

And sent them both crashing through the window. The curtain ripped away. Glass shattered.

The man screamed for half a second before his entire body melted into ash beneath her. She gasped and accidentally inhaled some of it. The rest stuck to the blood on her arms and face.

Isla stood on shaking legs, caked in what was left of the man. She turned very slowly to see Grim standing in the hall, staring at her through what remained of the window.

She bent over and retched.

Grim just watched her as she walked through the open hole in the wall. She used one of the other curtains to try to get the ashes off her. “Did you find it?” she asked before heaving again.

“No,” he said. “But I found him.”

That was when she noticed the Nightshade on the floor, bound and gagged. “I’ve asked you three times about the sword,” Grim said. “I’ve described it in detail. You know what I am referring to. Now, for the last time. Where is it? Is it here?” He ripped the fabric from the man’s mouth.

The Nightshade made a sound like a whimper. He shook his head. Grim sighed. “I really didn’t want to get my sword dirty,” he said. Then he cut off the man’s hand.

The Nightshade screamed a wild sound. She watched the man’s hand spasm on the ground and felt like she was going to be sick again.

“It’s already dirty now,” Grim said, frowning down at his sword. “Your limbs are next.”

He lifted his blade, and the man said, “Wait. Wait.” He trembled. “If I tell you, will you let me go?”

Grim considered. He nodded. “Do you swear it?”

“We swear it,” Isla said, eyes darting to the man’s injury. He needed to cauterize the wound soon, or he would bleed to death in front of them.

The man swallowed. His words came out in just a rasp. “It hasn’t been here in decades. We stole it, but one of us went rogue. He took the sword and lost it to someone else. Only he knows where it is now.”

“Where can we find him?” Grim demanded.

“His name is Viktor. He’s been seen near Creetan’s Crag.” “How will we know it’s him?” Isla asked.

The man let out a wheezing noise. He was pressing his wound against his body to try to stop the blood. It was getting everywhere. “He has . . . he has a snake. Takes it with him everywhere.” A snake?

“Thank you for being so helpful,” Grim said, sounding genuinely sincere.

Then he slit the man’s throat.

Isla gasped. She watched the man choke on his own blood before he collapsed on the floor.

“You promised,” she said, turning to him.

Grim frowned down at her. “No, Hearteater,” he said. “You promised.” Tears stung in the corners of her eyes. They swept down her cheeks. He looked at her with disgust. “Don’t tell me you are crying for that filth’s death.”

“Filth?” she asked, incredulous. “He is one of your people.”

“Don’t speak about my people when you don’t know the first thing about your own. Locked in a room with the glass painted over . . .” Grim bared his teeth at her. “He was a thief and sold much more than just rare objects,” he said. “He deserved to die, and I was happy to be the one to end him.”

Isla swallowed. She turned to the other dead body in the room. Then to the man she had stabbed in the side with his own dagger. He was dead now too. And the man who was now no more than ashes . . . A sob scraped against the back of her throat. “I—I’ve never . . .”

Grim just stared down at her. His expression did not soften in the slightest in response to her tears. He watched her cry for a few more seconds, before saying, “It gets easier.”

Then he took her arm and portaled them back to her room.

She had to close her eyes against the sudden rush of nausea. She didn’t want to retch again. She didn’t want to think about what she had just done

“There is a celebration on Creetan’s Crag in two weeks,” he said. “That’s when I’ll return.”

Her eyes were still closed when he left.

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