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Lightlark: Chapter 19

UNDERWATER

Isla didn’t give the guards time to reach for their ice blades or wield the sloshing water held in vials across their belts.

Before they could even yell for help, she had hit them in six different places, special points Terra taught her to target.

Their muscles slackened.

One good hit each in the back of the head, and they slumped down to the floor, passed out. Not one drop of blood.

Terra would be proud.

The moment she stopped moving, she was panting. The climbing, the fighting—it had taken too much energy. She really shouldn’t be out of bed, let alone deep in another ruler’s territory.

Too late now. She was here. And things were already starting to get out of hand.

As quietly as she could, and with all the strength she could muster, she dragged them fully into the room, closed the door behind them, and ran down the hall.

Either they would wake up and call for help, someone would realize they were missing and would call for help, or someone else was about to stop her and call for help.

It was clear that the time for being a shadow had passed.

Now she just needed to get into the library. As fast as her quickly weakening legs could take her.

The next passageway was empty, but the one after that had four guards, pressed against the wall, chins up, ice swords to their chests like nutcrackers she once saw in a market. At the sound of her steps, they came to life, turning right to her.

Time to go, she thought, taking another turn instead, and hoping she was going in the right direction.

Their boots echoed loudly behind her, the sounds growing as more guards joined the pursuit. Isla ran as fast as she could, white dress curling behind her like a plume of steam. Her chest made concerning sounds with every breath. Her bones and muscles ached.

The halls were endless. Isla couldn’t help but feel she must have taken a wrong turn. She wouldn’t make it much longer.

Maybe she was getting farther away. Maybe she had become disoriented in her struggle to outrun the guards. Maybe—

Then she heard it.

The sea, louder than before, echoing like thunder. A beast shaking the walls of the castle with its firm grip.

The library had to be close.

She took off toward the sound of the sea, following its force, wincing at the pulsing of pain of her arm and her chest and her head, like the three of them were having a conversation. The farther she made it into the castle, the more the chandeliers on the ceilings shook, pale crystals clinking together. The more works of art teetered on their hooks. The Moonling curse was ruthless.

How many more cycles would it take for the castle to simply be knocked off its cliff, into the ocean’s waiting mouth? When would the sea be rewarded for its efforts by getting the entire palace and its inhabitants in one fell swoop?

Not tonight, she hoped, as she ran and ran and ran, faster than the guards, as fast as she could without collapsing.

Until she nearly crashed into a wall.

A dead end.

No more halls. No more turns. No doors.

Just a wall.

She hunched over, hands on her thighs, and began coughing, the cold in her chest crawling up her throat. Her knees wobbled.

The steps behind her had turned into a stampede, and they were closing in. A few more seconds, and they would have her surrounded.

The ocean made another move against the palace, raging. She expected, this close to the exterior, to feel the hit in her bones, the sea colliding directly against the stone in front of her.

But as she braced herself for the impact, the wave hit—and the rock in front of her did not shake nearly as much as it should have.

Which meant there was something else behind this wall.

Just as the guards rounded the corner, Isla slipped on Celeste’s gloves as quickly as she could and pressed against the bricks.

The stones began turning, a puzzle undoing itself, unlocking a door.

It opened. And she pushed herself through, then slammed it closed, hoping it would seal behind her.

The guards were a flurry of sounds on the other side, alerting more of their crew. The legion, perhaps.

“Intruder!” she heard. “In the library!”

She was trapped inside. Cornered.

But at least now she knew for certain she had found it.

Isla turned to find a frozen library. Perfect. As if she wasn’t already cold enough. Every book was trapped in walls of ice. Slab after slab formed rows, an entire room of parchment and frost.

She should have suspected that Cleo would have made the entire library restricted, instead of a specific section.

Bangs sounded outside as the guards tried to break the wall down.

No time to waste. She took off, running through the icy rows, nearly slipping on the frosted-over marble floor. Her feet skated as she rounded the corner—

And came face-to-face with a monstrous wave. It hit the set of glass doors with a force that seemed to shake the castle to its foundations. If it wasn’t for her last-minute gripping of an ice-coated shelf, she would have fallen to the floor.

The doors led to a curling white balcony now flooded with sea-foam like a rabid mouth, the aftermath of the sea as it retreated, gathering its strength to strike once more. It was a wonder the glass doors hadn’t shattered. They must have been reinforced with enchantment somehow.

Enchantment.

Where were the relics? All she saw were books.

“She’s inside!”

“Get the ruler!”

Ruler? Isla swallowed. Cleo was supposed to be sleeping in the Mainland castle. It was tradition to spend the most time there, especially during the first twenty-five days.

She had to hurry. Her eyes strained to take in every inch of the library. It only had one floor.

Nothing. Only books contained in ice, for as far as she could see.

She must have missed something.

Isla whipped around, ready to take a closer look at the front shelves, when another crushing wave sent her tumbling forward.

This time, she hit the floor.

There was a terrible cracking sound as her head smacked against it.

For a moment, there was just blinding white. She blinked, willing her vision to come back, telling her body there was no time to waste, no time to give in to pain.

Her cheek had nearly stuck to the ground. Her mind spun as she lifted it, and the world tripped before righting itself.

Her arms shook as she made to get up.

That was when she saw it.

The floor was frosted over. Her body heat had warmed it enough that the icy coating had cleared, revealing a second library beneath.

Water. Dozens of relics were encased in water, chained down, floating below the floor.

A cape, its fabric moving unnaturally, flipping this way and that.

An arrow with a snowflake point.

Crystal daggers.

Books with locks.

Keys long as her arms.

No bondbreaker.

Nothing that even resembled an oversize glass needle.

Disappointment quickly turned to anger as she stood on shaky legs, stumbling to the side, having to steady herself against a block of ice.

Something hot dripped down her cheek.

Tears?

Was she crying and she didn’t even know it?

She lifted a trembling hand that came back crimson.

No. Blood.

Isla stepped forward and nearly collapsed.

Her other foot made to move, but her knee gave way.

First, her sore, burned arm. Then, the effects of the Moonling’s demonstration. Now, this head injury.

It was too much.

Isla had sworn she would break her curse, even if it meant breaking herself.

Perhaps she should have worded her promise a little differently.

Bangs echoed through the room—but they weren’t coming from the balcony or the sea. No, they were coming from the wall through which she had entered.

“We have the entire legion out here,” a voice yelled from the other side. “The ruler is on her way. You are cornered. There is nowhere to run. There is no way out.”

Isla smirked.

He was right. There was nowhere left to run.

But no way out?

In that, he was wrong.

“Good thing I never planned on getting out the way I came,” she said to no one. Every part of her ached as she reached back her good arm and pulled her starstick from its place against her spine.

She didn’t know how to use it accurately for small distances or places she had never been before. But her room in the Mainland castle was neither.

The wall came down just as she portaled away.


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