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Lightlark: Chapter 34

ORO

The aftermath of the ball left the island fractured in more ways than one. Part of the castle was in ruins. The streets of the agora were so empty, wind whistled down them. Store windows shuttered, and their walls did not fold open at night. Islanders were afraid to leave their homes, let alone their isles. There were whispers that the tragedy at the ball was Grim’s doing, after his demonstration weeks before had shown the same thing happening. Except this hadn’t been an illusion.

The Mainland became a place only for specters and rulers.

They did not pretend any longer. Cleo abandoned all pretenses of working with Celeste and moved to her isle, breaking tradition. Oro uncharacteristically pushed their excursion back a few days, needing to deal with the wreckage and keep the nobles from rebelling. Tensions had never been so high.

They had always known that the Centennial had a timeline. A clock of a hundred days.

But it seemed as though that clock had changed.

“Tell me more about the heart,” Isla said on the fifty-third day.

A screech echoed through the night, so loudly the wood beneath her hands quivered. Isla took a steadying breath, keeping her grip, refusing the siren call in her head that dared her to look down at the hundred feet below her toes.

Oro paused for a moment, waiting for something. His gaze flicked to the sky. Then his arm reached up for the next branch. They were climbing up a lattice of wood, thick trunks that had been woven into webbing. Oro couldn’t fly wherever they were going, Isla assumed. She hadn’t asked why.

Isla had many questions. Which meant she had to be selective.

Another second passed without a response, and she was very close to pulling him off the grid by his foot. But he said, “It was made during the creation of the island and contains pure, concentrated energy from its creator.”

“Who created it?”

“Horus Rey.”

“And Cronan Malvere?”

Oro paused before his fingers could reach the next branch. She watched the muscles in his back tense. Slowly, very slowly, he looked down at her.

She stared back, eyebrows slightly raised. It seemed he didn’t have the energy to glare at her any longer. More than two dozen nobles had died at the ball, and each life lost weighed on him. She saw it in the firm set of his mouth, the tense shape of his shoulders. “Did Grim tell you that?” he finally said.

“He did. He’s much more forthcoming than other rulers of realm,” she said pointedly. Part of her wanted him to glare at her. Wanted him to do anything but look so hollow.

Oro still hadn’t reached for the next ring. She climbed up to his level so they were matched. “Is that all he told you?” he asked.

She nodded.

He frowned. “Not as forthcoming as you think, then,” he said. Then he climbed up to the next level.

“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked.

Oro said nothing.

“Hello?”

He turned to look down at her and said, “Ask Grim. He’s the most forthcoming ruler.”

Isla’s mouth was already open in response—when a hand reached through the lattice and pulled her through.

She was dragged forward, into an endless maze of wood. She couldn’t see her attacker; the moonlight was far behind her back. Isla reached for her dagger, which she had tucked into her waist, but another hand bound hers together. There was the unmistakable burn of rope against her wrists.

A moment later, she was on her knees in total darkness.

She was trapped again—but this time, it was on purpose. Isla had proposed using herself as bait. Oro had agreed, seeming willing to take more risks after the disaster of the ball.

And it had worked.

Light erupted, illuminating everything. The walls were honeycombed. She and Oro must have been climbing the outside of it.

Oro.

She saw the unmistakable curl of his cape as he stepped next to her. He wasn’t bound, he was simply standing there, looking down at her.

“Release her,” he said sternly.

Isla looked around to see who he was talking to. That was when she saw them, standing in the gaps of the hive. Dozens of them.

They had long, transparent wings that hung limp at their sides. Their skin was light blue, like someone had stuck a paintbrush in the air to get the color. Their eyes were too large, limbs too long.

Not one of them moved.

Oro bared his teeth. “Did you not hear me?”

Steps sounded before her, at the center of the hive. From the shadows stepped a man as tall as Oro. He had the same light-blue skin as the others, but his wings were larger and perched high, the tops peaking above his muscled shoulders. His hair was dark as Grim’s. “Oh, no, they heard you, King,” he said. “They are hesitant to listen to a ruler who has abandoned them, however.” He angled his head at Oro. “You can understand, I am sure.”

Oro made to step forward, but a sword appeared from thin air—and pressed firmly against his throat. The winged man had a hand raised, keeping the blade hovering in place.

Oro’s finger twitched and the blade drew closer, sending a droplet of blood spilling down his neck.

The winged man clicked his tongue. “A move, King, and we’ll see just how easily you can die like the rest of us.”

She had to think, do something. Stall, until she could come up with a better plan. “You would destroy the island just to kill him?”

Slowly, the man turned to her, as if noticing her for the first time. She expected a sword against her throat next. Oro had said he would try to kill her. That he, like other ancient creatures, hated her kind.

But he only grinned, pleased. “The island is well on its way to destruction,” he purred. “And it would be a gift . . . We all have suffered enough, Wildling.”

He turned to Oro, amused. “Did you think you could disguise her from me?” He smiled, and Isla saw too many teeth in his mouth, all crowded together. “That might work on others . . . but me?” He laughed. “Or did you think she would be enough to convince me to work with you? Are you truly that cornered, King, to ask me for aid? You fool.”

The winged man turned to face the others. Their hair was blue, not dark like his. And they looked too pale. Sickly. The way their wings hung made Isla think they didn’t work anymore. Was it because of the Skyling curse? Did it affect them as well?

“What do you say?” he said loudly, a leader rallying his people. “Are we ready to be free of this island? To see how we fare on the other side?” His hand turned to a fist.

And the sword sliced across Oro’s throat.

Isla gasped. The blade had not cut deeply. But blood streamed down his neck, staining his shirt. They had to get him to water so he could close the wound before he lost too much.

Even with the gash across his throat, the king’s face did not change. He did not wince.

They needed to abandon her plan. He had been right—

It had only taken a few seconds of the winged man speaking to his people for Isla to retrieve her dagger. A few more to cut through the rope. She felt cool metal in her fingers.

And then her arm flung through the air.

The blade flew true, aimed perfectly, right at the winged man’s heart. It whizzed fast as an arrow, blade glimmering in the light.

An inch before hitting its mark, the dagger froze.

Isla stilled, preparing for the winged man to send it back through her chest.

But he had not frozen the blade. His eyes were wide; he looked as shocked as anyone to see the tip pointed at his heart.

It wasn’t alone. The sword that had been at Oro’s throat was now at the man’s neck.

Oro had stopped Isla’s blade.

Everyone stilled. Not by their will, but by Oro’s. His nostrils flared. “Perhaps you are the fool for believing you could immobilize a Wildling with a bit of rope.” He stepped forward. Blood still flowed steadily from his wound. He did not reach up to wipe it away. Oro grinned meanly. “Yes, she knew she would pique your curiosity enough to get us into your hive. And I knew you would be prideful enough to believe you could capture us so easily.” He reached the platform the winged man stood upon. His voice became almost a growl. “Now, tell us where we can find the island’s heart.”

The winged man was silent for a moment. Then he smiled. “How I love a surprise . . . and she”—he looked curiously at Isla—“she certainly is a surprise. More than you know . . .” Isla froze. She could hear it in the edge to his voice—he knew. Somehow, he knew she was a Wildling ruler born without powers. She braced herself, waiting for him to say it. Waiting for what Oro would do with that information. But the winged man simply laughed. “Curious, so curious, Wildling. Born so strangely.”

He turned to Oro, still smiling joyfully. As if he had not just sliced the throat of the king of Lightlark.

“What will you offer me, King?”

Her blade drew closer to his heart. “I’ll offer you the chance to keep your hive, and people, intact.”

The man’s expression didn’t falter. “I want the Wildling.”

Before Isla could make a move, Oro’s hand was at the man’s neck. And it was coated in flames.

They danced in the man’s eyes as he calmly said, “I want the Wildling to visit me. Once this is all over.” He glanced at her. “She will come willingly, I assure you.”

Isla stepped forward before Oro could make another move. “Done,” she said. His skin was too pale. He needed to be healed immediately. She sighed, feigning boredom. “Now tell us where to find the heart. I’d like to get at least a wink of sleep tonight.”

The winged man’s smile widened. “Very well. The heart blooms somewhere new every time. I have seen it. I know not where it is now . . . but it seems to always choose a place where darkness meets light.”

Isla had no idea what that meant. But Oro plucked her dagger from the air and held it firmly as he turned his back on the man and the rest of the winged people. He grunted as he walked past her, a sign for her to follow.

They walked through the maze of the hive until they reached its outside layer. He handed her back her weapon. Isla began to climb down, but Oro stumbled through one of the openings and grabbed her before falling. He soared for a while, breathing a little too fast. His blood stained her cheek, her hair.

“A plan,” he said, voice hoarse. “We have a plan.”

“Oro,” she said as they half flew, half fell, the trees just inches below. She tried to keep the panic out of her voice. “Oro.”

He glanced at her—and his eyes were bloodshot. Had he been sleeping at all? They closed for a moment.

And they began to fall.

They hit the trees, and Isla screamed. His hands tightened around her, and the air flurried, shattered as something like a shield appeared around them. Branches snapped, wind roared in her ears as they tumbled, dropped—

She hit the ground with a thud. Even with the shield breaking their fall, the breath was knocked from her lungs. She gasped, gripping the dirt, leaves crunching between her fingers. Stars dotted her vision, mixing with the real stars, and darkness threatened to swallow the rest.

Isla forced herself up, her bones screaming in defiance. Oro was a few feet away, sprawled across the ground. Blood pooled at the side of his neck. The cut didn’t look deep, but he must have lost too much for him to have been weakened so thoroughly.

Water—he needed water. Then he could heal himself with his Moon-ling abilities. She forced herself to go still. To listen.

Her breath was too loud, so she held it. Her lungs pulsed in pain, her head spun, but finally, she heard it. The trickling of a stream.

Not nearby, no. She grabbed Oro’s hand. “Get up.”

He didn’t stir. But blood was still flowing. That was a good thing.

“Get up.”

Nothing.

She slapped him across the face as hard as she could.

His eyes opened at that. And began to close. “I can’t carry you,” she said. “You need to help me.”

Slowly, with her help, he rose.

“Can you call the water to you?” she asked. But it was like he couldn’t hear her. So, she half dragged him toward the sound, his weight on her like a boulder.

He was too heavy. She wanted to stop. Wanted to crumple to the ground.

But if Oro died . . .

All Lightlark would.

She needed the heart now, just as much as he did.

He needed to live.

She walked until her legs burned, until her breath was hot against her lips. Until Oro’s skin began to cool, the unmistakable Sunling heat dying down.

Just as her knees threatened to buckle, the dirt softened beneath her boots. And the roaring of the stream was in front of her.

Her legs nearly collapsed with relief. She pushed him into the water with all her remaining strength. He seized for a moment before falling still.

She worried it was too late. But the water seemed to know him. It glowed faintly and got to work. He began to sink, but she kept his head out of the water. She held him firmly by the shoulders, the back of his head in her lap, the rest of him deep below.

His sleeves were rolled back. The grayish blue he had shown them before had spread. A lot. It now covered his entire left arm, down to his hand. Was this why the cut had weakened him so quickly? Why the ballroom had broken in half during the ball?

Isla stayed like that, gripping him, her legs in the cold stream, for a long while. Waiting. Waiting for the island to begin to crumble around her, like it had at the ball. For trees to fall. For Oro to stop breathing.

The water worked intently, all through the night. Slowly, slowly, the slice across his neck knitted together, new skin replacing the broken shreds. The blood on her dried. She could feel it on her cheek, smell it in her hair, but didn’t dare wash it off. She just kept holding Oro.

And waiting.

She must have drifted off, because her head knocked against her shoulder. Her spine straightened, and fear gripped her chest. Had she let him go?

No. There he was. She hadn’t let him slip. His wound was nearly healed.

Still, his eyes remained closed.

A stream of light had begun peeking through the trees. The first dewy, honeyed tinge of day. Isla’s first thought was that this was good. Maybe the heat would be good for him, maybe he could draw upon its strength . . .

Dread stabbed her through the stomach.

The curse.

She had to get him inside. If the sword hadn’t killed him, the sun would. And the water wouldn’t be able to heal him from that.

“Oro,” she said, shaking him.

He didn’t move.

“Oro,” she yelled into his ear. “The sun’s coming up. We have to go.”

His eyes did not open.

Light had almost found them. It made lazy lines across the forest, peeking through the trees. Day had almost broken open.

He was going to die. She was going to watch him burst into flames, the same way, using her starstick, she had watched a child burn to ash in the Sunling realm, years before, helpless—

No.

Not helpless.

She spotted an opening in a mountain twenty feet away. A cave.

Isla didn’t know if they would make it inside before the king became fire. She had no idea how she was going to get him there.

But she gripped beneath both of his shoulders and pulled.


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