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Lightlark: Chapter 51

HEART

Isla’s steps were silent against the snow. Her breath was steady. Her entire world had narrowed into a tunnel. Her normally endless thoughts were replaced by a predatory calm, the sensation right before making a kill, the moment before releasing a bow, the string taut.

She was right this time. She knew it with every one of her bones.

Oro had been waiting for her in the castle foyer that night. The room had buzzed with invisible energy, emanating from him in ripples. He was excited. Hopeful.

She had smiled, in spite of herself. Because she was excited and hopeful too.

Isla had walked over to him, stood on her toes, and flicked his crown. She had grinned at him, testing him, seeing how their months of working together might have tamed his disdain for her.

Oro had frowned. Then he had surprised her by taking off his crown.

And placing it on her head, around her own.

“If you’re right about this, Wildling,” he had said, “you might become more powerful than even me.”

His words had nearly made her knees buckle. He was truly giving her the win. No—acknowledging that it was her win.

Isla had figured it out when even the king couldn’t.

She had taken off her own crown and placed it in his golden hair. It was laughably small on his head, and her lips twitched. “Wildling suits you, King,” she had said before walking out the doors.

His crown was still warm and heavy on her head. It was so large, it sank down to the middle of her forehead. But she found she didn’t mind it.

It was just under an hour from dawn. Just enough time to search for shelter for Oro. Once they found it, all they would have to do was wait.

Isla’s skin itched; her entire body was covered in sparks. Still, she stayed in her tunnel, focusing all her energy on the other side.

The heart. The ones she loved. Her future.

Power was the last thing on her mind. If she could save Celeste and Terra, she would be content. They meant so much more than abilities ever would. She knew that now.

She just hoped she hadn’t realized it too late.

“What will you do?” she asked him as they took their first steps across Moon Isle. “When we break the curses?”

Oro walked steadily, eyes trained on the sky. “I’ll rebuild,” he said. “These past centuries, the focus has been on the curses. How to break them. How to live with them. How to survive them. With all of that erased, I could be free to bring Lightlark to its previous glory.”

Isla raised an eyebrow at him. “With Sunling as the reigning realm?”

Oro shook his head. “No. Before that. When the realms were united.”

She let out a long sigh. United. That would mean Wildlings returning to Lightlark. The ones that were left, she thought, dread dancing in her stomach. “I’m not sure the people of Lightlark would be thrilled if Wildlings returned.”

“They will have to learn to be,” Oro said. And his voice was so firm, she glanced at him. He met her gaze. “And perhaps you would want to stay.”

Isla blinked. She had never considered staying on Lightlark. During the limited times she had allowed herself to dream about after, about what her life might look like if she managed to break the curses, she had imagined bits and pieces. Her and Celeste, back in the Starling newland. Celebrating all her friend’s birthdays without sadness or fear. Leading the Wildling newland with confidence, Terra and Poppy strong beside her. And, more recently . . . visiting Nightshade. Spending time with Grim.

None of her futures included the island.

“Perhaps,” she said. But it was a lie. And because of his flair, Oro knew it.

They walked the next half hour through Moon Isle in silence.

The wind whipped her cheeks so violently, she wondered if Azul was responsible. Azul. She hadn’t told Oro about the proof that he had poisoned Celeste. She told him then.

Oro frowned. “There must be a mistake,” he said. “Azul has never wanted to hurt another ruler. He has never even tried to form an alliance.”

She had just told him how the Skyling had poisoned Celeste. Wasn’t that proof enough that he wasn’t innocent?

Why was Oro defending him? She wanted to demand an explanation but reared back as something screeched in her ear.

The dark-blue bird.

Its wings flapped slowly, as if its feathers were too heavy for its small frame. It squawked again. This time, Isla did not threaten it.

She followed it.

Isla and Oro ran quickly through the snow, and she squinted, trying not to lose the bird in the dark. She didn’t feel the cold, or the hill dipping below her legs, or anything at all as she trailed after the bird, through the forest with branches like skeletons that caught on her clothes as if pleading with her to slow down.

She kept going. Panting.

The bird wasn’t the heart. She knew that.

But it would lead her to it.

Ice mountains came into view. The oracles were not far. Where darkness meets light. She remembered what the oracle had said . . . that the heart wasn’t in her ice but was near, nearer than you know. The trees grew farther apart here, with more room for snow to pile. A river snaked through them, the sound of the water splitting then refreezing again like the tiny cracks of firewood splintering.

Another screech through the night. She found the bird as it dipped down and flew up, into a tree.

Into a nest.

“Here,” Isla said. She knew the heart was there, somewhere.

All they had to do was wait until dawn.

They found a cave carved into one of the ice mountains, within view of the tree. Oro made a fire, though she knew he could heat them both without one. It seemed as though he needed something to do with his hands, to distract him from the time that moved too slowly and the bird just yards away.

Or maybe he couldn’t warm them. She had seen how much of his skin the bluish gray now covered. She had felt the island getting colder and darker with every day that passed.

Its flames popped and peaked in beautiful curls. Oro’s fire was still orange and red, but also tinged in something different . . . a strange shade of dark blue. A signature of his, it seemed.

Isla traced a finger around his crown, perched precariously on her head. She frowned up at it, squinting so she could see its edge, right above her eyebrows. “It’s unreasonably sharp,” she said, sucking on her fingertip where the skin had been broken by one of the points.

Oro laughed. It was a glorious sound, making her smile immediately. Genuinely. Perhaps because, as far as she had seen, she was the only one capable of making him laugh.

But then he doubled over.

Moon Isle shook. Icicles fell from the mouth of the cave like daggers, some shattering, some digging into the ground. Isla narrowly avoided one that would have gone clean through her arm.

Oro’s hands were in fists, and he arched, grunting, face twisted in pain.

Snow slid off the mountains, threatening to bury the entrance of the cave. The bird screeched angrily, its pitch so high it made her wince. A crack like thunder sounded as a glacier split open.

As quickly as the shocks had started, they ended.

The island is crumbling, and me along with it.

Oro panted, fingers dug into the stone. His back trembled like he still felt the tremors, still ached everywhere.

She took a careful step toward him. Knelt until she was right in front of him.

He leaned back against the wall, eyes shut tightly.

“Are you all right?”

Oro nodded just as his entire body seized again, as if he’d been struck by lightning. He slammed a hand against the ground, and long cracks erupted from the place he had hit, Starling energy making the cave smell of sparks.

She couldn’t imagine the pain. His connection to the island meant he felt its power . . . but also its destruction.

Isla placed a careful hand on his shoulder, and he stiffened. She quickly withdrew it.

Oro yelled out again, his fingers digging deeper into the stone, fire forming then dying in his palms, ice freezing then melting, sparks coating them, then vanishing. “What—what can I do?” she asked, panicked. There had to be something she could offer.

His eyes were still shut. He swallowed, and she watched the movement, watched him wince once more. Found herself wondering if she would take his pain for herself if she could.

“Sing for me, Wildling,” he finally said.

Isla thought she must have misheard him. But he took a shaky breath in, and out. Quiet. Waiting.

She remembered that night on her balcony. Singing when she hadn’t known anyone had been listening.

He had clapped. And she had assumed he had done it to be mean.

Perhaps he had liked it.

She began to sing a Wildling song. Her favorite song. The one she sang when she wanted to hear her own voice echoed back to her. When she was alone in her chambers and hoped someone far away might hear her. When she wondered if there was someone realms away, listening.

She sang that song.

Her voice was thick as honey, high as bells, deep as rumbles of thunder. She could do wild things with it, and she did, sitting back on her heels, her knees grazing his legs. Her voice echoed through the cave, harmonies weaving together.

Oro’s eyes opened at some point. He watched her, taking steady breaths. Slowly, his fists began to uncurl. He rested his palms against the cool stone and listened.

She smiled at him when his shoulders settled. His expression did not change. She continued to sing, because he hadn’t told her to stop, and the sun hadn’t come up. She sang until her voice went hoarse and the sound changed. She liked when it got like this, smoky, different.

Part of her wondered if he had let her go on to be polite. But when she closed her mouth, Oro frowned.

“Why did you stop?” he asked.

Isla motioned toward the mouth of the cave, breathless. “Because of that,” she said.

The dark sky was brightening. The moon was fading.

Oro was on his feet in an instant. They both rushed to the entrance, watching. Waiting.

In the rising light, Isla noticed something. She squinted. Right below the nest, something was floating in the air, untethered to gravity.

“Is that an egg?” she asked.

Just as the words left her mouth, the egg fell. Slowly, too slowly, it plunged to the ground—

And cracked open.

From its shell emerged a shining, gold yolk. It rose from the ground in tandem with the sun rising from the horizon, just across the cliff.

“The full egg represented the moon,” she said, her voice hoarse from singing. “The yolk . . . is the sun.” How many times had she thought the full moon looked like an egg? That the sun looked yolky?

She turned to Oro, eyes wide. “That’s it,” she said. “That’s the heart.”

The heart is hidden until it blooms and becomes a part of Lightlark. Oro had presumed it was a plant. But this time, the heart had returned as the very basis of life. An egg.

Oro watched the floating yolk and its discarded shell with such awe, she wondered if he might sink to his knees. He met her gaze and smiled so brightly, it was as if the sun itself was shining right through his skin.

He swept her into his arms and spun her around. She laughed, so close to crying in relief her eyes prickled, her lungs burned. She was immediately flooded with his heat, down through her bones. A moment later, she was back on her feet.

Oro shook his head in disbelief. He reached toward his crown on her head, and she wondered if he was about to take it. Instead, he straightened it, smiling. “Go ahead, Wildling. Get our heart,” he said.

She grinned back at him.

Finally.

She was not weak. She had solved the riddle of the prophecy, found the heart, her way. She had been right. She was going to save those she loved. She was going to do what even her guardians had thought her incapable of.

She was going to win the Centennial.

Isla set off toward the tree. The bird screeched happily. The yolk was bright as the sun, small enough to fit in the center of her hand. It glimmered like pure gold. The source of all Lightlark power. Its heart.

She reached for it. Gripped it. Felt the force of it shoot through her skin, along her bones, the power like a bolt of cold water, a tidal wave through the crown of her head, flames licking her every inch—

And felt it all rip away as an arrow plunged through her chest.

She choked, falling to her knees. Her chin dipped, and her eyes settled on the long tip of an arrow, sticking right through her heart.

A perfect hit.

A roar erupted somewhere behind her. She thought it might be Oro, right before fire swallowed the forest, burning people . . . there were people.

Vinderland. Here to get revenge. Arrows still drawn. They pulled back their strings to strike her again and died. Oro had killed them all in an instant.

A second felt like a lifetime. Her head lolled over her shoulder, the king’s oversize crown falling from her head. Oro was there, reaching for her, just yards away . . . but he could not take a step out of the cave to heal her. Not during the day. His face was strange, etched and lined in a million ways. With a desperate jolt, he reached farther, only to roar again in pain, the sun splitting his skin in two. Blood pooled below her in a crimson puddle. Its warmth was almost a comfort in the cold.

She had survived too long already—stolen seconds the heart’s power had no doubt given her.

Isla clutched the heart of Lightlark with one hand, her own sputtering its last beats. With the other, she reached up and pulled on her necklace.

Grim appeared from thin air before her fingers could uncurl from the diamond. His eyes widened at the sight of her covered in blood. She was in his arms in an instant.

“Please,” Oro said from the cave, and Isla hardly recognized his voice. Why was he begging? Did he want her to leave the heart? Her hand went limp, and the yolk fell to the ground.

The last thing she saw was Oro’s face, fragmented into a handful of emotions, each more surprising than the last.

And then she was gone.

***

The heart had been keeping her alive. She knew that for certain when she dropped it, and the world had gone dark.

And then she was falling through an endless puddle of stars.

The realms were just spokes on a wheel, turning, turning, turning. She was somewhere in between them, drowning, gasping, fading.

Mom. Would she finally get to meet her? Dad. And the man who had been worth death, worth bearing a cursed child?

Death was not quiet, and it was not quick.


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