Her room looked just like she had left it, though the outside was barren. No trees near her windows. No grass.
She had fallen roughly, collapsing onto the stone, her knees screaming in pain.
At the commotion, her door flung open. Just as it had three months prior.
Poppy was wearing sleep clothes. At the sight of her, the woman screamed out in joy. Her guardian rushed to embrace her, arms going around her neck. She smelled of cinnamon and blood. It must have been a feeding day.
“You did it, little bird!” Poppy said. She must have assumed Isla’s early arrival meant she had succeeded in the guardians’ plan. The first step of which was to seduce the king out of his powers.
And though her true plan had been different from the start . . . Isla supposed she had.
She did not embrace her back. Finally, Poppy let her go, and Isla said, “You knew. Both of you.” Poppy had the nerve to look confused. Isla ground her back teeth together. “You both knew I had power . . . didn’t you?”
Celeste—Aurora—had called her a name only her guardians had ever used. Little bird. And that was when Isla had realized that the Starling’s plot required help. People from the inside.
“And you killed them, didn’t you?” Isla said.
Only Poppy and Terra had access to these chambers. Isla had gotten all her information about Lightlark, her parents, and her curse from them.
Poppy’s hand went to the single blade she carried.
Isla drew hers first, one she kept beneath her vanity.
“Why?” she ground out.
Poppy looked pale. “We did it for you. The Starling ruler gave us a choice—kill your mother and her lover so that their power would be transferred to you in time for the next Centennial and raise you to be able to seduce the king one day . . . or she would kill the entire Wildling line and end our realm. She demanded we convince you that you weren’t born with ability . . . so that you wouldn’t ever try to use it. She said it was dangerous, the mix of power, that it could kill you.”
Isla stepped forward, pointing her dagger at Poppy. “You killed my parents,” she said, the words barely making a sound. Not the curses. Not the fact that her mother broke the rules. Them. The people her mother had trusted most. Her head was full of mist. Her limbs were limp. Her chest still throbbed. “I should kill you,” she said before uncurling her other hand, revealing her vial of Wildling healing elixir. “I should leave Terra to rot.”
She downed the bottle, hoping it would work over the next few minutes, for wounds she hadn’t yet gotten.
She dropped her blade. “But I have something more important to do.”
Isla strode past Poppy to her wall of swords. She rushed to put on her full armor—shoulder plates, high metallic boots, chest plate, long metallic gloves, and, finally, her helmet. She grabbed two swords.
Then she drew her puddle of stars once more.
She had escaped Lightlark. She was safe, for now. She could flee. She could run.
She couldn’t leave them behind.
Grim had betrayed her on every level . . . He deserved Aurora’s wrath, a slow death at her hands . . .
But Oro did not. She remembered his words, spoken true: I’ve never lied to you, Isla. Not once. He was the only person she could trust. The only person who hadn’t truly betrayed her. She wouldn’t abandon him.
Poppy gripped her wrist. “You’re going back? You made it out. Don’t be a fool.”
Isla hissed. She shook out of her guardian’s hold. “I might be a fool. But at least I have honor,” she spat. “I will return with power for Wildling. I will save this realm, and Terra. But afterward . . . I never want to see either of you again.”
She raised her arms to the ceiling, her two long swords pressed together above her head.
And portaled away.
The moment Isla landed in the Place of Mirrors, she was moving. The vines Aurora controlled reacted reflexively, lunging toward her from every direction, thorns and all.
Isla might not have had power.
But, unlike the other rulers, she was used to fighting without it.
Her blades made a slicing sound as she peeled them away from each other and turned them both in wide circles, at her sides, at her front, behind her back—and wherever she cut, plants fell.
Aurora had stolen Isla’s power . . . and even dead, the enchanted forest sought to protect the Starling ruler. The decaying nature created guardians in response to Isla’s threat, creatures crafted from bark. They hurtled toward her through holes in the glass, wielding weapons made of bone and horns from wild animals. Isla roared and lunged, fighting them just as fiercely as any foe, spinning on her heel, turning her blades, shielding from their thorns and bone daggers with the metal across her arms.
The world went silent. Every step was delicate as a dance, every move of her blade targeted, her arms pulsing not with pain, but power—she had trained every day before the Centennial since she was just a girl. She played not with dolls but with blades. She did not braid her hair but wove vines to make shields.
For a moment, she was back in the Wildling woods during a rare training excursion outside, Terra sitting in a tree above, watching Isla move, her sword cutting through the air. Her arrows shooting targets carved into trees. Her throwing blades hitting their marks every time, from any angle.
And she heard claps, somewhere. Terra used to clap only when Isla had conquered a fighting technique. One that would earn her a new blade to display on her wall.
But the clapping didn’t come from Terra.
Aurora’s hands rang together, and a thin vine punctured the glass, so small it made it through Isla’s raised blades.
And wrapped around her neck.
Isla gasped. It gripped tightly as her breath was choked from her throat, thorn cutting against her neck, right against her larynx.
Aurora stood in front of her, laughing. Clapping once more. Amused. “You came back? You were free, little bird.” She clicked her tongue, suddenly disappointed. “And you flew right back into your cage.”
She closed her fist, and the vine tightened even more, bringing Isla to her knees. Isla sliced at its root, cutting it free. But the piece wrapped around her neck remained.
Oro and Grim watched her, both fighting against their chains, eyes wide in fear. Blood spilled down their temples, down their limbs. Aurora had cut them a thousand times with those thorns. It seemed Isla had interrupted her slow torture of the two rulers.
They hadn’t even had a chance to stop it . . . hadn’t had access to their pools of power before Aurora had stolen them, because of her, because she had suggested they meet at the Place of Mirrors.
Still . . . there was an advantage to being here. Grim and Oro might be trapped, but Aurora was limited to only Wildling power. Beyond this place, her new powers were limitless. She could wield all six realms’ abilities. No one in history had been able to do that.
Worse—she wasn’t bound to any of the curses, as their creator. Leaving the rest of the realms weak, easy to conquer.
No. Aurora could not leave the Place of Mirrors.
Even if it meant Isla wouldn’t leave either.
Isla sliced her blade through the air in a flash, right to her neck. The vine choking her was only an inch thick. A centimeter off, and she would slit her own throat.
But Isla’s swords were a part of her—without any powers to wield, she had focused solely on them her entire life.
The vine fell from around her neck.
She barreled toward Aurora, swords raised. The Starling ruler sent tree hulls through the glass, made spikes from bark, threw them in her path.
Isla cut them all down. She was fluid as water. Precise as lightning. Fast as a star hurtling to earth. Her swords moved independently, in tandem, in a rhythm like the blood pulsing through her veins, like the ringing through the glass dome, echoing the slicing and shattering as Aurora sent more of the woods inside.
As she neared, Isla felt the tears, hot on her cheeks. The greatest betrayal was not Grim’s. Not Terra and Poppy’s.
It was Celeste’s. She had pretended to be her friend. Her sister.
Isla had been alone. And Celeste had preyed upon her loneliness.
Still, even after everything, a treacherous corner of her heart still loved her friend.
Aurora grinned at the pain etched into the pockets of Isla’s face. “You could have done it,” she said. “Broken the curses. I hadn’t counted on Oro finding out about the heart. You two truly could have broken them, if you had just been strong enough to let one of the rulers die. And, of course, there is the matter of the original offense from the prophecy . . .”
Isla whirled around, bracing against the impact of a trunk. She fell to the ground, air leaving her lungs for just a moment before returning, the healing liquid she had just taken still running through her blood, aiding her. One of Aurora’s thorn-covered vines sliced right down her side, sending blood streaming, and she screamed—but a moment later, the skin knitted itself together again.
Panting, Isla kept her pace toward Aurora, swords still drawn. “The original offense wasn’t using the heart,” Isla said through her teeth, grunting as she cut through a vine wrapped around her leg, thick as her limb. Another tried to take its place, to send her against the glass next to Oro and Grim—who were still fighting against their thorned constraints, bleeding in the process—but she cut that one down before it could get to her. “And it wasn’t a Sunling falling in love with a Wildling. Was it?”
No, curses so cruel could only be spun through a truly sinister act. The original offense could not have been love or wielding great power . . . blood had to have been spilled to make something of a malice so great.
And not just any blood.
She had learned at a young age about the six rulers’ sacrifice in exchange for the prophecy that would break the curses. Poppy and Terra had told her that her own ancestor had led the sacrifice, giving her life up first.
But Isla now wondered if perhaps her ancestor hadn’t sacrificed herself at all.
Maybe she was dead before the other rulers had even learned about the curses.
The Starling’s eyes glimmered. As if, for a moment, she felt pain . . . remembered the act that had changed her forever, that had been the basis for curses that had lasted five hundred years.
Her face shifted back to its wickedness a second later, and she raised her hands.
The ceiling shattered as a dozen trees crashed through it at once. Isla was showered in shards of glass. She screamed out, watching her skin break, then close, tear, then heal, the Wildling healing elixir fighting to keep up.
Trees pummeled into her, bringing her to her knees. Before they could crush her completely, Aurora twisted her fingers and wove their branches into a lattice around her.
Glass still rained down as Isla looked up at Aurora.
Through the gaps in her cage.
“Little bird,” Aurora said, shaking her head from across the room. “You should have stayed in the wild.”
But she wasn’t caged. Not really. Even when she had been locked away in her castle, she’d always had a portal to the outside.
She gripped her starstick from where she had again tucked it down her spine, ready to portal out of her cage—
And it flew from her hand, whipped away by a vine. She watched it roll across the room, to Grim’s feet. He looked up at her. Blood ran down his temples. He panted and winced, as if it hurt to breathe. But he managed to say, “Heart.” He gasped, his words barely coming out. “Your heart, Hearteater.”
Her heart? She remembered the arrow that had gone through it, a shocking pain like a lightning bolt skewering her. She should have been dead. Even Wildling elixir, even Cleo, couldn’t fix an arrow to the heart.
Only a heart could.
Isla pressed a hand against her chest, and it burned—not from its injury, she now realized . . .
But because of what it now held.
Power in its purest form. When the heart had healed her . . . it had marked her.
Your heart. It does not only belong to you. She hadn’t understood Grim’s words then. But she did now.
Isla felt its pull from across the island. In her room, where she had left it, with the note for Oro. The heart sang to her, the same song she had heard the moment she had stepped foot on the island. A call like the bird screeching in her ear, a chill like the frost that had numbed her tongue on Moon Isle.
Isla felt it—and called for it.
Her arm outstretched. Her fingers flexed.
And something like an arc of sunlight came crashing through the glass. The heart hurtled into her palm, and she glowed.
Her hand closed, and her cage shattered. Wildling power rushed from the heart in an endless stream. Branches snapped, flying across the room. Something shined at her feet—the bondmaker—and she grabbed it with her other hand, sticking it in her pocket.
A moment later, she was running, jumping, a foot in front of Aurora.
Eyes wide, surprised, Aurora changed in an instant, features twisting, until she became Celeste.
Isla did not hesitate the way Aurora must have been hoping she would. She grabbed the bondmaker from her pocket. Stuck one of its sharp ends into her palm.
And plunged the other end into her best friend’s heart.
Isla’s scream was a wild, guttural thing that rang through the Place of Mirrors. Her face twisted in agony. Her best friend . . . her sister . . .
She felt power barrel through the needle, into her, as Celeste’s eyes went wide, then dimmed.
Until the original offense was committed again. A ruler of realm killing her best friend, in cold blood. A ruling line came to an end. And one of six won.
The world exploded.
Isla was thrown backward by a force wilder than the wind, stronger than a riptide. Tears burned and blurred her vision, hot on her face, dripping down her temples. She blinked once at the stars as she flew back, and they looked much brighter than they ever had before.
Before she landed on the ground, it collapsed.
The curses broke, and so did Lightlark. The floor had fissured, and Isla fell through the crack, after Celeste’s body, which had already been taken by the island. The Starling ruler had fallen hundreds of feet, down into Lightlark’s fiery core. The heart fell from Isla’s hand and plummeted after Celeste, returning to the island once more.
She fell, fell, fell, just like she had that night on the balcony. Behind her back, the ground churned, boiled, ready to receive her bones. She felt power streaming through her, everything she had taken back with the bondmaker. But as she reached to grab it, the energy slipped through her fingers. She didn’t know how to wield it . . . had never used her own ability before.
Isla closed her eyes. Recognizing her fate.
She only had time to say goodbye to one person. She chose—
And something caught her around the waist. Her back arched painfully.
She stopped falling.
Someone had saved her. But that was impossible. Grim and Oro might have been released from their restraints after Aurora’s death, but they couldn’t use their abilities in the Place of Mirrors, even with the curses lifted. Even with Isla returning their powers.
Isla opened her eyes to see that the thing wrapped around her was vine. It had caught her and now began to pull her back to the surface.
But she hadn’t been the one to wield it.
Love on Lightlark is a dangerous thing.
Someone she loved was using her abilities.
The thick plant lifted her to the surface, out of the pit that had opened right in the middle of the Place of Mirrors.
When she reached the top, Isla hauled herself over the edge, onto solid stone, panting. Her hair was a wild mess in front of her.
Through it, she saw Oro release his fist.
And the vine around her waist went limp.
Oro was wielding Isla’s power. And she could see in Grim’s face that he knew what that meant.
The look on his face, agony melting into surprise and finally anger, said that he had also tried to access her abilities. And found that he could not.
Isla opened her mouth. Hours before, her feelings had been different. Hours before, she had been ready to run away with Grim, to build a future together. To sacrifice all she wanted, for him.
But he had betrayed her in every way. He had taken away her memories instead of including her in his plan. Instead of trusting her to make her own decision. He had made the choice for her.
And Oro . . . he had been her true partner through the Centennial. He had handed her truths in exchange for her lies. She had cried in front of him. Laughed. Conquered her greatest fears. Faced many dangers. He knew her better than anyone else on the island—except for the friend she had lost.
Before Isla could say a word, Grim backed out of a gaping hole in the glass and disappeared into the night.
Celeste’s blood was still hot on her hand. Down her sleeve. She fell to her knees and retched. Sobbed. Screamed.
The curses were broken.
But so was she.