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Nightbane: Chapter 12

KEY CLICKING INTO A LOCK

Isla startled awake. No. Oro was still clutching her hand, but he was finally sleeping, head leaned to the side. She didn’t want to wake him.

A single memory was one thing. Two?

She had been so weak. Cowering. Now that her abilities were unraveled, she refused to ever feel that way again.

That day, Isla left her bed. She bathed in the small tub Ella had set up. The water was freezing, as Oro couldn’t use his abilities in the Place of Mirrors to heat it, but she gritted her teeth against the chill. She put on the dark-green pants, long-sleeved shirt, and high brown boots Leto had made her.

Isla began her training.

The dirt was dead in her hands.

Isla sat in the middle of Wild Isle, fingers curled into the soil. The headache and voices hadn’t gone away, but she forced them to the corners of her mind. She had been trying and failing to use her powers for nearly an hour.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Before . . .” All she’d had to do was place a hand on the forest floor and it had exploded with life and color.

Oro was standing a few feet away, leaning against a half-rotted tree. “Raw power is like a beast. Without mastery, it lashes out unpredictably. Not always when you want it to.” The memory of the rebels touching her skin flitted through her mind. “That’s why learning control is so important.”

“And difficult?” she asked, finally pulling her hands from the dirt.

“And difficult,” he agreed. “Using it in a directed way requires intense focus.”

Focus.

Her mind was filled to the brim, a thousand thoughts running rampant. She couldn’t focus on a single thought if her life depended on it.

“It might,” Oro said, and only then did she realize she had said part of that aloud. He bent down and grabbed a rock. He placed it in front of her. “Instead of just trying to force your power out, focus all of your mind and energy on this,” he said. “Move it.”

He got up and left.

She whipped around. “Where—where are you going? I thought you were going to train me.”

“I am,” he said.

She watched him walk back to the Place of Mirrors.

Her first impulse was to yell at his back that he had promised not to leave her, but no. She could do this.

Isla dug her fingers into the dirt again. She took a deep breath. Dropped her shoulders. She tried to focus on the sensations around her. The dryness of the ground. The heat of the sun warming the crown of her head. The slight wind making the loose hairs around her face go wild.

It took only a few moments for focusing to feel almost physically painful. Then it slipped, and thoughts poured into her mind like high tide. Worries. Anxieties.

Him.

No. She shut him out, closed her eyes tightly. Dug her fingers deeper into the ground. “I will get this,” she said. “I will forget, and I will focus.”

Would she, though?

Her powers needed a strong vessel. She was a half person. Walking through life carrying the weight of her past around with her.

She tried to force it all away. She sat and curled her fingers even deeper, until dirt ran far up her fingernails.

Nothing happened.

For days, she sat in silence, then went to bed frustrated. Some hours, she could hold her attention in small spurts. Others, distractions would dive in like vultures. Sometimes, the voice in her head was cruel. It was like there was a blade in her mind, feeling around for where it could hurt her the most.

The rock never moved an inch.

When Oro came to meet her that night, she was exhausted and frustrated. “I cannot just spend days staring at a rock,” she said.

“Learning to wield takes time.”

“How long did it take you?”

Oro raised a brow at her. “To master? Years for each power.”

Years. She didn’t have years. Her vision of Grim’s destruction could happen at any moment. She wondered if she should have told the other representatives and rulers about it. Would they trust her at all? Would they believe she was working with Grim, like the woman after the drek attack?

He must have seen her face drop because he said, “It won’t always be hard. One day, something will give. Some of a ruler’s mastery of power is like a key clicking into a lock.”

Breath caught in her throat. So far, she had felt no such key. It was another rejection. First the vault. Now this.

“Isla,” he said, coming to stand in front of her. “What’s wrong?”

“You don’t get it,” she said quickly. “Control was probably easy for you. You never knew what it was like to be alone in your incompetence, to not be in total and complete control of—”

“I killed someone,” he said, and his voice was so serious, she tensed. “By accident, with my abilities. When I was a child.”

“What?”

“Power usually develops later in life, but I set my crib aflame when I was just a few months old. My mother found me sitting in the center of the flames, just staring at her. They were forced to train me as soon as possible, as they feared I would destroy the castle with a tantrum. I was far stronger than I was supposed to be, as a second child.”

“Stronger than Egan,” she said, speaking his brother’s name. The former king, who had sacrificed himself, along with all other rulers, for the chance of a future.

Oro nodded. “I was sent to the isles every few years, to master each ability. Control was the first lesson I ever learned as a child. Control your emotions, or you could bring the palace down. Control your heart, because allowing anyone access to that power would be ruinous. Control your tongue, because you are not the firstborn, and your opinions don’t matter.”

Isla’s heart broke for the little boy Oro had once been. She took his hand.

“I did all of it,” he said, staring at the ground. “There was another ability, though, that hadn’t manifested in centuries.” His eyes met hers. “Since I didn’t know about it, I couldn’t control it. I had been playing with my friends, having too much fun, and, before I knew what was happening, I turned an attendant to solid gold.” His voice had become lifeless. The mistake still seemed to haunt him, centuries later.

Isla couldn’t imagine the pain. If she killed an innocent person by accident, because of her lack of control, she would never be able to forgive herself.

“I felt such guilt and shame, even as my parents celebrated my power. The only thing that got me through my training were the people I met. I had—I have—really good friends.”

He did? Isla felt ashamed that she had never even asked him much about his life before the curses.

“For years, I didn’t wield,” he said. “I was ashamed of my abilities. The guilt ate at me. I hated myself for a long time.”

Tears stung her eyes. He couldn’t know how similar she felt now, for different reasons.

“It was only after I was able to forgive myself for the mistake I made as a child that I could start living again.” His thumb grazed the back of her hand. “You will get this, Isla,” he said. “It might not be today, or tomorrow, but I will be here with you until you do. You are not alone.”

You are not alone.

It was early the next morning when she snuck out of the Place of Mirrors, shoes crunching on the leftover glass on the floor.

She took the rock to the edge of the isle. Legs hanging, she watched the sun climb from the horizon like a phoenix, dying every day, only to rise again.

She closed her eyes.

For once, instead of trying to keep everything down, Isla dared her mind to do its worst, and it did. Her pain came flooding through the walls she had put up, and it hurt, it hurt so much, but it was almost a relief to have her emotions spilling out of her, instead of keeping them all pressed down.

She thought about her parents. Born enemies. A Wildling and a Nightshade. Life and death. They really must have loved each other, she thought, to not only get together . . . but also have a child.

Would they be ashamed of her? Would they think her weak?

She allowed herself to grieve the little girl who had grown up locked away like a secret. The one who had bled countless times to be the best possible warrior. Terra had taken the approach of breaking her first, so that the world would not. All she had ever wanted was to be accepted. To be good enough. To be loved—

It had made her the perfect person for Celeste—Aurora—to target and take advantage of. That name in her thoughts made her ache. Her friend. She had been her best friend.

Finally . . . she thought of him. Grim.

The memories were like pulling the stitches of a wound, making it bleed again.

After hours of letting her thoughts go wild, Isla took a breath and began to forgive herself for some of her mistakes. She pictured the little girl, sitting alone in her room, and thought, She doesn’t deserve this.

When she focused on the rock again, she realized that besides her crown, her powers were the only thing that connected her to her ancestors. To her mother.

She closed her eyes and found the incessant, anxious, cruel thoughts weren’t so strong anymore, as if letting them run wild had caused them to lose their energy.

Isla had never known her mother, but she wanted to make her proud. She wanted to help her people. She wanted everything that she had already been through to be worth it.

She wanted to be better, for that little girl sitting in the glass room.

Her arm lifted, her gaze trained on the rock.

Something in her chest thrummed, coming to life, then caught—a key clicking into a lock. She didn’t dare blink as she outstretched her hand.

The rock began to vibrate. It squirmed beneath her gaze.

She reached back, then threw her arm forward.

It moved—

Along with the five feet of island beneath, which was carved out like a giant had dipped its finger into Wild Isle and dug a path right across it. Isla now had a clear view all the way to the water from where she stood. She was covered in dirt.

Isla was breathless. It was sloppy, and far from controlled, but she’d done it.

. . .

From then on, they trained from the first sunlight to the last. In the mornings, she and Oro ran on the beaches below the Whitecliffs. He said it would help clear her mind, and it did.

She practiced moving large and small objects. She practiced manipulating the dirt and rocks around her. Every day, he came up with new tests, new ways to sharpen her control. In the evenings, they had dinner together, just the two of them. Afterward, they would sit on the floor, drinking tea, trading stories about their childhoods, until Isla inevitably fell asleep. She always woke up in her bed, though, meticulously wrapped in blankets.

Since she hadn’t been able to visit the Starlings after the coronation, Isla asked Oro to station guards at the Star Isle bridge, to prevent the attacks, and to provide any immediate assistance they might require.

“Consider it done,” he had said, and it made her feel a little better about committing all this time to training.

Little by little, control became natural. The power within her, unruly and vast like the sea, began to sharpen into a single stream of ability.

Today, Oro pulled a blindfold from his pocket. “Is this okay?” he asked.

She nodded, and he tied it tightly around her head. “Bring back any memories?”

He laughed, the sound low and scraping the back of her mind.

“Did you want to kill me that day?” she asked, remembering how she had knocked the crown from his head with one of her throwing stars. How it had clattered noisily in the shocked silence.

“No,” he whispered somewhere close to her ear, the shade of his voice making her arms prickle, even though it was scorching outside. “Quite the opposite.”

“Really?”

“Really. That night, all I could think about was your annoyingly smug face when you took off the blindfold.”

The corners of her lips twitched. “I was pretty impressed with myself.” She frowned. “Though my demonstration wasn’t nearly as impressive as your gilding.” She said the last word carefully. With what he had shared with her, she imagined his ability to gild was still tinged with pain. Tainted. Hundreds of years had gone by. She wanted to take the pain associated with the ability away.

Was that love?

She reached up and moved the blindfold so she could see him. “You know,” she teased, “for someone who can make anything into gold . . . I would think you would have already gifted someone you love at least a golden apple. Or a golden . . . blade of grass.”

Someone you love . . . She surprised herself with the boldness of her words.

He tensed. She only got a glimpse of his surprise before he tugged the blindfold down over her eyes again. His hand did not leave her face. His thumb slid down her temple, and it sent shivers through her body. He sighed and leaned down to whisper in her ear, “When all this is over, I’ll gild you an entire castle. Is that sufficient?”

“That’s a little excessive.”

Another sigh.

He stepped away, and his voice became serious. “Wielding power means feeling it around you, not simply seeing it. Even with your back turned, or eyes closed, you should be able to sense a threat.”

A rock hit the side of her head, and she whipped around, baring her teeth. “Really?”

“It was a pebble. I’m reaching for a rock now. Focus.”

Isla couldn’t see a thing behind the blindfold, but she focused, and the tiny threads that had annoyed her so much previously began appearing, a million little links around her. She had blocked them out the last few weeks, but now they all came rearing back, especially since one of her main senses had been taken away. The more she mentally searched her surroundings, the louder everything became again. It was like endless noise; she couldn’t focus on anything—

By the time she sensed the rock, it had already hit her shoulder.

She winced. The bruise was sure to look like a storm cloud.

“Focus.”

“I am,” she said through her teeth.

Another rock hurtled at her. She sensed it and shot out her hand but missed. It hit her hip.

Isla felt something rising through her ribs, uncurling in her chest.

When the next rock hit her in the stomach, it unleashed.

“Put your arms down, Isla.”

Were they even up? She ripped the blindfold off, only to see sharp blades made from branches, dozens of them, levitating in the air, all pointed at Oro. Rocks hovered between them, vibrating with intensity.

Isla gasped, and they fell to the ground with a lifeless thump.

She took a step back. “I—I’m sorry.” She hadn’t even realized what she was doing. Her power had taken over.

Oro stepped toward her. “I was never in danger.”

But what if she did hurt him one day? When he was asleep? When she wasn’t paying attention?

“You need to work on controlling your emotions when using power,” he said. “But.” There was a but? “That was impressive.”

“It was?”

“It was focused, at least. A lot more controlled than when Remlar initially released your powers,” Oro said.

“So, what you’re saying is, I am getting more efficient at trying to kill you,” she deadpanned.

“Precisely.” His expression turned serious. “Emotion undoes control,” he explained. “When you’re emotional, your power has no constraint. It might seem like it makes you more powerful, but it can be dangerous. It can drain you completely until there’s nothing left.”

Isla trained harder. She tested the limits of her control, working to keep her emotions steady. Her life narrowed to just her, Oro, and her Wildling power. For over a week, there were no more memories. No more voice inside her head. No sightings.

The shadow of Grim had disappeared, and Isla hoped she never had to see him again.


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