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Nightbane: Chapter 27

PREMONITION

There was still no word on the Skyling vote. It had been pushed back, after much debate. Most Wildlings trained for war, and the rest worked nonstop to make more healing elixirs. Starlings on the newland were creating special armor for them, infused with energy.

Now, she needed to focus on the shield. Maren had promised Isla a list of the greatest wielders on Star Isle, to determine how large it would be.

Days had passed without her request being fulfilled. It was unlike Maren, who had managed all other aspects of preparing for the incoming war and evacuation with ease. Enya had helped Isla provide direct aid to Star Isle in the last few weeks—food, resources, guards at their bridge—and Maren had managed everything without issue.

She was clearly surprised to see Isla when she stepped foot on Star Isle.

“Isla,” Maren said. “I wasn’t expecting you today. We can get—”

“Who is the best Starling at wielding?” Isla asked. “Just—just take me to them.” Her tone was harsh, but Grim was coming in only twenty days. They couldn’t waste a moment.

Maren didn’t meet her eyes. It took her several seconds to even say a word. “There are a few who are skilled. I can take you to them.”

“No,” Isla said. “Who is the best?” She frowned. “Is it—is it you?” Was that why Maren had been evasive?

Maren shook her head.

“Then who?”

The Starling met her eyes. The intensity there took Isla aback. “The king hasn’t changed his mind about taking fighters who aren’t volunteers?”

“No. No one is being forced to fight. We just need energy for the shield.”

“Can . . . can the pooling of energy be anonymous?”

Anonymous? Isla was getting irritated. “I suppose so. Why?”

Maren’s expression became more intense than usual. “Promise me,” she said. “If I tell you, promise that you won’t tell anyone.”

Isla frowned. She was her ruler. She didn’t have to make promises in exchange for information. Still, she saw the fierceness in Maren’s face and nodded. “I won’t tell anyone but the king.”

Maren considered. She closed her eyes. “I will show you,” she said.

She took her to a field of craters. They were holes in the isle like stars had fallen from the sky and left their marks. Someone stood in one of the craters’ center.

Streams of silver shot from their hands in glittering ribbons. They whipped against the sides of the crater, piercing the rock, slicing through it like butter. Creatures formed from the sparks, and they slithered, jumped, flew around the crater, contained only by its perimeter. It was a dazzling display of power.

It was Cinder.

Isla’s mouth had dropped open watching. Cinder wielded power like a master. Her stances, the liquidous movements of her arms—everything was so natural, as if she’d been alive for many multiples of her actual age.

She jumped down into the crater, and the little girl whipped around. A smile transformed her features. “Isla!”

“Who was your teacher?” she asked in lieu of greeting. “Are they still living?”

Cinder regarded her strangely. “Teacher?” She looked to Maren, who had carefully made her way down one of the crater’s edges. Maren only shrugged a shoulder.

“Who taught you to wield this way?” Isla shook her head in disbelief. “I was told there weren’t any Starling masters left. How many can wield like you? You must have started training before you could walk! You must practice every moment.”

Cinder laughed. “No, not really.” She shrugged. “I’m just good at it, I guess.”

I guess?

Isla looked to Maren, who seemed wary. She stepped to the opposite side of the crater, away from Cinder, and Isla followed. “When she was two years old, I heard her laughing in a room all alone. I came in to find her playing with a perfect ball of sparks. One she had created herself.”

Isla’s brows came together. “But that . . . that shouldn’t be possible, should it? Someone who isn’t a ruler being that powerful?”

“It is certainly unusual. She is the best wielder on the isle.” She lowered her voice. “And she is the only reason any of us survived the fire that destroyed our homes.”

Cinder was laughing as she created an animal with a crown of antlers out of sparks. It hopped on its haunches, jumping around her in a circle. Isla understood now. “That’s why you’ve never let her leave,” she said. “You don’t want anyone else to know.”

Maren nodded. “She is more a sister to me than a cousin. Having any family relation is rare for Starlings. She is my responsibility. She is everything to me.”

Cinder blasted over, propelled by Starling energy shooting out of both of her palms. “Your turn, Isla! The crater is so plain and boring. Paint it with flowers!”

Maren gave her a look. “She is our ruler, Cinder. You do not command her.”

“It’s all right,” Isla said, smiling. She raised her hand, and flowers bloomed across the ground.

“Pretty! Make a beast next! Make one like I do, but out of plants and sticks and stuff!”

Her expression faltered, just a little. “I—I don’t think I can, Cinder.”

Cinder frowned. “Why not?”

“I’m only now learning to wield. I’m not a master. Not yet.” Cinder tilted her head, her dark hair falling across her forehead. “You can’t fully wield power?” A little crease appeared between her brows. “But . . . it’s so easy.”

“Cinder.”

“Especially for a ruler. Right?”

Cinder.”

“And you have so much, you—”

“Cinder!” Maren took her hand and began leading her away. “That’s enough. And enough of this,” she said.

Isla had the impression that Maren had restricted Cinder to use her power only during certain time frames and within the confines of this crater.

“Maren,” Isla said, stepping forward while Cinder collected her things. Her voice was low. “We need her to provide energy for the shield.” And possibly, Isla thought, to turn ore into the essential metal, if Zed and Calder managed to extract it. Maren looked from Cinder to Isla warily. “We’re going to cover most of the Mainland with thorns and bog sand, but walls of energy will be critical to limit where Nightshade can strike.”

Maren closed her eyes. “You promise to keep it anonymous?”

“I give you my word. She can form her part of the shield with no one else around.”

“Fine,” Maren said. Then, she called Cinder to her in a sharp tone. “We’re leaving,” she said. As she was taken away, Cinder looked over her shoulder and smiled. With a flick of her tiny hand, she sent a flurry of sparks to Isla that fell from the sky like glitter.

. . .

Isla told Oro about Cinder before bed. She was walking around the room, speaking with her hands, trying to demonstrate what the little girl had done.

“What do you make of it?” she asked, turning to face him when she was done.

“I think Cinder sounds like a very special child.”

“Have those existed?” she asked.

“A few, over the centuries. There have been non-rulers born with flairs, even. Unfortunately, their tales often end in tragedy. Maren is right to keep her hidden.”

Isla frowned. “But you’re the king. Couldn’t you protect her?”

“I could order an army to stand around her at all times. I could send for her to come live here, in the castle. Would you like that?”

“No,” she said. Cinder’s life seemed difficult, but in many ways she was free. The castle or legion would just become a thicker prison.

She took a step toward the bed, exhausted, when her vision suddenly went dark. Her limbs went numb—her body folded over. Before she hit the ground, she was in Oro’s arms. Physically, warmth surrounded her.

Mentally, all she felt was cold.

It was her vision again, clearer than ever.

Darkness fell from the sky, night cut into pieces. It pressed onto her skin, got stuck in her eyelashes. Howls. Dreks.

Screams. People dying all around her.

Through it all, she saw Grim. The darkness touched everything but him. He was its source.

He was looking at her. He didn’t look at the dying around him, he just looked right at her and stalked toward her with a concentration that cut through her like a blade.

Run, a voice inside her head said. Leave. Save yourself.

She either couldn’t or didn’t. She stayed there as darkness parted her lips and forced her to drink it.

She tasted death on the back of her tongue.

Then, in her chest.

Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

Isla tried to fight it, but it was no use. In her vision, her organs began to shut down, one by one.

She felt it, as every part of her withered away.

She felt herself die.

Oro was cradling her in his arms. Apparently, she had been screaming. Tears choked her words, as she tried to explain what she had seen. Her vision, but more. It was clearer now. Longer. Before, she had seen only Grim’s darkness and destruction.

Now, she knew how it ended.

“He kills me,” she said. “In the future, he kills me.”

Heat nearly set the room aflame. Oro’s lip curled over his teeth. She had never seen him more murderous than she did now. “Then we will kill him first.”

Her eyes rolled to the back of her head as she fell into another memory.


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