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Nightbane: Chapter 33

CREATURES IN THE WOODS

Grim had taught her to defend herself. She blinked away tears as she wondered if he would ever guess he would become her greatest threat. In the future, he killed her. She saw it clearly.

Why would he hurt her, after taking such pains to keep her safe? It was counter to everything she knew about him.

Though, perhaps she had never truly known him at all.

When Isla crossed the Star Isle bridge, the air felt taut with energy. It smelled faintly of metal. Just like when Celeste used to get worried and upset.

She ran the rest of the way to the ruins where the Starlings lived, and there, she also smelled blood.

“What happened?” Isla demanded.

“The creatures,” Maren said. “A little girl . . . about Cinder’s age . . .” Her voice cracked at the end.

Leo was there, a reed sticking out of his mouth. He chewed it with nervous fervor. “She went into the woods, and this is all we found.”

A cloak sat on the floor. It was soaked in blood. Someone cried out. A sister, or friend, she didn’t know.

Isla shut her eyes tightly. She had promised to protect them.

She looked around at the Starlings. They were young. Scared. They were staring at her, and she remembered what Ella had said. You gave us a chance to live. To most of us, you are a god. A savior.

It was her duty to see if she could possibly save the little girl.

With more resolution than she felt, Isla asked, “Where can I find these creatures?”

None of the Starlings would walk beyond the first silver stream of water that cut the isle in half. It looked like a piece of ribbon, glittering below the sun.

Everything was silent.

Ciel and Avel circled above. She told them to keep their distance. Surprise would be an advantage.

“If you see them, you’re already dead,” one of the Starlings offered, and she expected fear to curl in her stomach.

It did not. She had seen her own death in her head. She had faced many dangers already. Those thoughts kept her moving forward, through the stillness of Star Isle.

A bird with silver wings cut through the sky like a pair of swords. She recognized it immediately. Celeste—Aurora—had told her about the bird. A few of them had made it to the Starling newland. It was a heartfinch, named so because they always traveled in pairs and often leaned their beaks together in a manner resembling a heart.

This one was alone.

Isla’s fingers slipped down the hilt of her blade at her waist, by habit. The ability in her chest thrummed, as if in warning, and she let it warm her, like drinking a hot cup of tea.

The crumbled wall is your last chance to turn around, Leo had told her around his reed. After that . . . you belong to them.

They looked nervous that Isla was going to confront the creatures. She would show them she was capable of protecting them.

The wall was no more than a few scattered silver stones, with an arch that had partially collapsed. There was a puddle of something at its entrance. She leaned down and dipped a finger inside.

She didn’t need to smell it to know it was blood. It had gone cold.

Just as she straightened, squinting behind her to see Ciel and Avel circling in the distance, it began to rain.

Of course, she thought, glaring up at the sky, wishing she was a Moonling so she could at least direct the water around her. She was no such thing, so she shook her head and resigned herself to being soaked. Water splashed in the puddle of blood, overflowing it, making it run down the mossy cobblestone, through the gaps between them in lines like veins. She studied it for a moment, her stomach turning, then stepped through the remaining half of the arch.

Isla walked for nearly an hour without incident. She had reached the forest where the creatures were said to live. It was nothing like the other Star Isle woods she had visited during the Centennial. Where that one had been sparse, this one was overgrown. Wild. The silver trees had leaves sharp as blades. Their trunks were braided together into thick knots, their roots were the width of her arms. Thorned brambles made up much of the space between them. She would have exerted much of her power to clear a path, but she didn’t need to. She happened upon a wide, clean pathway cut right through the forest, as if made for her. There were no roots or errant flowers or weeds on it. It was smooth. Recently used.

That didn’t make sense. Was there a community living out here? Were they like the Vinderland? Outcasts who had renounced all realms a millennium ago?

Isla gripped her sword hilt again.

She felt little connection with this place. It seemed defensive, a fortress. Lightning struck, slicing the sky in half. Thunder clapped, and more rain showered down, pelting her through the treetops.

She whipped around.

Out of the corner of her eye—she swore she saw movement, far above. Her sword made a high-pitched scratch as she unsheathed it and leaned into her stance.

Seconds passed. Nothing moved. The flash of motion she had seen had been high above her, past even the treetops . . . She squinted through the rain, but the trees were empty. The leaves were too sharp, she reasoned. No people or animals could comfortably climb them. They would cut themselves. Right?

She did not re-sheathe her sword as she stepped forward, into a clearing. A massive lake sat in its center, a slice of silver in the shape of an eye. Its surface vibrated with a million raindrops, tiny circles everywhere, overlapping.

As she walked toward it, she tripped. A root—how did she miss it? No. Upon closer inspection, she saw it was not a root. It was a snake. Its metallic scales shined brightly. It writhed below, lifting its head as if to strike her. She took a step back and noticed a new shadow, casting long in front of her, all the way across the lake. It was too large to be a tree.

It hadn’t been there before.

Chest constricting, Isla slowly turned around.

Lightning struck again, reflecting off the scales of a coiled, hundred-foot-tall serpent.

Isla resisted the urge to scream.

There was the creature. One of them, at least. It was large enough that it could swallow her without any trouble at all. It could swallow a tower without any trouble. She took a step back—

It struck.

At the last moment, Isla rolled to the side, and its fangs sunk into the wet, silver-speckled ground.

Move. She needed to move. Avel and Ciel weren’t far behind, but by the time they got to her, it would be too late.

Before she could react, the serpent recovered and reared back, ready to strike again.

It launched into her, throwing her into the lake.

For a moment, there was silence as she fell through the ice-cold water, a thousand needles through her limbs. Bubbles exploded from the surface—

Then, there was the snake head. She cut her hand as she gripped both ends of her sword in front of her body, to keep it from swallowing her whole. The snake’s massive jaw only widened. Her arms shook as she struggled against its strength, as it pushed her farther and farther down into the water.

Her vision began to lose its sharpness. Her hands and feet began to lose their sensation. The options were clear. Either the serpent was going to eat her, or she was going to drown. Potentially both. She called to her power, but there was no foliage here, in the center of this lake. She tried her shadows and watched them dissolve in the water, useless.

Without warning, the serpent pulled back and she heard a muted roar through the water.

Mind spinning, chest pulsing in pain, lungs begging for air, she crashed through the surface, only to see that Ciel had dug his sword through the space between the serpent’s thick scales. It roared and raged, striking at the Skylings in the sky, as they battled with torrents of air.

She raced out of the water, dripping, freezing, in time to see the snake spin and strike Avel with its tail. She fell from the sky and landed in a heap on the ground. Her twin cried out, distracted, and the snake took that opportunity to attack—

It hit a wall of thorns instead.

Slowly, very slowly, the serpent turned around. Isla stood there, panting, arm raised. She had power.

She would use it.

Isla kicked off her shoes. She dug her feet deep into the muddy ground and focused. Found her center. Cleared her thoughts. The connection clicked.

She had been practicing.

Her eyes opened, and the forest raged. The woods rose around the serpent, so quickly it was trapped before it could move an inch. Thick roots acted as chains, tree trunks curled around its body, vines pinned it in place. By the time Isla was done, it couldn’t wriggle even an inch out of its prison. She expected the serpent to roar again, or try to strike, but it just watched her.

She was panting. Her chest felt hollow. Too much power had been used in too short of a period. Her gaze shifted to Ciel, who was cradling Avel’s head. Relief rained down her spine. The Skyling was awake.

Isla was about to tell Ciel to get his sister help, when the serpent suddenly slipped out of its confines. She watched, frozen in place, as the snake shrunk, turned, and uncoiled—

Until it became a woman.

She easily walked through the tower of restraints Isla had made, tilted her head, and said, “Wildling?”

Isla didn’t breathe as the woman stepped forward. She was wearing a long dress that trailed across the floor, made up of the same scales she had just worn across her body.

As a snake.

“What are you?” Isla demanded. She had never heard of a person being able to change into an animal before. It was an impossible ability.

The woman tilted her head at Isla, the movement purely serpentine. “You don’t recognize your own people?”

She . . . used to be Wildling? Had she somehow, like the Vinderland, abandoned her realm?

How was that even possible? It clearly wasn’t anymore, or most people would have abandoned their ties to their realms during the curses.

The woman nodded. “You’re putting it together, I can see it . . . your face is very expressive . . . not a very good trait as a ruler, is it?” She stepped forward, and it took everything in Isla not to recoil.

“The little girl,” Isla said, her voice shaking. “Is she—”

“She’s gone,” the woman said quickly. “Not me . . . but . . . all the same, there’s nothing left.”

Isla’s bottom lip trembled. Her eyes stung. Poor girl . . . she should have been here to protect her. “You . . . you kill children,” she said, her voice full of disgust.

The woman’s lip curled away from her mouth, baring teeth that were far too sharp. “Oh, and other Wildlings didn’t?” she took a step forward. “We have done what we needed to survive. We needed food. We’re no different from you.”

We. Were there more like her? Serpent-people? Or were the other ancient, deadly creatures different?

“It ends now,” Isla said. “I rule Starling, and you will stop killing them.”

The woman just looked at her. “Tell them to stop coming to this part of the isle,” she said. “We never hunted; we simply took whatever came wandering in. We could have killed them all, you know.”

Killed them all.

Isla wanted to kill the serpent-woman right then . . . but she thought about Zed’s words. They could use beings like her in battle.

“Nightshades are coming to destroy the island,” Isla said. “You will fight with us.” It was a command.

The woman looked at her. Then, she laughed. It was too loud, like the roar of the serpent, like the clap of thunder that sounded above. “Now . . . when you asked that, did you really believe I would say yes?”

Isla stepped forward. She worked every bit of command into her voice as she said, “You are Wildling. I am your ruler, and I am ordering you.”

The woman bared her teeth. Before Isla’s eyes, her dress became a tail. It took her half a second to be upon Isla, growing larger and larger, rising, serpent part piling beneath her. “I was Wildling,” she said. “I will not fight for you or anyone else on this island.” She leaned back as if to strike again. “I will let you live today, and you should take that as a gift.”

Avel was on her feet. Blood dripped down the side of her head, but she looked capable of flying. Before Avel and Ciel lifted her between them, Isla said, “You will not kill another Starling.”

She could hear the woman laughing as they took to the air and left.

It was only once she was in bed that night that Isla remembered a very different encounter with a snake.


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