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Nightbane: Chapter 5

CORONATION

There were fewer Wildlings left than she thought.

Months before, she had addressed her people. Now, only a fraction remained. They looked weak. There were details she hadn’t noticed before, when she had been so focused on her journey to the Centennial. Now, she saw the signs clearly. A woman with short hair, crudely cut, wore a torn top that revealed all-too-visible ribs. Another looked far too pale, lips chapped, face devoid of color. They had learned to make enough food; she had seen them. She supposed it would take some time for consistent nourishment to make them healthy again.

Some details were the same. A portion of her people had animal companions near them, just like the day she left. Wildlings were known for their affinity with creatures. Poppy had a hummingbird that flew around her hair. Terra had a great panther.

She had always wanted an animal companion. It would have made her life far less lonely.

Terra had always said no.

Isla opened her mouth to speak. Before she could, they did something she couldn’t have expected. Didn’t deserve.

One by one, they bowed.

“No, I—”

They had never done that before. Isla had never demanded it. It wasn’t a custom she was used to.

She didn’t like it. Anxiety thrummed across her skin, and she wanted to yell that they should be screaming at her, calling her names, telling her everything she had done wrong up until this point. They looked like they were still dying. She was a failure, not a hero.

Isla stepped back, words caught in her throat, when a woman with a capybara next to her said, “You broke the curses. You did what all other rulers for centuries could not.”

She frowned. “How do you—how do you know that?”

“Terra told us.”

Terra? The name was a dagger to the chest. How had her guardians even known she was the one to break the curses? Why had Terra told them, after being banished?

Had she defied Isla’s order? Was she still here, on the newland?

“Where is Terra now?” the woman asked. “She was here . . . and then she vanished. And Poppy?” No. Not still here.

“I don’t know,” Isla said honestly. She thought about telling them about the banishment, but she needed to first get a sense of their allegiance. Would they be loyal to her . . . or to the guardians who had mostly ruled the Wildlings since her birth? “Please stand,” she said. She told them everything else. That she’d believed she had been born without powers. That she had a device that allowed her to portal at will. That she now had Starling power. When she was finished, she said, “I have not been a good ruler. I don’t know your struggles. Speak candidly, please. I know you must have questions. Ask them. Tell me what you need.”

Something flickered in her vision. Isla turned, and for the slightest second, she saw Grim, standing among the crowd, watching her.

She froze. Panic dropped through her stomach.

A blink, and he was gone.

Someone asked a question, and she didn’t hear it.

She shook her head. “Sorry, what did you say?” Her ears were ringing. First, the vision in the Place of Mirrors. Then, his voice in her head. Now, she was seeing him . . . What was next?

What was wrong with her?

“I asked what is happening on the island.”

She wondered how much she should say. “There is uncertainty on Lightlark right now. The realms are divided. There are signs of rebellion. We also have reason to believe Nightshades might try to attack Lightlark, like they have in the past.” She attempted a smile. “Once all of that is dealt with, I hope to have us all back on Lightlark one day,” she said. “This has been our home for five centuries, but it is weakened. Lightlark is where we have always belonged.”

There were some murmurs, but no one spoke out against her. She hoped that was a good sign.

She answered their questions as best she could, then sought out a woman who wore purple flowers through the ends of her hair, the color of leadership. She was tall, with light skin, dark hair, and sharp eyes. Her name was Wren, and Isla learned she led one of the larger villages on the newland.

“Why are some people standing apart from the rest?” Isla asked. Her people were not as united as they had seemed months prior. Some were huddled together, but others stood on the outskirts.

Wren looked at her for a moment. “I mean no disrespect,” she said. “But you didn’t have the curse. You don’t know what it’s like to have to kill others for food. To go hungry because there simply wasn’t enough.” She shook her head. “Most of us did things we’re not proud of to survive.”

Tears burned Isla’s eyes. All her life, she had thought it a horror being locked in her room and training so rigorously. It was nothing compared to what her people had gone through; she knew that now. “What do you need?” she asked. “How can I help you?”

Wren pressed her lips together. “We have slowly learned to make food. It has been good for us, I think, figuring things out on our own. Any challenge now . . . it is a mere shadow of what we endured.”

“You must need something,” she said. “Some of you still look starved. I can bring more food. Bring people to help teach you to make other crops or help reconstruct houses.” She had seen the state of the villages during her travels with her starstick. Some buildings had stood the test of time, and others had fallen to pieces. “I can—”

Wren cut her off. “How are the Starlings?”

“I don’t know. I’ve asked, but I haven’t yet visited the newland or isle.”

“Help them,” she said. “We are resourceful. Older. They are so young. They need you more than we do.” She smiled sadly. “It would help,” she said. “With the guilt. To know in some way, we are aiding another realm, instead of . . .”

Killing them.

Isla nodded. “I’ll be back,” she said. “With help and resources, after my coronation.”

Wren nodded. “We will be waiting.”

Bells rang at a distance. The air was sharp with salt from the sea and burned honey from the fair that had cropped up at the base of the castle, all carts filled with varieties of roasted seeds and bands holding their instruments, but not playing them, not yet.

Isla stood at the top of the stairs, just beyond the shadow of the doors, just out of view of the thousands of people waiting below.

It was the day of the Starling coronation, and it seemed everyone on Lightlark was in attendance.

Well, almost everyone.

“No sign of Moonling,” Ella said quietly behind her, because Isla had asked her to look. The young Starling had been her assigned attendant during the Centennial. Now, Isla employed her to be her eyes and ears wherever she could not see or hear.

The bells came to an end. It was time.

Isla stepped forward.

Strings of silver beads made up a dress like spun starlight. Her cape glistened in a ripple behind her as she walked down the stairs. It was still a shock to wear a color she had only dared to use on her prohibited excursions beyond her own realm. It felt wrong, it all felt so wrong, like she had taken her friend’s life, robbed her of her silver, and put it on herself.

Was that what these people thought? That she had killed Celeste—Aurora—for the power?

She looked to the crowd for answers, stomach tensed, braced. Their faces were a mosaic of surprise, curiosity, hate, disgust, trepidation, vitriol—

Breathe.

Isla took another step, and her foot nearly missed the stair completely. She briefly considered gathering her gown in her hands and running back upstairs, locking herself in her room and going anywhere, anywhere, with her starstick.

She wasn’t worthy of any of this. She didn’t deserve to rule anyone. She didn’t even know herself. Part of her past was missing, and that person—the one who had supposedly loved a Nightshade—felt like a stranger. She was sad all the time, and there were so many emotions pressed down, in the deepest depths of herself, that she knew one day would overpower everything else and claw their way out—

She felt it: a thread of heat, steadying her. It was honey in her stomach, a beam of sunshine just for her.

Him. She met Oro’s eyes. The king was her destination. He stood tall and proud and golden, at the very bottom of the steps. There was a silver crown in his hands.

He looked at her like it was just them, no crowd, no crowns.

She took another step. Another. Until she was standing in front of him.

Oro didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. She could read a thousand words in his amber eyes, like you can do this. I’m here for you.

The past few days, she had been avoiding him, knowing he would want her to begin her training. She felt ashamed. Her people needed her to be strong. He just wanted to keep her safe.

He raised the crown high above her, not wasting a moment, knowing she wanted this to be over as soon as possible.

“As king of Lightlark, I name you, Isla Crown, the ruler of Starling.” He placed the crown on her head. It was done.

There was a rumbling.

Oro had turned to address his people, but he paused, his brows coming together slightly.

Nervous murmurs spread through the crowd. There was a second of stillness, the island righting itself, and the people silenced, their momentary curiosity instantly forgotten. But Isla watched Oro, and his expression remained the same. Her hand inched toward the blade at her side.

Before her fingers reached the hilt, the island broke open.

The ground beneath her feet parted like a screaming mouth. She would have been swallowed if she had not been on its edge, on a part that rose like a sharpened tooth. Her body soared back with the force; she closed her eyes. Pain across her side was the only sign she had landed.

Screaming sliced the air in half as a scar tore across the castle steps in a rippling sweep, stone crumbling and falling away.

Both were drowned out by the screeching.

Winged, monstrous creatures howled as they barreled through the open fissure.

Their necks were short, their limbs long. Their tails were nearly nonexistent. Their anatomy almost resembled people, except for their faces—which were pure reptile—their black scales, and, of course, their wings.

In a few moments, they were everywhere.

Dozens of the creatures dropped down, aimed at the crowd. Isla put a hand above her, as if it would be any type of shield against the teeth that curved out of the beasts’ mouths like slanted blades.

Before the beasts could reach them, a blanket of flames erupted into a barrier. Oro. The heat was scalding, steaming Isla in her clothes. When the fire was pulled away, the creatures were gone, reduced to ash that rained upon them. Dozens were killed.

Before anyone could run for shelter, more creatures emerged.

The scar had to be closed. The beasts were rising in endless sweeps, squeezing through the gap. Groaning, Isla pushed herself up to her arms.

Oro was leaned over his knees, clutching his side. Any injury to the island hurt him as well. It must have felt like he was also being peeled open. Face twisted in pain, he lifted his hand and created another barrier, but the creatures closed their wings together in response, making themselves into sharpened arrows, talons at their fronts like blades. With cries that threatened to crack the sky into shards, they barreled through the protective sphere—

And feasted on them all.

Bones crunched, blood splattered, limbs were torn away. The beasts crashed down, undisturbed by Sunling flames, Starling sparks, or Skyling wind. Their talons tore through flesh as easily as swords through sand.

Azul shot up into the air, with a legion of Skylings surrounding him. They fought with bursts of wind, shooting the creatures down from the sky or slamming them against the island until they went still. Sunlings wielding swords covered in flames guarded people huddled behind the carts in the fair. All the islanders fought back, but many were no match for the creatures, whose hides resisted most uses of power. Before their strategy could be changed, most of them were torn in half by powerful jaws. Some islanders stopped using their abilities altogether, as it marked them as targets, and pressed themselves to the ground or ran.

Just like at the ball months before, Isla watched it all unfold, a helpless spectator. No. They might hate her, this might never feel like home, but she had to do something.

Isla stood on weakened legs, blood hot on the side of her face. She placed a hand over her heart. The heart that had been torn in two by an arrow. The one that was healed by the heart of Lightlark itself, the one that was linked to Oro’s own ability.

A heart that had, more times than not, failed her.

“Please,” she whispered, eyes on Oro, who was oscillating between killing swarms of beasts attacking his people and trying to close the scar the winged creatures were still flying through in droves.

She could help him. Wildling power included controlling rock and land. If she could manage to grasp some of that power, she could help all of them.

Isla closed her eyes. She focused on her breathing.

Nothing.

She stretched out her trembling hand. “Come on.”

Nothing.

The powers she had been born with were twisted together, making them harder to access. Her Starling abilities were not, however. They were there, just below the surface. She summoned them.

Nothing happened.

Perhaps she could focus on the link between her and Oro instead. Use his power. She looked at the king, whose arms were both shaking with effort, one outstretched at each side.

She felt it. Tried to grasp it. Nothing.

She shook her hand toward the cut in the ground, picturing herself sealing it shut with ice or burned rock or energy, willing with every bit of her being for it to close. “Come on!” she bellowed.

Nothing.

Her yell had attracted the attention of the closest winged creature. It opened its mouth, and a severed arm fell to the ground.

Then, it lunged at her.

Isla didn’t have a chance to scream or attempt to use power again. With just a flap of its wings, it was right above her. She saw the creature bare its teeth, open its massive jaw.

An inch from swallowing her head whole, the creature froze. Its wings moved slowly as it closed its mouth and lowered its face, as if to inspect her.

Isla didn’t know why, but she reached toward it, until the very tips of her fingers grazed the space between its eyes—entirely too aware eyes.

The beast blinked. Then, it opened its mouth again—

And screeched. The sound nearly popped her ears, and everything around her muted. She gritted her teeth, readying herself to be eaten alive.

But the creature only turned its head and left, with another screech.

The rest followed.

Isla watched them flee to the horizon, calculating the direction they were going. Nightshade. They were going toward Nightshade.

No. She remembered her vision in the Place of Mirrors . . . Grim attacking with shadows that killed everything in their path. She had convinced herself it was a figment of her imagination, but—

Maybe it was real.

By the time the beasts were just a smudge in the distance, Oro had closed the opening in the ground. Screams still pierced the air, along with the metallic scent of blood. The back of Isla’s throat burned with inhaled ash. The injured . . . their wounds didn’t look normal. Their skin looked ravaged by shadows. The lesions were growing, moving, slowly decaying everything in their path.

“You did this.”

The voice sounded smothered, faraway. Isla turned. A woman was standing in a sea of bodies, not far at all, pointing a finger right at her.

“It didn’t attack her. She was communicating with it!”

She took a step backward. “What? I didn’t—”

A man joined the woman. “I saw it. She’s allied with the Nightshades, isn’t she?” Isla shook her head. “This ceremony was a setup, so we could all be here at once. So the beasts could attack us.”

“No, of course not,” she said, barely hearing her own voice, taking another step back.

No one was listening to her.

Isla’s heart was beating too fast; she was hyperventilating, and still none of the air seemed to be reaching her lungs, and she was suddenly light-headed—

“Enough.” The word was an order and silenced the crowd. Azul dropped down from the sky, landing in a crouch that shook the ground with power. He had one of the creatures’ heads in one of his hands, cut neatly by the sword on his waist, dripping in dark blood. He turned to look at Isla for just a moment, and she worried his face might be full of suspicion, but he only looked curious.

A hand hot as fire gripped her shoulder. She turned to see Oro, searching her face, looking her over, checking for serious injury. Only when he seemed satisfied did he turn and begin yelling orders. Isla could barely hear a word that came out of his mouth. The world had started tilting. In response to one of Oro’s dictations, Azul flew from what was left of the steps in the direction of the isles.

“Wildling elixir,” she said to herself, knowing this was how she could help. People were dying all around her—they needed to be healed. She had never seen injuries like this, but the healing serum had never failed her. If she could get to her starstick, she could portal to the Wildling newland and get more. She made her way up the steps, narrowly avoiding the closed scar, walking over corpses of the creatures that Oro had killed. They sat charred and steaming.

She didn’t even make it to the doors of the castle. At the top of the steps, Isla fell to her knees. Her legs had gone numb. Panic closed in around her. She couldn’t breathe. Blood. Everywhere. So many dead. She hadn’t been able to save them.

If she hadn’t been so selfish, so weak; if she had started training like Oro had insisted, she could have helped, she could have been more than just a blight.

She thought of her vision again and Grim’s voice. Come back to me, he had said. That was what he wanted.

The creatures were clearly summoned by Grim. There was a reason they hadn’t hurt her.

Her breathing was labored. She heard Ella saying her name, attempting to pull her up. Her eyes closed, and all she saw in her mind was the woman pointing at her, declaring her the cause of all their suffering.

Isla couldn’t help but think that maybe she was right.


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