IX. THE MARKER
Isla had been holding her breath—so long she could feel a singe in her cheeks, so hard she could hear her blood rush in her ears, so strained her pounding heart rattled her entire body.
But it wasn’t because of shock. No—she’d surpassed that emotion a while ago. Now it was rage, pure, unadulterated rage, and she feared the furious sound would give away her location. Though, not a care in her heart existed for the consequences of being caught eavesdropping. She was more concerned with those of which would occur if she were unable to hold back her desire to tear the Alpha apart the second he met her gaze.
She felt like the floor had been dropped out from under her, like the past few days had been a ruse.
“You leave your family, become my Luna, bound to my Pack, to me, forever. Is that what you want?”
What complete and utter bullshit.
None of this had been about what she wanted. None of this was about doing “right by her”. None of this was a rebellion against Fate for all the Goddess had taken from him.
“There’s a lot of. . . darkness in the pasts of Deimos and Io. A lot of bad blood. It runs deep.”
Even now. Definitely now.
Pieces were starting to come together as she began drawing a conclusion that made her blood boil.
Kai knew all along what was likely to occur if their bond came to fruition—a Luna of Io by his side at the head of his beloved Deimos. He knew how horribly it would be received, how much doubt that it would cast on him. When he’d met her that night on the terrace, figured out who she was and where she hailed from, he’d laid out his plan, smooth-talked her right into the palm of his hand, and played her like a fiddle. She ate it all up—the chivalry, the notion that she had any say in what was going on, the delusion that he was different from any other Alpha who took what they wanted without abandon and dispelled what they didn’t just as careless.
She almost wished she’d still been the girl she’d renounced years ago. The one who attended those, sometimes overly pretentious and sometimes horribly sleazy, events, clinging to a hope in her heart that she’d find her mate. The one who almost settled for Callan. The one who’d say yes to anything, do everything—even things she wasn’t proud of—so she could feel valued, noticed. Who would’ve jumped at the chance for a change, to move on to a new life, even if it meant leaving her family and her Pack behind.
Then it wouldn’t have been so easy for him. He’d have to reject her, go through the hell.
“You’ve been in my life for a long time, Ezekiel.” At Kai’s voice, even Isla’s bandaged fingers managed to curl in her fury. “and I’ve left you as Beta to aid me in this transition for that reason and out of respect for my father, but this is your last warning. Don’t go behind my back to go beyond my authority again.” There was the echo of footsteps, and his voice darkened, becoming so quiet Isla nearly couldn’t detect it. “And this is the last time you speak of her, to me or anyone else, are we clear?”
His secret—she was to remain his dirty little secret.
Isla didn’t linger to hear if anything else was said, if the Beta had agreed to negate her existence for the rest of time. She was out of that shadowy hall and down the stairwell before she even needed to take down wind in a gasp. Her mind was buzzing as she powered through the lower floor’s corridors, no qualms about who she crossed as she stormed her previous path.
“She’s nothing to me.”
Said with conviction. The words rattled in her brain, leveling her, taunting her, with all she’d been blinded to.
“I’ve handled it.”
Handled—she wasn’t something that needed to be “handled”, not some bother or nuisance in his life to be cast aside. She was supposed to be his mate, for the love of the Goddess, and even if she didn’t want him, he at least owed her the damn respect to let her know the whole truth about what was going on, how he really felt.
That son of a bitch.
This all would’ve been fine if it didn’t make her doubt, make her question, make her pore over every move she’d made since she’d met him, every word she’d spoken. Fine if she wasn’t scrutinizing her judgement, dissecting every look of his she’d assumed meaning behind, every teasing remark he’d offered that got under her skin, every provocative word from his lips that had imbued her fantasies.
Had a concealed disdain, for her Pack, for her, lingered beneath all of that? Was it all some game?
A dull ache pervaded her body, her muscles, her bones, completely welcomed. The frustration was manifesting into a familiar burn in her belly, calling deep into one of its greatest releases. She needed to break out. From the confines of these walls, from the confines of her forsaken bond, from the horrible images that still dwelled in the back of her subconscious. She needed power, certitude. The one thing, if nothing else, that she had complete knowledge and control over.
But as she called upon that piece of her, not wanting to fully shift, but to feel just a brush, a reassuring touch, of her gifts, the only response was pain. Searing, consuming pain that took the air from her lungs and had her stumbling. The wall became her savior as she braced herself against it, breath grating along her throat as she tried to even it out.
That certainly wasn’t the splintering sensation of a shift that she’d grown accustomed to.
Not even when the Bak had made itself known, its claws digging deep into her sides, had she felt something so horrible. That agony was shallow in comparison to this, a shattering that rocked down into her foundations, made her feel like she was being broken, for no reason at all, from the inside.
She crawled her hands up the cold structure until she was ramrod straight against it, then she remained there, clammy palms sticking to the plaster, clutching onto nothing, until she found some relief. Her eyes darted the hallway, as if the answer lingered amongst its emptiness, but before she could really reason it out, a figure appeared at the end of it, calling her name. Her mind still lost in the residual fugue, her turn to face them was delayed.
“Isla?” Her name rang in the fog, and she shook her head in an attempt to jolt herself back to reality. As she blinked wordlessly at the man who’d approached, the vaguest sense of who he was in her head, his eyebrows drew in concern.
“What?” It fell from her mouth in a breath.
“Are you. . . okay?”
She swallowed thickly.
Saying yes felt like a complete lie as it seemed there was no right answer. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so. . . off.
Still, she nodded slowly and continued training her gaze over the man’s face. He was so familiar, yet her mind kept sputtering. There was truly too much in there for her to process. Maybe that’s what the splintering was, her psyche giving way.
Patience with herself thin, Isla didn’t struggle for much longer before mental exhaustion presided over all, and she gave up trying.
“Who are you?” she asked, before wincing. Maybe rigid, ingrained etiquette would reign supreme—at least with strangers. “Sorry, that was rude.”
The man smiled, flashing crooked teeth with understanding in his eyes. “I get it—long week.” He reached a hand out to her. “Declan, Rhea.”
Isla hadn’t realized her shoulders were practically up to her ears, her body so tense she was surprised she didn’t snap when she mirrored his action, arm stretching to grasp his hand. But there was a stutter in her movement when he extended beyond her palm, instead grabbing her forearm—a Warrior’s greeting.
Finally, something clicked. His face had floated around the Feast. It had been down the line that beheld the Gate.
“You were in the Hunt.” As she returned his tempered squeeze with one of her own, she sounded more excited than she actually was to see him, though she’d never let him in on that. She was thankful just to have one burden of the many off her mind. Judging by the fact he was here and offering the gesture, she’d take it he was successful in his endeavor. “Congratulations.”
Declan beamed as he nodded in thanks. “You as well. Two Bak and second best in the run to an Alpha, that’s impressive. Though I shouldn’t expect any less from Io.”
Isla returned the grin, though a sourness lingered behind it that she hoped he couldn’t detect.
Yes, the reminder of her accomplishment was wonderful, needed as a small reprieve from the chaos in her mind, as a reminder that all of this—the physical and the mental strife—was worth it. But one little thing, one tiny string of words, tarnished the statement.
Yes, Isla was of Io. Her entire life had been spent in those metallic, gold-colored streets, shrouded in its rich, deep reds and warm colors. Watching the famed sunsets and sunrises from craggy hilltops. Training with some of the best fighters in the Realm. But if she had to hear one more person speak beyond who she was, relegating her existence, her accomplishments, dismissing her, due to the Pack she happened to be a member of, she’d scream.
“Thank you,” she said, trying to keep her voice cheery, uplifted.
“It’s nice to see you upright,” Declan said as the two pulled away. “You were in pretty bad shape when I carried you out.”
Isla’s eyebrows practically shot up to her hairline, the remote relief short-lived. The demons were ready to play again. In a hoard, they rushed out of their cage, whipping around her consciousness, mimicking the flashes that had occurred as she’d ventured in and out of awareness. There was another reason that she’d recognized Declan. His voice. It had been one plaguing her waking nightmares, taunting her as she hovered just above sleep.
“Is she even still alive?”
She really had no idea what had become of her after what she assumed was a Bak had taken advantage of her hesitation for its ambush. Opening her eyes to meet those of the Goddess would’ve been her first assumption, but with the split seconds of life that had instead passed and her current state, she obviously hadn’t been killed or eaten.
Adrien had skipped over the gruesome details about how she’d emerged from the woods, and she’d been thankful for it. But given how left in the dark she felt about so much else in her life at the moment, she was desperate for any answers, for any knowledge.
“You carried me out?” Her mouth was so dry she could barely swallow.
Declan nodded. “After we found you in that house we weren’t sure what to do with you. You were really messed up.”
That hadn’t been what she expected, where she remembered being before she’d blacked out. She’d heard stories about how figurative ghosts lingered of life once lived among the Wilds—the foundations of old cottages, the rotting fabric of old robes, the rusted metal of children’s toys—but she never crossed any of it herself. Something she was grateful to be free from haunting memory of.
“I think that’s what it was, before. . . you know.” Declan shook his hands as if casting a spell. “A roof and four walls. Decrepit, creepy. You were left on the floor of it, unshifted, and. . .” He looked her over, as she stood completely whole, and shook his head. “We thought you were dead.”
“Me and another Hunter. Alpha’s orders to track you down.”
At the mention of Kai, Isla’s fingers twitched at her sides. Anger bubbled. First, at him, but then, at herself. For the fact that, just for a moment, she thought he’d actually cared. That was, until she remembered his words, spoken coldly.
“I wasn’t going to leave her in there to die.”
A courtesy. It was just a courtesy.
“No offense to the Alpha,” Declan began. “but we thought he’d lost it. He was struggling against a Bak, and there was no guarantee you were even alive. But if we jumped in to help him, I’m afraid both him and the beast would’ve turned on us.” His eyes scanned her again, before throwing out a light-hearted. “I don’t know what makes you so special.”
Isla resisted a roll of her eyes.
There wasn’t much, apparently.
Before she could draw a conclusion herself, Declan offered, “Imperial Beta’s daughter, maybe Deimos is planning to make a run for resources or something.”
“Yeah, that might be it,” she said fighting to keep impassive.
Imperial Beta’s daughter could join from or of Io in the list of phrases she didn’t want to hear in her vicinity for at least a month.
“You weren’t the only one in there either.”
Her irritation subsided quickly. The conversation had redirected so fast she nearly suffered whiplash.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s hard to scent anything in those woods, but there was blood in that house, fresh, and definitely not yours.” Declan went quiet, hesitating, before he pulled something from his back pocket. “And then there was this.”
Isla almost fell over as her unwrapped hand went straight to her eyes, rubbing to make sure she wasn’t seeing things. She almost pinched herself to make sure it wasn’t a delusion. Her breath had caught in her chest.
Lopsidedly perched on its decayed edges in the palm of Declan’s hand was a marker from Ares Pass. The marker, if the blossoming unfounded hope in her heart turned out to be justified.
“Where was that?” Desperation leaked into her breath, and she struggled to keep her optimism at bay. So she’d learned, not everything was as it seemed, and the possibility that this shoddy ball of wood presented was so grand, so miraculous, it seemed too good for it to be Fate’s will.
“On the floor next to you.” Declan brought the sphere up to his face. He examined it as the Trainee had, though indifferent, clearly not realizing what he was holding. Not only a hope that their comrade may still be alive if the room had been barren of armor or weapons—something Bak, unless all had gone mad, surely didn’t consume—but a relic from one of the Hierarchy’s greatest secrets.
The Trainee needed to be alive, and he needed to make it out of those Wilds. Not only to make it back home to his family, but because he owed her a long talk and a hell of a lot of answers.
A new type of unease gripped Isla’s heart, as she casted quick looks to either side of them to confirm the hall still deserted. She wondered if anybody else would know what the marker was if they saw. If anyone else knew the “right” or “wrong” people that the Trainee had.
“It’s some old kids toy or something,” Declan denoted. “I was thinking it would be a good souvenir that wasn’t scraps of bark or dead leaves, but the longer I have it, the creepier it gets.” He grimaced, scratching hard at the surface. “For all I know that hag’s curse carries on it. Maybe I should go slip it back through the Gate.”
Isla jumped forward. “Wait, no, I’ll keep it.”
Declan’s eyebrows knitted together. “What?”
She had to rein in her enthusiasm, or else he may have thought it was something of value. Which it probably was, but he didn’t need to know that.
“If you don’t want it, I’ll keep it.” She shrugged, playing aloof.
“After I just said it might be cursed?”
“I like to live on the edge.”
Declan peered between her—subtlety jutting out her bottom lip in the slightest pout—and the sphere in his hand considerably, before outstretching it. “If you start bleeding from your eyes or grow a second head, no blaming me. I’m not dealing with the Imperial Guard.”
Isla was wordless as she took the ball from his hand—not even bothering to tell him her falling victim to a curse was the last thing the Guard would ever be dispersed for.
She was startled by the amount of weight that it had to it, how the worn edges didn’t feel like the wear of curse-induced decay, just of served purpose. She wondered how it had looked back then, lining the Pass, who the people were who travelled by it.
Just holding it felt like she was breaking so many rules, like she was ransacking the vaults of Io’s Pack Hall, poring through the hidden archives.
Isla stiffened and spun, hiding the marker behind her back as she pressed herself against the wall again.
She’d been so entranced that she hadn’t even noticed Declan straightening as someone approached, hadn’t heard the intruder’s footsteps, hadn’t sensed his presence around her. She didn’t think it was possible for anger to come on so quickly, not in the rush that it had.
Kai stood tall over the both of them, meanwhile Ezekiel watched over like a hawk a few feet away. His eyes were narrowed on his Alpha’s every movement, on hers, like he was searching for their connection, testing Kai’s proposals, her nothingness to him, his handling it. Isla held back her glare, biting her tongue to keep from saying everything she wanted to, every disrespectful curse that floated in her mind.
She needed to get away from here, from him, or be unable to guarantee she wouldn’t cause a scene.
While she rapidly plotted her escape, she squeezed the marker tighter in her hand, trying to envelop it entirely with her fingers, shielding it from view. Would they know what it was if they saw it? The Pass had once gone straight through to their royal city. Did Deimos still have remnants of that former life, or had that been wiped too?
As Isla’s clenched teeth gave way to a slacked jaw with the brief pondering, Kai’s eyes flickered to her. They weren’t cold, not how she’d pictured them looking while he spoke of her to Ezekiel. It was the same dance of emotions she was accustomed to, the ones she’d spend time trying to break down to have some idea of what was going on in his head. But those days were over.
“Alpha,” she said, face flat. No inflection, no emotion, mirroring it in her voice.
One of Kai’s eyebrows went up. “Warrior.”
The address didn’t fill her with any of the mirth that it would have if from another’s lips. He’d said it with a slight caution, her demeanor throwing him off.
Isla pushed herself off the wall, maneuvering, in what could’ve seemed suspicious, so the marker could remain hidden. “If you’ll excuse me.”
She could feel Kai’s stare on her back as she walked away, every fiber of her being trying to get her to turn, to look, to go back to him. But she fought it, harder than she would’ve wished she needed to.
It was time for the plan they’d laid out. The Hunt was over.
Kai was going back to lead Deimos.
She was going back to Io.
And though she was beginning to fear it impossible, they would forget.