XI. THE SURVIVORS
☾ PART II : THE BUSINESS OF SHADOWS ☽
The mate bond of wolves was something reveled.
It was sacred. It was special. It was a foundation of their kind, a fabric in their hallowed Code, and what made them unique from the beings of the other Realm—besides the shape-shifting. But the ethereal connection was also an onus. It made them weak. It made them vulnerable. One could say it held so much power it almost negated any notion of free-will.
And for that reason, among some others, Isla had decided years ago that it wasn’t worth it—she didn’t want it—especially not after she finally felt like she had some control over her life.
Which led to the thing she hated most about the annoyingly handsome and maddening Alpha of Deimos—for the smallest of moments, he made her question that.
Seconds became minutes, minutes not quite hours, as they remained standing in silence on the roof of Callisto’s infirmary. While Isla was lulled by the murmurs of wind through trees and the hush of breaths, she could feel tension releasing from her muscles, webs unweaving from her mind. Occasionally, she’d peek over to watch how the moonlight and faint fire glow danced on Kai’s face, and then she’d hold in her sigh.
Goddess, did she hate Fate.
The peace, their bond, was a parasite, latching onto her thoughts and leeching her sense. She was so. . . tired. Physically and mentally. Tired of fighting—for now. Tired of the answers that only spurred more questions. If only he was completely irredeemable, enough that she couldn’t even tolerate the sight of him, that would make things easier.
On another glance in his direction, Kai turned too, like he’d been aware the whole time of her roaming eyes. The corner of his mouth was up in a smirk, and Isla snapped her head forward again, silently cursing. Maybe she should’ve been thankful for it, because whatever he was about to say would surely break whatever enchantment of ease she’d been feeling.
“You know,” Kai began. “I’m sure there’s a reporter skulking around somewhere that we can grab a camera from. You can take a picture, leave it by your bed for those lonely nights back in Io when you’re having those dreams of me. Help get you there.”
And she was right.
“You make it so hard to enjoy your company,” Isla sighed, rolling her eyes. “I’ve surely had my fill and had enough of men like you. Thinking you’re the ‘Goddess’s gift’ to women. You’re all the same.”
Kai chuckled and turned around, leaning back against the railing with folded arms, that cocksure grin on his face. “According to the Great Book, I’m specifically the Goddess’s gift to you.”
“Open to interpretation.”
“I’m not too sure it is.”
He was right—the language of the Book was pretty explicit when it came to mates—but she wouldn’t endorse it.
There was a sudden flash of puzzlement across his features as he shifted on his feet. Clearing his throat, he trained his eyes around them, saying offhandedly, “Exactly how many guys like me have there been?”
Isla’s eyebrows rose at his interest. “Jealous?”
“No.” Kai sustained the air of indifference, shrugging. “Curious. That mouth came from somewhere.”
She couldn’t hold back a wicked grin, ready to go toe-to-toe with him again.
“I think I got it from Levi,” she said simply, pulling her own facade, once more, of innocence. “He wasn’t my first time, but he was the first guy who ever took me outside of a bedroom. And the first to get me there a couple times. That was nice. There was this thing that he did with his—”
“Alright, alright.” Kai’s face was a mix of amusement and slight perturbation. “We’re not doing this again.”
“You started it,” she cooed mockingly, secretly happy he’d stopped her. After Levi, there was only Callan, and there wasn’t much to rattle about in that regard. “I can write down how it went for you, if you want. You can leave it by your bed for a read during those lonely nights in your palace when you’re dreaming of me. On top, right? That was it? Just put yourself in his place. Should help get you there.”
Kai’s grin, bright and full, his laugh, genuine, made her heart skip.
“I don’t live in a palace,” he said, before the air seemed to change. His joyous demeanor dissolved, gradually.
He drew his eyes over her—in long, slow lines—from her feet to the top of her head, back down, back up. Not with impish intention that could’ve been spurred by her words, but just taking her in. For a brief moment, Isla swore that he frowned, but it was hard to judge, as he’d recovered quickly.
He lifted himself from his spot. “It’s getting late. We’re departing early, and you should get some rest.”
Isla’s stomach twisted, and she straightened.
Kai took a couple steps forward, stopping between her and a path to the stairwell door. “Goodnight.”
She looked up at him and blinked. It felt so jarring, like the floor was dropping out from under her—but this was the plan all along.
“Goodbye,” Isla affirmed, gently, despite the piece of her clawing its way out attempting to cry ‘stay’. “Hunt’s over.”
“It is,” Kai agreed, before a flicker of mischief, of defiance, shone in his eyes. He closed in on her again, slowly, and bent so his breath was warm on her ear as he whispered, hot on her cheek, a phantom kiss to her skin. The closest he’d get to the gesture. “Goodnight, Isla.”
Antagonistic until the end.
Isla inhaled sharply, eyes closing for just a moment, embracing, as her heart tightened, as the tether went taut. As if it were a last ditch effort by that part of them to bring them close, like it knew. It took all of her willpower not to lean into it, into him.
She shivered. “You really like to test limits, huh?” Her whisper caught in the breeze.
“Only with you, my gift.” His tease caressed the shell of her ear again, before he pulled back. “This little game of ours has proven to be a joy that’s been hard to come by lately. I might actually miss it.”
Miss it. Not her. Just their dance around destiny, their defiance of a deity. Their game. That was it.
Thankfully, before any type of sting could settle upon being relegated to entertainment, a loud howl rang through the air, urgent and alarming. The two of them broke away from each other, turning in the direction of which it came. It seemed as if the entire world had arrested again—the wind, bugs, fire—even for those down below.
Isla’s blood rushed, and her heart began thrumming wildly. Her hand went straight into her pocket, feeling the marker’s edges. If it weren’t for the mutual reactions, she would’ve thought she’d hallucinated. “Is that—”
The howl came again, cutting her off. A confirmation. Everyone down below began running.
Her mouth fell open as she stepped back, and Kai, her opposite, moved forward, placing his hands on the railing as his eyes narrowed on the top of the Wall in the distance. “The Gate—someone’s coming through it.”
Isla had taken off for the stairwell before he even finished his sentence.
“Who do you—Isla!” She heard Kai shout from behind her. “What are you doing?”
“What do you think?” She nearly ripped the door off its hinges getting it open. A rush of cool air smacked her in the face.
Mind and body buzzing, she took the steps as fast as she could, focused on her feet so she didn’t fall over, occasionally jumping to a landing when she could manage the distance and impact.
The door above never had a chance to close. Kai’s voice echoed through the chamber down to her. “Are you supposed to leave?”
Simple. The truth.
Kai grumbled something under his breath, reverberated by the cavern, about how she didn’t listen to anything, before his steps thundered down her same path, exit slamming behind him with a bang that made her flinch and nearly stumble. She didn’t care enough to protest his following her. Her mind was focused on the Gate, the marker, the Trainee, and those things alone.
When she broke out of the side door, Isla wasn’t sure exactly where she was going. The world on the ground felt different. The atmosphere felt charged, overwhelming. In the distance, thanks to the moonlight, she caught the specks of those from the fire. They had to have some sense of direction.
Just as Kai made it to her, opening his mouth to speak, she was off again. “Un-fucking-believable,” she heard him curse.
“Thank you!” She threw the words haphazardly over her shoulder.
The dry grass crunched beneath her shoes as she sprinted across the open field, pushing herself so hard the crisp air and smoke burned her lungs. What she’d give to have a handle on her wolf again. But there wasn’t time to try working out a shift. She didn’t have the patience or fortitude to recover from the pain, to deal with the disappointment of not being ready or fully healed.
The looming of the Wall grew as Isla drew closer—for the first time since she’d gone behind it. Her breath hampered, but not in exhaustion. She fought back the paranoia, the demons, the darkness, the fear, pressing forward in spite of it, unsure of how long it could be kept at bay.
Her battered body was nearly depleted by the time she could sense a crowd—hear them, smell them, finally see the faint glow of lights and torches. The top of the Gate’s wrought iron blended into the night, only the bottom illuminated. The shadows of the spectators danced large and menacing on the stone around it.
She slowed to a stop, observing the scene from a distance. People were pocketed all along the field, some daring to stand close and others maintaining a separation from the wretched land. All had not come from the infirmary, judging by the various types of dress. The call from an emerging Hunter, followed by the signal from the Gate’s surveyor, could be heard for miles.
She’d never witnessed a re-emergence—unconscious for her own, and not present for Adrien’s or Sebastian’s. What she expected was excitement, celebration. . . but everyone just seemed distraught. Taking a couple steps closer, mingling into the horde of those deciding to keep some space from the Wilds, she began picking up on some of the words spoken. Her heart gradually filled with foreboding.
Something was wrong.
The Gate should’ve already been opened, waiting for the Hunters to come through.
She perked up when she spotted a silhouette, one she could find in any crowd.
The Heir spun, face laden with confusion, at her nearing form. “Isla? What the hell? Where’ve you been?” He looked her over, as if searching for injuries. “We went to your room, and you weren’t there.”
We, she assumed, were him and her brother, wherever he’d gone off to, nowhere in sight.
Isla opened and closed her mouth, unsure how to answer—certainly not with that she was in a battle of wanton wits with her mate—so she didn’t. Instead, she faced the Gate. “What’s happening?”
Isla jumped as Kai’s voice came from behind her, even if she knew he’d been tailing. She would’ve thought he’d been closer, but he must’ve stopped to ask questions.
He silently nodded in respect and greeting to Adrien, before his eyes were drawn upwards, taking in what was before them. His nose twitched as he sniffed the air.
Isla’s eyebrows nearly met her hairline, replaying his words and ignoring the perplexity on Adrien’s face at the Alpha’s sudden appearance and her lack of surprise towards it. “Stuck?”
“You can smell that, right?” The disconcerted look on Kai’s face made her stomach turn. His unsettled feelings so strong, she swore they ricocheted down the tether and infected her.
Isla lifted her head and took a whiff of the air. The aroma was different, tangy. Not putrid and rotten, but off-putting, sharp. Too much eventually had tears pricking her eyes.
“It’s been getting stronger,” Adrien said, before inhaling deeply, following their lead, and had to clear his throat of a cough. Uneasiness took his own features. “Is that—magic?”
“Faulty magic,” Kai clarified, before his jaw tightened. “Something’s wrong with the wards.”
Isla’s eyes went wide as she trained them along the welded patterns of the Gate, chosen and directed by the witches of the past who’d assisted the Imperial Alpha of ages ago in its construction.
She didn’t know much about magic—only of its ability to be wielded by those of the other Realm, and that its only existence on their continent was localized to this very spot, where it served as both a blessing and a curse. The heavy latch was what locked a ward of protection, completing a symbol that she’d never quite understand the true meaning and power behind, but just that it worked. When opened, rendered incomplete, the protection was broken. The Gate became just a gate. An entryway, an exit.
But that wasn’t happening.
The latch was lifted, the ward void, yet the metal frame wouldn’t budge. Something else had to be at play, another rune misfiring. It wasn’t protecting them from the Wilds, not keeping the horrors in—
“It’s keeping us out.” The realization fell from her lips in a murmur of disbelief.
A howl came again, this time, certainly, from behind the Wall. Now with time to process, Isla was filled with dread. The Trainee couldn’t howl. Not like that. She listened keenly for his attempt, not perfect but enough. It never came.
Though what did was far, far worse.
The roar was ear-shattering, close. It made Isla—almost everyone—jolt and stumble back. A chill ran up her spine, and terror gripped her heart.
It was a Bak. . . tailing the Hunters, approaching the Wall. Yet another behavior that didn’t match any part of legend. They were supposed to be repulsed by the borders, by the enchantment. But what truly was that anymore?
Isla’s insides turned watery, fingers twitched at her sides, features screwed into a grimace. The fear threatened to overpower her, to suffocate her. She was back there again, experiencing it again, in hasty, relentless waves—alone, terrified, fighting for daily survival, battling for her life, hearing the Trainee’s horrid screams, spending semi-conscious moments just out of death’s grasp.
She kept falling—down, down, down—into that endless, destructive pit, until the warmth of comforting hands fell upon her shoulders. Her body recoiled violently, but then settled as they pressed down firmer. Her forlorn gaze met that of the source—Adrien.
“You’re okay,” he eased softly, leaning closer, squeezing where he was. A reassurance, a grounding. “You’re safe.”
She took a deep breath and nodded, then felt it. A sharp, phantom tug and a release.
Isla snapped from Adrien and focused forward—only forward—not wanting him to see her look to Kai and not wanting her mate to gaze upon the torment in her eyes.
He couldn’t see her vulnerable. Not like this. A victim to her own mind, to memories, to the past. Helpless and weak and pathetic, as she’d always been imbued she was before she’d found her purpose. Before she became a Warrior.
She couldn’t break. Not again. Not anymore. That hell was left behind years ago. That lonely, shattered girl, forgotten.
But that pull came again, harder this time, and reluctantly, she turned.
Kai’s eyes weren’t narrowed in disapproval of the physical contact, as she’d been expecting. Instead, as usual, they housed a mix of emotions, near indecipherable without her immense focus, but all wrapped in that discernable protective fire. The same one as in the Wilds, and the same as on the roof.
He couldn’t touch her, but he wanted her to know that he was there. For her, for what he could be, for what she needed. Their bond, incomplete, but still a promise. A deeper relationship, non-existent, but still, they meant something.
Though she knew very well it could bite her in the ass later, she accepted it. Smiled weakly and reached back, mentally, digging for a piece of him that didn’t need to be drawn out by lust. She tried to let him feel that she understood, some gratitude, though she wasn’t sure if it ever landed.
Another howl resounded from the Hunter on the other side. Panicked. He was close, so close Isla could hear his paws padding the mud. And then came a faint iridescent glow—his eyes, the lumerosi snaking through his fur—and next, the sound of a slam against metal. There was a thud as something fell off of him, and he whimpered, pawing at the Gate.
“It’s both of them!” someone nearby the iron shouted.
A temporary lightness took her heart. The Trainee was alive.
The roar of the Bak rumbled again, and horrified gasps descended upon the crowd. Commotion built. Some turned away from the Gate, retreating back, anticipating a slaughter.
“Help us get this open!”
A mass of people rushed forward, Adrien and Kai included. Isla had taken a step, but the panic kept her rooted. She couldn’t will herself any further.
Her fists clenched at her sides, as aggravation with herself melded with the apprehension. All she was able to do was stand, bouncing on the balls of her feet, searching desperately for anything she could do to help, watching as her closest friend and her mate encroached on the Wilds’s barrier.
She had to keep herself from thinking it—how one swipe of the Bak’s claw through the Gate’s opening, dare it truly approach, would be all it took to end their lives. A Hierarchy toppled. An Alpha and the future “Alpha of Alphas”, gone in seconds. Her—likely a mess, having to witness it.
The Hunter pushed, and the mass of the brave pulled, metal screamed and rattled. All of it added to a horrible symphony. The screech of iron, the gasps and wails of spectators, the whimpers and shouting and groans. The Bak made no contribution to the chorus, which meant, following all she’d learned from her time in its home, it was nearby. Stalking. . . waiting.
There was a loud snap, like a break, somewhere, and the Gate creaked, an opening forming. But not by much, and it quickly ricocheted closed.
The orchestra came to a crescendo, peaked by the howl and thundering steps of the Bak. The Hunter clambered to the gap when it reappeared, tumbling through, and dragging what Isla now saw as the limp body of the Trainee with his teeth by the collar of his armor behind him.
Any light in her soul had dimmed as his body fell from the Hunter’s maw, motionless.
Dead. He was dead.
There wasn’t any time for her to process it—the Gate slamming closed and the sound of tearing cloth, scraping flesh, and a scream made it impossible.
The man who’d been hit, from the looks of it, didn’t get cut too deep, remaining upright, though hunched over. Lights and torches illuminated the Bak, in all its horrendous glory, pressed against the Gate’s surface. Its protracted claws hooked through the metal labyrinth, its spittle flying as its teeth gnashed. It roared and roared. The Gate shook under its weight, threatening to give way, to let it through. The beast could’ve broken out, if it wanted to, Isla knew it, but it didn’t.
The intention wasn’t to fight them, to kill whatever it could until it was eventually slain itself. It was to warn.
The Wilds was their territory. A fact always known, but not one they’d ever been evolved enough to embrace. Not like this. Not to guard.
Her fingers ran over the fabric of her jacket, where she knew the black ink of her lumerosi snaked in intricate swirls and symbols over the skin of her shoulder, over the top of her arm, tracing as the Bak did when she’d been shifted, as it toyed and taunted.
Nothing made sense.
The beast trained its red, feral stare over the crowd. . . and Isla went rigid when it looked at her, only her, she swore, dead in the eye.
Her blood ran cold as it bent. Acknowledging her, knowing her. A searing, splintering pain rippled through her body, and she grimaced, hand going to her head that felt like it was splitting. Her wolf. Her defense. Her greatest power. Pleading, desperate. Trapped.
Isla’s breath caught, and her eyes darted around for the source of the projection. The voice was unfamiliar, raspy, so broken she almost couldn’t decode it.
Murderer? She’d never murdered anyone. Unless—
An unease rumbled in her stomach, and she looked back at the Bak. It wasn’t looking at her now, but instead, had its glower focused on Kai—and then Adrien. It snarled before roaring once more and disappearing back into the forest.
Everyone remained still, terrified to move, to breathe. Until the false security of the latch was put back in place.
“Is he dead?” someone wailed, as others rushed to give the Hunter, now back to his natural form, some aid and assistance.
“No,” he answered, as a cloth was placed over his shoulders. “I had to knock him out just to get him out here. He completely lost it.”
Isla felt like she was getting whiplash, unable to keep up with the rollercoaster of the night, still feeling faint and dealing with a pounding headache.
There was the sudden sound of a smack, an inhale, and then some sputtering coughs. “He’s waking up!”
If she wasn’t so exhausted, Isla may have jumped for joy as the Trainee roused, as his eyes cracked open, as he moved and groaned.
His voice was like sandpaper as he asked whoever the woman was nearby, “Where am I?”
Isla didn’t know who she was exactly, but could see the peeking of a Warrior lumerosi on her back. “Back to civilization, Lukas,” she said, endearingly, like she knew him.
Lukas—that was his name.
He fought himself into a sitting position. “Who are you?”
The woman jerked, taken aback. “What?”
Lukas’s eyes trailed along the mob of onlookers, looking terribly confused, before they blew wide. He pointed to the Hunter and recoiled back, low on one hand and his feet. “Get away from him!”
“No!” Lukas, completely unaware of what it represented, all that it was, used the Gate to clamber to his feet. “He’s a monster! I watched him!” His chest heaved as he panted, as he struggled to stay upright. “He—he’s a wolf.”
The declaration was met by gasps. One even fell from Isla’s lips.
He didn’t remember. . . anything.