XII. THE FORGOTTEN
Isla's breathing was too loud in her ears. Ragged and rattling in her skull in a way that made it impossible to focus—impossible to think—but she needed to. She needed to understand.
The Trainee—no, Lukas, his name was Lukas—was clutching onto the Gate like his life depended on it, one arm hooked through a glyph, while the other was speared by a finger in the Hunter’s direction. His accusation lingered heavily in the air, keeping everyone, including her, mute and still.
Get away from him. . . He’s a wolf.
His warning clanged through her.
She had to have heard him wrong. The stench of magic had just. . . gotten to her head. Because he was fine when she’d last seen him—at least, mentally. He was himself. He knew. Who he was. What he was. What they were. But now. . .
In heartbeats, she turned his words over and over like stone, as if somehow she’d discover some kind of hidden message, some secret laced in every breath and pause and syllable. Like the mystery of the Pass or the supposed ancient strife between her homeland and her fate. He’d enjoyed things like that—riddles and games, the ominous, the foreboding.
But the light in his eyes—the one that had been there during the initial time they’d spoken—was gone. The spark he’d possessed that first made her approach him at the Feast—that he carried in every conversation, even when he was a bumbling mess—missing. It felt as if someone else were wearing his face.
Like the man before her was a complete stranger.
“You see what I’m talking about?” Fury painted the Hunter’s blood-smeared features. He was cradling his side. “He’s lost his damn mind.”
Isla let out a soft yip as her foot collided with something hard in the grass, a slight pain shooting up her leg. As she stumbled forward, running into the back of the person in front of her, she glanced down, finding a rock jutting in her path.
Her path—she hadn’t even realized she’d been moving.
So it seemed, the terror of the Gate, the Wilds, and the Bak that had kept her rooted was so trivial in comparison to the alarm of this moment that her mind had released its hold on her body. Even the hellish repetition of that scratchy, accusatory voice—murderer—had faded to a nagging in the back of her subconscious.
But it was still there, leaking a venom that had her looking at Lukas in a cautionary light. That would only allow her to see him—freshly emerged from the Wilds and unfathomably. . . different—as a possible threat. After all of the deviations during this year’s running of the Hunt—the Bak’s behavior, the faulty runes—she didn’t trust any product of those woods.
Maybe not even herself.
The person she’d hit didn’t respond to her muttered apology. Didn’t gripe when she absentmindedly pushed against them for leverage to get upright again. They were just as dazed and dumbfounded as she was.
Two women, who looked to be nurses beckoned down from the infirmary, tried to pry the Hunter away. He needed help, like the man who’d been swiped at by the Bak that was already being guided up the field back to some aid. No one approached Lukas, likely feeling exactly what she did. The gnawing in their guts that this was another trick, another brewing disaster.
The Wilds may have taken pieces of those who dared enter, forever changing them from who they once were. Sometimes it took wholes—lives, bodies left in the bellies of beasts—but it never took everything and nothing. No one emerged a shell. Not like this.
The Hunter grunted in frustration, resistant to their assistance and vehement in his avoidance. She understood that well, at least. He’d tasted death only moments ago and who knew what he’d dealt with behind the Wall. She even still felt that ash on her tongue. The transition to safety and normalcy wasn’t simple.
“Maybe I lost my mind too,” the Hunter said, tone gravelly with ire. He rose to his feet to put some distance between himself and the caretakers. “I should’ve left your ass in there, you piece of shit. You almost cost me my life—twice.”
“What do you mean twice?”
Isla’s thought had been spoken aloud by another—the Warrior who’d known Lukas. The woman’s dark features adorned a similar look of disbelief and confusion as she spun to the Hunter. “What are you talking about?”
His finger was stained the deepest crimson, nearly black, as he jutted it out. The dried blood of a slain Bak.“This bastard tried to kill me.”
Isla’s heart stopped.
“What?” She couldn’t hold in the whisper. It blended into the murmurs and sharp breaths of others.
Her eyes immediately darted to Lukas, her jaw slack. The auburn-haired man remained upright in his spot, though was faltering now due to whatever injuries were hidden beneath his damaged armor. His shoulder, she was sure. His leg, she remembered.
The budding ruckus had him bristling, and his eyes flittered, wide and cautious, over the crowd. He reminded her of a doe—the ones that dwelled in one of the few lush forests on Io’s landscape. Skittish and easily spooked, a persistent flight in the dichotomy, used constantly by Warrior Alina in training as an example of what the trainees couldn’t be.
Which was exactly why he had done it.
Isla snapped her mouth closed, teeth crashing together, as it dawned.
“Why—why would you say something like that?” The Warrior woman spoke sharply, a tinge of panic in her voice. She did a quick take in Lukas’s direction, before doubling back. “Do you understand what you’re accusing him of?”
Isla did, and she was sure that’s where everyone else’s minds had gone.
Murdering a fellow Hunter, a fellow wolf, in the Wilds—while they were utterly vulnerable and during one of their people’s most sacred rites—could be viewed as treason. Being one with the monsters who wanted them dead. An enemy to their kind.
Punishable by death, if you were lucky.
But Lukas wasn’t an enemy. If anything, an attempt to kill the Hunter, after he’d felt threatened by the unfamiliar mass of a being he’d likely seen, proved exactly how much he was still one of them. With them.
Lukas wasn’t a fawn. He didn’t cower. He didn’t run. Even if he couldn’t remember it, even if he couldn’t fully embody that spirit inside of him through a complete shift, he was a wolf. His instincts, his nature, down to the deepest well of his bones, was to fight. To face opponents and threats with a ferocity and fervor of which only they were capable. There was no malice in his intentions. He was protecting himself. Which meant he was in there. Somewhere. Not a stranger—though definitely strange—just lost.
If only she’d had a clearer head. It may have occurred to her sooner. And maybe then she could’ve stopped him from making a horrible mistake.
Isla barely had a moment to yell ‘wait’ before Lukas reached for his boot, those instincts kicking in, helping him put the pieces together. The Hunter—the “monster”—had brought him here. Here, where he was cared for. Here, where the spectators observed him like he had five heads. Looked on with apprehension. With disdain.
The blade he drew glinted in a mix of lights as he spun and wielded it against whoever was closest. He tried to bury it in a man’s chest, but off-balance and hopelessly out-matched, he was brought down in one swift movement. There was a thud as he hit the ground, flat on his back, and a wheeze escaped his lips as the impact and his lingering injuries asserted themselves.
The man he’d gone after looked to be a member of Callisto’s guard, judging by the insignia he boasted on his jacket. First or Second Order, judging by his size.
He slammed his foot down onto Lukas’s hand, hard enough that Isla could hear the gruesome snap of his fingers. His cry out was one she was all-too-familiar with as he lost his grip on his weapon. There was a metallic, taunting ring, louder than she expected, when it was kicked away and collided with the Gate.
The Guard pressed his foot to Lukas’s throat before baring his teeth, sharp canines, and brandishing his claws. “Wrong move.” His growl rumbled and eyes became iridescent.
Lukas screamed, horrified and frustrated, as he thrashed beneath him. It roared down Isla’s spine.
The crowd began splitting, dividing even further than they already had been. In true fashion, those who’d been close—the ones who’d been pulling at the Gate, who would’ve been the first line of defense against the Bak—pressed closer. The weary—the simple spectators who’d come for a look at history, a show of triumph, only to be completely staggered—pulled away, practically sprinting up the grass, likely wanting to forget what they saw, wanting to find a way to get the scent of magic out of their noses. The Hunter had been pulled away too.
Isla found herself caught in the middle, lingering in empty space. The air became charged with power—their true power. Raw and untamed. Feral. Deadly.
“No,” she muttered aloud this time, under her breath. The horde began surrounding Lukas in a way that nearly shielded him from her view. In a way that reminded her of the Bak who’d taken him away. When she’d let them take him away.
She couldn’t let it happen again. Couldn’t allow him to slip through her fingers. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t.
She sucked in a deep breath, bracing herself and balling her fists, before she took another step forward, ready to fight with him, for him. . .
Something pulled her back.
Strong and intangible. Distinct. Wordless, but the message was clear.
She turned and like a clear moonlit path had been drawn, teased Kai from the lot of bodies immediately. He wasn’t a part of the fracas, the brutes she was prepared to confront. Instead, he stood by a farther part of the Wall, keeping his distance. Unlike everyone else, he didn’t seem concerned with Lukas at all. Instead, his eyes were locked on her—only her—like she was all that mattered.
Just like the Hunt.
It was all just like the Hunt.
She winced as guilt gripped her heart, remembering the moment clearer now than she ever had in her nightmares. Not only had they been so distracted by each other that they let Lukas get so far out of reach, they’d been a distraction themselves. The Trainee had warned her to stay away from the Alpha— why, she still wasn’t clear—but then, there, they had appeared, side-by-side, catching him off guard for just a second.
A split second, and he was gone. Jagged razors piercing exposed skin, dragged like a rag doll across the dank forest, before being left a bloody mess in a decrepit old house. A house where she’d also found herself, though broken and unconscious.
The marker felt like an inferno in her pocket.
He’d had enough sense then to leave it. He knew her in that moment. Where he’d gone after he left it, whether he was trying to tell her he’d return, was still a mystery. But she’d emerged just yesterday, been found maybe a day or two’s walk before. That wasn’t that much time for him to lose all sense.
So what had happened?
Isla shook away the question. She couldn’t worry about that. Not now. Right now, she had to help him. Now, while she could. Then they’d worry about his memories. Then they’d have their talk.
Isla jumped to attention at the familiar voice. She spun to find Adrien pushing his way to the center of the fray. Relief washed over her. If she knew anything about her friend, he’d be the last to support whatever vigilante-esque brutality that was about to occur. The Pack Relations nightmare would be the least of his problems.
“Imperial Heir,” the Guard began, straightening and giving the slightest bow. The bodies had shifted in a way that she could see Lukas now. See how the Guard had adjusted his foot on his neck, yet kept it firm. See how beneath him, Lukas grew more sluggish, losing his fight. For air. For consciousness.
Bastard. She snarled, moving a few more steps before the tug came again. Harder this time.
For the love of the Goddess. Leave me alone.
She whipped around to Kai, just as he fell back against the Wall, leaning against the rock and folding his arms across his chest. Almost like he was about to run out to stop her, but for some reason, elected not to bother.
He was the picture of confidence, of coolness, and never broke eye contact as he shook his head, as if telling her no, to stay back, to not get involved. Isla initially ignored the way her mind began to feel fuzzy—itchy, if that were any way to describe it. Instead, she began to narrow her eyes, ready to slice him with them. . . but then she stopped, and her features softened in realization. Fell in shock.
She severed their stare.
There was no way.
She noted their lack of proximity. At least twenty paces laid between them, only their wolfish senses allowing them to see each other from the distance and in the waning lights. She noted the lack of high-scale emotion—no burning lusts, no all-consuming, shuddering fear, at least for her, and if he was scared of anything, he didn’t show it. He rarely did.
Both of those things had seemed necessary in the previous occurrences when their bond had made them so connected, so in tune with each other, that they could communicate in the most primitive ways. Unintentionally. Without much control over intensity or true knowledge of the repercussions.
But this. . .
Kai had wanted her attention, called to her for it, mentally—through a link, through their bond, whatever it was—and gotten it. Once. Now twice.
Isla’s hand went to her head, wedging her fingers into her hair, scratching at her scalp to no avail, because the itch wasn’t physical. Not tangible.
Her mouth felt dry as she swallowed.
They hadn’t touched. They weren’t completely bound. Communicating like this, it wasn’t. . . it shouldn’t. . .
She looked at Kai again, who returned her gaze with raised eyebrows. She glowered. Get away from my head. She hoped he could hear it. That he could sense how angry she was for whatever he was doing, however he was doing it. You get the hell away from my head, or so help me.
She wasn’t sure if it was her outcry’s doing, but the sensation faded to nothing. Her chest rose and fell with every sharp breath as she brought her hand down to her side. She ground her teeth so hard she waited for them to break.
Too close. For keeping things separated, for keeping their bond broken, that was too close.
“Bring him up to the infirmary.”
At Adrien’s demand, she drew her attention back to the mob, to Lukas.
Any formality and respect the Guard had shown earlier, faltered. He squared his shoulders and narrowed his eyes. “Are you insane?”
Nearly everyone tensed at the proclamation. Completely out of line.
Adrien steeled, and his eyes flashed. A deep, smoldering fire, not quite the blood red of an Alpha, but not the off-white luminescence of a common wolf. A reminder. In this crowd, he was the Hierarchy. A conduit of his father’s highest power. His decisions were law until deemed otherwise.
“Bring him to the infirmary,” he repeated. “He’s one in a list of anomalies this week, and lucky for us, unlike everything else, he can speak. He may be able to give us some idea of what’s going on back there.”
The Guard didn’t have an immediate response. Neither did anyone else. But it was only moments before the big, burly man, glow leaving his eyes, lifted his foot off Lukas’s neck. The air he sucked in sounded like it hurt going down and he coughed endlessly, reaching for his throat.
Isla hesitated in her thoughts to run for him, a keen eye on Kai in her periphery.
The group retreated from Adrien, stepping further away from Lukas and lowering their heads. Then, they obeyed, some of them hauling Lukas to his feet, his head limp and armor rattling, before they trudged him up the field. Isla watched closely as they went, flinching every time they wrenched Lukas’s body the wrong way—on purpose, of course—every time she heard the distant whimper. She scowled, but stayed in her place.
Later. She’d get to him later.
Spinning back to face the Wall, prepared to ask Adrien what the plan was, she scanned who remained. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that her friend had gone straight to Kai, not her, the two of them now locked in some kind of discussion. Isla narrowed her eyes, and like he felt it, Kai glanced over. Quick, but enough to show he was aware. Enough for her to remember, to feel, the bygone and now ghostly caresses of whatever he’d done to her mind.
The smart thing would’ve been to walk away. To leave him and the connection and whatever he’d just pulled forgotten within the darkness of this horrible, horrible night and never look back. But she couldn’t. Because there was a part of her, somewhere buried deep, deep down, that enjoyed the phantoms. That liked that he’d been there, pulling her back. That wished she’d actually heard him say something.
She growled under her breath and folded her arms, her fingers constricting and tugging at the fabric of her sleeves.
And here she thought he couldn’t aggravate her more.