XIV. THE MESSAGE
Letting out a puff of air that clouded in a mist, Isla threw her head back and looked up through the jutting branches. Her eyes slid closed as she embraced the drippings of rain that peppered her skin.
She’d only counted out three minutes so far, and she was sick of it. This. Sitting and doing nothing, locked in a cage of branches like a simple house bird.
She should’ve been out there, helping Kai with whatever the hell this was. A threat supposedly so great that she was useless without her wolf. That made it unsafe for her to roam the forest alone again.
As her narrowed gaze lowered to track beyond the trees he’d descended behind—a hope in her chest that maybe he’d appear—another long, steady stream of wind cut through. A choir of howls from the foliage followed in its wake, comforting if the tree hadn’t bucked in response and her perch become rickety. She braced one hand on the rough bark of the trunk and the other on the branch above her head. The storm was getting worse. The winds stronger, the rain pelting harder, thunder louder, lightning quicker. If the mysterious dwellers of the shadows didn’t get her, the weather surely could.
When the surge finally calmed, she righted herself again and wiped her palms on her coat. It didn’t do much for drying. Her clothes were still so drenched and heavy that she wondered if she’d be better off discarding what was failing to do its duty in keeping her warm. Upon bringing her hands up to inspect them, she noted flecks of the husk dotting her skin and a purplish tinge that colored the tip of her fingers—but that wasn’t all she saw.
Isla flipped one of them over. Once. Twice.
Golden intangible light looped around each of her fingers, the delicate strands wrapping her wrist, travelling down the veins of her forearm to her heart, to her soul, down to the wolf wounded deep within her. She traced the same path back up to her fingertips, where it mingled with tendrils of shadow, before the mirage faded completely.
Her eyes had been wide with awe before they narrowed. What a damn joke it all was—a horrible, mesmerizing joke.
How could something so lethal, something that destroyed—that she’d seen destroy, shredding the people she was closest to apart piece-by-piece—be so wonderful and mystifying?
You and I are two ends of the same broken road. Two pieces of a cloth stitched and torn by Fate’s own hand.
Her other half, hand-picked by a deity herself.
It sounded so beautiful. So much larger than anything she could wrap her mind around.
We don’t have to wait for threads to form with time together to have any type of connection.
For her entire life, her soul had been waiting to be reunited with his. Those threads, her, made for him. And him, for her.
She looked out into the forest again, before back to her hand, trying to will back the visual, but nothing came. The absence shouldn’t have bothered her. The sadness shouldn’t have bit as hard as it did. The worry of “what comes next” shouldn’t have manifested. And the pondering of “what could be” should’ve stopped before it started.
It was all foolish. . . she was. And she was also tired and scared and angry and—
In a tree.
She was in a tree.
What am I doing?
For the love of the Goddess, she was a Warrior now—killed not one of their Realm’s most feared creatures, but two—and here she was, doing nothing but counting down seconds and having an unnecessary existential crisis while Kai could be in actual trouble. Ten minutes, be damned. He could give her all the shit that he wanted. She had to go now.
Her eyes darted around for something that she could use as a makeshift weapon. A sturdy branch could work, with a pointed edge if she could sharpen it. If she had her claws. . .
Looking down at her hand, one last time, Isla took a steadying breath. The twisting light, however, wasn’t what she sought.
“I know you’re in there,” she whispered to herself, down to her wolf. “And I don’t know why you’re stuck, but it would be nice if we could figure this out.”
As she fell silent, she wasn’t sure what she was expecting. Though some had claimed themselves “enlightened”—their wolves, a separate entity, coming to speak to them in dreams or always a remaining voice in their heads—Isla wasn’t one of them. Not many were anymore. So she was left surprised when she felt the smallest shudder of her bones. A response, maybe. She clung onto the hope, her heart skipping and a grin threatening her mouth.
A sliver of moonlight that had slipped the trees and touched her skin warmed as if it had come from the sun. She shot her gaze upwards, leaning back so the beam fell directly on her cheek. She narrowed her eyes. “You did this.” She couldn’t keep the bite out of her voice. “You finally brought him to me. Now help me protect him.”
Once again, she was unsure what to expect from the call to the unseen—especially one that wasn’t the kindest—but she felt another tremble, deeper this time. Around her, the leaves rustled in the softest wash of air she’d experienced on this night. An answer—she hoped, again.
Alright—she would try this.
Taking another deep inhale, Isla dropped her head back down, honing on the palm facing her, on her outstretched fingers. She needed to go back to the basics, the fundamentals, from a time long ago when she was simply a young pup finally learning what potential lied in this body of hers.
Her eyes slid closed, and she continued her rounds of centering breaths. Deep into your belly. Feel the energy flow. Let it. Don’t be afraid. If she wasn’t so focused, that last instruction would’ve made her laugh. She’d been scared shitless the first time she’d shifted, letting something she couldn’t truly grasp take hold of her body, finding a way to control it, failing to, for a while.
She leeched whatever she could from the Goddess above, letting that singular streak of light, now on the base of her neck, spark a flame. Her mind glazed over as the heat rushed her bones.
Almost there. She was almost there. She could feel it.
But another blast of wind took to the terrain, knocking, not only her, but her concentration. Isla gasped, eyes snapping open as she leaned to hold onto the trunk for dear life. The tree bowed, eliciting pops and snaps as dying twigs were wrenched from its surface. A subsequent crack of lightning sounded a bit too close for Isla’s liking.
She needed to get down from here. But she was so close. . .
Her eyes went to her hand again. One more time. She’d try one more time before she left herself exposed down below.
Help me protect him, she thought, before grinding her teeth. She had to keep her emotions in check. Her blood began searing, pure and fiery anger rushing through her veins. But it wasn’t only over this moment, when she was unable to do the simple thing she was created to do, it was everything. From this week and beyond—from years before. To the voice that had returned to her head, weak and pleading.
“Please, Isla, you have to understand.”
Isla winced, hand cupping her forehead and nails digging into her skin. Guilt tangled with the simmering rage, bringing forth the nausea again.
“No,” she spoke aloud, just as she had that day in the ash lilly fields before the mountains. But she couldn’t finish the rest of what her response had been, the lie refusing to slip past her tongue. I’ll never understand, she’d fought, over and over and over again.
And for that, as she sat up in this tree, pleading, herself, to a Goddess—not simply a friend—in order to protect her Fated mate, she was the worst kind of hypocrite.
Isla nearly screamed as her body erupted, the anger a sudden catalyst. Her breath came out in pants as she became dizzy, as her limbs felt like they were being shattered. She bit down on her lip, bit back against the pain, so hard and for so long, the metallic taste of blood caressed her tongue. She needed to focus, or she’d lose complete control.
After what felt like a time too long to measure, finally, it all ceased. The salty tang of sweat mixed with the copper in her mouth. Panting and praying to keep her balance, she leaned her head against the trunk, not caring how her soaked hair had been ribbons that hooked and caught in the rivets. She could’ve broken into tears—or maybe she had, and the wetness at the corners and around her eyes wasn’t raindrops—as she stared down at the dark claws protruding from where her nails had once been.
Dribbles of crimson slid down her skin, and her eyelids felt heavy. She knew shifting fully was something she’d never be capable of in her state, but she hadn’t expected just extracting her claws to take such a toll on her body.
The streaks of red pinked as they washed in the rain, and Isla hissed as her claws threatened to retract.
“Dammit,” she cursed. She had to hold on; she’d worked this hard. And she needed to move.
Fighting upright again, Isla looked out into the forest—only to be greeted by something moving so quickly over the floor, it was a smoke-like blur. Too large to be an animal that lived in these woods. The creatures she hadn’t realized were housed in the areas around her grew restless from its presence, it seemed. Their caws and squeaks and mewls an addition to the storm’s symphony.
Isla’s heart leapt into her throat as she wedged her claws into the trunk, using it to brace herself as she leaned back to glance through the leaves in the direction it had gone.
She leaned back further, moving and twisting and turning to get another decent look. Maybe he’d forgotten what tree she’d gone up into.
The shadow doubled-back again so close and so fast that it spooked her. Spooked everything. In a horde, a mess of black-feathered birds soared down from the treetop, disregarding her presence, their wings skidding her jacket, catching her face.
From there, everything moved in slow motion. When she couldn’t stop herself from losing her balance. Every part of her body screamed in pain again as she descended, meeting other branches on the way. There was a flash of light and air fled her lungs in a whoosh the moment Isla hit the ground with a splash. A groan, that sounded more like a wheeze, fell from her lips. She was lucky she hadn’t been higher up. A sharpness shot through her arm, her side. The same one that had been done a number on by the Bak. She forced herself to roll onto her stomach in order to push herself up. The cold mud seeped into her clothes and coated the skin of her hands, her neck, her face.
As she braced her arms under her, she noticed her claws had gone. Her fingers now nothing but nails smudged in blood and dirt. But she didn’t have time to dawdle on it.
Whatever that was, whoever—it wasn’t Kai.
And whatever or whoever it was—she could feel it close. Could feel it watching.
Breaths escaped her mouth in rapid clouds of white as she quickly got to her feet, her weak legs wobbling beneath her, leaving her swaying. She stumbled back to her tree, bracing herself against its base, pressing her back firmly against it, at least finding some form of protection from an ambush behind her.
Keeping her gaze upwards, she lowered herself to the ground. Her fingers wrapped tightly around a thick, fallen limb. She held it firmly in both hands, constricting so much to counter the slippery mud, splinters embedded her palms.
Her eyes darted her surroundings, and soon came the sound of fast, heavy footsteps at her back. Heart thundering, a scream trapped in her throat, Isla whirled around, swinging the branch as hard as she could.
The Beta of Deimos stopped it with his forearm, barely even flinching at the impact. Either he was incredibly strong, or her hit was pathetic.
Isla’s eyes were wide as she dropped the branch to her side “You.”
For a brief moment, Ezekiel’s expression mirrored hers, face fallen in shock. It didn’t last very long, however. As his eyes tracked over her, taking in her disheveled appearance, a look of slight distaste took to his face. “You look wretched.”
She would be ridiculous to disagree with him—she was certain that she did—but as always, his tone held a condescending air to it that grated her nerves.
“I fell out of a tree,” Isla said pointedly, harshly wiping the mud from her cheeks, a difficult task when every other inch of her was coated in it. “What’s your excuse?” The last part had come out on reflex, and that piece of her that had been drilled in etiquette cringed. Technically, not crowned a Luna, she was still ranked far below him in the Hierarchy, but she couldn’t get herself to apologize. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for the Alpha,” he said, crossing his arms over the slick sleeves of his overcoat, where raindrops flecked off easily. She was surprised that he hadn’t reprimanded her for the outburst or returned with his own retort. “I was told he’d last been seen down by the Gate with a woman. I’d been hoping it wasn’t you, but I had my doubts.” His eyes trailed the area around them, narrowed as he sought out what she assumed was Kai. “I was young and unmated once, and when I saw the woods. . .”
It wasn’t hard for her to figure what he was alluding to. If only that had been why they’d come in here.
Clenching her branch a bit tighter in her hand, she did her own survey on the area again. Nothing seemed amiss. No blurs. No shadows. Could it have been Ezekiel moving that quickly?
“So you know,” she said, drawing her attention back to him. A slight question, even though she knew the answer.
“Of all the wolves in this Realm, the daughter of the Imperial Beta,” he replied with a shocking chuckle, though even that had a haughty coloring. “I have to say, I’m not surprised. On paper, you hail from an exceptional bloodline. Compatible strength with an Alpha, I’d say.”
Pursing her lips, Isla recalled Kai’s words to her. Why he hadn’t wanted Ezekiel to know they didn’t necessarily despise each other.
“You don’t have to worry about me, you know,” she told him, more eager than she’d intended. “The last thing I desire is to be his mate or become your Luna, and be assured, the Alpha wants me just as little as I want him. We have an agreement, and we’re sticking to it.”
Ezekiel raised a dark eyebrow, as if taking challenge in her words. “Quite bold of you to assume you can conquer a Goddess.”
“You should be grateful,” she countered. “Once I’m back in Io, I’m out of your hair forever.”
At her words, another laugh passed his mouth, but aside from cavalier, it also sounded bitter. Ezekiel looked off into the forest again, and as a silence descended between them, a tension rising with each passing second, Isla prepared to walk away and go find Kai.
That was, until the Beta began, “Our people have been through much in these past years, months—the last especially. What they need is stability and hope.” He met her eyes again. “I could never imagine delivering unto them the news that their true queen wants no part of their existence.”
Isla’s breath caught. His words were sharp as blades, and they worked, the last especially, at cutting deep. But before she had time to really process what he was saying, Ezekiel continued, “I am grateful, Isla.” Though his voice remained even, her name had been spoken with a silent venom. “I’m grateful for every brazen and stubborn and proud bone in your body. Now Kai can find the perfect Luna. The one our Pack needs. The one it deserves.”
It felt as if he’d stabbed her in the gut and twisted. Her jaw had unhinged as she blinked, staring blankly at him. She couldn’t get herself to speak, her mind too lost.
The one they need, and the one they deserve.
The one they need, and the one they deserve.
Now Kai can find the perfect Luna. . .
She shook her head to get the sentences to stop playing over and over and over again. Taunting her. Reminding her. But there was no right for her to feel agitated. He was. . . right about what they deserved. And this was her choice, but—
Isla suddenly felt like she’d been slammed by a mountain of sheer force. She sensed an aura like a beacon. Not a reaction through the bond, but the simple reach of an Alpha to any surrounding wolves. Pure power. Rage.
Ezekiel had felt it too, she could tell, and it was only a split second before they both took off. She buzzed through the trees and thickets and swamps as quickly as she could, feelings through their bond now ebbing and flowing. They were all over the place. Anger and fear and sadness and back to enraged again. She gripped the limb tighter in her hand as a new wave of panic overtook her. Even her wolf grew restless, and that nagging feeling returned, of being watched. But she brushed it away, pressing forward, following the beacon and the bond until she finally found—
“Kai,” she let his name out in a relieved sigh when she came upon him. As before, his back to her, only this time, instead of scoping a clearing, he was facing a tree with a base twice the width of the one she’d climbed up. Once again, he didn’t bother turning as she approached him, her steps were small and slow as she used the time to compose herself, her wolf.
She could relax. He was here. He was alive. He was—
Isla’s eyebrows shot up when she noticed the tears in his shirt, the black ink of lumerosi on the muscles of his back, his arms, his shoulders, a low, simmering red. He’d nearly shifted, but—stopped himself?
“Oh, Goddess.” She hadn’t realized Ezekiel had continued to follow her path, even up to Kai himself. The older man’s face was pale when she looked upon it, and she followed his gaze.
“What the hell?” she muttered, examining the bark of the tree. Freshly carved, it seemed, were symbols, markings, and—words? She didn’t understand a single bit of it. The only thing that she could recognize were claw marks slashed right through them.
“What is this?” she asked and was met by silence. She tried again. “What does it say?”
Isla bit her lip, stomach turning as she moved to get a better look at Kai’s face. She held her gasp as she took in the hard lines, the faint glow of his eyes, and once she dropped her gaze down, the drops of blood leaking from his clenched fists. His chest was heaving as he battled what seemed like himself, his wolf. And she could feel it—his pain. From what, she wasn’t certain. But instinct kicked in, and she stepped forward, getting as close as she could, not caring about Ezekiel watching closely a few feet away.
She couldn’t touch him, but she didn’t need to.
Isla reached out and hovered a hand around his, hoping to pull whatever cord or thread she needed to. Kai’s grip loosened, if only slightly, and crimson dripped from his hands, muddying the soaked earth. But his features remained hard, his lumerosi, his eyes, still alight.
Isla swallowed. “Kai,” she said his name soft and gentle, before raising her arm, sending the same absent touch over his cheek, the cut of his jaw. “Kai, look at me.”
He did, but everything persisted.
Another deep breath. Isla mustered a small smile. “That was your ten minutes, asshole.”
Somehow, that had done it. Kai’s eyes softened until she was staring into the storm she’d grown accustomed to. The one she didn’t mind getting stuck in sometimes. But something was different, off. In a way she’d never seen. There was the pain. Not physical, but emotional and deep and buried. All-consuming and unrefined.
His features twitched as he was unable to fight off a frown, and Isla realized he’d had his own mask on this entire time she’d known him. A beautiful one made of iron and steel and everything damn near unbreakable. Nothing had gotten through it. Not completely. Not like this.
But whatever this was, written here—that’s what did him in.
Part of her didn’t want to know what it meant, but she kept her hand steady, close to his cheek, fingertips so close to running through his hair that curled at the nape of his neck. “What’s going on?” she asked, again, slow and airy. “What is this?”
Isla’s eyes darted back to Ezekiel whose tone was heavy with warning. He knew what this was and didn’t want her to.
Biting her lip and holding back a glare—because it wasn’t the time—she looked back at Kai. His eyes had never left her face, not at all as she’d looked away. As if he’d needed her as an anchor, needed whatever lie between them to keep himself together.
“Kai.” The name was so faint, it nearly got lost in a crash of thunder. She sent the next words out through a link.“Tell me.”
Kai swallowed thickly, before drawing his eyes back to the etchings in the bark. She didn’t know if he’d actually heard her, or if he’d decided on his own, but his voice was gravel and Isla’s blood ran cold, as he said, “Whoever murdered my brother and father—they’re here.”