XVI. THE TAKEN
Isla groaned as she pressed the side of her forehead to the cool tile of the shower wall, letting the water fall onto her back in a near-scalding stream that flushed the skin leeched of its tan from being shrouded so long in the Wilds’s darkness. Droplets from her lashes sprinkled onto her cheeks as she snapped her eyes shut. As she breathed. . . breathed. . . breathed.
The world was whirling, the universe teetering behind her closed lids, and she wanted to shut it all out. She wanted it to stop. Needed it to. Just for a few seconds. But her mind was still working at a furious pace. Her body, though horribly, thoroughly exhausted, was on high alert.
Lukas. The Gate. The Hunt. The Bak. A killer. Her mate.
Her mate, her mate, her—
Isla gritted her teeth, opening her eyes to watch the grime washed from her skin circle the drain, keen on the mud, flecked foliage, and dried blood flowing away and disappearing the way she wished her memories would.
Like she wished the spindly, kneading fingers of paranoia would.
The feeling had nagged her from the moment she’d entered her empty room, so dark at the closing of her door behind her that it made her heart drop into her already turning stomach.
She’d pressed her back hard against the entrance, clammy fingers imprinting the wood, as she scoured to confirm she was alone. To be sure that whoever had murdered the Alpha and Heir of Deimos hadn’t somehow figured out who she was and been waiting here for her. If she’d even be on their radar at all.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d remained like that—her chest heaving at the prospect, her eyes flittering back and forth, up and down, back and forth, one time, three times, five times—before she’d gotten a handle on herself. Remembered who she was. What she was.
It had been well over the hour that Adrien had promised to arrive in, Isla had realized not long after that. Almost nearing hour two. And upon that time’s passing, with the thick muck coating what felt like every nook of her starting to irritate her skin, she’d decided she could at least try to do something productive.
So against some of her better judgement, she’d left the safety of her quarters and made a mad-dash for the supply closet down the hall. Then after one more long, surveying pause upon her re-entrance—and after engaging some other precautions—she found herself here. Sitting beneath a fiery current, standing abandoned after the exhaustion and dizziness had gotten to her. Though she’d fallen from a tree with only lingering body aches and bruises in its wake, she had a feeling the tile wouldn’t have been so forgiving.
Isla grimaced at the voice in her head, the pang in her chest—a stain on her mind, on her heart, her bones, her goddess-forsaken soul—as it was followed by one of a different nature.
“Everything given can just as easily be taken away.”
She dragged her knees up to hold them tighter to her body, lifted her face to the water again, allowing it to flood as she scratched hard at her scalp. As she tried to claw out the thoughts.
Kai had been taken.
Her mate—bestowed upon her and stolen away by the same divine hand. The one that had pushed him into a role that had never been his, that he’d never expected to have to take, that had put him on a path that she could never, ever walk alongside him. . . and she hated that she felt that way.
Hated that she was angry about it. That it actually mattered to her. That he did.
What right did she have to be mad?
What right did she have to allow the thought that she would never see his face or hear his voice again—that she would struggle to know if he’d even made it to Deimos safely—to make her want to vomit the very little she’d been able to stomach since she’d emerged from the Hunt?
A sudden bang echoed into the washroom. One time. Two.
Isla sputtered, bracing herself against the tub’s edge.
It was the door. Soon, the thuds were replaced by the sharp rattling of its handle.
Even though she couldn’t see it, Isla knew that the long metal was being halted by the fabric of the heavy cobalt chair she’d pushed in front of it, fitted perfectly beneath the handle’s curve. A necessary measure as the rooms bore no locks.
Her breath caught in her throat. It could’ve easily, finally been the boys trying to get in. . . but if it wasn’t?
Cautiously, Isla worked her way to her feet, leaving the water running to cover her sound as she peeled back the curtain and wrapped a towel loosely around her body. Stepping over the basin’s lip, her fingers constricted around the scalpel, sitting on the sink’s edge, that she’d stolen from the supply room. The dripping of her hair and the patter of her feet through the puddles forming on the floor still seemed too loud in her ears as she crept forward. Kicked further open her slightly ajar door. Steam billowed behind her.
The blade was up and at the ready in front of her face, her dark shadow stretching tall along the white-washed wall in the dim lighting, as she moved. Inch by inch by inch. Step, step, step. The door continued to tremble at the assault on it.
“What the hell are you doing? Relax.”
“What is she doing? This is her room, right?”
Isla froze and stood tall at the voices. “Sebastian?”
The chatter stopped.
Adrien’s voice came next. He’d been the more mild of the two. “How did you lock the door?”
She didn’t answer him. Instead, she moved to wrench the chair from its spot, pushing it back as close to its previous home a few feet from her bedside as she could. The legs made a low, rumbling scraaape along the floor, prompting more inquisitive noises from her visitors.
Hiding the blade in her hand where they shouldn’t have been able to see it, Isla reached for the handle and gradually pulled open the low-whining entrance. Her settled scowl was met by equally cautious and dubious looks.
“Where the hell were you?” she seethed, the gnarled grip of her fear edging into her voice. “You said an hour. It’s been nearly three.”
Both Adrien and Sebastian remained in their places on the other side of the threshold, and Isla caught the way Adrien’s eyes travelled along her towel-clad form while Sebastian’s immediately went to dart the room.
His forest eyes—their father’s eyes—narrowed. “Who are you hiding in here?”
Isla countered it with a heightened glare of her own, icy as the one their mother had bore. “What?”
“I’m having war flashbacks,” Sebastian said, brushing by her and Adrien, taking a few steps inside. “What was all that noise?”
She rested her hand on the doorframe. “You do realize I’m twenty-one, and don’t need to have suitors run through you for approval.”
Sebastian’s features curled at the words. “Then find some that aren’t pretentious assholes.”
“Says the pretentious asshole.”
“I’ve earned it.” He pointed to the bathroom, still suspicious. “Why’s the shower still on?”
“Because you scared me, you ass.”
“Obviously.” Adrien’s eyes were on the makeshift weapon in her hand, glinting against the brown-stain of the door. “Where did you get that?”
“I borrowed it,” she said plainly.
“Warrior princess never sleeps,” Sebastian mused before she could answer, flopping onto the chair with a small glance under the bed as he kicked his legs over the arms of it.
The name resounded through her head through another particular voice, and though she was mildly pleased by that being the taunting moniker Kai had stolen from her brother to utilize, she frowned. Adrien had caught onto it, flashing her an inquisitive and concerned look. It wasn’t enough to force her into the effort of even faking a smile.
“I’m going to change,” she announced, and then turned on her heel before he could say anything.
When she’d emerged a few minutes later, again trailed by the residual cloud of steam lingering from the previous flow of water, Isla was donning a nurse’s uniform about two sizes too big, a shirt and pants a near-identical shade of blue as the chair her brother was lounging in. Adrien had moved from his previous spot and perched against the storage closet. Their idle chatter—which had either been so quiet purposely or just indiscernible by her in her wavering focus—had died away.
The Heir nodded towards her attire. “I didn’t know you worked here.”
“I had no other clothes,” Isla deadpanned, working to gather her hair loosely atop her head.
Her brother snickered. “I don’t remember thievery being a part of the Warrior Creed.”
Isla rolled her eyes, electing to simply flip him off before taking a seat on her bed. As aggravated as she was, she was happy to have their company. To have some semblance of normal—even if their conversation would be far from it.
“You’re over two hours late,” she addressed the both of them. “so I hope you have something.”
They exchanged a look.
“They put him on one of the upper wings,” Adrien said. “It’s pretty abandoned and isn’t holding any other patients.”
She’d figured that much.
“Is he okay?”
Sebastian scoffed. “That’s a loaded question.”
She narrowed her eyes at him in suspicion. “Where were you when this was all happening anyway?”
“Taking care of something for Dad.”
“You know I can’t tell you.”
Isla pursed her lips. She did know—of course.
As had always been the case and what would likely never change—no matter what she achieved in her lifetime— Sebastian would be issued respects she never would be, able to access information she never could. The Imperial Beta’s first born, his son, the only true candidate to take the mantle once Adrien took leadership—she couldn’t argue that he didn’t earn it, as he’d claimed earlier. For as conniving and obnoxious as he could be, her brother had completed the Hunt and knew how to use his snake-oil charisma to his—and whoever’s bidding he’d been set on’s—advantage. And she knew it was used frequently.
“I know that he’s restrained and tranquilized,” Adrien broke between them. “But his wounds are being taken care of.”
“He’s still restrained?” Isla asked with wide eyes.
“He pulled a knife, Isla.”
“He didn’t hurt anyone.” Her response earned dual-doubtful looks, and she sighed, directing back at her friend, “You’re the one who thought he could help us figure out whatever’s going on. Has he said anything at all that gives any idea about what happened? Or shown any signs that he remembers who he is or why we’re here?”
“I don’t think anyone’s been able to get to him. The order from my father’s been to steer clear.”
At the mention of the Imperial Alpha, Isla blinked and then held back the snarl as Ezekiel’s malice-laced words of her Pack’s leader, of her best friend’s father, her best friend’s future, rammed into her mind. “Your father knows now?” she asked, and Adrien nodded. “What does he think?”
“That there’s a problem that we don’t understand and that needs to be taken care of—quickly,” he said. “And he doesn’t want any of it leaving Callisto.”
Perplexity fluttered across Isla’s features, the words ringing amiss in her head. “What does that mean?”
“No one’s to speak of it outside of these Pack borders.”
“That sounds. . . how is that possible? People from all over came to see them re-emerge.” Isla shook her head. “And don’t people know what happened to me in there, to us?”
“We do. Some of Io’s Council do,” Adrien rattled. “The Alpha and Beta of Deimos, and whoever got you out, vaguely, but other than that, no.”
“But I thought there was that Alphas’ meeting? To figure out what to do?”
“Apparently they didn’t talk about the Wilds at all. It just kept the Alphas busy while they canvased.”
Isla dropped her gaze down to the blankets beneath her and trailed her eyes along their embroidery as she thought. As the puzzle pieces worked their way together. “They’re trying to cover this up.” The realization had hit her in a particular way she didn’t like. “I almost died in there. K—the Alpha of Deimos. Lukas—” His name went through like a shot, and she darted her gaze back up. “What are they going to do with him?” The boys exchanged more wary glances. Isla pressed again, “What are they going to do with him?”
“Valkeric,” Sebastian said, a grimness to his tone.
Isla’s mouth had turned to ash. “You better be talking about a cabin in the mountains and not the prison.” The silence that followed, a confirmation of the worst sort, roiled through her veins. “He’s a victim, not a criminal.”
“It wasn’t an actual plan, just a possibility we heard tossed around,” Adrien attempted to mollify.
It wasn’t enough to quell the frustration, the ire.
“He has a family,” Isla snapped. “He has a mom and a dad and a sister and a new nephew who love him and want him to come home. He went in the Wilds, and he killed a Bak. He earned what’s his. He deserves to go home and to be a Warrior.” A thought that had been simmering since Lukas had emerged, finally boiled to the surface. “And—I—I was with him. That could just as easily be me up there in that room, restrained and tranquilized. Would you let me get thrown into Valkeric?” Both of them responded with similar answers of vehement disagreement. She settled back, feeling a sense of relief, release, and a hope she’d gotten her point across. “So let’s not let it happen to him. There has to be something we can do.”
Sebastian was beaming as he said, with mirth and no detectable taunting, “Alright, General, what’s your plan?”
| ☽ |
Isla, Adrien, and Sebastian had spent a solid hour constructing their plan, plotting in a way that almost rung back to their times as children. Only now, instead of devising ways to skip lessons or sneak out of their homes, it was inadvertently to save a man’s life. Isla wished there had been a better play than her simply getting in to talk to him while guised as a nurse as the boys kept at bay the key players who’d be aware of who she was and betray her presence—but they had to work with what they had.
Even as her lids felt heavy, even as the urgency of the all this was hovered, Isla relished in the moment. Strategizing, taking action, with the prospect of Lukas making it back home safely in her view on the horizon—this was what she loved. What she wanted to do forever. For the Realm. For her family.
She could never leave this. Never give it all up.
Even if the hollowness in her chest seemed to grow with each passing second. Even if, the whole time they’d schemed, Kai’s voice had lingered in the back of her head, teasing whenever she’d felt any sense of pride or joy. In that way of his that annoyed her, yet endeared him to her in a way she couldn’t quite describe and would never, ever admit to him—if she ever even could.
“Is something wrong with your hand?”
Isla snapped her head up at Adrien, who was hovering near the door that Sebastian had just disappeared behind moments earlier, stating a desire to get a drink at the bar not too far from the infirmary to hit on its tender one last time before they’d departed for Io.
Isla glanced down, realizing she’d been tracing one of her fingers absently over her opposite palm, as if lining the threads of light that weren’t there. She quickly separated the two, shoving her hands beneath her crossed legs. “Uh, no.”
That look of concern flashed across Adrien’s face again as he quirked a brow. He was silent for a few seconds, unspoken words dancing in his eyes before—
“The Alpha of Deimos left.”
Isla’s own brows shot up, thrown thoroughly not by the statement’s contents but its presence. Why would he bring this up?
“Oh?” she said, trying to sound a trying mix of nonchalant and surprised.
Adrien hummed in confirmation, leaning back against the doorframe, arms crossed. “Some emergency in Deimos, I heard. I couldn’t get a clear answer on what it was, but it was so dire they had to go in the dead of night.”
To be back by dawn, she wanted to say, but kept it to herself.
Upon her quiet, Adrien was standing tall again, making his way slowly to the bed. “Did he say anything to you?”
Isla forced herself not to balk. To look him dead in the eye. “About what?”
He stopped a mere foot away. “About anything.”
“No—why would he?”
A long pause.
With a loud breath, Adrien sat down at the foot of the bed, resting his elbows on his knees, focusing not on her, but their shadows on the wall in front of him. “I could scent him on you at the Gate—once I parsed it out of the magic. You were with him when we couldn’t find you, weren’t you?”
The slightest hitch of Isla’s breath had been picked up on instantly, and she silently cursed herself as Adrien turned to study her face.
She swallowed. Lying felt pointless. “Yes.”
Adrien’s jaw tightened. “Why?”
She had to be steel.
They’d promised each other. She and Kai had sworn no one would know about their bond but them.
But—this was Adrien. Her best friend, Adrien.
Her best friend Adrien who’d been with her since they were pups. Who she trusted with her life.
Who. . . had found himself burned by a Fated mate bond only a little over a year ago. Who she’d nearly lost because of that damned Fated mate bond only a little over a year ago.
Isla restrained her scowl as that undead ghost—the faintest image of the female voice that had haunted her as she and Kai drew closer—manifested between them. She willed it away hurriedly, before the sparkling eyes of her former friend, lined with the silver sheen of tears, could come into focus.
“He was around,” she said, before she could second-guess the fabrication. “We bumped into each other, and just—talked.”
“Talked?” he echoed, sounding unconvinced.
Another pause. Another breath. The answer had been accepted, but something was bothering him. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before he said, “He asked a lot about you at the Feast, you know. Who you were, why you were there. I think he’s—interested in you.”
The final part was said with an uncertainty that she would’ve been offended by if she weren’t so grateful for the disbelief at the notion.
She capitalized on it.
“An actual in-power Alpha interested in me? Me?” She forced a laugh. “I may be able to woo an official or two, but an Alpha is far beyond my reach.”
“You’re the daughter of the Imperial Beta?”
That was getting old fast.
“And yet, I went to countless mate gatherings and some Balls and Galas and not a single Heir—not even an Alpha’s Scion—spared me a glance.”
Adrien looked her over, contemplative. “You’re different now.”
“You just—are.” He shrugged, before going pensive again. “You asked me at the Feast if I thought he was dangerous.”
Back on Kai again.
Isla took in a breath, remembering her words well. “That was a long time ago.”
A line appeared in Adrien’s cheek as he clenched his teeth again. “Alpha isn’t handed down by strength. It’s a birthright, only a birthright.” He let the words hang for a bit. “I don’t have any siblings. The title’s mine as soon as my father passes it down. But I know how much his brother and sister resented him for the fact that Imperial Alpha was his, despite being just as much my grandfather’s children and as Alpha-blooded as he was. The Alpha of Deimos—the current Alpha—is. . . a lot stronger than his brother was. He just proved it.”
“Stop,” Isla told him, and Adrien turned to face her. “Kai wouldn’t do that.”
Adrien had echoed the name without question, just deadpan observation, but Isla still corrected herself.
“The Alpha,” she said, before shaking her head. “Where is this coming from? You both seemed—fine—talking at the Gate.” She wasn’t even going to bother trying to pry from him what Kai had deemed “Pack business”. Not tonight anyway.
Another rise and fall of Adrien’s shoulders. “He’s alright, especially for a guy who got a pretty shitty deal, but—something’s off with that Pack. Something’s been off, for years, even before the Alpha and Heir, just, died.” She noted the way he hadn’t cited a killer, one other than Kai who he’d suspected. Like his father really hadn’t told him. “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t want you getting tangled up in it somehow.”
“I’m not,” she replied quickly. Too quickly, maybe. She mustered a soft smile. “Believe me, I’m not.”
“Okay.” Adrien mirrored the expression, before falling back onto the bed and rubbing his hands over his face, groaning.
She laughed. “Are you good?”
The Heir sighed, before placing his hands on his stomach. “Tired.” He closed his eyes, heaving another breath, one that she could really feel the weight behind. She couldn’t help but wonder if it was due to recent events, or if he still suffered effects from the severed bond. “Really fucking tired.”
Now wasn’t the time to ask.
“Join the club,” she chimed.
He smirked, before closing his eyes. “Wake me up in an hour.”
Isla snorted. Though she wouldn’t fight him on it. Maybe she’d actually be able to get some sleep.
“Fine,” she said, chucking one of her pillows down for him to use. “But move down, Fat-ass. I need room for my legs.”
Adrien obliged, sliding down the mattress, not bothering to crack open his eyes. “Alright, Pudge.”
A roll of her eyes, but a genuine smile graced Isla’s mouth as she laid down on her pillow, not bothering to wriggle under the constricting blankets. It wasn’t long after she’d settled that the gentle, deep sounds of Adrien’s breath filled the room. He really had been exhausted.
But Isla. . .
She turned in her spot, laying on her side so she could face the window. With the shades drawn open enough, beams of moonlight spilled onto the floor. Isla trailed them out as much as she could to their source, to the world outside. One that held monsters and murderers and. . . Kai.
Isla brought her hand up to her face, so dark with the faint glowing backdrop behind it.
Everything given can just as easily be taken away.
She scowled, directing her gaze upwards, lingering as her fingers curled but one digit. As she flipped off Fate, holding it until she felt the deity had received her message, and tucked her hand beneath her pillow. And though it may had been contradictory, she’d sent a prayer too. Thanked the Goddess for what could’ve been. . . for Kai to be safe and okay.
And then, finally, she closed her eyes and slept.
| ☽ |
Somehow, Isla felt worse when she woke up than when she’d gone to bed, her limbs stiff and heavy as she peeled open her eyes that took too long to focus. Oranges, reds, and purple-ish blue hues greeted her through the window, a calling to the sun’s arrival on the horizon. Still, the sky held a lingering blackness to it, meaning it had to be an hour or so before dawn.
She grumbled as she stretched, wincing at the sharp pain in her arm and side. Her injury from the Hunt had clearly been aggravated somehow, and she’d place her bets on her entirely graceful descent from the heights of her hiding place amidst the branches. Adrenaline had kept it all at bay throughout the madness of the night—the movement that she had stood by firmly when it came to aiding in recovery—but after being stagnant for so long as she lay curled on her mattress, her body was ready to make her pay. Taunt her for her hubris against nature’s timing.
With a quick look at the clock, Isla realized that she’d only been asleep for a few hours, if she could even call it that. It wasn’t a true slumber, just the in-and-out illusion of one. A back and forth into the murky depths of her subconscious. She had a gnawing feeling that the closest she’d ever get to sleep in these coming weeks would have been the day before yesterday—when she was unconscious.
She wavered as she rose to her feet, her knees buckling and almost sending her back to the bed. Something was. . . off. Again. In a way she’d never felt or experienced before, shocking as this trip had been full of foreign sensations. But this—this was truly unique. Like a fog clouded her head, thick and impossible to clear away entirely. Like pieces of her mind—of her—had been scattered, gone away, rendering her at a loss of how to retrieve them.
A reasoning for it hit her hard and fast, but she didn’t want to acknowledge it. Didn’t want to believe it. Even if it was painfully obvious.
“Forget,” she said, the word seeming to echo in her empty room. Reverberate in her mind as she moved to the bathroom to freshen up and look upon herself in the mirror. As she pressed along the dark circles under her eyes. As she took in her sallow skin, her slightly chapped lips.
Isla forced herself to smile.
This was a new day. A start of a new life. The life she wanted. The life she chose.
A Warrior—not a queen.
On her exit, Isla caught a piece of paper on the chair—a note that read: Meet you back here at 9.
From both the handwriting and the very small pool of people that it could’ve been, it was easy for Isla to figure it was from Adrien. She’d been faintly aware of when he left her room last night, though after one hour or two, she wasn’t sure. All she remembered was hearing him go in a hurry.
She looked at the clock again, tracking the hands as they sluggishly made their rounds. 9 AM meant that there was still quite a bit of time left until they put their plan in action. Until they made their last ditch effort to get to Lukas, to glean some information about what had gone on behind the Wall. Timing just right, every diversion conducted to perfection.
One shot. They had one shot.
Because at noon, they’d be bound for Io.
But until then, Isla had some hours to kill, and so she figured, where better to go—where else to go around here—but the roof.
As Isla pushed open the heavy door and stepped onto it, she was met by the luster of metal bars and vents and chimneys in the rising beams of sunlight. The platform was surely different in the daytime. It seemed more functional now—and a lot dirtier too.
The observation drew a breathy laugh from her mouth, had the faintest smirk crossing her lips, as she turned to glance at the wall behind her. A structure that had almost led to an irreversible mistake.
For a brief moment, she let herself relive the rush, relish in the callback to the sweet, painful tension. She’d surely never know what sleeping with Kai would entail, but if it was anything like the damn game they’d played—that push and pull, grip and release. . .
Any inkling of her amusement faltered when she trained her eyes to the empty space along the railing, feeling a tug not at a bond, but her heart. But before she could allow herself to fall into those nauseating depths as she had last night, that had lapped at her toes since waking like a rising tide, she forced herself into new focus.
A quick glance down had her eyes locked on the now extinguished bonfire, reduced to a giant pile of ash surrounded by charred rock. Gone were those who’d sent prayers up to the Goddess. Those who’d received their wishes of the final Hunters’ return, though likely not in the way anyone had hoped or expected.
Isla gritted her teeth, picturing Lukas floors below her. Thinking of the horrendous prison carved into the mountainside of the tallest peak in Io’s Valkeric Ranges. Home to the Realm’s worst criminals, those who would’ve been thrown into the Wilds’s for their transgressions if rule still held as those barbaric times of a past she’d wished was a bit more distant.
They were going to help him. They had to help him. Even if bringing back his memories was unsuccessful, if they could find a way to prove him not a threat, to prove him helpful.
But if they were going to try covering all of this up. . .
Once again, Isla stopped herself from thinking. Stopped her anger from festering.
With a sigh, she pulled the marker out of her pocket, not keen on leaving it anywhere out of her sight. The wood had the slightest give under her touch as she held it between her fingers, the relic having spent so long in the soaking wet pockets of her coat. It was by some miracle that she hadn’t dropped it last night.
She noted how pieces of the dirt, once embedded so thickly in the ridges, had begun to loosen. Isla used her nail to dig it away, realizing too late she may have been compromising the integrity of a timeless artifact.
Her eyes narrowed down at it as she excavated one particular prominent ridge, casted upon perfectly by a beam of sunlight, as if whatever deity was calling down from above was validating her attention.
“No way,” she breathed, a fire stoked in her eyes as more grime gave way.
Isla continued furiously, brushing and picking and digging until under her nails were stained with dirt, and as she looked down upon what she’d unearthed, she choked on her breath and nearly dropped the ball off the ledge.
Her spit felt thick as her stare shifted slowly to the forest in the distance, where the trees danced with the softest sway in the early morning breeze. Their faint rustle like the song of something wicked beckoning her to pass its thicket-laden gates yet again.
Blinking, Isla held the marker up to the light, turning it over several times, poking and prodding at it to ensure she was seeing what she actually believed she was. Her stomach twisted as she brought it so close to her face to examine that she could almost smell the rotting earth it has risen from.
There were so many symbols.
Etchings of foreign letters that she didn’t understand, but some she’d seen. . . dwelling in a mix of many other curves and claw marks.
Carved in a message left for her mate.