XVII. THE TALK
Isla traced her finger along the marker’s edges—six consecutive symbols at the top, three below that, and one big mark beneath those, three tick marks cut between by a bisecting line. That large singular marking was the one she recognized most. That she swore she’d seen sketched into the tree’s bark last night.
Which meant. . . well, she didn’t know what it meant.
She also wasn’t positive that it was actually true.
In the grand scheme of things, after all she’d gone through and all she’d seen, Isla didn’t necessarily trust her own judgement. She was so desperate for a resolution, for any type of sense, that easily she could’ve been creating something grand and revolutionary out of absolutely nothing.
Her eyes darted between the forest, what she could make of the top of the Wall, and back to the relic resting in her palm.
First of all, what was this?
Of the several known dialects in their ancient history—native to each original Pack before the Common was developed with the rise of Io to centralize the Realm and aid in relations with the rest of the world—none used an alphabet like this. That creation was centuries ago, nearly a millennium. But the Ares Pass wasn’t so old that it pre-dated those primeval records. . . was it?
No, Lukas had mentioned Io. That the in-power Imperial Alpha held issue with the Pass’s existence. With the Alphas—the brothers—of Deimos and Phobos budding their own empire. Challenging him.
But exactly how long ago was that?
Isla tangled her fingers in her hair.
What was she supposed to do with this? What if she was wrong?
She shot another look at the woodland in the distance.
Kai had asked her to keep herself contained for a few hours. It had been over that now, the pastels of dawn giving way to the clear blue of morning. He had to be getting to Deimos’s borders at any moment, or even be beyond them now. In Mavec, in his “not-palace”. But the murderer of his father and brother. . .
She shouldn’t do it. Shouldn’t risk herself when she could still feel the glimmer of the bond between them, though it waned. Couldn’t go back in those woods.
Not alone, at least.
Her eyes travelled back to the marker.
She could tell Adrien and Sebastian—but then they’d ask about the message when they came upon it. What is was, why it mattered. And she could lie, she supposed, but. . .
“Goddess.” Isla grimaced and rubbed her forehead.
The world was spinning again, and she didn’t know what to do. Who to talk to. The best option—the person clued in on most of her secrets now because he was arguably the largest of them—was hundreds of miles away now. Would be thousands once she got back home.
But he was also someone she shouldn’t trust.
At least, according to Lukas, and according to this piece of timber in her hand.
One step at a time, she told herself. One at a time.
First she’d get Lukas, and then finally she’d learn about the Pass.
| ☽ |
“Seb should be at the other stairwell soon. You have maybe ten or fifteen minutes at the most. That’s the longest we can keep them occupied.”
Isla didn’t look up at Adrien as he spoke, instead focusing upon herself in the mirror of the bathroom as she finished twisting her hair into a proper low bun. Smooth and put together, so at odds with how she actually felt inside. “That’s all I’ll need.”
“You know what you’re going to say?”
“I’ll ease him into it.” She tucked any flyaways behind her ears. “Introduce myself. Find out what he remembers.”
“Don’t say your name,” Adrien told her, leaning back against the wall. “No one can know we went to see him. I shouldn’t even be letting you go.” When she shot him a look, he added, “But I know better than to tell you that you can’t do something.” He snickered. “I mean, people told you that you shouldn’t, that you couldn’t, become a Warrior, and now look at you. Second in the run to an Alpha, killer of two Bak.”
Although the words had been meant as praise, Isla felt a wrench in her gut, an iron-grip on her lungs. Her mind flashed to piercing red eyes, a bow, an acknowledgement, and that rasping, thick, nearly indiscernible sound.
She scowled, glancing at herself in the mirror, catching the curve of her lumerosi creeping towards her collarbone as the too-large uniform was askew on her shoulders. A shudder took to her bones as she felt the ghost of a tracing sharp claw. One belonging to the beast seconds away from ending her life. Swallowing thickly, she reached up to do the same.
At the sound of her name, she dropped her hand immediately and took in a breath, turning to Adrien. In an attempt to divert attention, she asked the first thing on her mind, which probably wasn’t the best. “Did you—uh—did you ever get a clearer answer about why the Alpha had to return to Deimos?”
The Heir’s eyebrows quirked at her interest. “Rogues,” he said simply, shocking her, as she wasn’t expecting an answer. “A band of them from the barren lands between Rhea, Charon, and Deimos. They’ve been a problem for months on all three borders, but with the death of Alpha Kyran, they’re trying to take advantage of the power shift and move in on Deimos.”
Isla’s body tensed at the mention of the former Alpha, Kai’s father, and a tinge of fear took to her heart.
Not all Rogues—but most—were dangerous. Lawless. Cast out by their Packs or choosing to leave themselves. While those who ventured out to those lands—so bleak and not worth Pack claim—typically kept to their solitude, those who had been exiled formed their own coalitions. Never would they garner enough strength to take down a Pack, but they could definitely cause problems.
She did her best to shove the fear away, to keep it from being evident. “To do what?”
Adrien’s shoulders rose and fell. “Anarchy? What else do Rogues do?” Isla must’ve been doing a horrible job masking her concern, because his voice became soft, “It’s just some gangs stirring up trouble. We’ve had them too, on the western borders. I would think Deimos has a strong Guard.”
A Guard that allowed the Alpha and Heir to be killed.
A Guard that could let Kai get killed.
The last thought was nauseating.
Isla ran her tongue over her teeth, burying it deep and away with the bond and Bak. “I know.” She noticed how Adrien’s eyes narrowed, how they carried over her with suspicion. “We should go,” she said, heading for the door, not allowing any opening for him to question. Only follow.
The path they took was the same Isla had meandered when she’d managed to come upon Ezekiel, with a few extra turns down some quieter hallways. Though the corridors were a bit more bustling with the earlier rounds of nurses. They kept their heads down, but not in a way that would draw any attention.
When they finally reached the stairwell door, they gave the area around a quick once-over before heading up not one floor, but three. Lukas was being kept as far away from everyone as possible while in reach of care.
The hall of the fifth floor was as dark as Isla remembered of the third. But here, there was no light spilling from the hallway, no distant voices of her mate and his Beta.
“After you’re in, I’ll get the guard away from the door,” Adrien said. “You need to go fast. Seb can only hold the real nurse for so long.”
Isla gave a hum of confirmation, and not wasting time with words, took off on her mission.
Two turns down two different barren hallways separated her from the eventual source of light, near a man guarding a door. She didn’t recognize him, which was good and all part of the plan. From what the boys had found out, this was the one guard put on duty with no affiliation to their Pack, and he’d be switched out as soon as decisions were made on Lukas’s fate. If he’d be brought to Io as a prisoner or have a chance to recover here or home.
As she made her way down the hall, Isla didn’t try to mask her presence. The goal wasn’t to sneak up on him. It was, in fact, for him to act exactly as he had. Bracing at the sudden appearance and relaxing upon seeing it was simply her. . . a nurse.
After a brief exchange that was almost too easy, with the man asking if she wanted him to remain with her inside Lukas’s room as protection—which she declined—Isla reached for the door’s handle.
And she hesitated.
The marker was heavy in her pocket. Her scalpel, blade capped by a makeshift-sheath, tucked into her waistband. Not to be used, but just in case. To be prepared.
Isla didn’t know what to expect, but she knew what to hope for. What she wanted. By some miracle, they would both walk out of that room with answers. He with who he was, and she with what it all meant.
Her eyes briefly drifted upwards. Don’t let me lose him again.
After one more subtle deep breath, Isla pushed the door and stepped inside.
Lukas was reading.
That alone almost sent her stumbling back. He was supposed to be tranquilized, restrained, stripped of everything. And she couldn’t imagine, with all hostility towards him, a novel would’ve been offered for his enjoyment.
Either way, one of those things was certainly true, white binds visible on his wrists, latching him to the bed. But he was well-awake and so entranced by the pages of his book, which barely spanned taller or wider than his own hands, that he hadn’t even bothered looking up until the door closed behind her. Her stomach turned when the sight made him flinch. She knew it wasn’t anything specific towards her, especially when she caught sight of the bruising on his body that she wished she could blame on not noticing in the darkness of last night.
His chestnut eyes became laser-focused on her face, and as when he had emerged, she couldn’t find that spark there anymore, that light. Nothing of the man who she’d caught studying a painting off to the side of the Feast, who’d known a surprising amount of Callisto’s art history. Nothing of the man who’d been rendered into a stuttering mess upon seeing her bare body, who’d apparently pictured it beforehand.
He just felt cold. Empty. A stranger.
But just lost, she reminded herself. Lost and scared.
“Hi.” Her voice was as syrupy as it had been on the guard outside. The one she could very faintly hear talking—until it faded as Adrien drew his prying ears away.
Isla noticed a file sitting on a table set at the foot of his bed. Maybe a bit too eagerly, she reached for it and flipped it open, only to be disappointed to find the notes brief.
Lukas had just been called Patient, noted as being traumatized and an amnesiac, with no trace of him having been in the Hunt at all. Only one other nurse had cycled through since he was brought in, she knew, Isla sneaking in before the second meant to replace her. He was due for his tranquilizers soon, which may have explained why he was so awake.
“You’re not a nurse.”
Isla’s eyes snapped up to meet his. His voice had been even and cool, the easiest he’d ever spoken to her. Even more so than when he’d so confidently boasted his knowledge to her of the marker.
She made sure to keep her face impassive, not fearful of being caught. “What makes you say that?”
“Because the other two have had someone come in beforehand to threaten me,” he bemused, and the smirk he wore, so unlike him, almost made her skin crawl.
But maybe she’d been so distracted by what he’d said that she couldn’t focus on it.
“You nurses don’t talk out there?”
Isla blinked, but recovered quickly. “Apparently not.” She feigned amusement, storing that fact about the second nurse away for later. She held up the folder. “They didn’t write anything.”
“They brought their own. You came unprepared,” Lukas jeered. “Strike two—nurse.”
Isla kept her eyes from narrowing, both in focused thought and slightest annoyance with his heckling. “What time did they come in? They weren’t on the schedule.”
He shrugged. “Not long after the first, I don’t think. But then again, I was out of it. The storm was over.”
“What did they look like? Maybe I can—”
“No, my turn,” Lukas said with a raised finger. “All I’ve gotten is questions and beatings, and no one will give me answers.”
Isla pursed her lips, trying not to break under the weight of any guilt she felt. “What makes you think I’ll give you them?”
He smiled. “Because you’re desperate enough to lie to be here.”
He definitely still had his wits about him. Even if he had mastered the art of fumbling over his own words, he was never a stupid man. Maybe there was a hope he was still there, simply with those quirky parts of his personality stripped away in the absence of the memories that made him who he was.
Riddles and secrets and games.
She could use those old interests to her advantage.
“An even trade then,” she proposed. “A question and answer for one in return.”
That seemed to spark something, as he flashed her the most genuine grin she’d seen since he’d smiled at her before the Bak he’d killed in the Wilds.
“I’ll go first,” he said. “Who are you?”
“A friend,” she told him.
He narrowed his eyes. “Be more specific.”
“Ask in the next question.” Her smile had his lips twitching up again. Was that progress? “What do you remember from behind the Wall?”
He rolled his eyes. “How original,” he deadpanned. “I remember woods and a wolf.” His answer was simple and to the point, as hers had been. But that small gleam of joy in his face made it okay. She was surprised when his next question wasn’t for her name. “Where am I?”
Isla bit down on her bottom lip. They’d started easy, but now, she could try digging into whatever was lost. And if he held true to form, the more specific she got, the more detailed, he may mirror and clue her further into what happened.
Still, she chose her words carefully.
“An infirmary in Callisto. It’s one of the ten territories in this Realm—or I suppose, one of eleven,” she paused, gauging his reaction before she continued. “Tethys is the southernmost on the continent—I’ve heard it gets pretty cold there. It’s one of the smallest regions, I think. A little bigger than Rhea.”
“Are you going to ask your question?” he asked, and it seemed the information barely fazed him.
Isla sighed. “Do you remember anything from before the woods and wolf?”
“Dark,” he said. “I remember dark. Everything being dark, and I don’t know anything but the darkness before the darkness.” He began drumming his fingers over the leather binding of the book he’d been reading. “How could he do that?”
From the grit of disdain in his tone, Isla knew what he meant.
She wrung her hands together and crossed her arms over her chest as she paced a bit. “It’s called shifting,” she eased, bracing herself and him in pause, before she continued, “Not everyone can do it completely. Some just claws and fangs, some unfortunate people only the hair, and others not at all. The Goddess gave us our abilities, our power, to protect the land we stand on, to protect each other, as she’d been protected when she walked the world before us.”
At her paraphrased citings from the Great Book, Lukas’s nostrils flared. “You’re one of them?”
Now or never.
Isla wasn’t sure how much time she had left, but she could feel an end looming. An ethereal sensation that whatever she did and said next was crucial.
“You are,” she said, tone firm. “Your name is Lukas. You’re from the Pack of Tethys. Your parents live there too, and your sister who just had a baby. A boy. You’re an uncle.” Lukas’s face was stone. Isla grit her teeth and carried forward, heart thudding in her ears. “You’ve spent the past six years training to become a Warrior. I met you a little over a week ago at a dinner. We talked about a painting that you were looking at, and then I saw you again when we were both behind the Wall.” She reached into her pocket and slowly pulled out the marker, letting it rest in her palm before him as she stepped closer. “You found this in the ground, and you told me about it. What it was. What it meant for me—and someone else in my life.”
Isla waited with bated breath as his eyes honed in on the marker, tracked across its ridges and carvings as she had countless times. There was a flash in his eyes, and a nag of hope blossomed in her chest.
“Isla.” Her name tumbled from his lips.
With it, her own mouth had opened to beam, to say yes. . . but then she noticed the severed straps of his restraints, tucked beneath his pillows so one could barely see the detachment.
And she had no time to move out of the way as he rocketed to his feet and slammed her to the wall, pinning her beneath his body.
Any immediate thought to jerk and fight him away needed to be re-evaluated as something pointed and sharp pressed to her side. Not small like the scalpel she couldn’t reach in her waistband with the way he was pressed against her—but a dagger. She caught the glint of it out of the corner of her eye. There was no time to ponder where he’d gotten it, how.
“Don’t scream,” he demanded, eyes so dark with rage they were nearly black. “This is your fault. You’re why I’m like this. Why I’m stuck here.”
Isla’s heart was in her throat. She didn’t know what to say, what to do. Not yet. She would. She just needed to think. Focus. Calm. He was angry with her. Maybe she could talk him down.
“I’m sorry,” she panted. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left you.”
She swore something in his eyes changed, though quickly, they became endless depths of fury again.
“He said if I killed you, he’d let me out and then I’m on my own. But if I bring you back—they’ll let me stay.” The blade was pressed further into her side, and Isla held in a scream as it pierced her skin and burned in a way that it shouldn’t have. Her insides had gone watery.
Kill her. Kill her?
It was with the slightest jerk of his elbow that Isla knew she had to act fast, and it was with it that her wolf took over.
Claws breaking through, she swiped them across his body, wherever she could reach, meeting flesh deeper than she’d expected. His cry out mixed with her own as he keeled over, dragging his blade through her shirt, across her skin, as he went down. She followed suit as pain took hold, falling a few feet away.
Isla hissed as she shakily reached for her side, the warm stickiness of his blood coating her fingers, while her own leaked through the torn fabric of her shirt. The wound left in the wake of his weapon was shallow, but still lit her insides on fire. Like a venom had seeped in and was coursing through her veins.
Breathing so hard and so fast she was becoming light-headed, she darted her eyes to Lukas, who was curled in a ball putting pressure on the large gash she’d drawn around from his back to his stomach. Crimson leaked from between his fingers, pooling beneath him. His eyes were shut tight while his teeth were bared as he sneered at the pain.
Isla noticed the book he’d been reading, fallen to the floor, smeared in blood as with the marker and the dagger, and she saw red when she realized the scribblings in it weren’t in the Common, not in an alphabet she recognized.
There was no way.
But she didn’t have time to question, not like this. She only had the facts in front of her.
Someone had given that book to him, someone had given him this dagger, allowed him to get free. Told him to kill her.
Temper flaring, she reached for the knife, hilt dipped in his blood and blade slicked with hers, and fought to her knees, one arm wrapped around to hold her burning side.
She brought the blade to his throat. “Who gave you this?”
He didn’t answer.
She pressed it to his skin, forcing again. “Who gave you this?”
As she had at the metal’s contact, Lukas recoiled like it burned, and Isla balked with it. But there was no advantage taken with the opening as he became pale, and as his eyes opened to look upon her, Isla saw they were clear. Clearer than they ever had been. He blinked, as if seeing her for the first time before they fluttered closed, and he went limp.
Isla fell back, jaw unhinged as a wave of clarity washed over her. “No,” she muttered, her eyes darting across his body. His breathing slow, heartbeat fading. “No, no, no, no. Lukas!” She dropped the knife to her side and crawled over to him, struggling as whatever it had been made of, whatever laced its surface, wreaked havoc on her.
As she pressed firmly against his wounds to slow the bleeding, the room’s doors bursted open. It was Adrien, the guard, and a nurse. Everything that happened next seemed to move in slow motion, yet so fast all she could do was run on autopilot. She gathered everything. The marker, the book, and the dagger.
And left Lukas bleeding on the floor as Adrien carried her away.