XXV. THE TOUCH
☾ PART III : THE BECK OF BONDS ☽
Isla straightened against warmth, against planes of solid muscle. The heat gave way to a chill, and then fire again as she felt the hold on her loosen and then constrict. As she felt callused fingertips run over the skin of her hip, slipping under the slit of her dress, finding the lace line of her underwear cutting over her thigh. Tracing it. Another hand sat at her waist, palm spanning across the rise and fall of her stomach, the exposed skin there, thumb raising to stroke just below the curve of her breast.
Kai held her like she’d vanish if he let her go, and Isla’s body yielded to him. Every curve melding to every bend of his. His heart thundered against her back, through the fabric of his jacket which she still adorned, until, with each passing beat, hers found the same rhythm. Intertwined and in time.
Mate, mate, mate.
“Isla.” Kai’s breath was hot on her neck as he dipped his head into the cradle of her shoulder.
She shuddered. His voice—desperate, aching, fighting—cut through the repetitions like a mind-numbing melody.
Mine, mine, mine.
Just as she was about to allow her head to fall back into his chest—to crane and expose the space meant just for him—clarity rang like a bell in the form of horrified screams.
They were surrounded by Rogues.
Being attacked by Rogues.
People needed help.
Isla forced herself to rise. To turn and meet Kai’s eyes.
She choked down a breath.
It was as if she were seeing him for the very first time. As if now that they’d touched—now that she knew the feeling of his body against her own—she’d met him all over again.
And he was familiar—something was familiar. From a time before Callisto, before the terrace and the garden.
Touch me, her body screamed as the initial rush—not wholly faded—began swelling like a wave ready to crash and wash her away. As it consumed the surroundings again, threatening to drown them out. Touch me, touch me, touch—
The cry came from a distance.
Both Isla and Kai—mildly dazed, chests rising and falling in the same heavy cadence—whipped around to find a man powering from the masses towards them. The movement seemed to take every bit of the older guest’s energy. Isla searched his worn glassy eyes for anything she’d recognize, but there was nothing. Nothing but terror, denial, and—grief.
Broken—he seemed broken.
She listened with cracks forming in her chest as he explained how he couldn’t find his wife amongst the chaos. His mate. No matter how much he called, she wouldn’t call back. He couldn’t feel her there. The only thing left at the end of their bond was emptiness.
Isla knew what that meant—knew the man did too—but he couldn’t face it alone. Didn’t want to. In his shoes, she wouldn’t either.
Her gaze drifted to Kai. Through their own connection, she could sense rage and sorrow stirring within him. Though the emotions were also written clearly on his face. She wondered how much of it felt personal. Especially now. Now that they’d. . .
Goddess—what had just happened?
“I’ll help you find her,” Kai told him, before turning to Isla.
Her heart wrenched.
“I’ll do what I can,” she said immediately, eyes flicking between the two of them. She didn’t know if Kai wanted her to remain by his side—she didn’t know if she wanted to remain by his side—but she knew what she needed to do in order to be the most effective. To aid more people. If she’d learned anything from Lukas and the Hunt.
She turned to shift and descend into the mayhem, but then gasped as she felt the warmth of a hand around hers.
Swallowing thickly, she spun back to Kai, sensing those golden workings of her, not caressed by, but weaving with those of darkness. Drawn taut and ready to be strummed and played along like an aria among them.
She expected him to tell her no. Tell her to stay with him. For them to waste time in a spat about it. But he didn’t.
A reluctance and worry shone in Kai’s eyes, as he told her in parting, “See if you can find my mother.”
He’d let her go. He knew he had to. For the safety of his people in attendance, he needed her out there, doing what she was here to do. Protect his Pack. They had to put themselves aside, whatever lay between them aside, for all else.
Isla nodded. “I will.”
And squandering no more precious seconds amidst the cruel backdrop, they both went on to shift, their fine clothes left as tattered fabric and Isla’s jewelry clattering to the courtyard stone.
As she came down on her paws, shaking out her fur, senses sharp and honed in on the scent of blood—of the injured, of the dead—and the ghastly stench of Rogues, Isla turned to her mate once more. Crimson eyes met hers—the soft hue of white-blue—appearing menacing and lethal, but Isla could find Kai beneath. Could feel the lingering essence of him that rang in time with her.
In a fleeting moment, he stepped to her, and Isla savored in the closeness, before they headed off in separate, equally perilous directions. Their final exchange, his voice, echoed in the back of her head.
Not fully formed, but nowhere near close to being broken, the bond seemed even more volatile now than it ever had before. As the distance grew between them, Isla felt the twisting slow, but it didn’t stop, and yet at the same time, it continued to break away and fall apart.
She was all out of sorts—powered by adrenaline, by anger, by fear, but distracted and mystified by something otherworldly going on inside that she couldn’t put words to. And though now was certainly not the time for her to be discovering the inner machinations of a soulmate, she couldn’t keep her mind from drifting.
Form and break. Spin and fall. One connection, then two—but then none. Isla was both aware and unaware of where Kai stalked in relation to where she was—sensing him as the Alpha, but also led by that tether to her mate.
Her mate. . .
The Rogues had targeted the ballroom.
Isla kept her muscles both tight and loose as she weaved through the bodies of the frenzied guests, clocking the wounded being dragged to safe corners to be tended to, silently praying for the unmoving on the stone to have just been unconscious. Her stomach lurched at the thought of what that man was about to endure.
Compared to those who were members of a Pack, Rogues bore little difference in appearance, in their natural forms and in their shifts. It was their unkemptness that made the intruders stand out—their mangy fur, scarcely-fed bodies, or distinct scent—but easily, they got lost amongst the ruckus. The Guard was working two-fold to maintain order. Most stood off to the side—in the ballroom and out in the courtyard—to keep the Hall entries blocked and protected, eyes scanning the chaos from their posts. If a Rogue somehow got through to those many, many corridors—to the many rooms, many hiding places—then Goddess knew what could happen.
The rest of the Guard amidst the crowd was split again, some guiding guests to safety while others tried to deal with the Rogues. Isla, battle-trained in the offensive rather than the defending the Hall battalions led themselves to, decided she’d help them first.
But taking on too much would overwhelm her and lead to more getting hurt, more death. No matter how many Rogues she’d taken heed of around her, she needed to deal with one at a time.
Move swiftly and calculate strikes.
Don’t waste energy.
They’re wild and untamed—like the Bak, but much smaller.
Yet somehow, more unpredictable.
She went first for the shifted male encroaching on a woman—one who she’d heard doting on Kai earlier in the evening. Her red dress had been torn, surely by the Rogue’s claws that had also scraped the flesh of her pale legs. The injury had her stumbling, falling down and back to the floor. Isla moved quickly as he postured himself to lunge at her with his open maw, canines ready to embed in flesh. She met him with her body, solid and sending him back into a cocktail table. The abandoned glasses on it crashed to the ground and the fragments glittered on the marble amidst the blood that had dribbled from the woman’s wound.
As soon as there was distance, Isla barked at her to run. She was slow to get up, and Isla would’ve carried her away if the Rogue hadn’t risen too. She snarled as he returned to his paws, taking note of his eyes. Dim. Same with the lumerosi crossing over his chest. The glow of the moon, the Goddess, amiss. As if the deity no longer held his hand. No longer guided him. His morals, principles.
“Warrior bitch,” he growled, catching the mark on her back, and then lunged again. Fast. Ready to rip her apart.
But Isla was quicker—much quicker—undercutting and clamping her jaws around his throat.
She didn’t think.
Her instincts—her wolf—took over.
Isla pulled and blood sprayed, coating her tawny fur in a dark crimson.
The Rogue could only let out a whimper before he was a lifeless heap on the floor.
Isla padded backwards, blinking, trying to will away the taste in her mouth—metallic and bitter—as she took in the corpse.
She’d just killed a man. Not a Bak, not simply a Rogue, but another person.
The rasped word slithered into her mind.
Another Rogue caught her attention.
This one couldn’t shift, not fully. He had his claws and some sort of wooden plank laden with spikes—short, but enough to cause damage, especially for the many here without wolves. The Rogue didn’t seem to have any target in mind, swinging the weapon as he pleased, connecting with a few guests and sending them down screaming.
Isla’s mind pivoted from the body on the floor, from the word, as she bound towards her new target. The Rogue had noticed her in the last moment and swung, missing wide as she ducked and then weaved away from the next barrage of attempts.
Easy prey rose beside the Rogue in one of his initially hit, injured victims. But before he could deliver a killing blow to the man who couldn’t have been any older than Isla, she threw herself in the path. A yelp slipped her maw as the spike pierced her skin through her fur, drawing warm blood.
There was a sharp tug at the bond.
Kai’s voice made her pause and glance around in a way that nearly got her hit again.
“I’m fine,” she told Kai, and with a new surge in adrenaline, unleashed hell on the Rogue, delivering the final blow in seconds. She felt the slightest ease at the other end of the tether, yet at the same time felt it coil, felt it mold.
Kai had gone silent, but she couldn’t think about it, couldn’t question.
She wouldn’t look back at the second dead Rogue as she allowed the fallen man and the others who’d been attacked to use her fur and body to clamor to their feet, as she helped them quickly get a woman too injured to walk to some of the Guards at one of the Hall’s doors.
Isla, smattered in blood, was greeted by swords before they’d realized what was happening. Their vengeful stares turned perplexed, concerned, as she wasn’t recognizable to them. But still, for her help, they bowed their heads in gratitude—and maybe respect.
She mirrored the action and turned.
Isla found her next target. Made quick work. Helped who she needed to. Moved on.
And on. And on.
Protect, protect, protect—a single thought, a single word looped in her mind. Protect her mate, protect his people. She became a force of nature in the fray. A beast feared and sought after in the crowd. It was as if something had taken over her body. Never in her life had she ever felt so much. . . power.
When the ballroom had settled to a degree that the Guards left their posts by the exits, Isla ventured out into the courtyard. Her stomach turned as she took in the scene, even more horrific than what lay inside. This was where most of the injured had been carried, where the dead had been taken. It was a choir of sobs of the mourning and screaming of the ailed. Isla paused as a particular wail pricked her ears, familiar. She froze as amidst the scattered, she found the man who’d come to her and Kai for help. He was knelt before a body, a woman’s limp hand clutched in his own. Behind him stood Zahra—a woman who’d faced such a horror herself, now forced to relive it through another’s experience. Her face was drawn with sympathy, solemn, but her features still held a refined quality that served like a pillar of strength in a storm.
A storm that Isla herself would need to navigate. Maybe now, whether she wanted to or not.
| ☽ |
Kai had been nowhere.
When Isla had reached for the bond after nearly breaking down at the sights she’d beheld, it was weak. Distance was likely to blame, but it hadn’t kept terror from gripping her heart. Hadn’t kept her wolf from growing restless, not even calmed when the knowledge came that he had gone with Guard to handle Rogues that had also taken to the city squares bordering the river into Abalys.
From what Isla had gleaned before her and Eli were asked by Ezekiel—likely aware of her prying ears—to leave the Hall, the Rogues had been able to sneak along the banks up to the borders of Mavec, and then somehow, bypassed Guard, obtained their vehicle and made their way up to the banquet. How they were able to get through, how they knew about the party at all, was still a mystery.
She was in her hotel room now, with Davina, and the entirety of Mavec had been put on lockdown until dawn. Still, it took everything in Isla not to head out anyway. To track down Kai. Every thought of him had her insides coiling, the bond still unstable and driving her mad. It had to have been what Kai had been talking about. Though the madness wasn’t steeped in intense lust and desire as Isla had thought. It was simply in the unknown, in the bond’s ebb and flow. Strong and weak pulls, the pondering if they meant Kai was alive or dying, the inability to contact him. The feeling of being able to do everything and nothing, to feel everything and then—empty. It was making her crazy, and it had only been a few hours.
Touch wasn’t permanent, their bond could still fray, but exactly how long was this supposed to last?
She’d pondered it as she scrubbed herself clean in the shower, marking the places, mentally, where Kai’s body had met with hers. But her hands didn’t roam. As much as she’d likely enjoy having him on her like that again—grazing her hips, her thighs, her stomach, breath on her neck—she was more concerned with him simply getting back to her again. Him being safe and okay.
As Isla rewound through the night, through her bloodied battles, over the lifeless stares she’d seen, brought about by her own claws, she felt nausea bubble in her stomach and bile begin rising in her throat. There had only been a few heartbeats’ time for her to jump out of the water and wrap herself in a towel before she’d fallen to her knees to empty the contents of her stomach into the toilet.
Davina, who’d been in the bedroom, phoning whoever she could in the shops below to learn about what was occurring, had burst into the washroom.
And she was there through every spell, until Isla was sure there was nothing left—from the banquet or before it.
The Warrior groaned and ran the back of her hand over her mouth in a long, harsh stroke as she loosed her grip on the porcelain.
“There you go,” Davina eased, running a palm up and down Isla’s towel-clad back.
Isla responded with another grunt.
This was the second time that the act of killing had brought her to her knees and vomiting. Only this time it was real. Several times.
Taking the life of another wolf was different from killing vicious monsters crafted by nightmares—Rogue or not. It wouldn’t get easier, she knew, but she’d become more tolerant. She would have to. She just had to keep reminding herself of the people she’d saved. How they’d go home to their families.
Though while they were grateful, others—as Isla had gathered through the whispers and glowers received as she walked past—had seen her, the wolf of Io, as destructive and a means of her Pack to make a political stand, an assertion of power. A show of how Deimos needed Io to handle their problems. . . Isla had never heard anything more absurd.
Her spine barked in the slightest pain, sore from her fighting, as she fell against the tile of the bathtub, the nausea still lingering.
Davina handed her a glass of water she’d retrieved. Isla swished the liquid between her teeth and spit—one time, then again, and again—before accepting some mouthwash and going through that too.
Davina settled across from her against the sink.
Isla thanked her, before asking, “Have you heard anything?”
Davina heaved a breath. “The Guard is all over the city, but no one can really tell what’s going on.”
“Is Rhydian out there?”
“He was patrolling the outermost borders again. I don’t know if they called him down for the search. I know Ameera went out there. She was with Jonah and met up with Kai.”
At the mention of her mate, Isla’s shoulders slumped, and she averted her eyes.
“Feeling any better?”
Isla returned her gaze to Davina, feeling the bond like a heavy anvil on her chest. Feeling it attempt to loosen her tongue.
Davina’s brows lifted at the words. “What?”
Isla brought her lip between her teeth, saying the words aloud somehow making the harshness of it so much clearer. “Kai and I—we touched, and. . .” She wedged her hands into her hair. “Goddess.”
Davina couldn’t contain her shock or her grin. “Should—should I be bowing to you right now?” When Isla’s own disposition didn’t reflect hers, her features dimmed slightly. “What happened?”
Isla felt ridiculous as she explained what she wished hadn’t been real—getting run into, pushed, how Kai had caught her. After months of keeping apart, of games and close calls, that was how it had happened?
“And then what?”
Isla could see Davina working hard to abate the amusement.
“There were Rogues,” she said. “And I haven’t seen him since.”
Silence settled between them as Davina ran Isla over with an assessing stare. “How. . . do you feel?”
“Raw,” Isla answered, the first word to come to mind and probably the most accurate. “Vulnerable, exposed. . . and like the Rogues are lucky that I don’t go into their lands and slaughter all of them myself because they’re the reason he isn’t here. Because, for all I know, they could be the reason he—” Isla didn’t want to say the word out loud.
Davina hummed, almost impressed. “And you haven’t even accepted the bond yet? I’d hate to be the sorry bastard that gets between you two once that happens.”
Once that happens. . .
“Touch isn’t permanent,” Isla echoed her earlier thoughts. “We still don’t have to mate.”
Surprise took to Davina’s face, and again, she went quiet. She was careful when she spoke next. “Is that what you want?”
A few weeks ago, Isla’s answer would’ve been immediate.
Yes—this was what they’d wanted. What they’d planned.
Being apart. Moving on with their separate lives without the bond wearing down on them.
But instead, Isla found her mind drifting back to Kai’s touch, back to the hallway, back to the quiet moments walking back from the bookshop, up on the infirmary roof, even in Callisto’s forest when Kai was saying goodbye. Those tiny pockets of peace. Of ease.
And with that on her mind, she said, “I don’t know.”
“Why not?” Again, soft and mindful.
Isla sighed, before leaning her head against the wall beside her. “It’s. . . complicated.”
Davina offered a smile. “I’m all about complicated.”
Isla, to her own surprise, returned the grin, albeit a bit more strained.
More than the bond had been wearing on her all this time. So many things that she’d needed to let out, for years, but had no one to turn to. She told herself that Davina, though she said she was open to complicated, didn’t need to be bogged down with Isla’s troubles. No one did.
But there was something in those eager green eyes that had Isla unraveling, and had her opening up in a way she never had to anyone, besides the moon during those painful nights spent a long while ago.
“I’m the daughter of one of the highest ranking members in this Realm,” Isla began warily, reading Davina’s face, ready to stop at the smallest sign of disinterest. It didn’t gleam. “And I’ve watched people time and time again disregard me until they find out who my father is, what Pack I hail from, ‘what a great bloodline I have’,” she added the last part mockingly, to which Davina chuckled. But she never lost the intent stare. “I’ve been told over and over it’s all I’m good for—breeding, a pretty, little trophy on a man’s arm—and for a while, I believed it. I accepted it wholeheartedly. It was purpose for me—finally—after always being lost in my brother’s shadow. In my friends’ shadows—the Heir and future princess.”
Isla let out a cough, feeling her heart in her throat. Too much. She was saying too much. Yet still, her soul—Davina’s gaze—urged her to continue.
“So I went along, entertaining whoever gave me the time of day, doing whatever they asked of me, thinking maybe, just maybe, they’d think I was worth something. Not just to bear children or climb a social ladder, but to really see me—but even that person I was showing them wasn’t the real me at all, just who I thought I had to be. When we turned sixteen and everyone began preparing for mating bonds—Chosen or Fated—the moment we turned of age in the next few years, I thought I’d found my saving grace. My mate—that ‘one true great love’, my other half—they’d get me. They had to.”
Isla checked Davina again, still hanging onto every word.
A nag of shame began rising in her gut.
“So I did whatever I could to find him. Went to every gathering imaginable, and again and again, I found no one. All I got were suitors who saw that bloodline and were so fed up with searching that they’d ’settle for me’. And I was so blinded by my own insecurity and loneliness, that I settled too. And Callan was fine—for a while—I was okay with being with him forever. To stop torturing myself over something that would never happen, but then something just, hit me, and I started falling further and further into this dark place. My rock bottom came one night out in these ash lilly fields on the outskirts of the City.”
Isla felt a stinging at the corner of her eyelids, as a hollowness—an icy, numbing cold—she’d felt those years ago, crept back over her bones.
“It was the night of our Yule Ball, and I was so. . . unhappy. I was drowning—I’d been drowning, for months and months—and no one noticed. Maybe Callan did, but he wasn’t much help, preoccupied with his Warrior training. Adrien and Cora were wrapped up in their mating. Sebastian had his new position. My dad was—being the Beta. I was so drunk when I snuck out of there, still holding a bottle of wine too. No doubt I wasn’t very inconspicuous, but no one bothered to follow me or to come find me. And I just remember laying in that field and sobbing and begging. Begging the Goddess to just show me, tell me, give me any type of sign that I wasn’t doomed to feel the way I was forever. That I wouldn’t be lost forever. That there was something more for me—maybe I’d find my person, my true person. And when I got nothing after a few seconds, I was ready to head off into our bordering Rogue lands and see what fate awaited me there. I’d make it, or I wouldn’t. I didn’t care. But then I passed out before I could do anything stupid.”
Davina’s eyes had glossed over. Her hand raised to brush away a tear on her cheek. It was what made Isla realized her own had fallen. She rubbed it away.
“I woke up not too long after, because the stars were still out. And everything was so—still. Somewhere in that mess of lights, I just found clarity. Hope. It was like all I needed to do was stop. To forget everything and everyone else and just. . . be. I thought of everything I could do for myself, and maybe back then, there was a little part of me that thought about how I didn’t want to be mated and give myself to someone as the girl that I was. The next day I enrolled in the Warrior program—like I’d always wanted to, but always been told I shouldn’t, couldn’t. And no matter how afraid I was, no matter how much I doubted and thought about quitting, no matter who told me that I should, I knew I couldn’t look back. That I’d hate myself for stopping and looking back. I stayed with Callan for a bit after that, but when I started getting really into training, it took a toll on us. I wasn’t that pretty, quiet trophy anymore, and I didn’t ever want to be, so I ended things with him.”
Despite the happiness that moment had brought in the past, the next part of Isla’s story had made her blood heat.
“I had never felt so free, but there was still the bond looming over my head. Those little moments when I wanted someone there to be with me, or just tell people about when they’d asked. But then I watched two of the strongest people I know destroyed by it—and the reason for it wasn’t love. Not on the right end. The bond was all possession and power and—selfishness. And I realized I didn’t want that as a part of my life either. I didn’t need it to be happy. I was fine by myself, for as long as I wanted to be. I didn’t think the Goddess would ever bring me my mate anyway—I mean, Fated mates are hard enough to find when you are trying—and then. . .”
Isla trailed off, long enough that Davina felt comfortable offering, “Kai.”
Isla laughed bitterly, recalling the terrace. Beautiful—the first word she’d ever heard from his mouth.
“Fate has a wicked sense of humor,” she said. “My father visited Deimos countless times, even Sebastian went with him on a few trips, some after I’d been of age. If I’d gone, maybe I would’ve recognized him, what he was to me—what he is. But no, she had to bring him to me at the perfect time to—”
Isla froze as she felt another sporadic tug at the bond. Strong, as others had been out of the blue, but this time. This time.
Isla shot to her feet, not caring that her hair was wet, sticking to her back. Not caring that she was still clad in her towel. She became wind as she charged to her room’s door and pulled the entrance open before Kai even had a chance to knock. Before Rhydian and Ameera, who’d flanked him, even had a chance to get in her direct eye-line.
The pause between them, staring at each other for the first time after they’d touched, was suffocating. The bond, rekindling in their proximity, overwhelming.
But reprieve came quick. Too quick. So fast that the dissipating madness of worrying where he was—the sheer relief of seeing him again—bred a new kind of insanity within her.
Insanity that had Isla taking two steps forward.
That had her rising on her toes. Had her running hands over stubble, dirt, and maybe blood-smeared skin. Had her fingers winding into soft curls. . .
Pure insanity that had Isla leaning up towards Kai—and kissing him.