XXVII. THE CALL
Sunlight glittered off the length of the river as the city square yawned awake, but the workers of the boutiques and eateries—who would typically spend the time preparing for the morning minutiae—were nowhere to be found. Instead, Isla came upon near-empty cobblestone, upon dulled crystals in the absence of moonlight, and an air so tense and solemn she thought it would suffocate her.
As the roads near the bookshop, the streets that wound through Mavec’s lower half shuddered in the aftermath of the attacks, traces left in the peppering of overturned chairs and tables on patios, broken storefront windows, scattered pillaged goods, and smears of blood and fur belonging to Rogue and Pack member alike. But even with the chaos, Isla could see where the assumptions rose. That whatever havoc had been dealt here was nowhere near the main objective. The damage enacted on the Hall—the scent of death that lingered—wasn’t here.
She’d sprinted to the call center, so fast she’d missed a few of the turns drawn out by Jonah and wound circles around Mavec’s lower space. Her body was on autopilot, her mind lost in her mission, in its fight against panic. Kai was being challenged for Alpha, and before she could let herself feel the weight of what that meant, she had to see if there was anything she could find out about what it was. Who it was. If there was anything she could do.
There were three people inside the small corner-store when she entered, and judging by their weary appearances and poorly-tucked-away makeshift beds, they’d been there all night. The woman behind the front desk gave a start as Isla stepped inside, her hand reaching reflexively to something beneath the counter.
Isla put her arms up slowly, showing she didn’t mean any trouble.
As the woman’s body relaxed, Isla began, “Are you—”
“There is still no additional news regarding the challenging of Alpha Kai.”
Isla snapped her head towards an older couple huddled in the corner of the room over a small radio broadcasting the Pack Report. The transmission was faint and grainy, but she picked up on what she could.
Reporters and journalists were already flocking the Pack Hall, even in there early hours looking out for any member of the Council, Beta Ezekiel, or Kai himself for any word or comment, but no one had emerged.
Twelve had died during the attacks last night. Among them, one of the Pack’s Deltas.
Over fifty people had been injured in some capacity, two of which, were in critical condition.
And most of all, they urged the public not to panic.
“What a disaster,” the woman at the desk said softly.
But Isla couldn’t pay it any heed, too focused on listening as the reporter had gone on to comment on Kai—
“I’ve been around to experience all three of these Alpha shifts—Rainer, Kyran, and now Kai’s—and I’d say I certainly had my doubts, but I’ve liked the Alpha’s tenure so far. It’s easy to forget our royals are people, and he rose to the occasion in circumstances that would’ve broken many of us, odds against him and all. He’s the youngest Alpha to take the mantle in a while, sure, but he’s shown promise. I’ve liked his proposals for the Pack these past few months and how he’s handled himself after the tragedies, not to mention his triumphs in the Hunt.”
“That begs the question who would be foolish enough to challenge him,” another voice responded.
“We’ve heard the speculations.”
No elaboration was made, but Isla figured what was being alluded to. What Davina had said. Whoever was challenging Kai may have had something to do with his father’s death.
“I have family who live in Charon,” the woman at the desk spoke again, and this time, Isla turned to her. “They went through a challenge and an Alpha bloodline change, maybe thirty years ago, and the Pack has been in turmoil ever since. It’s a complete tyranny. My cousin suspects foul play, maybe some involvement from. . .” Catching herself, she waved a hand. “I’m sorry, I’m rambling. What can I help you with, dear?”
Something in Isla was begging her to push. To find out where she was going. But she’d already wasted too much time. “I need to make a call.”
“That is what we do,” the woman said, attempting to lighten the situation as she angled her body to a switchboard-looking device, littered with buttons and small levers, trailed by long wires along the floor. “Where can I connect you?”
“Io’s Imperial City.”
It felt like the entire room arrested.
The woman’s features dropped, and Isla could feel two pairs of eyes searing into her back.
“We can’t do that, unfortunately,” the woman said, righting herself to face Isla fully again.
“Can’t you call any region from here?”
“Calls into the Imperial Pack aren’t permitted.” The woman’s own face matched Isla’s perplexity, though for different reasons. “Those are the rules of the Imperials, and they have been for a very, very long time.”
She spoke as if Isla should’ve known—but as a member of Deimos. Not as who she really was.
She wished she could’ve kept it that way, left her identity in the dark, but there was no time. The only other place one could make calls out of Deimos was likely the Pack Hall, and there wasn’t a chance she’d make it up there, either within the window she needed or through the reporters.
“I’m from Io,” Isla said, and instantly felt the room shift again. She steeled against it, that feeling of being out-of-place. “I need to call home.”
She watched as the woman’s fingers curled into fists on the counter. Another reflex. “Unfortunately, we still can’t do that.”
Isla let out a breath, ready to face whatever judgement would come her way. “Imperial Beta Malakai is my father. An exception will be made to whatever rule, I’m sure.” For proof, she fished her identification card from her pocket—boasting her name, familial line, and the Imperial crest—and placed it on the table.
The woman’s eyes widened, flickering between the card and Isla’s face. She wouldn’t move her hands, wouldn’t touch it. The radio had been lowered, and whispers of the couple behind carried over it.
“Why is she here?”
“Imperial spies—they’re trying to take over.”
Isla bit down on her tongue, wanting to explain all of it. She wasn’t a spy, not their enemy.
“Can you connect me?” Isla asked again.
A look between the card and her face again. Reluctance, fear, and a touch of animosity took to the woman’s eyes, but she agreed. Though despite Isla’s lineage, Io’s Pack Hall remained off-limits, unreachable from a facility like this one.
Isla took a glance at the clock—well-past seven—and quickly ran through where everyone would be.
Sebastian was her best bet.
Isla gave the woman the number of her brother’s townhouse, and after fiddling with some buttons on the switchboard, she returned with an outstretched hand. Isla counted out the money she’d brought with her, comparing it to the rates on the board, and handed it over. There was enough for ten minutes. She’d need to talk fast.
With the paper in her hands, the woman sifted through it again, before pointing to the line of doors set up beside the small table with the couple. “Booth number three. When the light turns red. You have five minutes.”
Isla jerked her head. “Five?”
“You’re calling Io. The rate is higher. Take your complaints up with your Alpha.” Payment in possession, any warmth in the woman’s persona had completely iced over. “I’ll knock on your last minute.”
Isla gaped in order to protest, matching the glower being shot her way, but then shut her mouth. She wasn’t going to get anywhere with it.
The door to the room made it seem larger than it ended up being, with a stool, desk, and telephone set up that took up most of the space. Isla perched herself on the chair, sore muscles barking in protest, eyes roving over the pen and blank pad of paper in front of her. A bulb just above the phone flashed a bright red.
Isla scrambled to pick it up and was immediately greeted by a steady ringing. Each toll with no response was like a punch to the stomach.
“Come on, Seb,” she murmured under her breath, bouncing her knee and biting a nail between her teeth. She hadn’t even thought to ask if her money was wasted if the person on the other line didn’t pick up. Given the woman’s disposition, Isla knew what she’d likely say, but this time, Isla didn’t think she’d be able to play as nicely herself.
The ringing cut out. Silence followed.
Isla prepared herself for a battle, rolling up her sleeves—but then came a voice.
“Hello,” the person drawled. “You’ve reached Sebastian.”
Isla wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or cry. She rested her head in her hand, a grin gracing her lips so wide that it hurt her cheeks. “Seb.”
“Pudge?” She didn’t think she’d ever been so excited to hear the nickname. His tone rang with excitement that heightened at her next confirmation. “Holy shit.”
Isla’s breath caught at the second voice. A few moments passed before she heard it again, closer, but still distant. “You couldn’t make it a week as a Warrior without calling us?”
Adrien’s jab had a sting at the corner of her eyes.
Isla laughed. Normally she’d have a retort ready to go, but all she could muster was, “I guess not.”
“How the fuck do I make this louder so you don’t have to be on top of me?” She heard Sebastian mutter to their friend.
Heaviness took to her heart.
Her family. She hadn’t realized how much she missed them. How much she missed home, missed familiar, missed not being looked at like a scourge.
“To what do we owe the pleasure of you remembering we exist?” Sebastian asked.
Isla’s heart stammered a beat. “You—you haven’t heard?”
“Heard what?” Sebastian snickered. “You’re not about to tell us you’re mated, are you? Because that’s a lot to drop over the phone. Wait, how are you even—”
“Kai’s being challenged,” she cut him off, keen on the limited time and that she’d need to fill them in more than she’d anticipated. The both of them went quiet, and each second that ticked by felt like hours. “The call for it came last night during the Rogue attacks.”
“What Rogue attacks?” Sebastian said, tone harsher.
“Are you okay?” Adrien followed.
“It’s not important,” Isla said. “It’s handled, but this. . . neither of you have heard anything about it? It hasn’t broken our news yet?” They both made sounds of disagreement. “Adrien, when was the last time you spoke to your father?”
“Yesterday afternoon,” he answered. “Then there were Council meetings all day.”
Isla’s ears perked in interest, though meetings of the Council weren’t out of the norm. “You didn’t go?”
“I had. . . things to handle—and I don’t think he wanted me there anyway.” Adrien paused, and then spoke carefully, having connected some information. “Are you and the Alpha mated?”
Isla bit on her cheek, saying lowly, “We may as well be.” Before the boys could ask, she elaborated. “It’s a long story, and we still have things to figure out, but, even if we aren’t. . .” She trailed off, as the thought that came to mind, selfishly was, I can’t lose him. “According to reports here, the challenge hasn’t been approved yet. It’s only been lifted to the Imperial Alpha and Council for deliberation.”
“Who’s calling for it?” Adrien asked.
“No one knows, or at least, it isn’t public information,” Isla said.
“Kai doesn’t know?” Sebastian said.
“I haven’t seen him since yesterday. I’m not sure, and I can’t get to him. It’s a frenzy here.”
“You’re mates. Why can’t you link?”
“I haven’t tried, but the bond—it’s still incomplete and all over the place. I think it’s too weak to do anything like that.”
Adrien, who’d been quiet, pondering, during the exchange, asked, “Should I tell them he’s your mate? My father and the Council. Your father.”
Isla swallowed, prepared to tell him yes. Maybe it could sway the decision. Or at least her father’s stance. Make him fight harder against the approval. But the more she thought—of the past, of the way mates had been used against challenged Alphas, of Kai’s suspicions—she opted for, “No. No one can know, and no one can know I called either.” A hard knock rattled the door behind her, and she cursed under her breath. “I don’t have much time.”
“Why? Where are you?” Sebastian’s tone was edged with concern.
“Just a place to make the call,” she brushed off, before saying, “I need you to do or say whatever you can to convince them against this. Both of you.”
“I’ll get in Dad’s ear when he gets back today,” Sebastian said.
Isla furrowed her brows. “Where is he?”
Sebastian found nothing in the words, but Isla’s stomach hollowed. “Charon? Why is he—”
The line cut out.
| ☽ |
A lingering rage stirred in Isla’s gut along with the weight of homesickness baring on her chest. The woman had purposely notified her at thirty seconds rather than sixty.
As she stepped back into the bright sunlight of the square from the call center, she shifted her gaze to what she could see of the Pack Hall, of the window. She wanted the world to swallow her up. Somewhere into a void where she could be alone—or to take Kai away from all of this.
She had a gnawing feeling that their talk about where they stood, about the bond, had been unofficially postponed. . . but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t see him.
If Kai didn’t show up to her hotel, then she’d go to him. Whether he wanted her there or not, whether it meant fighting through every reporter and Guard, she would be there.
He wasn’t going through this alone. As long as she was around, he wasn’t meant to.
Along the streets, Isla noted the Guard and city workers that were assisting the owners in cleaning their shops. She wanted to offer her help, guilt rising amidst the anger and sadness, but the Warriors would be departing for training within the hour, which meant she either had to catch one of the trolleys or go for another sprint.
She cast a hand above her eyes as she angled her head against the glare, searching for a sign pointing to the nearest station. But as she did, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end, and her wolf went on high alert. Though it wasn’t for Kai this time, as it had been a lot recently, but it was familiar. And she swore as she turned, she caught something moving so quick it was a shadow-like blur in her periphery.
The self-preserving part of her pleaded for her to let it go, to head to a station and not be late for training, but she let instinct guide her instead. Moving along the cobblestone until a flicker of red cropped in the corner of her eye.
Stopping a few inches from the source, Isla bent, taking it between her fingers and lifting it to the light. “What the hell.”
It was a blood-red ruby, but not just any ruby—hers. A piece of her jewelry that had broken off as she’d shifted last night.
For a moment, she figured a Rogue must’ve fled with it from the Hall, trying to steal it. . . but then, she caught another a few yards ahead. She went to it, taking it her other hand, barely raising it to the light, before there was another.
She followed it, collecting the numerous gemstones in her pocket, her wolf silent now, before she froze where the trail ended. An alleyway.
With the angle of the sun and the height of the buildings bracketing it, it was well-shadowed, but enough light spilled through for another gleam to catch her eye.
But it wasn’t of ruby.
Taking a quick glance around, finding no one near, Isla took a few steps forward, her focus entirely stolen by the glittering item. Like a trance.
Almost as if she knew in the back of her mind the care it needed to be handled with, Isla cupped the piece in her hand and carefully brought it to her face.
It was a diadem—half a diadem.
Not the tiara-like hair comb she’d worn. Not like the piece Amalie had donned. This wasn’t meant to be thrown on for parties.
Even incomplete, the broken metal was heavy in her hand—a mix of silver, flecked with gold, and baring black crystal. Not a twin, but nearly a sister, to the dagger she had hidden in her room. The one Lukas had been given to kill her.
As she lifted it higher, allowing one of the gemstones to catch the light, she noticed something behind her in one of the crystal embellishment’s reflections.
Isla whipped around and nearly dropped the treasure as a gasp fell from her mouth. She hadn’t realized she’d been moving away until she collided with the wall of the building at her back.
Drawn in what seemed to be fresh red paint—dark enough that it could be mistaken for blood—was the language of the book and marker. But though it reminded her of it, this wasn’t anything like the message that had been left for Kai.
Because this one had symbols she did understand—the mark of Io and the mark of a Warrior.
Because this message had been left for her.
The note for Kai had been left by a murderer, and Isla had no reason to believe that this one were any different. No reason to believe anything but the fact that the killer of her mate’s brother and father not only knew exactly who she was, but was here, in Deimos.
She made herself exhale. Forced her body to relax.
And then she ran, the clatter of jewels on stone sounding in her wake as they rained from her pockets at the jerky movements.
She stopped at the mouth of the alley, training her eyes over the streets.
A pain shot from where the metal of the diadem jammed into the fleshy part of her tightening fist.
A murderer and a coward. Like whoever had sent Lukas to kill her instead of facing her themselves.
Any doubt that they were connected ebbed away.
Isla crept back into the alley, keeping close to the wall to take away an angle of surprise. She looked down at the fractured crown in her hand, rifled through her pockets for the jewels of her necklace, looked at the new trail of them on the ground, up at the dark writing on the wall.
What was the point of this? So she drew the connection with the dagger? So she knew they knew?
Her chest tightened.
Speculations were that Kai’s challenger was tied to the death of his father. If this was them, then all of this could’ve been some kind of warning. For her. . . and therefore, for him.
Not fear, but anger, rose first in her gut. A defensiveness against an enemy she couldn’t see. A protectiveness over what was hers in the wake of a threat.
Determination etching across her face, Isla tucked the diadem into the inner pocket of Kai’s jacket, the heavy piece causing the fabric to skew.
Time was still not her friend, but she had to get this to Jonah with the book.
The Guards in the square were startled by her sudden appearance beside them, but still she managed to sweet-talk them out of a pad of paper and a pen. She’d slowed as she neared the alleyway again, ready to turn the corner and find something new. Ready for that lightning shadow. Ready for a fight.
But there was nothing amiss.
It took her as long to scribe the message as it did to realize she’d barely been breathing. The few slow ones she made herself take had her dizzy, and the odd shapes and angles of the supposed letters had her fingers, her hands, her wrists, cramping.
As she looked at her poor copy of what was before her, Isla grimaced. Any improper curve or cut of her script could’ve completely changed its meaning or made it useless. But it would do. It would have to do.
Isla stepped back, observing the message again.
This had to go. No one could see it, especially not those two symbols. Ones that very clearly pointed her way.
Running to the Guards again would only look suspicious, and none of the stores were open at this hour, not while cleaning still had to be done.
Isla looked at her arm, looked at the paint. It was so fresh, still wet, as if it had been written mere minutes before she’d stepped foot back out in the street from the call center.
Had they been here, waiting for her? Had they followed her from Jonah’s? From her hotel?
She couldn’t think of it. Not for her sanity or the sake of time.
Frowning, Isla brought up her sleeve—Kai’s sleeve—and rubbed away as much of the writing as she could, staining the fine black fabric with red. The marks became smudged, losing some of their shape, but they were still there. Taunting her. As if whoever had done this had taken extra care to ensure they stayed.
With a curse, Isla braced herself, bringing out her claws and pressing them to the brick. A searing pain shot up her arm, through her wolf, as she dragged them over the hard surface. Over and over and over. A hiss slipped her mouth as she noticed the blood leaking from the wounds caused by the pulling at her skin, not able to heal as fast as she was inflicting them.
But she continued—pushing past the ache, building up the scratches, until the remnants of the mark of her home and the mark of her title was nothing but a mix of dust and blood at her feet.
| ☽ |
Jonah hadn’t been at the shop.
When Isla had arrived at its door, her legs and lungs burning after her run from the square, it was locked. He didn’t answer when she knocked this time, and he didn’t appear to be inside when she peered through one of the side unglossed windows. But something she did see—or rather, what she didn’t. . . her bag, the book, and the marker.
The counter she’d left them on was bare.
She could only assume—or hope—he’d gone somewhere to investigate them. But after the way they’d left things, with his suspicious eye lingering over her before Davina had appeared, she couldn’t help but fear that he’d done something else with them. Something that would make her regret bringing him into the fray.
She wouldn’t let herself entertain it for long. Being distrustful of someone Kai viewed as family was the last thing she needed to add to her list of problems.
So she wrote him a note with her borrowed pad of paper, saying that she’d be back in the morning—and for him to make sure he had whatever that brew was that he’d concocted ready.
As she bent to slide the parchment into the small space beneath the door, Isla felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end again. She snapped up, so fast she nearly became dizzy, catching what seemed to be a second figure in the window’s reflection. Too dark and too far to discern through the glass—and gone by the time she turned to face it.
| ☽ |
Isla was going to kill Eli—and every other member of her squadron.
In the grand scheme of things, when she finally returned to the hotel from Jonah’s, she had at least ten minutes to quickly get herself ready and get some food into her system. But apparently, the assholes had left her, departing the hotel for the Guard base thirty minutes earlier than usual.
She didn’t need to wonder if it had been done on purpose upon noticing her absence. Even if he wouldn’t say it outright, Eli wasn’t thrilled about her actions at the banquet, fighting without formal order from him. And the other men could care less if she made it to training.
Now, she was stuck in this hell.
Her cough tasted vaguely of blood as she careened around a tree on the trails alongside the campus—her punishment. Every fifteen minute increment she had been late meant an extra mile on top of the usual two mile warm-up.
She’d arrived one hour behind everyone else—thanks to the slowest driver in history, who could only get her within a twenty minute walking distance of the mountain terrain. A walking distance she also ran.
She didn’t even want to think about what the rest of the day held, but the peaks of the mountains taunted her through the trees’ canopies.
Ten miles up and ten miles down.
While the higher-ups met to discuss updated strategy pertaining to the newly emboldened Rogues, the Guard and Warrior units were going on a long, long hike, starting promptly when the sun reached its peak. Isla knew if she missed that start time she was a dead woman. No doubt forced to hike an extra five miles herself, or have an extra ten pounds added to her pack.
So she pushed her tired and sore muscles further, faster, groaning and gritting her teeth. The trees were becoming a blur—either because she was moving so quickly or because she’d barely had a chance to eat. The food in the mess hall wasn’t the best, but still, at the thought of it, her mouth watered. Everyone else was likely finished their drills, recuperating and enjoying a warm meal.
Meanwhile, she was alone—very alone—in these woods.
As she tried to focus her eyes on what she passed, whatever false confidence she’d had earlier in the town square waned. Paranoia settled in. She swore there was a figure behind one tree. A message written on another. Diamonds at the foot of another.
There was a murderer after her.
One capable of taking down an Alpha and his Heir.
One supposedly bold enough to claim it and take on her mate.
She was vulnerable out here. . . a fact proven by the eerie sound of cracking branches behind her.
Isla stumbled, but she didn’t stop.
The twigs had been snapped by a foot too heavy to belong to any creature that dwelled here.
More branches cracked louder from another direction. A few seconds later—again. Closer.
She was being followed—or chased?
Shit, shit, shit.
Forcing herself not to panic, Isla took a quick inventory of her surroundings. Some closer knit trees with low-hanging branches lay ahead on the trail’s path.
Those became her target.
Timing it just right, she skid around the bend and threw up her arms, catching onto the bark and using her core to swing up her body and perch on a limb’s surface, ducking into some of the brush cover. It groaned beneath her weight, and she prayed the sound of that—and its brother she also snapped from the trunk as a makeshift weapon—didn’t give away her location.
Her chest was on fire, and her strangled panting sawed through her throat. It was a struggle not to choke on the coarse air as she fought to settle her breathing.
But then came that feeling. Not the fear or the adrenaline, but that intoxicating, exhilarating relief.
Moments later, she felt something warm touch her back. But when Isla jerked and spun to her mate standing below her at the tree’s base, any reprieve she’d felt trickled away. The question of ‘what he was doing here’, dead on her tongue.
Kai was shaking his head, concern flecking his eyes and a tenseness drawn in his face, as he lifted a finger to his mouth, telling her to be quiet.