XXVIII. THE TRAIL
With Kai’s hands on her hips to slow her descent, firm and warm, Isla slid from her spot to the waiting ground below. The dead leaves prematurely fallen ahead of the upcoming Equinox barely whispered beneath her feet. Kai didn’t remove his grip once she’d stood stable, instead he pulled her to him, hugging her body to his and backing them a few more steps into the brush.
Though not done by means of affection, Isla still leaned into the embrace, letting her arms settle around him, listening closely to the steady drumming of Kai’s heart below her ear, catching her breath and letting his scent invade her nose. It was a battle not to simply melt into him. After the morning she’d just had, with the message and the news of the challenge. . .
Isla lifted her head to look upon Kai’s face, confirming the notion that keeping her this close was more a method of shielding her than anything else. His eyes were focused on the woods beyond their cover. Whatever that second noise was, or the first. One of them had to have been Kai, and the other—
The blood red markings on the wall flashed in Isla’s mind, but the paranoia didn’t manifest as horribly as it had been.
Maintaining their proximity, Isla dared to turn, cautiously stepping her feet and pressing her back to Kai’s chest. Her hand came to rest on his forearm, his grip remaining loose around her middle, as she surveyed the empty trail. Waiting. . . and waiting. . . and waiting until something—whoever had been following her—broke into their vantage. Kai’s hold became tight when she jumped. Though it wasn’t out of fear, but surprise and confusion.
She felt a growl rumble in Kai’s chest, so low she wouldn’t have caught it unless up against him like this, and cocked her head to cast a curious sidelong glance. Her mate didn’t pay it any heed, only focused on the man who’d just paused his walk right where she’d disappeared. As the fellow Warrior lifted his head to catch a scent, Isla shrunk further into Kai’s embrace, letting whatever empty essence she was casting get lost in his.
There were much greater things for her to fear than her narcissistic former lover, but she didn’t need him catching her with the Alpha.
She counted out ten seconds, timed to the heartbeats she attempted to slow, before Callan disappeared.
Isla didn’t move until Kai did a few beats later. And when she faced him again, his eyes remained on the forest, tension still cutting his features, no sense of mirth in his eyes, even if she dug for it. There was too much going on in his head. Too much going on in general. . . and she hadn’t even told him the half of it yet.
She risked reaching up to touch his face, the stubble a little rougher beneath her skin as she ran her thumb over his cheek. At the touch, his eyes met hers and the muscles beneath her fingertips relaxed. Something in the storm had cleared, a flicker of light where she could get through to him. And the clouds parted further when she got up on her toes, holding his gaze, and touched her mouth to his. The small upward tug of his lips was all she needed.
As he leaned in to deepen the kiss, she pulled away.
There were so many questions she wanted to ask, so much she wanted to do—either break down to him or drag him down into the leaves with her—but she settled for simple first. For obvious.
She kept her voice low. “What are you doing here?”
Kai’s stare flickered between her eyes and her mouth, and she could practically see the battle going on in his head. Three steps forward and he could have her pressed back against a tree.
“There’s a strategy meeting,” he said.
Isla refrained from furrowing her brows. She was aware of the meeting—not so much of Kai’s attendance. He hadn’t gone to the last one the day after the Warriors had arrived. The one between Eli, the Lead Commander, and Ezekiel.
Before she could ask him another question, Kai drew his gaze away and back to the trail again. His throat bobbed as he swallowed, and the hard lines returned to his face. “What can you tell me about that Warrior?”
Isla’s eyes widened. “Callan?” When Kai nodded, she grimaced, flashing her teeth, and shifted on her feet. “He’s a. . . Warrior from Io.”
“Thank you.” Kai offered a deadpan look. “I couldn’t get that from the ledger I had to approve.”
Isla mirrored the expression with her own. Though, she was happy for the dry remark. It felt like him.
She folded her arms, playing aloof. “What do you want to know?”
Kai lofted a brow at her demeanor, as if clocking how disingenuous it was. “Do you know him?”
“We grew up around similar circles,” she said, clearing her throat, willing away any memories of their courtship. Though she was curious how her mate would react to the man who’d been in her bed—underwhelmingly so—much more than he had. “Why do you want to know?”
Kai’s gaze turned suspicious, analyzing. It reminded her of Jonah. Both of them had silent, brooding moments. She wondered if they bonded over the fact they could glean so much about someone from what appeared to be so little.
As if proving her notions, Kai’s face dawned with amusement, lips curling in smug enjoyment. Isla couldn’t even appreciate seeing him smile, seeing that indent in his cheek, the full light shining in his eyes. “No. . .”
Somehow, he’d figured it out.
She let out an exasperated breath. “Kai.”
“Him? Really? One of the infamous former flames.” He pointed to the empty area. “He seems like a bit of an asshole. But then again, you said that was your type.”
Isla glared, saying pointedly, “And it’s also all I’m destined for, apparently.”
“How long did it last?” Kai asked, that curiosity of his over her past rearing again. “One night fling? A few months?”
“Almost two years. I nearly Chose him.”
That seemed to sober Kai up.
The darkness came to his face again. And soon, so did that familiar feeling. The cloud above her, that tether, coiling along and through the bond. As invigorating as it was, being so. . . wanted, she didn’t want Kai to lose that spark. Whatever form of peace that seemed to emerge, even at the expense of a headache.
“He’s mated,” she said, and Kai’s attention returned to her. “He Chose someone else after I ended it with him.” She shrugged. “I suppose I knew there were better things out there for me.”
The comment did rouse the side of his mouth, but the small grin was short-lived.
Back to quiet and brooding. Isla held in her sigh.
“What does he want with you?”
“Want with me? Nothing,” Isla said. “What do you mean?”
“When I arrived, I was formally introduced to the Warriors,” Kai began to explain. “After I inquired where the sixth one was, the female, I was told very bluntly that you were late—apparently you’d been missing this morning at departure—and were finishing running the trails outside the grounds. You were the only one remaining out here. He seemed surprised, and suddenly, the man who wouldn’t stop talking about himself had nothing to say. When I saw him leaving the building, I knew where he was going.”
As Kai had spoken, Isla could picture the situation perfectly. Callan boasting however he could in front of those of higher status, even if from another Pack. He almost needed validation as much as she once sought.
Kai wasn’t wrong. It did sound strange. But she couldn’t think of what Callan would want. They hadn’t spoken, truly spoken, since their brief interaction at the Feast. She was about to ask Kai what made him care enough to follow him—if Callan had said something suspicious or off-putting—but then the realization hit. It wouldn’t take much for distrust to manifest for Kai when it came to Callan.
Because he was of Io.
“He left Callisto after the Feast,” Isla told him, squashing whatever idea Kai had before he could verbalize it. A touch of nausea bubbled in her stomach at the rising of the possibility someone of her own Pack could turn against her. But the message was here. . . “I saw him board the vehicle and leave that night. He wasn’t there when we emerged.”
“Where did you run off to this time?”
Isla’s features turned sour. It was a reminder, the most bitter kind, of the immediate danger at hand. To him.
Isla wrapped her arms around herself, saying softly, “I called home to see what I could find out about the challenge.”
Isla sighed through her nose. “The Imperial Council deliberates with the Alpha about approval of challenges. A Council that includes my father. I knew I couldn’t get to you to ask what was happening—and I wanted to see if I could stop it. I couldn’t reach my father, so I talked to Adrien and Sebastian. They hadn’t heard yet, but they were going to see what they could do.”
She had a hard time gauging Kai’s reaction. Couldn’t tell if she was happy she’d tried to interfere or if he thought it had been a mistake. When he was silent for far too long, Isla filled in the gap with her own question.
“Do you know who the challenger is?” she asked. “Is it really who. . . killed your father?”
Isla could see the emotions written clearly now, as Kai scowled. As the ire threatened to color his eyes. “No.”
Isla straightened. “It isn’t?”
“No,” Kai repeated. “No matter how many times he says it and tries to claim it. It’s just a no-name Rogue trying to make something important of himself after being exiled. It’s all a joke, a game. Inciting fear and riling up the Pack for no reason.”
“As Rogues do,” Isla muttered. Though a challenge seemed like a lot in terms of the lengths gone to cause the chaos and strife they craved. Even if she was losing that lightness to that rage brewing as he hashed it out to her, what he’d said made her hopeful. “So you don’t think they’ll approve it?”
“I don’t know what to expect with your Alpha,” Kai said, simple and honest. The cool tone was almost unnerving as he went on, “My bloodline has ruled over Deimos—over this corner of the continent—since the Goddess still walked among us. Before the Pack of Io even existed. To even risk throwing away that history, to put my Pack in a position where they’d be under a Rogue wolf’s control. . . it tells me enough.”
Over this corner of the continent.
Deimos. Phobos. The brothers. Kai’s ancestors. A many great grandfather and uncle down the family line. The Packs took—or had taken—most of the eastern quarter of the Realm.
Her brows drew inward. She’d never thought of him like this, never heard him talk like this either. Somehow, Kai became much—grander. There was being the Alpha, but then there was being the Alpha of Deimos. One of the original Packs. One of the sole bloodlines to hold steady for the millennia it had. The legacy to uphold was much more than the mantle passed from his father. It was of the many, many Alphas before him too.
It tells me enough.
The words rang in her head again. “Enough about what?”
Before Kai could answer, a strangled cry sounded in the air. Like that of a wounded animal. But there was something different about it. Unsettling, yet beckoning.
Both Isla and Kai had turned to look in the direction of which it came. Isla’s brow raised in perplexity, while Kai’s lay flat over narrowed eyes. In time, they swiveled their heads back to face each other. There was a moment of pause, before the tension between them lightened. Kai’s face fell as Isla bit her lip, holding back a devious smile.
“Don’t do that,” he said.
Isla inclined her head. “Do what?”
“That look is as concerning as it is arousing.”
“You don’t want to know what that was?”
Kai didn’t answer, just loosed a heavy breath.
Isla released the hold on her lip and beamed now, taunting, “It seems I’m rubbing off on you.”
Kai snickered. “Not nearly enough.”
Banter. Banter was good. Anything to pull him from that place.
Isla stepped back from him, hands reaching for the hem of her shirt.
Kai’s eyes grew wider as she pulled it over her head, leaving her in her tight camisole. “What are you doing?”
Isla dropped the piece to the ground, where she’d bury it in the leaves. Her fingers went to the waistband of her pants. She had to quell the part of her that thrummed as Kai watched her movements so closely, trailing down the length of her bare legs after she’d removed the covering. All that remained was her undergarments. “I’d like to have my clothes in one piece when I get back.”
She turned away from him as she removed what remained on top, taunting him. “I can’t be gone for long, and I’m much quicker shifted.” She pulled her hair from its tie, letting the tresses flow free and wild down her back. The strands were gilded gold in the light that broke through the canopies, and she pulled the hair forward to just cover the peaks of her breasts. More teasing.
When she turned, donning only her underwear, she crossed her arms too. “You can either strip and come with me, Alpha, or stay here.”
Kai’s eyes didn’t seem to know where to land—and for a moment, she wanted to ask what was going through his head now. What he’d do to her. What he could do. Now that they could touch. . .
The growl he let out took her from whatever thoughts and seemed to go straight to her core. He reached for the buttons of his shirt, fine and formal for a gathering of those of status, and unfastened one button, then another and another. Isla couldn’t stop her own greedy eyes from taking in what the Goddess had so wickedly given to her as he removed the piece completely.
Now, she felt like a fool.
It took everything to remain rooted in her spot. To not look utterly dumbstruck as she followed the flow of his lumerosi, followed those tattoos over his arm, cutting over his shoulder, his pectoral. As she watched the rippling muscles of his torso go taut and loose with every breath. Found the way they dipped into the waistband of his pants—
Which he was now removing.
Isla forced her eyes back up to his as he left himself wholly naked before her.
She held herself back. Trying to temper the intrusive images of all the wicked things she’d do. Maybe she’d beat him to her knees.
Not breaking eye contact as he slowly moved in on her, Isla removed her final garment, trying to do so as quick, and keep her head as level, as possible. She’d tossed her underwear to the side with the rest of her clothing just as Kai placed a firm hand beneath her chin to look up at him.
“You are an impossible woman,” he told her.
Isla gulped, quashing that part of her so aware nothing stood between both of them finding release with each other but sheer will and stubbornness.
She placed a hand on his chest, fingers curling just slightly to dig her nails into the ink of that tattoo. Her gasp remained caught in her throat as she pressed her body to his, letting her breasts just graze his skin as she rose on her toes, closer to his face.
One last move, one last jab, for the upper hand, and to guarantee he would follow.
“Yours,” she hushed over his mouth, strained and gritty with deteriorating resolve.
But sense came forth when her wolf did, and as Kai leaned down to capture her mouth, Isla was quicker. She’d left him stumbling as she shifted and hauled into the trees.
| ☽ |
Kai knew the forest well. He’d trained with the Guard, been on it, before he’d become Alpha. For a little while, he guided them towards the initial direction of the sound. Through easy paths with less brush to fight through and narrow breaks of streams to leap over.
There was something incredibly freeing about the two of them simply being able to run. To feel, to be, free of everything. There were no murderers. No Rogues. No secret messages. Even with the distinct hue to Kai’s eyes, under lighting the markings in his fur, he didn’t even have to be the Alpha here.
It was just them.
But the bliss of it didn’t last very long. Not when something in the air seemed to change.
When Isla noticed how bare the trees were, how quiet everything was.
Like all life had scattered.
Left this part of the forest abandoned.
Kai noticed it too, the stillness and heaviness to what they walked upon. Even the wind wouldn’t dare blow here.
And then came the scent.
Biting and familiar. Snaking down into the deepest, most buried parts of Isla’s subconscious.
Despite the reservations, the innate fear lapping at her paws, they followed the smell. Kai keeping a few protective steps ahead.
They came upon the narrow mouth of a cave, and Isla couldn’t even register what Kai had tried to say through a link. All of her senses were so overpowered, she couldn’t even think straight.
With every bone in her body, she knew, she felt, what was coming when they broke the dark threshold into the cavern.
And yet, she was still stunned, still nearly incapacitated by terror, when she found herself staring into the bright red eyes of a Bak.
Goddess. . .
The beast was dead—but even its lifeless stare was enough to arrest Isla where she stood. Enough to fill her mind with darkness and demons and memories of a life just before death. Her stomach hollowed out, and her chest felt heavy, like the Bak had been upon her again, ready to eat her alive. She thought she’d only ever have to encounter another in her nightmares.
Maybe this was one.
The creature waded in a pool of its own dark blood, the ebony liquid still leaking from the deep wound at its neck. The tearing had been so vicious, so deep, that its large head was nearly clean off of its body.
In her pause, Kai had since approached it, his paws becoming drenched in the sticky black. He snarled as he circled, as if it would awaken and endanger her, his home, his people.
But it was dead. Very, very dead.
Isla forced herself to focus, to get words through a link. “How—how did it get here?”
A stupid question. Kai was likely as clueless as she was.
The Bak were supposed to be contained. Behind the Wall, barricaded by thick stone and protective enchantment. By wards and blood runes. By magic.
“Could it have slipped through the Gate? If the wards are failing. . .” she offered. “Maybe during a Guard change?”
“And then walked the lengths of that Pack to our borders, through two of our regional checkpoints, before ending up here in the mountains? For them to even think that highly—to wait for Guards to leave, to even break open the Gate. . . it’s not possible.”
“Maybe there’s a break in the Wall. It’s centuries old, and with everything acting up, it no longer has that constant reinforcement or deterrent.”
As they shared the thoughts, Isla realized this was all exactly as Kai had feared. He’d wanted to put resources into looking at the Wall, but he’d gotten pushback.
Because no one knew the truth.
Not one member of his Council, besides Ezekiel, knew of what had actually occurred during the Hunt. The Bak’s odd behavior was a Realm-wide secret, all because of Imperial Alpha Cassius and his need to keep this all buried and forgotten, hoping it would be lost to time.
Like all of the Hierarchy’s secrets.
Like the Ares Pass.
The thought rocked through her like a shot of lightning.
The Pass—a direct connection between Deimos and Phobos. Or rather, Deimos and the Wilds.
Isla tried to remember the rest of Lukas’s words from a time that felt millennia ago now. From a time before he’d tried to murder her.
This pass goes into Mavec. . . a straight shot into the royal city. . .
“Where’s the Wall in relation to here?” she asked Kai, who’d since gone on to explore the perimeter of the cave.
Her voice, edged with eagerness, likely would’ve been concerning if he wasn’t so focused. His movements were keen and sharp. She expected nothing less, his demeanor bordering militant. “East,” was all he answered.
Before she headed back out into the woods, Isla braced herself and dared to encroach on the creature. She lowered her snout, running it over its dry, grey, sparse-haired covered skin, tearing over near impenetrable muscle. Its pungent odor flooded her senses, and the fatal wound, she realized, had been made with a blade.
Isla stepped back. She’d been so relieved that it was dead, she hadn’t thought to ask why. Who had done this? Taken on the Bak and defeated it.
Another pass over the creature. No other scents lingered. Not even a drop of wolf blood. They’d done it without getting hurt themselves.
She ventured back to the cave’s mouth.
The tug at the bond, her name in her mind, was sharp.
“I’m just checking the woods,” she said.
Kai took a few steps towards her. “What if there’s more?”
Goddess. She hadn’t even thought of more.
But the question was just to test her.
Kai wasn’t worried about there being more, the chances of multiple slipping through the cracks too improbable. Otherwise, they wouldn’t still be in the cave. He’d likely already have the entire Pack on lockdown.
“Then I’ll howl,” she said, and she wondered if this was where a line would be drawn.
He’d let her fight against the Rogues, but Bak were an entirely different monster.
Isla didn’t even want to picture the streets of Mavec, if Bak, rather than the Rogues had been unleashed upon them last night. That beautiful blue crystal would be bathed with blood, the river running red. It would be like the times of the past, before the Wall was raised. When the beasts could so freely roam and take, destroying towns and taking the lives of entire villages before they could be stopped.
Kai’s silence went on for too long, his crimson eyes darting between her and the creature on the cave floor. As if he were recalling seeing one nearly kill her months ago.
“Don’t go too far,” he finally told her.
Isla nodded, and before she left, made sure to brush her head reassuringly against his. Simply to feel him relax, just a bit.
The forest had begun to regain some of its life. The birds had been singing again when Isla stepped back out into the sunlight, halting briefly to allow her eyes to adjust. That meant the Bak had been dead long enough that the animals felt it safe to roam again. How unsettling the creatures were, able to clear a forest just by existing in it.
She lowered her head and sniffed, finding herself heading eastward down hills, moving downwind. So many questions ran through her mind as she stalked, not realizing how far she was actually drifting.
How literal was a straight shot?
Did the Pass cut straight over and through Mavec’s terrain? Did that mean there was a hole in the Wall?
What had made Lukas say where they stood back in the Wilds was the Pass? The marker?
Is that what she had to look for? More markers?
Was she going crazy over nothing?
Isla froze where she stood as a new scent caught the wind, emerging from nothing, and disappearing just as quickly. Because the person wanted to be found, but only by her. She spun just as Callan appeared from the thickets.
His smile was self-satisfied and grating. “You’re off your path.”
Isla snarled, lowering on her haunches. They wouldn’t be able to communicate like this. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t communicate with him at all, ever. But he’d found her again. He’d been looking for her. And she wanted answers.
She came out of her shift and folded her arms across her chest, crossing her legs to cover herself.
“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before,” he jeered, and though he was right, she held the position. Her body was meant for her, and the only person she’d wanted to share it with lately.
“Why are you following me?” she demanded.
Callan countered her question with another. One she hadn’t been expecting.
“How long have you been fucking the Alpha?”
Isla started. The query shouldn’t have made her as uneasy and feel as exposed as it did.
“Did you think I hadn’t noticed you sneaking around since the day we got in? Or that I wouldn’t hear him in your room last night?”
Isla forced her face to remain neutral, even if every muscle in her body had tensed. The sheer invasiveness Callan’s words alluded to seemed to edge out any aggravation at herself for being so careless in her actions, or for being so naive to think no one would notice.
“Are you stalking me?” she bit, her pulse thrumming violently in her ears. Even if Callan’s assumptions were incorrect—sleeping together was the only thing her and Kai hadn’t done—for some reason, it felt better than him believing the alternative.
“No,” Callan said, his laugh bitter. Not jealous, but sore. Over what, she wasn’t sure. He was mated. He couldn’t have still felt some ridiculous claim over her somehow? “I was told to look out for you. To make sure you didn’t get into any trouble.”
Isla furrowed her brows. “By who?”
“The Imperial Alpha. Your father,” Callan rattled, crossing his own arms. “It seems their assumptions that you’d make a mockery of yourself—out of us—were warranted. I don’t know why the General would make such a bid for you. Put his reputation on the line bringing you here. Regardless of breeding and bloodlines and getting into our Pack, I’d want a better mate than someone so ready to whore herself out.”
Isla could barely mask her disgust, but she couldn’t let him see that the words stung. Not the unnecessary and hateful jab at the fact she wasn’t the pinnacle of purity—which had told her part of this confrontation was that Callan felt he still held something on her—but the supposed fact her father thought of her so low.
Alpha Cassius with those sentiments, she’d believe, with all of the resentment she still held towards him in her heart since that day he’d lied to her about Lukas. But her dad. . . a mockery of herself, of the Pack, her family? It couldn’t have been true.
“How long has it been?” Callan asked, before she could retort his worthless comment. “Did you somehow keep in contact after the Hunt, or the moment we arrived you were ready to open your legs for him?”
She’d nearly taken a step forward to slap him, a scowl on her face, but her features faltered when she felt it. Kai, through the bond. No scent. No Alpha’s aura. He was here, close, amongst the brush, hidden. Watching. Ready to strike if Callan tried anything funny.
Isla wondered if he’d also picked up on the eagerness in Callan’s questions. The small bit of desperation behind them.
The answers she gave were important. Not just for him and that ridiculous inkling of possessiveness, but for something greater. Someone.
Isla found her fingers curling into fists.
She was being used as bait yet again. Not by Kai this time, but for Kai.
Her aggravation leaked into her voice, as she spat, “My personal choices, especially who I sleep with, are no one’s business but my own.”
“Not when they reflect on the Pack.”
“I’m not the Pack.”
“Here, that’s all we are,” Callan said as he moved close enough that Isla had to crane her head. “You don’t feel it every time we walk through this base? How these people look at us.”
Isla bit down on the inside of her cheek, thinking beyond the base. Thinking of the banquet, of the call center. Thinking of the whispers and glares that trailed her like a gown. From the people she was destined to lead.
Her chest tightened. “They hate us.”
“Because they want to be us.”
“Only because they don’t realize that we’re barely any better than they are,” she snapped, before she could stop herself. She bared her teeth, feeling something cruel rise in her blood, and stepped in closer. Her next words were drawn out, cutting like knives. “And that the biggest difference to being a part of our Pack is obligatory blind loyalty and the raging, unearned superiority complex of most of its members. You being a prime example.”
Callan’s stare was blazing and dangerous, but he remained quiet. He would continue to, even if it killed him. He wanted her to keep talking. Needed her to. She wasn’t sure what he was expecting her to know or what he was hoping to find out, but if he wanted something to report back to whoever, she’d give it to him.
“I bet Alpha Cassius didn’t even tell you why you’re supposed to watch me. Why he doesn’t trust me. It has nothing to do with me fucking the Alpha of Deimos—but if you did want to add that joke to your report, please, go ahead. . . do you know what really went on behind the Wall during the Hunt?” She caught the way Callan clenched and unclenched his fists, the confusion flashing in his eyes. “Do you want to know why I had to kill so many Bak? Why—”
Isla stopped when the sound of rustling leaves came from behind her, and both she and Callan whipped around as Kai emerged from the brush. His wolf loomed large, his shadow-black fur gilded by the sun and crimson-glower honed on them as he stalked closer. A few seconds later, he was himself again, and Isla noticed the faintest smears of dark blood over his body—his neck, his hands, his chest, his jaw.
Callan had taken a step away from her, his head lowered. Regardless of what Pack they led, all Alphas were due the same respect in audience.
There was an intimidating and regal air to Kai as he moved towards them, and somehow, the coolness he conveyed was more threatening than any snarl or outright warning. “What are you two doing so far from the main campus?”
Isla quirked a brow. He was feigning indifference towards her. Good, she supposed. As she had, Callan remained quiet.
At it, Kai chuckled humorlessly. “I suppose it’s wiser to be silent than to lie to me.” Isla retreated as her mate focused on her former lover. He was directly in front of him when Kai asked, “Callan, right?” But before Callan could even nod in agreement, he added, “Or is it Edriel?”
Callan went stiff, and Isla swore he was about to soil himself. She had no idea who that was, or what that name meant. And yet, Callan turned her way, pure fear in his eyes, as if she could help.
“Don’t look at her.” A ferocity had slipped into Kai’s voice. One that had Callan righting himself quickly, and one he barely dialed back as he continued, “You’ve been a busy man this week. Giving a false name is a commendable attempt, but pointless when you’re being tailed. I heard from my sources that you finally made your way down the river last night. I’m quite fond of Abalys, what did you think of it?”
Kai was having Callan watched? Callan was going around using a false name?
Callan’s method of self-preservation seemed to be submission and silence. Isla would’ve enjoyed it if she hadn’t been so lost. If she hadn’t realized, yet again, Kai was five steps ahead of her, keeping her in the dark about the true intentions behind his words and actions. In the dark about what he knew.
“What does your Alpha have you here searching for?” Kai asked, head cocked as he analyzed the Warrior. Almost having too much fun as the inferior wolf worked to avoid eye contact. “I hope that it’s important. Because right now, the way I’m seeing things—you were in Abalys the one and only night Rogues were able to breach our borders and slaughter my people, which puts me within my right to deal with you how I see fit. Kill you, if I saw you as a threat, and if I could fool myself into believing you were intelligent enough to be responsible. But I have enough to deal with, and you aren’t worth the headache of paperwork you dying on my land would bring.”
Kai paused, enough for Callan to take the cue.
“Thank you, Alpha,” he gritted.
Kai nodded and turned away from him, towards Isla. He took a heavy breath as he took in her expression—her flared nostrils, clenched teeth, and the hurt and agitation in her narrowed eyes. He knew what he’d done, and for a moment, his face seemed apologetic.
For a moment.
“You have until dawn tomorrow to leave,” Kai ordered Callan, turning his head his way, but not fully. “Don’t let me catch your scent within these borders a minute after, or I may have to reconsider. Am I clear?” Callan nodded, and though Kai couldn’t see it, he still growled, “Go.”
And Callan obeyed, leaving his clothes—and his pride—a tattered mess in the dirt as he shifted and darted as fast as he could through the trees.
Both Isla and Kai watched the spot where he’d disappeared until the sound of his paws hitting the ground was replaced by nothing but the warble of birds.
Isla turned back to her mate, meeting his stare with her own.
“I took care of the Bak,” Kai said. “No one else should venture out this far today, and I’ll consult with Ezekiel about what we do next.”
Isla snickered. “Thanks for telling me.”
She felt full well that he’d only mentioned because she’d seen it for herself. He couldn’t hide it.
“We should head back,” Kai said, voice straining to stay even.
And then, he shifted.
Isla was wide-eyed as he started to move away. But she was quick. In her shift and on top of him in seconds.
She had him on his back, her wolf above his, as she snarled in his face. “No.”
Mirroring her look, Kai bared his teeth, sharp and lethal, but then, he pulled his wolf back.
Isla did too.
And now, she was on her hands and knees hovering over him. But the rage she felt usurped any arousal the position could bring.
“Explain. Now,” she seethed.
Kai’s gaze traveled her face, over the soft curves of her body, before he met her eyes again. He sighed. “Isla. . .”
Her claws re-emerged, embedding in the dirt close to his head. “Don’t. Isla. Me.”
She was done with this. Being the General’s prize. Being bait. Being a pawn.
Being used was bad enough, but it was made worse by letting her believe that she wasn’t.
“You tell me whatever the fuck that was about right now, or Goddess help you, I will reject you right here,” she threatened.
Kai looked to either side of them, and Isla knew he was searching for anyone else around, listening. But Callan, as abhorrent as he was, had common sense and would never risk himself getting caught.
“All you do is lie to me. Hide things,” she said, unable to keep her voice from cracking. “You’ve been doing it since the day I met you. You didn’t tell me who you really were. You never told me you were in the Hunt. You never told me why you really didn’t want to be with me. About the killer in the woods.”
Kai’s hand had lifted, skimming the skin of her thigh. Not to start anything, but to soothe. “I’m trying to—”
“Protect me?” she finished for him, jerking herself from his touch. “I don’t need you to just protect me. I need you to be honest with me, Kai. Actually tell me the truth—the entire truth—for fucking once.”
A whirlwind of emotions flashed over his face, before his jaw tensed. “You want me to be honest? You want to know what I think? You want to know what I know, Isla?”
“Yes,” she nearly screamed.
Then, before she could blink, Kai had flipped them over.
Now, he hovered above her, pinning her arms above her head, cradled between her legs. But again, there was no impish intent in his eyes, nothing but cold seriousness as he said—
“I know that every day, it becomes more and more apparent that my enemy is the family of the woman I love, and that I’m running out of time with her.”