XXXIII. THE HALLWAY
☾PART IV : THE RISE OF RUIN ☽
Isla woke up to a kiss—not from her mate, but one of incandescence.
Against the backdrop of soft, rhythmic breathing, she peeled open her eyes to be greeted by moonbeams spilling through the window, casting with shadows along the hardwood floor, over the edges of the mattress, her body.
For a moment, she struggled to recall where she was, the reason for it. The reason for the comforting warmth at her back. For the intoxicating scent flooding her nose. For the delicious ache in her muscles.
But then she lowered her gaze, noticing the solid arm she’d been using as a pillow. Her bare breasts. Her torso.
Her breath hitched.
Everything came crashing back.
The duvet of the hotel bed had only been pulled up to her waist. It whispered against her skin as she twisted her body, careful not to disturb the man beside her. She would’ve been devastated if she did. If only she had something other than her memory to capture the image before her.
There was a softness, a peacefulness, to Kai’s face as he slept that she’d never seen before, even in those moments she’d considered him at ease. It made her heart swell, an overwhelming sense of love flood her body.
For sure. Forever.
This picture was one she’d wake up to for the rest of her life.
Isla bit her bottom lip, as if smiling would rouse him.
He was like a painting—the moon’s glow illuminating and darkening, hardening, the features of his face, the muscles of his exposed body, in a way only the most skillful artist could. As if the Goddess was aiding her sister in her taunts.
You tried to deny this. Isla practically heard Fate cackle in whatever way a deity would. You’d pick a path other than the one I’d laid for you. Look at him.
The man who’d loved her enough to let her go. Saw her, understood her, enough to let her do what she’d wanted. Who knew how important it was for her to become a Warrior, if only for a fraction of time. Words whispered in a prayer that day in the ash lilly fields. Exactly what she’d hoped and dreamed and wanted.
Isla huffed through her nose.
Isla scooted in closer, placing her hand on Kai’s chest, pressing her body against the heat of his.
As much as she wanted to stay in this room forever—this void, their void, where they could be safe—they had to return to the world out there.
Kai should’ve gone back to the Hall hours ago, judging by the darkness outside. He had to deal with the Rogues. With the challenge.
And Isla had to face her family. Had to tell them she’d never be back home again—if she could even call Io home anymore.
She needed to officially resign from the Warriors. . . to go through, she imagined, some process to become Luna. . . then prove herself worthy to the people of Deimos, who’d likely want nothing to do with her. . . and how could she forget the murderer and the Bak and the messages and the marker and—
Maybe they could remain in this chasm for a few more minutes.
Kai stirred, breath catching before it settled. His arm moved from around her back to tug her even closer, and Isla became so comfortable that she could’ve fallen asleep again.
She wouldn’t look up at him as she absently traced the tattoo over his chest, even as Kai lifted his other arm to run a hand over his face and push the hair from his eyes.
“Good morning, beautiful.”
Goddess above—his voice.
Lazy and deep and gravelly with sleep. Forget the endearment.
Isla squeezed her legs together, faintly remembering every wicked thing he’d done and said to her only hours before.
She cleared her throat. “It’s actually quite late in the evening,” she said, stopping her ministrations to lift her eyes to his. “We fell asleep.”
The corner of Kai’s mouth lifted as he stretched himself out on the mattress. Isla wasn’t sure if he was doing it on purpose, so the blankets would slide dangerously low on his hips—or if he’d placed his hand behind his head, only to give his muscles an opportunity to flex.
His voice was still dizzyingly alluring as he prided, “I wonder why.”
Isla’s toes curled as the recollections hit her full force.
They’d lost their war with Fate—but she had never been so happy to lose. Never been happier to be proven so wrong. Kai had said he’d be the best sex of her life, and she’d challenged him on it.
Then he’d taken her on the desk and the bed.
Made her hold on to the headboard as he slid in behind her.
Let her take him in her mouth before she’d rode him until she’d collapsed on his chest, unsure if she could handle anymore.
And then he’d rolled her over to edge her until she swore tears pricked her eyes. Until she’d begged him—begged him—to let her finish. Only for him to enter her again, so they could go together.
Yes, she could certainly think of worse ways to be incorrect. And she would graciously take this loss and whatever ones the future held.
As she replayed the moments—remembering how much she’d enjoyed herself, how loud she’d been, how undone she’d become with him, for him—she couldn’t help the feeling of butterflies in her stomach, lower.
And she just had to laugh.
How could it have been that good?
As the cheerful sounds left her mouth, Kai raised his brows with a mix of perplexity and amusement. She buried her face in the crook of his shoulder, still wrapped in the hilarity, and shook her head.
Kai ran his fingers up and down her back as he chuckled. “This is. . . new.”
Isla’s own laughter died down, and she leaned up, narrowing her eyes at him. “Give it a few minutes, you’ll inevitably piss me off again.”
Kai snickered, a smirk on his lips as he tightened his grip on her waist and flipped them to press his body down onto her, his hardness flush against her leg. “And nothing turns me on more than that look on your face.”
Isla dropped her eyes down and back up to his, lofting a brow and attempting to hold back her shiver. “Already?”
Kai lowered to brush his mouth against hers. “Always for you.”
And she smiled as he kissed her. . . and kissed her. . . and kissed her. Anywhere his lips and tongue could reach and tease. He was developing a quick mastery of her body, becoming aware of all the spots that melted and invigorated her all at once.
His hand drifted between her legs as she parted them for him, and he was happy to find she was ready, waiting. She didn’t even need to say the words—always for him and only him—she simply took his face in her hands and brought his mouth back to hers.
She groaned as he teased her entrance, lifting her hips, running her nails along the nape of his neck, down his back, already marred by her scratches. The stretch and pressure as he filled her, inch by inch, nearly had her eyes rolling back, and as he built a rhythm, smooth and slow and deep, she sighed.
She could get used to this.
Quickly. Easily. Happily.
If only everything could be this simple.
| ☽ |
“So what happens now?” Isla called back to Kai from her spot in front of the bathroom mirror where she’d been examining the mark on her neck.
As she raked her fingers through her hair—damp after the shower they’d taken—she watched him work the buttons of his shirt. With each one he fastened, her gut twisted. With each one, reality set in.
“Tonight?” Kai asked, looking up at Isla as she entered the main room. Her wavering expression told him enough—that she meant much more than whatever the remaining hours of the day held. “By tradition and protocol, a lot of ceremonies—more for you than me, but I’ll still be in witness.”
Ceremonies. She could handle ceremonies.
Though the assuredness she attempted to convey was the least bit convincing. “Okay.”
“We can take it slow,” Kai said, finishing the last button. “Everything doesn’t need to happen at once.”
Isla cast him a doubtful look. “They were trying to find you a wife at the banquet yesterday.”
Kai crossed the room to take her in his arms. “And I found her.” He combed his fingers through her hair, eliciting a soft smile. “Most of it is formalities and giving the Pack something to look forward to,” he explained. “I was never big on parties anyway—always found a way to escape all the galas and banquets and nonsense, much to Marin and my father’s chagrin. Having you here and happy is what matters to me.”
Isla’s grin grew, despite the nerves brought about by his words. She played with the buttons of his shirt, teasing, “It’s going to be a lot of dresses.”
A devious light shone in Kai’s eyes as his hand slipped beneath her jacket, drawing circles over the skin of her hip. “I know.”
Temptation reared its head, and Isla lifted her arms to circle them around his neck. But as she raised on her toes, a breath sounded from the hallway. It was so faint that she nearly missed it.
Kai seemed to notice too, and they broke away from each other.
“What was that?” Isla said, and Kai shrugged.
As he moved to the door, she was right behind him, fists clenched at her sides. If this had been Callan. . .
Kai wrenched open the door.
A shrill scream rang out.
It had come from a nosy maid who’d been the source of the initial noise. Her hands were over her mouth, her chest heaving, as she darted her gaze between the couple and the writing, left in dark paint, strewn along the wall.
The rush of volatile emotion that had gone through Kai flashed from down the bond like a raging, red beacon. It slammed into Isla like a wave, melded with the fear ebbing through her body.
“What the hell?” Kai muttered, stepping into the hallway.
Isla wouldn’t break the room’s threshold.
Another message. Another message.
“A—Alpha,” the woman stammered, dipping into a bow. Her eyes shifted along the ground, to Kai’s feet, then to Isla’s. She wouldn’t lift her gaze to meet theirs.
Kai advanced on her. “Did you see who did this?”
Though he’d sounded as gentle as he could, given the circumstances, the maid shrunk back. “N—n—no, this was just here. I was coming to, uh. . . uh, coming to clean the rooms.”
Isla glanced down either side of the hall. There was no cleaning cart in sight, and even if there was, this entire wing was being renovated. There were no guests.
The maid bowed again, apologizing profusely before scurrying back to the lobby. Kai shot Isla a quick look—telling her to stay put—before he followed her, both to make sure she got there safely and to canvas the rest of the floor.
In his absence, Isla steeled and averted her gaze forward again. She trained her eyes over the paint. The strokes were coarse beneath her fingertips as she traced over them. It was drier than it had been down in the alleyway near the call center. Whoever had written this had done it at least a few hours ago.
When they’d seen the shadow beneath the doorframe?
They’d thought that it had been Callan, but what if it hadn’t?
If the killer was here. . . had been here. . . while they were. . .
Though smaller this time, the insignia of Io and the mark of the Warriors were still among the mess, but something else was familiar. She froze over one etching, tilting her head.
It had a vague resemblance to the insignia of Charon.
Isla jumped and spun to find Kai at her side.
As he took in the writing himself, he shook his head. “How did I not know? I can usually sense when they’re. . . around.”
Isla had been the same, at least down in the lower part of the city.
“We were distracted,” Isla said. Though, they should’ve been able to tell something was off when they’d come to the door. If it was them.
Kai’s jaw tightened, and he looked back at the paint. Moments passed, and he squinted. “Wait.”
Isla dropped her hand from the wall, trying to follow his eyes. “What?”
“This.” Kai pointed to another symbol above her head. “It’s my family’s crest.” He traced his fingers over the two curves and the circle in which they met. “It’s simplified, but that’s our wolves. The moon.”
Isla stepped back, now able to see the motif she’d found through the Pack. She hadn’t noticed it in what was left earlier, but then again, she hadn’t been searching for it.
She spun on her heel and rushed back into the room, calling over her shoulder, “Is Jonah still at the shop?” She went to the desk in the office area, rifling through drawers until she found a pad of paper and a pen.
“Is that an honest question?” Kai side-stepped from his spot in the doorway to allow Isla to slip by him again. “Why do you need Jonah?”
Isla swallowed. The honesty she’d wanted from Kai went two ways.
“I got one of these earlier today.”
“When I went to call home, in the city. There was a trail of the jewels from my necklace—the one that you gave me, that broke after I’d shifted at the banquet—and it led to a message like this one. Like the one you’d gotten in Callisto.”
Kai heaved a breath. “Why wouldn’t you mention that earlier?”
“I was going to, tonight, when we talked. There’s a lot more too, but we need Jonah.” She handed over the pad and paper. “Just copy this down, and meet me up in my room. I need to grab some things.”
| ☽ |
The Warriors were on the hotel’s third floor of the opposite wing, but Isla was moving so fast, it felt as if she’d gotten there in a blink. Their hallway was empty and eerily silent as she stalked through it to her room at the end of the corridor. After today’s trek through the mountain, she wasn’t expecting anyone to be awake.
Still, she moved quietly, running through the items of her mental “shit-I-can’t-explain” checklist. The dagger, the broken diadem, her rubies, and whatever she had forged from the alleyway. They connected somehow to all of this. To each other. She just had to figure it out.
She was nearly to her door when a pull came. Not from Kai, but something.
Isla faltered and turned her head, finding herself in front of Callan’s door. It was cracked open a sliver, and Isla couldn’t hear the snoring which she’d dealt with for the years they’d shared a bed.
Her blood ran cold when she spotted the tiniest swipe of crimson on the doorjamb.
She wouldn’t give herself time to doubt.
She pushed on the wood.
Its creaking reverberated down her bones, was loud in her ears. Too loud in what seemed to be an empty room. Chilled night air swept by her face, a current from the open window caught by her entrance. The shadows left by the sparseness of the moon’s aura made the room seem forbidding. Still, Isla took a few steps inside, risking a call of Callan’s name. She received no answer. And unless he was hiding in the closet, no one was here.
For a moment, she figured he’d taken Kai’s threat seriously and left.
But his belongings were still here. The trunk he’d travelled with, the bag with his gear, his sword, his armor. His bed had been thoroughly slept in, either tonight or nights prior. Papers were scattered across its blanketed surface. Some crumpled and torn. And Isla caught the faintest smell of smoke wafting from the bathroom, as if things had been burned. The reason for the open window?
She glanced at the door. Where had the blood come from?
She tugged her lip between her teeth, and against that part of her with better judgment, she kicked the entrance closed, lest no one come upon her, as she approached the mattress. There was a ball in her throat as she sorted through the files. A lot of them were Callan’s documents, as she had for herself. His papers to get into Deimos—which he would need to leave and get back into Io. Even the ripped sheets didn’t seem to be anything unusual.
She sighed, scanning the room again and noticing more parchments placed on the bureau backed by a mirror.
Her eyes were wide as she picked up an identification card for an Edriel of Charon.
The false name Callan had been using, according to Kai. Where had he gotten this? Why did he need it?
Isla dropped the card back to the table, and her gaze slid to the map that had been beside it, worn from being folded and rolled so many times. The geography depicted was a stretch from Deimos, out west to Phobos, and displaying parts of Callisto and Mimas. He had lines drawn through it, areas circled throughout Deimos’s four regions with question marks. All seemed to converge in one spot—a wide-cast circle encompassing the Wall.
“What does he have you looking for?” she mumbled under her breath, recalling Kai’s words to Callan before he’d ordered him away. Alpha Cassius had put Callan on some type of mission, other than the Rogues, other than observing how she behaved here.
Isla narrowed her eyes at the map. Beyond the border of the Wall, within the marred parchment depicting the Wilds, were notes that nearly got lost in the dark contrast of the scourged land.
“House. . . Bak. . . Entrance?” Isla read the words aloud, voice wavering with uncertainty. What the hell did all of this mean?
She stiffened as she felt a sudden coolness at her back, and a shiver rocketed down her spine. Her heart stopped at the raspy sound, a word spoken, that echoed in her mind.
The wind-like breath that she swore caressed her ear was like ice on her skin.
Isla snapped her eyes up into the mirror, a gasp ripping from her throat, as she found the silhouette of a dark figure lingering in the corner of the room by the open window. She whipped around, clutching onto the bureau to brace herself. The action of fear was at odds with the snarl on her face, the glow of her eyes, the claws at her fingertips.
And whatever—whoever—it was, had disappeared, leaving nothing in their wake but a billowing curtain and a blood-stained adornment on the mattress.
The other half of the diadem.