XXXV. THE MAP
From her seat within the trolley down into the lower city, Isla peered through the sheen of fog on the car’s window and gazed up at the Hall. The eye of the beast stared back down at her, with its wondrous patchwork of blues and purples, nearly black. Kissed by the Goddess’s aura. Absorbing it.
She forced herself to think beyond the giant window, to envision what it protected. The enormous building of dark-wash stone at the back of a courtyard full of blooms akin to the colors of the stained glass. The House.
Her new home, her new life, with Kai.
I’ll see you at home.
Such simple words, but they ravaged her.
She wasn’t sure if he’d realized what he’d said. If he’d meant for it to spin her mind into a tizzy. It was all she could think about during the torturously slow journey that the crowded cable car offered. Not having Kai at her side—a constant, comforting presence, even in those moments she’d wanted to rip his head off—everything crashed into her, and somehow became more. . . real.
The most mundane and stupid things were driving her mad. Like how she’d come to Deimos with nothing but a trunk and a bag that held as much as her shoulder could bear. Nearly everything she owned here—besides Kai’s jacket, which she now claimed her own—was Warrior-given attire.
But that didn’t matter, because there was surely an abundance of clothes for her to choose from. The queen. The Luna.
But they weren’t hers.
Not her favorite pair of slippers or her favorite sweater for those nights when she’d curl up next to her window and look upon the Imperial City. She didn’t have her favorite blanket or her favorite books or that drink—warm and rich and chocolatey—that she’d always get from the vendor a few blocks from Io’s Training Grounds on the way home. She didn’t have the photos of her family that she kept around. Her and the boys. Her, Sebastian, and their parents. Her and her mother, happy as could be, during the Summer Solstice festivities in the ash lilly fields. Even the several photos she kept hidden now, of her and Cora growing up through the years.
Some would call her foolish for thinking such things—and she felt it—but without Kai here, it was easier to see beyond the fairytale of the handsome, powerful man who loved her endlessly. Of the joy she’d feel every morning waking up at his side.
But she’d weather it, and she’d get over it.
This was what she wanted.
| ☽ |
Callan had five points circled on the map, negating the giant one that encompassed the Wall. Two in Mavec. One in Ifera. One in Abalys. And one in Surles.
Though it had been closest by distance, Ifera would’ve been a nightmare to get to, entailing either a wait for the train or an eerie, arduous trek down through the route the Warriors had come in. Deep into those dimly lit tunnels, hidden within the mountains. So Mavec was their best, easiest starting point.
The parchment Callan had wasn’t the most detailed. It was simply the drawings of roads with shapes every so often to represent buildings. Not even all the businesses that comprised the square were shown. So they began from an obvious point—the bridge that crossed over the river into Abalys.
It was behind them as they walked along its bank, hidden by a low stone wall that many sat along, either facing the water or away from it. Isla hadn’t noticed the way the river continued underneath the structure, built against the face of one of Mavec’s rocky hills. It flowed into a wide-mouthed cavern cut into the stone, its opening illuminated brighter with lights alongside the landscape’s natural crystal. From it spawned a hollow melody.
That was where most of the music was coming from.
“What is that?” Isla asked Rhydian, who stood at her side. The two of them flanked Ameera, who she knew better than to bother. The General’s eyes roved the map and the terrain before them with predatory intent. All the ferocity of a leader.
Rhydian turned his head, following the current and the boats along it sailing beneath the bridge, heading inside. “A few things, actually. There’s a theater in there, an arena for sporting events, a club for dancing, gambling.” At her surprise, he laughed. “It’s deceptively large once you get in.”
Isla hummed, squinting to see if she could get a better glimpse at what was inside, but it was near impossible from the angle. Mysterious and forbidding, as everything else here seemed to be.
So she’d discovered, the city at night was as marvelous up close as it seemed from afar, and Isla walked amongst the heavens. The soft glow of gems, like an iridescent pool, cast the faintest aura around her feet and ankles, against the darkness of her pants. She was sure she stuck out as she moved amongst the crowd, not for the fact she was the Alpha’s mate and the future queen, but because she was so taken by it all. Their every day and commonplace was like a dream.
To fill in the melodies lost as they drew further from the cavern, on corners, singers serenaded the mingling masses, strumming and rhythmically playing their instruments in tunes Isla wasn’t familiar with but found herself entranced by. Wreaths of flowers were scattered along the ground, and every so often there would be a small pillar of stone holding a flame, burning bright, and surrounded by those paying respects with whispered prayers blending into the music.
Pyres for the fallen.
As sadness gripped her heart, Isla noticed there was also more Guard around. Some in uniform, and others that she recognized from their ramrod posture and intent gazes that rivaled Ameera’s.
Isla looked up at Rhydian, finding him focused on an eatery a few feet away. His hand was holding his stomach.
“What?” Ameera’s voice was eager and sharp, ready to face an opponent, but as she followed the Guard’s stare, her tone flattened, “Are you serious?”
“I need more than whiskey in my stomach if we’re going at this all night,” Rhydian countered, already breaking from them to head inside.
Isla found her hand drifting to her own abdomen. She did, too.
The last meal she’d had was in the mess hall after the hike, and she’d certainly endured quite the. . . workout after that. Her mouth salivated as the smell of warm spices wafted up to her nose.
Several minutes later, Rhydian emerged from the shop with four pockets in his hands. Each smelled divine and were filled with seasoned meat, gooey cheese, and a variety of colored vegetables.
He’d already bitten into his own and handed one of each to the two women, the last a second for himself. As he gave Ameera hers, he winked. “No onion.”
The General attempted to keep a straight face as she grumbled a thank you, before taking a large, aggressive bite and noting that he’d set them back ten minutes.
As Isla mowed down her meal, which tasted as incredible as it smelled, she got lost in the atmosphere again. Tracking a killer, especially given the situation, shouldn’t have been so. . . enjoyable.
“How could this place be suffocating?” she mumbled to herself, recalling Kai’s words from the roof of Callisto’s infirmary.
“How could what be suffocating?” Rhydian was already licking his fingers from the remnants of his first pocket and was ready to start his second.
Isla swallowed another bite. She hadn’t meant for them to hear.
“When Ka—” She cut herself off. There weren’t sizable crowds, but enough bodies close to be wary of curious ears. She wasn’t sure how many named Kai were floating around Deimos, but was sure who would be the most notable. “When this place was described to me, I was told that it was beautiful—which it is, incredibly so—but also that it’s. . . suffocating.” She glanced around—at the people, the food in her hand, the star-flecked sky above and the gems below. “I don’t see it.”
“It is when you’re brought up within its conventions.” Ameera drew Isla’s attention her way. She, too, had finished her meal and was bunching the paper casing in her hand while she studied the map. “There’s a reason that Pack Hall seems like it’s a part of another world up there on that hill, and why I’m sure you had a great time at the banquet last night meeting the upper echelons of our Pack leadership.”
Isla’s chewing on her next bite slowed.
She hadn’t had the most pleasant time at the banquet, surrounded by the boastful lot. Those who looked to her as someone to sneer at or fill the ear of with egotistical nonsense. Building a grandeur around themselves, a game of who stood higher than the rest. Manicured looks and manufactured personas. Exhausting.
She didn’t see that, feel that, here. Here, everyone was just—living. Celebrating that. For themselves and those that had been lost.
She glanced back at the Hall. At the keen window-eye she couldn’t miss, following and watching her everywhere she moved. The city’s crown jewel. A reminder.
She spun back to Ameera and Rhydian and swallowed. “Is that why you all go to Abalys? To get away from here?”
“It was,” Ameera said, slowing to a halt. “But you can’t change the way things operate by running away and hiding.” The words lingered as the General lifted her head to the building at which they’d stopped. “Interesting.”
Isla did the same.
They were at a bar.
Rhydian scratched at the stubble sprouting from his chin. “Why is it interesting?”
“We never came over here.”
Isla peered at the General. “You’re sure?”
Ameera shot her a look that said, of course, I’m sure. She folded up the map and put it in her pocket. “Let me see what I can find inside. You two look around to see if there’s anything else interesting around here.”
Isla nodded, and Rhydian gave her a mock-salute.
Determination on her face, Ameera stalked forward and greeted the establishment’s appointed security measures with a tip of her head. A vibrant voice carried through the air with the noises of a crowd and the smell of booze when they opened the door for her before the heavy wood was closed.
Now just her and Rhydian, Isla looked around. In the distance, a familiar tea shop caught her eye. She wasn’t too far from where she’d been this morning. From the call center, the alleyway.
“I’m going to check this way,” she told Rhydian, already beginning her steps in that direction.
The Guard nodded, before turning to the opposite side, and the two split off.
As Isla walked, she alternated her stare from the crowd to the ground, searching for any more clues. Any more rubies. Any specifically dark, forbidding crystal.
The diadem was still missing a piece, she was certain of it. And she didn’t know when or if this hidden figure would deliver it to her, but she did know it was always when she was alone. So she kept close in check with her wolf, in case anything set off that deep, defensive instinct within her.
But nothing like that drew her attention as she ambled through the crowd.
Nothing at all—until she passed a wall.
But there were no gemstones, no secret messages.
No, here there was a painting. A mural filled with colors. An artwork depicting two faces, two wolves. Regality, sorrow, and celebration.
A flame burned here, too. Enclosed in glass, protecting it from the wind to never be blown out.
A tribute to the fallen former Alpha and Heir of Deimos.
There was a knot in Isla’s throat, queasiness in her stomach, as she took in the piece. The other half of a family ripped apart.
Kai didn’t resemble his father much—maybe the nose, his hair, and maybe the dimples that Zahra had been missing, if Alpha Kyran had been smiling. It could’ve been why there was a kindness—that Isla could sometimes see from her mate—missing from the former Alpha’s face. She pondered if it had been done on purpose, not the way the former wanted to be—or would be—remembered.
He was simply powerful. Intimidating.
His eyes were shaded a murky brown. Not the stormy-gray Kai had inherited from his mother, but the same that the man drawn beside him held.
Jaden—the former Alpha Heir. A perfect blend of both of his parents, and just as eye-catching as Kai was. Given that their father was as handsome as their mother was stunning, it was no wonder their two sons had looked as mesmerizing as they did.
Isla continued tracking her gaze to their wolves, fur as dark as their hair, faintly sketched adornments on their heads, with eyes as red as blood and as smoldering as the fire beside them. There were words drawn over a painted banner, beside what she now knew to be the family’s crest. They were written in Deimos’s native language, so there was no hope in her deciphering it.
A sinking feeling settled in Isla’s chest.
She wondered if Kai had come down here. Wondered how he’d feel looking at this, given how guilt-ridden he felt just talking about them.
For a moment, she searched for the bond. Felt it, felt him, there.
She gave it a pull, a little caress to say she was with him, no matter what he was dealing with back in the Hall.
And then she bowed her head, muttering her condolences, and walked away.
| ☽ |
The alleyway had been a dead-end.
Nothing was amiss, nothing added, and her wolf had not reacted. When Isla met Rhydian back in front of the club, he was holding another container of food. Something golden and crispy that smelled faintly nutty.
“Find anything?” she questioned.
He shook his head, offering the cup to her. She happily took one of the strips.
“No.” She popped the piece in her mouth—yet something else to drool over and savor—before going in for another.
As she ate it, Rhydian gave her a deadpan look. “Do you want me to get you one?”
“No, it’s fine.” Isla took another.
The Guard sighed. “Okay, Davi.”
To that, Isla smiled.
She looked at the closed door of the bar. “She still hasn’t come out?”
“Not yet. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” Isla bit the inside of her cheek, but before she could say anything, Rhydian continued. “Did you know him well?”
“Callan?” The question was purposeless. “Uh, you know, we ran in the same circles. Warriors and all.”
Kai knowing their past was bad enough.
“Is he a bad guy?”
Isla actually gave the question some thought. “Not innately. He’s a product of how we were raised and would do anything to get validation from certain people with more questionable moral compasses.”
Rhydian furrowed his brows. “That’s a lot of words.”
Isla loosed a breath, simplifying, “He’s an arrogant prick, but I don’t think he’s capable of things as heinous as murder or want to be the reason people end up dead.”
At the mention of murder, Rhydian’s expression had turned solemn. He looked to his food, as if contemplating another bite, but averted his gaze away, as if he couldn’t stomach it.
“I didn’t think they were really killed.” Alpha Kyran and Jaden. Rhydian’s voice was as soft as the breeze that blew by. “I can’t believe he didn’t tell us.”
Part of Isla couldn’t either, but she also understood.
“He has his reasons for why he does things.” She matched his low tone and shrugged. “I’m still learning them.”
“He always tried to hold the world on his back.” Rhydian met her eyes. “Even before all of this. Now the world’s bigger, heavier, and he’s still trying. It’s going to break him.”
“I won’t let it,” Isla said without hesitation.
The answer was enough to bring a light back to Rhydian’s face. His gaze traveled up and down her body. She was so small, not compared to most, but to men like him. He laughed. “He can be a stubborn bastard.”
Isla matched his grin. “And so can I.”
Another assessing look over, before he offered her more food. “I’m happy he found you.”
Isla graciously took two pieces this time. “I’m happy I found him, too.”
Another chuckle slipped the Guard’s mouth as he joked, “It was my talk on the mountain that convinced you, right?”
But before Isla could answer, the raucous of music filled the air, and the bar door opened to reveal Ameera. Her face seemed both annoyed and perplexed, and she subtly nodded for them to follow. They obeyed, dutiful soldiers, and fell into step behind her.
“Well?” Rhydian leaned down over her shoulder.
Isla followed suit. “What is this place?”
Ameera lifted a hand to swat them both away, need not be suspicious, and gave a shifty glance around the area. “I don’t think it’s the place that matters. It’s who works here.” Upon the question of who from Rhydian, she looked to Isla. Her features shifted—as she seemed to undergo an internal debate—before she elaborated with one simple word, “Charon.”
Isla rose a brow, the Pack name like a swift kick. “Charon?”
Her confusion only intensified when she glanced over at Rhydian. His dark skin had turned green and an understanding and fear shone in his eyes. “Why? What do you mean?”
Ameera removed the map from her pocket and began scanning its features again. She took a sharp left turn, and they followed. “I asked the barkeep if she’d ever spoken to an Edriel. She didn’t know who he was until I described him. He was a patron, here a few days ago, the night the Warriors had gotten in, before Kai had me tailing him. He was harassing one of the bartenders when—”
“Harassing how?” Isla asked, too fast, too shaken by the word. She’d just told Rhydian he wasn’t too horrible.
“The only thing she heard was Charon before the tender brought him to the back to talk,” Ameera said. “He hasn’t been back to work since.”
Isla’s heart rate sped up. “Did Callan hurt him?”
“No, I think he scared him.” Ameera turned, taking in Isla’s persistent perplexity. “I suppose you’re just as much a part of this now, and just as guilty, if he proves what they’ve sent him here to prove.”
Isla jerked back. “Guilty?”
Ameera’s jaw tightened, and she glanced around once more before she began, “For the past few years, we’ve had an influx of new Pack members—from Charon.”
“They weren’t approved to leave Charon. They fled.”
Isla blinked and was met with narrowed, urging eyes, forcing her to piece things together. “They didn’t become Rogues.”
Ameera turned away, back to the map. They turned another corner to another bend of the river. “At first, as they needed to, by Realm law. . . but sometimes, we forget to guard a border and they find their way here. . . And obtain new identities. . . And have a new chance at a life that doesn’t utterly suck under a tyrant and his followers whose only purpose is to serve the wishes of a power-hungry egomaniac.”
Lethal words that cut Isla like knives. So much for her to process.
Pushing the last dig at Alpha Cassius to the side and what she alluded to regarding Charon’s own Alpha, she broke down everything else Ameera had said.
Deimos had been breaching Realm law. Technically, they’d even infringed on the Code.
Rogue wolves had always been a murky subject throughout the Packs for long, long while. For those cast out for criminal reasons, it was simpler, but for those who left their Pack on their own accord, it was incredibly complicated. And dangerous.
One of the biggest of their sacred principles was unyielding loyalty to one’s family, and your Pack was your family. That rule could only be broken, with no question or bestowed approval, by an even greater covenant—the bond of Fated mates.
If it weren’t for the fact Isla was destined to Kai, to remain in Deimos and defect from Io, she’d need approval from Alpha Cassius and Io’s Council. If they’d voted no, she would need to remain in her Pack, or if asking to leave had pissed them off enough, she’d be cast out to live the rest of her life as a Rogue. She could try to get into another region, but the repercussions of taking her in would be more than any Alpha would risk. It would be a near declaration of war against the Pack from which she came.
If Deimos had been doing this with people of Charon. . .
“How many?” Isla asked, voice hoarse.
“More than a few,” Ameera answered, straightening. “For quite some time.”
Isla’s eyes widened.
She couldn’t find fault in the benevolence. She’d want to do the same, but the danger that now loomed over the Pack if Charon, if the Imperial Alpha knew. . .
For a second, Isla put herself in the shoes of her former Alpha. Seeing Deimos getting mixed in other Pack’s affairs, finding potential allies, maybe aiding in an uprising—or even worse, taking in citizens to build stronger armies for themselves.
A challenger, a potential threat to the Hierarchy and Io’s highest power.
As if she could see where Isla’s mind was drifting, feel her panic rising, Ameera said, “The Imperial Alpha should know we’re not looking for a war. We would be insane to do so, given nearly half that Pack goes through the Hunt for fun to get the lumerosi, with no intention of joining the Warrior ranks, and Warriors have flocked there for centuries. Even if we’d give them a run for their money, in the end, we’d need some serious firepower to go against them and even have a shot at not being destroyed.”
Those words weren’t comforting in the slightest.
“It’s only good grace,” Ameera continued. “Maybe the Imperial Alpha should look harder at what’s going on. If he wants that territory to fall in line for him, he should try out new leadership than the ones he put in power.”
“That he what?”
Ameera heaved a breath. “You still have a lot to learn.”
Of course she did. She’d been mated to Kai and on the brink of queen for only a few hours.
Still, Isla lowered her head, words escaping her mouth softly. “Kai never told me any of this.”
Or maybe he had—indirectly.
He’d mentioned Charon and Io being “close”. Mentioned the easier access they would have to Deimos because of the Pack’s proximity. Mentioned his father doing something that would be looked down upon, that pushed some limits. But she’d been so distracted by the diadem and the dagger and the book and everything, that she didn’t push him to further explain. To tell her about them taking in Pack members. Tell her about Io putting people directly in power?
“I can only assume he didn’t think it would be a problem.”
Ameera was wrong.
He knew it was becoming a problem. Her family—the enemy.
But she kept that quiet, as Kai apparently wanted to.
Ameera held up the map. “But if Io knows, if they’re searching for proof, it could be. It means they’re seeing this as something more than it is.”
Isla could barely gulp as Alpha Cassius’s voice flooded her head. As she pictured him across from her those months ago in his office.
“It’s hard when people forget their place.”
There was no if.
| ☽ |
There were fewer people on the ferry into Abalys—their next destination—than on the trolley through Mavec. Though many were out-and-about in the city, the same amount didn’t seem to want to venture down the river to the region that bordered Rogue territory. Isla had so desperately wanted to visit the infamous town that Kai and the rest of his family had felt so fond of, but she couldn’t get herself to feel any excitement. Couldn’t rid her mind of other thoughts. Of refugees, of Io and Charon, of a budding war.
With a sigh, she leaned over the edge of the boat and watched the water lick the metal sides. Nothing but inky blackness lay below the vessel, as depthless a void as the dark forest running alongside the river’s bank. She squinted anyway, gazing into the abyss for answers. For swipes of shadow she’d never be able to see.
She shouldn’t have been hoping that the killer appeared. Shouldn’t have been relying on them for pieces of the puzzle to help keep them afloat as more and more kept piling on them.
It was almost nauseating how much a foe—a murderer—was feeling more like an ally.
Somehow, they knew everything. Even from the disjointed, senseless messages, she was certain of that fact. Those words and symbols were warnings of what Callan had been doing, what he’d been sent to seek. What Io knew.
But why? Why tell them? Why warn them, protect them, protect Kai now? A few months ago, they’d wanted him as dead as his father and brother.
And what the hell did the book, the dagger, and the diadem have to do with anything?
And what the hell would she do if they found themselves at war?
No. She couldn’t worry about that. Wouldn’t let herself.
Isla ran her hands through her hair, close to the roots, digging near her scalp, and groaned. The sound quickly became a yawn that she choked on, the pungent aroma of river water tickling at her throat.
There was a chuckle and the sound of an over-exaggerated inhale. “Wonderful, isn’t it?”
Isla looked to Rhydian as he rested beside her on the rail. “I see what Davi means when she describes sewer,” she deadpanned.
“It’s nature,” Rhydian said, brandishing a grin. One that felt all too manufactured. He’d been off ever since the bar, and his unease made its appearance every so often with random frowns and pensive looks, much like his brothers, which he rarely lent himself to.
“Tired?” he asked her.
Isla rubbed her eyes. Small talk was welcomed. “I’m fine.”
“I’m sure you haven’t gotten much sleep.” Another voice from behind them.
Isla turned just as Ameera approached to settle at her other side. Though, unlike her and Rhydian, the General remained forward, keeping a dubious eye on the deck and the few people on it.
Isla couldn’t help but catch the slight innuendo in her tone. Deadly when she so desperately wanted to cling to any thoughts other than the rapid-fire horrors that her mind was spitting. She tried to will away any of the memories of her and Kai’s time in the hotel that the words had spurred, but she was weak.
She gave into the phantom caress of her mate’s fingers, of his mouth. Allowed his words, wicked and tender, his actions, gentle and rough, to consume her consciousness. He’d become everything she needed whenever he felt, when he knew, she needed it. As if the bond had helped him become in tune with her body. Her with his.
A shiver traveled down Isla’s spine, and she suddenly became very aware—too aware—that he was nowhere near. And she wanted him. That primal part of her called for him. In a flash of heat and an almost delirium-inducing way.
“Oh, Goddess,” Ameera grumbled, snapping Isla from her fantasy, though not entirely.
The warmth Isla had felt all over her body bathed her cheeks. Was it obvious where her mind had gone? “Sorry.”
Ameera waved it off. “Honestly, I’m surprised he let you go. Newly mated men are typically cranky, territorial, sex-crazed bastards.” She nodded towards Rhydian. “I didn’t see you for days after you and Davi got together. Jonah even had to come stay at my place to save his sanity.”
Rhydian opened his mouth, as if to protest her claim, but promptly closed it. The smallest grin played across his mouth as if he were recalling the memories himself, and then his only response was a shrug.
If only she and Kai had the time to whisk off for days.
“The four of you are going to be insufferable when the Season rolls around,” Ameera grumbled, calling to the dawn of spring, when all wolves sought another, but mated couples ended up in an absolute lust-filled frenzy. “Though I suppose we’ll need an Heir, and I’m sure Marin will want you two to have one as soon as possible.”
The word made Isla’s heart stop.
She felt every muscle in her body tighten.
An Heir. A child. A little her and Kai.
Her, a. . . mother.
She struggled to swallow as her heart gave an unsteady beat. As a part of her she’d callused gave way. A deep hollowness—one she hadn’t felt in years and years—began forming in her chest.
And the feeling remained there—festering, intensifying—as Ameera and Rhydian found themselves lost in conversation of sports games and gambling.
Glancing back at the water, new memories rolled through Isla’s head. Memories that were vague and carried a stiffness, because when Isla envisioned her mother, Apolla only appeared as clear and rigid as her poses in photos. She was the honey of her hair, the blue of her eyes, the radiance of her smile, and the tightness with which she embraced her children in each image.
Isla could no longer recall the nuances of her face, the feel of her warmth, the inflections of her voice. Did she remember what her voice sounded like at all?
It had nearly been a decade since that night she’d last tucked her into bed before her unit had gone off and no one heard from them again. No sign of anything, until the day her father felt their bond break and her mother fade away. Until her and Sebastian nearly lost him, too.
Biting down hard on the inside of her cheek, Isla refused to gaze at the sky. It would be impossible to keep herself together if she even thought of sending up another plea. For a sign. For reassurance. For her mother, wherever she dwelled, to tell her how to do this. Any of this. Being a queen would be hard enough, but everything else? To be a good mate, to be a good mother herself?
The loud whistle of the ferry broke Isla from her thoughts. She shot her head up, and tears she hadn’t realized had been forming slid down her cheeks. She brushed them away hurriedly, hoping her companions hadn’t noticed.
Forcing herself to find some peace, to forget, Isla instead focused on the golden aura of lamps and lanterns as they approached Abalys’s docks. Even from their distance, she could tell it was nothing like Mavec. Maybe the stench wasn’t as horrible as Davina had described, but it certainly was—acquired. Isla had no choice to embrace it as the boat came to a halt, unable to continue forward as the town closed in on their path, narrowing the river to nothing but canals.
Only one man was waiting for them at the dock as the engine cut out, and he moored the boat before the ferry whistled once more. Isla hadn’t realized how accustomed she’d become to its whirring.
The three of them were the last to get off the boat, and the sound of Isla’s boots creaking on the metal stairs was quickly replaced by the thudding of her boots on wooden boards—what lay here mostly, opposed to its sister city’s cobblestone.
Even if Abalys was nothing like Mavec, even if it didn’t have that same marvel of crystals and warm scents of spices or raucous of crowds on its streets, there was enough for her to wonder at.
Despite the stories she’d been told, despite the worry she probably should’ve felt as Ameera tucked the necklace she’d been wearing—a simple golden chain with a pendant hanging from the end—into her shirt, there was something homey about the area. Something inviting about that golden aura and the same auspicious light that emanated from the many establishments along the boardwalk, their reflections bobbing on the water. Taverns and shops. More gambling dens and apartment buildings. From the dancing shadows in the windows, she imagined that was where all had disappeared to. She couldn’t help but notice no prayers or pyres were sent or burned here.
“So this is Abalys,” Isla said, turning to find both Rhydian and Ameera with a light in their eyes that rivaled the lantern’s glow.
“This is Abalys,” Rhydian echoed, his giddiness leaking into his tone. He pointed down a bend of the canal. “Me and Jonah used to have an apartment down there. It was a bitch to get up to, and our neighbors sucked.” He looked at Ameera and jerked his thumb in another direction. “And you were over by the western bank, right?”
“You lived down here, too?” Isla’s voice had unintentionally risen in surprise.
Ameera rolled her eyes. “You sound like my parents. I had an escape, and I took it. I ended up back in Mavec anyway, but it was nice while it lasted.” She pulled out the map, but scanned Isla over first. She murmured, “Make sure you look like you belong here. This town will take advantage and rip you apart the second they smell they can.”
Isla took in a deep inhale of river water and faint wood-smoke. “Okay.”
“Try not to smile.” She reached to adjust Isla’s collar, hiding her lumerosi. At Isla’s questioning stare, she noted, “We don’t want to draw attention.” Then she turned and pressed forward.
As they moved along the boardwalk behind Ameera, Rhydian acted as Isla’s tour guide, pointing out all of the places they’d been to and the experiences they’d had there with quelled enthusiasm. Isla nodded tersely along the way, fighting smiles from her face, especially as Rhydian recounted meeting Davina at one of the pubs.
But it became easier to remain stoic as they encroached on the inner workings of the town, catching some patrons outside of taverns, locked in heated conversations and embraces. Some smoking and shooting dangerous looks as they twirled weapons in their hands. Even those sitting in their small boats, drinking from small flasks and paper bag wrapped bottles, cast leery glances their way.
And yet, even with all that could be shady and troubling, Isla still felt the sense of community here. Could see where the fun lay—especially as she and Rhydian waited for Ameera outside a betting hall Callan had circled this time.
Isla’s proposal to split up and search again was met by a hard no, and the note that Kai would have his head if he let her wander off alone. Another thing her mate had warned her against back in Callisto those months ago.
They remained outside, leaning against the hall’s brick, Isla’s eye drawn to the tavern across the canal that was emanating music more boisterous than any tune she’d heard in Mavec. There was the pounding of instruments and clapping hands and the stomping of feet on wood floors in time with a beat that seemed to increase in tempo and volume. Isla found herself enraptured by the sounds of dancing and laughter, calling to another part of her not beckoned by its dreamy royal counterpart.
She’d get Kai down here eventually, and a part of her wished she could drag Adrien and Sebastian here too. They always sought the rowdiest places in the Imperial City. They’d probably love it.
As Rhydian began explaining Talha to her, the tavern they enjoyed and frequented most that was further down a different canal and closer to where there was more solid land, Ameera emerged from the betting hall.
All she did was nod, and they knew.
Another tie to the refugees of Charon.
This time it was a husband and wife who worked as a dealer and waitress. They had a daughter too, who was sleeping in one of the apartments above the hall. Other than that, they offered nothing new.
“I’m surprised he didn’t find more here,” Ameera said, looking over the map. “This is the region that borders Charon. It’s where most of them settle. It’s all they can afford to settle in, besides Surles.”
Once again, Rhydian’s features had shifted into a frown. “So now what? We go to Surles? Ifera?”
“Are we just going to find the same thing?” Isla asked.
Ameera addressed neither of them, her eyes honed on the parchment. “You know what I don’t get?” Before they could inquire, she pointed to a thick line of black ink. Another. Another. “What these are? They don’t even connect to the points.”
“They start back in different sectors of Mavec,” Rhydian noted, pointing out the haphazardly drawn ends of the lines. “But they all end at the Wall?”
The sentences had struck a chord in Isla, and she sucked in a sharp breath. “Wait. . .”
There was no way. But—
Both of the Deimos-born wolves turned in her direction.
“What is it?” Ameera asked.
Desperate for another answer was what it was, but Isla couldn’t ignore the nagging hunch. Any line that connected Mavec to the Wall was enough for her.
But she didn’t want to bring up the Pass here. Not the history, not Io, not the Hierarchy. “We need to go to the Wall.”
She earned equally confused stares.
“Do you know how far that is from here?” Ameera said. “It would take us all night to get down there and back home. I was going to say we go back and continue in the morning.”
Isla huffed, a restless feeling crawling beneath her skin. “We can run.”
Rhydian spoke next. “And then run back? There’s an early roll call tomorrow.”
“Is there not another train or boat or bus we can take?”
“Not this late.”
“So then, we find another way. I’m. . .” Isla lowered her voice. “queen now. I’ll get it excused.”
Was that an abuse of power?
Isla turned to Ameera. “I need you to trust me, and you know you’re going to lie awake all night until you find out what those lines mean. Why not save yourself the misery?”
The seconds before Ameera spoke up felt like hours.
“Why so eager?” she asked.
“I’ll explain later.”
Ameera hummed. “Alright, Luna.” Doubt edged her voice and Isla’s future title. A look of assessment crossed her face, accompanied by a devilish look in her eye. “Let’s make a quick stop at Talha.”
Isla raised a brow. “The tavern?”
“We don’t have time for cards,” Rhydian argued.
“We’re not going for cards,” Ameera said, shoving the map in her pocket. “We’re finding another way.”
| ☽ |
“For fuck’s sake, Meera!”
From where she sat in the passenger seat of the old town car, Isla looked up at Rhydian through the rearview mirror. He had his arms fully spanned to hold himself steady against the doors to either side of him. Isla wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or yell herself as Ameera careened around another line of trees that sent her slamming into her own door.
The young General wasn’t a horrible driver by any means, but her ambition surely carried through all the walks of her life. Ameera was doing everything in her power to get them to the Wall as quickly as possible, including this questionable “shortcut”.
While Mavec was a city, and Abalys a river town, Surles comprised spread out villages, with plenty of forest in between the areas to sneak through and speed about. As they traveled over makeshift roads and bumps, all they had to illuminate their path were the headlights of the vehicle, the canopies of the trees too tightly woven to allow the moonlight through.
That, and Isla wondered if somehow the Goddess was hiding behind another behemoth beckoning her from the closing distance.
“Do you want to get there or not?” Ameera called over her shoulder.
“Yes, I’d like to get there—alive,” Rhydian countered. “Are you sure that Charley doesn’t care we took this?”
“Of course,” Ameera drawled, the least bit convincing. One more turn had light in their path. “He owes me anyway.”
For what, Isla never learned. They’d all been rendered silent.
Emerging from the forest, no matter what lay before her, all Isla could focus on was the presence that loomed above them. Shrouded by night. Nothing but a dark shadow that seemed to be the end of the world. Absolute oblivion.
“Hello, old friend,” Ameera sighed bleakly.
Isla looked at the General. Somehow she’d forgotten that to hold her position, Ameera had gone behind the structure and faced its horrors too. She wondered if she felt the same way—like her heart was in her throat, and like every inch closer made her want to jump out of her skin.
“Goddess, I hate this place.” Rhydian wasn’t looking into the distance at the Wall, but at the set-back homes they passed as the open field they’d been driving on led them to an actual road.
Judging by the frown Ameera wore as she glanced at him in the rearview mirror, Isla felt she shouldn’t question this either.
Now amongst civilization, Ameera’s speed had slowed down considerably, and Isla used the opportunity to take in what was around them.
As with Abalys, as opposed to Mavec, no one was outside, and the only available light came from the street lamps, few and far between, or porch lights from homes that varied from tightly-packed cottages to modest farmhouses. Near them laid barns and fields with crops. She could imagine how barren land could pose a problem.
About a half hour of driving later, the three of them reached the cusp of another forest. This time, Ameera stopped, pulling up alongside the trees. She cut off the vehicle’s engine and exited, Isla and Rhydian following her lead.
For a moment, postured in the grass, Isla could barely breathe. A wind, a bit warmer than she’d dealt with in Mavec, swept by her face, carrying a scent she likened to imminent death and despair, awakening those demons locked in her mind.
She shook them away, steeling herself, as Ameera stood at her side with Rhydian.
“Weird.” The General folded her arms. “Where’s the Guard? They should be patrolling, but I can’t scent anyone.”
That certainly didn’t help ease Isla’s nerves.
“Maybe they’re masking it?” she offered.
Rhydian scratched his head. “We’re not supposed to while on duty.”
Ameera shrugged. “I know better than to question when things work in our favor. If they aren’t here, they can’t ask their own questions.” She turned to Isla. “So what are we looking for?”
Isla observed their surroundings. A quick look for any markers or trails. . . any Bak. “Anything that looks like it would’ve been a path from the Wall—or Phobos—to Mavec.”
Rhydian brought his finger to his mouth to lick it and lifted it in the air, pointing, “Mavec is that way.”
Isla nodded in slightly amused gratitude for the direction.
“And what makes you think we’ll find a path like that?” Ameera queried.
“The marker.” Upon Ameera’s raised brows, Isla elaborated, “The little wooden ball that was on the table with everything else. We found it when we were in the Hunt, and—”
“Me and Lukas.”
“The guy who tried to kill you?”
“Yes.” Isla sighed. “Before—that—he told me about an old pass that connected Deimos and Phobos to link the Packs, and that marker was a point on it. If it’s real, I think Callan found it somehow. But. . .”
“But?” Rhydian offered.
That part still didn’t add up.
How could a creature like that take to a road all the way to Mavec without being seen? Unless they were about to find the perfect line of tree cover.
She’d bring it up to them if it weren’t for the fact Kai hadn’t. They’d agreed to tell the rest about the killer, but the rogue Bak had nothing to do with that. Honestly, Isla wasn’t sure if she was even supposed to mention the Pass.
“Nothing.” She shook her head, peering into the forest and changing the subject. “Where’s the wasteland?”
There was a pause, Ameera scoping her suspiciously, before she answered, “Beyond the brush, closer to the Wall’s base. It cuts through another abandoned village.”
“You’ll know when you’re there,” Rhydian added. “And you’ll wish you weren’t.”
“It’s nothing compared to the real Wilds,” Ameera said, before ordering, “Callan couldn’t have traveled far along the Wall by himself. We’ll split up to cover more ground. I’ll head down towards Mimas, Rhydian will go towards Callisto, and Isla can take the middle.”
Rhydian was quicker to agree with the commands than Isla was, but it didn’t matter. The two of them were already stripping off their clothes to prepare to shift. Isla made quick work of hers, her blood rushing in her ears and heart hammering as she left her garments in the vehicle’s cab.
“Howl if you find anything,” she forced out, clawing for some confidence, before they all found their wolves and split off into the trees.