XXXVI. THE HOUSE
Isla wasn’t sure if Ameera was right—if the Wilds were in fact worse than the wasteland—but she was certain of the way her skin crawled as she reached the precipice of the besotted earth. Certain of the way the air had changed. Gone stale. Gone still. Waiting for her next move.
The forest before this had been lush and full. Exceptionally green, given that autumn was fast approaching. But no more were the hooting of owls or the cooing of doves or the chattering of bugs. They’d faded as quickly as the sounds of Rhydian and Ameera’s paws against the ground once they’d broken in opposite directions. Now the only thing Isla had was the lick of a breeze that rustled her tawny fur and tumbled through the landscape before her. That, and a grove of gnarled trees, their bark gray and peeling in ribbons from their husks, sprouting from the ground.
Their limbs stretched tall and were entirely bare, on the edge of brittle. They strained against the course of wind, peppering small twigs and leaves around their bases. They created a path with the way they curved towards each other. Not the path, she was sure, but still an entrance.
Isla stepped forward on it, the ground solid beneath her feet, no vapors wheezing from the surface. Not horrible, but. . . different. Enough to put her on edge, and enough to have those demons scaling the walls of her mind.
Not the Wilds.
She’d been repeating the words to herself since they’d separated. Every move was an effort. Each one bringing her closer to that mass of stone hidden within shadow, looming larger and larger.
This is not the Wilds.
But she could still feel it.
As if it had left an imprint on her soul, as if a piece of her still laid in there, where her blood had soaked the earth, Isla felt the Wilds calling to her. Like it wanted her back. Wanted another shot at taking her life.
The trees seemed to straighten as she passed them. The wood was alive. Aware. Too aware. Of who she was. Of what. Of where she’d been.
As she moved, Isla kept a keen eye on the shadows, ready for just about anything. This close to the Wall, and the trajectory of everything in her life these past few months, nothing going wrong felt uncomfortably improbable.
She had to put herself in Callan’s shoes—while ignoring the fact she didn’t know where he was—and more than that, she had to think as Imperial Alpha Cassius.
If this was the Pass that Callan had been marking for him, how would that benefit Io?
A way to sneak into Deimos?
Even if they’d be able to march through Callisto without raising some kind of alarm, sending anyone through the Wilds to breach the Pack’s border seemed like more risk than it was worth.
Isla’s stomach twisted.
They would not go to war.
They would not go to war.
A new mantra to cycle through her head as she came upon a row of houses. The abandoned part of the village.
She paused at the end of the dirt road that connected them, taking in their exteriors. They were no larger than the other homes they’d seen on the way in. Barely any gaps lay between them. Their lights were eternally out, some windows broken. Their sidings, their doors, their fences rotted.
They were entirely ravaged by whatever had infected the expanse and a decade of neglect.
So why was it, when all had been ruined the same, one in particular had enraptured her?
Isla stopped before the house at the end of the road, a few yards behind it an escape into lush forest once again. Her paws possessing a mind of their own, she traveled up its gravel walkway, stones shifting and crunching beneath her, echoing into the silence of the night, followed by the creak of the rickety wooden steps to the front door.
She called back her wolf, an action followed by instant regret as the feeling of being exposed fought whatever inclination had taken over. But she steeled against it and wrapped her hand around the rusted handle, jerking it and eliciting the harsh scraaape of metal against metal. A soft breath passed her lips, and she pushed.
The entrance whined as it opened, slowly at first, but then faster as it widened the gap, as if it hadn’t been attached properly. Isla hesitated on the doorstep, using the pause to pick any foreign sounds within the space. But there was no light, no life, from what she could tell. Another groan, from the floorboards this time, filtered through the air as she stepped inside. It was colder in here than it had been outside, as if the warmth didn’t want to enter, or the house didn’t want to let it.
Why am I here?
The thought flickered, came and went.
But almost like a response, a chill ran down her spine. Something eerie tickled her bones. Called her. Whispered, sang, in a familiar way. But from where, she didn’t know.
Isla inclined her head, listening, feeling.
The foyer trickled into a living room. It had been a decade since this family had been here, and yet the furnishings didn’t seem too obscure compared to the hotel or the Pack Hall.
Another step, before she turned to glance outside.
Not a soul to be found. She was alone. Entirely alone. Rhydian and Ameera had to be miles away now. But she had Kai, the bond, no matter how unnervingly faint it felt out here.
Isla kicked the door closed with a shockingly loud thud that had her flinching.
“Hello,” she chanced a greeting, her voice so soft, she could barely hear through the blood rushing her veins.
No answer, but that buzz beneath her skin persisted. Her fingers twitched at her sides as she moved in further.
Squeaks echoed her footsteps as she encroached deeper into the living room, throwing out an arm to run a finger along the welcoming credenza, the wood worn, the surface riddled with dust that tickled her nose. She stuttered as she tested it between her touch and spun to look back. It had been a decade, but the grime wasn’t much but a fine layer. Not caked and immovable as she’d suspect.
Her gaze traveled to the couches and chairs in the room’s heart, a small table in their center, a stone hearth brimming with charred firewood on the wall before them. Four teacups rested by the seats. One free of its saucer, one tipped over it, and all had been drained of their liquid or had evaporated into nothing but a residue on the glass.
Disgusting and old—but again, not ten years old.
Isla circled in her spot to survey her surroundings again. There were several ways she could go, from what she could see. A kitchen, a dining room, a set of stairs in one far corner and a lonely door at another.
Expecting the door to be nothing but a closet, she went there first, to get it out of the way. But as she reached for the handle, she hesitated and cocked her head. There were small symbols etched in the wood, circling the knob. Ones that were vaguely familiar. She reached out to touch them, but she had little time to contemplate anything.
There were voices coming from outside.
Isla whirled around to face the front door just as their keepers’ heavy feet clambered up the rickety steps. Their tones cleared in her head. Both of them were men. Both of them foreign to her.
Isla swallowed, hastily running through a plan. The act of surprise was her best option if this were to go awry.
In mere seconds, she found herself on the other side of the door, closing it just as the creaking of the front came.
And she hoped to the Goddess that they hadn’t heard her gasp as she nearly tumbled down a set of steps.
What the hell?
This wasn’t a closet.
Hand over her mouth, heart pounding in her chest, Isla rested against the wall and gazed down the flight that dissipated into nothingness.
What was this? A basement?
She couldn’t worry about it. Not with whoever was on the other side.
Who would come out here at this time? Who would come out here at all—besides them?
Isla pressed her ear to the door.
“Are you sure that it’s here?“ one asked the other, their voice as grating as sandpaper.
“That’s what I heard,” a warmer, more assured, almost alluring tone replied.
They were drifting further away from the door, the sounds of their feet at what she guessed the beginning of the staircase to the second floor.
“And how do we know they aren’t coming out tonight? If we’re caught then we’ll be slaughtered like the rest.”
“Because they’re still concerned with what happened yesterday, which was the point. Now we get what we’re owed.”
Isla furrowed her brows, a horrible feeling in her gut as her mind ran with the words.
Were these men. . .
No, they couldn’t be.
Isla pulled her head from the door to shake it, but froze. She became stone against the wall.
She was being watched.
A pair of glowing eyes peered at her from the darkness below.
Her insides turned watery. She couldn’t breathe, fought to blink, as if it would make them go away.
But they were still there when she opened her eyes.
Not only that—they were closer.
Swallowing any sound, any panic, Isla spun to open the door, more apt to face what was on the other side than what lay below.
But as soon as she touched the metal, shockwaves coursed up her arm, through her body. She recoiled and hissed, shaking away the tingling from her fingertips.
“What the hell?” She couldn’t stop the words from falling from her mouth, her breathing kickstarting in pants.
She tried again. The pain was worse, burning through her now. A whimper slipped her lips, and she curled in on herself. What is happening?
A low growl rumbled from the darkness.
Isla didn’t even need to turn to know any time she’d been allotted had run out.
She didn’t have any other option. She slammed her fists against the wood and screamed.
The Bak’s responding roar drowned her out quickly, piercing her soul and shaking the surrounding foundations. It thundered up the steps, left shuddering and straining under its weight, and Isla stiffened.
She would die here—it would kill her—if she didn’t move now.
Her head emptied, and in that moment, something within her ignited. Markings and eyes illuminating the darkness, claws emerging from her fingertips, Isla ducked out of the way just as the Bak swung its enormous paw—speared by its own long talons—for her head. There was a loud thud as it contacted the door, followed by the smell of something rotting, searing. The Bak wailed and stumbled back. Isla couldn’t ponder the reason for the scent, for its pain. She shoved her body into it, driving claws into hardened flesh, and sent the creature tumbling down the staircase.
The steps trembled beneath its weight as the beast tumbled down, down, forcing Isla to grip onto the railing so she wouldn’t follow. It came to a stop with a loud crack, the third step weak and easily crumbling beneath the impact of its size.
Debris spread through the heavy air in a cloud.
Adrien’s voice flooded her head, Sebastian’s, her instructors, all talking her through the steps of the Hunt, offering their Warrior advice. But they’d been wrong about the Bak’s behavior. Everyone had been wrong.
For Goddess’s sake, what the hell was it doing here?
There was one sole fact that consistently rang true.
Only one of them was making it out of here alive.
Isla didn’t glance back to listen if the two men were coming to open the door. Instead, she raced for the solid ground she assumed below and braced herself for the impact as she leapt over the Bak and shifted mid-air. Her joints groaned as her paws met the dirty, cold stone floor.
She retched as her newly heightened senses picked up the most abhorrent odor.
She turned her head and faltered.
Thick columns of stone were built up the furthest wall, meeting at an archway in presentation of a wide-mouthed opening.
A. . . tunnel?
Inside, Isla could see the faintest glimmer of crystal embedded in its rock walls. The path seemed to go a few feet before it banked another way. In that distance, she felt the source of that smell.
Wooden planks flew towards her as the Bak rocketed from its fallen position to go for her again.
She barely had time to get out of the way of its claws or its teeth that followed. It had gone for her neck. The same fatal blow she’d need to deal.
It went again. Again. From the left. The right. Faster. Faster.
Isla ducked and dodged and felt razors ghost across her fur.
Not much was stored down here, but she could barely move. There was nowhere for her to cover herself and think. With Bak, strategy meant as much as strength. It was why Warriors trained their minds as much as their bodies, their endurance. Training few had gotten. Why they’d never survive.
Why this had been sealed. . .
The door was warded. Like the Gate. Like the Wall.
That’s why the Bak couldn’t get out. Why she couldn’t.
If the beast made it out of this basement. Into Surles. Abalys. Mavec.
If there was more.
Isla glanced at the tunnel. She could chance it. Where she’d end up she had no idea, but it would be better than the Bak ending her life here, leaving it sitting and waiting for the men to be as foolish as she was.
Kai’s face flashed in her head—the bond pulsed—but she pushed it away.
This was about Deimos, keeping its people safe.
But just as Isla was about to make her dash for the cavern, a creak cut through the Bak’s grunting, her own breaths.
A warm light spilled down the staircase, searching until its glow illuminated the pallor, rippling skin of the beast.
Isla barked at the man, who cursed and stood dumbfounded.
Too Goddess-damn slow.
As if it could sense the easy prey, the Bak screeched and moved so hastily it was a blur of shadow. It skipped the broken steps and launched itself onto the first floor of the house. All Isla heard was a horrified scream, the tearing of flesh, and an unnerving squelch before the Bak roared.
There was a responding howl, of woe, of warning. The other man.
Isla dug deep, racing to the staircase and propelling herself up and over the gaps, fumbling up the shaky incline. Some of the wood boards, already unsteady from the Bak, clattered to the ground.
The first thing she saw as she lofted onto the first floor was the lifeless stare of the slain man. He slumped against one of the chairs, crimson oozing from the large gash in his chest. A broken glass lay at his side. A vial, maybe. Whatever was inside, another lighter liquid, swirled with his blood.
Isla whipped around to see his companion had shifted, his wolf’s fur a dark grey. His eyes—dim, empty.
These men were Rogues.
A blade glinted on the ground a few feet away from him, beside another fallen lantern. Abandoned once he’d realized exactly what he was facing.
There was no time for Isla to deal with her conflicted heart. Rogues had come to destroy the city, taken lives, but right now, these men were wolves as much as she was. And there were much bigger issues for her to deal with.
Isla lifted her head and called for Rhydian and Ameera, hoping to the Goddess they’d hear.
All attention came her way.
In the split moment, the Rogue wolf met her eyes, caught the flash of the crescent lumerosi on her fur. He took a step back, another, another, before he darted out the front door, left ajar.
The fleeing had caught the Bak’s attention.
She needed it on her. Needed to keep it inside this house, contained. And if she couldn’t kill it up here, she had to at least get it down into the basement again.
Barely a strategy was enough for her.
She growled, reacquiring the Bak’s eye and let it take a few steps towards her before she maneuvered through the living room and to the front door, slamming it closed.
The Bak broke through every piece of furniture to get to her, ripping cloth, splintering wood, shattering teacups. And it all became like the Hunt again, as she evaded it, going into the dining room, the kitchen. It destroyed everything in its path, like the grisly landscape of the Wilds.
A game of endurance.
This was a game of endurance, and though she’d been more sleep-deprived and undernourished during the Hunt, she knew she would die if she didn’t act now.
On another pass through the living room, hiding her scent, Isla dove behind the chair where the dead Rogue sat. She’d let the Bak get close and launch herself at it, knock it off balance, go for its throat.
She moved closer. The Bak sniffed the air, trying to discern her location.
She crept in, lowering on her haunches.
She yelped as her paw met a shard of glass and the fallen man’s blood.
And all she felt was an unrelenting, venomous burn.
The bond went taut. She thrashed, her wolf struggling against—
This was more than she’d felt from the doorway, but it was still familiar. Too familiar. From when a blade had been pressed to her stomach over a month ago. From when the substance that laced it hampered her, consumed her.
She did all she could to remove the glass, and when it had finally been wrenched free, the wound healed quickly. As if she’d never been injured. But she still felt it working through her, her wolf. The whimpering wasn’t her own. That piece of her separated, pulled away.
Stop, she pleaded. The tether, Kai, did too.
But Isla couldn’t hold her shift anymore.
As much as she grunted and fought, she ended up on her hands and knees, panting and shuddering as her wolf drifted out of reach, hid away.
A glance back at the blood, gleaming with that liquid from the vial, almost led to her death.
She rolled away from the Bak’s blow that she’d caught coming from the corner of her eye. The broken furniture became her cover until she reached the blade on the floor left by the other Rogue. Seconds moved like hours as she spun, one shot at driving it into the Bak’s neck. Its rough paws collided with her body, knocking her back to the ground and skewing her aim. It roared as the blade dug into its thick shoulder. Dark blood dripped onto Isla’s body.
But not enough. It wasn’t enough.
The Bak hovered above. Its paws on her skin so heavy she felt it tear, its piercing eyes cutting through her before its teeth would.
There would be no luxury of taunting this time.
The bond strained, and Isla called for her wolf. Her claws. A miracle from the Goddess. Anything.
She couldn’t die. She could not die. Couldn’t leave Kai.
All Isla had seen was the glint of silver, before her face, her body, became coated in the warm, sticky liquid.
The Bak sputtered, the gaping wound in its neck pouring blood, and collapsed.
Isla’s heart drummed against her ribcage that she swore snapped beneath the beast’s weight. She couldn’t breathe. Barely think. Only knew that she definitely couldn’t die like this. Suffocated.
She grunted as she forced the creature off, struggling for air when she’d found relief. For a moment, she laid there, bathed in the gore, choking, and staring up at the ceiling.
Alive. She was alive.
Isla rose on her elbows to see what had befallen the creature and gasped.
Standing there, their own weapon in hand, was that figure.
No. More than a figure. A person. Completely cloaked in black. A hood over their head, and a mask showing nothing but their eyes.
They’d killed the Bak.
And Isla had a vague sense it wasn’t their first time.
She didn’t move at first, couldn’t, as she stared up at them. She thought she’d been imagining things, but like the Bak, when she blinked, they remained. Barely breathing themselves.
Isla ground her teeth, and rational thought eddied away as she leaned over to wrench her knife from the Bak’s shoulder. She bit back against the pain and rose shakily to her feet. The weapon in front of her face, she rasped, “Who are you?”
They didn’t answer.
With an aggravated cry, Isla rushed forward. She threw her body against them, taller than her by inches, and pushed them into the wall. Their weapon clattered to the floor, and they made no reach for it.
But Isla didn’t care about the current passivity. She didn’t trust it.
She pressed her blade to the neck hidden beneath swathes of dark fabric, peering into darker, lifeless eyes, as she gritted again, emphasizing each word, “Who are you?”
“Answer me,” she commanded, increasing the pressure, firm enough she felt flesh shuddering from the force.
But yet again, nothing.
Isla let out a breath, and her hands began trembling. It was all catching up to her. She’d nearly died. Again.
Again and again, she and Kai faced death and chaos and—
Isla met their eyes.
They’d been warning her. Them. Could an ally really be the murderer?
“Did you really kill them?” she choked out.
A rise and fall of a chest, a beating heart within. They breathed. Their head lifted and fell.
Isla swallowed. “Why not Kai?”
There was a pause.
Before she could show her temper again, the killer lifted a hand. It was so smeared in dirt and grime, so twisted and scarred as if it’d been broken over and over and not properly healed, that it made Isla sick.
Distracted her enough that she allowed them to run their touch along the blade. Blood pooled on their fingertips. They dropped their hand and slightly inclined their head to Isla’s left arm. Cautiously, Isla lifted it for them, and their touch was as cold as ice, as death, as they drew along the skin of her forearm, down to her hand. Warrior. Io. Charon. Deimos. A fifth symbol that she didn’t recognize.
The figure dropped their arm, and Isla prepared to slit their throat as they reached into their cloak.
But from it they pulled a jewel of deepest onyx, a perfect fit for the heart of Isla’s open palm they’d placed it in.
She didn’t even need to ask to know.
The last piece of the diadem.
“Why?” Isla asked, lifting her eyes to theirs.
She allowed the killer to touch her forehead, then followed their twisted fingers as they pointed to the Bak—and themselves.
Isla shook her head. “What are you saying?”
They reached over and touched the symbol of Deimos on her forearm. A horrible, guttural sound came from behind the mask, and Isla heard it again, barely comprehendible. “Traitor.”
Did that mean her—the new Luna—or something else?
Straightforward answers didn’t seem possible, but Isla chanced a question again. “Who are you?”
Isla forced another query, “Why did you try to kill me?”
She could’ve sworn something like hurt flashed behind their eyes, and a scent began filtering through the room.
Familiar, but Isla couldn’t pinpoint from where.
Acting on impulse, she reached for their mask to remove it, to reveal them, but their eyes flared red—bright red—and something sharp pressed against her stomach. They’d been concealing another dagger. Wielded it against her easily.
They could’ve slayed her this entire time and been gone in a blink.
Isla stepped back, keeping her blade in front of her. But before she could act or ask anything else, howls rang through the air, along with the sounds of breaking doors.
Rhydian and Ameera.
The killer stiffened before turning towards the open basement door.
“Wait, no!” Isla reached out, but they were quick in their escape.
She barely heard the stairs beneath their feet as they descended into the darkness. To the tunnel.
Rhydian and Ameera appeared minutes later, when Isla was standing at the cusp of the flight, contemplating her next move. As the two of them crossed the threshold, snarls brandished on their snouts, they scoped the area. Rhydian halted first, then Ameera. They shared a glance, a secret communication, before both came out of their shifts. The Guard’s jaw was hanging open in astonishment as he looked over Isla, coated in blood. The dead Rogue. The dead Bak. The entirely destroyed home.
Even Ameera seemed to wince at the sight of the beast, but she steeled her nerve to ask, “What, in the Goddess’s name, did you do?”
Isla didn’t have an answer. She tightened her hold on her blade and took a step down the staircase. “Come on.”