XXXVII. THE TUNNEL
“Hold on,” Rhydian voiced in protest, making Isla pause where she stood. “Seriously, what happened?”
She loosed a breath, too shaky for her liking, making her too aware of the knot lingering in her chest, aware of how badly a part of her just wanted to crumble. In Kai’s arms, preferably.
Isla took a step back onto the main floor and turned, facing every horrifying moment laced in each broken and overturned piece of furniture.
She’d nearly died. Again.
But she wouldn’t let it overwhelm her. She pushed back against it. There was no time to waste doing so.
“Rogue,” Isla began rigidly, gesturing to the dead body. “There were two, but one ran away. The Bak was in the basement that I’m pretty sure is more than just a basement. It almost killed me, but then whoever’s been going after me and Kai killed it. . . and I’m not too sure they’re actually going after us either.”
An amalgamation of fear and confusion passed over Rhydian and Ameera’s faces as they surveyed the room again. Seconds trickled by like hours as they got up to speed, and Isla was about to leave them up here when Ameera spoke.
Though she fought to keep her voice even, the ghost of a vein began throbbing in the older woman’s forehead. “I don’t know if I want to start with this—” She pointed at the Bak, before drawing her hand back hastily, almost skittish. As if she were wary she’d somehow will it back to life. “Or that bastard getting near you again.” Icy rage lingered in her voice, and Isla swore her eyes and markings nearly sparked alight.
She understood the anger, felt it simmering within herself. A piece of her had wanted nothing more than to drive that knife straight through the killer’s heart and never look back.
“Where did they go?” the General inquired.
“Down there.” Isla nodded to the basement. “There’s a tunnel they probably escaped through. I want to check it out.”
“I hope you mean so we can find the killer and drag them to the city so Kai can rip them apart like they deserve,” Ameera said.
“As nice as that sounds, I want to talk to them first. I think—I think they’re trying to warn us, to help.”
“Help?” Ameera was aghast. Even Rhydian went wide-eyed. “They killed Alpha Kyran and Jaden. Tried to kill Kai, kill you.”
“I know. Believe me, I know. But they could’ve just killed me now, and they didn’t. They saved me from the Bak, gave me this, and—” Isla looked down at her forearm, the symbols scribbled there.
“It’s probably them gloating.”
“Humor me,” Isla gritted, and she wondered what had shifted in her face, her demeanor, that had her opposition stepping back. That even had Rhydian raising his brows and bowing slightly. Instinctually. “I want to look at that tunnel, and you can either come with me, or stay here.”
For a moment, all either of them did was blink. Technically, Isla, still a Warrior, not a crowned Luna, was ranked under the General, and that nagging fear of offending a superior itched at her.
But Ameera’s tone had softened as she said, “Let’s go then.” She scaled the room to look down into the inky darkness herself. “Dawn’s going to break in a few hours, and if Kai hasn’t already locked the territory down and sent out a search team for you or taken to the streets himself, he’s about to.”
Rhydian skirted around the Bak’s flung out arm, nearly tripping over its long claw, to join them. As the three circled the stairs’ edge, Isla warned, “We need to wedge something beneath the door. It’s warded. If it closes, it won’t let us out.”
“Warded?” Ameera whipped her head around to Isla. “Like the Gate?”
“Exactly like the Gate,” Isla said, her mind so concerned with all else she couldn’t draw the reason for Ameera’s paling features.
“Why would there be wards in a house?” She stepped back to observe the door, pulling it away from the wall to observe all of its angles. Quickly, she found the scratched-in symbols over the metal knob. “Wards can only be cast by witches, right? Witches who haven’t been able to roam our continent for. . . decades, centuries? This house isn’t that old.”
Isla’s gut twisted.
Silence fell between them again, the air becoming thick, as they retreated and dragged their eyes around the space.
“Did you look around?” Ameera questioned, the fierce determination marking a leader on her face again. “Make sure no one else was here?”
“I mean, I didn’t get far.” Isla shook her head. “I was only in here for a few minutes before the Rogues showed up.”
Ice filled her veins.
In here. . . because she’d felt something calling to her.
As Ameera bolted up the stairs to ensure they were alone, and Rhydian went on to make another pass through the living room, dining room, the kitchen, Isla remained rooted. Her grip on the piece of the diadem, that she swore hummed in her palm, tightened.
“We could scent a witch.” Rhydian re-entered the living room, sounding like he was trying to convince himself. Though wolves were born with some innate immunity to certain magic, facing one of the spellcasters was no easy feat. “I’ve never met one, but they’re probably different.”
Isla opened and closed her mouth, unable to form an answer before Ameera bound back down the set of stairs. “It’s clear. No one’s here.”
Even with the news, Isla felt no relief.
| ☽ |
Rhydian remained above ground, guarding the door, the house, and the last piece of the diadem, while the two Warriors descended into the darkness.
“How did the Bak even get in here?” Ameera asked from behind Isla as they carefully ambled down the stairs.
“I’m not sure yet,” Isla said, despite her sneaking suspicion lying a few yards away.
Once she’d reached the completely missing lower third of the flight, Isla leapt to the ground.
Ameera did the same, letting out the softest whistle. “You really did a number on the place.” She knocked away a damaged board. “Do you go looking for trouble or does it find you?”
“I was trying not to die, so conserving this place’s integrity wasn’t on the top of my list.” Isla pursed her lips, muttering, “And if you ask Kai, he’d argue the former.”
“Rogues, Bak, and an assassin,” Ameera drawled, voice lowering to a whisper. Isla wondered if this small talk was a way for the General to abate any of her hesitations as they approached the tunnel’s stone-crusted mouth. “And you held your own. It’s a shame I won’t get to serve with you in the ranks.”
Isla tried to hide her frown at the reminder of the future she’d never have.
She made a hapless reach within herself for her wolf, the bond. Both of which stirred, but barely gave an answer. Her wolf, she understood, with that lingering sear in her veins. But her connection to Kai?
It had to be the distance.
If only she could tell him she was okay, if he’d been worrying.
If he’d felt anything go wrong, noticed her drop away. . .
They came to a stop at the rubble-coated earth just before the entrance. Isla’s skin crawled. Even with the beauty of the crystal embedded in its walls—all there was and all needed to illuminate the cavern—something felt off. Forbidding.
That horrible smell tickled the back of her nose and hit Ameera at the same time. She scrunched her face. “What is that?”
Isla regretted the deep inhale she’d taken. “If the Bak came through this, I—I think it might lead to the Wilds.”
Ameera straightened. “You think this is the path we’re looking for? That Callan found?”
Isla couldn’t really imagine Callan coming out here. But the map. . . “Maybe.”
“This stone isn’t natural,” Ameera noted, running her hand over the smooth, grayish surface of the columns built along the mouth. She scratched at a particularly marred part of the rock. “It looks like there used to be some type of door or gate here too. This is here for a reason. . . but why would anyone need or want a path into the Wilds?”
The ridged grip of the blade’s hilt bit into Isla’s palm as she held it tighter.
Back in the Wilds. This could lead her straight back into the Wilds. Earthbound, eternal hell.
I have us—the words she’d sworn to Kai echoed in her head. She’d assured him, and she would. Them, and everyone else. A vulnerability like this could put the whole Pack at risk.
“When we go back to the Hall, we’ll look into the archives and figure out who used to live here.” She steeled and stepped forward. “Let’s see what we can find inside. We won’t go far.”
Ameera nodded, and Isla noted the anxious twitch of her fingers. “Are we shifting?”
Isla gulped, squeezing the metal in her hand even harder. “I can’t.”
“Something that the Rogue had messed with my wolf. I’ve felt it before—a while ago, back in Callisto when Lukas had tried to kill me. I think the dagger had been laced with it somehow. And now, the Rogue—”
“No. I’ve never been dosed with wolfsbane, but I think it’s something different—maybe worse,” Isla conceded. “I look fine, but my wolf. . . I just feel disconnected. The pain subsided, but something’s wrong.”
Ameera went rigid.
Isla lofted a brow. “What?”
She grimaced. “It kind of sounds like what Kai was saying. How he felt that night. The disconnection, the pain, looking perfectly fine.”
Isla’s features fell, and her stomach bottomed out. “I—I hadn’t. . .”
A poison. Fast-acting. Quick-healing. No trace as it destroyed from the inside.
It made sense.
The overwhelming urge suddenly overcame Isla to tear her skin away and claw it out of her.
The right amount could kill an Alpha and Heir without drawing alarm. And they’d used it on her. Twice.
Ameera's face was drawn in puzzlement. “How did the Rogue get it?”
Isla growled low in her throat and sneered, starting straight down the tunnel. The General’s footsteps echoed hollowly from behind her, around her.
Bold or stupid—maybe she was both.
It was possible that Isla was taking this assassin’s passivity and graciousness in not murdering her a bit too far.
“I don’t know exactly where he got it," she said, hoping that around the corner, the killer was waiting. "But I know who probably does.”
The path ended at a crossroads. No shadowy figures in sight. To Isla's left, the tunnel either banked down and down and down. . . Or the right offered a continuous curl to who knew where. The two of them splitting up wasn’t even close to an option. They'd need to go back and gather more people before trying to really tackle something like this. The Guard. Kai.
Isla inclined her head to garner Ameera’s opinion on which direction they should take—
And then she saw it.
Wedged into the rock wall to the left, a couple of feet down. A tiny beacon of wood and inscriptions that haunted her dreams and nightmares, waking and asleep.
Isla moved with little thought, inching her way along the decline to it.
“Goddess, Kai was right,” she heard Ameera mumble behind her, though still, she followed.
After nearly losing her footing, Isla reached it and squinted as she observed its surface.
She didn’t understand a single letter or symbol, but she’d looked at the piece they’d found in the Hunt so many times she could write it out from memory.
Only one of those characters was on here.
But markers, these markers, were from the Ares Pass, according to Lukas.
So this was it? This was the Pass? The grand Hierarchy secret that she'd been standing on during the Hunt?
They were underground.
Isla’s brows furrowed. “If this is the way it’s supposed to be, embedded in the tunnel’s wall like this. . .” She trailed off, shaking her head. “Lukas found that marker in the middle of the Wilds just sitting in the dirt. It’s not like I was looking, but it’s the only one I remember passing.”
Ameera could see her train of thought. “You’re wondering how it got there?”
Isla hummed in affirmation.
The messages, the book, and the marker—they’d always spun around her head in unison, the mess of characters they were made of swirling with them. Two, she’d known, had the same source. One that seemed to lurk at every corner since they’d emerged from the Wilds.
But what if they’d been around before that?
What if they'd been trying to tell her something, Kai something, anyone something, since during Hunt. When the marker breached the surface.
Isla lifted her blade and ground her teeth as she jammed it into the rock beside the sphere. The clang and scrape of metal against stone reverberated through the pitted walls, along her bones.
“What are you doing?”
Isla answered Ameera with a grunt, too busy pushing and wrenching and prying until the ball finally came loose, a crater left in its wake, as it nearly evaded her grasp.
If Jonah could figure out one marker and the other, maybe he could figure the distance between them. They'd know the exact location of where the first had come from.
“They’re trying to tell us something,” Isla said, peering at the wood between her fingers. “They’ve been trying to get Kai to see. . . something, since the night of the murders. Me to see something since I got here or since we emerged.”
“Like what?” Ameera queried.
Isla glanced down at her arm, trailing down the symbols until she reached—
She swallowed, the word slamming around her mind in the same cursed tone she'd heard it twice now. “Traitor.”