The Alpha and the Warrior

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XXXVIII. THE BREAK

Somewhere in between the bustling morning of the early rising Surles and the barren boardwalks of the turned-in Abalys, the cobblestone streets of Mavec held a modest crowd, a few rolling through the daylight minutiae. Shop owners opening their doors. Pack members indulging in breakfast. Isla’s stomach growled as she passed one eatery, but it soured promptly after. Though it wasn’t for the family—a father, mother, their two children, happily munching and chattering away—it was the danger that lurked around them. That they didn’t realize.

If that Bak had gotten out. . .

If those tunnels ended anywhere else. . .

They had to get to Kai and figure out what the hell they were going to do.

Frankly, Isla wasn’t positive where to start—the Bak, the Rogues, the Pass, the warded door, the killer, the new marker, final jewel, and scribbled symbol she had hidden in her jacket pockets. Or maybe that word that was cycling endlessly through her mind.

Traitor. . .

Traitor. . .

Traitor. . .

Who? What? She wanted to scream.

As they walked through the lower square to the trolley up to the Pack Hall, Rhydian and Ameera were silent too. They had been since they’d left the house, combed the surrounding area for the missing Rogue—only to come up empty—before getting back to the car.

Both of them were understandably shaken by what they’d seen and all that had been divulged in just a few hours. From the fact that their best friend and brother had nearly been taken from them months ago and was still in potential danger. To the fact Imperial Alpha Cassius may have known about Deimos’s secret dealings. To the witnessing of a Bak beyond the Wall that was supposed to protect the Realm from its horrors. Isla received the occasional question from one or both of them, and she’d offer her own back, but mostly, they were silent.

It was all too much. They were tired and frustrated. At least Charley had begrudgingly let them clean up a little once they’d returned his car. Isla had been the messiest, dried, dark blood peeking from beneath her clothes. He’d given her a tavern maiden’s uniform to throw on, and she’d accepted it. Though the dress was a bit too tight, meant for a woman with more dainty shoulders, a slimmer waist.

She tugged at the bodice as she lifted her head to the warm sunlight to gaze up at the Pack Hall. Any discomfort she’d previously felt seeing that large window had been overtaken by a joy and excitement.

Home.

She was desperate for a proper bath. For Kai. A proper bath with Kai. A bed. Some decent sleep.

But would there even be time for any of that?

“Do you think Jonah went to the Hall last night to look in the library, or is he still at the shop?” Ameera asked as they looked between the two transport-ways. One would take them closer to Jonah’s and the other to Kai. Upon a glance at Isla’s antsy form, she snickered. “I know what you want to do, and I’m sure it’s what he wants. Are your mate-senses reacting?”

Though the General had been sarcastic, Isla noted the bond, her wolf, how much steadier they both felt. More present, finally. Yet still, there was something tense about their connection. Maybe it was just Kai. It was a safe bet that he’d been worried about her, about all of them.

“You can check in and see if Jonah’s there. I’ll talk to Kai,” Isla said.

“He’s going to lose his mind after he finds out,” Rhydian said.

“He should,” Ameera lowered her voice. “Especially if whatever you’re saying about a traitor is true.”

“I don’t know for a fact what it means yet,” Isla said. “And—”

“Ameera!”

The call of the General’s name had come from behind them all.

Isla had known the voice before they’d even whipped around.

Ameera grumbled from Isla’s side as Ezekiel stalked towards them, appearing from a street that had led to the boats that carried people beneath the bridge and into the mountain. “What is he doing here?”

That was a great question.

As he got closer, Isla couldn’t even wonder at the similarities between the family members. Not laugh at the way a vein was present near Ezekiel’s temple, just as his daughter’s. Even their small exchange fell on deaf ears.

She was too distracted, too concerned with how disheveled he looked. How distraught. There was a darkness beneath his eyes. Something wild, yet cowering within them. Like a cornered doe. He hadn’t even looked like this last night after the Rogues had attacked. He’d been shaken—yes, as they all had—but still had some generous composure.

Here, that seemed to hang on a thread.

Something was wrong. Something worse than what had happened last night.

Isla’s thoughts were confirmed when he glanced at her and caught sight of her mark, visible just slightly where her unzipped jacket left the skin exposed beneath her dress’s wide neckline.

Since the day they’d met, since his first prideful, snide remark before the Gate, calling her a dame, Isla had dreamt about seeing the look on his face if she and Kai one day mated. When the “dim-witted”, “insolent” woman became his superior. When he’d have to bow to her.

But there was barely a drop of anger or annoyance on his face. Barely any shock. All he had for her was pity.

And that was all too nice coming from him.

She cocked her head to take in the empty space behind him. “Where’s Kai?” she asked, forcibly simple, innocent, at first.

Ezekiel tensed, and Isla felt her blood ice over and boil at the same time.

He wouldn’t answer. Not fast enough.

Her fists tightened at her sides, and Rhydian and Ameera seemed to pick up on the shift in her disposition. They shuffled on their feet, falling a bit behind her, as she pressed, “What happened?”

Further hesitation. “We should—”

Isla bared her teeth. “Ezekiel, what’s going on?”

Upon the address, the older man blinked, and there was the hint of irritation she’d been expecting. But it didn’t last long. His throat bobbing, he shifted his gaze around, ensuring there wasn’t many among them. “The call came a few hours ago.” He spoke quietly, and they all absentmindedly leaned closer. “And we haven’t released it to the papers yet, so let’s try to remain calm. . .”

Beta,” Isla gritted, making him jolt. He’d been too slow. Too slow.

One last breath fell from his mouth, before he said, “The Imperial Alpha and Council passed the challenge.”

| ☽ |

Reporters surrounded the closed front gate at the bottom of the hill that led up to the Hall. According to Ezekiel, there were less than yesterday. Isla could only imagine how crazy things would get once the news broke of the challenge.

It had passed. They’d approved it.

It didn’t feel real. It couldn’t have been.

But Kai was already in an emergency audience with his Council, discussing what would happen next. What needed to happen in order to prepare for whatever befell him in ten days, on the night of the next full moon, when he’d step before another man with his Pack in witness and kill him or be killed himself.

She felt sick to her stomach. Worse than she ever had earlier.

Kai had sensed when she’d been fighting the Bak. He hadn’t known exactly what she was doing, but was aware that she was in trouble. To keep him in place, as the news had just broken, Ezekiel had offered himself out to go find her, find them. The Beta had been searching Mavec all night.

He seemed appalled that they’d gone to the other Pack regions, especially Surles. When he asked about what they’d been doing, no one spoke. They were all distracted, confused, and only wanted to get to their friend, their family. Ezekiel originally hadn’t seemed thrilled that Rhydian was going, but Isla made sure he knew the Guard wasn’t leaving her side.

As they got closer and closer to the behemoth, until they were entrenched in nothing but shadow from its looming size, Isla focused on the sense thrumming beneath her skin. She shouldn’t have called for Kai, especially if he was busy, but she wasn’t thinking clearly. She needed to see him, hear him, now.

There was a second way into the Hall that avoided the main entrances and the crowd—thankfully. A mysterious marked female entering the grounds with the Beta when no one else was permitted could’ve led to speculation. Not much, but enough. And Ezekiel likely wanted the time to brace for whatever chaos her—a woman of Io, the daughter of one of their highest Council members who’d just set Deimos on a collision course—being their Luna would bring.

As they traveled through a small side passage—a dank cavern disguised by greenery and cut through rock—Isla and Ameera flinched, their footsteps aware, looks over their shoulders frequent. It eventually brought them to a room, the door hidden behind a bookshelf.

Exactly how many places like this existed around here?

When they stepped out into the corridor, Isla noted their location, their orientation to the courtyard. This was the Eastern Hall. Now where were Council meetings held? Where were the Alpha and Luna’s official seats? They were usually around the same location. At least in Io.

Instead of asking Ezekiel, who’d likely be a complete dead end, having wanted her to wait in the House, she began reaching for Kai again, sending down whatever words she could.

Where are you, where are you, where are you?

She hadn’t meant for those frantic thoughts to travel, but they must’ve, because she received a response and sensed his presence at the same time.

“Here.”

Even without the echo lent by the barren halls, his voice reverberated through the space, through her.

Isla halted as Kai slowly rounded the corner a few feet in front of them and stopped at the end of the corridor. Her heart leapt and dropped all in one beat. Hours ago, moments existed when she didn’t think she’d ever see him again. Moments, she was sure, that he shared.

They held where they stood and simply stared at one another.

He looked exhausted, but was dressed well, as he had to be to address his Council. Isla wondered if he’d slept at all last night after they’d parted.

Kai looked her up and down, snagging on the amethyst cloth of the dress clinging to her, which she hadn’t left in. But his confusion washed quickly when his gaze returned to her face.

She wished she could bottle the feeling she got every time he looked at her, the flutter in her stomach. She’d love to get drunk on it right now. Forget all of this.

The smallest breath of relief from his mouth was like a signal. Isla rushed forward, and he met her in the middle, ready when she flung herself in his arms with a force that nearly sent him backwards. She felt him tighten his hold around her waist, nearly lifting her from the ground while she secured hers around his neck. His lips brushed against her skin as he buried his head into the crook of her shoulder, and she shivered. Their hearts thundered against one another. Back in time. Back in sync.

It took everything in Isla not to break down as she breathed in his scent, yielded to the comfort of him. Felt safe, truly safe, somehow, finally.

“What the hell did you get yourself into?”

The words were still muffled, distant. But she’d take it. Anything.

“It’s a long story.”

When she lifted her head to look at him, he wasted no time in giving her one chaste kiss before he lowered her down to her feet.

She wouldn’t let him go though, and he didn’t seem keen to release her either. Isla settled, wedging into his side with one arm around his back while his remained secured around her shoulders.

Kai looked over Rhydian and Ameera, who also looked rough from being out all night. “Are you guys okay?”

They both nodded and swallowed thickly in unison.

“Are you?” Rhydian asked, unable to fight back his frown. Beside him, Ameera’s features screwed in her own sad scowl.

Isla felt something stir in Kai, along the bond, and his body tensed. “Yeah, I’m good.”

A lie—partly, at the very least.

As they cast their doubtful looks, he added, “Thank you.”

Isla pondered if it was for bringing her back alive.

Ameera gestured her way. “You should thank her.”

Kai furrowed his brows and met her eyes.

“I’ll explain,” she told him, squeezing his side.

A faint grin played along his mouth before he lifted his gaze to Rhydian and Ameera again. “Jonah and Davi are in the library, if you remember where that is.”

“How could I forget where I suffered through all of my summer assignments Year Six?” Rhydian quipped, giving levity to the heavy situation.

Isla caught the way Ezekiel had stiffened at the mention of the twins in the library. Kai had too, it seemed, from the corner of his eye.

He turned to his Beta, his features stone. “We finished the meeting, but the Council’s still in chambers. You’ll be briefed, and Sol will handle the debrief, then the two of you and Marin can meet me back in my office at noon. You can release the news to the Pack in the meantime. We shouldn’t hold on to it too long. Better it come from us then trickle in by other means.”

Ezekiel bowed his head in agreement, something odd still flickering behind his stare. “And where will you be?”

Kai loosened his hold on Isla’s shoulders and reached to take her hand. “I’d like to spend some time with my Luna.”

| ☽ |

Kai had wanted to go “somewhere they could actually breathe”, and so they had traveled up and up and up, around and around and around, until they reached the study of Alpha Orin and stood in the glory of the stained glass window. The chilled morning air, so high up, bit at Isla’s face as she stepped onto the platform behind the lofted, black metal railings. She hadn’t caught the designs of them in the dark, how beautifully they bent and twirled, curving in a way that almost mimicked the phases of the moon.

As she stared down at the city as she had nights before, catching the way the sun glittered off the river, a replacement for the crystals that were dulled in the daylight, she heard Kai slowly guide the glass closed. The heat of his body radiated as he settled at her side. Silence fell between them. Comfortable. Needed.

For a second, it all stopped. Even with the world before them, with the mountains and the water and the small dot-like people, it truly felt as if they were alone.

Isla turned her head to look at Kai in time with him as he did her. That feeling rumbled again, and she acted on her urge to lean forward to touch her mouth to his. As he deepened the kiss, as she felt the wave and warmth of the love he had for her—in a way no one else did, no one else ever would—something inside her cracked.

She let out a soft gasp, and Kai pulled back.

“Isla,” he spoke with that gentleness that stripped her down to nothing.

Her chest tightened, and she struggled to let out an even breath. Another strained sound fell as she shook her head. She didn’t know what to say, what to do, where to start.

For one, her family—her family—were a part of this. Her father on the Council sending Kai off to fight for his life. That could take him away from his Pack, his friends, his family, his mother.

From her.

“Isla.”

Tears spilled over the cusps of her eyelids. One, then another and another, before they flowed freely down her cheeks. In seconds, Kai was on her, pulling her close again. As she hugged him, holding onto his shirt as she sobbed, everything crashed into her. Relentless. Blow after blow. The unending fear she’d felt in that house, for the past few months. What she’d seen. All she knew.

She hated feeling like this. Weak and helpless. But no matter how much she begged herself to get it together, she couldn’t.

Kai had slowly stepped them away from the rail, and somehow they’d ended up sitting at the base of the window, on the cold stone, as he held her.

“I’m sorry.” She cried into his shoulder as he stroked the back of her head, combing through her hair. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Kai whispered into her ear.

“I should’ve told them,” she said. “My father, if he knew, maybe. . .”

Maybe.

“I don’t think it would’ve made a difference. Your father is the Beta, but in the end, the Imperial Alpha makes the final call.” He couldn’t hide the tinge of aggravation from his tone, but corrected it to gently ask, “What happened out there?”

Isla lifted her head, and she was certain she looked like a disaster. Kai swiped some of the salty tears with his thumb.

Through the sharp intakes of breath and rushing thoughts, Isla explained everything she could in the most coherent way possible. The Rogues. The Bak. The wards. The tunnels. The killer with the diadem. The new marker. When she finished, breathless and overwhelmed still, she braced herself for him to begin drilling her with questions, especially given the confusion, concern, and intermittent flashes of anger across his face. But she felt lighter now, after getting all of that off her chest. She could handle it.

She could handle it. She could handle it.

But his features softened, and he brushed a loose hair from in front of her puffy eyes, tucking it behind her ear. “You fought all of them?”

Isla swallowed, her voice hoarse. “I did what I could.”

Kai chuckled through his nose and took a gentle hold of her face. “You’re incredible.”

He leaned forward and kissed her again with what felt like everything he had.

It wasn’t long before Isla matched it, eventually rising on her knees and crawling into his lap, needing to be closer. Relief beat between their chests, the bond reforging with it.

As she settled atop him, Kai’s hands trailed up her bare thighs beneath her skirt, and Isla felt that hunger rise between the both of them. Not hurried. Not carnal. Something pure. Loving. She wanted to melt into him, to feel him everywhere, not know what it meant to have space between them. Never again.

Kai broke away to drag his lips down her neck, ending with a kiss on her shoulder, her mark. “I don’t deserve you,” he breathed. “You shouldn’t have to go through this.”

As she sensed the guilt begin to ravage him, Isla lifted his face to hers. She traced along the line of his jaw. “I’m exactly where I need to be. Where I want to be,” she told him, before bringing her hands down to run over his chest and subtly moving her hips in a way that had both of them groaning softly. That told him exactly what she wanted next. What he did too.

She secured her legs around his hips as he rose with her in his arms. Her mouth met his again and again as he brought them inside to embrace whatever blissful time they had together with the world blown out of existence, before it tried to rip them apart, and they fought like hell against it.

| ☽ |

“Kai,” Isla laughed as her mate peppered kisses over her sweat-slicked shoulder. He snaked his arms around her, tugging her closer until she was leaning back against his naked chest. While one hand drew around her skin to cup her breast, the other traveled down her stomach, lower, until it reached between legs, already parting for him. She laughed again. “Horny bastard.”

He only hummed in agreement.

With a content sigh, she sunk further into his embrace, getting lost in the pleasure radiating through her.

She’d needed this. They’d needed this. Something grounding and real and simple. Just each other. If only for the small time remaining. Until noon.

What had started on the overlook had quickly turned into a fierce, insatiable need once they’d crossed fully into the study. No more was Isla’s desire to melt. She wanted to burn. Eventually they’d made it down to the floor, and her dress was gone—torn apart by the man who growled his lack of patience for laces and buttons. She’d pulled Kai up as he’d begun trailing his mouth down her body—no teasing, all she’d wanted was to feel him—and after the hasty removal of his clothes with her rushed intermittent assistance, he hovered over her.

But as she locked her legs around him—as he positioned himself and gazed down at her—they paused.

A pulse down the bond—it was a reminder of all they had to lose. What it had felt like they’d almost lost.

For a moment, Isla had clearly seen the storm behind Kai’s eyes, going on in his mind. And she realized—

She’d thought about what it would mean to her and everyone else if he’d lost the challenge. . . but how did he feel?

What did it mean to him if he left them? If he left her?

Judging by the brief flash of sadness, of fear, of desperation, in his gaze, she’d gotten somewhat of an answer. He wouldn’t vocalize it though. Because he didn’t want her to know or didn’t want to address it himself.

What had followed was intense.

He’d made love to her then, held her stare the entire time as he moved in her, hitting all the spots that made her warm and buzz and go dizzy. The only time he left her eyes, he was worshiping her with his mouth, telling her amidst kisses how beautiful she was, how much he loved her, how lucky he was to find her. It was nothing short of overwhelming, and she’d teared up as it all washed over her, the sheer intensity of the bond becoming near-tangible between them. He’d kissed those away too.

Now both of them were flushed, their hair mused, bodies bare and thoroughly worked over, as they sat on the carpet on the floor of the study, bathed in colors pouring through the window from the sunlight. And though hell lingered outside the large oak door, though it loomed above their heads, they were okay.

They would be okay.

Isla quivered and let out another sigh, squirming as tension built at the base of her spine. “Ameera thought it was strange that you let me go, given the way most newly mated men are. I thought you’d already gotten sick of me.”

Kai chuckled, continuing his ministrations on her neck, her other breast, between her legs. “I’d fuck you every minute of every day if I could.”

Isla bit back a whine.

She’d let him.

“When this is over,” Kai continued. “All over—we’re going away. Just you and me.”

“Can we do that?” Her question left in a breath as he worked his fingers lower, to her core, ready for him all over again. As she moved, bucking forward, he tightened his hold, keeping her in place. She wrapped her arms around his, feeling the tense muscles, digging her nails lightly into his skin.

“For a couple days,” Kai answered her question easily. As if this were just a normal, everyday conversation. “We have Ezekiel, the Council. We won’t leave the Pack. We just won’t be in Mavec.”

Isla had to moan now as he slid a finger inside her. Just one. Not deep enough. She wanted more, but this—now this was a game. Of focus. Of composure.

Her toes curled as she took a stabilizing breath, keeping her attention off of how he curled it upwards. “Where would we go?”

“The Vierra.”

“Where’s that?”

A second finger. Isla whimpered.

Kai laughed against her skin, leaving her just a little colder as he lifted his head. “It’s a small stretch of land next to Ifera. We could consider it one of our Pack territories, but it’s very small. Secluded. Gorgeous. We have a cottage there. Great for alone time.”

Finally, he plunged his fingers deeper, harder, and Isla gasped. She dug her nails further into his arm, arching her back with a curse. She didn’t know how much longer she could keep up her ruse. All of her focus eddied to how he moved, how incredible it felt.

Distraction, distraction.

She twisted her head from where she’d thrown it back against him to gaze at his face. So, so handsome. All of him so hers. Claimed by the mark on his neck, the healing scratches down his back. She wanted to kiss him. Needed to. But she resisted.

More conversation.

“Maybe we can go for my birthday.”

Kai lofted a brow, cocking his head and smirking. He could feel it. How close she was to coming undone. “That’s soon, isn’t it?”

Isla’s heart was going to beat out of her chest. “A little after the Equinox.”

“Did you celebrate that in Io? The Equinox.”

“Yes—” She moaned again, louder. It echoed off the high ceiling. Pressure building, she bit down hard on her lip. Release shimmered just out of reach. “and no. We more celebrated the—oh, fuck—Solstices. Summer. . . Winter. . . Goddess, Kai, I’m going to. . .” She breathed, her eyes sliding closed as she fought it off just a little longer. Her voice strained. “But Summer was always my f—favorite.”

Kai’s mouth went to her ear as he muttered, “Should I keep going?”

Isla snapped her eyes open, narrowing as they met his. Enough to say that if he stopped, he’d regret it. He chuckled, keeping at the pace that had her breath laboring further and legs shaking.

“You’ll find we make a big deal of the Equinox here. The ‘winds of change’. I always felt the gala was overkill, but the festival, the lanterns, those were always fun.”

She couldn’t hold it back anymore, but she tried, despite the fact she could feel herself tightening around his fingers, couldn't keep from moving with his thrusts, wanting more.

Kai cursed, as if recalling the feeling when she’d been wrapped around him earlier. “Isla. . .”

Say it again. Say it again.

“A gala means a—a dress,” she battled out one more time.

She could feel Kai hardened against her back. “Seems to be my weakness with you.”

Isla writhed, both at the pleasure about to wash her away and what she knew would come for her next, if they had the time. Goddess, she hoped they did.

“When do we need to. . .”

She never finished her sentence.

Kai’s hand left her breast to tilt up her chin, and he swallowed her cry out with a kiss so heavy it took away what little breath she had. Her fingernails drew blood as they pierced his skin, her climax roaring through her again. She bowed off of him, but he wouldn’t let her get far. Stars exploding behind her closed lids, he continued to stroke her as she clenched around him.

He didn’t withdraw his mouth or his fingers until she’d finished trembling, leaving her empty, sated, and yet aching for more still.

Limp against his shoulder, her body coated in a new layer of sweat, her lashes fluttered open. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, and she could feel his heart thundering against her back as he panted too. He never broke her stare as he brought his fingers, the traces of her, up to his mouth and sucked them clean.

Fire ignited in her again.

Fuck it. They had time.

Maybe men weren’t the only ones who dealt with the repercussions of a newly formed mate bond.

In a quick movement, Isla twisted and rose to her knees. She kissed him so harshly their teeth nearly collided before she pushed him down onto his back. Kai grinned up at her, his lip finding its way between his teeth as she straddled him, taking a hold of his length. He sucked in a breath, his eyes roaming her body, his fingers grazing the skin of her waist, her hips, her ass. As she lowered herself onto him, they both groaned.

Another moment of stillness overtook the room.

Isla leaned down, bracing her arms on either side of his head as her hair, gilded by the sunlight through the window, fell like a curtain around them. Shielding them.

She swallowed as that wrenching feeling settled in her gut. As she remembered that dark abyss waiting for them outside the door. As she sensed the bond in all its strength. Recalled what it had felt like for it to fade, even just a little.

“We’re gonna be okay,” she panted softly, more a question than a statement, even if she’d intended for the latter. She should’ve said everything. They weren’t the only ones whose lives hung in the balance. A familiar sting began in her eyes, but she willed it away.

Kai’s throat bobbed, and though he’d exuded confidence, there was the smallest flicker of uncertainty in his stare. Still, he nodded, his thumbs drawing soothing circles over her skin. “We’re gonna be okay.”

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