XXXIX. THE ALLY
Deimos’s Pack Hall comprised three structures, which didn’t include the House, looming large at each side of the courtyard. Of them, the North Hall—the original Hall, adorning the stained glass window, cut beneath by the underpass, with corridors having been walked by the Original Alpha of Deimos himself—stood the greatest.
It was where most Pack business was taken care of—Kai had explained it to Isla as she dressed after having cleaned herself up in the small bathroom attached to Alpha Orin’s study. He’d already done so, since he had to go down to a phone in order to call for a member of the House staff to bring over some extra clothes. Isla pursed her lips at her former attire that he’d left in scattered ribbons on the floor.
What she donned now was one of his plain shirts, a deep maroon that ended mid-thigh on her frame. Another dress, only now she swam in the fabric. She’d taken a deep breath as she threw it on, warmth, woods, and spice flooding her nose. Even if it had been freshly cleaned, it somehow still smelled like him. Home.
As she worked on gathering her hair in a way that didn’t scream what they’d just been doing for the past hour, she caught Kai eyeing her from his spot against the wall. She turned, tying half of the tresses back out of her face while the rest flowed down her back. “Can I help you with something?”
Kai took his time, trailing his gaze from her face, down the length of her bare legs, and back up. He pushed himself up, taking the few steps across the room to close the distance. When he reached her, close enough she could feel the heat of his body, he danced his fingers over her waist, two applying the most pressure in particular. “Have I ever told you that you look great in red?” Another glance up and down. “And my clothes?”
Isla bit the inside of her cheek, not allowing herself to get caught up in the gruff words, his stare, the way certain parts of her still fluttered and felt him.
Offering him a deadpan look, she placed a hand on his chest and ushered him back. “Down, boy.”
As he stumbled a step, she seamlessly breezed by him to grab her jacket, the fabric weighed down by the diadem’s jewel and the marker still in its pockets. She could feel his eyes boring into her back as she walked to the door, maybe exaggerating the sway of her hips, and his laugh echoed around them as they took down the steps. Down and around.
Back into reality.
| ☽ |
Isla had never seen such focus on Kai’s face. Now down in his office, leaning against his desk, she watched him as he rested his hands on the wood surface opposite her. He shifted his gaze between the last piece of the diadem, the newly acquired marker, and what she’d written of the fifth symbol.
He’d been silent for a while. Almost too long. The longest he ever had, she swore it. Or she was just too anxious to hear his thoughts, to get moving on figuring out answers. With each pace of their descent from the study, any tension that had left her body had begun coiling again, and she’d decided that she would let the unease stay. Let it drive her, fuel her, along with her new mantra that everything would be okay.
For a moment, she pondered if there were a way for her to somehow use the bond to read Kai’s mind. Break beyond the wall of stone protecting his thoughts, the way it felt like he’d crumbled hers when their link started working. Though that had been just to talk. Sneaking into his head and taking something that didn’t belong to her would be a step too far, and frankly, not possible.
As his quietness persisted, she let her eyes roam the room again, before gazing out the window. Spacious and more ornately decorated than she’d been expecting, Kai’s office also had a view of the city. Not quite as wondrous as the one captured from the overlook, but enough. From here, the crystals of Mavec’s squares and the dancing lights of the boats on the river could be seen and appreciated.
She’d noted earlier how the walls were barren, but held signs—specific demarcations on the blend of stone, dark wood panelling, and wallpaper—that at one point there had been pictures. Some artwork. If this space had always been for the Alpha of Deimos, then that meant this had previously belonged to Kai’s father. Bore the images he had chosen. Been arranged in the way he had wanted. Certain scratches on the floor told her the furniture had been shifted, maybe an inch or two, but the bare walls never recovered.
She wouldn’t mention it, not now, but something about the room felt empty. Cold in a way the hearth at the far side of the space couldn’t warm.
The desk creaked, and Isla whipped her head back to Kai as he wordlessly pressed up from the wood and turned to approach the antiquated map splayed out on the wall. It displayed Deimos’s four territories and what was once Phobos before it had been destroyed. Though the more accurate portrayal of today’s world sat on his desk, this one seemed more relevant.
Unlike Deimos’s four regions, Phobos, in its glory, boasted six. Here, Isla saw the entire expanse of land, the former Pack stretching all the way out to the Great Ocean that separated their Realm from the main continent of the witches and other creatures beyond. Deimos and Phobos together were nearly as large as Ganymede.
“We have Rogues on our southeastern border,” Kai finally began, his voice even-toned yet edged with irritation. “Charon further beyond that, the Imperial Alpha breathing down our necks from the north, now the Wall in the west.” He let out a heavy sigh and ran both hands through his hair. It was so much. Spinning back, he said, “We need to work backwards.”
Isla adjusted herself on the desk. “Backwards.”
Kai nodded. “And we need to move carefully. If everything’s connected like you think it’s been, when we pull one piece on the board, another moves with it, and we’re back to square one trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.”
He was right in that regard, and she was sick of always playing catch-up.
“Where do you want to start?” she asked.
Another breath and another glance at the map. “Other wolves, Rogues or not, we can handle. Io, we can manage, but Bak getting beyond the Wall is the biggest issue we have. We don’t have those defenses. And I highly doubt, given the current climate, Alpha Cassius would be keen on sending me more Warriors.” He mumbled the next words, “If I could even trust them here.”
Isla winced, though she got the point. She folded her arms. “He doesn’t have a choice about sending Warriors if they’re needed. Regardless of who was to dispatch us, if we know there’s a threat, anywhere in the Realm, we’d want to help. I mean, I came here even though I knew the consequences.”
Kai rose a brow.
She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean."
The smallest upturn of his mouth told her he did.
Not long after, he began pacing the floor, eyes flickering from his shoes to along the ornate carpet, to the dark metal chandelier hanging from the ceiling, to the map. Eventually, he cursed. “I knew we should’ve been looking into the Wall earlier. Maybe we would’ve caught those tunnels. We need to figure out how far they stretch, where they go. If Callan actually found them. Why he was looking.” A muscle feathered in his cheek. “I never thought I’d be so grateful to a witch.”
The ward on the door. Keeping the tunnel sealed and the Bak in. Isla knew they’d need to figure out how that one beast got up to the Guard base—hell, they needed to know when and who cast that ward—but it had to be a step at a time. Maneuvered carefully.
Though she still found herself unsure of Kai’s sentiment of gratitude. “You don’t think a witch could be a problem?”
“Not as much as a Bak.”
“How would a witch even get over here? Ameera said that house wasn’t too old, and the witches haven’t been invited here for a very long time. They’d never make it past Io’s border from beyond the mountains. I mean, we were always guarded, but the prison’s right there too. No one gets near it, even from our end. Every Pack border is protected, including the coastlines. They wouldn’t get in without us noticing.”
“All coastlines but one,” Kai corrected lowly.
It took a moment for Isla to realize which he was talking about—but it made little sense.
“You think a witch could—would—sail to the Wilds? The Bak would eat them alive within hours, minutes, of touching land,” she said, before considering, “Though, they have magic.”
“It wouldn’t work,” Kai said, to which Isla cocked her head. “There’s a reason we had to build a Wall to contain them rather than wipe them out in the way they came. The Bak were birthed by magic from the decimation. Whatever that witch did couldn’t be reversed, repaired, or even touched by any of the others that came to aid us and repay the debt. The only way to kill them is how we’ve been doing for centuries—brute force and strategy. No matter how strong our people are, they wouldn’t stand a chance.” A grimace cast across his face. “The only comfort I can find, as sick as it makes me, is that whoever killed my family doesn’t want the Bak getting out either.”
Isla gnawed on her lip as she mulled over his words. She’d known some details of the decimation, was aware of the consequences and what had been done and raised as a result. But she never knew the why, how witch magic worked. At the thought, her eyes drifted to the crystal perched on Kai’s desk, glittering in a stream of sunlight. She wondered what Jonah would have to say about it.
“You think that everything, all of this that we’ve been dealing with, is connected,” Kai repeated his earlier statement, catching her attention again. At Isla’s nod, he continued, “And they know how. They’ve been trying to tell us how.”
She gave another dip of her head. “I think they’ve been trying to warn you about something since the night of the first message.”
“But why warn me after nearly killing me?”
“I don’t know.” She gestured to the wooden ball on the table. “But I do know that the marker me and Lukas found belongs underground in those tunnels, and that someone, something, brought it to the surface. We can’t know for sure when, but if it was them, because they knew you were in the Hunt, the tunnels are probably what they wanted you to know.”
Kai paused, considering. “But I ended up nowhere near where you and Lukas were when I was hunting. I was already heading back to the Gate when I felt you. If they had wanted me to just happen upon it then the chances were remarkably low.”
Isla sighed. That was true.
Quiet descended between them again as she pulled at her thoughts.
Sebastian’s voice being the one that rang clearly in her head was the last thing she’d expected.
Suddenly, she was back in her apartment after he’d broken in to talk to her—and eat her food. But besides aggravation, he’d delivered something else.
“My brother had told me they—” She stumbled. They—her father, Io. . . “They thought the two of us were in the wrong place at the wrong time—or targeted. What if it was both? Lukas and I were the only two Hunters that faced multiple Bak. What if they’d targeted me, left the marker there for us to find, not with the intention of me dying—though that was easily possible—but to lure you back?”
Kai reached up to scratch the shadow along his jaw. “Then that means they knew you were my mate, and that I’d come back for you.” He let out a low hum, before saying, “Those two Hunters that I sent for you after you’d been attacked said they found you in a house.”
Isla didn’t want to think back to that day, especially after what she’d just faced. But the flashes of her memory reeled, and she recalled the cold floor, the heavy pain, the distant questions as she fell in and out of consciousness about whether she was even still alive.
“The Bak starting to work as a pack, I understand,” Kai said. “Becoming more intelligent—I get that too. But they’re predators, they know death, and they would never stow you away—at all, really—but especially if you were still alive.”
Isla blinked, following where Kai led.
The pain she’d felt, like razors slicing through her side, after she’d run after Lukas and hesitated for her mate—that was dealt entirely by a Bak. But what happened next, in the darkness, in the cold. . .
“They saved me.” The realization came out in a breath. And though he had left its safety. . . “They saved Lukas too, and hid us in the house with the marker.”
Kai’s features were stone as he nodded in agreement, a couple times, before he released a bitter chuckle, and shook it. “I don’t want to trust them. I don’t want to listen to them. What they’re doing now doesn’t make me forgive the past, if reconciliation is what they want. But that’s a personal sacrifice I’ll have to make for the best of the Pack. . . so from here on out, we’ll consider them our ally.”
He studied her face to gauge her reaction. One could only be so overjoyed to align with an Alpha-killer.
She flashed him the faintest smile. “And everything they’ve given us will point us to our enemies.”
Kai’s sound of agreement was cut through the resonating chime of the grandfather clock close to his bookshelves, not nearly as barren as the walls. Isla watched the large brass pendulums sway before directing her gaze to the timekeeper’s face. Both hands pointed upward.
Two knocks in rapid succession came from the door.
Talk about on time. It was likely Ezekiel, Sol, and Marin.
Isla went rigid.
What was she supposed to say? Ezekiel knew about them, but the other two had no idea. She found herself rehearsing pathetically in her head, Hello, I’m Isla. I’m Alpha Kai’s mate, which therefore means your future Luna. . . don’t ask me what Pack I’m originally from. Don’t ask who my father is.
She felt a warmth at her back that spread as Kai wrapped his arms around her middle much like he had earlier. Her nerves eased as he pulled her close and leaned down to whisper, “We don’t have to tell them right now. We can pick another time.”
Isla twisted her head to him, scanning his face to get an idea of what he would want. But something about her expression, her pause, had him leaning in to peck her lips, then her forehead, before he unfurled himself from her. It was enough to say they’d do it later, maybe when the challenge wasn’t so fresh.
Another knock at the door.
Kai huffed and ran a hand over his forehead. “Come in.”
In the few seconds it took for the entrance to open, Isla smoothed out her makeshift dress, her hair, and plastered a serene smile on her face.
But the only person on the other side was Ezekiel.
The Beta stepped into the room, shifting his keen eye between the two of them, likely noting Isla’s change of clothes and catching the mix of their scents.
“Am I interrupting?”
Isla wanted to say ‘yes’ just for the hell of it, but there was something a bit more satisfying.
“No, you can come in,” she permitted him, a little smug, finding her grin again.
The one Ezekiel returned bordered a grimace.
She could hear Kai’s laugh through the bond. “Behave.”
The word had her eyebrows raising in intrigue.
“Marin and Sol?” Kai asked as Ezekiel closed the office door behind him.
“On their way,” the Beta said, approaching them at the desk. His gaze drifting to Isla, he began, “Will you be—”
He stumbled a step and froze.
Though it wasn’t for her, but for the glare that had caught the corner of his eye.
As Ezekiel turned his head to observe the gleaming jewel of the diadem and the marker on Kai’s desk, his eyes widened for just a heartbeat’s time and his body gave the slightest tremble.
Isla raised a brow.
Even Kai straightened where he stood. “Ezekiel?”
The Beta righted himself, but though his posture held assured, that cornered doe look slipped back into his eyes. But it wasn’t only that. She could’ve sworn that awareness lingered too.
Isla braced herself for questions, especially given Ezekiel’s need to know and have a hand in everything. But he acknowledged Kai and then turned to her, placing his hands behind his back in a dutiful, near-respectful manner. She wondered if it was to hide the slight shake of his fingers.
“Will you be joining us, Luna?”
It was hard for her to keep the surprise off her face.
She didn’t warrant that title. Not yet. And Ezekiel was the first person who would know that—making him the very last to use it.
Was this a test to see if she’d get ahead of herself? To give him something to rake her over the coals for in the royal etiquette she had yet to learn?
Isla glanced at Kai, whose own eyes had narrowed slightly. The stormy gray shifting between his Beta and the items on his desk that she suddenly felt incredibly protective over.
“I won’t be, unfortunately,” Isla said, bringing her focus back to Ezekiel, and something about him, about the air, seemed to shift.
She pushed away any fear that she’d sound ridiculous as she asked Kai without looking, “Do you think he knows?”
In her periphery, she caught Kai’s hands ball and release from fists. He didn’t answer.
A few moments passed before his features relaxed, and his reach over the globe of the world on his desk drew both Isla and Ezekiel’s undivided attention. He picked up the jewel—only the jewel—and let it linger in the sunlight before it collapsed into his closing palm.
With a sidelong glance, Isla noticed Ezekiel shift on his feet, retreating just an inch.
“Where did you get that?” he nearly blurted the question, as if he’d been biting his tongue. He forced his shoulders to relax. “Is it from the vaults?”
Kai grinned curtly, daring to toss the gem up in air before catching it. A low intensity simmered behind his eyes as he turned to Ezekiel. She sensed it then, that Alpha’s aura, Kai’s power. A reminder.
“No,” he said with a coolness Isla felt down her spine.
A turn to her was enough to end the conversation.
Partial instinct had Isla closing in on herself under Kai’s gaze, but she kept her shoulders back as he closed the distance between them and took her hand. He placed the gem into her open palm, before leaning down to kiss her cheek. As soon as his lips touched her skin, his voice flooded her mind, overwhelming, dark, and agitated. “Go to Jonah in the library, and do not stop or speak to anyone until you reach him. No staff, no Council members, and if a Guard asks, you’re Marin’s guest.”
Isla blinked at the orders and realized that he’d kissed her specifically on her right to hide her face from Ezekiel. “What are you thinking?”
“That I need to work backwards further than I thought.”
Isla swallowed. Did he mean consider what had happened before the first message?
There wasn’t time to ask.
“What about the marker and the paper?”
“I’ll bring them later.”
Before Kai had completely stood upright again, he kissed her proper. He held her hand with the jewel beneath her wrapped fingers for a second longer. “I’ll circle back with you at dinner. Get some rest.”
Rest now seemed like a joke.
Isla played along and nodded.
Throughout their exchange, Ezekiel had been silently observing, and he may have moved a few inches closer to the desk where the marker and symbol still sat, taunting him.
Isla felt her nostrils flare, but she battled to keep her features even.
If he knew something. . . Had known all along. . .
“Beta,” she bid him farewell, her voice laced with the sweetest venom.
Ezekiel bowed his head to her in return and nearly matched her tone. “Warrior.”
The gem bit into her palm as she squeezed it tighter and smiled. “For now.”