V. THE GATE
The Wall of Niesle—named after the Imperial Alpha under who’s command it was raised—loomed menacingly above the mass of shifters as they moved along its base. The feat of stone stretched so high that it disappeared into the low-hanging fog, a consequence of the small bout of rain that had ceased just before the group set out to their destination.
Isla lifted her head to it and squinted, despite the shadow that casted grey upon her face. Her narrowed eyes took in the barrier’s surface, all the crevices and, thankfully shallow, cracks that it had gathered over its centuries old existence. Behind the border lay some of the more horrendous things she’d see in her lifetime—beasts the embodiment of the fear for which the land they inhabited had as a former epithet. If all held up as it had, she’d never have to face them again, but would be ready for another encounter.
Her body tingled with nerves and excitement. This was it. Today was the day.
“You know what to do, right?”
Isla snapped her attention away from the Wall and to Adrien who was walking at her side. Sebastian had been on the opposite at one point—offering his own Warrior and big brother guidance—but then bounded off, jabbering something about a bet.
“Stay low,” she recited.
“Keep it in front of me and go for the legs.”
“Good.” Adrien’s expression was serious, though still carried an ease. “They’re massive, and they’re dumb as shit, but that only thought they have is what makes them dangerous. It won’t stop fighting until it’s dead or you are.”
Isla swallowed thickly and looked back over at the Wall. She reached out and ran her hand along it, stone-dust accumulating on her fingertips and flecks of rubble falling to the earth.
She knew all of the details. She’d heard them countless times in the scary stories told to her in her youth—mostly by Sebastian—and the endless hours of instruction barked in training. But hearing them now, so close to the grand barrier that shielded her peoples’ greatest nightmares, the warnings held new weight.
She dropped her hand back down to her side, and opened her mouth to add on, but was abruptly cut off by a heavy thud on her back. It was accompanied by a warmth around her shoulders. There wasn’t a need for her to turn to know who it was, but she did anyway.
Sebastian had wedged himself between her and Adrien, his hair—which held a more golden hue than his sister’s—a wild mess atop his head. The curls poked at Isla’s face as he leaned down to speak lowly between them, bearing most of his weight on her side.
“Alright, Pudge, I really need you to lock in here.”
Pudge—a moniker given to her by her doting brother during her rounder days as a pup. Despite the fact she’d grown since then, slimmed down and gained lean muscle from all her training, the name, albeit fitting less and less, still carried through to their older years.
Recalling Sebastian’s utterances before he’d gone off earlier—and knowing her sibling all too well—Isla gave him a dead stare. “What did you do?”
Sebastian flashed a snake-oil grin. “I have a lot of money on you being second in this thing, so you have to—”
Isla aggressively shrugged him off. “You think I’ll be second?”
Sebastian looked at her like she had two heads. “You think you’ll be first?” He scoffed. “And you say I ‘have a complex’. You’re hunting with an Alpha.”
“So?” she snapped, but then she processed.
She assumed, as most would, that Sebastian meant a future Alpha, an Heir. Actual in-power Alphas never went into the Hunt, save a select few it its long past.
It wasn’t a requirement to go through the Warrior rite to lead a Pack, though it did help prove an Alpha’s strength to his people, which in the end, only boosted morale, solidified trust, and instilled just enough fear to never cross them. But the immense dangers of the trial which made a victory so exulted were what made the participation by those in the highest of places avert it.
To compensate, Heirs were trained and ran in the Hunt before they came to power. Same show of strength, same effect, but with less hierarchical risk. As horrible as it sounded, there could be another offspring waiting in the wings to take the fallen’s former place, or there would be enough time for the Alpha and Luna to produce another.
There hadn’t been any talk of an Heir in this year’s running. Though they typically trained separately, the news would’ve spread.
“What are you talking about?” Isla inquired, face perplexed. “There’s no Heirs this year.”
“No, there isn’t,” her brother confirmed, then realization took his face. “No one’s told you?”
Isla didn’t like how jubilant his features were becoming.
“Told me what?” Her words were terse.
Sebastian couldn’t keep his smile at bay. She wasn’t sure if it was a universal trait of siblings, but he found such joy in delivering news that would make her angry. “The new Alpha of Deimos is in the Hunt.”
Isla almost stopped moving from the shock.
She thought she’d heard him wrong. “I’m sorry?”
The words were uttered in a breath beside her, and she snapped her head, fury in her gaze, from Sebastian to Adrien. His face was laden with guilt.
“Did you know about this?”
The Heir hesitated. “He told me yesterday at the dinner.” Not fear, but wariness was in his eyes. He knew her wrath well. “He hadn’t told anyone else but my father and his own Beta, and asked me to keep it in confidence.”
Isla resisted the urge to knock Adrien upside the head, Imperial Guard, be dammed.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she wailed, even though he’d already stated his case. Her fingers wedged into the tresses of her hair that she’d twisted into a high bun, surely messing it after she’d spent all too much time getting it perfectly smoothed. “I can’t believe this.”
Participating in the Hunt wasn’t just a split second decision. It required contemplation and planning, approval by the Imperial Alpha. To get anything to his attention took time, even if one was a Pack leader, so this had to have been weeks or months in the making.
Which meant Kai knew last night as they spoke in the garden that they’d both be descending into the earth-bound hell at the same time.
I’m going to kill him.
“I did it,” Adrien offered, pulling Isla from her thoughts with the wrong notion of her upset. “Other Alphas have. It’s a rite of passage for everyone. If you’re second to an Alpha, that’s still pretty damn—”
“I don’t care about being second,” Isla breathed, shaking her head and looking towards the ground like it would offer some solace. I care about staying alive.
She’d finally managed to get the Alpha off of her mind, scrubbed him enough from her senses so that she could think straight. It may have required a late night, shifted run through the woods and addressing her pent up frustrations by her own hand when she made it back to her room, but it was done. As she wrapped the customary Hunter’s cloths around her wrists and ankles and draped herself in the traditional silks when the sun rose that morning, her focus was on herself and her objectives, as they were supposed to be and had been before she’d met her mate.
But who knew if her mental fortitude would hold. She hadn’t been near Kai since last night. Was that agonizing ache something she’d have to combat the entire time she was behind the Wall? Or would a greater passion she had—and being amidst a fight for her life—find a way to usurp it?
When she lifted her head, she realized Adrien and Sebastian were looking on for some elaboration. Not in the mood to divulge, she conjured up a lie.
“The Hunt isn’t a requirement to be an Alpha, and only two actual Alphas have competed in it. The rest were just Heirs—and he doesn’t even have one of those.” As Isla rattled off her excuse, she found herself becoming increasingly irate as epiphanies hit. “If he dies in there, there’s no leader of that Pack. His bloodline ends. It’s—it’s reckless and stupid and—”
“Do I hear Isla questioning an Alpha?” Sebastian heckled, maybe saving her from saying something that could be misconstrued as treasonous.
Isla threw him a scowl.
“You care a lot about the Alpha of Deimos,” Adrien quipped, though she glared at him too, not forgetting he’d known what was happening without telling her.
“I don’t,” Isla snipped, unsure if that was also part of the fabrication. “It’s just going to be an absolute disaster for the Hierarchy if he dies in there.”
“Well, Alpha was never his to take,” Adrien said. “He’s proving to everyone that he’s worthy of it.”
As angry as she was, Isla understood.
| ☽ |
Forged and welded with labyrinthine patterns, protected by the wards and blood-runes of witches, the Gate into the Wilds didn’t extend as tall as the stone in which it was set. Isla had her eyes fixated on it as she sat alone in the grass, stretching, and trying to put herself in the right headspace again.
It had long been debated— as the strength of its mystical reinforcements waned with time—whether or not to remove the passage entirely, to bring down the wrought-iron and fill it with rock. But those who proposed the notion had mostly been shot down. Despite the fact it had been centuries since its glory, people still clung to the fact that before the Wilds became the accursed region that it had, it was another Pack, full of their brothers and sisters, that had been leveled, destroyed, and hexed by the most powerful witch their world had ever encountered. No other spell casters from her native Realm across the ocean had been skilled enough to break it.
At least, not the ones willing to do dealings with wolves.
As Isla tried to conjure up the image of what she’d be stalking into from the stories she’d heard—the dense fog, heavy foliage, and what was described as the closest she’d get to smelling death—she spotted him.
Kai, walking past in the midnight black Hunter’s silks of his Pack.
He was surrounded by a hoard of people—councilmen, guard, Warriors, the respected Pack reporters who’d gained entry to cover the revered event. Isla couldn’t imagine having so much commotion hovering around her before she was to look death in its face—or, really, having to answer to so many people ever—but she supposed that was a term of his life. A life she’d thankfully avoided.
Or so she hoped.
She continued to watch from afar as the group gradually began to disband. Kai broke off even further with a man she vaguely recognized, but couldn’t put a name to. The two of them stopped a good distance away from the crowd, so far that they were almost specks. Maybe the Alpha had wanted a break from the craziness.
Isla bit her lip as her annoyance mingled with the presence of opportunity. The Hunt would not begin until sundown, and she knew she could not descend into the Wilds with unspoken grievances on her chest. So before she could second-guess herself, she jumped to her feet and made the trek over, keeping her steps soft and scent masked. An ambush as a form of revenge.
But as she neared them, she slowed and then stopped. The men were locked in a heated discussion. About what, she couldn’t tell from the snippets her keen hearing picked up.
“If this is true then it will require immediate action. I can relay your thoughts to the Council while you’re behind the Wall for what should be done. Or I can devise some kind of plan until you better settle into the position.”
“No, this is my call now.” Although his back was to her, Isla saw Kai’s hand raise to rub his forehead as he let out an aggravated sigh. “Disperse the covert Guard into pockets of the city. Have them look into if the threats are legitimate. I don’t want to raise unnecessary alarm. And just in case, put a heightened detail on my mother. If this is really what killed. . .”
Kai had trailed off as the familiar-man he was speaking with slowly lifted his hand to silence him, as respectfully as one could cut off an Alpha. Whatever they were saying, he didn’t want her to hear. His eyes were narrowed, as he probably wondered who would be bold—or stupid—enough to linger in their vicinity.
Isla, however, didn’t cower. She pulled her shoulders back to exude the confidence—or lunacy—a commoner would need to disturb an Alpha in conference.
Noting that they were no longer alone, Kai spun to face who’d intruded. Isla was surprised to see the scowl he was wearing soften. Not to a full-smile, but enough to instill her with the smallest amount of irritation and also signal her the green-light to do what she was about to.
She stepped forward. “Alpha Kai, may I speak with you?”
One would think she’d smacked the older man across the face. In haste, he strode up to her, making sure to stand where he blocked Kai from her view. “Alpha Kai is preparing for the Hunt.” His tone was harsh and held a light air of condescension.
Something about it made her blood boil.
“As am I.” Isla gestured down to her own maroon garb. “I’d like to speak with him.”
“Many dames would like an audience with the Alpha. However, the Hunt is not the—”
Isla’s jaw went slack, then she sneered. “I’m not ’some dame’.”
“Then who are you?” he questioned snobbishly.
“Isla of Io.”
Both of them moved their heads to find Kai, having answered for Isla, advancing towards them, his small smile now a full grin. He locked eyes with his destined mate—and co-conspirator against Fate—amusement tangling with her aggression and breeding smugness. “Daughter of Imperial Beta Malakai.” He kept their gaze until he halted a couple feet away, then he glanced at his confidant. “Can we have a minute, Ezekiel?”
The man—Ezekiel—looked stunned. His eyes darted between the two of them, before raking over Isla, sizing her up. He turned to Kai. “With all due respect, Alpha, but Imperial Beta’s daughter or not, this isn’t—”
“Beta—step down,” Kai commanded in a growl. It was the most authoritative Isla’d had the opportunity to see him be, at least, aloud. The timbre of his voice made her shudder. “We need a few minutes. Go relay my message to the Council.”
With a clench of his jaw before he eased his expression, the Beta bowed his head. “Yes, Alpha.” The words sounded almost out of place in his mouth, seemingly decades Kai’s senior. He shot another dagger-filled stare at Isla before leaving, which she reflexively returned.
There was a pensive frown on Kai’s face as he saw him off, before his eyes scanned the length of the Wall, followed the overcast clouds in the sky. Isla fought the nagging urge to ask if everything was okay—the smallest bit of concern and the heightened curiosity following the eavesdropped conversation, a potent duo—but refrained, knowing it wasn’t her place.
And speaking of her place. . .
“You let me speak to a Beta like that?” she seethed, drawing Kai’s attention back down to her. “I was so out of line; you should’ve said something!”
Kai’s smile returned. “I was distracted,” he said plainly. “You’re very attractive when you’re angry.”
Isla ran her tongue along her teeth. Not this shit again.
She steeled herself, refusing to be swayed by the beguilement. “Were you too distracted last night to tell me you’d also be in the Hunt?”
Kai sucked in a breath. “Honestly?” Her glower in return elicited a soft chuckle. “I didn’t tell anyone.”
“So I’m just anyone?”
“So we’ve chosen.”
“You don’t think I deserved to know?”
“Are you now entitled to all of my secrets?”
“Just the ones that put my life at risk,” she finished their rapid-fire wits with a snap, before squeezing her eyes shut and shaking her head. “Goddess, I can barely think when I’m near you. What’s going to happen in there?”
“You seem to be mouthing off pretty well right now.”
She looked at him hopelessly. “This isn’t a joke.”
“I never said that it was.” Kai let out a long exhale. “You were dealing with a lot last night; I didn’t see a need to add to it.”
“You don’t know what I can handle,” she reminded him. “You don’t know me.”
Kai folded his arms, and Isla tried to ignore the way his muscles looked beneath the silks. “Do you want to back out?”
“What?” The question took her aback. “Of course not. I can’t.”
“And neither can I,” he echoed. “The Wilds are expansive, and the beasts are plenty. You stay on your side of the wood; I’ll stay on mine. It’ll all be fine.” A subtle grin taking his face, he began to lightly stretch his arms. “I shouldn’t be long anyway. I hear there’s a wager going around in my favor.”
Isla’s face went flat.
So Sebastian’s betting was really going around. Only he could make such a hallowed tradition into a gamble.
Indignant to counter his arrogance, Isla crossed her own arms across her chest and lifted her head. “Yes, well—I guess, everyone will be in for a surprise when I’m the one who ends up on top.”
Kai laughed again as he began fixing the wrappings along his forearms. “I’ve admittedly dreamt of a few situations where that happens,” He looked up to meet her gaze. “and this isn’t one of them.”
She’d walked straight into that one.
Isla clenched her teeth as she worked to fight away the images his insinuation had conjured. Images that had flashed in her mind while she’d been splayed across her bed with her hand between her thighs. As much as she’d tried to banish his presence from her fantasies, his touch, though unknown to her, had been the one she craved and the only one her body would submit to, tangible or not.
She’d never tell him it was his phantom fingers digging into her hips and his name that had unintentionally escaped her mouth in a breath once she’d finally reached her blissful release.
From the reminder of her late night throes of ecstasy, her body thrummed, and she could tell from the mirth in his eyes that Kai could sense it.
She glared, quashing the feelings with a quickness that she impressed herself with. “You have the power of a deity on your side. You’re not nearly as charming as you think you are.”
With those as her parting words, she turned to walk away, but after a few feet between them, Kai called out to her.
She spun back, expression stone. “Yes?”
His own face was somber. “Be careful out there.”
Isla swallowed and nodded as a form of returning the sentiment. She twisted to continue back, but before she moved, she threw over her shoulder, not to be rude, but because it was frank and necessary for her survival, “Stay out of my way.”
| ☽ |
As the sun finally set and the Moon Goddess raised from her slumber, the moment all had been anticipating was imminent. The Hunters said their final goodbyes to those that they knew in attendance, and Isla was lucky that the small group of people she was closest to were all able to be with her. Adrien and the Imperial Alpha had been the first to wish her well, before going to see off the others.
Isla remained with her father, who stood in front of her with his hands on her shoulders, his green eyes—that only Sebastian had inherited—glassy. That was enough for Isla to clue in on his emotion. The hulking Beta wasn’t about to break down in tears in front of his subordinates, even if he was sending his only daughter sailing off into perilous waters.
“Your mother would be so proud of you,” he said, voice gruff.
Isla smiled softly, becoming very aware of that hollow place in her heart that had lingered since they’d lost her. She could only imagine how her father felt. All he had now was her, Sebastian, and the unsettling aura of a mate departed.
She placed her hand over his. “I know.”
Sebastian came over and slung an arm around her, completing the family union. He gave her a shake. “Come on, big money, Pudge.”
Their father eyed him skeptically, to which his oldest child responded to with a pseudo-angelic grin.
As the moon reached its peak, the temporary farewells came to a close, and the Hunters were lined facing the Gate. Isla could hear her blood rushing in her ears, body buzzing, as the call came to shift.
Silks billowed to the ground, and the shifters began their transformations all in one motion, the faintest glow of eyes and ink among raising fur, drawn claws, elongating teeth, and bending spines. Isla embraced her wolf in full, feeling its power surging as she molded into an apex predator. Stronger, faster. Her senses heightened. Instincts sharpened.
She came down on all fours, her tawny coat underlit by the near white-blue smolder where her lumerosi once lay in her human form. The touch was subtle, all wolves possessing the glow, shown also in their eyes, a reflection of the iridescence cast down upon them by the Goddess who’d given them life. Great power flowed through their veins, and it had been bestowed by her.
When Isla turned her head, she found Kai further down the line. He was much bigger than everyone else, as expected, his coat a shadowy black laced with the blood-red sheen where his tattoos once lay. That, in combination with the menacing hue in his eyes, was the true signaling of an Alpha.
As she looked at him now, gone were her human desires. Instead, there was a sense of solidarity. Not possessiveness, but. . . protectiveness. Like even if a terrible fate befell him behind the Wall and her soul and physical body remained intact due to their rebellion, she’d still want to tear apart the world in retribution.
She didn’t feel passion. She felt a duty. Like she was meant to do right by him in all senses. She wondered if he felt the same.
The sound of clanging metal took Isla out of her contemplations of the perplexities within her untapped mating bond. She followed the sound, turning to find everyone had shifted, except for one. The Trainee from Tethys that she’d been talking to at the feast hadn’t changed. Under the silks that he’d stripped, he’d worn battle leathers. A Warrior brought him a helmet and a blade on a hilt, and Isla realized that the man was unable to shift, or at least unable to complete one. He was one of the few who attempted to go into the Wilds without a wolf.
Most of them never made it out.
A loud howl rung in the air, bellowed from the maw of the Imperial Alpha, who along with his Beta, had shifted. Isla’s father followed it with his own call, and the Hunters echoed in response.
With the signal, the Gate’s heavy lock was wrenched open, breaking its ward of protection. It took several Warriors to pry it, the metal groaning, almost as a warning not to enter—but this was the Hunt.
And with one more roar from their leader, the pack of wolves descended into darkness.