VI. THE TRAINEE
The Bak were solitary predators—Isla had that in mind as her paws padded along the murky terrain of the Wilds. They did not dwell near the Gate or drift close to the Wall. They resided deep in their forest, blending in with the dead thickets and ever-present fog, their scent shrouded by a pungent vapor that seemed to emit from the ground in wheezes everywhere she turned.
No amount of training, not a single novel-length tale, could’ve prepared her for what the Hunt was truly made of. Not for the time, not for the effort, not for the sheer force of willpower she’d need just to keep her head on straight. Her senses were so overtaken by the new world around her—besieged by foreign sights and sounds and smells, by the heaviness of the atmosphere and the unfamiliar texture of the earth—that she’d felt blind the second she entered. Like a newborn pup unable to walk or think or exist without assistance or guidance, but she had to learn if she was to survive.
In time, she adjusted—to the sinking earth and the dizzying odor and the piercing shrieks of some bird-like creature that taunted her with its incessantness—but how much time, she couldn’t tell.
Hours, days, weeks—they didn’t exist in the Hunt. At least, not to those who were in it.
Mornings and nights shared the same absent sky, grayness eternal, driven by the heavy hang of overgrown forest or, some may have argued, a lingering essence of dark, destructive magic. Isla didn’t know when she’d last seen true sunlight, let alone her family, friends, civilization, or any of her fellow Hunters—including her mate. Kai had stayed out of her way, as she’d asked—or maybe just by happenstance.
As he’d said in his reassurance before they parted, the Wilds were expansive, and as a result, all of the wolves seemed to have spread far across the treacherous wood. She’d been alone with nothing but a lingering sense of doom and her thoughts for Goddess knew how long. And though the beasts were plenty, they weren’t the easiest to track, so it seemed the spinning wheel would never end. She’d been cursed to roam the forest forever.
Or maybe not.
Isla’s ears pricked at a rustle in the nearby trees.
There wasn’t much happening in the desolate woodland, save the obnoxious birds and the hissing soil, barely ever even a gust of wind. The stillness added to its eeriness, and also heightened the tension at slightest hint of movement.
This had to be it.
Isla turned in the sound’s direction, adrenaline surging, and crouched, teeth bared in a silent snarl. As she stalked along the forest floor, repeating the mantras of how to deal with the beast quickly and efficiently in her head, she tried to catch a scent. Need this one somehow evade her, she’d at least have a better chance to track another. But the aroma she caught—though nearly indiscernible, so incredibly faint and so mixed with the ground’s almost-sulfuric odor—was familiar.
She rose from her bend, snout high in the air, and sniffed again. Even without a visual, her notion was confirmed. Her eyes were wide as she deftly pressed through the decomposing shrubbery, stopping just before reaching a clearing. She had to rein in her excitement as her eyes fell upon a man—but not just any man.
A man with auburn hair beneath a helmet that mirrored his leathers and face in its coating of grime. A man with a blade gripped tight in his hand and a look of intensity in his tired, chestnut eyes.
The Trainee from Tethys.
His back was to her as he crept forward, his steps heavy yet delicate across the forest floor. His gaze was focused on the dirt beneath him, searching, as his thick boots sunk into the muck.
Isla couldn’t decide what emotion to feel—disbelief, elation, confusion. He was alive, that’s what mattered. One of the few who’d attempted this tribulation unable to shift completely, and during this unknown length of time, he’d survived.
She may have only known him through the pieces she’d gathered at the feast—and she’d have to remember to eventually catch his name—but he suddenly felt like her greatest friend and served as a reminder of a life outside of this, what felt like, eternal damnation.
The Trainee abruptly came to a halt in his path, something on the ground catching his attention. As he bent to it, resting his arm on his knee, stabbing his blade into the dirt to stabilize himself, Isla took the chance to inch closer. She watched as he dipped his fingers into the mud and pulled out a sphere. The orb was coated in grime and appeared to have rot from its crater-like edges. He let go of his sword’s hilt and tried to clean along it with his fingers.
Isla dared move in even closer, any sense of a hunting ability gone out the window, as she carelessly stirred the foliage.
The Trainee jolted and whooshed around, eyes bright as he took his sword in his hand. He’d spun directly to Isla’s location and lifted the weapon in front of him, firm and ready to strike. “Come out, bastard!”
Isla wasn’t sure if it was a sign of her declining mental state that she’d found his threats amusing. She laughed to herself, before slipping out of the bushes.
Upon the sight of her, shock flashed across the Trainee’s face, and his grip loosened. He was silent, eyes darting around her wolf’s features frantically. She waited on edge for him to say something, eager to finally engage in some form of interaction.
Though she wasn’t expecting the first words she’d heard in, likely days, to be, “Who are you?”
“You don’t remember me?” Isla projected, with a little bit of levity.
But as he continued to stare at her—hard, yet blank—she realized the communication wasn’t landing. His inability to finish his shift may have been the reason.
Against what some would declare good judgement, Isla, desperate for some camaraderie, called back her wolf. In a dimming of light and pain she was accustomed to, bones straightened, muscles tightened, claws, hairs, and teeth retracted, until she’d returned to her natural state. Her limbs felt weak and wobbly, almost unfamiliar, typical when one remained in a shift for whatever extended length of time that she had.
“Oh, wow.” The Trainee twisted his head away from her and looked up into the canopies. “It’s you.”
So he did remember her.
Taken back by his surprise, fearing something had happened, she glanced down at her bare body. Though slightly worse for wear, covered in filth and some faint scratches from battling through thorny thickets, there wasn’t anything horribly alarming.
She gazed back up at him, brushing her wild, dirtied blonde hair from her face. “Something wrong?”
“No.” The Trainee cleared his throat, eyes daring one more glance before shooting up again. “This, uh, this just isn’t how I imagined seeing you naked.”
Immediately after the sentence had left his mouth, regret mixed with the redness peeking through the mud on his face.
Isla pursed her lips to hold back too big of a grin.
With most of those in Io being able to complete their shifts, nudity was essentially inevitable and quite common. Clothing didn’t linger after transformations—her own shredded undergarments from beneath her robe probably still sat in the field in front of the Gate, waiting for her to return—so it wasn’t necessarily a big deal. But for other Packs, for other wolves, where partial shifts or no shifting at all was most prevalent, that wouldn’t be the case, and thus, may have been. . . startling.
Isla smirked at the man who’d seemed like such a gentleman when they’d met. “You’ve imagined seeing me naked?”
His response was a garbled mess, an action that quickly reminded her of his fumbling with Adrien during his wonderment at the Heir. Back then, it had dwindled her attraction to him, but now, she found it slightly endearing.
But as much as she would’ve loved to continue toying with him, they were in the middle of wood full of monsters whose only driving force was slaughter.
She took a few steps back into the bushes where she’d emerged, hiding everything but her head and shoulders behind them. “Better?”
The Trainee spared another quick look over, and his shoulders relaxed. “You don’t have to—but if you want to—it’s really—I didn’t mean—” He sure had a knack for getting tongue-tied.
“It’s nice to see you too,” she called with a laugh, pausing for a moment to tease out any foreign clamor to ensure they were safe before she ushered in a conversation. “Have you crossed any others?”
The Trainee coughed, settling out of his bumbling, and shook his head. “No, you’re the first I’ve seen.”
“Lucky you.” She couldn’t resist the teasing again. “And I’m assuming you haven’t encountered a beast.”
“Not a one.”
“Neither have I.” Another pause. She lifted her head for a quick sniff. No changes—they were still alone. “What were you looking at before I showed up? That thing you pulled out of the ground.”
“Oh, the marker?” he said, as if she’d know exactly what he meant. He paced backwards to pick it up again.
He held the ball up close to his face and examined it from all angles. “A sign that we have an incredibly long way back to the Gate.” Upon Isla’s crestfallen look followed by a perplexed stare, he elaborated—though, not nearly enough. “We’re on the Ares Pass.”
Isla blinked. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Because you’re not supposed to.” He tossed the ball up and down in his hand, proud of himself and hit by a wave of confidence. “It’s the only road in the Realm that directly connects two Packs together—or it was. I can’t even believe we found it.”
Elusive roads she wasn’t supposed to know about. . . that was one way to catch her attention.
This really wasn’t the best time to play inquisitor, but she was drawn in now and all-too-enamored with the ability to be in someone’s company. She was finding that she was right in her original assumptions about the Trainee at the feast. Beneath the stumbling speech, he definitely proved to have some interesting layers and potential stories.
“I still have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Phobos,” The Trainee gestured his hand along the decimated ground on which they stood, before waving further out into the clearing. “and Deimos. This pass goes straight into Mavec, so we’re beyond Deimos’s borders with Callisto, and at least far enough to make a straight shot to its royal city.”
At the mention of his Pack, Isla couldn’t stop her pliant mind from travelling to her mate.
She wondered if Kai had already conquered his beast and exited the Wilds. If he was safe. She could picture him already back outside of the Gate being lauded with praises, a massive grin on that annoyingly handsome face of his. A quip waiting on his tongue, ready for her as their forever-parting words before she returned to Io and he, back to Deimos. Back to that royal city.
So she’d heard, Mavec rivaled her Pack’s own capital in its beauty, in its culture and spirit of its people. If it weren’t for many factors—the biggest now being that it was the residence of the man she intended to steer clear of for the rest of her life—she would’ve loved to see it one day.
Isla brought her attention back to the Trainee. The Pass seemed innocent enough. “Why can’t I know about it?”
“It’s not just you. It’s something the Hierarchy wants buried from everyone.”
Her eyebrows practically shot up to her hairline.
The Hierarchy definitely had its mysteries, she knew, far above her jurisdiction. Many secrets that would never pass her eyes or ears. Although within an Imperial family, she was entitled to absolutely nothing. But what could this random Trainee—from Tethys of all places—have been privy to that she wasn’t?
“Then how do you know about it?” she asked, not meaning to sound as haughty as she did.
“I read the right books and know the right people.” He snickered. “Or the wrong people, depending on who you ask.”
Another look of pride. Another puzzled stare. More attempts at explanation.
“Back before the decimation, the Alphas of Phobos and Deimos were brothers.”
One bloodline running two Packs—it was unheard of. “They were?”
The Trainee nodded. “They secretly made this pass to connect their people and bring their lands together, while already two of the more powerful regions on the continent by themselves. You can imagine how that went over with the reigning Imperial Alpha, a sudden budding empire, challengers. ”
“Not well?” she offered. It didn’t take a genius to know the highest power and influence of the Realm was supposed to reside within Io and with its Alpha—in the past, during the present, and in the future. Anything that threatened that hierarchy was to be “dealt with”. . . the reason for most Imperial secrets.
“No, definitely not well.” The Trainee shifted on his feet, hesitating before speaking slowly. “There’s a lot of. . . darkness in the pasts of Deimos and Io. A lot of bad blood. It runs deep.”
Darkness and bad blood. . . another way to pique her curiosity.
Though, she would’ve had far less unease entangled with her intrigue if he were speaking of some other Packs. Not her own and the one, not just home of, but led by, her destined mate.
The forest seemed to take on a new eeriness, as if responding to his claims. Isla paused, listening again to make sure they were safe. Not just from Bak, but from other listening ears.
“Even now?” She hoped for an answer that would alleviate the sense of foreboding.
She didn’t get it.
“Definitely now.” His voice was low. “Especially after everything that just happened.”
Everything that just happened? “You mean with the Alpha?”
The Trainee swallowed and went quiet. It felt as if hours had gone by before he finished mulling something over and spoke again. “I saw you two talking before the Hunt. I’d be careful if I were you.”
Isla felt her heart take on an unsteady rhythm. This was certainly not where she’d expected things to go when she spooked the Trainee for a talk. “Why?”
“You’re of Io and the Imperial Beta’s daughter,” he said, as if it were obvious. “He’s the Alpha of Deimos.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Have you not listened to anything I’ve said?”
“All I’ve heard is random history and you parlaying around what you actually want tell me.”
“We can talk about it when we’re out of the Wilds.” The Trainee pocketed the marker and adjusted his hold on his weapon with a sigh. “Sometimes I swear the Packs are still connected.”
“Deimos and Phobos?” Isla clarified.
The Trainee nodded, eyes shifting through the trees again. “There’s too much that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Like what?” Isla breathed. "You don't make any sense."
“We’ll talk when we’re out of here.” He turned to head off in another direction. “See you on the other side.”
Isla huffed and rolled her eyes. The man couldn’t handle his tongue after seeing her nude, but seemed to be just fine when being vague and ominous.
As she prepared herself to shift again, an idea struck.
She stopped and threw up a hand. “Wait!” The Trainee spun back around, and she waved him over. “Come on, we’ll work together and get out of this hell faster.”
“I don’t need help.” His tone took on a sourness, assuming she was offering her aid due to his supposed “incapacities”.
How could she explain she was just sick of wandering without company, their conversation had put her even more on edge, and part of her needed to make sure he made it out alive?
“I don’t doubt it, but nothing says that the Hunt must be done alone, as long as we each draw our kill. We’re wolves. We work best as a pack.”
The Trainee narrowed his eyes, though in good-spirit, and began moving closer. “I’m going to hold fast in my belief that you aren’t patronizing me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Isla smiled, eyes taking their glow as she began to shift.
But then everything was agony.
She cried out at daggers swiped at her side, breaking skin and drawing blood, as something sent her soaring across the clearing. Her body thrashed into a tree, head slamming, bones screaming, teeth rattling, and the drying bark splintering beneath her on the impact. For a moment, her mind went dark.
She came to in a heap on the dirt, ears ringing, as she slowly peeled open her eyes. Through the slits, her vision cleared enough to find the Trainee across from the most horrifying being she’d ever seen.
The creature appeared as if it was molded from the ground it stood on, murky and dark with what seemed like a shadow-like vapor emanating from its pores. Its sparse hair sprouted from skin taut over thick muscle, so dry that it looked like it could crack open with any movement. Two powerful haunches mirrored solid arms in their size, the beast’s two bulky halves hunched at its narrower middle. Its black claws were so long that they dragged in the dirt, so sharp that they could’ve cut her insides out clean if it had taken a better shot at her.
But the most unsettling thing about the beast wasn’t its ginormous build, its dark aura, or the weapons of its fingertips. It was how, in her gradual return to sense, with its features so akin to one of their own, she’d thought it was just a large wolf. It appeared as if it were someone demonized halfway through a shift.
She couldn’t gather how she hadn’t even felt it approaching.
The Trainee glanced over at her awakening with a heaved sigh of relief. He swung his sword at the Bak as it tried to lunge for him. “Are you o—behind you!”
Isla barely had time to roll out of the way from another massive scythe-like paw heading straight for her neck, the very tip leaving a thin slash on her collarbone.
Her eyes flashed as she got to her knees and met the bright red glower of a second beast.