VII. THE HUNT
It didn't make any sense.
The Bak are solitary.
The Bak dwell alone.
Isla’s heart pounded so hard she thought it would break straight through her rib cage. So loud that she could barely hear herself think.
Bak are solitary.
Bak dwell alone.
The beast’s roar was so powerful it had her falling back, dirt embedding underneath her fingernails as she braced herself upright.
They are solitary.
They dwell alone.
It flashed its jagged razors for teeth. Not of a wolf, but something more menacing entirely. Crafted expertly to rip to shreds. To devour.
It was primed to kill.
But she didn’t have the time to ponder how implausible it was. She was looking her death in the eye.
Isla rolled behind the tree at her side to cover her through her shift, the painful repetitions of transformation after transformation within minutes proving their worth as she gripped her wolf in seconds. She pushed away the nagging pain of the beast’s first attack. She had to.
The moment she came down on all fours, daggers pierced the bark just above her head, inches away from ending her life.
The hit rocketed up the rickety husk, raining a cascade of dead branches. Isla jumped away from them and careened around the timber to meet the beast on the opposite side.
And then she squared herself off against her opponent.
Oh Goddess. . .
Even with the larger build of her shifted form, the Bak was still at least twice her size.
Massive. Dumb as shit.
Isla had to hope at least that fact still rang true.
Keep it in front of you.
She crouched low to the ground with a snarl, brandishing her own canines and poising herself to strike with the slightest motion.
The Bak would move first. She knew it. . .
She knew it.
It had to.
With another ear-shattering roar, the beast hurdled forward.
Isla lurched out of the way, paws sliding in the mud as she twisted to sink her teeth into its leg. The flesh tasted acrid. She still bit harder and pulled. A gash was left in the wake of her attack. The piece stolen from the horror falling from her maw as blood, black as night, oozed from its injury. The beast reared with a howl.
She shouldn’t have celebrated the minor victory.
The creature whipped around, using its arm as a wrecking ball. A yip escaped Isla’s mouth at the heavy contact, and a searing pain ricocheted through her spine when she became reacquainted with the tree. Now experiencing its third knock, it came down with a loud crack and a crash. Another close call as it narrowly missed crushing her leg.
She had to think fast.
Hours of training had gone into this moment—days, months, years—all to get this done quickly and efficiently. The longer she fought, the more injury she sustained, the more difficult it would become to maintain her greatest asset and defense. In a battle of endurance, the hulking monster would win.
Go for the legs.
She had to undercut it.
Seeing an opportunity and devising a, what could be shoddy, plan, she bounded to the opposite side of the tree and dipped. She hoped her dirtied fur did enough to mask her within the crusted brown entanglements. The monster released a breath through its snout, its eyes darting as it sought her form.
A little closer.
The beast took a few steps forward, slashing its claws over the branches, just missing Isla with yet another hit. She had to move now.
With a silent prayer, Isla vaulted herself out of the thickets and slammed her body into the Bak’s lower half. As it teetered off balance, its howl almost a wail, she launched herself at its upper half. Both of them went down with a thud that shook the earth around them.
As she forced her paws into its meaty upper arms, keeping its claws as much at bay as she could, it thrashed. Neck lurching, teeth gnashing, rabid. It wanted her face. It wanted death.
She yelped as it landed a hit, cutting deep into her hind leg. The warmth of blood trickled into her fur, staining the dirty yellow a deep crimson. But she pushed beyond the pain.
It won’t stop fighting until you’re dead. . .
Just as it had almost freed from her grip, she slammed her paw to its face and jarred it away. Her teeth sank deep into its thick neck, taking away its howls as she ripped out its throat. Liquid flooded from the space, the darkness bathing the earth.
Or it is.
Isla remained atop the beast until all of its fight had gone. Until she saw the light leave its eyes. Until it stared blankly into the abyss it called home.
When that rapturous moment came, she let its bitter flesh drop from her jaws. Her breath came out in pants as she stumbled from her perch.
For a moment, all she could do was stare. And wait. And wait. And wait. For that fire to reignite. For the claw to swipe. For that roar to pierce her soul.
But none of it came.
It was dead. It was really dead.
She’d actually done it.
But before she could get too enthusiastic, her adrenaline began its decrescendo and her ailments made themselves well-known. Her body ached, and the gash in her leg hurt like a bitch. She lapped at it, hoping to relieve some of the sting. Time would heal it, but for now, it would be a pain in the ass getting back to the Gate.
She wasn’t done yet. . . and neither was—
Isla whipped around and scoured her surroundings for the Trainee. The woods were silent, and he was nowhere in sight.
No. No, no, no, she agonized as she trotted forward. Her eyes continued their pursuit, preparing to come upon the worst—the monster hovering over the corpse of her ally. Its face dug in to his chest.
Air escaped from her lungs in a whoosh when she saw him.
The Trainee had his sword positioned above his Bak’s remains, prepared to remove one of its claws. That, along with a tooth would serve as their proof, and be joined with their Hunter’s robes in the Warrior Galley of their respective Pack Halls for all to see.
She’d never been so happy to be wrong.
The Trainee had lost his helmet and was cradling his shoulder. Blood leaked between his fingers, and he was favoring his right leg. So it seemed he’d also sustained his fair share of injuries. This was going to be a nightmare journey for both of them.
It had to have all just been an unfortunate coincidence—the two Baks—or maybe a gift from the Goddess to allow them both to get through the task together.
Whatever it was, the hard part was over.
The Trainee felt her presence and turned his head. Seeing her snout coated in blood must’ve been a glorious sight as he beamed and lifted his sword. He let out a howl, not as deep and resounding as an actual wolf, but perfect either way. Isla called back out to him, giving a little lift of her front legs. It was going to be a hellish feat getting back to the Gate, but at least they were in good spirits.
As Isla jogged back to her prize, the paranoid part of her brain was half-expecting the beast to be missing. Somewhere upright and ready to attack. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. It was by the fallen tree, right where she’d left it. Very dead and very ready for her to extract her trophies.
But as she dipped her head to its long nail, teeth ready to grab hold, she froze and cocked her head to examine its face.
Its skull was shifted at a different angle than she’d left it. Or maybe not, she wasn’t sure. Maybe she was recalling it wrong, or maybe hadn’t realized she’d hit it as she stumbled off. Maybe there had just been a rumble of the ground.
Cautiously, she tapped a paw against its cheek. Nothing. Still very dead.
Nevertheless, her stomach went watery.
Slowly, Isla retracted back and twisted her head to scan the woods.
Her blood ran cold.
Amongst the trees. Watching her. Waiting. . .
Four of them.
Two Bak, side by side. Working together.
They’re solitary. Dwell alone.
Isla had no idea what the fuck was happening, but she knew her odds against two of the creatures in her current state. She needed to run. . . and if her instincts were correct, so did the Trainee.
Her next moves went by in a blur as she twisted to the sky and ripped a howl so loud she hoped to the Goddess that they could hear in Callisto. Then she was gone, so fast she didn’t even know if the Bak had started to pursue her.
With the wolfish sense he did have, the Trainee picked up on her call and was already up on his feet. Little did he know, a couple meters behind him, Isla’s suspicions were confirmed. Another set of red eyes.
There were no more coincidences. They were being ambushed. Hunters hunted.
They both darted in a flash, Isla’s injured leg hampering her enough to even their speeds. As they powered through the dead forest, hearing the roars and heavy steps of the Bak behind them, Isla howled. She howled. And howled. And howled until she got dizzy.
Someone had to hear her. Someone had to call back. Someone. Anyone. If they had any hope in getting out of this alive, not only did they need to sprint, they needed any type of back up they could get.
The Trainee hissed as he began to lose steam. Decisions had to be made—quickly.
Isla could let him drop off and keep running, likely saving herself as the Bak had their fill. The guilt would gnaw at her stomach until the end of time, but she’d be alive. What an existence.
Or she could turn and fight, hope to the Goddess that she could go three-on-one successfully. The Trainee would get more distance, maybe find some help, and then she’d take off too. If she was still standing.
For the smallest moment, she thought beyond herself, beyond him. The Trainee had a family. No mate, but a mother and father that loved him. A sister who’d just had her own child. He was a son, an uncle, a brother, a friend. He wanted to be a Warrior, despite all of the odds against him.
And if she had any say, he was going to be.
In a split second, she threw herself into a stop that hurt like hell.
The Trainee noticed quickly and did so himself. “What are you doing? We have to go!”
Isla growled at him in response, and his face fell in shock as he understood. She nodded then turned, snarl ready on her face for the predators to come barging through the brush at any moment.
If Fate let her get through this she’d do exactly as the Goddess pleased. Take Kai as her mate. Upend her life. Leave her family. Move to Deimos. Become its Luna. Locked in a life she never wanted with a man she didn’t love. She’d do it all.
Just let us get through this.
She jumped when she felt a presence beside her, and she turned to find the Trainee standing with his sword at the ready.
There wasn’t even time for her to protest. Hell came down upon them quickly.
It was all a melee of teeth and claws and metal. Isla and the Trainee were back to tail, making sure to keep the beasts in front of them at all times, until Isla began using the environment to her advantage. She ducked through trees. Agilely maneuvered under hits. Camouflaged within cracked limbs.
Eventually she was able to pick one of them off—a smaller, weaker one, miraculously—clamping down on its neck and tearing it apart, but the triumph had taken a toll on her body. She was becoming so exhausted, she wasn’t sure she could maintain her shift much longer.
If she went down, this was all for nothing. The two remaining beasts would team up and take the Trainee out in seconds. They’d both be dead.
She had to draw them apart. Give him any type of chance.
Making sure she had one of the creature’s attentions, she mad-dashed further into the forest.
Inches, feet, yards—she wasn’t sure how far she’d gotten before the beast got her legs out from under her. Before it had her pinned to the ground, hovered over her body, its putrid breath flooding her senses, its ravenous eyes all she could see.
It was going to devour her right there on the dirt. Leave her a shell, or rid her from this world completely. Her heart felt like it had stopped beating in its anticipation of its erasure. The will of her wolf fading as her systems felt their collapse.
Isla squeezed her eyes closed as the beast inched closer and lifted its paw. She thanked the Goddess for the life she’d lived and hoped her goodbye would carry the air to her family.
But the coldness she felt was not death. It was a talon tracing along her ear, over her markings.
It was. . . toying with her. The beasts weren’t known to play with their food.
As a last ditch effort, she mustered whatever energy she could to break free. It was all to no avail. She recoiled as the Bak gave one more roar, and then it descended. She snapped her eyes closed again.
But then all she felt was air.
A rush of air, and a lightness as the beast’s body was knocked off of her.
Isla struggled to get to her paws and then to stay upright as she caught a swipe of crimson-laced shadow attached to the Bak’s back, dug in to its neck. The monster flailed—ramming itself into the trees, through the bushes, anything to free itself—before collapsing to the ground.
Then she watched in slight awe as Kai locked his jaws around the beast’s neck again.
Only when he was sure that the Bak was dead, did he look up at Isla. His coat was matted with blood and dirt, she wasn’t sure which part of the former was his own. She didn’t think she’d ever been—or would ever be—so happy to see him.
“Are you hurt?” he projected through a link, leftover aggression from his battle mingling with the concern in his tone. He ran over and stalked around her being in a circle, searching, almost reminding Isla of how he’d been in the gardens explaining their bond. She hadn’t realized his wolf was so much bigger than hers when they’d been so far away in front of the Gate.
Isla stood tall. “Not badly.”
“Isla.” Kai stopped in front of her and locked their eyes, doubt tangling in his words. To most, the stare of an Alpha would’ve been intimidating—especially when he was in his greatest form—but to Isla there was a strange comfort.
“Our rules apply when we’re like this. Don’t get too close,” she told him, before something dawned on her. She turned and started back through the woods. “We need to get back and help him!”
“Isla! Fucking hell. You’re hurt!” Kai sprinted after her and easily caught up. “Who are you talking about?”
Isla willed through her injuries and pushed even harder. “The Hunter from Tethys.”
“The one who can’t shift? He’s alive?”
“I really hope so.”
When the two wolves arrived at the most recent battleground, where Isla’s second dead Bak lay, the Trainee was nowhere to be found.
Kai bent and sniffed the carcass. “This was your kill?”
“Yes,” Isla answered dispassionately, trying to ignore the panic gripping her heart.
He wasn’t dead. She knew it. He couldn’t be dead.
She closed her eyes and focused on her senses, then heard it. The faintest sound of clanging metal. As she took off again, Kai grumbled behind her.
When she finally came upon the Trainee in another clearing, she nearly fell over. He wasn’t just trying to fend off one Bak, but two.
What the hell?
“There’s two of them?”
You have no idea, Isla thought to herself, while trying to determine her next move of attack.
But before she could even move a step, the Trainee’s eyes fell upon her. His face lit up, even amongst the battle, but his features dropped promptly when his gaze shifted to Kai. Shock overtook him at the sight of the Alpha. It stilled him just for the smallest moment.
And that time was all one of the Bak needed to take him in its jaws.
The Trainee let out a blood-curdling scream as razors buried deep into his flesh. But it didn’t deliver a final blow. It didn’t kill him. It clamped down on the Trainee tighter and ran away, leaving the second with nothing to do but turn to its new prey.
Isla’s eyes darted frantically, going through the options as quickly as her mind could still function.
“Get him!” she called to Kai as she advanced a few steps towards the beast approaching. He was faster. He could catch them. “Go help him! I have this!”
But then Isla saw it in the second she risked a glance. It was obvious in his glower and the menace of his snarl at the creature that was viewing her as its next meal.
Fate had snaked her way in. She’d intercepted their communication. Instead, relaying her own whisper. A reminder of a promise never made, and thus one to never be broken. Of where their loyalties lied.
Kai made his decision in few heartbeats, lunging for the beast in front of her and unleashing hell upon the creature who dare threaten his mate.
Isla didn’t stay to hear its pathetic wails as it was torn to bits. The second she was free, she took off in the direction the Trainee had been taken.
She ran as hard as she could, joints groaning, paws aching, as she treaded the earth at speeds she’d never known herself capable, even uninjured. Blood was run along the soil, a mix of the Trainee’s and the beast who’d apprehended him.
He still had his sword in his hand. There was a chance.
But then she heard a piercing howl. Loud and pained. Then that tug, the pull. That sense of duty. Her mate needed her.
Isla couldn’t stop her paws from slowing to a stop as she looked between her two paths. If it were any other person, if it were any other Alpha, she wouldn’t have paused. She would’ve had faith that he could hold his own. That it was just an unfortunate strike from which he would recover. But he—
Isla let out a cry as daggers sank into her side.
And then everything was cold.