VIII. THE TRUTH
Cold and dark—everything was cold and dark and numb. Isla felt disconnected, detached, like she was floating. On air. On nothing.
Between it all, the world went by in flashes.
“This looks bad.”
“Is she even still alive?”
“I hope so.”
“Tell the Alpha we found her.”
“What do we do with her?”
“Get her back. . . pick her up. Move quick, but be careful of her arm.”
“How much further to the Gate?”
“Almost there—how is she?”
“It’s getting harder to sense her heartbeat.”
“Oh, bless the Goddess, more are back! Wait—”
“Someone call the Imperial Beta!”
“Is she alive?”
“Isla. . . Isla!”
| ☽ |
It felt as if someone had gone at Isla’s body with a sledgehammer. Like she’d been broken apart—shattered—and put back together piece-by-piece but in the incorrect way. Everything was heavy. Her head, her legs, her arms.
Her arm. Goddess, her arm hurt.
And everything was loud. So damn loud. Those birds. Those incessantly annoying—
That wasn’t birds.
Isla’s eyelids, like all else, felt like lead as she peeled them open. A light from overhead greeted her promptly, piercingly bright and making her wince. Her mouth felt like sandpaper. She groaned, a dull ache rising in her chest.
Where the hell was she?
This wasn’t the Wilds. It couldn’t have been.
The scent of sulfur, though lingering, had diminished. Breathing felt too easy—so much so that she had to check herself to keep from gasping down too much of the fresher air. And the earth didn’t sink beneath her feet.
Actually, her feet weren’t on the ground at all.
She chanced another glance upwards, squinting against the glare.
White—everything above was white, but she wasn’t dead. Death shouldn’t have felt like this. Heavy and painful.
Isla turned her head sluggishly to the side, only able to process bare minimum information, the observable details.
No, she wasn’t dead, but in a room as monochrome as the ceiling. The walls, as the rest of the area, were quite barren, save one very dull grey-cast portrait of what looked to be a lake. There was a single cabinet and a sink, both white. And then—what held her attention the longest—a window, panes painted an eggshell, that seemed to overlook miles and miles of forest. But she was sick of seeing trees, even if these ones were teeming with life, she was more evoked by the sunlight spilling through glass, casting sunflower beams across the plain tile floor.
This definitely wasn’t the Wilds.
Isla drew her head upwards to the source of the high-pitched noise she’d been hearing. It wasn’t birds, but a monitor, the machine keeping tabs on the rhythm of her heart, reassurance that she was still living. The lines of it snaked down to her chest, slipped beneath an ivory gown. She followed the cloth down to her blanket-covered legs, and then over to something that startled her.
She wasn’t alone. A man was at her bedside, sitting in one of the few items of some vibrancy. The cobalt chair was pulled up against the mattress, enough so that he was able to rest his forearms and head beside her. His face was turned away, but Isla could recognize even just his silhouette from anywhere.
Dragging over a shaky hand, she whacked Adrien across the head, maybe a little retribution for the multiple times he’d pissed her off recently. The hit was frustratingly weak, barely enough to displace his dark tresses. She followed it with a hoarse and painful, “Hey.”
Thankfully, it didn’t take much to jostle the Heir.
Adrien snapped up immediately, though still half-asleep. Lids narrow, he let out a grumble and stretched, as if he’d forgotten this wasn’t his bed back in the large Imperial estates of Io, and just. . . wherever they were.
As he scanned the subdued décor for an assailant, he skipped directly over her, for the most part, still frame.
At the rasp, Adrien’s gaze darted over, his eyes wide as if he were seeing a ghost. “Holy shit, you’re awake!”
Isla cringed at the volume.
“Not so loud. Goddess,” she chided, but the corners of her mouth still slid upwards.
“How do you feel?” Adrien didn’t miss a beat in his urgency.
How did she feel. . . a loaded question. Though in every sense, she could sum it up the same way.
“You look it.”
Isla snorted, bringing about more nagging pain with the jolt of her ribs. “Asshole.”
His intentions were not lost, judging by his smile, and she welcomed the small sense of normalcy. She wanted—needed—to relish in whatever ignorant bliss she could.
With every moment her eyes were open, every second she spent back in the realm of consciousness, her sense of reality rematerialized.
The trauma of all she’d encountered was hanging over, looming like a dark cloud ready to rain down psychological hell. The memories were locked behind her own personal gate with their beastly forms fighting hard to break free. Her protective enchantment was detachment. The false notion that those experiences in her mind had been conjured by her imagination after hearing some horror story. It wasn’t actually her who’d spent days within a nightmare, in an unending state of terror. Not her who’d stared her death in its face, not once, but twice. Not her who’d felt the empty pit of imminent oblivion. Not her who’d heard the screams of a man before he—
“Where are we?” Isla asked abruptly, jarring herself from the thoughts. The demons continued their fight.
Adrien leaned back and adjusted to sit comfortably in his seat. “One of Callisto’s infirmaries.”
It had been an unnecessary question. Besides being obvious from her observations, it was where the Hunt always led. It was rare that those who entered left the Wilds unscathed. While some Hunters only needed a quick look over after they’d emerged—with injuries that would heal quickly on their own—others required a little bit of intervention, a push in the recovery direction.
Be careful of her arm.
Isla suddenly became very aware of her left side, her arm in particular. The heaviness, the ache so persistent she’d adjusted to its existence. She found it wrapped in a plethora of bandages, propped up and immobilzed at her side. When she tried to wrench it from its holding, a twinge rocketed through to her fingers.
“Shit,” she muttered, the shot taking her breath. “What happened?”
“The Bak did a number on you. We weren’t sure if they’d be able to save it, but you’re healing now.” Adrien didn’t bother going into the gory details, and Isla was fine with it. In hindsight, she was thankful she’d blacked out.
Gritting her teeth, never one to enjoy being tied down—physically and, arguably, emotionally—she repeated the action, trying to free herself from the platform. She knew her body would protest again and bit her cheek to keep from whimpering.
“They said it would be a slower process than usual.”
“I don’t do slow.” Most of the time, she found using her body helped it heal faster—or at least that was excuse she fed to those who tried to make her rest when she was injured. “How are the others?”
Adrien sighed, knowing that any protest he’d make would fall on deaf ears. “A few are pretty bad, but they’ll make it. Everyone else is good.”
A few are pretty bad.
A loud breath, a mixture of agony and relief, fell from her lips when she was finally able to get herself loose, though it rapidly devolved into shallow pants of worry. It was a type of deep, soul-squeezing unease she’d only experienced once before, and it was when she’d heard Kai’s pained howl before everything went dark.
“The Alpha, he was with me.” She brought her arm back to her side and turned to Adrien. “Did he make it out? Is he okay? Is he hurt?”
Adrien eyebrows raised, a hint of surprise at her distress. “He’s fine. He’ll heal pretty quickly. If he wanted to prove his strength in there, he did and then some. He took down four Bak, more than his brother ever did. . . and he saved your life.”
He spoke delicately, as if trying to ease her into the reminder of what could’ve been. It all went as expected, one of her gated memories slipping a crack in her fortitude.
Isla’s mind flashed to Kai, standing before her covered in the blood of the beast who’d drawn hers, concern lacing his words, his hard gaze a bestower of comfort. There were so many questions that she’d wanted to ask him in that moment—how he’d found her, why he hadn’t howled back if he’d heard her call—but they got lost in the subsequent chaos.
The chaos. . .
“Is the Hunt over?” She ran her tongue over her chapped lips, before biting one until she tasted iron. In her heart, she knew the answer she was about to get was one she dreaded.
“There’s two others that haven’t come out yet, but you know the protocol. There’s still time.” Adrien’s tone remained quiet, like he knew exactly why she was asking.
Even if she’d been prepared for it, the confirmation felt like a punch in the gut. “A Bak took the man from Tethys.”
The victory of the beasts of her mind was imminent.
“I know, but no one’s actually seen his body. There’s a chance.”
Isla shook her head and squeezed her eyes closed, clenching her teeth so hard she thought they’d shatter. There was no more blissful illusion. The images, the sounds, the atmosphere—they all came down in a torrent. She felt the phantom tinge of the sulfuric air on her tongue. The uneven mud beneath her feet. Smelled the Bak’s breath as it descended to end her life. Heard the Trainee’s screams. The loop of it all was relentless.
She heard Adrien shift in his chair and then felt his hand on hers. “Hey.”
Her gaze was hopeless as she turned to her friend, squeezing back with whatever strength she had. “Do you still feel like you’re in there?”
“The nightmares stopped after a few weeks, but everyone’s different.”
A few weeks. She could handle a few weeks.
The two wolves jumped back from each other and snapped their heads towards the doorway where the third member of their trio strode in the room with open arms. If Isla really needed a distraction from the darkness, Sebastian was surely the epitome of one.
“Have I ever told you how much I love you?” her brother asked, leaning against the pearly cabinet and folding his arms. His smile stretched as wide as his face. “My favorite baby sister.”
“I’m your only sibling,” she replied plainly, with her own small, but tired grin. “Why are you so happy?”
Something was up, and it wasn’t just her.
“You came in second,” he bellowed, as it were obvious. Upon the flat look he received from his compatriot, he added, “And you’re awake.”
Isla’s jaw went slack. “I was second? How?”
There was no way she was in any early position out of that forest. It had been too much time, and she hadn’t even gotten out on her own accord.
“You killed two Bak, the Alpha killed four, everyone else only got one of those suckers. You were one of the last ones out, sure—and barely, you know, alive—but they ranked you second.” He adjusted the collar of his coat. “And I just made a thousand bucks.”
She couldn’t hold in her laugh, both in disbelief at the fact she’d actually accomplished all she’d wanted, and the fact that her sibling somehow always got his way.
“You have no shame.”
“What’s the point of being a brother if you can’t profit off of your sister being a badass? And I’m not a monster, it’ll go straight into your gift after you get your lumerosi.”
“Your generosity knows no bounds,” she deadpanned, but it was hard to keep a straight face.
New lumerosi, her ranking putting her in prime position to be considered to lead a team in the coming years—it was all exactly as she hoped and envisioned. Although there was a small twinge of guilt in her heart, she tried to focus on the elation.
“Where’s Dad?” she asked eagerly, wondering if he knew.
“Emergency meeting in Callisto’s Hall—Imperial Alpha, the other Pack Alphas. They’re trying to figure out if we should really be worried about whatever the hell happened out there.”
The light dimmed from Isla’s face. “Emergency meeting?” she turned to Adrien, the prime divulger of all dealings—meant to remain secret or not—that she was aware of within the Hierarchy. “Aren’t you usually there for things like that?”
Adrien shrugged. “I didn’t have to, and I wanted to make sure you were okay. I’ll get briefed on it later anyway.” Isla gave him a look. “And then of course I’ll tell you.”
She grinned as a ‘thank you’, but did not refrain from a narrow of her eyes, a reminder that she hadn’t forgotten him keeping Kai’s secret from her.
Sebastian paced over to look out the window, his eyes squinted as if he were searching for something. “Could those bastards really be evolving to be smart enough to work together?”
Isla bit the inside of her cheek. There was more issues than the fact they’d ambushed in groups, that they’d gotten within feet of each other without first battling over who would get the chance to have her as a meal. Their killer instinct wasn’t just reserved for intruders—at least it hadn’t been.
“It didn’t kill me.” Isla swallowed, trying to just dispel the detail without the barrage of mental baggage. “Two times I should’ve been dead, yet I’m here. It took its time. It. . . taunted me.” She heard Adrien move, ready to jump up, wary she was about to fall down a rabbit hole. She almost had, but steeled herself. “It didn’t make sense, and it still doesn’t.”
Her words hung in the air thickly, even for Sebastian, who didn’t have an immediate quip. They all went quiet, mulling it over. It bubbled into a tension that they typically didn’t find themselves in. A tension that was soon broken by a figure crossing the barrier into the room.
Isla didn’t even need to look to know who it was. She hadn’t expected her body’s signaling to be so. . . intense, given how depleted she’d been.
Locking eyes with Kai, dressed in plain dark clothes with a peeking of bandages beneath the neckline of his shirt, Isla was washed by an overwhelming sense of ease and comfort and peace. Like she had been in the Wilds, but amplified ten-thousand times. He didn’t send her pulse skyrocketing, he didn’t make her catch her breath, didn’t send her burning with desire—at least, not in a lustful way. She just wanted him close. Not ravaging her body, but caring for it, for her.
Another one of their jilted bond’s many facets—wistful and dreamy and romantic. It may have been what her soul longed for, but the thought made her retch. How could this man she barely knew make her feel so out of control, yet so empowered at the same time?
“Hi.” The word fell from her mouth simply, before she cleared her throat, recalling their company. “Alpha.”
“Hi.” Kai looked between the three of them quickly, making sure to lower his head to Adrien who just edged him out in the Hierarchy. “I heard you were awake. I thought I’d come check on you.”
There was a flash of perplexity on the boys’ faces, likely wondering how he knew she’d awoken and why he’d gone through the trouble to come see her in the first place. Even with the act of heroism, there was no other known attachment between the two of them. Most Alphas would take the glory and disappear to continue on with their leader duties, not visit the common girl they’d rescued.
“I’ll be departing for Mavec in the morning,” Kai added, feeding Isla’s understanding of why he’d visited and not so much theirs. “so I wanted to see how you were doing before I left.”
So this was it. The last time they’d speak. She brushed away the small pit forming in her stomach.
“I’m okay. Recovering.” Isla winced as she held up her arm for proof. “Thank you.” There was no need for the clarification that her gratitude was two-fold.
Kai nodded in his response. “Good to hear.” He looked between the boys, before meeting Isla’s eyes again. She wished she could decipher the words in them. “I’ll leave you to it then.”
“You can stay if you want to,” she blurted as he turned to leave.
The boys looked at her like she’d lost it. Maybe she had.
But if no one was going to call out her apparent discourtesy, she was just going to roll with it. She gestured between Kai and Adrien, before pointing to Sebastian. “I know you two have met, but this is—”
“Sebastian of Io, older brother of Warrior Princess,” Sebastian cut her off, so it seemed, mercifully. In his eyes, if she was delusional enough to think the Alpha required a familial introduction, who knew what else could come out of her mouth. He stepped forward to grab Kai’s forearm in the traditional Warrior greeting. “We met at the Feast.”
Isla’s face curdled at the nickname, and she hated that it brought a light to Kai’s eye.
“The man with the wager,” the Alpha chuckled before glancing her way with a knowing smirk. So it seemed, her “on top” was still just a vision of their fantasies.
Thankfully, no one understood the unspoken communication. Judging by how the boys had reacted to her relationship with Callan long ago, Kai would’ve been in for quite the treatment that his title may not have able to negate—whether they’d actually capitulated their bond or not.
Sebastian beamed, relishing in his gambling prowess. “Both of you earned me some good money. Couple of Bak killing machines.”
“We’re a good team,” Kai said, glancing at her again. His eyes flicked to her heart rate monitor that had signaled the slightest rise in her pulse.
She let out an exasperated breath. The relaxed ease was morphing, but not into that deep hunger so common around him. It was excitement. Butterflies. Seeing him so natural with her family made those naive, simple thoughts crop up again.
“Thanks for saving Pudge, by the way,” Sebastian added on, snapping her from her delusions.
“Please ignore him,” Isla groaned, tossing a glare at her brother.
“Is the meeting over?” Adrien asked, sitting up in his chair, breaking from his observational silence.
Kai’s eyebrows furrowed. “What meeting?”
“The one in the Pack Hall about the Wilds?” Adrien’s equally confused look also reflected on Sebastian and Isla’s faces. “All of the Alphas still here should’ve been invited.”
Kai’s face turned pensive as he looked off to the side. The muscle of his jaw lined his cheek. His rising agitation was palpable, before he lifted his head and said, overly dignified in an attempt to maintain his composure, “Excuse me.”
And then he left the room, another action Isla wouldn’t have needed to see to perceive.
The three members of Io all looked between each other awkwardly, before Sebastian pointed to where the Alpha had just disappeared. “Who told him you were awake?”
Knowing that divulging he’d probably sensed it would be a dead giveaway, she settled back in her bed, working hard to adjust to the annoying and bizarre feeling of ‘lacking’ and smother the fluttering that persisted in her stomach. She snickered. “Maybe he heard you screaming.”
| ☽ |
When it came to the afternoon, Isla found herself very alone.
Both Adrien and Sebastian had been beckoned to other obligations; her father was still locked in his meeting. There were nurses that had made their rounds occasionally, but other than that, Isla had been solitary with her dour thoughts. She couldn’t even get herself to sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, all she felt was suffocated, by the atmosphere, by the ghost of a Bak hovering above, by the inescapable screams of the Trainee. So she just laid there, awake and staring at the ceiling, conjuring up anything to distract herself.
At first, it had been Kai and those dammed butterflies, but then her mind meandered to Fate. And from there, her anger festered. She wasn’t supposed to get out of bed until the doctor came around to approve it, but she needed to move.
After fighting to her feet, she had to give her body a second to catch up with her. The unsteadiness after a long time in a shift was nothing compared to this. Something felt so. . . disconnected. While she waited to get her bearings, hoping she wasn’t too weak to mask her scent, she removed her monitor wires and flicked the machine off, lest it tattle her escape.
And then she was off. To where, she wasn’t sure.
The hallways of the infirmary were relatively deserted as she travelled them. Every empty room she passed was as barren in its décor and vacancy as hers had been. Occasionally, she’d spot someone or hear footsteps, forcing her to dip into one to evade discovery.
Typically she didn’t know the person or bother turning to see who the paces belonged to, but this time she had. It made her jerk in surprise. She hadn’t been sure who she’d end up crossing paths with, but it definitely wasn’t the Beta of Deimos.
Isla watched as he powered down the corridor, his heavy steps echoing. He stopped at a door that led to a stairwell, quickly glancing around, before pulling it open. Isla rose an eyebrow, a seed of distrust in her heart. She gnawed on her lip as she pondered whether the next move she wanted to make was as dumb as it sounded.
She did it anyway.
When she broke into a stairwell, after carefully prying its entrance, she heard the slamming of a door reverberate from the floor above. The air of the cavern was frigid as she scaled the steps, her patters a soft chorus. Every so often, she’d stop, in case he were to double-back, but he never did. Upon reaching the next landing, she peered into the entryway’s small window. The hall was pitch-black, abandoned.
Isla sucked in a deep breath before tugging on the handle, pulling slow and controlled to lessen its groaning. The chilled air persisted when she closed it softly behind her. For a moment, her breathing hampered, the darkness taking her deep into her remembrances. Her pulse skyrocketed, the sudden panic brewing to something so unbearable, she almost turned around.
But then came the voices.
She turned her head and noted the smallest glow of a light at the end of the corridor. Feeling an unearthly draw, she braced herself and went to it. As she neared, the voices increased in volume, enough to figure out to whom they belonged.
One of them was the Beta of Deimos, and the other was Kai’s.
Isla froze, their tones taking on a new aggression. As she had in the fields before crossing through the Gate, she picked up pieces of their conversation. They were talking about the meeting. Something about the Beta going in Kai’s place while he recovered. Something the Alpha hadn’t agreed to.
In a lull she figured a signal as an end to the, what seemed a political and personal, exchange, Isla turned to dart away. But then—
“You’re aware that trust is an Alpha’s biggest strength, that belief in their leader is what holds a Pack together. . . you risked your life to save that girl.”
Isla’s steps ceased.
The last words had left the Beta’s mouth with such malice. Despite the fact that there were very, very few people he could be alluding to, she refused to believe he was speaking about her.
“I’m not going through this with you again, Ezekiel. I wasn’t going to leave her in there to die.” There was a coldness in Kai’s tone she’d never heard before, it chilled her more than the air.
It was as if Ezekiel didn’t hear him. “Not only did you jeopardize your own hide, but the Hierarchy within Deimos, the bloodline of your forefathers. And for what? A woman insolent and dim-witted enough to—”
“Watch your tongue,” Kai growled.
Isla glared, even if the Beta couldn’t see it. Her un-bandaged hand clenched into a fist at her side. Protocols be dammed if she’d had him face-to-face.
“Who is she?”
“Just someone I met at the dinner.”
“And yet she was bold enough to approach you without invitation? In your graces enough for you to allow her to?”
Kai was silent.
“Need I stress how your personal affairs are no longer your own.”
A pause. More silence.
“You are not just one of the Alpha’s sons anymore. The former antics of a second-born prince are over. They cannot happen.” The Beta’s words were pointed, sharp. “Any dame you bring to your bed is one your people will cast as a future Luna, the bearer of their next leader, a bloodline entangled and buried deep in our soil for the rest of time. It goes without saying the questions that would arise, the unrest that would ensue, if rumblings emerged that a potential queen was not only of Io, but the daughter of its Beta.”
Isla wasn’t sure which part of his spiel had made her more irate—his casting of her as some hapless girl sleeping with the Alpha, or his notion that it would be so abhorrent because of who she was.
There was another hesitation, but then came a shallow gasp. Isla could’ve sworn she heard a mumbled, no, before Kai answered, “She’s nothing to me.”
Upon his reassurance, said so absolute, she had to remind herself that it had been their deal. No one could know about their bond, as they’d decided it. It was their choice to save her future. To allow her to do as she wanted, to become a Warrior and not be trapped in the life of a queen. But Ezekiel was Kai’s Beta, his second-in-command besides whoever became his Luna. That bond was also considered sacred, in a different kind of way. It required trust, honesty, agreement. The function of a Pack depended on it.
It hadn’t been lost that Kai never refuted his Beta’s claims. No protest to the questions, the unrest, the threat to his stance as a leader if he dared take her as his mate. It was as if he understood the implications all along. . . and was actively avoiding them.
If one thought logically and pitted them together, who was really getting the truth from the Alpha’s mouth—the woman he’d known for just over a week whose only tie was something beyond their comprehension or his highest-honored officer with whom he entrusted his Pack?
“It’s imperative you keep it that way,” Ezekiel said, his words terse. “It can’t happen.” He spoke as if he knew, as if he’d figured it all out.
Kai’s response was low. “I’ve handled it.”