1.2 | Monsters in the Shadows

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Nika froze. She felt at least a dozen gazes on her, as if they'd been pulled by gravity. Among them was Jade, whose slightly upturned eyes narrowed into slits.

"What did you do?" she whispered, suspicion flooding her words.

Nika's heart hammered against her ribs as she thought about the past few days. She'd been unusually well-behaved because her last stunt had made Kovachev so furious that he threatened to expel her. Again. Of course, he couldn't. Her father would never allow it, and Markos Dimitrovich was one of the most powerful men in the Daemonstri world. One phone call had Kovachev changing his mind.

Despite that reassurance, Nika had decided to abstain from bad behavior for at least one week. Though, she had ditched some classes last night.

Nika said to Jade, "I didn't do anything."

Panic rose inside her throat. She knew she should have already approached the headmaster and his entourage, but she couldn't move. And by now, there was enough attention on her for Kovachev to detect her location.

"Miss Dimitrovich," he said, his tone low and full of warning, "if you don't come willingly, we'll use force."

Two of those intimidating keepers stepped forward for emphasis. Like a puppet, Nika rose, feeling cold and numb.

As she descended the bleachers, a familiar voice hissed, "What have you done this time, halfblood?"

Nika glared at the boy—Isaak. He was a rival and an enemy. Since their first year, she and Isaak had vied to rank at the top of the Nefili class. According to their statistics, both of them were promised to be some of the greatest keepers the Vigil had ever seen.

But Isaak and his family despised anything related to tainted blood. As the world's most infamous halfblood, Nika had been his victim for the past five years. There wasn't a day that he didn't taunt and trouble her. Sometimes, he grew sick of words and used fists instead.

The verbal battles, she could handle. A lifetime of ridicule had honed her wit into an ancient sword. But when it came to physical attacks, she had always been inferior. Cursed with a petite stature, Nika was an easy target for tall, athletic Isaak and his beefy sidekick. She'd lost count of how many times she'd been pummeled into black and blue.

And yet, despite her inferiority, she loved fighting. It was all she'd ever known.

Her fingers curled, but before she could wipe the smug grin off Isaak's face, Nika found herself covered by a keeper's shadow. He didn't touch her, but the threat was clear in his stance. If she made a move, he wouldn't hesitate to react. She would probably be unconscious within heartbeats, and he wasn't against hitting a seventeen-year-old girl in front of a large audience.

So Nika backed down, but she didn't peel her baleful gaze away from Isaak until the keepers ushered her behind Kovachev and escorted her out of the gymnasium.

That silence screamed across the forest, thick and unbearable, and Nika couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching.

When neither the headmaster nor the security guards spoke, her nerves skyrocketed. What was happening? Was she in trouble? Why was the school on lockdown?

During every agonizing second that they traversed the sidewalks, the questions grew increasingly dire.

What if this wasn't about her? What if something had happened to Lu, her best-friend-but-more-like-sister? What if something had happened to her dad?

She shoved those thoughts out of her mind as they entered the administration building.

"Stay here," one keeper ordered.

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