1.1 | Monsters in the Shadows

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"Five years, and you still haven't opened any of those letters. What if there's money in them?"

Markos Dimitrovich had been sending his daughter monthly mail ever since she began classes at Konstantin Academy, and, in accordance with her grudge against him, Nika had neglected to read a single one.

"Don't care."

Jade scoffed. "Yes, you do."

"If I cared, then I'd open them."

"If you didn't care, you'd throw them away. But instead, you keep them in that obscure box. Sounds pretty careful to me."

Nika was fully prepared to snipe back, but a muffled female voice from the hallway interrupted:

"Attention, students and faculty. The school has been placed on lockdown..."

So it was real, and as the idea settled, so did the anxiousness.

North America's primary boarding school for supernatural beings hadn't gone on lockdown since Nika's first year. There'd rarely been a need to—not for lack of danger, but for mighty defenses. Most of the student body, and a multitude of staff, possessed superior strength and speed, and all had been trained to use them. Only for the most severe situations was a lockdown required.

"Please remain calm and follow Beta Code protocol," the announcer finished.

"Beta Code," Nika echoed. "It can't be Inferni, then."

If she'd made a list of possible causes, Inferni would have occupied the top. The demons' primary source of nutrition was blood—among other things—and they preferred living victims.

Due to their insatiable appetites, Inferni were a chief threat to the rest of the supernatural community, and, as such, would've required Alpha Code protocol. Which meant this lockdown was based on something else, and that was precisely what made it so mysterious.

Jade whined her disappointment. "We have to go to our safety stations."

"Which means no pranking." Nika nudged her away from the bed. "And don't touch my pillows."

"Might as well investigate," Jade said while spearing for the exit. "You coming?"

"Right behind you."

After her roommate left, Nika returned her gaze to the forest beyond the window. Maybe she wasn't going crazy. Maybe whatever she'd seen earlier was related to the lockdown.

Just to be safe, Nika removed a handgun from a secret compartment in her closet drawers. She slipped the weapon into the waistband of her jeans, concealing it with a wrinkled red hoodie and praying she wouldn't have to use it.

When she exited, the hallways buzzed with whispers as students and staff streamed into the chilly spring night. Nika studied a crowd of Serafi girls on the sidewalk, searching for moon-silver hair and rich, brown skin. But her best friend was nowhere in sight, so she reunited with her roommate instead.

"Come on, Vanski," Jade urged a frowning male instructor. She lifted her eyebrows, pushing thick bangs with them. "We aren't under attack. There's no fire. So what's this about?"

Behind the instructor, a swarm of boys flowed from another dorm building and made its way to the two gymnasiums at the heart of the campus.

"Ramsay, I won't tell you again—"

Before Vanski could finish, Nika yanked Jade by the elbow and followed the crowd. Her roommate pouted in stubborn frustration.

Nika swept her gaze across the sprawl of Konstantin Academy, and gooseflesh crept over her shoulders. No crickets, no hooting owls, no scurrying chipmunks. Even the wind had vanished. It was as though the woods knew something was amiss.

Darkness had fallen over the remote mountain range, and under normal circumstances, students would have been in class. Nighttime schedules were mandatory for two reasons. The first—it was necessary to maintain the rift between Daemonstri-kind and humans. And the second—for members of the Serafi race, sunlight was like an allergy. Not fatal but extremely irritating.

Nika found herself slightly relieved, despite the potential danger. She'd never been fond of her classes. As a Nefili, her education focused less on academics and more on training for the Vigil. She spent her days enduring bruises in sparring lessons and elaborate obstacle courses designed as ruthless conditioning.

Serafi students, however, had it easy—books, books, and more books.

Nika and Jade filed into a gym with half of the school's student population, while the remaining half used the building next door. The girls found seats on the bleachers lining the wall and waited.

Nika couldn't stop tapping her foot. The few instructors who weren't counting heads had gathered in a private gossip circle. Their expressions flashed with concern, surprise, and sometimes even confusion. No threat, then. So why did they announce Beta Code protocol? It was supposed to be a security measure.

As the minutes ticked by and the bleachers around them filled with students, Nika grew increasingly restless. Beside her, Jade chewed on her nub of a thumbnail.

"Maybe someone was poisoned," she offered. "A murder at Konstantin! Who would've thought?"

"You might be on to something," said Nika, drumming her fingers against the bleacher. "Not about a murder. But something must have happened on campus. Now they need us to stay away from the location of the incident."

Fifteen minutes after the gymnasium doors had been shut and sealed, a student at the far end shouted, "Someone tell us what's going on!"

A chorus of muttered agreement echoed throughout the gym. Vanski held up his arms, and the students fell silent.

"Everyone sit tight. We're waiting—"

At the building's far right corner, the doors clanged open. Nika held her breath as Headmaster Kovachev walked inside.

He, too, was a Nefili, and acted like the king of Konstantin, when he'd really just snatched this job to avoid putting his life in danger to protect others, which field keepers did every day.

As the headmaster advanced, his dark trench coat rippling, four male keepers surrounded him. They were arranged like a small flock of birds and moved in unified harmony. Every step was fluid, thrumming with the calm promise of brutality, and their pristine figures were clad in simple, practical outfits of intimidating black.

Keepers of the Vigil—Daemonstri-kind's revered warriors. Someday, hopefully soon, Nika would be a keeper, too.

They halted at the same time as Kovachev, and tense anticipation settled over the gathering.

Kovachev announced in a clear, loud voice, "Nika Dimitrovich, please come forward."

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