5.1 | Our Accurséd Lot

Start from the beginning

He guided Ren up the creaky steps of an old cabin, and as he unlocked the door—which had been bolted shut from the outside—someone hissed, "Kovac, if you don't let me out of here right now, I'm going to—"

Misha opened the door and swiftly sidestepped, and a girl in a red hoodie slammed to a halt just before colliding into Ren, her chin lifting up, up, up as she met his gaze.

Had the circumstance of this meeting been different, Ren might have laughed. She was...tiny. Probably a foot and a half shorter. Then again, he was rather enormous in comparison to most people, so he shouldn't have been surprised.

"You're going to what?" he said, raising a brow.

As Nika assessed him, she looked like a cat. Her compact figure deathly still, clever eyes unblinking. And dangerous curiosity flashed across her face, like she'd found a new, fascinating toy to play with.

"Is that a Russian accent I hear?" Nika said. "I hadn't realized that mammoths were native to Russia. Or that they're no longer extinct. Though there seems to be a lot of that happening lately."

Ren's lip curled, and apparently, that was all the proof necessary to confirm that she'd vanquished him, because he found himself dismissed as she regarded Misha, batting her feathery lashes.

"Won't you please let me out?"

As she cajoled him, Ren noted the gash hidden by Nika's dark gold hair. It had been sloppily bandaged, and her thigh was wrapped in a white cloth as well. But from the way she leaned on the opposite foot, it did little to ease the pain.

"Have you seen a medic?" he asked. When she only frowned at him, he gestured to her wounds. "You should take some blood pills."

For the Nefili race, blood consumption was curative. As such, keepers—or novices, in Nika's case—often took blood pills as remedies for whatever injuries the job had inflicted.

She squinted at him, as if suspicious. "I'll be fine. Who are you again?"

Ren opened his mouth to respond, but someone from behind beat him to it, shouting, "Romanovich!"

He turned around to discover his boss marching toward the cabin. Keepers nodded reverently as he passed.

"It's been thirty minutes. Why haven't you—"

When Markos looked up from the ground and beheld the girl with whom Ren stood, the man's face flooded with emotion. Then he started running.

Ren stepped out of the way just in time for Markos to swoop in and embrace Nika. She seemed to be torn between astonishment and anger as she awkwardly reciprocated the gesture. They didn't have the best relationship—though Ren was unaware of the details—and it was evident in Nika's lack of enthusiasm.

Misha dismissed himself, leaving Ren to watch the father-daughter reunion in uncomfortable silence. "Minister," he finally said, and Nika ripped away from her father. "You shouldn't be here."

Markos only glared. "You were taking too long. I got worried."

There might have been an inkling of pity in Ren, but he didn't let it show. Especially not when he felt Nika focusing on him.

"You're his keeper," she said with no shortage of dissatisfaction.

Head keeper, he wanted to say, but instead, he shifted his attention back to her father. "I should take you to the campus. Vigil protocol—"

"Yeah, sure," Markos said, waving his hand for silence. "Just give us a moment alone, will you?"

Before Ren could object, Markos ushered him onto the porch and shut the door in his face. Ren leaned against the wooden frame, and since he had nothing better to do, he focused on their voices.

"I'm sorry about Luiza," Markos was saying. "I know what she means to you."

"She's still alive," Nika replied. "One of the Volkari—Dante Azzara—said they needed her."

"He didn't happen to mention what for, did he?" It was a pathetic attempt to lighten the mood, but Ren didn't think Nika found it helpful.

After a beat of silence, she said, "It must be connected to Konstantin's journal somehow. Dante all but confessed to stealing it."

Ren stiffened. The journal of Konstantin the Keeper had been stolen?

"I heard about that," Markos said. "And you happened to be one of the suspects, until you brought news of an imposter wandering around campus."

Nika remained quiet.

"Why did you skip class?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"You never want to talk about anything."

"Why should I?" she snapped.

Ren almost flinched at the sheer spite in her tone, and in the tense moments that followed, his mind buzzed with questions.

Why did the shapeshifters need a teenaged girl so desperately? Or Konstantin's journal? And how had they returned from the afterlife in the first place?

He hoped Misha solved the mysteries soon, just to sate his curiosity.

A sharp intake of breath pulled his attention back inside the cabin. "I tried to stop them, but it all happened so fast and—"

"Shhh, Nika, it's alright. It isn't your fault." A sigh. "There's something you should know."

Markos paused, as if to gather his thoughts.

"I'm sure you're aware that my job requires me to lie sometimes. Even to those I love. And some of these lies are... Well, I—all Ministers, that is—do it mostly to help our people, to make life better for Daemonstri-kind as a whole. But..."

Ren had never heard Markos stutter before, had never witnessed such nervousness.

"But," the Minister continued, "if the public knew about some of these lies, the community could fall to ruin."

"What are you getting at?" Nika insisted.

"I fear the Ministry's secrets might have contributed to tonight's attack." 

Blood War (Halfblood Chronicles, #1)Read this story for FREE!