17.2 | Legends and Clues

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Nika stared at the amber liquid, momentarily fascinated by the splash of light and reflection within it. Then she put it down and stepped back, surveying the room.

These people... They were trying too hard, their clothes gaudy and laughter synthetic. There'd been a time when she would have joined them, when she would have fueled the energy. But standing in worn jeans, unbound hair, and red sweatshirt, she clashed with the revelry, and so did her raging thoughts.

If Lu were here, she might have gazed at the crowd and said, "I wonder if they even remember why Galanthus Day exists."

And whether or not Nika liked it, she would have given an explanation.

"Galanthus Day celebrates an event in our history that's steeped in legend and lore..."

It was a story of the great Valentine Dalca, a Daemonstri King, and recounted his journey through eastern Europe during one brutal winter.

At this time, humans had been aware—or at least suspicious—of the supernatural creatures walking among them. A war had even ignited between Daemonstri and the human inhabitants of modern Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria.

King Valentine traveled across wooded mountains and sprawling plains to meet with the ruler of one such human nation. They were to discuss peace negotiations and put an end to the battles. It was a merciless journey, marked by icy storms and starvation, but the king was determined to march forward.

On a particularly bleak night, Valentine and his men were ambushed by human forces. The peace negotiations had been a ruse, and Valentine fled for his life.

For days, he ran nonstop through vast, snowy wastelands while a human army chased him. His horse died of frostbite, he had various wounds from the battle, and water, food, and blood were scarce. But still, he pushed onward.

The humans were rapidly gaining on him, and one night, he couldn't stop to rest. The fatigue got the best of him and he fell down a snow-covered slope, lacking the strength to get back up.

Valentine lay in the snow, counting down his final minutes as the hooves of his enemy's horses distantly hammered the ground. Growing closer and closer with each of his weakening heartbeats. He looked into an unveiled sky and watched the stars gleaming like crystals.

Then he began to sing.

It was a song of the four Oldbloods, of the mysterious, supernatural realm known as the Shadowlands, of all the legends and magic soaking the history pages of Daemonstri-kind.

A song of Elantis the Witch, mother of Serafi, angel of the earth. Of Branomir the Knight, father of Nefili, defender of all. Of Starek the Wolf, father of Volkari, the baron of beasts. Of Volora the Wight, mother of Inferni, demon of the underworld.

King Valentine sang and sang and sang, pouring his voice into the heavens. It was a beacon for the human soldiers, and they charged on him as dawn broke over the eastern horizon.

And just as hundreds of soldiers surrounded him, readying their spears and swords, an enormous white flower burst from the snow near Valentine's feet. A woman emerged from the center of the blossom, swathed in ethereal light. An angel sent from above.

Valentine stopped singing. The soldiers stopped advancing. And as they stared in awe, the woman inside the flower spoken ancient, beautiful words. Light exploded from her, radiant as a star, blinding the humans.

Soldiers fell from their steeds, screaming in agony. And when they tried to flee, wisps and whorls of blinding magic drew them back.

King Valentine's wounds miraculously healed. His strength returned, and he stood up to watch the flower-woman cast her spell across the army.

When she was done, a layer of glittering ash covered the snowy meadow and mountainsides, and a sunrise washed the world in color.

Valentine beheld the face of his savior and recognized her as Elantis, Witch of the Oldbloods herself. She protected the king, her distant descendant, as any good mother would have done.

Without a word, she sank into snowdrop flower, its petals swallowing her whole. Then it receded into the earth and vanished as if it had never existed at all.

Grateful for his freedom and victory, King Valentine rushed home and established a holiday in honor of the Ancient Witch who'd answered his song. From then onward, Elantis had always been associated with snowdrops, the flower after which Galanthus Day was named.

In the centuries that passed, it was a sacred holiday. But now, most Daemonstri used it as an excuse to throw wild parties, like the one Viktor hosted tonight.

"Don't you prefer the way we celebrated as kids?" Lu might have said.

Nika would have replied, "Not exactly. Those times weren't always fun."

Eight years ago, on this very night, they'd enjoyed themselves in the streets of headquarters town. Just a pair of girls dressed as snowdrops, running around with sparklers and devouring candies that people tossed from their windows into the street.

It had been a perfect night, until a group of Serafi children approached.

"Look, it's Luiza Lazarov and her pet mongrel!" one boy jeered.

The children flocked around them, ripping the candy from Nika's hands.

A girl with a cherub's face hissed, "You're not a real Dimitrovich."

The others laughed.

"Do you really have an extra toe?"

"I heard her blood is blue!"

"Some say she has a stone heart!"

The boy, their ringleader, yanked on Nika's braid. "Your daddy doesn't care about you. No one does."

Something red-hot flashed through her, and the next thing she knew, the boy was flat on the ground, bleeding from his nose. His friends rushed to help, and when he began to sob hysterically, Nika glanced at her clenched fist.

"She hit him!"

Before an adult could catch her, Nika ran. Sprinted all the way back to the Lazarov house, faster than the wind, and into bedroom that she and Lu shared.

The darkness and solitude of the closet were her only comfort for hours, it seemed. Then Lu knocked on the door.

With the sweetest, gentlest voice, she said, "They were wrong, Nika. I care about you." The handle jiggled. "I love you."

And there was such conviction in her voice. Such unremitting honesty...

Nika opened the door, and for the first time in her life, she let someone look at her while tears streamed down her face, while her eyes were bloodshot and gleaming.

In that moment, she was not afraid of being sad. She was not afraid of being broken. Because she knew it then, and every day since, that no matter how shattered she might have become, Lu would always see Nika beneath the cracks. And she would always love her, too.

No one but Lu had ever seen her cry. That was why Nika hadn't shed a single tear during the past weeks. Not for Miles. Not for herself.

"Nika."

She whirled through space and time, finding herself back inside Kostopoulos Manor, and in front of her stood the Rogue Minister himself. He held up the glass of liquor she'd poured earlier.

"Drink?"

She shook her head, backing away. "I have to go."

"Got a better party to attend?"

"Something like that."

When she dove out of the room and then out of the house, Viktor followed.

"Can I come with?"

Nika halted on a winding path that spilled from the manor like the tongue of a snake.

"No. It's not in town, and I'm not fond of hanging out with a security escort."

She didn't wait for a response before slinking across the lawns to the Dimitrovich property. Because the clock was ticking, and Lu was counting on her. 

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