When midnight came, the rain came with it. Somewhere too close for comfort, another flash of lightning illuminated the interior of the vehicle, and the ensuing clap of thunder rattled the coins in the center console. Water pounded the roof, windshield wipers squeaked in a frenzy.

Nika squinted through the glass. Across the street, a colorful sign on the door marked Hekate's Cauldron as closed for business, but faint light streamed onto the sidewalk from inside.

The hedgewitch was home.

As Nika opened the car door, breathing deeply, something felt off. She was too light, she realized. She should have been carrying her trusty handgun. But thanks to Ren, it had been disposed of, and now Nika was armed with nothing but fists and wit.

I don't need a weapon. It's only a hedgewitch. Just go in, ask about the curse, and come back out.

So she crossed the street and gently pushed the glass door. A bell rang overhead, triggered by the movement.

All was silent. So silent that Nika could hear the distant rumbling of the sky. With discomfort rising in her blood, she swept a gaze over the shop interior.

Hekate's Cauldron was the size of a large closet. Tight rows of wooden shelves lined the right side of the room, and the surrounding walls rose high above.

Both had been stocked with supplies. Vials of peculiar, colorful liquids were neatly arranged between colorful decks of tarot cards and a massive collection of herbs and salts. Other shelves contained talismans, grimoires, and handmade candles.

In one corner, there was a table with a crystal ball. A fortune-telling station, no doubt. The hedgewitch certainly made her stake by fooling and conning humans.

"I'm sorry, the shop is closed. I must've forgotten to lock the..."

Nika found the source of the voice ducking through a wine-colored curtain that must have led to an employee room. A Serafi woman stood there, middle-aged and dark-featured.

"Are you Mizelle Mitra?" Nika asked, sliding the red hood off her hair. "I only need a few minutes of your time."

The woman made a quiet gasp. "You."

There was enough emphasis on the word for Nika to know that Mizelle recognized her. She was, after all, the world's most infamous halfblood. Anyone who'd read the Daemonstri gossip column was aware of her existence.

"You shouldn't be here."

Mizelle glanced over Nika's head, scouring the store windows and what lay beyond them.

Nika stepped forward. "I saw your blog, the things you said about the Volkari curse. I just want to ask a few questions."

Her eyes bulged, and she rushed past Nika to the door, opening it wide. "No."

A cold, rain-scented air blasted Nika, but she gave the hedgewitch a pleading look. "I have a friend—a Serafi, like you. She's in danger and I'm trying to help her."

Mizelle's brow furrowed.

"Please."

Sighing, the woman shut the door. Nika tracked her nervous movements back to the dark curtain and cashier counter. Mizelle slid onto a stool behind the counter, and Nika took it as an invitation to approach.

"What do you want to know?" Mizelle asked, her voice weary.

"The curse, the Ministry coming to your grandmother. How did it all happen?"

She eyed the display of scrying bones on the countertop, as if to be lost in thought.

"A hundred years ago, there were whispers of rebellion, both outside the Daemonstri community and within it. So the Ministers came to my grandmother and asked her to magically weaken the Volkari. They offered her money for a comfortable life, as well as complete protection from the Fellowship."

The Fellowship was an organization formed long ago for the purpose of defending humans against Daemonstri-kind. They'd been a cult of sorts. In recent decades, however, they'd established themselves within human governments, and the Ministry had brokered a treaty with them. But anyone who'd been exiled from the community—like hedgewitches, Volkari, and Inferni—were still fair victims for monster-hunting humans.

"After she created the curse," Mizelle went on, "my grandmother met someone who would give her the money. My grandfather found her body the next day, a belabane bullet between her eyes.

"My grandfather and mother stayed quiet. They were afraid of speaking against the Ministry. But now that the Volkari have come out of hiding, I feel like I owe it to my grandmother to avenge her. So I'm writing the blog."

"How did she create the curse?"

"There were several elements to it, including a spell that she drafted herself. It was dark magic, so it required a sacrifice. A Volkari who had been taken as a prisoner of war was ritualistically killed."

Mizelle pulled a ring off her finger—one with an oval-shaped blue stone.

"His blood was spilled over this. It's made of pure Hekatolith and houses the power of the curse."

Elliot was right, it's all connected. Nika almost smiled.

She reached for the ring. "May I?"

Mizelle gave it to her, and she studied the simple design. The moonstone appeared to be set in silver.

"Have you had it all this time?" A nod from the hedgewitch. "Then why didn't you break the curse yourself?"

"I'm not powerful enough, and I'm not well-versed in dark magic. That was one of the Ministry's conditions—it needed to be virtually unbreakable."

Nika continued staring at the talisman. She could scarcely believe how close she was to rescuing Lu.

"Can I have it?"

Mizelle scowled and ripped it from her hands. "Absolutely not."

"Please. Volkari have abducted my friend. She's like a sister to me. And if I can trade the ring for Lu, offer them the means to break their curse, then maybe..."

Mizelle shook her head, features twisting with pity.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Nika demanded.

"I'm sorry. I had to do it."

"Do what?"

Mizelle leaned closer, whispering, "She wants to help hedgewitches. Wants us to build our own society. One that doesn't have to live in fear of the Fellowship."

"Who?" Nika beseeched. "What did you do?"

"The Halfblood Bastard."

Nika stiffened at the voice, feminine, malicious, and hinted with a Romanian accent.

"I hear many things about you."

Whipping around, Nika caught sight of a red-haired woman standing in the shop entrance. The red-haired woman, flashing an insidious grin.

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