25.1 | Defiance

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Nika had been missing for three days, and Ren Romanovich felt like he'd explode.

Despite the scouting parties and his own relentless hunt, there had been no sign of her. Not even a clue.

If not for Misha's discouragement, he would have already sent keepers scouring through Volkari territory. But that was a dangerous method, not to mention stupid.

And after all this time, their resources were dwindling. There was only so much a small group of keepers could do. Soon, Ren would need to inform the Vigil of her disappearance and his theory that she'd been kidnapped like Luiza.

Once the High Keeper knew about it, the news would quickly spread to the Ministry, including Nika's father. The thought gave Ren a headache.

"When was the last time you slept?" Misha asked.

They'd been trekking through the woods around headquarters for over an hour. Not that Ren expected to find anything, as they'd searched here before. But he needed to put his mind and body to work, lest he crumble under the weight of his failure.

He didn't bother glancing at his friend when he answered, "Last night."

"For more than an hour?"

The only sound was the crunching of leaves and twigs underfoot. At this point, Ren was beyond conversation. He increased his speed, slightly disappointed when Misha managed to match the pace.

"You know you can't do your job properly if you don't sleep."

At that, Ren looked up from the ground. A wave of uncontrollable emotion swept through him.

"I can't sleep, Misha! I tried. But I won't be able to rest until we find her."

"Why?" Ren tore his gaze away. "Do you blame yourself?"

"I promised Markos that I'd protect her."

"We don't even know if this is the Volkari. Maybe she ran off again."

"Without money? A cell phone? Her bloodydamned shoes? Nika is too smart to leave a pair of keepers unconscious on the patio for us to find. And this"—he removed the piece of red fabric that had found a home in his pocket these three days—"suggests she was taken by force."

Misha was frowning. He'd heard the argument before, but Ren knew he was still too eager to accuse Nika of conspiracy and treason. He wanted her to be guilty, and Ren hated him for it.

"Why?" was all Misha said.

His composure was astounding. Ren remembered a time, not too long ago, when he'd been able to control every aspect of himself. He blamed the lack of sleep for his current unkempt state.

"I don't know. Maybe they want the pendant back."

He'd been praying it was something else. If they wanted the necklace, then an interrogation was necessary. And if Nika had been harmed, he was going to rip those wolfbloods apart.

Images flooded into his mind. How they might have tied her up, maimed her to extract information. He banished those foul thoughts and focused on his hunt, observing the trees, the afternoon sky, begging to be given a sign.

"Can we stop for a moment?"

"No."

"Let's take a break, Ren."

Misha grabbed his shoulder, forcing him to stop. Ren's breath came out in huffs, his pulse fluttered rapidly. As Misha leaned against a nearby tree, studying him, he strode back and forth, a fist clenched around the torn piece of Nika's hoodie.

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