29.2 | A Good Night for Bad Things

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Dimitrovich Manor was crawling with keepers—loyal ones this time. So loyal, in fact, that Nika couldn't escape them.

"You know," she said to the woman who followed her into the backyard, "you don't have to shadow my every step. I'm not going anywhere."

She wanted to be alone right now. And not just because of the lingering headache that even blood seemed unable to heal. She'd intended to watch from afar while Ren, Misha, and Elliot stole the necklace from Laguna's vault. But with Sokol's hovering, she had to wander aimlessly around Markos's flower gardens.

Nika rarely came into the backyard. Her father had installed a hot tub since her visit last December—probably because she'd made an offhanded joke about wanting one.

"Actually," Sokol replied. "Romanovich ordered me to keep an eye on you at all times. So yes, I do have to follow you everywhere."

"Even the bathroom?"

Sokol blinked. "He didn't specify. I should call and ask."

She reached into a pocket for a cell phone, but Nika grabbed her wrist and cried, "Stop!"

At the keeper's bewildered stare, Nika chuckled and released her. "I was just kidding. And I'm sure the answer is no, by the way."

Sokol shrugged and returned her hands to her sides. Nika concealed her relief. What a disaster it would have been if Ren's phone rang and buzzed while he snuck into Laguna Manor.

After several minutes of silent meandering through the flower bushes, Nika plucked a cluster of jasmine blossoms and pinned it into the hair behind her ear. She offered one to Sokol, but the woman declined. It probably went against the all-black dress code anyway.

Nika's boredom, combined with the anxiety caused by tonight's endeavors, got the best of her. "That Romanovich is such a tyrant, isn't he?" she teased. "I could ask my father to replace him."

Sokol shook her head. "You can't do that! Romanovich is a great keeper." Color rose in her cheeks as she realized the eagerness with which she spoke.

"Such high praise," Nika said, fighting a smile. "You admire him?"

Sokol swallowed a lump.

"Let me guess—you like a man who takes charge." Even if he's completely overbearing, she added to herself.

A scoff. "The only thing I admire about Romanovich, other than his work ethic, is his god-like body." Sokol lowered her voice, adding, "There is nothing I wouldn't do to see that man naked."

Nika halted, and whatever scrap of amusement she'd felt was gone now. No one made suggestive comments about Ren. Except her, of course.

"But Romanovich is incapable of flirting," Sokol continued. "I think he's one of those keepers who abstains from sexual indulgences."

Nika remembered the frenzy that overcame Ren when she drank his blood. He'd even tried to kiss her at one point.

"Oh, trust me, Ren is no stranger to sexual indulgences." The words were out before she could stop them.

And when Sokol regarded her with squinting eyes, she was scarcely capable of drawing breath.

"Holy shit," the keeper murmured. "Did you—"

Neekah

Her focus ripped away from Sokol and turned toward the direction of that voice. Only there was no direction. It came from everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Nika, I need you.

Goosebumps crawled up her arms. She'd heard it before, but she couldn't remember where or when.

Sokol snapped her fingers. "Hello?"

Nika yanked her closer and gazed at the stars. "Can you hear that?"

"What are you—oh, I know know what this is. Romanovich said you'd try anything to get away. It's not gonna work on me."

Listen closely. This is important.

Nika tuned out the keeper's droning.

You need to meet me. Meet me at the ravine five miles north of headquarters.

She wanted to ask who it was, and why they wanted her, but she didn't know how to reach them.

Come alone. And come soon. Time is running out.

An inkling of mistrust swelled inside her. This was wrong. The voice was bad.

And yet...she knew it. As if it had brought comfort all her life, as if it had watched over her always, guided her through perils great and small.

A realization struck her.

"Lu?"

Yes.

The voice faded as quickly as it came. Nika turned northward, where a meadow speckled with dandelions sat between Lirovin Square and the vast forest. She stepped toward the gate, but Sokol spun her around.

"You can't—"

Nika saw the horror on her face before she heard her scream, "Get down!"

Instinct sent her diving for cover beneath the rose bushes, arms flying over her head. The unmistakable roar of a Volkari clapped through the backyard. Sokol unsheathed her gun and fired at the shadowy figure falling from the sky.

The bullet missed, and the man crashed down on the stone path. Canine claws protruded from his fingertips, and golden eyes pierced through the darkness. He slashed Sokol's throat before she pull the trigger again.

She collapsed in front of Nika, grasping her throat, while the wolfman hurtled across the yard and leapt into the neighbor's yard.

Nika was frozen. She didn't know what to be more horrified of—Sokol bleeding out on the stone path in front of her, or the Volkari bounding over the perimeter walls.

"Nika," Sokol managed, pushing her gun toward Nika's hiding place. "Go...find...Romanovich."

Her hands were covered in blood. It pooled around her, filling the cracks in the stones. Nika watched it coming closer and closer. Even when Sokol's eyes went vacant.

Move, she told herself. Run.

But she couldn't. She was stuck. It felt so much like those moments when Lu had been taken. Those heartbeats of frozen terror and panic that had formed the fine line between life and death, victory and defeat.

Hurry, that voice called again. Come.

Did it belong to an angel? Or was it a demon?

All she knew was this: the Volkari were attacking—too many to count—and they were running toward Laguna Manor. Toward Asteroth.

They must have brought Lu with them, and she was being held in the forest, at the ravine north of headquarters.

I need you.

So Nika slid out from beneath the bushes, grabbed Sokol's gun, and flew through the gate. Into the meadow. Toward the forest. Toward Lu. 

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