It was dizzying.

Nika sat in utter silence as Ren unraveled piece after piece of information, Misha providing help by connecting her to Emil whenever he had the chance. Her first interaction with Dante proved she and Emil aided in the theft. The High Keeper had defended her at the interviews, praised her for being such a fine student. And they'd both gone to the Vigil's archives within an hour of each other.

Coincidence—all of it. Everything was circumstantial, but Nika had no solid evidence to prove that she hadn't done anything, either. None apart from the truth, her secret endeavor to rescue Lu.

With two pairs of eyes bearing down on her, waiting for answers and explanations, she felt like a walnut cracking beneath the pressure. But she wouldn't break. Not yet.

"You honestly think I would harm Lu and Miles? They're my two closest friends. Only friends."

Misha averted his gaze. Motive—it must have been what troubled him most.

"You're delusional. Both of you." Ren didn't even blink at the withering glare she sent him. "Have you gone to Emil yet?"

Silence.

She scoffed. "Of course not. Because you"— she nodded to Misha—"are afraid. This witch hunt is just a distraction, a way of biding your time. You know that once you confront him, there's no going back. You'll have to face one of two options: Emil is a traitor to this community, or the pawn of our enemy. Either way, he's not the father you thought he was, and there is little more terrifying than that."

Misha abruptly stood, opening his mouth like he would gladly enter a shouting match. But one shake of the head from Ren had him stalking toward the unlit fireplace and fuming to himself.

It didn't matter if he'd denied it or not, because Nika saw the truth in his eyes.

"Forget Emil for a moment," Ren said—quiet enough that the conversation stayed between him and Nika. "Why were you at the archives? And that magic shop?"

When she didn't answer, he moved to the coffee table before her, planting one muscle-bound leg on either side of her knees. It felt like a trap until she saw the pleading look on his face.

"Tell me what I did to you was worth it," he whispered.

His eyes fell to the pendant she now clutched, the metal digging into her skin even through the handkerchief.

She suddenly realized why he'd organized this meeting. Not because he sought justice, or even because he was helping his friend. He was looking for a way to forgive himself, no matter how pathetic the reason.

Nika glanced at Misha, saying, "I'll tell you. But don't expect me to repay you for the illegal firearm situation."

She could've sworn Ren smiled a little. "Deal."

So Nika told them about the companion journal, and how it had been found. "We only went to the archives to learn about the enemy. I wasn't meeting Emil, or leaving him a message."

The High Keeper's son regarded her again, but he didn't look willing to believe her yet.

"Where is the journal?"

She pursed her lips, considering how much she should reveal. Did it even matter? This might have been the only way to get them off her back.

So she said, "Elliot has it. He's been translating it. He found some things about curses and magic that eventually led us to the hedgewitch's shop. The Serafi woman who owns it—Mizelle Mitra—is the granddaughter of the witch who created the Volkari curse."

Misha swore softly. A crease formed between Ren's brows, and she could almost see how his mind sucked him deep into thought.

"Mizelle had a magical ring," she continued, "which holds the power of the curse. I was going to trade it for Lu, but Tatiana showed up and...now we're here."

"The amulet," Ren said. "You think she'll bargain for it, in exchange for Lu?"

Nika nodded. "That's the plan. But first, I need to know what, exactly, this thing is."

She peeked under the cloth at the glittering red stone, blocking out the whispers before they even entered her mind. Ren, however, winced at the sight, so Nika bundled it up and shoved it inside her back pocket.

"How?" he asked.

Nika said, "Elliot," only a heartbeat faster than Misha had.

She scowled, but he only shrugged and drawled, "It takes a bad investigator to know one."

Lucky guess.

"It's a long shot, but maybe the companion journal has information on the necklace," she told Ren.

He contemplated for a few more seconds before saying, "We'll help you."

"What?"

They spoke in unison. Again. And this time, Misha was the one who scowled.

"We will help you find her," Ren repeated. He turned to Misha and added, "And also figure out how Emil is involved."

"I don't need—"

Nika shut her mouth as Ren dragged his gaze from her injured elbow to the bruises around her neck.

She could almost hear the lecture: I'm still your keeper and blah, blah, blah, b—

Bite me, she thought.

Ren raised a brow, as if to say, Now who's the kinky one?

She might have laughed, but Misha blurted, "Are we really going to work with teenagers on this?"

"It's them or your dad."

Misha shook his head. "I hate both of you."

And so it began. 

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