31.1 | Aftermath

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She preferred the sirens over silence.

Entering Laguna's backyard with Ren, Nika's skin crawled at the eerie quiet surrounding them. There was only the solemn murmurings of keepers, the sharp zipping of body bags, and the hurried patter of footsteps coming onto the scene.

Too quiet—like a battlefield after the bloodshed. Nika supposed no comparison was needed. This was a battlefield.

They remained near the perimeter, surveying the disaster before them, until Nika spotted Misha. He stopped two keepers who'd been carrying a body bag, then peeked inside to see the face of the fallen man. At his relieved exhalation, Nika wondered if he was looking for Ren.

"Misha!" she called, feeling utterly disrespectful for disturbing the grief-filled hush.

Misha's head snapped up, and then he was sprinting toward them. He looked like he'd been through hell. And then some. Moderate wounds—bruises and slash marks at the most—sprinkled upper body. But it was the blood staining his pants that made Nika's stomach churn.

She banished the bad thoughts and whispered, "What happened here? Where is Asteroth?"

"What do you think happened? They came, they killed, they took it."

Ren sucked in a breath but didn't lift his austere gaze from the destroyed yard and mansion. "How many dead?"

"So far, eight keepers and a few of theirs."

"Nine," Nika corrected. At their puzzled expressions, she clarified, "Sokol. She fired at one when he came over the wall at my dad's place. He took her out."

She didn't miss the twitch in Ren's cheek, no doubt a display of his lingering anger toward her. She desperately wanted to explain herself but didn't know how without unearthing Dante's revelations.

Stupid—she'd been stupid to follow that voice.

"Any captives?" Ren asked Misha.

"One. But he's injured badly. He won't talk and interrogation will just make him die faster."

Ren nodded, but Nika sensed the emotions he suppressed. Aside from the anger, he was upset at himself for leaving. Probably wondering how much of the bloodshed could've been avoided, if he'd chosen to stay instead of follow her.

Nika's heart lurched. It was an effort to stop herself from throwing her arms around him.

Misha shoved Ren's shoulder. "Where the hell have you been? I thought..."

He laughed breathily, but it was clearly an attempt to conceal the strain of emotion. He'd thought Ren had been felled in the fight, that it was the only explanation for his disappearance.

Ren flicked his chin toward Nika and growled, "Ask her."

Misha frowned at the tone, then glanced at Nika with a silent question in his eyes.

"I had to do something," she said slowly, averting his gaze. "In the woods... He followed me."

Misha blinked, letting the information settle. Then the next thing she knew, his fist collided with Ren's mouth. As Ren staggered, Misha grabbed him by the collar and drove him against the wall.

There was enough distance between them and the keepers gathered around the yard, that the disturbance didn't attract many eyes. But panic surged anyway.

Misha hissed in Ren's face, "You just left him all alone—with the pendant? He's a fucking kid, Ren! Whatever happened to duty? How could you just throw it all away? And for her!"

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