22.3 | Myth Meets Reality

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The next several hours were a test on Ren's nerves. After bringing the pendant and vague explanations to the Prime Minister, Misha came to Dimitrovich Manor. He informed Ren and Nika that the necklace had been stowed in the vault of Minister Laguna's basement, which was apparently the most only private and secure place in headquarters.

"I told Rostova that I was the one who encountered Tatiana," Misha had explained. "Now she wants me to bring the hedgewitch for an interview with the Ministry."

"But Mizelle isn't a threat," Nika replied. "By the sound of it, Tatiana was coercing her into an alliance."

Misha shrugged. "I've got no choice."

"I'll come with you," Ren offered. "Maybe we can convince the hedgewitch to alter her story."

And so they went. But upon their arrival at Hekate's Cauldron, they discovered that Mizelle Mitra had left town in a haste, probably on the run from the Fellowship, and there was no trace of her to be found.

They were lucky. With no hedgewitch to interview, the Ministry would remain unaware of Nika's involvement.

"I don't understand why you protect her," Misha said as they rode back to headquarters.

"Because you're wrong," Ren replied. "She isn't a traitor, and whatever Emil is up to, I don't think Nika is his accomplice."

Misha shook his head. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you're getting attached."

Ren scoffed, but after considering the idea, he decided it might have been wise to create distance. He couldn't deny that, during her father's absence, the only person with whom Nika consistently interacted was himself. And after recent events, he faced the frightening reality that his emotions couldn't be controlled in her presence.

As they arrived at Dimitrovich Manor, Ren found himself relieved to be back. He hadn't been fond of leaving Nika at home, even though Rivers and the other deserters had been replaced with new and more competent keepers. He even had the fleeting thought of going to her bedroom to check on her. But then he imagined how she would have reacted.

Watching me nap? That's a whole new level of creepy, she might have said.

Distance—it would be wise indeed.

Ren entered the Gothic mansion, Misha trailing close behind, and immediately knew something was wrong.

A scent that didn't belong was wafting through the air, stuffing itself up his nose. The scent of blood.

When he found the parlor empty, Ren rushed into the kitchen and located four of the six keepers-on-duty. One of them—Paulson—leaned against the counter and lifted his shirt to reveal three large gashes running horizontally across his back. Based on the placement of the wound, it was a miracle his spine hadn't been severed.

Another keeper worked quickly with a first aid kit to treat the cuts, while two more entered through a door that led to the backyard. Ren immediately recognized Kozlowski, despite the blood that dribbled down half of his face.

"What the hell is going on?" Ren bellowed.

With a grunt, Paulson twisted his body and said, "Romanovich, thank the Oldbloods. We were attacked from behind, both of us knocked out."

Sokol, a female keeper, helped Kozlowski sit down at a small table while explaining, "We found them on the patio a few minutes ago. I was just about to call you."

"Where are the two replacements?" Ren demanded.

The keepers sent puzzled looks back and forth among themselves. Ren didn't wait for them to figure it out before scouring through the rest of the house.

"How can I help?" Misha called out as he prowled away.

"You're an investigator, aren't you?" Misha nodded. "So investigate."

After sweeping through the manor, Ren determined that two of the keepers were gone. He returned to the kitchen to question the others.

"Who attacked you?"

"When Paulson went down, I spotted two figures in the shadows," Kozlowski said. "Men. Tall, but not as tall as you. I was going to sound the alarm, but...they were so fast."

"Volkari?" Sokol offered.

Ren peered out the window and scanned the backyard, but it was too dark to make sense of the scene.

"Where are the newbies?" said Paulson, gritting his teeth as his wound was taken care of.

"Not here." Ren would murder them if they'd abandoned their positions. "Nika is alright, yes?"

Kozlowski, Paulson—all of them stopped moving.

"Shit," Sokol whispered. "I was going to do that when I called you..."

The clear, focusing rage that befell Ren was something worthy of a god. Later, he would scream at them for failing so miserably at their jobs. It was the first and most important step in any hostile situation—locate the charge and confirm they were unharmed.

In a blur, he was racing up the stairs and plowing into Nika's bedroom. He didn't even bother flicking on the light before shaking the small lump beneath the blankets. His heart beat wildly inside his ears when he realized it was only a pillow.

He reacted with mechanical movements, four years in the Vigil ingrained into their functions.

Take a step back. What do you see?

The balcony was vacant, and one sweeping gaze around the space had Ren plummeting into his own dread. A cell phone sitting on the bedside table, a pair of sneakers carelessly tossed onto the carpet, a wallet left untouched on the dresser.

We were attacked from behind.

Where are the newbies?

Not here...

Misha burst through the door, panting. "The alarm system has been overridden. And I found this near the back gate."

He lifted a piece of red fabric, perhaps eight inches long and three inches wide. Ren knew it was from the jacket she always wore.

Misha was still talking, but he was too busy punching a hole in the wall. The impact of his fist sent a framed photograph of Markos and Nika crashing to the floor.

Misha gaped, and the only explanation Ren provided was, "Nika is gone. They took her."

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