4.1 | Golden Eyes

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Usually, crickets chirped like a choir at this time, but tonight, they swapped buzzing alacrity for silent sorrow, and the feeling was contagious. As Lu and her four companions lingered inside the creaky, abandoned cabin, her heart thrummed with a plaintive note.

"It feels smaller," Miles said.

Indeed it did, despite the extra space. For the past three hours, Lu, Miles, and their friends had been cleaning their hangout as instructed. The usable furniture had been taken away, and the rest had been sorted and piled.

Gone were the vibrant teals and reds of the Aztec rug, gone was the texture of ivory deer antlers mounted on the walls. Boxes with miscellaneous junk and nicknacks were all that was left.

Lu would miss it. The stale scent of old wood, and even the stubborn cobwebs that she never seemed able to remove. This dilapidated structure had become a cozy haven these past years, and she clung to the freedom and tranquility that permeated every molecule of air.

Her gaze found Nika leaning against the door frame. With her hands shoved in the pockets of a red jacket and golden-brown hair fastened into brutally tight braids, she surveyed the room.

Kovachev had set her free shortly before announcing that the lockdown was over and the investigation had closed. It was all quite suspicious, especially the phone call between the headmaster and High Keeper Kovac.

Studying Nika's determined expression, Lu knew she hadn't stopped thinking about it. She wondered if her sister-friend's interest originated from genuine curiosity or fear of being framed for theft.

"We were bound to get caught sooner or later," Lu announced for all to hear.

Jade scoffed. "There are only two more months of school. We might have made it to the end, if Nika hadn't ditched class."

Nika's green eyes marked Jade like a target, flashing with vexation. "I won't be guilted into an apology for losing the hangout. My mind is occupied by more pressing concerns at the moment."

They shared a seething look, but it was nothing out of the ordinary for them, and a heartbeat later, everyone returned to wistful sighs and reveries.

"We should get going," Miles said after a few minutes. "I'm gonna be late for a training session."

He and Elliot leapt down from the piles of boxes on which they'd been perched. Elliot landed with all the elegance of a blooming rose and strode toward Lu, hooking an arm around her shoulders.

She smiled, taking in the slender height and olive-toned face of a cherub. Elliot's Arab beauty had a way of making Lu's stomach flutter, and despite him being trapped in the awkward stage between boy and man, she was happy to own the privilege of kissing him whenever she pleased.

They followed Nika outside, with Jade trailing behind them. A full moon gleamed bright in the sky, drowning the midnight canvas in silvery light.

Miles jogged ahead and fell into place beside Nika, saying, "Can we talk about what happened last night?"

"Shh, not now."

Lu's curiosity perked at the brief exchange. It was no secret to her, or anyone else present, that Nika and Miles danced on a strange line between friends and lovers.

Lu had suspected Miles's feelings for months now, and had warned Nika what a prolonged arrangement would incite. She wondered if "what happened last night" marked the final tipping point.

"Oh, no," Elliot mumbled. "I know that look."

Lu frowned at him. "What look?"

"Stay out of their business."

"Nika's business is mine, and mine is hers."

"And yet, you're dating me against her wishes."

"That's different."

Elliot winced. "Don't think so."

Lu opened her mouth to protest, but her chin slammed against Nika's skull, and a hiss of pain came out instead.

Elliot pressed his lips together, restraining a laugh. Lu scowled at him and rubbed her sore chin, exclaiming, "What are you doing?"

For Nika stood like a pillar, squinting into the woods, as if her vision pierced all the way to the other side.

"Can you see that?"

"See what?" Jade said, strolling up on Lu's left.

Nika pointed to some spot between the trees. "Two yellow dots. I swear, they've been following me all night."

All Lu saw were the vague shapes of trees and utter darkness. "I don't see—"

"Watch."

So they did, and long seconds passed. And just when Lu began to feel ridiculous, two orbs flickered to life amid the foliage, like distant torches.

Elliot cocked his head. "They're getting bigger."

"Brighter, too," said Jade.

"What are they?" Miles murmured.

Nika snuck forward. "They almost look like—"

A collective gasp burst from all of them, and Lu's heart plummeted into her stomach. Because the bushes—they were stirring, right where those specks of light shimmered. A leg poked out of the forest, then a copper-tinted arm, and before Lu remembered how to breathe, she found herself staring at the young man she'd seen in a photograph only hours before.

"Dante," Nika growled.

A pearl-white smile sliced across his handsome face. "I'd hoped to meet you again, halfblood. But so soon—it must be my lucky day."

His arrival alone was enough to thicken Lu's blood, but there was something utterly wrong about him. Perhaps it was those eyes, which Nika had claimed to be a unique shade of brown. But right now, they were gold. It wasn't any trick of the light, because they continued glowing as intensely as a shadow-eating blaze. And whoever or whatever Dante Azzara was, Lu sensed the unmistakable presence of danger. 

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