31.1 | A Grave Revelation

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Darkness veiled the world, and if not for her defiance, it might have veiled Nika, too. She lay in the grass, watching through fluttering leaves as the eclipse grew closer to totality, trying to ignore the throb in her shoulder. Moving wasn't an option; she still felt it dislodged from the socket.

Ren was kneeling beside her, muttering apologies over and over again, no matter how many times she said it wasn't his fault. He broke the manacles with his bare hands—something she marveled at even as he explained why he'd come to the cemetery.

"I know you're mad," he was saying, "But after realizing that Dante killed one of his own, and after Elliot told me they'd be breaking the curse, I just..." A sigh.

Nika frowned. "Why would I be mad?"

He met her gaze, and despite the haunted gleam in his eyes, his mouth twitched with a smile. But it fell in a flash as he said, "Your shoulder." He circled around to her left side and inspected the injury for a moment. "I can reset it."

Nika expelled a long breath and nodded. "Do it."

She felt the pain before she heard the pop, surging upright with a hoarse cry. Ren cradled her neck and whispered into her hair, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

As her breath slowed, she drew in the scent of him, the warmth of him, letting his guilt run its course. There was no point in assuring him if he hadn't yet forgiven himself.

"I understand," Ren rasped, "if you don't—"

Heat rippled through the air, followed by a wave of ethereal blue light. It poured through the trees in tiny rays, as if an ancient star had exploded inside the cemetery beyond the grove.

As it washed over them, Nika moved her fingers, and the light speared around them in an eager dance. But her awe vanished as a harrowing thought struck her.

"The ritual. It's starting."

She craned her neck, and sure enough, only a sliver of sunshine remained behind the moon's shadow. In the distance, a column of magic shot into the sky, quivering like volatile particles about to burst.

"We have to break this ward," she said, tugging on Ren's leather jacket.

He helped her stand, and together, they scoured the small clearing in which they'd been trapped, hunting for a way out. The ward appeared to be a dome, ruling out the option of climbing over it.

So Nika offered, "Maybe we can bust through."

She picked up a rock and hurled it at the shield, but the magic only rippled upon impact and sent it bouncing to the ground with a thud.

"Give me your knife," she said, extending her hand toward Ren.

He removed the blade from his boot and placed it in her palm. "What are you going to—"

With a thrust of her arm, she plunged it into the translucent barrier. And nothing happened. Nika huffed in frustration, tugging on the handle, then tugging some more.

"It's stuck," she said through gritted teeth, pushing the ward with a foot.

Ren brushed her aside. "You'll hurt yourself. Let me do it."

He yanked out the knife with barely a tug, and the tiny slice in the ward healed itself immediately.

Nika stared. "No. This can't be happening." She pounded on the wall with her good arm. "Help!"

"It's probably sound pr—"

"Anyone?"

She punched it, kicked it, rammed her side into it. And when she backed up with the intention of throwing her entire body against that barrier—injury be damned—Ren intercepted her.

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