The Vigil never ends, Ren reminded himself as he and Misha rode silently down a midnight highway in the middle of...well, nowhere.

Coniferous giants towered over the slim strip of asphalt that winded around and through the mountains. A passing vehicle occasionally roared past, and he radio continuously sputtered static and the static, but otherwise, there was only silence.

And in that silence, Ren's mind roamed. He found himself thinking of the Sacred Oath, the creed sworn by every keeper.

Protect. Provide. Persevere.

Members of the Vigil had originally been called guardians, but to Konstantin, mere defending wasn't enough.

He gave them his own title—that of the keeper—so that they might not just guard the lives of others, but look after them also. To care. And not just for the moment or for however long they could be paid.

The Vigil never ends.

Ren knew that the sacred principle had been forgotten in these new times, that somewhere along the way, keepers became stewards of purity. Now, they protected the longevity of the Serafi race, and only the Serafi race.

That was probably why Nika acted as though her life wasn't worth saving. Like it wasn't worth anything.

"You're a halfblood," he said to Misha, flicking his eyes to his ashy-haired friend.

Misha ripped his gaze away from the window. "Yes," he said slowly, almost suspiciously.

"Have you ever been victimized because of it?"

He hesitated, and Ren wondered if perhaps he was imposing on some sort of hidden sensitivity. In the four years that Ren had known him, there was very little that Misha Kovac didn't share. But everyone had their secrets.

"I sometimes got bullied when I was a kid," Misha finally said, "and it's been a bit more challenging to make a name for myself in the Vigil without having my dad's help. But I have it pretty good, I think. My parents have always helped me through the rough patches. If I didn't have them, I'd be pretty miserable."

Ren let those words sink in. Nika was the exact opposite. Her experiences with family were as damaged as her reputation. And despite her father's political influence, she had to work for a role in the Vigil. Earn it.

He ventured that there wasn't a shred of stability in her life, apart from Luiza Lazarov, perhaps. But now, even that had been torn away from her.

"Why the sudden curiosity?" Misha asked.

Ren cleared his throat. "No reason."

He felt his friend's attention for a few seconds longer, and then they fell into a considerably uncomfortable silence that had Ren feeling strange.

Something was amiss. Where was the big, Misha grin that he'd always thought was outrageously goofy-looking? What had happened to their usual repartee and meddling into one another's affairs?

"So...where are we going, exactly?" he finally said.

They'd been on the road for a small eternity, having left headquarters nine hours ago. Surveying the forest beyond the windshield, Ren ventured they were well beyond Konstantin Academy by now. A few stops to rest and fill their stomachs were all they'd spared, and Misha hadn't bothered to give a real explanation yet.

"And why did you insist on me coming with you?"

Misha removed a map from his pocket and unfolded it in his lap. He found whatever he was searching for and said, "Take the next left."

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