23.2 | Brief and Endless Agonies

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Luiza Lazarov didn't want to be here. She didn't want to see her best friend chained to a cave wall. She didn't want to feel these unholy emotions as Tatiana and two Volkari males surrounded her.

She didn't want any of this. But captives didn't have the luxury of choice.

Less than an hour ago, she'd been slaving away inside the mobile home, practicing the spells and getting in touch with her power as Tatiana had instructed. Then the betas had shoved a cloth sack over her head and dragged her deep into the forest.

"I wish it hadn't come to this," Tatiana had said through the dark fabric. "But your friend is quite the nuisance."

"What's going on?" Lu had demanded.

Tatiana hadn't sugar-coated it. She spoke of her encounter with Nika at a hedgewitch's shop, and how Lu's sister-friend had stolen her beloved necklace.

"If I don't get Asteroth back, my magic won't work properly. And if you don't help me find him, Nika Dimitrovich will die."

Lu's head spun as they ushered her inside the damp and dark. She trembled as they removed the hood. And now, seeing Nika lean against the wall, wrists and ankles shackled...

Her skeleton turned to putty. She didn't even realize she was falling until one of the betas caught her and hauled her back onto her own feet. There was a pounding in her ears, a screeching wind inside her skull.

She didn't understand. The alpha gave his word that Nika wouldn't be harmed, so long as Lu cooperated. She'd done everything they told her to do.

They must have been desperate. Desperate and insane, if they were willing to risk her obedience for Tatiana's amulet.

It was clear that Nika had already suffered greatly. Lu guessed that they'd tried to torture the answer out of her. But time was essential. Tatiana needed the location now.

Dirt and bruises stained Nika's pale skin, and even the scent of blood lingered in the air. Just how much torment had Tatiana subjected her to?

"I don't care how you do it," Tatiana had said outside. "Just make her say it."

Eyes stinging and throat swelling, Lu stepped forward. She'd always felt that bewitchment violated the free will of others and refused to use it unless absolutely necessary. So she'd bargained with the demon-witch. Instead of forcing Nika to reveal the answer, she would coax her into giving it. Willingly.

This kind of mind-magic was ancient. She'd read about it in the grimoires and witch texts that Tatiana had given her. It was inspired by mythical spiders that lived in the Shadowlands, the home realm of Daemonstri-kind. These spiders were able to spin dream-webs, and Lu would spin one for Nika.

She knelt before her sister-friend and touched her fingers to Nika's temples.

Cracked lips parted with a breath of surprise. "Am I dreaming?" Nika whispered.

"Not yet."

Lu summoned her power. Thousands of invisible currents surged toward her, attracted to the volatility of her fear and rage and love. As she murmured the chant of the dream-weavers, Nika's eyes fluttered shut.

Even in the illusion, they never left the cave. Lu didn't want to confuse the mind too much, or else Nika might have lost it. But instead of kneeling in front of her, Lu was being tied to a wooden chair by the two betas.

"Tell me where Asteroth is," Tatiana told Nika. "Or watch her die slowly."

On the fringes of Nika's mind, Lu felt something. Her mental shield slowly and achingly rose, a wall of glittering diamond. Lu panicked. If she blocked her out, this would fail and Tatiana would continue to hurt her.

So Lu manipulated the illusion, making Nika believe that her shield was already raised. In reality, it crashed back down. She was too weak to keep it standing anyway.

Lu continued to construct the dream.

"Tell me!" Tatiana cried, her voice echoing through their minds.

On the outside, in the real cave, the demon-witch didn't even breathe as she watched.

Nika yanked on her chains, both in the physical world and in the hallucination. "You're bluffing," she croaked. "You need Lu. Why else would you be holding her captive all this time?"

"She is not the only Lazarov witch available to us. The little sister—Franka—will be difficult to extract from headquarters, but she'll work just as well."

Tatiana had already offered to use Franka instead, but Lu hadn't allowed it. She wouldn't let the Volkari take her little sister.

Nika's face was a cold mask, as if she didn't care about Franka. Lu knew that wasn't true, but it was still unsettling.

So she struggled against the ropes and screamed, "Don't you dare touch Franka!"

One of the betas struck her. In the physical world, Lu could've sworn she felt the blow and tasted the blood that pooled inside her mouth.

Nika jolted, chains rattling. "Don't hurt her."

"We won't," Tatiana said, her voice like an angel's. Lu had never heard her speak this way, but Nika didn't respond to intimidation tactics. She was too stubborn to give up. "All of this will end as soon as you tell us where Asteroth is."

Nika's gaze settled on Lu. There was no disguising the battle in those emerald eyes.

"Just tell them," Lu urged.

"I can't."

"Why?"

"Asteroth..." She hung her head. "It's dangerous."

Lu chewed on that piece of information. Nika knew something. What had she seen? What horrors was the pendant capable of?

It didn't matter. If Lu failed to retrieve the location, Tatiana would bring a world of pain onto Nika. Even if it killed her. Lu wouldn't let that happen.

So she willed the illusion further, warping time and casting visions. For every second in the real world, hours past in Nika's dream. Hours in which Lu begged and coaxed, in which Tatiana bullied and screamed.

When those methods failed, the demon-witch ran a knife along Lu's arms. As she bled, Nika bellowed and sobbed and cursed. She tried to break free, but the betas held her, made her watch as Tatiana raised the blade to Lu's throat.

Darkness shrouded the edges of Nika's mind. Lu didn't know how it was possible, but Nika had called upon death. As if taking her life would make them stop.

Panicking, Lu weaved another illusion—one in which all of Nika's wounds had healed, her energy had been restored. Death balked at her reinvigorated state, at the life radiating from her, then scurried into the shadows.

So Nika was forced to watch as Tatiana pushed the knife into Lu's neck. Scarlet dribbled down her walnut skin.

"Tell them, Nika!" It felt wrong and wicked to manipulate her, but Lu continued, knowing it would save her life. "Please! Hel—"

"Francesca Laguna has it!" Nika cried out. "Asteroth is in a vault, in the basement of Laguna Manor." Her voice projected into the physical world, beyond the boundaries of the dream. "That's all I know. Now please...stop hurting her."

A sob broke the words, and Lu's heart cracked open. She withdrew from the illusion, but before she had a chance to throw her arms around Nika, the betas tore her away. As they forced her hands behind her back, Nika sagged against the stone. Unconscious.

Lu thrashed, demanding to be released. But the hood was shoved over her head, and she was carried out of the cave. A piece of her soul, however, remained with Nika. It was a whispering flame on a lonesome winter night, the only source of light and warmth in a world void of hope. 

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