19.3 | A Brewing Storm

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The bullet went BANG! and Nika went whirling.

She moved with milliseconds to spare, and the silver projectile scraped her cheekbone as it passed. Everything after was instinct.

Grabbing Ren's wrist, she struck the gun from his grip. It clattered on the floor, and one hard kick had it careening out of sight.

Nika searched the keeper's eyes. Crimson violence receded to ebony. He shook his head, staggering.

"Ren?"

They were close. Close enough for their breath to mix, for his cologne—rain-ridden sandalwood and sweet traces of vanilla—to settle inside her senses.

Confusion bled through his features. Tatiana hissed unintelligibly somewhere from behind. In a heartbeat, Ren's demonic look returned.

Nika felt the floor before she felt his blow. The polished surface screamed against her skin as she skidded down the nearest aisle.

She was back on her feet in a flash, and Ren took one stride, two strides. She braced herself, letting every training technique she'd learned pour into her mind and body.

Ren swung, Nika ducked, coming around to his other side. When he turned, she sent her fist flying into his ribs. It barely fazed him.

"Snap out of it!" she cried.

He threw another punch, his knuckles grazing her nose when she lurched backward.

And so they fought. Nika didn't know how many times he attacked and she dodged before she was standing in the main aisle again.

She glanced at the exit, at its beautiful promise of escape. It would have been easy to run, to leave Ren with Tatiana, who lingered near the cashier counter, watching them. But what would she do to him? Clearly, her reptilian necklace was controlling his mind. Could it also kill him?

The hesitation cost her.

Ren was before her again, and he threw her body down among the mess of broken glass and splintered wood.

When Nika regained the breath knocked from her lungs, she latched onto a shard and hurled it like a dagger into Ren's shoulder. He snarled in pain. Blood spewed from the wound.

Nika stole the opportunity to get back on her feet. Ren ripped the glass out and threw it on the ground. The raving foulness in his glowing eyes intensified. And so did Nika's panic.

The witches, she could've handled. She'd been trained to fight for years. But Ren...

His steps were ominous and patient as he drove her backward. It was as if he wanted to savor her rising fear.

Nika picked up another piece of glass and threw it at him. It sliced his thigh. But he kept onward.

She resorted to screaming his name. He didn't listen, didn't even speak.

"Please, stop."

Her voice was a rasp, and she felt the world collapsing on itself. When her back flattened against the wall, she whimpered.

"This isn't you," she whispered. "She's taken over your mind."

Two more steps and he would be on top of her.

"Re—"

A large hand around her throat smothered the word. Ren lifted her up, crushing her windpipe. His fingers dug deep—like death to a carcass. She gagged and clawed, writhed and pushed, but he was too strong.

Never in her life had Nika felt so helpless. So weak. The grim terror of oblivion was a night-bound wind. Cold and dark and ruthless. It howled her name.

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