21.2 | Speaking Stones and Guilty Ghosts

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This chapter is dedicated to HollyDouglas5. (Wattpad glitched and won't let me use the dedication function for this chapter, so I'm putting it here).

Two hours later, Nika gritted her teeth in an upstairs bathroom at Dimitrovich Manor as a medic named Val cleaned and bandaged her wounds. The dislocated elbow had been the worst of it, but the pain of a thousand tiny cuts and bruises was certainly no parade either.

Val had bullied her into wearing a sling—which was rather miraculous, considering Nika's own stubbornness. So now damp hair hung around her face as the medic secured the strap. It was rich with the scent of jasmine, thanks to a long soak in the tub, which had been a necessary indulgence to soothe the aching misery of her body.

She'd allowed herself to relax for all of thirty seconds when the whisperings had started again. Mercifully, Nika's diamond mind was impenetrable, but she was exhausted. Keeping that blockade in place required focus, and each time the shield dropped, the amulet tried to slither its way into her soul.

I'll give you credit for stubbornness, it now said, Your resistance to my persuasions is commendable.

If not for the keen-eyed medic, and the constant thought of Lu, Nika might have smashed it into dinosaur dust.

She wondered if there was a way to silence it. She wondered a lot of things.

Under Tatiana's influence, the necklace had somehow taken control of Ren. It was magic, definitely, but even bewitchment paled in comparison to its power. It had turned Ren into someone else. Something else.

Her curiosity was an itch she couldn't relieve. Another meeting with Elliot was mandatory, but she didn't know how to make it happen, or if Konstantin's companion journal even contained information about the evil talisman.

It's an antique, she kept thinking. Markos would know what to do. Whether or not it was true, she didn't like the feeling of needing her father.

"I thought you said there were no more injuries," said Val, circling around.

"There aren't."

The medic tsked in disapproval, then pushed back the hair draping Nika's shoulder. If the mirror could be trusted, the bruises on her neck were splotchy, already turning the color of wine, and some areas contained the cruel shapes of fingers. Ren's fingers.


"Don't finish that question."

Val bristled. "If someone is hurting you, then—"

"No one is hurting me." Nika swiftly adjusted her shirt, buttoning it up as high as possible, then fixed her hair to cover the damage. "Just give me some blood pills and be on your way."

"I'm obligated to report this."

"There's nothing to report."

With the shake of her head, Val set a bottle of blood pills on the counter. Then she threw open the door, and to Nika's unending dismay, Ren was standing on the other side.

His stare cut straight to her. With the fatigue and stress of the past two days, he probably didn't have the energy to remember his keeper's mask, and the guilt in his ebony eyes was palpable.

"Please leave," Nika ordered the medic.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Val studying the size of Ren's hands, the strength rippling through his arms, the near-ferocious features. He'd been forged for violence.

When Ren looked ready to combust, Nika hissed, "Get out!"

This time, Val obeyed. A deafening silence filled the void she left until Ren said, "Let me see."


With one intimidating stride, he sucked up the space between them.

"Let me see." A murderously soft behest.

Like the hooves of a racehorse, Nika's heart thundered. Falling victim to the quiet desperation on his face, she lifted her chin.

He cautiously—so very cautiously—unlatched the shirt buttons, one, two, three, exposing the ugliness beneath. Her skin tingled as his fingers hovered above the shape of the bruise.

Comparing the size, Nika realized.

For a flash, she felt the echo of his brutal grip, saw the crimson rage in his eyes. Ren had wanted to kill her. He'd almost succeeded.

His swallow was audible. "I..."

It was strange to see the emotion that crashed down on him. In fact, the whole interaction felt odd. Not to mention intimate. And sinful.

Shaking his head, Ren muttered in his native tongue.

Nika frowned. "I can't understand Russian."

He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath. "I wasn't myself. What...what happened to me?"

She pulled out the necklace from where it hid under a towel near the sink. The moment that scarlet stone touched the light, the sinister murmuring roared to life.

Ren clutched his ears, exclaiming, "You kept it?" Panic and fear bled into his voice. "Put it back. Right now, Nika!"

She swiftly obliged, and all was silent once more.

"That thing," Ren said, pointing to the towel. "It was inside me. It...possessed me."

"I know."

"Why didn't you leave it at the shop?"

"Because it seemed important to Tatiana, and it's the next best thing to the ring."

"Who is Tatiana? And what ring?"

Nika sighed in exasperation. He knew nothing, which meant Misha Kovac was a truly terrible investigator. But she wouldn't say a damned word. Not if Ren would try to stop her.

He swore. "Never mind, just get rid of it. I don't want it around."

"Neither do I, but I need it to find Lu."

"It made me—"

He threw up his hands and, as if he couldn't bear to support his own weight, dropped onto the edge of the clawfoot tub. His fierce gaze pinned her into place, refusing to be ignored.

"You don't want to know what it told me to do." He braced his forehead in his palms. "How can it even speak?"

"I'll find out soon enough. And by the way, I'm not as fragile as you think."

When he scoffed, Nika had half a mind to slap him. But he spoke before she made a move.

"How is it going to help you find Lu?"

"It just will."

"What are you up to? Why did you meet with her kidnapper?"

"I'm not up to any—"

Ren shot to his feet and growled, "Stop lying."

Maybe there was a lingering bit of adrenaline in her blood, or perhaps her nerves had gotten the best of her, but Nika instinctively flattened against the counter. Cringing away from him.

She corrected herself and tried to ignore the utter embarrassment, but Ren only gaped.

"I'm sorry," he rasped. She knew he wasn't saying it just to be polite. "I should go."

And before she could protest, he drifted through the door like a godforsaken ghost.

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