26.1 | An Intimate Craft

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There was blackness all around, and then an abominable stench.

"She'll need quite a bit," someone was saying.

Nika's eyes fluttered open to find the medic hovering over her.

"But don't give her too much," Val continued. "If you need me, I'll be cleaning my supplies in the bathroom."

When Nika gagged at the rotten, reeking scent, Val pulled her hand away to reveal a jar of yellowish muck. With a chuckle, she screwed the cap back on, and Nika scowled.

Whatever the woman had held under her nose was likely the most atrocious scent she'd ever encountered. She was still gagging as Val stood, zipped up her medical kit, and briskly left the room.

That was when Nika noticed Ren, lurking at the foot of the bed like a shadow thrown upon the wall.

"What's going on?" Her voice sounded—and felt—as if it was made of seashells.

Sighing, Ren swept a hand through his coal-black hair and sat down on the mattress near her hip. Then he stared for a long moment, prompting Nika to assess herself.

Someone had removed her dirty, blood-soaked clothes and replaced them with clean ones. There was a flash of humiliation at the idea of Ren having seen her naked, but she convinced herself that it had been the medic's doing. She'd been through enough torment already.

"Belabane is still in your system," Ren said quietly. His eyes averted to the lamp beside the bed. "You need blood to counteract the toxins, and lot of it. The medic doesn't have enough to do the job, and by the time she goes to the infirmary to order more..."

He fiddled with his hands, fingers lacing and unlacing, knuckles popping.

"I could be dead?" Nika guessed.

Ren merely nodded, and Nika tried not to shiver.

Belabane poisoning worked slowly, taking painful hours, or even days, to build. It nestled into each vital area of the body, where, all at once, it attacked, releasing millions of magical toxins into the bloodstream. According to rumor, it felt like burning alive.

"From the vein, then," Nika muttered.

Blood-virgin. The word clanged through her.

Since she was pixie-sized, she'd been taking blood pills whenever it was necessary, usually to heel bruises and cuts from training. But drinking it—unleashing the fangs that were buried somewhere beneath her gums—she'd never dared. Hadn't wanted to try.

Ren watched her carefully. "At the nightclub, you told me that you hadn't done it before. If this makes you uncomfortable—"

"No."

Nika began to take a deep breath, but the attempt resulted in a jolt of pain through her torso. When she exhaled, her entire body shuddered and shook.

"I have no choice, so let's just get this over with."

Ren rose to his feet, saying, "Can you sit up?"

She braced her palms flat on the mattress and, with a wince, heaved herself into an upright position. Meanwhile, Ren removed his white t-shirt and tossed it toward the foot of the bed.

Despite herself, Nika gawked at ivory skin and defined muscle, reining the urge to drag her hands over his powerful torso. Sometimes, she forgot about Ren's tremendous strength and deadly skills, but as she drank him in now, she felt gooseflesh. He was built like a warrior in mind and certainly in body.

Ren cleared his throat and quickly said, "It works better with skin-to-skin contact. And I'd rather not get blood on my shirt."

If she hadn't been aching in every imaginable place, Nika might have smiled. He almost seemed nervous.

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