The wolves materialized from darkness itself. Or, at least, that's what it looked like. One stalked from the woods behind Dante, its eyes glowing harsh and yellow. And though Nika didn't lift her gaze off the thieving boy who'd tricked her, she sensed others, too. Two on the sides, perhaps another at her back.

"Nika," Miles warned from her right flank, "we're outnumbered."

She willed her hands not to shake as she held the gun, its barrel pointed straight at Dante's chest. She'd never had good aim, but if she got a few feet closer, she knew she could hit him.

"Your friend is right," he said, and Nika almost felt sick at the sheer arrogance oozing from him. "But we don't have to outnumber you to win this fight. Which is why you should do the smart thing and lower the weapon."

"Just listen to him," Elliot urged.

"Shut up," Nika hissed. She didn't need him, of all people, ordering her around. Not now. Not ever.

Dante was just attempting to scare them into cooperation. But he'd presented no real proof that his...allies were Volkari, despite their monstrous sizes, or the spark of intelligence in their eyes. They certainly weren't normal wolves, but there had to be another explanation.

As if to taunt her, a beast in her periphery snapped its jaws and growled.

"Surely, you know that Volkari aren't known for being patient," said Dante.

He prowled closer. Now would be the chance to shoot him, but what if she missed? And even if she hit the mark, she wouldn't be able to put down the wolves before they began ripping into her friends.

Hating herself and especially hating Dante Azzara, Nika ground out, "If I drop the gun, will you let us go?"

"Most of you."

Ice formed in Nika's veins, but it was Miles who came up beside her with his hands raised. "If you want someone, take me."

Grinning, Dante said, "A gallant effort, but I'm afraid you aren't the one we need."

Nika didn't let herself acknowledge the wave of relief, and instead considered letting them take Elliot. He was the son of a Minister, after all. The Mirza family had wealth and influence, which Dante could procure by holding Elliot for ransom.

But then again, her own father was a Minister, and equally capable of providing those things. Nika wondered how Markos might have responded. Might he pay any sum, perform any deed, to save her? Nika was his only family, after all. Surely, he'd want to salvage the good Dimitrovich name.

"If I go with you," Nika said to Dante, "promise not to lay a finger on any of them."

Even Elliot. Because, even though she despised him, Nika knew Lu would've been devastated if he were harmed.

"While that seems like a lot of fun, halfblood, we don't need you, either."

Nika was a blink away from shooting him in the foot just to find out who he intended to kidnap. But straight overhead, a blur of crimson dropped from the trees, then someone tackled her to the ground.

As Nika flattened on the grass, the gun flew out of her grip and skidded into a dusty patch of earth.

Ignoring the twinge from her collision with the ground, she leapt up again, whirling and raising her fists.

Bullets be damned. This was personal. She'd fight with her own two hands.

Her breath hitched in her throat as she met the face of a woman with sapphire eyes and coils of hair that looked like they'd been drenched in blood. And before she could wonder where the woman had come from, a grunt crackled from behind. Remembering the enemy at her back, Nika spun around to find Dante only a few strides away.

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