23.1 | Brief and Endless Agonies

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When Nika opened her eyes, all she knew was the hammering inside her skull, the scent of rock, the sound of dripping water, endless darkness, and cold.

Everything was cold.

The surface at her back and beneath her legs was solid and rough. She ran her fingers along the stone.

Clink.

Her blood rushed inside her ears as she moved her arms again.

Clink, clink.

She yanked them forward. Something halted the movement. Metal dug into her wrists. Shackles...chains. They were on her ankles, too.

Suddenly, it all came back. 

She'd been at the manor, waiting for Ren and Misha to return from the hedgewitch's shop. There'd been a noise outside, so she went to see what it was. The next thing she'd known, two men had grabbed her and carried her away. She tried to fight, to scream, but they held and gagged her. At some point, they'd knocked her out.

And now...the cave, the cold, the darkness.

Fear slithered into her veins, closing around her throat. 

Where am I?

What's happening?

Who took me?

Before Nika had a moment to collect her composure, echoing footsteps approached from a tunnel. As her eyes adjusted, she made out the shadow of a woman in a long gown. When the figure appeared, rage came over Nika like an earthquake, shaking to the core. She lurched to her feet and lunged, but the iron fetters sent her reeling back into stillness.

A feminine laugh. "You deserve credit for spirit."

The Romanian accent dragged along Nika's bones like stone on metal.

"If you haven't yet realized it, you're being held captive. And you'll remain that way until you tell me what you've done with Asteroth."

Nika had half a mind to ask what the hell Asteroth was, but silence was her only weapon at this point. Silence and composure and patience. So she slid her keeper's mask into place. On the inside, however, she was crumbling. 

"My amulet," Tatiana clarified.

She stopped advancing a few feet away and swished her hand. Magic snapped through the air, and lanterns that had been hung on the walls ignited, casting yellow firelight around the cave.

Nika ignored the intimidation tactic and said, "You name your jewelry? How...pretentious."

"Where is it?"

"I don't have much experience with interrogations, but I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to be so nice."

Tatiana flashed her fangs. "I was asked to go easy on you."

"Whoever made that request has severely underestimated me."

"Answer the question. Then we may go our separate ways without hard feelings."

Nika instinctively reached out to grab her. Pain lashed through her left arm. With a hiss, she glanced at her elbow, still bruised from the altercation with Ren. The bandage was nowhere to be seen.

Tatiana's smile was vicious. "Perhaps we're past hard feelings," she said with a shrug. "I suppose I've contributed to many of your recent troubles."

Nika disregarded the painful reminder of Miles, Lu, and the Ministry's accusations, then gritted her teeth and leaned back against the rugged rock.

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