I could hardly believe what we’d done. I had proposed and River had accepted. We were engaged. Even though, for all I knew, in less than three days I could be stripped of this body and returned to my previous half-existence.
If ever I’d needed an incentive to hold on to this physical form, I had it now.
Having River accept me the way she had, even though she was fully aware of how uncertain my future—our future—was, left me high. I shot up with her into the sky with abandon, barely paying attention to how high up we were or how fast I was flying.
I lost myself fully in her kiss until, finally, I came to my senses.
Time was ticking and we still had a terrifying number of obstacles ahead of us. If we did not leave now, we were making our chances of success even slimmer.
Pausing in our ascent, I began drifting us back downward, all the while making the most of these last moments we had alone together. I had no way of knowing how long it would be before we would find private time again. We continued kissing and caressing until our feet hit the island’s boundary. Unlocking our lips, I guided her to climb onto my back so that she would be in a more secure position.
“Corrine!” we both began to yell. “Ibrahim! Shayla!”
Then I called out to my parents while River did the same. We shouted out any name and made as much noise as possible, even as I roamed with her over the surface of the barrier.
“Coming!” a voice finally called up. Corinne’s voice.
And then I heard another voice.
To my confusion, it did not come from beneath us, but rather from behind. I whirled around with River to find myself face to face with…
“Aisha?” River and I gasped in unison.
The young jinni hovered several feet away from us. She looked worse for wear. The smoke that surrounded the lower half of her body appeared duller and thinner than usual, and her skin was less radiant, almost gray. Her face looked tired and worn.
“What are you doing here?” I gaped.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, staring at me as though I had come back from the dead. Her face twisted in confusion. “Benjamin, what are you?”
I barely registered her question and all curiosity I’d felt at the shock of seeing her at The Shade evaporated. Excitement coursed through me.
We’ve found a jinni!
Maybe destiny was finally turning a kind eye upon me. About time…
“I managed to evade the Elder by taking a potion Arron gave me.” I gave her a rapid recap explaining how I ended up in the body of a fae. “But it’s on loan,” I said, getting to the crux of the matter. “I can keep it no longer than three days unless I bring the fae a jinni.” Well, actually I had told Sherus I’d bring an army of jinn, but failing that, perhaps one would suffice.
Aisha’s mouth dropped open. “You made a pact with a fae?”
“Yes,” I said, impatient. “Aisha, I desperately need your help. I don’t know exactly what the fae need the jinn to do, but you’re powerful, aren’t you?”
To my horror, her shoulders sagged. “Not any more.”
Aisha heaved a deep sigh and clasped one palm to her forehead, rubbing it wearily. “The Drizans took my family, just like I suspected. I still haven’t recovered from the shock, let alone the grief. Mourning drains a jinni like a bloodsucker. I don’t know when I’d be of any use to you again…”
My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. I was about to ask Aisha whether she could just try — at least hear what Sherus’ task was — but then I realized that was the stupidest idea imaginable. The risk was far too great. If she really couldn’t help Sherus, then I would have returned to the fae not only without the promised army, but also incapable of fulfilling their demands. I was sure he’d swipe my body from me in an instant, and likely, in his rage, even take me back to The Underworld. A place I could safely say I would not want to visit again.
No. I had to get over the disappointment of Aisha not having her powers, or at least claiming to not have them. We were back to the original plan. We had to free the Nasiris from the Drizans.
Corrine emerged through the boundary muttering, “Sorry for the delay…” Her voice trailed off as she laid eyes on Aisha.
“Aisha Nasiri is with me,” I said quickly, “You should know by now that the Nasiris are ally rather than foe.” A notion I understood was hard to accept for Corrine after the Nasiris had turned her into a dove.
Aisha barely spared a glance for Corrine—or River, for that matter—her focus on me.
“Come down with us,” I said to the jinni. “Somehow, we need to save your family.”
The look the jinni gave me made my stomach sink to new depths. “I don’t think that’s even possible.”
But I blocked out her words. I couldn’t believe them. I wouldn’t believe them.
The Nasiris were the key to this body. The key to my future with River. And, dammit, I was going to pry every one of that family from the Drizans’ hands… even if it was the last thing I did.
As strange as this reunion was for my younger brother, it was tenfold stranger for me.
Hell, I was still getting used to the feel of soil beneath my feet, the wind blowing against my skin, the sounds of the living world—so many sounds that I had forgotten even existed. Now that I had been deprived of it all for decades, I sensed it all in far greater detail than I would have even as a vampire. The sensations surrounding me were enough to bring me to my knees, but then to be faced so suddenly with my brother, my sister… my son… My mind struggled to hold it all in.