The jinn exchanged uncertain glances with me before we moved forward. I shot a glance at the rest of our group—both vampire and fae—indicating that they stay, but since River was already on my back, and only tightened her grip on me at Sherus’ invitation to follow, I let her stay as she was.

We drifted to the hole and sank inside. Sherus led us through the swirling walls of the tunnel. River filled my right ear with a soft gasp as we emerged in what looked like outer space. The endless, star-speckled void.

“Are you okay?” I whispered to River, suddenly anxious. For a moment I feared that perhaps the atmosphere might not be tolerable for non-subtle beings.

But she replied, “Yes. I’m okay.”

She did not sound like she was suffocating, so I returned my attention to the fae.

“Take us closer to those stars,” Sherus requested the jinn.

He was pointing to the brightest star in view, one that had caught my attention the last time I’d come down here. Obediently, the jinn used their powers to vanish us God knew how many miles closer. When we reached our destination I realized why Sherus had spoken in plural. The “star” I’d seen from a distance was actually four distinct, glowing globes, each with a different hue—white, green, blue, and golden-brown—and very close together. They were aligned in a gentle arc, like a bridge. A bridge of stars.

I looked back to Sherus. His expression was tinged with melancholy. He swallowed before beginning his much-needed explanation. “Those stars you see are the realms of the fae—fae of all elements.”

“What do you mean by elements?”

“Earth, water, fire, and air,” he said, pointing to each of the stars in succession: golden-brown for earth, blue for water, red for fire, and white for air. “Although most fae can affect elements of all kinds, the element toward which a fae is most inclined is that by which he is defined.”

I stared at Sherus’ flaming red hair, and all became clear to me. “You’re a fae of fire, aren’t you?”

He nodded.

“Which is why I have the power to manipulate fire?”

“Correct.”

One way or another, fire seems to run in my family…

“Please, continue,” I urged.

“My father ruled our fiery realm as emperor, but he wasn’t as qualified as my grandfather— although even in his time we’d never gotten on well with the water fae.” So Sherus is royalty. Interesting. My father, lacking tact and intelligence, ended up sparking a feud between our realm and theirs. It spiraled into an all-out war, and we desperately needed assistance in battle if we were to ever overcome them. But my father—as proud as he was foolish— refused to seek the help of others. So I did what any man of my lineage would do. For the sake of our people, I led a rebellion and overturned my father. Once he was beheaded, all eyes were on me—the late king’s only son—for a solution.” He crossed his arms over his chest, memories whirling in his eyes as he stared at his realm. “My sister and I searched far and wide for allies, but fae are not the most, shall we say, liked of creatures. Certainly none of our other elemental brothers would come to our aide. In the end, the only option we had was to accept the help of ghouls… and in the process we formed a pact with them.”

“What pact exactly?” It was Nuriya who posed this question, her voice still uneven from the trauma of last night.

“A pact that was overseen by the oracle twins. In exchange for their manpower in battle, we would agree to serve the ghouls by supplying them with ten thousand ghosts within the span of fifty Earth years.”

I grimaced. I didn’t have to wonder much why fae were so disliked.

“If we failed to meet the quota, we would become servants of the ghouls for a hundred years more. Still, our end of the deal seemed comparatively light, compared to the valuable service the ghouls were providing us,” Sherus continued. “But I should’ve given more thought to it. At the time, I was desperate. All along, the ghouls knew that they were tricking us. They knew such a number would be nigh impossible to achieve.” He glanced at me. “Procuring ghosts is harder than one would think.”

Oh, how sorry I feel for you.

“Most do pass to the other side, and those who remain behind are not so easy to catch. So we found ourselves, and still find ourselves, in a mess. I tried to keep the morale up among my council, but even I have accepted that no matter how hard we work, we will never meet the ghouls’ demands.” He ran a hand over his face. Then he set his eyes back on the jinn. “So this is where you come in… We need you to annul our pact.”

I wondered why a witch—or a group of witches—couldn’t have helped him with that. It would have saved me a hell of a lot of trouble… but then, I guessed, I ought to have saved the Nasiris from the Drizans regardless. “And you couldn’t use witches because…”

“No witch would be strong enough. The oracles, being freaks of nature, have their own brand of magic. One best suited to a jinni’s capabilities. Though even jinn can’t break the pact.”

I frowned. “What?”

“The oracles created the pact between us and the ghouls to be unbreakable… even by themselves. Otherwise what meaning would the pact have? It would be worthless, both to us and the ghouls, if it could be broken. However, since the oracles were overseers of the pact, there is another way the jinn could free us from it.”

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