“I, uh, should tell you that I proposed to River,” I said, not wanting her to think she had any leeway with me.

A flash of bitterness curled her lips.

“Oh,” she said.

Another silence.

“You know,” I said, clearing my throat, “I noticed Horatio seems to—”

“Yes, I know,” Aisha said.

“Know what?” I prodded.

“That he likes me.”

“Don’t you like him?”

She looked away, and a blush crept to her cheeks. She bit down hard on her lower lip. “I, um… I suppose I do,” she said.

The shade of her cheeks betrayed just what an understatement that was.

Then she swiveled, looking restless all of a sudden. She exhaled sharply, and her mouth twitched, as if to say something but holding herself back.

“What?” I asked.

“I-I just wonder. Did you ever like me, like, at all? Or have you always hated me?”

I sighed. “I have never hated you, Aisha. And I certainly don’t hate you now. I’m not going to deny you were annoying as hell when we first met… but now you’re my friend. A friend who, quite honestly, I wouldn’t be able to do without right now.”

Dimples formed in her cheeks as she smiled. Her eyes glistened in the firelight, and for a moment I thought she was about to get all teary.

“Okay,” she said, swallowing. “I guess that’s good enough.”

There was another pause before I broached the subject of Horatio again. “If you like that prince, you should tell him, you know.” I cast her a teasing glance. “Don’t forget, now that your sisters and cousins are free, he’s got a lot of girls to choose from…”

Aisha shoved me in the shoulder. “What are you now, a matchmaker as well as a fairy?”

I cracked a tired smile as I stroked River’s forehead. “Not exactly. Just… a firm believer in never taking anything for granted in this life.”

Aisha and I sat together, chatting quietly and trying to keep our thoughts on brighter things than the obstacles ahead of us. She told me more about her childhood and her history with Horatio, which soon transformed into a monologue of endless circular arguments about why she might, or might not, end up dating him.

“I mean, I like him but… do I really like him?” She posed the question with a profound expression, as though she were pondering the meaning of life.

“Uh… I’m pretty sure that you do.”

“What would you know?” She shoved me in the shoulder again, after which I shut up and let her sink back into her logic-forsaken rambling. Heaven forbid I suggest something, like, conclusive…

I was glad when River woke up an hour or so later. The conversation became a bit more stimulating.

We’d just started speculating again about the oracle’s true intention for this bizarre quest she was leading me on when Aisha abruptly raised a hand and shushed us with such urgency, spit flew from her mouth.

Her eyes were frozen on a spot in the desert and the next thing I knew, she’d extinguished the fire, plunging us all into darkness.

“What?” I breathed.

“There,” Aisha mouthed, pointing.

I strained to see through the night. Finally I spotted it. A hulking stick-like figure in the distance, standing motionless in the sand. It was only a silhouette in the moonlight, but I could make out two long legs which seemed to curve into feet, and long, thin arms that extended to flat… webbed hands? Its head was perhaps the creepiest thing about it. It was thrice the size it should have been in comparison to the rest of its body, and it was almost perfectly circular. What has a head that round and that big? Something told me it wasn’t a creature I’d recognize from Earth.

It moved suddenly—shockingly fast—and in a very unsettling way. It hopped almost like a kangaroo, only adding to its eerie appearance.

“What is that?” I demanded beneath my breath.

“It’s a hunkri,” Aisha whispered.

“A what?” I hissed.

“A hunkri. Just… shh. Be quiet and it should pass.”

It didn’t look like it was passing. It looked like it was heading straight for our mountain.

“Shouldn’t we move from—?” I whispered.

“Yes,” Aisha breathed, realizing her wishful thinking was just that. “Let’s leave.”

“Oh!” River let out a gasp. “There’s another one!”

She was pointing to our right, where, shockingly close, another one of the creatures slunk against the mountain wall, climbing rapidly toward us. This one I could see more clearly beneath the light of the moon. What the… Its thin, sticklike body was covered in mud-brown scales, and its huge head… most of that was a frilled, pleated skin flap surrounding its bulging-eyed, lizard-like face.

“I thought you said we’d be safe in a cave,” I hissed through gritted teeth.

“I didn’t expect us to come across freaking hunkris!”Aisha shot back. “I didn’t even think they lived in these p—”

“Let’s get out of here!” I bundled River onto my back and we launched into the sky.

A piercing scream emanated from the creatures’ throats in unison, matching eerily in pitch. Then, to my horror, wings I hadn’t even noticed unfolded behind their back. Wings like a bat’s. Without warning, they bolted into the sky after us.

“Vanish us!” I yelled to Aisha, hurrying closer to her.

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