“Okay!” she screamed.

Aisha vanished… but River and I didn’t.

In the split second before she’d used her vanishing powers, something long, hot and intensely sticky had wound around my leg, holding me back. When I gazed down, it was to see a colossal white-as-snow tongue extending from the mouth of one of the hunkris beneath us. It wrapped like a snake around my leg. I couldn’t even thin myself, or I would drop River. And Aisha had vanished.

River swore as the hunkri jerked us downward with its tongue.

A blade. I need a blade. I fumbled for a belt, but remembered I had none. Everything we’d traveled with, we’d left on the cliff’s edge.

“Ben!”

Oh, thank God. Aisha reappeared. She shrieked as she saw the tongue around my ankle.

“Take River!” I shouted, even as the hunkri closed the distance between us.

“No, Ben, I can try—”

“There’s no time!” I roared. “Take her!”

I practically flung River at Aisha in my panic. The jinni thankfully caught her in the air. Then, overpowered by the hunkri’s strength, I was pulled right down into its rapidly expanding toothless jaws, mouth and neck. Almost like an anaconda, the creature expanded to accommodate my size and the next thing I knew, I’d been sucked right inside, down its slimy throat, and found myself in the chamber of its gut.

Oh. My. God.

Can this night get any worse?

Ben

I tried to thin myself, but horrifyingly, I couldn’t pass through the walls of its gut. I didn’t know why. Was it because I was covered with too much of the creature’s gut grime? Or was there something special about its constitution that prevented me from passing through it?

Whatever the case, I was certain I was going to puke inside this hunkri. Murky-looking stomach juices sloshed around as the hunkri hurtled through the sky. A disgusting gaseous smell overwhelmed me. I had to try to escape through its mouth, but gazing up, I couldn’t see an exit. It was like the roof of its mouth had sealed over me, locking me inside.

I pounded with my fists against the side of the creature, hoping to make it feel as sick as I was feeling. It didn’t seem to hamper its flight at all. If anything, it felt like it was speeding faster.

Where is Aisha?

I’d been hoping she could hurl a curse at the creature after catching River. No luck there. I prayed the girls were all right and hadn’t been claimed by the other monster.

Without warning, the hunkri’s stomach contracted. I was tipped upside down on my head. Its mouth opened and then I was falling, through its neck, jaws, until my body hit a sharp, rocky surface.

Before I could even orientate myself enough to attempt escape, the hunkri’s wide, powerful webbed feet kicked me right in the gut, sending me rolling until I slipped over… a ledge.

The next thing I was aware of was heat. Heat unlike anything I’d experienced before. I had plunged into a thick, gritty liquid of some sort. I couldn’t breathe. I waded through it, fighting to reach the surface. As I opened my eyes…

Oh, wow. No wonder I feel hot.

Bright red lava bubbled around me. Charred black walls surrounded me on all sides. The hunkri had kicked me into a crater filled with molten lava. Directly above was an opening—where the lava no doubt would spurt—and beyond that was the dark sky.

This is… something.

My whole body was blazing with fire. But unlike the burning sensation I’d experienced earlier, back in the Drizans’ palace, this was unpleasant. Intensely unpleasant. Like someone was stabbing me with daggers all over my body. And it was getting more unpleasant by the minute. I might be a fire fae—whatever that meant—but was there only so much of an element that a fae could take?

A bubble of lava nearby exploded in my face. Then came a deep splash. As if I wasn’t in enough hot water already, the hunkri had just dived into the pool and resurfaced next to me. Grabbing hold of my head, it submerged me again in the lava.

Ugh, get off me, you bastard. What was it trying to do? I’m not interested in bath time with you.

I managed to resurface, but the creature only grabbed me and pushed me down again. I could imagine how comical this would look to any onlooker, this lively game of whack-a-mole, but humor was the last thing on my brain as I fell short of breath. I managed to distance myself enough to resurface and gasp in more than three seconds of air before it hammered me down again. It was like it wanted to cook me or something. Since it didn’t have teeth… was it trying to cook me into a homogenous mush and then eat me?

Instead of continuing the foolery of attempting to distance myself from it, I decided to move right up to it. How I wished that I possessed the claws of a vampire in that moment. Gripping hold of the webbed hand that descended to bash me down again, I dug my fingers into it, holding it in place, before kicking sharply upward at its thin elbow joint. Bone cracked, followed by an obnoxious scream.

It flailed and let go of me, allowing me to rise to the surface.

“Ben!” River’s voice echoed down from above.

I gaped upward to see her hovering with Aisha high above the opening of the crater. At least they were okay. They’d found the hunkri’s trail. My head pounding with a migraine like no other, I shot upward. But not for long. Even with a broken arm, the hunkri wasn’t letting go of its meal so easily. It lunged for me again with its tongue, this time gripping me by the waist.

My vision was becoming blurry. It felt like my brain was overheating. I had to… get out of… this heat. Whatever strength I had remaining ebbed out of me as the hunkri dragged me back down. I was slowing down. Shutting down.

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