“Ben!” River screamed. “Do something, Aisha!”

River.

No. I can’t go back into the bath. Not back beneath the surface.

With a guttural roar I hoped would rouse the rest of me, just as the hunkri had drawn me a few feet above the lava, I grabbed hold of its frilled skin flap behind its ears. Planting both feet against the side of its head, I leveraged the stance to pull hard, tearing the frill from its head in one place.

Again it flailed, and this time appeared to be in more pain. A surprising amount of pain for a small tear.

I shot up and as I flew away, looked more closely at my captor. I realized that it hadn’t been the rip that had caused it to release me, but a leaden spear sticking out of its chest… That would explain it.

Aisha drifted down toward me on her own, licking her lower lip in satisfaction as she eyed the hunkri.

“Thanks for that,” I rasped. “Though I could have used that help a bit sooner. Where’s River?”

She led me out of the crater and pointed toward a cluster of rocks where River was standing, arms wrapped tensely around her waist.

I wanted to pick her up, but reminded myself I would need to wait a while before touching River again, unless I wanted a fried fiancée.

Aisha picked up River and together we soared to find a safer place to recover. We found another ledge nearby. After the jinni doused me with showers of water and ice, my head became clearer, the pain in my skin and brain ebbing away.

“Talk about hot,” River said, once she was finally able to touch me again. She stretched her palm over my forehead.

“Won’t find hotter than me, baby…” I muttered. Ouch. My throat still felt so parched. Leaning back against the wall, I breathed in deeply, rubbing my temples. Then in a panic I asked, “Do you still have the letter?” I feared that it could’ve slipped from her pocket during the struggle.

River’s hand shot down into her pocket and, to my relief, she pulled it out. I took it from her and unfolded it, to make sure it hadn’t been damaged, and in doing so realised that the message had changed already… even though we hadn’t completed the second task yet.

“Don’t ever get cocky, sugar dust.”

Cocky. It took a few moments just to get over my own anger at being called cocky after what she’d just put me through. I bet she’d foreseen all this: Aisha getting lost, the hunkris happening to pass our way on just that very night. Of course she would’ve.

But, reading the note again after I’d calmed my temper, I guessed what she was trying to say was that even now I had procured this fae body, I could never take it for granted. I also supposed that, truth be told, I had sunk into thinking that securing this fae body would be the be-all and end-all. This was her not-so-subtle reminder that I was in no way invincible.

Well, she’d accomplished what she’d wanted to achieve. I couldn’t deny that. This little hunkri incident would stay plastered to my brain for a long, long time.

River

I was still recovering from the shock alongside Ben. All I wanted was to get out of this horrible, frightening place as soon as possible, get done with whatever the damn oracle wanted us to do, and return to The Shade. I prayed that we were nearing the last of her nasty surprises.

Morning arrived; at least now we had the sun. We decided that Ben should rest a little more before continuing our search for Dagger Mountain, but Aisha said that we should move from these mountains—something I could not agree more with. Even though Aisha said night-time was the most dangerous time to be outside in The Dunes, I did not want to run any risks. She took us to an oasis instead. A real oasis, much larger than I had expected it to be. It was like a mini jungle in the midst of the desert: luscious trees, bushes and flowers, and even a reservoir of water.

Ben’s skin was still rough from the trauma, grit from the lava still clinging to him in places. I imagined this cool water would have been soothing as he slid inside.

“While you’re resting here,” Aisha said, “I think I should get a headstart in looking for the mountain. I’ll be back soon.”

“Wait,” Ben said. “Will we be safe here without you?”

“You’ll be okay. As I said, I won’t be long.”

With that, she flew away. Ben shrugged at me. “We’ll have to hope she’s right.”

I perched myself on the edge of the lake, refreshing my feet in the water. I watched as Ben began to swim up and down, his powerful body quickly crossing the reservoir.

Then he swam back to me.

“Aren’t you coming in?”

I hadn’t been planning to go fully in, but finding myself with this unexpected private time with Ben, there was nothing more I wanted in that moment.

Stripping to my underwear, I folded my top and pants and placed them securely on the branch of a tree before approaching the water. I slipped into the water, my bare stomach brushing against Ben’s abdomen as he pulled me to him. I rested my arms over his shoulders, my fingers grazing the water’s surface as he kissed me.

“We should get this grit off you,” I murmured.

Leaving him, I swam to the bank and looked around for anything that I could use as a scrubber. I was leery of plucking any plants or leaves though, in case they were poisonous.

“Guess I’ll have to use my nails,” I said, swimming back to him and grinning.

“Good thing you don’t have claws, then,” he said.

He extended his right arm to me where he had a cluster of the black, gritty substance. I began to gently scratch away at it, trying not to scratch his actual skin. The stuff was stuck fast, but slowly it began to crumble, revealing smooth skin beneath—or at least, as smooth as a man could feel.

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