“Thank you,” Ben said, smiling as I announced that I’d finished. He gathered me to him. “And how much do I owe you for that?”

“Hm, you could just… not get yourself killed again? Would that be too much to ask?”

“That depends on the oracle’s next task.”

Ugh. What will she ask for next?

Ben’s mouth closed around the base of my throat, where he sucked gently at my skin. “But for now, you have me to yourself. And I have you.”

He pulled me toward the opposite end of the pool, where there was a small covering of leaves, sheltering a patch of water like a canopy. When we ducked into it, it gave a beautiful sense of privacy.

Settling into one corner, we went still, gazing into each other’s eyes. Now we were alone, and his body felt so tense against mine.

I bit my lower lip, my desire for him making me tingle all over. I moved for his right ear, catching his lobe between my lips before breathing, “I want you.”

His right hand sank into my hair and he pulled my head back so he could meet my eyes again. His expression had gone quite serious, his green eyes hooded and intense. I shivered as he claimed my lips passionately, his fingers moving up my back to the clasp of my bra. He caught the bra’s catch, and I was breathless as he slowly let it fall. Then his hands slid to my waist and he eased off my underpants. Fire leapt in his eyes as he took me in, every part of me, unhurriedly, as though time held no value. I reached for his undergarments and gently loosened and pushed them away. My heart pounded as he was suddenly just as bare as me, the only thing between us a small passage of water. A passage he closed quickly.

My abdomen quivered as it pressed against his. Our bodies molded together, his hands and lips continuing to caress and explore. It felt like the blood in my veins had been replaced with molten lava.

“You’re a goddess, River,” he whispered, drawing a breath.

I threaded my fingers through his hair before wrapping my legs around his hips. I closed my eyes. “Ben,” I breathed. I wish you would just… that we could just…

“Guys!”

Aisha’s voice blasted through the canopy like a foghorn, shattering our illusion of privacy into a thousand pieces. Ben and I froze, our chests heaving, staring at each other, our wide eyes filled with the same expression: disappointment. Agonizing disappointment. She had to return just now? We’d been looking for that mountain for almost half a day so far, and just when… Has she found it already?

It killed me to detach myself from him. We were forced to scramble around in the water looking for our underwear. Luckily the water was clear, and we spotted them at the bottom. Ben retrieved them and we quickly put them on before swimming back out into view.

Aisha was hovering overhead, eyes darting around for us.

“Oh, there you are,” she yelled down, her face glistening with sweat, beaming and triumphant. “I found it!”

“Uh, that’s great,” Ben said. I didn’t think he could sound more unenthusiastic if he tried. His lips and cheeks were still flushed, as I was sure mine were.

“Well, get your clothes on already,” Aisha scolded with a roll of her eyes. “Let’s go!”

Ben

Aisha. She was both a gift and a curse. At any other moment, I would have been thrilled that she had found the mountain so soon. But it just had to be at that moment.

Once River and I were dressed, Aisha transported us away from the oasis and when we reappeared again, we were standing at the foot of a giant blackish mountain, whose single peak was as sharp as a dagger. A haze of thick mist rotated around the top of it.

“Dagger Mountain,” Aisha said, with a flourish of her hand. “I knew it wasn’t far from that oasis.”

“Okay.” I heaved a sigh of relief. “So we’ve completed Hortencia’s second objective to reach the mountain. Let’s check the note.”

River removed it from her back pocket and unfolded it. A new message was already waiting for us there.

“Climb to the top, take your lover with you, and be sure to remain in your physical form. Remember, failing to obey my instructions precisely will result in me disappearing and never assisting you again.”

Assisting. But is that really what you’re doing here?

My gaze panned to the top of the mountain.

“That’s really… really high,” River said nervously, as she craned her neck to look too.

“In case you haven’t guessed from the smoke,” Aisha added, “this is actually another volcano.”

Great.

“Do you have any idea why the oracle would want me to climb up there with River?” I asked the jinni.

She shrugged, shaking her head. “No clue. I don’t even know exactly what’s at the top; I’ve never been up there in my life. Never had reason to. I’ll keep watch while you’re up there, though. Good luck.”

Grimacing, I helped River onto my back. Then I drifted upward, my eyes fixed at the top.

“Do you really think this’ll be the last thing the oracle will ask us to do?” River’s voice was higher pitched than normal.

“No clue.” Anything was possible with Hortencia. Literally, anything.

We fell into silence as I continued to fly upward, until River broke out into a violent coughing fit. I paused in the air, craning my neck to look back at her. “You okay, baby?”

She was coughing too much to even answer my question.

“Hey,” I said, tensing. I guided her off my back and into my arms. I held her in front of me, leaning her backside against the rocks as I examined her. Her coughing was only becoming worse. “It’s this smoke,” I breathed. We’d just broached the borders of the dark cloud.

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