Stepping back from the crater as it belched up a spurt of lava, I gazed down at the pendant clasped in my hand. To my surprise, it had popped open, revealing a little compartment within its belly, where lay a key. A tiny silver key.

What is this? Why did she give it to me?

Typical Hortencia. Puzzles, even after her death. She just couldn’t help herself. Perhaps it was something that Sherus needed.

Gazing at the crater—now the oracles’ grave—one last time, I didn’t stick around to see if I could spot their spirits flying out. I hurried back down to the desert.

“Well? What happened?” River and Aisha demanded.

“They’re dead.”

“What?” River gasped, while Aisha’s eyes bulged. “You killed them?”

“No,” I said quickly. “They killed themselves. Leapt into the crater.”

“Oh, my goodness,” Aisha breathed.

“Hortencia gave me this before she left,” I said, handing the pendant to Aisha. I wondered if she would have a better idea what it was.

She examined it curiously, yet tentatively, as if expecting it might explode. She picked up the small key. Then she shrugged. “No idea what this is.”

“Wh-why would they kill themselves?” River asked, staring at me.

I explained to the girls what happened. By the time I was done their jaws were on the ground.

“So… they weren’t that bad after all,” River said.

“I guess not,” I replied.

There was a span of silence as we exchanged glances.

“So I guess we need to head back to Sherus now,” Aisha said, handing the pendant back to me.

I glanced at the letter I still clutched in one hand. Hortencia’s last message had disappeared. An unexpected feeling of melancholy washed over me as I stared down at the blank parchment. The oracles are gone. It was a shame they had seen no other way than to take their own lives. They could have been infinitely useful to us in this mysterious future she spoke of. I also felt humbled that she had chosen me to impart her final words of wisdom to.

Placing the note on the sand, I pushed it deep, as if in a memorial for Hortencia, a burial that she would never have.

However the world around The Shade would transform in the future, I fully believed that in the short time I’d known her, and the few interactions I’d had with her, she’d made a mark on my character—a mark that would not easily be scrubbed off.

Since we still had time, we returned first to the area outside Hortencia’s cave—a strange place to return now, knowing that she was gone—in order to fetch the others. When we arrived, our jinn and fae were waiting among the rocks, but everyone else, except for Jeramiah, was nowhere to be seen. Lucas was the first to spot us as we approached.

“Where are the others?” I asked anxiously.

“They finally took your suggestion to leave. They trust you’re in safe hands with the jinn.”

Good. I was glad they’d gone back. Now there was just River for me to worry about. She and Jeramiah were the only wholly physical creatures remaining with us.

“So, what happened?” Lucas asked, as the rest of the fae—Nolan, Chantel and Marcilla—along with Horatio and the Nasiris gathered round me.

I recounted as briefly as I could what had transpired, and what remained for us to do now. Once all questions were answered, we left the rocks and headed back to the snowy mountain portal.

Even though we were early, somehow I was already expecting Sherus to be waiting there for us. And he was. But I had not been expecting to see an army of fae with him. There must have been over two hundred fae on the icy plateau, lining up in rows, armed with slender bows and arrows, spears and swords, among other weapons.

What on earth is going on here?

As we descended, I caught sight of Sherus. He looked tense as he paced among the rows of fae, barking orders and checking weaponry.

“Hey!” I called, touching down in the snow.

I really did not appreciate the grim expression on his face after the hell I’d just been through for him.

“So you killed them,” he said. Strangely, it was a statement, not a question.

“Uh, they’re dead,” I replied, frowning at him. “How did you know?”

He reached into a leather pouch fastened to his waist and pulled out a pendant. Identical to the one I held in my palm. His had popped open like mine, too, and a little key rested within it.

Before I could ask, Sherus explained, “These pendants… three were made. One for the oracles, one for the fae, one for the ghouls. The closed metal shells around these silver keys were symbolic of our pact so long as they remained tightly clasped.” He paused, clenching his jaw. “I knew you’d managed to end them as soon as my pendant snapped open. And so will the ghouls. Our scouts have already informed us that they are all but deserting The Underworld for battle. Hordes will arrive any moment now.”

“Battle?” I asked. “What for?”

“Obviously, the ghouls are not happy that the pact has been broken before we fulfilled their ludicrous demands. They will not let us off easily.”

I tensed. “What do you mean? What will they do? Attack and storm your homeland?”

“Attack us, yes. Storm our kingdom, hopefully not.” His eyes left me and wandered across the snowy landscape before returning with a resolute expression. He took the pendant from me. “No matter the repercussions,” he said with a heavy sigh, placing the second pendant into his pouch, “this is our fight. You have fulfilled your end of the deal, Prince Novak. And now… you are free to leave with what I promised you.”

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