My chest swelled with relief. As soon as Sherus had started talking about the impending battle between the fae and the ghouls, I’d been expecting him to spring on me another hoop I’d have to jump through before he’d allow us to keep our bodies. But Sherus had proven himself to be a man of his word. He might not be at the top of my friends list—or anywhere near it—but I respected and recognized the fact that he had at least some integrity.
I could not bring myself to say thank you, but I bowed my head slightly.
He nodded curtly, then pivoted on his heels, heading back into the midst of his army, where he busied himself again in preparations for the looming attack.
I turned to my companions. Eyeing the line of jinn, I smiled faintly. How ironic it was that, after everything, we had not even needed them for Sherus’ task. The oracles had done the job for them… though Sherus didn’t need to know that.
If the ghouls were heading this way, we ought to get a move on. I did not want to get caught up in the crossfire, especially not with River around. We left the fae’s plateau and moved to a mountain several miles away, where we could talk without anxiety.
It still hadn’t registered in my brain that this was where my journey was supposed to end. My wild, crazy journey that had started the day my father had turned me into a vampire—or even far before that, if you counted my encounter with Basilius.
I kept thinking something else was about to come flying at me. Another blow to return me to my knees, another bombshell to shatter me.
River slid off my back. Standing on my feet to keep her soles from touching the snow, she gazed up at me.
“This… this is it?” she breathed, only half believing it herself.
“I guess so,” I said slowly, like I was drugged.
I’d gotten rid of my old infected vampire body, and managed to find a brand-new one—one that would hopefully last me for the rest of my life.
And River and I… we could be together. We could marry.
What more was there to solve?
Yet there was a nagging at the back of my head. A tugging in my chest. That this couldn’t be the end, not yet. There was still something I had to accomplish… and as I recalled Sherus’ words, I knew what it was.
“… they are all but deserting The Underworld for battle.”
Those poor ghosts, cooped up like animals in that ghastly realm. They were doomed to a fate that was probably worse than actual hell.
We, on the other hand… We had jinn with us. We had fae. Both subtle species who could meet the ghouls on their own terms. I’d seen Sherus and his companion chop off ghouls’ heads before. Even if there were ghouls who remained in their home to keep watch, we could handle them, couldn’t we? We’d leave River and Jeramiah well away from the entrance, and leave a jinni to keep them safe.
I didn’t know if such a large-scale evacuation of the ghouls would ever happen again in the future, or had ever happened in history for that matter. After being gifted this fae body, it felt like my responsibility to return for those poor souls we’d left behind.
I surveyed the expectant faces around me. “Before I head back to The Shade, I have some unfinished business to see to. I am not insisting that any of you come with me, though I will appreciate all the help I can get.”
River’s brows knotted in a frown. “What, Ben?”
A trip down Nightmare Lane.
Everyone’s faces dropped as I explained what I wanted to do, but not one of them backed out. Not even Lucas.
The jinn vanished us from the mountain peak and transported us to the bank of a swirling lake in the heart of a forest. In the center of the lake was the mouth of the whirlpool. I realized that this was the first time I’d actually seen its exterior. Each time I’d been flown in and out so quickly that I had not gotten a chance to take a proper look at it.
We decided that Nuriya would hide somewhere safe in the forest with River and Jeramiah, because Nuriya was still the weakest of the jinn, being in recovery from that nasty poison bath Cyrus had given her. Once they were gone, the rest of us launched into the air and approached the vortex. We dove through the swirling waters and were soon enshrouded in darkness before being flung out into The Underworld’s all-too-familiar entrance cavern.
A horrible sense of déjà vu rolled over me as I played over in my head all the desperate hours I’d spent in here, plotting to escape. But now I was back. Back with a vengeance.
I soon spotted six ghouls, perched on some rocks near the entrance. Since we were in our subtle states, they hadn’t noticed us yet. Glancing back up at the entrance, I realized they had fixed the net over it, yet we had passed through without noticing. Perhaps the net was only effective with ghosts.
We shot toward the winding canal and wound through it to the cavern that housed the main door to The Underworld. As we drifted through and began scoping out the chambers, it was clear that, although there were some ghouls floating around, none of them looked in any particular urgency to go anywhere, which in all likelihood meant these were the ghouls who had stayed behind, and most of the others had already left.
We gathered together in a shadowy corner and formed a plan for how best to free the ghosts. We couldn’t risk getting them into hot water by allowing the ghouls to catch them out of their pools before they ever managed to escape the place.
I suggested that the first thing we had to do was clear the exit. The net had to come down. I assigned the task to a group of five jinn, while the rest of us—armed with swords and spears provided by the jinn—began to approach the pools. Thankfully, there were currently no ghouls in the chamber we were in. Lucas, Marcilla and I dipped into the water of the same pool at once. We sank down and gazed around at the ghosts’ fearful faces. It did not help that we were fae—the very creatures who had kidnapped them here in the first place. Even those ghosts I recognized vaguely from my time here—and whom Marcilla must have known well—cowered away from us. It took all that we had to convince them we’d come to help them.