Aisha parted her dry lips, shoulders still sagging. “They’re worse than animals,” she murmured.

“Tell us about their lair,” I urged. “Is it possible for us to penetrate it?”

“Not me,” she replied in a strained voice. “I’ve been banished from The Dunes.”

“What?” I asked.

“I’ve been banished. Kicked out. Expelled. There’s no way that I can go anywhere near the Drizans’ palace.”

Oh, crap. And to think that I’d been so excited on seeing Aisha at first, even going to the extent of considering that she might be up to help us solo; now she was telling us she couldn’t even set foot in the realm of the jinn.

“Jeriad.” My father turned to the shifter. “It seems we will need to call upon your help once again in dealing with the Drizans.”

Jeriad’s eyes darkened. “Freeing the Nasiris is not something that we can request. Not after we just agreed to give them to the clan. I must also make clear, Derek, that although my people were on decent terms with the Drizans in the past, and they owed us a favor here and there, we’re certainly not the best of friends. They might even consider capturing the Nasiris as the settlement of their dues to us.”

“But we have to try,” I said to Jeriad.

“There must be something that we could offer in return… an exchange?” my mother suggested.

Both Aisha and Jeriad looked doubtful.

“I’m not sure what on earth would entice Cyrus enough to give up my family,” Aisha said miserably. “Certainly no amount of material wealth.”

“I have a suggestion.” Jeriad spoke up, standing and beginning to pace up and down. “While it would not be wise to ask them to relinquish the Nasiris, perhaps… just perhaps… the Drizans themselves would agree to help you fulfill the fae’s demands.”

That was certainly an interesting proposition. We had to hope that the dragons really did have enough sway left for the Drizans to agree to such a favor.

“Then what about my family?” Aisha asked, looking distraught.

“I do not know, maiden,” Jeriad replied, his brows furrowed.

I turned to Aisha, actually feeling compassion toward her. Too much had happened since my stay in The Oasis for me to continue seeing her as the annoying, jealous teenage girl she’d always conducted herself as.

“Aisha,” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder, hoping to offer at least a little comfort. “We need to just take this one step at a time.”

Ben

It was decided that we would return to The Dunes via the portal in Lake Nasser. Aisha assured us that this was the best way to reach the realm of jinn. I recalled traveling through that portal with Aisha and being curious about the strange world of black sand we’d landed in on the other side. At the time she’d brushed it off and not revealed the truth about where we were.

So that was where we needed to head. Back to Egypt. Back to where all of this had started.

Armed with this single idea of Jeriad’s—clearly the brightest idea any of us had—we decided who would come and who would stay behind. I was deeply touched—though not by any means surprised—by how many were willing to embark on this mission. The lineup expanded to sixteen, and ended up consisting of: myself and River, whom I didn’t even bother trying to dissuade from coming; Aisha; my parents; Jeriad and three other dragons, Ridan, Neros and Tyron; Marcilla, Chantel and Nolan— being fae they could be useful; my sister and Caleb; and finally Lucas and Jeramiah, whom we could hardly expect to want to be separated so soon after their reunion. No witches could come with us, of course, despite how useful they might be. As for Aisha, although she couldn’t enter The Dunes, she could wait outside the realm’s boundaries and be a source of information.

I was sure that Aiden and Kailyn would have wanted to come, but wherever they were on the island now, we weren’t about to fetch them. Besides, my grandfather had been through enough recently. He deserved a break.

We made hurried preparations to leave and headed to the Port, where the dragons shifted into their beastly forms.

I picked up River and settled us both on Jeriad’s back, behind his neck, while Rose and Caleb settled behind us, further toward the dragon’s tail. The others—including Aisha—spread themselves among the remaining dragons.

I placed River in front of me, with her back against my chest and my legs on either side of her, keeping her secure. I wrapped one arm around her waist while my other hand gripped the scales of the dragon. I could’ve flown alongside the dragons, of course, but I wanted to take every opportunity to stay close to River.

The sun had already dipped by now so it did not give discomfort to the vampires among us. The dragons lifted into the sky and picked up speed until we’d flown past the island’s boundary.

Shooting up through a layer of clouds, we emerged beneath a ceiling of twinkling stars. River and I found ourselves with another quiet moment. My right hand traveled up from her waist to the base of her neck. I tilted her head back gently, leaning it over my shoulder, and tasted her lips. She ran her fingers through my hair, pulling me closer.

I realized that she must be cold. She wasn’t wearing warm clothes, and we were flying with great speed and altitude, which made it hard to benefit much from the dragons’ body heat. My body, although not exactly hot, was not cold either. It was lukewarm, which I guessed was better than nothing. I twisted her around so that she faced me, and she wrapped her legs around my waist. I engulfed her in my arms, rubbing her back with my palms in an attempt to warm her, while trailing my lips from the top of her forehead down along the bridge of her nose. She huddled closer to me, gathering her arms against my chest, and rested her cheek against my collarbone.

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