River. My fiancée. It still hadn’t quite hit home.
“I love you,” I whispered. It felt like I couldn’t say it enough. Knowing what could happen in just a matter of days…
She kissed the base of my throat before resting her head against me again. “I could live forever like this,” she breathed back. “Perched on this dragon. With you. Here. Now.”
“Me too,” I replied.
Her eyelids kissed closed, and a smile spread across her face. I rested my chin above her head, still stroking her back to warm her. At some point during the ride, she managed to fall asleep. That she felt safe enough in my arms to accomplish such a feat atop a dragon, with no safety belts and hundreds of feet of freefall on either side of us, made my heart soar.
Rose and Caleb moved closer to us, and I began to talk to them in a low tone, answering all the many questions they both had. I remained holding River all the while, my hands slowly roaming the contours of her back and waist. And I felt fuller than I ever had in my life.
When the dragons began descending, River woke by herself.
“Looks like we’ve arrived,” Rose said.
River lifted her head from my shoulder and gazed around, bewildered. It took her a few moments to remember where we were.
The dragons descended rapidly and soon a sprawling lake came into view. Lake Nasser. As the dragons touched down on a small islet, I gathered River to me and the four of us slid off the shifter’s back. I held back with River as everyone piled through the portal. Then, holding hands, River and I leapt in together. As we darted through the abyss, I molded my limbs around her so that by the time we flew out, I was able to give her a soft landing. Not that it would have been hard, anyway. The Dunes appeared to consist of nothing but a massive, coal-black desert.
Aisha, having been unable to exit on this side, was still stuck within the portal. And there she would have to remain. She gazed at us sadly.
“Come back and tell me what’s going on as soon as you’ve spoken to the Drizans,” she said anxiously.
I nodded, though I could not promise that we’d be able to fulfill that request.
Aisha pointed us toward the right direction, while Jeriad walked up front, leading us across the desert. The dragons ended up taking flight again to spot the entrance to the Drizans’ lair. Once they’d found it, they returned to us, allowing us to resume our positions on their backs, and transported us the rest of the distance. We touched down on the sand again outside a giant golden medallion in the shape of a scorpion etched into the ground. Their entrance.
My father, being closest to the door, drummed his fists against it before stepping back. Tense silence followed. I cast my eyes behind me, expecting to see Lucas cowering at the back. But he wasn’t. I spotted him with his son a few feet away from my father, obscured by Jeriad’s towering form.
A loud creak snapped my attention back to the golden entrance. It swung open. Out floated a tall male jinni with wild black curls for hair and diamond necklaces adorning his dark, muscled chest. His hazel eyes roamed us, and his jaw positively dropped open as he spied me, Lucas, and the other three fae.
Jeriad was the first to speak. “We are here to see King Cyrus.”
The jinni’s eyes remained on the fae in our group, even as he shook his head and replied to the dragon, “Not with these creatures.” He prodded a finger toward us.
“These are my friends and are of no danger to you, but of course, that’s not a problem,” Jeriad replied, twisting his head to shoot me a glare.
Taking my cue, I immediately backed away—pulling River with me—and the other fae followed me.
I wasn’t sure what the Drizans had against fae, but this sure was not a good start.
Based on the look the jinni had given Ben, Lucas and the other fae, I was already expecting the worst, and from the grim look on Jeriad’s face, so was he. The Drizan guard led us down through their ornate palace until we reached Cyrus' throne room, which we had visited once before. It was empty now, and we all bundled inside, waiting for the king.
The imposing jinni burst through the door a few minutes later, wearing a golden crown laced with hibiscus, and floated toward us. He had grown a thick beard since we’d last seen him, and he flashed us a broad smile, revealing thick, gold-plated teeth. Apparently he was in a good mood. Something that can only help…
He stopped before Jeriad. “What brings you back so soon?” he asked, his voice rich and hearty.
“I have come to request a real favor from you this time, Cyrus,” Jeriad said.
Cyrus cocked his head. “A real favor? And what might you mean by that?”
“Collecting the Nasiris, as I’m sure you’ll agree, was not entirely a favor since there was such great interest in it for you.” Jeriad’s tone remained polite, yet assertive.
“I suppose that is true enough,” Cyrus conceded. “I might be willing to do you a favor, depending on what it is.”
He drifted up to his giant throne and took his seat, his beady eyes roaming us like an eagle’s.
Jeriad looked at me and nodded slightly, indicating that I begin my explanation. Taking a step forward, I began to recount our predicament as told by my son, even as countless questions rose in my own mind. What do the fae want with the jinn anyway? And for that matter, what exactly are fae? Ben had returned as one, but otherwise I had never heard of such creatures except in fairytales.
As soon as I mentioned the fae, Cyrus held up a hand and lifted from his chair.