She paused, leaving me hanging.

“What?” I urged.

“My sister and I… our eyes have diverged.” She let go of my robe and her small palms flattened against my chest, directly over my heart. “Although we are twins, my sister Pythia and I differ in a number of ways. However, never before have our eyes not seen as one. She envisioned a different path for you than I did, vampire.”

Again Hortencia paused, infuriatingly. I gripped her shoulders and shook her.

“What did she envision?”

“I would not suggest that my eye is more accurate than my sister’s,” she continued as though she hadn’t heard me. “Thus, I can only conclude that fate has carved out two paths for you.” Her hands slipped beneath my cloak and then through my ripped shirt, settling directly over flesh. Her fingers felt moist and clammy. The strange black symbols tattooed up her neck began to swirl and migrate around the center of her throat.

“Since earlier today, one of your feet is already over the edge. You are on the verge of being faced with a decision. It will happen soon. Very soon. Whichever path you choose will determine your true identity, and your place in the history of the universe.” Her face tensed, her voice strained as she parted her cracked lips and hissed, “When the road forks, your route will be clear. Either a destroyer or hero of realms you shall be.”

To my horror, her hands slipped away from my chest, and she jolted backward.

“No!” I lurched forward, reaching out to grab her, but it was too late. She disappeared before I could latch on to her. “No!” I yelled again.

Destroyer or hero of realms? What does that actually mean?

What did she mean when she said one foot was already over the edge? The loss of a jinni and the demise of Arron?

But she said I had a choice.

As desperate and hopeless as the situation was, those words shone a light. Ever since my visit to the oracle’s cave, I’d feared at the back of my mind that she was right. That my destiny indeed was to become a soldier of shadows and be lost to the Elders, their slave in helping them come to resurgence. The fact that Hortencia herself had said that her sister—wherever and whoever she was—had seen a different future for me, one where I could be a hero rather than a destroyer, sparked an unexpected ray of hope in me.

But how would this play out? And, dammit, why couldn’t she have stayed a few moments longer to help me? Wouldn’t the rise of the Elders affect her too? She was part jinni, part witch. She held magic. She could’ve easily stayed and at the very least transported Julie and me to our next destination, even if she refused to give us any more information. Would that have hurt her so much?

There was no point in lamenting what was out of reach. She was gone and I was on my own again. Although at least I was now armed with confirmation that there could be another way.

I remained still, watching the spot where the oracle had vanished, but soon it was clear she wouldn’t be returning. I turned around and clambered up the boulders, continuing my search for a boat. Her visit hadn’t changed our immediate plans. We still had to get off this island, and I still had to figure out if I really was going to go through with Julie’s suggestion.

As I reached the other side of the boulders, I was glad to see a small harbor filled with a dozen boats. To my surprise, Julie was also standing on the bay, accompanied by the redheaded witch.

I hung back, watching as Uma’s sister pointed toward one of the boats—a small yet sturdy-looking vessel with a narrow covering over the bow. I didn’t know exactly what kind of negotiation Julie was coming to with the witch, so I figured it was best I didn’t interrupt. I kept my distance until the witch had left Julie’s side and vanished herself, presumably back to the castle.

I ran over to Julie. Her eyes widened as she spotted me.

“Ben,” she said, stepping down from the boat and onto the wooden floorboards of the jetty. “I was about to come and get you.”

“What’s happening?” I asked, deciding not to tell Julie about the oracle’s visit to me just now. There was no point. It wasn’t like Hortencia had offered a single shred of practical information that could help us in our predicament. Besides, the exchange I’d had with Hortencia somehow felt too personal to share with Julie.

“I managed to strike a deal with the witch,” Julie said. “Even though she was adamant that you could not receive treatment without the third ingredient, I told her that she and her sister could keep the two ingredients that we brought with us—the werewolf tooth and the dragon scale—on the condition that they provided us with a boat as well as a sea chart and directions on how to reach The Tavern. It seems you still haven’t decided for sure whether you want to pursue my father’s ship, but at least if we arrive in the waters near The Tavern, we will be in a more familiar place.” She climbed back onto the boat and headed toward the bow. “I did, of course, at first try to bargain with the witch to transport us to our next destination by magic, but she wouldn’t agree to it. So this was the best deal I could come to.”

“Did you ask if she knew of any other doctors who can treat a vampire?”

“I did ask if there was anyone else in the supernatural world who could perform the operation for you, but the witch was tightlipped, as is to be expected, I guess. I don’t see why she’d recommend another doctor even if she knew of them. She told me that there was only her sister who specialized in such treatments. It could’ve been a lie, but we have no way of knowing. Even Arron suggested that this witch Uma was one of a kind in her medical skill and knowledge, and more importantly, in her willingness to treat non-witches.”

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