After a quarter of an hour had passed, Ibrahim still hadn’t returned.

Derek shot a look at the nearest witches to him—Leyni and Shayla. He gave them a curt nod, and they understood.

Everyone formed a circle once again, and a few seconds later, we were all standing back in the desert.

By now, the heat was unbearable and the blazing sun was high up in the sky, its rays digging into my skin. The witches quickly cast a spell of shadow over all the vampires to keep us protected. Now that I was able to open my eyes without feeling like they were burning, I spotted the three dragons nearby, Jeriad, Neros, and Ridan. Jeriad had one of his heavy wings outstretched, and beneath it stood Kailyn and my father.

On noticing us, Aiden joined us beneath the shade the witches had cast, Kailyn following closely behind him.

“What’s happening?” he asked.

My voice felt so choked up, I couldn’t handle repeating what had just happened. I was grateful when Derek stepped in. “A lot’s happened, none of it good,” he said stiffly. Derek proceeded to explain briefly how we’d failed to storm The Oasis, and how Ben and River got left behind.

I could see Aiden and Kailyn’s heads were reeling at mention of the jinn—creatures most of us had had no idea even existed until a few hours ago.

Derek and I moved toward The Oasis’ boundary, and as we approached it, I began to shout out my son’s name.

“Ben! Ben!”

I was beginning to sorely regret having waited fifteen minutes for Ibrahim. God knew where my son was now. Would he even still be up in the desert? Or could he be back down in the atrium? If he was down there, would he be able to hear us? I didn’t know if they had some kind of soundproofing around the place. It had certainly sounded quiet down there.

To my relief, my son’s voice rang out, loud and deep, to our right.

“I’m here.”

“Oh, thank God,” I gasped, as my son appeared outside of the boundary. He held a wide black parasol over his head to shield himself from the sun, and standing beside him, her arm looped through his, was River. River’s mother and siblings rushed toward her, while the rest of us focused on Ben. I raced up to him, reaching him at the same time as Rose, and we both embraced him.

“Ben!” I choked, smiling through my tears.

I had no idea why he’d stayed behind—perhaps I’d been mistaken, and his hand had simply slipped. And since he had also been holding onto River, perhaps he had accidentally pulled her back with him. Yes, I must have simply misread the situation. But whatever had happened, I didn’t care anymore. I’d found my son again, and we’d also found River. Clutching Ben’s hand, while Rose held his other, I turned around to face our witches.

“Okay,” I said, heaving a sigh of relief. “We can go now.”

Rose and I moved toward the spot where the witches were standing so we could all form a circle again, but to my alarm, Ben didn’t budge. He remained rooted to the spot. I whirled around, staring at him.

“Come on,” I urged, tugging at him.

His face was ashen as he looked from me, to his sister, and then to his father.

“Come on, Ben!” Rose exclaimed, also pulling at him. Together Rose and I both tugged on him at once, but still, he refused to move.

He slid his hands out of ours, and took a step back.

My heart skipped a beat.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, barely breathing.

He shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t come with you.”

“What?” Derek said. I could see that it took all the self-restraint he had to not rush forward toward Ben also.

“I can’t come with you,” Ben repeated, his voice strangely—and disconcertingly—calm.

“Why not?” I asked.

He took a deep breath. “I made a deal with the jinn. In exchange for your freedom, I must remain bound to them.”

I didn’t want to believe what he was saying.

I didn’t want to believe that it was true.

“What are you saying?” Rose gasped.

“I mean that I have sold myself to them,” Ben replied. “I might still be able to visit The Shade sometimes, but only with permission.”

As Ben continued to explain what he’d done, I was barely able to focus on his words. My mind felt numb with despair as I stared at him disbelievingly.

Soon floods of tears were flowing from my eyes. I clasped my son’s hand again and began begging him to come back with us, even though he’d just explained why he couldn’t. I just wanted it to be untrue. No matter how irrational it was, I wanted him to tell me that everything he’d just said had been a lie—or some kind of sick joke—and that he would return with us to The Shade.

I remained holding onto him, unwilling to let go, even after he’d finished answering everyone’s questions.

Rose approached me, sliding her hands down my arms, slowly detaching me from Ben.

I gulped, my vision blurred as I looked upon my son for the last time for… I didn’t know how long.

“I understand why you agreed to the jinn’s proposal.” Derek spoke somewhere from my right. “And it was a choice you made. But I don’t believe there’s no way out of this for you, Ben.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Ben replied. “But after what just happened, I don’t want you coming near this place anymore and trying to help me. Not you, not Mom, not Rose, not anyone from The Shade… I’ve done enough damage already.”

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