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Corrine turned to Sofia and me. “I’d like to have a private word with you two,” she said. Her expression had turned stony.

Aiden, Rose and Caleb remained in the room while Sofia and I followed Corrine out of the door. She led us along the hallway and into a sitting room. She made sure the door was shut before joining us in the center of the room. Clearly, she didn’t want to run any risk of Vivienne overhearing, even with Vivienne’s weaker human ears.

What exactly is so secret? My stomach tensed as I took a seat on the couch with Sofia while Corrine began to pace up and down on the rug in front of us.

“What happened to you, Corrine?” Sofia asked. “We were looking everywhere for you on the island, and then it occurred to us that you might’ve gotten trapped in The Oasis.”

“I was trapped in The Oasis. And if it weren’t for River taking compassion on a poor dove locked in a cage, I would likely still be there.”

“They turned you into a bird like the other witches?” Sofia asked. “How long have you been back?”

“I believe I returned the same day you left. We just missed each other. I returned with River because Benjamin requested it. We would have stayed with him, but he insisted.”

I leaned forward in my seat. “What’s happening with him?”

“He…” Corrine drew in a deep breath, clasping her hands together. “He discovered something about himself. He went to visit an oracle and… Oh, God. I hate to be the one to break this news to you… Ben was marked by an Elder as a newborn, and has been bonded with him ever since.”

Even though Nuriya had already revealed this to Sofia and me, my breath still hitched to hear it again, this time from Corrine’s lips. It made the situation seem that much more real. That much more inescapable.

“We know, Corrine,” Sofia said quietly.

The witch’s eyebrows shot toward her hairline. “What? How?”

Sofia glanced my way before beginning to recount to Corrine everything that had happened to us since we left. From the meeting with the Drizans, to the storming of The Oasis, to the eventual discovery of what had happened to our son and how we had just made things so much worse for him.

Corrine sank into an armchair. “Oh, no. I had a bad feeling all along about you leaving to break the jinn’s bond before I had a chance to talk to you. Even despite them keeping Ben as a prisoner, I’d seen how the Nasiris were helping him, and God knows that boy needs help.”

“But what now?” Sofia asked, her voice strained. “What can we possibly do to help my son? Nuriya said that without a second jinni, he won’t have enough protection to stop the Elder from luring him back to Cruor.” Her voice cracked and trailed off into a sob.

Corrine gazed at us with sad eyes. “For all my years’ worth of knowledge, I don’t know, honey. I just don’t know. I’ve already discussed the situation in depth with Ibrahim, and he’s just as clueless.” She paused, and leaned forward to lay a hand on Sofia’s knee. Corrine glanced from my wife to me. “You know, the last words Ben spoke to me before I left The Oasis with River were that this was a journey he had to go on alone. Perhaps he was right. You two instigating the Drizans to damage the Nasiris’ protection of Ben, perhaps that was like… an arrangement of destiny. Maybe he really is supposed to go through this alone.”

I clenched my jaw. In my mind, the question wasn’t whether or not this was his destiny. The question was, could my son survive this on his own?

But whatever the answer was, in a sense it didn’t matter. Each time we tried to help our son, it only ever seemed to backfire. He was worse off now than before our “help”. Maybe Corrine was right. Maybe we just needed to accept that this journey was one Ben had to make alone.

Chapter 5: Ben

I lowered myself closer to the ocean and began to run. I was weightless, floating. Even though my legs moved, my feet grazing the surface of the waves, they merely passed through them. It was as though I hurtled forward by sheer willpower alone. As I picked up speed, I realized that I traveled faster than I had when I’d been a vampire, for I no longer had a physical body to carry along with me.

The sun burst through the clouds overhead. Its rays fell upon me, and I instinctively braced myself to feel the pain, but of course, I felt nothing. The shafts of sunlight shone right through my form, beaming down and making the waves beneath me glisten.

Now that it could no longer harm me, I yearned to feel the sun’s warmth on my skin. I could hardly remember what it felt like as a human. And the sea spray that showered over me, I yearned to feel its coolness and smell the salt. Of course, I couldn’t. It seemed that the only senses that worked were my hearing and vision—although even my sight was different than it was before. I could see things clearly, yet the world surrounding me appeared washed out, its vibrant colors dulled and faded, like a watercolor painting left out in the sun.

Surging ahead, I still wasn’t sure where I should go. I just knew that I couldn’t stay in Cruor forever.

Now that I was no longer a threat to my family, perhaps I could find a gate and make my way back to The Shade. But how would I find a gate? When Aisha had first led me into the supernatural dimension, we’d come through a portal in a strange, black desert. Aisha hadn’t told me which land that was, so I had no idea how to return there.

Aisha. What had happened to that jinni? Was she in that box still, perhaps back on Julie’s ship? I wondered where Julie was now. I was oblivious to how much time had passed since Julie had abandoned me in Cruor. But if the ship was being pulled by sea creatures who were even half as fast as the dolphins and sharks I’d had experience with since being here, I was sure that they would be far away by now.

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