A Fork of Paths

A Fork of Paths by Bella Forrest, now you can read online.

Prologue: Aisha

As much as the scene beneath me on the ship’s deck chilled me to the bone, even those gaunt, naked creatures couldn’t haunt my mind for long.

I dipped into the ocean to rinse off the gunk from the werewolf’s corpse that had smeared on me, thanks to whoever had dropped it into the box I’d been trapped in. Then, I had to find my family. I had to discover exactly what had happened to them—if my fear that the Drizans had found them really was accurate.

So I left that monster-infested ship and traveled as fast as I could to The Dunes. My homeland. I had barely spent more than a few seconds at a time there since we’d abandoned it. And even those fleeting visits I’d made were without Nuriya’s permission. There was a secret gate in The Dunes—at least, I hoped that it was still secret—that connected to Lake Nasser in Egypt, and it had been convenient for me to pass through.

Now, as I descended into the coal-black desert, I shuddered despite the warm breeze.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I still hadn’t worked out a plan. I paused, trying to clear away the haze of panic and think logically for a minute.

Think like Benjamin would think. That vampire seemed to have a gift for maintaining level-headedness even in the worst of scenarios.

As I took a moment to breathe, I decided that I ought to check The Oasis before venturing further into jinn territory, just to be sure that Bahir had not raised a false alarm and the uneasy feeling in my stomach about their safety was not just paranoia. So I headed to the nearest portal, dove through, and vanished myself back to our atrium.

I couldn’t hold back the tears as I gazed around at our once-beautiful home. Ornaments smashed, doors torn open, gardens wrecked.

“Mother!” I cried out, my strangled voice echoing off the walls. “Father! Sister! Aunt! Is anybody here?”

My calls were only met with silence.

I drew in a deep breath. It took all that I had to not crumple to the floor and weep until I ran out of tears. The Drizans had taken them.

Now that it was verified beyond all doubt that my instinct had been correct, I left the courtyard and returned to the supernatural realm. To The Dunes. I examined the seemingly empty landscape and then began to move, slowly and cautiously, closer to where our enemies resided. I made myself invisible, though I knew that the Drizans would be capable of sensing my presence without sight… they were like bloodhounds when it came to us. It was a wonder that we had managed to survive for as many years as we had without them discovering our location. I guessed that was thanks to Nuriya’s order that we didn’t go out much. The vampires and half-bloods who served and lived above us had been the only non-jinn we’d had dealings with in a long, long time.

I was barely breathing as I neared the landmark of the entrance to the Drizans’ underground palace—a giant scorpion medallion made of solid gold, fixed in the sand. The sight of it brought back dozens of memories, all of them dark and unwelcome.

What do I do?

I dared approach within ten feet of the medallion before stopping and gazing all around me.

I wasn’t even sure what my options were. If I tried to force my way into the Drizans’ lair with magic—vanish myself into the lower levels—if, or should I say when, I got caught, my punishment would be much greater for having trespassed without permission. My stomach turned just at the thought of the kind of suffering that they would take pleasure in inflicting on me. But what was the alternative? Knock on the door and hand myself over?

The only way to verify that my family was still living was to travel down to the Drizans’ prison, where I guessed they were being kept. Or perhaps the torture chambers, even further down in the palace.

But what would I achieve by it? There was no way I was strong enough to free them by myself, and I had no allies in this land. Even if I did manage to break through whatever shackles they were bound in, I knew enough about the Drizans to not be foolish enough to think that we would make it out alive.

I could have backed away and just tried to save myself at least. But I didn’t know a life without my family. What was the point of living with freedom but without the people I loved? I would rather sacrifice freedom than be apart from them any longer, no matter what state I might find them in. At least I would be with them, not all alone… especially now that I no longer even had Benjamin as a companion.

Bending over the scorpion entrance, I knocked.

My heart thundered in my chest as I retreated, expecting to hear the bolts slide open any moment now. What I was not expecting to hear was a male voice behind me. “Who goes there?”

I whirled around to see that it was… Horatio Drizan. Son of Cyrus Drizan. He hovered several feet away from me, a scroll of parchment rolled up in his right fist. Horatio was the youngest prince of the Drizan family. Before my family and I left this place, he and I used to play together as children. I hadn’t seen him since, but strangely I didn’t have difficulty recognizing him. Although he looked very different now—a handsome young man, tall and well-built, just like his father—I recognized those olive-green, slightly down-turned eyes.

I hurried backward even as he tried to close the distance between us.

He frowned. “Aisha?” he asked, pausing. I was surprised that he recognized me so easily.

“Y-You took my family.” I stumbled.

His frown deepened. “My father took your family. Yes.”

“Are they still alive?”

He nodded slowly, his eyes fixed on mine.