Home > Jinn's Dominion (Desert Cursed #3)

Jinn's Dominion (Desert Cursed #3)
Author: Shannon Mayer

Chapter One

Grief is a beast I’d faced before, but not like this, not when hope had been offered, dangled like a sure thing. And then so cruelly snatched away while I reached for it, fingers aching to hold it tightly to my chest.

A slippery beast, grief slid under my skin and ran down my cheeks, stole the air from my lungs, burned the blood in my veins, and made my muscles ache, sucked the life out of me with each beat of my heart. This was a creature I had no way to fight, no weapon that would slay it. Some say faith was the weapon to fight grief, or maybe love . . . but I wasn’t sure there was anything truly strong enough to hold the monster off me.

At least . . . not right away.

The steady staccato of Balder’s hooves on the hard ground lulled me as we rode south, heading toward the Jinn’s Dominion, continuing deep into the night.

Fatigue rode me hard, both from the battle with Corvalis, and the loss of my brother, Bryce. I let my eyes close as another wave of tears rolled down my face.

Eyes closed, my body twitched as my muscles spasmed here and there. I fell asleep, and that was the first mistake of the night.

But maybe asleep wasn’t the right word because it felt like someone tugged my consciousness down deep, away from my own body, sucking me into a bottomless well with no ladder to escape.

My eyes opened to nothing but sand and sky, the golden glow overwhelming and familiar, the heat of the sun a welcome turn from the cold of the northern clime. Somehow, I was in the desert. Deeper than I’d ever been in a place I didn’t recognize. I did a slow turn, the only sound, that of my boots against the sand.

“Hello?” Yeah, I know, classic dumb thing to ask, but I didn’t know what else to do.

As I turned, the desert turned with me, spinning faster and faster until I could no longer stand, and the sand blurred my vision, stinging my skin. I lifted an arm to cover my eyes as I went to one knee, the other hand touching the ground to steady myself.

A voice finally answered me, deep, masculine and not one I knew.

“Hello, Zamira.”

I put a hand above my eyes to block the sand as it slowly fell around me. The man who’d spoken stood in front of me. His body was thick with muscle from his feet up to his neck. His gray hair was braided back from his face, the tail of it flipped forward over one shoulder. Beach colored clothing and cloak, and I knew why I’d not seen him right away. His skin was a dark golden tan from the desert sun and he blended in quite well. Dark brown eyes watched me closely.

The wind lessened, and I was able to push to my feet. This was a dream—if I listened hard enough, I could hear the sound of Balder’s hoof beats—I knew that and yet it felt very real. And I’d learned to trust my instincts about weird shit like this.

I dusted off my clothes. “Who are you? How do you know me?”

He smiled, skin crinkling around his dark eyes, and I saw a flash of someone I knew though I’d only met him a few times. “Shit, you’re related to Merlin, aren’t you?”

His eyebrows shot up and the smile wobbled, nearly sliding off his face. “Unfortunately, yes. Merlin is my son.”

Oh . . . fuuuuck. This was the Emperor? The one that . . . some people thought I would face and fight? I took a few steps back and found myself against a wall. “I was just leaving.” I turned and he was in front of me, the invisible wall at my back again.

“You would deny me a chance to speak with you?” He tipped his head to the side. “I am not the monster some would paint me as, Zamira. I was a good ruler. I kept order and peace. The Jinn did not rule the desert as they do now.”

I slid sideways, my back still against whatever surface was behind me, anything to put distance between us, and he kept pace with me. “Time to wake up,” I said.

He laughed, and again, I heard a tone Merlin had in his voice, both the hint of magic and true mirth of someone who knew they were free of any fear. “You will wake up when I allow it.”

“Shouldn’t you be . . . sleeping?” I didn’t want to say dead. I didn’t want to give him any ideas on what to do with me.

“My power is growing, Zamira. And in you, I see a strength I had not thought to see again.” He reached for me and I slid sideways so fast, I stumbled and barely kept my balance. “You are afraid of me?”

“No shit, idiot,” I snapped, my fear making me bolder than I really should have been. “You’re the nightmare parents warn their children of before they go the fuck to sleep. The boogeyman.” Oh, my gods, I just called the Emperor an idiot. I was going to die.

I tried circling to my left, but that barrier was still there. Fuckity crap on toast for breakfast, this was not good. Wake up, wake up, wake up!

If I could have slapped my own face without him seeing, I would have. Instead I clenched my hands, digging my nails into my palms. That pain felt very real, but it did nothing to counteract the dream I seemed stuck in.

The Emperor smiled at me, his eyes crinkling like he was nothing more than a kind old man, which I highly doubted was the case. “You may call me Shax. I give you that honor.”

I stared at him. “Why the shit would you do that?”

He wrinkled up his nose. “Really, can you not come up with something other than such a simple question?”

This was insane. Insane was the only word I had for it. “Well, pardon my shit. I don’t really feel like calling you anything, saying anything but goodbye.” I turned again and tried to climb the invisible barrier, my hands splayed over it.

“You don’t wonder if perhaps you could gain from this conversation?” he said. I turned slowly, seeing as I really had no other choice. There was no way out of this situation. The invisible wall followed me, as did he.

“Why would I think that?” I dropped my hands to my thighs, but my knives weren’t there.

He spread his hands wide. “As I said, I see something in you that surprises me. Perhaps I wish to see what you’re capable of. Tell me, if you could have anything in this world, what would it be? To have the shape your father’s line should have given you, perhaps?”

“My brother’s life.” I spoke before I thought better of it.

His eyes widened. “You have a brother? The same parents?”

“What the fuck does that matter, asshole? He’s my brother,” I snarled. Forgetting again who the hell I was speaking to. His eyes narrowed and flashed with a glimmer of gold that was there and gone before I was sure I’d even seen it. “It matters if you want me to save his life. I can find his soul easier if I know more about him.”

Bryce’s soul? Was this even a possibility? With my back pressed against the unseen barrier, I was well and truly trapped until he decided to release me, and I barely dared to hope that I’d heard what I thought I’d heard. I fought to keep my jaw tight and not hang open like some village idiot. “We had the same father.”

He eased back and a tension seemed to leave him. “Well, then, let me see.” He held his hand out to the side, palm facing the ground. The sand swirled and danced slowly turning into a form I knew very well.

I dropped to my knees and reached for Bryce, but my hand hit a barricade around him, concealed like the one at my back. As if he were in a box that was clear, unseen but very much holding in away from me. He reached for me though, his hand against mine. “Bryce!”

He said my name. I could read his lips but couldn’t hear him.

I looked up at the Emperor. “Why, why would you do this for us?”

He smiled down at me. “I want the Jinn, Marsum, dead as much as you do. But I see in you that you could use some—motivation, shall we call it? While you hate Marsum, your grief blinds you. And . . .” He waved his other hand over the sand, and it formed into a chunk of rock with gold and red lines coursing through it. The stone glittered; my heart pounded wildly as I stared at it. That stone called to me like none of the others had. I could almost feel it in my veins as if it would blend with my body. “I want the stone he carries with him.”

I forced my eyes back to Bryce who sat with his legs tucked under his chin. He stared at me and shook his head. Don’t do it. That’s what he was saying. Only I knew there would be no way he’d leave me if the situation were reversed.

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