FOUR

Wind shears and lightning strikes are likely in the Norman area, with a large high-pressure system advancing from the northeast; possible severe weather is likely for this evening. Residents are urged to stay aware of changing weather conditions.

People were talking.

I didn’t think they were talking to me. They were talking about… about somebody being dead. There was shouting and noise. Metal.

Somebody was saying my name, over and over. I tried to open my eyes, but then I realized I couldn’t because they were already open. There was nothing to see, though. Just light. Bright blue-white light.

Was there something wrong with me? I tried to blink my eyes, but nothing seemed to move. If I had something wrong with me, I’d be in pain, wouldn’t I?

Maybe I was just tired. I’d been tired for so long.

Maybe now I could sleep.

I wished people would stop talking to me. It was really annoying. And there was something touching me, something hot.

And then there was something cool on my face. Wet and cool.

Water.

The second time was easier. I came almost all the way up from the dark, heard voices, recognized David murmuring something soft and liquid that didn’t sound like words, not any words I knew. That was all right. Just the sound of his voice was all I needed.

There was another voice, too. A woman’s. I knew it, but… but I couldn’t remember. Eventually I felt something soft under my head, felt road vibration quivering in my skin, and knew I was lying down in a car. The hard lump of an unfastened seat belt lay under my left hip.

I opened my eyes on a dull carpeted roof the color of nothing, heard the humming of tires on wet road, and smelled—weirdly enough—blueberry muffins. I moved a hand, carefully, and it hurt—hurt everywhere. It felt like every nerve in my body had been mapped in hot wire. There was an aching sore spot on my right foot, another at the top of my head.

No question about it, I was lucky to be alive. If I hadn’t been insulated by Delilah’s steel frame…

My hand was still in the air. I stared at it, baffled, and realized I’d forgotten to let it fall down. Before I could do so, somebody reached back and captured it.

David. He looked back over the passenger seat at me. Dressed again in his road-dude disguise, complete with glasses. No sign of the cuts and scrapes he’d had back at the motel. No sign of any damage to him at all, except in the wounded darkness of his eyes.

“You’re okay?” I whispered. My throat hurt like hell, and I was so thirsty, I felt like I’d been freeze-dried. And cold. Very cold. His hand radiated warmth into me.

The Demon Mark moved inside me, just a slight stealthy crawl. I closed my eyes and fought it, but I was so tired, so drained.

It kept moving. I felt David trying to stop it, but he was drained, too. Too tired to save me now. I had to save myself.

I reached down and choked the black terrible thing with as much self-control as I had left in me. It writhed and tried to slither around me, but I held it until it stopped its quivering progress.

“I’m okay,” David answered me when I opened my eyes again. “Easy, take it easy. Rest.”

“She’s awake?” The woman’s voice, the one I almost recognized. Spanish accented. Slightly slurred. I squinted, but all I could see in the rearview mirror was a flash of dark eyes. “Mira, Jojo’s back among the living.”

And then I knew who she was, with a burst of happiness that exploded right out of my core. It hurt to smile. I did it anyway. “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…”

She laughed that silvery laugh I remembered so well, and glanced back from the driver’s seat. Still beautiful, Estrella Almondovar, my good friend. At least on that side of her face.

She joined in with me in a duet. “Say a prayer, say a Mass, keep this fire off my ass.” It wasn’t the way the children’s rhyme went, but it was our variation. And she finished by holding up the middle finger on her right hand in the universal screw-you symbol. A tiny flame danced on its tip.

“Chica, you’re still crazy,” she said. “But then that’s why I love you so much.”

After my disastrous Yellowstone getting-back-to-nature camping trip, Estrella and I talked every week. I ran up my mom’s phone bill to outrageous levels; like the teenager I was, I could talk about nothing for hours, and Star was more than happy to go along with it. She was lonely, and we were soul mates; somehow, we could find a telephone book funny, if we talked about it for more than two minutes.

Star was the only friend I had who understood.

So. My intake meeting happened, Princeton happened, graduation happened (and wasn’t that something, but that’s a story for later). Fast-forward to 1999, and my rotation as a Staff Warden on the Help Desk. We call it something more official than that, of course—the Crisis Center Support System—but really, it’s a Help Desk, just like ones computer departments all over the world have in place, and for much the same reasons. When things go wrong for the Association, they go wrong in a big way, and communication is everything because the aetheric doesn’t carry sound for shit. Everybody gets a turn in the hot seat at the Help Desk, which is run 24/7 with a minimum of twenty staffers, who are empowered to do everything from troubleshooting to calling National Wardens out of bed in the middle of the night.

About six days into my tour, I got a phone call from— who else? — Star. There was a wildfire out of control in Yellowstone, and the Regional Warden was on vacation; Estrella and her boss felt that it was serious enough to escalate it and get specialty teams on the job. A Yellowstone fire is no laughing matter. It’s one of the richest natural preserves left in the United States, and it’s also a sinkhole of random energy; put the two together, add any kind of instability, and you get disaster.

We laughed, we chatted, we talked. Two friends catching up on time lost. She wasn’t really worried.

Except it got worse. I could tell that from the tone of her voice. It changed from light to businesslike to dead serious as she fed me map coordinates, burn rates, wind speeds, all the alchemical elements that went into making up a disaster.

“Got it,” I said, typing the last of the data into the system. There was a dull sound in the background, like airplane noise. “Hey, you want to turn the stereo down? It’s getting a little loud on this end.”

She coughed. Dry coughs at first, but they raised goose bumps on my arms. “No can do, babe. Guess you’ll just have to yell.”

“Is that the fire?” Close enough to roar like that? Oh, God. I knew that Estrella was calling from a Ranger Station somewhere near the edge of the blaze. As a Fire Warden, she had to be close to work her magic—not like Weather Wardens, who can manage things from miles or even countries distant. Fire was too interactive. It required real risk on the part of those who engaged with it. But I’d never imagined how close, or how much risk.

“That or somebody’s throwing one hell of a barbecue.” She started coughing. Thick, choking coughs. I was sitting in a Situation Room on the nineteenth floor of the Association offices in Chicago, and I could still hear the crackle of the fire; it wasn’t just close, it was right there. All around her. “Aw, shit.”

“What?”

More coughing. When it stopped, I heard the sound of things bumping, crashing. “It’s blocking the front. Hang on, I’m going for the back door.”

“Estrella?” No answer. I could hear her hoarse, heavy breathing, could almost taste the smoke.

“Bastard’s cut me off,” she said at last. I could tell from the shaking in her voice that she was really scared this time. “Hey, Jojo? This is really getting screwed up. I need out of here. ‘Cause I don’t look good in black, know what I’m saying?”

I was already typing in alerts, ringing pagers and cell phones with the necessary codes to let people know the situation. Within ten minutes, there’d be a Situation Team convened, with Weather and Fire Wardens, maybe even Earth Wardens to help organize the rescue of trapped animals and energize the forest itself to fight the fire. But that wasn’t going to help Estrella.

“Can you make a path through?” I asked. I could hear things popping loudly in the background, like gunshots. “Jesus, what is that? Is somebody shooting?”

“No, it’s the trees. Trees exploding. Sap boils—” She coughed again, deep aching coughs that made my chest hurt in sympathy. “Shit! Can’t do it. Too hot. Can’t get the fire down long enough to get out. Dammit. I’m toast.” Her laugh was rich and thick with phlegm. “Burnt toast.”

“Hold on,” I said. I pulled up the Wardens Map, overlaid Fire Wardens on top of it and got Estrella’s location. Once I had it firmly fixed in my mind, I went up into Oversight. My body receded and I flew straight up, arrowing as fast as I could through gray ghostly layers of concrete and steel and wiring, up into hot summer air, up higher where the layers cooled and storms were born. There was disturbance up here, caused by temperature shifts. I oriented myself and moved toward Yellowstone. As I did, I had to buck the currents; force lines were vibrating, bending under the strain. A lot of heat being generated up there. Pushing hard, I flew against the currents until I could see the whole of Yellowstone laid out in front of me.

It was boiling. Not in the physical sense, but in the aetheric; something had gotten the land stirred up, all right, and the turbulent, angry pulses were enough to make me want to drop back into my safe, secure little cubicle far from the danger. Fires were combusting everywhere…. It didn’t take much, in such an angry mood, for a forest to start self-immolating.

I pinpointed Estrella’s location—she was broadcasting desperately in the aetheric—and went up, way up, until daylight gave way to twilight, which gave way to the false night of the highest levels of the mesosphere. Fifty thousand feet above it, the disturbance was more like a gentle current; I could start to manipulate things to my advantage.

Within a minute, I had formed a cold arctic-fed breeze by tunneling a channel for it through the superheated Yellowstone air. When I had it flowing where I wanted it, I let it collide head-on with a column of heat, controlled the agitation of the molecules to keep it localized, and dropped halfway back into my body in Chicago.

“Star, listen to me, I’m about to drop a very heavy cloudburst right on top of you, understand? It’ll hold the fire down long enough for you to make a hole and get out of there. Star?”

Her croak barely sounded human. It was hard to make anything out over the roar of the fire. “Fucked up, Jojo. Damn. We all fucked up.”

“Star, stay with me. Hey, you remember the rhyme? Star light, star bright—”

“You crazy?” A bare whisper of air.

I kept going. “First star I see tonight—come on, you know this one….” It was hard, so hard to move the clouds into the right position. I could feel her there, reaching out to me. I could feel the despair and fear. “Wish I may—wish I might—”

I flipped the switch on the storm, and I heard the roar of rain pour down. I hoped the hiss I heard was steam, not fire.

And then I heard Estrella laughing. “Say a prayer, say a Mass… keep this fire off my ass!” She collapsed into a coughing fit. Then whooped.

I let myself relax. Fatal mistake. I felt—heard—saw the aetheric boiling back, rebounding at us like a snapped rubber band. “No, Star, listen, don’t yell, run! Now!”

She didn’t hear me. She was still whooping in celebration.

The line went dead.

I sat tensely, answering lines and connecting up Wardens with each other—it was a big coordinated response, and my little cloudburst ended up as the anchor point for six other Wardens to form a true stormfront, driving down temperatures and dumping nature’s fire extinguisher at volumes rarely seen in this country. Meanwhile, the Earth Wardens were trying their best to protect fleeing animals and build up earthen firebreaks, and the Fire Wardens… Well, you can guess the hell they were in.

Six minutes later, I had an incoming line light up, and a brisk British voice said, “You’re looking for a Fire Warden coming out, right?”

“Estrella Almondovar,” I said. “Did you get her?”

A brief, pregnant pause. “Got her. We have one of the best Earth specialists with her right now, seeing to her.”

“How bad—?”

“Bad,” he said flatly. “Third degree burns over thirty percent of her body. Lucky.”

“Lucky?”

“Twenty Fire Wardens in the Park today,” he said. “Sixteen dead so far.”

Say a prayer, say a Mass, keep this fire off my ass. You did it, chica. Otherwise, I’d be a pile of ash in hell.

It was the first thing she’d said to me when she’d gotten healthy enough to call from rehab. I’d held her hand that day in the hospital when Marion had broken the news to her that her powers had been shattered, that she’d never again be able to control fire. She still had her life. After a fashion, she had her health. After everything the Earth Wardens and doctors could do for her, she even had a passable face.

I’d never shaken the feeling that I should have done more and done better. And yet Star had never complained, never second-guessed, never blamed me. I only, ever, blamed myself.

I must have fallen asleep again. When I woke up, we were still driving, and Estrella was singing under her breath to a Madonna song. She couldn’t carry a tune worth a damn.

I realized—finally—that we were back in the Land Rover. No wonder I could stretch out in the backseat. “Hey,” I croaked. “Water?”

“Sorry,” Star said cheerfully. “Can’t stop yet. We want to make sure they’re not on the trail.”

“They?”

“You know.” She gestured with her left hand, and something about it caught my attention. It was skeletal. Leathery. Scarred. God. I’d forgotten for a second about the damage to her body. “Marion and her merry men. You know they tried to kill you, right?”

I tried sitting up. My body ached like I’d come down with the mother of all flu viruses, but everything seemed to still function right. Toes and fingers wiggled. My nose reported the unpleasant lingering smell of burnt hair.

“You’re one lucky girl,” Star continued. “My money would’ve been on that polyester crap you’re wearing melting all over you. You got only a couple of spark burns, that’s all.”

I took a deep breath and asked for the worst of it. “Delilah? My car.”

“She’s a real fixer-upper. Time to trade up to something made in the last twenty years, I’d say. Hey, what do you think about this one?” Star gestured out at the hood of the Land Rover. “Marion, pretty good taste, eh? I always wanted one of these. Weird that she left the engine running, but our gain.”

David was in the passenger seat of the truck. Left the engine running, my ass. I wondered how he’d managed to do it without her noticing.

Then again, I had a better question. And a more pressing one.

“How’d you know where to find me?” I asked. Star grinned and steered around a cattle truck; the smell of scared beeves and cow pies overrode my burned hair, at least for a minute.

“You’re kidding, right? I get your message, I see the aetheric get all fucked up, and I think… Jojo! And there you were. I got to the parking lot just about the time the freaking sky started falling. Man, that was one big lightning bolt. Biggest I ever saw.” Star shook her head. “Like I said, you’re lucky.”

“You should let me out somewhere,” I said. “Ditch the truck before you get home. This is serious, Star, I don’t want you in the middle of it.”

“Yeah, no kidding it’s serious, La Quinta looks like a hurricane hit it.” She looked over her shoulder at me. “Yeah? Did it?”

“Sort of.” I rested my elbows on the seat backs and leaned closer. “I really don’t want you in this.”

“Hey, Queen of the Universe, nobody asked what you wanted. I don’t ditch the girl that saved my life.” She glanced over at David. “Or her verdaderamente lindo boyfriend.”

“Star!”

“What? You don’t think he’s cute?”

“He’s sitting right there!”

“And so grateful I am.” She flashed him a half-crazy grin, which seemed to have no real effect on David. “Chica, you always did have good taste.”

I sighed. No way to reason with her when she was in this kind of take-no-prisoners mood, and besides, it was nice to hear somebody was enjoying themselves at my expense. “Okay, right, he’s definitely lindo. Um, where are we, exactly?”

“Exactly?” Star punched the GPS keyboard.

I rolled my eyes. “Come on.”

“Aw, you’re no fun. Okay, approximately, we’re about two hours outside of OKC. Back roads. I didn’t want to stop too long, ’cause, you know, you’re on the run.”

I looked at David, who hadn’t said a word. He shrugged. “I didn’t think it was worth the argument,” he said. “You needed help. She offered. And she said she knew you.” And, I sensed, he’d been in no position to refuse. Probably out of it himself. That power surge had been enough to knock the stuffing out of a Djinn as easily as any Warden.

I agreed. “Oh, she knows me. Too well.” David didn’t look reassured. In fact, now that I was getting a look close-up at his expression, it looked guarded and worried. “It’s okay. Star’s a friend. A longtime friend.”

She muttered something that might have been bet your ass and changed lanes, whipped around two eighteen-wheelers and back before another truck blasted by. Wherever we weren’t going, we were getting there awfully fast.

David captured my hand in his. “You okay?”

“You know me, Energizer Bunny.” The feel of his skin was distracting. I wanted to feel the rest of it, all over me. “Hungry, though. And I think I mentioned thirsty. And in need of a pit stop, so if you see any convenient gas stations…”

Star checked the rearview mirror. I got the sense that she was checking out the aetheric, too, in Oversight, but I was too tired to try to rise up there with her; I leaned my cheek against David’s shoulder. He felt real, and human, and warmly male. Hard muscles under soft skin.

“We’re about forty miles from the next town,” she said. “I don’t like it out here—too open, too much room for ambush—but hey, if you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.” She fumbled in a fringed leather purse lying like roadkill in the space between the seats, fished out a small metal square, and handed it over. “Cell phone. Hang on to it. Yours was probably toasted, right?”

“Right.” Cell phones had gotten smaller and cooler since the last time I checked. Hers flipped up like a Star Trek communicator, complete with color screen and more controls than a 747. “Thanks.”

“Just to be safe. If we’re gonna split up, even for a few minutes, you got the 911 security blanket.” She applied brakes and eased the Land Rover over to the shoulder in a hiss of gravel; the cattle truck she’d passed blasted by us with a car-shaking gust. Star aimed off the road, into the flat grass prairie and toward a stand of scrub trees. “Hope you’re not picky about accommodations.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Hey, you said pit stop, I’m getting you a pit stop. Besides, drivers have to pee, too.” Star put the truck in park and hopped out to the cheery accompaniment of warning bells for leaving the engine running. On the passenger side, David did the same, then opened the back door for me and handed me out like a gentleman. Good thing he did; my legs felt like water balloons. I clung to his hand for a few seconds until muscles firmed up and informed me they were ready to take my weight.

Star turned, and the sunlight fell down full on her face.

Even though I’d seen it dozens of times, it was still a shock. Half her face gleamed bronze gold, perfect; the other half was seared and scarred the color of old liver. They’d given her a left eyelid, after a fashion. Her lips twisted into a curl on the burned side, and the scar continued down into the neck of her white peasant blouse. I knew it dripped down past her waist on the side and back. It looked like melted wax.

“Still gorgeous, huh?” she asked. There was no hurt, no surprise, no disappointment in her voice. Certainly no embarrassment. “Looks worse instead of better, I know. Not everything improves with age.”

She turned on her heel and limped her way toward the scrub trees. I realized I was still holding David’s hand, almost crushing it, and I kept my eyes on her as I asked, “What did she see?”

He shrugged. “At the hotel? I don’t know. I blacked out when the lightning hit. When I woke up, she was there, pulling you out of the car.” David was watching her, too, and I couldn’t mistake what was in his eyes for anything but worry. “She kept the car from catching fire until we were both out. Otherwise I think you’d be dead.”

I took a breath, let it out, and nodded. “Does she know about you?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve been careful.”

That didn’t unknot the tension from my shoulder blades. “Yeah, well, keep it up. I love her, but—you be careful.”

I went after Star toward nature’s Porta Potti. She was already taking advantage of the lack of facilities, and she looked absolutely comfortable doing it, but then she was the outdoorsy L.L. Bean type. Me, I circled around, looking for a comfortable piece of ground free of any hint of fire ants, wasps, or other hazards to my exposed behind. Star finished up and went back toward David. I skinned down my pants.

“Is this a bad time?” a voice asked me when I was halfway to a crouch. I yelped and scrambled back up, tripped over my pants and almost fell. “Over here, Snow White.”

I turned while I yanked up my waistband. Paul’s Djinn, Rahel, still in her sunshine yellow suit, sat primly on a tree stump, inspecting her nails.

“Please, go ahead,” she invited. “You’re not bothering me. I have all the time in the world.”

“What do you want?” Although I figured I knew…. This was what I’d been dreading. Marion, for whatever reason, hadn’t used her Djinn against me, but there were plenty of Wardens willing and able to do so—Paul, for one. I couldn’t take Rahel in a straight fight. Nobody could, except another Djinn.

Which was why there weren’t a lot of territorial disputes at the upper levels of the Wardens. I was worn out, maybe David—no, it would be suicide for David to get into this. He was depleted, and he was masterless; she’d break him with a snap of her well-manicured fingers.

“Your attention, please,” she said, and clicked her nails together. They looked glossy and sharp. Her hundreds of braids rustled as she turned her head toward me, a dry sound, like bones rattling. “You’re going the wrong way.”

Not what I’d expected. I was braced for a fight, and the lack of one threw me. “Excuse me?”

Rahel hopped down from her perch and slinked in my direction. I fought the almost uncontrollable urge to back up; my heels were already sinking into damp ground. “I said… you’re going… the wrong… way. Snow White. Go back where you were told to go.”

I was feeling difficult. “Or?”

She lunged at me, caught my arm in one hand, and leveled the other right in front of me, claws out an inch from my eyes. “There is no or, fool. You do what I tell you, when I tell you.”

I kept my chin up and looked past those razor-sharp, carefully manicured nails to her beast-yellow eyes. She was doing something with her lips, but it had only a superficial resemblance to a smile.

“Death lies ahead,” she said. “Certain and unforgiving. Behind you lies opportunity.”

“Opportunity for what?”

“To choose as you wish.”

I didn’t get it. “Did Paul tell you to be deliberately obscure, or is this just a personal preference with you?”

No answer. Just that steady, predatory stare.

It clicked together in my head. Duh. “You’re not Paul’s Djinn at all, are you? I just assumed you were, and you never told me different. Right?”

“Yes.” Teeth flashed. “Now you can decide which question I’ve answered.”

“Doesn’t matter, I didn’t ask any of them in ritual. Let me try again. You’re not Paul’s Djinn at all, are you?”

“You can’t outrun what’s coming. Go back. You must make a choice.”

“Third time’s the charm, sunshine. You’re not Paul’s Djinn at all, are—?” Before I could finish asking the ritual third, her hand was around my throat, choking the question off. I gagged, tried to pull free, and couldn’t. Her eyes were full of fury.

“Ask me no questions,” she purred, “and I’ll tell you no lies, Child of Demons. Go back the way you came.”

She let the pressure ease enough for me to gulp in a breath and ask, “Why should I?”

Rahel let go of my throat and snapped her fingers. “You have two paths ahead of you. One lies down. One goes up. Choose.”

“Which one gets rid of you?” I croaked, and rubbed my throat. “Look, enough with the Sphinx act. Just tell me what I’m supposed to do. Are you Marion’s Djinn? Did she send you to get me to surrender? Well, I’m not giving up. Not yet.”

Rahel stopped and became utterly still. If I’d thought her eyes were unnerving before, they were downright creepy now.

“You are a fool,” she said very softly. “I have done all I can. You have been set on the path, you have been given signs.”

“Yeah? Like what? The radio in Westchester, telling me to come here?” Oh, boy. Her silence had the weight of a confession. I swallowed hard and kept going. “The salt shaker back at the diner? Why send me into a trap?”

This time, she shook her head. “If you can’t see the yellow brick road, little Dorothy, then you are a fool, and there is no saving a fool. I only wish you weren’t taking him with you.”

Him? Too many persons of the male gender involved in this. I didn’t know which one she was talking about.

Before I could ask, brush crackled behind me. Rahel’s eyes jumped from me to the person coming through the trees. It was David, and he didn’t look surprised to see her. Or happy. He said something to her in a language I didn’t understand, liquid and warm and beautiful as stars; her reply was long and sparked with harsh accents.

They glared at each other, stiff with tension, and then Rahel just—vanished. No showy exit, this time. She just went.

David stared for so long at the place where she’d been, I wondered if she’d really gone. “Rahel,” he said finally. “Here.”

“I’m guessing that’s bad? Look, who’s Djinn is she?”

He didn’t answer me. Didn’t look at me. “Hurry.” He turned and walked away, back toward the truck.

I hurried.

After Star was burned, she lingered on in the hospital for weeks, fighting for her life. Every day her breath came a little bit shallower; her heart raced a little bit faster. Pseudomonas cruised her blood. Pumping her full of antibiotics didn’t seem to be working, and the Earth Wardens who’d tried to repair the damage had been completely defeated.

Sitting there at her bedside, holding her undamaged right hand, a thought came to me. I knew someone who could save her.

If I could find him.

Like Star, I’m not big on debate and thinking things over; the minute Lewis’s name popped into my head, I went up into Oversight, far up, far enough that the planet curved away beneath me and night settled its cloak of stars around my shoulders. From up there, I could see little jets of flame that represented Wardens using their powers… little flicks like sparks from a flywheel. I waited up there, watching. It was impossible to distinguish the signatures of most Wardens—they were too similar, too homogenous. A few had characteristics, though. Marion, for one; her powers glowed stronger and in a deep blue green. Martin Oliver, when he exercised his power—which was rarely—vibrated in a hot orange part of the spectrum.

I waited, and waited, and waited. The world turned, and I turned with it, watching.

Finally, I saw a soundless bloom of pearl-white. Not a jet, not a spark, but a bloom, like a fireworks blast expanding in all directions.

I fell toward it at top speed and stopped myself when I was close enough to determine where Lewis was at the moment.

I don’t know why I didn’t expect it, but I didn’t, really.

He was in Yellowstone.

Six hours later, after enduring commercial air travel and two hours of jouncing around in a well-broken-in rental SUV, I came up on the area of Yellowstone that was blocked off to the public. The Warden on duty knew me. We exchanged the secret glowing-rune handshakes, and I went on in.

I smelled it before I came over the rise and saw it—a thick, ashen smell of death and bitter smoke. But nothing really prepared me for the devastation. Nothing could.

The valley stretched out as far as I could see, a black valley streaked with gray. No forest, nothing but ash and the skeletal black stubs of trees. There was a sense of… stillness. Of death so vast that no life could ever come there again, or would want to.

A sense of utter sadness.

Lewis was a dot of human color in the middle of it, sitting on the hood of an SUV that looked like the mate to the one I was driving, only gray. Mine was red, but as I crawled it slowly over the ruined landscape it turned ash-gray, flecked with black. By the time I parked next to him, they were both camouflaged.

He looked… good. Filled out, no longer starving and sick. There was a sense of peace around him, and power. He was still tall and gawky, but somehow that fit now. He’d grown into it, and the gawkiness had become grace.

He didn’t look surprised to see me as I climbed down out of the SUV and came around to face him. In fact, he smiled like he’d been expecting me for a while.

“Jo.” He nodded. I nodded back. “Been a while.”

“You shouldn’t be using all that power,” I said. “You burn like a nuclear explosion in Oversight, you know.”

He shrugged. “I knew you were watching. If I hadn’t wanted you to find me, you wouldn’t have found me.” He patted the hood of the SUV next to him. It was filthy, but I climbed up anyway. We didn’t touch. “Not too many people can see it, you know.”

“Really?” That boggled me; he’d lit up like Vegas in my eyes. “Weird.”

“A bit,” he agreed. “I’m guessing you didn’t come out here just to catch up on old times.”

He was looking at me, but I felt the soft caress of power everywhere around me. Nothing I could understand, just a hint; I looked away from him at the burned, blackened crematory of the forest and didn’t see anything.

“You’re doing something,” I said.

“Yes.”

“What?”

He gave me a slow, very slightly wicked smile. “Seducing someone.”

If I kept very still, I could actually see it now. It was a mist, very faint, glittering gold in the sun. It was moving over the ground as softly and slowly as a lover’s hand, spreading out from the epicenter of Lewis. I slid off the hood of the Jeep and reached down to touch my fingers to it, and felt a slow stirring of… life.

Lewis was pouring out life, like seed, across the mourning graveyard of Yellowstone.

“She needs help,” he said. “She wants to live, but it’s too much for her. I’m just helping her along.”

I felt the slow, warm tingle of it clinging to my fingers even after I climbed back up on the hood of the Jeep next to him. We sat in silence, watching the golden mist thicken and swirl and creep out across the land.

It was so beautiful, I wanted to weep.

“This is what you do,” I whispered. “Oh, God, Lewis.”

“Some of it. You guys do a good job with the weather, but I pitch in now and again with Earth and Fire. I should’ve been here earlier. It wouldn’t have been so—” He shook his head.

“You wouldn’t have stopped it?”

“The fire? No. Things need to burn sometimes, and you have to know when to let them. But this got out of hand.” In the sunlight, his eyes were the color of fine dark ale. “There’s a Demon trying to come through.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Although I did, a little; there were whispers about Demon Marks, but nobody was very clear about them or what it meant. Lewis, however, sounded authoritative.

“Things like this happen because there’s a kind of force acting on our world. Hurricane Andrew, that was another one. The floods in India. Those are signs that something’s trying to break through into the aetheric.” He was holding a stick in his hands, turning it over and over, learning it with his fingers. “Sometimes it succeeds in finding one of us to build the bridge. I think that’s what this was. One of them trying to touch one of us.”

“Anyone in particular?”

“Don’t know,” he confessed. “Probably not. The problem is that the energy from the Demon’s efforts doesn’t go away, it accumulates up there, in the aetheric.” He shook his head. “Never mind. Not important—you didn’t come out here to get a lecture. What’s up?”

“Star,” I said. All around me, the ground glittered with gold, with power, with potential. “I need you to help her. She’s dying.”

Lewis stopped turning the stick in his hands. He looked down at it as if surprised to find it there. “Friend of yours?”

“Friend of yours, too. I remember her saying she knew you.”

He nodded. “I met her here. I was young and stupid then; I didn’t realize how much energy there was here. I nearly got myself toasted.”

It was so similar to the way I’d met Star that I had to smile at the memory.

“I can’t help her,” he said. “I’ve thought about it. I know she was—burned.”

“Worse,” I said. “Her power core was broken. That’s what they tell me, anyway. That’s what’s keeping her from healing.”

He shivered a little. The color of the mist around us changed subtly, from gold to silver, then back to gold. It clung to the skeletal limbs of trees like a coating of early frost.

“Can you help her?” I asked.

“It’s not a question of can, Jo. Sometimes—”

“Sometimes you just have to let things burn,” I finished for him. The air was warm and thick with the taste of smoke and death, and the hard metal hood of the Jeep felt too warm under me. “But this is Star.”

He reached out and put his hand on my hair, stroking gently. Not letting himself touch my skin. I relaxed into the touch for the sheer pleasure of it. “I know,” he said. “Don’t you think I want to?”

“I’m asking you,” I said. “I’m asking you for a favor. You owe me one.”

His hand went still, but he didn’t take it away.

“Lewis?” I asked. “Please?”

The mist changed colors again, from gold to a pale green the color of spring leaves. The color change rolled across the valley slowly, in wavelike ripples.

The stick in Lewis’s hand changed color, too, from dead brown to a fine, delicate tan, the wood inside showing pale as flesh. As I watched, it sprouted a single, delicate leaf. Lewis slid off the hood of the Jeep and planted the stick carefully upright in the charcoal field. I could almost feel it rooting, growing, pulsing with life.

“It might not work,” he said. He might have been talking about the plant, but I knew he wasn’t. “Sometimes it doesn’t work at all.”

“Try.”

He straightened up and turned to look at me. Around him, the mist rose into the air in whispering

waves, like angels flying. It dissolved on the light of the sun, and then there was just a black valley, dead trees, a tall and graceful man standing there with his arms folded across his chest.

But the smell… The smell was different. Warm. Golden.

The wind smelled like life.

He nodded and said, “Let’s go.”

Six hours later, he was holding Star’s hand, and that golden mist was moving through her, soaking into her skin, invading through her mouth and nose.

It saved her life. Lewis preserved what he could of her affinity with fire, but like me, he understood balance; to heal Star completely meant disturbing that balance beyond repair.

I don’t think she ever knew he was there. When she woke up, two days later, Lewis was long gone, just a memory and a taste of gold in the air.

I never told her anything about it.

I watched the road behind us, once we were safely back in motion again, but I didn’t see any lemon-yellow Djinn flying carpets in our trail. Not that she’d do anything that ridiculously Arabian Nights, of course, but when you’re paranoid, staring out the back window seems like a vitally important occupation.

You’re a fool. There is no saving a fool.

Whose side was Rahel on, anyway? Maybe nobody’s. Certainly not mine. Choose. Choose what? Choose who? Why did the Djinn have to be so damn inscrutable, anyway? Was it just a personality flaw? I couldn’t even assume she was really out to save David. In fact, as little as I actually understood about the Djinn, there was nothing I could safely assume about Rahel—I didn’t even know where she stood in this strange little game.

Choose. So few choices I could make. I had the Mark. I could choose to give it to David…. No. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t.

Choose. Dammit. The only thing I had left was… who to trust. Well, I knew something about that, at least. I couldn’t trust Marion and her people; they’d do exactly what they were told to do by the Council, up to and including killing me. David—I already trusted him, in ways I couldn’t begin to regret.

But I could commit to the one person I’d been avoiding dragging into this.

“Star—” I leaned forward and touched her shoulder. Her dark hair dragged like silk on my fingers. “Star, do you know anything about the Demon Mark?”

David couldn’t quite control his flinch. He stared straight ahead, but I could feel the burn of his disapproval. As for Star, she turned her head, lips parted in astonishment, and then whipped back toward the road when a truck blared a warning. On the horizon, a flock of birds broke cover and wheeled like a tornado in the graying sky.

Star nodded toward David, plainly asking. I nodded. “He knows.”

“Yeah? He knows about what, exactly?”

“The Wardens. All of it.”

“Really?” She cut an interested look his way, but he didn’t respond. “Well. Okay, I know a little about it. Why? You got one?” She was kidding, of course.

But in answer, I eased back the collar of my shirt and dragged it down to show her the scorch mark over my left breast. She whistled. “Holy crap, Jo.”

“I need to know how to get rid of it,” I said.

“Obviously! Okay.” She blew out an agitated breath. “Damn, girl, that’s a hell of a secret to keep.”

“If it’s any consolation, you’re the first one I’ve told.” True, actually. I hadn’t told David, he’d known all along, or guessed pretty damn well.

“How’d you get it?” She seemed pretty shaken. I guess she had a right.

“Bad Bob. He kidnapped me and—” I didn’t want to describe what he’d done to me; it was too chokingly vivid. “Anyway. He died, I got the Mark.”

“Holy shit. Well… you could give it to somebody else. That’s obvious.” She turned her attention back to the road, but her golden-bronze skin had taken on a paler tinge. “Mira, is that what you’re looking to do? Pass it on? You know it won’t go unless the person you try to give it to has more power than you do.” She flicked a glance at me in the rearview mirror, and her eyes widened. “You do know that, right?”

I looked to David for confirmation; he didn’t meet my gaze, which was confirmation enough. Damn. But that meant—no, that was impossible. “Star, that can’t be true,” I said. “Bad Bob gave this to me—you know he was one of the most powerful Wardens in the world. I can’t be…”

If Estrella was surprised by that, she gave no sign of it. She just nodded. “Well, chica, I guess you know something about yourself you didn’t know before, then.”

“Bullshit!” I was, at best, a mediocre Warden. I wasn’t—couldn’t be—

“Straight up word of honor, Jojo. A Demon Mark can’t go from stronger to weaker, only from weaker to stronger. It’s a known fact. So if Bad Bob’s Demon Mark traded up to you…” Her eyebrows rose. “Welcome to the top of the food chain. Damn, girl, I knew you were strong. I guess I never knew how strong.”

“That’s—”

“Impossible, yeah, you’ve said. But Bad Bob picked you to pass it to, so that settles that. Who else could have taken it for him? Lewis?” She made a rude noise to the road. “Right. Like anybody can find that guy. Jeez, what are you going to do? Is that why the Rangers are after you? ‘Cause of the Mark?”

I rubbed my aching forehead with the heels of my hands. “Something like that. I find somebody to pass it on to. Whatever. What’s the other option?”

“Well, you could, like, keep it.”

“Keep it! Jesus, Star, for crying out loud—”

“Hear me out. Look, everything I know about the Demon Mark, the farther it goes into you, the stronger you get. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe—maybe that’s what you ought to do. I mean, we call it a Demon Mark, but what do we really know about it? Is it any worse than the Djinn?”

“Oh, trust me on this, it’s way worse,” I said, and had a grotesque sense-memory of the thing burrowing inside me, leaving that horrible violated slimy feeling in its wake.

“So you don’t want to keep it.”

“God, no.”

Star’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel. I watched her flex her fingers and shake them, one at a time. “Well, that narrows it down. I guess you need to get yourself a Djinn.”

And I was back where I’d started. Helpless. Caught in the headlights of oncoming friggin’ fate. I wanted to scream at Rahel, wherever she was. What fucking choice do I have?

And then Star said, shocking me down to my shoes, “Luckily, babe, I think I can help you out on that score.”

My asking what Star meant got me nowhere. She just kept giving me that secret little grin and telling me to wait and see; I could see David getting wound tighter and tighter, ready to lash out. He was scared. I was scared for him. God, she couldn’t know… could she?

We pulled off at a gas station about five miles down the road. Star went inside to pay for the gas and to grab beverages and whatever passed for food; I got out to walk around in the cooling wind, shivering. The storm that had been following me was still on my trail. I could feel it like a tingle at the edges of my mind.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in that part of the world, but it’s flat, and it seems to go on forever. The land can’t quite decide whether it’s desert or scrub forest, so it sticks clumps of stubby, twisted bushes together and surrounds them with reddish dust. There’s no elegance to it, but there is a certain toughness. It’s land that will fight you for every drop of water, every green growing thing you want to take from it. Even though I wasn’t an Earth Warden, I could feel that, feel the awesome sleeping power of it surrounding me.

I didn’t expect David to touch me, so the heavy warmth of his hands on my shoulders made me tense up before I turned to face him. I was hoping that meant I was forgiven, but I could see in his eyes that I wasn’t. He was fully in human mode, walled off from me, but I could sense the power in him, too.

“Why’d you tell her?” he asked me. His hands stayed on my shoulders for a few seconds, then traveled up to cup my face with heat.

I thought of Rahel. “Because it’s the only choice I’ve had this whole trip that’s really my own. I need to trust somebody.”

“Then trust me.”

“I do.” I looked up into his eyes and wished he trusted me—I could feel that reserve in him again, that doubt. “I need help, David. You know that. If I can’t get to Lewis—if he can’t or won’t let me get to him—I need help to fight off whatever’s after me. Whether that’s Marion, or some other bastard I don’t even know… I can’t do it alone.” And after it was out, I knew how that sounded.

“Is that what you are?” he asked. “Alone?”

I can be a real bitch sometimes, without even meaning to. He let me go, stepped back to minimum safe distance, and shoved his hands in the pockets of his long olive coat.

“So it’s you and Star against the world,” he said. “That how it’s going to be? Maybe she can even provide a Djinn for you. One that you don’t know, so it won’t be like eating your own pet dog.”

“Don’t say that, dammit. I’m trying to change the rules of the game. I have to. The deck’s stacked against us.”

“I already changed the rules. Look how much good it’s done.”

Apparently, Djinn were capable of morning-after regrets, too. “Fine. New rules. Rule number one: Let me do this my way. You’ve been herding me from one place to another ever since I left Westchester. You’ve been trying to tell me what to do, when to do it. And I can’t live that way, David. I need to—”

“To what?” He glared at me, and I saw orange sparks flicker in his eyes. “To make yourself a target? Tell the world you have the Demon Mark? Trust your friend to protect you?”

I watched his eyes. “You don’t like her.”

He stepped toward me, intimate and aggressive. “I don’t trust her. I don’t trust anybody with your life.”

“Not even me?”

He growled in the back of his throat and stalked off toward the convenience store, where Star was paying for a stack of bottled water and portable calories. She was laughing with the cashier about something, but when she turned to wave at me, I saw the cashier watching her, studying her scars. Everybody did. She had to know that, had to feel it all the time. She had to resent it, even if she never showed it on the surface. God. Could I have managed that? No. Never.

She hip-bopped the door open and came out with her armload of goodies. I grabbed some that were toppling and looked over her shoulder. The cashier was staring.

“Is he checking me out?” she asked.

“Uh-huh.” I didn’t tell her the look wasn’t so much admiration as there-but-for-the-grace-of-God fascination.

Star gave me her two-sided comedy-tragedy smile. “I’m telling you, chica, guys dig scars. Makes ’em think I’m tough.”

I opened the passenger door and dumped the load in David’s seat. Let him sort it out. “News flash, babe, you are tough. Toughest girl I ever met.”

“Damn straight.” She offered me a fist. I tapped it. She raised her voice for David. “Yo, boy, let’s motor!”

He was watching the horizon. Clouds were creeping out there, doing something stealthy that sounded like barely more than a low mutter in Oversight. Too far off to concern us yet, but it was definitely my old friend the storm, coming back for more. The wind belled out his coat and snapped it behind him. I walked over.

“When she says boy, I think she means you,” I said. He squinted into the distance behind his glasses.

“I got the point.”

“And?”

He gave me a long, wordless look, then went back to the Land Rover, picked up the water and fast food, and sat himself in the passenger side. I climbed into the back. As Star shut the door, she looked quickly at David, then at me.

“Don’t mean to get in the middle, but is there something I should know?” she asked.

“No.” We both said it instantly, simultaneously. It couldn’t have been more obvious we were lying.

“O… kay.” She put the Land Rover in gear and rolled the big boat out to the freeway. “You down with my plan?”

“Star, I have no idea what plan you’re talking about.”

She accelerated the truck and slid smoothly in between a red rollover-prone SUV and a station wagon held together with duct tape and baling wire. “The one where I save your ass, babe.”

“I’m still waiting for a plan. That’s an outcome.”

“Picky, picky… Okay, here’s the deal. I have a source in Norman who can put us in touch with an honest-to-God masterless Djinn. You know, the kind running around, ready to be claimed. Sound good to you?”

I didn’t dare look at David. He handed me a water bottle, and I cracked the plastic ring and sucked down lukewarm liquid. It tasted like sweat, but my body was shiveringly grateful.

“Sure,” I said. “Sounds fabulous.”

Norman, Oklahoma, was just twenty miles from Oklahoma City proper, but Star was making caution her new religion; we drove just about every cowpath and haypicker road in the county, watching for any sign Marion or her folks were on to us. Nothing. By the time we exited I-35 and crossed into Norman’s city limits, it was getting close to sundown, and the burritos and bottled water were just a fond, gut-rumbling memory.

Norman’s an old town, a strange mixture of prewar buildings and hypernew neon. The local college ensured a steady parade of coffee shops, clothing boutiques, used CD emporiums, and bookstores.

“Who’s your source?” David asked. He upended his water and drained the last few drops from blue plastic; I wondered if he was really thirsty, if he even really felt such mundane things as hunger and thirst. He’d eaten with me that first afternoon, I remembered. And in the diner. Maybe he was more flesh than spirit, after all. And hey, sex? Pretty much of the flesh.

“Excuse me?” Star asked.

“Your source. The one who told you about the Djinn.”

“Friend,” she said, which was no more illuminating than anything else she’d said for the past two hours. “Which is all you need to know, seeing as how you’re not in the Wardens.” She reached out and passed her hand over his. No glyphs lit up on his palms. “Speaking of which, Jo, you owe me an explanation about how you and this cutie got together.”

She gave him a look that reminded me Star wasn’t all fun and games; she’d once been a Warden, tough and very strong. Even if she didn’t have full command of her power anymore, she could be dangerous. And focused.

“Joanne told me.” David pointed a thumb back over the seat at me. “Not that I believe any of this, anyway. But it makes a good story.”

“Yeah?” Star’s trademark smile flashed. “You planning to write it up, print it in the newspaper?”

“More like the tabloids.”

“Makes sense. So why do you care who told me about the Djinn?”

“I don’t,” he said, and shrugged, and pulled a book from the pocket of his coat. Nothing I recognized. The cover had a black-and-yellow road sign blazed on the cover; when I squinted, I saw it read BE CAREFUL.

Jesus, he was tempting fate, doing that in front of her.

The cover shifted again, into a Patricia Cornwell mystery, and he opened it to a dog-eared page and appeared to forget all about me.

Star was watching me in the rearview mirror. “You heard about Lewis taking the Djinn, right? Three of ’em? When he bugged out?”

“I heard.”

“Well, rumor has it he let at least one of them go. It’s just a matter of tracking him down, that’s all. And I’ve got just the girl to do it.” She hadn’t looked away. It was a little eerie, actually. Dark, dark eyes, pupils fading into irises. “Once you have Lewis, what then?”

“Then he helps me figure out how to get this thing out of me.”

Her eyebrows slowly rose. “Yeah? You really think he knows how?”

“Sure.” I was lying my ass off, mostly to myself, but it felt better than the uncertainty of the truth. “If anybody does, he does.”

“Okay, stupid question. What I meant to ask is, why would he? You got something special going with him?”

Oh, that was a subject I really didn’t want to dig into, not with David sitting in the passenger seat, thumbing blandly through a book. Star didn’t seem to care. She started to smile, but her eyes were going cold.

“Or you got something else going with him? You on some undercover mission, chica?”

“Yeah, sure,” I shrugged. “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

I meant it as a joke, and I wasn’t prepared for the flash of sheer fury in her eyes. “Fine,” she said. “Keep your little secrets.”

“I don’t have any secrets.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized I’d lied to her. Effortlessly. Without a second thought. And I didn’t even know why, except that a yellow danger sign kept flashing into my head. I’d chosen to trust Star. I just…

… couldn’t trust her.

She drove down Main Street, past shops just lightning up against the darkness… grocery stores… gas stations… incongruously, a condom shop. The Burger King on the corner was doing a brisk business in robbing college students of their lunch money. On the other side of the narrow street, gracious Plantation-style homes with Doric columns put on a brave front that the South would rise again.

She slowed and turned into a strip-mall parking lot pretty much identical to the six others we’d passed, and pulled the Land Rover into a parking space barely able to stretch to fit it. I squinted up at the sign, which hadn’t yet been turned on against the falling darkness: ball’s books.

It looked like exactly what it was: a used bookstore, and not the corporate, regimented kind—the kind that conformed to the whim of an owner. I liked it immediately, but there was still a cold cramp in my stomach, and I couldn’t think exactly how I was going to get out of this. More important, how I’d get David out of this.

I grabbed his coat sleeve as Estrella limped away, pulled him down for a whisper. “Take a walk.”

“Where?” he asked mildly.

“Why should I care? I don’t want you anywhere near her if she’s going to—”

His hand covered mine, and some of his human disguise fell away; his eyes turned burning, swirling bronze, and I felt his heat pour into me and drive out the chill. His smile, though, was all guy. All David.

“It won’t matter,” he said. “If she can find me at all, it doesn’t matter where I go. If you’re so worried about me, there’s something you can do to stop it.”

I knew what he meant. “I’m not claiming you.”

He shrugged and took his hand away. “Then I’ll take my chances.”

Stubborn, infuriating…

Star tapped on the store window and gestured. David moved to the door and held it open for me, head down. I fought an impulse to kick him in the shins. As I walked past, he murmured, “No matter what happens, you always have a choice.”

We stepped into cool silence and the smell of old paper. To the right was a wall of corkboard packed with cards and papers of every description, no rhyme or reason to it that I could see; some advertised massages, some were photocopies of newspaper cartoons, some were just plain mystifying. David stepped around her and began to look through books—I thought at first he was stalling for time, but his interest in the contents of the racks seemed genuine. He really did love reading, after all. And I guess even Djinn need a hobby.

“Hey, Star,” said a voice from behind me. I turned to see a youngish woman sitting behind a table— well away from the cash register and counter— surrounded by books, a coffeemaker, and a butterscotch calico cat. She had brown hair cut in a shag and watchful cool eyes that struck me as capable and observant. “New romances in—you want to look through the boxes?”

“Not today, thanks, Cathy.” Star exchanged what appeared to be a significant look with the woman. “I need the book.”

If that seemed odd, asking for «the» book in a store littered with them, the woman clearly didn’t think so; she looked spooked, not confused. “I thought we were done with that.”

“Almost,” Star said. She held out her hand, half-plea, half-demand. “Come on, Cathy, just this once.”

Cathy shook her head, got up, and walked to the back of the store. She opened a door marked NO ADMITTANCE.

“The book?” I asked Star. She shrugged, still watching the open door at the back.

“Took me years to track it down,” she said. “Cathy finally bought it off the Internet for me. I told her she could have it when I was done with it.”

“What is it?”

Star smiled that lopsided smile. It wasn’t comforting this time. “It’s a surprise. You’ll see.”

Things thumped, back there. Cathy returned carrying a limp cardboard box, top closed, that looked like it weighed a considerable amount. She dropped it down on the desk and folded back the stained box wings.

“You’re sure?” she asked. That silent communication again between them was nothing I could interpret. I didn’t know Cathy Ball, but I felt like I should; on an impulse, I reached out and passed my hand over hers.

Glyphs shimmered, blue and silver. A Weather Warden. She looked up sharply and met my eyes; I smiled and showed her my matching set. Nothing eased in her body language. “Star?” she said. “You know I don’t like other Wardens around here.”

I hadn’t been expecting a hug, but this was a bit much; we’re generally a pretty chummy group.

“Sorry,” Star said, not sounding too sorry at all. “She’s a friend. She needs our help.”

Cathy shot a look toward David, clearly asking the question. “No,” I said. “He’s not. What’ve you got against other Wardens, anyway?”

“Nothing,” Cathy said, which vibrated like a lie all along my nerves. “It’s just that they’re trouble. Bunch of power-hungry, crazy, egotistical jerks, generally. I like peace and quiet.” Her eyes narrowed at me. “Take that business in Oklahoma City today. You wouldn’t believe what a mess that was. The aetheric was screwed up from here to Kansas, all the way over to Phoenix. Took hours just to get the temperature variances back to normal.”

I threw a save me! look at Star, who was busy taking a huge leather-bound book out of the cardboard box and shaking off white packing peanuts. She ignored me, shoved the box off to thump on the floor, and eased the book down to the desk on top of a mound of category romances.

The cat that had been slinking inquisitively around Cathy’s plate of doughnuts hissed around and skittered away, shooting past David into the farthest corner of the store. David had paused with the new Stephen King novel in his hands, staring at the book that Star had laid out, and I saw cinders of gold and bronze catch fire in his eyes. It was the real deal; I could see that from the intensely blank expression on his face.

“Star,” I said, “Look, maybe this isn’t the right time. I’m really tired, I’m starved—let’s take this thing with us, get something to eat, maybe have a good night’s sleep and talk it over. I’m trashed. Really.”

She flipped open pages that crackled like vellum. “This won’t take long.”

That was what I was afraid of. Cathy Ball sat back down in her chair, picked up a pen, and wrote something down in a ledger, but she couldn’t take her eyes off Star for very long. I wondered what kind of history there was between them, because I could have sworn that the woman looked… scared. Of Star. Who didn’t have a mean bone in her body.

“I’ll need your Djinn,” Star said without looking up.

Cathy put the pen down. “No,” she said. “Not after last time.”

“I won’t hurt her.”

“I said no, Star.”

Star looked up, finally, and I wasn’t in the right angle to see her face, but I did see Cathy’s. It went pale.

“Chica,” Star murmured, “don’t make me get all cranky with you.”

Cathy’s lips pressed into a thin line, and a frown grooved between her brows, but she reached into the desk drawer and came out with a tiny little glass perfume bottle, one of those little sample sizes. She tossed it across the desk to Star, who caught it right-handed.

“I’ll be in the back,” Cathy said.

Star didn’t watch her go; she unscrewed the lid of the perfume bottle. No visible result, but I felt a surge of something behind me.

“Can I help you?” the Djinn asked. I turned to see her standing at an angle between me and Star, watching us both with bright, neon-blue eyes.

She was a child. Or at least she looked like she was no older than fourteen—dressed in a pale blue dress with a white apron. Long, long blond hair, straight, held back with an Alice in Wonderland blue band. Her heart-shaped face was sweet and innocent and straight out of Lewis Carroll.

When she looked at me, she frowned and wrinkled her nose. I knew she could smell the Mark. She looked from me to David, still standing like a statue in the general fiction section, but there was nothing to show she recognized who or what he was. She focused back on Star.

“Hey, Alice,” Star said, and held out the book. “Hold this.”

Alice didn’t move. She didn’t resist, but she didn’t comply. Star muttered Spanish curses under her breath and yelled Cathy’s name. Twice. Cathy finally came to the no admittance door and looked out.

“Tell her to obey me,” Star said. Cathy rubbed her forehead.

“Do what she wants,” she said wearily. “Three times only.”

Alice nodded. I was glad, for Alice’s sake, that Cathy had put a limit on compliance.

“Hold this,” Star said again. Alice extended her arms and took the book from Star’s hands. There was something about it that the Djinn didn’t like; I could see it in the widening of her eyes, but Alice didn’t— couldn’t—protest. Star flipped pages and found what she was looking for, then gestured to me. I took a step closer and stopped when the girl looked at me with those bright, empty, desolate eyes.

“Here,” Star said as she grabbed my wrist and pulled me closer, next to her. “Read this out loud.”

“What is it?” My legs were trembling, my heart pounding. The adrenaline was making my Demon Mark hiss and stretch inside me, and that only made my heart race faster, as if it wanted to escape.

“Hey, you want to fix this thing or not? ‘Cause chica, the Demon Mark is nothing to screw around with. You let it get control of you, and you won’t be the same.”

I looked down at the words, not words at all, some kind of symbols, and I started to tell her I didn’t know what they meant, but something clicked in my head and I did know, I understood, I could hear the way the words were supposed to sound, taste the heavy flavor of them on my tongue. There was power in this thing. Earth power. Maybe fire. Certainly nothing I could control, though.

The words waited, wanted to be spoken. I opened my mouth, closed it, opened it again and heard the first syllable whispering and gathering strength and echoing in the sounding bell of my mind.

“Say it,” Star whispered. I felt her warm breath on my ear. “It has to be you, chica, I can’t do it for you.”

The Djinn, Alice. That was where this power was flowing from. She was holding the book, and the book drew power from her… I wondered if it hurt her. Her eyes were huge, doll-like, empty of emotion. Empty of fear. Her arms were shaking, as if the book were heavier than the world.

I hadn’t heard him walk up to me, but now David was there, at the edge of my vision, almost glittering with intensity. He was still in human disguise, human form, but how much longer? How long until the words echoing in my head forced him to reveal himself?

I reached out, took the book from the Djinn’s arms, and slammed it closed with a sound like thunder. The Djinn stumbled backwards, or floated; she looked drained and skeletal for a few seconds, then rebuilt herself into the sweet-faced little refugee from beyond the looking glass.

“No,” I said. I looked at Star and saw she was staring at me as if she’d never seen me before, as if I’d grown two heads and goat feet. “This is wrong, Star. I can feel it.”

“Wrong,” she repeated slowly. She reached out and put her hand over the place the Demon Mark had left its black scorching tattoo on my breast. “And this isn’t?”

“That wasn’t my choice.” I hefted the heavy book.

It smelled faintly rotten, felt damp and unclean. “This is. And I’m not doing it.”

Her eyes went flat and opaque, like Mayan flint. “You can’t keep it,” she said, and there was something terrible in her voice, like blood and lightning. “I can’t let you keep it, Jo.”

Her face was changing. Melting. Becoming beautiful, the way she’d been back before Yellowstone. Taking on a kind of lush, lustrous glow that was too perfect, even for an airbrushed magazine model. An inhuman beauty.

“You don’t deserve it,” she said. I could hear an echo in her voice now of something stirring inside me. “I deserve it. It chose me. I can’t let you have it, Jo, not again. You’ve always been prettier and smarter and more powerful, and you can’t have this!”

Ah, God, no, no, no. Not Star.

I remembered something Lewis had told me. There’s a Demon trying to come through. Trying to touch one of us.

It had tried to touch Star. It must have succeeded, in the end. That was how she repaired her fractured core, how she looked so lustrous and beautiful.

The Demon had given her what she wanted, just as mine had given Bad Bob everything he desired.

Except I couldn’t sense a Mark on Star. I looked wildly at David, who was standing just a few feet away.

“She doesn’t have one,” he told me. “No Mark.”

“No,” she said. “Not anymore. He took it away from me.” Star bared her teeth and didn’t look so beautiful anymore. There was so much rage in her, so much despair. And yet, she was still Star. The same lovely, smart, smart-mouthed girl I loved.

She tore her gaze away from David and made an effort to pretend it was all normal again. “I tried to make you listen, but you just kept coming. You knew, didn’t you? You knew all about what was happening here. Had to be the hero. Had to save me.” Her pretty mouth twisted into something bitter and ugly. “Barely saved yourself, back there in that stupid mall. Some great hero.”

Star. All this time I’d been thinking it was someone else, some invisible enemy. But my enemy had been right in plain sight. Jesus, I told her I was coming. No wonder she’d known where I was, how to track me. I’d made it simple.

“Feeling betrayed?” she asked. She stepped closer. “Join the club, girlfriend. Not like you didn’t betray me first.”

“Life sucks,” I said. Star took the book from my hands.

“Then you die,” she finished gravely. She flicked her eyes at the blond-haired Djinn, standing quietly with her hands clasped like a good little schoolgirl. “When I give you the signal, I want you to transport me back to my house, understand? Me and whatever I’m holding in my hands.”

The book was in Star’s hands. I wondered how I was going to get it away from her. Star didn’t give me time to figure it out. She gave me a funny little half-smile.

“Third request,” she said. “Alice, take the Demon Mark from my friend.”

I shouted a no, but Alice was already moving, reaching out for me and I couldn’t move backwards fast enough. I tripped over a threadbare Persian carpet and fell against a table as her small pale hand reached out toward me…

… and David intercepted her, stiff-armed her back. Alice flinched from him and tried to come around the other side. David put himself in the middle and held her off. Star, standing off to the side, quietly watching, said nothing at all.

“Call her off!” I ordered. Star raised her hands and let them fall. “Star, dammit, call her off. This is crazy!”

“Can’t,” she said. “Three wishes. I’m out of here, babe. Better let it happen.”

She waved to Alice, and instantly disappeared. With the book.

I yelled at David to hold Alice and I darted for the no admittance door at the back, where Cathy had gone. A blur streaked toward me, blue and white, and I slammed the door against it and stumbled back into boxes that tumbled over and spilled gaudy romance novels to the floor in a spray of heaving breasts and manly thews. I slipped on one and bruised my knee so hard, I saw red pulsing dots.

Alice blew through the door like it wasn’t even there and reached out for me, and even while she did, I saw the terror in her eyes, the horror, the desperation. She knew what this meant. Eternal torment for her. And yet… she had no choice.

A blur of hot bronze collided with her and sent her off course, and I managed to clamber back to my feet and run down the narrow, dusty hallway. Pretty much useless, running, but I was out of options.

No. Wait. I wasn’t. I sucked down gulps of air and tried to focus around the panic that was jackhammering my heart.

Alice got free of David again and flashed toward me. I stopped, turned, and put out my hands as if I might grab her in turn…… and called the wind.

It blew down the narrow corridor, swirling, ripping, tearing covers and ripping books into blizzards, hit Alice and tumbled her helplessly backwards. David, too. They both dropped from vapor into heavier flesh, but I just called more power, whipped the wind faster. The walls creaked around me, and the far door blew open with a splintering crash, spilling hurricane forces out into the bookstore where racks blew over and paperbacks were sent flying.

In my chest, something ignited. Sent feeders of blackness threading through my aching body.

I couldn’t control it anymore. The wind ripped free of me, became wild and alive and dark, became a lover whispering over me, stroking my hair and pressing against me like a living thing.

David was screaming something into the wind at me. Telling me something I didn’t want to hear. Something about the Demon Mark. It didn’t matter. Not anymore. I could keep him away, could blow sweet little Alice back to Wonderland, could reduce this miserable little store to sticks and splinters. And I wanted to. God, I wanted all this filth to go away, quit clinging to me, quit holding me back from what I was becoming. Sticks and splinters, that was so easy. Bodies in the way? Hamburger. Gobbets of flesh, ground up between steel and stone.

Somebody was trying to stop me. They weren’t doing very well, but they were trying. I opened my eyes and squinted through flying debris and saw someone standing against the wall, holding on to an iron bar for dear life. Her short brown hair blew out like a thistle, crackling with static and potential energy.

Cathy Ball. I blinked and went up into Oversight. She was scared, streaked in blacks and grays and hot liquid yellows, but she was fighting me.

I didn’t have to stop. It would have been easy not to. But looking at her, so small against all the power burning in me, against the black writhing nest of the Demon Mark that was feeding and consuming and growing… I knew I had to try.

I let the wind fall. Alice, single-minded as ritual demanded, lunged for me.

“Stop!” Cathy commanded her, and she did, as suddenly as if physics had no meaning for her. Frozen in time.

“Tell her not to take the Mark,” I said. Cathy’s face went pallid. “Tell her.”

“Don’t take the Mark,” she whispered. Alice relaxed, and the blue eyes filled up with emotion again—resentment, fear, relief, anguish. All hidden the instant she turned back to her master.

It didn’t take Cathy long to get a handle on what was going on, or what we were all risking. She glanced at David just once, then focused on me and said, “Get your Demon Marked ass out of my store.”

I swallowed a spark of anger. “I’ll pay for—”

“You won’t do a goddamned thing except get the hell gone!” she shouted, and her face flushed red with the release of tension and fear. I didn’t try to apologize. There was no apologizing for what I’d done, or what I’d almost done, or what had almost been done to her Djinn.

Cathy watched me walk to the splintered, gaping door, out into the ruined bookstore. As I stumbled over broken racks and scattered books, I heard her say to her Djinn in a disgusted, shaking voice, “Help me clean this mess up, will you?”

I made it outside before the panic attack hit me.

Well, this was about as low as I could go. On my hands and knees, shivering, gasping, crying like a baby. My whole body ached from the force of it, the need to get rid of the thing inside me and—worse— the horrible feeling of betrayal and grief.

Star wasn’t who I thought. Maybe she hadn’t ever been the person I’d thought she was. All this time I’d been believing in her, in our strong and unshakable friendship, and for all I knew, that had all been a lie, too.

Star had made a deal, quite literally, with the Devil. Like Bad Bob, she’d opened herself, and something had crawled inside… and nobody, not even me, had known the difference.

I felt David’s hands on my shoulders and leaned back against him. So much comfort in his touch, and I didn’t even know why. Why I trusted him, when I knew better… They’d all betrayed me, even Lewis. He’d told me to come here, but where the hell was he when I needed him? I’d trusted Star. I’d trusted Bad Bob.

How could I ever trust David? I barely knew him.

“Get up,” he said, and helped me to my feet. “You have to go. Quickly.”

I couldn’t. It was done, it was over, there wasn’t anything left in me.

He half pushed, half carried me to the Land Rover. As he did, the timer on the outside sign for Ball’s Books clicked on and lit us up in a cool yellow glow. Amazingly, from the street, you couldn’t tell a thing had happened inside the store. The plate glass windows were intact, and the front part of the store still looked normal.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I said numbly. David opened the door of the Land Rover.

“Yes, you are,” he said. “I want you to drive. Go as far and as fast as you can. Don’t let anything stop you. If Lewis is still out here, he’ll find you.” He captured my face between those large, warm hands. “Jo. Please. Last chance. Let me take the Mark.”

“No,” I whispered. “I can’t. Please don’t ask me again.”

“I won’t.” He looked up at a flash of lightning. “You have to go. Now.”

I tasted the tang of ozone, smelled the hot burn on the air. Power calls to power. I’d stirred up the aetheric, and that would help the storm that was hunting me. He was right. I had to go. If I stayed here, innocent people would suffer.

“What about you?” I asked. “David?” I took his hands and held them tight. “You’re coming with me?”

The look on his face. If I’d ever had any doubt about how deeply Djinn could feel… “I can’t. She knows what I am, and she has the book. If you won’t claim me—”

“She will,” I finished, and felt my skin pebble into gooseflesh at the idea. “No. You can’t let that happen.”

He smiled at me, very slightly, and ran his thumb across my lips. “I can’t prevent it.”

I could feel the nightmare closing in on me, clocks ticking, hearts racing, sands running out. I was dying and living and running all at once, and there was a storm inside me, black with thunder, white with lightning, and rain crawled in my veins.

He put his hand over the Mark. It didn’t help. The storm didn’t stop. Even when he kissed me—a long, gentle, lingering kiss that had the taste of good-bye.

“Remember me,” he whispered, with his lips still touching mine. “No matter what happens.”

I felt him melt away like mist, and when I reached out to touch his face, it was gone; there was nothing but the memory of him in my fingers and the taste of him burning my lips.

I screamed and screamed and screamed into the wind, but he didn’t come back.

I drove the Land Rover out of town at high speed, not caring if anyone saw me; not caring about much of anything, really. Star would find me. Marion would find me. Hell, it really didn’t matter who found me anymore, because it was all coming apart, I was coming apart, and David was gone.

Something flickered at the corner of my eye as I made the turn onto I-35, heading south for the Texas border. I had a stowaway in the passenger seat. Unseeable is easier than invisible, David had told me.

I reached over and grabbed Rahel by the wrist without looking at her, and when I turned my head, she faded into view, sunshine yellow still neon-bright and unnaturally stylish in the dashboard lights.

“I told you, you’re a fool,” she said. “Let go of my arm, Snow White.”

“I can hurt you,” I said. It was true. The Demon Mark had braided into me so deeply now that I had the power, power to smash and flatten and hurt even a Djinn. When David had vanished, the last reason I had to resist that power was gone. What was the point of being human, anyway? To be hurt? To be abused? Screw it. I was done with that.

Rahel took me seriously, which was gratifying. “Why would you? I’m not your enemy.”

“Baby, I’m no longer sure who my enemies are. My friends, either.”

She laughed. It was a rich Swiss chocolate kind of sound, full of delight. “Well, you’re learning.”

“Whose Djinn are you?”

She shook her finger at me, still smiling. “No, no, not important, sweet one. We’re past all that now. You know your enemy. It’s time to fight.”

“Fight what?” I snarled. “The Demon Mark? Star? Jesus, what exactly do you expect me to do? I never wanted any of this, you know. I just want—”

I just wanted David. I wanted that perfect night of peace. I wanted love with so much intensity, it brought tears to my eyes. Oh, Star. My whole soul mourned for the girl I’d known, the one I’d saved, the one I’d lost. It had happened by inches and years, and I’d never even noticed. But more than that, I mourned for me… for the me who had been destroyed when Bad Bob ripped away my sense of who I was in this world.

I let go of Rahel and put both hands back on the wheel. “Leave me alone.”

She wasn’t laughing now, or smiling, either. Whatever I’d expected to see in those hot yellow eyes, it wasn’t compassion. “The thing about being alone?” she said softly. “So many choices. So many possibilities.”

“Yeah, I’m fucking blessed. Want to drop me a clue about what to do next?”

She shrugged. “Whatever I tell you, you will not do it. Why should I burden you with advice for you to doubt and pick at like an unhealed sore?”

“Well, that’s pretty.”

She leaned back, put one foot up on the dashboard, and examined her neon-yellow toenails, which were displayed to advantage by a lovely pair of designer sandals in—of course—neon yellow. “I’m no one’s Djinn, Child of Demons. As you should know by now.”

“You’re like David.” Saying his name hurt, and hurt, and hurt, turning a razor blade in the marrow of my bones.

She shot me a narrow, amused look, and her black cornrows rustled over her shoulders as she shook her head. “Nothing like David, in fact. Nor do we share lineage.”

“You both belonged to Lewis, and you’re still trying to protect him, wherever he is.”

She shook her head and sighed. She stroked her fingernails over her long, shapely toes, and where they touched, silver rings took form and glittered.

She examined the effect critically, cocking her head to one side. “You understand nothing. It amazes me, still. Lewis did not free David. You did.”

I did? No way. No…

My heart thumped hard and stuttered.

Oh, God.

I had been on my knees in Bad Bob’s house, fighting for my life…. I had taken hold of an ancient wine bottle… and I’d smashed it into pieces.

Bad Bob’s wine bottle.

Bad Bob’s Djinn.

When we were fighting at the hotel, David had said, I’ve tried to help you, I’ve tried to make up for… for holding me down at Bob’s order. For ripping away my defenses and putting the Demon Mark inside me, a kind of rape that could never heal, could never stop.

That was why he’d shadowed me. Why he’d stayed with me. Why he’d dared me, begged me, and nearly forced me to allow him to take the Mark.

Because he’d done this thing to me in the first place.

I’d been waiting for him to betray me all this time, and the truth was, he’d done it from the very first second. He’d lied to me, kept lying, was still lying about it.

I swallowed a mouthful of acid and bitter truth. “So he sent you in his place.”

She sniffed. “Hardly. I have other… responsibilities.”

“Tell me, was I ever even close? Lewis’s Djinn told me to come here in the first place, or was that a lie, too?”

“The Djinn in Westchester once belonged to Lewis, it is true,” Rahel said. “Freed, he serves him still. As do I. But we are limited in what we know, and what we can do.”

She stared hard at her toenails, then out at the road unrolling in the headlights. Sunset was leaving the west, leaving a gorgeous trailing band of royal blue edged with early night, sprinkled with new stars. Somewhere the storm was looking for me, and I knew it would find me, if the others didn’t find me first.

“So if he didn’t lie to me, Lewis did come to Oklahoma.”

“Yes. As I told you.”

“So where is he now? And why isn’t he helping me?”

She sighed, put-upon, just like the human being she almost resembled. “Fool. You have everything at hand, and still you don’t read the signs. Star has used the book before, yes? To claim a Djinn, or try to do so. Lewis came to stop her.”

I realized, with a hot jolt, that Star had been baiting me, trying to see if I knew where Lewis was, and if I’d come to help him stop her.

“Then where is he?” I asked. Rahel shook her head.

“You already know.”

And I did. Nothing else made sense. “Star. Star has Lewis.”

Rahel beamed at me as if I’d finally taken my first toddling steps. “See? You’re not such a fool after all.”

Contents

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