Star had Lewis. As in, had Lewis
The words “well and truly screwed” skipped through my mind, strewing flowers in their path.
“Can you grant wishes?” I asked Rahel bluntly. She looked faintly insulted. “Well? Can you?”
“Please. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Ritual third. Can you?”
She smiled thinly. “Can I what?”
“Thank you for playing, but you must put it in the form of a—”
“Question, I know. Skip the rules and just tell me, okay? I’m not getting any less demonic here.”
That zapped the fun out of her. “If I wished.”
“Well, I wish you would all just stop
“Stop the car,” she said.
“It’s not a car. It’s an SUV.” I had a bad thought. “That ‘Kill me now, that was metaphorical….”
Her turn to bellow, and believe me, the bellow of a Djinn makes my pissant outburst look like an undernourished peep.
I swerved off the freeway. Luckily, there was an off-ramp about twenty feet ahead to the two-way service road; I bumped over hillocks and got tires back on tarmac, and exited with something like control.
“What the hell?” I asked. Rahel was looking behind us. There was a reddish glow gathering back there.
“Out,” Rahel ordered.
“Out’s not such a good idea.
“Get out!” This was a yell, not an order, and before I could even think about responding, she was out of the car, yanking the driver’s-side door open. She dragged me over center console and leather seat and out onto gravel, and she kept dragging me, faster than I could get my feet moving. When she paused for a fraction of a second, I tried to get my balance, but then I was weightless, flying, and I had no idea how I could do that in the real world, but there were things moving so fast and a huge pressure at my back…
… and then I was down, flat on the ground, tasting blood and feeling numb. I rolled over and saw the fireball belching orange and black into the sky, and for a blank second, I didn’t even connect it to the Land Rover. Not that there was much left of the Land Rover, and it for damn sure wasn’t white anymore. Four melting tires, crisping paint, an interior that looked like a glimpse into a nuclear furnace.
Rahel was standing, untouched, a few feet away, staring at the inferno. Djinn were creatures of fire, they said. She glowed like a torch, beautiful, scary, sexy, and I could feel the heat from where I was standing.
She turned her head, and her eyes were enormous, full of power and fury, the color of boiling gold. In an eerily practical voice, she said, “You need to run now.”
“What is it?” I scrambled up without much regard for bruises and cuts. Her face was calm and set.
She didn’t waste any more breath arguing with me. She shoved, I stumbled, almost fell, and then momentum and the desire to put distance between my fragile human self and what was coming out of that fireball took over, and I started to run.
I vaulted over the sagging barbed wire fence and fell into thick underbrush, most of it thorny. I thrashed through it with the strength of panic. Like Lot’s wife, I looked back, and I saw that the fire from the truck was inexplicably looping out in a jet, streaking straight for Rahel. It hit her with so much force, I saw her yellow coat blow back like bird’s wings, and then she was engulfed.
I couldn’t stop. The underbrush was dry, all it would take would be a casual brush from that elemental
I broke through the underbrush and found myself in a plowed field. Neat dark-brown rows of earth, jewel-green seedlings just pushing out of the soil. A farmhouse sat at the far end, lit up like a kitschy craft fair painting. On the other side of the field, a grassy fenced area with brown, placid cows.
And a round metal stock tank for water.
I made for the fence, jumped it, felt air burning in my lungs and didn’t know if it was the fire coming for me or an overload of panic. I fell into the cow pasture. As I rolled back to my feet, I got a look back.
The underbrush was burning. No sign of Rahel. There was nothing left of the Land Rover but a sizzling metal skeleton.
I ran for the stock tank. Cows trotted out of my way, amiably uncertain, and I hoped they wouldn’t end the day as barbecue, but I couldn’t do anything about that just now. I spared a look over my shoulder.
Fire boiled out of the underbrush in a straight line, burning a path straight for me. It hit the fence and blew a blackened hole in it. Somehow, I knew—felt—it was Star. I forced myself faster, faster, got both feet on the ground and jumped.
I dived into the ice-cold water of the stock tank and found the slimy metal bottom. My skin took the shock hard, and it was all I could do not to gasp in a big drowning breath, but I held on, and the icy slap of it wore off in seconds, leaving me numbed.
Something hit the stock tank hard enough to rattle through the metal, and I saw a brilliant flare of orange and white sheet across the water, felt the temperature go up several degrees, and the thought came to me that if it went on for long, I’d boil like a lobster in a pot. Quite a lot of deaths to choose from, all of a sudden—burning, drowning, boiling— none of them really attractive.
I sucked oxygen molecules out of the water and made a breathable bubble, got my lips into it and refilled. I crab-walked backwards to the farthest part of the tank from where the fire was centered, and peered through algae-murked water to see the metal glowing on the other side. Pretty soon my stock tank was going to become a stockpot. Did I have a chance of getting to the surface and hauling myself out of the tank and making it all the way to—where? — before getting fried? No. No, I did not.
Mastery over air and water didn’t mean a damn thing right now, except that I could probably keep breathing right up until my skin boiled off and my eyes popped. Maybe I would lose consciousness before that. I hoped so.
It got dark all of a sudden. I wondered if my eyes had failed, but then my brain slowly crawled to the conclusion that the fire had stopped.
Somebody had hold of my hair and yanked. It hurt. I opened my mouth and yelled, or tried to, but all I got was a lungful of murky water, and then I was coming out of the water and into chilled air and I was on the ground, my face in the dirt, vomiting out green ooze.
I sucked in air, coughed, and felt the linings of my lungs burn like they’d never be clean again. Could you die of disgust? I coughed until I was shaking and weak, smeared wet dirt all over my face, and rolled over to look around. Hard to tell if anything else had been baked or fried—it was too dark—but I didn’t smell barbecue, and I could hear the cows mooing in panic at the far side of the pasture.
Rahel stood over me, fresh and neon as ever. She stared down at me and said, “I’m out of patience, Child of Demons. Do you love him?”
I coughed again, wiped my mouth, and gasped, “What?”
Rahel snapped her fingers again, and we were standing somewhere else. Or no… I could still feel the wind on my face, feel the uneven stumpy grass under me.
But what I saw was a cellar. Dark, stacked here and there with boxes. There was a wooden worktable against the far wall, and on it…
On it lay the book from Cathy Ball’s store.
Estrella stepped from the shadows behind me. I jumped out of the way, ending up next to the sheer primal heat of Rahel, and I was grateful for the warmth because this place was cold and my heart was getting colder.
I sat up. Rahel helped me to my feet.
Estrella went to the book and opened it.
“No,” I whispered, and looked at Rahel; her face was impassive, but her golden eyes glowed like jack-o’-lanterns. “Stop her!”
“I can’t,” she said.
“The fuck you can’t! Hell, set her house on fire… blow it down…
She rounded on me, gripped both my arms with talons hard as steel. “If I could stop her, don’t you think I would? Do you think I’d waste my time chasing after a filthy corrupted little witch like
I fell out of my body, zoomed up into Oversight, and hurtled myself toward Oklahoma City. Star’s house was somewhere around here…. Where was she? She wasn’t in the aetheric, wasn’t using her powers… needle in a haystack… other Wardens appearing and disappearing like sparks in a fire, but without getting close to them, I couldn’t see which was which, couldn’t
“I don’t know. I can
I felt a blind, anguished surge of panic. Sure, I could find her, if I had time… if I didn’t have the Demon Mark eating me from inside out… if Star herself
My hand brushed something hard and angular that had made a whopping bruise on my left hip. I dug in my pocket and came up with…
… a cell phone.
Stopped on one I did. Star had called home to check her messages.
“Here goes nothing,” I said, and hit the connect button.
In Rahel’s illusion, Star was standing there with the book in her hands, mouthing words. I might be too late…
… and then she looked up, irritated, with exactly the same expression I knew I got when the phone rang at dinner. She shook her head, shrugged it off, and went back to the book.
“Pick it up,” I whispered. “Come on, Star, please. Answer the phone.”
On my end, the call went to voice mail. I hung up and redialed.
Star was reading the book. Lips moving.
There was a flash of intense blue-white light, and when it faded…
When it faded, David was standing with Star, facing her across the book. Frozen. Rahel spat out words I didn’t know, but the vicious anger in them was universal.
Star handed him the book. He took it without any change of expression.
“Too late,” I whispered. The phone was still ringing, a dull buzz in my ear. “Oh, God, no.”
“Not yet. She has not claimed him yet, only trapped him.” Still, Rahel didn’t sound overly optimistic. She reached out with yellow-tipped claws toward David, then let her hand fall back to her side. “He fights.”
He would, I knew. He’d fight to the limits of his ability, and beyond, to stay free. The same as I would.
Star smiled at him and reached over to pick up something lying on the corner of the worktable. She put it to her ear.
“Don’t do it, Star,” I blurted. “Please. Let him go. We’ve been friends a long time—it has to count for something. Don’t do this to him.”
She jolted in surprise and looked around the room where she was, taking in every corner, every shadow. As she turned, I saw that indescribably alien beauty in her again. The beauty a Demon had given her.
“Jo? Jesus, you’re slippery. I figured you’d be dead by now. No can do, babe. I need him.”
“I need him.”
“You don’t even
That pretty, false face distorted in anger. “Yeah, exactly. I’m
I remembered the incredible strength of the fire jetting across the field toward me. A thing like that didn’t come cheaply. She was weakened, and she needed a fresh source of power.
She needed David.
“I love him, Star,” I said. “Please. Please, don’t.”
She laughed. The same laugh, the same sweet, happy laugh that had kept me sane all these years, reminded me there was a normal world and normal friends and the hope of something beyond the Wardens.
The same lying laugh.
She walked up to David and trailed her fingers over his face, down his neck. I felt an overwhelming urge to bitch-slap her into next week. She tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder and flipped pages in the book he held. “Let’s say I know what— and who—you’re talking about.”
“I’m not fucking around, Star. You either let him go, or I come and take him from you. Understand?”
She found what she was looking for. She looked down at the words for a few seconds, then stepped back.
“You have no idea,” she said. “No idea what I’ve done, or how hard I worked. I was a fucking
I swallowed my anger and tried to sound reasonable. “But you got better.”
“Oh, yeah, I got better. No thanks to any of
She put the phone against her chest and said something to David, but there was no sound in the illusion. David didn’t—couldn’t—answer. Star finally put the phone back to her ear.
“Got to go, Jo,” she said. “Things to do, Djinn to claim.”
She hung up and tossed the phone down on the table. I screamed into the cell phone, but it was too late, too late, too late.
Estrella took a Mason jar down from a shelf and set it on the floor next to David’s feet. I don’t know why I kept looking, except that not looking would have been a betrayal of everything he’d shown me about honor and loyalty, about forgiveness and responsibility.
I read her lips as they moved.
I felt the David I’d known snuff out like a candle, his personality and presence obliterated by the bonding.
He was Star’s.
His eyes shifted spectrums, became a dark, lightless brown.
She took the book away from him and put it down, and his gaze followed her with the unsettling attention and devotion he’d once given me.
“He’s lost,” Rahel said. Her voice had turned ice cold, hard enough to cut. “Trust him no more. He cannot go against her.”
She let the illusion snap to darkness. I felt my knees give way and sank down in the grass again. I rested my forehead against my braced knees.
Rahel’s hand rested briefly on my shoulder. Comfort? I don’t know. But it did give me strength. I fought off the weight of panic in my chest and blinked against tears. My face felt hot, my skin too tight.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why is she doing this?”
“She doesn’t have the Mark anymore,” Rahel said. She crouched down, fluid as a shadow, to look me in the face. “She must have something to fill her emptiness.”
“Then where did the Mark—?”
The answer was in her sad, furious, outraged eyes.
“Oh, God,” I breathed. “Lewis tried to save her. He took it from her. And now she wants it back.”
“Now you see,” Rahel said soberly.
I did. Vividly. Horribly. Lewis had so much power… more power than me, than anyone. Lewis had done exactly what his nature demanded he do—he’d stepped in to heal her. In doing so, he’d been vulnerable to the Mark, and that was… horrible. Lewis corrupted, without a conscience, with unlimited power…
“Is he still with her?” I asked. She tilted her head to one side, then back. “C’mon, Rahel, spill. I don’t have time for Djinn games.”
“I think so. We have found no trace of him.”
“Why doesn’t he leave?”
She blinked slowly. “I think he can’t.”
“Shit!” I slapped the ground hard enough to make my hand hurt. “Why didn’t you
“What would you have done differently?”
Rahel gave me a long, offended look that reminded me I was dealing with Power. Capital P. “I am not responsible for the short-sighted nature of mortals, Snow White. I deal with you as we have always done with humans. It is not our nature to explain ourselves. We expect you to understand this.”
“Whatever. Man, if I make it out of this, we’re going to have some classes in interspecies communication, ’cause you guys
“I can’t take you there,” she said. “I’m—”
“Yeah, free, I know. You can only travel the speed we do.” She looked pleased and surprised that I already knew. “Get me to the closest car lot.”
She nodded. “Hold on,” she said. She threw her arms around me in a full-body hug.
And my feet left the ground.
Now, I’ve flown in Oversight hundreds of times, maybe thousands—and I’m used to the sensation of the world falling away. But this was different. My body wasn’t safely down on the ground waiting for me; my body was dangling in midair, at the mercy of a Djinn with an ugly sense of humor.
I let out a scream that came out more like a helpless
A bird dipped wings and darted closer to check us out; I read confusion in his dark little bird eyes and absolutely felt for him. I didn’t know I was doing in his airspace, either.
“You know so much of the Djinn,” Rahel said, grinning. “Did you know we could do this?”
I shut my mouth before I could catch a bug in it.
Rahel touched us down on the corner of an intersection in Norman, about ten miles from where we’d started, and let me sit down and put my head between my knees to fight off the urge to puke. She found it amusing.
“You walk the worlds,” she said. “Yet a little levitation bothers you?”
“Clearly, we are getting you transportation.”
Right, the Land Rover was a pile of smoking crap. “We’re stealing a car.”
“Unless they offer late-night test drives, I believe so.”
So, it was going to be straight-up grand theft auto. No problem. The idea of a car perked me right up, and besides, next to the death sentence ticking away inside me, prison sounded like a day spa. I had to get to OKC and find Star, and wheels sounded like a damn practical idea.
I scouted around for witnesses. Not much traffic in this part of town after sunset, especially with a storm coming; the predominant sound came from wind-snapped flags and the rattling hum of light poles shivering in the increasingly harsh wind. The few cars that did drive by didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence.
Rahel waited for me to say something. I took a deep breath and obliged. “I need something fast but invisible,” I said. “High-end Honda, maybe an Acura, neutral colors. I want to blend into traffic. But first, take care of these security cameras.”
Rahel looked up at the shiny blind lenses stationed on the roof of the dealership and attached to two or three of the light poles. She stared for three or four seconds. “It’s done.”
“I fried the circuit boards,” she said. “And also demagnetized the security tape.”
“Damn, you sure you’ve never done this kind of thing before?”
Rahel showed me fierce white teeth. “I have done
We stepped over the white-painted iron fence that wasn’t designed to keep shoppers out, just cars in; there were some sweet machines parked on the lot, in a rainbow of yummy colors. I reluctantly ruled out the neon yellows, greens, and reds.
“That one,” I said, and pointed to the one that looked black in the peach gleam of the sodium lights. It was a BMW, a good solid production car. Not the highest priced set of wheels, not the lowest, but one that would do zero to sixty in under eight seconds without any mods at all. Best of all, it looked kind of like a family car, which meant it wouldn’t be so easy to spot at a glance from a passing cop.
And, unless I missed my guess, it was dark blue, which was my color.
Rahel nodded and walked over to do a slow circle of the car, never taking her eyes off it, and finally said, “There is an alarm inside.”
“Can you disarm it?”
“Go for it.”
“Done.” She shrugged. She put her hand on the door locks, manipulated electrical currents, and popped open the driver’s side door. “Now you should go, quickly.”
I started to. Really. And as I turned to get in, I saw
She was sitting all alone in the parking lot, gleaming dark blue with white racing stripes up her hood.
It was love at first sight.
I walked away from the Beamer without any conscious decision to do so. I heard Rahel asking what I thought I was doing, but I was locked on this unexpected beauty sitting there, waiting for me like God himself had put her there.
Rahel caught up with me as I came to a halt next to the car.
“What is it?” she asked impatiently. I put two fingers on the gorgeous metallic blue paint, stroking it.
“A 1997 Dodge Viper GTS,” I said reverently. “V10, 7,990 cubic capacity engine, six thousand RPM. The fastest production car in America, top speed of nearly three hundred kilometers per hour. Faster than any Corvette, faster than the 1971 Boss Mustang, faster than the goddamn
Rahel looked unimpressed. “It looks expensive.”
“About sixty grand, if you’re lucky enough to find one.” The door was locked, of course, but I could feel the Viper issuing the invitation. “Open it.”
“You told me you wanted to blend in and be difficult to spot. This… is not hard to spot.”
“Just hard to catch.” I flattened my hand against the paint and stroked her flared panels like she was a barely tamed tiger. “She’s the one. No question about it.”
Rahel shrugged, touched the door handle, and the lock popped up. I slipped inside with a sigh of pleasure; it felt like dropping into my favorite chair, with a purring cat curled up against me. Soul-deep comfort. I adjusted the seat, inspected the cockpit display, and felt a surge of love as strong as anything I’d felt for a car in my life. Even poor Delilah.
“I’ll take it,” I said. Rahel looked perplexed. “Please.”
She touched the ignition. The Viper shivered into purring life. The gearshift knob fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. Rahel closed the driver’s-side door. I hit the button to glide down the window and said, “Can you open the gate?”
“I live to serve.” She sounded bemused. Well, I guess she’d never witnessed the sacred bonding of woman and car before. “Do you know where to go?”
“Away from you,” I said, and eased the Viper into gear. The power shifted to a low, trembling growl.
She smiled. “Perhaps you’re not as stupid as I feared.” Her hot gold eyes never blinked. “Don’t assume David will take your side. He can’t, however much he wishes.”
Behind her, metal locks snapped and wrought-iron gates swung open with a soft moan, laying down the last token of the Viper’s protection. “God be with you,” she said. I idled, looking at her.
“How about you?”
She shook her head. “At the last, I must be faithless,” she said. “I have done what I could. Ask me for nothing more.”
I didn’t intend to. As I slipped the Viper in gear, I slid up into Oversight to survey the stormline, and I saw the Demon Mark in me, an ugly black nightmare of tentacles and edges. I closed my eyes against the destruction of my soul and promised, “I’m going to find a way to stop her.” I let the Viper slip the leash and run.
The Viper—whose name, I decided, was Mona— hit ninety miles an hour on the way out of Norman, which barely required an effort on her part. She was a throwback to earlier cars, sensitive to touch, steering, braking, no computer-controlled minibrain to interpret between us.
The storm that had been chasing me for the last thousand miles was coming fast, gathering speed and rotation. I’d need to do something about that before I could make any move against Star; too much energy out there, too much risk that it could kick me when I was down. First, though, I was going to have to stop for gas. It was risky, not to mention pricey, but the dealership had left only an eighth of a tank in the Viper, and I couldn’t afford to run out of gas.
I pulled into a roadside Texaco as a huge gust of wind blew through carrying grit and shredded papers and plastic bags; it had an earth-heavy, faintly corrupt smell that worried me. I pumped as much gas as my last
Another gust blew my hair over my face. I clawed it back and realized that I had company.
A big yellow Nissan SUV had pulled up at the pumps between me and the Viper.
I slowed from a trot to a walk to a full stop. My heart hammered and went up to a level only cardio aerobics should have triggered. Fight or flight. God, I wanted to fight. I
Out on the freeway, a semi truck blew by, dragging an air-horn blast. The wind shoved me like a bully.
Marion Bearheart stepped out from behind the back of the SUV and stood watching me, hands in the pockets of her fringed leather coat. Her black-and-silver hair was contained in a thick braid that fell over one shoulder, and she looked strong and tough and resolute.
“Don’t run,” she said. Somehow, I heard her even over the wind.
“Dammit, I don’t have time for this!” I shouted. The words whipped away, but their essence remained. Her hands stayed in her pockets, but she took a step closer.
“Make time,” she said. And took another step. I wanted to back away, but there was something powerful and immortal in her eyes, something larger than my fear. “I know you have the Mark.”
I wondered how long she’d known, or suspected. She’d been pretty careful with me, back on Iron Road—afraid of rousing the Mark? Or just putting it together afterwards?
“It’s all right,” she said. The wind whipped unexpectedly sideways, then back; strands of hair tore loose from her braid and floated black and silver around her face. “Joanne, trust me. This will all work out. Please, let’s figure this out together.”
She held out her hand to me, silver-and-turquoise rings gleaming in the harsh lights of the gas station.
I took a step back. She tried again.
“Once your powers are gone, the Mark won’t be able to feed,” she said. “It will starve and wither. You’ll live. I can make that happen.”
I couldn’t live like that, not blind and deaf, cut off from the breathing of the world. Cut off from the aetheric. Like Star, I was just too deep in the world.
“I’m not the only one with the Mark,” I said. “You know that, right?”
“One problem at a time.” Marion had a kind of fevered intensity about her, and I could feel her willing me to give in. But she hadn’t used her power. Why not? She’d used it on Iron Road…. Ah, of course, the storm. The more power we used, the worse the storm would get, the faster it would reach us. She was being responsible.
As I took another step back, arms closed around me from behind and lifted me straight off the ground.
Marion walked up to me and gently smoothed hair back from my face. She smiled. “Don’t struggle. I know, you made a terrible mistake, but it can be fixed, I swear. You’re too valuable to the Wardens; I won’t let anything happen to you.”
I stopped struggling. Erik let me down enough that my toes touched the ground. “It’s Star,” I said. “She’s turned on us. We have to stop her.”
Her eyes widened. “Joanne, I expected something a little better from you than turning on the only friend you have left. Star’s the one who told us you were coming. She wants you to get help. Accusing her won’t make things any better.”
She slid her eyes past me to Erik. “Put her in the truck.”
Struggling didn’t do anything but make him squeeze harder and cut off half my air; I was reduced to kicking and screaming like a scared kid. Marion opened the back door of the Nissan, and I got my feet set on either side of the opening and pushed, hard.
Shirl, who’d come up on the other side of the truck, leaned over and touched my foot. It burned. I yelled, kicked out, and caught her right in the face with a snap that sent her rolling. Marion went after her. Erik staggered as a fresh gust of wind hit him squarely in the back.
I reached for that wind, whipped it around me like a cloak, and lifted me and Erik off the ground. He squawked like a chicken, and his grip loosened; I twisted the wind faster, spinning us in midair, and he let go to flail for balance he’d never get. Higher. Higher. Marion was reaching up toward us, but whatever magic she was summoning was no use; with the storm coming, there was so much potential in the air, so much power, it was as natural to me as breathing to counter her.
I split the mini-funnel into halves, stabilized myself in midair, and let Erik continue to turn and flail.
With just a little more, I could rip that cloth away, strip him naked, then begin to peel that pale flesh down to red meat and bone….
I let Erik drop into a heap on the concrete and held myself suspended ten feet above Marion’s head, looking down. Shirl called fire, but Marion stopped her before the wind could whip it out of control.
“Your move,” I called down. The wind blew cold and harsh around me, black as night, streaming with power. It was sickeningly easy. I’d never felt so powerful, not even with a borrowed Djinn at my command. No wonder Bad Bob had let himself be consumed by this thing; it felt so… damn…
Marion knew better than to start a war here, next to a town full of innocent lives. So did I.
That didn’t mean we wouldn’t do it.
She slowly lowered her hands to her sides and gave me one short, sharp nod.
“You know I could blow you away, don’t you?” I asked. She looked ready to bite the head off a nail, but she nodded to that, too. “You know I have the power to bury the three of you right here.”
“Do or don’t, it’s your choice.”
I was sick of everybody preaching to me about
Her eyes were ice, ice cold. “It seems I was wrong about you. I thought you would do the right thing.”
“Well, it’s all in the perspective.” I waited, hovering, while she thought about it. “What if I can provide proof that Star’s corrupted?”
“Then I’ll take steps.”
We kept up the standoff for another few minutes, and then Marion nodded. Just once.
“Follow me,” I said. “Don’t get in my way.”
She bundled Shirl and Erik into the Nissan, then climbed up into the driver’s seat. I lowered myself to a level where I could see her through the window. Somewhere about half a mile away, a fork of lightning blazed through the sky. Sensitized as I was right now to the power, I felt it go through me like a rolling wave of orgasm. She must have read that in me, because for the first time—ever—I saw a flicker of fear in Marion’s eyes.
“Try to keep up,” I said. I touched down on the concrete and let the wind slip from my control; it raged in a mini-tornado through the parking lot, slamming parked cars, scudding trash, kicking loose stones like a spoiled brat.
I stayed cool until I got in the Viper and then sat there, shaking, and felt the Demon Mark uncoiling and stretching inside me.
“I won’t be like that,” I promised myself. But I already was. I’d hurt Erik, I’d thought seriously about killing him. It was only a matter of degrees now, of those slow descending steps to becoming what Bad Bob had been.
I let the Viper fold me in its muscular strength; Mona was willing to run, and I was willing to let her. The first heavy drops of rain were falling around us as I sped out of the gas station, followed by the Day-Glo Nissan Xterra. We roared up the access ramp and hit I-35, heading for the heart of Oklahoma City.
The storm was fast becoming a problem.
I watched it flowing toward me. The clouds had turned darker, edged with gray green; the light looked different seen through them. Lightning was a constant, hidden flicker somewhere up in the anvil cloud forming at the leading edge. It looked deceptively compact, but I knew it went up into the sky for thirty, forty, fifty thousand feet, a massive, boiling pressure cooker of force and power. Two miles after I left Norman, rain began lashing the road in sheets. Mona’s windshield wipers worked on full speed just to keep the lane markers visible; lucky for me, there was no traffic except for the dimly seen SUV behind me. We were the only fools stupid enough to be driving.
Now that it was here, the green-and-gray pinwheel hanging so close over my head, I thought in a strange sort of way that I recognized it. It had a personality, this storm. A kind of surly intelligence. I had the sick feeling—and it was probably true—that this was the storm born of seeds I’d scattered on the coast of Florida in my fight with Bad Bob. Whether it came from me or had been birthed from the bloody womb of Mother Earth, this storm was now waking up to its own power and presence. Sentient. Able to control itself, alter its course, make decisions about how much damage to inflict, and where. There was no longer anybody manipulating the aetheric to control it; in fact, I could see lines of force constantly jabbing at it from a hundred different Weather Wardens, all trying to disrupt its patterns and all failing.
The more I looked at it, the more familiarity I felt. This was
Overhead, the storm shifted and rumbled, and I felt it focus on me. Fine. At least this was an enemy I understood. One I could fight. I looked into its black, furious heart. I opened my mouth and screamed at it. No words, nothing but a tortured howl of agony.
When I stopped, there was silence. The storm muttered to itself and kept its own wary counsel; I’d surprised it, at least, even if I hadn’t scared it.
I couldn’t stop the storm without pulling power through my Demon Mark, and that would increase its rate of growth and burn away at what was left of my soul. Then again, I couldn’t go back through the storm without it striking me with all its power and fury.
It was standing between me and Oklahoma City now. Between me and Star, me and David.
The storm stared at me. I stared back.
I pulled Mona off the road and got out of the car.
The Nissan ghosted to a caution-yellow stop behind me.
“Fuck you,” I said, staring up at this child of my power. “Let’s go to war.”
It started small. They always do. Just a breeze against my overheated face, tugging at the hem of my shirt and ruffling my sleeves. Combing through my hair like cold, unfeeling fingers.
Marion got out of the SUV behind me. I didn’t turn around. “Better take cover,” I said. Maybe she did; maybe she didn’t. It wasn’t something I could spare attention to check.
Overhead, the storm’s rotation sped up. Clouds swirled and blended together. They spawned cone-shaped formations that twisted and turned on their own. Counterclockwise, all storms turn counterclockwise on this side of the world. The colors were incredible, gray and green and heart’s-night black. Flashes of livid purple and pink from lightning discharging point to point across the sky.
The wind snapped my hair back like a battle flag, even with a drenching rain; I used enough power to clear a bell of stillness around myself and immediately drew a lightning strike. I diffused it down into the ground and felt no more than a tingle, and the subtle, stealthy movements of the Demon Mark under my skin.
I told it to shut up. It was going to get a lot worse before it got better.
When the hail started—golf balls smashing out of the sky to shatter on the road around me at first—I extended my protection over the Viper, too; no point in winning the war and being stuck thumbing for a ride. The hail pounded harder, like white rain, growing into fist-size misshapen chunks that exploded like bombs when they hit. Ice shrapnel sliced through my clothes, cold and then hot as blood began to run. Hundreds of tiny cuts. I strengthened the shield around me, but it wasn’t going to be easy to keep all of it out.
Out in the field to my right, dust and grass began to swirl and twist. A delicate streamer of gray shredded off from the clouds above it. Not much force to it yet, barely an FO, hardly more than a dust devil. The storm was testing me.
I chopped through the top of the baby tornado by freezing the air molecules. The sucking updraft lost force, and the dust funnel blew apart.
Round one to me.
I sensed something happening behind me, happening fast. Before I could even turn, I felt the tingle of another lightning bolt coming; I split my focus three ways into protection, diffusion, and moving my body to face whatever this storm was throwing at my back.
Another tornado, this one forming fast and ugly. The full cone was already visible, shivering and dancing through the hard curtain of rain; it was lit from within by an eerie blue-white light. Ball lightning. I felt the hard plasmatic blobs of energy bouncing around inside the wind walls.
Tornadoes are simple, gruesomely effective engines of destruction. They’re caused, by the humble updraft—the updraft from hell, driven by wind shear and Earth’s own rotation. Imagine a column of air speeding three hundred miles per hour, straight up, blasting up into the mesosphere and erupting like an invisible geyser. As the air turns cold again, it sinks and gets drawn back into the spiral.
Sounds easy. When you’re looking at that shifting, screaming wall of destruction heading straight for you, all the knowledge in the world doesn’t help you maintain objectivity. This one was already formidably armed with found objects—pieces of wood, twists of wire torn from fence posts, nails, rocks, whipping grasses and abrasive sand. A human body trapped in the wind wall could be sawed apart by all that debris in a matter of seconds.
I went up into Oversight. The storm was gray with pale green, unhealthy light… photonegative, full of destructive energy and the instincts to deliver it with maximum damage. It circled up in the mesosphere like a vast clockworks. There were other Wardens there, working, but nobody came near me or offered to link; they were focused on working the weak points of the storm, trying to warm the air at the top and disrupt the engine cycle that was spawning tornadoes.
They wouldn’t be successful. This storm had its parameters well under control, and it wasn’t going to let us cut off its food supply. We had to be creative about this if we—if I—expected to survive. Truthfully, the rest of the Wardens probably weren’t worried about my survival. They wanted to contain the storm where it was, over open country, until it burned itself out. Any risk to me was a bonus.
Another lightning stroke was forming. Instead of diffusing the power, I channeled it, focused, and slammed that white-hot energy directly down into the vulnerable throat of the tornado roaring toward me.
It choked, stuttered, coughed on its own superheated breath. The residual heat on the ground radiated up, disrupting the cooling end of the cycle.
In seconds, the wind wall fell apart and fled back up into the water-heavy clouds, dropping its weapons of opportunity as it went. A thick whip of barbed wire snaked down from the sky and fell almost at my feet.
I grinned up at it and screamed defiance. “That all you got? You think you’re going to stop me with
It hit me with more lightning, five times to be exact, one on top of the other. I fumbled the last, and it bled off into me, not enough to fry me but enough to scramble my already-abused nerves. I fell, rolled over on my stomach, and looked up into the heart of my enemy. There were no eyes to this storm, no face, but there was a kind of
I stayed down, relaxed my body, and again flew up into Oversight. More chains were forming; it sensed weakness and was preparing a massive lightning attack. I snapped the links and drove the polarity back, all the way back, into the center of the storm.
And then I did something that I’d been told never, ever to do.
I reached for the rotation of the storm itself.
It’s a funny thing about momentum. It’s a force multiplier for objects in motion, like kids on bicycles.
But momentum only aids force when force operates according to logical, controlled rules.
When kids on bikes go too fast, they begin to lose control. Handlebars shake. Wheels wobble. Lines of force operate at angles instead of straight on.
Speed can be the enemy of momentum.
I didn’t try to act in opposition to the storm—it would be worse than useless; it would actually add to the fury of the energy circling me. No. I reached for the disturbed, chaotic winds operating at the fringes of the storm and
Other Wardens noticed what I was doing, and some of them tried to stop me. I shoved them back, hard. One or two had Djinn support, but I had the Mark; the power in me was black and hot and blending with mine to such an extent now that I didn’t need a Djinn anymore.
One or two of the other Wardens fell out of Oversight and didn’t come back. I didn’t let myself wonder what I’d done. The storm was what was important. Spinning it faster, faster, pouring more energy into the sink until it was overflowing.
The storm was rotating, in the physical world, with a speed that was eerie to look at. Tornadoes popped and bubbled all over the underside of it as power struggled to regulate itself; but there was too much, no control, angles of force intersecting and canceling each other out.
I laughed out loud, looking up at the spinning pin-wheel, and the center of the storm stared furiously back. Lightning was firing so continuously that the whole black-green-purple mass was lit within, pulsing with energy.
Not a single tornado touched the ground. A massive one formed in the air, almost a mile wide, struggling to reach damp earth and rip apart everything in its path. I warmed the air under it so quickly that rain turned to steam.
The storm readied another lightning bolt. The chain of polarity led straight to me, and it was as strong and inflexible as braided cable. No way I could break it.
The idea was so diverting that I lost my grip on the air below the F5 tornado chewing its way out of the sky. Temperatures dropped.
The tornado hit ground, bounced, ripped up earth and plants and fence and began to roar toward me.
I felt the energy come up through my body. It arched my back, pulled a breathless scream out of my mouth, bathed every cell in my body with pure, primal force.
The thing in me ate it, and I felt it happening to me, felt the Demon change from the tentacled horror into a thing of ice and angles, grating on my bones, barely fitting beneath my skin.
I hardly felt the massive nuclear energy of the burn-off, the energy manifesting in visible light and heat.
I was transformed in the fiery inferno.
When I stood up, my shredded, melted clothes fell away, and I stood pure against the storm.
I stretched out my hand and touched the life inside it, caressed it, tasted the dark furious essence of it. Attuned myself to its vibrations and rhythms, learning it,
And then I surrounded it with the enormous strength inside me, and I crushed it.
Twenty feet away, the enormous gnashing strength of the tornado fell in on itself, dead. The storm’s energy patterns flared and tore.
In the breathless stillness, I heard myself laughing. Naked, soaking wet, infused with the furious power of the deepest darkness, I still found it funny.
I heard the unnaturally loud grate of footsteps on gravel, and came back to myself. Or what was left of my self now.
“My God,” Marion whispered. I turned my head to look at her and saw her flinch. “What you did—”
“Saved our lives,” I said. I stood up, looked down at myself, and started feeling the shock take hold. So cold. So many cuts and bruises. I looked like a road map of been there, done that. “Got any clothes I can borrow?”
They didn’t want to come near me. Shirl stripped off her flannel shirt, leaving herself the T-shirt; Marion dug a pair of loose blue jeans from a bag in the back of the Xterra. They tossed them to me, along with a pair of mud-caked hot pink Converse high-top sneakers. I pulled everything on without worrying about who was watching me; even Erik wasn’t interesting in checking me out, right at the moment.
They hadn’t even wanted to touch me. I couldn’t say I blamed them.
I looked down at myself when I was finished and decided that I wouldn’t win any fashion awards, even at the homeless shelter, but it would do. Good enough to die in, or kill a friend in.
You don’t need to look good for that. You just have to look scary.
I’d made it seven miles down the road, almost into the Oklahoma City limits, when I ran into the first obstacle.
Wind wall. It was a ferocious east-to-west current whipping across the road at right angles, like a tornado lying down. It wasn’t a natural phenomenon— at least, not anywhere other than high elevations with hair-trigger climates—but it was undeniably powerful; lose control, and the Viper would get slammed into a spin that might well turn into an end-over-end movie stunt, only without the padding and professional stuntmen. I could control a lot of things. Gravity and basic kinetic energy weren’t among them.
I had one second to recognize the distortion across the road, one second more to make a decision about what to do. No time to focus or do any delicate manipulation.
I flattened the pedal and felt Mona jump forward like a champion racing for the finish.
The wind slammed the front left quarter panel like a speeding freight train, and the front wheels lost traction; I was going into a spin. If it had just been a single fast wind shear, that would have been one thing, but this was a fierce continuing blast, and as the car spun, it slammed directly into the back end, shoving the Viper toward the shoulder; I did exactly the opposite of what you should do; I turned the wheel against the skid, gave it more momentum, kept the car turning so that the momentum spun it like a top down the center line. The wind kept buffeting me, but it was only adding to the car’s rotational force, not slowing me down.
I gulped and hung on for dear life as the world beyond the windshield turned into a long brown-black-green blur… road, shoulder, field, road, shoulder, field… and then I felt the pressure of air against the car suddenly drop off.
I turned into the skid, smelled burning rubber and my own nerves frying, and the Viper fought me and fought the road like a bucking bronco.
I hit the brakes gently, gently, struggling with the wheel as we did one last, slow spin and jerked to a stop, still on the road.
I was about two inches over the dotted white line.
It would have been a real good moment to open the door and throw up, but I had no time for any of that. The yellow Xterra had been just a few hundred yards behind me, and a higher-profile vehicle stood no chance at all against that wind wall. The force would flip the truck over like a toy.
No time or energy to do it the careful way, the right way; I just brute-forced an equal and opposite force by slamming cold air down into the stream, and held it there while the Xterra blasted through. There was still enough wind to shake it, but not enough to flip it over.
I slipped Mona back in gear and popped the clutch, and we flew toward the city limits with Marion’s SUV right on our tail. I expected trouble. In fact, I counted on it.
You can imagine how spooky it was not to have any at all, not even a hint, all the way into the suburbs, all the way to the merge with I-40. There was more and slower traffic now, and I had to slow Mona down from our breakneck gallop. Every passing car made me flinch, because this was a recipe for disaster; if Star wasn’t choosy about the body count, this could end up in one of those spectacular forty-or fifty-car pileups, the kind that make the evening news and have the words “death toll” in the tag line.
But nothing happened.
I got Star’s cell phone and dialed it one-handed from memory.
“Crisis Center,” said a voice that sounded too young and too friendly for comfort. What kind of grade school had they raided now? Had I been that young when I’d been on the Help Desk? Probably. It just raised chills and goose bumps to think my life and everybody’s around me now might rest in the hands of somebody barely old enough to buy a legal drink.
“Hi, this is Joanne Baldwin, Weather. I’m in Oklahoma City, and I need to call a Code One general alert.”
Dead silence on the other end of the phone for at least ten seconds, and then a very quiet, “Excuse me?”
“Code One,” I repeated. “General alert. Look it up.”
“Please hold.” She was gone for thirty full seconds this time, and when she came back on, her voice was trembling. “Um, Warden Baldwin? I’ve been told that you need to surrender yourself to the Wardens who are following you. Please.”
“Well, here’s what
She sounded stronger. There was probably a supervisor standing over her. “Can’t do that, ma’am.”
I’d been right about the supervisor. There was a click, and a basso profundo male voice said, “Jo, you got any idea how pissed off I am right now at you?”
“Paul?” I couldn’t help it; beaten, scared, half-evil, I still grinned at the sound of his voice. “Save it for later. I’m on my way to Estrella Almondovar’s house, or I will be as soon as you give me the address. Marion and her crew are on my tail.”
“Shut up and listen. I’ve got a Demon Mark, so does Lewis, and we’re about to go at it down here. If you don’t want to be cleaning up a whole hell of a lot worse than just some blown-down shacks and road signs, I suggest you get off your ass and call a Code One, right now.”
He put me on hold.
Twenty seconds later, as I was squinting at exit signs, the mobile phone warbled for my attention. I flipped it open and said, “Shoot.”
“1617 Fifty-Sixth Street,” Paul said. “Code One’s going in place. You’re not serious, right? About going at it with Lewis?”
“I sure as hell hope not.”
I dropped the phone and downshifted, whipped the Viper around a family station wagon and two identical red Hondas, and saw the exit sign flash by over head. Fifty-Sixth Street, two miles.
The weather looked clear. Too clear.
It was just too damn easy.
I exited the freeway and took the turn at a screech that should have raised police attention in six states, but my luck was holding; no civilian cops taking a coffee break at the wrong intersection. I scratched the gear change and blasted through two yellow lights, had to stop for a red, and felt every nerve in my body snapping and shaking with the urge to move.
The neighborhood was industrial, mostly blue-collar stuff like stamping factories and printing presses; the buildings were square, gray, and grimy. Saffron-colored streetlamps gave everything a jaundiced look, and there wasn’t a soul in sight on the sidewalks, only a few cars still hidden in parking lots behind chain-link and razor wire.
I’d gone four blocks when somebody stepped out into the street in front of me. I jammed on brake and clutch and rode the Viper to a shaking, screaming, smoking halt.
David was standing in front of me. He no longer had the road dude persona; this David was brown-haired, brown-eyed, dressed in a loose white shirt and dark pants that ended in a mist around his knees. This was the look Star had imposed on him, along with her will. I remembered the hot bronze of his eyes and felt a sharp stab of mourning.
And if he wasn’t… maybe none of them were. Maybe none of them should be.
“Don’t do this,” I said. I knew he could hear me, even through the closed windows of the car. “Don’t make us enemies. Please.”
“You made us enemies,” he said, and extended his hand, palm first.
I felt gravity increase around me, jamming me into the seat, holding me down.
The air around me turned thick and sweet and poisonous. I gagged and stopped breathing, tried to reach for the automatic window controls, but he was too strong, too prepared. I felt my skin burning. The air had taken on a slight green tinge. Chlorine? Something worse?
He’d turned the car into a gas chamber.
I reached for the wind and slammed him hard enough to disincorporate him into mist, and in the instant before he could re-form, I jammed the window button and rolled all four down. Fresh air whipped in and blew out the poisoned fog, and I hit the gas and burned rubber right at him.
He wasn’t there when the front end arrived. I looked behind me, but saw nothing except Marion’s Xterra crawling up the road in pursuit. I knew better than to think I’d lost him, but at least I had—no pun intended—breathing space.
I picked up the cell phone again. The line was still open, and I could hear Paul giving muffled orders in the distance. “Hey!” I yelled. “I need you! Pick up!”
“What do you need?” In a crisis, Paul was all about the facts, not the feelings. He’d hate me later, maybe kill me, but right now he’d made a choice and he’d stick to it.
“Djinn,” I said. “Yours. Get it out here and tell it to block Star’s Djinn, or I’ll never make it there. He’ll—”
A building tilted over the street in front of me. I screamed, dropped the phone, and twisted the wheel. It was an old, dilapidated thing of fire-ravaged bricks and blank glassless windows, probably due for demolition, but there was no way it should have chosen this moment to lie down right in front of me. I shifted gears and let the Viper scream at full power; a brick hit the roof with a bang, then another, and then we shot out from under the falling shadow and it collapsed behind us with a dull roar and a cloud of white smoke.
A light pole slammed forward into my path. I twisted around it.
A mailbox threw itself, trailing sparks and federally protected letters in its wake. I hit the brakes and slithered past it with inches to spare.
“Paul!” I screamed. “Now would be good!”
Too late. David had mastered the timing now, and the next light pole was falling just exactly right—too far away for me to beat it, too close for me to stop. I hit the curb with enough force that I was afraid the Viper’s tires would blow, but we bounced up, flashed by more wooden poles, kissed the finish on a dilapidated bus-stop shelter, and bounced out again into the street.
Into the path of an eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer, which was barreling down the cross street. Nobody was driving it, and the load on the back looked suspiciously like a propane tank.
I went weirdly calm. The Viper was fast, but she wasn’t supernatural, and I didn’t have enough speed to make it, enough road to stop, or enough luck to avoid it this time.
Something flashed into the way. Someone—small, golden haired, dressed in blue and white like a fairytale heroine.
A Djinn had come to my rescue, but it wasn’t Paul’s; it was, instead, Alice in Wonderland.
She held up one small, delicate hand and brought the truck to a stop. Perfect control. She looked over her shoulder at me as I arrowed through the intersection, and I saw a smile on her lips, a neon-blue spark of life in her eyes that I hadn’t seen before.
A whisper came through my car radio.
Apparently, she was itching for a rematch from the game of keep-away at Cathy’s bookstore. I made a mental note to thank Cathy later—preferably with chocolates and really fine booze—and felt the tension in my shoulders loosen just a little. At least I didn’t have to fight David. Not directly.
No, I only had to fight Star. And myself.
I checked addresses when grimy industrial sections gave way to grimy lower-middle-class houses. Universally small, mostly of clapboard and in need of paint and new fences, they were crammed together like sardines with postage-stamp front yards mostly filled with weeds and rusting junk.
Estrella’s house shone like a diamond in a sack of coal. Larger, well proportioned, gleaming with fresh paint and a neat white-painted fence. No weeds in the new spring grass, the only concession to lawn ornaments a heavy concrete birdbath with a cherub on top. It didn’t look like the place to find somebody willing to kill in order to keep secrets.
I pulled the Viper to a halt at the curb and got out. Lights were on in the house, warm behind the window shades. The muted blue flicker of a TV screen made shadows in one of the bedroom windows.
All too normal. And I’d never expected to reach it this easily. That made it harder, somehow, bringing all my anger and fury had seemed easier when I didn’t have to knock politely to do it.
I went up the steps and rang the doorbell.
“It’s open,” Star’s voice rang out. I swallowed hard, looked up and down the street, hoping to see Marion’s yellow Xterra, but I was all alone. “Come on in, Jo.”
I turned the knob and stepped inside.
The hallway was burnished wood, lovingly polished; a side table had faded photographs lined up, starting with two stiff-looking people in the formal dress of the mid-1800s, progressing by decades through Star’s family. Hers was the last photo on the table. High school graduation, a beautiful girl, a winning smile, the devil’s own laughter in her dark eyes.
I closed the door behind me and waited.
“In the kitchen!” she called. I smelled the mouthwatering aroma of fresh-baking peanut butter cookies.
Something very wrong about contemplating murder with the smell of baking in the air. As maybe she intended.
I walked down the hallway past a darkened formal living room, a brightly lit family room filled with warm colors and gleaming wood. The kitchen was at the back of the house, an old design, and I stopped in the doorway. Star was standing next to the oven, mitt on her hand, taking cookie sheets off the racks.
“Just a sec,” she said, and deposited the last gray pan on top of the bulky avocado-green stove. “Ah. There. Now.”
She stripped off the oven mitt, turned off the oven. No more fake scars, not this time. She was showing me her true face. Untouched. Beautiful. False.
“You’re wondering how this happened.” She touched the smooth bronze skin of her cheek. “I was rotting to death in that hospital, and they couldn’t— no, they
“Let me finish. All they had to do was give me a fucking Djinn, but no, they wouldn’t do that. I hadn’t earned it. They said I didn’t have the temperament to handle the responsibility.” She glared at me. How had I missed all that hatred in her eyes before? All that bitterness? Had she covered that up, too? “They left me with a face like a melted hockey mask. You remember?”
Of course I remembered. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. She reached for the oven mitt again, grabbed a tray of cookies, and began to savagely shovel the peanut butter rounds off into a white china bowl.
“Well, I didn’t have to take that.” She finished scraping cookies off and dumped the pan in the sink. “I could feel it out there. Waiting for me. All I had to do was accept it.”
She reached into the refrigerator and took out a jug of milk. She lifted it in my direction. When I didn’t reach for it, she shrugged and put it on the counter, got out a glass, and poured.
“It felt like I was dying,” she said, and took a sip. “Like my soul was burning out. But then it stopped hurting, and it became something else. Something real. Something with a purpose.”
“It’s not purpose, Star. It’s just suicide with a longer fuse.”
She picked up a cookie and bit into it.
“Also a really big bang,” she agreed. “You think that bothers me? I’ve been dying a long damn time.”
“Looks like you’re feeling pretty good to me.”
“This?” She stroked her unmarked face. “Yeah. It healed me. But it doesn’t stay, not unless I find a way to get the Mark back inside me. I can already feel myself getting slower. Older. Twisting inside.”
“So why get rid of it?”
She slammed down the china bowl. “I
Rahel had told me the truth, for once. “The book. Free-range Djinn, yours for the taking. You claim them, feed them to the Demon.”
“Yeah.” She gave me a bleak smile. “Should have been easy, you know? Only it wasn’t. Because the minute I grabbed one, there was Lewis, showing up to smack my ass, and girl, he is one strong Warden. I thought he was gonna kill me.”
I’d moved a step closer to her without even realizing it. I came to a stop, haunted by the fact that I’d always let my fondness for her blind me to just how selfish she really was.
“How’d he get the Mark?”
She glared. “He
Her belligerent tone didn’t go with the too-bright shine in her eyes. Pain in there. Deep, anguished self-loathing. She went back to scraping cookies off sheet pans, dumping them into a bowl with quick, nervous motions.
“Then let him go,” I said. “You can’t get the Mark back from him, you said so yourself. It goes from weaker to stronger. Nobody’s stronger than Lewis. It’s finished.”
“No!” She almost screamed it at me, a raw physical outburst that sounded as if it scraped her throat bloody. “I’ll get it back. I have to!”
“How?” I sounded so logical all of a sudden. So calm. Maybe it was just shock, but all I really felt for her in that moment was sheer, sad pity. She’d been so glorious, once. So selfless. Seeing the ruin of that… ached in ways that I’d never expected.
Her dark eyes looked blind behind the glitter of fury, but this time her voice came out soft, nearly controlled. “You gave me a way,” she said. “I can’t take the Mark from him, but your hot boyfriend Djinn can. And then I can order him to give it back to
Fear went solid and slick as glass in my throat. I tried to swallow the lump. “No, it doesn’t work that way. If David takes the Mark he can’t get rid of it. He’ll be infested. Or worse.” If her Mark was as mature as it sounded, it might just devour him instead. I’d seen a Demon hatch, before. I didn’t want to ever see it again. “Give it up, Star. Please. Let me try to help, try to think of something…”
She dumped the bowl on the counter between us. “You already did think of something. You brought the damn Wardens here. If they find us, they’ll take him away, take you away… and you know what they’ll do to me, Jo. Gut me and leave me like I was before. A
“Nothing you can do to stop it now,” I said. “It’s too late. I’m sorry. I really am.”
“Oh, there is something I can do. Nobody knows where the hell Lewis is, anyway, so it’s no big thing. He disappears, you disappear… all I have to do is get rid of Maid Marion and her merry band of butchers out there. Maybe I’ll get David to blow up their truck. I hate those damn SUVs, anyway, and they’ll just blame it all on you.” Star finished scraping cookies from the second sheet pan, dumped it, and held out the bowl to me. “Here. Have one.”
“Thanks, I’d rather choke on a razor blade. Which I’m not so sure you didn’t bake inside those.”
She smiled, or tried to, and put the bowl down. “So. We gonna fight now, or what?”
I looked at her over the bowl of cookies. My friend. My sister. My ghostly reflection of what might have happened if I’d been the one in the fire that day, because I’d always known I wasn’t cut out for normal human life any more than Star was.
“Guess so,” I said. “Because I’m taking Lewis and David out of here.”
“Thought you’d say that.”
She took another bite of cookie.
Behind her, the oven exploded into a brilliant blue-white ball of flame, which raced my way.
I dropped to the floor in a crouch and tossed every oxygen molecule out of the air around me for three feet in any direction. Fire needs O2. It was an elementary tactic, but it worked; the fire blasted toward me, hit the shield of nonoxygenated air, and deflected around. The heat wasn’t hard to control, either; after all, it was just molecules moving. I made them move slower.
When it was over, I wasn’t even singed. I let go of the air bubble, stepped toward Star, and took a deep breath. “You know, I was feeling sorry for you,” I said. “Poor little Star, all alone in that hospital, burned beyond recognition, boo-fucking-hoo. Did you ever stop to think about all those Wardens who
She laughed. It was a crazy sound. She held out both hands in front of her, palms up, and intense blue-white flames danced on the skin and reflected in her dark eyes. “Yeah, like it ain’t all about
“Oh, we’re alike,” I agreed. “See, that’s why I
“You gonna whine or fight?”
“I’m gonna win,” I said. “Bank it.”
She bared her teeth. “Yeah? Look behind you.”
There was a man standing there in the open doorway that must have led to the cellar of the house-tall, lanky, his face almost hidden by a growth of shaggy dark hair. He was wearing an ancient stained tie-dyed shirt and sweatpants stiff with grime. His feet were filthy. If I’d passed him on the street, I’d have dropped a dollar in his will work for food cup.
It was Lewis.
I turned around, put my hands out to my sides in the universal no-danger-here pose, and said, “Lewis? Remember me? It’s Jo.”
He was staring at me with eyes so wide and dark that they looked to be all pupil. Drugged, or worse. Completely mad.
He was staring at my breasts. Which was, to put it mildly, more weird than flattering in the current circumstances.
He looked up into my face, and I felt my knees turn to water at the sight of all the torment and confusion in his eyes. If Star didn’t get punished for anything else she did, ever, she should be punished for this.
“Jo?” he asked, and it was an entirely normal voice, which was entirely
And then he walked up and slugged me, right in the face.
Fire and Weather don’t go to war. We don’t go to war because it’s too dangerous, and we have no decisive advantages. Our powers counter each other very nicely, all the way down the line.
But when Weather fights Weather… that’s when it gets nasty.
And that was exactly why I’d declared a Code One general alert, because I wanted the mystical world of the aetheric locked down tighter than a drum. A Code One calls every Warden able to respond,
Over Oklahoma City, the air was clear, still, and dead. Nothing was moving. Nothing
That wasn’t likely to happen. Not even for Lewis.
Which at the moment of my opening my eyes didn’t help much, because I felt like I’d been hit by a Mack Truck. I’m mostly insulated against lightning, I can sling wind and rain and hail with the best of ’em, but boxing… not my specialty.
I groaned and rolled over on my side and touched my throbbing chin. My lip was split. I explored it with the tip of my tongue, tasted fresh blood, and tried to figure out exactly what was going on.
Ah. It all came back. Star, the cookies, Lewis smacking the crap out of me.
The Code One lockdown.
I might have robbed Star and Lewis of options, but I also hadn’t left myself a whole lot of room to maneuver.
Something brushed my face, light as cobwebs, and where it touched pain faded. I knew that touch, that warming sensation.
“She’s awake.” David’s voice, stripped of emotion. I opened my eyes and saw him sitting next to me. He didn’t ask how I was, or say anything directly to me, but that touch—I had to believe that it had been David who’d done that, the
“About time.” Star, of course; she sounded freaked, which made her sound callous. “Jesus, girl, you’re not exactly one of those TV kick-ass hero chicks, are you. One punch, you’re down for ten minutes. My mama could have done better.”
“Get her down here, we’ll go,” I mumbled. I wiped a trickle of blood away from my lips and sat up.
“It’s over, Star. I’ve already spilled the beans. They’re coming for all of us. Lewis’ll probably get a Demonectomy, but you, you’re toast, babe. They’ll hoover you so dry, you won’t be able to light a match with a nuclear weapon.”
She kicked me. Right in the stomach. I’d never been kicked in the stomach before, and it was not a special treat. I rolled over, pulled my knees up, and gagged through the pain. I wondered if she’d ruptured anything I couldn’t live without. It would be a real bitch to end up dead, ripped up by this damn Demon I hadn’t chosen, setting destruction loose on the aetheric, just because I’d taken a pointy-toed boot in the spleen.
“Don’t,” Lewis said. He was sitting in the corner, resting his chin on his crossed forearms.
“Don’t what?” Star shot back, and paced in front of me like a crack addict on a caffeine high. “She
Watching her, I realized David had been right when he’d warned me of the corrupting effects of living with the Demon Mark. Star had taken it; she’d lived with it in secret for a long time, and it had gnawed out her soul.
It made me wonder about Lewis. He had a towering amount of ability, but I wasn’t sure anymore about his soul.
I was no longer sure about mine, either.
Star whirled on David and snapped her fingers at him. “You. Get us out of here.”
“Where?” he asked without moving his eyes away from me. Dark eyes, a stranger’s eyes. But he was still watching me with that eerie focus, the way he had before.
She growled in frustration, walked over to him, and grabbed him by the hair. She forced his head up and made him meet her eyes. “Hey. Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
He had no change of expression. If it hurt him at all, I couldn’t tell. He didn’t try to pull away. David, the poseable doll.
“I want to go to New York.”
“Specify,” he said.
She looked baffled. “Grand Central Station!”
He could, I sensed, play this game forever, down to making her identify the square inches of tile she wanted to plant her feet upon. Not only could she not do it, but she didn’t even have the patience to try. She slammed his head backwards into the wall and let him go.
“Useless. Both of you. Unlimited power, my ass. I can’t get either one of you to lift a finger.” She nudged Lewis with her toe, but he didn’t respond, except to close his eyes; I felt a cold shiver and wondered what she’d done to him down here, what kind of hell a man who wielded near-unlimited power could experience to break him like this.
“Hey, Star?” I asked. I sat up, pulling my back closer to the wall, and reached out to lay my hand on top of David’s, squeezed it in warning. “Let’s figure out how to get out of this alive. Both of us.”
She turned away and stalked back to me, dropped into a crouch by my side. Her dark eyes glittered like razor-sharp obsidian. “What’s your proposal?”
“Who says I have one?”
“Jo, I know you. You’ve always got an idea. It’s usually crappy, but you always have one.” For just a second, there was a flicker, a memory of what she’d been. Who we’d both once been.
I remembered. I didn’t want to, because it made things harder, remembering the outrageous fun of that winter night, our breathless giggles fogging the air. She’d been so stupidly innocent back then, and I’d been such a bad influence…
I had to be a worse one now. To save whatever was left of the girl I still loved.
I sucked in a breath that tasted of tears and said, “Easy. Give Lewis up. Look, he’s of no use to you, anyway. He’s got the Mark, and he can’t give it back to you. Even if he could, he wouldn’t because he knows you’re raving ape-shit crazy, and he’d rather die than see what you’d do with it. You’re screwed, Star. Let him go, and you win points with the Wardens.”
She blew a raspberry that lifted the fine dark bangs on her forehead. “Yeah, right. That’s likely to happen.”
“It is if I tell them it was all my fault. I killed Bad Bob. I have the Mark.
She stared at me without blinking. “Yeah? And why do I believe you’ll
I gave her a slow, painful smile. “Because you have something I want, Star.” I looked over at David, then back to her. “Break his bottle and set him free. I’ll go away like a good girl, Lewis is saved, everybody’s happy.”
“Not me,” Star said. “Not unless I get back what I had.”
I swallowed bile and said, “Then you live to scheme another day.”
She frowned, grooving little lines between those fine black eyebrows, and studied me for so long, I thought she’d gone blind. “That’s stupid,” she finally said. “Even if I do free David, I still have the book. I can take him back any time I want. What’s the point?”
“Well, that’s the second part. You let him destroy the book.”
She laughed. “Never happen. Let me tell you
She played with fire on her fingertips. She stared at it, then moved it closer to my face. Closer, as if she were trying to see by the light of it.
She set my hair on fire. I resisted the urge to scream and roll around, and beat it out with the palm of my hand. The smell of it lingered between us.
“Just a sample,” she said. “How’d it feel?”
I froze the air around her, so cold, I saw frost form instantly on her skin. She cried out and jerked away in panic.
“About like that does,” I said. “Don’t push me. I’ll give you freezer burn so deep, they’ll have to microwave you to hear you scream. You start this, you know we’ll both die. How does that help either one of us?”
Something wavered in her eyes. She reached out and pushed my burned hair back from my face, and for a second there wasn’t a gulf of years and secrets. “You’d really do it? Tell them it was you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I will. Doesn’t matter anymore— they won’t let me keep my powers. I’m too far gone with this damn Mark. My life is over, Star. I know that. At least let me do something useful.”
Star nodded, looked at David, and got up to go to the worktable. She took a small bottle out of a drawer and set it down next to the book. She paused for a few seconds, looking up as if she could hear through the floor above us. Maybe she could. “Company’s here,” she said. “Marion and her merry men, seven or eight at least. Enough to keep us busy, if we wanted to make a fight.”
“But we’re not going to,” I said. “Right?”
“Right.” Star lifted the bottle in her hand, looked at it from different angles. “Weird, how a Djinn always has to be sourced in glass. You’d think with all the advances, we’d be able to use plastic. Stupid fucking rules.”
I didn’t like her sudden change of focus. “Star, it
She looked at me for a long, wordless few seconds, then cocked her head to the side. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why?”
“Why do you want to save me? First Lewis, now you. Why?”
I couldn’t even believe she was asking. “Because I love you, Star. Don’t you know?”
Her eyes filled up with tears, but none broke free. She blinked them away. They left a hard, unsettling shine behind. “Love you, too,” she said. She turned the bottle, staring at the facets of glass. Held it up between us and let the light gleam through. “You know, there’s one thing I could do.”
I felt a cold surge of dread. “Yeah?”
“Last resort, I could have David take the Mark, seal him in the bottle, and then it’s your word against mine. Or maybe you go
She put the bottle back down and, without turning around, said, “David, go over to Lewis and take the Demon Mark out of him.”
“No!” I screamed, and lunged for her back. She fell against the table, and the bottle trembled on wood but didn’t fall. Her hand closed around it. “Dammit, Star,
“Take the Mark!” she yelled. When I tried to pull away from her, she twisted around and held me back, and the burning sensation in my skin wasn’t a Djinn illusion; it was the real deal. “Do it!”
David levitated up and slowly across the floor toward Lewis.
“David, don’t! I’ll say the words, please
I ripped free of Star’s grasp and threw myself at them just as David’s hand reached down,
Star threw fire at me. I dodged, but the fireball rolled under the stairs and flared up against dry wood. I didn’t have time to spare to put it out; that was Star’s specialty, let her deal with it. I reached out to grab hold of David and pull him away from Lewis.
My hand passed right through him—through both of them. Whatever was happening wasn’t happening on this plane at all.
I threw myself up into Oversight and saw David the way he really was—a flaming angel, gilded and beautiful, with his hands deep inside the crystal perfection that made up the core of Lewis. Something black and horrible lashed out of Lewis, whipped tentacles around David’s arms, crawled through the bridge and attacked. It was like seeing a butterfly being eaten by acid, and even though I couldn’t hear David screaming, I could
Lewis fell back against the wall and slid down. Now it was just David and the
I didn’t think. Didn’t hesitate. Didn’t allow myself even the smallest pause to feel fear.
I plunged myself into David on the aetheric, the way he’d plunged himself into Lewis, joining us together.
And my Demon Mark came into contact with the one wrapped around David.
Power calls to power—always has, always will.
The two Demon Marks went to war.
When you think of yourself as screaming, you usually think of it in your throat, or echoing in your ears, but this was something else. Something worse. It was as if my cells were screaming, each one equipped with a voice and agony to fuel it, and none of it would come out of my mouth. I was on fire. I was freezing. I was dying.
The Demon Marks inside me ate, and ate, and ate. My weather powers, first. When those were gone, the fighting Marks drained energy from my nerves and sent me crashing to the floor. Then they devoured microcellular energy that made up my life.
The last thing to go… the very last… was my sense of hearing, as the synapses of my brain were drained of energy and the Demon Marks howled.
Two snakes, eating each other.
It was vastly empty, in the dark where I was. I had flashes of things—Star’s melted-wax face, David’s blazing copper eyes, the hot glow of his skin on mine. Bad Bob’s scowl. The storm whirling to a stop overhead.
Smoke. The taste of smoke. This was what it must have felt like to Star, lying in the ashes while Yellowstone burned around her.
I didn’t want to die, but there was nothing left. Nothing.
And then it was all… gone.
The first thing I felt was heat. Not burning, just heat, blood-warm, comfortable, as if I’d fallen asleep in a perfect bath.
I was floating. Unformed. At peace.
“Open your eyes,” someone said. I didn’t know I had eyes. Didn’t know how to open them.
But they opened without my help, and I
The world blazed in colors and auras, crystal and shadows. God, it was beautiful. This shattered ruin of a place, smoke and ashes… it was beautiful in ways I’d never imagined it could be. There were bones in the ashes, and they were beautiful, too. Graceful yellow-white bones with their curves and elegant strength.
So many people around me. Some here in flesh, some here in the Second World that I’d once called the aetheric. I knew all about that now. All about everything. The connection to sky, to sea, to earth, to stars. It was all inside me, and I was made up of fire.
“Come down,” the voice told me. I didn’t know what it meant but then again, I did, and slowly drifted through the Worlds until I was in the First World, the world I’d known before.
David was holding me, and we were floating over a hot black bed of embers. Coils of smoke drifted in the sky, and they were so beautiful, I wanted to follow them. I felt a tug as thought instantly translated toward action.
“Stay with me,” he whispered, and the sound of it moved along my skin, inside my skin, through me in waves. I paused, caught.
This was real. The fire trucks flashing their lights at the curb—they were real. The firefighters aiming hoses at the destruction that had once been Star’s house—that was real, too.
There were bones in the basement. I could see them, shining in the charred wood.
“Can she hear me?” someone asked, and I looked in the basement but there was no one there. “Jo, can you hear me?”
I focused and found there was someone right in front of me. He was heavy with flesh and wildly bright inside, and I wanted to reach out and sink into the fevered warmth of him but I knew, somehow, that it would be bad. And not just for him.
I blocked out the incredible glow of his spirit and focused on the real, the skin, the face. “Lewis?”
He nodded. He was still ragged and badly dressed, but his eyes were clear. His soul was clear. If the Demon Mark had left him tainted, I couldn’t see where, or how.
“You know what you did?” he asked. I didn’t, but I had no idea how to express it; evidently, he read it in my eyes. “You took the Mark from David. Two can’t exist in the same body. They destroyed each other.”
Ah. That would explain why I felt so empty, so full, so weightless, so powerful. I’d inherited something. But I didn’t feel… well, evil. Just vast.
“Can she hear me?” Lewis asked, looking past me. David was so warm against me, anchoring me against all the random currents that tried to pull me away. The smoke on the air, the heat rising off the fire—all so beautiful. Couldn’t begin to believe how beautiful it all was.
“I think so,” David said. “Jo. Concentrate. Make yourself flesh.”
I didn’t know what that meant, either, until I did it, and then suddenly there was flesh around me, and it was hurting, and I went to my knees and took David down with me.
“What happened?” I whispered. My lips felt dry, as if I’d never tasted water. “Star…”
“Star’s dead,” Lewis said. “She started the fire. I couldn’t get her out—she wouldn’t leave without the book.”
The book was gone. That was… good? Wasn’t it?
Lewis reached out and touched my face, then jerked back and shook his hand as if it was burned. Sucked his fingers. “She’s hot.”
“She can’t control it yet,” David said. “She’ll learn.”
This didn’t make any sense. Nothing made any sense. “What happened?”
David’s hand stroked the side of my face, down my neck, my shoulder. He folded me closer. My skin yearned toward his touch.
“You died,” he said. “I felt you go. You’d taken part of me inside you with the Demon Mark. When your body—was destroyed—”
I remembered the bones in the ashes and shivered. No wonder the graceful ivory curves had fascinated me.
“I died,” I said. “It killed me.”
“I can’t bring back the dead,” David was saying. “No one can.”
I felt a flash of my old humor. “Still here, though.”
“Yes.” He turned me in his arms to face him, and his eyes were bright, joyous copper, hotter than the sun, and I saw myself in them. A creature of fire. A black-haired, pale-skinned creature with eyes like the palest silver.
“I can’t bring back the dead,” he repeated. “But I can create a new life in my image.”
He’d made me a Djinn.
“Oh, shit,” I said.
David’s smile was hot enough to burn the world. “That’s not exactly how we put things, on this side.”
His eyebrows quirked up. “You know, I guess nobody ever asked that before.”
His arms folded around me, and I felt myself burning, and burning, and now it didn’t hurt at all.
There was nothing left of Star’s house but cinders, by the time it was all done. There was a reason for that: Star had started the fire, but Shirl, Erik, and Marion had kept it blazing hotter than any normal fire could have sustained on its own. The firefighters had wasted tons of good Oklahoma water on the conflagration, but the Wardens had agreed that there shouldn’t be any trace left—not of the book, of Star, or of any mortal remains.
It was quite a scene, on that Oklahoma City street in the fierce light of dawn. In and around the frantic fire department efforts, there was another agency at work, this one lots more powerful and lots more chaotic. By 8 a.m., there were nineteen Wardens on the scene—Marion and her team of eight, including Shirl and Erik; Sector and Regional Wardens for the area; State Wardens from anyplace close enough to matter… and Martin Oliver, National Warden.
They’d all come looking for Lewis, and this time, he let them find him. On his terms, for a change.
Oliver’s first action was to authorize removal of the Code One I’d put in place; all around the world, air began to move, weather to breathe, the planet to flex its cramped muscles.
His second was to declare me a hero. Okay, a dead hero, but still. I might actually get my memorial plaque up on the Association walls after all.
I stood on the sidelines with David, learning how to be invisible—or unseeable. It took some doing, staying out of the way of people who had no idea you existed, but I was getting the hang of it. Staying in flesh was harder; there was so much to do, so much to feel, and the currents of the world kept pulling at me like they were playful children.
“We should go,” David finally said. Lewis was okay. He was huddled with Martin Oliver, a blanket over his shoulders, looking weary but far from the mess he’d been earlier. “You can see him later.”
I slid my hand into David’s. “Go where?”
“Anywhere,” he said. “We’re free.”
I found myself staring at the Viper. Mona was still parked at the curb, crowded by emergency vehicles. I wished I’d parked her farther down the street, so that I could sneak her out of here….
Something electric and wild snapped inside me, like an internal shock.
The Viper vanished.
“Hey!” David yelped. I looked down the block. There Mona sat, gleaming metallic blue, ready to run. David stared at the mass of people, looking for any sign somebody had noticed. Lucky for me, there were only a couple, and one of them was drunk off his ass swilling Schlitz Malt Liquor from a quart bottle. The other one must have convinced himself he’d swallowed too much smoke; he just shook his head and moved on.
How many miracles happened every day, right in front of people? Unbelievable.
I felt a grin spreading over my face, filling me with delight. “Man, that is
“Yeah. And… try not to do it without asking first, would you?”
We walked down the block, and as we dodged around two cops taking statements from some neighbors still in pajamas, we saw we had a visitor leaning against the Viper.
Rahel. She’d changed colors to an electric shade of green—pantsuit, hair beads, and nail polish all matched. Her eyes were still fierce hunting-hawk gold, and as she looked at me, I read something like pride in her expression.
“Well,” she said. “I see you made your choice, Snow White.”
I’d always wondered why she called me that, and now I looked at the reflection of my flesh-form in the window of the Viper, and saw the midnight-black hair, the flawless white skin, the pale silver eyes.
Rahel laughed. “See? I knew you had it in you.”
“You could’ve told me everything from the beginning. Made it a lot easier.”
She shrugged. “I’m a Djinn. In time, you’ll understand.”
She clicked her lime green talons in complicated, Castanet rhythms and opened the driver’s-side door of the Viper for me. As she bowed me in, she said, “Welcome to your life, Ianna. Burn bright, live free, and remember that no human is your ally unless you hold his beating heart in your hand.” She winked. “And have fun.”
As she shut the door, I looked at David. “Ianna?”
“It suits you,” he said. “Ianna’s a name of power.”
“So’s Joanne,” I smiled, and touched the ignition with my pale, fiery fingers. “Better believe
Mona roared to life, and the road stretched forever.