Or kill him. That’d work, too. I hoped. Though I had to admit, it hadn’t worked too well the last time I’d thought I put him in the ground.
I tugged my bra strap back in place and turned to face my lover. No—
I had to get used to that.
We’d had the wedding ceremony, kind of. It had been interrupted by various attacks, but I thought we were married, anyway. I just didn’t
married. “So, you’ve been AWOL most of the morning.”
“Busy,” he said, which was uninformative, as explanations go. His shoulders lifted and fell, as if he knew what I was thinking. “Djinn business.”
Which meant none of mine. “So what’s the plan? You guys coming with?”
“Some are,” David said. “This is obviously our fight as well as yours. He has Rahel prisoner. Even Ashan agrees that we can’t let this go without an answer.”
Just as David was in charge of the New Djinn, the ones who traced their origins to human ancestry, Ashan was the Mack Daddy of the Old Djinn . . . who liked to refer to themselves as the
Djinn. You see where this is going, because if half the Djinn are “true,” then the other half must be, well, “false.” It’s the equivalent of racial prejudice, among supernatural beings.
Most Djinn I’ve ever met are about seventy percent arrogance, twenty-eight percent altruism, and two percent compassion. David blew the curve; he was the least arrogant Djinn I’d ever met, and he maxed out on compassion. That made him incredibly hot to me, but it also made him vulnerable. Ashan buried the needle on the other end; he didn’t know the meaning of altruism, and he couldn’t care less about compassion. All arrogance, all the time.
He and David got along about as well as you’d expect, when they were actually talking at all.
“And is the great Ashan going to grace us with his presence?” I asked. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
“He’ll be around,” David answered, which was a typically Djinn sort of evasion.
could mean anything, and nothing. “He’s sending a delegation of four of his own, though.”
He did get the memo, right? World ending, danger, et cetera?”
“Four of his most powerful,” David clarified. “One of them is Venna.”
Oh. Well, that was all right, then; Venna, I trusted. For an Old Djinn, she was a-okay; she even displayed an interest in regular folks, in the way a kid develops a fascination with an ant farm. She didn’t consider us
but she thought we were kind of cool in a science-lab sort of way.
She liked to walk around in the guise of a child, but in no way could you classify Venna as vulnerable. Terrifying, yes. Frail, no.
David looked over my shoulder, and I followed his gaze. There at the other end of the hallway stood Venna, with three other, much taller Djinn. The expressions on the faces of the other three Djinn, whom I didn’t know, were identical: pricelessly annoyed. Not here by choice, I gathered. Their smelling-something-bad scowls could have shattered titanium.
Venna, however, waved cheerfully. She was dressed in child-sized pants and a cute little pink top with a sparkly rainbow. She’d largely given up her predilection for dressing as Alice from
Alice in Wonderland,
but she’d kept the long blond hair and innocent blue eyes.
I waved back. Venna said something to her fellow Old Djinn, and the four of them promptly vanished, misted away on the air like a mirage. Heading for their own quarters, I assumed, if they cared about such things.
“I’ve brought ten of the New Djinn,” David said.
“In case something happens, I’ve also left someone at Jonathan’s house who can take over as Conduit, at least temporarily.”
David, in other words, had made arrangements in the event of his own death. Jonathan’s house—Jonathan had been his friend, and the leader of the Djinn for thousands of years—existed in a kind of pocket universe, apart from both the human world and the other planes of reality where the Djinn could travel. It was the equivalent of a defensive bunker.
If David thought this was dire enough to name a successor and stash him away in the ultimate Undisclosed Location, then things were really not at all good.
“David—” I didn’t know what I wanted to say, except that I wanted it to all be okay. For
His fingers squeezed mine, very lightly. “I know,” he said. “But we’re in this together. For life. Whatever may happen.”
He meant it.
I blinked back a sudden irrational flood of tears and hugged him, hard, until the impulse to weep passed. “Okay,” I said, and cleared my throat to bring my voice back to its normal steady range. “Want to help us out with something really, really trivial?”
“In the first-class lounge, you’ll find a couple of stewards, a couple of security guards, and a bunch of very rich jerks who don’t want to take orders and are probably giving the staff a very hard time. It might speed things along if they had something more to be afraid of than their platinum card getting declined.”
“You want me to intimidate them?”
“You betcha, buster.”
David smiled, and this time his smile had a whole different cast to it. Dark, powerful, frightening—even to me. His skin darkened and took on a metallic sheen beneath its surface, and his eyes glowed like storm lanterns. He looked fey and dangerous and oh my God,
“I thought you’d never ask,” he said. “Point me.”
We left the harbor before the storm made landfall, which was lucky for nearly everyone except, obviously, us. The
was a pretty massive vessel, but she also had considerable speed at her command. Ships didn’t use old-fashioned screws anymore, but propulsion pods, and she was a lot more maneuverable than I’d suspected; we moved quickly but smoothly through the long navigation channel and out toward the open sea.
It was a good thing the ship was fast. That was all that allowed us to exit the man-made cut in time; otherwise, we’d have been boxed in, trapped like a ship in a bottle. And the bottle would have been smashed to smithereens.
Leaving port didn’t mean we were free, though. Not even close. The storm wheeled like a flock of crows and came roaring after us, brushing Miami with the hem of its black skirts and probably creating another aneurysm for insurance adjusters, although it was nowhere near the destruction that could have rained down on them. The
’s engines growled and throbbed, louder than I imagined they normally would be for pleasure-cruise speeds, and we took on extra speed, crashing through the choppy seas as fast as the captain dared.
The storm gained on us.
I stood at one of the thick glass windows in the first-class lounge and watched the trouble unfolding. The storm’s outer bands had spiraled over the city, but through the driving rain I could see the lights of the towers. Power was still on, and that meant things weren’t so bad. Miami was tough. It would make it.
I wasn’t so sure, now that we were sailing full speed ahead, that the same could be said of the
After a quick Weather Warden meeting, we agreed that we would attack the storm as one unit, but we’d wait until we’d lured it out well away from the mainland and any populous islands before we started screwing with it. Deeper, cooler waters would slow it down, too, which was to our benefit. The
was fast enough to keep ahead of the storm for a few hours at least, though the margin of safety would be steadily eroding. The winds inside the eyewall were ferocious.
Effectively, that meant I had an hour off, more or less, so I went to my cabin.
Considering that we were sailing off on a potentially lethal sort of mission, it was a bit surprising to find that I was enjoying the moment a little. I hadn’t been on a sailing ship in a very long time, and this luxurious-cruise thing was something I hadn’t even dreamed about.
part of me sighed.
Except for the imminent threat of total destruction,
another part warned.
Yeah, so, this is my life.
No sign of Cherise, but the downstairs shower was running. I hadn’t brought any luggage, so my unpacking consisted of trudging upstairs to the second level, and slipping off my shoes. My feet sighed, and so did I. The carpet felt like clouds exported from heaven in the ultimate free-trade agreement. I tried out the bed, and it was definitely from God’s own bedroom, from the body-contouring mattress to the silken sheets.
Then I sniffed myself. “Ugh,” I said, and fought my way back upright. It wasn’t right, subjecting this kind of luxury to the stench of my body. Besides, I’d been craving a shower for days now, and being caught in the cold, pounding rain hadn’t exactly counted.
The small bath proved to have a very nice shower, complimentary robes and slippers, and a variety of expensive shampoos and soaps.
Score. I spent a blissful half hour naked and slippery beneath the massaging showerhead, washing away the sticky exhaustion. When my fingertips started wrinkling, I finally shut down the water—honestly, it was better than a ride at Disney—and belted the robe as I walked down the curving stairs to the first floor.
The room was smaller than I’d expected, but still larger than many hotel suites, and it had all the good stuff even the most discriminating guest would demand. Polished mahogany, fine carpets, luxurious furniture. Genuine artwork on the walls. I was taking a disbelieving inventory when Cher came out of her own bedroom, dressed in a matching robe, toweling her blond hair dry.
“Dude,” she said. This particular inflection of that many-shaded word meant
I’m completely impressed
. “This is straight out of
I’m surprised they didn’t pipe Celine Dion into the shower or something.”
“Great. Now I’ll
get that song out of my head,” I said with a sigh. “How’s your room?”
“Fantastic. Wait, check that. Why’d I get the downstairs room? Because I’m the sidekick?”
“Because you’re shorter. I didn’t think your little legs could manage the stairs.”
She stuck her tongue out at me. Sometime in the past few weeks, while I hadn’t been paying attention, she’d had it pierced. A tiny diamond stud winked impudently at me in the butter-soft room lighting. “Are you and David going to be love bunnies and keep me up all night?”
“Oooh, promise? Because the porn’s all pay-per-view.” She fluttered her eyelashes. Cher was silly and goofy and endearing, and her silliness had a point; she knew how serious all this was. How dangerous. She’d signed up to go with me, knowing there might not be any coming back from it, and she didn’t even have any superpowers.
Impulsively, I hugged her. “Thank you,” I said. She wiggled free and flipped her damp hair back.
“First grope is free, but after that, you pay to play,” she said. “I’m going to jump on your bed, for payback.” Halfway up the stairs, she stopped and turned back to look at me. Her face was very serious. “We’re not going to die, you know. You can smile every once in a while.”
I wasn’t so sure about that, but I tried.
was a floating city. I studied the complimentary colored map as I paced the semi-spacious confines of the suite, occasionally stopping to stare out the large, very thick windows. Cher was fixing her hair, which I knew would be an hour-long epic struggle. I was content to air-dry. All the product in the world wasn’t going to make my upcoming day any prettier.
The rain had stopped. The room had a sliding door and a balcony, and when I stepped out on it, salty sea air closed in around me like a hand. I felt a little stupid standing in the open in my bathrobe, but at the same time, it was a damn nice robe, and who was there to gawk? Dolphins? Let them look.
I put my hands on the cool railing and let myself float up and out of my body, which remained motionless at the rail. I moved up into the aetheric, where the forces that work on the world can be more clearly seen.
The storm, from this view, was even more terrifying. Most storms glow in the darker spectrums of power, and the worst of them take on an almost photonegative sheen. This one was all that, and a hazmat bag of toxic purple. It was also hungry, and angry. The menace and fury of it stained the entire aetheric like lethal radiation.
Bad Bob wasn’t running the storm. He didn’t have to. These things were sort of like the weather equivalent of a cruise missile—point, shoot, walk away. Sooner or later, they’ll catch up to the target. He’d given it a taste of Warden power, and it wanted more. We were the best chance for it to indulge its cravings, and it would keep on coming.
It had a particular taste for me.
I studied the inner mechanics of the storm as I hung silently in the drifting pastel clouds far above it. I could see the bright flashes of other Wardens coming and going from the aetheric, and subtle smears of movement that I knew were Djinn, who were much more difficult to see. Humans barely registered, except as muddy outlines. The ocean itself lit up on this plane like a spiral galaxy, thick with auras and lights. All that rich diversity of life in it, trailing beautiful colors, pasts, emotions. Down at the bottom, the seafloor glowed with ancient history, steeped in bands of color and power.
I floated weightless on the aetheric.
I felt a violent shove from behind, and turned just in time to be battered again—a flat force, like a moving wall hitting me. I bounced off and floated back. I saw nothing, but I could feel . . . something. A ripple. A breath of warning . . .
I twisted aside, and the shearing force just clipped me this time. That was worse, because it wasn’t distributed evenly over my aetheric form; it caught my ghostly leg instead, and a bolt of pain lanced through me, odd and blurry.