I shouldn’t be able to feel physical pain on the aetheric. And nobody should be able to attack like this. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I’d been around the block. Hell, I’d gotten body-slammed by the unexpected so often they’d probably named a whole wing of the Warden hospital after me.
I backpedaled, fast, and then dropped the concentration that held me so far up in the aetheric. My body was like a massive anchor, heavy without the use of power to hold me away from it, and gravity kicked in hard. I snapped and fell across thousands of miles of open water and air, and as I was pulled back toward my physical form, I saw something peculiar happen in the clouds.
I saw them turn a particularly poisonous shade of green, with jagged black edges. It was eerie and beautiful and alien, the green of a toxic emerald, and I wondered what kind of power could do that to a natural force.
Nothing I could wield, or would want to face.
I slammed back into flesh, and my knees gave way. The deck of the balcony was hard, and it hurt to hit it even though I grabbed the railing for support.
That’s going to leave a mark,
I thought, but I was used to that, at least. I was more focused on the green color of those clouds, and then, belatedly, on the lancing pain that ripped through my left leg, from heel up to hip. I rose and put my weight on it, thinking it was some kind of cramp; the entire limb spasmed, shook, and gave way as if my electrical system had just cut out like a bad engine.
I clung to the railing, waiting for something. . . . It reminded me of the sensation you get when your leg goes to sleep, but I didn’t feel any tingle or prickling of blood returning to feed the nerves.
It was just numb.
I thought, exasperated. The exasperation faded. The numbness didn’t. I kept trying to put my weight on my leg, and it kept folding up on me like cheap paper.
Okay, now I was scared.
What the hell?
I plunked myself down on the balcony deck, legs extended, and massaged the numb leg, starting at my thigh. It was eerie. My fingers touched flesh, but that was the only feedback there was. It could have been someone else’s leg entirely.
And then, with a snap, everything came back online, as if the nerve channels had just been switched on again. No slow awakening, just a sudden shock of pain and heat that made me cry out, and then it was all just . . . normal.
I stood up, clinging to the railing, and tested the leg.
It hurt, but it held.
I limped back into the living area and stretched out on the sofa, probing my leg for anything that seemed oddly shaped, broken, or otherwise bizarre. Except for the continued random firing of pain through my nerves, everything seemed intact.
It faded, after a few minutes. I stood and cautiously walked around the room, careful to stay within grabbing distance of major pieces of furniture.
Walk it off, Baldwin.
I’d had worse. Hell, I’d had worse just
But it bothered me, because it shouldn’t have happened. Nothing was supposed to hurt me in aetheric form, certainly not echoed down into my flesh-and-blood form.
Unsettling. It just didn’t feel right.
I didn’t want to, but I knew I had to mention it to Lewis. Every odd thing that happened to me increased the chances that I would end up confined to quarters, or tranquilized in the brig, if this floating casino had one of those. But this didn’t seem like something I should keep to myself.
I checked the clock. I was due at the Wardens meeting.
“Cher!” I yelled to her closed door. “I’m out!” I don’t think she heard over the aircraft-carrier roar of her blow-dryer.
I put on my sadly wrinkled, salt-stained, and badly-in-need-of-laundering clothes, grabbed the map, and went to wage war with evil.
The map was confusing. That was all right; there were plenty of staff members around. Seems that the cruise line and the Wardens had thrown around a hell of a lot of talk about triple pay and hazard pay and bonuses, and as a result, the current passenger complement was outnumbered by its service staff by about two to one.
Which I’ve got to say would have been potentially amazing had I not regarded every single one of them as another weight of guilt on my conscience.
Three staff members and three sets of directions later, I arrived at the ship’s movie theater. I was late, of course, but not very. The lights were up, revealing opulently layered velvet curtains in the traditional dark reds and purples on the walls, some lovely Art Deco sconces, and seats for a couple of hundred people and their snacks.
There were thirty-eight Weather Wardens on board, and as I swiftly counted heads, I realized that I was one of the last to arrive.
Lewis watched me move down the stairs toward the stage, and I knew he was noting the way I slightly favored my newly funky leg. “Did someone forget to tell you to watch your step?” he asked in an undertone. Not that anyone was paying attention. The Wardens were talking among themselves, probably arguing the finer points of weather control.
“Funny,” I said. “Am I on time for the matinee of
A Night to Remember
He wasn’t sidetracked. “What happened?”
“I got smacked on the aetheric. Hard. And I couldn’t see anybody doing it—not a trail, not a wave, nothing. No trace. And it hurt.”
That got his attention. “Hurt?”
ow, crap, damn
. And when I came back down, my leg went out on me, like a power failure. It came back, but not right away.”
“Hmmmm.” Without the slightest self-consciousness, Lewis got down on one knee and put his large hands around my thigh. The conversations out in the auditorium came to a stammering halt, and I felt every pair of eyes in the place turn to focus on us.
I jumped a little, and there might have been a gasp involved, but he wasn’t interested in naughty groping at the moment. I felt his power slowly filter into me, rich and warm as sunlight. It followed the nerves in a slow glide down my leg, into my foot, and out.
You could have heard a pin drop in the place.
Lewis finally sat back. “I’m not finding anything except some strains in your muscles. Normal stuff.” He realized that everyone was staring and, for a moment, looked completely vapor-locked about it.
I cleared my throat. “Thanks for the laying on of hands. You might want to stop now, being that it looks a little odd.”
“Oh.” He let go and rose to his full, lanky height. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to—”
“I know.” The other Wardens were
watching us, but after a moment they started whispering together again. Yeah, I could bet what they were whispering. “Just be glad that David—”
“That David didn’t see you?” That was David, of course, arriving in a white whisper of fog that poured itself into his human form in less than an eyeblink. He sounded amused. “David did.”
“I’ll take it as written that you said to keep my grubby hands off your woman,” Lewis said. David raised an eyebrow. “
not strong enough?”
“Before you say that in the future, most Djinn find the concept of owning someone else slightly offensive,” David said, and I could almost feel Lewis’s wince. “Jo’s her own woman. If she felt uncomfortable, she’d tell you.”
“Yeah, she always has.”
“Uh, guys?” I waved my hands. “Thanks for the macho plumage display, very attractive, but are we done? Time’s a-wasting.”
David smiled. He wasn’t competing with Lewis; he hadn’t for some time. He was possessive, on levels that he would never let anyone but me see, but he was done with jealousy. We were bonded, in his eyes, for eternity, or as long as my human body lasted. He had absolutely no reason to worry. “I came to tell you that the Djinn have completed preparations. We can begin anytime you’re ready.”
“Let’s not delay,” Lewis said, and stepped up to the edge of the theater’s proscenium. “Everybody focus. We’ve got work to do.”
There weren’t five people in the world who could get thirty-odd Wardens to shut up and listen without arguing, but Lewis was one of them. I wasn’t, so I shut up and paid attention, too. He’d taken his hour of downtime to shower, shave, and change clothes, and although he still looked exhausted, I wouldn’t have bet against him in a fight.
Which was good, because we were about to step into the ring for the fight of our lives.
“David,” Lewis said, “I need the Djinn to form a perimeter around the storm. Keep it from moving toward us. Try to hold it in place while we cut its generators.” By that, I understood that he was going to do the logical thing and try to affect not the storm but the underlying forces that fed its fury. There were relatively simple ways to do it, but out on the open ocean, they also required massive amounts of power. The less energy we spent chasing the damn thing around, the better.
David nodded. “It’ll stay as still as we can manage.”
That wouldn’t be easy, but he had at least fourteen Djinn at his command—ten of his own, four of Ashan’s. I didn’t think there were many things that a couple of Djinn couldn’t do, so fourteen seemed a pretty comfortable safety margin.
Still. I was getting a clammy line of sweat forming along my spine.
Bad Bob knows us. He knows how we think. He’s one of us.
I wished I hadn’t thought of that.
Lewis paced, because that was what Lewis did when he was under stress. He prowled the stage, talking without focusing directly on anyone, even me. “Four teams,” he said. “Jo, you’re heading the team that will focus on a rapid cooling of the water temperature directly beneath the storm and out to a margin of about half a mile beyond. We’re shooting for a minimum drop of at least ten degrees.”
Someone in the audience whistled, and it was all I could do not to echo it. Ten degrees on the open ocean? Holy crap, that was hard. The amount of force it took to effect even one degree of change in that vast amount of water was astonishing.
“Ten degrees,” I said, and managed to keep the incredulity out of my voice. “All right.”
“Pick your team.”
David watched me as I looked out over the audience and called names. I knew most of them, and more important, I knew their capabilities. I wanted raw power, and for this, at least, I wasn’t overly concerned about fine control. There wasn’t a single person out there I’d name my bosom friend, but they were all solid talents. Good enough.
Predictably enough, though, someone raised a hand. It was Henry Jellico, whom I
picked. Henry was one of the worst know-it-alls that I’d ever met, despite being an overall nice enough guy. He’d studied hard, and dammit, he wanted every single person to know it. “Excuse me, Lewis, but wouldn’t it be wise to also match the cooling of the water with lowering the temperature of the exhaust process? Try matching it to the temperature of the eye to expand it outward?”
Lewis stopped pacing, but he didn’t face Jellico. “I believe I said four teams,” he said. “Henry, you’re in charge of team two. Exhaust process matched to the core temperature of the eye. Once you’ve got those equations balanced, try taking the whole thing down another five degrees.”
Henry Jellico wasn’t in for any picnic, either. Lewis waited as Henry picked his ten Wardens, and then chose Amanda Chavez to head up the third team, which was smaller and focused on lowering wind speed. The fourth team batted cleanup, remaining in reserve and watching for any imminent threats, and it was headed up by Lewis himself.
I sat down on the edge of the stage, my legs dangling over the lip, and lowered my head in concentration. Out in the audience, all the Wardens did the same. We looked like we were engaged in prayer; in a sense, that was what we were doing, only on a slightly more active scale.
“Anybody got an eyewall wind speed on this beast?” someone asked.
“Approaching two hundred fifty miles per hour,” Lewis said. We had a moment of contemplation on that one. The storm was seriously powerful. The highest speed the Wardens had ever measured in an eyewall was two hundred fifty-five, give or take a bit. There was no such thing as a Category 6 storm, but if there was, this might have been the template. “One last thing. There’s been a report that our enemies might have the ability to strike us while we’re on the aetheric, maybe even causing physical side effects. Watch yourselves, and my team will deal with any attacks that come at you.” That raised a few heads. “Let’s get it done. The faster we’re in and out, the safer we are.”
I rose up into the aetheric, and the entire roomful of Wardens rose up with me. They were an army of glittering, powerful forms, shifting from the limitations of the physical to the more metaphorical shapes we registered on higher planes. I never knew what I looked like—none of us did—but I watched Henry Jellico morph from a mild little man into a bulky, muscular warrior who’d have been at home in
World of Warcraft
swinging a barbarian axe
Some Wardens didn’t even keep human shapes; Greta Van Der Waal became a shining white dog that bounded and leaped through the clouds. We all had our fantasies, our true natures, and we couldn’t really control how others saw us.