Chapter Eighteen

The kids on the street stopped, looking up, open-mouthed with amazement. The dog started yapping.

Thunder boomed like cannon. It rattled glass in windows. Two car alarms shrieked in fright, and I felt the pressure of bad weather building, hot and still and green. Yes.

I couldn't hold the fire. It was coming down, an acid rain of napalm from the sky. It hit the tallest building in sight-a bank, maybe-and draped it in orange-red streamers that exploded white-hot when it found something to feed on. Seven floors above the street, hell had descended. I could feel people screaming, feel the pulse of their terror, and I couldn't stop it.

Fire crawled lazily over the building, dripping in hot strings from windows. Burning the place from the outside in, from the top down. Get out. Get the hell out, now! Because that place would be an inferno in minutes. Could I do something else, anything?

I looked down at myself and saw that I was surrounded by a thick, sparkling layer of blue. Cold-light, moving over me like a crawling blanket. Oh God. What in the hell was it doing to me? I couldn't feel it. Couldn't feel it at all.

I stared blindly up into the storm, willing it, begging it to do what I needed it to do.

And something answered. It was raw and primitive and barely more than an instinct, Mother Nature twitching in a nightmare. The blast of energy broke over me like a drowning wave, and I went to my knees, still staring up at the arching, strangely beautiful firefall that was going to destroy this place.

And then the tornado formed above it.

It started small, an indrawn breath of the storm, a tentative wisp of vapor like a tongue tasting the air. I fed it energy. Come on, baby. Live. Work for me. It pulled in strength, drove down in a black twisting rope toward the tasty, tempting energy buffet that was the firedome.

It connected, swelled, and took on a roaring, freight-train stability.

Nothing can resist that force when it gets going. Especially not fire, which is nothing but energy given plasmatic form; it's just food for the process. A stream of fire broke free of the dome and spiraled up inside the tornado like a gas flame into a lantern.

The result was unholy. Beautiful, terrifying, like nothing that most human beings had ever seen or would ever want to ... a storm shot through with crawling, vivid orange as the fire struggled to keep its cohesion. The tornado sucked up the thick, clinging plasma like Jell-O through a straw.

The firedome broke apart. Individual napalm-hot streams fell like ribbons on the town, but the majority of it was drawn into the tornado and spewed out in a fading glow above the anvil cloud, where the thin atmosphere of the mesosphere starved it of fuel. The rapid cooling would help feed the engine of the tornado, as air sank and was drawn back into the express-elevator rush of the spiral.

The compulsive part of me was still trying to fulfill my master's command, which meant I kept forming fire up there in the sky, trying to put the dome back together. The tornado kept vacuuming it safely away. It occurred to me with a cold shock to wonder how long the compulsion would make me do this. I could feel my fuel tanks edging down toward empty. The energy output was enormous, and I couldn't even draw strength from the sun, because I'd created an instant overcast.

Maybe I could draw power from the fire itself, sort of a cannibalistic loop? No-when I tried to grab hold and suck it back into me, I couldn't find a grip. It thrashed away from me like a writhing snake.

I couldn't keep this up forever. The storm was running on its own now, but I needed to keep control of it. Unchecked, the tornado could do as much damage as the fire, and that really would be my fault, in a whole new ugly way. The winds in the tornado wall were reaching speeds of about 250 miles per hour, a solidly terrifying F4. That wasn't my doing, of course. Truth is, once you get the forces of nature going, they don't need a lot of tender loving care. I had to conserve my strength to try to stop things, not keep them going.

Somebody was tugging at my black peachskin coat, trying to get my attention. I tumbled out of Oversight and felt my body starting to mist; I pulled myself together and turned to look over my shoulder.

Two kids and a dog. All equally scared. The little girl, red-faced, was crying big crystal tears and clinging to her brother; he was all of ten, struggling to be brave and hold on to both little sister and a wiggling, whining beagle.

"Lady?" he asked. His voice was high and trembling, pure as the tones of an angel. "Help?"

He was so damn polite about it, with death whirling a couple of hundred feet overhead, with the bank burning like a bonfire three blocks away. People in the Starbucks across the street were screaming and cowering behind the counter with the baristas.

I put my arms around the three of them and pulled them close, sheltered them with my body as the fire overhead fought the suction of the wind to come down like a burning blanket.

The compulsion wasn't going to stop. It would go on until I couldn't keep control of the tornado. I'd created twice the disaster instead of averting the one. The fire would come, and then the tornado would kill whatever survived.

The hair prickled on the back of my neck.

Something big ... a white surge of power sweeping through, clearing out the fire, breaking the processes I'd set up inside the storm. It rolled like a glittering razor-edged sea.

It tasted familiar. No, it was as familiar as the power humming inside my own body because it was the same damn thing.

It was David.

I raised my head slowly as the silence fell, that hot green silence like the one before the tornado's freight-train rush . . . the fire at the bank building flared once, blue-white, and vanished into a hiss of smoke. The streamers of flame winked out.

David was standing across the street in front of the Starbucks, copper-brushed hair catching light like silk. He was in his traveling clothes-blue shirt, blue jeans, olive drab wool coat that belled with the wind.

He looked so tired. So horribly tired. And there were crawling blue sparks all over him, too. Glittering in a barely visible umbilical between us.

"Joanne," he whispered. I felt his voice, even from so far away, like breath on my skin.

I didn't say anything out loud-couldn't-but I felt the compulsion rising up again, felt the fire sucking energy and pouring it into a manifestation that glittered and grew above my head. A snowball on fire. A boulder. A sun. The light from it was so bright it bleached the town to gray-white shadow.

Stop me, I begged him. I knew he could hear me, vibating through the connection between us. Kill me if you have to. Cut the cord.

He looked up, at the growing ball of destruction flaming in the sky, and then back at me. I didn't have to tell him I couldn't stop. He knew. He understood.

I looked at him in Oversight and saw him outlined in pale, shimmering orange, a color that felt like suffering, weakness, approaching death. When I extended my hand toward him, I could see the same color drifting around me.

This was killing both of us. I was draining my master Kevin at the same time, three of us going down . . .

Stop me, I said again. The silver rope binding us together was pale now, pulsing in time with our shared heartbeats. God, David, please, I don't know how . . .

I know, he said. She just wanted to get my attention.

I didn't see him move, but he was suddenly there, tackling me violently backwards to the ground, away from the children and the wildly yapping beagle. Overhead, the sun exploded into a white-hot fury, but I didn't see, couldn't see, because we were falling through the ground and into the aetheric, racing back along the invisible path I'd taken to get here. No! I battered at him, tried to get free, tried to warn him that he was killing us both. He didn't respond. Faster. Faster. The whole thing was a blur of lights, color, motion, whispers, screams . . .

. . . and the two of us fell with a hard thump onto the pale champagne carpet of Yvette Prentiss's living room. Before I could even register where we were, David was already rolling away, reaching for the open perfume vial that lay on the table, but before he could reach it Kevin's grubby hand snatched it up.

I felt the fury in David at the sight of her smug smile. He was going to rip her apart. There was no softness in him now, no consideration, no humanity. He was nothing but fire, ready to burn.

And then he shuddered, staggered, and collapsed to his knees. I could already feel it happening inside of him. Death. Coming fast. He'd poured so much out in stopping me that he had nothing left, nothing to draw on but me and he was refusing to do that . . .

I could feel it in myself, too. I turned and screamed at Kevin, "Order me to heal him! Now!"

I had no idea I could produce a voice like that, so utterly sure of obedience. Kevin instantly complied. "Heal him."

"No!" Yvette shrieked, but it was too late, and I was already pulling on Kevin's store to replenish the failing energy levels in myself. David collapsed over on his back, fading into mist and reforming with every breath, and I poured life back into him with everything I had.

Close. So very close.

David groaned and rolled over to hands and knees, then managed to get to his feet. Swayed like a three-day drunk. His eyes flared bright orange, and he looked straight at Yvette Prentiss.

And then he lunged for her.

"Don't let him hurt my mother! Hold him still!" Kevin yelled. Direct command, no equivocation. I had no choice.

I turned, grabbed David and held on as he tried to throw me off. I wasn't stronger than he was, not normally, but with Kevin's power pouring into me there was no stopping me. And he was weak, and tired, and hurting.

I pinned him against the wall of her house, rested my head against his and whispered, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, David-" I felt the hand trying to shove me away change to a caress. No words. We didn't need any. "You shouldn't have done this. Oh God, please, please go, I can't stop you if you go . . ."

Yvette had another bottle ready. This one was dark blue, oblong, some kind of fancy kitchen bottle built more for display than actual containment, but it had a rubber stopper and it would do the job. She uncorked it and put it on the coffee table next to my tiny open perfume vial.

Where her hand moved, I saw a flicker of blue, falsely cheerful glitter. It had followed us here, too. I could see it shimmering around us, darting like fireflies.

David's eyes met mine. Still flecks of copper swirling in his irises, but he'd never looked so human to me, so precious, so vulnerable.

"I can't go," he said. His voice was soft, sweet, forgiving.

This was my fault, all my fault, oh God . . .

He put his hand on my cheek. I turned blindly into the warmth, wanted to cry but no longer knew how.

"Be thou bound to my service." Yvette's voice was low, seductive, and charged with triumph.

"No matter what happens . . ." David whispered against my skin.

"Be thou bound to my service."

"... I love you. Remember that."

"Be thou bound to my service."

He kissed me, one last time, our lips meeting and burning, our souls mingling through the touch, and then I felt him torn apart, ripped away.

I felt him die.

I turned and watched the mist stream across the room, coil into the bottle, and watched Yvette slam the cork down in place.

The sense of David's presence vanished instantly. Gone.

I lunged at Yvette, forming steel-hard claws from the fingers of my right hand, and I was halfway to her throat when Kevin screamed, "Stop!"

I did. Instantly. Fighting with every twitching nerve, but losing against the overwhelming force of his command.

"You can't hurt my mother." He sounded spooked. "Or me."

I felt the claws misting away from my hand. Yvette raised her chin and exposed that fragile, perfect throat to me, and I wanted more than anything to wipe that smug, was-it-good-for-you smirk off her face.

And I couldn't. Son of a bitch!

She said, "Don't be a fool. You won't be the first Djinn that I've had to teach a lesson."

I remembered David's near-pathological hatred of her, and felt it burning hot as acid in my stomach, too. Oh, this wasn't going to end well. Not if I had anything at all to say about it.

She turned to her son. Kevin was staring at me, mesmerized. He licked his lips nervously and said, "Did you really destroy that town?"

I didn't feel compelled to answer-Rule of Three- so I just stared at him with my burning silver eyes. Had I? I hoped to hell not. But I wasn't really sure.

My rescue came from an unexpected source. Yvette said, "David stopped her. But then, he had good enough reason. Seacasket has something in it he'd kill to protect." She got up off the sofa and walked around to face me, insinuated sharp-nailed fingers through my hair and arranged it to her liking around my shoulders. "You're very striking, did you know that? He must feel something incredible for you, to have done that. Believe me, David's long ago learned the value of self-preservation. The fact that he's so devoted to you is truly amazing."

I gave her a smile. "He just wants me for the sex."

She gave me a smile right back. "He could get that anywhere." Her raised eyebrow strongly implied he could get it from her, at better rates, at higher quality. "I know who you are, you know."

Of course she did. She'd been at my funeral, stood there looking at the enormous overblown photo of me wreathed by flowers. Her fingernail tapped my cheek, hard enough to sting.

"You killed a friend of mine," she said. Her voice had dropped down into that throaty, seductive range again. I wondered if she always used that when she talked about killing. "He was a very special man."

"Bad Bob? Oh, yeah, I heard he was keeping you in condoms and rent money. Sorry for your loss." Bad Bob had put a demon down my throat. I had no fond memories.

She slapped me. Well, tried to. I went to vapor and reformed immediately after her hand sailed through the space where I'd been. That was kind of fun. She stumbled into the coffee table from the force of the swing, and for a second the fury in her made her ugly. Uglier than anyone I'd ever seen. Whoa. There was the real Yvette Prentiss, the one who hid behind the pretty soft skin and silk-smooth hair and mouthwatering figure.

It was gone so fast I couldn't be absolutely sure I'd even seen it, until I looked over at Kevin. The fear in his eyes told me everything.

"Bob Biringanine was a visionary!" she snapped at me. "You're an ant crawling on the corpse of greatness. Kevin! Tell her not to do that again!"

"Do what?" he asked. She rounded on him, and I saw the flinch from ten feet away. "Tell her, uh, not to do that vanishing thing?"

"Yes." She hissed it, like an angry snake. He swallowed twice, rapidly, and looked over at me.

"Uh, don't do that vanishing thing anymore. Making yourself all misty. Unless I tell you to." He didn't look back at Yvette, stared at the carpet and his ragged tennis shoes instead. "Can I go now?"

She continued to stare at him, and I didn't like the light in her eyes. Not good. Definitely not good.

"Yes." She flipped him the perfume vial. He nearly fumbled it, and I felt the Djinn circuitry heating up with anticipation. Of course! Any chance there was that he might drop it ... I couldn't do much, but I could nudge it along once it was out of his hands, make sure it hit the sharp edge of the coffee table with enough force to smash it into oblivion . . .

He held on to it. Damn.

Yvette nodded toward me. "Take her with you."

"Yeah, okay. You. Come with me."

I didn't want to go. I wanted to stay here, guarding that blue bottle that held all that remained of David, but I couldn't disobey a direct order. Kevin walked out of the living room, and I had to follow him.

The last sight I had was her sitting down on the sofa again, picking up the blue stoppered bottle and holding it between her hands.

The expression on her face-avid, delighted, anticipatory-made me go arctic cold inside.

Kevin walked through a door that read Kevin's room do not enter or else! It was decorated with skull-and-crossbones decals, pentagrams, line drawings of naked girls grabbing their ankles.

Ah. Home rancid home. He shut the door behind me, stared at me for a couple of seconds, and put the perfume vial down in a nasty-looking ashtray filled with candy wrappers and what strongly resembled the butt ends of a few joints. I looked around. Kevin's room wasn't any more attractive on second viewing than on first There was no place to sit, other than the dingy rumpled bed, and I was not going there.

Kevin flung himself down full length, staring up at the pinup on the ceiling. Hands behind his head. "Did you really almost kill those people?"

"Did you want me to?" I countered, and crossed my arms. He shrugged, as much of a shrug as he could manage lying down.

"Probably would have been kind of a mercy, living in a podunk town like that and all."

"Why Seacasket?" I asked. He continued to stare up at the centerfold, who pouted and simpered in a frozen second of humiliation. "Something special about that town?"

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