Chapter Thirteen

And then I came apart in a silent explosion, mist swirling, and somehow I could still see, but not with human eyes, and not in the human wavelength . . . not on the aetheric level, but definitely accessing some of that plane to do what I was doing.

And then the wave crested, and I felt myself being turned inside out, torn apart, remade . . . reborn.

Into myself. Only . . . different. Better. Faster. Stronger.

Dissolving.

"Hey!" I yelped, but by that time my body had given up the flesh. I was a thin gray mist, moving faster, being sucked in by a gravitational force so huge I might as well have been a dust speck moving toward a black hole.

Which was the little perfume bottle in Lewis's hand. I plunged into that tiny, tight container, squeezed like Concentrate of Djinn, and no matter how hard I tried to leak back out again, it wasn't happening.

Shock was being replaced by an all-over warm feeling of fury. Man, I didn't like this. I so didn't like this.

Lewis said, after what seemed like half a millennia, "Come out, Jo."

And the negative pressure holding me in the bottle eased. Bam, just like that. I blew out of there fast, swirled around him like a cloud of angry bees, and folded myself back down into flesh again.

It took some concentration, but this time I managed to do it pretty fast-just a fraction of a second between skin and clothes. Kind of like one of those tip-the-pen-the-clothes-come-off sort of things. Lewis looked a little surprised, and then he looked a little smirky, and then a second later he remembered he was a gentleman and pretended he hadn't seen a thing.

"You okay?" he asked. I looked down at myself and was relieved to find I was still pretty much the same person, only I'd acquired a more down-home wardrobe of blue jeans, sturdy shoes and a denim shirt. Work Djinn. I was ready to fetch and haul out on the construction site.

"I'm good," I said absently. I was busy trying to reset the outfit to something less-literally-blue collar, but unfortunately that now seemed to be outside of my control. Lewis's doing, whether he knew it or not. Great. At least I knew what turned him on, now. Sturdy women in sensible shoes.

"You okay?"

"You just asked me that." I looked up at him, puzzled.

He gave me a little tilted half-smile. "Exactly. You okay?"

Oh. Rule of three. I felt the compulsion kick in, and heard my mouth say, "Hell no, you idiot, I'm not all right! I died less than a week ago, David's being held prisoner by some bad-ass Djinn with delusions of godhood, and I just got my butt stuffed into a bottle! By you! With crappy clothes!"

He heaved a big sigh of relief. "You're okay."

"Sure. Fine. Whatever. Let's do this thing." I was more than a little unnerved, because I damn sure hadn't meant to say any of that. Well, okay, maybe the part about crappy clothes, but the rest of it was dealing-with-it stuff. So the compulsion thing actually worked. Interesting. "Give me an order. Something small."

"What's the use of that?" Patrick asked. I'd forgotten all about him, but there he was, still sitting on the hand, arms folded, watching me with those crystal blue eyes and bad-Santa leer. He'd seen the same flash-peek-show that Lewis had, he just in no way imagined himself a gentleman. "If you're going to do it, do something productive. Let her really get her feet wet."

Lewis considered that for a few seconds, then waved a hand around vaguely at Patrick's porno theater-circus tent apartment. "Okay. Redecorate this place."

Patrick came up off the hand like he'd been goosed, but it was too late.

Talk about something happening.

Power slammed into me-rich, thick, golden, unstoppable. Lewis's potential. I now had access to everything Lewis had, everything he was, everything he could be. The amount of energy stored in him was unbelievable-enough to destroy cities, level mountains, reshape the face of the earth.

It was more than enough to do a Trading Spaces on Patrick's apartment.

I started at one end and swept through it like a color-coordinating storm. The carpet morphed into a neat champagne beige. The walls turned light cream. The statues disappeared altogether in a swirl of mingled body parts, gone to bad-plaster heaven.

The porn tribute to Michelangelo was replaced by a nice mullioned ceiling, with gold accents. I added a wine red accent wall and replaced a black velvet painting of a pneumatic-breasted naked girl with a Mondrian. I didn't think I'd just stolen an original, but hey, I was new at it.

Furniture. The banana couch turned to dark leather, butter soft, with manly little brass studs on the legs. Lewis's platform shoe chair became a matching armchair.

I made Patrick's plastic hand chair disappear completely, along with the tacky chrome coffee table.

"Stop!" Patrick sounded absolutely horrified. "What are you doing?"

"Public service," I said, and added a nice brick fireplace with an art-deco brass screen. And a little china vase holding matches next to it. I turned to Lewis. "Any special requests?"

He was squinty-eyed with glee. Truthfully, so was I. Damn, this was fun . . . unlimited power crackling at my fingertips. I could do anything. Anything.

"I think she's got the hang of it," Lewis said to Patrick.

Patrick walked helplessly in circles, not knowing which way to stare; every new revelation brought an additional flinch of despair. I fought the urge to spitefully add a copy of Great Homes to the new deco-styled cherry wood table because no, that would just be rubbing it in. "Yes. I think . . . she might have."

Lewis retrieved the plastic stopper on the little perfume bottle and dumped both bottle and stopper into the pocket of his blue jeans. "Are you ready?" he asked me.

I was still on a redecorating high. "Are you kidding?" I couldn't control the laugh that bubbled up out of me, fierce and hot with delight. "Show me the problem. Damn, this is good!"

I felt him rise up. Since he was human, he didn't disappear in the real world; his body just stayed there, temporarily vacant. I rose with him, noting with interest the silvery cord that connected him back to his flesh, and emerged into the negative-space glittering fairyland that was the aetheric plane. It got more beautiful every time I visited, I discovered. Maybe my Djinn eyes were still adjusting, but whatever caused it, the colors were stronger this time, the glitter and shimmer and depth of them more intense. Lewis had an aura like milk glass, cool at the moment but far stronger than anything I'd seen on a human before. Not like a Djinn aura, either. Something . . . unique.

Human voices didn't carry well up here, so he touched me and pointed. I grabbed on to him-he was still solid here, and more or less the same in form-and we began to move across the landscape, heading up and at an angle to the right.

Way up. Way, way up. The earth curved away beneath us at the edges, pearl-bright and beautiful, misted in clouds. He kept pulling me. I felt what little resistance there was to aetheric travel-and there had to be some, for reasons of not-so-simple physics- begin to lessen. We were reaching the edges of where it was safe for a Warden to go.

I let go of him and hovered next to him. He lifted his hand again and pointed. This time I could feel the force of will that went with it, the compulsion that would guide me to the destination.

Way the hell out there. Farther than even Patrick had taken me.

Into someplace that, in this reality, wasn't even really space.

I had no choice, I found; I was already moving. I felt Lewis's hand touch me one last time, gently, as I darted away, swimming like a fast, elegant mermaid through that sea of increasingly thin resistance.

I set myself to glide the rest of the way, and before long I saw it. Not so much a presence as an absence; space out here was big and empty and a kind of neutral gray, shot here and there with fleeting speckles of power being transferred from one place to another. I braked myself, spreading thin against the barely felt touch of the sun, and hovered, considering the problem. The Void didn't manifest itself here, on this plane. I'd have to go up to see it.

Up from the aetheric are other levels, but David had already warned me not to go exploring on my own without a guide; David, however, was nowhere to be seen. And I had a compulsion.

Three layers up was the highest possible level of the known universe, at least the highest we could reach. Its most primitive, primal form. The black-and-white template for the sixteen million colors used back on Earth. It was hard to focus on anything for long, because there were no familiar landmarks, nothing that conformed to human sensibilities. Just swirls, drifts, eddies. I couldn't even get a sense of the rhythm of the place, although I was sure it had one. Either the heartbeat was so simple and subtle it defied detection, or so complex and multilayered I couldn't hope to understand it. Either way, not helpful.

It took me a while, watching, to realize that there was a kind of order to the chaos.

Everything moved the same direction. It moved in circles, sometimes, but the circles were always counterclockwise, just like the flow of the wind-fluid-matter stream.

There was one area moving the other direction. Clockwise. I focused on it, stared hard, and felt a kind of absence there, a kind of gray confusion. It didn't want to be found, this thing. It was a trap door into our world, and it was designed to stay hidden. I drifted slowly over to it, moving against the current, and paused at the very edges of the spiral.

It felt like . . . nothing. In fact, I couldn't even be sure that I'd touched it at all, except visually, where the fog phased into a bluish color as it came into contact with my presently-not-solid form. Was that good? I couldn't tell. My senses weren't helping me out at all on this one. As far as I could tell, this swirling eddy looked just like all the other swirling eddies, except that this one went right instead of left. Not a lot to go on, really. I would have preferred a nice big sign that said this way to the void, but I supposed I'd have to settle for what I could get.

I reached for the hot golden flow of Lewis's power, and began the strange job of closing off the rift. Where I touched the moving pool of energy, I sampled the normal space around it and began replicating it over the tear. It was a little like darning- take good material, stretch it over bad stuff, tack it in place.

It was also hard. The stuff kept slipping under my touch, trying to writhe away. Definitely not just some hole in space. This thing was alive, and it didn't like me. I persisted. It resisted. Little by little, I gained on it.

I was almost done when it gave one last, convulsive twist, turned, and jumped right out of the fabric of space and tore into me.

If it had been the normal world I'd have stumbled backwards, screamed, and tried to slap the thing off of me; it was definitely, horribly alive. What was worse, I couldn't even really sense it. If I lost sight of it ...

I wrapped both hands around it-or what passed for hand-equivalents here-and began to squeeze. All of Lewis's potential flooded into me, concentrated into my grip and gave it world-crushing strength.

I felt the thing give with a hot little pop. It dissolved into a rain of silvery light, cold and glittering and totally undetectable as soon as it passed beyond my aura.

I'd seen that stuff before. Where? . . . with David. On the aetheric level. He'd thought it was odd then.

Now I knew where it had come from.

The rip tore open again and started whirling widdershins again. Oh man . . . that hadn't gone well. As I brushed my hand over the surface I saw that sparkle again, saw the fireflies leaping out, away, into the primal essence of the universe.

This was really, really not good. And now I had ripple effects to deal with from the rip coming open again. That had sent shock waves of power throughout the planes-I'd felt it myself, like a sonic boom in my soul.

I left that plane and took the express down, and I didn't like what I was seeing. Swirling clouds of silver fog on the next level. Hot invisible winds that stank of sulfur on the next.

In the aetheric, power was swirling like dust caught on the leading edge of a storm. I dropped back down next to Lewis, who was busy trying to get control of the thing-not a task for one Warden, no matter how powerful-and I quickly reached out to amplify what he was doing, pulling back waves of charged particles, changing the frequencies of vibrating and propagating wave forms. I started negative canceling waves to try to flatten out the effects, and felt Lewis's burst of affirmation. Yes! We did it together, leveling, smoothing, pouring figurative oil on the literal waters.

I took hold of Lewis and pulled him down to the real-world level again. He thumped back into his body with a little plucked-string sound that was probably audible only on levels a Djinn could hear. I did the hi-I'm-naked-no-I'm-not thing again, wishing Patrick weren't so intensely scoping me out, and realized I had my hand flat against Lewis's chest. Mmm. The crisp, cool feel of his cotton shirt under my skin, the warm tingle of body underneath . . .

If I thought I'd been flying high after the decorating, I was definitely pulling g-forces now. My whole body was humming and vibrating, like it had just been through the best sex of its life.

"Wow," I said involuntarily, and then blushed and dropped my hand and stepped back. "Um . . . did we . . ."

"Afraid not," Lewis said. Was that a nice flush to his cheeks? Sure looked like it. "The rip's still there, I can feel it. Now we've got other problems to take care of."

"The waves?" I wasn't talking about the ocean, but the aetheric; he got the reference.

"There's a pretty severe widespread disturbance, and it's running through all the manifestations. There's stress under the tectonic plates in California. There's a supercell forming out in the Atlantic. There's a forest fire starting in Yellowstone." That gave me a hot twitch of memory. Yellowstone was very sensitive to powerful forces, and once it got going, even the combined might of the Fire Wardens was only going to slow it down. Having emergencies manifest in three different ways would split the ability of the Wardens to act effectively-the Earth Wardens couldn't get in to help the Fire Wardens contain any blaze; the Weather Wardens couldn't help dump water to slow it down. If each of them had their own separate but equal crisis . . .

He gave me a very direct look. "I promised you it would be one favor. Not two." He took the empty bottle out of his pocket and held it up. "I'll keep my word."

"I know." I did. Lewis wasn't a saint, thank God, but he was definitely a man of ethics and honor. "I'm releasing you from it. Not only did I not close the rip, I think I might have made it worse. Besides, you need me for this. There's something majorly weird about this."

He bent his head, an old-fashioned gesture of salute and gratitude. It occurred to me, late and strangely, that he had no alter ego presence in Oversight. Lewis was Lewis, whatever set of eyes I used to look at him. I was used to seeing humans as they thought of themselves-a plain girl as a ravishing beauty, a corporate-type guy as a knight in shining armor. But Lewis didn't have any illusions, or any false fronts. He just was.

"Let's get to work," he said. His voice was husky, low, and full of an emotion he didn't want me to hear.

Lewis took over where he was strongest-manipulating the earth itself, struggling to bleed off energy that was building up to a major break-California-off-into-the-ocean explosion. I went to the sea.

The Atlantic, on its best days, doesn't have the peace of the Pacific-the light is different, out here. The waves seem glassier, more knife-edged, and the sense of something moving under the surface is very strong. I sped along on the aetheric and formed myself back into human flesh, but kept myself hovering about ten feet over the surface of the water, feeling the energy flow. This hadn't changed. I still had the instincts of a Weather Warden, even if I no longer had the same physical channels.

The ocean was cool and edgy underneath me, muttering in the language of power; there was something unsettled here, but it wasn't the usual evaporative cycle stirring up trouble in the troposphere or mesosphere. No, this was something else. Nothing I could sense, specifically, and that worried me. I traced the cooling and warming cycle. Sunlight on water, evaporating drops to mist . . . mist rising, cooling as it went . . . droplets drawing each other into close embrace, forming clouds . . . clouds growing denser as the drops crowded closer, and energy was released . . . warm air up, cold air sinking, pressing out the clouds into energy-storing layers.

Nothing unusual here. But there was something wrong.

Something in the clouds. Something that shouldn't be there.

It was-what?

I rose up, feeling the mist chill on my skin, sliding like invisible rain . . . then the drops forming, soaking my denim shirt. I was heavy with dew. The air had the metallic taste of ozone, and it scraped the back of my throat when I pulled in a cool, thick breath.

I saw a tinkle of blue at the corner of my eye.

And then I knew.

Shit!

I flamed out of there, fast, blew myself into mist and reformed and hoped I hadn't taken in too much of it, and then I bugged out of there, arrowing for Lewis at top speed.

I almost ran into Patrick, who was still ambling around his house, staring morosely at the politically correct ceiling; I didn't stop to apologize, just misted right through him and braked myself out into human form. Way better this time. Apparently, panic greatly enhanced my organizational skills.

"It's the sparkly stuff!" I yelled. Lewis wasn't there, at least he wasn't in spirit; he was out of his body again, up in the aetheric. I shot up a level, followed the thread, found him doing whatever it is Earth Wardens do to control earthquakes. Not that I'm not sympathetic to the damage a big shake can cause, but once I spotted him I tackled him like a noseguard, snapped him right out of the aetheric and down into himself with a thud.

He staggered, braced himself with a hand on the back of the leather couch, and smacked the other onto his forehead. Owww. I'm guessing that I'd hurt him.

"What?" he yelled at me.

"It's the goddamn blue stuff! Fairy dust! Sparklies!" I repeated, louder than him. "Listen, when I tried to seal this thing, it sent out this puff of- coldlight. Looks like glitter. I didn't think it was anything, really. But it's here!"

"What?" He was still dazed. I'd given him a hell of a shot.

"It's here in the clouds. And this crap is weird, Lewis. I can't really feel it, I can only see it when I touch it. It has a kind of-sparkle."

"Sparkle?" His eyes had taken on a hard, opaque shine. "You slammed me out of there and disrupted me for a sparkle? Tell me you're kidding-"

"Listen!" I yelled over him. "It's everywhere! It's in everything! It shouldn't be here!"

He was starting to get it. The opacity was fading out of his eyes, being replaced by a clear, deep look of alarm.

"I don't know what the hell it's doing, or how the hell to stop it. Tell me you know."

His mouth opened, but there wasn't an answer forthcoming. In fact, he looked downright speechless.

"Oh hell," I supplied for both of us. "I'm glad you're the boss, because as far as I can tell, we're totally fucked."

* * *

Next stop: panic city. Everybody out for the apocalypse.

Big problem. There was nothing wrong with the weather patterns over the Atlantic, anyone with an ounce of Weather sense could tell. And yet, the supercell shouldn't have been there, according to physics. It made absolutely no sense. If I'd still been in the Wardens, I knew there would have been conference calls in progress, with people eyeing this thing from different sides and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I wondered if they could see the sparklies, and I thought they probably couldn't. Whatever the stuff was, it barely radiated in a wavelength Djinn could see, much less humans. No, I was pretty sure that they wouldn't be able to figure it out.

Which left me, and Lewis, and maybe Patrick. And any other Djinn we could convince to take a look.

"Clearly," I said as Lewis and Patrick and I compared notes, "this stuff's not natural to our planes of existence. Can you see it?"

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