The next day-if days had any meaning here- dawned just as bright and sunny and peaceful as all days did in Jonathan's little kingdom.
I woke up to find the man himself sitting in a chair watching me. The Ifrit was gone.
"Wow," I said. "This is getting familiar."
"Don't wear it out."
"The bed or my welcome?"
He ignored what was admittedly a pretty weak comeback. "So. How you feeling?"
"Good." I wasn't sure what he wanted, and I had the impression he wasn't either, really. He got up to walk around the room, long strides that didn't quite rise to the level of pacing. More like a stroll, with purpose. "About the rift up there."
"What about it?" All my fight drained away at the bare mention of it. I couldn't help but remember the red, tearing agony of Rahel dissolving into mush, or the hundreds of others who were suffering somewhere out there, where I couldn't see them.
"You think it's your fault," he said. "Crap. What happened was David's choice, not yours . . . and he had no way of knowing this would happen. Hell, even I didn't understand what was going on until too late to do anything about it. Once I did, he wanted to go fix things."
"But by then I knew it was too dangerous, and then he went tearing off after you when you got-" He waved a hand, didn't bother to finish the sentence. "He's not exactly what you might call big-picture when it comes to personal sacrifice."
"Neither am I. Neither are you." He gave me a slight nod to acknowledge the point. "You should've told me about the rift. Or at least about how badly things were screwed up because I was brought back."
He shrugged, a simple economical straight-up-and-down movement of his shoulder blades. No particular emotion in it. "Things screw up all the time. Hey. You gotta love the excitement. Granted, this is a lot more exciting than usual . . . but you stay alive as long as I have, you learn to take these things in stride. The Djinn have faced worse."
I stared up at the shadows on the ceiling. "How much worse?"
"Hard to tell until it's over."
I pulled in a deep breath. Funny, I didn't need it, but it still seemed to calm me. Some human habits were persistent. "How's everybody else?"
"Sleeping," he said, and nodded toward the far wall. "Lots of guest rooms. We run a topflight refugee camp around here." He gave me a thin, almost human smile, but it didn't last. "I never thought I'd like you, but you turned out okay. 'Gut shortage.' That was pretty good."
"Yeah, sorry about that. I got carried away."
"No, you're right. One thing Djinn are scared of, it's death. Their own, not anybody else's. It makes us cowards. Look at me! I've been sitting here in this house for so long I don't even know what it's like out there."
"I do," I said. "You're better off in here."
"Not for much longer," he said. He held out his hand, palm up, as if he was offering something to me. I looked at it, puzzled, and felt a sudden stab of alarm as a single cool blue spark ignited in his aura. "They're coming in. I can't keep them out, I can only slow them down. It's going to be one giant blue snow globe in here soon. And even though I'm resistant to them, I'm not immune." He stood up, swiped imaginary dust from his pants, and gestured at me. "So, you gonna take the day off, or are you getting your ass out of bed?"
I had already formed clothes under the sheet-the same denim and boots as before. One nice thing about being a Djinn-dress and bounce out of bed, no rework on the hair or makeup necessary. Although the hair was still displaying that annoying tendency to curl. I straightened it again as I asked, "What now?"
"You said it. We need David."
"You're in thrall," he said. "If your little jerk of a master finds out you're where he can reach you, he'll get you back and dressed like a pinup fantasy girl in ten seconds flat."
"Ugh. Don't remind me."
"Oh, I don't know, the French Maid outfit was a little-" He held up a hand to forestall my protest. "Never mind. Point is, if you go outside of the barrier he'll be able to get you back."
"He's probably still asleep."
"He is." Jonathan nodded. "Problem is that he was calling for you in his sleep. And if you go outside this house, you won't be able to resist."
"I still want to go. If I get taken, so be it. I manipulated the kid once, I can do it again."
"You'd better hope so. Well, you're not going alone. This is too important to screw up." He folded his hands together behind his back, stopped pacing, and faced me in a parade rest posture. "I'm going with you."
I managed a weak smile. "Yay, Team Us?"
"Yeah, well, I could have patches made, but it seems excessive." We exchanged another long few seconds of eye-locked silence. I was worrying about how many Djinn had already told me that Jonathan never left his house. David had seemed pretty adamant about it. This wasn't any little excursion, and suddenly I didn't think I was ready to be bodyguard to the God of My Existence. Plus, what had he just said? Resistant, not immune. I didn't want the responsibility for ending a life with the length and depth of Jonathan's.
Jonathan must have read my mind. "This is going to be hard, you know. Getting David back. She wants him bad."
No answer to that except the obvious. "So do I." I saw the flash in his eyes, and amended it. "We."
His ghost-smile manifested again. "Then let's go get him."
The cord binding me to David had shrunk to a thin, barely perceptible thread. Worse, it was shaking. I could feel the tension in it. No telling how strong it was, how much strain it could stand, but I had the distinct feeling that it was close to the breaking point.
And my time was almost up, anyway. On so many levels.
"You understand what we have to do," Jonathan said. "Travel in the aetheric's too damn dangerous. Just skim the surface, stay as close as you can to the thread. I'll be right behind you."
We hadn't told anybody else except-at Jonathan's insistence-that creepy gray-suited Ashan. "You're sure about him?" I'd asked out of the side of my mouth, as the door shut behind him and locked me and Jonathan in what looked like a study. He liked fishing, I gathered. Lots of books on the subject, and some big mounted piscine specimens frozen in midthrash on the walls.
"Ashan?" Jonathan finished writing something down, reached in a desk drawer and took out a seal that looked massive and antique. He brought it gently down on the paper. When he took it away, there was a glowing design in the paper, nothing I could read or even vaguely recognize. "Kind of an asshole, I know, but he's reliable. Anything ever happens to me, he gets the big chair."
"Not anymore." The tone was so colorless I knew there was pain behind it. "You're good to go?"
"Ready." I wasn't, really, but there didn't seem to be any really good choices, otherwise. Jonathan put the paper on top of his desk, turned to me and gave me an after you Alphonse gesture.
I took a deep breath and flowed to mist.
In Oversight, the thread stretched out toward the horizon, thin and glittering and still somehow alive. I touched it, wrapped myself around it and started winding around it like a vine snake. Moving fast, but staying in the physical plane. The thread had aetheric properties, which worried me; I couldn't stop to help Jonathan if he got badly infected. I couldn't be sure, but I wasn't seeing any blue sparkle, other than a stray particle here and there. So far the connection looked clean.
The thread traveled through Jonathan's house, straight out through the roaring blaze in the fireplace. I didn't dare phase out completely, but I tried a moderated waveform to travel on, to avoid the fire. If it was a real fire at all. Nothing around here was what it seemed, especially not Jonathan. He didn't feel like a Djinn at all, especially now that we were both in an incorporeal state. He felt . . . hotter. Stronger. More present, somehow.
My waveform skirted perilously close to a place I didn't want to go. I saw blue sparks dancing close, and dropped back down. Jonathan's place was still relatively spark-free, at least so far. I wondered if his defenses were good enough to protect all of the Djinn who'd taken refuge in there. He hadn't seemed all that positive in his outlook. It's going to be one giant blue snow globe in here soon.
Even as I watched, a single blue spark flared against my aura, then two more, drifting gently and then falling away. The stuff was getting through, after all, just very very slowly.
I flashed through a barely seen crisscross of bricks and mortar, winding along the silver thrumming thread as fast as I could. I moved out of the darkness, into what felt like sunlight. I soaked up the wild, undirected energy gratefully; without David's infusions of blood-rich power, I was rapidly getting tired.
I looked behind me on the thread-directed my awareness, actually-and sensed that Jonathan was still with me, whispering his way along with every evidence of perfect ease. Well, well. I wasn't overly surprised. I didn't imagine there was much that Jonathan couldn't do, if he really wanted to. Except that this might be the first time in a long time that he'd left his . . . sanctuary, and there might be a learning curve for him out here in the real world . . .
It was like hitting the Great Wall of China in a bullet train. I stopped, stunned into silence and nearly into unconsciousness. My mist form spread out into an uncoordinated cloud, then slowly, slowly formed itself back around the thread.
Whoops. Found the barrier. Damn. How had Sara gotten around it, when she'd brought me in at hyperspeed?
And why did the thread go right on through it?
No help for it; I had to get really thin. If the thread could pass through, I could slide myself along the thread through the barrier-theoretically. All I had to do was, ah, become the thread, right? Yeah. Be one with the thread.
Another blue fleck touched me and flared like a star. I was out of time. If Jonathan's hideout was being invaded, there couldn't be too many safe places left. I hoped whatever other Wardens were left had sense enough to keep their Djinn safely in their bottles, but the Free Djinn . . . they had no such protection. Just crawling inside some old Jim Beam container wouldn't do it; it wasn't the bottle that made the difference, it was magic. Without the magic, glass was just glass.
David. I sent it along the thread, because the barrier was holding. I wasn't getting through. No response. I directed my attention backwards. Jonathan, can you drop this thing long enough for us to get through?
No, he sent back. It's the only thing standing between them and what's out there.
Yeah, that was good. Try harder.
I felt a giant-sized shove in the back, and grabbed on to the thread for dear life as it began to move. Slowly. Pulling through the barrier one torturous, tiny jerk at a time.
I thought it would scrape me right off, that wall of power. I compressed myself, spread thinner, thinner, almost to nothing.
A sense of being dragged through thick, quick-setting cement. Of intense, murderous pressure.
Free. I arrowed along the thread fast, driven by the force of the pull, with the close-following shadow of Jonathan sailing in my wake. The distant sunrise on the horizon grew brighter. Hotter. Closer. I could sense David now, but he felt . . . different. Muted.
I didn't slow down.
I tumbled back into human form, all arms and legs and curling hair, hit the ground awkwardly and went to hands and knees. I was suddenly grateful for my newly demure clothing choices. What looked awkward in blue jeans would have looked downright kinky in a leather miniskirt and lime green Manolos.
Especially in a grungy city alleyway.
I'd expected to materialize in Yvette's perfectly kept living room, but no such luck-on my hands and knees in garbage, looking up at a grungy guy dressed in geologic layers of oily, tattered clothes, a bottle of Thunderbird halfway to his lips. He stared at me without any real comprehension.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey." I climbed up to my feet and wiped crud from my hands. "How you doing?"
He gestured vaguely with the bottle. As answers went, it was perfectly understandable.
"Yeah, me, too," I said. "So. Where am I?"
He blinked at me, then grinned. "Here."
A perfectly Zen response. I gave up on the Dalai Lama and looked around for Jonathan. He was standing farther down near the mouth of the alley, staring out; I picked my way around overturned trash cans, piles of crap, and a particularly feral-looking cat with a rat in its jaws.
"I guess you were on target," Jonathan said, and nodded out at the street. I focused past the swarming cars and ceaseless stream of pedestrians. On the other side of the street rose a stubby-looking tower, part of a complex that I knew all too well. "The good news is, at least we know where he is."
We were looking at the bad news.
The UN Building.
It was the World Headquarters of the Wardens Association.
Technically speaking, the UN Building isn't. It's a compound of four interconnected structures- General Assembly, Secretariat, Conference, and Library. I had a nodding acquaintance with the place, which was better than about 95 percent of the other Wardens could claim; I'd been to closed meetings in the Conference building, and the Wardens Association offices in the Secretariat tower. (By New York standards, it wasn't much of a tower, really. Thirty-nine floors. Hardly worth the nomenclature.)
Jonathan and I ate hot dogs from a sidewalk cafe and examined the problem as the sun slipped toward the horizon in smoky, obscured glory. Traffic continued to be heavy, dominated by yellow cabs; the entire block had become a secured no-parking zone, with sharp-eyed security personnel stationed at discreet but effective intervals. None of whom noticed us, of course. All part of that Djinn mystique.
I finally took a break from consuming preservatives to inquire if we had an actual plan in the offing.
Jonathan tossed back the last mouthful of a giant-sized cup of industrial-strength black coffee. He was loving the cuisine, which I guess was a break from home-cooked meals back at Rancho Impenetrable. "Best I can figure, your pals at the Wardens Association actually got off their asses for once and did the right thing. Rounded up Yvette, confiscated David's bottle-with him in it. Lewis must have gotten caught up in the raid."
"Not great," I said.
"Not really." He took a bite of hot dog. "You and I can't get into the vault where he's being kept. No Djinn can; we need a human for that, one with access. Problem is there aren't a whole lot of those falling off of trees. And once we're in the building, we're going to be at some pretty serious risk."
I put my hand on his arm and checked him for coldlight. He was lightly coated in it. I drew it to me, into me, left him clean and uncontaminated. He gave me a slow, half-lidded smile in response. Dimples. I'd never noticed them before. He probably didn't show them to just anybody.
"I'm fine," he said. "You?"
"Good." I licked relish from my fingertips and examined the Secretariat in Oversight. It was rich in history, of course, but there was one floor in particular that radiated into the power spectrum. The Wardens floor. Not just the residue of all of the powerful that had come and gone through those doors, either; this was here-and-now kind of energy, being radiated at an intense level. "Lots going on," I observed.
"It's a busy day." Laconic understatement from the master, as usual. I'd like to see what actually panics you, I thought, and then instantly knew that I didn't. No way in hell. "Storm rolling in."
I could feel charged fury in the air, particles churning and forming patterns and being flung apart by ever-expanding forces. The storm was out of control in the Atlantic, and heading this way. I turned out toward the sea and closed my eyes, drinking in the thick warm breeze, the muttering echoes of what was shaping up to be one hell of an early hurricane. At its present rate of growth, it was liable to come charging in to port packing wind speeds fast enough to blow the windows out of every shining building in its path. Experts said you couldn't bring down one of these skyscrapers with a storm, but they'd never seen the kind of power that was boiling out there.
Few people had, and lived to tell about it.
"Can't you do anything about that?" I asked. I felt genuinely spooked, every nerve stroked to a trembling edge by the touch of that wind.
"That? Sure." Nothing happened. I looked over at him, but he was still focused on the building. "What, you mean now?"
"It'll be a little late after it blows through here and Manhattan becomes the world's biggest junk shop."
His dark eyes flashed toward the horizon, then back to me. "I'm keeping it out to sea. Considering it's not the only damn thing going wrong, I think that's about the best I can do right now. Unless you think it's okay to turn the entire five-state area around Yellowstone into charcoal. Didn't anybody ever tell you that it's all about balance?"
Balance was great in theory. Not so great when you were having to make choices that would inevitably cost lives. I wasn't feeling up to godhood. "What about California? Or are you just calling it a loss and hoping Disneyland will set up an undersea kingdom park off the. west coast of Nevada?"
"Atlantis once had the best beaches." He shrugged. "Coastline changes are a matter of perspective. But no, actually. Lewis took care of that one. The earthquake's off."
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