Chapter Twenty-seven

There was a body lying a couple of feet away, human, bleeding hideously into the carpet from what looked like a fatal slash to the throat. The security guard was still breathing, but just barely ... As I watched, his eyes glazed over, and the last whisper rattled out of his throat.

I heard voices, and carefully moved out of the cover of the doorway, hugging the wall. Whoever was there, they were inside the vault.

Lewis's voice. "-don't have to do this. Let him go." Lewis sounded calm, but I felt the effort underneath it. Something bad was going on, something worse than the head injuries I knew he'd already sustained. I could feel the pulse of his distress, mental and physical, across the empty space separating us.

I advanced slowly, one step at a time, wondering where the hell Jonathan was, where David was, what had gone so wrong about all of this. I couldn't believe Kevin had killed the people upstairs, or taken out the dead guard on the carpet. Then again, maybe I was underestimating his capacity for desperation, or fury . . .

By moving all the way to the right side of the hall, I could see a slice of the interior, beyond the open door.

There were more unmoving figures in there, down on the ground. One wore a UN Security blazer. I extended my senses and found they were both dead.

Lewis was standing, utterly still, with his hand wrapped around a blue glass bottle. It was still stoppered. David . . . Across from him, Kevin was on his knees, being held there by a hand around his throat. He looked unconscious. At the very least, he was too scared to fight.

The hand that held him was big, square, and covered with blood.

I moved forward, trying to get in, and came right up against a barrier, like a thick pane of glass. A Djinn barrier. I'd have to be in a bottle to pass through it, and once inside . . . shit. My bottle must be on the other side, with Kevin. Probably stuffed in his pants pockets, along with his condoms.

"Please," Lewis said, and worked the glass bottle nervously against his pants leg. He looked awful. Bruises covered half his face like an elaborate tribal tattoo-courtesy of Kevin's kicks in the head-and where he wasn't bruised he was pale, with a sick oatmeal tinge. "You have a choice. Don't choose to do this. There's no going back."

"There never is." The hand holding Kevin was a man's, right down to the hair on the wrist and the big, blunt fingers, but the voice was a woman's, and it issued from somewhere on the other side, where I couldn't see. I didn't need to. I knew who she was, that voice was never going to leave my nightmares. Yvette. Of course ... if Lewis had been there, they would have confiscated David's bottle and taken Yvette in for interrogation, too. Which meant that somewhere in the confusion upstairs, she'd escaped and come down here to rifle the vault for her favorite slave.

Over my not-quite-dead body, bitch. I tried the barrier again, searching for a weakness, but it was slick and perfect. I didn't think any of them had noticed me. I was staying just out of sight, misting where I had to in order to stay unnoticed. Mist, solid, didn't matter. I wasn't getting through to the other side. I'd have to wait for them to come out.

She said, in a voice as sweet and hard as petrified honey, "Give me the bottle, Lewis. I might just let you live."

He kept rubbing the bottle against the side of his leg, and I figured out what he was doing. It had a rubber stopper. He was slowly working it out, giving David a chance to escape. "Tempting." His voice cracked, and he swallowed hard and wet his lips. "Look, not that I don't think that as psychos go you're a really lovely woman, but the last thing I want to do is give you a Djinn. So I think you'd better think about-"

"Kill him," Yvette said.

The hand holding Kevin clenched, and I heard bone pop with a crunch like glass in plastic. Lewis yelled, stretched out his hand, and white fire flared from him to bathe Kevin as he was allowed to fall limp to the ground. Oh God. His neck, that sound had been the kid's neck breaking.

I didn't feel any release. Kevin wasn't dead. Lewis was keeping him alive, at least for the moment, but Lewis only looked a shade or two better than a corpse himself.

The Djinn who'd just killed Kevin-even if it was happening in slow motion-moved to the side, and I saw his face.

It was Jonathan. He looked blank, hard, as impenetrable as frosted glass. Nothing there of the humor or assurance I'd come to expect ... he was wiped clean. Made something else.

He'd been claimed.

Yvette came into view. She didn't look so fresh, either-bruised along the side of her face, hair disarranged. Her eyes had a werewolf shine, and she no longer was hiding behind that fragile pretty shell. She looked bone hard, tough, and ready to kill. Not that she'd had to get her French-manicured hands dirty. She'd used (oh God) Jonathan for that.

She was holding a small glass bottle in her hands, something all-purpose, cheap but sturdy. Jonathan's prison. I remembered David telling me that he'd never been claimed. What was it like, to be so powerful, so old, and have to submit to this? I could barely stand it, and I was just days old. For him, it must be like . . .

. . . rape, David had said. And it was. Just like that.

"Give it up," she said to Lewis. "Believe me, he's not worth it. He's a cheap, mean, arrogant little son of a bitch, and he'll never amount to anything. In fact, you'll probably be better off with him dead. Count on it."

He didn't listen, or if he listened, he didn't stop pouring energy into the boy.

I might have been the only one who noticed the rubber cap of the blue bottle in his hand fall out and bounce away into the shadows . . . but no, I saw something in Jonathan's eyes, a shift, a kind of blind focus. He knew.

David was out.

Lewis was panting now, slicked with sweat; he was pouring his life out to keep Kevin alive. And he couldn't possibly keep it up.

Yvette was moving toward him with that same hunting-tiger grace she'd used against David, and I wanted more than anything in my life to rip my way through this wall, drill diamond-hard claws into her heart and rip it out.

Lewis shifted his gaze and looked right at me. Fierce, utterly committed eyes. My throat went dry.

"Go fix the rift," he said. It looked like he was talking to me, but I knew he wasn't. It was a direct order, and it was given to a Djinn who'd just come out of a bottle and was still mist ... a Djinn whose bottle he held in his hand.

I felt David began to rise up through the aetheric. Leaving without me.

Yvette laid a hand on Lewis, and it was like watching a roach crawl across the face of the Mona Lisa.

He formed the word with his lips, silently, where she couldn't see. Still holding my eyes prisoner. Go.

He'd die if I left him. Hell, he'd probably die if I didn't leave him, but at least he wouldn't die alone, unwitnessed . . .

I felt the cord between myself and David stretch and grow thin under the strain.

Yvette's hand slid insinuatingly along Lewis's sweat-damp neck as he poured his concentration into keeping her last victim breathing.

Go.

Lewis didn't have my bottle. He couldn't command me. With Kevin all but dead, nobody else could, either.

I whispered, at a pitch I knew only he could hear, I love you.

And I shot up like a burning arrow into the aetheric, mourning.

* * *

I found David one level above the aetheric. No words. We melted, merged, our auras shifting and blending. I remembered what he'd told me once about making love as a gas, and felt a smile bloom sad and warm inside. Even in the disembodied state, he was as familiar to me as my human heartbeat had once been, and just as necessary.

Jo . . . A whisper through the empty spaces, a caress without skin or body or words. The purest form of love I had ever felt. I'm so sorry. I couldn't let you die, but I didn't want to die, either. And that's the only way to make a Djinn. Through sacrifice. I tried to cheat. This is what comes out of it.

He could feel the mourning in me, and the guilt, and the horrible weight of responsibility. His touch made it easier. Nothing could make it easy.

He was already moving again, rising, driven by the compulsion Lewis had placed on him to close the rift. So long as he was moving up, I knew Lewis was still alive. There was that, at least.

I went with him. The coldlight was almost solid now, energy made matter. The image came to me that it was antibodies, that we were the invaders here, and this excess of them meant the universe was sick, maybe dying.

Up. I don't know if there were other Djinn there, because all I could see was coldlight, a continuous blizzard of sparks surrounding us like a hot blue shell. I kept bleeding them off of David. They rolled harmlessly off of me.

Up.

We slowed and stopped, and although I couldn't see anything I knew we'd arrived. David's compulsion would have delivered us to the right place. When I stretched out my senses I could feel the rift, turning slowly like a slow-motion whirlpool as it sucked the coldlight from the demon reality into ours.

Get back, David said, and gently tried to push me away. I clung harder. Jo, you have to get back now. I need to do this alone.

"No." I didn't even know if I could do it, or how stupid an idea it was, but I formed flesh. I was surprised it was even possible here, in this place, but I took on weight and dimension and artificial life. No air to breathe, but that didn't matter, not for a short while; I could manufacture an atmosphere good enough to sustain me for a while, out of the same primal material I'd just formed my body from.

A hot sirocco of wind whipped through the nothingness, blowing back my straight black hair, whispering close over my skin.

Hands closed around my shoulders from behind. They slid up my neck and combed hair away from my skin, and I shivered at the kiss that burned right at the juncture of my neck and collarbone.

"Jo." His whisper was as rough and unsteady as his fingers. "I thought I'd never see you again. Not in any way that mattered."

I turned. David was back to my David, hair slightly too long for neatness, warm copper eyes, kissable lips. I wrapped my arms around him and held him. There was too much tension in his body, but it felt right. At last. The coldlight was a continuous white-noise hiss of blue against the bubble I'd formed around us, but it didn't matter just now. I wanted to stay in his embrace forever.

And I couldn't. I knew I couldn't. Too high a price for that.

He kissed me, gentle and slow and warm, and the taste of him nearly made me weep. He cupped my face in both hands, and as he pulled back his eyes were luminous with peace.

"It's okay," he said, and drew his thumbs over my lips in a caress that was as intimate as anything I'd ever felt. "Jonathan knew. One of us has to go. I've had my time."

"Wrong," I corrected him, and put all my strength into a shove that sent him stumbling backwards. "I'm giving you mine."

I dove straight at the whirlpool.

David's scream followed me in, but it was too late, too late to even wonder what the hell I was thinking, because I felt the darkness on the other side of the rift and with it, a visceral surge of panic, and knew this was going to hurt, badly.

And then I hit the paper-thin cut between the worlds, and stuck there with an impact that shredded me back into mist. Pieces of me began to be sucked away, through that rift, and I had to fight to hold on against the intense black pressure.

Where the pieces of me went through, the rift sealed.

Oh God.

I understood now. I understood why Jonathan had been so reluctant to send David to do this, because he'd known what had to be done. The only thing that could seal this thing was my blood, or David's, because we'd birthed this thing, like some distorted child.

I let go. Let go of everything-all the fear, the pain, the anguish, the guilt. I felt the cord back to David break with a high, thin singing sound like a snapped wire, and his presence vanished from my mind.

I was alone.

I let go and let the Void have me, as much of me as it needed to seal the hole between our two worlds. It was like bleeding to death-a slow, cold unraveling, a sense of being lost one drop at a time. There was pain, but the pain didn't matter.

What mattered was that I sensed the rift drawing together, healing.

The flow of coldlight at the rift slowed, stopped. It drifted in a sparkling blue weightless dance around me.

What was left of me.

I felt the rift seal shut with a kind of vacuum seal thump, and instantly the coldlight glowed white-hot around me, bright and brilliant as a million stars exploding, and faded off into darkness. It couldn't exist here without the rift, just as I couldn't exist without the umbilical to David.

There was not much left of me. Just enough to remember who I was, what I'd been. Faces in my memory, but I didn't know them anymore. It was all falling away.

Falling like snow into the dark.

The snow turned to light. Sunlight. I was standing in a meadow full of grass that was too green to be real, and there was a woman walking toward me through flame red flowers. Her white gown shifted in a wind that didn't stir the fields.

White hair like a cloud. Eyes the color of deepest amethyst. Beautiful and cool and peaceful.

"Sara." I didn't know where the name came from. "I'm dead, you know."

She reached out toward me. "No," she said, and caressed the satin of my hair. "No, my sweet. Not yet. There is a part of you that remains. Humans are like that."

I remembered a coal black hunger, ice-edged shadows. "Ifrit?" I whispered.

"You would be," she said. "But there is another way. And perhaps we owe that to you."

"We?"

When she pulled back, I saw she wasn't alone. There was a man with her, big and muscular, running a little to fat, with a Scandinavian-blond unruly shock of hair and eyes as blue as a Caribbean sea. I knew him, and didn't know him. He smiled at me, very slightly, and I saw pain in it. And courage.

"I've lived too long," Sara said. "I've stolen life from others. Patrick betrayed you to buy it for me. There is no honor in what I've become."

I didn't understand. The wind that rippled Sara's dress touched my face, combed cool fingers through my hair. It was gentle and beautiful and peaceful, and I knew it wanted to take me with it, into the dark.

"I did this for Patrick. I started the rift. What David did for you only accelerated it. Do you understand?"

I didn't. It was all falling away, sliding into the shadows.

"We do the worst things for love," she whispered. "So Jonathan was created. So David created you. So I created Patrick. And none of us should exist. The balance is gone."

If balance was required, I was restoring it. Going away . . .

"Stay," she said, and touched my face with those cool silver lips. "There is a gift only Patrick and I can give. One last gift, in return for what you have given us."

Words drifted up from the darkness inside of me. "What have I given you?"

Her smile was beautiful, and sad, and perfect. "A way to be together. And now I offer you the same, my love. Take it."

She opened her arms. I looked at Patrick. There were tears shining in his eyes, and he backed away. Afraid, after all.

I stepped into Sara's embrace.

"No," Patrick gulped, and turned back. He flung his arms around us both and hid his face in the pale lace of Sara's hair. "Both of us or nothing. As it always was."

Something wrapped hot around me, like clinging tar, and I thought, I should have said no, but then the pain dug deep and I screamed.

And screamed and screamed and screamed, until the universe exploded in a silent dark pop like a shattering of glass.

It didn't feel like a gift.

It felt like a betrayal.

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