Chapter Twenty-six


Security started directing people toward a gray door marked with a bomb shelter symbol; the crush got intense, quickly. I noticed that Martin hadn't joined the stampede. In fact, he stayed where he was, on top of the security desk, staring out at the street as rain started lashing the windows in thick, lightning-shot streaks.

More hail was crashing down. Cars had stopped moving out on the road, and drivers were abandoning their vehicles to run into any available cover. I felt power stirring, and knew what he was trying to do: cover the potential victims as they scrambled for shelter. I reached out and did what I could, which wasn't much; I was feeling weaker all the time, and the connection to David had shrunk to a tiny filament, sparkling silver but feeding me nothing but a trickle of power.

I felt the storm shift its attention, responding instinctively to the lash of power.

Oh boy, I thought. It was like being caught in the full glare of the biggest spotlight in the world. With a big target painted on your chest.

The storm lobbed a twenty-pound piece of ice sideways, into the windows.

"Down!" I screamed, and leaped. Djinn defiance of gravity let me carry the leap the last ten feet, and gave me enough momentum to impact hard against Martin Oliver and topple both of us back behind the desk, onto a bruising hard floor.

The window shattered with so much force that fragments flew past to embed themselves in the teakwood wall behind the desk. Some of them were bloody. I shoved Martin down when he tried to get up and risked sticking my head up. Wind was screaming through the jagged hole in the window. It instantly jerked my hair back straight as a flag.

There were at least twenty people down, some moving, some not. There was a lot of blood, more leaking out over the marble floor with every faltering heartbeat. The noncombatants, mostly UN staffers and delegates who'd gotten caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, screamed and jammed up against the exits. Marion was already heading toward the wounded against the tide of panic. As an Earth Warden, she'd be of a lot more use than anything I could do. Some of them could still be saved. She was the one to do it.

"Baldwin." The name snapped my head around, and I was blinded by my wind-whipped hair until I clawed it back and held it fisted in my left hand. Martin Oliver had gotten to his feet and was staring at me with intense, grave concentration. "Joanne Baldwin?"

I didn't have time for long explanations. "In the flesh." More or less, but it didn't seem the time to spill that particular bean. "Sorry about that, sir."

He rejected the apology with a sharp hand movement. "Can you do anything about that?"

He gestured out at the monster looming gray-green outside. It was firing off lightning bolts every few seconds, and thunder was a continuous subsonic rumble. What could I do about it? What had he been smoking? And then I remembered. I'd been told before that I had more power than Bad Bob Biringanine, who had once faced down a certain hurricane by the name of Andrew and killed it before it claimed even more lives. Not that I'd ever believed such a thing . . . and yet Martin Oliver, one bad-ass Weather Warden in his own right, was looking at me as if I was the hope of the world.

And I had to say, regretfully, "No, sir. Sorry."

Maybe in my human days-maybe-but not now, at the ragged end of my Djinn powers and enslaved to a ...

... I had an idea.

I held up a finger. "Be right back."

Now that I knew the coldlight wasn't damaging to me, I could travel fast. I rose up into the aetheric, was instantly smothered by a whirling hungry blizzard of the stuff, but I didn't need sight to feel where I was going, not in this case. Homing instinct.

I flew.

The glitter clung to me, built up like a thick snow coating, but I refused to let it slow me down. I didn't see or sense any other presences up on the aetheric, but if there were any, they'd have been blue snowmen like me, masked from contact. Any Djinn still trapped here were probably frozen solid-if not frozen dead. Damn.

I collided with something. Not anything solid- that wasn't possible, on the aetheric plane-but the pulling confusion was just as surprising and upsetting. I drifted, shook off as much coldlight as I could, and tried to see what it was that I'd hit. I had to wipe off sparkles like ice on a windshield, but I finally realized that I'd found a Djinn. Which one, I couldn't tell. It didn't matter.

I grabbed hold and towed it with me, fast, bucking the glitter headwind as fast as I could, and then falling, with a shocking sense of gravity, into . . .

. . . Patrick's apartment. It was just as I'd left it. Sedate, well furnished, kind of pallid in a Better Homes and Gardens kind of way.

Blood dried to a dull brown mat on the neutral carpet where Lewis had been taken down.

I looked over at the Djinn I'd brought with me as his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed in slow motion to the floor.

I'd brought Patrick home.

Even though there was no time, I couldn't leave him like this, with the coldlight eating its way through him like worms on speed. He was already screaming, skin bubbling and beginning to slough. I grabbed hold-tried not to think about the slick, greasy feel of his flesh-and called all of the coldlight to me. It spiraled eagerly, abandoning the feast and climbing my arms in a blue-white frenzy.

"Nice doggies," I murmured, and as soon as I was sure I had enough of them, I went across the room and shook them off in a flurry of disappointed critters. They dropped into the carpet like invisible fleas. They'd eventually make their way back to whatever victim was handy, but with any luck, Patrick would survive. At least as long as any of the rest of us would.

"Sara?" Patrick's eyes were open, blue and blind. His glasses were gone. I went back to him, got on my knees, and leaned over him. He slowly focused on me, and went pale. "Oh. You."

"Yeah. Nice of you to remember. By the way, this whole slavery thing . . . it's working out just great." I resisted the urge to punch him while he was down.

His gaze sharpened. "You're still alive."

"Surprised?"

That woke up a weak smile. "Pleased, actually. Help me up." He held out his hand. I stared at it for a second, then took it. Warm skin, as human and real as my own. Whether or not it was as human and real as an actual living person was something else entirely. Patrick heaved himself to his feet, staggered drunkenly and used me as a cane for a few seconds. "Ugh. I see you haven't changed your mind about the room."

"Yeah, well, I admit, the retro trashy look had its charms, but right at the moment I'm more concerned with saving some lives." I pointed up. Even inside of his apartment, I could hear the thunder and feel the electric snap of the lightning strikes. "Gotta go."

"Yes," he agreed. He looked at me very seriously for a few seconds. "Where is Sara?"

"At Jonathan's house."

He looked ill. "They'll destroy her."

"Actually, they've got bigger problems to worry about just now. Like me." I left him and moved around to the front of the couch.

Yep. There he was, my teen Nero-in-training, crashed out in a sprawl on the leather couch, mouth gaping to show poor dental hygiene. He was snoring.

Also smiling.

I leaned over and whispered, "Kevin? Wake up."

No response. Damn. I'd drawn on his own power to put him in this trance. Was it something I could snap him out of? I hadn't been thinking that far ahead, I had to admit. I reached out, grabbed, and shook him. His oily hair flopped back and forth, and he snorkled a breath. His eyelids fluttered.

Nothing.

"Kevin!" I screamed, and shook him again. "Damn, what do I have to do? Wake up!"

He mumbled something, smacked at me ineffectually with a clumsy hand, and tried to turn over.

I grabbed him and kissed him. After the first few slack seconds, I felt him kiss me back.

Ewwwwwwww. Not that boys his age were great kissers in general, but he had a lot to learn. No style points. I broke free before the wiggling worm of his tongue got too far into my mouth and shook him again, for emphasis.

His eyes were open, but cloudy. Cleaned up, he probably wouldn't be half bad, but the fact was he wasn't cleaned up, or even clean. The body odor alone made me think of places without running water or inside plumbing.

"Wha?" The word was garbled, but still semicoherent. I yanked him up by the grimy T-shirt to a sitting position. ". . . gone."

"Shut up and listen," I said. "I need your help."

". . . help?" He blinked slowly, like an owl. His pupils were way too large. "Why?"

"Philosophy some other time. Just repeat what I say. Got it?"

"Repeat."

"Very good." I resisted the urge to pat him on the head, mostly because I really didn't want to get greasy. "I order you to destroy the storm."

"Mmmm?" His eyes were glazing over. I pinched him hard enough to make a welt, and he yelped and cleared up. "What?"

"I order you to destroy the storm. Say it."

Oops. I'd woken him up too much. "Why?" The vague look was vanishing like snow under an Arizona summer sun. "You. You . . . you tricked me."

"Just say it."

"Or?" His jaw hardened as muscles clenched. He was willing himself awake, and all of the nice happy thoughts he'd been dreaming were slipping away. "You'll put me to sleep again?" I'd liked him better asleep. Who wouldn't? "No. I'm your, ah, master. You do what I say."

"Then tell me to destroy the storm."

His eyes narrowed behind the pretty, girl-length lashes. "Why should I? What's in it for me?"

"Oh, I don't know . . . survival? Can't you feel this?" But then I realized that of course he couldn't; for him, like for most people, the storm was just a storm. Bad, yes. A killer. But not sentient, not rabid and scenting fresh meat. Not alive. His talent was fire. "Shit. Please, Kevin. Do one decent thing in your life. I'm begging you. Let me do this."

He kept staring at me for a few seconds. My bottle was clenched in his fist, my soul in his control, and the lives of thousands hanging in the balance.

"Fine," he finally said. "Go destroy the damn storm."

I was almost out of there when he added, "And take me with you."

* * *

I materialized back in the lobby at the Secretariat tower to find it mostly deserted. Martin Oliver was still there; so were some of the security guards. Earth Wardens were shouting to each other over the steady shriek of wind, and a continuous silver curtain of rain was slicing in through broken windows. Everyone on the east side of the building was out, now. The storm had been continuing its grenade attack. The marble was a minefield of ice and glass shards, water, and blood.

Kevin was whooping in my ear. He liked aetheric travel a little too much, even with the smothering blanket of coldlight-ah, that's right, I remembered, he couldn't see it. None of them could.

"That is so cool!" he crowed, and did a spastic little dance on the slippery floor. He stopped, stared around. "Jeez. You weren't kidding."

"No," I said. I was boiling over with power now, rich red power that pulsed in time with my fast, adrenalized heartbeats. "Stay here." I walked over to the nearest broken window.

"Baldwin!" Martin Oliver yelled. I looked back at him and let my eyes flare silver. For the first time that I could remember, he looked outright surprised, but he recovered in seconds. "Be careful."

I raised a hand in thanks, or farewell, or whatever, and stepped out into the storm.

Different now than it had been, back in my just-plain-girl days. The storm was a delicate latticework of interconnecting forces, with the coldlight swarming around it like a bloodstream, feeding it, insulating it, holding it together. I didn't get a sense that the light itself was hostile-just mindlessly opportunistic. The storm was alive, therefore it was capable of being parasitized. Eventually, the coldlight would probably grow out of control and consume too much energy and start the chain reaction that would remove the threat-but I had no idea how long that would take. Too long, probably. No way could I count on it to happen in time.

I spread my arms and rose into the clouds, trailing blue sparks like a comet trail. Where I went, the cold-light flocked. The storm sensed me immediately, and recognized a threat; lightning began to stab through me, millions of volts of electricity attempting to explode every cell in my body. I bled the charge off, used it to draw in more coldlight. An ever-increasing spiral of blue, with me at the center.

Up, climbing the sheer gray tower of the anvil cloud. Up into the cold, the thin air, the mesosphere, where if the storm could be said to have a heart, the heart resided.

The storm responded by battering me with ice and more lightning. Plasma balls formed white-hot and flung themselves at me, but the command Kevin had given me was utterly straightforward and the power being pulled out of him was staggering. I just flicked the St. Elmo's fire away, bent lightning bolts at right angles, and reached for the vulnerable beating heart of the beast.

A scream stopped me. A piercing, panicked cry that went right through me like a sword thrust.

My master's voice. "Come back! Oh God, come back now! Right now!" Kevin sounded scared- worse than scared, horrified.

I could have gone, but I didn't have to. I had the choice, because I hadn't fulfilled the first command he'd given me; the two commands effectively canceled each other.

Free will. Go back and baby-sit Kevin, or kill this thing and save thousands-maybe tens of thousands . . .

I didn't think there was a choice. I ignored the screaming-even though it continued, sawing right through me, body and soul-and focused on the storm instead.

I reached in and grabbed the core process that was at the center of the giant. It wasn't much, really; some overexcited molecules, a pattern of reflecting and replicating waveforms that perfectly reinforced each other. The tough part wasn't disrupting it, it was finding it and reaching it.

The Wardens couldn't see it, because it was built out of nothing but coldlight.

I reached in and took hold of it, drew the sparks to me, and consumed them the way they consumed others. We are all born from death. Patrick had told me that. I hadn't realized he'd meant it literally.

The winds continued to blow, but the waveforms fragmented and began to cancel each other instead of resonating. Clouds began to break apart instead of pull inward. Temperatures began to cool here, warm there, chaos theory taking over.

It would storm for a while, but it was just another freak weather story now, one of those things that would play on CNN and the Weather Channel for the next few days, and be forgotten by everybody except a few cab drivers and weather conspiracy nuts who believed the CIA was behind it all. Rain, hail, lightning. The usual stuff.

I let the power of it soak into me, reviving me, and then slowly drifted back down toward the UN Building. It was hard to see through the swirling, choking mass of coldlight that was being pulled toward me but I could see the place needed about a hundred new windows. The people weren't so lucky. As I folded back into flesh, blood, bone, and all the necessary fabric accessories, I saw that there were still a lot of people down on a floor that was awash with inches of rainwater. There had been blood, but it had been diluted and flushed by the storm; now that the rain was abating, some of the wounded were leaking red puddles.

Some, more ominously, were not.

I completed the transformation back into human form, felt my hair fall silky and straight over my shoulders, and for the first time thought, I have it right. Finally.

And then I realized what I was looking at. I'd left Marion, Martin Oliver, and a few other Wardens tending to the wounded, trying to get them to safety . . . and there was nobody moving now.

Instead, there were more bodies.

I skidded to a stop next to a crumpled form in rain-soaked brown suede. Marion's hair looked dark and thin, pounded by the storm's violence; she was still and quiet and pale. I checked her pulse and found her heart beating, though slowly. Martin Oliver was down, too, all his grace and fearless strength stripped away. His shirt was soaked through pink, and underneath there was a raw, four-inch-long tear through his sternum. Glass. He'd been skewered.

He didn't have a pulse at all. Just a vast, echoing silence.

I looked up as lightning flashed white, smelled hot ozone and cooling blood, and realized that someone was missing, someone I'd left behind.

Kevin.

I misted and felt that gravitational tug, down and to the left-he was still in the UN Building, but somewhere at least a level below. I sank through concrete, steel, cold empty space, more concrete and steel . . .

... to a hallway that lit up in Oversight like Broadway. Lots of power rattling around in here, wild and barely contained; the place was a blizzard of sparkles. The barely felt tug of Kevin's presence led me down through the deserted corridor, around a corner, and I saw a sudden flare of auras ahead, so bright they even punched through the curtain of glitter. I pulled back, still in mist form, and tried to get a sense of where I was and what was going on.

Kevin was definitely up ahead. So was Lewis. I couldn't tell if Jonathan was there or not, Djinn auras were all over the place, like wildfire . . .

Where the hell was I? I slowly misted forward again, found a convenient recessed doorway, and came down into skin to take a look.

At the end of the hall was a huge shiny door, like the kind you see in the movies when there's something really cool to steal. It was standing half-open.

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