Chapter Twenty-three

"This is Joanne," he said, and pointed a thumb in my direction.

A tanned, fit-looking guy in what looked like a hand-tailored suit and iron gray tie looked me over with eyes of a pure, unsettling teal color. "She doesn't belong here."

"Yeah, tell me about it," Jonathan said, but in a tone that didn't invite anyone to actually try. "Right. Here's the thing. We're what's left."

A short, pregnant silence. "What?" someone in the back ventured, looking around. Adding up numbers. "So few?"

"So many lost?" An alarmed, high-pitched voice from up front, I didn't see who. "Impossible!"

"I didn't say they were lost. I know right where they are," Jonathan said. "Just can't get to them right now. Most are in their bottles, waiting it out. Some . . . some got trapped on the aetheric. Some can't hold themselves together anymore because of the-what'd you call it?" He turned to me.

"Coldlight. Sparklies. Fairy dust."

"Right. That stuff." He looked back at the audience, face bland and notably free of panic. "Which is coming out of the rift."

Gray Suit said, "Then someone must go up and close the rift."

If the previous silence had been pregnant, this one was stillborn. They all looked at each other. Jonathan waited. I finally raised my hand, very slowly. "Um . . . can I say something?"

He looked over his shoulder at me, did a double take, and half turned my way. "I don't know, can you?"

Great. A grammar teacher, on top of everything else. "Sorry. May I?"

"Sure."

"Lewis sent me to seal the rift. I tried, but it didn't hold."

Nobody spoke, but a ripple went through the room, like an electric charge rolling between contact points. Polarizing. Jonathan broke the silence in a deliberately soft voice. "You tried? Great. Amateur hour. Lewis should have known better. Probably made things a hundred times worse."

"He tried to get some of you to help," I shot back. "But I understand you had a gut shortage around here that day."

Yeah, that wasn't smart, but I was tired and cranky and Jonathan was pissing me off, what with all the sarcasm. The room seemed to shudder with disapproval.

Surprisingly, Jonathan didn't seem to take offense. He swept me from head to toe, giving me a new appraisal.

"That the new you?" he asked.

"Old me," I said. "Getting sick of being politically correct."

"I like it. Now shut up." He turned back to the assembled Djinn, who were agitated enough that I was surprised we didn't have spontaneous firestarting. "The ones who are trapped out on the aetheric are in trouble. The ones who can't hold themselves together anymore may be dead. We need to do this fast, do it well, and then make sure the Wardens don't screw it up even worse than they usually do."

"Which means what, exactly?" Gray Suit again.

"That we clean up after them, as we always do? Let the humans stand responsible for their crimes. Let them clear the aetheric."

He wasn't much impressed by Jonathan, which I thought was interesting, given the extreme respect the rest of them seemed to accord him. Gray Suit had a pale complexion, sharp hatchet-faced bones, and gave off a sense of ruthless energy. I'd still put my money on Jonathan, if it came to a showdown, but I wouldn't have given generous odds, either.

"Yeah. We'll just hang out here, watching our own people die. That's a hell of a plan, Ashan. Right up there with your best." He punctuated it with a friendly I have an idea! gesture. "Tell you what. You go out and tell them we're going to let them die."

"More of us die if we go out there," Ashan said without blinking. He had the no-blinking thing down. "But then you seem not to worry about that. Since you, of course, never leave the safety of your nest."

Silence. Most of the Djinn were studying Jonathan. Jonathan stared at Ashan.

"Um ..." I tried to make it sound deferential, but I wasn't sure I succeeded. "Shouldn't we find out who opened the rip in the first place?" Jonathan fixed me with a look dire enough to qualify as neurosur-gery without anesthetic. Naturally, it didn't stop me. "Well, isn't it a good question? I mean, somebody ripped it open. Somebody with a lot of power and not enough conscience. Was it a Djinn?"

"What part of shut up was unclear to you?"

I returned the stare, full force. Since last he'd intimidated me, I'd had the hard-core lesson in How To Be A Djinn, and the whole god-of-your-new-existence routine wasn't going to cut it anymore. "Answer the question. Was it a Djinn who did it?"

"Oh, we are so going to talk about this later," he said.

"I'll take that as a yes. I'm just going on magical theory, here . . ." Because unlike the Djinn, I'd actually had class time learning about all of the physics of the stuff, the rules, and the various consequences. "... but it seems to me that whoever ripped it open would have a pretty good idea of how to close it. Since he must have known what he was doing. I mean, the thing was pretty well camouflaged when I got there. Discreet, you know?"

I had him. He blinked.

"Or was that stating the obvious?" I asked, and tilted my head to the side.

Neurosurgery. Without anesthetic. With a dull butter knife.

"We can't ask the one who opened it," he said.

"Because?"

The argument had taken on a tennis-match quality. The room full of Djinn was just watching us, shifting from one to the other, eyes avid. Rooting against me, no doubt. I didn't care. There was only one opponent who mattered.

"Because he's not here." Jonathan's fierce eyes were absolutely fiery. "Drop it already."

I might have been slow on the uptake, but I finally got it. David. I know it registered on my face, because I felt it like an earthquake inside. David opened the rift...

"Why?" I whispered. "Why in God's name would he . . ."

Jonathan gave me a pitying look, like I was the stupidest creature in the universe. Which, at that moment, I supposed I was. "For love," he said. "Why else?"

David had opened the rift when he'd made me a Djinn. You've broken laws. Rahel had said that, and I hadn't listened. Jonathan himself had tried to tell me how serious it was, what we'd done.

David had opened the rift, and drawn on something on the other side when he brought me back to life.

It was our fault the Djinn were dying.

Three

Nobody had much to say, after Jonathan made it clear the tennis match was over and the subject was closed. Neither of us had come right out and said what we were thinking, which was good; I wasn't sure I wanted all of these extremely powerful and extremely arrogant creatures to take offense at me. Especially not Ashan, who looked like he could bore a hole in titanium with a sideways glance. There was already an overload of mumbling and fiercely predatory looks toward me. I wished Rahel would show up; she was at least marginally congenial to me. Even Patrick would be welcome right about now, and not because I wanted to body-slam him into the wall; he'd been through this process before me, and survived it. The world had survived. The Djinn had survived. I needed to find out how, and I was pretty sure I couldn't.

My fault. This is my fault. I couldn't keep it from running through my head. Why hadn't David told me? Why had he never even let on? Had he even known?

Of course he knew. It occurred to me, late and cruelly, that the reason Jonathan had kept him here had been to try to find a way to close the rift without killing him, or me. I'd thought it was a punishment, but it had been Jonathan's way of trying save us both. He and David had been working on a way to stop it.

Oh, God. I'd misunderstood so much.

Something changed in the room, a kind of stillness. Jonathan waved people away from the center space, turned, and glanced at me. Apparently, I was the only one who didn't get it. "Incoming," he said.

Rahel materialized in the space left open.

She was covered in roiling blue specks. Djinn shouted and stampeded backwards as the sparks began to fly up and out, looking for other hosts; Jonathan moved forward.

Before he got there, Rahel's yellow eyes went blank, and she collapsed in slow motion down to the rug. She was closest to me; I didn't think, I just reached down for her.

My hands sank into her, wrist deep. Not that she was misted-that would have been better, oh God, far better. No, what I sunk into was flesh the consistency of warm butter, bathed in blood and melting muscle. I hit the relative hardness of bone but it was melting, too, dissolving like wax in the sun.

She was trying to say something to me. Her lips were whispering, anyway. I yanked my hands back, trembling, and stared at the smeared warm mess clinging to my skin. Her open eyes flared from a violent storm-black to a pallid blue, shifting colors like a wildly spinning prism.

"Joanne!" Jonathan snapped. He dropped to his knees next to her, extended one hand over her body, and reached out to me with the other. "Get your ass back. She's contaminated."

I could see the energy spilling out of his outstretched hand, golden white and so intense that it seemed to warp space around it. Pure life energy, keyed to the magic of the earth. Healing energy. David had said that Jonathan was the strongest of the Djinn; I hadn't quite believed it, until now. He was doing this even here, cut off from everything . . . That was the legacy of his birth, his connection to the Mother. Of all the Djinn, he was the only one with power of his own.

And it didn't matter. The damage just kept getting worse-flesh slipping from muscle, muscle dissolving to mush. The soft-focus gleam of bone beneath.

She cried out, once, and I felt her agony vibrating through the aetheric. I forced myself to look at her in Oversight; she was crawling with those blue specks, and they were alive, moving, eating.

She was being devoured. But they'd been all over me, all over David, they hadn't hurt us, God, what the hell . . .

"Stop it," Ashan said. His voice was raw, colorless. "It's done. You can't save her."

Jonathan ignored him, ignored everything. He was focused on Rahel, fiercely intense, and the power flowing out of him just kept increasing. I felt it like a pressure against my skin, saw others shying away from it.

Rahel's skin continued to slough away, revealing soft wet masses of tissue. The skin misted as it fell away. Slowly, layer by layer, the muscle began to peel back as well. Jonathan kept trying, uselessly and furiously, to keep her together.

"Stop," I said, feeling the words turn in my throat like razors. "Please. He's right, you're just making it worse. Let go."

His face was pallid and damp with strain, and his eyes were glittering with frustration, but he released the energy and dropped his hand back to his side. He didn't move, though. I don't even know if he could move, by then. I felt the energy flow shut down and watched as Rahel's body melted away into a fetid, oily mist.

Gone.

She was still screaming when she vanished.

"Is she dead?" I blurted. Nobody answered. I don't think they could. I had a cold flash of certainty that it was worse than that, far worse, out there on the aetheric. It was a horrible way to go. No wonder Jonathan had shut Ashan down so hard on the very idea of just letting Djinn stay trapped there. It was unforgivable.

What about David? I closed my eyes and reached for that silver link between us. It was faint and thin, but it was there. Unbroken.

Blue specks crawled up my arms.

"Joanne!" Jonathan's voice again, too loud, ringing inside my head. I blinked away blue sparks to stare up at him. "Shit. I told you to stay back!"

Funny that this didn't hurt. It had hurt Rahel, I'd felt it shaking the fabric of the world, it hurt her so much. I could still feel her agony resonating in waves across the room.

Jonathan reached out for me, but I just stepped away. Instinct, I guess.

Because it didn't hurt.

I opened my eyes again and saw the most amazing thing.

Sparks. Blue swarmed out of the air, onto my skin, and vanished. The things that had eaten Rahel couldn't hurt me.

Jonathan stopped, staring at me. I sighed, watched the last of the coldlight sizzle into emptiness, and wondered what had him looking so pale and confused.

"I'm okay," I said. I thought he was worried about me.

Pallor faded to stretched white on his face and clenched fists. His eyes looked dark and blind.

"Jonathan?"

"Little trouble here," he said.

I extended a hand toward him . . .

. . . and he lit up like a Christmas tree with crawling blue light. Oh God! The other Djinn backed away, viscerally terrified, as he wavered and fell backwards against a wall. Closed his eyes. "Shit," he said. "Guess I'm not immune after all."

Instinct. I grabbed for him as he started to slide down.

The sparks whirled out, climbed my arms, circled me in a storm of blue. Rahel's grisly dissolution ran red in front of my eyes, and I swore I wasn't going to let that happen, not to him, not now . . .

I sucked the sparks in, laid them thick on my skin, and consciously opened myself to them. I opened my squeezed-shut eyes and watched the light show as the sparkles glittered, peaceful and serene on my skin, then faded out into nothing.

I'm made of this. That was why they couldn't hurt me. I was just taking in more of what had formed me in the first place.

Jonathan sat where he was, watching, too. His dark eyes shifted to meet mine.

"Thanks," he said.

I nodded. "Favor for a favor. We need to get David back. Now."

"I know," he said. He sounded tired. "You look like hell."

"Funny, I don't feel . . ." Oh. Yes I did, actually. There went gravity again, twisting all out of shape. This time, I didn't mistake it for coldlight or anything but what it was: somebody trying to call me. That fishhook sensation pulled at me, painful and undeniable. Not Jonathan, this time. And this wasn't a call to safety, either.

Jonathan held on to me while I fought the pull. I felt his will settle over me like a soft, smothering blanket, and the summoning pull was lost in the weight.

"Tired," I whispered. He already knew that. He was lifting me again in his arms as all the other Djinn murmured to each other, as Ashan stared at me with those cold blue-green eyes.

Back to the bedroom.

The soft feather pillow.

The frosted-coal shadow of the Ifrit, watching.

I slept.

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