Another pulse of power, this one longer. A couple of answering spurts of gold, weaker and briefer.
“Where am I going?” Cherise asked. She was yelling again, with that edge to her voice that meant she’d asked the question at least once or twice already. “Yo! Jo! Out of the coma already!”
I blinked and dropped down enough to study the real world. Not that there was a lot to study. We’d turned off the main road onto a smaller two-lane blacktop, and apart from the hard, relentless shimmer of the rain and the floating hot gold of the road stripe, we might as well have been pioneering intergalactic travel. Nothing out here. Nothing with lights, anyway.
The Mustang growled up a long hill and, in the distance, I saw a flash of something that might have been lightning.
“There!” I pointed at the afterburn. “See them?”
Cars. Two cars, driving fast. Not as fast as we were, but then, not many people would even think of trying it, especially in the rain. Cherise nodded and concentrated on holding the Mustang on the wet road as it snaked and turned. In the backwash of the headlights, I could see the flapping green shadows of thick foliage and nodding, wind-whipped trees.
Jeez, I hoped there weren’t any ’gators on the road.
We took a turn too fast but Cherise held it, in defiance of the laws of physics and gravity, and powered out to put us just about five car lengths behind the other two drivers. They were side by side, matching speeds—or, at least, the big black SUV was matching speeds and trying like hell to drive the smaller Jeep off the road. Every time it tried, it hit some kind of cushion and was shoved back.
No grinding of metal.
“Lewis,” I said. Lewis was in the Jeep. I couldn’t see or feel him, but he was the only one I could think of to be able to pull off that kind of thing while on the move and driving. Driving pretty damn well, too. He wasn’t Cherise, but he was staying on the road, even at seventy miles per hour.
“What now?” Cherise asked. I didn’t know. The SUV gleamed in our headlights like a wet black bug, nearly twice as large as the Jeep it was threatening. There were Wardens in there. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t just go into a straight-up fight—lives at risk, and maybe they were innocent lives, at that.
Not to mention that the chaos swirling around us hardly needed another push.
I was coming to the conclusion that there wasn’t a hell of a lot I could do until the two cars ahead of us resolved their dispute, one way or another, when I felt a surge of power and suddenly there was a presence in the backseat, moving at the corner of my eye, and two hands came down on my shoulders from behind and clamped down hard, holding me in place.
Diamond-sharp talons dressed up as sparkling neon fingernails pricked me in warning.
“Hold on!” Rahel yelled, and it all happened really, really fast.
The Jeep’s flare of brakes.
A blur of green. I couldn’t even see what it was, but it came out of the underbrush on the left-hand side; suddenly the SUV was lifting, soaring up engine-first into the air as if it had been shot out of a cannon, corkscrewing—
“Shit!” Cherise yelped, and hit the gas hard. The Mustang screamed on wet pavement and whipped around the Jeep. I felt the shadow pass over us and looked up to see the shiny black roof of the SUV tumble lazily across the sky, close enough to reach up and touch, and then the back bumper hit the road behind us with a world-shaking crunch.
When it stopped rolling, it was a featureless tangle of metal.
Cherise braked, too hard, fishtailed the Mustang to a barely on-the-road stop, and Rahel’s hands came away from my shoulders. It felt like there’d be bruises, later. I unbuckled my seat belt with shaking fingers and bailed out of the car to run back toward the wreckage.
I was halfway there, pelted by the cold rain, when the wreck blew apart in a fireball that knocked me flat and rolled me for ten painful feet. When I turned my head and got wet hair out of my eyes, I expected to see a Hollywood-style bonfire.
No. There was nothing much left to burn. Pieces of the SUV rained all over a hundred-foot area. A shredded tire smacked the pavement next to my outstretched hand, hot enough that I could feel its warmth; it was melted in places and sizzling in the rain.
Three people were standing in the road where the wreckage of the SUV had been.
No—I corrected myself. Two people, one Djinn. I could see the flare of his yellow eyes even at this distance.
There was a heat shimmer coming off the other two, both in the real world and in the aetheric, that made me shiver in a sudden flood of memories. They were still wearing skin, but Shirl and the other Warden with her were just shells for something else. Something worse.
I remembered the feeling of the Demon Mark hatching under my skin, and had to control an impulse to run. They’re after Lewis. They’d be irresistibly drawn to power that way.
I hadn’t come to fight Lewis’s battles for him. I needed a Djinn, and Shirl had one. Clearly, she’d kept the bottle on her, and it remained miraculously unbroken. Yep, all I had to do now was fight two Wardens with Demon Marks, liberate a Djinn, avoid explaining any of it to Lewis, and…
… and not die.
I hadn’t had any doubt that it was Lewis driving the Jeep, but I’d forgotten about Kevin; the kid exited the passenger door and ran to my side. He reached down to pull me up to a sitting position.
“Shit, you’re alive,” he said. He sounded surprised.
“Sorry about that. I’ll try to do better next time.”
Since I was getting up anyway, he gave me a strong yank and steadied me when I went a little soft on the upright part of standing. He didn’t say anything else.
His eyes were on the three facing us—or, actually, facing the Jeep.
Lewis stepped out of the driver’s side, closed the door, and sent a quick glance toward me and Kevin. “Get them out of here,” he said to Kevin. “Take the Mustang.”
“I’m not going,” I said. Lewis gave me the look, but he really didn’t have time to argue because right then, the yellow-eyed Djinn came at him.
He wasn’t fast enough to beat Rahel. The two met in midair, snarling and cutting at each other, and I felt the aetheric boiling and burning with the force of it.
The Djinn was trying to move the Jeep, roll it over on Lewis. Lewis didn’t move.
Neither did the Jeep.
“If you’re staying,” Lewis said, “do me a favor and hang on to my truck a minute.”
He sounded utterly normal, like this was all in a day’s work for him. Hell, maybe it was. Lewis’s life was probably a lot more unexpected than mine. I didn’t understand what he was saying for a second, and then I felt him shift his attention, and the Jeep started to shiver.
I hardened the air around it, holding it in place, as Lewis walked forward to within ten feet of where the other two Wardens were standing. Shirl—punk-ass Shirl, with her black goth clothes and bad attitude—was looking pretty rough these days. Lank, greasy hair; dark shadows around her eyes that weren’t so much affectation as exhaustion. Her skin was an unhealthy shade of pale, so thin I could see blue veins under her skin. The shimmer in her eyes was full of pain and rage and something else, something inhuman.
“Lewis,” I warned. He stopped me with an outstretched hand. He knew the danger of Demon Marks as well as I did, maybe better. The thing inside Shirl would do anything to get into him, to have access to that huge lake of power.
“I can help you,” he said to her. “Let me help you.”