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CHAPTER 9

She could tell she screamed because the tang of copper tainted her throat, and with it came the raw, red feeling of too much force. Her ears, though, rang with a profundity that outweighed any hope of hearing her own voice. She knew her eyes were open because she touched them, felt the lashes parted and the sting of salt and minute dirt from her fingertips against their orbs. Fingertip pressure, as light as it was, sent bloody waves through the snow-blinding whiteness that had become her vision. She closed her eyes, instinct whispering that the comfort of expected darkness was better than the wide-eyed blindness. Red overwhelmed white, but reassuring black lay out of her reach.

Her chest heaved, telling her she still breathed as the brackish black taste of smoke began to overwhelm the flavor of blood at the back of her throat. Margrit coughed, then doubled over with her arms wrapped around her ribs. Didnt double over: curled on her side fetally, the scrape of concrete against her cheek advising her more about her position than intellect could. That made no sense, but she couldnt rewind her thoughts far enough to understand what was happening. A wall rose up every time she did, concussive force of light slamming into her and ripping coherency away. She opened her eyes again, as if doing so would force comprehension. Stars spun in her vision, then began to clear away in orange whorls of dust and grit. Daisanis gift, she thought, rather than human adaptability kicking in.

She pushed to her feet awkwardly, aches fading from her bones, but dizziness still swept her as the song in her ears rang louder. A clear thought cut through the sound: she had been in the city when the towers fell. The noise had been overwhelming, and then entirely gone, eerie silence broken only by crying voices and the wail of emergency vehicles struggling through the broken city. She could not remember head-pounding tinnitus accompanying, or following, the attacks.

Attacks.

Only then did the chaos around her resolve into something that made sense, insofar as an all-out fight in a warehouse could make sense. Smoke and dust billowed around her, making ghostly shapes in sunlight that shouldnt spill through the warehouse the way it did. The better part of a wall was missing, light filtering gold and blue through the grime in the air.

Those welcoming colors fought a losing skirmish against the more dangerous shades of red and yellow as flames began to eat the warehouses sides and reach toward its roof. People rushed to escape, bumping past Margrit. She jolted with each contact, stumbling, but never moving far from where she stood.

They were all human, the ones who ran. To see that so clearly tore a sound from her chest, so deep it bordered on a sob. They were human, sharing Margrits earthbound, compact grace, and within seconds they were gone, abandoning the warehouse for the safety of the streets.

But innumerable people remained, a whole line of men and women, a line of selkies, advancing on the smoking, swirling chaos. Margrit lifted her eyes, looking past the line of warriors to the blown-out wall.

A man walked through its remains, preacher-collared shirt and Chinese-cut silk pants making the line of him tall and slim. He pulled sunshine with him, its glint playing in auburn hair and its shadow darkening his eyes past jade into blackness. He laced his hands together in front of him, looking about the chaos of Caras warehouse with a mild, curious smile.

Janx. Margrit whispered his name out of compulsion, as though voicing it was the only way she could keep herself from stepping toward him. He could not possibly hear her, not over the distance, not through the sound she imagined must be roaring through the ruined warehouse. Could not possibly, and yet an eyebrow lifted sharply and he turned his gaze from examining the warehouse to unerringly find Margrit.

For the briefest moment, she thought she saw surprise, and then regret, cross the dragonlords face.

Then for the second time in a matter of seconds, an impossible concussive force slammed through the warehouse, taking all the air with it as Janx transformed.

Margrit kept her feet by dint of distance, not willpower, but lost her breath as much through awe as the massive implosion of air as Janxs mass shifted from a man to a monster, vastly larger than hed been an instant before. She hadnt seen him transform before: when he and Alban and Malik had fought, shed been literally knocked aside by the process, too close to observe. Only close enough to be empirically affected, and terrified witless. Her heart hammered now, and her breath came quick, but the raw mindless fear shed felt when shed watched Alban and Janx fight seemed weaker. Watching Janx now was less shocking, though no less impressive.

As a vampire, Daisani moved impossibly quickly. Janx, too, was terribly fast, but his movements had the sense of a vast attention being moved from one place to another, rather than Daisanis blurring speed. His transformation was like that, too: it seemed to Margrit that shed simply been unable to see him properly before, and that his shift from man to dragon threw off the illusion that shed been tricked by. It was as though he always carried his weight with him, and the blast force of transformation was the dropping of a cloak. Albans change to and from his gargoyle form was so modest in comparison as to be a different process entirely.

Janx had filled the office he kept in the House of Cards, seeming to take the very air from the room even in his human shape. But as a dragon hed wound and twisted through it, nearly an oroborus out of necessity. In the unconstrained open floor of Caras warehouse, he stretched sinuously, making himself long and dangerous. He was the color of burnished flame in the sunlight, deep red and glittering with silvery whiskers that floated about his face with the capricity of Einsteins hair. Short, powerful legs that ended in gold-tipped talons scraped gouges into the floor as he wriggled himself and leapt forward, crashing into the line of advancing selkies with catlike glee.

The selkies scattered, moving with the beautiful, flowing poise of creatures born to water. Janx whipped his head around, long muzzle turning to a gaping maw, and spit fire after them. The roar of heat and sound came up from below the ringing in Margrits ears and reintroduced hearing, something she wasnt certain she was grateful for. Hands clutched against her head, she stared wide-eyed as Janx lifted his wings. They were long and slender and spiny, and buffeted flame into swirls, sending it after the selkies. As quick as the flame itself, Janx twitched around for a second attack, exhaling fire at the walls. Destructive heat made girders squeal in protest and turned sheeted metal into puddles of silver.

The selkie army came back together, making a target of themselves without faltering in their advance. Janx, to Margrits startlement, fell back a step, swinging his head to bowl the nearest handful of warriors over. Flame rumbled after them, but its bulk was concentrated on the pallets and boxes that made up the warehouses contents.

Astonishment pulled a crackling sound of disbelief from Margrits lungs. When shed put the question to a quorum of Old Races elders, only Janx had sided with her in supporting the idea that killing another of the Old Races no longer be an exiling offense. She didnt believe that a fear of exile stayed the dragons hand now, but despite his visible advantages over the selkie fighters, he shied away from killing.

Honor among thieves. Margrit had argued extensively with Alban over the dragonlords code, but now, watching him, knew she was right. Janx had his own honor, and it stretched so far as to bow to the laws laid down by the Old Races.

A fresh gout of flame blossomed, heat sizzling across the warehouse. Margrit finally shook herself into movement, backing away and stepping through rubble. A thought caught up with her and she turned, squinting through the smoke and heat in search of Chelsea. She, like the other humans, had to have run: there was no sign of her in the chaos. As there should be no sign of Margrit, she realized, and took a breath of overheated air that she hoped would hold her to the streets comparative safety.

Cool, ash-free air splashed across her face, making her inhale again, sharply, her relief at finding a source of clean air stronger than the confusion as to its source. It whipped around her, gaining speed and direction, then plunged forward to attack Janx as he wound across the warehouse floor between burning pallets and unmanned forklifts.

The wind ripped the next breath of flame away from him, increasing its size for the merest moment, then tearing it apart and sending it into nothingness. Margrit gaped and started forward, but the gales pushed her back again. Selkies slid across the floor, as well, shoved away from Janx by the ferocity of an element with its own mind. Smoke and grit, caught by the wind, formed a vortex, shrieking with speed and tearing fragments of material free around the warehouse. Janx clamped his wings against his sides, hissing as he backed away from the attacking wind. Rubble snapped and broke beneath his weight, the pieces snatched up by the tornado as it pressed toward him.

A wall stopped his retreat and the winds assault screamed victory. It tilted on its axis as if it were a living thing with intent, an impossible whir of debris and air angling itself to encompass the dragon entirely.

It was a living thing, Margrit realized abruptly. Janx seemed to realize it at the same moment, letting go a bellow of fear-tainted rage. The wind sucked the sound away, whipping around Janxs head with deadly aim. He slithered farther back, rising onto his hind legs like a cat trapped in a corner, and the shrieking wind followed him. It was too late to transform: the tornado would only snatch up his human form and tear it apart. Margrit vibrated with indecision, too fragile herself to charge into the vortex and rescue the dragon.

The selkies gathered together again, picking their way around torn-up flooring and overturned heavy equipment. The youth whod spoken upstairs stood at their head, watching without expression as the wind tore and ripped at Janx. He staggered under its onslaught, breathlessness beginning to take its toll. Margrit ran forward, putting herself amidst the selkies, and caught the youths shoulder. You have to do something!

He looked disdainful. Janx attacked us. This is the cost.

You condone murder to protect your work? Margrit flung the accusation, but turned away before it hit home, recognizing implacability in his eyes. She couldnt disrupt the whirlwind on her own, even with Daisanis gift of healing in her blood. She was too small, too delicate, but there had to be something that wasnt, something she could move.

Her shrill laugh sounded as though it belonged to someone else as she found what she sought, intellect finally catching up to her panicked thoughts.

A handful of seconds later she rode a forklift across the devastated warehouse floor, waving frantically at Janx and bellowing, Down! Down! Get down! at the backed-up dragon. Whether he heard her or whether the wind stealing his air had done its job well enough, he slithered down the wall as Margrit crashed the machine into the wall, literally around him. She had enough time to be startled that his sinuous form was slim enough to fit between the lifts teeth. Then the screaming vortex lost its strength, disrupted by the forklift in its midst and unable to lift its weight.

Like rain pattering around her, bruised and angry djinn fell from their howling whirlwind, and gathered around Margrit in a cloud of fury.

There were more than had been gathered upstairs, all men. Most of them wore human clothing, but two were dressed as Malik had been at Daisanis ball: flowing robes in the colors of sky and desert and blood, Middle Eastern in flavor but somehow distinctly not human in style. A touch more wing to the shoulders or a flow to the line of sleeve; it drew the eye and made it slide away again, as if the edges of cloth were woven with wind, not silk or linen.

Tariq wasnt among them. Margrit couldnt lift her gaze to search the warehouse for him, fear holding her in place. Her hands were knotted around the forklifts controls so tightly her fingers cramped. She hadnt thought through what to do next: keeping Janx alive had been an endgame, not just one more move on the board.

The need to act further disappeared beneath a peculiarly familiar rasp, and for a distant, bewildered moment it occurred to Margrit that a woman of the twenty-first century shouldnt so clearly recognize the sound of a sword clearing its scabbard. Maybe enough movies had ground the soft scrape of metal against leather into her mind; whatever it was, she had no doubt of it, and jerked her eyes to find a scimitar drawn and held by a pinch-faced man who looked as though he not only knew how to use the blade, but was eager to do so. She hadnt even seen that any of them were carrying weapons, and now stared down a curved length of metal with the vivid awareness that it was probably the last thing shed ever do.

I would not, if I were you. Janxs voice cut through the sound of air imploding around him as he shifted back into his human form. The djinn nearest him turned away from Margrit, baring teeth. Janx ignored him with aplomb, addressing the group at large. Enough of you may defeat me, he went on blithely. But Margrit Knight belongs to Eliseo Daisani, and a vampire has no natural enemies among the living Old Races. I would not, if I were you.

The irrational, absurd urge to protest at the phrase belongs to Daisani bubbled up in Margrit. She did not belong to Daisani. Shed thrown Janxs possessive touch off and challenged him on that very front more than once, unexpectedly earning his respect by doing so. The idea was offensive on a fundamental level.

Being dead would be much worse. Margrit bit her tongue and fought off hysterical laughter. She still couldnt uncramp her fingers from the forklifts controls.

You took Daisanis woman from him only a few months ago, yet you live. The sword-bearing djinn threw the words in Janxs face. Janx smiled, genuine merriment in his jade eyes.

Yes, but Eliseo likes me. Margrit couldnt tell which of the last two words he put more emphasis on: they were both spoken with precise, delightful clarity that rolled over into unmistakable warning. The sword carriers jaw tightened, but his sword wavered, and Margrit found herself suddenly able to open her fingers again.

I hear sirens. Her tongue loosened with her hands and Janx turned a cat-eyed look of slow amusement on her.

Implying that we all must run and hide all evidence connecting us to the scene of the crime. My dear Margrit Knight, how the mighty have fallen. He offered his hand. Will you join me? I think we have things to discuss.

Margrit turned her neck stiffly, looking at the ring of angry djinn and the selkies standing beyond them. Tariq was a shadow at the head of the staircase on the other end of the building, watching with an expression unreadable from that distance.

Yeah. Margrit shivered and put her hand in Janxs, relieved to have an escape from the warehouses tense, smoky atmosphere. Yeah, I will. What about Chelsea?

Surprise filtered through Janxs gaze for a second time. If Chelsea Huo was here, rest assured she has the resources to care for herself and stay out of trouble. We, however, are growing short on time. If you will come? Pressure on her fingers increased slightly, as if the dragonlord would lift her. Margrit came to her feet clumsily, stepping out of the forklift with Janxs hand to support her. She still felt thick with fear and the aftermath of disaster, but Janxs strength was steady and calm.

He led her through flame and smoke, and she couldnt tell if the flame bent away from him or if heat made it appear to do so. Illusion or not, gratitude rose in her. She wasnt sure she could have made herself walk through the fire without it. This way, my dear. Janx gestured at the ruined, burnt-out wall through which hed made his entrance. Margrit stumbled once, looking back as she made her way over rubble.

The desert-costumed djinn were gone, leaving only ordinarily dressed men in their place, all of them Old Races, smeared and marked with soot. Police burst into the warehouse, their voices adding to the general clamor of destruction. Even through smoke and fire, one of the cops had a familiar shape. Margrit let go a soft-voice curse and scrambled over debris.

But not before Tony Pulcella saw her go.


CHAPTER 8 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 10