My name is Cassiel, and I was once a Djinn—a being as old as the Earth herself, rooted in her power. I cared little for the scurrying human creatures who busied themselves with their small lives.
Things have changed. Now I am a scurrying human creature. Thanks to a disagreement with Ashan, the leader of the True Djinn, I can sustain my life only through the charity of the Wardens—humans who control aspects of the powers that surround us, such as wind and fire. The Warden I’m partnered with, Luis Rocha, commands the powers of the living Earth.
I find myself caring too much about Luis, and his niece, Isabel, and others who never would have mattered before. The leader of the Old Djinn tells me that I must destroy humanity to save the Djinn, and all other life on Earth. I do not believe that. I cannot.
I have become too . . . human.
Before, that would have seemed like a curse.
Now I believe it may be a blessing.
But it will take all I have, all I have ever had, to stop what is to come, because the Earth has awoken, and in her madness she may kill us all.
On the morning of the end of the world, I woke up curled beneath the cover of fallen leaves. It was extraordinarily quiet that morning, a hush like nothing I’d ever heard before . . . the calm that falls before the storm, but this storm, when it came, would never pass.
Not for us.
For most of a million years, the planet beneath me, the pulsing, living Earth herself, had been silent—not dead, but dormant, like a long–sleeping volcano. The past few years had seen warning signs . . . explosions of violence, as if she had been restless in her dreams. But just yesterday, something wondrous and terrible happened: She awoke in pain.
The quiet around me now was not peace. It was the indrawn breath before the scream.
I lay still for a few moments, savoring the silence. A bird’s wings flapped somewhere in the distance, and condensation tapped on leaves as it slipped from tree branches overhead. The sun was rising, tinting the low–lying mist a soft orange.
I was cold, wet, and afraid, but I felt a precious moment of peace. I could almost believe it was the beginning of the world, the beginning of hope, the beginning of everything. . . .
Except that I knew, as we all did, that it was the end.
Next to me, buried in the leaves and sharing my warmth, Luis Rocha stirred, groaned, and opened his eyes. His heavy sigh said everything about how he felt about the dawning of the day, and no wonder—of the two of us, Luis had taken the most abuse in the battle of the night before. “Chica,” he said, “if you tell me there’s no coffee, I’m going to die. I mean that. It’s not a metaphor or anything.”
I turned my head his direction and smiled. It was not a nice smile. “There’s no coffee,” I said. “Nor is there likely to be any for some time.”
“You are one cold bitch. It’s a good thing I love you.” He sounded miserable, but at least he was talking. Breathing. Living.
I brushed the mess of leaf litter away from my leather jacket and jeans, and stood up to stretch my arms high, toward heaven. My muscles were cold and tight and bruised, and I winced with the hot red twinges that the movements woke. My hair was damp and tangled. I looked, I thought, like some strange madwoman, like an ancient Greek maenad who’d spent the night running the hills with the beasts . . . only perhaps a great deal more frightening. I’d seen it in the stares of others, how odd I could seem—tall, pale, sharply angled, with the unnaturally green eyes of a Djinn.
Luis tried to sit up, failed, and flopped back onto the leaves. He closed his eyes, and his dark caramel skin seemed to pale almost to gold. “Okay, that was a freaking bad idea. A little help, Cassiel?”
I silently extended a hand, and when he took it, hauled him up to his feet and held him there while he swayed. He was still favoring his leg—injured, inexpertly patched—and I was concerned about the continued pallor of his skin. His breathing came in short, pained gasps, then slowly evened out.
I was worried about him, but I didn’t dare say it. Luis wouldn’t thank me for it, and there was little help I could offer now. I could draw power out of the earth around us and speed the healing process, but drawing attention to myself today with the use of my gifts was dangerous. Wardens were going to die today, many of them. Too many, most likely.
I did not want us to be among those unfortunates.
“How’s your leg?” I asked, knowing he’d lie. As he did.
“Fine,” Luis said, and put his weight on it. I felt the wave of pain that cascaded through him in a hot red ripple, but apart from the tightening of his lips, he didn’t show any sign of it on the outside. I was never sure whether he knew how much I felt through our link; my Earth power was channeled by and rooted through his, and it gave me access to emotions and physical sensations I knew he’d sometimes rather keep private. “Where’s Ibby?”
Stupid of me not to have immediately thought of her, and I cursed my own lack of maternal instinct, of human connection. Ibby was a child, and she ought to have been foremost in my mind from the moment of waking. That she wasn’t would be unforgivable to Luis.
I turned toward the spot where I’d left her safely tucked in a few feet away. “Isabel?” My breath steamed in the chill, quiet air. “Ibby?” I’d left her next to us last night, carefully concealed from the elements and wrapped in a thin silvery blanket to hold in her body heat. She had been safe, as safe as we could make her.
But now she wasn’t answering.
Luis scrambled to the piled leaves and brushed them aside. He looked up at me. “Not here,” he said. The tension and suppressed panic in his voice was unmistakable, even without any connection between us. “She’s not here!”
I had hesitated to use power before, but I reached for it now, horrified by the thought that she might have slipped away in the night . . . or been taken. She’d been taken from us before, violently, and the thought it might have happened again while I slept only a few feet away . . .
I heard a rustle in the tree above us, and looked up to see Isabel a dizzying height up. She lay belly–down on a thick limb, and she looked delighted with the trauma she was causing—that smile was pure mischief, and her dark eyes were alight with amusement.
She was six years old, and climbing trees to make her loved ones suffer was likely perfectly normal. I wondered if my anger was equally natural. “Ibby!” I snapped. “Get down. Now!”
Luis was also staring up at her, and if I was angry, he was furious. He let loose a storm of Spanish, concluding with an emphatic gesture that clearly indicated she should waste no time making her way to the ground.
“Oh, chill out; she’s fine,” said another voice, and I heard a slight rustle in the branches—the only warning before a massive snake’s coils slithered into sight about twenty feet above me. The coils twisted, and the human half of Esmeralda’s body—the upper half—came into view. She was a pretty young woman, with a bitter cast to her smile, which was also more than a little cruel. “I brought her up here for safety. Don’t worry, she stayed warmer than you did. I’m only half cold–blooded.”
I tended to think of Esmeralda as a girl—a teenager—but she was, in fact, a failed Warden, a dangerous psychopath, and an expert killer of Djinn. From the waist down, her body had twisted and smoothed into the scaled, powerful shape of a snake—a rattlesnake, grown to nightmare size. It was the punishment of the first Djinn she’d killed, that she live out her life in that monstrous form, locked and unable to shift from it.
It did not seem to me to have chastised her as much as it ought. And it greatly worried me that little Isabel had come to hero–worship the bitter soul within that warped body so much. Still, Esmeralda did seem to care for the girl. That was something.
“Bring her down,” Luis said. He still sounded tense, but at least he’d switched back to a calmer voice, and his English. “Carefully.”
“I’m fine, Tío,” Isabel protested, but neither of us were in much of a mood to take her word for it. The two girls exchanged a silent, eye–rolling look that clearly said, Adults—what idiots, and then Esmeralda grabbed Isabel in a hug and expertly slithered her way down to the leaf–littered floor of the forest.
“See? She’s fine,” Esmeralda said, as Ibby’s feet touched ground. Luis opened his arms to give her a hug, but Ibby stayed where she was and folded her arms. “You need to stop treating her like a little kid, man. She’s not.”
Isabel was, indeed, not a typical six–year–old. When I’d met her, only a short time ago, she’d been an innocent child, sunny and sweet, but then her parents had been killed, and she’d been abducted by a twisted, powerful evil who’d once been a Djinn. Isabel had been . . . altered. Powers had awakened inside her that were not meant for a small girl’s form, and she had seen and done things that I didn’t fully comprehend.
But she was still, physically, the same innocent little girl I’d loved from the moment I had met her, and it was a difficult adjustment for me to make. How much worse was it for Luis, who was not only human, but her uncle?
“They’re never going to get it,” Ibby said to Esmeralda, and flopped down in a dejected pile of sharp elbows and knees. Like all of us, she looked dirty and rumpled, and tired. “I wish I was older.”
“Well, you’re not,” Luis said, “and you need to do what we tell you, Ib. You know that. Don’t be giving us grief now, not now. It’s too dangerous.”
“I know that,” she shot back, and kicked leaves. “I know better than you.”
She likely did, but it was difficult to hear, especially with the militant, pouting edge to the words. Luis shook his head and limped away, facing the woods; I joined him as he took some deep breaths. “I know we kind of need Snake Chick,” he said, “but I do not like her. And I don’t like how Ibby is around her.”
“I can hear you!” Isabel yelled. Luis squeezed his eyes shut, then limped off into the woods. I hesitated, but Isabel seemed safe enough; Esmeralda had coiled herself into a pile nearby, and she was combing her fingers through her long dark hair, trying to pick out the leaf litter and cursing under her breath. It was possible that Esmeralda wouldn’t defend us, but she wouldn’t allow harm to Isabel.
I went after Luis.
I found him about twenty yards away, sitting against the bole of a tree with his legs stretched out straight; he was hugging himself against the chill, and shivering a little. He seemed thoroughly miserable. “I wasn’t kidding, I need coffee,” he said. “Water?”
I had a canteen, and I offered it to him. He unstoppered it, closed his eyes, and concentrated for a moment. I felt a hot pulse of power, and then smoke began wisping from the mouth of the container. I touched it. Hot.
“One thing that’s good about being an Earth and Fire Warden,” Luis said, “I can change water into delicious moka java, and I can heat it up, too.” He took a sip and passed it over. Black coffee, smooth and bracing. We drank in silence, watching the growing sunrise. “We’ve got to rethink what we’re doing, you know. Isabel’s a kid. I know she’s got powers. I know she wants to fight—maybe hasto fight. But we shouldn’t intentionally put her in the thick of things. I want to take her someplace safe, Cass.”
“Where would that be?” I asked. “I’m sorry, but the Earth herself is awake. There is no safe place; you know that. Anything built by man can be destroyed. She’s safest with us.”
“But we’re going to be in the fight, and it’s no place for a kid, dammit. What about the Wardens? They’ve got to be taking those children they were looking after someplace safer than—well, than wherever the hell we’re heading. I want her with them.”
It was Luis’s choice, as her only living relative, but I couldn’t help thinking it was a wrong one. Isabel had a possibly dangerous faith in her own abilities and shedid have a great deal of power . . . and leaving her with those unprepared to deal with her very strong will might be a recipe for disaster. Then again, he was correct about our situation. We were definitely going to enter into fighting that would be extremely dangerous, and having Isabel with us would cripple us, and put her even more at risk.
I had no answers for it, so I drank the coffee in silence. There was something primitively comforting in its bitter warmth.
Luis was pouring out the dregs and starting to talk about finding a water source when we both felt a sudden, shockingly deep wave of power cascade through the forest, the ground, the sky—through us. It was as if energy drained from every living thing for just an instant—a split–second of death, followed by a terrific flood of adrenaline and panic. Luis blurted, “What the hell was that?” His eyes had gone wide, pupils narrowed to pinpoints, and I knew I looked just as startled and pale. I shook my head.
“Isabel,” we both said, and I bolted upright, then hesitated as Luis struggled up as well. I was torn between a need to run to her and a need to ensure he was all right, but he waved me urgently on as he slung the canteen’s strap around his neck.
I ran the twenty yards back to the girls in a blur, and skidded to a stop in the clearing. Nothing was out of place. Esmeralda still sat coiled, though she’d gone quite still. And Isabel . . .
Ibby wasn’t there.
No, she was there, but for a disorienting moment I couldn’t process what I was seeing as she turned to face me. That is not Isabel, I thought, but it was. I could see the ghost of the child in the shape of her face, the fine dark eyes . . . but that child had been six years old, going on seven, and this girl was at leasttwelve. She’d grown more than a foot, and her body had developed and rounded with it; she looked strong and lovely, and wrong. So very wrong.
I stood there frozen for a long moment. I heard the crunch of leaves as Luis limped rapidly up behind me, and went still and quiet as well.
Then I turned on Esmeralda. “What have you done?” I said it in a whisper, but my voice was trembling with outrage. “What have you done?”
Esmeralda faced me squarely, with a haughty, imperious tilt to her chin. “You’ve been out there arguing about what to do with her,” she said. “You couldn’t deal with a six–year–old, right? Well, she’s not six now. And she can take care of herself.”
“How . . .” Luis shifted uneasily, unable to take his gaze away from his niece’s suddenly altered face. “How did you do this?”
Esmeralda shrugged. “I can’t do it now, but I did it to myself when I was younger,” she said. “Part of what got me in trouble. But I told the kid how. It was her choice to actually do it—and she’s got the skills. Look, she was bound to do it sooner or later. Better she age herself out of it now, so she won’t be as vulnerable.”
It was a cold assessment, one that I might have made myself once. There was an eminently logical component to it that I couldn’t really deny.
But Luis looked as if he might throw up. “Ibby,” he said. “Jesus, how could you?” He knew, as I did, that she couldn’t reverse the process; a Djinn might be able to manipulate the structure of a body at will, but the changes a human Warden made in aging one were utterly beyond fixing. She had lost six years of her life, at least physically; the cost to her lifespan would be much, much greater, because the power it took to do this was toxic.
“I had to.” Ibby gave him an apologetic look, but focused her reply to me. “I can’t be a little kid anymore, Cassiel. And I can’t have you guys worrying about me all the time. You need me to be strong, and I’m going to be. I have to be able to take care of myself.” She seemed calm and more certain than I felt at this moment. “Esmeralda showed me how to do it, and it didn’t hurt as much as you’d think.”
I had nothing to say, because it was useless to debate the issue now. They had been careful to invoke such power out of my sight, out of my control; there could be no going back for Ibby now. She had lost her childhood, instantly; there would be consequences for such a flagrant use of power, things I could not yet imagine except that her life would be harsher, and shorter. Aging a body so quickly ensured pain, accelerated aging, and deadly mutations. Isabel was no longer looking at a normal human lifespan; hers would be brief, like a candle lit with a blowtorch.
Not only that, the risk—using Earth powers at such violent rates, when the Earth herself was awake and aware . . . that had been a hideously dangerous thing to do. It could have ended all of our lives, abruptly and very painfully.
And yet I couldn’t find it in my heart to disagree with her choice, either. Today was the beginning of the end of mankind, unless a mighty miracle occurred. She’d lost her childhood, but perhaps all childhoods were over, everywhere, starting on this cool, silent morning.
But I mourned the sweet child Ibby had been. The girl who stood before me now, fragile in her newfound power, was not the same at all.
Esmeralda was still staring at me in defiance, dirty chin raised. At the end of her serpentine tail, a rattle hissed softly.
I broke the tension by turning back to Isabel, who stood tense and defensive. “We’ll have to discuss this later; there’s no time for it now. The power you used lit up the aetheric like a flare. We must move fast.”