The first two were gone, leaving disaster and destruction in their wake. . . .
|Summary: The first two were gone, leaving disaster and destruction in their wake. Now, there’s only one left.
I sit and contemplate the battered, old, ugly oil lamp sitting like a hideous centerpiece in the middle of my partially destroyed coffee table. Which holds pride of place in my completely destroyed living room.
Outside, like background accompaniment, the wail of sirens near and far sound, as if heralding the end of the world.
It nearly was, I think, burying my face in my hands briefly and sighing. The first wish had set all this—the fires, the floods, the riots, the deaths—in motion. And it had gained such momentum, and so fast, that even the power of my second wish—much more meticulously and carefully planned-out—hadn’t been enough to mitigate all the damage.
And yet, here I sit . . . staring at the lamp and wondering what my third wish will be.
Some people never learn, I suppose.
Sighing again, I pick up the lamp. It feels clammy, cool, and greasy in my hands. Like a living thing . . . like dirty human skin. The filigree on it is rather faded, no doubt from where the wishers who’d come before me had rubbed.
Licking my lips and tuning out the din of the emergency services vehicles rushing about outside, I trace a patinaed whorl on the lamp with my finger. I know from the previous times that even that gentle summons will be enough.
And as sure as the sun rising, coppery smoke begins to issue from the lamp. It carries the scent of burnt herbs and incense, and of something else undefinable, something that I can only call magic.
The smoke starts to coalesce in front of me, taking on the shape of a human form. A female one. And with a clap of thunder and a flash of light, she is standing in front of me.
She is beautiful. The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, with skin the color of bronze, ebony curls that tumble and cascade wildly to her waist, and eyes like polished obsidian.
Naked as the day she was—born? Created?—she steps off my groaning coffee table and sits next to me on my torn-out sofa.
“So,” she say heavily. Then we both flinch as a blood-curdling scream goes up from somewhere nearby.
“So,” I agree, shuddering. She brushes her hair over her shoulders and turns to face me. I do the same, smiling limply. “This was a bit of a clusterfuck.”
“Just a bit of one.”
I wince. “Do I even wanna know the casualty rate?”
“What will you have for your final wish, Master Braden?” she asks when the silence has spun out between us. Her voice is soft and smoky . . . slightly raspy. It makes me shiver.
“I dunno what to wish for,” I admit, hating the lost, slightly whiny quality of my voice. “After all that’s happened in the wake of the first two . . . I don’t know what to safely wish for.”
“Well.” The Djinnia doesn’t seem overly put out by this admission, though she does seem rather pensive. “You know what I would suggest.”
“I know. And that’s not an option.”
She huffs, looking away from me. But there’s a faint smile on her strong-featured face. “It would be the wise thing to do, Braden.”
“It’s a good thing for you that I’m not particularly wise, then.” I take her hand and squeeze it gently. When she looks up at me, tears in her eyes, I smile . . . for real, this time. “No wishing you away to the bottom of the sea for all eternity.”
“No buts, Djinnia. I don’t care how dangerous the lamp is. You being trapped under the sea till the end of days is a deal-breaker.”
“Then what will you do? What will you wish for?” she demands, those obsidian eyes wide and a little angry. “Your first two wishes have gone so well, after all.”
Flinching again from her unaccustomed sarcasm, I let go of her hand to pick up the lamp. “I could . . . wish for your freedom.”
“No.” Her hands cover mine, warm and strong. Her eyes have acquired a frantic shine. “You know what I must do if you wish me free.”
I swallow, nodding. “I know,” I say quietly, looking away from her and out my broken picture window. My neighbor, Mrs. Bredoteau, runs by screaming. Her dress is on fire and she’s being chased by something that doesn’t bear too much examination.
“I’m not sure I even want to live in this world after the way I’ve fucked it up,” I whisper. “Though an easy death is the last thing I deserve for just that reason.”
“But it won’t be an easy death, Braden,” the Djinnia whispers back, her voice shaking with unshed tears. “If wished free, I must turn upon my previous master and rend him limb from limb!”
Shuddering once more, I look at her. “I know . . . I know you’re a good person, Djinnia—”
“But I’m neither, Braden . . . good or a person.” She’s shaking her head slowly, sadly. “I’m a demon of the ancient world, and I have seen worse—done worse—than you could ever do.” She lets go of my hands to wipe tears from her eyes. “If I was freed from the lamp, there would be no constraints upon a terrible power that has, in the past, known no love and no mercy. My first act upon being freed would be to turn upon the generosity you will have shown me, with no more thought or control than a berserker. And do you believe that the bloodshed and horror will end with your death, Braden? That once I’ve had my taste of human blood, I’ll have had my fill?”
“I . . . I want to believe. . . .”
“But do you actually believe?” She cuts through my temporizing with gentle ruthlessness. And when I don’t answer—when I can’t answer—she nods, smiling her sad smile. “If you would do your world a true service, then you will wish me away to the bottom of the ocean, to be lost forever.”
I put the lamp in her hands and stand up, pacing over debris and detritus to the fireplace, and the cracked mirror over the mantle. In it, I look exhausted and shell-shocked, like a man who’d been through a war.
Thanks to me, most of the world looks that way. The people lucky—and I use that term loosely—enough to still be alive, that is.
“How do you know you’ll be driven to kill me and . . . and other people, Djinnia? You’ve never been free before,” I say, watching my lips move without any prior direction from my brain.
A moment later, the Djinnia joins me at the mantle. Her reflection is as gorgeous as the rest of her, and separated from mine by the crack that runs the length of the mirror.
“I don’t know from firsthand experience, if that’s what you mean. But I’ve heard the tales. I know the lore.”
Eyeing her slight frown, I feel an inkling of hope. “Tales? Lore? Is that all there is?”
She snorts and turns away from the mirror. “I should think that was enough, considering.”
“Listen, Braden, not to put too fine a point on it, but your last two wishes, even though they were made with the best intentions, dragged this world through a Hell unseen on this plane for a hundred millennia.”
“Then who’s to say another well-intentioned wish will be any better? Do any better than damning you to an eternity alone in darkness?” I counter and the Djinnia’s eyes widen . . . but she doesn’t reply, her back to the mirror. It’s as smooth and unmarred as a baby’s. “Maybe . . . maybe it’s time I made a purely selfish wish.”
The Djinnia sighs, soft and resigned. “Those have a habit of going awry, as well, Master.”
Grimacing at the “master,” I turn and take the few steps that put me in her space. I can smell the sweet, musky scent of her hair, and want nothing more than to bury my face in it.
Instead. I place my hands gently on her shoulders, just above the solid gold armbands that are the symbols of her servitude. They have the same ugly filigree as the lamp. Her skin, unlike the surface of the lamp, is warm and soft and dry.
“What if . . . what if I never make the final wish?” I venture. “What if I take it to my grave, and you just . . . stay here? With me?”
The Djinnia turns in my arms to face me, her eyes wide with surprise, but still sad.
“Oh, Braden . . . I . . . that’s . . . do you really think you could go for the rest of your life without saying the words I wish before something inconsequential—or worse: consequential?”
“There’s only one thing I’ve ever wanted for myself badly enough to wish for, Djinnia, and I doubt I could get it by wishing, anyway,” I say softly, holding her gaze for as long as she lets me. Which is about as long as I’m able to, anyhow.
“I couldn’t bear it if I were to hurt you in any way, Braden.”
“Then don’t,” I urge her, leaning close enough that her scent is my entire world, but for the glitter of her eyes under the sweep of her dark lashes. “Be with me, Djinnia—don’t you wanna be with me?”
Her eyes drift up to mine, shiny with tears again. “Yes.”
That small kernel of hope I felt before is completely eclipsed by the tsunami of the same that threatens to sweep me out to sea. I pull her close and hug her tight, noting the way she shivers in my arms, like a leaf in an autumn breeze. Her arms wind around my neck and the sweet press of her lush body feels right. More right than anything else ever has.
Tilting my face down to hers to kiss her full, soft lips seems almost like an afterthought . . . almost. Nothing that burns so pleasantly and tingles so electrically could ever be termed a mere afterthought.
When the kiss ends, she’s still shivering in my arms, and won’t meet my eyes.
She shakes her head no, and hides her face in my shoulder, sniffling.
“It’s a risk I have to take,” I tell her, and she shudders.
“Why? Why, Braden?”
“Because . . . because I love you.”
Now she looks up at me, wide-eyed and shocked. “Braden, I’m a demon. I was bound to the lamp for a reason. You don’t know the things I’ve done—”
“And I don’t care, Djinnia. I love you, and the idea of condemning you to an eternity of loneliness is, to me, worse than being torn limb from limb. I would rather you be free and me dead than the other possibilities.” I lean my forehead down till it touches hers. “I would rather die than see you endure an eternity of being alone, or of servitude to an endless string of careless masters.”
“Some masters are not so careless,” she whispers, gazing up into my eyes solemnly. “Some masters are thoughtful and kind and deserve better than being killed because of that kindness.”
“It’s my choice, Djinnia.” I hold her tighter, stroking her back soothingly. “My choice, and my final wish.”
“Please, Braden—” she begs, and I close my eyes, holding her as tight as I can. Outside, the sound of screams and ambulances and cop cars fades to a distant susurrus.
“I wish,” I begin, and a wind springs up around me. In my arms, the Djinnia grows suddenly fever-hot. Before I can even say the rest of the wish, I feel the words well up in my heart—and that’s where wishes come from, isn’t it? Not from words, but from the heart. From the soul.
And I wish, with all my heart and soul, for the Djinnia’s unconditional freedom from the lamp.
The Djinnia’s arms tighten around me, sudden and panicked. She gasps, and there’s a gentle double-clink of metal, followed by a more solid clunk as two heavy gold armbands hit the hard wood floor at our feet.
That fever-heat slowly fades from the Djinnia’s body and her arms around my neck loosen, till she’s merely embracing me.
“I love you, Braden,” she says in miserable, waterlogged tones. I shudder. “No matter what.”
“I love you, too, Djinnia,” I reply calmly, despite my fear. Her hands slide to my shoulders and down my arms. Then back up. “No matter what.”
She’ll tear my arms off, first, I think with that same calm, though also with another shudder as I hold the Djinnia closer, close my eyes again, and await my fate. She doesn’t leave me waiting long.