I'd directed the question to Lewis, and he indicated a no. "Everything looks normal up on the aetheric."
"Yeah. That's what bugs me. Because it doesn't look at all normal to me." I couldn't sit still; I got up and paced, wished I had on something besides blue denim and work boots, because this was a situation that screamed for bitchen black leather and tight boots. These boots are made for walkin' . . . "The stuff's like evil pollen. Who knew it could sift through three planes of existence and end up here so fast?"
"Unless it's been coming through the rift for a while," Lewis said. "That's possible. The fact that you just now saw it might have nothing to do with it, really. If it's something subtle and largely undetectable, we could have a problem that's been slowly getting worse."
"It's not pollen," Patrick said. He was in the far corner of the living room now, straightening a Monet landscape under the recessed lights. "From your description, it's more like radiation. You said that David tried to seal some in an energy bubble?"
"Yeah. Didn't work."
"That's very interesting," Patrick said, and stepped back to admire the Monet from a distance. "That means that the normal aetheric barriers can't stop it, because they're all energy-based. This . . . coldlight, for lack of a better word . . . seems very dangerous indeed."
Lewis looked up from his contemplation of the carpet. "We don't even know that it is dangerous."
"It issues from a hole into the Void where demons lie," Patrick pointed out. "It's rare that something of that pedigree turns out to be happy fairy dust."
"Not that I doubt you, but are you sure it's not just that you're not used to your new senses yet?" Lewis asked me. Which was, actually, not a stupid question at all.
"I don't know," I said, with a great deal less arrogance and a great deal more honesty than I usually had. "Ask him, he's got a few centuries on me."
Patrick was rambling the apartment again, looking lost and morose; he was milking it, of course. Not like he couldn't have fixed everything back the way it was, if he'd wanted. Maybe he was adjusting to it. "What?" he asked, although I knew he'd been listening to every word. We'd been a lot more interesting than the stacked bowl of Chinese ornamental balls on the coffee table. "Bother. I can't give an opinion until I've had a look."
"Then come on." I held out my hand. He ignored that, put his arm around me, and copped a feel. Which, thankfully, was a little insulated by the sensible denim that Lewis had chosen for me to wear. I moved his hand without more than a sidelong look, and up and away we went.
Well, Patrick said, in the way Djinn have of communicating up there in the aetheric, that's different.
We hung there for a while, watching the storm rotating and building while the fragile milk-glass bursts of power came from all sides, like flashbulbs going off around a celebrity. Wardens at work. They looked weirdly anemic to me, now, but I could feel the hot blue pulse of other Djinn focusing and defining that force, putting it to precision work.
The only trouble was that there was nothing to fix here-nothing that could be fixed. The storm was slowly building. I'd already tried all the traditional stuff-disrupting the convection engine that was feeding the process; adding cooling layers underneath to isolate the updrafts; bringing in strong dry winds to shred the structure of the thing.
Nothing worked. And the Wardens who were trying it now were clearly singing from the same choir book, so we were going to be well into the second verse soon which would be, in the immortal words of Herman's Hermits, the same as the first.
Look, I said to Patrick, braced for it, and trailed a very small part of myself through the mist.
A blue, sparkling pocket galaxy flared where I touched. I shook myself-how was it possible for my flesh to creep when I didn't even have a body?-and watched the shining stuff float free like a festive, toxic cloud. Patrick's low, pulsing aura backed hastily away from it.
What the hell is it? I asked him. I got a hot orange pulse of alarm in response. Okay, were there actual words with that?
Not ones I'd care to repeat in English, he sent back. I suppose the nearest equivalent would be, I haven't the vaguest fucking idea. Nor do I have any desire to. And I'm leaving before I have a much closer acquaintance with it. I suggest you get your ass out of here as well. Now.
He vanished instantly. Talk about bugging out- he wasted no time at all. I'd never seen a Djinn have a panic attack, but that looked like one to me. And hell, I was kind of having one myself. Not feeling especially fine about my part in all this.
I bugged out right on his tail, and followed the contrail back home. We touched down into the newly renovated apartment at the same time, and this time I managed the reconstitution without any R rating. Once I thought of it as math-higher math, but still math-all I had to do was expand the equation of me to include the outfit. Better still, it was simple to vary it. Change a variable, here and there, and you get something suitable for wearing to a star-spangled party. Or a bag lady convention.
The one thing I could not seem to get right-still- was hair. Well, I'd never been a wizard at it in my mortal life, either. Maybe I was just destined to be curly.
Patrick wasn't thinking about my hair; he was thinking about what he'd seen and backed hastily away from. He pointed a shaking finger at me, couldn't think of anything to say, and swung around on Lewis, who had arrested a restless pacing to stare at the two of us.
"You!" Patrick snapped. "If you'd just left well enough alone . . ."
Lewis made no reply. He just resumed pacing.
"How did this get to be Lewis's fault?" I blurted, and then wished I hadn't. I mean, obviously, it got to be his fault because he'd ordered me to meddle. Dammit. "Cancel that. What I meant was, what do we do now?"
"Yell for help. Loudly. Repeatedly." Patrick walked over to the telephone-a tasteful cream-colored unobtrusive one, to replace the Harley-Davidson model he'd been using before-and started dialing. "And then take a very long vacation, someplace else."
Which I didn't think would do a damn bit of good, because if this stuff had seeped down this far, it had probably contaminated the higher levels, too. Unless he meant Aruba, which was probably not glitter-free either, but still very nice this time of year.
"I'll tell the Wardens," Lewis said. "But I'd like to do it in person. Jo-?"
"Who are you calling?" I asked Patrick, since Lewis hadn't phrased it in the form of an order and was probably too polite to do it for at least another five minutes. Patrick finished dialing a number that was too long to be to any country on Earth. He didn't speak, just hung up the phone. I understood instinctively what he'd been doing-not dialing a phone, in any real way, but using the metaphorical human device to send a message through the aetheric, a kind of sympathetic magic. I even knew who he was calling. "Oh, God, you're calling Jonathan."
"Who won't show his face," Patrick said, with a bitter-lemon twist of his lips that made me wonder just how comfortable that relationship was. "He doesn't leave his house."
"Because it doesn't exist on any of the planes. It's a kind of . . ." Patrick paused for thought. "Bubble, I suppose you'd say. It's for all of our protection. If Jonathan was ever claimed, the consequences . . . Let's say they wouldn't be good. Not good at all."
So maybe Jonathan's plush little refuge wasn't by his choice. Which made me wonder just who really was in charge, among my new friends and family. Politics. Still hate 'em. Djinn politics just made my head hurt worse than human ones.
Ten seconds or less later, I felt a kind of shift in the room, like some balance of energy had tipped. It was subtle, but it made me wonder . . .
. . . and then Rahel walked out of the master bedroom, examining her talons with a critical, casual grace. She looked up, acknowledged Patrick with a fast, white glint of teeth in her dark-skinned face, and then slowly took stock of the room.
"Love the makeover," she said. "Since I doubt you grew any taste since last I saw you, I imagine Sistah Snow was behind it. Yes?"
Her smile faded fast when we started talking. A quick trip to the aetheric to show her the contamination, and back down to reality to see Rahel's completely unnerving frown. Her eyes were glowing, hot and gold, and she just looked, well, strong. Strong enough to dissolve me into a sticky pool on the carpet just with the force of that stare.
"I'm sorry," I said. It was totally inadequate.
She didn't blink. "Not your fault," she said, which was not at all what I expected to hear. "This is something I have never seen, either. I would have done the same, if I had been given the same order. With perhaps exactly the same result."
"So what do we do?" Lewis asked.
A short, pregnant silence. Her stare didn't seem quite so menacing, but it was still as intense as a laser.
"I think," she said slowly, and transferred the gaze to Lewis, "that perhaps I should consult with Jonathan and find a way to make this right. You stay here. The fewer who travel the aetheric, the better, until we know what the consequences might be."
"I'll go," I said.
Rahel looked at me sharply, and unpleasant recognition dawned in cat-bright eyes. "Ah," she said. "I did not see it at first, because it changed you very little. But still you're claimed, aren't you? And chained."
"It's not so bad," I said. "All the buildup, I was expecting something a lot worse."
"A good master makes a good servant." She leaned on the word servant with a heavy weight of disdain. "I don't think this is at all wise. Lewis, you should know better."
"I wouldn't have claimed her if you'd given me a choice."
Ouch, the look that swept between them was like two master fencers, lunge and parry and riposte faster than thought. Lewis certainly felt comfortable around Djinn. I wondered when familiarity had happened to breed that particular contempt.
"I am not your slave," Rahel said.
"Apparently, you don't believe in working for a living, either."
"Sssst!" It was less a sound than a burst of electricity from her, snapping like a whip. It didn't touch Lewis. I don't think he even flinched. "Djinn did not make this portal, did not create this pollution you speak of. Humans meddled in things they didn't understand, and this is the result. Chaos."
"Djinn being perfect."
"More perfect than . . ."
"Excuse me," I said loudly, "can we please focus on the problem? Because I for one don't really feel this is getting us anywhere."
Rahel looked murderous. Junior half-Djinn were not supposed to get uppity, apparently.
"Where's David?" I asked.
She favored me with something that looked dangerously close to a sneer.
"Running to your savior?" she asked, sweet as a batch of overcooked fudge. "Jonathan has a use for him. You're to learn to fly for yourself, little bird."
"Fine. Then let's go see Jonathan," I said.
She stopped me with an outstretched hand. Did the fingernails look longer and sharper? Yeah. Definitely. "Slaves do not go there."
She flicked her eyes toward Lewis. "Nor do humans. I will go. Not you."
"She's not a slave," Lewis said, and stepped into Rahel's space. He was taller, broader, but I couldn't be sure he was stronger. In fact, the chances of him even holding his own against her were thin. "She's an ally. I don't suppose you get the concept."
"An ally who accepts any order you choose to issue, no matter how degrading? Who has no choice but to comply?" Rahel swept me with a hard look. "Do not fool yourself, little Snow. A slave with a kind master is still a slave." The look ripped Lewis, too. "And a slave's master has no honor."
"Maybe I'm crazy, but I have the strong feeling that if we don't get this straightened out, it may not matter whether I'm free or not. Everybody gets the same crappy deal."
"Likely you're correct." She quirked her head to the side, an alien-looking catlike movement that made me jump a little. "And yet I will not take you."
Fine. I plopped down on the comfortable brown leather sofa and put my work-booted feet up on the coffee table. "I'll just sit and watch the world get eaten, then. Hey, be sure to call me if the apocalypse comes. I need to get some 400-speed film, make sure I get good pictures."
She gave me a snarl, and vanished. Whoosh. There was a breeze-displacement of air-and I transferred my stare to Patrick. He looked blank and angelic. Put a red suit on him, and he could be handing out candy in a mall and asking kids what they wanted Santa to bring them.
"You're not going?" I asked.
He cleared his throat. "Let's say that I'm not welcome in those particular circles."
"Because of the way you were made Djinn?"
"Among other things." He shrugged. "I've learned to live with disappointment." He stretched out his arms and manifested a light camel-colored coat, something appropriate for a spring day. "I have not, however, learned to live with this . . . redecorating. I believe I'll go for a walk. Call me if the world ends, there's a dear."
He blipped out. I stared at the spot where he'd been, frowning and wishing I still lived in a world where people used doors.
Lewis ambled around and settled down next to me.
"So," he said.
"So," I agreed. "Son of a bitch."
"Ah." He rubbed his hands lightly together. "Guess I'd better get back to work. I've got the pressure mostly relieved in the plates around the San Andreas, but I need to get a team of Earth Wardens on it. And the Fire Wardens need the tip-off about the Yellowstone fire, too."
He glanced over at me, eyebrows up.
"What?" I asked.
"That was a codependent way of asking you to do it for me."
"You want me to run your errands? Bite me, Lewis." After Rahel's rather rabble-rousing speeches about slavery, I wasn't feeling any too subservient. "How'd the rip form in the first place?"
"I don't know," Lewis said. "Like Rahel said, this is new. I've never heard of this stuff coming through before. It's almost always a demon, reaching through to put the Mark on a human; once the Mark matures, they can make the crossing to the human plane directly, without going through the aetheric levels. Safer for them. But this stuff . . ."
"Maybe it can be destroyed."
"We don't even know what it does."
"Yeah, but even so I think we'd better work from Patrick's theory: Nothing good ever comes out of the Void . . ."
I stopped, hesitated. There was something . . .
"Jo?" He was staring at me, wide-eyed. I wondered how bright my eyes had just flared.
"Stay here," I said, and got up to take a look around.
The first thing I spotted after passing into the kitchen was the almost-there shadow of Patrick's Ifrit, hiding in the gloom behind. Watching me. That predatory interest made hair stand up on my neck.
"Hey," I said to it, and took a step closer. She shrank farther into shadow-not aggressive today, certainly not the ripping, shrieking fiend that Patrick had set on me just yesterday in training sessions. "Don't be afraid. I'm not going to hurt you."
"It's not you I'm afraid of," it said. "Don't blame him for this. He doesn't understand."
"It will kill all of you."
For some reason, I didn't have any doubt about what it was. "You can see it? This light? You know, the glitter?" She nodded, or at least I thought she did. "Do you know what it is?"
"Yes." A bare, sighing breath. I felt myself tense up. "Knowing will not help you."
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