Chapter Nine

"Who the hell are you?" I blurted. Rahel sighed, shook her hands and inspected her restored nail polish critically.

"His name is Patrick," she said. "And I regret to say that he's your new instructor."

The Ifrit vanished while I wasn't looking, but I had the strong impression that it hadn't gone far. Patrick and Rahel exchanged long looks. On Patrick's side it was cute and twinkly and frankly lecherous; on Rahel's it was pained, long-suffering, and repulsed.

"Don't," she said when Patrick opened his mouth. He looked hurt. "I have no need for intercourse with you, social or otherwise. Now. You're expecting her, I presume."

Patrick nodded and slapped a hand out to stop the elevator doors from closing between us. He gave us a grand, sweeping gesture that included a comic-opera bow. Rahel ignored him and pushed past. I followed, and I had the strong impression that while he was down there bowing and scraping, he was checking out my ass.

Patrick let go of the doors and offered me his arm, which I didn't take. Rahel watched the pantomime impatiently. "Let's get on with this," she snapped. "I do not appreciate your little joke."

"What, my Ifrit? Please. As if you could possibly have been hurt by her, Rahel. Nice theater, though, very nice, I very much liked your screaming. I presume Jonathan told you there might be some excitement along the way?"

"He neglected to mention it. I assume you were testing our new friend?"

"Of course." He offered Rahel his elbow this time; she looked at it like something fished out of a sewer line and kept walking. Patrick darted ahead down the hallway, presumably leading us somewhere as he talked over his shoulder. "No offense, my dear, but I do like to know that she won't curl up and die before I even work up a good sweat. I thought with you here, she might expect you to save her, but that was quite a nice surprise. Got backbone, this one. No brains, but backbone."

"Hey!" I snapped, and walked faster to catch up. They had pulled ahead of me by at least ten feet, taking long strides that my high heels, no matter how kicky, weren't appropriate for matching. "So that was some kind of test?"

Patrick threw Rahel a bushy-eyebrows-raised look. "Oh, she's quick, isn't she?"

"Very." For the first time, they were on the same wavelength.

We came to a halt in front of a narrow office door, unmarked except for a number and a weathered sign that read please knock. Patrick twisted the knob, swung the door wide, and stood aside to let me precede him. I took a tentative step in and found a not-very-comfortable waiting room, the standard for HMO doctors and low-cost dentists-industrial furniture, magazines that looked vintage, a crappy, out-of-register TV playing silently in one corner. No receptionist visible, nothing but another door, this one unmarked.

"That way." He nodded toward the other door. I crossed the empty waiting room and reached to open it ... and it silently drifted open before I touched it. "Don't mind that. My Ifrit's a little bored, and really, you are remarkably beautiful, my dear. She's drawn to that sort of thing."

I'd never been leered at by Santa before. It was unsettling.

"Patrick," Rahel said reprovingly. "Behave."

Santa-Patrick-put on an injured, kicked-puppy expression. He had a smooth tenor voice, buttery soft, with an accent I couldn't quite pin down hovering around the edges-not American, maybe antique European. "I'm extremely well mannered," he huffed. "I'm also very well qualified, in case you're wondering, my sweet little peach. You see, I'm the only living example of what David's trying to do with you. I'm the only human ever to survive being made into a Djinn by another Djinn."

I needed to sit down, suddenly. There was a lot implied in that simple statement-one, this had been tried before, and two, it had only happened once successfully. Not the news I was hoping to hear.

Patrick must have sensed it, because he waved a hand and suddenly there was a guest chair behind me, of the same industrial discomfort as the waiting room furniture. I sat. Rahel put a hand on my shoulder, and between that and the friendly, heavy weight of Patrick's stare, I felt somewhat anchored again.

"When I was forty-two, I contracted a fatal disease," Patrick said, and settled back behind his desk with a protesting creak of chair springs. He steepled his fingers on the curve of his stomach. "I had been, to that point, what you would call a Fire Warden. When I died, my Djinn-"

"Sara," Rahel said quietly. They exchanged an impenetrable look.

"-my Djinn, Sara, made me into the man I am today." He smiled brightly. "Which isn't a man at all, of course. So therefore Jonathan feels that I am well qualified to teach you how to become a Djinn. You do understand you're not one now?"

"Jonathan was pretty clear on that," I said.

"You should believe it." Patrick's smile disappeared like he'd pulled the plug on it. "You'll die, and take David with you, unless you learn how to survive without the life support he's providing you. Do you understand that?"

I swallowed. "Yes."

"Then forget everything David has taught you already. We're starting over. The problem is that natural-born Djinn have no idea what you need to learn to survive-and it is completely different from what they think you need to know."

"That's what the thing in the elevator was about?"

"Not at all. That was just a bit of fun." Patrick had a naughty grin. "Rahel and I have quite a history, don't we, my sweet? And I'm sure she enjoyed a little challenge."

Rahel didn't look as if she'd enjoyed any of it, and this little conversation still less. "If you're done with me . . ." she began.

Patrick's turquoise eyes flicked toward her, and there was power there, all right, power as great or greater than Rahel's. "Yes, love, I'm done. Why don't you get on about your master's business like a good little doggie?"

The chill in the air between them deepened to an arctic storm front. Rahel's smile wasn't at all friendly. Neither was Patrick's.

Rahel said softly, "I release her in your care, Patrick. One warning. Jonathan will not take it well if you allow anything to happen to her."

"You're so sure of your master's voice in this matter? Because I wasn't under the impression that Jonathan had formed any special attachment to this girl. None at all."

Her eyes narrowed to burning gold slits. "Very well. I won't take it well if you allow anything to happen to her."

"I thought she was David's bit of mischief. Or is she yours? I do so love a girl who's flexible, you know. Perhaps I might join the fun . . . ?" He held onto an annoyingly bright smile as she hissed and stalked away. The door silently swung open as she approached, and shut when she departed.

I listened for any sense that she was going to hang around, watch out for me. All I sensed was that vast, quiet weight of Patrick's power, and the dark shadow of his Ifrit sliding around the edges of my consciousness.

"Alone at last," said Santa Claus, and gave me a particularly unsettling smile. "Mind if we go to my place?"

Patrick had a loft apartment on West Seventy-third, big and horribly expensive and decorated with as much abandon as a Djinn's imagination and apparently limitless budget could provide.

It was a disaster.

His "office" had been impersonal, deliberately bland, but his home didn't share the same flaws. Carpet in a color that even Rahel wouldn't have worn- aggressive, eye-hurting blue-competed with neon yellow leather couches and shiny green occasional tables. Those damned Warhol Marilyn prints on the wall. Tasteless plaster copies of naked Greek statues, the lewder the better. He liked smiley faces, too. The bathroom was decorated in them, complete to see-through toilet seat with little yellow happy faces floating inside.

There was, demonstrably, no Mrs. Claus.

Patrick handed me off to the care of the banana yellow leather sofa, which was a lot more uncomfortable than it looked, and disappeared into the kitchen. He came back with two tumblers of something that looked alcoholic but in far too generous a portion for safety. He handed me one. I put mine down on the table, and he hastily dealt me a round coaster that featured an underwear-clad Bettie Page being spanked with a hairbrush.

"So." He beamed at me, and dragged a chair closer to plump himself down. "You're wondering how this works."

"A little."

"Very simple," he said, and steepled his fingers under his chin. Those eyes-warm and deep as a tropical ocean. Deceptively peaceful. "Do you know what an Ifrit is?"

"Met one. Didn't like her."

"So you did." Patrick looked past me, and I sensed something dark and shadowy lurking over my shoulder. I didn't turn. "She is what you could become, if you don't do this right. She is a fallen Djinn. She can't reach the power of the universe itself, she can only consume it through others."

"I thought that was what Djinn did. Consumed it through others."

"No, no, I told you to forget everything David told you." He waggled a finger at me. "I grew up in an age of alchemy, so I will put it to you in alchemical terms. We transmute the essence of a thing. We have power of our own, that we draw from the world around us, but to do the great things, the miracles the Djinn are famous for, we draw from the life energy of humans. We can only do that if we're claimed."

"You mean slaves."

Patrick shrugged. "I prefer to think of it as being in public service. In any case, you're not ready for such a step just yet. First, you have to learn how to live without a power source, such as a human or another Djinn."

"That's why I'm here." I chanced a sip of the drink he'd poured me. Yowza. The good stuff. Apparently, Patrick's bad taste didn't extend to his palate.

"Exactly. You must learn to feed from what's all around you, change its form and consume the excess energy produced. My poor Ifrit there exists as a kind of vampire, stealing the souls of others because she cannot touch the forces of life herself. Yes?"

I wanted to shudder, but I didn't want him to see me do it. I just raised my chin and stared. Patrick smiled.

"Tell me something about yourself."

"I'd rather save the small talk."

"There's no need to be rude, child, and believe me, I'm asking for a reason. Tell me something about yourself. Anything."

"I'm twenty-eight . . ."

He rejected that one out of hand. "Something personal. Something . . . interior. Tell me something you love."

I thought about it for a long few seconds, then said, "Ralph Lauren's summer line this year. Not the spring collection, which was way too pastel, and the winter was really crappy, all bland browns and grays. But he's got some good fabrics this summer, kind of a hot tangerine matched with dull red. Only the skirts, though. His capri pants are for shit. Pockets? Who wants pockets on capri pants? What woman in her right mind puts extra fabric on her hips?"

There was a long and ringing silence. Patrick's eyes were wide and rather frightened. He finally cleared his throat and said, "Anything else apart from fashion?"

"What do you want me to say? Puppies? Fluffy kittens? Babies?"

"Let's try something simple. Your favorite food."

I rolled my eyes. "Chocolate." Duh.

Patrick went to the kitchen and came back with . . . a cup of sugar. He set it down in front of me. I eyed the white crystals. "Um . . . not really that hungry. Or that desperate."

He settled in a bright red armchair with a creak of leather. "No. Make it chocolate."

I gave him a blank stare.

"Alchemy," he reminded me. He reached into a candy dish and took out a silver-wrapped Hershey's Kiss, shelled it and set it down next to the sugar. "There's your exemplar. Transmutation. You alter the chemical formula of the sugar and take the resulting energy into yourself. Also, if you'd like, the chocolate, of course."

He reached into the sugar and dipped out a handful of granular white, put it in the palm of his hand, and waggled his eyebrows theatrically. The sugar thickened, darkened, and morphed into a small, perfect Hershey's Kiss. He popped it into his mouth and sucked with lascivious delight.

"It's not necessarily proportional," he said, smacking on the chocolate. "It depends on how much power you want to pour into it. But you will need at least something to work from. That's not usually difficult-most things you need are all around you. Once you get proficient enough, you'll be able to draw the raw material without it being necessarily in a similar form, but we'll start with the easy steps."

I had no idea what he was talking about, really. I mean, I got the theory, but there was a big-ass step between sugar and a tasty silver-wrapped treat. I thought about a lot of things, but mostly I thought about the power still flowing out of David into me, sustaining me. I needed to learn how to break that life support. Had to. Both our lives depended on it.

I reached out for the sugar, took a pinch, and contemplated the white granules as they glistened against my palm. Hmmm. Chemistry. I'd always been good at chemistry. It was no more than floating up into Oversight, then driving down through the atomic structure until you were at the most basic levels and rearranging things.

Okay, it sounded simpler than it really was, but doesn't everything? I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and focused on the chemical structure. Crystals first, until the edges were clear and sharp in my mind. Then down a level to the thickly nested lattices that made up the crystals. Then into the interstitial spaces that made up the layers . . .

I was reaching out for the glittering, blue-white beauty of the sugar's basic blocks when I felt something tear across my mind like a set of white-hot claws. I yelped, grabbed for my head, and felt myself caught. Impaled on something that felt like a knife through my chest.

We weren't starting with sugar into chocolate after all, it seemed, because Patrick just sat there looking benign and friendly and interested while I screamed and fell to the floor. On the aetheric level, his Ifrit was kneeling on top of me, ripping and tearing at me. I felt the swirling colored layers of my aetheric form go dark with shock, and struggled to break free, but it was on me, crushing me, and there was no way I could get free. I screamed, both in sound and the aetheric plane. Screamed David's name. Reached for that thick, lifegiving stream of silver that pointed the way to where he'd gone, but I couldn't find him, couldn't see him, couldn't see anything for the agony that rippled over me in waves.

The thing on top of me was laughing soundlessly. It reached for the silver cord that bound me to David, and to life, and it took hold of it in black-shadow claws . . .

I lashed out. I didn't know how to fight like a Djinn, so I fought like a Warden, reaching for power from the aetheric, drawing it up through myself like a spring through a well-hot, pulsing power, blood in invisible veins. I put my hands flat against the thing's chest and screamed as I slammed power into it, through it, out the back of it in a splash of fury so hot I wondered why I didn't burn with it.

The thing howled, slashed at the umbilical, and I pulled more power, spending it recklessly to keep the Ifrit from getting a good grip.

"Help me!" I screamed at Patrick, who was watching with great, bright-eyed interest. "You bastard!"

"Sugar into chocolate," he said smugly. "Transmutation. You know this one."

And somehow, somewhere, I did know. I grabbed hold of that power I'd been slinging so violently and focused it to laser-beam intensity, and allowed my Djinn senses to come back online again. Instantly, the aetheric bloomed into shades and shapes and dimensions, too much, too bright, too confusing, but in the center of the spotlight was the Ifrit. No nicely concealing shadows this time, just ugly angular darkness, all sharp teeth and overdriven muscles. Not a demon, which I'd fought before (and died in the process). An Ifrit was to a demon what a housecat is to a lion-but to a mouse like me, more than enough to do the job.

"Back off!" I snarled at it. It smirked and whirled away in a blur too fast to follow. Circled around behind me. Ripped at me before I could focus the energy properly. "Patrick! Call it off!"

"Now why would I do that?" he asked mildly, and ate another piece of chocolate. "You can't expect others to defend you, Joanne. It's the first responsibility of any Djinn. Preserve your life. Then preserve your freedom."

I didn't have the energy to spare for a reply. I was looking for a vulnerability, and trying to keep its teeth and claws away from my vulnerability-that silver cord stretching off to the horizon. So fragile, my God, no wonder Jonathan was afraid of leaving David tethered to me-David was vulnerable, too, through me . . .

Behind the coal black skin and shifting aura like an rainbow oil slick, there was something even darker inside the Ifrit, but soft. Fragile.

On the aetheric, I extended my hand and felt metal claws slide free. They were bright and sharp as starlight, translucent as crystal.

I slapped aside the Ifrit's tearing attack and plunged those knifelike claws home into its body, not to rip or savage, but to deliver something else.

Light.

Darkness into light.

One thing into another.

Transmutation.

The Ifrit turned pale, translucent, insubstantial, and for a second I heard its cry of joy echo through the aetheric, high and beautiful and strange, and then- pop-it was gone.

And I was lying on the floor of Patrick's ugly, overdone living room, staring up at a ceiling painted with pornographic renderings in the style of the Sistine Chapel. My Djinn senses were still locked on full, and every damn thing in the place had a history, sweaty and heavy in my head. I wanted to laugh, but I was too tired.

Patrick looked no more like Santa Claus than I did, when I examined him with those senses. No, he was big, tough, cold, and more than a little puzzled.

"Interesting," he said, and took up another palmful of sugar. This time he made an Andes mint, complete with wrapper. He offered it to me. "How did you know to do that?"

"Transmutation," I said, still lying flat on the over-colored carpet. I lifted my hands and looked at them, flexed a muscle that existed only in the aetheric. Silver-tipped claws, as delicate as frost, slid from my fingertips. "You said she was hungry. I fed her."

"Yes," he agreed softly, with a doubting undertone of wonder. "So you did."

I took the mint, unwrapped it, and let it dissolve into a sweet edge of mint in my mouth. Taste was different now. Brighter. Sharper. The shiny green paper of the wrapper had a texture to it like nothing I'd ever felt before.

"So," he said as I savored the taste. "Round Two?"

I'd just almost died, and for some reason I couldn't stop a giggle that worked its way all the way up from my guts.

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