"Sure," I said in between helpless bursts of laughter. "Bring it on."
Round Two was a disaster. I got my ass kicked. Painfully. This time I ended up lying full length on the banana yellow couch, sobbing for breath, too exhausted to even begin to count the ways I hurt.
Patrick bustled around providing fresh drinks. Unless he wanted to use mine as a topical ninety proof antiseptic, I wasn't interested.
"Now," he said briskly, and sat back in the red velvet chair. It was shaped like a platform shoe. Looked like something out of JCPenney's Nightmare Collection. "Let's talk about what you did wrong. Ifrits are an expression of energy, just as we are, and therefore your first instinct was correct, you must appease them, not fight them, until you have enough power to-" He stopped the lecture to frown at me. "You're bleeding all over my couch."
I groaned. "Excuse the hell out of me."
"For heaven's sake, child, just fix it."
I looked at him blankly. He reached over, took my wrist, and smoothed a finger gently over one of the gaping cuts. It zipped shut, faded, and disappeared. Blood along with it.
"There," he said. "You do the rest."
Not, of course, as simple as it sounded. I managed, knitting back flesh and muscle, blood vessels and nerves. The outfit repairs were easy, by comparison. I finally managed to sit up, kick off the shoes, and put my bare feet up on the tacky chrome and glass coffee table.
"Better," Patrick murmured. "Now. Ifrits. They can be formed two ways. One is a human failing to make the transition to life as a Djinn-which you are in grave danger of doing, my dear. They are also what's left of Djinn when we-well, I suppose the word is die."
I froze in the act of wiggling my toes. "I thought Djinn couldn't die."
"True, in much the same way that energy is never lost. But we can be transmuted, like anything else. Humans never die either, in the strictest sense of the word; they're transmuted into base materials. Recycled."
Ashes to ashes, I thought. Great. Nobody had bothered to mention this in the recruitment brochure.
"If a Djinn is injured badly enough, his or her energy can be broken apart, in which case an Ifrit is formed-they only want to eat, devour other Djinn, and recover their lost energy." Patrick shrugged. "If they devour enough, theoretically they could become Djinn again, but nobody is inclined to make that sacrifice, I'm afraid."
"-do Djinn die? Not often. I can only remember it happening three times in the last, oh, four hundred years." Patrick's sparkling blue eyes stared off into the distance. "And truthfully, I don't lose any sleep knowing two of those particular Djinn are gone. Not the best of people."
"Not people," I corrected, and got another shrug.
"Potato, potahto. You need to get over your human limits, my sweet." He was one to talk. Busy checking out the line of my leg all the way up to the leather skirt.
"How long do I have to do this?"
"Fight your Ifrit?"
He smiled, tinkled ice in a tumbler full of gold liquor that hadn't been in his hand two seconds ago, and those ocean-deep eyes looked terminally amused. "Is that what you've been doing?"
I let my head drop back against the yellow leather of the couch and stared at the pornographic Michelangelo ceiling. In this version, God was a very naughty fellow. "God," I said to Him. "Why did You have to make me a Djinn? You couldn't just make me a stinkbug instead? I'd have been happy as a stinkbug."
Patrick sighed. "I've been teaching you a great many things, and you're too smart not to know it. Using your senses effectively, thinking like a Djinn, drawing power from the world around you, knowing your form and your energies on an instinctual level. The Ifrit is a means to an end. You didn't hurt her any more than she actually hurt you."
In which case, the Ifrit was feeling pretty beat to hell, too. That was nice.
Patrick took a deep gulp of his whisky-if that's what it was-and said, "Now I think it's time for something a little different."
"Yeah?" I was no longer giving him the benefit of the doubt. "Is it going to hurt?"
"Do I get chocolate when it's over?"
"Perhaps." His round Santa face expressed his delight. "Let's take a trip."
"I'd like to rest first, if you don't-"
He did, apparently, because whoosh, I was no longer on the couch, I was being dragged up into the aetheric at a rate equaled only by spacecraft leaving orbit. I yelped-incorporeally-and grabbed a tighter hold of Patrick's essence as we shot up, up, watching his building miniaturize, then New York City shrink into a colorful little candyland, then the world curve off into a beautiful blue-green marble below us. Space was a vast black presence around us, cold and crushing, shot through with the icy sheen of stars. We were hanging at the very edge of where we could go, where the bonds of earth were weakest. Escape velocity.
Do you know what happens if Wardens go farther? Patrick asked. I almost forgot to answer. The world was so beautiful, edged in blues and greens, reds and golds, sparkling with power and life energy. She was magnificent. Alive. Sentient. I could sense her from here, a vast and slow consciousness that was only now beginning to wonder whether the presence of human beings was a Bad Thing. The storms, earthquakes, fires that had plagued human society in evergrowing ferocity since the Stone Age, those were nothing more than the earth shifting in her sleep, waving away a buzzing fly without ever really coming awake. Trembles of the skin. Involuntary sneezes to expel the intruders.
And still, they required every ounce of strength the Wardens Association possessed to keep the human race alive and kicking-and unaware of the danger.
Do you know what happens if Wardens go farther? Patrick asked again. I scrambled to remember. It wasn't a Djinn lesson, it was a human one, specific to the Wardens. I'd learned it in class, way back when, on a day when the sky muttered gray and gave Princeton one of those nice spring showers that humans think is the normal course of business for weather. It wasn't, of course. Spring showers are manufactured. Some guy colliding two fronts, carefully controlling the reactions to get just the right mix of wind, rain, and temperature.
We die, I said. In general, human beings could strap on a spacesuit and ride rockets to the stars. Wardens were too tightly bound to the planet. The farther we got from the nurturing heartbeat of our world, the weaker we became. It worked that way on the aetheric plane, too. This was the outer limit of our survival.
You are no longer a Warden, my little blossom.
He yanked me on, past the point of no return, out into the cold black blanket of space.
And I didn't die.
We floated in the sharp emptiness, part of a darkness so profound it was like death, and below the earth pulsed and whispered and murmured in its sleep. All that life, so bright. The stars were hard enough to cut.
Now you know what it's like, Patrick said.
I had no words to describe it, but I tried to put some context around it. How far can I go?
As far as you care to. But be careful. Falling down is not quite as simple as jumping up, you'll find.
It was still a test. What's the catch?
Nothing much. Get yourself back where you started.
And he was gone. Just like that. Blip. I was alone, floating in a void so empty that not even satellites raced by. The moon was a cold, lonely dot of white just rounding the far side of the planet. The sun's rays were so piercingly bright and intense that I felt them vibrate inside me even in my insubstantial state. In human form they'd fry me like an egg.
Get back? How the hell was I supposed to get back? I wasn't even sure how to move. There was nothing to push against, no forces to work with, nothing but emptiness . . .
. . . and the light of the sun, hot and fierce. It flowed like molten gold in the aetheric.
Could I use the sun? Use fire itself to move me?
I reached out, spread myself thin as a whisper, and dropped down into the real world just enough to give myself weight. Still invisible, to the naked eye, but able to trap that energy.
It moved me. Just a little.
It also hurt like that damn Ifrit had gotten hold of me again.
I summoned up my courage and sank further down, one careful level at a time. The more sun I captured, the more I was able to propel myself; the more sun I captured, the more I burned.
I finally let go of the pain and opened myself to it, and the force of fire hit me like wind in a sail, and I flew. Agony turned white-hot, burned itself out, became something else. I became something else.
I hurtled through the thickening fog of the earth's atmosphere, streaking like a falling star, trailing fire.
I fell back into human form, settled myself like a feather down on lime green spike heels, facing Patrick, and put my hands on my hips.
"Well?" I asked.
He looked down at the carpet.
It had melted into a circle about four feet across. Noxious chemical stew. He fixed it.
"Not bad," he said, and handed me a cold scotch on the rocks. "Not bad at all, little one." The ice instantly melted in the glass from the heat of my skin. The scotch boiled.
I took one step, felt my knees give way, and collapsed face down on the yellow sofa.
And this is what I dreamed.
A cold stone room, softened here and there by rough-woven rugs, a few grace notes like a silver candlestick and a red wool blanket thrown over the bed. By the standards of its time, a comfortable enough home.
Under the red wool blanket, a man lay dying.
He was skeletally thin, faded, his blue eyes almost colorless now in the flicker of candlelight. I floated in the corner and watched him. I felt I should know him, but his face was just a skull with skin, like an Auschwitz survivor. He still had a few tufts of thin blond hair spilling out over the hard bundle of cloth that served as his pillow.
There was a woman sitting at his side. She was beautiful, so beautiful, but it wasn't really her face that made her that way. She was actually almost plain-an unremarkable evenness to her features- but the love that spilled out of her was so intense, the grace of her body so informing, that she couldn't be anything else but lovely. She was wearing a long white robe, something that looked vaguely angelic and glowed like satin in the wavering light.
The man on the bed made a tortured sound. His clawlike hand reached out to her, and she captured it in both of hers. Bent her head. I saw a crystal rain of tears falling, but when she looked up again she was at peace.
"Forgive me," she said, and bent over to press her lips to his parchment-pale forehead.
Someone else was in the room now, walking right out of the walls. Someone I knew. David. But not the David I knew now . . . This one was wearing a medieval cotte and woolen hose, all in shades of rust and russet, and his hair was worn long.
He didn't sense me. His attention stayed on the woman in the chair.
"Sara," he said. She didn't turn to look at him. "Sara, it's time to go."
"No." Her voice was soft, uninflected, but I could tell there was no moving her. "I will not let him be lost like this. I can't."
"There's no choice," David whispered. "Please, Sara. Come with me now. Jonathan's waiting."
"Will Jonathan give me peace?" she asked. "Will he give me love?"
"Not like this." She reached out to ease a strand of pale hair back from the dying man's face. "Never like this, and David, I cannot bear to lose it."
"You can't keep it. Humans die. It's the law."
She looked away from him, and I had the strange, creepy impression she was looking somewhere else.
At me. But that wasn't possible, because I knew I wasn't here, really. Not in this time. Not in this place.
Sara's eyes were the color of amethysts, a beautiful, peaceful color. She stared at the corner where I floated, and then she smiled.
"The law of my heart is different," she said, and let go of the man's hand. She stood up, and the white gown fell away, sliding to the floor in a puddle of cloth; under it her skin glowed a soft, perfect ivory. No sculptor had ever captured a form like that, so perfect, so graceful.
"Don't," David said, and took a step toward her. I know he could have stopped her, but something- maybe just the heartbreaking longing in her eyes- made him hesitate.
She folded back the sheets and climbed into the narrow bed. The dying man seemed to see her, and those pale eyes widened; the word he shaped might have been No . . . and then she wrapped her arms around him. Her pale, white hair flowed over the two of them like a cloak, wrapping them together.
"No, Sara," David whispered. It sounded like a good-bye.
There was a flare of light on the bed, something so bright it was like the heart of a bonfire, and in it I heard screams. Terrible, wrenching screams. They were dying, both of them, dying horribly.
David didn't move. Maybe he couldn't. I wanted to, but it was still a dream, only a dream for me, and I just floated, waiting, as the fire burned and the screams faded, until the light faded, too.
Two bodies, lying senseless on the bed.
One of them opened its mouth to scream, but nothing came out. Dry, voiceless, horror-stricken. He had turquoise blue eyes now, and the hair that had been thin and fragile was reborn in a white-gold flame around his head.
Restored to life, health, as she must have known him.
Sara lay unmoving beside him, amethyst eyes still open. He reached out to touch her face . . .
. . . and that ivory skin cracked, turned to powder, and began to flake away.
A sloughing of skin, for what was underneath.
The soft black shadow of an Ifrit rose out of the pale ruin of the Djinn known as Sara, and the man reached out to it, but it flinched away. Hissing.
He filled his hands with dust and looked at David with tears streaming down his face. No words for it. No help for it.
David said, in a voice gone rough and strange with grief, "I pray you are worth this gift, Patrick."
This time, Patrick found his voice.
I woke up the next day to the smell of bacon and orange juice, and fresh-ground coffee. There was still a bowl of sugar sitting on the coffee table next to me. I felt hungover from the dream . . . memory? . . . nightmare? . . . and looking around me, I kept seeing that spare stone room, that skull-thin face breathing its last, the unearthly beauty and grace turned to something ugly and twisted.
He'd kept her with him all this time-or she'd haunted him. Impossible to tell how the feelings ran without asking, and I doubted Patrick would have anything revealing to say. He'd left that devastated, screaming moment behind centuries ago. The Patrick of today was cold, savvy, and controlled.
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