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The Hunter (Chapter 14)

"Jenny?" Dee's voice said hesitantly. "Jenny, are you okay?"

I've had such a strange dream, Jenny thought, but when she lifted her face from her hands, it was real. She was sitting on the floor of her grandfather's basement, in a puddle of icy-cold water. Dee, Audrey, Zach, and Michael were standing in another puddle, looking at her.

"I found these three in the hallway," Zach said.

"We fell down a shaft," Michael said. "This hole just opened up in front of us. It took us all the way back to the first floor."

"It was a chute," said Dee. "I fell down it, too, and then we had to walk back up here."

"We followed your crayon trail, and it ended at a door," Zach finished. "We pressed the button and …"

"It let us in," Audrey said crisply, when he stopped. "But it looks like something's already happened."

"My nightmare," Jenny said. She was having a very hard time bringing herself back to the present. The five-year-old in her mind seemed more real than the sixteen-year-old these people were talking to. Dee and Michael and Audrey looked like strangers.

Not Zach, because Zach had been there when she was five.

Zach, maybe, understood this. In any case he knelt on the floor beside her, ignoring the water soaking into his jeans.

"What happened?" he said, his gray eyes steady.

"I lost," Jenny said dully, feeling strangely removed from everything. "I screwed up. I couldn't save him. I lost."

"It's something about Grandpa Evenson, isn't it?"

"What do you know about it?"

Zach hesitated, then, looking her directly in the face, he said, "Only what my parents told me. They say he-went crazy that day. Tried to-well, hurt you."

Jenny was shocked out of her apathy. "What?"

"They found you here, in the basement, with your clothes all torn and your arms all scratched. Your legs and feet were bleeding…."

"From the ice," Jenny whispered. "I got dragged through the ice. And he scratched my hands to make me let him go. They were taking him. He let them take him instead of me."

Then, suddenly, she was sobbing again. She felt a movement, then a slender, hard arm around her. Dee. A rustle and a cool hand on her wrist. Audrey, heedless of her fancy clothes. An awkward, warm grip from behind on her shoulder. Michael, They were all around her, all trying to help.

"You went through our nightmares with all of us," Audrey said softly. "It's not fair you had to face yours alone."

Jenny shook her head. "You don't understand. All of you had nightmares about things you were scared might happen. Mine did happen-because of me. It was real. It was my fault."

"Tell us," Dee said, her face stern and beautiful.

"He was a sorcerer," Jenny said. She looked at Zach. "You mean, all this time everybody thought he tried to hurt me?"

"What were they supposed to think?" Zach said. "You were here, practically in a coma. You screamed if anyone tried to touch you, but you wouldn't talk. And he was gone. They figured he ran away when he realized what he tried to do. And when they looked around at this place"-Zach looked around the basement himself and snorted-"well, they knew he was crazy. Paranoid. Because all this junk turned out to be-"

"Charms for protection," Jenny said.

"Right. I mean, what kind of nut collects thousands of those from all over the world? And he had piles of books on the occult, all kinds of garbage____"

"He was a sorcerer," Jenny said again. "Not a black one. Maybe not a white one, either, but not black. He wasn't trying to do evil. He was just-a little bit naive. He didn't allow for accidents happening … like a five-year-old coming down here on a day he didn't expect her, and opening a door she knew she shouldn't touch."

"That door?" Dee looked at the empty closet.

Jenny nodded.

"But what was in the closet? A monster?"

"Julian."

They all stared at her.

Jenny swallowed the bad taste in her mouth. "My grandfather wanted-well, the same thing those German boys in the forest wanted, I guess." She looked at Audrey. "Power. Or maybe he was just curious. He knew there were-things – out in the darkness, and he caught some. Maybe he used runes to summon them up, I don't know. But I know he used a rune to hold them. On that door."

"And just what," Michael said, his voice unusually grim, "would you call the things he caught?"

"Aliens," Jenny said, looking at Dee. "Dark elves," she said, looking at Audrey. "Demons," she said, turning around to face Michael. "The Shadow Men," she said to Zach.

Dee hissed softly in comprehension.

Once started, Jenny couldn't seem to stop. "Dakaki. The Erlking. The old gods. The fairy folk…"

"Okay," Michael said huskily. "Enough, already."

"They're real," Jenny said. "They've always been here-like genies, you know? The old name for a genie was djinn, and in his notes my grandfather called them aljunnu. Djinn-aljunnu-Julian-get it? It was a joke. They like to play with us…."

Her voice was rising. She felt herself gripped from all sides, but she went on.

"He was keeping them trapped-but I let them out, and that changed everything. They said they had

the right to take me. But he went instead. He did it for me." She stopped.

"If we're going to get through this," Dee said, "we've got to be strong. We've got to stand together. All right?"

"Right," Audrey said, the first to confirm it. Looking down, Jenny saw Audrey's perfectly polished nails entwined with Dee's slender dark fingers. Both holding on to each other, to Jenny.

"Right," Zach said with no hesitation, no distance in his winter-gray eyes. His long-fingered artist's hand came down over Dee's and Audrey's.

"Right," whispered Michael, and he gripped Zach's hand with his own square pudgy fingers, unembarrassed.

"But there's nothing to do," Jenny said, almost crying again. "He won. I lost. I didn't make it through my nightmare. That door"-nodding at the closet one-"was always here. It's not the way out."

"What about that one?" Michael said, standing back and looking up the stairs.

Jenny had to move around the bookcase to see it. Instead of the blank wall she had seen earlier at the top of the staircase, there was a door.

Directly above them-in the room above-a clock struck five.

"You must have done something right," Dee said.

Jenny's skirt was clammy, clinging to her legs. Her hair, she knew, was in complete disarray. She was exhausted and still shaking inside, and it seemed like years since she had slept.

"I'll go first," she said and led them up the stairs, trying to look like Dee, proud as a princess. She found her slip of paper on the top step and stepped on it.

"If that's the turret-the top of the house-we've won," Audrey said. "Right?"

Somehow Jenny didn't think it was going to be that easy.

She twisted the knob and pushed, and the door swung back on oiled hinges. They all stepped into the room above. It was much larger than any turret could possibly be.

It was the More Games store.

Well, more or less, Jenny thought. There were the same shelves and racks and tables with the same uncanny games on them. There was the same small window-quite dark-and the same lamps with shades of purple and red and blue glass.

But there were differences, too. One was the grandfather clock standing near a corner, ticking loudly and steadily.

The other was Tom.

Jenny ran to him. He was huddled against the clock, chained to it somehow. Her mind registered fury at the humiliation of that, then went on to more important things.

"Tommy," she said, reaching with both hands for him.

He turned weakly, and Jenny was shocked. There were no bruises on his face, but he looked-ravaged. His skin was unhealthily pale, and there were black circles under his eyes. He gave her the ghost of his own rakish smile.

"Hey, Thorny," he said painfully.

Jenny put her face against his shoulder and cried.

The faded-photograph memory had disappeared.

What Jenny remembered now was the day of their first kiss, in second grade, behind the hibiscus bushes at George Washington Elementary School. They'd both gotten detention, but it had been worth it.

That kiss, she thought. Everything innocent. Everything sweet. Tom hadn't been arrogant, then, hadn't taken anything for granted. Tom had loved her.

"Tommy," she said. "I missed you so much. What did he do to you?"

Tom shook his head. "Hardly anything … I don't understand. There were the rats"-his haunted eyes skittered around the floor-"but they're gone now."

Rats. So that was what Tom had seen in the parlor-the invisible things that had tried to climb up his legs. In second grade Tom had owned a turtle, and his older brother Greg had owned a pet rat. One morning they woke up to find that the rat had eaten the turtle-eaten it right out of the shell.

I knew how upset that made him-how much he hated rats after that, Jenny thought. Why didn't I realize what they were in the parlor?

Because it hadn't seemed bad enough. Tom had been so afraid. But one thing Jenny had learned: Everybody's nightmare was scariest to them. You had to see it with them, get into their shoes, to understand just how scary.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "But, oh, Tom, your wrists-" They were torn, bleeding. He was wearing shackles like the kind his brother Bruce used in police work. The rest of him was wrapped up like Marley's ghost.

"I kept trying to get away," he said. "Not because of the rats. Because I saw you. He would come and hold up a mirror, and I could see you and what was happening to you. I saw you go through everything. When Summer died …" He stopped to get control of himself, his face twisting.

Saw we? Jenny thought in horror. Pictures of what Tom might have seen when she and Julian were together flashed through her mind. Then she felt a backwash of relief. If Julian had been standing here holding a mirror, he must have been showing Tom the times when he-Julian-wasn't with Jenny. Still, she had to know.

"Did you ever see-him-in the mirror?"

"No. But he told me-he told me he was doing things to you. To all of you. He laughed about it."

Jenny gripped both his hands. "Don't you worry about him, Tom. He can't hurt us anymore. We're free, Tom-we've won. Now we just need to find the way out of here."

Tom looked at her, then nodded behind her. Jenny turned.

She'd missed it before, because Tom had so quickly captured her attention. There was a door, just like the door in the More Games store that led out onto Montevideo Street. But this door was partly open, showing darkness outside.

Standing before it, completely blocking the way, were a giant coiled snake and a large wolf.

"The Creeper and the Lurker. At last," Dee said.

"Just a slight problem," Michael said nervously.

They weren't real animals exactly-they looked more as if they'd been painted with luminous paint on the darkness. Like some special effect Zach might make for a photo. But the wolf breathed and the snake's fluorescent tongue flicked in and out. Jenny felt sure that they could move-and do harm.

She fingered Tom's chains. "He has to let us go. The rules were that if we got to the top of the house, we could go free."

"Not exactly," the liquid, elemental voice said from the back of the store.

He was dressed the way he had been in the More Games store, in that weird combination of cyberpunk and Byronic poet. The snake tattoo was back on his wrist.

He looked as laconic as he had in the store, and as beautiful. His hair was like moonstone, white with a shimmery blue glow inside. In this dim light his eyes were midnight blue.

He looked-charming, sinister, and slightly mad. A demon prince with the face of an angel.

Jenny was suddenly very frightened.

And much more alert. Seeing Julian cleared the cobwebs out of your brain instantly. She straightened her back, still kneeling.

The others were gathering themselves, too. What light there was caught Zach's light hair and the gold clasp of Audrey's Brunetti calfskin belt. Jenny could see by their faces that they knew Julian better now-not because they'd seen him in the Game but because they understood what he was.

Julian smiled his strange, sweet smile.

"You all wanted to know who I am. Well, I'll give you a final riddle," he said. "I'm a Visitor from the stars. I'm the Erlking. I'm Loki. I'm Puck. I'm the Hunter. I'm the Shadow Man. I'm your nightmares come true."

"We figured that out," Jenny said, quietly, steadily. "And we played your game and won. Now we want to go home."

"You didn't let me finish," Julian said, turning the smile on her. "Do you remember, when you first came in the game store, I showed you the ancient Tibetan game of goats and tigers?" He gestured, one of his easy, flowing motions, and Jenny saw the bronze board on a table. Tiny figures, also bronze, sat on it somewhat like chess pieces.

"Well, that's what you've really been playing," Julian said, and at the sound of his voice Jenny felt the walls closing in. He smiled at her particularly.

"You are all the innocent little goats … and I'm the tiger."

Tom's hands were gripping Jenny's numbingly. Dee was in the forward stance, left leg forward, right leg back, ready for action. Zach looked bleak, and Audrey and Michael had moved closer together.

"You didn't really think," Julian said to Jenny, "that I would let you go."

Jenny felt dizzy. Smothering.

"You said … you were playing the Game fairly," she got out, with barely the breath to say it. "You promised me-"

"I'm not hidebound by tradition. And I am playing fairly-I said if you got to the turret before dawn, you'd find the door home standing open. It is open-it's just that I won't let you get to it."

Jenny looked at the animals guarding the door. What could even Dee do to fight them?

"By the way, Tommy, here, hasn't even faced his real nightmare yet. But there'll be plenty of time. We've got something like eternity ahead of us, you

know," Julian said. His eyes were like liquid cobalt -and ravenous. Hungrier than the wolf's as he looked at Jenny and Tom together there.

God help me, Jenny thought. Please, someone help. She looked at Tom, but Tom was looking at Julian, with such hatred and fury that it made Jenny afraid for him.

"Then this whole 'Game' has been a farce," Tom said, almost spitting the words. His hazel eyes were burning.

Julian spread his hands and inclined his head slightly-almost a bow. As if someone had complimented him on a job well done. But it was Jenny he spoke to.

"I told you I'd do whatever was necessary to get you. At first I was sure you'd lose the Game-most people do. Then, when I saw you had a chance of winning, I figured I could make you turn to me for help. But you wouldn't. She's very strong, you know," he added, flicking a heavy-lidded glance at Tom. "Much too good for you."

"I know," Tom said, and Jenny looked at him, astonished. "But she's a thousand times too good for you."

"I want her for goodness' sake," Julian said and smiled. "Light to my darkness. You'll see-Tommy. You'll have years and years and years to see how well she and I fit together." He turned back to Jenny. "In any case, you've gotten this far, and I'm afraid I have to tell you the truth. Which is that the whole Game has been just-a game. The kind a cat plays with a mouse."

"Before eating it?" Dee said in a voice like a knife.

Julian barely glanced back at her. "I'm only hungry for one thing at the moment, Deirdre. But my friends by the door have strange appetites. I wouldn't go near them if I were you. And of course there are all the other Shadow Men-all my elders, those ancient, bone-sucking, lip-licking wraiths-they'd all like to get hold of you. This house keeps them outside-but you wouldn't get far if you opened a window."

Jenny felt the trembling in Tom's clenched fists and bowed her head. She was thinking of the poem in her grandfather's room.

Like the other fools/Who've slipped on these same stones and played and lost. .

Did everyone lose to the Shadow Men?

The dice are loaded, she thought. You can't win.

All bets are off.

"They'd love to sink a tooth in you," Julian was saying to Dee. "Do you know you're the image of Ankhesenamun, one of the greatest beauties of Egypt?" Even as he spoke, Dee snapped her right leg up in a high kick, pulling her toes back at the last minute to deliver a devastating blow with the heel. At least, that was how it should have happened. Julian, with the reflexes of a rattlesnake, caught her foot as it came at him and jerked up, flinging Dee on her back.

"Rule One in this Game," Julian said, smiling. "Don't mess with me. I'll beat you every time."

Dee got up, obviously in pain-there was no way to break a fall like that-and Julian turned back to Jenny.

Jenny met his ravenous eyes and felt something inside her change forever.

"Let the others go," she said clearly and softly, "and I'll stay with you."

Julian stared at her. Everyone stared at her.

Then somebody-she thought it was Michael-started to laugh.

Julian smiled, very slightly, just one corner of his lip up. Not an amused smile. His eyes had gone the blue of gas flames.

"I see," he said.

Jenny detached her hands from Tom's. She stood up.

"I'm serious. Let them go … and I'll stay … of my own free will. And you know what that means." She was thinking of the darkroom, of the boy masquerading as her cousin who'd held her in his arms. The boy she'd kissed-of her own free will. She was hoping Julian remembered, too.

She thought he did. He looked intrigued. A strange, sensuous smile curved his lips.

"Willingly?" he repeated, as if testing the word.

"Willingly."

"No …" Tom whispered.

"Willingly," Jenny repeated, looking only at Julian.

Julian looked charmed-but wary. "You'd have to make a promise-seal the bond. In a way that couldn't be broken."

"Yes."

She could see she'd startled him. He'd expected her to play for time, to argue. Didn't he understand that she'd changed? She raised her eyebrows at him, ironically. "The sooner the better," she said.

Julian blinked, then said slowly, "Beautiful Deirdre can leave, and Audrey. So can Zach and Michael. But Tommy stays. I'll keep him as a hostage for your good behavior."

Looking up at him, Jenny felt her lip twitch, not quite a smile. "I don't think you'll need that. …"

"All the same."

"All right. It doesn't matter to me." Then, stepping close to him, she spoke quietly, for his ears alone. "Julian, don't you know that I've changed? Can't you see that? I still care about Tom, but… it's not the same. He'd seem tame after you. Anything would seem tame after you."

His eyes widened slightly in fascination.

Jenny took a deep breath. "I probably would have come to you a lot earlier if you'd just straight out asked me. Didn't that ever occur to you? That you could just appear at my front door, no games, no threats, and just ask me?"

He looked disconcerted. "Not exactly. …"

"You're too cynical. Do you know, I think the way you look at things has made you blind. You've gotten so hardened that you think you have to fight the universe to get what you want. To-sort of wrestle it out of people."

"And-don't I?"

"Not always," Jenny said. Meeting his gaze directly, she said, "Sometimes there's a much simpler solution. There are some things you can't force, Julian, and you can't buy them, either. They have to be given, for free. That's what I want to give you."

His fascination was complete.

"Then promise yourself to me," he said, and with a motion like a sleight-of-hand trick, he held something between his fingers. A gold circlet.

Jenny reached for it automatically, taking it between forefinger and thumb. It was a simple ring, with a design she couldn't quite make out on the outside. Inside the band something was written in fancy script. She tilted the ring toward one of the small lamps.

All I refuse & Thee I chuse, she read.

"Put this on your finger and you're sworn mine," Julian said. "No way to break the promise, no way to change the bond. It's a short ceremony. Do you want to go through with it?"

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