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The Hunter (Chapter 15)

"Yes," Jenny said.

Audrey gasped. "Jenny-for God's sake."

Jenny didn't look at her.

Tom made some movement. Jenny didn't look his way, either.

"Jenny …" Dee whispered. "It's not worth it. I know your promises-you keep them. You'll be trapped. Don't do it for us."

Jenny turned, then. She looked straight into the dark eyes with the slightly amber-tinted whites. "Dee… I'm sorry. I know you don't understand-and I can't explain it to you. But please believe me, I'm staying because I want to. Audrey, can't you understand?"

Audrey slowly shook her copper head, highlights flaring.

"I don't have a lot of real friends," she said. "I don't want to lose you."

"You're going to anyway," Jenny said. "This way is just easier on everyone. And I want to stay. I swear I do."

Dee had been staring at Jenny hard. Now, abruptly, her ebony face went blank. Walled off. Utterly without expression.

"That's right," she said. "You have to look out for number one." She nodded at Jenny, face grim, eyes meeting Jenny's directly. "Go ahead, Sunshine. Good luck."

Jenny nodded back. If it hadn't been manifestly impossible, she would have said the glitter in Dee's eyes was tears.

She turned back to Julian, who took the ring from her.

"A short ceremony," he said again. "Give me your hand."

A stained-glass lampshade threw blue and purple light over him. Jenny gave him her hand, felt that his was as cool as hers.

"Oh, don't," Audrey said, as if involuntarily.

Jenny didn't move.

"Seventeenth-century poesy ring, used to be given as tokens between lovers," Julian explained, holding up the gold circlet. "With the inscription on the inside. It means you refuse all the world except the one who gives it to you. The words touch your skin and bind you with their power."

Jenny smiled at him.

Tom stood slowly, his chains scraping up the sides of the clock with a sound like ball bearings rolling on wood.

Julian ignored everything but Jenny. "Now you repeat after me. But remember-the promise is irrevocable." With a slight, grave formality, he said, as if quoting:

"This ring, the symbol of my oath, Will hold me to the words I speak: All I refuse and thee I choose."

Jenny repeated the words and felt the cool band slide onto her finger. Then she looked at it. It shone with a rich, warm light, as if it had always been there.

"Now if we seal the bargain with a kiss, it becomes irrevocable," Julian said again, looking down at her. As if giving her a last chance to back out. The circlet burned on Jenny's finger like cold fire.

Jenny turned her face up. She didn't have to go far on tiptoe to kiss him. It was a soft kiss, but not a quick one.

Julian was the one who lifted his head from it.

"Sworn mine," he whispered. "Now and forever."

The violence came from an unexpected quarter.

"No," said Zachary, surging forward as if he was going to attack Julian.

Julian didn't even bother to look at him. Zach slammed into an invisible wall and fell back into Dee.

Jenny did turn, to look at all of them. Audrey and Zach and Dee and Michael. Her friends.

"I knew you wouldn't like this-" she began, but Zach interrupted her. He was on his feet again, gray eyes flashing in a way Jenny had never seen, face more intense than ever.

"How could you?" he burst out. He seemed as angry on Tom's behalf as if he himself were being betrayed. "How could you?"

"Leave her alone," Michael said shortly. Jenny could see his opinion in his dark spaniel eyes-Mike thought she was making the best of a very bad situation. He didn't blame her for it. "What do you want her to do?" he said, and Zach shook his head in contempt.

"Not go willingly," he said. "Not give in-to that."

Tom was watching it all with blank eyes. Jenny could barely make herself look at him, but she did.

"I'm sorry, Tommy," she said. She saw his face twist slightly, and for a terrible moment she thought he was going to cry. Then he shrugged.

"I suppose it had to happen. That's the name of the Game, isn't it?" he said, looking at Julian.

Julian gave him an odd smile, and Jenny realized they were talking about something she didn't understand. "I keep my promises, too," he said. "All of them."

Jenny touched his sleeve. His face changed as he turned toward her, as if he were forgetting everyone else in the room.

"The ceremony's done," he said. "We're promised."

"I know." Jenny let out a deep breath. The ring made a little weight on her finger, but she felt very light, very free. She spoke calmly and casually, as if she were organizing a picnic or a redecorating project. Something that had to be done fast, but right.

"Let the others go now, Julian. I wish you'd let Tom go, too-but if not, can't you please make him more comfortable? I think in a few days you'll realize you don't need a hostage to keep me behaving."

He was searching her face, as if stricken by doubt for the first time. "Jenny-you really want to stay here? It's going to be strange for you�C�C"

"That is the understatement of the century." She looked up at him and spoke freely. "I only hope to God we can get a different view out the parlor window. But, yes, I want to stay. I never realized how much more there was to life than what I was getting. Now that I've seen it, I can't go back. I'm not the same person I was before."

He smiled. "No. In less than twelve hours you've changed. You've become …"

Jenny raised her eyebrows. "What?"

"I'll tell you later. I'll enjoy telling you, taking a long time to do it." He turned.

"You can all go." Jenny heard Tom's chains rattle and clank to the floor. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him hold his hands up, free.

"Out!" Julian said with a snap of his fingers. For an instant Jenny thought he meant it for Dee and the others, but then the phantom wolf, which had been bristling, lowered its head and slunk off. Straight through the wall, apparently. The luminous snake slithered and poured itself through the floor. Some compartment in Jenny's mind noticed with awe how long that took, how much length there was to pour.

The door home stood open, unguarded. From this angle Jenny could see the rune Uruz on it, the inverted U flaring fire-red with power.

Through the door-and through the small window-she could see midnight blue. She glanced at the clock, which was still ticking away. 5:50 a.m.

Dawn was coming fast.

"Go on," Julian said, as if eager to be rid of them.

"Not without Jenny," Dee said.

Michael, Jenny thought, was surprised. He looked at Dee, opened his mouth. Zach's mouth was curled angrily. Audrey was shaking her head in doubt. Tom just stood.

Jenny looked away.

Julian's voice was impatient. "Well, go, stay, do whatever you want," he said. "I'll leave you to argue it out. But, remember, that door closes at dawn. Six-eleven sharp. If you're still inside, you're here for good-and I might not be in the mood for company."

He turned to Jenny. "This place is crowded."

"I know. There's a couch downstairs. We can sit on it and get acquainted."

They went.

The sofa in Jenny's grandfather's basement was shabby and lumpy but wide and very soft. It sank under their weight. Jenny found it odd to be sitting beside Julian like this, with no animosity, no need to pull away. No battles to fight.

It was a very private place. She knew the others wouldn't open the stairway door and come down, or even look in before they left the Shadow House. Julian's warning about not wanting company was sufficient. They all knew what he could do.

She looked up at him, to find him looking at her. So close. His eyes the color of a May morning.

Very deep, but very gentle.

She could feel his hunger.

And could feel herself trembling slightly. Her nerves jangling with excitement-and fear. But he didn't even touch her, at first. He just looked at her, with an expression she'd never seen on his face before. A look of wonder. The tenderness she'd seen when he was impersonating Zach.

"Are you frightened?" he said.

"A little." She was trying not to show it. She said lightly, "So you're the youngest Shadow Man."

"And the nicest."

"I believe that," Jenny said earnestly.

He did touch her, then, fingers light on her hair. Jenny felt the little inner stillness, the change in perception that comes before response. She shut her eyes and told herself not to think, not to feel anything but the featherlike touch. The lighter it was, the more it moved her.

She was surprised when it stopped. She opened her eyes-and was even more surprised at the anger in his face.

For an instant Jenny was really frightened, and the reality of what she was doing came home to her. Then she saw that Julian wasn't angry at her but-for her.

"You're so-innocent," he said. "That boyfriend of yours, that-Tommy, that spoiled, swaggering-he never thought about you, did he? Only about himself. And he botched it. I'd like to kill him."

This wasn't at all what Jenny wanted to think about. She started to say so, but Julian was going on, his eyes full of wild blue light.

"You want to watch out for that cousin of yours, too. He really does think about you, you know. I took that impression from life."

Knowing it was completely inappropriate, Jenny burst into slightly hysterical, but genuine laughter.

"… you're jealous," she said, when she could get her breath. "Of Zach. Zach doesn't like people, only lenses and things."

The dark look disappeared from his face. "It doesn't matter," he said. "He won't be able to get at you here. No one will, ever. I'll keep you safe. …"

Jenny reached for him and lightly pressed her lips to his. He forgot about talking, then, and kissed back-such a soft kiss, his warm lips barely brushing hers.

But the soft kisses developed into slow shivery kisses and then into white-hot ones. She was still afraid of him, even as she clung to him-was it true that fear had to be a part of passion? Everywhere he touched she felt fire and ice.

Upstairs, the clock struck six.

Jenny pulled away from Julian, reluctantly. "I have to breathe," she whispered. She shook herself a little, then stood up. "Things are happening so fast."

He smiled as she walked around, getting her breath back, feeling her flushed cheeks cool. She couldn't look at him right now; she needed to regain her composure. Scarcely seeing it, she fingered the cobalt bracelet on the shelf.

"Why did you let me through my nightmare?" she said abruptly. "Sentimental reasons?"

"Not at all." He laughed. "I did play the Game fairly. I don't lie, even if I sometimes-withhold information. Your nightmare was remembering what happened that day. You couldn't see it, but the door appeared as soon as you remembered opening the closet."

"Oh," Jenny said softly. "The closet." Then she added, "What did he want from you? My grandfather?"

"What everybody else wants. Power, knowledge-the easy way. A free ride."

"And runes really work," Jenny said, shaking her head slightly in wonder.

"A lot of things work. A lot of things don't. People can't tell which are which until they try them-and then they're usually surprised."

Jenny went over to the closet, looked inside. He followed, standing beside her.

"I'm sorry," Jenny said quietly, without looking at him. "I'm sorry he did it. He wasn't a bad man." Then she turned. "I can hardly believe he kept you here."

"Believe it," Julian said grimly.

Jenny shook her head. "I'll always love him. But he was wrong to do what he did." She stepped into the closet. "Not as small as it looks."

"Small enough." He stepped in, too, looked around. "This place brings up bad memories."

"See if we can't make a better one." She smiled up at him, backed up against one wall.

He turned and smiled down at her. In the confined space they were very close. Jenny stood shyly, one leg crossed behind the other.

He bent his head again, his mouth warm and demanding. Jenny gave herself up to it, and the kiss opened like a slow-blooming flower. Became so breathless and urgent that Jenny couldn't break it, even though she knew she had to. She kept thinking, Just one more minute, just one more minute … It was Julian who pulled back.

"It's rather uncomfortable in here."

"Do you think so?" She smiled up at him, breath slowing.

"Definitely."

"Well, then, I suppose we could-"

Now, she thought.

In the middle of her sentence she moved. She had been standing in the cross stance, a kung fu stance Dee had taught her. Good for instant lateral movement. Now, in a split second, she used the power of her left leg to throw her to the right, vaulting out of the closet. In the same motion she slammed shut the door.

"Nauthiz!" she shouted. She slashed the X in the air.

As she shouted it, the rune flashed brightly on the closet door. Not red like fire, but blue-white like ice.

She didn't know if she was doing it right, but it was what her grandfather had done-or tried to do. Shut the door, trace the rune, say the name. She pronounced it as her grandfather had pronounced it.

And Julian did not come leaping out after her.

The closet door stayed closed.

The silence was deafening.

Jenny turned and ran for the staircase.

He lied, Jenny thought, racing up the steps. He changed the rules and he lied. Sometimes you can't return good for evil; sometimes evil simply has to be stopped.

She knew all this, of course; it had been in her mind from the very beginning, from the moment when she'd offered to stay with Julian. She didn't need to explain it to herself.

She was saying it to the whispering, plaintive voices in her own head that were begging her to go back.

Dawn tinted the turret window pink as she burst into the room. The door was a rectangle of pure palest rose with some lacy white clouds thrown in. The view was only slightly obscured by the five people standing around it.

Five. All of them. Dee, she'd expected-she knew Dee. Tom, she'd been worried about; she'd wanted him to understand, but she'd wanted him to leave even more. She'd hoped that Zach would be mad enough to go, and that Audrey would be sensible enough. Michael, she'd assumed, would be out like a shot.

"Go!" she shouted as she ran to them. She couldn't help glancing at the grandfather clock, which showed a scrolled minute hand leaning far too far past the ten. "Go!"

Tom's face had lighted with-well, with an expression that sent Jenny soaring the last five feet. "Go on!" he said to the others, reaching for Jenny.

It wasn't as easy a proposition as it sounded. There was nothing outside this door. No Ice Age, no living room. Nothing but dawn. Stepping out into that took guts.

"Oh, what the hell," said Michael, and, holding hands with Audrey, he took the step.

Dee flashed a barbaric grin over her shoulder and jumped out like a skydiver.

Zach was the one who balked. Jenny couldn't believe it. "Where is he?" Zach demanded.

"In the closet. Go, go!"

Zach's face was still dark. "I thought you meant it-"

Tom gave him a good straight-arm shove, running-back style. Zach fell out sprawling, spinning, arms and legs extended.

It didn't look like fun. They were trusting to fate. No-to Julian, a much more dangerous proposition. Trusting that when he'd said Jenny's friends could leave, he had meant alive.

And trusting to Grandpa Evenson, Jenny thought, that the rune of containment would contain. Tom reached to take her hand in both of his. The sky was a blaze of rose and gold.

They looked at each other and stepped out that way, together.

They were falling as the sun appeared. In that instant the entire sky around them turned a color Jenny had seen only once before. An unbelievable luminous blue, the color of Julian's eyes.

No matter how often you faint, you never really get used to it. Jenny came to herself slowly. She was lying down, she knew that first. Lying on something cool and very hard.

Mexican paver tiles.

She sat up much too fast and almost fainted again.

The first thing she saw was the Game.

It was sitting in the middle of her mother's solid ponderosa pine coffee table. The white box lid was on the floor beside the table. The rune Uruz was dull as rust.

The Victorian paper house itself was tall and perfect, its printed colors richly glowing in the rosy eastern light. The only difference Jenny could see was that the slips of paper they'd drawn their nightmares on were gone-as were the paper dolls they'd drawn of themselves.

It all looked so innocent, so wholesome, with the Tupperware tub of Joey's crayons sitting beside it.

"Maybe it was all a dream," Michael said hoarsely.

He was on the other side of the table, with Audrey, who was just straightening up. Her glossy auburn hair was windblown into a lion's mane. It made her look quite different, quite-free.

"It wasn't a dream," Dee said with uncharacteristic quietness, uncoiling her long legs and standing. "Summer's gone."

Zach picked himself up and sat on a leather footstool. He said nothing, but rubbed his forehead as if his head hurt.

Jenny looked at Tom.

He was sitting up very slowly, using the table as help. Jenny put a hand under his arm, and he looked a "thank you" at her. He'd changed. Maybe even more than Audrey. He looked battered and sore, and he'd lost his air of always being in control. There was a new expression in his eyes, a sadness that was almost grateful at the same time. Jenny didn't know the word for it.

Maybe something like humility.

"Tommy," she said, worried.

The rakish smile was crooked. Battered as his devilish good looks. "I thought maybe you were really staying with him. To save me-and because

you wanted to. And the thing was, I wouldn't have blamed you. I sort of realized that when he gave you the ring."

Jenny, who had been about to protest, looked at her hand. Any lingering doubts about last night being real were shattered. It was there, shining on her finger.

"I thought definitely you really were staying with him," Audrey said. "You had me convinced you honestly wanted to-and it was all a trick?"

"It was the truth. I was doing it of my own free will, and I did want to stay-long enough to make sure Tom and you guys got out."

"I knew," Dee said.

"It's those brains of yours again," Jenny said, looking straight at her.

"And I always thought you were such a sweet little thing," Michael was musing. "So simple, so honest…"

"I am-when people treat me fairly. When they don't kill my friends. When they don't break their word. I figured he made up the rules of that game, and trickery was a legal move. So I did it."

Audrey persisted. "And you really never felt anything for him? That was all an act?"

"Just call me Sarah Bernhardt," Jenny said.

She hoped that Audrey wouldn't notice she hadn't answered the question.

"Who cares?" Michael said. "We're home. We did it." He looked around at the sunlight flooding in through the sliding glass door, at the ordinary Thornton backyard outside, at the pastel walls of the living room. "I love each and every one of these baskets,"

he said. "I could kiss the tiles we sit on. I could kiss you, Audrey."

"Oh, if you have to," Audrey said, not bothering to fuss with her hair. She leaned forward and so did Michael.

Dee, though, was still looking at Jenny, her night-dark eyes serious. "What about the betrothal?" she said. "The ring? You're supposed to be promised to him now."

"What about it?" Jenny said quietly. "I'm going to throw the ring away. With the rest of this garbage."

In a single motion that brought Zach's head up, she crushed the paper house, smashing it flat and flatter. She put it in the white box, like filling an overstuffed suitcase, pushing it in where it wouldn't fit. She scooped up the game cards and jammed them in, too.

Then she took the ring off. It came quite easily, not sticking to her finger or anything. She didn't look at the inscription.

She dropped the ring on top of it all.

Then she put in the paper dolls of the Creeper and the Lurker. As she picked up the third doll she paused.

It was the boy with the shocking blue eyes.

They seemed to be looking up at her, but she knew they weren't. It was just a tagboard cutout, and the original was locked away under a rune of constraint that would hold, she hoped, forever.

She hadn't let go of the Shadow Man doll yet.

It was your Game. You hunted us. You told me to become a hunter. You just never expected to be trapped yourself.

What would this world be like without a Julian in it? Safer, certainly. Calmer. But poorer, too, in a way.

She'd beaten the Shadow Man, but it was strangely hard to consign him to oblivion. Jenny felt a pang of something oddly like regret, of something lost forever.

She put the doll in the box and crammed the lid on.

There was a roll of masking tape in with Joey's crayons. Jenny wound tape round and round the bulging white box, sealing it shut. The others all watched in silence.

When she finally ran out of tape she put the box on the table and sat back on her heels. A smile began somewhere in the group and traveled from one person to another. Not a partying kind of smile, just one of quiet relief and joy. They had made it. They'd won. They were alive-most of them.

"What are we going to say about Summer?" Tom asked.

"We're going to tell the truth," Jenny said.

Audrey's eyebrows arched. "No one will ever believe us!"

"I know," Jenny said. "We're going to tell them anyway."

"It'll be all right," said Dee. "After all we've been through, we can deal with it. As long as we're all together."

"We are," Jenny said, and Tom nodded. In the old days-last night-it would have been the other way around.

Audrey and Michael, who couldn't seem to separate from each other, both nodded, too. So did Zach, who was for once paying attention to the rest of them, instead of being off in his own little world.

I think it actually helped him, Jenny thought suddenly, to know that his grandfather was only calling up demons and not insane after all.

"We can call the police from the kitchen," she said aloud.

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