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The Hunter (Chapter 4)

Jenny felt as if a black riptide was trying to suck her underwater. It was him. The boy from the game store. Every detail of his face was reproduced perfectly, but it wasn't a photograph. It was a drawing, like the snake and the wolf. The boy's hair was colored silvery-white with blue shadows. The artist had even captured his dark eyelashes. The portrait was so lifelike it looked as if those eyes might blink at any minute, as if the lips might speak.

And it radiated menace. Danger.

"What's the matter?" Audrey was saying. Her face swam in and out of focus as Jenny looked up. Jenny's eyes fixed on the beauty mark just above Audrey's upper lip. Audrey's lips were moving, but it was a minute before Jenny could make sense of the words. "What's wrong, Jenny?"

What could Jenny say?

I know this guy. I saw him at the store. He's a real

person, not some made-up character in a game. So…

So what? That's what they would ask her. What difference did it make? So the game must have been invented by somebody who knew the guy, and the guy had modeled for the picture. That would explain why the box was blank: Maybe it wasn't even a real, mass-produced game at all.

Or maybe the guy was crazy, had a fixation with this particular game, and had bleached his hair and dressed up to look like the game character. Dungeons and Dragons, Jenny thought suddenly-people were supposed to get heavily into that, sometimes even go overboard. That's the answer.

At least, it was the answer somebody here tonight would give. Tom, maybe, because Jenny could tell he wanted to play, and once Tom made up his mind on anything, he was immovable. Dee, because danger always kicked her. Zach, because the game involved art; or Summer, because she thought it was "cute." They all wanted to play.

A good hostess didn't get hysterical and ruin a party because she had shadows on the brain.

Jenny forced a smile.

"Nothing," she said, letting go of Audrey's wrist. "Sorry. I thought I recognized that picture. Silly, huh?"

"You been drinking the cough syrup again?" Michael inquired from the other side of the table.

"Are you all right, Thorny? Really?" Tom asked seriously. His green-flecked eyes searched hers, and Jenny felt her smile become more stable. She nodded. "Fine," she said firmly.

Tom got up and dimmed the track lighting.

"Hey," said Michael.

"We need it dark," Dee told them, "for this next part. The reading of the oath." She cut a glance at them, the whites of her eyes shining like smoky pearls.

'What oath?" Michael said warily.

"The Oath of the Game," Tom said. His voice was sinister. "It says here that we each have to swear that we're playing this game of our own free will, and that the game is real." Tom turned the lid of the box around for them to see. On the inside cover, above the printed instructions, was a large symbol. It was like a squared-off and inverted U, the two uneven horns of the letter pointing downward. It was deeply impressed in the cover and colored-as well as Jenny could tell in the dim light-rusty red.

I will not ruin this party, I will not ruin this party, Jenny thought. I will not.

Tom was reading from the instructions: " 'There is a Shadow World, like our own but different, existing alongside ours but never touching. Some people call it the world of dreams, but it is as real as anything else'… and then it says that entering the Shadow World can be dangerous, so you play at your own risk." He grinned around the group. "Actually, it says that the game can be hazardous to your life. You have to swear you understand that."

"I don't know if I like this anymore," Summer said.

"Come on," said Dee. "Live dangerously. Make it happen."

"Well…" Summer was taking this seriously. She pushed soft light curls off her forehead and frowned. "Is it getting warm in here?"

"Oh, swear, already," said Michael. "Let's get this thing over with. I swear I understand that this game may kill me before I'm old enough to get a McJob like my brother Dave."

"Now you." Dee stretched out a black-spandex-covered leg to nudge Zachary. "Swear."

"I swear," Zach said in bored tones, his thin face unreadable, his gray eyes cool as ever.

Summer sighed, capitulating. "Me, too, then."

Audrey adjusted her houndstooth jacket. "Me, three," she said. "And what about you, Deirdre?"

"I was just about to, Aud. I swear to have a great time and kick the Shadow Dude's ass."

Tom had gotten up and was lurking over Jenny. "How about it, devil woman? I swear-do you?"

Normally Jenny would have jabbed an elbow upward into his ribs. At the moment all she could manage was a colorless smile. They all wanted to do it. She was the hostess. They were her guests.

Tom wanted it.

"I swear," she said and was embarrassed when her voice cracked.

Tom cheered and tossed the box lid in the air. Dee's foot flashed out, kicking it back toward him. It fell on the floor by Jenny.

You jerk, if you really cared about me, you'd care about how I felt, Jenny thought in a rare moment of anger toward Tom. Then she squelched the thought. It was his birthday. He deserved to be indulged.

Something about the box lid caught her eye. For just an instant the upside-down it looked as if it were printed in red foil. It had-flashed-Jenny thought. But of course it couldn't have.

Everyone was kneeling around the table.

"Okay," said Dee. "All the little dollies in the parlor? Then somebody's got to turn a card. Who wants to be first?"

Jenny, feeling that if she was going to do this she might as well do it thoroughly, reached out and took the top card. It was glossy white like the game box and felt slick between her fingers. She turned it over and read: " 'You have gathered with your friends in this room to begin the Game.'"

There was a pause. Then Summer giggled.

"Sort of an anticlimax," Audrey murmured. "Who's next?"

"Me," said Tom. He leaned over Jenny and took a card. He read, " 'Each of you has a secret you would rather die than reveal.'"

Jenny stirred uneasily. It was just coincidence, because these were pre-printed cards. But it did sound almost as if someone were answering the question she'd thought of earlier.

"My turn," Summer said eagerly. She read, " 'You hear the sound of footsteps from one of the rooms above.'" She frowned. "But there aren't any rooms above. This is a one-story house."

Tom chuckled. "You're forgetting yourself. We're not in this house. We're in that house."

Summer blinked, her large blue eyes traveling over the pastel, basket-adorned walls of the Thornton living room. Then she looked at the Victorian paper house, with the seven paper dolls neatly arranged in the parlor like a group of guests too polite to go home. "Oh!"

She was just putting the card back when they all heard the noise from above.

Footsteps.

A quick light patter, like a child running on a wooden floor.

Summer shrieked and looked in terror at the ceiling.

Dee jumped up, her dark eyes blazing. Audrey stiffened. Michael grabbed at her, and she smacked his hand away. Zach's face was turned up; even his ponytail seemed to be tense. But Tom burst into laughter.

"It's squirrels," he got out finally. "They run on the roof all the time, don't they, Jenny?"

Jenny's stomach was knotted. Her voice wavered slightly as she said, "Yes, but-"

"But nothing. Somebody else take a card," Tom said. Nobody did. "All right, I'll do it myself. This is for you, Mike." He flipped a card.

"'You go to the door to get some air, but it seems to be stuck,'" he read. He looked around at the group. "Oh, come on. It's a game. Here, look." He stood up in a fluid motion and went to the sliding glass door that looked out on Jenny's backyard. Jenny saw his fingers moving, flipping the locks on the handle. A sense of dread overwhelmed her.

"Tom, don't!" she said. Before she knew what she was doing, she jumped up and took his arm. If he didn't try the door-if he didn't try it-the card couldn't come true.

Tom was jerking at the handle, ignoring her. "There's something wrong with it-there must be another lock."

"It's stuck," Michael said. He ran a hand through his rumpled dark hair, an oddly helpless gesture.

"Don't be stupid," Audrey snapped.

Dee's sloe eyes were glittering. Her hand darted

out and she took a card. " 'None of the doors or windows in this house will open,'" she read.

Tom went on yanking furiously at the door. It wouldn't budge. Jenny caught his arm again. She was trembling all over with a sense of danger.

"Take another card," Zach said softly. There was something strange about his thin face-it was almost trancelike. Zombied out.

"No!" Jenny said.

Zachary was taking the card himself.

'Wo," said Jenny again. She had to stop this, but she couldn't let go of Tom. "Zach, don't read it."

"'You hear a clock strike nine,'" Zachary read softly.

"Jenny doesn't have any clocks that strike," Audrey said. She looked at Jenny sharply. "Do you? Do you?"

Jenny shook her head, her throat clogged. Every inch of her skin seemed to be raw, waiting. Listening.

Clear and sweet, the chimes rang out. The chimes of the clock at the game store, the clock she couldn't see. It seemed to be coming from far above. It began to strike the hour.

One. Two. Three. Four.

"Oh, God," Audrey said.

Five. Six. Seven.

At nine, Jenny thought. See you later-at nine.

Eight…

"Tom," Jenny whispered. The muscles in his arm were hard under her hand. Now, too late, he turned toward her.

Nine.

Then the wind came.

At first Jenny thought the riptide had gotten her. Then she thought it must be an earthquake. But all the time she had the sensation of air rushing by her, as if a hurricane had come in through the closed sliding glass door. A black, roaring hurricane that burned even as it froze. It hurt her like a physical thing, shaking her body and blinding her. She lost track of the room. The only thing real was the fistful of Tom's shirt she held.

Finally she lost track of that, too. The pain stopped for a while, and she just drifted.

She woke up on the floor.

It was like the only other time she'd ever fainted, when she and Joey had both been home sick with the flu. She'd jumped out of bed suddenly to tell him to turn down that stupid cartoon-and the next thing she knew she was waking up with her head in a wastebasket. Lying on the carpeted floor of her room, then, she had known that time had passed, without being sure how she knew it. This was the same.

Painfully Jenny lifted her head and blinked to bring the far wall into focus.

It didn't work. Something was wrong. The wall itself, which should have been pastel-colored and hung with weavings and baskets, was wrong. It was paneled with some dark wood, and an Oriental screen stood in front of it. Heavy velvet curtains obscured a window. A brass candlestick was attached to the wall. Jenny had never seen any of the things before.

Where am I?

The oldest question in the book, the biggest cliche.

But she really didn't know. She didn't know where she was or how she had gotten there, but she knew that whatever was going on was all wrong. Was-beyond her experience.

Things like this didn't happen.

It had happened anyway.

The two ideas jostled in her mind. She was already disoriented, on the verge of panic. Now she began to shake, and she felt a swelling in her throat.

No. Start screaming now and you'll never stop, she told herself. Don't think about it. You don't have to deal with it. Just find Tom.

Tom. For the first time Jenny looked at the floor. They were all lying there, Zach with his blond ponytail streaming out behind him (on a moss-green carpet worked with cabbage roses, but don't think about that, don't think about that now), Summer with her light curls cradled protectively in her small arms, Audrey with her French twist coming loose. Dee's long legs were sprawled near the window, and Michael's stocky body was curled in a ball beside her. Tom was lying against the wall-where the sliding glass door should have been. As Jenny got up unsteadily and began moving toward him, he stirred.

"Tom? Are you okay?" She took his hand, and when his warm, strong fingers closed around hers, she felt better. He groaned and opened his eyes.

"Hell of a headache," he muttered. "What happened?"

"I don't know," Jenny said in a small, precise voice. She was still close to having hysterics. She hung on to his hand hard enough to bruise. "We're not in the living room anymore."

It was just the truth, and she had to say it. She needed to share it with someone, the way Summer had needed to share about her dog being put to sleep. But Tom scowled.

"Don't be stupid," he said, and Jenny felt the little needle stab she always did when he snapped at her. "We can't be anywhere else. Everything's fine."

All his good humor had vanished, along with the rakish charm of his smile. His neat brown hair was just slightly mussed, and his green-flecked eyes looked both dazed and angry.

He's defensive, Jenny realized. Scared that it's his fault. She tried to squeeze his hand, but he was getting up.

So were the others. Dee was rubbing the back of her neck, looking around with quick, alert movements. She reached down and pulled a groaning Michael to his feet. Audrey was standing, too, her hands automatically going to fix the combs in her auburn hair even as she stared at the room.

Summer was cowering by the spindly-legged table that had taken the place of Jenny's mother's coffee table. Only Zach didn't seem frightened. He was standing and his clear gray eyes were open, but his lips moved soundlessly and he looked-entranced. As if he were moving in a dream.

Nobody said a word. They all looked around stupidly, trying to make sense of their surroundings.

They were standing in a Victorian parlor, lushly carpeted, furnished with Gothic Revival tables and chairs. A green lamp with a silk fringe hung from the ceiling. It looked like the perfect place for a seance.

Jenny recognized it.

She'd seen the pattern of the cabbage-rose carpet printed on tagboard. Zach had cut out the paneling with an X-Acto knife, and Audrey had put together that mahogany table.

They were in the paper house. It had come alive around them. They were inside it….

Jenny's hands came slowly up to cover her mouth. Her heart had begun a deep, sick pounding.

"Oh, my God," Summer whispered. Then, with gathering force, "Oh, my God, oh, my God-"

Michael began to giggle hysterically.

"Shut up," Audrey said, breathing hard. "Both of you, shut up!"

Dee went to the wall and touched a candlestick, fingers dark against the bright brass. Then she reached up and stuck her fingers in the candle flame.

"Dee!" Tom rapped out.

"It's real," Dee said, looking at her fingertips. "It burns."

"Of course it's not real!" Audrey said. "This is all-some kind of illusion. Like virtual reality-"

Dee's eyes flashed. "It is not virtual reality. My mom's a computer expert-she knows what real VR is. Not the Pac-Man kind you get with video games. Even they can't do anything like this. Besides, where's the computer? Where's our helmets?" She smacked a flattened hand against the wall. "No, this is real."

Michael was feeling a chair, still half giggling. "So maybe it was some of Audrey's mushrooms. What were they called? Shiitake? Maybe it's a judgment on us."

"Take it easy, Mike," Tom said. He looked angry,

which Jenny knew meant he was feeling uncertain. She watched him, all the while stroking the smooth mahogany of a tabletop. She felt the same compulsion that Dee and Michael obviously did-to touch things here. She kept expecting them to feel like cardboard, but they were real.

"Okay," Tom said, "we're not in the living room. We've been-moved somehow. Somebody's playing a joke on us. But we don't have to just stand around like idiots and take it."

"What do you suggest we do?" Audrey said acidly.

Tom strode over to the parlor doorway, which opened on a dim hall. "The guys can come with me and scout around; you girls stay here and keep your eyes open."

Dee threw him a scornful look, then turned narrowed eyes on "the guys." Michael was tapping on the walls, muttering, and Zach was just staring, the skin of his face drawn tight over bones. Jenny wanted to go to him, but she couldn't move.

"Good luck," Dee said to Tom. "Hurry back to protect us."

"Don't anybody leave," Summer said, her blue eyes wet.

"You protect Jenny," Tom snarled at Dee, thrusting his face close to hers. Jenny felt an instant of throbbing warmth, which was immediately swept away by coldness. How could anyone protect anyone here?

Dee crossed the room and put an arm, hard as a boy's, around Jenny's shoulders. "Right," she said.

"I think we should stay together," Michael said nervously.

"Oh, what's the difference?" Audrey said. "It's not really happening anyway. We're not here."

"Then what is it?" Summer asked, on the verge of hysteria. "Where are we?"

"In the Game."

The voice came from the corner of the room, from the shadow behind the Oriental screen. It was a voice that didn't belong to any of the group, but one that was familiar to Jenny. She'd only heard it once before, but she couldn't mistake it. Like water over rock, it was full of elemental music.

Every head turned.

The boy stepped out of the shadows.

He was just as beautiful as he had been in the store. But here, against the backdrop of this quaint and fussy room, he looked even more exotic. His hair shone in the dimness like white cat's fur or mountain snow. He was wearing a black vest that showed the smooth, hard muscles of his bare arms, and pants that looked like snakeskin. His eyes were heavy-lidded, shielded by long lashes. He was smiling.

Summer gasped. "The picture. The paper doll in the box. It's him- "

"The Shadow Man," Michael said hoarsely.

"Don't make me laugh," Tom said. Lip curled, he looked the apparition up and down. "Who the hell are you? What do you want?"

The boy in black took another step forward. Jenny could see the impossible daylight color of his eyes now, though he wasn't looking at her. His gaze swept over the others, and Jenny could see it affect them, like a wave of cold air that caused them to draw together. She could see each of them reacting as they

looked into his face and saw-something there. Something that caused their eyes to go wide and suspicion to turn to fear.

"Why don't you call me Julian?"

"Is that your name?" Tom said, much more quietly.

"It's as good as anything else."

"Whoever you are, we're not scared of you," Dee said suddenly, letting go of Jenny and stepping forward. It sounded like the truth, as if Dee, anyway, was not afraid, and it seemed to encourage the others.

"We want to know what's going on," Tom said, loudly again.

"We haven't done anything to you. Please just let us go home," Summer added.

"You can't go home again," Zach murmured. It was the first time he'd spoken. He was wearing a strange half smile.

"Bud, you're in worse shape than I am," Michael told him in a low voice. Zach didn't answer.

Only Jenny stayed back, not moving, not speaking. Her sense of dread was getting stronger all the time. She was remembering a look like a starving tiger's.

"At least tell us what we're doing here," Audrey said.

"Playing the Game."

They all stared at him.

"You agreed to play. You read the rules."

"But-playing? What playing? You mean-"

"Don't talk to him about it, Mike," Tom interrupted. "We're not going to play his stupid game."

He's so scared, Jenny thought. He still thinks this is all his fault. But it isn't, Tom, it isn't____

"I mean," the boy in black said to Michael, "that you all swore you were playing of your own free will and that you knew the Game was real. You invoked the rune Uruz." He sketched a shape in the air with his finger, an inverted U. Jenny noticed that the snake tattoo she'd seen on his wrist in the store had vanished. "You pierced the veil between the worlds."

Audrey laughed, a sharp false sound like glass shattering.

Michael breathed, "This is nuts."

Dee's expression said that she agreed. "What's a rune?"

Audrey opened her mouth, then shut it again tightly, shaking her head. Julian's lip quirked and he lowered his voice.

"It's magic," he said. "A mystical letter from an ancient alphabet. In this case designed to let you walk between the worlds. If you don't understand it, you shouldn't be messing with it."

"We didn't mean to mess with anything," Summer whispered. "It's all a mistake."

The fear in the room had heightened. Jenny could sense it like a yellow aura enveloping them all.

"No mistake. You chose to play the Game," the boy said again. "Now you play until you win-or I do."

"But why?" Summer said, almost sobbing. "What do you want from us?"

Julian smiled, then looked past her. Past all of them, to the one person who hadn't said a word since he'd entered the room. To Jenny.

"Every game has a prize," he said. Jenny met the impossibly blue eyes and knew she'd been right.

They stood for a moment, looking at each other.

Julian's smile deepened. Tom looked back and forth between them. Understanding slowly dawned on his face.

"No …" he whispered.

"Every game has a prize," the boy repeated. "Winner take all."

"No!" Tom said and launched himself across the

room.

Tom lunged at the boy in black-and drew up short. His eyes were fixed on something at his feet. Jenny couldn't understand it-it was as if he saw something terrifying there on the carpet. He turned to get away from it and stopped. It was behind him, too. Slowly he backed up against the wall.

Jenny was staring at him in dismay. It was like watching one of the mimes out at Venice Beach. A very good mime-Jenny could tell that the things Tom was facing were small, that they were trying to climb up his legs, and that he was terribly afraid of them. But there was nothing on the carpet.

"Tom," she said in a thin voice and took a step.

"Don't come near me! They'll get you, too!"

It was awful. Tom, who was never afraid of anything, was cornered by empty air. His lips were drawn back from his teeth, his chest was heaving.

"What is it?" Summer whimpered.

The others were all staring in silence.

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