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The Hunter (Chapter 5)

Jenny whirled on the boy in black, who was leaning against the parlor wall and watching in amusement.

"What are you doing to him?"

"In the Game you have to face your nightmares. This is just a free sample of Tom's. No reason for the rest of you to be in on it."

Jenny faced Tom, drawing a deep breath. She took a step toward him.

"Stay back!" Tom said, sharp and frightened.

"Doesn't look like he's conquered it yet," Julian remarked.

Jenny stepped right into the midst of what Tom was staring at. She felt nothing but air around her bare ankles. She saw nothing. But Tom did-he yanked her to him, to the wall, falling down with her to his knees. He kicked out.

"Tom, don't! There's nothing there! Tom, look at me!"

His green-flecked eyes were wild. "Keep away from her. Keep back!" He was scuffing with his outstretched foot at the empty floor beside Jenny, trying to push something away. His mouth was quivering with disgust.

"Tom," she sobbed, shaking him. He didn't even glance at her. She buried her face in his shoulder, holding him with all her strength. Trying to will him sane again.

And then-her arms collapsed in on themselves. It was like one of those magician's tricks where the beautiful girl is hidden beneath a sheet-and then the sheet caves in and falls to the floor. Tom was there-Tom wasn't there. Like that. Jenny's embracing arms were empty.

She screamed.

And looked helplessly, wildly down at her hands, at her lap. At the floor. Tom couldn't be gone.

He was.

She looked behind her and saw that the others were, too.

Jenny's eyes darted to the dim hallway. It was empty. The curtains over the window were flat and still. But Dee was gone, and Audrey was gone, and Zach and Michael and Summer were all gone from the parlor. All five of them, without a sound. The way things vanish in dreams.

Please let it be a dream, Jenny thought. I've had enough, now. Please, I'm sorry; let it be a dream.

She was clutching the carpet so tensely that her fingernails were bending back. It hurt, and the pain didn't wake her up. Nothing changed. Her friends were still gone.

The boy in black was still there.

"Where did they go? What did you do with them?" she said. She was so dazed that it came out as a sort of insane calm.

Julian smiled whimsically. "They're upstairs, scattered around the house, waiting to face their nightmares. Waiting for you. You'll find them as you go through the Game."

"As I go?" Jenny said stupidly. "Look, you don't understand. I don't know what's-"

"You're the main player here, you know," he interrupted, gently chiding. "The door back to your world is at the top of the house, and it's open. If you can get to it, you can go. Bring your friends and they can leave, too."

Jenny's mind was still stuck on one thing. "Where's Tom? I want-"

"Your-Tom-is at the top." He pronounced the name as if it were something not mentioned in polite society. "I'll be giving him my special attention. You'll see him when you get there-if you get there."

"Look, please. I don't want to play any game." Jenny was still speaking as if this was all a mistake that would be cleared up somehow, as long as she stayed rational. As long as she avoided his eyes. "I don't know what you're thinking, but-"

He interrupted again. "And if you don't get there, then I win. And you stay here, with me."

"What do you mean-with you?" Jenny said sharply, jerked out of her courtesy.

He smiled. "I mean that you stay in this place, in my world. With me-as mine."

Jenny stared at him-and then she was on her feet, her composure shattering. "You're out of your mind!" she said. She would have lunged at him, herself, if she'd ever had any practice at violence.

"Careful, Jenny."

She stopped, frightened by what she sensed in him. Looking into his eyes, she saw something so alien, so terrifying, that she couldn't move. It was then, at last, that she believed what was happening. Full realization of what this boy had done, of everything that had happened tonight, crashed in on her. The young man standing before her, looking almost human, could do magic.

"Oh, God," she whispered.

All her violence had drained away, replaced by a fear older and deeper than anything she'd ever experienced. An old, old recognition. Something inside her knew him from a time when girls took skin bags to the river to get water, a time when panthers walked in the darkness outside mud huts. From a time before electric lights, before candles, when darkness was fended off with stone lamps. When darkness was the greatest danger of all.

Jenny looked at the boy standing beside her with his hair shining like moonlight. If Darkness had taken on a face and a voice, if the powers of night had gathered themselves together and formed themselves into a human being, they would have made something like this.

"Who are you?" whispered Jenny.

"Don't you know yet?"

Jenny shook her head.

"Never mind. You will, before the Game is over."

Jenny tried to regain her calm. "Look-let's just … You were at the game store."

"I was waiting for you."

"So this was all-set up? But why me? Why are you doing this to me?" Jenny could feel hysteria tugging at her again.

Then he said it. He was looking at her with eyes like the sky on a November morning, one corner of his mouth turned up. He spoke gravely and a little formally.

"Because," he said, "I've fallen in love with you."

Jenny stared at him.

"Surprised? You shouldn't be. I first saw you a long time ago-you were such a pretty little girl. As if there was sunshine all around you. Do you know the story of Hades?"

"What?" She didn't like this mercurial jumping from subject to subject.

"Hades," he said encouragingly, like someone helping her cram for a final. "Greek god of the Underworld. Ruler there. He lived in the world of shadows-and he was lonely. And then one day he looked up to the earth's surface and saw Persephone. Picking wildflowers, I think. Laughing. He fell in love with her on the spot. He wanted to make her his queen, but he knew perfectly well she wouldn't go with him willingly. So …"

"So?" Jenny got out.

"So he hitched his black horses to his chariot. And the earth split open in front of Persephone's feet. And her wildflowers fell to the ground."

"That's a story," Jenny said, trying to keep her voice steady. "A myth. There's no such person as Hades."

"Are you sure?" After a moment Julian went on: "Anyway, you're luckier than Persephone, Jenny. You have a chance to get away. I could just take you, but I'm giving you a chance." He looked at Jenny with eyes like liquid sapphires, wild exotic eyes. She couldn't speak, couldn't look away.

"Who are you?" she whispered again.

"Who do you want me to be? I love you, Jenny-I came from the World of Shadows to get you. I'll be anything you like, give you anything you want. Do you like jewels? Emeralds to match your eyes? Diamonds?" He reached outspread fingers toward her throat, not quite touching.

"What about clothes? A different outfit for every hour of the day, in colors you've never imagined.

Pets? Have a marmoset, or a white tiger. Far-off places? You can lie in the sun at Cabo San Lucas or Cote d'Azur. Anything, Jenny. Just imagine."

Jenny covered her face with her hands. "You're crazy."

"I can make your wildest dreams come true. Literally. Ask me for something, something you thought you could never have. Quick; I may not make the offer again."

Jenny was almost sobbing. His voice, soft and insistent, made her feel as if she were falling. She had a terrifying desire to collapse in his arms.

"Now, Jenny, while we're still friends. Later, things won't be so pleasant. I don't want to hurt you, but I will if it's necessary. Save yourself a lot of pain and bother and let me make you happy now. Give in, yield to me. It's going to happen eventually, anyway."

The sensation of falling vanished. Jenny's head snapped up. "Oh, really?"

"I never lose."

Something was waking up in Jenny. Usually she got angry quickly and got over it as quickly, like a summer cloudburst. Now she felt the slow kindling of something different, a deliberate, steady fury that would burn a long time.

"Careful, Jenny," Julian said again softly.

"I will never give in to you," Jenny told him, equally soft. "I'll die first."

"It won't come to that, I hope. But other things might happen-once you start playing the Game, I can't change the rules. Your friends might suffer."

"What? How?"

He shook his head at her. "Jenny, Jenny. Don't you understand anything that's going on? They're all playing the Game. They agreed to take the risks. Now they'll have to take the consequences." He turned.

"No-wait!"

"It's too late, Jenny. I gave you a chance; you refused it. From now on we'll be playing the Game."

"But-"

"You can start with this riddle." Turning back, head tilted slightly, he recited:

"I am just two and two. I am hot. I am cold. I'm the parent of numbers that cannot be told. I'm a gift beyond measure, a matter of course, And I'm yielded with pleasure-when taken by force."

Jenny shook her head. "That tells who you are?"

He laughed. "No, that tells what I want from you.

Give me the answer, and I'll let one of your friends go."

Jenny pushed the riddle to the back of her mind. It didn't make any sense, and while Julian was in the room, it was impossible to concentrate on anything else but him.

In all this time he hadn't lost his whimsical good cheer, his charm. He was obviously loving this game, having a wonderful time.

"That's all," he said. "Let the Game begin. By the way, if you get hurt in these nightmares, you get hurt for real. If you die, you die. And I can tell you right off that one of you probably won't make it."

Jenny's head jerked up. "Who?"

"That would be telling. Let's just say that one of you probably doesn't have the strength to get through. Oh, and did I mention the time limit? The door in the turret-the door back to your own world-is going to close at dawn. Which tomorrow is at exactly six-eleven. If you can't get to it by then, you're stuck here-so don't waste your time. Here's something to remind you."

Far away but clear, an unseen clock chimed. Jenny turned toward the sound, counting unconsciously as it struck. Ten.

When she turned back, Julian was gone.

Jenny held herself motionless. There was no sound. The fringe on the green velvet lamp rippled slightly; otherwise the room was still.

For an instant just being alone was enough to panic her. She was by herself in a house that didn't exist.

No, don't freak. Think. You can look around now. Maybe there's a way out of here.

She went to the window, pulled the heavy peacock-blue curtain aside. Then she froze.

At first she simply stared, breath catching in her throat, feeling her eyes go wide like a deer's. Then she whipped the curtain back in place, jerking it past the closing point, pressing it against the window with her hands. She could hardly make herself let go of the velvety material, but she did, and then she backed away quickly. She didn't want to see outside again.

A landscape of elemental terror. Like something out of the Ice Age-as painted by a mad impressionist. A blizzard with huge ungainly shapes lumbering through it. Blue and green flashes like lightning giving glimpses of deformed creatures crawling over icy ground. Twisted pinnacles of rock corkscrewing up toward a blank white sky.

She wouldn't survive a minute out there.

When the devil goes ice-skating, Jenny thought. So what if Hell's already frozen?

Oh, how funny. Michael would appreciate that. She felt tears sting her nose, her eyes. She stood hunched and miserable, hugging her own elbows in the center of the empty room. She had never felt so alone-or so frightened.

She missed her friends desperately. Dee's courage Michael's humor, Audrey's practicality. Even Summer would give Jenny someone to protect, and as for Zach-she wanted to find out what was wrong with him. In all the years she'd known him, she'd never seen him act this way.

But most of all she wanted Tom.

Tom, she thought fiercely. He's the one in trouble. Not you. He's going through God knows what, getting Julian's special attention. And you have no business standing here moaning while that's happening.

The yelling at herself actually helped-it shut up the babbling little voices in the back of her mind telling her that she couldn't deal.

Julian had said it depended on her.

All right. She was calmer now. She knew she had to start moving-but where? Jenny tried to gather her scattered thoughts, to remember the configuration of the paper house. The parlor had been off a long central gangway on the first floor. At the end of that hallway there had been a staircase.

Upstairs, Julian had said.

Jenny found herself moving through the candle-lit hallway, past gold-framed portraits which looked down disapprovingly from the walls.

She looked up at the stairway.

It was wide, carpeted down the middle. There was absolutely nothing strange about it-and Jenny couldn't force herself to put a foot on it.

I could turn around and run, she thought. It was impossible to realize-emotionally-that she couldn't just go back into the parlor and find a way home.

But intellectually she knew there was nothing in the parlor to help her. And she didn't want to think what she might see if she opened the front door of this house.

So you can stay here and hide, or you can go up. You have to choose.

She put a foot on the stairway. It was solid. Like any stairway. She started climbing toward the darkness at the top.

The hallway on the second floor seemed to stretch on forever in both directions, so dark that Jenny couldn't see any end to it. There were candles in brass candle holders at intervals on the walls, but they were far apart and didn't give much light. Jenny didn't remember any hall in the paper house looking this way. In fact, what this place really looked like was the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Like every other kid in southern California, Jenny had been to Disneyland so often she knew it by heart, and she recognized the creepy wallpaper.

But that was ridiculous. Why should it look like that?

She walked with fingertips brushing the wall. A dozen steps down the hall she saw something far ahead in the dimness, moving under the flickering light of a candle.

Jenny didn't know whether to run toward it or away. Then she noticed something familiar in the long legs and the greyhound build of the figure.

"Dee!"

Dee barely glanced up as Jenny reached her. She was wrestling with a door which bulged just like a door in the Haunted Mansion, the one that had always scared Jenny as a child. A lot of the things in the Haunted Mansion were simply silly, and a lot of others were mind-boggling-but only one thing there had ever really frightened Jenny when she was young … and that was a door.

A closed door, which bulged in the middle as if a great weight was leaning on it from the inside, deforming the wood, expanding, relaxing. While all the time guttural snarls, not the sort of sounds a human could make, came from behind it.

The door that Dee was wrestling with was doing exactly the same thing.

Only it was open a little. Dee had her lynx like body braced against it, head down, knees bent, one long slender leg back so the toe of her sneaker dug into the black carpet of the hallway, but she couldn't quite get the door shut.

Without a word Jenny went and helped her, leaning to press on the door above and below the handle which Dee was grasping. The keyhole had a large key in it.

"Push," Dee gasped.

Jenny leaned harder, throwing her weight behind it, while Dee pushed right above her, body stretched taut beside Jenny's. The door pushed back and bulged. The low, thick snarling rose in tone. Angrily. Jenny felt her muscles begin to tremble. She put her head down and shut her eyes, teeth locking.

"Push!"

The door yielded a crucial fraction of an inch, closing. Dee's hand shot to the key and turned it. There was a click, the sound of a bolt shooting home.

The door wasn't pushing anymore.

Jenny stumbled back, legs weak with the sudden release of strain, and looked at it. No bulging. No snarling now, either. It was just an ordinary six-paneled door, as quiet and innocent as a door could be.

There was utter silence in the hallway.

Jenny backed to the opposite wall, then slowly slid down it until she was resting on her heels. Her forehead was wet around her hair roots.

Dee was leaning one hand against the wall by the door.

"Hi," Jenny said at last.

"Hi."

They continued to look at each other blankly.

"Have you seen the others?"

Dee shook her head.

"Me, either. He said-you know, him"-Jenny paused "he said you guys were scattered around the house. Waiting for your nightmares." Jenny looked at the door. "Were you in there?"

"No. I was in the parlor watching Tom, and then all of a sudden I got dizzy. I woke up on the floor here. There was only one door, and I wondered what was inside, so I opened it."

"Oh. What was inside?"

"Just your average butt-ugly monster."

"Like the ones in the pictures-the Creeper and the Lurker or whatever?"

"No, really ugly. Sort of like Coach Rogers."

Dee was taking this rather calmly, Jenny thought. She looked strained and stern, but very beautiful, like a statue carved out of ebony.

"We'd better look around," she said. "See if we can find the others."

"Okay." Jenny didn't move.

Dee, still standing, reached out to her.

"Come on. Up."

"I'm going to faint."

"Don't you dare. On your feet, soldier!"

Jenny got up. She looked down the hallway. "I thought you said there was only one door. What's that, then?"

"It wasn't there before."

They both looked at the door. It was just like the other one, six-paneled, innocuous.

"What do you think is behind this one?" Jenny said carefully.

"Let's see." Dee reached for the knob.

"Wait, you lunatic!" Trying not to flinch, Jenny pressed her ear to the wood. She couldn't hear anything but her own breathing. "Okay-but be ready to shut it again fast."

Dee flashed her a barbaric grin and stood ready to kick the door shut. Jenny put her hand on the knob, turned it.

"Now," Dee said, and Jenny flung the door open.

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