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The Hunter (Chapter 6)

The room behind the door had golden-ocher walls. On one of them an African mask hung in primitive glory. Several clay sculptures rested on built-in teak shelving, including a bust that could have been Nefertiti. Leather cushions were tossed around the floor, one resting beside a complete home gym.

It was Dee's bedroom. The bust was one that Dee's grandmother, Aba, had made of Dee. There was a stack of textbooks by the bed and a pile of half-completed homework on the nightstand.

Jenny loved this room, loved to see what Aba would bring Dee next from her travels. But seeing it now was unnerving.

Once they were inside, the door shut behind them-and disappeared. When Jenny turned at the sound of slamming, she saw nothing but a blank ocher wall where the door used to be.

"Great-now we're trapped," Jenny said.

Dee was frowning. "There must be a way out."

They tried the window. Instead of the Ice Age outside it was the ordinary view from Dee's upstairs room. Jenny could see the grass below, illuminated by a porch light. But the window wouldn't budge, or-as they discovered when Dee swung a ten-pound barbell against it-break.

"So now what?" Jenny said. "Why are we in your room? I don't understand what's going on."

"If this place is like a dream and we know we're dreaming it, we should be able to change things. With our minds. Maybe we're supposed to make a way out of here."

They both tried, with no results. No matter how hard Jenny concentrated on making the door reappear, nothing happened.

"I give up." Dee took off her jacket and flopped on the bed-as if this place really were her room.

Jenny sat beside her, trying to think. Her brain wasn't working properly-shock, she supposed. "All right, look. That guy said we're each supposed to face our nightmares. So this must be-" she began, but Dee interrupted.

"What else did he say? Who is he?"

"Oh. Do you … do you believe in the devil?"

Dee gave her a scornful look. "The only devil I know is Dakaki, and he only makes you horny. According to Aba."

"I think he wanted me to believe he was the devil," Jenny said softly. "But I don't know."

"And he wants us to play the Game with him? Just like the one in the box, only for real?"

"If we get to the turret by dawn, we can go," Jenny said. "If we don't, he wins." She looked at the other girl. "Dee, aren't you scared?"

"Of the supernatural?" Dee shrugged. "What's to be scared of? I always liked sword-and-sorcery stuff; I'm glad it's true. And I don't see why we can't beat him. I swore to kick the Shadow Man's ass before-and I'm going to. You wait."

"But-this is all so crazy," Jenny said. Now that she had time to sit and think, reaction was setting in. She was shaking again. "It's like you've always thought, sure, maybe there's ESP, maybe there're strange things out there in the dark. But you never think it could happen to you."

Dee opened her mouth, but Jenny rushed on.

"And then it does and everything's different and it isn't possible and it's still happening." She looked hard into the dark eyes with the slightly amber-tinted whites, desperate for understanding.

"That's right," Dee said briefly, returning Jenny's gaze. "It is happening. So all the rules are changed. We have to adapt-fast. Or we're not going to make it."

"But-"

"But nothing, Jenny. You know what your problem is? You think too much. There's no point in talking about it anymore. What we have to worry about now is surviving."

Dee's straightforward, razor-sharp mind had gone to the heart of the matter. What was happening was happening, possible or not. They had to deal with it if they wanted to live. Jenny wanted to live.

"Right," she breathed. "So we adapt."

Dee flashed her brilliant smile. "Besides, it's kind of fun," she said. "Don't you think?"

Jenny thought of Tom cowering from something

invisible on the floor. She leaned her forehead onto her fingertips.

"Something must scare you, though," she said after a minute, looking up. "You drew a nightmare."

Dee picked up a beaded Ndebele bracelet from the nightstand and examined it. "My mom scares me. Really," she added, at Jenny's disgusted look. "Her stuff at the university-computers and all." Dee glanced toward the window.

Jenny saw only the curtains made of applique cloth from Dahomey.

"You're afraid of technology?" she said in disbelief.

"I am not afraid of technology. I just like to be able to deal with things-you know, directly." Dee held up a slender clenched fist, and Jenny looked at the corded tendons in the dark forearm. No wonder Dee wasn't afraid of the "sword and sorcery" stuff-she fit right into the heroic mythos.

"It's the same reason I won't go to college," Dee said. "I want to work with my hands. And not at anything arty."

"Aba would smack you," Jenny told her. "And your brain's as good as your hands-" She broke off because Dee was once again looking at the window.

"Dee, what did you draw?" she said, sitting up straight and finally asking the question she should have asked in the first place.

"Nothing's happening."

"What did you draw?"

A red light was blossoming outside the window, like the glow of a distant fire. Jenny whipped her head toward a crackling sound and saw that Dee's stereo had begun to smoke.

"What-?" Jenny breathed. Dee was already moving toward the window.

"What's going to happen?" Jenny yelled, jumping up. She had to yell because of the throbbing sound that suddenly permeated the room. It resonated in Jenny's bones.

Outside, a silhouette appeared against the light.

"Dee!" Jenny grabbed for the other girl, trying to pull her away from the window. She was panicking and she knew it. The thing outside was huge, blocking out the stars, dull black and non-reflective itself but haloed in its own red glow. The eucalyptus trees outside were thrashing in a violent wind.

"What is it?" Jenny screamed, dimly aware that Dee was clutching back at her. But that was a stupid question. What could it be, hovering outside a second-story window, shaped like a half-sphere with the flat side down? As Jenny watched, six beams of light, bright as phosphorous flares, shot out from the bottom of the thing.

One of the lights swung around to shine directly through the window. Jenny was blinded, but she heard the shivery tinkle of glass, and a blast of wind blew her hair straight back. The window's gone, she thought.

The wind roaring past her was freezing and felt somehow electric. Behind her a brass tray fell off a wooden stand with a crash.

That was when Jenny found she couldn't move. The light was paralyzing her somehow, her muscles going like jelly. There was the strong pungent odor of an electric storm.

She was losing consciousness.

I'm going to die, she thought. I'll never wake up.

With a great effort she turned her head toward Dee for help. Dee was facing the light stiffly, pupils contracted to pinpoints. Unable to help Jenny or herself.

Fight, Jenny thought weakly.

This time fainting was like oozing into a black puddle of sludge.

The room was round. Jenny was lying on a table that conformed to her body's shape. Her eyes were burning and tearing, and she felt a great disinclination to move. A white light shone down on her from above.

"It's exactly the way I thought it would be," a husky voice said. Jenny fought off the lassitude enough to turn her head. Dee was on another table a few feet away. "It's just like what I've read about the Visitors, just like my dreams."

Jenny had never thought much about UFOs at all, but this wasn't what she would have expected. The only thing she knew about aliens was that they-did things-to people.

"So this was your nightmare," she said.

Dee's perfect profile was tilted up toward the white spotlight above her, looking exactly like an Egyptian carving. "Oh, brilliant," she said. "Any other deductions?"

"Yes," said Jenny. "We've got to get out of here."

"Can't move," Dee said. "Can you?"

There were no obvious restraints, but Jenny's arms and legs were too heavy to lift. She could breathe and move her torso a little, but her limbs were dead weights.

I'm scared, Jenny thought. And then she thought about how Dee must feel. As an athlete, physical helplessness was Dee's worst fear. The strong, slim body that she'd cultivated with so much care was no use at all to her now.

"This place-it's so sterile," Dee said, her nostrils flaring. "Smell it? And I bet they're like hive insects, all the same. If we could just get up to fight them … but they've got weapons, obviously."

Jenny understood. Muscle and ingenuity wouldn't do anything against sterile, hellishly efficient technology. No wonder it was Dee's personal nightmare.

Jenny noticed a movement in her peripheral vision.

They were small-Summer's size. To Jenny they looked like demons: hairless, with slender bodies and large glittering dark eyes. No noses, slits for mouths.

Their skin glowed like bad mushrooms-very pale mushrooms grown in a cellar without ever seeing the light. Jenny noticed an odor of almonds.

They were alive, but they were as alien and wrong as the bleached things that crawl around at the bottom of caves. Just the sight of them struck Jenny with sick terror.

They were naked, but Jenny couldn't see anything that would make them male or female. Their bodies were hideous blanks, like dolls' bodies. They're its, Jenny thought.

Somehow, Jenny knew they were going to hurt her.

Dee made a faint sound.

Jenny turned toward her. It was easier than it had been the other time, and after an instant she realized that the spotlight above her had dimmed fractionally. Dee's light was brighter, because Dee was trying to get away.

Jenny had never seen Dee frightened before-even in the parlor Dee had looked more alert than anything else. But now Dee looked like a terrified animal. Droplets of sweat stood on her forehead with the effort to move. The more she thrashed, the brighter the light above her got.

"Dee, stop it," Jenny said, agonized. She couldn't stand to watch. "It's just a dream, Dee! Don't let it get to you."

But Julian had said if they got hurt in the dream, they got hurt for real.

The Visitors were clustering around Dee, but they didn't seem alarmed. They seemed absolutely indifferent. One of them pushed a cart over to the far side of Dee's table. Jenny saw a tray of gleaming instruments.

God-no, Jenny thought.

Dee collapsed back on the table, exhausted.

Another being picked up something long and shiny from the tray, examined it with lustrous black eyes. It flexed the thing a few times like a painter making practice runs with a brush. It seemed dissatisfied, although with its masklike face Jenny didn't know how she could tell this. Then it casually flicked the thing up Dee's thigh and Dee screamed.

It was like hearing your father scream. Jenny was so frightened that she tried to get up, and only succeeded in disarranging her legs slightly. One of the beings repositioned them carefully, stretching her feet toward the bottom corners of the table.

She had never felt so open, so utterly vulnerable.

Dee's black spandex legging gaped where the thing had cut it. Jenny could see blood.

The being handed the instrument to one of the others, which took it away. If they were talking or communicating, Jenny couldn't sense it. Certainly nobody tried to communicate with Dee or Jenny.

They were moving around again. One of them-the same one who had cut Dee?-took up a new instrument and went to Jenny's table. With a swift, deft movement the being touched the instrument to Jenny's hand. Jenny felt a pinch.

Then the probe went in her ear. Outraged, Jenny tried to roll her head away, but small hands-strong as claws inside mushroom flesh-held her forehead. She felt the probe go in deeper, and she squirmed frantically. It touched her eardrum and hurt like a Q-tip stabbed too deep.

She was completely helpless. Whatever they wanted to do to her, they would do.

Tears of pain and fury trickled out of her eyes, down her temples. They put the probe in her other ear. One of them dabbed at her eye, holding the lid open. Jenny felt the touch of cool metal against her eyeball.

"It's just a dream," she called to Dee, almost sobbing, when the probe was withdrawn. "It's not real!"

She couldn't hear any answer from the other table.

What kind of game was this, where you didn't have a chance? Julian had talked about "getting through" the nightmares, but Jenny didn't think that meant just waiting for them to pass. She was supposed to do something, but she didn't know what, and she couldn't move. And she didn't think she and Dee were going to survive this if they just lay here.

"What do you want from us?" she shouted. "What are we supposed to do?"

There was a shifting among the Visitors. A new kind of being had arrived. Taller than the others, clearly in command, with skin as white as wax. Its fingers were twice as long as a human's. Although Jenny got only a glimpse of its face, it looked more menacing than the other kind, its features even more exaggerated.

It picked something up from the instrument cart and went over to the far side of Dee's table. It looked up at Jenny, and she saw its eyes were blue.

Not glittering black like the other beings' eyes. Blue lakes endlessly deep, deep as a mountain is high. Eyes that looked inside you.

Jenny stared back, her own eyes widening.

Then she saw what it was holding. A needle. Wire-thin, murderously long, longer than the needle for a spinal tap. The tall Visitor was holding it over Dee's stomach.

Dee's stomach was heaving wildly in a fight for breath. Her khaki T-shirt was sticking to her body as she writhed in a futile attempt to escape. Her sweat-soaked hair glistened like mica in the light.

"Don't touch her!" Jenny cried. To watch it happen to Dee was worse than having it happen to herself.

The needle hovered just below Dee's navel. Dee's abdomen went concave trying to avoid it. Dee made rocking, shifting motions as if trying to shimmy up the table, but she only moved in place. The light above her intensified, and abruptly her struggles became weaker.

"You bastard! Leave her alone!"

What can I do? Jenny thought. She had to stop this-but how?

The light.

It came to her suddenly. The light above her had dimmed as Dee's had brightened. Maybe she could move now. And if she could move –

She began to rock.

She had some control over her body. Not much. Her arms and legs were still useless, like huge pieces of dead meat attached to her. But she could move her trunk and her head and neck. Using all her strength, she rocked her weight from one side to the other.

Dee saw her. All the other eyes in the room, all those slanted liquidy black eyes, and the one pair of deep blue, were on Dee's stomach, on the needle. But Dee's thrashing head had turned toward Jenny, and just for a moment the two of them were looking at each other, communicating without words. Then Dee began to struggle again.

The harder Dee fought, the brighter the light over Dee. The brighter the light over Dee, the dimmer the light over Jenny.

Fall off this table and you'll have no way to control it, Jenny's mind told her. A broken arm or leg, at least, and maybe a broken nose. You'll smash into the floor facedown.

She kept on rocking. Maybe Dee thought she was just trying to get away, but what Jenny cared about was distracting them. Stopping that thing with its too-long fingers from putting the needle in Dee. If she hurt herself they'd have to come deal with her. They'd leave Dee alone.

She swung her torso harder and harder, like a beetle trying to upend itself. Dee was fighting madly, yelling out insults to keep the aliens' attention. The light above Jenny dimmed further, Jenny surged

violently-and felt her momentum take her over the edge. For a moment she teetered there, balanced on her side, then the deadweight of her arms and legs decided the issue, and she felt herself begin to fall.

There was a burst of startled movement from the aliens, and the light flamed into brightness above her. It didn't matter in the least. It wasn't her muscles that were in charge, it was the law of gravity. Something nobody could argue with.

Jenny thought.

Searing illumination was reflecting off the white floor, and Jenny shut her eyes as that floor seemed to come up to meet her. She flinched away from the moment of impact. When the impact didn't come, she opened her eyes.

She was floating, facedown, an inch or so from the floor. Suspended. Paralyzed. The aliens were scuttling around hysterically, as if they weren't programmed to deal with this. As if they were as surprised by her midair arrest as she was.

The painful reflection on the floor softened. Jenny was still floating. It was a very strange sensation.

The small aliens were still moving around in consternation-Jenny could see by their feet. A bunch of them crowded between the tables and lifted Jenny back to hers.

She was positioned too high-she felt her ponytail hanging over the edge of the table. And the light above her was dimmer. Maybe somebody who hadn't been staring up at it for half an hour wouldn't notice, but Jenny did.

The blue-eyed alien with the needle was beside her.

She expected it to touch her, but it didn't. It just looked down, and Jenny looked back.

Why didn't you let me fall? she thought.

Abruptly the tall alien turned away. It motioned to the others, then walked out the octagonal doorway of the round room. Several of the small ones followed it, pushing the cart. Several others came and poured green liquid into Jenny's mouth.

It tasted like sugar and iodine. Jenny spit it out. They restrained her head and poured her mouth full again. This time she shut her lips, holding the liquid inside her mouth, doing her best not to swallow any. She could have struck out at them-she could feel her fingers again-but she pretended she couldn't move.

And then, blessedly, they went away.

Jenny turned her head and spat her mouthful out. Her lips and tongue were numb. She saw Dee doing the same.

They looked at each other, then at the lights.

"Both dimmer," Jenny whispered. Dee nodded.

Then, eyes on the doorway, they squirmed and rocked themselves off the tables. It wasn't easy, but with the lights this dim, it was possible.

Jenny, with no training in how to fall, bruised her arm and knee. But Dee was already pulling her up, out of the influence of the white light. Outside its circle, Jenny could move freely.

"Look," she said, seizing Dee's arm.

It was a door, concave, set in the wall that had been behind Jenny's head. It looked like an airplane door, which Jenny recognized because she'd once spent five hours studying one when her family flew to Florida on vacation.

And which was absurd, Jenny thought fretfully. Why should aliens have airplane doors? Dee wasn't worrying about it-she was moving levers and things. The door swung away outward.

Jenny shrieked.

She'd never liked heights, and this was much higher than she'd ever been in the open air. She could see clouds below.

But we both went for the door instinctively, she thought. It must be right. We went into Dee's room and the door disappeared. This is the first door we've seen since. It's got to be the way out.

She still felt faint when she looked down.

"I don't care; I'd rather die than stay here. Besides, I always wanted to skydive," Dee said, grabbed Jenny's hand, and jumped.

Jenny really screamed then.

Whistling wind slapped her face. Jenny's eyes screwed shut against it. Everything was icy cold around her. She felt weightless, but she knew she was falling.

If this is flying, I don't think I like it –

She didn't exactly faint then, but things got very confused. She couldn't see or hear anything until she hit an ocher-painted door with a thud, Dee tumbling behind her. From their direction and velocity they might have been thrown through Dee's bedroom window by a giant fist. The door opened as she struck it, and she and Dee both fell into the hallway.

The Haunted Mansion hallway. Dark as a crypt. Jenny stared into the golden glow of Dee's bedroom-

-then the door whisked by her nose and slammed shut.

She and Dee lay panting while their eyes gradually adjusted to the dimness. Dee leaned over and slowly, deliberately punched Jenny in the biceps.

"We did it, killer," she said. "You saved me."

"We're alive," Jenny said wonderingly. "We got through. Dee-do you realize what happened? We won."

"Of course," Dee said. She poked her fingers into the hole in her leggings, and Jenny saw that the cut was still there, the blood drying. Then Dee flipped up her shirt. Jenny could count ribs under the velvety night-dark skin, below Dee's dark blue sports bra. But there was no mark above the navel. "I told you, you saved me. That was my worst nightmare-those things poking at me, and me not being able to stop them."

"We both did it-by using our brains," Jenny said. "Anyway, now we know what to do in the nightmares. Once we're inside we look for a door-any door. Hey, what's that?"

A scrap of paper showed white against the black carpet. Jenny smoothed it out and saw it was a drawing, done in crayons. A black thing like a bowler hat was hovering above stick trees, with rays of scribbled light around it.

"I never could draw very well," Dee said. "But you get the idea. Now what do we do?"

Fear of the aliens had left its mark on Dee's face, but she also looked exhilarated, triumphant. Ready for anything.

Jenny was suddenly very grateful to have this beautiful, brave girl on her side. "We find the others," she said. "We look for another door."

She dropped the crumpled paper on the floor and stood, offering Dee a hand up.

An unseen clock struck eleven.

Jenny stiffened. "That's it-the clock I heard in the parlor. It's counting off the hours. He said dawn was at six-eleven."

"Seven hours and change," Dee said. "Plenty of time."

Jenny said nothing, but her little fingers tingled. She couldn't explain it, but she had the feeling Dee was going to be proved very wrong.

The hallway seemed to stretch forever in both directions. The stairway had disappeared.

"It's changed," she said. "It keeps changing-why?"

Dee shook her head. "And who knows which way to go? We'd better separate."

Jenny nearly objected to this, but after what they'd been through-well, she should be able to handle a hallway alone. She started down it and immediately lost sight of Dee.

It seemed almost normal to be walking down an impossible black-carpeted hall like something out of a horror movie. I guess you can get used to anything, Jenny thought. After the blinding-white sterility of the alien ship, this dim place looked almost cozy.

There were no doors. Even the monster one, which should have been somewhere back this way, had disappeared. The tiny flames of the candles went on endlessly ahead. As Jenny stopped under one to rest, she thought suddenly of the riddle she'd pushed to the back of her mind earlier. If it would get one of them out of here, she ought to try to solve it.

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.

What could it possibly mean? Two and two, hot and cold-it was probably something childishly simple.

"How do you like the Game so far?" The voice was like silk-wrapped steel.

Jenny turned fast. Julian was leaning against the wall. He'd changed clothes again; he was wearing ordinary black jeans and a black T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

Seeing him suddenly was like the first moment in the morning when the shower flicks on, a shock of cold awareness.

"Was it you?" she said. "In the ship up there?"

"That would be telling," he said, but for an instant his eyelids drooped, heavy lashes coming down.

"Why didn't you let me fall?"

"Did you know your eyes are dark as cypress trees? That means you're unhappy. When you're happy they get lighter, they go all goldy-green."

"How would you know? You've never seen me happy."

He gave her a laughing glance. "Is that what you think? I'm a Shadow Man, Jenny." While Jenny was trying to figure this out, he went right on.

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