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The Hunter (Chapter 7)

"Cypress eyes and sun-glowing skin … and your hair's like liquid amber. Why do you wear it back like that?"

"Because Tom likes it," Jenny said reflexively, her standard response. "Look, what did you mean-"

He shook his head, clicking his tongue. "May I?" he said politely, straightening up. His tone was so normal, so solicitous, that Jenny nodded automatically. She was still intent on her question.

"What did you-no, don't."

He had pulled the elastic band out of her ponytail. Jenny felt her hair fall about her neck, and then his fingers were in it.

An almost imperceptible shudder went through Jenny. "Don't," she said again. She didn't know how to deal with this situation. He wasn't being rough. He still looked solicitous and friendly. It didn't seem appropriate to hit him in the gut as Dee had taught her to do with guys that annoyed her.

"Beautiful," he murmured. His touch was as light as the soft pat of a cat's paw, and his voice was like black velvet. "Don't you like it?"

"No," Jenny said, but she could feel the heat in her face. She was backed against the wall now. She didn't know how to get away from him-and the worst thing was that her body didn't seem sure it wanted to. His cool fingers moved against her warm hair roots, and she felt a trembling thrill.

"Have I told you about your mouth?" he said. "No? It's soft. Short upper lip, full lower. Just about perfect, except that it's usually a little wistful. There's something you want, Jenny, that you're not getting."

"I have to go now," Jenny said in a rush. Her standard stuck-with-a-jerk-at-a-party response. She was so confused she didn't care if it didn't make sense here.

"You don't have to go anywhere." He seemed unable to take his eyes away from her face for a second. Jenny had never held anyone's gaze for this long-and she had never even dreamed of eyes like his.

"I could show you what it is you've been wanting," he said. "Will you let me? Let me show you, Jenny."

His voice seemed to steal the bones from her body. She was aware of shaking her head slightly, as much in response to the new feelings as to his question. She didn't know what was happening to her. Tom's touch made her feel safe, but this-this made her feel weak inside, as if her stomach were falling.

"Let me show you," he said again, so softly she could barely hear him. His fingers were so gentle as they laced in her hair, urging her to tilt her face up toward him. His lips were bare inches from hers. Jenny felt herself flowing toward him.

"Oh, stop," she said. "Stop."

"Do you really want me to?"

"Yes."

"All right." To her astonishment, he stepped back, fingers trailing out of her hair.

Jenny could still feel them. I almost kissed him, she thought. Not the other way around. In another minute I would have.

Tom. Oh, Tom.

"Why are you doing this?" she said, her eyes filling again.

He sighed. "I told you. I fell in love with you. I didn't do it on purpose."

"But we're so different," Jenny whispered. She was

still feeling weak at the knees. "Why should you-want me? Why?"

He looked at her, head tilted slightly, quizzically. "Don't you know?" His eyes moved to her lips. "Light to darkness, Jenny. Darkness to light. It's always been that way."

"I don't know what you're talking about." And she didn't. She wouldn't let herself understand it.

"Suppose the devil was just quietly minding his own business-when he saw a girl. A girl who made him forget everything. There've been other girls more beautiful, of course-but this girl had something. A goodness, a sweetness about her. An innocence. Something simple he wanted."

"To destroy it."

"No, no. To cherish it. To warm his cold heart. Even a poor devil can dream, can't he?"

"You're trying to trick me."

"Am I?" There was something oddly serious in his blue eyes.

"I won't listen to you. You can't make me listen."

"True." For just an instant Julian looked tired. Then he gave his strange half smile. "Then there's no choice but to keep playing, is there? No choice for either of us."

"Julian-"

"What?"

Jenny caught herself up short, shaking her head.

He was crazy. But one thing she believed, he really was in love with her. She knew, somehow, that it was true. She also knew something else about him-she'd known it since that instant when she'd looked into his eyes and seen the ancient shadows there.

She'd known it when he'd humiliated Tom and terrorized Dee.

He was evil. Cruel, capricious, and dangerous as a cobra. A prince of darkness.

Completely evil-and completely in love with her.

How was she supposed to reconcile that?

"If you want me so much," she said, "why don't you just take me, then? Why go through all this with the Game? You could grab me anytime-why don't you just do it?"

His heavy lashes drooped again. In that instant he looked exactly like the boy in the More Games store. Almost vulnerable-almost human.

Realization came to Jenny. "Because you can't," she breathed. "You can't, can you? You can't do just anything you want to, not even here."

His eyes flashed up, glittering like a snake's. Jenny saw pure violence there. "This is my world. I make the rules here-"

"No." Giddy triumph was swelling through Jenny, an effervescent rush. "Not this one. That's why you asked if you could touch my hair. That's why you tried to make me kiss you. You can't do it without my permission."

"Be careful, Jenny," he said. His face was cold and cruel.

Jenny just laughed excitedly. "If you can kiss me against my will, then prove it," she said. "Show me-do it now." And then she added an Italian phrase she'd picked up from Audrey. "Come osi!"

It meant I dare you.

He didn't move.

Jenny laughed again.

"I don't think you understand," he said. "I'm going to have you, at any cost. Any cost, Jenny, even if you have to suffer on the way. If I can't force you, I'll persuade you-and I can be very persuasive."

Jenny felt some of the triumph fold up inside her.

"Remember where you are, Jenny. Whose territory you're on. Remember what I can do in the Game."

Jenny was completely sober now.

"You challenged me-now I suppose I'll have to show you what I am capable of."

"I don't care what you do to me."

"Maybe it won't be to you. See your friend there? She's playing the Game, too."

He was looking down the hallway, in the same direction Jenny had been going. Barely visible under a far candle was the copper glint of someone's hair. Jenny drew in her breath.

"Don't you dare-" Turning back to speak to him, Jenny broke off. Julian was gone. She was alone.

Jenny bit her lip. It was infuriating to talk to somebody who could do that, and she was beginning to think it hadn't been a very good idea to laugh at him. Nothing to be done about it now.

"Audrey!" she called and started down the hall.

Audrey's skin, usually pale as magnolia blossoms, was touched with a golden glow from the candles, and her auburn hair flashed copper. She and Jenny hugged, and Jenny thought only Audrey could stay so calm, so chic, in such awful circumstances.

"You look as if any minute you're going to be demanding to see your ambassador," Jenny said.

"If Daddy were here he'd take care of things," Audrey agreed. "He'd come out of retirement to take on this place on. Are you all right? You look a little flushed."

Jenny put a hand to her cheek self-consciously. "It's the light," she said. "Uh, how long have you been here? I mean, did you see me-before I called?"

"No. I'd been looking and looking-for anybody, but all I've seen is this interminable hallway."

"Good. I mean-it's good that I found you. The only other person I've seen is Dee. She's back there, and she's just been through hell. And you're next, if I'm right about the way this works. I'll explain as we go."

The explanation, about how they were all scattered, about finding doors in the nightmares, about the dawn time limit and about how things in the nightmares could hurt you, took until they found Dee. They did find Dee, to Jenny's relief, standing beside a door.

"I thought I'd better guard it to make sure it didn't go anywhere," she said after a perfunctory nod at Audrey.

Audrey had only one question. "Is he Nordic, that guy? They're supposed to be sexy as all get-out."

Jenny ignored this. "Since the doors move, how do we know this isn't one of the two we opened before?"

"We don't," Dee said and flashed The Smile. Dee's wild, leaping beauty always annoyed Audrey. "Of course, it doesn't have a key like the first one, but I guess we'd better get in monster position again. Anything could be inside."

She and Jenny did, ready to kick the door shut fast. Audrey's eyebrows lifted into her spiky bangs. "No,

thank you, she said politely. Not in a fitted linen skirt. Listen, you two, why are we doing this at all? Why don't we just sit down and refuse to play?"

"Didn't you listen to me before?" Jenny said. "If we're still here by dawn, we stay for good. We lose automatically."

"I've never lost anything by default," Dee said. Then she said, "Now."

Behind the door there was a forest.

Cool wind blew out, ruffling Jenny's loose hair against her cheek. It smelled like summer camp.

"God," said Jenny.

"Well, come on," Audrey said, flicking her perfectly polished nails in a gesture of readiness. "We might as well get it over with."

"It's too weird," Jenny said as they stepped inside -outside. "Dee's bedroom was a room, at least. But this…"

They were on the outskirts of a dark forest on a sloping hill. Above them the night sky was strewn with stars much bigger and brighter than the ones Jenny usually saw from her Vista Grande backyard. A moon of pure silver was rising.

The door had slammed and disappeared, of course, as soon as they stepped through. Behind Jenny were meadows and pastures; before her a tangled mass of pitch-black trunks and bushes. The girls were alone on the hill in the moonlight.

"Now what?" Audrey said, shivering fastidiously.

"Don't you know? It's your nightmare-you drew it."

"I drew a picture of me opening the Bloomies catalog and finding it blank," Audrey said. "That's

my worst nightmare. Don't look at me that way-shopping is cheaper than therapy."

And that was all she would say about it.

There were a few scattered lights in the valley below them. "But it's too far to hike," Jenny said, "and even if we did get down there, I don't think that there would really be any people."

Audrey looked at her strangely, but Dee nodded.

"It feels like one of those model-train landscapes -or like a stage set," she said. "False fronts. You're right, I don't think we'd find little houses with people in them down there. Which means-"

They faced the forest bleakly.

"Why do I have a bad feeling about this?" Jenny asked.

"Come on," Dee said. "Let's make it happen."

The forest looked solid, but with Dee in the lead they found a way into it. It was mostly pine and fir trees, with the occasional beech shining silvery gray against the darkness of the background.

"Oh, my God," Audrey said after they'd been walking some time. "High ground, evergreen trees, rocks-I know where we are now. It's the Black Forest."

"Sounds like something from a story," Jenny muttered, picking her way through the undergrowth.

"It's a real place. I saw it when I was eight, when Daddy was at the German embassy. It-scared me a little, because it was the forest, you know."

Dee threw a derisive glance over her shoulder. "The forest?"

"The forest where everything happened-where the Grimm brothers got all their fairy tales. You know, snow white. Hansel and Gretel. Little Red Riding-Hood and the-"

Audrey stopped in midsentence. In front of her, Dee had stopped, too. Jenny's knees locked.

Just ahead of them in the tangled blackness, yellow eyes glowed. Jenny even imagined she could see moonlight gleaming off sharp teeth.

All three girls stood very still. Seconds passed and the yellow eyes remained motionless. Then they seemed to shift to a different angle so that one went out. Both flashed toward the girls again, then both went out. Jenny heard underbrush crunching. The sound got fainter. It faded into a profound silence in which Jenny could hear her heart beating strong and very fast in her chest.

Jenny let out her breath.

Dee's shoulders heaved slightly. She reached down and picked up a long stick almost as thick as her own slim wrist. She settled it in her hand, waggling it, testing her grip. It made a good weapon.

"-and the Wolf," said Audrey, her voice suspiciously calm. She tucked stray wisps of hair into her French twist, her lips tight. The three of them looked at one another, then started walking again. What else was there to do?

"It was strange, that wolf coming just when you were talking about one," Dee said.

"Unless-" Jenny stopped dead. "Wait," she said. Something had fallen into place with an almost audible click. "Let me think a minute… yes. It wasn't strange at all that the wolf came when Audrey was talking about it. Don't you see? He's taking it all from our own minds."

"Who?" Audrey said, her well-bred nostrils flared.

"Who do you think? Julian. The Shadow Man. He's creating the Game around us-or we're doing it-but either way it's made up of our own thoughts. That hallway back in the house is the hallway from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. It always scared me as a kid-so it came from my mind. And the door in the UFO was like a plane door I'd seen."

Dee's eyes flashed like a jaguar's. "And the parlor-I saw a lamp like that once in Jamestown. I wondered what it was doing here."

"Everything-every detail-is coming from us," Jenny said. "Not just big things but little things. He's using our minds against us."

"So what's going to happen next?" Dee asked Audrey. "You're the one who should know what scares you most. I mean, should we be on the lookout for walking trees or little hooded men or what? Or was that wolf it?"

"I was only eight when I lived here," Audrey said coldly. "And, no, I don't remember specifically which story … disturbed me … most. I had a German nurse, and she told me all of them."

She and Dee glared at each other.

"We could run into something from any of our minds," Jenny said, to make peace. "Anything could happen here. You can feel it."

She knew in her heart that it was going to be something worse than the wolf. Something more un-mundane. Audrey didn't like anything supernatural, so it followed that whatever happened was going to be very.

Remember, it's all a dream, she told herself. But she could hear Julian's voice in her mind: "I can tell you right off that one of you probably won't make it."

They walked. Underbrush clutched at Jenny's skirt like little fingers. The fragrance of evergreens surrounded them like a thousand Christmas trees. All Jenny could see was darkness and the endless tangle of forest ahead. Her nerves stretched and stretched.

They literally stumbled on the clearing.

One large tree grew there-a yew, Jenny thought. It stood in front of a great jumble of rocks and boulders that looked as if they might have been left by a glacier. The tree had rough bark, dark green needles, and red berries.

Gathered around it was a group of young men in weird clothes.

They were wearing pants and long over-tunics of leather trimmed with fur, very old-fashioned looking. Their arms were bare and muscular. The ground beside the tree had been cleared and a circle drawn on it. Inside the circle a fire burned, and red light glinted off daggers and what looked like drinking horns. The whole area was decorated with flowers.

"It's some kind of secret ceremony," Dee whispered. "And we're spying on it," she added with considerable relish.

"They're certainly good-looking," Audrey murmured.

They were. Jenny counted seven of them, four with blond hair and three with blondish-brown. They looked as if they were in their late teens or early twenties, and if what they were doing was secret, they weren't bothering to be quiet about it. Jenny could hear laughter and boisterous singing.

Good grief, it's like a fraternity party, she thought. Even this far away she could smell the beer.

"I think," said Audrey, "I'm Beginning to like this Game."

She stepped out before Jenny could stop her. The singing fell silent. Seven faces turned toward the girls. Then one of the German boys lifted a drinking horn over his head, and all the rest cheered.

They all seemed surprised but delighted to see the girls. White, even teeth flashed in friendly smiles, and they bundled the visitors over to the warmth of the fire. Audrey's bare legs caused a lot of appreciative comment, as did Dee's spandex leggings.

"No-no, thanks," Jenny said as one of them tried to get her to drink the stuff in his horn. The horn had angular symbols carved on it that made her nervous somehow-they reminded her of something. "Audrey, what are they saying?"

"I can't catch it all. It's not like the German I learned," Audrey said. Seated between two admirers, her cool porcelain beauty contrasted with her flirtatious lashes. "I think it must be archaic. But that one is saying that you're like Sif. It's a compliment-Sif was a goddess with shining golden hair."

"Oh, give me a break!" Dee backed up to sit on a rock.

There was an instant stirring among the German boys. Several pulled Dee away from the rock pile, shaking their heads. Dee barely allowed them to move her, not at all placated by the way they marveled over her dark skin. And she only snorted when one offered her a garland of flowers to wear.

"Oh, put it on," Jenny said, flicking a small bug out of her own wreath. She was starting to enjoy this. The young men were nice, even if they did smell a bit

like sweat, they were about the most strapping youths she'd ever seen, but several of them had braids in their hair, and they didn't seem to think weaving garlands was sissy.

"It's a ceremony to greet the spring," Audrey said as one of the blonds cried, "Ostara!" and poured beer on the ground. "Ostara's the goddess of spring-that's where we get 'Easter.'"

The young men began to chant.

"It's something about life being renewed," Audrey said. "There's something else-something I can't quite make out. They're … asking? Petitioning?"

All the German boys were on their feet by now, urging the girls to rise. They were facing the huge pile of boulders.

"Dokkalfar," they chanted.

"That's dark-something. I don't-oh, my God." Audrey's voice changed completely. She tried to pull away from the circle, but two of the German boys grabbed her. "Dark elves," she said wildly. "That's what they're saying. They came here to ask favors from the elves-and we're the yielding."

Jenny had never heard Audrey's voice like that before-bordering on hysteria. "The what?" she demanded. Suddenly the white, even smiles around her didn't look so friendly.

"The gift to the Otherworld. The sacrifice!" Audrey cried. She was trying to get away again, but it was no good.

We're outnumbered more than two to one, Jenny thought. And they've all got muscles. She looked at Dee-and felt shock ripple over her. Dee was laughing. Snickering, actually. Chortling. "Elves?" she

gasped. "Little pixies in bluebells? Little guys who sit on acorns?"

"No, you idiot," Audrey said through her teeth. "Dark elves-Outdwellers. Oh, you don't understand-"

Jenny heard rock scraping. One of the huge stones in front of her was moving. It swung out slowly, pushing a ridge of dirt along in front of it. A black, gaping hole was revealed in the pile. A tunnel leading down.

Dee's laughter was dying-but it was too late. The girls were pushed forward into the hole. Jenny tried to turn, but her Capezio flats slithered on dust and grit, and she felt herself falling.

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