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The Hunter (Chapter 8)

Mock scraped on rock and the moonlight was cut off above them. Audrey was lying in a ball beside Jenny near the bottom of the slope. Dee had been shoved in backward and was sprawled at the very bottom, legs higher than her head. In those first moments Jenny didn't stop to wonder how she could still see either of them. She said, "Are you all right?" to Dee and then wrapped her arms around Audrey comfortingly.

Audrey was shaking. Making little moaning sounds.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry____" Jenny said, hugging

her.

"It's not your fault." Dee was picking herself up, her fine-boned face contemptuous. "What's her problem, anyway?"

Jenny twisted her head to snap at Dee, but the words never got out. She could now see the reason they weren't in pitch darkness. There was a semi –

circle of lanterns around the bottom of the slope, and holding the lanterns were people.

Dee had fallen silent. The lantern light reflected off faces that were disturbing to say the least.

The elves were very pale, very beautiful… but very strange. Their eyes were slanted in a way that reminded Jenny of the Visitors'. Their cheekbones were almost too high and sharp. And they stood oddly.

They didn't look as if they had any sympathy to appeal to.

One of them said something. Jenny thought it was the same language that the young men outside had used, but the elf's voice was more liquid-and more cold. It was obvious that he was ordering the girls up.

Jenny didn't want to obey. She was irrationally frightened by these pale beautiful people. Then she saw that maybe her fear wasn't so irrational.

They were like animals-or parts of them were. They were deformed.

The elf who had spoken had one normal hand and one hand like a cow's split hoof. It was black and shiny like patent leather. Jenny was afraid she was going to be sick.

Another of them had a tail hanging out of his breeches-a long, pink naked tail like a rat's. It swished. A third had two little horn-buds swelling on his forehead. A fourth had glossy dark hair growing on his neck.

Every one of them had some deformity. And they were real. Not like the pasted-together monstrosities Jenny had seen in the Ripley's Believe It or Not! exhibit.

"Audrey, you've got to get up," she whispered, swallowing the bile that had risen in her throat. "Audrey, if you don't I think they'll make you." Then, with desperate inspiration: "Do you want them to see you lying here like this? I bet your mascara's smeared halfway down your face."

The appeal to Audrey's pride worked where nothing else might have. She slowly sat up, brushing at her cheeks.

"It's waterproof," she said defiantly. Her fingers went automatically to adjust the combs in her French twist, and then she saw the elves.

Her chestnut eyes widened until they showed white all around. She was staring at the cow's-hoof hand. Jenny gripped her arm tightly.

"Are they what you thought they were?"

Audrey pressed her lips together and nodded.

The elf spoke again, sharply, stepping forward. Audrey cringed back. Slowly and carefully Jenny urged her to stand.

"Audrey, we've got to go with them," she whispered. She was afraid that if Audrey balked, the elves were going to touch them. The thought of that-of being touched by that shiny hoof or by the flipper she saw one of the others had-was more than Jenny could bear. "Please, Audrey," she whispered.

It was easy for the elves to lead them. All they had to do was close in from one direction, and the girls would move in the other.

They walked like that, surrounded by a circle of lanterns, down a passage that sloped on and on. Other passages branched away. Clearly the place was big-and they were going deeper and deeper into it.

Walking calmed Jenny a little. The rocks around

them took every imaginable shape-some like twisting antlers, others like windblown grass. There were lacy falls of angel hair, and huge columns covered with formations like exquisite flowers or the gills of mushrooms.

The air smelled like rain-damp earth. It was surprisingly warm.

Jenny tightened her supporting grip on Audrey's arm.

"Say something to them," she suggested. "Ask them where we're going."

In her own way Audrey was as brave as Dee. Her spiky eyelashes were starred together from crying, and she didn't look at the elf beside her. But she spoke to him in level tones.

"He says they're taking us to the Erlking," she said after a moment. Now Jenny could hear taut, shaking control in her voice. "That means-elf king, I think. I remember the story about the Erlking now. He's a kind of evil spirit who haunts the Black Forest. He's supposed to-take people. Especially young girls and children."

Dee pounced. "Why girls?"

Audrey spoke between clenched teeth. "You guess. But all the dark elves are that way. Well, look at them. They're all men. It's a male race."

With a shock, Jenny realized that it was true. The delicacy of their features had fooled her. Every one of their captors was beautiful-and male.

Dee's grin was bloodthirsty. "Time to fight."

"No," Jenny said tensely. Her heart was pounding, but she tried to quiet it. "There are too many of them; we wouldn't have a chance. And anyway, we're supposed to face our nightmares, remember? If the

Erlking is what Audrey's most afraid of, he must be what we have to face."

"It's a stupid nightmare anyway," Dee hissed, her supple shoulders hunching as if an ice cube were going down her back.

"Believe me," Audrey said bitingly, "I wish you weren't in it with me."

The two girls ignored each other as they walked on through subterranean caverns of cathedral spaciousness. Glittering white gypsum crystals powdered everything, catching the lantern light. Coarse rock dust crunched underneath Jenny's feet.

"I don't understand," Audrey whispered. "This can't have come out of my mind. I've never seen anything like it."

"I have," Dee said, and even her voice was subdued. "Spelunking in New Mexico. But it wasn't so-much."

At last they reached the biggest cavern of all.

They passed giant red pillars like coral reefs which gave Jenny the disconcerting feeling of being underwater.

They were heading straight for an enormous wall of flame-colored rock. It wasn't flat. It went rippling up and up like an inverted Niagara Falls. At floor level there was an irregularly shaped gap in the wall-like an entrance.

"The castle," Audrey translated quietly.

They passed through the gap in the red walls.

Inside, the elves moved to separate the girls into two groups. It happened so fast that Jenny didn't have time to react. All in an instant she was being herded away, and when she twisted her head frantically she saw Dee and Audrey being borne in the opposite direction. She saw Audrey's copper head bobbing and heard Dee's voice raised in fury. Then Dee's voice faded, and Jenny was led through a gap into a large room.

One of her captors said something ending with "Erlkodnig," and they all walked out. When Jenny looked through the gap, she found they were standing sentry on either side.

Now what?

She looked around. The rock formations here were like huge sand castles, half melted by water, in white and gold. Jenny realized she was seeing by moonlight and looked up. The ceiling had openings in it like skylights or chimneys in the rock. She studied them for a while.

Finally there was nothing to do but wait-and worry. What was happening to Tom right now? she wondered.

Think about the riddle, she told herself firmly. It'll pass the time, and it might be useful.

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.

Suddenly she had it. Yes! Something that could be hot and passionate or cold and impersonal. Something that could be the "parent" of untold numbers of people-because there was no counting how many babies had gotten started with it. Something

that was just two and two-two lips touching two lips.

A kiss.

Jenny smiled in triumph. She'd solved the riddle. She could get one of the others free.

There was no question, of course, about who it would be. Much as she loved her friends, Tom would always come first.

The only problem with having solved the riddle was that she now had nothing to think about-except whatever was going to happen to her. The elf who'd left had said "Erlkodnig." The Erlking? Was that who she was waiting for?

What kind of deformity would the Erlking have? she wondered. Hooves? Horns?

If he's king, he probably has something worse than all the others, she thought, and her heart chilled.

Someone came through the gap in the stone, and Jenny braced herself. The next minute she realized how dense she'd been.

He was wearing a white tunic and breeches and soft white boots. They showed off how lithe and smoothly muscled he was. In the moonlight his hair was silver as a mirror, and he was smiling.

"Julian."

"Welcome," he said, "to the Erlking's castle."

The last time they had spoken, Jenny had been furious with him. It was hard to keep that in mind now. The white leather was so soft looking, and it clung to him, hip and thigh. And there was something about a guy who looked at you with eyes like a starving tiger's. All at once Jenny felt disconcerted. Tom always looked so good in ordinary clothes-but he was very conservative, never would dress up even at Halloween. Julian, by contrast, obviously got off on outrageous.

His broad leather belt showed how flat his stomach was, emphasized his narrow hips. It was modestly encrusted with sapphires. Jenny wished she had one like it.

"The Erlking, huh? Enjoying the part?"

"Immensely," Julian assured her gravely.

"At least you're talking to me in this nightmare. Not like the UFO one, I mean."

"Jenny. I will happily talk to you all night."

"Thank you, but there's a time limit, and I'd rather have my friends back."

"Say the word."

Jenny looked at him, startled, and then realized what word he meant. "No," she said. "I'll do it the hard way. We're going to get through all the nightmares, you know. We're going to win the Game."

"I admire your confidence."

"You can admire my success-starting now. I've solved your riddle, and you're a male chauvinist pig. It is not given with pleasure when taken by force."

"What isn't?"

"A kiss." She turned to face him fully. "That's the answer, isn't it? And you told me if I solved the riddle, you'd let one of my friends go."

"Wrong." He waited for her reaction, eyes glinting in a wicked smile. "I told you if you gave me the answer, I'd let one of your friends go. But you haven't given it to me yet." His eyes lingered on her lips. "Would you like to now?"

Fury sparked in Jenny. "You-!" She turned away

so he wouldn't have the satisfaction of seeing her angry.

"I've upset you. You're offended," he said. He sounded genuinely penitent. Jenny couldn't keep up with these mercurial changes of mood. "Here, I'll give you something to make it up to you."

Reluctantly Jenny turned again. He was holding a rose-a white rose. Or maybe it was silver-in this light it was hard to tell. It was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

As she took it, Jenny realized it wasn't real but was exquisitely wrought, perfect down to the tiniest detail. Half opened, the blossom shimmered in her hands. The petals were cool but soft.

"Made from silver dug out by black elves in the deepest mines of the earth," Julian said. Jenny shook her head at him.

"That's all folklore. Are you saying you're really the Erlking? Do you want me to believe in Hansel and Gretel, too?"

"I've been more things than you can imagine. And what I want you to believe is that children can go into dark places and disappear. After which people might tell stories to explain it-sometimes true stories, sometimes not."

Jenny felt disconcerted again. "Anyway-it's a beautiful rose," she said and stroked it against her cheek.

Julian's eyes gleamed.

"Let's go walking in the courtyard," he said. "You can really see the moonlight there."

The courtyard had a number of natural chimneys, and moonlight flooded down. Jenny felt almost awestruck at the beauty of the landscape. The moonlight threw a sort of magic sheen over everything, and the cavern was weirdly beautiful with its dark shadows and bright patches of silver.

Julian looked the same. Every shadow on his face was dead black, and there were silver points in his eyes.

"Have you ever wondered why you can go into dangerous places without getting hurt?" he said abruptly. "Why the stray animals you pick up never bite you, why you don't get mugged-or worse-when you wander around bad parts of town at night?"

"I…" People were always yelling at Jenny for exactly the things he was talking about. She herself had never given it much thought, but now a wild suspicion was rising in her mind. "No," she said. "No, I haven't."

His eyes remained on hers. "I've been looking after you, Jenny. Watching over you. No one can touch you … no one but me."

"That's impossible." It came out in a whisper. "You … I've done those things all my life…." Her sentences were coming untangled.

"And I couldn't have been watching you that long? But I have. I've always loved you, Jenny."

The power of his gaze was frightening. Jenny was confused by her own emotions. She knew she should feel only hatred, only anger toward him, but by now she had to admit that part of her was fascinated by him. He was a prince of darkness-

-who had chosen her.

She turned and walked away from him, trying to gather herself.

"l nave never been in love before, Julian said. "You're my first-and you'll be my only."

There was music in his voice, and the words settled like filigreed snowflakes around her, wrapping her in otherworldliness.

Jenny turned around and he touched her.

His touch was as tenuous as gauze on her cheek. Jenny was so surprised she didn't move. Then she looked down stupidly. He had taken her hand.

But I thought you couldn't…

His fingertips were as cool as jade against her skin. Tingles followed in their wake. She had an urge to press her cheek to his open hand.

Don't, she thought. Don't, don't, don't…

"Don't," she whispered.

He went on stroking her hand, thumb gently circling in her palm. A sensuous and dangerous feeling. Jenny felt herself start to come undone.

His touch was so delicate-he'd disengaged her hand so gently from the rose. …

From the rose, Jenny thought.

His gift. She'd held it in her hand. She'd stroked it against her right cheek-the cheek he was touching now.

She stepped back. "You … tricked me."

He still held her hand. "Does it matter?"

"Yes, it matters," Jenny said furiously, trying to pull out of his grasp. How could she have been so stupid? It was a game he was playing with her, to get permission to touch more and more of her. "I understand now-I'll never touch you or anything you give me. That trick won't work again."

His lips were smiling, but there was something hot and deadly serious in his eyes. "Maybe not-but another one will. Believe me, Jenny: I'm going to make you mine-entirely-before you finish the Game."

Jenny wished she could think of something more mature to say than, "In your dreams!"

"No-in yours," he said. "And remember, you're not alone here."

Jenny heard a scream.

"That's Audrey," she said. "That's Audrey! Something's happening to her!" When he wouldn't release her hand, she jerked it out of his.

Then she saw his eyes-and what she saw there froze her.

"You know," she whispered. "You're doing it-to get back at me."

"I warned you," he said. The screaming was still going on. "Do you want it to stop?"

Evil, she thought. Absolute evil. Cruel, capricious, and dangerous as a cobra. I won't forget that again.

"I'll stop it myself," she said, her voice soft but fierce. "I told you I was going to win this Game. And I am. And I will never give in to you."

She threw the silver rose at his feet.

Then she was running for the sound of Audrey's screams.

Elves rushed at her as she plunged out of the sandcastle room, but she veered sharply and got by them. Audrey's screams were getting clearer and clearer. Jenny saw a gap in the nearest red wall and ducked into it, and suddenly the screams echoed all around her.

She saw Audrey sitting and Dee standing in front of her. She stumbled the last few feet to collapse beside them.

"What's wrong?"

Audrey was half sitting, half lying against the gypsum-encrusted wall of a small cavern. Her features were contorted with horror-and when Jenny turned she saw why.

She would have thought that after all she'd been through, she would be inured to weird creatures. But these things-these things were-

"Oh, God, Audrey, what are they?" she choked out.

Audrey's fingernails bit into Jenny's arm. "They're draugar. Living corpses. They've come for us. I-" She turned away, retching.

They smelted like corpses-the sickly-sweet odor of decay. Some of them had bloated bodies. Some had leathery skin, fallen in and wrinkled. Some, to Jenny's horror, had skin that was sloughing off.

One had thick fingernails turned brown by time and grown into long, dangling spirals. The nails clattered together, making a sound that raised gooseflesh all over Jenny's body.

They were completely blocking the exit. Jenny didn't know how she'd gotten around them to reach Audrey, but there was no getting out again. They were closing in from all sides.

"When I tell you, run for the door!" Dee said.

"What door?"

Dee pointed and Jenny turned. Beyond the nearest draugr on the right was a wall-and there was a

door in it. A Gothic door with an arched top, painted blue.

"Okay?" Dee shouted. "Get ready for it!"

She had been standing with her left leg back, knee bent, all her weight on it. Her right leg was so bent that only the toe touched the floor. It made her look like a ballerina, but it was called the cat stance-Dee was always trying to teach Jenny kung fu stances.

Suddenly she kicked, her right foot snapping up flat to strike the draugr under the jaw with her heel.

With a dry crack the draugr's head fell backward -all the way backward. Its neck was snapped.

The terrible thing was that it kept walking. Head resting on its own shoulder blades, blundering the wrong way, it kept walking.

Jenny let go and screamed.

"Get up!" Dee shouted to them. "Now, while I've got them distracted. Get out of here!"

Audrey remained frozen. "We can't leave you-"

"Don't worry about me! Just go! Jenny, take her!"

Jenny obeyed the tone of command instinctively. She hauled Audrey up by her houndstooth jacket and pulled her to the door. She wrenched it open, and they both fell through.

It slammed behind them before Jenny could stop it. She and Audrey looked at each other in dismay.

And then they waited.

They waited until a sick feeling in Jenny's stomach told her Dee wasn't going to come. Audrey was crying. Jenny tried the door handle. It wouldn't budge.

"It's my fault," Audrey whispered.

One of you probably won't make it….

The door flew open. Dee charged through, slammed it behind her, leaned on it. She expelled a great gust of air.

"That was close," she said. "But I've been dying for a fight, and it was a good one."

She was glowing with exertion and the joy of battle. She looked at Audrey.

"Well, aren't you a mess," she said.

Audrey's glossy auburn hair was hanging around her face; her spiky bangs were plastered damply to her forehead. Her cheeks were flushed and wet, her hands and legs scratched and scraped. Her cherry lipstick was gone.

Face inscrutable, Audrey held out one hand and slowly unclenched the fingers. On her palm were the combs from her French twist. "At least I still have these," she said calmly.

All three of them burst into hysterical laughter. They laughed and laughed in a violent release of emotion.

"I guess that counts as winning: getting out of your nightmare alive with your combs intact," Dee gasped finally.

Audrey raised her eyebrows, and then her lips curled again in a smile. She and Dee were smiling at each other.

An unseen clock struck twelve.

"Midnight," Jenny said. It came out softly, almost a whisper. Every time they won, that clock chimed to remind them that time was passing-passing fast. Where was it, anyway? The sound seemed to pervade the entire house.

"Six hours until dawn," Dee was saying to Audrey. "And only five nightmares to go. We're fine. We'll make it, easy."

"Easy? I don't think so," Audrey said.

"Look," Jenny said quietly, bending to pick up a scrap of paper.

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