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The Kill (Chapter 14)

Jenny spun. Julian was standing beside a ticket booth with a brass telescope on top. He was surrounded by ferns and fake palms. And he looked-tired?

He was wearing the duster jacket again, and he had his hands in his pockets. His hair was as white as a winter moon.

It was up to her to face him, Jenny knew. She was the only one who could do this.

She stepped forward. She tried to look him directly in the eyes, but it was hard. His gaze seemed curiously veiled-as if he wasn't exactly looking at her, but through her.

"We've won," she said with more confidence than she felt. "Finally. It's the last Game, and this time there's no way you can bend the rules. You have to let us go."

What was the look in those eyes? They were midnight-colored and full of shadows-but there

was something else, something Jenny only recognized when she felt a presence beside her. Tom was there, looking devilishly handsome and full of cold, protective fury. He wasn't going to let her face Julian alone. His hand rested on her shoulder, lightly, not possessively. As if to say he was there to back her up, whatever happened.

"I ought to try to kill you," he said to Julian. "I can't, but I sure ought to try. I will, if you pull anything this time."

Julian ignored him completely.

Wistfulness, Jenny thought. That was it. Julian wasn't exactly looking at Tom, but for a moment he'd glanced at Tom's hand on her shoulder-and there was wistfulness in his eyes.

The Shadow Man seeing the one thing he could never have, she thought. Human love.

"Are you going to pull anything?" Tom asked tightly.

It was a good question. Jenny was braced for some kind of a trick, too-ready to fight Julian, to argue him out of it. Every other time they'd won a Game, Julian had unveiled some weird twist at the last minute, had found some way to crush them and laugh at them.

Jenny had fully expected him to try it again this time-so why hadn't he? Why hadn't he appeared before they got Tom and Zach untied? Why wasn't he dressed as a pirate, fending them off with a cutlass, smiling and pointing out that they had to get to Tom and Zach to rescue them? Why wasn't he playing the Game?

Probably because he has something worse up his sleeve, she told herself. That painted volcano will erupt. Real lightning will strike. Or maybe–or maybe he was just tired of playing.

"We have won, haven't we?" she said, suddenly uncertain. She would have thought she would enjoy announcing her victory more than this.

"You've won," Julian said, and there was no emotion in his voice. He still wasn't really looking at her. And he did seem tired-his whole body looked tired.

He looked-defeated.

"So-I can leave."

"Yes."

Jenny was still looking for the catch. "And take everyone with me."

"Yes."

"Even Tom. I can take Tom with me."

"Let's go," Tom said abruptly, his fingers closing around her upper arm. Jenny almost-not quite-shook him off. This wasn't like Julian at all.

"I can go and I can take Tom," she persisted. "And everyone. It's the last Game, and it's over now."

For the first time Julian looked at her. His eyes were fully dilated, with the look Jenny had seen in the cave. An inward look, as if nothing mattered. It was too brittle to be bitter. A look like blue ice about to break up and fall into dark water.

A-shattering.

"It's the last Game," he said. "It's over now. I won't bother you again."

The corner of his mouth jerked as if he were about to say something more-or maybe it was involuntary. Then, without speaking, he whirled around.

"Get out. Get her out." Without looking at Tom, he spoke in a distorted voice, thick with restraint. "Get her out of here! Before I do-something-"

"Julian-" Jenny said.

"-we'll all be sorry for-"

He gave a shudder of suppressed emotion.

Tom grabbed Jenny's other arm and wheeled her in the opposite direction.

There was a rough wooden door standing on the far side of the building. It was set between two enormous stones, like a gate. But there was no fence or wall, just the door standing in space and looking tremendously solid, as if it had always been there.

It was partly open, and inside Jenny could see her grandfather's hallway, including the small telephone table with the white doily on it. The phone was lying on the floor where it had fallen, receiver off the hook.

"Home," Audrey said, in a voice of such startled longing that Jenny almost yielded to Tom's steering hands. But then she twisted away.

Insanely, inexplicably, she wanted to stay and talk to Julian.

Julian didn't want to talk to her.

"Leave. Just go-now!"

Even without seeing his face, she could tell that his control was breaking. She tried to turn him around.

"Jenny, are you crazy?" Dee said. Dee and Tom were both pulling at Jenny now, trying to get her away from Julian.

"Just give me one minute!"

"Will you get her out of here!" Julian snarled.

Everyone was shouting. Summer was crying. And Jenny was having to fight off the two people she loved

best-Tom and Dee-for a reason she couldn't even explain clearly to herself.

She knew the risk; she understood why Summer was crying. She could feel the storm building in Julian. The air was hot and electric, as if heat lightning were about to explode. He could do anything to them.

But she couldn't let it go.

"Julian, please listen-"

He turned, then, whirling so fast that Jenny stepped back. She was frightened by what she saw in his face.

"You cannot save me from myself," he hissed, saying each word distinctly, biting it off. Then he looked Tom straight in the face. "Get her out of here. I am trying to play this Game by the rules. But if you don't have her out in thirty seconds, all bets are off."

"I'm sorry, Thorny," Tom said and picked her up.

"No!" Jenny was furious at the indignity, at being made to go where she didn't want to go, like a child. And she was furious because she had just discovered the reason that she wanted to stay. Julian had said it for her. She wanted to save him.

It was like the sign on Aba's mirror. Do no harm. Help when you can. Return good for evil. That was what she wanted, to help if she could. To return good for evil where it had the chance of making a difference.

But Tom wasn't the only one she'd have to fight. Dee was marching along beside him, eyes fixed grimly on Jenny. And Michael and Audrey, Zach and Summer were surrounding them, forming a tight little knot to escort Jenny home.

"We're gonna drag you through that door by your hair, if we have to, Sunshine," Dee said, just in case this wasn't sufficiently clear.

"There are times when you can be too good, and this is one of them," Audrey added.

They all started for the door-but they never got there.

The mist was different from the fog that had risen around Jenny on the bridge. It was thick, interspersed with dark tendrils, and it moved fast.

Ice and shadows. A whirling, seething mixture of white and black.

Jenny remembered it very well-she'd seen it twice before. Once when she was five years old, in a memory so terrible that she had repressed it completely, giving herself amnesia. And once a month ago, when she'd relived the memory in Julian's paper house.

Tom was turning, enraged, to shout at Julian. Jenny slid from his arms. She could see by Julian's face that he had nothing to do with this.

Looking around was like being plunged into a nightmare-a recurring nightmare. Frost was forming on every surface. It was creeping up the wooden poles with rusty lanterns that stood throughout the golf course. It was coating the barrels labeled xxx and the boxes labeled black powder. Icicles were growing on the tarred ropes linking the wharf pillars.

Freezing wind blew Jenny's hair straight back from her face, then whipped it stingingly across her cheeks.

"What's happening?" Audrey screamed. "What's happening?" Summer was just screaming.

It was so cold-as cold as the water that had drowned her in the mine shaft. So cold that it hurt. It hurt to breathe and it hurt to stand still.

Tom was shouting in her ear, trying to lift her and stagger toward the door. He'd made it through the fire… .

But not now. The ice storm was blinding. The white light was painfully brilliant, and the dark tendrils lashed through it like whips, like supple reaching arms.

They were holding Tom still. They were trapping everyone.

Slowly the wind died down. The blinding brightness faded. Jenny could see again, and she saw that the dark mist was gathering itself, coalescing. Forming figures.

Figures with malevolent, ancient eyes.

The other Shadow Men had come.

"Oh, God," Audrey whispered. She drew in closer to Jenny. There were ice crystals in her spiky copper bangs. "Oh, God-I didn't know… ."

Jenny hadn't known, either. She didn't understand. She recognized the cruel and ravenous eyes-she couldn't be wrong about them. But the forms that went with the eyes …

Michael wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, placing himself in front of Audrey. Summer was making small clotted sounds of fear. Zach's eyes glazed, then he shook his head and pulled Summer nearer to the group.

Those-things-can't be Shadow Men, Jenny thought. The Shadow Men are beautiful. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

These creatures were terrible.

They were hideously twisted and deformed. It would have been easier if they hadn't looked at all like humans, but they did. They were like dreadful, obscene parodies of human people.

Some of them had skin like leather-real leather, like something that had been smoked and cured. Yellowish-brown, so hard that their faces could never change expression. Others had skin like toadstool flesh-corpse-white and frilled, with dangling wattles.

It wasn't just the skin. Their bodies were distorted and maimed, and their faces were terrible. One had no nose, just an empty black hole. Another had no facial orifices of any kind. Nothing-only blank, stretched skin where eyes and nose and mouth should be. Another had a horn growing out of the back of its head.

And the smell-they smelled like decay, and like brimstone. Jenny's nostrils stung, and she felt bile rise in her throat.

Beside her, Tom was breathing hard. She looked at him, saw the open horror in his green-flecked eyes. Dee's nostrils were flared, and she was holding herself ready for an attack.

It came suddenly-one of the creatures scuttling across the tiled floor, to stop right in front of Jenny. Jenny gasped-and recognized it. It was the gray and withered fetus they'd seen in the park, the one that had scampered into the Whip. Now that she saw it more closely, it didn't look young like a fetus at all. It looked old, impossibly old, so old that it had shrunk and caved in on itself.

"Oh, God …" Audrey whispered again. Summer was keening.

Dee had fallen into the Cat stance, perfectly balanced, ready to initiate any action.

"Should I do it?" she said through clenched teeth.

Jenny opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, the withered fetus spoke.

"Can we take you? We can carry you," it said, looking at Jenny with eyes that glowed like a tiger's.

Then it giggled, wildly and obscenely, and scuttled away.

I never asked Julian what the little creatures were, Jenny remembered. She had been certain they weren't Shadow Men because they were so hideous. Now she looked toward him, hoping that he would have some explanation, that he would tell her what she was thinking was wrong.

He had stepped forward. There was a dusting of ice on his black jacket, and his hair glimmered as if it were made from frost. His beautifully sculpted face and mouth had never looked more perfect.

"What are they?" Jenny whispered.

"My ancestors," he said, introducing them to her, and destroying her last hope.

"Those-things?" She still couldn't connect them to Julian.

Without any emotion that she could discern he said, "That's what we become. That's what I'll become. It's inevitable."

Jenny shook her head.

"How?" Zach said sharply. He was probably the least repulsed, Jenny thought vaguely-that photographer's mind of his. He found grotesque things interesting.

But Jenny didn't. Not things like this, oh, never things like this.

"Is that-what they really look like? Or is it to scare us?" she heard her own voice saying.

Julian's strangely veiled gaze met hers. "Those are their true forms." He looked them over expressionlessly. "We're born in perfection," he said, without either modesty or arrogance-without any feeling that Jenny could see. "But as we age, we become grotesque. It's inevitable-the outer form changes to reflect our inner nature." He shrugged. "We become monsters."

The poem. The poem on her grandfather's desk, Jenny thought. She understood it at last, the line about them fingering old bones. These were the kind of creatures who would sit in a pit and do that. From Julian's beauty she would never have guessed, could never have pictured him that way.

Now she tried to keep it out of her mind, the picture of Julian looking like them, so distorted, so debased. It couldn't happen to him-but he'd said it was inevitable.

"But I don't know what they're doing here now," Julian continued, as if unaware of her reaction. "This isn't their Game; they have nothing to do with it."

"You're wrong," a tall Shadow Man said. It had the eyes of a crocodile. Its voice, though, was shockingly beautiful, distant and lonely as wind chimes of ice.

"It became our Game when she stole our prey," said another one, this one in the voice of somebody who'd eaten ground glass and fishhooks.

"Who stole your prey?" Tom shouted. But Jenny felt as if the floor had suddenly dropped away beneath her.

Her little fingers and the sides of her hands were prickling as if small shocks were going through them. She looked at Julian.

Julian had frozen, hands in pockets, staring hard at the other Shadow Men. Then his eyebrows lifted minutely and his head tilted back slightly. He'd got it.

His eyes, still expressionless, shifted to Jenny.

"She took the old man," a third Shadow Man explained, in a whispering voice like snow blowing. "And the two boys, those were our prey, too. We hunted them. They belonged to us."

Suddenly voices joined in from all around Jenny.

"The old man was ours by right," a voice like a brass gong said.

"Blood right," a thick and muddy voice croaked.

"He made the bargain-his life was ours," a voice like a cat-o'-nine-tails added.

Julian looked the way Audrey's mother had once, when she had suggested Michael give his filthy sneakers to Goodwill. "But you were done with the old man-surely," he said fastidiously.

"We hadn't finished enjoying him."

"He was ours-forever."

"And the boys," a voice like cold wind put in, "we'd just started with the boys."

"Never got a tooth in them… ."

I'm glad, Jenny thought fiercely. She was glad she'd saved her grandfather, too, saved him from an eternity with these monsters. But she was still frightened.

The tall Shadow Man was moving forward. It looked down at Jenny with its crocodile eyes: ancient, pitiless, and endlessly malevolent.

"She stole their souls from us," it said formally, making the claim. "And now her life is forfeit. She is our rightful prey."

There was a burst of noise, rising and swelling from every corner of the room. It got louder and louder. It was composed of beautiful sounds and strident ones intermixed, wailing and yelping and pure tones like music.

The Shadow Men were laughing.

"Get out of here, you crazy bastards! Go away!" Dee shouted over the cacophony. She ran toward the assembled monsters, punching straight out from the shoulder, snapping her arm forward to hit with a flattened hand. She kicked, her legs flashing out too fast for the eye to follow, striking with devastating force.

"No!" Jenny screamed, plunging after her. "Dee!"

She did it without thinking, and Tom was beside her, ready to stop Dee or help her fight, depending on what the Shadow Men did.

Jenny was afraid they'd kill Dee. Julian had been able to throw Dee across the room without effort. But the Shadow Men just laughed more and more uproariously-and faded wherever Dee kicked.

Dee's hands and feet never struck anything solid; the monsters melted like shadows whenever she touched them.

She was panting and exhausted when Jenny and Tom reached her.

The action had cleared Jenny's head. She glanced at Julian, who was still standing where he had been, apparently unaffected by the sight of Dee going crazy. He looked-remote. Not tired, as he had before, but-disconnected. As if this were all a moderately interesting play. Maybe he was sympathizing with the other Shadow Men.

Jenny looked at the one with the crocodile eyes. She nerved herself to speak to it.

"You're saying that because I released my grandfather's soul, you have some right to me."

"By law, you're now ours," the tall Shadow Man said. "We can take you-embrace you-do what we like with you." Unexpectedly it looked at Julian. "The law can't be changed."

"I know the law can't be changed," Julian said flatly.

"She cheated us ten years ago-kept us from tasting her flesh-but now she belongs to us," the chilling, musical voice said.

And then, as quickly as that, it was happening. The dark mist was closing around Jenny, separating her from Tom and Dee. She heard Tom cry out. The mist was like cold hands touching her body. The freezing wind was howling in her ears. She was being dragged away, just as they had dragged her grandfather into the closet years ago.

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