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The Kill (Chapter 15)

What came next was not a verbal shout-if it had been, Jenny would have thought it was Tom. It wasn't even a word exactly, more a wave of energy. And the energy was sheer negation, opposition. No! No!

Stop.

The mist uncoiled. Jenny's vision unblurred. She was standing, gasping, a little closer to one of the cave entrances. Tom and Dee were shaking their heads, wiping their faces, as if to get rid of some blinding haze. They were panting, too. Everyone seemed on the verge of hysteria. But the shout had come from Julian.

He was standing in the middle of the room. Desperate hope leaped inside Jenny-maybe there was something he could do. But the next moment the hope folded and collapsed.

"You know the law," the tall Shadow Man repeated blandly.

And Julian's eyes fell.

They're playing with us, Jenny realized dimly. With Julian, too; they like to see anybody suffer. They didn't stop because he yelled at them, they stopped so they could draw it out a little longer.

Another Shadow Man spoke. This one had liver-colored skin, with splotches here and there as if he'd been burned by acid. The white of one of his eyes wasn't white at all, it was red, red as rubies, red as blood.

"Nothing can stop us from taking her-unless someone else is willing to go in her place."

It took Jenny several heartbeats to get her mind around that. She wasn't thinking properly anymore. Then she remembered-her grandfather. They'd said exactly the same thing to him. A life for a life. Someone must go in her place. And her grandfather had, and now Jenny had rescued him and broken the bargain, and brought everything back to the starting place.

And meanwhile the terrible silence went on and on and on.

Then she heard a voice, a voice that was quite calm and devil-may-care-and human.

"I'll go."

Tom had stepped forward. His dark brown hair was neat and short and his smile was rakish. He said it as if he were offering to go out and get pizza for the baseball team.

And he looked wonderful. Somehow he managed to make his rumpled and frost-touched clothes look like the latest fashion. He stood casually, and there wasn't a trace of fear in his expression.

For a moment, without thinking of anything else, Jenny was simply proud of him. Fiercely, passionately proud that a human, a seventeen-year-old who hadn't even heard of the Shadow Men until a month ago, could stand up to them like this. Could conceal his terror and smile that way and offer to die.

That's how I want to die, Jenny thought, and a strange serenity came over her. I want to do it well-since it has to be done. And I hope I have the courage, and I think-I really do think-that I just might. We'll see.

Because of course there was no possibility of letting them take Tom. She would never allow that.

Before she could say so, though, there was a short, wild laugh. Dee was beside Tom, her head thrown back, her eyes flashing like a jaguar's. She was as beautiful as some goddess of the night-some warrior goddess who'd just sprung up to defend her people. And she was grinning, the old barbaric grin that contrasted so oddly with her delicate features. The grin that Jenny hadn't seen since Audrey had gotten hurt.

"No," she said to Tom. "You won't go. I will." She was breathing very quickly, and laughing-she seemed almost exuberant. "Jenny needs you, you jerk. She'd never let you do it. I'll go."

"Just back off, Dee," Tom said softly. His eyes were oddly tranquil, even dreamy, but there was something frightening in his voice. At any other time, Jenny thought, Dee would have backed off.

Now she just laughed. She looked like Dee-reckless, warlike, and unconditionally loyal-but she looked like more than herself, too. A greater Dee.

"It's my choice," she said. "I know what I'm getting into."

And then, as Jenny listened in disbelief, other voices joined in.

"She's my cousin," Zach said. His face was sharp as a blade, and there was an intense, clear light in his gray eyes. He moved to stand sword-straight beside Dee. "I'm her blood relative. If anyone goes, it should be me."

Audrey and Michael had been whispering hastily together; now they stepped forward. Audrey's burnished copper hair was loose on her shoulders, and with her white clothing she looked like some kind of virgin sacrifice. Not elegant but exquisite, and holding herself with pride. Her skin was camellia-pale, and her voice was cool and steady.

"If everybody else is going to be a hero, then we can, too," she said. "The truth is that Jenny's worth more than any of us, and we all know it. So, now. You can take your pick." She looked at the Shadow Men. She very nearly, Jenny thought, tossed her head.

"Yeah," Michael said. "The only thing is, we figure we'll go together, her and me. You know, for company, right?" He gave a No Big Deal shrug, and then his mouth trembled violently, and he grabbed for Audrey's hand. He looked for a moment as if he were going to be sick, but then he wiped his mouth and stood facing the Shadow Men squarely. There was a curious dignity about his stocky little figure.

Jenny's throat was so swollen that she could barely breathe. She was opening her mouth, though, when something like a small blue thunderbolt shot into the clear space in the middle of the room.

"Oh, please don't take Jenny," Summer gasped. She was looking utterly terrified and as fragile as spun glass, and there was a wild blankness in her eyes. Her words came in an incoherent rush. "Please -please-you can't take her. I'm not brave or smart-I should have been dead in the paper house, j__"

That was as far as she got. She collapsed like a bird shot out of the sky, and lay in a pool of blue until Zach picked her up. He held her-Zach, who never paid attention to any girl.

The Shadow Men were pleased. Jenny could tell. This was probably turning out to be a much better game than they ever could have hoped-much better sport. They had seven mice to play with, and they were clearly loving it.

"Are you sure you know what you're offering?" the one with the crocodile eyes asked gravely.

"We could explain to them," the one with the bloodred eye suggested.

"Tell them exactly what they're in for."

"How we mean to enjoy them." Other voices joined in, and the Shadow Men moved in closer. A wave of revulsion went through Jenny at the sight of them, as if she were seeing them for the first time. They were old as spiders, old as stone. They were-abominations. And the thought of them touching any of her friends was insufferable.

It was time somebody put a stop to this.

"That's enough," she said in a voice as sharp and dictatorial as Audrey's. "You've had your fun, but the game's over. I'm the one you want, the one that cheated you. So forget everybody else. Let's go."

That was good, she thought, and a little wave of serenity came back. She was glad she could be as brave as the others. She was going to do this well, and that was all that counted now.

The Shadow Men seemed to know it was over, too. The red-eyed one held out a hand to her almost gently. It had ringers like a gorilla's-black, padded, thick as sausages and coming to a point at the ends.

Jenny put her hand in his.

The Shadow Man lifted his lips to show long, blunt teeth like tusks.

Something knocked them apart.

Jenny was knocked breathless, too, startled and confused. She thought it was some sort of attack.

It was Julian.

His hair was shining like lightning, like quicksilver. His whole being seemed full of elemental energy -of frightening intensity. And his eyes were the unbelievable, luminous blue of the precise moment before dawn.

He looked at Jenny for just one second, and then he turned and she could only see the clean purity of his profile.

"Go through the door!" he said. "That's your way home. They won't come after you."

He was between her and the Shadow Men. And apparently, unlike Dee, he could interact with them physically. At any rate, they were keeping back.

"Go on!" he shouted.

"We must have blood," the crocodile-eyed Shadow Man said. "We will have blood."

"Hurry!" Julian shouted.

Through the open door Jenny could see her grandfather's hallway.

"We have a right to a kill," the crocodile-eyed Shadow Man said. From the air he snatched up something long and flat and incredibly ancient-looking. His fingers were covered in scaly skin like a dinosaur's, Jenny saw. Then she realized what the long, flat branch must be.

A runestave. Like the picture in her grandfather's journal, except that this one was real-was more real than any object Jenny had ever seen. It was like some of the island worlds-the ones that were brighter and more substantial-looking than Earth. This stave was so real that it looked alive, throbbing with raw power.

There were not just single runes carved on it, but lines and lines of them, tall and needle-thin. Even though they were delicately inscribed, each stroke stood out clearly. It was as if the cuts were filled with liquid diamond that shone against the background of wood.

Jenny couldn't keep looking at the runes. It was like trying to read in a dream-first the details were sharp, and then the whole stave seemed to be swarming with changes. The runes seemed to move before she could identify them.

That's the stave of life. If anything ever was, that's the stave of life, she thought. The voice like faraway ice bells said, "Give her to us.

"No," Julian said.

Jenny felt movement behind her. Tom. And Dee, and Zach supporting Summer, and Audrey and Michael together. They were all gathering near her, and their way was clear to the door. But nobody started for it.

"What's happening?" Audrey whispered.

"You know what we can do," the tall Shadow Man with the crocodile eyes said to Julian, and he held the runestave higher.

"Go through the door," Julian said, without turning.

"We can unmake you!" the tall one shrieked, and in that moment his voice wasn't beautiful. It was like an ice floe breaking, a cracking, smashing sound of destruction.

"What are they talking about?" Tom said.

His quiet, level voice helped Jenny. "They can cut out his name. If they cut out his name, he dies." Then she said, "Julian-"

"Go on!" he said.

The Shadow Men were very, very angry.

"We have a right to a kill!"

"Then take it!" Julian shouted. "But you won't get past me!"

The thin, scaly fingers of the Shadow Man's other hand were holding a knife. It looked like bone. It glittered like frost.

"Come on, Jenny," Tom said, not moving.

"Julian-"

"Go on!" Julian said.

The knife rose and fell.

Jenny heard herself scream. She saw the slash of the blade, the way the liquid diamond spilled like blood. There was a terrible gash in the stave now, a

hideous blank space. A wound. They had carved out Julian's name.

Julian staggered.

Jenny wrenched herself away from something that was trying to hold her and fell on her knees beside him. Her thoughts were wheeling and spinning, with no order to them. There must be something to do, some way to help… .

Really, she knew by his face that it was too late.

The other Shadow Men were coming in a rush of darkness and freezing wind. Jenny looked up into the maelstrom and tried to lift Julian to his feet.

Then hands pulled at her. Human hands, helping her get Julian up. And then Jenny was running, they were all running, half carrying Julian with them, and the door was right in front of them.

Ice lashed at Jenny's back. A freezing tendril grabbed her ankle. But Michael was pushing the door open and Summer and Zach were falling through it-and then Audrey was through, and then she and Tom and Dee were, with Julian. She felt the resistance as she crossed the threshold, the g-force that threw her off balance and made her stumble and land on her knees.

The hallway was too small. There wasn't room for all of them, especially with Julian a dead weight. The telephone table went crashing sideways. People were falling on one another. Jenny was kneeling on somebody's leg.

"Get out of the way! We need to close the door!" Dee was shouting.

Everything was confusion. The leg under Jenny moved and she saw Audrey crawling away. She tried to crawl, too, dragging Julian. Tom picked up the telephone table and threw it over her head toward the living room.

Dee kicked the door shut just as the storm reached it.

"What about the circle?" Michael screamed. "Where's a knife? Where's a knife?"

Jenny knew she had a knife, but she couldn't move fast enough. Michael grabbed up something from the floor. It was a felt pen, the pen Jenny had used to sketch the rune circle. With a slashing motion, he crossed the circle out. The cross looked like a slanting X, like the rune Nauthiz. The rune of restraint.

"You don't need to do that," Julian said, and his voice was very distant. Powerless. "They won't come after you. They don't have a claim anymore."

He was lying on his back, eyes looking at the ceiling. He was holding his chest, as if the Shadow Men had cut out his heart instead of his name.

Jenny took his cold hands in hers.

So cold. As if he were a figure carved out of ice. His face was that pale, too, and his beauty was like a distant fire reflected in an icicle.

And it was strange, but at that moment Jenny seemed to see in him all the different ways he had looked before. All his many guises.

The boy in the More Games shop playing acid house music too loud. The Erlking, in white leather tunic and breeches. The Cyber-Hunter, in sleek body armor, with a blue triangle tattooed on his cheek. The masked dancer at the prom, in a black tuxedo and shirt.

It was as if each were a facet of a crystal reflecting back at her-and only now could she see the entire crystal for what it was.

Julian stepping out of the shadows, soft as a shadow himself. Julian wearing Zach's clothing, threatening her with the bees. Julian slipping the gold ring on her finger, sealing the bargain with a kiss. Julian leaning over her as she slept. Julian in the mining cave, his eyes dilated, his gaze shattering.

And she had never really found the right description for the color of those eyes. At times it had seemed close to this color or that color, but when you got down to it, words really failed. It wasn't like anything except itself.

Right now she thought she could see something flickering far back in his eyes, like a twisting blue flame in their depths.

"You can't die," she said, and she was surprised by how calm and matter-of-fact her voice was.

And Julian, although his eyes were looking somewhere past her, and his voice was weak, was equally calm. He almost seemed to be smiling.

"The law can't be changed," he said.

"You can't die," Jenny said. Her fingers were very tight on his, but they only seemed to be getting colder.

Everyone else had moved away. Jenny wanted to tell them that they didn't need to, that everything was going to be all right. But somehow she knew better.

"Did you know that Gebo isn't just the rune of sacrifice?" Julian said.

"I don't care."

"It means a gift, too. You gave me a gift, you know."

"I don't care," Jenny said and began to cry.

"You showed me what it was like to love. What the universe could be like, if."

Jenny put her free hand to her mouth. She was sobbing without a sound.

"This is my gift to you now, and you can't help but take it. You're free, Jenny. They won't come after you again."

"You can't die," Jenny whispered raggedly around the tears. "There must be something to do. You can't just go out- "

Julian was smiling.

"No, I'll dream another dream," he said. "I've made up so many things, now I'll just go into one. I'll be part of it."

"All right," Jenny whispered. She suddenly knew that there was nothing to be done, nothing except to help him all she could. There was something in his face that told her-a peace that was already gathering. She wouldn't disturb that peace now. "You go into the dream, Julian."

"You don't blame me?"

"I don't blame you for anything."

"Whatever else I did, I loved you," he said. He stirred, and then added, "Maybe you'll dream about me sometime, and that will help get me there."

"I will. I'll dream you into a place without any shadows, only light."

He looked at her then, and she could see he wasn't afraid.

"Nothing really dies as long as it's not forgotten," he said.

And then blue mist seemed to gather in his eyes and obscure the flame.

"Go to the dream," Jenny whispered. "Go quick, now."

His chest was still, and she didn't think he heard her. But she caught the faintest breath of sound-not with her ears, but with her mind.

"Your ring…"

The hand that had been on his chest slipped, and Jenny saw the gold ring there. Jenny picked it up.

The inscription on the inside had changed. The words were no longer a spell to bind Jenny.

Before, it had said: All I refuse & thee I chuse.

Now it said simply: I am my only master.

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