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The Kill (Chapter 6)

Jenny, devastatingly aware that her jeans were crunchy from drying wrinkled and her denim shirt looked as if she'd crawled through a chimney, said, "You invited me to come-and here I am."

He answered as easily as if they'd been talking for hours. "Yes, and you're off to a bad start. Couldn't even avoid this simple trap. Don't even know what game you're playing."

"Whatever it is, it's the last Game," Jenny said.

It wasn't the same as it had been before, when she'd felt as if she were fighting him all the time in her mind-whether he was physically present or not. Fighting his sensuality, fighting his beauty, fighting the memory of his touch.

In those days part of her actually longed for the moment when she would stop fighting, for the final surrender. But now …

Jenny had changed. The fire she'd passed through in the last Game, the one he'd created to trap her, had changed her. It had burned away the part of her that had responded to Julian, that had craved his danger and wildness. Jenny had come through the fire alive-and purified. She might not be as powerful as Julian, but her will was as strong as his.

She would never give in to the shadows again. And that meant that everything was different between them.

She could see that he saw the difference. He said, "More light?" and made a gesture, like tracing a line in the air.

Kenaz, Jenny thought. The rune of the torch, one of the runes she'd carved on her grandfather's oak door. It was shaped like an acute angle, like a lesser-than sign in mathematics. When Julian's long fingers made the gesture, the light seemed to ripple, and with a magician's flourish he plucked a second burning torch from the air.

Jenny, stony-faced, clapped her hands two or three times.

Julian's glance was blue as a gas flame. "You don't want to get me angry. Not this early on," he said with dangerous quietness.

"I thought I was supposed to be impressed."

He studied her. "You really don't want to get me angry."

Oh, he was gorgeous, all right. Inhuman, incomprehensible, and so alive he looked as if he should be dripping fire or electricity from his fingertips. He brought a shine with him like diamonds in coal. But Jenny had a core of steel.

"Where's Tom?" she said.

"You haven't been thinking about him," said Julian.

It was true. Jenny hadn't. Not continuously, not constantly, the way she had in the old days when she'd never really regarded herself as a separate person, but as part of a unit: Tom-and-Jenny. It didn't matter.

"I came here for him," she said. "I don't need to think about him every minute to love him. I want him back."

"Then win the Game." Julian's voice was as cold and ominous as thin ice breaking.

He stuck one torch into a wide horizontal crack in the wall. Jenny hadn't really taken in her surroundings yet-when Julian was around it was very difficult to focus on anything except him-but she saw now that she'd been right in her guess earlier. This was an enclosed place, and a very small one, scarcely as big as her bedroom at home. Three of its walls were stone; the fourth was solidly packed boulders.

Below the crack with the torch was a sort of natural stairway, each step broader than the one above it. Like the fake waterfalls in the mine ride, Jenny thought, only without the water. She noticed her flashlight, apparently dead, lying by the bottom step.

There was no entrance or exit to the room. The ceiling was low. It had a very trapped feeling about it.

Jenny's heart sank a little.

No. Don't you dare let him frighten you. That's what he wants, that's what kicks him.

Besides, what's to be scared of? So you're buried alive under tons of rock, alone with a demon prince who wants you body and soul and will literally do anything to have you. Who might kill you just to make sure no one else can have you. And you're pissing him off deliberately, but so what, why sweat the details?

She tried to make her voice quite steady and a little blase as she said, "So just what is the Game this time?"

"The clue will cost you."

Icy fury swept over Jenny. "You're horrible. Do you know that?"

"I'm as cruel as life," Julian said. "As cruel as love."

The fury, and the steel at Jenny's core, gave her the courage to do something that astonished even her. She wanted to slap Julian. Instead, she kissed him.

It wasn't like the tender, cozy sort of kiss she gave Tom, and not like the terrified, half-wild kisses Julian had extorted from her in the old days, either. She jumped up and snatched his face between her palms before he could do anything with the torch. She kissed him hard, aggressively, and without the slightest vestige of maidenly shyness.

She felt his shock. His free hand came up around her, but he couldn't pull her any closer than she was already pressing herself. She ignored the danger of the torch completely-if it was close to her hair, that was Julian's problem. Let the great master of the elements figure it out.

Julian recovered fast. It was possible to take him off guard, but he didn't stay nonplussed long. Jenny felt him trying to take control of the situation, trying to soften the kiss.

But she knew the danger of softness. Julian could spin a web of shadows around you, with touches like the brush of moth's wings and kisses soft as twilight. He could turn your own senses against you until the kisses left you dizzy and breathless and the moth's-wing touches put you on slow burn. And by the time you realized what was underneath the softness, you were shivering and melting and lost.

So Jenny kept this kiss strictly business. A cheap and nasty sort of business she'd never had to do before because before Julian she'd only ever kissed Tom. She kissed him angrily, with a clinical coldness and all the expertise she could muster. At the end she realized she'd managed to startle him twice in just a matter of minutes. When she pulled away-which she did easily-she could see the shock in his eyes.

Didn't think I could resist, did you? she thought. She stepped back and with utter coldness said, "Now, what about my clue?"

Julian stared. Then he laughed mockingly, but she could see him losing his temper, see the blue eyes glitter with rage like exotic sapphires. She had struck at his pride-and hit dead center.

"Well, now, I'm not sure I got my money's worth," he said. "I've known icicles that were better kissers than that."

"And I've known dead fish that were better kissers than you," Jenny said-untruthfully and with an insane disregard for danger. She knew it was insane, but she didn't care. The freedom of knowing that the shadows had no power over her was intoxicating. It made this encounter with Julian different from any other.

She'd struck home again. She saw the menacing fury well up in his eyes-and then his heavy lashes drooped, veiling them. A half smile curved his lips.

Jenny's stomach lurched.

He was evil, she knew. Cruel, capricious, and dangerous as a cobra. And she'd been stupid to goad him that way, because right now he was planning something bad-or her name wasn't Jenny Lint-for-Brains Thornton.

"I'll give you your clue," he said. He slid a hand into one skintight pocket and brought it out again, flipping something gold on his thumb and catching it again. The gold thing winked in the torchlight, up and down. "Heads I win, tails you lose," Julian said and gave her a smile of terrible sweetness.

Then he flicked the shining gold thing at her so quickly that she flinched. It hit the stone with a wonderful clear ringing clink. Jenny picked it up and found that it was cold and quite heavy. It was a coin, round but irregular, like a very thin home-baked cookie.

"A Spanish doubloon," Julian said, but even then she stared at him a moment before getting it.

Oh, God-of course. The game-the one the real Joyland Park was holding. What had that kid said this afternoon? "You get three tokens and they let you in free. …" And the billboard: collect three gold

DOUBLOONS AND BE THE FIRST TO SET FOOT ON … TREASURE ISLAND.

And Julian had invited them to come on a treasure hunt. But Jenny hadn't made the connection, not even when that giant treasure chest had been the only thing moving in the park tonight.

"You modeled this whole place after Joyland because they were having a treasure hunt? Why? Because I used to go to the park when I was a kid?"

He laughed. "Don't flatter yourself. This whole-Shadow Park, if you like-already existed. It was created ten years ago and for a very different reason.

A special reason … but you'll find out about that later." He gave a strange smile that sent a chill through Jenny. "It was built on an old coal mine, you know-a pit. The Shadow Men have been here a long time."

A pit. Deep into the Pit, Jenny remembered. That was a line from the poem she'd found on her grandfather's desk in Julian's first Game. Was that how her grandfather had found the Shadow Men in the first place? Had he taken a question deep into a pit, into some place where the worlds were connected?

She would probably never know-unless Julian told her, which didn't seem likely. But it cast a vaguely sinister light over the real Joyland Park.

Forget the conjectural crap, she told herself. Get down to business.

"Tom and Zach are on Treasure Island," she said.

She got a wolfish smile back. "Right. And don't even think about trying to swim there or anything. The bridge is the only way, and the toll is three gold doubloons. You'll find the coins hidden throughout the park."

"I've got one already," she reminded him, closing her fist on the coin.

His smile turned dreamy, which was even more frightening than the wolf look. "Yes, you do, don't you?" he said pleasantly. "Now all you have to do is get out with it."

On the word it, everything went dark.

It happened so fast that it took Jenny's breath away. One moment she was conversing by the light of two ruddy torches, the next she was in pitch blackness. Blackness so profound that it made her heart jump and her eyes fly open. She saw ghostly blue pinwheels, then nothing. It was like being struck blind.

Okay. Don't panic. He made a mistake-he got mad and screwed up. He left the flashlight.

I hope, her mind added, as she stuck the doubloon in her pocket and cautiously felt her way in the darkness.

Her hand closed around cold metal. She held her breath and thumbed the switch.

Light. Only a tiny light, a dull orange-ish glow. Either something had happened to the flashlight in the fall or the batteries were going dead. But it was enough to keep her from going crazy.

You shouldn't have made him mad, Jenny. That was really, really dumb.

Because, even with light, she was in trouble. By holding the flashlight very close she could see the rock walls of her prison quite clearly. She could examine every inch of it, from the low ceiling, to the uneven floor, to the solidly packed boulders that blocked the entrance.

There was no way in or out. She couldn't possibly shift those boulders by herself-and if she did move one, she'd probably bring the rest of them down on top of her.

Don't panic. Don't, don't, don't panic.

But the flashlight was already getting dimmer. She could see it, but not anything around it. And she was alone in the midst of solid rock and absolute silence. There was no sound, not even the drip of water.

Wait. You thought your way out of a fire in the last

Game-why not a cave now? Come on, try. Just imagine the rock wall melting, imagine your hand moving through it. …

But it didn't work. As she'd suspected before, here in the Shadow World, Julian's illusions were too strong to be broken. He was the master here.

Which meant she was stuck, unless someone came to help her.

Okay, then. Yelling time.

She made herself shout. And again, and again. She even picked up a fist-size rock that lay at the bottom of the pile and banged on each stone wall, slowly and rhythmically. In between each burst of noise, she listened.

There was absolutely no sound in answer.

At last, with the flashlight nearly out, she sat down with her back against the boulders, drawing her arms and legs in like an anemone.

Then the whispering began.

It started so softly that at first she thought it might be the blood rushing in her ears. But it was real. The voices were distant and musical-and menacing. What they were saying was too indistinct to be made out.

Shoulders hunched, Jenny turned her head slowly, trying to locate the sound. And there, in the darkness, she saw eyes.

They glowed with their own light, like foxfire. They were cold, ravenous. She recognized them from her grandfather's closet.

The Shadow Men. The Shadow Men were here with her.

Their eyes seemed to stare out of the wall itself.

They were in the rock, somehow. Jenny felt the hairs on her arms erect, felt a prickling that ran from her little fingers to her palms and all the way up to her elbows. A primitive reaction to what she saw in front of her.

Everyone, everywhere, knew about the eyes, she thought. Underneath, everybody really knew, even though people tried to suppress the knowledge in the daytime. At night sometimes the knowledge burst out-the sense of watching eyes that shared the world with humans. Eyes that were ancient and infinitely malevolent and that had no more concept of pity than a wasp or a T. Rex.

Except that they were gifted with intelligence-maybe more intelligence than humans. Which made them doubly terrifying.

And they want you terrified, Jenny. So just keep your head. They're here to scare you, but they won't do anything to you. But they're whispering… . Such a juvenile thing. They were whispering gibberish-and it frightened her sick. Distorted, unnatural sounds. Like records played backward, at low speed.

She couldn't help listening and trying to make sense of it-even while she was terrified of doing just that. She didn't want the gibberish to make sense.

Then, to her surprise and vast relief, the eyes went out.

They didn't fade away as much as seem to recede across some great distance. The voices lingered for a moment and then died.

Thank you, Jenny thought fervently, leaning her bent head on her knees. Oh, thank you. The silence seemed almost welcome now.

Then she heard another sound, a liquid rippling that the hissing voices had obscured. She turned the dying flashlight toward the wall with the steps, where the eyes had been. Then she jumped up with a gasp and brought it closer.

The steps-were moving. No. As she brought the flashlight right up to the wall she felt a splash of wetness against her hand. The steps weren't moving, they were just covered with water.

Water was flowing down the rock staircase, smooth as glass. Just like the waterfalls in the mine ride.

Only faster. It was pouring in a steady sheet all along the width of the crack-maybe three or four feet. It was flooding out like a hotel fountain.

Strangely, it seemed just an inconvenience at first, and not nearly as scary as the eyes had been. Jenny didn't recognize it as a danger until her feet were soaked.

It's not flowing out through the boulders, she realized slowly. Weird. They must be really packed to be sealed. Or maybe there's just a blank wall behind them and only the ceiling was open when I fell through. But now even the ceiling's blocked up.

And that water's still coming. …

It was coming, and faster every minute, and icy cold. Her feet were actually numb inside her hiking boots. Too bad I lost the fanny pack-I had those Baggies for wading, she thought, and then she realized that she was going to die.

This was a sealed cavern. Sealed. Smaller than her bedroom and filling up faster than her dad's swimming pool. The water was going to come in and in- -and where will the air go? she wondered, stumped for a moment by this problem in physics. For a moment she thought she was saved. If the air couldn't get out, no more water could get in.

But there was probably room for the air to go out the ceiling, beyond the boulders somewhere. Up in some place Jenny couldn't find because the flashlight was completely dead now. She was standing in darkness, with water rising around her calves, and if she tried to climb those boulders blindly and pull at them, they would crush her. And if she didn't, she would eventually be left with her mouth up against the ceiling, gasping for the last tiny breath of air before the water took her.

She wasn't hysterical, but thoughts were rushing through her mind with dizzying speed. She was remembering the flooded-cavern scene in the mine ride above, and the clawed hand reaching above the boulders. And she thought she knew what some of the whispering voices had been saying.

"Die … die …"

So that had been the meaning of Julian's little smile… .

The oddest thing of all was that, even as the water rose higher and higher, she couldn't seem to bring herself to believe it.

Julian wanted her dead? Oh, it shouldn't be surprising-he was evil, wasn't he? Completely evil. And he'd been in a fury when he left.

But-dead?

The water was around her thighs now. It was cold-painfully cold. What a waste it had been to dry her jeans off earlier.

Without consciously knowing how she'd gotten there, she found herself kneeling on one of the waterfall's steps, pressing her hands against the crack, trying to stuff a rock inside. It did no good at all; she could feel the water gushing out in the dark, chilling her hands.

Maybe Julian just wanted to humiliate her-to frighten her until she begged for help. But, no, that didn't make sense. Julian knew she wouldn't beg. She wouldn't give in to him. He'd found that out when he'd set the bees on her in the first Game. Jenny had been willing to die then rather than surrender to him.

And so he must know she would be now, and so he must want her dead, really dead.

Unless –

Jenny wouldn't have thought it possible for her to become more frightened than she already was. She'd have thought there would be some limit, that her mind would go numb. But although her body was numbing with cold, her mind was suddenly reeling with a new idea that made sheer black horror sweep through her.

What if Julian didn't know? What if he weren't the one doing this?

Julian had stormed off in a rage-and then they had come. What if this water was their doing?

She'd be dead before he found out.

The thought resounded in her mind with a queer certainty. Julian had been at odds with the other Shadow Men once before-when five-year-old Jenny had first opened her grandfather's closet. The other Shadow Men had wanted to kill her, their lawful prey. But Julian had objected. He'd wanted her, wanted her alive.

And she'd stayed alive, because her grandfather had given himself up to them. But now …

Now, she thought, they're finishing the job. And Julian doesn't know.

It was odd, but she was suddenly sure of that. Julian might be evil, but the other Shadow Men were worse. More twisted, more malign. In the paper house, Julian had controlled everything-but she wasn't in the paper house now. She was in the Shadow World itself, and all the Shadow Men were masters.

The water was up to her neck. So cold, Jenny thought-and then the idea came.

What if it got more cold-ice cold? Julian had conjured up a torch with the torch rune, Kenaz. So, maybe –

She was so numb she hardly knew whether she was crawling or floating, but she found the top step and she found the rock she'd tried to stuff in the crack. She was blind, but she could feel the wall, and the rune she wanted was the simplest shape imaginable.

Just one stroke, up and down. A capital without any bars. The ice rune, Isa.

She scratched it directly over the crack, directly in the flow of water. And then, blind and almost paralyzed, she waited.

It was too cold for her to tell at first if it worked.

But then she felt jagged sharpness instead of the smooth numbing gusher.

The flow over the rune Isa had become a frozen waterfall. Although the water around Jenny remained liquid, it had stopped rising.

I did it! I stopped the water! It's ice, beautiful ice!

She sucked in deep breaths of air excitedly, not afraid to use it up any longer. Oh, God, it was good to breathe. And the rune, the rune had worked for her. She couldn't control the Shadow World with her mind, but the runes worked for anyone.

It was only after a few minutes that she realized she was going to die anyway.

Not by drowning-or at least not entirely, although that would come at the end. She was going to freeze to death.

It was too cold-had been too cold even before she had frozen the waterfall. Being here was like floating in the ocean the night the Titanic had sunk. She was going to die of hypothermia-lose consciousness and sink. And then drown.

And there was nothing at all she could do about it.

She was already too weak when her stupefied mind stumbled upon the idea of the torch rune. Kenaz. If she could remember it-if she could find her rock-or move her fingers …

But the rock was gone and her fingers were too anesthetized and her brain was fogging up. Blanking out gently, almost like the beginning of sleep. Kenaz … she waved the frozen lumps of flesh that were her hands vaguely under the water, but of course no torch appeared. Water could be frozen into ice, but not kindled into fire. She couldn't change the rules of the elements at her whim.

Disconnected scraps of thought drifted through her mind. It didn't hurt much anymore. Not so bad. And nothing seemed so urgent-whatever had been bothering her moments earlier wasn't as important now.

Help. She had a vague feeling that she might call for help. But it seemed-it seemed there was some reason not to.

Wouldn't hear me. That's it. Was that it? He wouldn't hear me anyway. Too far away.

It didn't matter now. Nothing mattered.

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