The Forbidden Game: The Hunter Chapter 13
Cadet blue, which had just looked pale on the mirror, turned out to be gray on paper.
Jenny was no artist, but she could draw simple things. Like a square-that was her grandfather’s basement. Steps, going out of the top of the picture up to the house. A desk against one wall. A couch. Three or four large bookcases.
That was all she could remember. She hoped it was enough.
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that Julian was gone again. Good.
She put the slip of paper on the floor in front of the blank wall.
The flash of light was exactly like a flashgun going off in her eyes, leaving her with dancing afterimages. Score one for Zach, she thought. When she could see again, she found herself looking in a mirror.
It had worked.
She could feel her pulse in her wrists and throat as well as her chest. God, don’t let me run away, she thought.
After so many years of fighting not to remember this, she was going to throw herself right into it. It was going to be bad. How bad, she’d have to find out when it happened.
She pressed the red button. The blue light went on. The mirrored door slid open.
She didn’t give herself a chance to look at anything before she stepped inside.
Golden sunlight slanted in from small windows set high on the walls. To Jenny’s utter surprise she felt a thrill of excitement and recognition.
I remember those windows! I remember…
The door slid shut behind her, but she was already stepping out to the center of the room, looking around in wonder. Taking in the colors, the profusion of objects.
It’s smaller than I thought it would be-and even more crowded. But it’s my grandfather’s basement.
Her grandfather, though, wasn’t there.
That’s right. He wasn’t here that day. I remember. I let myself in the house and went looking for him, but I couldn’t find him anywhere upstairs.
So … I looked down here-I think. I must have. I don’t remember doing it, but I must have.
Jenny turned toward the stairs, which ended in a blank wall at the top. No door, of course, because this was a nightmare. The wall was as blank as her mind-her sense of delighted recognition had stopped cold. She had no idea what came next.
But as she stared, she seemed to see the ghost of a child looking down from the top step. A little girl wearing shorts, with wind-ruffled hair and a scab on her knee.
Herself. At age five.
It was almost like watching a movie. She could see the little girl’s thongs flap as she ran down the stairs. She could see the child’s lips open as she called for her grandfather, see the child standing in surprise at the bottom when he turned out not to be down here.
As long as Jenny watched without trying to guide the images, the ghostly movie went on.
The little girl was looking around, green eyes opening wide as she realized that she was alone down here, a thing which had never happened before.
That’s right. The door to the basement had always been locked when Jenny’s grandfather wasn’t down there-but not that day. Jenny remembered the feeling of delicious wickedness at being where she wasn’t allowed to be. But she couldn’t remember what happened next.
Don’t try to remember. You’re trying too hard. Relax and see what happens.
As soon as she did, she seemed to see the little girl again. The ghostly image was standing uncertainly, swaying on her toes, considering whether to stay or go.
It was stay. The child looked around with elaborate casualness, then, sucking on her lower lip and affecting an air of nonchalance, she wandered over to the first bookcase.
All right, Jenny thought. So let’s see what’s in the bookcase. She followed the child’s image. The little girl was idly running a grimy finger along a row of books-which, of course, she couldn’t read. Not even the titles. But sixteen-year-old Jenny could.
Some of them looked fairly normal, like Goethe’s Faust and UFO’s: A New Look. But others were completely unfamiliar, like The Qabalah and De Occulta Philosophia and The Galdrabdk.
The little girl was moving on to the second bookcase, which held all sorts of objects. One whole shelf was crowded with small wooden boxes with glass tops, filled with what looked like spices. No-herbs, Jenny thought. Dried herbs.
The little girl was running fascinated fingers over some balls of colored glass attached to strings. Sixteen-year-old Jenny was more interested in the looped cross next to them-she was sure it was an ankh. Summer’s dad had said the ankh was an Egyptian life symbol that kept away bad luck.
And that diamond-shaped thing made of yarn-that was a Mexican Eye of God. A string design that was supposed to protect you from evil. Jenny’s mother had one in the kitchen, for decoration.
But what about the bracelet of cobalt and turquoise beads, alternating with little silver charms? And the gold-plated religious pictures? And the wooden flute wrapped in fur?
… items of protection? Jenny thought. She wasn’t sure what put the idea in her mind, but the longer she looked at the things in this bookcase, the more certain she felt.
But… it wasn’t just this bookcase. Slowly Jenny turned to look around the basement again. All these things, all these beautiful, exotic things-could they all be for protection?
Who would need that much protection? And why?
The little girl was fingering a large silver bell in the
bookcase, but Jenny’s eyes were drawn to a group of
charts on the wall. The Theban Alphabet, one was labeled, and underneath were strange symbols. The Alphabet of the Magi. The Secret Etruscan Alphabet. The Celtic Tree Alphabet. Numerical Values of the Hebrew Alphabet. There was also a rather frightening engraving of a skeleton holding a raven on one bony hand.
The ghost child was moving again, wandering over to the large writing desk. Going on tiptoe in her thongs, she leaned her elbows on the felt desk pad. Jenny found herself looking down through a transparent blond head at the papers there.
Lots of papers-which held no interest for the five-year-old Jenny except that she wasn’t supposed to touch them. Intrinsic naughtiness was the fun.
Sixteen-year-old Jenny could read them. One was a chart like those on the wall. It was titled The Elder Futhark but Jenny recognized the slanty, angular symbols.
Like the ones she’d seen on the drinking horns of the young men in the forest. Like the one on the inside cover of the white box. Each had its name written beside it in her grandfather’s strong black handwriting, with notes.
Uruz, she read. For piercing the veil between the worlds. She recognized the inverted V shape, the two uneven horns pointing downward.
Raidho-it was shaped like an R drawn without any curved lines-for journeying in space or time.
Dagaz, which looked like an hourglass on its side. For awakening.
One of the runes was circled with a thick pen stroke.
Nauthiz, Jenny read. Shaped like a backward-leaning X, with one stroke longer than the other. For containment.
The last word was underlined heavily.
Jenny took another slow look around the room.
Oh, my God.
She couldn’t keep the truth away any longer. She’d been holding it at arm’s length, refusing to look at it, but now it burst on her with the force of absolute certainty. There was no way to deny it.
Oh, my God, he was a sorcerer.
Her mother’s father had been a sorcerer.
Don’t think about it… don’t remember, the voice in her mind whispered. Nobody can make you remember. Stay safe behind your walls, or else …
It was going to be very bad from here on, she realized.
She had to remember-for Tom. But Tom’s image eluded her. So much had happened since she’d seen him last night-could it only be last night? She’d changed so much since then. She tried to conjure up his rakish smile in her mind, his green-flecked eyes, but the picture she got was like a distant, faded photograph. Somebody she’d known long ago.
God, I can’t get any feeling for him.
Her palms were tingling. Her stomach felt sick.
I still have to remember. For Dee. For Zach. For Audrey and Michael-and Summer. Yes. For Summer.
All the others had faced their nightmares. Even Summer had tried. Pictures skittered through Jenny’s mind: Dee thrashing like an animal; Audrey huddled and moaning; Michael screaming; Summer’s blue-white lips; Zach’s glazed gray eyes. They’d all been terrified out of their wits. Was Jenny’s nightmare any worse than theirs?
Yes, I think so, the little voice in her mind whispered, but Jenny wasn’t listening anymore. From Don’t remember, don’t remember, the chant in her head had changed to Remember, remember…
Maybe this will help, she told herself rather calmly, and with a feeling of meeting her doom she picked up a leather-bound book on the desk.
It was a journal of sorts. Or at least a record of some kind of experiment. Her grandfather’s heavy black writing degenerated into a scrawl in places, but certain sentences stood out clearly as she leafed through.
“… out of all the methods from different cultures this one seems safest… the rune Nyd or Nauthiz provides an eternal constraint, preventing travel in any direction…. The rune must be carved, then stained with blood, and finally charged with power by pronouncing its name aloud….”
Jenny flipped through more pages to a later entry.
“… interesting treatise on the traditional methods of dealing with a djinn, or, as the Hausa call them, the aljunnu. Why anyone should think this could be accomplished with a bottle is beyond me…. I believe the space I’ve prepared to be just barely sufficient for containing the tremendous energies involved… .”
Good grief, he sounded just like a scientist. A mad scientist, Jenny thought. She flipped more pages.
“… I have achieved the containment at last! I’m very satisfied… foolproof methods… not the slightest danger… the tremendous forces I’ve harnessed … all in complete safety. …”
Toward the end there was something stuck in between the pages like a bookmark. It was a torn sheet of yellowing, brittle paper. It looked very old. The writing on it was quite different from her grandfather’s-thin and shaky-and part of it was obscured by rusty-brown stains.
It was a poem. There was no title, but the author’s name, Johannes Eckhart, and the date, 1943, were scrawled at the top.
I, slipping on the slime-edged stones, To that dark place by rusty foxfire lit, Where they lie watching, fingering old bones, Go with my question. Deep into the pit Of the Black Forest, where the Erlking rules And truth is told but always at a cost, I take my puzzle. Like the other fools who’ve slipped on these same stones and played and lost
I come because I must. I have no choice. The Game is timeless and …
The rest of it was covered with the dark stains, except for the last two lines:
I leave them waiting there below. I hear them laughing as I go.
Jenny leaned back and let out her breath. Obviously this poem had impressed her grandfather enough for him to keep it for forty years. She
knew her grandfather had fought in World War II-he’d been a prisoner in a German POW camp. Maybe he’d met this Johannes Eckhart then. And maybe this Johannes Eckhart had started him thinking. …
She had all the pieces of the puzzle now. She just didn’t want to put them together. All she could think about was taking the next step in the drama she was playing out here.
The final step, she thought.
The ghostly child in the thongs had vanished; the internal movie had stopped running. But Jenny didn’t try to get it back. She could feel the irresistible tug of real memory at last, and she knew what she had to do.
She stepped back to look at the third bookcase.
It was a massive one built of solid mahogany, and it usually stood against the same wall as the desk. Today it had been moved. Pulled out at an angle. The dust pattern on the wall behind it showed clearly where it normally rested.
It had been moved to expose a door behind it.
Jenny hadn’t noticed the door before because the case stuck out enough to block it. You had to actually walk beyond the bookcase to get a good look.
That’s what Jenny felt compelled to do now.
It was a perfectly ordinary-looking door. Probably leading to a closet. The only strange thing about it was the huge backward-leaning X deeply carved into the wood.
Carved and colored a rusty brown like the stains on the poem.
The internal movie had started up again, even
though Jenny didn’t need or want it. The ghostly little girl was standing in surprise in front of the door, swaying from one foot to the other. Obviously temptation was fighting with obedience-and winning. The wind-ruffled hair was shaken back, the tanned legs flashed, two small hands grasped the doorknob-and the ghost disappeared.
And then I opened it, Jenny thought. But no image of opening it, or of what had happened after, would come to her mind. She was going to have to find that out for herself.
All the way to the door her heart was thudding wild disapproval. Her body seemed to have more sense than she did. No-don’t-no-don’t, no-don’t-no-don’t, her racing pulse said.
Jenny took hold of the knob. The thudding became a screaming.
No, don’t. Don’t-don’t-don’t____
She flung open the door. Ice and shadows.
That was all she could see. The closet was wide and very deep, and the inside of it was a whirling, seething mixture of white and black. Frost coated the walls, icicles hung like teeth from the ceiling. A blast of freezing wind went straight through Jenny, chilling her as if she’d been plunged into Arctic waters. The tips of her fingers went numb, the skin shriveling.
It was so cold it stopped her breath. It stopped her from moving. The ice was so bright it blinded her. She got just one glimpse of what was at the center of that whirlpool of light and dark. Eyes.
Dark eyes, watching eyes, sardonic, cruel, amused eyes. Ancient eyes. Jenny recognized them. They were the eyes she sometimes saw just at the moment of falling asleep or of waking up. The eyes she saw at night in her room.
Eyes in the shadows. Evil, malicious, knowing eyes.
One pair was an indescribably beautiful blue.
She didn’t have the air to scream; her lungs were rebelling against the freezing wind she was trying to draw into them. But she had to scream-she had to do something-because they were coming out. The eyes were coming out.
It was as if they were coming from very far away, rushing toward her, riding the storm. She had to move-she had to run. The glittery black eyes of the alien Visitors, the slanted eyes of the dark elves-Jenny had thought those were frightening, but they were nothing compared to this. They were feeble, petty imitations. No horror that human beings had invented to scare themselves came anywhere close. Vampires, aliens, werewolves, ghouls, they were all nothing. Stories made up to hide the real fear.
The terror that came in the darkness, the one that everyone knew about, and everyone forgot. Only sometimes, waking up between dreams, did the full realization hit. And even then it was seldom remembered, and if it was remembered it was dismissed the next morning. The knowledge couldn’t survive in daylight. But at night sometimes people glimpsed the truth. That humans weren’t alone. They shared the world with them. The Others.
The Shadow Men.
The ones who walked freely through the human world, and who had another world of their own. They’d been called different things in different ages, but their true nature always came through.
They granted favors-sometimes. They always asked for something in return, usually more than you could afford.
They liked games, riddles, any kind of play. But they were unreliable-whimsical. They balanced any good they did with capricious evil.
They preyed on humans. When people lost time, they were responsible. When people disappeared, they were laughing. People who got into their world usually didn’t get back.
They had power. Trying to get a good look at them-or trap them-was always a bad idea. Even being too curious about them could kill you.
One more thing. They were heartbreakingly beautiful.
All this passed through Jenny’s mind in a matter of seconds. She didn’t need to reason it out. She knew. It was as if a crust had fallen away from her mind, and she saw the truth as a complete, coherent whole. All she could think was, So that’s it. I remember now.
The eyes were still rushing toward her. Her loose hair whipped around her face in the wind, her own breath coating it with ice. She couldn’t move.
Her name called in a terrible voice. Before she could turn, she was caught around the waist and lifted-lifted as if she were five years old and weighed thirty-seven pounds.
“Grandpa,” she gasped and threw her arms around his neck.
He was smaller than she remembered, too-and just now his tired, kind face was etched in absolute horror. Jenny tried to cling to him, but he slung her around, thrusting her behind the bookcase.
“Nauthiz! Nauthiz!” he shouted.
He was trying to shut the door, tracing over the rune on the front with stabs of his finger. His slashing motions as he traced the X became more and more violent, and his voice was the most dreadful thing Jenny had ever heard. “Nauthiz!”
The door wouldn’t shut. The old man’s shouts were becoming screams of despair.
A white light was coming from the closet. A white storm, with tendrils and lashings of mist. Dark strands were interwoven with the white. The tendrils were writhing around Jenny’s grandfather.
Jenny tried to scream. She couldn’t.
The wind blasted out, blowing her grandfather’s sparse hair. All his clothes were rippling. Frost flowed out on the ceiling, down to the desk, to the ground-level windows. It spread like crystals growing along the walls.
Tears froze in Jenny’s eyes. She seemed to be locked in the form of a stricken five-year-old. She couldn’t make herself go to him.
The voices that spoke from the mist were as cold as the wind. Like bells made of ice.
“We won’t be put back____”
“You know the laws… .”
“We have a claim, now… .”
And her grandfather’s voice, full of desperate fear. “Anything else. You can have anything else-“
“She broke the rune____”
“… set us free…”
“… and we want her.”
“Give her to us.” This was all the voices together.
“I can’t!” her grandfather said. It was almost a groan.
“Then we’ll take her____”
“We’ll embrace her____”
“No, let’s keep her,” said a voice full of subtle, elemental music. Like water running over rock. “I want her.”
“We all want her____”
“… We’re all hungry.”
“No,” said Jenny’s grandfather.
A voice like an ice floe cracking said, “There’s only one way to change the consequences. Make a new bargain.”
Jenny’s grandfather’s jaw worked, and he backed away from the closet a few steps. “You mean …”
“A life for a life.”
“Someone must take her place.”
“Come now, that’s only fair.”
The voices were delicate, reasonable. Evil. Only the water-voice seemed to have an objection.
“I want her… .” it argued.
“Ah, youth,” said a voice as slow as a glacier, and all of them laughed like Christmas bells.
“I’m ready,” said Jenny’s grandfather.
“No!” Jenny screamed.
She could move at last-but it was too late. She remembered everything now. She had been cowering behind the bookcase, her five-year-old mind probably better able to deal with the reality of the Shadow Men than an adult’s. They were the monsters that scare every five-year-old. The Bogeymen. The Bad Things. And they were taking her grandfather.
She’d jumped up then and run, as she was running now. Toward the closet. Toward the white tendrils of mist that were coiling around her grandfather, toward the ice storm of eyes. She’d heard her grandfather screaming that day as the storm dragged him into the closet. She’d reached for him, catching his flailing hand. She’d been screaming, too, just as she was screaming now, and the freezing wind had been howling around her, full of angry, evil, ravenous voices.
For one instant, then as now, it had been a horrible tug-of-war. She, Jenny, clinging on to her grandfather’s hand with all her strength. They, in the ice storm, pulling him away. Into the depths of a closet that had become endless, a tunnel reaching to some other world.
She could never hope to stop them, of course. She succeeded only in being dragged along the floor, her clothes torn, her shoes lost, her bare feet raking up ice.
They were both going in.
Then her grandfather slapped her hands away.
Hitting and scratching, he tore out of her grip. Jenny fell on the floor, the ice cold under her bare legs. She was directly in front of the closet, and she had a perfect view of the screaming, whirling pin-wheel that had been a man, disappearing into a white cloud which got smaller and smaller as if speeding away and finally disappeared itself, becoming a closet wall.
Then the shrieking wind stopped and the room was empty and Jenny was sobbing alone in the silence.