The Forbidden Game: The Kill Chapter 7
Gebo, she thought, one flash of coherence, of memory, just before her head slid under the water. Gebo, the rune of sacrifice.
Dying was painless-but sad. It hurt to think of the people she was leaving behind.
She kept picturing her parents, imagining what they would say when Dee and the others got home and told them. If Dee and the others got home and told them.
Her thoughts were very scattered, like dandelion fluff blowing erratically on the wind.
Mr. and Mrs. Parker-Pearson-Summer’s parents -had been so hurt when they lost Summer. Jenny hated to think of her parents hurt that way.
And Tom … what would happen to Tom? Maybe Julian would let him go. No point in keeping him after Jenny was gone. But that didn’t seem likely. Julian was a Shadow Man, he belonged to a race that didn’t have gentle emotions. They weren’t capable of pity.
Julian might take out his anger on Tom instead.
Please, no, Jenny thought… but it didn’t seem to matter that much anymore. Even her sadness was fading now-breaking up and floating away. She was dead, and she couldn’t change anything.
Strange, though, that a dead person could suddenly feel pain-physical pain. A burning. The frigid water had stopped hurting a long time ago, and since then she’d had no sense of her own body. Trapped in absolute darkness and utter silence, too numb to feel any sensation, she didn’t seem to have a body. She was just a drifting collection of thoughts.
But now-this burning had started. At first it seemed very distant and easy to ignore. But it didn’t stop. It got worse. She felt heat: a tingling, prickling heat that demanded her attention. And with the heat she began to have a body again.
Hands. She could feel her hands now. And feet, she had feet. She had a face, defined by thousands of tiny red-hot needles. And she was aware of a vague, fuzzy glow.
Open your eyes, she told herself.
She couldn’t. They were too heavy, and everything hurt so much. She wanted to go back into the darkness where there wasn’t any pain. She willed the light to go away.
Her name, called in tones of love and desperation. Poor Tom, she thought dimly. Tom needed her-and he must be frantic with worry. She should go to Tom.
But it hurt.
“Jenny. Please, Jenny, come back-“
Oh, no. No, don’t cry. It’ll be all right.
There was only one way to make it all right, and that was to come back. Forget how much it hurt.
All right, do it, then. Jenny concentrated on the fuzzy glow, trying to make it come closer. Pulling herself toward it. The pain was terrible-her lungs hurt. But if she had lungs, she could breathe. Breathe, girl!
It hurt like hell, and darkness sucked at her, trying to drag her down again. ‘ “That’s it, Jenny. Keep fighting Oh, Jenny …”
With a tremendous effort she opened her eyes. Golden light dazzled her. Someone was rubbing her hands.
I did it for you, Tom.
But it wasn’t Tom. It was Julian.
Julian was the one rubbing her hands, calling out to her. Golden light danced on his hair, his face. It was a fire, Jenny realized slowly, and she was in another cavern, slightly bigger than the last. She was dry, somehow, and lying in a sort of nest of white fur, very soft, very comfortable. The heat of the fire was bringing her back to life.
The pain wasn’t so bad now, although there was still an unyielding knot of ice in her middle. And she felt weak-too weak and exhausted to think properly. It was Julian, not Tom-but she couldn’t really take that in.
It didn’t even look like Julian … because Jenny had never seen Julian look afraid. But now the blue eyes were dark with fear and as wide as a child’s-the pupils huge and dilated with emotion. Julian’s face, which had always seemed molded for arrogance and mockery, was white even in the firelight-and thinner somehow, as if the skin were drawn tight over bones. As for the dangerously beautiful smile that usually curved Julian’s lips … there wasn’t a trace of it.
Strangest of all, Julian seemed to be shaking. The hands that held Jenny’s had stopped their rubbing, but a fine, continuous tremor ran through them. And Jenny could see how quickly he was breathing by the way his chest rose and fell.
“I thought you were dead,” he said in a muted voice.
So did I. Jenny tried to say it, but only got as far as a hitching breath.
“Here. Drink this, it should help.” And the next moment he was supporting her head, holding a steaming cup to her lips. The liquid was hot and sweet, and it sent warmth coursing into the cold, hard knot inside her, loosening it and chasing away the last of the pain. Jenny felt herself relaxing, lying still to absorb the fire’s heat. A feeling of well-being crept through her as Julian laid her back down.
Gently. Julian was being gentle … but Julian was never gentle. He belonged to a race that didn’t have gentle emotions. They didn’t feel tenderness, weren’t capable of pity.
She probably shouldn’t even accept help from him-but he looked so haunted, like someone who had been through a terrible fright.
“I thought I’d lost you,” he said.
“Then you didn’t send the water?”
He just looked at her.
It didn’t seem to be the time for recriminations. Oh, she probably ought to say something-maybe list the kind of things he’d done to her in the past. He’d hunted her in every way imaginable.
But here, now, in this little cavern surrounded by rock, with no one present but the two of them, and no sound but the soft roar and crackle of the fire … all that seemed very far away. Part of a past life. Julian didn’t seem like a Shadow Man, didn’t seem like a hunter. After all, if he were a predator, he had his quarry right here, exhausted and helpless. He’d never have a better chance. If he wanted her, she wouldn’t even be able to put up a fight.
Instead, he was looking at her with those queer dazed eyes, still black with emotion.
“You would have cared if I died,” she said slowly.
The eyes searched hers a moment, then looked away.
“You really don’t know, do you?” he said in an odd voice.
Jenny said nothing. She pulled herself up a little in the white nest, so she was sitting.
“I’ve told you how I feel about you.”
“Yes. But …” Julian had always said that he was in love with her-but Jenny had never sensed much tenderness in the emotion. She might have said this, but for some reason it seemed-inappropriate-to say it to someone who looked so lost. Like a child waiting for a blow. “But I’ve never understood why.”
“Haven’t you.” It wasn’t even a question.
“We’re so different.” Madness to be talking about this. But they were both looking at each other, now, quietly, as they had never sat and looked before. Eyes unwavering-but without challenge. It meant something to look into someone’s eyes this long, Jenny thought. She shouldn’t be doing it.
But of course she had wondered, she had wondered from the beginning what he could possibly see in her. How he could want her-so much. Enough to watch over her since she was five years old, to pierce the veil between the worlds to come after her, to hunt her and stalk her as if he thought about nothing else.
“Why, Julian?” she said softly.
“Would you like a list?” His face was completely blank, his voice clipped and emotionless.
“Hair like liquid amber, eyes green as the Nile,” he said, seeming utterly dispassionate about it. He could have been reading a page of homework assignments. “But it’s not the color, really, it’s the expression. The way they go so deep and soft when you’re thinking.”
Jenny opened her mouth, but he was going on.
“Skin that glows, especially when you’re excited. A golden sheen all over you.”
“But there are lots of beautiful girls. Of course. You’re different. There’s something inside you that makes you different, a certain kind of spirit. You’re -innocent. Sweet, even after everything that’s been thrown at you. Gentle, but with a spirit like flame.”
“I’m not,” Jenny said, almost frightened. “Audrey sometimes says I’m too simple – “
“Simple as light and air-things people take for granted but that they’d die without. People really should think more about that.”
Jenny did feel frightened now. This new Julian was dangerous-made her feel weak and dizzy.
“When I first saw you, you were like a flood of sunshine. All the others wanted to kill you. They thought I was crazy. They laughed… .”
He means the other Shadow Men, Jenny thought.
“But I knew, and I watched you. You grew up and got more beautiful. You were so different from anything in my world. The others just watched, but I wanted you. Not to kill or to use up the way-the way they do with humans sometimes here. I needed you.”
There was something in his voice now besides clinical dispassion. It was-hunger, Jenny thought, but not the cold, malicious hunger she’d seen in the ancient eyes and the whispering voices of the other Shadow Men. It was as if Julian was hungry for something he’d never had, filled with a crippling need even he didn’t understand.
“I couldn’t see anything else, couldn’t hear anything else. All I could think about was you. I wouldn’t let anyone else hurt you, ever. I knew I had to have you, no matter what happened. They said I was crazy with love.”
He had gotten up and walked away to the edge of the firelight. As he stood there, Jenny seemed to see him for the first time, looking at him with new eyes. And he looked-small. Small and almost vulnerable.
Nothing in the universe was moving except her heart, and that was shaking her body.
She had never thought about what the other Shadow Men might say to Julian. She knew he was the youngest of a very old race, but she’d never thought about his life at all, or his point of view. She hadn’t thought about him having a point of view.
“What’s it like, being-” She hesitated.
“Being a Shadow Man? Watching from the dark places everything happening on the worlds that aren’t full of shadows? Earth has colors, you know, that you never find here.”
“But-you can make anything you want. You can create it.”
“It’s not the same. Things fade here. They don’t last.”
“But why do you stay here, then? Instead of just watching us, you could-” Jenny stopped again. God, what was she saying? Inviting the Shadow Men to her own world? She took a deep breath. “If you could change-“
“I can’t change what I am. None of us can. The rest of the nine worlds keep us out; they say our nature is destructive. We’re not welcome anywhere-but we’ll always be near Earth, watching. From the shadows.”
There was something in his voice-too quiet and closed-off for bitterness. A-remoteness that was bleak beyond words.
“Forever,” he finished.
“Forever? You never die?”
“Something that isn’t born can’t die. We have a-beginning, of course. Our names carved on a runestave, a special runestave.” He said, almost mockingly, “The stave of life.”
There had been something about staves in her grandfather’s journal. A picture scrawled in ink, showing a sort of tall, flat branch with runes on it.
“Carve our names on the stave-and we come into existence,” Julian said. “Cut them out-and we disappear.”
It seemed very heartless to Jenny. Cold-but then the Shadow Men were cold. Not flesh and blood, but creatures that came into being through a carving in wood or stone.
How cold to be a Shadow Man, she thought. And how sad. Condemned by your own destructiveness to be what you were forever.
Julian was still standing at the edge of the firelight, face half in shadow, gazing at the darkness beyond. It gave Jenny a queer hollow feeling.
What would it have been like, she wondered suddenly, if he hadn’t tried to force her?
From the beginning Julian had used force and trickery. He’d lured her into the More Games store and enticed her into buying the Game, knowing that when she put the paper house together it would suck her into the Shadow World. He’d kidnapped her. And then he’d appeared and bullied her: forced her to play his own demonic game to try and win her freedom. He’d threatened her, hurt her friends-killed Summer. He’d done everything to try and wring submission out of her.
“Couldn’t you just have come and asked?” she murmured.
She’d said the same thing to him in the tower of the paper house. Didn’t that ever occur to you? That you could just appear at my front door, no games, no threats, and just ask me? But in the tower the words had been part of a ruse to get free, and she hadn’t really thought about them herself.
Now she did. What if Julian had come to her, appearing some night out of the shadows while she was walking home, say, and told her that he loved her? What would she have done?
She would have been afraid. Yes. But after the fear? If Julian had come, offering gifts, gentle, looking as vulnerable as he did now?
If she had accepted his gifts …
It was a strange future, too strange to visualize, really, but queerly thrilling. It was too foreign to imagine: herself as a sort of princess with a prince of darkness as consort. For just an instant Jenny got a rushing, heady glimpse; for a fraction of a second she could picture it.
Herself, wearing black silk and sable, sitting on a black marble throne in a big stone hall where it was always twilight. Growing paler and colder, maybe, as she forgot about the ordinary world she’d left behind -but happy, maybe, in her power and position. Would she have little Shadow World creatures to order around and look after? Servants? Would she be able to control the elements here the way Julian did?
Or maybe not a black gown-maybe white, with little icicles all over it, like Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen. And jewels like frost-flowers, around her neck and a blue-eyed white tiger crouching at her feet. What would Dee and Audrey think if they saw her like that? They might be afraid at first-but she’d serve them strange drinks, like the sweet, hot stuff in the mug, and after a while they’d get used to it. Audrey would envy the pretty things, and Dee would envy the power.
What else? Julian had said she could have anything-anything. If she could have anything in the world she wanted, with no limits, no restrictions on her imagination-if she could have anything …
I’d want Tom.
She’d forgotten him for a moment, because the picture of the big stone hall was so alien. Tom’s warmth and strength and lazy smile didn’t fit there at all-which of course made sense because Julian would never let him in. But any world without Tom was a world Jenny didn’t want.
The vision of the white gown and the jewels disappeared, and she knew somehow that it would never come back, not the way it had for that one moment, when she could feel it and believe in it. She would never forget it, but she would never be able to recapture it, either.
Just as well, she thought unsteadily. She didn’t want to think about this anymore; in fact, she thought it was high time that she got out of here. She was tingling all over with a sense of danger.
“I’m warm now,” she said, pushing the white fur away. All she could think of was that she had to leave. She should thank him, maybe, for saving her life –
although it wouldn’t have been in danger in the first place if not for him.
He was looking at her. Jenny looked away, concentrated on getting her legs under her. When she stood, they were wobbly. She tried to step out of the white nest, and stumbled.
He was there in an instant.
She felt his warm hands close around her arms, steadying her. She stared at his chest, bare under the leather vest and lifting quickly with his breathing. The firelight touched everything with gold.
She didn’t want to look up into his face, but somehow it happened anyway.
His eyes were still hugely dilated, the blue mere circles around pupils dark and bottomless as midnight. His pupils always sprang open for her, she realized, but just now there was something haunting about those lonely depths.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, hardly knowing what she meant. “I have to* leave now. I’m sorry.”
In that instant he seemed to understand better than she did herself. He looked very young, and very tired, and heavy with some knowledge she didn’t share. Face still solemn, he leaned in slightly.
Jenny shut her eyes.
It was different from any kiss they’d ever had. Not because it was softer-Julian’s kisses were usually soft, at the beginning anyway. Not even because it was so slow-Julian’s kisses were almost always slow. But it was different, in a way that sent Jenny’s mind spinning into confusion.
Feeling … that was it. Not just sensation, but emotion. Emotion so strong that it left her shaking. It was such an innocent kiss, so-chaste. His warm mouth touching hers. His lips trembling against hers. How could something that simple move her so much?
Because she could sense his feelings, she realized. When she touched his lips, she could feel his pain, the almost unendurable pain of someone whose heart was breaking with sadness. What she tasted on those warm, soft lips was unbearable loss. If he’d been dying, or she had, she would have been able to understand such a kiss.
He’s suffering like that-from losing me? Jenny had never been particularly modest, but she could hardly believe it. She might have rejected the idea outright-except for what she was feeling herself.
What she felt … was a shattering inside.
When he stepped back, Jenny was in something like a trance. She stood there, eyes shut, still feeling everything, unable to move. Tears welled up around her lashes.
The time in sixth grade when he’d broken his leg and sat in a tide pool, white but still wisecracking, holding on to Jenny’s hand, not letting anybody else see how bad the pain was. All the many times he’d held Jenny for her sake, when she got scared at movies, or when she cried over the stray animals she took in. He’d stayed up all night when she thought Cosette, the kitten she’d rescued-from a vacant lot, was dying. He had been part of her life since she was seven years old. He was a part of her.
And Julian had hurt him. Julian had blown his chance right at the very beginning, when he’d done that.
Jenny opened her eyes, the trance broken. She stepped back, and saw Julian’s face change. As if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
“Tom needs me,” she said.
Julian smiled then, grimly, in a way that chased the cobwebs out of Jenny’s brain. The lost, haunted look was gone, as if it had never existed.
“Oh, yes. Tommy needs you like air. But I need you like-“
“What?” Jenny said when it was clear he wasn’t going on.
“Like light,” Julian said, with the same bitter smile. “You’re light, all right-like a flame to a moth. I told you once that you shouldn’t mess with forbidden things-I should have taken my own advice.”
“Light shouldn’t be forbidden,” Jenny said.
“It is to me. It’s deadly to a Shadow Man. Light kills shadows, don’t you know? And of course the other way around.”
He seemed to find this amusing. He’d done one of his quicksilver mood changes, and looking at his face now, Jenny almost wondered if the last half hour had been a dream.
“Don’t think that just because I pulled you out of the water, the Game is over,” he added. “You need three gold coins to get to your precious Tommy. And time’s tick, tick, ticking. …”
“I’ve got one, remember. I-” Jenny broke off with an inarticulate noise, feeling in her jeans pocket. The Swiss Army knife was still there, but the gold doubloon he’d tossed her in the cavern was gone.
“But I had it. It must have fallen out-“
“Sorry. Only one turn to a customer. No replays. Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars.”
“You-” Jenny broke off again. Her anger drained, but she felt something inside herself harden, ice over. All right, then. She must have been crazy, feeling sorry for Julian-Julian!-but now she knew better. They were opponents, as always, playing against each other in a Game that was as cutthroat and pitiless as Julian himself.
“I’ll get the coins-if you give me the chance. I can’t do much in here,” she said.
“True. Exit doors are to the left. Please watch your step and keep moving. We hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.”
Jenny turned and saw a rectangle of dim light. It hadn’t been there before.
She took a breath and started toward it, careful to walk straight.
She didn’t mean to look back. But as she got close to the door, close enough to see that it looked like an ordinary double door, like the kind that led out of Space Mountain at Disneyland, she threw a quick glance over her shoulder.
He was standing where she’d left him, a black
silhouette in front of the fire. She couldn’t tell anything by his posture.
She turned away and stepped through the door, blinking. She could see tiny distant lights, lots of them, sparkling and wheeling in a dazzling display.
“What-?” she whispered.
Something grabbed her.