Everything went gray.
Blood roared in Jenny's ears like the ocean. She was thrown back, in one instant, to the moment when she and Tom and the others had been sucked into the Game, dragged into the Shadow World. She felt the same riptide dragging at her now, the same dark fog overcoming her senses. The same mindless, helpless terror. She was falling into the emptiness.
She didn't faint. She wished she could, but she didn't. She hung in his arms, barely supporting her own weight, feeling darkness all around her, and remained conscious.
He was going to kill her. He was the voice on the phone. He'd sent the Shadow Wolf after her and Audrey, he'd sent the snake after her in computer class. He'd killed Gordie Wilson.
She could still hear the distorted, malign whisper in her head: "Famished..."
Sheer terror gave her the strength to take her own weight again, to try and get free again. To her astonishment, he let her. She reeled backward two steps and came up against the balcony railing. Then she just stared at him.
Her first thought was that she should have been more prepared-but there was no way to prepare for Julian. He was always a shock to the senses.
His eyes behind the black mask were like liquid cobalt. His entire face was shadowed. His hair shone in the dimness, as white as moonlight on water.
He wasn't like a human. He was sharper, fiercer, brighter than any human could be. More real-which was strange, since this was supposed to be the real world.
He was in her world now, not even in some halfway place like the More Games store which seemed to exist between the worlds. He was here, walking around, capable of anything.
And just now he radiated menace. Danger.
Jenny's heart was beating so hard and erratically that she thought she might shatter.
"Yellow roses mean infidelity, you know," he said casually.
She remembered his voice now. Once away from it, she'd forgotten. She'd only remembered what she'd thought about it, which was that it was musical and elemental, like water running over rock, but that didn't really give any sense of its beauty-or its coldness.
She put a hand to the cluster of miniature roses at her shoulder. The lovely pale flowers with their golden sheen. In her mind she saw Brian blinking at the sight of them, heard him saying, "The florist must have screwed up... . "
"You sent them," she said. Her voice came out oddly-choked and so openly frightened that she was ashamed. She wanted to tear the roses off, but her hands were shaking.
"Of course. Didn't you know?"
She should have known, but she'd been too stupid, All night she'd been too stupid. She had gone off with a boy in a mask because he didn't look like Julian, forgetting that Julian could look like anyone he wanted. Or had she forgotten? Maybe some part of her had known, and had wanted to get it over with, She'd been so frightened for so long.
With good reason. The last time she'd been with Julian, she'd betrayed him. She'd lied to him, made him believe her-maybe even trust her. And then she'd slammed a door on him, meaning to trap him behind it forever. She'd left him imprisoned like a genie in a bottle. She could only imagine what he must have felt when he realized what she'd done. Now he'd come for his revenge.
"Why don't you just do it?" she said. She was more pleased with her voice this time; it was clear, if not quite steady. She'd die with dignity. "Go ahead and kill me."
He tilted his silvery-blond head slightly. "Is that what I want to do?" he said.
"It's what you did to Gordie son."
He smiled-oh, God, she'd forgotten that smile, Wolf-hungry. The sort of smile to send you running and screaming-or to make you collapse in a heap on the floor.
"Not personally," he said.
"But it's what you brought me here for, isn't it?" Jenny glanced back at the drop behind her. Her fragile composure was splintering. Hysteria was bubbling up inside her, and she couldn't stop it. If he wasn't going to throw her over, then maybe she ought to jump, because dying fast would be better than whatever he was going to do with her... . "Just go ahead and do it. Just get it over with."
"All right," he said, and kissed her.
She'd thought she remembered how it was with Julian, how it felt to be kissed by him. Her memories had lied. Or maybe this kind of thing was too strong for memory to be anything but a shadow of it. In one instant she was transported back to the paper house, back to the shock she'd felt at his first touch. When Tom held her-back in the old days, when Tom still loved her-his arms had made her feel safe. Comforted.
Julian didn't make her feel safe at all. She was trembling instantly. Falling. Soaring. The electricity he carried around with him flooding into her, tingling in every nerve ending. Sweet shocks that sent her mind reeling.
Oh, God, I can't-it's wrong. It's wrong, he's evil. I can't feel anything for him. I told Tom I didn't feel anything... .
Her body didn't listen to her.
He wants to kill me... .
But he was kissing her as softly as twilight, tiny sweet kisses and long ones that turned wild. As if they were lovers reunited, instead of hunter and prey.
And Jenny was kissing him back. Her arms were around his neck. He changed the pressure of his lips on hers and light flashed through her. She opened her eyes in shock.
"Jenny," Julian said, not moving away, speaking with his lips brushing hers. He sounded glad-exalted. Full of discovery. "You see how it is with us? You can't fight it any more than I can. You've tried; you've done everything you can to kill it. But you can't kill my love for you."
"No," Jenny whispered. His face was so close, the mask making him look more dangerous than ever. He was terrifying-and beautiful. She couldn't look away from him.
"We were meant to be together. It's our destiny. You've put up a good fight, but it's over now. Give in, Jenny. Let me love you."
"No!" With sudden strength she pushed him-hard. Shoving him away. The force sent her backward against the railing.
Fury swept over his face. Then it ebbed and he sighed deeply. "You're going to fight to the end, aren't you? All right. You're exciting when you're angry, and personally I'm starved for the sight of you. In fact, you might say I'm famished-"
"I like the dress," he continued, as if she hadn't spoken. "In a purely aesthetic sense, of course. And I like your hair like that. It makes you look wild and beautiful."
Terrifyingly, Jenny felt wild and beautiful. Felt desirable. It wasn't right, but his eyes on her made her feel as if no one had ever been as beautiful as she was, since the beginning of time.
But she never stopped feeling frightened, either.
He took her hand. She felt-not saw, because she couldn't take her eyes from his-something slip onto her finger. A cold circlet. A ring. She felt the chill of it all around her as if she'd been banded with ice.
The gold ring she'd thrown away.
Julian said, as if quoting:
"This ring, the symbol of my oath, Will hold me to the words I speak: All I refuse and thee I choose."
Jenny shut her eyes.
"Don't you remember? I told you the promise was irrevocable. You are sworn mine, Jenny. Now and forever."
If Darkness had taken on a face and a voice, if the powers of night had gathered themselves together and formed themselves into a human being, they would have made something like Julian.
And she was his.
Like some horrible old movie, yes. Bride of the Devil. She'd promised herself to him, and now she had no choice.
Or at least some part of her believed that. A part of her she hadn't even known existed before she'd met Julian. A part that had changed her recently, so that people noticed. The wild part, a part that craved risks. Like the thing in Dee that loved danger.
It was this part that responded to him, that found the rest of the world tame by comparison. The part that made her heart pound and her stomach melt. Her knees literally felt weak-the way they had after the last big earthquake in L.A., when the ground did things solid ground wasn't supposed to do, when she'd thought she was going to die. Afterward, her legs had actually felt like wax. The way they did now.
"I've only come to claim what's mine. You cast your own fate, Jenny, you doomed yourself. That's the way it works with runes and oaths. You spoke the words, you let them be written, and that's it. Didn't you ever think you'd have to make good?"
Jenny didn't know what she'd thought. She'd done it to save Tom and the others-she would have done anything to save them at that point.
"It was-I couldn't-it wasn't fair," she said, fumbling. She was at a disadvantage; she couldn't think properly.
"Fair-let's not get on that again. Life isn't fair. That's not the point. You promised yourself to me."
Jenny opened her mouth to explain, but she couldn't seem to summon up any words.
Because the terrible thing was that he was right, There was no real way to justify what she'd done. She'd given him her word. She'd sworn the oath, knowing it would bind her forever. And she supposed the shameful truth was that she'd hoped to get rid of Julian so that he couldn't collect.
With one finger Julian sketched some lines in the air, a shape like a vase turned on its side. "That's Perthro, the rune of gambling and divination. It's the cup that holds the runes or dice when they're cast."
"Oh, really?" Jenny said weakly, not having the first idea what he was talking about.
"I'll tell you something interesting about the people who discovered those runes. They loved gambling. Crazy about it. They would bet everything -
including their freedom-on one throw of the dice. And if they lost, they'd go into slavery cheerfully, because they had made a promise and they always played by the rules. Honor meant more than anything to them."
Jenny looked away, hugging her own arms. She felt very cold. She wished there were somewhere to hide.
"Are you going to keep your promise?"
What could she say? That it was a promise she never should have had to make? Julian had forced her to play the Game in the beginning-but Jenny had come to him looking for a game. Looking for something scary and sexy, something to provide excitement at a party. Julian had just given her what she'd asked for. It was her own fault for meddling with forbidden things.
But she couldn't-she couldn't.
Teeth sunk into her lower lip, she looked at Julian. She could hardly meet his eyes, but she did. She shook her head.
There. Now it was out. She didn't have any excuses, but she wasn't going to keep her word.
"You know I could just make you."
She nodded. It was what she expected. But at least she wouldn't have gone to him willingly.
He turned to look down at the ocean, and Jenny waited.
"What do you say we play another game?"
"Oh, no," Jenny whispered, but he was going on.
"I could just force you-but I'll give you a sporting chance. One throw of the dice, Jenny. One more game. If you win, you're free of the promise. If you lose, you keep it." He turned back to look at her, and in the eyeholes of the mask she could see midnight blue. "Do you want to play, or do we just resolve this here and now?
Don't panic-think. It's your only chance. It's better than no chance.
And the wild part in her was responding to his j challenge, surging to meet it. Danger. Risk. Excitement.
"One throw of the dice," she said softly. "I'll play."
He flashed her the wolfish smile. "No holds barred, then. No quarter asked or given-for any of the players."
Jenny froze. "Wait a minute-" she began.
"Did you think I was going to fool around? This game is deadly serious-like the last one."
"But it's between us," Jenny said desperately. "Just you and me-"
"No." The eyes behind the mask were narrow. "This is a game for the original players, for everyone who was in the paper house. No more and no less. On my side, myself and the Creeper and the Lurker. On your side-everyone who helped trick me and betray me. I'm going to catch them one by one, starting with Little Red Riding-Hood."
'Wo, "Jenny said, in terror. Oh, God, what had she done? Summer had died in the last Game....
"Yes. And it starts now. Ready or not, here I come. Find my base and you can stop me from taking them to the Shadow World."
"Your friends. Find them after I take them and you all go free. If not"-he smiled-"I keep them all."
Jenny didn't understand. Panic was rioting inside her. She wasn't ready-she didn't know the rules. She didn't even know what game they were playing.
Quick as a cat, quick as a striking snake, he kissed her. A hard kiss, and Jenny was responding before she knew it.
When it was over, he held her tightly to his chest a moment. She could hear his heart beating-just like a human heart, she thought dizzily. Then he whispered in her ear, "The new game is lambs and monsters." And he was gone.
Gone from the balcony, just like that. The warmth dissolved from Jenny's arms, and she was standing alone.
She could hear the music again. It might all have been a dream, but she could still feel Julian's hard kiss on her mouth.
The shadows on the balcony had lightened in his absence. Jenny looked around fearfully. Julian had said that the Game would start now. Julian didn't say things he didn't mean.
But she couldn't see anything unusual. The dance was going on inside the ballroom. Jenny turned and gripped the railing of the balcony, looking over.
Spotlights softly lit the beach below. One of them caught the glint of copper.
Audrey! That was Audrey down there, and the dark-haired figure beside her must be Eric. They were yards away from the other people on the sand, walking hand in hand down the beach. Into the darkness.
The Game starts now.... I'm going to catch them one by one, starting with Little Red Riding-Hood.
Red-like Audrey's hair.
"Audrey! Audrey!" Jenny screamed. Her voice disappeared into the background of music without even a ripple. She could feel how small and faint it was compared to the roaring of the ocean. Jenny looked around wildly; there was no way from the balcony down to the beach.
Audrey and Eric were walking out of the range of the lights now, heading into the shadows.
Audrey didn't hear her.
Something about dances always went to Audrey's head.
For instance, she didn't really like Eric, the boy she was presently kissing. She just couldn't help it-something about dances got to her. All the lights-and the dark corners. The sparkly dresses and the compliments and the music. It was better than shopping.
And Eric was a pretty good kisser, for an American boy.
Not as good as Michael, though. Michael Cohen was a world-class kisser, although you'd never think it to look at him. It was one of the best-kept secrets at Vista Grande High, and Audrey meant it to remain that way.
She felt a slight twinge of guilt, thinking of Michael. Well, but she'd told him she didn't care about Eric. She was doing it to help Jenny.
Who was up in the hotel trying to deal with Brian and his unwanted attentions. Maybe it was time Audrey did something about that.
"Eric," she said, detaching herself and neatening her hair. "We'd better get back."
He started to protest, but Audrey was already turning. She hadn't realized how far they'd walked away from the lights of the hotel.
"Come on," she said uneasily.
She had only taken a few steps when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. It was on her left, on the land side. Something in the shadows, a quick bright flicker.
Maybe just some small animal or bird. "Eric, come on."
He was sulking. "You go, if you want to."
Oh, fine. She began walking as quickly as she could. Her bare feet sank with each step into the soft, crumbly, faintly damp sand.
The hotel spotlights seemed miles away. The ocean stretched out to her right, unimaginably vast. To her left darkness blanketed a slope covered with ice plant. Between the darkness and the sea, Audrey felt small and vulnerable in comparison. It was a bad feeling.
She turned suddenly and looked into the darkness. She couldn't see anything now. Maybe nothing was there.
Then she heard a cry behind her. Audrey whirled, straining to see in the darkness. Something was going on back there-some kind of activity.
Another cry. And, louder, a terrible sound that Audrey could hear over the ocean. A guttural, vibrating snarl. A bestial noise.
Sand was spraying. Audrey could see some kind of thrashing. "Eric! Eric, what's happening?"
The thrashing had stopped. Audrey took an uncertain step forward. "Eric?"
Something glimmered, coming toward her.
Not Eric. Something blue and shining. Like an optical illusion, there and then gone. Audrey tried to make her eyes focus-and the lost time was fatal. By the time she saw it clearly it was almost on her.
Oh, God-it was unbelievable. In the Shadow World the wolf had looked like a wolf. Huge, massive, but just a wolf. This thing ... was a phantom.
Like something painted with luminous paint on the air. Nothing in between the brush strokes. Not exactly a skeleton-something worse. A specter. A wraith-wolf.
The growling was real.
Audrey turned and ran.
It was right behind her. She could hear its growling over the roar of the ocean, over her own sobbing breath. Her legs were beginning to ache already. The thick sand sucked at her, dragging her down. It was like running in slow motion.
She was closer to the lights. If she could just get there-but it was too far. She would never make it.
The ground opened up in front of her.
That was what it looked like. A hole, black against the gray sand. Black with flickering electric-blue edges.
The sand that had been her enemy helped her now, allowed her to catch herself and fall to her knees. She fell right on the brink of the hole, staring down in disbelief.
God-God. It was like nothing she had ever seen. Endless blackness forever. Down at the very bottom there might have been the shimmer of a blue flame.
Audrey didn't want to see any more. She staggered to her feet and ran toward the slope on her left. If she could climb up through the ice plant-maybe she could lose herself there.
But it was fast. It came up on her left side, cutting her off, forcing her to swerve. It turned with her, forcing her to swerve again. To circle back toward the hole.
Audrey stumbled again and heard a snarl right behind her. Hot breath on her neck.
She didn't have the breath to scream, although there was a screaming in her brain. She clawed her way up and was running again.
The way it wanted her to go. She realized that too late. The hole was in front of her, almost beneath her feet. She couldn't stop herself this time.