The Forbidden Game: The Kill


Chapter 3


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The old brick house still had electricity, presumably to fuel the alarm system. It was spooky inside anyway, furniture draped with white sheets, clocks stopped on the walls. Jenny kept having the same lurching feeling: familiarity-unfamiliarity. Back and forth, or sometimes both at once.

By far the worst was the basement. Jenny's legs didn't want to take her down the stairs. She'd seen this place last month in a sort of dream, a hallucination created by Julian-but she hadn't really been here in over ten years. Not since the day neighbors had heard terrible screaming next door and the police had clattered down the stairs to find five-year-old Jenny on the floor, arms scratched, clothes torn, hair a wild yellow tangle. And screaming. Screaming and staring at an open closet door with a strange symbol carved on the front. Screaming in a way that made the biggest policeman run back upstairs to call the paramedics.

The police thought her grandfather had done it to her. The scratches, the torn clothes. The blood. They paid no attention at all to the five-year-old's story about ice and shadows in the closet, about hungry eyes that had seen her and tried to take her. About how her grandfather had been taken in her place.

Instead, the police had thought her grandfather had been a lunatic-and just now, looking at the basement, sixteen-year-old Jenny could see why. Every wall, every bookcase, every available surface was jammed with charms of protection.

Not such a bad idea for somebody trying to summon up and trap demons. But, undeniably, it looked weird.

"Will you look at this stuff?" Audrey breathed, enthralled. "Some of it's junk, but I'll bet some of it's priceless. Like this." She stepped forward and lightly touched a silver bell on a shelf. "This is Chinese-I saw these when Daddy was stationed in Hong Kong. You ring them to clear away evil spirits. And that-that's a genuine Tibetan prayer wheel. And this-" She lifted a bracelet of agate and gold beads.

"That's Egyptian," Dee interrupted. "Seven strands, see? Aba says the number seven was sacred to the Egyptians." Dee's grandmother traveled a lot.

"And those are Russian icons," Audrey said, nodding at some gold-plated pictures. "Very rare, very expensive."

"And that's from the Qabalah," Michael said, joining the conversation triumphantly and pointing to a chart on the wall labeled Numerical Values of the Hebrew Alphabet. "Magical Hebrew divination system."

"A lot of this stuff belongs in a museum," Audrey said.

Jenny was busy trying to breathe. The room was heavy somehow-overloaded, oppressive. Stale air mixed with thick, quivering energy.

Magic, I guess, she thought, trying to feel as if she dealt with magical rooms every day. Well, that's what we came for. It's time to start the search.

She made herself go to her grandfather's desk. In her dream of this room-the dream created by Julian-her grandfather's journal had been lying open on the desk. In real life it wasn't so convenient. There was nothing on the desk but a faded green desk pad.

"Maybe on the shelves," she said.

She went to one of the bookcases and tilted her head sideways to read. It had been a brown leather-bound book, and she was sure she would recognize it when she-

"Found it!" she said, darting forward. She opened it to see her grandfather's heavy black handwriting, then looked back at the shelf. "Oh, God, but there isn't just one journal. There're three. We'll have to read through them all."

"We'll take turns, like you said." Dee nodded toward the stairway. "You and Michael go up and get some sleep-you're the most tired. Audrey and I can start reading."

Jenny slept for three hours on the living room couch-she couldn't face going into one of the bedrooms-and then went downstairs to take her place beside Michael. She chewed one of Dee's malt-nut Power Bars as she read. She wasn't hungry and she hated the texture of the protein bar, but she knew she needed the energy.

The journals were strange. Her grandfather had written everything up with the precision of a scientist, but what he was writing about was bizarre-and sometimes frightening. Almost all of it dealt with ways to call up the Shadow Men.

The Shadow Men, Jenny thought. Known by different names in different ages: the aliens, the faery folk, the Visitors, the Others. The ones who watched

from the shadows and who sometimes took people to-their own place. Jenny looked up involuntarily at the closet door which stood open, and something like a fist clenched in her gut. That was where they'd taken him.

Through that portal into-the other place, the place that existed alongside the human world, always there, never touching. The Shadow World.

Her grandfather had called them up because he wanted their power. But in the end they'd been too powerful for him.

A phrase from the journal caught Jenny's eye. Walker between the worlds. Her heart began to pound as she deciphered the dense black writing around it. Something illegible and then becoming a Walker between the Worlds myself, if the danger wasn't so great. There are several methods to-something else illegible-but the one I consider most likely to succeed would be the circle of runes....

"Runes," Jenny whispered. The magical alphabet that Julian and her grandfather had used to pierce the veil between the worlds. She looked at the drawing below the writing. "Michael, I've got it."

"Really?"

Jenny read a little further and her fingers tightened on the leather cover of the book. "Really. Get Dee and Audrey. And get a knife."

They'd brought Tom's Swiss Army knife, and Dee had a wicked-looking river knife with a five-inch blade. It was meant for rescuing kayakers who needed their ropes cut-quick.

"We have to carve these runes on a door "

said. "Then we stain them and say their names to charge them with power, and then we open the door."

"Stain them with what?" Michael said suspiciously.

"Blood. What else? Don't worry, Michael, I'll take care of it. Let's use the door to the basement-not from the downstairs side, from the other side. It's smooth, good for drawing."

It was funny how simple and everyday it seemed, doing what her grandfather had said he wouldn't try because it was too dangerous. Nobody said, "Are we really going through with this?" Nobody kibitzed-not even Michael. They went about it the same way they'd built the pressed-wood stereo cabinet in Tom's bedroom. Michael read the instructions from the journal aloud; the others followed them.

"Two circles, one inside the other. It doesn't say how big they're supposed to be," Michael said. "But leave room for the runes to go in between them."

Jenny sketched the circles freehand on the smooth oak door with a felt pen.

"Okay, now the runes. First, Dagaz. It goes right at the top and it's shaped like this, like an hourglass on its side," he said. Jenny sketched the angular shape at the top of the inner circle. "It says here that Dagaz is like a catalyst. It represents times like twilight and dawn, when things are just changing. It 'operates between light and darkness.'"

Dawn. Jenny thought about the brilliant blue of the Pennsylvania dawn-and about eyes that were just that color. Julian was like Dagaz, she thought. A catalyst, operating between light and darkness. One foot in either world.

"The next one is Thurisaz, the thorn. It goes to the right-no, a little farther down. It's shaped like-look at this. A straight line with a triangle attached to the side. Like a thorn sticking out of a stem."

"There are a lot of fairy tales about thorns," Audrey said grimly. "You get pricked with a thorn or a spindle or a needle and then you die, or go blind, or you sleep forever."

Silently Jenny drew the rune.

"The next one's Gebo. It stands for a lot of things: a gift, sacrifice, death. The yielding up of the spirit. It's shaped like an X, see?"

Sacrifice. Death. A queer shudder went up Jenny's backbone. She stared at the book. It was a straight X, not like the slanted X of the rune Nauthiz, the one that her grandfather had carved on the closet to restrain the Shadow Men.

"See, Jenny?"

She nodded and drew. But the strange feeling didn't go away. A bad feeling-and it was connected with Gebo, somehow. Gebo the rune of sacrifice. Something was going to happen....

Not now. Not right now. In the future.

Michael's voice startled her. "Next is Isa. It's a rune for the power of primal ice. It's just one straight line, up and down."

Jenny tore her mind away from the thought of sacrifice and made herself draw.

"Kenaz, the torch. It's for the power of primal fire, and it's shaped like an angle, see. ..."

"Raidho, for movement, traveling. Like riding a horse. For protection walking between the worlds. It's shaped like an R... ."

"Uruz, the ox ... it's shaped like an upside-down U- "

"I know, Michael." Uruz was the rune on the game box that Julian had sold her. "It's supposed to look like ox horns pointing downward, ready to pierce the veil between the worlds," Jenny said. "Is that the last one?"

"Yeah. Now we carve it."

Carving the runes wasn't as hard as Jenny had expected. The door was good thick wood, but the runes were all straight lines and angles, which was much easier to carve than any rounded shape. Still, there were times when Tom's Swiss Army knife stuck or slipped. Jenny was a little frightened of how sharp it was.

And she was worried about the blood. How was she going to do it? She was scared of razor blades, and a pin was out of the question. If they were going to stain all these runes, they'd need a lot more blood than you could squeeze out of a pinprick.

Don't think about it now. When the time conies, you'll just have to use the knife-and hope you don't cut your finger off.

Just then the problem solved itself. The knife slipped.

"God!"

Jenny felt a flash of something, gone almost too quickly to identify as pain. She dropped the knife, and she could feel her eyes widen as she stared at her hand-wondering in that first second how bad it was.

Not bad. A half-inch gash across the meat of her thumb. The lips of the wound showed white before bright red welled up to obscure them. Blood began to slide down her thumb.

Jenny felt just slightly sick. Seeing inside your skin-even a little way insidewas disconcerting.

"Quick, use it," Michael said. "Don't waste it-that stuff's precious."

The cut was beginning to sting. Jenny looked around for something to use as a pen, then collected the blood on top of one fingernail and began to trace the runes that were already carved. It stained the pale grooves in the wood a clear light red, the color of a teacher's red ballpoint pen.

Audrey and Dee did the rest of the carving, and Jenny stuck to her gory task. She had to squeeze the cut in the end, but there was enough blood to go around.

The final product of their labors was slightly wobbly but impressive. Two concentric circles, with the runes running between them. Looking at the carving, Jenny wondered for the first time what somebody-a neighbor, say-would think if they caught the kids doing this. Destroying property. Vandalism. As bad as gangs spray painting graffiti.

Jenny didn't care. She was still operating in crisis mode, in which all normal rules were suspended. She and the others had stepped out of the mainstream, into a place where anything could happen and the only rules were their own. It was scary-and tremendously liberating. Jenny felt as if she were flying toward Tom on wings of fire.

Take him from me, will you? she thought to Julian. I don't think so. By the time I'm done with you, you'll wish you'd never started this Game.

Dee was regarding the circle critically. "So what now? How does it work?"

"Apparently the idea is that writing runes makes whatever you've written happen," Michael said. "It's like when we drew our nightmares for the first Game, remember? We drew a picture of what we were afraid of, and then our pictures came true. Runes are the same. You make a-a representation of something, and it becomes real. You change reality by making the representation."

"That's what Julian told me," Jenny said quietly. "When I put on his ring and said the words, I made my own fate. The words came true when I said them."

"And that's what we have to do with this," Michael said. "We already did the first two steps, carving the runes and staining them. Now all we have to do is charge the runes with power by saying their names out loud. That activates them, and then-"

"And then, look out," Dee said, and her sloe-black eyes flashed. "Let's do it, people."

"We need to get our stuff first," Jenny said. She was trembling-calm now, wrought up to a fine pitch, but determined to do this right, not to jump in without thinking. "We don't know what happens once those runes are activated-we might not have time to do anything then."

They scattered to change their clothes and get things out of their duffel bags. When Jenny came back to the door, she was wearing Levi's and a denim shirt, with a sweater over the shirt and a nylon windbreaker over the sweater. On her feet were thick socks and hiking boots, and at her belt was a bota bag full of water and a pair of leather gloves. A miniature survival kit was in her fanny pack.

Everything in the kit had been chosen for lightness and efficiency. A small waterproof matchbox, a yard of toilet paper, a space rescue blanket folded into a four-inch square. Two heavy-duty plastic bags. Two aspirins. A Hershey Bar. Three tea bags, three bouillon cubes. A string of safety pins. All that was packed in an old tin cup. Tucked in beside the cup were fifty feet of nylon cord, two Power Bars, and a flashlight. The last thing she put in was Tom's red-handled Swiss Army knife with the six attachments.

They had no idea what they'd be facing in the Shadow World. What kind of terrain, what kind of weather. The glimpse Jenny had gotten through the window of the paper house had shown twisted pinnacles of rock scoured by an endless blizzard and lit by blue and green flashes like lightning. But was the entire world like that?

I'm about to find out, Jenny thought. Very soon. At least this time we're going prepared.

The others arrived, dressed the same way she was. Even Audrey was wearing light hiking boots and a nylon jacket. Dee had tucked the river knife into a black plastic sheath at her belt, but her most deadly weapons were her slender hands and hightop-encased feet.

They all looked at one another, and then, silently, turned to face the door.

Michael gave the book to Jenny. "You should be the one to do it."

Jenny took a deep breath. Holding the journal lightly, she began to read the names.

"Dagaz." Rune of change. "Thurisaz." The thorn. "Gebo." For sacrifice. Jenny's voice was beginning to shake and she couldn't breathe easily. Unconsciously she raised her voice. "Isa." Primal ice. "Kenaz." Primal fire. The word came out in a staccato burst. "Raidho." Traveling. Jenny's throat closed and she lifted her head, looking at the last rune in the circle. A long moment passed.

This is it. This is really it. After I say it, it can't be unsaid. No turning back.

Almost in a whisper she said, "Uruz."

For piercing the veil between the worlds.

With the last word the door began to flash like a strobe light. Black, white, black, white, black, white.

"God!" Audrey said. Everyone jumped a step back. But there was nowhere to go-they were up against the hallway wall. Michael barged into the telephone table and the handset fell off and struck the floor.

In the last month Jenny had seen plenty of bizarre things happen. Julian specialized in the bizarre. But this was different-maybe because the setting was so ordinary, a normal house, a normal door. Or maybe because they'd done it themselves.

And this wasn't just chills-up-the-spine bizarre. This was running-and-screaming bizarre. On Beyond Zebra bizarre.

Within the flashes the circle of runes began to glow like a wheel of fire. Then it started spinning.

Bright as fireworks at midnight-spinning like a Catherine wheel. It was dizzying to look at. Jenny's neck seemed to be frozen, but she looked out of the corner of her eye at the others.

Dee had taken up the Horse stance, in balance without effort, ready for anything. Audrey was flattened against the wall, the fiery light dancing crazily on her auburn hair. Michael's eyes were huge.

A dull roaring began. It seemed to come from the earth itself, vibrating the floor against Jenny's feet.

Oh, God, we did this to ourselves.

Jenny's heart was pounding wildly, out of control. The light was like needles stabbing into her eyes. She was light-headed, half blinded, but she could no longer look away from the wheel.

One final explosion of light-and the roaring became a tearing sound, like a huge tarpaulin ripping in giant hands. It made Jenny want to fall down, curl up, cover her ears.

And then it stopped.

Just like that. One moment agonizing light and deafening, screaming sound-the next moment perfect calm. The door was an oak door again. The wheel of runes was no longer spinning.

But, Jenny saw, it wasn't exactly the way it had been. Dagaz, the rune Jenny had drawn at the top, was now at two o'clock. As if the spinning wheel had overshot slightly before stopping. And the runes burned like sullen coals in the wood.

Jenny was breathing as hard as if she'd just run a race.

"We did it," Dee whispered. Her lips were drawn back from her teeth.

"Did we?" Michael asked huskily.

There was only one way to tell. Jenny gave herself a moment, then slowly reached for the doorknob.

She could feel her pulse in her hand as she grasped the knob. The metal wasn't even warm.

She turned the knob and pulled the door open.

Oh.

Through the open door she could see, not the stairs down to her grandfather's basement, but utter blackness, like a night without stars.

Switching on her flashlight, Jenny stepped forward.

There was a resistance as she crossed the threshold. Not like anything solid, more like the g-force she'd felt when the plane accelerated to take off. It made her stumble, not hit the ground quite right.

And the ground seemed to be asphalt. Jenny's flashlight beam made a white circle on it, catching something that looked like a small yellow flower. A smashed flower.

No, not a flower, Jenny realized slowly. The shape was familiar but so far from what she expected to see that she didn't recognize it at first. It was a piece of squashed popcorn.

Popcorn?

Flashlights were switching on behind her, beams crossing and recrossing in the darkness. Dee and Audrey and Michael moved up beside her.

"What the hell... ?" Dee said.

There was a sound like a door slamming. Jenny swung her flashlight around just in time to see that it was a door slamming, it was the door to her grandfather's basement. She saw it for one instant standing shut, a door with no walls around it, and then it disappeared.

Completely. It was simply gone, leaving them-where they were.

"I don't believe this," Audrey said. The flashlight beams were almost pathetic in the darkness, but they showed Jenny enough.

It was Michael who said it, in tones of shock and indignation.

"It didn't work! After all that-and it's not the Shadow World at all!"

They were in Joyland Park.

It was Joyland, exactly as Jenny had seen it that afternoon-except now it was dark and deserted.

The same wrought-iron benches painted green, with smooth wooden planks for backs and seats. The same fences (also green) caging in the same manicured bushes-"poodle bushes," Michael called them. The same pink-and-white begonias Jenny had noticed before-she always noticed flowers. Now their petals were folded tight.

Jenny's flashlight beam caught a heavy-duty brown trash can, an old-fashioned signpost, candy corner, the signpost read.

The candy store had metal shutters rolled down over its windows and the tiny lights around the signs advertising homemade fudge and caramel apples were off.

Jenny just couldn't accept it.

That afternoon the park had been filled with sound: babbling, yelling, ride noises, laughing, music. Now the only sound was her own breath. The motion was the gentle fluttering of pennants at the top of a roller coaster.

Then she noticed something else moving.

On a huge billboard the pirate chest was slowly opening and shutting like a clamshell.

"Nobody's here-not even maintenance people," Dee was saying in dissatisfaction.

"It's too late," Michael said. "They've all gone home."

"But somebody should still be here. Look!" Dee's beam flashed across to a little orange cart, nosed up against a fence ahead of them. The cart looked a lot like something a maintenance person might use.

But we didn't see it until after Dee mentioned maintenance people, Jenny thought.

Not just her little fingers but the sides of her hands were beginning to tingle.

There was something wrong here. It looked just like Joyland-from the artificial lagoon down to the refreshment cart with the red-and-yellow wheels. But it felt-wrong.

As if something in the darkness was awake and watching them. As if the deserted park around her could come to life at any moment.

"This place is creepy," Audrey announced suddenly.

"Yeah, well." Michael laughed. "Nothing creepier than a closed amusement park."


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