Swan Song Chapter 8

"Bullshit," Macklin answered. There was no more use in hiding. "We've got weapons in here, Schorr." He desperately wanted the man to believe they had more than just one Ingram gun, a couple of metal clubs, a metal cleaver and some sharp rocks. "Back off!"

"We've brought along some toys of our own. I don't think you want to find out what they are."

"You're bluffing."

"am Ii Well, sir, let me tell you this: I found a way to get to the garage. There's not much left. Most everything's smashed to hell, and you can't get to the drawbridge crank. But I found what I needed, Colonel, sir, and I don't give a damn how many guns you've got in there. Now: Does the food come out, or do we take iti"

"Roland," Macklin said urgently, "get ready to fire."

The boy aimed the Ingram gun in the direction of Schorr's voice.

"What we've got stays here," Macklin told him. "You find your own food, just like we found ours."

"There is no more!" Schorr raged. "You sonofabitch, you're not going to kill us like you killed everybody else in this damn - "

"Fire," Macklin ordered.

Roland squeezed the trigger with no hesitation.

The gun jumped in his hands as the tracers streaked across the gym like scarlet comets. They hit the barricade and the wall around the door, popping and whining madly as they ricocheted. In the brief, jerky light, a man - not Schorr - could be seen trying to climb through the space between the pile of rubble and the top of the door. He started to pull back when the firing began, but he suddenly screamed, caught in the glass and metal cables that Roland had arranged. Bullets hit him and he writhed, getting more tangled up. His screaming stopped. arms came up, grabbed the body and heaved it backward into the corridor.

Roland released the trigger. His pockets were full of ammo clips, and the colonel had drilled him in changing the clips quickly. The noise of the machine gun faded. The marauders were silent.

"They're gone!" Warner shouted. "We ran 'em off!"

"Shut up!" Macklin warned him. He saw a flicker of light from the corridor - what might've been a match being struck. In the next instant, something afire came flying over the barricade. It hit with the sound of shattering glass, and Macklin had a second to smell gasoline before the Molotov cocktail blew, a sheet of fire leaping across the gym. He jerked his head down behind his rock pile hiding place as glass whined like yellowjackets around his ears. The flames shot past him, and when the explosion was over he looked up and saw a puddle of gas burning about fifteen feet away.

Roland had ducked as well, but small fragments of glass had nicked his cheek and shoulder. He lifted his head and fired again at the doorway; the bullets hit the top of the barricade and ricocheted harmlessly.

"You like that, Macklini" Schorr taunted. "We found us a little gasoline in some of the car tanks. Found us some rags and a few beer bottles, too. We've got more where that one came from. You like iti"

Firelight flickered off the walls of the wrecked gym. Macklin hadn't counted on this; Schorr and the others could stand behind the barricade and toss those bastards over the top. He heard a metal tool of some kind scrape against the debris that blocked the door, and some of the rocks slid away.

a second gasoline-filled bottle, a flaming rag jammed down into it, sailed into the gym and exploded near Captain Warner, who cowered behind a mound of stones, bent metal and Nautilus weights. The gas spattered like grease from a skillet, and the captain cried out as he was hit by flying glass. Roland fired the Ingram gun at the doorway as a third bomb landed between him and Colonel Macklin, and he had to leap aside as burning gas splashed at his legs. Shards of glass tugged at Macklin's jacket, and one caught him over the right eyebrow and snapped his head back like a punch.

The gym's rubble - mats, towels, ceiling tiles, ripped-up carpeting and wood paneling - was catching fire. Smoke and gasoline fumes swirled through the air.

When Roland looked up again, he could see blurred figures furiously digging their way over the barricade. He gave them another burst of bullets, and they scattered back into the corridor like roaches down a hole. a gas-filled Dr Pepper bottle exploded in reply, the whoosh of flames searing Roland's face and sucking the breath from his lungs. He felt a stinging pain and looked at his left hand; it was covered in flame, and silver-dollar-sized circles of fire burned all over his arm. He shouted with terror and scrambled toward the mop bucket full of toilet water.

The flames were growing, merging and advancing across the gym. More of the barricade crumbled, and Macklin saw the marauders coming in; Schorr was leading them, armed with a broom handle sharpened into a spear, a bloodstained rag wrapped around his swollen, wild-eyed face. Behind him were three men and a woman, all carrying primitive weapons: jagged-edged stones and clubs made from broken furniture. as Roland frantically washed off the burning gasoline Teddy-bear Warner hobbled out from his shelter and fell down on his knees in front of Schorr, his hands upraised for mercy. "Don't kill me!" he begged. "I'm with you! I swear to God, I'm with - "

Schorr drove the sharpened broomstick into Warner's throat. The others swarmed over him as well, beating and kicking the captain as he flopped on the end of the spear. The flames threw their shadows on the walls like dancers in Hell. Then Schorr jerked the spear from Warner's throat and whirled toward Colonel Macklin.

Roland picked up the Ingram gun at his side. a hand suddenly clamped around the back of his neck, jerking him to his feet. He saw the blurred image of a man in tattered clothes standing over him, about to smash a rock into his skull.

Schorr charged Macklin. The colonel staggered to his feet to defend himself with the high-tech mace.

The man gripping Roland's neck made a choking sound. He was wearing eyeglasses with cracked lenses held together at the bridge of his nose with a Band-aid.

Schorr feinted with the spear. Macklin lost his balance and fell, twisting away as the spear grazed his side. "Roland, help me!" he screamed.

"Oh... my God," the man with the cracked eyeglasses breathed. "Roland... you're alive..."

Roland thought the man's voice was familiar, but he wasn't sure. Nothing was certain anymore but the fact that he was a King's Knight. all that had gone before this moment were shadows, flimsy and insubstantial, and this was real life.

"Roland!" the man said. "Don't you know your own - "

Roland brought the Ingram gun up and blew most of the man's head away. The stranger staggered back, broken teeth chattering in a mask of blood, and fell into the fire.

The other people threw themselves upon the garbage bag and tore wildly at it, splitting it open and fighting one another for the scraps. Roland turned toward Schorr and Colonel Macklin; Schorr was jabbing at the colonel with his spear while Macklin used his metal club to parry the thrusts. Macklin was being steadily forced into a corner, where the leaping firelight revealed a large airshaft set in the cracked wall, its wire mesh grille hanging by one screw.

Roland started to shoot, but smoke swirled around the figures and he feared hitting the King. His finger twitched on the trigger - and then something struck him in the small of the back and knocked him onto his face on the floor, where he lay struggling for breath. The machine gun fell from his hand, and the woman with insane, red-rimmed eyes who'd thrown the rock scrabbled on her hands and knees to get it.

Macklin swung the mace at Schorr's head. Schorr ducked, stumbling over the rocks and burning debris. "Come on!" Macklin yelled. "Come and get me!"

The crazy woman crawled over Roland and picked up the Ingram gun. Roland was stunned, but he knew both he and the King were dead if she was able to use the weapon; he grabbed her wrist, and she shrieked and fought, her teeth gnashing at his face. She got her other hand up and went for his eyes with her fingers, but he twisted his head away to keep from being blinded. The woman wrenched her wrist loose and, still shrieking, aimed the machine gun.

She fired it, the tracers streaking across the gym.

But she was not aiming at Colonel Macklin. The two men who were fighting over the garbage can were caught by the bullets and made to dance as if their shoes were aflame. They went down, and the crazy woman scrambled toward the scraps with the gun clutched against her breasts.

The chatter of the Ingram gun had made Schorr's head swivel around - and Macklin lunged forward, striking at the other man's side with the mace. He heard Schorr's ribs break like sticks trodden underfoot. Schorr cried out, tried to backpedal, tripped and fell to his knees. Macklin lifted the mace high and smashed it down on the center of Schorr's forehead, and the man's skull dented in the shape of a Nautilus cam. Then Macklin was standing over the body, striking the skull again and again. Schorr's head started to change shape.

Roland was on his feet. a short distance away, the crazy woman was stuffing her mouth with the burned food. The flames were growing higher and hotter, and dense smoke whirled past Macklin as, finally, the strength of his left arm gave out. He dropped the mace and gave Schorr's corpse one last kick to the ribs.

The smoke got his attention. He watched it sliding into the shaft, which was about three feet high and three feet wide - large enough to crawl through, he realized. It took him a minute to clear the fatigue out of his mind. The smoke was being drawn into the airshaft. Drawn in. Where was it goingi To the surface of Blue Dome Mountaini To the outside worldi

He didn't care about the garbage bag anymore, didn't care about Schorr or the crazy woman or the Ingram gun. There had to be a way out up there somewhere! He wrenched the grille off and crawled into the shaft. It led upward at a forty degree angle, and Macklin's feet found the heads of bolts in the aluminum surface to push himself against. There was no light ahead, and the smoke was almost choking, but Macklin knew that this might be their only chance to get out. Roland followed him, inching upward after the King in this new turn of the game.

Behind them, in the burning gym, they heard the crazy woman's voice float up into the tunnel: "Where'd everybody goi It's hot in here... so hot. God knows I didn't come all this way to cook in a mine shaft!"

Something about that voice clutched at Roland's heart. He remembered a voice like that, a long time ago. He kept moving, but when the crazy woman screamed and the smell of burning meat came up into the tunnel he had to stop and clasp his hands over his ears, because the sound made the world spin too fast and he feared being flung off. The screaming stopped after a while, and all Roland could hear was the steady sliding of the King's body further along the shaft. Coughing, his eyes watering, Roland pushed himself onward.

They came to a place where the shaft had been crushed closed. Macklin's hand found another shaft branching off from the one they'd been following: this one was a tighter fit, and it clamped around the colonel's shoulders as he squeezed into it. The smoke was still bad, and his lungs were burning. It was like creeping up a chimney with a fire blazing below, and Roland wondered if this was what Santa Claus felt like.

Further along, Macklin's questing fingers touched Fiberglas. It was part of the system of air filters and baffles that purified what Earth House residents breathed in case of nuclear attack. Sure helped a whole hell of a lot, didn't iti he thought grimly. He ripped away the filter and kept crawling. The shaft curved gradually to the left, and Macklin had to tear through more filters and louverlike baffles made of rubber and nylon. He was straining hard to breathe, and he heard Roland gasping behind him. The kid was damned tough, he thought. anybody who had a will to live like that kid did was a person to reckon with, even if he looked like a ninety-pound weakling.

Macklin stopped. He'd touched metal ahead of him, blades radiating from a central hub. One of the fans that drew air in from the outside. "We must be close to the surface!" he said. Smoke was still moving past him in the dark. "We've got to be close!"

He put his hand against the fan's hub and pushed until the muscles in his shoulder cracked. The fan was bolted securely in place and wasn't going to move. Damn you! he seethed. Damn you to Hell! He pushed again, as hard as he could, but all he did was exhaust himself. The fan wasn't going to let them out.

Macklin laid his cheek against cool aluminum and tried to think, tried to picture the blueprints of Earth House in his mind. How were the intake fans servicedi Think! But he was unable to see the blueprints correctly; they kept shivering and falling to pieces.

"Listen!" Roland cried out.

Macklin did. He couldn't hear anything but his own heartbeat and his raw lungs heaving.

"I hear wind!" Roland said. "I hear wind moving up there!" He reached up, felt the movement of air. The faint sound of shrilling wind came from directly above. He ran his hands over the crumpled wall to his right, then to his left - and he discovered iron rungs. "There's a way up! There's another shaft right over our heads!" Grasping the bottom rung, Roland drew himself up, rung by rung, to a standing position. "I'm climbing up," he told Macklin, and he began to ascend.

The windscream was louder, but there was still no light. He had climbed maybe twenty feet when his hand touched a metal flywheel over his head. Exploring, his fingers glided over a cracked concrete surface. Roland thought it must be the lid of a hatch, like a submarine's conning tower hatch that could be opened and closed by the flywheel. But he could feel the strong suction of air there, and he figured the blast must have sprung the hatch, because it was no longer securely sealed.

He grasped the flywheel, tried to turn it. The thing wouldn't budge. Roland waited a minute, building up his strength and determination; if ever he needed the power of a King's Knight, it was at this moment. He attacked the flywheel again; this time he thought it might have moved a half inch, but he wasn't sure.

"Roland!" Colonel Macklin called from below. He'd finally put the blueprints together in his mind. The vertical shaft was used by workmen to change the air filters and baffles in this particular sector. "There should be a concrete lid up there! It opens to the surface!"

"I've found it! I'm trying to get it open!" He braced himself with one arm through the nearest rung, grasped the flywheel and tried to turn it with every ounce of muscle left in his body. He shook with the effort, his eyes closed and beads of sweat popped up on his face. Come on! he urged Fate, or God, or the Devil, or whoever worked these things. Come on!

He kept straining against it, unwilling to give up.

The flywheel moved. an inch. Then two inches. Then four. Roland shouted, "I've got it!" and he started cranking the flywheel with a sore and throbbing arm. a chain clattered through the teeth of gears, and now the wind was shrieking. He knew the hatch was lifting, but he saw no light.

Roland had given the wheel four more revolutions when there was a piercing wail of wind, and the air, full of stinging grit, thrashed madly around the shaft. It almost sucked him right out, and he hung onto a rung with both hands as the wind tore at him. He was weak from his battle with the flywheel, but he knew that if he let go the storm might lift him up into the dark like a kite and never set him down again. He shouted for help, couldn't even hear his own voice.

an arm without a hand locked around his waist. Macklin had him, and they slowly descended the rungs together. They retreated into the shaft.

"We made it!" Macklin shouted over the howling. "That's the way out!"

"But we can't survive in that! It's a tornado!"

"It won't last much longer! It'll blow itself out! We made it!" He started to cry, but he remembered that discipline and control made the man. He had no conception of time, no idea how long it had been since he'd first seen those bogies on the radar scope. It must be night, but the night of which day he didn't know.

His mind drifted toward the people who were still down in Earth House, either dead or insane or lost in the dark. He thought of all the men who'd followed him into this job, who'd had faith in him and respected him. His mouth twitched into a crooked grin. It's crazy! he thought. all those experienced soldiers and loyal officers lost, and just this skinny kid with bad eyes left to go on at his side. What a joke! all that remained of Macklin's army was one puny-looking high school geek!

But he recalled how Roland had rationalized putting the civilians to work, how he'd calmly done the job down in that awful pit where Macklin's hand remained. The kid had guts. More than guts; something about Roland Croninger made Macklin a little uneasy, like knowing a deadly little thing was hiding beneath a flat rock you had to step over. It had been in the kid's eyes when Roland had told him about Schorr waylaying him in the cafeteria, and in his voice when Roland had said, "We've got hands." Macklin knew one thing for sure: He'd rather have the kid at his side than at his back.

"We'll get out when the storm's over!" Macklin shouted. "We're going to live!" and then tears did come to his eyes, but he laughed so the kid wouldn't know it.

a cold hand touched his shoulder. Macklin's laughter stopped.

The Shadow Soldier's voice was very close to his ear. "Right, Jimbo. We're going to live."

Roland shivered. The wind was cold, and he pushed his body against the King's for warmth. The King hesitated - and then laid his handless arm across Roland's shoulder.

Sooner or later the storm would stop, Roland knew. The world would wait. But it would be a different world. a different game. He knew it would be nothing like the one that had just ended. In the new game, the possibilities for a King's Knight might be endless.

He didn't know where they would go, or what they would do; he didn't know how much remained of the old world - but even if all the cities had been nuked, there must be packs of survivors, roaming the wastelands or huddled in basements, waiting. Waiting for a new leader. Waiting for someone strong enough to bend them to his will and make them dance in the new game that had already begun.

Yes. It would be the greatest game of King's Knight ever. The game board would stretch across ruined cities, ghost towns, blackened forests and deserts where meadows used to be. Roland would learn the rules as he went along, just like everybody else. But he was already one step ahead, because he recognized that there was great power to be grabbed up by the smartest and strongest. Grabbed up and used like a holy axe, poised over the heads of the weak.

and maybe - just maybe - his would be the hand that held it. alongside the King, of course.

He listened to the roar of the wind and imagined that it spoke his name in a mighty voice and carried that name over the devastated land like a promise of power yet to be.

He smiled in the dark, his face splattered with the blood of the man he'd shot, and waited for the future.  


Wheel of Fortune


Sheets of freezing rain the color of nicotine swirled over the ruins of East Hanover, New Jersey, driven before sixty-mile-an-hour winds. The storm hung filthy icicles from sagging roofs and crumbling walls, broke leafless trees and glazed all surfaces with contaminated ice.

The house that sheltered Sister, artie Wisco, Beth Phelps, Julia Castillo and Doyle Halland trembled on its foundations. For the third day since the storm had hit they huddled before the fire, which boomed and leapt as wind shot down the chimney. almost all the furniture was gone, broken up and fed to the flames in return for life-sustaining heat. Every so often they heard the walls pop and crack over the incessant shriek of the wind, and Sister flinched, thinking that at any minute the entire flimsy house would go up like cardboard - but the little bastard was tough and hung together. They heard noises like trees toppling, and Sister realized it must be the sound of other houses blowing apart around them and scattering before the storm. Sister asked Doyle Halland to lead them in prayer, but he looked at her through bitter eyes and crawled into a corner to smoke the last cigarette and stare grimly at the fire.

They were out of food and had nothing more to drink. Beth Phelps had begun to cough up blood, fever glistening in her eyes. as the fire ebbed Beth's body grew hotter - and, admit it or not, the others sat closer around her to absorb the warmth.

Beth leaned her head against Sister's shoulder. "Sisteri" she asked, in a soft, exhausted voice. "Can I... can I hold iti Pleasei"

Sister knew what she meant. The glass thing. She took it from her bag, and the jewels glowed in the low orange firelight. Sister looked into its depths for a few seconds, remembering her experience of dreamwalking across a barren field strewn with burned cornstalks. It had seemed so real! What is this thingi she wondered. and why do I have iti She put the glass ring into Beth's hands. The others were watching, the reflection of the jewels scattered across their faces like the rainbow lamps of a faraway paradise.

Beth clutched it to her. She stared into the ring and whispered, "I'm thirsty. I'm so very, very thirsty." Then she was silent, just holding the glass and staring, with the colors slowly pulsating.

"There's nothing left to drink," Sister replied. "I'm sorry."

Beth didn't answer. The storm made the house shake for a few seconds. Sister felt someone staring a hole through her, and she looked up at Doyle Halland. He was sitting a few feet away, his legs outstretched toward the fire and the sliver through his thigh catching a glint of light.

"That's going to have to come out sooner or later," Sister told him. "Ever heard of gangrenei"

"It'll keep," he said, and his attention drifted to the circle of glass.

"Oh," Beth whispered dreamily. Her body shivered, and then she said, "Did you see iti It was there. Did you see iti"

"See whati" artie asked.

"The stream. Flowing between my fingers. I was thirsty, and I drank. Didn't anybody else see iti"

The fever's got her, Sister thought. Or maybe... maybe she had gone dreamwalking, too.

"I put my hands in," Beth continued, "and it was so cool. So cool. Oh, there's a wonderful place inside that glass..."

"My God!" artie said suddenly. "Listen, I... I didn't say anything before, because I thought I was going nuts. But..." He looked around at all of them, finally stopped at Sister. "I want to tell you about something I saw, when I looked into that thing." He told them about the picnic with his wife. "It was weird! I mean, it was so real I could taste what I'd eaten after I came back. My stomach was full, and I wasn't hungry anymore!"

Sister nodded, listening intently. "Well," she said, "let me tell you where I went when I looked into it." When she was finished, the others remained silent. Julia Castillo was watching Sister, her head cocked to one side; she couldn't understand a word that was being said, but she saw them all looking at the glass thing, and she knew what they were discussing.

"My experience was pretty real, too," Sister went on. "I don't know what it means. Most likely it doesn't mean anything. Maybe it's a picture that just floated out of my head, I don't know."

"The stream is real," Beth said. "I know it is. I can feel it, and I can taste it."

"That food filled my belly," artie told them. "It kept me from being hungry for a while. and what about being able to talk to her" - he motioned toward Julia - "with that thingi I mean, that's damned strange, isn't iti"

"This is something very special. I know it is. It gives you what you want when you need it. Maybe it's..." Beth straightened up and peered into Sister's eyes. Sister felt the fever rolling off her in waves. "Maybe it is magic. a kind of magic that's never been before. Maybe... maybe the blast made it magic. Something with the radiation, or s - "

Doyle Halland laughed. They all jumped, startled by the harshness of that laugh, and looked at him. He grinned in the firelight. "This is about the craziest thing I've ever heard in my life, folks! Magic! Maybe the blast made it magic!" He shook his head. "Come on! It's just a piece of glass with some jewels stuck in it. Yes, it's pretty. Okay. Maybe it's sensitive, like a tuning fork or something. But I say it hypnotizes you. I say the colors do something to your mind; maybe they trigger the pictures in your mind, and you think you're eating a picnic lunch, or drinking from a stream, or walking on a burned-up field."

"What about my being able to understand Spanish, and her understanding Englishi" Sister asked him. "That's a hell of a hypnosis, isn't iti"

"Ever heard of mass hypnosisi" he asked pointedly. "This thing comes under the same heading as bleeding statues, visions and faith-healing. Everybody wants to believe, so it comes true. Listen, I know. I've seen a wooden door that a hundred people swear holds a picture of Jesus in the grain. I've seen a window glass that a whole block sees as an image of the Virgin Mary - and do you know what it wasi a mistake. an imperfection in the glass, that's all. There's nothing magic about a mistake. People see what they want to see, and they hear what they want to hear."

"You don't want to believe," artie countered defiantly. "Whyi are you afraidi"

"No, I'm just a realist. I think, instead of jabbering about a piece of junk, we ought to be finding some more wood for that fire before it goes out."

Sister glanced at it. The flames were gnawing away the last of a broken chair. She gently took the glass ring back from Beth; it was hot from the other woman's palms. Maybe the colors and pulsations did trigger pictures in the mind, she thought. She was suddenly reminded of an object from a distant childhood: a glass ball filled with black ink, made to look like a pool-table eight-ball. You were supposed to make a wish, think about it real hard,' and then turn it upside down. at the bottom of the eight-ball a little white polyhedron surfaced with different things written on each side, such as Your Wish Will Be Granted, It's a Certainty, It appears Doubtful, and the aggravating ask again Later. They were all-purpose answers to the questions of a child who desperately wanted to believe in magic; you could make whatever you wanted to out of those answers. and maybe this was what the glass thing was, too: a cryptic eight-ball that made you see what you wanted to see. Still, she thought, she'd had no desire to go dreamwalking across a burned prairie. The image had just appeared and carried her along. So what was this thing - cryptic eight-ball or doorway to dreamsi

Dream food and dream water might be good enough to soothe desire for such things, Sister knew, but they needed the real stuff. Plus wood for that fire. and the only place to get any of that was outside, in one of the other houses. She put the glass thing back into her bag. "I've got to go out," she said. "Maybe I can find us some food and something to drink in the next house. artie, will you go with mei You can help me break up a chair or whatever for some more wood. Okayi"

He nodded. "Okay. I'm not afraid of a little wind and rain."

Sister looked at Doyle Halland. His gaze skittered up from the Gucci bag. "How about youi Will you go with usi"

Halland shrugged. "Why noti But if you and he go in one direction, I ought to go in another. I can look through the house to the right, if you go to the one on the left."

"Right. Good idea." She stood up. "We need to find some sheets that we can wrap wood and stuff up in to carry it. I think we'd be safer crawling than walking. If we stay close to the ground, maybe the wind won't be so bad."

artie and Halland found sheets and clutched them under their arms to keep them from opening like parachutes in the wind. Sister made Beth comfortable and motioned for Julia to stay with her.

"Be careful," Beth said. "It doesn't sound too nice out there."

"We'll be back," Sister promised, and she went across the room to the front door - which was about the only wooden thing that hadn't gone into the fire. She pushed against the door, and immediately the room was full of cold, spinning wind and icy rain. Sister dropped to her knees and crawled out onto the slick porch, holding her leather bag. The light was the color of graveyard dirt, and the wind-blasted houses around them were as crooked as neglected tombstones. Followed closely by artie, Sister began to crawl slowly down the front steps to the frosted-over lawn. She looked back, squinting against the stinging whipstrike of ice, and saw Doyle Halland inching toward the house on the right, drawing his injured leg carefully after him.

It took them almost ten freezing minutes to reach the next house. The roof had been torn almost off, and ice coated everything. artie went to work, finding a crevice in which to tie the sheet into a bag and then gathering up the shards of timbers that lay everywhere. In the remains of the kitchen, Sister slipped on ice and fell hard on her rear end. But she found some cans of vegetables in the pantry, some frozen apples, onions and potatoes, and in the refrigerator some rock-hard TV dinners. all that could be stuffed into her bag went in, and by that time her hands were stiff claws. Lugging her bundle of booty, she found artie with a bulging sheet-bagful of bits and pieces of wood. "You readyi" she shouted against the wind, and he nodded that he was.

The trip back was more treacherous, because they were holding their treasures so tightly. The wind thrust against them, even though they crawled on their bellies, and Sister thought that if she didn't get to a fire soon her hands and face would fall off.

Slowly they covered the territory between houses. There was no sign of Doyle Halland, and Sister knew that if he'd fallen and hurt himself he could freeze to death; if he didn't return in five minutes, she'd have to go looking for him. They crawled up the ice-coated steps to the front porch and through the door into the blessed warmth.

When artie was in, Sister pushed the door shut and latched it. The wind beat and howled outside like something monstrous deprived of playthings. a skin of ice had begun to melt from Sister's face, and little icicles dangled from artie's earlobes.

"We made it!" artie's jaws were stiff with cold. "We got some - "

He stopped speaking. He was staring past Sister, and his eyes with their icy lashes were widening in horror.

Sister whirled around.

She went cold. Colder than she'd been in the storm.

Beth Phelps was lying on her back before the guttering fire. Her eyes were open, and a pool of blood was spreading around her head. There was a hideous wound in her temple, as if a knife had been driven right through her brain. One hand was upraised, frozen in the air.

"Oh... Jesus." artie's hand pressed to his mouth.

In a corner of the room Julia Castillo lay curled up and contorted. Between her sightless eyes there was a similar wound, and blood had sprayed like a Chinese fan over the wall behind her.

Sister clenched her teeth to trap a scream.

and then a figure stirred, in a corner beyond the fire's fault glow.

"Come in," Doyle Halland said. "Excuse the mess."

He stood to his full height, his eyes catching a glint of orange light like the reflecting pupils of a cat. "Got your goodies, didn't youi" His voice was lazy, the voice of a man who'd stuffed himself at dinner but couldn't refuse dessert. "I got mine, too."

"My God... my God, what's happened herei" artie held onto Sister's arm for support.

Doyle Halland lifted a finger into the air and slowly aimed it at Sister. "I remembered you," he said softly. "You were the woman who came into the theater. The woman with the necklace. See, I met a friend of yours back in the city. He was a policeman. I ran into him while I was wandering." Sister saw his teeth gleam as he grinned, and her knees almost buckled. "We had a nice chat."

Jack Tomachek. Jack Tomachek couldn't go through the Holland Tunnel. He'd turned back, and somewhere in the ruins he'd come face to face with -

"He told me some others had gotten out," Doyle Halland continued. "He said one of them was a woman, and do you know what he remembered most about heri That she had a wound on her neck, in the shape of... well, you know. He told me she was leading a group of people west." His hand with the extended finger jiggled back and forth. "Naughty, naughty. No fair sneaking when my back's turned."

"You killed them." Her voice quavered.

"I freed them. One of them was dying, and the other was half dead. What did they have to hope fori I mean, reallyi"

"You... followed mei Whyi"

"You got out. You were leading others out. That's not very fair, either. You ought to let the dead lie where they fall. But I'm glad I followed you... because you have something that interests me very much." His finger pointed to the floor. "You can put it at my feet now."


"You know what. It. The glass thing. Come on, don't make a scene."

He waited. Sister realized she hadn't sensed his cold spoor, as she had on Forty-second Street and in the theater, because everything was cold. and now here he was, and he wanted the only thing of beauty that remained. "How did you find mei" she asked him, trying desperately to think of a way out. Beyond the latched door at her back, the wind keened and shrieked.

"I knew if you got through the Holland Tunnel, you'd have to cross Jersey City. I followed the path of least resistance, and I saw your fire. I stood listening to you, and watching. and then I found a piece of stained glass, and I realized what the place had been. I found a body, too, and I took the clothes off it. I can make any size fit. Seei" His shoulders suddenly rippled with muscle, his spine lengthening. The priest's jacket split along the seams. Now he stood about two inches taller than he had a second before.

artie moaned, shaking his head from side to side. "I don't... I don't understand."

"You don't have to, cupcakes. This is between the lady and me."

"What... are youi" She resisted the urge to retreat before him, because she feared that one backward step would bring him on her like a dark whirlwind.

"I'm the winner," he said. "and you know whati I didn't even have to work up a sweat. I just laid back and it all came to me." His grin turned savage. "It's party time, lady! and my party's going to go on for a long, long time."

Sister did step back. The Doyle Halland-thing glided forward. "That glass circle is pretty. Do you know what it isi"

She shook her head.

"I don't either - but I know I don't like it."

"Whyi What's it to youi"

He stopped, his eyes narrowing. "It's dangerous. For you, I mean. It gives you false hope. I listened to all that bullshit about beauty and hope and sand a few nights ago. I had to bite my tongue or I would've laughed in your face. Now... tell me you don't really believe in that crap and make my day, won't youi"

"Yes," Sister said firmly. Her voice only trembled a little bit. "I do believe."

"I was afraid of that." Still grinning, he reached down to the metal splinter in his leg. Its point was smeared with gore. He began to draw it out, and Sister knew what had made those wounds. He pulled the dagger free and straightened up. His leg did not bleed.

"Bring it to me," he said, in a voice as smooth as black velvet.

Sister's body jerked. The willpower seemed to drain out of her as if her soul had become a sieve. Dazed and floating, she wanted to go to him, wanted to reach into the bag and draw out the circle of glass, wanted to place it in his hand and offer her throat to the dagger. That would be the easy thing to do, and all resistance seemed incredibly, insufferably difficult.

Shivering, her eyes round and wet, she winnowed her hand into the bag, past the cans and the hard-frozen TV dinners, and touched the circle.

Diamond-white light flared under her fingers. Its brilliance startled her to her senses, the willpower flooding back into her mind. She stiffened her legs as if rooting them to the floor.

"Come to papa," he said - but there was a tense, rough edge in his voice. He wasn't used to being disobeyed, and he could feel her resisting him. She was tougher by far than the kid in the theater, who had resisted about as much as a marshmallow pie against a buzz saw. He could peer behind her eyes, and he saw leaping, shadowy images: a spinning blue light, a rainy highway, the figures of women drifting through dim corridors, the feel of harsh concrete and brutal blows. This woman, he reasoned, had learned to make suffering her companion.

"I said... bring it to me. Now."

and he won, after a few more seconds of struggle. He won, as he knew he must.

Sister tried to prevent her legs from moving forward, but they continued on as if they might snap off at the knees and keep going without her torso. His voice licked at her senses, drew her steadily onward: "That's right. Come on, bring it here."

"Good girl," he said when she got within a few feet. Behind her, artie Wisco still cringed near the door.

The Doyle Halland-thing reached slowly out to take the glowing glass circle. His hand paused, inches from touching it. The jewels pulsed rapidly. He cocked his head to one side. Such a thing should not be. He would feel much better about it when it was ground to bits under his shoe.

He snatched it from her fingers.

"Thank you," he whispered.

The ring of glass changed.

It happened in an instant: The rainbow lights faded, became murky and ugly, turning swamp-mud brown, pus-gray, coal-mine black. The glass circle did not pulse; it lay dead in his grip.

"Shit," he said, amazed and confounded, and one of his gray eyes bleached pale blue.

Sister blinked, felt cold chills running down her spine. The blood tingled in her legs again. Her heart labored like an engine straining to kick over after a night in the cold.

His attention was directed to the black circle, and she knew she only had a second or two to save her life.

She braced her legs and swung the leather bag right at the side of his skull. His head jerked up, his lips twisting into a grimace; he started to juke aside, but the Gucci bag full of cans and frozen dinners hit him with every ounce of strength Sister could summon. She expected him to take it like a stone wall and scream like hellfire, so she was astounded when he grunted and staggered back against the wall as if his bones were made of papier-mache.

Sister's free hand shot out and grabbed the ring, and they held it between them. Something akin to an electric shock rippled through her arm, and she had the mental vision of a face studded with a hundred noses and mouths and blinking eyes of all shapes and colors; she thought it must be his true face, a face of masks and changes, tricks and chameleonic evil.

Her half of the circle erupted into light, even brighter than before. The other half, in his grasp, remained black and cold.

Sister ripped it away from him, and the rest of the ring blossomed into incandescent fire. She saw the Doyle Halland-thing squint in its glare and throw a hand over his face to avoid the light. Her heartbeat was making the ring pulse wildly, and the creature before her recoiled from that fiery light as if he was stunned by both its strength and her own. She saw what might have been fear in his eyes.

But it was only there for an instant - because suddenly his eyes were sucked down into hoods of flesh, his entire face shifting. The nose collapsed, the mouth slithered away; a black eye opened at the center of his forehead, and a green eye blinked on his cheek. a sharklike mouth yawned over the point of the chin, and exposed within the cavity were small yellow fangs.

"Let's panrrrty, bitch!" the mouth howled, and the metal splinter flashed with light as he lifted it over his head to strike.

The dagger came down like vengeance.

But Sister's bag was there like a shield, and the dagger punched through but couldn't penetrate a frozen turkey dinner. He reached for her throat with his other hand, and what she did next she did from street fighting, down-and-dirty ball-kicking experience: She swung the glass circle at his face and buried one of the spikes in the black eye at the center of his forehead.

a scream like a cat being skinned came from that gaping mouth, and the Doyle Halland-thing's head thrashed so quickly that the glass spike broke off, still full of light and imbedded in the eye like Ulysses's spear in the orb of the Cyclops. He flailed wildly with his dagger, the other eye rolling in its socket and percolating through the flesh. Sister shouted, "Run!" to artie Wisco and then turned and fled herself.

He fumbled with the latch and almost took the door with him as he ran from the house; the wind caught him, knocked his legs out from under him. He slid on his belly, still gripping the bagful of wood shards, down the steps to the icy curb.

Sister followed him, also lost her balance on the steps and went down. She shoved the glass ring deep into her bag and crawled along the ice, skimming away from the house on her belly like a human sled. artie scrabbled after her.

and from behind them, tattered by the wind's scream, came his maddened roar: "I'll find you! I'll find you, bitch! You can't get away!" She looked back, saw him through the storm; he was trying to pull the black spike out of his eye, and suddenly his feet went out from under him and he fell on the front porch. "I'll find you!" he promised, struggling to get up. "You can't get a - " The noise of the storm took his voice, and Sister realized she was sliding faster, going downhill over the tea-colored ice.

an ice-covered car loomed in front of her. There was no way to avoid it. She scrunched herself down and went under it, something snagging and ripping her fur coat as she shot beneath the car and continued down the incline, out of control. She looked back and saw artie spinning like a saucer, but his course took him around the car and out of danger.

They sped down the hill, two human toboggans passing along a street lined with dead and crumpled houses, the wind thrusting them onward and sleet stinging their faces.

They would find shelter somewhere, Sister thought. Maybe another house. and they had plenty of food. Wood to start a fire. No matches or lighter, but surely the looters and fleeing survivors hadn't carried off everything that would throw a spark.

She still had the glass ring. The Doyle Halland-thing had been right. It was hope, and she would never let it go. Never.

But it was something else, too. Something special. Something, as Beth Phelps had said, magic. But what the purpose of that magic was, she couldn't yet fathom.

They were going to live, and they were skidding further and further away from the monster who wore a priest's suit. I'll find you! she heard it bellowing in her mind. I'll find you!

and she feared that someday - somehow - it just might.

They skidded down to the end of the hill, past more abandoned cars, and continued along the thoroughfare about forty more yards before they bumped the curb.

Their ride was over, but their journey had just begun.  


Time passed.

Josh judged its passage by the number of empty cans that were piling up in what he thought of as the city dump - that foul area over in the far corner where they both used the bathroom and tossed the empties. They went through one can of vegetables every other day, and one can of a meat product like Spam or corned beef on alternating days. The way Josh calculated the passage of a day was by his bowel movements. He'd always been as regular as clockwork. So the trips to the city dump and the pile of empties gave him a reasonable estimation of time, and he figured now that they'd been in the basement between nineteen and twenty-three days. Which would make it anywhere between the fifth and thirteenth of august. Of course, there was no telling how long they'd been there before they'd gotten semi-organized, either, so Josh thought it was probably closer to the seventeenth - and that would mean one month had passed.

He'd found a packet of flashlight batteries in the dirt, so they were okay on that account. The light showed him that they'd passed the halfway point of their food supply. It was time to start digging. as he gathered up the shovel and pickaxe, he heard their gopher scrambling happily amid the city dump's cans. The little beast thrived on their leftovers - which didn't amount to much - and licked the cans so clean you could see your face reflected on the bottom. Which was something Josh definitely avoided doing.

Swan was asleep, breathing quietly in the darkness. She slept a lot, and Josh figured that was good. She was saving her energy, hibernating like a little animal. Yet when Josh woke her she came up instantly, focused and alert. He slept a few feet away from her, and it amazed him how attuned he'd become to the sound of her breathing; usually it was deep and slow, the sound of oblivion, but sometimes it was fast and ragged, the gasp of memories, bad dreams, the sinking in of realities. It was that sound that awakened Josh from his own uneasy sleep, and often he heard Swan call for her mother or make a garbled utterance of terror, as if something was stalking her across the wasteland of nightmares.

They'd had plenty of time to talk. She'd told him about her mother and "uncles," and how much she enjoyed planting her gardens. Josh had asked her about her father; she'd said he was a rock musician but hadn't offered anything else.

She'd asked him what it felt like to be a giant, and he'd told her he'd be a rich man if he had a quarter for every time he'd bumped his head at the top of a doorway. also, it was tough finding clothes big enough - though he didn't tell her that he'd already noticed his waistband was loosening - and that his shoes were specially made. So I guess it's expensive to be a giant, he'd said. Otherwise, I guess I'm about the same as everybody else.

In telling her about Rose and the boys, he'd tried very hard not to let his voice break. He could have been talking about strangers, people he knew only as pictures in somebody else's wallet. He told Swan about his football days, how he'd been Most Valuable Player in three games. Wrestling wasn't so bad, he'd told her; it was honest money, and a man as big as he couldn't do much else that was legal. The world was too small for giants; it built doorways too low, furniture too flimsy, and there wasn't a mattress made that didn't pop and squall when he lay down to rest.

During the times they talked, Josh kept the flashlight off. He didn't want to see the child's blistered face and stubble of hair and remember how pretty she'd been - and also, he wanted to spare her the sight of his own repellent mug.

PawPaw Briggs's ashes were buried. They did not talk about that at all, but the command Protect the child remained in Josh's mind like the tolling of an iron bell.

He switched on the flashlight. Swan was curled up in her usual place, sleeping soundly. The dried fluids of burst blisters glistened on her face. Flaps of skin were dangling from her forehead and cheeks like thin layers of flaking paint, and underneath them the raw, scarlet flesh was growing fresh blisters. He gently prodded her shoulder, and her eyes immediately opened. They were bloodshot, the lashes gummy and yellow, her pupils shrinking to pinpoints. He moved the light away from her. "Time to wake up. We're going to start digging."

She nodded and sat up.

"If we both work, it'll be faster," he said. "I'm going to start with the pickaxe, then I'd like for you to shovel away the loose dirt. Okayi"

"Okay," she replied, and she got on her hands and knees to follow him.

Josh was about to crawl over to the gopher hole when he noticed something in the spill of light that he'd not seen before. He shifted the beam back to where she'd been sleeping. "Swani What is thati"

"Wherei" Her gaze moved along the light.

Josh put aside the shovel and pickaxe and reached down.

Where Swan customarily slept were hundreds of tiny, emerald-green blades of grass. They formed a perfect image of a child's curled-up body.

He touched the grass. Not exactly grass, he realized. Shoots of some kind. Tiny shoots of... were they new cornstalksi

He shone the light around. The soft, downlike vegetation was growing in no other place but where Swan slept. He plucked up a bit of it, to examine the roots, and he noted that Swan flinched. "What's wrongi"

"I don't like that sound."

"Soundi What soundi"

"a hurting sound," she answered.

Josh didn't know what she was talking about, and he shook his head. The roots trailed down about two inches, delicate filaments of life. They'd obviously been growing there for some time, but Josh couldn't understand how the shoots had rooted in tainted dirt without a drop of water. It was the only bit of green life he'd seen since they'd been trapped here. But there had to be a simple explanation; he figured that the whirlwind had carried seeds in, and somehow they'd rooted and popped up. That's all.

Right, he thought. Rooted without water and popped up without an iota of sunlight. That made about as much sense as PawPaw deciding to emulate a Roman candle.

He let the green shoots drift down again. at once, Swan picked up a handful of loose dirt, worked it between her fingers for a few seconds with single-minded interest, and covered the shoots over.

Josh leaned back, his knees up against his chest. "It's only growing where you lie down to sleep. It's kind of peculiar, don't you thinki"

She shrugged. She could feel him watching her carefully.

"You said you heard a sound," he continued. "What kind of sound was iti"

again, a shrug. She didn't know how to talk about it. Nobody had ever asked her such things before.

"I didn't hear anything," Josh said, and he reached toward the shoots again.

She grasped his hand before he got there. "Like I said... a hurting sound. I don't know exactly."

"When I plucked them upi"


Lord, Josh thought, I'm just about ready for a rubber room! He'd been thinking, as he looked at the pattern of green in the dirt, that they were growing there because her body made them grow. Her chemistry or something, reacting with the earth. It was a crazy idea, but there they were. "What's it likei a voicei"

"No. Not like that."

"I'd like to hear about it"


"Yes," Josh said. "Really."

"My mama said it was 'magination."

"Is iti"

She hesitated, and then she said firmly, "No." Her fingers touched the new shoots tenderly, barely grazing them. "One time my mama took me to a club to hear the band. Uncle Warren was playing the drums. I heard a noise like the hurting sound, and I asked her what made it. She said it was a steel guitar, the kind you put on your lap and play. But there are other things in the hurting sound, too." Her eyes found his. "Like the wind. Or a train's whistle, way far off. Or thunder, long before you see the lightning. a tot of things."

"How long have you been able to hear iti"

"Since I was a little girl."

Josh couldn't help but smile. Swan misread it. "are you making fun of mei"

"No. Maybe... I wish I could hear a sound like that. Do you know what it isi"

"Yes," Swan answered. "It's death."

His smile faltered and went away.

Swan picked up some dirt and slowly worked it, feeling its dry, brittle texture. "In the summer it's the worst. That's when people bring their lawn mowers out."

"But... it's just grass," Josh said.

"In the fall the hurting sound's different," she continued, as if she hadn't heard him. "It's like a great big sigh, and then the leaves come down. Then in winter, the hurting sound stops, and everything sleeps." She shook nuggets of dirt from her palm, mixed them with the rest. "When it starts getting warm again, the sun makes things think about waking up."

"Think about waking upi"

"Everything can think and feel, in its own way," she replied, and she looked up at him. The eyes in her young face were very old, Josh thought. "Bugs, birds, even grass - everything has its own way of speaking and knowing. Just depends on whether you can understand it or not."

Josh grunted. Bugs, she'd said. He was remembering the swarm of locusts that had whirled through his Pontiac the day of the blast. He'd never thought before about the things she was saying, but he realized there was truth to it. Birds knew to migrate when the clock of seasons changed, ants built anthills in a frenzy of communication, flowers bloomed and withered but their pollen lived on, all according to a great, mysterious schedule that he'd always taken for granted. It was as simple as grass growing and as complex as a firefly's light.

"How do you know these thingsi" he asked. "Who taught youi"

"Nobody. I just figured it out." She recalled her first garden, growing from a sandbox at a nursery school playground. It had been years before she found out that holding earth didn't make everybody's hands tingle with a pins-and-needles sensation, or that everybody couldn't tell from its buzz whether a wasp wanted to sting or just investigate your ear. She'd always known, and that was that.

"Oh," he said. He watched her rubbing the dirt in her hands. Swan's palms were tingling, her hands warm and moist. He looked at the green shoots again. "I'm just a wrestler," he said, very quietly. "That's all. I mean... damn, I'm just a nobody!" Protect the child, he thought. Protect her from whati From whomi and whyi "What the hell," he whispered, "have I got myself intoi"

"Huhi" she asked.

"Nothing," he said. Her eyes were those of a little girl again, and she mixed the rest of the warm dirt into the ground around the shoots. "We'd better start digging now. are you up to iti"

"Yes." She grasped the shovel he'd laid aside. The tingling, glowing sensation was slowly ebbing away.

But he wasn't ready, not just yet. "Swan, listen to me for a minute. I want to be truthful with you, because I think you can handle it. We're going to try to get out of here, but that's not saying we can. We'll have to dig a pretty wide tunnel to squeeze my blubber through. It's going to take us some time, and it sure as hell won't be easy work. If it caves in, we'll have to start all over again. What I'm saying, I guess, is that I'm not sure we can get out. I'm not sure at all. Do you understandi"

She nodded, said nothing.
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