by for Incanto.
It had gone in reverse. She couldn't even pinpoint the moment when the cafeteria with its ridiculous pyramid of tables gave way to her bedroom. One moment she was banging on the walls, trying to find a weakness; the next she was in her bed, in that very same moment again, when she had been having the cat dream-except now she knew what to expect. But the lick never came. She could feel something behind her, though, radiating a primal energy like body heat, but slicker, sharper. Audrey waited and waited until the arm pinned beneath her started to go numb and the inside of her mouth started to itch. Just turn around and face it, Audrey told herself. They had already survived the Paper House-well, all of them but Summer, but that girl could hardly survive counting out her change-so she could survive this. Maybe Dee and Jenny weren't there to talk her through it, but that wouldn't stop her. She had lived in so many different countries, and she had always adapted: she learned the languages, the customs, and most of all, the attitude. Confidence is key, her mother's voice echoed in her head. If Audrey believed she could do it, she could and would. It wasn't the New Age nonsense that Summer's parents spewed; it was a simple fact. Audrey Myers did not lose.
Before she could second-guess herself, Audrey rolled over-and found herself looking straight at Julian, who was leaning against the wall. "Little Red Riding Hood," he said softly. "I must admit, I'm disappointed. I didn't think you would be the first to fall. I thought it would have been Michael."
"What are you doing?" she demanded. When in doubt, get angry. Get haughty, indignant. How often had her mother harangued some well-meaning clerk at a store for not folding a shirt just right? Intensity garnered results. There was an iciness to that attitude that Audrey used to fortify herself as she sat up, grateful that she was wearing clothes and not her pyjamas. "We played your game. We won. The end."
"Every end is a beginning," Julian intoned, pushing off from the wall. His eerie eyes were like the heart of a glacier, ancient and unmovable. "But don't worry. I doubt you'll be alone for long. The others haven't figured it all out yet." He stepped into the shadows by her closet and vanished.
Her bedroom slowly melted back into the cafeteria, though the image often flickered like a television with bad reception. Audrey could be staring at the pyramid of tables, debating how to get them down so she could attempt to open the door behind them, when suddenly her window came into view, right in the middle of one of the tables. Not trusting her eyes, she sat in the centre of the room and stared into her lap. She didn't wish harm on any of the others, but right then she would have welcomed the company-even Dee's.
Audrey must have sunk into sleep, because when she opened her eyes next, she was back in the Black Forest, but Dee and Jenny and even the elves' supplicants were nowhere to be seen. She was no more than a foot from the fire, but she couldn't feel any heat; her eyes weren't stinging from the smoke. It was like being plunked down into one of the strange pictures Zach liked to make. When she tried to leave through the forest, the air shimmered, as if the trees were nothing more holograms. The only thing in the area that seemed real was the entrance to the cave so, clenching her fists, Audrey began the long descent alone.
The subterranean level was different than she remembered. Maybe Julian's made it lead to a different chamber. This room was as vast as a cathedral, but looked like it was hewn from ice and lit from behind with torches. Rainbows shattered and skittered at her feet, catching her eye and diverting her from her path until she found herself in a throne room.
Julian had one leg hooked over the side of the throne and was watching her with amusement. "Still alone? It looks like your friends are smarter than you are. Or maybe they aren't your friends at all. Maybe they're happy to have you gone. Dee certainly must be. Jenny too, since you're so domineering. That means Tommy mustn't be a fan of yours either, since you're always trying to get Jenny to be more independent. I can't imagine Zach would be all that fond of you: that boy likes his deceits on film, not in the flesh. And as for Michael. . . ."
"Leave him alone," Audrey spat. "Leave us all alone."
Julian gestured at the grand walls around him. "What thanks is that for all this splendour? Do you know how many humans would love to see a place such as this? You've seen the books on Michael's shelves. You know what kinds of stories his father writes. If Michael knew he could come here, I wouldn't even have to lure him; he would ask where the hole was and jump in of his own volition."
Audrey shook her head vehemently, striding up to the Shadow Man. If Jenny could outwit him, surely she could. Jenny was a dear friend, but she was hardly worldly or exceptionally clever. "So what is the new game, pray tell?"
"Nothing you'd know," Julian said blithely, conjuring a goblet out of the air and sipping a dark liquid from it. "The ones with younger siblings-Jenny, Dee, even little lost Summer-would. Did you ever wonder why your parents didn't have another child?" His impossibly blue eyes looked like the core of a flame. "Maybe you were so much bother that they didn't dare try again."
"Or maybe they achieved perfection on the first try," Audrey retorted. I can't let him get to me. It was so much harder when she was alone. If Jenny were there or Michael or even Dee, it was easy to be strong, because it was what they expected of her; it was her default state, like a typecast role. But without anyone else to perform for, it was too easy to crack under the pressure.
"So like your mother. How long will it be until you start going under the knife? A nip here, a tuck there-all for maintenance. How long will it be until your body is no more whole than Frankenstein's creation?" Julian's rich laugh echoed through the chamber, causing some spears of ice to drop from the ceiling and shatter at Audrey's feet.
Audrey was about to make another retort about perfection, but her scalp started to sting as if her hair was pulled too tight. She automatically reached back for the combs supporting her French twist, but instead of smooth curves and blunted tines, she found skeletal fingers, twined deep in her hair and pulling hard. Her lips peeled back in a grimace as she felt hair being torn out of her scalp-first in tiny clusters, then in long strips, like when she had her legs waxed at the spa. With a very unladylike howl, Audrey grabbed the skeletal hands and yanked them free, trying not to notice how much hair came away in their bony fingers. It's not real, she told herself. That was getting harder and harder to believe, though, especially when it felt like she had the world's worst sunburn on her head. It took a great deal of effort, but she managed to keep herself from reaching up and touching the remains of her hair. "Beauty isn't about age," she said simply.
"Indeed not." Julian hopped down off the dais and sauntered towards her, bending down to pick up the skeletal hands that were tangled up in clumps of her hair. "Auburn is such a fetching shade. Almost like blood."
The stinging on Audrey's scalp became unbearable and she reached up just to put pressure against her head, hoping to calm the raw skin there. Her fingers sank into sticky wetness instead, making her shriek. Then something red flashed in front of her eyes, slow and small at first and then almost like a steady rain. Blood, she grimaced. It clung to her spiky eyelashes, blurring her vision as she frantically tried to wipe her head clean with her sleeves. Instead of soaking into her clothes, the blood rolled right down, looking like red pearls against a jeweller's white display cloth.
The blood didn't stop. The pain didn't stop. Soon enough, her screams didn't stop either, not until her eyes burst open and she saw Zach looking down at her curiously. "Julian?" he asked.
In that moment, Jenny's cousin looked unnervingly like the Shadow Man, and Audrey scuttled away ungracefully. "Yes," she said at last, instinctively feeling her hair. All still there, all in place, right down to the placement of her combs. She ignored Zach's odd stare as she stood. Out loud, she said, "The only door here is behind the tables. Let's try to get them down."
When Zach finally turned his attention to the tables, Audrey removed her combs and ran her fingers through her hair, allowing herself a small sigh of relief. I should leave it down more often, she thought as she tucked the combs in her pocket.
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An lj-smith.com and panavatar.net production. LindaMarie came up with the original concept, Red took over for subsequent years, and the torch has now passed to Incanto.