/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

The Woods Are Dark

Laymon Laymon

In the woods are six dead trees. The killing trees. That’s where they take them. People like Neala and her friend Sherri, and the Dills family. Innocent travellers on vacation, seized and bound, stripped of their valuables and shackled to the trees to wait. In the woods. In the dark.

Richard Laymon

THE WOODS ARE DARK

Praise for Richard Laymon

“I’ve always been a Laymon fan. He manages to raise serious gooseflesh.”

—Bentley Little

“Laymon is incapable of writing a disappointing book.”

New York Review of Science Fiction

“Laymon always takes it to the max. No one writes like him and you’re going to have a good time with anything he writes.”

—Dean Koontz

“If you’ve missed Laymon, you’ve missed a treat.”

—Stephen King

“A brilliant writer.”

Sunday Express

“I’ve read every book of Laymon’s I could get my hands on. I’m absolutely a longtime fan.”

—Jack Ketchum, Author of Old Flames

“One of horror’s rarest talents.”

Publishers Weekly

“Laymon is, was, and always will be king of the hill.”

Horror World

“Laymon is an American writer of the highest caliber.”

Time Out

“Laymon is unique. A phenomenon. A genius of the grisly and the grotesque.”

—Joe Citro, The Blood Review

“Laymon doesn’t pull any punches. Everything he writes keeps you on the edge of your seat.”

Painted Rock Reviews

HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED…

by Kelly Laymon

…my original version of The Woods Are Dark can never be pieced back together after the massive rewrite required by my Warner Books editor…

—Richard Laymon

Well, the book you’re holding in your hands is that original version. Before I talk about how exactly I did it, let me recap the history of this book.

My father often referred to The Woods Are Dark as the book that ruined his career. The funny explanation was that Warner Books changed the proposed cover artwork and added the most fabulously hideous green foil stamping to the design. The more complicated, ugly, and painful explanation, while equally true, was that Warner required a ton of rewrites and then performed their own hack surgery to boot.

The good people at Warner Books didn’t like what was submitted and had several suggestions as to how to improve it. They wanted the Lander Dills chapters gone and other plotlines expanded. Though the original draft was praised by friends Dean Koontz and Gary Brandner, who blurbed that original my father went along with the revisions.

was young and scared and I caved in. Man did I cave! Pathetic. All I really cared about at the time, was getting those people at Warner Books to accept the novel. I had almost no self-confidence at all.

—Richard Laymon

He was pleased enough with his new version. He was sad to see large chunks of the novel go, but getting Warner to play along was all that mattered. Then he received the proofs and saw that “some illiterate excuse for a line editor really revised it.” That was when it became every writer’s nightmare.

Sentences strung together by this imbecile no longer made sense. Entire paragraphs were removed. Time sequences were distorted. Changes in punctuation created grammatical errors. I can’t begin to describe how badly the novel had been decimated. I was so overwhelmed and frustrated that, at one point, I actually broke down in tears.

—Richard Laymon

He corrected every single mistake and returned the pages. He was then notified that fixing the mistakes would cost Warner a fortune and it was a no-go. The train wreck was published that way and it didn’t do well. He always said it probably didn’t do poorly because of those rewrites. The cover was enough to keep people from even opening the book in the first place. The tiny ray of sunshine was that the mistakes were cleaned up for later British editions. And published with much better cover artwork.

This tale is my father’s explanation as to why, for almost twenty years, he was successful in the UK and nowhere to be seen in the US outside anthologies and the small press. His track record of sales was shot and that history will follow an author for years.

That’s pretty much the end of that story.

Until now.

The version you’re about to read was the one that was first submitted to Warner Books and blurbed by Dean Koontz and Gary Brandner. (And, to keep that righting of wrongs going, those blurbs can be found on this very edition!)

Those of you who have read the Warner edition will notice that the two books are very different after, say, chapter eight or so.

How did I do it? Especially since my father said it couldn’t be done?

I’m not sure. It was all there. But the pieces weren’t in the same place.

There were boxes of thirty-year-old manuscripts and I had played with the various drafts many times over the last six or seven years. I always believed it could be done. I sure had false starts though. I had to get to know each draft of the manuscript. Not by the content of the pages, but by the pages themselves. I evaluated them based on page numbering styles and other forms of continuity. I didn’t want to read any draft until I had settled on what I believed was the true manuscript.

And, of course, all the drafts of The Woods Are Dark were complete and in order except for what turned out to be the true version, which was split up in three different places.

I ended up with two piles of pages. One was the original Lander Dills chapters. (Those were once collected in a small-press chapbook.) The other was the original manuscript, which was missing a lot of pages. Those gaps perfectly matched the deleted Lander Dills pages. The chapters and page numbers all lined up. It was like shuffling two halves of a deck of cards. It all came together. I declared it done, read it, and began typing the book for this Leisure release. As I suspected, it held up. No gaps in story, continuity, or logic

I had one little problem though. I couldn’t find pages 264 or 265. I had the whole novel and the final page, but the third- and second-to-last pages were missing.

Was this just a case of faulty page numbering? Everything came together perfectly. Maybe those two pages were meant to be blank? However, it was obvious that those pages had to contain the conclusion of the Lander Dills tale. It was the only unresolved issue. I checked the chapbook of deleted The Woods Are Dark scenes. No dice. There was no conclusion to that plotline in there either.

Were they lost forever? Is that why my father said it could never be done?

I sat down with the boxes of manuscripts one last time. I had no idea what I was going to do if I came up with nothing. And I really didn’t care to think about having to burn that bridge. Then, at the bottom of the box containing the handwritten draft I found a typewritten page. It was page 264 and it said “Epilogue” at the top. The first line had Lander singing a carefree little song. The page behind it was 265 and wrapped up Lander’s story.

I was so relieved that I laughed and then cried a little. It was done. A wrong had been left to sit for just under thirty years. It was written before I was born and submitted less than six months after my birth. I was just a baby when the whole thing blew up, but heard the story told many times during his life.

I certainly hope this wasn’t a giant exercise in failure. I hope the longtime fans enjoy this original version as much as (or more than!) the one they’ve previously been exposed to. And I hope that the newer fans enjoy this so much that they’re never curious enough to seek out the Warner edition on eBay. But if I failed miserably at this, if it was never meant to be done, that sure would be the next logical step in the saga of this book.

CHAPTER ONE

Neala O’Hare slowed her MG as the narrow road curved. The evening sun was no longer behind her. Shadows of the high trees threw their dark capes across the road, hiding it. She pulled off her sunglasses.

Sherri, beside her, suddenly gasped.

Neala saw it, too. She hit the brakes.

Her friend thrust a hand against the windshield as the car jerked to a stop.

In front of them, the legless thing dragged itself over the road with powerful, hairy arms.

“What the fuck is it?” Sherri muttered.

Neala shook her head.

Then it faced them.

Nealas hands clenched the steering wheel. Stunned, she tried to figure out what she was seeing. It hardly looked like the face of a man.

The thing turned. It started to drag itself toward the car.

“Get out of here!” Sherri cried. “Quick! Back up!”

“What is it?” Neala asked.

“Let’s go!”

Neala backed up, but slowly, just enough to keep away from the approaching creature. She couldn’t take her eyes off its bloated face.

“Run it over!” Sherri snapped.

She shook her head. “I can’t. It’s a man. I think it’s a man.”

“Who cares? For Godsake, run it over and let’s get the fuck out of here!”

It sat up, balancing on its torso, freeing its arms. It leered at Neala.

“Oh God,” Sherri muttered.

It fumbled at an opening in its furry vest. A pocket? It pulled out a severed human hand, kissed its palm, and tossed it. The hand flipped toward Neala. She ducked her head, felt it in her hair, and knocked it aside. It fell into the gap between the bucket seats.

The legless thing scuttled off the road and disappeared into the forest.

Neala looked down at the hand, at its crooked fingers, its coral-painted nails, the white band of skin where a wedding ring used to be. Lunging sideways, she threw herself over her door and vomited onto the pavement. When she was done, she turned to her friend.

“We’ve gotta get rid of it,” Sherri said.

“I…”

Snarling as if enraged, Sherri clutched the hand by its fingers and flung it from the car. “God!” She rubbed her hand furiously on her shorts.

Neala sped away.

As she drove, her mind repeated the incident again and again. She needed to make sense of it, but no matter how she concentrated, it wouldn’t fall into a pattern she could accept. The scene belonged in a nightmare, not on a peaceful road on the way to Yosemite.

She was glad to see a town ahead—not much of a town, to be sure. Up in these areas, though, they never were.

“Maybe they’ve got a police department,” she said.

“You’re not planning to stop!”

“We ought to tell someone.”

“Tell Father Higgins, for Godsake. Save it for confession. Jesus, let’s get the hell out of here.”

“We can’t just forget about it.”

“Forget about it? Every time I shut my eyes, I’m going to be looking into that repulsive, gloating…” Sherri jerked her head sharply as if to shake the picture apart. “God, I’m never gonna forget about it. But we don’t have to go around making a big deal of it, okay? Let’s just keep it to ourselves. It’s water over the dam, you know?”

They had already left half the town behind. Ahead of them, Neala saw a bait shop, Terk’s Diner, and the Sunshine Motor Inn.

“Why don’t we stop at the diner?” Neala suggested.

“Why don’t we not?”

“Come on. It’s almost seven. We could both use some supper.”

“You mean you can eat after that?”

“I can try. I’d sure like to get out of the car and relax, at least. Try to think it out. Talk it over. Besides, there’s no telling when we’ll hit another restaurant.”

“You call this a restaurant?”

“Hey, this is your kind of joint. Probably filthy with greasy spoons and ’characters’.”

Sherri managed a smile. “Okay. But let’s keep the freak to ourselves.”

Neala turned onto the gravel parking area, and shut down the engine. They latched the roof into place, rolled up the windows, and locked the doors. Before starting across the gravel, Neala stretched. She was stiff from the long day in the car. Standing on tiptoe, shoulders straining back, she felt the luxury of her tensing muscles. The movement pulled her shirt taut across her chest. She liked its feel against her nipples, and thought how long it had been since she’d felt the eager touch of a man’s fingers or tongue on her breasts.

Maybe up in Yosemite, she’d get lucky.

Meet a rugged mountain man.

One for Sherri, too. I’m not selfish

“I feel almost human again,” she said, meeting Sherri behind the car.

They crossed the gravel lot to the entrance of the diner. Sherri pulled open the screen door, and they entered.

Neala liked the warmth. The familiar aromas made her long for a cheeseburger and french fries. “Counter?” she asked, seeing a pair of empty stools at the end. The other half a dozen were occupied.

“Let’s take a table,” Sherri said, surprising her.

Sherri usually preferred the counter, where she struck up conversations with nearby strangers.

Not tonight, apparently.

They slid into a booth on the side, facing each other. Sherri’s eyes briefly met Nealas, then lowered.

“Buck up, pardner,” Neala said.

“Sure thing.”

“Don’t be this way. Please.”

“Oh, how should I be?”

“Be the gutsy champ we all know and admire.”

That didn’t even get a smile from Sherri.

Neala needed that smile. She’d never felt so frightened, so alone. This was a hell of a time for Sherri to go silent and glum.

“Would it help if I apologize?” Neala asked.

“It’s not your fault.”

“It was my idea to go backpacking.”

“The freak wasn’t your idea.”

“That’s for damn sure. But if we’d stayed home…”

“It’s all right. Forget it.”

The waitress came. “Sorry to keep you folks waiting,” she said. She set water glasses on the table, and handed out menus.

When she left, they studied the menus. Usually, they would talk over the offerings, maybe decide to split an order of fries or onion rings, discuss whether to “blow it” and have milk shakes. Tonight, they were silent.

The waitress returned. “Ready to order?”

Neala nodded. “I’ll have one of your Terkburger Specials and iced tea.” She watched the gaunt, unsmiling woman write it down.

Can’t anybody smile tonight? she wondered.

This gal ought to be happy as a lark, with a ring like that on her pinky.

“A patty melt,” Sherri said. “Fries, and a Pepsi.”

The woman nodded and walked away.

Sherri watched her, frowning.

“Did you get a load of her ring?” Neala asked, hoping to break the somber mood.

“How could I miss it? The thing nearly blinded me.”

“Do you suppose it was glass?”

“Looked real enough to me. I’m no expert, of course. Besides, I left my jeweler’s loupe at home.”

Neala laughed, and saw the hint of a smile on Sherri’s face. “It looked like a wedding ring,” she said.

“Wrong finger. Wrong hand, too. She probably outgrew it.”

“Her? She was nothing but bones.”

“Maybe it’s a friendship ring,” Sherri suggested. “I could use a friend like that. Money coming out his wazoo. If I were that girl, I’d blow this burg in about two seconds. Grab hold of the guy, and light out for the big city.”

When the waitress brought their supper, they both watched her hand.

“What do you think?” Neala asked when she was gone.

“I think it’s real.”

Neala bit into her Terkburger: a thick patty on a seed bun. Juice spilled down her chin. She backhanded it off, and reached for a napkin. “Delicious” she said.

“Same here,” said Sherri. Strings of limp onion dangled from the sides of her sandwich.

“Onion breath.”

“You planning to kiss me?” Sherri asked.

“Not tonight.”

“Gee, and I had my heart set on it.”

“You’re sure going to stink up the tent. Maybe we’d better sleep under the stars.”

“What if it rains?” Sherri asked through a mouthful that muffled her words.

“Then we get wet.”

“I wouldn’t like that.”

“Better wet than onion gas in the tent.”

“Yeah?” Sherri pulled off the top slab of rye bread, pinched a matted glob of onions, and dropped it onto Neala’s plate. “You have some, too. Insurance.”

Laughing, Neala piled the onions onto her Terkburger and ate.

Soon, their plates were empty. Neala thought about returning to the car. She didn’t want to.

“How about dessert?” Sherri asked, as if she were in no hurry to leave, either.

“Good idea.”

This was no time to worry about calories. Neala never worried much about them, regardless; she had no trouble keeping her trim figure. Still, gloppy desserts made her feel guilty. Tonight, it would be worth the guilt to postpone returning to the car.

They both ordered hot fudge sundaes. They ate slowly, picking at the mounds of ice cream, the thick warm syrup, the whipped cream sprinkled with chopped nuts.

“This’ll add an inch to my hips,” Sherri said. She was several inches taller than Neala, with broad shoulders, prominent breasts, and big hips. She wasn’t fat, but an additional inch on her hips wouldn’t be that noticeable. Neala decided to keep the observation to herself.

“We’ll work it all off, this week,” she said.

“A great way to spend a vacation, working our asses off.”

“You’ll love it.”

“Sure I will. I’ll love it plenty if Robert Redford wanders over to our campfire and I bowl him over with my wit and charm, and he drags me off with him. My luck, though, he’d fall for you.”

“I’d share.”

When the sundaes were gone, they ordered coffee.

After this, Neala thought, we’ll have to go. Back to the car. Back to the narrow, dark road and the woods.

We can’t stay here all night.

She watched the waitress shut the main, wooden door. Through the window, she saw that dusk had fallen. The gravel of the parking lot was a gray blur. Across the road, the sign of the Sunshine Motor Inn blinked gloomy blue. It showed a vacancy.

Her eyes met Sherri’s.

“No way,” Sherri said.

“I know. I don’t want to stay, either. I don’t want to go and I don’t want to stay.”

“We’ll feel a lot better when we’ve put some miles behind us.”

Neala nodded agreement.

“But before we do another thing, the kid here’s gonna hit the John.”

While she was gone, Neala had another cup of coffee.

She came back, and Neala went. The toilet, at the rear of the diner, was clean and pleasant. Ought to be, Neala thought; the place is run by a bunch of ty—

She returned to the table. Sherri had already put down the tip. They took the bill to the cash register. This meal was Neala’s turn.

She bought two foil-wrapped mints, for the road.

The waitress poured change into her hand. “Don’t be strangers,” she said.

Sherri reached for the knob, and tried to turn it. The knob didn’t move. She tried again. “Hey, Miss?” she called to the waitress.

The heads of everyone at the counter turned toward them.

“Hey Miss, the door’s stuck.”

The customers stared. A couple of the younger ones smiled, but most looked grim.

“Ain’t stuck, honey. It’s locked.”

Neala felt a tight pull of fear in her bowels.

“How about unllocking it?” Sherri asked.

“Afraid I can’t do that.”

“Yeah? Why the fuck not?”

“’Cause you’re here to stay, you two.” With a big grin, the waitress turned to the other customers—the same customers, Neala suddenly realized, who’d been at the counter when they entered, so long ago.

Silently, four of the men climbed off their stools.

CHAPTER TWO

Lander Dills cut his high beams as a car appeared around a bend. When it was gone, he pressed them on again, doubling the brightness of the road and forest ahead.

“This is the forest primeval,” he announced. “The murmuring pines and the hemlocks.”

“That’s Dad doing his Evangeline routine,” said Cordelia in the backseat, explaining him to Ben. “He gets poetically inspired at frequent intervals.”

“Fine with me,” Ben said.

Good fellow, Ben. Didn’t know an iamb from a dactyl, and couldn’t care less, but at least he seemed reasonably intelligent and polite. Lander, a high school teacher, had seen enough of the other kind to last him a dozen lifetimes.

His daughter had good taste in boyfriends, thank the gods.

“Longfellow knew his stuff,” Lander said. “The forest primeval. You can feel it in your bones—the silence, the isolation. Out there, nothing has changed for a thousand years. ‘Down by the dank tarn of Auber, in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.’”

“The Poe routine,” Cordelia said.

“I wouldn’t mind his motel routine, about now,” said Ruth.

“Mom’s horny, too.”

“That’s not what I meant, Cordie, and you know it!”

Cordelia and Ben were laughing. The motel routine. With a pang, Lander pictured his daughter under Ben, naked and moaning. From the way the two acted, he was certain they had gone the whole route. It made him feel sick, as if he’d lost something precious. She was eighteen, though. Old enough to know what she was doing, to make her own choices. He couldn’t stop her. He wouldn’t try. But it hurt him.

“We should be coming into Barlow pretty soon,” Ruth said, shining her flashlight at a roadmap in her lap. “How about stopping there?”

“Don’t you want to try for Mule Ear Lake?” Lander asked.

“We’re hours away, honey. It’ll be midnight, at least, and we told Mr. Elsworth we’d be there by nine. He’ll probably be asleep. Besides, we’ve been on the road all day.”

“If we had been on the road all day, we’d be there by now.”

“Here we go,” Cordelia said. “Dad the general. His idea of a vacation is hitting the road before sunup.”

“Well, I’d be happy to stay in this Barlow, myself,” he said. “I’m just looking out for you people.” He grinned through the darkness at Ruth. “You do realize, I hope, that there won’t be a Hyatt.”

“As long as it has clean sheets…”

“Would you kids rather stop, or go on through to the cabin?”

“Let’s stop,” Cordelia said. “It’ll be fun.”

“Either way’s fine with me, Mr. Dills.”

“Well, we’ll see,” he said.

He wouldn’t argue the point. Not worth the trouble. He was pleased enough to assume the role of leader, but only so long as nobody tampered with his decisions. His decision, from the start, had been to drive on through. Now, he’d been overruled.

With some satisfaction, and telling nobody, he switched his role from leader to chauffeur.

If they want to run the show, let them. He would sit back, relieved of responsibility, and watch. More than likely, they would botch it.

Soon, he came to the town of Barlow. He drove past a closed gas station, a general store, and Biff’s Hardware and Sporting Goods. Just ahead, on the right, was Terk’s Diner. Across the road was the Sunshine Motor Inn. Its flashing blue sign read, vacancy.

“Is this where you want to stop?” he asked, slowing down. It wasn’t a regular motel, at all, but a cluster of cottages behind a shabby office.

“I don’t know,” Ruth said, sounding dubious.

Lander grinned.

“What do you think?” she asked him.

“It’s up to you. Should we give it a try?”

“What do you think, kids?” Ruth asked.

“I don’t know,” said Cordelia. “It looks kind of creepy, to me.”

Lander stopped the car in the middle of the road. He waited, watching his rearview mirror in case a car should come along.

“Shall we?” Ruth asked him.

“If you want to.”

“You’re a lot of help,” she complained.

“Give the word, and we’ll stay here.”

“Okay,” Ruth said. “Let’s give it a try.”

Flipping on his turn signal, Lander drove across the road and stopped beside the lighted office. “You might as well wait here.”

“Hold it,” Ruth said. “What are you going to do?”

“Register.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t think we can all fit in one of these hovels, do you?”

She shook her head.

“So I’ll get two. Boys in one, girls in the other.”

“Oh Dad”

“No,” he said. “I’m perfectly willing to spend the night here, if that’s what everyone else wants, but I won’t sponsor Cordelia’s sexual escapades.”

“Lander!”

“God, Dad!”

“That was uncalled for,” Ruth said.

He’d expected a showdown over the sleeping arrangements for the trip. He should have handled it beforehand, but he’d hoped to avoid it, somehow. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but that’s how I feel. As long as we’re all together, they won’t be sharing a bedroom. Not here, and not at the cabin.”

“That’s great,” Cordelia muttered. “Just great.”

“It’s either that, or I turn this buggy around and we call the whole thing off.”

“That’s fine with me,” Cordelia said.

“It’s not fine with me,” said Ruth. “We came up here for a good time, and that’s what we’re going to have. I happen to agree with your father. We never allowed Ben to spend the night with you at home, and I don’t see why we should start now, simply because we’re on vacation. If you were married, it would be different, but…”

“Marriage. A license to screw.”

“If you think that,” Lander said, “you’ve got a lot more growing up to do.”

“I agree with your parents,” Ben said.

“Thanks a bunch.”

“Not about growing up. I mean, you know.”

Cordelia sighed. “What’s this, gang up on Cordie night?”

“I’ll get the rooms,” Lander said. He was glad to leave the car, and the argument.

Bells jingled as he entered the office. He waited several moments at the deserted counter. Then a door opened, off to the side. A man came out of the dimly lighted room beyond. The door started to swing shut, but stopped, leaving a three-inch gap. Half a face appeared behind the gap, looking out at Lander with one eye.

“Room?” asked the man, who seemed pleasant enough. Chubby and bald, with a cherubic smile, he looked like he should be doing skits on a television comedy show.

“Uh, yes,” Lander said. “Two rooms.” The eye behind the door watched him, only a slit of it showing through the fleshy lid.

“There are four of us. Do you have connecting—”

“Nothing like that, sorry. We can put you all up in one room, though, if you want. We’ve got one, sleeps three. We can wheel in an extra bed.”

“No, that’s all right. Do you have two rooms available?”

“Sure do.” He smiled. “Want to fill out a registration card?”

As Lander filled in the requested information, his hand shook slightly. That person in the doorway… Twice, he looked up. The face was still pressed to the crack. It was an ancient face. He couldn’t tell whether it belonged to a man or woman. The eye blinked, dripping fluid from its corners.

He finished the card, and handed it back, along with his Master Charge card.

The man ran it through the machine. “That’ll be $42.50 for the rooms. One night. Check-out time is noon. Want to sign here?”

Lander signed the bill.

He looked up at the door. It was shut.

“All set, Mr. Dills.” The man bent down and came up with two keys. “That’s bungalows three and twelve.”

“Are they close together?”

“Well, one’s just behind the office here. The other’s back a ways.”

“Do you have any that aren’t so far apart?”

“It’s the best I can do for you, Mr. Dills. We’ve got a pretty good crowd, tonight.”

“Okay. That’ll be fine. Thanks.”

“Enjoy your stay with us.”

Lander nodded. He pulled open the door and stepped outside, relieved to get away from the office.

He climbed into the car.

“Well?” Ruth asked.

“Got ’em. Three and twelve.” His hand hesitated on the ignition key.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I guess. Probably the guy’s mother.”

“What?”

“Some old buzzard kept watching me while I was in there. It spooked me a bit. She—he—whatever, kept staring at me through a crack in the door.”

“Dad!” Cordelia sounded frightened.

“I’m sure she’s perfectly harmless,” Ruth said.

“Yeah,” said Lander. He started the car, and drove slowly into the dark courtyard, taking some comfort from the presence of the other cars parked nearby, glad his family wasn’t alone at this god-awful motel.

CHAPTER THREE

As two men held Neala from behind, the waitress took her purse and tossed it onto the counter. A teenaged girl grabbed it and started looking through its contents.

“She’s got cool shoes,” said a freckled boy beside the girl. “Let’s see ’em.”

“They won’t fit you,” the girl said.

“Might. ’Sides, she don’t need ’em.”

The waitress knelt and pulled off one of Neala’s running shoes. Neala didn’t try to stop the woman. The last time she’d protested, one of the men had bent her arm backward. Sherri, who’d given them a rough time, at first got punched in the stomach a couple of times. Neala figured she would let them have whatever they wanted, and hope for the best.

The waitress tossed the shoes to the boy. He caught them, and climbed onto the counter to try them on.

Neala’s wristwatch went next Then her school ring from Loyola Marymount. The waitress dropped them into her apron pocket, where they clinked in the loose change from her tips. Her tough hands tugged the neck of Neala’s old work-shirt. The top button popped off and skittered across the floor. Normally, she wore a gold chain necklace. She was glad she’d left it home for the backpacking trip.

The woman flicked the hair away from Neala’s ears, mumbled about finding no earrings, and slapped her.

Then she sidestepped and repeated the process with Sherri, taking her purse, her sandals, her two rings. Sherri had no watch, but her crucifix hung by a gold chain at her throat. The waitress carefully opened the clasp, then dropped the chain into her apron pocket. Sherri cried out, squirming in the arms of the two big men as the waitress ripped the gold loop earrings from her pierced lobes.

“That it?” asked one of the men holding Sherri.

“Guess so,” the waitress said.

Neala heard a metallic rattle. Her left arm was jerked down. A handcuff hit her wrist. It latched shut with a quick, ratchet sound. The second cuff locked around Sherri’s wrist.

“Okay ladies, let’s go.”

Someone pushed Sherri. She stumbled forward, snapping the chain taut, tugging Neala’s cuff. The sharp edges bit into Neala’s wrist. She lurched forward, trying to stay close to Sherri so it wouldn’t happen again.

“I’m going along,” the freckled boy said.

“Pervert,” said the girl.

He jumped down from the counter, wearing Neala’s shoes, and raced to the rear door of the diner. He held it open while the men guided Sherri through, then Neala.

“Where are you taking us?” Sherri asked. She sounded, to Neala, remarkably calm.

The men didn’t answer. From the start, they’d said very little. All four stayed quiet and solemn, as if carrying out an unpleasant necessity.

The boy ran ahead of them. At the rear of an old pickup truck he tried to open the tailgate. He was still working on it, without success, when one of the men arrived and gave him a hand. Together, they dropped the gate. It fell with a clamor that resounded in the night’s stillness.

The boy scampered onto the truck bed. The man walked to the cab. As he climbed in, the others pushed Neala and Sherri toward the pickup’s rear gate.

“This is kidnapping, you know,” Sherri warned them.

“That’s the least of your problems, sister.”

They were tugged and lifted onto the metal floor of the truck bed. A man on the ground swung up the gate. It crashed into place. He latched it, climbed aboard, and sat down at Neala’s feet.

The truck started to move, lurching over the rutted lot. Neala’s head banged the floor. She lifted it.

“Stay down,” said the man beside her.

After a turn and a final sharp bounce, the truck steadied out.

We’re on the main road, Neala realized. Heading west. Back the way we came.

“Where are you taking us?” Sherri asked.

“Not far,” said the man beside her.

“You’re going to kill us, aren’t you?”

The question made Neala’s stomach hurt. Why couldn’t Sherri keep her mouth shut!

“Not us,” the man said.

“I want to check them out,” said the boy.

“Help yourself.”

“For Christsake, Shaw,” said the man beside Neala.

“Ah, let the kid,” argued the one at her feet. “No harm done.”

“It isn’t right.”

“So what the hell is right?”

“He’s pushing twelve,” said Shaw—the boy’s father? “He needs the education.”

“Every time we get a good young one, Timmy’s at her. It’s disgusting.”

“Going queer, Robbins?”

“I just don’t think it’s right. Do you? We don’t have to turn into a bunch of savages, for Christsake. Next thing you know, we’ll be the ones raping and…”

“That ain’t allowed, and you know it,” Shaw said.

“It’s the next step, damn it! We let Timmy do whatever he wants, next thing you know he’ll be screwing ’em.”

“No I won’t” Timmy pouted.

“He knows better than that.”

“You ever tell him what they did to Weiss?”

Silence.

“I don’t want to scare you, kid, but we used to have a guy named Weiss on these runs.”

“Shut up, Robbins.”

“Weiss knew better, too. He knew the rules.”

“Robbins!” Shaw snapped.

“Let him tell,” said the man at Neala’s feet. “The kid better know, for his own good.”

“We had this really beautiful gal, about four years back. Weiss couldn’t stand it. We should’ve stopped him. I don’t know why we didn’t, but I guess we were tempted, ourselves, and figured we wouldn’t mind watching him. Safe enough, just watching. Anyway, he had her right here in the truck.”

“He screwed her?” Timmy asked. Neala heard eagerness in the boy’s voice.

“A few days later, he vanished. Weiss and his whole family: his wife and three kids. They vanished in the middle of the night, right out of their home.”

“Maybe they ran away,” Timmy suggested.

“No. The Krulls got ’em.”

“How do you know?”

“We found evidence,” Shaw explained.

“So just remember Weiss, when you get an urge to start exploring our ladies here.”

“It’s okay, long as I don’t screw ’em.”

“Christ, kid, where are your brains.”

“Knock that off,” Shaw snapped.

“Dad, can I?”

“Let him,” said the man at Neala’s feet.

“Just a little?” Timmy asked.

“You want to end up like Weiss?” Robbins asked.

“Long as I don’t screw ’em…”

“Shit,” Robbins muttered.

“We’re almost there,” Shaw said. “Go ahead, but don’t dawdle.”

Timmy crawled to Sherri’s head. Kneeling, he leaned over her.

“Don’t touch me, kid,” she snarled. “I’ll kill you, I swear it.”

Timmy looked at his father.

“Just shut up, sister.”

“Yeah!” Timmy said. “You’re just a big ox anyway. Who’d want to feel you up?”

He suddenly lunged onto Neala, his belly pressing her face, his hands pulling her shirt from her waist. She felt his hands rubbing her belly, pushing under the waist of her corduroys, one reaching inside her panties and moving in deep, fingers pressing and entering her.

With her free right hand, she hammered the center of Timmy’s back. He jerked with the impact. Then a spasm of coughing shook his body. His hand went away. So did the pressure of his belly on Neala’s face.

“Damn it Robbins!” Shaw shouted. “You shouldn’t have let her do that!”

“She caught me off guard.”

Timmy knelt above her, shaking as he coughed.

“Goddamn bastard,” Shaw muttered.

The boy was crying, now. He suddenly gasped, “You!” and punched Neala’s face with a small, hard fist. She flung up her arm to stop the next blow, but Robbins had already shoved Timmy. The boy tumbled backward.

“That’s enough,” Robbins said.

“Dad!”

“Nobody touches my boy, pal.”

“Yeah? I do. The kid’s out of hand. He’s starting to act like a shit, and I’m not going to let it go on. Not while I’m on this run.”

The man at Neala’s feet said, “What’s got into you, Robbins? All the lad wanted was to cop a little feel. How come you’re so touchy, all of a sudden? Last week, you were helping him. You stepped on that gal’s hand, remember?”

“I don’t feel so great about that, either.”

“What the fuck, did you get religion or something?”

“Something.”

The pickup lurched as it turned onto a dirt road. Overhead, the woods closed in, shutting out the moonlight.

CHAPTER FOUR

“Who’s for a nightcap?” Lander asked, once they’d carried the suitcases into cottage twelve.

“You mean a Pepsi?” Cordelia asked.

“Whatever you like. Pepsi, 7-Up, hard stuff. We’ll hoist a couple to fortify Ben and me for the long trek back to three.”

“Dad’s trying to mollify us,” she told Ben.

Lander opened his travel bar. “Vodka for me,” he said, smiling at his daughter’s remark. After all, she was right. She may be a smart aleck and oversexed, but she wasn’t stupid. “A Manhattan?” he asked Ruth.

“That’ll hit the spot.”

“What’s your pleasure, Ben?”

Cordelia smirked at the boy. “Don’t get your hopes up,” she said. “You won’t be getting that tonight.”

Lander was pleased to see Ben blush.

“Just a Pepsi, I guess.”

“We don’t have any ice,” Ruth told them.

Cordelia smiled. “I saw a machine by the office.”

“I’ll go get some,” Ben volunteered.

“Good man.”

“I’ll go with you,” Cordelia said. At the door, she turned to Lander. “Don’t worry, Dad, we won’t indulge in sexual escapades.”

They left.

Lander poured rye into one of the glasses from his case. He opened the small vermouth bottle.

“You sure opened a can of worms,” Ruth said.

“It’s vermouth.”

She ignored his attempt at humor.

“The can Lander explained, “was open already. I only tried to put a lid on it. Not even that, really. If they want to have at it, let them do it on the sly. It’s more fun that way, anyhow. ’Stolen sweets are best.’”

“I don’t know,” Ruth said. “Maybe we should let them share a room. They are eighteen, you know. In a couple of months, they’ll both be going off to Santa Barbara, and we won’t have any say in what they do.”

“All the more reason to have our say now.”

“Over here,” Cordie whispered. She pulled Ben toward a dark path between two of the cottages.

“We’d better get the ice.”

“What’s the hurry?”

“They’ll be waiting.”

“Let ’em wait. Come on. This’ll be our only chance to be alone, tonight.”

“Just for a minute,” Ben said. “We don’t want to get your dad angry.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“Did you really think he’d let us sleep together?”

“God no. Dad? Not a chance. It was worth a try, though.” She led Ben into the shadows. Wrapping her arms around him, she lightly touched her lips to his mouth. He seemed hesitant, at first-preoccupied. She kissed him more deeply, opening her mouth, sucking his tongue into her.

Ben pulled her tightly against him, and she felt his erection against her belly. If only she were wearing a skirt instead of these tight jeans! Moaning with frustrated desire, she rubbed against his shaft. His leg bent. She rode his upthrust thigh, grinding herself against it slipping a hand down the front of his pants and stroking him. One of his hands went inside her blouse. It squeezed her breast through the thin sheath of her bra.

Abruptly, his whole body shook. He bit her tongue. His hand clenched, shooting pain through her breast. He pumped warm fluid into her hand, and dropped to his knees.

Behind him, hammer poised for another blow, stood a grinning, toothless old woman.

“It’s sure taking them a long time,” Lander complained. He swirled his warm vodka, and sipped it.

“They haven’t been alone all day.”

“You’d think they could exercise a little restraint.”

“They’re in love, honey.”

“I know, I know.”

Ruth sat down on the bed beside him. “You’re not exacdy the world champ at exercising restraint, yourself. Remember the night on the porch glider?”

He laughed softly. “I thought for sure your dad would catch us.”

“And how you brought a can of oil, the next night?”

“I wonder if they ever noticed the squeak was gone.”

“I sure did.”

“I oiled you both, that night.”

“Geez, Lander!” She gave him a playful shove.

“I noticed you stopped squeaking, too.”

“You’re awful!”

They kissed. Her lips were pliant and warm and familiar. He felt the gentle pressure of her hand on his leg. “Hey,” he said, “we’d better not get started.”

“Better not,” she echoed. “Guess we’ll have to exercise restraint.”

“That’s not what I’d like to exercise,” he said.

She pushed him, laughing. “How about you getting the ice. It’ll keep you out of mischief.”

“Yeah, and maybe I’ll run into the lovebirds.” He picked up the room key, and went out the door. Outside, he tried the knob to be sure it was locked. He climbed down the wooden stairs, and scanned the three small duplexes across the driveway. No sign of Cordelia or Ben. He glanced into the car. Not there.

From the middle of the dirt driveway, he had a good view of all six cottages, the office and the main road. Turning, he looked behind him. The drive ended, and the forest began.

The forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks—

Maybe they went in there for a tumble in the hemlocks.

Joking about it didn’t help.

It’s no joke, your own daughter having a tumble.

Roll me over in the clover…

He pictured Cordelia on her back, Ben pumping. It made his stomach hurt.

Roll me over lay me down and do it again.

I’m obsessed, he thought.

Jealous?

Crap.

Where are they?

Could they get into one of the cottages? He studied each, turning as he walked, sometimes walking backward. Six duplexes. Twelve rooms in all. Lights on in the windows of about half. Cars were parked in front of several others. Real clunkers. One, he noticed—an ancient, battered Buick Special—even had a flat rear tire. One of its windows was down.

He shook his head. No. They wouldn’t dare make out in a stranger’s car.

Stopping, he eyed each car with new suspicion. Four, not counting his own. The kids could be in any of them, rutting on the backseat.

Rutting?

Shame burned Lander’s face as he changed direction and walked across the dirt to the Buick. He moved close enough to see that the backseat was empty, then veered away and approached the next car.

A Maverick. Its right rear corner was badly bashed as if a metal-eating monster had taken a bite from it.

Stepping closer, he glanced into the backseat. A dark shape jumped, and sprang through the far window. A cat. Lander laughed softly at his own fright. He patted his chest, where his heart pounded frantically, and looked again into the car. Baby shoes hung from the rearview mirror. His eyes lowered to the steering column. Something weird there. With a quick glance around to be sure he wasn’t being watched, he opened the passenger door and leaned across the seat.

On the steering column where the ignition should be, he saw only a round hole.

Strange, all right.

He climbed out, silently shut the door, and stepped to the front. His fingers searched beneath the lip of the hood. He found the latch and released it. He raised the hood, hinges squawking.

No battery.

No radiator, no fan belt, no carburetor, no air cleaner. The engine had been cannibalized.

“Jesus,” he muttered, and lowered the hood.

He ran across the driveway to a dilapidated Grand Prix. Raised its hood. Gazed into the darkness where the engine should have been, and found no engine at all. The car was an empty shell.

What kind of a motel was this, leaving useless cars in front of its rooms like—decoys?

With a sudden chill of dread, Lander wondered if the entire place was deserted: lights left on in rooms, hulks of cars rolled into place like props in a play…

The play is the tragedy “Man”—good ole Poe, popping up when you need him least—its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

A play. Its stage constructed by the smiling man in the office—by the strange person lurking behind his door.

“Cordelia!” Lander shouted. “Cordelia! Ben!” He waited, listening for a reply. He heard wind in the trees, crickets and distant frogs, the sounds of birds singing in the night as if nothing were wrong, the laughter of a television audience.

At the end of the courtyard, a door swung open. Ruth stepped out. “Lander? What’s wrong?”

He ran to her.

“For heaven’s…”

He pushed her inside and shut the door.

“What is it, what’s wrong?” Her frightened eyes begged him for a quick answer. “The kids?”

“I didn’t see them. I don’t know where they are, but something’s wrong here. All those cars, they’re fakes.”

“I don’t…” She shook her head.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but… Remember Norman Bates?”

“Who?”

“Anthony Perkins. Psycho? The hotel…”

“Lander, stop it!”

“I don’t think this is a real motel, at all. I think it’s some kind of a trap.”

“No!”

Lander leaned against the door and rubbed his face. Always a pacifist, he’d detested firearms. Now he wished to God he had one.

“What’ll we do?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Cordelia’s out there!”

“Look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s all… innocent, and the kids are out in the woods, or something, having the time of their lives. I don’t know.”

In a quiet voice tight with control, Ruth said, “We’d damn well better find out.”

“How?”

“We’ll march ourselves right over to the office…”

“Oh, that’s a great idea.”

“What do you suggest?”

He looked at the telephone, and immediately gave up the idea. No way to call out for help, not without going through the motel switchboard. “We could go for help,” he muttered. “There must be police, a sheriff…”

Ruth reached for the doorknob.

He grabbed her wrist.

“I’m going out there and finding my daughter,” she said. “Now let go of me.”

“Wait! We’ve got to think.”

“My ass! While you’re thinking, God-knows-what could be happening to Cordie.” She jerked her hand free, and gripped the knob. She tugged the door open.

Lander dropped backward, slamming it shut. “Damn it, Ruth!”

“Let me out!”

The telephone rang, its harsh clamor sending a shock of alarm through Lander. Ruth’s head snapped sideways. They both stood motionless, staring at the black instrument as it blared again.

Lander suddenly rushed to it. As it rang a third time, he picked it up. “Hello?”

“Mr. Dills, this is Roy in the office.”

“Yes?”

“Your daughter’s here with me. She would like a word with you.”

Lander waited, his eyes on Ruth.

“What is it?” she mouthed, the words barely coming out.

Lander shrugged.

“Daddy?” His daughter’s voice was shrill with panic.

“Honey, what’s wrong?”

“Oh Dad! They… Ben! I think he’s dead!”

“Where are you?”

“No. Don’t come. They’ll kill you.”

“Are you in the office?”

“Don’t let them get you!”

He motioned to Ruth. “Here, your mother wants to talk to you.”

She hurried across the room. He handed her the phone. “Hello, Cordie?”

“Keep her talking,” Lander whispered.

Ruth nodded.

He ran to the door, jerked it open, and rushed out. Something—a wire?—snagged his foot. As he pitched headlong, he glimpsed a grinning old woman sitting cross-legged on the hood of his car, cradling a hammer. He slammed into the dirt by the wheel.

With a squeal of delight, the woman pounced.

CHAPTER FIVE

The pickup truck lurched over a rough, dirt road. After the flare-up about Timmy, the men had kept a cold silence.

Neala wished they would talk, even fight. Their quarrel over the horny creep of a kid had pulled her mind away from thoughts of her own situation. Now, the distraction was gone. Her fear returned, black and paralyzing with images of rape and slaughter.

She began to cry. She didn’t want to, didn’t want the men to see her weakness, didn’t want Sherri to draw more fear from her own desolation. She couldn’t help it, though. She felt alone and helpless. Like the time she was lost in the woods.

She’d been only six, then, but she still remembered how it felt. Her family had been camping near Spider Lake in Wisconsin. Dad told scary stories by the campfire, while they all drank hot chocolate. The hot chocolate did it: she woke in the middle of the night with a horrible strain on her bladder. She shook Betty awake, but her older sister refused to budge from the sleeping bag.

Neala had to go so badly she didn’t bother to dress. Wearing only her underpants, she crept out of the pup-tent. The chilly breeze made her shake. She crossed the campsite barefoot, the ground moist and cold under her feet.

Her dad had dug a hole, off behind the camp. A “latrine,” he called it. Neala had been there several times, but not at night.

She wandered far into the dark woods, searching for the latrine. She couldn’t find it. Finally, she gave up and squatted beside a birch tree. Relieved, she headed back for camp. She thought she knew just where it was. But she walked and walked. When she came to a strange, moonlit pasture, she knew she was lost. She called for Mom and Dad. She called for Betty. Nobody came.

That’s when it hit her: the awful fear of being alone and helpless in the night. She wandered the pasture, blind with tears, wailing her anguish, hoping they would hear and come for her.

But what if someone else heard, and not her parents? One of those bogeymen Dad talked about at the campfire? Or the awful Windigo? Or a witch like the one that tried to eat Hansel and Gretel?

Covering her mouth to stop the squalling, she ran from the pasture. In the woods, she ran as fast as she could, not daring to look back because something horrible might be chasing her. Roots tripped her. Webs stuck to her bare skin. Switches whipped her. But she kept running until she broke into another clearing and saw the moonlit car.

Their car.

They’d left it behind, and hiked a long way before making camp. She wasn’t sure why.

The doors were locked, so she crawled underneath the car. The grass beneath it was dry. She lay there, safely hidden, and shivered through the night.

In the morning, when Dad found her, he cried. They both cried, because everything had turned out all right, after all.

And they lived happily ever after, Neala thought, until four men and a boy put the girl into a pickup truck and drove her to a secret place in the woods, and…

The truck stopped.

Robbins and Shaw climbed out. “You wait here,” Shaw told his son.

The man at Neala’s feet jumped over the tailgate, and unlatched it. The gate swung down with a groan and clank. He grabbed Neala’s ankles and pulled. She slid along the metal floor.

Timmy, crawling at her head, reached down suddenly and tore open her blouse. She tried to knock him away with her one free hand, but he was too quick. He squeezed her breasts as if he wanted to rip them off. Neala cried out. Her fist caught him in the face so hard it hurt her knuckles, and he fell backward, crying.

Then she was on her feet behind the truck, Sherri at her side.

“Are you all right?” Sherri asked.

“Shut up,” Shaw said.

“Let’s go,” said Robbins. His grip on Neala’s arm was firm, but not painful like that of the other man.

They walked to the front of the truck. The driver had left the headlights on. The beams lit a path through a clearing, a clearing not too different from the one where Neala had wandered, lost, as a child—though that was two thousand miles away, and twenty years ago.

After a distance, the downward-slanting head beams seemed to bury themselves. The field ahead lay in darkness.

“Why the hell didn’t you park closer?” Shaw whispered to the driver.

“Shut up.”

“Man, they’re probably all around us.”

“They don’t attack delivery parties,” said the man on Neala’s right.

“Always a first time, Phillips.”

“I wouldn’t sweat it.”

“I still don’t see why he had to park so goddamn far away.”

“I felt like it,” the driver said. “How about shutting your face?”

Ahead, a line of six trees stood in the clearing. Neala stared at them. They were tall and thin-trunked. Their high branches, reaching into the moonlight were bare of leaves.

They shouldn’t be bare, not in summer. They should be full, their leaves fluttering in the breeze.

The trees are dead, Neala realized.

Six dead trees all in a row.

“No,” she said.

“It’s all right,” Robbins whispered.

“No, don’t take us there. Please.” She tried to hold back but the men thrust her forward.

“Just take it easy,” Robbins said.

“Please! They’re dead! I don’t want to go there. Please!”

Pain stunned her right leg as Phillips shot a knee into it. “Now hold it down, sister,” he said.

“You okay?” Robbins asked.

“No!”

“Christ, Phillips.”

“You’ve really got it bad, pal. You better watch yourself.”

“Everybody shut up,” the driver snapped.

Under the tree, they stopped.

“Lean back,” Robbins said.

“I don’t…”

Phillips shoved Neala. Her back and head hit the trunk. Phillips held her while Shaw and the driver pushed Sherri against the same tree. She heard a rattle of handcuffs. Then the driver grabbed her right arm, pulled it backward, and snapped the bracelet into place. Craning her neck, she saw that it was now cuffed to Sherri.

They stood back-to-back, hands joined, the trunk of the tree between them.

“That does it,” said the driver. He reached to his throat where something hung on a chain. He raised it to his mouth. A whistle. He blew a long, shrill note that pierced the night like the cry of a terrible bird. Then the whistle dropped from his lips. “Let’s haul ass,” he said.

Three of the men ran. The one called Robbins backed away, shaking his head. “Sorry,” he muttered. Turning, he followed the others in their race to the pickup truck. Their sprinting forms flicked through the headlights. Then they disappeared behind the brightness. Neala heard doors bump shut, heard the tailgate bang into place. The engine rumbled to life. The head beams swung sideways and away. For a while, the red taillights jiggled. Then they vanished. “Hope the fuckers rot in hell,” Sherri said.

CHAPTER SIX

The pickup stopped in front of Robbins’s house, and he jumped to the pavement.

“Take it easy,” Shaw said, trying to make up for his earlier behavior.

“You too,” Robbins said.

Timmy sat quietly beside his father.

“Say good night to Mr. Robbins,” Shaw told him.

“Night,” Timmy muttered.

“Yeah.”

The truck pulled away. Robbins unlatched his front gate. He crossed the lawn toward his dark house, and sat on the porch stairs. Folding his arms over his knees, he stared at the ground.

Damn it, there was just something about that one woman—the smaller one. He’d been making delivery runs for years, ever since he turned sixteen, and he’d never felt like this before.

He’d never felt this way about any woman. Sure, there were a few he liked well enough, and some who claimed to love him. He could take his pick, whenever he got an urge to hit the sheets. But none like this.

This woman was different. Just to sit close to her, to hold her hand, to talk with her quietly through the night…

By morning, she would be dead.

He could feel the loss, already, like a hollow in his chest.

Never to see her again.

If it were just himself, he’d go back there, maybe, and if it weren’t already too late… He could get away, all right. They’d come for Peggy, though. And Hank. And their kids.

Everybody’d have to leave. The whole family.

So why not? If they could get past the boundary, they’d be all right. He could take the woman to Los Angeles, maybe…

You’re dreaming her life away!

Leaping to his feet, he rushed across the porch and threw open the front door. His hand hit the switch. Blinking in the sudden brightness, he crossed the room to his gun case. He took down his 30-30 Winchester, picked up a box of cartridges, and ran outside.

His old Buick was parked on the street. He sped two blocks to his sister’s house, and ran to the screen door. He knocked hard, then entered.

“Peggy!”

She came out of the kitchen, worry on her round face.

“For Petesakes, Johnny…”

“I need to talk to you. Outside.”

Hank appeared in the kitchen doorway. He eyed Robbins with suspicion. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Nothing. Just want a word with Peg.”

Hank’s eyes narrowed. “Big secret, huh?”

“She’ll tell you all about it.” Robbins grabbed his sister’s fleshy arm and pulled her out the door. He hurried across the lawn, dragging her along.

“We’re getting out of here tonight,” he said.

“What?”

“Tonight’s run. There was a girl. I’m going back for her.”

“Johnny, no!”

“I have to.”

“Dear God! Oh dear God!”

“Listen, we’re getting out of here. All of us.”

“No!”

“I’ll get back here as soon as I can. Have Hank and the kids ready to go.”

“Hank won’t leave. You know that. He wouldn’t leave here for the world.”

“That’s his worry, then.”

“Johnny, you can’t do this to us!”

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life here? Do you, Peg? Do you want Jenny and Bill to grow up the way we did? Do you want them turned into murderers like the rest of us?”

She was crying, the tears glistening in her eyes and streaming down her cheeks. “We can’t leave!”

“You will

“But Hank.”

“If he won’t come along, the hell with him. You’d be better off without him.”

“I know, but…”

“He can’t stop you.” Johnny hugged his sister tightly. “Don’t worry, okay? We’ll make it.”

She shook her head. “Don’t do this to us. Oh please, Johnny, don’t.”

“Half an hour,” he said, and climbed into his car.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Neala said.

“Just how do you plan to manage it?”

“I don’t know!” Neala’s voice cracked into a sob. She turned her hands, rattling the cuffs that held her prisoner against the tree.

“We’d better think of something quick,” Sherri said. “That whistle was some kind of a signal.”

“Maybe we can pull free.”

“Let’s give it a try.”

They worked their wrists against the barkless tree behind them.

“Mine are both awfully tight,” Sherri said.

“My left seems just a bit—”

“Oh Jesus!” Sherri gasped, her voice dropping to a whisper.

“What’s wrong?”

“Someone’s in the tree.”

Neala looked to her right, tipping back her head.

“No, the other way. Beside us.”

She turned to the left. She raised her eyes up the weathered trunk to the high branches. At first, she saw only jagged limbs, pale in the moonlight like bones stripped of their flesh. Then one of them moved, and she realized it was a leg. A second leg dangled beside it. She followed them upward to a bare hip and torso, a head with shaggy hair. If there were breasts, she couldn’t see them. “Is he alive?” Neala whispered.

“I can’t tell. Looks dead to me.”

Neala continued to squint upward. The figure seemed to be straddling a branch, arms at his sides. His head was tilted downward, as if he were watching her. “I think one of the legs moved,” she said. “Could’ve been the wind, I guess.”

“I hope so.”

“You hope he’s dead?” Neala asked.

“Hell yes. How would you like him to come down for us?”

“God, don’t say that.”

“He’s probably one of them whatever the fuck they are. I mean, why else would he be out here?”

Neala didn’t answer. She stared at the high, motionless figure until the sound of a car engine drew her eyes away. Across the clearing, headlights appeared.

“They’re coming back!”

As the headlights approached, Neala saw that they were higher than those of the pickup. “It’s someone else,” she said. “In a van, I think.”

“Just as well,” Sherri answered.

It came through the darkness, not stopping where the pickup had stopped. Its beams skittered over the ground as if seeking out Neala. They lit her and stayed, dimming just slightly when the engine shut off.

“What’s going on?” Sherri asked.

“I can’t see,” Neala whispered, squinting past the headlights. “Someone just got out. He went to the back, I think.”

“End of the line,” said a man’s cheerful voice. “All out that’s getting out.”

A woman cackled.

“I think we’d better do as they say.” A man’s voice. Frightened.

“Daddy!”

“Here, hold on to Ben’s wrist.”

“What do you want with us?” a woman demanded.

More raspy chuckles.

“I know what Rose Petal wants,” said the cheerful man. “She wants to pound out your brains with her hammer. I’ll let her, too, if you don’t make it snappy.”

“Bastard.” From the girl. Then she cried out with pain.

“Damn it, leave her alone!”

“We haven’t got all night.”

Several figures appeared in the darkness beyond the headlights. As they came forward, Neala saw four in a line, all cuffed together. A woman was at one side, then a man. The person at his other side was down. He and a girl each held a hand of the fallen one, dragging the limp body between them.

“Look,” said the woman.

“Hi,” Neala said.

“Step to the right” said the cheerful man. Neala could see him, now, behind the others. He was chubby, and carried a pistol. An old, hunched woman scuttled along at his side, swinging a hammer overhead.

“Hello, young lady,” said the man with the gun. Walking around the group, he stepped up to Neala. He looked at her, grinning. With the barrel of his pistol he pushed one side of Neala’s blouse out of the way. She felt the cool muzzle stroke her nipple. ure a nice one. Very nice. Little Timmy got at you, I’ll wager.”

“Leave me alone,” she said.

“Ah, little Timmy. He ’knows where it’s at,’ so to speak.” The man laughed, and used his hand on her other breast, cupping it, squeezing as if to test its firmness, flicking the nipple. “Mmmm. Sometimes I do envy those Krulls. Yes I do. Give me a little taste.” Crouching, he licked her nipple. Neala kicked. He grunted at the impact and danced away, clutchmg his thigh. “Oh ho! Lucky for you, lucky for you!” He almost whirled toward the four chained onlookers. “Almost got me in the ’nads!”

Neala cried, “No!” as he spun around, raised his pistol, and aimed toward her face. He fired. The slug smacked into the tree above her head. He lowered his aim, fired again. The bullet ripped through the crotch of her corduroys, just missing Neala.

“Ha ha! Owed you one.” He turned away. “Okay folks, show’s over. Make a circle around that tree.”

As they followed instructions, the old woman started hobbling toward Neala.

“Get away!” Neala shrieked.

Rose Petal swung the hammer as if to show off her form. Tilting her head sideways, she laughed. She limped around to the back of the tree.

“You touch me,” Sherri snapped, “and I’ll kill you.”

More laughter from the old woman.

“Get away! Damn you! I’ll kill you, you… OW! Goddamn you!”

The cuffs cut into Neala’s wrists as Sherri twisted and kicked.

The old woman squealed, and Neala saw her skipping sideways out of Sherri’s range. Neala kicked and missed. Prancing forward, Rose Petal swung the hammer. It pounded Neala’s shoulder.

A high-pitched whistle made the hag turn away.

“Let’s be off, Mother,” said the chubby man.

Side by side, they hurried to the van. The doors shut. The engine turned over and the van backed up. It didn’t turn around; it rolled backward across the clearing and disappeared into the woods.

“Now what?” asked the girl beneath the other tree. All four were in a circle around it, hands joined as if playing ring-around-the-rosy.

“Young ladies,” the man called. “Do you know what’s going on?”

Neala shook her head.

“They just—kidnapped us!” he said. “Right out of the motel.”

“We were at the coffee shop,” Sherri told him.

“Do you know why they brought us here?” asked the woman.

“For the Krulls,” Sherri said.

“The what?”

“Krulls. I don’t know. Krulls? We’re sacrifices or something.”

“That’s crazy,” the man said.

“Don’t I know it” Sherri muttered.

“It’s crazy,” the man repeated.

“You’re damn right,” Sherri said. “Look, we’ve gotta get out of here. These things are gonna come for us. One’s already here.” She pointed at the tree high above the four strangers.

Neala looked, along with the others, and saw the pale figure suddenly swing downward, dropping from branch to branch.

“Oh my God!”

Screams and shouts of panic erupted from those beneath the tree as it scurried down the trunk. They threw themselves outward, trying to get away, and yelled in pain as the cuffs tore into their wrists. The unconscious one, arms jerked by those at his sides, raised his head. The others didn’t seem to notice. They leaped and squirmed as the naked man dropped into their circle.

He pounced on the woman’s back, his weight knocking her forward until the ring of arms stopped her. She recoiled backward. The whole circle fell.

The strange, bony man was pinned beneath her. Neala saw his legs wrap the woman’s hips. His hands appeared beneath her outstretched arms and wildly tore her blouse as she thrashed above him. He jerked the blouse off her shoulders. His mouth clamped down on her left shoulder, and she screamed.

Then he was writhing out from under her. He crawled to her kicking feet. Kneeling over her, he grabbed one. His mouth gaped. The woman shrieked as he ripped flesh from her calf.

“Hey!”

He raised his head, chewing, and looked toward the woods behind him.

Neala looked, too.

A man was running toward them.

The naked man stood. His shaggy head jerked from side to side, as if he hoped to find help. Then, with a bellow that made Neala’s skin shrivel, he raced toward the intruder.

The other man stopped. He raised a rifle. Its detonation slammed through the night and the naked man pitched forward.

Through the ringing in her ears, Neala heard the woods erupt with other roars like a hundred echoes of the dead man’s final cry.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Robbins sprinted past the body. Ignoring the shouts from the group of four, he headed toward the tree with the two women. He slung the rifle over his shoulder and dug a hand into his pocket. He pulled out a key.

“We’re getting out of here.”

The woman he wanted stared at him, looking confused.

He stepped to her right side, and unlocked the cuff.

“You’re one of the men from the truck,” she said.

“That’s right. I’m taking you out of here. I’ve got a car off in the trees.” He stepped past her, and started unlocking the cuff on her other wrist. “Are you a good runner?” he asked.

She shrugged.

“What’s your name?”

“Neala.”

“I’m Johnny Robbins.”

“I’m Sherri,” said the bigger woman, appearing from behind the tree. She held out her hands, empty bracelets dangling from the wrists. “Do me a favor, huh?”

Quickly, he removed her cuffs. Unslinging his rifle, he scanned the perimeters of the clearing. Over the shouts of the other captives, he could hear the howling Krulls. No sign of them, though.

“Okay,” he said. “This way.”

“Wait,” Neala said. “We can’t leave them.” She nodded toward the others.

“The hell we can’t. Let’s go.” He grabbed Neala’s arm, but she jerked it loose.

“I’m not going without them.”

“Shit,” her friend said.

Neala whirled on her. “What’s the matter with you? How can you even think of leaving these people?”

“To save my ass, for Godsake.”

“We can’t!”

Robbins groaned. It was stupid to waste time freeing the others. The delay could be fatal. But if he didn’t give it a shot, he wouldn’t stand much of a chance with Neala. “All right” he said. “Stick close.”

They followed him to the other tree.

“Everybody shut up!” he snapped at the four.

They went silent. He stepped in front of the oldest male. “You’ll have to take care of the others,” he said, unlocking the right wrist. “I’ll leave you the key. We’re going on ahead. If I can, I’ll hold the car for you.” The other cuff fell loose. He slapped the key into the man’s palm. “Good luck.” He turned to Neala. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Let’s haul it.”

They started to run. Robbins took the lead, holding back to stay with the women. They were much slower than he’d anticipated. Damn it, he should have parked the car closer. He’d left it much too far away, wanting to come in on foot. Sneak in, sneak out. With luck, he might have taken Neala out quickly and silently, and been on the road before anyone knew. If he hadn’t shot that one bastard…

They were almost to the edge of the clearing when Neala grabbed his arm. “Wait,” she gasped. “We’ve got to wait.”

“What?”

She pointed to the group that was still at the distant row of trees, the man busy unlocking cuffs.

“Forget ’em,” Robbins snapped.

“How’ll they find the car?”

“Doesnt matter. Come on.”

“Christ, Neala!” Sherri snarled.

“Look!” Robbins pointed at a far-off figure loping across the field toward the group. “There’s another. Another.” Scanning the clearing, he could make out half a dozen dark shapes: some running, others limping, another scurrying across the ground like a crab.

“Oh my God!” Neala gasped.

“In a few minutes, there’ll be dozens. They’ll get us, too, if we stick around much longer.” He pulled Neala into the woods. She tried to struggle free, at first. Then she was running close behind him. He dashed between the dark posts of tree trunks, kicked his way through waist-high bushes, dodged thickets too dense to penetrate, leapt onto the back of a fallen tree and jumped down to its other side.

Pausing while the women caught up, he listened.

The howling had stopped, but he heard Krulls nearby: feet crashing foliage, wheezing breath, the gibber of their strange language.

“Almost there,” he whispered.

“They’re everywhere,” Sherri muttered. “We’ll never make it.”

“We’ll make it.”

They kept running. Finally, they reached the top of the road where Robbins had left his car. He scanned the area. “We’re all right,” he said. “Come on.”

Crouching low, he ran to the car. The women stayed close behind him. He grabbed the nearest handle. He was about to tug the door open, but a movement caught his eye. He looked up.

The face in the car window twisted, showing teeth.

Neala yelped with fright.

Robbins stared at the face. It was badly scarred. The nose was a ragged flap, as if it had been chewed off in a fight.

There were five other faces inside the car, all turned his way.

Something clutched his foot. He lurched backward, knocking into the girls, kicking the hand that had his ankle. Three Krulls started squirming out from under the car.

The doors opened.

Robbins swung his rifle to his shoulder, took quick aim, at the noseless face, and fired. The top of the head flew off.

“Let’s go!” he yelled.

“Where?”

He fired again, this time taking out the eye of one by the rear door.

“Run! For Christsake run!”

Free of the cuffs, they ran. Lander led the way, taking them across the clearing toward the place where the other three had vanished into the forest.

He took them that way in spite of the gunshots, in spite of the woman moving toward them from that direction. She was alone, a stooped old crone with white hair and pendulous breasts flapping down to her waist. She was armed with a machete, but her crippled back prevented her from moving fast. Lander simply planned to run around her.

“Dad!”

With a quick glance around, he saw a man on the heels of Cordelia. Two more were close behind. Ben dropped back and threw a shoulder block into the nearest one. They both tumbled sideways.

Looking ahead, Lander saw the old woman hobbling toward him. He lunged sideways as the machete slashed. He heard it cut through the air, saw it flash past his cheek, felt the breath of its close passage. He tripped and fell. The crone came after him, swinging. She stood over him. Raised the machete.

Whimpering, Lander shut his eyes tightly.

The blade didn’t fall.

“Lander!”

He looked. Ruth was behind the old woman, clutching the upraised arm, dragging her backward.

He clambered to his feet. He drove a knee into the sagging stomach. Foul breath blew into his face. Reaching up with both hands, he twisted the machete loose.

He hacked sideways, careful to miss Ruth’s arm across the hag’s throat. The blade slashed into one of the hanging breasts. Horrified, he watched the pale sack of flesh fall away.

Ruth let go as the woman dropped to her knees, screaming. Lander swung the machete straight down. It missed the center of the head, glanced off, took away half the scalp, and chopped into the shoulder. He tried again, this time splitting the head.

With a quick jerk, he pulled the blade free. He ran to where Ben and Cordelia were straggling with three men. One had Cordelia around the waist, trying to lift her. She kicked backward and squirmed. Lander circled, but the man turned, too, keeping Cordelia in the way. Finally, Lander threw himself against his daughter. The man stumbled backward and fell. As he hit the ground, Cordelia twisted free and Lander swung. The blade bit into an upthrust arm. The man bellowed with pain. He rolled out of the way, and Lander’s next blow missed. Then he was on his feet and running.

Lander turned to Ben. The boy sat astraddle one, punching down at the face. A second man was behind Ben, about to bash him with a club. Lander caught the standing one in the spine. With a cry, the man jerked stiff and dropped his club. A white club. A bone with a ball joint at one end.

“Dad!” Cordelia called.

He tried to pull the machete free. It was stuck in the man’s back.

“Dad! My God!”

Ruth was already far away, forty or fifty yards away, almost to the edge of the forest—slung over the shoulder of a tall, pale figure.

Lander whirled around. “Ben, get off!”

Ben rolled away. The half-conscious man raised his head. Lander kicked it hard, and the man went limp.

He turned in time to see Ruth disappear into the woods.

“Stay with me!” he yelled, and began the chase.

Just to the right, three people ran out from among the trees.

“Over there!” Lander called to them. “Over there! He’s got my wife!”

The two groups met, and entered the forest.

CHAPTER NINE

Neala’s feet throbbed with pain. Dozens of times, she cursed that little prick, Timmy, for taking her shoes. The pain and anger helped her hold on to reality as she followed the man named Robbins to his car, found it full of Krulls like a strange family about to embark on a vacation, watched him shoot two of them dead, and ran for her life away from the car.

Finding the other group again had been a relief, at first. Strength in numbers. But the man, Lander, didn’t care about staying quiet and hiding. He wanted only to find his wife, even if it got the rest of them killed.

“We’ll never find her,” Robbins said after ten minutes of wandering through the dense trees. “We’d better give it up, and try to make our way to the main road.”

“Go ahead,” Lander snapped. “Who needs you?”

“You’ll get your kids killed.”

“I’ve got to find my wife.”

“Hell, she’s probably already dead.”

“No.”

“How can we possibly find her?” asked the girl. She sounded desperate, on the edge of tears.

“We can’t if we don’t try,” Lander said. “We can’t if we do nothing but cower in the bushes like whipped curs.”

“It’s our only chance,” Robbins said.

“’A coward dies many times. A brave man never tastes of death but once.’”

“I’m with Mr. Dills,” said the boy. “We’ve got to save her, even if it means taking some extra chances.”

“Fuck it,” Sherri said. “I’m not gonna risk my ass…”

Lander yelped as a pale figure dropped out of a tree. The knees rammed his shoulders, driving him down. Neala saw a knife in the upraised hand. Robbins fired. A hole appeared between the small breasts. The girl tumbled forward and hit the ground face first.

“Holy fucking shit!” Sherri said.

Neala stared down at the body. The girl was naked. Blood gushed from the ragged hole in her back.

“Let’s go,” Robbins snapped. “The shot’ll bring ’em running.”

He pulled Neala by the hand.

They ran. They ran for a long distance. Neala’s feet throbbed with pain as she kept pace with Robbins, but she didn’t complain or slow down. For the first time since her capture at the diner, she felt hopeful. She was no longer anyone’s prisoner, Robbins seemed determined to save her, and the Krulls had dropped out of sight. Maybe she would survive the night, after all.

Finally, when she thought she could run no farther, Robbins stopped.

“We’ll just… catch our breath,” he gasped.

Neala nodded.

Sherri, who’d been running a short distance behind her, caught up. She sagged against a tree trunk.

“Where’re the others?” Robbins asked.

“Coming.” Sherri flopped an arm sideways. “Back there someplace. Christ on a crutch!”

Neala heard the crunch of rushing feet. Off to the left. She raised her voice to call out. “Ov—” Robbins clapped a hand across her mouth.

“Shhhh.”

His hand had a pungent odor of gun smoke.

“Might not be them,” he whispered.

“Hey!” called a voice. The boy’s voice. “Where’d you all go?”

Robbins nodded and dropped his hand.

“Over here,” Neala called.

A few moments later, the boy and girl joined them.

“Sorry,” gasped the boy. “Got sidetracked.”

“Dad?” The girl staggered as if lost in a dark room. “Dad? Where are you?” She looked at Robbins. “Where’s my dad?”

“I haven’t seen him.”

She turned to the boy. “Oh God, Ben, what’ll we do?”

“He’ll show up. We’ll just wait.”

“Five minutes,” Robbins said. “Who’s got a watch?”

The girl raised her hand, and Neala saw a gold band on her wrist. For a moment, she was puzzled that the watch hadn’t been stolen, back in town. Then she thought about Rose Petal. No surprise, really, that the old bag didn’t care about such loot. Too far gone for that. Her big thrill was bouncing her hammer off skulls. And her son, the sadistic…

“What’s the time?” Robbins asked.

The girl pressed a button. Red numbers glowed at her wrist. “Ten thirty-two.”

“We’ll give him till ten forty.”

“Then what?” the girl asked.

“Then we move fast.”

Maybe you do.”

“We’re giving him eight minutes.” Robbins’s voice was a quiet, calm whisper. “If he hasn’t shown up by then, he probably won’t show, period. He either got lost, or the Krulls nailed him. Either way, we could stick around here till the Krulls lick our bones, and it won’t do your father any good.”

“Well, I’m not leaving.”

“That’s up to you.”

“Maybe he’ll get here in time,” the boy said.

The talking stopped. They waited.

Neala looked into the trees. Except for a few shreds of moonlight, the woods were as dark as a shut closet. The father was out there, someplace. But she didn’t expect him to show up. If anyone came out of there, it wouldn’t be him.

She rubbed her arms. She turned, staring into the darkness.

If anyone came out…

She stepped close to a tree, and leaned back against it. The bark felt rough through her shirt. It felt good.

At least they can’t come up behind me.

Robbins asked the time.

“Ten thirty-five,” whispered the girl.

Only three minutes had passed.

Neala moaned. She crossed her arms. Her nipples were erect and aching, as if she had a chill. She covered them with her hands, and the comforting pressure eased the tightness.

Off to the right, a twig popped.

Neala looked in that direction. She saw only trees, and bushes, and darkness. Nothing moved. No more sounds came.

But she kept her eyes on that patch of darkness. She barely breathed.

Because someone was out there watching.

She could feel him. She could almost see him, but not quite.

Someone.

Someone not the girl’s father.

CHAPTER TEN

After dropping away from the others, Lander had doubled back. He’d paid close attention to the landmarks, earlier, hoping to find his way to the girl’s body.

Soon, he reached a fallen aspen he recognized. Its roots were exposed, as if it had been ripped from the ground like a weed. He stepped past its high clump of roots, and past the pit they’d left in the earth. Just ahead, he should find the tree where the girl had waited and attacked and died.

He hurried through a thicket, and found the tree.

The girl was gone.

For a while, he wandered through the darkness. Perhaps he had misjudged, slightly. After all, one tree looks pretty much like another. He crisscrossed the area. He backtracked to the uprooted aspen and tried again. Finally, he gave up. Either he was totally lost, or the girl’s body had been taken away.

She was dead?

Had to be. The bullet took her direcdy between the breasts.

He dropped to his knees where she must have fallen, and patted the ground cover. The dead twigs and leaves were wet. Blood, or only dew? He held his hands close to his face. In the dark, he couldn’t see whether the wetness was blood. He made a tight fist. As he slowly opened the hand, he felt a slight stickiness. He licked his palm, and tasted the salty flavor of blood. The realization made him gag.

He crawled backward, away from the wet patch of ground. Then he remembered his reason for seeking out the place of death. He began to paw the ground, raking aside the litter of the nearby trees and bushes. Soggy leaves clung to his fingers. A thorn scratched the back of his hand. A worm curled around his forefinger. And then he found it. The girl’s knife.

Flung from her hand as she was hit, the knife had swept sideways, burying itself under a layer of leafy debris.

The curved handle fit snugly in Lander’s grip. The blade was at least seven inches long. Standing, he pushed it under his belt.

He wished he’d kept that old gal’s machete, a much more formidable weapon than this knife.

Thinking about the machete brought back what happened in the clearing. For a few seconds, the memory of the carnage paralyzed him. He forced himself to concentrate on Ruth.

He had to find her.

Somehow.

But where do you look?

He didn’t know, so he headed back toward the clearing. It was where he’d last seen her; it seemed like the best place to start looking.

He ran until he was winded, then walked. Once his breath was back, he began running again.

At last, he saw moonlight through the trees ahead. He moved the last few yards quietly, pressed himself to the dewy trunk of a tree, and found himself at the edge of the field. The bodies were gone.

Beyond the row of dead trees where he and the others had been shackled, he saw movement. Two figures were slowly heading toward the far side of the field.

Ruth had disappeared in the opposite direction. But maybe these creatures—these people—had a gathering place in common. It was possible. Even likely. Better to follow these than to wander the forest aimlessly.

If he moved directly across the clearing, they’d be sure to see him. He might lose them, though, circling around to stay out of view.

He needed a way to conceal himself, a way to turn invisible…

’The Purloined Letter,’ he muttered.

His heart raced. Good old Poe.

In seconds, Lander had stripped down to his boxer shorts. He hesitated, then, reluctant to remove them. But he didn’t have a choice. Not if he wanted to look like one of the enemy, blend in, become invisible and safe. Quickly, he pulled them off.

He left his clothes behind, keeping only the knife, and stepped into the open. The figures across the field were still heading away. He ran toward the dead trees, watching the pair. It hurt to run naked. He wanted to clutch his genitals to stop them from slapping his legs, but it would look conspicuous.

You’ve got to blend in, he warned himself. Look like they do, act like they do. They don’t hold their balls when they run.

He changed his stride to an awkward, wide-legged lope. After experimenting, he found a more comfortable rhythm. His penis still swung wildly, but his testicles didn’t get battered so much.

As he neared the row of dead trees, he saw the Krulls stop. Were they watching him? He trotted in a circle around two of the trees, looking at the ground as if searching for something. He glanced at the distant figures. They remained motionless.

Approaching the nearest tree, Lander began to urinate. He looked toward the others. They turned away, and continued toward the woods. The two, he now realized, were dragging a third. Taking a body somewhere?

Soon, they vanished into the trees. Lander rushed across the field to the place where he’d last seen them. He ducked under low-hanging limbs, paused, and listened. He heard movement nearby in the underbrush.

For a long time, he followed the sounds. He tred quietly staying so far behind that he often feared he would lose his quarry. Listening carefully, though, he always detected them again. They were obviously making no attempt to be silent. At times, they even talked. Lander couldn’t make out the words, but from the voices, he guessed that both speakers were females.

Soon, he picked up a new sound, a windy sigh that interfered with the other sounds. Unable to hear the women, he rushed ahead. He ran, hoping that the new noise would mask the sounds of his movements, and suddenly he saw the women in front of him. They were less than a dozen feet away.

Each had the hand of a dead woman—the old gal hacked to death by Lander. They dragged her behind them as they walked. Her weight seemed to give them a lot of trouble.

Neither woman was large: one short and pudgy, the other taller, and lean. The lean one seemed young, perhaps a teenager. Thick light-colored hair hung halfway down her back. Low on her hips, she wore a skirt of fur. She carried a lance. The other, who had a furry tail hanging down her rump, carried a machete. Probably the dead woman’s weapon.

As Lander watched, the women tried to pull the body over the trunk of a fallen tree. They grunted and tugged. An upthrust limb blocked the dead woman’s shoulder. Muttering, the lean one let go. Lander found himself looking at her breasts as she hopped off the trunk. He could barely see them in the darkness, but the moonlit glimpses forced a response. The growing erection made him ashamed. He couldn’t look away, though. He watched the girl kick the corpse in frustration, then bow to pick up the legs. As she bent down, the rear of her skirt lifted. Lander supposed she was naked beneath it. Though the darkness prevented him from seeing her buttocks, his penis grew even more stout.

The girl straightened up, clutching the dead legs by the ankles. She lunged toward the fallen tree. The other woman leaped backward, pulling the arms. The body tumbled over the trunk, and disappeared. Lander watched the lean girl climb onto the trunk and jump off.

He waited a moment, then followed. When he caught sight of the women again, they were at the shore of a stream. They talked briefly, and nodded. Then they let go of the body. They put down their weapons. The slim one opened her skirt, and tossed it to the ground. The other untied a narrow strip at her waist, and removed her decorative tail. Side by side, they waded into the water.

The stream, Lander judged, was thirty or forty feet wide. Instead of crossing it, they stopped a few yards offshore where it was hip-deep. They splashed themselves, and briefly dunked their heads. Then they began to rub each other.

At first, Lander thought they were simply bathing. Perhaps it started that way. But the brisk rubbing changed to lingering caresses. Their bodies slid together. Their mouths met.

Lander watched them, his erection straining. He felt guilty, as if he were no better than a Peeping Tom. Worse, his excitement seemed like a betrayal of Ruth. How could he stand here, entranced by these women, when Ruth was in danger—possibly in torment?

At this very moment, someone could be raping Ruth.

I could do the same to these, he thought.

He watched the slender one rise to the surface and float on her back. Her legs parted. The other’s head moved between her thighs. The face pressed her groin, and she began to moan.

They’re weaponless. I could kill the grubby one. I could rape the pretty one, then kill her. It would serve them right. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

A rape for a rape.

Watching the moonlit, shiny skin of the slim one, he could almost feel her. The cool, slick flesh. The breasts small and firm, with stiff nipples. The tight hole that gripped his cock as he pushed roughly into her.

God, it would be magnificent!

Such stuff as dreams are made of.

And he could do it, he really could. Already tonight, he’d killed three or four of these people. Why not two more?

Don’t wait. Go in now, while they’re tangled and helpless in their embraces, their bodies heaving with lust. They won’t know what hit them.

What about his plan to follow them?

Ridiculous. They wouldn’t lead him to Ruth. That was wishful thinking, nothing more.

This was real. The chance to have the pretty one. He’d never had such a young, pretty woman.

Probably no older than Cordelia.

He watched her writhe in the water, heard her quick moaning. God, to be able to take her in his arms, push his throbbing cock into her, watch the agony of pleasure twist her face!

He waited, though, unable to force himself to step from behind the thicket, unwilling to attack.

Do it! he told himself. Do it now!

He couldn’t.

He trembled. His erection shrank away.

He was afraid.

Not of the women in the stream.

Afraid of the rapist and killer crouched waiting inside the skin of Lander Dills.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Cordie glanced at the red numbers on her wristwatch. “Okay, it’s ten forty. You guys are gonna leave now, right?”

“There’s no point waiting any longer,” Robbins said.

“You’re right.” Cordie took a deep, trembling breath. “What’re you gonna do, try and get to a road?”

“Eventually. We’ll keep heading east, and try to get out of Krull territory.”

“Yeah, well, good luck. You too, Ben.”

“Cordie?”

She wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans, and looked away. Ben took a step toward her. “No. Don’t, Ben. You go with the others.” She turned and ran. She heard quick footsteps, and knew Ben was following. She ran harder. Damn it, he wasn’t supposed to come. “Go with them!” she called over her shoulder.

Reaching out Ben grabbed her shoulder. He dragged her to a stop.

The others were out of sight.

“What do you want to do?” Ben asked. “Get yourself killed?”

“I can’t leave. Mom and Dad are out here. I’ve got to find them.”

“I’ll go with you, then.”

“No, don’t.”

“I haven’t got a choice, do I?”

“Go with the others. They’re headed out. They’ve got a gun.”

“I can’t.”

“Ben, please.”

“I can’t leave you. The same reason you can’t leave your parents. I love you, I guess.”

“Oh Ben.” She pulled him tightly against herself. She kissed his mouth. Twisting a handful of his hair, she pulled back his head. “I hope you don’t regret it,” she muttered.

“I won’t.”

“Let’s find my folks, and get our tails out of here.”

“This way,” Robbins said.

“Shouldn’t we go after them?” Neala asked.

“They made their choice.”

“We’re better off without ’em,” Sherri said.

“Come on.”

Neala, still with her back to the tree, squinted at the place in the darkness that had kept her filled with dread. She didn’t move.

“Neala?”

“No, there’s… Over there. Someone’s hiding.”

“I’ll check.”

“No!”

“Don’t worry.” He walked toward the place, unslinging his rifle and holding it ready.

“No! Don’t, Johnny! Let’s just go.”

He looked back at her. She thought she saw a smile on his face.

“Let’s just go,” she said more softly.

“All right.” He turned away from the place Neala feared, and walked toward her.

She watched behind him. Her heart lurched as she glimpsed a quick movement. Something pale. A face? Whatever she’d seen, it vanished in an instant.

Johnny, seeing her alarm, looked back.

“It’s nothing,” Neala said.

“You sure?”

Sherri stepped up beside Johnny, blocking Neala’s view. “What’re we standing around for?”

Neala shook her head.

“I’ll take up the rear,” Johnny said. “We’ll head east.” He pointed in the direction they’d been heading before they stopped. “That way. Not much civilization out there, but we’ll be okay once we get clear of Krull territory.”

“How far’s that?” Sherri asked.

“About twenty miles.”

“Oh shit.”

“Let’s get started.”

Neala pushed herself away from the tree. She glanced behind Johnny and Sherri, but saw nothing in the darkness.

She led the way. Sherri followed, staying close, and Johnny kept behind Sherri. At first, she ran too fast for the terrain. She tripped, and Sherri stumbled over her, stepping on her leg.

“You all right?” Sherri asked, gently helping her up.

“I’ll live.”

“Don’t count on it.”

“Thanks a heap.”

Sherri patted her rump. “Think nothing of it.”

With Sherri in the lead, this time, they started running again. Neala ran more slowly than before. She tried to watch where her feet were landing, but the darkness hid all but glimpses of the ground.

The second time she tripped, she saw what did it.

A hand.

She yelped as she dived forward. The ground slammed her breathless. Rough hands turned her over, and a bony, white-skinned creature scurried up her body.

A man. A hairless man with the hollow face of a death’s-head. He bit her mouth, and laughed, and wetness dripped from his eyes.

Neala heard an awful thud. The head jerked away from her. The man flopped off, onto his back. She gazed at his erection, a loathsome thing like a rigid, pale snake. Then Johnny blocked her view. The rifle butt smashed into the horrible face, breaking through it.

“It’s all right,” Johnny whispered. He helped her up.

Neala shook her head. She wiped tears from her eyes. Her shirt hung open, leaving her right breast uncovered. She closed the shirt. Not before noticing the fingernail scratches. They felt like burns on her tender skin.

“Did he hurt you?” Johnny asked.

“A little. I think I’m okay.”

“The filthy pig,” Sherri muttered. She stepped close to the body. “Christ, look at him.”

Neala didn’t.

“A fucking albino.”

Neala tried to fasten her shirt. The buttons were gone, so she overlapped the front and tucked it in.

“Shit,” Sherri said, still inspecting the body.

“We’d better get moving,” Johnny said.

CHAPTER TWELVE

When the women were done in the stream, they waded ashore. The lean one wrapped the skirt around herself, and fastened it in place. The other tied on the bushy tail and adjusted it so it hung down the split of her rump, as if it were her own natural tail.

After picking up their weapons, they lifted the arms of the corpse and dragged it into the water. The body floated behind them as they waded in, swam across, and climbed the opposite shore.

Lander waited until they were out of sight. Then he rushed to the stream. He crossed it silently, breaststroking. On the other side, he quickly caught up to them. He followed for only a few minutes before reaching a firelit clearing.

He crouched in the bushes, looking out, thankful that he’d held back from attacking the women. If one had cried out…

They dragged the corpse between two heaps of foliage that looked, to Lander, like large beaver dams, six to eight feet high.

The chubby woman called out. Half a dozen figures crowded around, and lifted the body overhead.

With all the enthusiasm and cheers of a winning football team, they bore the body away.

Lander was reluctant to leave the safety of his hiding place. For a few moments, he studied the area. He saw several other tall mounds. They seemed to be shelters, huts fashioned crudely of twigs and leaves. From where he stood, he could see no one. But he heard sudden wild shouts and laughter. He had to see more.

Cautiously, he stepped into the open and dashed to the nearest hut. Staying close to it, he worked his way toward the front.

He crouched, and stared.

A dozen fires. Twice that many huts. A few figures wandering aimlessly, a few sitting by fires, and a big crowd gathered around a central fire. In the midst of the crowd, Lander saw a machete rise and fall. A cheer went up.

The crowd parted. The lean girl, the one he’d wanted to rape, made her way out of the group. Some males followed, harassing her. They seemed to want a share of her take. She laughed and waved them away.

Only one persisted. He hurried alongside her as she walked toward Lander. They talked. He held out his hand. The girl dipped something out of the bowl she was cradling. She dumped it into his outstretched hand, and he shoved it into his mouth.

They sat together at a fire, facing Lander. The girl was wet, probably sweaty. Her breasts shimmered in the firelight.

Golden.

Lovely.

Lander was hard again. He touched himself. His shaft twitched. In seconds, he could relieve the tight, aching need. His fingertips lightly stroked while he considered it.

The release would be good.

Not nearly as good, though, as pumping his load into that girl.

I won’t do that, he told himself. I’m not a beast.

But still, she was so young, so lovely. He fingered his engorged organ and watched her reach into the bowl.

God, he would like to shove…

The bowl, he suddenly noticed, had tangled white hair. The girl lifted it from her lap, offering more to the young man, and Lander saw its face.

The face of the old woman they’d dragged in. The woman Lander had killed.

The boy reached into the head. His hand dripped as he filled his mouth.

Lander turned away, gagging. He rushed from the hut, smashed through a thicket, shouldered a tree and stumbled away, twisting from the impact. As he landed on his back, he rolled to his side and vomited.

He crawled away from his mess. Slowly, he got to his feet. He brushed some dead leaves and pine needles off his wet skin, and thought about returning to the stream to wash up.

Go back to the stream, and keep going!

Get as far from this village of maniacs as his feet would take him. Try to find Cordelia.

What about Ruth?

Oh God, what about Ruth?

She might be somewhere in that village right now. Alive. Waiting for her turn to become food for these fiends.

Hell, there was a good chance of it. If these monsters had any sense at all, they would keep her alive for a while. Consume the dead carcasses before slaughtering more. It only made sense.

He had to go back.

Look for her, save her if he could.

The knife fell from his hands. He dropped to his knees, trembling.

What if they caught him?

What if they took him alive?

A coward dies many times, a brave man never tastes of death but once.

Shit. Fuck Julius Caesar. Fuck Shakespeare. Once is all it would take.

But he couldn’t survive, if he abandoned Ruth. He wouldn’t have a life afterward. Only guilt, and nothing more. It might as well end here.

The buck stops here.

The words made him feel better.

The buck stops here!

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

We band of brothers, we honored few…

The buck stops here!

Picking up his knife, he turned toward the village. In the distance, a cheer went up.

He started to run. He ran until he reached the back of the nearest hut. He worked his way alongside it. The girl was still seated by the fire, eating her grisly prize.

Others were still gathered around the main fire. One at a time, they broke away, each with a small portion of dripping flesh.

He saw no sign of Ruth. Perhaps she was kept in the darkness beyond the fires, perhaps inside a hut. Perhaps not here, at all.

A creature swung his way out of the crowd. He looked more like an ape than a man. A deformed ape, hunchbacked and legless. Though he had no feet of his own, he held a foot in his mouth. Nobody begged a bite of it, as they had begged the girl. Instead, they hurried out of his way. They seemed afraid of him. He propped himself backward against a hut, to free his hands, and began gnawing the foot.

Lander forced himself to look away from the man. He circled around to the rear of the hut, peeked to be sure nobody was nearby, then dashed across the dark space to the next one. After a quick check, he ran to the next. He crept along, staying close to it, and saw half a dozen figures gathered in front of the neighboring hut. They were seated in a circle, chattering in a language that sounded almost like German, and sharing a thigh. All but one. A girl lay on her belly between a man’s outstretched legs, her mouth latched onto his erection.

Backing off, Lander rushed into the trees. He worked his way past the group, staying hidden but close to the clearing, watching them until they were out of sight.

This seemed like a much safer way of searching for Ruth, so he stayed among the trees as he continued his passage around the village.

Soon, he was directly across from the main fire. The group there had diminished to a handful. A single man was squatting near the fire, cooking his morsel at the end of his spear. A few women—two obviously pregnant—knelt nearby, tearing at a heap of entrails. Lander hurried on.

Between two huts at the far end of the village, he found Ruth. She hung inside a tripod of tall, stout poles, suspended by one foot. Her left arm was broken backward at the elbow. As Lander approached, he watched her naked body turn slowly in the breeze.

“Oh you bastards,” he muttered. “Oh you fucking bastards.”

He touched Ruth’s face. His hand came away sticky and dripping.

He turned. Saw the bastards not far away, some sitting near fires, a few wandering about, one pair rutting in the dirt. He wanted to kill them, kill them all.

But not yet. First he would take Ruth away, and bury her.

Knife clamped in his teeth, he shinnied up one of the poles. The tripod wobbled. Ruth’s body swayed and turned. Her loose foot brushed across his back.

Lander slashed the cord that held her. She dropped. Her body thudded on the earth.

She groaned.

Lander let himself fall. “You’re alive!” he gasped.

“Lander?”

“Oh Jesus! Oh my God, you’re alive!”

Glancing around, he saw Krulls heading his way.

Three of them. Two males, one female. They approached Lander slowly, more with curiosity than alarm. All were armed: the woman and one man with knives, the other man with a hatchet. The weapons weren’t in their hands, though. The hatchet hung at the man’s side, the woman’s knife dangled in front of her bushy pubic mound, the other man’s knife was tucked into a belt at his waist.

Lander laughed.

It sounded properly maniacal.

He laughed again, turning his back to them, and began to fondle Ruth. In the darkness, naked and dirty, his face averted, perhaps he wouldn’t be recognized as a stranger.

He pushed his face against Ruth’s breasts. One hand stroked between her legs. The hair, usually crisp and springy, was matted with sticky wetness. She moaned in pain as he fingered the lips of her vagina. His other hand, hidden beneath her head, ached from its tight grip on the knife.

He climbed onto her, using his knees to spread her legs. His penis went soft. Just as well. He didn’t want to penetrate her, to hurt her more where she already hurt so much.

The semblance was enough.

He humped, grunting.

Someone stopped to his right. Squatted. Keeping his face in Ruth’s breasts, he glimpsed the man’s erection tilting skyward. He squeezed Ruth’s left breast, and pumped harder.

From the sounds, the others were all around him. He glanced to the left. The woman was crouched there, knees wide, knife hanging like a strange, steel cock.

“Bright boy,” she said. “Think you can put one over on us?”

Christ!

Sick with panic, he flung out his left hand. His fist pounded the hilt of her knife. The blade jumped, pivoted on its thong, and vanished between her legs. Her quick shriek tore his ears. He lashed sideways with his own knife, ripping into the midsection of the crouching man—the one with the hatchet.

Scrambling off Ruth, he dived onto him. Slashed the cord. Grabbed the hatchet and hacked the shin of the standing man, who yelped and fell. Lander jumped onto him, swinging the hand ax. It chopped into the side of his head.

Lander looked back. Others were coming. He crouched over Ruth, pushed his arms beneath her, and lifted. He rammed a knee into her back, forcing her upward, tugging and jostling her until she fell over his shoulder. Arm wrapped around her legs, he knelt and grabbed the hatchet. Then he ran, hugging her legs to his chest. He ran for the trees.

He moved slowly under the weight. Like running in slow motion, running through deep water.

He heard the others behind him.

Not a chance, not a chance.

A club flew past his head, pounded a tree trunk and dropped.

Then he felt a shove. Ruth bucked. Sharpness pricked his back. Warm liquid spilled down his rump and legs. He felt another jab. Looked back.

The man behind them held a long spear forward like a vaulting pole. Its tip was buried in Ruth’s back. The man shoved, twisted, and the point again cut into Lander’s back.

Oh Jesus, it was stabbing him through Ruth!

Jabbed again, he jerked with pain. Ruth started to slide off his shoulder. He stumbled sideways. Ran into a tree. Dropped her. Turned to the man who was trying desperately to pull his spear out of Ruth, and split his head.

A dozen others were coming. Men and women. Howling, waving knives and spears.

He looked down at Ruth, a speared hump of darkness.

Then he ran.

He ran away into the trees. He ran until his lungs burned. Finally, he reached the stream. He splashed across it, scrambled up its other shore, and nearly bumped into a one-eyed man. Lander kneed him in the groin. With the hatchet, he pounded the man’s head to soft pulp.

He crouched over the body. The woods were silent. He’d left his pursuers behind, or they’d given up.

He had time.

He took the dead man’s knife. He stripped off the dead man’s leather vest, and held it to the moonlight.

A fancy design on the back. A naked woman, arms stretched out, a dark orb resting in each palm. The orbs, he realized, were nipples.

The vest was chest skin from a tattooed man.

With a shiver, he put it on.

Then he ran.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Cordie climbed onto the trunk of a fallen tree. She held a dead limb to steady herself, and gazed ahead. Nothing was visible in the darkness except more trees.

Ben climbed up beside her. “Which way?” he asked.

“I guess it doesn’t matter. I mean, they might be anywhere.” Cordie couldn’t keep the despair out of her voice.

“Do you want to go back?”

“Go back where?”

“Try to find the others again.”

“Oh, you know right where they are?”

“Not exactly, but…”

“How the hell are we supposed to find them, then? Just turn around and start walking? That’ll do a lot of good.” She sat on the trunk and scooted forward, her legs stretching toward the unseen ground. She pushed off. Not hard enough. A rough jutting stub of branch jabbed and scraped her back as she dropped. “Damn!” She stumbled forward, grabbing at her back.

“You hurt?”

“Yes! Shit shit shit!”

Ben leaped down.

“God damn!”

“Let me see.”

She turned away and lifted the back of her blouse.

“It’s just a scratch.”

“Kiss it and make it well. But gewfy.” She felt the soft brush of his lips on her back.

“Better?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

He stood beside her, and she took hold of his hand. She studied the dark wilderness. “I don’t know, Ben. They might be anywhere.”

“We’ll just keep going.” He shrugged. “Not much else we can do.”

“If we could just find that clearing… I thought it was this way, but…” She shook her head. “None of this looks familiar.”

“I don’t think we’ve gone far enough, yet.”

“Maybe not.”

“It’s a big clearing. We’ll probably run into it.”

“I sup—”

She staggered back as a naked boy leaped from behind a tree. He planted himself in their way, crouching slightly, one hand forward. The hand held a knife.

Cordie and Ben backed away, but the boy stepped forward, staying close to them.

“Run?” Ben whispered.

“Let’s get his knife. He’s just a kid.” Cordie lowered her eyes, hoping to spot something she could use for a weapon. The ground was too dark. But her heel knocked into a hard object. She stooped and felt for it. Her fingertips found a moist surface of bark. She grabbed, clutched a thick branch, and lifted. It started to pull free from the ground, but one end stayed down.

The damn thing was a dozen feet long!

As she let it go, the boy lunged. His knife flicked at her face. She threw out an arm to block it. The blade sliced into her forearm. Then Ben was on the boy, pulling him back, reaching for the knife hand. He couldn’t get a grip on it, but Cordie grabbed the wrist with both hands. She twisted sharply. The arm made a sound like crackling gristle. The boy cried out. The knife fell.

Cordie dropped to her hands and knees while Ben struggled to hold the writhing boy. She raked the moist ground cover. Found the knife. Got to her feet. Braced herself. “Okay, hold him.”

She pressed the point against the boy’s belly. He stopped moving.

“Where do you live?” Cordie asked.

The boy growled. His upper lip curled, baring his teeth.

“I don’t think he understands,” Ben said.

“Yeah. Maybe not.” She leaned close to the boy. “Do you speak English?”

Again, the boy growled.

“The kid’s an animal,” Ben muttered.

“Kid. I’m looking for my parents, my mom and dad. Do you know where they are? Where do you take the people you catch? Do you have a camp or something?”

“He can’t talk.”

“What’ll we do with him?” Cordie asked.

Ben shrugged. “I don’t know if we ought to let him go. No telling what he might do.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m up to butchering him. Are you?”

Ben sighed. “I guess not.”

“Hey, let’s have your belt. We can loop it around his neck, maybe use it like a leash, see where he takes us.”

“We can give it a try.”

Keeping one arm clamped around the boy’s neck, Ben unfastened his belt and yanked it free. As he held it out to Cordie, she passed the knife to him.

She slipped the broad, leather tip through the buckle, and dropped the loop over the boy’s head. Ben forced the belt down to the thin neck. Cordie jerked it taut.

“Okay,” she said. “Let him go and we’ll see.”

Ben let go.

The boy leaped at Cordie. She sidestepped, tugging the belt, and swung him off his feet. He sprawled, choking. He clawed at his throat, but Cordie stepped on his back and kept the belt tight. He rolled. Cordie’s foot skidded off. Balance lost she fell. The belt flew from her hands.

She saw Ben kick. His shoe slammed into the boy’s face, and the boy went down.

“He’s out,” Ben said after nudging the body.

“Dead?”

“Just unconscious, I think.”

They took the time to bandage Cordie’s cut arm. Ben used the tail of his shirt, slicing it off with the boy’s knife and tying it around Cordie’s wound.

Then Cordie knelt beside the boy. She loosened the belt. Touching his neck, she found his pulse.

“Let’s just leave him while he’s still conked out,” she said.

“Okay with me.”

Leaving the boy, they ran through the trees. They had gone no more than fifty yards when a voice boomed the single word, KRULL

Not the voice of the boy.

It came from behind. Cordie stopped, and turned.

Its roar still vibrated through the woods like a furious, echoing blast of hate.

It sent a shiver of dread through Cordie. “What do you think that was?” she whispered.

“I don’t…”

The shriek of the boy ripped into her ears.

Ben grabbed her arm. “Come on.”

They ran a few steps. Then Cordie pulled free. “Wait.” She crouched behind a tree, and pulled Ben down beside her. “What’d that sound like?” she whispered.

“Like a voice out of hell.”

“I mean, didn’t it sound like somebody yelled ’Krull,’ and then maybe killed the kid?”

“Yeah, that’s what it sounded like.”

“Maybe he’ll help us.”

“You’re nuts.”

“No, really. I mean, we’re not Krulls. Maybe he’s trying to get away from here, too. Just like us.”

“Not just like us. You heard him, for Christsake. He hardly sounded human.”

It’d be…” Her voice froze in her throat at the loud crushing of underbrush.

Ben’s hand tightened in hers.

A tall, broad shape strode between the trees.

Cordie heard a strangled whimper inside her throat.

Ben lunged away, pulling her hand. She jerked it free. Ben glanced back.

The awful voice roared, “KRULL”

Ben ran.

Cordie saw the hulking shape lope after him. In a patch of moonlight, she saw its shaggy arms, its thick legs.

Then there was only forest. She heard the crashing footfalls.

Ben yelled, “No! Please!”

She covered her ears.

Ben’s final cry was cut short.

She curled at the base of the trunk, and held her knees, and listened to the woods.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

“Holy shit, a cabin!”

Robbins caught up to Neala. They stopped beside Sherri, and looked through the trees.

Near the end of a long, moon-washed clearing stood a cabin of logs.

“Not bad,” Robbins said. “Let’s have a look.”

He went first, stepping into the open and pausing to scan the area. The clearing was larger than a football field, maybe a little more narrow. Watching the edges of the forest, he saw no movement. The cabin looked dark and deserted. “Stay close,” he said.

Neala stepped to his right side, Sherri to his left. He started forward, rifle ready. The ground felt springy under his boots. A cool breeze stirred across his bare arms.

He looked at Neala. She was limping. Her mouth was pressed shut as if she were biting into the pain. She looked very brave and very vulnerable. He wanted to hold her.

She saw him looking, and made a smile.

“How’re the feet?” he asked.

“They’ve seen better nights.”

He turned to Sherri. “Gonna make it?”

“First chance I get,” she said, and laughed sourly.

As they moved closer to the cabin, Robbins saw that it stood in a field of pickets. Each of the tall poles had a crossbar like the arm bones of a scarecrow. Each was topped with a dark ball.

Sherri grabbed his arm and pulled him to a halt. “Oh shit,” she gasped. “Oh fucking shit!”

“They’re heads!” Neala whispered.

Robbins squinted at the top of the nearest pole. The sphere on top was a head, all right, its dark hair drifting in the breeze. He looked from one pole to another. A head was impaled on each. “Good God,” he said. He took a step forward.

Sherri tugged his arm. “We’re not going in there!”

He turned to Neala.

She shook her head.

“The cabin,” he said.

“I don’t want to,” Neala told him in a voice like a terrified child.

Turning around, he saw movement in the woods. A face appeared beside an aspen. He raised his rifle and took aim, but the face slipped sideways. It vanished behind the trunk.

To the left, a pale body darted between trees.

Sherri groaned loudly.

“Let’s go for the cabin,” Robbins said.

Neala squeezed his arm.

A knife arched through the night, flipping end over end, its blade flashing moonlight. Robbins shoved Neala. She stumbled sideways as the knife whipped by. Robbins rushed to her.

“Let’s go,” he said, pulling her up.

“God, it would’ve…

“It didn’t.”

They raced toward the cabin. Sherri caught up. A dozen feet before the first stake, Robbins dropped Neala’s arm and snatched the knife from the ground. “Take this,” he said. He looked back.

He saw no one.

Then he led the way among the poles, ducking beneath the crossbars. The pikes were close together. He moved carefully, afraid of bumping them, but his rifle butt knocked into one. The staff wobbled. Something dropped from above and Neala, behind him, gasped with horror. He wanted to look around, but the staffs enclosed him like a cage. He couldn’t turn without tipping others.

“You all right?” he called back.

No answer.

“Neala?”

“I’m okay,” she whispered.

“Sherri?”

“Get us out of here!”

“How’s the rear?” The words were out before he realized his mistake. “Forget—”

He raised himself. His shoulder hit a crossbar. The staff wobbled in the loose earth. He clutched it to stop it from falling. Then he pivoted and looked back. Neala was still crouched low. Sherri, a distance behind her, was standing upright, back toward him, shoulders level with the crossbars, head just below the other hands.

Robbins watched her, and knew she wasn’t checking the rear for Krulls. She was gazing at the impaled heads. Dozens of them. Surrounding her. Pressing close like a hideous mob.

“Sherri! he shouted.

She whirled around. Knocked into a pole. It fell against another, and that one tipped, and suddenly a dozen staffs were swaying and falling their grisly ornaments jerking toward each other as if to share a secret, others thudding together, some falling and rolling.

Sherri looked at it all, then at Robbins. Her eyes and mouth were dark holes in her moonlit face.

Neala started to rise. Robbins pushed her head down. “Don’t look,” he said.

“Sherri, just come on forward.”

She didn’t move.

“Sherri!”

“I can’t.”

“Stay right here,” he said to Neala.

Crouching below the crossbars, he made his way through the forest of pikes. When he got close to Sherri, he found the crosses standing at crazy angles. He tried to lift one out of the way. A weathered head, little more than a skull with patches of hair trailing in the breeze, wobbled in front of his face. Sickened, he dropped the pike.

He stood facing Sherri. She was several feet away. A tangle of sticks and heads separated them. Keeping his eyes on her, he began moving forward, stepping high, his boots smashing the frail crosses to the ground. Twice, his feet came down on heads. One cracked. The other ripped like a rock and nearly sent him sprawling. He caught his balance, choked with horror at the thought of falling into such things.

Then he had Sherri by the arm.

He looked beyond her. Nobody was in pursuit.

“You all right?”

She answered with a whimper.

Holding her arm, he pulled her through the trampled mesh.

“Shut your eyes,” he said.

He looked back to make sure they were shut. Then he pulled her forward again. He told her to hold on to his belt. When he reached the first upright cross, he kicked it aside. The head flew off, but he didn’t watch. Another cross stood in his way. Cursing, he used his rifle butt to knock it away. He moved fast, smashing the barriers down.

“Neala, keep your eyes shut. We’re coming up behind you.”

He slammed the sticks out of his way. They crashed into others, heads flying.

When he was close to Neala, he uprooted three of the crosses and flung them to the sides. He stepped past her. “Grab on to Sherri. Keep your eyes shut and hang on.”

“Johnny, what…?”

“I’m getting us to that cabin.”

He shot his foot forward, kicking down a frail stick. It took down the one in front of it, and that one tore down another. As they fell, he plowed ahead and knocked down more. He swung his rifle.

The butt smashed through one cross after another. He swung high and it clubbed a head. He swept low. The pikes scattered. Then there were no more in front of him. The cabin door was yards away.

Robbins turned, and saw the path he’d battered through the barrier. The passage was bordered by half-fallen crosses that teetered at strange angles.

“It’s all right,” he said.

The women stood and looked back. Sherri covered her mouth. Neala quickly turned away.

Robbins walked to the cabin door. It had no knob. A leather thong hung out. He pulled it, and heard a squeak of wood inside as the latch lifted. He pushed the door. It swung open.

“Hello?” he called into the darkness.

No answer came.

He stepped through the doorway. The air smelled gamey. It felt warm and damp. He peered through the darkness. He could see nothing.

Reaching into his pants pocket, he found his book of matches. He flipped open the cover, tore a match loose, and struck it. The head flared. He squinted against the sudden brightness, and turned in a full circle. Satisfied no one was lurking in the small room, he shook out the match and returned to the door.

“It’s okay. Come on in.”

Neala and Sherri entered. Robbins pulled the door shut, cutting off the moonlight from outside. The wooden latch dropped into place.

“Well, here we are,” he said.

He struck another match. In its fluttering light, he quickly searched for a lamp. He found a candle in a holder protruding from a wall, and lit it. Each wall had a candle. He lit them all. Their tips guttered, filling the room with shadows.

“Must be a bed,” Sherri muttered, looking down at a nest of fur pelts. She sat on it, rubbed her hands cautiously over the top, then lay back and sighed.

Neala stood in the center of the room. She turned slowly. Her eyes moved up to Robbins’s face.

“I think we should get out of here,” she said.

“We need the rest,” Robbins said.

Sherri raised her head. “I’m not going out there again.”

“This place…” Neala said. “Whoever lives here, he must be the one who put up the heads.”

“I don’t want to hear this,” Sherri said.

“What if he comes back.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Lander, perched high in a tree, heard the chatter of voices. They weren’t far away. Near the stream, probably. The words made no sense, but some sounded excited, some angry. A woman’s voice made a comment that caused general laughter.

Someone spoke with a commanding voice. There was a short discussion. Then all the talking stopped.

He heard the leafy sounds of people moving through the woods. He heard them far to the left, far to the right. They had spread out.

They’re looking for me, he realized.

Shit oh shit.

He hugged the thick branch tightly, and squeezed it with his thighs as his bowels cramped with fear.

On the ground below his tree, three figures appeared. One woman, two men. Armed with spears and knives.

Lander began to tremble.

Calm down, he told himself.

I can take them, if I have to.

I’ve already killed… how many? Plenty.

And I’ll kill plenty more.

They think they’re hunting me. They’re wrong.

I’m the dangerous one. Danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he.

Fucking right.

We are two lions littered in one day, and I the elder and more terrible.

Fucking—A right!

But look what they did to Caesar.

Fuck it.

Let them just try to get me. Let them just try.

The three were moving on. They vanished into the trees. He heard their feet crushing twigs and dead leaves.

Quickly, he climbed down from his tree. He stood motionless, listening. He could barely hear them, now. Perhaps he should hunt them down, sneak up behind them, one at a time, and cut their throats.

Show them just how dangerous Caesar can be.

No no no, he would be at a disadvantage stalking them in the forest. Bad strategy.

So he turned away from them, and went to the stream. He waded in, swam, and climbed ashore.

The wet vest clung to him like a second skin. It is, it is, he thought, and laughed.

Get hold of yourself!

He grabbed his cock.

That’s not funny, he thought.

Nothing, goddamn it, is funny.

I’ve got to keep calm, keep cool, keep my head. Or surely I’ll lose it.

Soon, he found himself at the edge of the village. He worked his way to the left, staying among the trees, until he could see the place where he’d found Ruth.

Ruth.

Dead.

But that’s okay, I’m dead myself, am I not?

Mr. Kurtz, be dead.

Lander Dills, he dead.

Not quite yet, he’s not.

He angled away from the village, looking for the place where he’d left Ruth’s body, but not really expecting to find it there. After searching the area for a few minutes, he gave up.

He returned to the village. He crouched beside a hut. From there, he saw a dozen figures lying near the embers of campfires, and maybe twenty busy near the main fire. The twenty seemed subdued, as if they didn’t want to disturb the sleepers.

Standing, he slipped the knife and hatchet under his vest, and walked directly toward the group. His heart thundered and he had trouble breathing, but he continued to walk, slightly hunched and limping.

A woman glanced at him. Casually looked away.

He came to the rear of the group and peered into their midst. Several, kneeling, were busy with knives. Cutting arms and legs off bodies. The body of the man he’d killed by the stream. The woman who’d worn her knife in front The man he’d taken the hatchet from. The one who’d speared Ruth. And Ruth herself.

One arm already off.

As he watched, a woman finished severing Ruth’s other arm, and tossed it onto a stack of bloody limbs near the fire.

Two men were cutting her legs.

Lander staggered backward. He turned, head spinning, afraid he might throw up or faint. Breathing deeply, he walked through the middle of the village.

Two women and a man were asleep in front of the farthest hut. The man’s head rested on the flat belly of the younger one. A fat, older woman slept on her side, her breasts drooping sideways. Bones lay scattered about.

Lander dropped to his knees. Taking out his weapons, he crawled past the fat one and through the fur-draped entrance of the hut.

He crept slowly in the darkness.

Someone was here. He could hear the breathing. He stopped to listen. Two were here. Clamping the knife in his teeth, he reached out.

He touched a foot. It moved, just a bit, and he heard a sleepy moan. A man’s moan. Sliding his hand up the leg, he felt moist flaccid genitals. Another moan, this one almost a sigh of pleasure. He moved his hand up the man’s belly and chest. He found the neck. He found the mouth.

Setting his hatchet aside, he jammed a hand against the mouth and slashed the man’s throat.

Warm liquid sprayed his face. Arms and legs flailed, but only for a few seconds. The wet gurgling sounds were loud.

“Onich?”

Lander reached through the dark, and touched a bare shoulder. He crawled closer. He touched a small, firm breast.

A hand trailed down his body. The fingers lightly jiggled his scrotum. They encircled his growing shaft. Abruptly, the woman gasped. Her hand vanished. Her body lurched, but he held it by the breast and swung the knife down. It plunged deep. The woman cried out. He groped for her mouth, found it, muffled her cries with one hand, and shoved the knife into the side of her neck just below the ear. Her body went rigid under him, quaked, and finally stilled.

He lay on top of her, listening.

How loud had her outcry been? Had it awakened others?

For a long time, he didn’t move. Then, satisfied that nobody had heard, he silently climbed off.

He sat between the two bodies, wondering what to do next. Perhaps he should mutilate them. Cut off their heads, maybe. Cut off the guy’s cock, and stuff it in the woman’s mouth. Stick something up her twat.

Thinking about it, he got an erection.

No. Shit no.

I’m not a beast for Godsake.

An avenger, not a beast.

An avenging angel.

The Angel of Death!

Again, he laughed, and muffled it. When he was done, he touched himself. The erection was gone.

Good thing.

I’m an avenger, not a raving sex maniac.

He crawled through the darkness and pushed open the fur flap of the entrance. Air from outside came in, cooling his sweat. He crawled out.

He crouched beside the dead fire where the man and two women still slept. He scanned other figures sleeping nearby. The closest were two men, about fifteen yards away. The group near the main fire kept working. They had built up the fire, and were suspending several arms above it from a tripod.

Cooking the meat before it goes bad.

Lander raised his hatchet.

Here’s more for you, he thought. I’ll keep you fat and happy.

With a single swift stroke, he broke the head of the older woman. He leapt, crouched, and swung. The ax bit into the man’s forehead. He pulled it out. The young, thin woman opened her eyes. She squealed. Lander aimed for her nose, missed, and cleaved the left side of her face, splitting her eye.

A spear whished past Lander’s face. He saw a crowd coming toward him—the whole bunch.

He stood up straight. Waving the hatchet overhead, he yelled, “Cry havoc, you fuckers!”

And then he ran.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Neala sat under a candle, her back against a wall, and watched Johnny search the cabin.

He checked the walls, first. They were hung with deerskins, probably to keep the winds out. He lifted each pelt, and looked beneath it.

When he finished the walls, he stepped to the fireplace. A black pot hung over the dead coals. He swung it out, took off the lid, and sniffed. Gagging, he jammed the lid into place.

Sherri, asleep on her pile of furs, groaned and rolled onto her side.

“What is it?” Neala whispered to Johnny.

“Spoiled.”

He returned the pot to its hook. He pushed his hand into the ashes beneath it. “Cold,” he said. Brushing off his hand, he stood. He hefted a metal fireplace poker. It looked solid and heavy, to Neala. He swung it a few times as if testing its weight, then put it back. For a few moments, he inspected the sooty billows, a broom, a stool with a wicker seat. Then he turned away.

He wandered the cabin floor, his feet silent on the thick layers of fur that covered it.

“What’re you looking for?” Neala asked.

“Anything we can use.” He shook his head. “The place is bare. Except for that.” He nodded toward the covered pot.

“What do we need?”

“Food and water. A couple of guns would be nice.”

From the corner came Sherri’s voice. “While you’re dreaming, how about a chopper to haul us the fuck outa here?”

“Maybe there’s another room,” Neala suggested.

“I already checked. No other doors.”

“Another shack? Out back, maybe?”

“I’ll take a look.” He went to the door, picked up his rifle, and raised the latch. He pulled the door open.

His body was a black, strong shape against the pale darkness outside. He looked alert and dangerous, peering into the night. Then he glanced back. “See you later,” he said, and Neala heard in his voice the bravery of a frightened boy.

He reached in to pull the door shut.

“Just a second,” Neala said.

He waited while she got to her feet and joined him outside.

Her eyes wandered over the dozens of frail crosses and heads. She saw the path Johnny had battered through them.

“Let’s go around back,” Johnny said.

They walked close to the cabin. At its corner, Neala saw more crosses, more heads. At the rear, still more. But no other buildings. The small, square cabin stood alone.

They completed the circle, and stopped by the door.

“I’ll stay out for a while,” Johnny said. “You go on in, and get some sleep.”

Neala hesitated. Maybe the man wanted time by himself. More likely, though, he was just trying to be nice, offering to stand guard while she slept.

“I want to stay with you,” she said.

“Well…”

“If you want to be alone…”

“No, it’s all right.” He grinned. “You think I want to be alone with all this?” He eyed the field of heads. “What if they start talking to me?”

“Do you think they might?”

“Not if we keep the conversation up.”

“Can we sit down?”

They sat on the ground. Neala crossed her legs, and leaned back against the logs of the cabin. They felt round and scratchy through the thin cloth of her shirt. She kept her eyes down as she talked. “I want to thank you,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on, or why you did it, but you saved our lives.”

“Well…”

She waited for him to continue, but he said nothing more. “Why didyou come back for us?”

“Who knows?”

“You must.”

“Yeah. I guess I do.”

“Tell me.”

“I guess I didn’t want to see you die.”

She eased sideways until she felt him against her shoulder. She was strongly attracted to this man; it confused her. He was part of the scheme that brought her into this nightmare. Perhaps she ought to loathe him for that. She couldn’t. He was powerful and deadly, but vulnerable in a way that made her want to hold him close.

“Why me?” she asked.

“I don’t know. There’s something. I knew what they’d do to you. The thought of you being hurt…”

“What about Sherri? Suppose I hadn’t been alone. Would you have left her to be killed?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“It’s the way things are done in Barlow. It’s the way we’ve always done things, from the start.”

“How did it start?” She looked at him. He met her eyes, then turned away to scan the area.

“I’m not sure anyone knows,” he said. “The Krulls were here first. Nobody seems to know where they came from. Plenty of theories, though. Some say they’re the Devil’s children, some say a Stone Age tribe of some land.”

“If they’re Stone Age, where’d they get the steel weapons?”

“From us. We give them what they want. Except guns.”

Neala shook her head.

“Anyway. My high school history teacher had a theory that the Krulls are descendants of a band of Vikings that came up the Pacific coast and worked their way up the delta.”

“What do you think?”

“I think they might’ve descended from some crazy old mountain man—a demented Daniel Boone.” She saw a wry grin as he shrugged. “What the hell, nobody knows. I’ve got a neighbor, Joanne Early, who thinks they’re Martians. Whatever they are, they’re in control. They used to raid town about once a month, but then our forefathers got smart and started delivering strangers to them. That worked out nicely, because the townspeople robbed the folks before taking them out.”

“They’re still at it,” Neala said, looking down at one of her bare, bloody feet.

“Both sides get something out of it. And as long as the Krulls get eight or ten victims a month, they leave us alone.”

“Hasn’t anyone ever tried to stop them?”

“There’ve been a few attempts. Not many, though. A fellow named MacQuiddy went in, once, with a bunch of men from town. They called themselves the Glorious Fourteen. That was back in the thirties. For a time, back then, word was out that Barlow was a good place to avoid. Travelers stopped coming through, and our people stopped taking victims out to the forest. So the Krulls came into town, one night. They snatched a dozen of our women and children. The Glorious Fourteen went in to rescue them, and never came out.”

Neala watched his eyes roam over the field of heads. “Nobody ever comes out,” he said.

“Will we?”

“We’ll sure give it a try.” Johnny put an arm across her shoulders, and she leaned her head against him.

She felt good, being with Johnny.

Better than she’d felt with any man since Derek. That was nearly two years ago. The breakup had left her stunned. She spent six months living like a hermit: hating Derek, hating all men, yet dwelling on the times they’d had together and dreaming of his return as if she enjoyed the twist of pain that such thoughts brought.

When the loneliness finally drove her from the house, she met only desperate men. They wanted her body close to them in the night, because they had the loneliness, too. Many tried to be cool: they talked big, and drove Porsches, and pretended. Others displayed their sensitivity like a raw wound, whiners pleading for attention. Few and far between were the normal guys, the confident ones she might want to know better.

She suspected most were already married-busy raising children and dogs.

And now, here was Johnny Robbins. You couldn’t say he was normal, not after growing up in a town like Barlow and doing the terrible things he’d done. But he was strong and confident. He could be gentle. And he spoke straight.

He was so different from those other men—so solid. Someone to rely on.

Someone she might love.

Her eyes filled with tears. She sniffed, and Johnny looked at her.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“It’s just all so horrible.”

“I know.” His hand stroked her hair, the side of her wet face.

“We’ll never get a chance to know each other, Johnny. I mean, to spend time and do things.”

“We’ll get the chance,” he said.

She shook her head. A sob wracked her body.

“We will. You can count on it.”

His face moved close to hers. He looked into her eyes, and smiled gently, and pressed his mouth to hers. They kissed for a long time. Neala wanted it never to end.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Cordie lay on the ground, curled up and shivering at the foot of the tree, afraid to move. She’d stayed that way for a long time.

Hours must have passed since the woods echoed with the monstrous yell of the beast and she’d seen its dark shape stride through the trees. Hours since she’d heard Ben’s pleading, terrified voice. God, he must’ve met an awful death.

The thing had come her way, and passed her by.

But it might be lurking near.

She couldn’t stay on the ground much longer. She had to urinate badly, and she didn’t want to wet herself.

Finally, she rolled onto her belly. She raised her head. Her eyes searched the forest. The air had a blue-gray cast, and she could see a long distance into the surrounding trees.

With sudden dread, she realized that the night’s protective darkness was gone.

She got to her knees. Her right arm, numb from being crushed by her body for so long, hung useless at her side. Slowly, feeling returned to the arm. It tingled and burned. She shook it. She flexed her fingers. When the arm felt usable again, she stood up.

She turned slowly, studying the woods. She seemed to be alone.

Quickly, she lowered her pants. She squatted and let herself open. Her stream sounded terribly loud hitting the leafy ground. Eyes on the woods, she wished the noise would end. But she wasn’t willing to stop the flow; getting rid of the aching tightness felt so good. Finally, she finished. She stood and pulled up her pants.

For a few moments, she stared in the direction that Ben had run. She didn’t want to see his body. She couldn’t just leave, though. Not without knowing, for sure, that he was dead. To know with absolute certainty, she had to see him.

She walked slowly, trying to move with total silence. In spite of her care, each footstep caused a quiet crush of the forest debris. Not much of a sound. But enough for others to hear. Too much. She took longer strides. Though her footsteps were louder, that way, she wouldn’t need as many to reach her goal.

A goal she didn’t want to reach. She wanted only to hide.

But she had to find out.

She kept moving. She knew just where to look. All night, in her mind, she had seen Ben dart into the trees, heard him running, heard his voice. He hadn’t gone far. No farther than the distance, back home, between the front door and the kitchen.

When she saw his legs, she stopped. He was on his back, one leg straight out, the other bent sideways at the knee in a position that looked painful. The rest of Ben was hidden behind a tree.

His pants were all covered with blood.

“Ben?” she asked. The word came out as quiet as a breath.

But much too loud.

She took a step, and saw more: the lap of his pants, the bloody stomach of his shirt. She inched closer. The tree uncovered more: his chest, his out flung right arm. With another step, she would see his face.

God, she didn’t want to!

Not dead.

Twisted and hideous with Ben’s final horror.

It would serve no purpose. He was obviously dead. She didn’t have to see his face to know that.

God, to look at it…

The face she had kissed, so long and hard, only last night.

She began to cry.

She took a step backward until the tree concealed all but his legs. She stared at them. They were blurred by her tears.

Those shoes.

She’d flung one out the car window at a drive-in movie, last week.

“Oh Ben,” she moaned.

Then she ran. She knew she was making too much noise, but she didn’t care.

Let them get me. Let them!

She ran hard. Away from Ben. Running blindly, tears in her eyes, head thrown back. Better to look at the sky, the blue morning sky, than whatever might be coming to kill her.

She crashed into a thicket. Its limbs gripped her legs, but she churned through, kicking and grunting. It couldn’t hold her back. As she broke free, though, it caught her trailing foot. It tripped her. She plunged forward, shrieked, and twisted wildly to keep from falling onto the naked boy.

The boy who’d attacked her last night.

The one slaughtered only minutes before Ben.

She hit the ground. Got to her hands and knees. Glanced at the body. Saw blood and ants, and the pulpy stump of neck where his head should have been.

Scrambling to her feet, she ran. She knew she was making too much noise.

Now, she cared.

As soon as she was well away from the body, she stopped. She looked around her.

There!

A dense thicket, off to the right.

She rushed to the high cluster of bushes. She circled it, trying to see inside. The closely packed, leafy branches blocked her view.

Perfect!

Dropping onto her belly, she squirmed forward. She pushed her way through the leaves and springy, low-hanging tendrils. Deeper and deeper into the thicket.

Finally, she stopped. She looked to each side, and saw no hint of the outside world. She rolled. Directly above, she could see a few tiny patches of sky.

Something tickled her arm. She looked. An ant.

Her fingertip got it. The ant left a tiny skid-mark on her skin. “Not yet,” she muttered.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Neala woke up. Her head was on Johnny’s lap. They were still outside, Johnny sitting with his back to the cabin wall.

He smiled down at Neala. His eyes were bloodshot. His face, dark with a day’s growth of whiskers, was torn by scratches and streaked with the brown stains of dry blood. This is how soldiers must look, she thought.

Reaching up, she touched his rough cheek.

“Guess I could use a shave,” he said.

“And sleep. Did you get any sleep at all?”

“What’s that?”

His hand caressed Neala’s forehead. It felt big and warm and comforting. She drew it down to her mouth, and kissed it. Then she slipped it inside her shirt. She closed her eyes as the hand moved lightly over her breasts. It stroked the skin of her belly. She felt his hardness push against the back of her head. The hand returned to her breasts, less gentle now, squeezing and plying her rigid nipples.

She moved his hand away, and stood. Her stiff muscles ached and burned as she stretched. She smiled down at Johnny. He watched as if he knew what would happen next.

She opened her shirt, and slipped it off.

“Are you sure?” Johnny asked. “Here?”

She kept her eyes on Johnny. If she turned to the field of impaled heads, she knew she could not go through with it. “Here’s the only place we can,” she said.

“Inside?”

“Sherri.” She tugged at her belt, and opened it. “Here’s fine. In the sunlight.” She unfastened her corduroys, and slid them down her legs. Stepping out of them, she stood before Johnny, clad only in her brief panties. She slipped them off. The morning breeze licked her skin. The sun was warm.

She crouched in front of Johnny, and helped remove his boots and socks. Standing, he peeled off his T-shirt. As he opened his pants, Neala stroked his broad shoulders. His chest was smooth and muscular and tanned. She fingered his nipples.

He bent down to lower his pants. Then he embraced her. He was warm and big. His tongue pushed into her mouth like the phallus of a small, insistent animal.

For a long time, they held each other. They touched and probed. Then they spread their clothes on the ground.

Neala lay on her back.

Johnny knelt between her legs. His shaft was huge and solid.

It filled her, stretched her, hurt her, but the pain only sharpened her desire. She whimpered into his mouth. She clutched his buttocks as he drove into her with long, endless strokes that seemed to plunge deeper with each thrust.

Then it was too much.

He pounded, pumping, flooding her, and she tried not to cry out as she quaked with her own spasms more intense than any she had ever known.

The cabin door squeaked. Opening her eyes, Neala saw Sherri step out.

“You done?” she asked, her voice sarcastic.

“For Godsake, Sherri!”

“Oh, don’t pay any attention to me.”

“Get out of here! What’s the matter with you!”

Shaking her head, Sherri gazed into the distance. “Nothing’s the matter with me. I just wonder about you two.”

“If you’ll go inside for a minute,” Johnny said, “we’ll finish up and get dressed.” His voice was calm.

“Don’t you like an audience?”

“Damn it, Sherri!”

“Well, you’ve got one. Just thought I’d let you know.” She pointed.

Neala turned her head. “Oh God,” she moaned. She gripped Johnny’s sides.

“They’ve been out there since you started,” Sherri said. “Just a couple, at first. Must be fifteen or twenty now. I guess they liked the show.”

“Don’t worry,” Johnny whispered to Neala.

He raised himself. He was still inside her, still erect. With a look of tenderness and regret, he slowly slid out. Moving on his knees, he grabbed his rifle. He stood, shouldered it, and aimed toward the scattered group beyond the barrier of heads.

Neala began to gather the cast-off clothes. She glanced up. Sherri was staring at her. “Give me a hand, damn it!”

Nodding, Sherri crouched and picked up Johnny’s boots, his socks, his pants. That took care of it. Neala rushed ahead of her into the cabin.

Sherri stopped in the doorway, and looked out. She stayed in the doorway as Johnny moved toward it.

Dropping her bundle of clothes, Neala grabbed Sherri’s arm and tugged her inside.

Sherri swung around. “Leave me alone!”

“Sherri, for Godsake, you’re acting…”

Sherri clutched Nealas hair and jerked her head back. “Shut up,” she hissed. “Just shut your fucking mouth!”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Waking up, Cordie stared through the tangled roof of bushes, and listened, afraid to move.

She heard running. She heard the jabber of voices. She heard harsh laughter. From the sounds, she guessed that half a dozen teenage kids were nearby.

The thicket no longer felt like a refuge. Now it was a trap.

She wanted to get out, to run…

They might hear her, though. They might hear her crawling over the matted leaves and twigs, and get to her before she was free. Trapped in the mesh of bushes, she would be helpless. A game for the kids.

Play with her.

Taunt her, cut her, set her on fire.

She listened to their vicious laughter, their squeals.

All around the thicket.

As if they knew she was there.

She wanted to curl up on her side and hug her knees to her breasts. She didn’t dare. Instead, she pressed her legs tightly together. She pressed her arms to her sides. She stared at the morning sky through a cross-work of limbs.

And waited.

The kids argued in sharp, high voices. Someone chuckled. Bushes rustled.

Cordie’s rigid body trembled. Her neck ached with stiffening muscles.

They know I’m here!

How could they?

She heard the sounds of someone crawling inside the thicket. Coming for her.

She sucked in her breath and held it, trying not to scream.

All other sounds stopped.

They’re listening, she thought. They’re all out there listening, waiting.

Cordie raised her head. She looked down her body, past her shoes, and saw a face appear. The face of a girl. A blond girl with twigs in her wild hair. A girl with blood smeared on her lips, her cheeks, her chin.

She was young. Thirteen or fourteen. Her tanned shoulders were bare.

As the girl crawled closer, Cordie heard herself gulping quick, short breaths. Like a dog with a nightmare. Swallowing, she choked and gasped for air.

The girl moved alongside Cordie. The skin of her back was crosshatched with scratches, smudges of dirt. Her buttocks were bleeding from scratches like the rake marks of fingernails.

She sat up and crossed her legs. “I’m Lilly,” she said. “What’s your name?”

Cordie mumbled her name.

“What?”

“Cordelia.”

“That’s a weirdo name.” She wrinkled her nose. “What kind of a weirdo name is that?”

“Who are you?”

“Lilly.”

“You’re one of them”

“Sure.” Lilly scratched one of her small, cone-shaped breasts. “I’ve been with ’em a couple of years. It’s fun.”

“Fun?”

“Shit yes!” She giggled. “No school, nobody telling you what to do, fucking all the time. It’s great. You’ll like it.”

Cordie shook her head.

“You’ll love it, really.”

“You’re murderers.”

“Sure. It’s a gas. Anyway, you’re supposed to come out.”

“What for?”

The girl smiled and shrugged. “You don’t want to stay in here.” Leaning forward, she propped her elbows on her knees. She whispered, “If you don’t come out, the boys, they’ll have to come in. They won’t like that. They’d have to crawl. So you’d better just come out with me.”

Cordie shook her head.

“They’ll get real mad. It’ll spoil your chance.”

“Chance of what?”

“Joining up. They just won’t let you, if they’re pissed.”

“What happens if I join up?”

“Then we don’t kill you.”

“But what happens?

“Well, after the boys look you over, you’ve gotta get initiated. Then you’re one of us, and you can live free in the woods like we do.”

Cordie rested her head on the ground. She stared through the lacework of branches. The sky was pale and cloudless. “If I join up, they won’t kill me?”

“Not if they like you.”

“I have to… make them like me?”

“Right.”

“And then they won’t kill me?”

“You’ll be one of us. That’s how I joined up. That’s how a lot of us did.”

“All I have to do is go out there, and… and let the guys screw with me or something? And that’s it. They won’t kill me or anything, they just want to screw me?”

“Yeah. That’s about all. Then we’ll take you to the village, see. You’ll have to go through some shit there, but it’s nothing. Old Grar has to give you the okay, stuff like that. Nothing to worry about. Come on.”

Cordie lay still, afraid to move.

God, she didn’t want to go out there!

“The guys are gonna get tired of waiting.”

“Okay,” she said.

“You first.”

She forced herself to move. She turned around, and began to squirm forward on her belly, head down.

What if the girl was lying?

What if they planned to kill her?

But she had no choice.

She kept inching forward.

Then she saw them. Three of them. Teenage boys. Squatting naked in the sunlight just outside the bushes, staring in at her.

She stopped, cramped with fear, and looked back at Lilly.

“Keep going.”

She shook her head.

“Go on.”

“No!”

At a sound of crushing foliage, she snapped her head forward. Two of the boys were scurrying toward her, smashing aside the bushes in their way.

“No!” she shrieked.

She kept shrieking as they grabbed her arms and dragged her from the thicket.

CHAPTER TWENTY

“Why don’t they come?” Neala said, whispering so she wouldn’t wake Johnny.

“You sound like you want ’em to,” Sherri said.

“Hardly.” She was dressed and standing in the doorway, watching the distant Krulls. Several times, she had tried to count them. They kept moving, though—some vanishing into the woods, others appearing. She counted twenty, twenty-four, nineteen, twenty-six. They seemed to be doing nothing special. Just milling about. She couldn’t see them well because of the crosses and heads.

“It’s like they’re waiting for something,” Neala said.

“Yeah. For us. Why don’t we shut the door?”

“We’ve got to watch.”

“We can,” Sherri said. She closed and latched the door. “Over here.” She stepped sideways through the darkness, and lifted one of the deer skins draping the front wall. Sunlight spilled through the gaps between the logs.

So this was how Sherri spied on them, Neala thought. Anger and humiliation began to burn in her. How much had Sherri watched? The whole thing? Had it turned her on?

God, how could she sink that low! Her best friend!

Reaching up, Sherri yanked the deer skin loose. She flung it aside. “That’s better,” she muttered.

Neala peered through a crack. She could see exactly where she’d been with Johnny. She looked up, saw the Krulls still wandering beyond the stakes, and lowered her eyes again to the spot where she’d made love to Johnny.

“Why’d you do it?” she whispered.

“What does it matter?”

“It matters to me.”

“Look I said I’m sorry.”

“I know. I don’t want another apology. I want to know why. You’re my best friend, Sherri. How could you stand here and spy on me like that?”

“We’re all going to die here. You know that, don’t you?”

“No, I don’t.”

“You think your johnny will wave a magic wand and—Presto!—we’re home again?”

“Hardly.”

“Those people out there—those things—they’re going to get us sooner or later. And it won’t make a damn bit of difference why I watched you, will it?”

“It makes a difference to me now.”

“Suit yourself,” Sherri said.

“Tell me.”

“Just let it go.”

“I can’t. Not if we’re going to stay friends.”

“Shit.”

“Okay. If that’s all it means to you…”

“You have no idea what you mean to me. Not the slightest.”

The words frightened Neala.

“I love you.”

She looked at Sherri, stunned. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. And when I saw you, this morning, standing out there in the sunlight… I just couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t stop watching.” She made a sour laugh. “You probably thought I was hankering after Johnny, huh? Surprise surprise.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Believe it, Neala.”

“But those guys you’re always talking about—Jack and Larry. Wesley…”

“I’m bi.”

“I go either way.”

“I know what it means. I just never…” She shook her head. She felt disgusted and afraid.

“I’d hoped you might be that way, too. I thought, you know, I’d find out on our camping trip.”

“What were you going to do, seduce me?”

“Only if you… You’ve got to believe, I never would have forced myself on you. I love you. I’d never do anything unless you were willing.”

“Boy.”

“I’m sorry.”

“All these months…”

“Sorry,” Sherri said. She stepped away from the wall. “This would be a great time for an exit, but I think I’ll pass on it.”

Neala watched her move across the room, and lie down in a corner. She turned again to the wall. She peered out the crack.

I love you.

The words were like a heavy stone in her stomach. She felt betrayed. As if her friendship with Sherri had been a nasty trick. Not a friendship, at all, but a game Sherri had played to stay close to her. To sneak intimate moments: a glimpse of her body, a casual touch, sometimes a quick, happy hug.

Her face felt on fire as she remembered their weekend in San Diego, last month. After a day at SeaWorld, the motel room. Calling to Sherri from the shower because she’d forgotten her shampoo. Sherri’s little joke. “If I was a guy, I’d climb in and lend a hand.” Not such a joke, after all. A suggestion.

God, she must’ve prayed I’d ask her to come in, anyway.

It must’ve been torture for Sherri.

The whole weekend. Being so close to her, but never close enough.

She remembered other scenes from that weekend, now. The times they changed clothes in the same room. The night Sherri had given herself a breast examination, probing and massaging herself as she chatted with Neala, urging her to do the same.

If she’d offered to perform the examination herself, Neala would’ve been suspicious. Sherri’d been too smart for that. She played the game well.

She hadn’t been subtle, but she’d misdirected Neala like a skillful magician.

“Get a load of this number,” she’d said, pulling a sheer, black negligee from her suitcase. “Wesley picked it up at Frederick’s. Horniest son of a bitch I’ve ever met.” She dropped her bathrobe onto the bed, and slipped into the negligee. “Cute, huh?”

“What there is of it.”

“Well, it’s the only nightgown I’ve got, kiddo I just brought it in deference to your modesty. I usually sleep in the raw.”

“Don’t let me stop you.”

Sherri did a lot in the raw, that weekend. Neala just assumed she liked the free, natural feel of it. Now it didn’t seem that way at all. Sherri’d been displaying herself, trying to entice her.

Well, she hadn’t been enticed.

Sherri had a fine body, big and firm and nearly flawless. But it had one flaw, for Neala.

It was the body of a woman, not a man.

She just couldn’t get worked up about it, and that must have been terrible for Sherri. The weekend must have been a torment. All the time they spent together, for nearly a year, was obviously filled with pain and frustrated desire and hope. Constant, unfulfilled hope that Neala would finally respond.

God, the misery Sherri had put herself through!

Neala looked across the dark room. She saw Sherri in the corner, lying on her back, an arm over her face.

She went to her.

She sat down beside her.

“My turn on watch?” Sherri asked.

“No.”

“What’re they doing out there?”

“Just waiting.”

“Gonna starve us out.”

“Hey Sherri.”

“Huh?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You? What for?”

“I’m just sorry I couldn’t be what you need.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

Neala reached down, and took her friend’s hand.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

They stripped Cordie. Then two boys held her to the ground while another tried to mount her. She twisted and kicked. He battered her legs away, got between them, and clutched her thighs to hold her still. He thrust against her. The head of his erection prodded, missing, missing, then finding the split of her vagina and plunging in. She cringed, and closed her eyes tightly.

“Look at him,” Lilly said. “They don’t like it when you shut your eyes.”

She kept them shut. The boy pounded into her with quick, hard strokes.

“You’ll be sorry,” Lilly warned. “It’s an insult shutting your eyes. You want them to kill you?”

Cordie opened her eyes. The boy’s face was above her. He watched her with narrow eyes. His bloody lips were drawn back, baring his teeth. He grunted loudly with each thrust, blowing putrid breath into her face.

She turned away. Lilly was squatting beside her, next to the boy who kept her right arm pinned. Another girl, this one chubby but small breasted, stood behind them. Her pubic hair was shaved. As she watched Cordie, she rubbed herself with the knobby end of a bone. The bone looked slippery and fresh. Its end disappeared inside her. Cordie quickly looked away, back to the face of the boy gasping above her, then away.

The boy pinning her left hand was younger than the others. He watched her with eager, wild eyes. Behind him stood a slender girl with a stump where her elbow should have been. A small, dried hand hung around her neck on a thong, its brown fingers curled as if about to clutch something.

The boy was pumping harder now, about to come.

Cordie stared at the girl’s withered hand. She tried hard to concentrate on it, to figure out whether it was a left hand or a right hand, to keep herself from thinking about the boy grunting and sweating on top of her, dirtying her insides with his filthy cock his…

A left hand.

The girl’s left arm had the stump.

Therefore…

The withered horror dangling between her breasts—was it her own severed hand?

The boy suddenly thrust deep and stayed, tight against her, head thrown back and mouth wide, his body twitching as he throbbed inside her. Cordie was sickened by the feel of his jerking cock, the spilling seed. She gagged.

The boy pulled out of her. He stood, pointing at his shiny erection and making a comment in a language Cordie didn’t know. Then he stepped back, hands on hips.

The boy on her right let go of her arm.

Cordie whimpered.

“It’s part of the test,” Lilly said.

When he was on top of Cordie, about to enter her, she clenched her fist.

“Hit him,” Lilly whispered, “and you’re dead meat.”

So she lay beneath him, her free arm tense but motionless at her side, as he rode her to a climax.

He stood. He pointed at his dripping cock, said something and stepped away. He stood at the side of the first boy, and folded his arms.

The one at her left released her other arm. Cordie glanced at Lilly, kneeling close by. Lilly was flushed and breathing hard. The girl behind her was writhing on the bone she held in both hands. The one-armed girl stood motionless, her bare skin glossy with sweat, her fierce eyes meeting Cordie’s.

Jealous!

She’s jealous, Cordie thought. Of me.

The young one climbed onto her. He pushed his penis into her. It was smaller than the others. His mouth went to one of her breasts. Sucked the nipple. Gnawed it. Wincing with pain, Cordie clutched the grass. Then the pain streaked through her. She grabbed the boy’s hair and jerked his head away.

He snarled like a raging dog.

Cordie heard a sharp laugh. She glanced at the one-armed girl, and saw a vicious smile on her face.

“You blew it,” Lilly said.

The words struck Cordie with sudden, cramping fear. She pulled the boy’s face down to her mouth and kissed it. She darted her tongue into his mouth.

She stroked his back. She clenched his buttocks, digging into his smooth flesh, pressing him more deeply into her. The boy moaned with pleasure. She eased his head away from her face, and pushed his mouth to her breast. His teeth clamped it, chewed it. She cried out with pain, but kept thrusting against him, kept squeezing his buttocks, and finally pushed a finger into his tight sphincter. He shook with spasms, moaning and gasping as he came.

He looked haggard and pleased when he climbed off her. He pointed to his erection, spoke, and joined the other two boys.

Cordie sat up.

The three boys began to walk. They nodded. They pointed at her.

The one-armed girl suddenly shouted. She jerked her knife out of her skin belt, and flung it to the ground. Strange words spat from her mouth.

The boys nodded.

“Tough,” Lilly said.

“What’s going on?”

“Kigit says you’re shit. She doesn’t want ’em to let you in. Says you’re weak and yellow. Says she wants to fight you.”

“Fight me?”

“Yeah. She’ll get her way, too. She’s gurlaw, one of the honored.”

“What?”

“She gave an arm during the last famine.”

“Gave it?”

Lilly nodded. “That’s her own hand she’s wearing around her neck. A very big honor. Must’ve hurt like hell. You’d never catch me doing that, you can bet.”

“Oh gees.”

The boys were nodding, agreeing with Kigit. She turned away from them, and walked toward Cordie.

“You’d better stand up.”

“I have to fight her?”

“You better try.”

Cordie got to her feet as the girl approached. Her legs felt very tired and weak. She hurt inside from the assaults. Wetness spilled from her, rolling like syrup down her thighs.

She backed away from Kigit. She moved past the side of the thicket, wondering if she dared to turn and run.

Kigit smiled strangely. She pointed behind Cordie.

Cordie didn’t look. She continued to step backward until her bare foot slipped on a patch of wetness. She took a quick step, trying to catch her balance, and tripped on an obstruction.

She fell onto her back. Sitting up quickly, she found herself in the midst of severed human limbs. They were scattered all around—legs, arms, two mauled torsos. The kids, she realized, had been feasting before they found her.

Kigit picked up a glob of loose meat and tossed it underhand at Cordie.

She screamed as it landed on her belly. She rolled. The thing slid off her. Then she scrambled to her feet.

Kigit picked up a severed arm. She held it to her own stump and waved it in a parody of her own missing arm.

Cordie turned and ran. She heard the girl behind her, drawing closer. She lunged sideways. Leaped over a dead trunk. Darted through bushes that flailed her skin. But Kigit kept getting closer.

Where were the others? The boys? If it’s just this girl, this one-armed girl…

Cordie plunged forward as Kigit shoved her from behind. She landed hard, facedown, twigs and thorns tearing her flesh. As she started to get up, Kigit pounded on her back. The weight drove her down. Kigit’s arm crossed her throat choking off her wind. Using both hands, Cordie forced the arm away.

They rolled, but Kigit came up on top. Straddling Cordie’s chest, the girl shot a punch between her upraised arms. The fist felt like a hammer smashing Cordie’s nose. Her arms dropped heavily. Kigit’s knees pinned them to the ground. One blow after another crashed against her face. Finally, they stopped.

Though she kept her eyes open, Cordie was too dazed to struggle. She watched the girl above her, grinning down, then leaning forward so the withered hand dangled above her face. The hand lowered. Its dry fingers dragged across her forehead.

Cordie whimpered at the touch of the clawlike hand. She felt the scrape of its fingernails along her cheek. Kigit used her living hand to guide it toward Cordie’s mouth. The fingers hooked her lips. She kept them tightly shut. The fingers pressed, working between her lips, tearing them. She tasted blood. She felt the nails against her front teeth.

Lilly knelt beside her, and she suddenly realized that the others had caught up. They stood in a close circle around her, watching in silence.

Suddenly, Kigit jabbed the dead hand at Cordie’s right eye. She jerked her head sideways. The fingers raked the side of her face. Twisting frantically, she worked her arm out from under the girl’s knee. She grabbed a breast and wrung it. Kigit cried out, falling sideways as Cordie pulled. Cordie kept her grip. She climbed onto the writhing girl, whose single hand battered her arm, trying to free the tortured breast. Turning, she dug her elbow into Kigit’s throat. She put her weight on it. Something crushed, and her elbow punched deeper. The girl bucked, eyes popping, mouth agape, arm swinging wildly. Cordie blocked it. She crawled off the convulsing body, and got to her knees.

Everyone watched Kigit until she died.

Then a boy, the one who’d been first to assault Cordie, spoke.

She turned to Lilly for an explanation.

“He says you’re okay, but you’ve got to pick up Kigit and bring her along.”

Cordie crawled to the body. She tore the thong away from the neck. She held it up, the severed hand swaying below it, and flung it into the bushes.

The chubby girl ran after it. She came out of the bushes holding the hand. She sniffed it. Then, dropping her bone, she tied the hand to her knife belt so it daisied between her legs. As she began touching herself with the curled fingers, Cordie turned to the boys.

“Get going,” Lilly said.

Cordie clasped the dead girl’s arm, and pulled her to a sitting position. A fecal odor filled her nostrils. Holding her breath, she worked her way around to the girl’s back. She reached under the armpits and hugged the chest, locking her hands just below the breasts. She started to lift. The body felt leaden.

“Do you want me to help?” Lilly asked.

Cordie nodded.

“I get the head.”

“Huh?”

“You killed her, so you get first tibbies. So take the head. Everybody does, ’cause the brain’s the best part. So you take first tibbies on the head, and give it to me.”

“Okay,” Cordie muttered.

“It’s a deal?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. First off, don’t try picking her up. Too hard. We’ll each take a leg, and just drag her.”

Cordie nodded. She stood, spreading her tangled hair away from her face. Her fingers touched a cheek. She glanced at them. The tips were shiny with blood. Her face felt numb and swollen. She hadn’t realized it was bleeding, though. Looking down at herself, she saw that much of her body was scratched and bruised, and streaked with blood.

“Look at me,” she mumbled. “Jesus, look at me.”

“Look at her” Lilly said, nodding toward the body. “Come on.” She picked up Kigit’s right foot.

The boys started walking away. The chubby girl followed them, her dimpled buttocks jiggling as she walked.

Cordie picked up the left foot. She and Lilly leaned forward, and the body moved. They began to walk. It skidded along behind them.

The boys led the way back to the thicket. They picked up part of the bodies.

Cordie lowered her eyes, unwilling to look at their cargo of arms and legs.

God, how could any of this be!

Have they done this to Mom and Dad?

Maybe Mom’s alive. Maybe they raped her and let her join, like me, and we can run off together. But we’d have to find Dad, first. If he’s alive.

If he’s alive. But how could he be?

It’s possible, she thought.

Anything’s possible. None of this makes sense, so anything is possible, even Dad coming in with the National Guard and slaughtering all these bastards.

The body caught on something.

Without looking, Cordie jerked fiercely. It pulled free.

“How far to the village?” she asked Lilly.

“A ways.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Lander Dills, perched in a tree where he’d spent the past few hours in restless sleep, opened his eyes. The forest was bright with daylight.

He sidestepped away from the trunk. Holding on to an upper branch, he urinated into space. His stream glinted silver in the sunlight.

“Ruth and Lander sitting in a tree,” he recited. “P-i-s-s-i-ng.

He laughed, but his laughter died.

No Ruth.

Lost.

O lost, and by the wind grieved.

Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe.

You can’t go home again. No home to go home to. No Ruth, no Cordelia.

Just me.

There is a wolf in me.

He pulled his hatchet free of the branch where he’d left it embedded. He dropped it to the ground. Then he climbed down from the tree, careful not to abrade himself on its rough bark.

On the ground, he stretched. He ached as if every muscle had turned to stone. His arms and legs were bruised. Dozens of scratches crisscrossed his skin. He was lumpy with welts, probably from insect bites. He itched all over. Gingerly, he scratched a mosquito bite on the side of his penis.

A bath is what he needed. A dip in the stream.

A few minutes of quick walking took him to it. He put down his hatchet, and plunged in. The cool water felt good on his irritated skin. It made the itching stop. In midstream, he stood. He peeled off his vest and turned it, studying it in the morning sunlight.

The skin was dark and smooth, the tattoo stunning.

“Stunning,” Lander said.

The tattoo’s naked woman stood with her legs spread wide. Her red pubic hair was shaped like a valentine heart. Her big breasts had red nipples. Her protruding tongue was forked like a snake’s, and a nest of vipers writhed atop her head.

Medusa!

In the palm of each hand, she held a dark nipple of the man who had worn her on his chest.

Who wore her no more.

Well, his chest still wore her.

“But I’m wearing his chest,” Lander said. He put it on. It clung to his back with a clammy touch that made him shiver.

Suddenly, he heard a voice. A distant voice, but too close. From the direction of his tree. He stood motionless, listening. The whispering rush of the stream was loud. It hid all but the most obvious sounds. Good thing one had talked.

Blessed is he who speaks for he shall warn Lander.

He gazed along the shore, but saw no one.

He looked downstream. Twenty yards off, he saw a bend. If he could make it that far, he’d be well out of sight.

But so would the intruder.

Lander wanted to see him. Or them.

Fair game.

So he quietly sidestroked downstream. Halfway to the bend, he swam toward the shore. The bank, here, was high and steep. Roots of a nearby tree hung out the dirt wall and drooped into the water. Lander squeezed among them. He squatted so that only his head remained above the surface of the water.

At once, he heard splashing. He looked upstream through the cage of roots. There, just where he’d been standing a minute ago, a girl was plunging through the water.

A chubby thing, by the looks of her. She swam a bit, then waded out, skin shiny, ass jiggling. On the far shore, she turned around. A pudge, all right. With tiny, glossy boobs. And a spare hand hanging over her hairless slit.

It dropped from sight as she sat down and crossed her legs.

She called, using unknown words.

Male voices called back.

Then Lander saw three boys in the stream, carrying arms and legs. All teenagers. In the deep part, they swam awkwardly under their burdens. As they waded ashore, Lander counted the severed limbs. Four arms, but only three legs.

Caught themselves a gimp.

Or snacked on the missing leg.

There’s food for thought.

No heads.

Fancy that.

How could he tell who belonged to what?

No torsos, either.

He stared hard at the legs. They looked like boys’ legs, didn’t they? The one certainly did. It was bigger than the other two, and hairy.

Belonged to a tall chap like Ben.

His eyes jerked to the other legs. They were smaller. Slim, almost feminine.

Ah, but the skin was too dark.

Definitely, too dark. Not the legs of the fair Cordelia.

The chubby girl spoke. She raised an arm and pointed toward Lander.

The boys turned. They all stared directly at him. One pulled a knife from his belt.

Lander pushed through the hanging roots, eyes on the group, heart racing. He moved toward the middle of the stream.

A boy called out to him.

Lander raised both arms above his head fists clenched, and roared.

“Get him!” yelled a voice from behind.

He swung around, glimpsed a pair of savage girls, and dived.

He swam underwater. His heart thundered. His lungs began to burn. He touched the bottom, and pulled himself forward by gripping the slippery rocks.

When he thought his lungs would burst, he arched toward the surface. His head broke free. He spun, and looked back.

Nobody there.

He’d passed the bend.

But they might be coming.

He charged ashore, and scrambled up the bank on his own side of the stream. Then he ran. He dodged trees. He crashed through bushes. He tumbled into a gully, and crawled along the bottom until he came to a dead tree that had fallen across it. He scooted under the old, barkless trunk.

He stared at the gray wood, less than two inches above his face.

Each time he sucked air into his aching lungs, he felt his chest press against the trunk.

They’ll never find me here, he thought.

The wily fox has gone to ground.

As time passed, he heard no pursuers. Nothing to worry about, on that score.

But Lander felt uneasy. He’d seen something back at the stream—something terribly important. But he didn’t know what.

An ugly yellow spider scrambled over the trunk, just above his face. He watched it, hoping it wouldn’t drop. When it was out of range, he tried to concentrate.

What had he seen at the stream?

Girls and boys and bodies.

Arms and legs.

Legs.

The girls had long, slim legs. Not the chubby girl—hers were short and thick. The other two, who showed up late. The two he only glimpsed.

One, he suddenly remembered, had called out in English.

Get him!”

Was that what troubled him? Her English?

No, her legs.

Or the other’s.

Legs.

He tried hard to picture the girls. Both naked and filthy. Bloody. One taller than the other.

Nice tits.

Pubic hair like arrowheads pointing the way down to dark mysteries.

Ah, he would like to give them a roll, to clutch those tits, rut in those hidden holes.

The head of his erection rose against the wood.

He forgot the uneasiness he’d been trying to fathom. He had a new uneasiness, now, an ache that shouldn’t be difficult to cure.

It only required a woman.

A girl.

He squirmed free of the trunk, and stood. He breathed deeply. The morning air was perfume. The perfume of a lovely woman.

He could have taken one last night. He could have taken many. They’d been so available, as he stalked them in the night. If he hadn’t been so timid…

“Wee timorous beastie,” he muttered.

He looked down at his erection, and chuckled.

Not so timorous now.

Nor so wee.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

“Why didn’t they go after him?” Cordie asked.

“’Cause they’re dorks,” Lilly said. “They’re too damn lazy. Or just chicken. Those Thaks can be dangerous, but they’re worth it. You get to keep the whole carcass, and don’t have to share. It’s like a reward—a bounty, you know?”

“What’s a Thak?”

“Like an outcast. If you’re a fuck-up, you get kicked out of the village. Then you’re fair game. The woods are full of ’em.”

“How do you know he was one?” Cordie asked. She stopped dragging the body to wipe sweat out of her eyes.

“You can tell,” Lilly said. “For one, they act crazy”

He bad acted crazy. Yelling like that. And not recognizing Cordie. Of course, it was no wonder he didn’t know her, the way she looked. And he’d only given her a glance.

She’d come damn close to calling out. She stopped herself, though. He would’ve tried to rescue her. They’d have killed him, for sure.

“Also,” Lilly said, “you can tell because they’re strangers. If you see a stranger around here, you can bet it’s a Thak. Gotta watch out for ’em. My best friend got killed by one. The shit he did to her…”

Cordie wondered what could shock a girl like Lilly. She didn’t ask. She didn’t want to know.

“One came in the village, just last night. Christ, he killed half a dozen of us. They’re bad. Real bad. Most of us, we never go anyplace alone, case we run into one.”

They resumed dragging the body. It seemed heavier than before. “How much farther’s this village?”

“We’re almost there.”

“God, I hope so.” She struggled forward. The woods were hot and still. Not a breeze stirred.

Sweat rolled down her skin. Kigit’s ankle was slippery in her wet hands, and several times she lost her grip.

“Can’t we rest?” she asked.

“We’ll be there in a minute.”

“I saw a Thak last night. I’ll tell you about it, if we can rest a second.”

“Okay. Make it quick, though.”

Cordie dropped the leg. With sweaty hands, she wiped ropes of wet hair away from her face. She was dripping. She wished she had a towel.

u saw a Thak?”

Cordie nodded. “Yeah. It killed some kid. And…” She couldn’t bring herself to speak Ben’s name. “And my boyfriend.”

“You mean them?” Lilly nodded toward the boys who were walking a short distance ahead, with their burdens of arms and legs.

“That’s… ?”

“That’s them. Who do you think?”

“I guess I knew,” she admitted.

“Let’s get moving,” Lilly said.

They lifted the legs, and started forward.

“That wasn’t any Thak you saw.”

“Huh?”

“Their heads got ripped off. That wasn’t a Thak. What’d he look like?”

“He was huge,” Cordie said. “I don’t know, maybe seven feet. That’s about all I saw. It was dark, and I only got a glimpse. But I heard him. God, he had a voice like… it was horrible.”

“He yelled Krull,’ right?”

“Yeah.” Cordie blinked sweat off her eyelashes. “Who was he?”

“The Devil.”

In the village, Cordie was led directly to a hut. “Stay here,” Lilly said. “Grar has to see you.”

Then she was alone. She sat cross-legged in the center of the hut. The floor was specked with sunlight from the leafy roof. She sighed. It felt good to be rid of the body. But later…

She didn’t want to think about later.

At least for the moment, she didn’t seem to be in danger.

They’d accepted her.

They’d fucked her raw. Kigit had tried to kill her. But she’d done everything right, so far. She was almost one of them.

With both hands, she wiped the dripping sweat from her face. From her shoulders and breasts.

She would like to go back to that stream.

And Dad.

The pelt over the hut’s entrance flapped open, and a creature swung in on hairy arms. Cordie flinched. She gripped her thighs, digging fingernails into her wet skin, fighting her urges to flee or scream.

The creature, she realized, was a man. A man of hideous deformity, legless and bloated. His mouth twitched into a mockery of a grin.

“Grar?”

The monster swung himself closer.

Cordie squeezed her thighs harder. Her fingernails pierced her skin.

Inches from her knees, he stopped. His eyes roamed her body.

No!

Not him!

Watching his gummy eyes, she knew she would die before letting him take her.

She crossed her arms over her breasts.

The creature growled.

“No,” she whispered.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Robbins woke up, and found Neala asleep beside him on the bed of fur. He raised his head. Sherri was at the front wall, keeping watch.

He gently removed Neala’s hand from his belly, and got up. He went to Sherri. “What’re they doing?” he asked.

“Just standing there.”

He peered out. “What the hell are they waiting for?”

“Maybe they plan to starve us out. Beats getting their heads shot off.”

“Yeah.” He stepped away from the wall, and lifted his T-shirt to wipe the sweat off his face. Then he picked up his rifle. He went to the door, and opened it. The air from outside gave no relief; it felt even hotter than the air inside.

“Actually,” said Sherri, “I think we’ll die of thirst long before we starve.”

“We’re not gonna do either.”

“What do you plan, a mass suicide?”

“I plan to get us out of here.”

“Rotsa ruck.”

He stepped into the sunlight. Squinting, he looked through the weirdly tilted crosses and mounted heads.

Must be two dozen Krulls out there. Not doing a damn thing. Just lounging around, like it’s a picnic.

Picnic.

Robbins made a grim laugh.

A few of the Krulls perked up when they noticed him. Some pointed. One young fellow ran forward, stopping at the edge of the pikes, and hurled a spear. Robbins watched it soar, knowing it would fall short. It did. It tore half the face off an impaled head. The head twirled, its black hair swinging behind it.

Angry voices broke the silence.

Two Krulls attacked the boy. They threw him down. They stomped and kicked him.

Because he flung his spear at an impossible target?

Or because he damaged one of the heads?

Maybe the area’s sacred, Robbins thought. It would explain why the Krulls hadn’t entered.

He walked along the front of the cabin to its corner. More Krulls along the side. He counted eight. They could be reinforced, though, by some from the front.

He moved to the rear. More there. Thirteen or fourteen wandering idly beyond the barrier of heads.

He gasped at a noise behind him. Swung around. Found his rifle muzzle inches from Neala’s belly.

For an instant, she looked terrified. Then a smile came to her face. “Don’t shoot,” she said.

“Wouldn’t think of it. What’re you doing up?”

She shrugged. “Too hot in there.”

“It’s hotter out here.”

“But you’re here. What are you doing?”

“Looking for a way out.”

“Any luck?”

“Not yet.”

She squinted across the field. Wet hair clung to her forehead. Her face was sweaty. The tiny, moist specks below her eyes glinted sunlight. A drop rolled down toward a corner of her mouth. She licked it away, then dried her face with the front of her shirt. She let the shirt hang open.

“Why don’t they come for us?” she asked.

“I’m not certain. I think we might be in the middle of a sacred area, or something. They always stop at the edge of the heads.”

“I would’ve, too, if I’d had a choice.”

“It’s more than just revulsion. Has to be. These Krulls think nothing of tearing people limb from limb. They must have a damn good reason for staying out.”

“Like if these are their ancestors?”

“Yeah.”

“That’d be nice for us.”

“Except.”

Neala nodded. She leaned back against the wall, and hooked her thumbs into the pockets of her corduroys. Her throat and chest and belly were glossy with sweat.

“What’ll we do?” she asked.

“We can’t stay here forever.”

“We gonna make a run for it?”

“I guess we’ll have to. We’ll wait till after dark, and sneak out. This way, I guess. The crosses aren’t quite as dose together, back here. If we can manage to crawl through without knocking any down…”

“Everybody decent?” came Sherri’s voice.

Neala quickly pulled her shirt together and tucked in its front. “Yeah,” she called.

Sherri stepped around the corner. “What’s cooking?” she asked.

“We are,” said Neala.

“Maybe that’s what they’re waiting for.”

“We’re planning to get out of here tonight.”

“How do we manage that?”

Robbins explained it. As he talked, he saw Sherri look toward the heads. She gazed at them. She seemed lost in her own grim thoughts. “I know it won’t be easy,” he said. “I don’t want to go out there, either. We can’t just stay here, though.”

“I think I will,” Sherri said. She tried to laugh. It sounded more like a sob.

“It won’t be so bad,” Neala said.

“What it’ll be,” said Sherri, “it’ll be fuckin’ ghastly. Better than sticking around here, though.”

“We’ll leave as soon as it’s dark,” Robbins said.

Sherri nodded. “Which gives us all day to look forward to it.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

A man entered the hut. An old, lean man. He spoke, and the creature scuttled away from Cordie.

“I am Grar, he said. “Our companion is Heth. Your name is?”

“Cordie.”

The man came forward on hands and knees; the hut was too low for standing. He wore a skirt of hair that hung to the ground as he crawled. It was many colors: brown, red, blond, and raven black.

He sat in front of Cordie, and crossed his legs.

“You are one who escaped the trees, last night.”

“Yes.”

“I understand that you wish to become one of us.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Was the question a trick? She saw no malice in Grar’s eyes. “So I won’t be killed,” she said.

“Joining us is no guarantee of that. We have many.

She nodded.

“Are you appalled by our ways?”

“I don’t know.”

“We live apart from the civilization you know. We despise it. Our fathers and forefathers despised it.”

“Why?” she asked, and hoped the question wouldn’t anger him.

“Laws. Rules. They’re hateful to us, just as they were hateful to our founder. He fled to this region of woods to escape the laws of civilization. That was long ago—a hundred years before your country’s birth. Savages inhabited these woods, but he was more savage than they. He slaughtered them, and ate their flesh as a token of his power.

“Only the women did he spare. He took them to his bed, and they gave forth progeny.”

“Progeny?”

“Children, offspring, sucklings. They grew, and were as fierce as their father. They killed their enemies, and ate them after his manner.

“Now the father had a woman he favored above all others.”

Nobody talks this way, Cordie thought. He must’ve got his English from a Bible.

“She was lean and fair, a woman of rare beauty. She bore him many sons. When the sons became ripe, the one named Raf went to her in the night. He took no care to conceal his act. It is our custom, you see, to bed whom we will, without shame or secrecy. But when the father learned what Raf had done, his cry filled the night. He raged through the village. All those who saw his anger fled before him, and hid in the forest. His wrath was terrible. He tore the heads from every son, and every daughter, and every living thing. And he took the heads away. He built himself a home far from the village he hated. And he surrounded his home with the heads of those he had killed.

“Two survived his savagery. They mated, and their numbers grew. Though many were slain in the years after the great slaughter, many survived. They lived like fearful beasts, hiding in the treetops at night to escape the avenging father.

“At last, they had a great gathering and decided to take his life. While the women and children took refuge in the tallest trees, the men went forth. The forest trembled, that night, with howls of rage and pitiful, tormented cries. Morning came, but the men did not return.

“Among the women, one was brave. She climbed down from the safety of her tree, and traveled through the woods to the home of her father. When she returned, she told of finding the head of every man mounted on a cross of wood before the father’s door. Then she broke her own head open with a rock, and fell dead.”

“How many did he kill?” Cordie asked.

“In that one night, he took the lives of thirty-two.

“How could he?”

“Because he is the Devil, Manfred Krull. Cordie stared at Grar. The old man’s eyes held fear. “The Devil?” Cordie whispered. “That’s who Lilly said I saw, last night. The one who killed my boyfriend.”

“Lilly spoke the truth. You saw our founder, the Devil, Manfred Krull.”

“No.” She shook her head. “It couldn’t… Not the original…”

“It is,” Grar said.

“That’s impossible. The man you talked about, he’d have to be three hundred years old.”

“Far older.”

“Can’t be.”

“His evil is ageless.”

Cordie shook her head. She couldn’t buy that. No way. But arguing might anger Grar, so she kept silent.

“We have tried, many times, to kill him. Always, we fail. Always, he takes terrible vengeance.

“Our numbers are few.”

“How few?”

“Less than a hundred. Many died in the winter. We must multiply, or our family will soon perish.

“You will give us children,” he said. “Children to replace the many who have fallen. And you will give us fresh blood to mix with the blood of our fathers. Without new blood, the children come forth weak and crooked, like Heth.” He nodded toward the deformed man in the corner. “The blood of his parents was old.”

Too much inbreeding? Cordie wondered. She didn’t realize it could create such monstrosities.

“You will give yourself to any man, until you are with child. After your firstborn, you may accept those you wish, rejecting others.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Now we must go.”

Her heart slammed. “Where?”

“To your friends.”

“I don’t… Who?”

“Those who escaped with you from the trees. You will go to them.”

“I don’t know where they are.”

“They have taken shelter in the house of the Devil. You must go to them, and bring them out.”

“Me?”

“Only you, among us, may enter the land of the dead.”

“Oh Jesus, I don’t…”

“The women are young. Like you, they will give us many children. We must have them.”

“But there’s a guy.”

“You will take his life.”

“Me? Kill him?”

“You have killed others. You killed Kigit, who was gurlaw.”

“This guy’s got a gun.”

“You are a woman.”

“That’s not…” She stopped herself. Defiance would do her no good—and might get her killed. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll do whatever you say.”

“I hear deceit in your voice.”

“No. I’ll do it, honest. I’ll kill the guy. I really will. Then I’ll make the women come out.”

“If you betray us, your death will be horrible beyond nightmares.”

In a dry voice, she said, “I won’t betray you.”

“Heth.”

The creature scuttled forward.

“Your hand, girl.”

She raised her left arm.

The old man lightly took her wrist. He guided her hand toward Heth. She made a fist.

“Open your hand.”

Her fingers fluttered open.

“Please,” she whispered.

“You must learn a lesson in obedience,” Grar said, and moved her little finger toward Heth’s mouth. The dry lips sucked it in. She felt the edges of his teeth. The tongue stroked the length of her finger.

Then he bit.

She saw her bleeding stump. She saw Heth chewing. The ceiling of the hut tilted strangely, and went dark.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

“What time do you think it is?” Neala asked, staring through the doorway.

Sherri shrugged. “Cordelia’s the one with the watch.”

“I’d guess it’s past noon,” Johnny said. “Maybe.”

“It gets dark around eight?”

“Yeah,” said Sherri. “That gives us seven hours. Can you die of thirst in seven hours?”

“I doubt it,” Johnny said.

Neala wiped her face. “I wish night would get here.”

“It will,” Johnny told her.

“And then,” said Sherri, “the real fun starts.” She lay down on her back, folded her hands beneath her head, and stared at the ceiling. “Hide and seek with the bogeymen.”

“We can’t stay here,” Neala said.

“If we had water, we could.”

“But we don’t.”

“Maybe just one of us should go out, tonight, and bring some back. He could fill that pot…”

“You volunteering me?” Johnny asked.

“Sure.” She grinned at him. “You game?”

“Not hardly. By the time I could make it to water, I’d be home free. I might as well keep going.”

“Right! Great idea! Keep going, and get help. Bring in the cavalry. Get us out of here in a chopper, and blow these fuckers to hell.”

Johnny remained silent. Neala turned to him, alarmed. “You’re not seriously considering it!”

“Well…”

“Damn it Sherri!”

“Hey, it was only a suggestion.”

“It has some merits,” Johnny said.

“No!”

“I probably could get help. Search and rescue, over in Melville, has a copter. If I get to them, they could set down right outside the door. Only thing is, it would take a while. I’d have to make it to the road, and get my hands on a car. My car, if it’s working. Then I’d have to make it through Barlow.”

“What’s the problem with that?” Sherri asked.

“Barlow? Everyone knows me. If I’m spotted, they’d try to stop me. But Melville’s only half an hour past Barlow, so I could get there pretty fast, if nothing goes wrong.”

“Yeah,” Neala said. “If nothing goes wrong. In the meantime, we’d be sitting here alone. No food, no water, no way of knowing if you made it.”

“The thing is, you’d be safe here. Out beyond the heads, you’d be vulnerable.”

“Just like you.”

“I can move fast, alone. If I make it, I’d be back by morning with that copter.”

“And if you don’t make it?”

“You’re no worse off than if you’d been with me.”

“It’s a good idea,” Sherri said.

“Hold it. Just a minute, damn it. Johnny, didn’t you say it’s twenty miles to get out of Krull territory?”

He nodded. “That’s if you head east.”

“What’s this if That’s the way you led us, last night. East.”

“If I go out alone, I’ll head west.”

“Back the way we came?”

“I’ll try to get back to my car. If I can get it started…”

“The place was crawling with Krulls.”

“Last night,” Sherri added.

“Okay, last night. So do you think they just vanished since then?”

Sherri smirked. “They’re right outside.”

“That’s right,” Johnny said. “Right outside. Must be fifty of them surrounding this cabin. That’s fifty who aren’t prowling the woods. If I can just sneak past the ones right here, the rest of the way should be a cinch.”

“If it’s a cinch,” Neala said, “let’s all go together.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Lander moved silently through the woods, seeking prey. Finally, he heard voices. He made his way toward them. Crouching behind a tree, he saw four Krulls sitting in the shade nearby.

Three men, one woman.

They were talking quietly in their strange language.

The woman sat with her back to Lander. Her thick, blond hair hung almost to the ground. Her skin was tanned and shiny. It would feel moist in his hands. Moist and pliant.

He wished he could see her breasts.

If he waited, perhaps she would stand and turn.

But the men were most vulnerable now, sitting and relaxed. One had no right arm. The other two, however, looked lean and fit.

I’ll hack them before they…

With what?

Lander frowned. He glanced down at his empty hands.

What had become of his hatchet? He’d had one earlier, he was sure of it.

He patted his vest. He looked down at himself. He drew a hand across his naked rump. He turned, and studied the ground behind him. His hatchet was gone.

Gone!

How could he have lost his hatchet! How could he take this girl, and clutch her breasts, and plunder her dark wet hole…

Lander saw spears on the ground within reach of two of the men. A knife hung by a thong at the side of the woman. The one-armed man had a hatchet.

He would go for the hatchet. If he could get to it quickly, before the others…

The woman got to her feet.

She turned.

She held an infant in her arms, its mouth latched to one of her swollen breasts.

Lander ducked out of sight.

Oh, a baby. He didn’t wish to kill a baby.

Why not? They all were babies once. Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. The worst were babies once. A swift death would stop this one from growing villainous.

But he cringed at the thought of killing it.

No pleasure there.

No pleasure fucking the woman while her murdered infant lay in the bushes, watching with pale, dead eyes.

No no no.

He would let them live.

He waited, and listened as the group departed.

When the last sounds of their chatter faded in the distance, Lander stood.

He headed for the stream. That’s where he’d seen lots of fine women. He could wade into the cool water, and drink his fill, and wait for a young, lovely one. And if none pleased him, he would head to the village, this night, and take his pick.

When Lander drew near the stream, he crouched and listened. He heard only birds, and the rush of the water. He crept to the shore, just at the point where he’d entered the water that morning.

The stream was deserted.

He took a step forward. His bare foot came down on a smooth, hard surface.

The head of his hatchet.

“Passing strange,” he said.

He picked it up. Inspected it. This hatchet looked markedly similar to the one he’d lost.

He took it with him into the water. Ducking, he felt the coolness rise to his shoulders. He drank. It tasted fine.

A heady brew.

Staying close to shore where the water was waist high, he began to walk downstream. His eyes searched the shores. He saw no one.

At the bend, the water moved swiftly. It slid over his skin like a caress. He crouched to savor its touch.

Something flicked his thigh.

A snake?

Heart racing, he stood and gazed into the water. His pale legs, rippling with shadows, vanished into the darkness.

A silvery shape glided past his knee.

A fish!

He could eat a fish! Feed his grumbling stomach.

He smashed down his hatchet. Water exploded into his face. He pounded again and again. Then he waited for the fish to float up, dead. It didn’t appear.

He walked downstream, eyes an inch above the surface, seeking it.

Water plopped into his face.

Had the fish jumped?

No.

His head jerked toward shore, but he saw only bushes and trees. Maybe something had fallen from above. He raised his eyes to the tree limbs hanging over the water.

This time, he saw it—a quick, tiny blur near his face and dropping into the stream.

He looked again toward the shore. Though he still saw no one, the nearby bushes were dense enough to hide behind.

As he watched, an arm flicked into view and vanished. A stone curved slowly toward him. Reaching out, he caught it. He turned the stone in his hand. It was squarish, with sharp edges, but too small to inflict much damage.

Someone, obviously, was toying with him.

He tossed the stone into the bushes.

A young woman pushed through the foliage and stepped toward the shore. Thick, tangled tresses of blond hair draped her shoulders and breasts. Except for the knife belt low on her hips, she seemed naked.

She stopped at the edge of the stream. Feet apart, hands on hips, she smiled. But only with half her face. It might have been a sneer.

She spoke in a whisper-words unknown to Lander, soft words. Then she drew apart the thick curtain of hair over her left breast. Her forefinger traced circles around the nipple. She spoke again. She bared her other breast.

A hand on each breast, she sighed. Gracefully, she lowered herself to her knees. Her hands massaged. Her breathing quickened.

Lander watched, standing in the chest-high water that concealed his erection.

Was this her way of beckoning him?

The Beckoning Fair One.

he Belle Dam Sans Merci…

Her hands slid down her body, and over the leather belt. They moved down the fronts of her legs, then curved inward, stroking the inner thighs, moving higher, finally caressing her hair-tufted pubis.

She moaned and writhed.

La Belle Dam Sans Merci hath me in thrall

In thrall.

What can ail thee knight at arms?

He touched what ailed him. It was upright and rock hard.

The woman’s hands reached out to him. Wet and shiny from her juices.

Lander waded forward. The water level fell, uncovering him.

The woman’s eyes lowered to his erection. They stared as if locked onto it.

Lander climbed the bank. He stepped close to the kneeling woman. One hand touched him. Its slippery fingers traced the length of his shaft. Her head moved in. She lapped at him, tongue flicking and pressing.

Then she was easing backward, still lightly holding him. Her back touched the ground. She guided his aching cock into her.

Lander pushed. The slick tightness swallowed him. He lay motionless on top of the woman, savoring the dark suction.

He looked at her face. Her wild eyes frightened him, so he pushed away her thick hair and kissed the side of her neck. A leather thong was there. A necklace. His hand moved over the smooth globe of her shoulder, and down to her breast. He fingered the rumpled skin of the aureole, tweezed the upright nipple.

Began slowly to thrust.

Bent, and took the springy nipple into his mouth.

As he humped, sucking and licking the nipple, his eyes focused on her necklace. A dozen shriveled, stubby thumbs were strung on the leather thong.

No, not thumbs.

His teeth clamped the nipple, grinding and chewing as a scream tore his ears.

She bucked and twisted in pain.

Lander held on. Held on with his teeth. Held on with his hands gripping her wrists. He pounded into her, harsh and breathless and finally shaking with his orgasm.

Then he hammered his fist against her face. He hit her again and again, splitting her lips, mashing her nose. He hit her for a long time after she stopped resisting.

“Didn’t get mine.”

He giggled.

“No, you didn’t.”

Then he cut her throat.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

A giant chased Cordie over a barren, glaring landscape of dunes. She whimpered as she ran.

Oh, if he caught her!

His shadow blocked the sun from her body. Such a cold shadow. She tried to run harder, but the sand clutched her feet, slowing her down.

The arms of the shadow reached out.

A monstrous hand gripped her shoulder. Its fingers felt dry as bone.

She bit off its little finger.

Roaring in pain, the giant released her. She ran on, out of the cold shadow, leaving the giant far behind. But she was lost, and the dunes were strange. She didn’t want to be here, after dark.

Where were Mom and Dad?

They must be nearby. They wouldn’t just leave her all alone in this horrible place.

She tried to yell, but the giant’s finger was still inside her mouth. She pulled it out.

How odd! It was just her size.

She stuck the giant’s finger onto her stump. A perfect fit.

She began running again, but the finger fell off and disappeared in the sand. Dropping to her knees, she raked through the sand, trying to find it.

Ah, here it is!

She pulled, but it was stuck. She pulled harder. Out of the sand came an entire hand!

She staggered back, suddenly afraid.

Someone buried in the sand was rising!

He sat up, sand spilling from his body, and grinned at her. “Hi, Cordie.”

“Ben? I thought you were dead.”

“Not me,” he said, and brushed sand out of his hair.

No, not sand. Ants.

“Ben!”

He brushed harder. His head tumbled off, and dropped onto his lap, and Cordie sat up screaming.

She was in the hut.

Lilly sat at her side. “Nightmare?” the girl asked.

Cordie raised her hand. It was wrapped in a bloody rag. The hand pulsed with pain. “My finger,” she said.

“Yeah. Well, you’re just lucky that’s all you lost. Grar doesn’t trust you much.”

“I told him I’d do it. What does he want! Christ, my finger!”

“We’ve gotta get going. Come on.”

She crawled behind Lilly, keeping her injured hand off the ground. The sunlight outside hurt her eyes. Squinting, she got to her feet.

Grar came forward, his skirt of hair floating over his legs. He held a sword. It looked, to Cordie, like a saber from a Civil War movie. He handed it to Lilly, and spoke in the other language.

Lilly nodded. She turned to Cordie. “Okay. This way.”

She walked beside Lilly. Through the center of the village. Toward a big fire, at the far end, where arms and legs were hanging. Cordie lowered her eyes.

“Tell them you want the head.”

“What?”

“Kigits head. You promised. We’ll pick it up when we get back.”

Lilly led her to the fire. Two women were crouched near it cutting a carcass.

“Sandy.”

One of them stood. Her arms and torso were bloody. Grinning, she wiped sweat off her forehead. Her hand left a red smear.

“This is the gal who nailed Kigit.”

“Hey, congratulations. About time somebody put her away.”

“She wants the head.”

“Oh sure. She does, or you do?”

“Tell her, Cordelia.”

“I want the head.”

“It’s yours.”

“We’ll be by for it later,” Lilly said.

They left. “She’s a bitch,” Lilly muttered.

“Is she like us?”

“A turn? Yeah. You can always tell a turn. We’re the only ones that talk English.”

“What about Grar?”

“He’s no turn. You kidding? Grar’s a full-blooded Krull.”

Cordie walked beside her into the woods.

“You oughtta hear him rattle off his ancestors. All the way back to him.”

“Who, Manfred?”

With a snarl, Lilly flung herself into Cordie and tripped her. She jabbed the saber down. Its tip cut into Cordie’s belly. “Don’t you ever say his name. If you do, I’ll kill you. You get it?”

Cordie nodded.

Lilly took the saber away. “Okay. Get up.”

Cordie stood. She pressed her hand to her belly. “Christ, you cut me.”

“You’re lucky that’s all I did. That’s the worst thing you can do, say his name.”

“Nobody told me.”

“I told you.”

“You didn’t have to cut me,” she mumbled. She felt frightened and betrayed. “I thought you liked me.”

“Yeah.” Lilly shrugged, and briefly smiled. “Sure, you’re all right. But you can’t go around saying his name. It’s the worst kind of luck.”

“You did that ’cause it’s bad luck?”

“The worst kind. Some say he hears it if you say his name, and comes for you.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Sure it is. You’d better hope so. You’ll get us both killed.”

“Grar said his name.”

“That’s okay for Grar. He’s the Mang. Like a witch doctor, you know? He’s got special powers.”

They reached the stream, and waded in. The cool water swirled around Cordie. It felt so good! She sighed. She drank until her belly felt bloated. Then, keeping her wounded hand high, she dropped below the surface. When she came up for air, Lilly was near the other side.

For an instant, she considered escape.

Stupid!

Even if she got clear of Lilly, she’d still be in the woods. Far from safety. If they caught her… No, she didn’t dare.

She swam, and followed Lilly ashore.

They walked for a long time through the heat of the woods. “How much farther is it?” she finally asked.

Lilly shrugged. “Who knows?”

“Don’t you know where we’re going?”

“Sort of. I’ve only been there once, though. It’s a good place to stay away from. You wouldn’t catch me near it, except for Grar. You do what he says, you know?”

“I found out,” Cordie said.

“Yeah. Shit, if I’d had any idea I’d get into a mess like this…” She swung the saber at a nearby sapling. Its blade hacked cleanly through the thin trunk. She swung again, and cut down a bush. Suddenly, she grinned.

A nasty grin that sent a shiver of fear into Cordie.

“Know what I could do?” Lilly asked. She looked at Cordie with narrow eyes. “I could cut you down. That’d fix everything.”

“That’s not funny.”

Lilly swung the saber wildly, chopping it through the air. “I’d say a Thak did it.”

“Grar! He’d find out.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Lilly!”

The girl’s eyes darted. “I don’t see nobody that’s gonna tell on me.”

“Just go back. If you don’t want to go to his place, just leave. Or stay here. I’ll go the rest of the way by myself.”

“That’s chicken.”

“No, it’s—”

“’Sides, I can’t. If you’re alone, the Krulls’U nail you. It’d get back to Grar, and he’d cook my ass.” She took a step toward Cordie.

Looking past Lillys shoulder, she gasped. “It’s him!”

Lilly whirled around.

Cordie ran. She heard a hiss of anger. Then quick footfalls. Ahead, she saw a clear way through the trees. Like a corridor. She leaped into it, and sprinted. Head down, arms pumping, legs flinging out as far and as fast as she could kick them.

At the end of the open area, she jumped over a dead trunk. She glanced around. Lilly raced toward her, hair flying, mouth a twisted hole, sword high overhead.

She dashed sideways. Circled a thicket. Skinned her shoulder as she passed too near a tree.

Then the trees ended.

She charged into a clearing.

And stopped abruptly.

Twenty or thirty Krulls turned to look at her. Many picked up weapons.

She spun around. Lilly burst from the trees, saw the group, and lowered her sword. “So,” she said. “Here we are.” She spoke loudly to the Krulls, apparently explaining Cordie’s mission. Then she took Cordie’s arm. “Come on.”

They stepped forward. The Krulls parted, and Cordie faced the landscape of pikes and heads. She jerked her arm free of Lilly’s grip.

“Your friends are in the cabin.”

She shook her head. She felt numb.

“Here. This is for you.” Lilly held out the saber, hilt first. “Use it on the guy.”

She raised her arm. Saw her hand close around the hilt. The weight of the sword dragged her arm down like an anchor.

“Get going,” Lilly said. “The quicker you get it done, the quicker we can get our asses out of here.” She saw fear in Lilly’s eyes. “We don’t want to be around when he comes back.”

Cordie couldn’t move.

Lilly pushed her, and she began to walk. The heads seemed to bob and sway in her vision. A bird fluttered down. A black bird. It perched on the nearest head, and pecked a gash in the forehead. The skin parted, but no blood flowed.

Something familiar…

That face.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

“No fishies,” Lander said. He sat down next to the body in the sheltering bushes where he’d left it hidden. “None at all. Casey has struck out.”

He unbuckled her belt, and tried it on. A snug fit. So he used her knife to bore a new hole near its tip. It fit fine, after that.

He sliced through the thong at her throat, and held up the necklace for a closer look. The ornaments were dark with her dried blood. He counted them.

“Ha! Lander would’ve been thirteen. A baker’s dozen. Oh, villainy!”

He jammed the knife into her belly and pulled it out.

“Curious. If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Tossing the necklace aside, he knelt over her. No more than a trickle of blood oozed from the wound. He cut into her again.

“Oh, this is wondrous strange.”

He slowly carved his name in the skin of her belly. Then he sliced a frame around it. He peeled the skin off, and held it up.

“Lander in the flesh!”

CHAPTER THIRTY

“One’s coming through!” Neala said.

Robbins hurried through the doorway. He grabbed his rifle. Dropping to one knee, he took aim. He watched the girl stagger among the crosses, bumping into some.

“She drunk?” Sherri asked.

“Something’s sure wrong with her,” Neala said.

Robbins lowered his rifle.

“Well shoot her, for Christsake!”

“None of the others are coming,” he said.

“So what?”

“She looks crazy,” Neala said.

Robbins stood up. He stepped into the sunlight.

“What’re you doing?” Sherri asked.

“Just a second.” He ran to the corner of the cabin, and checked the Krulls at the side. None were approaching.

“Johnny, what… ?”

He ran to the rear, looked beyond the barrier, and returned to the front. “It’s okay,” he said. “She’s the only one.”

“You aren’t just gonna let her come, are you? Look at that fuckin’ sword.”

“That’s just what I’m looking at,” Robbins told her. “I want it.”

The girl tripped, smashing through half a dozen crosses before she sprawled facedown. She raised her head. She got to her hands and knees. Bracing herself on the sword, she stood. She looked back as if to see how far she’d come. Then she faced the cabin. She squinted, and raised an arm to wipe sweat from her forehead.

The motion lured Robbins’s eyes to her breasts. They were large, for such a slim girl, and shiny with sweat. Robbins felt a warm rush of arousal. He lowered his gaze to her belly, to her dark wedge of pubic hair.

“Look at that,” Sherri said. “She’s got bathing suit lines.”

Sherri was right. The girl’s breasts and pubic area were pale.

“That’s Cordelia!” Neala gasped.

Robbins studied the face. It was swollen and bruised and marked with cuts, but it did resemble the girl who’d been with them last night.

“Cordelia?” he called.

Her head nodded slightly.

“Holy shit,” Sherri muttered.

Cordelia staggered forward. She stepped high over fallen pikes, then ducked to pass under the crossbars of those ahead.

“God, what’ve they done to her?”

“I think she’s in shock,” Robbins said.

She stumbled again, and fell to her knees.

Robbins slung the rifle across his back. He started forward.

“Johnny, it might be a trick.”

“Maybe,” he admitted.

He pushed his way through the crosses until he reached her. She was still on her knees. She stared up at him. Her eyes looked wide and blank.

He slipped his hands under her armpits, and lifted her to her feet.

“It’s all right” he said softly.

She raised the sword high.

“Johnny!” Neala cried.

His hand slid up, and gripped her feeble arm.

“It’s all right,” he said again.

His other arm circled her back, and he pulled her against him. Pressing her tightly to his body and still clutching her arm, he swung her around and carried her through the fallen crosses.

In front of the cabin, Neala took the sword from her hand. Robbins carried her inside. He lowered her to the floor. Rolling onto her side, she drew her legs up to her breasts. She held them there. Her mouth sucked on her knee.

“Cordelia?”

She didn’t respond.

Robbins turned to Neala and Sherri. “Maybe we’d better just leave her alone for a while.”

He went toward the doorway, Neala at his side.

“I’ll stay with her,” Sherri offered. “She might need—”

“Fine.”

They left Sherri beside the girl, and went outside. They found shade at the rear of the cabin. There, they sat together. They held hands, and talked softly.

Neala lay on her back, and rested her head on Johnny’s lap. He stroked her hair. When she yawned, Robbins told her to sleep. She shook her head. Her eyes were full of sorrow. “We have so little time,” she said.

“We’ll have years,” he told her.

Tears came. He brushed them from the corners of her eyes.

Neala opened her eyes. She was lying on her side, her body against Johnny, her face touching his bare chest. She felt as if she’d been asleep for a long time. A breeze moved over her skin in warm, fluttery waves.

There had been no breeze, earlier. With a start, she rolled onto her back. The cabin’s shadow stretched a long distance. “Oh God,” she moaned. She turned to Johnny. “It’s so late,” she said.

“We’ve got a couple more hours.”

“I don’t want you to go. Not without me.”

“You’ll be safe here.”

“I don’t care if I’m safe. I want to go with you.”

“Well, we’ll see. I just…”

“Hey guys!” Sherri called through the wall. “You’d better get in here.”

“Right in,” Johnny said.

Neala sat up. She didn’t look toward the wall. All afternoon, she had kept her eyes away from it. If Sherri was spying again, she didn’t want to know.

She and Johnny got dressed. They hurried to the front of the cabin, and entered its open door.

Cordelia was sitting up.

“She wants to tell us something,” Sherri explained.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s what they sent me in here for. You’re supposed to come out.”

“Surprise surprise.”

“They won’t kill you if you come out.”

“Sure,” said Sherri. “I’ll just bet.”

“No, it’s true. They’ll take you in. You can join with them. They won’t kill you.”

“Why not?” Neala asked.

“They need you… They’ve got too much in—”

“They want us for making babies?”

“Yeah.”

“What about Johnny? He’s hardly capable…”

“He can come, too.”

“Stick to the truth,” Johnny warned.

Sherri turned to him. “You know what she’s talking about?”

“I know they’ll accept women, sometimes. Young ones. Pretty ones. For recreation. And breeding, I suppose. That may be why they don’t want the Barlow people fooling with them. They don’t take men, though.”

“Is that true?” Sherri asked Cordelia.

The girl nodded.

“You mean they’d kill Johnny?” Neala asked.

“I suppose”

“You bitch! What’re you lying for!”

“I’m sorry,” Cordelia whispered. She held up her left hand and plucked a filthy rag away from it. “See what they did?”

Neala glimpsed the stump, and looked away.

“One of them bit it off. As a lesson. To show what they’d do to me if I didn’t get you two to come out.”

Sherri laughed once, harshly. “This sounds like a great outfit. First they fuck us, then they bite off our fingers.”

“And they kill Johnny,” Neala added.

“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” Sherri said.

Cordelia looked up at each of them. “If you don’t come with me, you’ll all be killed.”

“They can’t get to us here,” Johnny told her. “If they could, they wouldn’t have sent you to talk us out.”

“It’s not them. It’s… someone else.” The fear in her eyes chilled Neala. “I saw him last night” she said. Her voice lowered to a hoarse whisper. “He killed Ben. He put Ben’s head on a pole. He put all these heads on poles. They call him the Devil, and they won’t come to get you because this is his cabin, and he’s coming back.”

“When?” johnny asked.

“Maybe tonight.”

“She’s trying to trick us again,” Sherri said.

“No, honest. He’s real and he’s—horrible!”

“We were here last night,” Johnny said. “He didn’t come then.”

“He was out killing. He killed Ben. He would’ve got me, but I hid.”

“If he comes,” said Sherri, “we’ll just hide.”

“You’re crazy. He’ll kill you all.” She pushed herself to her feet. “I’m going back. I’ll tell ’em you aren’t coming out.”

“Don’t go back,” Johnny said. “Stay here. We’ll all get out.”

“Oh no you won’t. I’ve seen… I’ve seen him. I’m going back.”

She stepped unsteadily toward the open door.

“Cordelia, don’t.”

“You’re fools,” she said. She pointed through the doorway. “Your heads’ll be out there, by morning.”

Her sword was propped beside the door. She reached for it.

“Leave that here,” Johnny said.

“Okay,” she said.

Then she grabbed it, whirled around, and attacked.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

She drove the blade toward Robbins’s chest. He was sitting on the floor. It should have been easy.

But in the few steps she took to reach him, Neala dived at her legs, Sherri scurried toward the fireplace, and Robbins dropped backward. She kicked through Neala’s arms, and lunged at Robbins. His leg swung up. It caught the blade. Crying out with pain, he threw himself sideways. The leg of his jeans held the blade. She lost the sword.

Sherri swung the fire poker at her head. She blocked it with her forearm. Neala, sprawled on the floor, grabbed her left leg and bit into her calf. As she tore loose from Neala, Sherri swung again. The poker’s black point whipped past her eyes, just missing. She turned and ran. At the door, the poker slashed. It ripped down her back. She raced for the forest of pikes, Sherri close behind. The poker whushed. Missed. A skull leered at her. She ducked under its crossbar. Falling to her knees, she scrambled forward.

She looked over her shoulder. Sherri had stopped.

Neala appeared in the doorway with the rifle. She aimed and fired. Dirt and twigs exploded from the ground beside Cordie.

She lurched forward, plowing through a dozen crosses before another shot blasted the stillness. She threw herself down.

Something under her belly. She knew, without looking, what it had to be. With a gasp, she rolled off it. Her back hit a pole. She froze.

Nothing fell.

Lying on her side, panting, she could still feel the touch of what she had fallen on. She shut her eyes tightly, and reached down. With the back of her hand, she knocked it away.

Then she lay down flat, again, and waited for the next shot.

It didn’t come.

Finally, she looked back. Sherri and Neala were gone.

She pushed herself to her hands and knees. Ahead, through the tilting bars of many pikes, the Krulls waited. They were silent. All seemed to be watching her.

She remembered Grar’s warning. If you betray us, your death will be horrible beyond nightmares.

They can’t get me here, she thought.

She lowered herself to the ground. She cushioned her face on an arm bruised by the poker, and shut her eyes. The ground felt good beneath her, in spite of the scratchy twigs and weeds.

She would stay here.

Though the breeze was mild, the sun baked her back. Sweat slid down her skin. Sometimes, she felt the tickle of insects. But she didn’t move. It would hurt to move. And it would do no good, because there was no way to escape the heat or bugs.

No way to escape the pain.

Or the Krulls.

No, this is how to escape the Krulls.

This is how.

This…

Then the terrible heat was gone. She opened her eyes, and saw that dusk had fallen.

Many of the Krulls were gone. Many remained.

Maybe when darkness came…

No.

If she left, they would find her.

Do unspeakable things. Your death will be horrible

She lowered her head, and closed her eyes. This is a good place to be. A good place.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

“Johnny, no.”

“Here, give me the rifle.”

“You can’t make it.”

“I can try. You two hold out as long as you can. If I don’t get back with help, go on out to the Krulls and make the best of it.”

Sherri handed the rifle to him.

Using it as a brace, Johnny pushed himself to his feet. He hobbled across the candlelit room. Sweat poured down his back. Neala saw that he was putting no weight on his bandaged leg.

“Johnny…”

“Once I get to the car, I’ll be okay. It’ll just take longer than…” The rifle slipped in his grip. He winced and fell.

Neala rushed to him.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said.

“No, it’s not.”

He planted the rifle butt, and started to push himself up. He gritted his teeth. He blinked sweat out of his eyes. His body trembled.

Neala took hold of his arm. “Wait. Just sit down and rest for a minute. Please.”

He lowered himself.

“Here, I’ll take the rifle.”

He gripped it.

“I need to go out for a second.”

“Again?” Sherri asked.

She sighed. “Must be something I ate. Or didn’t eat.”

“I’ll go with you,” Sherri said.

“Christ, I don’t need a guard.”

“Okay. Well hurry.”

“Be right back.” She kissed Johnny lightly on the mouth. Then she went out the open door. She walked quickly to the rear of the cabin. The gibbous moon hung low over the distant trees. She wished it weren’t so bright.

Propping the rifle against the cabin wall, she stepped out of her corduroys. She took Johnny’s key case from a pocket, and slipped it into the front of her panties. Then she took off her shirt.

The breeze had died, soon after dark, leaving the air still and warm. In spite of the warmth, she shivered as she picked up the rifle. She put the sling over her head. The rifle slapped against her back. The sling tugged at her shoulder. It crossed her body, its wide leather strap digging into her right breast. She adjusted it so it passed between her breasts. Then, crouching, she made her way toward the pikes.

“Neala!”

Sherri’s voice. Glancing back, she saw her friend run at her.

She rushed for the crosses, but Sherri grabbed her by the hair, yanked her to the ground, and dropped onto her. She grunted in pain as the rifle rammed her back. Sherri clutched her wrists and pressed them down.

“Let go of me, damn it!”

“You want to go off and get yourself killed!”

“Get off me!”

“No. I can’t. I can’t let you do it, Neala.”

“If I don’t go, Johnny will try.”

“We can stop him. Between the two of us…”

“Sherri, for Godsake, don’t you realize? We can’t stay in this cabin. We’ll all die. Even if the Krulls stay away, even if this devil never comes, we’ll just die in here.”

“We could give up, and live with the Krulls.”

“Sure. Only what happens to Johnny?”

“Yeah, I know.” She stared into Neala’s eyes. “You love him, don’t you?”

She let go of Neala’s wrists, and gently stroked her face. “Oh Neala,” she whispered. “Oh goddamn it, Neala. Don’t forget me, huh?”

“Wha… ?”

Sherri’s fist swung down. It struck the side of Neala’s head. She saw the other fist come down, and tried to block it, but she couldn’t get her arm up fast enough. The fist hit, rocking her head.

The weight of Sherri’s body left. She tried to raise her head, but couldn’t. She felt drunk, powerless to control her movements.

Sherri pulled the rifle sling away from her breasts. Rolled her. Pulled the rifle away. She flopped onto her back again. The ground felt much better without the hardness of the rifle.

Sherri, standing like a giant above her, quickly stripped.

“Don’t.”

Sherri slung the rifle onto her back.

Neala raised her head. “Don’t,” she said again.

“Oh Neala.” Sherri crouched beside her.

Neala concentrated on her arms. They felt heavy, as if she held a large stone in each hand. But she forced herself to lift them. She felt the girl’s big hands slide under her, and raise her off the ground. She felt the breasts brush lightly against her breasts, the mouth push against her mouth. She hugged Sherri as hard as she could. Then Sherri forced her down.

“You and Johnny stay put,” she whispered, “till I get back with the cavalry.”

Her fist smashed down.

Neala tried to open her eyes, but couldn’t. She tried to lift her head, but the muscles of her neck wouldn’t work.

Not even when she heard Johnny calling.

Then he was above her.

“Neala? Neala, what happened? Where’s Sherri?”

She found that she could open her eyes. “Gone,” she managed. “Went… for cavalry.”

A few minutes passed before she was able to get up. She put on her shirt. “I was going to go,” she said. “I stripped, you know, so I’d look more like one of them. But Sherri stopped me. She… Oh, my God!” Neala pushed her hand into the front of her panties. “No! Oh Johnny!” She pulled out the leather case.

“My keys.”

“I took them while we were bandaging you. I forgot… When she… She just attacked me, Johnny. I couldn’t… Oh God, what’ll she do, now?”

He shook his head. “If she makes it that far—well, she’ll be fairly close to the road. She can hitch a ride. As long as she doesn’t get picked up by Barlow people…”

“She hasn’t got a chance.”

“Sure she does. She’s got as good a chance as…” He didn’t finish.

“As we do,” Neala finished for him.

“Let’s get back inside.”

She fastened her pants. Johnny struggled to stand, using the fire poker as a staff. Neala helped him up. He leaned on her, and they slowly made their way to the front of the cabin.

As Neala shut the door, a single gunshot blasted in the distance.

Her eyes met Johnny’s.

He said nothing.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Lander heard a far-off clap of thunder. It rumbled over the treetops.

“All-shaking thunder!” he cried out. “Smite flat the thick rotundity of the world! Crack nature’s moulds!”

He held out his hands to feel the rain, but felt none. Tipping back his head, he peered at the sky. Only small patches were visible through the trees, but the patches glinted with stars.

If not thunder, then perhaps a gun. He could use a gun.

Not half the fun of laying them low with knife or ax, but handy. He could plink the rogues from ambuscade!

And gobble them up!

Like his friend, la belle dam.

He walked in the direction of the gunshot, grinning as he remembered. Oh, he’d spent hours with her. Delving, exploring, carving, tasting. Such rare delights!

His body, even now, was dark with her blood. He’d bathed in it, rubbing it onto every inch of skin that he could reach, then rolling in her heaped organs to color his back. He’d been careful, drinking at the stream, to wash off as little as possible.

Now, looking down at himself, he saw that he was as dark as the night.

A shadow moving through shadows.

He darted from tree to tree, often pausing to listen for foreign sounds and search the darkness. He seemed to be alone. If others were nearby, they moved in silence through the shadows.

Let them show themselves.

I’ll lay them low.

“Lo, ’tis a gala night,” he said.

Ahead of him, the ground moved. He froze. Not daring to breathe, he watched the matted leaves and twigs bulge from the ground as if a great beast were rising from its grave. Debris cascaded off the growing mound. A massive head appeared. It slowly turned toward Lander.

A yell of terror exploded from him, and he ran. He dashed past the thrashing mound.

As he sprinted through the darkness, he heard heavy, crushing footfalls behind him. He looked back, and gasped.

What is it!

Oh, he shouldn’t have let it up! He should’ve pounced while it was down—hacked it apart!

Now he had no chance.

No chance!

His breath whimpered out as he charged through a thicket that tore at his legs and genitals. He broke free, and looked over his shoulder.

Oh, it towered!

Its wild hair flew.

Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Oh God, don’t let him!

Lander heard voices of alarm. To the left. He lunged sideways, dashed toward them.

Pain seared his shoulder. The vest tore.

Oh God, oh God

Krulls turned to him. Then they looked up, horror on their faces. Lander crashed two of them to the ground and dashed past.

A roar shocked the forest.

“KRULL!”

Lander glanced back. Saw the monstrous shape lift a screaming woman by her hair. Swing her. Rip the head from her body.

He threw himself against a tree trunk. He scurried up its rough bark, grabbed limbs and pulled himself higher. Higher. Hugging a branch, he looked down.

The thing had another Krull. A man. Had him by the legs. Spread the legs. Bit off the genitals. Jerked the legs until they popped from their sockets, and tore them off.

It dropped the carcass. Crouching, it twisted off the head. It picked up the woman’s head, and tucked it under one arm. Then it slowly turned.

Toward Lander?

Cringing, Lander pressed his face to the tree and shut his eyes.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Cordie, lying belly-down among the impaled heads, heard the roar of Manfred Krull. It came from far in the distance.

But she knew he would soon arrive.

Bringing new heads.

And he would find her.

She’d spoken his name to Lilly. The worst kind of luck. Some say he hears it if you say his name, and comes foryou.

Now he’s coming.

She raised her head. Beyond the pikes, the open field looked deserted. The others must have run when they heard him.

My chance!

They’ll all be hiding!

But if they catch me… Better they get me. Better anything than him.

At least she’d stand a chance, out in the woods. Maybe she could find Dad, and they’d escape together.

She glanced back at the cabin.

They might let her in, if she begged.

No. That’s the worst place to be, even worse than here in the heads.

The door couldn’t keep him out.

And they didn’t have the rifle, anymore. The big girl, Sherri, must have taken it. She’d seen Robbins and Neala come back to the door without her. Later, she’d heard a gunshot far away.

Somebody got Sherri.

Good.

The bitch had really hurt her with that poker—would have killed her if she could.

Good riddance.

The bitches deserve whatever they get. If they’d only come along with her, they’d all be safe now.

She looked again at the moonlit clearing. Again, she saw no Krulls. She’d better not go that way, though. The roar had come from that direction.

So she turned to her left, and began to crawl. She moved slowly, careful not to bump the poles. When she reached a pair too close together, she squeezed through on her side, her back rubbing one stick, her breasts brushing the other.

There were so many! They seemed endless.

But she kept moving, kept crawling, kept dragging herself forward.

Until a quiet sound stopped her.

The pop of a breaking stick.

She dropped to her side, and looked back.

Him!

Stabbing a cross into the ground near the place where she’d entered, so long ago.

How long had he been there?

As she watched, he raised a head high and rammed it down. It made a wet sound. Then he stripped the limbs from another stick. He lashed a crosspiece into place, and plunged the cross down. He shoved a head onto its tip.

Then he entered the field of crosses.

He glided through them, turning silently, never bumping a single cross.

Cordie watched, afraid to move.

How could he travel so fast, and not knock the heads off?

He is the Devil!

Suddenly, he turned toward Cordie.

He’d seen her!

She heard a tiny whine in her throat. Warm liquid spurted down her thigh.

Then he turned away.

She moaned with relief, and watched him move through the last of the heads.

The ground seemed to shake beneath her as he thundered Krull” and kicked open the cabin door.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Lander hugged the high branches long after the creature had gone. He didn’t dare move, for what if it came back!

Oh, it would tear him asunder!

Break his legs like wishbones.

Eat his cock.

Oh, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio… More things in hell. Spewing forth demons to walk the night.

He gazed down at the moonlit dead.

Perhaps they were left as bait to lure him down. Cheese for the mouse.

Wee timorous beastie…

Bait for the beastie.

Minnows and worms. The play is the tragedy “Man” and its hero the Conqueror Worm.

Worm me no worms.

Bird food. Fish bait.

As he watched, the headless woman raised an arm and pointed at him. His skin shriveled.

No no no!

I didn’t see that. Impossible. No no no! A trick of light.

He rubbed his eyes, and looked again.

Still pointing at him, she sat up.

“You’re dead,” he whispered.

Oh, I’m dreaming. Dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. No mortal, she.

She can’t do this!

“Lie down!” he shouted.

Oh God, he’ll hear me. He’ll come, and she’ll point me out. She’ll finger me. He’ll shake me from the tree and eat my cock and break off my legs like wishbones and run away with my head!

“Damn you!” he sputtered.

He scurried down the tree, and rushed to her. She was lying down, playing innocent.

“Villainous whore!”

He punched his knife into her belly. Again and again. As he stabbed, he noticed her breasts. Though the moonlight was dim, he saw their strange, wrinkled folds and lumps.

He looked more closely.

The breasts were covered by pale rags of flesh tied to her body with thongs. He cut the garment free. He raised it into the moonlight, and groaned.

The rags were human faces.

Small faces, peeled from small heads.

The faces of children.

He threw them to the ground, and stared. Then he heard quiet footfalls behind him.

Tricked!

With a shriek of terror, he looked back. The bushes parted, and out stepped a woman.

A big woman.

An Amazon armed with a rifle.

She aimed at him.

“Don’t shoot!”

She hesitated. “What the fuck?” she muttered. “You… Who are you?”

“One whose name was writ in sand.”

“Hey, I know you!” She lowered her rifle. “You’re…”

With a laugh, he flung his knife.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

Neala flinched as the door crashed open. She pressed her face tightly against the deerskin beneath her, and wished she could burrow in.

Heavy footfalls shook the ground.

No!

She gritted her teeth, trying not to scream.

“KRULL!”

Her body quaked, shaken by the blast of his roar.

He is the Devil! Cordelia was right!

Oh Christ, we should’ve run!

Any moment, he would fling aside the skins that covered her.

Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women…

From his hiding place behind a draping deerskin, Robbins watched the huge dark shape stride toward the far corner.

His sword clacked against the wall.

The creature swung around. It stood motionless. Robbins held his breath. He gazed at the thing, and shuddered.

Its wide, leathery face looked red in the candle-light. One eye was gone, its socket a dark slit as if the lid had been torn away. The remaining eye seemed to glare at Robbins with contempt.

Then it lowered to the stack of skins near Robbins’s feet. Robbins looked. He saw Neala’s hair. Inches of it curled from beneath one of the skins, glossy in the golden light.

The creature lunged. Its massive hand grabbed Neala’s hair and jerked.

The head came free.

It swung slowly as the single eye studied it.

Robbins staggered from behind the deerskin. With both hands, he swung the saber. Its blade struck, lopping off the outstretched arm. The arm dropped to the floor, Neala’s hair still gripped in its hand.

Robbins swung at the creature’s neck. Its remaining arm battered the sword from his grip. It flung Robbins against the wall. He slammed it hard, and fell.

Neala, hidden in the far corner, heard the struggle. Thrusting aside the deerskins, she saw the thing standing over Johnny, its back to her. It reached down for him with its one arm. It grabbed him by the throat.

Silently, Neala raced across the room. She leaped onto the massive back, grabbed a handful of wild hair, and tore its throat open with her knife.

Blood sprayed onto Johnny.

The creature whirled, bellowing, and threw itself backward against a wall. Neala cried out. She lost her knife. She slid off its back.

It reached down for her. It gripped the stubble of her hair and pulled, but lost its hold. So it clutched her shirt front. It lifted her off the floor.

Blood spilled onto her face from its ripped throat. Its mouth opened wide. She shut her eyes, and felt its teeth on the sides of her face. They clamped tightly.

Suddenly, the beast staggered. Its teeth kept their grip, but the hand let go of her shirt, and she dropped to the floor. As she hit, the teeth cut into her cheeks.

“It’s all right.”

Johnny’s voice.

The jaws opened, and the pressure of the head went away. Johnny, crouching over her, held the monstrous head in both hands. He tossed it aside.

Then he picked her up, and held her tightly.

Later, Robbins unknotted Nealas long, soft hair. He pulled it from the jawbone of the old head, and tossed the head outside.

Among the crosses in front of the cabin, he found one more sturdy than the others. On it, he impaled the head of Manfred Krull. He propped it near the cabin door.

“Sir!”

Turning, he saw a man moving through the barrier. The thin, pale man casually pushed aside the pikes as he came forward.

Neala took hold of Robbinss arm. He saw that she held the saber.

“Be not afraid,” said the man.

He stepped out of the crosses. A skirt of hair floated about his legs as he moved. He stopped in front of Robbins.

“You have slain the Devil,” he said. “With his life, you have purchased your salvation. We shall escort you to safety.”

“We can go?” Robbins asked.

“Tell no one what you have seen in these woods, or your lives shall be forfeit.”

“What about the others?” Neala asked.

“There are no others.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

Cordie, crouched in the darkness, watched Robbins and Neala follow the old man through the barrier of heads.

She wondered if she might join them.

But she remembered Grar’s warning.

Your death will be horrible beyond nightmares.

It still applied. It had to.

She lay flat among the crosses, and pressed her eyes tightly shut.

She was finished.

Dead.

Oh Christ.

At least, if she didn’t move, the Krulls might not notice her. She could die here, and save herself from them.

Time passed.

A long, long time.

Longer than Cordie thought a night could last. Then the sky turned pale blue, and finally the sun came up.

Hearing a sound, she raised her head. And saw Heth swinging his legless torso through the crosses. His eyes met hers.

“No,” she whimpered.

A strange noise filled her ears, a fluttering whup-wbup-whup. She raised her eyes. At the far edge of the clearing, a helicopter sped over the treetops.

“Jesus,” she muttered.

She glanced at Heth. His hideous, bloated face seemed to grin.

She scrambled to her feet. She raced toward the cabin, waving her arms high, not giving a damn about the crosses she bumped, the heads that tumbled before her.

The helicopter set down in front of the cabin.

The passenger, a tall woman, stepped out. She wore a red jumpsuit. She carried a rifle.

“Sherri!”

Cordie rushed toward her.

Sherri shouldered the rifle.

“No! Please! I’m sorry!”

The shot smashed through the roar of the rotors. Cordie spun around. Heth, a yard behind her, teetered on his outthrust arms.

A hole in his forehead.

He fell facedown.

“Get your ass over here!” Sherri yelled.

Cordie ran to her.

Channel 3 News July 2

“On the local front, a Mariposa County Sheriff’s posse has failed to return from their search of a wilderness area west of Barlow. The eighteen men entered the rugged forest terrain on Tuesday to investigate reports of multiple killings…”

EPILOGUE

“What ho! What ho!” Lander sang quietly as he limped through the dark woods. His gunshot leg had nearly healed.

“What ho! What ho! Sing merry-a-day!”

He carried the girl through the clearing, and dropped her at his feet. She groaned.

Not dead?

“Passing strange,” he muttered. “Soon fixed.”

He slid the hatchet from his belt.

Her eyes opened. She reached up, and clutched a handful of hair, nearly pulling down his nice new skirt. “Please,” she said.

“Please? The King’s tongue?” He knelt beside her. He gazed at her moonlit body, a body he’d taken such pleasure from, earlier, after bashing her head. A young, lithe body. “What do they call you?” he asked.

“Lilly.”

“Lilly. Oh, Lily sweet and fair, how like a flower you are.” He touched her small breasts. “Buds and petals. Sweet nectar. Shall I spare you? Shall I take you to my palace?”

Her hand slipped through the hanging hair, and touched him.

“Perchance I shall.

He put the hatchet away, and lifted her. He kissed her breast. “Come, let’s away. We shall be God’s spies.”

He carried her into the forest of impaled heads.

“Grar,” said the girl, looking at one.

“You knew him? A fellow of infinite jest. Quite chapfallen.”

“A prick” said Lilly.

Lander laughed. “What ho! What ho! So merry-a-day” he sang, and carried her toward the cabin.

Channel 3 News July 11

“On the local front, a twelve-man search-and-rescue team has failed to return from the wilderness area west of Barlow where, last week, a sheriff’s posse vanished without a trace…”

About the Author

RICHARD Laymon is the author of over 30 novels and 65 short stories. Though a native of Illinois and a long-time Californian, his name is more familiar to readers in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, as well as much of the rest of the world where he is published in fifteen foreign languages. He has written such acclaimed novels as The Beast House, The Cellar, After Midnight, The Lake, Into the Fire, Come Out Tonight, Body Rides, To Wake the Dead, No Sanctuary, Island, Among the Missing, One Rainy Night, In the Dark, and Bite. The Traveling Vampire Show won a Bram Stoker Award for Novel of the Year in 2001. Two of his earlier novels (Flesh and Funland) and a short story collection A Good, Secret Place) previously had been nominated for Bram Stoker Awards as well.

Check out the Richard Laymon Kills! Web site at http://www.ains.com.au/~gerlach/rlaymon2.htm

Other Leisure books by Richard Laymon:

CUTS

TRIAGE (Anthology)

THE MIDNIGHT TOUR

THE BEAST HOUSE

THE CELLAR

INTO THE FIRE

AFTER MIDNIGHT

THE LAKE

COME OUT TONIGHT

RESURRECTION DREAMS

ENDLESS NIGHT

BODY RIDES

BLOOD GAMES

TO WAKE THE DEAD

NO SANCTUARY

DARKNESS, TELL US

NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER

ISLAND

THE MUSEUM OF HORRORS (Anthology)

IN THE DARK

THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW

AMONG THE MISSING

ONE RAINY NIGHT

BITE

The Woods Are dark

Copyright

A LEISURE BOOK

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If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

Original edition copyright ©1981 by Richard Laymon

Restored edition copyright © 2008 by Ann Laymon

Introduction copyright © 2008 by Kelly Laymon

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