SIXTEEN. DECEMBER 19, MORNING. SOUL HUNT

MARTIN HAD CIRCLED AROUND AWAY from the clearing where he’d seen the moving shapes of the monstrous spiders the kids called outriders. He’d gone up along the ridge line that led eventually to his house. But not in that direction, no way. The idea of going anywhere near that misshapen ruin sickened him.

It had been raining hard, but now that had stopped and second moon was low on the horizon, casting its glare over the tumble of rocks and twisted little trees that he could see below him.

He was trying very hard not to think about the future, of which he obviously had none, and above all not to feel angry at Trevor.

Of course, the son he’d loved, little Trevor, was no more. The strange being who had taken his place knew the world in a whole new way. “But I love you,” Martin whispered to the silence. He always would, the little boy whom he had held tight in the scary nights, who had looked at him with joyous, dependent eyes, who had so admired his dad.

No matter how far beyond the edge of the known world Trevor went, Martin would follow in his heart, trying to understand, trying still to give what he could of love and support.

Then it hit him again: He threw me out. He did it. And he asked himself, what could set a son to do such deep evil?

He had never believed in the devil myth. He’d seen that the Christian devil was the horned god of the old witch cult of Northern Europe, nothing more than that, and the horned god was the old Roman god of festivals, Pan. In other words, a pagan deity had been made into the enemy of the new god. Similar things had been done throughout the history of religion, the gods of yesterday becoming today’s demons.

Still, it did seem as if something had tipped the balance against the good of the world, and that was why Trevor had done what he had done, and why his own soul was about to be captured or, more likely, to die, and his body to become somebody else’s property.

Thunder clapped and the rain came again, and in the lightning Martin saw deer. Then he heard, high above, the cry of a nighthawk. Dawn was coming, but these new clouds were so thick that it was, in effect, still night.

He clapped his hands over his ears, then turned and pressed his face against the rock. The cleft he was in wasn’t even two feet deep and hardly longer than he was tall. Rain splashed against his back, and the wind, now wintry cold, now storm heavy, came in under his torn windbreaker.

He was as miserable, he thought, as it was possible for him to be. And maybe, he thought also, with an upwelling of sorrow, maybe it was, quite simply, time for him to go.

Lindy and little Winnie were gone, something that he was beginning to think of as an always. It had been hard to accept, and Trevor’s rejection on top of it was rawest agony.

But how do you manage to commit suicide when you dare not move a muscle? Perhaps if he tried to force his way back into the tent, the kids would shoot him. But how could he make Trevor participate in such a thing?

Another cry came, full of eagerness now, trembling above the rumble of the thunder. Martin shifted, and looked out across the clearing. Somewhere out there was the Saunders, and the Saunders might be running high. When it flooded it was as dangerous as hell, and with this rain it was going to be doing just that.

If he dove in, the rocks would knock him senseless before they broke him to pieces. Hard, but better than gnawing his wrists open.

In relation to the stream, then, where was he? Directions were guesswork, but if he moved down the long slope of the land and stayed in the folds and meadows rather than crossing the ridges, eventually he had to reach the Saunders. Unless, of course, he was taken first.

He looked out across the dark land, and it was an alien place, the surface of another planet, it seemed—this little woodland where he had hiked and hunted all his life, where he lived.

These same trees, these rocks, this speeding storm—all would continue after he ceased to exist. Beetles, hungry in the grass now, would soon find a feast.

He stood up into a sheet of rain, then set off running into the roaring dark. The wind made him stagger and the thunder made him cringe as he plunged along. He would have been blinded because of the rain and the dark, but there was so much lightning that it enabled him to find his way. He heard another sound, then, that he could not quite make out. It was deeper than thunder, an enormous sound but with hiss in it, and booming, faint but strong enough to shake the lungs.

Lightning flashes revealed a wall of haze. He stopped running, because he was going toward it. Then he glimpsed its shape—it was a thick funnel cloud, immense, and probably not more than a few miles away, whipping toward him across the broken prairie.

He threw back his head and screamed and laughed at the same time, and saw in the storm a black shape sailing easily, a nighthawk. It seemed to be circling him, and he ran toward a stand of trees, to get in where a thing like that couldn’t go.

“Oh, God, Lindy, I’m so sorry. I am so damn sorry.” He should never have taken them to that damned church, he should have followed his own instincts and hidden his whole family in the storm cellar.

Another flash revealed shapes around him. It was only the briefest vision, but it made him howl like a frantic dog. He whirled round, but they were behind him, too, and closer there. But also, rising into the sky now like a great wall, was the tornado, a looming pillar of death, with darker objects speeding in its funnel. He saw cars, roofing, trees, bodies like akimbo swimmers. He ran toward the storm—then saw just ahead what appeared in the inky rain to be tall bars, and slung among them, a black thickness striped with yellow. A claw of lightning flailed in the clouds, revealing by its silver flicker that he was looking at the raised forelegs of a spider the size of a small horse.

Then he was down, his breath gone, his head smashed against the ground so hard the crack of his jaw sounded like a shot and he saw flaring stars in his stunned eyes.

What breath he had left was sucked out of him as the ground shook, and in another flash of lightning he saw the thing that had been menacing him shoot off into the sky like a demon flying, or rather, sucked away by the advancing tornado.

Light slipped down from the darkness with the shuddering grace of an aurora. Lying on his back, the rain swarming in his eyes, he nevertheless saw his death coming in the great detail with which legend tells us we see our ends, the way the light quested downward like syrup dropping quickly, white and alive, and raindrops when they touched it making hurrying patters of smoke.

But no peace came, not with this strange numbness—and then the seeing, the seeing—a great alteration of vision, and he felt a kind of ecstasy in his skin, and saw a forest of tapered furniture legs, and knew that he was seeing out of his own infant eyes, his mother’s room where he had taken his first steps, and it was like flying, this wonderful new state of walking on two legs, and the happiness, oh dear Lord in heaven, childhood is the kingdom, it is the kingdom.

And he saw how very valuable this commodity called memory was, all the gold of his life capable of being tasted, touched, and smelled, feeling just as if it was happening again and always, and he knew that the human being is a device that records perfectly the rustle of every leaf and every sweated passage, the happy flying days and the gray ones, and his last thought was how grand, how incredible, what a miracle and no wonder it took the old earth five billion years to create us.

And then: I am to be boxed, cataloged, and sold like dope to somebody who has lost all happiness, all joy, all decency, and is more hollow inside than death and the zero cold of space. I—my eternal being—is to be sold.

Red. Voices—a voice, a voice of gold, an angelic, perfect voice.

The red became noise, rushing, slapping. Became fire. Fire on his hip. Somebody sanding his skin, no, worse, cutting. They were cutting and they were sliding the knife between the muscle and the skin.

He was being butchered in the field.

Trevor’s face beaded with rain, swimming with tears. Trevor, ancient being, journeyer.

Like me.

Journeyers together, father and son.

The wind screamed, rain and hail struck like bullets, and Trevor screamed, “Dig in, Dad, dig in!”

He clutched the ground. All grew silent. It seemed as if the last possible bit of air was pulled from his lungs. He felt his legs rising, heard the deepest rumble he had ever known, and saw the ground just ahead suffused by electric green light.

Whereupon there was an earsplitting roar and a truck crashed down from the sky, its lights as they flashed drilling into the rain. It was huge, an articulated thirty-two-wheel poultry mover.

Then chickens were everywhere.

The clucking, squawking, crowing clumps of feathers and terror flounced like great, fluffy snowballs in the rain.

The weight left his back. He turned, and a figure was helping him up, a strong male figure. He could not see the face.

“They’ll be back any second, they won’t stop!”

Trevor ran off into the dark and Martin did not stop to think or even try to understand what had just happened. He followed, running with all his might, and he found that he could see in the dark of the storm just by wanting to, and could run like an angel with the wind at his back, and he could go and go, his heart ticking like a slow engine.

Trevor stopped, grabbed a couple of chickens, and ran on. Martin did the same.

They went into deep and deeper woods. The storm passed, bringing with it first moon, tiny and bright and with it stars, but also, to the north and west, another massive tower of clouds. They never seemed to end, the storms, as if the unbalanced universe itself must expend energy at every level until equilibrium once again prevailed.

Martin heard drumming, and it was soon clear that they were moving toward the tent.

“Trevor, they’ll shoot—”

“No, they won’t.” He snapped the necks of his chickens and laid them next to the tent wall. Martin did the same, then put them beside the others.

At that instant, there was a soul-freezing scream, then another and another and another, and a dozen great shadows dove at them. One of them swooped right into Trevor’s face. It screamed, its red eyes burned—and it flew around him, wheeling tight, as another made the same maneuver.

Then Martin was enclosed in cold skin that reeked like garlic and embalming fluid, and claws came against his chest, slicing his jacket and his shirt and slipping into his skin as a knife does into hot wax.

It was fear, they had said, fear that the things used as their beacon. Very well, he would take his fear and put it in a box inside him, and close it.

The thing glared at him, its eyes so close he could see the fire inside, its mouth open, the white tongue shuddering as a maggot does in the sun.

He found, somehow, Franny Glass’s Jesus prayer and breathed it again and again, and it took him away from his fear, no matter that he was not a believer, it still bore its power to distract a terrified heart.

The thing leaped back, giving him a look out of the side of its eyes that was mixed of regret and rage, and a touch, even, of humor that this miserable little man had bested it.

Pam held the tent flap for them as they went into the candlelight and the drumming. There was not a lot of light, but Martin could make out Len Ward and Claire James beating the drums. He noticed Harrow Cougars emblems on the skins.

He saw so clearly, every detail, the eyes of the others gleaming in the candlelight, and he recognized their youth in their scent, the young, powerful smell of his son, the blooming scent of the girls, and he saw them, really saw them—and he knew that only at a few moments in his life had he ever seen people with this clarity, this love, and the abiding compassion that he felt now.

Michael Ryan, the Cougars’ star tackle said, “Hey,” and looked up at him with those strange, shadowed eyes they all had.

Then Pammy began to clap. Trevor threw his arms around his dad. Except for the drummers, they all clapped.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Dad,” Trevor said, “please try to understand” Tears streamed down his face. Martin embraced him. Then a girl he thought was called Crystal something came over. She had a mirror in one hand and a candle in the other.

A face looked back at him. It was dirty, wet, thin and covered by a day’s old growth of beard. It was the face of a street person, a hobo, somebody from the lower depths, a miner in the dark of the earth.

The eyes looking back at him gleamed darkly, very darkly, in the yellow candlelight. In fact, they were as black as coals, his eyes, just like those of the kids around him, and his son.

His soul seemed to fill the air of the tent, to mingle with their souls, and it was like picking up a song you’d known always, and singing again.

Martin understood, now, what had been done to him—the same thing that had happened to these kids when the light tried and failed to take him.

Something was gone, though. It had certainly taken something. Not his essence. He was still Martin Winters. He felt lighter, though, and far more in touch with the world—not the world of streets and companies and archaeological digs, however. Rather this world of the here and now. The rain, the trees, the kids in the tent.

He was alive, Martin was, more alive than he had ever been before.

They hadn’t discarded him, not at all. Rather, they had done to him what natural human societies had always done to their shamen and their priests, their healers. They had made him face death, and so come free.

That was the difference. The kids in this tent had not been captured by the light, but rather made free by its failure to capture them.

Martin was free, too. Trevor was smiling at him. His son’s face was soaked with tears. It had been a near thing out there. It had been real. He might not have made it.

“Thank you,” he said to them all, and to his son. Trevor came to him, and leaned against him, and instantly the exhausted boy was asleep in his father’s arms. Martin slept, too, and the lives of the kids swept on, racing toward the destiny that awaited them, now, in just a matter of hours, that would bring them new life, or extinguish forever these last few sparks of the human soul.

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