“But Finn must’ve come because of the baby,” she said to the wolfdog. “He’s experimented on the Changed already. I think he’s tried the same thing with poor Peter.” So, should she do anything about that?

No, better question: Did she need to do anything at all?

She could act, if she wanted. She had an advantage, a bit of knowledge Finn didn’t. She’d first thought the whole wolf shtick was some weird religion, and it still might be. But Wolf was an exception. It was a leap, but she thought she was right. Somehow, Wolf figured it out, too.

The Changed couldn’t smell wolves.

What she’d taken to be mystical mumbo jumbo, a way of marking territory, was wrong. Wolf had used wolf skins and carcasses to hide the feeding grounds outside Rule and his kills from other Changed. This was probably the same reason why Wolf had hung totems here, to shield the house and protect their food supply. She remembered that brief leap behind the eyes of the Changed who’d been chasing Wolf, Marley, and Ernie. The Changed had no trouble tracking the last two boys. But they couldn’t quite get a fix on Wolf. He’d been a blank, camouflaged and invisible.

“That’s why Darth didn’t see you,” she said to the wolfdog. “He couldn’t smell you, so he never knew you were there.” How would that work? Dogs were related to wolves. They always smelled each other’s bums, and she bet wolves did, too. Come to think of it, whenever her aunt’s cat got spooked, that little stinker let go of some really nasty-smelling goo from its butt. So maybe it wasn’t such a stretch to imagine that the same secretions that might lure one species would either repel or not register with another.

The wolfdog was the key. So long as it stayed close, the Changed couldn’t smell her. Sure, if they spotted her, she was cooked. But otherwise?

She was invisible.

“A week ago, I chowed down on ants, and now I catch two rabbits in one day. Wouldn’t you know I’d hit the jackpot now? Here.” Peeling skin from front paws and head, Alex tossed the carcass to the waiting wolfdog. “Make it last,” she said, as the animal began bolting rabbit.

Wherever you came from and for whatever reason you picked me, I’m sure glad you showed up when you did. Picking up the second rabbit, she grabbed a back leg, punched through the thin skin with a thumb, and then began peeling the rabbit out of its skin, working fascia away from red muscle and finishing off by tugging the skin over the carcass’s head like an inside-out bodysuit. This one, she’d gut and roast. No need for raw heart this time around.

She and the wolfdog spent the night in Peter’s boathouse. The weird thing: she couldn’t get comfortable. It had been months since she’d slept on a mattress and with a pillow, and she was uncomfortable, anxious. After a few hours of tossing, she gave up, wrapped herself in a blanket, strapped on the headlamp, and spread the atlases from Peter’s bookshelf on the floor.

Once she hiked out to a main road and got her bearings, she could go anywhere. Her earlier ideas about warning Chris seemed naïve now, so much wasted energy. If Peter was with Finn, Rule was in much bigger trouble than she’d realized. She also had no way of tracking Tom. So, if she stayed in Michigan, only two destinations made sense: Rule or Oren. The dead boy from Oren had her whistle, which meant Ellie had been there. While she still might be, the chances of stumbling on one little girl were ten trillion to one.

Which left Rule, a place that felt radioactive.

But Finn has Wolf. He has Penny and Peter. I can’t just let that go. “Oh, don’t be crazy, Alex. You’re not Batman.” On the floor,

snugged against her left leg, the wolfdog’s ears pricked. “Seriously?” she asked the animal. “Rescue them so they starve, or I have to shoot them to protect myself or, say, Ellie? Tom? Chris? If it came down to a choice between Wolf and Tom, I’d pick Tom. I’m not saying it would be easy, and it feels wrong because Wolf is . . . in-between, just like me,” she finished in a whisper, definitely not understanding why her eyes stung.

Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself. She rested a cheek on her knees. Yet Wolf was different now. In the beginning, she’d been only food; he’d chowed down on a slice of her shoulder, for God’s sake. But then Wolf saved her from Spider, kept her off-menu; rescued her from the mine and then Acne. They’d worked together to fight Finn’s men before he’d made her leave him behind and save herself. Wolf cared about her. It was in what he did, and his scent.

“And I care what happens to him,” she said, feeling the ooze of a tear and a weird hollowness in her chest. So, fine, all right, she was evil and maybe brainwashed, and this definitely wasn’t love . . . was it? No, of course not, but she cared, okay? Shoot her.

But Wolf still has to eat. It wasn’t as if Wolf was suddenly going to go vegan. Yes, he cared for her and she was pretty sure he would never hurt her now. That kind of amnesty might also extend to the people she cared about. For Wolf to live, though, he had to eat.

“I don’t know what’s right,” she said to the wolfdog. “Maybe it’s smarter to kill Wolf, but it would be like putting a gun to Tom’s head, or Chris’s.” Wasn’t that exactly what Tom wanted her to do if he Changed? Tom had killed Jim, his friend, to save her and Ellie. Could she do something like that? At the last second, if there was no other choice, she probably would. “But maybe we’re not there yet. And what if Wolf can come back? Then I have to do something. I can’t just leave him with Finn. It wouldn’t be right.” Penny . . . she wasn’t sure what to do with her. But there was Peter, too, caught in between like her and Wolf. Whatever Finn had done to him might also be undone, eventually.

So, go to Rule? See if she picked up Wolf ’s scent? It was insane, but with the wolfdog, she might pull it off. As long as she didn’t succumb to the push-push go-go . . .

“You know what I can’t figure out?” she asked the wolfdog. “What that whole thing was. Like the monster either grabbed on to or got grabbed by Finn, then jerked me along for the ride. I hopped. First I land behind one set of eyes and then a whole bunch of other eyes, and then I jump to someone else, further ahead.” She thought about that. “Know what it reminds me of ?” At the wolfdog’s look—no, really, tell me—she said, “High school bio.”

Really? The wolfdog cocked its head. Which part?

“How the brain works and cells talk to each other.” By that point in bio, the monster had shown itself, too, and she became somewhat of an expert. “The brain’s an electrical system mediated by chemicals. But here’s the thing,” she said to the wolfdog. She was starting to get a little excited now; felt she was onto something. “The brain has tons of synapses, like more than the stars in the Milky Way. Even an electrical impulse would be too slow on its own for everything to work together the way it should. So the impulse has to hop. It jumps like a bunny from node to node along an axon, and that speeds everything up.”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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