Oh no. He felt himself back up a step, away from Mellie. Beyond these Chuckies were at least twenty horses a half mile back of the advance force, and they were gaining fast, blasting over the snow in a wedge. Without binoculars he couldn’t be sure, but he thought there were two distinct groups: men in gray and white winter camouflage—

And kids. Kids in white, still too distant to see faces, but he thought some were girls and all were old enough to be Chuckies. No, that’s crazy. Horses didn’t like Chuckies, although some didn’t go as wild as others. Or maybe there’s something different about these Chuckies. There has to be. Because these Chuckies were riding, and they were with people. Men.

He tried again. “Mellie, we still have time. Please, help us. Give me the keys.”

“The best help I can give you is some advice,” Mellie said, with that eerie calm. “Get in the barn. Run, Luke.”

For a split second, he almost did what she said, because she was the adult. But then, he did the unthinkable, what he’d never have dared with any adult, because good kids like him didn’t do things like this.

He hit her.

The move—a sudden punch to her chest—surprised him almost as much as her. Mellie was smaller but compact as concrete and no lightweight. Off-balance, Mellie only backpedaled. Now that he was committed, Luke stayed with her, grabbing her parka to keep her from falling, afraid that if she landed on her butt, he wouldn’t get the gun in time. The flash of shock in her eyes hardened to anger, and then her right hand was reaching for that huge, wicked .44 Mag. No choice now. Luke’s free hand jumped for the weapon. His fingers found the grip and yanked at the same moment that he gave her a shove that dumped her on her ass.

I’ve gone nuts. Panting, he held the massive revolver in both trembling hands. The gun wavered in his grip. The thing was a cannon. He could empty this sucker and never once hit a target. It occurred to him then that if she hadn’t worn a cross-draw, he’d probably have a new hole in his head. No, two: front and back, and most of his skull gone, too.

“Give me the keys, Mellie.” His stomach tightened as he cocked the revolver. “Please. I don’t want to hurt you, but . . .”

“You’re going to shoot me, Luke?” She stared up with eyes so colorless and cold, he felt the chill wrap its fingers around his heart. “You won’t do it. You’re not a killer.”

“But why are you doing this? Why won’t you fight?”

“This isn’t a fight we’re going to win—”

“But it’s better than just dying.”

“No,” she said. “You won’t die, Luke.”

Her certainty, that dead calm, scared him even more. “What are you doing, Mellie, what are you doing? Give me the keys, please, give me . . .”

Over the raging of his heart, he heard a new sound: a steady, inexorable shush-shush-shush, the sound a hundred snakes might make over sand. His eyes jerked toward the rise. The Chuckies, that first wave, were just spilling downhill. Some carried clubs or bats, and sun winked off a few machetes. Most, however, had no weapons at all. Just their teeth, their hands. He could see it, too: Chuckies swooping down and tearing little kids apart, plucking off arms and legs as easily as the wings and drumsticks of tender young chickens.

Something blurred to his left, a silent rush as Mellie shot up from the snow. Startled, Luke gave an abortive shout: “Mel—”

He had no memory of squeezing the trigger. More than likely, it was a simple flinch. The Magnum bucked. The shot was a thunderclap. The recoil jammed his wrists. Even in the midafternoon sun, the flash was very bright.

And he missed. Of course, he would. The gun was much too big, and he wasn’t prepared. In another second, Mellie’s fist drove into his stomach. Gagging and retching, he doubled over as the gun tumbled from his hands.

“You’re lucky your brains are still inside your skull.” Mellie reholstered her Magnum. “Don’t try that again, Luke.”

“MehMellie . . .” His breath wheezed. “Wh-why are you—”

A ferocious clamor rose from the dogs. Sprinting uphill, the three remaining animals bulleted past Colin and the trampled lab. At the point of the spear was a fast, lean border collie named Tess. Sick with horror, he watched as she launched herself at a girl with a whip of blond hair—and a bat. The Chucky sliced hard and fast. He doubted the poor dog ever really saw it. They had to be at least three football fields away, and still he heard the thunk as the bat connected while Tess was in midair. A spurt of blood jumped straight up in a startling exclamation point, and Tess’s head blew apart.

At that, the other dogs broke. One, a flop-eared red and white pit bull, squirted left and then shrieked as a Chucky brought a machete down in a two-handed ax swing. The third, a square and sturdy elkhound, got the message. Whirling in mid-stride, the dog zoomed back down the hill, careering past the barn and the corral, heading north for the road and, beyond, the cover of forest. That dog always struck Luke as pretty darned smart.

Luke looked beyond the advancing Chuckies. From this vantage point, he could also see, much more clearly than before, the men on horseback—and one in the center, all in black, astride a gleaming horse the color of a raven’s wing.

“No,” he said, brokenly. The clicks he’d heard, the explosion, and now this . . . “No, no, no. What have you done, Mellie? What have you done?”

“What needed to be done,” Mellie said, “to set us on the path for Rule.”


“Where’s Penny?” Peter tossed a wild look around the raft. “Where is she, where’s—” “I . . . I . . .” Chris was shivering. Icy water streamed from his dripping hair and down his neck. He was so numb with cold, he couldn’t feel his feet. He looked left and somehow wasn’t surprised to find Jess, regal as a queen, with her black-mirror eyes and Medusa hair.

“What is this?” he asked her. “Why am I here? This isn’t my nightmare. It isn’t even my memory. This is Peter and Simon’s . . .”

“I have to go back.” Peter ripped off his life vest. Beneath, he wore a pair of dripping camo over-whites, but there was something strange around his neck, a wide black . . . collar? “Penny’s still in the boat, she’s still—” Yanking an underwater flashlight from his belt, Peter threw himself into the water.

“Go with him,” Jess said. “It’s dark down there, and cold. Even with the light, he’ll lose his way.”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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