Something really wrong here. A slight movement to his right, and his gaze dropped in time to see a small field mouse squirm from an empty socket of that lone skull. The animal froze, only its whiskers trembling before it wheeled and scurried away. Something rotten in Denmark, Yorick.

Time to find out what. Time, Tom hoped, to save his kids. It must’ve been an old mercury switch from a defunct thermostat connected to a battery. Move the garbage, disturb the switch, the leads spark, and boom. An easy bomb.

One second, he was shouting for Weller and dashing toward the church. The next, he was very cold and crumpled on his side, a lucky thing because there was old copper in his mouth, more blood drying under his nose and along his neck. If he’d been on his back, he might have choked to death on his own blood. His chest felt like someone had dropped a boulder on him. His ears hurt, and they whooshed: a good indicator that he still had eardrums to hear with. At first, he thought the sound was only from the blast wave, but when he rolled onto his back, gasping at jags of pain, he saw clots of black smoke chuffing over blue sky and realized that what he heard was the muted chugs of a fire that had yet to burn itself out.

Sitting up was an exercise in slow torture. Everything hurt. He wasn’t coughing up any more of the red stuff, so his lungs might be okay. A blast could kill you a lot of different ways. Some—being vaporized or skewered by shrapnel or bleeding out because your leg was gone—were a lot faster than others. Have the bad luck of being too close to a blast wave, and the hollow organs—lungs, heart, guts— could burst, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. When he was finally up, he propped himself on his elbows, concentrated on moving air in and out of his aching lungs, studied what was left of the church—and realized just how lucky he’d been.

The church looked like something out of a travel brochure advertising tours of castle ruins. The tower had ruptured in a halo of stone and splintered wood. Mangled brass bells and sprays of shattered stained glass glittered on the snow. The blast had been powerful enough to fling the smallest bells toward the forest edging what had been the church’s parking lot. The crowns of several nearby trees, principally heavier evergreens, had snapped while other, thinner hardwoods were bowled over by the blast wind. Three walls still stood, but the rest of the church was a gutted shell surrounded by blasted pews and the fluttering remnants of tattered hymnals.

He ought to be dead. They’d tethered the animals about an eighth of a mile away. He thought he’d covered half the distance back before he’d dropped the reins and sprinted for the church. So, tack on another fifty yards before the explosion? Either way, give or take, he was still too darned close. The fact that he’d been blown back so far, knocked unconscious, and bled from his nose and ears proved that. If the explosion had happened, say, in a town or a narrow alley, the blast overpressure would’ve ruptured his heart and blown his lungs apart. What saved his ass was that the church stood alone, with no nearby structures or even trees to capture and amplify the blast wave.

He was alive because of dumb luck, and that was all. By some miracle, he still had his weapons: the Uzi on its retention strap, Jed’s Bravo snugged in that back scabbard, and the Glock— Alex’s Glock, as he thought of it—in its cross-draw. He had extra ammo stashed in his over-vest, too, also lucky because the horses had scattered. From their tracks, he knew at least one had not headed back to camp. That, he hoped, would be his ride, but hunting it down now would be a mistake. Instead, he kicked snow to hide his blood, then shucked his vest and used that to scour away the Tom-sized divot where he’d lain and the stumbling tracks he made as he headed into the trees.

They came a few hours later. By then, he’d moved downwind and well into the woods, hauling himself by painful degrees high into the deep recesses of a thick, sturdy cedar. There were three, and he recognized them all. Mellie’s square, compact frame was easy. With his white hair cut high and tight and that black uniform, the way he carried himself, Tom thought the old guy was used to command.

But my God, I know you. His mind flashed to his battle with that blood-eyed girl on the snow. You’re one of the guys I saw watching from the woods.

The third person was a kid, a boy in over-whites. The boy’s head was up, sampling the air. Looking for him. Tom was too far away to see the boy’s eyes, but he knew they were the same maddened red of that Chucky he’d fought to the death. Given the guy in black, Tom thought this must be the same boy he’d spotted in the trees two weeks ago.

But now this kid was riding a horse. And he’s working with people. Tom’s skin dewed with fresh sweat. How is this possible? He watched as the three made a slow perambulation around the church in an ever-widening spiral. Looking for tracks, trying to figure out if anyone got away. The oldsters bent their heads to the snow, but the kid kept his head up like a bloodhound. The Uzi was silenced, chambered and ready to go, and now he inched a finger over the selector switch. Kill them now? No way anyone will hear the shots. But he wasn’t a sniper, and he might miss. Worse, he was only one person, and he was willing to bet the old commander had a fair number of men. Try to rescue the kids on his own, he’d probably end up dead. Wait for a better time. Think of a plan.

Heart pounding, he watched as they continued their search pattern until the debris field petered out. Mellie and the commander conferred about something; the Chucky only scanned, turning his horse in a slow three-sixty. And then they left, returning to camp the way they’d come.

For the rest of that day and through the night, Tom stayed put, using his retention straps to anchor himself in case he dozed. The orange of the fire eventually diminished. What light there was splashed gray and dim from the waxing moon. The hissing in his ears diminished enough that he heard the flame’s dying crackles and, at some point, a jangle of hardware. That made his pulse ratchet up a notch until he reconsidered that a solitary rider, at night, made no sense. Probably his horse, or Weller’s. He thought about it for a few seconds, then decided he was much better off with a ride than without one. So he called to it as softly as he could, coaxing the animal into the woods, wincing at every crackle and snap of brush and brambles. In the moonlight, he saw the horse slip close to the tree in which he hid, and then stop.

That was the only good in an otherwise very long and terrible night. He still ached, his gimpy right leg complained, and now he was both hungry and thirsty. Scooping snow from nearby limbs, he let it melt down his throat to take the edge off. He even managed a fitful doze.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror