“Chris, are you okay?” A wrinkle of worry creased the space above Ellie’s nose. “Are you feeling sick? Does it hurt more?”

“I . . .” His tongue balked. With fresh terror, he thought, Can’t tell. Mustn’t. They might leave him here to die. They might kill him. “Y-yes, it . . . it h-hurts,” he managed, and this was no lie.

“Ellie?” It was Hannah. “Is he—”

“I think you better get in here. He doesn’t look so good.” Scooting sideways, Ellie batted away one crinkly corner of that emergency blanket. A spoke of light speared the gloom. Chris could clearly see how the barn door had driven him a good foot into the snowpack before lodging itself tight. He also had a much better view of the blood.

No. A fresh spasm of horror twisted in his chest. When he exhaled, his breath showed in small red ripples. That’s too much, I’ve lost too much—

Beyond the limits of his prison of snow and spikes and blood, he heard a dog’s welcoming huff and then Ellie say, “What?” Pause; a murmur from the older girl. “Yeah,” Ellie said, “there’s a lot, and I can feel it still coming. It’s not spreading, but—” Evidently, someone up there understood this might not be great for him to hear, because that emergency blanket dropped back into place, shuttering out the light.

Talking about the blood. He swallowed back a scream. Not spreading, because it’s melting into the snow under me.

A moment later, he heard a rustle, saw the gloom peel back and then a gloved hand appear, followed by an arm, a shoulder, and finally a girl, on her back, slipping down the chute.

“Hi.” Stopping short of the blood lake in which he lay, she brushed a thick, buckwheat-brown braid from her shoulder and hitched onto her side to face him. “I’m Han—” She stopped dead, a look of disbelief spreading over her face.

“Oh my God.” Her voice was small and shocked. She raised a gloved hand to her mouth as if to somehow stopper what came next. “Simon?”

“What?” His own voice was faraway, foggy with pain. “Who?”

“I—” she began, and then he saw her eyes, which were the color of soft ash, flit to his throat. Her eyebrows tented in a frown. “What did you say your name was?”

“Cuh-Chris.” His dry throat gnarled. “Prentiss.”

“Oh. I see.” She gave him another close look, then seemed to recover herself. Stripping off her gloves, she laid two fingers on his neck at the angle of his jaw. “Sorry. I’m Hannah. I’m here to help you. Let me check your pulse.”

“H-how . . .” His throat clicked when he swallowed. “How b-bad . . .”

“Shh.” Her lips moved as she silently counted the seconds on her wristwatch. “How’s your breathing?”

“H-hurts. Hard to . . .”

“To breathe? Like you can’t pull in enough air?” Her gray gaze studied his face. “What about pain?”

“Like nuh-nuh-knives.” He grimaced against another inhalation. “Get . . . getting . . .”

“Harder to breathe?” When he moved his head in an incremental nod, she continued, “Is the pain worse on one side?”

“R-right.” He closed his eyes a moment to gather himself. “How b-bad?”

“Very.” Her fingers traced the hump of his Adam’s apple, and then her gray eyes clouded. “Where else does it hurt?”

“St-stomach.” His tongue was so huge he was afraid he might choke. “B-b-back.”

“The back, I’d expected. That door’s very heavy. Can you move your toes?”

It hadn’t occurred to him to try. Had he before he passed out? He focused, sent the command down to his feet. After a few anxious seconds, he felt the bunching of wool, but the sensation was very distant, as if the signal were being relayed on a very long and sluggish cable. “Yes.”

“Okay,” she said, although Chris thought her expression didn’t match the word at all. “Listen, I’m going to slide my hand under and press on your stomach a little. I’ll try to be as gentle as I can, but I have to check, okay?”

He steeled himself as her fingers wormed beneath his sopping parka and began working their way along his right side. When she pressed, he winced. “That hurts?” she asked, those eyes never leaving his face. “How about . . . ?” She abruptly pushed in, then let go.

“Ugh!” A bolt of nausea streaked up his throat, and he could feel sudden tears oiling down his cheeks. “D-don . . . don’t . . .”

“Okay, okay.” She touched a hand to his cheek. “Try to relax.”

“Jus . . .” He was shuddering, and that only made the pain much worse. Not moving was best. “Puh-please, get m-me out, g-get me . . .”

“We will,” she said. He wasn’t sure if it was his panic, but it seemed to him that her smile didn’t make it to her eyes. “I’m going to get you some water, all right? Are you thirsty?”

“Y-yes, but d-don’t leave . . . don’t leave m-me here.” He heard how freaked he sounded, and didn’t care. The fear and a sudden sensation of doom draped him in a dense, airless mantle. “Puhplease.”

“Of course not. Try not to panic, Chris. Just let me . . .” Turning away, she rolled, pushed back a corner of the emergency blanket, and called, “I need my water bottle, please.”

“Which one?” It was the older boy, Jayden.

“Left saddlebag.”

A pause. “Okay,” Jayden said, at the same moment that Ellie said, “What? Wait—”

Hannah cut her off. “Eli, I think you and Ellie should make sure we’re in the clear.”

“In the clear . . . ,” Ellie began.

“Okay,” the younger boy, Eli, said. “Come on, Ellie.”

“No, don’t,” Ellie said. Her tone was sharp and—through the filter of Chris’s fear—angry, verging on horrified. “You know it’s—” Whatever else she was going to say was lost in the crunch of snow as someone, probably Eli, took her aside.

Upset. Why? He watched as Hannah took a Nalgene bottle that was passed through, tugged out a long drinking tube, and slid the mouthpiece to his lips. “Here,” she said.

Both the water’s scent, warm yet somehow sweet and earthy, and the scream of his need were so overpowering his fear and apprehension vanished. Yet he was so horribly weak that when he pulled at the mouthpiece, only a thin trickle spilled over his parched tongue before dribbling from the corner of his mouth.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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