“What is it, kid?” one of the guards demanded as Luke stumbled over. “Where’s—”

“By the stream. I think he . . . he had a heart attack or something. He just kind of grabbed his chest and—” Luke’s face crumpled. “I don’t know CPR!”

“Aw, shit. He ain’t breathing? Shit. All right, come on, come on, quit bawling and show us, kid.” Slinging his weapon onto his shoulder, the guard gave Luke a push. “We’re going to have to carry him,” he said to the others as they hurried off, all talking at once: “Where the hell is the flashlight?” “What do you mean, you dropped it, kid?” “Jesus, I told him to knock off those damn smokes after he run out of pills for his ticker—”

Cindi waited until the guards had disappeared into the trees, then looked at Chad and Jasper. “Luke knows CPR,” she said, quietly. “Tom taught us, remember?”

“He didn’t teach me,” Jasper said.

“You’re too little.” Cindi saw that Chad now had the still hissing coffeepot in one hand. “Something’s going down. Cindi, Jasper,” Chad said, “grab a couple rocks from around the fire. Don’t burn yourselves.”

“They have guns,” Cindi protested as she grabbed a sharp-edged stone as big as her hand.

“Maybe not for long,” Chad said, interposing his body and squaring off so Cindi and Jasper were behind him. “Anything really bad happens, you just run.”

From the trees came muffled cries, a sharp “What—” Then a deep, throaty growl and the bap of a handgun that made Cindi jump.

“Oh shit.” Chad was breathing hard. “I can’t tell if . . .”

If those are animals or Chuckies. Cindi pulled in a squeaky inhale that she stifled with a hand. More sounds now: the clatter of rocks, a strange yipping cry, a crack.

“Jeez, that was an Uzi. Maybe you guys better get out of here,” Chad said.

“We stay together.” Cindi’s heart was fluttering like the wings of a trapped parakeet. “I’m not leaving you to get eaten.”

“Can’t be Chuckies or animals. Luke’s still alive . . . Hey!” Jasper pointed to where the guards and Luke had disappeared. “Look!”

What first emerged from the trees was a gigantic gray-white wolf, as big as a Warg in that battle from the second Lord of the Rings movie, only not as ugly and with no snarling, sword-wielding Orc either. Still, Cindi gasped, took a step back. No way I can run fast enough.

“Oh man, that thing’s huge,” Chad said, his voice shaky. “Where—”

Two figures trotted out next. The first to pull together was Luke, weighted down with rifles. “Luke!” Cindi started forward, relief singing in her veins. She’d had visions of Luke with his throat torn out and blood splashed over his chest. “What’s—” She skidded to a stop as a second person came into view: an older girl, in a queer camo getup, with an Uzi in her hands and a bolt-action rifle over her shoulder.

Hey, haven’t I seen her somewhere before? “Who are you?” she asked.

“My name’s Alex,” the girl said. “Who are you guys? How come you’re with Finn?”

At that, all four of them—Cindi, Luke, Jasper, and Chad—looked at one another before turning to the girl. Cindi opened her mouth, but Luke beat her to it. “Alex?” Luke said. “Tom’s Alex?”

The girl halted in mid-stride, astonishment leaking over her face. “You . . . you know Tom?” One hand went to her throat. “You’ve seen Tom? You’ve seen him?”

“Sure, we all did,” Jasper said, and Cindi could have strangled the stupid kid. “Tom was our friend. He helped us.”

“Did?” Alex paled. Her green eyes went suddenly glittery and wet. “Was?”

“Yes.” Luke tossed Cindi an unhappy glance before turning back. She knew just how he felt.

“I’m sorry, Alex,” Luke said, helplessly. “But Tom’s dead.”

108

“I don’t see them,” Tom said. He and Chris had taken it fast, urging their horses down the shimmering cut of a trail that wound through a dense grill of hardwood and evergreen to the lookout that perched southeast on a broad basalt plateau a hundred yards up from the hastily erected abatis. Now, standing in the lookout’s cab some seventy-five feet aboveground, he lowered his binoculars. Overhead, the brightest stars shone from deep, dark cobalt, but to the east, a smear of silver smudged the horizon. To his right, clouds smoked over a light green basketball of a moon balanced on the rim of trees. With the diminished snowpack and large swatches of bare ground, they no longer had the advantage of reflected moonlight. Shadows wavered over this southern approach. Bad luck for them, good for Finn.

“Gonna be daylight soon. It’s the damn clouds. Glass it south and wait for it,” Jarvis said. “They’re already over the rise. Can’t make out if they got weapons. . . . There. Dead ahead. You see them?”

“Yeah.” The shadows rolled aside as if someone had peeled away a blanket, and then, through his binoculars, Tom saw something that reminded him of columns of black ants swarming over a checked tablecloth. With the fitful light, it was impossible to tell just how many they were talking about here, but he guessed there must be at least a couple hundred Changed. The sizes seemed right. These were kids, moving nimbly and swiftly in a relentless tide, coming on fast, spilling down the hill. At that pace, they’d be here in less than thirty minutes, just in time for the first glimmerings of sun.

Smart. His men will be able to see what they’re shooting at . The light would work to Tom’s advantage later, however. The trick would be keeping Finn’s men in the square just long enough. Ten, fifteen minutes, that’s all.

“Hey,” Chris said, standing at Tom’s right elbow. “Top of the hill? See those horses?”

“I see them.” Impossible to miss, the horses were just moving

over the crest. He’d known some would ride: Mellie, Finn, a few of

Finn’s men. What he had not expected was the gleam of over-whites.

“That’s them. The altered Changed I told you about.”

“The ones in white? On horseback?” Jarvis sounded startled. “I

know horses don’t react quite as bad, but . . . my God . . . there have

to be at least twenty or thirty of them.”

“If they’re so good at fighting, why aren’t they leading the charge?”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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