Dazed, the older girl pulled her head around as if swimming through a sticky dream and then half jumped, half fell from the driver’s box. A gangly, bucktoothed people-eater swooped in from the left and closed fast. Sarah saw it coming and froze.

“No, Sarah, don’t stop! Keep running!” Ellie screamed. “Keep—”

From her right came the crack of a shot. A scarlet blossom flowered over Bucktooth’s back. The people-eater crashed to the road in a spectacular belly flop a foot shy of where Sarah still cringed. Greg dashed from the trees, on foot, three kids in tow: “Sarah, grab the kids, grab the kids! Get behind the dogs!”

Part of Ellie wanted to go back to the older kids, to Greg and Jayden. But right now, she and the white-haired girl hadn’t been noticed, and that would change. Even with Mina, they were too exposed. But she remembered how quickly Lucian had been lost from sight. Get far enough, fast enough, and hide until Tom and Chris get here. The wagons hadn’t made great time, and that meant they weren’t that far from Rule. So Tom would hear the shots, and he’d come really fast. She wouldn’t have to hide for very long.

“Come on,” she said to the white-haired girl, still sprawled on the ground.

“But my dolly!” The little white-haired girl was bawling. From the ruby smear on her lower lip, she must’ve bitten her tongue, too. “My dolly, I lost my doll!”

“Forget the stupid doll! Mina!” Slinging the Savage’s carry strap on her shoulder, Ellie wheeled and tugged the little girl along in a stumbling run through spare snow. There was no clear path; she was bushwhacking through dense undergrowth that snagged and grabbed at her legs. The little girl was stumbling and gasping, “Wait, wait, wait,” but Ellie didn’t slow down, didn’t reply, just kept on

il sa j . bick going. Spiky branches whipped her cheeks and stung her forehead, snarled in her hair. Mina had pulled ahead by several paces, and Ellie followed her dog, thrashing through briary brush still crinkly with ice. She didn’t like that she was making so much noise. If they could get somewhere safe and hide . . . Behind were shouts and gunshots and braying horses, but the sounds were fast diminishing, as noise always died in dense forest. She would have to be careful not to lose the road entirely, because Tom and Chris would eventually come. If they could. If those explosions didn’t mean that they—

Stop it, Ellie, stop it. Putting up one arm to protect her eyes, Ellie put her head down and plowed through, forcing a way where none existed. Tom will come. So will Chris. Jayden is already here, and so is Greg. All you have to do is hide.

“Ah!” The little girl let out a pained cry. “Stop, stop! I’m stuck, I’m stuck!”

“Quiet!” Ellie hissed. Only people talk, you dummy; you want someone to hear? Impatient and scared out of her wits, Ellie saw that the twisted fingers of thorny brambles clutched the little girl’s hair at the crown in a dense tangle. “Okay, hang on,” Ellie muttered, unlimbering the Savage. “Just hold still.”

“Owowow!” the white-haired girl complained as Ellie fussed with the snarl. Squinting, the girl bared her teeth. “That hurts!”

“Well, it’s really tangled,” Ellie said, so beside herself with fear, she thought about just going already. Wincing against the sting of thorns, she fumbled over the ratty tangle. She glanced at her dog. Ears perked, mouth closed, nostrils flared—but no real alert. That was good. But this stupid tangle just wouldn’t come. Tugging her Leek from her pocket, she snicked the silver-gray serrated blade in place with her thumb.

The little girl’s eyes were saucers. “What are you doing?”

“I’m cutting it.”

“Why? No.”

Ellie opened her mouth to yell, then said, “I’m Ellie. What’s your name?”

“Debbie?” The girl’s chin was quivering again. “My daddy called me Dee.”

“Dee, I can’t get your hair untangled.” Another crackle of brush from somewhere behind, but the sound was fleeting and she was focused on Dee, besides. “I have to cut it, or we rip it. Ripping will hurt. Cutting won’t.”

“Nooo,” Dee said, blue eyes pooling again. “It’s my hair.”

Just do it. Slipping the Leek’s serrated edge under a gnarled clot of the girl’s hair, she sawed. “It’ll grow back.”

“But, but . . .” Dee kept squirming. “Can’t you just chop the branches?”

“No, I can’t.” She was going to stab this kid if she didn’t quit it. “Stop moving. Just this last little—” Ellie’s insides went as still as she’d wanted Dee to be as Mina went . . . huff.

Oh boy. Mina wasn’t looking the way they’d come either, but the way ahead, where they wanted to go. Behind her. At her back.

“What?” Dee said when Ellie froze. “What is—”

“Shh!” Nerves clanging, Ellie bent, got her Savage, and slowly straightened. When she shifted, a spiky pine bough broke with a crispy crinkle. Mina’s ears only twitched. Her dog didn’t break stance to look at her at all.

“Oh.” It was Dee, and Ellie recognized the tone from when the girl had warned them in the wagon: Hey. Hey. Everybody.

Ellie turned—and what wove through the trees turned her guts to shivery Jell-O.

There was only one, but gosh, that was enough. The girl had a dinged-up, rusty-looking aluminum bat, which meant she’d had practice.

And the girl also had something else quite distinctive. As soon as Ellie saw it, she understood, instantly, how all these people-eaters had found them to begin with.

In her terror, it was the one thing she’d actually thought about. How come the people-eaters were here, waiting for them? Finn was sweeping up from the south. That didn’t mean the way north was clear, but she and Jayden and Chris had come into Rule from roughly this direction a little more than twelve hours ago. Yeah, true: they’d come down a little west of here. But they’d run into no people-eaters. Mina hadn’t alerted once. So why were the people-eaters here now?

Everyone knew: people-eaters return to the familiar. Chris was familiar. So was Jayden. Chris’s idea was to use himself as bait to draw them away so Hannah and Isaac and the others would be safe, and then kill the people-eaters when they attacked. Only nothing and no one ever did.

Once they’d made it to Rule, everything had happened so fast, become such an emergency. Chris getting hurt bad and almost dying, and then Tom, and now Finn coming and the big rush to get out of the village . . . well, in the end, they just forgot. It slipped their minds.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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