“Think they found them?” Jayden had come to stand next to him. The other boy had a new collection of bruises to add to the ones he’d gotten earlier. His right eye, crusted with blood, was already swelling shut. “Tom’s kids?”

“Either that or—” He read the sudden stiffening of Chris’s back, heard him bark something into the radio. Crap. As sorry as he was about Lena, he was glad Chris shot her. Sure would be nice for something to break our way for a change.

“Oh brother,” Jayden said. Chris had spun on his heel, but not to head back to them. He was running toward Night and rapping out orders into the walkie.

“Chris, wait!” Greg jogged over, Jayden on his heels. “Where are you going? Did they—”

“I have to go back.” Chris’s bruised and battered face was tight. He swung up onto Night’s saddle. “You guys get out of here. Leave your radio on. I’ll catch up when I can.”

“Why? But you’re here. What—”

“They found the kids about a half mile from where Tom thought they were.” Chris gathered Night’s reins. “But listen to this: Finn also has Peter.”

“Peter?” Greg felt his lips numb. “Chris, we can’t leave Peter—”

“I know that.” Chris’s voice was grim. “But it gets worse. Finn’s done something to Peter, made him like the Changed. Not all the way, but the kids said he’s pretty far gone.”

Greg’s stomach worked itself into a cold knot. “If he’s still Peter, we need to get to him. You and me, we’ll go back.”

“And maybe get yourselves killed?” Jayden put a hand on Greg’s arm. “Think about this a minute. Tom set bombs. How long do you two really have before they blow? Finn’s there by now, or pretty close. Tom will wait until they’re in the square, but that’s all.”

“Look, I just killed a girl I knew pretty damn well. I can’t abandon Peter, not if there’s a chance he can come back to us. You and Hannah and Isaac have your way, and I have mine. Maybe, if I’m really lucky, I grab Tom, too.” Chris took a deep breath. “And I’m not letting Alex go, not again.”

“What?” Greg wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “Alex? What does she—”

“The guards were already down when Pru got there. Tom’s kids said Alex helped them.” He wheeled Night around. “And she’s headed to Rule.”

119

A bomb. A red swoop of terror nearly knocked Alex’s feet out from under. About the size of a small shoebox, the bomb consisted of an oversize alarm clock wrapped to a putty-like block, probably C4, with black electrical tape. Wires snaked from some lead-colored tube to attach to the alarm’s bell and hammer. The bomb was fixed to the console with more electrical tape.

Got to get out of here. Sweat suddenly pearled in the hollow of her throat. Got to get out of the church. Who knew when this thing was going to blow?

But that was when she noticed two things she hadn’t because of her fear. One, the clock wasn’t ticking. Two, the bomb didn’t smell right.

Now, she didn’t know squat about bombs. That Rule even had crap like this was amazing. That they’d thought to rig a bomb to the church was equally astonishing. But shouldn’t a time bomb be ticking? This was an old-fashioned alarm. Her aunt had one, and those suckers were loud. Swallowing back the flutter in her throat, she crept close enough to study the clock face. The smaller alarm hand pointed to the twelve. The minute and hour hands showed that the clock had been primed for a thirty-minute delay before the ka-boom. This particular clock had a very thin, spindly second hand, too, but that was still.

They never had a chance to set it. She let out a long, relieved breath. Still, might not be safe here. What if the bomb got jarred loose, or some vibration started the countdown?

But then, there was the smell. She worried it. Of all the scents C4 might have . . . “Bread?” Still on hands and knees, she dropped to her stomach, wormed closer, got her nose to within an inch. She pulled in air. Plastic, from the electrical tape; the steel of the alarm clock; a gunpowder aroma from that lead-colored thing, so a detonator or blasting cap or whatever—and something else, something vital that tugged at memory. But what she got most was flour and oil and lots of salt, an odor that took her back to first grade.

“My God,” she whispered. “It’s homemade Play-Doh. It’s a fake.” Why would anyone plant this? Just to scare the bejesus out of someone? Got to be another reason. “Maybe they wanted to buy time,” she told Buck. “Make someone think they’ve found a bomb when they haven’t. But buy time for what?” To keep them, Finn’s guys, busy? Or maybe . . . “You reassure them that you’ve got nothing. Cry wolf often enough, everyone relaxes. They think you’re an idiot.”

She could feel the questions piling up in her brain: How did they know to set the decoys? Who could’ve done it? But the only question she could afford time to consider was whether to get out of the tower. Yeah, but go where? If someone came up, she’d be in trouble, but she was here, Finn was down there, and this was as good a place to hide as—

From beyond the tower came a loud bang. Not a gunshot, but more like the slam of a door. Scuttling to a slot in the stone, she lifted up on her toes until the square below slid into view.

And felt the bottom drop out of her world.

It was like a mob scene from The Lord of the Rings: a crowd of old people, in puffy parkas and wool caps, gathered before the village hall

il sa j . bick steps. Surrounding them, like a parade guard, were ranks of boys and girls, about two hundred, in tattered clothing. The Changed were weaponless because they had no need. From the hollow, clawing scent mingling with roadkill, these kids were hungry. Many of the old people were weeping; a smell of water and salt laced the air. That made sense, too. If Ben Stiemke came back, and these Changed had been around the mine, then many of these elderly were looking into the faces of their grandchildren.

Beyond the moat of Changed were horses and the twenty someodd, white-clad kids who made up Finn’s altered Changed. And were they wearing collars? Surrounding them in a rough, U-shaped fan were armed men in standard winter camouflage.

At the bottom of the village hall steps, she spotted Yeager’s bald head, Ernst’s girth. Two others, Born and Prigge, looking withered. No robes. Considering Ben Stiemke and all that old blood in the church, it was a good bet the Council hadn’t been calling the shots for a while.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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