“Finn!” Yeager strained against men no less old but much stronger.

“In the name of God—”

“God left Rule a long time ago. You know the real question, Yeager? How can your god allow for someone like me? Because make no mistake, Tom.” Finn loomed in his sight, huge and terrible. “You may think you’re used up, ready to die. I promise you’re not. The body endures even if the spirit does not. I know where the arteries are, what you really need to survive, how to make you last a very long time. You think you need this?” Finn angled the blade until that keen, silvered edge grazed the underside of Tom’s nose. “Or your eyelids or lips or fingers? Those hands? Believe me, you don’t—”

“Stop!” A sudden, very clear voice, from Tom’s left: “Don’t!” What? Over the boom in his ears, Tom felt his mind trying to battle its way from this fog of new pain. Above him, he saw Finn’s head snap up, those colorless cobra’s eyes suddenly huge with shock—and was that recognition? Who?

“Wait!” Quick as lightning, Finn let Tom go, whipping around to the sound of weapons being readied. Mellie’s huge Magnum was already in her fist as all of Finn’s men drew down; the guard next to Penny had clambered atop the brownstone balustrade, the better to aim . . .

“No!” Finn shouted. Half-turning, he spotted the guard on the balustrade and sprang, moving surprisingly fast for an old man, that bloody parang already sweeping up. “Hold your fire, don’t—” There came a crack, the man jerking off a shot at the precise moment that Finn’s blade caught the barrel of the weapon. Crying out, the man staggered as his shot went wild, and then let out a loud screech as Finn cut the parang in a broad sweep across his middle.

A gush of bright red blood spattered stone as the guard clutched at his spurting stomach and crumpled, tumbling from the balustrade. “No, God!” the guard shrieked. He got a hand up. “Don’t—”

Whatever else had been on his tongue died as Finn brought the parang down in a hard chop.

“I said,” Finn roared, as he booted a mighty soccer kick at the guard’s head that sent it rocketing down the village hall steps, “no one fires!”

“Elias?” Still straight-arming her Magnum, Mellie craned a faltering look back, paling at the sight of gouts of thick blood still pumping from the raw stump of the guard’s headless corpse. “What are you—” “Do what I say!” Finn bellowed, brandishing the dripping parang.

“No one fires! Let her through!”

My God, Finn knows her. The realization blazed like a pillar of orange fire from an IED. Still reeling, Tom now saw that Simon—that boy with Chris’s face who had looked so beaten just a few moments ago—was staring with a look of disbelief that was quickly shifting to dismay and dread. On the ground, not far from him, Peter was moaning: “No no no, don’t, this is what he wants, this is what Finn wants.” They all knew her: Finn and Peter. Simon. But how? No, God.

Tom’s heart beat even faster, this time with fresh horror. A terrible cold was creeping through his veins to seep into his brain and bones, and he heard himself moan, felt himself die just a little bit more.

No, please, God, don’t do this. Aren’t I enough? What more can I give you?

Please, don’t take her, please.

Struggling to his feet, he watched her come: hands up, rifle held high. She was tauter than he remembered. Her expression was tight, steely with resolve. Her eyes were very bright, a brilliant green; her long hair as deeply rich and red as his blood.

She was his breath, and he would give all he had to save her. He could; there was still time to get clear. There was nothing Finn could do about the hidden thermite eating metal, the buckets of homemade ANFO, the redundant coils of det cord that would, in a very few seconds, spark to life. The bombs would blow. Rule would die, but she didn’t have to. Life with Finn wouldn’t be much of one, but without life, there was no hope—and she was hope, for him, most of all.

But he couldn’t let Finn get away either. There were the kids to think about—and Ellie, only eight, just getting started.

This was Afghanistan again, that day in the blare of sun and on the rocks, with that little boy and girl: an impossible choice. God, what good is a choice when it isn’t one? When it truly is between two evils, and neither less evil than the other? If I save Alex, Finn gets the kids. If I say nothing and the bombs go . . .

Choose, Tom. He felt that steady pressure, that hand in his mind, trying to knock him down, make him bend and break. Alex or the children: choose—and do it fast.

Because he and Alex had less than eight minutes left.

121

After they’d taken her weapons, she’d come to stand on his right. As she passed, her hand brushed his, the touch so potent he nearly gasped at the scorch and sudden burn in his heart. When she turned to face Finn, her eyes skimmed his for only a moment, but long enough for Tom to see that minute shake of her head. He wasn’t exactly sure what she was warning him about, but he kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t certain he could trust himself to speak anyway.

“You wanted to find me,” she said to Finn. “Well, here I am.” “You know this girl?” Mellie asked. Her gray eyes shot to Tom, then to Finn. “How? Where?”

“Oh, here and there.” Wiping his gored parang on the trousers of the headless guard, Finn sheathed the weapon. His cobra-eyes ticked from her to Tom, then back. Finn looked both fascinated—and wary. “You killed one of my best hunters,” he said to her.

“It was an accident.” If there was any fear there, Tom didn’t hear it. But he sensed she was waiting for something, and thought, from the tense line of her jaw, she was working hard, too. But working hard at what? Or is she holding back? “You must not have cared about him too much, or else you wouldn’t have left the body and all his nice gear,” she said. “Thanks for that, by the way.”

“You’re welcome.” His snake’s eyes raked her up and down. “How did you do it? Not even Davey could find you.”

“Davey?” Maybe it was Tom’s imagination, but he thought there was the very slightest difference in her tone. Her laser-green gaze slid to the boy—Davey—then back.

“Yes. You’re very different.” Finn turned to consider Simon, whose face was a study in anguish, before regarding her again with genuine curiosity. “Is Simon . . . fond of you? Is that why they let you live?”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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