Peter. “No! Alex! Tom!” Spurring Night, Chris plunged into the crowd, beating a path. He snatched the reins of a stamping, riderless roan, thinking, furiously, Get him on a horse, get Peter to Kincaid, get out get out get out! Trying to cover the distance between them was like battling a stormy sea in a rowboat with a soupspoon. The roan was shying and squealing, and he could feel Night tensing, struggling to find a safe place to set his hooves. Hands tore at his legs. The square was a sea of teeth and snarling faces. This was the nightmare of the plateau again, only this time he was trying to control two horses. Greg had pulled beside him, and Chris heard the crack of shots as they battled their way the last fifty feet.

“Chris, no! Stay on your horse!” Tom’s face was tense, pinched with pain, wet with sweat and gore. There was an enormous bloody slash across his chest, and he was breathing hard. Alex’s back was pressed to his, the Mossberg in her hands, that big dog still whirling and snapping. “Greg, help me! Chris,” he said, as Greg hurried around, “pass down the Uzi!”

“Here!” Chris stripped the weapon from his shoulders, turned it butt-first. “How bad is he, how bad?”

“Bad. Alex!” Tom shouted over his shoulder. “Take the Uzi!”

Instantly, she broke her elbows so the Mossberg aimed at the sky, and wheeled, one hand stretching for the new weapon. As soon as her fingers wrapped around the butt of the Uzi and he felt her connect, Chris let go. But she did look up. Their eyes met, and he said, “Alex . . .”

“I know, Chris. Me, too. Help Peter.” Limbering the Mossberg, she turned back to cover and buy them time.

“Chris!” Tom called. “You’ll have to hang on to him until we can get clear!”

“How much time left?” he cried, steadying Night with his knees.

“Not enough! All right, let’s go, let’s go!” Tom shifted his weight, came down on a knee, and then Peter was swooning into Greg’s arms as Tom hefted Peter’s legs.

“Hurry!” Alex shouted. She was backing up, the Uzi in both hands, trying to cover all sides at once. One of Finn’s men—old, but with only a few streamers of white hair—swam at her in a panic, arms cranking in a herky-jerky crawl. Before she could get off a shot, the wolfdog surged. Screaming, the old man reeled as blood spurted from a rip above his elbow.

“Down, Buck!” As the wolfdog jumped back, Alex darted in with the Uzi, slamming the butt into the man’s jaw, one quick and vicious jab. There was a jet of crimson as the old man’s skin split, and he went down. In the next second, the Changed had him, and he disappeared, shrieking, one grasping bloody hand reaching straight up as if trying to claw his way from a grave.

“Lift him, Greg, easy, easy!” Tom said. Peter’s face was white as salt, the blood like bright spray paint. As Greg and Tom wrestled Peter onto his saddle, Chris saw the cramp of pain in Peter’s face and heard his moan.

“God, oh God, Peter, hang on, hang on!” Chris said as Peter fell into him, his back spooning against Chris’s chest. “I’ve got you, it’ll be okay.”

“C-c-cold.” Peter was gasping. There was so much blood, Chris could taste the iron in his mouth. Peter’s head lolled. “S-so c-c-cold . . . C-Chris, s-sorry, s-so sorry, I t-t-tried . . .”

“Shh, you did fine,” Chris said, tremulously, sobs welling in his throat. “You’re going to be okay. I’ve got you, Peter.” Peter was shuddering, struggling for breath. I’m going to save you; I’m going to save us both. Wrapping his arms around Peter, Chris took his friend’s weight and held him tight. “I won’t let you fall, Peter; I’ve got you, I’ve got you, you won’t fall.”

“All right, Greg, on your horse, let’s go!” Grabbing the roan’s reins from Chris, Tom turned to shout, “Alex, you ride with me—” He stopped, sudden panic blooming on his face. “Alex, where’s Alex?”

“What?” Confused, Chris threw a look down to where she’d been, then up, toward the hall. He spotted her, that red scream of hair, as she and the dog pushed past Changed and fighting men, and exploded for the steps—and a body. “There!” Chris shouted.

“Alex, no!” Aghast, Tom was already surging, whipping the pistol like a club, trying to beat a path. “Alex, there’s no time—less than ninety seconds! What are you doing, what are you doing?”

But she kept going, didn’t falter, and in that last second—before the shot—Chris understood why.

Laid out like a sacrifice, his grandfather was crumpled on the steps. The only reason Chris recognized him at all was because Yeager was bald. His face was ripped, but the head was still attached. The rest was a loose-limbed heap of gore and torn flesh.

Crouched alongside Yeager’s body was a boy, bloodied and bruised. A girl, very pregnant, hovered nearby, uncertain, clearly terrified. As Alex banged through, only the boy looked up.

My God. The jolt of surprise was like a crack of lightning splintering his brain. There was an instant where the engine of time hitched, jumped its tracks, and then simply ceased.

“Chris?” Greg said, the confusion clear. “Who—” “Wolf, please!” Above all that clamor, he still heard her shout. “You have to leave, you have to go, Wolf ! You have to run, you have to—”

And then they all saw, at the same terrible moment, what Alex did not: a monster, suddenly risen; a ruin of flesh and bone, virtually naked, clothed only in tatters and red rivers of blood streaming from rips and slashes and bites. A long flap of scalp hung in a limp flag of maroon flesh and gray hair. Pink skull showed from forehead to crown as if this monster was in the process of unzipping and shrugging from its skin to be born.

“YOU!”—and that was the only clue Chris had that this thing once had been a woman. Her arm, dripping blood and gleaming with bone, swung up, fist jabbing toward Alex, the chrome of a huge Magnum revolver winking in the day’s new light. “YOU!”

“MELLIE, NO!” Tom shrieked, his pistol drawing down, at the same instant that Chris screamed, “Alex, Alex, look out, look out, look—”

It was, she thought, the strangest feeling, like waking from the dark chaos of a long fever-dream with her mind burning bright and clear: coming back to herself not within her parents’ embrace but the shelter of Tom’s arms.

Now, here they were, fighting for every remaining second, in the middle of the end of the world, and no time left, in this growing garden of the dead. Yet there was nowhere on earth she should be other than with Tom and Chris and her people, waiting to welcome her back, take her away.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror