Although the monster still searched. She felt it reach because she did want Wolf gone and safe. So when she spotted Wolf with Yeager, all she could think was that he had to leave and take this one last leap away from Rule to whatever future waited. Maybe it was wrong to feel that way about a boy that was half monster, but so the hell what.

“Wolf !” Frantic, she grabbed his arm. She kept an eye on Penny, but the girl only seemed petrified, which was fine because they had problems enough. “You need to go, you need to get out!”

Wolf was weeping. Big tears burned in ruby trails through blood. For a second, she knew what he felt. For this, she needed no monster. This was a boy who’d just lost everything, not only Yeager but Peter, too. For him, there was no home left, no place to go. It was like looking down at herself at her parents’ funeral. Or on the day of her diagnosis: huddling in a chair in a too-cold office and seeing for the first time what a monster, living in the dark and eating you alive, really looked like.

“Wolf, please.” She could feel her lips trembling, the tears burning her eyes. “It’ll get better, I promise it will, but you have to try, you have to go, Wolf, you have to run, you have to—”

There was no transition at all. Despite how much had happened, less than three minutes had passed since the moment she let her monster go. So there was a lot of gunfire and people were still shrieking. The crack of one gun was nothing new, although . . . was that Tom, scream—

Something clubbed her, very hard, in the back. She saw Wolf flinch. Fire licked her chest. For that dead space between heartbeats, she and Wolf only stared at each other. She still heard gunfire, but it was so different. No cracks or heavy bangs. Only a muted, distant crackle like tired cellophane.

Then her legs folded. There was the dark, waiting below, but only that. It was Blackrocks again.

Except this time, it was the water—cold and deep—that jumped for her.

Alex probably never heard. There was so much noise. The Magnum’s boom was lost in the twin roar of Tom’s pistol and Greg’s rifle. What was left of Mellie tumbled back, and then Tom and Greg were stumbling forward as Chris forced Night to follow.

Awkwardly cradling Alex in his arms, the boy—Simon, his brother—was staggering to a stand as that huge dog snarled but dared not strike. Alex was tall, a handful for anyone, and limp now: dead weight, eyes closed, the long white swan of her neck dropping back. From Night’s saddle, Chris could see where the shot plowed into her back because of the red starburst halfway down her right chest where the bullet cored through. When her chest struggled up, Chris heard a horrible, sudden cawing sound, like the croak of a dying crow.

Penny was already trying to back away. When Simon saw them coming, he took a half step back as if to turn and try to run. But then his eyes ticked up to Chris, and Simon’s face—my face, Chris thought—bleached white.

“Please,” Tom said, his voice breaking. He held out his arms. “Wolf . . . Simon, please give her to me. Let us help her.”

“Tom. Chris, what the hell . . .” Greg had dismounted and already come up with Chris’s Uzi, which he trained on Simon. “Guys,” Greg said, shakily, “we have to go, we have to go.”

“I know.” For that second, Chris saw, in Simon’s anguish and the tears streaming over his cheeks, not a Changed but a boy struggling with what he wished for versus what he could have. “Simon . . . please,” he said, tightening his arms around Peter, who was now unconscious. Although his friend was very heavy, his was a weight Chris could bear. “She belongs with us.”

At that, Simon took a clumsy, hesitant step. Tom met him halfway, scooping Alex into his arms and then turning for his roan, limping fast as the dog broke from Simon and bounded after. “Give him the gun,” Tom tossed over his shoulder to Greg. “Give it to him, get on your horse, and let’s go, now, now.”

“What?” Greg’s head jerked to Chris. “Chris, I know he’s got to be your brother, but this is like Lena. He’s still—”

“Do it.” Chris looked down at Simon as Greg held out the Uzi the way you’d offer a python a snack. As soon as Simon got a hand on the barrel, Greg dropped the weapon and sprinted back to his horse. “Run, Simon,” Chris said to his brother. “Do you understand? Go, get out, take Penny, and run—”

“Come on!” Tom bellowed. He held Alex to his saddle as Chris did Peter: against his chest, in his arms. She was still as death, and Chris couldn’t tell if she was breathing anymore. Wheeling his roan, Tom kicked the animal to a gallop. “Forty seconds, go, go!”

“Run, Simon!” Chris shouted, and then he was pulling the blood bay around, spurring Night to a dead run, giving the horse his head. “Go, Night, go, Night, go!”

Forty seconds. They blasted past a knot of feeding Changed, the newly dead, and those who would join them soon enough. Rushing from the square, counting in his head: thirty-nine-one-thousand, thirty-eight-one-thousand, thirty-seven—

He made it to thirty.

The end came when he was five blocks away. It was how he’d always thought the end of the world should have been: not the silence of the EMPs and the scream of birds but a huge blistering roar, like the detonation of a neutron bomb; a clap and then a blaring, pillowing, swelling BAH-BAH-BAH-ROOOM. Captured by buildings and reflected off stone, the sound was enormous. Chris felt the air blow past in an enormous, gushing whoosh. The windows of the houses on this block suddenly shattered as the pressure wave barreled past and tried scooping him from his saddle. The ground shuddered so violently he felt the shiver in his spine, saw it in the cascading showers of residual snow shaken loose from roofs.

Gasping, he turned a look back. Intensely bright, insanely brilliant gouts of bloody light burst from the hall’s ruptured windows, like the fiery breaths exhaled from the many mouths of monsters rising from the deep. He could feel the gush of heat, and more surging after. The entire village hall didn’t just fall away; it blew apart in a rocketing hail of stone and steel and surging fireballs that rolled in orange-red waves to crash over the Changed and braying horses and every living soul still in that square. That light was so bright it cut him a long, fleeing shadow. His eyes shouted with pain as if he’d tried staring into the heart of the sun. If there were shrieks and screams, he couldn’t hear them.

But closer, in his arms, he felt Peter stir, and heard him moan. Things were now falling, in a shower, from the sky: a rain of stone and flaming wood. Limbs blown from trees stabbed down in jagged, flaming spears. And there were bodies, in pieces: legs and arms, the scorched blackened balls of skulls. The haunches of horses and stumps of bone and more flesh too blasted even to guess at. A block and a half away, a horse’s head, mane ablaze, blistered a burning arc to slam the roof of a house before tumbling off.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror