Another quicksilver flash, a whicker—and whop! Dale gave a violent lurch. Aidan’s soul mates, Lucian and Sam, bore down to keep the whole mess—a barn door to which they’d fixed seat belts and ropes—from skittering off its sawhorses and crashing to the floor. Aidan liked the sawhorses. If or when he got around to waterboarding, all they had to do was slide a couple two-by-fours under the sawhorse at Dale’s feet. (Aidan said it was all about the angle; you had to get it just so or the water wouldn’t flood the guy’s nose and throat.) Each time Dale jumped, the barn door jumped with him.

“AAAHHH, stop!” Dale babbled. “Stopstopstop, please, stop!” “Then tell us, little piggy.” Aidan’s tongue eeled over his lower lip and a glistening splotch of Dale’s blood. Aidan was just that type: a psychopath in training, lean and rat-faced, with slanted gray eyes and draggled hair so grungy and soot-slimed he probably sucked out the lice for a midmorning snack. A double trail of jailhouse tears trickled over his narrow cheeks. When a prisoner broke, Lucian—a whiz with needles, nails, hammers—added a tat. Give it another month and Aidan would weep nothing but ink. “How many in your camp?”

“I told you!” Dale wheezed. From the wattles of loose flesh hanging from the old guy’s arms, Greg thought Dale once had been pretty big and probably strong. Now, he was just one more old geezer in grimy boxers, reeking of urine, oily sweat, fresh blood. Greg didn’t like looking at the sparse gray hairs corkscrewing from Dale’s chest. It was like they were beating up on his grandpa. Which, in a way, he guessed they were.

Not that any of this was doing them a damn bit of good.

It was the third week in February of the worst winter of his life. Having overreached, Rule was nearly out of food, ammo, medicine. The village was collapsing in on itself like the fevered firestorm of a disease that had coursed through its host, burning too hot, too bright, until there was nothing in its wake but bones. Without enough manpower to protect them, the farms had been ravaged, their remaining herds either stolen or dead of starvation. Having butchered most for the meat, they were down to twenty horses, and about two dozen dogs. People old and young were dropping from illness, starvation.

il sa j . bick For all his skill and his weird potions filched from arcane books on herbal medicines, mushrooms, and folk magic, there wasn’t a damn thing Kincaid could do.

The talk was that the ambush had been the start of it all, the beginning of the end: the day almost six weeks ago, when Peter was murdered in an ambush the Council said Chris set up. Greg’s first thought when he heard that? Those people didn’t know shit. Chris was Greg’s friend, and a good person, and brave. A stunt like that would never cross Chris’s radar. Chris and Peter were a team; they were tight, like brothers.

But look, people argued, Chris ran when the going got tough. So that was proof, right? Mark 13:12: Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, was what Reverend Yeager said. Hell, Matthew liked that so much, he slotted in the same shit, chapter ten, verse twenty-one. Now, the very next verse also mentioned that kids would rebel against their parents and put them to death and the good guys had to stand firm to the very end and blah, blah. Greg just didn’t know what that was supposed to mean. These days, he was having a hard time telling who the good guys were, or what that boy in the mirror was thinking.

On the other hand, Greg had no better ideas. He was exhausted, half-starved, appalled by what the situation was compelling him to do—to consider—and so afraid of the blackness welling in his chest that he was six all over again and only just realizing that he’d blundered into a house of horrors. Most of the time, he felt like bursting into tears. But he had to be strong. They were in big trouble here, life or death, and no Peter or Chris to tell him what was right.

Considering how things were going, there were moments when Greg truly believed: Show your face in Rule, Chris, and I’ll put a bullet through your eye.

Which only proved how far gone he was, too.

“There is no one else.” Dale’s mouth pulled into a desperate, fearful rictus. “It’s the truth!”

“Oh, bullshit.” Sam’s voice was lazy, almost bored. But Greg knew better. If Dale didn’t cough up the information, those boxers were going to go next. Then Sam, armed with his collection of hardware—pliers and wire cutters and handsaws—would go to work. Greg’s stomach somersaulted. Because Aidan’s crew really were sick little freaks. Having sussed out Lucian and Sam as like-minded brothers, Aidan now provided Rule with its version of gangbangers: punks heavy on the blood and torture, light on the graffiti. Greg imagined it was the reason Peter tagged Aidan for the job in the first place. It was also why Greg didn’t have the guts to stop them, even though he was the one who was supposed to be calling the shots now.

In charge, my ass. For about the billionth time, he wondered what the hell Yeager was smoking. Greg wasn’t Peter or Chris. He’d only just turned fifteen. He was having a hard enough time being him— whoever that was.

“No, no, I’m telling the truth! It was me, it was just me— Aaahhhh!” Dale shrieked as Aidan’s antenna razored meat right down to bone. “Jesus Jesus Je—”

And that was when Greg felt the earth move.

7

As one wall of the tunnel cracked apart and the rock gave way, Alex screamed. Her right shoulder was a fireball of red, liquid pain, the tendons and muscles stretching until she thought her skin would rip, the arm simply pop from its socket. Clutching Wolf ’s forearm in a death grip, she could feel his muscles quivering from the effort. She had visions of the rope to which Wolf clung, fraying, unraveling, breaking, and the two of them being swept away. She had no idea if the Changed above were trying to pull them up. They probably couldn’t, because of the current. She was barely holding on, and the pain was building, her shoulder trying to come apart. If only the drag would let up!

Unless it doesn’t. The water had dropped to just below her knees but no further. Must be filling almost as fast from somewhere else. The rope had swayed left, and there it stayed, drawn to the doomed course that the water charted, their weight fixed to the end of a gigantic pendulum. If the rope snapped, or Wolf couldn’t hang on—

I should let go. An insane thought, but one that, under the circumstances, had all the bald certainty of an irrefutable logic. I’m too much for him. I’ll get us both killed.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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