Oh yeah, right. What had happened back at the Landrys was just too damned close for comfort. No matter what Tori said—and, yes, kissing her was the best thing that had happened to him in months—he knew it was all bullshit, too. Maybe she believes in me, but I sure don’t. That fiasco back there only proved he wasn’t Chris or Peter. No good pretending he could be either anymore, no matter what the Council said or wanted. If Aidan had rebelled, or Pru had sided with Jarvis, or Jarvis had taken a shot, what then? Kill Jarvis? Shoot anyone else who disobeyed? Or make the exception and look the other way as the guys cracked open those jars and ate the evidence? Hell, he might have joined in.

Can’t even trust myself. Got to go to the Council in the morning and just quit. Tell them Pru’s a better choice. He’s older, and he thinks things through better than me.

And really, what could the Council do? Send him to the principal’s office? Ban him? His lips curled in a sour smile. Not likely. He wasn’t refusing to help. There were patrols to mount, places to guard, the occasional foraging expedition. He’d settle for chopping wood. Plenty to do. Besides, he was Spared, woo-hoo, and way too valuable to toss.

I’ll trade valuable for normal any day. He skimmed a look toward the church. His mind drifted back to the shock of Tori’s mouth, how nice that felt, and warm. For those few seconds, he’d actually felt human again. So maybe, after we’re done here, sneak back to the church? It’ll be dark soon. Lob a snowball at her window and then . . .

“What you grinning about?” It was Pru, two steps below. “Nothing.” God, he couldn’t even daydream in peace. Another scintillating splinter of light skewered his left eye. He ought to see Kincaid, maybe beg some aspirin or Tylenol, if there was any left. Or maybe in all Kincaid’s reading up on plants and mushrooms, tinkering with decoctions and infusions, he’d come up with something that could deal with this monster headache that just wouldn’t quit.

“Come on,” he said, turning, his gaze sweeping past the church, “let’s—” Suddenly, he froze.

Pru let a beat slide by. “Greg?”

He didn’t reply. He could feel his eyebrows bunching together in a sudden frown. Out of the corner of his eye, he could’ve sworn there’d been a light? No, a flash. But that was probably the headache . . .

“Greg?”

“I don’t know,” he said to Pru. “But I thought I heard something.”

45

From what Sarah could see, Cutter wasn’t quite done dying yet. His fingers fluttered and flapped like dying starfish. The close air in this back storage room was saturated, almost fogged with the heady stink of wet pennies. Hunched over the body, both hands full of Cutter’s meat, the Changed was feeding with a single-minded ferocity that reminded Sarah of a film they’d seen in science about wolves: how a pack brought down a full-grown moose. Once the animal was on the snow, the wolves ripped open the abdomen and literally ate the moose to death.

Starving. Horrified, Sarah watched the boy’s Adam’s apple bob in a swallow as he simultaneously crammed in another mouthful. The boy had one of the worst cases of acne she’d ever seen. His face looked broken and bruised. With all that blood smeared over pitted skin and bulging sacs of yellow pus, the Changed looked diseased, something out of The Walking Dead.

She had to get out of here. Clawing to her feet, she lurched in a stumble-stagger that sent her crashing into the door. At the sound, the Changed twisted, seemed to see her for the first time, and began to surge up from the floor. Turning, she blundered down the narrow alley of the kitchen, banging like an errant pinball between counters. With no flashlight, she was blind, driving forward on memory and fear. As she crashed through the dark, she felt a sudden, slight change in temperature, a puff of even colder air from the common room. Wheeling drunkenly to the right, she groped, found the corner, and then she was half falling, half sprinting up the stairs.

Her ears caught a thump behind and below. A steady, fast clump of boots. Coming for her. Not much time. Even starving, the Changed boy was faster. Sarah tore a screaming breath from the air and then another. Above, she could see the slight gray-green glow of the vestibule. Once she made it up and then out of there and into the breezeway, if she could just make it to the doors, lock him out of the school . . .

My keys. A moan fell out of her mouth. Her keys were behind her, on the floor. She doubted she was fast enough to outdistance this boy anyway. Even if she could, there might be more. Cutter was dead. There was no reason for anyone to check on them until the guards switched off. And what if someone did notice that the side door was open and came in to investigate? What if that someone was Pru or Greg? This Changed would be on them in a second.

Flinging herself up the last step, she staggered into the vestibule. From below, she could hear the boy’s grunts, a stumble as he misjudged the distance between one stair and another. Can’t lead him back into the school. Darting right toward the bell tower door, she fumbled for the handle. Please don’t be locked. Mashing down on the icy iron thumb plate, she cocked her elbows, jerked back hard. The door was oak and as solid as any other in the church, but it moved, swinging open with a rusty squall. Cold air spilled and she saw a shimmery curlicue of narrow stone steps. Bell tower must open at the top. That’s why it’s colder and there’s light.

A sudden gush of air sucked at her back and stoppered her ears. Someone was pushing through from the breezeway into the vestibule, following a cone of orange light that splashed her shadow onto stone. For a crazy moment, she thought the Changed had her flashlight, but he was coming from the wrong direction. Then she heard Tori call, “Sarah? Where are you going? What’s hap—”

No. Darting a glance left, Sarah saw the boy storming up the last few steps. “Tori, run!” Sarah spun on her heel and waved the other girl back. “Run, ru—”

Surging from the dark like a demon summoned from hell, the Changed threw himself into the vestibule. Cringing, Tori raised both arms to ward him off. Her flashlight tumbled from her right hand as she unlimbered her shotgun, racked the pump, socked the butt to her shoulder—

And in that small span of time, Sarah finally remembered. The gun. Sweating, Sarah fumbled for her pistol just as the boy ducked his shoulder, dropped below Tori’s line of fire, and sprinted across the vestibule at a dead-on run. Tori let out an explosive oomph as the boy smacked into her middle and bore them both crashing to the stone. Somehow, Tori still had the shotgun clutched in her right hand and was trying to bring it around when the boy balled his right fist, still smeary with Cutter’s blood, and smashed Tori across the jaw. A yelp jerked from her mouth, her hold on the shotgun loosened, and in one swift, practiced motion, the Changed boy swept up the weapon and jammed the muzzle under her chin.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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