“N-no.” Tori’s bloody lips were purple in the yellow glow of the flashlight. “Pl—”

“Stop!” Sarah poked the Sig out in both hands, but the gun wavered and she was shaking so badly her knees wobbled. The Changed went rigid, and she thought, Now, shoot him, shoot! Gritting her teeth, Sarah squeezed the trigger—and nothing happened. The trigger didn’t budge.

“The safety!” Tori shrieked. “Sarah, release the—”

Too late.

“Heard what?” asked Pru.

“I don’t know. A . . .” Greg groped for the word. A thump, but so muffled it was more like the sound of a heavy cardboard box on a wood floor. “Sort of a thud. I’m not sure I really heard it.” Maybe migraines made you hallucinate sounds, too? He didn’t remember Kincaid mentioning that.

“I didn’t hear anything.” Pru turned to look down at the others clustered at the bottom of the village steps. “You guys?”

In reply, Jarvis cut Pru a curt shake of his head, while Henry and Lucian only looked blank. “Man, I can barely hear you,” Aidan said from the depths of his snorkel. “Can we, like, go? I’m freezing my ass off.”

“Just a sec.” Maybe this is all the headache’s doing, but . . . Puzzled, Greg peered through the gathering twilight at the hunkered edifice of the church, the bony finger of its bell tower stabbing a sky beginning to turn cobalt. From this vantage point, he couldn’t see the attached school or the rectory. He stared a long second, saw nothing, then tossed a look opposite, at the far end of the square toward a brooding row of shuttered shops and a defunct Christian combination coffeehouse and bookstore. The storefronts were dark, the black windows empty as sockets. In the center of the square, the snowy mushroom of an octagonal gazebo, probably once used for summer band concerts, huddled beneath a trio of towering oaks. “Thought I saw something, too. This flash.”

“What? Where?” Pru twisted a look right and left and then behind, across the square. “I don’t see anything.”

“Me neither,” the snorkel put in.

“You getting another headache?” Pru asked. “Didn’t Kincaid say that might make you see flashes of light and stuff ?”

“Yeah.” Greg realized his hand had snuck up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “But I could’ve sworn—” Behind, Greg heard the scrape of a door and then a guard call: “Everything okay out here?”

“He thought he saw something,” Pru said to the guard.

“I heard something, too,” Greg said.

“Yeah? I didn’t see anything.” The guard craned a look at his companion, who shook his head, and then back. He chinned the sacks. “Whatcha got?”

“Loot,” the snorkel said, “which I would really, really like to put away now, please.”

“Sure. Okay,” Greg said. His headache felt like it was sprouting claws and digging at the back of his left eye. “You’re right. It was probably nothing.”

The shotgun blast was enormous, a BOOM Sarah felt and heard crash and bang against the vestibule’s stone walls. A tongue of muzzle flash, bright as lightning, spurted from the weapon’s throat, sheeting the stone gray where it wasn’t purpled with Tori’s blood and bits of her brain and skull.

Without pause, the boy simultaneously worked the pump and pivoted as Sarah shrieked and leapt again for the bell tower steps. Hooking the wrought iron latch with her left hand, she dragged the door partly shut just in time. Another flash, a gigantic BOOM. Something slapped her right calf, and she stumbled as more buckshot punched through the wood, exploding in splinters that nipped her back and blew past her cheeks. She careered up the slippery steps as her calf bawled, the blood streaming in runnels down her pant leg and sock.

Shot, I’m shot. She gimped up steps before her leg suddenly gave. Pitching forward, she sprawled against stone. Her heart was yammering, not only in fear but pain. With all these gunshots, someone would hear, wouldn’t they? She didn’t know. All this heavy, thick stone and wood . . . Maybe no one could.

He was down there, waiting, deciding. She could feel him. Have to save myself. She still had the Sig. Is there a round ready? She didn’t remember or know how to check. Any sound would give her away. The Changed had already seen her with the weapon. The longer he assumed she didn’t know what to do—not such a stretch—the better off she might be.

Then, the glimmer of an idea . . . Find the safety. Her fingers walked the weapon. This time, she found the lever and thumbed it off. Grimacing, she eased onto her back, reached down, and skimmed an oozy handful of warm blood to smear her cheeks and neck. Scooping another palmful, she slathered her chest. There, that ought to sell it. One look at me and he’ll think I’m dying.

Shuddering, she scrubbed her hand on her jeans, then pulled herself into as tight a crouch as she could manage, hissing at the pain in her calf. No expert on guns, but she knew geometry. They were in a tight tube, a circular space with narrow, essentially triangular steps that tapered to a point around the stone newel. He was a boy and much bigger, and had the long gun besides, which meant he had no choice but to hug the outer wall. But she was above him, and small. Clutching the Sig, she steadied her hands on her knees, aiming for what she thought would be the most logical spot.

“Help.” She injected as much fear and pain into that little whimper of a word as she could. It wasn’t such a stretch. “I’m shot. Please don’t hurt me. I won’t tell anyone you’re here, I promise.”

Nothing. This isn’t going to work. She listened, straining above the thump of her heart, the buzz in her ears. She was trembling so badly her teeth stuttered. Sweat, oily and as thick as the blood seeping into her right boot, spilled over the shelf of her eyebrows to burn her eyes. “Help.” She threw in a long grind of a groan for good measure. “I’m hurt. Please, help me.”

A second later, from somewhere below, she heard the distinctive rasp of a boot over stone. A clup. Then another clup.

Coming up. How many steps had she managed? She couldn’t remember. “Help.” Her hands were cramped so tightly around the Sig’s butt, the ridged grip digging into her palms. Her right index finger curled over the trigger. “I’m hurt.”

Another clup. And another.

“Please. Help me.” The newel was cold on her neck. She was staring so hard into the silvery gloom, her eyes watered. “I’m bleeding, I’m—”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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