A jolt. She felt the quiver down her arm and into her teeth. Above, she saw Wolf ’s head jerk and then his left foot slide up the rock wall. Another jolt, and now she could see, quite distinctly, that crude harness tighten as he managed another half step, jamming his right boot against a lip of protruding rock that she could’ve sworn had been a good four inches above him only a second before. She looked down at her legs. Was it her imagination, or had the water fallen, just a little? They’re trying to pull him up. But if this was the best they could do, it wouldn’t be nearly enough. Could she move her legs, drag one out? Anything would help. Come on, come on. Her thighs tensed, battling the clutch of all that water. As if sensing what she meant to do, Wolf tightened his grip around her wrist and pulled, working to lift her just a little higher—

The earth suddenly heaved. She could feel the pressure of it. In the next moment, there was a crack and then a BOOM, like thunder. Debris skittered over the rocks; to her right, jagged seams suddenly splayed. Someone screamed, and then a boy, arms and legs spread in a star, hurtled past in a sudden hail of stone. He hit the water not twenty feet away, although she couldn’t hear the splash over the roar. The boy bobbed to the surface, and then one hand appeared to claw at air. His jaw unhinged, maybe to scream, but whatever sound might have emerged was lost as a gush of water flooded down the boy’s throat. The claw-hand tightened to an agonized fist. His bulging eyes rolled back to the whites. A moment later, the boy was jerked under and away.

There was a sudden lurch. The tension in her screaming shoulder eased a smidge, and she thought, Oh hell. She looked back up, then gasped. Wolf ’s face was a mask of blood. Must’ve been hit by a rock. She saw him give his head a groggy shake. His arms were shuddering now, uncontrollably, his muscles nearing their breaking point.

He’s going to lose it. Instead of the panic she expected, the realization brought a certain calm. Monster or not, he was risking his neck to save her. So the math was simple, the equation neat. If she wanted to live, there really was only one way.

Help him. Do something.

Grimly, she put everything she had into getting her boots out of

il sa j . bick the water. Her knees bunched; she felt the cramp and quiver of her thighs . . . and her feet inched up. Not much. A little, but enough. Yes. “Come on, come on,” she chanted. Her teeth clamped together; she felt her belly tighten, her neck muscles cord with the effort. You really didn’t appreciate how thick, how powerful water was until you had to fight it. To Alex, it felt like gigantic hands were cupping each heavy heel, but either she was winning or the water level was dropping. Same diff. “Come on, come—”

Both boots popped free so quickly her burning thighs tried to relax, send her legs pistoning down. Gasping, aware that she was truly swaying now and free of the water, she caught herself just in time. For a moment, she simply dangled, her shoulder coming apart in Wolf ’s grasp, the water surging only inches away and ready to grab her again, take her down for good.

Then Wolf tensed, his fingers so tight it felt as if her wristbones were being ground to dust. She began to move by minute degrees, see-sawing back and forth: first a few inches and then a few more as he tried swinging her closer to the rock wall so she could make a grab. The arc of her travel lengthened, her body nothing more than a sodden little yo-yo depending from a very short string. Toward the juddering wall, then back, then closer—those crags first ten and then only five feet away, but still too far for even a very determined, very desperate person to have a hope in hell—then back, and now one more time . . .

Now! her brain screamed. Do it now, do it now, do it now now now! Her left hand made a grab. Rock chewed her fingers. She clawed, wildly, but then physics—that bitch—took over. Her swing’s momentum reversed, carrying her away.

“Shit! Shit, god—” A lurch and the words dried up on her tongue as Wolf ’s fingers slipped, his muscles shivered, and that greedy water drew closer—so close. No, no, don’t lose it, Wolf ! Don’t lose it now, just a few more seconds . . . And then she was sailing back, and she could tell from the frantic twist of Wolf ’s fingers—slick with blood and water and sweat—that he wouldn’t be able to hold on for another go. This was it. She felt the air whisking through her hair, whiffling past her ears. The rock wall suddenly loomed, but she’d picked her spot: at her ten o’clock, a slight curve of shadow, an inverted grin of stone. At the last second, just before she butted the wall, her hand shot out, fingers hooked. She grabbed that stone lip, felt a ridge of rock slot beneath her knuckles—

Wolf must’ve felt the moment she connected, because his elbow suddenly kinked and then he was leaning in, shifting his weight, trying not to let go or pull her off. Anyone looking would’ve sworn she and Wolf were engaged in a weird variation of arm wrestling. Yet, at that moment, on the rock, they were a single unit, a team bent to one purpose. Jamming her knees against sharp stone, Alex clung to the rock with both legs and her left hand like a three-legged fly.

“Get them to pull us up, Wolf,” she croaked, not knowing if he would understand speech, and beyond caring. The earth was groaning, fatiguing fast in a swoon that might still take them all down, and she knew: they weren’t close to being safe yet. “Hurry.”

What? Startled, Greg aimed a look at the rough brick floor. He could’ve sworn the bricks moved. Unless I’m going crazy. The stable was so cold their breaths plumed, but Greg still felt sudden anxious sweat on his upper lip. Another flashing stab of light skewered his eyes as his sledgehammer of a headache pounded. Please, God, please. I can’t be losing it. Not now.

What convinced him that he was still semi-sane was when he saw Daisy, his golden retriever, scramble to her feet and give a sharp yap of alarm. So, he knew she’d felt it. There was also something else— a sound, something that was not Mick Jagger or a bluesy guitar or Dale’s dribbling sobs: a faint, faraway, hollow whump.

That was real. I heard that. What the— Greg tossed a glance up to Pru, who stood at his right elbow, a wrinkle of worry between his eyebrows. At seventeen, Pru was two years older and one of the biggest kids Greg had ever seen: six foot six, square-jawed, and broad, the kind of bullnecked hulk a high school football coach would sell his grandmother’s soul for. Pru was also the only boy Greg considered close to a friend these days, now that Peter and Chris were gone. Pru heard that, too. Could it be thunder? Greg shot a quick glance out the stable windows. No lightning; only the diffuse, muddy green glow of the setting moon. Unless it was snowing near Lake Superior; that might explain it. Thundersnow happened around the Great Lakes all the time. But the lake’s more than a hundred miles away. Even if it’s thundering up there, we shouldn’t be able to hear it.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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