Yes! Tugging, she felt the rope give. She worked in another finger and then a third, and felt the knot suddenly relax as the ropes parted in her hands. All right, come on! Grasping a single rope, she hauled straight down as hard as she could, let her weight drop, grunting as her wounded calf screamed—and heard a hollow bong.

Hurry, please, hurry! She sent the thought winging after each bongdong, bong-dong of the bell. Hurry, hurry, help us, help us, help us!

“Come on!” Storming down the village steps, Greg dashed to his horse and yanked his Bushmaster from its scabbard. He was already spinning away as the village hall doors popped open and Aidan spilled out, shouting over the dong-bong of the bell, “What the hell?”

Greg sprinted for the church, only a hundred yards away, with Pru hard on his heels. Now that the bell was ringing—now that he knew something was wrong—he could hear the dogs, too: very faint, but unmistakable, a rhythmic oof-oof-oof floating from the rear of the church. The dogs and kids must be in the school; God, he hoped so. Which meant Tori and Sarah were in the bell tower.

Or it might be only one of them. Instead of bounding up the front steps, he turned, saw Aidan, Lucian, and now Jarvis and two of the village guards running after, and shouted back: “The kids! Go make sure the kids . . . !” Then, pivoting, he blasted past the church’s front entrance, dodged right, and headed around back, slipping into slate shadows painted on snow by the coming night.

“Side door?” To his left, he could hear Pru’s ragged breaths. “Thought . . . Tori locked it. Where . . . the hell . . . are Cutter and Benton?”

“Don’t know.” He was sure Tori locked up after he’d left, too. What was in the church that anyone would want? Food, mostly. Not a lot, but easier to get to than the jail. Suddenly, his boots skated on something slick. He landed with a splish in a mucky, slithery tangle that reeked of salty metal and the fouler, rank odor of guts.

“Guh.” Pru sounded as if he was going to be as sick as Greg felt. “Oh, f**k me.”

“God.” Greg’s voice was thick with sour puke. He spat. In the bad light, Greg couldn’t see if he was wallowing in Cutter or Benton. Didn’t much matter. From the size of the puddle and spools of chilled intestines, most of the body—or bodies—was elsewhere. He swam forward, leaving a snail’s slick of gore, then got a knee under as Pru dragged him upright.

“Jesus.” Pru pressed a hand to his forehead like a kid taking his fever. “A Changed?”

“Maybe more than one.” The bell was still tolling. Greg could feel the dry air wicking the wet from his face and chest, leaving behind a tacky, toxic sludge of half-congealed blood and ruptured guts. “Whatever. I’m going inside.”

“Are you nuts?” Pru’s hand shot for Greg’s arm. “What’s gone down has gone down.”

“Stay here if you want.” Greg tore himself free. “I don’t care what you do, but Tori’s in there, and Sarah, and I’m going.”

“No.” Pru tried another grab but missed. “Greg, be smart. Chris or Peter wouldn’t—”

“Fuck smart,” he said. “And that just shows what you don’t know, because they would, and so will I.”

Turning, he dashed the last hundred feet. The door was open, not yawning but wide enough for him to scuttle through with room to spare. He held his breath as he did it, expecting the shot. None came, and he heard the air sigh from his mouth. As soon as he was inside, the bell’s clanging diminished. Directly ahead and up a short but very steep flight of stairs, he made out the arched entryway into the sanctuary. Enough of the day’s dying light splashed in through the open door for him to see a stack of folding chairs leaning against the wall to his right. This was bad because it meant that he could be seen if someone was on the altar platform, maybe waiting out of his line of sight.

If anyone’s still in here. When the bells started, the smart thing for the Changed would be to get out, fast, just as the wiser play for Greg would have been to wait, like Pru said. He hoped the Changed were smarter than he was. He’d been here only a couple of hours before and remembered the layout: that the stairs to the basement were on his right. He peeked, saw the door was open, and thought, Oh boy, that’s bad. With no flashlight, it would be crazy to go down—

He heard something shuffle off his left shoulder, tensed, swiveled, socked the Bushmaster in place, then felt a surge of relief. “I thought this wasn’t smart.”

“Yeah, so we’re both stupid. Now wha—” Pru’s voice died as he saw the gaping maw of the basement door. “Shit. Block it?”

The door opened out, so that should work. “I’ll do it,” he murmured. He didn’t want to let go of his gun, but he couldn’t do this with one hand. He laid the Bushmaster flat, then gently pulled one folding chair away from the other ten, the metal letting out a faint, rasping scaw that made him wince. Slowly padding down the steps, he levered the door closed, all his muscles trying to turn to jelly at every creak and squeak, and wedged the chair under the knob. He repeated this maneuver twice more, moving as fast as he could. Total time: maybe a minute.

“Good deal. Anything in there’ll be trapped like a bug in a jar. You remember the layout?” Pru chinned toward the sanctuary. “Sundays, I try to sleep with my eyes open.”

“Three steps and you’re on the platform. Choir on the right, altar on the left along the wall and under the cross. Pulpit at one o’clock on the far end. Go straight through and you’ll be in the organist’s pit.” He thought. “I’ll go right, down the side aisle. Depending on what happens next, you head for the platform.”

Pru nodded, and Greg took the stairs as fast as he dared. He saw the cross suddenly slip into view on his left and then the high arches of stained glass lining the sanctuary’s far wall; heard a sudden creak under his boot and thought, Shit, in the movies they hug the wall, so stairs won’t—

There was a thundering roar, a clap of lightning. Greg let out a startled gasp as the wall above his head suddenly cratered. Swaying, he stumbled back, tripped over his boots, and fell the rest of the way as another shot blasted past. Greg felt the whir of a slug cleave air by his left temple.

“Shit.” Pru’s face swam into view. “You hit?”

“No.” His left ear felt as if someone had crammed in a fistful of cotton, but he could hear the tick-tick-tick of buckshot and the lighter patter of grit and pulverized drywall. Well, at least they knew what kind of weapon the Changed had. Eyeing the hole in the drywall, Greg saw the teardrop shape and how it curved up. “I think he’s under the altar table.”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror