“Leave him be,” Stiemke wheezed. His face was contorted, his blind left eye as milky as a white marble. His remaining eye, with its faded gray iris, was runny, the lower lid sagging like melted candle wax to reveal pale pink flesh. “Let the poor boy die in peace.”

“Peace?” The way Travers’s hands were wrapped around the hoe’s wooden handle reminded Greg of the fighting sticks Naruto used in Ultimate Ninja Storm. “Boy? It’s an abomination!” she shrieked, and darted at Stiemke. With a sudden, violent thrust, she whipped around the blunt handle of the hoe like a bat. There was a muted thuck. Stiemke’s head snapped back so quickly it was a wonder his neck didn’t break. A fan of blood unfurled as Stiemke let out a gargled ugh and dropped to the stone floor.

“No!” Yeager squawked, at the same moment that Kincaid bawled, “My God, what are you doing?”

“Doc, no!” Greg grabbed Kincaid’s arm as the doctor started forward. “Don’t.”

“Listen to the kid. Stay out of this, Kincaid,” Jarvis warned.

“Peace? I’ll showing you f**king peace!” Travers aimed a kick at Stiemke, who was on his belly, moaning, trying to eel away. This time, the crunch and crack as Stiemke’s nose shattered and his neck kinked too far to the right weren’t muted. Blood burst over Stiemke’s mouth and chin, but his neck did not roll back. It stayed exactly where it was, the ear neatly cupped over the hump of Stiemke’s left shoulder. Stiemke’s body went as limp and flaccid as a drowned worm.

For a moment, there was that kind of stunned, surprised, soundless hiccup Greg knew well from years of school lunches and dropped cafeteria trays, when everyone was craning a look, getting ready to burst into laughter and shouts of duuude!

She killed him. Greg couldn’t tear his gaze from the buggy white marble of Stiemke’s dead eye. He felt his legs try to turn to water. She broke his neck, she—

Pulling away from Greg’s suddenly boneless fingers, Kincaid squatted alongside Stiemke. He put a finger under Stiemke’s ear, then raised his stricken face to the woman. “Do you realize what you’ve done? What you’re doing? You think this will make things right? Killing each other isn’t the way to solve this!”

“Yeah? Well, it’s a goddamned good start.” Travers hawked out a rope of spit. Half splashed Kincaid’s hand; the rest splatted Stiemke’s glassy cheek to slither in a snot-trail onto the old man’s lips.

That seemed to trigger something, as if the crowd was a coiled spring under more pressure than it could bear. In the next instant, what seemed like a solid shock wave of screaming people surged forward, some stampeding for the altar, others moving to surround Yeager and the rest of the Council. Greg felt hands plant themselves on his chest as Jarvis gave a mighty shove. “Out of my way, boy, outta my way!” Jarvis bellowed as Greg staggered back. “I’m done! You hear me? From now on, you’re taking orders from me, boy, from me!”

Greg couldn’t have answered if he wanted to. Dazed, he saw Travers and that fury of gray hair lead the charge to the altar as Pru darted left and out of the way. Mouth dropping wide in alarm, Henry crossed his hands in a warding-off gesture. “Wait, wait! I didn’t do nothing, I’m on your side,” he piped. “I’m—”

The charging mob simply plowed the little man under. On the carpet, in front of the blasted altar, Ben Stiemke managed to raise an arm so awash with blood that it seemed to be drizzling red paint. With a screech that was also a growl, a rising note feral and terrible in its rage, Travers heaved the hoe in a huge, sweeping arc. The blade whickered.

Ben wailed a single piercing shriek as the blade cut three of his fingers away, cleaving them from his hand like sausages. The hoe’s point buried itself in his chest with a loud and hollow sound like an ax biting wood. Somehow, Ben managed to grab the handle before Travers could yank it free, and hung on, grimly, acne-pitted face contorted in fresh pain and new fear. Blood sheeted from his ruined hand.

“Son of a—” Unable to retrieve her hoe, Travers let out another of her monstrous ululating howls. Darting forward, Jarvis raised his rifle and pistoned his arms. The butt slammed into Ben’s abdomen and then Jarvis put his weight into it, grinding down. A fountain of blood gurgled from the boy’s mouth in a soundless scream. His hands went slack while Travers planted her boot and pulled the hoe free with a brisk snap of bone.

The crowd closed ranks. Gargling, choking to death on his own blood, Ben Stiemke was lost under a heaving, thrashing sea of backs and legs, rifles and fists, those bats, a rake, that hoe. In the cavernous stone church, the clamor built and fed on itself, mushrooming into an explosion of inarticulate shouts and grunts and snarls. It was like watching ants boil out of a mound to swarm a tiny, wounded animal. Somehow it did not surprise Greg at all to see Aidan and Lucian and Sam in the thick of it. Fresh ruby tears mingled with those of blue ink spilling down Aidan’s cheeks. Not to be outdone, Lucian dragged that long and obscenely pink tongue over Aidan’s face, licking away the blood. Laughing, the two high-fived.

At that moment, Greg understood that this was like the morning his world broke apart: when his parents sat him down to say they were divorcing, and he’d spat something awful before bolting away from his father, who called after him, Son, son, wait, please. You know I’ll always love you. And what he’d said in return, something so hateful it hurt to even think it: Fuck you, f**k love! After, still fuming, he’d glanced through his bedroom window—just in time to see his dad suddenly slump and their ancient riding mower mutter on, narrowly missing his mother. Not that this mattered, because she was already stone-dead. The old mower kept on, eating its way over the lawn and plowing under a bed of late mums before cratering their shed.

This was like that: a disaster in progress, unstoppable, perhaps inevitable.

There was a wild triumphant roar. On the altar platform, a tidal surge of hands and arms hoisted Ben Stiemke into the air. The boy’s blood rained onto the stone steps. Ben’s right socket was a blast crater of crimson eye jelly. Greg and the others cringed back as the mob rampaged down the center aisle, pausing only to scoop up Stiemke’s body, too.

When the crowd was gone, the sudden silence was a sound all its own. On the altar, a huge crimson lake was overflowing down the stone steps, spreading in a blood tongue down the center aisle. Bits and pieces of Ben were scattered here and there, too; Greg spotted a thumb and a chunk of something raw and liverish.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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