hours? He was like this when I come on shift. Lang gave him a whack with his baton. Right there in the side . . . see where the bruise is coming up? Kid didn’t even flinch. Ask me . . . I don’t know. The way he’s breathing, he’s either real crazy or dying.”

Both. Neither. Bwahahaha. Naked, eyes screwed shut, sprawled on the floor of his cell, Peter let go of another gargling, guttural groan and shuddered, his hands fluttering like dying moths. His skin was so caked in filth, huge dried chunks cracked from his flanks. And it’s showtime, folks. Dragging in another grudging inhale, he began to jitter and flop like a dying fish, spluttering and choking, the foam bubbling to froth over his lips. From the taste, there was some blood, too. The back of his head bounced against concrete and he felt a spray of pain, but it was muted and very distant.

“Oh, shit, shit.” He heard the tinkling chatter of metal, then a clack as Old Coot slotted in a key. “Son of a bitch is having a fit. Come on, before he swallows his tongue.”

“I don’t know.” Jug Ears. “Lang said we shouldn’t—”

“Screw Lang. He’s not here. The boss is back, too, from that training exercise. Now, you want to explain how this kid choked to death on his own damn tongue while we watched it go down with our thumbs up our butts? Get something to stick between his teeth and come on!”

There was a harsh bawl of metal hinges, and then boots on concrete. A hand on his forehead now and another on his jaw. Jug Ears, on his left, shouting: “Okay, I got a ruler, I got a ruler. Come on, open his mouth, open his mouth!”

“Hang on,” Old Coot grunted, trying to hook his fingers in the soft notches at the corners of Peter’s mouth and away from his clashing teeth. Peter obliged, letting his lower jaw sag, throwing in a choking guh guh guh for good measure.

“Jesus, he’s goddamn dying.” Old Coot wrenched Peter’s jaws open so far Peter heard the tendons creak. “Damn it to hell! Come on, get that thing in there, get it over his tongue, get it—”

“I got it.” A rigid edge of wood sliced Peter’s lower lip, and then there was a tick-tick-tick-tick as Jug Ears tried butting the ruler between the shelves of Peter’s teeth. Jug Ears wormed his fingers over Peter’s tongue. “I got it,” Jug Ears sang, “I got—”

Peter snapped, hard and fast. There was an audible crunch, a burst of blood in his mouth, and then he was grinding his jaws from side to side, his teeth sawing through skin and stringy tendons down to the joints. The bones snapped as Jug Ears screeched and beat at Peter’s face with his free fist: “Get him off, get him off, get him—”

Spitting out the ruin of what had been two fingers, Peter surged from the floor. His left hand was already driving for the man’s throat, his right sweeping up the dropped ruler. Jug Ears got out a pained gah as Peter cocked his right elbow and then pistoned fast, driving the ruler into the old man’s mouth. Jug Ears gave a tremendous jerk. A huge gush of blood jetted, hot and wet, splashing Peter’s face and hand. Through the wood, Peter could feel the harder plate of bone at the back of the man’s throat. The guard’s eyes bugged; his hands flew to Peter’s wrist and tried clawing the ruler free, his nails and jagged splinters of bone from his missing digits frantically scoring Peter’s wrist. Rearing up, Peter flipped Jug Ears onto his back, stabbed the ruler down like a pike, and bellowed: “Eat it, eat it, eat it!”

There was another bony crunch, this one duller, muted by the boil of blood. Jug Ears flailed in a brief but violent spasm as if he’d stuck a wet finger in a live socket, the connections between brain and body suddenly severed as the ruler slammed through to skewer vertebrae and the delicate spinal cord.

All this took less than five seconds. Without pause, Peter rounded on Old Coot, who’d scuttled back only a few feet and was now fetched up against the iron bars of Peter’s cage. His knobbed fingers scrabbled for his pistol, but when Peter’s shadow swam over his body, the guard screamed: “N-nuh-nuh-noooo!” Horror bleached all the color from the guard’s face, and Peter had a moment’s clarity where he understood what he must look like to this old man: naked, painted with gore, a Medusa’s crown of jungle hair, as inexorable as fate. He was something born from a nightmare, or hell.

“D-don’t look at m-me with th-those eyes!” Old Coot shrieked. “I n-never . . . I never h-hurt you!”

“True,” Peter said. “But you never helped me either.” * * *

Two minutes later, flipping the globe of Old Coot’s left eyeball onto his tongue, he was at the door. He’d strapped the guard’s knife to his right calf but taken nothing else. No clothes, no coat, no boots, not even gloves. He didn’t need any of that.

But it’s cold, Peter. It was that still-sane, dime-sized portion of his mind. You’re outnumbered. Don’t you think you might want a rifle and some clothes?

“Clothes are for the rest of you.” Swallowing back eye jelly, he worried the lens between his teeth, then crunched. About the consistency of a slightly stale Tic-Tac, minus the peppermint. From the milky color, Old Coot had been on his way to a major cataract.

He felt the press of the Changed staring but didn’t look back. Although, yes, he had considered releasing them—Fly, my pretties, fly, fly!—and taking the doe-eyed Kate right there on the filthy concrete in the bargain. But while he was nuts, he wasn’t crazy. As strong as he was now, he doubted even he would survive a fight with so many Changed.

Instead, cocking his head, he listened with his oh-so-acute hearing for Lang or another guard. All that came was the sough of the wind. The icy air smelled of razors and cut through the sour reek steaming from his flesh.

I want to be clean. Sprinting across the threshold, he plunged facefirst into a pillow of snow. His heart gave a startled jump at the shock of it, a baptism first of ice and then fire as his skin shrieked. After so long in the prison house, it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever felt in his life. Gasping, he rolled once, twice, came to rest on his back. Clots of snow clung to his hair; he could feel lumps of ice on his lashes. He let out a laugh that was another of those breathy, ecstatic moans. Snow cupped his back; he was melting into it but felt no cold. For him, cold was only a concept, nothing more than a faraway twinkle of a distant star.

I am new. He felt the winged presence, the one that had been growing for days now, pulse and swell. Its low muttering surged. Yes. He pounded his chest with a fist. Yes, yes! He was butt-naked and maybe out of his mind, but this was his time, it was his. No one’s ever seen anything like me before. I’m a f**king warrior, I’m—

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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