A very distant, very dull thud. And another. His ears tingled as his brain translated: boots, on snow, coming this way. Lang. Or Finn. Either would do. Rising, he bulleted down the wooded path toward a bend where, if he remembered right, the hemlocks were thick—the perfect cover because no one remembered to look up. His feet slapped snow, a dull puh-puh-puh-puh. His soles should be shredded, cut by ice, but he felt no pain at all, no fingers of cold kneading his flesh. Wind tugged his blond hair. His heart thumped, strong and steady, fueled by the manic exhilaration of the winged thing and freedom.

Ahead, hemlocks pulled together out of the gloom. Then he spied a knotty red pine to the right. This was better still because its lowest limbs were even higher, a good six feet off the ground and big around as his thigh. Backing up, he dug in with his toes, and took off in a diving run. He didn’t even think about whether he might slip. As a boy, he’d climbed higher, taken greater risks. The thought did flash through his mind that, really, he wasn’t a featherweight kid clambering up to his tree house to read or dream or sneak his first smoke; that this was an awful risk; and where was he finding the strength, the stamina?

Then he stopped thinking, and leapt. His palms slapped wood, his fingers hooked, and then he was heaving, boosting himself from the snow, swinging up like a gymnast. Hitching a leg up and around, he seated himself, got a foot under and then the other, and stood. To his right, another branch jutted at a thirty-degree angle, an easy straddle. The path was directly between the V of his legs.

Reaching into his long blond hair, he fished out a slender spike of bone. The bone, which he’d hidden between his butt cheeks, had come from that left foot. Over the last week, he’d laboriously ground the bone to a needle: perfect for popping an eye or jamming through a throat. Of course, if all else failed, he still had the knife. His hands. His teeth. But he really wanted to try out the bone.

His ears prickled with the sound of a man’s breaths, the squeal of snow. Wait for it, wait . . . In the well of his mind, the winged thing waited, too: taut, breathless. Then Lang was there, passing immediately below: a hunched, plodding old man in olive-drab.

Now. Peter dropped. There was a millisecond’s free fall, the rush of air past his ears. At the last instant, Lang must’ve sensed something, because Peter saw a startled, silver oval flicker up and then the black holes of Lang’s eyes. Eyes, eyes in the dark, eyes in stone. Peter’s feet hammered Lang’s forehead, an impact that jarred Peter’s heels and shivered into his shins. A wild ah leapt from Lang’s mouth. Peter hit the snow, rolled, set his feet, then swarmed over Lang, still turtled on his back, who was gagging and choking against blood. Lang saw him coming, tried getting his hands up, but Peter batted them away and dropped on Lang’s chest. As Lang began to buck, Peter slammed Lang with a stunning blow. There was a crackle as Lang’s nose caved, and more blood, a river of it.

“Ha-how?” Lang gargled. The old man was far down in the snow, with no leverage at all. He tried a weak punch that Peter blocked with his forearm. “How d-did you . . .”

“Does it matter?” Planting his knees in the knobs of the man’s shoulders, Peter ground down until Lang moaned. Jamming the bone needle between the second and ring fingers of his right hand, Peter cupped his left over Lang’s throat and squeezed—not a crushing grip but enough that Lang’s face suddenly darkened. Peter held the quivering spike of bone just above Lang’s left eye, so close that Lang’s eyes crossed. “You’re a traitor and I’m going to kill you. But first I’m going to blind you. You’ll hear it, that little pop.” Leering, Peter dragged his tongue over his lower lip, cleaning it of Lang’s blood. “Then I’ll eat it. I’ll rip out your tongue so you can’t scream. I’ll take you apart a piece at a time.”

“Peter.” Lang’s voice was nasal, stuffy, and the word came out, Peeyuhh. He was breathing fast, his chest heaving against Peter’s thighs. “It wasn’t . . . it wasn’t just me. It was Weller, too, it was— uhh!” Lang’s voice choked off as Peter squeezed.

“I don’t care.” Teeth bared, Peter rode Lang’s bucking hips. Lang’s face went from beet-red to purple; his bluing tongue bulged through pink foam. “All I want is for you to die, Lang. Die and know that I beat you, I beat you, I got you, I—”

Peter felt the hit, registered the impact as a solid body blow that slammed him left and off Lang. Caroming to the snow, he fell heavily on his left wrist. A rocket of pain shot into his elbow. The wrist buckled and then he was wallowing, thrashing, his face half buried in snow. Spitting, he rolled, already aware that the needle was gone. Still have the knife. Righting, he planted and then rose on the balls of his feet, calves bunched, ready to spring . . . and felt his heart clutch with fury.

Squared in his fighting stance, Davey—a Changed boy Peter hadn’t seen in more than two weeks—only waited. He wore camo-whites. His leather control collar was a black cut across his throat, and there was something terribly wrong with his eyes. At first, Peter thought that Davey had been blinded, the eyeballs scooped out, leaving only scarlet sockets. Then he realized that the whites of Davey’s eyes were a deep, dark bloodred.

Jug Ears: What happens to them? Their eyes?

“No.” The word foamed in a snarl from Peter’s lips. “No, he’s mine. Lang’s—” Uncoiling, Peter sprang. At the same instant, Davey leapt, matching Peter move for move in an eerie, silent pas de deux. They crashed together in midair, then tumbled to the snow in a thrashing tangle. Peter’s fists bunched in the boy’s camo-whites as Davey’s hands slipped and slid over Peter’s skin. Planting both feet in the boy’s chest, Peter bucked him up and over in a somersault. Floundering in the deep snow, Peter got over onto his left side just in time to see Davey somehow tuck, hit, tumble—and set his feet with the nimbleness of an acrobat. In a split second, the boy was steaming over the snow. Turning, Peter swam to his hands and knees, but not fast enough to avoid Davey, who vaulted onto his back. A second later, Peter’s right shoulder exploded with pain.

“Aahh!” Now this hurt. Rearing, Peter flailed, spinning a mad circle around and around. Clinging like a wolf latched onto prey, Davey readjusted his jaws and sawed his teeth deeper into muscle. Peter felt the spurt of blood down his back. Reaching around, he clawed wildly for the boy’s face, then thought, I’m heavier. Throwing himself straight back, Peter dropped to the snow. He felt the boy’s grip loosen; that maddening grind of teeth and jaws suddenly ceased. Bellowing with both pain and rage, Peter kicked up, twisted, got a fist in Davey’s hair, cocked the other for a punch—

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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