At first, he thought there was nothing, but then his eyes picked out the half-moon of the mostly healed slash running from the web between his thumb and first finger down to his wrist. He stared, dumbfounded.

“A spike did that,” the old man said, although his words were faint, nearly lost in the sudden buzz that filled Chris’s ears. “As you can see, the thumb was nearly severed. But here you are, almost healed. All your wounds are in much the same condition.”

“But how?” He turned his hand over, then made a fist. It didn’t hurt at all. “That’s not possible. How can this be happening? Why am I still alive?”

“Can’t say.” The old man threw up his hands. “Is it the tonic? Or a mistake, as you say? A combination of both the tonic and your physiology? Or is this only a miracle or magic?”

“There’s no such thing as magic,” Chris managed through numb lips. He recalled the dark guttural mutters, the strange incense that filled his nose. And his hands, on my chest; I remember how I felt something . . . leaving. A bolt of fresh fear burned a path through his chest. “I don’t believe in miracles.”

“I don’t either. Although you could argue that an eight-year-old slip of a girl finding the strength to hoist a seventeen-year-old boy onto a horse to be a touch miraculous. That is, until you consider that the human body reacts to emergencies by flooding the tissues with adrenaline. This increases blood flow, gives more energy, greater strength. So Ellie was frightened; it was an emergency, and her body reacted. She even gave up her coat for you and should have been really cold. But she never felt it because the same physiological mechanism also kept her warm. So, see?” The old man spread his hands in a notricks-up-my-sleeve gesture. “No miracles. Just science.”

“But that’s not what you were doing when I woke up. That wasn’t science.”

“No, that was faith, like the grudafoos.” The old man stroked a finger over a wooden charm hung around Chris’s chest on a leather cord. “Ellie believed it would protect you. Whether it did is immaterial. It was something she could give, and in return, that gave her courage. It gave her faith. But all emotions are chemically mediated and may be manipulated. Every drunk, every lover, any ecstatic mystic knows that. There is no heart”—the old man palmed his own chest, then touched a temple—“without the head.”

“So what were you doing then?”

“I was calling on God to heal you,” the old man said simply. “I was also suggesting to you that it might be time to wake up—and you did, rather spectacularly. And don’t bother objecting. I’m sure it was coincidence and no miracle. There is only what we don’t understand. Of course, this”—he touched Chris’s stomach—“I don’t understand at all.”

“I don’t understand any of this,” Chris said.

“Do you remember it at all? Because we think you were dreaming, and for quite a while, too. Days. Your . . .” The old man traced a circle in the air before his own eyes. “They were moving as they might in intense REM sleep.”

“I—” His tongue tangled. Dreams, all those dreams, they felt so real. “I only remember a little, right before . . .”

“Yes?” the old man prompted. “Did you see something, Christopher?”

The nightmares were in pieces, daggers of glass from badly smashed mirrors—and, he thought now, just as a dangerous. I saw Lena and Peter—and my father. . . . He felt his heart suddenly sprinting in his chest. Lena. God, in all that had happened, he’d forgotten about her. She’d been with him. Where could she have gone? And didn’t she know Jayden? Yes, she said she was in a group of ten kids, with Jayden. So that means I’ve found a group, her group.

“Christopher?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Chris said, hoping he didn’t sound as frightened as he suddenly was. If Lena wasn’t dead, where was she? Could she have headed back to Rule? But Lena’s no good in the woods, not alone, and she was sick, pregnant. She’d said that Peter was the father, so that must be why he’d linked the two of them together in his nightmares. Her going back to Rule made no sense either, especially since Jayden was here. So what had happened? Had she simply freaked out and run into the woods—and become lost? She’d never survive that. Could the Changed have gotten to her? But then why didn’t they kill me? Maybe it was as simple as they couldn’t get at him. Lena was easy pickings. Yet that made no sense. The Changed wouldn’t have cared if he was alive, barely alive, or dead. Meat was meat. By rights, he ought to be in pieces, or bare bones.

Regardless, saying anything about Lena now would be a mistake. His mind went through the same mental calculus as it had with Ellie and Alex. Telling about Alex wouldn’t have helped the little girl, and might make things ten times worse for him. He was at a disadvantage here, and effectively a prisoner. These people were not his friends. Hannah had only proved he couldn’t trust them.

So keep your mouth shut. They’ve already tried to kill you once. Say nothing.

“It was a pretty bad dream,” he said. “That’s all I remember.”

“I see.” That dark gaze was clear and very direct, and Chris had the uncomfortable feeling that this old man read exactly what was behind his eyes. “Was it the only one?”

“I don’t know,” he said, resisting the urge to sneak his gaze elsewhere.

“You sounded very frightened.”

“I was scared.” This was true. “I couldn’t move. The dream felt very . . . real.”

“Ah.” The old man nodded. “Probably a hypnagogic hallucination. They can be quite frightening because your body’s still in the grip of a sleep paralysis. It’s the brain’s way of protecting you from yourself. Otherwise, we’d all act out our worst nightmares. Given how long you’ve been in REM sleep, how active your brain’s obviously been, I’m not surprised.”

“Could it be a side effect of the poison? I mean, another one, other than not ending up dead?”

“Perhaps.” The old man showed a thin smile. “Intense dreams were commonly reported. That was the point of ingesting the mushroom to begin with. This particular genus is loaded with psychedelics, toxins, and other interesting compounds.”

“Mushroom?”

“Amanita pseudomori. The False Death mushroom. Apt. It and a cousin, the Fly Agaric, have a very long and colorful history. You can read about it, if you wish. In any event, Jayden—quite a bright boy, a real scientist—he thinks the decoction induced a bizarre sleep-coma. That, combined with the cold, put you into a hibernative state. Slowed down your metabolic processes, somehow protected your brain. It’s a decent theory. We know that coma is sometimes protective for braininjured patients, children who’ve drowned in cold water.”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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