“My brain wasn’t injured. I didn’t drown.” I bled out. I couldn’t breathe. And what explains the scars?

“No, you didn’t. You’re quite unique, Christopher, beyond the fact that you’re still you.”

“You mean that I haven’t Changed. That’s our name for it. Your brother’s. He’s my . . .” His throat moved in another dry swallow. “My grandfather. Reverend Yeager?”

“Ah. Yes. I’ve been told that my brother and I have the same eyes.” Isaac Hunter’s were, however, still kind. “I suppose this makes you my great-nephew.”

“I guess.” He didn’t have a clue. “I was sent to find you.”

“I assumed as much. Was it Jessica?”

“In a way.” Jess, with black mirrors for eyes, in the Land of the Dead. And Peter was there, too, and Lena. He was suddenly exhausted, the events of everything that had happened finally catching up. “It’s kind of a long story . . .” And so pointless now. Nathan was dead. Given his dream, he bet Lena was, too.

What am I thinking? I don’t believe in magic or dreams. And yet he’d pulled . . . what? A Lazarus? That was crazy. He’d accept a weird coma before coming back from the Land of the Dead.

“I don’t understand what there is for me to find here, or why you’re so important,” he said. “Yeager’s my grandfather. That’s not news. So, fine, you’re his brother, and you’re either Amish or lead some breakaway sect. But so what?”

“Well, I agree,” Hunter said. “If that were the only story or all there was to discover.”

“What more is there?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On how much you know about Simon Yeager,” Hunter said, “and Penny Ernst.”

Somewhere west of Rule and four days after the ants—two weeks after the avalanche—Wolf led them down a single, unmarked, dead-end rut along an isolated and very large lake nestled in the cup of broad, rolling, forested moraines. From the lack of houses ringing the shore and that rut, Alex thought the lake might be privately owned, a secret getaway. About two miles in, she spotted a boathouse and lone stake dock, with a single slip, perched on the water’s edge down a steep hill to her right. On a high hill to her left and directly across from the lake was a rough-hewn, two-story house, with a large, chalet-style picture window on the left and a partially completed wraparound porch, still on bricks and cinderblock, running off the front door and curling around to the right. The house was surrounded on three sides by tall stands of densely packed evergreens and hardwood—

And the dusky, flayed, and gutted carcasses of four wolves, dangling like totems.

All the blood drained from her head. The last time she’d seen anything like this was just outside the Zone, guarding the way to Wolf ’s feeding grounds and that arena with its grisly pyramids of decaying human skulls. Purple tongue jutting in a stiff apostrophe, one wolf dangled from a thick iron hook punched through its chest. The body hung to the right of the front door, where you might put up a cheery flowered banner: Welcome, Friends! To the extreme left, a second wolf, its eyeless sockets wide with eternal wonder, was suspended thirty feet up a weathered spruce. Alongside, a very large, navy blue Cordura stuff sack hung from a carabiner clipped to red paraline tied off around the trunk of a smaller adjacent tree.

A bear bag. She watched as the fingers of a light westerly breeze snatched the naked wolf and gave it a playful twirl. The paraline let out a soft squee. Her lips were numbing, as was her brain. From the aroma of chilled people-steak, she understood that the sack was where the Changed stored their kills. The idea that she’d come all this way only to be hacked up for storage in the equivalent of a deep freeze . . . Her throat began to clench, and she’d clapped both hands to her mouth, unsure if she would vomit or scream or both.

The front door opened then. A second later, a bull-necked boy lumbered out, trailed by another Changed: honey-blonde, blue-eyed.

The shock of recognition was physical, a splash of icy water. The hair wreathing the girl’s haggard features was what Alex recalled from a picture in yet another lake house. The square jaw, the nose were right. Willowy before, the girl was much thinner now. Well, mostly thin. Alex wasn’t really certain until the girl turned and Alex saw her in profile.

Then everything clicked into place: that green medic’s pack, the lengths to which Wolf had gone to save and protect her, his scent of lilacs and honeysuckle: safe and family. Regardless of how he might feel about her, she now understood why Wolf needed her, too. She finally got what was going on.

Penny Ernst—Peter’s sister—was pregnant.

“. . . correspond with images of the naked, red-eyed, wild-man god known in Vedic mythology as the Red Howler, the Raw-Eyed Beast, or Red Storm. As father of the Hindu storm gods, Rudra was clearly linked to intoxication. With his mad eyes and golden hair, this is a white-skinned god, the divine link to the Land of the Dead . . .”

“Which doesn’t prove anything other than people have been getting high for thousands of years,” he muttered, eyeing the stack of books Isaac had carted up: The Ethnobotanical Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants. Medicinal Plants of the Great Lakes Region. Little Deaths: The Physiology of Coma and Trance States. Not light reading, but they’d kept him isolated in this bedroom for the last two days, and Chris had plenty of time on his hands. Anything was better than stewing over what Isaac had said about Penny Ernst and Peter, Simon, his grandfather—and Jess.

“Tempting as it may be to regard Rudra as the physical manifestation of the Fly Agaric mushroom, I believe there to be a much better candidate for this lost, mysterious, and mystical drink. Close study of Vedic poetry—with its frequent mentions of regenerative ‘death sleeps,’ resurrection, and divine visions—point to the much rarer and more lethal cousin, A. pseudomori. ‘Death sleeps’ clearly suggest comas of varying durations, during which times metabolic demands . . .”

From across the room came a timid knock. “Chris?”

“Come on in. Oh, sorry, I forgot. It’s locked.” Yes, it was perverse and a little nasty, but he was starting to go bat-shit stir-crazy. There were only so many sit-ups and push-ups a guy could do. Any longer in solitary and he’d be as beefy as an inmate. Now, the fact that he was feeling so strong after both weeks on the trail and some time in cold storage . . . he didn’t want to think about that.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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