Very far ahead, there are six more, and the red storm drives pushpushpush them on, gogogo—and then what she sees and where she is collapses. There is another shimmy, a shift. Now, suddenly, she’s jumped again to slip behind the eyes of someone else, who is chasing after three others. One has a head of wild, untamed hair; another is small and his pain is a ripe, bright scent. And there is a third, but he . . . it? . . . is hard to read; there is nothing to roll around the mouth—but pushpushpush her head is a red storm full of gogogopushpushPUSH—


Chris felt his mind try to push back, run away. But he could only stare, frozen. Petrified. Lena was skeletal, all sharp angles and tented skin. Sunken in their sockets, her dull eyes were smudged with hollows the color of old coffee. Except for the scarf, her clothes were torn, filthy. Matted with forest rubbish, her thick hair was a tangle of dead leaves and broken twigs.

“Lena.” Her name came in a wild, strangled choke. His heart suddenly kick-started in a chest that felt too narrow, his lungs squeezed between iron walls. “Wh-where . . . H-how . . .”

She said nothing, and for a split second, he thought, She’s not real. This is a trick. You feel guilty, that’s—

Then his eyes—the only working parts of him, it seemed—hooked on the bright lime-green scarf. Oh God. His head ballooned with horror. The last time I saw that was the night we stayed in that school, when the Changed came. Chris had stolen Lena’s scarf and deliberately placed it in a pile of bodies. Because I wasn’t sure what was happening to her. He remembered how his stomach had bottomed out when that boy, a Changed, wrapped Lena’s scarf around his neck. But now Lena had her scarf and that meant . . .

“W-w-wait.” He tried to step back, but his feet wouldn’t budge. “L-Lena . . .”

With no sound at all, she came at him, a blur of clawed hands and tee—

“No!” Flailing, he scrambled bolt upright, thrashing his way off the bed, thumping to the floor hard enough to rattle the windows. Gasping, he sprawled on his back. His chest was drenched; his hair clung to his scalp.

“Relax, it was a dream,” he said to the ceiling. He armed clammy sweat from his forehead. “Just a dream.”

God, but so real, like the nightmares. His eyes crawled to the nightstand clock. Only five minutes had passed. Except for the clock, the house was dead quiet.

Dozed off. Pushing to a sit, he propped himself on his hands. “Why do I keep dreaming about you, Lena?” he whispered. This was going to eat him alive if he wasn’t careful. Groaning, he rolled to hands and knees, then got a leg under, pushed to his feet, and staggered to the south window. The frozen pond was a golden oval. A long rectangle of blue-black shadow cast by the house stretched toward the far barn. The corral was empty, all the cows probably inside for the afternoon milking.

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Chris. Take a chance like you did with Alex. Stop hiding,” he said to the room. He palmed chill glass. “For God’s sake, you’re not eight years old anymore. Tell Hannah or Isaac about Lena and Alex, but tell someone. Just do it. If they understand, they understand. If they don’t . . .” Well, they wouldn’t kill him to protect themselves, would they? His forehead crinkled with sudden disquiet. No, that was crazy. Would he, if the situations were reversed?

“No,” he said. He’d give a person like him some supplies, then blindfold and lead him far away, point him in the right direction, and wish him luck. If Hannah and Jayden were smart, they’d move and never give him the chance to retrace his steps. Leaving all they’d built

mo ns ters up would be hard, but they were strong, tight. They’d manage. First chance he got, he should leave. There was nothing more he could do here, or discover. No army of willing children either. If that was Jess’s plan, then she was insane. These were only kids, trying to survive. He couldn’t force them to come back, wouldn’t even ask.

As for the rest—all those secrets—okay, now he knew. Yay. And so what? The only unanswered question was whether the people in Rule suspected what Peter and the Council were up to and just kept their mouths shut. Did he really care enough to risk going back to dismantle the Zone, take on the Council?

“Maybe so.” But not for them. The kids Peter and I brought back; they didn’t have a say. You can’t let them grow up in the shadow of that. What kind of people will they be in the end? Of all people, he should understand what it was like to grow up with ghosts and blood that never washed away.

His stomach picked that moment to grumble, an incongruous sound that made him laugh. He ought to eat up. This might be his last good meal for a long time. Just as he turned from the window, his eyes hooked on a very slight shift in the light, some dark slink out of the corner of his eye. He shot a quick but off hand glance, more from habit than anything else.

Two boys—Jayden and Connor, he thought—hurried over the snow toward the barn. Oh was all the thought he gave them, because he was preoccupied, focused on food and how to break the news about Lena and Alex before heading back to Rule. South was best, a straight shot that wouldn’t take him but four days on foot. Three, if he hustled. Hunter said they had Nathan’s gear. A lucky break. He could listen in with the radio, figure the best way to slip into the village without getting his head blown off.

The stew was stone-cold, the glutinous sauce clinging to chunks of potato and carrot and venison. He shoveled in a mouthful. The meat tasted a bit musty, gamy, and it was tough. Probably an older buck, or Jayden might not have dropped it right away. Peter once said that the longer a deer ran after it was shot, the gamier it tasted because of the acid buildup in—

“Muscle,” he said out loud, around stew. Wait a minute. What did I just see? Leaning back, he carefully replaced his spoon in the bowl, replayed the view from his window. Two boys, heading for the barn. And this was a problem because?

“Because”—he swallowed—“they were hunting.” So if Jayden and Connor were hunting and checking traplines . . . “Where’s the game?” he said to his room. “Well, they might not have bagged anything, right? Everyone has bad days.”

But hadn’t Hannah said that Jayden never came back until he’d gotten something; that he always pushed the envelope and this scared the hell out of her?

Then Chris realized what he hadn’t seen. “Oh shit.” His chair toppled as he darted back for the window. “It’s not only that they don’t have game. They don’t have guns.”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror