The boys were much closer to that far barn now. No guns. No horses. No game—but that was because they were still on the hunt.

And instead of only two Changed, now . . . there were ten.

67

“Go, go, go.” Alex could hear herself now, but the sound was tiny in her mouth, the red storm still huge in her mind. “Push, push,” she said, unseeing, the words falling off her tongue. “Push push push. Go, go after them, go faster, go—”

A jolt of pain raced up her right thigh. Grunting, she hissed out a breath as she felt whatever had grabbed the monster in her head suddenly let go. She looked up to see Darth, who was just winding up for another kick.

“Stop, Darth, stop,” she said, laboring to her feet. “I’m getting up, okay?” Yet, for once, she was almost glad to see him. God, what the hell was all that? She put an absent hand to an itch on her upper lip, then felt her thoughts stutter as her eyes fell first to her glove and then jumped to the step. Red spiders spattered the snow. Oh no. A clot of fear wedged in her chest. The last time she’d had nosebleeds, the monster had chewed up enough real estate to double in size. Maybe the red storm, that pushpushpush, was nothing other than the monster, now stronger and bigger, ripping up her brain.

So maybe that’s what happened just now. The monster’s developed to the point where it can do this . . . this . . . Well, whatever had just happened. She didn’t even know what she could call it.

Darth nudged her again, this time with the business end of the rifle. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, snuffling back blood. As she began trudging across the cut to the driveway, however, Darth moved on ahead again and she was able to flick a quick look toward the clutch of low cedar. At first, she thought the wolfdog was gone, but then spotted it well back, mostly hidden in the dense shadows beneath a blue spruce. And how weird is that? Darth didn’t seem to notice or care about this animal. With those carcasses standing as ritual sentinels here and Wolf ’s cowl, Darth must have known the animal was there. Unless this was only Wolf ’s peculiar little fetish, his spirit guide or whatever, that Darth and the others put up with.

She turned her thoughts back over what she’d just experienced. What would she call that? A mind-jump? Or someone else dropping in? Both? Think, Alex, how did it start? She’d been with the wolfdog . . . but no, that wasn’t quite right. The mind-jump had happened when she relaxed to coax the animal closer. She’d let down her guard, and then either her monster got out, or something—someone—grabbed it. Which meant what, exactly?

Her monster always woke up when Wolf was around. So Wolf could be on his way back, and she’d gotten a kind of subliminal whiff of him, one she hadn’t really noticed or paid attention to because she was so used to the Changed. That was possible. She had no idea what the range of her spidey-sense might be, and it was probably dependent on the wind, which was relatively still at the moment. But Wolf might be nearby. One eye on Darth, she slowed and sampled the air, letting it whisk over her tongue. All she got, however, was the copper of her blood, pine, snow, the evanescent coil of the wolfdog. No Wolf.

Okay, scratch that idea. Unless Wolf ’s on his way back and the monster knows this somehow. Yeah, but how would that work? Maybe the same way you got a premonition about someone and then your cell would ring. Which would mean that her monster was syncing up in some funky way with Wolf ?

“Well, honey, I hope that’s not it.” Her breath rose in a tangle of mist that the breeze picked apart. But what did I see? What was that? Turning away from the house, she stared back down the hill at the lake. Just couldn’t put her finger on—

“Wait a minute.” She squinted against the yellow glare bouncing up from unbroken snow over icy water. I saw this. A feeling of unreality swept through her. It’s not the same perspective, but if that was the lake . . . “During the mind-jump, I saw the lake on my left. So that means I was coming from the west.” Her eyes widened. And I saw three kids, way ahead, running away . . .

“No, that’s not quite right. Push-push-push,” she whispered, her eyes watering against the light. “Go-go-go.” What did that mean? “Think it through, Alex, come on.”

First, she and the monster had jumped—no, no, been pulled— into someone, a boy. A Changed, brimming with the single-minded urgency and intensity of a pursuit. He’d been with that red storm, the push-push go-go. There’d been someone else, too, screaming: Let me go-go-go.

But then her perspective had shifted. I jumped ahead and into someone else, another boy. The feeling she’d gotten then was also different: not only the push-push go-go but a sense of being driven and pushed after two . . . no, three other Changed the way old-style cowboys might herd cattle. Two she’d seen pretty clearly: that lanky kid with the wild hair and a shorter, smaller . . .

“Oh my God,” she breathed. Alex, you idiot. That was Marley, which means the smaller kid has to be Ernie. “And that means those other Changed are all chasing—”

The afternoon cracked open with a shot.

68

“Hannah!” Chris beat the window with his fist. Below, on the snow and now much closer to the barn, the Changed were splitting up, five right, five left. Coming at them from both sides. He slammed the thick, double-paned glass again. “Hannah, Hannah!”

Stupid, useless, what are you doing? He had to get out of the room. His fingers fumbled with the window latch, but it wouldn’t budge, and a second later, when he saw the slot for a key, he understood why. “A lock?” Whoever had built this room really didn’t want anyone getting out. So, either break the window and clamber down that trellis, or kick open his door. Neither was great, but the window would be faster.

Scraping up his chair, Chris grabbed the legs, wound up, and swung. He felt the impact in his wrists as the high split-rail back banged glass before bouncing back. The panes were seamed with a sudden silver tracery of cracks, like a psychotic spider’s web. Roaring in frustration, he swung again. This time the panes shattered with a tremendous crash, the chair’s ears and top rail smashing through. Whipping up cloth napkins Hannah had used to cover his food, he wrapped his fists, knocked hanging daggers out of the way, and bellowed: “Hannah! Hannah, look out, look out! Isaac, Isaac!”

Across the snow, he saw that steady, deadly stream of Changed suddenly come to a dead stop. They were too far away for him to make out faces, but he could see when they twisted to look back at the house. Good, good! He’d slowed them down, at least for a second. Cupping his hands, he screamed: “Hannah, Hann—”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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