“Wait!” Scrambling up, Alex wedged herself between the door and jamb before Darth could slam it shut. He might not understand, but speech was all she had. Even Darth would get her meaning. “They’re almost here! Those shots are close. Give Wolf a chance!” She could tell he didn’t want to do it, smell it fuming through his pores, but his arm relaxed.

A minute, maybe more like thirty seconds. She tossed a wild glance around the room, trying to figure out the best cover. This great room was sparsely furnished: fireplace and woodstove on a brick pedestal to the left, leather couch and two upholstered armchairs on an oval rug in the center to catch the view from that big picture window. Not enough to really barricade the door, and trying to take cover in this great room would be suicidal. That sofa wouldn’t stop a spitball. With that picture window, they’d be like fish in an aquarium.

Her eyes flitted past Penny, who’d retreated behind a long breakfast bar on which Alex had stashed the camp stove, Coleman lantern, and spare fuel canisters. The girl had the right idea. The kitchen was further back, and that window over the sink gave them a way out. Topple the refrigerator, and she could take cover there.

Second best would be up those stairs at the extreme right, which emptied into an open loft and then a short hall, down which was a bathroom and two bedrooms, one right, one left. Easier to defend, but just as easy to get themselves trapped.

Kitchen, then. It was closer and she liked the look of that back window more and more. Without a weapon, she couldn’t help defend the house anyway. She had a brief moment to wonder why she would help them altogether and then thought, Got a better chance with Wolf than the guys after him.

Steaming past Bert, who clutched a twelve-gauge but was otherwise rooted to the spot, she dashed into the kitchen. There was a freestanding refrigerator on the left, an old retro model, aqua and white with a chrome handle. She’d already searched inside and found only four toxic eggs and a gray-green jungle fuzz that the jar claimed once was mayonnaise. Now, squirming into the gap between the wall and fridge, she braced her back, tucked her knees, planted her feet, and gave the fridge a hard shove. The refrigerator lurched and then toppled, slamming down with a thunderous crash. From deep in its metal guts came the smash of glass and clang of shelves; a second later, the gassy, fecal gag of fungus and gooey dead chick.

“Penny, over here!” Springing for the breakfast bar, she grabbed the girl’s wrist. With a startled eep, Penny tried twisting away. “Stop it!” Alex panted, hauling the thrashing Penny the way she would a stubborn toddler. “You want to get shot? Get behind the refrigerator! Get—”

From across the room came the shriek of hinges. Marley blew through the front door on a blast of wintry air and a swirl of dreads. Swiveling, he socked his rifle home and got off another shot as Darth also opened up against the spak and crackle of more weapons’ fire.

Wolf, where’s Wolf ? “Get down!” Shoving Penny behind the refrigerator, she ducked back into the great room. She heard the pock as a slug drilled into the heavy oak door and showered splinters. “Marley! Where’s—”

A second later and to her horror, she had her answer as the boys blundered up the steps. A lumpy sack hung over Wolf ’s left shoulder. His right arm was wrapped around Ernie. As the two staggered inside on a fresh fusillade of snaps, the drone of bullets whirring overhead, she got a good look. Wolf ’s face was whiter than bleached linen.

And covered in blood.

Chris didn’t turn. He barely thought. Maybe his mind had already ticked through the math and realized that facing whatever lay behind would only waste time—or make him freeze.

Chris dodged right. Out of his left ear, he heard a quick inhale, the sudden stomp of a boot; sensed something rushing in from the side. A hand whisked through his hair. Ducking, Chris raked the first chair he came to, flinging it without turning around. He heard the clatter of wood on the floor and then the stutter of boots as whatever was back there bumbled into the chair. But whoever—whatever—it was didn’t fall. A second later, a huge hand snatched at his neck, got a fistful of shirt collar and the tight silk thermal underneath, and twisted.

Suddenly, his breath was gone. His heart began to pound as his vision reddened, first with panic and then lack of air. Flailing like a fish hopelessly snagged on a line it could not break, he got his hands up, but the silk thermal was so tight, he couldn’t hook his fingers. His flannel shirt ripped; buttons popped free, pattering to the floor like jumping beans. Yet the strong silk weave only grew tauter and tighter. Whatever held him was shaking him now, like a puppet. Chris heard, but only dimly, the thump and thud of his boots skating over the floor. His knees buckled; Chris felt himself falling; felt the impact of the table against his forehead as he pitched forward. Something, a lot of somethings, bounced to the floor and smashed. Plates, a glass . . . Chris didn’t know. Although his hips and legs were on the floor, his chest wasn’t flat. The hardwood was still a half foot from his nose because the Changed was holding him up by that noose of silk, suspending his head and chest to allow gravity to do its thing. The Changed would let Chris’s own weight kill him, bit by bit.

What happened next was an accident. Chris’s right hand closed over something. He registered that it was sharp, and his last chance.

Chris’s fingers clutched that dagger of glass, and struck. “No!” Squirting past Bert, Alex made a diving grab for Wolf as Darth and Marley muscled the door closed. Splashes of blood painted Wolf ’s face and hands and the wolf skin knotted around his neck. That lumpy sack he’d slung over his shoulder was sodden.

No. For one second—a single terrified moment—her stupid, stupid heart turned over. No, you can’t die, Wolf, you can’t die!

Then she realized that the blood wasn’t his.

Ernie’s face was gray, his lips dusky. To either side of his piggy little nose, his small pellet-gray eyes rolled. His hands clutched his soupy middle. From the strong stink of iron and the liquid slop as Wolf tore open the boy’s jacket, she already had a pretty good idea of just how bad this was.

Ernie’s abdomen was awash in gore. Some had already clotted into grape-jelly goo. Most of it was only tacky and a lot of it fresh. That was because the rips in his abdomen were ragged, wicked, and very deep: gaping wounds that began just beneath his left rib cage to slash through skin and belly fat and muscle. Bluing bags of wormy intestines bulged from three of the tears. The smell was gagging, round and thick and fecal. Eyeing the slow eel of a length of intestine, Alex saw how it was already beginning to bloat. She felt the knot in the pit of her gut try to urp its way into her throat.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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