They’ve never found us.”

“No? Then what do you call that?” Chris said, jerking his head

toward the dead giant with the misshapen skull lying in a puddle

of kerosene and water dyed purple with blood. Gripping Jayden’s forearms for balance, he struggled to his feet. “I counted ten. I broke out the window in my room. I know Isaac heard me and saw them.

But we have to go. I heard shots, but if there aren’t any now . . .” “All right.” Jayden’s skin was glassy with dread, but his mouth set

as he ripped off his parka. “Take this. I’m smaller than you, but . . .” “This works.” The cuffs of Jayden’s parka ended well above his

wrists, and his shoulders felt like he’d slipped on a straitjacket. He

jockeyed the zipper and managed to yank it halfway. “This is fine.” “Okay.” Jayden looked doubtful. “You’re pretty messed up. Can

you fight?”

“Yes.” Swiping up a cloth napkin, Chris smeared blood from his

forehead, then wrapped his bleeding palm. “But I need a gun.” When

Jayden hesitated, Chris snapped, “Damn it, Jayden, let me help.” “All right, all right. Outside, in my scabbard, I’ve got a spare rifle.”

Jayden jerked his head toward the door. “Come on.”

“How do you want to do this?” Chris asked as they banged out of

the kitchen and down the back steps. Three horses, one loaded with

four bulky game bags, had been hastily tethered to the wrought iron

railing. The kitchen faced east, and the sun was well behind them

now. Overhead, thin clouds scudded across blue sky on a northerly

breeze. To his right, all Chris saw of the farm’s southern end was the

mica gleam of the frozen pond. There was also a strange whooshing,

like wind gushing through a tunnel, but he couldn’t tell from which

direction the sound came.

“I’m open to suggestion. It’s not like we’ve had to fight these things

the way you have.” Jayden yanked a well-used, scoped Remington

798 from its scabbard. “Loaded. Didn’t fire it once today. Here.” He

dipped a hand into a saddlebag and came out with a handful of bullets. “No one’s shooting now, but—”

“Shh.” Frowning, Chris cocked his head, then darted a look

around. The whooshing was still there, but he could’ve sworn there

was a tinkling sound that reminded him of the fight with the Changed

boy. Glass. “Did you hear that? It sounded like something—” “Breaking.” Jayden nodded. “Yeah. I did.” He craned to look back

at the house. “Are you sure no one else is—”

“Hey. Jayden?” Connor had drifted to the house’s southeast corner. “I think you . . . I think you guys better come here.” Jayden shot Chris a look, and then they were both running toward

the younger boy. “What is it?” Jayden’s voice was so tight, it cracked.

“Is Han—”

Now that Chris was closer, he could see what he hadn’t before,

both because of his angle and the wind. If they’d gone out the front,

or Jayden and Connor had returned even a little more to the west,

they’d all have seen—and smelled it—right away. The mystery of

why they’d both heard shattering glass was obvious, too. The barn was on fire.


There was a very loud kerack, followed by an intensely bright burst of red muzzle flash, a pillow of acrid gray smoke as the flare streaked out of the pistol. The fusee smashed into the pile of pine and propane canisters with a kebang.

And nothing really amazing happened. No explosions or fireballs. An orange-yellow rose blossomed. But that was it, for a split second, enough time for Alex to think, Shi—

Then there was a pop, a gasping hoosh as if some giant had just been sucker punched. The propane ignited with a roar. The blast, an intense neon orange, ballooned; pine logs exploded in a shower of yellow sparks. Below, the three Changed and the four men stopped dead, then turned as if mesmerized by the fire, the flames washing their features of definition, their shadows like dancing spiders on the opposite wall. Alex heard a high howl, felt the sudden rush of cold air being sucked into the now-surging fire, and thought, Oh jeez—

“Go!” she screamed, just as a massive gout of orange flame jetted from the mouth of the hearth. The sound of the bathroom window breaking was lost in a massive explosion, like the concussion of a cannon. The chimney ruptured. A streaming pillar of fire blew out, instantly igniting the three Changed in white and the old men into shrieking, writhing human torches. There was a stuttering sparkle of bullets as their weapons and ammunition exploded. Chunks of stone and masonry flew in a shower of shrapnel. The air churned hot and bright. Flares swam up the walls and spilled over the floor. A blast of hot wind whipped her hair and she thought she might be screaming. She felt Wolf seize her by the scruff of the neck, and then he was hauling her down the hall and into the bathroom.

One end of a flimsy plastic shower curtain was tied to the shower head, while the tongue fluttered from the gaping window over which he’d draped his parka. Already out, Penny was braced on her hands, feet planted wide, inching over the shingles like a pregnant fiddler crab.

“I’m okay,” Alex said, breathlessly. Her eardrums felt broken. “You go. Help her down. I’m right behind you.” Now that she was up here, she wasn’t sure, all of a sudden, whether this was such a hot idea. The ground still looked really far away, and this northwest patch of the porch was glittery with ice crystals. Slip and I’ll break my neck. Standing in the tub, she watched Wolf spider down to Penny, then coax her to the edge of the porch. At her back, she could feel the heat build; heard a high, eerie howl over the locomotive churn of the fire. Above the sink, a mirrored medicine chest suddenly gave way with a watery kersplash into the porcelain basin. Beneath her feet, the tub shifted and shivered, and she realized then that the house was coming down.

Get out, get out of the house! Hooking the medic pack onto both shoulders, she grabbed onto the shower curtain and levered herself over the sill. Glass teeth bit her rump through Wolf ’s parka, but then she was out, right hand still fisted around the shower curtain, the heel of the left jammed onto shingles. Now that she was on the porch, she could feel the jitter and sway. Something was bellowing, roaring like a blast furnace. Craning over her left shoulder, she caught a glimpse of an orange-yellow sword of flame knifing from the chimney into the sky. To her right, flames curled through the shattered picture window to lick at the roof. For a horrible second, she was frozen in place, hypnotized by the dance and sputter. Any moment now, the house would collapse and she’d still be here, clinging to the shower curtain only to be yanked back like a yo-yo and buried under a fiery avalanche.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror