Another tinkling smash. Let go of the curtain. An orange geyser spumed from a bedroom window. Alex, let go. On the porch, she saw Wolf and Penny nearly at the edge, but jouncing as the house shook. Let go, Alex. Move! Her mind knew what to do, but her body was locked, paralyzed. Come on, go, let go, let—

There was another belching eruption, a guttering ker-POW. She saw Penny suddenly bounce, Wolf ’s hand flash for a grab. Something very big, a chunk of blackened cast iron, cannoned from the side of the house to shoot straight into the trees. An evergreen disintegrated into splinters. Beneath her, the house was tilting, the walls beginning to collapse, the porch crumbling. A second later, an enormous shock wave gushed up the stairs. A gigantic fist of heat smacked her shoulders and blew her out of the window. The torn shower curtain fluttering in her fist, she flew in a dizzying tumble, banging over the shingles, pinballing out of control. Screaming, she caught a glimpse of bright sky, black shingles, orange flames, and then lost all that as she smashed into Wolf—

And hurtled from the roof.

76

Chris, Jayden, and Connor raced over the snow. Belching like a coalfired train, the barn exhaled great chuffs of gray and black smoke. As they neared, Chris heard the bellows of cows and shrieks of horses. The sheep were bawling, high and shrill, over the pop and crackle of the fire. All the snow piled on the roof and layered on the sills had melted, and he could hear the fire complain in hissing sizzles as orange tongues licked from shattered windows on the barn’s north face. The hex signs were blistering, the colorful paint flaring bloodred with firelight.

“Which end are the lambing pens?” he shouted at Jayden. “W-west!” Jayden panted. “Why?”

“Look at the windows!” Chris sucked air, then shouted, punching

out the words through pants: “They’re . . . they’re all broken on the north and . . . and west! Safest way to get in . . .” “East!” Connor’s face glistened with sweat. “The cows . . . and horses . . .”

But Hannah and Isaac were with the lambs. Which was exactly where the fire must’ve started. All he knew about fire was what they’d practiced in school: get down where the good air was, keep your eyes on the kid in front of you, and crawl like hell. Fighting a fire was a whole other problem. This wouldn’t spread because of the snow and cold, but it might be a while before the fire ran out of fuel.

“Look!” Jayden shouted, and pointed. But this time, he sounded joyous. “Look, look!”

The east door popped open, releasing a roiling pillar of black smoke. A second later, cows surged through, with a clot of bawling sheep on their heels. Two figures lurched out next, one broader, mansized: Isaac, one hand wrapped around Hannah’s upper arm. Hannah had something clutched in her arms, and as Chris dodged around milling animals, he saw that it was a still-glistening, newborn lamb, its skin streaked with soot and ash.

“You have to get the lambs, we need to get the lambs!” She was trying to shout, but her voice was a strangled croak. Her face was smudgy, and there was soot around her mouth.

“Are they still in the pens?” Jayden asked. A horse’s braying shriek cut the air. “Where’s Rob?”

“With the horses. They’re still . . .”

“I’m on it.” Having unwound his scarf, Connor balled the wool and dunked the garment into the cattle trough. “There are only three to get out.”

“You have to get to the lambs,” Hannah insisted.

“Do the best I can.” Connor said, but Chris read the look he gave Jayden. Connor knotted his dripping scarf over his nose and mouth. “Give me your scarf, Hannah. I can use it for a horse.”

“Yes.” Dazed, Hannah tugged sooty wool from her neck. “But the lambs—”

“What about the Changed?” Chris asked.

She turned him a distracted look. “Dead. They came in so fast.” She dragged a quivering hand over her streaming eyes. “If you hadn’t warned us . . . I still don’t understand how they found—” Her eyes flicked past Jayden and Chris, and widened. “Isaac . . . Isaac!”

Chris whirled just in time to see Isaac, who’d staggered to the far end of the corral, begin to sag. “I’m all right,” the old man gasped as Chris and Jayden sprinted to his side. Isaac’s lips were purple. He pressed a hand to his chest. “Just need to . . .” Isaac hacked out a foamy gobbet of thick mucus and black spit. “Have to get the . . . the horses . . . the lambs . . .”

“We’ll take care of that. What we have to do is get you out of the cold and the smoke,” Hannah said. Still cradling the lamb, she nevertheless looked calmer, as if taking care of Isaac gave her something else to focus on.

“The . . . the lambs . . . ,” Isaac spat again as Jayden and Chris got him to his feet. “Should go . . . go in the house until . . . until we can . . .”

There was another shriek that could have been a faraway scream of a hawk but sounded much more like a horse, in trouble. But the direction was all wrong, not coming from the barn.

“You hear that?” Jayden asked.

“Yeah.” Frowning, Chris scanned the farm. From this angle, he couldn’t see Jayden and Connor’s horses behind the house. Over his shoulder, he saw Rob appear with two horses. A few seconds later, Connor melted from the smoke with the third. “Jayden, you said you thought you heard shots coming from the east.”

“But only after we heard a larger cluster from the north,” Jayden said. “Two sets of shots.”

“Me, too. That’s what I—” Chris broke off at a series of short, sharp claps of sound. Not shots, though.

“Dogs?” Hannah asked.

“Yeah. Coming from the east. The lake.” Chris looked at Jayden. “Ellie.”

The ground rushed for her face. Twisting, Alex thudded in an awkward heap on her right side, a blow that drove the air from her lungs in a sickening grunt. She lay there a second, stunned, right shoulder a bellow of pain, the heavy medic pack like an anvil on her back. The air was alive with the crackle of flames and that chugging roar, a sound like the thunder of a runaway train. Rolling onto her left, she thrashed to hands and knees. The snow here was already melting to pools of icy slush. A short distance away, Wolf was on his stomach, pushing himself out of the water, coughing and spitting. Still gasping for breath, she swept her eyes right. A dazed Penny was there, her hair falling down around her face.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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