Go on, go on. Check it out. She stifled a moan of disappointment as the man, no fool, faded behind a neighboring pine. Easing his rifle to his shoulder, he sighted and then squeezed off a quick shot. There was the hornet’s sting of a ricochet. From somewhere came the startled rasp of a crow. A second later, her ears perked to an odd series of cicada-like clicks.

Radio. She recognized the sound from her days in Rule. Someone heard the shot, wants to know what’s going on. Probably that red storm. There was a pause, then a series of break-break-breaks as the hunter sent off his own code. Thought I was up in the tree. But she hadn’t returned fire or screamed or died. So what was he waiting for?

Suddenly sprinting away from cover, the hunter made a mad, weaving run for the oak. Fast for an old guy. If she had been up there, he’d be tough to hit. Crowding up to the trunk, the hunter shot straight up, threw his bolt, squeezed off another shot and then another and another: crack-crack-crack-crack! Probably some big holes in that tree house now, plenty of daylight. Enough to show him there was no one there.

More radio clicks. More returns from the hunter. Probably something like roger-dodger, A-OK.

Okay, now, please. She gnawed her cheek. Look down. See the broken step.

Socking his radio onto his hip, the hunter stepped away from the tree and tipped his head back as his eyes climbed branches, searching for a person huddled even higher. Then, finally, he dropped his gaze to the snow. His exaggerated, almost stupefied double take and then slow crane as his eyes followed her blundering progress made a boil of hysteria push against her lips. That quickly died as he threw his bolt, racked in another bullet, and started her way, the fake leaves of his fancy 3-D camo-jacket fluttering.

She knew he was looking at her boots, which was good. She also knew something else that wasn’t so good. That was a six-shot rifle, and he’d used five. It hit her then that she couldn’t afford him getting off even one more shot. Every time that rifle cracked, the radio clicked.

All of a sudden, from her left, came a new scent, but one she recognized. No, no! A jab of terror spiked her gut. She should have thought of this. After all, this had happened in Rule, that very first night. Go away; don’t do it, you nut. Stay away, stay—

“Come on out.” Now that the hunter was close, all she saw were legs in sturdy, thick-soled winter boots. Ten feet away, no more. “I know you’re there.”

Make the play before he starts blasting. “I’m hurt.” She pitched her voice into a high, small, shaky whimper. It actually helped that she was freaked. “I fell . . . when I t-tried . . .”

“Come out.” His tone was flinty. “There’s nowhere left to run.” “You’ve g-got a g-gun,” she said. “Don’t sh-shoot me.” “I will if you don’t come out.”

Maybe this was a guy who hated being a grandpa. “They were going to eat me. Don’t let them get me.”

“No one’s going to hurt you,” he said. Had that been gentler? She couldn’t tell. His boots shifted a bit and then she saw one shuffle forward as he dropped to a crouch. That was bad. Any lower, and he’d realize those boots were empty. “Come—”

The scent she’d recognized suddenly bloomed peppery and hot. No, no, no, he’ll shoot, you nut. Her stomach bottomed out. Stay back!

But the wolfdog didn’t stay back. It charged because she was in trouble and it was part-dog, and dogs had done this for her once before, that first, awful night in Rule.

She saw the hunter pivot fast. “Jesus—”

“No, over here!” Shoving the parka aside, she surged from her cave. “Here!”

An inky shadow flickered over Ellie’s head as the boy with the machete leapt the gap and landed behind her. A split second later, Eli was shrieking, his hands clapped over his middle, blood already pouring as the dogs surged.

The raft should’ve tipped right then. But at that moment, Ellie felt something give her arms a great yank. Instinctively countering the pull, Ellie looked back and nearly screamed.

It was the girl with the green scarf, the one Eli called Lena, stretched full-length on the ice. Two people-eaters had Lena’s legs, tacking her in place. Wrapping her other hand around the auger’s screw, Lena tugged again. Water slopped over the ice floe as it lurched closer.

“No!” Ellie gave the auger a furious shove, ramming it toward the girl’s face. Startled, Lena let go, dodging as the auger’s razor-sharp blades buzzed past. For a split second, Ellie saw not only hunger but bewilderment in Lena’s expression. In that moment, Lena looked almost like a girl who just couldn’t understand what she’d become.

That was where the good news ended, though. The instant was past in a flash. Now, with no one to anchor her and the raft overstressed and unbalanced—poor Eli still screaming, the dogs snarling, the people-eater yowling and thrashing—the entire ice shelf tipped. Releasing the useless auger, Ellie tried swinging around to snag ice with her fingernails, but she might as well have tried climbing a vertical sheet of perfectly smooth glass. She felt the slide begin, her body pick up speed. No, no, no, no! Something cracked and then cracked twice more, and she thought she heard shrieks, but she was screaming, too, and wasn’t sure if those cracks were ice, or something else.

Then she was out of time. Everyone and everything behind Ellie—the snapping dogs, Eli, the boy with the machete—whacked her broadside.

Shrieking, Ellie shot off the ice.

Alex shot from her hiding place. Out of the corner of her left eye, her vision blurred gray and white, and she sure as hell hoped the wolfdog would stop its charge. Then she had no more time to worry. All she cared about now was that this old man’s rifle not go off.

At her shout, the hunter spun, his long gun swinging around. Right arm already cocked, she got in under the rifle but not fast enough. The muzzle flash and crack were virtually instantaneous. She never heard the shriek that crashed out of her mouth. The bullet burned a groove over her left temple. Something shattered in that ear, and by the time she registered the shot and that he was out of ammo, his seamed face filled her vision.

She stabbed. She’d had time to think and mull over the hospital smell of that syringe, and why Peter might have it. She remembered his books. Mammalogy. Evolution. Genetics. Wolves.

Whether it was Penny Peter had first brought to the lake house or Wolf, the problem remained: how? How do you put down a foaming, frothing, feral Changed? How do you bring something like that under control?


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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