Home > Shadows (Ashes Trilogy #2)(4)

Shadows (Ashes Trilogy #2)(4)
Author: Ilsa J. Bick

At his side, the dog, Raleigh, nudged Tom’s good thigh and let out a short, sharp yip.

“He-hey, b-boy,” Tom said. He was shuddering, and he felt his knees beginning to hinge. Gripping the doorjamb with his right hand, Tom held on tight until the wood bit his flesh. The pain wasn’t bad, but it was enough. It was, in fact, perfect. The dog let out another rough wuff, and then leaned in as if trying to prop Tom up the way a bookend kept a stack of flimsy paperbacks from tumbling to the floor.

“Thanks, boy. I kn-know.” He let out a long, trembling breath. “Sit down before I fa-fall down.”

Groaning, Tom stretched out on an old army cot. The springs complained, and he winced as his mangled muscles caught and then grudgingly relaxed. Beneath his parka, he could feel his shirt sticking to the skin between his shoulder blades. Gradually, he got his breathing under control, and that sick, woozy, light-headed feeling passed. Satisfied now, the dog did three turns and settled with a sigh onto an olive-drab blanket.

Jesus. Tom armed sweat from his forehead. That had been bad, but he thought he knew why. The ache in his heart—the absence that was Alex—was a scream that only got louder and stronger with each day that passed.

I’ve got to leave, get back to Michigan, before I lose my mind.

And he could manage it now. Tom ran a hand over his right thigh where Harlan had shot him the day they’d lost Ellie. He had another new scar on his neck: a souvenir from that fight in the convenience store parking lot when that kid had tried to tear out his throat. But it was the leg that had been the worst, that had nearly finished him. The wound had healed to a fist-sized crater tented with thick, shiny, taut scar tissue. He’d lost some strength, although his limp was improving and he could muster a fast jog now. Still, the leg might be a problem, especially in the backcountry. Jed would want him to take one of their two horses, but of course, he’d refuse. If Jed and Grace had to leave this place for any reason, they’d need their animals. So maybe steal a horse somewhere else? He’d cover the eighty-plus miles to the Michigan border a lot faster if he did. But any animal—or person, for that matter—was also an added responsibility, something he’d told Ellie himself right before they left the Waucamaw. They couldn’t rescue everyone.

For all the good I did Ellie. The thought forced a lump to his throat. In his mind, he’d always known that their survival came down to a very simple equation: either he had the strength and the will to do whatever it took to keep Alex and Ellie alive, or the people he had come to care for would die. And so he had failed. Again. When it counted, he hadn’t been able to save Ellie. Thinking of the little girl still hurt, although the nightmares had finally faded. The chances Ellie was still alive were between slim and none. Ellie was dead, and that was on him. He didn’t like it, but he could let go.

Alex was . . . different. God, he wished he’d found the courage to tell her everything, the whole terrible mess, what he’d done and at what price. Of all people, she would have understood, and that would have saved him. He pressed a palm to his chest and felt the hard thump of his heart. The pain whenever he thought about her was something raw, an ache that was more than grief and sharper than sorrow. It was longing. It was need. It was the sense of something that wasn’t over and he hoped never would be. He simply refused to believe that she was lost to him.

And she was in danger. He just knew. That had to be why his mind put her in Afghanistan, too, where death might be under a rock or in a bag of trash or strapped to—

Don’t go there; don’t think it. A groan tried pushing its way past his teeth. He thought he still had time to save Alex but not much. He might already be too late.

Please, God. He flung an arm over his eyes. Please, help me. I’m not asking for a miracle. Just keep her safe a little while longer until I can get to her, that’s all. Please.

Of course, nothing happened. No lightning bolts, no heavenly choirs, no angels. The dog only groaned, and the heater hummed. A sudden fist of wind shook the boathouse and rattled the boards, but that was just a lot of air.

That was all right. What mattered was how he felt and what he knew. Alex was alive and he was going back. He would find her, or die trying.

“Hang on, Alex,” he whispered. “Hang on.”

Part 1 - Sacrifice


Oh God, help me, please, help me. Alex felt her mind begin to slip, as if the world was ice and begun to tilt and she was going to slide right off and fall away into forever if she didn’t hang on tight. Her heart was trying to blast right out of her chest. She was shaking, all over, the hay hook in its belt loop bouncing against her right thigh. The pyramid, row after row of skulls, loomed at her back: all that remained of those who’d stumbled into this killing field before her. And of course, there was the smell—that familiar reek of roadkill and boiled sewage.

This can’t be happening; it’s not happening.

But it was. They were right there, no more than a hundred feet from where she groveled in the snow. Five Changed. Two girls. Three boys.

She watched, not daring to move, as they fanned out in a rough semicircle. Three wore camo gear: a punky middle schooler, a sullen girl with the livid slash of a scar on one cheek, and a greasyhaired kid with terminal acne. Stirring the snow into arabesque whirls, a stray breath of wind tugged at the fraying ends of some bizarre, stenciled kerchiefs knotted around the kids’ throats and biceps. Many more rags fluttered from buttonholes like colorful fringes on buckskin.

The remaining two kids, a boy and a girl with wolf skins draped over their heads and shoulders, were about her age. Their faces were hidden, but what pulled her mind out of the well of her terror was how familiar the boy seemed. Why? Her eyes ticked over bits and pieces: the jut of his chin, the firm line of his jaw, and his eyes—hard, glittery as a crow’s. She couldn’t tell their color; those eyes might be brown or mossy green—

Or a deep, smoky blue, as dark and strange as ancient ice.

Oh no. It couldn’t be. It had been months. Tom was dead. This couldn’t be Tom, could it? Frantic now not just with fear but dread, she pulled in a huge breath, trying to tease out Wolf Boy’s scent. Tom’s was musky and complex, a heady aroma that never failed to find its way deep into her chest. She would know him by scent alone, anywhere, but all she got now was that overpowering stench and the reek of her fear.

But I feel like I should know him. He looks so famil—

Her stomach bottomed out as the wolf-girl stepped past the others to halt less than twenty feet away. Aside from the whole wolf thing, she looked like the kind of privileged, moneyed kid Alex had always hated. No mistaking that black widow logo over the left breast; that was some serious designer skiwear. Her outfit made those rags or bandanas or whatever she’d tied around her wrists seem almost classy. And because the girl was so close, Alex also got a very good look at that corn knife, a wicked thing that was crusted with gore and as long as the kid’s forearm.

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