It was the bells that roused her.
Three sharp peels that reverberated through Freddie’s brain. Shredded at her skin.
Thrice rings the bell, she thought groggily, as her eyes opened. As white snow and bitter cold swept in. To warn everyone.
The world hung sideways, dark forest and frozen shadows. She knew, without words actually forming in her brain, that she must be in City-on-the-Berm County Park. How she had gotten there, though…
That was a mystery. One neither her brain nor her gut could quite unravel.
If Freddie was smart, she would stand up and figure out where she was. If she was smart, she would dig out Sabrina and call…someone.
But Freddie was so cold. So tired. The thought of standing seemed impossible, and the thought of finding Sabrina was worse than summiting Mount Everest. Too high, too far, too challenging.
Freddie blinked away snowflakes on her lashes. Nothing looked familiar from her spot upon the snow. It was just an army of skeletal pine trees. Row upon row, waiting for their marching orders.
You make no sense, she chided. You’re delirious and need to get up, Gellar. Now.
She didn’t get up. Instead, she thought back to the Frame & Foto. To the glass front door, so near yet somehow so far away.
Then she thought back to the white cloth that had been shoved into her face. And to the gleaming sheriff’s badge, winking in the darkness.
At that thought—at that memory—a gag reflex scorched up Freddie’s gullet. Hot and heavy and surging in fast.
She tried to rise. Tried to haul herself onto her knees before the bile surfaced…
But as soon as she drew her hands beneath her, she found her body didn’t want to comply.
It couldn’t comply.
She was bound.
Freddie heaved then. It burned up out too fast to stop, then splattered out her mouth and down her face. It hit Theo’s blazer too. There was no time to worry about that, though. No time to clean up or brace for the next gag, rising fast. Because she was tied up, lying on the snow, and all alone in a dark, dangerous forest.
Freddie blinked down at her arms, fighting the nausea. Her wrists were bound with…with a zip tie.
Just like you saw in Mrs. Ferris’s attic.
Attached to the zip tie were a pair of handcuffs—also familiar—and those in turn were fastened to another zip tie around Freddie’s ankles.
She was well and truly trapped, stuck in a crooked fetal position while frostbite and hypothermia shivered in. While vomit threatened to be released.
Okay, Gellar, she told herself, swallowing back more bile. You can do this out. Get your head on straight and think it through. Surely she had read enough gothic tales and watched enough detective shows to know how to escape this.
Plus, she had something none of those sleuths had: she had her gut to guide her. Her dad’s instincts to see her through.
She, Frederica Gellar, was not helpless.
With a grunt, a shove, and great clenching of her abdominal muscles, Freddie rolled upright. The forest dipped and spun as blood rushed from her head. She blinked. Then blinked again until at last, the world was still.
No familiar markers stood out in the darkness. No suicide tree or Archives hut or tombstones with candles. However, if Freddie listened…
Yes. Great cracks split the night every few seconds—and she knew that sound.
Freddie must be somewhere near the lakeshore, and Lake Michigan must have already frozen over. Yes, it was months too early, but she couldn’t say she was surprised. After all, third came the ice, wreckt upon the stones. Then thrice rang the bell, no chance to atone.
Freddie had heard the bells. Now she heard the ice.
And that meant, somewhere in these woods, the Disembowler must be hunting.
At that realization—at that sick, twisted acknowledgment—a fresh wave of panic tidaled through Freddie’s chest.
It was one thing to get away from Sheriff Bowman at Mrs. Ferris’s house. Bowman was human, and humans were easy to understand, easy to outwit—no matter how murderous.
No. Freddie had no idea how to evade something like that. She had no idea how to fight it or trick it or even freaking explain it.
As she tried, ineffectually, to rub her hands together and coax some feeling back into them—and also coax some kind of plan into her sluggish brain—a glint caught her eye. Just a tiny sparkle resting upon the snow six feet away.
With her legs to pull her along like an inch worm, Freddie scooted toward that sparkle.
A pen, she realized upon reaching it. Then she clumsily picked it up. It was so cold to the touch that it felt warm. Damp, too, with snow. A fancy pen, she thought. Gold, expensive, and definitely well-used.
And also, more importantly, useful.
Clutching it tightly in one hand, Freddie tugged her arms to her chest. This of course required her to drag her legs with her, and soon, her knees were furled in completely and her hands were tucked in tight.
Then she gave herself ten Justin Timberlakes to puff air into her hands. Ten Justin Timberlakes to get just a smidgen of feeling back into her limbs—because she needed dexterity to do what came next.
Eight Justin Timberlake. Nine Justin Timberlake. Ten.
Freddie snapped off the top of the pen, curled even more tightly upon herself, and with handcuffs clinking, reached for the zip tie around her ankles. If she could compress the fastening mechanism inside it, then she could wriggle the plastic loose. No, the pen’s ballpoint tip wasn’t as sharp as she’d like, but it was all she had.
And it would have to do.
Freddie lost track of time as she tried to shove the pen into the tiny lock. She could scarcely see through the darkness—and were it not for the snow emitting a small cloud of reflected light, she wouldn’t be able to see at all.
As she pushed at the zip tie fastener, as she wriggled and pulled and tried to hit just the right spot, a wind gathered around her. A biting wind.
A fetid wind.
Then the mechanism clicked. The zip tie slid in a whispering hiss that was almost swallowed up by the budding breeze.
It took Freddie three more tries to get the zip tie wide enough to fit over her ankles. She was full-on shivering now, and her fingers had gone from bright red to pale, bloodless blue. She needed to move. Now.
So without bothering to unbind her wrists, Freddie pushed to her feet. Then she ran. Toward the sounds of cracking ice and away from the stench of corpses.
The stench of a Disemboweler.
Yes, the shore would be a dead end for Freddie, but at least if she could reach it, then she would know where she was in this vast park—and at least, if she ran straight south along the shore, she would eventually leave City-on-the-Berm entirely.
Freddie just had to hope that edge of the park marked the edge of the Executioners’ range. That this was why there had been that map in Mrs. Ferris’s attic…
And that this was why the final verse of the poem referred to the Three leaving the gate. They were bound here until heat came. Until the Oathmaster was waiting.
Freddie pushed herself faster. It was an awkward, bumbling gait with her zip-tied arms thrust out before her. Four times, she almost tripped. And once, she did trip, landing on her shoulder with a woof of bright pain and slash of snowy cold.
Then Freddie got back up once more and continued on.
She had to. She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t slow—because now…
Oh, now she was not alone. Now, someone was hunting her.
She smelled them first—like always—and after stumbling over an unseen log, she made the foolish mistake of twisting back. Of slowing her pace and squinting through the snow-laden trees.
Then she spotted them: three foggy figures, each one ringed in flame.
Freddie’s mind wiped clean at the sight of them. All she saw and all she was were those three hazy figures. They were cloaked in the rotten stench of pending death. And they moved with the slow, methodical stamp of six feet over fallen snow.
No, Freddie had no idea how this could be real. How ghosts could haunt a forest, how they could be coming after her, but she also couldn’t deny the evidence before her: she had been kidnapped by the sheriff and left for the Executioners to claim.
But Freddie had one advantage: she had been here before. Right here, in her dreams, and even if her mind had lost all function, her body had not.
Her legs knew what to do.
She spun forward. Then she ran even faster. Her knees kicked toward her chest, her hands—numb and useless before her—swung side to side. An attempt to gain some kind of rhythm, some kind of speed while she charged ever onward.
Snow crunched beneath her. Frozen leaves too, and branches snapped and cracked and tore. Each breath was a harsh boom in Freddie’s skull, a harsh burn inside her lungs.
She didn’t look back again. She didn’t need to. She knew the Executioners would be keeping pace.
And she knew she was nearing the lakeshore. There was that rumbling thunder of ice, breaking through the billows of her own lungs. And here was that sandier substrate beneath her heels, gritty and unstable and a sign of dunes to come.
The forest grew darker around her. More clouds. More trees. Less snow to carpet the ground.
Then Freddie reached a clearing—a space she knew. This was an old logging road. If she cut left, she could reach the lakeshore unimpeded. In fact, it wasn’t far beyond that hulking dune there…
A body slammed into Freddie.
So sudden, she didn’t hear it it coming. So fast, she had no time to move. No time to react before she was smashed to the earth. Her skull slammed down. Stars and darkness splattered in.
Then fingers closed around Freddie’s neck. Thighs squeezed around her ribcage.
Freddie struggled and squirmed. Clawed her zip-tied hands at some unseen face and unseen body. The handcuffs clanked and swung. But now matter how hard Freddie fought—no matter how hard she strained to see—all she got were shadows. It was like a black fog had swept in, and somewhere in there was a shapeless figure she could not seem to grab hold of.
And flames. There were flames in there too, flickers that danced off a hidden skull.
The fingers at Freddie’s neck squeezed tighter. She choked. She wheezed. She fishtailed and writhed.
To no avail, though. She couldn’t stop the hand at her throat, and she couldn’t avoid the face now leaning in.
“Libérez nous,” they whispered.
And Freddie realized she knew that voice. She knew that hazy face too, even if the eyes were now filled with flame.
Then Laina hissed, teeth flashing, and Freddie could have sworn she saw smoke coiling off the girl’s tongue.
Maybe this is all a hallucination, Freddie thought. Maybe it was all a dream and any moment now, she would wake up.
She had to wake up because right now, she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. She had no hands to fight Laina with, and even if she did, Laina was inhuman.
Tighter, tighter. Laina’s fingers squeezed tighter.
And brighter, brighter burned the flames—forming a new figure. A bigger figure that hovered over Laina like a mismatched outline, broad shouldered and masculine.
Libérez nous. The words scraped inside Freddie’s skull. Meaningless, yet inescapable.
Libérez nous, it repeated. Still meaningless, but also undeniably pleading. There was a desperation in that voice. And there was a hunger too, burning in its fathomless, flame-fueled eyes.
Then a new voice lasered into Freddie’s brain. One that sent tears and joy rushing in.
But also a deep, deep terror.
No, Freddie though vaguely. You can’t be here, Divya. Or maybe Freddie said those words aloud. She didn’t know anymore. Everything was so cold, and the night was so dark and the figure before her, shivering over Laina, was just so, so vast.
Freddie should really just close her eyes and wait for it all to end…
Her eyelids fluttered shut.
Then the pressure at Freddie’s windpipe released. An abrupt movement—one second, stuttering, strangling death. The next second, air, air, air.
And a heartbeat after that, the weight on Freddie’s chest leaped free.
Laina was gone. The shadow was gone.
Freddie snapped open her eyes; Divya’s face swam into view. She was there, right there, and trying to help Freddie rise. And Cat too, Freddie thought, as a second familiar face materialized amidst the darkness.
“Get up,” Divya and Cat were saying in voices that sounded so far away. Like Freddie was in a swimming pool and they were shouting from the opposite end. “Get up, Freddie—you have to get up.”
So Freddie did. Somehow, with limbs made of ice and a brain made of fog—and with hands still bound by zip ties, she got up.
Only to find Kyle and Luis also in the clearing. Luis held a baseball bat and he was yanking, yanking…
While Laina clutched the other end in one hand. It was as if he’d swung it at her, and she’d stopped it midair. Effortless. Stronger than Luis could ever fight.
Flames licked off the bat’s edge.
But that wasn’t what made Freddie gasp. That was Kyle, dangling from Laina’s other hand as easily as a doll. She held him around the throat, and already, his movements grew weak.
“No,” Freddie tried to yell. Except that the word came out as garbled as the night around her—painful too, her throat having just been shredded by supernatural hands.
“No,” she tried again, stumbling forward. Laina’s back was to her; she would attack if she had to. “Let him go, Laina!” She picked up speed, Divya and Cat beside her. “Let him go!”
It was like watching a horror movie—except so, so much worse. Because this was real. Because this was really Laina’s head turning and turning…and then turning some more. Farther than any normal head should move.
Until she was facing Freddie.
Her lips curled back, and Freddie expected her to attack. To drop Kyle and resume her onslaught on Freddie…
A bell tolled. Piercing. Distant. Yet somehow thrumming straight down to Freddie’s gut.
Laina’s head whipped forward once more.
Laina released Kyle. He crumpled to the snowy ground, coughing and sputtering. Then she released the baseball bat.
Laina bolted. A streak of fire-tipped shadows. Of unnatural speed and the stench of rotting, putrid flesh.
Then the last reverberations of the peeling bell ended, and Laina was gone.
For several seconds, no one moved. Not even Kyle, crouched and clutching at his throat. It was like everyone was afraid to breathe. Afraid to even think about what had just happened in this clearing.
But then Kyle started coughing, and suddenly everyone was moving. And talking. Luis and Cat were lurching for Kyle. Divya was grabbing for Freddie’s bound hands.
“Oh my god,” Divya breathed. “What happened to you?”
“No time,” Freddie said, vocal cords straining. “We need…to get out of here.” She didn’t know why the bells had rung again, but her gut was screaming at her that it was definitely not good.
“You’re tied up.” Divya grabbed Freddie’s shoulders. “And Laina is…” She shook her head. “I don’t know what she is, but we can’t leave without her.”
“We have to.” Now it was Freddie’s turn to shake her head. “We have to leave without her, Divya. I’ll explain why later. Do you have a car here?”
“No.” Divya clutched at her cheeks. “We walked from Kyle’s house. But Fred—what happened to you? And what’s wrong with Laina?”
“No time,” Freddie repeated, a harsh bark. Too harsh for her best friend. But the truth was that every second they were here was one more second for the Executioners to find them.
For the Disemboweler to find them.
Freddie turned to Luis and Cat. They had gotten Kyle to his feet, and other than a slump to Kyle’s posture, he seemed alright.
Which was good.
Because now it was time to run again.