“Well, I’m not,” she said to the dog. This was way spooky. “We should go back. We should tell Jayden . . .” What? Gee, there were all these crows at the death house, and she’d been too pee-in-her-pants freaked out to take a look?

Alex wouldn’t wuss out. She tightened her grip on her Savage. Tom would go.

“All right, come on, Mina. We can do this.” Heart thumping, she eased down the path as her dog matched her step for step. Ahead, the birds milled, ebbing and flowing around the building like the waves of a ceaseless black sea. At the edge, where the snow effectively ran out and the crows began, she paused, then slid a boot forward six inches. The crows swirled away. She took another slow, sliding step and then another, as the birds first parted, then closed ranks after she and Mina passed. The effect was eerie, like skating through a pool of black mercury.

At the sliders, she paused. The doors weren’t locked. Isaac and Hannah always said the hex signs were protection enough. But to get in meant that Ellie would have to use both hands, and she wasn’t wild about letting go of her rifle.

“Don’t let anything bad happen, girl,” she said to Mina. Hooking the Savage’s strap over her right shoulder, Ellie wrapped her hands around the wrought iron handle and heaved. The door let out a grudging squall, its iron wheels grating against metal; the death house exhaled icy air that smelled of burlap and pine tar. Nose crinkling against the strong odor of resin, Ellie glanced up to check the birds. In return, the crows cocked their heads, turning the black pearls of their

mo ns ters eyes to Ellie as if for a better look. Suddenly afraid to stare at them for too long, she quickly dropped her gaze and stepped from the ramp into the building before she remembered, too late, that all the birds had to do now was surge in after her. But they didn’t. Clacking and cawing, the crows rustled and bunched right up to the threshold. Yet not a single bird took wing or hopped to catch up and follow her in. Still, she slid the door closed, just to be on the safe side.

She waited a moment as her eyes adjusted to the sudden gloom. The interior was huge, almost a cave with those stone walls soaring to a ceiling of exposed beams of the same dark wood as the slider. Directly ahead and in the center were wooden pallets, stacked three deep and three high, the kind farmers normally used for hay.

Except now, they held bodies. Ellie knew the routine. After a corpse was washed and rubbed with spice-scented oil, it was wrapped in a clean white sheet. Hannah always placed a small spell bag on the chest before sewing the body into burlap, on which she also painted a purple, five-pointed star. The corpse was then laid so the head, supported by a small pillow, faced east. The direction was important—some blah-blah about heaven and resurrection—but Ellie had tuned out. Her dad died waaay east of here and came home in the equivalent of a really tiny shoebox. She sure didn’t see him coming back to life and walking through the door anytime soon. Okay, it was snarky. Still.

After the ruckus outside, the death house was so quiet Ellie heard her own liquid swallow. Far as she knew, nothing wrong here. Well, if you didn’t count the bodies. Of the dead kids there, two were mauled by people-eaters. But that left five who’d been fed poison because they’d begun to turn. The next-to-last body was the old man with Chris, the one whose neck had been broken by that swinging mace.

“So, now what?” she whispered, because it didn’t seem right to talk any louder. At the sound of her voice, Mina anxiously shifted her weight and then took a few hesitant steps toward the pallets. Her nails ticked on stone. Ellie thought maybe she should call Mina back but then thought, Wait. See what she does.

She expected her dog to snuffle each bag. But Mina didn’t. Instead, the dog went to the foot of the last pallet—and the body there, all by its lonesome—before turning a look back at Ellie. Well? the dog’s amber eyes seemed to ask. Aren’t you coming?

Ellie wasn’t aware that she was moving or had even thought about it until she felt the icy palm of stone on her knees as she knelt next to Mina. The dog wasn’t really staring at the body so much as . . . well, watching it really, really carefully. But looking for what? Ellie let her eyes drift over the bulge of the head, then sweep down to that shelf of feet and toes. Nothing really to see. Her gaze crawled back to the slight tent of that purple star over the body’s chest. She had no idea what the hex sign meant, or what Hannah put in those spell bags—

In the next second, her thoughts whited out as Ellie finally did see something that shouldn’t, couldn’t be.

When the star over the chest . . . moved.

24

Tom had no true memory of moving. But he must have, and very fast, switching from skis to snowshoes and scuffing down in long, sweeping strides to wallow through snow, over rocks, and around broken trees, because there was a jump in time, a bizarre stutter step like the hitch of a damaged DVD, and then he was on his knees, at the ski pole. His daypack and Jed’s Bravo were now on the snow, and he was chopping icy rubble with his KA-BAR. His breath came in harsh, sobbing pants as he stabbed, working his blade to expose a silvered fiberglass spear speckled with a stencil of cheery white snowflakes. When he’d sliced enough away, he slipped his knife back into his leg sheath, then wrapped both hands around the plastic grip and gave a quick yank. The pole popped free. The touring basket was gone, but the hard metal tip was still intact. From the length, he thought it must’ve been used by a boy, or a tall girl.

It has to be one of theirs. Sweat lathered his cheeks and trickled down his chest. Craning a look over his shoulder, he eyed the swell of land behind. He was in the fall line, and so was the pole. That meant one of three things. In the worst-case scenario, the pole was swept down here while its owner had still been on the rise. In the best case, the owner made his skis and outran the avalanche but lost the pole somewhere along the way.

And then there’s the somewhere-in-between . He swept his eyes over the flats, hunting for the telltale jut of a broken ski, maybe even another pole. He’s bombing down on his skis, surfing over snow, but then the avalanche trips him up—

That thought skipped to a halt as his brain registered something protruding from the snow perhaps six feet and change to his right: a small brown hump, easy to miss because it looked so much like a pebble.

Except it wasn’t. The sun was low enough now that the light on the sparkling snow was ruddy, the color of new blood. He knew, exactly, what that brown lump was.

A boot. Tom’s breath gnarled in his chest. It’s the toe of a boot, that’s a boot, it’s . . .


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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