“No, no! Alex, Alex!” Tearing off his gloves, he jammed his fingers through a thin layer of crackling ice even as his mind screamed that this couldn’t be her; that was insane. But here was the pole, and now there was a boot, and they came for her, and so this could be her, might be, and he had to get her out, get her out get her out get her out! Frantic, he clawed at the snow. In a few moments, the laces appeared, and then a thin rime of blue wool sock. The cup of her heel was solidly wedged in the deep cleft of two large boulders, and he could tell that she’d come to rest at an angle, her head lower than her boots.

Unless it wasn’t Alex. Wasn’t that boot too big? And the ankle . . . Thick, too large, but maybe that’s only the sock and the angle and . . .

“No, it’s you, it’s you, it has to be you, I know it. Oh God, Alex, Alex,” he said, driving his hands into the snow up to the elbows. His fingers closed around something stiff, wooden. A leg, and it was her right; he knew that from the boot. There was a body here, and it was Alex; she was down there; he knew it.

Unless . . . A great black swell of horror churned in his chest. Unless this leg was all he would find. Anything powerful enough to crater a rise and drive a monstrous sweep of snow and rock and trees would have no trouble leaving a person in pieces, snapping bones as easily as brittle twigs, strewing a leg here, an arm there.

mo ns ters Straddling where he thought her body must be, he began to piston his fists through the snow, driving them like jackhammers. He didn’t dare use the KA-BAR. What if he hurt her, cut her? The snow broke apart in chunks, compacted not only by pressure built up by the avalanche’s momentum but its own weight. There were rocks here, too, that he wrenched free and heaved aside. He couldn’t stop, he wouldn’t, but oh God, he wanted to stop. He knew he should.

I have to know, I don’t want to know . . . This can’t be her, because if it is, there’ll be nothing left for me after this.

But he had to see, he had to know. He dug, heaving out blocks of snow, unearthing this tomb hewn of ice and rock. The curve of her hips, just the barest suggestion, appeared, and then the outline of a torso encased in a frozen balloon: a moss-green parka, swollen with snow, rucked up her sides. He gave this a cursory swipe and kept going. Later, yes, later, he would free her completely, but now he had to see her, find her face, her face, her face. . . . He plowed through snow, smashing and breaking and scratching his way up to the humps of her shoulders and then her neck, shouting like a crazy person: “Alex Alex Alex Alex Alex?”

At last—it seemed like an age; it went by in a minute—all that separated them was a thin veil of snow and ice. And that was when he paused.

I don’t want to see this. A deep, hard shudder worked through his bones. Tiny red pinpricks from his torn hands dotted the snow like candy sprinkles. He’d seen buddies like this, cocooned in yards of bandages into rough, anonymous mummies. Trying to find their faces was always the worst. Sometimes the location of the blood helped, huge blotchy patches of rust leaking over gauze to mark where something wasn’t. But the very, very worst moments came when what he stared at was a blank: no peak of a nose, no broad expanse of a forehead, or even valleys where the eyes might be. The worst was when there was nothing at all.

This was like that, as if Tom were poised over a satin-lined casket, looking down at a body so brutalized, so utterly destroyed, that the undertaker had draped gauzy linen over the face as a final kindness, an act of mercy.

Please, God, it can’t be her. I need it to be, but I won’t be able to stand it if it is.

“Oh, Alex,” he said, and used the side of his hand, as gently as he possibly could, to sweep the last of that ice-shroud from her face.

Five stunned seconds later, he began to scream.

25

“Aahh!” Screaming, Ellie flung her arms like Wile E. Coyote just figuring out that he’s run off the cliff. Her Savage clattered against stone. Mina yipped as Ellie tumbled from her knees to her butt. Frantic, she crabbed back. She could feel her mouth hanging open, her eyes bugging from their sockets, the next scream boiling its way up from her stomach.

That was it; she was getting out of here. The crows, this creepy room full of dead people, a bag that moved . . . Probably a mouse or a rat or something in there, eating the body’s eyes or tongue or—

But there are no mouse turds, a small voice from somewhere in the more reasonable part of her mind said. There are no holes in the burlap.

“So it’s a s-s-small h-hole,” she said.

It’s cold, the voice said, patiently. The bodies are frozen, remember? They can’t rot. They don’t smell.

“Yeah, but then why are the crows here?” This was stupid; she was arguing with herself. But hearing her own voice made her feel better, too, more in control. “Because they must not be frozen, right?”

That could be. Unless crows also mean something else, the voice suggested.

“What?” Ellie frowned. How could crows be anything more than what they were? She was about to ask the voice what the heck it was talking about when she thought, You dummy, you’re talking to you. So what do you think you mean? She had absolutely no idea, and the voice sure wasn’t saying. From her place by the pallet, Mina was looking at her with a perplexed expression, as if wondering what all the fuss was about.

The star moved, didn’t it? Could she be wrong? Ellie squeezed her eyes tight enough to see fireflies flitting across the dark. Maybe it was a cloud or something. The fact that there was no blue sky and no possibility of a cloud was . . . well, that didn’t matter.

Oh, come on, you big baby. Opening her eyes again, Ellie gave her head an angry shake. You walked through crows. You opened the stupid door. So why bother if you’re going to be a little girl about it?

She retrieved her rifle, her hands shaking very badly. She balled them tight, squeezing out the fear. Her legs felt wobbly, like overdone noodles, so she hitched over to the pallet on hands and knees, thinking over and over again, a little like a prayer, Tom could do this; Alex would do this; Tom could do this; Alex would . . . But she kept her eyes on the floor the whole way, not daring to look at the body, that burlap bag—not just yet. Instead, she let her head butt Mina’s shoulder just ever so slightly, the way Mina sometimes nuzzled her palm when she wanted a pat. Her dog snuffled at her neck, then dragged a warm, reassuring tongue over her cheek as if to say, Hey, it’s okay, Ellie; we’re all entitled to a freak-out every now and then.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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