The only answers he got were virtually none at all: only that wind, laced with decay, sighing down from the lake.

And then, a minute grate of stone at his back. Just a tick, to his left. Say . . . eight o’clock. A tiny tock as rock butted rock, a sound that did not belong but that he heard even past the pulse and pound of his rampaging blood because, after all this time, he was still a soldier. So he knew.

Something was storming over the snow, and coming fast.

29

She had to get him out of here, and fast. But how? Thrusting her bare hands under her armpits, Ellie winced against the sting. Now that her initial burst of shock had dribbled away, She was starting to feel the cold. Shucking out of her coat, she’d draped that over his chest, then stripped burlap from all the other bodies and piled the shrouds over Chris to keep him as warm as she could. On the pallet and under his burlap blankets, Chris was quiet now, eyes closed again, but he was panting, his breath chuffing in wavering gray clouds.

There were really only two things she could do: leave Chris and ride for help, or take him back herself. The first was easiest. Leave Mina to guard him, race back to Bella, and gallop all the way to the farmhouse. Maybe an hour, and maybe a lot less if she got poky old Bella to really book.

But there was also the issue of time, and her reluctance to let him out of her sight. She cast an anxious eye at the windows. She could tell from the gray cast of the sky that what had been early afternoon was now slipping well into late. They might be lucky enough to make it here before dark, but they’d be working their way back at night. It was also true that they’d spotted no people-eaters in weeks this far north. Chris and that old guy he’d been with, the one clobbered by the mace, had tripped booby traps that hadn’t seen action in a good two months.

So I need to take him. Ellie chewed the inside of her cheek. She realized that her eyes had fixed on his chest, noting every struggling breath, holding her own until the burlap rose again. She knew she expected every breath to be his last, like in the movies. A final dramatic gasp and then bye-bye. Got to get him onto my horse somehow. But Chris was too heavy to lift. Her eyes roamed the deepening shadows of the bare rafters. Even if she could find a rope and tie it around his chest or something and figure out a way of slinging the rope over a beam, she wasn’t strong enough to hoist him two inches. Could she drag him? That might work. Just roll him off the pallets, watch that his head didn’t go bump-thump on the stone, then drag him the way you hauled a little kid up the hill on a sled. Chris would be much heavier, of course, but she’d only have to manage twenty, thirty feet. She was much stronger now than back in October when all the bad stuff started. She rode horses, she walked for miles, she hauled augers and tackle, and she handled her Savage without too much trouble. So she could do this. But getting him onto her horse was a different problem.

And what about the birds? Will they let him leave? Cocking her head, she listened and then picked up their mechanical chatter. Still out there. They hadn’t bothered her, but maybe that was as far as this went. The birds might be—she didn’t know—a sign or something, like the way Alex once said you could tell if a storm was coming when the animals got really quiet.

“I can’t do nothing,” she said to Mina, who leaned against her leg. Her chilled fingers buried themselves in the fur behind the dog’s ears. “I have to keep him warm and get him out.”

What if she stayed? The others would come looking, and probably soon. They would know where to go. Bella was tethered at the fork. So she could stay put, keep Chris warm. But she might also be waiting a long time. No one would worry for another hour, maybe even an hour and a half. She could hear Eli now: Oh, you know how Ellie is once she gets fishing; she can sit out there forever.

Beneath the burlap, Chris let out another long moan. She was across the room in an instant, dropping to her knees to study his face. Through the crescent moons of his lids, she could see his eyes roaming. Chris was dreaming, and pretty badly, too. Deep, dark lines of fear and pain cut alongside his nose and across his forehead. Maybe a nightmare. Or maybe he was dreaming about being dead, which was probably just as bad.

She stood and patted the pallet. “Mina, come.” The dog obediently jumped up, careful not to step on Chris. Mina turned an expectant look, but Ellie shook her head, placed a hand on the dog’s neck, and maneuvered the animal as close to Chris as she could manage. “Just you,” she said, applying a bit of pressure to get her meaning across. “Down, girl, lie down. I need you to keep him warm.” And protect him until I get back. Mina wasn’t as big as a shepherd, but lying at full length her body heat ought to help. “Stay,” Ellie said, and put her hand up like a traffic cop. With a soft whine, Mina stretched her neck and nosed Ellie’s fingers.

“Love you, too, girl,” Ellie said, and planted a big kiss between Mina’s ears. She turned to go, then hesitated. Reeling out a length of leather cord, she ran a finger over the lines of that upside-down peace sign. For protection, Hannah said. Kneeling, Ellie gently slipped the cord over Chris’s head. He was a boy, almost a man, and his neck was bigger, so the cord was snugger, the charm only reaching to the pulsing hollow of his throat.

And then—don’t ask her why—she kissed him, too. Just a touch of her lips to his forehead, the way her daddy used to: Love you, kiddo.

“For luck,” she said.

30

Dumb luck, that’s what it was. With the tick of that rock, Tom’s training snapped into place, his reaction as instinctual as breathing: a quick shift of his weight, a backhanded swipe with his left as he spun, the Glock slashing up and around on a steep trajectory because he was aiming for a chin, a cheek.

He missed. Hell, he couldn’t even see what he was trying to hit. The Chucky had put itself in a direct line with the setting sun and was coming for him at his blind spot to boot. All Tom made out was a gray-white blur and two dark coins as the Chucky read his move and dropped below the arc of his swing. Tom went into a staggering spin, his momentum pulling him off-balance as the Glock whirred through empty air. In the next second, the Chucky drove in low and hard, plowing into Tom’s back, wrapping him up, pushing him into a blundering swan dive.

“Ugh!” Tom felt the air gun out of his throat. His arms shot out to break his fall, and he thought, Roll; plant your fist and roll, get on your side! If he hit face-first, it would be over, fast. He could see his end: the Chucky straddling his back, riding him, grinding his face into the deadening snow, holding him there until he suffocated. Or maybe the Chucky planned to simply dump him on his ass. One good slam of a fist to stun him and then Tom would spend his last thirty seconds on earth with his hands wrapped around the spurting rip in his throat as his blood pulsed hot and wet, and the Chucky watched and waited for Tom’s veins to run dry. Roll, go to roll, ro—


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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