He tried; he really did. But two things happened in quick succession, like a one-two punch. The first was the jolt of his right boot on a hidden rock. Tom stumbled, his right leg crimping at the knee. The Chucky had him so low around the waist that the little stutter should’ve been enough for it to set its feet and drive Tom’s chest the rest of the way down. But Tom was trying to roll, and while this Chucky was good—and it was very good; it knew how to anticipate, how to fight—Tom still clutched the Glock in his left hand.

The gun, her gun, saved his life, not because he could shoot or use it as a club but because his hand was fisted in a death grip, and a rigid fist is stronger than an open, empty hand.

Tom’s left arm speared the snow. His fist held; his elbow didn’t crumple and his wrist didn’t break. It hurt like hell; electric jags of pain jittered through bone. Grunting, Tom willed his arms to remain ramrod straight, rigid as pipes. For one split second, Tom was holding both himself and the Chucky on his shuddering arms, his heaving chest hanging a foot from the snow.

Then the moment slipped past and Tom was gathering himself, thinking, I’ve got one shot.

Jackknifing his left knee to his chest, he twisted, cranked his left hip, then drove his leg back as hard and fast as he could, putting all his strength into a single, vicious kick. He felt when his boot made contact, the jar of it in his hip; understood from the give that he’d struck the Chucky’s left thigh, high above the knee.

It was a perfect, incredibly lucky shot. Howling, the Chucky crumpled left. Shifting his weight, Tom squirted right, pushing off with his stronger, left leg, fighting against the suck of deep snow as he spun free.

And he still had the Glock. In another time and place, he might have pitched it. The weapon was useless as anything other than a club, while fingers could clutch and claw and gouge eyes. But if the

mo ns ters gun got away from him—say, the Chucky made a grab—with enough pressure on that frozen trigger, the weapon might just fire. Tom couldn’t take the chance. On the other hand, if he threw it away, the Chucky might go after it. In a way, letting the Chucky try would be smart, a way of diverting its attention so Tom had time to strike with his KA-BAR. After all, a knife didn’t run out of bullets.

But he couldn’t do it, couldn’t make himself let go of the Glock. That gun had just saved his life. It was an omen, a sign, as if Alex was fighting by his side. He could feel her in the tang of adrenaline on his tongue, the blood that roared through his veins. So he hung on to that weapon—and her—as he tugged his knife from its sheath.

All right, come on. His gaze strafed the rubble-choked flat. For a disorienting moment, he thought the Chucky was gone. It was possible. A peroneal strike, one that caught the nerve above the knee, could incapacitate an enemy anywhere from half a minute to five. Maybe it knew it didn’t stand a chance, or spooked easily. But God, if it was gone and got help, brought friends—worse, if that Chucky’s buddies were already here—he might as well slit his own throat and save them the trouble. He probably could take two or three, but without a decent weapon . . .

Wait, the Bravo. But it was behind him, by his pack and that ski pole, and he just didn’t want to risk a peek. Besides, he simply didn’t believe the Chucky could’ve moved that fast. So where is it? Frantic, the panic starting to climb his spine, he jumped his gaze west, toward the woods. There was still a good hour before it was full dark and plenty of ruby light left, but long shadows now blued the snow. Still . . . at the edge of those cantilevered trees, he was certain something moved. Someone else out there?

A shushing sound, to his right, and then a small squeal, the sound of icy snow squeezed by pressure. As he wheeled around, he realized just how lucky he was to still be alive.

The Chucky had been there on the snow, recovering, silently gathering itself, all along. Now it was clawing to its feet, but in his fear and disorientation, it looked to Tom as if the snow itself had assumed human form. The Chucky’s camo over-whites were the best he’d ever seen. Even the boots were sheathed in white. Somewhere along the way, though, the Chucky had lost its white balaclava. So instead of only the dark coins of its eyes—which were strange—he saw its lips skin back in a snarl, and that brown snake of a braid.

Because it was a she: about the same age as Alex, but much taller and more muscular. He still outweighed this girl, but his height advantage was gone, and she was fast, a good fighter.

And yes, he had a knife.

But the Chucky had two.


Well, the crows didn’t come at her. Instead, they oiled out of Ellie’s way as they had before. Once she was out and down the ramp, she waded through birds, walking alongside the ramp all the way back to where it joined up with the death house's front wall and sliders. She knew nothing about geometry, but the point where the ramp was married to the entrance was over her head. At her last physical, the pediatrician said she was of average height: Four feet, plenty of room to grow into your shoes. Whatever that meant. But she thought that what she had in mind really might work.

Running all the way back to her horse cut fifteen minutes down to five, although it gave her a stitch in her side. Even with the exercise, she was also very cold, shivering as the sweat between her shoulder blades and over her face immediately began to wick away.

“Oh-k-kay,” she said to the mare. Her fingers were shaking as she wrapped up its reins. Her face was so frigid her lips was numb. “C-come on, girl.” But Bella was having none of it. Balking, the horse huffed an enormous snort and dug in its hooves. “Please,” Ellie panted. Hooking the bridle, she tried dropping her weight. Skinning its lips from yellow peg-teeth, the animal twisted, trying to angle for a bite while pivoting and aiming a back hoof for a swift, decisive kick. Gasping, Ellie snatched her hand back as the horse’s teeth clacked on air and dodged a hoof that whizzed past her head to plow into her primer pail with a solid chuck. The pail went airborne, sailing for the trees and spilling a trail of tip-ups in its wake. The heavier auger whipped around in a complete circle, like one of those spinners on a game board.

“Easy, easy,” she said. Screwing up her courage, she darted forward and grabbed the auger’s handle, dragging it back before Bella could slice a leg. “Calm down. I’m sorry, okay?”

This was bad. Without Bella, she would have to either wait or walk, and both were out. Too long; we’re wasting time. Fuming, impatience spiking her skin so badly she wanted to peel right out of it, she forced herself to wait while Bella stomped and blew. She had to fix this. Her teeth sawed at her cheek. How did you calm down a horse? Reins are brakes. You stop a runaway by taking away the head. But she had to be on the horse for that, and besides, the mare wasn’t running anywhere. Her problem was that the silly thing didn’t want to go anywhere. Must be a way to take its head, though. She thought back over what she knew about spooked horses. Precious little. But there was a book . . . Flicka? No, Black Beauty. The fire. James ties a scarf around Black Beauty’s eyes.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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