For the first time, it occurred to him to wonder just how long this girl had waited, watched. He’d been on the snow, exposed, for . . . what? A half hour? At least that—and a good portion of that time, he’d been out of it, so consumed with visions and flashbacks and the manic jitter of something close to insanity that it would’ve been smarter and easier to take him then.

But she wants to fight. The Chucky was on her feet now, and God, she recovered fast. Fear iced his throat. She didn’t want to just kill him. She had knives and she’d plowed right into him. He should already be dead. Come to think of it, she could probably handle a rifle or pistol just fine. But this girl wanted the rush, the fun of the kill. The blood.

And there’s something wrong with her, different. Given she was a Chucky, this was an understatement. It’s her eyes, something about them; the color . . . too dark. But she was so far away he wasn’t certain, and that was just fine, thanks.

Forget her face. Concentrate: don’t lose track of the knives. Tom watched as she began to circle, very low, moving carefully left to right—and Jesus, she wasn’t sinking much. Shuffling, he turned, keeping her in sight, feeling the shift of uneven stone beneath his boots, dismally aware that she was compensating for his longer reach by forcing his knife hand further away and off-target. He didn’t know what kind of knives she had, but they were wicked: silvered steel, long and thin, single-edged, with only the suggestion of a curve. Hers were real fighting knives, made for cutting and slicing. Her blades were already in motion, scything back and forth, sparking in the setting sun, and he had trouble keeping track of both. As the light got worse, that would also get harder, assuming he lasted that long. He thought this might be over pretty quick. She didn’t need to get in a killing thrust. All she had to do was cut him a couple of times and then stand back and wait for him to weaken, or bleed to death.

Any soldier knew hand-to-hand combatives, how to grapple and kill, and part of basic training was the rifle-bayonet course. The reality was a lot simpler: the guy who survived was the one who held off an attacker until his buddies arrived with guns. Unlike Special Forces and Black Ops guys, all of whom were big into close-quarters combat, Tom knew only the basics of what to do with a knife: cover the middle, defend the face and neck, deflect with the left hand and forearm, stab hard and fast, put your weight into it. If he could get close and behind her knives, he might slash her face. Better yet, cut her forehead, let all that blood spill into her eyes and blind her. But he knew he wasn’t good enough for anything fancy. Rush her, and he’d probably end up impaling himself on her knives and doing the job for her.

One thing was certain, though. He had absolutely no reason to hang on to the Glock now. He needed his hands free. But instead of dropping the weapon to the snow—the smart move—Tom did something incredibly dumb. Angling his body, keeping the tip of his knife pointed at her head, he swept his left hand around and under his open parka to shove the weapon into the small of his back—

And that was all it took, that little move. He wasn’t centered and she knew it. He saw her dart forward, low, a white blur, stepping in. His reaction was clumsy, an awkward stumble as he tried backpedaling fast. Her right hand, which was closest, swept in a high cut. Gasping, he struggled to whip his left arm back into line to fend off the strike. Too late, he read the c**k of her elbow, registered the feint.

Suddenly, she was there, twisting beneath his right arm, ducking under his knife. Her blade flickered, its silver tongue licking side to side—one-two-three, zip-zip-zip. He couldn’t follow it, didn’t really see the knife at all, but on the third pass, he felt a lick of cold as his clothing ripped and then a snaky burn, a line of fire across his exposed belly. Biting back a shout, he arched, pulling himself out of reach, but she was already withdrawing, backing up. The setting sun bathed her skin as richly red as the blood welling from the gash across his stomach. He could feel the oozy drizzle, warm and thick.

She could’ve killed me right then. Cold sweat oiled his face as she began to circle again, a balletic move, her knives sketching their slow, mesmeric back-and-forth. She had me, dead to rights. A single thrust, a twist, and she could have watched him bleed out. Playing. She wants this to go slow. Grunting, he clamped his left forearm across his middle. A slow slither of blood was beginning to worm over his thighs and drip to the snow. This wasn’t going to kill him, but if he got cut too many more times or she decided to slash just a little deeper, unzip him so his guts spilled out, he’d never keep his feet. Got to do something . . .

Moving again, lightly despite the snow, she came in fast, jabbing with her right. Acting purely on instinct, he tried countering with his own knife, which meant that he had to twist to his left. As she pulled the thrust in a perfectly timed feint, he realized much too late that not only was his right side exposed, but he’d taken his eyes from the knife in her left hand. Shit! He tried to correct, to turn, but she was so damn fast! The knife ripped in a backhanded slice from his right hip all the way up to his chest.

This time, a shout of pain leapt from his mouth. Doubling over, he tried to protect his torso—stupid, stupid, stupid; that brought his face into her strike zone—and she was right there, the knife whickering for his face.

What happened next was all reflex. Uncoiling, he whipped up with his left arm to defend himself . . . and damn if he didn’t still have that Glock.

She saw it coming, tried going with the blow, but she was a fraction of a second too late. The hard butt clipped her nose. It was so fast, he didn’t know he’d connected until her neck snapped back. A bright red bib spumed down her chin and over her chest, and then she was blowing, off-balance, shaking her head like a wounded dog, her blood flying in ropy spatters.

Come on, come on, move, move! She was less than twenty feet away when he charged because, he figured, what the hell. He was outmatched, and she was going to kill him if he kept letting her dictate the fight. So he had to move; he had to step into this; he had to muscle past his fear and own this one.

Bellowing, he closed the distance in three big strides. Snarling, her face cramped with fury, she thrust to deflect with her left and jab with her right, but his reach was longer and for once he did exactly the right move at exactly the right moment.

Dropping to his left knee, he swept his left arm up, knocking her blade out of line, and then he thrust his KA-BAR into her middle with all his might. He felt the blade jam through thick down and clothing. For one terrible second, he thought that either she had on too many layers or maybe even a Kevlar vest. But then he felt her jump, heard her scream, felt the give of flesh and muscle. Dropping his right elbow, he twisted the knife, tearing both cloth and something much denser and wetter. Still screeching, she arched back, trying to get away. His knife jumped in his palm as the serrated edge snagged on cloth and, more likely, guts. So, two choices now, and only two: Go with her, press the advantage; get her on her back in the snow. Suffocate her, choke her to death, beat in her skull with the Glock, maybe even get his hands on one of her knives.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror