“Ohhh-kaaay,” she sang, thinking she’d never seen so much of a boy this way. She tucked the bags back into place as best she could. “Oh Alex, oh Alex, oh T-Tom . . .” Planting her boots, she fisted burlap and jerked Chris all the way to the ramp’s edge, so close that his hands dangled. Jumping down, bracing herself for the shush-shushshush of snow as the girl charged, she swung onto Bella. Then she hooked her left foot into the stirrup but dug her right heel into the ramp. Grumbling, the horse tried to sidestep away.

“No, no, no, come on.” Ellie hauled on the right rein to turn the mare’s head. Then she reached over, grabbed Chris’s arms above the elbows, and heaved. “Daddy, help,” she said, as Chris’s head cleared the saddle. “Oh, Daddy Daddy Daddy.” She kept pulling, using her boot to steady the horse as she yanked Chris onto the saddle, awkwardly walking her hands up Chris’s sides until he folded at his waist to drape over Bella’s withers and shoulders like a too-long blanket.

This would have to do. For a brief moment, she considered the Savage, still inside the death house, and wondered if she should close the slider. Hannah would be really pissed if this girl and any friends went inside to snack. Heck with that. I’m getting Chris out of here. Pulling in a big breath, she coaxed Bella into a turn. On the saddle, Chris’s body shifted but didn’t slide. The girl was exactly where she’d been, too: no closer, no further.

“Mina, get ready, girl.” Ellie’s fingers trembled as she untied but didn’t remove Bella’s scarf. Bunching the reins in her left hand, Ellie leaned over and across Chris, planting her elbows against his right side to bracket his body and hold him in place. Then, with a fast flick of her wrist, she snapped off the scarf.

“Mina!” At the same instant, she gave the horse, already starting to rear, a sharp giddyap kick. “Mina, off ! Release!”

Snarling, the dog surged down the ramp at the same instant that Bella came down with a spine-jarring crash, and bolted. Ellie’s breath jammed out of her throat, and she landed in her saddle with a thump. Chris’s body jounced and he started to slide. No no no! She dug her elbows in hard enough to feel the birdcage of his ribs. Hang on hang on hang on!

Ahead, she could see the girl’s face suddenly snap up, the glaze of hunger quickly shading to astonishment and then fear. The girl leapt aside in a swirl of dirty hair and lime-green scarf as Bella flashed past, and then they were speeding away, Bella kicking snow, Mina racing after, the trees slipping into a blur as they crashed down the trail.

Craning, Ellie snatched only a single glance back. The people-eater wasn’t running after them or charging onto the trail with her pals. Instead, she only stood there, and to Ellie, she didn’t look remotely dangerous. All Ellie saw was a forlorn, lonely, tattered scarecrow of a girl in a green scarf, and for an instant, Ellie wondered if, maybe, this girl was somehow different. But then Bella swerved right and the girl was gone.

Safe, we’re safe. That was when it hit Ellie, like the full heat of the sun suddenly blasting through clouds. I did it. Me and Mina and Bella, we really did it. And all by themselves, too—no Eli, no Jayden, no nobody but her and Mina and her horse—and she wanted to tell her daddy and Grandpa Jack all about it. She wanted to tell Alex and Tom. She wanted that so bad she could taste the story in her mouth, every word, each syllable.

I miss you guys. Her eyes stung, and a second later, she felt the dash of a tear. Or maybe it was only the blade of that icy wind. Whatever. For once, it was all right. This was a good cry.

Yeah, the closet-voice said, just as long as you don’t fall off.

“Oh, be quiet.” Her laugh was shaky and a little watery, too, as she hugged Chris even closer. “Hang on, Chris. It’ll be okay, I’ve got you.” And then Ellie began to chant, her heart leaping with every surge of Bella’s hooves: “I got you, Chris. I got you, I got you, I got you.”

34

She’s going to get me. Tom’s horror solidified into grim certainty as the girl tugged and his knife, smeary with the Chucky’s blood, appeared inch by gory inch. She’ll have that out in five seconds.

He had to get to the Bravo, the last weapon he had, the only one that might work. If she got close again, he didn’t think he could stop her. Rocking back onto his right foot, he turned and churned in an awkward stagger through snow and debris. His pack seemed impossibly far away, the Bravo another mile beyond that, receding as if by some tricky camerawork. He thought he was moving fast, but his vision was starting to go fuzzy with every step, his head beginning to balloon. He was still losing too much blood. His chest was smeary and wet. Cooling gore slicked his thighs. Keep moving, don’t pass out, don’t faint.

Ahead, the boulders that marked the foot of the boy Chucky’s tomb loomed, filling his sight. Staggering to the rocks, he nearly fell but braced himself with his right hand. Swaying, he could see his pack now and, beyond that, the Bravo. As he lurched past the open trench, his boot banged that rock-hatchet he’d used to smash that frozen Chucky to bits, and he stumbled. Now, wildly off-balance, he actually turned in a half circle, struggling to keep to his feet. But he didn’t, couldn’t, and knew he was going down.

And there she was, coming for him, blistering over the snow, hurling herself in a tackle. The blow was a sledgehammer to his sternum, a vicious blast he felt straight through to his spine. His breath jolted from his mouth. He was aware that he was falling straight back, poleaxed, his lungs on fire and the electric shock working into his brain. Out of the gray fog that passed for his vision, he saw the girl loom; felt the drip of her blood on his cheeks and the hard pressure of her knees as she tacked his shoulders. The ruin he’d made of that dead Chucky was to his left, and he saw her head flick that way as the Eagle glinted in the setting sun.

For a crazy second, he wanted to scream, Pick up the Eagle, pick it up, pick it up, take a shot, take it! It was a suicidal thought, it was insane, but she was on top of him, and he was desperate, out of options. The Eagle shouldn’t work; it ought to come apart in her hands. Not kill her—that only happened in movies, too—but if she did try it and the weapon gave out in a burst of shrapnel and bullets, that might buy him just a little more time. Because he had nothing else: no air, no weapons, very little strength, no options.

Unfortunately, a gun either wasn’t her style or the end for him that she had in mind. Snarling, she jammed her left hand under his chin. His neck muscles instinctively tightened, fighting the relentless pressure. He tried bucking her off, but despite the rocks, the deep snow gave him no leverage. He’d sunk down so far that his hips and legs were above him. He was fighting for his life from the equivalent of a bathtub. Hoist someone by his ankles, and he has no way of keeping his head above water. Hold him long enough, he drowns. So she had a choice: push him far down into the snow and wait for him to suffocate, or take out his throat. He couldn’t fight her forever, and she was riding him, her center of gravity directly over his chest, and if he let go . . .


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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