But that was when it dawned on her: the kid with the dreads wasn’t coming for her. Wrong angle. Her eyes swept up again—and then she saw where he was going.

Wolf was maybe fifty feet away, close to where they’d popped out of the mine, and to her right. He was still flat on his back—but not moving. God, was he unconscious? He’d lost a lot of blood. Maybe it wasn’t the fall. Maybe he’d fainted. She almost shouted to him but snatched that back before it could spring off her tongue. Doesn’t matter. Let old Bob Marley there worry. And, grimly: At least this way, I don’t have to decide whether to shoot him.

But she couldn’t set her feet. The earth was heaving, trying to shake her off its skin. Panting, she pulled her left knee to her stomach, got her hands planted, pushed up. The skis had toppled to the snow, and the rifle—where was it? Her gaze snagged on a gray-green glint of moonlight, just beyond a ski pole, reflected from the rifle’s scope. Yes. On hands and knees, she spidered for the weapon, fighting the quaking earth, working her way around the skis. Stretching for the rifle, she felt her fingertips brush the cold black steel of the barrel . . .

From somewhere behind her came a loud, lowing moan.

Her first thought: Wolf ? No, this wasn’t a natural sound at all. It was too deep, as if something that lived only in the center of the earth were coming awake. The sound was big.

That was the ground. That was rock, breaking open. She was afraid to look back. The rifle was right in front of her. Another inch, she’d have it and make a run for it, just keep going: traverse the hill, get out of the fall line and out of danger, but get away.

But Wolf ’s unconscious. The whole rise is collapsing.

And so what? It was her here-and-now brain, a voice firmly planted in a world where there were blacks and whites, rights and wrongs. Are you insane? Forget him. He’s a monster, for God’s sake. Grab the rifle and get out, get out now!

“Oh, shut up,” she said. As far as she was concerned, the world to which that voice belonged had vanished after the Zap. Nothing was black-and-white anymore. So she risked a look back—and felt a scream gather in her throat.

Whatever it had been, the opening through which they’d popped only minutes before wasn’t simply a hole anymore. The gap was widening by the second as the guts of the rise—and the entire mine—fell away. What lay behind her was a sore, a black and insidious blight. It was the mouth of a monster eating the earth, chewing its way to Wolf.

“Wake up! Wolf !” Twisting back toward the rifle, her hand shot out—and grabbed a ski instead. Turning, she lunged back toward the crater. “Wolf, wake up, wake up!”

She swam for him, eeling over the snow, panic giving her strength as she fought the trembling earth. Beyond Wolf, maybe thirty feet away, the hill was dissolving, the snow buckling and folding. The air was misty with pulverized rock and ice that pecked her cheeks.

Meanwhile, that voice, the one that lived in the black-and-white world, was babbling: What are you doing, are you crazy, are you nuts? Let his guys worry about him. Get off the rise, grab the gun, get off, get off, get off !

“Wolf !” This time, she thought she saw his head move. She was ten feet away now, no more. Far enough. Still on her stomach, she jammed the toes of her boots into the snow and thrust the ski toward him, stretching as far as she could. If she could get Wolf up, get him to grab the ski, the principle ought to be the same as pulling someone off thin ice. All she had to do was back up, pull him away from the hole, give him a fighting chance.

And then I’m done; we’re even. “Wolf, come on!” she shouted over the clatter of rock and the boom of the earth. “Get up, wake up!”

What she got was a rumble—not in front of her but behind, where she’d been. What? She shot a quick glance over her shoulder just in time to see the snow beneath the rifle shudder. In the next instant, the weapon skated away, riding the swell before sailing over the lip of the rise to disappear. If she’d been there, she’d have gone with it. She still might anyway.

She felt the ski jerk and looked back. Wolf was awake, on his belly, and clinging to the ski. So strange, but she didn’t know how she truly felt about the fact that she was trying to save his life—only that this was what she had to do. It was illogical, but it was also right. “Come on, Wolf, damn it! Move your ass!”

He began crabbing away from the hole, scuttling toward her, using the ski as a guide and an anchor as she slithered back five feet, then ten. Just a few more feet, enough to give you a chance. The entire rise was quaking now; she felt the snow slipping and sliding in front of her, the earth bucking against her stomach. Then I let go, and I’m done, I’m—

In the next instant, the skin of the earth rose in an enormous inhale. She felt it happen and thought, Oh shit. Against all reason, she looked down the length of the ski, toward Wolf, this boy with Chris’s face who had brought her to one hell, saved her from another. Their gazes locked, and she saw her terror mirrored in his eyes, reflected in his blood-caked face. “Wolf—” she began.

The earth suddenly collapsed. The giant exhaled, and she hurtled down. The force, so hard and fast, was a fist that punched a gasping scream from her chest. The snow just broke apart, shattering into shards like thick, white glass. A second later, she felt herself beginning to slide sideways as the icy slab on which she sprawled followed the lie of the land.

She began to move and pick up speed, the layer of snow to which she clung shearing away. She lost the ski and then she was whirling, the slab spinning like a top. A scream ripped from her mouth as the slab hurtled for the edge of the rise. The snowfield was now only a dim blur; behind, above, the hill was breaking up. She had no idea where the others were, what had happened to Wolf; she just had time to think, No!

The side of the rise fell away with a thunderous roar, in a shuddering avalanche of snow and ice and rock.

And she went with it.

10

“That’s twice.” It was Kincaid from his place along a far wall between two mumbly denture-suckers who served as the prison house guards. The old doctor turned his seamed face first left and then right, searching the dark corners of the old stable, lifting his chin like a bloodhound straining to catch a scent. “I felt it,” he said, looking back at the two old guards. “What about you?”

Neither answered. Now, if Greg or Pru or Aidan and his minions hadn’t been around, they might have said something. But maybe not. Having decided that a doctor was too valuable to Ban or execute, the Council had made Kincaid into a ghost, an untouchable to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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