Home > Ashes (Ashes Trilogy #1)(7)

Ashes (Ashes Trilogy #1)(7)
Author: Ilsa J. Bick

Unless this was it.

Unless this was her end, and she was living it.


The dog groaned.

“Look.” Ellie’s voice was stuffy and clogged. A smear of bloody snot glistened above her upper lip. “By your tent.”

No, no, go away, just leave me alone. A needle of fear pierced her heart. If she didn’t pay attention, would everything—the smells and memories—slip away? All she wanted was to hunker down alone somewhere quiet, focus on what was happening to her.

“What?” she said, but now she spotted the dog struggling to its feet and had to suppress a groan. The animal looked bad, dazed. Blood dribbled like thick syrup from a gash on its scalp. Panting, the dog tottered toward Jack’s body, wading through a scatter of dead birds, inking the rock with bloody paw prints. Wary, Alex tensed as Mina began to sniff Jack’s body. She had no experience with dogs. Didn’t some refuse to leave once their owners were dead? God, what would she do if Mina—

The dog began to bark, furiously and very loudly. Startled, Alex jumped.

“Shut up, you dumb dog!” Ellie clapped her gory hands over her ears. “Shut up, shut up!”

“Shh, shh, Mina, shh,” Alex said. The barks were unbearable, like gunshots. She started forward, with no clear idea of what she meant to do; she just wanted the dog to be quiet. She reached for the animal. “Mina, hey.”

With a snarl, the dog whipped its head around, teeth bared. Alex snatched her hand back with a small cry, and then, in the very next second, she caught the odor of dank fur—and something else, feral and thick and wild.

What was that? Alex felt the tiny hairs bristle along the nape of her neck. The smell was overpowering, rolling off the animal in waves. Alex was dead certain she’d never smelled anything like that before in her life.

“Okay,” Alex said, her pulse thumping in her neck. “Okay, girl, it’s okay.” Without looking around, she eased back, felt the soft give, and then heard the crunch-crackle-pop as her boot flattened a bird. An instant later, the reek from the animal’s smashed guts coiled into her nostrils, and a little whimper of disgust tried to push itself between her teeth.

Leave the dog; let Ellie deal with it. Despite the chill, sweat oozed down her neck, and her mouth filled with a metallic tang that cut through the taste of curdled vomit. She reeked of warm salt and cold fear. Just get your gear, get the kid, and get off this mountain while you still can.

No matter what she said or how loudly she said it, Ellie wouldn’t budge. Frustrated, her patience fraying, Alex finally grabbed the girl by the wrists. “Ellie, listen to me. We’ve got to leave.”

“No.” The girl jerked free and slapped her hands to her ears again. The kid was insanely strong. “I’m not going anywhere with you!”

“You can’t stay here.”

“Yes, I can. Don’t you tell me what to do.”

“Ellie, I’m sorry about your grandpa, but he’s dead and we have to get out of here. We have to tell someone what’s happened.” An inspiration: “Your grandpa would want you to be safe.”

“I’m not leaving.”

Did this kid do anything she was asked? Alex wanted to shake the girl until her teeth rattled. “I can’t leave you here.”

“Why not? I can take care of myself. I know how to camp.”

While she doubted that, Alex decided to try something she’d read about in psychology. “Look, I’ll need your help on the trail. It’ll be a long, hard hike, and I need someone to come with me.”

The girl cracked one eye in a narrow squint. “Where?”

“Hang on, I’ll show you.” Digging through her pack, she riffled the contents until she found the map she wanted. “You ever seen a topographic map?”

A sparrow of curiosity flitted over the girl’s face. “What’s that?”

“It’s a really detailed map. A good topo shows just about everything—streams, rivers, old quarries, railroad tracks, how high the mountains are, how steep. Red lines are roads. Solid green means forest and …” She ran her finger over the map until she found a black, blocky silhouette of a house with a flag at its peak. “This is what we want.”

“What is it?”

“That’s the ranger station. They’ll know what to do. They can radio for help.”

Ellie considered. “It looks far away and kind of high up.”

The station was pretty far—a good twenty-five miles east—and a lot higher, adjacent to a fire lookout tower situated atop steep bluffs hemming a small lima bean of a lake. But going there was a better plan than backtracking four days. If they pushed their pace, they might make the station in a day and a half, maybe sooner. “It’s nothing you can’t handle.”

Face darkening into a by-now very familiar scowl, Ellie said, “Well, it looks hard. Grandpa and I only did six miles a day.”

Whoa. Alex felt a prick of disquiet. Six miles a day? What did they do, crawl? At that speed, she and Ellie would have much bigger problems, like running out of food. Okay, don’t panic yet; Jack must have supplies. Aloud, she said, “I’ll bet you can do way more. You look pretty strong.”

Ellie threw her a look that practically screamed she knew bullshit when she heard it. Her eyes flicked over the map, and then she jabbed at a tiny symbol in the far left corner:

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Maybe an old mine southwest of here. Or a cave.”

“There are mines? There are caves?”

“Well, sure. This is old mining country, and there are abandoned shafts and caves, but—”

“Are there bears?”

“In the caves? Not yet. They won’t den until it gets really cold, but black bears won’t bother us so long as we’re careful. So don’t worry about—”

“What about wolves?”

Okay, they were on a roll. “Yeah, they’re around. You can hear them at night, right? So that’s another reason to get away from here. All these dead birds’ll attract animals—coyotes, raccoons, wolves, and …” Too late, she read Ellie’s stricken face and realized what she’d said.

“You’re going to let the wolves get Grandpa?”

“No, no, I meant—”

“They’ll eat him!” Tears splashed Ellie’s cheeks. “They’ll get him!”


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