PART FIVE: MONSTER
Four miles on, she was on foot, having dismounted and then slapped the Appaloosa’s rump to send it on its way back. The horse hadn’t seemed to need much convincing and cantered away toward Rule. The correct trail was marked with a blood-red kerchief, and was so narrow and twisting that she thought it had once been a deer path, something a hunter might follow to find game. In a way, it was like the footpath that had led her and Ellie, in what seemed like another century, to the river and then to those dogs and poor crazy Jim—and, finally, to Tom. Which made her wonder if she was doomed to spend the rest of her life blundering down one path after another, searching for God knows what.
The snow was deep and heavy and sucked at her boots. Her thighs were starting to burn, and her head ached. Her mouth hurt from where she’d bitten her tongue. When she swallowed, she tasted old blood, and her body was sore and bruised and shaken from her mad, wild dash through the woods, like she’d been stuck in a blender while Jess hit “frappe.”
A test. This was all a test for Chris. She was free, but Chris couldn’t be, not until he broke the rules of Rule … whatever they were. Frankly, she thought that all of Jess’s spouting was about as nutty as Yeager’s.
Her eyes snagged on something blue protruding on a stick from the snow about ten feet ahead, to the right of the trail at the base of a spindly pine. The color was startling and very clear, like a daub of turquoise paint on a perfectly white canvas. At first, she thought it was an old nylon trail blaze, the kind hiking clubs tied around tree branches.
But when she got closer, she saw that this something was the remains of a sleeve.
And the stick was a bone.
She went absolutely still. Her mind blanked. She froze in mid-step, and for a second, she could only stare, waiting for the white grip of stunned horror squeezing her brain to let go.
She thought the bone was an ulna, not that it really mattered. The small bones of the hand and fingers were gone, so either the rest of the body was buried under the snow, or the arm had been dragged here by whatever scavenger had claimed it before stripping off the meat.
Okay, this is like the road. It’s not like you haven’t seen a body before. There are scavengers. You’re outside of Rule’s protection now, so of course you’re going to find bodies. People dropped dead in their tracks, remember?
She took a cautious sniff, but smelled nothing more than the forest. No wolves, no raccoons. The bone wasn’t that old and it was not as white as the snow, but it wasn’t fresh either.
It’s okay. Thumbing the rifle’s carry strap, she checked the safety, and then she stripped off her glove and snaked her right hand to her back, her fingers slipping around the wooden dowel of the hay hook where it dangled from a belt loop. She had the rifle, the hay hook, a knife. She’d be fi—
She wasn’t sure what she sensed first: the long furl of something obscenely pink hanging from an oak to her left, or the rot.
The smell made the tiny hairs on her forearms stand on end. She knew the stink was dead meat but not them, not the Changed. But there were bodies here—a lot of them—and she knew that things would not be fine.
The thing dangling from the tree was a body, but it was not human. The fur was completely gone, peeled from the flesh like a glove. The animal’s muscles were intact, not so much as a scrap missing, which was very strange, considering all that meat. And come to think of it—she listened over the thrum of her heart—no birds here. No crows. Nothing.
The thing hung from a noose like some weird imitation of a scarecrow. She recognized what it was from the shape of its head and the curve of its teeth.
There were more wolf bodies now, on either side of the trail, marking the way like flags down the avenue of a parade. In less than an eighth of a mile, she came to a small clearing, a circle where the snow was tamped down like a dinner plate. Which was, when she stopped to think of it, pretty apt.
Actually, if you didn’t know about the bones, you’d have thought that the clothes had all gotten dumped out of several, very large laundry bags. There was a jumble of mismatched shoes and tightly laced boots, several with splintered leg bones poking from stockinged feet that had rotted—that she could smell, very easily, even in the cold—as if clawing away the laces had been just too much trouble. The clearing was a riot of color and deflated sacks of clothing filled with bones; she even spotted the black tarantula of a toupee and a silver wig of tight, permed curls. A golden puddle of chain nestled in a swath of shimmery black fabric.
Because you can’t eat the jewelry, she thought, a little crazily. The ruby-red frames of a pair of sunglasses stared up from the snow, the right lens broken into a starburst. You can’t eat glasses.
This wasn’t just a clearing.
It was a feeding ground.
And maybe one of several, because now her numbed brain registered more color in the trees to her left, and then farther on to her right again. Each area was marked by more wolf carcasses as well.
Her gaze crawled from the clearing back to the trail. Ahead, she saw a neat pyramid, a crude trailmarker, maybe—the kind normally made of stones.
Only these were not stones.
They were heads.
Some were leathery and very old, the eyes and noses and ears gone, and the tongues. Others were fresher, with nerves worming from their sockets and half-eaten lips clotted with frozen gore.
A few weren’t old at all—were nearly fresh, with blue tongues and noses only slightly gnawed and eyelids that dropped sleepily. But no maggots, no flies—it was too cold; hadn’t she just learned that?
She counted, her gaze slowly ticking from one ruined face to the next. The pyramid was twelve heads long, seven deep at the base, and stood maybe four feet hi—
Her breath died in her chest. She went completely and utterly still.
She couldn’t tear her eyes away.
No, please, it can’t be him.
It took all her will to blink, and then blink again—as if her mind was a camera and she could somehow unsnap that picture so the image she’d just captured would be erased.
But no. Nothing changed.
Harlan was there: second row down, three heads from the left. She could never forget that face, or those teeth.
Her stomach seized. A flood of incredibly vile, intensely bitter liquid rushed from her mouth to spatter and steam in the snow. Her knees unhinged, and then she was sagging, the rifle sinking into the snow as the vomit roared from her mouth. She threw up until her stomach was empty, and then she hung there, groveling in ruined snow, gasping, her nose full of the stink of her own vomit—
And then a fresh wave rolled over her, a stench of something sick and dead that had sweltered and decayed beneath a hot summer sun.
A bloom of black horror squeezed her lungs and choked off her breath, and she finally understood why Jess had talked about Isaac—and sacrifice.
Maybe they had been watching. Maybe they had even enjoyed what they saw. But more likely, they came here out of habit, hunters following the likely path of good game—knowing where to find their next meal.
There were five: three boys, two girls. They wore parkas and boots and gloves. One boy and one girl wore skins, the animal fur pulled down so their eyes peered from a wolf’s face.
And they all had weapons. One girl and two of the boys, including Wolf Boy, had rifles. The third boy, maybe a middle-schooler once, had a Beretta, which would be much easier for a young boy with small hands.
The only one without a gun was Wolf Girl, who held a corn knife instead. The blade—very long and very sharp—was stained with rust spiders of dried blood.
And there was one more thing, one last detail that made these kids so very different.
These Changed weren’t clean, but they weren’t filthy either.
They looked, in fact, very well fed.
The truth hit her like a hammer.
Rule wasn’t fighting them.
Rule was feeding them.
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