“You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Actually, I know exactly what I’m doing.
With no lights striking the rock anywhere in his general vicinity, Ethan struggled back onto his feet, stumbling south beside the cliff.
“If you come back, we won’t hurt you.”
Yeah. Be right over.
“You have my word on that.”
Ethan wished he had a bullhorn of his own.
Other voices were shouting his name across the river.
“You don’t understand what you’re doing!”
Pope continued to call out to him as well, but Ethan pushed on into pitch-black rain.
The farther he moved away from the crowd, the more impossible it became to see.
Ethan limping now in slow, shuffling steps, his only directional anchor the noise of the river on his left.
Behind—fading voices, shrinking points of light.
His body had cranked out the last available adrenaline, and he could feel a world-class crash coming on.
Total system shutdown.
But he couldn’t stop. Not yet.
The urge to curl up in the sand beside the river and sleep was almost overpowering, but those people might decide to cross.
They had lights and weapons and numbers.
He had nothing.
Too great a risk.
And so, with what little gas he had remaining in his reserve tank, he went on.
Ethan had no way of knowing how long he’d been walking alone in darkness.
His pace was such that he couldn’t have covered more than a mile. If nothing else, he felt certain of this. Every few minutes, he made himself stop and glance downstream, searching for oncoming lights, listening for footsteps crackling over rocks.
But each time he looked back, it was always the same—complete darkness—and if someone was following him, the roar of the river effectively masked all other sounds.
* * *
The rain slowed to a drizzle and then an intermittent sprinkle and then it stopped altogether.
Ethan still trudged along, traveling solely by feel, his hands grasping invisible boulders, his feet taking the smallest possible steps so that when they inevitably collided with an impediment, Ethan’s forward momentum didn’t throw him to the ground.
* * *
And then he could see.
One moment, darkness.
The next—a bulging, gibbous moon, its light shining down through a break in the clouds, the surfaces of every wet rock gleaming like they had been lacquered.
Ethan sat down on a flat-topped boulder, his legs trembling, at the end of endurance.
The width of the river had narrowed by almost half, but the current was rougher, blasting down through a rock garden in a furious spray of whitewater.
Great pines—seventy or eighty feet tall—towered over the riverbank on the other side.
He suddenly realized how thirsty he was.
Falling to his knees, he crawled to the edge of the river and dipped his face into a small pool.
The water tasted deliciously pure and sweet, but bitterly cold.
Between sips, he glanced downstream.
Aside from the madness of the water, nothing moved on either shore.
Ethan wanted to sleep, could’ve lain here on the rocks and drifted off in seconds, but he knew that would be foolish.
Must find shelter before I lose the light of the moon.
Before I lose the ability to walk.
Already, clouds had begun to roll back in front of the moon.
He forced himself to stand.
A river crossing here, particularly in his weakened state, would be fatal. He’d have to seek out shelter on this side of the river, but that was going to be a challenge. On the other side, an old pine forest swept up a mountainside for several thousand feet into roiling clouds. In such a forest, he felt confident he’d have been able to find someplace to hole up for the night, even if nothing more than covering himself under a latticework of downed limbs. You lay enough of them on top of you and they’d provide a shelter from the rain, maybe even trap enough body heat to create an oasis of warmth.
But that wasn’t going to happen.
On Ethan’s side of the river, the bank climbed steeply for forty feet to the base of that same red-rock cliff that encircled Wayward Pines.
And above that—ledges upon ledges ascending into darkness.
He was in no condition for a climb.
Ethan staggered on.
Water sloshing in his stomach.
He could feel his feet—swollen and throbbing in his boots. Knew he should’ve stopped to empty the water out of them an hour ago, but he’d been concerned that if he sat down, he wouldn’t have the strength to relace them and continue on.
The going was getting more difficult on this side, with little in the way of level ground, all of it rocky and steeply sloping.
He passed into a grove of soaring pines.
The rocky ground gave way to soft, moist earth covered in a cushion of dead pine needles, Ethan thinking, Worse comes to worse, I’ll sleep here. Wasn’t ideal—too close to the river, no branches to cover himself with, and anyone tracking him couldn’t help but find him. But at least he’d have some protection under the canopies of these ancient pines.
He took one last look around, having already decided that if he saw nothing of interest, this would be home for the night.
Ethan glanced up the slope that led to the base of the cliff.
He thought he saw a patch of blackness up there.
Didn’t think, didn’t debate, just climbed.
Scrambling on all fours up through the pines and then out of them onto a field of shattered rock.
Steeper and steeper.
He was panting again, sweat pouring down his face, his eyes stinging with it.
Near the cliff, the rock became looser and finer, his feet sliding with every step like he was climbing a sand dune.
He reached the cliff.
The darkness setting back in, all but a cuticle of the moon shrouded in clouds, and the air growing heavy with the smell of returning rain.
There it was—that patch of black he’d spotted from the river was a recess in the cliff. It extended back for five or six feet, the interior smooth and dry, protected from the elements.
Ethan climbed up onto the ledge and crawled inside.
The back wall had a natural slope, and he leaned against it, the darkening world framed by the walls of the little alcove. He couldn’t see the river from his vantage point, the sound of it vastly diminished to something like a loud whisper.
As the moonlight died, the pine forest on the other side of the river dimmed steadily away, leaving Ethan once more in absolute darkness.