“Brad, I did exactly—”
“We’re going to hack you to death with machetes right here. And I know what you’re thinking. ‘That would start a war, Brad.’ That’s what you’re thinking, right? Well guess what again? We don’t give a f**k. We’re ready.”
Ethan unbuckled his belt, shoved his jeans and briefs down his legs, and said, “Knock yourselves out.”
Ethan pulled off his hoodie and handed it to one of the men with a machete. As he came out of his undershirt, Brad knelt down behind him and ran a gloved finger over the incision.
“It’s fresh,” he said. “You do this yourself?”
“Best keep it clean while it heals. Get your boots off.”
“Aren’t you gonna buy me dinner first?”
Tough crowd—not even a snigger.
Soon Ethan was standing naked.
The kerosene lantern didn’t shed much light as the three men crouched around the glow, inspecting Ethan’s clothes and turning them inside out—every sleeve, every pocket.
The walls of the ancient culvert were six feet apart and six feet high. Everywhere he looked, the concrete was crumbling to the point that it barely resembled concrete. This could’ve been the catacombs beneath some European city, although in all likelihood, it was simply one of the last remaining pieces of infrastructure from the original, twenty-first-century Wayward Pines.
The tunnel ran on a slight incline toward what Ethan figured was the east side of town. It made sense. That big wall of mountains probably drained copious amounts of water during thunderstorms. Massive snowmelt when summer roared in. Even now, a trickle of water meandered through the disintegrating concrete under Ethan’s feet.
Brad looked up, tossed his undershirt to him, said, “You can get dressed.”
As they walked up the tunnel, their footsteps splashing in the runoff, a palpable disappointment hung in the cold, dank air—these farm boys had wanted to kill him, had been aching to dismember him. He just hadn’t given them cause.
The ceiling was low enough to force Ethan to walk hunched over.
The tunnel lay in ruin.
Vines trailed down the walls.
Gnarled rebar showed through the concrete.
Lines of snowmelt branched down the walls and dripped from the ceiling.
The lantern only showed what lay twenty feet ahead, and the sound of tiny, scurrying footsteps seemed to be perpetually just beyond the light’s reach.
They passed through intersections with other tunnels.
By more ladders that ascended into darkness.
Ethan’s boots crushed all manner of things.
Debris carried down from the mountains in heavy rainstorms.
A rat’s skull.
He didn’t know how long they trudged through that firelit darkness.
It seemed to take both ages and no time at all.
The quality of the air changed.
It had been stagnant and marginally warmer than conditions in town.
Now they were walking into a steady breeze that brought the fresh chill of the world above.
The trickle running down the floor of the tunnel had expanded into a fast-moving stream, and instead of just the noise of their footfalls in the water, a new, more substantial sound had begun to build.
They walked out of the tunnel into a rocky streambed.
Ethan followed the men as they scrambled up the bank.
When they reached level ground and stopped for a breather, he finally identified the noise that was now so overbearing he would’ve had to shout to be heard.
He couldn’t see it in the oppressive, starless dark, but in the near distance, a waterfall was crashing into the ground. He could hear the main cascade pummeling rock with a constant, thudding splat, and his face was damp with mist.
The men were already moving on and he followed the glow of the lamp like a lifeline as they climbed into a dense pine wood.
There was no path that he could see.
The white noise of the falls slowly faded away until he heard nothing but the sound of his own respirations in the increasingly thin air.
He had been cold in the tunnel. Now he sweated.
And still they climbed.
Trees clustered so closely that only the faintest dusting of snow had found its way to the forest floor.
Ethan kept looking back down the hillside, straining to see the lights of Wayward Pines, but it was all as black as pitch.
Suddenly there was no place else for the woods to go.
The trees simply ended at a wall of rock.
The men didn’t stop, didn’t even pause, just walked on, right up the face of it.
Imming shouted back, “It’s steep but there’s a path. Just step exactly where we do, and be glad it’s dark.”
“Why?” Ethan asked.
The men just laughed.
The forest had been steep.
This was insane.
Imming hooked the lantern onto a leather strap and slung it over his shoulder so he could use all four appendages.
Because you needed them.
The mountain swept up well beyond the shit-yourself side of fifty degrees. A steel cable had been bolted into the rock and there was some semblance of a path running alongside it—small footholds and indentations in the rock that appeared to suggest a trail. Most were natural. Some looked man-made. It all looked suicidal.
Ethan clung to the rusted cable—it was life.
Nothing to see but the meager patch of lantern-lit rock in their immediate vicinity.
At the first switchback, the pitch steepened.
Ethan had no concept of how high they had climbed, but he had a terrifying sense that they were already above the forest.
The wind kicked up.
Without the protection of the trees below, the rock had collected a quarter inch of snow.
Now it was steep and slippery.
Even Imming and his men slowed their manic pace, everyone taking careful steps, making sure each foothold was sound.
Ethan’s hands grew stiff with cold.
At this height, the cable had been lacquered with snow, and each new step required Ethan to brush it off before proceeding.
Past the sixth switchback, the cliff abandoned all reason and went vertical.
Ethan was shivering now.
His legs had turned to jelly.
He couldn’t be sure, but it felt like the strain of climbing had ripped the stitches at his incision site, a trail of blood running down the back of his leg and into his boot.
He stopped to catch his breath and refortify his nerve.
When he looked up again, the lantern had vanished.