A sliver of light escaped into the alley.
Ethan stepped down into a puddle and closed the door.
It rained harder than before.
For thirty seconds, he didn’t move, waiting for his eyes to readjust to the darkness.
Then, pulling the hood over his head, he moved south, up the middle of the alley.
In the distance, rain poured through the spherical illumination of a streetlamp, but otherwise, the darkness between the buildings was so complete Ethan couldn’t see his feet beneath him.
The crowd exploded with its loudest roar yet.
He thought of Beverly, had to stop himself from imagining what was happening to her, his grip tightening around the machete, molars grinding together.
Footsteps up ahead brought Ethan to a sudden halt.
He stood thirty feet back from where the alley intersected the next street, confident of his invisibility in the shadows.
A man in a dark slicker walked into view, heading west from Main.
He stopped under the streetlamp and stared into the alley.
He held a hatchet and a flashlight.
Ethan could hear the rain pattering on his jacket.
The man crossed the street and came into the alley.
Turned his flashlight on, shined the light at Ethan.
Ethan could see his own breath steaming in the cold.
“It’s me,” Ethan said, starting toward him. “Have you seen him?”
The light was still in Ethan’s face, and he hoped the man could see him smiling, hoped he grasped the madness that was coming his way.
The man’s eyes went wide as Ethan drew close enough for him to see bruises and blood streaks and stitches and the general ruin of his face, but his reaction—cocking the hatchet back for a strike—came a half second late.
Ethan swung the blade parallel to the ground with a single-handed grip that generated enough force to split him open across the middle.
The man’s legs buckled, his knees hit the ground, and Ethan finished him with three devastating slashes.
He began to run, buzzing with the rush of the kill like he’d done a hit of speed.
Ethan streaked out of the alley and across Seventh.
Right—a half dozen points of light two blocks down moving up the street toward the center of town.
Left—fifty or more people flooding around the corner from Main, flashlights winking on as they encountered the darkness of the side street.
Ethan accelerated, blasting into the next alley, no lights ahead, but over his own panting, he could hear multiple footsteps falling in behind his.
He glanced back—a wall of light thundering down the alley.
Up ahead, Eighth Street fast approaching.
He needed a course change, was already calculating the possibilities, but he couldn’t pull the trigger until he saw what lay ahead.
Ethan exploded onto Eighth.
Right—a single light two blocks away.
Ethan veered right, moving at a dead run as he angled across the street.
Leaped over the curb and hit the opposite sidewalk, nearly tripping over a raised lip of concrete, but he somehow managed to stay afoot.
Twenty yards carried him to the next block west of Main, and he looked back two seconds before he made the turn, saw the first group of lights emerging out of the alley.
If he was lucky, they hadn’t seen him.
He ripped around the corner.
Kept to the sidewalk, hauling ass under the pitch-black shade of the pines.
The next street stood empty as well, and a quick glance over his shoulder confirmed only a handful of pursuing lights, still a good twenty seconds back if he had to guess.
Ethan dropped another block west and then barreled south.
The street terminated.
He’d come to the edge of town.
Stopped in the middle of the road, bent over with his hands on his knees, gasping for air.
People were coming, both behind him and now from the west.
Figured he could run two blocks uphill back to Main, but that seemed unwise.
Get moving. You’re squandering your cushion of distance.
Straight on, a Victorian mansion backed up against the surrounding forest.
His legs burned as he pushed on, crossing the street, bolting alongside the house.
Three strides before he reached the pines, the voice of a child shouted, “He’s going into the woods!”
Ethan looked back.
Twenty or thirty people swung around the corner of the mansion, flashlights blazing, running toward him as one, and for a moment, Ethan wondered why their proportions seemed all wrong.
Legs too short, heads too big, lights held much closer to the ground.
It’s because they’re all children.
He rushed into the trees, gulping air perfumed with the bittersweet fragrance of wet pine.
It had been hard enough to see in town, but inside the forest, it was impossible.
He had to flick on the flashlight, let its wobbly beam steer him between trees, over rotten logs, saplings and low-hanging branches whipping at his face.
The children entered the wood on his heels, footsteps crushing wet leaves, snapping fallen branches. He had a vague idea of where the river might be, thinking if he kept moving right, he couldn’t miss it, but already he felt disoriented, his sense of direction unraveling like a poorly tied knot.
A girl screamed, “I see him!”
Ethan glanced back, just a quick turn of the head, but his timing couldn’t have been worse—he crossed through a patch of deadfall, his feet entangling in a mass of twisted branches and roots that slammed him to the ground, stripping the flashlight and machete from his hands.
Footsteps all around him.
Approaching from every side.
Ethan struggling to pick himself up, but a vine had ensnared his right ankle, and it took him five seconds to rip free.
The flashlight had gone dark when he’d fallen, and he couldn’t see it or the machete or anything. He ran his hands across the ground, desperate to find them, but all he grasped were roots and vines.
He clambered to his feet, blindly fighting his way through the deadfall as the lights and the voices closed in.
Without a flashlight, he was hamstrung.
Reduced to jogging with hands outstretched—his only defense against plowing into a tree.
Frantic beams of light crisscrossed in front of him, giving fleeting glimpses of the terrain ahead—a pine forest choking to death on underbrush, long overdue for a cleansing fire.