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Stephen stuffed the flashlight into his pocket and crept down the mountainside in darkness. His feet brushed ferns, which nodded, swaying closed in their ranks behind him.
He wormed into shadows. He wore the night like a womb. It cradled him. Protected him. The stab of Craig's light could not touch him. And the distance grew.
He scanned the slope in the oily light. Too far to see bottom.
Could they be down there? Any of them? The cottage was there. Places they were warned not to go.
Stephen turned back. A glow whisked across the treetops.
The hunters were searching. He heard them now. Taunting. Threatening. Making lunatic noises in the hope someone would laugh.
Stephen closed his eyes and visualized the echoes in the valley. Like colors and patterns, they pulsed on the edge of sight. As he eased to the ground, his mind lifted above the noise. He tuned himself to the night sounds.
As minutes wore on, the voices faded. A shrew twittered in the leaves by his feet. He fluttered on the frontiers of sleep.
Crackling into his consciousness, a new sound emerged. The sound of someone walking. Sixty or seventy yards out, he guessed, and farther down.
A smart one, Stephen thought. The guy was going to sneak behind the hunters. A great tactic. They wouldn't soon check a place they already searched.
Stephen bent forward, but held. He didn't pounce for the easy kill. He wanted to turn the tables, to use the maneuver against him. The guy believed the threat was ahead, not sneaking up from behind.
Stephen shadowed the steps. Keeping distance. Keeping discipline. When the pace quickened, he did not rush. Each footfall, he tested. He dodged fallen twigs and rocks. He dodged the briars without snagging a thorn.
The footsteps stopped.
He counted the seconds and considered. Then, he decided to take him.
Slithering through the undergrowth, his crouched body flowed, leaving no imprint on the ground.
He crested a rise to find the edge of a great bowl in the landscape and frowned.
That's why the sounds snuffed out. The sunken ground smothered them.
But could the guy have gone up the other side without being heard? Doubtful. More likely he was down there. Heart squeezing. Panting at the possibility of being pursued.
Stephen imagined wide eyes blinking from the darkest hole. There. To the left. That would be the place. The blackest place.
Beneath the surface, Stephen smelled moisture and mold. The air tasted too thick to breathe.
Grinning, he raised his arm and aimed. He thumbed the switch, and a circle of light shot downward.
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