Matheus Taylor didn’t ask to be murdered. Quin didn’t care. A seventeen-hundred old Roman, Quintus Livius Saturnius had a different view of morality than most people. Killing Matheus and hijacking his undead existence seemed perfectly acceptable to him.
Now, Matheus spends his nights running for his life, questioning his sexual orientation, and defying a mysterious new threat to the vampires within his city. Not that he set out to do any defying; he just wanted to be left alone. Unfortunately, that was never going to happen.
Another hour passed before more hunters found them. Five this time, pinning them against a rock ledge. Quin killed two, then grabbed Matheus and sprinted in the resulting confusion. They half-ran, half-stumbled downhill as the ledge grew higher beside them and crossbow bolts showered down around them. Quin veered into a patch of thorny bushes; the hunters didn’t follow. Matheus didn’t blame them, as tiny, stinging cuts covered his legs by the time they emerged. He and Quin doubled around, approaching the ledge from the rear, then climbing upward. Three hours passed before Quin declared they had lost the hunters.
“There are going to be two more nights like this?” Matheus asked, clinging to a birch tree.
“If we’re lucky,” Quin replied. He sank down on the ground and pulled up the cuff of his pants. The bolt embedded in his calf had broken off, leaving a jagged bit of wood sticking out.
Matheus thought the hunters must have made their own bolts. Most arrows were made of aluminum and plastic, these days.
Quin gripped the wood and pulled, letting out a hiss of pain as the blades tore through his flesh. The hunters used broadhead points, with four blades instead of the more standard three. Matheus didn’t know why, unless they also liked to hunt game while they were out here. Broadheads helped an animal bleed out faster; not an issue with the undead.
“Why the hell are you doing this?” Matheus asked.
“I’m not going to run around with an arrow in my leg.”
“You know that isn’t what I meant.”
“I’m not a mind reader, sunshine,” Quin tore a strip of cloth off his shirt. He tied it around the wound, then flexed his leg.
“Why did you agree to the hunt? If I’m stuck here, I think I deserve to know.”
“I told you. I need something from them.”
Quin tilted his head, looking up through the layers of leaves.
“Fucking hell, am I going to have drag everything out of you?” Matheus asked.
“You should have stayed home where you belong,” Quin said.
“So I’m a fucking housewife now? I should just stay home and clean the silver? Have cocktails ready at five and dinner on the table by six?”
“You aren’t making any sense.”
“I am making perfect sense. You’re the one who—”
Quin clamped his hand over Matheus’ mouth. He turned, lining up their eyes, his lips barely moving as he spoke.
“You,” he said. “Are being loud.”
Something crashed in the woods to Matheus’ left. His gaze flicked away, searching through the trees. Every shadow hid a hunter, every noise held a crossbow being cocked. He looked back at Quin, and nodded. In a choice between yelling at Quin, and not being killed by the hunters, Matheus chose not being killed every time. He could yell at Quin later, in the comfort and security of the city. The minutes drifted by, broken only by the sounds of the forest around them.
“How do they keep finding us?” Matheus asked. One bit of woods looked like every other bit of woods. He’d seen his father track a wounded deer through the forest. Magic to a child, and magic to an adult, as well. Matheus preferred city life. Nature contained far too many things that wanted to eat him, poison him, or crawl on him for Matheus ever to be comfortable.
“This is probably their regular hunting ground. They know the area. We don’t. Besides, this isn’t exactly their first time. Hunts like this have been going on for centuries, carried over from the old country. A family tradition. Fathers train their sons, who train their sons, and so on.”
“Very patriarchal,” said Matheus dryly.
“There are female hunters,” Quin said. “They’re rare. I like to think women have more sense than that.”
“It’s the twenty-first century, Quin. Women are allowed to be as aggressive and bloodthirsty as any man.”
“Allowed, yes. Doesn’t mean they are.”
Matheus considered the pros and cons of debating gender roles in the middle of a forest while hiding from Deliverance extras, then realized he didn’t care. He slid slowly down his tree, some bark peeling off with him. In the distance, something let out a high, staggered yelp. Matheus edged closer to Quin.
“I’m tired,” he said, fiddling with a piece of birch bark. He separated the thick outer layer and tossed it aside, leaving only the wispy inner part. The wafer-thin bark clung to his fingers as he shredded it into long strips, letting the wind catch each one and carry it away.
“I know,” said Quin. “Rest a while.”
“Okay.” Matheus released the last of the bark, then wiped his hands over his pants. That only left him with dirt-streaked palms. He sighed, dropping them to his sides. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head on Quin’s shoulder. As a pillow, he’d had better; Quin took the definition of lean to a whole new level. But Quin’s shoulder had the advantage of not being covered in tiny bugs. The only things Matheus hated more than bugs were tiny bugs. Sneaky bastards. Besides, Quin owed Matheus, and part of paying him back required Quin’s services as a headrest.
Quin smelled like old blood, dirt, and pine needles. His shirt stuck to Matheus’ cheek. Matheus didn’t smell much better, though, so he stayed where he was, listening to the strange animal in the distance and trying not to think about being eaten. Would he remain conscious? Would his bits grow back, or would he have to wait for them to, erm, evacuate the animal? Matheus wished for a pamphlet or guidebook or something. Maybe he should write out a list of questions for Quin to answer. Assuming they survived this unholy hunting expedition. The animal yipped again, answered by another call a moment later. Matheus jumped across the rails to another train of thought, as the first one sped toward Future Therapy Canyon.
“How old are you?”
“I don’t know exactly.” Quin shrugged a shoulder. “Around seventeen hundred years. Unless you’re asking how old I was when I died. Then I’m twenty-five.”
“Are you fucking with me?”
“You’re been walking around for seventeen hundred years? What have you been doing? Doesn’t it get boring?”
Quin laughed softly. He shifted, catching Matheus with an arm around the waist before he toppled over.
Matheus tensed, and Quin started to pull away.
“Nmm,” said Matheus.
Quin put his arm back.
Matheus rationalized with every bit of denial he possessed, but came down to the fact that men with crossbows wanted to kill him, and Quin kept that from happening, so Matheus would curl around him like a teddy bear if he thought he could get away with it.
“The world keeps changing,” Quin said. “I like new things. Some of our kind don’t. They cling to their times. Eventually, the world gets too different and they can’t handle it. Then they go into the sun.”
“Are there any as old as you?”
“Some. Not many.”
“Well, aren’t you special,” said Matheus.
“Just like my father told me.”
A smile flickered over Matheus’ lips. He angled his head, trying to catch a glimpse of the night sky. The moon highlighted the leaves above with a silvery glow. Sitting brought in the cold held back by the fleeing for their lives. Matheus tugged at the collar of his jacket, silently cursing the idiots who valued style over a warm neck. He didn’t remember the fall ever being this cold before. After a moment, he realized—no more body heat. No wonder he felt colder than usual. Matheus swore inwardly. Did he need to start carrying around hot water bottles?
“I haven’t spent all that time awake, though,” Quin said, interrupting Matheus’ inner diatribe.
“What do you mean?” Matheus asked.
“It’s like hibernation, except we sleep for decades, centuries. It’s necessary after a certain point, or you’ll go insane.”
“How long before I have to do it?”
“Four hundred, five hundred years. If you live that long,” said Quin.
“Thanks,” Matheus said. “That’s very comforting.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” He stretched, depriving Matheus of his pillow. Quin stood up, shifting his weight back and forth to test his wounded leg. “We should keep moving. Only six hours to sunrise.”
Matheus groaned. He mangled a sapling in his effort to stand. The sapling never recovered from the assault, seeking therapy later in life. Matheus, unaware of the sapling’s torment, awkwardly propped the skinny trunk against a bigger tree in the hope that it would sort itself out. Plants are resilient, aren’t they? They grow through rocks and pavements and other such things, right?
“Sunshine, leave the poor tree alone,” said Quin.
“It looks pathetic,” said Matheus.
“That’s because you killed it. Come on.”
“I didn’t kill it,” Matheus muttered.
“Yes, you did. Come. On.”
“At this rate, I’m not going to last until I’m twenty-nine,” Matheus said. “More running?”
Matheus became increasingly convinced that Quin did not know his ass from his elbow. Sure, they ran a lot, and quite fast, but what evidence did Quin present that they ran away from the hunters and not toward the hunters? Did Quin possess some ancient undead knowledge that Matheus lacked? Did special abilities skip a generation? Matheus ached in muscles he didn’t even know he owned, and he’d swallowed a bug. He felt it buzz in his throat and everything. Sunrise approached, and they still didn’t have a place to spend the day. Matheus had no experience in the topic, but an educated guess told him death by burning might not be the best way to go. Then again, being technically dead, maybe he wouldn’t notice. A fortnight ago, his only concerns were how to avoid the touchy-feely girl at work and if he needed to pick up peanut butter at the bodega. Now he worried about burning alive—or burning dead—and whether or not the man he was forced to trust with his undead existence actually knew what the fuck he was doing. Caught up in his own whirlpool of anxiety, Matheus didn’t realize Quin had stopped until he ran into him.
“What is it?” Matheus asked.
“We’re being followed,” said Quin.
“We don’t have any time. Sunrise is in—”
“Less than an hour,” said Matheus. “I know. I have the same spidey sense you do, remember?”
Quin ignored him. He paced in a small circle, examining the ground. Oak trees surrounded them, most too large for Matheus to wrap his arms around. Ancient roots twisted out of the earth, tangling over one another before delving back into the ground. One of the trees had fallen over, leaving behind a pocket of loose dirt. Quin jumped into the small hollow, kicking at the dirt.
“Help me dig,” he said. “Here, between the roots.”
He tossed a flat stone at Matheus’ feet, and knelt down with a stone of his own.
Reluctantly, Matheus joined him, holding the stone loosely in one hand.
“Why?” he asked. “What are you going to do?”
“Talk while you dig.”
Matheus worked on the other side of the trench Quin created. The earth was a rich, dark brown laced with tiny, hair-like roots. Matheus drove the sharp edge of the stone down, hacking the dirt into fist-sized clods.
“You’re going to stay here,” Quin said. “I’ll lead off the men chasing us.”
“Here?” Matheus paused in mid-hack.
“You’ll be safe underground.”
“You want to bury me alive?” Matheus gaped at Quin, still busily digging as though he weren’t a psychopath of epic proportions.
“You’re dead, Matheus. After sunrise, you won’t know the difference.”
“You don’t need to breathe,” said Quin. “It’s just a reflex.”
“I need air!”
Quin jammed his rock into the ground.
“You don’t.” He grabbed Matheus around the back of the head, and shoved him down into a pile of fresh dirt.
Earth clogged Matheus’ nose and mouth. He tasted dirt, thick on his tongue, positive he felt something wiggling against his teeth.
Quin pushed harder; Matheus’ spine creaked in protest. The muscles in his neck strained to the point of snapping as he struggled to raise his head. He clawed at Quin’s wrist, tearing out furrows of skin.
“Don’t inhale,” Quin said calmly. “You’ll spend a week hacking up mud.”
Matheus beat his fists through the air, landing a few glancing blows brushed aside by Quin. He kicked and squirmed, pinned into place by Quin’s grip. Each second brought more wild desperation. His lungs screamed for oxygen. Except . . . .
They didn’t. He wanted air. His brain told him he needed air. Urgent signals flashed through his nervous system, blissfully ignored by his body. He could have been sitting peacefully on a porch, if Quin hadn’t been shoving Matheus’ face into a pile of dirt that contained God knew how many different kinds of feces. Matheus dropped his hands, forcing his whole body into stillness.
After a second, Quin pulled him up, one hand wound in Matheus’ hair.
“Do you want to die?” he demanded. “Tell me now so I can stop wasting my time.”
Matheus jerked his head away. He spat out a mouthful of dirt, then wiped his tongue on the inside of his shirt. He scraped off the fuzz left behind. With exaggerated care, he searched for his makeshift shovel and began digging. He did not look at Quin.
They dug in silence, piling the dirt into a large mound at the base of the trench. Only thirty minutes to sunrise. The warning pressure pulled through Matheus’ chest. He fumbled with the stone as the numbness set in.
“You’re a bastard,” he said softly.
“I didn’t have time to argue with you,” said Quin. His tone was empty, business-like. In a thousand scenarios, he did the same thing in every one.
“Still a bastard.” Matheus slammed the rock down with unnecessary force. He raised it for another blow, but Quin gripped his wrist, stopping him. For the barest fraction of a second, Matheus thought he would apologize.
Then the sounds of people filtered through the trees.
“Get in,” Quin said.
Matheus lay in the hole before his brain processed the command. He wondered if the ability to cram whole books of threat into two words was innate or learned. Hijacking a body through sheer, animalistic terror had its uses, but Matheus preferred to be on the other end.
“When this is over, I’m not going to leave the shower for a week,” he said. The dirt stuck to his skin and matted in his hair. Quin packed the earth around Matheus, occasionally pausing to stamp down clods with his feet. Matheus’ fingers clenched. He’d never been overly claustrophobic, but each scoopful of dirt felt heavier than the last.
“Stay here until I come back,” Quin said, tramping the dirt over Matheus’ chest. Matheus wheezed as his ribs gained several new dents. “Understand? Do not go off by yourself.”
“Okay,” said Matheus. The overturned tree offered some cover. Quin kicked some leaves into the hollow to hide the disturbed earth, and added a couple of medium-sized rocks for effect. Two thick roots hemmed Matheus in on either side. Small, hair-like roots tickled his skin. Matheus remembered a documentary he’d seen years ago. Wasn’t there some kind of spider that lived underground? He hadn’t watched the entire program; he’d switched over to the History Channel because at least the Third Reich wouldn’t lay eggs in his ears. Matheus wished he’d stuck the program out to the end now. Knowledge of Hitler’s plan for the Russian Front had no use in his current situation.
“Matheus.” Quin knelt beside Matheus’ head, peering down at him.
“I said okay.” Matheus wished Quin would stop looking at him like that. His expression raised all kinds of uncomfortable questions Matheus wanted to avoid, especially with the pressing suffocation/ground spider issues to think about.
“Close your eyes,” Quin said.
“Sunrise soon,” Matheus said as Quin began packing dirt around his head, reminding him of the neck braces EMTs used after a fall.
“I know.” The corner of Quin’s mouth curved up as his snaggletooth made an appearance. “I have the same buggy sense you do, remember?”
“It’s spidey sense,” said Matheus.
“They’re both equally stupid,” Quin said. “Close your mouth.”
“Be careful.” The words escaped before Matheus had a chance to think about them. He pressed his lips together to stop any further ridiculousness, with the practical benefit of preventing Quin from packing yet more dirt into his mouth. Matheus knew his stomach contents contained sixty percent soil by this point.
“Sure,” said Quin. “Sleep tight.”
Bastard, Matheus thought.
Something wriggled near Matheus’ ear. It touched the shell of his ear, the trickling of tiny feet moving over the lobe to the hard cartilage inside. Matheus tried to brush it away, but his hand remained stuck. He jerked his hand again, felt the muscles strain, but no resulting movement.
Oh, right, buried alive. Or buried undead.
The wriggling thing inched closer, brushing the inside of Matheus’ ear. Matheus had horrible visions of earwigs and egg-laying spiders. He struggled, refusing to spend the rest of his undead existence with his brain half-eaten by maggots. Brilliant idea, sticking a corpse in the ground with all the creepy-crawly things that just happen to eat dead things. Never mind that the owner of said body is not quite finished with it, thank you very much. He kicked, edging out hollows around his feet. Quin had stomped the soil into submission, forming a hard shell around Matheus’ body. He continued to scrabble, as the spaces around his limbs grew larger. The weight lessened, and finally Matheus thrust an arm free. He grabbed at the roots, pulling himself up, gasping for air he didn’t need.
Matheus scrambled out of the hollow, then slumped back against a tree. He pressed a palm to his chest, disconcerted by the lack of a racing heartbeat. Earth caked the walls of his lungs. Dirt coated his tongue, gritty between his teeth. Matheus spat, again and again. He shook his head, clods of dirt falling out of his hair. A dust-cloud of earth enveloped his every movement. He had dirt in places he didn’t want to think about. Soil bonded into the fibers of his shirt and pants with the tenacity of Super Glue. Matheus made a note to start billing Quin for his ruined clothing.
Twenty minutes passed before Matheus reached an acceptable level of de-earthment. A respectable pile of dirt rose up around his feet. Matheus kicked at the soil, wondering what the hell happened to Quin. The gray-blue color of twilight darkened into true night, the moon just visible through the canopy of leaves. Maybe Quin got caught on his way to meet Matheus. Maybe the hunters captured him this morning. Maybe he was already dead.
“No,” said Matheus. His voice sounded out of place among the trees. He would know if Quin had died. Part of that claim thing that connected them. That left capture. Matheus groaned. He didn’t want to rescue Quin. The last time he tried to rescue Quin, insane crossbow fetishists kidnapped them both. Maybe Quin didn’t even need a rescue. He hadn’t been very happy about it before.
In the distance, something let out a wailing cry, low note rising midway, like a step on a stairway. Matheus froze. The cry repeated, this time overlapped by an answering call. Animals didn’t make noises like that. The sound came from the beginning of a horror movie, ignored by the protagonists despite being a clear indication to run the fuck away. Taking a step back, Matheus looked left and right. His whole body vibrated with waiting tension. The brush to his right rustled, and Matheus spun around, visions of hunters and mountain lions competing for attention in his mind. The leaves of the brush shook; too late to run. Kneeling, Matheus scrabbled on the ground for some kind of weapon. He grabbed a rock and rose triumphantly, ready to strike the terrible . . . bunny.
Matheus stared as the small, brown rabbit hopped over to the upturned tree. With a nervous laugh, he let the rock fall. The rabbit took off into the brush.
“Fuck this,” Matheus said, rubbing a hand over his face. He would rescue Quin whether he liked it or not. A rabbit nearly gave him a stroke. Clearly, the woods did not benefit his mental health. Besides, if Quin got all cranky every time Matheus tried to help him, then he shouldn’t have turned Matheus in the first place. Sure, he’d never managed to keep any retail job longer than three months, and spent the majority of his time avoiding human contact, but he still liked to be helpful.
Matheus stomped through the trees. He couldn’t move silently enough to avoid hunters, so he might as well be loud enough to frighten away anything thinking he might make a nice snack. He viewed this as a visit to a foreign planet. Gone were his comforting pavements, familiar streetlamps, and sweet, homey, little 7-Elevens. Anyone who wanted to return to nature needed psychiatric care.
Matheus didn’t know which direction he followed. He’d managed to grasp that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, not the most useful information anymore. Someone had told him that moss grew only on the north side of trees, but apparently forget to tell the moss in this forest. As far as Matheus was concerned, there were two directions: that-way and not-that-way. Quin was that-way. He hoped the hunters were not-that-way.
Freeze? Matheus thought. Seriously? He stopped, more out of stunned amazement than fear.
“Turn around. Hands up!” The voice broke sharply, the up swallowed into a high-pitched squeak.
Bemused, Matheus turned around, his hands held up cliché-style. He’d been arrested so many times, his juvenile record took up a whole file cabinet; never once had he been ordered to freeze. He had been in a car chase once, but only long enough for him to run into a fountain. Not a large fountain, but the size hadn’t factored into sentencing.
“Jesus Christ,” Matheus said, getting his first look at his captor. “How old are you?”
Hunter Junior held a crossbow with a camouflage paint job, a scope, and a price tag still dangling off the stock. He looked like the poster boy for awkward teenage years, gangly, with a prominent Adam’s apple and a sprinkling of zits across his chin. Delicate features meant he must have been an adorable child, but puberty had not been kind to him. Then again, looks didn’t have a lot of impact on the ability to aim.
“No talking,” the kid ordered. “Uh, freak.”
“Are you even old enough to shave?” Matheus asked.
“Old enough to catch you.”
Matheus didn’t consider that much of an accomplishment. Helen Keller would have noticed him stomping around the woods. The tip of the bolt made small circles in the air. Matheus wondered if Hunter Junior had ever held a crossbow before.
“Are you going to shoot me or what?” Matheus asked. Quin was close. Maybe if he ran . . . . “Are you alone?”
The kid jumped. With his pale face, someone might have thought him the dead one. Matheus watched the crossbow bolt do its jittery dance.
“No,” the kid said. “I have back-up. One move and you’re a corpse.”
“I’m already a corpse,” Matheus said. “And you’ve been watching too many bad action movies.”
“I’m a hunter. Just like my father, and his father, and—”
Matheus darted forward, slapping the crossbow to the left. The bow thwacked, sending the bolt flying into the brush.
Hunter Junior staggered. He groped for his quiver.
“Shit! Shit!” Hunter Junior scrambled to reload. The bolt clattered against the bow, the string snapping prematurely.
Matheus dove at him, trying to mimic Quin’s movements from the fight the night before. Except Quin had decades of practice, and Matheus tripped without moving his feet. They rolled around on the forest floor, doing more damage to the plants around them than to each other.
Finally, Matheus landed a lucky hit, knocking Hunter Junior’s temple against a rock. Matheus rolled back and forth, still striking wildly before he realized what happened. Disentangling himself, he knelt beside Hunter Junior, searching for a pulse. Matheus pressed his fingertips to the boy’s wrist, panic rising until he felt the faint fluttering. A few feet away, the crossbow hung in a bush like an oversized Christmas ornament.
Matheus relieved Hunter Junior of his quiver. Most of the bolts had fallen out, scattered among the crushed bushes and grass, but one remained. Matheus rolled the smooth shaft between his fingertips, letting the moonlight reflect off the blades. He looked over at the kid. No one had come to help him. A bolt that paralyzed Matheus could kill a human. One firm thrust into the right area, not much effort required. Hunter Junior was unconscious, the soft tissue of his throat exposed.
Matheus drove the bolt into the ground. Leaving the kid where he lay, Matheus walked away.