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.
This is not the best day of my life, Matheus thought. He gave the ropes an experimental tug. His arms stretched over his head; his toes scraped over the ground. Matheus admitted that he had fantasized about being tied up, but not like this. He expected a bed, a safe word, and not so much threat of imminent torture and death. The difference came down to the balance of control. Matheus had none; the hunters had it all. He exhaled, opening his mouth wide to crack his jaw. At least the gag was gone.
“What’s your name?” The older hunter stood in front of Matheus, his hands clasped behind his back. Flames silhouetted his body, the fire flickering high enough to dwarf the men gathered around it. They wanted Quin to find them.
“What’s yours?” Matheus asked. The words felt jagged in his mouth.
“Linken.” The man circled Matheus, sending him swinging with a shove. He did this several times, accompanied by a low, harsh laughter.
Matheus gritted his teeth, fingers tightening around the rope holding him up.
“Nice necklace,” he said as Linken returned to view.
“I’ve killed thirty-one of your kind.” Linken stroked the necklace, the fangs clicking together in a delicate song.
“Your mother must be so proud.”
“She would be, if one of you hadn’t murdered her.”
“Wasn’t me,” Matheus said. “I was washing my hair that night.”
He knew he had asked for a smack, but the Taser was overkill. Linken delivered two bursts, maxing out the power. Matheus rose, rigid, on his toes as the scent of warm ozone sparked through the air.
“Fucking Christ,” he moaned, sagging on the ropes. The branch creaked with the strain of his full weight, but offered no reprieve.
“Are you sure you should be doing that?” one of the other hunters asked. He stood in a loose group on the opposite side of the fire. No one approached closer than ten feet. Matheus wondered if they wanted to avoid him, or Linken.
“It’s not going to kill him,” Linken replied. He looked at Matheus. “Is it?”
“Go to hell,” said Matheus. He flinched as Linken raised the Taser.
“You’re a mouthy one. You want the gag back?”
Matheus pressed his lips together and glared. He grasped the rope again, pulling himself up with trembling muscles. Ash from the fire rained down like snow, sticking to his skin and catching on his eyelashes. A lacy ember landed on Linken’s shoulder, flickering out as he brushed it away.
“How long do you think? I’m guessing twenty minutes.”
“For what?” Matheus asked.
“Until your master comes for you.”
“He’s not my master.” A piece of ash landed on Matheus lip. He licked, tasting salt and dirt.
Linken laughed unpleasantly.
“That’s what you think.” He pulled a thin blade from a sheath around his thigh. Linken dressed like the kind of person who subscribed to survivalist magazines and kept a chemical toilet in his basement next to a pallet of MREs. Matheus bet he was on a first-name basis with all the clerks at the local Army Surplus store. They probably exchanged Christmas cards full of good wishes littered with dark hints of the apocalypse.
“I know more about what you are than you do,” Linken continued, distracting Matheus from his speculation. “For instance, do you know that a wound made by silver will scar?”
“Oh?” Matheus watched the tip of the blade flash in the firelight. The metal shone orange and shadow.
“So if I cut you here,” the blade whisked over Matheus’ cheek, liberating a bristle or two, “you’ll be marked forever. No matter what happens tonight, you’ll bear my mark for the rest of your life. Interesting, huh?”
The triangular point of the blade tapped against Matheus’ nose. His eyes crossed as he stared at the tip.
“What are you doing, Link?” Hunter Junior stood behind Linken, death grip on his crossbow making the bolt shake in its slot. He cast darting glances at Matheus, like a child afraid of a scolding.
Linken half-turned, and gave the boy’s shoulder a friendly shake.
“Just having a little fun, kid,” he said. “Go on and keep watch.”
Hunter Junior met Matheus’ eyes, his expression a mixture of worry and triumph. He hoisted the crossbow and walked over to the edge of the camp, spine stiff with teenage self-importance. One of the hunters nudged the man next to him, and muttered something under his breath. Both laughed, cutting off quick as Linken glared at them.
“Good kid,” Linken said, turning back to Matheus. “Comes from a good family.”
“So psychosis is genetic,” Matheus said.
“I think you’d better have the gag back in for this.” Linken stuffed the gag into Matheus’ mouth, avoiding his clumsy attempts to bite off a finger. He tightened the leather until it strained. A thick layer of spit still coated the gag.
Matheus kicked at Linken, slow and ineffectual. Linken smacked his leg down. Matheus flew from side to side.
Linken let Matheus swing while he circled around, stopping behind his back. He grasped Matheus’ neck, and forced his head downward, bringing the demonstration of pendulum physics to a halt.
“Hold still,” he said.
The knife sliced cool and smooth up Matheus’ back, splitting his shirt in two. Linken folded back the fabric, tucking the edges into the sleeves to hold them in place. His hand returned to Matheus’ neck, thumb digging into Matheus’ carotid artery. Lightly, he traced a pattern across Matheus’ shoulders with the tip of the blade.
Matheus trembled, a mess of anticipation.
“This is going to hurt,” said Linken.
Matheus shrieked. He threw his weight against the ropes, nearly breaking his wrists. The knife dug furrows into Matheus’ flesh, thick gouges that oozed blood. The cool sludge slid down Matheus’ back, rivulets combining and diverting like raindrops on a windshield. Linken worked across Matheus’ shoulders, sometimes dragging the blade over and over the same mark until the cut reached the desired depth. Matheus’ shoulders burned with a mass of fire, the pain too broad to pinpoint.
This is not happening. There is not a psychopath carving into me. I am at home in bed watching a violent, unrealistic movie. That is not my blood on the dirt. I can feel my arms. This is not happening to me. It’s happening to someone else. Someone else far away in the television and I am just watching it from my warm bed.
Linken wiped the area clean with Matheus’ ruined shirt. He leaned back, surveying his work, making an adjustment here and there, before nodding approvingly. He spun Matheus around, tilting Matheus’ head up to look him in the eyes.
“Hey,” he said softly. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Tucking the knife away, he pulled out the Taser, giving Matheus a long burst.
Matheus whimpered, but remained limp, safe inside his head. Linken tapped the Taser against his wrist, then shocked Matheus again. A trickle of smoke rose up where the leads caught on Matheus’ shirt.
“Oh, God,” Matheus moaned, his words garbled by the gag. The conversation on the other side of the fire had stilled. Hunter Junior turned to watch, his eyes very wide and white. Matheus hoped he enjoyed the show.
“Back?” Linken asked. He holstered the Taser, taking out the knife once more. “Let’s see.” With a smooth thrust, he embedded the knife into Matheus’ gut, just below his naval. White-black stars burst in Matheus’ eyes.
“That getting through?” Twisting the knife, Linken tilted the blade up and down, circling, digging a hole in Matheus’ flesh. A wet, slick clump slipped out around the hilt of the knife, staining Linken’s knuckles.
Matheus sobbed, well beyond any point of self-control. He would do anything Linken wanted, anything. He just wanted this to stop. If only it would stop—
“Hey,” said a shaking voice. “That’s enough.”
Matheus opened his eyes, the scene blurry before him. He blinked quickly, breath hitching in his throat as he tried to concentrate.
Hunter Junior stood next to Linken, looking pale and nauseated. He raised his chin, hands in fists at his sides.
“I think he’s had enough,” he said, voice cracking on enough. “You should stop.”
Linken stared at him, bemused. The silence darkened as the rest of the hunters tried to pretend they didn’t hear everything that happened ten feet away.
“Are you worrying for the enemy?” Linken asked.
“He’s bait, isn’t he? That means we need him alive.”
The fire cracked as the ash fell. The hunters looked anywhere but at the standoff tableau.
Matheus’ breath sounded obscenely loud in the thick quiet. The knife still stuck in his gut, shifting with the tiny flexing of Linken’s hand. Matheus stared at Hunter Junior, unable to look away for fear the boy would disappear.
“I’m not going to kill him, kid. Just play a little.”
Hunter Junior hesitated for a second, then repeated, “It’s enough.”
“Fine.” Linken stepped back, his hands held up. “He’s your responsibility. When the time comes, you kill him.”
Hunter Junior nodded.
Linken walked away, leaving his knife plunged inside Matheus. He joined the other hunters, conversation rising with forced casualness.
“I have to . . . .” Hunter Junior gripped the hilt. Matheus let his head roll in the semblance of a nod. After Linken’s twisting, pulling the blade free felt like a caress. The boy cleaned it carefully, digging out the narrow grooves and cracks.
“I will kill you,” he said, eyes on the knife. “I just . . . it’s not right, this.”
Matheus closed his eyes, resting his weight on the ropes. The pain in his wrists amounted to a hangnail compared to that in his stomach and shoulders. He listened to Hunter Junior walk away before he passed blissfully into unconsciousness.
The night dragged out. When Quin failed to appear, the hunters took shifts to search for him. When Matheus woke up and found Hunter Junior gone and Linken still there, he had a burst of panic. The man kept his word; he stayed away from Matheus.
Blood oozed out of the hole in Matheus’ gut, a slow, thick stream that soaked the top of his pants and dried into a sticky crust. An ache spread across his shoulders, interspaced with sharp jolts whenever Matheus shifted position. He tried to move often, but he drifted in and out of consciousness.
“He’s gone,” said one of the hunters, tossing another log on the fire. The inferno had diminished to a handful of flames flickering meekly over a massive mound of coals and ash. “Ditched this one and ran off.”
“If Quin doesn’t show, does this make it a draw?” asked another hunter. He tore open an energy bar with his teeth, and dropped the wrapper into the fire.
“I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have Hell’s Heir than some no-name newbie.”
The second hunter chewed contemplatively on the bar.
“Hell’s Heir?” he repeated through a mouthful of half-masticated brown sludge. “I haven’t heard that one before.”
“Oh, sure. My dad used to keep a whole list of them. Son of Hades, Lucifer Reborn, He-who-rejoices-in-death, the Sanguine Storm—”
Matheus let out a choked laugh. His organs were sausage meat, and the vision of Quin in red tights and a shiny cape refused to disappear. If he got out of this, he’d take the piss out of Quin for decades. The Sanguine Storm, indeed. Cheesy comic book villains had less ridiculous names.
“What’s his deal?” asked the first hunter, nodding toward Matheus. He squinted at him, one hand moving toward his discarded crossbow, as though Matheus’ laughter heralded the first step in a grand escape plan.
“I don’t know. Maybe he thinks the Sanguine Storm is a stupid name.” The second hunter shoved the rest of the bar into his mouth.
“Hey, my dad came up with that one.”
Ducking his head, Matheus bit his lip to stop the spasms of laughter. At the edge of breaking, the threshold for humor dropped to record lows. He would have laughed at a Garfield cartoon.
“I like it,” said the first hunter.
“You like pickled sausage and cheese from a can.”
“Oh, fuck off.” The first hunter stomped off toward the woods, the other snickering behind him.
A sudden realization shot through Matheus, cold and resonant in the parts he thought of as himself, echoing up into his physical body. He stared into the darkness where the hunter had disappeared.
Quin, he thought.
Through the trees came a thump and a scream, cut off before completion. The hunters rose, the casual, campfire atmosphere broken with the clacks of weaponry.
Matheus strained forward, pulling the rope taut.
“That’s Hill,” said one of the hunters.
“Do you think—”
A head flew out of the trees and landed on the fire. A fountain of sparks flew up, orange-red and bright against the black. Linken stood, checking his knife in its sheath.
“I’d say he’s here,” Linken said. “Not shy, are you?”
Quin emerged from the shadows, solidifying into the light. Blood streaked his palms, his forearms, a Jackson Pollack painting across his abdomen. He scanned the camp, examining the hunters and dismissing them one by one. He lingered for a moment on Linken, taking in his smirk before disregarding him as well. Turning to Matheus, his expression shifted a fraction.
“Sunshine,” he said.
“Quin.” Matheus tried to keep the desperate relief out of his voice and failed entirely.
“Christ in Heaven, someone shoot him already!” Linken shouted. The hunters jumped as though released from a spell.
Quin grinned, a manic and terrifying grin that frightened Matheus more than anything Linken had done to him.
“Sunshine,” Quin said. “Close your eyes.”
Matheus never forgot the sounds. The short, aborted shrieks, the twang of crossbows, the sickly crack of bones, the slap of organs splattering on the ground.
“Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God—”
“No, please, no, please, don’t, plea—”
“Our Father who art in Heav—Jesus!”
They all plead in their own ways. Linken broke down and sobbed. A small, uncharitable smile crept across Matheus’ lips. Psychotic bastard, he thought. Serves him right.
Matheus lost track of time. The begging faded out, layer by layer until one small whimper remained, and then, nothing.
“Done,” said Quin, in an eerie, singsong voice.
Matheus opened his eyes. If a bomb exploded without flames, the camp demonstrated the result.. Body parts littered the ground. A set of entrails dangled from a branch, dripping . . . something . . . onto a severed torso. The head in the embers crackled like pork, the skin peeling and bubbling. The scent of blood and shit and piss hung in the air.
“Cut me down,” Matheus said, frantic, tugging at the ropes. “I have to go. I have to go now.”
“Calm down.” Quin stooped to pick up a knife.
“Calm down? Don’t fucking tell me to calm down.”
“No! I’ve been hung up like a side of beef and tortured and used as a goddamn carving stone and witness to a fucking slaughter and I don’t even know if the good guys won and—and—and—”
“Hey.” Quin cupped Matheus’ face, leaving a messy, red handprint. “You’re okay.”
“I’m not, I’m really not,” Matheus said. “Please.” He bent his head, resting it on Quin’s shoulder.
Quin ran his hand down Matheus’ back, freezing as Matheus yelped. He moved around Matheus, holding him in place with a light touch.
Matheus felt the spike of rage coming from Quin, but he didn’t care. Quin’s anger was for the man who hurt him. Quin protected him. Quin kept him safe. Matheus surrendered to feelings not his own, too exhausted to fight the manipulation. The bond swept through him with a warm feeling of safety and unfamiliar comfort.
“Shh,” said Quin. “I’ve got you.” He faced Matheus again and wrapped an arm around Matheus’ waist, then reached up and cut the ropes.
Matheus slumped forward, barely noticing as Quin knelt on the ground. From far away, he heard Quin speaking.
“—should be safe. Between the ones here and the three I got at the cave, I think—”
The bolt skimmed Matheus’ head, nicking his ear before striking Quin in the chest. He fell backward in a crumpled heap. Matheus swayed, shock vibrating down his spine as he collapsed in the dirt.
“Quin?” he whispered.
A pair of legs stepped over him, walking over to one of the fallen hunters.
Turning his head, Matheus saw a dark figure stop by the fire. He stood there for a moment, then stooped to pick something up. Blood dripped off the point of the long blade. The figure wiped it on the edge of his shirt, a streak of scarlet tinting the metal.. With slow, heavy steps, he moved toward Matheus and Quin.
Oh, God, Quin, Matheus thought, as fireworks of panic detonated behind his ribs. The man moved closer, dragging the tip of the sword through the dirt. The low, scraping noise stung Matheus’ nerves. He fumbled for the knife Quin used to cut him down, finding nothing but pine needles. Matheus didn’t know what to do with his hands still bound. He risked a glance behind him.
Hunter Junior stood over Quin. With a booted foot, he kicked Quin onto his back.
A spike of pain drove down Matheus’ spine. His fingers tightened around each other, sinking into the soft places between bones. Buzzing consumed his mind. One coherent thought circled through the static: he had to save Quin.
He must save Quin.
Matheus pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth. His fangs curved over his lip.
He must save Quin.
The boy raised the sword, the sinews in his arms stretching against the skin. Matheus pushed himself off the ground.
He must save Quin.
The sword began its downward arc. Matheus slammed into the boy’s side. The point of the sword pierced Matheus’ thigh, but he didn’t notice. Terror rolled off the boy like a perfume.
Matheus pressed his bound hands to the boy’s chest and bent down. He dug his fangs into the boy’s neck. Blood spurted into his mouth. He gulped, a wild giddiness burning through him, sunlight racing in his veins. The boy clawed at Matheus’ back, his hair. His blood stung like nettles over Matheus’ tongue, the taste of panic better than any spice. Matheus thought he felt his heart beat. He jerked back, a lump of flesh in his mouth. He spat, the lump hitting the ground with a sick wet noise.
The boy lay still and wide-eyed, waxy-pale but for the too-bright gash on his throat. Matheus swallowed hard, the lingering taste of the boy’s blood still painting his mouth. He turned to Quin, trying to grasp the crossbow bolt between shaking hands. He took half a dozen tries to work the bolt free.
“Quin?” He nudged Quin’s shoulder. “Shit, Quin, wake up.”
“I’m awake, sunshine.” Quin groaned as he sat up, rubbing his chest. “I never get used to that. Stings like hell.”
“Quin,” Matheus said.
“You’ve got blood all over you—oh. Oh.”
“I’m right here.”
“Quin.” Matheus held up his hands. A blank, carefully constructed silence dominated Matheus’ mind. His voice contained the trusting pleading of a small child.
“Okay,” Quin said. “I get it.” He peeled the ropes off Matheus’ wrists, taking away ribbons of torn skin, the raw channels left decorated with blood-soaked fibers.
Taking Matheus by the waist, he led him down to the river. He sat Matheus on a flat-topped boulder, and knelt beside him, in the river. Matheus sat meekly as Quin scooped up handfuls of water, cleaning his wounds and wiping away the blood. The moon shone clear overhead, craters with their radiating spikes visible among the lunar seas. Reflected sunlight, cold and distant, transformed by its empty journey. The beach stood out in stark lines, colors clear in the night. Matheus wished for his former eyesight back, for the comfort of shadows.
“It was self-defense,” Quin said. “He wouldn’t have let you live.”
Matheus tilted his head as Quin scrubbed his neck. He’d acquired a cloth from somewhere; Matheus didn’t ask. He felt himself returning with each layer of blood washed away. Tender, fresh skin covered the hole in his gut. Matheus prodded the wound, wincing at the hollow feeling beneath the elastic flesh. He wondered how much blood a liver took to regrow. Quin pushed his head down, the cloth moving in long strokes over Matheus’ shoulders. Tiny wildfires rose and died with each pull of his muscles, the skin tight and raw.
“He was a kid,” Matheus said, when his ability to speak returned.
“When I was his age, I was a soldier and had been fighting for two years.” Quin soaked the cloth in the river, pale scarlet tendrils swept away by the current. Matheus looked away, making a noise in the back of his throat.
“If you want to feel regret, guilt, that’s fine. You’re not a sociopath. But don’t let it rule your life,” Quin said.
“What life?” Water dripped down Matheus’ temples as Quin scrubbed at his hair. He felt like a recalcitrant dog being bathed by its owner.
“I suppose after the day you’ve had, you can be melodramatic if you want.” Quin sat back on his heels and looked Matheus up and down. “You wanted to live, Matheus. That’s not a bad thing.”
“He stopped the other one, Linken.”
“Don’t tell me you feel bad about him,” Quin said.
Matheus shook his head. He supposed that ruled him out as a candidate for sainthood..
“Good,” Quin said. “I enjoyed killing him. Psychopath. You can hunt without torture. It’s sick.”
Matheus wondered if the hypocrisy made a whooshing sound as it flew over Quin’s head. He stood, wavering for a second on unstable legs, then stepped around Quin into the river. The water rushed around his knees, cold and midnight blue, reflecting fractured slivers of moonlight.
“You’ll be all right,” Quin said. “You do what you have to do.”
“Yeah,” said Matheus, watching the water flicker. The actual killing of the boy hadn’t upset him. He hadn’t had much of a choice; the compulsion to save Quin as strong as the instinct for self-preservation. What Matheus didn’t want to tell Quin was that he had liked it.
Matheus left the cave before Quin woke up. He had thought with all the hunters dead, the hunt had ended., but Quin said they had to wait one more night. Something to do with the rules, and his reason for agreeing to the camping trip from hell. Matheus offered a suggestion for what Quin could do with his rules, and stomped off. He got close enough to smell the blood, thick in the air around the hunters’ campsite, before turning back. Quin hadn’t said anything, just sat with Matheus outside the cave until the oncoming day drove them inside.
Matheus waited for Quin at the base of the path, killing time by skipping stones across the river. The flow of the water had worn most stones smooth and round, unsuited for skipping, even without the quick current. However, skipping stones sounded slightly better than hurling rocks like a sullen teenager angry because his mom forbade setting off fireworks in the backyard. To an outsider, there might be no perceptible difference, but Matheus found such subtleties important.
“Can we go home now?” he asked when Quin appeared outside the cave. The fourth night meant the hunted had officially ended.
“Home?” repeated Quin.
“Your house,” Matheus said.
“My house is home?” asked Quin with an odd look on his face.
“For lack of a better word. Don’t read anything into it. It’s standard for people to refer to wherever they happen to be staying as home.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes.” Matheus glared, annoyed at his slip-up and even more annoyed at Quin for commenting upon it. He let the rock he held drop, breaking the surface of the river with a satisfying plonk. “Can we go?”
“Sure.” Quin started up the gentle slope toward the tree line.
“Not that way. The camp is that way.”
Quin paused, one hand resting on his hip. A moth took the opportunity to land on his hair. Large and fuzzy, with long antennae that twitched and swiveled, the moth slowly opened and closed its wings as though flexing. Matheus stared, but said nothing to Quin. The moth qualified as a small bird. If Quin didn’t notice, that was his problem.
“You can close your eyes,” Quin said.
“It smells,” said Matheus. The wind blew toward them, carrying the scent of old blood, turning his stomach and drawing him in at the same time. He wondered if his injuries made the blood more appealing, a bastardization of the way people with anemia craved red meat. The thought of walking through the devastated camp as the hunger rose made his fingers and lips go numb. He’d rather swim the length of the river again.
Quin sighed. He dislodged the moth with an indifferent blow. One wing fluttering, the insect staggered to the ground in jerky stages. Matheus felt a little twist as he watched the moth flap uselessly over the rocks. He’d never had a problem with moths, as long as they maintained the proper human-insect buffer zone.
“We’ll go around,” Quin said. He tilted his head, frowning as he tried to figure out what Matheus stared at. “Fucking hell, sunshine, it’s a moth. Get a grip on yourself.”
“I have a grip,” Matheus said. “I’m extremely grippy.” He stomped past Quin, sticking close to the edge of the river. “Are you coming or what?”
Matheus held his breath as they skirted the edge of the camp. He watched Quin out of the corner of his eye. The stealth and urgency of the past three nights vanished. Quin walked like someone out for an evening stroll, hands in his pockets, arms loose, the inclined posture and long, relaxed steps of someone who has nothing better to do than amble through the night. If he started whistling, Matheus planned to brain him with a rock.
“How much farther?” Matheus asked, once the scent of the camp disappeared behind them.
“Ten miles?” Quin shrugged. “We’re going back to the van.”
The river had carried them farther than Matheus had realized. He marched alongside Quin, stoic in the face of pine needles and whippy little twigs. Visions of hot running water and piles of blankets swamped his thoughts. Each step carried him a little bit closer. Matheus looked at Quin’s casual stride and despised him.
“Do you have to act like it’s a happy little jaunt?” he asked. “Can’t we just speed there?”
“You’re still injured,” said Quin.
Matheus flexed his shoulders, feeling the answering burn. He didn’t touch his abdomen, afraid that he might put his finger through the new, thin flesh. Raising a finger to his mouth, he paused, wrinkling his nose at the dirt and blood caked under the nail.
“I want to go ho—go back and wash in water that does not contain leeches and slime,” he said.
“It’s algae.” Quin pushed aside a low-hanging branch, gesturing Matheus forward with a sardonic smile.
Matheus swept past him, giving him a narrow-eyed look in return.
“It’s pond scum. Giving it a fancy name doesn’t make it any nicer. You can dress a prostitute in a ball gown, but underneath she’s still a whore,” he said, scrambling up a small crest to a copse of birch trees.
“What do you have against whores?” Quin asked. “I was a whore, once.”
Matheus tripped, landing a millimeter away from a collection of webs woven in the hollow of a tree. They waved delicately at his sharp exhalation, a few quarter-sized spiders twitching at the threat. Matheus rolled away, rising from horizontal to vertical without messing with any of those annoying in-between phrases. He performed the dance of the arachnophobe, hands groping over hair and exposed skin, jumping at each tiny twinge.
Quin watched him with one eyebrow raised.
“Granted, I was a very bad whore. My clients kept ending up dead.” Quin plucked a leaf out of Matheus’ hair and let it spin to the ground.
Matheus gaped at him.
“What?” he repeated.
“I’ve had a long and interesting life, sunshine.”
“Filled with corpses,” said Matheus. He slapped a hand over the back of his neck, relieved and annoyed at the lack of spider guts on his palm.
“Among other things.” Quin looked up at the sky, one hand tapping his thigh.
Matheus watched him, trying to figure out what went on in his head. Quin managed to be both the most transparent and mysterious person Matheus had ever met. Quin answered his questions, but none of his responses brought Matheus any closer to figuring out his motives. Not the kind of person Matheus wanted to be dependent upon.
“We can run if you think you can keep up,” Quin said.
“I can,” said Matheus.
“And not run into any trees.”
“Screw you, let’s race.”
“Race?” asked Quin.
“All right,” Quin said slowly. “I’ll give you a one minute head-start.”
Matheus cursed at him, but accepted.
Matheus decided to run forever. He loved the wind scouring over his face and yanking at his hair, the crazed, overwhelming sensation of clinging to the edge of control with his fingertips, knowing that the fallout of any mistake increased by a factor of ten. Speed comprised all or nothing. Either he arrived whole, breathless and sparkling, or in a body bag. Matheus hadn’t been a runner before his death, but he’d never gone fast enough to violate the laws of physics before, either. The speed almost made everything else worth it. As long as he could run, and run, and run.
“You’re not bad. It took me awhile to learn how to run like that,” Quin said as Matheus skidded to a halt beside the van.
Matheus hadn’t hit any trees, but he hadn’t won, either. Quin passed him easily. Matheus was only a little irked. Someday, he’d beat Quin, and not just with a stick as he’d planned to before.
“I like going fast,” Matheus said. “Always have.”
His breathing remained normal, his face sweat-free. If the Olympics held the games at night, the undead would snap up medals left and right.
Quin frowned at him.
“What? That doesn’t fit with your little, stalker-y profile?” asked Matheus.
“You don’t even own a car,” said Quin.
Around them, the trees rustled and swayed, tousled in the rising wind. Matheus moved closer to the van, placing his palm against the cool metal. Someone had peeled off some lettering, leaving marks in the dingy white paint. Nicks covered the metal, revealing layers of old paint. The most probable adjective used to describe the van by witnesses would be suspicious. Matheus had never seen anything more beautiful.
“I can’t afford the kind I want, and I refuse to drive around in some low-grade, half-assed, poorly designed piece of pigeon shit,” he said.
The van rocked slightly as Quin leaned against it, his arms folded over his chest. He watched the woods, not Matheus.
Matheus wondered who he waited for.
“What kind of car do you want?” Quin asked.
“Why? Are you going to buy me one?”
“Would you like me to?”
Matheus recognized the challenge. He flipped through possible choices, then decided the truth worked the best. Too much, and the game ended. Too little, and Quin scoffed at him.
“I want a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG.” Matheus paused, then added, “To start with.”
Quin didn’t flinch.
“What color?” he asked.
Matheus narrowed his eyes.
“Blue,” he said.
“Of course. GT model.”
“What flavor air freshener?”
Rolling his eyes, Matheus shook his head. Quin spoke at a distance, his eyes still fixed on the trees. Matheus shifted, moving closer to the van, taking comfort in the trappings of civilization.
“No air freshener?” Quin asked.
“Stop it. You’re not buying me a car.”
“It’s almost two hundred thousand dollars!”
“I can afford it,” he said.
“I don’t need expensive things,” Matheus said, an edge to his voice.
Quin gave him an odd look.
Matheus forced his face into a blank expression, giving Quin nothing to latch onto. He had to be more careful. Even his tone told Quin things Matheus didn’t want him to know.
“Why are we hanging around here?” he asked, projecting an air of boredom strong enough to knock out an army of caffeine addicts, as though for one brief second, the souls of all the world’s teenagers possessed him.
“No keys,” said Quin.
The van had to be at least fifteen years old, with locks that used actual keys. The chances of an alarm system approached nil. Matheus knew how to hotwire it, but he kept his mouth shut. No need to start sharing his sordid past all over the place. Especially when revelations might lead to awkward questions. Nothing like a trail of breadcrumbs to a great big banner printed with Nothing to see here! to make people curious.
Matheus sat down on the bumper. He spent several minutes arranging his legs in the best way to keep from sliding off. He rested his chin in his hands, watching a line of ants troop across the dirt. One of them carried a large prize, hoisting the crumb up as if to say to the other ants, “Hey, see what I got? Yeah, that’s right, no big deal, just enough food for the next three weeks.” Matheus imagined the ant bragging down at local ant-pub while his ant-friends hid their jealousy in pints of ant-lager.
“This is boring,” he said.
“No one’s trying to kill you. You should be ecstatic,” said Quin.
“It doesn’t have to be either stark boredom or insane terror,” Matheus said. “There can be a spectrum.”
“Yes, and right now we’re at the boring end.”
Matheus sighed. If they were out here much longer, he would hotwire the van, caution be damned. He was not spending another day as a potential snack for maggots and mountain lions.
“‘Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a—’”
“Quiet!” hissed Quin.
“Hey,” said Matheus. “I know it’s not the best quote, but—”
“Shut up!” Quin straightened, tightening like a bowstring about to release. His eyes swept left to right, examining each new crackle and whisper for its source.
Matheus half-rose, complaints of boredom dissipated in the future of some new threat.
“You son of a bitch.” The voice came out of the trees, low and clear and indescribably heavy.
“Get behind the van,” Quin said without looking at Matheus.
Matheus took a step toward him, also trying to find the voice’s owner. The shadows through the trees shifted and melded together, offering no clear shape to focus on.
“I thought the hunt was over,” he said.
Matheus shuddered as Quin’s voice hit him like a bulldozer, compelling him to move or be run over. He shook his head, forcing himself to take another step. He wasn’t a goddamned child. He didn’t need to hide while Quin protected him from the big, bad bullies. He paid taxes, held a job, fed and clothed himself. Memories of yesterday poured into the wrinkles in his brain, bringing with them the feelings that Quin would shelter him, the comfort of handing over his survival to someone else. Disgust rose up in Matheus. He had saved Quin from the boy with his hands literally tied. He refused to allow Quin to cosset him like a goddamned porcelain doll.
“No, I won’t,” he said. “I’m not hiding.”
“You stubborn idiot,” Quin said furiously.
To their left, a small bunch of saplings vibrated and snapped as Carruthers emerged from the woods. The moonlight set a harsh glow on his ashen, sweat-shined face. He carried a massive crossbow in two hands, taking quick, wavering steps into the clearing. Carruthers’ arms and shoulders shook, the bones in his hands pressing clear against his skin.
“I should kill you,” he said. “You sick, sadistic monster.”
“It was a hunt,” Quin said.
Matheus couldn’t decide which one of them frightened him more: Carruthers with his desperate, hollow-eyed shaking, or Quin, static and cold, a replica of a human being made worse by its accuracy.
“It was a massacre!” Carruthers shouted.
In the distance, something large crashed through the trees, fleeing the sudden intrusion. Matheus wanted to disappear with it, but his feet held firm. His gaze didn’t flicker, captive to the scene before him.
“They knew the risk.” Quin offered nothing. His words held no give, no notches to cling onto. They hung in the air, smooth as glass and just as cool.
Carruthers stepped closer, a bleak, terrible expression on his face.
“He was my son,” he said in a hoarse, broken voice that made Matheus sick. The words struck deeper than if he had screamed them. “My youngest. You goddamned bastard. My son and you just left him there.”
Quin didn’t say anything.
“I should kill you,” Carruthers repeated. His hand opened and closed on the crossbow, sweat gleaming on the grip. “For Christ’s sake, he was still in high school.”
Matheus made a small noise in the back of his throat. Carruthers looked at him, eyes wild, bloodshot white dwarfing the dark iris. A horrible, choking feeling climbed up through Matheus’ chest, forcing his mouth open. He flicked a glance at Quin, answered by a minute nod of Quin’s head, but Matheus didn’t think he could stop.
“No,” said Carruthers, interrupting Matheus’ words before they had a chance to escape. The crossbow swung toward Matheus. “I should kill him. Show you what it feels like to lose a kid. That’s how it works, right? You bastards can’t have kids, so you make them. You want to know how it feels?”
“I know how it feels,” said Quin quietly.
Matheus closed his mouth with a snap.
“You fucking don’t!” Carruthers screamed. “You don’t know! You can’t know!” Two spots of red appeared high on his cheeks. He inhaled, steadying the crossbow. “But you will.”
Matheus lifted his hands, as if they offered any protection. He shook his head, all his words crammed and suffocating in his throat.
Quin didn’t move.
“I wouldn’t do that,” he said.
“Why not? Why the fuck not?” Carruthers demanded.
Quin tilted his head to the side, enough to catch Matheus’ gaze out of the corner of his eye.
“You’d be killing the only one of us ever to cry over a human,” Quin said. “Look at his face.”
Matheus blinked, noticing the sodden weight of his eyelashes for the first time. He touched his cheek, sliding his fingers through the sheen of wetness. Rubbing his fingers together, he glanced up, meeting Carruthers’ stare. He couldn’t speak, too trapped by the things he wanted to say to focus on a single thing. So he said nothing, and Carruthers said nothing, and the silence deafened. The moment stretched, time expanding to hold all the things unspoken.
Finally, Matheus looked away, scrubbing at his face.
The crossbow sagged.
“What you want is under the driver’s seat,” Carruthers said. “I see you again, I’ll kill you.” He dropped the crossbow and walked away, his shoulders curved forward as though his ribcage had vanished.
Quin exhaled, turning to Matheus.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Matheus wanted to rage at him, but instead he climbed mutely into the passenger’s seat, watching in the mirror as the thick trees thinned and disappeared.