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.
Matheus halted, mid-creep, staring across at a clearing with one hundred percent more cabin than he expected. After Hunter Junior, Matheus decided some circumspection might be a good idea, given the long odds on a lucky knockout twice in a row. He focused on each step, stopping at every snapped twig or crushed leaf, so dedicated to sneaking that basic observation fell by the wayside. The trees thinned out, giving way to waist-high brush that offered nothing toward concealment. Tiny nettles pricked at Matheus as he crouched, ready to run if necessary.
The cabin sat in the center of the clearing, a small outbuilding tucked about five yards behind it. Both structures looked as though made from leftover parts. Brown paint covered the left side, a darker shade on the right. Stacks of concrete blocks served as a makeshift foundation. The rumbling sound of a generator explained the floodlight next to the door and the lit cabin windows. Figures moved inside, too indistinct for Matheus to make an accurate count.
The door opened, and Matheus ran into the trees.
A lone man emerged, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and lit one. He rested his elbows on the porch railing and stared into the woods.
Matheus watched the smoke twist lazily in the light. He gnawed on his fingernail, a habit from his childhood that he thought he’d broken. He needed to get inside. He assumed the cabin had only one or two rooms, which did not offer a lot of opportunities, stealth-wise.
Matheus tasted the spoiled food tang of his own blood on his tongue. He lowered his hand, the nail bitten down to a ragged edge. Visions of gloves soaked in chili powder flooded in. Well into adulthood, Matheus associated Mexican food with a sense of shame. Every time he ate a burrito, he had the strange desire to hide his fingernails. He scowled at his hands. Mud from his underground adventure streaked his skin, except for the damp spots where he’d been gnawing. Shoving his fists into his pockets, Matheus turned his attention back to the cabin.
The future lung cancer patient flicked the butt of his cigarette onto the patch of dirt and weeds that served as the cabin’s lawn. Pausing to swat a moth fluttering around the porch light, the hunter went inside. The ember of the cigarette glowed red-gold, rolling slightly as the wind picked up.
Matheus cursed softly as he realized he’d raised his finger to his mouth again. He wondered what would happen to his finger if he chewed it off. Quin knew, but he had gotten himself captured, much to Matheus’ inconvenience. Although, judging from what Matheus saw yesterday, the hunters didn’t take captives. Matheus let his gaze drift away from the cabin to the small outbuilding.
No, Matheus thought. No way. No fucking way.
Skirting the edge of the clearing, Matheus approached the outhouse from the back. He waited, listening for an occupant. While ambushing a hunter with his pants down might even the odds, attacking a man in the john just felt wrong, in more ways than one.
When no sounds of grunting or magazine rustling came, Matheus slipped inside, door latch clacking into place behind him. As far as outhouses went, this seemed acceptable. A bucket of lime sat by the door; the scent of cedar laced through the more . . . earthy smells. Not a place Matheus wanted to linger.
“Quin,” he hissed. “Are you down there?” He tilted his head, leaning from side to side in an effort to peer into the hole without sticking his whole head down there. Something moved in the muck, a shifting of shadows over the slightly oily surface. Matheus hoped to God Quin was down there. He already lived in one kind of horror movie. He didn’t want to start hopping sub-genres.
“Give me a hand.” Quin’s voice echoed up, filtered and diminished by the small space.
“Oh, God, do I have to?” Matheus asked. He inched toward the hole, raising the rough-hewn seat with the tip of his index finger. “It smells terrible.”
“I mean, really terrible. I’m tempted to eat something just so I can throw up.”
“All right, all right.”
Kneeling on the floor, Matheus stuck his arm though the hole, straining to hold his face as far away as possible. Quin’s hand felt slick and sticky from things Matheus did not want to think about. Goop squeezed through his fingers, dripping off in thick globs.
“This is repulsive,” he groaned. Quin’s weight pulled against him, threatening full-scale biceps apocalypse. Art historians weren’t generally known for their weight-lifting abilities.
“You think it’s repulsive,” said Quin with a grunt. “I spent all day down there.” A hand waved over the top of the hole, feeling for the edge of the bench. Bit by bit, Quin climbed out of the hole. He worked out one arm, forcing Matheus to act as a brace while he wiggled his other shoulder through. After that, he lifted himself upward until his butt rested on the edge of the seat. He drew up his legs, the left, then the right.
Matheus pressed his back against the door, the handle digging into him. Partially to give Quin room to work, but mostly as a self-defense maneuver against the dripping horror before him. Matheus didn’t feel quite so bad about his own clothes now.
Quin wiped the goop out of his eyes, throwing it onto the floor with a thick splatter.
Matheus offered him the roll of toilet paper. He’d already cleaned his hand, draining the entire bottle of sanitizer.
The thin sheets stuck to Quin’s fingers and tore, leaving him covered into tiny tufts of cheap cotton. Worst shave ever, Matheus thought. Each time the paper broke, Quin swore a little louder as he spun off more paper. Soon he had half a roll wadded up in one hand.
Matheus had to bite his lip to keep from grinning. Watching Quin attempt to clean himself off with discount tissue paper entertained him far more than he expected.
“How did you fit through there?” Matheus asked.
“I’m very flexible,” said Quin. His face mostly clear, he tossed the remnants of the toilet paper into the hole.
“Quin, some advice? Don’t flirt when you’re covered in shit.” Matheus peeked around the door, checking if Emphysema Man had stepped out for another fix.
“I wasn’t flirting.”
Outside, Matheus inhaled deeply. The air smelled of damp earth, cigarette smoke, and diesel. Not the best combination, but Matheus was ready to bottle it as a new perfume. He edged away from Quin, closer to the cabin.
“I wasn’t,” said Quin, following Matheus. His shoes squelched, leaving messy footprints on the grass.
“Right.” Matheus looked over his shoulder, making sure Quin saw him rolling his eyes. “‘I’m very flexible, wink-wink.’ Not flirting at—”
Matheus snapped his head around. He got a brief glimpse of the smoker, cigarette dangling precariously from his gaping mouth, before Quin grabbed his arm and ran full tilt into the woods. Behind them, the hunter shouted, calling the others out of the cabin. Matheus heard the rain of boots over the porch, then the wind swallowed the sound as Quin zigzagged through the trees. He do-si-doed Matheus around a massive stump, then lost his grip as he skidded down a small ravine.
Matheus waved Quin off as he tried to grab him again, doggedly running up the other side of the ravine on his own. The ground started to slope downhill, helping Matheus put on another burst of speed. He was not a runner. He didn’t know how to use his body; arms and legs moved in competition, not concert. Yet after a few seconds, he found an odd sort of rhythm. I’m doing it, he thought, as the trees turned into a greenish-brown blur. He felt like he had Pop Rocks in his blood, the jittery, overwhelming feeling of glee rising up over his memories of the last fortnight. Quin raced in front, but Matheus kept him in sight. Twigs and leaves whipped over his skin like razors; Matheus didn’t care. He went fast, so fast, faster and faster and—
Matheus landed flat on the ground, a blinding pain exploding across his face. He’d underestimated the need for maneuverability as well as speed. An ancient oak tree loomed over Matheus, sedate in its victory.
“Fuck,” Matheus moaned, feeling along the bridge of his nose. The cartilage had a kink that hadn’t been there before. He prodded the pulpy flesh, grimacing at the pain, but unable to stop.
Ferns whispered together as Quin returned. He joined the oak tree in its looming, clearly a traitor in the stationary/ambulatory battle for supremacy.
“Hit a tree, did you?” Quin asked, as though Matheus might have decided to take a power nap.
Matheus bit back the automatic sarcasm and nodded.
“I think my nose is broken,” he said indistinctly.
“You think so.” Quin tilted his head to the side.
Matheus glowered at him. Quin would end up with a broken nose of his own if he kept up with the sardonic superiority. As if Quin had never run into a tree. Seventeen hundred years old? He must have run into a tree at some point.
Quin knelt, pushing Matheus down as he tried to stand.
“You should brace yourself,” Quin said. He placed a thumb on either side of Matheus’ nose. “This is going to hurt.”
“Wait, don’t—Motherfucker!” Matheus yelled, as Quin snapped his nose straight with a sickening crack. “What the fuck was that?”
“Quiet.” Quin slapped a hand over Matheus’ mouth, looking off toward the direction they had come. Matheus waved his arms frantically as muffled protests slipped out of his mouth. He hadn’t forgotten where Quin’s hands had just been.
“Vae,” Quin whispered, yanking Matheus to his feet.
A second later, Matheus heard why, as a long, echoing howl rose up like a beacon.
“They have dogs? That’s cheating!”
“Dogs are used for hunting,” Quin said. “Come on.”
He started to the east, but Matheus stopped him. He recognized the outcropping of rocks from his trip to the cabin.
“No, this way,” he said. The howling got closer, the different animals interlacing together into a pattern of sound.
“There’s a river. I passed it on my way here. Dogs can’t follow through water, right?”
“That’s a myth,” said Quin.
“You have a better idea? You’re covered in excrement. Might as well lay out a trail with neon signs and fireworks.”
Quin glanced in the direction of the howls. He looked as though he wanted an excuse to argue with Matheus, but failed to find one.
“Fine,” he said. “Lead the way.”
The sound of dogs drove Matheus faster, around the rocky outcropping, moving steadily downhill. The ground cover thinned, turning into thick, dark mud that clung to Matheus’ shoes like cement. Quin kept pace behind him. Trees crashed at their backs as the pack careened after them, barking excitedly at the chase. Matheus imagined the hunters running with the dogs, crossbows ready to fire at the first sight of their quarry.
“Where is it?” Quin asked.
“Close,” said Matheus. At least, he hoped. How different did rocks look, really? Trees didn’t have handy street signs posted on them. River, .8 mi. “It’s right up he—aah!”
Matheus half-skidded, half-fell down a six-foot embankment. Knee-deep water flowed sluggishly around him, its surface masked with leaves and twigs.
“Son of a bitch.” Matheus cursed. He slipped on the slick bottom as he righted himself. The water left a thin layer of debris on his clothes. Green slime coated the palms of his hands where he had braced himself on the algae-covered stones. Bottled water companies liked to boast about their natural spring water, but Matheus had begun to think that none of their executives had actually seen a natural spring. No one wanted to drink this water, especially at two dollars a pop.
“Well, you found it,” said Quin, a barely repressed smirk on his face. He jumped down carefully, splashing Matheus with the rank water.
“This is not a river,” he said.
“It’s moving water, isn’t it?” Matheus slogged forward without waiting for Quin’s response.
“It’s barely a stream.”
“Shut up and run,” said Matheus.
Leaves created a thick layer of sludge on the bottom. Mud turned Matheus’ sneakers into blocks of lead, each step into a game of Russian roulette. Rocks dotted the length of the stream, hiding underneath the muck. Stepping on one of those guaranteed a tumble. Even Quin’s athletic grace didn’t save him. The first time he fell, Matheus laughed. By the fifth, he just hauled him upright and kept moving.
“Is it just me, or are the dogs getting closer?” Matheus asked.
“It’s not you,” Quin said.
“I hate dogs. I hate their slobber. Their fur getting all over the place. The way they jump all over you with their stupid tails wagging, and the owner just coos, ‘aw, he likes you!’” Matheus slipped, grabbing Quin’s arm in a desperate attempt to remain upright. With a great splash, they both went over.
“Is there anything you like?” Quin asked, shaking the water out of his face. He had a leaf plastered to his cheek.
Matheus peeled off the leaf and flicked it away.
“Lemurs,” he said.
“I like their tails,” said Matheus. “Stripey.” He pushed through the water. The level rose as he walked; the current picked up speed. Leaves swept past, catching on the occasional fallen tree or boulder. His momentum slowed. Despite the current, the effort of running through the water exhausted Matheus. The increased width allowed them to run side by side, but as the stream widened and deepened, the level of the embankment lowered, removing any cover they might have had.
“Stripy?” Quin said.
“Are you just going to repeat everything I say?” Matheus asked.
“What about a dog with stripes?”
“Do you like zebras? Tigers?”
“Can you keep a lemur as a pet?”
“I don’t know!” Matheus snapped. “What is wrong with you? Did the fumes get to your head?”
“Just making conversation,” said Quin, holding his hands above the surface. The water swirled just above his waist, a small, rippling wake trailing behind him.
“Well, stop. This is hard enough as it is.” Matheus’ calves and thighs ached, a dull burn that sapped at his strength.
“It was your brilliant idea.”
The water around them exploded with a bang that knocked out Matheus’ eardrums and nearly restarted his heart. Matheus screamed, throwing his arms up over his head. The river rained down around them, peppered with shards of rock and metal.
“Grenades!” Matheus shouted. “That is definitely cheating!”
“Dive!” Quin shoved him down as another grenade flew toward them.
A hunter stood at the top of the back, about to pull the pin on a third.
Matheus kicked through the murky water, using his arms to pull himself forward in long thrusts. He opened his eyes, but saw only blurry silt. The explosion had agitated the sediment lodged on the bottom, turning the already mucky water opaque. Matheus swam blindly, struggling to remain underwater.
Another grenade created a shockwave that lifted him up and sent him flying through the water. Matheus flailed as he spun, all sense of equilibrium lost. He knocked against the bottom of the river, arms and legs breaching the surface as he fought to regain control. His brain urged him to breath. Automatically, he inhaled, the thick, fetid water clogging his nostrils and filling his lungs. He found purchase on the river floor and pushed himself upright. The water surged around his shoulders. He choked out lungfuls of water, submerging with a yelp as crossbow bolts shattered the surface.
Something brushed over his leg. Matheus kicked frantically, as someone dragged him upward by a fistful of his hair.
“Stop that, it’s me,” said Quin. “Look.”
He pointed farther ahead. The hunters had started to gather around a bend in the stream, the best place to cut off Matheus and Quin before the stream joined the main river. A few of the dogs splashed into the water, heading toward them. Matheus glanced behind them.
Another group of hunters blocked their retreat.
“Stay deep,” Quin said, diving as a bolt whistled past his ear.
Matheus skimmed along the bottom, aiming for the middle of the river. The water deepened after the stream flowed into the river, but the amount of boulders increased. Another grenade sent waves rocketing through the water, and the bolts didn’t let up. Shouts filtered through, distorted beyond understanding, but Matheus guessed what they said. Occasionally, Quin bumped against Matheus, although with the level of murk, Matheus couldn’t differentiate between Quin and a big fish.
Catfish grew to over four hundred pounds in the wild. Maybe not this far north, but rationality had taken a backseat at this point.
Eventually, the blasts and shouts faded as the current drove Matheus and Quin farther downriver. They stayed underwater until gills sprouted in Matheus’ neck. While the ability to go without air had its uses, Matheus felt ready to embrace the world of oxygen and nitrogen once more.
The first set of rapids only made him more ready. The waterfall convinced him Quin just prolonged things to torment him. An hour passed. Two more sets of rapids. Matheus’ bruises combined and formed continents. His body was the Pangaea of bruises. When Quin tugged on his arm, Matheus took that as the signal to rise.
“Did we lose them?” he asked, shaking water out of his eyes.
To his right rose a small cliff face, dotted with dark hollows. The gray wall sloped downward, with an ambling path leading to the rocky beach at the cliff’s base.
“For now.” Quin nodded to the beach.
“I’m never going to get dry,” Matheus said, splashing out of the river, round pebbles crunching beneath his feet. He wrung two liters of water out of his shirt. “I’m going to be perpetually soggy forever. Everyone will know I’m coming by my squish-squish.”
“At least we’re clean,” said Quin. He carefully unbuttoned his shirt, shaking off the river debris before squeezing out the water, section by section. Scars crisscrossed his chest. Several ran lengthwise along his back, while others overlapped until the individual injuries joined in an indistinguishable mass. One, the width of Matheus’ wrist, ran along Quin’s abdomen, as though someone had tried to cut him in two.
“You call this clean?” Matheus asked, looking away. “I’m got river slime in my hair.”
“It looks very fetching,” Quin said. “Like a porno version of the Swamp Thing.”
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. It raises all sorts of images I don’t want to think about.”
Quin grinned at him. He slipped on his shirt, leaving it unbuttoned. With one hand, he smoothed down his hair, although Matheus didn’t know why he bothered. He doubted the paparazzi planned to make an appearance.
“There’s some caves farther up,” Quin said. “I think we should camp out there for the rest of the night. The current took us pretty far. It’ll take awhile for the hunters to catch up.”
“Are you sure? They have dogs and grenades. Maybe they have boats, too.”
“Maybe,” said Quin. “But it’d be awkward to carry them through the forest.”
“Kayaks. Those wildlife types like those.”
“We’ll risk it.” Quin’s snaggletooth caught on his lower lip. Clearly, he did not take Matheus’ kayak suggestion seriously.
“Fine.” Matheus looked down at his feet and sighed.
“I lost my shoes,” he said.
“Tragedy affects us all, sunshine,” Quin said.
The caves were damp, the air chilled far below the outside temperature. Luckily, one fissure went deep enough to provide cover for the day. Centuries ago, a tributary carved caverns out of the soft limestone, but shifting water levels left behind nothing but a few mushrooms. Matheus poked one, the springy, sticky flesh bouncing from his touch. He shivered and wrapped his arms around his chest, settling back against the rough wall. If he stood, his head banged against the low roof. They’d had to crawl in. At best, Matheus shuffled around in his best Quasimodo impression. A large tear decorated Matheus’ jeans, just one more vent to let in the cold air.
“I don’t suppose you know how to start a fire with two sticks,” he said.
“I’ve done it before, but we can’t,” Quin said. “It might attract attention.”
“We’re in a cave.”
“Where do you think the smoke is going to go? The hunters will be able to smell it if they get close.”
Matheus tried to pull the ends of his pants over his bare feet. He’d lost his shoes going over the waterfall, but his socks’ disappearance remained a mystery. His toes curled away from the icy floor. Matheus expected his clothes to be wet when he woke up; he had no body heat to help them along.
“Why do I still feel cold?” Matheus asked. “And pain.”
“I don’t know,” said Quin.
“But what is this? Is it a virus?”
“I don’t know.” Quin’s knees bumped against Matheus’. Only a couple of inches taller than Matheus, Quin’s height consisted mostly of leg. In the last ten minutes, he’d gone through more poses than a yoga textbook.
“It shouldn’t be possible,” Matheus said.
“Why?” Quin stretched out his legs and braced his feet on the opposite wall.
“How can something be alive and dead at the same time? What is it about blood? Wouldn’t it make more sense if we had to inject it? It doesn’t really get digested. Those systems don’t work anymore.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, sunshine. There are theories, but it’s not an area of science a lot of people spend time on.” Quin swung his legs around, laying on his back the length of the tiny cave, with his head propped up awkwardly on a bit of rock that jutted out of the wall. The narrow width of the cave meant Quin covered Matheus’ feet, no matter what..
“Aren’t you curious?” Matheus asked.
“Not really,” said Quin. “I am what I am. Knowing the mechanics won’t change that.”
“But maybe if we knew, then we could fix it.”
“Turn human again.”
Quin raised himself up, resting his weight on his elbows.
“Listen to me,” he said, his voice clear and tight in the darkness, shining blue as the edge of a freshly honed blade.
Matheus pressed hard against the wall, crushing a few mushrooms.
“There is no going back. You’re never going to be human again.”
“Matheus, stop it. You’re going to torture yourself if you keep thinking that.” Quin paused before adding, “I’ve seen it before.”
The lack of regret in Quin’s tone halted any more questions. The cold, simple sentence served as a brick wall to further conversation.
Matheus rested his chin on top of his knees, quiet until Quin lay back down. If Matheus concentrated, he heard water dripping in the walls. Two drips; one with a four-beat rest, and the other with seven. Matheus counted to twenty-eight, marking the time when the drops coincided. Eins, zwei, drei, vier, he thought before forcing himself to continue with five, six, seven, eight. Numbers clung in the grooves of Matheus’ mind, long after he’d overcome everything else. Even after ten years, he still began with eins, zwei, drei.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I didn’t have much of a life anyway.”
“I know. I watched you, remember?” Quin shifted, his back sliding over the tops of Matheus’ feet.
Matheus poked his big toe into the hard spinal muscle, then unsuccessfully dodged the flick Quin aimed at his knee in retaliation.
“Quin, why are we here?” Matheus asked. “Tell me there is a point to all this.”
“There’s a point.”
Quin flicked him again.
“They threw grenades at us. Grenades.”
“You’re going to have a very unsatisfying life if you obsess over reasons for everything,” said Quin.
“I watched you kill five people.”
“And, most likely, you’ll see me kill a lot more.”
Matheus shook his head.
“People die, sunshine. It’s what they do. Some people die sooner than others, but everybody goes in the end. I’m not going to worry about a handful trying to kill me anyway. I kill to eat, to survive, and I don’t see the point in feeling guilty about that.”
“You enjoy it,” said Matheus.
“Sometimes,” said Quin. “Depends on who I’m killing.”
Matheus plucked another mushroom, squishing the spongy stem between his thumb and forefinger.
“What about me?” he asked.
“What about you what?”
“Did you enjoy killing me?”
“Honestly?” Quin paused. “No. Killing someone who’s fainted feels a little like cheating. Not much sport in it at all.”
Matheus threw a mushroom at his head. He smirked as Quin’s return shot splattered on the wall a good six inches from his head.
“Why kill me at all then?” Matheus asked. “The real reason, this time.”
“I can’t tell you now,” Quin said, clearly annoyed as a second mushroom bounced off his forehead. “It’s too . . . maybe one day.”
Matheus picked another mushroom. The sun didn’t rise for another two hours. He needed some way to occupy himself.
“The next mushroom you throw is going somewhere extremely unpleasant,” Quin threatened.
“New Jersey?” Matheus asked.
Matheus opened his eyes at sunset, his face mashed against the rough stone floor and a heavy weight on his back, impacting his ribs into a solid mass. He pushed himself onto his elbows, rolling his neck back and forth. The symptoms of life were hard habits to break. He looked over his shoulder at Quin, then elbowed him in the chest.
“Hey,” Matheus said.
Quin didn’t move. Slackness loosened his features.
Matheus pressed a fingertip to Quin’s cheek. The flesh molded into an oval depression before slowly resuming a normal shape. He was dead, Matheus realized.
Well, of course he’s dead, Matheus thought, making a face. They were both dead, when it came down to nuts and bolts. Quin just had less mobility at the moment. Matheus tried to inch away as much as the small confines of the cave allowed. He might be a hypocrite, but knowing that didn’t stop the gut-sinking realization that a dead thing lay next to him.
A dead thing that blinked at him. Matheus relaxed his arms, dropping back to the cold floor. He turned over to face Quin.
“Urgh,” Quin groaned.
“The sun’s gone down,” Matheus said, pointing out the obvious in the face of Quin’s inability to rise and shine.
“Ger dobit.” Quin groped along the floor, searching for something before recognizing his situation and giving up.
“You’re so articulate. You must get all the pretty boys.”
Quin gave Matheus a dark look. Closing his eyes, he folded his arms over his chest. Matheus wondered if he intentionally chose the creepiest position possible, or if that came naturally.
“Are you going to get up?” he asked. “I know the stone floor is comfy, but don’t we have things to do?”
“Si vos errant meus filius, vendideram in meretricis antes vestri decimus natalis,” Quin said without opening his eyes.
“Really? You can’t manage a ‘good morning,’ but you reel that off?”
With a long, sustained sigh, Quin raised himself into a sitting position. He looked around the cave, at Matheus, then down at his feet. He blinked a few times, then slid, like a trickle of molasses, down the wall to pool on the cave floor.
“Bonus oriens,” he said, his eyes drifting closed. “Vos somnus puteus?”
“Ego dormivi quasi mortui.” said Matheus. He raised his eyebrows at Quin’s astonished stare. “Twelve years of Catholic school.”
“Your accent is terrible and the grammar is off,” said Quin.
“You try learning with an armed nun hovering over you.”
“An armed nun?”
“Those whippy metal rulers,” Matheus said. “They could take a finger off.”
“Poor baby,” said Quin with a faint grin. Matheus glowered at him.
“Latin’s a dead language, anyway,” he said.
“Bite your tongue.” Quin sounded like a shocked grandmother.
“That’s English you’re speaking,” Matheus said. “The language that sidles up to other languages in dark alleys, mugs them, then rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary. It’s the bitch-whore of languages and it owns the world. Suck on that, Rome boy.”
Quin groaned, turning to bury his head onto Matheus’ shoulder.
Matheus’ nerves felt as though someone had dipped them into a pail of dry ice. Usually, Quin limited his touches to the kind practiced by pre-adolescent siblings or extreme violence designed to make a point. This was . . . different.
“You would be a morning person,” mumbled Quin.
“It’s night,” Matheus said through numb lips.
“Same annoying behavior.” Quin slid his palm upward, resting it in the center of Matheus’ chest. Dirt crusted Quin’s nails, packed underneath the tips. They were slightly too long for current fashion, trimmed with square, coarse cuts. Matheus bet Quin had never chewed his nails in his life.
“Sorry.” Matheus fought the urge to push Quin’s hand away, not because the contact bothered him, but because it didn’t. Matheus didn’t think of himself as homophobic, but he drew the line at cuddling with other men. The strange connection he shared with Quin had to be the reason he wanted to curl closer.
His gaze moved up Quin’s arm, over his shoulder and up the sweep of his neck. He examined Quin’s ears, flat and neat against the fine curvature of his skull. Matheus pinched his forearm, his nails leaving tiny half-moons in his skin. Yes, he thought, definitely the connection, nothing else.
“I’m going to get some air,” Matheus said.
Quin made a noise in the back of his throat and curled up until his chin touched his knees.
Matheus shook his head.
“Pathetic,” he said.
“Fuck you,” said Quin.
Quin responded with a physical gesture Matheus didn’t recognize, but assumed was obscene. He replied with a more modern version of his own, but Quin didn’t notice, busy trying to pull the stone over his head á la blanket.
Matheus wiggled out of the crack into the claustrophobic passage that twisted and bent its way to the main cavern. He emerged with a fresh collection of scratches, the soles of his feet raw. The main room formed a shallow half-egg shape, hidden underneath an overhanging ledge. A natural path zigzagged down to the riverbank. Leaves, wet from an earlier rainstorm, littered the ground, a slick coating for Matheus as he skidded haphazardly down.
He paused at the bottom, sticking his feet in the river and letting the cool water wash away the stinging heat. The clouds had cleared away, leaving behind a dizzying amount of stars. Matheus hadn’t seen that many since he was a boy, twenty years at least. A long stretch of flickering points streaked across the center of the sky, the edge of the Milky Way a cross-section of time and light. The night sky never looked like this in the city. Maybe nature had its upside. He could buy a cabin and—
Something slimy brushed against Matheus’ ankle, and he jumped, landing hard on his bottom. He waded out of the river, doomed to spend the night with wet pants. Who the hell was he kidding? If he wanted to look at stars, Kenderton had a planetarium. Matheus nudged at a pebble with his toe. He wondered how much longer Quin planned to lounge about. The moon had begun to rise. In a couple of hours, Matheus wouldn’t be able to see the Milky Way at all. He poked at another pebble, rolling it next to the first and beginning a mini pebble pyramid. Behind him came the sound of soggy footsteps. Matheus turned.
“Oh, so you finally decided—” Matheus cut off as a pair of hunters leapt toward him, grabbing at his arms. He screamed, and jerked one arm free in a quick, snapping motion.
The hunter swore as he clutched at Matheus’ shirt. He hooked one leg around Matheus’ ankle. All three went down in a jumble, water and sand splashing up around them.
“Get his wrists!” someone shouted as Matheus struggled to stand. One of the hunters drove his knee into the base of Matheus’ spine. He leaned forward, all his weight pressing Matheus into the silt, while the other hunter twisted Matheus’ wrists until the bones shrieked.
“Where’s the gag?” he yelled.
Matheus arched his neck to the brink of breaking. He spat out a mouthful of sand and mud, and drew in a huge breath.
“Quin!” he screamed. “Quin! Get your ass—”
A hunter jammed a gag into his mouth, homemade, wooden with leather straps, marred with teeth marks. Matheus felt sick. Plastic zip-ties bound his wrists together. The other hunter lifted his knee, and hauled Matheus upright. Two men stood on either side of him, one holding a broadsword a half-inch away from Matheus’ Adam’s apple. Four more ranged in front of them, hands ready on their crossbows.
“Where’s the other one?” asked the hunter on the left.
“He’ll be around. He won’t go too far from this one.” The speaker walked forward, letting his crossbow swing loose at his side. Late forties, gray hair cut high and tight. A necklace of fangs rattled around his neck, like the kindergarten art project of a future serial killer. Some of the fangs still had a rust-colored crust around the root.
“How do you know?” asked the man with the broadsword. He reeked of cigarettes. Matheus recognized him as the smoker from the cabin.
“I told you, if you want to play the game, you have to pay attention. This one,” the man nodded at Matheus, “is fresh-turned. No way his master is going to let him wander away. Not an old one like Quin. The young ones, they don’t understand the old traditions.”
He shot a look at the hunter to his right.
Matheus growled through his gag. He threw himself backward. The hunter holding him let him fall, then delivered a trio of quick kicks to his ribs. Choking, Matheus rolled onto his stomach, saliva dripping out around the gag. Someone reached down, and grabbed his bound wrists, forcing him to stand. The sword kissed the skin of his throat. Matheus froze, his eyes going wide at the older hunter. The man gave him a dismissive look, then turned away, pointing up the steep hill.
“Set up camp over there, on high ground,” he said. “Send a party into the cave. At least three men.”
Half the hunting party split off, including the sword bearer, and headed for the narrow path. Matheus screamed through the gag. He hurled his weight to the left, knocking the hunter into the river, and tangling his feet around one another. Stumbling backward, he tried to turn, tripped up by his own unruly limbs.
“Stand back,” said the older hunter as Matheus found his equilibrium. The man about to grab Matheus stepped back with a smirk.
Matheus barely had time to process this before something struck him in the chest.
His body went rigid as every nerve overloaded, overwhelming pain blocking out the entire world. Matheus’ reality compressed to the wild, jittering tension of his muscles. He thought he shrieked for the hunter to stop, but he didn’t possess enough control to force out the sounds.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” he slurred around the wooden gag. His cheek pressed into the wet dirt, his legs splayed out akimbo. He didn’t remember falling. A tired ache vibrated deep in his bones; the shock had torn out any muscle fiber he’d possessed. Twisting his eyes up to the hunter took more effort than Matheus had ever exerted in his life.
“Fifty thousand volts,” the hunter said, stroking the Taser with a fond smile. “Military grade. Best purchase I ever made.”
Matheus closed his eyes. Looking at things hurt.
“What are we going to do with him?” someone asked. The older hunter spat, the gob splattering on Matheus’ ear.
“String him up,” he said.