He’d been wandering the desert for days. He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there, only remembered that he’d needed silence. Remembered the swell of green land sliding away beneath him, electric light always hazing the horizon. He’d flown farther and farther until he could no longer hear the voices, could no longer smell the blood and oil smell of human cities. In this silent nothing land, he’d come crashing to his feet, suddenly whole, suddenly aching flesh and empty gut.
His mind swirled and stilled in cycles, black spots floating in his vision when the sun stood high and burning, color bursting in his peripheral when the shadow of night came cold across the sands. All the while, he walked. He saw flames in the sunrise swallowing the sky, black smoke haunting in his nostrils. When sunset fell, he dreamed with his eyes open, with his feet marching, dreamed of blood on his tongue, copper taste thick with terror. When the midnight creatures howled, it shrilled into the cries of women.
One foot in front of the other, again and again, time melting as body became stone. Heavier. Heavier.
Until his toes struck on a body in the dirt.
He stopped. He looked down and blinked at the limbs, the torso, the head. A human. It had a hole in its chest. The blood hadn’t quite dried yet, the ground beneath it a rich mud.
The smell clicked him back into present reality. It stabbed through his nose, down into his lungs, straight into the core of his belly, which clenched in upheaval.
He dropped to his knees and gathered the soft, cooling mass in his arms.
There can be no harm in this.
The head fell back, exposing the neck. Pressure in his mouth as his upper canines ached and swelled. He tried not to think. Reduced to picking at carcasses like a carrion bird.
He took a mouthful of cold flesh, but a sudden knot clogged his throat. The screaming again, the rotten odor of blood and fear swelling in his brain until he felt his head would explode. He jerked away and spit at the ground before he could taste blood.
But there were others. He lifted his head and took in his surroundings. A large building sat a short distance away. It smelled of grease and metal and dust, and he heard three heartbeats inside. A fourth wandered the yard of abandoned machinery, trailing blood through the weeds. He had enough thought left in him to realize he’d sensed them from a distance and had altered his path to find them.
His vision blurred and his fingers shook when he stood. His stepping became swaying as he approached the wilting fence surrounding the building. Voices inside. The rapid pop of gunfire. A woman and three men, warm and alive.
With the last inch of his strength, he abandoned his solid form. He let his body come loose, the molecules of him drifting apart until he was just a shadow, a black mist hovering over the land.
He rushed through the side of the warehouse and floated. He couldn’t see in this form, but could feel his surroundings, solid and air, living and not. He found his way into the rafters and perched there once he’d solidified. The interior stretched beneath him in dim splashes of bluish light, a graveyard of rusted machinery and stacks of barrels and sacks of noxious powders. On the far side of the room, two men cowered behind crates. Beneath him, this side of a twenty-foot-tall rack, the woman leaned over a stack of bags on the bottom shelf with a weapon cradled in her arms. The two groups traded occasional shots in a seemingly endless stalemate.
He watched one of the men rise from his cover. A crack splintered the stillness. The sack beneath the woman’s elbow ruptured in a spray of pale blue powder, and she flinched back with a thin line of blood welling from her forearm.
His nostrils flared. His fingers dug into the steel beam beneath him. He leaned toward her, his lips pulled back from straining teeth, but as the scent sunk into his body, his belly rolled with a wave of fire and he felt his throat seize closed again.
The woman hoisted herself from her cover, waited until she saw the first shooter’s head and arm come into view. He watched her slim finger squeeze the trigger, and a breath later, the man’s skull was gone.
“You goddamn bitch!”
“I told you this could be easy or hard!” she called back. Her words were muffled by a cloth draped over her mouth and knotted beneath a dark spill of hair. “You assholes keep choosing the hard way.”
He heard the shuffling steps of the wounded man just outside, heard his blood pattering in errant drips against the concrete. The door behind the woman swung open with a groan. She spun away from her standoff with a gasp, her bright eyes wide.
They were green even in the garish electric light, but he saw blue. Glassy blue with round black pupils wide enough to suck the world into their terror. The familiar scream echoed from the ether inside, took physical space in his brain until his entire head throbbed with the growing pressure of it. His teeth pulsed and his jaw clenched, his tongue swollen dry inside an arid mouth, craving just a single lick of hot red.
There would be no end to the craving, to the nightmares, to that long scream rising unanswered into the black night. No end but the one he could choose, in the few seconds he had left to make a choice.
He chose to come down from the shadows.
She was dead, she knew it before she turned around. She heard the door open behind her and turned to the gleam of a gun barrel aimed straight at her face. She’d seen him go down in the yard, her own two bullets plugged in his torso, but she hadn’t had time to check, just as she didn’t have time now to fully regret the mistake.
Her eyes crashed shut, and her body tensed. One, two, three shots. She waited. Waited. Realized the open air had turned close around her and opened her eyes to find a shadow towering over her. A man where no man should logically have been.
The stranger’s body coughed light spatters of blood to the floor beneath him, as if his circulation was so sluggish that even this was not proper occasion to bleed, then the dark mass of him pitched dead to the concrete.
She froze. Junior froze. He blinked down at his accidental victim, brows creased, mouth agape. He was holding the shot in his gut with one slick hand while the other, armed with pistol, hovered toward the ground.
She snapped her rifle up and shot twice for good measure. Mason Donnelly Junior would not be getting back up this time.
Behind her, across the warehouse, she heard Eric scream for his lost brothers. He’d be an easy target now that he was alone.
As she shouldered the rifle and turned toward her last mark, her boot caught the stranger in the side. A breath wheezed out of him.
She jumped back, then dropped to a crouch beside him. Long black tangles of hair and beard curtained his face, but the rest of him was naked but for the many layers of desert crusted on his skin.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
His lids drooped, but his eyes still focused. They were red as the blood dribbling from the holes in his chest with each lazy pump of his heart. Almost glowing with some internal hellfire light, maybe. Or maybe the stress of nearly dying had made her crazy.
“What are you?” she asked this time. “What the hell did you just do?”
No answer. She stood and tensed in preparation to run, but paused with her weight on the balls of her feet and looked down at him again.
Still one reward she could collect. Eric was worth a pittance on his own, but it’d be something to help her recoup the time she’d wasted coming out here. Maybe what he knew would make it all worthwhile once she pried his secrets out of him.
Somewhere on the other side of the rack, Eric shouted about calling for back-up, trying to scare her. Meanwhile, those red eyes kept staring. The stranger had appeared from nothing. Simply popped into existence between her and certain death and somehow, he was still alive, though barely.
She slung the rifle behind her back and stooped to grab the stranger beneath one shoulder. He was mostly dead weight in her arms, his head lolling back against his other shoulder, but she braced him against her and began dragging him toward the door.
“I’m going to help you.” She glanced over to see him still staring at her from a bloodless face. “Don’t make me regret this.”
She shoved Junior’s body aside with the thrust of one boot and leveled her free shoulder against the metal door he’d come through. With a look over her shoulder to make sure there’d be no further surprises, she eased the door open just enough for them to slip out and caught the back-swing with her heel before it could slam shut.
“Lucky I have some experience sneaking out on guys.”
She nearly dropped him down the concrete steps, but managed instead to slam her hip into the railing as she lost balance. It wasn’t until she was trekking through the yard that they both went down, her foot snagged on an iron beam hidden in the grass.
The air jarred from her as she fell forward, and the last half-gulp of oxygen in her lungs squeaked out as he fell half atop her. Struggling for breath, she turned her head to look at him, some half-formed apology or dismissal poised at the tip of her tongue. She meant to speak it to the back of his head, but his face rolled toward hers, red eyes burning at her from beneath black tangles.
The movement was slow, but she jumped all the same. His pale lips flashed in the dark. Teeth clicked. Trying to speak, she thought. Likely his last words.
“You’re not going to make it,” she said, as if trying to reason with him. “What were you even doing there? Where did you come from? Why—”
A crash from the warehouse. She wasn’t sure what Eric was doing, but it couldn’t be good. If she tried to go back now, she’d be on the defensive, entering his territory without the element of surprise.
She pushed herself up, reached down, and with a labored grunt, hefted the stranger up again.
“Are you another hunter?” she asked as she started out of the yard toward a hole in the chain link fence. “Trying to muscle in on my catch, maybe?” Out of the yard. She began the long shuffle around the rocky outcropping she’d used for a watch point earlier in the day. She’d only seen four men near the warehouse, certainly none of them naked. “Guess if that were the case, you’d have let me die, though. Never seen anyone hunt naked either. Maybe you’re just a junkie looking for a purer fix. Forget the production and go straight for the supply?”
The sight of her truck on the other side of the rock put an extra push in her step until she finally reached the tailgate. With a last heave, she pushed him into the bed.
“You definitely look like some kind of a junkie.”
She shut the tailgate and circled around to the driver’s side, climbed in, started the engine, and slammed her foot down on the gas. She wanted a good head start before the last remaining Donnelly brother got a posse up to track her.
After an hour riding off the roads, thumping across the sun-eaten terrain, she finally felt she had gone far enough, that she and the stranger were alone enough in the dark wide-open, that she stopped and slid out of her seat. He didn’t look at her as she climbed into the back. Didn’t even twitch. His lids were waxy blue beneath the heavy sweep of his brow.
She held her fingers over his nose and mouth. Nothing. She pressed her fingers into his neck, below his jaw line, and felt the slow, faint, but present thump of a pulse.
“What are you?”
His eyelids lifted. The reds beneath were murky, the pupils aimed near her, but not at her. He closed his eyes again.
She could open the tailgate, drag him out, and leave him. If he could survive this long full of bullets and empty of breath, maybe he’d conquer the wilds on his own. She scanned the flatlands and thought about it.
Instead, she leaned over him, snagged the handle of a green canvas duffle bag, and dragged it close. She kept an assortment of medical supplies inside, some of them used, some of them new, all of them clean after the last time she’d stitched herself up alone on the side of the road. She rolled rubber gloves over her fingers and fished a pair of forceps from the pile of gleaming instruments.
They were a solid day’s ride from anything resembling a hospital, and she’d pass out at the wheel long before they ever arrived. The clouds had peeled back from the moon, and the light shone pure enough to offer guidance for her hands. Each bullet came clear with a gush of blood, proof that a heart still beat somewhere in that cold, stiff body.
“I don’t know if this’ll help,” she said. She tossed aside the forceps for needle and thread. “Can’t hurt, I guess.”
She leaned close for the careful work of stitching, but the lurch of her skin made her peer up to catch those eyes staring into her. Through her.
Her fingers fumbled in shock, and the needle bit deep into the pad of her thumb. Blood spurted across the stranger’s skin, hot drops into the raw pink tear she’d been weaving shut.
An apology hovered on her lips, but the words fled with another glance at him. Light glittered in his eyes like sparks, like fire.
“Trick of the light,” she muttered and went back to work.
He was still bleeding internally, but she could do little for that. All her training had come from books and desperate self-experimentation.
When she was done, she stood and looked down at him.
“You’ll probably be dead before sunrise.”
He stared. The hair at the back of her neck prickled as her senses whispered to her body the truth her brain had been speaking all along: danger.
Despite her efforts, she began to hope she would not be wrong.