The radio clicked off.
Zarek sat perfectly still in the darkness and listened to Mike breathing in the cockpit.
So, the prick had changed his mind about killing him.
Well, bully that. The Squire had finally grown a ball, and half a brain. At some point during the last few hours Mike must have decided that suicide wasn’t the answer.
For that, Zarek would let him live.
But he would make him suffer for the privilege.
And may the gods help the rest who were coming for him. On the frozen ground that made up Alaska’s interior, Zarek was invincible. Unlike the other Dark-Hunters and Squires, he’d had nine hundred years of arctic survival training. Nine hundred years of just him and the uncharted wilderness.
Sure, Acheron had visited every decade or so just to make certain he was still alive, but no one else had ever come calling.
And people wondered why he was insane.
Up until about ten years ago, he’d had no contact whatsoever with the outside world during the long summer months that forced him to live inside his remote cabin.
No phone, no computer, no television.
Nothing but the quiet solitude of rereading the same stack of books over and over again until he had them memorized. Waiting in eager anticipation for the nights to grow long enough for him to be able to travel from his rural cabin into Fairbanks while the businesses were still open and he could interact with people.
For that matter, it had only been about a century and a half since the area had been sufficiently populated for him to have any human contact at all.
Before that, for untold centuries he had lived up here alone without another human being anywhere near him. He’d only occasionally caught sight of natives who were terrified to find a strange, tall Caucasian man with fangs living in a remote forest. They would take one look at his six-foot-six height and musk-ox parka and then run as fast as they could in the other direction, screaming out that the Iglaaq was going to get them. Superstitious to the extreme, they had built up an entire legend based on him.
That left the rare visits of the winter Daimons, who would venture into his woods so that they could say they’d faced down the lunatic Dark-Hunter. Unfortunately, they had been more interested in fighting than conversation and so his association with them had always been brief. A few minutes of combat to alleviate the monotony and then he was alone again with the snow and bears.
And they weren’t even were-bears.
The magnetic and electrical charges of the aurora borealis made it almost impossible for any of the Were-Hunters to venture so far north. It also played havoc with his electronics and satellite linkups, blacking out his communications periodically year round so that even in this modern world, he was still painfully alone.
Maybe he should have let them kill him after all.
And yet somehow he always found himself carrying on. One more year, one more summer.
One more communications blackout.
Basic survival was all Zarek had ever known.
He swallowed as he remembered New Orleans.
How he’d loved that city. The vibrancy. The warmth. The mixture of exotic smells, sights, and sounds. He wondered if the people who lived there realized just how good they had it. Just how privileged they were to be blessed with such a great town.
But that was behind him now. He’d screwed up so badly that there was no chance whatsoever of either Artemis or Acheron allowing him back into a populated area where he could interact with large crowds of people.
It was him and Alaska for eternity. All he could really hope for was a massive population explosion, but given the severity of the weather, that was about as likely as his getting stationed in Hawaii.
With that thought in mind, he started pulling his snow gear out of the duffel bag and putting it on. It would be early morning when they arrived and still dark, but the dawn wouldn’t be far behind. He’d have to hurry to make it to his cabin before sunup.
By the time he’d rubbed Vaseline on his skin and had changed into his long johns, black turtleneck sweater, and long musk-ox coat and insulated winter boots, he could feel the helicopter descending toward land.
On impulse, Zarek sifted through the weapons in his duffel bag. He’d learned a long time ago to carry a wide assortment of tools. Alaska was a harsh place to be on your own and you never knew when you’d meet something deadly.
Centuries ago, Zarek had made the decision to be the deadliest thing on the tundra.
As soon as they landed, Mike cut the engine and then waited for the blades to stop spinning before he got out, cursed at the subzero temperature, and opened the door to the back. Mike raked a repugnant sneer over him as he stepped back to give Zarek enough room to vacate the chopper.
"Welcome home," Mike said with a note of gleeful venom in his voice. The prick was enjoying the thought of the Squires tracking him down and dismembering him.
Well, so was Zarek.
Mike blew his breath into his gloved hands. "Hope it’s all you remembered it as."
It was. Nothing here ever changed.
Zarek flinched at the brightness of the snow even in the darkness of predawn. He pulled his goggles down over his eyes to protect them and climbed out. He grabbed his duffel bag, slung it over his shoulder, then waded through the crunching snow toward the climate-controlled shed where he’d left his custom-built Ski-Doo MX Z Rev the week before.
Oh, yeah, now this was the subfreezing temperature he remembered, the arctic air that bit so fiercely, every piece of his exposed skin burned. He clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering-something that wasn’t pleasant when a man had long, sharp fangs in place of teeth.
Mike was heading back for the cockpit when Zarek turned around to face him.
"Hey, Mike," he called, his voice ringing out through the cold stillness.
"Rumpelstiltskin," he said before he tossed a live grenade underneath the helicopter.
Mike let out a fetid curse as he loped through the snow as fast as he could, trying to reach shelter.
For the first time in a long while, Zarek smiled at the sight of the irate Squire and the sound of the snow crunching under Mike’s harried feet.
The helicopter exploded the same instant Zarek reached his snowmachine. He slung one long, leather-encased leg over the black seat and looked back as pieces of the twenty-three-million-dollar Sikorsky helicopter rained fiery metal over the snow.
Ahh, fireworks. How he loved them. The sight was almost as beautiful as the aurora borealis.
Mike was still cursing and jumping up and down like a small angry child as he watched his custom-built baby go up in flames.
Zarek started his engine and rode over to Mike, but not before he dropped another grenade to detonate the shed, thus preventing the Squire from using it.
As the snowmachine vibrated in idle beneath him, he pulled his scarf down enough so that Mike could understand him when he spoke. "Town is four miles that way," he said, pointing toward the south. He tossed Mike a small tube of Vaseline. "Keep your lips covered so they don’t bleed."
"I should have killed you," Mike snarled.
"Yeah, you should have." Zarek covered his face, and revved his engine. "By the way, if you happen upon wolves in the woods, remember, they really are wolves and not Were-Hunters on the prowl. They also travel in packs so if you hear one, there’s more behind him. My best advice for that is to climb a tree and hope they get bored before a bear comes along and decides to climb up after you."
Zarek spun his machine around and headed toward the northeast where his cabin waited in the middle of three hundred acres of forest.
He should probably feel guilty over what he’d done to Mike, but he didn’t. The Squire had just learned a valuable lesson. Next time Artemis or Dionysus made him an offer, he’d take it.
Zarek rotated his wrist, giving the snowmachine more power as it bucked over the rough, snowy trail. He still had a long way to go to get home and his time was running out.
Daybreak was coming.
Damn. He should have ridden his Mach Z in. It was sleeker and faster than the MX Z Rev that he was on now, but not nearly as much fun.
Zarek was cold, hungry, and tired, and in a weird way all he wanted to do was get back to things that were familiar.
If the other Squires wanted to hunt him down, so be it. At least this way he was forewarned.
And as the helicopter and shed had shown, forearmed.
If they wanted to take him on, then he wished them luck. They were going to need it and a whole lot of reinforcements.
Looking forward to the challenge, he flew his snowmachine over the frozen terrain.
It was just before sunrise when he reached his isolated cabin. More snow had fallen while he was away, blocking his door. He pulled the snowmachine into the small shed that was attached to his cabin and covered it with a tarp. As he started to plug in his warmer for the engine, he realized there was no power in the outlet for either the MX or the Mach that was parked beside it.
He snarled in anger. Damn. No doubt the block for the Mach had been cracked from the subzero temperatures, and if he wasn’t careful the MX’s engine would crack, too.
Zarek rushed outside to check his generators before the sun rose over the hills, only to find both of them frozen solid and not working.
He snarled again as he struck one with his fist.
Well, so much for comfort. Looked like it was going to be him and the small wood-burning stove today. Not the best source of heat, but it was the best he was going to get.
"Great, just great," he muttered. It wasn’t the first time he’d been forced to endure a cold sleep on his cabin floor. No doubt it wouldn’t be the last.
It just seemed worse this morning because he’d spent the last week in New Orleans’s mild climate. It had been so warm while he was there that he hadn’t even needed to use the heat at all.
Man, how he missed that place.
Knowing his time before sunrise was growing critically short, he trudged back to his snowmachine and packed its engine with his parka to help keep as much of the heat around it as he could. Then he retrieved his duffel bag from the seat and went to dig his door out so that he could get inside his cabin.
He ducked as he came through the door and kept his head bent down. The ceiling was low, so low that if he stood up straight the top of his head would brush it, and if he wasn’t paying attention, his ceiling fan in the center of the room would decapitate him.
But the low ceiling was necessary. Heat in the heart of winter was a valuable commodity and the last thing anyone wanted was the bulk of it gathered under a ten-foot ceiling. A lower ceiling meant a warmer place.
Not to mention that nine hundred years ago when he’d been banished here, he hadn’t had very long to build his shelter. Sleeping in a cave during daylight, he’d worked on the cabin at night until he had finally constructed Home Crappy Home.
Yes, it was good to be back…
Zarek dropped his duffel bag beside the wood-burning stove. Then he turned and placed the old-fashioned wooden bolt into its cradle over the door to bar it from the Alaskan wildlife that sometimes ventured too close to his cabin.
Feeling his way along the carved wall with his hand, he found the lantern that hung there and the small box of lucifer matches that was attached to it. Even though his Dark-Hunter eyesight was designed for nighttime, he couldn’t see in complete darkness. With the door closed, his cabin was sealed so tightly that no light whatsoever could permeate its thick wooden walls.
Lighting the lantern, he shivered from the cold as he turned around to face the interior of his home. He knew every inch of the place intimately. Every bookshelf that lined the walls, every hand-carved, ornamental notch that decorated it.
He’d never had much in the way of furniture. Two tall cupboards; one for his handful of clothes and one for his food. There was also a stand for his television and his bookshelves, and that was pretty much it. As a former Roman slave, Zarek wasn’t used to much.
It was so cold inside that he could see his breath even through the scarf and as he looked around the small space he grimaced at his computer and television-both of which would have to be defrosted before he could use them again.
Provided no moisture had gotten into them.
Unwilling to worry about that, he made his way to his food pantry in the back where he kept nothing but canned goods. He’d learned a long time ago that if the bears and wolves smelled food, they would quickly pay him an unwanted visit. He had no desire to kill them just because they were hungry and stupid.
Zarek grabbed a can of pork and beans and his can opener and sat down on the floor. Mike had refused to feed him during their thirteen-hour trip from New Orleans to Fairbanks. Mike had claimed that he didn’t want to chance exposing Zarek to sunlight to feed him.
In reality, the Squire was a jerk, and starvation was nothing new to Zarek.
"Ah, great," he muttered as he opened the can to find the beans frozen solid inside. He considered pulling out his ice pick, then changed his mind. He wasn’t so hungry that a pork and beans popsicle appealed to him.
He sighed in disgust, then opened the door and tossed the can as far into the woods as he could.
Slamming the door shut before he let the dawn light in, Zarek rooted through his duffel bag until he found his cell phone, MP3 player, and laptop. He tucked the phone and player down into his pants so that his body heat would keep them from freezing. Then he set his laptop aside until he could get the wood-burning stove lighted.