Out past the sprawling patchwork of Caldwell's rural farms, farther north than the towns along the Hudson River's winding flanks, about three hours from the Canadian border, the Adirondack Mountains spring up from the earth. Majestic, carpeted in pines and cedars at their heads and shoulders, the ranges had been created by glaciers that had stretched down from the Alaskan frontier before it had been known as Alaska and before there were humans or vampires to call it a frontier.
When the last ice age retreated into history books that would be written much later, the great valley gouges that were left in the land filled with the melt-off from the icebergs. Over generations of humans, the vast geological pools were assigned names like Lake George and Lake Champ-lain and Saranac Lake and Blue Mountain Lake.
Humans, those bothersome, parasitic rabbits with their many, many children, settled in the Hudson River corridor, seeking the water, as many other animals did. Centuries passed and towns sprouted up and "civilization" was established, with all its intrusions into the environment.
The mountains remained the masters, though. Even in the age of electricity and technology and automobiles and tourism, the Adirondacks dictated the landscape of this stretch of northern New York.
So there are a lot of lonesome stretches in the midst of all those forests.
Heading up I-87, a.k.a. the Northway, the exits get farther and farther apart until you can go five miles, ten miles, fifteen miles without having a way off the road. And even if you do put your blinker on and ease onto a ramp that takes you to the right, all you'll find is a couple of stores and a gas station and two or three houses.
People can hide in the Adirondacks.
Vampires can hide in the Adirondacks.
At the end of the night, as the sun readied itself for a big, splashy entrance stage right, a male walked through the dense woods of Saddleback Mountain alone, dragging his withered body over the ground as he would have a bag of garbage in his earlier life. His hunger was all that moved him, the primordial instinct for blood all that kept him on his feet and fighting through the branches.
Up ahead in a tangle of pine boughs, his prey was twitchy, nervous.
The deer knew it was being tracked, but it couldn't see what it was hunted by. Lifting its muzzle, it sniffed at the air, ears pricking forward and back.
The night was cold this far north and this high up on Saddleback. Given that the male didn't have much left on his back except rags, his teeth chattered and his nail beds were blue, but he wouldn't have put more clothes on if he'd had them. Feeding his blood hunger was the extent of his concessions to existence.
He would not take his own life. He'd heard long ago that if you committed suicide, you couldn't make it into the Fade, and that was where he had to end up. So he passed his days in a narrow bandwidth of suffering, waiting until he either starved to death from malnutrition or was grievously injured.
The process was taking too damn long. Then again, his escape from his old life months and months ago had brought him to these woods by erratum rather than engineering. He'd meant to send himself somewhere else, somewhere even more dangerous.
Couldn't remember anymore where that had been, though.
The fact that his enemies were not this far and this deep in the Adirondacks had first saved, but now frustrated him. He was too weak to dematerialize around trying to find slayers, and he wasn't strong enough for long walks, either.
He was stuck here in the mountains, waiting for death to find him.
During the day, he hid from the sunshine in a cave, an abscess in the mountain's granite his shelter. He didn't sleep much. Hunger and his memories kept him mercilessly alert and aware.
Up ahead, his prey took two steps away from him.
Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to gather his strength. If he didn't do this now, he was finished for the night, and not just because the sky was beginning to lighten to the east.
In a rush, he disappeared and took form around the deer's neck. Clamping onto its slender withers, he sank his fangs into the jugular that ran up from its flickering, panicked heart.
He didn't kill the lovely animal. Took only enough to see him through another black day and into another blacker night.
When he was done he opened his arms wide and let the thing bounce off in four-footed flight. Listening to it crash through the forest's skirt, he envied the animal's freedom.
There was little return of strength for the male. Lately, it was nearly a wash between the energy he expended to feed and what he got in return. Which meant the end had to be coming soon.
The male sat down on the forest's bed of decaying pine needles and looked up through the boughs. For a moment, he imagined that the night sky was not dark, but white, and that the stars above were not cold planets reflecting light, but the souls of the dead.
He imagined he was looking up at the Fade.
He did this often, and among the great scattering of sparkles overhead, he found the two that he counted as his own, the two that had been taken from him: a pair of stars, one larger and glowing superbright, the other smaller and more tentative. They were close together, as if the little one were seeking the shelter of its m¡ª
The male couldn't say that word. Even in his head. Just like he couldn't say the names he associated with the stars.
Didn't matter, though.
Those two were his.
And he would join them soon.