Author's note: I used to love this cartoon back in the day so that's where I'm drawing from mostly. The rest I got from a few comics and various web sites etc. Forgive me if I get a bit loose with time frames and such. Anyway, hope you like it. Of course I own none of the characters or anything, Just the little part I made up.

Heart of Darkness
By: Quetzal

They would be upon him very soon. The light just beyond the trees got brighter and brighter. Bright white shafts of it broke through the trees and underbrush and hung in the misty air. The grinding of machinery, the roar of engines and the voices of the pursuers would be at deafening levels when they arrived. Their prey ran as fast he could through the lessening darkness, but it didn't seem to be doing any good at all. No matter how hard he tried, he could not gain enough ground to matter. For what seemed like the thousandth time, he tripped over something. Instead of just stumbling, he fell facedown into a deep sticky mud. While he struggled to get to his feet, the mud seemed almost bent on trying to hold him down. Just as he managed to get up and moving again, it was all over. There was a horrific tearing sound as trees were smashed down and the whole area flooded with a blinding light. The engines slowed from a roar to a rumble and the metallic clack of gun bolts being pulled was plainly heard. It sounded like a thousand weapons. There was no warning, no chance to surrender and no mercy. The prey felt like he was on fire as the bullets and lasers tore him to pieces.

Zartan awoke with a start as he violently jerked himself into a sitting position and then flinched as pain flared through his side. He was more angry than relieved. The nightmare again. "Always the same and always terrifying," he thought, as he felt his heart hammering like mad. It wasn't any great surprise. Usually sleep was dead and dreamless except right after he had had a close call. Like today. He looked down and with a shaky hand, carefully touched the gauze bandage taped to his side. There had been a minor skirmish with the Joes off the coast of Texas. Somehow they had discovered the secret operation Cobra had going that involved siphoning off great amounts of oil from several drilling platforms in the gulf. The whole scheme was nearly at an end before it was even discovered, but it was still humiliating to be forced out. It was during the escape that Zartan had taken a shot in his side. Fortunately, the bullet went completely through and did minimal damage but if it had been an inch or two to the left, it would have hit something important. A little fact Zandar had pointed out while he cleaned the wound and stitched it closed.

A nearby wall clock read 11 pm. He had been out for hours. No doubt that was from the pain killers as much as exhaustion. In fact, it was probably the damn painkillers that had made the dream so vivid. Well, there was one way to take the edge off. He got up from the couch and unsteadily made his way over to a tall bookcase. Nestled among several volumes was a bottle of whiskey and an upside down shot glass. He rubbed the plain glass against his shirt to remove the dust. He hadn't touched the stuff in a long time. In his line of work it simply did not pay to be at anything less than 100 percent, but this was a special case. He poured an oversized shot into the glass and then paused to admire the dark amber liquid. Quality stuff. Despite the appearances of his surroundings, he had a taste for the finer things. He watched the light glinting from the glass for a moment and then tossed the drink back with an expert flick of the wrist. It burned a little going down, but it did the trick. In fact, another might be even better but that wouldn't be wise. Zartan capped the bottle and returned it to the shelf. The shakes had subsided and he was feeling more like himself already. Still, something was amiss. It was the quiet. This was enough to immediately set him on edge again. Just as he was about to investigate further, something caught his eye. In the middle of a nearby table was a note weighed down by a box of shotgun shells. Ah, this explained everything. And how considerate of his sister to bother. His entire crowd of henchmen had elected to go to a nearby hangout and leave him in peace. Of course it wouldn't surprise him in the least if he wound up having to bail someone out of jail with a grenade before morning. It was so much easier when they stayed around the compound to do their drunken carousing. That was alright. In his rattled state, he'd rather be alone. Perhaps it was the constant yo-yo string his emotions were on that made him so tired sometimes. You could never really relax. There was always some kind of danger either from the outside or within, so one had to maintain total control at all times. Control and vigilance. No wonder he was apprehensive.

The small cabin suddenly seemed too confining and musty from having been closed up for weeks. Perhaps some fresh air would help to clear the last of the weirdness. Zartan hated the feeling. It was like he was outside himself somehow. The oppressive night air carried the familiar stink of wetness and decomposing plants. It was like being draped in a heavy, damp blanket. He felt more at ease out in the darkness, despite the humidity. The usual fire that blazed in the middle of the loose circle formed by the cabins was conspicuously absent. The night was still young but there was not a sound to be heard except the noises from the surrounding swamp. Under these conditions it was easy to pretend you were the last person left on the planet.

The idea of sitting on the dock caught his fancy. He moved a little slower because of the wound, but not without his natural predator's grace as he made his way down to the water's edge. An ordinary person would have had a hard time finding their way in the pale moonlight but Zartan could have easily gotten around blindfolded. He knew the whole area like most people knew their middle names. This relationship was a love-hate affair. There were places he had found a whole lot more appealing, but ever since the mutations that gave him the aversion to sunlight, this was about the only place in which he could move freely. And it served other purposes, he thought as he eased himself down onto the weathered boards and let his legs dangle off the end. Swamps were dangerous and forbidding places. Very few would dare to go into its depths. Those who tried in his area never did it again if they lived to get a second chance. That was the price he had to pay. Nothing came without a catch, or maybe it was some kind of cosmic justice (if such things existed.) He could make himself almost invisible but the slightest exposure to sunlight hurt like hell. Not only that, but there was the little matter of his eyes having gone that bizarre two-tone green. The skin around them had become a discolored, sickly, bruised shade but some artfully placed tattoos had fixed that right up. They also served to make him scarier. That was certainly a worthwhile quality to possess. Often times a single blazing glance was enough to curtail the rowdiest of his thugs. As far as all that went, he really didn't regret any of it, though he wondered about what could happen if he didn't stop screwing around with his genetics. It was a little late for that. And the advances in science were staggering. The research in the new area of holographic technology was especially interesting. One had to keep up and change with the times to stay valuable. Although he wasn't so sure about how valuable he had become to Cobra.

As though on cue, a cottonmouth slithered past, breaking up the reflected image on the surface of the water. With lightning reflexes, Zartan drew a laser pistol and blew the snake's head off. Its decapitated body thrashed about in the murky water for a few minutes and then was finally still. Too bad he couldn't do that to Cobra. His original plan had been to just do the occasional job not be a part of day to day business. Gradually though, he had been drawn in. Raising the charges for his services to huge amounts didn't discourage them, either. Now he was much more involved than he ever cared to be. Destro had been right about one thing. Zartan didn't give a rat's ass about Cobra's cause, just what it all could do for him.

Ugh, Destro and the Baroness. What a pair. Their snotty wannabe aristocratic ways sickened him. The high and mighty attitude might very well be their undoing someday. That is, if they didn't get him first. Having to constantly watch your back got real old real fast. There wasn't a single agent in the whole organization he could trust. All the lower ranks were just waiting for a chance to move up and wouldn't hesitate to get rid of you if they thought they could get away with it. And the high command was even worse. Once he had gotten a tele-viper to hack into some older government files and was quite surprised to come across assessments of himself. Paranoid schizophrenic? Multiple personality disorders? Fucking please! He was probably the most normal of the lot, especially compared to some of the others. Tomax and Xamot? Come on! They finished each other's sentences and felt one another's pain, and it was rumored what else they may have felt. Zartan really didn't want to know. It made his skin crawl to give it too much consideration. Then there was Cobra Commander. A certified crazy if ever there was one. A delusional, egomaniacal crackpot of epic proportions. And what was the deal with him and all the giant cobra imagery? Someone was compensating for something, all right. Ick. Another place he didn't care to venture into. Serpentor and Dr. Mindbender were just too ridiculous to even dwell on. Still, if having the enemy think you were a lunatic was helpful, so be it. Zartan actually went out of his way to do things to further the notion. What the hell, it could be a good thing and it was actually kind of fun. It would be a lot more fun if only it was just himself he had to worry about.

As his dealings with Cobra had grown, his brother and sister had become involved. That was unintended as well. But, if they hadn't joined up with him, they would have been nothing but a couple of two-bit criminals. Having them here had improved the operation all around.

They looked so much alike and yet they were totally opposite. Zarana ran things through fear and by cracking heads when necessary. Zandar got it done through quiet intimidation. Where Zarana was always screeching at someone, Zandar was silently menacing.

He could rely on them and vice versa. Although reliance and trust weren't necessarily the same things, despite what the dictionary might say. Zartan wasn't sure that his loyalty sprang from any sort of love so much as it did a sense of obligation. They were his family and as the eldest he was responsible. Not only that, but it was better to have them around so as to keep an eye on them. Now and then he had seen one or both of them looking at him strangely as though biding time and gauging chances. They had extremely devious minds of their own and that caused as many problems as it solved sometimes. Especially this business with Zarana and that Joe. Try as he might he couldn't understand it and discouraged it as much as possible. If the right people heard of it, it might very well mean her life. There was no way she'd be allowed to leave the organization.

Now and then the idea of just disappearing crossed his mind. It would be easy. He had obscene amounts of money stashed all over in various accounts under different identities. But really, what would he do with himself? It might be nice at first but it would get boring. And just because he went away didn't mean his enemies would quit looking for him. He'd have to watch his back twice as hard as he did now. Someday he'd have to hang it up. That was a certainty. He was no kid now, let alone in 15 or 20 years. That is, provided the Joes didn't put them all away long before then. It had almost happened on more than one occasion. As much as he despised them, he was wise enough to know that the entire situation was a stalemate, if not a little in the Joes' favor. They seemed to get younger and more advanced and more tenacious as time went on.

And they were employing some very clever tactics. For a while they had even assigned him his very own shrink. That had been a baffling experience. Every time he had a run in with the Joes, there she was. Never said a word just tried to cold-bloodedly eliminate him. The purposefulness with which this individual went after him was deeply unsettling. No smart ass remarks, no nothing but a vicious eye staring him down from behind a gun sight. That was totally unlike the Joes. This person seemed to stick to him like a second shadow at times and then one day she was gone. Curiosity got the better of him and after some spying and hacking and thievery, he had a few answers. It seemed there was an experimental program. The government had recruited some of the top new minds in psychiatric medicine and gave them all sorts of training and then assigned them specific members of the Cobra high command to study. The job was to get inside their minds and eventually use what they knew to devise strategies and destroy them. All he could find about his pursuer was a codename: Hurricane. That was it. And then one day it was over. He had been unable to find out why. Was the program deemed a failure? Did they somehow know that he was onto them? Or was it all a part of the plan? Ok, maybe he was kind of paranoid.

Zartan sighed as he leaned back and looked at the ring around the moon. He could take off right now and no one would be the wiser. It was so tempting. He looked back over his shoulder toward a shed near his cabin. There was a gorgeous customized motorcycle in there that was gassed and ready to go. There really weren't many possessions to pack, either. He slowly got up and headed toward the shed. The wound in his side was starting to throb and burn. It would really hurt tomorrow. He had been shot before, as well as stabbed and lumped up in fights. Of course that had been back in the early days of his mercenary career. The longer he went the better he got at it and the more deadly he became. Killing was nothing to him now. In certain instances he could actually get a perverse pleasure from it, but those times were few and far between. Even fewer were the times where he wondered if he might not have to pay for it someday.

A single bulb dangling from the ceiling of the shed revealed a bulky shape under an old piece of canvas. He sneezed from the dust that went flying when he pulled it away and tossed it into a corner. The bike was beautiful in the weak light. The midnight blue paint and the chrome gleamed softly. He carefully threw a leg over the machine and sat down. The wound hurt, but he could still ride. Where would he go? Did it really matter? Zartan decided that no, it didn't matter a bit. Anywhere would be fine. As he stood and got ready to jump down on the starter, the sound of vehicles came from the hidden swamp road and they were accompanied by shouting and some horribly off key singing. He got off the bike and covered it with the canvas again, looking back one last time before turning off the light and going outside. For just a moment the dream flashed through his mind again. Not the one where he was chased, but the one where he was free.

The End