It was late in the morning; the sun was nearing its zenith.
The previous day, the hunter had followed with growing interest and excitement the many comings and goings of the craft from the neighbouring island.
He knew these types of craft well. For many years, from the vantage point of the treetops, hidden by the thick foliage of the branches, he had watched them, carefully following their course as they flew over his island, before they veered towards the smaller, neighbouring island, or headed in the direction of the open sea. He knew their schedule and flight path almost by heart.
He also knew, almost without any chance of a mistake, whenever one of these craft carried in its belly guests for the neighbouring island – guests that the owner would receive like the perfect host he was.
Guests… who would unknowingly serve to fulfil their host’s secret passion.
Yes, the hunter knew. As he also knew the routine that followed the coming of these guests.
Today, he knew his instincts were right, as they always were, when from his observation post, he saw the craft approaching his island; the daylight made it difficult for him to see very well, so he was grateful the technology embedded in his mask helmet made it clearer for him to follow its path. This time, as he knew it would, it didn’t turn to take its usual course towards the ocean; instead, it made a low approach and headed directly to the beach on the North side of the island, where the hunter knew it would land.
He grunted with satisfaction; the sound from the rotor of the low-flying craft filled his ears as if it was the most beautiful of music. He could already feel the rush of blood in his veins, the thrill of the action, the excitement of the kill… The glory of it all.
The hunter left his observation post in the trees and moved to the ground. Swiftly, without a sound and without leaving any trace of his passage behind him, he moved through the vegetation, and in long strides, travelled the distance separating him from the beach, which wasn’t that far away from his current location.
Many minutes later, when he arrived at his destination, the craft had already landed, and had dropped its precious load. From the edge of the jungle, keeping himself out of sight behind the dense vegetation, the hunter watched as camp was set up with military efficiency. He liked what he saw; appreciated what he smelled.
The smell of blood was all over them. Like him, these were hunters, lured by the promises of forbidden thrills, to hound game they could only dream of, to experience the ultimate ecstasy: the hunt of a lifetime. He knew how they felt, because for him it was the same: there was no excitement comparable with the hunting of a predator – the most dangerous prey of all.
He noticed they were all well armed, with rifles and ammunition. The hunter knew how their technology worked – he had experienced it, and faced it on many occasions already. It wasn’t as advanced as the one he used, and although some of their weapons were ineffective against him, he was aware that they might have others at their disposal that could be as deadly as his own plasma caster. In any case, most of the time, it wasn’t the most sophisticated of armament that was the most satisfying, or even the most efficient. The use of more primitive weapons could prove much more lethal, and certainly made the hunt far more satisfying. He respected the naked and sharp edge of a blade, and mostly preferred to use one of those himself. His razor-edged wrist claws, the swift spear he carried… Those were his weapons of predilection. And he rarely missed a kill with those.
They had blades, he noticed with approval and satisfaction when he saw the knives and machetes they carried, although he suspected they were meant more as tools than as hunting instruments. By the way they held their weapons and paid particular attention to them, they also looked like experienced hunters. Mad L'ulij-bpe had done well, this time like all the other times. This will be good sport; this will bring honour and trophies to display proudly. For except for the head of the deadly acid-breathed Kainde Amedha – which unfortunately was lacking on this godforsaken planet – there was no greater honour than to own the skull of an Ooman – the greatest predator of his home. And the hunter was starting to get quite a collection of those.
But with no one to show it to, he added to himself with bitterness. That was the irony of it all.
Many times over the years, the hunter had pondered the wisdom of trying to get hold of one of the craft landing on his island, to use it as a means to escape his prison and explore some new horizons and discover new hunting grounds. Although it was a very tempting thought, it was always halted by other considerations – and plain common sense. Where would he go exactly? Although he had an innate sense of direction – as required of any hunter – he had no idea which way to go, or which destination might offer him the best game and sport. An unknown territory was exciting to explore but it also meant the hunter could become the prey. As such, it wouldn’t be such a concern, as a hunter finds his greatest challenge when faced with a much stronger opponent, and even death would be a welcome reward. But there were other fates worst than death that no hunter wanted to consider. On this island, he ruled as the ultimate predator, where only those visiting its coasts learned of his existence – and they would never leave to tell a living soul. Without the shelter the island provided, he could become an open target. If he were to be exposed to the world, the natives would mount a massive chase to capture or destroy him. Alone against all, even with all of his strength and skills, he didn’t stand a chance. He, the ultimate tracker, who could blend into any environment and disappear from view, wouldn’t be able to hide very long from his pursuers and they would eventually find him. If they should catch him alive, they would lock him up, and study him, prod him, until he would be but the shadow of himself.
L'ulij-bpe had said it was so – and he didn’t need L’ulij-bpe to know that it was all too true, and that it was the fate that awaited him if he was to be discovered. It had happened before, with other hunters, on other occasions and different places… Some of them had survived to tell the tale – but not many of them had been truly alive afterwards. He didn’t want for this to happen to him.
If he were to leave, it would be to return to his kind; other than that…
Death before dishonour.
Hunt before death.
Why would he leave to find game elsewhere, anyway? Everything he needed, he could find here, on this small island which he considered more his domain than his prison. The prey came to him willingly, on a consistent basis. Mad L’ulij-bpe made sure of that.
He observed the newcomers as they checked their weapons and made preparation. He could attack and kill one of them right here and now, but that would be giving away his position to the others. That wasn’t a good strategic move – and no sport at all. Beside, he needed to complete his own preparations first. There was no point in hurrying; only the hunter who was a fool would make haste. Not only was it a sign of carelessness, as it could mean endangering oneself, but worse yet, it could lead to a failed and unsuccessful hunt, with no trophy to show for it. He wasn’t one to botch things up; he always made careful plans, and up until now, it always served him well. The only prey he had not taken was those he had willingly let escape.
He would wait for them to start their hunt and be in the jungle, as he always did. There would be more sport that way, more honour, more kills. He planned to make it worthwhile for them. He would give them more than they bargained for.
He had all the time he needed anyway, for he knew they were waiting for the other craft, that was sure to arrive soon. It was this second craft that was the most important to him – and to them as well. The craft that would bring to this island the most dangerous predator of them all; the prey they were so eager to hunt.
He shared their feelings wholeheartedly.
He heard it then – the sound of an engine, coming from the sky, and he saw the Ooman hunters on the beach raise their heads in the same movement, to stare at the oncoming craft with the same intensity; he knew that stance, he could smell the excitement pervading from their every pore. They were pheromones as strong as those released during mating seasons, but only a true hunter could detect them and know what it was about.
The hunter also looked up to the approaching second craft. The prey the Oomans were waiting for was about to arrive. He could sense it as well as they did.
Oh, L’ulij-bpe, he thought with great anticipation, what surprises have you prepared for me this time?
What have you done, that you think would at last make you succeed in killing me?
The very distinctive sound of rotors flapping in the wind greeted Captain Scarlet back to reality and consciousness. He had a furious headache, and that noise wasn’t making things any better. There was a bitter taste in his mouth that he couldn’t recognise. The cold metallic surface on which he was resting was vibrating underneath him. With a groan, he moved, ever so slightly, and tried to rise up; his arms refused to move.
His hands were tied tightly behind his back, and that spurred him to open his eyes fully. Struggling to push himself up, he discovered he was barely able to move his legs either. He then felt a hand grabbing him roughly by the collar of his tunic and pulling him up into a seated position, before leaning his back against the wall behind him. The Spectrum officer moaned, as the sudden movement sent a wave of nausea through his stomach and he closed his eyes momentarily, to regain his focus.
“That’s the effect of the drug,” someone told him calmly. “Take it easy, it’ll pass in a moment.”
Scarlet knew that voice. His eyes flew open and he saw the face of Nicholas Laws. He struggled at the sight of the man, pulling on his bonds. “Laws, you dirty scum –”
A gun suddenly appeared in Laws’ hand, and was aimed straight at Scarlet’s face. The captain immediately froze.
“Stay calm if you know what’s good for you, ‘Captain Scarlet’,” Laws said in a low, ominous voice, which turned slightly mocking as he said the name. “This gun isn’t loaded with aesthetic shots, like the rifle last evening. But if you knew what’s waiting for you, you might actually prefer that I’d use it on you right away. That would spare you a lot of pain and grief.”
Scarlet glared at the man with righteous anger; he looked down at his legs, tied together with duct tape at knee level; as he couldn’t move his hands, it wasn’t difficult for him to imagine they were similarly restrained.
He looked around, to discover he was seated directly on a metallic floor in the hold compartment of a helicopter. Beyond the window of the side door he was facing, he could see blue sky with white clouds moving rapidly. They were in flight, and to which destination, he didn’t know yet.
Aside from Laws kneeling in front of him, there were three other men at the other end of the cabin, dressed in the same khaki uniform, seated directly on the floor like him, and training their rifles in his direction. Through a small porthole on his right, Scarlet could just see the back of the pilot’s head, as well as another portion of the sky through the window of the cockpit.
He felt something that something was leaning against his left thigh and he turned around, finding Harmony, still in her borrowed dress, slumped on the floor, her head resting against his side, and tied up as he was himself.
“Harmony!” he called.
Her eyes were closed and her face was set; she moaned at the sound of his voice and her eyes half-opened wearily. Thank God, she’s alive, he thought with relief. But he quickly realised she wasn’t reacting normally. She looked at him through partly closed eyelids, but didn’t seem to be able to focus on him, or even recognise him. There was barely any life in her beautiful almond eyes, and she closed them again, with a deep sigh.
Furious, Scarlet turned to lash at Laws: “What have you done to her, you bastard?” Just speaking so loudly made his head reel, but he didn’t care. He wanted to know what could have happened to his colleague for her to be in such a condition.
“Don’t worry, she’s all right,” Laws replied. “Like you, she’s only feeling the effects of the drug we used against the both of you. Strange that, she only received one shot and she’s still out like a light. Well, that should have been your case too, but you proved far more difficult to take down, Metcalfe. Your resistance to the drug is amazing. I was almost afraid we gave you too much, and that you might die. For which, I expect I would have paid dearly. I didn’t expect you to wake up so soon either. I thought we would have to give you a counter-active shot to bring you round once we arrived, but obviously that will not be necessary, since you’re already awake.”
“And getting better by the minute,” Scarlet replied with a dangerous edge in his voice. “I swear, if whatever you gave her has done her any harm, I’ll wring your miserable neck!”
“Your concern does you honour, Metcalfe,” Laws quietly replied. “But it’s meaningless at the moment. You should worry less about the girl, and more about yourself, mate. You’re in for a rough ride.”
“Laws, when I get my hands on you –”
“Thanks, but I’ve already given.” Laws grinned and showed his bruised cheek. “You’re as tough as you’ve always been, Paul.”
“What the hell happened to you, Laws?” Scarlet snapped. “You used to be a good man… you were a fine officer. I heard you received a dishonourable discharge from the Black Ops – what did you do for that to happen?”
Laws smirked. “You would like to know that, would you?”
“You lacked discipline, I know. That was your problem at West Point.”
“Like you, if I recall correctly.”
“No, I used my initiative to get the job done. With you, that was different.” Scarlet narrowed his eyes at his former classmate. “The only other flaw I remember you had was for the ladies… You would chase after everything in a skirt. Is that what happened, then? You seduced your commander’s wife? He didn’t like it and threw you out on your arse?”
Laws scoffed derisively. “Why would I confide in you? We were never really friends, you and I. Just rivals, at best. It was so annoying that you got all the honours, while I had to content myself with second place, in nearly everything we did! So that didn’t make you my favourite person in the world, you can imagine. So forget it, I won’t tell you anything. I’m certainly allowed my own secrets, after all, regarding my dismissal from the WAAF. You had your own secrets. Weren’t you supposed to have retired, a couple of years back, Colonel Metcalfe? And here you are, wearing the uniform of a Spectrum officer.”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Right. You are now Captain Scarlet of Spectrum… I shouldn’t be surprised, really, that they recruited you after all, seeing as you’ve always been the best at everything. Seems that’ll be your downfall right now.” Harmony emitted the faintest of moans at that moment, and Laws lowered his eyes to her. “And I’m afraid this pretty young lady will share the same fate as you. A shame. Such a good-looking girl.”
“Don’t you dare touch her, you dirty –” Scarlet was unable to finish his threat. Laws’ fist came right at his face, unexpectedly, and hit him straight on the jaw. The punch sent him sideways and he fell on his right side. He saw stars dancing in front of his eyes.
“That’s payback for last evening’s punch,” Laws said with satisfaction. “Now shut your mouth! We’re about to land, and the boss wants to see you fit for what awaits you.” He shook his head, and sat back against the wall behind him, just in front of the grunting Scarlet who, slowly, was trying to straighten himself up. “And quite frankly, Captain, I wouldn’t want to be in your place when you get there. The plans Ryoushi has for you – for the both of you – are not really that pleasant.”
* * *
The helicopter landed less than five minutes later, and Laws slid the door open, before stepping back. With one of the other men, he roughly pulled Scarlet up and pushed him out. Unable to stand on his bound legs, the Spectrum officer fell forward and landed roughly on sandy ground.
Slightly dazed, Scarlet looked around; he was on a beach, with the waves of the ocean rushing in and out only a few meters from where he lay. Laws and his companion – the captain had heard Laws call him ‘Jurgens’ – stepped down from the helicopter and came to him. The duct tape holding his legs together was swiftly cut with a knife and they forced him to his feet. Scarlet turned around towards the opened door of the helicopter; he saw Harmony still lying motionless on the floor. One of the remaining men from Laws’ team appeared in the opening and grabbed the handle of the door. He grinned at Scarlet and addressed him a wink.
“Have fun with the hunters, big guy,” he told him with a mocking laugh. “Me and my pal Owens, we’ll be entertaining your lady friend in the meantime. I bet she’ll be more fun to play with than you!”
Scarlet’s heart sank at these words. He made a threatening step towards the man. “You touch her and I kill you, scum!”
He was stopped in his attempt to reach the man when the butt of a rifle hit him violently in the stomach and sent him sprawling on the sand anew; gasping, trying to regain his breath, he heard the evil cackle from the guard, and the last thing he saw was the door as it closed... Seconds later, the helicopter started to leave the ground.
“No!” Scarlet struggled as Laws and Jurgens pulled him up to his feet again. “Damn it, Nicolas! You were a decent man once! You can’t possible let them go away with her!”
“And why would I stop them?” Laws retorted stoically. “Sorry, Paul, but I’ve got my orders.”
Scarlet kept struggling as they dragged him away, further up the beach. The captain could see a small camp set up there, next to a helijet, where stood a group of men who were watching their approach. He recognised them all: there were Hayato Ryoushi and his hunting buddies. Yu Seijitsu was there as well, slightly in the background, but never too far from his employer.
Scarlet could clearly see that the men comprising the hunting party were armed and obviously ready for their insane project. But right now, that wasn’t what worried him the most; all he could think of was Harmony, captive in that helicopter which was flying away, with these two men who might do whatever they wanted with her. Distraught, he followed the craft with his eyes; it was flying low over the trees of the jungle now, deeper over the island. He didn’t know what destination could be, but it didn’t look like it was returning to Ryoushi’s home.
Scarlet glared at the man holding his right arm and dragging him forwards. “You frigging bastard, Laws – I’m holding you responsible for anything that happens to her! If any of your men touches just one hair on her head, you’re dead meat!”
“Don’t be stupid, Metcalfe,” Laws replied harshly. “You should know better than to let a twerp like Murphy get to you with empty threats.”
“How do I know they’re empty threats? All I know is that Harmony is defenceless, in those animals’ hands!”
“They won’t touch her. I told them not to.”
“And you actually think they’ll listen to you?”
They reached the hunters’ camp; as soon as he was released, Scarlet made a dart at Ryoushi. But with his hands still restrained behind his back, he had little chance of being able to do anything, and the Japanese easily evaded the attack and tripped him, sending him sprawling roughly on his belly. Sand filled the Spectrum officer’s nostrils and he coughed. He heard the hunters laughing at his predicament, as they approached to surround him.
“Have some pride, Captain,” Clarington said, as Scarlet attempted to drag himself onto his knees. “You don’t want to crawl in the dirt like a lowlife commoner, would you?” He roughly kicked the unbalanced Spectrum officer with his foot, and sent him back onto the ground again, this time lying on his back. Clarington tutted with disapproval.
“I am beginning to think that you might not be up to the task,” Johnston drawled in turn. With his feet, he shovelled sand straight into Scarlet’s face. The latter didn’t have time to avoid it; he gasped, breathing sand again, his eyes burning.
“You think this is worthy of a Spectrum officer?” Rodriguez pulled the breathless Scarlet onto his knees. “Wouldn’t you rather die on your feet like a man – rather than on your knees, like an animal, Capitan?”
Scarlet coughed and blinked several times to regain his vision. He glared at Rodriguez, and then at each of the other men surrounding him; they had the same smirk of self-assurance and arrogance displayed on their faces. Ryoushi and Seijitsu were standing apart, watching the scene, apparently waiting.
“I swear to you,” Scarlet promised, “I don’t care what amount of influence you bastards might have or how much power you can call on. You will not get away with this. I’ll see you all hanged for what you’re doing.”
Rodriguez chuckled. “You have a pretty high opinion of yourself, Capitan!” He released Scarlet and punched him in the face, sending him back onto the sand. “There is nothing you can do. We, on the other hand, can do whatever we wish with you.”
“No-one is above the law,” Scarlet retorted, as he struggled back up. He didn’t get further than his knees, as Laws came to him and forced him to stay in that position, pointing a gun at him. Scarlet glowered fiercely at him. “Once Spectrum has figured out what happened, they’ll come after you. All of you.”
“You have a high opinion of your organisation as well, Captain,” Ryoushi then said, as he approached quietly. He gestured towards Laws who stepped back to make way for him.
“And you underestimate it, Ryoushi-san,” Scarlet retorted, putting derision into the last syllable.
“What makes you think Spectrum will figure it out – at least in time to come to your rescue?” Ryoushi asked, shrugging. “If you remember correctly, at the moment, your colleagues are way too busy with taking care of a Mysteron threat in Futura City to be preoccupied by your absence.”
“But eventually, that threat will pass, and they’ll come,” Scarlet promised.
“That might still take a while – I know for a fact that they have their hands full.”
Ryoushi crouched in front of Scarlet, but kept well out of reach. He obviously didn’t trust him not to make another attempt against him, even with his hands secured behind his back. Laws was keeping close by, his gun aimed at the Spectrum officer, who was looking at the Japanese businessman with fury in his eyes.
“You see, Captain,” Ryoushi continued, “I wasn’t sure if I could count only on the Mysterons keeping your colleagues at bay long enough for us to… conduct our hunt. So, in order for us to have all the time we needed, I made sure that Spectrum would be sufficiently occupied.”
Scarlet frowned, not understand what the man was implying. “What do you mean, exactly?” he finally asked, in a low, unsure voice. “That attack at Stanton Base –”
“… Was manufactured by yours truly,” Ryoushi said, nodding not so humbly to him.
Scarlet wasn’t sure if he believed it. This was much too shrewd a scheme to imagine, even coming from Ryoushi, who just proclaimed the night before that he was a ‘expert tactician’. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” the Spectrum officer breathed out, shaking his head.
Ryoushi nodded slowly. “Oh but I assure you, Captain. It is true. Ask Seijitsu-san. Ask any of my friends standing here: I am not a kidding man. I am very serious.”
“What did you do?” Scarlet asked lowly.
“I see you are worried, now. About the safety of those people at Stanton. About your colleagues, perhaps? But I’ll reassure you, Captain. Didn’t your commander tell you the sabotage I ordered, and the explosion that resulted, didn’t cause the death of anyone? It was just enough to make Spectrum believe that the Hunter fighters were indeed the Mysterons’ intended targets.”
“That would mean – they are not?” Scarlet murmured in confusion.
Ryoushi sighed. “For what I know, they could very well be. Maybe I only served as one of the Mysterons’ instruments in this threat. What do you think, Captain? Do you think the fighters are the target? And if they’re not, what could it be?”
Scarlet couldn’t believe his ears. This man standing in front of him was thoroughly insane. To go to such length to capture him – simply to make him the prey in a hunt. This was beyond what he could expect.
And the other hunters weren’t any better, if they went along with it.
He stared at Ryoushi with a hard look. “If they’re not, then Spectrum is not where it should be,” he spat. “You might not have caused anyone to die at Stanton, Ryoushi, but it could result in many deaths at Glenn Field.”
“And why should I care about that?”
The answer was so casual it sent a shiver down Scarlet’s spine. “You can’t be serious?”
Ryoushi’s expression was very cold.
“If the WGPC satellite in Glenn Field is the target, so much the better,” he said. “If the satellite were to be operational, and was to keep tracks of paroled convicts all over the world, that would make it somewhat more difficult for me to find… candidates.”
“Candidates?” Scarlet echoed with uncertainly. It dawned on him. “You’re using criminals for your hunting parties?”
Ryoushi shrugged. “Sometimes. But they’re not just any kind of criminal. They must be up to the required level. What we need are ruthless killers, skilled assassins, trained soldiers…”
“Someone who would make good sport,” Johnston then said with a chuckle. “So not only criminals, as you can understand, Captain – and as you can see, from your presence amongst us today.”
“So I was right, then,” Scarlet said morosely. “It’s not the first time you lot have done something like this. You bunch of bastards have had many victims.”
“This is my third hunt with Señor Ryoushi,” Rodriguez said in turn. “That is… after the safari we had together in Africa that first time. We found we had… tastes in common in prey. This is the first time I’ve been invited to his private island. I can’t wait to try this new hunting ground.”
“As do I,” Clarington added. “I’m eager to see if this will equal that chase we had on your Panama reserve, my dear Coronel Esteban. This is my second hunt with Ryoushi.”
“Fifth hunt,” Johnston then grunted. “I’ve known Ryoushi the longest. It’s through me that he met the others, for that safari in Africa. Ryoushi has a knack for finding exactly the prey we needed.” He narrowed his eyes, looking cruelly at Scarlet. “And it looks like he might have outdone himself this time around.”
Scarlet shook his head in dismay and desperation; he drew a shaky breath and looked at each man in turn. “You’re insane, all of you. How could you think you can murder people like this in all impunity without ever paying the price one day?” He addressed Ryoushi directly: “You think yourself the great tactician, and it may look to you like you have thought this out in fine detail, but if you’ve left just one thing out, Spectrum will be sure to uncover you. It won’t matter then if you’re friends with the World President. You’re going to fall, Ryoushi.”
“I thought of everything, Captain,” Ryoushi assured him. “So you see, there won’t be anything for Spectrum to uncover.”
Scarlet scoffed with derision. “You’re presuming a lot, Ryoushi-san. Am I to actually think the whole Mysteron threat might not even be real to begin with?”
Ryoushi smiled, almost mysteriously. “Now there you might be giving me too much credit, Captain. However, I will assure you, if there’s need for me to put some pressure on Spectrum at Stanton to keep them busy, I will do it. Even if this time around it does cause the death of someone.”
Johnston sniggered. “Why stop at Stanton, my dear Hayato? Just confuse them thoroughly with a simulated attack on Glenn Field.”
“That’s a thought,” Ryoushi said thoughtfully. “And get rid at the satellite at the same time…”
“This will all blow up in your face, Ryoushi,” Scarlet promised. “And you know what? I’ll be there to witness and enjoy it all.”
This time, Ryoushi chuckled openly. “Now who's presuming too much? You’re living on borrowed time, Captain Scarlet. The hunt is about to begin. And I do not think you will survive it. There wasn’t a single prey who ever did. But… as we always do, we are willing to give you a fair chance – that is, if you are willing to play along.”
“I will never play along with this madness of yours!” Scarlet lashed in total anger. “You are even crazier than I thought if you imagine just for one bloody second I will cooperate with you!”
“You will. If you know what’s best for you. And especially for the Angel pilot.”
Scarlet’s heart jumped a beat. “Keep her out of this!” he shouted in fury.
“It’s too late, Captain. She already is involved.”
Ryoushi gestured to Laws and Jurgens and they came to stand on either side of Scarlet to pull him to his feet. They kept their hold on him, as if to make sure he wouldn’t rush against their employer like he had done before. The Spectrum officer stood as tall as he could, glaring furiously into Ryoushi’s scarred face. The latter approached him closer.
“Now listen carefully,” he said in a low voice, “we will release you free on this island and we’ll go after you. And you will play the game willingly, as you are intended to do. Because if you don’t, not only will you die, but as you might guess, Harmony Angel will pay the same price. But on the other hand, if you do play along correctly – you both may still have a chance to leave this island alive.”
Scarlet scoffed. “I don’t believe you have any intention of leaving us alive after this,” he said. “Not after having prepared this kidnapping so carefully. Why would you take the risk? We are unwanted witnesses now, and we would denounce you and have you arrested.”
“No, Captain Scarlet, you would not,” Ryoushi assured him. “Because you know that the only way for you and the Angel to be free will be to survive the hunt, any way you can.”
“Then release Harmony Angel and I’ll play this mad game of yours. You don’t need her.”
“On the contrary, Captain. I would say she’s an invaluable part of the game. You see, survival for yourself won’t be enough to win your freedom. You will also need to find your Harmony Angel – and to help her survive as well.”
Scarlet frowned. “What do you mean, ‘find her’?”
“I ordered two of my men to take her to the deepest part of the jungle. She will be held there, captive, under guard… until you rescue her, Captain Scarlet. Cooperate, and the girl will be fine. Survive – and you might still see her alive.”
“How can I trust you didn’t kill her already?” Scarlet spat. “Or that you won’t have her killed the moment I show my face… wherever she might be?”
Ryoushi shook his head, and smiled coolly. “Well, she was alive when you saw her in the helicopter,” he pointed out. “But I cannot make any promises, Captain. Her fate depends entirely on yours. You’ll have to find a way to free her yourself. I do not have to point out you will need to hurry to find her. She should be fine for now, but later on, if you take too long, she might not be strong enough to survive in this hostile jungle… after whatever treatment her guards might inflict on her. If she does survive that, to begin with.”
“You filthy…” Scarlet swallowed the rest of the insult. Being rude didn’t seem to have any effect on Ryoushi, not even to wipe that obnoxious smile off his face. The captain looked around; all eyes were on him, watching him intently. The hunters were grinning too, knowing that he had no other choice but to accept the Japanese man’s offer.
Scarlet gave a deep sigh. “All right, I’ll do it your way. But how will I find her? I obviously don’t know this jungle as well as you do. I might never know where to look.”
“You are right on that account, Captain Scarlet. Which is why I’m willing to give you a hand.” Ryoushi took a step back. “Mr. Laws.”
Upon hearing his name, Laws fished in his pocket, and produced a small electronic device that he handed to Ryoushi. Scarlet followed the object with his eyes and watched as the businessman pushed a small button. A green light appeared on top of the device and Ryoushi showed to the Spectrum officer the small screen it now displayed. On it, there was a white dot blinking in the middle of an intricate display of thin lines and curves. “Harmony Angel has been tagged with a microchip that indicates her position at all times. This…” Ryoushi shut down the device, before slipping it into Scarlet’s pocket, “… will lead you to her.”
“Is that a fact?” Scarlet asked doubtfully. “So you’re willing to give me such an advantage?”
“Of course. But even with this, it might not be so easy to reach her anyway. The jungle is filled with danger, the ground treacherous. You won’t be able to get there in a straight line. You will have a harrowing journey, I can promise you.”
“And,” Johnston added with an evil grin, “we will be on your tail, chasing after you – and doing our damnedest to have your hide.”
Scarlet barely listen to the American’s intervention and kept looking straight at Ryoushi, suspiciously “I sense a catch. What’s to say you didn’t ‘tag’ me as well so you’ll know exactly where I’ll be on this island, when you ‘release’ me? Obviously, we’re like animals to you, Ryoushi.”
“It would be unfair if I did that, Captain,” Ryoushi replied. “There is no honour in such a hunt.”
“Okay then,” Scarlet admitted. “But even if I’m not tagged, you must know where your men have taken Harmony. So you also know exactly where she is right now. So there’s nothing to stop you going there, waiting for me to show up, and shooting me like a dog the minute I show my face.”
“And if I were to tell you I don’t know?”
“I would call you a stinking liar, Ryoushi. You just said she is tagged. And you must have one of those devices you just gave me. So the conclusion is obvious.”
“Do you intend to leave her to die, then?”
Scarlet scoffed at Ryoushi’s assumption. “You know I would not do that. I’m just pointing out that you’ll be conducting an unfair hunt, Ryoushi. No matter what you say, you have an advantage, and I cannot hope to win. Beside, this is your jungle. It’s not the first hunt you’ve conducted on this ground, that much is obvious. So you must know it like the back of your hand. So tell me, Mr Ryoushi, in such a hunt, is there any ‘honour’, as you say yourself?”
“He’s taunting you, Ryoushi,” Clarington commented. “Playing you for a fool.”
But the Japanese man raised his hand. “No. He’s right, actually.” He nodded thoughtfully, returning his attention to Scarlet. “Yes, you are quite right, Captain Scarlet. I do know this island. I know every rock and tree. And I know approximately the location my men will choose to keep Harmony Angel. So, yes, it would be unfair – if I join the hunt. Because, as you say – I’ll know exactly where you will be at the end. Which is why I wont’ be participating in it.”
Johnston almost jumped in surprise at these words. “What? What the hell are you talking about, Ryoushi? You’ve been talkin’ about this hunt for months! And now you would relinquish your chance of killin’ yourself this prize prey you’ve been promisin’ us all this time?”
“Oh, I’ll be joining you for the hunt, eventually,” Ryoushi replied, turning to his three guests who were now exchanging confused glances. “But later on...” He glanced at Scarlet who was keeping a vigilant eye on him. “…When… if… the good captain has found his prize in the jungle. And then, whatever advantage I might have will not count. But of course, this doesn’t concern you, my friends, as this jungle is as unknown to you as it is to your prey. And you won’t have the advantage of knowing where Harmony Angel is hidden.”
“You’ll be letting us get ahead?” Clarington asked with scepticism.
Ryoushi smiled. “I’m a far better hunter than the three of you together,” he replied quietly. “I think you’re entitled to a fair chance as well.”
“Oh, you’re too kind to us,” Johnston replied sarcastically. “Well, that’ll be too bad for you, Ryoushi, old pal. You’ll be missin’ out on all the fun. Because we’ll find this son-of-a-bitch and kill him before you even have the chance to join us.”
“Then that’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Ryoushi retorted. “And I’m willing to bet on it. Ten thousands dollars say he’ll find the Angel pilot before you kill him.”
“You’re on,” Johnston swiftly answered with an evil grin. “And we’ll find that Angel of his before he can reach her.” He took one step towards Scarlet and, with burning eyes, showed him his left hand, which was bandaged from the knuckles to the wrist. “I hope her guards will leave enough of that bitch for me. I owe her big for nearly handicapping me, and I intend to make her pay with interest!”
Scarlet glared warningly at him. “Not if I kill you first, scumbag,” he promised him.
Johnston sniggered. “You’re certainly welcome to try, limey. Hunting you will certainly be much fun. You won’t get any chance from me, that I can guarantee you.”
“Mr. Laws,” Ryoushi instructed, turning to his head of security. “You and Mr Jurgens will take Captain Scarlet into the jungle. Leave him alone, at the usual place at the end of the path, with a simple knife as a weapon. Then return here.”
“You’re giving me a weapon?” Scarlet asked with no concealed perplexity.
“Even the lion has his claws to defend himself, Captain Scarlet,” Ryoushi retorted, turning to him. “So you will have yours as well. We will be giving you an hour, from Mr Laws’ return. Then, the hunt will begin. Survive any way you can – and I do mean any way.”
“My only way to survive this hunt will be to kill the whole lot of you,” Scarlet hissed between his teeth.
Ryoushi smiled with no concealed satisfaction. “Like any hunted predator would try to kill the hunter who wants its hide,” he commented with an approving nod. “That’s the spirit, Captain Scarlet.”
“By Jove, this will be a glorious hunt!” Clarington said excitedly. “You may try, old chap, and that’ll make this even more enjoyable. But truthfully, you don’t stand a chance against the three of us.”
“Don’t bet on the outcome, Your Lordship,” Scarlet replied, glaring murderously at his compatriot. He nodded his head slowly, and added promisingly: “We’ll see if you find it as glorious when I have my hands around your sorry throat.”
The hunter had watched with interest as the laughing Ooman hunters mistreated their prisoner.
This was disgraceful behaviour and he grunted with disapprobation at the sight; you could hunt your prey, temporarily restrain it, and eventually kill it, but you never rendered it powerless to then abuse it or humiliate it before the kill. A game, especially a valued one, deserved respect and had to be treated as such.
The hunter was in a mind to strike straight away; this was a fair-sized group of predators, all reunited for the kill and they would not expect him or his attack. Maybe he would be able to take one, or two of them, including their intended prey, who was more deserving of a fast kill than to be played with. But such an action wasn’t without risks; in the daylight, his vision wasn’t as good as it would be at night; that would put him at a disadvantage. He also didn’t know how efficient these hunters actually were – except for L’ulij-bpe, of course, and he knew he was very good. He still needed to study the others carefully. Attacking without any strategy would be foolish...
That would give L’ulij-bpe too much satisfaction to see him make a mistake like that, only worthy of an inexperienced beginner. That would also give L’ulij-bpe the advantage he had been so waiting for, in order to kill him.
Besides… finishing the hunt before it would truly begin would just not be as exciting. It was better to make it last, or it wouldn’t be worth it.
The Ooman hunters had stopped mistreating their prisoner and were about to release him into the wild; their hunt would start soon.
He looked over his shoulder, and gazed in the direction the craft had disappeared into, after dropping its captive on the beach. It didn’t follow its usual path back to the other island. Musingly, wondering where it had gone to, the hunter adjusted the settings of his visual equipment; the red heat signature left by the craft engines appeared to him, leaving a trail low over the treetops, indicating that the craft had gone deeper into the jungle.
Directly into his territory.
This was unusual, and he knew it couldn’t be a coincidence. This was a new strategy he had not seen before, and the hunter was curious. What could the Oomans in this craft want, going over there?
What are you up to this time, L’ulij-bpe?
Knowledge was power, and that was something the hunter had learned early on, the hard way. And he believed that curiosity wasn’t a fault, when it meant learning something that could prove useful for the hunt, or might serve to eventually save his life.
The hunter gave a last glance at the group of Oomans on the beach. Two of them were leading the prisoner towards the edge of the jungle; nearly straight to his position. He could wait for them to come to him and he would easily kill them all, but it would hardly be sport.
Beside, he really wanted to know where the craft had gone to exactly, and what it was all about. He thought it would be more interesting – and instructive – to find that out first.
He would have plenty of time for the hunt later on; when the night had come, and the advantage would be his.
Swiftly, he left the bushes and, his camouflage equipment keeping him concealed from view, he silently strode down the invisible path only he knew about, without leaving any trace behind him, and followed the heat trail in the sky, before it dispersed and disappeared from his view.
* * *
“Your boss is completely insane, I hope you realise that?”
Pushed and pulled by Laws and Jurgens, Scarlet was barely showing any resistance; at this point, that would have been meaningless. His hands were still restrained and he was unarmed; trying to run away was equally useless, as his guards were keeping their eyes and weapons on him and he wouldn’t get very far. The best strategy for now was to play along. Beside, resisting would mean losing precious time, and might cause harm to Harmony. All he needed to do was wait to be released at last, and he would be able to go in search of her. He still vividly remembered the last words Murphy had told him before closing that helicopter door, and with what Hayato Ryoushi had said afterward, he was very concerned for the Angel’s wellbeing. God only knew if it wasn’t already too late, and that mere thought was almost unbearable to the Spectrum officer.
“Shut up.” Laws shoved Scarlet further down the path they had been following for the last thirty minutes and which was taking them deeper into the forest. “Ryoushi is paying well, and that’s good enough for me.”
“But that doesn’t make you any less crazy than he is,” Scarlet retorted. “Only an insane man would follow the orders of another insane man. You’re going to take the fall with him, Laws, and you’ll pay for what you’ve done.” He paused for a brief second. “And if my colleague has come to any harm, I’ll take enormous pleasure in putting a end to your pitiful life.”
“You said that already, Metcalfe. And you know what? I’m getting tired of this.”
Laws abruptly pulled Scarlet by the arm, stopping him in mid-step, and turned him around, before brutally pushing his back against a nearby tree. He forcibly held him there, and looked straight into his face, eyes burning bright with what looked like barely contained resentment. He pressed the muzzle of his gun under the captive’s chin.
“You really should keep your mouth shut,” Laws warned between his teeth. “You’re playing with your life.”
“I do that every day,” Scarlet replied stoically, looking back into the other man’s eyes.
Laws gestured around. “This is where we’ll be leaving you, Metcalfe,” he announced. “The end of the path. And it’s the end of the road as well for you. I hope you realise you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting out of this alive?”
Scarlet smiled thinly. “Don’t waste your breath, Laws. With my situation as desperate as it seems at the moment, do you really think your little display of righteous anger is scaring me?”
Laws seemed to hesitate for a few seconds, visibly unsure what to do. Then he took a deep intake of air: “You’ve taunted me for the last time, Metcalfe.” He glanced over his shoulder and addressed the other man behind him: “Jurgens, don’t wait for me. Return to the beach. It won’t take long before I’ll go back myself.”
Jurgens hesitated. He could see the anger in his companion’s attitude, and was apprehensive that it might lead to him doing something he might regret. “Laws, you should be careful,” he advised. “You know if you kill this guy, the boss’ll have your head on a plate – literally.”
“I’ve no intention of losing my life on his account,” Laws replied in an icy voice. “I just want to give him the lesson he deserves.” He smiled wickedly. “I’ll tenderise him a bit for the boss and his pals.”
“That’s very considerate of you,” Scarlet commented coldly. “Not to mention, very brave. But what more can you expect from a mercenary.”
Without further warning, Laws suddenly punched him in the stomach with his free fist and stepped back, letting him go. With a loud groan, Scarlet doubled over and fell face first in the moss, at the man’s feet.
“Now that feels good,” Laws chortled as the wheezing and coughing captive was trying to regain his breath. “And that’s just the beginning, Metcalfe. I am not done with you yet.”
“It’s your skin, then,” Jurgens said from behind. “So yeah, I think it’s best I leave you. I prefer not to be around, anyway, so I won’t be associated with this, and the boss will get angry with me as well. Just make sure you won’t damage him too much. If he should be unable to walk when you’re done with him –”
“What, do you think me stupid or what?” Laws snapped over his shoulder. “Stop worrying about me, you idiot, and leave the two of us alone.”
Jurgens shrugged indifferently and turned on his heels, to go back along the same trail they had been following until now. Glancing over his shoulder, Laws watched until the man disappeared from his view. Then he returned his attention to Scarlet.
From his position from the ground, the latter glared angrily up at him. “Just you and me now, Nicolas?” he said, trying to sound aloof. “You and I were always in competition, back at West Point. For once, you’ll have the better of me. I bet you’ll be enjoying every minute of it.”
Laws grunted with annoyance. “You’ve never been good or lucky at gambling, Metcalfe. That’s a bet you would lose.”
Scarlet was still regaining his breath, when Laws took hold of his arm and pulled him up, helping him to his feet; the Spectrum officer staggered, and Laws pushed him with his back against the tree again, to keep him there, up straight. However, he wasn’t holding him as roughly as he did earlier. The barrel of his gun was down, not aimed at the captive anymore, and he was looking behind, as if checking that neither Jurgens or anyone else was walking up the path towards them.
“Sorry for the punch, but I had to make it good to convince Jurgens.” Laws turned back to face Scarlet. “I only have a few minutes to give you, Metcalfe, so I’ll make it as quick as I can: Ryoushi is even crazier than you think.”
Scarlet frowned at the man’s words. “What?” he rasped in confusion.
He was surprised to see Laws then letting go of him. There was an odd expression on his face now. He didn’t seem as hostile as he had been before; he looked on edge, keen to talk to Scarlet in a hurry. “You have no idea what awaits you in this jungle. The hunters… Ryoushi… his mercenaries… they’re not the worst you might expect to meet in here. There is someone… or rather something else… Much more deadly, which will come after you. And after them as well, I’m willing to bet.”
“What… the devil are you talking about?” Scarlet demanded, his perplexity rising.
Laws scoffed nervously. “That’s exactly what Ryoushi calls him Akuma – devil, in Japanese. He gives him another name too. Chij’na.”
“That doesn’t sound Japanese.”
“I don’t think it is. And I’ve no idea what it means. Or even it means something. It’s a creature of some sort… A murderous thing. It hunts whoever ventures into the jungle, and kills them ruthlessly. It never misses, and no one can escape it. I’ve seen his… its handy work. Believe me, it’s not pretty.”
Under Scarlet’s still sceptical eyes, Laws looked around, apprehensively, looking as if he expected the creature in question to emerge from the surrounding bushes.
“Normally, it prefers to wait, and hunt at night, but it has been known to attack in the day, occasionally. It doesn’t like the sunlight, according to Ryoushi, and can’t see very well in the day. But you can bet it already knows we’re here. It might even be watching us right now… It knows when there’s a hunt. It knows every time. And you can be sure it’ll join in.”
“Hang on a second,” Scarlet cut in suddenly. He was just starting to get a grip on what Laws was telling him. “You mean to say that, this creature, Ryoushi knows of its existence?”
“What do you think?” Laws snapped impatiently. “This is Ryoushi’s island. He’s known about this creature from the very beginning. He’s been trying to kill it for years but so far without success, obviously. That’s why he’s organising these hunting parties. You see, Metcalfe –these hunts, they’re not really for his guests. It’s for this creature.”
Scarlet shook his head in incredulity. “Laws, you make no sense at all. This story… it’s ludicrous. A murderous creature living on this island? Ryoushi organising hunts for it, while trying to kill it? Who would believe this?”
“Listen to me!” In near desperation, Laws put his hand on Scarlet’s chest and pushed him against the tree once more. He looked around anew and, reassured that it was still safe to talk, continued, in a faster voice: “This creature, this predator, this… Akuma… it only lives for the hunt. There’s nothing else in its mind but that. And it likes, more than anything else, chasing humans. The more dangerous these humans are, the more interesting it is for this creature. So Ryoushi has been ‘providing’ it with appealing prey. That’s why he’s been kidnapping dangerous criminals, terrorists, expert soldiers, and dropping them onto this island. That was all in order to lure his devil out and to kill it. So far, Ryoushi has never got this creature… but the creature… It never misses a shot.”
“This is too insane,” Scarlet muttered, unsure if he should believe what Laws was telling him. “So the hunters – Johnston, the others… they’re all a part of it too?”
But Laws shook his head. “No. No, they don’t know anything about it. For the last few years, Ryoushi’s been organising hunts with guys like them, in various parts of the world. He’s put up a kind of ‘selection system’, to find the most ruthless, unscrupulous and dangerous hunters he could find, and invite them to hunt human prey. Then, eventually, he brings them here. You see, hunters are like the ultimate big game for this creature. So hunters and prey alike… They’re only bait for Ryoushi. Like you are bait yourself, Metcalfe. Like the Angel is. Like uninformed security guards sometimes become, when they venture a little too deep in this jungle. Ryoushi doesn’t expect any of you to survive. He doesn’t care how many lives will be spent, as long as it finally helps him get this devil.”
“I don’t know if I should believe you –”
“Well you’d better believe me, Metcalfe!” Laws quickly interrupted with urgency. “Because if you don’t, you and the Angel are sure as hell as good as dead!”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes at him. “You say the security guards – the other mercenaries – don’t know about this creature? But obviously you know.”
“Not everyone knows. The newbies are kept in the dark, mostly. Until it is decided they need to know. Like Murphy and Owens – the Angel’s guards? I don’t think they know about it.”
“Have you seen it?”
“No… To see the creature is to die. That’s as simple as that. And sometimes, it’s a pretty horrible death. I think only Ryoushi knows what it looks like. I don’t know how that came to be – and I don’t know how he survived the encounter.”
“You said you saw its handiwork.”
“That’s all I’ve seen of this creature. It’s like a ghost living in this forest – but it knows how to make its presence felt. So I know that it’s there and that it’s real.”
Scarlet grunted, shaking his head with the same scepticism. He still had his doubts about the veracity of this. It all sounded too much like a tall tale for his taste. Something Ryoushi would have come up with to scare him off, maybe.
“And why are you telling me all this?” Scarlet asked between his teeth.
“’Cause I want to give you some edge over the hunters, Metcalfe. They don’t know about the creature, but now you do. That might be helpful to you.”
“So now you want to help me, uh?” Scarlet retorted coldly. “Why?”
“I don’t have time to answer all your questions,” Laws interrupted. “Let’s keep to the essentials.” He took a closed switchblade from the pocket of his trousers, and showed it to Scarlet. “This is the knife Ryoushi promised you. I know you’ll make good use of it. Now turn around.”
As a confused Scarlet didn’t obey fast enough for his liking, Laws took him by the shoulder and roughly turned him to face the tree; The Spectrum officer fully expected him to cut through his bonds, but Laws unexpectedly kicked him behind the knees, forcing him to kneel.
“What the hell –”
“I’m sorry. Those are Ryoushi’s instructions,” Laws explained. “I’m to leave you the knife with your hands still tied. He wants you to free yourself and would know if I helped you. Beside, knowing you, once you’re free you might actually use it to slit my throat. I can see you don’t trust me.”
“You’re damned right I don’t trust you, and I might well kill you at the first chance I’ll have. You left Harmony at the mercy of those scumbags who took her God only knows where.”
“They have taken her into the deepest part of the forest. In a man-made clearing, where they would have made camp. That’s where they’ll be waiting for you. As Ryoushi told you, the device he left you will indeed take you to her.”
“Where her guards will shoot at me, the second I show my face.”
“Then don’t show it. You’re good, Metcalfe – the best there is. So you’ll just have to do what you know best, and get that girl out of these guys’ hands. By the way, I know you did not believe me earlier, but I really instructed them not to do any harm to her.”
“You’re right, I didn’t believe you then, and I still don’t believe you now. And even if that was true, why would they obey you?”
“I’m head of security. They’re supposed to follow my orders. I just hope for the girl’s sake they will obey this time. But still, you’re right on one account: they’re scumbags, so that makes them unpredictable. When… if… you free the girl, don’t forget to remove her tag. You’ll find it right at the base of her neck, just at the junction of the right trapeze.” He touched Scarlet’s in that exact area, and pinched his skin roughly. Scarlet felt a prickly pain. “Right here. A little under the skin.”
“So I’ve been tagged too, contrary to what Ryoushi said,” Scarlet realised.
“He wasn’t about to let his best bait out of his sight,” Laws confirmed. “Sorry, I can’t remove it myself. Ryoushi –”
“… Would know, I get it.”
“Just be grateful that the hunters don’t know about it – and don’t have the device that would permit them to track you down.”
Scarlet felt Laws putting the knife into his hands. He grunted. “You know I don’t believe this creature story of yours, Laws.”
“Too bad if you don’t.” Laws suddenly pushed him down onto his belly. Startled, Scarlet just had the time to close his fist tight around the handle of the knife so not to lose it. He rolled on his back to look up at Laws, as the latter was quickly retreating towards the path taken earlier by Jurgens. “I already took too much time as it is. I must be going before my prolonged absence arise suspicion. That’s all I can do for you. Good luck, Captain Scarlet. If you survive, perhaps I’ll see you again.”
But Scarlet’s call was in vain. In just three long and hurried strides, Laws had disappeared through the dense foliage.
Scarlet cursed under his breath and pushed himself into a seated position, opening the blade to quickly start work on his bonds.
When about a half hour later, Nicolas Laws arrived at the beach camp, it was to discover that the helijet had gone and that Johnston, Clarington and Rodriguez, seated in front of their tents, were completing their last preparations for the upcoming hunt. Jurgens and two other men were standing guard at the camp’s perimeters. Ryoushi and Seijitsu were nowhere to be seen.
“They left with the chopper,” Johnston explained at Laws’ question. “About five minutes after you left with the Spectrum captain.” He finished loading his gun, and closed the poach containing the rest of his ammunition. “Is everything ready, Laws?”
“As Mr Ryoushi ordered, I left the Spectrum officer at the end of the path, in the middle of the jungle,” Laws answered. “I gave him the knife, but left him with his hands tied up. He shouldn’t have too much trouble freeing himself, if I know him.”
“You didn’t ‘tenderise’ him too much, I hope, Mr Laws?”
Clarington’s question, said with a thin smile and a very offhand tone, was followed by chuckles from the other hunters. Laws glared in Jurgens’ direction and saw the crooked smile on his face; the fact that Clarington had used the same expression he also used himself when Jurgens left him earlier was enough of an indication that the man had reported Laws’ intentions towards the captive left in his care. He hesitated to answer.
“Don’t worry, Laws,” Johnston said, sniggering. “Whatever you did, we won’t tell Ryoushi. We don’t care if you gave him a beating. As long as you didn’t kill him, that is, and that’s he’s still game for the hunt.”
“Oh, he’ll be able to run, don’t worry,” Laws replied. “And to fight back.”
“That’s almost a shame,” Rodriguez said musingly, as he finished polishing the barrel of his long-range gun. “Contrary to our amigo Ryoushi, I’m less into the ‘sporting chance’ thing, and more into getting the trophy, no matter what it takes to get it – and no matter how I get it.”
Johnston guffawed. “Seriously, Colonel, what kind of ‘sporting chance’ does the captain really have, you reckon? He’s only got a knife as a weapon. That hardly counts for much against the firearms we have. We definitely have the advantage over him.”
“Do we?” Rodriguez mused, raising a brow. “Señor Laws, Ryoushi said you knew this man, this… Captain Scarlet.”
“He wasn’t ‘Captain Scarlet’ when I knew him,” Laws answered carefully. “That was quite a few years ago. We were classmates, at West Point.”
Rodriguez rose to his feet. “What can you tell us about him?”
“He’s the best at what he does,” Laws answered truthfully.
“And that is?” Clarington asked with curiosity.
“Fighting. Surviving, and doing whatever is necessary to survive. He’s a soldier. A brilliant and instinctive strategist. An expert at hand-to-hand combat of any kind, whose knowledge of weaponry is second to none, and who can turn anything he lays his hands on into a weapon.”
“What high praise for the man, Mr Laws,” Clarington said, with an obviously false awed expression. “You seem to admire him.”
“I admit I do,” Laws answered truthfully. “As much as I fear him.”
“Fear him?” Rodriguez echoed. “A man alone, with a knife?”
“A very dangerous man with a knife, Colonel Rodriguez.” Laws nodded. “You want a good hunt, he’ll give you one you will remember.”
“That sounds all very exciting,” Johnston then said. “I intend to get him before the end of the day. And well before Ryoushi joins us. That’ll teach that Japanese son-of-a-bitch to give us a head start. Thinking he’s so much better than any of us…”
“But he is,” Clarington commented. “And he knows it very well.”
“Rubbish. He just thinks he’s better, that’s all. That reputation of his is overrated, and I’m sure all of his trophies have been obtained with the help of poachers. It’s about time someone gave him a lesson in humility. And we’re just the people to do that.” Johnston stood up and came to stand by Rodriguez’ side. “What d’you say we don’t wait a minute longer? Let’s start this hunt right away and go after that Spectrum bastard.”
Laws frowned at the suggestion. “Mr Ryoushi promised him you would give him an hour after my return,” he reminded the American. “He wouldn’t appreciate you making a liar out of him.”
“Well, we didn’t make that promise,” Clarington retorted, coming to join his two companions. “Ryoushi-san didn’t have the right to make it for us. Or to think we would honour it.” He paused a second. “Beside, he’s not here, so what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. And we won’t certainly tell him anything… Would we, Mr Laws?”
Laws thought about it for a second or two. The three men were smiling wickedly. Obviously, they were threatening to report to his employer that he went beyond his orders and beat up on the much-valued prey he worked so hard to get. Thinking it wouldn’t be wise to cross these men, Laws nodded slowly. “That seems fair enough, sir. I won’t tell, if you don’t.”
“I see we understand each other very well, old chap,” Clarington said with a grin.
“Anyway, if this guy is as good as you say he is, Laws, then he might already be free and making a run for it,” commented Johnston.
“That’s very possible, sir.”
“Then that’s plenty of time allowed to him, I reckon. What more can you tell us about this man, Laws, that might be of help to us?”
Laws looked at each of the three men in turn, chewing on his bottom lip, hesitating for a moment. “I don’t know if what I’ll tell you will help at all,” he finally said.
“Try us,” Rodriguez insisted with a frown.
Laws’ expression became hard. “You heard him earlier. He said he would kill you in order to get free and to save the girl. As I said, he’s about one of the most lethal man alive – and I also know he’s a man of his word. Believe me, he’ll do his damndest to kill you all. I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to get him before the end of the day… but one thing I’m absolutely certain of: at least one of you gentlemen will be dead before the sun sets.”
Silence followed his ominous words and the hunters exchanged looks that at first seemed like they were suddenly unsure of the outcome of the hunt. After nearly a whole fifteen seconds, Johnston chuckled, a little nervously at first, and then more openly; the others smiled at what they now judged as ludicrous twaddle. Johnston gave a vigorous, almost playful smack on Laws’ shoulder.
“You’re willing to take that bet, Mr Laws?”
“I’m not allowed to bet with the guests,” Laws stoically answered. “Sir.” And certainly not with walking dead men, he added to himself.
“Consider us warned, Mr Laws,” Clarington said in turn. “And don’t worry about us – I’m sure we’ll be quite able to take care of ourselves. Worry about your friend instead.”
“He’s not my friend, sir,” Laws declared. “I respect him as a fellow soldier.”
Johnston scoffed. “It’s been a long time since you’ve been a soldier, pal. But anyway, the information you gave us is appreciated.”
He turned around and moved towards the path, closely followed by Rodriguez, while Clarington addressed Laws one last time: “Keep the camp safe until we return, Mr Laws. You should hear from us soon enough.”
“Of course, sir. I’ll start a fire, if you don’t return before night, so you’ll be able to warm yourself when you get back.”
“We expect to be back well before that, my good man. Still, that’s very considerate of you.” With that, Clarington turned and trotted off to join the others.
Laws followed them with his eyes, until the three of them disappeared into the jungle, one after the others. Then he scoffed loudly.
“Arrogant bastards,” he seethed under his breath. “I hope you’ll get what’s coming to you.”
Then he turned on his heel, to join the other mercenaries in order to give them their order for the coming day.
* * *
“Mr Laws has returned to camp, sir. And the hunters have moved on into the jungle.”
In the control room in his island home, Hayato Ryoushi came to stand behind the chair of the forest controller, to look at the large screen set on the wall over the console in front of them. The screen was displaying a map view of the ‘hunting island’, where dots of colour showed each of the participants’ position. Three white dots were situated just at the boundary of the forest, by the beach, not far from where the camp had been made. Beside each dot, the name of each of the hunters was displayed.
“As expected,” Ryoushi said calmly, “our friends decided to forfeit Captain Scarlet’s one hour of reprieve.” His good eye found the red dot that marked Scarlet’s position and he nodded approvingly. “Following his instructions, Mr Laws left him at the end of the path, about thirty minutes from the hunters’ current location. I see he hasn’t moved yet.”
“He’s probably still busy truing to free himself.” The comment in Japanese came from Seijitsu who was standing about two feet behind his employer, watching the screen as well.
Ryoushi shrugged. “If that is the case, then he is not as good as we thought he was – or as Mr Laws lead us to believe.”
“Or maybe he has gone and what we see is the tag he left behind?” Seijitsu suggested. “It is possible Mr Laws told him about it, and even helped him remove it.”
“And why would Mr Laws do that?” Ryoushi replied. “From what he told us, he and Captain Scarlet were rivals – not exactly friends.”
“As you say, Ryoushi Shacho: from what he told us. It might very well be a lie. They could be closer than Mr Laws told us.”
Ryoushi stroked his chin, pondering that possibility. He checked the data displayed on the screen, and then shook his head. “Iie, Seijitsu-san,” he replied, before adding in English, for the forest controller’s benefit: “The tag is still relaying Scarlet’s vitals information as it should be. If it had been removed, we would have known about it. Isn’t that true, Mr Miller?”
“Yes, sir,” the controller confirmed, with a deep Australian accent. “The data is transmitting perfectly. The prey is still carrying the microchip.”
“So he is really where Mr Laws left him, then,” Seijitsu commented. “If he doesn’t hurry, the hunters will catch him.”
“That would be a shame, really,” Ryoushi said with a sigh. “I had high hopes of the good captain that he would hold his own against these three – and that he would be impressive during this hunt. If he should get killed so early after it has begun, then maybe he wasn’t worth our combined efforts in getting him here in the first place.”
“Maybe his reputation was overrated, Shacho.”
“Maybe so, Seijitsu-san. I expect we will learn about this very soon…”
* * *
The hunters, with Johnston in the lead, hurriedly and casually walked the path leading deeper into the forest. The tracks left by Scarlet and his two captors were so very clear that they didn’t need any tracker skills to follow them. Finally, after about a half-hour, they reached the end of the path, and stopped walking; lying in the middle of the trail in front of them, they found lengths of duct tape, obviously tossed there in a hurry; they were smeared with blood. The ground in that spot was scuffed and covered with multiple tracks.
“This is where Laws left Scarlet. “Rodriguez knelt down to examine the scene, and the others stood over him, waiting. He took one length of tape between his thumb and index finger. “He freed himself all right. He cut through the tape and cut himself at the same time.” He tossed the tape down and looked at the ground. “There are signs of struggle.”
“Must be where Mr Laws had his fun,” Johnston commented with a chuckle. He pointed to a series of footprints, which lead directly into the woods, in a northern direction. “He went that way.”
“No, that way.” Clarington pointed towards other footprints, very clearly going in the opposite direction.
“Or that way.” Rodriguez indicated a third series of prints. Those were going towards the West. He rose to his feet, before removing his hat to wipe his brow. “Madre mia. That devil of a man is clever. He left three paths for us to follow and separate us. He probably walked backwards, into each of these prints he made, to give that illusion.”
“All but one,” Johnston said, and the others turned to look at him. He shrugged. “One of these footsteps has got to be the real one. The question would be which we should follow.”
“They look all the same to me,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been very careful about it.”
“He cannot have gone too far, if he took the time to do that,” Clarington commented. “He must still be around here somewhere. Maybe even watching us to see if his ruse is working.”
“Each set of footprints lead into the woods,” Johnston said, musingly. He raised his gun, aimed it at dense bushes behind which the first set of prints seemed to disappear into, and pulled the trigger three times. The thundering sounds resonated into the forest, and birds flew away in fear, protesting loudly. The other two hunters, visibly thinking it was a good idea from their companion, did the same, firing a volley of bullets in all directions. For a time, there were only the echo of the detonations, and the cries of flying birds and other animals. There was some movement behind the trees in the Northern direction, but as they raised their guns to take aim, they saw the white tail of a small deer, desperately trying to flee the scene.
The hunters lowered their weapons and exchanged exasperated looks.
“Well, contrary to your beliefs, Milord, he doesn’t appear to be anywhere near,” Johnston declared. “Or this would have forced him out – or killed him on the spot.”
“I would agree if it was said of any wild beast, Johnston,” Clarington retorted. “But we’re talking about a man. And this man seems particularly cunning. I bet he’s hiding somewhere safe, either in the trees, or low on the ground. Our bullets would have missed him.”
“So what do you suggest?” Rodriguez asked with derision. “That we fire through the treetops, and see if he’ll fall in our laps?”
“Maybe he’s further away than His Lordship thinks,” Johnston snorted.
“He can’t be that far away,” Clarington retorted with a grunt. “We just need to follow his footprints…”
“If any of them actually leads to him, you mean,” Rodriguez reflected.
“He would have left other traces that would give us indications exactly where he has gone to,” Clarington declared musingly. “Come on, we’re all experienced trackers, aren’t we? We should be able to find him out. The man’s wearing a red uniform for goodness sake! He can’t be that hard to spot.”
“Let’s spread out and search around, then,” Johnston suggested. “The first of us who finds out something calls the others.”
Rodriguez scoffed mockingly. “Right! Like you would do that, will you, me amigo? You’ll keep the prize all for yourself.”
“If I do find him first, I’ll call you,” Clarington promised. The other two looked at him with scepticism. He smiled wickedly. “But after I kill him.”
“Each man for himself, then,” Johnston said. “The best of us will get the game. But let’s just be careful. We’ve been warned he’s dangerous.”
“We are too,” Rodriguez declared. With that, following one of the trails left by the footprints, he started walking carefully into the bushes and between the trees, looking for clues, and keeping his gun at the ready.
Johnston and Clarington did the same, going in different directions. Johnson slung his gun over his shoulder, holding it by its strap and, using his machete, brutally slashed through the bushes, clearing a path in front and around him, in the hope perhaps of hacking into his prey should he find him on the way.
The three men slowly moved away from each other. They pursued their absorbed search in silence, barely taking notice that, after a few minutes, they had disappeared from one another’s view, and were gradually walking further into the thickness of the jungle.
The path Clarington was following took him well beyond dense stands of trees, that he skirted around, his hunting rifle ready to fire should he come face to face with his prey. He heard movement on his right and turned around, only to see a family of rodents scurrying away in fear to disappear under a bush. He grunted in irritation. He moved towards that direction, his finger on the trigger, wondering if it was his presence which had disturbed them – or something else.
He was looking down the ground and all around him, checking for possible clues. He found twigs freshly broken from some bushes that maybe could have been caused by an animal going through it. However, as he raised his eyes higher, he found other broken twigs on the lowest branches of a tree – and these could only have been done by either a very tall animal… or a man pushing his way through.
Clarington’s heart raced as he now made his advance more carefully; and they, he saw it: there, hidden behind that thick shrub, just a few meters directly ahead, and at about two feet from the ground, there was a patch of red – which suspiciously looked like the Spectrum officer’s uniform. Clarington cautiously pulled back the hammer of his gun; he didn’t want to take any chance and wanted to be as close as possible to his prey before pulling the trigger – but still at a safe distance. He wanted to make a sure kill, but he didn’t want risking approaching too much. He still remembered Scarlet’s words, before he had left them, and Laws’ warning, just before they started the hunt, was still vivid in his mind. That was making him nervous.
The red patch didn’t move, but as he came nearer, Clarington realised that his suspicion were right: without a single doubt, this was indeed Captain Scarlet’s uniform. And he seemed to have his back on him.
With only the sound of his heart pounding in his ears, Clarington stopped his advance and slowly raised his gun, taking careful aim.
His finger was stroking the trigger, when all of a sudden he felt a nearby presence; but it was already too late.
Someone unexpectedly grabbed from behind; before he could react, a hand roughly seized his gun and tore it from his own hands, before pulling his firing arm behind his back with such brutality that it dislocated his shoulder. The pain was so intense that a yelp instinctively mounted from his throat; but it never reached his lips. A strong arm snaked around his neck to hold him firm and tight, with the hand applied to his mouth, stifling his cry.
“Do you find the hunt so glorious now, Your Lordship?” The cold words, murmured close to his right ear, made him shiver. He recognised the voice of Captain Scarlet; with his right arm hanging uselessly by his side, he clawed with his free hand at the arm holding him, but it was too strong and he was unable to free himself. His struggles were in vain, and a frightened whimper escaped his sealed lips, as he felt the man’s other hand pressing against the side of his head.
“I’ll tell you a confidence before I kill you,” Scarlet whispered in the same icy voice, so low that, through his panicky and stressed breathing, Clarington could barely hear him. “Like you, I have a title, but I earned it through service to our country. I was indeed born one of those commoners you so obviously despise.” Clarington made a last attempt to free himself, more desperately, but Scarlet strengthened his hold on him. Half choking, the English hunter ceased to resist. “A title doesn’t make a person what he is,” Scarlet added softly. “I know people with titles and others without, but it’s really the actions that define who these people are. And you, Your Lordship, were most definitely one of the worst scumbags I ever had the displeasure of meeting.”
Clarington just had time to register the use of the past tense and then realised the full extent of Scarlet’s intent. It was already too late for him.
With a vicious twist, Scarlet swiftly broke his neck, and Clarington fell lifeless in his arms.
A gunshot rang out, and a bullet grazed Scarlet’s right arm. It came from behind. Scarlet swiftly turned around, still holding Clarington’s body close to him. There was another gunshot, and a new bullet, which this time whizzed by his ear. He just had time to see Johnston at some distance, levelling his weapon at him for a new shot. Rodriguez, who came running behind the Texan, stopped and raised his gun, yelling something in Spanish that Scarlet didn’t quite catch but which no doubt was meant as an insult.
And then, multiple shots thundered into the jungle, and the two men discharged their weapons, shot after shot. Projectiles rained on Scarlet, but the dead and limp body of Clarington, used as an effective shield, took most of them and kept the Spectrum officer from the worst. One of the shots went straight through the body, though, and Scarlet felt the sting in his side.
Scarlet glanced regretfully at Clarington’s gun lying just out of reach from him and knowing it would be too risky to try to pick it up, backed away into the bushes behind him. Then he let go of his shield, and while it fell floppily onto the ground, he turned on his heels, and dashed behind the trees, picking up his red tunic as he went past it. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him – so to get as far away from this hot spot as possible.
As he zigzagged between the trees, going deeper and deeper into the woods, Scarlet barely took any notice of the shots he could hear coming from behind and zipping by, hitting tree-trunks and cutting branches and leaves. He knew full well that, for the moment, he was out of sight from his pursuers and that they were only firing blindly into the deep vegetation, with no exact knowledge of their prey’s exact location. The worst he could expect at the moment was to catch a stray bullet, but he imagined he would be very unlucky if this was to happen. He could already feel his retrometabolism kick in, as the superficial wounds on his side and arm were quickly healing.
Without slowing down, he reached for his tunic pocket, to take from it the electronic device Ryoushi had left him. He activated it and watched anxiously as the small screen came to life. On it, he could see the blinking white dot he had seen before and that, if Ryoushi had not lied to him, was indicating Harmony’s position.
He took a few seconds to study the information the screen was displaying; it was obviously meant to be some kind of a map, but he couldn’t really read it properly without the knowledge of what these lines and curves could mean, and he came to the frustrating conclusion that it would help him very little on this island he wasn’t familiar with.
At least, he told himself with relief, looking at the white dot’s behaviour, if I should believe this gadget, I’m going in the right direction.
The shots behind him had subsided and stopped, and he knew he had shaken his pursuers. He would now have to make sure they would remain at a safe distance behind him. He threw away his scarlet tunic, aware that its colour would only serve to give him away in this setting. At least, it had served him well, by momentarily distracting Clarington’s attention. Scarlet would have felt some satisfaction of having successfully killed one of these bastards and made good his escape, if he wasn’t so worried about Harmony.
He glanced at the device in his hand to make sure he was still on the right track and lengthened his pace. His free left hand reached for his right shoulder and he stroked it carefully, searching for the tag he knew was imbedded there, just underneath the skin. He quickly found it under his fingers, feeling the same slight sting he had earlier, when Laws had indicated its position to him. He grunted with displeasure.
Right. Retrometabolism has not taking care of this annoying chip. I’ll have to make a quick stop soon then, and get rid of this nuisance myself.
* * *
“That ought to be a new record.”
Hayato Ryoushi was staring the screen with mystification. A few seconds earlier one of the three white dots giving the hunters’ location had started blinking wildly before completely stopping and now it stayed finally stayed alight. Some of the information written in red by its side left little doubt as to the fate of the individual it represented.
“I believe Lord Clarington has been terribly careless,” Ryoushi casually commented.
It didn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine how death had come to him so suddenly. The red dot representing the prey that had been nearly on top Clarington’s one only a few seconds ago, was now moving away from it rapidly, while the two last white dots were approaching the dead man’s position.
“One hour, five minutes since the beginning of the hunt,” Miller reported. “Indeed, a new record, sir. No contest.”
“The last one was, what, held by that Yakuza who cut Barrister in two, two years ago?” Ryoushi asked thoughtfully, addressing his secretary in Japanese.
“Not quite, Ryoushi Shacho,” Seijitsu corrected him. “The Russian assassin broke Yamata’s record by fifteen minutes, three months after that. He killed Prince Torengo four hours, fourteen minutes into the hunt. Bolesnov, I think his name was.”
“And Captain Scarlet just beat the both of them by a good three hours,” Ryoushi commented in English. “This is really impressive.”
“Indeed. As you said, Ryoushi Shacho, Lord Clarington had probably been careless.”
“And obviously underestimated his prey, Seijitsu-san.” Ryoushi nodded. He pointed to the screen. “Captain Scarlet is getting deeper into the jungle. And according to the direction he has taken… he’s following the indication of the device I gave him, and is going straight to Harmony Angel’s location.” He addressed his secretary anew: “I expect the helicopter has returned after leaving the Angel at the site?”
“Hai, Ryoushi Shacho. As instructed. Haamonii Tenshi had been dropped in the clearing, with Owens and Murphy, the two men assigned to guard her. They should ensure that she will not escape – at least until Scarlet Taii arrives there.”
Ryoushi nodded his acknowledgment, his eyes riveted to the screen. Suddenly, he saw the red dot start blinking rapidly and that made him turn all of his attention to it. Then the pulse stopped and the red dot stayed alight. Seijitsu, who saw the dot’s behaviour as well, took a step forward to stand near his employer. He glanced at the rest of the screen, and took note of the distance separating the red dot from the hunters’ white indicators. From his point of view, they seemed too far away to be responsible for whatever was happening to Scarlet.
In Seijitsu’s mind, in such occasions, it could mean only one thing.
“Was is… the creature?” he asked in a soft voice. “Did it already kill Scarlet Taii?”
But Ryoushi shook his head. “It would have been a shame if it was the case already.”
“Surely it wasn’t the other hunters. He’s too far away from them now, even for Mr Rodriguez’s long-range gun.”
Written information then appeared on the screen, right next to the static red indicator.
“No, Seijitsu-san,” Ryoushi stated. “Captain Scarlet is not dead. Not as far as we know, anyway. Look for yourself.”
Seijitsu narrowed his eyes at the screen to read the text.
‘Host not found’.
Ryoushi grunted, and smiled for himself. “Clever man. He found the location chip and disposed of it.”
“Affirmative, sir,” Miller confirmed at this point. “The tag isn’t moving anymore. Captain Scarlet probably threw it away somewhere in the wild.”
“So we have lost contact with him, then,” Seijitsu stated. “From now on, we’ll never know what will be happening to him. He could be found by the creature and be killed in the next hour…”
“… Or much later, if luck has it.” Ryoushi stroked his chin in a thoughtful fashion. “I am confident that Captain Scarlet will, at least, survive the rest of the day. And might even make it through a good part of the night.”
“That’s when the creature usually goes hunting,” Seijitsu reflected. “And makes most of its kills.”
Ryoushi nodded, looking contemplatively at the screen, his attention focussing on the static red indication. “He already knows the hunt has started,” he murmured pensively. “So he is probably following it, watching how it is going, like he usually does. If I know him, he must like what he sees… And yes, he’ll be waiting for the night to come out, when the advantage will be his, before striking himself.”
“Hai, Ryoushi Shacho,” Seijitsu said. “You must be right, of course. No-one knows this creature’s behaviour better than you do.”
“For my sins, my dear friend.” Ryoushi sighed. “Please, contact the remaining hunters. I’d like for them to give me a full account of what has happened. I can’t wait to learn how exactly the good captain disposed so easily of Lord Clarington.”
“I expect they must be upset at their companion’s demise,” Seijitsu commented.
“Upset?” Ryoushi echoed. “Maybe unnerved by this turn of events. They certainly didn’t expect this to happen so quickly. If I am a good judge of their character, they will want Captain Scarlet’s blood very badly now.”
“In that case, Shacho, they will surely not appreciate you distracting them from the hunt, at such a moment, as they’re trying to track their prey.”
“That will be but a temporary distraction.” Ryoushi smiled wickedly. “That will give Captain Scarlet the head start he was entitled to in the first place. We do not want this hunt to end too quickly, Seijitsu-san. I’ll remind our friends of the hunt rules, while they are still alive.”
“Will they request your presence?”
Ryoushi mused about it for a moment. “That is possible, but I don’t think they will. After all their boasting, the prey, in front of their eyes, has killed one of their own so in their eyes, they failed miserably. Calling me to the rescue would be admitting this failure. They would rather want to prove they don’t need me. Let them fend for themselves. We will see how things go.” He chuckled. “At least, Captain Scarlet had demonstrated that he was more than up to our expectations.”
“Hai, Shacho. Maybe he will be the one, then. Who will at last permit you to perform the task you set yourself to do, so many years ago.”
Ryoushi’s expression became hard. “It is yet too early to say, my friend,” he said in Japanese. “We will have to wait to see. If Captain Scarlet can survive until nightfall… then maybe I can dare to hope I will finally succeed.”
* * *
Well hidden in the foliage at the top of the trees, with his cloaking device on, the hunter watched with deep interest as the Ooman quarry went deeper into the jungle, leaving far away behind the frustrated hunters who were now left with no other alternative than to try to find his tracks again.
Still following the trail of the heat signature left by the craft, the hunter had been distracted in his task by the sound of detonations coming from nearby. He realised then that not only had the hunt started, but that already, there had been some action. Curious as to know what exactly could be going on, he had diverted his course to check, and, under the cover of his concealment gear, took to the trees to travel the distance separating him from the scene of the conflict.
He had arrived just in time to discover that the Ooman hunters had now split up to go in search of their prey; from the top of his observation tree, he had witnessed how carelessly one of them had fallen into the hands of his would-be victim, who had been lying in wait for his approach. With a satisfied grunt, the hunter approved of the way the prey swiftly disposed of his pursuer; he recognised with a critic eye’s the experienced skills of the quarry.
He was sain’ja – a warrior. And not just any ordinary one. His fluid moves and fleetness, the ruthlessness of his attack, and the way he withdrew from the scene, using his kill as a shield, to then sink into the safety of the forest, without paying attention to the projectiles flying all around him, it was obvious he was of a superior calibre to those L’ulij-bpe had brought to this island before.
Within minutes, the prey had disappeared in the thickness of the forest, and despite his hurry to escape, he took great care to leave as little trace of his passage as possible behind him, so that his two remaining pursuers would not know with certainty in which direction he was going.
The talents of this Ooman warrior were almost worthy of those of a Yautja warrior.
Almost. For he had not realised the presence of the hunter, and the latter was still able to follow his heat signature running through the trees. The hunter watched until the trace became nothing but a tiny spark quickly fading away in the distance.
The Ooman hunters on his trail would take a long, very long time in locating him, the watcher realised, and he could already hear their curses and angers as they pursued their search, eager to find a trace that would lead them to their prey – maybe eager to exact vengeance for the death of their companion.
HA! That would be the day… These Ooman hunters L’ulij-bpe invited to his island had very little loyalty to each other, and often compete with one another, instead of working as a team to capture the deadly prey that could often turn against them. And with this specific prey, the hunter reflected, they should indeed collaborate, if they ever hoped to get him… Or even to survive their next encounter with him.
The hunter followed with his eyes the direction taken by the warrior. He was going deeper into the island, towards the darkest section of the jungle. In the same direction the craft had taken earlier.
He was in search of that craft.
And then the hunter realised what L’ulij-bpe’s plan was.
There was something in that craft that the other Oomans had taken from the warrior, which they were using against him. Probably to lure him into the hunt – to force him to do their bidding.
The craft, as far as the hunter could judge, had gone into his territory, taking whatever this thing was into the deepest part of the jungle.
And the warrior was now going there as well - fully intending to recover whatever was stolen from him.
Very clever, L’ulij-bpe… You are sending your prey directly to me…
The hunter was impressed, and certainly approved of the strategy.
He ignored the Ooman hunters who were still searching for a trace of their prey and left the scene, still using the aerial route from the top of the trees. He could always come back later for these two, but for the moment, leaving them alive was of no consequence. He wanted to find what it was exactly the warrior was looking for. Nobody knew this island better than he did – except perhaps L’ulij-bpe himself – and he was fast. He was confident of arriving at the destination well before the warrior.
And then maybe, whatever it was that the Ooman hunters were keeping from him, it would be a good idea for the predator to be using it as well, in order to get the quarry for himself.
Because indeed, this Ooman warrior was a worthy prey – and his skull would make a prized trophy.
The sun set over the horizon and the night quickly came creeping in, the damp warmth of the day giving way to the cool of the night. Like every evening, the jungle became alive with activities, its inhabitants going about their business, in the search of their next meal, of some water to drink – or even of a mate.
The clearing was in the deepest part of the jungle, and obviously had been cut by the hand of man so it would form the centre of an encampment. Thick shrubs and bushy trees were bordering the clearing, which was about fifteen to twenty meters wide, and almost right in the middle, a blazing campfire was burning, with flames as high as four to five feet tall. A tent had been pitched at a safe enough distance to avoid hazardous sparks that might set it afire. Closer to the flame, however, a high stake had been solidly set into the ground, crudely fashioned from a nearby tree.
It was to that post, well in view, that the captive Harmony had been tied. Many hours ago, her captors had forced her down a rope from the helicopter that had brought them there. Though once on the ground, she had tried to fight back in an attempt to escape from their clutches, the powerful drug still coursing through her veins incapacitated her. She had been unable to do more than fall under their blows, when they had not hesitated to beat her into submission, and she had lost consciousness again. Upon wakening, she had found herself tied to this post, with her back against it, in a standing position, her hands securely bound to what remained of a branch a few inches over her head.
Still dressed in the same outfit she had been given at Ryoushi’s home, damaged nearly beyond recognition through her latest ordeals, she had been left exposed all day to the overwhelming heat and dampness of the jungle. She had gradually felt herself weakening. Her captors had not given her anything to eat or to drink; she was tired, famished, thirsty, and all the muscles of her body were aching. She couldn’t rest; it was all she could do to lean against this post, in an attempt to release a little of the weariness and pain imposed on her whole body. Her hands were now so abraded by the ropes she could barely move her fingers, and her arms were growing numb. The freshness of the coming evening didn’t bring any comfort to her, since as soon as it was beginning to cool down, her captors, to keep themselves warm in a night they obviously knew would become cold, had quickly started this blazing bonfire, to which she was so close to. The heat generated from the flames, was becoming nearly unbearable, and she soon became drenched with sweat. She would have given anything for rain, which would have eased her torture, but what she could see of the starry night gave little hope of that happening.
Yet her determination remained strong, as she fought to stay awake despite all these abuses. She was keeping a watchful eye on her two guardians, now sitting in front of their tent, eating their evening meal and drinking the beer they had brought with them. From what she could assess, they were expecting they would need it to go through a long night.
After a while, the two men became quite inebriated, and started laughing loudly, sharing stupid, risqué jokes, seemingly paying very little attention to their prisoner. For Harmony, it was of little consolation and as a matter of fact, she knew that didn’t bode anything good for her in the long run. She suspected that sooner or later, when they had had enough to drink, they would turn their full attention to her; and she knew it would be at that moment that her situation would became even worse than it currently was.
She didn’t have to wait very long before it happened.
After a particularly raunchy pleasantry from his companion that caused him to guffaw almost uncontrollably, the man she had heard been called Murphy pointed to her. He said something – she had no idea exactly what it was as she had never heard the like of it before, but it sounded definitely rude. He then threw his half-empty can of beer in her direction. Despite the bonds limiting her movements and the general state of weakness she was in, Harmony was just about able to shift her arm in front of her face to protect herself from the projectile; it was painfully deflected by her elbow, and sprayed her with its contents. She clenched her teeth against the new bruise she knew had formed on her arm, and the burning sensation of the alcohol against the abrasions on her face. She tasted the bitterness of the beer running down her lips and tongue. It did nothing to calm her thirst.
Murphy’s laugher resonated through the clearing, and then the voice of his companion rose in protest:
“Hey, hey, Murphy… why d’you did that for? You could have killed her. Or at least, hurt her seriously.”
Murphy chuckled at the remonstrance. “Why should I care?”
“You should,” the other man reasoned. “Laws told us not to hurt her.”
“Screw Laws,” Murphy snorted loudly. “He’s an idiot. He just told us that, so that we don’t touch her, ‘cause he wants the girl in one piece so he can have some fun with her himself. But he ought to know better. She won’t leave this forest alive after we’ve done with her. She’s worth nothing, man. She’s just the bait to attract the tiger out of its lair.”
Owens sighed, shaking his head despondently. “You have no sense at all, Murphy. Ryoushi doesn’t want the girl dead. Not right now anyway. And what you just said, you’re scaring her for nothing.”
Murphy looked straight at Harmony who was glaring at them. “Doesn’t look scared to me,” he commented in a low voice.
Owens turned to look at her in turn and watched the young woman. He gave a shaky breath. “No... she doesn’t look scared at all.”
He put his rifle down against the rock he was sitting on and took the flask laid on the ground by his side. He rose to his feet, and followed by his companion’s questioning eyes, he slowly crossed the distance separating him from their prisoner. He came to stand gravely in front of her; she watched him warily, with deep suspicion, as he showed her the flask, and opened it with calculated slowness.
“Hey, pretty girl, I’m sure you’re thirsty,” he said in a soothing voice, that contrasted strangely with the roughness he had showed her earlier that day, when he and his companion had beaten her up so harshly. “Here, this is for you. Drink this…” He cautiously reached for her with his hand, and gently pushed the hair from her face, while, with the other hand, he raised the flask, tilting it so that water would drop onto her blistered lips and into her mouth. Desperately thirsty and grateful for the life-giving water, Harmony threw her head back, greedily drinking the few drops, while the man held her chin up in a gesture that was almost tender.
“Oh, please, say you’re kidding me,” Murphy moaned in the distance. “Owens, what’re you doing exactly?”
“Easy,” Owens said to Harmony, ignoring his companion’s question. “Easy now… don’t be so greedy.” He stopped pouring the water, pulling the flask back to him; these few drops were not enough to quench Harmony’s thirst, and she watched the flask covetously, as Owens held it in front of her eyes, just out of reach.
“Feeling a bit better, now?” he asked quietly. “You want more?” Harmony didn’t answer and looked straight at him, wondering what he had in mind. He grinned and waved the flask again, this time in a taunting way, watching with satisfaction as she followed it with her eyes. “Yes, you want more, I can see that. You’re still thirsty. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of that. I’ll give you more water.”
He tipped the flask and started pouring water again into her mouth, in larger quantity this time, and she gulped as much as she could. Murphy was watching attentively, as Owens grinned with satisfaction, and his free hand started stroking Harmony’s bruised cheek.
“You see, Murphy,” he said over his shoulder, “there’s no reason to be brutal with her. See, you can get what you want from a chick, as long as you give her what she needs.” He smiled, as he addressed Harmony: “Now you’ll be very nice to me, won’t you, girl? You do, and everything will be all right for you…”
Owens approached closer, as Harmony continued to drink; her nostrils filled with the awful smell of his sweat-covered shirt, and of his alcohol-pervaded breath.
“It would have been a real shame to damage you too much,” Owens said in a low voice. “You’re a pretty, pretty girl… Even if you’re only a Chin –”
He never got to complete the offensive word, as Harmony suddenly straightened her head – and spat the entire content of her mouth straight into his face, in a powerful spray of water that made him step back in complete surprise.
Owens stood there, his eyes wide, seemingly not believing, or even understanding what had happened. Behind him, he heard Murphy loudly burst out laughing and that made him bristle with outrage. Trembling with contained anger, he lowered his eyes to look down into Harmony’s face. She was looking up at him with a fierce and defiant expression, water dripping down her chin, breathing heavily from the indignation and revulsion she felt for him.
That just made him all the more furious.
“You filthy little… bitch!”
Owens brutally slapped the captive with his open hand, forcing her to divert her eyes, and then backhanded her. Harmony gasped and moaned under the pain, as he struck her, again and again, spurting out insults and profanities, while in the background, she could hear Murphy’s cheers and approving shouts. Her cheeks were burning under the impacts, each seemingly more brutal than the previous one. At first bracing herself to endure the pounding, her strength and determination progressively wavered and finally gave way. On the verge of losing consciousness, her mind dazed, she could barely stay on her feet, her bonds now the only thing that kept her upright.
The punishment stopped, and Owens stood in front of his victim, breathing hard with exertion, his glaring eyes reflecting a rage that had barely subsided. Satisfied to see her hanging in her bonds, so defenceless, and left with no means to resist him, he grinned and moved one step closer to her.
He took a handful of her hair and pulled her head back violently; she gasped in surprise and the renewed pain seemed to give her the jolt she needed to recollect some of her wits; at first she attempted to draw back to escape him, as his body pressed against hers, nearly crushing her against the post. Seeing her vain efforts, Owens grinned wickedly. He was now looking straight into her eyes, and Harmony glared back at him with revulsion and antagonism. Her teeth clenched, as she felt his free hand roughly stroking her body. A wave of nausea hit her in the pit of the stomach at the feel of his demanding and unpleasant touch.
“Don’t like it much now, do you, bitch?” he seethed into her face, with the same mocking grin, and his breath stinking with alcohol. “I don’t care that you are Spectrum… In fact, just because of that, I reckon you had it coming to you. To me, it makes you fair game.” His fondling hand left her, but it was hardly a relief for Harmony, as she heard the distinctive sound of a belt buckle being undone. “Now you and I, we will have a little fun…” Owens continued, breathing hard with anticipation. “And I intend to enjoy it fully… even if you won’t. But I can guarantee you, bitch, but if you don’t behave nicely, I’ll make sure you will enjoy it even less.”
Her heart filled with anger and dread, Harmony sputtered an insult in Mandarin, which came almost mechanically to her lips. He might not have known the words, but he certainly recognised the meaning; he looked at her, his face only inches from hers, narrowing his eyes with anger.
“What is it you said, Chink?” he asked ominously.
Harmony didn’t learn that many offensive English words from her Spectrum colleagues, but one line imposed itself in her half-foggy mind as she glared back at this despicable man with cold hatred – a line that would tell him exactly what she thought of him.
“Fuck off, you arsehole,” she seethed through clenched teeth.
That infuriated him so much, that he brutally banged her head against the post; she moaned in pain and saw stars.
“Oh yeah?” He said scornfully. “Well, the same to you, you fucking Spectrum cow!” He knocked her head anew against the post, this time more violently.
Harmony felt her consciousness escaping her grasp, and she became vaguely aware of her surrounding. Perhaps, she thought dimly, it was a blessing in disguise.
“Hey, calm down, Owens.” Seeing his companion’s harsh retaliation towards their captive, Murphy swiftly jumped to his feet and took a step forwards. “You probably ought to follow your own advice and take it easy, before you kill her.”
“I won’t kill her,” Owens retorted. “Not yet…” He brusquely kicked Harmony’s legs apart, without her having the strength to resist him. “Not before I’m through with her.”
“Well, be sure to leave some for –” Murphy didn’t finish his sentence, as he noticed the sudden apparition of three red dots of light, forming a triangular shape, just between his companion’s shoulder blades. He stared intently, opening his eyes wide , as the dots moved up. “Owens…” he called hesitantly.
“Be quiet!” Owens snarled, snapping his head towards him, his eyes flashing with irritation. “You’ll have your turn after I’m done, you little –”
“It’s not that – look! There, on your shoulder.”
Murphy pointed to his companion, who, in confusion looked to his right shoulder, and in turn, saw the three dots that had moved there. Owens straightened up at the sight and, letting go of her, he stepped away from the half-conscious Harmony, uncertainly brushed his hand against his shoulder, as if trying to swat the dots away. His attempt didn’t produce the desired effect, and the dots stayed there. He then noticed the tiny beam of light emanating from each of the dots, and suddenly he understood exactly what they were.
He was at the business end of some kind of reflector sight.
In alarm, Owens turned around, and raised his head, looking in the direction the beams seemed to come from.
Up in those trees, just at the limit of the clearing, he could just distinguish a shape that vaguely resembled a human silhouette. He blinked as a ray of red light coming directly from this shape crossed his line of vision; the red dots sight moved up and came to rest on the left side of his chest. He became deadly pale.
In a loud zapping sound, there was a sudden blinding ray of laser light that illuminated the clearing, hitting Owens exactly where the three dots had stopped. His body was flung backward, and seemed to explode under the impact, spraying a rain of blood on Harmony who was in the front line to witness the scene. Her mind was in so much of a haze that she wasn’t quite sure of exactly what was happening, but there was no doubt in her mind that the man who had attempted to assault her seconds earlier would not be a threat to her anymore.
“Oh, my God…” Murphy’s voice was weak and shaking with fear. He was watching with eyes open wide in horror the distorted body of his friend, now lying nearly at the feet of the prisoner. His gun in his hand, he stumbled towards it, hoping Owens could still be alive; but as he reached him, he saw that half of his chest and his left shoulder were nothing but a gaping and bloody hole. His left arm had been completely cut off, and lay on the ground about a meter away from the dead body. Murphy gasped in utter revulsion, and his hand flew to his mouth, as his stomach churned violently. As he heard a rustling sound behind him, he tore his eyes from the gory sight and swiftly spun on his heels. He scanned the clearing with his eyes, and most specifically looked in the direction of the spot where the laser beam had seemed to come from, but he could see nothing.
“Bastard…” he gasped, searching for his breath, as he felt himself hyperventilating. “You fucking bastard… You killed him…”
He staggered back towards the post where Harmony now hung heavily from her bonds; he stepped behind her, using her and the post as a shield, although he suspected it might not be very effective against whatever weapon had killed Murphy, if the shooter decided to use it again. Nervously putting the gun away, he unsheathed his knife, and pressed it against the young woman’s throat, keeping his eyes in the direction he suspected his enemy was. Harmony was too dazed to even react at the cold contact of the metal against her skin, and barely made a sound.
“I know you’re there, Spectrum!” Murphy shouted. “I know you’re watching me! I can feel your eyes on me! Now I don’t know what damn weapon you used to drop Owens the way you did, but I swear to you, if you try to use it on me, I’ll kill the girl! I’ll have time to take her with me! D’you hear me?”
He listened carefully, but he heard nothing more than the wind blowing through the foliage, the crackling of the nearby fire and the breathing of the woman he was threatening with his knife…
… And his own heart, which was beating so fast, he had trouble calming it.
“Show yourself!” he yelled forcibly. His trembling hand pressed the knife closer to Harmony’s throat; the blade nicked her skin, and she gave a low moan. “Show yourself, or I’ll slit her throat!”
There was another moment of silence; then there was the hum of rustling again, and suddenly, a strange sound echoed through the clearing. It was a very deep, very hollow laugh, that seemed to come out of nowhere and from everywhere at the same time. There was no expression of happiness in this laugh, which rather sounded like a contemptuous chortle. Murphy looked nervously around with uncertainty, unsure where to look, not knowing where his enemy could be.
Then a voice made itself heard, which rumbled as low as the laugh itself, and sent a shiver down the mercenary’s spine:
“Why should I care…”
Murphy saw movement in front of him and that made him froze; he narrowed his eyes and looked with attention. It wasn’t as if he was actually seeing someone approaching; it was as if the forest itself, in the shape of a very tall human being, was moving in his direction, very slowly. He blinked, unsure if, in his edginess, he wasn’t seeing things.
He then realised that whoever was approaching him must be wearing some kind of cloaking device, as he saw what looked like eyes lit up with a brilliant yellow light. Then the silhouette of the man gradually became clearer as he came closer. Finally, fully visible, he stopped his advance, not that far from the fire, only a couple of meters away from Murphy and his hostage and stood there, motionless.
Murphy stared in confusion and astonishment; he wasn’t sure if the flames reflecting on the newcomer’s frame were playing tricks with his eyes. Whoever it was, it wasn’t the Spectrum officer he expected to see come to the rescue of the woman. He wasn’t even sure that it was even a human being.
He stood taller than anyone Murphy had ever seen; seven, maybe even eight feet high, with the lean muscles of an athlete, showing a creamy white skin, covered with a multitudes of black spots. He was wearing very little – various pieces of protective gear, covering his upper chest, shoulders, forearms and calves. A black, brilliant metal mask was covering his face, from forehead to chin, and Murphy could only see two slits, through which yellow light was emerging. Dreadlocks were framing an already inhumanly enormous head, making it look even larger and more grotesque.
He was holding a strange-looking spear in one hand, and Murphy saw a huge gun-like weapon fixed to his left shoulder pad – a gun from which, the mercenary realised, came three beams of light that were aimed straight at him. Nervously lowering his eyes, Murphy could see on his left shoulder the same three dots that had appeared on Owens, seconds before he had been killed.
Murphy swallowed hard, and shivered. Realising that using Harmony as a shield wouldn’t do him any good, he started to back away from her. The man or creature, ever so slowly, advanced on him. The three dots stayed on Murphy, now focusing on his chest.
“Hey… you want the girl safe?” the mercenary said nervously. “See… I’m leaving her alone. I didn’t do her any harm… It was all Owens’ doing. You saw that, didn’t you?”
The creature tilted its head to one side, seemingly staring at him. “Screw you…” it said without emotion. Murphy’s heart sank.
“Who… what the devil are you?” he asked with a shaky voice.
The creature gave a hollow laugh. “The devil…” it echoed, and for Murphy, it was as if it had actually answered his question. He became as white as a sheet and stepped back, stumbling against the uneven ground; momentarily, the three dots disappeared from his chest.
“I… I heard of you,” Murphy said in a quivering voice. “The others… They said there was something in the jungle… A blood-thirsty monster… I thought they were kidding me. I didn’t think you were real… Owens didn’t either…”
The creature was approaching closer, going around the post, as if wanting to get a clear view of his target. The three dots reappeared on Murphy, and he panicked.
“No…” he whispered. “Stay away from me…” The creature ignored his warning; in desperation, filled with fear for his life, Murphy flashed his knife at him. “Stay away, I said!”
It was a futile gesture. Almost immediately, there was a detonation and a brilliant flash of light; the same powerful laser beam of red light as before emerged from the muzzle of the creature’s shoulder canon; it hit Murphy in the stomach. The impact lifted him from the ground and sent him flying a good four meters away; his disarticulated body hit the ground like a sack of flour. He didn’t even have time to scream before dying.
The creature approached and stood over the dead body, looking down at it with curiosity, its throat emitting a quiet, rumbling sound. It crouched down and took the knife from the lifeless fingers, testing the razor-sharp edge as it straightened up. Looking back at the body, the creature huffed with contempt, and putting the knife into its belt, turned its attention to the captive tied to the post.
Hanging from her bound hands, Harmony had not made a move since the moment Owens had been killed; her eyes were closed and she was vacillating between consciousness and oblivion, vaguely aware of what was going on around her. The creature approached her quietly, in long strides, and came to stand right in front of her. It looked down at her petite form, the sight of its gun aimed at her brow, as it seemingly pondered what to do with her.
Long fingers, adorned with sharp black claws, touched her bruised cheek, to stroke it in a strangely delicate way; she moaned faintly as he slowly turned her head to ostensibly examine her with deep interest.
The fingers were so cold that under their touch, Harmony’s eyes fluttered and she looked up with a vague expression to finally look at her saviour. Obviously, it was a man, but he was so tall, she could barely reach his chest; all she could see of his face through a confused haze was the smooth surface of his mask, made of some kind of dark metal, with a deep scratch crossing the slit of his left eye.
“Help…” she said in a slurred voice. “Help me… please…”
The noise coming from his throat sounded like some kind of loud, rumbling purring. At first, he didn’t seem to react to her voice and continued to examine her, with calculated coldness.
“Please…” she repeated, her voice weak. “I need… help…”
The man straightened up, and seemed to give an appreciative nod.
“Bait... for the tiger…” he said.
His voice, so very hollow, reminded Harmony of the Mysterons’ Voice – except for this deep rumbling she could hear in it. For a second or two, she stared at the man, trying to see beyond the metallic surface of his protective mask; then her strength betrayed her completely, and her already very confused mind plunged deeper into darkness. Her eyes closed and her head hung down as she lost consciousness.
The creature let go of her, and turned on its heels. It took no further notice of her and returned to pick Owens’s body, to fling it over his shoulder. Then in long strides, it moved around the post and seized the dead Murphy by the collar of his shirt, to effortlessly and casually drag him behind. Leaving a trail of blood behind, it left the clearing and walked back into the forest from whence it came.
* * *
“Sir, the creature has killed Owens and Murphy.”
There was no emotion on the set face of Hayato Ryoushi as Miller reported the information to him. He came to stand behind the seat of the forest supervisor who had monitored the incident, and watched the man’s screen with cold interest. Next to the blue dots representing the two mercenaries left in charge of Harmony Angel appeared the line ‘host deceased’.
“These men were expendable,” Ryoushi said, almost matter-of-factly. “They served their purpose, as they attracted the creature’s attention to them.” He paused to scrutinise the screen, but not finding what he was looking for, he asked: “Did it become visible?”
“Yes, but not long enough, sir,” Miller answered with a shake of his head. “His cloaking device was back on again, before our satellite was able to get a fix on him.”
Ryoushi shrugged dismissively. “As usual. He’s too clever to let himself be surprised that way. At least, we know he’s in the area. How about the woman?”
“The creature didn’t touch her,” Miller answered, looking at his instruments. “Her vitals are strong enough. Low blood pressure, heartbeat a little fast, accelerated breathing…”
“Dehydration, perhaps,” Seijitsu commented, recognising the symptoms.
‘Or shock,” Ryoushi added in.
“Possibly, sir. The creature left her where she was and went back into the forest, without seemingly harming her in any way.” He paused a second. “She could be unconscious.”
Ryoushi nodded, and slowly stroke his chin anew. “The trap is set,” he murmured. “The creature will lie in wait now. It is working.”
“It would appear so, Ryoushi Shacho,” Seijitsu said. “However, there remains a problem. While we know now of the approximate location of the creature, we don’t know of Scarlet Taii’s whereabouts, from the moment he removed his tag. He could be anywhere.”
Ryoushi straightened up, looking up at the screen and at the multicoloured dots, blinking in various points.
“The last we received of his tag before he got rid of it, he was going to Harmony Angel’s location,” he reflected. “I see no reason for him to have changed that.”
“He knows this would be his downfall. Will he really risk his life for her?”
Ryoushi scoffed. “Oh, he will. He’s a man of deep loyalty. He would want to save the girl at all costs, Seijitsu-san. Don’t have any doubt about this.” He glanced one last time at the screen. “Have the helicopter ready,” he instructed his secretary. “It will need to take off at a moment’s notice.”
“Hai, Ryoushi Shacho..”
“All is proceeding according to the plan,” Ryoushi added in a low voice. “Soon, this will be all over. After all these many years… I will at last see the end of this hunt.”
The quarry was approaching the site where the bait awaited him.
Hidden amongst the branches of the highest tree he could find in the area, the hunter was patiently waiting. From his perch he could see the fire still burning at the clearing, and at the same time, keep an eye out on most of the possible paths leading there. The warrior would unavoidably use one of these paths in his search of the female tied to that post, waiting for him.
The hunter had decided to let the warrior free her before striking. It wasn’t that he cared that much about her fate, but he thought that, with all of his efforts to get to her, the warrior was entitled to a small reward, a well-earned victory. Freeing her, and spending at short time with her, as two mates should, would be that reward, but it would only be a short respite, before he would fall under the hunter’s spear.
As for the female, she would be allowed to go. She didn’t carry a weapon and wasn’t game, only a bait at best, and posed no threat. The good hunter didn’t kill unarmed prey, especially wei-ghe'h – females – who carried within themselves the potential of perpetuating their species. Of course, females were sometimes as dangerous as males, if not more, and then they became fair game. The female kept captive in the clearing, waiting for her mate, had certainly demonstrated a certain spirit, while defying her guardians, but she had yet to show she could be a worthy prey.
In the midst of the trees and shrubs, at ground level, more than a thousand noks away from where he was perched, the hunter saw the unmistakable heat signature of an Ooman approaching. He leaned slightly in that direction, adjusting the zooming controls of his mask. There was no mistake: it was the warrior, finally coming into view. The hunter grunted with satisfaction; soon, there will be sport.
At the same time his trained mind was making strategy for how he would bring death to this honourable prey, the hunter’s attention was distracted by another heat signature, a good distance left to the approaching warrior, and visibly closer. Another Ooman, he mused as he zoomed in to check it out. It looked like one of the surviving hunters who were chasing the warrior. And he was coming straight for the clearing.
There was even a good chance he would reach it before the warrior would.
C’jit! Surely, this puny Ooman would not deprive a Yautja hunter of his prized game? For a moment, he considered intervening to kill this interloper and add his skull to his collection. But then, the thought came to the hunter’s mind that if the warrior could actually escape his fate at the hands of his congener, he would therefore gain even more value in his eyes. In the rule of the hunt, only the main prize brought honour; all the other lesser prey were of minor importance. And from what he had seen of the Ooman hunters’ behaviour, they could even be considered tarei'hasan – unworthy of the hunt.
These Oomans hunted their own; not for food, not for territory, not for survival – but for fun and the pleasure of the game. From the point of view of a Yautja – whose hunt was the essence of life itself – this was a disreputable thing to do; Yautja – honourable Yautja that was – didn’t hunt other Yautja. Only Bad Bloods would do such a shameful act. But still, if it was within the Oomans’ culture and would provide for a good game, then the hunter was willing to accept and respect that.
And all things considered… when stuck on this island, he must not show himself too difficult, must he?
The hunter gave one last glance at the two approaching Oomans. The warrior was faster and was approaching fast to his destination; the Ooman hunter progressed slowly, but surely. It was a toss up who would arrive first. But both of them would reach the clearing soon.
The hunter left his position and silently moved in the direction of the clearing as well. He wanted to find a good point of observation from which he would be able to watch the show.
This would be an exciting and interesting meeting, for only one of these two would surely survive. The hunter was rooting for the warrior… But if the Ooman hunter should prove his better, he would gladly take his skull as well.
* * *
Cursing inwardly, Captain Scarlet was moving quickly between the trees, following the directions from the location device provided by Ryoushi. He hoped the man had not lied to him, and that he would indeed find Harmony at the designated emplacement – and that she would be safe. Since they had been separated, long hours had passed, and his concern for her had kept increasing ever since.
What didn’t help in the matter was that while the device was indicating a precise direction, it was impossible for Scarlet to get to that point in a straight line. The forest was far too uneven, the vegetation too thick in places, and the knife Laws had left him wasn’t much of a tool to help him slash his way through it. There were deep gaps in the ground, sudden declines, abrupt rises that looked as upright as walls, and even quicksand into which he might have disappeared if he wasn’t careful where he put his feet. He had to make a wide detour to find a way across a pool of quicksand, and then a steep cliff that cut through the path he had been following. All the while, he had to be careful not to leave any trace of his passage for the hunters on his trail to follow, and to make sure they weren’t waiting for him at the next turn. Even if they didn’t have a location device like the one he was holding, they knew he was in search of his colleague and that she had been taken to the deepest part of the forest. Surely, they could make their way there and ambush him.
So far he had been able to avoid them. Either they weren’t as good hunters as they claimed, or he was far better than the prey they previously tracked. Either way, he was very happy to have escaped them for the time being, but he was deeply aware they could be on him at anytime, so he kept all of his senses and all of his soldier’s instincts peeled for any sign of their presence. If he was to be shot dead, it could take precious time for him to recover – time he feared Harmony couldn’t afford. And it wasn’t only her life he was worried about.
At least, since he got rid of the tag, he knew that no-one, Ryoushi included, could know exactly where he was.
He gave but a fleeting thought to the creature Laws had told him about, but so far he had not seen any trace of it – whatever it could be. If it really existed to begin with, and quite frankly, he doubted very much it was the case. Whatever the reasons for Laws to tell him this incredible story, it didn’t seem very believable, even if Laws seemed sincere, and rather insistent – and genuinely afraid. Had Ryoushi ordered the man to try to scare him off with such a ludicrous tale? To what purpose exactly would he have done that?
And if the creature really existed, where could it be? And when did it plan to appear and join the hunt?
Time passed, inexorably, and the sun started to slowly descend, to make way for evening, and then night. Fortunately, it was still possible for Scarlet to move on; the night was clear, with a full moon shining its light between the treetops and permitting him to see the path ahead of him. He kept walking, hoping that he would not be forced to stop searching, if his surroundings should become too dark for him to see. He didn’t dare assume that if he were to rest now, if he were to stop, Harmony would still be alive in the morning.
He had to move on, for her sake.
The vegetation was starting to grow thicker, throwing dark shadows around, but he still couldn’t see any indication of the clearing that had been mentioned to him. That got him worried. Surely, he had reached what Ryoushi had described as the deepest part of the forest. He had walked and searched for hours, so why couldn’t he find Harmony yet? The location device seemed to indicate she wasn’t very far now, and yet, he didn’t see any trace that anyone had been through these parts. It was if even the beasts inhabiting this island were avoiding the place.
As he was starting to wonder if he had not been lied to, Scarlet saw a reddish light at some distance, straight in front of him and he stopped in his tracks. He narrowed his eyes and watched with attention; his heart started to beat faster, as he recognised the flickering flames of a camp fire.
Scarlet’s expression became hard with determination. He was reaching his objective; he probably wasn’t that far away from the clearing and the camp where Harmony was held captive. He started walking again, and progressed with more careful steps. He didn’t want to alert Harmony’s guards to his presence or to fall into any kind of trap they might have set around their camp. He needed the element of surprise in order to approach and attack them before they would be able to react. He didn’t dare hope they would be asleep; he rather thought they would be waiting for him.
At the turn of a thick cluster of bushes, Scarlet nearly lost his balance, as the ground became suddenly slippery underfoot. He just had time to catch himself against a tree, to avoid falling face first into the dirt. As he straightened up and was about to resume his progression, he felt something damp brush against his face and, startled, he jumped back.
He looked up, fully expecting to see some kind of a wet vine hanging in front of him.
What he saw made him gasp in horrified surprised, and his stomach suddenly mounted to his mouth.
What had brushed against Scarlet’s face, was one of the dangling, skinless, blood-covered hands of a skinned body, which hung by its feet about eight feet off the ground, from the low branch of a big tree.
A human being’s skinned body.
Without a head.
Scarlet’s heartbeat increased suddenly at an incredible rate; for a brief second of alarm, the thought that this could be his missing colleague crossed his mind.
But no. Fortunately, this was the body of a much larger individual and definitely a man, judging by what remained of it. Unnerved by the discovery, the Spectrum officer wiped his face where the lifeless hand had touched him and looked at his blood-tainted fingers. A shiver went down his spine.
Jesus Christ… exactly what’s going on, on this island? He looked at the body with intense revulsion. Who could this man have been? What had happened exactly, for him to endure such a horrible death and end up that way?
And what the bloody hell had happened to his head?
Was he yet another victim of the sick games in which Hayato Ryoushi and his guests indulged themselves? Was this what awaited him… and Harmony? As a soldier and a Spectrum officer, Scarlet had seen many horrors in his life, some he didn’t even want to think about; yet, what he was seeing right now seemed so repulsive to him that he could barely conceive that a human being in his right mind would act that way towards one of his own people.
It could only be the deed of some deeply disturbed person.
The thought of Laws’ creature then came back to Scarlet’s mind once more; if Laws had not lied to him after all, if he had not exaggerated, maybe this horror was its ghastly work.
No. This is all part of some elaborate scheme. Ryoushi is a sadistic psychopath. I wouldn’t put it past him to decapitate and skin a man just to impress and terrorise his would-be victims.
Scarlet’s worry for Harmony increased at the thought that the young woman might already have suffered the same fate, or that she might be on the verge of being killed; his heart pounding, he rushed towards the light of the camp fire. He wanted to be there as fast as possible now, without waiting a minute more, before it would be too late.
He stopped at the edge of the clearing, and crouched behind the bushes, watching carefully. He could see the fire, burning high in the middle of the clearing, and one large tent on one side, at a safe distance from the flames. From his position, he could clearly see the interior of that tent; there was no-one inside. There didn’t seem to be anyone else anywhere around either.
He crept around the edge, slowly, keeping under the cover of trees and bushes, cautiously checking around, making sure that nobody was lying in wait for him, assessing the terrain, so to consider all possibilities for a quick rescue and an equally fast getaway if there was any need to. He found a river, with relatively rapid currents, running along the north side of the clearing, about two or three feet behind the trees, and he had to be carefully walking along its bank to continue his exploration, so not to slip into the waters. He had nearly done a complete round of the camp, and so far, there was still no-one in view within the boundaries of the clearing or even beyond. It was if the camp had been completely deserted. All he could see was the raging bonfire, the empty, abandoned tent… and a wooden post, that he had not noticed before, because it was set nearly on the other side of the fire, where he could just make out the outlines of a slender body tied to it.
He couldn’t see very well through the flames, but he had very little doubt about the identity of the unfortunate victim bound to that post.
Silent as a shadow, he continued to move around the boundary of the clearing, until he came into full view of the captive.
Scarlet’s heart missed at beat at the sight of Harmony, hanging from her bound hands, her borrowed dress so torn it didn’t look much like a dress anymore and her body covered with blood nearly from head to toes.
Oh no… Harmony.
Fury completely filled Scarlet’s mind so completely that he became blind to any danger; he left the bushes he was hiding behind and stepped resolutely into the clearing. Despite the fact that he couldn’t see anyone about, he didn’t care anymore that someone might be there, waiting for him, watching him. As a matter of fact, as far as things looked, Harmony had been set there as a bait for him. But he didn’t give a damn. His rage was such that if they were to shoot at him, it would take much more than a few bullets to stop his advance.
Rushing to Harmony, he stepped into something sticky and damp, but barely looked down to see what it could be. He reached the young woman, without anyone trying to stop him. She was sagging heavily by her hands, and her head was hanging down, with her eyes closed. She didn’t move or even bat an eyelid as he approached her and called her name.
Scarlet stared at her in shock, a lump forming in his throat. The bastards! he thought savagely. Look what they did to her… He swore he would make them pay, that he would avenge her for all she had endured in the hands of her captors. He would kill every last one of these filthy scumbags.
The way she looked, he could barely hope she was still alive.
“Harmony,” he called softly, as he stood in front of her, “can you hear me?” Tentatively, with a trembling hand, he reached for her, and searched for a pulse against her neck. He was surprised to feel it beat strongly, if a little rapidly. She even groaned and shivered under his touch.
He saw her eyes flicker, but they didn’t open.
“Oh, thank God…” Scarlet took his knife and cut the bonds holding her hands; moaning piteously, she fell forward, straight towards him. She would have slumped to the ground if he had not caught her, and swiftly gathered her into his arms. She was so light, it was as if she barely weighed anything at all.
Breathing hard with apprehension, Scarlet looked down into her set and bruised face, which was covered with a thick layer of relatively fresh blood like most of her body. That’s when he realised that the ground he was standing on was also covered in blood. He looked about in shocked confusion; there was blood all around him on the ground. And this blood wasn’t Harmony’s, obviously; there was too much of it. If was as if something alive had been blown away with a powerful projectile.
Not something. Someone, Scarlet corrected inwardly, as almost in the next second, he made the gruesome discovery of a man’s arm lying by the fire. The sleeve – which definitely came from the uniform of one of Hayato Ryoushi’s mercenaries – was half-burnt at the top, as if the arm had actually been cut by a very intense welding torch.
With Harmony in his arms, Scarlet walked back towards the spot where the ground had felt so sticky earlier under his feet. He found it easily; it wasn’t any puddle of mud he had stepped into, he then realised with dismay, but as he suspected since his last discovery, something much more macabre.
There was blood here as well. Maybe not as much as in front of the post from which he had freed the young woman he carried, but still enough of it to imagine that its owner had had a very gruesome death.
Scarlet narrowed his eyes as he scrutinised the ground carefully; as far as he could tell, the blood seemed to form a trail, leading directly towards some of the bushes that marked the boundary of the clearing. He looked in that direction, trying to pierce the shadows with his eyes and to see beyond the vegetation, wondering what could be hiding in there. He could see nothing. He didn’t follow the trail either. He didn’t want to, or dare to, not with Harmony in his arms.
His thoughts returned to the grisly discovery of the hanged and decapitated body, before his arrival at camp, and he wondered if it didn’t have anything to do with what had happened here.
I was right in my assumption earlier that the camp has been abandoned, Scarlet reflected gloomily. Though not in the way I suspected. It’s like there’s been a slaughter in here.
He looked down at the young woman in his arms. If indeed it was what had happened, then she was lucky to still be alive. All of his survival instincts were telling him to leave and take her as far away and as fast as possible from this place. But he didn’t know how badly wounded she might be and it might not be that wise to transport her. He needed to check on her first, to make sure she was all right before deciding what to do next. It was a risk he had to take for her sake.
Beside, it didn’t look likely that whoever was here with Harmony would ever return.
We might have some time before anyone realises I’ve found her, he told himself. He didn’t have the tag on him anymore, so as far as he was aware, nobody knew he had found Harmony yet. As long as she still had her tag, that was. There would be time to remove it from her later on.
His decision taken, Scarlet hastily carried her directly to the tent; he took a look inside to reassure himself it was empty, like he had assessed before, and gently laid her down inside, close to the opening. He noticed a rifle, laid against a rock at the entrance, and picked it up to throw it inside the tent, just within reach of his hand. Then he made Harmony as comfortable as he could and, finding a jacket lying nearby, rolled it into a pillow and put it underneath her head. He heard her moan again, and looked hopefully down into her face; she had not opened her eyes.
“Harmony?” he called gently. She didn’t respond. He touched her brow. It felt cold and sticky, and he could see she was covered with perspiration. Her pulse was more rapid than it ought to be.
Scarlet grunted. It looked like she was suffering from heat exhaustion – which wasn’t surprising if she had been kept tied to that post all this time, exposed to the heat. He looked inside the tent for something cool to give her and found a flask. He opened it up and sniffed the contents; satisfied that there was only water in it, he quickly returned to Harmony and gently and carefully raising her head, he moistened her cracked lips. He saw them move faintly as she drank the few drops he gave her.
Slowly, she returned to life, and her hand, instinctively, reached out for the flask, to grasp it and bring it to her mouth avidly.
“Easy,” Scarlet whispered, keeping the flow of water steady and thin. “Not too much, you’ll choke yourself…”
He gave her a little bit more and then stopped; she opened her eyes and looked up at him, wearily
“Captain?” she croaked in a very weak voice.
Scarlet smiled down comfortingly at her, glad that she had recognised him. She closed her eyes again, and he laid her back down gently, before putting the flask aside. He examined her carefully, concerned about the appalling way she looked, searching for any severe wounds there might be on her.
After a few minutes, he sighed with relief and rose on his knees, to look down musingly at her slim body. None of the blood covering her and smearing half of her torn dress seemed to be hers, as he couldn’t see the presence of any serious injury. Aside from her badly chafed wrists and a big bump no the back of her head, the worst he was able to find were cuts and bruises – rather ugly, he admitted, but nothing to account for the blood.
So. That really came from another person who got killed next to her, and she got splashed with the spilled blood.
It was a relief to realise that.
“Harmony,” he called gently to her, although certain she wouldn’t hear him, “I have to leave you for a moment. I need to secure the area, and make sure nobody will surprise us. I promise, I won’t be long and will return very soon. Then I’ll take care of you, properly.”
He stood up and hurriedly left the tent. He had barely taken three steps outside, than he heard behind him an ominous click he knew all too well. He froze in his tracks.
He didn’t have to turn around to know who it was standing there, aiming a gun at him. He knew exactly who it was.
“Congratulations, Mr Johnston. Not many people can claim they had been able to sneak around me the way you did.”
He heard the malicious chuckle. “I’m a consummate hunter, Captain Scarlet. And I learned from the best of schools. My pa was a Texas Ranger, and he took me with him often, when he went chasin’ after fugitives tryin’ to escape justice.”
“A very commendable activity for a child, I’m sure,” Scarlet deadpanned.
“Turn around. Slowly. Keep your hands in view.”
Scarlet did as he was told. He then faced Dirk Johnson, standing just to the side of the tent’s open door, aiming a pistol at him. There were only a few feet between the two of them. The Texan offered a smirk and made one step forward, keeping his gun and eye on the Spectrum officer.
“I’m curious, Captain,” he said. “How d’you guess it was me?”
“The click from the hammer of your gun,” Scarlet explained. “From what I recall of you jolly gang of hunters, you were the only one carrying a pistol at your belt.”
“Could have been any of Ryoushi’s men,” Johnston commented.
“From what I saw, Ryoushi’s mercenaries don’t carry semi-automatic M1911 Colt.”
Johnston showed himself impressed that Scarlet would recognise the type of weapon so easily. “You’re that good, huh?”
Scarlet shrugged slightly. “I’ve had some practice,” he said uncompromisingly. “How did you find me so easily? Your ‘pa’ showed you the art of tracking the way Comanche warriors used to?”
Johnston chuckled evilly. Keeping his gun aimed at Scarlet, he used his other hand to pull on the strap holding his rifle on his back and let it slide down his arm before carefully putting it down on the ground, at his feet. Then, with his now empty hand, he fished into the pocket of his jacket and showed to Scarlet a small electronic device, with a small screen on it; it was similar in every way to the one Scarlet had been using to follow Harmony’s location to this camp, and which now rested in his own pocket.
The Spectrum officer screwed his eyes at the object, and nodded slowly. “So despite his claims to the contrary, Ryoushi didn’t play it fair,” he commented dryly.
“Ryoushi didn’t give me this gadget,” Johnston retorted. “I snatched it from his stuff in the helijet before he left us to conduct the hunt by ourselves. He doesn’t even know I have it, and I didn’t share it with the others either. I knew this gimmick would lead me to your girlfriend, so I thought it would be easier to come directly here and wait for you to arrive.” He threw the device down to the ground, figuring he didn’t need it anymore. “Took me a hell of a time to get here too, with all the detours I had to make on this Godforsaken island… I imagine it was the same for you. I arrived about five minutes before you did.”
“So you cheated,” Scarlet said quietly.
Johnston smirked. “Hey, all’s fair when it comes to love, war… and huntin’.”
“I wouldn’t know about hunting, Johnson,” Scarlet replied coldly. “As far is love is concerned, I don’t know you, but I have difficulty imagining you as something other than a cold-blooded murderer. And for war… Well, I’m pretty sure you know nothing of it.”
“You demonstrated quite plainly that you are the soldier, Captain. And don’t you call me a cold-blooded murderer, you bastard.” Johnston paused a second. “On my way over here, I found the dead body of a man,” he then said carefully. “Hangin’ by his feet from a tree. About half of his torso was gone, along with his left arm. He had no head either, and no skin.” He narrowed his eyes at Scarlet. “Your handiwork?”
Scarlet glared at him meaningfully. Half of his torso and left arm gone? It wasn’t the same corpse he had found himself. And it was a good bet the arm he had discovered earlier near the fire belonged to this dead man. So it must have been one of Harmony’s captors.
“What a curious question,” Scarlet retorted quietly. “I actually thought it was your handiwork.”
“Mine?” Johnston scoffed derisively. “What kind of a maniac do you think me for?”
“I don’t know – the kind of that hunts human beings for the pure pleasure of it? Seeing that, I don’t imagine it’s so far-fetched to think that you or any of your pals would be able to commit such an atrocity.”
“I have nothin’ to do with that! Findin’ that poor devil nearly gave me a heart attack.”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes at him; Johnston seemed to be telling the truth. “Then maybe it’s your ‘friend’ Ryoushi’s doing,” he commented thoughtfully. “Or… maybe it’s the work of that creature that is said to be living on this island.”
“Creature?” Johnston echoed suspiciously. “What creature?”
Scarlet nodded slowly. “Ryoushi’s devil. Apparently, he didn’t tell you everything, did he?”
“I don’t know what you’re on about, Scarlet, and quite frankly, I don’t care,” Johnston snapped impatiently. “I don’t see who else could have killed that guy but you. I know you’re quite capable of murderin’ someone without blinkin’. You didn’t hesitate to kill Clarington with your bare hands, you son of a bitch.”
“What did you expect?” Scarlet harshly replied. “You and your pals were shooting at me, and threatening to kill me and my colleague. Seemed to me like a good idea to get rid of one of you as soon as the occasion arose. Clarington just happened to be the first I was able to lay my hands on. But don’t feel jealous, Johnston: if it had been you, I would have killed you as well.” He looked straight into Johnston’s face, before adding, as if in after-thought: “Actually, I am planning to do exactly the same to you.”
“You’re a blood-thirsty kind o’ Limey, aren’t you?” Johnston said between his teeth.
“No more than you, Johnston.” Scarlet’s voice was cold as ice. “It’s only a question of survival. Nothing personal.”
The threat didn’t seem to have much of an impact on Johnston; he simply glared at Scarlet. “Well, nothin’ personal from this end either, matey.” He raised his pistol to take careful aim, and added between his teeth: “Here’s for what you did to Clarington. I hope you’ll rot in hell.”
“I guarantee that’ll be after you, scum,” Scarlet replied without an ounce of emotion.
He was looking for an opening to jump at Johnston’s gun, ready to take a bullet to that end if there was a need to, when a moan coming from inside the tent, startled the American, who was obviously very much on edge. He swiftly turned around, carelessly taking his aim off Scarlet, to direct his pistol towards the defenceless Harmony, who lay half-conscious just two feet from where he stood. This was certainly an un-hoped for opportunity, and Scarlet, not wanting for the hunter to fire impulsively at the young woman, promptly moved – just as Johnston, realising his mistake, was returning his attention back to him.
But it was already too late, and Scarlet was able to push the gun away from him with both hands. It discharged, safely away from Scarlet, and into the ground. The Spectrum officer then hit the hand holding the weapon, forcing it out of Johnston’s grip.
“You fucking bastard…” Johnston’s other hand reached for a big knife at his belt and unsheathing it, he blindly slashed it at Scarlet who made a step back in an attempt to avoid it. The clip point of the blade sliced through his shirt from left to right, and cut deep into his chest; the burning sensation made him grunt in pain and he stumbled back further, his left hand reaching for the fresh wound.
Seeing his foe hesitating and keeping his distance, Johnston grinned evilly. Taking the knife well in hand, he approached Scarlet carefully, gauging him. “Doesn’t feel good, eh, pal?” He sniggered, while showing the sharp blade, shining under the light thrown by the nearby fire. “Know what this is? It’s a genuine Bowie knife, ‘matey’. It can easily slice flesh from bone.”
Scarlet didn’t reply. Keeping his left hand on his bleeding wound, with his right hand, he reached for his trouser pocket, and drew out the switchblade Laws had given him He flicked out the blade and aimed it at Johnston. The latter guffawed at the sight.
“You think that’s much of a knife? That’s a kid’s toy! But this… it’s a proper blade. I’ll show you how to use it the right way…”
Scarlet grunted. “I already know, ‘matey’,” he hissed between his teeth.
Swift as lightning despite his recent wound, he hurled his knife straight at his foe; the blade hit Johnston in the right shoulder, and embedded itself nearly to the hilt. The excruciating pain made the Texan cry out and forced his hand open. His now paralysed fingers let go of his knife.
Scarlet advanced on Johnston and punched him in the face, making him stumble away from the opening of the tent. The Spectrum officer then rapidly picked up the pistol which lay at his feet. He had no time at all for niceties, especially with the unconscious Harmony lying powerless nearby, and needed to get rid of Johnston fast.
However, the big American wasn’t out of resources yet, and still very close to Scarlet, he shoved him violently, hitting him in the chest. Pain from his wound renewed, the Spectrum captain staggered back and tripped on one of the tent wires, falling on his back. He managed to keep hold of the gun, and intuitively raised it in his opponent’s general direction, before pulling the trigger once. The bullet whined past Johnston’s ear and he ducked. Recognising the danger, he turned on his heels, cursing – and ran for the cover of the jungle.
Oh no, you don’t… Scarlet shot to his feet, his right hand clutching the pistol, and his left pressed against his chest, and ran behind Johnston. He saw him disappear into the bushes forming the boundary of the clearing and then behind the trees. There was no way the Spectrum officer would permit him to escape; leaving him alive would be too much of a risk.
Reluctantly leaving Harmony temporarily unattended, Scarlet dived between the trees, and gave pursuit to the fugitive.
* * *
Dirk Johnston ran wildly through the dense vegetation, zigzagging between the trees and jumping over obstacles that he couldn’t see very well in the semi-darkness thrown by the surrounding shadows. The pain from his shoulder was killing him and his arm felt numb. He reached for the handle of the knife still embedded in his flesh and savagely pulled it out. Blood started pouring down his shirt, and the pain became so bad, he needed to bite his lips not to cry out. He found the strength not to slow down, and to continue running, without daring to look behind at the man he knew was chasing him.
For the first time since he had started hunting human prey, perhaps even for the first time in his entire life, Dirk Johnston knew fear.
Despite Ryoushi’s claims that the Spectrum officer would be a formidable adversary, Johnston didn’t quite expect him to put on such a good fight. In reality the ‘prey’ the Texan had hunted up until now had proven to be easy enough kills, with only a handful of them proving really dangerous, and presenting a real challenge. But this Captain Scarlet was of another calibre. Not only was he particularly deadly and cunning, but also, he proved far more experienced than could be expected from a man who seemed so young. And more importantly, he didn’t seem to be afraid of death – whether it came to give it to others, or to face it as a possibility for himself.
As for Johnston, the prospect that he might be finding his end in this hunt, instead of being the one victoriously winning the prize, was now something he didn’t want to consider. He had seen Scarlet kill Clarington before his very eyes, and the Spectrum officer had told him he would be next. It wasn’t the first time a prey turned on the hunters and successfully eliminated one, that was true. Johnston had seen it before, more than once. The first time, an unfortunate one of his father’s deputies, while chasing a fugitive, and his father had not hesitated to execute the culprit upon finding him. Then one more time – a drifter, who had been crossing his property in Texas and who, out of desperation, had killed one of his employees, whom Johnston used as a tracker.
All this happened before Johnston found himself involved with Hayato Ryoushi’s activities. In the confines of his large and isolated properties, Johnston had been conducting personal hunts for a long time, getting rid that way of people who stood in his way through the years: incompetent employees, competitors, a couple of ex-girlfriends, occasional hobos… He would chase them down relentlessly, always ending up putting a bullet into their brains. Johnston never concerned himself much with being discovered… The chances of that happening were equal to none. But that was before Ryoushi, then a business partner, found him out; but rather than denouncing him to the authorities, the Japanese businessman made him an offer he couldn’t resist. Together, with other men who shared the same passion for the hunt, they would organise the most exciting hunting parties they would ever imagine in various parts of the world – which would eventually culminate with the ultimate hunt, on Ryoushi’s own game reserve, set on a very remote private island in the Pacific.
But now, after years of preparation, the game was turning into a nightmare, and Johnston didn’t want to share the same fate as Clarington – or worst, end up like the decapitated hanged man he had found in the jungle. He would do all in his power to avoid that.
And if it meant killing Scarlet, then Johnston was more than ready to do that. He wasn’t yet giving up on the possibility of winning the game. He just needed to get away momentarily, put some distance between him and the man who had now turned the hunter. He would return to the beach, where he would find himself under the protection of the mercenaries Ryoushi had left behind. And then he would call Ryoushi himself… Damn that man, who had decided to let his three guests fend for themselves, while he was enjoying a nice, comfortable drink in his equally nice, comfortable house. It was about time he would join the hunt and help get rid of this Spectrum officer and of his Angel lady friend at the same occasion.
But right now, Johnston was nowhere near able to find his way back to the beach; he was running blindly, with no idea where he could be exactly and where to go, and just knew that Scarlet was probably very close behind. He was starting to panic and, in that panic, felt as if eyes in the woods were watching his every step. He couldn’t see anyone or anything alive, though. And that was making him feel even worse.
Pushing through thick bushes, he then found himself out of the vegetation and, faced with the immensity of the night sky and the ocean, he skidded to a sudden halt, just in time to avoid falling into a precipice that unexpectedly opened in front of him. His heart pounding, and breathing hard, he heard disturbed pebbles roll down the cliff, as he looked down in horror at the sheer drop at his feet. With the moon and the stars shining brightly and illuminating the night, he could very clearly see the bottom of the cliff where sharp reefs rose from the ocean floor, and hear the sound of the rushing ocean tide crashing down on them. Had he not stopped in time, avoiding the plunge, he would surely have crashed against these rocks below and died a very ugly death. He remembered well the topography of this God-forsaken island; he had studied it often enough through maps and 3D renditions in preparation of the hunt. He knew the cliff that formed the boundary of the jungle on the south side of the island was deadly and that anyone falling from it didn’t stand the shadow of a chance.
For a few seconds, Johnston felt like he was utterly trapped; his pursuer would arrive soon and confront him at the top of this cliff where they would have their final face-off. Both were wounded, but the Texan had no illusion: Scarlet was the trained soldier; he would easily best his adversary and kill him, without so much as batting an eyelid.
A resolution imposed itself on the Texan’s mind and his expression became hard; if he was able to surprise Scarlet at the moment he crossed the edge of the jungle, maybe then he would be able to get rid of him – even to throw him to his death, towards those sharp reefs at the bottom of the cliff.
He was at this point of his strategy when all of a sudden, he heard the rustling of leaves, and he became aware of a presence close very behind him. His left hand tightened on the knife he had removed earlier from his shoulder and that he had kept until now. He swiftly turned on his heels to face his enemy, ready to strike.
He was stopped in mid-movement, when he felt something sharp piercing deep into his abdomen; he gasped in pain and stood there, paralysed, his eyes wide open, unable to comprehend what was happening to him. The knife he was holding escaped his fingers.
Someone was standing in front of him, but it wasn’t Scarlet.
It was the tallest man Johnston had even seen in his life. He was dressed like some kind of warrior of an ancient time, and there was a strange luminescence to his very white skin, which was speckled with dark, greening spots. Looking up into his face, Johnson could only see, surrounded by thick dreadlocks, a black metallic mask, with only two slits serving as opening for the eyes. Johnston couldn’t see these eyes. There was only a cold yellow light that seemed to look deep into his own eyes, and reach for his soul.
Almost without thinking about it, Johnston looked down at his abdomen; he could see sharp, metallic claws attached to the warrior’s wrist jammed deep into his body, blood slowly spilling out from the wounds. He took a shocked intake of breath and that gesture alone brought blood to his throat; a cold sweat ran down his spine, and his mind started to blur.
“Pyode Amedha S'yuit-de!” The warrior’s voice was deep, his voice distorted by the mask he was wearing. It was a language Johnston didn’t know of, but it was obvious by the way the words were pronounced that they were meant as an insult.
The claws were pushed deeper inside his body, and Johnston felt his feet leave the ground, as the warrior effortlessly lifted him up. The already excruciating pain became worse still, but he was choking on his own blood and couldn’t scream, although he was terrified out of his wits. He knew he was going to die and that nothing he would do now would save him. Somehow, he just managed to pronounce a few words, although he did it, very laboriously:
“Who… the hell… are you?”
The strange warrior inclined his head to the side then leaned Johnston’s body toward him, so that their faces were only an inch or two apart.
“Pauk-de Tarei'hasan,” he said with his deep voice. “You’ll rot… in hell, Ooman.”
And then, with great force, he threw Johnson over the cliff; the Texan felt the claws retracting from his abdomen before realising he was falling down to his death, towards the rocks below.
It was then, that he finally found the strength to scream.
* * *
Still following the fugitive’s trail, Captain Scarlet heard his death cry and, wondered with puzzlement what it could be all about. It was only when he stepped out of the jungle to stop, just in the nick of time, at the top of a high cliff that he realised what could have happened.
Carefully, he approached the side and looked down into the void; in the bright moonlight, he saw the rocks, far below, violently harassed by the surge of the waves. Broken against one of these sharp reefs, he could see the shape of what remained of a human being, dressed in a pale white costume, just like the one Johnston was wearing. He couldn’t see for certain if it was Johnston, but in Scarlet’s mind, little doubt that it was indeed the Texan.
The ground where the Spectrum officer stood was disturbed, right up to the edge, and there were the traces left by someone who obviously had tried to stop himself from running – but obviously, had been unable to, before it was too late.
It was all too clear what had happened. Coming out of the jungle at full speed, Johnston plainly had not seen the precipice in front of him, and had stepped straight into it.
The knife Scarlet had thrown into the hunter’s shoulder lay there on the ground, still covered with blood, at his feet. Scarlet crouched down to pick it up, and grunted as he slowly stood back up, reaching for his chest with his free hand; Johnston’s Bowie knife had slashed him more deeply than he had realised at first, and it was hurting him, now that the adrenaline was settling down. He could feel his retrometabolism doing its miraculous work, though, and although it would sting for a little while, soon, he would be as good as new, with nothing left of the wound – only the memory of it.
He grimaced as he looked down again at the dead body at the bottom of the cliff. How sloppy of him, he reflected grimly. But at least, that saved me the job of killing him myself. Although the bastard would have deserved it. Now he had one less foe to worry about.
There remained only two hunters to take care of – for he was sure that Ryoushi, if he hadn’t already done so, would join the fray very soon. Of course, there was also the matter of Laws, and of all of Ryoushi’s men to consider – and he didn’t quite know how many there could be. And also, there was this ‘strange creature’ that was supposed to haunt this island. A strange creature Scarlet was more and more convinced might actually be responsible for the carnage he had seen at the camp where he had found Harmony.
I must return to Harmony, he told himself with urgency. She was still there, unconscious, and in need of proper care. Casting all other considerations aside, Scarlet turned on his heels and went back into the jungle. He broke down into a run, taking the same path he had been following to the cliff, but this time, in the opposite direction – back towards the camp.
He never realised for one minute that eyes were watching him from the top of the trees, with increased curiosity and deepening interest.
Hidden in the bushes, the hunter followed the departure of his prey, with mixed feelings of excitement and barely contained antagonism.
He scarcely could believe the data his computerised mask was now transmitting, from the latest full-scaled analysis of the warrior. It seemed so impossible, and yet… He should have seen it before, should have been able to understand the aura readings the spectra-reader had been transmitting with the heat signature.
He should have realised that no ordinary Ooman could have that much stamina, travelling the length of the island without any apparent weariness or feeling the need to rest or sleep. Twice he had been injured. His first injury, though very superficial, should have been enough to slow him down, but it didn’t. The warrior had moved on without seeming to care about it. In truth, the hunter now realised, it was because he knew it would heal, and that should have been enough to arouse his suspicion.
And now this second wound, more serious, made it all the more obvious what should have been so plain to see.
Khujhade – Destroyers.
Soul-takers. Barely more than wraiths. Ruthless and maleficent demons who had no soul themselves, no sense of honour, no ethos, or respect for traditions. For them, anything that wasn’t of their realm of existence, of their so-called profound understanding, was utterly wrong. They would crush and destroy whatever they consider a threat to them. Ultimately. Completely. And without any remorse. Nothing – no-one – found any mercy in their eyes.
The Yautja knew of them. They had encountered them – for their own sins. Khujhade were of no interest for the hunt – they were non-corporeal beings, owning god-like powers, and as such, even if they were the fiercest species the hunters ever found, they made very poor prey. That didn’t stop the Destroyers passing their flawed judgment on the Yautja and attempting to annihilate them. The hunters then became the hunted, as the Destroyers went after every Yautja they could find.
But Yautja were strong; they were a nomadic kind, with tribes all over the universe. The location of their own home-world was even a mystery of some of these wanderers, even more so to the Khujhade, who were never able to entirely wipe out the proud hunter species.
The Ooman warrior – wasn’t even Ooman. He was one of those hated fiends. Or more precisely, one of their aseigan – one of their slaves. As ethereal beings, Khujhade needed assistance, living instruments, to carry out their nefarious and deadly schemes. With their incommensurable powers, they were able to create these instruments, the ‘agents of destruction’, as they called them, out of the bones of those who had been recently killed. These soulless constructs became the arms, the hands, even the tactical minds of the Destroyers, their resolve becoming one with their masters’, and doing their bidding until they would succeed or be destroyed. Khujhade had done this with Yautja themselves, and for the hunters, this was akin to the worst of sacrilege. It was a fate worse than to become host for the brood of the deadly Kainde Amedha, and only death and utter destruction could be proper redemption. Consequently, the resentment Yautja felt for the Destroyers extended to their almost-as-hated slaves.
It had been eons since both species had met; it was well before the time of the hunter and he himself had never set eyes on one of the Destroyers’ slaves. He had only heard of the stories told from a faraway past. Elders had mentioned the Khujhade, and transmitted their knowledge, and wise advice when it came to them: avoid the ethereal beings at all cost; you can never win, it would only mean your death and might incur the loss of your soul. As for their loathsome slaves… they were fair game.
Yautja were honour-bound to hunt these slaves and to slay them. It was also a question of survival. But sometimes it had proven very difficult to kill the Destroyers’ slaves – as their masters had often imbued in their servants the power to heal and to even return to life.
It was difficult – but yet, not entirely impossible.
The hunter didn’t believe it was coincidence that this warrior – this very skilled warrior – was here, now, on this island, and acting as the prey chosen by L’ulij-bpe for this hunt. The warrior was here to kill him, that was obvious. The only thing the hunter didn’t know was if L’ulij-bpe was a part of this scheme or not.
It could very well be likely the case. As it could very well be that L’ulij-bpe was but an unsuspecting dupe. He was mad, after all. And he wouldn’t care one way or the other, anyway: all he ever wanted to do was to see the hunter dead, and to take his skull to hang it as a trophy on his wall.
Well, that at least, was fair, and worthy of a hunter. However, siding with Khujhade was not.
It didn’t matter much; the hunter had no intention of becoming the prey. Khujhade or not, the warrior’s skull would become the centre piece of his collection. The rarest trophy that could ever be found.
For the hunter, the warrior was now D’yeka – the mythical, supreme quarry that every Yautja dreamt of.
And nothing, or no-one, not even Cetanu the Dark Hunter, would prevent him from acquiring this ultimate prize.