Forest controller Miller had been on duty in the control room most of the day, and a good part of the evening and the night. The control panel was fully automated and all he needed to do was to keep alert to whatever signal it sent him about any sudden change happening on the ‘hunting ground’, and to immediately inform his employer of that change. In-between these events, the job was rather boring, and Miller, when he was on his own, could more or less do whatever he felt like.
He was playing solitaire when Dirk Johnston’s signal reported the man’s demise. Immediately, Miller contacted Ryoushi through the console radio communicator, to report what had happened. Just a few minutes before his death, Johnston had reached the camp where he had obviously found Harmony Angel. But inexplicably, he had gone from there, leaving the girl behind – alive – to suddenly and quickly head directly towards the high cliff forming the south side of the island. To all appearances, he was running blindly, and the information from his personal chip was indicating that he had been wounded – although it wasn’t a life-threatening injury – and that he was in a state of profound agitation: his blood pressure was high, his heart was racing wildly, his breathing was rapid… In brief, he was afraid. Probably for his life.
He was obviously running not after something, but from something, and Miller could only hazard a guess who or what it could be. Either the creature had found him – or it was the chip-free Captain Scarlet.
Johnston’s getaway had been brief – and soon after that, he had apparently plunged to his death from the top of the cliff. It wasn’t clear if this fall was accidental, or if he had been thrown.
“Good riddance,” Hayato Ryoushi said through the radio when Miller completed his report. “That Texan imagined I didn’t notice him stealing that location device from the helijet. The cheat deserved what he got. How is Harmony Angel?”
Miller consulted the information on his panel. “She’s moved slightly from her earlier location, by five or six meters. So I’m guessing she has been freed from the post where her guards tied her up. Life-signs indicate she’s more relaxed, but she’s not moving. She could be unconscious.”
“It would be surprising if Johnston had untied the half-breed to make her more comfortable,” Ryoushi deadpanned. “Or perhaps he had other considerations in mind… She is a pretty girl, and he found her quite to his liking.” He paused a moment. “Maybe Captain Scarlet was around and it is him who freed her?”
“That’s a possibility, sir,” Miller admitted. “But since he got rid of his tag, we have no idea where he could be.”
“He had the same tracking device as Johnston,” Ryoushi said. “If Johnston found the girl with his, then Scarlet could have found her as well. Keep monitoring, Mr Miller. Things are about to become very interesting. I can feel it. And I don’t want to miss my chances.”
“Of course, sir. I’ll report any change as soon as I see it.”
As usual, he added as he cut contact. The last thing he wanted was to disappoint his employer. Although he paid well, Ryoushi wasn’t a very forgiving man when someone didn’t meet his expectations.
The bones of the previous forest controller, lying somewhere in the deepest part of the forest, were a constant reminder of what could happen to Miller if he should fail.
* * *
Since he had parted company with Dirk Johnston many hours before, Coronel Esteban Manuel Rodriguez had tried to pick up Captain Scarlet’s trail in the jungle, with more or less success. Numerous times, he thought he had found it, and had followed it for a moment, before losing it yet again. Although an experienced tracker – the best amongst the hunters who were participating in this hunt, with the possible exception of Hayato Ryoushi himself, Rodriguez could only feel frustrated that his efforts didn’t seem to be enough, and that he wasn’t any closer to getting his prey than he had been since the moment Clarington had been killed the previous afternoon. The damnable Spectrum officer was every bit as skilled at covering his tracks as he was at killing with his bare hands.
As he made his way through the surrounding thickness of the forest, Rodriguez was considering returning to the beach camp; he was hungry, tired, and frustrated. It was dark now, and his chances of ever finding Scarlet at this point were equal to none.
Rodriguez was checking on the compass of his watch to figure out exactly in which direction he should go, when he heard the snapping of twigs and rustling vegetation coming from very close behind; he quickly turned on his heel, his gun at the ready. The sound became clearer and he saw a powerful light approaching his location; he tensed, his finger stroking the trigger. The rustling stopped, and a firm voice suddenly rang out from the shadows behind the trees:
“Hold your fire, Colonel.”
“Who’s there?” Rodriguez called edgily.
“It’s only me, Colonel. Nicolas Laws.”
Still uncertain, Rodriguez didn’t lower his gun. “Come over here. Slowly.”
He saw the lone figure of a man emerge from behind the bushes and stride in his direction; the newcomer was holding an electric torch in his hand. As he came closer, the Panamanian indeed recognised the features of Nicolas Laws. He finally lowered his gun, sighing with relief.
“What are you doing here, Laws?” he asked harshly as the man came to stand in front of him. “I thought you were told to wait for us at camp.”
Laws raised a perplexed brow at the remonstrance. “I would have thought, sir, that you would have been happy to see me, as I’ve come to guide you back to camp. Considering that you and your companions were supposed to be back before nightfall, I thought that maybe you got lost – or worse…”
“I am not lost,” Rodriguez defended himself. “We ran into some kind of trouble.”
“I know, sir.” As Rodriguez looked Laws squarely in the face, the other nodded. “I found Lord Clarington’s body, a few hours ago.”
“Your friend Captain Scarlet killed him.”
Laws tilted his head to one side. “I did warn you about him. I told you he was a dangerous man…”
“… And that one of us would be dead before nightfall, and that we wouldn’t be able to catch him today, I know,” Rodriguez said in frustration. “You were right, Laws. You were right about everything. I should have known better, and should have listened to the experienced soldier warning us.” He sighed. “I was on my way back to camp, so I’ll be grateful if you can escort me.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Senor Johnston and I went our different ways, after Scarlet killed Clarington. I haven’t seen him since then. Has he returned yet?”
Laws shook his head. “Mr Johnston is dead, Colonel,” he announced coldly.
Rodriguez stared at him in disbelief, opening his eyes wide. “Madre de Dios… Scarlet killed him too?”
“We don’t know for sure. All we know is that Mr Johnston’s body presently rests on the rocks at the bottom of the island’s southern cliff.”
“And how do you know that?” Rodriguez asked with a frown.
Laws grinned. “Why, through the tracking tag that Mr Johnston carried on his person, sir. Everyone participating in this hunt has been tagged. You, me, Johnston, Clarington… just like Captain Scarlet and Harmony Angel were.”
“What?” Rodriguez said in confusion. “You mean… us as well? So that way, Ryoushi knows exactly where we are and what we’re doing?”
Laws nodded. “Yes, sir. It’s actually a question of security. The tag also conveys information regarding the vitals of the carrier… And Mr Ryoushi knows exactly if that carrier is still alive – or dead. Like he just did with Mr Johnston.”
“Son-of-a…” Rodriguez stifled the rest of his imprecation, and glared at Laws. “That scum Ryoushi is nothing but a cheat. So he had us tagged, like animals… all of us?” At Laws’ new nod, the Panamanian snorted with anger. “I don’t particularly like being used, and it just looks like Ryoushi has been using us all along! And Scarlet… if he is tagged as well, Ryoushi must also know where the bastard is at the moment?”
“No-one knows, sir,” Laws said, shaking his head. “Captain Scarlet got rid of his tracking device a long time ago. He’s roaming free in this jungle as we speak.”
Rodriguez cursed in a low voice. “How about that… In trying to control everyone, that arrogant son-of-a-bitch managed to lose the only one he ought not to lose.”
Laws didn’t reply to that comment and simply kept silent; Rodriguez glared at him, and then gave a low, dissatisfied grunt
“I guess the best we have to do for now is to return to the beach camp… and call Ryoushi to come tomorrow morning. We’ll go after Scarlet and get rid of him once and for all. Damn. That bastard won his bet. I now owe him ten thousand dollars. He’ll sure want to collect.”
“Mr Ryoushi is already on his way, sir,” Laws announced. “He’ll soon be arriving at the beach camp. If he’s not already there.”
“About time he joined the hunt,” grumbled Rodriguez. “If Ryoushi is not careful, that devil of an Englishman is liable to escape, and we’ll be all done for.”
“You think the Spectrum officer is a threat, Colonel?” Laws asked with a raised brow.
“I sure think he is, yes. He’s kept all his promises so far. And he promised to see us all hanged as well. Ryoushi’s political influence might not be enough to save him this time. And us, at the same time.”
“So far, it has served him well,” Laws commented with something of an edge to his voice. “And if you don’t mind me saying so, sir, I would be more worried about our immediate future right now, rather than extrapolate what would happen if Captain Scarlet was able to contact the authorities.” He looked around, surreptitiously. “As we speak right now, he could be hiding behind any of these trees or bushes… waiting to attack and kill us.”
Rodriguez gazed at Laws’ set face for a moment, considering the possibility. “Kill that torch,” he then ordered. “Now.”
Laws calmly obeyed, and they were plunged into darkness once more. The thickness of the trees’ foliage was such that the full moon’s light wasn’t getting through, and they barely could see a few feet around them. Nevertheless, Rodriguez looked around, watchful for any movement, and listened to the quietness of the night, pricking his ears to catch any sound that might indicate the approach of a possible enemy. He didn’t see nor hear anything but crickets chirping, owls hooting and other various bird calls.
Rodriguez grunted in frustration. “There isn’t anyone about,” he said decidedly. “You’re worrying for nothing, Laws. Scarlet is probably far away now, and might already be with his precious little Angel.”
Laws clicked his tongue with some exasperation and stepped closer to Rodriguez. “I think you’re very wrong, Colonel Rodriguez. To my knowledge, Captain Scarlet is far closer than you think. He was heading to the darkest part of the forest – to the camp where Harmony Angel is held captive. And we’re very close to that spot at the moment.”
“Are you sure?” Rodriguez asked him.
“Quite sure, yes.”
“You know where that camp is?”
Laws nodded. “I know where it is, yes.”
“Then we’ll go there,” Rodriguez decided. “I might still be able to win this. You help me, Laws, and I’ll reward you. We’re both soldiers, so we’re part of the same brotherhood, aren’t we?”
Laws narrowed his eyes at him, and Rodriguez failed to notice the flash passing in his pupils. “If you say so, Colonel.”
“And you’re right, of course: the proximity of that camp means that Scarlet might also be nearby. And so that also means there’s danger lurking about. So we’ll have to be careful.”
Laws nodded quietly. “There’s danger indeed, sir. But it’s closer than you imagine. And it’s not actually coming from Captain Scarlet.”
Before Rodriguez could catch the full meaning of the man’s words, Laws unexpectedly seized him from behind, surprising him with the suddenness of his gesture. The Panamanian didn’t even have time to protest, or to do anything at all, as a knife suddenly appeared in his line of vision to disappear just as quickly; there was a brief moment of pain as, with one swift movement, Laws slit his throat from one ear to the other. Blood instantly flowed from the fresh, deep wound. Rodriguez’s gasp transformed into an unintelligible gurgle as he found himself unable to speak, and choking on his own blood. He let go of his gun, and it clattered at his feet, and both his hands flew to his throat, in a futile attempt to staunch the vital stream flowing from it.
Laws let go of him and he fell on his knees, before sprawling completely to the ground. From there, trying desperately to comprehend what had happened, struggling to find the breath that was failing him, he gazed up at his killer, standing over him and looking down at him with a cold expression in his eyes.
“You said it yourself, Colonel,” Laws stated very calmly. “I’m a soldier, like you are, but I don’t feel any connection to you. You forgot that I trained with Captain Scarlet, and that we were classmates at West Point. So I’m much closer to him, than I’ll ever be to you. We were rivals. More than that, we had what you can call… a friendly rivalry. We were constantly trying to outdo each other. He always was the best… but I was a close second.” He quietly wiped the blood from his knife, as Rodriguez’s eyes glazed over and his struggle diminished. “And that makes me at least as dangerous as he could be.”
Rodriguez stopped moving then, and Laws found himself looking down at a dead body that was staring back at him with empty eyes. He slid his knife back into the sheath hanging from his belt.
“That’s one you owe me, Metcalfe,” he muttered under his breath.
He picked up Rodriguez’s rifle from the ground, and resumed his march that had been so inopportunely interrupted by his encounter with the dead man.
He just knew he was approaching his destination.
* * *
The return trip to the camp seemed to take less time than it had when Scarlet had chased after Johnston, as he hurried back the path as fast as his legs could carry him. By the time he arrived, the slash across his chest had stopped bleeding some time ago and had turned into an ugly scar. It still stung and itched annoyingly, as the healing process continued, and he knew that in a very short time, it would be completely gone. As usual.
When he arrived at the camp, he first went to the tent, and took the time to quickly check on Harmony. Reassured that she was fine, though she still was unconscious, he then left her for a short moment to make sure the camp was secured and that no other surprise such as Johnston’s earlier arrival would occur. He quickly set traps and tripwires around the boundary, and covered up all visible nearby traces that might give away his presence or that any incident might have happened in the camp. Then he gathered all the supplies together to put inside a backpack he found inside the tent and placed it with all the weapons now at his disposal – and that he made sure to keep within arm’s reach. Finally, positioning himself at the opening of the tent in such a way that he would be able to spot any suspicious movement, he set himself the task of taking care of his injured companion.
Scarlet started by giving her a few drops of water once more; like before, her cracked and bloody lips moved slightly to accept it willingly. She still didn’t open her eyes, and remained motionless. He found a piece of cloth and, soaking it with water, used it to dampen the young woman’s bruised left cheek, cautiously cleaning up the cut that marked it. Thankfully, the wound wasn’t deep, so there was little risk of leaving a scar, although knowing Harmony, he wondered if she would not have regarded it with a certain amount of pride. He then gently moistened her brow, and cleaned her face of all the blood smearing it. Just as he was starting to worry about her prolonged unconsciousness, she groaned and her eyelids fluttered, before opening fully. She frowned slightly at the sight of him.
Scarlet gave her a reassuring smile, like he had done before. “How do you feel, Harmony?”
She smiled back, very dimly, before answering in a weak voice: “I am all right, now that you found me…” Her hand reached for her sore throat. “I’m thirsty…”
Scarlet reached for the flask of water again, and handed it to her; he helped her as she rose slightly onto one elbow. He watched and nodded with approval, as she took only small sips from the flask.
“And now, do you feel better?” he asked.
She nodded, lowering the flask. “Yes, a bit... Still sore though…” She rose up into a sitting position, handing him back the flask. She moaned, and her hand went to her head. “Dizzy…” she added in a low voice.
“Look at me, Harmony.” She did, and, concerned, he checked her eyes, noting that they seemed clear, although displaying a slight confusion. “Pupils are not too dilated and are equal... You remember having seen me earlier?”
She nodded again.
“No ringing in your ears? Headache?”
“No… not much. And… it’s already clearing…”
Scarlet presented his right hand, with three fingers raised. “How many fingers do you see?”
She looked at him in apparent vexation. “You are serious?”
“Bear with me, Chan,” Scarlet gently insisted. “How many fingers?”
“Good.” Scarlet gravely nodded in satisfaction, lowering his hand. “I think you might have a concussion, but it doesn’t seem too serious. I noticed, from the bruises you have, that you’ve been hit over the head.”
“Yes,” she confirmed in a tired voice, gently stroking the back of her head. “Repeatedly. And everywhere else…”
“You should probably lie still,” he advised.
“No,” she answered with a slow shake of her head. “I’m all right. It’s just a headache…”
“I’m not surprised. You look pretty bashed up.” Scarlet pressed the damp cloth against her injured cheek again, and her hand reached for it. He felt it shivering over his. “Those guys hit you, didn’t they?” When she answered with a nod, he growled with barely contained anger: “Bastards… Did they… do anything else to you?”
She gently took the cloth from his hand, to press it herself against her cheek. “You mean, did they rape me?” Her eyes rose to meet his and she could see the concern in them. She sighed and gave the briefest of smiles, wanting to reassure him. “No they didn’t. It’s not from lack of wanting or trying, though. They didn’t have the time.” She quickly changed the subject, obviously having no desire to dwell on the thought: “I’d like some more water, please…”
Scarlet handed her the flask again, and she drank, this time greedily. The sudden movement sent a lancing pain to her head, and, putting the flask down, she reached for it with her hand anew. Scarlet watched her and he grunted with discontent.
“They certainly did a number on you,” he hissed between his teeth.
“I will survive,” she replied with confidence.
Scarlet offered a compassionate smile. “You’re really a tough lady, Harmony. You know you gave me quite a scare earlier? When I saw you, tied to that post, with all that blood on you –”
“It’s not mine,” Harmony answered in a soft voice.
“Yeah, I noticed that,” Scarlet said with a nod. “But the sight of you still gave me a start. For a moment, I thought you were dead.” He paused a second, before asking, carefully: “The men who were keeping you captive – it was their blood, wasn’t it? They were killed?”
“Yes,” Harmony answered. “Yes, they…” Scarlet watched her, as her low voice trailed off, and she raised her head slowly to look around with a dismayed expression on her face. “Where… where are we?” she asked warily.
“Still at the camp,” Scarlet answered truthfully. “We’re safe for now, with the guards dead and no-one really knowing I have reached you. I secured the place, before making sure you were all right and –”
“We’re not safe,” she interrupted suddenly.
Scarlet was taken aback when he saw the young woman agitating herself, and trying to push herself up to her feet. That effort obviously made her feel dizzy, as she fell back into a sitting position, swaying a little, and moaning, her hand back to her head. He helped her stay upright and looked at her in deep concern. “You really should lay still, Harmony.”
“Captain, we should leave this place.”
Scarlet chewed on this. “Actually, I was thinking it might be a far better strategy to stay. Since the camp is now ours and is secured, we could defend it easier than if we go wandering about in this jungle we don’t know, with no idea exactly where to go.” He gestured around the tent. “We have shelter, water and supplies, provided by your deceased guards…”
“I know those men brought alcohol,” she groused morosely. “But that wouldn’t help us in our present situation. Although I admit it would make me feel better…”
“I’ll buy you sake when we get back to civilisation,” he promised with a brief smile. “We have weapons, that should help improve our situation,” he continued, showing her the pistol he had taken from Johnson, now at his belt, and the two rifles lying next to them – one previously owned by Johnston as well, and the other he had found earlier on the ground. Then he reached for the two knifes displayed on the tent floor, took each of them in one hand, and showed them to her. “Take your pick.”
“I’m tempted by the big knife,” she admitted ruefully. “But it seemed better suited to you.” She took the switchblade into her delicate hand and flicked the blade open to examine it. “I’m more used to hand to hand combat, though…”
“It still might come handy. And believe me, with the firepower against us, we need all the help we can get. I’ve already set traps around the perimeter, that will alert us to any unwanted visitor.”
“If we stay here… You’re not afraid we would become standing ducks?”
Scarlet chuckled. “The expression is ‘sitting ducks’,” he corrected her. “And no. I actually think we stand a better chance of surviving if we stay here.”
She nodded slowly. “Until Spectrum comes for us, you mean.”
Scarlet grunted. “I don’t know, Harmony. Spectrum might still be busy with the latest Mysteron threat for all we know. And Ryoushi’s scheme might have made it a little complicated for them to find us, anyway. Although I’m sure that Spectrum will investigate our disappearance fully – and won’t probably be fooled by Ryoushi’s story – I’m afraid it might take a little while before we’re rescued.” He looked at her with an apologetic expression. “I’m not worried about me, Harmony. Whatever Ryoushi or his pals throw at me, I’m likely to bounce back. But you – you already suffered more than you should have, and I don’t want anything worse to happen to you. You’re not in any state to go anywhere right now. You should rest, and gather your strength.”
“I fear that if I rest, we won’t be able to leave at all, Captain. I’m not really looking forward to facing the one who killed those men who held me captive.”
“I saw what’s left of those bastards,” Scarlet said sombrely, trying not to recall the naked and skinned body he had found in the jungle. “You’re saying it was one man alone who did this? You saw him?”
Harmony frowned, trying to remember. “My memories are confused, but, yes… I did. It was a tall man… Much taller than you – the tallest I have ever seen. He looked like… a native, maybe. A warrior, holding a spear and wearing a mask... And a big gun, I think… he used it to kill my two guards.”
“Whoa, hang on,” Scarlet requested in deep puzzlement. “Spear, mask and gun? What do you mean, exactly – He was wearing some kind of… Samurai gear?”
Suddenly Scarlet’s suspicion was aroused as to the identity of the killer Harmony had seen, although it didn’t seem right that he should have killed her guards. But the young woman shook her head in negation.
“It didn’t look like he was wearing any Samurai armour. And I do know about Samurai armours, Captain. This was different. It was very light, and didn’t seem to cover all of his body… He was deadly efficient. The guards… they never had a single chance. When the warrior killed one of them, his blood…” she motioned to herself, “… literally sprayed on me.”
“I had already worked that out.”
“He was standing in front of me when he had half of his body blasted away,” Harmony said with a shiver.
Scarlet grimaced. “What happened next?”
“The warrior went back into the jungle… And took the two bodies with him.”
“He took the bodies and left you here?” Scarlet asked in perplexity. “Without freeing you?
Harmony sighed. “He barely glanced at me. I… begged him for help. But he ignored me. Then, he simply turned around and –” Something suddenly came back to her and she straightened up, becoming rigid. “He turned to walk away,” she said softly. “But he said something before leaving…”
“What did he say?” Scarlet asked with curiosity.
“It was an inhuman voice,” Harmony added with a shiver. “Deep… metallic – and no, it didn’t quite sound like the Mysterons’ voice. He said something about me… being the bait for the tiger.” She looked at a frowning Scarlet. “I’m afraid you are the tiger, Captain. I think he was counting on you to come to my rescue… so he would be able to get you. I think… he wasn’t a warrior after all. I think he was yet another hunter.”
“And you think he’s watching us, right now,” Scarlet realised.
“Yes. You see why I’m so eager to leave? He’s here, somewhere, watching us... And quite frankly, I’m more afraid of him than I am of Ryoushi or his hunter friends.”
“Two of them are dead already,” Scarlet said.
“You killed them?”
“I killed one: my esteemed compatriot, Lord Clarington. I would have done the same to the other one, Johnston, if he had not plunged to his death from the top of a cliff.”
“That leaves Colonel Ramirez – and Ryoushi himself.”
“And all of Ryoushi’s so called ‘security guards’. And we don’t know how many those are.”
“And now… this other hunter.”
“You’re sure this warrior or hunter of yours wasn’t Ryoushi?” Scarlet insisted.
“Most definitely not. The physique doesn’t fit. The… ‘warrior’ was leaner, much, much taller… His head…” Harmony shivered. “It looked enormous, but it might be his helmet and dreadlocks which made it look that way.”
“Enormous head?” Scarlet repeated pensively. “And an inhuman voice?” He gave it some consideration, as an unsettling thought came to his head. He frowned, pondering out loud: “Could it be that ‘creature’ Laws told me about?”
“Pardon me?” Harmony asked in confusion.
“Nicolas Laws… you know, my ‘pal’ from West Point? He told me about a strange creature living in this jungle. He said it was something of a predator… and that it liked killing human beings. I thought it was some kind of wild story, either he or Ryoushi concocted to destabilise me, but…” He stopped and paused, and watched her closely, as he continued, in a lower voice: “Harmony… I saw the skinned body of a decapitated man back there in the jungle, on my way here. I think now – maybe it was one of your two guards. I think it’s your warrior who did that.”
The young woman shivered visibly. “What kind of a madman would do such a thing?” she murmured. Quite frankly, she didn’t care much about the fate of either of the two men, after what they had done – and attempted to do – to her. But it seemed inconceivable in her mind that someone would stoop lower still, by desecrating a corpse the way Scarlet was describing.
“I don’t know,” Scarlet commented, “but it’s obvious this guy is no friend of Ryoushi’s men.”
“And no friend of Spectrum either,” Harmony added swiftly. She pushed herself up, and Scarlet quickly imitated her; he came to her rescue to support her as she swayed on her feet.
“Easy – you’re certain you want to leave, in your current state?”
“Do you mean to say you still want to stay here and wait, Captain?” she asked with surprise.
“After due consideration, I think you are right,” he finally conceded with a nod. “We have to leave right away. I was just wondering if you were up to it. Can you walk? You might still be pretty weak… and you have no shoes, either. You’ll be going barefoot.”
“I didn’t receive such punishment that I cannot walk,” Harmony said. “And I can run too, if need be. Shoes or not.”
Scarlet couldn’t help but admire the young woman’s courage. He smiled at her fondly and gave her an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “If it gets too difficult, I’ll carry you.”
She snorted dismissively. “I’m sure it won’t come to that. So where to?”
Scarlet pointed in a northerly direction. “That way. Back to the beach, where the hunters made camp. There might still be a helicopter there, so hopefully, we’ll be able to make good our escape and contact civilisation.” He looked at her gravely. “We might be walking straight into the lion’s den, though.”
“Better that, than to wait here and be slaughtered like lambs,” she retorted.
He nodded. “There’s something we ought to do before we go.”
She looked up at him, wondering what he meant. “And that is?”
“Ryoushi had a tag put on you. It’s there, right under your skin.” Scarlet reached for her shoulder with his hand and his fingers searched for a tiny scar on her skin. It was easier to find on hers; due to his retrometabolism, his skin didn’t have any scar when he had searched for his tag.
He gently pinched the spot where he knew the tag was located. He saw the slight scowl of her brow. “You feel it?”
“Yes,” she said grimly. “Now I do. I didn’t even realise it was there before.”
“They must have injected it into you while you were unconscious, like they did with me. I removed mine, after I killed Clarington. I didn’t know how my retrometabolic powers would react to it, as it wasn’t life-threatening, but in any case, I couldn’t afford to wait to see if my body would eventually get rid of it.”
“And how did you remove it?” she asked with concern.
“The hard way.” Scarlet took the switchblade from her belt and flicked the blade open; he gave her an apologetic and uneasy smile as she looked warily at it. “I’m afraid there’s no other way to do it, Harmony.”
“I know.” Her eyes fixed on the blade, she took a deep in-breath of air and exhaled slowly, before shaking her head. “I’m just grateful it’s you who’ll be handling this knife. I trust you to be as gentle and careful as you can?”
“I certainly will, but it might hurt nonetheless.” Scarlet grimaced, as he picked up the bag from the ground and slung it over his shoulder. “Let’s just pass this blade over the flames first. Considering where it ended up last, I certainly don’t want to run the additional risk of poisoning you with whatever vicious bacteria it might have picked up.”
Harmony looked at him with uncertainly, wondering exactly what he meant by that; he smiled at her clueless expression, before picking up one of the rifles and handing it to her.
“Forget it. It was a bad joke.” She took the weapon, and he picked up the other rifle. “Now let’s get this over with, and then we’d better get on our way.”
She nodded her approval and walked out of the tent in front of him.
* * *
On duty in the control room in the middle of the night, forest controller Miller, his feet up, and seemingly relaxing, was peeling an orange when he heard the beeping sound coming from the large screen in front of him. He quickly put his feet down, and forgetting about his orange, leaned closer to the screen, narrowing his eyes at the remaining red dot which marked Harmony Angel’s position. Not one hour ago, he had seen the white dot representing Rodriguez announcing the man’s death and had reported it back to Ryoushi, who didn’t seem too concerned about that new information.
Now, the red dot wasn’t exactly behaviour like the white one had. It blinked rapidly for a moment, and then stopped suddenly, to stay alight.
Just like the other red dot had done the same afternoon.
Miller read the information now displayed next to the dot, if only to have confirmation of what he suspected.
‘Host not found’.
Quickly, he reached for his headset, and put it on his head, to turn it on. As soon as the call was taken and he heard the voice at the other end, Miller took a deep breath. It was Ryoushi himself who answered:
“What is it?”
“Mr Ryoushi, this is Miller at the control room. Harmony Angel just lost her tracking device.”
“Then Captain Scarlet has found her.”
It was a statement more than a question, but Miller found it necessary to answer it anyway: “More than likely, sir.”
“Thank you, Mr Miller, for this valuable information. We will be on our way now.”
Almost immediately, the communication was cut; slowly, Miller removed the headset and returned to his orange. He knew what was to follow next, so he gave very little thought to the two Spectrum agents risking their lives in the forest. As far as he was concerned, if they were not dead already, they would be very soon. Just like the others before them. There was simply no-way they would be able to escape.
The creature would see to that.
The creature… or Hayato Ryoushi himself.
Harmony Angel gave a sharp gasp as the blade digging into her flesh reached the foreign body lodged under her skin and sharply tugged it out. She bit her lips and closed her eyes against the pain, smelling the stink of her own skin burning, as the hot metal pressed against her skin to cauterise the fresh wound. Tears pricked at her eyes, and she heard Scarlet’s voice, coming from behind her, speaking softly to her:
“It’s done, Harmony. I’m sorry if it hurt. I wish there had been another way.”
She turned around to face him. He looked apologetically at her and saw her moist eye; on an impulse, he reached for her and took her in his arms. She had been so courageous during the whole ‘operation’ – enduring it without as much as a whimper. He had been thoroughly impressed; not that he ever doubted she was brave, but recent events had just given proof that she was even tougher than he actually expected her to be.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated soothingly. “I didn’t want to hurt you. You’ve suffered enough already, and didn’t need me to add to it.”
Harmony clung to him and nodded briefly. The worst of the pain was already dissipating, but it was obvious the injury, however small it could be, would sting for a while. Hopefully, cauterising it with the red-hot blade would prevent it getting infected.
Scarlet took the hunting jacket he had found inside the tent and gently helped her put it on, mindful of her new injury. “You will need to have it checked by Fawn when we get back to civilisation,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am not as good a surgeon as he is. I’m afraid it could leave a scar.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “You’ve been careful, so I’m sure a little laser surgery will take care of it.” She added with a weak smile: “and if it should fail, I could always cover it with a small tattoo – perhaps a nice butterfly?”
Scarlet considered she was trying very hard to be brave – and succeeding at that. He smiled back fondly at her, and was about to reply teasingly that it would be very nice indeed, although Colonel White might very likely frown upon it, when suddenly, a sound caught his ear.
It was the snapping of twigs, coming from nearby.
He tensed and looked around, towards the bushes and trees bordering the clearing, trying to discover the likely direction where the sound was coming from. The sound was growing louder as the seconds passed.
“Do you hear that?” he whispered to Harmony.
“Yes,” she answered in a similar voice. “Someone is coming.”
“…And is not even trying to hide his approach,” Scarlet commented with a nod. He finally saw some movement in the bushes, just on his left side. Quickly and without a sound, he got up, rifle in hand, and Harmony stood up too, and they both slowly and silently approached the suspicious spot.
Scarlet pricked up his ears with attention. He was aware that maybe the sound and movement were being made by an animal, making its way through the forest, but considering their situation, he wasn’t about to take any chances. Whatever was there, coming in their direction, could also be one of Ryoushi’s hired hands – or even Rodriguez, the last of his guests for this hunting party he had organised. After all, if Johnston had found the camp, then maybe Rodriguez had been able to do the same.
It could also be the so-called ‘warrior’ that Harmony had seen – the unknown hunter, who had killed her captors. The ‘creature’ Laws had told him about. And if that was the case, Scarlet wanted to be ready for him.
The rustling noise became louder. There was little doubt left now: it sounded exactly like a human being walking through the thick bushes – and as Scarlet had pointed out earlier, he wasn’t even trying to sound inconspicuous.
The bushes a few meters in front of him were now moving.
The English captain stopped Harmony’s progression and pushed his rifle into her hands; she looked up at him with curiosity. He motioned to her to hide herself behind one of the trees, mouthing ‘Wait here’. She nodded her acknowledgement of his order, and took position, her finger on the trigger of the rifle. Scarlet took the Bowie knife from his belt and, leaving the young woman, advanced quietly towards the direction of the movements.
As a silhouette started coming into view, Scarlet swiftly moved behind a nearby copse of trees; he stood there, immobile, watching, waiting for the newcomer to come within reach. He saw a shadow pass between the leaves and then saw a hand appear, holding a handgun.
The human silhouette emerged from the bushes, unaware of Scarlet’s nearby presence. It was a man, wearing the khaki uniform of Ryoushi’s mercenaries. Scarlet didn’t wait any longer and made his move; he brutally seized the arm holding the gun, pushing it away and stood in front of the man. He didn’t get a good enough view of his face, still in the shadows, when he punched him, before kicking him in the side. He heard a male yelp of pain, as the gun fell to the ground.
Scarlet struck the man in the stomach, making sure he would be totally disabled, and heard him wheezing for air. The Spectrum officer pulled him hard and threw him clear onto the ground of the clearing; he landed on his back, right at Harmony’s feet, and looked up with confusion, breathless, at the barrel of the rifle she was aiming straight at his face.
“Well, if it isn’t my good friend, Nicolas Laws…” Scarlet walked the short distance separating him from the downed man and roughly hauled him up by his shirt, meeting no resistance. He then brutally shoved Laws against the tree Harmony had been hiding behind, and forcibly kept him there, pressing the knife close against his throat to ensure he wouldn’t make any threatening move. Laws gasped and pulled his head back, in an attempt to avoid his throat being slit. He looked into Scarlet’s implacable face and found the strength to offer a faint smile.
“Hey, Paul…” he breathed out. “You haven’t lost any of your edge…”
Scarlet growled with righteous anger. “You sodding bastard… I should just kill you right now and be done with it!”
“Easy,” Laws replied, his smile barely wavering. “Don’t do anything you might regret later.” His eyes fell on Harmony, who was approaching quietly, looking at him as if he were a curious animal. She was keeping her gun aimed at him. “I see you found the Angel.”
“Yes, I found her,” Scarlet replied in a low voice. “Not that you helped in any way.”
“You’re sure I didn’t help just a little bit?” Laws asked insistently. “I seem to recall I gave you valuable information… and a knife too. Although, it’s not the one you’re holding right now. That one’s bigger.”
“And sharper,” Scarlet said ominously. “Johnston was its previous owner. He wanted to show me how to use it.”
“Must have been a hell of a shock to him to realise you didn’t need a demonstration. I don’t need any either, you know…”
“A shame. I was meaning to show you anyway. You remember what I told you about Harmony? If your men so much as look at her the wrong way, I’ll kill you.”
“She’s alive, isn’t that what’s important?”
“You scum…” Scarlet’s grip became firmer and he pressed the knife just a little bit closer, pricking Laws’ skin. Laws grunted, feeling a trickle of blood running down his neck.
“Easy, Metcalfe,” he pleaded. “You’re shaving me a little too close for comfort.”
“Enough with the banter, Laws!” Scarlet snapped at him. “That won’t be enough to save you. Give me just one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you.”
“If you do, you’ll lose the only ally you have on this goddamn island, you crazy Limey.”
“You’re offering to help us?” a doubtful Scarlet asked.
“Haven’t I been trying to do just that already?”
“He is just trying to save his pitiful life,” commented Harmony, standing beside Scarlet and looking at Laws with a quiet serenity. “You should just kill him, Captain.”
“Feisty little thing, aren’t you?” Laws said, glaring at her.
“Your men tried to rape me,” she replied coldly. “It was just pure luck they didn’t succeed.”
“You can’t seriously hold me responsible for that.”
Harmony glared at him and then glanced at Scarlet. She took from the pocket of her jacket the switchblade he had given her earlier. The blade flicked out. “Better yet. Hold him still and let me kill him.”
“With pleasure,” Scarlet hissed between his teeth.
Scarlet’s hold on Laws strengthened and Harmony took a step forward.
“No, wait!” Laws cried in alarm.
Harmony stopped her approach; Scarlet exchanged new glances with her before turning to address Laws again: “I repeat my question,” he growled. “Why should we leave you alive?”
“I’m serious, Metcalfe – I’m on your side.”
“The name is ‘Captain Scarlet’. You’d better remember it. And I don’t believe you.”
“Neither do I,” Harmony added calmly. “Why should we believe you?”
“Because that’s the truth. I truly am on your side.” As Scarlet’s hold became tighter still and the knife cut slightly deeper, Laws gasped: “I’m here on a mission, on the direct orders of the World President.”
Scarlet released his hold, just slightly. He exchanged another quick glance with Harmony who gave a quick nod. “You’re lying,” Scarlet said sharply, addressing Laws.
“No, I swear it’s the truth. I’m working undercover. Come on, Captain Scarlet – deep down, you must know I’m not the type of guy who could become a dirty mercenary, willing to sell his services to the highest bidder?”
“I don’t know you anymore, Laws. We knew each other at West Point, and that was a long time ago. But since then, your career, so to speak, has been a rather bumpy ride. We know about your dishonourable discharge from the Black Ops. We know about your work as a paid mercenary, all around the world. And God only knows what other mucky, miserable business you’ve been involved with.”
“Come on, Metcalfe, you’re an intelligent man – how could you be so thick?” Laws swallowed hard, as Scarlet’s hold tightened under the insult. “My dishonourable discharge? It was all part of a cover-up operation. You don’t know why exactly I was discharged, do you? That’s because there’s no real reason for it.”
“You’re lying,” Scarlet insisted.
“Think about it, and you’ll see it all makes sense. Surely, you know about cover-up operations like this. Weren’t you supposed to have retired from the WAAF, Colonel Metcalfe? It’s obvious why you ‘retired’ now – you were recruited by Spectrum. Me? It’s about the same. The dishonourable discharge scheme served to give me a ‘bad history’, so I would become hiring material for various terrorist and criminal factions around the world. In reality, when I left the Black Ops, I became an undercover operative for the U.S.S. – I’ve been doing all kind of secret assignments for them.”
Scarlet’s confidence wavered. He was still unsure if he should believe the man. Laws’ words had struck a chord in him and he was starting to wonder if there was some germ of truth behind them. It could be possible after all, by some stretch of the imagination, that Laws was indeed working on the same team as Spectrum… But he wasn’t so sure he was ready to risk trusting this man, considering their precarious situation.
He felt Harmony’s hand on his arm and he glanced at her. She had lowered her gun, but was keeping her finger on the trigger.
“I’m sure Colonel White would be able to confirm if his story holds any truth,” she said.
Scarlet relented. “Maybe,” he said in a cold voice. “But maybe he’s lying in his teeth right now – to save his own life, as you suggested earlier.”
“It’s all the truth, Paul,” Laws pleaded. “I swear it. Look, I want to help you and the lady get off this island alive. See, I was tagged as well, and I removed the location chip to move freely round the island and find you. I more than likely blew my cover, but I couldn’t let Ryoushi and his pals kill the both of you.”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes at him. With the point of the knife, he slightly pushed aside the collar of Laws’ shirt and checked his neck. He could see the small, fresh cut at the junction of the shoulder, just where he knew the tag was supposed to be.
The knife returned to Laws’ throat. “Let’s assume you’re saying the truth, then,” Scarlet said. “What are you doing here, then? As head of Ryoushi’s security?”
“I told you. I’m here under direct orders from President Younger. Hayato Ryoushi has been under investigation for some time, following the disappearances of not only criminals, but also many World Security agents throughout the past few years. All indications pointed to Ryoushi, but we had no conclusive proof.” Laws swallowed – and realised it was a mistake as this caused the knife Scarlet was still holding against his throat to prick his skin again. “Can you… remove the knife just a bit, Paul? It’s terribly uncomfortable, and I can’t talk fast enough to make sure you won’t slit my throat by accident.”
“Oh, I think you talk fast enough as it is.” Nevertheless, Scarlet removed the blade from Laws’ throat, but kept threatening him with it. “Now tell us everything.”
Laws gave the briefest of nods. “As you know, Ryoushi’s got so many high-placed contacts, so much influence, within the World Government and the United Asian Republic that it was simply impossible to press charges against him based only on circumstantial evidence. The U.S.S. needed something more tangible. The big boss himself, Shane Weston, contacted Younger, and informed him of the problem. Needless to say, Younger wasn’t very happy to learn about it. He found it intolerable that the World Government had affiliations with such a man who was most likely a dangerous criminal… and who could play on his influence to eventually go free.”
“That makes for bad P.R., certainly,” Scarlet deadpanned.
“The Asian Republic probably thought the same, when special arrangements were made with their government,” Laws added.
“That must have come as a shock to them,” Harmony commented. “Ryoushi has supported many economical and political decisions. Officials of the Asian Republic probably had a hard time believing these accusations.”
“They eventually did, and gave carte blanche to the World Government to act upon them. Then Younger gave orders that hard evidence be found to prove Ryoushi’s crimes without a single doubt, and to make it possible to press charges against him. That’s why I’ve been here these last months – working from inside to gather that evidence.”
“You mean Younger knew about all this? The bastard! He set us up!” Scarlet lowered the knife; he barely noticed Laws’ sigh of relief as he turned to look despondently at Harmony. “I mean, I knew he didn’t particularly like me, but I never thought he would go to these lengths against me!”
“I don’t think this has anything personal to do with you, Captain,” Harmony said. “Perhaps he simply thought that we would be able to lend a hand in Mr Laws’ investigation?”
“You think so? That sounds very doubtful! Colonel White would have told us about it. He would not have sent us on a secret mission without telling us.”
“I doubt your commander knows about this investigation,” Laws retorted. “It’s highly classified, given the circumstances. In any case, Ryoushi has all communications to any of his properties monitored… even those you think are secured... One of his subsidiary companies is an important contracting party for the World Government in providing communication technology. So it has been quite easy for him to crack that technology and to circumvent security. Even if your colonel knew, he would have been unable to tell you.”
“Maybe President Younger expected our presence to provide you with the evidence you were looking for,” Scarlet groused sombrely.
“I know that Ryoushi has been working hard to try to get you for quite a long time, ‘Captain Scarlet’,” Laws commented.
“So he told me, yes. President Younger knew that as well?”
“It might have slipped in during one of my reports, yes…”
“Great. Now all is clear. That’s why Younger requested Colonel White to order us to stay here,” Scarlet said. “He knew that Ryoushi would make his move. That’s it, then – the guy won’t get my vote at the next election.”
“So you believe me, then?” Laws asked him. “You won’t gut me with that knife of yours?”
“Hold your horses. I’m not saying I totally believe you.” Scarlet stepped back, taking the knife away from Laws. “I still have a hard time with that story you told me about a strange creature living on this island who takes a fancy to hunting humans.”
“It’s all true, Paul.”
Scarlet nodded. “I would still be a sceptic if not for Harmony, who might have seen this creature of yours… and for that skinned dead body I saw in the jungle earlier.”
“You saw the creature?” the surprised Laws asked, turning to Harmony. “What does it look like?”
“He looked more like a man than a ‘creature’, Mr Laws. He killed my captors – he saved my life.”
“I’m sure he had some purpose for letting you live, Miss Harmony.”
“Possibly,” Harmony agreed. She exchanged knowing glances with Scarlet, but didn’t voice what she had revealed to him earlier.
“What’s that about a skinned dead body?” Laws asked Scarlet with some concern in his voice.
“Is it that important?” Scarlet retorted with a frown, not wanting to upset the young woman with them. “The fact is, added to what you’ve just told us, it does tend to prove that what you say does have some germ of truth. So I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“But we will be watching you,” Harmony said warningly.
“I didn’t expect any less.” Laws offered a smile and presented his hand to Scarlet. “So, friends? Like we used to be?”
“Friends? That would be going a bit far, Nicolas.” Scarlet put the Bowie knife back at his belt and looked down at the proffered hand with something akin to suspicion in his eyes. “I still don’t trust you enough to call you ‘friend’. So ‘ally’ will have to do for now.” He took Laws’ hand and shook it, keeping a wary eye on the man. “And if we get out of this alive, maybe I’ll reconsider how I should think of you.”
Laws’ smile broadened at this statement. He was about to add something, but stopped suddenly, and Scarlet noticed the change in his eyes, as they widened and focussed at a specific spot against his left shoulder. Scarlet’s eyes dropped slightly to see what could be attracting his attention so much, and he caught the flash of red light that made him blink.
There, dancing on his shoulder, he could see three tiny spots of red light. Instantly, he realised what it was and his reaction was purely instinctive.
He roughly pushed Laws away from him, sending him down, and he threw himself at a surprised Harmony and shoved her down to the ground; in the fraction of the second that followed, a large and powerful laser beam passed over their head and, with devastating effect, hit the tree against which Laws had been held until now. The tree caught fire instantly, and was cut in two, many parts of it flying in all directions. There was another blast, and what remained of the tree was thoroughly destroyed.
Scarlet, covering Harmony with his body, looked over his shoulder at the devastation, before looking in the direction from where the two shots had been fired. They had come from the other side of the bonfire, high in the trees, but he couldn’t see anything or anyone hiding up there.
“Laws?” he called. He received no answer. Looking around, he discovered the body of the man lying nearby, under pieces of broken branches. He had either been knocked down, or killed in the attack.
Another blast came from the same location he had spotted, and hit the bonfire almost exactly in the middle, sending cinder, ashes, firebrands and large pieces of burning wood flying all around the clearing. Scarlet ducked his head down, to avoid the fiery rain falling on them, protecting Harmony with his body.
The angry and frustrated cry which suddenly rang through the clearing was deep and powerful, and sounded like nothing Scarlet had ever heard before in his life. Another blast hit the ground a few feet from where they lay.
“Ell-osde c'jit, Khujhade! Detekoi, okubyoumono!”
“What the devil…?” Scarlet muttered.
“That’s Japanese,” Harmony suddenly said under her breath. Scarlet looked down at her with an enquiring look, and saw the expression of surprise on her face. She added, in a low voice: “The last part of it, anyway. He said: ‘Come out, coward’. I have no idea what the first part is about. It’s not Japanese. It’s nothing I heard before.”
There were two blasts this time, one hitting the bonfire again, and the other cutting in two the post where Harmony had been tied up for so many hours that day.
“Come out, so I can kill you,” Harmony translated. “Captain, that’s the same kind of blast that killed that man, when I was bound to the post.”
“That’s your warrior, then,” Scarlet murmured.
Another powerful laser beam passed a few feet from them and hit the fire again.
“He doesn’t see us,” Scarlet suddenly realised. “He’s firing blind.”
For Scarlet, it was a bolt from the blue: it was the fire that hid them from him. He must be using some kind of heat signature device, helping him to see in the dark, the Spectrum captain reflected. That was undoubtedly the reason why he was shooting at the fire with this powerful weapon of his, in the hope of destroying it so he would be able to see them, and discover their location.
Scarlet gauged the distance separating them from the forest boundary. Behind these nearby trees, there was the river he had discovered earlier. If they were fast enough, they could reach it, dive into it, and swim down the stream; the current could take them a good enough distance away from this place.
Scarlet took his decision instantly. They had no choice.
“If we stay here, he’ll end up hitting us,” he whispered to Harmony. “You’re up for running?”
“If I had wings, I’d fly,” she retorted.
“Then let’s get out of here. There’s a river behind these trees. Let’s make a run for it. Keep the fire between us and him – it’ll keep us from his view.”
“How about Mr Laws?”
Scarlet glanced at the man’s body; it had not moved from there since the first blast. There wasn’t any indication that he was still alive. “There’s nothing we can do for him now,” the Spectrum captain said. “If he lives, he’ll have to fend for himself.”
Harmony nodded, a little uncertainly, but ready to obey. Scarlet swiftly pushed himself up and pulled her to her feet; quickly walking in a crouched position, they hurried towards the trees bordering the clearing, taking great care to stay behind the bonfire.
Whatever you say, mate, Scarlet replied inwardly. That didn’t sound Japanese at all, but whatever the language, he was sure it was some kind of threat or insult the sniper was shouting at them.
Another shot destroyed what remained of the bonfire, and they heard a cry coming from the shooter’s location, which sounded worryingly like a shout of victory.
A blast flew over their heads and exploded against the bark of a nearby tree, setting it on fire.
“Come on, Harmony!” Scarlet urged the young woman by his side. “Run! Run as fast as you can!”
She didn’t need much incentive to convince her and she broke into a run, with Scarlet keeping the rear, to protect her if the shooter should take them as targets. But no other laser blast was fired.
The Spectrum captain had the feeling that something much more ominous was awaiting them.
He had confirmation of this when, just a few seconds after they crossed the boundary of the forest, a huge shape suddenly dropped from the trees over their heads to stand tall between them and the river they were attempting to reach. They skidded to a halt and Scarlet roughly pulled Harmony back. It took a fraction of a second for him to realise the newcomer fitted the description Harmony had given of the warrior who had killed her guards. But he didn’t have any time to act upon it: the warrior threw his arm in a giant arc, and Scarlet was unable to avoid the powerful blow which half-stunned him, and sent him rolling onto the ground, not far from what remained of the fire.
The warrior bellowed a roar of victory, so terrifying that it could have frozen the blood in anyone’s veins. For a fraction of a second, Harmony stood there in front of him, unable to decide what to do, as the warrior briefly turned his attention to her; his long spear pointed at her. She didn’t dare to move, feeling for certain he would stab her with it; he only needed to take one step. But then, curiously, he gave a low growl, mixed with a loud contemptuous snort.
“Tarei'hasan Lou-dte Kalei.”
And then, just as oddly, he turned his back on her, as if he had chosen to ignore her, and looked in the direction of Scarlet, who was struggling to regain his bearings and to get back on his feet.
The warrior stepped towards him.
“Captain!” Harmony screamed in warning.
Scarlet was still on his knees when the warrior reached him; with both hands, he swiftly grasped a still smouldering brand of wood and, biting his lips against the scorching of his flesh, struck his foe over the head, as he was leaning to seize him with one clawed hand. The blow was such that the brand broke under the impact, sending sparks, cinders and ashes flying all around – along with the metal mask covering the warrior’s face. It had probably hurt him – whoever and whatever he was – as it made him look away and step back with a grunt. But it wasn’t nearly enough to stop him completely as he stood on his feet, his head low, and rubbing his eyes to clear them of the cinders that had fallen into them. It did give Scarlet the opportunity to rise up and to put himself in fighting position.
“Harmony!” he shouted. “Get away from here!”
But the Angel didn’t move, and simply shook her head in dismay; she wasn’t sure if she could follow that order; abandoning her colleague didn’t seem like the right thing to do, although she couldn’t quite see how she would be able to help him in any way.
Rooted in place, she watched as Scarlet advanced on his foe to attack, smashing what was left of his improvised weapon against the warrior’s lowered head.
The new blow seemed to irritate the warrior more than it really harmed him, and he growled with anger and raised his arm to first deflect the blow and then catch Scarlet’s swinging arm in a vice-like grip. The Spectrum officer felt the bone in his wrist almost snap under the pressure and he gritted his teeth – and then, he saw the exposed face of his opponent.
There was nothing human about it.
The forehead was wide and flat, a prolongation of an enormous cranium stripped of any hair at the top. There was an odd mark in the middle; a scar of some sort, composed of three waving lines which formed a drawing vaguely resembling a triangle; Scarlet remembered seeing a similar symbol engraved in the middle of the mask’s brow. The arch of the eyebrows was broad and prominent, shadowing eyes that seemed sunken deep into their orbits. There wasn’t any nose that Scarlet could see under these eyes, but a large squared opening surrounded by four protuberant mandibles, the lowest being the largest, each ending with what looked like a sharp fang. The mouth beyond these mandibles was small, with no apparent lips, adorned with much smaller, exposed fangs at the top and bottom.
The shock made Scarlet stop his attack and he stared at this hideous face with incomprehension.
“What the devil are you?” he whispered.
The creature roared in fury, its mandibles opening wide in Scarlet’s face, stunning him even more if it was possible.
He guessed before he could see it the movement from the creature’s arm and he stepped back; if he had fighting any ordinary human being, maybe he would have been able to escape the attack, but this opponent was much faster than anyone he had faced up until now, and had at his disposal weapons he had never seen before. The creature struck as fast as lightning, aiming for Scarlet’s abdomen with his spear. The Spectrum officer stepped out of range, narrowly dodging the sharp point – which suddenly, inexplicably, extended itself into the remaining distance from its victim to strike him hard.
Scarlet gasped in pain as he felt himself being impaled by the jagged blade; he looked uncomprehendingly down at the weapon, now imbedded in his belly, from which blood was now flowing. Telescopic staff, he realised, surprising himself at the cold detachment in which he made this assessment. The creature standing in front of him pushed the blade deeper, and twisted it fiercely, causing even more pain, even more damage inside his body, even more blood. Only a moan escaped Scarlet’s lips, and his hands hovered feebly over the hilt of the spear. His eyes started to blur.
“Mo'ke Ellos'de Pa'ya-te Kch-k'cha'ku M-di's'ke'i!” he heard the creature say with what he could only guess as confidence. That was a second before the spear was brutally pulled out from him. Scarlet emitted a brief cry and sank to his knees, his hands reaching for the massive wound, from which now flew a copious amount of blood.
“Captain!” Harmony, who had helplessly watched the horrible scene, unable to move or to speak, suddenly found the control of her body and of her voice. Through a blur, Scarlet saw her moving in his direction. He shook his head in distress, keeping his hands against the hole in his belly, clenching his teeth against the terrible pain. He had trouble breathing, and he could taste blood mounting into his throat, and into his mouth; he coughed it out, and made a desperate attempt not to lose consciousness.
“G… get away, Harmony… Don’t… come near it.”
The creature had turned around towards the young woman who instantly froze on the spot, opening her eyes wide with shock at the sight of its repulsive face. It snarled a warning, his mandibles flaring wide, and pointed at her the spear dripping with Scarlet’s blood.
This was an obvious warning. Harmony hesitated. Avoiding looking at the creature, she shouted at Scarlet in near anguish: “I can’t leave you!”
“It’ll… kill you if you stay!” Scarlet said through his teeth. Exhausting the last of his strength, he sprawled on the ground and tried to keep himself up with one hand. God, the pain… It was intolerable. He felt like his innards were threatening to spill from him, and he frantically pressed his other arm against the gash to stop this from happening.
Scarlet raised his eyes, as the creature approached closer, making a fist of his right hand; two claw-like blades emerged from the wristband it was wearing and he came to stand over Scarlet. He stood easily seven feet tall, perhaps even eight; Scarlet had trouble being sure. He drove his spear into the ground, to free his left hand, and then pulled Scarlet up by his hair, almost gently, forcing him into a kneeling position. The Spectrum officer couldn’t detach his eyes from the ugly face looking down at him. It was then he noticed something about the eyes of the creature: only one of them seemed alive with light; the other was blank and empty.
Just like Ryoushi’s.
“Yautja Thwei-i'tge-k'ti, Khujhade. Yautja Nain-desintye-de.”
‘Yautja’. Almost despite himself, Scarlet made note of the word. But at this point, it seemed it was too late for further questioning.
“Stop… making such boring speeches… you ugly bastard,” he hissed between his teeth, glaring with hatred at the creature. “And be done with it!”
“Be done… with it,” the creature repeated, much to Scarlet’s surprise. And it seemed to his ears like it was an approval.
Still holding his victim by the hair, the creature raised his right arm, making ready to strike; and then, suddenly, a rock hit him squarely on the shoulder. Growling, he turned around. Harmony was standing closer than before, having picking up from the ground a still burning firebrand that she brandished threateningly at the creature. Her eyes were alight with defiance and anger.
“Leave him alone, you filthy beast!” she shouted in Japanese.
She saw the creature tilt his head to one side; he simply looked at her, seemingly considering her with some sort of curiosity. He let go of Scarlet’s hair and the latter slumped back to the ground, with a loud groan. The English captain watched in desperation as the creature walked towards his colleague.
“H-harmony…” he breathed out, trying to call out a last warning. He saw her backing away towards the trees behind her, to then stop, preparing to hold her ground.
The creature was nearly on her when suddenly, leaping from the branches of the trees under which she stood, and roaring a vibrant challenge, the tall figure of a man appeared, wearing a helmet and various parts of a Samurai armour, and wielding two swords menacingly. Both Harmony and the creature stepped back from each other, and the man landed on his feet between the two of them, bending his knees to cushion his landing. He immediately took up a defensive posture, facing the creature who was looking at him with his head tipped to the side, with obvious confusion. Then, a sense of recognition seemed to pass in his good eye.
“L’ulij-bpe?” he said, perplexity obvious in his deep voice.
“Gkaun-yte, Chij’na,” the calm voice of the armour-clad man replied. “Ogenki desu ka?”
Harmony, who stood behind the man, opened her eyes wide at the Japanese words. She had recognised the voice. “Ryoushi-san?”
It seemed inconceivable to her that the man who had been responsible for everything that had happened to her and Captain Scarlet would suddenly come just in the nick of time to rescue her from this creature.
Ryoushi ignored her, concentrating on keeping his attention on the creature. “I’m surprised at you, Chij’na,” he continued in Japanese. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time with a mere Lou-dte Kalei when I offer you sain'ja as prey. You are growing old – s'yuit-de, N’yaka-de.”
Harmony had no idea what ‘Lou-dte Kalei’ meant, but she had the distinct impression that it was meant to be offensive. Either to her or to the creature, in view of whatever implications it entailed.
“M-di Ooman, L’ulij-bpe. Bhucha’k Khujhade.”
Ryoushi gave a low grunt. “Khujhade? I know the word, but don’t know what it might mean to you. But I don’t care, devil. He isn’t important to me, now that he has brought you out of your lair. This is what is important to me: we are here, face to face. And finally… ready to fight to the death. M-di h'chak, Chij’na!”
As if the last words – which were not Japanese – had been a cry of defiance, Ryoushi launched himself forward, slashing the air with his swords. The creature stepped back and raised his right arm; the swords came into contact with the claw-like blades and were deflected in a shower of sparks. Quickly retreating in front of the vicious attack, the creature came within reach of his spear and he seized it. He raised it to parry another blow from both swords and kept the sharp blades at bay. The two opponents locked eyes.
“Nan-de Than gaun, L’ulij-bpe!” the creature growled in its own language, before adding in Japanese: “To the death… my son.”
“I am NOT your son!”
With fury, as if the words had incensed him beyond what he was willing to accept from the creature, Ryoushi launched himself into another attack. His opponent growled and warded off his blows, attacking in turn. Her eyes wide with disbelief, Harmony quickly got out of the way, and ducked behind the trees as the two of them came dangerously close to her. Her left foot slipped, and she was just able to catch a lower branch. She looked behind her: there was the river Scarlet had mentioned to her, with dark water, and a quick current. She had nearly fallen into it, while avoiding becoming an accidental victim of the fight happening so close to her. Both opponents were now oblivious to her presence – or to Scarlet, who lay still only a few meters away from where the battle raged. Their only concern was to kill each other. And whoever was to win that fight… Harmony just knew that neither Scarlet nor she were out of danger yet.
And then, the impossible happened.
The two combatants were so absorbed in their fight that they had forgotten exactly where they stood; as Ryoushi launched himself one more time to attack his opponent, the latter dodged, and avoided the sharp blade meant to take off his head. The sword embedded itself into the bark of a tree and got stuck there, leaving Ryoushi vulnerable to his adversary’s next blow. With a roar, the creature raised his spear, and Harmony saw the blade extending itself, as it had done with Scarlet a few minutes before. But Ryoushi seemed to be expecting this kind of assault and his second sword slashed the air, parrying the blow that would undoubtedly have killed him. The force of the impact unbalanced the creature and both his feet slipped on the grass-covered banks of the river next to which they were fighting – and he fell back, straight into the river waiting barely two feet behind him. The water closed on him for a brief instant and immediately, the current started dragging him away.
“No!” Ryoushi hurried to the bank of the river, and watched with frustration as the creature was struggling against the currents. “No, you will not escape from me, Chij’na!”
He wasn’t paying any attention at all to Harmony leaning so close to him against a tree; it was doubtful he had even noticed her presence to begin with, as he had his back turned on her. And that was an un-hoped for opportunity that the young woman didn’t want to pass on.
She swiftly left her tree and rushed to Ryoushi – and pushed him with all of her weight and strength. Startled by the suddenness of her assault, he staggered… and still clutching his last sword, dove head first into the water.
Harmony stood up by the bank of the river and looked with blazing eyes as the spluttering Ryoushi returned to the surface.
“If you want him so much, why don’t you go with him?” Harmony said between her teeth. The currents were already dragging Ryoushi downriver, in the wake of the creature who had already travelled a good distance. The water was obviously deep enough so that neither could touch bottom… and maybe neither of them were good enough swimmers. In any case, Ryoushi’s armour was dragging him down, and it was all he could do to keep himself afloat.
However, now was not the moment to waste time. It might not be very long before one of them would be able to escape the river, and there was no doubt in Harmony’s mind that they would come after her or her colleague again, if they got the chance. It was just a respite they had to use to their advantage.
Harmony quickly turned on her heels, to discover Nicolas Laws sitting up in the same place he had fallen earlier; he obviously had been unconscious up until now. He sported a bleeding wound on the side of his head, and was staring straight at her, eyes wide with astonishment. Probably, she figured, he had awakened just in time to see her dispose of Ryoushi. She wondered what else he had seen.
She soon found out when next he spoke:
“Was that… Ryoushi?” he asked pointing in direction of the river. “And… his creature? Harmony, how did you –”
She ignored his questioning and quickly ran towards Scarlet.
The latter was trying to raise himself on his knees, his eyes screwed shut against the obvious pain he was in. She knelt by his side and took him by the shoulders; she gave a glance at the massive wound he was covering with his arm, and of the amount of blood spilled on the ground. She quickly averted her eyes.
“Good… show, Harmony,” he said, forcing the words between his teeth. “Now… Hurry… Run… as far away as possible…”
She shook her head. “You are coming too.”
“Harmony…” Scarlet forced his eyes open and blinked several times to clear them of the mist in them. “That bastard… nearly gutted me. I can… barely breathe. Let alone walk…”
Laws then appeared by Harmony’s side, having finally recovered enough of his wits. He crouched down, and looked in concern at Scarlet’s wound. He paled at the sight of it and grimaced, shaking his head dejectedly.
“That looks bad,” he commented. “I’m not sure how far he’ll be able to go.”
“Bad or not, we can’t leave him here,” Harmony retorted,
“Just let me take my gun and I’ll know how to receive Ryoushi and that other bastard.”
“Laws, listen!” Scarlet’s blood-covered hand seized Laws by his shirt, forcing him to look right into his face. “Ryoushi… and the creature… whatever it is… they’re not our only concern.”
Laws hesitated slightly and nodded. “You’re right. If Ryoushi is here, that means he’s not alone.”
At the same time, they heard voices and sounds, echoing in the near distance. They raised their eyes and searched the darkness, but couldn’t see anything. It was obviously coming from many people approaching their location. Laws paled.
“As I was saying…” he added in a low voice. “That must be some of Ryoushi’s men. And they’re coming fast.”
“You have to take Harmony away from here,” Scarlet pleaded.
“I won’t leave without you,” Harmony insisted. “Mr Laws, we have to carry him. If you’re not willing to do it, I will!”
There was no argument here; both Scarlet and Laws could hear in her voice that the young woman would indeed never abandon her colleague and would stay by his side, no matter the danger to her life.
“A slip of a girl like you, carrying a man double your weight?” Laws scoffed. “I’ll do it. But he’ll bleed all over me.”
“You’re all heart, Nicolas,” Scarlet said between his teeth.
“Just keep your arm over that wound, Paul. And try to hang on, please.”
Scarlet nodded briefly. Laws pulled on his free arm to sling him over his shoulders. Scarlet gritted his teeth under the pain and tried to stay conscious as Laws heaved him from the ground and turned to Harmony.
Coming from the river, they could hear the echoes of the angry cries of the creature, thrashing in the water, still not far enough from them. Inevitably, it would leave the river sooner or later. And then…
Then there was Ryoushi. And neither of them was that eager to meet him either.
“Hurry!” Harmony urged. “We have no time to waste!”
“We won’t get far, I’m afraid,” Laws said in a murmur. He looked around. The sound of the approaching men was growing closer, and was coming from the East. He turned around and pointed in a northerly direction. “I’ve got an idea. Follow me this way.”
They hurried towards the edge of the forest and disappeared behind the trees.
As he pulled himself onto the shore, many thousands of noks away from where he had fallen into the river, the hunter couldn’t help but feeling humiliated. And he had only himself to blame for it.
To slip like that into the river, like any common novice, a young blood – worse still, an UN-blooded hunter – was completely intolerable. Maybe he was indeed growing soft in his old age, like L’ulij-bpe had implied in his own language. And maybe he had grown over-confident that he would be able to hold back L’ulij-bpe’s assaults, however fierce they might be. After all, L’ulij-bpe was Ooman and any Ooman was weaker than any fully-trained Yautja. However, the hunter had forgotten one important thing: L’ulij-bpe wasn’t any ordinary Ooman. If he wasn’t Yautja, it was by name only, and the hunter should have been the first to be aware of that. He had been N’yaka-de to L’ulij-bpe – his master. He had trained him, like he would have trained any real young Yautja.
The hunter had indeed grown over-confident, and had underestimated his foe; a mistake that a Yautja hunter shouldn’t make, in any circumstance, and which could have been a fatal one and which could have led to a dishonourable death. Also, he had been too indulgent, much too soft in facing L’ulij-bpe – while L’ulij-bpe wanted his death, the hunter didn’t really want to cause him any lasting harm. Another deadly mistake, which was unlike the hunter’s kind. It was dishonourable to treat a novice like an inferior – despite the fact he indeed was one.
And at that, L’ulij-bpe wasn’t a novice anymore. He had gone beyond that now. From the exasperating weakling he had been at the start, he had become strong. He now had the skills, even if he had refused the honour of receiving the Mark on his forehead, which would make him a true and full-blooded hunter. Such a refusal was unthinkable from a Yautja. The insult was rude, thoroughly inexcusable, even deserving of death… But from an Ooman… Ooman didn’t know better, of course, and the hunter had put this into perspective. He viewed the refusal of such an honour as a true sign of madness, and from then on, his pupil had earned his true name. It wasn’t long after that that L’ulij-bpe went his own way – swearing that one day he would avenge himself and kill his former N’yaka-de.
He had tried ever since then, and many times over the years. Without any success, of course… The hunter wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of succeeding.
Maybe he should have killed L’ulij-bpe many years ago. After all, he had grown to become a worthy prey. But he never truly could bring himself to kill him. L’ulij-bpe was like a Yautja to him, and the Path – the Code of the Hunt – forbade the hunt of a Yautja. In any case, L’ulij-bpe served his purpose, providing prey, and a good workout. But no Ooman, through the years, ever came close to being as good as L’ulij-bpe.
The hunter had trained him well and he was proud of L’ulij-bpe.
No… the hunter started to think he was indeed growing worse than weak – he had grown sentimental. Too long away from his kind, he was starting to forget the Path.
But he couldn’t help it. He had no-one else of importance to him on this Godforsaken planet. No Clan; no Leader; no other Yautja to hunt with. L’ulij-bpe was the only one he considered as one of his peers, and it would remain so until the day one of them would kill the other.
Perhaps it would be sooner now than the hunter imagined.
But the hunter had other preoccupations in mind at the moment; the Khujhade slave was still out there. Alive, if just barely. And the hunter knew far too well that Khujhade never truly stayed ‘barely alive’. However serious the wound they received, they had the annoying propensity of healing from it, and coming back to haunt you. The hunter needed to finish his job, and to finish it well, so that the Khujhade would never return again and would truly die. And there weren’t many ways to do that.
That was now his immediate priority. The most important hunt he needed to undertake.
Next time, the hunter promised, he wouldn’t let himself be distracted by anyone. Not by the female, neither by L’ulij-bpe himself.
Fool L’ulij-bpe. He was even madder than the hunter thought, if he had allied himself with Khujhade to hunt him. Couldn’t he see how careless it was? Wasn’t he aware that such madness could lead to utter disaster?
Standing on the bank, he looked at the flow of the current; L’ulij-bpe was nowhere to be seen, and he wondered where he had disappeared to. He couldn’t smell his presence – although L’ulij-bpe had done his best to hide it before, just like when he had attacked him at the Ooman camp. He couldn’t see his heat signature either, but he knew his former pupil was indeed very adept at concealing himself. The hunter hoped that the heavy armour he had been wearing had not taken him to the bottom, although such a thing would surprise him very much. Weighted or not, L’ulij-bpe was almost as good a swimmer as his N’yaka-de was, but had the disadvantage of not being amphibious, like Yautja were. No, more likely, the current had taken him further downriver and he would have finally reached the bank, probably very much worn-out after his ordeal and his fight to stay afloat.
The hunter still recalled L’ulij-bpe’s expression of pure surprise when the small female had shoved him into the river. His pupil was certainly guilty of over-confidence himself, to have turned his back on her, to so blatantly disregard her as a possible threat.
Poor L’ulij-bpe – he had let himself be distracted by a child-bearer – a puny Lou-dte Kalei. Exactly like he had mockingly accused his N’yaka-de of.
The hunter started laughing at the thought, the way his former pupil had taught him to laugh, so many years ago. How humiliated L’ulij-bpe probably felt right now – even worst than the hunter felt himself.
It was almost worth taking a dive into the river.
* * *
“You want us to cross that?”
Standing beside Laws, who was carrying the lifeless body of Captain Scarlet on his shoulders, Harmony was looking with dismay at the large and gloomy pond of quicksand extending in front of them. Up until now, she had followed him without any objection, positive that the man indeed had a plan that would help them escape Ryoushi’s men whom they knew were now searching the forest. After all, he knew the woods far better than she did herself. However, now, she had to admit she wasn’t so sure anymore, and she wasn’t exactly sharing his obvious confidence.
He shook his head, hearing the doubt in her voice. “It really isn’t as bad as it looks,” he explained. “It’s barely four feet deep, so you’ll touch bottom easily. And I’ll be able to keep Paul safely above that filth, to make sure nothing nasty gets into his wound.” He pointed to the bank on the other side, easily visible by the trees bordering it. “We can cross right through it and that’ll save us enormous time in reaching the beach. We’re sure to find some craft there – or maybe some boats, coming from the other island.” He looked at a still unsure Harmony. “People have a primal fear of quicksand ponds; they think they’re all bottomless pits, in which they would disappear. Ryoushi’s men are no different. They won’t think we crossed this. Beside, it’s the only way to escape without leaving a trace behind us.”
Harmony nodded in understanding. “Ryoushi and his men will lose our tracks.”
“I think so. Although, I’m quite sure that his men don’t know the depth of this pond, it’s possibly that Ryoushi does know. However…”
“It’s our only route of escape,” she completed for her companion. “I wish there was another way for us to get Captain Scarlet across safely.”
“Paul?” Laws called as he glanced at the face of the man whose head was leaning on his shoulder. He could only see his closed eyes and the moonlight above made him appear so very pale. Laws didn’t receive any answer and, out of impulse, his fingers pressed the wrist he was holding. He swallowed hard. “I think he’s dead, Harmony,” he said with a catch in his voice. “He isn’t reacting and I can’t feel a pulse.”
Harmony reached to touch Scarlet’s neck; she had to come to Laws’ conclusion, however she didn’t want to tell him that. “No,” she lied. “He’s alive. He’s just unconscious.”
“You’re sure?” he asked doubtfully. “He’s in a real bad way. I’m not even sure he will survive until we reach the beach.”
“I hope you’re not suggesting we leave him behind?” Harmony asked with an edge to her voice.
“No, nothing of the sort,” Laws protested quickly. “You’re right, of course. We have to try to save him if we can.”
Suddenly, from behind them they heard approaching sounds that made them turn around in alarm. They were voices, echoing in the near distance – punctuated by barks. Laws’ face became pale. “Oh, crap… they have dogs. They’ll find our traces for sure.”
“The quicksand will make the dogs lose our tracks as well, will it?” Harmony inquired.
“Sure… but we might not have the time to cross the pond completely. It’s a long way. These guys are dangerously near.”
The barking started again, followed by encouraging voices. It was obvious the dogs and the men with them were growing closer.
Harmony took a quick decision. “Let’s go in there, then,” she urged Laws. We’ll hide under the bushes, there.” She pointed to a clump of shrubs whose long leaves were hanging a good foot above the surface of the pond. She looked at Laws. “We’ll dive under the surface, and will be able to keep out heads out to breath.”
“We’ll get spotted.”
“Not in the darkness, especially if we coat our heads with mud.”
“You’re insane… We’ll have to get Paul under the surface as well. If he’s not dead already, all this dirt in his wound might very well finish him off.”
“Do you have any other alternative?” Harmony retorted.
The barking dogs, coming from even closer, seemed to give Laws the incentive he needed. “Damn it, you’re right,” he muttered. “We don’t have a choice.”
“Go in,” Harmony instructed him. “I’ll try to erase some of our traces.”
“Don’t take too long. They’ll be here soon.”
Carefully, Laws walked into the quicksand, still carrying Scarlet over his shoulder. Harmony retraced their steps a few meters back, and, in the little time available to her, she made the best job she could in concealing the prints she and her companion had made before coming back to the side of the pond. She lowered herself in it to follow Laws. The thick mix of sand and water was cold and she gasped at its contact. She tried to fight her reaction of panic as she sank down a few feet, but thankfully, she didn’t submerge, and as Laws had already informed her, the pond wasn’t deeper than about four feet. The unpleasant substance was still up to her armpits, though, and as she carefully squelched into it behind Laws, she had to hold her breath against the fearful stench released by their passage.
They slowly progressed, and finally reached their intended hiding place; Harmony helped Laws to gently lower Scarlet’s limp body into the pond. His eyes were still closed, giving every suggestion that he was indeed unconscious, and Laws couldn’t help but scowl when he saw the amount of blood covering his abdomen. Harmony felt for sure his companion still doubted the motionless Scarlet was alive, but at least he didn’t seem inclined to dispute her earlier statement.
Soaked in the quicksand, Scarlet’s body was now heavier and it was together that Laws and Harmony dragged him under the hanging leaves of the shrubs. His set face was smeared with sand sediments and while making sure they were keeping his head above the surface, Laws and Harmony dirtied their faces as well, and cautiously turned around to face the bank they had just left. Fortunately, the surface of the quicksand was sufficiently fluid that there was no trace of their passage left. The barks and voices were now dangerously close.
They stopped any movement and became like statues as soon as they saw the first dog – a big Doberman – appearing on the beach, jumping from the thickness of the jungle, with a man hanging to its leash. Two other dogs appeared as well with their handlers – and many other men, wearing the khaki uniform of Ryoushi’s mercenaries and armed to the teeth, appeared to the two fugitives’ view.
Harmony counted twelve men in all, and while the three dogs were frantically searching, with their noses down, their handlers holding them, the other men spread around, obviously looking for traces.
The dogs were whining, obviously not understanding where the trail they had been following could have gone to. Two of them backtracked, in obvious confusion, trying again to find the trail, while the other one started barking in one direction and then another. It didn’t appear to be sure what it was that was annoying it. Neither of the beasts seemed inclined to consider going into the quicksand.
“Man, it stinks,” one of the men said, standing by the bank and looking beyond the extent of the pond. “Whatever died in there and was left to rot?”
“Probably more animals than you have fingers,” another one commented. He slapped his neck and cursed. “Damned mosquitoes are eating us alive… These buggers certainly can smell blood.”
“So can the dogs,” one of the dog handlers commented. “Whoever was trying to escape us left plenty of blood behind for them to follow…”
Laws and Harmony exchanged glances over Scarlet’s still face, but none of them dared say a word.
“… However,” the dog handler continued, “they seemed to have lost the trail completely…” He came to stand by the bank, and shone the light of a torch over the surface, but it was deadly still as if nothing had gone through it recently.
“D’you think they went through there?” the first man asked.
“Unlikely. However, we know there was more than one person we were chasing…”
“The two Spectrum officers.”
“Right. And one of them was seriously wounded. Maybe the other dumped the body in here and continued alone… That would be the logical thing to do for a chance to escape.”
“No trace of that having happened, though,” the other muttered, as he took his own torch and checked the surface of the pond. “I hate quicksand. They’re treacherous. And there’s no telling what they might hide.”
Laws addressed a grin and a wink to Harmony that seemed to mean ‘I told you so’.
The dogs were becoming even more frantic in their unsuccessful search. Suddenly, quite inexplicably, the three of them twisted around in the same direction, decidedly turning their backs to the pond and started barking and snarling madly. The handlers held on to their leashes, trying to control the dogs – but to no avail. They were furious and wanted to go.
“What’s going on with them?” one of the other men asked.
“They smell something,” a handler responded. “I don’t know what – but they’re freaking out completely!” The Doberman then broke his leash, and his handler nearly fell on his back. He watched in bewilderment as his dog dashed behind the trees of the forest and leaped out of view, barking like crazy.
“Kruger! Come back here, you bastard!” But the dog didn’t listen and his barks and growls continued for a few seconds, fading as he was obviously getting further away… and then there was a loud yelp of pain. And then nothing.
“Kruger?” the handler murmured with uncertainly.
Suddenly, the two remaining dogs stopped barking, and instead, started whimpering, and pulling away from the direction that had been attracting their attention a second before. Their handlers couldn’t understand what was going on now. And the men surrounding them came closer, wondering what it was all about.
“They smell something all right,” the man who had examined the surface of the pond earlier said, raising his gun and glancing around. “Men, get ready for anything. We –” He didn’t finish his sentence. Almost at the same moment, a powerful laser blast, that Harmony already seen before, emerged from the forest, and hit the man straight in the face. His disarticulated body fell backward – his head having completely disappeared.
Frozen in shocked horror, the other men stared with wide eyes at the decapitated body of their companion, obviously confused as to how this could have happened – and so quickly.
One dog started howling.
And then all Hell broke loose.
From their hiding place in the quicksand, Harmony and Laws witnessed with horror and complete fascination another devastating blast hit one of the dog handlers, killing him instantly, and setting his dog loose, before another armed man suffered the same fate, his body lifted from the ground and projected straight into the pond where it slowly started to sink. There was pandemonium as many of the mercenaries started firing at every tree, trying to stop whoever was shooting at them. They weren’t very successful, as a fourth man fell under a new blast which seemed to come from another direction.
Out of the twelve men, eight were now left standing and they huddled together, still firing all around, hoping to hit their invisible shooter.
And Harmony had a pretty good idea exactly who that shooter was.
Then there was a deafening roar and Harmony blinked her eyes in disbelief when it seemed that part of the forest itself leaped from the trees straight into the middle of the gathered men, knocking three of them to the ground.
There was a crackling of static, and electric sparks and then, the tall and powerful silhouette of Ryoushi’s creature appeared in the middle of the frightened mercenaries, his metal mask covering his face again, and armed with his spear, which seemed now double the size Harmony remembered it to be.
He’s wearing an electronic cloaking device! the young woman realised suddenly. The creature – no, the warrior – had kept himself invisible, while shooting the mercenaries, his camouflage imitating the forest with such perfection that it was impossible to even guess his presence.
He was now causing absolute carnage, killing the men one after the other with his spear and the claws attached to his wrist, spinning around like a dervish, each of his moves counting, none of them a waste. Each strike had deadly results, and was punctuated by the cries of pain and screams of fear from the men he was killing. As for the warrior/hunter himself, he didn’t make a single sound, as he seemed completely absorbed in his gruesome business.
Watching him was almost enthralling, and at the same time, so dreadfully terrifying. Even though the mercenaries were superior in number, there wasn’t any doubt as to what the outcome of the battle – or rather, the massacre – would be. The last man standing was almost literally cut in two, his scream of terror cut short as the giant warrior struck him in midsection with his spear; then, hearing the moaning of a survivor, the warrior finished him off with a blast from a gun he carried at his belt, dismissing the use of the cannon he had on his shoulder.
The last surviving dog flew into the forest, yelping. The warrior let it go.
Harmony glanced at Laws by his side; his eyes were wide in shocked horror, and fixed on the warrior, who was now walking calmly amongst the corpses of the men he had killed. Laws didn’t dare breathe, and it was at this moment that Harmony realised that she was holding her breath too.
The warrior was now checking each of the bodies, seemingly searching for something. He pushed some of them aside with his foot, turning them over, taking great care to look at each of them. After a short while, he emitted a grunt that seemed to indicate his frustration, and then started looking at the ground. Harmony realised he was trying to pick up a trail.
She didn’t dare think what trail exactly he was looking for.
He came to stand by the bank, and he crouched down to examine the surface of the pond. His clawed hand touched the mixed substance of sand and water. Her heart pounding, and almost dreading that the warrior could hear it, Harmony wished herself into a statue, as Laws, by her side, clung to the still unconscious Scarlet, who was blissfully unaware of what was going on. The warrior raised his head and looked beyond the pond, trying to see through the darkness.
The Angel pilot’s dreadful suspicion became reality when the warrior suddenly stood up and straightened into his full height to roar a challenge into the night:
“Khujhade! Doko ni iru no?”
Khujhade… She had heard the warrior calling Captain Scarlet like that. Many times over. And now, he was calling to him, asking where he was in Japanese, obviously trying to lure him out.
“Khujhade! Detekoi, koroshiteyaru!”
Harmony closed her eyes in a single prayer, suddenly realising that this warrior – this hunter – badly wanted her colleague, and that he wouldn’t stop before he had seen him dead.
In the war against the Mysterons, Captain Scarlet was the single asset that might permit Spectrum a chance to win. Up until now, his extraordinary powers of recovery, and his capacity to sense the presence of a Mysteron or a danger coming from them, had served them well. If he was to be taken from them, it could have devastating effects for Spectrum – and for Earth.
She couldn’t let that happen.
Opening her eyes, she watched as the warrior, after issuing his challenge one last time by the side of the pond, turned on his heel and, in long strides, headed back into the depths of the forest. She heard him shout again, calling for the opponent he yearned to meet. She waited, until he had completely disappeared from view; until his footsteps had subsided; until his defiant calls echoed in the distance. By her side, she heard Laws releasing his breath slowly.
“I thought… I was going to have a heart attack.”
Laws’ voice was so low that Harmony had trouble hearing the words. She realised the wild pounding of her heart probably contributed in muffling them so effectively. She turned to her companion; at the same time, she heard Captain Scarlet emitting a low moan and she felt relief washing over her.
“Buddha be praised, he’s alive,” she whispered.
“Surprising, actually,” Laws muttered. “I almost had counted him for dead. Not that I expect he’ll last much longer.”
“He will,” Harmony vowed.
She anxiously looked into Scarlet’s face; he was still unconscious and unaware of the danger they were in. But at least, he had revived, and she knew that from now on, he would make a full recovery – provided he had the time to do so. And with that creature, that hunter, looking for him, and possibly Ryoushi and whatever remained of his men still roaming around the forest, he actually might not be able to make it.
She was determined to gain him as much time as she possibly could.
“Mr Laws,” she said softly. “Promise me something, please.”
He looked at her in confusion. “What is it, Harmony?”
She swallowed hard. “Whatever might happen, promise me… you’ll stay by Captain Scarlet’s side and will see that he will escape.”
“Whatever are you talking about?” Laws murmured, scowling.
“I will try to distract the creature’s attention as long as I can, so you’ll be able to take Captain Scarlet to the beach.”
Laws blanched. “Oh no, Harmony…”
“It is very important that Captain Scarlet escapes, Mr Law,” she interrupted him quickly, before he could protest further. “You don’t know how important it is. His life means more to Spectrum than mine.”
“You can possibly think that!”
“I know this to be the truth.” Harmony smiled sadly.
“Harmony, you saw that monster tear those guys to pieces. How can you expect to stand even one minute against it? I can’t let you do it!” Laws drew a deep breath. “If someone has to do it, it should be me.”
“That’s very generous of you, and very courageous, but you said it yourself earlier: I am quite unable to carry Captain Scarlet on my shoulders. Promise me, Mr Laws, that you’ll see Captain Scarlet to safety.”
“I…” Laws hesitated. He could see that there was nothing he could say to convince Harmony to abandon this suicidal plan of hers. He shook his head despondently. “You must be the most courageous person I’ve ever met,” he murmured in admiration. “Or you are madly in love with him.”
“Me?” Harmony’s surprise at these words turned into a fond smile after a few seconds. “No, he’s only a dear friend, and a brother-in-arms… a fellow Spectrum officer. Besides,” she added quietly, “even if it was the case, his heart belongs to someone else. I’m only doing my duty.”
“You’re going to your death.”
“Promise me, Mr Laws: you will see Captain Scarlet to safety.”
Laws sighed, giving up. “All right. I promise. Only if you promise in turn that you will come back alive.”
“I’ll do whatever is necessary to survive. Just wait a few minutes, before getting out of this pond and making your way to the beach.” Harmony approached her companion, and planted a chaste and grateful kiss on his cheek. “Keep safe,” she told him.
“Yeah,” he groused grumpily. “You too, honey.”
She nodded and left the safety of their hiding place to slowly walk back to the bank, where lay the dead bodies of the mercenaries the creature had killed. Laws followed her with admiring eyes, at the same time feeling distressfully concerned about her safely. He was afraid he would never see her alive again, and couldn’t help thinking that her gesture was not only highly courageous – but also smacked of folly.
“I wish I had friends like yours, Paul,” he whispered to his unconscious companion. “I wish they would respect me so much that they’d be willing to risk their lives for me. I hope you realise how lucky you are. That girl… she’s something else. I pray she’ll get out of this alive – and in one piece.”
He watched, until Harmony reached the bank, and then carefully made her way towards the trees, in the same direction as that taken by the creature. She disappeared behind them, and Laws had the impression his heart was going to explode in his chest.
For what seemed like an eternity to him, he waited as he was instructed, pricking his ears to pick up whatever sound that might indicate to him what could be going on. He hoped that he would not hear anything at all, but even then, he was dreadfully aware that it didn’t mean Harmony would be safe. He had seen enough of the creature’s efficiency to know that it was quite able to kill swiftly and silently, if it wanted to.
As the oppressive silence continued, Laws closed his eyes and mouthed a mute prayer. Oh, Harmony, Harmony… What were you thinking of? That beast will kill you… I hope you’ll be okay. He was afraid for her and was so very tempted to go after her. But he had made her a promise, and she expected him to hold on to this promise. He just knew she would never forgive him if he should fail her.
He waited a little while more, just to be certain it would be safe to move; staying so still in this mix of water and sand sediments, holding onto the comatose Scarlet, was becoming increasingly hard; he felt cold, and had to clench his teeth for them not to chatter; his arms and legs were becoming numb and the mosquitoes were buzzing around his face. The pungent smell of the pond was becoming nauseating and he could feel his stomach rising to his lips. He wouldn’t be able to stay in here much longer.
He listened intently to the sounds of the night, but all he could hear now was the normal chirping of crickets and calls of night birds. There was nothing else, which could have told him that there was anyone about. Probably, he imagined, Harmony had successfully attracted the creature as far away as she was hoping to.
Slowly, hauling Scarlet along, he left his hiding place and made his way towards the bank that had been their original destination. Walking through the thick substance of the quicksand was already an effort in itself for the tired Laws and dragging Scarlet’s body, soaked and heavy with water and sand sediments, added to his ordeal. His foot slipped a few times so that he nearly went under, but he kept on, gritting his teeth. Finally, he reached the bank and climbed onto it, pulling his still unconscious companion along. He heard a groan coming from Scarlet as he gave one last tug to finally extract him fully from the viscous substance, and pulled him on dry ground.
Breathing hard, Laws sat down next to the Spectrum officer, and quickly checked on his vitals; he was more than a little surprised to discover his pulse beating stronger than it did before and his breathing free and close to normal.
“Well, I’ll be… You’re one tough customer, Metcalfe,” Laws said with a smile of relief. “I could have sworn you were a goner not that long ago. Now it just looks like you’re going to make it after all.”
Taking a minute or two to get his breath back, he glanced at Scarlet’s midsection, covered with quicksand residue. He couldn’t see much of it, except for the torn part of his shirt, which was just a little darker with his blood. From what he had been able to observe earlier of the wound, it wasn’t a pretty sight and it looked very serious. Yet, the bleeding seemed to have stopped. Laws felt for sure that Scarlet’s prolonged stay in the filthy pond could not have done any good to his injury.
“I’ll get you to safety, Paul,” he said under his breath. “I promised Harmony I would. But I swear to you, as soon as I can, I’ll be coming back for that girl. There’s no way I’m going to let her die alone in that Godforsaken jungle. She doesn’t deserve that.”
“That is a very noble sentiment, Mr Laws.”
The accented voice coming from behind startled Laws. He swiftly jumped into a kneeling position and turned around; at the same moment, the light of a powerful torch flashed into his face and he blinked, raising his hand to cover his eyes. He could see four silhouettes standing on the banks, under the cover of nearby trees. His hand went for his gun, but he heard the click of a hammer being cocked, and he froze.
“Don’t make any sudden move,” the same voice told him ominously. “Or I’ll have Mr Markham shoot you on the spot. Put your hands on your head.”
Laws obeyed, moving his arms carefully; he had recognised that voice the second he had heard it.
He watched, as five silhouettes walked towards him, noting through the light that was half-blinding him that at least three of them, wearing the khaki uniform of Ryoushi’s mercenaries, were armed and were aiming their weapons at him. The one marching up front wasn’t carrying a weapon, and he came to stand in front of Laws, his hands behind his back.
“We are very disappointed in you, Mr Laws,” he said quietly, as he looked at Laws through his glasses. “We expected so much more from you.”
Laws swallowed hard. “Mr Seijitsu,” he said carefully. “I can explain…”
Seijitsu swiftly raised his hand to demand silence. “Spare me, Mr Laws. I can’t see how you would be able to explain your betrayal of the trust we put in you, in a way that would seem believable.”
“I betrayed you?” Laws said, making a show of appearing surprised. He didn’t make a move when one of the other men came over to him and relieved him of his weapons. All of his attention was turned to Seijitsu who was very calmly staring at him.
“Don’t play the innocent, Laws. We know everything.” Seijitsu approached and snatched Laws’ shirt by the collar, to push it aside, revealing the small, fresh wound he carried on his neck. “You removed your location tag,” the Japanese said, letting go of the collar in a gesture that indicated all of his loathing of Laws. “So that you could move freely on this island without us being able to follow you. You attacked a participant of this hunt. You helped the Spectrum officers escape.” He paused, and looked down at the supine body of Scarlet, laid on the ground not that far from him, and over which one of his men was crouching. “At least, you brought Scarlet Taii back to us. Is he alive?”
“He is, sir,” the man said, checking Scarlet’s pulse. “And he seems fine.”
“Where’s the girl?” Seijitsu inquired, turning back to Laws.
“She’s dead,” he answered stoically. “The creature killed her.”
Seijitsu raised a doubtful brow. “Did it, now?” he commented in an aloof voice. “What if I were to say I don’t believe you?” He looked towards the other side of the pond, where some of the bodies of the dead men were still visible from where he stood. “I see our friend had quite some fun over there. That must be Archer’s detachment. They were what, ten men, at least?”
Laws couldn’t believe the coldness he now heard in Seijitsu’s voice. Up until now, he had considered Ryoushi’s secretary as a more or less sensible man, whose misplaced loyalty and deep commitment to his employer was his single fault. If he assisted Ryoushi in his mad scheme, it was because he felt he had no choice in the matter and that he possibly feared for his own life and those of his loved ones. Maybe at some point, Seijitsu might even have contrived to hold Ryoushi back, so that the number of his victims would not be so high, and Laws had even considered that Seijitsu might eventually become an ally and even a witness, even if reluctant, against his employer.
However, this previous view of Seijitsu’s deeds was taking a drastic and contradictory turn in the other direction. Hearing him talk this way, Laws could only assess that the man was as insane as Ryoushi himself and that he fully endorsed what had been going on for so many years.
“I counted twelve,” Laws retorted harshly, keeping his eyes on the short man he now considered as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than his employer. “And they had three dogs. That creature easily butchered them, and it didn’t even receive a scratch. What the hell is that monster, Seijitsu? And what part does it play in your boss’s insane actions?”
Seijitsu gave a slow nod. “The creature plays an important part, Mr Laws,” he said quietly. “More than you can ever imagine.”
Laws narrowed his eyes at him. “Why does Ryoushi want it dead so much that so many people have to die for it?”
“That is a question that I will leave to Ryoushi – but I doubt you will ever be able to ask him, Mr Laws.” Seijitsu glanced at Scarlet. “However, I’m sure Mr Ryoushi will be thankful to you for bringing Scarlet Taii back alive. He will surely have new plans for him, in order to kill the creature.”
“So Ryoushi is still alive, then?” Laws asked with a frown. “I saw him fight that creature. And then he fell into the river, wearing heavy armour…”
“Of course Ryoushi still lives,” Seijitsu replied, snorting with disdain at Laws’ assumption. “He is a very good swimmer and eventually, he escaped the river, even though it took some time.”
“So that’s from him you knew about me,” Laws groused. “He must have seen me with the Spectrum officers and he informed you.”
Seijitsu tilted his head. “We became suspicious of you when you removed the tag, Mr Laws. However, it wasn’t from Ryoushi that we first learned of your betrayal. Someone else informed us.”
Laws scowled, wondering who he was talking about.
At this point, the last man of the group, who stood behind the others, and of whom he had not seen the features yet, stepped forward. Laws narrowed his eyes against the light of the torch that was still shining in his face, while trying to see who this man could be. He first saw the long-range rifle he held in his hands, and then saw his face, and the cold expression of his eyes, when he came into full view and stood next to Seijitsu.
Laws opened his eyes wide with disbelief.
“You!” he gasped, finally recognising Esteban Manuel Rodriguez. “It can’t be! I killed you!”
Rodriguez smiled thinly, before scoffing. “Did you, now?” he said ominously. “Well, as they say, I got better, Mr Laws.”
“But that’s impossible!” Laws insisted, shaking his head, thinking for certain his eyes were playing tricks. “How can you still be alive?”
Rodriguez offered him a wicked smile. “I’ll leave you to figure out exactly what happened, Mr Laws,” he said. “You’ll have plenty of time for that, once we have left you.”
Laws frowned in perplexity. “Left me? You’re letting me live?”
Rodriguez chuckled. “In a manner of speaking.”
“Killing you would be too magnanimous,” Seijitsu then said. “I’m afraid we are indeed leaving you alive, Mr Laws.” He leaned in front of Laws and looked straight into his eyes. “Alive on this island, with no weapon at your disposal, not even a knife… left to explain yourself to the blood-thirsty predator that reigns over this jungle.”
Laws’ expression became hard, but he didn’t reply to Seijitsu’s obvious taunting and he simply watched in silence, as the Japanese man straightened up. He saw that his expression was quite similar to that of Rodriguez – Rodriguez who, inexplicably, stood there in front of him, alive, unscathed, while he knew that not two hours ago, he had slit his throat and left his dead body to rot in the deepest part of the jungle.
Rodriguez noticed the direction of his eyes, and offered him a new, particularly malevolent grin.
“If Harmony Angel is alive – and you find her before the creature does – please give her my regards.”
Laws simply answered with a frown, and didn’t have time to do more than that.
From behind, one of the mercenaries him on the head with the butt of his rifle. The next thing Laws knew was that the ground was leaping straight at his face.
Then it was total darkness.
* * *
It wasn’t a good hunting night for Hayato Ryoushi.
He felt frustrated and so very angry that his prey had escaped him so unexpectedly by falling into the river. He felt for sure that this time, he had him, that he would finally be able to settle his scores with him, after so many, interminable years. And yet, it seemed that fate would have it another way and would deny him once again.
What added to Ryoushi’s anger was the fact that he had let himself be surprised by a mere half-breed girl, who had had the impudence to attack him from behind and shove him into the river as well. How could he have been so careless as to turn his back on her and give her such an opportunity? He would never forgive himself for this; and he would never forgive her either. He would make sure she would pay dearly for her gesture.
He had wasted too much time escaping the river; the current, so very wild, had taken him a long way down, and it had been all he could do to keep himself afloat, his armour threatening to take him down. He had removed many parts of it while he had struggled against the current, leaving them behind at the bottom of the river. At the end of his journey, he was left with very little of his armour, but still had been able to keep hold of what counted the most: his katana, with which he would kill Chij’na.
He had lost sight of the predator, while both of them had been dragged away by the river. However, he had no doubt that his deadly enemy had been able to escape sooner than he did, and that he had reached the bank and resumed his hunt, without giving another thought to his former pupil. That was even more infuriating for Ryoushi who couldn’t accept that the creature would dismiss him so easily.
I am not a petty prey, Chij’na. Like you, I am a predator to account for. I can kill you, and I will, if you should make the mistake of ignoring me.
Sitting on the bank of the river where he was regaining his breath and his strength, Ryoushi was emptying his boots when the sound of his communicator attracted his attention. Grunting with irritation, he threw down the boot he was holding and took the call.
“I am busy,” he snapped. “You know you are not to disturb me when I hunt.”
“I am sorry, Ryoushi Shacho,” the voice of Seijitsu humbly replied. “I would never have dared interrupt you if it wasn’t for something important.”
Ryoushi grumbled. “What is it, then?”
“We have found Scarlet Taii. Mr Laws was hiding with him in the swamp area, two kilometres north of the clearing camp.”
Ryoushi took in the information and chewed on it. Scarlet. The last time he had seen the Spectrum captain, he seemed in a bad way, and about to be finished by the creature.
“He must be dead, I’m sure,” Ryoushi commented.
“On the contrary, Shacho. He is very much alive.”
Ryoushi frowned. “Are you sure, Seijitsu-san?”
“Yes, there can be no doubt about it, Shacho. He is unconscious, but alive and well.”
Ryoushi pondered this revelation. Now that was curious. Even if he had escaped the creature, Scarlet seemed no better than dead. Yet again, he seemed to have defied death and survived miraculously where others would not. Like all those other times that had been reported to Ryoushi, and which had made the Japanese consider the Spectrum officer as the perfect prey to offer the creature and lure it out of its lair for a final battle.
Khujhade, Chij’na had called him. Destroyer, in his own language. And there was much contempt in his voice when he had pronounced that word, although at the time, Ryoushi had not realised it. As he had not realised how much Chij’na was determined to get to Scarlet and to kill him. It wasn’t unusual, though. He never knew the creature to ever let go of prey.
But this time, there was something different in Chij’na’s behaviour. It wasn’t quite like all those other times. His determination was deeper, his resolve stronger… What was it about Captain Scarlet that interested the hunter so much?
There was a mystery here, and Ryoushi was as curious to know more about it as to continue his current hunt. And perhaps, if he should discover that mystery, he would be able to use it to his advantage.
“How about the half-breed?” he asked into his communicator.
“We found no sign of Haamonii Tenshi, Shacho,” Seijitsu answered quietly. “Mr Laws says she has been killed by the creature.”
Ryoushi snorted. “That traitor is lying,” he retorted with contempt. “But that is of little consequence for now. If she’s wandering alone in the jungle, she’s as good as dead. She’s of no more use to us, anyway. But as for Captain Scarlet… it might be different.” He marked a pause, his mind quickly making up plans on what would be the best move to make next. “Have him taken to the helijet,” he instructed. “He will come back with us. I want some answers, but it won’t be safe for us to stay here until I have all of them.”
“Hai, Shacho. How about Laws? I gave instructions to leave him here, on his own.”
Ryoushi grunted his approval. “Good thinking, Seijitsu-san. Let’s leave that rotten traitor to fend for himself. His chances of survival on this island are as much as those of the half-breed. They’ll both become prey to the devil.” He looked at the time on his watch. Soon, he realised, it would be dawn. “I’ll meet you at the helijet, in fifteen minutes” he continued into his communicator. “Be ready for lift-off upon my arrival.”
“That will be done according to your instructions, Shacho.”
When Harmony had reached the bank of the quicksand pond, she had given but a cursory glance around the multiple dead and mutilated bodies the creature had left in his wake. The sight was absolutely stomach-churning, with the ground covered with blood and pieces of corpses lying everywhere, and she quickly averted her eyes. She was a Spectrum officer, and as such had been witness to many scenes of carnage already – much more than she would freely admit in public. But this was something entirely different. And had she not seen with her own eyes that this bloodbath had been performed by a single individual, she would never have believed it.
She quickly crossed the distance separating her from the boundary formed by the trees, forcing herself not to look back, in fear of giving away Captain Scarlet’s and Nicolas Laws’ hiding place, if someone happened to be spying on her at this moment. She hoped fervently that Laws would be true to his word and would keep Scarlet safe, to the best of his ability. In reality, she had no choice but to trust him, given the circumstances, although she believed his story, and so far since he had found them, he had given her no reason to doubt him. She prayed that she was right.
Long minutes passed, as she went deeper under the shadows of the trees, further away from the pond where she had left her companions. So far, she had encountered no-one. It was as if the creature had killed every living soul on the island, before disappearing into darkness. Yes, she knew that he was still there, somewhere, searching for Captain Scarlet – and that Ryoushi Hayato might probably be around as well, after making his own escape from the river. She couldn’t conceive that the Japanese hunter could already be gone – unless, of course, he had been killed by the creature.
But somehow she doubted it was the case. She had heard the creature calling Ryoushi ‘son’ and while she was starting to get some serious suspicion about what exactly it could mean, she had still yet to fully figure out the complete mystery behind it.
As she progressed between the trees, looking around for any suspicious movement and listening for any sound that might alert her of danger, she grew more and more unsettled and started having the impression that she was being watched with attention. But she could see no trace of anyone about; it was as if she was truly alone.
It was maddening, because she knew it couldn’t be true.
Suddenly, coming from high above, she heard a distinctive sound that she knew very well, but which had nothing to do with any natural sound that can be heard through the jungle. It was the sound of an engine – more specifically, the rotors of a helijet, or helicopter.
She stopped and raised her eyes, trying to pierce the high ceiling formed by the tree branches; the night was clear, because of the moonlight, which was hiding most of the stars with its pale radiance, and she could see part of the sky. The sound was louder now, and she noted that it seemed to come from a relatively short distance.
Quickly, Harmony went to a nearby tall tree, whose low boughs were within her reach and she started climbing up. There wasn’t enough left of her dress to impede her movements, and though she scraped her naked feet, legs and arms against the rough bark and twigs, she scaled the tree with ease and found herself very near the top in record time. She was high enough and from there, she could clearly see the sky, and part of the ocean, with the moon reflecting its light on the surface. She looked around, scanning the sky, in search of the craft she knew was nearby.
She saw it – or rather its shadow, flying a couple of hundred feet over the treetops. It was a big helicopter, maybe the same in which she had awakened as a captive the previous day, and which had taken her and her two guards to the clearing in the middle of the forest. It was flying not that far from Harmony’s actual location, but the pilot didn’t seem to spot her presence, and the craft continued its course, the young woman following it with her eyes. From what she was able to assess, it seemed to be heading towards another, nearby island, silhouetted on the surface of the ocean by the moonlight. Perhaps, she wondered, it was the same island where Ryoushi had his residence. Turning around, she looked in the direction it had been coming from, wondering if it came from that beach Laws wanted to take them to. In any case, it seemed like it was the case.
Harmony froze all of a sudden, as her eyes noticed a yellow flash from the top of another tree, not that far from her own; she stared intently in that direction… Her heart missed a beat when she then noticed the silhouette, standing on the branches of that tree; lean, muscular… so incredibly tall… And she realised at that moment that there wasn’t one flash, but two – and that they were, in fact, the light coming from behind the eye slits of the creature’s mask.
And he was looking straight at her.
Harmony went down the tree faster than she had climbed it, missing steps, at the risk of breaking her neck. Her heart was thumping like a trip-hammer and she was breathing hard with panic; she lost sight of the warrior, but she could imagine very well that he was keeping his eye on her. Three meters separated her from the ground and she leapt that distance, landing on her hands and knees… and then she started to run, as fast as she could, taking little notice of the cuts and bruises her naked feet suffered. She instinctively took the opposite direction from the pond, and only glanced over her shoulder once. She couldn’t see the warrior, but she just knew he was there, somewhere – following her.
There was a blast of laser that went way over her head – too high to be meant to hurt her, but it did cause her to veer off her course and to turn slightly to the left. Another blast, quite similar to the first one, came closer, but still didn’t seem to have been aimed directly at her. It made her turn again, and she found a natural path opening between the bushes in front of her. She sprinted straight into it and pushed her legs to the limit to run even faster; at this point, she didn’t dare look behind her, but she knew the creature was in pursuit. He seemed to be toying with her.
There was another blast, and a big bough over her head was cut in two and, its severed end burning, fell nearly on top of her. She ducked to avoid it, leapt over a fallen dead tree and kept on running. When she finally pushed through thick shrubs blocking her way, the surface she was running on drastically changed – and so did her surroundings.
She had left the thickness of the jungle and there was nothing else around and in front of her, save for a flat surface made of rocks and pebbles, and the clear night sky and the full moon… and the ocean spreading towards the horizon, which was slowly turning pink in the East, from the upcoming rising sun. She stopped running, and slowly walked the remaining few meters separating her from the top of a high cliff, that hung high over the ocean. She stood there and looked down; there was a sheer drop of many hundreds of meters, leading directly to dangerous-looking rocks, which were continually battered by the assaults of the tide. And there, in the middle of these rocks, rested what looked like the broken body of a dead man.
Harmony stepped back in dread. The cliff. Captain Scarlet had told her about it. How Johnston had fallen to his death from there. She imagined the body she had seen down there was his.
The warrior had led her straight to this spot. She had been right in thinking he didn’t want to kill her to begin with; now she was wondering what fate he had in mind for her.
She heard a rustling sound behind and turned on her heels. The warrior stood in the middle of the bushes, looking straight at her. Slowly he left his position and stepped onto the cliff. She stepped back, as far as she could and soon found herself very close to the edge. He was only three to four meters in front of her. He stopped his approach.
“Doko desu ka?” he asked in his deep voice.
Harmony frowned. So, he had left her alive for questioning. Where, he was asking in Japanese. She knew what he meant, but she didn’t plan to make it easy for him.
“I don’t understand,” she said, responding in English.
His right hand closed to a fist and the two claws appeared from his wristband as he made another step. Harmony swallowed hard. “Wakarimasen,” she repeated a little more urgently, this time in Japanese.
He grunted, with some irritation. “Khujhade. Kare wa doko desu ka?” he specified.
“You figure I would tell you where he is?” she retorted.
“Hai.” The fact that the warrior seemed to have understood her defiant reply in English made her realise he probably understood more of this language than she had figured out at first. So far, she had heard him simply repeating English lines he had previously heard, and using them to his own purpose – in a way that did indicate he at least knew the context. Now it seemed he grasped it even better than that.
He took another step, and with both hands, raised his spear, which was now only about three feet long. Harmony saw a slight movement from his fingers and saw a blade appear on each end; the spear then looked like a seven feet long, double-ended harpoon.
No wonder it did so much damage to Captain Scarlet, the Angel reflected, looking fixedly at one of the blades.
She scowled at the warrior as he expertly turned the staff in his hands; he was obviously trying to frighten her off. “If you think I scare easily you are mistaken,” she said in Japanese. “It will take more than that to impress me, monster. I’m not afraid to die.”
He stopped playing with the spear and tilted his head to one side, staring at her. She raised her head defiantly at him, and then, took the karate frontal defence stance. She glanced one last time towards the East. The sky was taking on a yellow-reddish hue. The sun was starting to show on the horizon.
A showdown at dawn, she reflected inwardly. How fitting…
The warrior kept still as she stretched out her right arm to him and, with her hand, invited him to approach.
“Come now. I’m ready for you.”
She felt somehow stupid; she remembered having seen this somewhat arrogant gesture done in one of those Kung Fu movies Captain Ochre was so fond of. But she had to admit, it was theatrical enough to obtain the desired effect.
The warrior was at first surprised by such a brash attitude; and then he laughed. It was a deep laugh, which was unsettling, and sent shivers down Harmony’s spine.
He drove one end of his spear onto the ground in one powerful movement, and then, removed the canon he had on his shoulder, to throw on the ground, out of reach. The Angel eyed the gun by his side, and his wrist blades. He seemed to notice the direction of her eyes and gave the briefest of glance to his claws, before pointing to the pocket of her jacket.
Harmony looked at him with perplexity; he obviously knew about the switchblade she was carrying on her person. “Okay,” she said. “As long as you keep yours, then I’ll keep mine.” She pointed to his gun. “As long as you don’t use that,” she said.
He laughed again, and snorted loudly. “M’di taun'dcha,” he said, and the Angel who didn’t have a clue what he meant, could only imagine he was speaking in his own language. He seemed to realise she had not understood him at all, so he added, in English: “No need.”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t need it,” Harmony said quietly.
He pointed to her with his clawed hand. “Yeyin wei-ghe'h.” Again, he saw her clueless expression. “Brave wei-ghe’h,” he said.
She then thought that maybe ‘wei-ghe’h’ meant ‘woman’, ‘girl’ or ‘female’. She had heard him calling her ‘Ooman’ earlier, which was fairly easy to understand from what English word it came.
“Dead wei-the’h,” he added calmly. He obviously meant that her bravery would serve nothing, if only to bring down her unfortunate fate.
“We’ll see about it,” she murmured, narrowing her eyes at him.
The warrior didn’t waste any time, and was swift to attack. He shouted a deafening roar and rushed her. In two long strides he was on her, swinging his right arm with the claws; but he never touched her.
As fast as the warrior was, Harmony was even faster, and she had ducked very low under his arm; she landed on her hands and her right leg uncoiled like a spring, her foot hitting the warrior with great force behind the knee. He roared – in pain, or fury, or a combination of both, it was hard to know; but his struck knee buckled under the blow.
Harmony was back on her feet and her body twisted around towards her opponent… She quickly positioned her right foot in front of one of his own huge feet, and hit her opponent behind the head with both elbows, shoving him roughly. The impact made the warrior’s mask come off and it fell down on the ground, as he tripped against Harmony’s foot and went head over heels… straight into the void in front of him. He roared – this time, it was no doubt out of surprise.
Harmony could have made it – if she had been a fraction of a second faster. But as she stepped away from the edge of the cliff, she felt the clawed hand of the creature tearing into her left ankle as he grasped it, in an attempt to stop his fall. She cried in pain and lost her footing… and went over the edge as well. As she felt herself starting to fall towards the bottom of the cliff, she blindly grabbed at something – anything – that might save her from certain death. She caught hold of one of the warrior’s legs and held on to it – and her fall stopped and she smashed roughly against the face of the cliff. The shock made her gasp, but wasn’t enough to make her let go.
Something narrowly missed Harmony’s head and bounced off her shoulder, making her wince. She looked to realise it was the warrior’s big gun, which then landed on a narrow ledge not that that from her, dislodging rocks and pebbles that rolled down the face of the cliff towards the rock below. Harmony followed their descent with dread, thinking that she could follow the same trajectory very soon.
She raised her eyes up. The warrior was hanging from the side of the cliff, by his right arm, the claws of his wristband driven deep into the rock about two or three feet from the edge. They were now the only thing that stood between them and crashing down to both their deaths. His scarred and hideous face was turned towards Harmony and he seemed to be staring at her with his one eye in a most pensive way, the four mandibles of his alien mouth clicking against each other. She could very well guess what he was thinking. All he needed to do was to shake her loose, and he would be rid of her, and would have a chance to free himself from this awkward position. Yet, he didn’t make a single move against her. Perhaps, she thought, he feared that any brusque movement might make his claws lose their hold against the face of the cliff.
Harmony glanced surreptitiously in the direction of the gun, wondering if she could reach it and use it to her advantage. But she dismissed that thought; firing against the warrior would sign her death warrant as well, as if he were to fall, she was sure to follow suit.
As she pondered how she would get herself out of this precarious situation, Harmony heard a laugh – a very human laugh, that didn’t come from the warrior, but from higher up. They both raised their heads in puzzlement and looked up to see a man, standing just on the edge of the cliff, with a hunting gun in his hands, and looking down at them with a thin and cruel smile on his face.
Harmony gasped in surprise as she recognised him.
She remembered what Captain Scarlet had told her of the man, and glanced down towards the dead body at the tide-battered foot of the cliff. It was nearly day now, and she could see better, and although it was impossible to distinguish the dead man’s features, she certainly noticed that he was wearing the same clothes as the man standing at the top of the cliff. She looked up to him with eyes wide with horror.
“I’m surprised you are still alive, Harmony Angel,” Johnson coldly commented. “And even more surprised of the company you are keeping.”
Harmony swallowed hard. “You’re… supposed to be dead.”
“I was,” he said between clenched teeth. “Courtesy of this filthy creature you’re clinging to.”
“You’re a Mysteron!” she said.
“Khujhade,” the warrior then said unexpectedly. Still hanging from the side of the cliff, he was staring straight at Johnston, seemingly unable to detach his eye from him. Johnston chuckled and glared down at him, with obvious contempt.
“Yes, creature. ‘Khujhade’ – ‘Destroyer’, in your own primitive language. You can recognise us, can’t you? Your kind still remembers us… as we sure still remember you.” Johnston crouched down and offered a crooked, hateful smile as he stared directly at the warrior. “I must admit, though – the Mysterons never thought of finding one of you stranded on this pitiful planet. You’re far from your usual hunting territory, Yautja. Why did you wander such a long way? Are you ‘Bad Blood’ – an outcast who dishonoured his Clan or failed to properly follow the Path – your so-called Code of the Hunt?”
“Ell-osde' pauk, Khujhade!” There was anger in the warrior’s voice, and there was little doubt that if he didn’t understand the exact words of the Mysteron, at least he had perfectly understood that he was insulting him.
Johnston tutted and shook his head. “Such filthy language, hunter. Especially in front of a lady. You don’t need to be so rude.” He rose to his feet and pumped his gun. “You’re at my mercy now. I know your hide is thick, but I’m sure you won’t survive the impact of a .45 calibre projectile through your ugly mug. And if it should not be enough, I’m sure the fall will do the rest.”
The creature emitted a low snarl, his mandibles flaring wide. That didn’t seem to impress Johnston much, as he stoically continued:
“For your many crimes against the Mysterons, for your immoral ways, you must die, Yautja. As all of your kind will surely die, one by one – until there is none left.”
The warrior snorted contemptuously, as Johnston lowered the muzzle of his weapon. “Dtai'Kai-dte sa-de nau'gkon dtain'aun bpi-de,” he said solemnly, seemingly unemotionally in the face of his own death.
Johnston sniggered. “Very poetic. ‘The fight which was begun would not end until the very end.’ Proud words coming from you, hunter. And quite appropriate.” He took aim at the hunter’s head. “Indeed, this is the end for you, hunter. And what’s more, by killing you, I will get rid of this meddlesome Earthwoman as well.”
His finger caressed the trigger, but he never had time to press it.
There was a loud blast, and a laser beam hit Johnston in the chest, making a hole so big that a fist could have gone through it. The body of the Mysteronised Texan shuddered under the impact and he made a step back.
The Yautja hunter swiftly looked down; the beam from the blaster came from below and had passed so close to his head that he had felt the heat. He stared in perplexity at Harmony Angel, still hanging onto his leg with her left arm, while trying to keep her balance against the cliff with one foot – and holding in her right hand the blaster-gun that was still smoking from its recent use.
Gasping in pain, the young woman abruptly let go of the weapon, which was now so hot it was scorching her hand; either it had been damaged by its fall, or it had obviously not been made to be held by a human being. It clattered down towards the bottom of the cliff, and she watched it go with apprehension, before looking up again. At the top of the cliff, the body of Dirk Johnston was swaying dangerously close to the edge, but didn’t seem to want to fall; his eyes, set on both human and Yautja creature hanging onto the side of the cliff, seemed at the same time dead, and filled with the same hate he had for both of them.
He wasn’t dying yet – but of course, Harmony told herself, it shouldn’t surprise her that much, as he was a Mysteron agent.
At that moment, in the free hand of the hunter appeared a disc-like object, which looked much like a circular saw, with a multitude of very sharp edges. “Ell-osde' pauk, Khujade!” he roared defiantly. “Thei-de h'ka-se!”
And he threw the disc at the Mysteronised hunter. It hit him in the face and as certain as it had finished him off, it also made him lose what little was left of his footing and sent him over the edge. He fell down, grazing the warrior who stoutly pushed him away so that he would not take him down with him. Harmony, now clutching with both arms to the warrior’s leg, pressed herself as close as possible against the rock surface to avoid the falling body; she didn’t even look down to see him land on the rocks at the bottom.
For a moment, she stayed there, gasping, her eyes closed, at first unwilling to open them; she had escaped death, but it was only a temporary reprieve, as she still had no idea how she would climb up that steep cliff.
Harmony blew a deep sigh and slowly opening her eyes, looked up; the warrior was again staring at her, like he did the first time, before Johnston’s appearance, the sun now glistering against the metallic parts of his light armour. He wasn’t moving, wasn’t making any threatening gesture towards her. Whatever he could be thinking, Harmony had no idea, but she could see he was now perplexed and didn’t quite know what to do with her.
A ray of sunlight caught his good eye, and he grunted in annoyance, raising his free hand to protect himself behind it. Harmony had barely taken note of this gesture than her burned hand then suddenly lost hold of his leg, and she slipped down, ever so slightly. Swift as lightning, he reached for her with his free hand and caught hers, holding it firmly; their eyes met. Harmony could hear a quiet rumbling coming from the creature’s throat; it didn’t seem in anyway threatening.
There were new noises coming from the top of the cliff, and that made them look up. Not again, Harmony moaned inwardly, thinking they were about to be attacked once more. Will this nightmare have no end?
But this time around, it wasn’t an enemy that came to stand on the edge of the cliff and look down, but Nicolas Laws, covered with dirt from head to toes, and his eyes wide with dismay at finding the young woman hanging there, with the creature that had tried to kill all of them during the night.
“Harmony!” he called. “Oh my God, are you all right?”
“Mr Laws!” she replied, her voice filled with joy and relief. “I’m so glad to see you!”
“What happened?” he asked her in confusion. “Was that Johnston I just saw diving down this cliff? I thought he was dead!”
“It’s… complicated to explain,” Harmony said hesitantly.
“And what are you doing down there with this monster?” Laws added awkwardly, pointing to the hunter who seemed now to be glaring at him warningly.
“Please… now is not the time.”
“Right. I have to help you get out of there.” Laws swiftly lay on his belly and held out his hand towards Harmony. “Can you… climb towards me?”
Harmony hesitated, staring at the hand with uncertainty; it was so high up, so out of reach… She felt so tired, her body hurting all over and with one of her own hands incapacitated, she thought she would never be able to make it.
She shook her head in near desperation. “I… I’ll try, but I don’t know if…”
Then, all of a sudden, the hunter, who was still holding her by the hand, pulled her up, effortlessly, and lifted her towards Laws’ proffered hand. She was surprised by his gesture, but welcomed it, and with this added help as support, she reached for stones protruding from the face of the cliff and climbed up. She finally reached Laws’ hand and he hauled her to him, just as Harmony felt the hand of the hunter release her.
She crawled to safety, a short distance from the edge. She lay there, next to Laws, breathing hard.
“Arigato gozaimasu,” she said in a near whisper.
“You are very welcome,” Laws answered with a thin smile.
Harmony wasn’t sure if it was him she was thanking or the creature who helped her up; she crawled back to the edge, and leaned over to look down at him; he was still there, staring in her direction. His position against the face of the cliff was less precarious than it previously had been, as he was holding himself with both hands now, and one of his clawed feet was resting steadily against the rocky surface.
Laws’ head appeared at her side, and he looked down at the creature in turn. “Would you mind tell me now what’s going on?” he asked in a murmur. “Why do you seem so chummy with this monstrosity all of a sudden… and what’s all this business about people previously dead and coming back to life?”
Harmony stared at him, with an inquiring look.
“I saw Rodriguez earlier,” he explained. “I killed him last night – I’m sure he was dead. And yet, I saw him alive. Like Johnston now was alive… And… and don’t mind me saying so, but I think there’s something very odd in the way Paul seemed to have mended from the attack of this monster. Harmony… what the hell is going on, exactly? Can you tell me?”
She shook her head. Laws had seen much more than he ought to have; so much, in fact, that he certainly deserved an explanation. She had no other choice now, anyway. She hoped Colonel White would be indulgent of her divulging classified secrets.
“I will tell you only after we’ve helped him get to safety,” she told Laws.
He was taken aback by her request and he looked at her with a horrified expression. “Are you nuts? This… creature killed at least a dozen people tonight! He’s been chasing, and trying to kill you and your colleague all night! We’re better off with him hanging there to dry! He’ll kill us as soon as he sets foot on this cliff!”
“He helped me up, remember?” Harmony retorted. “Now it’s our turn to help him.” She glared at Laws. “If he wanted us dead, he would have killed us already. I think he’s quite able to get up here by himself, but if we helped him up, that’ll show him that we trust him.”
“Trusting him?! That monster? Are you gone insane?”
“Mr Laws, I have my reasons. Please. Trust me on this.”
Laws remained uncertain for a short second or two, and then sighed. “All right,” he finally conceded. “You win. But if he kills us, I’m holding you personally responsible.”
Harmony smiled thinly. “I gladly accept that responsibility.” She looked around, searching with her eyes for someone who obviously wasn’t there. “What are you doing here? Where is Captain Scarlet?”
Laws hesitated, seemingly not inclined to answer the question right away. “That’s complicated as well,” he said cautiously. “Let’s get your ‘friend’ up first. I’ll explain afterward. But I’m afraid you won’t like it at all.”