| 07:09:56 8 October 2011
On forum: 12/07/2008
Message edited by:
This episode deals exclusively with the mysterious four dogging the squad: the veteran, the foreigner, the youth, and the exo-clad stalker.
The veteran stood atop a hilly outcropping, the foreigner and the exoskeleton-clad stalkers flanking him, surveying the desolation that was Agroprom with his binoculars. Then he produced the smartphone from his hip satchel and consulted it.
The youth needed not consult with anything to say it first. “We are much too early.”
The foreigner was not surprised. The elderly stalker had taken them effortlessly through a labyrinth of anomalies and along an old, overgrown vehicle trail that probably had not seen a hundred people since 1986. It was a very short path, though a deadly one. And the veteran's skill was all the more evident because he had made it look easy. “So what are we going to do?” he asked.
The veteran was reading. “There is a large stalker group camped inside the abandoned institute facilities, but I would prefer to avoid being spotted. So we will head to a hideout our group had underneath the institute, and rest. And wait.”
The armored stalker shuffled within his hulking suit. “I fail to see why would you want not to be seen. Besides the obvious.”
“And that obvious thing you mention is...?”
“Why, eluding questions or leaving impressions others may recall if questioned in turn about us, of course.”
The veteran pocketed the smartphone. “I know little about paradoxes, but I am certainly not keen on creating one. Least of all here in the Zone.”
“But isn't it too late for that now? You said that merely being here has changed everything.”
“He's right,” the Briton said uncomfortably. “I heard nothing about an attack on the rookie village, and of course even less about one that brutal. Everyone would be talking about it for weeks, all over the Zone.”
“All of you are right.” The youth spoke with his calm and vastly unnerving voice, sending shivers down everyone else's spines. “This already is an alternate reality. The world you knew is not the world you walk over now. But Guide's caution is not excessive. The Zone is already too frayed up to further add to its chaos.” The youth felt the veteran's stare and his utter puzzlement. He turned towards him. “You still wonder what happened to me?”
The elder stalker's eyes did not waver from him. “Nothing escapes you.”
“I understand your anxiety. And your mistrust. But know this: you will not come to harm if you stick with me. And there is no one who can confirm or deny what I tell you. You can still walk away anytime, but that is your choice.”
A stifling silence followed. They all stared at the youth, afraid of his utterly alien demeanor, composure and certainty.
In the end, the veteran shouldered his backpack and readied his rifle. “Far from being this the strangest thing I have seen or done here.” He started walking away. The others followed.
The elderly stalker guided them towards the abandoned institute, taking pains to avoid the road and concealing their presence behind trees and thickets as much as possible. Now and then the distant echoes of voices reached them, but no one spotted them.
Their goal was a manhole concealed between bushes, some three hundred-odd meters north of the institute. The hatch looked rusted shut, but the veteran opened it without a noise and without effort. The Briton noted that the hinges were well oiled; he supposed that would be a secret entrance to the hideout that had been mentioned before.
“You go first,” the veteran said. “I will go down the last to secure the hatch.”
In turn, each of them secured his rifle and climbed down the ladder. The veteran closed the hatch above them, and for a few instants everything was pitch black, until headlamps were turned on. The ladder went down perhaps five or six meters, and led to a small, dank room that housed abandoned industrial equipment and a single panel with instruments and readers. The armored stalker felt tempted to ask what all that was for, but for some reason he did not like the idea of shattering the tomb-like silence.
A slightly ajar heavy steel door led out of the room. They opened it cautiously, trying not to make the hinges screech, went through that door into a corridor, the veteran leading, until they came upon another metal, hatch-like door. This one was closed.
The elderly put his ear to the door, listened intently, grabbed an wrench lying on the floor –and apparently left there on purpose–, and tapped the door four times in code, one first, three later. Amidst the deep silence it sounded like a huge bell had just rung.
Nobody answered his call.
Then, after a long minute, a mechanism clicked from the other side. The door opened. A tall, taut, wiry man dressed in a stalker suit patterned with camouflage was on the other side. The veteran turned to his companions. “Meet Ghost.”
The armored stalker glared at the man. “I've heard about you.”
A smug smirk that quickly faded away. Ghost stared back intensely, as if disbelieving what he saw. “How... where...” Suddenly he was pointing his sidearm at the armored stalker's left eye. “If I didn't want that suit back intact I'd kill you here and now.”
“Holster your weapon!” The veteran commanded. “You do not know everything that has transpired.”
Ghost obeyed not. He kept his right hand steady, the barrel of his pistol looking blindly into his target's eye, who made no overt motion to defend himself.
“Put it down! NOW!”
The veteran's voice stung everyone's eardrums, and startled the gaunt, tall man. Only then did the command seem to reach him. He withdrew his weapon, all the time keeping his eyes on the armored stalker.
“You have some explaining to do, old man. I buried Fang myself two days ago. And he was wearing that same exo.”
The veteran's companions remained silent. The armored stalker knew that the suit he was wearing had belonged to a comrade of Ghost's, but he did not hope anyone would believe how he had come upon it. The foreigner did not know about what was going on, but he trusted he would learn soon enough. The youth merely sat on the bed, seemingly caring not about anything.
The elderly stalker sat over a crate. “How strange do you think the Zone is?”
Ghost laughed humorlessly. “Is that a trick question?”
A sigh. The veteran squared his jaw and a torrent of words, acid and grief poured out of him: “Over the last month I have heard about Strelok shutting down the Brain Scorcher, have welcomed him back from the NPP as Pripyat melted down into a five-way battleground between Duty, Freedom, the Monolith, the Army and loners, learned from him that the Wish Granter is nothing but a conspiracy designed to keep the center of the Zone closed to everyone, escorted him to meet Seriy, squared off against mercenaries intent on killing him, buried Strelok – and it was he who took Fang's exo –, found a secret amidst his belongings I could not decipher, journeyed to the Dark Valley in search of someone who could help cracking an encrypted SD card, battled a horde of mutants, survived a close encounter with a controller, seen Bullet the Dutyer and a few other men turned into zombies, rescued a group of stalkers from a chimaera and two pseudogiants, dug in within a bandit base whose residents were thoroughly gutted in creative and horrendous ways, ventured into a creamy mist of sorts where we met another controller that not only did not attack us but shared with us some of the most unbelievable things you are likely to hear in your life, even here in the Zone, and made it all the way here following Strelok's trail after having been sent two weeks back in time... so tell me, do you still think I was asking you a trick question?”
The gaunt stalker stared at him for a long second. Then let himself fall upon another crate.
“I guess you have been busy. And if you were anyone else I'd say you've OD'd yourself on cocaine, but I'll have to believe you, even if it sounds batshit crazy stuff.” Another mirthless laugh. “It was no trick question, I'll give you that.”
“You would better believe that. The SD card contained Strelok's log. And he says he found you dead in the bowels of a lab in Lake Yantar, killed by a controller.”
He snorted. “I'd better not go there, then.” He turned towards the three men his comrade had brought with him. “Aren't you going to introduce me to your new friends?”
The exoskeleton-clad stalker waited not for the veteran to speak. “I am Chasme.” He took a step forward, and hesitatingly offered his right hand. Slowly, Ghost shook it. “If you want, you can have the exo back... I didn't want it, but Guide insisted...”
The gaunt stalker shrugged. Then shook the hand Chasme offered him. “He can be stubborn like a mule. And no, keep it. I have no use for it.” He turned towards the foreigner: “And you are...?”
“Foxhound.” Ghost shook hands with the stout Briton, then looked at Farsight, who still sat motionless on the bed, apparently oblivious to the sudden turn of events.
The veteran stalker said, “He is Farsight. Or he used to be. I think he is blind now.”
“Are you?” The gaunt man asked bluntly. The youth still did not move.
“In a way. My eyes no longer see, but I don't need them anymore.”
Ghost laughed an insolent laugh. “And just how do you manage? And how do you fire that sniper rifle you're lugging around? Or is it just for show?”
Guide found himself afraid for his old comrade. The youth was an unknown quantity since their episode at the Dark Valley, and what he could do or could not do was an entire enigma.
An enigma that was about to be deciphered, at least in part:
“We will have to take the tunnels leading to the military compound later. When that moment comes, let me go ahead alone. You may come upon some opposition that we can turn to our side.”
Ghost snorted. “Forgive me if I don't think you'll convince the jarheads to help you.”
Farsight's head turned abruptly towards him, his unseeing eyes open wide, the pupils dilated to their absolute extreme. Everyone put their hands to their ears as an ultrasonic shrill pounded their heads and the gaunt stalker was hurled backwards as if he had been punched by an invisible fist. “What the--! Woo—oo—oo...” His voice became a barely intelligible slur. “Juss wha' di' y'do t'me...? Li'k s'm contr'll'r...” He reached for his sidearm but failed miserably and slumped to the floor, where he lay mouthing like a fish out of water, striving to form words and failing to produce anything other than drooling nonsense.
Foxhound was quaking with fear. So was Chasme. Neither dared to raise a hand. “Just what are you?!” uttered the armored stalker. “And what did you do to Alexei?!”
“I am Alexei. I happen to know some things you do not.”
Guide was staring at the youth. “That is no knowledge you have just displayed. No learned talent or skill would enable anyone what you just have done.”
Alexei/Farsight/whoever turned towards him. “Are you so certain, Guide? You, the first human being to ever set foot in the Zone after the second explosion, are so certain about it? You, that have seen so much, and even then not only cannot answer all the questions he has, but has more questions about the Zone than anyone else could have? How many things have you seen that you thought impossible to be?”
Guide grabbed Chasme's artifact belt by the inside, then he slowly reached for his sidearm, cocked it, and pointed it at the youth's head. “I may not survive your onslaught, but I will certainly kill you before you are done with me. It is time for some answers. What are you?”
“I just told you. I am Alexei.”
“No, you are not. Or at least, not just Alexei.”
A smile creeped on the youth's lips. “Not in vain you're the most
veteran stalker alive. Yes, you are right. I'm Alexei, and I'm in communion with the consciousness you learned about at the Valley.”
Guide's finger went to the trigger. “The mutant gestalt, or C-Consciousness?”
The smile grew wider. “The 'mutant gestalt', as you call it. C-Consciousness was destroyed by Strelok, thus creating the gestalt. You know this already.”
“Will Ghost recover?”
“Yes. The effect is temporary only.” The youth stood up slowly, and spoke: “I told you before, I am not your enemy. No harm will come to you if you stick with me.”
“You did not exactly bolster our trust by attacking Ghost.”
He sighed. “That is... true. I shouldn't have lost my restraint so easily. He just... pushed the wrong buttons. I'm... sorry.”
There was more of the self-doubting boy they had known as Alexei in that answer. Still, Guide did not take his finger off the trigger. “I do not believe you. It resembled the childish retaliation of an immature kid.”
The blind eyes stared into his. “I would ask you to put yourself into my place for an instant, except that there's just no way for you to do that.” He took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. “I needed to make another point. I need not seeing to shoot, nor to sense everything that scuttles or flies in miles around me. And I need not shooting to defend myself. But I did not ask for either talent. And no, you're right, probably no man could learn this on his own.”
“I still put that attitude a long way beneath those motives.” Then he tried another tack: “And if you are capable so, why would you want to stick with us? What do you need from us? Why would you want Strelok stopped?”
“For the exact same reasons you heard back in the Valley.” The face turned cold and hard. “Shooting me will not change my answers. They are true.”
Guide stared into the dead eyes, eyes that stared back at him as if they could see, for a long while that seemed to last forever. The boy made no overt movement, no attempt to deflect the barrel away, even when it was mere centimeters away from him. Then, exhaling heavily, the veteran put his pistol away and holstered it.
“Farsight... or whatever we should call you now... do not make me regret sparing you.”
Footnote: if you feel like you missed something, I suggest you search this forum for my previous fic, Echoes, which deals with everything that's hinted about here.
"The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion... and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself - ultimate cost for perfect value."
- Heinlein, Robert - "Starship Troopers"
| 15:18:47 10 October 2011
On forum: 10/21/2010
Either I have done something wrong then, or I'm on the right track, I have yet to make up my mind.
Probably starting a thread separate from my previous fic was a bad idea, but it's done now.
Fantastic, i had managed to work everything out, plain and simple, and in this chapter you completely changed it all... (apart from the time travel bit.) every assumption i'd made on how the story was going to unfold was wrong. Brilliant
Keep them coming.
I Belong to the Warrior... in who, the Old Ways have Joined the New
Real Story from Afganistan:
a British Soldier atop a roof saw the red mist when Taliban soldiers surrounded the compound. he precided to fire his SA-80 single handed at them while lighting a cigarette. when asked "What do you think you're doing" by his CO, he responded "Sorry Sir", handed him the lit cigarette, Lit another and continued firing one handed!
| 17:59:44 25 October 2011
On forum: 12/07/2008
Message edited by:
The buildings within view were equally as ruinous as those of the main Agroprom Research Institute compound they had passed by less than two hours ago. The base was nested in a depression surrounded by hills and high ground almost all around it — a horrible place to set up an outpost in Blackjack's opinion, since it allowed them to keep covert watch over it with little difficulty. Hunter had scouted a path through the anomalies and the irradiated areas and had led them to a small plateau north-east of the military base; then, once he had led them to the vantage point they were currently at, Maxim had taken the silent stalker along to reconnoiter the base, to return almost an hour later. The day was dying, and night was approaching fast.
“Not good,” had been his assessment. “Watchtowers manned by men with sniper rifles, more men over the roof of the main structure, and patrols down the road. The two entrances are guarded by half a dozen men each. The western wall has been breached by an anomaly, and the breach is concealed by some structures, but even if we could get close enough without being spotted I wouldn't take that path. I would protect that breach with mines myself, so I suppose they must have thought of that as well.” His milky-white eyes went to Ogre. “Honestly I don't understand why Sidorovich gave you this task. It's a nightmare for even the most seasoned of stalkers.”
The giant seemed hopeless. “Well, we can just forget about this and stick to artifact hunting, I suppose.” He glared at Sataida, and the large green eyes glared back at him through her gas mask. “But having accepted to do this job... I don't think that greasy weasel would see her to safety for any amount of money if I don't do this for him.”
Sataida scoffed haughtily at the comment. “I say to hell with him, then. I'll learn to make a living for myself here and leave on my own.”
Upon hearing her, Screws reflected briefly about how hard that would be. The day before, Hunter had had them spar with each other after teaching them some very basic hand-to-hand moves, and had demanded them to be rough on each other—and when they failed to do that, he had showed them exactly how he wanted them to fight. The hard way.
“I get it, about training with her... but hitting her?” he had objected just once.
Then the tall man had shoved her aside and attacked. It had been like fighting a tidal wave. As he had warned him, he stopped just short of choking him. Then he pitilessly admonished him: “Those meaning her harm won't be as chivalrous. So stand up and fight her.”
And he had tried, but most of the time she had had an edge over him. Sataida had no such compunctions: if something was to be said about the girl was that she had determination in spades. She had grimly nodded at Hunter's command and hurled herself at him, her assaults sloppy, but vicious. But neither could fight for more than fifteen minutes.
“You are both out of shape. You will carry extra loads from now on. And I want you to be able to fight for another five minutes within a week. Now go and eat.”
He had slept as if he were dead, his body aching all over. He had felt tempted to strike conversation with the girl, intensely desiring to somehow get close to her, but while she was not particularly hostile towards him, she had been totally self-absorbed in her own thoughts. Furthermore, regardless of how lovely he found them to be, he feared the stare of those huge green eyes—he felt like they could read him like a book. And Hunter had had them spar again that morning, and had paired them together that afternoon before setting off to Agroprom. He did not know whether to thank him or curse him.
Mystery was studying the base through Maxim's binoculars, hoping to see something that would make him remember a way in. Because, he was certain, he had been here before, but as usual his amnesia was in the way. He continuously felt as if the life previous to the episode that had obscured his memory had been a vivid dream, the details of which he could not recall after waking up. Only will kept him from swearing.
“Not another way in?” He asked Maxim and Hunter. They shook their heads.
“Not that we could see.”
Ogre swore. “We'll have to give up.”
They all looked at each other. Blackjack decided: “We'll call up a vote on it. But not here. I'd hate to be spotted by those snipers.”
And they marched away from the base, led again by Hunter, towards the compound that once had housed the staff of the institute. Barks and squeals were heard distantly, reminding everyone to keep their weapons ready.
Except for their point man. Nikolay could not contain his curiosity any longer:
“I never got to see what you're packing.”
Hunter produced a long bladed weapon from under his ghillie suit. It was... a sword, not a dagger, not a machete, but a proper sword well over one meter long, hilt included. It apparently had been machined from a single piece of metal; it was straight, single-edged, had a very simple cross-guard that was part of the weapon, and the hilt had a checkered layer of rubber for an improved grip, not unlike a pistol. The whole weapon was blacker than night, even the edge, which looked sharp beyond words.
“Whoa...” was everything the youth could say.
“Impressive,” admired Blackjack. “It must swing very fast. It reminds me of some ancient ninja swords...” He found himself wondering how had he seen a silver-metal sheen when the man had cut the bandit's head off, if this was the weapon he had seen. “I still don't get why you don't use that rifle you got in your backpack.”
Hunter shrugged. “It's a very rare day when I need to shoot something.”
That elicited some incredulous looks. Mystery ventured, “What about snipers? You can't just stab everyone...”
“Quiet.” Hunter raised an open hand. Everyone stopped in their tracks.
They all got on their bellies behind a small hill, and waited. Their point man crawled on alone, his motions sinewy and silent as those of a snake, until he came upon a small cliff where the land abruptly fell to the road. The bulk of the Institute loomed very close; here, a few concrete panels of the perimeter wall had fallen off, and the courtyard was partly visible.
On the other side of the road, amidst trees some forty-odd meters away, men were climbing out of a manhole. He counted in the encroaching shadow: six silhouettes, most dressed in cheap clothing, though one of them was wearing a long leather coat. Five of them quickly took positions behind trees and bushes and, cautiously, started advancing towards the breach in the wall. The man in the leather coat stood crouching behind a tree; in the dark he could make the outline of an assault rifle in his hands.
Like some wraith, Hunter silently climbed down the two-meter cliff and stalked his way across the road with liquid motions, taking cover behind a small bush. Almost simultaneously, a furious firefight exploded within the Institute walls. He spied through the leaves, moving the branches apart almost delicately: the rear man was anxiously peeking around the bulk of the tree, listening intently to the deadly chatter of firearms and the yells and screams of men fighting and dying. Absolutely oblivious to his presence.
The silent stalker unsheathed his combat knife and sneaked towards the man, jumping from one tree to the other, between bushes, in complete silence, and pounced on his prey from a distance scarcely short of three meters. The man was caught completely off guard: he barely had begun to turn his weapon around when Hunter smashed him on the back of his head with the knife's butt, sending him sprawling on the ground. With surgical motions the stalker slid the knife under the man's throat, drawing a single drop of blood, while his right hand muffled the man's mouth. It was unnecessary: the man was unconscious.
Hunter grabbed the rifle and silently hauled the man back across the road. He was met there by Maxim.
“Fine work, there,” Blackjack whispered grudgingly. “Who is he?”
The stalker shrugged in his careless way. “They came from somewhere underground.”
“Let me haul him. I imagine you'll want to scout that.”
Hunter nodded icily and left the scarred veteran to deal with their unconscious captive. Silently he snaked his way back to the small clearing under the trees and found the manhole. Something was lit down there, outside his view, but allowing him to make the details of some utility tunnel of sorts. Within the decrepit concrete walls of the compound the firefight still raged on, albeit not as intensely.
He made his way back to the rest of his squad and relayed what he saw. “What about our prisoner?” he asked then. The bandit was still fast asleep and, by the look of it, was not likely to wake up for a while.
“He hasn't been very forthcoming, as you may imagine.” Ogre chuckled at his own sally.
“Probably they got a hideout of sorts down there?” Sataida ventured.
“Mystery?” Maxim asked. “Do you remember anything?”
“Not quite...” He squeezed his eyes shut, straining himself against his spotty memory. Flashes of churning greenish clouds melting down ancient machinery and the horrific panting of mutants somewhere in the tunnels crossed his mind. “It's dangerous down there. If we're going down, we should all grab our gas masks at least. And keep our shotguns at hand.”
Blackjack took that information to heart and donned his mask, a rugged helmet with removable filters, not too different from an exoskeleton's headgear. Everyone did likewise with their own, save Hunter, who was wearing an odd leathery hood that concealed his mouth and nose and protected his eyes with a pair of goggles. “Never saw one of those”, Maxim said in comment. The man merely shrugged as usual.
Hunter led them, cautiously, over the road and to the manhole, keeping an attentive ear on the occasional shot that rang inside the Agroprom compound. “I'm going down first. Cover the exit. I'll signal you if it's clear.”
Mystery nodded and dragged the heavy steel lid over the manhole. Hunter's eyes saw nothing for an instant, then accustomed themselves to the lack of illumination. He went down the ladder slowly, looking for tripwires or other similar devices, while his left hand reached for his hip satchel and retrieved a common stone. Carefully he let it fall. The rock hit the concrete, the echoes reverberating loudly...
...and nothing else.
If there was someone there, he had already heard them coming and would not be distracted by a simple stone.
Or maybe there was no one there at all.
Again his left hand went to his hip satchel, to produce a wickedly sharp-looking throwing knife this time. Then, like a cat, he let himself fall down, landed on all fours, and rolled over to a side, taking cover between some of the debris that blocked the tunnel.
And still, no one fired upon him.
Throwing knife in hand, he advanced in utmost silence, the grating of a worn emergency rotating light filling the tunnel, his senses sharpened and primed, his whole body coiled in tension like a snake poised to strike. He made it to the end of the tunnel, where an opening in the wall led to a small staircase; he caught the bubbling, sparkling and hissing of many anomalies...
Again he probed for sentinels. He picked up a piece of debris from the floor and hurled it through the opening in the wall, over the stairs. It landed on one of the steps with a loud metallic noise.
And, this time, there was a response. The echo of a low, grumbling, distant gurgling noise.
He judged he had seen enough by now and returned to the ladder; he climbed up and tapped the lid four times with the butt of the throwing knife. Immediately it was shoved aside by Ogre. Hunter gestured them to come down and be silent.
The silent stalker waited not for them all to come down. He retraced his steps and went again to the stairs; he strained himself to hear, but his efforts were spoiled by the shuffling of his fellows as they entered the tunnel one by one. With an open hand he gestured for them to wait; he undid a knot under his ghillie suit, cast it aside, and drew his sword. Blackjack noticed that, besides the ninja-like sword tied to his back, another blade was sheathed, handle-down, over his chest; the man's clothes were a haphazard mixture of tactical vests, standard-issue flak jackets and bulletproof armors, but all of them had been spray-painted to create a surprisingly effective forestry camouflage pattern. And despite their different nature, they seemed not just to fit, but to belong in that arrangement.
Full of guile and completely in tune with his surroundings, Hunter went down the stairs so skillfully that the old iron steps not once groaned at his weight. The room was rectangular, housing some kind of machine that had been long rendered useless by several chemical anomalies; there were three exits, one of them almost directly opposite to him, the other on the same wall where the stairs were, a similar set of iron steps leading to another corridor. Acidic fumes stung his eyes lightly, but his nostrils felt nothing, plugged via breathing tubes to a self-made purifier on his backpack.
He felt its hunger, its bloodlust rising as it recognized the familiar smells of leather, cloth, sweat, and flesh, its powerful muscles tensing in anticipation. Prey.
Do not, he whispered into its mind. They are not the enemy. They are not your prey.
It let out a surprised groan, startled at the strangely familiar noises in its head. A part of its mind long asleep slowly put the words together and flashed in understanding.
But then an overpowering command overrode both his voice and its nascent awareness. HUNT! KILL! DEVOUR!
A mighty roar echoed somewhere below him. Then, heavy feet stomping on iron. Something climbing some stairs he could not see.
Swiftly, Hunter went over to the adjacent room, and saw a doorway poorly lit by a single dusty lamp, and the stairs.
Some formless shape, barely distinguishable, slowly climbed up the last few paces. Then it froze. He felt it looking at him, searching him, measuring him. The stench of stale blood was so powerful that he could perceive it even behind his mask and rebreather.
But the tall, silent stalker waited. A small spark blossomed within him. Excitement at the encounter.
Then the presence bellowed a snarl and charged. A ghastly clawed hand lunged for his throat, but Hunter parried the blow with his sword, edge-first. The blade bit through the leathery skin and blood spilled; the bloodsucker screeched and withdrew, its cloak now ruined by the dripping wound on its left hand. The monster again measured him, full of caution. This prey had teeth. Its death would be quite satisfactory.
Again, with motions so fast they looked like a blur, the bloodsucker lunged ahead, to seize the prey and slam it to the ground and squeeze the life out of it. But the prey suddenly was no longer there. And then a burning pain seared over its leg, melting through the skin and into the wiry meat; with another acute screech it retreated, limping over the wounded leg, and again regarded its prey; it was still, its eyes fixated upon its own, its whole body poised for defense, its long, black claw dripping with blood, its stench filling the beast's nostrils. But it was not an intoxicating smell. It was a frightening one.
With a powerful roar the mutant again lurched on, the smell of blood driving it into a berserker frenzy, the pain of its wounds panicking it. Again the long black claw met its own, but this time the beast ignored the blaze that ignited on its palms and grasped it with both hands, trying to shatter the claw, its prey's defense – but the claw was much too sharp, the blaze a blaring warning that its bite was too deep. A third time it withdrew screeching, but now the prey followed, and struck. The beast only could raise an arm in defense to block the claw. But the arm was sent flying, and blood spurted out of the stump as through a hose. The pain was blinding. The creature gurgled horribly for a brief instant, frozen still into place, and then the black claw tore a deep gash on its neck.
Then there was nothing more.
Hunter took a single, deep breath and, with another slash, cut the bloodsucker's head off. The bestial eyes regarded him for a second, sparkled with another instant with human-like agony, then darkened over.
Only then did he notice that he had his back to the archway leading to the room with the bubbling anomalies, and that eyes had been watching him all along. Blackjack, Mystery, and Ogre. They all were speechless, utterly flabbergasted at what just had transpired before them.
“Al... Alexei...? Alexei...?” The voice was hesitant, as if its owner could not fully yet trust whom he talked to, but neither could stand by and watch unconcernedly. “What happened?”
The headache was overpowering and sapped him of all his strength. The youth let himself be dragged and laid over the mattress by the elderly stalker. “We... I cannot override its influence. Not yet. I tried, but it's very powerful.”
“He did *WHAT*?!” Screws stared at Hunter, his mouth open wide in astonishment.
“He killed a bloodsucker in hand-to-hand combat.” Blackjack's voice was tinged with admiration. “And he doesn't even have a scratch. I have never seen such skill. Where did you learn?”
The silent stalker shrugged as usual as he cleansed the beast's feelers and prepared them for storage, but noticed Maxim's eyes would not divert off him as usual. “Many places. I've studied many forms of combat. Sambo, ninjutsu, aikido, kung-fu, brazilian capoeira, several wrestling arts... and these are the latest I've studied. I've learned about it more than I care to remember.” He shook his head.
“So that sword is a ninja sword?” Sataida asked. “Also, that mask... it kind of fits, somehow. Makes you look like a camouflaged ninja.”
Hunter smirked at her naiveté. “It's not a true ninja sword. It handles differently. And the cross-guard is not like that of a ninja-to, either.”
Nikolay's eyes glittered. “I suppose it takes a long time to get such a skill.”
Another shrug. “Not only training, but usage as well. Skill is useless without experience to test it.”
Ogre nodded in agreement. “What else have you found around?”
Hunter shoved a rucksack over the floor towards him. “The bandits stashed this away.” He looked every which way, looking for his prisoner, and found him handcuffed to the ladder, still unconscious.
The giant ruffled through the sack. Cigarette packs, food, some ammo... and a large package weighing roughly a kilo, tightly wrapped and secured with heavy-duty adhesive tape. Ogre held it in his hand and showed it to everyone.
Nikolay recognized that. He had seen that occasionally within the walls of the correctional at Kiev. “Drugs...”
"The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion... and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself - ultimate cost for perfect value."
- Heinlein, Robert - "Starship Troopers"