Ranma bolted upward, sweat drenching his body in a riddling of clear granules. Suddenly the world was spinning like a carnival ride and without even realizing it he dropped backwards, bumping his head against the hard surface of whatever it was he was laying upon, gasping for air and finding how refreshing it was to actually breathe.
What had HAPPENED?! Everything was so cold, it felt as though the blood in his veins had frozen solid. And why was it so hard for him to see? Almost everything was black, although the vague impression of small beams of light could be seen cracking along the walls.
Walls? Ranma tried to sit straight once more, slower this time to keep from passing out, and once fully upright he was able to look about. The room he was in was practically pitch black except for the thick mist flowing along the floor, glowing eerily from the thin stream of light emanating under the door. Ranma looked under himself and noticed that he had been laying on a hard block of metal standing four-feet off the ground.
Chattering his teeth and rubbing his hands together for warmth Ranma tried to recall how he got... here. There was the fight with the alien, everyone had been beaten except himself, he tried to use a chi-blast, and...
Ranma, panicky, quickly felt himself over for injury and was somewhat surprised to find a set of breasts on his body; strange, he didn't recall transforming into his female-self, although there HAD been water present just before the darkness had set in. Ranma-chan ignored her altered state and felt around the stomach area. A tight bandage of some sort, wrapped around her body and sealing the wounds that were present on her front and back. But simple bandaging wouldn't have been enough to keep her from dying, not with all the internal injuries she would have suffered from such a deep cut...
Someone had saved her life?
Ranma winced as she ran her fingers along the edges of the wounds on her back and front, still somewhat raw; she didn't want to think what kind of mess laid underneath the bandaging. The other bruises and lesions over her body still stung, and running her tongue along the inside of her mouth she noted that one of her molars was still missing. Finally, there were a few gashes across her forehead, but they for the most part had sealed themselves up.
"Jeeze I feel like a complete idiot," Ranma scolded herself quietly, holding her head in her hand. The little ghoul had been completely right about the monstrosity - it had taken out her father, Ryouga, Mr. Tendo, Shampoo, Ukyou, Mousse, and herself in no time at all, even with their combined skill and training. There was no telling what it had done to them after she had passed out...
What about AKANE?!
Ranma slid herself off the table, grimacing as she turned her body, and tried to open the door. There didn't seem to be any handle or doorknob present, so she crouched down and took a hold of the ajar portion at the bottom, pulling upward. The door was incredibly heavy, and her body was barely in any condition to lift the huge thing, but with a little effort she was able to get it high enough to crawl out. As she squirmed through the space she had created for herself Ranma quickly noticed that her right arm was functional once more; a nasty scar was carved into her shoulder where the blade had struck, but at least her joint had been reset and other than some mild aching there was nothing wrong with it.
Where in the world-? This certainly wasn't like any hospital Ranma had ever been in: the walls were embroidered with intricate patterns that reminded her of insect shells, a bronze-like luster shimmering across its curved surface. The mist across the ground was much thicker than in the room she had been in previously, a series of hidden lights in the ceiling and on the floor giving a deep-orange hue to everything in sight, although still not providing much in the way of illumination. The long hallway stretching out before her was as humid as the little room, and Ranma quickly noticed that the cold she had felt before was that of her own body; the actual structure was quite warm, almost jungle-like.
Looking about carefully, she walked down the corridor, hoping not to have a run-in with anything... undesirable. It was kind of embarrassing, walking around in female form without a shirt, but modesty was not a concern at the moment. The air was thick and soupy, almost unfit for breathing. A dull thudding sound resonated along the walls at regular intervals, the sharp hiss of an air vent spraying into the tunnel cutting the monotonous beat. Ranma kept an ear sharply tuned for any sound of motion as she crept alongside the wall, but heard nothing except her own footsteps swishing through the mists below.
A large chamber stood before her, hemispherical in shape with the same patterns on its walls as in the corridor. Placed about in a diamond configuration were four tall, thick monolith-style panels, spaced apart widely and engraved with a number of strange emblems and symbols, and on the ceiling was a dome-shaped skylight, radiating the same sickly glow of orange that pervaded across the rest of the room. Ranma looked at one of the monoliths carefully, trying to figure out if it served any purpose and unable to make heads or tails of the thing.
Something caught her eye, an open enclave placed within the chamber wall. There was no light emanating from it as whatever was inside was buried deep enough within to be lost in shadows, yet Ranma could discern something there, the faint reflection of the ceiling lights off of a shiny surface. Ranma rounded the panel she was examining and walked towards it slowly.
A light blinked on as Ranma got within a few feet. The sight within made her heart skip a beat in fright, it was all she could do not to yelp out in shock.
She had found the alien's 'trophy case'.
The grisly light in the mini-chamber cast a bright glow over the rows of skulls lining the wall, making them look rather supernatural as they leered back at her with empty black sockets. Ranma-chan looked at each one in morbid fascination - all were professionally polished to a glistening white, hung from the wall by hooks or propped up on individual stands. Ranma had never before seen skulls like these in her life, probably animals or even people from other planets that this 'predator' had decided to hunt down and kill; a few of them were minorly damaged, a jagged hole in the cranium or perhaps a missing tooth blemishing an otherwise perfect trophy.
There was one shape that Ranma DID recognize however. She walked up to the small human skull adorning a pike and fingered it carefully, tracing the contour of the ridge above the eyehole and down where the cheek would have been. Suddenly Ranma was overcome with total anguish as she looked it, a terrible fear running through her body. She looked at the skull some more, her trembling growing stronger the longer she stared at it, until she couldn't keep herself standing anymore and fell to her knees. Tears began to pour from her eyes, her nose began to run a little, and an uncontrollable sobbing heaved from her chest. Ranma chided herself for being so unmanly and crying like a child, but she really didn't feel like being very manly at this moment. She buried her face in her hands and began to cry.
Was this Akane's fate? To be decapitated and displayed for the whole world to see? Like some science project or the grand display at a hunting lodge? And it was all Ranma's fault, for being so stubborn and pig-headed and over-confident, for not listening to well-spoken advice, for blazing in like some idiotic cowboy. It was all her fault. She had always meant to treat Akane better, perhaps even tell her what she really felt about her, but now she would never have the chance. No more chances at all...
Ranma opened her eyes and looked upward at the skull in front of her, unsure of what she just heard. Her mind was playing tricks on her now. Good, it would serve her right if she was tortured for the rest of her life with Akane's voice ringing in her ears.
It was Akane's voice, alright, clear as day.
"I'm sorry," Ranma pleaded to the skull before her, "I'm sorry for being such a jerk to you all that time. Please forgive me."
"What are you babbling about?"
Amazing, Akane's indelicate tone even carried from beyond the grave. Well, if she wanted to be that way Ranma wouldn't contest her this time. She could say whatever she wanted without argument.
"Akane," Ranma started, becoming more sorrowful with each moment she spoke, "I know I treated you so rottenly all that time, and I won't blame you if you think I'm an idiot for acting so stupid-" She cleared her throat, trying to keep talking without choking. "But for whatever it's worth now..." Ranma's voice almost became a whisper, "I really cared about you."
There was just silence for a moment. Ranma's eyes burned a little as the tears kept coming, and she hoped that Akane had heard her last statement, wherever she had gone.
The silence was broken. "Thank you, Ranma. I care about you, too. Now, WILL YOU PLEASE UNTIE ME?"
An awfully strange request for the dead to make... And now that she thought about it Ranma could swear the voice was coming from behind her. Unable to repress a nagging urge to satisfy her curiosity she turned around to see Akane looking back at her annoyedly, arms and legs latched onto the back of the monolith she had been examining the moment before.
She was still ALIVE! A bit bruised and fatigued from the rigors of the evening, but alive nonetheless! As quickly as she could Ranma jumped up and tore the shackles off of Akane's limbs. The second she was free the two hugged each other tightly.
"I thought you were DEAD!" exclaimed Akane as she gripped Ranma.
"ME? I thought YOU were dead!" was her response.
After a moment in each other's arms, the two let go, blushing a bit as they realized how they were positioned.\ Ranma wiped away the tears from her eyes, somewhat embarrassed at the spectacle she had made of herself a short while before. Akane must have noticed this, and Ranma was thankful that she didn't start rubbing it in.
A quick change of subject was needed. "Where are we?"
Akane rubbed her wrists. "I'm not really sure. This entire evening's been such a daze, I can barely remember anything that's happened to us up to now. I think we're at that thing's... home."
Ranma quickly panicked. "Good grief, I HOPE not! Shampoo's grandmother told us this thing was from outer space!"
Akane blinked unbelievingly at her red-haired fiance. "It's an ALIEN?" Certainly not the explanation she had expected. But now that she thought about it that would certainly explain a lot... "Well, if it IS from another planet I don't think we've taken off or anything like that. After all, it seemed so determined to find you..."
"Find me? I thought it already did that."
Akane shook her head. "No, no, it found your GIRL-self, but it doesn't know that you two are the same person."
So THAT's why she was bandaged up. The monster must have thought it stabbed the wrong person and out of guilt or whatever it stitched her back together. "And what about Pop?"
"Same thing: it didn't know he was the panda. I poured some water on Shampoo and turned her into the cat, and the monster didn't recognize her either."
Ranma rubbed her head unbelievably. "Wow, I never thought my curse would actually save my life." Then another question came to mind, one which Ranma was almost afraid to ask. "What about your dad?"
Akane knit her brow in thought. "That was the strange part... I didn't have time to hide him anywhere, so I put him in the clothes drier. The monster found me in the laundry closet, and I was pretty sure that when it opened and searched the drier it would find father as well, but for some reason it didn't see him. Even when it was looking right at him!"
"Now that IS pretty weird... Was there anything in the drier?"
"Just a bunch of clothes. And they weren't even covering him..."
Ranma pursed her lips; this information might prove useful. "At least everyone's safe," she commented.
"Not everyone," Akane said worriedly, "I never saw what happened to Ryouga-kun..."
Ranma cocked an eyebrow in annoyance; Ryouga had turned into P-Chan last she saw him and was perfectly safe. Honestly, how long would this stupid fiasco take place? For a second Ranma considered letting Akane know exactly what happened to him, then decided against it - after all, there was still a chance they'd get out this whole mess alive, and if she found out she'd probably kill Ryouga when she found him, then kill Ranma for knowing about it and not telling her. "Don't worry," said Ranma, "I'm pretty sure Ryouga made it out of the house safely."
"How would you kn-?"
"Just trust me," Ranma interrupted, not wanting to go any further with the subject. So everyone was safe for the time being... Well, ALMOST everyone. "Akane, why are YOU here?"
Akane just shrugged in response. "I don't know. It just picked us both up and before I knew it I was strapped to that wall."
That was weird... Yet another thing they would have to worry about that later, she supposed. "Come on, let's get out of here."
The two headed down the long corridor opposite the one Ranma had entered in, carefully skulking along the walls in the hopes of avoiding detection. If this WAS the monster's base of operations it could practically be anywhere inside it, invisible or not. The two continued to sneak as silently as possible for what seemed like miles of hallway, jumping with a start each time steam decided to vent itself from the wall, each time something made an unexpected THUMP, each time a mysterious creak came from the floor.
Then Ranma saw it, about ten meters up the hall. An OPENING! Beyond lay darkness leading to who-knew-what, but at least it was an exit of some sort, no more insect-pattern walls or ominous orange lights visible. Amazing, all they had to do was simply walk out?
Experience had taught her better. The amount of effort that the monster had put into tracking and hunting everyone this night was more than enough proof that it wasn't going to be so easy. Akane came around the corner just behind Ranma and immediately noticed the egress as well.
"An EXI-" Ranma quickly clasped her hand over Akane's mouth and put a
finger over her own.
"Ssh! Yes, I know it's an exit," she whispered.
Akane removed Ranma's hand and whispered back. "So let's get out of here."
"You don't really think that thing's just going to let us leave, do you?" Ranma looked at the open door carefully. "No, it's got something in mind..." Ranma put up a hand, directing Akane to stay in her place while she searched ahead. Slowly she made step after step towards the door, the ground giving the impression of a rough metal grating to her bare feet; amusingly enough, she had to admit that the mists roiling silently along the floor of the structure was kind of cozy, almost like walking on an extremely thick carpet. Each step brought her a little closer to the door, although her snail's pace speed made the trek feel like it was taking years. Ranma kept her eyes (along with every one of her other senses) peeled carefully for ANYTHING, no matter how insignificant, and to her relief and complete surprise, there didn't seem to be anything out there.
Without contention Ranma-chan reached the doorway and looked out, keeping her back to the wall as she peered through the aperture. The air around the exit was cold as the night had been before, although no wind could be felt. Ranma squinted and tried to make out shapes in the darkness but it was taking her eyes a little while to adjust from the bright interior of the structure to the shadows of outside. A dull rumbling sound, louder than the constant thudding that resounded within the alien structure, could be heard from all directions with a reverberating quality that gave it the impression of echoing, accompanied by what sounded like metal screeching upon metal. Ranma looked back at Akane and checking around once more to make sure that nothing was out of the ordinary she waved her over. As carefully as she could Akane walked to her, trying to be equally as vigilant. She was almost at the door, only five-feet from Ranma when the mists along the ground began to churn about energetically. And out of the thick soup of clouds burst an enormous distortion, standing seven-feet-tall and looking down upon her like a bug in a jar.
THIS was unexpected. Allowing the injured human female to leave was originally planned; after all, she had no purpose in its Hunt, but the Predator hadn't anticipated that she would attempt to escape with the other female. It would have to hurry and restrain the Bait once more before the Prey arrived to retrieve her or else the entire plan would go to waste.
Ranma couldn't believe it. The damn thing was laying down on the ground right in front of them, invisible and completely silent! Akane was equally shocked at the sudden appearance of the beast, her mind suddenly numbing from the immeasurable scare she felt. She noticed her knees begin to buckle under her and beads of sweat could be sensed rolling down her forehead, her mind screaming at her, telling her to run like hell. But the exit was so close. If she ran away now she'd never make it back home. The monster moved forward and began to reach for her. Forget fear! Heck, forget all logical thinking, just go through the damn monster!
To Ranma's surprise Akane bolted straight at the distortion in a fury, crashing right into it and only succeeding in knocking herself to the ground hard. The monster staggered back a little at the amount of force she used, but that was it, no other damage. It was still enough for Ranma to act. The alien was too enthralled with Akane to even pay attention to her, not even giving Ranma-chan a glance from its invisible face, a mistake she decided to take full advantage of. As the creature was rapidly regaining its footing Ranma leaped onto its back and grappled its neck with her arms, then slammed her feet into where she hoped would be the back of its knees. As the legs reflexively fell to a kneeling position the rest of the mess upward went toppling backward and crashed to the ground, its body arced as the inflexibility of its back tried to compensate for the strain put on its neck and legs. The beast yelled out loudly at the sharp pain it must have felt all across its body. Ranma-chan, safe under the upward-bent back, released her grip and rolled out quickly, trying to avoid whatever retaliation the monster was undoubtedly planning.
"Akane! Are you okay?!" she cried out as she quickly got to her fiance's side. Without answering Akane tried to get up using Ranma's shoulder as a brace, but Ranma decided she was moving much too slowly for the danger they were in and hoisted Akane over her shoulder. "Hold on!" The monster slid its legs out from under it and was able to begin pushing itself up when Ranma ran over it, kicking it in the gut and she passed, and flew out the exit at full speed, Akane holding onto her tightly as per instructed.
The lighting was weak but still bright enough to tell Ranma exactly where they were; the rumbling and the sounds of scraping metal, as well as the chill of the night making complete sense now. "Jeeze, it's living in the Tokyo subway system!" she exclaimed as she leaped down from the exit to the ground ten-feet below and continued to run. The area they were in looked as though it hadn't been used for years, dirt and grime covering what once were operational lanes of track, but the intensity of the clatter made by trains said that they weren't too far away from civilization.
A gasp escaped Akane's lips as she peered behind them. "Ranma, LOOK!" Ranma turned her head to catch a quick glimpse and was completely awestruck; a huge vessel, about the size of the Tendo house and shaped like a stealth bomber was comfortably nestled within the vacant tunnel. Its surface looked much like the armor the alien had worn and had the same insect-like surface texture of the ship's interior. Protruding from the side they had exited was a trio of long cylinders, probably exhaust jets for the ship, and the forward crest of the vehicle was laden with spikes and huge barbs, making it appear as ominous and threatening as the alien itself.
"Holy shit, a space ship..."Ranma's revel was immediately cut short with the sound of heavy feet scuffing upon the ground next to the ship. Ranma spent a second trying to focus her eyes to the spot but the area was too dark; if it had been hard to see before the alien would become completely invisible in the darkness of the tunnels.
The human females bolted off down one of the long tunnels towards the strongest source of noise, probably in the hopes of losing it amidst others of their kind. This was INTOLERABLE! If the Prey escaped the Hunter would have to seek out the primary Target all over again, and now there was that other female to deal with. The Predator admonished itself for coming to her aid, vowing to punish her when the time came... Pushing off the ground with vigor the Predator leaped forward and burst towards the two, a trail of upturned dirt flying behind it each time its feet slammed to the surface.
It was so close. Ranma could hear its growling yards behind them, although her own running jostled her enough to keep her from knowing if it was gaining or not. Under normal circumstances she could probably outrun the thing, but Akane's extra weight compounded with the stinging of her still-knitting wounds were slowing her down considerably. The increasing darkness of the tunnels wasn't helping any, either. Dammit, Ranma hated running from a fight! But if she stayed to press the attack there was a chance that Akane would be hurt, so her first priority would have to be getting her to safety. Besides, she didn't feel like getting in one-on-one with that thing just yet...
"Akane!" Ranma called out, the stale air whipping over her face, "Can you see that thing?! How far back is it?!"
Akane, bouncing a bit off Ranma's shoulder and facing the other way, squinted as much as she could but the tunnels had grown nearly pitch black, much too dark to see anything. "No!" she responded. "Do you know where you're going?!"
"Not a clue!" yelled Ranma, "But there's a dim light a ways up ahead and a lot of noise! We might be getting near a terminal!"
Sure enough, a pinpoint of light laid a quarter-of-a- kilometer before them down the large tunnel, the only source of light in the surrounding pitch-blackness. The pitter-patter of Ranma's feet in the thick dirt and muck of the ground echoed from the walls, coupled by the rising volume of her rapid breathing, and on each landing of the foot a grunt would escape her lips. It was obvious to Akane that despite Ranma's tremendous physical endurance she was already pressing her limits just by running; there'd be no way Ranma could win if it boiled down to a fight. And Akane knew that it almost certainly would...
Another day, another yen... Mr. Ota Kabushiki rubbed his eyes wearily and quickly gazed at the dozens of commuters ready to start another day of work, stifling a yawn as he looked from face to tired face. Lemmings. It was like looking at hordes of lemmings, preparing to take a plunge from a cliff into the icy depths, and here he was standing on the edge and looking at the tracks below. Fortunately, however, a long metal subway would eventually fill the void before them and whisk everyone on their way to safety; well, as safe as working on the floor of the Nikkei could be... Ota took a short glance at his watch before trying to shove his arm back down to his side. Good grief, it wasn't even 6:00 in the morning yet and as per usual the subway depot was packed person-to-person, barely enough room to breathe much less stand comfortably. He was beginning to have enough of this stagnant and deplorable routine, day in and day out packing in the cold underground with others of his ilk like a bunch of sardines, only to end up going through the exact same routine to go home in the evening. And so it would happen tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, and the d-
Mr. Kabushiki's subway-train of thought was cut short as he caught a glimpse of something coming down the far south-eastern tunnel; strange, he'd thought that track hadn't been in service since they updated the rail-system. He craned his neck a little to try and get a better view, but others had also noticed the motion and were stretching to look down the dark tunnel. Perhaps if he shoved a little...
"OUTTA THE WAY!" A blur of pink and red flashed before his eyes, followed by the force of a speeding truck.
Before she knew it Ranma had reached the light, hit open-air, and crashed headfirst into the throngs of people standing at the subway platform. Akane went flying from her grip and people went tumbling left and right, and after rolling across most of them Ranma finally stopped moving. Without even giving herself a chance to breathe Ranma pulled herself to her feet and whirled about quickly. "AKANE!" she yelled out desperately, "AKANE! Where ARE you?!" The swarm of commuters were flocking around her, gawking shamelessly at her half-naked body and blocking any view Ranma may have had.
"I'm okay!" came a little ways ahead. After a little pushing and shoving Ranma was able to get a glimpse of Akane picking herself off the crowd five yards ahead, near the staircase leading out of the terminus. Ranma was about to force her way through the crowd when a sudden series of screams and yells came from behind her. Ranma bolted around...
...and received a tremendous blow to the head as a huge, distorted fist slammed her across the face, knocking her through the surrounding masses into the far concrete wall.
Humans were fleeing in all directions from it, bellowing and making all sorts of noise as they ran. All the better, at least they were leaving an open path to the Prey. The injured female had given quite a chase, an entertaining one at that, but would have to be of secondary concern: the Bait must be apprehended first. Then the other female's head could be taken.
Stars flashed before her eyes as Ranma frantically tried to get back on her feet. The pain in her head was tremendous, it was an absolute wonder that she hadn't blacked out yet. With effort Ranma-chan stood up, back against the wall. The crowds were all but gone, vanishing through the exit, some even disappearing down the subway tunnels. A few stragglers lingered behind, watching the nearly invisible seven-foot mass squaring off against Akane as though it were a television drama.
"HEY, YOU BIG BASTARD! LOOK AT ME!" Ranma waved her arms about trying to distract the creature's attention, but it apparently was totally unconcerned with her. Ranma staggered a bit, hoping to be able to get into a position of attack, but on her first step she nearly fell over, bracing herself against the wall once more.
The injured female called out a number of times, whether the cat-calls were directed towards the Prey or itself the Predator wasn't sure. Actually, it simply didn't care. The only concern was getting the Quarry, and her wounds from the night hadn't had enough time to heal, making her an easy catch. The two circled one another.
Ranma looked at the one-sided match, helpless. The monster didn't give a damn about her, just Akane! No, wait. It didn't want Akane...
The Prey tried to throw a punch at it. The strike was obviously much too weak, the Predator didn't even bother to block it. Her fist struck feebly, bouncing lightly off its chest.
Akane was just bait. It wanted Ranma. The MALE Ranma.
The Hunter was a bit disappointed at the lack of struggle, but at least the Prey had provided a good Hunt earlier in the evening and wasn't a total loss. In a rather halfhearted motion the Predator took the woman's arm and prepared to casually drag her back to the ship.
Ranma quickly looked around the terminal and saw exactly what she needed: a coffee dispenser. If it wanted the male Ranma...
"HEY UGLY! OVER HERE!"
Now that the Prey was in hand the Predator could afford to pay some attention to the other female, attention which for some reason she plainly desired. It looked at her carefully as she stood defiantly in the vacated area, bracing herself on a large rectangular machine of some sort. Her muscles were tense, her heartbeat rapid; she was planning something.
"YOU WANTED ME?! WELL HERE YOU GO!"
Ranma-chan's fist plowed into the coffee machine at her side, smashing through the plastic covering and into the main dispenser. The hot-water container within exploded, and scalding coffee sprayed out.
When the female had first made its move the Predator prepared to leap forward and take her by the neck, getting in a quick, clean kill if possible. But to its surprise her assault wasn't directed towards it. The machine was violated. Its contents burst out, a liquid that registered white on its infrared vision. The female was drenched... And it understood.
Ranma-male stood there, hot fluids running down his body. The stinging heat was a godsend, immediately waking him out of his groggy state and redirecting his attention from the pangs coming from within his body. Well, it wasn't going to need Akane anymore.
The primary target. It had the primary target in its hand all that time and it never even realized... The Hunter was furious. It had been duped into rescuing and harboring the very being it sought out. This was complete and total humiliation. This was unforgivable. The Trophy no longer mattered to it. All that it cared about now was seeing the Target DEAD.
This was bad. Ranma couldn't actually see the beast's features but something about its whole demeanor had definitely changed. It seemed a lot meaner. The ominous staccato-growl of the beast grew from beneath its helmet, immediately followed by the CHING of razor-sharp claws springing from the distortion making up its left wrist. With a flick of its arm, Akane was thrown from its hand and tossed angrily aside, sliding across the ground and rolling to a stop a number of yards away.
The beast bolted at Ranma, a horrendous roar denoting its rage in full. Ranma had less than a second to tear his attention away from Akane, strengthen his hold on the coffee machine's inner workings, and swing the whole mess around him. In a rain of plastic, metal, and glass the machine smashed into the alien and both it and the coffee dispenser went flying backwards and over the subway platform onto the tracks a couple of yards below.
"Hurry, we don't have a lot of time!" Akane grabbed Ranma's arm and the two made for the exit, sprinting up the stairs as quickly as possible. Commuters watched the twosome curiously as they ran through the well-lit terminal and up the second flight of stairs into the light and noise beyond. The first thing Ranma and Akane noticed was the sudden burst of wind blowing across their faces. It was practically freezing outside, the newly-risen sun not having enough time to warm the morning air. Not a single cloud floated in the brilliant azure sky, although what view they had was obstructed by the vast number of buildings standing tall in the Tokyo skyline, casting huge shadows to the ground below.
The second thing they noticed was the overabundance of noise. The working day was beginning, and as was common in Tokyo the streets were packed bumper-to-bumper with honking, screeching cars and chattering pedestrians.
"Good grief, it's already morning?!" exclaimed Akane. "How long have we been out?"
"Let's worry about that later, okay?! Just keep running!" Ranma took Akane's hand and sprinted out of the subway entrance, shoving through crowds of aggravated pedestrians and weaving a makeshift bee-line away from the source of danger. Unfortunately, the source of danger was back on their trail and getting closer very fast.
The Predator emerged from the hole in the ground and looked about; although the number of heat signatures in the area increased exponentially following the Prey would require little effort. There, several yards running away from the Hunter's position, the Quarry and his mate. Their flight was pointless, the throngs of humans around them were slowing them down too much. The Hunter, still hidden to the eye, leaped to the swarm of primitive metal conveyances and began to make its way to the twosome, bounding from vehicle to vehicle.
Shouts of confusion and fear were followed by the sound of bending metal and shattering glass came from behind them. Akane was tempted to look back and catch a glimpse of the monster's position, but knew that when plowing through so many people it was somewhat wiser to keep an eye on the ground before you. Ranma's breathing had become much harder since the chase in the tunnel, and to Akane's uneasiness it hadn't slowed down his running performance; if he kept this up he would burn himself out in only a few minutes. Where was he leading her, anyway?!
"Ranma, where are we go-?"
"This looks about right," interrupted Ranma. "Sorry 'bout this, but it's for your own good. Oh, and try to hold your breath..."
Before Akane knew it Ranma grabbed her by the sweater, and suddenly the world went from annoyingly chilly to a strong cold wind to all-encompassing freezing.
Noise from all directions, so many heat sources in its field of vision, but the Prey was still within sight, fleeing impending death at the hands of the Hunter. They were doing an excellent job of weaving through the hordes of humans, but the Predator had the higher ground, running across the roofs of the vehicles and was quickly gaining ground. What the-? One of the heat sources, that of the human female... It was gone?! The Hunter, still jumping from vehicle-to-vehicle, looked carefully at where it had seen her last. Nothing. To its own surprise the Predator resigned it as yet another loss to add to the already-humiliating Hunt. It couldn't afford the time to track her down despite the overwhelming desire to tear her in half, the main Target was still winding his way down the street and there would be no way the Hunter would allow him to escape its sight as well. Besides, if she shared her mate's shape-changing abilities there would be no way to find her in the clutter of this city.
Take the Hibiya-Dori Avenue exit, he had told himself, it'll get him to Expressway Five much faster than using back roads. Tofu sat in his car and sighed once more, staring at the car parked less than a foot in front of him with what could be described as a horrendous case of the doldrums mixed in with a tremendous case of apprehension. Traffic hadn't moved for fifteen minutes, and at this rate, it would be at least another hour and a half before he'd be back in Nerima.
The preceding night was truly a fight. First Ukyou, and then to his surprise the paramedics had wheeled in Mousse half-an-hour later. Both had sustained terrible injuries accompanied by considerable loss of blood, and to Tofu's disappointment his role in the O.R. was restricted to consulting the doctors since he lacked the surgical skills necessary to help. Almost six hours of doing nothing but consulting and watching...
But in the end it worked out. Both Ukyou and Mousse made it through the night and were more-or-less in one piece, out cold but stable. And now he was stuck in the thick of Tokyo traffic, moving at the blinding speed of a tortoise and unable to convey the good news on their conditions. It would have alleviated some worry if someone had picked up the phone when he had called from the hospital, but for reasons unknown, no one lifted the line at the Tendo residence or the Nekohanten. Through his open car-window sounds of commotion could be heard coming from the sidewalks crowd to his left. Tofu stuck his head out the window, curious to see what all the ruckus was about.
"RANMA?" Yes, there was no mistaking it, Ranma was barreling down the sidewalk, desperately pushing and elbowing his way through the morning crowd. A worn mien covered his face, his body completely soaked in sweat; what was he doing here? And why was he shirtless and wearing all those bandages? "YYAAAHH!" Tofu inadvertently called out in surprise as the roof of his car caved in, soon followed by the roof of the car before him, and so on. Tofu wiped what was left of his front window off the dashboard and scrambled to get a glance of the street ahead, trying to figure out what the heck that was and seeing nothing. Well, he thought he saw something, but it was more of a blur than anything. Whatever the blur was it was moving from car to car, smashing roofs all along the way and heading in the same direction as Ranma; or was it moving towards Ranma?
The door on the other side of Tofu's car was suddenly yanked open, and to his bewilderment, Akane slid into the seat next to him, bruised, battered, and completely drenched in water.
"H-hi, Doctor Tuh-Tofu," Akane interrupted, teeth chattering, "Th-this is going to t-t-take a little exp-plaining..."
Ranma didn't have time to look back, but judging from the continuing clatter and shouts of surprise the thing was still on his tail. Good, that meant that it hadn't stopped to grab Akane and his gamble had worked. It was the only place available at the time that he could hide her in, and he was willing to bet that the alien wasn't going to stop and search around for her when Ranma was so close. Besides, if the creature could see perfectly fine in the dark but couldn't locate Mr. Tendo in a hot clothes drier, chances were that its vision was heat-sensitive and it wouldn't find Akane in a freezing-cold water fountain.
And now he was on his own, leaping over and through Tokyo's morning crowd in a desperate attempt to lose some extraterrestrial head-hunter who was probably only a couple of yards back now. He had to get out of the crowds and grab an open stretch of ground to run on. Through the corner of his eye, Ranma glimpsed a back-road behind a couple of buildings, one that was completely vacant and exactly what he was looking for. Ranma ignored the angry yells of the pedestrians as he roughly pushed his way through them and bolted down the back alley as fast as he could. Nuts, even without Akane around to weigh him down he was barely covering his average pace; his energy reserves were all but gone. Unfortunately, the monster had to continue following him or it might just decide to go back and search for Akane after all.
The sudden sound of heavy scuffing feet accompanied by a low growl about fifty yards behind him cleared his mind of that worry. Ranma continued to push himself, racing down the cold, damp service roads between the brick buildings. If he could just find someplace to hi-
Uh-oh. No more road. Standing before Ranma was a tall solid-brick wall, fifty-feet across and lined by other tall buildings casting foreboding shadows upon the sidestreet's grounds. The wall on his right had a metal service exit built into its back near the center of the T-shaped alley-intersection, and it didn't look as though it was locked. If Ranma could get to it before the alien appeared...
"Somewhere out here."
It was Mousse's voice, THAT Ranma had no doubt of, but Mousse was in the hospital and NOWHERE around here. This must have been what the old ghoul had been warning the group about earlier in the evening, about not trusting your senses... Okay, so not only was it invisible but it could also mimic sounds. Big deal.
"I'm not going to FALL for it, you big bastard!" Ranma yelled out at the top of his lungs to the morning air, "So you might as well come on out and we can get this stupid mess OVER WITH!"
Silence was his answer.
Ranma brought up his fists and looked around carefully at the wide-open space around him, seeing nothing. Not that he was expecting to, but it couldn't hurt. The monster had obviously decided that it was going to play with him a little before it decapitated him/ate him/whatever. Great, then the only reason it was giving him the extra time was so he could catch his breath, making him a more entertaining kill. For a second Ranma contemplated not fighting back; perhaps it would see him as 'not sporting enough' and leave him be... Nah, after what he had put it through that evening there was no way in Hell it would let him live. Besides, playing docile wasn't Ranma's style.
"Are yOu PrePARED to diE?"
Now THAT was scary. The monster had just spoken to him, and its voice - weird, as though different people were talking, their voices cut and pasted together to synthesize the words the alien had wanted.
"...answer." This time it had used Akane's voice.
"So it was a real question," Ranma said aloud. "Yeah, sure. But I'm not going down without a fight."
"Good..." Ukyou's voice responded.
It stepped around the corner of the alley, blocking any hope of escape. It was fully visible. Claws were extended on its right wrist. There was no way to tell if it had fully recovered from its wounds in the previous battles, but Ranma could see no evidence on it that said otherwise. It wasn't armed with anything else beyond its claws, and the time it had given Ranma wasn't enough to get much more than a quick breath or two: it seemed that while the monster wanted to have some fun in its horrific game by lessening its arsenal and giving Ranma some breathing room it wasn't willing to take any special chances. Ranma decided it was up to him to make the first move and burst off the ground towards the monster. All of its joints were protected with armor, so Ranma would have to hope that a punch to the gut would disorient it enough. The punch connected but lacked the power to do any significant harm to it. The alien grabbed his wrist and swinging him around its body flung him towards the brick wall with full force. Bracing himself for the impact Ranma landed on the building side feet-first and immediately rebounded at the beast.
"SHOOTING STAR KICK!"
Suddenly exploding in a blaze of chi-energy Ranma smashed into the monster, throwing it right off its feet with one of his most powerful kicks. The Predator yelled out loudly as the Prey flew forward at blinding speeds and drove his foot into its chest. The force of the kick was enough to throw it off its feet and propel it across the alleyway, smashing headlong into the wall at the other end of the T-intersection with astounding power.
The Prey was so strong, so powerful! He had to be admired, despite the hatred that still coursed through its veins of green. Hatred? It was an amusing feeling to be directed towards a lesser beast, but no creature before had left it with such mortification - after all, on all its previous Hunts the Predator had always come up with at least a couple of Trophies. This time there were none, and to make matters worse the loss had been the Hunter's fault when it failed to recognize the tricks that had been played upon its senses by the humans.
But this was not the time to be considering such matters. The Hunter was laying on the ground, woozy and out of breath from the attack, and the Prey would not allow such an opportunity to go to waste. Ah, and he wasn't. As it tried to get back to its feet the Hunter could see the reds and yellows of the Quarry grasping a metal rod he had found on the ground, preparing to use it as a weapon.
"Oh, man," Ranma said as he approached the prone monster, "I swear that if I get out of this alive I'm going to be MUCH nicer to Akane..." He completed that thought with a blow to the alien's head, utilizing the thick pipe from the alleyway floor. The monster dropped back to the ground with a grunt and Ranma drove the pipe into its helmet a second time. And a third. On the fourth try, the creature decided it had had enough and rolled out of the way, Ranma's pipe clanging off the concrete ground. The alien hunter got itself to its feet, suddenly towering over Ranma at its full seven-feet of height. It growled angrily at him, and to his dissatisfaction seemed to be completely undamaged.
Ranma desperately swung the pipe at the monster, a swing the beast promptly deflected with its claw. With a clatter half, the pipe fell to the ground, rolling across the ground and coming to a full stop at the base of a building. Just what he wanted. Grabbing the alien's moving arm Ranma threw his leg upward and slammed his knee into its chest, then sharply extended his leg and kicked it in the head. The monster staggered at the attack, then responded by punching Ranma in the head with its freehand. Blood filled his mouth and a couple more teeth were dislodged, but Ranma kept pressing forward and slammed his feet to the ground, spinning around and flipping over as quick as a flash. The beast was caught in the head by his legs and sent sprawling backwards into the wall once more, discharging bits of brick and cinderblock into the air.
"Well, this isn't going as bad as I thought it would," Ranma groggily though as he completed his flip by landing back-first on the hard ground. Whatever had been giving it all its strength from the night before must have at least died down a little. Maybe not.
The beast was standing over him, claws ready, and drove downward at his head. Ranma quickly rolled out of the way as the razor-sharp blades tore into the concrete, remaining totally undamaged as they crashed into the cement.
"HYYAAAA!" A pair of open-palms were thrown at its gut, causing it to stumble back coughing, an extremely odd sound to come from its throat. This was annoying, to say the least; all of the creature's vital points were armored - the joints, the groin, the head... Only the torso was bare, and it was so well conditioned that none of Ranma's attacks seemed to have any effect. To prove that point the monster quickly recovered from the strike and kicked at Ranma, the low WHOOSH of its leg narrowly missing him as he dropped back in a makeshift dodging technique.
"C'mon, you damn bastard! GO DOWN!" Ranma kicked at it as hard as he could. It caught his leg with both its hands as though the strike was nothing. And he couldn't budge it loose. Ranma's leg broke like a twig.
The Prey howled out in brutal anguish as the Hunter snapped his bone-in two, the sensation of his femur grating within its hands giving it immense satisfaction then drew him forward and punched him in the chest. The Prey fell back, the breath already vacated from his lungs from his previous outburst, but through some miracle, he had kept himself standing, hopping about on his still-functioning leg.
Lame, with no physical strength left in him, still plagued with injuries from the night passed...
Tears were streaming from Ranma's eyes as he fought to control the pain. His right leg dangled uselessly, fire ripping through his entire body alerting him that something was wrong. Dammit, he already KNEW something was wrong! He didn't need his body to tell him anymore. Blood dripped all over him, and with every breath came a gurgly rasp. What worried Ranma the most was that the area under his bandaging was becoming red-soaked; all the strain he had put himself through had undone whatever surgical wonders the alien had performed for him. The monster punched at him again, and again, and again, and Ranma went to the ground in a heap.
Everly tenacious Ranma tried to push himself up once more. This time his arms refused to oblige. "Oh come on," he thought to himself, "Work! My life is at stake here!" His arms answered with a calm no. The alien stood a couple of yards away from him, popping its knuckles in self-satisfaction; every pop sounded like the rending of a tree trunk within its thick brawny hands. It began to step towards him. A chance to breathe. All Ranma wanted now was a chance to get a little air into his lungs.
The Predator was finally going to bring this Hunt to a close. It wasn't sure if a feeling of glee or just plain satisfaction was the appropriate sensation here, but after going through this mess and coming out on top one of the two was definitely in order. What was that? The sound of screeching, and-
An incredible force caught it unawares and the ground was suddenly, painfully lifted out from the under it in the form of a white blur. The sound had surprised both Ranma and the alien. Apparently, however, it caught the alien off guard more.
A white Subaru appeared out of nowhere and plowed into the monster at about sixty miles-an-hour. And then the monster plowed into the brick wall, immediately followed by the Subaru. Rending metal and shattering glass were heard as the vehicle was quickly brought to a full stop. Had someone come to his rescue? No matter, at least now Ranma had his chance to breathe. And as he used this opportunity in full he looked up and caught a glimpse of his saviors.
"Aaah! My car!"
"RANMA! Ranma, are you okay?!"
Akane and Doctor Tofu climbed out/staggered from the car, pushing aside the air bags that had saved them from going through the vacant front window, and ran over to Ranma's side.
"Good grief, Ranma-kun!" exclaimed Tofu, "What the heck happened to you?!"
"I-it's going to... going to take a little while t-to explain," Ranma stammered out in response.
Then, to Ranma's utter amazement, Akane hugged him. "Thank god you're alright!"
Ranma sharply winced. "Aaah! N-not quite!"
"Oops!" Akane quickly loosened her grip on him. "Sorry."
The two helped him to his feet, Tofu looking at him carefully as he was pulled upright. His leg would need a lot of work, but more immediate were those bandaged areas across his body-
Metal shifted. The threesome quickly turned at the sound and saw Tofu's car as it was pushed out of the wall and slowly rolled away, revealing the large, unhappy alien behind it, growling in its trademark guttural snarl blended with a staccato of intermittent clicks.
It was a mess. Glowing green blood was splattered everywhere, most of its armor was gone, its chest was punctured at various points by thick bone jutting outward from its body. Yet it still moved. And stood, as best it could, removing itself from the wall. Laying at its feet was a heavy mass of metal, the helmet that the creature had worn throughout this battle.
"THE H-HUNT CONTINUES"
The monster's real voice this time, no synthesized conglomeration of other voices mixed together in a makeshift pattern. It sounded just like its growl, deep and terrible. The mouth... no, the entire face the words came from was equally fearsome. The head was large, ridged along its yellow surface with a thorny ring of bone, and long black strands hung from its head like thick dregs. Like the rest of its skin, it was mottled with brown spots, and inside the deep dark crevices below its brow were a set of almost human-looking eyes. Its mouth was gruesome, a lipless fanged maw with a quartet of small tusks surrounding it, flaps of skin joining each pair at the top and bottom. From its mouth poured the glowing green viscous that painted the brick wall.
"Alright, THAT'S IT!" Ranma yelled out angrily, pulling himself from Akane and Tofu's grip with a surprising burst of strength and hobbling over to the creature's position with fury.
"RANMA! What are you DOING?!"
"You've been hounding me since last night, destroyed our house, nearly killed all my friends, and ACTUALLY ENDED UP KILLING ME! And frankly, I've had
ENOUGH! TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!"
Before Doctor Tofu or Akane could hold back Ranma he had leaped forward on his good leg and in an amazing burst of speed slammed the mammoth beast back into the wall, trailing a cloud of dust behind him and throwing a blinding slew of punches to its body and face. With each punch, the wall behind it pulverized and crumbled, and for all its previous strength and power the creature couldn't fight back, taking the riveting of strikes without contest. Bricks fell, and in a focussed burst of effort Ranma let loose with his finishing strike, screaming out the attack's battle cry.
Ranma's hands glowed brilliantly, and with the sound of an explosion a blazing field of energy left his hands, punching the alien back with living fire and smashing it through the thick brick wall. Debris flew everywhere and a cloud of smoke poured into the alleyway. Akane and Tofu covered their faces to protect from the blast as wind-whipped through their hair.
And then it was quiet...
Only Ranma's panting and the sprinkling of what was left of the wall falling to earth could be heard.
"R-Ranma?" Akane looked at him as he simply stood there, both she and Doctor Tofu not knowing what to say, totally awestruck by the spectacle. Ranma didn't respond, but instead hopped through the gaping hole of bricks and into the darkness beyond.
"What is he, NUTS? Wait here, Sensei!" Akane left Tofu wondering exactly what was going on and ran after Ranma, seeing him in the glow of the outside lighting the otherwise-black room, standing over the alien predator, hands outstretched over its head. It was in terrible shape, bleeding from all spots and breathing erratically in its unconscious state.
"Dammit, I should blow your head off!"
Akane was shocked. Did the thing really push him that far? Was Ranma actually going to...?
"Don't worry," Ranma said to her without looking back, "I won't." He withdrew his hands and looked back at her with a weak cocked smile. "You didn't think I was really that far gone, did you?"
"Well, I... I wasn't sure..."
"Nah," he said, wiping the blood from his face, "I'm no killer. Besides, it saved my life once. I might as well pay it back..."
Akane smiled at Ranma in relief, then looked at the crumpled-up alien prone on the ground. "So what are we going to do about that thing?"
"HE IS OURS"
The two humans spun around in shock and faced the Predators. All seven of them. Each heat signature fluctuated a little, indicating that their cloaking devices were deactivated and they had become visible to the humans' eyes.
"Oh shit, not _again_..."
The lead Hunter looked at the male briefly as he limped between his mate and himself, then redirected its attention to a more important manner. What a dismal failure this Predator was, not scoring a single trophy in this Hunt, and then being left alive by its own Prey. Truly sickening... The Hunt Leader directed the others to take the body and strip it of its trophies when they arrived back at the mothership. The Leader then looked back at the human pair; from their actions, they were surprised that they had not been attacked or assaulted in any manner, a customary action from most species that never ceased to baffle the Predators. Still, they had survived the Hunt. They were now Untouchables. And as such they deserved a Trophy recounting of their great survival skills and fighting prowess.
Ranma didn't know what to make of it. Out of nowhere appeared seven more monsters, armed to the teeth and in perfect health. And there was no way he would have been able to defend himself from another assault. Yet they did nothing to him, gathering up the alien instead and lugging it off. As each one left the scene their bodies shimmered and they vanished into the same hazy distortion field that had hidden the creature before until only one was left standing in the room. It looked much as the others did, large and packed with tight muscles, its naked face bearing the same ferocious visage that had been hidden underneath a mask for so long. From its belt the beast drew a thin silvery blade, the same type as the ones that had been set into the alien's wrist-claw. And in a casual motion the creature tossed it to Ranma.
The alien turned to the aperture in the wall and prepared to leave, its body vanishing before their eyes.
The creature stopped in its tracks and looked back at Ranma curiously, its body becoming opaque once more. "YOU take it. I don't want this," he said, tossing the sharp piece of metal back to it. The Leader's burly hand caught the blade. He didn't want the Trophy? The Predator looked at the human, making sure it understood him correctly, then put the blade back in its belt. It was the human's prerogative, it supposed, as well as its loss. They were such a strange specie. Surely many others would have jumped for the chance to claim an icon of their victory, of their glorious fight against the odds and the great triumph, but he turned it down. Why? He must have had his reasons, as twisted as they were, but to the Predator, they would forever remain totally unfathomable...
Enough rambling. There was no time to be stuck in such a fruitless contemplation - every second wasted on such thought was a second lost making the kill.
And then it was gone.
And the Hunt was over.