AUTHOR'S NOTE: This ending leads directly into the sequel. Thanks again to all who reviewed!
RUN! Screamed my brain, watching as the insidious bulk of the alien drew ever closer. I saw, from the corner of my eye, Celtic rising from where he had landed, and Scar approaching with a limp from where he had been thrown. Although I was by now fairly certain that it would take more than these two predators to bring down the alien, I decided to aid them in the only way I could. I lifted the shotgun, pumped a shell into place, and fired all in one breath. The shot struck the alien where its head joined its neck with a small spatter of caustic blood; a minor injury, to be sure, but the alien reared its head back and hissed its ire.
I took the opportunity to turn heel and flee.
It was after me in a heartbeat; the thunder of its pursuing footsteps trembling the ground I ran across. My accelerated breathing only further irritated my injured ribs, and I had to move at a staggering gait because of this. I had no idea where I was going, was only aware of the fact that there was very, very little separating me from death this time around. I careened wildly around the corner of a building, gripping the sides to stop me from falling on the ice. I'd only just let go when the alien screamed again, and I whirled around just in time to see Scar twisting through the air and driving his spear directly through the alien's skull. He landed in a tumble several feet away and came up fast. The alien staggered to the side, tossing its head in agony, the attached chain whipping about, and it clawed furiously at the spear which protruded from both sides of its body. Too late I realized it was falling, and too late did I spin about and make to run—the alien fell heavily into the building, knocking down the walls and sending debris flying everywhere.
I fell into a crouch, shielding my head from pieces of wood and tin; as the alien struck the earth, still screaming, its tail came hurtling towards me in its throes of agony. I had no chance to dodge it; it hit me mid-section and launched me through the air. I curled in on myself as to soften the impact of my landing, and when I did strike the earth I landed on my side and skidded several feet before coming to halt. Gasping, I struggled to my feet and looked around frantically for my shotgun, which I'd dropped upon being hit by the alien. It was nowhere to be seen, and my eyes were drawn then to the scene before me. The alien was on its feet again, and had managed to snap the spear that impaled it in half. Part of me was horrified that it had survived such a direct blow to the head; the other part cursed me for being a naïve fool. Scar was firing at it again with his cannon, backing away steadily. The alien followed, blood streaming forth from its wounds to land steaming on the snow below. So intent was it on Scar that it didn't see Celtic approaching from the side, spear in hand.
Celtic leapt lithely into the air, intent on impaling the creature like his companion had. Suddenly the alien twisted about, arms flailing, catching Celtic in mid-flight and throwing him back. His spear was knocked from his grasp and it spun end over end to be buried in a snow bank several feet from where I stood. I rushed over immediately to secure it, digging frantically through the snow until my gloved hands came in contact with the hard, smooth haft. I swiveled about, not knowing what I would do with the weapon, and when my gaze fell again upon the predators and their prey I gasped in dismay.
The alien had impaled Celtic directly through the chest and had lifted him high above ground with a simple flexing of its tail. His neon blood rained down from the wound to garishly stain the pristine snow. Scar was circling the alien, trying to flank it; the alien shrieked before its hidden jaws erupted forth, piercing Celtic's mask and the skull underneath. More blood and other, thicker pieces of gore spattered the ground, and with a flick of its tail the alien discarded the corpse. Scar struck then, several rounds fired from his cannon in quick succession, and as the alien wheeled about to retaliate he darted quickly beyond its reach. It was completely focused on the sole surviving predator now, and while I had no longer had the shotgun, I did have Celtic's spear.
I made a decision then, one that was ludicrous, but one that was demanded of me. I could have run from here and tried to leave everything that had occurred over the last long hours of my life behind. It would have been futile anyways, I concluded numbly, because if I fled and Scar fell, the alien would inevitably hunt me down. A second after I'd steeled my nerves and hardened my resolve, I heard Scar roar, and my eyes moved from the spear I held to the two combatants before me. Scar had been taken down—I wasn't sure how—and as he struggled to his hands and knees, the alien's tail hovered above his back, waiting for the right instant to strike—
Suddenly I was shouting, running full tilt towards the creature. It wasn't deterred by my charge; its tail lifted and trembled in eager anticipation, and at that moment I shoved the spear as hard and as far into its torso as I could manage. It reared back, shrieking, and I stumbled around its thrashing body, trying to avoid being hit. There was no way I could avoid the blood that ran in rivers from its body; as I scrambled out from beneath I felt sudden searing agony down the length of my back. Blinded by the pain, I never saw what it was that struck me next, but once again I found myself airborne.
I must have blacked out upon landing, because quite suddenly I was aware of lying face down in snow with pain like I'd never known caressing my entire spine. It took me two attempts to roll over, and when I did there was a jagged, lancing sensation in my side that informed me that if my ribs hadn't been broken before, they most certainly were now. Wheezing in an attempt to draw breath, I turned my head to see what it was I expected to see—Scar dead, and the alien triumphant above him.
What met my eyes was nothing of the sort. Scar wasn't dead; he stood before the screaming black beast, and I saw that his cannon had been knocked free from his shoulder. He held his shuriken in a ready stance, but what prompted me to struggle into an upright position were the other hunters appearing at random, surrounding the alien. They were uncloaking themselves, shaping themselves out of the air, and there were more of them than I could count; some were masked, others not. They began their assault on the alien, some using cannons like Scar's, others wielding weaponry I hadn't yet seen. The alien wasn't by any means daunted by this; I watched in horrified awe as it impaled one of the hunters and removed three more from battle with a single swipe of its arms.
Watching, I tried to gain my feet and failed. I simply did not have the strength, and so I sank numbly to my knees. As finally the alien faltered beneath the combined strength of the hunters, as finally it tottered before falling heavily to the earth, I wondered with vague detachment which would kill me first—my wounds or the cold arctic air I was exposed to. So lost in my agonized haze was I that time passed without my noticing; I opened my eyes suddenly to find Scar standing above me. Blinking my vision to clear the red haze, I saw that beyond him the others of his race had gathered around the alien's corpse, and were taking from it trophies.
"Lex." Sebastian's voice under Scar's command returned my eyes to him. I realized then that we weren't alone, for appearing beside Scar was another of his kind. I got to my feet, and it was a torturous affair. Finally standing, swaying slightly, I studied the new unmasked arrival. This hunter seemed even more daunting than the two I had been in previous company with; standing as I was he towered over me even more than Scar. He trilled in the manner I was familiar with, the sound deep and guttural, and his mandibles moved slightly with the movement. Something in his face, in the dark eyes that regarded me evenly, in the long fall of almost pure white hair hinted to me that this hunter had seen many, many more years than either Scar or Celtic had. His tusks were notched, and a myriad of scars decorated his strange skin. He wore several pieces of armor from which hung strange and outlandish skulls and bones, and falling from where it was attached to his shoulders was a heavy, draped, crimson cloak. In one hand he held something that appeared to be a cross between a staff and a spear, with several rigid, curved blades rising from the area near the middle.
He remained utterly still, the only movement the slight twitching of his mandibles, but he didn't have to do anything to frighten me. I was already terrified. Scar moved to stand beside me, growling as he did so, and with one hand under my chin he turned my face to the side, exposing to the elder hunter the marks I had been given. He moved his fingers to my wrist, and turned my arm to expose the scratches and burns that blemished my skin from palm to elbow. Finally he pried my shirt away from the wound at my shoulder, but as he did so it pulled abruptly at the point on my back where fabric and flesh had become one. With a muted sound of agony, I dropped to my knees as the world darkened around me.
Only with Scar's steady hand on my upper arm did I manage to get to my feet again. I raised my gaze to meet the piercing eyes of the elder, wondering what judgement it was I awaited. I wasn't going to remain conscious much longer, I knew. At my side Scar jerked suddenly as if in pain but made no sound; my attention drifted to the elder as he lifted the strange spear and held it out before me. The length of it retracted with a speed that made me gasp; what he held now considerably smaller and deadlier looking, with a small chain that dangled from the grip. I stared at a moment, before lifting the arm that Scar didn't have a hold of and wrapping my shaking fingers around it. The elder relinquished it after a moment, growling at me, and inclined his head. It was a gesture of respect, I realized, and this weapon was being given to me as an acknowledgement of those I'd killed and all I'd survived.
"Thank you," I murmured, bowing my own head, feeling strangely honored.
Scar made a sound then, a scream of suffering, and he clenched my arm so tightly I cried out before he staggered away. The elder chittered as Scar clutched his midsection; from the corner of my eye I saw other predators, drawn by the commotion, quickly approaching. Scar fell to one knee with a strangled snarl, and from his chest there erupted something grotesque, something nightmarish, something alive—
"No," I whispered in distraught disbelief. I knew what it was, I knew … suddenly the other hunters were surrounding the still roaring Scar, obscuring my view of him. I tried to step around, tried to see what was happening, but the elder was suddenly before me, shaking his head. As I tried to brush past him he pushed me back roughly with one hand to the chest; I stumbled but didn't fall. Scar was being taken away, his body supported by many of the other predators, but I still couldn't see the thing that had burst forth from him … I made an attempt to follow, but again the elder inserted himself in my path, giving me a warning snarl. Hopelessly I watched over his shoulder as my companion was carried out of sight, and when I could see no more of him the elder stepped back from me. For one long moment we regarded each other, regal leader to bedraggled and broken human, and with a final rattling growl he spun about and stalked in the direction of the other predators.
I didn't follow. I knew it wouldn't be permitted. Instead I stared after the elder long after he'd vanished, my mind trying to comprehend all I'd seen and all I'd been exposed to. Deep in my core a constant torturous agony had settled; I had to find warmth, I thought dazedly, I had to find help.
I took one step, and then another, before succumbing to merciful oblivion.
Restriction was the first thing I became aware of; my arms and legs were bound tightly together and I was effectively immobilized. Sluggish alarm filled me, and when I tried to move my limbs I found I lacked the strength. Sounds were filling my ears, echoes and bits of voices that I struggled to piece together. When I realized they were human voices, and that I could understand some of what was being said, I fought the heavy lethargy that encompassed me and opened my eyes.
There were lights directly above my face, and they were bright enough to hurt. I rolled my head to the side, and found that there was a man there, a man filling a syringe from a small glass bottle. I tried to speak, couldn't, and tried again with a mouth that felt like it was stuffed with cotton.
"Where …?" I croaked.
The answer came not from the man with the needle, but from another person standing on the other side of me. I turned my head to see a woman standing there with short dark hair and even darker eyes that seemed concerned. She laid a gentle hand against my unmarked cheek and said, "You're on The Piper Maru, Ms. Woods. They just brought you in ten minutes ago."
The Piper Maru. I closed my eyes in relief, and opened them again as I felt the distant prick of the syringe in my flesh. "You're suffering from the first stages of hypothermia, Ms Woods," said the man as he emptied the contents of the needle into me, "You're lucky they found you when they did. You're in rough shape besides that. What happened to you down there?"
Death, I wanted to tell them. Aliens. Instead my mind flipped about as frantically as it could in its drugged state, searching for a suitable excuse. "Explosion," I mumbled finally, fighting the urge to drift away again, to let myself fall into whatever void beckoned. "Cavern … collapsed …"
"We gathered that much," the woman said. Her fingers had moved to the other side of my face and were tracing gently the marks Scar had made. "What we don't know is how the explosion came about."
I was saved from formulating an answer by the man, who had picked up something from my bedside table. It was the weapon I'd been given by the elder, and the man tilted it to examine it closer in the over head light. "Did you find this down there?" He asked me curiously."
It was very hard for me to keep my eyes open, though I tried. Noticing this, the man laid the weapon down and gave me a warm smile. "Sleep, Ms. Woods. You need it, and you can tell us your story once you've healed."
My story, I thought with bitter irony. You wouldn't believe my story …
And then I was adrift again in a world without pain.
When next I awoke, it was to find the man and woman in the room with me again. My head still felt fuzzy, and my entire body was numb. I was still sick, I knew, so I laid limply and listened to their voices, which sounded as though they were coming to me from within a long tunnel.
"-swears he saw something in the mess hall." Said the woman. I felt distantly my left arm being bound in gauze.
"He drinks too much," replied the man dryly; his voice came from the foot of my bed.
There was a pause, and then the man asked, "What did this something look like?"
The woman chuckled, and it was a sound of incredulousness. "He said it was manlike, but that it moved like it was a part of the air, or something. He's dead serious about it, too. He got upset when the others told him he needed to lay off the rye …"
Listening, I felt something cold and heavy settle within the core of me. It can't be, it can't, I said silently over and over again. It couldn't be.
The woman had finished bandaging my arm; she gave me a gentle pat on the cheek before I heard her footsteps walking away from my bed. She and the man were still talking, but their voices soon faded from earshot. Sudden and inescapable weariness descended on me again, and as it washed over me I let myself believe that what I'd heard was just a dream …
And as sleep tightened its welcome tendrils around me, I told myself that the familiar, comforting, rumbling growl that filled the room in which I lay was only a figment of my imagination.
It had to be.
Endnotes: I hope you liked this ending! The sequel, entitled Sacrifice Theory, will continue right from this point. Thanks again to everyone for reading!