I woke up sitting underneath a tree. In a thick forest I was, with the infinite greenness surrounding me. The sun was hidden from the layers of large leaves, but it was vivid it was sometime between midday and late afternoon. I stood up and stepped off the shadow. Instantly as I walked into the slight sunlight, massive heat overtook me. It wasn’t summer, not yet for the sun to radiate such heat.
The hotness began to strengthen and I doubted whether it was the sun’s heat in the first place. The fierce heat seemed to burn through flesh and I started moving, hopefully away from the heat.
Then I smelled ash. Like magic; or some kind of trick, thick gray smoke reared its head from behind along with wild flame dancing towards my direction. The trees only aggravated the situation and the flames rapidly drew up speed. I started to run.
I ran, without a chance to figure out what was happening. After several minutes of sprinting down the woods, I saw an exit in the distance. I jumped, throwing my body out of the forest.
I tumbled on the grass and warm sunlight struck me. I looked back and saw the entire forest dying from the ruthless inferno. I let out a sigh of relief. I scraped off the dirt and turned away from the woods. The fire came to an immediate halt as the forest ended and there wasn’t much need for hurry. I saw Sector 3 in front of me.
But Sector 3 was on fire. This time I panicked. Screams and yells came from the settlement. I suspected Hunters but they were nowhere to be seen. I reached my side but no weapon was present. I was in my casual clothes, not in combat armor. And…
Flame suddenly exploded from inside the metal barricade. With a destructive noise of a boom, the entire yells and screams suddenly came to a mute. My mind wailed. I tried to scream out but not a sound came out. So I ran towards the gate, which was opened up widely.
I stood in front of the gate. I strived to find a way to get inside, but waves of flame refused my entrance. I helplessly gazed at the orange flame. My head was blank and my legs felt powerless. Then I saw a blurry figure of a human. A sudden spark of hope managed me to reach out close to the flames, regardless of how strong it was. The inferno devoured my flesh. I ignored and tried to reach out to the shadow.
The figure also seemed to speed up. It became clearer and clearer every second. Then I started to hear a faint voice.
“Leon…” the figure said. I recognized the voice. It was Michelle. I was certain. “Leon…”
I felt a touch on my burning hands. I managed to ignore the pain and dragged the hand of her.
But it was not her. The ‘hand’ was black – not from burns, but literally colored black. When the face came out, the head was much larger than human’s. Its mouth had monstrous fangs and green blood was all over it.
“Leon!” shouted a voice.
I woke up. I looked around. I saw white wall, blue blanket over me, and window in front. I was on a soft bed and in a white hospital uniform.
But my heart pumped like some freight train and cold sweat wet the top and the back of the clothes. I was breathing heavily. I looked at my side. And to my greatest relief, was Scarlet Dane. I threw myself backwards, supporting myself with the soft pillow behind. I used my sleeves to wipe off the sweat from my forehead.
“Are you okay?” she asked, looking astonished. “You were suddenly twitching so violently, I called you and…”
“I’m fine,” I said. My head ached. It was a dream. A very disturbing dream… “How long was I out?”
“Three days,” she said. She handed me a cup of water. I took it gladly. “The doctor says the only major injury is your left shoulder. The only other reason for such a faint is suddenly exhaustion and fatigue.”
“Is Michelle –“
She smiled. Scarlet helped herself a drink. “She’s fine. The professor’s leading a group of Crusaders to scout the area.”
“What kind of mission?” I asked.
“Something about finding raw materials; they say the resources from the Ark are running out. The Commanders must have decided they needed to make use of the ‘revived’ Earth’s,” suggested Scarlet.
I sat up straight. Then I tried to get myself off the bed.
“Wait, you’re not going anywhere,” said Scarlet sternly. “The doctor and even Michelle told me not to allow you leaving this room.”
“I’m fine. You said it yourself. There’s no major injury except my shoulder and shoulder has no influence with my walking,” I responded.
“But –“ she tried to say.
“Don’t worry, I won’t leave the hospital,” I said. Before she could say anything, I left the room, shutting the door behind. “Just stay here for a minute.”
I was out in the balcony. From the third floor, I saw the entire view of Sector 3. Was it the desperateness that united everyone? The settlement and the camps outside were being restored at an astounding pace. In fact, I remembered seeing more of the camps outside of the damaged barricade.
The restoration of structures looked well enough. But despite the enlarged population, there were less people in the marketplaces and in the streets. I also saw a lot of people in groups, wearing black suit; most likely for funeral ceremonies. The soldiers guarded the barricade and the outer perimeter of the camps. Some inside the settlement ground were busy cleaning or fixing up streets. Overall, Sector 3 became awfully quiet since the day of the attack.
“So the hero has awakened,” said someone from behind. I turned back. He was certainly familiar, though the first impression of him wasn’t the best.
“Hugo, was it?” I asked. He nodded. He was in the same white clothing as mine. While I only had some bands around my shoulder, I noticed his right arm was broken. I stared at it and he slightly shook it.
“Look at it. I can proud myself to say I fought valiantly. But I almost lost my right arm,” said Hugo. He sat down on a bench beside him. “But you… fought against one of the commanding units, and not only survived, but killed it. The result was fatigue and a cut on the shoulder.”
“What do you mean?” I said indifferently.
“I mean, that if there was someone like you at Sector 1 or 2, this wouldn’t have happened at all,” said Hugo. I must have looked puzzled because he gazed at me like I was some fool. “No one told you about what happened at Sector 1 and 2?”
“No one. All I knew was that this started with a visit from your Sectors,” I said. Hugo’s expression darkened.
“Sector 1 and 2 were… well you can say they were allies. We practically merged our settlements. United, we had more men, Crusaders, citizens, and resources. But it was one day…” he stopped for a moment. I patiently waited until he continued. “There was a blackout – a terrible one.”
He looked at my reaction. When I did nothing, he looked up at the sky.
“The settlements were burned down to ashes. Remaining citizens, soldiers, and Crusaders ran with everything we managed to carry with us. We made camps and had to put up almost half of the troops at guard, since we didn’t have a barricade to act as a defense mechanism,” he said. I have to say, I cannot deny startling when he said the settlements burning. The nightmare was too vivid that I could remember it even now. “That’s probably when our commanders went over to Sector 3.”
I nodded. What I felt really strange was that between his attitudes in the arena and the balcony, there was too much of a gap. I was never interested in him, so I decided to leave the place. Like earlier, I always admit myself that I was never a sociable person anyway. Anyhow, this Hugo guy must have felt very awkward seeing me simply taking off without a response.
“Leon,” he called out. I turned back, acting so that I didn’t look uncomfortable. “Why can’t I be that strong?”
Now, that question, I still remember, was some question. It was so simple, yet probably the hardest one a Crusader can ask oneself or the others. I never thought him as a friend, just another person of a group called the Crusaders, nothing more or nothing less. But it was the first time (probably the last) I actually answered him sincerely.
“How did you become a Crusader?” I asked him. He took a few seconds to think.
“Dr. Greg recognized my talent just before the 1st Ark landed on Earth,” he said. “By talent, I mean the ‘ability’ you use.”
“How did you learn to fight then?” I questioned.
“My parents were wealthy enough to arrange me with private trainings from Crusaders out in the field,” said Hugo, almost proudly. I frowned.
“Did any of your parents died from Hunters?” I continued, feeling irritating.
“No,” he answered casually.
“Did or do you have a lover?” I asked him.
“No,” he responded. I shrugged, smiling coldly.
“No wonder,” I concluded. The poor fellow looked baffled. “You have talent, I guess I can guarantee you that – but some things just can’t be done with talent alone.”
“What?” Hugo demanded. I glared at him; he did not realize how arrogant he was.
“You lack only one thing, but that one thing will kill you before you realize if you don’t fix it,” I said. “You don't 'commit' yourself when you’re fighting.”
I faced my back against him and left him be, cursing, for wasting my time. It was a question that encouraged an answer, but the response discouraged for more.
Back at my room, Scarlet was anxiously looking out the window. When she heard the door open up and saw me entering, she gave out a sigh of relief. I climbed on top of the bed and crept inside the blankets to settle myself comfortably. The wide window was just in front of me. It was grim days, with losses beyond expectations but the sky was blue as ever. White clouds floated around like small ships and the tips of the tall trees of the forest far in the distance reminded me the very picture of a wide ocean.
It was unlike me – to stay inside a small room, suffocating from boredom and helplessness. Yet, even without many things for Scarlet to do when I wasn’t talking to her, she stayed until the sun set – which was a horribly long period. If I think back, it was one of many things I couldn’t thank.
“Scarlet,” I said after a long time of silence. She was looking out the window the whole time. When I called her, she turned back. The sun was already orange and the sky was red and yellow. “As someone I can really trust, will you back me up however I may seem wrong?”
“Like what?” Scarlet slightly giggled. She then looked back at the scene outside.
“I don’t know… something like… running away from this world,” I ventured. I stared at her back, waiting for an answer. “You don’t have to –“
“I will,” she said. “On a condition that you believe yourself in that decision. And me. And Michelle. And everyone with you.”
“Even if it costs your family?” I wandered further. “I mean, even if you had to leave your family?”
“…” maybe I heard Scarlet mumble something to herself; or it was my imagination. But she soon spoke aloud in a slightly sorrowful tone. “My family can live on their own.”
Michelle came back when darkness colored the skies. She looked exhausted and she hadn’t even taken off her armor. It was smudged and scratched in mud and her face was also dirty. She was still armed; I found a trace of green blood from her hilt.
“You’re late,” I said in a japing tone. “I heard I could leave this place tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I was on my way after discussing it with the doctor. As you know, you don’t have much of a problematic injury,” she said. “And Scarlet. Thanks for watching him.”
“No problem,” said Scarlet.
“Well, I’ll have to go. I pick you up tomorrow. People from the top will want to speak to you,” finished Michelle. She quickly left the room. Scarlet seemed to hesitate. She glanced at me while keeping her position beside the window.
“I’ll be better off alone tonight,” I said. She nodded awkwardly and walked out. Just before she closed the door, I remembered. “Thank–“
The door closed shut. Scarlet didn’t come back inside. The night just grew older.
“Dr. Greg, this is the full report of the battle three days ago,” said an assistant. “Including every single dead people, along with performances of major Crusaders, everything you ordered to record is monitored and incorporated this file.”
“Excellent,” said Dr. Greg. He skimmed through the bundle of digital texts. “Good, good. This is perfect. You’ve done a fabulous job Mark.”
“I appreciate it doctor,” said Mark. He waited. “Um…”
“Oh, of course, I almost forgot the most important thing,” said Dr. Greg. From his inner pocket, he drew out three full bundle of money. “I… uh, hope we continue our business.”
“My pleasure doctor,” said Mark. He soon disappeared out the building. The area was a blind spot from cameras, recorders or any kind of surveillance. The doctor had maneuvered this very carefully, and so far the result was very successful. He left the area and into his personal laboratory. The lab was built underground. With 76 assistants from the five Sectors, the speed of any experiment implemented was above imagination. Every single one of them was also ‘fanatics’ of Vincent Greg so he never felt any burden to launch an experiment. Funds and instruments were provided by the Sector 3 finance itself. The area was a paradise.
“Jean, how’s the project going?” he asked one of his chief assistant.
“Everything’s continuing as planned. The extra manpower we’ve earned after the unison and the battle three days ago is boosting up the speed. I hypothesize the process will be finished sooner than we’ve thought,” said Jean. She looked over the files in her hand. The doctor was feeling even more pleasant. “But we have one small problem.”
“Oh, and that is?” questioned Dr. Greg, his face darkening instantly. Jean must have noticed this.
“Um… it’s just that… when we finish the process, there isn’t any appropriate sample for the actual experiment,” stammered the assistant.
“Ah… of course. We can’t apply the technology immediately in real life,” he thought for a second. “I have an idea of my own. You people only need to focus on this process.”
“Yes, doctor,” confirmed Jean. She was then off to work. The doctor watched her descending to the lower level – where the actual work was going on. At the upper level, he monitored everyone’s results and movement.
He sat down on a chair and looked through the files he was handed. He stopped on the page about Leon. He pulled it out to take a closer look. Even the doctor had to admit, he didn’t knew genetic engineer for Crusaders could have advanced so far; Leon’s performance was godlike. But the doctor couldn’t smile and have pride. He looked at the page and smiled coldly.
“Leon Veridi… It’s time you step down.”