What does it mean to be ‘strong’? What is ‘strength’? Physical strength was what mattered. And it was June 28th, Year 2; I was the ‘strongest’ Crusader the Dominion had. But I wasn’t powerful enough to change the course of the entire war. Maybe a few battles can be altered, maneuvered so it would benefit more to the humans, but ultimately, Hunters were not losing the war by losing two or three small battles. So my strength was relative. In the end, I was only 'relatively' stronger than the others.
I needed an unconditional judgment of ability of myself. How far could I go? Two purple heads were not enough to meet my satisfaction. To prove myself to, well… myself, I needed a higher level of standard. That way, I will know my limitation, my capability in fighting; hopefully conduct in better performance in the future.
But why? Why I needed such strength when it seemed enough? A firefighter’s goal is to save more people or assure safety of as much people as possible. Some will comment him that he did enough as he fulfills his duty. But there are no ‘enough’s in saving lives. I wasn’t a firefighter. I couldn’t guarantee saving lives – hell, Crusaders have to worry about their lives on the line. But there were those I wanted to guarantee saving.
And that’s why I took the fight against Chimera.
The picture of Chimera did not match the one I was facing. It was at least ten times hideous than the image. The normal black Hunters looked almost small beside it and the menacing arm-blade – nearly twice the normal length – expressed that the purple heads I’ve met so far was nothing compared to this one. Normally, Hunters didn’t have claws on their hands or feet, but Chimera had sharp blade-like object attached to its feet like some monstrous toenail that hasn’t been cut for decades. Even the fangs protruded out of its jaws surpassed the ones of normal Hunters; as well as the disgust of seeing it. Greg said this was probably the first and the last horrible Hunter to be seen; that Chimera itself was some sort of mutation. I hope he was right because its appearance overwhelmed everyone with fear.
The emergence of Chimera swept the human side with madness and horrid. Instead of retreating under orders and following protocols as planned, everyone began to run without looking behind. Some Crusaders and soldiers left their weapon behind. Some injured people pushed those who were helping and tried to limp out of the kill zone. The rest froze, paralyzed by shock or fear. Michelle went rigid; her eyes staring, straight at the Chimera. The guy she was helping out was gone already.
It shrieked, making a terrible screeching sound. And just then, everyone seemed to back on mind.
“Michelle move,” I said. Then I clicked the earphone. “Scarlet get out of there it’s going to get messy.”
Everyone started running, running towards the camp. Some brave pilots tried to hinder the Chimera’s movement and showered down a rain of metal. But normal bullets meant nothing against the hard armor of the Hunter. It suddenly flung out some kind of projectile and took one helicopter down. Its red eyes then moved towards the fleeing lot of human beings. A monster… that was what they saw. But what the Hunter saw was some hundred fresh running bodies of meat turning their backs and waiting to be hunted.
“Go, go, go!” I pushed Michelle’s back and started dashing ahead.
Chimera seemed to enjoy this situation. It killed the fleeing people slowly, steadily but with precision. One by one, scream of agony was shouted from behind, over all the noises of the battle. I looked back. It was speeding up with speed incomparable with those of mankind. Soon enough, it was bound to kill half of the Crusaders; the rest will probably be devastated by the other Hunters. I turned myself around.
“Leon! What are you doing?” demanded Michelle in haste. She looked desperate. But I was direr than her, in some other aspect. I switched my channel to the Crusaders’.
“I need four supporters to keep the black heads away from me and gunners to keep suppressed fire,” I said. No words came back yet. “I’m killing that thing.”
“No! What are you planning?” shouted Michelle from behind. “We can regroup later and then attack! Leon, we cannot fight like this!”
“I can,” I said. I slowly walked the opposite direction of the escape route. “You go on ahead. I’ll be there until supper.”
“Hugo reporting in.”
“Tyson reporting for support.”
“Perfect,” I said glancing Michelle who's eyes were shaking. The five Crusaders soon caught up and stood before the Chimera, now standing in front of us with an entire swarm of Hunters behind. Its arm-blade almost reaching the ground moved forth. I took a deep breath. This is more than just me… it has a better meaning than just myself. “Freya, Numen take right. Hugo and Tyson take left.”
The fight started in a blink of a second. One moment we were glaring at each other. And then all of the sudden, gunfire revived from behind and five Crusaders were mingled up against a bunch of Hunters. In the middle were the Chimera and me.
I leaped in first. Overpowering myself to the maximum thrust, I pulled up my ability to the highest I could embody. I stoke upward, but the Chimera was astonishingly fast compared to its size. It slid backward and attempted to smash its right blade against me. I blocked it with my sword, shielding myself by raising my arm to intercept it. The force, however, was devilish. It was way beyond the two commanding units I’ve met. It crushed me down, sinking a few centimeters into the blood-spoiled ground. The Chimera lifted its blade, and swung it down for the second time. Just before it hit me, I freed myself and stabbed my sword targeting its stomach. Responds was like lightning; the left blade intervened the sword’s way towards the stomach by an inch. But I didn’t stop there – exquisitely sliding on top of the left blade, I tried to damage it by slashing the sword upward. The Hunter managed pull its body backward but inevitably was scarred by the attack.
The Chimera stepped back. Half surrounded by Hunters, the other four were doing a fine job keeping them away. However, time was against us. At some point the Hunters will try to entomb us with the strength of number by sheer force. The battle needed to be finished fast, or retreat before worse happens. And sure enough, the semi-circular defense line we formed was shrinking. My fight with the Chimera seemed a stalemate.
It did not offer much chances for an attack after the first one. The devilish power it had was not negligible and its speed was not at all slow. Unless I could make an effective blow, the fight was not going to end. So I went inward, pushing my body towards the Hunter. I kicked off the two blades for a small moment by bashing the joint of its arms. Many Crusaders wondered why I trained with bare-handed more than I train with swords; the simple proof was shown with the fight against the Chimera. I forced myself in very close proximity with the body of the Hunter. My face was inches away from it; I could almost smell the foul odor from its mouth. There was no way it could evade any attack.
I concentrated every drop of ability I could materialize at once in one strike of my sword. Raising my sword, I blasted it down, assuming it will most likely dissect the Chimera into half. The silver aura was compressed so much that it almost looked blackish grey. I was ready to end this fight.
Then something impossible happened.
The Chimera decided to block it. In such tiny moment, it lowered itself and twitched its body a little to the side. Then the left blade tried to block the immense blow
The blade shattered; and my sword continued its way. But the sword already lost too much energy that it couldn't finish the Hunter. Green ooze poured out like waterfall on its left shoulder. But as if it felt no pain from the injury, Chimera attacked me with its right blade. I was caught aback, and the counter attack was not in my calculation. The blade tore my armor into a piece of leather and the force of the blade threw me off the ground and I collapsed on the ground a few meters away. Tumbling in pain, I forced myself to stand up. That monster was still bearing itself to stand up, but the Hunter did not move. My sword cut quite deep into its side, penetrating the hard skin of a Hunter.
The other Hunter reacted quickly. They all suddenly gave up fighting the four other and threw themselves to make barrier for the Chimera. All at once, the huge swarm backed up and maintained a distance away from the five of us.
My back pained horribly and the right side of my body was injured by the Chimera’s counter attack. I stumbled up.
“Fall back… this is enough for today,” I ordered. The strike was a direct hit. If it wasn’t for the armor, I would’ve been disconnected into two. It was foolish of me to lose concentration the moment my sword carved into the Hunter’s body. I limped across the bloody field of grass. Hugo ran over to help but I refused his hand. “Don’t… I don’t need your help.”
The supper that night was delicious. The small petty piece of meat tasted like stake and the soup like honey. Even Scarlet ate an entire bowl that day. I guess everyone had a good meal. But nobody looked happy or glad about it. Everyone’s expression was either grieve or total fatigue; none that helped the mood of the camp that night.
A fifth of the entire army died in a day. But thanks to those laying cold in the field, the camp made it quite far ahead. A lot of soldiers, not just Crusaders, did not make through the battle, and many were badly wounded. From what I heard from Scarlet, 46 Crusaders died and 238 soldiers were killed that day. Compared to Day 1 and 2 – 31 Crusaders and 74 soldiers died in total – it was a serious loss.
So again, nobody cheered and praised the advancement of the camp. Nobody proposed a toast for a good luck the next day. Nobody complained about sentinel duty. Nobody spoke about the battle. And supper was quiet with occasional mumbling and whisperings.
“Everyone’s so grim,” said Scarlet as the three of us exited the cafeteria.
“Many have died today, and remember the dead are those who were pretty much their companions for two years. For two years, we haven’t waged an organized attack on the Hunters. But this time we did it and this is just the consequence of it,” said Michelle. She looked unhappy from just by saying those words. “It’s nothing special; it’s just war.”
“We haven’t breached the entrance and they are acting like we’ve just lost everything,” I blurted. 40 people died. But they looked like they just lost everything. In truth, the blackout invasion took lives beyond the number, but it seemed the casualties of the invasion were inevitable.
“It’s probably because they realize the Crusaders are actually not that capable,” said Michelle. “This battle was a face-to-face war with full preparation. But we lost too many than we’ve originally thought.”
“If that’s true, this war is really going to end when at least half of the squad leaders die,” I said. We fifteen were the main characters. The other 200 hundred Crusaders were supporters which Dr. Greg will likely to neglect even if they become completely annihilated as long as the fifteen lives. The doctor was more like a dictator than a scientist… Wait, what does happen when those 200 Crusaders become eliminated? Would it be end of humanity? The great Crusader Project bringing only failure to Dr. Greg? The answer, just remained a mystery. Michelle might have given me some kind of answer, but at this point, I kept it to myself. So, the result of this war was already foreseen. Disastrous number of Crusaders will die. The soldiers, on the contrary, will somewhat remain its number. Then…
“Leon, let’s get some rest,” said Scarlet. She pulled me and started dragging me to some place.
“I need to report –“
“Michelle said she’ll do it for you on her way,” she replied. “I want to show you something.”
We went outside the barricade of the camp but not far. When Scarlet stopped, I found myself on top of a tall hill, just north of the camp. The area was exact opposite to the areas near settlement. Instead of trees, there were more plains, small rivers and bushes. It was certainly a whole new environment.
“I couldn’t sleep the other night. Then, I wandered around and reached here,” she said looking afar out. The moon was already gleaming down and the black river glittered like tiny stars. “Nobody knew this place, even though it was less than five minutes from the camp.”
“Everyone was busy enough,” I said. We sat down on the soft grass. It was relaxing. The war made people blunt on what was around them other than Hunters and people. “It’s beautiful though.”
“It is. It also reminds me that I’m not only fighting to protect the people,” said Scarlet softly. Then she pointed out into the distance. “I’m also fighting for this.”
She leaned against me on the shoulder. Startled, I twitched violently but she put her hand on top of my leg.
“You won’t imagine how I feel when I see such a scene after being in the battlefield,” she said slowly closing her eyes. “What do you feel, Leon, when you are fighting?”
“I…” I stammered, unable to say anything. How do I feel? What do I think about when I fight? It was never a topic I considered neither deep nor significant.
“I feel fear. In that tiny little space, holding the handle, I feel frightening,” she said gloomily. “Whenever I fire the guns or blast missiles, I worry things; like friendly-fire, or the missile getting jammed, or something attacking from the back, stuffs like that. I’m afraid to die, so I never go far away like other pilots. I hover in one place and refuse to move when my job is to scout around the squad’s area for enemy information.”
“It’s not your fault to be afraid of death. Everyone is,” I said.
“One of them died today. The Chimera destroyed the aircraft into millions of pieces. And I didn’t do anything. You told me to retreat and I did. I didn’t look back. I followed orders. I was the first to return… and I was glad for it,” she said. I felt a sort of liquid on my shirt where Scarlet was leaning. “It turns out the dead pilot was my teacher – the first person to teach me to become a pilot on Earth. I wondered what he would have done if it was me that was on the exploding helicopter.”
“Scarlet...?” The wetness grew as she talked. I pulled back and held her side to keep her from falling. Her eyes were red and tears made thin streaks down her cheek.
“I’m not strong as Michelle and not even close to you either. I never thought of becoming a soldier… but now I see corpses of people every day. All I think after is content that I’m alive,” she said. Her voice grew hoarse from crying. “What… I don’t think I can…”
I embraced her as naturally as possible. She buried herself onto me and started to sober. I held her without saying anything. As if the world was with me, a warm breeze scarfed us like it was trying to blow out the tears. After a while, I wiped the tears myself.
“Don’t say that,” I said. “You tend to think too much, Scarlet. The world is moving forth with full haste but all those thoughts are slowing you down. The moment the helicopter exploded into flames, your duty to protect him ended. But now, you’re here crying for the loss that you couldn’t have possibly controlled! The pilot that taught you will not want to see his student crying for him, but will see for a professional pilot to stay focused on her task. There are many ways strength can be proved and you’re strong enough. But the moment you start losing yourself, that strength becomes a weakness.”
“You’re the best pilot I’ve ever seen, Scarlet,” I said as I hugged her. “Remember that and the next time you’re in the plane, there’s nothing to worry about and nothing to think about. Just be confident in yourself.”
It was the first time I said stuffs like that. It was the first time Scarlet looked so much in pain. Michelle used to tell me similar things to me whenever I lose energy somehow. Her words were like magic, it always cheered me up one way or another. Maybe it was because she knew so much about me. Anyhow, so far I’ve only seen delight and cheerfulness in Scarlet. Even when she was grim, she soon regained her power. But this day and the day before, Scarlet looked weak for the first time. That was probably why I was so eager to cheer her up, to make her recover.
And Scarlet really did recover the next day.
Since the fourth day, the advancement of the camp was top priority. Sometimes irrational march resulted irreversible consequences. However, the advancement went on and the war began to take longer than anyone had expected. The group of Crusaders of approximately 300 enforced their way deeper into the lair. The more we entered further, the more the resistance. Still, everyone fought like never before – probably thinking of the glory and the peace and the reward that will follow when they win this war.
Due to it, the Crusaders and the soldiers breached the main entrance and made a fortified camp within the border of the lair. The Crusaders seemed to develop their skill as they fight on and survive. The black Hunters became less of a threat than the past and everyone was confident they might be able to finish this war earlier than they expected several days ago.
However, willpower met its limits. Chimera recovered from its injury and trampled around the battlefield like some mad bull. Seven more commanding units emerged all at once from nowhere and annihilated many Crusaders in a single day. Though they were much weaker than the Chimera, their capability to fight against Crusaders was beyond everyone’s imagination. The first day the seven emerged; there was a near-massacre of soldiers and Crusaders.
After the first week, everyone was poised and ready. Until the fifth, the advancement of the army was quite smooth. The start of fifth week started with the seven purple heads plus Chimera as if they were measuring the time. For a week, the camp ceased to move on, but the army’s size continued to drop.
First day of the sixth week: we haven’t even seen the commander of the lair. But the size was reduced to half of the original army.