“How is she doing?” I asked.
“She’s not dead – not yet,” said the medic.
“What do you mean?” I asked. He pointed at my injury. The wound was already somewhat recovering, reducing the burning pain I felt at first.
“The infliction from the substance on you was small. Although I have no idea what the hell it is, the effect is similar as a severe burn,” he said. “She has it all over her body. The armor was destroyed in seconds.”
“You can –“
“Of course, I already said it’s like a burn. She’ll be healthy as ever once we’re done,” the medic said. “But… we don’t have the technology here. That’s the problem…”
“You can’t be serious,” I demanded. His expression showed powerlessness to the extent of provocation that I almost hit him.
“I can use every medications and drugs to keep her alive and her skin intact but it won’t last long,” he said.
“The war’s over. It’s less than a day distance to the settlement right?” I said with the greatest hope. The medic shrugged awkwardly.
I went out of the medic’s tent and ran over to the commander outpost. Director Han was alone with his eyes closed. I slammed on the desk and he woke up.
“It’s like four hours since the big fight, Leon. You better be bothering me for a good reason,” he scowled.
“When are we going back?” I questioned him. He sat up as if he had completely awakened. He removed his cap and placed in on the desk.
“I heard about how she’s doing,” said Han.
“Then you’ll know why I’m here,” I said. He stared at me for a long time. “We’re not going back yet.”
“Don’t blame me for this. Every single living soul in this camp wants to go back right now. And believe me, there are plenty of soldiers and Crusaders who need special facility like Ms. Nathans,” he said. The director showed me a hologram from the middle of the desk. The structure was the lair only couple of kilometers from the camp. “Jerrod wants that cleared out and burned.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said. “Those things can’t even assault without a system of command.”
“That’s exactly what I told them,” said Han. He looked at me in a glance. “I know what you’re thinking Leon and I thought about it too. But we have no idea what is in there and I can’t risk more lives at this point – even if they are incapable of attacking.”
“What are you saying?” I realized my voice was unwittingly angry.
“Just be patient for two days. Then, we’ll all go home and Michelle will get the medication first over all patients. She is, in the end, a heroine as well so she deserves it,” said Han calmly.
“The drugs might not –“
“You may leave, Leon. This is something we don’t have to argue,” he said.
The night was old and Michelle slept peacefully through the hours. The medic had injected some drugs to slow down the skin’s erosion and keep her under sleep to avoid the immense pain being felt.
I watched her. Thinking…
“You might be disappointed,” I said to her sleeping body. “But this is my choice. I pull this off; it won’t be problematic at all because I will have finished it much faster and more effectively.”
Her eyes did not move. Her mouth remained shut. I waited like I was expecting an answer.
“Right?” I asked her. Silence. I said louder. “Right?”
“Leon, it’s time,” said a voice from the back. I turned to see him. “Lead on.”
“…” I glanced at her one last time before I left the tent. “Right…”
“Kale, Numen, Mia and myself with another ten Crusaders,” said Nicolas. Everyone stood just in front of the camp’s north entrance. “We’re all dedicated to finish the job you will. All fourteen of us.”
“The commander removed all sentries to get everyone some rest,” said Bern. He pointed out to the North and towards the huge structure in front. “That will be our road.”
“It’s 1 a.m. That means five hours maximum,” I said. I looked at my watch. “Let’s finish this and go home.”
The company moved out North as silently and quickly as possible. The stench of dead bodies still hasn’t disappeared as we swam through the wave of grass. As we closed onto the lair, the silence of the night, ironically, seemed eternal. Fifteen Crusaders stood in front of the lair. The cone-shaped structure was more hideous than seeing it from a distance. The huge hole leading in was about the height of two Hunters with the width of nearly 50 meters from what I guessed. We slowly walked inside. The area was totally dark forcing us to make a light.
“One flashlight only,” I said. Then I quickly turned to Nicolas. “Do you have the package?”
“Right here,” he said showing the huge cases. Three HFE missile looked useful than ever. “So how are we going to do it?”
“Our president wants a huge campfire to celebrate our victory,” I said as everyone gathered. As quietly as I could, I gave the order. “Push our way to the very center, plant the missile and detonate it once we’re outside.”
“What about the Hunters?” asked someone.
“Kill them of course,” I said. I looked around to see any more complaints. “From now on, I don’t want anyone speaking loud. Whispering through the transmitter will do. Now, let’s get this over with.”
Everyone started forward steadily but as fast as possible. I was at the front with the light. Three of the Crusaders held the bags of missiles, the rest were located around them to protect it. Honestly, I expected none of them to perform excellence. They were tired, restless Crusaders who wanted to be heroes but can’t because they lack ability. They were more like shields or shuttles to carry the missiles.
The more I went in, the more stenches the lair made. Perhaps not as bad as the odor of Hunter corpses decaying but it was enough to make everyone uncomfortable. The others sniffled time to time; one even sneezed and surprised me to death.
“I will avoid doing that. It will get messy if we start fighting,” I warned them coldly. “I don’t know a shit about these things’ mind but I’m sure they have intelligence enough to react when their own house is under attack.”
“Sorry,” said one of them out loud. Pathetic.
About a half an hour passed and the tunnel through the lair seemed endless. The ground was solid soil and caused no problem but the passage ways the ‘main’ tunnel was connected to require us to proceed with caution. And every time someone touched the slimy wall of the lair, I had to glare at them to suppress any noise. Anyhow, the environment as we went further in wasn’t getting any better. Nobody complained since none of us studied anything about Hunter lairs but it was about time the others started to lose focus.
“When do we arrive at this ‘supposed’ center of the lair,” asked Miller, in an evident complaining tone. Gods, I wonder how he survived the fight in the morning. He put his heavy missile bag down. “We need some rest, Leon. Not everyone is as strong as you.”
“We’re in the middle of our enemy’s base and you seriously want to rest?” I demanded, whispering but clearing sending the message. “By the gods, grow up – you volunteered to do this and now you’re complaining like you’re a five year old child.”
“Hey, don’t talk to me like that – I’m the oldest person here,” he said angrily.
“Age is merely a mixture of numbers out here,” I talked back. Suddenly he turned back.
“You know what? I’m going back and tell Han – accuse you for messing up the original plan,” said Miller. What I heard was ridiculous. I almost believed I was talking to a five year old. He took his sword and started going back to where we came. “Maybe he’ll give me a reward.”
He incautiously walked away from us. Then, just as he was passing the last passageway we passed, he froze; eyes fixing his right. Miller’s hands went for his sword but the enemy’s was faster. It penetrated through his hopeless body and left him cold in corpse. Tonilia screamed in terror. And everything started happening rapidly.
“Shit! I knew he’ll cause trouble,” I shouted. I pointed at the bags. “Get the bags! I’ll make the way; try to keep up or else you’ll end up like Miller!”
The fourteen of us in the middle of Hunter’s lair started running. I looked at my watch. Time was beginning to fly at some point because the hand was pointing 2:55. Everyone had to arrive at camp by 5 by the latest to avoid the worst case scenario.
The Hunters were weak and in turmoil, but Hunters in rampage posed much more danger than when they were normal because they started charging in all directions at random timing. They literally went ‘berserk’ and I felt the delay as we fought our way inward. The resistance grew harsher; now surrounding us were hundreds of Hunters.
“We’re all going to die!” yelled out someone. The Hunters charged in. The tunnel itself was dark enough; but with enemy’s skin also black, visibility plummeted and we were at the verge of total annihilation.
“Stay together and shut up!” I shouted at them. I concentrated my ability. Silver…
I blast a devastating blow against the Hunters in front of me. The strike was so powerful that it severed through the structure itself, let alone the Hunters in my sword’s way. Nearly half of those confronting us turned into corpses and the rest of the Crusaders managed to eliminate the rest. The Hunters stopped coming for now.
“We should get moving –“ just then, a sudden pain erupted from my left wound. I cried out in pain and collapsed on my knees. Mia and Nicholas ran to help me but I turned down their hand. What the… The pain came from the injury the Controller inflicted on me. I folded my sleeves and looked through the armor to see the cut. The abrasion that appeared perfectly fine at the camp turned slightly black. Shit… what the hell is this thing?
“Leon?” asked Mia. I turned to her. I quickly stood up and re-equipped my armor.
“It’s nothing. Let’s get moving, we’re already late,” I said.
For some reason, the Hunters did not attack in large number as just before on our way arriving at the center. However, what bothered me was the visibility exacerbating and room inside the lair enlarging. Even though the Controller was dead and basic units were massacred during the latest battle, there were still a hundred or so Hunters left inside the lair. In a small tunnel, ‘surrounding’ makes little effect, but in a large spacious area, enclosing on a small group can pose great danger. I couldn’t check whether who was dead but I was certain at least three or four died when we finally arrived at the center.
I knew it was the center because the structure changed dramatically. The cone-shaped lair must have had a vacant area – a hole – at the very top because through that hole, in came the moonlight that lit a small area. Also, it was incredibly spacious. The ceiling seemed more than 100 meters high and at every level was numerous passageways through the lair. I was also surprised to find the odor nearly gone and the walls cleaner.
But it was not time for admiring the architecture. I snatched the three bags and opened them to see one HFE missiles in each bag. The computer installed in the bag allowed me to activate the missile manually and adjust the time of detonation. When I was finished, I closed it and placed it in a location that was least visible.
“Now what?” asked Nicolas. I stood up and stared at the group.
“A change of plan; we were supposed to arrive here without causing any problem. Since Miller woke up the entire lair, it’s a matter of time before they come back,” I said gathering everyone in front of the passage that we came through. I looked at my watch. “The bomb will detonate in… thirty seconds from now.”
“What? Are you mad?” demanded someone.
“28…27…26…” I counted. Everyone started running out. I took once last glance at the lair’s center and took off at the tail of the fleeing group.
Like magic, the Hunters started to attack again. They came from all directions like before but were much more aggressive. They jumped into us in individuals even though they must have known they will die. I looked at the watch and glanced back, and then returned to the clock hand ticking.
“FASTER!” I shouted across the madness of combat. And there was a brilliant sound of explosion. Already, I felt the burning heat from behind. Looking back, I saw the ferocious inferno pushing its way towards us. “I said FASTER!”
The company wasn’t going enough quickly. I cursed them for being so weak and ran passed the rest to get first in line. I used my ability to drill my way through more hastily.
“I’ll make the way, you guys will need to catch up as best as you can or you’ll end up in ashes among the Hunter lair,” I said to them. Resisting the cumulating pain, silver light illuminated inside the darkness of the tunnel. The Hunters hopelessly died out like falling leaves of autumn. And, of course, with the flame roaring from behind, everyone sure did run like hell and kept up their speed until we finally leaped out of the structure. The fire was just about to engulf the entrance when someone shouted.
“Wait! We left Ben behind!” cried one of the Crusaders who just made out. It tried to run back in. The person who seemed to be ‘Ben’ was on the ground, probably tripped on himself, and just trying to get back up. He must have felt the intensity of the fire growing because his face was swallowed in fear and desperation. “We need to help him.”
“Leon –“ said Bern.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help them. Our armor was not designed to endure such high temperature,” I said. The ‘savior’ went inside and snatched Ben. They stood up and tried to walk out. Everyone else was blatantly hesitant. I doubt they wanted those two to die but none of them wanted to get hurt or burn to death in the process either. I whispered almost to myself. “It’s their problem.”
The entrance and all the other entrances meeting the outer world exploded one by one in bright red inferno. The lair was completely burning like the hell itself. From the top, it began to dismantle slowly but steadily. And obviously, the two died instantly before they could get out.
I counted the survivors. Fifteen of us went in and ten made it out. Two a few seconds ago, two during the chaotic battle inside the lair, and… Miller. I turned back and led my company back to the camp. It was 3:58; certainly not late. But I pursed my lips as I pondered through the result. The lair was burning – mission complete – meaning we can go back and Michelle can recover to her normal life. Still, five died in the mission that should have been completed without any death. That was what I was worried about.
As expected, the camp wasn’t even half awake. The sentries weren’t up as well so the group dispersed with ease and without suspicion. I hastily put back my sword and washed up all the smell and the blood all over my body. When everything was done it was still 4:27, so I went to Michelle’s tent.
I was astonished to find Han in there as well.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded coldly. He looked up at me.
“You look angry. What’s wrong?” he asked. I instantly knew I just made a mistake. It wasn’t something I should have reacted with anger… “Never mind, I’m just here to see her.”
“You don’t have any reason to come and see her,” I said. His eyes suddenly flared.
“You know nothing Leon. She’s as important to me as she is to you,” said Han.
“Being ‘important’ has many meanings,” I said back without even considering what he meant. “Important as in being the pawn on your chessboard?”
The director chuckled. He slowly stood up and left the tent wordlessly. Indifferently, I sat on the same chair the director sat. The injury on her left side of the body was covered with white bandages. Underneath will be that weird black stuff. I rolled up my sleeves again to see the wound. The black scar was still present and didn’t seem to heal. I guessed it was because I used the ability inside the lair. But what does using my ability has to do with this?
“Oh, Leon,” said Han suddenly from behind the tent curtains. He surprised me; I almost fell from my chair. “I hope nothing bad happened…”
Then he disappeared for good. But the sudden chill that crawled all over my body was unbearable. How did he know so quickly? He will have to find out some time during the day but I didn’t expect… I quickly stood up from the chair and ran towards Han’s direction. He turned back at me like he was anticipating.
“How did you know?” I asked, nearly growling. His expression was unchanging.
“The bloody lair is visible even from here, Leon. I don’t simply pretend not to see the burst of fire coming from the building,” he said. He pointed at the direction of the lair and there it was. Only some part of the peak was visible; the rest was covered from trees, but the black smoke elevating into the air certainly made a difference. “Still, you did the job quite quickly; I don’t think anyone will notice it.”
“Wait, are you not going to –“
“Punish you for commencing a potentially-dangerous mission without a direct order?” he said instead. The director paused for a moment as if he was mulling about it. “Normally, I will have to punish you, but this is ignorable; as long as anyone else doesn’t reports or nothing particular happened during the mission.”
“What…?” I asked him, demanding him to be more specific.
“The case will go underwater if I just don’t report. But if the other directors report about this… well that will be horrible,” said Han. “And, the latter regards on the casualties during the unauthorized mission. You didn’t get anyone killed did you?”
“…” I couldn’t answer to his question. The director’s face went completely dark. “Five died.”
The director glanced at the smoking lair in the distance and sighed out loud. He looked around the camp. Then he fingered me to follow. It was only when we arrived at his tent that he started talking again.
“The bodies?” he asked me. I noticed he was trying to suppress his fury.
“Two was incinerated. Three died inside the lair, I had no way to retrieve them in that madness,” I said, surprisingly calm. “One of them is Miller Holland; I have no idea who the other four is.”
“And you simply watched them get burn to death or die in the lair during the unauthorized mission of yours?” he scowled. Apparently, the suppression wasn’t enough to prevent anger from exploding. “Do you have any idea what this can lead to?”
“The consequence is something I’ve already been anticipating. And, as long as I don’t say anything about the other accomplices, I’ll be the only one to get the punishment because there’s no way of finding out the others,” I said. “My purpose was to get back to the city as fast as possible. I achieved what I’ve originally intended. I –"
“I get your point, Leon,” Han sat down on his chair and covered his face with his hands. “You know what? I think you did a great job because Michelle can have a life and everyone else along with her. In fact, I’m going to order a full retreat around the early afternoon.”
“Then you have no reason to be worried, unless you’re worried about yourself –“
“You have no idea Leon. You might be the strongest fighter on Earth but you don’t know anything about what’s going on inside the city,” said Han. His utterance inflated only my confusion. I had no idea what he was saying. Questions I had must have been uncountable but I stayed quiet. He looked up at me, clearly desperate. “You’ll have no idea what I’m saying until the time comes. But just remember this: your enemy is not limited to ‘Hunters’.”
“Look, it’s not my fault to have them dead,” I said. “They actually volunteered to join me. I was actually going to launch this with only a few others.”
“I believe you Leon,” said the director. His face was grim. “You can return and see how Michelle’s doing. I’ll need to get everyone ready to move out of this god forsaken place.”
Wishing I could have understood even half of what he said, I left the tent and guided myself to Michelle’s tent.
About an hour later, an alarm went off to wake everyone. The medics who woke up quickly had all patients placed inside a vehicle to the city. The rest of the soldiers and Crusaders quickly packed their stuffs and helped bring down the camp. When everyone was ready to move out, the commander-in-chief finally made the announcement.
“Last night, I had secretly appointed an elite group of Crusaders with a few volunteers to destroy the Hunter lair,” he said. Han then pointed at the smoking structure in the distance behind the trees. “That’s the burning lair right there. I chose this mission to be kept covert until this morning to avoid any unexpected obstacles. Some of you might want to see the lairs in ashes for themselves, but I know every one of you want to go back to your homes more than anything.”
“This is September 2nd of Year 2. A few weeks ago, the government dared us to finish the war before October. Obviously, we did with ease,” the director paused and looked around the crowd of soldiers. “But too much have died. Only 50 or so Crusaders survived when there were originally over 300. The soldiers’ casualties are also nearly uncountable. And I still remember the days of each battle when we had to wet the grass with red blood of mankind.”
“Nevertheless, we won. We destroyed. We killed. I shouldn’t dare proclaim individuals as ‘heroes’ or ‘heroines’ of this war because none of them deserves it. Still, there are those who I can proudly claim as real heroes and heroines,” said Han. He raised his voice loud. “Look to your side and your back and your front – remember them, praise them, give them the credit you want to receive; for they are the true heroes and fighters who brought victory to this war!
Everyone roared in applaud and cheering. Some of them threw their uniforms in the air and some of them began to cry and hug those beside them.
“I Han McCline, Director of the Crusaders, commander-in-chief of Operation Hornet’s Nest, announce the end and the victory of this Operation – with the greatest pleasure,” he said. There were more cheering and laughter of joy, hugging, crying, and clapping.
“Let’s go home.”
Director Han slowly looked around the cheering crowd of Crusaders and soldiers. The other directors were also celebrating, but Han stood alone in the middle of them and smile at the crowd in front. His eyes, then met mine when he was looking towards my direction. I might have been my imagination that he was looking at me.
But the weight of the world inside the smile was something I couldn’t miss or forget.