It began to rain.
Sky darkened. Wind wailed. Raindrops crashed down.
Ground was muddy. Air was damp. Nothing seemed happy.
“Cheer up, Leon,” said Scarlet. She leaned on my shoulder as we watched out from the hospital’s balcony. Looking below, I saw some people walking with their umbrellas. Their walk was light and gleeful despite the weather – it had to be. We won the war. I unconsciously smiled coldly. We won the bloody war. “She’s going to be alright. You heard them; they’re sure they could cure her. They have all the technology.”
“I don’t doubt the machines,” I said, trying not to sound upset. What could I blame her? All she has done for me was always something I needed… “I doubt the people who use them – especially when Greg is with them.”
The day of return wasn’t too bad though. Everyone cheered out as they saw the soldiers and Crusaders all mingled together as walking into the city. The four commanders and the so called president greeted all the survivors with the most pleasant welcome speech they can make. The weather was fine. It was only like three or four in the afternoon. Plenty of things could’ve been done after dismissing Michelle into the surgery room which I couldn’t join in.
When I met Han just after watching her motionless body carried into the operation room that same day. He looked fatigue and acted like one too; limping across me without a word and collapsing onto a bench. He just stared into the emptiness and took me no notice. His face was horrible – worse than what I saw few hours before when he finished his speech back at the lair.
“We should get back. The world doesn’t allow us resting like this,” said Scarlet as she removed her brown hair from my shoulder. She took a few steps to the exit and turned back to see me. “Let’s go Leon. I can only say there’s nothing we can do right now.”
“The war ended just a day ago for god’s sake,” I murmured and followed Scarlet out of the hospital.
“As everyone knows, the Operation Hornet’s Nest was completed with us as victors but along with heavy loss of comrades. Many of you must have expected some rest,” said Han, now back as one of the five directors. “I have direct orders not to get you guys falling into idleness… But regular practice in such time is, obviously, inadequate. So we’ll just get your training go on for only five hours.”
“You heard him let’s move,” said Nelson, evidently without any energy. I saw Director Lamy elbow him. “Move! Move! Move!”
I looked around and was surprised to find the entire Crusaders cramped up in one room: the command center of the Crusaders. The room itself was quite big, but never was it to fit three hundred of the original. Now reduced to this… I scanned around as they moved slowly out of the room.
“Leon,” called out Han. He found me in the middle of the crowd. After all the directors left, he followed out dragging me. “We need to talk.”
“I said I’ll receive all the consequences,” I said.
“If this ended up that simple, I wouldn’t be here talking to you about this,” sounded Han’s voice in a low tone. I looked him in the eye. “You didn’t notice that there were only four of us present.”
Director Rick. I managed a smile but still wondered why he was acting so seriously. How bad can any punishment be? Sentencing death didn’t even need to be considered. A life in jail? Very highly unlikely as I was being praised as a hero of the citizens in the Dominion. I clearly knew Jerrod couldn’t ignore the public even with his ultimate authority. Besides, Michelle and I accounted for nearly 70 percent of the Crusader’s capability. With Michelle unconscious, I doubted whether they’ll actually condemn me during times like this – even if the Operation was over, the war continued on.
“I know they can’t touch me that easily. Besides, all that matters is her safety and I achieved that,” I said. The director stared at me like I was hopeless. He scratched his head and looked around the room. “I don’t want you to bother me with such trifles.”
“…” cat got his tongue. He stood speechless. “And by all the blessing of god, I wish it were ‘trifles’.”
“Han, we need Leon –" Director Lamy burst inside to see us two. “Am I disturbing anything?”
“No, nothing at all,” replied Han, his voice tone back to normal. “Leon, why don’t you go with Director Lamy and do what she asks you.”
“…” I gave him an irritated look. “Gladly.”
I walked out with Lamy guiding me out of the room. Han did not follow us out.
While entering the basement training area, I turned to Lamy.
“So you needed me?” I asked her.
“Yes. We have new recruits. The doctor has been working busily to fill in the gaps of missing Crusaders,” she said. Stepping inside, she pointed at a small group of people, barely a dozen of them. “Unfortunately, it's not easy to find people with adequate physical characteristics, so we have only a few. What I want is to teach them.”
“I’m not a teacher,” I blurted. “Michelle will be better.”
“She’s going through a surgery; unless you want to drag her body out of the hospital,” she shrugged. I gave her a sharp look. She suddenly backed up. “Just a joke.”
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked her, evidently showing my annoyance.
“Teach them the things you were taught of,” she said and quickly left the spot.
The group of newbies all stared at me at once. Their eyes glittered with ambition and hope. I only stared back at them with apathy and coldness but their eyes only sparkled brighter. I finally said something.
“Experience is the best teacher anyone can have; and they say the best technique is passed on by survivors,” I said monotonously. “Underlying that principle, I guarantee you self-education will make you stronger than any Crusader in time.”
“Even you?” asked one of them. And I thought I was youngest of the Crusaders for the boy was like 17.
“Even me,” I said emotionlessly. “If you get tired of doing it alone, getting a partner and dueling with them is also a good idea.” When I finished, they all stood dumbfounded. I waved my hands. “Go on then.” And they all scurried off to practice.
At first, it was quite amusing seeing all those losers messing around clumsily with their new weapon and ability. It was a matter of time, however, before I was bored to death and thanked myself for bringing a book – the very one Michelle had given me. I normally made me sleep but it seemed better than watching these ‘Crusaders’ training.
The part which I left from was just before the actual Crusade beginning in 1096; which was… like centuries ago. I started reading, with my back against the wall of the training center and making myself as comfortable as possible. In fact, I began to like this – it somehow seemed more profitable than fighting. Suddenly, I envied the directors. If they all just sit around after teaching some stuffs to the Crusaders, isn’t relaxing what they do in the remaining hours?
Thinking of directors, Han’s words interrupted my concentration with my reading. Just before Lamy came in, I knew Han was trying to tell me something – at least he almost did and apparently switched his words at the very end.
So Director Rick was to report my unauthorized mission and the secret casualties the mission cost. But what happens then? I truly did not expect any significant or severe punishment. Before even the Black-out incident, Han told me how the advancement in my ability may become politically dangerous. However, I doubted whether there was any politics in such turmoil. The only politic present was dictatorship of President Jerrod against the Earth Dominion. …shit.
I managed to read on. By the time I read until the Sixth Crusade, the training session had already ended. Like school kids running into classrooms after the bell rang, the freshmen gathered around as soon as the training concluded. They, again, stared at me as if waiting for some pleasing comment. I looked up at them from the chair I was still in.
“You may leave,” I said. They glanced at one another, looked back at me and started to murmur their way out. And only by the time I saw the elevator reach ground level did I began my way up as well.
“Dr. Greg, we think we have a solution for testing this Project,” said Mark. He was followed with a line of other scientists. And yet, Mark was sweating like hell. He barely made his first statement without stuttering. The other scientists behind him also looked uneasy. The doctor only smiled mysteriously.
“And what might be that Mr. Legovich?” asked Dr. Greg. He lowered his glasses. “I hope this is useful because I’m quite tired from helping out to cure our Dominion’s heroine.”
“Um… we tried a simulation on another species other than human – like a rat or a monkey. We can be quite sure that even through such animals, the safety may be validated,” managed Mark. His back was wet and beads of liquid tickled as they slid down the skin.
“We are scientists Mr. Legovich. How sure can you be about the safety and the trustworthiness of the validation?” asked the doctor. His calm tone seemed to make Mark and the others even more anxious. “Surely, we don’t want any soldiers, Crusaders, or civilians endangered, do we?”
“Yes… I mean no! No, we will never want such disaster,” said Mark. He hesitated to answer. “The reliability of the test result and the safety… we calculated to be about 86.7%, doctor.”
“And what happens if the other 13.3% occurs while we test on human life form?” questioned the doctor. Anyone will have felt his voice getting tenser. Unwittingly, Mark stepped backwards. The doctor raised his head to glance on the scientists behind him. "Is this all – the ones who participated in this calculation?”
“Yes… um… doctor,” stammered Mark. Dr. Greg turned to his desk and pushed some buttons that seemed to do nothing on sight. He then turned back to the group of scientists. “Doctor…? Sir…?”
Soon, three guards stepped inside the laboratory. They were armed with a sword and a gun. Mark looked at them and back to Dr. Greg, terrified.
“Doctor! Please! Give me one more chance!” cried Mark all of the sudden.
“Mr. Mark Legovich, you’ve been an excellent spy and a scientist for bringing me information from the president and contributing to the development of Raven Project,” said Dr. Greg. He then pointed at the scientists behind. “And I’m sure the rest of you were just as important and useful.”
“No! Please! I have a six-year-old daughter…!” The guards pulled Mark and the others down and strapped them and gagged them.
“Unfortunately, I believe you guys have depleted your usefulness against me. I truly wish you can simply walk out but what you people have been doing is beyond anyone’s pay grade,” said the doctor. “Confine them to the lower level of the laboratory and… well, you know what to do to their families.”
They tried to wail and their hands and feet were throwing a fit, desperate to release themselves.
“Oh, and know this, since you might not seeing the sun the rest of your live – I already have a definite plan for earning a human subject for experiment.”
President Jerrod was in his room. On his desk was a very detailed report on Hornet’s Nest. The rest of the digital papers and files were all useless or trivial. He won the war. No… Leon won the war. He earned what he wanted – respect and fame and power. Yet… why am I feeling threatened? Suddenly, there was a knock on the door and Charles came in. Jerrod trusted Charles. He was his best adviser from day 1 as Captain of the 3rd Ark.
“Mr. President, I have reports on Raven Project from Dr. Greg’s team,” he said. And here it is… Jerrod slowly opened it up. Charles soon left the room for him to read the report. The file was clearly labeled Ultra Secret – above anyone’s pay grade apart from Vincent and himself. Still, he would have showed it to Charles if he asked.
He read through the file. When he finished, he realized why he was feeling so threatened. It’s him… this scientist is frightening me – the president who has every power over this country. He laughed coldly out loud. It was true, though. The doctor seemed to hold grasp on anything he did whichever area it was. If Raven Project succeeds to prove more valuable than the Crusader Project, what happens then? What if Vincent takes over the command of the army and throw a…
Even thinking about it made him shudder. Jerrod didn’t know… he couldn’t figure out when it all went wrong. The moment I turned Leon my enemy? No… it was much earlier than that. His so called parent weren’t even acting like parents anyway. Then… was it back when Vincent was still part of the 3rd Ark before moving to the 1st?
Then he recalled. It was 1st of January 2617; before the New Calendar began with Earth Day. Jerrod smirked by himself. It was even New Year Day… He remembered his friend Vincent. Han McCline. Michelle Nathans. The four of them were watching Vincent’s greatest creation. The greatest creation that even had impact even 25 years or so later. Vincent said it will change the paradigm of modern warfare; where missiles, WMDs, HACs, or any weapons that can make total destruction are all Lost Technologies, it’s now back to humans to fight warfare. Vincent Greg assured me I will rein in power as soon as any dispute among us happens…
The happening that occurred next was too disturbing and confusing, it gave Jerrod headache. It’s the present that matters, Jerrod told himself. He took a deep breath and tried to get back to his presidential work. Vincent is back. He’s helping me and so far, everything has gone well. That’s all that matters…
“Leon,” said a familiar voice as I walked sluggishly out of the training center. I looked around. And to my astonishment, I caught sight of Michelle. She was on a wheelchair with Scarlet pulling her from behind with an umbrella. The bandages from her left side of her body punctured out from her clothes.
I didn’t know what to say. My mouth and eyes went wide and ran towards her. I hugged her – as gently as possible so she won’t hurt, but firm with all my heart into it.
“I thought you’ll never come out,” I cried out. Tears gathered up but, I just managed to swallow them before the two can see it. “Did the surgery go well?”
“That’s why I’m here,” she said happily. “Dr. Greg helped my surgery and the other doctors say it was because of him everything processed so fast.”
I glanced at Scarlet. She only smiled back as if knowing what I was going to say and simply handed another umbrella. I couldn’t help but to grin back.
“You’ve been reading quite often?” asked Michelle as she pointed the thick book I was carrying.
“Yeah, it really helps when I can’t sleep,” I joked.
“One day, I hope that book does not help you to sleep,” shrugged Michelle casually. “So, you’ve eaten anything? It’s nearly supper time.”
“No, I haven’t. Just my way coming out of the training center,” I said.
Three of us strolled toward the restaurant. While eating, Michelle asked me what happened after she was knocked out. Scarlet told her Han ordered a covert mission but I waved my hands. Then, to the two I trusted, I told what really happened, with my voice tone as low as possible.
“Then Han lied to us? The entire army including the directors?” Scarlet frowned at my story.
“Except… well, Director Rick, who seems to somehow know the mission and the deaths it caused,” I said.
“Won’t the other Crusaders who joined you complain or like… blame you in public for their deaths?” asked Michelle. She was really focusing hard to every word I said.
“That is something I took care of when I planned the mission. Besides, as soon as they reveal themselves as voluntaries for the unauthorized mission, it’s only a matter of time they get condemned as well,” I said. I didn’t like talking about the topic. It was over two days before she finally woke up – but talking of things like this? It just seemed unfit. Still, I put a smile on my face.
“So what did Han tell you?” asked Michelle as she finished up her disk.
“He told me to keep low profile,” I muttered.
“That’s good,” she said calmly.
“I don’t see how it’s good,” I complained.
“I mean it’s a good idea; you don’t want to catch unwanted attention when you have bad stuffs on your tail right?” Michelle shrugged casually. Honestly, I couldn’t feel any ease about this situation but… Michelle feeling so comfortable was something of great significance. It was something I could live with it if as long as her tranquility maintains. The last thing I wanted was involving Michelle into this case as well.
“Speaking of Han, he came by just after I finished my surgery,” she said. I glanced and Scarlet but she just nodded. I looked at her straight in the eyes but only laughed at it. “Leon, it was nothing. I sometimes wonder who the guardian is. It was about the official celebration for tomorrow for the victory of the war.”
“Oh,” I stammered and looked down at my plate.
“He said there’ll be a great reward,” added Scarlet.
“I can’t wait to see,” I said sarcastically.
“I don’t see why they give out such rewards. It’s not like the war gave us much,” said Michelle with sorrow in her voice.
“…” remembering the moment Michelle was knocked out by the Controller, the food in my mouth tasted like ash. “I guess not.”
So what did we win? That was something I thought of that night. There were probably thousands, if not, millions of lairs infested in this planet. We just destroyed one; the nearest one found so far. And the result was tragic. It was a victory, closer to defeat.
Michelle and I with a few hundred of Crusaders fought like hell, rampaged, moaned, and fought again. For what? The only thing that returned was pain. Pain of death. Pain of seeing someone precious getting injured and unconscious. Pain of the fact that... that, this wasn’t the end.
The ‘squads’ they assigned on the fifteen of us became more and more obscure. Some of them forgot who their squad leaders were. Some of them simply didn’t care. During the last few weeks and days, there wasn’t a squad. There were us – and the enemy. So little of us were left that grouping exacerbated things. For the first few weeks – until about 2 weeks or so – Michelle insisted I should check on my squad members and record their status on a notebook. While I complained and whined a lot, I did the job, found out we were on the verge of annihilation by the third week while the other squads still had about half of their men left. Michelle then told me rather than simply recording; I should protect them with my life, now that like five of us were left.
“Why should I risk my life to save them? I don’t know them and haven’t mixed a single word other than perfunctory conversation. Besides, it’s their fault they didn’t stand near me,” I complained when she told me that.
“You’re a leader, Leon. You might be strong and powerful but that doesn’t mean you can boast around or expect others to keep to your pace,” she would say. “As a squad leader, at least as you were assigned as one, you should risk something for those weaker, especially if they are people within your power.”
I complained again like a child. Michelle only smiled and patted my back as an encouragement. I thought I lost everyone by the time reached just before the final battle. But after I looked up on the survivor list, I found one was alive: Kale Brim. I had no idea how that bastard survived the entire war, but I was glad. I didn’t have to see Michelle scowl about it again.
But then… that doesn’t even matter. Because the war doesn’t end just like that. The deathly cycle will simply continue. Continue until there’s no Hunter left on this planet. Who knows? Maybe a week or two later, they’ll rally up the Crusaders again to strike another lair. Then I’ll be reassigned with a new set of Crusaders to a squad. Then, everyone will go to war in despair. Then once again, more than half of us will be butchered. If we win, we’ll all come back and everyone will celebrate, reinforce with new recruits, call up another ‘Operation’ and…
I sighed while staring at the ceiling from my bed. It was exhausting even by thinking about it. Everything was just fine; or at least it seemed all right. Just before the unification, Sector 3 was a home for me; for everyone else as well. We drove out the Hunters time to time. The settlement developed as days passed. Jerrod wasn’t that of a jerk. And most of all, the place guaranteed Michelle and Scarlet’s safety along with my own.
But now… it looked like the current of time jumbled up all kinds of complexities into my life. I chuckled in amusement on myself. And yet, there’s not that much ‘problems’ I’m going through if I count in number. And since when did I have so much in my head?
There was a sudden lightning and a burst of thunder.
The sound was so astonishing and loud that I almost fell from my bed. I laughed coldly. Recalling that night, I must have been mad. The rain drops seemed to get heavier and louder. The lightning lit the dark room and thunder followed it. I laid my arm on my forehead and kept on staring at the pitch black ceiling.
Han. Michelle. Unauthorized mission. Punishment. Rick. Jerrod…
The night grew old and I finally managed to sleep.
Where did it go wrong?
The rain had stopped and through the window, gleaming sunlight pierced its way in. Michelle was the one who woke me up.
“Get up Leon! The celebration starts in 30 minutes. Han said you and I need to be there. We’re late!” she shouted as she pulled me out of the bed. I looked around, drowsily and saw I haven’t even changed my clothes, nor was I under my sheet.
“Wh… what time is it?” I murmured.
“It’s 8:30 in the morning, come on! Meet me outside in five minutes,” she said and hurried outside. I sat on the floor and watched her leave blankly. I staggered up and limped toward the closet, gathered some clothes and quickly changed into them. By the time I went out to meet her in front of my house, she was furious. “We’re late Leon! COME ON!”
She started a dead run and apparently she was very awake because I had a hard time catching her up with half of my body still asleep. Arriving at the square at last, Han greeted us behind a huge stage installed for the day. The crowds were already gathering up and more than half of the seats were full.
“You’re late,” said Han bitterly. He looked at me. “And you look like you’re going to doze off any second.”
“Thank you,” I replied. He sighed and guided us through a room.
“And now, President Jerrod Hamel will give us a speech on the valiantly won victor during Operation Hornet’s Nest.” Clapping and applauding was heard. Cheering was everywhere. Though I couldn’t see what was happening, it was not hard estimating what it was.
“Citizens of the Dominion, on this beautiful day, I’m proud to officially speak out and proclaim the first victory over the Hunters as the Crusaders and the soldiers of this country successfully destroyed and burned the lair to the ground, but I cannot say this is all that gleeful,” he said and paused. “I thought – we thought – the Blackout Incident was catastrophic. It was a shock. A terrifying event that raged us and fueled Operation Hornet’s Nest.”
“Over 200 Crusaders lay dead on the field of unknown as well as another 400 soldiers of this small settlement. And I’ve heard families only mourning of the dead instead of celebrating the victory. It broke my heart – how we all couldn’t put a pleasant smile on our face even with a glorious victory!” Jerrod started to raise his voice. “I understood them. I visited their houses myself and prayed for their soul and mourned with the rest of the survivor’s families. I even heard their past. Their stories before the Operation and some kindly told how he or she lived in the Ark. They were all normal, ordinary people with fire and dream in their heart as soldiers. They all had hopes of their own. For glory, for patriotism, for money, or even for love.”
“Now back to a question many people would have wondered: who won the war?” I flinched and looked up at nothing. “They won the war. The ordinary people. The normal and perfectly average soldiers who is living and has lived. We are here to announce the two heroes who everyone unanimously – even the directors – agreed they have directly contributed to the success of this mission. However the progress was, nevertheless, the result and glory is rightfully everyone’s.
“Before we announce the two Crusaders, I will like to ask everyone a favor,” he said. “The glory and honor of the result of this war is yours. Straighten your chest. Stick your head high in the air – for you are the victors and should be proud for the rest of your lives.”
The crowd roared madly. Clapping, applauding, shouting, yelling, calling of ‘Hamel!’, “Hamel!’… I glanced at Michelle. She was silently listening, without any reaction or emotion.
“It’s your turn,” said Han. He pointed at the stairs upward.
We went up.
Jerrod was there. Dr. Greg was there, along with the five directors with Han coming up with us. The entire population – or at least most of them – was gathered up in the square. Jerrod gave another short speech and called Michelle forward first. Next to Jerrod were two large rectangular boxes. I guessed that was the prize.
“Michelle Nathans,” Jerrod called out. His voice rang through the crowd.
“Yes,” Michelle answered solemnly.
“Your greatness and talent was shown vividly during the war and did not hesitate to save many souls in this square who might have been buried under the soil if not for your bravery,” said the president. He then pulled on box out forward, closer to her. “The Earth Dominion is proud to have such a soldier as a member of our society. As a token of our gratification, I Jerrod Hamel, President and Guardian of Earth Dominion gladly present you with this sword made by the swords-maker Albrino Halyon.”
It was a sword. I might have laughed if it wasn’t the thousands of eyes concentrating on me and Michelle. Even so, her face was still as a sword. Only a slight smile of thankfulness sprang.
The box opened. And there lay a magnificent sword vertically standing comfortably inside the box along with a scabbard next to it. There was a yell of awe from the crowd. Indeed the blade was fabulous. It looked almost too perfect – like a sword for decoration.
The sword was shining brightly, reflecting the bright sunlight. The hilt was colored in gold and silver. Just between the blade and the grip was a bright red jewelry that flashed in flaming red. The blade was nice and long but slim as well. It wasn’t too broad, it wasn’t too narrow. I suddenly wondered whether such sword was something blacksmiths made back when such weapons ruled the world. I first saw it was somewhat quite funny, but now I was beginning to think it quite valuable.
Jerrod carefully removed the sword and the scabbard from the box. He slowly sheathed the sword and handed the sword onto her hand. There was an explosion of applauding and hailing. She bowed and faced the crowd and bowed again. The crowd roared again in joy.
“Leon Veridi,” he said when the crowd died out. I silently stepped out right in front of the president.
“The directors and all those interviewed praised you as true hero,” he said with a great smile. “Killer of the Chimera, slayer of the Controller, and destroyer of the lair – you have great titles already. And I suppose a fit reward is rightfully necessary.”
“I’m honored,” I said. It felt bitter saying it.
“No. We are honored,” replied President Jerrod. He unleashed the last box. The sword incased was big, but just as fascinating as Michelle’s. “They call these types ‘claymores’ in Medieval Age. Powerful weapon to destroy powerful enemy.”
“May it serve as a token of victory; wherever you go.”
I grabbed the grip of the claymore. It was heavy yet, ironically light. I felt stronger and… it felt quite good. I looked around me and my eyes met Michelle’s. She smiled and clapped with the rest of the people in the square. I unwittingly grinned.
It was night. I was inside my room and the large sword was just in my hands as I sat on my bed to have a look at it more closely. I slowly removed the scabbard. And with a crystal-clean cling-, the naked blade was shown before me. I looked closer at the sword and noticed there was a very small inscription on the hilt and faint combination of letters on the blade itself. On the hilt, there was one word.
Latin. On the blade were words more complicating.
Mors ultima linea rerum est
The other side, there was another set of words.