3-5: What War?
The entire neighborhood was covered in flames.
In the middle of night’s darkest hour, several explosions lit up the area. Screams of civilians and burnt corpses were rampant. It was certain that come sunrise, the scene would be beyond horrific.
In the middle of this chaos, a family of three was running for their lives. The parents were in their thirties, and the child was a boy no more than 8 years old.
“Mom, what’s going on?” the child asked as he was being carried by his father. “Is the Blazing Monster attacking us? I’m scared.”
The boy started crying. As the parents’ eyes began filling with tears in helplessness at the situation before them, the outburst of the child stopped abruptly. A strong, sudden force pushed his head backwards and he fell out of his father’s arms and down to the floor. With a shocked expression on the child’s frozen face, blood flowed from a hole right between his eyebrows.
A clean headshot.
The parents gasped as they turned to see their son dead, but before they could even say anything, two holes instantly appeared behind their heads and they fell right beside the boy, blood soon finding its way to mix in with their tears. A wave of fire followed to envelope them as a cloaked figure could be seen holding a gun with a silencer on his left hand. He was hanging onto a wall using outside pipelines when he shot and burned the three, and upon finishing the deed he dropped to the floor, turned his back, and proceeded to walk away.
After a quick flinch upon noticing a hostile presence, the cloaked person immediately raised his gun and pointed it to his left, where the 5-foot high remains of a wall stood. He then shot the wall, causing a person to emerge from behind it with her hands raised and her face a panicked mess.
It was a woman in her early 20’s.
With her hands still raised, the woman rushed to the person in the cloak. Upon reaching him, she fell on her knees and grasped the person’s cloak tightly. She then began to cry.
“Please! Please spare me! I don’t know who you are, but I’ll do anything! I...” She was losing control over her voice as she held her stomach. “I…I’m pregnant... Please, I can’t die here! We can’t die here! Please let us live!”
The cloaked figure bent down on one knee and held the woman’s cheek with his right hand. Their faces were now level with each other. The woman’s eyes looked hopeful as she tried to take a glimpse at the person in front of him.
The cloaked figure shook his head in response to her plea.
Her face squeezed and her crying intensified.
Before the woman could finish, her face was burned instantly, and her body followed after. The last image she saw was that of two eyes dyed a deep crimson.
With the woman dead, the cloaked figure stood up and continued walking away. As flames ravaged everything around him, he raised his free arm and ran it over his face. The back of his arm became wet and he made a quick sniff before picking up the pace and running out of the neighborhood.
Red the Crimson General was riding a jet plane with an assortment of bio-soldiers and regular soldiers. He was wearing a black cloak and, upon putting down its hood, showed his face full of splattered blood. Furthermore, his blood-red iris aside, his eyes were sore with the color of his name.
“Are you all right, Red?” David, one of his division commanders, asked. “I know you’ve done this a lot of times by now, but no one will blame you if you decide to step back every once in a while.”
“Your eyes are saying otherwise. What happened?”
His head sunk and he hid his face in his arms. “She...she said she was pregnant...” His hands formed into fists. “I know it’s not my first time killing pregnant women and small, innocent children, but this is just something you can never get used to.”
A female soldier approached him and put her arm around him. “That’s why we’re telling you that you shouldn’t push yourself too hard,” she said. “Even we, who aren’t bio-soldiers, can handle raiding a neighborhood of unarmed people, you know. There’s no reason for the general himself to go out there.”
Red shook his head. “I’ll shoulder whatever pain and sorrow I can,” he responded. “I’m already a monster; there’s no need for anyone else to throw away their humanity. One mass murderer is enough.”
The atmosphere within the jet plane became heavy in an instant.
This is the hidden side of Red the Blazing Monster. Not only was he infamous for fighting at the front lines of battle where he would kill any opposing soldier who ended up discovering that he was a teenager, but he also attacked cities and homes with minimal military protection, leaving no survivors behind. This was why to this day, the only definitive thing that is known about the Crimson General in other countries was the fact that Red controlled fire and that his eyes were crimson in color. Furthermore, even with eyewitnesses, it would be hard for anyone to believe that a teenager would be so heartless as to personally kill innocent civilians, even if it was to increase his strategic advantage in the war.
In the end, his biggest mask was not the hooded cloak that he wore when raiding towns and homes, but his actions that defied what was expected of people his age. A teenager who has killed thousands upon thousands in less than a year was unthinkable.
There was more to the story, however. While the fact that he personally participates in his army’s raids was unknown to most of the civilians of his country – including a certain teenage girl – almost the entire world itself was oblivious as to the Blazing Monster’s expression during his killing sprees, his face always covered in a hooded cloak of anonymity. Only the soldiers he directly worked with knew.
They knew that he never stops crying while in an assigned area.
When he burned the three-story house, when he assassinated the family of three...his serum gave him the accuracy to snipe perfectly, but any normal person would have been severely handicapped with having so many tears flowing from their eyes.
In her final moments, the last sight of the young pregnant woman before getting burned was that of a red-eyed teenager with a crumpled face covered in tears and blood, begging for forgiveness for the murder he was about to commit as he shook his head.
“We can’t die here!” she had said, referring to both her and the child in her womb. “Please let us live!”
The young general could only shake his head as he said “I’m sorry” repeatedly in his head.
Red took the hand of the woman holding him. “Can a monster feel guilt…?”
The female soldier, still having her arm around her general, turned her head towards her comrades. The others shook their heads. It was no use. They’ve tried time and again to tell Red that despite everything that has happened, despite all the people he has killed, he was no monster. However, the crimson-eyed teenager would not listen. Perhaps he wanted to be called a monster so that he could have a sense of accomplishment in what he was doing, or perhaps he could not forgive himself for all the lives he has taken and will take in the future until the war came to a close.
“You’re no monster, Red,” they wanted to say, but they knew it was useless.
The female soldier, at a loss for words, simply placed her other hand on Red’s head and wept for him.
Red clicked his tongue. “It’s not even sunrise,” he said, “and yet I’m starting to hate this day already.”
2:30am. Catherine was inside Red’s room. Her knees were on the floor and her upper body rested on his bed as she lay asleep. It was as if she was visiting someone unconscious in a hospital, only she was alone at this time.
The knob outside turned and the door slowly creaked open.
Hearing these sounds, Catherine instantly opened her eyes and got up. She hurriedly combed her hair with her hands and took a glimpse of herself at the wall mirror nearby. Giving her reflection a nod, she then faced the door as it was opened completely.
“Happy birthd-” She cut off her own words with a gasp.
In front of her stood Red, yes, but he was a mess that she did not expect to see. He was wearing a black cloak that had a few of its edges burned. Furthermore, his face had a mixture of dried-up tears and blood, eyes that were sore from having continuously cried, and the smell of smoke.
“Cath...?” Red was just as frozen as Catherine was. “Why are you here?” Damn, I was way too distracted that I didn’t even sense her in my room. I must be a complete mess right now, huh?
Sprinting up to Red, Catherine took his hand and dragged him towards the bathroom.
“We’ll talk later,” she said. “Wash up for now, and then you can tell me everything after.”
Finding himself speechless, Red used his free hand to drop his weapons, let go of Catherine, and proceeded to enter the bathroom, closing and locking the door behind him.
Once Catherine could hear water flowing from the bathroom, she turned to Red’s weapons to tidy them up. There was a gun with a silencer, a dagger, and his iconic Bo Staff made of 50lbs of metal, the latter two of which had blood smeared all over them. She set them all aside in a corner of the room extremely carefully; in particular, she had considerable difficulty with the staff because of how heavy it was to her.
“These are...murder weapons,” she whispered to herself. “That loner, soft-spoken Red, holding these things and immersing himself in the blood of others...what has this war done to him?” She noticed some carvings on the dagger handle and picked it up. The name “Nessie” was engraved on it.
“Could this be...Vanessa’s...?”
After setting the weapons aside and putting a spare curtain over them, Catherine sat on Red’s bed, facing the bathroom as she waited for him. The crimson-eyed boy got out of the bathroom several minutes later, clean and wearing new clothes. He looked around.
“Oh...you set aside my stuff,” he commented. “Thanks. So why are you still here? I wanna sleep now.”
“So you won’t talk to me about it, huh...” Catherine muttered. She then lay herself down on the bed. “Then I’m staying with you tonight.”
“I’ll face myself to the right and you go left,” the girl on his bed said. “I told you, I’ll be right here by your side no matter what happens.”
“That’s a little too literal, don’t you think?” He then instinctively yawned.
Smiling, Catherine pointed at Red. “Hah! Look, you’re sleepy! Come on, don’t be shy.”
“Fine, fine.” Crawling on the bed, Red found himself sharing half of his sleeping place with the girl he was fighting the world for. He snuggled his back to hers. At this, Catherine blushed outside Red’s line of vision.
“I knew it,” Red suddenly said.
“W-what?” Catherine, flustered, managed to say back. “What is it?” Oh no, did he find out that I have feelings for-
“You really are nice,” the young general commented, disrupting Catherine’s inner monologue. “Even though I’m a red-eyed fire-spewing mass murderer, and even though you like Jason, you still find it in yourself to go out of your way for me. You’re a real friend, Cath. Thanks for remembering my birthday.”
Because their backs were pressed against each other, Catherine tried her best not to show her reaction at that time, but she was struggling to not shake her body as tears started forming in her eyes.
What have I done? she thought. She remembered how she overheard Red talking with Victor and seeing how the young general was convinced that she was head over heels for Jason. It’s because I said all of those things so callously...
Things she said from their high school days began resurfacing in the teenage girl’s head.
“Say, Red...do you know if...Jason has anyone he particularly likes?”
“Tell me more, tell me more! What’s his favorite color? His hobbies? What kind of girl would be his type? What, you don’t know? Please ask him! I really have to know!”
“Hey Red, come with me after school for a bit. I’d like your help in getting Jason a gift for his birthday.”
“You think giving him Valentine’s chocolate is a little too much?”
“I...I think I wanna confess to him. What do you think?”
Then, a male voice. “He’d be an idiot to reject someone as great as you.”
Catherine’s face was a teary mess. Red was already fast asleep, and she took this chance to start shaking and crying in regret.
How come I can’t say it now? she told herself as she let hear tears flow. “The one I like now is you, Red. You’re the one I want to be with the most. I’m here for you no matter what happens and what you become.” Why can’t I just say those words? Is it my pride? I’m the worst...!
Eventually, her strength gave in and she fell asleep as well.
“Oh, you’re awake? Good morning, Red.”
The red-eyed teenager got up from his bed. As he looked around, he noticed that his room was even tidier than usual, and in front of him, where the voice had come from, was a sight he did not expect to see: It was Catherine sweeping the floor.
“Am I in an alternate reality where I’m married?” He held his head. “Is this the part where I get up, prepare for work, and you’ll fix my tie while I step out of the doorway? No wait, I can’t be married to you...heck, I’m still in the base. Right, right, you forced me to let you sleep here after...”
“Can you just stop thinking?” Catherine said. “I got your clothes prepared for you in the bathroom. Come on, we better go get breakfast.”
“What time is it?”
“Around 9 or something. It’s because you were up so late. Look how much work I got done here; I even got to shower and change in my room only to come back here to clean up this place because there was nothing to do with you still fast asleep.” She set aside the broom she was holding and approached the dumbfounded red-eyed boy, pulling his hand to force him to stand up. “Go wash up and change your clothes while I fix your bed.”
Finding no reason not to follow, Red obediently entered the room to see a pair of shorts and a shirt neatly folded on top of each other, but something else was there: a party hat. Not sure what to do, he washed his face, brushed his teeth, changed his clothes, and exited the bathroom while holding the party hat.
He was surprised to see Catherine wearing the same thing on top of her head as she approached him.
“Come on, let’s go get breakfast.” She tugged at his arm. “You didn’t have enough sleep, so you’re gonna take a nap, right? Let’s see...two and a half hours, right?”
Red did the calculations in his head. “I can’t believe you knew that I need 9 hours of sleep a day. How’d you figure that out?”
Catherine laughed. “Not telling. And put your hat on.”
The cafeteria was populated with people even though it was past breakfast time. Instead of eating, however, they were gathered into multiple groups playing games like cards, various board games, and even games on laptops with controllers connected into them. Others were watching shows over at their laptops that Red recognized all too well: these were shows that he liked. Looking again, he realized that even the video games the soldiers were playing were all games he was endeared to as a kid and to this day.
But that was not the pressing issue at hand.
The problem was that every single one of them was wearing a party hat. Even the women weren’t safe; they were with their husbands partaking in Red’s hobbies, also with party hats on.
“Come on, let’s go get our breakfast,” Catherine said, interrupting Red’s train of thought. She started pulling his arm.
Even the cafeteria lady was wearing one.
“Seriously, Cynthia?” Red said as he put his tray forward to receive his plate. “What the hell is going on here? I’m supposed to have the weekly meeting with the division commanders 30 minutes from now, so why is everyone...?”
“Meeting?” Cynthia asked before handing Red his food. “Division commanders? What?”
Confused, Red turned to Catherine.
The girl tilted her head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Red.”
Making a slight growl in annoyance, Red proceeded to go to an empty table with Catherine. As they settled down with their food, however, the pair was met by Roger. He sat across them with a laptop in his hand. He was playing a tactical RPG.
“Say, Red,” he said, turning his laptop around so that the screen faced the two teenagers. “Can you help me here? I can’t get past this stage.”
This game... “Tactical RPG’s of this franchise usually pits you against more than twice the number of members you have,” Red proceeded to say. “In this stage, however, the enemy only has a one-man advantage, but that’s because you have four extra members completely separated from you. First thing you should do is meet up on the valley below. Don’t use your main party of three to go storming the mountaintop where the boss is and leave the others behind hoping they’ll survive somehow. It’s a pain, I know, but grouping up and taking down enemies systematically one-by-one is always the most surefire way to win here.”
“Damn, I knew it.” Roger turned the laptop back towards him. “I’ll try. You don’t mind if I ask you more questions should I get stuck, right?”
“Sure.” As he was chewing his food, Red started tapping the table with his fingers in tandem with the background music of the game Roger was playing. This made Catherine giggle, but Red did not even notice it.
When the two teenagers finished eating, they circled the area, checking out what the other people were doing. All of the division commanders were there, none of whom seemed to be concerned about their supposed meeting.
“What about the status report about last night’s raid?” Red asked David, the division commander he was with during his latest attack on civilians. “I need to know how much it’s affected enemy morale and economic movement.”
David simply stared at Red. “What raid? We can’t make reports for things that didn’t happen, Red. Come on, just lighten up and play with us over here.”
Red squinted his eyes in irritation. It wasn’t because David, just like all the others around him, was feigning ignorance about the war, but because in the RPG the division commander was playing with several onlookers, he found something unsettling.
“You better be careful if you wanna recruit the squid. You’re gonna have to get the griffon, or if you want the unicorn as well, get the girl without getting the griffon. Basically, what I wanna say is that if you get both the squid and the unicorn right away, you won’t be able to get the girl, and that means you can’t get the best ending.”
“I did not understand a word you just said.”
Red heaved a sigh. “Just...just go look for the griffon right after this so that you can get the best ending. He’s at a small village in a forest.”
“All right, thanks. I’ll call you when I get there.”
Red continued his rounds. Aside from the games, he stumbled upon his subordinates watching animated series that held a large place in his heart. There was an over-the-top show about gigantic robots, a slice-of-life series about high school friendship and family, and even ones with outdated graphics that held sentimental value to the red-eyed general due to pure nostalgia, among other things.
These adults watched and played with party hats on their heads. Red kept moving around the cafeteria, reliving bits and pieces of his past as his companions took the time to be part of it.
Red ended up being so immersed that he did not feel the hours pass by, until it was 12pm and he had grown hungry. Even then everyone rushed eating and resumed to what they were doing soon after.
This lasted until 3pm, when Red started feeling sleepy and could not stop yawning.
“Time for your nap, sleepyhead,” Catherine said as she pulled Red out of the cafeteria.
Everyone could see that Red’s heart sank as he was last heard saying “Awww” before being dragged out of sight.
“Oh man, I hope this is enough,” Victor said. “Still, props on you guys for going along with this.”
“On the contrary,” Allen interjected with a smile. “The shows and games he’s into are pretty interesting. Anyway, this whole idea is great and all, but do you think the kid will get the message?”
“We don’t have a choice,” came the voice of Felix, one of the five division commanders. “Remember, we’re going this far because words won’t reach him.”
Their problem was that they could not convince Red that he was not a monster. Having killed so many people, the young general had claimed that he was no longer human. Just like how he had closed off the idea that Catherine might someday have feelings for him, the red-eyed boy believed that there was no way someone like him deserved to be called human after what he has done so far. Hence, the soldiers who believed in him, who saw him mourn and be burdened with the lives he took, decided to know more about him, and this was their answer: consume the media that had sustained Red during his formative days as a child living alone. They wanted to know more about him beyond the overpowered humanized weapon that he was known for in this war.
Victor heaved a sigh. “We can only hope...”
“They couldn’t have just started watching and playing today,” Red commented as he lay on his bed and Catherine, still wearing the party hat, placed his blanket over him. “They must’ve been at it for quite a while, maybe during their free time these past few days. Whose idea was this anyway?”
“Not telling,” Catherine replied with a grin. “Just go to sleep, Red. Go to the large meeting room once you wake up, okay?”
“Um, okay...I guess.” Turning away from Catherine, Red closed his eyes.
It was a few minutes before 6pm.
As promised, Red went to the large meeting room where he would usually assemble his soldiers before going out to battle. However, this time it was different. It was he who was called, and when he entered from the large doors he heard a line that he had not heard in years.
“Happy birthday, Red!”
Catherine had tried greeting him the night before, but it was cut short when she saw him in his post-raid look, so it did not count. As the greeting resounded in the room, party popper noises joined in with the clapping. Looking beyond the crowd, he could see tables set up, as well as food and several cakes. The 548 bio-soldiers as well as several high-ranking officials working under Red gathered in that room.
They all looked so goofy with their smiles and party hats that the young general could not help but laugh.
From the corner of the crowd, Catherine stepped forward and handed Red his own hat.
“What, you thought it was over?” the girl said with a grin.
Red took the party hat and put it on his head. “Dammit.”
“Come on, kid,” came Victor’s loud voice from the crowd. “Let’s dig in!”
Red grinned. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said, immediately sprinting forward to one of the tables. He grabbed a chicken leg with one hand and a plate on the other. Stuffing the chicken in his mouth and nibbling on it while on the move and occasionally adjusting it with his forearm because he would be using both hands, he took some utensils with his now-free hand and placed it on top of the plate. He then, without paying heed to the dumbfounded people in the room, proceeded to collect pile after pile of food until his plate was full, at which point he had already finished eating the chicken.
Laughing, the people around him proceeded to follow suit. After a while, they were all sitting in circular tables. Red was with Catherine, Allen, Roger, and Emily.
Meanwhile, Adam was at the furthermost end of the room, where Red would stand to face his soldiers. There were multiple pieces of machinery around him, and with the pressing of various buttons, the wall lit up and a movie started showing for everyone to see.
Red’s mouth involuntarily opened. “That’s...” It was an animated detective movie that he liked. He then stood up, pointed at Adam, and shouted, “You’re the culprit!”
Adam laughed. “Well, you did use my money to buy all your stuff,” he commented over a microphone from where he was. “I kept tabs on what you bought. That’s why I know what kinds of games and shows you like.” Laughter from the soldiers followed.
Red slowly sat down. With his face bowed, his body started shaking.
“What’s wrong, Red?” Catherine was about to reach out her hand to him.
This was interrupted when Red burst out in laughter. “Hahahaha! Damn, you guys got me good!” It took him several seconds to settle down, but once he did, he placed his stare on Emily, which surprised the female scientist.
“Wh-what is it, sir...?”
“I’m too far right now and I don’t feel like shouting again,” Red said, which still did not make sense to Emily at that time. “Tell the old man I said thanks. Also, I’m rooting for you.” He gave a thumbs up before resuming his meal.
At this, Emily shyly hid her face. “Y-you knew...?”
With a blank face as if it was the most obvious thing ever, Red replied, “Of course I knew. It only takes a few times of me wandering around the base at night every now and then to notice the presence of two people isolated like a couple.” He laughed. “Besides, I have an eye for this kind of thing; I just kinda know if someone has feelings for someone I know. In any case, don’t bother hiding it anymore, okay?” He looked at his plate. “Oh crap, it’s empty again. I’ll be right back, guys.”
As Red left, Allen and Roger started questioning Emily.
“I had no idea.”
“Since when did you fall for my brother?”
“You guys planning on getting married?”
“I guess it’s fine since you’d be a widow-widower couple.”
Meanwhile, Catherine was in a melancholic state, slowly nibbling on the food in front of her. “Then why don’t you notice my feelings for you...?” she said in a voice so soft that no one else could hear her.
She looked back at Red’s conversation with Victor once more.
“There was actually a point in my life when I hoped that I could get her to look at me by being with her and doing the little things that make her happy every single day. But that moment when she unconsciously called out to him put an end to that phase.”
She bit her lip. Is there no way for him to reconsider...? She shook her head. No. That’s not right. The fault lies with me. Why can’t I just tell him how I feel?
Catherine was lost in thought until she felt a hand on her shoulder.
She looked up. It was Red.
“I did not become a general to see you make that kind of face,” the red-eyed boy said with a grin as he returned to his seat with a new batch of food in his plate. “Stop being so ugly, Cath. You’re gonna ruin my birthday.”
That’s right, Catherine told herself. I just need to support him. He has it harder than me, and yet he can make a grin like that. Her smile returned and she asked, “So how do you like your birthday celebration?”
“It’s really unique,” Red replied. “I get it now. You all acted as if there was no war, that I wasn’t a general, so that I could forget about everything if only for just a day, even going as far as wearing these stupid party hats. The guys immersed themselves in things I was interested in so that they could get to know me beyond being their superior, and I hope they liked what they saw. Oh, and dad said he’ll be showing two movies tonight before we call it a day.” He reached his hand out to Catherine’s shoulder. “Thanks. To everyone, and to you for all your effort. I’ll never forget this day.”
Catherine smiled and she tilted her head as she asked,