I groaned after putting him on my bed. Pagtingin ko sa mga kamay ko ay halos kulay pula na ang mga ‘yon dahil sa dugo niya. He was bleeding too much. I was physically and emotionally drained but I had to help him. Upon checking his condition, I could even fathom how this guy could still be alive. The gash across his chest and abdomen almost punctured his lungs and liver. Some of his organs were also damaged. A lot of broken bones, too. Hindi man ako part ng medical department ay kaya kong mag-diagnose kahit papaano. I had been obsessed with physical and weapons training and I received a lot of injuries in the past because of that. Yuuki would always help me treat my wounds but she would also complain how reckless I was. Kapag hindi ko raw binawas-bawasan ang pagte-training ko ay ire-report niya ako kay Dr. Miwako at Sir Hideyoshi. For quite some time, I had to dress and stitch my wounds myself in this cabin because she had enough of me. Fortunately, I learned a lot from observing her. Napabuntong-hininga naman ako nang makita ko ang ilan niya pang injuries sa katawan at ulo. For a second, I was impressed by his toughness and unyielding spirit. If he was a normal Shinigami, he should be dead by now. Hinanda ko ang mga gamit at agad na tinanggal ang cloak na suot niya. I had to cut his shirt dahil dumikit na iyon sa sugat niya. I winced when I saw how deep his wounds were. There were also scars, some faded, throughout his body, and I wondered how he got those nasty cuts. Nilinis ko ang mga sugat niya at marahang tinahi. I would also check his expression from time to time to see if he was getting conscious but he was sleeping like a dead person and I had to feel his pulse to see if he was still alive. It took me hours cleaning and stitching his wounds. Napaupo na lang ako sa lapag matapos ‘yon pero agad din akong napatayo nang mapansin ko ang mukha niya. I gently touched his forehead and realized he was burning up with fever. Naghanap ako ng gamot sa medicine kit pero wala na palang laman ‘yon. I only had things for physical injuries since I rarely get sick. Aalis na sana ako sa cabin para pumunta sa medical department pero napahinto ako nang makita ko ang device na nakakabit sa dingding. “This would conceal her presence even to trackers,” Mayu said after I suggested to let Akemi live in my cabin, “though hers is too strong to be masked completely.” I drew a shaky breath after remembering our conversation last week. We were looking forward to seeing her again but we were too full of ourselves. We thought we could save her. We thought we were strong enough to protect her from the Senshins and Shinigamis. Pero sa huli, wala kaming nagawa kundi ang panoorin siyang mawalan ng buhay. I choked back my tears and turned to the Shinigami who was with her when she chose to return to their base. Nang makita ko ang expression niya kanina nang malaman niya ang nangyari kay Akemi ay parang nadurog ulit ang puso ko. I realized she also had comrades who would risk their lives for her safety—Shinigamis who see her more than just a leader. Her friends. In-activate ko ang device na ginawa ni Mayu. I wasn’t sure how it works but I wouldn’t doubt her skills. Lumabas ako ng cabin at halos ambon na lang ang malakas na ulan kanina. I could hear fireworks beyond the forest. The humdrums must be celebrating the New Year. “Lucky you,” I muttered as I looked at the sky covered with fireworks. I walked through the Latens forest and saw the pools of blood on the ground. The medical teams and trackers must be done recovering the bodies and weapons in the forest. Halos isa’t kalahating oras akong naglakad hanggang sa makalabas ako ng gubat. The school ground was a pandemonium. There wasn’t enough space for the injured in the medical department kaya ang iba ay sa labas na ginagamot. There were also a lot of dead bodies. The Senshins were being taken care of by Yuuki’s team while the Intelligence department collected the fallen Shinigamis. Agad ko namang hinanap si Akira. She must be distressed from all the voices she was hearing. “Michiko!” Napalingon ako at nakita ko si Mayu. Tumakbo ako papunta sa kanya. “Nasaan si Akira?” tanong ko. She sighed. “Nasa supply house.” “Is she okay?” Umiling naman siya. “We had to knock her out,” she continued, “or else she’d be overwhelmed. Doon din muna namin siya dinala dahil puno na ang medical department at para malayo rito.” The supply house was the farthest building from the forest. It was beyond the central plaza and just a few kilometers from the agency in the humdrums’ world. “Si Hideo?” “He’s in the Council House,” she replied and I could see the worry in her eyes. “He wants them to honor their death but I don’t think they will.” Gustuhin ko mang mangyari ‘yon ay alam na rin namin kung ano ang kahihinatnan no’n. The Council would never make an exemption, especially since Akemi was the daughter of the Shinigami’s current leaders. Mitsuo, on the other hand, was an Executioner. Kahit na Senshins sila, they were viewed as savages. Isa pa, hindi namin alam ang magiging epekto ng pagkamatay niya sa clan niya. Naomi said the Jikko clan was as brutal as Shinigamis and once they knew about his demise, I doubt they would sit still. The thought of Executioners getting into this place sent shiver down my spine. We couldn’t afford another war. “Someone’s there!” Sabay naman kaming napatingin sa grupo ng Shinigami trackers na bigla na lang tumakbo papunta sa gubat. Bigla akong kinabahan dahil iniwan ko siyang mag-isa ro’n. Agad akong sumunod sa kanila. “Michiko—!” “I’ll be back!” sigaw ko pabalik. The part near the library and medical department was the safest yet the longest route to enter the Latens forest. I went to the other direction—the Green’s Bane, the most dangerous part of the forest, where a lot of unidentified beasts roam freely. I summoned my dual swords and ran through the treetops while trying to see where the trackers were. Muntik na akong malaglag nang may tumalon mula sa kabilang puno papunta sa direksyon ko. I quickly slashed through the air and I heard a high-pitched shriek. Hindi ko na inalam kung anong klaseng hayop iyon at agad na nagpatuloy. Halos ilang minuto ang inabot bago ko natanaw ang cabin ko. Since it was situated at the boundary of Green’s Bane, I arrived first before the trackers. Pagpasok ko sa cabin ay nandoon pa rin siya at wala pa ring malay. I turned off the lights and stood by the window. Dahan-dahan akong sumilip pero mukhang hindi rito ang target ng trackers. I sighed in relief. Maybe there was a stray Shinigami in the Latens forest or something. I’d be in serious trouble if they found out I was hiding an enemy. “Don’t move.” Halos kilabutan ako nang may marinig akong boses sa likuran ko. The next thing I knew, a hand was already clasped over my mouth and a syringe was pointed at my neck. I could feel his fever through his hot and ragged breath. Even just standing must have taken a lot of strength and willpower. I quietly summoned a dagger on my left hand. ‘You’ll be dead in a few hours if you don’t stop,’ I said. His grasp got tighter and I felt the tip of the syringe touching my skin. I heard him suppressing a groan. Some of his wounds must have opened up. ‘Stop ma—’ Bago pa siya makapagsalita ay agad akong umikot paharap sa kanya. He was caught off-guard but he managed to stop my dagger . . . with his bare hand. Dapat ay itututok ko lang din ‘yon sa leeg niya gaya ng ginawa niya pero hindi ko akalaing mapipigilan niya ‘yon. I winced when I saw blood trickling down his palm. “I didn’t mean to . . .” My voice trailed off when I saw his intense green eyes in this dimly-lit space. He stared at me with a stone-cold expression on his face. It felt like I was looking at someone who would kill a person without any remorse. “Why did you save me?” he asked. His question was followed with a few seconds of silence. He loosened the grip on my dagger and I immediately withdrew it. I stared back and didn’t dare avert his gaze. “Because you’re her friend,” I answered. “Friend . . .” Naalala ko naman bigla ang sinabi dati ni Akemi. She didn’t know the concept of friendship. She said she didn’t have any. Maybe Shinigamis really don’t acknowledge that kind of relationship but subconsciously, people like her do treat some of her comrades as friends. He must have dismissed that thought because he suddenly glared at me. ‘Why can’t I leave?’ His fever must be worsening since I could read some of his thoughts easily. Kahit madilim ay kita ko ang pamumutla ng mukha niya. The deep wound on his chest and abdomen also opened up. ‘Hindi mo mabubuksan ang Black Dimension sa cabin na ‘to,’ I said. ‘It was designed that way.’ Bigla naman siyang naglakad patungo sa pintuan kaya agad kong humarang sa dadaanan niya. “You can’t leave yet,” mahina kong sabi at muli niya akong sinamaan ng tingin. “May trackers sa labas.” “I don’t care. I’ll kill them if I have to—” “You’re not killing any of my comrades,” I warned as I summoned a longsword. Handa na ako sa maaaring mangyari pero nagulat ako nang bigla na lang siyang natumba. He collapsed on his knees as he groaned in pain. Dahan-dahan ko siyang nilapitan at mukhang malala rin ang bagong sugat sa palad niya. I sighed loudly and helped him get up. I was half-dragging him because he was too heavy. Nang makarating kami sa kama ay agad ko siyang inupo ro’n. Kinuha ko ulit ang kit sa cabinet at sinimulang tahiin ang sugat niya sa dibdib. Akala ko nga ay magrereklamo ulit siya. His mind must be overwhelmed with intense physical and emotional pain. Matapos no’n ay nilinis ko rin ang sugat sa palad niya. The wound was quite deep and I felt a bit guilty. Bakit ba kasi niya hinawakan ‘yon? As I was dressing his wound, I kept on thinking about Akemi. Ano nga ba ang nangyari sa kanya sa Shinigami base? Bakit ganoon ang kalagayan niya nang bumalik siya rito? Ano ang ginawa nila sa kanya? “Did she suffer there?” I asked, breaking the silence. I wasn’t expecting any answer from him. At okay lang din kung hindi niya sagutin dahil technically, we were enemies. “She did.” Napatingin ako sa kanya nang marinig ko ang sagot niya. He had a pained expression on his face and I could see the regret and guilt in his eyes. My emotions started to stir up but I held back my tears. I didn’t want anyone to see me crying anymore. “Was she happy here?” he suddenly asked. For a moment, I was unsure if I heard that right. Ilang segundo rin ang lumipas bago ako nakasagot. “She was,” I muttered, reminiscing the times we were still with her. Akemi wasn’t fond of smiling. She didn’t like crowds and would rather be alone. But when she was with us, especially with Hideo, I would always catch her suppressing a smile . . . and for me, that was enough reason to know that she, indeed, had a happy time with us. Akemi was happy here. And I knew she died happy because she was here.
I walked aimlessly as I tried to take in everything that happened.
Nanatili si Mayu kasama ng medical teams nang makabalik siya. They gathered everyone who needed medical attention while Akira stayed with Akemi and Mitsuo. On the other hand, Hideo was summoned by the admins and the council. There were also several trackers wandering around the forest to arrest and hold the Shinigamis who failed to escape in check.
Patuloy pa rin ang pag-ulan. Fog was starting to cover the forest, making it harder to see the path. I helped some of the trackers and dragged several Shinigamis to the border so that they wouldn’t be able to use the Black Dimension.
My feet steered me to a familiar place and the tears I was holding back streamed silently down my face. The cabin I built past the border for my training came into my view and I remembered the promise I had given to Hideo.
If the council won’t allow her to live inside the campus, she can have my cabin in the forest. Pwede mo siyang dalawin doon.
My knees buckled as the sword I was gripping tightly dropped on the ground. I was raised as a warrior. I never allowed myself to be seen crying but this night, I wasn’t strong enough.
I wasn’t strong enough to save my friends.
I wasn’t strong enough to accept their death.
I wasn’t strong enough to keep my tears from falling.
Hindi ko kayang manatili sa tabi nila gaya ni Akira dahil ayaw kong tanggapin na wala na sila. I didn’t want to see their lifeless bodies. All I ever wanted was for us to be complete again despite the repercussions pero kahit ang maliit na kahilingan na iyon ay hindi pinayagan ng tadhana.
I sobbed amid the pouring rain and the thick swirls of fog obscuring my vision. At least, no one would see me drowning in misery. This was the only time I could mourn for them . . . the only time I could allow myself to be weak.
Hindi ko alam kung ilang oras akong nakaupo lang doon habang patuloy na umiiyak. It was hard to tell the time because of the thick canopies of trees blocking the sky. Unti-unti na ring humihina ang ulan makalipas ang ilang oras na pagbuhos nito nang malakas. Somehow, it felt like it was signaling the end of this war and the start of the new year. It was absurd that we had to start this year mourning for our dead friends.
I didn’t want to move or do anything but the hairs on my neck bristled. I felt an eerie sensation behind me. Despite the grief, I managed to pick up my sword and I got into a defensive stance.
The cold wind brushed harshly onto my skin, sending shivers down my spine. My clothes were soaked from the rain and mud and my body felt heavy after fighting a horde of Shinigamis earlier. Ilang minuto akong naghintay kung anuman ang paparating ngunit walang nangyari.
I wasn’t sure if my senses were just playing with me or my emotions were affecting them. It was hard to stay focused when, at the back of my mind, I was still thinking about Akemi and Mitsuo.
Isang malalim na buntong-hininga ang pinakawalan ko. I relaxed my body and started walking toward the cabin when I felt that sinister air again.
The air crackled, and I almost gasped when I saw the Black Dimension opening.
Two Shinigamis came out, blood gushing down their mouths. But the pain in their faces disappeared when they saw me. Agad iyong napalitan ng galit at mabilis silang sumugod papunta sa akin.
My instincts and rage took over. I summoned a spear, and along with my sword, I swung both weapons at their direction.
The spear pierced the Shinigami’s chest, just like what they did to Mitsuo, and my sword punctured the other’s throat, killing him instantly. I pulled my weapons out of their bodies and their blood splattered onto my face and clothes.
I wanted to kill them for the second time, to see the despair in their eyes, and that moment, I realized this must be how Hideo had felt earlier. Kahit na alam kong hindi na maibabalik pa ang buhay nila, sa ganitong paraan ko lang sila maipaghihiganti.
The Black Dimension closed, leaving me with two dead bodies. I drew a shaky breath and found myself trembling in anger and grief. Muli akong naglakad pabalik sa cabin ko. My remaining strength was already seeping out of my body. The adrenaline rush had faded and exhaustion had caught up with me.
I was several steps away from the hut when something suddenly appeared in front of me. The next thing I knew, I was already face to face with a Shinigami.
With a last-ditch effort, I summoned back my sword and pointed it at the Shinigami, but before I could move, he had already collapsed on his knees.
“R-Rielle . . .”
Hearing Akemi’s real name from the Shinigami’s mouth made my skin tingle. He coughed up blood and I realized the long gash on his chest down to his abdomen. He grabbed the tip of my sword and I winced upon seeing the blood spurting from his palm.
“Is . . . is she . . . alive . . .”
His intense eyes stared at me, demanding an answer. I was about to swing my sword at his neck but I halted when I saw a tear dropping from his left eye.
“T-tell me . . .” he groaned in pain, “she’s . . . s-she’s still alive, isn’t she?”
Para namang sinampal muli ako ng katotohanan at gaya niya ay muling tumulo ang luha sa mga mata ko. Then, realization hit me. This guy . . . he was with her when she went back to her world . . . to her real family.
“Y-you . . .”
“Just tell me!” he cried in anger.
I stifled a sob and slowly shook my head. “Akemi . . . s-she’s . . . she’s . . . dead.”
I still didn’t want to accept it but saying it out loud made me realize that I couldn’t escape the reality and how it could be so harsh. Pakiramdam ko ay nakatayo ako ulit sa harapan nila. Pakiramdam ko ay pinapanood ko ulit ang pamamaalam nila.
“No . . .” he muttered, a pained expression on his face. “That can’t be true . . . s-she . . .” He tried to stand despite the amount of blood he had lost and grabbed me by my shirt’s collar. His lips were shivering from the cold, shock, and anger. “You . . . d-don’t lie to me or I’ll fucking kill you.”
If I wasn’t overwhelmed with guilt and grief, I must have cowered from his threat. For a half-dead man, he could still intimidate someone like me.
Before he could do anything, with my last ounce of strength, I punched his wound. He glared as he staggered until he collapsed on the ground.
Muling nabalot ng katahimikan ang paligid at bukod sa mahinang pag-ulan ay tanging paghinga ko lamang ang maririnig. I quietly stood in place, trying to process everything again.
Naomi said Akemi’s Elites let her escape the dungeon she was in. They must have been charged with treason after betraying their leaders. Looking at this guy’s state, it seemed like he had already received his punishment.
Sound judgment and personal reasons quarreled in my head. I wanted to hurt him more for what they have done to her, but a part of me saw myself in him—heartbroken and guilty from losing a friend.
I heaved a sigh as I and tilted my head backward after minutes of deliberation. Groaning, I started dragging his unconscious body toward my cabin.
For Akemi, I thought. I would save this guy’s life for her peace of mind. After all, he saved hers, too.
Cries of terror and anguish. Weapons clashing against each other. The raindrops that felt like a thousand arrows prickling your skin. Blood soaking and tainting the ground in sinister scarlet.
And then there was Hideo's wail, drowning all the noise I could hear. Naomi's thoughts flooded my mind as Mitsuo collapsed on his knees, refusing to slump on the ground even on his final breath.
My heart sank upon seeing two of my friends in the brink of their death. Gusto kong tumakbo papunta sa kanila. Gusto kong gumawa ng paraan para mailigtas pa sila. Gusto kong sabihin na hindi pa ito ang katapusan . . .
. . . but at the back of my mind, I knew both of them had already surrendered.
Rielle's wishes broke my heart. Paano pa kaya si Hideo? She wanted him to smile for her. She wanted his smile to be the last thing she would see. And he did.
We could vividly hear their thoughts and pain, and it felt like my heart was slowly tearing apart as I watched the four of them go through this tragedy that they didn't deserve. 'Ah . . . I think it's time . . .' she muttered.
Naomi was running away with Akemi's daughter. Mitsuo coughed blood but he remained looking in the sky, the rain falling down his face. His eyes were already closed but I could still hear his faint voice in my head. 'Run away, Nathalie,' he mumbled, a smile of resignation on his face. 'Please don't look back. Save yourself. Save yourself . . . Don't worry . . . I . . . I will always remember you . . . N-Nathalie . . .'
Kasabay ng pagbagsak ng katawan niya sa lupa ay ang muling pagsigaw ni Hideo habang yakap nang mahigpit si Akemi.
"Assist Naomi!" shouted Mayu.
Right. This wasn't the right time to mourn. We still need to win this war and save our people.
Kahit na halos madurog na ang puso ko ay pinilit kong maging matatag. I choked back the lump in my throat and brought my focus back to our enemies.
I summoned my weapons and ran toward Naomi's direction, fending off the Shinigamis who wanted to take Akemi and Hideo's daughter. I opened a path to Mayu where she could transport them into safety. Akira did the same. The rain was pouring hard so it was getting difficult but we did everything we could.
"Naomi! Now!" sigaw ko at agad iyong naintindihan ni Naomi. 'Don't look back,' Akira said, repeating Mitsuo's words. 'Go forward and leave this place, Naomi.'
She continued running while hugging the child tightly. She didn't look back and boarded Miyu. 'Please be safe.'
And those were the last words we heard from her.
Bigla naman akong kinilabutan. Mula sa kinatatayuan ko ay nakita ko si Hideo na dahan-dahang tumayo. He carefully lay Akemi's body on the ground and covered her with her cloak. 'Hideo . . .'
His eyes looked different. Even from here, I could feel his murderous presence. He clutched his sword and he disappeared. Everything happened so fast. Every Shinigami in his vicinity collapsed, their heads decapitated. 'Protect everyone,' he ordered in a blood-chilling tone. 'I don't want to lose another life tonight.' 'We will,' I replied. 'So please, end this war, Hideo.'
That night, he turned into a beast—someone who was more terrifying than a thousand Shinigamis.
The fights lasted for a few more hours until the Shinigamis were forced to withdraw. Rin, Akemi's sister, glared at Hideo as they both faced each other before her body. If it weren't for the stitches on her face and her malicious eyes, she looked exactly like Akemi, and facing her must be a torture for him.
Nabaling ang tingin ni Rin sa katawan ni Akemi. I wasn't sure if the rain was distorting my vision but her expression softened. There was pain in her eyes.
"In the end . . . you chose this side," she muttered and it felt like she was just next to me. Akira's sixth sense was kind of terrifying in this situation.
The Black Dimension opened behind her. Hideo stayed by Akemi's side and watched as her sister entered that place.
Agad namang kumilos ang medical teams para mailigtas ang mga sugatan. Hinayaan namin si Hideo sa tabi ni Akemi at pumunta kami ni Akira kay Mitsuo. He died kneeling and looking at the sky. Magkahalong lungkot at saya ang naramdaman ko nang makita ko ang bahagyang ngiti sa mga labi niya.
"They are safe," I whispered as I tapped his shoulder. "Don't worry. Naomi is strong and Hideo will take care of your son . . ." My voice faltered and tears started streaming down my face. "You will stay alive in our memories. You can rest now."
Akira broke down as he hugged him and I cried beside them. Few seconds later, Hideo came while carrying her body. He placed her beside Mitsuo and stood in front of us.
"This is the only time we can honor their death," he said, his voice filled with grief. "The Council will surely question their ties and loyalty."
Hindi ko pa rin matanggap kahit nasa harap ko na ang katotohanan. It felt strange seeing lifeless bodies. Pakiramdam ko, panaginip lang ang lahat. Sana nga, panaginip lang ang lahat.
"Rielle Miyamoto. Vince Alejandrino," Hideo said. "Remember their names. Let us do this for them. Let us honor their names if the Council and the people won't."
That night, I lost two of my closest friends. I lost hundreds of comrades. The new year welcomed us with misery, but I didn't know this was just the start.
Little did I know, another tragedy was already on its way.