Napatalon ako sa itaas ng puno. I watched the larger bear as it bared its teeth after I landed a cut on its body. Napatingin ako sa isa pa na mas maliit nang kaunti at nagtama ang mga mata namin.
Despite its bulky body, it was fast. Sinangga niya ang katawan nito sa puno kung nasaan ako kaya agad akong napalipat ng pwesto. The larger bear saw what was going on and lunged at my direction, too. I hastily summoned two swords and jumped off the tree, landing on the larger bear’s shoulders, but the beast anticipated it.
I yelped as its claws grazed my ankle. Agad akong tumakbo at nagtago sa likod ng isang puno. I cursed in my head, berating myself for being careless. I tried to calm down and started concealing my presence. These beasts could smell fear and anxiety. This shouldn’t be the time to feel those.
Dahan-dahan akong tumayo at hinigpitan ang hawak sa sword ko. I quietly motioned toward the smaller bear and threw the sword right at its eyes. I ran toward its direction as it roared in pain and pulled it from him, landing on the nearby tree.
The attack succeeded and the smaller bear escaped as blood trickled down its face. The larger one tried sniffing my scent and I had to breathe deeply to control my emotions. Napakagat na lang ako sa labi ko nang maramdaman ko ang sakit sa paa at tuhod ko.
Naghintay ako ng ilan pang minuto at mukhang nawalan na ng interes ang oso. Nakahinga ako nang maluwag nang tuluyan na itong umalis. My weapons disappeared and I leaned against the tree, panting.
I wanted to train fighting against enemies that only use their instincts and would always have that intent to kill so I figured I could use the beasts as training partners. But damn, they were too wild and aggressive.
There were wounds and scratches all over my body. Despite the pain, I ran back to my cabin.
Buti na lang at may natira pa akong bandages kaya agad kong nilinis at tinakpan ang mga sugat na natamo ko mula sa Green’s Bane. I checked the Shinigami but he was still unconscious. I wondered how long he would stay like this. Gustuhin ko mang malaman ang totoo niyang kalagayan ay hindi ko naman siya pwedeng dalhin sa Medical department.
I sighed after dressing my wounds. Tumayo ako at mabilis na nagbihis. Matapos ‘yon ay pumunta ako sa campus at dadalawin ko sana si Akira pero nakasalubong ko si Kohaku, her husband, habang hawak si karga si Vivien.
“Ah. Michiko,” he greeted.
Kinumusta ko naman agad siya at napangiti ako nang mabalitaan kong nagising na si Akira. He said she was resting in their house at the Senshin Village and he was on his way home from the Central Plaza. Napatingin naman ako kay Vivien. She has the same red hair as Akira. She giggled as she reached one of my fingers.
I smiled at her. “Listen to your mother, okay?”
She chuckled in response. Ang cute.
Nagpaalam na si Kohaku sa akin at dumiretso ako sa office ni Hideo. Balak ko sanang dumalaw kay Akira pero mukhang mas kailangan niya ng pahinga.
Nang makarating ako sa office niya ay nakadungaw siya sa bintana. He had that wistful expression on his face, as if he was reminiscing something. The first thing I thought about was the time when Akemi went back to her family. That was the same face he had that time.
Pagkatapos ng nangyari kahapon ay nanatili lang siya rito. Facing the Shima head must have been frightening but he did well.
Napabuntong-hininga ako habang palapit sa kanya. I tried to smile despite missing Akemi and Mitsuo again.
After everything that happened, I wanted to be of use. Hideo, Akira and Mayu were all down and I wanted to be their emotional pillar so they wouldn’t crumble. I wanted to support them in any way that I could.
“Hideo!” I called as I plopped to the couch near his desk.
“Why are you covered in wounds?” tanong niya habang papunta sa direksyon ko.
I shrugged. “Training.”
“You should be resting, not tiring yourself out.”
“Hah!” I scoffed. “Galing talaga sa’yo, ha? Sino kayang hindi natutulog?”
“I can stay awake for days,” he returned.
I was about to say he wasn’t Akemi nor Mitsuo to do that but that would surely make him sad. Buti na lang at napigilan ko ang sarili ko.
“I can read your thoughts,” he suddenly said. “You’re getting careless.”
Napaiwas agad ako ng tingin. I thought my mind would be safe without Naomi here, but I forgot that this guy could read our thoughts, too, if we weren’t that guarded.
“A-anyway, ano na ang naging desisyon ng Council?” I asked, trying to shift the topic, though it was still about Mitsuo.
“They changed their verdict,” he replied. “They’re allowing us to bury him here.”
A faint smile escaped my lips. At least, may magandang balita kaming natanggap ngayon. That old man really scared the crap out of the elders.
Napatingin naman ako sa gilid at nakita ko si Demi. She jumped onto Hideo’s lap and climbed to her favorite spot—his head. Kahit madalas niya iyong gawin ay natatawa pa rin ako tuwing nakikita ko.
“Nasaan nga pala si Nathan?” tanong ko. Hindi ko pa ulit siya nakikita matapos ang nangyari.
“With Mayu,” he replied as he heaved a sigh. “I can’t take care of him right now.”
With the responsibilities he had to shoulder and the fact that he had to be separated with his own daughter, I was already expecting this. Still, he should at least spend some time with him.
“Pero bigyan mo pa rin siya ng time kahit papaano,” I said. “Maybe when things calm down a little.”
He nodded. “I will. I promised them that.”
His expression softened for a bit but I could see the regret and pain in his eyes. My heart sank upon seeing that. Huminga ako nang malalim para kalmahin ang sarili ko. I had to be strong for his sake.
“Hay!” sabay sandal ko sa couch. “Sana may ibigay na ulit na missions.”
I wanted to distract myself from my depressing thoughts and maybe doing missions would let me have some peace of mind. Maybe getting away from this place for a while would somehow heal some wounds.
“Wala bang Class S missions for Intel department?” tanong ko.
“None for you,” he said.
“I won’t allow you.”
Napaayos naman ako ng upo. “Why?! I want to—”
“Not until I’m confident enough to let you go.”
Napatigil naman ako sa sinabi niya. For once, Hideo looked hesitant. The air of confidence that was always with him disappeared. He was scared to lose someone again.
“Hey, don’t worry, you won’t lose me,” I softly said.
He gave me a melancholic smile. “That’s what they said, too.”
Para namang lumubog ang puso ko nang marinig ko iyon sa kanya. I couldn’t believe Hideo would fall apart like this. Parang dati, niloloko lang namin siya na baka wala siyang expression kapag namatay ang isa sa amin. How insensitive and foolish we were.
“I won’t promise, but I’ll try to cling to life, even if death would be better,” I said. “Hindi ko kayo kayang iwan. At saka, hoy, don’t underestimate me. There are times na mas malakas ako sa’yo.”
He chuckled lightly. “Right.”
“Yan, tumawa ka naman kahit papaano,” I teased. “Hindi na nababanat ‘yang muscles sa mukha mo kasi lagi kang nakasimangot.”
Muling bumalik sa pagiging expressionless ang mukha niya. “No.”
“Tss. Parang tatawa lang. Anong mahirap do’n?” I muttered. “Pero palihim namang nangingiti dati kay Akemi.”
Bigla naman niya akong sinamaan ng tingin.
“O, bakit, totoo naman? Akala mo ba hindi namin napapansin? Kami pa ba ni Akira ang hinamon mo?” dagdag ko. “Nag-bet pa nga kami kung magugustuhan ka niya o hindi.”
Lalo pang naningkit ang mga mata niya. I snickered in my head.
“Mukha ngang mas interested siya kay Mitsuo no’n, Ewan ba namin bakit sa’yo nahulog—”
“Leave,” he said, cutting me off.
“Hala, pikon,” I retorted. Tumayo naman na ako dahil mukhang iyon na ang quota ko sa pang-aasar ko sa kanya. “Naku, huwag mo lang ‘yan mapasa kay Nathan, kundi lagot ka kay Naomi.”
“Oo, eto na nga, aalis na.”
Naglakad ako papunta sa pintuan at paglabas ko ay napatigil ako dahil sa narinig ko.
‘Thank you,’ he said and I smiled upon hearing that.
I didn’t say anything in return and just continued walking. At least, I managed to lighten up his mood even for a bit. Okay na ako ro’n.
Naglakad ako pabalik sa gubat. Nang makarating ako sa cabin ay balak ko sanang mag-training ulit pero napatigil ako sa naabutan ko.
It had been three days already but this guy was still unconscious. I checked his temperature and fortunately, it was already back to normal. Hindi ko alam kung ano ang pinagdaanan niya para maging ganito ang kalagayan niya. But one thing was for sure—he did it for Akemi. Three days na rin na dito ako natutulog. I couldn’t bear sleeping in the dorm because it would just remind me of Akemi and Mitsuo. Besides, I had to monitor this guy. He was an enemy and I would be in trouble if he suddenly escapes. Chineck ko ang oras at 6 A.M. pa lang. Tumayo ako at dahan-dahang lumabas mula sa cabin. I activated all barriers and alarm systems to prevent any problems. Papunta sana ako sa grassland pero nakaramdam ako ng kakaiba. A presence so menacing that I wanted to run away and hide. It was coming from the campus. Nagmadali ako papunta roon at dumaan ako sa Green’s Bane. Fortunately, the beasts residing there were mostly nocturnal and I got lucky that nothing was in my way. Several minutes later, I arrived at the campus and walked toward the Teachers’ Village. I went to Hideo’s roof and saw a commotion in the Council House. ‘What are you doing there?’ Narinig ko ang boses ni Hideo sa isip ko at nakita ko siyang naglalakad patungo roon. ‘What’s happening?’ tanong ko pabalik. ‘The head of Shima is here.’ Halos kilabutan ako nang marinig ko ‘yon at parang lumubog ang puso ko dahil naalala ko si Mitsuo. His body was still in the mortuary because we didn’t know what to do after the Council decided against his burial here. Pinanood ko si Hideo na maglakad patungo roon. Kahit hindi ko makita ang mukha niya ay alam kong bakas doon ang pagod. He wasn’t sleeping that much and I remembered what he said last time. “I might dream about her and our daughter, and I might not want to wake up.” Muling sumagi sa isip ko ang gabing iyon. I immediately pushed it at the back of my mind, afraid that I might break down. Huminga ako nang malalim at nag-focus sa Council House. There was an unfamiliar face among the elders. Despite his old age, I could tell from his scarred and well-built body that he was physically stronger than the council members. But what caught my attention was the huge scythe he was holding. He was walking calmly toward the Council House, his tattered cloak fluttering, while Sir Hideyoshi followed behind. Kinilabutan ako nang makita ko ang expression sa mukha niya. His intense green eyes were gleaming with rage. I hopped from one roof to another to get closer. The elders were preparing to greet him outside but I could tell from their movements that they were anxious. When I learned about Mitsuo being an Executioner and a member of Jikko clan, I realized how fearsome he was. Maraming myths tungkol sa Shima at sa Jikko clan. They were branded as savages, just like the Shinigamis. But I was silently admiring them. They were the ones who give justice to those who couldn’t. They were the ones who kept the criminals at bay and punished those who deserve it. Seeing the head of that clan here was something I didn’t expect. And his presence alone was enough to send chills down my spine. Nang makarating siya sa harapan ng elders ay huminto siya at itinukod ang scythe sa harapan niya. He looked like a death god who was ready to reap some souls. “Sir Ise,” Sir Hideyoshi called but the old man shot a glare at him. Wow. I didn’t know someone could look at the leader of our tribe like that. That man was downright frightening. Nagulat na lang ako nang bigla niyang ginamit ang scythe niya. He swung it with an unbelievable speed that I was barely able to follow its movement. The next thing I knew, the curved blade was just an inch away from Kozuke’s head. The elders used their sixth senses and weapons but the old man didn’t budge. A kunai grazed his cheek and blood trickled down his face. “Stop it,” Sir Hideyoshi said with a cold tone and the elders looked rattled. Sir Hideyoshi was the kind of guy who would always smile no matter the situation was. The total opposite of Hideo. Even during confrontations, he would smile, making the enemies confused. And honestly, that personality of his was scary. Pero ngayong hindi siya nakangiti ay mas lalo akong natakot sa kanya. “Old man!” Napatingin ako sa kaliwa nila at nakita kong tumatakbo papunta roon si Sir Kyo. And did he just call someone an old man? Was he referring to the head of Shima? Pagkarating niya ro’n ay bakas sa mukha niya ang takot pero halos mapasigaw ako nang bigla siyang napahawak sa ulo niya. He groaned as he clutched his head, as if something was torturing his mind. Pumagitan si Sir Hideyoshi sa matandang lalaki at kay Sir Kyo. “Sir Ise, please,” he said and few seconds later, Sir Kyo collapsed on his knees, panting. Kinilabutan ako sa nakita ko. What did that guy do to him? Ngayon ko lang nakita na magkaganoon si Sir Kyo. He was the strongest fighter among Sir Hideyoshi’s subordinates yet he crumpled in front of that man. Kahit na hirap siya ay pinilit pa ring tumayo ni Sir Kyo at yumuko siya sa harapan ng matanda. “I trusted you,” the old guy muttered while Sir Kyo remained bowing down. Even if I couldn’t see his expression, I could feel that he was in pain. “You should have saved him. You could have saved him.” Parang lumubog ang puso ko nang magbago ang expression ng matanda. His eyes softened for a bit and for a second, I could see Mitsuo’s face on him. Is he . . . Muling bumaling ang tingin niya sa council members at napaatras ang ilan. He pulled his scythe toward him and Sir Kozuke whimpered in fear as he moved along with it. “My grandson died here, fighting, protecting your peace while you lot sit here in comfort,” he said with suppressed anger in his tone. “How dare you dishonor his death. How dare all of you to reject his existence in this place.” Napatakip ako sa bibig ko sa narinig ko. This guy was Mitsuo’s grandfather. He was supposed to be a future leader. He was supposed to be the next head of Shima. He removed the scythe around Sir Kozuke’s neck and looked at them in their eyes. All of a sudden, the eight council members cried and yelled in pain as they clenched their heads. The same thing that happened to Sir Kyo occurred to them, but it seemed to be more excruciating. I wondered if that was his sixth sense. What exactly did he do for them to act like that? “If you won’t change your decision, then I won’t change mine, too,” he said and he turned to Sir Hideyoshi. “I’ll let you feel the wrath of the Jikko clan. I will make sure you will never see the peace you’re yearning for.” Muli siyang tumingin sa elders at nagulat ako nang sinugatan niya ang kamay niya. He splattered his blood onto them and on the pavement. “I will kill the Shinigamis who made him suffer,” he seethed in anger, “and I will tear this place down. Call us traitors, I don’t care. You are all traitors to our eyes. The Jikko is now your enemies.” Naglakad siya palayo at naiwang nakatulala roon ang elders. Sir Kyo and Sir Hideyoshi followed him, trying to talk to him but he ignored them and continued walking . . . and then there was Hideo who stood in his way. He deeply bowed at the old guy without saying anything and the old guy stared at him. Just like earlier, his expression softened a bit. Napatayo ako nang bigla niyang iwinasiwas ang scythe niya pero itinukod niya lang ulit iyon sa harapan niya. I was surprised when he bowed lightly in return. “Thank you for acknowledging my grandson,” he said and I saw Hideo’s shoulders flinch. Agad na tumulo ang luha ko nang marinig ko iyon at kahit hindi ko nakikita ay alam kong ganoon din si Hideo. Mitsuo was the only guy friend he had. They spent most of their time together and even if they didn’t say it our loud, they depended a lot on each other. Losing both Akemi and Mitsuo and bearing the responsibilities of their death was something he had to carry by himself. “If it weren’t for you and his . . . friends, this place would already be in ruins,” the old guy said. He shifted his gaze to Sir Hideyoshi and Sir Kyo. “I’ll give you a chance. Listen to this young lad.” He continued walking away as the three of them remained bowing at his direction. Unknowingly, Hideo had saved our tribe from another war. Bumaba ako mula sa kinatatayuan ko at mabilis na bumalik sa cabin ko. This wasn’t the time to relax. I had to get stronger. I had friends to protect. Friends that already had families to protect. Losing two was already too much. This time, I wouldn’t let anyone hurt any of them. This time, I’d make sure they would live the life they deserve.
‘Save me . . . please . . .’ Rielle cried while clutching my arm. One of her eyes was missing and blood was gushing from her eyes socket. ‘I want to live . . . Michiko . . .’ My eyes fluttered open while catching my breath. Rielle’s image in my mind was too vivid that I thought everything was real . . . that she was still alive. Isang malalim na buntong-hininga ang pinakawalan ko para ikalma ang sarili ko. You already lost her, I told myself. This was the reality I had to live with. Doon ko lang na-realize na nakahiga pala ako sa lapag. Ni hindi ko alam na nakatulog pala ako. I tried getting up but my whole body was aching and there was a throbbing pain in my head. The effect of fighting nonstop yesterday caught up on me. My muscles were sore, and it felt like sleeping didn’t help at all. Sinubukan kong bumangon pero may nahagip ang mga mata ko. I turned to my bed and almost yelped when I saw someone lying there. Ilang segundo akong napatigil at napatitig doon. I thought everything that was flashing in my head was part of the dream but when I saw the Shinigami soundly sleeping on my bed, I realized I really did something that could cause a serious trouble. For Rielle, pagkumbinsi ko sa sarili ko. This guy must have helped her escape, too. Hindi ko hahayaang may isa pang mawala sa kanya. She already lost her home, her life and her future with her family. Losing her friends because of her would already be too much. Agad akong tumayo at lumapit sa kanya. He was still as white as a sheet and his fever wasn’t coming down. Kinailangan ko ring palitan ang bandages niya kaya inabot ulit ako ng ilang oras. When I checked the time, it was already noon. Lumapit ako sa bintana at sinilip kung mayroon bang tao sa paligid. Nang makumpirma kong wala ay agad akong lumabas at naglakad pabalik sa campus grounds. Now, I could clearly see what remained after the war. Halos pula pa rin ang lupa dahil sa dugong dumanak kagabi. Some parts of the forest were destroyed. Trees fell and got uprooted. The ground became uneven, creating craters and elevations. Pagdating ko sa campus ay nakita ko kaagad ang ilang staffs ng Medical Department sa labas. They were busy transporting the injured. Paniguradong karamihan sa kanila ay hindi pa nakakapagpahinga matapos ang nangyari. The administration was preparing for a funeral to be held tonight. Busy rin ang Intelligence at Technology departments para roon. “Michiko.” Napalingon ako nang marinig ko ang pangalan ko at nakita ko si Yuuki. She looked tired but she managed a quick smile. “Ngayon lang kita nakita,” she said. “Quite surprising that you don’t have any critical wounds.” I snickered. “I guess naka-graduate na ako sa pagiging pasyente mo.” “Yeah. I don’t need another patient,” she said, a hint of melancholy in her voice. “Uhm . . . kumusta si Akira?” tanong ko. Her expression darkened and for a second, I was scared. She let out a deep sigh and gently patted my shoulder. “She needs rest,” she replied. “After . . . after what happened, she lost control over her sixth sense. Hearing everything and everyone around her must have been too much.” Agad na bumigat ang pakiramdam ko nang marinig ko iyon. After activating seventh sense, I experienced her ability and it was disorienting. How much more if hers was amplified to the extent of hearing everything inside the Latens forest and the campus. “And here,” sabay abot niya ng isang syringe. Kumunot ang noo ko. “For what . . .” She smiled. “Mayu is quite busy. Take care of him.” Bago pa ako makapagtanong ay nagpaalam si Yuuki dahil kailangan na siya ng team niya habang naiwan akong nakatayo roon. I placed the capped syringe in my pocket and walked to the Supply House where Akira was. Ramdam pa rin ang tension sa campus at hindi ko rin maiwasang mapatingin sa paligid habang naglalakad. Nang nasa central plaza na ako ay lalong bumigat ang loob ko dahil sarado ang lahat. Today was supposed to be a celebration for the new year but what we would get would be a mass funeral. Pagkarating ko sa supply house ay nandoon si Akira. Naglakad ako papunta sa kanya at umupo sa gilid ng makeshift na kama kung saan siya nakahiga. She looked sick and my heart sank after seeing the trail of tears on her temples. “Magpahinga ka lang,” I whispered while caressing her hair. “Don’t worry about us. Don’t worry about your family. I’ll take care of them until you’re back.” Good thing Dr. Miwako placed some brainwave blocker in this place. At least, she couldn’t hear inner voices here. Makakapagpahinga siya nang maayos. When Akemi and Mitsuo left the campus before, she was the most devastated. She loved them so much that their death must have been too hard for her. Makalipas ang halos isang oras ay lumabas ako mula sa Supply House at pumunta sa Teacher’s Village. I wanted to check on Hideo. Sakto namang kalalabas niya lang mula sa Council House at napahinto siya nang makita niya ako. His eyes were staring vacantly at me and he looked like a mess. Sigurado akong hindi pa siya nakapagpapahinga kahit saglit dahil sa mga tungkulin niya. Sinabayan ko siya sa paglalakad papunta sa Teacher’s Village. “They won’t allow it,” he muttered as he looked up in the sky. “I don’t know what to do anymore.” Ikinuwento niya kung paano tinanggihan ng Council of Elders na ilibing sa Latens grave sina Akemi at Mitsuo. They wanted Mitsuo’s body to be transported back to Shima. On the other hand, they don’t want Akemi to be buried in the Senshin’s ground. Nang makarating kami sa harapan ng bahay niya ay tinapik ko ang balikat niya. “You need to sleep,” I said as I looked at the bags under his eyes. He shook his head. “I don’t want to.” “Hideo . . .” “I might dream about her and our daughter,” he softly said and then came a subtle smile, “and I might not want to wake up.” His expression was enough to tear my heart apart. He had to stay strong for the tribe despite losing everything he vowed to protect. I accompanied him inside and I had to swallow back the lump forming in my throat as I imagined the future he could have if Akemi had lived and the Council had accepted her. I could imagine them living here with their daughter, spending the time they had lost from being away from each other. Bigla naman kaming napatigil sa paglalakad nang marinig namin ang isang pamilyar na tunog. “Meow.” Lumabas si Demi sa ilalim ng sofa. Her white fur were still soaked in water and blood and in her mouth was a single card. She walked toward Hideo and snuggled at his feet while purring. He breathed deeply and slowly knelt. Wala pang ilang segundo ay tuluy-tuloy nang bumagsak ang luha sa mga mata niya habang nakayakap nang mahigpit kay Demi. “Take care of him.” I just realized what Yuuki meant a while ago. Dahan-dahan kong inilabas ang syringe at marahang itinurok iyon sa likod niya. I wasn’t sure if he didn’t feel it or he just didn’t care anymore. Nakatingin sa akin si Demi habang yakap pa rin siya ni Hideo. “Please look after him,” I mumbled and she meowed in return. Inalalayan ko si Hideo papunta sa sofa at makalipas ang ilang sandali ay unti-unti nang pumikit ang mga mata niya. Demi stayed by his side and after ensuring he was already asleep, I went out of his house and returned to my cabin. *** The funeral started around 8 P.M. Everyone was wearing white and most of them were already crying. A huge altar was covered with different flowers, spirit tablets where the name of the deceased were written and pots holding the incense. After the head priest offered and chanted prayers, the families of the fallen cried their hearts out. Matapos no’n ay agad akong lumayo at tumungo sa direksyon ni Mayu. Kasama ni Hideo sina Sir Hideyoshi at iba pang administration staffs. His eyes were swollen but I was glad he got to rest even if it was just a few hours. “Let’s go,” sambit ni Mayu. We walked into the Latens forest and went to the grassland beyond the woods. Ito na lang ang tanging lugar na naisip namin kung saan pwedeng ilibing si Akemi. Technically, this was already outside the campus. Apparently, Mayu was busy a while ago because she was building caskets for Akemi and Mitsuo. Hindi ko alam kung final na ba ang decision kay Mitsuo but Mayu said she saw Sir Kyo in the Council House earlier and it must be about their verdict. Dinala naman namin si Akemi sa grassland at nagsimula kaming maghukay. We placed her casket under the ground and made a simple cross from thick tree stems. “Not even a spirit tablet or a shrine,” Mayu mumbled while we were quietly sitting in front of her grave. “I’m sorry, Akemi.” Maybe I had already cried my heart out last night because there were no tears in my eyes this time. I felt hollow but strangely enough, I also felt calm. Maybe because she was still here. At least, she was here. I placed a couple of green flowers on her grave and a stick of incense. “The world is too cruel to you,” I said. “I’m sorry if you were alone during your darkest time. But you’re here now. You’re home now.” My voice cracked as I tried to hold back the emotions stirring inside me. “You may rest now, Akemi. You’re not alone anymore.” That night, we mourned for her and honored her. Because to us, Akemi wasn’t a Shinigami. She was a friend and a family.