A council of war was immediately held in the Council House. The Elders wanted our injuries treated but Hideo and I declined. They were already discussing the war that could happen after the death of Mayu and Akira. Ni hindi ko na pinakinggan ang usapan dahil wala na roon ang isip ko.
“Babalik din si Mommy.” “Magkikita pa naman tayo.”
A dry laugh escaped my lips as I recalled our last encounter few days ago. Ang mga salitang binitiwan namin. Mga salitang ang daling binitiwan pero hindi na pala mangyayari.
Tiningnan ko si Hideo at nakatingin lang din siya sa kawalan. His stoic expression and soulless eyes almost brought me into tears. It was like that time again.
“Hideo, we should start preparing—”
“Let us grieve first,” I said, after staying quiet the whole time.
One of them shot me a look. “But the Shinigamis—”
I summoned my dagger and swung it toward his neck. There was a collective gasp among the Elders and commanding officers. Blood started trickling down his neck but I didn’t withdraw my dagger.
“We just lost our friends. Two young kids just lost their mothers. Can’t you give us even just one day to take in everything?”
Some shifted uneasily in their seats as the tension rose in the air. I pulled the dagger back and the Elder heaved a sigh of relief, but before anyone could say anything, I put the blade on my own neck.
“Or do you want me to kill myself right here? Will you still discuss that fucking war while my dead body lies on this table?” I asked, the blade touching my skin. “Maybe that way, you’ll understand our situation.”
Isang nakabibinging katahimikan ang bumalot sa paligid at nag-iwas ng tingin sa akin ang ilan. I was trying to quell the anger and pain inside me but they were making it hard to do.
“Michiko,” Hideo called in a controlled voice.
I heaved a trembling breath and my dagger disappeared from my hand. Naglakad ako papunta sa direksyon niya at agad na hinatak ang kamay niya.
“We’ll discuss everything tomorrow,” I said as Hideo stood up. “For now, let us grieve for our fallen friends.”
Tahimik kaming naglalakad ni Hideo papunta sa Senshin Village. People were giving us curious looks but thank goodness we could still mask our expressions. Ilang minuto pa ay nakarating kami sa harap ng bahay niya at naabutan namin si Nathan sa sala. There were papers and books everywhere and he was drawing something on a blank paper. Sinundan niya kami nang tingin hanggang sa iniupo ko si Hideo sa couch.
He gave us a puzzled look as he stared at Hideo’s wounds. “Are you okay, Dad?”
His breathing quivered but he still managed a smile. “I’m okay,” he softly said.
“Nathan,” tawag ko at agad siyang tumingin sa akin. “Could you stay in your room for a couple of minutes?”
He gave Hideo one last look and nodded. “Okay.”
Binuhat niya ang coloring pens at mga papel sa braso niya at naglakad patungo sa kwarto niya. As soon as we heard the door closed, Hideo’s shoulder slumped and tears started welling in his eyes.
“It’s my fault,” his voice wavered. “I . . . I shouldn’t have allowed everyone to leave . . . I . . . It’s all my fault . . .”
Halos madurog ang puso ko nang marinig ko iyon. I, too, blamed myself for failing to protect them even though I knew that the situation was already out of my control. I cupped his face and made him look at me.
“It’s not your fault,” I softly said. “They died because of Shinigamis, Hideo.”
“But . . .”
“Listen. Mayu and Akira wouldn’t be happy if you keep on blaming yourself.” I gently wiped the tears off his cheeks as he looked at me with a heart-wrenching expression. “Besides, I’m still here. I told you, didn’t I? I won’t leave you alone.”
He hugged my waist again like a frightened child. “Erika . . .”
Hearing my real name from his mouth made me wince. I couldn’t even remember when was the last time someone called me that because I hated that name. Pakiramdam ko kasi, bata ulit ako. Mahina ulit ako.
Alternative names weren’t just used to hide your identities. For some, it was turning over a new leaf. It was like being a better and stronger person. An identity that could hide and protect your weaker self.
“I’m . . . I’m tired of hearing promises . . .” he mumbled.
“Aaron . . .”
“But please, just this once, promise me you will stay here,” he sobbed as he pulled me closer.
I drew a shaky breath. “I can’t. You have to let me go sometimes, Aaron.”
“But how can I—”
“They don’t have anyone to use against me,” I reasoned. “So the only thing they can do is use their strength. That’s why we need to be stronger. And we can only get stronger through experiences.”
“But I’m afraid I’d lose you too,” he whimpered. “I can’t bear losing anyone anymore.”
I gently removed his hands from me and cupped his face again. “You won’t lose me. That, I can promise,” I smiled. “Besides, Naomi still needs us. We have to be strong for her. And you have to be stronger for your daughter. Okay?”
He slowly nodded. “Okay . . .”
Muli akong ngumiti sa kanya. “We only have a day to be weak and vulnerable. Cry until you can’t. Tomorrow, we have to be back to our old selves again.”
Matapos iyon ay sinabi kong magpahinga na siya. Naglakad ako palayo at naabutan ko namang nakasilip si Nathan mula sa pintuan ng kwarto niya.
“He isn’t okay,” he murmured and he looked at me for confirmation.
“He’s not,” I mumbled back.
Pagkasabi ko no’n ay naglakad siya papunta sa sala. Hideo immediately hugged him and I lightly smiled upon seeing that. Mabuti na lang at mayroon siyang makakasama.
He would be okay. He needed to be okay.
I had been running on empty while I treaded through the forest. Gusto kong umiyak ngayong mag-isa na lang ako pero ayaw lumabas ng mga luha ko. Pakiramdam ko, kailangan ko pa ring maging malakas kahit walang nakakakita. Even my consciousness wouldn’t allow me to be weak. It just felt empty.
Pakiramdam ko, ubos na ubos na ako.
I wanted to visit Rielle and tell her everything that happened. I wanted to say sorry for making Hideo cry. But my body could only take me as far as my cabin. The pain from injuries that I had received while fighting and escaping, and exhaustion finally caught up on me and I was so close to passing out.
Marahan kong binuksan ang pinto pero napatigil ako nang may maramdaman akong presence sa loob. It was his presence. I stood on the doorway, staring at Kid who was sitting on my bed.
“Why are you here?” matigas kong tanong.
“I visited Rielle,” he answered.
When he saved me and flew with me yesterday, there was a little hope at the back of my mind that he would help me again. Nang makarating kami sa airport few hours ago, nawala na lang siya bigla. If he were with me, I thought I could have saved Akira . . . but I realized how futile that was.
He was a Shinigami, after all.
“Leave,” I said as I walked toward his direction but I was surprised when he threw something. Agad ko iyong sinalo. It was a bloody knife and a pistol.
“There were Reapers following us,” he stated. “I had to take care of them and extract the information I needed.”
Reapers? I didn’t even feel anything when we landed on the airport. Or maybe I was too distraught to even sense their presence.
I slowly approached my bed and plopped beside him. “Please leave,” I mumbled. “Gusto ko nang magpahinga.”
“In that state?” tanong niya.
Napatingin naman ako sa kanya. It would be better if he was still the smart mouth and sarcastic guy like before. I needed someone whom I could channel this anger, but when he saved me a while ago, I was reminded of Rielle. That despite their twisted views and beliefs, they could still be good.
Hah. What happened to him in the last few years? When did he become this tame? Is he even the same guy I knew five years ago?
Bigla naman siyang tumayo at kinuha ang medicine at first aid kid sa cabinet. He started disinfecting and dressing the wounds on my arms and shoulders. I gave him a curious look but he continued putting a gaze around my wrist.
“Still returning the favor. huh?” I commented as I remembered what he said before and how our situations had been reversed.
“Yes,” he replied.
Muli kaming tumahimik at hinayaan ko siya sa ginagawa niya. I just stared vacantly as my mind drifted back to the time I was still with Mayu and Akira.
According to the initial report, Miyu drove by herself why carrying Mayu’s dead body inside. Halos sira-sira na rin ito nang makarating sa campus. The Technology department was still analyzing everything that Miyu captured and recorded, and they would submit a report about it tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Vivien was still unconscious, and Kohaku was contemplating whether to let the Technology department erase her memories about the death of Akira or not.
My thoughts returned to the present when I felt him shifting his position. Pumunta siya sa likuran ko at narinig ko ang mahina niyang pagsinghap. The wound on my back must be nasty. Almost all of their attacks were concentrated on my back as they kept on coming behind me.
I winced as I felt his hand on my back but I was surprised when his other hand reached for face. The next thing I knew, his right hand was already covering my eyes.
“Tough day, huh?” he suddenly commented.
Hindi ko alam kung paano o kung bakit pero bigla na lang nanubig ang mga mata ko. The emotions I had been suppressing for several days just poured out of my eyes. It started with stifled sobs until I was already crying my heart out.
I was supposed to be the emotional pillar. I was supposed to be the toughest among us. But for the first time in years, I broke down and let my emotions drown me while someone was around.
My hands trembled as I yearned for comfort. My voice cracked and quivered as I wailed for the death of my loved ones. And for the first time, I allowed myself to crumble, even if it was in the arms of an enemy.
I stared vacantly at the clouds; my head filled with so many thoughts that I couldn’t process any at all. My chest felt heavy and hollow at the same time. I wanted to get back as soon as possible but it would still take us at most 10 hours.
I sighed in frustration just as my gaze landed on my bloody hands and I remembered how I almost died a while ago. They almost succeeded with their plan.
“The daughter of that damned Aiwa is dead.”
Huminga ako nang malalim habang pinipigilang mamuo ang luha sa mga mata ko. I wouldn’t believe any word that they said until I confirmed them with my own eyes. No . . . I just don’t want to believe them.
Napatingin ako sa direksyon niya. He had already removed the hood from his head and the cloth covering his face. It had been five years since I last saw him and he looked healthier. He still had the same cold and wrathful eyes but he seemed . . . less ferocious.
“How did you find me?” I asked, trying to distract myself from my devastating thoughts.
“I was carefully following some Elites’ movements for a while now,” he replied. “Trying to get some information about . . .” he paused and heaved a sigh, “about Rielle’s other Elites.”
There was a hint of sadness in his eyes but I’m sure he wouldn’t acknowledge it. They don’t even like calling each other friends, but I know he deeply cares about them, just how he feels about Rielle. Losing a comrade that’s like a brother or a sister to you is something I can understand. And now . . . that might be the case again.
No, I scolded myself. Hindi mo pa sigurado ang nangyari. Believe in them.
“Then I learned about Rin’s plan three days ago,” he continued and he glanced at my direction. “She wants him to suffer by taking all of your lives.”
Para namang muli akong sinaksak nang marinig ko iyon. I remembered the rage in her eyes when she showed herself in front of me.
“Hideo had suffered enough,” I mumbled. “Why can’t she just stop? Everything was already going well . . .”
“Rielle was her everything,” he said.
I scoffed at his remark. “Everything? Nakita ko kung paano niya muntik patayin si Akemi noong tumakas siya. Nakita ko kung paano niya pinanood lang na mamatay ang kapatid niya.”
“I knew Rin since she was a kid,” he replied. “Her life revolved around Rielle. She admired her but she was also always being compared to her. For that kid, Rielle had become her goal.”
He paused and had a wistful look on his face. He must have remembered the times Akemi was still alive . . . because I just did.
“She wanted to be her and at the same time, hated her. When she came back, she was like another person.” He looked briefly at me, as if hinting it was our fault. “The sister she once admired became a disappointment, both to her and their parents . . . and to her people.”
Naalala ko kung paano itinuring na taksil ng mga Shinigami si Akemi noong makarating siya noon sa gubat. I remembered how lonely she was when she had finally opened her mind to us.
“She must have wanted to kill everyone who ‘stole’ and ‘changed’ her sister,” he added.
“I felt that way before, too,” he suddenly said. “I wanted to kill the people who made her that way.”
There was a suffocating silence that followed. Hindi rin ako nakapagsalita. Ngayon ko lang na-realize na hindi kami ang unang naging pamilya ni Akemi. At napaisip ako na paano kung ako ang nasa kalagayan nila? Would I feel the same way, too? Would I resent the people who spent happy moments with her, too?
“Did Rin . . .” My voice faltered and I had to choke back the lump forming in my throat. “Did she succeed with . . .”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “but it would be easy for her as your other comrades have weaknesses she could use to her advantage—”
“Okay, enough . . . just . . . just stop talking.”
Muli akong napahinga nang malalim at pinilit na kalmahin ang sarili ko kahit na sa loob ko ay alam ko na ang maaabutan ko. However, there was still a little hope, and I would hold on to that. I wouldn’t cry yet. I wouldn’t mourn for them yet. I have to believe that they are still alive . . . or else . . . I can’t bear living anymore.
When we landed at the airport, I immediately instructed our people there. They saw the dead bodies inside the aircraft but they didn’t seem surprised. Halos abala rin sila sa communications control. One of the staff gave me the key to the car but she held my arm before I could walk away.
“The President will arrive in an hour,” she said, her voice trembling. “Please . . . hold on until he arrives.”
Hindi na ako nagtanong pa at dumiretso sa kotse. Kid disappeared from my sight but I had no time to see if he was still around. I stepped on the gas, hoping that I was still not late.
Halos patakbo na akong lumabas sa kotse at agad na dumiretso sa gubat. My body ached so bad but my adrenaline was keeping me from fainting.
Makita ko lang sila, okay lang na hindi ako makagalaw ng ilang araw o buwan. Please . . . just let me see them safe.
Napatigil ako sa pagtakbo nang may maramdaman akong kakaiba. I could feel some sinister presence nearby. I was still outside the boundaries of the Black Dimension detector and that meant there must be Shinigamis around.
Halos sumakit ang dibdib ko sa sobrang lakas ng tibok ng puso ko. I tried following the presence and my blood ran cold when I saw Akira being held by two Shinigamis. Her head was bleeding and there were cuts on her body. She was already on the verge of death, yet a rope was tied around her neck and the two were planning to push her from the bough they were all standing on.
I was about to yell her name and lunged at them when she suddenly used her inner voice.
‘M-Michiko . . .’ she sobbed. ‘No . . . don’t show yourself . . . please . . . Vivien . . . my daughter is coming . . . please . . . save her . . . d-don’t let her . . . see this . . . please . . .’
Gusto kong sabihin na ililigtas ko siya pero nang makita ko si Vivien mula sa hindi kalayuan ay parang lumubog ang puso ko. The Shinigamis would surely target her once they see her here . . . and I could only save one in this state.
I swiftly ran toward her direction and carried her away from where they were but my legs were already giving up on me.
‘Don’t come here . . . Vivien . . . please . . .’ Akira repeatedly mumbled and that broke my heart into pieces. ‘I’m . . . sorry . . . I’m sorry . . . Michiko . . . please t-take care of her . . .’
I looked at their direction stared in horror as one of the Shinigamis pushed her. I wanted to run to her but she looked at us with a smile on her face, chanting that we should run away, and I stifled a sob when her face turned pale.
“Mommy—" Vivien cried and I had to cover her mouth.
Napatakbo ako papunta sa likod ng isang puno habang nakayakap nang mahigpit kay Vivien. I didn’t have the time to cry. I had to save her . . . but my legs felt like lead.
“Shh . . .” alo ko. “Your mommy is alright,” I said as I choked back my tears. “Okay? Don’t worry. Mommy will be alright.”
She looked at me with a heartbreaking expression and that made me feel worse. I was about to hit her pressure point when I felt a presence behind us.
Halos gumulong ako para lang maiwasan ang sandata niya. I groaned in pain as I landed on my back. Pinilit kong tumayo para protektahan si Vivien pero pare-pareho kaming napatigil nang may maramdaman kaming kakaiba.
It was an overwhelming pressure that almost suffocated me. Above us was an aircraft and someone just jumped from it.
It was Hideo.
The Shinigamis didn’t even think twice and immediately opened the Black Dimension to escape before he could attack. My gaze met his and for the first time in a while, I felt vulnerable and weak. Seeing him was such a huge reassurance yet I also felt guilty.
He was covered in wounds, too, and his suit was bloody, but it wasn’t the body that hurt the most. His expression immediately changed. He looked terrified.
Agad siyang tumakbo sa direskyon ni Akira at mabilis niya itong ibinaba. He laid her gently on the ground and he tried resuscitating her by pumping her chest.
“No, no, no. Come one, Akira, please . . .” he mumbled. “This isn’t the time to joke around . . . come on, open your eyes. Please . . . your daughter is here . . . don’t do this . . . please . . .”
Some of his staff ran toward our direction but immediately halted when they saw what was going on. Tumingin ako sa isa sa kanila at maingat kong inabot si Vivien na nawalan na ng malay.
“Please . . . leave us alone first . . .”
They immediately understood and went back. Hanggang dito ay naririnig ko ang commotion sa campus pero parang unti-unti rin iyong nawala habang nakatingin ako sa kanilang dalawa. He continued resuscitating her and it was hard to watch.
‘Hideo,’ I softly called. ‘Stop it.’ ‘No,’ he replied, shaking his head. ‘Just a little more . . . just a little more and she’s—’
I was in denial with Mayu’s death, too, while traveling back here. Gusto kong maniwalang buhay pa siya. Gusto kong maniwala na maaabutan ko pa siya. But seeing Akira’s death in front of my eyes killed all the hope that was left in me.
‘She’s not coming back anymore,’ I said. ‘She will!’ he snapped as silent tears fell from his eyes. ‘She has to . . .’
Despite the excruciating pain, I walked away, blood trickling down my back and legs. The tears that were threatening to come out seemed to have dried up. I just felt . . . hollow. As if someone just carved my heart out of my chest. No. Not hollow. There were just so many emotions that I couldn’t process everything anymore.
I summoned my sword, rage coursing through my blood. Now that I don’t have the people I wanted to protect the most, I wouldn’t run away anymore. I wouldn’t forgive them. I’d make them pay.
Naglakad ako palayo sa gubat pero napahinto ako nang naramdaman ko ang paghawak ni Hideo sa braso ko.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’m . . . I’m going to make them pay for what they did,” mahina kong sabi.
He looked at me with painful expression. “Michiko . . .”
“Let me go.”
I pulled my arm from his grasp but he suddenly knelt and clung to my waist. He broke into sobs as his body trembled.
“No,” he whimpered. “Just stay here . . . please . . . don’t go . . .”
“Hideo . . .”
“I . . .” His hug got tighter. “I can’t lose you, too . . .” he sobbed.
For the second time, Hideo crumbled, but this time, he didn’t even try to hide it. Fear. Hopelessness. Despair. This time, we were on the losing end again.
Blood started gushing out of my arm and I hastily tore the hem of my shirt, tying it to restrict the flow. I breathed deeply, trying to keep myself calm despite the wretched situation I was in.
It had been about a day since they started attacking me. Gusto kong tumakas. Gusto kong bumalik kung nasaan ang mga kasamahan ko pero hindi ko alam kung paano. They were continuously using the Black Dimension to sneak behind me and the only way to prevent them from tracking me was to completely conceal my presence. That requires a lot of concentration, but that was the hardest thing to do right now as I couldn’t help thinking about Mayu, Akira and Hideo.
Calm down, I reminded myself. My friends are strong. They will survive. They have to.
“Family is such a weakness, isn’t it?”
Rin’s words echoed in my mind and my body started trembling. I had to choke back the tears that were threatening to come out. She said she had to use strength and number against me because I didn’t have an emotional weakness. Because I didn’t have a family.
What if . . . no . . . no, I shouldn’t think like that.
Napatigil naman ako nang may maramdaman ako sa paligid. One of the weaknesses of the Black Dimension was that it could only be opened at ground level, unless someone could fly inside and dropped out of the sky while coming out. But there were instances where some Shinigamis appeared on top of trees, though, I could only recall some Elites doing that. Ngayong nasa itaas ako ng puno ay pwede kong makita kung saan banda sila magbubukas, pero may blind spots din sa posisyon ko.
I carefully drew my dagger and waited for them to come out, but something hit the bough where I was sitting, and I fell before I could even react. I groaned as orbs danced in front of my eyes, my wounded leg receiving the weight of my body. Despite the excruciating pain, I hastily got up and readied my weapons as five Reapers and two Elites surrounded me.
“Just give up and let us kill you painlessly,” one of the Reapers said while reloading her Glock. “Just like what is happening to one of you.”
What he just uttered made me drew a shaky breath. Hideo said I shouldn’t lose my cool during a fight, but I just did. The emotions I was suppressing for the whole day burst out and they had taken over my reasoning.
I charged at the Reaper and the next thing I knew, I was already holding a portion of his tongue, his blood splattered all over my shirt and face. He cried in pain, squirming away from me, as the other Shinigamis lunged at our direction.
“Don’t you dare talk about them,” I seethed, anger and pain swelling in my chest. “They won’t die . . . they can’t.”
I summoned a broadsword and swung it in a clean horizontal arc, preventing them from reaching me, and quickly mustered my chain whip. My rage drove me into a reckless battle, attacking everyone despite the injuries I received.
My body was moving on its own while my mind was somewhere else. Memories kept flooding my head: the moment I received my mission; Akira and Mayu telling me theirs; Vivien clinging onto Akira’s neck after hearing she’d be gone for a while; and me, thinking that we would still each other after that short moment.
The rage I felt was gradually dissipating, filling my chest with bout of regrets and grief. I wanted to get out of here and return home. I wanted to make sure that they . . . that they would be there, waiting for me. That these people were lying.
My focus crumbled and I didn’t notice that I was being surrounded again. I felt a sharp pang of pain on my back before I could even recover my senses.
I collapsed on my knees as I cried in pain, my body trembling from the deep cuts I received. My vision was turning hazy, and my breath, ragged.
Stand up, I willed myself as the Shinigamis surrounding me went inside the Black Dimension. You can’t die here.
They would surely attack me where I wouldn’t expect it. I gripped my broadsword so tight that my knuckles turned white. With gritted teeth, I slowly stood up and summoned another longsword.
As if on cue, I felt a presence coming from behind and with a sharp swing, I landed a deep cut on the Reaper’s chest. He growled in pain and went back inside the Black Dimension while I honed my senses to know where they were coming . . . but their attacks were getting faster and calculated.
I hated running away from fights, but in this state, I might actually end up in a critical situation. I was already eyeing my escape route when one of the Elites appeared in front of me with a sly smile.
“We just received a good news,” he announced. “Ah . . . might be a bad news for you. The daughter of that damned Aiwa is dead. One down.”
Ilang segundo akong nakatitig lang sa kanya. His words wouldn’t sink in. He didn’t mean that, did he? No . . . he was just messing with my mind. Mayu is wise and she could take down a bunch of enemies by herself. She couldn’t . . .
“Don’t worry,” he added, “you’ll see her soon in the afterlife—!”
“SHE’S NOT DEAD! SHE CAN’T BE DEAD!”
My vision turned red and I heedlessly attacked her, not minding the rest of his cronies, but that was my fatal mistake. The next thing I knew, my right shoulder was already impaled with a sword and someone landed another slash on my back, but my gaze was fixed with the Elite.
If I couldn’t get out of here alive, might as well take someone with me to the doors of death.
With the last ounce of my strength, I quickly summoned my chakram and threw it on his direction while two of them were pinning my body to the ground. Everything happened so fast that all of them went still for a few seconds. Half of the chakram got embedded on his eyes, while the other half slit his mouth. His body fell to the ground with a loud thud as blood gushed out of his face.
I shoved the Reaper restraining me and tried running away but my legs gave up halfway.
“You fucking Senshin!” the other Elite shouted in anger.
“Shit,” I cursed under my breath. “M-must get away . . .”
I heard the swinging of the blade and I knew I was seconds away from getting beheaded. A dry laugh escaped my lips, realizing how pathetic I was today. I couldn’t even fight to the best of my abilities because of what they had told me. They used my emotions against me, and it was effective.
I promised myself that I would protect them yet I couldn’t even protect myself. I promised Hideo I wouldn’t die yet here I was, waiting for my death. Now, I’d suffer the consequences of my carelessness.
“I’m sorry . . .” I quietly sobbed as I thought about my friends.
With my eyes closed, I waited for the blade to touch my nape but instead, I heard a yell of pain. I slowly opened my eyes and a black cloak fluttered beside me. My gaze carefully went upward, toward his face, and I gasped when I saw him holding my bloodied sword.
“For whom was that sorry for?” he asked, his eyes still focused on the Shinigamis in front of him.
The hood of his cloak was covering his face and a black cloth was wrapped around the lower part of his face, but I knew who it was. His voice and presence were something that I couldn’t forget easily.
“I remember you saying you’re stronger than me,” he retorted while swinging the sword, blood splashing off the blade. “Was that a joke?”
I felt a lump in my throat as I stared at him. For years, I thought I didn’t fear death. Maybe because I was confident with my strength and skills that I didn’t see myself dying in a fight. Death itself was still not terrifying but I realized dying alone was.
I was fighting alone and dying in a foreign land, away from my loved ones. Seeing a familiar face here almost brought me to tears.
The Reapers looked confused and he didn’t give them enough time to think. He used the Black Dimension to attack and a few seconds later, he returned holding an eyeball. My stomach churned as I watched him crushed it with his hand. I almost forgot how brutal he could get.
Bigla naman siyang umupo at tinitigan ang likod ko. The cuts must have been so deep as I could feel the blood trickling down my body. Nagulat ako nang bigla niyang hinigit ang bewang ko.
“Now it’s time to return the favor,” he mumbled.
“What are y—”
“This will be extremely painful,” he noted as we both sensed more presence around us.
“What do you mean—”
Before I could even finish my question, he opened the Black Dimension, and the last thing I remembered was howling in pain as I felt the intense heat that burned my skin and insides, and the suffocating pressure that almost crushed my lungs.
“Come on, wake up.”
My eyes fluttered open as I gasped for air. Nang makita ko ang mukha niya sa harapan ko ay itinulak ko siya kahit na halos wala nang lakas ang mga kamay ko.
“Y-you . . .” I glared at him while stabilizing my breathing. There were blisters on my skin and my insides still felt burning. “Were you trying to kill me?!” He heaved a sigh. “I just saved your ass.”
Balak ko pang makipagtalo sa kanya pero napatigil ako nang makita ko kung nasaan kami at kung ano ang nangyari rito. The crew members who went here with me were slaughtered and their bodies were left on the ground.
Pinigilan ko ang luha ko at huminga nang malalim. Despite the throbbing pain all over my body and the worries flooding my mind, I started pulling them inside the aircraft.
“The hell are you doing?” he asked, watching me struggle with the bodies’ weights.
“Can you fly this one?” I asked, looking at the aircraft and deliberately ignoring his question.
“Why?” he returned.
A weak smile escaped my trembling lips and my eyes started welling up. “Please take us home.”
Please. Let it be lies. Let it be just a nightmare. I want to see them. I can’t lose them.
“Seryoso na ba ‘yan?” I beamed, my hopes getting up.
Hideo sighed. “Yeah. They want your help.”
Halos mapatalon ako sa tuwa nang malaman kong may ibibigay na mission sa akin ang Intelligence department. It had been five years since I went out of the campus for a job. Idagdag pa na naging teacher ako kaya mas lalong kumonti ang nabibigay sa aking missions.
He showed me the files about the tasks I needed to do. It would be a rescue operation: the son of a prominent Senshin in the humdrums’ world. Particularly in Russia, was abducted and he wanted us to save him. He would be willing to donate millions to the institution if we succeed.
“You need a team—”
“No,” I said, abruptly cutting him off, while skimming the pages of the report. “Alam mo naman na mas gusto kong mag-isa pagdating sa missions.”
Hideo gave me forbidding look. “Michiko,” he called, a hint of warning in his tone.
“I’ll be fine,” I replied. “Besides, mukhang humdrums lang naman ang abductors. I can handle this alone.”
“You should listen—”
“It’s been five years, Hideo,” I mentioned. “Don’t worry too much. Besides, I already promised, didn’t I?” A gentle smile escaped my lips. “I won’t die.”
Naalala ko ang araw na nangako akong hindi ako mamamatay. It sounded like a joke, but I was serious about that. I can’t die until I can make sure everyone I care for has lived their lives to the fullest.
Lumabas ako mula sa office niya at nakita ko namang naglalakad papunta sa class nila sina Reina.
“Ma’am Michiko!” she beamed while waving her hands excitedly.
Hayate halted and waited for Reina to finish waving at me. On the other hand, Hiroshi continued walking, his attention solely on the metal fibers he was tinkering. Napangiti na lang ako nang makita ko sila. They were just little kids back then. Ngayon, ang laki na nila.
Napalingon agad ako nang marinig ko ang boses ni Mayu. I walked toward her direction and I noticed that she was loading some stuff into Miyu. Pumasok kaming dalawa sa loob at namangha ako sa naging improvement nito.
“Pupunta ka kay Naomi?” I asked.
She smiled in return and nodded. “Tomorrow. Sorry if I can’t take you.”
“Okay lang. Okay na sa aking malaman na ayos lang sila.”
Mayu had been going to Naomi’s place for the last two years on behalf of Hideo. I wasn’t sure about what exactly had transpired during the council meeting after the war, but it seemed like Sir Hideyoshi pulled some strings so both Naomi and Rainie wouldn’t be forced to return here.
Noong unang beses na pumunta si Mayu sa kanila ay umiyak siya nang sabihin niya sa amin ang nangyari. She said Naomi was having a hard time adjusting but she was forcing herself to be strong for the sake of Rainie and her son, Nathan.
“She just broke down,” I remembered her saying.
Nang marinig iyon ni Akira ay umiyak din siya. Naomi must have been bottling up her emotions for the past years and seeing someone from the previous life she had triggered them to ripple. Kung pwede lang kunin kahit kalahati ng sakit na nararamdaman niya, gagawin ko. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it was for her.
Ipinangako naman ni Mayu na dadalaw siya yearly sa kanya at ito na ang pangatlong taon. She was the only person allowed to visit her. Mabuti na rin iyon para hindi makaramdam ang Shinigamis. Namangha nga rin ako kung papaano nagawang magtago ni Naomi mula sa kanila. Of course, Hideo and Mayu must have helped her but the fact that she managed to disappear from their radar was already impressive.
“Ah, Michiko! Mayu!”
Sabay kaming napalingon ni Mayu at nakita namin si Akira na palapit papunta rito habang karga si Akane. That was the alternative name she gave to Vivien.
“I’ll go to Kohaku’s village,” she replied. “At may mission ako pagkatapos.”
She excitedly told us about the job she would do and it suddenly felt nostalgic. For the past few years, wala kaming ibang ginawa kundi manatili rito. Tanging si Hideo lang ang nakakalabas para sa meetings and conferences. It felt like we were back to being students again.
“So aalis pala tayong apat bukas,” Akira added. Bigla namang yumakap sa kanya si Akane at natawa siya rito. “Babalik din si Mommy,” she whispered.
“You can leave Akane with Hiroshi,” Mayu suggested. “Babantayan naman siguro siya nina Reina at Hayate.”
I chuckled, realizing how those kids could take care of others now. Pakiramdam ko tuloy, ang tanda ko na.
Nagpaalam na rin kami sa isa’t isa para makapaghanda sa mga gagawin namin. I went to my cabin and prepared the things and weapon I needed for my mission. Few moments later, I collapsed on my bed and stared vacantly at the ceiling, thinking about how we would not see each other for days after five years. Ngayon na lang ulit kami maghihiwa-hiwalay.
There would be a summit that Hideo needed to attend in the West, too. Hindi niya sinabi ang details pero involved and FBI, CIA at iba pang intelligence agencies na mayroong Senshins as directors.
I stared at my hands, faint scars and lesions covering almost half of them. These past few years, I had never fought “real” enemies and I might face them in my upcoming mission. For the first time, I felt nervous.
Isang malalim na buntong-hininga ang pinakawalan ko at pinilit na lang matulog.
My heart thumped excitedly as I checked the weapons that I’d be using. A helicopter just took off from the campus and I was sure Hideo was there, probably with some of his assistants. Hindi ko na naabutan sina Akira at Mayu dahil maaga raw silang umalis. Well, magkikita pa naman kami sa susunod na mga araw.
I went out of the Latens forest and drove the car prepared by the Intelligence department to the airport. The details of the report flash on my windshield. According to the files I received, the kid was taken away when Mr. Skovortsov was on his way to his work and he managed to track them initially, but the abductors discovered it. He coordinated with one of the Elders and that was how I got this mission.
Pagdating ko roon ay pumunta agad ako sa designated at hidden gate para sa Senshins. I met with the pilot who already knew where I would go.
The aircraft was specifically made for solo or two-person missions, hence, the limited space. Muli kong ni-review ang files at nag-strategize kung ano ang gagawin ko. After almost 11 hours, we arrived directly at Khabarovsk, one of cities in the far eastern region of Russia.
The pilot landed on a hidden spot near the mountains as we were quite near the Shinigami’s main base, which extends to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the city that connects Russia to northern Japan.
“Should we wait for you?” the pilot asked.
“Alright. I hope I’d be done by tomorrow,” I replied. “For now, be vigilant.”
The crew agreed and they set up a camp near the mountains. Halos manginig naman ang buong katawan ko paglabas ko sa aircraft. Pagtingin ko sa isang device, -27°C ang temperature. Fortunately, I packed some winter clothes.
I sent a coded message to Mr. Skovortsov and he said he’d be counting on me. An hour later, a car stopped in front of me and said my client had provided an accommodation. Pagdating ko roon ay agad kong sinet-up ang mga kailangan ko.
Naglatag ako ng map sa lamesa. The kid was last tracked in Amursk so it’s possible that they were heading northwards. After careful deliberation, I went out of the house and started following their trails using the car that my client provided. Few hours later, I arrived at Komsomolsk-on-Amur and saw one of the abductors loitering around a museum or church, I wasn’t sure.
Halos mapailing na lang ako dahil hindi man lang nag-ingat ang mga ito kung sakaling may makakita sa kanila. Humdrums are, indeed, careless and quite soft in the head. Everything became easier after that. I only needed to follow him to their hideout.
It took him almost an hour to move, and just like what I had expected, he foolishly did not check his surroundings. Agad ko siyang sinundan at nakarating kami sa isang alleyway. When he was about to open the door on the backside of a building, I lurched at him.
He didn’t have the time to process what had happened and passed out. I covered my face with the trench coat I was wearing and carefully went inside their hideout. Okay, not really carefully since it turned out there wasn’t any corridors or hallways and everyone was just in the middle of a huge room.
“Uhh, hi?” bati ko pero mukhang wala sila sa mood na bumati pabalik.
Plan your moves. Wait until you gather enough information and don’t just recklessly attack. I remembered Hideo’s reminder but I guess that wouldn’t be he case now.
“A teper', krysa, kto ty?” (“Now, who are you, rat?”) one of them said.
I hastily scanned the surroundings and saw the little boy tied up on a chair at the far back corner of the room. He locked eyes with me, clearly scared, and I looked at him with reassurance.
“Sorry, can’t understand Russian,” I replied, shifting my gaze back to the humdrum. “Hey, kiddo, close your eyes.”
Several of them lunged at my direction, weapons ready in their handsMy defense kicked into gear and I summoned both my longsword and chainwhip to maximize my reach. My heart pounded loudly against my chest. The bloodthirst I had suppressed for years resurfaced. All I could feel was pleasure.
My body moves on its own, tearing flesh and splattering blood all over the room. The next thing I knew, there were only two guys remaining, both shaking in fear as the contact lenses I got in my eyes fell, revealing my intense green irises. I threw my whip at them before they could run and hanged them upside down.
Lumapit ako sa bata at nakapikit pa rin siya. I summoned Mayu’s headgear prototype and gently put it on his head.
“This won’t hurt,” I whispered. “I promise.”
There were a lot of kids, especially Erityians, suffering from traumatic experiences. Matapos ang war ay agad na isinulong ni Mayu ang paggawa ng iba’t ibang klaseng headgears para makatulong sa kanila. She invented one that could erase recent memories.
Makalipas ang ilang minuto ay tinanggal ko iyon at dahan-dahan siyang dumilat. I removed the ropes binding him and smiled.
“You’re okay now. Let’s go back to your father.”
I contacted Mr. Skovortsov and he showed up, along with several bodyguards, to fetch his son. The little kid ran to him excitedly and Mr. Skovortsov cried happy tears while hugging his son tightly. My heart sank upon seeing that view because I remembered Hideo and Naomi. How long do they have to wait to be with their own child? How long do they have to suffer to finally hug the only family they have?
My mind was pulled back to the situation when Mr. Skovortsov offered a ride back to our aircraft but I declined. Gusto ko munang mapag-isa kahit sandali lang.
I walked toward the forest I saw a while ago—the place where I could allow myself to be vulnerable. Habang naglalakad-lakad ay parang bumalik lahat ng alaalang pilit kong kinakalimutan. I was in the middle of reminiscing the tragic fate of two of my friends when I felt something strange.
The hair on my nape bristled as I sensed multiple presence around me. I immediately summoned my dual swords and assumed a defensive stance.
The next thing I saw almost made me run away. Two, four . . . no, eight portions of the Black Dimension opened and more than a dozen Shinigamis came out. But what made my skin crawl was the overwhelming presence of the last Shinigami that stepped out of that dimension.
I almost winced upon seeing her face. She looked like Rielle, but her eyes and expression were more menacing, and cruel.
She flashed a cold smile. “Ah. The strongest of the seven,” she remarked.
“You’re the only problem left.”
Her words sent shiver down my spine. What did she mean by that?
As if she had read my mind, a sadistic smile appeared on her face. “Family is such a weakness, isn’t it? But you don’t have one.”
I unsheathed my sword and pointed it at her direction. “What do you mean? What do you want?” I hissed.
For a second, I thought her expression softened. “An eye for an eye,” she softly said. “He took everything away from me. Now, I will do the same.”
And that moment, all the Shinigamis around charged at me with the intent to kill, but I didn’t fear for my life. Instead, I thought about my friends and hoped that they were safe . . . that I could still see them again . . . that I could keep my promise of protecting them.