For four days, we just rowed and rowed until our hands got sore. Nel was grumbling at Cliff and Jett because they get hungry every hour and our supplies were getting depleted. She ordered them to catch some fish though I wasn’t sure how they would do that without any equipment.
She lay down beside me and heaved a deep sigh.
“Mentally draining, isn’t it?” I said while inspecting my sword.
“I can’t even imagine how I’m going to survive if I’m alone. How do you even do it?”
I shrugged. “I’m used to it.”
She looked tired and the bags under her eyes were getting more noticeable. I was about to tell her to rest since she was up all night but the hair on my nape bristled. The temperature suddenly dropped and the sky turned gray. A swirl of mist and thick fog enveloped our surroundings, obscuring our vision. Each of them assumed a defensive stance, their weapons ready.
“W-what’s happening?” she asked.
I stood at the front of the raft. “We’re here.”
As soon as I said those words, a smaller raft appeared and got wafted to our direction. I turned to them and smiled.
“Sorry. I’m the only one who can go inside.”
“It’s okay,” I said, reassuring them. “Just wait for me here.”
“How long should we wait?” asked Cliff.
“Until I return. Don’t do anything. Don’t look for me. Just stay here and wait.”
“And if we do something?”
I stared at Jett and smirked. “You’d be dead before you can do anything. This place is uncompromising so you better stay still. I don’t want my friends dying here with me.”
Before they could ask or complain, I hopped on the smaller raft and it pulled me to the thickest swirl of fog. I could feel the chills crawling onto my skin and I had to keep myself from shivering. The menacing aura was way more intense and blood-chilling than the last time.
The fog started to dissipate and I saw Farallon standing on the shore. I waded ashore and sighed in relief when I spotted Shira and Hyora a few meters behind him.
“Why are you here again?” asked Farallon who seemed displeased with my presence.
“I have a delivery,” I retorted. “Kind of grand prize material.”
That made him relax for a bit.
Shira and Hyora snuggled up against me. Hyora tugged my shirt with his fangs and turned to his back.
“You want me to ride you?” I asked and she purred in response.
Farallon huffed. “Why are they only friendly to you?”
I chuckled. “Jealous?”
“Shut your mouth, Naia.”
I hopped onto Hyora’s back while Shira and Farallon walked beside us. We treaded through the poisonous forest and the stone path until we reached the village. Kyo stood in the middle of the barren land with a scowl on his face. I winced when I saw his expression. He was already intimidating when he was smiling but his presence this time almost made me quiver.
“Why are you here, kid?” he asked in a disgruntled tone.
I had to choke back the creeping fear on my throat. “Uhh . . . more prisoners,” I responded. “Heads of the Nox Organization.”
He drew a deep breath and cracked his neck. He marched toward my direction as some Executioners followed behind him.
“Commander Priam acts fast,” he remarked. “I didn’t expect that.”
“Well, he wants to end this Nox problem as quick as possible.”
I still wasn’t sure why he looked irritated but I managed to tell him the details of the transport. He listened well despite grimacing every minute. When I was finished, he ordered an Executioner to call Lionel and Kiyoko. Farallon readied the place where the transport would take place.
“I’ll let my best fighters handle them,” he said.
After several minutes, Farallon, Lionel and Kiyoko stood before him, their scythes ready. He looked at me and commanded to transport the prisoners. I pushed the button and the air seemed to warp. A burst of light, along with shrapnel shells, exploded, wounding several Executioners but they didn’t even budge from where they stood. Two figures appeared; their headgears already destroyed. I drew my sword but before they could even check their surroundings, the curved blades of the scythes were already around their necks.
Kyo chuckled menacingly. “Welcome to my island, traitors.”
The transfer was a success. Lionel asked if I would want to accompany them in the Blood Chamber but I declined. That place wouldn’t be good for my state of mind right now. Besides, the place I wanted to visit was the armory. I had been wanting to visit that place but I didn’t have the courage when I got here the last time.
“I didn’t know you’re here again.”
I almost swung my sword when I heard a voice behind me. Fortunately, Aristus’ voice sounded familiar and I was able to restrain myself.
“You know, you almost lost your head,” I said as I got my hands off the sheath.
He sighed and adjusted his glasses. “I won’t be surprised. Everyone seems to be itching to kill somebody.”
“Speaking of that, why is everyone acting weird?”
Before I could hear his explanation, I felt something eerie. My skin tingled and I felt an unfamiliar presence. I turned around, hoping that it was just my instincts being oversensitive, but there he was. Someone was walking away from the direction of the Blood Chamber, his black cloak covering his face and body.
My fighting instincts took over. I unsheathed my sword and charged at his direction.
The Shinigami felt my presence and drew a dagger. We exchanged blows, trying to outmaneuver each other, but despite using a shorter blade, he was keeping up with my attacks and speed.
His green eyes gleamed under his hood and moved forward. Chills crawled under my skin and I took a step back before he could touch me with his free hand. I wasn’t sure what he wanted to do but I think I just avoided something dangerous.
“Who are you?” I grumbled, “and why are you here?”
“You’re a Custos,” he said. “Why—”
I thrust my sword and it gashed his right shoulder but he was quick to sidestep, avoiding a critical blow.
“I’m the one asking questions,” I retorted. “You have no right—”
It turned out his speed a while ago was still not his best. Before I could finish my sentence, he disappeared in front of me and felt his presence behind. I lurched forward but I felt his finger on my nape. The moment his skin touched mine, my vision turned dark and I had to will myself not to passed out. My knees buckled, as if my strength were being sucked out. Orbs danced before my eyes as I blinked hard.
Did he use his sixth sense?
“Stop. Both of you.”
It took a few seconds before my vision returned. Kiyoko was standing between me and the hooded Shinigami.
“H-he’s a Shinigami . . .” I muttered, still disoriented from that strange attack.
“I know,” she said.
“Then why . . .”
The Shinigami removed his hood and a guy who looked like a teenager came into view. His eyes were as intense as Kyo’s. However, despite being a Shinigami, his gaze was kind of . . . nice.
“I’m Darwin,” he greeted with a calm expression. “I’m here as the representative of the revolutionary faction of the Shinigami tribe.”
Darwin . . . where did I hear that name . . . ah.
“You’re the one who sent a message to Nel,” I mentioned. “The one she met in Romania?”
He seemed to recognize her name and his shoulders relaxed. I stood beside Kiyoko who just sighed in relief but I could also see the sadness in her eyes.
“Why is he here?” I asked.
“He’s looking for someone,” answered Kiyoko. “That’s why everyone is agitated.”
They explained to me what was going on and I couldn’t believe I would witness a day like this. A Shinigami roaming around Shima? Searching for someone who might be a prisoner? Wow. This day must be written in history books.
“Sorry for the distress I caused,” he told Kiyoko.
She smiled. “It’s alright. They just can’t believe a Shinigami can be different from what they are used to. Though I know a couple of Shinigamis like you.”
He, too, smiled upon hearing that. “I’m glad to hear that. But it seems like the person I’m searching for isn’t here. I need to go now.”
“Who’s the person you are looking for?” I chimed in.
They exchanged looks and he flashed a subtle smile. “Someone who can turn the tide in the fight between the Shinigami factions.”
I wanted to ask more questions but Kiyoko gestured at Aristus’ direction and he came running toward us.
“Aristus will escort you to the shore,” she said.
Darwin bowed at her. “Thank you.”
Aristus and Darwin started walking away from us while I watched their backs until they disappeared from my sight. I still couldn’t process what just happened and it felt like my chest would burst open from the swirl of emotions inside me.
“I know you’re mad,” said Kiyoko who was looking at the same direction. “I, too, despise the Shinigamis with all my heart.”
I stared at her multi-colored eyes. According to Nel, she was experimented by Shinigamis for years and almost died for a couple of times. Her hatred must have been what pushed her to survive.
I, too, wished I could kill every single one of them, especially those who caused Vince’s demise. I wanted to avenge him. To make them pay with their own lives. But even after doing that, I still wouldn’t be satisfied. Because I knew that that would not bring him back to life.
“But you know, maybe this time, the Shinigamis can finally redeem their tribe’s honor. After all, the leaders of the revolutionary seem wise enough to know what they have to fight for.”
Her youthful appearance made me forget that she was older than what she looked like. Hearing her words reminded me of what happened in Romania. Nel recognized the three representatives as her equal and they all declared a truce among the four Erityian tribes.
I heaved a sigh. Maybe it would be okay to trust her words.
“By the way, where is Kyo?” I asked.
“Oh, he must be questioning the Reapers Darwin just brought in exchange of his search.”
I see. So that was how it happened.
I glanced at the shack at the edge of the village but I resigned the thought of getting there after remembering what happened to Vince. Maybe this was still not the right time.
“Well, I guess I don’t need to tell him I’m leaving.”
She chuckled softly. “I will tell him. Good work on bringing the criminals here. Goodbye, Naia.”
She reached for her pocket and she held out the tip of a broken spear. She smiled at me but her eyes showed concern.
“Dad said you probably want this.”
My heart almost sank when I realized what it was. My hands started trembling and it felt like I was a child again.
“This was the spear that killed him,” she confirmed. “The Senshins gave it to Ise as a reminder that he died as a hero, but he just tossed it in the armory. They said a young girl searched for it before but she almost broke her mind at the slightest touch of the weapon.”
I winced upon hearing her story and remembered how it happened. I was knocked out cold for several days. Farallon said the memories held by the spear must have been too much for my mind, especially since it involved Vince’s death.
I drew a shaky breath and reached for the spear. The moment my finger touched its blade, a flash of memories flooded my mind.
A Shinigami annihilating a group of humdrums. Heads rolling on the ground. A dungeon where Shinigamis get tortured. A girl whose green eyes were seething with hatred . . .
. . . and then there was Vince with his chest pierced by this very spear while holding a baby in his arms.
I inhaled sharply as jarred back to the present. My hand was bleeding from clutching the blade tightly but that kept me grounded to the present and prevented me from going insane.
“Are you okay?” Kiyoko asked with a worried tone.
“Y-yes,” I weakly said. “I’m . . . I’m okay. Thank you for this.”
I put the broken spear on my waist band and smiled at her. I told her I’d be leaving and she nodded.
“Naia,” she called. “Say hello to Nel for me.”
Without looking back, I marched toward the island’s shore.
“Do you know how difficult it is to keep these two from entering the island?” Cliff complained the moment I got into our raft.
Nel and Jett were still holding their weapons but their restlessness had dissipated. She glared at me and said something under her breath.
“What?” I asked.
She ignored me and continued munching her snack while Jett started inspecting all his guns.
“What’s wrong with them?”
Cliff smirked. “They’re just worried about you. You spent almost three hours there.”
“Heh. When did you guys become so clingy?”
“I am not clingy,” Nel retorted. “It’s just that this place is giving me the creeps.”
“She’s right,” Jett added.
“I already told you that this place isn’t normal. Oh well, we’re leaving.”
Cliff started rowing until we got out of the fog. The sun was already setting, giving the sea and the sky an orange tinge. The waves helped us move faster and somehow, the silence and vastness of the water cleared the worries in my head.
My gaze drifted to the spear on my waist. For years, I was afraid of learning how he died, but after seeing it in my head, the hatred I kept for so long seemed to melt away. He died protecting someone. He died to save his son. As an Executioner, saving someone in exchange of his life wasn’t something he would do . . .
. . . but he did.
He stood there as a father, not a Senshin or an Executioner. He died in order for him to live.
Maybe, unconsciously, I had followed his footsteps. Instead of ruthlessly killing the enemies, I chose a life where I could protect the people I care for. And I would be more than willing to risk my life if that meant saving theirs. Just like what he did.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” Nel suddenly said, breaking the silence. “I . . . I really thought you’re not coming back to us.”
I looked at her, but she kept her gaze in front of her. Cliff and Jett had the same expression as her—a mixture of relief and perturbation.
A smile escaped my lips. “I’m a Keeper,” I said. “I need to stay alive and safe to keep my team from dying.”
They all looked at me and broke into a grin. Nel lunged at me and we collapsed on the raft.
“Whoa, careful!” Cliff cried as he tried to balance the raft.
“Nel, you’re crushing her,” Jett commented.
“Yeah. You’re a Keeper so please don’t do anything dangerous, or else, we’ll die,” she muttered, ignoring the guys’ comments.
I chuckled and patted her back. “Roger, Captain.”
The smile didn’t leave my face as we drifted farther away from the place that I once called home. Now, it’s time to return to the place where I am needed and where I want to be.