***

'Calm down,' I told myself after getting some distance from Mom.

Her attacks were getting more powerful while I was continually losing my energy from too much usage of grace. But I needed it. If not for my grace, she might have already killed me with her impeccable speed and strength.

“Shit,” I silently cursed. My eyes hurt from too much strain. It felt like they were being burned from the inside and pricked by thousand needles at the same time. My knees buckled and I was starting to feel lightheaded. Grace consumes too much stamina and needs extreme concentration that it isn’t advisable in an endurance battle.

I was already out of breath, clinging to the remaining ounce of strength in my body which was only enough to support my weight while standing. I couldn’t even see her clearly anymore. My grace disappeared after that last dodge.

“Damn it,” I muttered. Am I really this powerless against her?

My sight had already given up on me but I could still feel her presence coming toward me. I was about to move away but she was faster. She seized my neck and I struggled for breath, thrashing violently, hoping that she’d let go of me, but my consciousness almost slipped away when she slammed me against the wall.

"M-mom . . ."

The smell and taste of iron filled my mouth as I coughed out blood. Her power had destroyed the wall, creating a hole. She lifted me once again and I knew I'd meet my demise if she does that again.

"Die, agent," she said as she motioned her arm toward the wall.

I had to escape from his grasp. Instinct took over me and I wagered on my one and only chance to survive—I changed my body structure into a kid a second before she could plow me into the wall. The moment my body transformed, the hole she just created few minutes ago became my doorway to survival. I got thrown out of that windowless dungeon and I didn't waste a second. I willed myself to get up and ran away before she realized what just happened.

Tumakbo ako nang hindi lumilingon pero napansin ko ang nangyayari sa paligid. It seemed like I was still in the same building. Everything was in chaos. Agents and Blacks were fighting against each other while our allies continued saving the humdrums that were trapped in the rooms.

Napahinto ako nang may makita akong dagger at baril sa lapag kaya agad kong pinulot ang mga 'yon at nagpatuloy sa pagtakbo. My stamina was close to depletion and the only thing that was propelling me to move was my desire to survive and save Mom.

"Damn it, move!" I cursed myself. My body wasn't listening to me anymore. I wanted to run faster yet my legs felt sluggish.

Hindi ko alam kung paano ko pa nakakayang gumalaw. Two Blacks came at me with their weapons but my body instinctively reacted and counterattacked using the dagger and gun I just picked up.

I was just about to run again when I felt a shooting pain on my left shoulder.

"Found you."

The next thing I knew, my shoulder was already impaled by one of Mom's butterfly sword.

The pain burned like fire, my left limb soaked in my own blood. I tried to stand but my strength had been completely drained and I ended up kneeling on the scarlet pool on the floor. I knew Mom was only several meters away from me but I couldn't move any longer. The noise around me faded until the only thing I could hear was my heartbeat.

Maybe this is it, I thought. In the end, I couldn't hurt her. I do not have the physical and emotional strength to do it.

Waiting for my own demise felt like a lifetime. I had already accepted my fate . . . but her fatal strike didn’t come. Instead, someone held me and even though I couldn’t see anything anymore, I already knew who saved me.

“Don’t you dare abandon us, Penelope,” Cliff said as he carried me away from Mom.

“C-Cliff . . .”

“Rest for now. We’ll take care of this.”

I see. So the three of them were safe.

“M-mom . . .” I breathed and before I could warn them, my consciousness had already slipped away.


***

My body felt sore. Every part was still throbbing with pain but at least my strength was slowly returning. Ironically, even though it lasted only for several minutes, that was the most pleasant sleep I’ve had for the past few days.

‘You’re finally awake.’

I realized I was sleeping on his back, my body draped with his coat while my waist had been tied on his. This must have been a funny sight if it wasn’t for the enemy they were facing.

‘I still can’t believe we’re fighting her,’ said Jett, who was fighting in such a short-range distance.

‘Be careful. Her attacks aren’t slowing down,’ Naia prompted.

Doon ko nalaman na kaya sila nandito ngayon ay dahil nawala ako sa radar ni Naia. According to her, the auction house collapsed and the whole street was declared as a war zone by the FBI and CIA. Communication was cut off and a 200-meter radius lockdown was put in order by the government to prevent panic and mass attention.

Maging si Jett ay umalis sa pwesto niya at napilitang gumamit ng pistol. He couldn’t use his sniping ability because of the smoke, dust and rubbles. They found Cliff after he was thrown away by Onyx and the three of them searched for me.

Mabilis namang umiwas si Cliff nang umatake si Mom sa direksyon namin. Even with other people attacking her, her attention was solely on me. She needed to finish her mission. She needed to kill me.

With our current situation, we do not have any chance of defeating her. Jett and Naia couldn’t even keep up with her speed and strength. They couldn’t fight with this kind of style since they weren’t frontliners to begin with. Cliff could do some damage, I think, but he had to take care of me. I was a burden and I felt guilty for dragging him down.

‘Since when did you become a pessimist?’

Damn it, he read my mind.

‘But it’s true,’ I said. ‘I am a burden right now. Why don’t you put me down? You can’t fight while taking care of me—’

‘No,’
he objected. ‘Do you think I am that weak?’

‘What? I didn’t say anything like that—’

‘I’ve been taking care of you along with Jett and Naia since we were children, even in missions and fights. This situation isn’t different. You are anything but burden, so don’t underestimate me, Captain.’

Hindi na ako nakasagot at pagkatapos no’n ay muling sumugod sa direksyon namin si Mom. He readied himself for her offensive, waiting for the chance to counterattack. The moment she stepped into his space, he maneuvered so swift that I couldn’t see the whole thing. The next thing I knew, Mom was already pushed several meters away, one of her swords on the floor while her wrist was bruised and swollen.

“Nuisance,” she muttered while picking up her sword.

Her aura changed into something terrifying. This time, she was serious. She wasn’t playing anymore.

She lurched forward and all of us were flustered with her speed that was much faster than earlier. It seemed like she disappeared and a second later, she was already in front of us, her sword pointing toward Cliff’s chest. He had no choice but to use his dagger to block it but that was when we realized what her plan was. It was just a diversion. She swung her other sword, right in front of my face, and Cliff didn’t have enough time to dodge both attacks. The next thing I knew, I was already looking at someone’s back. Naia had stopped Mom’s sword with her bare hands.

“Naia! No! Jett, stop her!” I yelled even though I knew it was already too late.

She collapsed as her hands bled, but what worried me more were the images going through her mind. We don’t want her to fight not because she’s a Keeper but because of her animus. The moment her hand touches a thing, its history will flash in her head, whether she likes it or not.

“S-stop! Stop it!” she cried while clutching her head.

Hindi ko naman alam ang dapat maramdaman. Paniguradong nakikita niya ang nangyari kay Mom dahil siya lang ang nagmamay-ari ng armas na ‘yon. What did Mom go through for her to react like that?

Agad namang inalalayan ni Jett si Naia at lumayo kami sa kanya. Her sword was coated with Naia’s blood and she was about to make another attack. We were on the verge of getting slaughtered but something unexpected happened.

“Time to die, ag—”

Hindi na niya natapos ang sasabihin niya. In a span of a second, she got frozen.

“Run now, Custos,” the woman said.

Her blue eyes gleamed like crystals. The way she stood and held her head high reminded me of a queen. That was when I realized she was in the auction a while ago. Kung tama ang pagkakaalala ko, the alias she used was Winter.

“A Huntres . . .” Jett muttered. “Why didn’t you kill her?” he asked, doubtful of the act she just pulled.

“I have no reason to,” Winter said. “I’m just here to find the traitor who betrayed my tribe. Besides, the right person who should kill her isn’t me,” sabay tingin niya sa akin. “You only have a few minutes. She’s strong enough to break my ice so if you want to survive, run.”

Hindi na kami nagdalawang-isip at agad lumayo sa kanila. Winter also walked away while freezing everyone who dared challenge her.

“What now?” tanong ni Naia habang patuloy pa rin kamng tumatakbo palayo.

“Mom or any of the Navis can only be stopped by killing them,” sabi ko at napatingin naman sila sa akin. “or through his orders.”

Their faces became grim after I said that. They already knew what I want.

“We have to find Midnight.”

“But you are in no condition to fight,” Jett stated.

“Naia,” tawag ko at kumunot naman ang noo niya. “Give me that thing.”

“Are you insane? I already gave you an antihemorrhagic drug to temporarily stop the bleeding of your injuries. Your body can’t handle another powerful substance.”

“But I have to fight. And I need that pill to do that.”

“No!” matigas niyang sagot. “That pill disrupts the natural flow of the organ systems and poses extreme risks once it enters the body. You may die.”

Bago pa ako makasagot ay may kung anong bumagsak sa likuran namin. That was when we realized we were already in a different building and the metal door was shut off by some kind of mechanism.

“Well, well, look who’s here.”

The rage that I had forgotten for a while resurfaced after seeing his hideous face. Onyx greeted us with his menacing smile. Behind him was Nigel and I had to remind myself that he, too, wasn’t the same person anymore.

“Naia. Now,” I muttered as I got down from Cliff’s back.

“But . . .”

“Now!” I snapped and, in the end, she yielded.

She rummaged through her waist bag and tossed a red pill to me. I immediately swallowed it and the reaction was much faster and stronger than I expected. My heart pounded heavily and it felt like my lungs would burst any moment. Pain and numbness coursed through my body simultaneously. I groaned and jerked, unable to handle the unpleasant effect of the pill.

My body finally calmed down after several seconds, which felt like years. I was still catching my breath after that tormenting process but I could feel the strength returning in my body. Adrenaline had kicked in and my concentration was sharper than before.

“Shadow, kill them,” Onyx ordered.

We got into our defensive stances, ready to receive and counter Nigel’s attack but what happened next certainly caught us off-guard. Nigel appeared in front of us, firing a bullet at Jett, yet Onyx was the one who fell to the ground, coughing out blood and groaning.

“That was close,” he said as he sighed in relief.

Nigel’s clone, his animus, stood beside Onyx and disappeared right after that powerful punch. Meanwhile, the bullet he fired at Jett’s direction didn’t hit him but only dismantled his pistol. I looked at Nigel, more confused than ever. What the heck did just happen?

“W-what . . . you . . .” Onyx faltered. He slowly stood up, trying to regain his balance and composure, after getting confounded by Nigel’s action.

“My apologies for lying,” Nigel said as he bowed to me, “and for what I did earlier.”

I just looked at him in bewilderment. He became a Navis, right? How in the world did he regain his memories and emotions? What did he do?

He faced Onyx’s direction and his intimidating presence reminded me of the time we first saw him. Onyx wiped the blood off his mouth while glowering at our direction.

“What did you do?” he snarled.

Nigel pulled something out of his nape and I grimaced upon seeing a microchip covered in blood and white liquid on his hand.

“Simple. I made you think that you successfully turned me into a zuerst.” He crushed the chip and it fell on the ground. “Truth is, I triumphantly infiltrated your organization and right now, information about your members are already sent to the respective leaders of the alliance.”

Lumingon naman si Nigel sa amin at hanggang ngayon ay hindi pa rin ako makapaniwala sa mga narinig ko.

“Sorry for deceiving all of you,” he said while giving us a subtle smile. “I am, after all, a spy. And this time, as a Keeper, I am going to save my comrades.”



***