The humanity in us slips away

Taken, every day by day

From cold night to warm noon

From bright sun to full moon

The innocence has gone

But we still find ways to move along

And to this day we still have our love

As we watch the angels descend from above

But what's left when there is none

When will the end of it all come

I travel through Japan with my companion in search of the people responsible for destroying her life. The year is 2013, and the shogun and daimyo still rule Japan. Samurai, ronin, peasants, and bandits are plentiful throughout, and despite advances in weaponry and technology, swords and bows are still the preferred weapons of our country.

Our journeys have taken their tolls on me. I've become that which I've hated most, and I fear that my partner is unable to live a normal life. What is there for us, in the end?

End Prologue

Chapter 1: How It All Started

The girl in the straw hat effortlessly played the flute. Her finger movements seemed so sudden - almost erratic - yet at the same time, they appeared calm, precise, dancing. She continued to play the shakuhachi for what seemed several full minutes without taking in large, single breaths of air.

I felt as if the wave of notes that enveloped me touched my soul. The pitch fluctuated, low to high, soothing me. I've never heard anyone play the shakuhachi that beautifully other than my mother, but she stopped once my father died.

I sat seiza-style along with the crowd in the dim small theater, watching the girl perform on the wooden stage. A stranger wandering into our village was a rare sight, and even rarer was watching that stranger perform in the theater. I wondered where she came from and why she traveled here, of all places. I tried to get a good look at her face, but she kept her head lowered. Maybe she had a bad case of stage fright, so I decided to stop making myself look like a fool around all the people near me.

The village didn't appear on most maps. It was largely an outdated place. It was almost a complete slum; most people didn't even have vehicles. Luckily, my mother and I had been fortunate. We had a little rice paddy that my father used to take care of, and after his death, I mostly worked on maintaining it due to my mother being too sick to.

I was too young to remember my father very well, but one thing that's crystal clear to me about him was his short, unkempt, black hair and his tan skin. I've seemed to mirror him in those regards, though, I have my mother's light brown eyes and personality. My mother and I flowed like a leaf in a calm pond while my father grew sturdy like a tree in harsh winds.

My mother always told me stories of my father, about how he had a natural affinity for the bow and arrow. Apparently, he could hit a flying bird fifteen yards away with only a small amount of effort and time taken to prepare the bow, an arrow, and aiming. I don't know if I believe that, but I do know he was a great practitioner of archery. I've seen videos of him holding his hankyū, a short Japanese bow, and shooting dummies with precise hits to the heart and head areas. His black and red bow was always interesting to look at due to its asymmetrical curve design. Although all Japanese bows curved like that, they were unique compared to the rest of the world's symmetrical bows. The hankyū could also be taken apart into five sections to save space which also made it easier to travel with.

I tried following in my father's footsteps, but my archery wasn't so great. Everyday I practiced with his bow which became a gift left for me after he was murdered. Along with the bow came a note, and among its contents, something in particular always stuck with me.

Chihaya, always remember this: One cannot be brave if they are fearless. For bravery is born from fear. I don't understand why he left that message in the notes, nor did I understand what it meant, but I greatly treasured them and the bow he gave me.

Although I - a thirteen year old girl - was his only child, he wanted me to continue his legacy and protect my mother and myself. Normally the son took on the task of mastering archery in our family, but my father believed I could handle the task. So, too, did my mother.

The art of archery flowed in my blood, she always told me. If archery really did flow in my blood, only a small amount of it ran throughout my veins. At best, I could hit a bullseye on a target twice in a row, ten yards away, but my father, he could hit the bullseye over and over without wasting a single arrow. I hoped to reach his level soon, because I wanted to. More importantly, I needed to.

I turned my attention back to the girl on stage when the audience clapped for her after she finished her song. She finally lifted her head. Her long hair was tied in a pony tail, its end at her lower back. Just for a second, I also caught a glimpse of grey eyes. Something about those eyes entranced me. My curiosity rose for that girl. She hardly looked any older than me and wore a black kimono, grey wisteria flowers scattered all around it. In her purple sash was a katana sheathed in a black scabbard, golden Chinese dragon encrusted stretching across it. Two travel bags sat beside her. My curiosity peaked. The girl looked beautiful in her wisteria kimono. I envied that. Everything about her, I envied. I had to find out just who she was.

But first I had to wait. The owner of the theater, Mr. Toku, walked in between the small rows and columns, gathering as much yen as he could for the girl. It was customary for us villagers to help pay a stranger if they entertained us, even if none of us were in a good financial situation.

I smiled at Mr. Toku before handing him a coin worth ten yen and he smiled back at me. Such a kind old man he was. He was also almost as short as me, and I always liked to point that out. A typical response from him involved making jokes about my boyish hair, saying how no boy would ever want to marry me. He also talked - annoyingly - about how I was a midget version of my father. Someday I'd grow out of it though, and blossom into a beautiful woman like my mother. Sooner or later.

Mr. Toku gathered all the money people were willing to give in the palm of his old wrinkly hands, and he walked onto to the stage, pouring the money into the flute player's hands. He looked at her peculiarly and said, "Your eyes! They're so strange!"

"Yes, I'm well aware of them," she spoke in a low tone.

"Oh no! I didn't mean to make fun of you. It's just I have never seen a person with eyes like yours. Anyways, consider that money a token of our gratitude for your performance."

"Thank you kindly," she said before bowing.

"You seem like the traveling type and I don't want to pester you with questions, but do you need a place to stay at tonight? I have no company. And you never told us your name."

"Dirty old man!" someone yelled in the crowd, and laughter followed afterwards. All of us villagers, we were like a family. We all knew each other and joked together. We stuck together through the worst of times, and comforted each other, like now. All my life, we've been threatened by a large group of bandits who demanded money once every two weeks from every working villager.

We could not retaliate. All of our warriors were dead. Most of the village consisted of elderly people and young people such as myself with little to no proper training in combat. With those thoughts in mind we decided to give our money to the bandits. We had no other choice. Our government probably didn't know that we existed, nor would they care. To them, peasants aren't worth helping, we're just ants that they step on when we happen to cross their paths. This village would be in a state of anarchy if it wasn't for the fact that we were far, far above that. That's what Mom told me.

The girl in the straw hat shook her head at Mr. Toku before walking off the stage. "I think I'll find somewhere else to stay," she said and faced the audience. "My name is Ayaka Tachibana."

Suddenly, the quiet dim room brightened with conversation. People talked and gossiped about how she had a last name. Last names were something special; something reserved for families of samurai and the classes above it.

I mostly ignored that fact. My attention focused on her eyes. Those grey eyes that weren't just grey eyes, I now noticed. I got up, ignoring the chatter around me and walked over to the girl. She looked over in my direction and our eyes met. The color around her pupils was an orange color, shaped in a small ring while the rest of the color in her irises were grey. How peculiar indeed.

I walked up to Ayaka, noticing our similar heights. Unfortunately for me, she was the taller one, but just by a little. Her and I, face to face, we were as different as autumn and spring. My worn out, white kimono with cherry blossoms just couldn't compete with the elegant looks of her wisteria kimono.

Ayaka's kimono wasn't the only thing superior in looks. Her pale skin, soft cheek bones, and long hair made her look like an adult woman. My dirty tan skin, rough dimpled cheeks, and short messy hair made me somewhat resemble a boy. I hated that.

I wanted to know more about who Ayaka was. For some reason my heart beat faster. Maybe it was from the people in the room, all the conversations and such going around me, or maybe something about this girl standing before me made me uneasy. I tried not to stare into her eyes, and I uttered, "Um... Miss Ayaka Tachibana, you-."

"Ayaka," she said.

"Excuse me?" I politely asked.

"Just call me Ayaka," she said. "A. Ya. Ka. Got it?" She took extra care in pronouncing her name slowly to me.

"Yes, I understand." I scowled at her. Is she looking down on me? I had to ask myself. Maybe she thought she was better than me, possibly based solely on our different classes in society.

She folded her arms and tapped a finger on her arm continuously and said, "if you're just going to stare at me, I'll take my leave." She walked towards the sliding door without even waiting for a response. "Goodbye, and thank you all for letting me play here."

Mr. Toku stood beside me. We and everyone else watched Ayaka leave the theater. "Aw, look what you did Chihaya!" The old man flicked the back of my head. "Just what did you say to her?"

"Hey hey! Don't look at me. And that hurt!"

He placed a hand on my right shoulder. "Go. Go after her, and invite her to your house. I'm sure Chiaki would love to have a guest who can play the shakuhachi just as well as her."

Chiaki was my mother's name. Indeed, I'm sure she'd love having such a guest, but a guest with an attitude? Probably a different story. Even so, I planned on asking Ayaka to stay at my home, regardless of who she was. "I guess so..." I replied.

Mr. Toku rubbed my head like I was some little kid. "That's a good girl."

I pushed his hand aside and pouted. "Well, I'm going now. See ya around, Mr. Toku." I briskly jogged through the crowd and out of the theater. The afternoon rays of sunlight welcomed me, warmed my skin. To my left, I saw Ayaka walking along the dirt road.

"Hey, Ayaka! Wait up." I ran up beside her. She ignored me and kept walking. Despite that, I didn't back off. Her ignoring me only made me more stubborn. I hopped in front of her with open arms. "You need a place to stay at right?"

"That depends," she said. "Will I have to pay-"

"It'll be free if you stay for one day only," I said with a smirk. That cutoff was payback for earlier. "Just don't be rude to my mother. She's sick, and she used to play the shakuhachi like you. Much better than you, I'd say." I chuckled at my possible lie.

"Is that so?" Ayaka asked. "And I'm not rude, I just simply don't like people younger than me."

"You're older than me? Hah! If that's true, you're probably only a few months older at best. I'm thirteen. You?"

"Seventeen," she said.

"Seven... teen..." My body began to quiver. I tried to hold in my laughter with my hands, but it escaped. "You're so short for your age!"

"You know what else is short? My attention span, so shut up and pester someone else, girl."

"This girl has a name." I placed my hands on my hips. "Chihaya."

"Well, said girl also happens to look like a boy," Ayaka plainly reminded me.

My face flushed with embarrassment. "Let's just go to my house, or I could give you a tour of the village, if you want."

"I'd rather go to that stream of water nearby, like I planned on doing." She simply moved to her right to avoid me and started walking again.

"Ah, you must have seen that when you first came into the village." I started walking with her. Around the village stretched a stream that was almost circular. It was our main source of water, and we also gathered salmon and other fish from it. "I'll take you there."

We walked to a part of the stream that was near my house. By near, I meant about three kilometers away. We trekked through wild grass and a small forest that I regularly visited. I asked Ayaka if she needed help carrying her bags, but she insisted she was fine. She certainly seemed fine. I had to wonder what was in those bags, but I didn't want to ask too much. My mother once told me not to ask a stranger too many questions. How many was too many, though? "So, what's in those bags of yours?"

Ayaka took off her straw hat and placed it on my head. "My accessories are in them. Now keep that hat on your head. You shouldn't tan your skin out here so much."

I nodded, even though my skin was already naturally tanned, and the bags probably had several kilograms of makeup in them. "Thanks." Maybe she's not so bad after all, I pondered.

We finally made it to the stream. Inside the water was fish, rocks, and minerals of different shapes and sizes. The soothing sound of water always delighted me. Ayaka kneeled down near the water, placing her hands in them, thoroughly washing them.

"Um, don't tell me we just came all the way here to wash our hands." I kneeled down beside her and noticed how scarred her hands were.

"Excuse me, I just appreciate nature. The water on my skin calms me. The sound of the animals, the stream, and the wind; the sights of all these things. They're beautiful, something that I value." There was almost a hint of emotion in her voice, but her face remained the same as it had been since I first saw it. Expressionless.

As if on cue, the wind rustled the grass and leaves. This girl who looked like she spent more time on looking pretty actually seemed to truly have an appreciation for nature. Questions, questions came to mind. "Your hands. They're scarr-"

"Obviously, yes," she abruptly said. "These wounds are the result of my journeys."

Her journeys? What kind of journeys give you scars? "Let me see them." I grabbed her wrists before she could react. Our reflections rippled along the stream's shining surface. Her eyes, there was something discomforting about them, gazing at me through the reflections. I examined a scar that ran across the palm of her right hand. It looked diagonal-shaped and other, smaller scars paralleled across it. Her left hand was somewhat lucky. The only noticeable scar was x-shaped, running across the back. "If... if you don't mind me asking, how'd you get these, really? That sword of yours, maybe."

She shook off my hands, looking at me with possible hostile eyes. "You're very talkative, huh? It would do you well to silence yourself a little more." She placed her hands back in the stream and burrowed them into the rocks.

I formed a fist, pointed a finger with my other hand. "You're really rude, you know that!" Ayaka calmly ignored me, and continued doing whatever she was doing with her hands in the water and rocks. Her absent-minded disregard for me was frustrating.

Then something unexpected happened.

Before I could blink - it seemed, her left hand balled in a fist in front of my face. Drops of water quietly dropped down her hand. She turned it upside down and opened it, revealing a white pearl.

"For you, Miss Chihaya," she said. Her face remained the same, but I got the impression she was smiling on the inside. I took a breather to calm down. She just had that attitude that nobles had about lower class citizens. I needed to get used to that.

I grabbed the pearl from her hand and examined it. It was luster, so luster, that it looked like it could shine even in complete darkness. "Thank you. But how did you find this in the stream? I've never seen any before-"

She placed her index finger on my lip.

"You ask too many questions. Relax. Get lost in the beauty of nature while you can. It's something I don't have much time for anymore." Maybe she didn't have that attitude I spoke of.

"Sorry, it's just, you're so... different," I said. Maybe she used to climb trees when she was younger. A younger Ayaka, eh? I giggled, imagining her as a chubby little girl.

"Of course I'm different from what you expected. Don't be so ignorant. And do you care to share what's so funny?" Ayaka tilted her head sideways.

I backed up and placed the pearl in my kimono. "Uh, no, no. It's nothing. Just something stupid I remembered."

Ayaka sighed. She stood up and gripped her katana, releasing it slowly from its sheath. Like the pearl in my hand, the sword shined against the sun, and Ayaka held it with incredible ease. She swung it up and down like it was a toy.

"Am I boring you?" I asked. I wanted to slap myself for asking another question. She looked bored, me surveying her and all. "Let's head to my house. The sun's starting to set, and I promise not to bore you while we get there. One more thing though." We started walking back.

"What?" she tipped the straw hat that sat on my head before sheathing her sword.

"You scold me, but I think you do it because I remind you of someone. I had a friend who once acted like that towards me. He said I looked like his little brother..."

Ayaka chuckled.

She actually, chuckled.

Her lips finally formed a smile, small as it was. "I'm not surprised, and I bet you think you're perceptive, don't you?"

I prepared myself for whatever rude comment she was going to say next.

"You're right," she said. The expression on her face returned to being expressionless.

"Eh?" Okay, maybe I wasn't prepared.

"You do remind me of someone." Ayaka stopped walking and turned to me, clutching my chin. Her face loomed near mine. I felt her breath on my lips, and her grey-orange eyes stared deeply into my light brown eyes. I trembled, that stare made me feel uneasy, as if a pair of hands were squeezing my neck. "You have the eyes of someone who's lost something very dear to them. You want revenge. You want blood to be spilled. Right?"

What was she talking about? I didn't want to kill anyone. Not even the bandits, the same ones that took the village's money and murdered my father. I didn't want to... So why? Why did some part of me want to agree with her? I imagined - just for a second - the dead bodies of the men who took my father away from me. I stood above them, a knife held tightly in my right hand, blood dripping down it, and me smiling. It was shameful to even conjure such thoughts.

"I don't know what you're talking about," I weakly said.

"Lie to yourself, if you must. It's what the weak do to survive." She released both her grip on my chin and her fixed stare on my eyes before turning around. "Typical."

Now that Ayaka's gaze was gone, the air returned its flow to my lungs freely. I searched my heart to say something. "My father." I stared down at the ground. "Bandits murdered my father. He decided to fight them, when a large group raided our village seven years ago."

"I see," Ayaka said. "Was he a warrior?"

Finally, a question that wasn't from me. "Well, he was amazing at archery. He never missed a shot, unless he wanted to miss it, and even then he didn't really miss, because that's exactly what he wanted."

Ayaka nodded. "You're actually a clever girl."

"Of course I am, don't be so ignorant," I mocked with a smile.

"Hey mother," I said. "This is Ayaka Tachibana. She'll be staying with us for the night."

Don't be rude, don't be rude, don't be rude. Those thoughts echoed in my head about Ayaka.

"Good evening, Ms. Chiaki." Ayaka bowed.

Good girl.

"Good evening Chiha, Ayaka. And no need for formalities, you can drop the 'Ms.' I heard a little about you from some of the other villagers." My mother serenely smiled like she always did. Unlike me her black hair was straight and long, always neat. All three of us sat on the mat; my mother to my right while Ayaka sat in front of me. "You're a very gorgeous girl."

"I know," Ayaka said, sighing as if she heard that all too many times.

My mother giggled and looked at me. "In fact, you're so gorgeous, Ayaka, I'm almost jealous of my little Chiha for being able play with you." She teased in a little grin.

"Mom!" My cheeks got warmer.

"Oh? You think Ayaka's cute, huh?"

Well, if I were a boy... "Stop it mom."

"Hehe, only since you didn't deny anything." She winked at me. Teasing me about everything was something my mother took great pride in. "How about you, Ayaka? You think Chihaya's cute?" And then, it seemed, teasing others was something my mother also took pride in.

"Cute, maybe, but her hair is like that of a dirty little child's," Ayaka said.

"Well I'm sorry some of us can't afford to look as beautiful as you," I retorted.

"Aw, thanks for the compliment," she said sarcastically.

"Now now, you two. You both are surely tired after a long day. Chiha, why don't you go show Ayaka to the bathtub? Both of you smell like pigs." My mother covered her nose with her hand.

"Wait, does that mean I have to take a bath with her?" I asked, and hoped the answer would be no.

"Yes. You're both girls, and you know we can't afford to take too many baths these days. You understand, Chiha?"

"Yes," I grumbled. "Are you okay with that, Ayaka?"

"As Chiaki said, we're both girls. No need for shameful feelings."

Easy for you to say.

We walked into the bathroom. Ayaka brought a bag full of clothes with her, and I brought my own. Something made me nervous. I had taken baths with others at public baths before, but this seemed different for whatever reason. Something about seeing her undressed made me uncomfortable, and yet I watched her take off her robe. Many scars plagued her back. She took out the hair tie from her ponytail, and her long hair covered half her back. She stepped into the water-filled bathtub.

Ayaka looked at me. "Hurry up and join in. I don't want to waste all this water."

"Right. Just... close your eyes or look away." I blinked rapidly.

"Don't be immature, I won't judge you for your body. Unless you want me to, of course."

"Very funny." I sighed. I took off my clothes and stepped into the tub that was just big enough for the two of us. It wasn't so bad after all. "So... um..." I tried avoiding eye contact - and other areas as well.

"I'll tell you a little bit about me since you told me about your father," Ayaka said. "My scars, I got them through fighting. I'm something of a samurai, you could say. I've trained with my sword for years now."

"You've killed people before?"

Her grey-orange eyes looked away, and she said nothing.

"Why do you travel, Ayaka?"

"Because... I'm searching for people. That's all you need to know..."

She seemed so unsure of herself; so unlike herself, and maybe afraid. "Well you don't have to tell me anything," I assured her. "Say, ever had a boyfriend?" I turned my head away from her, hoping to avoid her eyes.

"And why would I want one of those? Besides, I don't have time for a relationship nor do I care to have one. Why do you ask?" Her gaze came back to stare me down.

"Curiosity and well, you know why. Look at yourself."

"Don't be jealous of me, there's no reason to..." she said. "If anything, I should be the jealous one..."


"You have something, something that was taken away from me a long time ago."

"What?" I asked.

"A-" Ayaka stopped and put a hand over my mouth. I mumbled, trying to ask what was going on, but she held my mouth shut in a tight grip. She put a finger to her own mouth. Then, she leaned over me to put her mouth near my ear. Are skin touched and it gave me goosebumps. It embarrassed me that it felt good. "Stay here. There's some intruders in the house. Don't come out of this room. Put your clothes on quickly."

I nodded, but I didn't understand anything. What did she mean by intruders, and how did she know for certain?

Ayaka got out of the tub and slipped into her wisteria kimono. She took her katana out one of the bags along with a pistol and something long, black, and oval-shaped. She attached the object to the gun's barrel. Guns were illegal in Japan, so how did she get a hold of one?

She carefully opened the sliding door and looked to her left and right before walking out. I finally understood what she meant about the intruders. It must have been the bandits, but they had planned to come two days from today, so why now?

I quickly put on tattered jeans and a t-shirt. My mother could have been in danger, and I wasn't just about to sit around and wait for Ayaka to do something. I had to get my hankyū and the arrows for it. They were in a chest near the hallway by the bathroom. I quietly walked out of the room and heard loud noises and the yells of men. It must have been Ayaka shooting, but I tried not to think about it.

My heart pumped louder with each step I took. I walked to the left and opened a large chest which contained my bow and arrows. I picked them up and carried the arrows in their quiver strapped on my back.

I followed Ayaka's path, hoping it would lead to my mother. On the floor in the next room lay the bodies of two men, puddles of blood around them. There was no time to think about them. They were definitely bandits.

My mother screamed. Immediately I ran towards the source. In the living room, a man held a knife to my mother's throat, and another man held Ayaka with an arm around her neck. Her weapons were on the floor next to her.

The bandit holding my mother smiled and said, "Put those toys away, little girl. No one else needs to die today."

I didn't know what to do. What could I do? I had to think quickly. "Let them go, and I'll let these go."

"No! Chiha, just run away from here!" my mother yelled.

The bandit forced her to kneel. He took the knife and grazed her neck with it. "Shut up, woman, no one told you to speak."

Tears came down both my mother's eyes and my own.

"Now, little Chiha, was it? I wasn't making a compromise with you, I was telling you to drop your weapons. Of course you don't have to do that. We could just kill you now."

A muscular arm wrapped itself around my neck. Moments after, a bandit slammed me to the floor, face first. My nose stung, blood splashed on the floor beneath me, and then my nose shot up in constant twinges.

The arrows in the quiver were now scattered around me. I turned my head around to see another bandit who held both of my arms behind my back with ease.

I looked over at Ayaka who hadn't said one word. Her face was expressionless, but something was different about it from earlier. Now it seemed cold.

"We ain't gonna kill ya though," the bandit holding me said. "Just listen to us."

"Please don't hurt her anymore!" my mom screamed, two tears rolling down her face. "I'll do anything you want, just don't hurt her."

"Don't worry," the bandit replied, "she'll feel real good in a second."

He slipped his cold hands in my shirt. Fingers traced all around my waist before they went up higher, pinching me. "S-Stop!" I begged. His touch went lower, before settling on my belt buckle. It unbuckled, and my pants slowly began to slide down. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see my mother's face along with her screaming pleas. I wanted to hold in my tears, wanted to ignore the heavy breaths against my neck. "Please, don't!" The tears rushed out of my eyes.

The bandit's lips brushed up against my ear. "Shh. It'll be all right." He wiped a tear off my face. When he went for the next tear, I bit down on his finger. Blood poured through the gaps in my teeth as he tried yanking his finger out my mouth. He lifted me up with his free hand and slammed me down on my back. I let out a cry from the sharp pain in my back. My eyes opened, on their own, to the sight of calm Ayaka.

Before anyone else could react, she bit the arm of the distracted bandit holding her captive. Skin and a chunk of flesh were in her mouth. The man wailed in pain, and Ayaka spit the flesh and skin out. She dropped to the ground, quickly grabbing her katana and swung it into the bandit's left ankle. The blade stuck in his leg as he went down screaming. She ripped the blade out, lifting it up before driving it down into his right eye. Everyone watched in quiet disbelief for a moment.

I lunged for one of the many arrows on the floor, but the bandit yanked me close. His arm tightened around my entire neck. I could barely breathe, let alone say a single word.

"Whoa there, samurai girl. You so much as breathe and this girl dies." He glimpsed at the bandit holding my mother. "Call in more of the gang."

"Right," he said. Holding a knife in one hand to my mother's bleeding neck, he took out a cellphone in the other and called for reinforcements.

Ayaka glared at each bandit, body still as a statue. She said nothing. Her eyes peered the gun near her. As soon as my captor saw this, his arm pushed up against my neck in full force. The muscles in my throat tightened in pain. I could only make attempts to gasp for air.

Ayaka dove for the pistol.

The bandit holding my mother threw his knife at her.

Easily, she caught it by the handle with her left hand while laying on the floor. The pistol was in her right. She aimed for her attacker's leg.

The gunshot ringed in my ears, louder than the screaming, bleeding man. Blood soaked through his pants from his thigh. Then his forehead exploded in blood from another loud shot.

My mother screamed and backpedaled on her hands. She looked at Ayaka. Then me. I could barely see either of them; my vision began to blur and darken. The arm squeezing my neck tightened even more.

I could hear yelling but couldn't make out whose voice it was or where it came from. Suddenly blood splattered against the right side of my face, and I dropped to ground, ears ringing, eyes closed.

"Chiha!" The voice became more recognizable. "Chiha! Chiha! Are you alright?" I heard her coughing while she shook me by the shoulders. I couldn't speak though, my vocal folds ached, and my eyes felt heavy.

I felt another hand. This time two fingers on my neck.

"She's fine. I can feel her pulse."

I lifted my heavy eyelids. There in front of me was my smiling, crying mother and Ayaka, whose mouth slightly twitched at the sight of my open eyes.