Roots as thick as my leg emerged from the floor and coiled around my body. I tried to get away but they get tighter every time I move. In just a few seconds, my legs were bound and the attacker put her right hand around my neck.
A subtle yet sinister smile appeared on her face. “Tell me, Stryzyga,” she coldly said. “What is your identity?”
My whole body was pounding from fear. Her imposing aura was more suffocating than how she held my neck. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about but I doubt she would believe me if I said I really don’t know anything.
The roots and vines started constricting my body tighter to the point that my legs felt numb. Before one of the roots could get a hold on my hands, I managed to free them and reached for the assailant’s arms.
I almost flinched when my skin touched hers. Just like Kei and Irus, her skin was as cold as ice. However, instead of having an ashen skin, hers was as white as snow.
I remembered Kei telling me about every undead’s weakness—their neck. Gusto kong kumawala mula sa kanya pero wala na akong lakas at hindi rin ako makagalaw.
“W-who are y-you . . .” I managed to ask as I tried to remove her hand on my neck.
Her eyes narrowed. “Oh, you need not to know.”
Her grip got tighter before I could even move and it felt like my whole body was getting squeezed even though she was just holding my neck.
I had encountered several creatures after learning what I was but this was the first time I faced something so powerful that made me whimper. I was terrified of her.
Fear crept in my chest and throat. I wanted to get away from her as far as possible. Suddenly, my body and eyes felt hot. It was the same sensation I felt when we were facing the horde of Katteris.
“Let me go!” I screamed as I tried to yank her arm from my neck.
She let out a yelp and I felt her hand letting go of my neck. My body moved on its own and touched the roots around my body. They abruptly loosened their hold on me and I ran to Irus’ direction before the attacker realized what I just did.
My body was pounding from what just happened. Wala pa ring malay si Irus pero nagawa ko siyang hatakin papunta sa pinakadulo ng kwarto. Nang tiningnan ko kung nasaan ang babae ay agad akong napaatras. The smile on her face had disappeared and she was looking at me with a disdainful expression.
That was when I realized why. Black and purple blotches appeared on her wrist, the place where I held her, and those marks started spreading throughout her arms.
“You . . .” she uttered. “You really are one of them.”
Before I could make sense of what she just said, she lurched at our direction and I knew this time, I wouldn’t be able to escape.
Nagulat na lang ako nang biglang lumitaw si Kei sa harapan ko. He fended off her attack and she flew to the other side of the room. At the same time, I heard Irus groaning beside me.
“Irus!” tawag ko.
He slowly sat up, shaking his head as he tried to get his bearings. Kei held my arm and he was about to get Irus, too, but an invisible force shoved us against the wall. Kei groaned in pain as he received the full impact after shielding me from it.
“S-stay alert,” Kei warned as he tried to stand up. “I need to night-travel the three of us away from here but she won’t let me do that easily.”
“What is she?” I asked.
“A mage,” he replied, “a powerful one.”
Upon hearing that, Irus immediately stood up and positioned himself beside Kei. They both drew their weapons but they looked intimidated by her powers.
Mage . . . that woman was a mage?
The woman flicked her fingers and Irus’ rapier flew from his hand. Kei pointed his dagger at the mage but she snickered in return.
“Fool,” she mocked. “Do you think that a mere dragon’s tooth could hurt a Sithanna?”
The situation already felt hopeless. Despite the purplish bruises on her arms, she appeared calm and wasn’t even bothered by them.
The mage lunged and Irus and Kei could only defend themselves as she wasn’t giving them the chance to attack.
“Lady, the bag!” Kei said while trying to protect me.
Bag? Iyong dala niya kanina?
Agad kong hinanap kung nasaan iyon. It was thrown at the corner of the room and I immediately ran toward it. However, the mage seemed hell-bent on killing me.
I screamed as I was slammed against the wall by a giant root but I managed to get the pouch before it coiled around me again. White orbs danced in front of my eyes as the impact left me disoriented for a few seconds. Everything seemed to be fading away, even their voices . . .
I felt Irus’ hands around me and I realized he just cut the root and freed me from it. He went straight away to Kei to help him but they were getting pushed by her power.
“Throw it!” sigaw ni Kei habang saglit na tumingin sa direksyon ko.
I wasn’t sure what he meant but I obliged. The bag sailed through the air as I threw it toward the mage’s direction, spilling our things at her.
She wailed the moment some of the things touched her body. She backed away until her back was against the wall and she was panting hard. A lot of things went through my mind.
One thing that grazed her arm a while ago was an underwear. Wait, don’t tell me that was what made her like that?! No way . . .
Agad namang kinuha ni Kei ang pouch na nalaglag mula sa bag. He opened it and the hawthorn and the other plant they got from Batara came into view.
The mage hissed as she saw the plants.
“You may be stronger than us,” he stated as he held several stems of plants in his right hand, “but a mage cowers in front of hawthorns and wild roses.”
The mage suddenly gestured something while muttering under her breath, as if she was performing a chant. Even Kei who got confident with those plants in his hand started getting worried. They ran to my direction and Kei was about to night-travel us when we felt an incredible surge of power directed at us.
The next thing I knew, someone was already standing in front of us, her white cloak fluttering as an invisible shield protected us from the mage’s magic.
“Glad I made it on time,” the newcomer announced in a sultry voice.
The mage’s expression hardened as she saw the woman who just protected us. Before I could understand what was happening, the mage had already fled, leaving the four of us in the darkness.
The woman collapsed as soon as the barrier disappeared. She turned to Kei’s direction and gave him a death glare. He immediately put the plants back in the pouch and sealed it. He threw it away from her and gave her an apologetic bow.
“My apologies,” he said, “I didn’t know you’d come.”
She tried to stand but her legs were still shaking and I had to support her weight to keep her from falling. Her gaze landed on me but I quickly averted it because I felt embarrassed.
Her beauty was unearthly. Just like the mage who just left, her eyes and lips were wickedly red. Her skin was porcelain white and I felt ugly just by standing beside her.
Nagulat naman ako nang bigla siyang humiwalay sa akin at lumuhod sa harapan ko.
“My apologies, Lady,” she softly uttered while bowing at me. “I arrived late. Perhaps I should punish myself by cutting my—”
“Oh, please, no!” I replied. “No punishments, please.”
I had enough of seeing them hurt themselves just because they “failed” at something. Remembering Irus stabbing himself for not being able to help us was still making my stomach churn.
Nang kumalma na ang lahat at ang paligid ay agad na nagpakilala ang babae.
“I am Moria of Morana bloodline, a mage and sorceress of Vrivarya,” she announced, still kneeling in front of me.
Morana . . . Kei said my grandmother was also from that bloodline. I wonder if she knew her.
“We need to go,” Kei suddenly said. “That fight might have alerted other creatures of our existence and whereabouts.”
Agad na tumayo si Moria at lumapit naman sa amin si Irus. Kei held my arms and that familiar sensation made my shoulders tense. He night-traveled the four of us and the next thing I knew, we were back in the woods.
And just like that, I got my third retainer—a mage.
Kei’s voice rang inside my head. The room was in complete darkness but I could make up its layout. He was sitting just a few meters away from me while Irus remained sleeping next to him.
I grimaced as I tried to pinpoint what part of my body was aching. My head was throbbing but it felt like it wasn’t the source of my nausea and restlessness.
“You must be hungry,” he pointed out.
Agad ko namang naramdaman ang gutom nang sabihin niya iyon. I realized I hadn’t eaten anything yet for the past few days.
When I learned that I was an undead, wala na kaming time para kumain. We were in constant danger that eating seemed to be out of options. In addition, Kei said the undead do not need to eat human food as our main source of nutrients is their blood.
My stomach churned upon imagining myself drinking human blood. Parang hindi ko kaya. Somehow, nagc-crave pa rin ako sa normal na pagkain.
“I . . . I can’t drink blood yet,” I murmured.
He chuckled in return. “Seems like you’re not thirsting for it yet.”
Agad naman siyang tumayo kaya sinundan ko siya ng tingin. He put on his leather jacket and cap and looked at my direction.
“Let’s go, Lady,” he said.
“We’re going to buy you some food.”
He was right. I wasn’t craving for human blood yet. Instead, I almost choked on my burger because I was too hungry and excited to eat properly.
He grimaced in disgust as he watched me eat “human” food even though he was two tables away from me. He said the stench of processed foods was too revolting for him but he didn’t want to leave me alone.
Fortunately, my body was still used to it. Pakiramdam ko ay malulungkot ako kapag dumating ang araw na maging ang mga paborito kong pagkain ay kamumuhian ko na rin.
Nang matapos akong kumain ay lumapit siya sa akin at umupo sa harapan ko. He scrunched his nose and looked at the leftovers with repugnance.
“Let’s go if you’re already finished, Lady,” he muttered.
Napangiti ako nang makita ko ang expression niya. He seemed to hate it so much. Maybe because it was too “impure”?
We were about to leave but I saw the young cashier staring at him. Wait, I didn’t even notice that she was the first “young” adult I had encountered since arriving in this place. Karamihan din ng nandito ay matatanda.
I tugged Kei’s jacket and glanced at the cashier’s direction.
“You think we could get some blood from her?” bulong ko.
He looked at me curiously. “Heh, you’re already adapting to this.”
“Well, you and Irus seem to get injured every now and then,” I teased.
Natahimik naman siya dahil doon pero agad din niyang inilabas ang vials mula sa bulsa ng jacket niya.
“Don’t worry, I already got two vials of blood from her,” he said while showing me the vials.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Really? Two vials?”
Muli naman akong napatingin sa babae. She looked dazed and upon closer look, mukhang mahihimatay na siya. Ni hindi man lang niya inalala ang kalagayan ng pinagkuhanan niya ng dugo.
Naglakad naman kami pabalik sa inn at tinanong ko siya sa kung ano ang plano namin.
“We just have to wait for the mage,” he stated.
“How do we know if the mage is here?”
He smiled. “We’ll just know.”
According to him, the mage agreed to meet us here in Kariota. Initially, the rendezvous point was supposed to be in Rusnia but he said they had to meet early because there were stronger creatures in the mainland and they would surely seek my blood.
We couldn’t travel to the Changla mountains, too, because those were the home of Jiangshi, the bloodsuckers of that country. Maalala ko lang ang itsura nila ay umiikot na ang tiyan ko.
“I have to go somewhere,” he said while we were already near the inn. “Stay close to Irus.”
Hindi ko na siya natanong dahil naglakad na siya palayo sa akin. Bumalik na lang ako sa inn at naabutan kong gising na si Irus. He was swinging his rapier in an unbelievable speed and he almost attacked me when I turned the doorknob.
“Lady,” he greeted while kneeling.
Umupo naman ako sa mattress at pinanood lang siyang mag-“training.” I couldn’t even follow his movements.
Bigla kong naalala ang pag-uusap namin noon. When I asked him why he couldn’t just drink my blood, he said something about a blood curse.
“Irus,” tawag ko. He stopped moving and turned to my direction. “What do you mean by that blood curse?”
Despite the darkness, I could see the subtle change in his gaze. He started walking toward me and I promptly felt intimidated. Well, of course I would be. He’s an assassin.
Nagulat ako nang umupo siya sa harapan ko at seryosong tumingin sa akin pero bigla siyang tumalikod sa akin. Then, he assumed a defensive stance.
“Lady,” he called, a hint of a warning.
I thought he was starting to train again but I suddenly felt a tremendous presence. My hands instinctively reached for the scarf around my head while I leaned against the wall. Irus stood in front of me, shielding me from whatever creature was exuding that kind of aura.
Then everything happened so fast that I didn’t have the time to process it. The next thing I knew, Irus had already slumped to the floor, unconscious.
“Irus!” I yelled while running toward him.
My body tensed when I heard heels clicking. And there it was. Amid the darkness, a pair of red eyes looked straight into mine.
Her earth-toned cloak fluttered as she walked. Her unnaturally red eyes and lips were almost glowing. She stopped a meter away from me and I positioned myself in front of Irus.
“W-who are you?” I asked, my voice trembling.
She smiled and subtly waved her hand. Suddenly, I felt a wave of nausea.
“Perhaps you are the youngest daughter of Zenus?” she asked, disregarding my question.
“W-who . . .”
“Then, you must die.”
Before I could even react, she had already taken a hold of my neck.
I swear these two would kill me first before any other creature could.
Napaluhod ako nang makarating kami sa camp site na ginawa namin kanina habang hinahabol ang hininga. Irus’ shadow step, that was what he called it a while ago, was more nauseating and awful than Kei’s night travel. I could see everything in flashing lines and it felt like I’d fall off if I relaxed even for a second. The wind was cutting through my skin, too.
Halos pagapang na akong lumapit sa kanila.
Irus lay Kei’s unconscious body near the fire. There were still small blotches on his arms but he looked better compared before. I drew a shaky breath as I leaned against the trunk of a fallen tree.
“He’ll be okay,” Irus assured in a muffled tone.
Napatingin ako sa dibdib niya. I grimaced when I saw the hole made by the Katteri earlier. However, unlike normal people, the blood gushing out had already clotted and the droplets were as thick as sap.
“I’m okay, too,” sabi niya at kumunot agad ang noo ko.
“Okay?” I intoned. “You have a freaking hole in your chest. How are you okay?”
“It will heal after a few days,” he replied as if it was just a scratch. “See? It’s slowly closing off. Don’t worry too much, Lady.”
Muli kong tinitigan ang dibdib niya at napaawang ang bibig ko nang makita ko ang sinasabi niya. The skin and flesh around the wound were slowly regenerating, though they looked gross since they were moving and wiggling.
Inilabas ko naman ang vials at isa na lang ro’n ang may laman. We used the rest for Kei’s blotches. Ang hirap pa naman kapag mayroong emergencies tulad na lang ng nangyari.
Several questions lingered in my head after that confrontation with the Katteri. I remembered how it almost became crazy upon smelling my blood. Agad akong napalingon kay Irus.
“So, Katteris can drink higher clan’s blood. How about you?” I asked, breaking the silence.
His gray eyes looked aflame because of the fire in front of us. “We can’t.”
I knew it. They could have my blood when they needed it but they didn’t. Kinailangan pa nilang maghanap ng human blood as a source of food.
Irus and Kei had been telling me about the higher vampire clans and I seemed to be one of them, though they wouldn’t tell me any details.
“So, you can only drink human blood?” dagdag ko at tumango siya. “Pati si Kei—I mean, Khmer?”
Muli siyang tumango. “Trackers, assassins and mages can only drink human blood. Other vampire subspecies can either drink human or higher clan blood.”
Agad akong napaatras dahil naging seryoso ang tingin niya. I also felt the temperature dropped several degrees to the point that the fire suddenly didn’t feel hot anymore.
I forgot he was an assassin. Damn, he’s scary.
“Blood curse,” he murmured.
My eyebrows knitted. Blood curse?
“What do you mean—”
“So . . .”
Our attention suddenly shifted to Kei who had just woken up. He sat right next to the fire and stared at us with a smile on his face. The blotches on his arms were fading and his face was already back to normal.
“You’re finally awake,” I commented as I sighed in relief.
He rested his chin on his palm and looked at me. “Thanks to you two.”
A smile escaped my lips when I heard that from him. I told him earlier that he should thank us when we succeeded. I guess he could also be true to his words.
“Thanks to you two I had to use my remaining stamina to save your asses. I almost died.”
Napanganga na lang ako nang marinig ko iyon. I thought he was thanking us because we saved him! This freaking undead.
“I knew you two would just get in trouble.” He smirked at me and Irus. “What did you say earlier? Ah. You could also do things without my help.”
Bigla namang napatayo si Irus kaya nagulat ako. He unsheathed his rapier and I thought he would stab Kei but I was stunned when he pierced his arm.
“Training! Stronger!” he exclaimed as he disappeared from my sight.
I was left dumbfounded for a few seconds until Kei chuckled.
“W-what was that?” tanong ko.
He waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t mind him. That’s his way of apologizing.”
Hindi na ma-process ng utak ko ang nangyayari kaya tumango na lang ako. Napasandal naman ako sa nakatumbang puno at napatingin sa kamay ko. The wound I got earlier almost cost us our lives. I didn’t know my blood would be this harmful for us.
“Hey,” I called while still staring at my hand.
“What’s the blood curse Irus was talking about?”
I turned to his direction but I flinched when I saw his expression darkened. Kei might be a tracker but when he looked like this, he was much more frightening than Irus, who was an assassin.
“N-nevermind,” I muttered.
Bigla naman siyang tumayo at inayos niya ang mga gamit na dala namin. Most were just extra clothes we got (stolen) from some stalls and cash.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Kumunot naman ang noo ko. We were leaving already? Akala ko ay dito kami magpapalipas ng gabi.
“We need to move at night,” he explained. “Besides, the Katteris might come back.”
That was the cue for me to stand. I would never want to meet another Katteri again. Pagkatapos ng mga nangyari, mas gugustuhin ko pang bloodsuckers na lang ang makasalubong namin. At least, they could be killed easily.
He put out the fire and slung the bag on his shoulders. I tied his scarf around my head and neck and tightened the cloth covering my wound.
“Let’s go,” he repeated and I quietly followed him.
I knew we were creatures of the night and I already walked through the forest before, but I realized how frightening it was again this time. The occasional hooting and rustling around made me restless. It felt like a bunch of bloodsuckers and Katteris would just jump out. One time, Irus appeared right beside me and I screamed at the top of my lungs. I swear I saw the side of his eyes crinkled, as if smirking in amusement.
Nagulat naman ako nang bigla silang huminto sa paglalakad. Kei bent down and took out a plant with small berry-like fruits.
“What’s that?” tanong ko.
“Hawthorn,” Kei replied while inspecting the plant.
Agad naman niya iyong nilagay sa isang pouch at ganoon din ang ginawa ni Irus. Pagkatapos no’n ay pinagpatuloy namin ang paglalakad.
I started walking beside Kei. “Para saan ‘yon?”
“Ah,” he smiled. “Just for precaution.”
“Precaution for what?”
I was about to ask another question when Irus waved at us from a distance. Agad kaming tumakbo ro’n at muli na naman silang pumitas ng halaman. This time, it was a pinkish flower plant. Tumulong na lang akong pumitas kahit wala silang sinabi tungkol doon.
My body was getting tired but I almost gasped when I saw the forest thinning out. Then there it was, the open sea. Despite the southern part of Hallim being surrounded by water, I had never gotten to see the sea because my . . . grandparents never allowed me to travel far.
“Whoa,” I blurted out as I stared at the sea reflecting the moon.
“Oh, if I were you, I wouldn’t admire a mermaid-infested water.”
Napataas ang kilay ko nang marinig ko iyon. Did I even hear that right? Mermaids?
“M-mermaids? They are real?”
He looked at me as if I should have already known that. “They are, and they are real nasty.”
Before I could ask what he meant, he had already pulled my waist toward him and Irus was holding onto his shoulders. Wait, don’t tell me . . .
“W-wait, are you . . .”
He smirked in return. “Night travel it is.”
That night, a shrilling scream disturbed the quiet sea and I hope the mermaids didn’t put me in their wanted list.
I glared at him the moment we stepped into the land. My knees buckled as he let go of me and I could hear him suppressing his snicker.
“Lady, I thought you have already gotten used to it?” he teased with an impish smile on his face.
I rolled my eyes in return and tried getting up without showing my knees trembling. Meanwhile, Irus had disappeared in the shadows since the day was already breaking.
We were in the outskirts again but this time, it was much more developed than the ones in Batara. The houses were a series of bungalows and trees were lined up at the side of the paved roads.
“We need to be careful,” Kei whispered so I stayed close to him.
“Why? More creatures?”
He shook his head. “Kariota is a safe country compared to the ones surrounding it,” he started explaining. “However, most of the population are elders. It would be hard to find a source of blood.”
Doon ko lang na-realize ang ibig niyang sabihin. Kariota was one of the developed countries and most of the people are career-oriented so they wouldn’t start families until they retire so their birth rate was rather low compared to the surrounding countries.
Isa na lang din ang vial of blood namin. Tsk. Dapat pala ay nag-collect pa kami noong nasa Batara pa kami. This was that Katteri’s fault.
Naghanap kami ng inn na pwede naming pagpahingahan at mayroon naman kaming agad na nakita. We rented a small room and Irus immediately appeared when it was dark enough for him to stay. Nag-shower din ako at nagpalit ng dress. The previous white dress I wore had already turned brown because of mud, dirt, and blood.
Napahiga na lang din ako sa mattress sa tabi ni Irus. Maybe it was because I wasn’t still used to being undead but I felt so tired and sleepy and hungry.
I knew the guy was a Katteri but I couldn’t help admiring his beauty.
His long blonde hair gleamed under the moonlight and his eyes seemed to be changing colors every time his appearance flickered—from green to hazel to blue. His body looked lean yet muscular. Even the soft features of his face were too beautiful to ignore.
I had to pinch my arm to remind myself that this was an enemy.
“So, it’s true,” he said in a dreamy voice. “A Stryzyga is wandering around Batara.”
The Katteri looked at me lovingly, not in a way someone would look at a person, but he was seeing me as a source of food—of blood.
“Lady, be careful,” Irus warned while shielding me from the Katteri’s sight. “This one’s different.”
I felt that, too, but I couldn’t pinpoint what was different besides his ethereal beauty. Nagulat na lang ako nang biglang nawala sa paningin ko ang Katteri. My skin crawled and it felt like something was prickling my nape. Agad akong napalingon at pasugod na ang Katteri mula sa likuran ko. Fortunately, Irus was faster.
He lifted me and stepped back a few meters. Napayakap pa ako sa vial na hawak ko dahil baka masayang ang dugong nakuha ko.
Muli kong tiningnan ang Katteri at ibinalik ang tingin kay Irus. He unsheathed his sword that was so thin, it looked like a rapier. Ngayon ko lang siya makikitang gumamit ng sandata dahil kadalasan ay sobrang bilis ng mga nangyayari at wala na akong time i-process ang mga iyon.
“He has drunk blood from high clans,” Irus muttered.
“Look at his skin.” Agad naman akong tumingin sa Katteri. I had to squint my eyes to see what he was talking about. “Siphons usually have green blood vessels but his were bluish.”
He was right. The veins on his arms appeared bluish to purplish under the moonlight. Hindi ko iyon napansin sa grupo ng Katteris na na-encounter namin kanina dahil nag-panic na ako nang makita ko sila.
“That’s an indicator that he drank blood from higher clans—”
The Katteri lunged at us again and Irus fended him off, but he lurched at my direction. I ducked and crawled away from him but he continued attacking me. If it weren’t for Irus, I would have been dead by now.
“Let me taste your blood!” he excitedly screamed.
Napasigaw ako nang mahawakan niya ang damit ko. I kicked his arm and scuttled away but I gasped when the vial fell from my hands. My reflexes took over and I caught it before it rolled from the roof. However, I scraped my hand on one of the tiles. Blood started clotting from my skin and I was surprised when I heard an ear-piercing yell from the Katteri.
His body convulsed as he sniffed. “A high-quality blood,” he said in daze.
“Lady!” called Irus as he rushed to my direction. He winced as he looked at my wound. “Cover it. He’s getting addicted to its smell.”
Kinilabutan ako sa narinig ko at agad akong pumunit sa dulo ng dress na suot ko. I dressed my wound hastily, trying to prevent him from getting a whiff from my blood any further.
My thoughts drifted as Irus fought against the Katteri.
That Katteri got unhinged once he smelled my blood. How come both Irus and Kei seemed to not be affected by it? Not that I wanted to state it, but I was also a virgin—a maiden. Why didn’t they want mine? Could it be assassins and trackers were only attracted by human blood?
My body tensed when I heard the Katteri’s shrill. Halos patakbo akong umiwas sa kanya. Mabuti na lang talaga at kasama ko si Irus kung hindi ay kanina pa ako nawalan ng ulo!
“Lady!” he called. “Stay close to me.”
“Okay,” I breathed.
It was reassuring to have an assassin as your ally and not an enemy.
Napasinghap naman ako nang makita ko ang pagbabago ng anyo ng Katteri. He was changing from children of different ages and races, back to being an adult and then to some middle-aged man—all were beautiful except for their sinister smiles.
He grinned at me as he stared at my gauzed hand and I had the urge to hide it behind my back but I didn’t want to appear more frightened than I was already.
Gusto ko sanang tumakas na lang kami ni Irus pero mukhang mabilis din ang isang ‘to. He could go on par with Irus in terms of speed and Irus wouldn’t be able to protect me while running.
I remembered what happened when I yelled at the Katteris we encountered a while ago. I wanted to help but I doubt I could do that again . . . if I were really the one who did that.
Nanigas ako sa kinatatayuan ko nang muli na namang sumugod ang Katteri. He went straight to Irus and I yelped when he suddenly thrust his right arm on Irus’ chest. It went through his body and reached my neck but he immediately cut it off from the Katteri.
The Katteri casually backed away as if nothing just happened. His freaking arm got cut off! And what the heck, Irus had a hole in his chest! Yet those two continued moving just like before.
Nalaglag ang putol na kamay sa harapan ko at napaatras ako nang makita ko itong gumagalaw-galaw pa. The Katteri lunged again, and this time, he was faster. I shouted in pain as he pinned me to the ground while Irus jumped sideways. Wait where was he going--
The Katteri suddenly wailed in pain and I could see the blood vessels under his skin . . . moving. His body stiffened and the next thing I knew, blood was already gushing out his eyes, nose and mouth. However, instead of streaming down his face, the blood moved into a horizontal direction as if it was attracted to something.
Irus scooped me away from the Katteri and that was when I realized what was happening.
“How dare you disrespect our lady like that,” Kei muttered in a controlled voice and my skin tingled upon hearing the anger in his tone.
He was holding the knife he had and the Katteri’s blood started surrounding it. The blade changed colors from blue to purple to crimson.
The Katteri hissed as he retreated several meters away. I wasn’t sure what happened but it looked like the beauty he had a while ago got sapped together with his blood.
“His blade could absorb high quality blood,” Irus explained in a muffled voice.
The blade seemed to gleam brighter, as if it just got polished to perfection. Its crimson color looked menacing at night.
I stared at how it immediately weakened the Katteri. Nang akmang lalapit si Kei ay umatras naman lalo ang Katteri.
“A djall,” the Katteri hissed. I thought it would attack Kei but it suddenly fled.
“Coward,” he scoffed.
I was about to call him when I noticed that there were blotches on his face now . . . and it took me a few seconds to realize his sleeves were pulled around his elbow so those were his arms. They had turned purplish black now. Halos napasigaw kami nang bigla na lang siyang natumba.
“Kei!” sigaw ko habang patakbo kaming pumunta sa direksyon niya.
I put his head on my lap and made him drink the blood in the vial. He wasn’t responding to my calls anymore and that scared me more.
“Hey, pull yourself together, come on,” I murmured, hoping that he would at least move. “Come on. Please.”
“It’s not enough,” said Irus.
Napatingin ako sa kanya. I was about to say that he had to look for Kei but he grabbed the vial from me and requested for the other one kaya agad ko iyong binigay sa kanya. Nawala siya sa paningin ko at nakarinig ako ng ilang pagsigaw sa ibaba. Oh, damn, I hope he didn’t do anything weird.
Halos manginig ang kalamnan ko nang bigla na lang siyang lumitaw sa tabi ko habang hawak ang dalawang vial ng dugo. Kahit hindi pa ako kalmado ay kinuha ko iyon mula sa kanya at agad na ipinainom kay Kei.
We waited for several minutes but nothing happened. He still wasn’t responding.
“W-what should we do?” I asked, worried about his condition.
“It’s okay now, Lady.”
Pagtingin ko ay muli nang nakadilat ang mga mata ni Kei. The blotches on his skin and face were also gradually disappearing. Doon lang ako nakahinga nang maluwag. I wanted to lay there after that encounter even though I didn’t really do anything exhausting.
“Let’s go,” sambit ni Irus kaya napatingin ako sa kanya.
Bago pa ako makapagtanong ulit ay hinawakan niya ang bewang ko at inilagay naman niya sa balikat niya si Kei. The next thing I knew, I was already cursing his name as he cut through the crowd and places like a burst of high-speed and angry wind.
I woke up feeling hungrier and thirstier than ever.
My eyes fluttered open and I felt disoriented. I immediately saw the crown of trees and thousands of stars littered on the sky above me.
“Oh, you’re awake.”
Paglingon ko ay naroon si Kei sa tabi ng apoy na mukhang mas malaki pa sa ginawa niya kanina. Agad naman akong napabuntong-hininga. I was wishing everything was just a bad dream but it looked like I had to continue living in this nightmare.
Napatingin naman ako sa paligid at nakita kong wala na roon sa Irus.
“Where is Irus?” tanong ko.
“He’s hunting the remaining Katteris.”
He laughed in return. “He said he felt useless a while ago so he went off to finish what we have started.”
“Don’t worry about him,” he said. “He can kill hundreds of Katteris in a few minutes.”
Napatikom agad ang bibig ko nang marinig ko ‘yon. Kaya pala parang restless siya kanina sa ilalim ng cloak. If only those Katteris attacked us during the night.
Naalala ko naman ang nangyari kanina. I remembered shouting at the two Katteris and something went wrong with their bodies. Lumapit ako kay Kei at umupo sa tabi niya.
“What happened earlier?” I asked. “I mean, those Katteris . . . exploded all of a sudden.”
He stared at me and the embers of the fire reflected on his gray eyes. “They were poisoned.”
“W-what? What do you—”
Napahinto ako nang makita ko ang braso niya. He tried to hide it but I reached for his arm and saw blotches of blue and purple bruises, just like what happened to the Katteris. I looked at him but he averted my gaze.
“Bakit nagkaroon ka ng ganyan?” I asked but he remained silent.
Muli kong inalala ang nangyari. The Katteris’ bodies exploded and . . . some of their blood splattered at us. Agad kong tiningnan ang balat ko pero wala namang nangyaring kakaiba sa akin. Did most of the blood get on him?
“Don’t worry too much,” he said as he hid the blotches under his clothes. “I’ll be alright once I drink blood.”
“Oh. So you have an extra vial of blood?”
He snickered. “None.”
Tinitigan ko siya at hindi ko alam kung bakit nakuha niya pang tumawa. “What the heck? What are you still doing here? You should have—”
“I couldn’t leave you here alone,” he said. “And Irus went off before I could tell him to get me some blood.”
Sinamaan ko siya ng tingin dahil parang wala lang sa kanya ang nangyayari. What if he suddenly explodes just like what happened to the Katteris? Hindi ba siya nag-aalala sa pwedeng mangyari?
“Ah,” he exclaimed, cutting me off again. “It’ll be okay. Once we reached Kariota tomorrow, this would disappear.”
I knitted my eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“We’re meeting a mage there,” he said. “See, the mainland is a lot more dangerous than Hallim and Batara. Stronger creatures reside there and we need a mage to strengthen our defense and offense.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. He could have night-traveled us there if he could. He could have used that, too, to collect blood in the cities of Batara but he didn’t. Maybe those blotches were preventing him from using it. And if that was the case, then we wouldn’t reach Kariota by tomorrow.
Muli kong tiningnan ang braso niya at may mga panibagong nadagdag doon kaya napatayo ako. He was in no condition to move. Besides, I felt responsible for those.
“I’ll get the blood for you,” I said even though I wasn’t sure how I would do that.
Tiningnan niya lang ako at makalipas ang ilang sandali ay bigla siyang natawa. “Oh, Lady, you aren’t doing that.”
I raised my eyebrow at him. “And why is that?”
“Can you even defend yourself? Do you know how to do it?”
“I . . . I saw how you did it,” I said despite not being confident. “Besides, I’m not alone.”
“And what do you mean by that?”
“Irus!” tawag ko.
I was ready to get embarrassed and say any excuses because it would be impossible for Irus to be here after calling his name but I yelped and cursed when he suddenly appeared beside me. Oh freak, he really appeared! And what the hell! He was carrying three heads along with him!
“Lady, you called for me?” he asked in a muffled tone.
I was still in shock after seeing him that I just stared at him for a few seconds. He casually threw the heads into the fire and they immediately turned into green dust. Were those the Katteris that cornered us a while ago?
Nakailang buntong-hininga pa ako bago tuluyang kumalma at pakiramdam ko ay tinatawanan na niya ako sa ilalim ng bandages sa mukha niya. I cleared my throat and stood up. Hinarap ko si Kei at tinuro si Irus.
“I-I’ll go with him.”
He looked at me with an are-you-an-idiot kind of expression but I didn’t budge. Sinabi ko rin kay Irus ang kalagayan ni Kei kaya agad siyang sumang-ayon sa gusto kong gawin.
“Khmer, you should’ve told me about it earlier,” Irus said in a cold tone and I almost stepped away from him.
He shrugged. “Well, you ran away before I could tell you about it.”
I heard him grumble. “I’ll get you some blood.”
“No,” Kei objected. “You two together is a bad idea. I’m already getting a bad feeling.”
“Hah! We could also do things without your help,” I retorted. “Right, Irus?”
Irus nodded aggressively.
Bago pa siya makapagreklamo ay kinuha ko mula sa coat niya ang empty vials at muling tumabi kay Irus. Medyo napakunot pa ang noo ko nang nakita kong para siyang nagwa-warm up. I heard Kei heave a loud sigh.
“You’ll regret this,” he muttered.
“I won’t. You better say thank you when we return.”
I was about to tell Irus to lead the way when he suddenly crouched in front of me. He turned his head to me and I stared at him, baffled.
“Lady, hop on,” he said in a serious tone.
Hindi ko matanong kung seryoso ba siya dahil baka bigla na lang siyang magalit. I would never want to anger an assassin.
Wala akong nagawa kundi ang pumasan sa likuran niya. I almost flinched when I felt his steel cold skin despite the military uniform he was wearing.
“Irus,” tawag ni Kei kaya pareho kaming napalingon. “Protect her.”
He nodded in return. Just when I was about to ask if he would run, he suddenly kicked the ground and before I knew it, I was already screaming in fear.
Irus’ running was just as bad as Kei’s night-traveling.
Halos nakakapit na ako nang mahigpit sa leeg niya kanina dahil pakiramdam ko ay malalaglag ako anytime. He was so fast that the wind felt like thousands of arrows prickling through my skin. Nang huminto siya ay napabitaw ako at naramdaman ko ang muling pag-ikot ng tiyan ko.
Damn these guys. Couldn’t they walk in a normal way?
Napatingin naman ako kay Irus at nakaturo siya sa isang street. There were a lot of food stalls and it was packed with people. This was probably in the same city because it looked like there was a festival.
Ibinigay ko sa kanya ang empty vials para siya ang kumuha ng dugo dahil nanghihina pa rin ang mga tuhod ko pero bigla siyang umiling.
“Eh? Why?” tanong ko at tinuro niya ang mukha niya.
Ah. Right. He couldn’t do it looking like that. The victims would probably freak out if they saw a bandaged man approaching them.
Sinubukan ko namang tumayo at kahit nanginginig pa rin ang tuhod ko ay naglakad ako papunta roon sa maliwanag na eskinita. Paglingon ko ay wala na si Irus. I panicked for a second but I could feel his presence around. He was probably watching over me from the shadows.
Napatigil naman ako dahil hindi ko alam kung paano malalaman na ‘pure’ ang kukunan ko ng dugo. Alangan namang tanungin ko sila kung virgin pa sila. That would be weird and extremely rude.
Then, I saw a group of children, maybe around ten to thirteen years old. Oh, right. Children probably had the purest blood. Pero okay lang ba kahit kaninong dugo ang kunin ko?
Napatingin ako sa paligid para hanapin si Irus pero hindi ko siya makita.
“What is it, Lady?”
Halos mapasigaw ako nang marinig ko ang boses niya sa tabi ko. Damn it, this guy would kill me even without beheading me!
“U-uhm, okay lang ba kahit dugo ng lalaki o babae?”
He nodded. “Yes. As long as they are pure.”
Matapos ‘yon ay agad din siyang nawala. I carefully approached them and was about to ask for direction when one boy suddenly tripped over his footwear. Oh. Lucky. Agad ko siyang nilapitan para tulungan.
“Okay ka lang ba?” tanong ko habang inaalalayan siya.
He nodded. “Opo.”
“Oh, you have a wound here,” I said while holding his chin between my fingers.
I imagined my nail getting longer and sharper and when it did, I almost lost my focus. Fortunately, the boy seemed in trance as I continued staring at his eyes. His blood trickled down my fingers and into the vial I was holding. When I filled the first one, I let him go and smiled.
“Thank you,” I said and he dreamily nodded.
Gusto ko pa sanang kumuha ng isang vial pa mula sa kanya pero nang makita kong nanginginig ang tuhod niya habang tumatayo ay na-guilty ako. Maybe that amount of blood was too much for a child. Di bale, marami pa naman akong pwedeng pagkunan.
Maghahanap na sana ako ng next target nang may maramdaman akong kakaiba. The hair on my nape bristled and before I could react, I was already up in the air.
Doon ko lang na-realize na karga na ako ni Irus at nasa bubong na kami ng isang bahay. I heard someone chuckling and when I looked in front of us, I gasped.
“Hello there, lovely lady,” he greeted with a sweet smile.
Irus positioned himself in front of me but I craned my neck to see the one talking. In front of us was the most beautiful man I had ever seen.