We were just several hundred meters away from the borders of Vrivarya but with Kei’s condition, we couldn’t even move from our current position. Moria said moving him might spread the poison in his bloodstreams faster so we had to camp in a nearby cave.
“W-what should we do?” I murmured.
She sighed in dejection. “I’m afraid there is nothing more I can do, Lady.”
Kei groaned in pain. His wound looked worse now. His ashen complexion was turning paler and the blood vessels in his right arm and neck became visible under his skin, a sign that the poison had already spread in those parts.
Worried and desperate, I turned to Moria. “Why can’t you heal him? I mean . . . I thought mages can heal people?”
She held her gaze and for a second, I was afraid I offended her. “Perhaps you misunderstood, Lady,” she replied, shifting from her seat. “Yes, normal mages have healing abilities but only for themselves. It is limited to our own bodies, and for this reason, we are quite confident with direct attacks. But also for this reason, we prefer to fight alone or with other mages. Clearly, having three mages was far more advantageous than our group.”
Naalala ko naman ang nangyari kanina. Despite my attack against Alfonse, the same one that killed the Katteris and ghouls, he seemed not too worried about it and even managed to heal himself. Moria also said that she could heal herself when she volunteered to be my target for practicing that ability, but I thought that was just a subtle way of saying she was far stronger than me.
“Arcanes are our only hope now,” said Irus who settled beside me.
She let out a heavy sigh. “True, normal mages can only heal themselves, but there are also mages who can cure everyone but themselves.”
“I presume those are the arcanes?”
She nodded. “They are a special kind of mages. Undeads who can restore anyone back to health, regardless of what kind of injury or magic has been inflicted to the victim.”
“Then we should see one!”
“Oh, that’s impossible, Lady,” she retorted. “It’s precisely because of their crucial abilities that they are protected. They live in the castle and mountains, both located at the far end of Vrivarya.”
The little hope growing inside me was shattered immediately upon hearing that. I thought we would have a chance to save him.
Irus became more restless. He had been pacing back and forth, worried about Kei’s well-being. Gusto niyang tumakbo na kami papunta sa Vrivarya pero hindi sumang-ayon si Moria. She said the cave was the safer option, for now, because the mages might still be around. With Kei being, in her words, useless, along with my strong presence, they would be more open to attacks. At least here, Moria could focus on Kei’s wound and Irus could defend us easier.
“But that would be a better option than him dying here, right?” tanong ko.
“Oh, not at all, Lady.”
“What do you mean?”
“Besides what I said, you also can’t enter Vrivarya without him.”
She explained that outsiders who aren’t humans could only enter the country through the presence of trackers. If someone tried to force their way through the borders without the acknowledgment of a tracker, who are the only ones allowed to bring in outsiders, they will be regarded as intruders and will be dealt immediately.
With Kei being unconscious, I’m sure the undeads guarding the border would not take that as a proper acknowledgement of my presence in their country. Pero mas nanghihina lang si Kei habang mas tumatagal kami sa lugar na ‘to. It was frustrating to see that we were just right in front of our destination, but we couldn’t even move because of our current situation.
“If only we have a vial of human blood,” she said, “at least that could slow down the spread of the poison. I would have more time to devise a plan.”
Mas lalo lang akong nanghinayang. We could have had more blood if we weren’t being constantly attacked by creatures. We had already used everything, and we couldn’t even get any because we had not seen any humans the last few days.
Irus suddenly thrust his rapier through the cave’s wall and muttered something that sounded like a curse. “Those damn Sithannas!”
“Calm down,” Moria said, a hint of threat in her tone. “Do you want the cave to collapse on us?”
His shoulder tensed. “My apologies, Rana Moria.”
Napabuntong-hininga na lang si Moria habang nakatingin kay Kei. The cave was filled with silence, with the three of us lost in our own thoughts, when I suddenly remembered what Irus told me when we were still in Hallim. Something about a curse . . .
“Uhm, why can’t he drink mine?”
I had been bothered by that since then. Kei said undeads could drink either a human’s or a higher clan’s blood. The bloodsuckers and Siphons seemed to be more than willing to take a sip of my blood, but the three of them would not even dare even if sometimes, they get entranced by its scent.
“Lady, you can’t—”
“But I am from a higher clan, right? You’ve been hinting at that every time I ask questions about myself.”
The two of them exchanged nervous looks and there was a silent, but noticeable understanding between them. They sat right across me, their expressions both grim.
“Do you remember what I told you before, Lady?” tanong ni Irus.
Tumango naman ako. “A blood curse, right?”
Moria’s face darkened. “It’s an ancient pact between the vampiric clans. Blood such as yours are forbidden to us.”
My forehead creased. “Forbidden?”
“It’s a delicacy,” Irus continued, “but it comes with a price.”
Their words hung heavy in the air. It was as if they were talking about a tragedy—something that was more terrifying than anything we had faced so far.
I was about to ask another question when Kei suddenly convulsed. Veins started to appear on his face, too. Few minutes more and it would reach his brain.
My hands trembled in fear. “W-what should we do now?”
Irus and I looked at Moria. Even without saying, she had been the one leading our group since her arrival. She was powerful and wise, and following her decisions saved us a lot of times.
“Fine,” she announced. “We’ll split up. You,” sabay turo niya kay Irus. “Bring him to Vrivarya. Since none of you are outsiders, they may allow you to enter even with his current state. I will stay with the lady as she is the primary target of our pursuers.”
Irus listened attentively, nodding whenever she mentioned his name. She wrote something on a parchment and gave it to him. “Remember to present that once you enter the castle. Arcane mages will only take the word of a fellow mage or someone higher in the ranks. We need him immediately restored back to health so our lady can enter the land safely. This is the only way to save them.”
Agad namang naghanda ang dalawa. Moria readied everything they needed once they were inside the borders while Irus carefully carried Kei on his back.
Lumapit ako sa kanya at marahang tinapik ang mukha niya. “You’ll be okay.”
I was about to pull my hand back when Kei suddenly opened his eyes. I remembered how scary he was when serious, but it was a different kind of fear this time. It did not feel like him at all. It felt like I was facing a Katteri or a ghoul.
His face twitched and I tensed when his gaze met mine. But what made my skin tingle was when his gaze shifted to my bandaged wrist.
“B-blood . . .” he moaned in a hoarse voice.
Irus tried to restrain him but it was already too late. Kei jumped toward me and bit my wrist.
I could hear Irus and Moria’s voices, but they sounded so far away. Suddenly, I remembered Kei’s words. He said he would never bite someone to drink blood. We’re not savages, he reasoned . . . yet he did it. And I was right. He wasn’t in his right mind because he felt different.
Along with my blood, the strength in my legs and knees got sapped. My vision blurred. My body felt hot, as if my insides were burning. Kei’s teeth sank into my skin, drinking my blood without thinking of stopping.
My head was spinning and there was a searing pain on my wrist. I could not remember if I were screaming. Maybe I still was. It was so painful. I wanted it to stop. Please. Stop it.
Kei . . . stop . . .
My eyes fluttered open as I tried to catch my breath. Despite my lungs being vestigial organs now, I still felt the need to breathe, as if I were being suffocated by something.
“Lady, calm down.”
Seeing Moria’s face in front of me calmed me down for a bit. Pagtingin ko sa kanan ko ay nandoon din si Irus. I tried to settle my scattered thoughts and gasped upon remembering what had transpired. Agad akong napatingin sa kamay ko. My wrist had been bandaged with a thick cloth.
Moria looked away and swallowed down the temptation. “Are you okay now?”
Dahan-dahan akong bumangon at napanganga ako nang makita ko ang nasa harapan namin. It was a cocoon of stones and dirt. Don’t tell me . . .
“W-what exactly happened . . .”
She gave me a sullen look. “We lost him.”
Her words drifted inside my head for a few seconds, my own mind refusing to process them. Hindi ko alam kung ano ang dapat sabihin o gawin. Did he really . . . did Kei perish?
“N-no . . . no way . . .”
She flicked her fingers and the cocoon slowly broke apart. My eyes were already welling up but my confusion stopped the tears from falling after Kei’s body dropped to the ground.
The wound on his right shoulder was nowhere to be found. Even the visible veins under his skin disappeared. In fact, he looked better than before.
Confused, I looked back at Moria. “I . . . I thought blood could only slow the spread of the poison? I thought he died!”
“It’s true,” she replied, “but your blood seemed to heal him completely.”
“But with a curse,” Irus muttered.
Right. We were talking about that before we hatched that plan. Was this the blood curse they were talking about?
“The blood curse?”
He nodded as he looked at Kei in pity. “As I’ve said earlier, Lady, drinking your blood comes with a price.”
As if on cue, Kei’s consciousness returned. Dahan-dahan siyang bumangon at nagtama ang aming paningin. Something inside me stirred and it felt like his presence was something I needed. Something I owned. Like there was an intangible bond that connected both of us.
Without breaking my gaze at him, I asked Irus a question. “And what is the price he has paid?”
Their forlorn expressions were enough to realize that it was something that anyone of them would rather not experience. Something that was worse than death.
“His freedom, Lady,” he answered miserably. “From now on, Khmer is bound to serve and protect you for the rest of his life. Like an obedient and mindless hound, he cannot go against your words and will only follow your wishes. Starting today, you have his absolute loyalty.”
Everything happened so quickly that it took me a moment to understand what had transpired.
Irus and Moria engaged the three mages while Kei was shielding me from the horde of other undead. Besides Leone, there were two lanky figures fighting against my retainers. What was worrying me was how they were put into an unfavorable position as Irus didn’t have any magic prowess.
“Khmer!” yelled Moria, her gaze not leaving Leone and the other mage. “Take the lady to Vrivarya! Remember our mission!”
Kei gritted his teeth. He must have wanted to help them, but he had to protect me. I wanted to tell him that we should help them, but I knew I would just be a burden if I started moving.
Walang nagawa si Kei kundi sundin si Moria. He held my wrist and was about to night-travel us, when an invisible force shoved us backward, several meters away from our comrades.
I could hear his voice calling my name but it sounded so far away. It felt like someone hurled a boulder at me, crushing my body. I lay dazed, white orbs dancing in front of me.
My mind was still fuzzy when a face came into my view. His alluring red eyes bore into mine. A wry smile escaped his lips and pulled a strange-looking knife. I wanted to run away but my body wasn’t listening to me.
“Perish, Stryzyga,” he uttered. “In the name of Her Grace Lilith.”
He swung his knife toward my head but another metal clanged against it. Kei’s djall fended off the mage’s attack and he used that moment to night-travel the both of us.
“I’m sorry, lady,” she whispered, and the next thing I knew, the world had already blurred behind us.
My head hurt so much that I wanted to slam it against a wall. My eyes fluttered open but a sword swinging straight at me was the first thing I saw. My instincts kicked into gear and lurched sideways. I still felt queasy, but my condition seemed better than a while ago.
“L-Lady . . .”
Agad akong napatingin sa gilid at napasinghap ako nang makita ko ang kalagayan ni Kei. He was soaked in his own blood, struggling to stand up as he glared at the Mage who just attacked me. I rushed to his direction and tried to shield him from our attacker.
The Mage chuckled in amusement. The fog was slowly receding and for the first time, I saw his face clearly. His appearance was as unearthly as Moria. His red eyes complemented his porcelain skin, but he looked more intimidating because he was significantly taller than the both of us.
“Her Grace Lilith will be delighted to have your head,” he said, his eyes gleaming with malice.
Lilith? He mentioned that name earlier, too. Was she the undead they were serving?
Kei groaned in pain as he pulled me closer to him. “This is against the ancient laws, Alfonse.”
The Mage, whom he called as Alfonse, shot a dirty look at him. “Silence, Abhkim,” he hissed threateningly.
I glanced at Kei. “A-ancient rules?”
Before he could answer my question, Alfonse lurched toward us again. Kei pushed me away and met the enemy with his knife. But Alfonse thrust his hand and vines started sprouting from the ground, restricting Kei’s movements.
I struggled to my feet and was about to run to Kei but Alfonse was already in the motion to swing his knife toward Kei’s neck.
Seeing my comrade on the brink of death because of my uselessness filled my head with destructive emotions—fear, anger, and guilt. The familiar burning sensation coursed through my body; my eyes flaring with anger.
Panting heavily, I glared at the Mage and watched as his face got frozen in silent fear. Kei and Alfonse both watched in horror as black and purple blotches appeared on the latter’s arms.
The sufferings I had encountered for the past few weeks came like a crashing wave of memories and they intensified the rage boiling inside me.
“I’ve had enough,” I mumbled, my eyes getting hotter with every second that went by. “Leave me alone. Just leave me alone!”
Suddenly, the veins in Alfonse’s arm became visible underneath his skin, As if they were animate, his blood vessels squirmed in a turbulent way. Lines as dark as the blotches earlier formed around his wrist. But what horrified him was when blackened blood erupted from it.
I, too, was surprised for a second. Moria said my powers were slowly awakening and with my current strength, only extreme emotions could trigger it. Reminiscing how Moria had almost died when I channeled that strange ability at her made me lose my concentration.
As the intense heat dissipated from my eyes, so as my stamina. My knees buckled and it felt like the remaining ounce of energy in my body got sucked out completely.
“S-shit . . .”
At the same time, the roots around Kei loosened as Alfonse screamed in pain. He dashed toward my direction and was about to get us out of here, but our upper hand was short-lived.
Alfonse murmured some words, probably spells, and his severed right hand started connecting itself back to his right arm. The blotches, albeit slowly, was also disappearing.
“Lady, let’s go!” Kei said with urgency as he tried to lift me. “Irus!”
The moment he called Irus’ name, our assassin comrade appeared right beside us along with Moria whom he was carrying, too. Kei’s presence got overwhelmingly heightened, but something else was messing with my senses. When I glanced at the Mages’ direction, the other guy pulled an arrow and it whizzed to our direction. But before I could tell and warn them, everything was already spinning.
My body was aching so bad that I did not want to move. Ayaw ko na ring dumilat at gusto ko na lang manatiling nakahiga para palipasin ang sakit.
“Lady, are you okay?”
Hearing Irus’ muffled voice prompted me to open my eyes, but I immediately regretted it because his bandaged face was too close. Halos mapasigaw ako sa gulat at takot pero agad ko namang napigilan iyon. Damn it, I still couldn’t get used to his appearance.
Irus helped me get up but I froze when I saw Moria and Kei a few feet away from us. And then I remembered what happened before Kei night-traveled us.
“Kei!” I called, scrambling toward their direction.
Halos mapatakip na lang ako sa bibig ko nang makita ko ang kalagayan niya. Moria had removed the arrow from his left shoulder. The wound looked nasty. The skin around it turned moss green and it was slowly spreading. Kei’s face contorted in pain.
“The arrow’s tip was coated with poison,” she murmured as she tried to extract the contaminated blood. “And we don’t have any vials of blood left.”
I drew a shaky breath, realizing how crucial every vial of blood was. Curse those creatures. If only they did not make our journey more difficult than it already was, we would have enough supply of blood in case of emergencies like this.
Muli akong napatingin kay Moria. “Can you heal it?” tanong ko.
She gave me a forlorn look and shook her head. “Mages cannot heal others but themselves.”
My still heart sank in hopelessness. “T-then what should we do?”
“We need to get to Vrivarya,” Irus chimed in. “Now.”
When I turned around, he was looking at the ominous mountain ranges beyond the forest. That was when I realized where we were.
We were already at the border of our destination. We were few steps away from Vrivarya—their home.
We were continuously running on the narrow strip of land to get away from the school of mermaids trying to pull us below the water. Their shrill laughs and menacing smiles were a sight that was even more terrible than a ghoul’s face.
I tried channeling the fear inside me through my eyes, but I couldn’t concentrate because a lot were happening around me. Kei was almost carrying me already because the mermaids were persistent on attacking us. They could alter the conditions of the sea in their favor, and I watched in horror as a huge wave rose, almost engulfing the surrounding in darkness.
Moria turned her head at our direction. “Hurry!”
Kei tightened his grip on my waist as I hunched uncomfortably on his right shoulder. The sand exploded and hardened into dunes from Moria’s power, temporarily blocking the waves from drowning us, just like what she did in the desert.
For almost two hours, we continued running and evading the mermaids’ attacks. Irus and I were useless the entire time, and I felt bad for Kei and Moria. Every minute, I was hoping that we’d reach a landmass, but I couldn’t see where we were going because it felt like I’d fall off from his shoulder if I move even with a minimal motion.
Naramdaman ko naman ang pagbagal ng takbo ni Kei at doon lang ako nagtangkang gumalaw. I moved my upper body with difficulty and caught my breath when a shore finally came into view. The few mermaids who followed us hissed angrily from afar. I just realized they halted from a significant distance, and I wondered why. Was the North Continent off-limits to them? Or was this a territory for other races in the sea?
Napatingin ako kina Kei at Moria at nagsimula silang maglakad kaya agad akong sumunod.
The white and fine sand of the shore was a stark contrast from the rocky coast of Margula and Rusnia. Inland was a temperate rainforest and thick moss were everywhere. We were running whole day and the sun was starting to set when we trudge inside the forest. Exhaustion had washed over us. Fortunately, the forest was a good and much safer place to set up a camp.
Moria glanced at Irus’ cocoon. “Come out.”
The thick branches and vines started to unravel and revealed his bandaged face. He stood guard as soon as he stepped out of his sanctum. The sun has yet to set but the thick canopies of trees block its rays from penetrating the forest ground, allowing him to move without being incapacitated.
Kei and Moria already lay dormant as soon as they hit the ground. No wonder since they were running nonstop while looking after us.
Irus sat on a boulder a few meters away from us with his rapier ready. Lalapit na sana ako sa kanya pero agad niya akong pinigilan.
“Stay with them, Lady,” he said, a hint of warning on his tone. “The creatures in the North are far stronger and powerful than those that we have encountered.”
The dread in his words sent shivers down my spine. “W-what do you mean? What creatures are waiting for us?”
His eyes darkened but another voice answered my question. “The North is the home of Undeads, Skinwalkers and Magi, the strongest creatures to walk on this planet, Lady.”
Turning around, I saw Moria already dusting off the soot and dirt on her clothes. “Unlike the ones we encounter in the mainland and southern countries, the north is darker and colder, a place where these creatures could comfortably live. There are also few humans, which allows them to take control of every territory.”
True enough, the North felt ominous, but strangely, it also felt . . . familiar.
Napatingin naman ako kay Irus nang bigla siyang tumayo. He disappeared like a burst of wind and came back with several heads of bloodsuckers and ghouls. I grimaced as I saw the blood trickling down their necks, and their faces frozen in terror.
Halos mapatalon ako nang biglang bumangon si Kei. “We should move.” His brows furrowed, as if something more terrifying was looming. “I can feel several Mages around.”
Agad na napalingon sina Moria at Irus sa kanya. Their faces were filled with apprehension. Mages are by far the most powerful undead we had encountered and several of them meant trouble.
Without any protests, we continued moving, but as we went deeper in the forest, the colder it got. My limbs were numb and my body was shivering from the bitterly cold wind and mist despite wearing my rouska.
“Your body is still not used to this, Lady,” Kei murmured as he draped his cloak over my shoulders.
Hindi ko alam kung ilang oras na kaming naglalakad. Sometimes, Irus would disappear and we would hear muffled cries and screams elsewhere. He would return with new specks of blood and grime on his uniform.
My mind reeled as I let out a quivering breath. Suddenly, it felt like something just punched me in the gut. My legs staggered as I tried to find my balance but my body had given up on me. My head and stomach roiled in pain and I could feel the life draining from my eyes.
For the first time, I felt something more intense than fear. It was death.
“Victoria, you should never leave alone.” “We will always be by your side. We need to protect you.”
My eyes fluttered open as memories of my grandparents flashed before me. Orbs danced before my eyes. Blinking hard, I tried to get back my bearings. It was only after a few minutes that I realized my retainers were beside me, dread and worry visible on their faces.
Sinubukan kong bumangon pero nanghihina pa ang buong katawan ko. I tried recalling what happened before I passed out. Ang natatandaan ko lang ay may naramdaman akong kakaiba. It was as if the grim reaper had come for me. I was in the brink of death.
“What happened?” I asked but it came out as a hoarse whisper.
Bigla naman silang lumuhod at yumuko sa akin. Next thing I knew, they were ready to strike their limbs with their weapons already.
Gasping, I held my palm and tried to intercept them. “S-stop!”
Fortunately, they listened, but they were still considering hurting themselves as a punishment for what happened to me. I appreciate their concern and loyalty but sometimes, it’s too much.
Dahan-dahan akong bumangon pero napayakap agad ako sa katawan ko dahil sa lamig. My rouska had returned to its bracelet form and the only thing that was keeping me warm was Kei’s cloak. I was considering using it again but my fingers were still numb. Agad naman akong tumingin kay Moria para humingi ng tulong.
“I need my rouska.”
She immediately understood what I meant and swiftly made a small cut on my finger. The three winced as soon as they caught the scent of my blood but Moria managed to trickle a droplet onto my bracelet. Upon transformation, I laced it with a cloth bandage as quickly as possible while they tried to control their cravings by keeping a considerable distance from me.
Nang masiguro kong secured na ang daliri ko ay agad ko rin silang tinawag at muling tinanong kung ano ang nangyari.
Moria drooped her head in shame. “We were near a sacred ground, Lady.”
“We were too focused on avoiding the paths that may be filled with creatures that we have forgotten about the sacred grounds in the forest,” Kei explained. “We almost let you die, Lady.”
They bowed deeply once again while I was lost in thought for a moment. Sacred ground, huh? So that was the fatal spot of someone like me. I suddenly realized how I would never go near any churches or cathedrals when I was still a living being. Akala ko dahil hindi ako lumaking naniniwala sa mga ganoon, especially when my grandparents didn’t even teach me anything about religion. It turned out I was instinctively avoiding places or activities that were considered sacred or holy.
My thoughts receded when they were suddenly on their toes, their hands hovering around their weapons.
Kei knelt before me. “Pardon us, Lady. I know you’re still in no shape to walk, but we need to move.”
Halos hindi na namin makita ang paligid dahil sa kapal ng hamog. Kei had to carry me on his back so we could continue walking while Moria and Irus stood guard in front and behind us, respectively.
The forest seemed eerier now. The thick fog and the expansive lattice of leaves above cloaked the woods in darkness. Besides the occasional hooting and howling of the unseen animals, and the snapping of twigs under our feet, the forest was quiet . . . as if it were holding its breath.
I heard Irus unsheathing his rapier and the moment I turned around, a dozen of bloodsuckers came attacking him. Shrieks and snarls of terror filled the night as he slaughtered every one of them, leaving nothing but their decimated bodies.
Moria cursed under her breath. “I can feel their presence.” She turned to my direction with a bleak expression on her face. “Lady, we may need your power. You must learn how to use it.”
I averted her eyes in embarrassment. “I-I tried, but . . . I’m sorry—”
“Try using it to me.”
For a second, I thought I misheard her, but she was dead serious. Agad naman akong ibinaba ni Kei. He stood guard with Irus while Moria stayed in front of me.
“I can’t do that—”
“You have to, Lady,” she insisted. “The North is much more dangerous than you think, and the three of us might not be enough to protect you. You have to, at least, awaken that dormant power inside you. That’s the only way to protect you once we can’t.”
Her eyes peered into mine. The unyielding look on her face didn’t have any room for protest.
“Are you really sure about this?”
She gave me a thin smile. “I am, Lady, and do not worry too much. I can heal myself.”
With a defeated sigh, I agreed to her request. She told me to imagine every creature that had pursued us relentlessly and the terror that I felt every time we were cornered. I tried to focus on her as I recalled every situation that almost cost me my life. The fear and anxiety I felt every time we encounter something that wanted me dead—from the bloodsuckers to the mermaids.
A familiar sensation crept up my body. My insides felt hot, burning with rage and terror, and I stopped shaking from the cold. I could feel it coursing through my veins until it reached my eyes. And then it happened.
I watched in horror as blotches of black and purple appeared on Moria’s face and arms. Several veins in her arm started to implode as she chanted some archaic words.
Panic coursed through my body and I ran towards her. “I’m sorry!”
My body trembled in fear and guilt as I watched her slump on the ground. Halos paiyak kong tinawag sina Irus at Kei dahil sa nangyari. She started convulsing and I broke into sobs, repeatedly apologizing for what I have done . . . until runes appeared on her arms and face.
“M-Moria . . .”
I was about to touch her face when she suddenly gasped. The blotches on her skin started fading away and I whimpered in relief, thankful that she was still alive . . . as an undead.
Bigla naman siyang yumuko sa akin. “Apologies for worrying you, my Lady. Please, do not shed your tears for me.”
It took me a while to calm down. Paano naman kasi, I almost killed my comrade, and if that happened, I wouldn’t know what to do. What worse was we continued walking as if that thing didn’t even happen.
Dahil medyo okay na rin naman ang katawan ko ay hindi na ako nagpakarga pa kay Kei. Still, he stayed beside me. I was still sniffling, trying to quell the emotions beneath my gut, when I felt a threatening presence.
The three immediately surrounded me, their weapons ready.
“Fænden,” they murmured indignantly, probably a curse, as the presence grew stronger.
Kei tightened his grip on his knife, the djall, if I remembered correctly. “They are here.”
As if on cue, someone emerged from the fog, and a gasp was caught in my throat as I saw a familiar face. A wry smile escaped her lips as she met my gaze.
“Oh, hello, Stryzyga,” Leone, the mage who almost killed me in Kariota, greeted. “Let me kill you properly this time.”
Two more mages came out of the shadows, along with several undeads--Katteris, bloodsuckers and ghouls. And on her signal, they all charged at us.
My insides were churning from the nauseating stench of the walking corpses.
Moria shuddered as her knees collapsed on the ground, her cloak almost covering half of her face. Irus had it worse. He was all curled up, almost whimpering as another wave of foul smell got carried by the breeze.
“Irus,” Kei called with difficulty.
Pinilit tumayo ni Irus kahit na nanginginig pa ang tuhod niya. He scooped Moria who was still crumpled on the ground. Kei did the same with me and they jumped to the huge boulders on the side.
“F-freakin’ gross,” Moria hissed.
Vampires have enhanced senses, hence a sensitive nose, and smelling them up-close must have messed up their thinking. Even I, who was still in the middle of discovering my abilities and getting used to my senses, had almost succumbed to the unpleasant smell.
“Let’s find another route. We can’t cross this land without fighting them,” Kei suggested.
“C-can’t Irus just quickly behead them?” I asked and Irus shook his head aggressively.
“No, Lady!” he protested. “I don’t want me nor my sword near them!”
Nagsimula kaming maglakad palayo sa kanila pero parang nakasunod pa rin ang masangsang na amoy sa amin. It was hard to focus because the decaying stench could disable someone from doing anything, just like what happened to Moria.
Kei said she could cast a protective barrier than could filter the miasma but she was in no shape to even move at all that Irus had to carry her so we could continue moving. Fortunately, we found another cave below a hill, surrounded with trees and flowers, and Kei and I built a camp there.
Few minutes later, Moria finally came to her senses and setup a protective barrier while grumbling about how the crack-something, whatever their name was, should just cease to exist. But no matter how I look at them, they are definitely zombies.
“Uhm, s-so those are zombies, right?” I whispered, trying hard not to agitate Moria more, because she looked like she would kill anyone who would piss her off right now.
Kei snorted. “Please, zombies are more terrifying than the craquehhes.”
I looked at him, hoping he was just making fun of me, but I realized these creatures do not have any sense of humor.
“Anong tawag sa kanila?” tanong ko dahil ang hirap intindihin ng sinabi niya.
“Cra-que-hhe,” he repeated in syllables. “Or cursed corpses.”
Hearing the word curse sent shivers down my spine. “C-cursed?”
“They are humans who have sinned greatly during their lifetime that even the grim reapers don’t want their souls.”
I suppressed a gasp upon hearing that. Does that mean even grim reapers are real? Habang tumatagal ay parang mas lumalayo ako sa reyalidad.
“Hence, the Magis do the job,” he continued.
“Magis? You mean the true witches and warlocks?”
“Yes, Lady,” Moria chimed in and I flinched upon hearing her voice.
Marahan akong tumingin sa direksyon niya. She looked a bit calmer now but the annoyance and disgust were still visible on her face.
“The Magis consider themselves as the overseers of the mortal world. They decide what is wrong and right; what is good and bad. And they judge and prosecute those they think do not deserve to live, just like the craquehhes,” she grimaced, as if even their name was as sickening as their smell. “Their souls were reaped by the witches, tormented for eternity, while their bodies were cursed.”
“What kind of curse?” I queried, curious and afraid at the same time.
“They became revenants. Mindless corpses that are buried under the ground in the day and crawling out, hunting for food, at night. Their bodies are also infested with maggots and other parasites, along with their awful miasma.”
“Awful,” Irus repeated in a mumble.
“B-but they can be killed, right?”
“Indeed. They are as week as the bloodsuckers,” she responded. “But their miasma is one of the reasons why very few have tried. Besides, they retreat to their graves once the sun is out.”
“Oh . . . I see. So we can get past them during the day—”
Napatigil ako at napatingin kay Irus. Right, we couldn’t travel during daylight, too, because that was his weakness. I heaved a deep sigh, realizing how difficult the situation was.
“If only they were zombies,” Irus muttered but he instantly regretted it when our gazes met.
“Eh? Are zombies easier to deal with?”
Kei snorted. “Oh, Lady, they are much more troublesome.”
“What do you mean?”
“Unlike craquehhes, zombies are controlled corpses.”
“Controlled? By whom? Still the Magis?”
“Precisely,” he answered. “They are also soulless undead, but because they are reanimated corpses through witchcraft, you cannot kill them by beheading their heads.”
“Huh?! Then even if you decapitate them, they will still move?”
“Indeed. And they are fast. Normal humans can’t outrun them.”
Napatingin naman ako kay Irus. “You said they are easier to deal with than craquehhes.”
He nodded. “Lesser miasma.”
“At some instances, they are,” Moria added. “But lower-ranked undead could only slow them down since they can’t be killed by normal methods.”
“Then . . . how?”
“Light magic,” she said. “But only capable mages can do that. Let’s just hope we don’t run into them, too.”
I wanted to ask if she was one of the capable ones but I was afraid I’d sound rude so I held back. The atmosphere became heavy, too, after talking about the undead and the Magis. In the end, we didn’t do anything until the sun was out.
At daybreak, Moria disabled the barrier and went out. Kei and I followed her and I sighed in relief when I couldn’t smell the miasma, craquehhe’s foul stench, in the air.
Moria groaned. “It’s more tolerable than last night.”
“Maybe now is the right time to move,” Kei added.
They both looked at the cave where Irus was. We couldn’t continue without him, but he also couldn’t move with the sun out.
“I’ll handle him,” she said as she walked inside.
“Is this really okay?” tanong ko habang nakalingon sa kinalalagyan ni Irus.
“This is better than waiting for nighttime, Lady,” she reasoned.
Nagpatuloy kaming maglakad at habang palapit kami nang palapit sa kinaroroonan ng craquehhes. We decided to use the shorter route, the grave, despite it being their home.
Napatingin akong muli kay Irus. He was enveloped in a cocoon-like barrier made with huge twigs and boughs. The cocoon was floating low and it was following Moria. She said she didn’t use it before because it would attract unnecessary attention, but since we were already in the outskirts and nobody would see us here, it would be alright.
After an hour, we reached the path we couldn’t take last night. It still had that putrid odor but Moria’s barrier lessened the smell we could take in and helped us get through the unmarked graves. She didn’t remove it until we could only smell the tress and . . . ocean?
I tried recalling the landscape of the mainland. Beyond the mountainous regions of Margula and Rusnia was the Sea of Mirovia. I had almost forgotten how close we were to the borders.
My mouth hung open as I stared at the vastness of the water glistening under the sun after a few hours of walking. The salty wind and fine spray brushed onto my skin. Waves hit the shore and the rocky cliffs in a steady rhythm. A smile escaped my lips as I tried to take in its ethereal beauty. It was much prettier in daylight than seeing it at night.
“There you go again, Lady,” Kei whispered. He must have seen me gaping at the sight. “This one’s also infested with mermaids.”
Kinilabutan naman ako nang marinig ko ‘yon. Again? Wala bang dagat na hindi nila pinamumugaran?
“Oh, good,” Kei remarked. “It’s low tide.”
True enough, the waters revealed a long strip of sandbar connecting the place we were at and Urbedza, the southernmost country in the North continent.
“We just need to cross it, right?” I asked.
He scoffed in return. “If it's that easy.”
“Can’t you night travel us there?”
His face suddenly darkened. “No, Lady. I need to prepare for the worse.”
“We might encounter more troublesome enemies once we stepped into the North. I need to preserve my strength for that.”
“We should go,” Moria said. “The creatures following us are closing in.”
Wala naman akong nagawa kundi ang sumunod sa kanila. We started walking through the narrow strip of land revealed by the low tide, but as soon as we crossed it, I could feel an eerie presence around us . . . no . . . below us.
We were just walking for a few minutes when the water made a faint gurgling noise. Despite Kei saying they were nasty creatures before, I still secretly wanted to have a glimpse at their appearance. Books and movies would always paint them as these beautiful, goddess-like half-human half-fish creatures and I wondered how wrong they would be again.
Everything happened so fast that I wasn’t able to react swiftly. If it weren’t for Kei, my head would have been rolling on the seabed. The weather instantly changed—heavy clouds hung low, waves started to get stronger and bigger, and flashes of lightning illuminated the gloomy sea. An ear-piercing chortle coming out of the water made my skin tingle.
“We’re going to run,” Kei murmured and Moria had to come forward to protect the defenseless Irus.
I was about to ask a question, but something leapt out of the sea and my breath got caught in my throat. Movie creators should be blamed for their perfect and fantasized version of the creatures I had been encountering for the past few weeks. Mermaids were beautiful? Where exactly?!
Tailing us from the waters were bare-chested women with grotesque moss-green skins, bulging and beady eyes, shark-like teeth, and the lower bodies of different kinds of fishes. Their misshapen faces covered by their thick straggly hair could bring nightmares worse than the bloodsuckers.
“Come with us!” one of them shrieked as they lunged at us.
The werewolves were ready to pound on us but Moria suddenly raised her right hand.
“Wait,” she called out. “No one here is a werecat.”
The biggest werewolf, a black-furred lycanthrope with a deep scar running through its face, growled threateningly. “Silence! I can smell their revolting stench in you!”
Kei and Moria exchanged looks while I stayed behind Irus. I almost let out a whimper when I met one of the werewolves’ gaze. It was a different kind of fear compared to the mages’ powers. I felt fear solely from their appearance and brute strength. Those bodies and fangs could trample and pierce our bodies.
“Lady, stay close to me,” Irus whispered as he tried to shield me from everyone’s sight.
“Perhaps we accidentally got into contact with them,” Moria reasoned.
“Liar!” the werewolf roared.
“It’s true,” Kei chimed in and he suddenly threw a covered good in front of the werewolf.
The lycan backed off a few steps as it bared its fangs to the parcel Kei threw. The cloth got unraveled and it revealed a few clothes. It must be the source of the scent they were talking about.
“There’s a trading hub a few kilometers from here and we bought some change of clothes. Perhaps one of the traders was a werecat disguising as a human,” Kei explained. “The four of us are undead. Do you want a proof?”
I almost gasped when Kei suddenly pulled his knife from its holster and thrust it to his chest, much to the werewolves’ disgust.
“Convinced now?” he calmly asked as blood tricked down his shirt.
The werewolves’ ire seemed to gradually dissipate, and they all returned to their wolf forms. Their leader howled and the rest started trudging the path on their right. He looked at us one last time and growled.
“You’re lucky it’s not a full moon tonight,” he retorted before joining his pack.
Halos manlambot ang mga tuhod ko nang tuluyan na silang mawala sa paningin namin. Napahawak ako sa balikat ni Irus para suportahan ang katawan ko.
“You said werewolves aren’t our enemies,” I muttered.
“They aren’t,” Kei replied as he casually pulled his knife from his chest, “but as I’ve said before, they aren’t exactly our allies either.”
He wasn’t bothered by the blood on his shirt or the fact that there was a hole in his chest. But what surprised me was that I, too, wasn’t. I guess I was starting to get used to this kind of situation.
Moria said we should continue walking so we could arrive in Urbedza in two days. The path to the mountains were rough and uneven so we had to slow down a bit . . . well, they had to, actually, for me. I also wore my protective cloak after our encounter with the werewolves. At least, with these, I felt shielded, even for a little.
We quietly travelled for several hours until the sun started peeking. We set up a camp right next to a cavern in the forest and Irus stayed inside it. As usual, nag-set up ng traps si Kei at protective barriers naman kay Moria.
I leaned against a tree trunk and my rouska turned back to its bracelet form. Lumapit naman sa akin si Kei at umupo sa katabing puno.
“Hey,” tawag ko. “So . . . about those werewolves . . .”
“You want to know why they acted like that?”
I nodded. “Moria mentioned werecat, right?”
“Yeah. Contrary to popular beliefs of humans,” he said, attempting a sardonic smile while looking at me, “vampires aren’t the archenemy of werewolves. It’s the werecats.”
“Werecats . . .”
“Those two falls under the skinwalkers,” he added. “They are partially humans who can shapeshift to their animal forms. And unlike the undead, they are among the living and can be killed with a shot to the heart. Werewolves and werecats have been engaging into deadly battles for centuries because they antagonize each other, and both are very territorial.”
“Those werecats, how do they look?”
“It varies. Sometimes, they take the form of leopards, tigers, and jaguars. There were also panthers and lions. They aren’t as feral as werewolves, but they are harder to subdue when they’re in their true form.”
I thought they would look like cute cats because of their name but I didn’t expect them to be those big and frightening felines. And if they were more terrifying than the werewolves, I definitely don’t want to meet them.
“If they are the werewolves’ nemesis, then who are the vampires’?” tanong ko.
“The Magi, Lady,” Moria cut in as she sat right across me.
Suddenly, the atmosphere seemed colder. Kei’s face became grim and Moria looked worried.
“True witches and warlocks,” she responded. “Beings who are born with magical and supernatural powers.”
Napakunot naman ang noo ko roon. “But you’re also like that, right?”
She gently shook her head. “No, Lady. Unlike the Magi, mages are undead who only have natural affinity with elemental, natural and arcane magic, not born to it. Mages have to train from childhood to control these types of magic and must continue training to maintain them. The true witches and warlocks are much more powerful than that. These beings can use the purest forms of witchcraft and sorcery, may it be white or dark magic, and can even defy the many laws of reality without breaking a sweat.”
If someone as powerful as Moria talked about them in an apprehensive manner, I wouldn’t even question their capabilities. They way she described them made my skin crawl, as if these beings were the apex creatures in the food chain and crossing paths with them would be instant death.
Matapos iyon ay hindi na muling nagsalita sina Kei at Moria. Talking about our nemesis had surely dampened their spirits.
We took turns in guarding the surroundings and when night came, we started moving again. The mountainous path had finally transitioned into a flatter terrain. According to Moria, once we traversed the valley, we would arrive at the northern borders of Rusnia, and beyond that is the North Continent.
“The numbers are increasing,” Moria muttered as she looked around.
She had been looking more and more worried the moment we left Kariota. Pakiramdam ko tuloy ay may hindi magandang mangyayari. As if on cue, she turned to my direction and urged me to use my rouska.
“O-okay . . .”
The three of them seemed more alert and I, too, could feel the tension in the atmosphere. Somehow, it felt like someone was watching me.
“Uhm, is it just me or something creepy has its eyes on me?” I said, breaking the silence. Kei positioned himself next to me. “Not just one, actually,” he answered and the hair on my nape bristled.
“W-what do you mean?”
Irus readied his rapier while Moria walked in front of us. “A lot of creatures have been tailing us since we entered this country,” she grimly said. “My protective barriers and your rouska have helped us concealed our exact location, but . . .” she shifted her gaze to me but immediately pulled away.
“Then what should we do?” tanong ko. I surely didn’t want another encounter like what happened with the ghouls. “Should we pick up our pace?”
“That would be better, but we can’t avoid a confrontation sooner or later,” she added.
Muli silang nagtinginan ni Kei na para bang mayroon silang gagawin na hindi dapat. Different kinds of creatures were tailing us because of me, yet they had to deal with them. It’s either they want my blood or they want me dead. I had been fishing for answers but the three wouldn’t even take the bait.
“Lady,” she called. “It’s still early for this but we have no choice.”
My eyebrows furrowed at her words. What did she mean by that?
“I’m going to teach you a way to defend yourself against fellow undead and other creatures.”
My mind was buzzing after Moria revealed one of my powers. It turned out I was really the one who did that to the Katteris and ghouls.
“It’s one of your clan’s powers,” she said after pointing at my eyes. “What did you feel when the ghouls were about to devour you?”
I tried recalling what I felt during that time. “Uhh, I was terrified. And my eyes and body felt hot.”
She smiled. “Your eyes felt hot because there’s literally blood around them.”
“W-what?” I intoned, my mouth left hanging open.
“That’s how you channel that power,” she continued. “Extreme emotions like fear can trigger it for those who haven’t trained yet. And those eyes are one of the true eyes.”
“True eyes?” I repeated.
She muttered something under her breath. There was a look of regret in her face and immediately avoided my question. Instead, she told me to try channeling the same emotions so I could use the dormant power inside me.
“It’s hard,” I muttered after I tried to convince myself that I was about to get killed for several hours already. Still, I couldn’t get that power out of my eyes.
“Any progress?” tanong ni Kei habang naglalakad kami.
I groaned in response. “Wala.”
He chuckled. “You’ll get there, Lady. Maybe if we encounter some—”
Bigla naman siyang napatigil kaya napahinto rin ako. Moria and Irus did the same. Then all of a sudden, Irus scrunched down as he grasped his face in pain.
“W-what happened—Irus!” sigaw ko at agad na lumapit sa kanya.
I was about to ask Kei and Moria to help him but they, too, seemed to grimace in discomfort. Then, it hit me last. The air suddenly smelled like rotten eggs and rancid meat. The odor was so revolting that my stomach started churning and despite pressing my nose tightly, I could still smell the strong stench of decaying matter.
Kei cursed in a foreign language. “Why do we have to run into them?”
“Them?!” I asked, still pressing my nose between my fingers.
“Craquehhe,” he said in repugnance.
And there they were.
Several meters away from us were a horde of rotting corpses, their bodies infested with maggots and worms, walking toward our direction.