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.