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.