Despite not having any heartbeat, it felt like my whole body was pounding from the terror of jumping hundreds of meters from the Halim cliffs. My legs wobbled as I tried to stand up. Irus retreated into the shadows. Kei scanned the surroundings as if nothing had happened.
“Let’s move,” he said. “Irus can’t help us now.”
I wasn’t sure how I managed to move but after hours of walking into the tropical rain forest of Batara, we finally made it to the suburbs of a major city.
Napatingin ako sa kalangitan. The sun glistened above the clear sky. I felt its warmth touching my skin, along with the gentle wind.
Nagsimula namang maglakad si Kei. He put on his cap and scarf, covering his entire face. I wondered if the sun could affect him, just like how vampires were portrayed in fiction, but if that was the case, why was I not affected? I had been living under the sun for seventeen years and I didn’t feel uncomfortable.
He led the way to the city. Some people were throwing glances at us and I realized I looked like I had been living on the streets for days. My white shirt had turned gray from dirt and mud. My jeans were torn, and twigs were hanging from the ripped parts. I was covered with cuts and soot and my face must have been the worst part.
Napayuko na lang ako sa hiya. I wanted to borrow Khmer’s cap and scarf but I don’t think he would let me.
I didn’t realize he stopped walking so I bumped into his back. He suddenly grabbed my right arm and pulled me into a narrow alleyway.
“Katteris,” he whispered.
I wasn’t sure if he had said that term before but I was too exhausted to remember. Two middle-aged women passed by and they seemed normal at first but when I squinted my eyes, their forms changed into younger ones for a few seconds.
“W-what are those?” I mouthed as I pointed at their direction.
He was silent until the two were out of our sight. He let go of my arm and unraveled his scarf. He draped it on my head and coiled both ends around the bottom half of my face.
“You smell,” he said in a deadpan manner.
I scoffed at him in disbelief. Did he really have to say it that way? I mean, I had been traveling since yesterday! I hadn’t even bathed yet! What did he expect?!
“Katteris could pick up the scent of high clans,” he continued. “Yours may not be that strong after being with a mage and tracker for quite some time but you need to be careful.”
Napatitig na lang ako matapos niyang sabihin ‘yon. So he didn’t mean . . .
“At least wear my scarf,” he whispered. “Maybe it could hide your scent for a while.”
We continued walking and I felt embarrassed after thinking he was talking about that smell. Well, I didn’t know about the scent he was talking about either so of course I’d assume he was being rude.
Nakarating kami sa city proper makalipas ang ilan pang oras. He said we should avoid traveling by public vehicles because some humans could see through disguises, especially kids and older people. True enough, some toddlers kept on pointing at us, tugging their parents’ clothes to let them know what they were seeing. We picked up our pace and we arrived in a packed street.
Multi-colored houses and food stalls lined up the road and people were wearing extravagant clothes—ball dresses, high hats, flamboyant gowns, elegant suits—along with their prismatic and appealing makeups and face paints.
There might be a festival, I thought.
“We need to find a shelter,” he said as he looked around.
I saw a two-story guest house on our right and I tugged his jacket to catch his attention. It was painted green and blue, much relaxing to look at than the bright-colored buildings and houses next to it.
“There,” I said, pointing at the guest house.
“That will do.”
We went to that direction and checked in. Fortunately, he had money because I didn’t bring anything with me. Naiwan ko ang lahat ng pera at gamit ko sa bahay naming at tanging sarili ko lang ang dala ko, which was quite pitiful.
We got the farthest room on the second floor. There were two mattresses on the floor, a few furniture, a clean bathroom, and a good view from the small balcony on the side. I wanted to take a bath but I didn’t have any spare clothes. Kei just removed his leather jacket, exposing his ash-gray skin.
“Uhm . . .” I carefully inched closer. “M-may I—”
Before I could say anything, he pulled something from his bag and threw it to my direction. I instinctively caught it and saw a white knee-length dress and undergarments on my hands.
“I got some clothes from your house,” he explained. “You can take a bath now.”
I didn’t complain and ran to the bathroom.
Wow, that was the most satisfying bath I had ever taken. I felt refreshed and cleaner after a day of exhaustion and filthiness. Paglabas ko ng kwarto ay naabutan kong nakahiga sa lapag si Kei. He was asleep.
I sat next to him and stared at his face. Instead of sleeping, he looked . . . dead. I placed my finger under his nose, and he wasn’t breathing. If I hadn’t known he was an undead, I would probably panic, but after spending a day with him, everything that was strange had become my new normal.
“Lady,” a muffled voice suddenly called sending chills down my spine.
I screamed as I backed away, trying to keep a distance from the voice. When I turned my head and saw a black military uniform, I had to keep myself from cursing. Irus appeared in front of me, kneeling. I don’t know if he was smiling or laughing at my reaction under the bandages on his face, but I hope he wasn’t. I had enough of my embarrassing moments.
His eyes shifted to Kei and he collapsed next to him. His clothes were smoldering, and he looked exhausted.
“F-food,” he muttered as his eyes turned chalky white.
“Food? Should I order some?”
“N-no . . . virgin . . .”
“What?” I blurted out.
I wasn’t sure if I heard that right because of the cloth covering his mouth so I approached him and leaned closer to his face.
“A virgin,” he repeated, and I abruptly scurried back.
“A maiden, if you want a more . . . ah, appropriate term,” a voice on my left said with a chuckle. Apparently, Kei had woken up.
Bumangon siya at tumingin kay Irus. “Looks like he got hit.”
I knitted my eyebrows. “By what?”
“By sunlight. That’s the weakness of every assassin.”
Bago pa ako makapagtanong ay tumayo siya at muling sinuot ang cap at jacket niya. He closed the windows and curtains, drowning the room in darkness.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“We’re going to find some maidens.”
First of all, I still couldn’t get over from the fact that we were searching for maidens. Second, if he had said they wanted blood, I could have understood it clearer.
“So why does it have to be a maiden’s blood?” I asked as we walked through the crowded street.
We looked out of place because of our simple clothes but after treading through the crowd, I suddenly got a wide-brimmed red hat on my head and Khmer was already wearing a brightly painted half-mask.
"Ah. Not really a maiden's blood, but maiden blood. We could only drink pure and uncontaminated blood," he answered after escaping a huge group of marching women.
I walked faster and stayed beside him. “Pure?”
"Yes, pure. We do not drink grown men's blood because they taste awful. It's mostly children and women that have untainted and sweet blood," he said, ". . . like that one."
He pointed in front of us and there was a gorgeous lady walking toward our direction. She was wearing a red ball gown with bouffant skirt that took up space for two people. Kei marched to her and she was already eye-flirting him. I followed behind, observing their actions and waiting on how he would “drink” her blood.
He stood in front of her and reached for her chin. All of a sudden, he was already holding a vial, hidden under his fingers. I thought I was just seeing things but the nail on his thumb became sharper and pricked his chin. Blood trickled to his fingers, down to the vial like a tiny waterfall. I wasn’t sure how the woman didn’t notice it but she seemed to be in a trance. After two seconds, he let go of her and smiled.
“Thank you, my lady,” he mumbled.
The woman nodded, her expression still vacant. She continued walking as if that didn’t happen and I watched Kei put the vial inside his jacket. He stood beside me and smirked at my stunned expression.
“I’m done. Let’s go.”
Nagsimula kaming maglakad pabalik sa guest house pero mas lalong dumami ang tanong sa isip ko. I tried to stay silent, but my curiosity won in the end.
“So . . .” I started, “you don’t bite your victim’s neck.”
He looked at me as if the words I said was too offensive. “Do you think we’re bloodsuckers?” he retorted. “We’re not savages.”
Tinikom ko na lang ang bibig ko matapos no’n. If I said most of the fictional portrayal of vampires drink blood like that, he would probably not like it.
We were just a few meters away from the guest house when I felt something strange. The hair on my nape bristled. Kei must have felt it too because he pulled me closer to him.
“Stay behind me,” he said in a stern tone.
I followed his order and hid behind him with his scarf covering half of my face. I fiddled with my bracelet as I looked around, trying to find the source of my restlessness. Then, I saw some movements from our right. Several people wearing dresses and suits looked at our direction, their faces drawn in several colors of paint.
Kei made a guttural sound, like he was growling.
“A horde of Katteris,” he grumbled.
Katteris . . . the thing he mentioned earlier, like those older women we saw in the suburbs.
They looked normal but I could feel their ferocious desires. One of them seemed to be changing from a middle-aged man to a naked and ethereal twenty-year old guy.
“W-what do we do?” I asked, my voice trembling.
Before he could finish his sentence, the group lunged at us with an unbelievable speed, and all I could remember was the world blurring into streaks of lines.
I thought I had reached my fear limit but I guess there were still things that could exceed it. Besides, I was still in shock after discovering I had no heartbeat and I could breathe without using my lungs.
That I was an undead.
“Let’s go. We need to move.”
Napatingin akong muli sa lalaki na ngayon ay naghahanda na para umalis.
“Where?” tanong ko. “Why do I need to go with you? I mean . . . I still don’t know what’s happening and I’m still freaking out to this whole undead thing and I don’t think I can—”
He sighed so loud that I got interrupted. “You have so many questions.”
“Well, of course!”
“Alright. I’ll explain more along the way.”
“But . . . what about those . . . those creatures outside?”
“They have already been taken care of?”
Suddenly, a zombie appeared out of nowhere and I instinctively hid behind the guy. My throat felt dry that I couldn’t scream anymore so I just stared at the creature in front of us.
Okay, he looked like a man but the bandages around his face made me think he was a zombie or a mummy. After what I just witnessed a while ago, I was sure most of the creatures I could only see from books or movies were real.
The only visible part of his face were his gray eyes that gleamed under the moonlight. He was wearing a black military uniform and dirty combat boots.
“All clear,” he said in a muffled voice.
“Well done, Irus,” the guy replied.
Come to think of it, I still don’t know his name.
“Hey,” I called as I tugged his sleeve. “What’s your name?”
He smirked at me and what they did next made me so uncomfortable. They both bowed and knelt at me.
“Khmer of Abkhim bloodline, tracker and safekeeper of Vrivarya,” he introduced.
“Irus of Izcacus bloodline, assassin and shadow of Vrivarya,” the other guy said.
Vrivarya? That was a northern country if I remembered it correctly. Maybe that was the language he was speaking a while ago.
After their over-the-top introduction, Khmer, I'd just call him Kei, led the way and I followed right behind him. Irus suddenly disappeared but I knew he was just around us. I preferred him to be away from me after learning that he was an assassin.
Medyo dumikit ako sa kanya nang makalabas na kami sa bahay dahil naalala ko ang tatlong umatake sa amin kanina. Mamaya ay mayroon pang tulad nila na nakaaligid sa amin.
Naalala ko naman ang dalawang lalaki sa jeepney kanina. They said something that sounded like those bloodlines, too.
“Those guys earlier,” I said while we were walking into the woods, “they called me something. Like string or what, it sounded like that.”
“Stryzyga,” he corrected.
“Yeah! That. They called me that.”
“It’s an ancient bloodline, just like the clan of Abkhim and Izcacus.”
“Bloodline of what?”
“Vampires,” he said as a matter-of-factly.
I almost laughed at his reply, waiting for some follow-up, like c’mon,it was just a joke or maybe he was just making fun of me. Then again, I was an undead, which was hard to believe, too, so I guess he wasn’t. But what the heck? Vampires? For real?
“So . . . we’re vampires,” I blurted out which sounded absurd coming from me.
“What? Do you think we’re zombies or werewolves or something?”
I rolled my eyes at his sarcastic remark. “How about those that attacked us?”
“Also vampires,” he answered.
Hindi ko alam kung nagbibiro pa rin siya o ano pero seryoso ang pagkakasabi niya. I imagined myself looking like that and I suddenly wanted to vomit.
As if he was reading my mind, he chuckled and started explaining what he meant.
“Those vampires are called bloodsuckers,” he said. “They are corpses or people who were about to die that turned into vampires. Basically, the lowest of our kind.”
Our kind. It still didn’t feel right to be referred as a vampire. I mean, I only read those in books, watched in series and movies, but I didn’t expect them to be real. Hanggang ngayon, hinihiling ko pa rin na sana nananaginip lang ako at naghihintay na may gumising sa akin.
“They attack anything or anyone with blood, hence, the term bloodsuckers.”
“Then, those who got attacked will turn into vampires, too?” I asked. His eyebrows knitted and he looked at me in disbelief. “What? Ganoon ang pinapalabas sa tv!”
He grumbled. “Those ridiculous stories.”
Napataas naman ang kilay ko. Well, I find all of these absurd, too, but I didn’t say it out loud. Baka mamaya bigla na naman siyang magalit. I didn’t want to see that face a while ago again.
“The bloodsuckers are also from unique bloodlines,” he explained. “They are normal people when they are still alive, but they turn into vampires once they died. Most of them are from countries like Changla and Amorliaz.”
Those were two of the largest countries in the world. I shuddered thinking about how most of the people didn’t know they were living with the undead.
“Their victims won’t be turned into vampires,” he continued. “They will only lose consciousness, but they may die if the bloodsuckers find their blood delicious.”
The bushes in front of us suddenly rustled violently and two bloodsuckers came running toward our direction. Nagtago ako sa likuran niya pero bago pa man makalapit ang mga iyon ay wala na ang kanilang mga ulo.
“I-Irus?” tanong ko.
“He’ll be guarding us so don’t worry,” Kei said which was quite reassuring but my knees were still shaking.
“W-will they keep coming to us like that?”
“Probably. Your bracelet isn’t strong enough to conceal your presence anymore now that you’re seventeen.” He continued walking and I had to reach for his shirt so I could follow without getting left behind. “Besides, we don’t have a mage to create a protective barrier.”
Instead of asking more questions, I focused on our surroundings, paranoid that there might be more bloodsuckers who could attack us at any direction.
I gazed at the full moon, wondering what time it was already. It could be 10 P.M. or 2 A.M. but we were getting into the woods which was probably a bad idea.
Now that I think of it, my mind was more alert at night. I would always say I was a night owl because I could do much more during nighttime but maybe that was because vampires were supposed to be active at night.
Oh crap, I was already accepting that I'm a vampire.
We continued walking through the forest and every time I hear some noise, I would always assume it was a bloodsucker. Fortunately, after that last encounter, we had not seen one anymore.
Hindi ko na alam kung gaano kalayo ang nalakad namin at unti-unti na ring nanghihina ang katawan ko sa sobrang pagod. I was hungry and thirsty and my mind was still buzzing with the whole vampire and undead stuff.
I was about to collapse from exhaustion and stress when the woodland started to transition into less trees and field. I ran toward the open space, thankful that we were finally out of the forest, but I abruptly stopped when I saw the edge.
“Careful,” Kei said behind me. “Hallim is known for its dangerous cliffs.”
True enough, before us was the highest set of cliffs in Hallim, which also meant we had reached the border. Hallim wasn’t a small country and unless we were flying, we couldn’t reach this place within a day.
“H-how . . .”
“I was planning to transport us here but I already night-traveled twice this day,” he said as if that explained everything.
I almost fell to my death when Irus suddenly appeared beside me. Damn it, why couldn’t he just show himself normally?!
“We need to hurry,” he mumbled as he looked above. I wanted to tell him to remove the bandage around his mouth so I could clearly hear him, but my head might roll on the ground if I said that.
The sky was starting to change colors, from darkness glittered with thousands of stars to blended tones of blue and gold. Batara, the country beyond this cliff, gleamed under the peeking rays. Multi-colored houses and towering buildings came into view. City lights glimmered like fireflies. Major roads were already bustling with cars and trains even though the sun was just rising.
A faint smile escaped my lips. Today was supposed to be my birthday. We were supposed to come here and enjoy a weekend vacation. I was supposed to be with my grandparents yet here I was, taken by a tracker and an assassin.
“Let’s go,” Kei said as he inched closer to the edge of the cliff.
“Wait, how do we—”
I stared at him in disbelief. Did he really think this was the time to joke like that? Jump? Alam niya ba kung gaano kataas ang cliff na ‘to?
“We have no time,” he added as he pulled me by my waist. I tried to pull away but he was too strong. We were just inches away from the edge when I realized he was dead serious.
“What the freaking he—!”
Before I could protest, he had already jumped, pulling me with him. My words turned into a shrilling scream as we plunged to our death.
“No, no, no, anong nangyari?” I mumbled, trying to look for my grandparents at their room, but there was no one there except for their things that were scattered on the floor.
I sobbed and crumpled to the floor, worried that something bad might have happened to them.
“We were late,” the guy muttered and cursed under his breath.
Agad akong tumayo at lumapit sa kanya. “You . . . you know what happened here,” I seethed, anger rising in my chest.
“Yes,” he said nonchalantly, “but they were already gone.”
Lalo lang nagpantig ang tenga ko dahil parang wala lang sa kanya ang nangyari.
“How could you—!”
“Don’t worry,” he said, cutting me off, “they got away. Your . . . ah, grandparents are alive. Besides, I would know if a fellow Abkhim got killed.”
Hearing that from him kind of got my hopes up, as if a thorn were pulled out from my chest. Hindi ko alam kung paano niya nasabing buhay pa sila pero iyon din ang nais kong paniwalaan. They should be alive, or else, I don’t know what I would do.
After several minutes of panicking, I finally managed to calm down. I looked around the house once again, hoping to find some clues on what had happened.
“We need to get out of here,” the guy suddenly said. “A Morana’s charm won’t work if she’s far from you.”
“A what?” tanong ko.
My head had been spinning since that incident in the jeepney. Those guys mentioned some confusing words, too. Hindi ko na alam kung nagha-hallucinate lang ba ako dahil wala akong tulog kagabi sa sobrang excitement ko o totoo talaga ang mga nangyayari.
“Seriously, ano ba ang nangyayari?” I snapped. “Bigla na lang may mga lalaking gusto akong patayin. My grandparents are missing. Our house got destroyed. I just wanted a peaceful birthday!”
“Oh, nothing peaceful happens when someone like you turns seventeen,” he said, smirking.
My body suddenly tensed. I felt the temperature drop several degrees. The air felt heavier and sinister, too. Hindi ko alam kung paano pero pakiramdam ko ay may nakatingin sa amin.
The guy muttered something, maybe a different language, but it sounded like a curse. He gripped my wrist and the cold sensation coursed through my arm.
“They followed us,” he muttered. “What did you do?”
Upon hearing that, anger swelled inside me. “What the hell? Wala naman akong ginagaw—!”
He raised my hand and I saw a cut on my thumb. Hindi ko alam kung paano ako nagkasugat. Siguro noong nagpa-panic ako habang hinahanap ang grandparents ko. He grumbled, muttering something in a foreign language I couldn’t understand, and grabbed a cloth from the floor, tying it swiftly around my finger.
“C’mon, it’s just a cut!” I complained as I looked at thick cover around my thumb. “Hindi—”
Napahinto ako nang makita kong muli ang expression niya. His eyes were mad, and I thought it changed from stormy gray to a tinge of red, as if a volcano erupted from his irises.
“You don’t know how your blood affects them,” he said in a controlled voice, trying to suppress his anger.
I choked back the fear creeping through my throat. Na-realize ko na mas nakakatakot ang lalaking ito kaysa sa mga nasa jeepney kanina.
“Let’s go,” he growled as he grabbed my arm.
Before I could complain, the world spun before me and I lost my consciousness.
“Be careful, Victoria,” Nana reminded. “A single drop of blood may cost you your life.”
“Why?” seven-year old me asked.
She smiled. “You will know soon. But promise me you won’t get hurt.”
My eyes fluttered open as I heard a noise somewhere. Orbs danced before my eyes and I had to blink several times to see clearly. My stomach churned and I suddenly remembered how I passed out when he did that travel thing again.
I was inside a rundown shack, I thought, with nothing but the moonlight passing through the opened window.
“You’re finally awake.”
I yelped when I heard a voice beside me and I didn’t even realize he was sitting right there. Ni hindi ko man lang siya napansin pagkagising ko at parang wala namang tao kanina maliban sa akin.
Kinalma kong muli ang sarili ko at lumingon sa direksyon niya. Under the moonlight, his face looked paler than before. He removed his jacket and cap and I almost gasped when I saw his skin. It was the color of ash, just like his eyes.
“Surprised?” he asked, one of his brows raised.
“Heck, no, I’m not surprised,” I replied. “I am freakingout.”
I put some distance between us, making sure I could run the moment he moved, though I doubt I could outrun him after I saw how fast he could go with that freakish travel magic or whatever that was.
He snickered and put his hand on his pockets. Balak ko na sanang tumakbo in case kutsilyo o baril ang bubunutin niya pero napakunot na lang ang noo ko nang makita ko kung ano ang nasa kamay niya.
“G-garlic?” I asked in disbelief.
“Oh, the bloodsuckers hate it,” he simpered.
He threw a clove of garlic through the window and I suddenly heart hissing noise outside. Napayakap na lang ako sa sarili ko habang patuloy na pinakikinggan ang ingay sa labas.
“W-what are those?” tanong ko kahit hindi ko alam kung ano ang naghihintay sa amin mula sa labas ng bahay na ito.
“The bloodsuckers,” he answered. “I just told you that a while ago—”
“Wait, wait, wait!” I raised my hand, gesturing him to stop. “Could you please explain everything without making me more confused?”
He looked at me intently, maybe contemplating whether I was really confused or just making a fool out of him. Natatakot pa rin ako sa kanya pero gusto kong malaman kung ano ba talaga ang nangyayari. Gulung-gulo na ako simula pa kanina.
“So your protectors really didn’t tell you the truth,” he said.
“The ones you call grandparents.”
“Sina Nana at Tata? What do you mean?”
He sighed and scratched his chin. “Where should I start?” he muttered. “Hmm, do you think those people are really your grandparents?”
I scoffed. “Of course! What are you—”
“Then what are their names?”
Napahinto ako sa tanong niya. Of course, I knew their names. How could a granddaughter not know the names of her—wait . . . why couldn’t . . . why couldn’t I remember them all of a sudden?
“Do you know where they came from?” he added, “or why they are so protective of you?”
“T-they . . . they just . . .” my voice faltered. I couldn’t answer his questions. It felt like something was clouding my thoughts and memories of them.
“See?” he mocked.
“B-but how . . .”
“That woman you call as Nana, she’s a Morana.”
“Morana?” I remembered him saying that when we were still in our house.
“In layman’s term, a mage,” he explained. “That thing around your wrist,” he continued, pointing at the bracelet on my left wrist, “is a charm that conceals your presence and smell.”
Naalala ko naman noong binigay ito ni Nana sa akin simula noong pumasok ako sa school. I had been wearing this since I was four and I just realized how it seemed to adjust itself as I grew older.
“She can protect you when she’s around but when you’re quite far, that charmed bracelet does the job, though it’s not as effective as a Morana’s protective magic.”
Memories flashed in my mind: the times she didn’t want me to go to fieldtrips, or when she got angry whenever I tried to sneak out of the house, or how she wouldn’t allow me to go to the museum without Tata.
“T-then . . . even Tata . . .”
He nodded. “He’s an Abkhim like me,” he said, “a tracker.”
Sa totoo lang, ayaw kong maniwala sa mga sinasabi niya, but at the back of my mind, I knew he was, somehow, telling the truth.
Suddenly, I felt like my whole life was a lie.
“Then, what am I?” I asked, my voice trembling.
He didn’t answer and continued throwing garlic cloves outside. My body was shaking so bad I had to hug myself. Strange things that happened during my childhood, occurrences that I had ignored and taken for granted flooded inside my head.
Before I could repeat my question, something appeared on the window. I quickly turned to that direction and I never thought I could see something so hideous that would probably haunt my dreams for the rest of my life.
There were three of them hissing angrily at us, but it seemed like they couldn’t enter the shack. Their bodies were bloated, as if someone injected liters of water inside them, but their limbs were skinny. Their veins could be seen from their thin and discolored skin. But the most unpleasant part were their faces. Their hairs were balding and scraggly, which would probably be a hairstylist’s nightmare. Their eyes were beady and they gleamed with malice. Pointed teeth that looked like small fangs bared at us. I wanted to get close to him but my knees were shaking. I was paralyzed by fear.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be safe,” he said and before I could yell at him, the sound of the hissing already stopped.
I turned to the window as something fell on the floor with a loud thump-thump-thump. Three heads rolled toward my direction and I screamed as I desperately leaned against the wall, hoping there was still some space. However, before the heads could touch my feet, they started to disintegrate into gray powder that looked like ashes.
“Just like them,” the guy said as he approached my direction, “we are one of the undead.”
I was still dazed after seeing those heads rolled and disintegrated in front of me that his words only sunk in when he was already beside me.
“W-what? What do you mean undead? I’m still alive!”
“Are you?” he returned, looking intently at my eyes.
“Y-yes,” I replied but it sounded like a whimper.
He grabbed my hand and placed it on my left chest. I was about to slap his hand when I felt something strange. Why . . . why couldn’t I feel any heartbeat?
“H-how . . .”
“You see, your protectors had to make you believe you were normal. A higher Morana’s magic could create fake memories that even higher blood clans couldn’t differentiate from the real ones. And in your case, you were made to believe you’re normal. That you’re alive,” he responded as if I should have known that fact.
“No!” I protested. “I’m . . . I’m still alive . . .”
Despite believing I was still alive, my heart didn’t agree. A few hours ago, I was sure it was still beating, but this time, it was as if I didn’t even have one.
I should have died, if that was the case, but I was still moving. And I felt very alive.
My hand drifted to his left chest and just like mine, there were no signs of beating from his heart.
Three days. In three days, I’d turn seventeen. I don’t usually celebrate my birthday but this one’s different. I hope Saturday would come fast! Okay lang sa akin na hindi kami maghahanda ng kahit ano dahil sabi ni Nana ay pupunta kami sa Batara, a country next to ours. You see, sa ilang taon ko nang nabubuhay ay hindi pa ako nakakaalis sa city namin, well, except that one time. My grandparents were strict. Kahit sa field trips, hindi nila ako pinapasama. It’s dangerous, child, they would always say. I admit, nagtatampo at nagagalit ako sa tuwing nangyayari ‘yon. May isang beses nga na mismong teacher ko na ang nagpaalam para sa isang out-of-town trip dahil kailangan naming pumunta sa museum for our World History subject pero hindi pa rin ako pinayagan . . . unless I’m with Tata. Halos nasa katabing city lang namin ang museum kaya imagine how embarrassed I was when I was the only one who went with a chaperone. Simula noon, lagi na akong inaasar ng mga kaklase ko, saying I was still babied by my grandparents. Kaya naman noong sinabi nila na magbabakasyon kami sa weekend para i-celebrate ang birthday ko ay naiyak ako sa tuwa. Imagine, not just a region or city within Hallim, but we were going to another country! Nang matapos ang klase ko ngayong araw ay agad-agad akong nagligpit ng gamit. I was too excited for tomorrow! “Victoria, umuwi ka nang maaga para maaga rin tayong makaalis.” Naalala ko ang bilin ni Nana kaya nagmadali akong umuwi. I-che-check ko pa ang inimpake ko kagabi dahil baka may hindi ako nadala. Sumakay ako ng jeep papunta sa street namin nang makalabas ako ng school. I thought the students waiting in the shed with me would also get in, but they remained standing there. Meanwhile, two guys boarded the jeep after me and they didn’t look like students. They were wearing hoodies and caps despite the scorching heat. Ako ang naiinitan sa suot nila. One of them suddenly glanced at my direction and I immediately averted his gaze. Lumapit ako sa bandang driver dahil medyo natakot ako. Inabot ko ang bayad pero napatigil ako nang makita ko ang expression niya mula sa salamin. He narrowed his eyes as he accepted the coins and I flinched when our skin made contact. It was too cold. Suddenly, I felt something odd and eerie. Gusto kong bumaba ng jeep pero parang umurong ang dila ko at natatakot na rin akong gumalaw dahil pareho nang nakatingin sa akin ang dalawang lalaki sa bandang dulo. They sat on each side as if they were sealing the exit. Then, the one on the right slowly approached my direction. “M-manong . . .” I pleaded, looking at the driver for help, but he only smiled at me. Sa sobrang lakas at bilis ng tibok ng puso ko, pakiramdam ko ay lalabas ‘yon sa dibdib ko. I felt the danger I was in and it intensified when the jeep halted. The two guys were now both approaching me. “We finally found you, Stryzyga,” one of them hissed and I had the urge to cover my ears because his voice sounded like someone was scratching a sandpaper. “You need to die,” the other one said. “Your death will be our triumph.” They both lunged at me and I screamed at the top of my lungs. Right. I’d be dead before I could even turn seventeen. Parang nag-flash sa utak ko ang buong buhay ko, gaya ng sinasabi ng mga taong nasa bingit na ng kamatayan. I silently called to whoever who could save me, but I knew it wouldn’t make any difference. With my eyes closed, I waited for my death . . . . . . but it got quiet all of a sudden. Slowly, I opened my eyes and I could feel my body trembling. The next thing I knew, the two guys as well as the driver were already unconscious. I saw a shadow moving around and I yelped when someone appeared right in front of me. “No!” I screamed, pushing the person away but he grabbed my wrist and I flinched when I realized his skin was as cold as ice . . . just like the driver. “Are you okay?” he asked in a gentle tone. That moment, I realized I had been holding my breath for so long. My body was still trembling in fear. I drew a shaky breath as my tears fell uncontrollably. He reached out his other hand that was holding a white handkerchief. I was still scared, and I didn’t trust him, but I accepted the handkerchief. Fortunately, he didn’t do anything besides staring at me as I wiped the tears off my face. Nang kumalma na ako kahit papaano ay napatingin ako sa dalawang katawang nakahandusay sa keep. “S-sino sila?” I asked, my voice still shaking. “Sino ka?” “I’ll explain all of these but we need to get out of here first,” he said and I was relieved he didn’t sound like those guys with their creepy voices. He offered his hand but I was hesitant. “Please trust me. I won’t hurt you like they did. I am not your enemy. In fact, I’m here to help you.” I stared at his hand but my gaze shifted to his face and I suppressed a gasp when I saw his eyes. They were gray, just like the color of ash and stormy sky. He was wearing a black leather jacket, scarf and black jeans that covered his entire body. He had a very pale complexion and it felt like he would disappear in my sight anytime if I stared for too long. Napailing ako at tumingin ulit ako sa kanya. If I were to choose, I would like to run away but my knees already gave up on that idea. I had no other choice since he might hurt me if I try to escape. I heaved a sigh before placing my hand on his. He picked his cap from the jeepney’s floor and held my hand. I was about to stand but he suddenly pulled me closer to him. “T-Teka—” “Hold on to me tightly.” Itatanong ko pa lang sana kung para saan at bakit pero bigla na lang umikot ang paningin ko. It felt like the whole world was spinning so fast and all I could see where blurred, colored lines. Bigla naman siyang huminto at napahawak ako sa tiyan ko dahil pakiramdam ko ay masusuka ako sa kung anuman ang nangyari. I pulled my hand from his and collapsed on the floor, but I suddenly felt a sense of familiarity with the place we were in. I looked around and I realized we were in our house, but panic rose into my throat when I saw its state. Our things were strewn all over the floor, furnitures were destroyed, as if a storm wreaked havoc in our place. Halos lahat ng gamit namin ay sira-sira na at lalo akong natakot nang ma-realize kong sobrang tahimik. “N-nana? Tata?” I called but the house was too quiet. “Where are you?” I could hear the dread in my voice and my body began to tremble again when nobody answered. Where are they? What have they done to my family?