Roots as thick as my leg emerged from the floor and coiled around my body. I tried to get away but they get tighter every time I move. In just a few seconds, my legs were bound and the attacker put her right hand around my neck.
A subtle yet sinister smile appeared on her face. “Tell me, Stryzyga,” she coldly said. “What is your identity?”
My whole body was pounding from fear. Her imposing aura was more suffocating than how she held my neck. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about but I doubt she would believe me if I said I really don’t know anything.
The roots and vines started constricting my body tighter to the point that my legs felt numb. Before one of the roots could get a hold on my hands, I managed to free them and reached for the assailant’s arms.
I almost flinched when my skin touched hers. Just like Kei and Irus, her skin was as cold as ice. However, instead of having an ashen skin, hers was as white as snow.
I remembered Kei telling me about every undead’s weakness—their neck. Gusto kong kumawala mula sa kanya pero wala na akong lakas at hindi rin ako makagalaw.
“W-who are y-you . . .” I managed to ask as I tried to remove her hand on my neck.
Her eyes narrowed. “Oh, you need not to know.”
Her grip got tighter before I could even move and it felt like my whole body was getting squeezed even though she was just holding my neck.
I had encountered several creatures after learning what I was but this was the first time I faced something so powerful that made me whimper. I was terrified of her.
Fear crept in my chest and throat. I wanted to get away from her as far as possible. Suddenly, my body and eyes felt hot. It was the same sensation I felt when we were facing the horde of Katteris.
“Let me go!” I screamed as I tried to yank her arm from my neck.
She let out a yelp and I felt her hand letting go of my neck. My body moved on its own and touched the roots around my body. They abruptly loosened their hold on me and I ran to Irus’ direction before the attacker realized what I just did.
My body was pounding from what just happened. Wala pa ring malay si Irus pero nagawa ko siyang hatakin papunta sa pinakadulo ng kwarto. Nang tiningnan ko kung nasaan ang babae ay agad akong napaatras. The smile on her face had disappeared and she was looking at me with a disdainful expression.
That was when I realized why. Black and purple blotches appeared on her wrist, the place where I held her, and those marks started spreading throughout her arms.
“You . . .” she uttered. “You really are one of them.”
Before I could make sense of what she just said, she lurched at our direction and I knew this time, I wouldn’t be able to escape.
Nagulat na lang ako nang biglang lumitaw si Kei sa harapan ko. He fended off her attack and she flew to the other side of the room. At the same time, I heard Irus groaning beside me.
“Irus!” tawag ko.
He slowly sat up, shaking his head as he tried to get his bearings. Kei held my arm and he was about to get Irus, too, but an invisible force shoved us against the wall. Kei groaned in pain as he received the full impact after shielding me from it.
“S-stay alert,” Kei warned as he tried to stand up. “I need to night-travel the three of us away from here but she won’t let me do that easily.”
“What is she?” I asked.
“A mage,” he replied, “a powerful one.”
Upon hearing that, Irus immediately stood up and positioned himself beside Kei. They both drew their weapons but they looked intimidated by her powers.
Mage . . . that woman was a mage?
The woman flicked her fingers and Irus’ rapier flew from his hand. Kei pointed his dagger at the mage but she snickered in return.
“Fool,” she mocked. “Do you think that a mere dragon’s tooth could hurt a Sithanna?”
The situation already felt hopeless. Despite the purplish bruises on her arms, she appeared calm and wasn’t even bothered by them.
The mage lunged and Irus and Kei could only defend themselves as she wasn’t giving them the chance to attack.
“Lady, the bag!” Kei said while trying to protect me.
Bag? Iyong dala niya kanina?
Agad kong hinanap kung nasaan iyon. It was thrown at the corner of the room and I immediately ran toward it. However, the mage seemed hell-bent on killing me.
I screamed as I was slammed against the wall by a giant root but I managed to get the pouch before it coiled around me again. White orbs danced in front of my eyes as the impact left me disoriented for a few seconds. Everything seemed to be fading away, even their voices . . .
I felt Irus’ hands around me and I realized he just cut the root and freed me from it. He went straight away to Kei to help him but they were getting pushed by her power.
“Throw it!” sigaw ni Kei habang saglit na tumingin sa direksyon ko.
I wasn’t sure what he meant but I obliged. The bag sailed through the air as I threw it toward the mage’s direction, spilling our things at her.
She wailed the moment some of the things touched her body. She backed away until her back was against the wall and she was panting hard. A lot of things went through my mind.
One thing that grazed her arm a while ago was an underwear. Wait, don’t tell me that was what made her like that?! No way . . .
Agad namang kinuha ni Kei ang pouch na nalaglag mula sa bag. He opened it and the hawthorn and the other plant they got from Batara came into view.
The mage hissed as she saw the plants.
“You may be stronger than us,” he stated as he held several stems of plants in his right hand, “but a mage cowers in front of hawthorns and wild roses.”
The mage suddenly gestured something while muttering under her breath, as if she were performing a chant. Even Kei who got confident with those plants in his hand started getting worried. They ran to my direction and Kei was about to night-travel us when we felt an incredible surge of power directed at us.
The next thing I knew, someone was already standing in front of us, her white cloak fluttering as an invisible shield protected us from the mage’s magic.
“Glad I made it on time,” the newcomer announced in a sultry voice.
The mage’s expression hardened as she saw the woman who just protected us. Before I could understand what was happening, the mage had already fled, leaving the four of us in the darkness.
The woman collapsed as soon as the barrier disappeared. She turned to Kei’s direction and gave him a death glare. He immediately put the plants back in the pouch and sealed it. He threw it away from her and gave her an apologetic bow.
“My apologies,” he said, “I didn’t know you’d come.”
She tried to stand but her legs were still shaking and I had to support her weight to keep her from falling. Her gaze landed on me but I quickly averted it because I felt embarrassed.
Her beauty was unearthly. Just like the mage who just left, her eyes and lips were wickedly red. Her skin was porcelain white and I felt ugly just by standing beside her.
Nagulat naman ako nang bigla siyang humiwalay sa akin at lumuhod sa harapan ko.
“My apologies, Lady,” she softly uttered while bowing at me. “I arrived late. Perhaps I should punish myself by cutting my—”
“Oh, please, no!” I replied. “No punishments, please.”
I had enough of seeing them hurt themselves just because they “failed” at something. Remembering Irus stabbing himself for not being able to help us was still making my stomach churn.
Nang kumalma na ang lahat at ang paligid ay agad na nagpakilala ang babae.
“I am Moria, a mage” she announced, still kneeling in front of me.
“We need to go,” Kei suddenly said. “That fight might have alerted other creatures of our existence and whereabouts.”
Agad na tumayo si Moria at lumapit naman sa amin si Irus. Kei held my arms and that familiar sensation made my shoulders tense. He night-traveled the four of us and the next thing I knew, we were back in the woods.
And just like that, I got my third retainer—a mage.
Kei’s voice rang inside my head. The room was in complete darkness but I could make up its layout. He was sitting just a few meters away from me while Irus remained sleeping next to him.
I grimaced as I tried to pinpoint what part of my body was aching. My head was throbbing but it wasn’t the source of my nausea and restlessness.
“You must be hungry,” he pointed out.
Agad ko namang naramdaman ang gutom nang sabihin niya iyon. I realized I hadn’t eaten anything yet for the past few days.
When I learned that I was an undead, wala na kaming time para kumain. We were in constant danger that eating seemed to be out of options. In addition, Kei said the undead do not need to eat human food as our main source of nutrients is their blood.
My stomach churned upon imagining myself drinking human blood. Parang hindi ko kaya. Somehow, nagc-crave pa rin ako sa normal na pagkain.
“I . . . I can’t drink blood yet,” I murmured.
He chuckled in return. “Seems like you’re not thirsting for it yet.”
Agad naman siyang tumayo kaya sinundan ko siya ng tingin. He put on his leather jacket and cap and looked at my direction.
“Let’s go, Lady,” he said.
“We’re going to buy you some food.”
He was right. I wasn’t craving for human blood yet. Instead, I almost choked on my burger because I was too hungry and excited to eat properly.
He grimaced in disgust as he watched me eat “human” food even though he was two tables away from me. He said the stench of processed foods was too revolting for him but he didn’t want to leave me alone.
Fortunately, my body was still used to it. Pakiramdam ko ay malulungkot ako kapag dumating ang araw na maging ang mga paborito kong pagkain ay kamumuhian ko na rin.
Nang matapos akong kumain ay lumapit siya sa akin at umupo sa harapan ko. He scrunched his nose and looked at the leftovers with repugnance.
“Let’s go if you’re already finished, Lady,” he muttered.
Napangiti ako nang makita ko ang expression niya. He seemed to hate it so much. Maybe because it was too “impure”?
We were about to leave but I saw the young cashier staring at him. Wait, I didn’t even notice that she was the first “young” adult I had encountered since arriving in this place. Karamihan din ng nandito ay matatanda.
I tugged Kei’s jacket and glanced at the cashier’s direction.
“You think we could get some blood from her?” bulong ko.
He looked at me curiously. “Heh, you’re already adapting to this.”
“Well, you and Irus seem to get injured every now and then,” I teased.
Natahimik naman siya dahil doon pero agad din niyang inilabas ang vials mula sa bulsa ng jacket niya.
“Don’t worry, I already got two vials of blood from her,” he said while showing me the vials. I narrowed my eyes at him. “Really? Two vials?”
Muli naman akong napatingin sa babae. She looked dazed and upon closer look, mukhang mahihimatay na siya. Ni hindi man lang niya inalala ang kalagayan ng pinagkuhanan niya ng dugo.
Naglakad naman kami pabalik sa inn at tinanong ko siya sa kung ano ang plano namin.
“We just have to wait for the mage,” he stated.
“How do we know if the mage is here?”
He smiled. “We’ll just know.”
According to him, the mage agreed to meet us here in Kariota. Initially, the rendezvous point was supposed to be in Rusnia but he said they had to meet early because there were stronger creatures in the mainland and they would surely seek my blood.
We couldn’t travel to the Changla mountains, too, because those were the home of Jiangshi, the bloodsuckers of that country. Maalala ko lang ang itsura nila ay umiikot na ang tiyan ko.
“I have to go somewhere,” he said while we were already near the inn. “Stay close to Irus.”
Hindi ko na siya natanong dahil naglakad na siya palayo sa akin. Bumalik na lang ako sa inn at naabutan kong gising na si Irus. He was swinging his rapier in an unbelievable speed and he almost attacked me when I turned the doorknob.
“Lady,” he greeted while kneeling.
Umupo naman ako sa mattress at pinanood lang siyang mag-“training.” I couldn’t even follow his movements.
Bigla kong naalala ang pag-uusap namin noon. When I asked him why he couldn’t just drink my blood, he said something about a blood curse.
“Irus,” tawag ko. He stopped moving and turned to my direction. “What do you mean by that blood curse?”
Despite the darkness, I could see the subtle change in his gaze. He started walking toward me and I promptly felt intimidated. Well, of course I would be. He’s an assassin.
Nagulat ako nang umupo siya sa harapan ko at seryosong tumingin sa akin pero bigla siyang tumalikod sa akin. Then, he assumed a defensive stance.
“Lady,” he called, a hint of a warning.
I thought he was starting to train again but I suddenly felt a tremendous presence. My hands instinctively reached for the scarf around my head while I leaned against the wall. Irus stood in front of me, shielding me from whatever creature exuding that kind of aura.
Then everything happened so fast that I didn’t have the time to process it. The next thing I knew, Irus had already slumped to the floor, unconscious.
“Irus!” I yelled while running toward him.
My body tensed when I heard heels clicking. And there it was. Amid the darkness, a pair of red eyes looked straight into mine.
Her earth-toned cloak fluttered as she walked. Her unnaturally red eyes and lips were almost glowing. She stopped a meter away from me and I positioned myself in front of Irus.
“W-who are you?” I asked, my voice trembling.
She smiled and subtly waved her hand. Suddenly, I felt a wave of nausea.
“Perhaps you are the youngest daughter of Zenus?” she asked, disregarding my question.
“W-who . . .”
“Then, you must die.”
Before I could even react, she had already taken a hold of my neck.