Descending the mountains was something I never thought I would get excited for. Seeing the vast sand dunes made my mouth hang open. This was my first time seeing a desert. Despite the nothingness, I was still taken aback by the sheer expanse of it.
The three of them went down with ease while I was still trying to balance myself on the unpaved path. Kei and Irus tried to help me but I insisted on going down alone. I wanted to at least take care of myself when it comes to mundane matters like this.
Hindi pa kami nakakababa nang tuluyan nang huminto silang tatlo. Kei started setting up a camp while Irus collected twigs and boughs to create fire. Moria leaned against a tree trunk and she gestured me to come over.
“Uhh . . . we’re not going to cross the desert?” tanong ko nang makaupo ako sa tabi niya.
“Not yet, Lady. The day is already breaking,” she replied and I realized it was already dawn and the sun might peek through the clouds in a few minutes. “There are no shades in the desert and he will surely die if we start crossing now,” he added while looking at Irus.
Ilang minuto pa ang lumipas ay nagtago na si Irus sa ilalim ng cloak. He positioned himself on a well-shaded place so he wouldn’t get hit by the sun’s rays. Moria also waved his hand and the branches of the tree where Irus was resting raveled with each other as they moved toward his direction, creating a cocoon-like quarter for him.
“He’d be more useful if we travel the desert at night,” she commented.
Sumandal naman si Kei sa puno malapit kay Irus. He set up traps around us and made the fire even larger.
“Are there any Katteris here?” I asked while staring at the four-foot campfire.
Kei snickered. “Oh, something worse.”
I wasn’t sure if he was joking but Moria grumbled upon his comment. But something worse than the Katteris? Don’t tell me there are a lot of mages here?
“I don’t want to encounter one. They are gross,” she grimaced.
“But it can’t be helped,” Kei remarked. “The desert is their territory.”
“As long as we avoid their lairs, we’re good.”
Their faces were grim and whatever they were talking about made me nervous.
“So . . . what’s waiting for us in the desert?” muli kong tanong.
He smiled coyly. “Well, of course, ghouls.”
Hearing their stories about ghouls made me think bloodsuckers were cute. They said ghouls are the fastest and have the sharpest claws among undead creatures. They also travel in packs and can devour a whole human in less than a minute using their powerful jaws and poisonous teeth.
What’s worse was they don’t have an easy weakness. Sunlight could only slow them down but more so annoy them. They could be killed by fire but it should be hot enough to char their bodies. That means an ordinary fire is useless.
Hindi ko na tinanong pa kung ano ang itsura nila dahil parang bumaligtad na ang sikmura ko nang marinig ko ang mga iyon.
It was already bright when Kei decided to sleep. After night-travelling us numerous times these past few days, he must have been drained. Moria remained silent as she stared into the distance.
Nagulat naman ako nang bigla na lang nawala ang suot kong cloak. It reverted to the charmed bracelet around my wrist. Moria’s gaze shifted to me.
“Time’s up, I guess?” she uttered.
“Does it go back after some time?”
“Well, it depends on your bloodline and power.”
“Oh.” There was a minute of silence between us. “S-Should I use my blood again?” I asked.
“No need, Lady,” she replied. “I have already set up a protective barrier. Besides, using your blood this time might alert the ghouls. We’re near their territory, after all.”
That was my cue to not argue anymore. Hearing my blood and ghouls in the same sentence was enough to sent shivers down my spine.
Noon came and Kei finally woke up. He said he’d explore the woods to get some garlic, hawthorns and wild roses—the weaknesses of bloodsuckers and mages. Moria gave him a side-eye after saying that.
Naiwan kaming tatlo habang hindi pa rin gumagalaw si Irus mula sa kinalalagyan niya. Halos isang oras ang lumipas bago nakabalik si Kei. He was holding two pouches full of apotropaic items. It was a long and arduous day of not doing anything so once the sun had set, we immediately started moving.
Irus carried the bag and remained at a distance since it might affect Moria’s abilities. My legs started trembling when we stepped into the desert. The dry wind blew harshly, and the cold was pricking through my skin and bones.
Moria led the way while Kei stayed behind me. Unlike the woods, walking through the desert was nerve-racking because we were completely exposed to anything that could attack us. It was harder to walk on the sand, too, since it requires more strength.
“Why can’t we just night-travel like the usual?” I asked as exhaustion started to build up.
“The desert is too vast,” answered Kei. “I’ll use it once we can see the city. If I use it now, we will still be in this desert and we might land on the ghouls’ territory.”
Okay. That made sense. Mas mabuti nang gamitin namin iyon kapag siguradong makakarating kami sa city proper kaysa mas maligaw pa kami rito sa disyerto.
I was starting to be less anxious but both Moria and Kei suddenly halted. They immediately assumed defensive positions and I got so rattled that I didn’t know what to do.
Kei cursed under his breath. “We step into one of their lairs.”
Irus appeared in front of us, his rapier ready. Then I felt my skin tingling because of an ominous presence. I couldn’t see anything at first but a few seconds later, shadow-like figures started surrounding us.
My stomach churned as one of them stepped forward.
“Meat,” he leered in a gurgling tone.
Bloodsuckers were hideous, alright, but ghouls were a different kind of nasty. Their long, hairless arms and legs were as muscular as a person. Their gaunt faces, protruding mouth and sunken eyes looked like a hybrid of hyena and a human corpse. Most of all, hearing them speak as if they were gurgling was the most disturbing thing.
“Eek, not humans,” the largest ghoul commented in disgust. “Vampires . . . but one is a delicious meat.”
I felt Kei getting ready to night-travel us but before he could do it, the ghouls lurched at us. Everything happened so fast that I didn’t realize my body was already pinned down. I screamed as I saw the ghoul’s repulsive face a few inches from mine. I tried pushing its face and arms away from me but I grimaced as I felt its greasy skin.
I could hear my retainers’ voices from a distance, but they seemed to be busy with the rest of the ghouls. The one holding me down was the largest and the one who spoke to us earlier. He smiled sinisterly as he stared at me hungrily.
His sharp claws started digging through my skin and I yelled in pain as I felt my flesh getting torn. In retaliation, I reached for the ghoul’s face and dug my nails into its cheeks. I imagined it getting longer, just like when I collected blood from the kid before, and it did.
The ghoul screamed in agony as my sharp nail pierced through his face, but what surprised me was the purplish black coloration that appeared around that area. I scuttled away from it as I clenched my bleeding arm. Suddenly, the ghoul’s body started twitching. The next thing that happened left me aghast.
The ghoul contorted its body in pain and few seconds later, it dried up, as if every flesh and organ inside it had withered away.
My senses came back to me when I heard Moria shouting. I turned to their direction and trembled when I saw more than a dozen of ghouls running toward me. Just then, I realized my blood and the death of one of them must have triggered them.
There were simultaneous explosions of sand around me, but it wasn’t enough to slow them down. I was surrounded in a second and my retainers were still fighting against the remaining ghouls. My mind reeled as I tried to assess the situation. I was too disoriented and scared to move.
The ghouls collectively lunged at me and I screamed at the top of my lungs as my last resort. The only thing that I could remember was my flesh getting torn by their powerful jaws and teeth. At the same time, I remembered my body and eyes growing hotter.
I would be devoured by them and nothing would remain. I would die.
Kei’s voice snapped me out of trance. He was wincing as he stared at me and I realized it had become too quiet. I tried moving but every part of my body hurt so bad.
“Don’t move yet, Lady,” Moria said.
Doon ko lang na-realize na nasa gilid ko pala siya. Napansin ko ring suot ko na ang cloak ko. She was dressing the wounds on my left arm, which looked awful. I heard Irus moaning behind her as he paced restlessly.
The three of them seemed to be fighting against the urge to touch or even look at my blood. I felt guilty for making them feel like that.
Napatingin ako sa paligid at nagulat ako sa nakita ko. Lumps of black, crumpled figures were scattered around us. Don’t tell me those were . . .
“W-what happened to the ghouls?” I asked, hoping that I was wrong.
Moria gave me a meaningful look. “The rest ran away. And those . . .” she trailed off while looking at the lumps on her right. “You killed them, Lady.”
In my head, I already knew those were the ghouls that attacked me, but I still stifled a gasp after hearing Moria’s confirmation.
I stared at my wounded hand. What exactly did I do?
The four of us collapsed as soon as we touched the ground. Kei had it worse. His gray skin was turning chalky due to exhaustion. I wanted to lay still for a while but Irus and Moria carried us and started running.
Hindi ko alam kung ilang minuto na ang lumipas nang huminto kami sa pagtakbo. We were already deep in the woods and our only source of light was Moria’s bright cloak.
Napasandal ako sa puno habang pinapainom naman ni Irus si Kei. Good thing he collected some vials of blood while we were in the city proper a while ago.
“Are you alright, Lady?” asked Irus.
“Yeah,” I replied.
Napatingin ako kay Moria. According to Kei, she was the mage that we were supposed to meet. Fortunately, she found us or else, that woman might have killed the three of us. Napahawak agad ako sa leeg ko nang maalala ko ang nangyari kanina. She almost snapped my neck without even using any weapon.
“Lady,” Moria suddenly called. Nagulat ako nang bigla na lang siyang lumuhod sa harapan ko. “Allow me to properly introduce myself. I am Moria of the Morana bloodline, a mage and sorceress of Vrivarya,” she announced.
Morana . . . Kei said my grandmother was also from that bloodline. I wonder if she knew her.
It was kind of awkward, so I also introduced myself. “Uhm, I-I’m Victoria Estrigo. Just call me Vic.”
“Oh, no, Lady, that will be discourteous.”
Itatanong ko pa lang sana kung bakit nang biglang magising si Kei. His color was returning to normal. Meanwhile, Irus secured the bag that we were carrying a while ago. Naalala ko tuloy nang ihagis ko iyon sa mage kanina. I really thought the underwear was what made her weak. It turned out their weakness were the plants we picked before. Oh, thank goodness I didn’t say that out loud. I would sound like an idiot.
“Rana Moria,” Kei slightly bowed as he addressed the mage.
She waved her hand dismissively. “You did well. Just keep those awful dinguses away from me.”
Irus placed the bag farther from us. Napangiti naman ako dahil kahit pangalan ng mga halaman ay ayaw banggitin ni Moria. She must have hated hawthorns and wild roses to the core.
Nagulat ako nang bigla na lang sinugatan ni Moria ang sarili niya. She made a small cut on her palm and motioned her hands. Her red eyes gleamed in the dark and watching her with a stern expression sent shivers down my spine. I had encountered a lot of undead, but mages were by far the strongest and most terrifying of them all.
“Lady, are you okay?” tanong ni Kei nang makalapit siya sa amin.
I nodded. “Mm.”
We silently watched Moria as she continued with what she was doing.
“She’s creating a barrier so we can travel without getting traced easily,” he said as if he was reading my mind.
“So . . . we won’t get chased anymore?”
“We’ll still be tailed by creatures who can smell your scent,” he explained, “but they won’t be able to pinpoint our exact location.”
Damn it. My scent again. It’s my scent’s fault after all.
Nang matapos si Moria ay muli siyang tumingin sa akin at umupo sa harapan ko. She was much more intimidating than Kei and Irus, who were already both scary.
“Lady, did that harpy say anything to you?” she asked.
I was wondering who she was referring to and realized she was talking about the other mage who attacked us earlier. Muli kong inalala ang nangyari.
“Uhm, s-she asked if I am the youngest daughter of someone,” I filled in, but I couldn’t remember the name she said.
The three of them exchanged nervous looks and I felt like I should be worried, but I was scared to ask questions. Moria heaved a sigh and looked at me again.
“The one who attacked you a while ago was Leone,” she explained, “a mage and one of the loyal attendants of the Lilith clan.”
My brows knitted. “Lilith clan?”
“One of the highest undead and vampiric clans,” added Kei.
My skin tingled upon hearing that. One of the highest clans? And they wanted me gone? What did I ever do to them?
“If they can easily find you now, that means your bloodline power is slowly awakening,” she remarked. “We need to be more careful from now—wait, what’s that?”
Her gaze drifted to my charmed bracelet and I caressed it instinctively.
“You have that the entire time?” she asked in disbelief.
I could imagine her rolling her eyes at me if I weren’t looking. Natakot ako bigla dahil parang kasalanan ko kahit hindi ko naman alam ang ibig niyang sabihin.
“That’s not an ordinary charmed bracelet,” she continued. “That’s a rouska.”
“Rouska? W-what’s that?”
Kei and Irus gasped upon hearing that term. They didn’t know I was wearing one? Whatever the heck was that?
“It needs your blood before it can transform,” she said.
Sinunod ko naman ang sinabi niya. I made a small cut on my finger and I noticed the three of them getting a bit agitated. I remembered Irus saying something about a blood curse, making my blood off-limits to them, but it seemed like they were still affected by it.
I immediately pressed my grazed finger onto the bracelet and I almost screamed when it changed into something. The next thing I knew, instead of a bracelet, I was already wearing a crimson velvet cloak.
“What . . .”
“A rouska can hide your scent and presence. It’s a special item used by a lot of higher clans,” she commented while pointing at the cloak I was wearing.
Bigla naman siyang tumayo kaya napatayo rin kaming tatlo.
“Now that you have that, we can move easier and faster.”
Nang sabihin niya ‘yon ay nagsimula na ulit kaming maglakad. True enough, I felt more secure now that I’m wearing something to protect me. I covered my head with the hood, too, and stayed in the middle of the group.
We were just walking for a few minutes when we encountered a group of bloodsuckers. It had been a while since I saw one and I got reminded how revolting they were. Irus easily beheaded the six of them and we continued walking as if nothing had happened.
A lot of questions had been added on my list of queries that I wanted answers. It took me a lot of courage to glance at Moria and I flinched when she met my gaze.
“What is it, Lady?”
I wanted to ask questions about myself but I opted for the safer one.
“The mage who attacked us earlier . . . is she a Morana, too?”
My eyes widened when she snorted. “Oh, please, not that harpy. Leone is a Sithanna.”
“Another clan of mages. Most of them are loyal servants of the Lilith and Moroi clans.”
“But your powers are similar?”
“Kind of,” she answered. “However, unlike Moranas who specialize in white and gray magic, as well as spells and enchantments, they are more adept at reanimation and natural magic.”
It was hard to understand the terms but I kinda get the gist of it. Still, both clans were terrifying. I mean, who wouldn’t cower if they saw the likes of Moria and Leone?
Naging tahimik ulit kami sa paglalakad. We were traveling through the mountainous region of Kariota for a few hours already, but I still don’t know if we were already in the next country. I was getting hungry and thirsty, too, but unlike before, it felt more intense.
We were already trudging downhill when I heard a chorus of howls. Every hair on my body stood up, realizing those were the howls of wolves. Don’t tell me . . .
“Uhm . . . that’s not what I am thinking, right?” tanong ko habang patuloy pa rin kami sa paglalakad.
“Yeah, those are werewolves,” Kei nonchalantly replied.
“Aren’t we in trouble?”
“No, don’t worry about them.”
I stood frozen when I saw a pair of ferocious eyes from a distance. They were twice or thrice bigger than normal wolves and their furs varied from gray to white to black. They also have a thicker fur around their neck and head, almost like a mane. Their limbs were also longer and bigger.
Napatago ako sa likuran ni Kei pero parang wala lang sa kanila ang sitwasyon namin ngayon. There were freaking werewolves in our path and they weren’t even bothered. I mean, aren’t werewolves and vampires the archenemy of each other?!
“Just ignore them, Lady,” Irus commented as we continued walking.
Halos pumagitna ako sa kanilang dalawa habang nasa harapan namin si Moria. I was already imagining the bloodbath that could happen but my mouth fell open when the pack of werewolves just continued plodding up the mountains.
“H-huh? They are not attacking us?” I mumbled, still clinging to Kei’s shirt.
He chuckled upon hearing my words. “Why would they attack us?”
“Aren’t werewolves and vampires enemy?”
“Where did you get that information?”
TV shows and books, I wanted to answer but remained quiet instead.
“They are not really enemies, but they aren’t allies, too,” he said after the werewolves were out of our sight.
Humiwalay na rin ako sa kanya at pakiramdam ko ay pinipigilan lang nilang tatlo na pagtawanan ako. Damn it. Curse those tv shows. So much for believing werewolf and vampires tropes.
We continued our journey and when daybreak came, we finally reached Margula—the country of deserts.