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?