The werewolves were ready to pound on us but Moria suddenly raised her right hand.
“Wait,” she called out. “No one here is a werecat.”
The biggest werewolf, a black-furred lycanthrope with a deep scar running through its face, growled threateningly. “Silence! I can smell their revolting stench in you!”
Kei and Moria exchanged looks while I stayed behind Irus. I almost let out a whimper when I met one of the werewolves’ gaze. It was a different kind of fear compared to the mages’ powers. I felt fear solely from their appearance and brute strength. Those bodies and fangs could trample and pierce our bodies.
“Lady, stay close to me,” Irus whispered as he tried to shield me from everyone’s sight.
“Perhaps we accidentally got into contact with them,” Moria reasoned.
“Liar!” the werewolf roared.
“It’s true,” Kei chimed in and he suddenly threw a covered good in front of the werewolf.
The lycan backed off a few steps as it bared its fangs to the parcel Kei threw. The cloth got unraveled and it revealed a few clothes. It must be the source of the scent they were talking about.
“There’s a trading hub a few kilometers from here and we bought some change of clothes. Perhaps one of the traders was a werecat disguising as a human,” Kei explained. “The four of us are undead. Do you want a proof?”
I almost gasped when Kei suddenly pulled his knife from its holster and thrust it to his chest, much to the werewolves’ disgust.
“Convinced now?” he calmly asked as blood tricked down his shirt.
The werewolves’ ire seemed to gradually dissipate, and they all returned to their wolf forms. Their leader howled and the rest started trudging the path on their right. He looked at us one last time and growled.
“You’re lucky it’s not a full moon tonight,” he retorted before joining his pack.
Halos manlambot ang mga tuhod ko nang tuluyan na silang mawala sa paningin namin. Napahawak ako sa balikat ni Irus para suportahan ang katawan ko.
“You said werewolves aren’t our enemies,” I muttered.
“They aren’t,” Kei replied as he casually pulled his knife from his chest, “but as I’ve said before, they aren’t exactly our allies either.”
He wasn’t bothered by the blood on his shirt or the fact that there was a hole in his chest. But what surprised me was that I, too, wasn’t. I guess I was starting to get used to this kind of situation.
Moria said we should continue walking so we could arrive in Urbedza in two days. The path to the mountains were rough and uneven so we had to slow down a bit . . . well, they had to, actually, for me. I also wore my protective cloak after our encounter with the werewolves. At least, with these, I felt shielded, even for a little.
We quietly travelled for several hours until the sun started peeking. We set up a camp right next to a cavern in the forest and Irus stayed inside it. As usual, nag-set up ng traps si Kei at protective barriers naman kay Moria.
I leaned against a tree trunk and my rouska turned back to its bracelet form. Lumapit naman sa akin si Kei at umupo sa katabing puno.
“Hey,” tawag ko. “So . . . about those werewolves . . .”
“You want to know why they acted like that?”
I nodded. “Moria mentioned werecat, right?”
“Yeah. Contrary to popular beliefs of humans,” he said, attempting a sardonic smile while looking at me, “vampires aren’t the archenemy of werewolves. It’s the werecats.”
“Werecats . . .”
“Those two falls under the skinwalkers,” he added. “They are partially humans who can shapeshift to their animal forms. And unlike the undead, they are among the living and can be killed with a shot to the heart. Werewolves and werecats have been engaging into deadly battles for centuries because they antagonize each other, and both are very territorial.”
“Those werecats, how do they look?”
“It varies. Sometimes, they take the form of leopards, tigers, and jaguars. There were also panthers and lions. They aren’t as feral as werewolves, but they are harder to subdue when they’re in their true form.”
I thought they would look like cute cats because of their name but I didn’t expect them to be those big and frightening felines. And if they were more terrifying than the werewolves, I definitely don’t want to meet them.
“If they are the werewolves’ nemesis, then who are the vampires’?” tanong ko.
“The Magi, Lady,” Moria cut in as she sat right across me.
Suddenly, the atmosphere seemed colder. Kei’s face became grim and Moria looked worried.
“True witches and warlocks,” she responded. “Beings who are born with magical and supernatural powers.”
Napakunot naman ang noo ko roon. “But you’re also like that, right?”
She gently shook her head. “No, Lady. Unlike the Magi, mages are undead who only have natural affinity with elemental, natural and arcane magic, not born to it. Mages have to train from childhood to control these types of magic and must continue training to maintain them. The true witches and warlocks are much more powerful than that. These beings can use the purest forms of witchcraft and sorcery, may it be white or dark magic, and can even defy the many laws of reality without breaking a sweat.”
If someone as powerful as Moria talked about them in an apprehensive manner, I wouldn’t even question their capabilities. They way she described them made my skin crawl, as if these beings were the apex creatures in the food chain and crossing paths with them would be instant death.
Matapos iyon ay hindi na muling nagsalita sina Kei at Moria. Talking about our nemesis had surely dampened their spirits.
We took turns in guarding the surroundings and when night came, we started moving again. The mountainous path had finally transitioned into a flatter terrain. According to Moria, once we traversed the valley, we would arrive at the northern borders of Rusnia, and beyond that is the North Continent.
“The numbers are increasing,” Moria muttered as she looked around.
She had been looking more and more worried the moment we left Kariota. Pakiramdam ko tuloy ay may hindi magandang mangyayari. As if on cue, she turned to my direction and urged me to use my rouska.
“O-okay . . .”
The three of them seemed more alert and I, too, could feel the tension in the atmosphere. Somehow, it felt like someone was watching me.
“Uhm, is it just me or something creepy has its eyes on me?” I said, breaking the silence. Kei positioned himself next to me. “Not just one, actually,” he answered and the hair on my nape bristled.
“W-what do you mean?”
Irus readied his rapier while Moria walked in front of us. “A lot of creatures have been tailing us since we entered this country,” she grimly said. “My protective barriers and your rouska have helped us concealed our exact location, but . . .” she shifted her gaze to me but immediately pulled away.
“Then what should we do?” tanong ko. I surely didn’t want another encounter like what happened with the ghouls. “Should we pick up our pace?”
“That would be better, but we can’t avoid a confrontation sooner or later,” she added.
Muli silang nagtinginan ni Kei na para bang mayroon silang gagawin na hindi dapat. Different kinds of creatures were tailing us because of me, yet they had to deal with them. It’s either they want my blood or they want me dead. I had been fishing for answers but the three wouldn’t even take the bait.
“Lady,” she called. “It’s still early for this but we have no choice.”
My eyebrows furrowed at her words. What did she mean by that?
“I’m going to teach you a way to defend yourself against fellow undead and other creatures.”
My mind was buzzing after Moria revealed one of my powers. It turned out I was really the one who did that to the Katteris and ghouls.
“It’s one of your clan’s powers,” she said after pointing at my eyes. “What did you feel when the ghouls were about to devour you?”
I tried recalling what I felt during that time. “Uhh, I was terrified. And my eyes and body felt hot.”
She smiled. “Your eyes felt hot because there’s literally blood around them.”
“W-what?” I intoned, my mouth left hanging open.
“That’s how you channel that power,” she continued. “Extreme emotions like fear can trigger it for those who haven’t trained yet. And those eyes are one of the true eyes.”
“True eyes?” I repeated.
She muttered something under her breath. There was a look of regret in her face and immediately avoided my question. Instead, she told me to try channeling the same emotions so I could use the dormant power inside me.
“It’s hard,” I muttered after I tried to convince myself that I was about to get killed for several hours already. Still, I couldn’t get that power out of my eyes.
“Any progress?” tanong ni Kei habang naglalakad kami.
I groaned in response. “Wala.”
He chuckled. “You’ll get there, Lady. Maybe if we encounter some—”
Bigla naman siyang napatigil kaya napahinto rin ako. Moria and Irus did the same. Then all of a sudden, Irus scrunched down as he grasped his face in pain.
“W-what happened—Irus!” sigaw ko at agad na lumapit sa kanya.
I was about to ask Kei and Moria to help him but they, too, seemed to grimace in discomfort. Then, it hit me last. The air suddenly smelled like rotten eggs and rancid meat. The odor was so revolting that my stomach started churning and despite pressing my nose tightly, I could still smell the strong stench of decaying matter.
Kei cursed in a foreign language. “Why do we have to run into them?”
“Them?!” I asked, still pressing my nose between my fingers.
“Craquehhe,” he said in repugnance.
And there they were.
Several meters away from us were a horde of rotting corpses, their bodies infested with maggots and worms, walking toward our direction.