We were just several hundred meters away from the borders of Vrivarya but with Kei’s condition, we couldn’t even move from our current position. Moria said moving him might spread the poison in his bloodstreams faster so we had to camp in a nearby cave.
“W-what should we do?” I murmured.
She sighed in dejection. “I’m afraid there is nothing more I can do, Lady.”
Kei groaned in pain. His wound looked worse now. His ashen complexion was turning paler and the blood vessels in his right arm and neck became visible under his skin, a sign that the poison had already spread in those parts.
Worried and desperate, I turned to Moria. “Why can’t you heal him? I mean . . . I thought mages can heal people?”
She held her gaze and for a second, I was afraid I offended her. “Perhaps you misunderstood, Lady,” she replied, shifting from her seat. “Yes, normal mages have healing abilities but only for themselves. It is limited to our own bodies, and for this reason, we are quite confident with direct attacks. But also for this reason, we prefer to fight alone or with other mages. Clearly, having three mages was far more advantageous than our group.”
Naalala ko naman ang nangyari kanina. Despite my attack against Alfonse, the same one that killed the Katteris and ghouls, he seemed not too worried about it and even managed to heal himself. Moria also said that she could heal herself when she volunteered to be my target for practicing that ability, but I thought that was just a subtle way of saying she was far stronger than me.
“Arcanes are our only hope now,” said Irus who settled beside me.
She let out a heavy sigh. “True, normal mages can only heal themselves, but there are also mages who can cure everyone but themselves.”
“I presume those are the arcanes?”
She nodded. “They are a special kind of mages. Undeads who can restore anyone back to health, regardless of what kind of injury or magic has been inflicted to the victim.”
“Then we should see one!”
“Oh, that’s impossible, Lady,” she retorted. “It’s precisely because of their crucial abilities that they are protected. They live in the castle and mountains, both located at the far end of Vrivarya.”
The little hope growing inside me was shattered immediately upon hearing that. I thought we would have a chance to save him.
Irus became more restless. He had been pacing back and forth, worried about Kei’s well-being. Gusto niyang tumakbo na kami papunta sa Vrivarya pero hindi sumang-ayon si Moria. She said the cave was the safer option, for now, because the mages might still be around. With Kei being, in her words, useless, along with my strong presence, they would be more open to attacks. At least here, Moria could focus on Kei’s wound and Irus could defend us easier.
“But that would be a better option than him dying here, right?” tanong ko.
“Oh, not at all, Lady.”
“What do you mean?”
“Besides what I said, you also can’t enter Vrivarya without him.”
She explained that outsiders who aren’t humans could only enter the country through the presence of trackers. If someone tried to force their way through the borders without the acknowledgment of a tracker, who are the only ones allowed to bring in outsiders, they will be regarded as intruders and will be dealt immediately.
With Kei being unconscious, I’m sure the undeads guarding the border would not take that as a proper acknowledgement of my presence in their country. Pero mas nanghihina lang si Kei habang mas tumatagal kami sa lugar na ‘to. It was frustrating to see that we were just right in front of our destination, but we couldn’t even move because of our current situation.
“If only we have a vial of human blood,” she said, “at least that could slow down the spread of the poison. I would have more time to devise a plan.”
Mas lalo lang akong nanghinayang. We could have had more blood if we weren’t being constantly attacked by creatures. We had already used everything, and we couldn’t even get any because we had not seen any humans the last few days.
Irus suddenly thrust his rapier through the cave’s wall and muttered something that sounded like a curse. “Those damn Sithannas!”
“Calm down,” Moria said, a hint of threat in her tone. “Do you want the cave to collapse on us?”
His shoulder tensed. “My apologies, Rana Moria.”
Napabuntong-hininga na lang si Moria habang nakatingin kay Kei. The cave was filled with silence, with the three of us lost in our own thoughts, when I suddenly remembered what Irus told me when we were still in Hallim. Something about a curse . . .
“Uhm, why can’t he drink mine?”
I had been bothered by that since then. Kei said undeads could drink either a human’s or a higher clan’s blood. The bloodsuckers and Siphons seemed to be more than willing to take a sip of my blood, but the three of them would not even dare even if sometimes, they get entranced by its scent.
“Lady, you can’t—”
“But I am from a higher clan, right? You’ve been hinting at that every time I ask questions about myself.”
The two of them exchanged nervous looks and there was a silent, but noticeable understanding between them. They sat right across me, their expressions both grim.
“Do you remember what I told you before, Lady?” tanong ni Irus.
Tumango naman ako. “A blood curse, right?”
Moria’s face darkened. “It’s an ancient pact between the vampiric clans. Blood such as yours are forbidden to us.”
My forehead creased. “Forbidden?”
“It’s a delicacy,” Irus continued, “but it comes with a price.”
Their words hung heavy in the air. It was as if they were talking about a tragedy—something that was more terrifying than anything we had faced so far.
I was about to ask another question when Kei suddenly convulsed. Veins started to appear on his face, too. Few minutes more and it would reach his brain.
My hands trembled in fear. “W-what should we do now?”
Irus and I looked at Moria. Even without saying, she had been the one leading our group since her arrival. She was powerful and wise, and following her decisions saved us a lot of times.
“Fine,” she announced. “We’ll split up. You,” sabay turo niya kay Irus. “Bring him to Vrivarya. Since none of you are outsiders, they may allow you to enter even with his current state. I will stay with the lady as she is the primary target of our pursuers.”
Irus listened attentively, nodding whenever she mentioned his name. She wrote something on a parchment and gave it to him. “Remember to present that once you enter the castle. Arcane mages will only take the word of a fellow mage or someone higher in the ranks. We need him immediately restored back to health so our lady can enter the land safely. This is the only way to save them.”
Agad namang naghanda ang dalawa. Moria readied everything they needed once they were inside the borders while Irus carefully carried Kei on his back.
Lumapit ako sa kanya at marahang tinapik ang mukha niya. “You’ll be okay.”
I was about to pull my hand back when Kei suddenly opened his eyes. I remembered how scary he was when serious, but it was a different kind of fear this time. It did not feel like him at all. It felt like I was facing a Katteri or a ghoul.
His face twitched and I tensed when his gaze met mine. But what made my skin tingle was when his gaze shifted to my bandaged wrist.
“B-blood . . .” he moaned in a hoarse voice.
Irus tried to restrain him but it was already too late. Kei jumped toward me and bit my wrist.
I could hear Irus and Moria’s voices, but they sounded so far away. Suddenly, I remembered Kei’s words. He said he would never bite someone to drink blood. We’re not savages, he reasoned . . . yet he did it. And I was right. He wasn’t in his right mind because he felt different.
Along with my blood, the strength in my legs and knees got sapped. My vision blurred. My body felt hot, as if my insides were burning. Kei’s teeth sank into my skin, drinking my blood without thinking of stopping.
My head was spinning and there was a searing pain on my wrist. I could not remember if I were screaming. Maybe I still was. It was so painful. I wanted it to stop. Please. Stop it.
Kei . . . stop . . .
My eyes fluttered open as I tried to catch my breath. Despite my lungs being vestigial organs now, I still felt the need to breathe, as if I were being suffocated by something.
“Lady, calm down.”
Seeing Moria’s face in front of me calmed me down for a bit. Pagtingin ko sa kanan ko ay nandoon din si Irus. I tried to settle my scattered thoughts and gasped upon remembering what had transpired. Agad akong napatingin sa kamay ko. My wrist had been bandaged with a thick cloth.
Moria looked away and swallowed down the temptation. “Are you okay now?”
Dahan-dahan akong bumangon at napanganga ako nang makita ko ang nasa harapan namin. It was a cocoon of stones and dirt. Don’t tell me . . .
“W-what exactly happened . . .”
She gave me a sullen look. “We lost him.”
Her words drifted inside my head for a few seconds, my own mind refusing to process them. Hindi ko alam kung ano ang dapat sabihin o gawin. Did he really . . . did Kei perish?
“N-no . . . no way . . .”
She flicked her fingers and the cocoon slowly broke apart. My eyes were already welling up but my confusion stopped the tears from falling after Kei’s body dropped to the ground.
The wound on his right shoulder was nowhere to be found. Even the visible veins under his skin disappeared. In fact, he looked better than before.
Confused, I looked back at Moria. “I . . . I thought blood could only slow the spread of the poison? I thought he died!”
“It’s true,” she replied, “but your blood seemed to heal him completely.”
“But with a curse,” Irus muttered.
Right. We were talking about that before we hatched that plan. Was this the blood curse they were talking about?
“The blood curse?”
He nodded as he looked at Kei in pity. “As I’ve said earlier, Lady, drinking your blood comes with a price.”
As if on cue, Kei’s consciousness returned. Dahan-dahan siyang bumangon at nagtama ang aming paningin. Something inside me stirred and it felt like his presence was something I needed. Something I owned. Like there was an intangible bond that connected both of us.
Without breaking my gaze at him, I asked Irus a question. “And what is the price he has paid?”
Their forlorn expressions were enough to realize that it was something that anyone of them would rather not experience. Something that was worse than death.
“His freedom, Lady,” he answered miserably. “From now on, Khmer is bound to serve and protect you for the rest of his life. Like an obedient and mindless hound, he cannot go against your words and will only follow your wishes. Starting today, you have his absolute loyalty.”