Kahit nakapasok na kami sa Vrivarya ay parang nasa gubat pa rin kami. The uneven ground was making it harder for me but the four sauntered with ease, as if it was a paved road. Coniferous trees dotted the landscape. There were also trees that looked strange—several had silver leaves, while others had their trunks and stems contorted in unusual shapes.
There was an eerie silence around us, as if the forest was also holding its breath. Roesia, my former grandmother, picked up her pace and we had no choice but to follow closely. Ang dami kong gustong itanong sa kanya pero hindi ko alam kung paano ko sisimulan. Besides, she seemed hard to approach now.
We kept on walking for almost an hour and my legs were seconds away from collapsing when Roesia suddenly halted. Two guys dressed in black uniforms stood in front of us and gave their salute to Roesia. Behind them was an obsidian black carriage with gold embellishments on the door. Perhaps it was because of its sinister vibe that I wasn’t sure if I could board that. It felt like the carriage of death.
But what made me more frightened was when I saw the two horses in front. They were literally just made of their skeletons, their bones black. Where their eyes should be, crimson lights that flickered like flames ensconced. Some sharp bones protruded from their back and their heads were covered with armored helmets.
Those were undead horses.
“Lady, please,” gestured Roesia toward the carriage.
Kahit na ayaw ko ay wala akong nagawa kundi sundin siya. Besides, gusto ko na ring maupo dahil ilang araw na kaming naglalakad nang walang tigil.
Pagpasok ko ro’n ay napaawang ang bibig ko dahil hindi ko inasahan na gano’n kalaki ang loob. From the outside, it looked like a normal carriage, but a spacious interior came into my view. There was also a thin wall dividing the inside into two quarters. Roesia motioned the three to take the smaller compartment while the two of us settled in the larger one in front.
Despite being with her all my life, I felt awkward to be alone with her this time. First, because her appearance and demeanor were way too different from what I could remember, and second, I wasn’t sure if the motherly love she felt for me was also a façade.
Mas gusto ko pang makasama ang tatlo sa likuran. Even though our time together was short and most were near-death experiences, at least I knew everything that happened was real.
“You must have been, exhausted, Lady,” she said.
At the back of my mind, I was hoping she would call me by my name. Kahit kasi sina Moria ay Lady ang tawag sa akin. Nobody called me Victoria anymore after leaving Hallim. I started wondering if she was the one who gave me my name . . . or my real parents, whoever they were.
I forced a smile. “Kind of,” sagot ko. “We’ve been running away for weeks.”
She bowed her head slightly. “I deeply apologize for not being there for you, Lady. Baldric and I had our hands full that day.”
An amused smile escaped her lips. “Ah, your grandfather, if you prefer that, Lady.”
My cheeks grew hot. I should have known that already, given the fact that it was only the two of them who knew each other’s cover.
Naalala ko naman ang araw na iyon. A day before my birthday, my normal life turned upside down. Suddenly, strange guys wanted me dead and Kei saved me from them. Pagbalik namin sa bahay ay wala na roon sina Nana at Tata. Someone ransacked our home, too.
Sumama ako kay Kei dahil mukhang kilala niya ang may gawa noon. He also mentioned my grandparents being a mage and a tracker. After that, I was thrown into this whole undead world.
I cleared my throat and glanced at her again. “Could you tell me what happened that day?”
Gusto kong malinawan sa lahat ng nangyari. Ngayong nandito na ako at ang mga makakasagot sa mga tanong ko, I wouldn’t waste the chance to ask everything that had been bothering me since that day.
“Of course, Lady,” sagot niya.
Inilahad niya ang kanyang kanang kamay at nagliwanag ito. Little orbs of light gathered into one and a familiar scene appeared from it. It was the day when I was about to go home but Macars, a species of Siphons, if I remembered it correctly, stopped me inside the vehicle.
“I’m sure your assigned tracker had already explained to you the gist of the world you are now living.” I nodded in response. “Like humans, the undead has also a hierarchy. Atop the ladder, the vampiric clans reign. And among the clans, three bloodlines became the sovereigns of each vampiric country. However, each of them also wanted to be the supreme bloodline. The supreme ruler of all undeads. And that desire led to great wars among them that threatened the very existence of vampires. To prevent that, the overlord of each bloodline entered a blood treaty thousands of years ago. No sovereign is allowed to kill another sovereign or their family within the vampiric territories.”
Bigla kong naalala ang sinabi ni Moria kay Leone kanina nang marinig ko iyon. She said it would be considered as a treason if Leone killed me when I set foot in Vrivarya’s soil.
“But they are allowed to kill them in neutral ground,” I murmured.
“Correct,” she confirmed. “And due to some, ah, circumstances, you were hunted.”
Kinilabutan ako nang marinig ko iyon. Whatever circumstances she was talking about sounded like bad news for me.
“We were supposed to bring you here in Vrivarya on your birthday, but we were ambushed,” she continued. “They knew they couldn’t kill you if you were with Baldric and me, so they tried hard to separate you from us. In the end, they succeeded.”
“So that was why you weren’t there when I went home?”
She nodded. “We were engaged in a fight against powerful enemies so we couldn’t get you, but Vrivarya was prepared. They sent a team that would retrieve and protect you if we failed to, though I wasn’t sure if they did their jobs right.”
Kinabahan naman ako dahil baka magkaroon sila ng punishments dahil sa akin.
“Y-yes,” I hastily said. “They have protected me well.”
She still looked unconvinced, but she let it go. Although ilang beses na akong muntik mamatay ay alam ko namang karamihan doon ay dahil din sa akin at sa mga patuloy na humahabol sa akin.
Roesia looked straight into my eyes. It felt like she could see through my words and might think I was lying. I had to avert her gaze but that looked like I was guilty.
Napatingin ako sa labas at doon ko lang na-realize na hindi na gubat ang dinadaanan namin. The road was paved and there were houses nearby. I was gaping as I saw a city on our right side.
Small buildings and eateries stood close to each other. People walked busily on the roads and alleys, some engaging in conversations. It had been a while since I last saw a city that I missed the noise and mess.
“That is the city of Yura,” Roesia remarked. “The only settlement of humans in Vrivarya.”
Agad akong napalingon pabalik sa kanya. “Humans? You mean, like normal humans? Living humans?”
“Yes, Lady,” she responded.
I knitted my eyebrows, confused. “Do they know that . . . they live with the undead?”
“They do. And they do jobs for us that we cannot do ourselves. We also get blood from them. In exchange, we offer protection from different creatures and other undead, and let them live here in peace.”
I wasn’t sure how to react to that. Mutualism between vampires and humans was something I did not expect to see here.
I was trying to recall my life as a normal human, but upon stepping here, those memories seemed to get murkier. Agad akong napatingin sa kanya.
“So, my life before this . . .” My voice trailed off, unsure of what to say next.
“Some were fabricated and manipulated, yes, but most were real experiences, especially when you were in that school.”
Her words lingered in my head. “Then why can’t I remember them vividly now?”
“The only memories I altered were those of your childhood and some accidental encounters with some undead and creatures. You say your memories with humans were also fading . . . perhaps because you weren’t really attached to that world. Wouldn’t that be the reason?”
My shoulders tensed upon hearing that and somehow, at the back of my mind, I knew there were some truths to that. Dahil na rin strict sila sa akin noon sa pakikihalubilo sa mga tao ay hindi na rin naman ako nagkaroon ng pagkakataon para mapalapit sa mga kaklase ko. Besides, I liked being alone when I was in school.
“And since I was the one who altered those memories, being away from me also weakened its effect,” added Roesia. “Sooner or later, your real memories will return, and perhaps you can remember the real occurrences that I tried to bury deep in your brain.”
Her words made my skin tingle. Pakiramdam ko ay hindi ko magugustuhan ang mga alaalang sinasabi niya. She even said I had some run-ins with creatures before.
My hand unconsciously reached for my rouska. It returned to its bracelet form after we entered the country. Ever since I learned that it could hide my scent and protect me from other beings, touching it helped me calm down even for a little. Besides, this was the only thing that Roesia had left for me.
Her gaze followed my hand and looked at me curiously. “I see that you have already learned about that,” she remarked.
I responded with a smile. “Moria taught me how to use it.”
“And? How long can you use it?”
“Uhm, t-two hours?”
Despite her impassive face, I could feel that she was a bit disappointed. “Barely a pass, Lady,” she commented. “You should be able to use it for days if you really want to—”
She stopped before she could even finish her sentence, visibly troubled that she might have said something that she shouldn’t. Hindi ko naman na siya muling tinanong kung ano ang ibig niyang sabihin pero na-bother pa rin ako. If at my current level, I could only use my rouska for two hours, just how strong should I be to be able to use it for days?
Muling namagitan ang katahimikan sa pagitan namin kaya napatingin na lang ako sa labas. We passed by several cities and some people looked at our carriage with interest, some even looked frightened. Despite looking like humans, I knew most of them were like me, an undead.
I also noticed that my body was slowly acclimatizing to the country’s conditions. Sa katunayan ay parang mas naiinitan na ako ngayon kaysa kaninang nanginginig pa ang katawan ko. I was not sure if I was burning up or just getting excited.
Hindi ko na alam kung ilang oras na kaming nasa daan. Roesia stayed quiet after our last conversation. Sometimes, I would glance at her to check if she was still there. She could erase her presence well and she stayed still, not even moving an inch from where she was seated.
The sky turned dark few minutes later. Sumilip ako mula sa bintana at halos kilabutan ako sa nakita ko. A colony of bats loomed over the carriage. Meanwhile, a committee of vultures were calmly perched on the trees beside the road, their eyes meticulously watching us. Agad akong napabalik sa pagkakaupo ko dahil ngayon lang ako nakakita nang ganoon karaming bats at vultures.
I could see Roesia’s lips slightly curving and somehow, I felt embarrassed. “That means we are near the castle.”
Pagkasabi niya no’n ay muli akong napatingin sa labas. True enough, I could see the the castle on the mountains from here much clearer, but miles before that was an expansive gateway.
High metal fences lined across the road, completely blocking everything from entering the place beyond it. At the middle was a huge arched gate with two black pillars. Sitting atop them were gargoyles sculptures that looked like hybrids of grotesque undeads. Intricate golden embellishments and coils of tree branches adorned the four-meter black gate.
Napanganga na lang ako nang bigla iyong bumukas pero agad din akong napayakap sa sarili ko nang may maramdaman akong kakaiba. My insides started churning. The blood coursing through me felt hotter . . . as if something in that castle was rousing it.
No, it was not just my blood. The hunger and thirst I tried hard to quell these past few days were starting to stir once again. Something, or someone, out there was awakening my feral and bloodthirsty senses again.