Iyon ang nararamdaman ko nang makmakalagpas kami sa gate. The ambience was distinctly overwhelming compared to the rest of the cities.
Two giant watchtowers stood few meters away from the gate. Sa magkabilang watchtower ay mayroong lumabas na dalawang lalaki at huminto sa harap nila ang carriage. Both were wearing black military uniforms like Irus with two swords latched on their backs. One look and I could tell that they were assassins, and I was pretty sure they were sterner and more brutal than Irus.
Marahang bumaba si Roesia at hinarap ang dalawang lalaki. I couldn’t hear what they were talking but the two nodded after several seconds and let us pass. Pagkabalik niya sa quarter namin ay agad ko siyang tinanong.
“They are the capital’s sentries,” explained Roesia. “They are strict when it comes to . . . outsiders.” My shoulders tensed upon hearing that. “I-is it okay now?”
There was an amused look on her face. “Of course. Besides, I am your verification.”
Nakahinga naman ako nang maluwag matapos kong marinig iyon.
Nagpatuloy ang byahe namin at napansin kong wala masyadong bahay o kahit anong shelter dito compared kanina. There were just a lot of rough boulders and weird-looking trees. Ravens and crows were also present along with bats and vultures. Mas lalo ring dumilim ang paligid kaya bumalik ang takot ko.
Makalipas ang halos isang oras ay huminto kami at isa-isa silang nagsibabaan kaya naman sumunod na rin ako. Pagtingin ko sa harapan namin ay agad na napakunot ang noo ko. An uphill and uneven road greeted me.
“Apologies, Lady, but we need to walk from here up to the castle.”
I wanted to complain but doing that in front of Roesia would not be good. Nauna siyang maglakad at sumunod kami sa kanya. Tumabi naman sa akin si Moria, which was quite comforting after being with Roesia for a few hours.
“Are you okay, Lady?” she whispered.
I heaved a sigh. “Yeah.”
Kei walked right beside me, and he glared at Roesia. He looked like he wanted to attack her, and I was not sure if that was because of me.
“Kei, calm down,” I ordered and surprisingly, he stopped grumbling.
Muling bumigat ang pakiramdam ko nang maalala ko ang nangyari sa kanya. It was hard to look at someone who could not even follow his own will.
Lumapit ako kay Moria at bumulong. “You said arcane mages can heal anything, right?”
She gave me a quizzical look. “Is this about Khmer, Lady?”
My face stiffened. “I-is it impossible?”
“I am not sure, Lady,” she answered. “Most high clans do not really care about those that became their hounds.”
Hindi ko alam kung dapat ba akong malungkot o magalit sa narinig ko. Still, I would not lose hope. I would not want Kei to be like that forever. I would not want him to be a mindless servant. Besides, he would be more effective if he has his own will, especially when it comes to situations that would require some wits.
I was in deep thoughts that I did not notice Irus approaching me. Halos matumba ako sa gulat nang bigla na lang lumitaw ang mukha niya sa harapan ko.
“Shall I carry you, Lady?” he asked in a muffled voice. “You seem tired.”
Kahit gusto kong um-oo dahil nanghihina na ang mga tuhod ko ay umiling ako. For some reasons, I wanted to reach that place with my own strength. Isa pa, may bakas pa ng dugo sa iba’t ibang parte ng katawan niya. He had some regeneration abilities, but he had too many wounds and getting healed completely would take several days.
The rough terrain was a challenge, but I preferred it than facing enemies. My arms and legs were already full of scratches due to some sharp boulders and tree branches that were in the way. There were times that I would stumble because I suddenly felt disoriented. It was either because of a strong scent that had the power to overwhelm my senses, or a sudden prickling sensation all over my body.
Mabuti na lang at nakaalalay ang tatlo sa akin kaya kahit papaano ay hindi ako nahuhulog sa matarik na bangin sa gilid. Roesia, on the other hand, was already several meters ahead of us. Despite the grueling pathway, she was walking gracefully, and her white outfit remained pristine.
I was not sure how long we were walking already. Pakiramdam ko ay patarik lang nang patarik ang daanan at parang wala pa rin kami sa kalahati.
My head drooped in exhaustion. I was walking through sheer will and it felt like I would collapse any minute now. Halos gumapang na ako sa lupa sa sobrang pagod nang bigla akong may naramdamang kakaiba. There were several presence around us.
Despite the fatigue building in, I tried looking around. That was when I noticed we had reached the alpine tree line. Beyond was just barren land with piles of snow. One- to two-story buildings with strange structures were also scattered around, while the castle stood in quintessential grandeur from a hundred meter away.
The air felt menacing. Dozens of undead were hiding behind trees and houses, giving off eerie aura directed at me. The hair on my body stood as several emerged from the shadow.
Nagpatuloy lang maglakad si Roesia at hindi pinansin ang mga ito kaya wala kaming nagawa kung hindi ang sumunod sa kanya. I received curious stares and few dirty looks as I passed by, which was uncomfortable. Suddenly, Kei jumped at one of them, growling in fury.
His body stiffened and retreated behind me. Mabuti na lang at napigilan ko siya. Somehow, he could discern my feelings even without words. I wondered if it was because of the blood curse, too.
Roesia glanced at Kei who was trying his best to calm down despite the threatening looks of some of the undead. Bumalik ang tingin niya sa akin at bakas ang awa sa kanyang mukha.
“Poor guy,” she murmured, and I was not sure how to react.
Ilang minuto kaming nagpatuloy maglakad hanggang sa makarating kami sa isa na namang gate. It was a smaller version of the gate we passed through earlier, but the metals were thicker and darker, like they were forged from darkness itself.
“Roesia, from Morana clan, archmage of Vrivarya,” she announced, and four guards opened the heavy gates.
I stared in awe as the castle’s splendor came into view. It stood there as if it was conjured from eternal night and darkness. The quarter moon shone upon the ebony walls, revealing their lustrous appearance. Grand windows were interspersed between thick cobblestone balconies. Keeps and towers rose in different heights across the castle, where several of the country’s flag flew high, their white and red emblem contrasting the dark setting.
Carefully, we stepped into the sovereign’s territory. The onlookers we just passed by a while ago started crowding around the gate. Suddenly, hundreds of people dressed in armors and combat uniforms marched in front, weapons ready in their hands.
Agad akong napaatras at pumwesto naman si Kei sa harapan ko. Irus and Moria stood beside me with impassive expressions. Maging si Roesia ay walang reaksyon.
And then everyone suddenly fell silent. It was as if the place had held its breath.
Amid the stillness, imperious footsteps echoed from the center balcony of the castle. Three people emerged and stood with glaring authority. The two women looked sophisticated in their fancy dresses. They had that regal allure that made them look unearthly. Between them was a man who could surpass the beauty of every Katteri, but his eyes were glacial and distant. With an imposing aura that could intimidate anyone, there stood the king.
He had such dominance that I quivered the moment his gaze landed on mine. Still, I had never felt such strong resonance toward someone until today.
“King Zemus,” Roesia called, giving her respect.
Everyone knelt and bowed their heads in their presence. Even Roesia and my retainers, so I did the same, but in an awkward manner. That was when something strange happened. My body suddenly twitched, and I could feel the blood rapidly coursing through my veins. It was as if meeting them awakened something inside me.
Napayakap ako sa katawan ko dahil magkahalong init at lamig ang nararamdaman ko. My insides were burning yet my skin felt colder than usual.
I let out a cry as both dread and vigor surged through me, and this time, I could feel the blazing heat around my eyes.
“You have awakened,” the king remarked amid the silence.
A chorus of gasps echoed on the castle’s front as they all stared at me. My body was trembling, but I managed to still be on my feet. King Zemus held out his hand, calling everyone’s attention.
“Pay your respect,” he announced while looking at me. “My second daughter, the heir of Stryzyga, Princess of Vrivarya, has come home.”
Everyone except Roesia and my retainers looked at me in shock. Maging ako ay napanganga rin. At the back of my mind, I already knew there was a high probability that I, indeed, was from the line of sovereign families, but the revelation still hit me like a thunderbolt.
“Vyrka Stryzyga,” he called, and my blood responded to the name he mentioned, as if it had been longing to hear it for a long time. “I welcome you to Vrivarya.”