Despite not having any heartbeat, it felt like my whole body was pounding from the terror of jumping hundreds of meters from the Halim cliffs. My legs wobbled as I tried to stand up. Irus retreated into the shadows. Kei scanned the surroundings as if nothing had happened.
“Let’s move,” he said. “Irus can’t help us now.”
I wasn’t sure how I managed to move but after hours of walking into the tropical rain forest of Batara, we finally made it to the suburbs of a major city.
Napatingin ako sa kalangitan. The sun glistened above the clear sky. I felt its warmth touching my skin, along with the gentle wind.
Nagsimula namang maglakad si Kei. He put on his cap and scarf, covering his entire face. I wondered if the sun could affect him, just like how vampires were portrayed in fiction, but if that was the case, why was I not affected? I had been living under the sun for seventeen years and I didn’t feel uncomfortable.
He led the way to the city. Some people were throwing glances at us and I realized I looked like I had been living on the streets for days. My white shirt had turned gray from dirt and mud. My jeans were torn, and twigs were hanging from the ripped parts. I was covered with cuts and soot and my face must have been the worst part.
Napayuko na lang ako sa hiya. I wanted to borrow Khmer’s cap and scarf but I don’t think he would let me.
I didn’t realize he stopped walking so I bumped into his back. He suddenly grabbed my right arm and pulled me into a narrow alleyway.
“Katteris,” he whispered.
I wasn’t sure if he had said that term before but I was too exhausted to remember. Two middle-aged women passed by and they seemed normal at first but when I squinted my eyes, their forms changed into younger ones for a few seconds.
“W-what are those?” I mouthed as I pointed at their direction.
He was silent until the two were out of our sight. He let go of my arm and unraveled his scarf. He draped it on my head and coiled both ends around the bottom half of my face.
“You smell,” he said in a deadpan manner.
I scoffed at him in disbelief. Did he really have to say it that way? I mean, I had been traveling since yesterday! I hadn’t even bathed yet! What did he expect?!
“Katteris could pick up the scent of high clans,” he continued. “Yours may not be that strong after being with a mage and tracker for quite some time but you need to be careful.”
Napatitig na lang ako matapos niyang sabihin ‘yon. So he didn’t mean . . .
“At least wear my scarf,” he whispered. “Maybe it could hide your scent for a while.”
We continued walking and I felt embarrassed after thinking he was talking about the other kind of smell. Well, I didn’t know about the scent he was talking about either so of course I’d assume he was being rude.
Nakarating kami sa city proper makalipas ang ilan pang oras. He said we should avoid traveling by public vehicles because some humans could see through disguises, especially kids and older people. True enough, some toddlers kept on pointing at us, tugging their parents’ clothes to let them know what they were seeing. We picked up our pace and we arrived in a packed street.
Multi-colored houses and food stalls lined up the road and people were wearing extravagant clothes—ball dresses, high hats, flamboyant gowns, elegant suits—along with their prismatic and appealing makeups and face paints.
There might be a festival, I thought.
“We need to find a shelter,” he said as he looked around.
I saw a two-story guest house on our right and I tugged his jacket to catch his attention. It was painted green and blue, much relaxing to look at than the bright-colored buildings and houses next to it.
“There,” I said, pointing at the guest house.
“That will do.”
We went to that direction and checked in. Fortunately, he had money because I didn’t bring anything with me. Naiwan ko ang lahat ng pera at gamit ko sa bahay naming at tanging sarili ko lang ang dala ko, which was quite pitiful.
We got the farthest room on the second floor. There were two mattresses on the floor, a few furniture, a clean bathroom, and a good view from the small balcony on the side. I wanted to take a bath but I didn’t have any spare clothes. Kei just removed his leather jacket, exposing his ash-gray skin.
“Uhm . . .” I carefully inched closer. “M-may I—”
Before I could say anything, he pulled something from his bag and threw it to my direction. I instinctively caught it and saw a white knee-length dress and undergarments on my hands.
“I got some clothes from your house,” he explained. “You can take a bath now.”
I didn’t complain and ran to the bathroom.
Wow, that was the most satisfying bath I had ever taken. I felt refreshed and cleaner after a day of exhaustion and filthiness. Paglabas ko ng kwarto ay naabutan kong nakahiga sa lapag si Kei. He was asleep.
I sat next to him and stared at his face. Instead of sleeping, he looked . . . dead. I placed my finger under his nose, and he wasn’t breathing. If I hadn’t known he was an undead, I would probably panic, but after spending a day with him, everything that was strange had become my new normal.
“Lady,” a muffled voice suddenly called sending chills down my spine.
I screamed as I backed away, trying to keep a distance from the voice. When I turned my head and saw a black military uniform, I had to keep myself from cursing. Irus appeared in front of me, kneeling. I don’t know if he was smiling or laughing at my reaction under the bandages on his face, but I hope he wasn’t. I had enough of my embarrassing moments.
His eyes shifted to Kei and he collapsed next to him. His clothes were smoldering, and he looked exhausted.
“F-food,” he muttered as his eyes turned chalky white.
“Food? Should I order some?”
“N-no . . . virgins . . .”
“What?” I blurted out.
I wasn’t sure if I heard that right because of the cloth covering his mouth so I approached him and leaned closer to his face.
“A virgin,” he repeated, and I abruptly scurried back.
“A maiden, if you want a more . . . ah, appropriate term,” a voice on my left said with a chuckle. Apparently, Kei had woken up.
Bumangon siya at tumingin kay Irus. “Looks like he got hit.”
I knitted my eyebrows. “By what?”
“By sunlight. That’s the weakness of every assassin.”
Bago pa ako makapagtanong ay tumayo siya at muling sinuot ang cap at jacket niya. He closed the windows and curtains, drowning the room in darkness.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“We’re going to find some maidens.”
First of all, I still couldn’t get over from the fact that we were searching for maidens. Second, if he had said they wanted blood, I could have understood it clearer.
“So why does it have to be a maiden’s blood?” I asked as we walked through the crowded street.
We looked out of place because of our simple clothes but after treading through the crowd, I suddenly got a wide-brimmed red hat on my head and Khmer was already wearing a brightly painted half-mask.
“We could only drink pure blood,” he answered after escaping a huge group of marching women.
I walked faster and stayed beside him. “Pure?”
“Yes, pure,” he repeated. “Untainted . . . like that one.”
He pointed in front of us and there was a gorgeous lady walking toward our direction. She was wearing a red ball gown with bouffant skirt that took up space for two people. Kei marched to her and she was already eye-flirting him. I followed behind, observing their actions and waiting on how he would “drink” her blood.
He stood in front of her and reached for her chin. All of a sudden, he was already holding a vial, hidden under his fingers. I thought I was just seeing things but the nail on his thumb became sharper and pricked his chin. Blood trickled to his fingers, down to the vial like a tiny waterfall. I wasn’t sure how the woman didn’t notice it but she seemed to be in a trance. After two seconds, he let go of her and smiled.
“Thank you, my lady,” he mumbled.
The woman nodded, her expression still vacant. She continued walking as if that didn’t happen and I watched Kei put the vial inside his jacket. He stood beside me and smirked at my stunned expression.
“I’m done. Let’s go.”
Nagsimula kaming maglakad pabalik sa guest house pero mas lalong dumami ang tanong sa isip ko. I tried to stay silent, but my curiosity won in the end.
“So . . .” I started, “you don’t bite your victim’s neck.”
He looked at me as if the words I said was too offensive. “Do you think we’re bloodsuckers?” he retorted. “We’re not savages.”
Tinikom ko na lang ang bibig ko matapos no’n. If I said most of the fictional portrayal of vampires drink blood like that, he would probably not like it.
We were just a few meters away from the guest house when I felt something strange. The hair on my nape bristled. Kei must have felt it too because he pulled me closer to him.
“Stay behind me,” he said in a stern tone.
I followed his order and hid behind him with his scarf covering half of my face. I fiddled with my bracelet as I looked around, trying to find the source of my restlessness. Then, I saw some movements from our right. Several people wearing dresses and suits looked at our direction, their faces drawn in several colors of paint.
Kei made a guttural sound as if he was growling.
“A horde of Katteris,” he grumbled.
Katteris . . . the thing he mentioned earlier, like those older women we saw in the suburbs.
They looked normal but I could feel their ferocious desires. One of them seemed to be changing from a middle-aged man to a naked and ethereal twenty-year old guy.
“W-what do we do?” I asked, my voice trembling.
Before he could finish his sentence, the group lunged at us with an unbelievable speed, and all I could remember was the world blurring into streaks of lines.