I woke up feeling hungrier and thirstier than ever.
My eyes fluttered open, feeling more disoriented than ever. I immediately saw the crown of trees and thousands of stars littered on the sky above me.
“Oh, you’re awake.”
Paglingon ko ay naroon si Kei sa tabi ng apoy na mukhang mas malaki pa sa ginawa niya kanina. Agad naman akong napabuntong-hininga. I was wishing everything was just a bad dream but it looked like I had to live with this nightmare.
Napatingin naman ako sa paligid at nakita kong wala na roon sa Irus.
“Where is Irus?” tanong ko.
“He’s hunting the remaining Katteris.”
He laughed in return. “He said he felt useless a while ago so he went off to finish what we have started.”
“Don’t worry about him,” he said. “He can kill hundreds of Katteris in a few minutes.”
Napatikom agad ang bibig ko nang marinig ko ‘yon. Kaya pala parang restless siya kanina sa ilalim ng cloak. If only those Katteris attacked us during the night.
Naalala ko naman ang nangyari kanina. I remembered shouting at the two Katteris and something went wrong with their bodies. Lumapit ako kay Kei at umupo sa tabi niya.
“What happened earlier?” I asked. “I mean, those Katteris . . . exploded all of a sudden.”
He stared at me and the embers of the fire reflected on his gray eyes. “They were poisoned.”
“W-what? What do you—”
Napahinto ako nang makita ko ang braso niya. He tried to hide it but I reached for his arm and saw blotches of blue and purple bruises, just like what happened to the Katteris. I looked at him but he averted my gaze.
“Bakit nagkaroon ka ng ganyan?” I asked but he remained silent.
Muli kong inalala ang nangyari. The Katteris’ bodies exploded and . . . some of their blood splattered at us. Agad kong tiningnan ang balat ko pero wala namang nangyaring kakaiba sa akin. Did most of the blood got on him?
“Don’t worry too much,” he said as he hid the blotches under his clothes. “I’ll be alright once I drink blood.”
“Oh. So you have an extra vial of blood?”
He snickered. “None.”
Tinitigan ko siya at hindi ko alam kung bakit nakuha niya pang tumawa. “What the heck? What are you still doing here? You should have—”
“I couldn’t leave you here alone,” he said. “And Irus went off before I could tell him to get me some blood.”
Sinamaan ko siya ng tingin dahil parang wala lang sa kanya ang nangyayari. What if he suddenly explodes just like what happened to the Katteris? Hindi ba siya nag-aalala sa pwedeng mangyari?
“Ah,” he exclaimed, cutting me off again. “It’ll be okay. Once we reached Kariota tomorrow, this would disappear.”
I knitted my eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“We’re meeting a mage there,” he said. “See, the mainland is a lot more dangerous than Hallim and Batara. Stronger creatures reside there and we need a mage to strengthen our defense and offense.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. He could have night-traveled us there if he could. He could have used that, too, to collect blood in the cities of Batara but he didn’t. Maybe those blotches were preventing him from using it. And if that was the case, then we wouldn’t reach Kariota by tomorrow.
Muli kong tiningnan ang braso niya at may mga panibagong nadagdag doon kaya napatayo ako. He was in no condition to move. Besides, I felt responsible for those.
“I’ll get the blood for you,” I said even though I wasn’t sure how I would do that.
Tiningnan niya lang ako at makalipas ang ilang sandali ay bigla siyang natawa. “Oh, Lady, you aren’t doing that.”
I raised my eyebrow at him. “And why is that?”
“Can you even defend yourself? Do you know how to do it?”
“I . . . I saw how you did it,” I said despite not being confident. “Besides, I’m not alone.”
“And what do you mean by that?”
“Irus!” tawag ko.
I was ready to get embarrassed and say any excuses because it would be impossible for Irus to be here after calling his name but I yelped and cursed when he suddenly appeared beside me. Oh freak, he really appeared! And what the hell! He was carrying three heads along with him.
“Lady, you called for me?” he asked in a muffled tone.
I was still in shock after seeing him that I just stared at him for a few seconds. He casually threw the heads into the fire and they immediately turned into green dust. Were those the Katteris that cornered us a while ago?
Nakailang buntong-hininga pa ako bago tuluyang kumalma at pakiramdam ko ay tinatawanan na niya ako sa ilalim ng bandages sa mukha niya. I cleared my throat and stood up. Hinarap ko si Kei at tinuro si Irus.
“I-I’ll go with him.”
He looked at me with an are-you-an-idiot kind of expression but I didn’t budge. Sinabi ko rin kay Irus ang kalagayan ni Kei kaya agad siyang sumang-ayon sa gusto kong gawin.
“Khmer, you should’ve told me about it earlier,” Irus said in a cold tone and I almost stepped away from him.
He shrugged. “Well, you ran away before I could tell you about it.”
I heard him grumble. “I’ll get you some blood.”
“No,” Kei objected. “You two together is a bad idea. I’m already getting a bad feeling.”
“Hah! We could also do things without your help,” I retorted. “Right, Irus?”
Irus nodded aggressively.
Bago pa siya makapagreklamo ay kinuha ko mula sa coat niya ang empty vials at muling tumabi kay Irus. Medyo napakunot pa ang noo ko nang nakita kong para siyang nagwa-warm up. I heard Kei heave a loud sigh.
“You’ll regret this,” he muttered.
“I won’t. You better say thank you when we return.”
I was about to tell Irus to lead the way when he suddenly crouched in front of me. He turned his head to me and I stared at him, baffled.
“Lady, hop on,” he said in a serious tone.
Hindi ko matanong kung seryoso ba siya dahil baka bigla na lang siyang magalit. I would never want to anger an assassin.
Wala akong nagawa kundi ang pumasan sa likuran niya. I almost flinched when I felt his steel cold skin despite the military uniform he was wearing.
“Irus,” tawag ni Kei kaya pareho kaming napalingon. “Protect her.”
He nodded in return. Just when I was about to ask if he would run, he suddenly kicked the ground and before I knew it, I was already screaming in fear.
Irus’ running was just as bad as Kei’s night-traveling.
Halos nakakapit na ako nang mahigpit sa leeg niya kanina dahil pakiramdam ko ay malalaglag ako anytime. He was so fast that the wind felt like thousands of arrows prickling through my skin. Nang huminto siya ay napabitaw ako at naramdaman ko ang muling pag-ikot ng tiyan ko.
Damn these guys. Couldn’t they walk in a normal way?
Napatingin naman ako kay Irus at nakaturo siya sa isang street. There were a lot of food stalls and it was packed with people. This was probably in the same city because it looked like there was a festival.
Ibinigay ko sa kanya ang empty vials para siya ang kumuha ng dugo dahil nanghihina pa rin ang mga tuhod ko pero bigla siyang umiling.
“Eh? Why?” tanong ko at tinuro niya ang mukha niya.
Ah. Right. He couldn’t do it looking like that. The victims would probably freak out if they saw a bandaged man approaching them.
Sinubukan ko namang tumayo at kahit nanginginig pa rin ang tuhod ko ay naglakad ako papunta roon sa maliwanag na eskinita. Paglingon ko ay wala na si Irus. I panicked for a second but I could feel his presence around. He was probably watching over me from the shadows.
Napatigil naman ako dahil hindi ko alam kung paano malalaman na ‘pure’ ang kukunan ko ng dugo. Alangan namang tanungin ko sila kung virgin pa sila. That would be weird and extremely rude.
Then, I saw a group of children, maybe around ten to thirteen years old. Oh, right. Children probably had the purest blood. Pero okay lang ba kahit kaninong dugo ang kunin ko?
Napatingin ako sa paligid para hanapin si Irus pero hindi ko siya makita.
“What is it, Lady?”
Halos mapasigaw ako nang marinig ko ang boses niya sa tabi ko. Damn it, this guy would kill me even without beheading me!
“U-uhm, okay lang ba kahit dugo ng lalaki o babae?”
He nodded. “Yes. As long as they are pure.”
Matapos ‘yon ay agad din siyang nawala. I carefully approached them and was about to ask for direction when one boy suddenly tripped over his footwear. Oh. Lucky. Agad ko siyang nilapitan para tulungan.
“Okay ka lang ba?” tanong ko habang inaalalayan siya.
He nodded. “Opo.”
“Oh, you have a wound here,” I said while holding his chin between my fingers.
I imagined my nail getting longer and sharper and when it did, I almost lost my focus. Fortunately, the boy seemed in trance as I continued staring at his eyes. His blood trickled down my fingers and into the vial I was holding. When I filled the first one, I let him go and smiled.
“Thank you,” I said and he dreamily nodded.
Gusto ko pa sanang kumuha ng isang vial pa mula sa kanya pero nang makita kong nanginginig ang tuhod niya habang tumatayo ay na-guilty ako. Maybe that amount of blood was too much for a child. Di bale, marami pa naman akong pwedeng pagkunan.
Maghahanap na sana ako ng next target nang may maramdaman akong kakaiba. The hair on my nape bristled and before I could react, I was already up in the air.
Doon ko lang na-realize na karga na ako ni Irus at nasa bubong na kami ng isang bahay. I heard someone chuckling and when I looked in front of us, I gasped.
“Hello there, lovely lady,” he greeted with a sweet smile.
Irus positioned himself in front of me but I craned my neck to see the one talking. In front of us was the most beautiful man I had ever seen.