My retainers and I quietly followed Rurik toward a castle tower, quite a distance from the main building. It was a round stone tower about 12-15 meters in height. Strange vines—from those with black leaves to glimmering flowers—crept on the walls.
The interior was much more intimidating. Halos mapatigil ako sa paglalakad nang buksan ni Rurik ang pinto. The ground floor was mostly bare, but the gargoyles and caskets displayed in each corner made it look sinister. We climbed the spiral stairs and entered a room that looked like a medieval laboratory.
"Strap him," Rurik ordered to the two guards.
Agad naman nilang inihiga si Kei sa makitid na lamesa. Chains suddenly appeared once he lied down, and they twisted around him. Kei tried to disentangle himself from them, but the more he struggled, the tighter they bind him down.
"Lady." Moria stepped in front of me before I could even walk toward him. She stared at me with a hint of warning and Irus did the same.
Napabuntonghininga na lamang ako at tahimik na nanood. It was hard to see Kei in pain as he looked at me, but if this was needed to bring him back to his old self, then I had to endure, too.
Rurik pulled some old books from the shelves at the far side of the room. He also brought several glassware and concoctions. He set them down on the table next to Kei and started preparing for whatever he would be doing.
"Is he going to be okay?" pabulong kong tanong kay Moria.
She pursed her lips. "Rurik is one of the best arcanes here, but there has never been a case like this. Saving Khmer will be hard even for someone like him."
"Why does it feel like someone is badmouthing me?" Rurik suddenly commented as he pulled out a linen pouch.
As if on cue, Sigrid, who was quietly standing beside me, recoiled, and hissed at Rurik. She distanced herself from whatever Rurik was holding and turned her head away. Ganoon din ang reaksyon ni Kei. He was aggressively trying to break free.
"What is that?" tanong ko.
He lips curved upward. "A tracker's weakness."
Come to think of it, hindi ko pa alam ang weakness ni Kei. For assassins like Irus, it was sunlight. Hawthorn and wildrose were fatal to mages, while someone like me could die if exposed to sacred grounds.
Binuksan niya ang pouch at halos magwala na si Kei nang ibuhos niya iyon sa gilid niya pero napakunot ang noo ko sa nakita ko. Grains of rice were strewn all over the table and floor. I thought Kei would struggle more but he suddenly stopped moving. He stared at the grains and went silent.
Napatingin ako kay Moria. "What happened?"
She sighed. "He's counting them."
I was taken aback by the absurdity of the situation. Seryoso ba? Grains were the weakness of trackers?
"Trackers have arithmomania," she replied. "They will compulsively count seeds or grains until they finish everything."
"What . . . ?"
"It's both their strength and weakness," Rurik added. "Since they are obsessed with counting, they are best suited in trailing and management roles. However, they direct their focus solely on that, hence they are susceptible to ambush attacks. They are especially responsive to grains," he said, gesturing at how Kei was quietly keeping tally of them in his mind.
Doon ko lang din na-realize kung paano mag-focus si Kei noon sa mga bagay. He would always know how much distance he would need to night-travel or his subtle yet elaborate plans during our journey. Napatingin din ako kay Sigrid at nakatalikod pa rin siya sa amin. Fortunately, she managed to fall back before seeing those seemingly harmless grains.
"Now that he has settled, we need to draw your blood out of his body," Rurik said.
"Oh, you can directly extract blood from bodies?"
He chuckled. "Oh no, princess. Only one person can do that here. But I think I can separate his from yours using ritual magic."
He started drawing some sigil around Kei using his own blood. Unsurprisingly, everyone did not react with its smell. Gaya ng sinabi ni Kei dati, the class of undead beneath the high clans could only feed on humans' blood. Of course, they could drink ours, too, but it comes with a cruel curse.
Rurik marked out runes that started glowing crimson as soon as he completed them. His gaze shifted to me. "Princess, I need a drop of your blood."
I was taken aback by the sudden request. "Eh?"
"All of you," he said, looking at my retainers and the guards present, "step back."
Agad silang lumayo sa amin at halos nandoon na silang lahat sa bandang pintuan. I already knew how enticing my blood was to them, but it still felt quite upsetting and mortifying whenever I see the terror on their faces.
Heaving a sigh, I stepped closer to Rurik. He said he just needed a drop of my blood that would serve as the anchor and detector for what was inside Kei's veins.
"Will this really work?" muli kong tanong.
"Honestly, I cannot say," Rurik responded. "As I have said a while ago, high clans do not really care about the cursed ones. Most cases were, in fact, deliberate. They do that to traitors and captured enemies. In accidental cases," sabay tingin niya kay Kei, "well, there has never been one, since drinking a high clan's blood means treason."
Muli akong kinilabutan nang marinig ko iyon. I finally understood Irus' and Moria's reactions when they said Kei had fallen under the curse. They knew his death was inevitable.
. . . but I did not want him to die because of me.
"Here, princess," said Rurik, handing me a knife that looked similar to what Kei had. However, instead of the iridescent purple and crimson sheen, the blade looked like it was forged from darkness. Its obsidian blade gleamed eerily as I shifted the black hilt on my left hand.
"Isn't this a djall?"
If I remembered correctly, a djall could absorb high-quality blood. Wait, why didn't we use it when Kei drank mine? Did Irus and Moria forget about his weapon?
He nodded. "It is, but a special one."
"It can absorb the high-quality blood from his body, right?"
"Unfortunately, your blood has become cursed the moment it entered him, and a normal djall cannot draw out cursed blood." He stared curiously at the blade. "But perhaps a cursed one can."
The blade felt heavier and colder in my hands after hearing that. It was as if the blade was emitting its malice.
"Your blood will activate the hex," sabay turo niya sa runes at symbols na iginuhit niya sa paligid ni Kei. "Cursed djallsrespond to curses, but their hunger is insatiable. Let us hope it won't dry him out, like what usually happens to cursed undead once they are purged."
I quietly nodded despite not understanding half of what he just said. Basta mailigtas si Kei, okay na ako. He did not deserve to die as a mindless servant after all.
Huminga ako nang malalim at naghanda sa ipapagawa ni Rurik. He took back the blade and started chanting spells. The runes glowed brighter, and Kei finally shifted his focus on him. Rurik held the blade right above Kei's chest and glanced at me.
Trembling, I lightly pressed the blade with my index finger. Blood trickled down my finger and Rurik winced so hard he almost stumbled. As expected, he, too, was affected with the scent of my blood. When a droplet fell onto the sigil, I immediately covered my finger with the cloth he prepared earlier.
Kei strongly reacted to it, too. He convulsed aggressively as soon as the cursed djall's edges glowed dark crimson. But I did not expect what happened next.
My face was frozen in horror as blood suddenly erupted from his nose and mouth. The liquid swirled violently around the djallheld by Rurik, but it seemed like it was craving for more.
"Tich," Rurik cursed under his breath as he tried to keep the blade in control.
"Why won't it stop?!" halos pasigaw kong tanong nang patuloy pa ring lumalabas ang dugo kay Kei.
"It means your blood has already infected most of his!"
I was already panicking when the blood gushing out of him formed into a huge blob, approximately two liters in volume. But before I could say anything again, the torrent of blood finally came to a stop.
His body went limp, and I stared in terror as his ashen face turned paler and gaunt. For a second, I was scared that he would just suddenly disintegrate.
Napalingon ako kay Rurik. "H-he's alright, isn't he?"
The globule of blood was gradually getting sucked up by the djall and I just realized that a cursed blood was much darker—almost purplish black—in color.
Rurik sighed in relief as he covered the grains on the table with a cloth. "For now, yes. It seems like the cursed blood has been removed. Fortunately, your blood hasn't infected all of his, but infected enough of it for him to be in a critical state. If you were even an hour late, it would already be hopeless."
Para naman akong nabunutan ng tinik sa dibdib nang marinig ko iyon. The remaining strength in my legs had left me and I collapsed on my knees.
"Lady!" a chorus of voices yelled.
Pagtingin ko ay parang bigla na lang lumitaw sa magkabilang gilid ko sina Irus, Moria, at Sigrid. I told them that I was okay and just momentarily lost my strength, but they started making a fuss.
"I'm really okay," I insisted while standing up.
Napatigil naman kaming lahat nang biglang gumalaw ang mga daliri ni Kei. His gaze wandered for seconds until it landed on me.
Kei inhaled sharply and struggled to his feet. "L-lady—!"
As expected, he lost his balance. He was in no shape to move at all. Mabuti na lang at agad siyang naalalayan nina Irus at Rurik.
"He lost several pints of blood," Rurik remarked. "He needs a lot of nutrients."
"Human blood . . ." I blurted out.
Rurik walked toward one of the shelves and gently tapped the rightmost ledge. Napanganga na lang ako nang biglang nahati ang shelf sa gitna at bumukas na parang pinto. He entered the hidden room and few seconds later, he was already holding a huge jar.
"Here," sabay abot niya no'n kay Kei, but he could not even lift his arm anymore.
"Irus," tawag ko at kahit na wala pa akong sinasabi ay alam na niya agad ang gagawin.
He assisted Kei and let him drink the blood inside the jar. The sight of an undead gulping down blood was still kind of nauseating for me, but what mattered the most was that he was safe and back to his old self.
Halos maubos niya sa isang inuman ang laman ng jar, and I wasn't sure if I should feel glad or grossed out. Yes, I did crave for it once, but I don't think I'd thirst for it again after seeing that.
Matapos niyang inumin iyon ay muli siyang tumingin sa akin. He stared at me long enough for me to feel uncomfortable. Nagulat naman ako nang bigla siyang lumuhod sa harapan ko.
"Please accept my deepest gratitude, lady," he said in a hoarse whisper. "Thank you for returning my freedom."
The tears that I was holding back for a while were threatening to fall. I sniffed quietly and forced a smile. "Just . . . please, don't do that again. You almost died."
He lightly chuckled. "Oh, but I'm already an undead, lady."
Aba't nakuha niya pang magbiro. I was about to remind him that he was just on the verge of death a moment ago, but Sigrid suddenly stepped in.
"As much as I do not want to interrupt the celebration of your revival," she remarked as she shot a glare at Kei, "I have to. Princess," sabay tingin niya sa akin. "The royal family is waiting. You need to be there. Now."
Right. I was about to meet them when I saw my retainers from my room. Para tuloy akong nabuhusan ng malamig na tubig nang ma-realize kong pinaghihintay ko sila ngayon.
I faced Sigrid and nodded. "Alright. Let's go."
"We're going with you, lady," Moria chimed in, earning a contemptuous look from Sigrid.
Agad naman akong tumango. It would be much more comforting to have them by my side after all that happened.
I bid my goodbye to Rurik and thanked him again for saving Kei. He said we would see each other again in the castle and he would be looking forward to that. The five of us walked out of his tower and Sigrid led the way toward the throne room.
Now, it's time to meet my real family.