Ana thought about what courage meant. Courage must be standing up in the face of imminent death—it couldn’t be anything else, right? Could it be looking death in the eye like an old uninvited friend and telling it to come back another day? Surely, it’s staying up despite the coming dangers and getting back up from every fall. She couldn’t answer her own questions.
Ana only felt the fear. Pure, cold, unadulterated fear, and it consumed her. Her legs buckled beneath her, and she fell to the ground, tears falling down her cheeks. The world moved slowly as if savoring the taste of Ana’s fear in the air. She looked away, unable to bear the bloodlust in the eyes of her would-be killers.
And then a voice echoed in the dark. “Ana!”
Ana looks up to search for Kalem, but she could not find him.
“Ana! Run!” Kalem’s voice echoed again in the distance, and an arrow shot at the heart of the nearest Busaw warrior.
She steeled her nerves and pushed herself upright. She felt braver. No, she felt the need to be brave when she heard Kalem’s voice. She took one last look around her, hoping to find Kalem and looking for a clear path to run through. Two more arrows shot at the Busaw warriors from the east, clearing a path for Ana. She turned to run to the east, and there she saw Kalem with Alunsina. Kalem was running towards her, and Ana ran, too, to meet him. Alunsina shot arrows at all the Busaws that pursued her from behind.
From the corner of her eye, Ana saw the blonde man kick open the cage and run westward, her dagger glowing blue in the moonlight. She stopped and ran to chase after him, barely evading Busaws.
“Ana!” Kalem yelled at her, stopping and turning back from the herd of Busaws that had blocked his path and began to chase him.
Ana looked back and saw Kalem run from the herd; some had begun to pursue her, too.
She chased the blonde man into the forest, dodging loose branches, sidestepping sharp rocks, and slipping on muddy paths. The moonlight barely hit the floor of the forest, and the blue glowing dagger was the clearest light. He heard a series of screeches behind her that met with the loud roars of the Busaws.
But she dared not look behind her, afraid that looking back would slow her down. She just ran, and ran, and ran after the light. She ran until she couldn’t feel her legs anymore. She ran until every muscle in her body screamed in pain. She ran until her ears rang with the blood rushing to her head.
She thought she heard a bird song in the distance but shook it off and trained her eyes only on her prey.
Suddenly, the light of her dagger was snuffed out, and she stopped in the middle of the darkness, unable to distinguish righ from left. She tried to step forward only to be met by sharp rocks under her foot. She groped around for a tree to lean on, hoping to catch her breath. She slippedand fell on the muddy path, her head hitting a thin three trunk.
And then full darkness.
Ana felt an unbearable lightness of being. Her body floated aimlessly in a sea of darkness like only her mind ever existed in the physical world. Different voices drowned out the sound of bird song in her head, the way words sounded like when spoken underwater.
The voices became louder, and soon, Ana realized the voices were mocking her, laughing at her. She opened her eyes to still darkness, but the darkness was pierced by glowing opal eyes that shone light on the tree bark faces of her tormentors. Her heart was still racing, but she found that the newfound bravery still hadn’t worn off.
“Look, a woman…”
“Are you sure that’s a human woman?”
“Yeah, and not a Busaw woman?”
“Not very many human colonies around here…”
“Exactly. But lots of Busaw.”
“Look at her. All covered in mud and grime…”
“She barely smells human. Eww.”
Ana rubbed her temples, looking for the creatures talking about her.
“If none of you want her, then I’ll take her.”
“Hey! Who said you can take her?”
“I yield. She’s much too scrawny for my liking.”
“I don’t! She might just need a good bath.”
“What will you do if this woman turns out to be Busaw?”
“Maybe we can throw her back into the water.”
“Yeah, maybe she can scrub the Busaw off herself.”
“Hey! It’s not like I’m lying on a bed of roses here!” Ana called out bravely, when she regained all her senses. She wiped off the mud on her face.
“Look! She can talk! I knew she was human.”
“She’s a bit feisty, too. I like it.”
“I’m right here! Talk to me!” Ana said, standing up slowly and yelling into the forest as she looked around for her tormentors. “Come out here and show yourself to me, you cowards!”
The forest echoed with laughter again. The opal eyes glimmered in the darkness
“Oooooh, the brave little girl wants to face the Mantiw Forest all by her little old self!”
“Bata! Bata! You sure you can handle it seeing us?”
“Try me!” Ana yelled.
The canopy cleared a path for the moonlight to hit the forest floor. It shone on her path and on the trees who were all smiling at her. Acacia, bayabas, pine, bamboo.
A branch of a tree pushed her from behind. Another pushed her again, until she was passed from one tree to another in a forest full of magical trees.
“Who’s the brave little girl now, huh? Huh?” the trees taunted and laughed at her as she squealed and shrieked every time she was passed around.
When she fell to the ground, she yelled, her voice breaking as she began to cry again. “Stop it! Stop! Just stop!”