The past is a distant place. It feels farther away the more time passes by. Memory is a direct path to it, and every step on those pathways can sometimes reopen old wounds and sometimes cuts skin anew. But memory is not infallible. Wounds heal over time, though scars remain.
Ana only knew her mother in that one memory of drowning. The one-eyed stranger standing across her and Kalem in the clearing was nothing like the woman in her memories. Kalem knew the woman, too, but she was far from the strong independent woman he had known a lifetime ago. Just looking at her reopened old wounds, old doubts, old failures.
Mayari scrambled to her feet at the first sight of her daughter with Kalem.
“You,” Kalem said, venom in his voice.
“You’re still alive,” Mayari said. Ana thought she heard a hint of apology in her tone. Crisostomo ran to his master’s side, protectively wrapping its long tail around her waist. The other Kibaans followed suit.
“No thanks to you,” Kalem said, stepping back as a Kibaan placed itself between them. Mayari called it back with a flick of her hand.
“Kalem,” Ana said, the sound of her voice visibly calming him down.
He looked at her tenderly, as if to reassure her that he wouldn’t do anything rash. He turned to look behind them. Alunsina stood there, bow and quiver hanging from her body.
“Alunsina, this is the woman who sacrificed thousands of Dayos to the Asuang,” Kalem said, turning to glare at Mayari. Alunsina covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes wide in disbelief. She dared not join the exchange.
“I don’t need to explain myself to you,” Mayari said, her voice low, anger barely in check. “They chose to fight for me.”
“They were fighting for equality in their own homeland,” Kalem said, raising his voice. “Not another dictator.”
“You think I didn’t want equality? You think I don’t have personal stakes in this war?” Mayari yelled, throwing up her arms. “I had to leave my daughter in the dying world!”
“You wanted a crown—” Kalem yelled back but didn’t finish when Ana spoke up.
“Is that why you left me?” Ana said, tears streaming down her cheeks again. “You left me with strangers because you had personal stakes in this world? Is that why…”
Mayari attempted to approach Ana, but Kalem stood between them.
“Anak… That’s not…” Mayari tried to push past Kalem, who unsheathed his dagger in warning. “Get out of the way, boy,” Mayari warned, stepping back while her Kibaan troop bared their fangs at Kalem. “This is between me and my daughter.”
Kalem raised the dagger. From behind them, Alunsina raised her bow and drew an arrow. The Kibaan growled and gritted their teeth, their tails thick with tension as they whipped in the air, ready to pounce at the Mangkukulam’s command. Mayari conjured a dagger out of thin air.
“Stop!” Ana yelled, positioning herself in the center of the growing tension. Everyone stopped, and all weapons were lowered. They gave Ana a quick glance before their attention was drawn to the lone arrow that had been shot.
Alunsina shot her drawn arrow at the tree on the other side of the clearing. The blonde man had somehow set himself free when the Kibaan went to defend their master. The blonde man stooped and stumbled back, barely evading the arrow, which buried itself deep into the tre. The Mangkukulam waved a command at Crisostomo, which led its troop of monkey-like creatures in pursuing the blonde man. Mayari and Alunsina followed suit. Kalem looked at Ana, took her hand, and followed the group.
Seeing the angry Kibaan horde running after him, Bantu stood up quickly and looked around for a place to run. His only path of escape was through ruins, and he hesitated.
Cristostomo let out an ear-splitting screech, giving Bantu no choice but to run through the ruins.
The Kibaan stopped right at the edge of the ruins and looked to their master for another command.
“Leave him,” Mayari said, approaching the edge of the ruins. “He won’t live through the night in Aleman.”
“Like all the Malayan Dayo you left for dead in Aleman,” Kalem said, clenching his fist on the handle of his dagger and putting it back into the sheath. Kalem stepped closer to the witch with Ana in tow. Alunsina stood to the side and looked at the ruins of an old Dayo colony. “This is where you lost the war.”
“I lost more than the war,” the Mangkukulam muttered.
A long cobblestone road lay ahead of them, lined on either side by large structures and smaller alleyways, some hollowed out to their foundations. The floors were littered with dead leaves, worn-down carts and wheelbarrows, and discarded clothes all leading up to a pile in the middle of what looked like a plaza with a hole dug in the middle. Big black spots stained the walls and floors. On some of the foundations hung nooses.
“I’ve only heard stories…” Alunsina began. “I didn’t know that it was this big… that it could feel this… dark.” She knelt and muttered something under her breath while looking intently at the ruins. Kalem squeezed Ana’s hand. Ana felt an overwhelming fear build up inside her and cold chill down her spine.
Mayari sighed and sheathed her own dagger.
“I do feel remorse,” she said after a long period of silence, sounding defeated. “I never thought that my brother could be this cruel.”
No one answered, afraid to break the momentary peace, afraid that speaking another word about the past might disrespect the place. Alunsina rose from her prayer and looked to Kalem for what to do next.
Finally, Kalem said, “We shold go save the idiot.”
And without saying another word, they all agreed that was the only next step that made sense.
Ana and Alunsina searched on the eastern side of the village. She didn’t know how to wield her dagger, but she took it out just as well. Its blade shone in the moonlight, but it wasn’t glowing blue. Even just a little bit. No monster or Asuang around. Good. But could it be that something else much more fearsome scared off all the predators? Ana put the thought in the back of her mind. She took the blade not glowing blue as a good sign nonetheless.