1. Relic

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Thick, dense, and cold fog. It feels foreign. Alien even. 

It doesn't help that whichever direction she turns to, forest confronted her. She doesn't recognize any of the trees, the stones that lay about, or the ground she stood upon. A long streak of lightning lights the sky up, but no name or landmark comes to mind.

She has nothing on her to carry through the fog and forest. Even her neck is bare, leaving her vulnerable and naked. But she has to move forward, else the storm would catch up to her and the forest consumes her for good.

She takes quick but careful steps forward. There is no path to follow, so she keeps to a straight direction. Touching the trunks, she could sense that these trees are not native to any region, that they possess energy unlike the dormant ones she could easily recognize. She listens hard to the sounds around her for flapping wings, growls, or anything unnatural; she hopes that the trees would be a good enough shield if in case a wandering wakwak or manananggal decides to surprise her.

She sees a bit of light up ahead, and quickens her pace. The fog begins to thin as she approaches the final stretch of forest. A vast meadow welcomes her next where a huge boulder sits at the center of the site. It struck fear and excitement in her. Without trees around to hide her or a weapon to use to protect herself, she's pretty much vulnerable prey should she walk towards the boulder.

Before she could even decide on what to do, she senses an impending threat coming from within the forest behind her. She jumps out and runs as fast as her legs can take her, her eyes fixed onto the solitary boulder, beckoning her to come. She reaches the boulder and jumps onto it. As soon as her feet touched its smooth surface, the forest behind her and the entire meadow disappears and is replaced by a scene that has haunted her for nine years.

She jumps off the docked bangka. It's high tide and the fishermen are heading back to shore. She remembers how treacherous the sea is and that everyone called out to stay away from its waves.

To her surprise, the waves begin to rise and take shape right in front of her.

Her heart stopped.

Creating a kind of whirlpool, the sea reveals a body wrapped in a red T-shirt and a pair of white board shorts. She recognizes the flock of birds printed on the shirt—Ilumin's favorite shirt.

"Ilumin!" she cries out. She runs towards the raging sea, her arm outstretched. Ilumin's mouth hung and his eyes were white. His arms and legs are limp and his skin showed the kind of paleness you see in the drowned.

Frightened, she stops moving. The waves push her to and fro, but she remains steady in the middle of the rage.

Flashes of lightning appear in the darkened sky, followed by the deafening bellows of thunder. A strange image flashes in sync with the storm. She squints hard to keep the salty rain from getting into her eyes as she makes out the form. Another flash reveals an ancient relic with six empty holes and a dark blue gem lodged at its center. Far from her reach, it disappears before she could even make anything out of it. Her surroundings began to change in rapid motion with every flash and rumble. Forest, sea, meadow, boulder, her apartment, Ilumin, sea, forest, the relic, meadow, boulder, his dead body—

"Ilumin!"

Gasping for air, Ilsa grabbed the glass of water she always placed by her bedside table and gulped. Images from the dream ran through her mind, each one as mysterious as the other. She remembered her twin's deathly stare, and for the first time in nine years since leaving Villa de Luna, she felt hope.

Exhausted and wide awake, Ilsa threw the covers and sat up. 2:56AM, the clock says. She exhaled, her heart returning to its normal pace, and went to the kitchen to refill her water. Outside, the road has grown silent, with just a couple of taxis and private cars wandering here and there. At the kitchen, she switched on the kitchen lights, placed her journal on the table, and sat down.

The condominium unit where Ilsa lived in could only fit a maximum of 4-5 people. The distance from her bedroom to the receiving and dining area is exactly eight steps apart. It wasn't an easy start for her, but after saving six months' worth of wages from her job at the Philippine National Police, she managed to buy inexpensive yet durable furniture that allowed her to read and work from home. More importantly, the lack of space complimented the interior as it enabled her to work in absolute solitude.

Well, most of the time anyway.

Thirty minutes into the night, and all Ilsa had were sketches of Ilumin and the relic. The relic was especially difficult to visualize, yet Ilsa couldn't stop thinking about it. What is this relic and why did it appear in my dream? She couldn't remember seeing anything of the sort among her books and encyclopedias, yet she had this gut feeling that it would appear again and perhaps provide a connection between its existence and her brother. 

She traced the seven holes with her finger. Each hole is carved different from the other, yet they are able to form a perfect circle. The gem at the center was a blur to her though, but she remembered it having a slim crevice that a slim piece of jewelry or key could fill. It soon dawned on her that the entire thing was a puzzle piece of its own, and finding the pieces would reveal its purpose.

Ilsa's thoughts fell onto Ilumin. Her heart ached to see her brother — she had struggled to bury this very ache all this years — yet even if it seemed as if he truly is dead, she could not shake off the tinge of hope in her heart. The sea in the vision may be telling her that Ilumin could still be found, and that the relic could lead her to him. 

Ilsa stood up, her body filled with the excitement she once felt when she was assigned to her first assignment. She rushed to her tiny office, pulled out a fresh folder out of her steel cabinet, and filled the sketches with it. Marking it as "RELIC," she decided to take these with her tomorrow to the office. Perhaps Makoy or Sasa, two of her colleagues and the best in dealing with extraordinary objects and treasures, would have plausible answers.

As soon as she stowed her things away, drowsiness soon crept in and forced her to head back to bed. With Ilumin and the seashore as her remaining thoughts for the morning, Ilsa fell asleep. 

***

Ninety-three years had turned the bailan, Saoyen, into a hard and unbending rock. From bloody tribal battles to interracial ceremonies that lasted for months, she's seen and experienced all that an old woman of her capabilities could. Her emotions solidified and her knowledge vast, she had answers to the villagers' pressing questions, problems, and troubles.

Today, for the first time, Saoyen had no answers to what was unfolding before her.

The clouds moved at seemingly rapid speed to enclose the sun and block out his shade. Thunder rumbled in frequent bursts, but no rain or lightning appeared in the sky. The strangest of all was how silent and immobile the birds and the animals have become. Not a single bird moved from their branch nor did the forest creatures run off when the people came close to them. They all were fixated on the sky above, as if expecting one of the high deities to fall from their seats on Kalangitan.

Saoyen listened to the thunder. It was troubled, yet it could not tell her the reason behind its incessant cries. In fact, she could not feel or hear anything as she sent prayers to the high deities.

Bathala could not hear her voice, and neither could she feel his presence any longer. 


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