Aubrey shoots up, her body ramrod straight as she sheds her discomfort. He gets up more slowly, training the scanner at the center of the tunnel. The shadows shift like storm clouds breaking and then re-forming. Above them, the sky releases a fresh batch of rain. They steadily inch forward, away from their makeshift lean-to, the rain obscuring their vision as they moved away from the shelter and out in the open. Troy walks in front, one hand holding the scanner steady, the other hand tucked at his hip, fingers tracing the familiar holster of his gun. Behind him, slightly to one side, Aubrey already has her palms open, fingers spread out, eyes blinking back the rain.
The shadow in the tunnel seems to retreat slightly, gathering itself. Troy remembers snorkeling somewhere off Palawan, one summer day, a lifetime ago, and saw a school of fish moving through the ocean waters. The tides pushed them this way and that, and yet they seemed to instinctively follow a pattern, become a whole being that surrounded him, that swam around him like a multicolored whirlwind. He thinks the shadow is like that: made up of miniscule pieces that swam together, forming and re-forming into this vast, cloud-like shape that filled the entire tunnel entrance.
The scanner squawks as they approach, a high-pitched whine replacing the low hum. Troy switches it off, shoves it in his pocket, and instead spreads his palm out in a gesture of peace. Blue-white lines flare up across the skin of his open palm, fine lace-like traceries that form a familiar symbol — familiar, at least, if you were of non-human origins. The mark of A.G.I.M.A.T. “My name is Agent Montero,” he says calmly, reciting each word in a low, non-threatening tone. “This is my partner, Agent Miles.”
“Stupid codename,” mutters Aubrey behind him. He ignores her.
“We don’t want to hurt you. We are seeking an artifact that may be with you. This is a dangerous item. Please, we are asking you to give it up so that we can take it to a safe place.” The shadow croons, its sound like a hundred thousand nails scraping across a chalkboard. Aubrey flinches, but Troy keeps on speaking, his voice rising above the din of the rain. “Can you understand me? We don’t want to harm you. Once you give us the item, you’re free to go.”
The cloud — there really is no other word to describe it — visibly trembles, as though it is trying to hang on to its shape. There is no mouth, but they can hear the words coming from the creature. It sounds like rusty car wheels turning on an equally rusty axel. Hello, nameless ones.
“What is that thing?” whispers Aubrey. “I don’t remember seeing it in the manual.”
“No clue, but intel said that it has the weapon.”
Aubrey moves past him, her arms stretched out. Jets of orange flame leap out from her palms, directed towards the black cloud. Troy grabs his gun, cocks off the safety, and aims it at the cloud. He’s got six silver bullets loaded. The cloud dissipates beneath the onslaught of Aubrey’s fire. Her face has lost its softness — her brows are furrowed, her mouth set, and heat in her gaze. She refuses to give up her position; inch by inch she moves towards the cloud, her fire stopping it from forming back into its original shape and size. Steam rises around them, as the drops of water sizzles at first contact with her flames. Troy wishes he’d brought his goggles; his eyes are starting to sting, and he can barely see Aubrey’s small form in front of him. He keeps his grip on the gun tight, holds the muzzle above Aubrey’s shoulders so that he has a clean line of fire, his fingers firmly on the trigger.
You have spunk, little one. Apolaki would be proud of you, were he able to escape his bonds. The creature hisses, as though Aubrey’s fire was able to brand it. And then it begins to expand, taking in the flames as though it was nothing more than air. It rises, filling up the tunnel entrance, hovering above them like a harbinger of doom. He sees Aubrey falter, the flames stopping from her gauntlets, as she takes a step back. Troy could feel the ground tremble as the creature grew, expanding and spreading like storm clouds across the horizon. Still frightened of using your birth names, I see. Your ancestors were the same way. Names have power.
He fires a bullet into the darkness, watched the bright silver cleave through the rain and steam and pierce through the cloud. The creature’s body splits apart as the bullet cuts through, but comes back together just as quickly around the hole. He hears the bullet clatter harmlessly on the damp cement floor behind the creature, an impossibly long time after it was fired.
“Got any more ideas?” asks Aubrey, her bangs plastered across her forehead in a mix of rain and sweat.
“Can you do an incant?”
“Not magical enough. Trust me, they tried.”
He steadies his firing hand, gripping the barrel of the gun tightly to stop his wrist from trembling. He could already feel the pain coursing from his damn wrist and radiating outwards, making his arm feel as though it was wrapped in live wire. “Stand behind me while you recharge,” he says, keeping an eye on the creature as it pulses angrily. It is now starting to seethe, like water boiling for too long, and becoming less amorphous and more like a shadow-creature. It begins to grow appendages, shadow-tentacles that whip back and forth as it attempts to reach them. It smacks against the concrete side of the tunnel with a loud crack and Troy can see chunks of concrete fly away.
“What can make you cold?” he asks Aubrey quietly. Without the rain, the sooty orange sky hangs heavy with scuttling clouds. A hush falls over the construction site, and for once, Troy could see clearly where they were. Debris from the torrential rain was swept down, to the basin of the construction site. Stacks of bricks and concrete blocks were covered by black tarp. Piles of water pipes lay horizontally beside the tunnel, and just beyond, he could see the burbling overfill of an exposed water pipe, swollen with rainwater.
“Um. Airconditioning turned down way, way low. Ice cream. Ice.” She blinks. “It’s in all the movies. Liquid nitrogen.”
“Where the heck are we going to get liquid nitrogen, Troy? We can’t just call for delivery.”
“This is a construction site, there’s got to be some cans lying around. They have an exposed water pipe at the foundation. Liquid nitro is used for that sometimes, to seal it. Go look for a dewar or something like that. They look like shiny silver LPG tanks. It should be near the construction office, or even inside. They’ve got to keep it under lock and key, anyway.” Out of the corner of his eye, Troy sees the monster gathering itself, its appendages now capable of stretching out and actually grabbing them. It whips its cloud-tentacles back and forth, sending a spray of shattered concrete in their direction. Aubrey ducks, and Troy closes his eyes and turns his face. It isn’t painful, but he can feel the rain of debris pummel his arms and chest, momentarily moving his gun off-target.
“What about you?” she asks.
“I’ll keep it occupied. Hurry up.” Aubrey slips away, narrowly avoiding a tendril of darkness as it tried to sweep her off her feet; she jumps over it, knees tucked together, and lands on her feet and at a run. Troy looks back at the creature. It’s now inches away from his face, rising like a wave of blackness, hovering over him. He can hear the voice in his head: I knew your mother, nameless one. I took her soul. She tasted beautiful. And now I will take yours, too.
Terror engulfs him. Troy drops his raised arms, feels the gun slip out from fear-frozen fingers, and stares upwards, eyes wide in horror. Time crawls to a stop. He thinks for a moment that it’s simply another storm coming, and then darkness crashes over him.
“Anak, wake up.” A cool hand touched his brow.
Troy resurfaces, blinking his eyes at the bright sunlight. He knows this place — his childhood bedroom in his small room, the sunshine soaking his sheets with light. He can smell tobacco and leather, and the echo of his mother’s song. Beside him is a middle-aged lady, her hair tucked in a bun, her face warm and her smile bright. She wears a pair of dark purple plastic spectacles, and there are crow’s feet around her eyes and laugh lines decorating the corners of her lips.
She gently smooths away his hair away from his forehead and cups his cheek. “I’m sorry, anak.”
“Where are we?” Troy sits up, and his head spins.
“Inside the kulam. It’s been trying to destroy my little place for years now, but I’ve kept it at bay. Think of it as the eye of the storm.” She gives him a small smile. “It’s good that you didn’t give up your name to the kulam. That’s why you’re here, instead of being absorbed into its darkness.”
He nods. “And who are you?”
“Oh, don’t you remember me?” she asks. “Though it’s been twenty years since you saw me, so I suppose that it’s difficult to make the connection.” She shimmers and her form is replaced by a slender woman in a white cotton shift, her long braided black hair falling to her waist. He could smell roses and sampaguitas. “There. Is this better?”
“Inay?” he asks, incredulous.
She nods. He leans into her touch. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve been here all this time.”
He thinks back to the procession of distant relatives, of being passed on from family to family like an unwanted piece of luggage, of moving away from Manila, moving back to Manila, of acquiring the ability to put together his entire life into one bag. He feels his tears, bottled up tight for years, spilling from his eyes and coursing down his cheeks. “No you weren’t,” he manages to say from between clenched teeth.
“Oh, don’t say that.” His mother sits closer to him. He wants to hug her, to sink into her warmth, to pretend that everything that had happened in the last twenty years was nothing more than a bad dream. He tightens his hands into fists, feeling his nails dig into his palms. “I know you think we’ve abandoned you, but the truth is, we’ve been here all along.”
She touches him, sweeps his forehead with her thumb. “Right here. We’ve been right here all this time.”
“I saw you die.”
“You saw our bodies die. But we never really disappear from this world. We’re tied to the land, us creatures of the earth, and we can’t die. Not unless the great Lakapati herself undoes our spirit, thread by thread, unspooling the life that she wove.” She pats his cheek. “I’m sorry, anak. I wish there was a better way to save you, but your father and I knew that you’d find a way.”
“Save me from what?”
Her face becomes serious, her soft dark eyes turning to steel. “You must know about the weapon. A.G.I.M.A.T. sent you to find it, right? It must not fall into their hands. We’ve been keeping it safe all this time, waiting for you to find us and claim it as your birth right.”
“You’ve been keeping it safe here?”
“Where else to hide a weapon but in plain sight?” His mother smiles impishly. “The kulam is a powerful creature, but it’s not very bright. Or introspective. It just wants to destroy, anak.” She gives him a secret smile and reaches into the pocket of her dress. She draws out a small item, no larger than her hand. It is triangular, and gleams dully in the sunlight. Intricate carvings cover both sides of the pendant. It hangs on a rawhide string looped through the top of the pendant. A single, unblinking eye carved on the surface of the pendant stares back at him. “This is where all the anting-anting comes from,” she says, placing the amulet in his hands. “The ones you see in Quiapo. I’m sure some two-bit magician saw this and tried making his own, and it’s been passed down. None of those have any kind of power. But this — ” and she curves Troy’s fingers around the pendant, ” — is the real one, the only one that can protect you.
“It’s called the Infinito Dios. Bathala Himself was the one who forged it, in the mountains, a very long time ago. The Council thought it was lost. Nobody had ever seen it. But we were tasked with its safekeeping, until the portents were correct — when you were born, anak.” She smiles proudly at him. “It’s a small machine, and you wear it as you would a pendant. It exudes an impermeable force field around the wearer. Nothing can penetrate it, because it’s tied to your thoughts. As long as your mind is strong and capable, neither physical nor magical means can break the shield.”
“So it’s not a weapon,” says Troy. “At least, not an offensive weapon.”
“No, it’s not. And there are a lot of people and creatures who would want to get hold of that. It’s your birth right,” she says, giving him a mysterious smile. “Or rather, you are the pendant’s birth right.”
“Go on,” she says. “Wear it.”
He slips the cord over his neck. The pendant is cool against his chest. He can feel the tendrils of power searching for his core, and he lets it. It’s like finding the perfect key to open a particularly difficult lock. He can feel the difference: he can breathe easier, like a weight he’d didn’t even know existed was finally lifted off his chest. His mother looks at him with patient eyes, and he returns her gaze. “We’re very proud of you, anak.”
He can feel rain lashing his back, and knows that this isn’t real, that this is just a dream, and that soon he’ll feel the suffocating strength of the kulam surround him once more. But he can’t help but ask: “Will I see you again?”
His vision blurs, as though water had been poured over glass. His mother’s form shimmers, moves out of focus. “We’re always here, anak.”
And then he feels the weight of the black cloud crash against his shoulders as the bedroom, the sunlight, his mother disappears and he returns to the reality of the storm.
But the pendant seems to know what to do. He feels a burst of energy from his chest, expanding upwards and around him like a bubble, pushing away the creature that was attempting to smother him. He can feel the cold slowly ebbing away, the rain nothing more than mist as the bubble extends upwards, forcing the creature to back away. He bends down to scrabble for his gun, which had fallen at his feet.
At the corner of his eye, he can see Aubrey running towards him with a slim silver canister in her arms. “Troy!” she yells. “I’ve found it!” The monster lets out a frustrated roar as its appendages attempt to grasp the protective bubble that arcs over his head, attempts to wrap around the dome. He can see the darkness obscuring the sky above him, the rain splattering across the surface of the bubble. Aubrey is coming closer, her fingers already grappling with the canister’s lever. Her eyes are wide as she notices that the monster seems to be unable to touch him.
He knows it before it actually happens: Aubrey’s fingers are cold and tired and it slips from the canister. He can see the fuck-it-all look in her eyes as she slips on a particualrly muddy patch of ground and lets go of the canister. It rolls away from her as she falls to the ground. He is running before he can even think, the bubble following his every movement as he sprints towards the canister.
The kulam follows him, the black cloud grasping hungrily at the bubble. He reaches the canister at his feet, and realizes that, for the first time that night, the surroundings are clear. He turns around, his protective dome repelling the rain. He sees the darkness rushing towards Aubrey, and he sprints after it, fumbling for the canister’s lever. His wrist is hurting again, and he’s trying to hold on to both his gun and the canister. The pendant is white-hot against his chest, and he’s sure he can feel it burning a hole through his shirt.
“Troy!” she screams as the darkness engulfs her. He sees her hand flicker ineffectually, attempting to produce a flame from her gauntlets. Sparks dance on her palm, then fizzle out. The kulam crows in triumph as it covers Aubrey’s body. Troy does not hear himself shout; he does not realize that he has aimed his gun at the shadow and shoots once, twice, trying to distract the creature from Aubrey.
It works. The shadow visibly flinches as silver cuts through its form. I will take you both, it says, slithering over the words as though it had snakes for tongues. I will make you a part of me, where you will scream in agony forever. It twists towards him, but now he’s ready. He fires the nozzle at the kulam. A thick, white gas sprays out of the canister and hits the shadow. It contracts violently, curling over the gas as it tries to contain it. It contorts around the area, the transformation from gas to solid quicker than it realized. The cloud rapidly turns to a ball of solid black that hangs suspended in the air like a solid ball of jet for a moment before crashing to the ground and shattering into a million sharp pieces. The shards shiver, attempting to return to its form. Troy blasts the pieces with the spray until the canister is empty and the shards stop trembling.
There is a weak groan from Aubrey. He shuts down the shield with a thought, and shudders as the rain quickly drenches him to the bone once more. He throws the empty canister aside and kneels beside Aubrey. She has scratches on her face and arms, but her eyes are wide open and she gives him a weak smile. “Did you get him?” she asks as he supports her head on his lap and brushes her bangs away from her forehead.
He nods, not trusting himself to form words yet.
“Wasn’t on the monster,” he says. The amulet is warm against his chest, a pleasant weight.
“It’s okay,” she says. “Did I do good?”
“Yes. You did great, partner.” He smiles at her; she’s going to fit in just right. He shifts a bit to take his phone from his pocket and sends a message back to HQ to get them out of there, stat. He receives an affirmative ten seconds later. “They’re coming,” he tells Aubrey. “How are you feeling?”
“Like someone tried sucking the soul out of me,” she says weakly.
He laughs. “You’ll be all right.”
She tries to smile. “Hey, your phone is ringing again.”
Troy glances back at the small machine in his hand. It’s Elsa. She’s probably going to yell at him again for not calling her, for not communicating. He glances at the digital time readout on the phone screen. It’s 4:55. Almost dawn. The rain stops, as abruptly as it began. Above them, the storm clouds concede to the impending sunrise.
He can feel the weight of the Infinito Dios around his neck, can feel the weight of the story that he’s formulating in his head in order to explain the events of the night, to explain why they were unable to retrieve the weapon. He wonders how long he can keep this secret from the agency. Surely the magical scans in place will be able to detect it? The pendant pulses against his chest, as if assuring him that it can protect itself. He thinks about his mother, the scent of sampaguita and roses faint in the rain-washed air, and wonders if she survived. He wonders who sent the kulam in the first place, who orchestrated the whole thing. He wonders if Elsa will ever understand his life.
The weight of Aubrey’s head on his lap is comfortable, and he can feel the steady rise and fall of her breathing as she falls into an exhausted sleep. In the distance, he can hear the steady snap-snap-snap of helicopter blades. “It’s okay,” he says, even though he knows that Aubrey can’t hear him anymore. “I don’t need to answer it.”
Gabriela Lee is an experienced writer, editor, and content creator of both print and web publications. She has been published for both poetry and fiction in the Philippines and abroad. She holds a Master’s degree in literary studies.
The above image is from here.