Ben has been awake for some time now. His platoon leader would scold him, but the soldier wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep on the eve of this major operation. Some simply kept to their cots, staring at nothing above them. The more restless decided to go around. He saw several hanging out in the many mess halls of Corregidor’s Malinta Tunnel, while a good number gathered in small knots.
Ben, his restlessness more than most, took one of the many exits leading to an observation post outside of the Tunnel. Sentries there did little to challenge him, or his desire to stay. Perhaps they, veterans of this long war, knew what he was going through. Ben found a small nook where he wouldn’t get in the way of the sentries and let his thoughts wander.
He wondered what it would be like when they crossed Manila Bay and landed on the city itself. His unit would drop on the landing zone to be established by the pintado on what was formerly the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex. The super soldiers, so named for their intricate tattoos that were in reality expressions of their arcanotechnological augmentations, would hit the complex first to clear enough of the place for the rest of the assault force. There was a lot of open ground there, and it was right across the bay with a small port, making it a perfect LZ and forward command post. Ben’s company would help secure that area before joining a general push to their unit’s first objective, the old Pasay maglev station at Taft Avenue.
Ben turned 18 six months ago in Madrid. He was part of the large community of Filipino refugees – some called them exiles – who fled to Spain from the Philippines more than seven years ago. Waking up the morning after his birthday party with a bad hangover, he nonetheless was deemed fit enough to get an approval from a recruiting officer to start training with the Philippine Foreign Legion, the paramilitary outfit funded by prominent Filipino expats (and, it was said, the Adarna Foundation) who sought to restore the Republic.
Ben had hazy memories of that last day in Sta. Ana, Manila. His family had little time to grab what belongings they could before running to the transports of the Armed Forces of the Philippines near Sta. Ana Church. After all, the tide of monsters, locally known as aswang, invading Manila were already close.
The AFP set up several defensive lines in a large perimeter around the Church. The one Ben’s family crossed was at Imbiernes. They were running hard because the aswang were at their heels, but the AFP troops at Imbiernes managed to throw the initial surge of aswang back. Several of their neighbors were caught by the monsters. Ben can sometimes hear their screams even after seven years.
It all happened so fast, and so many didn’t make it to the extraction points, or to the northern side of the Pasig where the AFP made their defensive line. The attacks happened just an hour after Adrian Ramos, the former AFP Chief of Staff, called for the evacuation of Manila, and too many people were caught unaware. True, the leaders and protectors of the Philippines were having problems at the time, but Manila, and the Republic, survived the horrors of the Reawakening back in 2012. In the decades after, the capital city of the Philippines stood against invaders, human or not.
It was said that no one expected the aswang to move so fast. But perhaps the monsters, or whatever led them, could not be blamed for their confidence. After all, on the hour before the aswang assaulted Manila, the majority of the Maharlika, at Mt. Banahaw for a special conclave, were suddenly besieged, quickly getting surrounded by a sea of enemies both otherworldly and mundane.
Maria Makiling, the powerful spirit that lived in Mt. Makiling and patroness of the Maharlika, was herself surrounded in her own mountain, forcing the diwata to split her forces, especially the tikbalang clans, between her defense and relieving the siege at Banahaw. With the foremost defenders of the Republic unable to act, the country’s leadership in disarray, was it any wonder the aswang felt they could take Manila?
That day it was left to the ordinary men and women of the AFP, supported by what few pintado they had and Maharlika who were not at Banahaw or Makiling, to stem the unholy tide. He would hear later how Maharlika warmaster Rion Raios, who did not attend the conclave, fought alongside a half dozen of his battle brothers and sisters in Makati, luring the worst of the aswang in the metropolis to them. The monsters probably thought they could take down the Azure Phoenix easily now that there were few of his fellow Maharlika around.
There in Sta. Ana the aswang probably thought the AFP would be of little threat to them. The troops there had none of the arcanotechnological enhancements the pintado have. They had no agimat and bendita weapons like what the Maharlika and tikbalang carried on top of their own mystical augmentations. The ordinary soldiers of the AFP had nothing to fight creatures of nightmare except their battle rifles and body armor little better than tissue paper against the claws, teeth and tongues of the aswang (why did these Islands breed such nasty monsters, anyway, Ben thought?). Still they fought and held the lines long enough so people could get to safety.
Ben would hear later of how the Army’s Tenth Battalion Combat Team protected the perimeter of Rizal Park. Hundreds died from the legendary unit, just so the transports could evacuate the remains of the National Hero and the thousands of people from the surrounding area who fled to the park. A lone Scout Ranger squad held off hundreds of aswang from the roof of a home for the aged as troopships evacuated its elderly residents and children from a nearby orphanage they brought to that building. The Philippine Marines gave no ground, keeping the entire extent of Roxas Boulevard open to all those who could flee to the waiting boats of the Philippine Navy. Ben would hear these stories and more as his family spent two months being processed on the refugee camps on the northern side of the Pasig.
But he would remember most of all the valor of the squad that held the barricades at Imbiernes. The AFP didn’t have to sacrifice themselves. They already had orders from the President himself to assume defensive lines farther north, past Bulacan, as La Mesa Dam would be fully opened to create a flood barrier between Central Luzon and the tide of monstrosity surging from Manila. To many, the President, reeling from defections among his cabinet, appeared to have abandoned the capital, and all the land south of it, for the safety of his home province. In disgust, regional leaders, many whom the President alienated early in his term, declared the Philippines dissolved as a nation.
Many of the divisions of the AFP disobeyed the President’s order, fighting to the last so many could flee the dying capital of a Philippines that was no more. Ben recalls the words of the young Army sergeant, no older than Ben is today: hurry to the transports, we don’t know how long we can hold them. Ben knew no AFP soldier escaped Sta. Ana because as the last transports lifted off, all of them filled beyond safe limits with civilians, a sea of aswang overran their extraction point.
Which was probably why he was here at Corregidor, waiting for the dawn, wearing the uniform of an infantryman of the Philippine Foreign Legion. There was nothing that could force Ben to sign up with the Legion. As far as anyone was concerned, there wasn’t even a Philippines anymore. When he arrived along with the rest of the Legion two days ago, the uniforms of the soldiers of Ilocandia and the Tagalog Federation were all he could see on the island fortress.
Ben remembered that Army sergeant though. The memory lingered in him all the way to his eighteenth year so that even after a night of raucous, decadent partying on the streets and bars of beautiful Madrid, the first thing he did on waking the next day as an adult was sign up to be a soldier. All to fight for a country that was essentially no more.
The sky was lightening up. Ben brought out a faded photograph of their family gathered on their small yard in their old house in Sta. Ana. They managed to get away that day, and even thrived in “exile” in Spain. He kept this photo with him all these years, even as the rest of his family “moved on”, deciding instead to make new memories in their new homeland to bury the horrors from the old. Ben kept the photo because it reminded him of a much simpler time, a better time, even if his recollection was hazy. Spain was good to the exiles of its former colony, but for some who were born in those seven thousand and one hundred islands, not even the beautiful, sun-kissed streets of the Iberian Peninsula could take away the longing for home, even if much of it was under unnatural darkness.
Ben looked on that photo until dawn was well and truly breaking and one of the sentries told him it was almost time for them to get ready for the coming battle. Ben saluted the sentry and went back to the barracks area of Malinta Tunnel, where the Legion’s cooks were giving out breakfast. Fried rice with sunny side-up eggs and a choice of tapa, tocino or hotdogs. Hot chocolate made from pure cacao or coffee brewed from Batangas beans to go with it. There was even some taho for those who wanted some extra energy for the day ahead. Some joked it was kind of like a last meal. Many, including Ben, hoped it wasn’t and was instead the first for a new era.
The briefing was done quickly, just a reminder of important things to do during the upcoming operation as they’d gone through the details days before. Ben’s platoon spent more time checking their equipment and reviewing codexes on the aswang. After all, you had to know when you can take one on with your measly battle rifle or you have to call in heavier fire support. The units striking out from Corregidor were assured of having that, both in terms of high tech weaponry and mystical aid. Besides, the commander of the Legion said, the forces of the Lady of the Mountain, led by the Maharlika, were making a push from the south. That should distract the worst of the monsters.
Ben walked out of Malinta Tunnel with the rest of the Legion in the full light of morning, wondering if any of his ancestors did the same back in World War II, when Corregidor served as the site of the last stand of Allied forces in the Philippines. The island that guarded Manila Bay was once more a fortress of war. Instead of being the site of a last act of defiance, today it would be where the Philippine Foreign Legion and the units from the Ilocano and Tagalog provinces would bring war to the creatures that now infested the old homeland.
On the way to their transports, the Legion approached a large hangar-like structure. Pintado wearing battlearmor with the livery of the Lady of the Mountain guarded the entrance. As the Legion passed, the doors opened and out comes a very tall and muscular creature with a horse’s head and back-canted legs, long mane flowing in the cool September wind. The tikbalang carried a huge glowing sword on his back. Behind him were more horsemen as well as humans that positively exuded power, even covered as they were head to toe with dark grey cloaks that had glowing golden baybayin script on its piping.
One of them drew back his hood, revealing the face of no less than Maharlika warmaster Rion Rios, blue fire running through the arcanotechnological circuitry on his face and the milky-white orb of an agimat glowing softly on his forehead. The Azure Phoenix watched the Legion pass by and gave them a salute with his bendita sword, its blessed edges catching the light of the sun. The Legion returned the salute with their rifles at the Maharlika warmaster and his party. One of the senior officers near Ben said it was good to see Rion back, saying something must have happened in the battle for Naga City that convinced one of the Philippines’ most celebrated (or notorious, depending on who you ask) prodigal sons to return to the battlefield.
When the Legion reached their transports, Ben asked his squad leader what the Maharlika and tikbalang were doing here, since their supposed part in the battle was in the south. The lieutenant said Rion and the tikbalang Clan Champion, Azuleo, (the tall horseman with the big sword) will lead a strike team against the huge Shadow Tree that covered Manila in perpetual darkness while the Philippine armed forces struck from all directions. If the overgrown and corrupted balete falls, nothing would keep the sun from frying the aswang where they stood, leaving the AFP with only human cultists to deal with.
Ben told his squad leader that it sounded like a good strategy, but there was no AFP anymore, so where was this army that was going to help take on the aswang in Manila. At that exact moment a tech handed Ben a uniform patch. It was a small rectangle with blue and red halves plus a white triangle on one side that had a sun with eight rays and three stars. Everyone else in the Legion, and the soldiers of other units, were getting the same patch.
Ben recognized the flag of the Philippines, the Tricolor with its Three Stars and Sun. The last time he saw that worn on the field of battle was on the shoulder of that young army sergeant that bravely held off the tide of aswang on Imbiernes, Sta. Ana, Manila, seven years ago. Now, he stuck it to his own shoulder, red stripe up because, after all, the Philippines was at war.
At the end of this war, Ben knew they would be asked to put the blue stripe on top. If he survives to that day, the young exile knows it would be the proudest moment of his life.
Ben and his lieutenant gave each other a thumbs up after putting on the patches. As the Legion’s transports lifted off to join in the Liberation of Manila, Ben took out the photo of his old house to look at it one more time. Despite the fact that in minutes he and his comrades would be facing creatures that made dying a very horrifying and painful experience, Ben felt good.
Because it feels good to be home again.
For Amber, who made the beginning of this possible
And for Camille, who made the completion of this possible