Edition 16: Butterfly Knife by Recle Etino Vibal
A hidden spring holds many secrets key to victory, and one old hermit knows where it can be found. But the journey requires the seekers to face many dangers, not least from the ones who protect it. We’re please to feature Recle E. Vibal’s fantasy, with its flavour of the Southeast Asian fable. We’ve included some links to define some of the words our readers may not know. SY
Lightning illuminated the three men outside Ali’s hut. Rain and darkness had hidden their approach.
“Halt. You cannot proceed.” Ali tried to discern their faces from the shadows and silhouettes dancing from the light of his lamp.
“We need your help, hermit.”
A boy on the water buffalo, a kalis hanging by his waist, emerged from the darkness. Beside him were two men. One was as thick as the water buffalo and towered Ali’s hut. The giant had a kampilan tied to his back, the hilt protruding from his waist and the tip of the sheath appearing from his thigh. The boy’s other companion hid in the darkness because of his skin. A headhunter’s axe was lying on his shoulders. They all hid their faces under a salakot.
“What do you want?” Ali asked.
“The spring,” the boy replied. “The Datu said we would see you here, hermit.”
“The datu of what tribe?”
“Why does Datu Matayog seek the spring?”
“The Datu dreamt a mist of ghosts emerging from the horizon, from the sea. The Babaylan interpreted it as a threat to his sultanate, a war from across the ocean.”
“Knowledge for strategy, strength for his army, and invincibility against death; the water will give him an assured victory.” Ali surveyed his three visitors. All sultans would send their strongest and most trusted warriors to retrieve the spring’s sacred water. The boy seemed a liability to his two companions. “And who did Datu Matayog send?”
“I am Prince Mapalad, third son of Datu Matayog.” The boy raised the brim of his hat and presented his face.
“Your highness, pardon me. My isolation deprived me to gaze upon the façade of a royalty.” Ali knelt in the flood.
“No need to kiss my feet, hermit. You may stand. You’re hospitality will be enough to pay respect,” the boy said. “These are my companions, Bagwis,” the prince gestured towards the headhunter, and then to the giant, “and Tuktok, two warriors from the Datu’s personal guard.”
“It is a great honor to guard the prince and retrieve the spring’s water for the Datu.” Ali nodded toward the two guardians. The two replied by lifting their salakots to reveal their faces. “Though, if I am bold enough to say, I have never seen a member of a mountain tribe, or a giant twice as big as any other man, serve the sultanate.”
The three visitors remained silent.
“What is your name, hermit?” Prince Mapalad asked.
“Ali, your highness, but hermit would do.”
“Ali, we need to get out of the rain first. We brought some wine to facilitate our talk. Will your hut accommodate us?”
“I fear my hut is only sufficient for your use, Your Highness, but there is a cave not far away from here.”
Ali guided their way through the dark, against the wave of wind and rain. Ali’s loincloth flapped until it stuck between his legs.
An overhanging slab of rock, a bush, and two trees protected the cave from the flood and the rainwater. The cave’s mouth allowed only one person to pass at a time. The prince and his companions went inside the cave while Ali took the water buffalo and tied it under a roof of leaves. Tuktok squeezed limb by limb through the entrance.
At the far end of the cave was a stack of firewood. Ali started a fire at the center of the cave using splits and husks of bamboo. He took a grass mat from behind a rock and offered the prince a seat on it.
Bagwis took out bamboo cups and a bamboo tube of coconut arrack from his pouch made of animal skin. He handed a cup of wine to the prince first, filled his own cup, and allowed the others to take their own. Prince Mapalad emptied his cup in one gulp.
“What lies ahead of us, Ali?” the prince asked.
“After sunrise, just the mountain, Your Highness.” Ali forced the wine down his throat. “It will take us two days to reach the crater.”
“Can’t we do it in one?”
“No, Your Highness. Hiking by night is dangerous.”
“Two days before I can fill my jar with the spring’s water.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
In the silence, their shadows danced in the light of the fire, except for Tuktok’s; the giant’s shadow merged with the darkness of the cave from ceiling to floor.
“Many have tried to reach the spring. Many have failed. Blades and magic never prevailed against the spring’s protector,” Ali said.
Evaporation drank more wine than the hermit did. His visitors had their cups filled for the third time.
“We will succeed, hermit,” Prince Mapalad smiled. “Why do you think no one has ever succeeded in obtaining water from the spring? Bad intentions? Greed? Impure hearts? This is what the legend says.”
“The legend is modified as it is passed from one’s lips to another’s ear. Addition and suppression of details occur with each mention of the legend.” Ali emptied his first and last cup. Heat passed through his chest, his stomach, and then accumulated on his face. “People fail, Your Highness, not because of what they are but because of their failure to appease the spring.”
Prince Mapalad kept his eyes on the flame. The wind’s howl sang with the rumbling thunder and the rain’s beat. Tuktok caressed the hilt of his kampilan while Bagwis traced the edge of his axe, both watching the entrance of the cave like an enemy was about to come through it.
“Do you remember the original riddle of the spring’s legend, Ali?” the prince asked.
“Yes, Your Highness. Overcome or surrender to the spring, life and wisdom it will bring.”
“What do you think about the riddle, hermit?”
“Most elders interpret it like this, Your Highness: Those who drink the spring’s water gain long life and wisdom.”
“But that only satisfies overcoming the spring. How about those that surrendered to the spring? They failed and never returned to their loved ones.” Ali saw the flames reflected in the prince’s eyes. Tuktok and Bagwis also directed their gaze at the hermit.
“That’s why we do not know, Your Highness.”
“Oh, I think someone knows, someone who has gone to the spring and back, guiding those that seek the water,” the prince’s words cut through Ali’s reserve.
Bagwis poured another cup of wine for the prince and himself and Tuktok drained the last drop. The rain’s prattle had subsided to a whisper.
“We can expect a good weather tomorrow, Your Highness,” Ali said. “Better rest now, for the day ahead of us will require our strength and will.”
“Very well.” Prince Mapalad gulped down his wine. “Tuktok, you take the first watch.”
“Your Highness, let me take the first watch,” Ali said.
“No, Ali. We have travelled for a month now, and we have accustomed ourselves to keep one at watch while the others sleep. You may accompany Tuktok if you don’t want to sleep, Ali.”
“It would be better for me to sleep.” Ali kneeled and bowed to the prince. “Good night, Your Highness.”
The prince bowed to the old man and to his two companions before lying on the grass mat.
Ali lay on his side, his back toward the three visitors. He wondered whether the pounding in his heart was the result of drinking the coconut arrack, the way Prince Mapalad spoke, or the two guardians’ silence. All had pushed him back against his primal fears. His visitors’ wariness saved their lives for that night.
“We will climb the mountain on foot, your highness,” Ali said. “You must leave your water buffalo here. Carry only enough food and water for three days. The forest will supply us if there is any unforseen need.”
Tuktok and Bagwis each carried baskets and bags of provisions. Bagwis made a trekking staff for the prince.
Footpaths wound and branched up the mountain. Ali led the way, the prince behind him, followed by the two guardians. Moss-covered rocks and fallen trees from previous storms blocked their passage. Tuktok’s size and strength aided them whenever there was a wall of rock or land in front of them. Ali had to slash his way through the tree branches. The sun was well above them when they decided to take their first rest.
“Why did you decide to be a hermit and a guide here, Ali?” Prince Mapalad asked.
“I did not choose to be a hermit, Your Highness,” Ali replied. “At least if the circumstances have been different, I would have preferred to serve as a royal guard.”
“Your physique, your stand, and the way you handle your bolo appears to be sufficient for you to be a warrior. Don’t you agree, Tuktok?”
The giant ate his pile of green mangoes like a man would eat a handful of peanuts. Tuktok’s stare pressed on Ali’s soul.
“Then why not come with us after this? The Datu will gladly take you in as one of his warriors for your contribution to our journey.”
“No, Your Highness, this is my life. I cannot leave this place.”
“Why not? Don’t you have a family to return to?”
“None, Your Highness.”
“Then serve Datu Matayog. You’ll have a purpose there, not here.”
“I do have a purpose here, Your Highness.”
Ali looked at the crack of the bamboo lying on the fire. The steam and scent of cooked rice floated in the air. The hermit offered the roasted fishes and birds first to Prince Mapalad. Tuktok and Bagwis took their share after, the former taking thrice of what the others had. Ali passed the rice in banana leaves.
“What is your purpose here, Ali? Isolate yourself from civilization, wait for the next adventurers to come, and lead them to immortality or eternal sleep?” the prince asked.
“No, Your Highness. I am here for my daughter.”
“Daughter? I thought you said you have no family. You live alone.”
“Just like you, Your Highness, my daughter sought for the spring’s water. Her mother was burning with fever. None of my herbs worked on her. Then my daughter heard about the spring’s healing power. Despite my refusal, she searched for the water’s spring. Three days later, her mother died.” In Ali’s eyes, the steam from the rice turned into the faces of his daughter and wife. “I should have followed her, but my courage could not push me past the volcano’s edge, above its lake, and through the island’s forest. Most nights, I can hear my daughter’s cries emerging from the volcano’s crater, echoing through the valleys, and tearing my heart to pieces.”
Ali disturbed the steam when a fly flew on his rice. The prince and Bagwis looked at each. Tuktok kept his eyes on his meal and continued eating. They finished their lunch in silence.
Cirrus clouds drifted across the sky. The sun kept its gaze on the forest’s canopy. Ali felt the wind pulling out the water from his skin.
“We should take advantage of the weather,” Ali said.
“Lead the way, Ali. We will follow,” Prince Mapalad said.
“Are you sure-footed, Your Highness?”
“Balance is an integral part of my training.”
“Then I hope Your Highness’ royal guards took their balance training seriously.”
Ali led them off the path. Trees gave way to boulders, and grasses avoided the pebbles and stones. Ali ran and leapt on the rocks. The prince and his two guards searched for flat surfaces to steady their feet. The hermit weaved through the maze between the boulders. The cliff presented the forest below, reaching the shore and a horizon uniting the sky and ocean.
“Are you well, Your Highness?” Ali looked back and saw Bagwis helping Tuktok out of the rock maze. Prince Mapalad joined the hermit at the edge of the cliff. “From here, we will climb along the mountain’s face. Our climb will be quick, but it will be tricky, doubly so for your giant.”
“The sooner we get there, the better. Don’t worry about him, Ali. He can take care of himself, otherwise he would not be worthy of guarding a prince.”
Ali, Prince Mapalad, and Bagwis adjusted their bodies according to the climb’s incline. Tuktok walked sideways and kept his back and hands on the mountain’s face. Somewhere in the middle, they had to scale a series of rock walls. Tuktok served as their ladder; his arms reached the top of the rocks and pulled him over without the help of his companions. The sun had dipped half of its body below the horizon when they reached the clifftop.
The light from Ali’s torch led them through the forest. Tuktok and Bagwis held their torches up against the dark. From a distance, Ali saw the stream of moonlight passing through gaps in the forest’s canopy, glowing eyes, and the lights of the fireflies. The nocturne’s song and the wind’s howl filled their ears. The moon had reached its peak when Ali brought them to a cave.
“This cave is on high ground, Your Highness,” Ali said. “The fire will keep the beasts out, so I will keep it burning.”
“No need, Ali,” the prince replied. “You have been a good guide. Get your deserved rest. My guards and I will take shifts on lookout duty. Go. Sleep. Bagwis, you take the first watch.”
The sound of metal against sandstone woke Ali in the middle of the night. He turned around and saw Tuktok by the fire sharpening his kampilan. The hermit watched the fire dancing on the edge of the blade. The giant stopped and looked at Ali. The hermit closed his eyes and played deaf to the blade’s cry. The adventurers would keep their lives again that night.
On the second day, the hermit kept their journey within the boundaries of the forest. The sun followed their ascent from sunrise to noon. The volcanic crater appeared like the peak of a mountain from their vantage point.
“Let us delay our rest, Your Highness. We all had a long sleep and a heavy breakfast; it would not do as any harm to continue,” Ali said.
“You are the guide, Ali,” Prince Mapalad said. “We will do what you think is proper, but tell me your reason.”
“The entrance to the crater is on a precipice. We will climb it before darkness prevents us. The other end of the tunnel ends in another sheer drop. We will have to wait till morning to reach the isle in the crater’s lake.”
They reached the base of the precipice. The cave’s mouth hid behind the overhanging rock.
“The mountain will shade us from the sun, Your Highness,” Ali said.
Prince Mapalad nodded and instructed his guards to prepare for the climb. They secured the straps of their blades. Bagwis lined the edge of the axe with a piece of wood and wrapped it in a cloth. Tuktok and the prince tied the hilt and guard of their blades on to their sheaths. The prince attached the kalis to his back with a rope and cloth.
Ali held on cracks and stepped on protruding rocks. Prince Mapalad and Bagwis followed the hermit’s ascent while Tuktok devised a climb suitable for a giant. They began crawling up an incline, to holding onto a wall, and then hanging from a ceiling. The rocks and canopy below waited for them to slip. Ali looked down at the adventurers. He was surprised to see the giant helping Prince Mapalad and Bagwis. Tuktok would hang by his right arm, grab Bagwis with his left, and swing the hunter to a spot he could find a hold. Then the giant went back down to help the prince.
Ali reached the top first and waited for the next climber to appear. He was loosening the knot around his bolo when an arm as thick as his legs grasped the edge of the cliff. Prince Mapalad shot up in the air. Bagwis followed with a summersault. Both landed on their feet. Tuktok’s legs flew through the air and into a handstand at the cliff’s edge for a moment. The impact of the giant’s feet released a cloud of dust with a boom, followed by a ripple of echoes, animal screams, and flying birds.
The cloud of dust danced in the sun’s last light. The sun kissed the horizon goodbye and gave way to another night.
“That is the entrance to the mountain’s heart,” Ali said. “We can still reach the other end of the tunnel, your highness.”
“No,” the prince said. “We will spend our night near this end of the cave.”
“But, Your Highness—”
The Prince raised a hand against Ali. “We know the legend of the creatures in the lake. If we spend the night on the other side of this tunnel, we will wake on the bottom of that lake, hermit.”
Stalagmites around deep and wide cracks blocked their way. Ali only saw the tips of the stalactites clinging to the ceiling. A rope connected him to the three adventurers, operating as more of a leash for him. Darkness ate the daylight behind them; a dot of light emerged ahead.
Rock walls surrounded the lake. The island was opposite the tunnel’s mouth.
“How will we cross the lake, Ali?” Prince Mapalad asked.
“Using that, Your Highness,” Ali replied.
“No, Your Highness. It is a boat made from the shell and bones of a giant sea turtle. Swimming can take you across also.”
“We will avoid the water and the leech, hermit,” the prince said.
“Don’t you mean leeches, Your Highness?”
“There is only one leech, Ali. Stop acting ignorant about the legend. It guards the lake during the day, it hasn’t eaten for a hundred years, and only an army’s blood can satiate its hunger.”
Tuktok and Bagwis helped Ali carry the boat to a protruding rock at the edge of the lake that served as a wharf.
“I suggest that you cross the lake first with Bagwis, Your Highness. Then your guard can pick-up Tuktok here. The giant’s size may capsize the boat,” Ali said. “The boat can carry up to six men, but Tuktok seems to be equivalent to four.”
“You, I, and Bagwis will cross first,” Prince Mapalad said.
The prince’s order caught Ali by surprise. He wanted to interrupt the boy, but Prince Mapalad already gave the orders to his guards.
“I will return for Tuktok. I hope that is clear.” The prince’s guards nodded. Bagwis and Tuktok slid the boat off the stone wharf and into the water.
“Your Highness,” Ali said. “You misunderstand me. I am only here to guide you up to this point. I have not the courage to cross the lake and enter the forest.”
“No, Ali. It is you that misunderstood us,” Prince Mapalad replied. “You will come with us, or we will drag you across the lake to serve as bait for the giant leech.”
“I do not understand, Your Highness. I did nothing wrong. I made sure you and your guards reached this place safely.”
“Legend speaks of a hermit at the mountain’s foot, guiding those who seek the spring. He is the only one who returns. The seekers are never seen or heard of again.”
“I have never heard that part of the legend, Your Highness.”
“Maybe because you were not already around when that part of the legend surfaced, a thousand years ago.”
The breeze from the lake snatched the sweat dripping from Ali’s forehead. A shiver crawled down his spine as goose bumps covered his skin, despite the sun’s warmth embracing his body.
“The legend could have spoken of any hermit,” Ali said. “I’m not the only hermit, and there could be other hermits living on the foot of thi—”
“Stop it, Ali,” Prince Mapalad gestured to his guards. Bagwis drew his axe and Tuktok his kampilan. Ali took a step back. Bagwis leapt through the air and landed behind Ali. The edge of the headhunter’s axe kissed the hermit’s throat. Ali felt the ground tremble at Tuktok’s approach. The kampilan moved like it was part of the giant’s arm. It sliced air and light before the tip met Ali’s face.
“We have scouted the mountain’s foot for three full moons,” the prince continued. “You were the only hermit we ever saw. We observed your habits, but we could not get anything from it. You have helped us here, but we will not risk your betrayal, Ali.”
“Your Highness, the guardian will kill me. Pleas—” Ali felt the blades press his skin. He grimaced when Bagwis twisted his arm.
“Again, Ali, will you come with us willingly, or do I have to show you the strength of a Datu’s personal guards?” Prince Mapalad looked at Tuktok and Bagwis. Ali saw fear instead of authority in the prince’s eyes.
Bagwis dragged the hermit to the boat. Ali waited for Bagwis and the prince to take their place behind him. Prince Mapalad was between them with his kalis drawn. Bagwis began to paddle.
The island lay near a rock wall, across from the tunnel’s exit. Sunlight had begun eating the shadows on the crater’s tip. Dark shadows in the water appeared as they approached. Vapors escaped and danced on the lake’s surface. Ali kept his eyes on the island, appearing as a mirage behind the layer of heat. The tapping of Prince Mapalad’s nails against the kalis ensured Ali of the prince’s readiness to strike at any wrong move. A warm breeze and the scent of burnt rock greeted them as their boat skidded on the black sand.
Ali stood up and jumped when the prince pushed him. The hermit’s toes sank into the sand. He resisted the forest’s call, turned around, watched Prince Mapalad drift on the lake’s surface, and waited on the island with Baqwis holding Prince Mapalad’s kalis against his throat. The sun’s edge peeked over the crater when the giant and prince set foot on the island.
“Show us the path to the spring, Ali,” Prince Mapalad said. “Or we will cut our own path through.”
Black sand gave way to igneous rock. Ali felt the heat piercing the soles of his feet. He wondered how the others took it. The water on the feet of Prince Mapalad and Bagwis released a stream of vapor. Tuktok’s feet left imprints on the rock. Ali knew the intruders had prepared their body for such ordeal. Despite the scent of burnt meat, the four walked without any sign of pain. The hermit walked without any sense of purpose. At first, he thought he was sending the group into a maze that was bound to imprison them. However, the forest seemed to guide their way, working against Ali’s wishes.
Wilted leaves filled the canopy and hid the sun’s ascent from the forest floor. The cracks and flakes of the tree bark pleaded for water. Each tree had a face. The melting eyes looked up and weighed their gaze on the intruders. Ali heard the cries for mercy escaping from the trees’ collapsing mouths. Their branches reached out to the sky and for each other. Tuktok had to crouch to avoid hitting his head on them. All of the trees had black barks and dried leaves. The blackness was only in the roots at the shoreline but crept up the trunk. All except one in the middle of the burnt forest.
Noon arrived with them. The canopy gave way to sunlight; ash and sand avoided the mound of humus supporting the trunk. Dust swam in the shafts of light. The tree’s leafless branches were like wooden appendages reaching out to the sky.
“What is a dead tree doing in this island, Ali?” The shadows of the web of branches covered Prince Mapalad in what Ali thought of as nature’s trap. Tuktok disappeared behind the tree out of Ali’s view.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” the hermit replied, “I am as clueless as you. As I’ve told you, I’ve never been on this island.”
Tuktok’s kampilan was an extension of his arm that pointed on the other side of the tree.
“I think Tuktok has an answer for us, Ali,” Prince Mapalad said.
Ali caught site of a woman’s body stuck inside the tree. The trunk pulled back and ate up her hands, half her forearm, her feet to mid-thigh. The woman’s shoulders and back attempted to fold her along her spine. Ali saw the strands of wood flowing from the figure’s scalp and back to the trunk.
Each step brought despair in Ali’s heart. A look of familiarity and love floated between him and the tree. He held back the tears from his eyes while he was under the gaze of the wooden woman.
“Indeed, this could be the spring after all,” Tuktok said. “Bagwis, get the hermit out of the way.”
Ali drowned in nostalgia. The side of Bagwis’s axe pulled him out of his reverie and sent him sprawling to the forest floor. His shoulders and half his face sank in the mud. The hermit felt the sand on his temple and the scrape of roots on his arms. Light shrunk before his eyes.
Bagwis stomped on the hermit’s back. Ali’s ribs met the buried roots. The headhunter ground the remaining unbroken ribs deeper in the mud, harder on the roots. The mud muffled Ali’s cries.
Tears flowed down the wooden woman’s cheeks and dripped to the rock basin on the ground. Leaves sprouted on the tree’s branches for every drop. When there was no more space for leaves, flowers grew. Ali reached out for the woman, her beauty, and the tree’s emerging life, but Bagwis kept him pinned down. The flowers withered, and fruit appeared their place. Endure, Busilak, my daughter, Ali thought, forgive me, for this is the only way to protect the spring from these intruders.
The tip of Tuktok’s kampilan traced the stream from the eyes to the basin.
“Thank you, Ali. We have proven two things: The spring does exist, and that you are indeed the key to it.” Prince Mapalad placed the mouth of his jar under the wooden woman’s chin. A thread of tear flowed into the jar. “Bagwis, keep her crying while I fill my jar.”
The headhunter lifted Ali by the hair. The hermit felt the tension on his scalp and the peace of seeing his daughter’s face. Bagwis let his axe mark a line of blood on the hermit’s neck. He pulled his axe back.
No, don’t kill my father, Ali heard his daughter’s whisper hidden in the wind. The stream of tears gushed stronger and filled Prince Mapalad’s jar like a pitcher would fill a cup.
Demon, help him. An invisible arrow shot out of the woman’s chest. Ali felt the arrowhead and the shaft enter him. He looked at Bagwis from the corner of his eye. The axe’s blade sliced wind in its path.
Ali caught the axe’s handle before it landed on his neck. Bagwis tried to pull the axe out of Ali’s grip. The hermit straightened his legs; his feet touched the ground. Ali stood there; axe in hand, blood covering half his body from the neck down.
When Bagwis took the axe with both hands, Ali let go. Bagwis fell into the mud due to the loss in resistance. The miscalculation gave the hermit’s body the opportunity.
Ali’s body divided into two, lengthwise, from temple to hips. The crack opened wider and wider; the hips served as joint of the division. Ali’s arms slid down his legs. Another body emerged from within the hermit.
Prince Mapald saw the wooden mask and the skinless muscles. He handed the jar to Tuktok and drew his kalis, “Bagwis, cut that monster down.”
The prince’s urgency and the incoming attack brought haste back to Ali’s body. His upper body snapped. His former hands grabbed his foot, fingers aligning with toes. Ali’s shell, his outer appearance, folded and hugged his waist. A demon’s torso replaced the hermit’s upper body. A black mask complete with eyes, teeth, and horns of the same shape covered the hermit’s face. The demon kept its arms crossed over its chest. In each hand was the demon’s weapon: a karambit.
Both Prince Mapalad and Bagwis continued their attack. Kalis and axe fell like feathers in the demon’s eyes. A steamy breath escaped from its mouth.
Ali’s demon extended its arms, the tip of the two karambit pointing to the sides, the blades curved like a bird’s talon. Reflected sunlight on one karambit’s blade shone across Prince Mapalad’s face. The prince squinted.
The demon leapt and met the prince face to face to avoid the axe. The prince’s forehead clashed on the wooden mask. Before the prince could shout, a stream of blood poured out from Prince Mapalad’s neck.
Tuktok kept his attention on filling the jar. Ali’s demon caught the wooden woman’s eyes, filled with hope and fear, almost dried of tears. The giant’s hand was making cracks on her wooden face. The demon sensed the axe above him. He twisted in the air, landed on his feet, and caught the axe’s head on the hook of his karambit. His free hand swung. Blood exploded from the headhunter’s sliced gut.
Ali’s demon left the two dead bodies. The giant, the jar of tears tied on his waist, stood between the demon and the tree.
“Thank you for exterminating them for me,” Tuktok said in a language new to Ali but comprehensible to his demon.
Tuktok raised his kampilan and brought it down. Ali’s demon evaded the strike. He was still in mid-air when the giant delivered another blow. The blade glided over the demon’s body, nipping a chip off the mask’s chin. The karambits deflected the weapon as it was about to connect.
They swapped places. The giant raised his sword and charged. A karambit flew. It pierced through skin, muscle, and shoulder joint. Tuktok’s arm hung in the air. The giant was pulling out the blade when the demon cut the giant’s throat in one jump. A ripple of wind blew as the giant collapsed.
The demon picked up his karambit and approached the tree. He stopped in front of the wooden woman. With both arms across his chest, the folds of skin on his waist and the arms grasping his legs crawled back to his torso. Ali’s halves rose from the side and engulfed the demon back within his body. The wounds closed, and Ali was once again facing his daughter.
“Busilak,” Ali traced the cracks on his daughter’s face. “My poor daughter, these cracks will heal. Nature will assist you.”
He picked three fruits from her branches. From the fruit, he took a maggot each. He went to Tuktok’s body, whispered incantations on the wriggling maggot, let it crawl inside the giant’s ear, and squeezed the fruit’s juice on the open neck and shoulder wounds. He did the same thing for Prince Mapalad and Bagwis’s body.
The wounds closed. The dead stood up. Their eyes were all white, no iris in sight.
“I am not sure what circumstances brought a prince of a sea tribe and a headhunter together,” Ali said to the risen bodies, “but I think the giant is a clue. His kind is not from this part of my world. Eat their knowledge and memories, my maggots.”
The maggots had grown to the size of a tongue when they exited through the corpses’ mouths. Each larvae nipped the end of Ali’s forefinger before going back inside the copses’ heads. Prince Mapalad, Bagwis, and Tuktok’s memories flooded Ali’s mind; an emperor from the west; a fleet of ships with an army of giants; the surrender and conversion of the sea tribe and the mountain tribes to the conqueror and his new religion. He saw the setting sun from the west devouring the rising sun on the east.
“I see,” Ali murmured with trembling lips and limbs.
“Infiltrate their camp,” Ali ordered the maggots. “Kill as many of the conquerors as you can, and learn as much in the process. Delay their troops. Use surprise and cunning to overcome their army. Once you are killed, return to me with all the knowledge you have gained.”
The three possessed bodies of Prince Mapalad, Bagwis, and Tuktok bowed. Ali waved them on, and the three left him alone with his daughter.
“We are coming into a new age, Busilak. Men are ignoring the seas, mountain ranges, deserts, and canyons, boundaries Mother Nature had set for us. I’m sorry if I caused you pain. There was no way I could defeat those three. The cliffs could not kill them. Only the demon, the curse inside me, could protect the spring.” Ali wiped the tears from his daughter’s face and ignored the wetness on his cheeks.
“I have to leave you for now. Even my demon will not be enough to protect you from an army of giants like the one you saw.”
Ali kissed his daughter and picked five fruit. He squeezed the juice out of one and, with a touch from his finger dipped in the it, he awakened the sleeping tree warriors of the island. He threw the remaining fruit into the lake. Four areas on the water started boiling and releasing pillars of steam. When the surface exploded, a giant leech, turtle, water buffalo, and crocodile stood on the water’s surface. The monsters looked at each other and then to Ali, who they saw as the demon, as their leader.
Ali’s demon was the first line of defense protecting the spring, but with a threat as big as an army of giants and a western empire with their own gods, he had all of the reasons to call forth the army of black trees and reunite the five guardians of the spring of life, Busilak’s tears.
Recle Etino Vibal (born in the Pispis, Maasin, Iloilo, Philippines) spent his childhood and currently lives in Mayondon, Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines. A son of an Ilongga and a Bikolano, he is proudly Filipino. He obtained a degree in BS Chemical Engineering at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, but works with numbers that are zero percent chemical and 100% financial. He balances reading, writing, and living, a daily juggling act on a high-tension wire a hundred meters above the ground. He manages to survive such a stunt, read, learn, write, and live for another day.