Orkney Isles, year 1744
He strode purposely on the sands. His boots had set foot on foreign lands. Hector Cortez, twice dead, now lives two hundred years after Magellan died, he who travels the world with his black-hilted sword and wooden shield, the Old Ghost leaves only a nomad’s trail behind as he sought the magic that could find a soul, for in his heart he knew Isabel lives again, in whose body he does not know except for Juan Tumala, a shaman from Siquijor.
The old shaman dreamt of an eye from a god, lost at sea, an artifact for Cortez to find, but Juan Tumala’s cryptic words made him difficult to comprehend despite that his dreams often becomes true. The impetuous Cortez thought it was a fool’s errand. A jest, Cortez accused, from a senile man since no Indio gods would nor did Cortez think that Juan Tumala would be helpful because many times did the old man tried convince him to give up on his quest. Thus he left after an argument, and searched his own way taking a path few would dare thread.
Financed by his sword he crossed the globe. From Siquijor to Spain to Scotland he voyaged as a sword for hire. But after months of travelling and months of splurging on wine in his stay in Wyre, he is again out of wealth yet fortune favoured him nonetheless, when the sea of Orkney suddenly was plagued with death.
Fishes floated lifeless on the waters of Wyre, he heard a sailor say the other night, carried by the waves to the shore while fishermen lay with some wicked disease. Many were affected for the sea was ill, and superstitious folk thought that the sea god Llyr was somehow angry, as to why, Cortez sought the reason.
On a clear summer day, Hector Cortez fought against the cold biting wind. His dark cloak and red scarf both fluttered freely with the salty gale. He covered most of his tanned skin and his young face, showing his dark hair, his eyes more black than brown.
He carried a light with enough food on his satchel. His wooden shield was strapped on his back and his black-hilted sword scabbard by his side. Against the flow, he followed the coast, passing beaches where grey seals shored, and climbed low hills for a view most paramount. He saw only the grassy heaths Wyre was known for, and felt his heart go heavy when he crossed paths with some planted swords left by warriors as monuments for names long gone.
After hours of walking, Cortez reached a cliff. His eyes were welcomed by savage coast of Wyre, the sights of limestone crags and rock strewn beach with pearl white sands while his ears were drowned by violent waves.
He sat down on his perch to eat some bread and quench his thirst. At a distance, he saw the stones of where Kolbein Hruga’s castle once stood. He gave them a toast with his water skin that in another lifetime he would still see them again.
Cortez had not seen any signs of bad omens yet, so he rested and he let his mind wander.
Wyre was a small island in the middle of an Orkney Isles, an archipelago north of Scotland yet somehow it shared a side like the Siquijor Cortez knew, it was enigmatic, filled with the strange legend and a land of magic. Only, where he came from, the climate was much more forgiving and the winds were gentle and warm. These lands were kissed by ice and battered by strong gales. The weather made him long to see the Island of Fire again, as the Spanish called Siquijor, but those thoughts sparked another memory that made his blood boil.
Juan Tumala, the shaman who taught him the ways of mambabarang and healing sorcery, he recalled. Juan Tumala who taught more about his sword, Mythslayer, told him the stories of the late Tugwaang and other legends, the same Juan Tumala who told him to let go of his love for Isabel and move on.
She is in another body, Cortez. She will not remember who you are. Tumala’s rang clear in his mind.
Even if you find the eye in my dreams, what will you do?
There was no such thing. He thought.
Will you still seek her?
Will you remind her of the past the gods spared her?
Pointless questions, Cortez told himself, the old man did not understand his love for Isabel.
Cortez spat at Tumala’s memory, and then stood up and made his way to the beach once more.
Up until now, he was the one to be feared. For weeks he had been in Wyre and there were no supernatural happenings, only bandits who raid both shore and sea which Cortez easily handled. He vowed long ago when he started his wandering days that any land he set foot on was under his protection, as long as they can pay him gold. Now, Cortez expected to solve a problem of supernatural make— he was facing one of the sea’s mysteries.
Along the way, Cortez heard faint melody sounding with crashing waves. It was a sad voice of woman that made his chest beat. When he finally got to the beach, he had a chance to search the surroundings and witnessed a sight that warmed his heart after many years of staying cold.
Atop a rock ravaged by the sea sat a woman clothed in seaweeds. She had long green hair and pearl white skin brought bare with a curved body that could make the eyes sin. She was facing the sea and was listening to song that tried to ease her sobbing. Hector Cortez had felt the urge to learn why she was crying and approached her with light steps.
She heard the disturbance on the sands, and then the music stopped. She turned abruptly, covering her chest with her webbed hands.
Cortez met her gaze, and he saw eyes deep as the ocean. The sight of Cortez’s black-hilted kampilan on his belt startled her even more.
“The Ghost!” she exclaimed mentioning one of the many names Hector Cortez was known for both in the heavens and underworld. She dived to the waters hiding beneath the waves.
“A Selkie.” was his calculated guess. In his travels, Cortez encountered many water creatures and learned to tell if one. Seals were common in Wyre. He figured one is bound to be a selkie from a hundred. Her eyes did not deceive him. However, Cortez wondered why she didn’t turn into a seal? Then he shouted “Swim away, myth and I will blast you with lightning!”
She did not comply. The clouds were grumbling.
“I know you’re still there.” Cortez called out “You can only swim so fast in your human form.”
A minute later she broke the waves revealing her beautiful head. “I don’t want to deal with you, Old Ghost!”
“Then you will be dealt with if you don’t answer my questions ” threatened Cortez, black clouds forming under him as he saw the selkie’s face turned to sorrow, turned to hate, turned to fear. “What is your name?”
“Cailen, I know when a selkie has lost her skin.” then Cortez sincerely offered, “Let me help.”
“It was not lost, Hector Cortez. It was taken,” she began to say with hesitation. “by my husband to be.”
“His name is Skal, a fisherman. Two days ago, we were supposed to be married” then she continued, “Until a group of pirates kidnapped him during one of his fishing trips.”
“I can’t help but connect, but is this why the sea god is angry?” he questioned. “Why the sea is filled with disease?”
“We were blessed by Llyr himself. He was not happy about what happened to Skal. So Llyr sent the Crone to punish them." she answered, mentioning the other name for Caillech the goddess of disease and plague in the Gaelic pantheon, as Cortez learned in his travels.
“The people of Wyre don’t deserve this. He should be after the pirates.” Cortez scorned.
“You humans are the same to him, Old Ghost.” was her blunt reply. “Until Skal is returned to me, the Crone will have her way.”
“Why would you care, Cortez?”She asked. “All you ever lived for is your search for power and immortality. Now that you have Mythslayer, Cortez, what do you intend to do?”
“I will slay you for reminding me, myth if I was the same as my previous lives.” the Old Ghost warned, the skies thundered. “But twice now, I’ve been reborn. It time now for me to change.”
Memories of Isabel flashed, she walking towards the altar wearing a long flowing white dress.
“You say change, but you soul remains the same. You are a myth even to myths, Hector Cortez. Even I have trouble in believing in you.”
“If we linger too much on the subject, you might find out my threats were no joke.”
“Kill me and answer to Llyr!”
“I’ve got a lot of gods to answer. Let Llyr line up amongst others.” replied Cortez and continued, “If you know where these pirate are hiding I could help return Skal back to you.”
“In fact I do, but I suppose you want a reward in return, Ghost. I know about you.” Cailen spoke. “Winds carry your deeds even to these distant shores. Your tragic love affair is the favourite of Mermaid songs.”
Cortez took that as a compliment and tried to hide his grin. “Offer me something worthwhile and we shall see.”
“You are greedy as they say, Cortez.”
Again he let her mockery slide. Cortez thought of a joke he shared with Juan Tumala. He gave a short laugh instead. “An old man once told me that at times even love can be a form of greed.”
Cailen had no retort to his strange response but a promise instead, “You’ll get a prized possession of the sea, if you return Skal.”
“Their lair is on a small island, not far from here. They are led by a man named Asgrim. I will lead you to their cove” she instructed. “From there you are alone until I convince my brothers to assist you.”
“I will need to get a boat."
“No time," she urged. “I have magic to keep you dry and breathing when we travel underwater.”
“Why do I need your magic, sea witch?” questioned Cortez, his hand on the black pummel of his kampilan.
“They will spot you a mile away,” she said as she motioned her hand into a circle. A giant bubble formed in the air slowly drifting towards him. “They have their eyes on the sea, not beneath her waves. I will guide you to the opposite shore.”
Cortez mused, it would be better if he did have reconnaissance on his enemy than risk living another life cycle again. So he laid down his guard, and stepped into the bubble where it lifted him into the air then submerged into the waters.
* * * * *
When the sun began to descend down to the horizon, Hector Cortez made his way to the island with the help of the selkie. His had to buy her time in order for their plan to succeed.
The gathering nimbus clouds together with the coming twilight gave him the shadows he needed for stealth after he emerged from the opposite shore. From there he made his way across the wooded heaths to the direction where the pirate cove lay. He anticipated a tough battle so he hid his satchel, cloak and scarf along the way. The terrain soon changed from dirt to stone as he neared a low cliff. Right below him he heard a man shouting curses. Cortez stooped to a crawl and watched.
The cove was guarded by a gathering of armed men with musket, swords and crude axes. They were surround wooden boxes of cargo, nets and fishing gear. A skiff was put ashore while further out to sea was their long boat.
A dark haired man was being spread across in ropes, his life hanging on a thread. Cortez assumed he must be Skal. The other, must be their leader, Asgrim for he seemed to tower above the rest in height as described by the Selkie. He was demanding information from his prisoner. The pirate leader spat at the fisherman’s purpled face.
“I don’t know,” he managed to say. He received another punch to the gut as a reward. They must have been at it for days. Six of his crew men stood watch in his agony as Skal soon went limp the only thing keeping him up was his bindings.
“Tell me how many are garrisoned in Wyre!” Asgrim said again this time with a more vicious punch on the head.
Skal did not say a word, his vision was fading.
Cortez had to act, he had to free Skal before pain snuffed out his life. He no choice but to rely on his blade, so drop he drew out his sword, strapped his shield and jumps from his rocky perch.
In one motion, his feet landed on an unaware guard, knocking him out, his face buried on the sand. He rolled on the sand and hamstringed another with a stroke so quick that it went through flesh. By the time his foe noticed the pain, Cortez already stabbed another man on the back.
When four were left, Asgrim drew his hands and clapped. He had a smirk on his face. “Ah, you have arrived, Cortez.”
From all directions, Cortez heard the sound of muskets trained at him. They were atop the low boughs and even hidden amongst the bushes and piled drift wood. He felt like a fool to rush in but he did not show his regret to Asgrim, only a steel scorn and posture of confidence. “What is this all about?”
“You, of course. Hector Cortez.” The Old Ghost’s eyes widened when he heard his true name spoken. “When I heard that a man such as you has ever existed, I had to see it for myself.”
Cortez wondered how, and then he realized he was more of a fool than he thought. From far off waters he could see the beautiful face of the Selkie cowering.
But when he looked at the failing body of Skal, her motives were obvious. If Asgrim had gotten hold her of fur, then she was bound to his wishes.
“Indeed, and she had done her job by luring you to your death like the sea creature she is.” he answered with a triumphant smile. “She also told a great deal about you and your magical sword.”
“Did she not tell you that my weapon is cursed?”
“Cursed by the Gods of Mindanao, yes you are. Don’t bluff me.” he sneered, “She told me much about your legend. An immortal soul bound to repeat the cycles of life. I know what you did to deserve such fate. And I know of the Mythslayer. The selkie said that you can draw upon the power of lightning and the wind. I want your power.”
“You don’t deserve the sword, scum.” Dark clouds started to gather in the sky. Cortez needed to buy some time.
“And you? You killed a favoured hero of the gods and bound them with dark magic to your blade! Do not tell me if I am worthy. I have no quarrels of the gods Cortez. You do.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Why make an empire of course, first conquer Orkney then all of Europe, then to the land of the East.” he explained. “It’s you that lay in the obstacle, Cortez, when I heard you where guarding Orkney against our raids. I wanted you removed.”
“Only if you grant me my rest,” Cortez was getting tired of his banter “but if you cannot, so the sword remains with me.”
“Do you really think you have a choice?” Asgrim threatened “I will loot your weapon from your punctured body! And no gods will take you!”
It was Cortez turn to smile. The pirate captain did not know everything.
“What are you smiling about?”
Cortez raised Mythslayer.
Only then did the captain realize he was stalling. So he gave the orders for the musketeers to open fire.
But before any pellets could touch him, lightning struck where he stood. Deafening thunder came afterward. Blinded and surprised, the pirates fired with rattled wits and struck each other with bullets.
Hector Cortez was no longer where he was. Only a smouldering black spot was left.
Lightning flashed across the sky followed by a loud clap. They could hear their heart beating in the silence. The pirates reloaded their weapons with unsteady hands.
Asgrim was bleeding, a stray shot hit his chest. He ordered his men to drag him away to watch. They posture Asgrim to lean on the marooned skiff while others began to grumble and curse Cortez.
Then lightning struck.
Cortez bolted from the sky unto the men hiding behind the bushes. He set the leaves aflame and rolled out bearing his black hilted blade which crackled with electricity as if he held Zues’ bolt of lightning in his hands.
The captain ordered his men to fire. With lightning reflexes, Cortez took cover behind his shield and dodged the bullets which he could not. The shield held, it was made by sturdy bamboo enchanted by Juan Tumala.
When the hail of bullets ended, the pirates threw their guns and unsheathed their swords. The closest pirate, Cortez slashed his chest with speed that would have made Hermes head spin. The sand barely slowed his feet.
Another opponent came at him downward chop. Cortez stopped it with his wooden shield then fluidly countered with a slash to the hips. To the right was a man with an axe, Cortez spun. The man struck only air, he tripped from weight of his swing, Cortez made a cut at the back of his leg then twirled again to slice his neck clean.
Cortez spoke a few words to his shield, it turned white. Then he threw his shield at his incoming opponents. The shield flew trailing lightning as it went, shocking those it touched and dazed all who it just skimmed.
With only his sword, Cortez kept three fighters at bay. He stabbed, parried and whirled, at every man who tried to land a blow on him. Every swing seemed to be carried by a furious wind. Then fast and strong as a gust, he finished them off with a dozen cuts and slashes when he summoned all his speed.
When they all fell dead, Cortez took a minute to catch his breath. He had to limit himself or else he would age quickly. Juan Tumala once cautioned him that the more he uses Mythslayer’s dark magic, the more it fed from his life force. He had to end the battle now.
He ran, leaped then rolled to retrieve his shield to begin his dance under the dark skies. Sword and shield worked together as one weapon, where the shield went, the sword followed. Many foes fell to his blade dance. Nothing can get through, not even a well aimed bullet because Cortez had with him the soul of the wind rider, the soul of Tuwaang infused with Mythslayer.
When the last of Asgrim’s men lay dying, Cortez strode to the wounded pirate leader.
“A bargain!” He pleaded. “A bargain! The selkie’s fur for your sword!”
Cortez scoffed as if the man had finally lost his mind. “You are in no position to bargain, scum!”
“Nor do you know where I hid it.” He said with a lofty grin looking directly at Cortez hazing gaze. “If can’t have your weapon, Cortez, then I might as well keep my secrets to the grave.”
“Why do you want my curse? Are you really that desperate for power?”
“As badly as any mortal who dreamt of riches, Cortez.” Asgrim pleaded “You have my word that I will spare you and anyone who you hold dear, and will lift the burden you bear.”
“You reek of treachery, scum. But you are right, I cannot question the dead.” said Hector Cortez whose bodily motion had slowly steadied. “Before I hand over my sword, would you tell me where you hid it first. Is it a deal?”
“It’s a deal,” Asgrim said with a raspy voice. “The fur is inside a box. I’ve buried at the heart of this isle. You will find it twelve steps east from an old cairn of stones, deep under a fallen log. I have the key here...now, the weapon!”
Cortez gave it a thought. Tumala had once warned him of the dangers of his black sword and wanted the pirate to know too, but he wanted Asgrim to find that out for himself.
“I don’t want to repeat myself so listen.” Cortez grabbed the key and stepped a dozen paces back. He laid down his weapons when had space between him and the pirate. “Raise the sword. Pray to your gods. They will grant the power that you seek.”
With those words, he walked away. Asgrim hurriedly crawled his way to fetch his treasure. Cortez paid him no mind when he was laughing hysterically with his newfound power. The pirate raised his black blade while chanting nonsense.
Thunder cracked, lighting came down with a loud clash. Asgrim took all the energies in. He could feel the wound mending in burning pain. In his triumphant moments, he envisioned of slaying Hector Cortez with his own blade, only his triumphant moments were also his last.
* * * * *
The moon lit the sky when Cortez emerged from the wooded heaths. It took him a while to find the place, and it took hours work of digging but in the end, he had with him the selkie’s fur.
Hector Cortez’s path was illuminated by a makeshift wooden torch. By the time he returned to the battle scene, the blood had already seeped deep into the sand, the bodies of the dead lay still, and nothing but a charred skeletal frame was left of Asgrim except for the black sword in his clutches.
However, amidst the dying, there was hope. Even from a distance Cortez could see Cailen whispering to Skal’s battered frame under the moonlight.
“Give me a reason not to kill you selkie.” started Cortez, she kept silent. As he drew closer, he noticed Cailen already bandaged Skal’s wounds gathered from clothes of the slain.
“Is he not worthy?” the answer reeled Cortez back. It then struck him that Cailen was referring to the charred corpse.
“Right from the very start, I’ve learned that these types of weapons are more curse than blessings.” He explained as he picked up Mythslayer “For him, it means death.”
“Death...Yes. I envy his sleep not his foolishness.” He said kicking the ashen bones of the captain. “This sword is only meant for me.”
Then he turned to regard Cailen. “Now, here is your fur as promised. But how can I trust you?”
“Asgrim is dead and you have my fur.” She spoke “I am at your every command.”
Cortez wanted to cut her head, but then Cailen had a reason for betrayal.
“Go, both of you are free.” To the Selkie’s surprise, he tossed the fur at her direction
“Yes, free,” she said with a blank stare at the sea “I am free to go back home.”
That brought a confused look upon Cortez. “Were you not supposed to get married?”
She lay Skal’s sleeping body aside. “We were supposed to.”
“But I see now how you humans are,” she continued. “Skal too, is not worthy. If he truly loved me, he wouldn’t have taken my fur in ransom or else none of this would happen.”
“But he did love you, did he not?” asked Cortez “And you did love him back?”
“Yes, and maybe.” Her eyes began to water “Or maybe I tried to convince myself. Just to fool myself, just to feel better living a life on land, to a point that I even sought Llyr’s blessing to confirm my illusions.”
“Now I know what you meant by your jest, Cortez.” she continued as drops of tears fled from her eyes. “Love can be selfish or makes one. I also believe it needs not be.”
“Or perhaps. I just don’t know if I did love him.” She cupped her face.
Cortez was overwhelmed with thoughts. He could still remember how soft her tanned skin was when he held her close, her long black hair spreading on his lap, the sweet kiss of her peach lips, the dying fire in her brown eyes, and the feelings that stung his heart.
“I don’t even know.” Cortez spoke, “about love...Even if I did fell in love once to a girl named Isabel. She was... special... that I wanted both of us to be like gods. She didn’t like the idea.”
“I thought, with Tugwaang’s powers, it could help us ascend godhood like in the legends. I thought I could rob the Underworld and gain immortality for us.” Cortez admitted “But I so wrong, for the Indio gods were a lot craftier and with mind less forgiving.”
“Magbabaya, the sky god of Mindanao led the attack on our wedding day.” With a breath of air Cortez continued. “He killed Isabel in revenge for killing Tugwaang.”
“And to me they passed judgement, cursed that I would remember my sins beyond death. The gods deny my rest.” Cortez explained, with gritted teeth and clenched his hands. Then he suddenly he eased with a sigh “There are times when I want to forget.”
“I am glad she found peace. I still love her after all these years, but the last time I looked into her eyes I saw no love.” Cortez added “Sometimes I feel like death saved her from me.”
Silence fell upon them that only the rolling waves broke.
“It has been a long time since I swam with my sisters.”Cailen thought out loud. “Would he let me?”
“I would have given your fur back to you...” Skal spoke in laboured breaths. Cailen’s heart leapt when he heard his voice. She kissed him before he say another word. “If that’s what you wanted...”
“I want to be with you”
“Don’t lie...to yourself Cailen” Skal gasped “I’m aware... you kept looking at the sea... where you belong.”
“I would have given you a choice.” Skal continued slowly becoming coherent as he went on. “On our wedding day before Asgrim happened.... He took your fur from me.”
“My question is would you be happy to be my bride?” asked Skal which made the selkie fumble for words.
He only needed to look into her eyes to see the conflict.
“Go swim...” he smiled, his eyes heavy “the sea is where you belong.”
And with those parting words, he slept. Cailen laid his body on the sand as she slowly headed towards the sea.
“Here is your reward. May you use it well in your travels,” she said to Cortez handing him a pouch made of shark leather. She gave him one last look at his eyes before she withdrew hers. His eyes spoke of contempt. “I will tell Llyr what you did for me. I will convince him to stop the Crone.”
“I am sorry about what the gods had done to you,” she added going past him.
“There are things I must set right.” Cortez replied
“Take care of Skal,” she requested “And you.”
Cortez nodded. He never had any good words for farewells.
With a last look at the shore, Cailen donned her seal skin. When she dived she returned to the waters as a seal. Cortez waved her good riddance, his smile went to the purse he felt for a pearl. Casually, he opened the small bag to reveal a large glass orb, and froze.
On his palm was the eye Juan Tumala sought.