The forest that covered the slopes of Mount Pico de Loro was thick with dense underbrush and slim, swaying trees whose trunks formed a lattice of rough bark and sharp edges. The trunks were almost invisible beneath the shelter of the forest canopy, deeper lines of black obstructing stray beams of moonlight and frustrating the efforts of one Chinese man. Jose Ignacio Paua swung his bolo once more at a particularly stubborn patch of bamboo, then stopped to wipe his brow. Not for the first time that night, the Katipunero mused that the forest was a decidedly unwelcoming place. This was not, however, an observation that deterred him. Paua was a man accustomed to walking where he was not wanted, in places where he was in danger from far worse than an errant branch.
Of course, there was always the chance that something more sinister than a tree was lurking on this mountain. In fact, that was what Paua was counting on.
After a good three hours of stumbling and hacking his way up the mountainside, Paua eventually emerged onto a flat outcropping within sight of the beak-shaped summit which gave the mountain its name. This high above sea level, the night breeze was cold enough to make Paua shiver, and strong enough to make his queue — his long, braided ponytail — dance. For a moment, the Katipunero looked to the east, and fancied he could see all the way to Imus, and the scowling visage of Pantaleon Garcia.
“This is a fool’s errand,” Pantaleon had told him. “You’re chasing after tuba-fueled nightmares, or some oddly shaped shadow.”
“Shadows don’t smoke cigars,” Paua had replied as he mounted his horse. “I’ll be in the area anyway for recruitment. No harm in taking a look.”
“Of course not. Not for you. Not when there’s an adventure to be had.”
That was partly true. At twenty four years old, Paua still had much of the restless energy which had driven him, six years ago, to leave China for the Philippines. But it was more than that. Paua moved to the very edge of the outcropping and took in the sight of his adopted home. To the south, the mountains of Batangas rose above the rolling green countryside; to the north the island of Bataan was just visible over the water. Pantaleon was his friend, but there was no way that anyone who had lived for forty years in this country could fully understand Paua’s hunger to explore it.
It was only when Paua reluctantly tore himself away from the view that he realized that he was not alone. A man in dark red clothes leaned against one of the taller trees, a somewhat twisted looking plant with round, low-hanging leaves. The overhanging branches kept most of the man’s face in shadow, but Paua could see enough to identify him as Chinese.
“Are you lost, neighbor?” said the man in red. “You’re a long way from home.”
When Paua made no reply, the other man moved out of the shade of the tree. As the man moved closer, Paua scrutinized his face carefully under the moonlight.
“I could show you the way back down the mountain,” said the man in red. His face was round and ruddy, his smile open and guileless. “I’m on my way back down myself.”
“Oh, I remember you now,” said Paua in Hokkien. “That’s clever.”
The man in red stopped, his expression darkening. “I’m sorry, I did not quite hear you.”
“I was commending you on your ingenuity,” Paua said, shifting back to Tagalog. “I figured it would be difficult to try your usual trick, given that none of my relations would be anywhere near Cavite, let alone this mountain. Taking the face of an almost forgotten cousin and assuming the role of a helpful stranger… that was unexpected.”
The man in red drew a large cigar from his pocket, and placed it between his lips. The tip of the cigar flared, and in that instant the man vanished. In his stead hulked a gangly figure that easily topped seven feet, its arms so long that one hairy hand was at the level of its knobby knees. The other hand still held the cigar, and against the backdrop of the night sky, the dull red light cast the figure’s equine head into relief.
“A hunter.” The Tikbalang’s sigh sounded like a horse’s nicker. “Hunters make for such poor sport. As you will, then. Shall it be salt first? One of your Christian beads? Or simply the business end of your blade?”
“What? No, no.” Paua slowly returned the bolo to the sheath which hung from his waist. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
The Tikbalang whinnied, and gave its head a shake, its long mane trailing behind like a coarse and tangled pennant. “Let us presume for a moment that your intentions have any bearing on what actually happens this night. Why are you here then, banyaga?”
Paua felt a rush of anger, but fought it down. One did not begin a courtship with threats and bombast. Instead Paua forced a smile and said: “I’m here to recruit you.”