“The hero of Mahagadya broke his chains and wielded upon himself his holy garments, the Six Godly Regalia. The Gleaming Saiva Sword, the Batara Pudong, the Gamhanang Kalasag, the Kedu-Rahu Armbands and Anklets, the Lawana Sinigida Breastplate, and the Avalokitesvara Sarong. Wearing these holy garments, he strode upon the battlefield and conquered heaven and hell.”The Song of the Final Hero by the First Prophet
In the midst of the sea, a night north from Kangdaya, The Golden City
The Spider Lily of the Azure Flame was upon a barge to be married to the crown prince of the Sultanate, and she faced a storm at sea.
As if she had earned the ire of the ancestors, the winds sent waves slamming upon their merchant barge. She sat still, within her custom-made palanquin, even as the walls and its veils became matted to each other with salt-wetness.
“Your Majesty!” The door swung open. In walked a man with hair darker than dusk, so long it reached his waist. His sarong clung close to his waist, a bahag underneath giving it a heavy layered feeling. He wore a turban-like headpiece known as a pudong, made of abaca and dyed blue, as many warriors did in the Archipelago. Against the lightning, his sun-kissed caramel skin seemed to dance like a flame. Not that one could see much of it: he wore a heavy waterbuffalo hide breastplate over a long abaca fiber underarmor, which covered his arms in long, black-dyed sleeves.
He came in with his eyes closed, of course. Unless the binukot, the veiled princess, or her father –the chiefly lord called a Datu–expressly allowed it, no one could look upon her.
The Spider Lily, somehow managing a calm voice, said, “Masuna, you need not avert your eyes from me.”
Masuna, ever the loyal servant, nodded. He opened his eyes, revealing eyes blacker than night. “We are seeking land as we speak. The storm has grown too powerful.”
“Do we not have a balyan in our midst?”
“Nay, my lady. We were not able to procure priestesses when we left.”
“Then we should have not disembarked today. The omens said it was going to be a safe voyage, however…”
“The diwata are fickle things, my lady.”
“Very well. Go. Seek safe land and let us wait out this storm.”
Masuna nodded. The storm continued to rage. He closed the door behind him.
The Spider Lily sighed, but there was comfort in her face. Underneath her veiled hands, she let go of her hand mudras, and she stopped chanting the mentala, magic words, under her breath.
Masuna made his way over to the prow of the ship, where the barge’s captain was. The captain pointed at a black spot in the distance, miraculously by the rim of the storm clouds. Masuna nodded.
Masuna was a warrior, one who has garnered much warrior prestige. But this did not stop him from leaping down onto the outriggers and helping the other servants in paddling.
Paddle they did, vigorously. The waves seemed to swell lower and lower, and as they paddled, the quicker the barge sailed across the seas.
Until eventually, they arrived on the island.
The thundering of the clouds became a distant memory behind them.
As the barge drifted towards the coast, Masuna leapt up from the outriggers and beside the captain. A lanky yet muscled sailor, whose orange fur matted against his side. He only had one arm, the lack of his other arm signified by the flapping baro sleeve where his left arm is supposed to be. “Kiyam, captain. Do you know of this island?”
The captain took one look at the mountain, and then the jungle surrounding it, and shuddered. His single eye gleamed red (his other eye had been plucked out by Bakunawa, he would regale), and his cat ears, both with deep cuts, fell behind his head in anxiety. “This is Minantiwan. The island of ghosts,” the captain rasped. His one arm clenched and the sleeve of his doublet flapped in the wind. “Deep within that mountain, they say that there is a cave. Lalangban. It leads directly into Sulad.”
“Then we are on an island for corpses.”
Masuna, in response, placed a hand on his kampilan. “I will be ready should the time come, but may the ancestors be kind.”
“May the ancestors be kind.”
They disembarked as the barge lodged itself upon the sand of the coast. The servants set about anchoring the ship, while the servants of the princess set about picking up her palanquin and moving her over to dry land and placing her upon a level field, right at the border of the jungle. The rest of the servants walked into the jungle, looking for food and coconuts. The abundance of resources in the archipelago of The Sword Isles meant it was less of a question of if they could find it, but how many they could find.
Masuna stepped onto the sand. He performed a quick prayer to the spirits, kissing the necklace that hung about his neck, whereupon an idol of Lawana Sinigida, Goddess of War, hung. Then, he moved over to the palanquin. He knocked upon its heavy cloth first, before peering in.
The lady had fallen asleep. Her head lay upon a pillow of softest down, her hair was strewn about her like a crown.
Masuna remembered what he thought when she had first seen her. Her skin was that light brown, like the sun bleached sand they now walked upon. Her eyes were the color of the sea, and her hair the color of pale moonlight.
To Masuna, who was given the sacred task of making sure she was safe without attracting too much attention, he didn’t care enough to answer. A job is a job, and his faithfulness to the Rajah could not be underestimated. At the same time, Masuna wondered whether she was the spawn of the Rajah’s lovemaking with a diwata, or a yawa.
Masuna pulled away and turned. “How much further until we reach Kalanawan?”
“The island is still a few nights away, young warrior,” rasped Kiyam, scratching at his one eye. His cat ears twitched, and he scowled greatly. “The storm seems to abate, though, but we can take this advantage as an early pit stop for sure.”
Masuna nodded. “Thank you for your service, captain.”
Kiyam shrugged as he began chewing on betel nut. “Hey, this is an all expenses paid job from the Rajah himself. It’s not everyday you get that opportunity.”
Masuna smiled, nodded again. With that, the cat-captain smiled, showcasing his filed teeth pegged with gold, and turned around to attend to his servants.
The salt spray of the sea was calm now. Masuna scowled. It was as if the storm had been summoned. Had a sorcerer known of their departure?
A servant walked up to him and gave him a half coconut shell filled with some scorched pork meat. They had found some meat in the islands, and Masuna took this to mean a good omen.
As he ate, there was a muffled sound from within the palanquin. Immediately, Masuna turned and walked into the textile-veiled covering.
Bakong had awoken, rubbing at her eyes. That newly awakened fizz floated about her. “My lady. Do you wish some food? Water?”
Eventually she managed to remove the newly-awakened glaze. She rubbed her face and said, “Some water would be great.”
Masuna nodded, and then slipped away from the palanquin.
In her dreams, Bakong walked down a black river, her footsteps planting firmly upon the water’s surface but never breaking it. Demons and the dead gathered by the river’s banks, watching. Partly in curiosity, partly in abhorence, and partly in reverrence.
At the end of the river was a large cave. When entered, there stood a giant stone monument, naturally made, but in the vague shape of a woman with her hands clapped together as if in prayer.
Bakong watched it for a few moments.
And then her being was wreathed in azure flame.
When she looked up, a woman stepped forth from the stone. As tall as the stone itself, but her form was like the rushing of an ivory river. She knelt on both knees and tapped Bakong’s hair with her fingertip. Her eyes were the color of the depths of the sea, and her hair floated about like seaweed at the bottom of a river. “I see you have found me, little one.”
“You found me,” said Bakong.
“I suppose. My little minions did a good job, then?” She looked up and shot a smile at the demons that danced in her periphery. “I am full pleased.”
“Are you truly who you say you are?”
“And you summoned that storm all by yourself? The White River courses power through you, little one.”
Bakong bit her lip. “Please. I need you to confirm. I need… to know.”
“All will be revealed in due time, young princess,” and the goddess reached down and hugged her tight. Her skin was cold, and it was liquid. Like sinking down into a lake. “But for now, I impart upon you two gifts, so that you may be steeled against what is to come.”
“Wait! Giver of Magicks, tell me. Am I truly to go to the Sultanate and wed their prince?”
The Goddess of the White River turned to her and raised an eyebrow. “Nay, youngling. You do not need to wed their prince if you do not wish to. However, that is where the hero of prophecy is travelling.”
“The… Hero of Prophecy?”
“Aye, little flower. He travels to befriend the locals there, and to find a sacred shield. He seeks to find all the regalia of an ancient hero to successfully unite all of The Sword Isles under a single banner, under the guise of ending war.”
Bakong bit her lip again. “I… don’t know if I understand. But… if that is what must be done…”
“You will see what I mean when you go there. For now, stick close to your guardsman, and that ship captain. When you arrive at Jambangan, seek out your Aunt Puasa. She will have more answers for you, and will reveal all in due time.”
“Wait, giver! Please… tell me who you are. I need to know. I need to know why I am in this voyage, this venture…”
“All will be revealed in due time, my daughter. For now, have faith.”
She awakened with a “buh”. Quickly enough, the palanquin textile veil flapped open and in peered Masuna. She had to wait for a bit to get her bearings, and Masuna offered water, which she was glad enough to agree to.
She looked down at her hands. She left Kangdaya with just as many questions, if not more. She fit in nowhere, even in the royal coterie of Kangdaya, but now she was truly outcast, with no one to turn to but…
The textile flap opened again, and Masuna appeared. “Your majesty,” he said, as he walked over and knelt. “I hope it is all right?”
“It is. Thank you, Masuna.”
“It is my honor, Bayi.” He offered her a coconut shell filled with coconut water. As filling as it was refreshing. He helped her drink it all up, tipping the contents into her mouth.
“You treat me like I am a babe.”
Masuna swallowed. “I, uh, I apologize, Bayi.”
“It is all right all the same.” A silence passed. Masuna was just about to ask permission to walk out when she continued: “Has the storm passed?”
“A-ah, yes, bayi. The storm is gone, now.”
A knowing nod from Bakong. “Then… when do we leave?”
“In the dawn. I will conduct another ritual tonight to ensure that it will be safe.”
Bakong smiled. “I’d almost forgotten you had some experience as a balyan, Masuna.”
“I travel down many paths, Bayi.” He nodded at her.
She nodded back. “Then I hope you will walk with me.”
A sudden silence. Bakong had to look away, because she was sure she had done something wrong. Masuna’s face flushed a hot pink, although it was not obvious through the pall of his battle-darkened skin.
“I-If the Bayi is hungry the servants have captured a boar–”
Bakong nodded immediately, without looking at Masuna. “A-Ah! Yes. Well, I am hungry.” A nervous laugh. Masuna nodded and walked out.
Bakong let a breath out. She watched the flap of the palanquin for a brief moment. A burning feeling struck her heart. Was it… nostalgia? A longing?
Masuna had been with her since they were young, he had been her secondary source of sword techniques, ever since her father stopped coming to her cliffside cave enclosure–which he had built for her. He was barred from seeing her back then, so they sparred with him blindfolded. Despite not being able to see, he was able to teach effectively. “I can see through the spirit,” he would explain. It was nothing short of miraculous to her, though, and ever since she’d thought of Masuna as some sort of spirit of swords. Of course, this could not be further from the truth. With skill came a certain degree of miracles.
And of course, Bakong herself eventually became skilled at sorcery. Much more so than Masuna ever could.
She moved about her palanquin. Her legs ached, she had to get out and move around. She wore a long silk garment that wrapped around her like a gown, and had two large and flowing sleeves that flared open. By the palanquin’s opening flap were a pair of gold paruka, clogs that she could use to walk. Footwear was not a prerequisite here in the isles, what with the unwieldy terrain, marshy environments, and the sea not exactly having a care for footwear. But royalty like her gets to wear them, not just for protection of feet, but also as a mark of prestige and nobility.
The flaring sleeves of her royal garments, which were dyed the color of the river at night– A dark and somber blue–were extra useful for her. She already did not seem to fit in with normal tawo, what with her strangely colored eyes and hair. But on top of that, her left arm was not a normal arm. It was a prosthetic of gold and ironwood. A part of her soul coagulated and encased in sorcerous smithing. Through it, she could store mentala, so that she could fire them off reflexively, but to the normal person she will be no doubt seen as a witch who has come to burn down houses.
She sighed. She clenched her left fist. Wisps of black and red came off of it, like flames leaving a pyre.
The flap opened again. “Some food, your majesty–”
Masuna caught her mid-stretch. Her eyes flashed open, and they stared at each other for half a second, before she quickly looked away and stopped her stretch. “Thank you, Laki Masuna. You can leave it there.”
“Y-Yes. Of course. I’ve brought you a spoon as well to eat it with. Eat it well, Bayi.” And then he slipped out as quickly as he entered.
Bakong sighed and melted down to the palanquin’s floor. She buried her face in her hands.
Masuna, outside of the palanquin, fell to his knees, doubling over. Staring at the sand, he felt like he couldn’t breathe.
“Oy, kid. What the hell is your problem?” It was Kiyam, who was munching on some fish he had caught himself.
“I… just need to catch my breath.” He inhaled and laughed. “I suppose all that excitement in the storm has caught up to me.”
The cat-captain’s one feline eye surveyed him, and then he nodded. “Well, get yourself together. When you’re ready, we can perform the ritual.”
“Right. Right, the ritual.”
That night, around a single bonfire by the palanquin, they conducted the ritual. It was a simple one: they set up a makeshift altar with some clean river bamboo, and then placed a wooden idol that one of the debtors knew how to create. They placed it upon the altar, and Masuna set about to calling the diwata.
He impaled a balaraw, a kind of push dagger, into the ground. With a quick ululation of tongues, he called upon the holy powers around them, whether they be nature god or ancestor spirit, to topple the dagger if the voyage in the noon of the morrow was to be safe. It did not topple. Masuna asked again, but this time asking if a voyage at the morning would be safe.
The dagger fell.
The crew offered each a chunk of pork, uncooked and unsalted, and left the altar up.
“Looks like we go by the morning,” said the captain. “Good. Before the sun arises. We should be able to sail quickly and without much irritation.”
Masuna nodded in agreement. “Let us rest then–”
Before he could finish what he was saying, however, a voice reverberated from the trees.
In the next instant, Masuna had pulled out his kampilan, the blade flashing in the light.
The voice that came out was similar to that of a child’s. Well, more like a young teenager’s, who was attempting the booming voice of a Datu. “Fear not, voyager! I come in peace, not in war!”
Eyebrows still furrowed, Masuna turned to Kiyam, who responded to his look with a shrug. Like a cat raising his hackles.
Masuna looked back at the shadow, and eyes burned to life. Slowly but surely, it seemed like the shadow moved forward. Like a small creature, like a pygmy. Masuna lowered his kampilan. His kalasag was too far out of reach. He wouldn’t be able to dive in in time and catch it. He had to rely on his only weapon.
Masuna readied his other hand.
The eyes, which seemed to burn like little droplets of flame, slowly walked into the light… revealing an inky little creature, half the height of Masuna, wearing a broad-rimmed hat with a tall peak that almost reached Masuna’s face. Their entire body, save for their hands and feet, were wrapped in heavy textile cloth, which had burning kasuratan glyphs dancing abuot them. Their hands, clawed and four-fingered, were wrapped in golden armbands, silken gloves and socks.
In this manner, only their eyes could be seen.
“Greetings! Please, lower your kampilan. I mean no harm.”
“State your name, creature,” barked Masuna.
“I have been given the moniker of Bangahom. It is a pleasure to meet you.” Their voice was the sound of a nasal Ananaran scholar, albeit indistinguishable whether they were masculine or feminine. They held in one hand a long blade, in the shape of a kris with a blade made of blacksteel. The kris equaled half of their height.
“Demon,” said Kiyam, spitting at the sand. His warriors readied their spears.
“Aye! I am what many call a yawa. But! I bring no harm! I swear and oath by the Goddess of the White River. I have been called by the Goddess to serve the Bayi! The Veiled Princess Bakong han Muyang Kalayo.”
Masuna’s grip upon his kampilan tightened. “Bangahom. You are yawa, but you speak. You mean us no ill? Do you speak the truth?”
“Nothing but the truth, great one!” spoke Masuna. “I come with nothing but my perfect memory.”
“Goddess of the White River, you say?”
“Aye. A… certain spirit that has taken to a particular liking to Bayi Bakong. Pray, give me a chance. Lead me to her, and I will show you that she knows of my coming. I am not here to lay a single wound upon her.”
“Tarry, Kawal,” said Kiyam, referring to Masuna. “Yawa are well known for their guile. And that is without calling into mind that we are upon an island of corpses.”
Masuna nodded, but did not turn back to Kiyam. “Bangahom, if you speak the truth, then I will go with you to my ward. However, be sure to take note of my blade. It is sharp, and can cut a droplet of water. With an expression of my skill I can fell entire trees. Pray that I do not find out of your guile and use it upon you.”
“O, I applaud your tenacity and virtue, kawal! No doubt the bayi is in safe hands. But worry not. I cannot even properly lift this kris!” Bangahom tried to heft the blade, but simply fell backwards into the sand instead. Masuna had to resist the urge to go over there and help them. “See? Now, where is the bayi? I wouldn’t want her servant to tarry any longer!”
Masuna nodded. “Come, then, and stay within my sights.” He walked with Bangahom over to the palanquin, kampilan trained upon the yawa at all times. Yawa, Masuna knew, were demons and devils that spanned this entire Archipelago. Like Kiyam said, their guile was razor sharp, in the sense that you wouldn’t know that you have been cut until you are already bleeding.
Masuna knocked on opening flap, and Bakong called them in. Masuna walked inside and kept the flap open for Bangahom to enter.
“O, gracious lady! Spider Lily of the Azure Flame! How beautiful you are, the truth of your countenance transcends even the description of the goddess! O, beauty incarnate!”
Masuna had to kick them to get them to shut up.
Bakong looked at Masuna and said, “What is this?”
“O, pray forgive me for my terrible manners. I am Bangahom, demon servant to you, o lovely Bayi Bakong. I am one of the birthrights granted to you by the great demon goddess Lady of the White River! And this blade,” –they knelt down and put the kris up, almost fell doing so if it wasn’t for Masuna catching them– “is the Heaven Splitting Sword, Kris Langit Pikas-pikason.”
“You… you speak the truth,” said the bayi, watching him cautiously.
Masuna watched her with a wary eye, but made sure not to give her accusatory glances.
“That is what I am,” she said. “I am the daughter of Rajah Batara Ambasi, Grand Paramount Lord of Gatusan, and the Demon Goddess Lady of the White River. And this is my birthright.”