Makinaadmanon, o great wise one, tell us your servants. What must we do to achieve humility? What must we do to grab the paddles of our mortal flesh so that we may course down the rivers of compassion and become humble?`
Sibantug, the Makinaadmanon of Gentle Praise, laughed mockingly. “This world does not need a humble warrior, or a sword of humility! This world, broken and fractured as it is, needs someone that can change it.”
“I-If that is so, great one, then teach us how to change the world!”
The Makinaadmanon, standing upon a rock, bahag and cloak flailing about him in multicolored patterns, said: “Generate enmity! Become abhorrent and insufferable! Bask in hubris!” And with a grave voice he turned, and his single eye shone crimson, and the gem upon his brow glowed. “If you wish to change the world you must lift your head up! But only those with their heads lifted get decapitated. If you want to change the world, then pride is required. If you are not willing to die for your beliefs, then nothing will change. Now go, take this sword, and cut your heads off.”Suratsin Kalayo 1193845
The rivers converge and dissent. Upon the confluence of sparkling blue-flow, the next star shines bright in the sky.
Riding upon the great war barge of Bayi Binayaan, the erstwhile daughter and princess of Rajah Batara Ambasi, overlord of Gatusan, was a young lady sheathed in scars. Scars she chose to have. Her muscles were hard, like rocks upon a cliff, unweathered by the storm. Her stature was not tall, but that only helped her have a better center of gravity.
She wore a grand kerchief over her head like a turban, as the women of Gatusan were wont to do. But other than that she wore a man’s bahag, and carried a kampilan in a rattan sheathe, so that she never needed to unsheathe. She would instead strike an enemy straight on with the kampilan still in the sheathe, letting the kampilan’s edge cut through the sheathe.
Her eyes sparkled with a somewhat excited twinkle. As the crewmen worked all about her, she stood upon the prow, watching the various islands in the distance grow larger and larger. She tensed and she gripped the hilt of her kampilan, wooden and carved intricately into the gaping maw of a naga.
Sam’baha had never been to Jambangan before. The great Land of Flowers, comparable in beauty–if not more–to the crown city of Gatusan, Kangdaya. A land of grand temples and star towers, of stone walls and geometric patterns. Of grand palaces that looked like great royal war barges lashed onto the soil of the island.
She may have been born royalty, but she was simply one of the many daughters of the Datu Matriarch Dimantag, of the island Opong. Opong was integral to fending off the many invasion attempts of the Pale Kings during the Seventh Star Era, and they had stood ever steadfast. Their burgeoning name and exalted position and influence in the council of datu that served the overlord was a sign of that.
She was not born of another datu either. Instead, the current Datu Dimantag, a sharp and ruthless woman, had fallen in love with a lowly commoner man named Pisik, who served as one of her infantry warriors. Unfortunately, Pisik died in a raid, and never got to meet his shining star of a daughter.
As a child, Sam’baha was impressionable. Growing up on the nightly songs of the epic poets of Dimantag, she was weaned upon the great songs of her people: of the great Sripulapula who descended upon the Pale King Fernaw, one of the first traversers of their realm.
“They stunk because they did not bathe: clean rushing water was anathema to their very bodies!” the singers would bellow, and the crowds would laugh. Sam’baha couldn’t think of a reason why anyone wouldn’t bathe. She did it at least twice a day. It would be too hot and too dirty otherwise!
Sripulapula found Fernaw pincushioned by spears thrown by his artillerists. Standing above him, Fernaw spat red blood. “Blood redder than mortals’!” The singer would below. Blood runs dark, of course. Almost brown, sometimes almost black. “But their blood glowed and shone as if miniature stars burst within them!”
“Speak your final rites,” Sripulapula had muttered, his kampilan readied. He wore nothing on his body, but he wore a heavy bahag and sarong, as the epic poets would explain everytime he arrived upon the scene. And a giant pudong that was adorned with gold so fine that it fell like a veil. “For I know beings like you do not go to the sky when they are killed. Your blood will summon no rainbow, and you will never achieve victory.”
“You savages will fall and perish to the might of our star,” was Fernaw’s last words.
Sripulapula brought the kampilan down. Magister, judge, executioner.
“My people will never yield.”
And the people would cheer. Sam’baha’s eyes glittered. To think that she would have a direct line to Datu Sripulapula, the great Killer of Invader Fernaw… she felt her blood boil. She knew what she had to do.
When she had come of age, and had finally received the first of her tattoos, she decided then and there that she would become a warrior. Not just any warrior, but a Kadungganan. The best Kadungganan in the isles, the most powerful warrior here! And then, she would finish what her ancestor started: she would sail the world to the Far Western Pillar, and there slay the Pale Kings once and for all, forever.
“They are not received by the sky,” she would mutter, as she trained hard and went on raids for her mother, who was preoccupied in running the entirety of Dimantag the settlement. They fought and defeated other banwa and then had Datu Dimantag’s sons marry the daughters of the defeated Datu, so that they would establish good relations and alliances with each other. Eventually, Opong and the islands near it became a tightly knit web of banwas, to the advantage of both the Overlord and the collective Datus of Gatusan. For the Rajah, if he needed to go to war, then the Opong banwas suddenly became a formidable fighting force.
However, if the Rajah becomes tyrannical, drunken with power, then the Datus of Opong can band together in a very strategic location to lay waste to Kangdaya.
Sam’baha carried out the tasks of her mother with panache and aplomb. Her bravery and skill did not go unknown, of course. She was awarded with bahandi, with her own home in the estate of Dimantag, all after having lived through 32 harvests.
In one of her raids, she travelled alone, with nothing but a small battalion of infantry to aid her in rowing her small barge. She had been dispatched by the Datu to quell unrest in a far off island: the small orbiting island of Siglu. In Siglu there was a banwa led by a young and handsome datu named Harala.
“However, that Datu is weak. His father, the original datu, died just a few weeks ago, may the ancestors guide his soul,” said Maabtik, her mother’s Atubang, as she was briefing her on her venture. “He has been thrust into his situation without proper guidance.”
They were talking over some betel nut in her room. A wooden table was laid over an expensive silken cloth rug traded in from foreign empires.
“Am I to be a babysitter?” asked Sam’baha, with a genuineness that felt refreshing to Atubang Maabtik.
“No,” said Maabtik, laughing. Dimples on her cheeks. Sam’baha realized that Maabtik was one of those that grew beautifully, like lambanog in expensive dragon jars. Her skin was sun-kissed porcelain, perfectly moon shaped. Sam’baha’s face was also moon-shaped, but not as perfectly moulded as Maabtik’s. Her mother had always said that she was hard-headed. “But some of them have traveled here to Dimantag to state that there has been some… strange going ons in their banwa. A certain strange sickness has arisen, one that their balyan are being forced to study again for it is not something that they have encountered before: no disease spirits arise from it. Just a horrible vacuousity.”
“And there have been reports about a ‘Moon Hermit’ who lives in a mountain waterfall upriver, in their island.”
“I see. So I am to investigate?” She spat out her quid.
Maabtik nodded. “I hope it is to your liking?”
“It might be a Pale King,” she said.
“You have vocalized what was both in our minds.”
Sam’baha nodded. She rose to her feet. “If it is, then I intend to slay them.”
Upon Siglu, she arrived to find a very disease-ridden village, just as she was told. Even the port chief of their banwa tried to tell her to stay away, for she might catch the disease.
Instead, she uttered a silent prayer and then kissed the Venom Vial hanging from her neck. “Worry not. I have walked through fire,” she intoned to herself, and ventured into the banwa. The people gave her proper reverence as she walked past, bowing. As one would to a Kadungganan. Or perhaps it is because they know her to be kedatuan, royalty to the banwa.
She approached the datu’s longhouse, and was quickly received. She entered with only two servants: one as a giribasa, or a translator, for she wanted to cover that need. The other was the carrier of her arms. Her shield, her sword, her breastplate.
Sitting upon the throne was a young man with the usual tattoos running up and down his skin. From the way that he sat, in a nonchalant spread, Sam’baha immediately ascertained that he did not deserve them.
She bowed anyway. The proper obeisance. “Greetings, Datu Harala. I am Bayi Sam’baha, Daughter of Dimantag. I have come in response to some reports about hardships on your end.”
The man raised an eyebrow. He had an insufferable air about him. He wore a crimson pudong, was barechested revealing his tattoos, and wore a long sarong of local weave. He rose to his feet then. His concubines that sat about him moved away. He had a kris readied on a sheathe hanging from his waist, tied about by a golden waistcord.
His father had left him an abundance, it seems.
“Greetings,” said Datu Harala. He bowed low, and then grinned. Gold glinted on his teeth. “How great it is to see you, great bayi. Please, come and dine with me, and partake in a quid of betel nut.”
He’s at least greeting us properly, thought Sam’baha. She nodded, and then walked over to the table to the right side of his bamboo dais. They sat upon textile mats. She accepted the quid he offered and they spoke as they chewed. “Your banwa has been stricken with a horrible disease.”
Datu Harala paused for a moment, and then nodded. Looking down, he asked for some alcohol to be brought over. Then, he looked up and said, “Our balyan are doing our best to try and find a way around it. Unfortunately… it has been hard going.”
“When did this disease strike your banwa?”
Harala thought for a moment, tapping his chin. Then, he said, “Last waning of the moon. It is recent.”
Sam’baha nodded. “Was there anything that you think could’ve caused it?”
Harala paused again, thinking. “I don’t think so. We performed our proper grieving to my father, sacrified the right amount of his servants. We gave our offerings to the diwata of the forest. By all accounts… we are protected.”
Sam’baha raised an eyebrow. Alcohol was brought in little jarlets. Expensive.
“I offer my grievances and condolences for your father as well. Datu Himbagan was a datu of bravery and strength.”
Harala smiled. A somewhat cheeky, annoyed smile. “That’s what they all say, even the poets and singers. It wasn’t like that behind smoke and bamboo, you know.”
“The man beat me, called me a useless son.”
Sam’baha thought. Then, she said, “Have you ever gone on a raid, Datu?” She spoke with a certain levity, and without proper honorifics.
But she had come bearing her name, and who she was. They were more or less on the same level. They were both datu.
He looked at her for a moment, and Sam’baha sensed a small bite of venom. Spite? Hatred? “Of course I have. Why else do you think I have these tattoos?”
“I see. So you have killed before?”
“Yes. Now, Bayi, I know you know who you are. But it is important that you remember that this is still my Banwa.”
“It was your father’s,” said Sam’baha. Now Sam’baha was not exactly known for being good at beating around the bush. She was known for being as sure and as straight as the kampilan she always carried, which she named Tigdugu, the Blood-Letter. “And perhaps you taking over was a reason for the disease. The spirits are like that.”
Harala was pissed. His jaw hung open, as if he had been slapped. He said, “Hoy, Bayi. With all due respect, are you saying that the person my father entrusted the banwa to is not worth becoming the datu?”
“It is nothing personal,” said Sam’baha. Her movements were fluid, relaxed. Datu Harala’s shoulders were tense, hers were loose. “It is not an indictment of your abilities. Perhaps the spirits, both the diwata and the umalagad, see someone else as fit for it. The spirits can be fickle, after all.”
“You think I have not considered that?” his voice still dripped with venom, but he was grinning, smiling. He laid back, crossing his arms. “I have spoken with the balyan. We have performed all the proper rites. The umalagad are happy with me ruling. It is not my fault. A terrible fate has befallen my banwa.”
The tension was tight. Sam’baha was still lax, however. “If you have come to try and lambast me, then that is overstepping, I believe.” Datu Harala leaned back and shrugged, an sharply annoyed look on his face.
Sam’baha watched him for a few more moments, before sighing and nodding. “I apologize if I’ve overstepped. I recognize your authority here and recognize it.”
“Do you still extend your hospitality?”
Datu Harala was already about to stand. He paused and said, “You’re still not done?”
Sam’baha shook her head, in mock graveness. “Unfortunately, there is still one more thing I must ask you. Like I said, I am not here to aggravate or agitate you. Instead, I am here to help you and your banwa. Having an ally be weakened is not a good thing you see.”
“Ah, so it is benevolence?”
Sam’baha smiled. An innocent smile, but not genuine. She nodded, her eyes wide. She was still so young. It was so easy to trick people. “One could say that. Perhaps it is something more… filial?”
Datu Harala sighed and nodded. He sipped some alcohol and then said, “Fine. What is the question, bayi?”
“I have heard reports of the Moon Hermit. Upriver? Do you have any information on them?”
There was a hitch, a pause. A moment of hesitation. Sam’baha’s pure face betrayed nothing. Apparently, that was what scared Maabtik the most about her. Not her skill with the sword, not her unwavering conviction, but her ability to look absolutely innocent. It hurt her pride in a way, but she has long since decided to use it to her advantage.
“I… have heard of the Moon Hermit. But… why do you ask?”
“It is a strange phenomenon, a person we do not know,” said Sam’baha. “It might warrant investigation. Such a mysterious figure… perhaps they would know something about the disease that ravages your banwa? Would you… know anything about them?”
“N-No. No I don’t.”
“I see. Very well.” Bayi Sam’baha rose to her feet. “I am sorry to have taken up so much of your time. I pray that it does not sour our connections and our relationship.” She bowed, one hand covering her cheek, arm across her chest.
“Of course not, bayi. You are only doing your job.”
Sam’baha left the house and then immediately put on her armor and weapons.“I have no trust in the Datu,” she told her giribasa, a young monkeyfolk who kept chewing on a stick of cinnamon named Kalig. Expensive vice, that.
“Mmhm? I can tell. So what, you gonna kill him?”
“Nay. I’m killing something else.”
Then, with four other infantry, she traveled upriver.
The story of the Moon Hermit being at the head of the river ended up being entirely correct.
Sitting upon a boulder, letting a waterfall rush over them, was the entirely womanly figure of a pale figure. When Sam’baha arrived, the Moon Hermit opened her eyes even as her hair fell about her, matted to her body. She wore nothing. Her skin glinted alabaster.
“Ah, has a great and prodigious wariorress arrived for my help?” Her accent lilted. The tongue of Gatusan, but one spoken as if every word were venom upon their lips. “Come, and approach the great Moon Hermit. Let the Soul of the Priestess awash you.”
Sam’baha’s nose curled. She stunk, like the smell of corpses, despite being awash by the cleansing waters of the falls.
The great bayi unsheathed her kampilan and stepped forward. “Issohappan.”
The woman opened her eyes. The telltale scarlet eyes shone through. Tears of blood ran down her cheeks. “Yes, lost one.”
“You have brought a disease upon the banwa down the river. For that, you must—”
Before Sam’baha could finish her statement and leap into violence, the Pale King said: “Me? I brought no such thing. All I did was grant the young man down there the enthralling power of a Pale King. He accepted it fully.”
Sam’baha sighed. “And that is why the disease has befallen them, then. You have given them a Pale King venom, a pale disease. There is no healing for this.”
“Unless, of course,” said the woman, her tears staining her mouth red, “You kill the carrier. Then there is a chance.”
The rush of the waterfalls provided background music to their conversation. The birds too were too scared to sing.
“Why?” asked Sam’baha. The woman tilted her head. Her hair was a perfect shade of crimson. “Why did you give it to Datu Harala?”
“Why? Well, it was no fault of mine, He asked for it, plain and simple. All I did was oblige.”
“What did he ask for?”
She grinned, revealing jagged, sword teeth. “The strength to kill his father.”
“I see.” Sam’baha unsheathed her blade then. “Unfortunately, you see, even with that revelation, I cannot suffer a Pale King to live.”
“Ah, this is what you have internalized, yes? Pale Kings must die.” At this moment, she rose to her feet and stepped forward. She walked on the river water. The infantry behind Sam’baha shook.
Sam’baha raised her kampilan to her right. “Falter not, infantry. We have seen gods perform more magnificent deeds.”
“There is a reason why we can never be fully extinguished from these isles.”
“Do not play with me,” said Sam’baha. “You are deserters and remnants, nothing more.”
Then the Pale King lunged forward, and Sam’baha met her head on. It was a quick exchange, of fangs and blades, of pale claws ripping into sun-kissed caramel muscle. Of blades piercing and cutting and thrusting in the span it took one of the infantrymen to blink. It was ultraviolence encapsulated into seventy circular motions, faster even than a setsuna moment.
It felt like it had finished much faster than it had. It was a lightning bolt: grandeur and magnificence. Gone in a flash, ever etched onto souls. Their clash, their dance of death, was lightning.
At the end of it, Sam’baha lodged her kampilan blade into the Pale King’s neck. That was not enough to kill a Pale King, of course.
“Tell me your name.”
“May the Bloody Hand of God pierce your fucking heart–”
She wedged up, ripping the Pale King’s head slightly from her neck. Pale Kings still felt pain, after all.
“Guinewere!” snarled Sam’baha back, in a venomous pantomime of her accent. “You will never reach the sky!” And she performed a quick maneuver, a movement of the wrist, or maybe more.
Guinewere’s head fell to the ground.
Pale King corpses did not deserve to be handled with mortal hands. She stabbed Guinewere’s head with her kampilan’s spikelet and lifted it as a trophy. She kicked Guinewere’s body into the river, where it would be washed away by the spirits into the deepest abysses.
“A skull for me,” said Sam’baha. “Finally.” She asked for a cloth, and then wrapped the head.
With that done, she began walking back toward the banwa. There, she went up to the Datu Harala and showed Guinewere’s stabbed skull.
“I found your Moon Hermit,” she said.
Datu Harala was too flabbergasted. He was almost crawling backwards, a reverse grovel. “Y-You… How did you–”
“I guess my reputation hasn’t reached all the way here from Opong,” she said. “I am Bayi Sam’baha of Dimantang, and I intend to extinguish this entire world from the blight that is the Pale Kings.”
A silence, and then Sam’baha looked down at Datu Harala. “Your Moon Hermit was named Guinewere. She told me that you came to her for power. Power to… kill your father? Power to kill your datu.”
“Fuck father. He had no respect for me. He was going to make my younger brother the next datu. What a fucking joke!” He rose to his feet and unsheathed his kris. His concubines ran away to safety. “Hoy. Remember what I told you. This is still my banwa.”
“Even your kawal are affected by the disease you’ve brought upon them,” Sam’baha said. She held the blade of her kawal. “You’re sick, Harala. And you’re infecting your fellow men.”
“To hell with my fellow men. In the isles, you only need power. You only need strength. The Strong Feast on the Weak!”
Sam’baha sighed. “I see. Then let us prove your statement, then.” She threw Guinewere’s head against Datu Harala, which immediately knocked him off balance. Then, she flashed forward–in a blink she was in front of Harala–and in another blink she had disarmed his kris. In the next breath, the kris and her kampilan were in her hands, scissoring into Harala’s neck.
Breathe: Harala fell to the bamboo throne headless. His skin immediately turned pale.
No spirits came to retrieve his soul.
As they were investigating the longhouse, one of Sam’baha’s men said: “Bayi! Over here, in the second level!”
Up on the second level, Sam’baha saw that the bodies of his father, his mother, and his siblings were arrayed in an eight-sided shape, their blood pooling into a singular circle in the middle. They looked almost like a wheel, with their arms and legs the spokes of the flesh wheel.
“It seems so,” replied Kalig. “Pale King rituals used blood predominantly, as far as I know.”
“I see. Then I should’ve asked him about the ritual first. Ah well.” She turned and said, “Udip, how are the villagers?”
A man cloaked in the garments of a woman bowed. She was blind, but she did not cover his eyes. “Ah, bayi. A few movements of the sun after Datu Harala’s decapitation, the villagers truly have been getting better. Their ailments are being healed. None of them have bruises now, no loss of blood.”
“Good.” Sam’baha turned and walked over to the flesh wheel and knocked it out of order. No more blood drained into the circle. “Then our job here is done.”
“What about the succession, bayi?”
“I am not here to solve that. They are their own banwa, they will solve it.”
When they came home, Sam’baha’s prestige only grew. Her prowess soon became lauded in Opong, and she even got some songs sung about her. However, it was not enough for her. In her house, she had a bamboo shelf made, and only one skull was displayed upon it.
More. She needed more of those fucking monsters.
And thus why she asked permission from her mother to leave for a bit, to travel the isles as a free warrior. She was given leave, on the condition that if Dimantag needed her, she must return.
And she so oathed and promised.
Thankfully, Binayaan was reloading her items before beginning her very own grand journey across the isles, and Binayaan needed some firepower. Sam’baha was more than ready to fulfill that role.
“But you let me kill Pale Kings, all right?” said Sam’baha, grinning as their barge cut through the sea.
“I’ll hunt some down for you to kill.” Binayaan grinned as well, her sharpened teeth giving her an even more mischievous look. “You’ll be able to get what you want, Pale King Hunter.”
“I am a world raider,” said Sam’baha. “I simply seek to finish what my ancestors have begun.”
During that feast that night, Sam’baha watched as Laki Sangamid tried hitting on a peculiar girl. Her hair shone like the moon. Nay, it was like it had been suffused by the stars. Her eyes were the brightest blue, a sapphire engraved by the waters of the clearest river.
Sam’baha… felt compelled. Yes, compelled was the word.
Then she saw the young man, her kawal presumably, stepping up to protect her, and Sam’baha couldn’t help but wonder who this girl was.
Later on, when Binayaan clarified that she was her sister, a binukot kept locked up in a far off cave, Sam’baha felt like a strange mystery had been laid in front of her. Or perhaps she was just that much of a loser, that she could fall to the charms of an effortlessly beautiful girl?
She stood on the prow now, wondering this. She awaited the opportunity to speak with Binayaan’s sister, Bakong. She was curious. A strange feeling swirled in her stomach.