“In violence the islands were made, and in violence it shall fall.” – Common Sword Isle war chant.
The little principality of Bahin was not as grand as the village of Tinubuan. However, it was packed to the brim with houses alongside the coast, which each had a personal boat tucked away underneath the house. Fish were dried on racks and abaca pans, and were being traded for iron, wood, porcelains, and meat. Binayaan explained that the island whereupon Bahin stood was not blessed with abundant hinterland resources: instead within were craggy villages and fresh streams and an ancient, ancient spirit that they all appeased with a whole shark feast that they must sacrifice every full moon.
“They call them Apu Sisigurang Ilaya,” Binayaan explained as they walked up the docks. Bakong had put on less overt clothing, just a simple lambong and shawl to cover her shoulders, but she still wore her gold bangles and earrings, as was the custom even among commoners in the Sword Isles. “The great elder upriver. Big hands, an unassailable appetite for food from the sea. However, in return, Sisigurang apparently makes the island unassailable as well. How, I’m not sure. I’ve never tried to raid here.”
Binayaan did not try to scale down what she was wearing. She still wore her collared baro, her lambong folding down into layers from her waist and then wrapped in gold threads and chains and beads. Flamboyant gold flared from her ears, wrists, biceps, arms, and her tattoos were almost impossible to ignore. Bakong watched the debtors of the town of Bahin bowing and making sure not to look at her face, a common courtesy for nobles.
“Ah! Hey! Over here!”
Bakong looked up and saw Binayaan’s war barge, the prow carved into the likeness of a naga eating the sun and blessed with anahaw palms. It docked, and as it did, the three primary warriors poured out.
Binayaan brought Bakong over to them as they stepped onto the wooden docks of Bahin. Commoners went about paying anchorage fees. “Greetings, bayi,” said the elderly man. “I’m surprised you haven’t completely escaped us and allowed us to follow you. Now we don’t have to spend three moons looking for you only to find out you’re on an out of the way island drunk with the locals.” The elderly man, wrapped in crimson textiles, smiled and leaned on his staff.
“Ah, Gurang Huna, ever the comic.” Binayaan laughed and turned to Bakong. “Ah, this old coot is Gurang Huna, the band’s warsae. The one with the strings–” she pointed at the woman plucking away at the kudyapi. She wore a magenta headwrap and beautiful textiles that wrapped around her entire body. “This one is Paraawit Patima Aliya.”
Patima turned to Bakong and bowed deep. “Esteemed sister of the Invincible Gun Princess, may the fates be kind to you.”
Binayaan smiled. The warrior woman clad in Rajahnate textiles and silks—and now, from up close, scars and tattoos as well—walked up and clapped Patima on the shoulder. “Loosen up Patima, we’re not in a fucking court.”
She turned and when her eyes met Bakong she paused for a moment, before saying: “Heya. I’m Sampung Baha, but you can call me just Sam’baha, because who wants to say all that right?”
Binayaan smiled. “Sampung Baha is a great warrior, almost as good as me.”
Bangahom, upon Bakong’s head, nodded. “I can feel a great amount of Gahum emanating from them. They have gone on many experiences.”
Patima looked desecrated. “A yawa?”
The elder man, Gurang Huna, walked up to Bakong and waved his staff at Bangahom. “Missy, you seem to have a little devil with you.”
“Ah, it’s no cause for worry. Bangahom is their name, and they are my servant.”
“A yawa servant?” Patima looked positively offended.
Binayaan laughed and waved. “You can summon physical notes of music to explode into the battlefield. A yawa servant is not the strangest thing to see I’m sure.”
Sam’baha laughed. “All right then, Bayi Binayaan. Why are we here? In Bahin? Other than I know that we’re going to escort your little sister here to her husband to be.”
“A unification of Akai and Gatusan,” said Patima. Her words were slow, lilting, learned but not clever. “A grand moment in the history of the isles, I am sure.”
“Cool it with the grand proclamations,” said Sam’baha, laughing.
“Ah, we’re here to restock Kiyam’s barge,” Binayaan replied, pointing at the cat captain. “And for his crew to eat. Take this time to relieve yourselves as well. We still have another night’s worth of travel before we get to Jambangan.”
Patima opened her mouth to say something but Sam’baha immediately whisked her away. “Come on then Bayi Patima, let’s get some food from here. I’m starving for some shrimp or squid.”
“Make sure to pay the people appropriately!” yelled Binayaan. Sam’baha raised her hand in an uncommitted gesture.
Bakong watched them walk away. With a slight smile, Bakong said, “They seem nice.”
“We’ve not been traveling together for long. I picked them up from Sapinsapin, that settlement to the south of Tauhaw. They were gallivanting about, solving problems, doing work for the datu, what Kadungganan would do.”
Bakong watched them walk away. “Kadungganan…. The prestigious ones. The warrior braves.”
“Those elites that hold the fate of the Sword Isles in their hands. Upon the sword-tips of their spear shall they decide whether these islands will rise or fall.”
“You’re Kadungganan now too, aren’t you, Binayaan?”
Binayaan shrugged. “Becoming known as a Kadungganan is more of a thing that the people around you decide, rather than yourself.” She smiled the. “So yes, in that regard I would be considered a Kadungganan.”
“Hmmm.” Bakong watched as the people of Bahin traded with the crewmen of Kiyam. The elder, Gurang Huna, made sure that the crews of both barges were eating up, offering to pay gold barter rings in exchange for yams, squids, and dried fish.
“Would you like to visit the datu of this town?” asked Binayaan. “As the great binukot of the datu, don’t you think you should?”
Bakong managed a small smile. She shook her head. “I’d rather use this opportunity to train with the Guro of the Heavenspear upon solid ground, and practice my Heaven Rending Technique.”
Binayaan stroked her chin, nodded. An impressed look on her face. “Fair. Go then. I shall look if I can ask for some wine.” And with that, Binayaan took off, in the same direction that Sam’baha and Patima went.
Bakong made her way back to the barge where Karakasa was. He was eating some yams and shrimp. “Ah, has the bayi eaten?”
Bakong paused, placed a hand on her stomach. She shook her head, and she realized then that Bangahom still sat atop her head, who fell down in shock. “Ah, apologies, Bangahom.” Bangahom floated to the ground, as if they were paper.
Bangahom shrugged. “No worries, bayi. I have accepted my fate. I should have remembered that I was standing atop your head. I will look for another tree to experience the wind.”
Karakasa laughed-croaked at the little yawa. “You’re a strange one. What kind of yawa just likes standing on top trees and experiencing stuff?”
“Me,” Bangahom said, plain, and then leapt off the boat with a gust of wind, towards one of the many coconut palms that stood by the shore.
Smiling, Bakong turned and saw that a servant had brought her a clay plate of yams, shrimps, squids, and a small cup of rice. “Forgive me, bayi,” said the servant, looking away from her. It was a young girl, around the same age as her. Her hair was long, stringy, like the loom of the gods. She wore a long lambong colored a deep blue about her chest, and nothing else. A gold bangle around her ankles. As was the custom for servants in the Rajahnate. “We have no porcelain plates to have served the bayi with. Please, we beg for the binukot’s forgiveness.”
Bakong shook her head. “N-No, it’s all right. Thank you all the same. My heart is filled with gratitude.”
The girl bowed. Bakong furrowed her eyebrows and asked, “Whom do you serve, oripun?”
“Ah, I am in Bayi Binayaan’s servitude.”
I see. Look at me, it is all right,” said Bakong.
She looked up. Bakong saw her face, soft, brown, as if kissed by the sun but not beaten down by its rays. Strands of her hair stuck to her face. Bakong reached out and brushed away the strands of hair. The servant did their best not to flinch away. Bakong was the noble here, after all. “What’s your name, oripun?”
“Lawaan, bayi. I am Lawaan. I am but a lowly oripun indentured to the bayi Binayaan.” Her ears were turning red, and Bakong blinked. She bit her tongue and nodded.
“Thank you, Lawaan. As you were.”
Lawaan bowed low again, one hand up covering her cheek, and then she made her way out of Kiyam’s barge.
“I don’t think the bayi understands the power they can hold over people,” said Karakasa.
“Please, guro, it is all right to speak informally with me,” Bakong said. Karakasa smiled at that, and nodded. Bakong turned and looked to where Lawaan scampered off to, but couldn’t find her among the crew and Bahin traders. “And what do you mean?”
Karakasa shrugged. “You with your moontouched hair and river eyes, Bayi. You enchant people, especially those of the commonfolk.”
Bakong bit her lip. “I see.”
Karakasa stood up then. “Finish your food here on the barge, then we can begin your training. That is why you came up to see me, yes?”
Bakong nodded. “Indeed.”
“I shall be waiting by the palms.” He turned, leapt up onto the prow, and then like reverse lightning, shot up into the sky, bolting back down into the ground upon the land, very nearly hitting Bangahom by the shore who had found a coconut palm that he could rest on.
Bakong sat and ate. She had forgotten about her appetite. Her stomach grumbled. She ate with a happy heart.
Later, a few hours into the falling of the sun and as the people of Bahin had begun to light their palm leaf torches, Bakong and Karakasa finished their training for that day.
“So always remember, keep your spear close if you are to attack, and then extend your hand when you sense the killing blow,” Guro Karakasa taught. “You risk being disarmed should you keep your spear too far from you. Remember, the spear is your heart. Keep it close, and you will not be torn asunder. But this is nothing more than the fundamentals of spear training. The secrets of the Heaven Rending Style will come after. The ability to make yourself light, to unbind yourself from the shackles of the earth, to become like the lightning.”
Bakong was breathing heavily. There were scars on her face now. Her hair seemed to lose its luster, despite it still being of that moonlight white color.
She nodded, thoughts swirling about her head but mostly about how tired she was. They had practiced spear thrusts, feints, and different spear striking angles. Quick footwork, switching from one hand and two hands. She felt like they’d rushed like lightning through a few lessons that would take a day for someone half of her age.
“Good,” said Guro Karakasa, as if being able to read her thoughts. “You’re learning much faster than I thought. Your movements seem predisposed to the spear. It must be because of the sword training you got. In essence, these weapon technicks have little different from each other. It’s all in the nuance, the fundamentals are all the same. The Heaven Rending Arts have much in common with the Skysea Raiding Style that many warriors practice.”
Bakong nodded again. “I see. Thank you, Guro, for your diligence and patience in teaching me.”
“Before long, I will be able to begin teaching you to Unbind,” said Karakasa. “But that requires some important metaphysical knowledge that you will still have to grasp. For now, what we have done today is more than enough. Get some rest.”
Bakong smiled at the Guro. “I thank you again, Guro.”
“I heard they managed to get some rice from Bahin. We have some good eels that Kiyam caught from the nearby river. We eat well tonight.” The Guro turned and then leapt up like a receding lightning bolt once again, falling down lightly upon the mast of Kiyam’s merchant barge.
Bakong let out a tired sigh and then walked over to a clean, sun-bleached boulder. It still retained some of its heat absorbed from all the time under the sun. Bangahom walked over to where she was.
They sat in silence, watching the waves and the water. It crashed with a soft, lilting rhythm. Almost hypnotic. A moment of peace. It was noisy and quiet all at once. Oneness with nature.
“Meditating, bayi?” asked Bangahom.
Bakong shook her head, smiling. “Appreciating,” she replied. “A moment of quiet like this… I do not know when I have last gotten it.”
Bangahom nodded. “Understandable,” he replied. “The bayi’s life does seem so filled with rough and tumble. From the attacks from Tinubuan, to that Datu Slayer from Put’wan… it is as if the universe itself conspires to try and kill you, your highness.”
Bangahom let out a weak, awkward laugh. “N-Not that that’s true, of course, bayi. It just… seems like it.”
Bakong looked down on herself. “It may be so. I am, in the usual sense of the word, a freak, after all. Born from a demon mother and an overlord father. Witness my arm, it is writhing and black, of a demon’s.”
“The bayi says that as if it is an evil thing. The binukot must remember that they are speaking to a yawa.”
Bakong smiled at that, and then shrugged. “I do not understand everything, yet. I think… there’s more to whatever is happening right now that I do not know yet. An intricate, spinning flower mandala of connections and vines. I do not know if I will ever fully understand it.”
“That is nature,” said Bangahom. “We will always be only able to grasp a part of the greater tapestry, of the greater weave of the universe.”
“And not just that but… walking here, seeing all these servants, some of them happy, others sad, and lords ruling like petty gods… Is this how the world is supposed to be?”
Bangahom shrugged. “Bayi, you ask a yawa. I am not one for monarchy. I seek complete obliteration of all existence because I am nothing more than atrocity incarnate.”
“Ah, right, of course.”
“So if the bayi seeks to destroy the existing lordships then I will gladly help.”
Bakong smiled at that. “Yes. I thank you, then. But I do not know if I have that power, nor am I sure that I will ever have that power. For now, I must follow my mother’s wish for me.”
“Ah,” Bangahom scrambled over and stood atop Bakong’s head. “Then the bayi is not fully going to Jambangan to wed the prince?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Bakong. “If that is what it takes to be able to carry out whatever my mother wishes for me, then so be it. She says that I must go to Jambangan to meet the Hero of Prophecy. Whether it be to kill him, or maybe speak with him, I am not sure.”
Bangahom nodded. “Ah, of course. No doubt, the Goddess of the White River will get in touch with you as you arrive in Jambangan.”
“I suppose it is a matter of surviving until then,” she said. She raised her hand and performed a light mentala. Embers, like those fading flames from a bonfire, were tossed into the air, like spider lily petals. “I should be able to do just that with my Heaven Rending Arts.”
Bangahom observed the flames for a while, and then nodded. “The bayi has some control over their puhon… but they do not know combat applications of sorcery, eh?”
Bakong nodded to confirm. “My kinaadman is not the sharp edge of the Makinaadmanon. Once a moon, I can perform grand rituals, but then my pohon will be exhausted. It is my mother’s gift to me.” She raised her golden arm. “This, however, helps me fire off mentala that I have prepared beforehand. Through this I can perform Hokot, but unfortunately this application is dreadfully limited, of which I am not willing to admit so easily. And even then, aside from the usual weather calling ritual—of which I can only truly do once a full moon—the hokot mentala is truly the only harming spell I properly know.”
“No doubt it is,” said Bangahom. “I can teach the bayi the secrets of the Under Heaven style, if they are so inclined.”
Bakong nodded. “I will ponder about it. Maybe once I have grasped the Heaven Rending Arts better. My physical disposition still cannot handle learning two martial arts at once.”
Bangahom smiled. “Of course, of course.”
The sun had begun to set now, over the water. It cast a halogen glow over the sea. Orange light cascaded towards them like a naga’s tail.
“I have never been to Jambangan before,” said Bangahom. “But if I remember correctly, they do not take well to yawa.”
Bakong paused for a moment, and then turned to Bangahom. “That’s right, actually. They are fierce adherents of the Moon Faith. I do not think you will be able to move through as normal as you did with these settlements at the rim of the mandalas of power. I do not think you would be even able to walk comfortably in the settlements closer to any of the mandalas, truly. Hearken back to Patima’s reaction, for example. She looked as if she was from Akai, with her headwrap and long clothing.”
“I suspect the only reason the people in these settlements do not immediately try to exorcise me is because I might be simply of another Folk.”
“Then that is no worry. I am Bangahom, grand sorcerer of the White River, master of the Zenith Arts, bringer of unadulterated destruction! I shall take upon myself a new form, a form to walk amongst the faithful without suspicion. I shall become… a cute girl.”
Bakong blinked and then looked out to the sea.
“How do I look?”
“I thought you were joking,” Bakong said.
“Bangahom jokes not! Witness! I am now, a she.”
Bakong turned to see that Bangahom truly was not a formless black blob anymore with a hat. They had turned into a short girl, shorter than her, with a healthy pall of flesh and eyes that were a simple dark brown. She wore a lambong up to her chest, and a man’s baro over it. She still had her sarok, but when she removed it, her hair had become an almost perfectly cut bob of a strange auburn color, like leaves during the falling season.
“Ah! How pretty,” Bakong exclaimed, smiling all the while.
Bangahom put her two pointer fingers together. “O-Oh, is that so bayi? I’m glad the bayi appreciates my new appearance.” She smiled. “What do you think? A pretty convincing girl isn’t it?.”
“Is this a mentala, then? An illusory spell?”
“It is no illusion, bayi!” She raised her hand triumphantly. “I am no mere conjurer of cheap tricks! I have shaped and changed my form, all! This is because I have no initial form, and thus changing my physical self is easier than what mortal sorcerers can achieve.”
“Ah, a lance of jealousy lances through me.”
“Worry not, bayi,” said Bangahom, sitting down on the boulder again. “I will be able to teach the majesty this when they so wish.”
Bakong smiled, amused at Bangahom’s endless antics. “Well, this is good then. You will be able to follow me like a true servant.”
Bangahom nodded. As she did, the servant girl that had served Bakong the food earlier arrived. “Bayi, excuse me.” She bowed low, hand covering her cheek.
“Ah, yes. Lawaan? What is it?”
A choking moment of silence. Tension rang: somewhere, a bamboo flute sounded, a sad whistling note. Bakong blinked, wondering if she had said something wrong. Before she could raise her hand, she felt the hairs on the nape of her neck rise. There, suddenly! A keening thunderhead, arriving, arriving!
Lawaan raised her head and, with a pained yet determined look, uttered: “The Maitresiya has come.”
Bakong blinked. Bangahom was just about to stand up, when Lawaan looked up—a determined look on her face—and snapped her fingers. A biting pain suddenly overtook Bakong, from her stomach racing out to fill the rest of her being. A paralyzing venom.
Bakong opened her mouth to say anything, but she found that none of her muscles would heed her.
In the next second, Lawaan was upon Bakong, balaraw dipping with emerald venom. On her hand hung a sidereal rosary. “Forgive me, but the hero must ride.”
Bangahom was quick. She tapped the rock and uttered a twisting word: a spike of stone shot out from it, striking Lawaan on the side. Lawaan flew to the side, blood streaking from the hit. She slammed into the sand. The sand was stained red.
Bakong was up then, raising her hand to stop Bangahom from pressing the attack. The binukot still winced: it was taking all of her resolve to power through the paralytic venom. She fell onto the sand, and Bangahom went over to her. “I cannot heal,” said Bangahom. “We need a healer.”
Bakong waved her hand, and said, “Go, call for one. I will be fine.”
Bangahom turned and kicked sand towards Lawaan. The sand spun, and then like claws, clamped down on Lawaan, pinning her to the ground. Then, Bangahom turned and ran towards the barge.
Bakong crawled towards the pinned Lawaan, in short, painful bursts. “Why?” the binukot asked.
“I am… of the 87 Swords of the Star,” she said, wincing. She grasped her side which had been punctured by the stone spear. “I have been given the divine calling to kill you, the one who will kill the Hero of Prophecy.”
Bakong blinked. “Who gave you this?”
“It is a being beyond you. You do not need to know them. Come, then, finish me off, binukot. If you do not, then I will kill you.”
Bakong hesitated, and that was the perfect moment for Lawaan. She flung out her hand, and a balaraw shot out, dripping with cobalt venom. At that moment, the paralytic venom subsided for a split second.
Bakong’s gold hand unraveled, revealing the coagulating demon hand underneath. “Kris Langit Pikas-Pikason!” she snarled, and her Heaven-Splitting Sword, now in the form of a heaven rending spear, materialized in her hands.
She deflected the balaraw with a quick spinning block, stepped forward, and then thrust down. Sand billowed, a curtain to veil Bakong’s first atrocity. The spear went through Lawaan’s neck, spilling blood onto the sand, killing Lawaan instantly.
When Bangahom returned with Binayaan and a healer—a comely young asug, or man turned woman wrapped in women’s clothing—Bakong was upon the sand beside Lawaan. The spear still lanced through the ground, still at that point where Bakong thrust, in that eternal motion of separating Lawaan’s head from her body. Lawaan’s blood stained the sand, reaching up towards the exhausted body of Bakong, but never touching her.