“For many datu in the isles, some sort of divinity is a useful claim to royalty. This is because a ruler’s powerbase, a king’s powerbase, in the isles depend on how much virtue or merit the commonfolk see that you have. If they realize that another, different warrior-brave or king has a more powerful claim to royalty, whether it be divine heritage, bloodline, or superior ultraviolence, then they will switch allegiance on a dime, following the more powerful one. Why would you follow a non-virtuous person? If you followed a virtuous leader, then you will cultivate virtue yourself.”

Sermons on Virtue and Rulership by Sri Kadasiga Mahawagas

Masuna trudged back home. Tonight the moon was a wicked smile. An omen to his fortune? He asked. He heard that owl hoot. He wondered what it meant.

Safer now to retreat. He had food for the child, Mito? Yes. Mito. The little Datu Slayer. He wondered if he was going to be able to help him kill Bakong.

As he ascended that incline that led to the cottage of Karakasa—well, once was a cottage. It had been destroyed—his thoughts lingered on Batumingaw. Lonely Stone, Shining Lightning. Was he out of line for telling him the truth of his soul? Masuna Kulisat, his male-female name, was the promontory upon which he viewed the world. He was man and woman at the same time: he could cook, dance, and perform priestly duties as a woman, and then fight, hunt, kill, and sail as a man. He had spent most of his life perfecting skills of both roles, and he knew there were still more that he neglected.

He could see when someone was not their true gender.

Masuna looked at himself, pausing for a moment. He wondered, then, if that was any of his business. He always acquiesced with being seen as a man as that has always been the truth of his being. Or perhaps it was just that he was comfortable with it. What about those who weren’t comfortable with it?

Far be it from him to strip away secrets from a person, right? Sometimes a person’s secrets is all they have, in a world that has stripped them naked.

But Masuna is a sword. He shrugged the thoughts from his mind. A sword is sharp but sometimes it is not deft, one needs a dagger for that.

He reached the house eventually, found Mito within staring up at the ceiling, which had been blasted open. So instead the young datu slayer staring up at the star-dotted sky, with the moon smiling down at him.

“I have food,” said Masuna, his tone somewhat apologetic. As apologetic as he could get, anyway.

Mito rose from his bed. “Thank the ancestors. I’ve been so hungry.” He took one step forward, winced, and then stepped back. “You didn’t poison these things, did you?”

Masuna shook his head. “I do not kill indiscriminately. As a sword, I must first be sheathed in killing intent.”

Mito didn’t have to be told twice, of course. He leapt and took the banana leaf wrappings and dug in. Masuna was full. He had eaten much, and didn’t plan to eat more during the night. 

“If you eat too much, you’ll get nightmares,” cautioned Masuna, but Mito thoroughly ignored him. Masuna knew the proper oils—crushed and steeped from coral flowers—to remove a nightmare should it happen anyway. 

“I’ll sleep now.”

“Why didn’t you kill me?”

Masuna raised an eyebrow. He was silent for a pregnant moment, bearing fear and hatred. “Do you want to die?”

Mito thought. He watched the stars as he chewed. “No. I don’t think so.”

“Then I will not kill you.”

“But you fought so hard?”

“It was to stall for time.”

“You are the Moon-Haired One’s guardian?”

Masuna turned in his bed. “Was. I have been forced by horrible Gods to become her killer.”

“Oh? Why is that so? Did the Ashen Star God visit you as well?”

Masuna nodded, Mito didn’t see him. “He did. It was either her or my family.”

A silence. Cicadas buzzed outside. “Have you chosen, then?”

“Not yet,” Masuna admitted. “But the river of time washes out into the sea.”

“Speaking of rivers,” Mito said as he finished his food. “I will wash in the river. I will trust you, for now, since we have the same objective of killing the Moon-Haired One.”

“That’s not set in stone yet,” Masuna said, though he felt pressured to know his answer now, to cleave his two hearts.

“Well one should choose quickly, I would believe. Either that or you die in your doubt.”

That night, Masuna dreamt. No, perhaps it was not dreaming, but rather, remembering. 

What is dreaming but remembering while asleep?

Masuna had never experienced a colder night.

He watched as the last few embers of the fire wafted into the cloudless, starless sky. He stood at the shore, marveling at the stars, which looked like little fish swimming across the abyss. Off in the distance, Masuna can see the Boiling Lights, the constellation that signaled the beginning of planting season, as that meant the cold rainy winds were to come.

And truly, the winds now were chilly, colder than before. Especially here, at the sea, where the cold winds rushed up to the tops of the mountains. The humid winds were refreshing to Masuna. He needed something like this. 

This is the first respite he felt he’s had in a long time.

For almost all of his life, he had been a servant. A servant to the Rajah, a warrior, and then very quickly the royal guard of the royalty of the Rajah. Not just Bakong, but Binayaan as well, and her other younger sister, Balaanon, who sported a similar white hair, but was shown everywhere because, apparently, she was the daughter of the Rajah and a beautiful diwata.

Of course they hid Bakong. Who would want to know of the princess with demon blood, after all? Especially when Balaanon was there? It would not reflect well on the Rajah, it would not look to be meritorious in the consciousness of the people. To have a daughter that is a demon would not incur good fortune, and surely the diwata will spurn you.

It was only logical. It was only rational. 

Masuna knew very early on that human beings are not rational creatures. They are not logical creatures. The purpose of the soul is to feel, and feelings care not for logic. To be purely logical is to not be human.

Masuna, the Royal Guard, the Sword of the Sun-Eater, placed a hand on his chest, on his heart. “I am a sword,” he said, and he tried to remember what that meant. When he had taken that sword oath. 

Follow the winds of change, back, and back, until all is brightness. 

Our lives are a single lightning flash at fulmination. 

Witness the highlands of Ba-e, not necessarily upon the mountains, but upon the higher elevations, close to Bae’s own wetlands. River flood plains that flooded periodically.

Let us return to that time then, when Masuna played a soft, melancholic thrum upon his kudyapi, sitting atop a boulder, with kids watching him as he played. He was young, back then. Barely having lived through 13 harvests. His hair only reached his shoulders back then, and his muscles were not defined, a good layer of useless fat around his wrists. He was not a thin, lanky boy. He was well-fed, as all non-servant boys were. Even at such a young age, he held his health at his skin. His bahag fell from him like furled wings, and he wore a loose textile vest woven in rigid geometric pentagonal patterns woven by his mother. 

His pudong was not yet crimson. Until now, his pudong is still not crimson. It is azure. Only when he has shown extreme bravery will he gain his crimson headwrap.

A wandering swordsman came into their small banwa, while he was practicing that song on his kudyapi: Banwa Pawi, led by Datu Sikaran, an elderly and large man who was well loved by the people of their time. Masuna’s father, Gentleman Salunga (Gentleman would be translated from Ginoo, an honorific for male nobles), was a warrior-brave—maharlika in Ba-e—working for Banwa Pawi. Not exactly Kadungganan, not yet. His mother, Lady Akma (Lady translated from Binibini, woman of high prestige), was a beautiful singer and chanter. She still is, of course. 

His mother, Akma, was from the grand Confederacy of Pannai, a state to the northeast, which traded regularly with the great Sultanate of Sonyoh, while has father was a native to Mairete, one of the Bladed Isles to the northwest of the grand island of Rusunuga, where the grand old Kingdom of Ba-e stood.

Banwa Pawi had allegiances with Ba-e: the Sangpamegat—God-Ruler of Ba-e—exerted force over the surrounding banwa, and the settlements about the Ba-e Wetlands had no choice but to enter allegiance with Ba-e or be raided and brought into Ba-e’s war machine. However, it was very clear that while the Sangpamegat held power over the various river Datu, she did not exert command over them. In a sense, the Datu could choose to go with the Sangpamegat and help her should they need help in anything in return. In a sense, it was similar to a tributary situation. And when the Sangpamegat went to war, they can heed the call, to gain favor with the Kingdom of Ba-e. But they were not obligated to, nor were they mandated. Alliance was a better term for it than rulership. Such was the way states emanated in the Sword Isles.

Ba-e grew to this power because of their growing power ever since they’ve facilitated trade with majestic Baik Hu, ancient empire, middle kingdom, demesne of dragon-kings.

Despite this, the swordpriest that arrived at Banwa Pawi was a Virbanwan. He wore a heavy cloth robe of white, seemingly untouched by his travels, which wrapped about him and hooded him, granting him the countenance of a traveling priest. Upon his forehead was a five-pointed star embedded with ash.

He arrived upon a grand steed. A horse. Not rare anymore in the parts of Ba-e, but not something common amongst the commonfolk. As with any other settlement in the Sword Isles, a river barge was enough for travel. Not much settlements strayed too far from the river side after all. To do that was to break away from the lifeblood of the isles.

The swordsman arrived and asked to challenge the greatest swordsman in their banwa. This was coincidentally Masuna’s mother, Akma. Her sword skills came from a divine fusion of dance and swordsmanship that she had cultivated in the shore settlements of Pannai. The Veildance Sword, as the Art was called.

And so Akma stepped forward, her hands wrapped in silks. She came wielding a shawl as her shield and a long kalis (a sword kris) as her sword. This was met with the swordsman’s single blade curving forward, a ginunting, for chopping and killing.

He unsheathed his blade and the air between them was cut. The man’s robes flew off of him at that moment, revealing a sadness: hair long but kept tied with a single flower. He wore a white shirt and leather pants, a mark of Virbanwa and Akai, who needed to wear pants for the mounts they rode. He introduced himself as Gentleman Sanghati, and he was truly a Sword Saint, a failed Bodhisattva of violence from cutting.

Sword Saint by Dylan Briones

When they dueled, their slashes wandered and cut into the houses, into the earth, and decapitate the heads of flowers themselves. It was a grand duel, a combat of blades, of shining swords. 

In the end, Akma’s shawl was rent, and so would her soul have been, had Masuna not stepped in at the last minute.

During the fight, Masuna—who was fond of listening in on the talks of gossip and hearsay in the isles—realized that this man they were fighting was a Sword Saint. One of the many tortured warriors of the Virbanwan faith: his soul had been cut and sharpened into a blade, and so he cannot do anything but cut to bleed. The sword he wielded, which he named Parabolic Enlightenment (Tila Kalinawan), could do nothing but bleed and rend, but it could not cut. That was not what the Sword Saint was sharpened to do, after all.

When Masuna stepped in front of the blade, it did not cut him, but rather, rent his soul. The Sword Saint’s sword wrapped Masuna’s Immortal soul with cuts, diminishing it evermore.

“You are less than you are, now,” said Gentleman Sanghati, sheathing his blade. (When he did, cuts materialized on his face, to which he paid no heed).

Akma cradled Masuna. “Child, o Child. You needn’t do that. I knew what was to happen!”

But Masuna shook his head, and he didn’t know what came over him. To this day, he wished he could say that it was virtue, but he was sure it wasn’t. It was recklessness. Stupidity. That was what it was.

“Your child has been rent,” said Sanghati to Akma.

“Speak not to us.” Akma’s snarls deflected Sanghati’s cuts.

“I travel the isles looking for swordsmen to rip their abilities from them. This is the first banwa to have stopped me from doing that.”

Akma watched him, her perfectly crescent eyebrows in a permanent scowl.

“As a reward,” continued Sanghati, raising an eyebrow in an insufferable show of pride. “Let me give sharpen your child’s soul. Let me teach him in the ways of the Blade Gospel.”

There was an uproar, then. Masuna remembered. He felt hazy at that moment. He couldn’t particularly pinpoint why, but he felt that way. That same feeling one would get if one lost too much blood, for example. He rose to his feet, and his father was there, helping him up as well. He had known how ot use a sword, of course he had. He was born into the isles. It is always said here that when you are born into the Sword Isles you are born with a push dagger in your hands and a dragon sword at your feet.

The elder Datu Sikaran stepped forward. “You cannot simply tell us what to do,” he said. “You are a wandering swordsman, a much too haughty wealthy noble, maygintawo. Step down now, or we will consider you as having violated our hospitality.”

Sanghati shrugged and said, “Go ahead. I don’t mind. My sword can match your mettle.”

Sikaran tensed.

Masuna knew this to be true. Much too true. He felt it in the way that he had forgotten just for a moment how to properly fold his fingers, how to properly grip a sword.

The young Masuna found it in him to push away from his father. He turned and fell to his knees before Sanghati, a gesture he never thought he would do. Kneeling, bowing, prostrating to a Virbanwan was a small defeat to him. 

“I’ll do it.”

Akma placed a hand on Masuna’s shoulder. “You don’t have to do this, son.”

Masuna said, without looking at his mother: “I will become a sharper sword than this Gentleman has ever been.”

“Ha!” barked Sanghati. “Bravado, I like it. You already showcase sharpness! Of course, a shattered sword’s edges can pierce just as well as any sword tip. Come, then, and let us begin. Ah, do not worry, I will not take you away from your precious banwa… as long as they will have me.”

“If it means preserving Banwa Pawi then so be it,” said Masuna.

“Excellent! Then let us put the sword to the stone, shall we?”

From that day on, the Datu constructed an additional house for the swordpriest. When Masuna began his training with him, he found that the basics that he taught were easily adaptable, although they performed these anyo and other training drills without the usage of a sword. 

These trainings he had learned when he was younger, a wee child, in the sword island of Mairete, where his father used to live. Their style of swords there was not named, but it was theirs all the same. When they moved here to Ba-e to follow their Datu, whose community would have been destroyed due to an incoming raid from far northern polities, they accrued a good number of Rusunugan folk, and his father taught them their swordsmanship, which he had then deemed to call Lightning Splitting Sword, due to its quick movements and chopping slashes, which emulated that of a woodcutter chopping bamboo with a bolo.

Things diverged when they descended into the more esoteric aspects of the style. One day, before a bamboo grove, above a stone in the middle of a river, Sanghati—now Masuna’s Guro (Teacher, but more than that. Master? Perhaps, but masters have authority.)—asked him to contemplate on the strength of the bamboo, while at the same time balancing a precarious position: one foot up to his knee, a hand above his head, and then another hand low and down below his waist. “This is the Swallow Gospel Stance,” said Guro Sanghati. “With it, may you know peace and skill and enlightenment.”

“Now look to the bamboo,” he continued. He sat on the banks of the river, and the tranquility made it so that he did not have to raise his voice overmuch over the rushing rapids. “Witness its pliability, its strength, its ability to grow near the water. What does it remind you of?”

Masuna thought long and hard. He had been taught teachings and parables by the Makinaadmanon that lived for a few moons in their former banwa. He knew he had the wisdom to answer.

He could not find it. He found his brain too focused on the aches of his joints. He found his thoughts wandering, too-fast for non-slashing rumination.

“You cannot seek the answer,” said the Guro, in his annoyingly posh accent. Virbanwans and Ba-enon shared the same language, although they spoke different dialects. “Because you are too focused on your physicality. Very well. Then take this as a lesson, Masuna, the Brightness. The bamboo is the physical body. It weathers all of the elements. It is pliable. It is steadfast. It flourishes in water. It is usable in all things. But bamboo still splits under the blade. Remember that. For now, you are nowhere near your enlightenment, if you cannot split your mind into two when you must ignore what happens in your body. Your sense are far too dull, too slow, to be able to handle the deeper technicks of the Blade Gospel Style.”

He sighed. “Break the stance,” said his Guro. “We have much more to do.”

The words of the Guro resonated, and he knew there was some truth to it. Every night, as they trained every day, he would come home to the questions of his mother and father. Why is he doing this? How is the training? What secrets have you gleaned? Everyday, his answers are half-hearted. But every night, he was happy in the solace that he returned to a night of a great meal, some of which he helped prepare. A rice porridge with ginger, raw fish in vinegar and spices, pork meat cooked in coconut oil… every night, he looked forward to his food. A stabilizing portion of his life, he realized.

A moon passed before he realized he had been training without gripping a sword.

On the day of a new moon, the Guro gave him a sword. “Your contemplations have brought you a visceral reward,” said Sanghati. “Witness, you can wield a sword.”

“Could I not, before?”

“I carved out the portion of your soul that could inflict sword violence,” said the Guro. “And so you were barred from wielding a sword. By the Star, the thought never even came to you either. Now you can once again. That was the reasoning for the contemplations. To try and sharpen that part I carved out.”

“But… there was a distinct reflex. I felt the gestures and movements you taught me to be familiar…”

At that, Masuna’s Guro made an irritated sound, and he did not answer. “Now, fight with me. Swallow Gospel!” And they burst out into an intricate dance of differing stances, each one a form he had been taught to perform, upon a boulder or underneath a waterfall or atop a tree. He felt his senses return to him, his grip upon the sword becoming like second nature. At times it felt too familiar. His movements preceded him, he moved before he could even think.

“Yes, yes,” said Guro Sanghati as Masuna sank into the Sword Judas, parrying an attack by the Guro in such a way that the Guro’s blade bit deep into the mud of the riverbanks that they sparred on. “You have achieved it, much quicker than I thought you would.”

They stopped sparring. Breathing heavily, as if having run up the length of an entire mountain, Masuna asked, “Achieved what?”

“The Sword Soul,” said Sanghati, and his grin was devilish. “Your Immortal Soul has been sharpened into a cutting finish. Your very being wounds, but it is not yet enough. A moon’s worth of training is not enough to bisect your soul in half, and turn it completely into the True Sword Soul.” He nodded. “Rest for today, you have achieved a great milestone.

Masuna bowed gratefully, performing the dueling salute, pugay—placing his sword’s hilt, blade up, to his heart, and bowing. Then, he said, “Ah, if I am not so interrupting on any matters, I hope it is all right to ask something, Guro.”

“Ask,” said the Guro, turning to sharpen his blade upon a river stone.

“What does it mean if I have achieved the True Sword Soul?”

“You will achieve Nirvana,” replied the Guro. “True Sword Nirvana. Your soul will be so sharp, so finished to a killing polish, that you will not be able to do anything but kill and wound. You will become the ultimate killing weapon, at the cost of doing anything else. You will be nothing but a piece of very sharp metal perpetually swinging, perpetually slicing.”

Masuna pondered upon that for a moment. He was amazed at the bluntness of how the Guro had said it, the sharpness, the quickness. A cutting remark. It bit deep into his soul, and he could not decide whether he agreed with it or wanted that to happen. 

The bluntest of things cut the deepest.

The cut was much too quick, too quick for him to think about, and all he could do was walk back home. His father was out on a diplomatic trading mission with the Datu tonight, so it was his mother that asked him about what had happened today. He responded the same way: that nothing much had happened. That night, they ate rice and scorched chicken meat, spiced with herbs and peppers.

But his mother was sharp. She laid down the palm leaf scroll she wrote on and asked: “I see you have a sword with you, and you have wounds that have now manifested upon you. There is a dullness to your eyes. You are deep in thought. Are you not comfortable in sharing what you have experienced?”

Masuna thought, for a moment. And then, he said, “No, inda (a term for mother, you should know). Not yet. I’m sorry.”

“Apologize not,” his mother said. “You will reveal it to me when you think it is time. If you never do, then that is knowledge I do not need to know.” Lady Akma reached out and held Masuna’s hand.

Masuna nodded in appreciation. His father and mother, who both were pretty young themselves, had been his closest friends, and the only people he could confidently confide in. When they moved here to Ba-e, he held acquaintances, but he never made deep connections with them, out of fear that he would have to move again in the future, and that he would lose the friends he had made. He had resigned himself to being accepting just acquaintances instead of gaining deep friends. If he needed someone he could trust and confide in, he could simply speak with his parents. And he was content with that.

He didn’t know what he would do if they left him.

Half a moon later, Masuna was given appreciation gifts from the Datu Sikaran, after they had returned from the trading mission to the Island of Gold known as Batukinang, Gleaming Stone. “This is for your faithfulness in serving Banwa Pawi.”

Masuna raised an eyebrow. “I have done nothing of the sort.”

The Guro arrived then. He clapped a hand on Masuna’s shoulder and said, “You accepted my training. If you didn’t, I would have decimated your banwa. Accept the compliment.”

At that point, the Guro had become a loved-hated figure. He was generally fun to be around, not belligerent, and helped out where he could. On the other hand, he openly mocked the people, and his haughtiness could not be overlooked: he did not deem the Pawinon as of equal stature to Virbanwans. Once or twice he had used the term “savages” to refer to the Pawinon. Masuna was not one to have his anger stoked so easily with such petty strikes, and so it was never a problem for him.

Masuna took the gifts. It was a a breastplate, made of carabao horn: a pakil. Thick and sturdy, but light and did not reduce the wearer’s mobility. Masuna took it graciously, and did not spare a word of his appreciation.

“A pakil is a good idea,” said the Guro. “But when you perfect the Sword Soul, you will not need it as much. Protection is a lie, justification for violence: protection is simply little, smaller cuts that parry away pain from you. You can do that without the need for a pakil.” 

But Masuna openly ignored him, for the most part. The words did resonate, and make sense, especially in the context of his sword teachings.

But at the furthest reaches of his soul he knew that to become a sharper sword than he ever would be, he would have to wear what the Guro wouldn’t.

A moon later, Masuna asked, while he was helping his mother chop vegetables for dinner: “Mother, when will you deem myself worthy of learning your Veildance Sword?”

“The Veildance Sword is not simply a style to be passed down, I’m afraid, Masuna,” he said. 

His father smiled and nodded, as he entered carrying with him some rice that they had harvested. “Trust me. If it was, I would’ve known it by now.” Ginoong Salunga smiled. “But alas.”

“To learn the Veildance Sword, Masuna, you must be a woman.”

“Ah,” said Masuna. “I see.” He let the subject go, but that did not stop his absolute determination to learn the Sword Style. Become a woman, he thought one day. I can do that.

Four Moons after Gentleman Sanghati arrived in Banwa Pawi, he had taught Masuna all he needed to know. “Thus Saith the Gospel of the Blade,” Masuna recited, as he dueled and skirmished with his Guro. “Forget all things that prevent you from cutting, they are chaining you to the illusion of safety. When you unsheathe your blade, that is the only time the Gospels of the Blade matter.”

“Good,” replied Sanghati. “The 25th Sword Parable of the Makinaadmanon of the Thrown Stone?”

“Thus saith violence,” recited Masuna, without missing a beat, evading a sword slash, parrying a low with his bare foot, and then cutting deep into air as a counter. “If you must inflict violence, then do it with immensity. Petty violences are blasphemies to the world, which lives and thrives and strives on the great and the grand. If you wish to change the world, inflict overwhelming violence.”

“Excellent. Here!” Sanghati lunged forward, Masuna parried. He knew this, already, though. The Guro moved straight through him, slicing all the while, and ended up on the other side of the river bank.

Cuts followed after him, materializing a split second after he finished his movement. Cuts dug into the mud of the riverbanks, and even the river itself was displaced, sending large waves into the rippling rapids.

But Masuna had practiced, and he knew how to parry this one. He sent his own flurry of slashes with his singular blade, and then, used his non-bladed hand to parry the rest, catching and rerouting moment-late cuts as if he were countering a sword.

He parried them all. Cuts radiated about him like a halo, in eight directions, the sacred geometry of movement, the octagram.

“Utter the Tenet of Gattalim, Saint Intercessor of Swords!” yelled Guro Sanghati.

Masuna flicked his sword down—there was blood there, he had drawn blood on the Guro—and said, “If your soul is not sharp enough to cut your own flesh, then you have not learned the true principle of the sword.”

“Good.” The Guro stood. Truly, now, blood did run down his thigh. He walked over to Masuna, and said, “You are almost ready, then. It is time for you to join the Blade Commission, be anointed by Saint Gattalim, and hone your sword to its sharpest killing edge.”

Masuna was silent, again. Another decision point, he thought. Another moment at the edge of the blade, three moons later.

“But for now, rest. You have proven your mettle. Let us see if your conviction is steel.”

And with that, the Guro set about to whetting his blades once again. Masuna performed the sword salute, and then returned home. The edge of the Guro’s remarks bit at the hollows of his physical vessel.

Back at home, Masuna spoke with his mother and father. It is important to note that at that time, Akma’s belly had swelled, bearing the first of Masuna’s siblings: they were to be a son and a daughter, stars in the night sky.

“Father, do you know of the Blade Commission?” asked Masuna. 

His father paused for a moment, looking up at the ceiling of their petty longhouse, thinking. Then, he said, “I do. Why do you ask?”

“The Guro Sanghati has told me that for me to complete the sharpening of my soul, then I must join the Blade Commission.”

“Ah,” said Akma, his mother. “It is for you to become a Sword Saint, Masuna. One of the many warriors that fight for Makagagahum.”

“Makagagahum,” echoed Masuna. “The Almighty?” He heard of it before, of course. Who hadn’t? It was an old term in Mairete, in their isles. 

“Of Virbanwa,” Akma continued, and Masuna felt a wretched perverrsion. She put down her wooden spoon. “It is their great god.” Now, Masuna knew Akma wanted to add. “The Ashen Star of their faith. The great creator, preserver, and destroyer, the trinity in one. He who created the world, He who arrived upon the earth to teach salvation. and then He who will arrive in a later epoch to herald the world’s end and the final Enlightenment. He will bring about the grand Millennium Kingdom, and all shall transcend. No more toiling, no more striving, no more violence. Simply order, bliss, and true joy in Him.”

“Your mother was a Sampalatayan nun when she was younger,” said Masuna’s father.

“My banwa was conquered for a brief amount of time,” said Akma. “By Virbanwan warrior-priests. It did not last, the warlords of Pannai quickly repelled them not soon after, but I had to stay in their monasteries to save myself.”

“I see,” said Masuna. “From what I can tell… then it is not the greatest of choices to join the Blade Commission.”

Akma sighed. “To… become one of the Blade Commission, you must teach the destructive doctrine of Makaubos, the Annihilator. Their Edge Eschatology, as I have learned, is thus: the world is soon ending, as Makaubos arrives to perform the Pag-ubos, the Emptying of the Land. Thus, they travel from banwa to banwa to preach this doctrine, to share this, to convert as many as they can in the quickest possible time. As a Sword Saint, you do this through the strength and speed of your blade, because you have become a Killing Sword.”

Masuna was quiet. He finished his food.

“Remember, Masuna,” said his father, a kind smile on his face, his eyebrows upturned in seeming sympathy or compassion. “What do we use to chop down bamboo? A sword. We use a sword to cut meat, to shear wood, to create houses. Swords are not supposed to be killing edges. Swords are supposed to help us in our striving.”

“I have seen what sharpening one’s soul into a sword can do,” said Akma. “You become a delicate and efficient machine of killing and striking, of ending lives and bleeding and cutting only to wound. Emotions and all other earthly things… they fall away as your sharpen your soul. This is why Sword Saints are so feared, as you can see from that Gentleman. Sanghati has the ability to cut this entire banwa apart with a single unsheathing of his ginunting. That is the extent of his skill, and thus is why we have cautiously allowed you to do this. However, as a Sword Saint, your sword becomes cruelty. You will have to become a Sword.”

“Is that not helpful, though?” asked Masuna. “Becoming so efficient… perhaps I can use that to protect those that I love.” He looked at his parents.

Akma bit her lip. “Remember, however, my child: to not feel emotion, to not feel joy, to be only as a sword… you cease to be mortal. To hurt is to be alive. We are human because we experience these emotions, because we are not rational beings: because we become sad, or depressed, or anxious. That is the breadth of our being, the joy and sadness of life, the spirit of the soul. Without it… we are nothing but wandering bodies, aimless.”

Masuna thought too hard on that.

That night, he returned to his bed with turmoil in his heart. He pondered what would be the ramifications if he indeed chose not to join the Blade Commission. Would the Gentleman sunder the Banwa? But he seemed to have grown fond of this particular banwa. Masuna thought that perhaps he would be kinder, perhaps he would have a change of heart.

Idiocy. He thought to himself. Thinking that was idiocy. The man did not have a human soul, he was a Sword. That was what he was being trained to become: a killing edge, nothing more, nothing less. 

Masuna, thinking deep into the mires of the night, thought that perhaps it had already been done to him as well. Other emotions felt… muted, sheared down. What did he eat that night? He didn’t remember. He always remembers what he ate. He did not feel the food to have given him relief. 

That night, Masuna chalked it up to fatigue from fighting. Unfortunately, he has had worse days, and on that particular day he only sparred once with the Guro.

The next day, Masuna had made a decision, but not before his father told him news. “Masuna, listen quickly. A Rajahnate prince, from Gatusan, is arriving here tonight. Help us prepare a feast.”

“Ah, of course! Of course.” He wondered why a Rajahnate noble would be coming to Banwa Pawi, so far out of the course that leads to Ba-e. 

Akma entered into their house then, carrying a basket of rice left out in the sun to dry. “Apparently they arrived through the north of Rusunuga, instead of the usual route through the lake of Pulilan,” she said, laying down the basket and clapping her hands once. “They arrived at the northern coasts of Kumintang, and have been traveling for almost a moon now through Kumintang’s forests, and then eventually the grasslands of Katanawan, and then finally the wetlands of Ba-e.”

“They have travelled a great deal,” said Masuna, eyes wide.

“Indeed they have,” replied Gentleman Salunga. “Which is why we must endeavor to give them our hospitality.”

“I will do all I can. Do you need to go out into the forests to collect wood, father?”

“I have duties to the Datu,” Salunga said. “If you can do it, then we would be most grateful.”

Masuna nodded. “I can most definitely do that.” And so he set off into the light woods that flanked their little Banwa of Pawi, even as a river coursed through it. He brought with him a light chopping blade, and he was able to chop down enough thin trees and bamboo to tie them together into a bundle and begin walking back home.

As he walked, he gained the idea of perhaps practicing his boat lute, so that he might be able to play it for the Rajahnate prince’s enjoyment. And so, he deposited his wood bundle to the longhouse of the Datu, wherein it was taken by his kawal, and then he leapt and rushed over to his home, to the attic, where lay his own personal kudyapi. A two-stranded boat lute.

He picked up his pearl plectrum—something he made himself—and began strumming. He decided to go and play his most common tune: “Forest Whistle”, a basic melody that many poems can be sung to.

He strummed once. It was a slow song, that eventually picked up quicker and quicker.

He strummed again. Masuna could not move his plectrum properly.

He sat there, kudyapi across his lap, hands still in that downward stroke. 

He could not play the kudyapi.

He could not play his music.

Masuna had never been great at playing the kudyapi. His singing tone was passable at best, and at worst, seemed like it belonged to the chorus of cicadas every afternoon. However, it was something he loved doing. It limbered up his fingers, kept him on his toes, and even though he did not have close relations with the other people of Banwa Pawi, he was able to intermingle with them by being the kudyapi player in their songs and feasts and poetic jousts.

It was one of his simple pleasures. His father said that such was important. And so he kept it. It was his pleasure. While he may be mocked at times for it—he was, once, when he traveled with his mother to Ba-e and played in the outskirts of that great city—he cared not. The satisfaction of playing for himself was more than enough.

He tried playing one more time. A swift downward stroke.

It was all too much like a slicing maneuver.

His muscle reflexes had been honed. Sharpened, the guro would say. 

With the plectrum, Masuna slashed the two strings of his kudyapi, and engraved a deep gash onto its hardwood.

That night, the feast had begun. Masuna had stayed in his room in that position for a long while, trying to parse what this meant, trying to understand, to comprehend. He was snapped out of his trance state when his mother Akma came up and asked him to help in preparing the meat. 

Masuna forced himself out. He left his kudyapi laying there, broken and slashed.

The feast was well underway, with tables and food and feasting going on all the way from the river to the foot of the longhouse. The longhouse annexes had been brought out for tonight, extending the already large longhouse of Datu Sikaran. It became a vaguely T-shaped structure now, with two large annex arms and a singular long annex connecting to the body to make it longer. These annexes were not walled, but did have pillars and were roofed. Within were tables and sitting pillows for the more luxurious of guests.

Sitting upon one of the larger ones, with the sun carved onto its hardwood, was one of the Rajahnate’s princes.

It has long been known that Rajah Batara Ambasi has had 12 sons and 3 daughters, each one endowed with just a bit of his spiritual power and charisma, as well as his merit. The one that arrived here was a young and handsome man, somewhat humbled by his dressing: he wore a simple crimson pudong, and then a long silk gown over that. Around his waist he wore a singular cloth that he wore like a sarong, made of Rajahnate weaving and cloth. Hanging from his chest, upon a golden rope, was his push dagger, as Gatusanon were wont to wear. They were never caught without a bladed weapon, whether they be masculine or feminine. He wore golden bangles and anklets, which ringed him like orbits of flame. Across his knees lay his kris, sheathed.

The servants of Datu Sikaran were sure to give him proper rice, pork, and rice wine. Dancers danced in the vast wooden bamboo space before him, upon the annex, both men and women. He seemed to appreciate it, enjoy it even, which made most of the folk of Banwa Pawi happy.

Eventually the ceremonies ended. Even the servants had to go and eat, after all. Datu Sikaran went over to sit before the Rajah’s son: Sri Kabugwason, he of the morning star. His eyes gleamed a strange seafoam green—the sure sign of divine heritage. His hair was the color of a tiger’s fur. He was tall, but lankier than others, and his tattoos swaddled him as inked armor.

“Greetings, great prince,” said the Datu, bowing low. He spoke in the Gatusanon. The tongue of the Mairetenon were close enough, and truly the banwa of Mairete pledged allegiance to the Rajahnate. “I pray that the great lord has found appreciation in the hospitality given.”

Sri Kabugwason nodded low. “Of course, of course,” he said. “I have enjoyed it greatly, and no doubt the magnitude of my enjoyment has increased thanks to having traveled so long to get here. Being greeted with this after such a travel feels like arriving upon the sacred mountains of Sonyoh!” His smile was easy, and it gleamed gold. His canines were sharper than others. The Sri Bishaya blood was hard to erase, no matter how many generations pass.

The Datu smiled widely at that.

“And please, no need to be so formal with me, datu,” Sri Kabugwason said. “Upon here, in the wetlands, upon the plains, upon the seas, we are all warriors, striving to rejoice in the glory of combat.”

“Very well, great Sri Kabugwason. Tell me, then, if it is not too much to ask: why travel the length of this land instead of going through the sea to Ba-e?”

Sri Kabugwason smiled widely. He reached over and gripped the elder Datu Sikaran’s shoulder. “Adventure, my dear datu,” he said. Fire in his eyes. “The seas we have conquered, but I wished to see the lands of Rusunuga, and I have. Beautiful, beautiful floodplains, and long and wide rice paddies! Something we do not have in Gatusan. In the distance, as one traveled the walked paths—which were not a lot—one can see the gleaming mountains in the distance, like blades of the earthen gods piercing up to the heavens. A sight to behold, one I have taken for granted, living so long with my feet upon the waves. It is grand, it is spirituality, oneness with the Hiyang!” His eyes glinted. Any woman would fall in love with his infectious excitement.

“Ah, I am glad the prince is a religious person and one that can appreciate the inherent beauty of this mortal world, Gubat Banwa.”

Sri Kabugwason nodded. “I am glad I took the earthen path, for if not, these things would have passed me by, and I would had just conducted business in Ba-e, as usual. But nay, here, with my feet upon the ground, walking for days with my company, stopping by the various banwa that pock the Kumintang region and then the Katanawan plains… it is a grand experience. Blacksmiths from Kumintang are prone to innovation, did you know? And the rice gathered in Katanawan is enough rice for an entire year in the banwas in the central region of the Sword Isles. How grand, how great. They are not all allied with Ba-e, are they not?” The prince sipped on his dragon jarlet. The rice wine was chilly, striking, vanquishing.

The Datu shook his head. “We are, aye, but simply for protection. The other banwa further up north are less likely to be raided, and so they govern themselves. The banwa of Ibalnong, for example, is a veritable kingdom in their own right, and even the hundred petty states of Kumintang.”

“Ibalnong is a fierce country,” said Sri Kabugwason. “I only skirted about what seemed to be the limits of their reach. We stayed in a banwa known as Banwa Bana, and it was a banwa of warriors and hunters. When we left, they were getting ready to hunt down a great one-eyed giant that had been causing havoc in the greater mountains of that region.”

“Truly, adventure.”

“My heart races at this thrill. I wish to travel more now,” said Sri Kabugwason. “I wish to walk all the way to the southern tip of Rusunuga, where the winds blow cold and we can see the veritable southern continent.”

“That is a feat worthy for a prince, Sri Kabugwason.”

And before Sri Kabugwason could respond, a voice cut through the jovial laughter and chatter of the feast: “Prince of the heathens! Turn and face me!”

The Datu rose to his feet, his face wondering, questioning, confused at first. Then it vexed into indignation. “Gentleman Sanghati! Know your place!”

Sri Kabugwason, however, was more than happy to oblige. The blood in his veins began running, almost flaring, almost blazing. He turned, his sun-kissed caramel skin and moon-shaped face beautiful amongst the crowd. 

“Oh, Sri Kabugwason, please. You do not need to—“

But Sri Kabugwason placed a hand on the datu’s shoulder and said, “Let me.”

The Datu could do nothing more. Gentleman Salunga placed a hand on his sword and spear.

“Greetings,” said Sri Kabugwason, hand gripping the sheathe of his kris. “And to whom do I owe the pleasure?” He spoke in Gatusanon still, while Gentleman Sanghati spoke in Virbanwan. Despite this, there were enough similarities between the languages to facilitate a small scale of understanding.

“I am Gentleman Sanghati, Sword Saint of Virbanwa, Anointed of the Blade Commission, and the Bleeding Edge of the Lakan,” he said. He took a step forward, and the warriors that dined upon the longhouse hall rose to their feet, swords at the ready. Sri Kabugwason raised a single hand, and they did not unsheathe their blades. Sri Kabugwason lowered his hand, and they filed out of the longhouse hall.

“And you have arrived here for… what?” The sudden change in his face cut swathes through the jovial mood of the place.

Sanghati smirked. “Duel me, sword-to-sword.”

“Again I ask: to what purpose, Sword Saint?”

“I will do to you like I did with the others: carve out your cutting capability, and turn you into nothing but a lumbering shadow of the man you were. Even princes can bleed.”

Sri Kabugwason squinted his eyes. Then, he said, as he placed a hand on the hilt of his kris. “Why do you do this?”

“To herald the Millennium Kingdom of Maitresiya, He Who Comes at the End! May Makaubos finish all the heathens and bring all his faithful to his light beyond the stars! Aba! Aba!”

“Why not just convert me, then?” His face still hadn’t changed. His eyes narrowed. 

He was a tiger about to pounce, perfectly, endlessly patient.

Sanghati barked a laugh. “There is no salvation for dregs like you,” he said. “But there is for these people. You, who worship the trees and the mountains and the sky… you have fought and warred with our people for too long. It is time to end you, and in doing so, prove Virbanwa’s might.”

Sri Kabugwason exhaled. He loosened up—forced to remove all the tension from him. A martial-spiritual maneuver: he shrugged as if removing weights off of his back. He went down into a low stance, and then placed all of his fingers upon his kris, and then his palm.

Sanghati was honorable, at least. He raised his ginunting and let the sheathe fall. The ginunting glinted silver, inlaid now with flame-like patterns. “Glory to Makaubos, the Annihilator! Aba! Aba!”

And just before Kabugwasun unsheathed his blade, Masuna flew in between them, wielding nothing but a kalasag and a broken off bamboo piece, and he blocked Sanghati’s lunging strike, enmeshing his blade into the wood of his kalasag.

He fell onto one knee before the prince. “Forgive me, Sri Kabugwason,” he spoke in Gatusanon as well. “I cannot suffer to see the prince hurt. Let me fight in the Lord’s stead, please, if it not be blasphemy to your name.”

The prince blinked. He let his blood blaze already, but thanks to trainings with Makinaadmanon of Violence, he knew how to properly quench them. He knew what this was: a twist of fate, an interesting play of destiny, the crocodile’s teeth cast but unfalling, a wooden top spinning and not wobbling.

He stepped back and nodded. Sri Kabugwason wanted to see how this goes. “Prove your mettle then, warrior.” And he grinned, and his teeth—plated with gold—shone like the morning stars.

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