Aba, aba! Glory to the God-King of the Virbanwans, the slayer of Pale Kings, the repeller of alien invaders! However the damage is done, the Scourge festers in their hearts, they are spoiled and rotten to the core. O, Batara Lakan, arise our beloved Flower of Passion! Take upon yourself, upon your bleeding heart, the sins of the Virbanwans, and then lead us to the Millennium Kingdom of God! May the Ashen Star gleam brighter than the sun, may your sacrifice bring us unity, glory, conquest, peace! O, Batara Lakan! Bleed for us, and let our sins become your sword, and become as Makaubos, cleanse this world, and summon Makagagahum, the Almighty, and Virbanwa shall become the greatest Empire! Make us great, make us great.The Song of Batara Lakan Huwan Rekno, King of Virbanwa, The Gumamela of the River Plains, the Flower of Passion, He Who Bleeds for the World’s Sins, the Herald of Yumao, The Fated Quietus
Where must we go, now, in the depths of our truths?
Bakong is here, in the grand city, the Center of the World, Akai. This must be the end of our story, but it is not.
After all, what are songs, epics, but stories gone wrong?
Bear with me as we see begin.
Bakong and Sam’baha went over to a house that was selling food for the merchants and visitors. They got some rice, burnt so that it could be held in the hand as a crisp, and some fish skewered through a bamboo stick. They ate, and Bakong couldn’t help but feel a fluttering. She had never done this before.
Sam’baha led her over around the Azure Markets, and Sam’baha could see the multitudes of folk once again. It was overwhelming: a mantis head here, a giant eagle there, a set of talking monkeys wearing regal silk robes… just an absolute cavalcade of diversity. Everyone here was smiling. No doubt enjoying the diplomatic protection of one of the most powerful God-Queens in all of Gubat Banwa.
They ate some of their food while watching an intense cockfighting tournament, wherein they actually bet some gold pellets and lost it. Sam’baha had reasoned that they should bet on the white-feathered cock since Bakong had the same moon-hair. Unfortunately the white-feathered raptor was killed, rather cleanly, by the opposite crimson-feathered raptor’s garol, the blade attached onto their talons. It decapitated the white-feathered raptor after a few skirmishes.
Defeated, they just smiled and gave up some brass coins, a new form of currency that can only really be found in the grand cities.
Eventually, they found a shed where people were sitting about, resting. These were merchants, smiths, farmers, workers of all sorts, from every nation in the world. A grasshopper wearing Iyamati cloth sat beside a crowfolk wearing colorful clothing from the far far east, in the Azur Caliphates. A place Bakong had only heard about in relation to the merchants and Lunar Missionaries. The great Prophetess was said to have arrived from there, upon a bridge of clouds.
They sat, eating heartily. “Tell me, then, princess,” said Sam’baha, a small smile on her face. “Now that we’re here, what do you need to do?”
“I need to find my Aunt,” replied Bakong, after swallowing crunchy rice. “Aunt Puasa. She’s a general if I recall correctly of the Sultana. She is the one I must go to. That is my fate.”
Sam’baha was nodding, as if listening to a bedtime story. “I’ve had a great number of fates myself. Tell me, do you know who has given you this fate?”
Bakong looked down for a moment. “My mother. The Goddess of the White River.”
“How harrowing. A goddess?”
“A demon. Yawa.”
“Ah, even worse,” Sam’baha replied, grinning. She munched. “A being of Di-Hiyang, manifestation of the Scourge upon the world. What does your mother want, then? Have you asked?”
Bakong bit her lip. She turned to Sam’baha and said, “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this here?”
Sam’baha looked about her and said, “No one wants to hear your dirty little secrets here, princess, worry not.” But Bakong insisted, wincing. Sam’baha sighed and acquiesced. “All right, then, let’s head toward one of the cliffs.”
And so they did. They traveled up a stony path carved onto the side of the cliff that faced the docks—or perhaps it was natural outcropping? Its hard to know, the gods of this world are architects of wonder—and found a silent place overlooking the sea. It wasn’t too high to induce any vertigo, thankfully, but Bakong was not afraid of heights.
“All right, here we are. What is this big secret that you must keep far away from others?”
Bakong sighed, and said: “I am to kill the Hero of Prophecy.”
There was a strange, almost excited silence. Bakong blinked. She realized that she had never told that to anyone before, and no one else knows about this other than perhaps Bangahom. What was she to do now?
“I’ve heard about him. The Hero of Prophecy.” Sam’baha looked over her should to Bakong and grinned. “I’ve never been one friendly with the Ashen Star, you see.”
Bakong tilted her head. A questioning gesture.
Sam’baha turned to the sun and stretched. “That sounds fucking fun! Let’s do it. I’ll help you, little lady. I’ll help you kill this Hero of Prophecy.”
Bakong blinked. “What—wait, what? Just like that? I—“
Sam’baha turned to Bakong, and her gaze was intense. “Hesitation is defeat, Bakong. Has anyone taught you that? I do not fuck around. Come, let’s look for your Aunt Puasa.”
As she said that, a looming figure eclipsed the sun. Sam’baha and Bakong both looked up, and watched as a giant flying galleon sliced the sky, bearing a great marble statue of Yumao, the Son Destined To Die, chained on its figurehead.
The two of them hurried back into the city, as they saw most of the cityfolk either in uproar or in strange anxiety. Many of them went on about their day, but most of them couldn’t help but glance up, at the approaching flying ship, the sign of Virbanwa’s power. The arrival of an important personage.
The ship itself docked by one of the further docks, and was immediately serviced by what looked like workers that belonged to the datu and other rulers here in Jambangan. They were scrambling like ants. Anxiety, again. What is that flying galleon doing here? Why has it arrived?
Was it the Hero of Prophecy?
The looming grandeur immediately brought Bakong to the truth that whatever she was thinking of doing to the Hero of Prophecy might not be enough. They might simply not be enough. Sam’baha had to rip her away from her thoughts, and brought her to one of the riverbanks. A number of people that were bathing there or washing clothes immediately left the river as they heard news of the flying galleon. “A Virbanwan ship!” One of them whispered, and it was a feared whisper. A scared whisper.
Bakong couldn’t believe it. Jambanganon? Afraid of Virbanwa?
But perhaps they weren’t afraid of Virbanwa, but of what it meant for their city. Was this the beginning of all out war? Was this the end of times?
Sam’baha snapped Bakong out of it again, for the second time, by slapping her shoulder and saying: “Come on, you know what I always do when anxiety has gripped me by the balls?”
Bakong paused, looked at her for answers.
“Spar.” She raised her hands and dipped into a fighting stance.
Before Bakong knew it, she did as well. Out of, what, curiosity? Or perhaps, politeness?
“You want to spar here, with the Hero of Prophecy’s ship being just there?” Of course, Bakong couldn’t help but be dubious.
“I want to spar here because the ship is there. You and I both know that you won’t be able to face him right now.” Sam’baha continued. “They haven’t done anything wrong yet. If you assault here, it will not bode well. Jambangan will hold you in trial. Now, don’t worry: empty hand should come naturally to you. Come on, follow my lead. Even if you don’t know what to do, it’s a dance.”
Bakong swallowed, and nodded. She stepped forward, and Sam’baha took her hand, and they wove. Slowly, at first, until eventually a rhythm picked up. Sam’baha taught the Moon-Haired one a series of strikes, parries, and checks. Bakong was a natural fighter, which makes sense: having both diwata heritage and yawa heritage, she would have inherited some form of divinity.
Sam’baha was surprised, too. No, surprised is too… vehement. Perhaps, excited? Excited because she wanted to see what Bakong was capable of. As they wove and parried and blocked and checked and grabbed (and locked and interlocked), Sam’baha began to learn Bakong, just a bit more.
Bakong, on the other hand, focused entirely on the movement. One thing at a time, until the ones blur and blend together into larger, grand movements. The goal is to perfect the small things so that the big things can be correct. Mess up the small things, then everything falls apart.
One small step at a time. Every step leads to home.
A useful lesson, Bakong learned, as they fought and fought and eventually Sam’baha—caught up in the momentum of it all, in the rushing adrenaline, the fire it lit within her—locked Bakong and swept her off of her feet, sending her tumbling into the ground.
Bakong closed her eyes and bit her lip and expected the wind to escape her, but instead there was a rough hand gripping the back of her neck. When she opened her eyes, Sam’baha was there, in an awkward position, using both hands to grip her waist and neck so that she didn’t slam into the damp river banks.
“Sorry about that,” Sam’baha said, bringing her up. “Carried away.”
Bakong sighed, and then shook her head. She patted herself. “N-No. Yes. I mean, it’s good. It was good. My anxiety was getting the better of me.” She turned in the direction of the galleon. “The Hero of Prophecy.”
“He’s here,” said Sam’baha, nodding. “You’re not ready, yet. But should push comes to shove, I’m here.”
“And what will you do?”
“Kill him for you.”
“Can you do that?” asked Bakong.
Sam’baha nodded, and then said, matter-of-factly: “I have never known defeat.”
Then there was a laugh, which really as more of a bark, like a croak of a seabound vessel: “Ha! Then it is true! I have just witnessed an empty hand spar between the Rajah’s Bastard Demon Daughter and the unbeatable, peerless warrior of the Sword Isles, Sampung Baha! The Greatest Warrior in Gubat Banwa!”
Bakong turned, toward the direction of the voice, and saw a woman in iron breastplate and dragon skirt. On her feet she wore greaves—greaves! A rarity in the Isles!—and on her shoulder rested a spear, which she slid down from her shoulder and onto the river banks, impaling it upon the damp soil.
Her skin was a fulminating pink, like the color of sunsets, and she had five crimson dots arrayed like stars upon her brow, like a third eye. Her headwrap was the color of blood.
Sam’baha turned and narrowed her eyes. Sam’baha could tell that she was someone of some power, as that kind of clothing was not common in the isles. Of course, Sam’baha could not ascertain just exactly who she was, so she said: “State who you are, warrior.”
“Ah, so dost thou invoke the Neutrality of the Blade?”
“Perhaps.” Sam’baha stepped forward, clenching her fist. “However you forget yourself: you know who you speak with. She is the Daughter of a Rajah, a veritable princess of Gatusan. You court blades.”
“I know what my words mean.” The woman dropped down, her greaves slapping onto the dirt. “And how wilst thou act in concordance? Are thou the princess’ personal kawal?”
Bakong opened her mouth, but then Sam’baha said: “I do not need to be her kawal to protect her.”
Bakong wanted to be able to fire back, to fight, but—as with all the more powerful martial artists and warriors of the Isles—there was a certain emanation that pulsed from her, overwhelming her senses, filling her with a certain chill. This spiritual force was something she knew was their Gahum, and from ordinary warriors she never sensed them—even from datu!—but from this lady her Gahum seemed to unfurl from her like a flower of flame.
At that moment, however, Bakong felt Sam’baha’s as well, and it was like a burgeoning boulder. Like a multi-bamboo dam, stopping deluges.
“Come then, and prove it. Prove your conviction.”
“My conviction is steel, great one,” barked back Sam’baha.
“Then thou must approach me, and experience greatness.”
Sam’baha bowed low before lunging, as if in reverence, or perhaps in apology. She didn’t have her sword with her, but in the moment that she was before the lady, her hands were blurring, moving. She had to get up close as possible to be able to inflict as much damage—as was the requirement of Skysea Raiding—and in the space of a few breaths she’d launched 3 blows into the metal mail and parried 15 strikes from the Lady.
The Lady herself had dropped and impaled the spear into the soil—which was a single movement that also parried and defended the first five of Sam’baha’s strikes. Then she sent her own strikes—from strange angles, mostly with hands in thin, chopping gestures. 15 strikes blocked, but every block came with a visceral check that also slapped at Sam’baha’s wrists, or ankles, or forearm, or shoulder. There was no opening that could be avoided.
A ferocious exchange—at that moment they were human, immersed into the fight, sheathed in flowering lightning, higher than the gods. Then, the Lady found a way to grip Sam’baha’s wrist. She twisted it, and the second movement was too fast for even Sam’baha to catch: her second hand came up instantly, abruptly, inhumanely.
Her hand fulminated with a strange blue-gray flame that resembled the color of stagnant water by the riverbank. It slammed into Sam’baha’s abdomen. Strokes of flame spiralled out from it, and Sam’baha flew backwards, hit the floor rolling, but eventually came up to her feet.
“I am trained in the secret styles of the Gatusanon clans, the hidden Blood Arts of the Salungga Clans, and the ancient art of Tree-Cutting of the Kabaya’ Aristocrats in Kalanawan. You will need one thousand years more of swimming to be able to reach my shore.”
Sam’baha scowled. She took a step forward, ready to keep fighting, but Bakong reached out and gripped her bicep. “Sam, it’s okay.”
“Perhaps, if I am feeling generous and virtuous, I shall teach you some of the knowledge. But ye must understand that violence must be used for transcendence. Otherwise all this martial art becometh nothing better than an inert rock.”
The Lady then turned to Bakong: “Ah, thou. I have never seen anyone so unaligned with the martial spirit. You have tremendous amounts of Gahum to tap into, but it is occluded and hidden in a dead spirit. Ah, how my sister has failed you.”
Before Bakong could say anything, the lady continued: “Aye, it is I, your Aunt Puasa, The Demon Witch of the 180 Talons, The Harimau Sorceress, The Gold-Lined Lionbreaker, the Devil Bodhisattva Who Has Attained Inverse Enlightenment.”
“You memorized all that on your own?” asked Sam’baha, smirking. When she realized that this woman was Bakong’s aunt—and ‘Gold-Lined Lionbreaker’ was a term used for one of the Warlords of the Lunar Sultana—she relaxed. Tension unspooled from her, frayed.
“If thou hast lived as long as I have then ye hath no choice but to have it hammered into your skull.”
Sam’baha nodded, but then squatted low and bowed. The usual position of reverence. “Then I please, beg the Lady’s pardon for being so brash.”
“It is all right. You have earned the right to be bold. Stand. Forgive me for the strike, but I made sure to hold it in.” Puasa moved over to Bakong and put her hand out.
Bakong watched, and then Puasa said: “Give me your hand.” Bakong noticed her hand to have been striped, as if a tiger’s, and her nails were unnaturally long, like claws. Bakong gave her hand anyway, though she did so after leaping over a tremendous wall of anxiety.
Puasa smiled and let out a small huff, a shadow of a laugh. “It is true. You are my sister’s daughter. How quaint. I cannot believe I have to pay off my debt to her in this way.” She looked up, in the direction of the Hero of Prophecy, and then said, “Come, then, to my estate. Let us speak there, over some betel nut and tea.”