Prologue – The Land of the Fireleaves

And thus Makata Huni, grandmaster storyteller amongst the Lakungdulan Isles, began the great epic that has spanned more then forty generations. He keeps with him no book, nor no quill, but rather, just his voice, and his memory that would crush an elephant’s. He sings with the voice of the songbird, and with the tenacity of a buwaya. He sings atop a platform, in the middle of the barangay, with the entire barangay enraptured by his voice.

He sings without ceasing. He sings without ceasing. He sings the Song of Sorrows without ceasing.

He begins his rhapsody — one of ardent fervor. It began, he bellows. With a letter.


 

I write in these pages because the pages do not forget.

I grow old and I grow fast. The twilight of death wraps around me like a wintry blanket. Oh how the chill of Al-Kaig shivers my bones. Oh, how I wish to return to the land of my beloved Fireleaves!

I care not who reads these words. I care not if these words ever be read in the first place. I care for the opaqueness of creation, of something being brought to this natural world. I do this act, with a solemn plea to Yavum, the Almighty Lightbringer, that my words be immaculate and blessed.

 

THE BRINE OF THE SALT SEA brushed against Andrado de Vergilus’ cheek as he leaned against the boat’s starboard side. The workers and other passengers and traders cheered as they finally saw land.

Before them rose the grand harbor city of Selorong. One entire stretch of it built upon the seashore, looking out to the Meriganian Sea, west of the Liwayan Island. A strong and fortified wall on the other side of the city, built by them nonetheless, kept the wilderness and raiding natives — and even the colonial bandits — at bay. The Al-Kaigian city was pocked with two or three storey buildings as it rolled away from the harbor, until it arrived at the Governor-General’s Manor at the top of a short hill.

Andrado felt the man’s suave before he heard his voice. “How do you fare, Sir?” A handsome moustachioed man — sporting a wolfish grin that would definitely make the women bend over in a beat — walked over to the introspecting Andrado. The man wore a simple get up of tunic and trousers. Andrado wrongfully thought that he was of the commonfolk until he saw the way he carried himself and spoke.

Grinning, Andrado said: “Ah, Syrus! It is good to see you before we must inevitably part ways.” They shook hands. The beguilingly handsome man already had his leather satchel with him, oiled so that the insides would not get too wet from the salty sea brine. “I will miss your musings and skepticisms, and your wit at the bar.”

Syrus de Santi shrugged. “I will miss your capacity to ask the most stupid of questions! Sometimes, one needs someone daft to appreciate their own intelligence.”

Andrado snickered. The scholar knew that Syrus jested, but he had to admit that the man’s silver-sharp tongue might get him into trouble in the future. Andrado bumped Syrus’ shoulder with a fist. “Just because you are a quicker thinker does not put your intellectual block above me!” Andrado said, with a raise of an eyebrow and a playful smirk.

Syrus shrugged, and then turned and looked Andrado in the eyes; his were the color of a bright caramel. He smiled again. “It was nice meeting you, Scholar Andrado.”

Andrado watched Syrus’ face, and then his shoulders slumped down, and he managed a sad smile. “You too, Bard Syrus.” They hugged. “May Yavum be the light unto your path.”

Syrus shook his head and opened his mouth to say something, but Andrado followed it up with, “I know the gesture is moot, to you, but they are my sentiments. Take care.”

 

It wasn’t long before the trade ship docked amongst the stone ports of Selorong’s Harbor District. Men of all shapes and sizes and colors and smells — all of them a mix of all sorts of races — from the brown-skinned seafaring Manalul-Sul tribe, those of the lighter-skinned Olalen tribe, and the occasional piss-poor Islander Al-Kaigian. They all had the same thing in common, however: they belonged to the Lakungdulan Isles.

One of the said Olalen of Lakungdulans that came from a tribe up to the far north of Liway brought with them trading goods, and had chains clanged around their feet. His astute awareness of his surroundings picked up the small boy leaping from crate to crate as he lifted coin from trousers, and then slinking off into the shadows, and then into the crowd.

The smell of the sea and the stench of fish had breached his senses, but he had grown used to the smell after almost a month on sea. Andrado briefly remembered that he had put on perfume that morning… and then realized how pointless that was due to the impending shower of smells that was to greet and cling to him like a brothel lover too attached to you (or your pocket.)

Andrado grasped his leather satchel close to him, the contents jumbling within: a gnarled blackwood wand, his circular optics, a set of inks and quills, folded parchment thick enough to be used as a mace, and a large leatherbound book soon to be used for a variety of purposes. Beside the leatherbound book was his similarly leatherbound copy of The Chronicles of Light — more commonly known as the Ignitarium, and another, not leatherbound but paperbound copy of the Esoteries of Luminance, or the Esoterium, written by the famed philosopher-mage Calliphus de Jerem.

Andrado had invoked the Merak before leaving his cabin room, asking for their guidance. He asked Merak Khailum for protection against the worst of harms, and Merak Fleveiuum that his words may flow out of him as a heart bleeds crimson. As he prepared to walk into the fray, to the early morning harbor crowds, into the disgusting pall of intermingled scents and shouts of early morning vendors slapping and filleting fish, he invoked the Merak Chrasanthum to guide him on his journey.

 

Squeezing past sweaty and rancid smelling musclemen, Andrado managed to get out of the harbor district’s market street. After making sure that all of his equipment and items were still within — along with thirty-five pieces of gold — he decided that his first course of business, before going off to his actual business with the Governor-General, was to end his state of hunger and enervation, and to drink and sleep and maybe hire a woman to share his bed. And so, the light-skinned, light brown-haired Al-Kaigian man walked the streets of Selorong’s harbor district alongside darker haired natives and mid-light skinned cativae until he came across an old tavern.

Andrado walked inside and was immediately greeted by a band of two playing a gitara and a light wooden flute. Within the wooden walls of the tavern — which still smelled like fish — were the usual patrons wearing light vests that covered almost none of their skin, and wide collared shorts to keep their movements quick and their temperatures low, for the weather in the Liwayan Island was especially warm during this time of the year. Among the natives were those light blue uniform wearing Civil Guards, some of which brandished bayonets while others carried riflings on their backs. Andrado walked up to the barkeep — a man not too tall and with skin the darkest of caramels, with soulful, earthen eyes and a bramble of twisting hair. From the recesses of his mind, Andrado could pinpoint him to be of the Dagana-kahuy tribe, or maybe just another one of the Manalul-Sul, judging from his appearance.

“Sir,” Andrado whispered. The barkeep stopped and turned to him, blinked, licked his lips and then bent down to lend his ear.

The barkeep grinned and said, “We, uh, having a secret talk here?” he asked, in fluent Al-Kaigian, albeit with a hint of an accent. His eyes quested around behind Andrado. This, of course, surprised Andrado. “You want something secret?” the barkeep continued.

Andrado blinked. He licked his lips again, and then said, “U-um. I just wanted — don’t let this get out — some… lambanog?” The drink had come as something of a cultural curiosity to him, as he studied and read the journals about the Islands. He’d always wanted to try the “Spice of the Isles”. He’s heard that it had a particularly powerful punch.

The dark-skinned barkeep reared his head back, squinting his eyes in a strange mixture of curiosity and disgust. “You want a poor man’s drink?”

Andrado was silent, but he nodded, slowly at first.

The barkeep nodded as well and sighed. “Very well. Do not worry, my bright man. I will give it to you and in a thick mug.”

And so he did. Andrado thanked him gladly as he hurried to another part of the counter to answer a loud Civil Guard Patron.

Andrado knew now, in retrospect, that he may have made the mistake of drinking the alcoholic beverage like water. It might’ve been him trying to show off. It was a poor man’s drink, after all! He had had harder brews and concoctions back in the capital city. He’d heard tales of how lambanog could be powerful, but he knew he had to experience it for himself.

The kick was unexpectedly potent. The sweetness was nice. The blur of the next few moments?

That was not nice.

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