First published in Worldbuilding Magazine, Volume 4: Issue 3
The creek glistened with the midday light as Hari strolled onto the banks. He set his basket of dirty clothes against a nearby rock and knelt by the water. Placing his fingertips on the surface, he said, “Dear marin of this stream, I am Hari, and I would like to use the waters of your home. Please move aside as I wash my clothes and bathe today. Thank you.” Hari waited for a few moments until the water’s surface momentarily rippled against his fingertips. He bowed his head and pulled his hand away before he removed his robes, discolored from sweat and labor, and started washing his clothing.
A soft breeze cooled him while the sun beat down on his bare back. After receiving his first set of tailored clothes six cycles ago, the head priestess of the Temple of Light instructed him to care for them on his own. He had since become quite efficient at doing his laundry. At the least, the chore gave him ample reason to take a refreshing bath after.
Once Hari finished with the laundry, he clambered around the bank until he found a large stick to serve as his link to the land, warding off any mischievous marin that might fancy he belonged to the water. After wading in and jabbing the stick into a crevice, Hari washed himself. As he submerged his face in the cool waters, a muffled echo reached him beneath the surface. Hari breached the surface and looked towards the woods, and as the distant scream grew closer, he rushed to the rocky banks.
A teenage boy suddenly burst into the clearing, tumbling into the dirt. He looked about Hari’s age—probably no older than thirteen or fourteen cycles—freckled with dark brown hair and utterly red in the face. The boy let out one more scream and wheezed. Hari stared at him, wide-eyed, but managed to pull his gaze towards the forest edge. As he squinted, he could just barely see the outline of a hulking creature in the woods behind the boy. Hari kept looking at it, sure that he recognized the spirit’s appearance, though when he blinked, the form had faded from view. Too large to be a diwati, and too angry. If I’m careful, I should be fine getting home, but…
“Oh, spirits. Oh, karma. I’m—” the other boy sputtered as he laid on the ground. “I’m alive!”
Hari’s expression turned to annoyance as the boy pulled himself up into a sitting position. After grabbing a still-damp robe, Hari wrapped it around his waist and kept his distance, gripping the stick tightly. Hari cleared his throat and called out, “Wh-what are you doing here?”
“Hey! Did you see that?” The boy jabbed a finger in the direction of the woods. “I had to run real fast from…something! I couldn’t even see what it was, but it sounded big and loud and really scary. Maybe it was a spirit! Did you hear it?” He blurted out the words rapidly and paused only to take a breath. “I wonder why it let me go…”
You weren’t worth the effort of leaving the forest. The forest’s spirits weren’t always kind to travelers, and based on first impressions, Hari wouldn’t be surprised if this boy had done something to upset the woodland spirits. He winced and slowly asked, “That’s good to know, but why are you here?”
“I already said I was running away from that spirit.” The boy looked around, his gaze fixed on the forest canopy. “Do you know where the temple is? I need to go there, and I can’t see it from here.”
“The Temple of Light doesn’t welcome strangers. Much less…” Hari looked him over. “Strange boys.”
“Strangers? Oh, right.” He held out a hand and grinned at him. “I’m Kaibo Angalang! I’m from the village. What’s your name?”
“Village? You mean Baya-Marong?” Hari did not shake his hand. “I’m Hari-Moto.”
“Oh. That’s a northern name, right? Are you a traveler, Hari-Moto?” Kaibo began rummaging through his pack. “You want some bread? I think I have some left—oh, wait. No. It’s all crumbly now. You still want some?”
“No thanks,” Hari replied. His expression turned to disgust as the boy stuffed the crumbs into his mouth. “You can just say ‘Hari.’”
“Where are you from? Ka-Ago?”
“So you’re a traveler! We get travelers in the village sometimes.” Kaibo glanced towards the creek, his gaze honing in on the laid out garments. “Are these your clothes? You really should hang them up so they dry well, you know. And your robe’s wet, too!”
“I know it is.” Hari pulled the damp cloth tighter around him.
“Do you have any dry clothes? There’s a breeze, so you might catch a sickness.”
“I’ll be fine,” Hari said. “I don’t get sick easily.”
Kaibo rummaged through the sack again. “I brought an extra shirt. You can use it.”
“Uhh, you don’t have—”
Kaibo shoved a coarse-looking shirt speckled with crumbs at him. As it unfurled, a doll fell out of it.
“Huh.” Hari picked up the doll and handed it back to Kaibo. “That…yours?”
“Nope. It’s my sister’s. Aya’s. She likes to have it when she sleeps, but she forgot it before she left with the priestesses.”
“And that’s why you’re going to the Temple.” Hari grimaced. The head priestess intentionally made new recruits leave their belongings behind to help sever any ties that might distract them from their training. “They don’t let men into the Temple.”
“Huh?” Kaibo cocked his head. “Why’s that?”
“Only women are allowed to become priestesses—any who they think are worthy.”
“That’s what they thought about my sister,” Kaibo replied softly. He smiled at Hari. “I don’t wanna be a priestess, though. I just gotta give Aya her doll.”
“The priestesses will just turn you away. They probably won’t open the gates, or even speak to you.”
Kaibo stared at him for a few moments, mouth agape. “What makes you think that?”
Hari hesitated. “I—”
“Ah!” Kaibo’s eyes widened. “They wouldn’t let you in. Is that why you’re out here, Hari?”
“Not exactly.” Hari stepped towards his basket for some more distance between him and Kaibo. “This isn’t about me—”
“Once I come back from the Temple, we can go to my house if you have no place to go.” As Kaibo looked at him before his grin warped into a somber smile. “Aya’s room is empty now, so I bet my ma wouldn’t mind you staying with us.”
“I don’t need your pity,” Hari snapped.
Kaibo clamped his mouth shut.
Hari’s mind scrambled for a way to end this conversation, only then realizing he was usually the one waiting for someone else to send him off. “You need to go home, Kaibo. You won’t get to the Temple, and you’ll end up going through the forest in the dark if you keep trying.”
“But I have to give—” Kaibo stopped as he noticed Hari’s pointed expression. He looked toward the forest edge. “Wait, will the spirits come after me again?”
“Maybe.” Hari watched the color drain from Kaibo’s face. “I don’t know.”
Hari averted his gaze and started stuffing his wet clothes into his basket. The head priestess would be livid if she found a recruit with a doll. She’d blame me, and it’s not even my problem. A soft breeze blew between them.
“Should I…should I just run through again? That worked last time, right?”
“Nunos,” Hari began as Kaibo stared blankly at him, “smaller spirits from the earth—won’t really bother you if you ask them kindly to stay out of your way before you start walking. Same thing with the…fairy spirits.”
“Oh, I kinda did that,” Kaibo muttered. “The big one showed up after, though.”
“You didn’t do anything that would disrespect them, did you?”
“I don’t think so.” The other boy paused. “What would count as disrespect?”
Hari let out a long sigh. “I don’t know. Like stomping over an ant-hill, snapping off branches, sitting under a tree without asking,” he listed, looking expectantly at Kaibo.
“Oh, I didn’t do any of that.” Kaibo paused, jaw slack. “But I had a rotted banana, and I just kinda threw…it…away.”
Hari squinted at him. “Yeah. That would do it. Some spirits like an offering, but you dumped your trash in their home.” He hoisted the basket over his shoulder. “You’re on your own with that.”
“Huh? Wh-what can I do?”
Hari shrugged. “I dunno. Guess you’ll have to run fast.”
“I didn’t mean to…” Kaibo nervously gripped at his tarp sack. “Can I say I’m sorry?”
“Might work. But that’s your problem now.”
“Alright. I guess I’ll try that,” Kaibo said in a small voice. He perked up for a moment, managing a smile while waving at the other boy. “Bye, Hari! Stay safe and spirits guide you.”
Hari gave the other boy a half-hearted wave and started walking away. After a few moments, he heard his name being called. Hari stopped mid-step and turned around. Kaibo had jogged up to him, holding out a spare shirt.
“I told you I don’t need it.”
“It’ll get colder once it gets dark, and I won’t need it if I’m running. Besides, I don’t really have anything to thank you with, and ma always said we have to be grateful for the help we get.”
Hari stared at the garment, brow furrowed. “I just told you what I knew. Didn’t really do anything for you,” he muttered. However, seeing Kaibo’s expression, Hari had a feeling the other boy would only persist. As he took hold of the warm shirt, Hari remembered his grandmother’s words: ‘We at the Temple of Light guide those who do not understand the spirits.’ Hari sighed through his nose. He met the other boy’s gaze and added, “This is a lot to take for just advice. You’re…from Baya-Marong, right? Do you think you can make your way back?”
“I think so.” Kaibo scratched his head. “I’m just gonna head up the Temple, and then I’ll—”
“You won’t make it there.” Hari scowled at the other boy and added, “You probably won’t even make it home on your own.”
“I won’t?” Kaibo paled. “Wh-what should I do?”
“We’ll make it there if we head back now,” Hari muttered, turning away. He changed into the dry shirt and a pair of discolored pants, swatted away the crumbs, and started walking back into the forest’s edge. “Do what I tell you, when I tell you. Understood?”
Despite his furrowed brow, Kaibo straightened up. “I will!”
No more than a few steps into the woods, Kaibo came to a halt as Hari told him to stop. He looked to the other boy and mimicked him, each of them clapping their hands together in front of their chest and deeply bowing.
“Dear spirits, please move out of the way as we pass. We mean no harm and wish for safe travel through your home,” Hari recited calmly.
Kaibo watched him before taking the hint from Hari’s sidelong glance. “Dear spirits, please move outta the way. We mean no harm, and I just wanna safely get home through your…home.” He grinned as Hari raised a brow and continued walking.
“D’you think we’ll see some spirits, Hari?”
“Probably not. Most people can’t see them.”
“Eh? But the stories—You sure do know a lot about this stuff.”
Hari snorted. “I just know the stories.”
“Ma likes those stories, too, but my sister does better at remembering than I do. And my Ma didn’t say much about prayers…Did your ma tell those stories?”
Kaibo blinked as the other boy turned his head away. “Oh? Then where’d you hear them?”
“I,” Hari began, clearing his throat. “I read them.”
“You can read?” Kaibo’s eyes bulged. “You’re amazing! Ma taught Aya and me, but I never got good at it.”
“You just need to practice,” Hari muttered beside him.
“That’s what Ma—”
“Shush. Don’t speak so loud,” Hari whispered.
Kaibo tilted his head. He could still hear the chorus of forest critters and the breeze blowing through the branches and leaves. His gaze then followed Hari’s finger pointing to a fallen tree trunk covered in moss and vines.
“See that? Remember what it looks like.”
“The stump? Okay, but why?” Kaibo asked, matching Hari’s volume.
“Just have a feeling. Now, come on.”
“Whatever you say.” Kaibo smiled at his companion, though Hari just kept walking forward. The pair continued their trek with Kaibo’s occasional commentary on the surrounding woods. After what felt like nearly a half-hour to the boys, Kaibo halted when Hari glanced up at the forest canopy. “How long have we—” He cut himself off as he stared ahead. “Hey, Hari, didn’t we already pass that?” He pointed at the fallen trunk no more than six paces away.
“Yeah. Good that you noticed.” Hari pulled off his shirt. “It’s messing with our senses. Turn your shirt inside out, and that should help.”
“What’s messing what?” Kaibo followed Hari’s orders, glancing around again as silence surrounded them. He frowned at Hari, who had started squinting at something ahead.
“A tikbalang,” Hari murmured quickly. A pair of red, glowing eyes stared at them, the creature’s hulking frame blocking the wooded path ahead. Deep in its home, the tikbalang had enough power for it to manifest a more solidified spiritual form. “Head and hind legs of a horse. Body of a man…We’re probably trespassing in its territory, Kaibo.”
The other boy looked in the same direction of the creature. At that moment, the tikbalang stepped forward, the underbrush suddenly crackling under the weight of its hoof. “There, in the brush. What made that—” Kaibo yelled, as he instinctively took a step back.
Hari clasped a hand over the boy’s mouth and hissed into his ear, “It’s the spirit. Remember what we agreed. You have to speak when I say so.”
Kaibo slowly nodded, eyes widened at the invisible creature.
“Spirit of this forest, we would like to safely pass,” Hari said.
The tikbalang left another hoofprint as it drew closer to the two boys. Kaibo tried to pull back again, but Hari kept a firm grip over his mouth. He even tried to dig his heels into the ground, though Hari just pushed him forward.
The spirit took another step towards them.
“We know that this one has disrespected your home,” Hari continued, “and he regrets his actions.” Hari maintained his hold on Kaibo, trying to abate the other boy’s panic as the spirit halted directly in front of them. The tikbalang bared its teeth, lowering its equine muzzle towards them. When a warm breath blew over their faces and shoulders, Kaibo let out a muffled sob. “He means now to apologize.” Hari removed his hand from Kaibo’s face, pulling back from the tikbalang’s snout.
Kaibo opened his mouth, though he managed only a gasp. He glanced back to Hari.
The tikbalang began to open its jaw, its tongue unfurling from within. Hari quickly met Kaibo’s gaze, wide-eyed with beads of sweat dripping from his brow.
“I—” Kaibo swallowed. “Uh, dear tikbalang, I’m really sorry about tossing that food into your…house earlier today, I think. I didn’t mean it, and I didn’t know. I won’t ever do it again, and uh…” He gritted his teeth, as a furious whinny from the spirit sent another rush of air at them.
Hari held Kaibo firm, both boys staring aghast. He watched the tikbalang raise its leg to stamp down on Kaibo, crimson gaze still bearing down on them. His mind raced for what the priestesses, what his grandma would say. “Some—” Hari stopped. He wasn’t like his grandmother or aunt. He never thought he’d have to face a tikbalang of all things, nor could he, so he grabbed Kaibo’s arm, the only action he could think of in that moment.
Kaibo heard Hari’s panic, as the brush shifted under the tikbalang’s movement. Blinking, he looked ahead at the invisible creature and then breathlessly blurted, “I’m, I’m so sorry that I’ll return with some…uh, tea! And bananas and food—to make up for it. I’m so sorry. Please let us pass!”
The tikbalang stopped moving. Hari tightened his grip on Kaibo’s bicep, ready to pull him away in case they needed to flee. Then, the tikbalang’s red gaze flickered before its horse-like form disappeared with a breeze that blew over them. At last, the sounds of the forest resumed.
“You appeased it.”
“You did.” Hari whistled. “You thought of the offering.”
“Yeah! I remembered Ma putting a tea bowl out—by our door. She’d say spirits get thirsty, too.”
“That’s good. But you better follow up on that offering.”
“I’ll have Ma pick out the best food!” Kaibo called out with a grin.
Hari scowled, but even he couldn’t help relinquish a small smile. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
After an hour of traversing the downhill trail, the boys reached the edge of Baya-Marong. The village was little more than a gathering of straw-roofed shacks propped up on thick, bamboo stilts. Hari sighed with relief. Kaibo had unrelentingly chattered during their trek, asking about his home and family, to which he either feigned noticing a spirit or ignored him entirely.
“Can you get home from here?” Hari asked, stopping in his tracks.
Kaibo nodded. “My house is on the other side of the village,” he said, pointing in its general direction. “Are you going?”
“Oh.” Kaibo frowned. “Don’t you wanna come to my house? Ma will make dinner for us.”
“I don’t think I should.”
Hari grimaced. He remembered visiting this place only once, maybe four or five cycles ago. Even then, the trip had been brief, as he didn’t ordinarily have permission to leave the temple. By his grandmother’s whim—before his aunt succeeded her as the head priestess—he had gotten fitted with the clothing that now filled his basket. Just thinking about it made his stomach churn, though an obscene growl also emanated from his midsection, the day’s labors catching up to him.
“You’re hungry, huh?” Kaibo leaned with a cheerful smile. “Ma makes the best food. Come on!” He tugged at Hari.
Hari scowled at him, but his stomach made him dread the trek back to the temple. “Fine, but I’ll eat and that’s it.”
Kaibo continued forward, thinking aloud, “I wonder what tikbalangs like to eat…”
As the boys passed through the village proper, there was a strong smell of earth mixed with the stench of feces. Hari couldn’t tell if it belonged to man or animal, though; chickens clucked as they ran freely, while a handful of goats and cows stayed in pens. He scrunched his nose and glanced back towards the trail, pausing as orange rays of light poked through the green veneer of the forest-covered hillside. A tapestry of trees obscured the walls themselves, but over the verdant peaks, he spotted the Temple of Light’s terraced roofs. The last time he visited Baya-Marong, he couldn’t even see over the thicket. He then turned back around to continue following Kaibo. Children wearing sacks for clothing raced around the village, squealing as they played. Men and women alike trudged between homes: working, bartering, and gossiping. Hari even spotted a fancy covered wagon hitched to two chestnut horses, likely belonging to a traveling merchant.
Kaibo led him to a cottage set apart from the rest of the village. The boy opened the door and shouted, “Ma! We got a visitor.”
Hari glanced around and noticed rolls of cloth, a few dyed in different colors, propped up against the wall. A half-finished robe laid on a table beside a spinning wheel. “Is your mother a seamstress?”
“Yeah. She does the sewing for the priestesses too,” Kaibo replied, puffing his chest out slightly. “It’s a great honor for us.”
Hari paled slightly. “I think I should—”
“Who’s this now, Kaibo?” A fair-haired woman stepped out from behind a divider, holding onto a length of crimson ribbon. Her gaze slid to Hari, who stiffened under her scrutiny.
Hari stared back, mouth flattened in a line. He remembered this fair-haired woman, who had measured him during his last visit to the village. He remembered his grandmother instructing her to make several sets of white silk robes for him, styled differently from the priestesses’ garb—he didn’t have the right to wear those. Hari also remembered the seamstress sizing his robes differently to account for his growth, making a few large enough that he wouldn’t have to return to the village for some time.
“Ma, this is Hari. He’s a traveler who helped me, and he’s hungry.”
The seamstress approached, nodded at him, and smiled. “Welcome to our home, Hari. I’m Acora. Acora Angalang. My husband isn’t home right now to greet you, unfortunately.”
“A pleasure to meet you.” Hari paused—his grandmother’s lessons on courtesy echoing in his head—before he stepped forward and bowed. “Tiya Angalang.”
“Oh, no need for that. Just ‘Acora’ is fine. I don’t need to feel that old yet.” She lightly laughed before giving him another once over. “Though, I’m surprised to see a traveler of your age. You mustn’t be any older than Kaibo.”
Hari swallowed and nodded. “Fourteen cycles this summer.”
“Oh. Not even a cycle apart.” Acora looked to Kaibo, who had continued to sheepishly grin at them both since they entered. “Well, I just have to do the laundry before I make dinner. Will you stay until then, Hari?”
He straightened his posture and bowed. “Thank you for your hospitality. You are very considerate. And Kaibo was very eager to…help.”
Acora raised a brow at her son’s direction. She reached over and pinched his cheek. “Well, I’m glad something stuck.” She glanced over at the basket. “We have some space in the back for your things, Hari.”
“Hari’s great, Ma,” Kaibo chimed in. “He knows all about the spirits—”
“I’m sure it’s a great story, Kaibo,” Acora interjected with a smile. “But for now, laundry. Get some water from the well.”
“Okay, Ma,” Kaibo said and eagerly jogged out a back door.
Hari turned to Acora, holding up his hands in a plea. “I’m truly sorry, Acora. I don’t want to be ungrateful, but I can’t stay for—” He stopped as he saw her calm smile.
“I recognized you, Hari. Hard to forget the boy that lives with the priestesses,” she said, folding her arms. “Thank the spirits Kaibo brought you home, instead of some undesirable. Especially with folks resorting to banditry nowadays.” Acora paused and sighed through her nose. “Kaibo didn’t disturb the priestesses, did he?”
Hari shook his head. “He made it to the hill, but…” He hesitated.
“So it is a story. We’ll hear it at dinner then,” Acora said, nodding sagely. She muttered under her breath, “Probably some reckless thing. Always with that child. One day, he’ll anger an evil spirit.” Her expression softened. “Thank you for watching out for him, Hari.”
“He was just—” Hari grimaced, looking down at his feet. “I didn’t intend it like that. It’s nothing.”
“The spirits rejoice with good deeds, reciprocated or not. The priestesses teach this, no?” Acora’s gaze lingered on him. “You know, by the time we finish dinner, it’ll be too dark to travel. You should stay for the night.”
Hari held up his hand and bowed his head slightly. “I can walk through the woods just fine.”
“I’m sure you can. You seem like you really know how to handle yourself…That isn’t my point, Hari.”
“Acora. I—I can’t burden you for that.”
Acora waved off the remark. “No trouble at all. Besides, you’re a guest Kaibo invited. We have…a lot of space.” She glanced at the rolls of cloth cluttering the walls. Then, she laughed and smiled at him with a knowing look. “You deserve the best of our home. While you’re here, consider yourself family. Please.”
Hari stared at her. His mouth twitched, unsure how he should look at that moment. He could insist on leaving now and drag himself back to the temple on an empty stomach. If he made good time, he’d have to get ready for the dinner, probably help with setting the tables, and then…And then, all of the priestesses, even his grandmother, would gather while he ate alone in his room. That would be his night until he went to sleep. Or, he could—
“How ‘bout it? Dinner and stay the night?” Acora asked softly. She added in a light tone, “I’ll make a fruit salad for dessert. Special treat.”
Or he could have dinner in a home that welcomed him.
Hari felt dampness at the corners of his eyes. He swallowed and bowed deeply. “Thank you, Acora. I’ll stay for the night.”