She can't breathe...
Something was holding her down underwater. Citra claws at the hand wrapped around her throat. Her vision was distorted by the water but she could see it; the demon. It wanted to cleanse her. Rebirth her anew.
The rushing water faded to silence.
The sky brightened. The great flaming rocks passed overhead signalling a turning in the tides. The water rushed away and she went along with it down... down... down...
Citra came to in a cold sweat. Automatically she reached for her neck having felt something strange on it. When she drew her hand back her fingertips were lathered in a mud like substance. She took a whiff of it and smelled aloe vera. It was a healing clay. She would have kept it on longer but the mud was beginning to dry and crack in some places. Groaning, Citra sat up and began wiping off the mud.
"You mustn't get up!" A girl she hadn't noticed was in the room with her said. The girl grabbed a cloth and rushed to help Citra with her task.
"It's ok," Citra said. She preferred not to be touched but the girl began taking off the mud anyways. A sudden coughing onslaught hit her. Her eyes burned with tears from the pain it wrought. She almost had a heart attack when another girl appeared out of nowhere with a cup of water. Citra downed it like a dying man. She cleared her throat and said thank you to the girl. Oddly enough, the girl gave Citra a strange look before gasping and adverting her eyes.
Citra thought it strange but ignored it. She then looked around, taking in her surroundings but it was all unfamiliar to her. She was in a room she has never seen before. By the design of it, it looked almost similar to the ancient ruins she and Vaas would explore but those were all abandoned, dark and damp. This place was lit up by sunlight streaming from two square openings in the wall and it felt lively. Like someone had been living here for ages.
"What happened? Where am I?" She remembered last night. Sneaking off to get to Niko. Having almost been strangled to death and killing said privateer. Vaas... shooting Niko and then shooting the rest... Being surrounded by privateers and then the tribal men coming to their "rescue". Vaas being detained and she tried to go to him but... but she fell and Zuraidah caught her...
"You were injured." One of the girls answered. "You were brought here to heal."
That answered everything and nothing at the same time. "Who are you?" She asked next.
"I am Hana and she is Rui. We have been chosen since we were little to serve you and now that you have returned we will do so until our spirits depart to the afterlife." Hana said, keeping her head bowed. Citra was stunned into silence. She didn't know what to say. Serve her? Chosen? What were they going on about? And where was her brother? Citra didn't have anytime to ask these questions since Hana began talking again. "Now that you have awoken, I must get Jebiya." She bowed to Citra and fled the room.
Citra didn't know who this Jebiya was and frankly she didn't care at the moment. Her main concern was finding Vaas and making sure he was ok. She turned to the other girl still in the room and demanded more than asked where her brother was.
"He is outside near the ancient tree. Your friend is with him too." Rui answered, her eyes trained on the ground.
Citra didn't mean to sound so rude but anything concerning her brother, especially his well-being, brought out the worst in her. Citra would have left already to find him on her own if it weren't for the fact she didn't know where the ancient tree was and she would have probably gotten lost on her way to get there and who knows who she'll bump into along the way.
"Why don't you look at me?" Citra asked, unable to tame her curiosity. It was bothering her.
"We are your servants. We are unworthy to look at your greatness."
Again, Citra didn't know what to say to that. Everything here was becoming stranger and stranger by the minute. She didn't like it. She just wanted to find Vaas and once she was with him again they can both try and find out what was going on together.
"It's... fine. You can look at me." Hesitantly, as if unsure if Citra was joking or not, Rui raised her head and looked at her. "Can you take me to my brother?" Citra asked.
Rui looked uncertain. "But Hana is coming back with Jebiya. He ordered us to fetch him when you awake."
That didn't sound good. Citra didn't want to wait for this man. She wanted to find Vaas and find him now. "Hana said you serve me, right?" Rui nodded. "Well then, I want to see my brother. Take me to him. Please." Citra cringed at the last part. She didn't mean to say please. It just came out. The whole commanding thing was awkward to her.
"I'm sorry. As you wish." Rui said with a bow and lead Citra out of the room and down a windowless corridor lit up only by the light coming from torches hanging by the walls. They took steps down and exited onto a wide grassy plain. There was no one save for a few guards who stared at them as they passed. Citra barely noticed. Her attention was drawn to the magnificent building protruding upwards like an arrow to the sky. It was a sight to behold! Wonder filled her and for the first time she had a hint of where she was.
The ancient temple. The temple she's only heard of but never seen. She's dreamed of seeing this temple since she was young. From the stories it sounded so great and mysterious. This was the birth place of the Rakyat. Their ancestors built this temple long ago and it began a long dynasty of their ultimate rule. No longer were they simple tribes scattered divided amongst themselves. They were an empire. They had armies and they fought countless epic bloody battles. In the olden times, it was said the greatest of warriors went into battle with tigers at their side!
Oh how she craved to explore every inch of the temple! She knows that if allowed, she would spend days wandering these halls, uncovering secrets of the past. Her desire was diluted at the thought of her brother. Vaas came first. No matter what.
Rui lead Citra back into one of the temple's hallways. Citra got one last look at the wondrous structure before entering into a poorly lit up passage way. As they passed through, she happened to notice strange markings- no drawings on the walls. It was too dark to make out what they were of and Rui was already exiting at the end of the passage way. Perhaps in another time she can come back and look at them properly.
A ginormous tree covered in painted swirly white lines greeted them outside. It dominated the area they were in, its branches long and thick stretching to the very corners of the clearing. Surrounding the area were tall brick walls, high enough that she couldn't see above them. There were more people out here; warriors training under the shade provided by the leaves of the tree, women tending to their young or cooking by the fire, and children running around chasing a monkey.
"This way." Rui said and walked around the tree. Citra followed and slowed to a stop.
"Vaas.." She whispered, relief flooding her at the sight of her brother well and okay. He wasn't tied up with a bag over his head. He was OK. Kalai was with him. They appeared to be talking to Zuraidah and a bunch of other warriors. Recalling the last time those two met, this should't be good. Citra drew nearer, masking her presence for the time being.
"I heard you were taught by the great Tane himself." Zuraidah boasted. "I was too young to have trained with him myself and by the time I was of age he was long gone. I would like to see how his teachings have passed on to his students. How about a friendly match between brothers? To see who has the better teacher. What do you say?"
Don't do it, Vaas. Citra knew her brother could beat Zuraidah. He was far greater than him but she didn't want Vaas to cause any trouble. He was reckless sometimes and she wished he could be wise just for once. Citra sometimes feared what her brother could do if she weren't around to keep him out of trouble.
As expected, Vaas uncrossed his arms and moved forward to accept the challenge when Kalai nudged him aside.
"I accept." She said casually with her head held high.
The group of warriors burst out laughing. Zuraidah looked at her uncertainly. "I do not harm women."
Kalai smirked and settled into a fighting stance. "It's a good thing you won't be doing much of the harming then."
"Remember, you brought this on yourself." Zuraidah matched her smirk with his own. Kalai tsked and attacked first, charging at him. She jumping at the last second, using her momentum to drive her punch harder than her own force. Zuraidah dodged it and landed a blow to her unprotected side. He pivoted around swept his legs along the ground, knocking her off her feet. Everyone let out collective oohs when she fell flat on her back. That must have hurt.
Zuraidah looked less than impressed and turned around.
"One more time." Kalai said, picking herself off the floor.
"I do not want to hurt you more." He sighed.
"You're not." She retorted snippily.
Zuraidah sighed again and faced her. This time, Kalai didn't rush in. They circled each other, Kalai sometimes faking him out by lunging forward and then retreating. Citra didn't know why she was doing that. It made the girl look cowardly. Finally, Kalai did attack. Zuraidah raised him arms, shielding his chest and face but she didn't aim there. She kicked him swiftly on his lower side and again for two times until the last one he caught her by the ankle and jerked her forward causing her to lose her balance and hit the ground.
The warriors mocked her. Vaas threatened them to shut up. Citra was going to make herself known before things got worse when Kalai got up again, rolled her neck and said, "One more time."
"No," Zuraidah replied. "You lost. It is done."
"One more time." She insisted with a smile.
Zuraidah huffed and obliged. He threw the first punch. Kalai didn't even move. She turned her head, his fist passing centimeters from her face. Like a snake striking its prey, her hand shot out snatching his wrist. With her free hand she jabbed at the spot where she kicked him earlier and punched his stomach then the middle of his chest, making him gasp. With a grunt, she turned around, crouched and flipped him over her shoulder. He landed on his back, the force of his fall knocking the wind out of him. This all occurred within seconds. The tribal warriors were stunned into silence. Vaas held a smug smirk on his face.
Kalai wiped the sweat from her forehead and extended a hand to help Zuraidah up. He took it in a daze.
"You ok?" She asked him.
He blinked a few times. "How did you do that? With the chest. I couldn't breathe!"
She shrugged. "A little trick Tane taught me."
Zuraidah rolled his shoulder wincing. "I was wrong. You are a good fighter."
"I observe, that's all. You're not so bad yourself although you should pay more attention to your lower half. Not everyone's going to be aiming at your face."
"We should train together, sometime."
Kalai was about to answer when someone caught sight of Rui and then Citra. Once her cover was blown, Citra walked out into the open, never once taking her eyes off her brother. Kalai and Vaas both exclaimed in excitement at the sight of her. Citra let out a surprised O when Kalai rushed at her and hugged her tightly. Vaas wrapped his arms around them both and squeezed, lifting them up off the ground.
Citra rubbed her sore neck when he released them. He flicked her nose, gaining her attention and rubbed his knuckles on her head playfully. She made a sound of annoyance and swatted his hand away, pouting at him. He grinned charmingly and hugged her, giving a peck on her forehead.
"Citra, Vaas told me about what happened with Niko. I'm sorry, I know you liked him a lot and it was brave and foolish of you to come back for him." Kalai said when he stepped back.
Flashes of last night passed through her mind. Citra bit her lip. "He was your friend first. I'm sorry I couldn't do anything to save him."
"Don't blame yourself. There was nothing you could have done." Kalai said reassuringly. "He didn't deserve to die the way he did. I'll be sure to dedicate every privateer I kill to Niko. He can't join in on the fun with us but he will taste the blood of our enemies in the afterlife."
Zuraidah came forward and was prevented from coming any closer thanks to her brother. Vaas straightened up, puffing out his chest. He made it clear without words he didn't want Zuraidah any nearer his sister. Citra didn't know what his problem was. She thought his display of overt masculinity was unnecessary. Although... she didn't say she didn't like it. Vaas can be over-protective, be it convenient or not, she appreciated it. It showed he cared. It was the little things like that that counts.
"I am glad to see you have healed from your injuries quickly." He said.
"Thank you," Citra replied. "And thank you for helping us the other night but... how did you know where to find us?"
"When our scouts sent word they didn't see you with the others at Amanaki Town, we thought you stayed in the village. It was lucky we found you when we did."
"You're spying on my sister?" Vaas cut in.
"Not spying. We've been watching over her. We must know if she is safe and when she is in danger, we must protect her."
Vaas scoffed and stepped towards Zuraidah until they were almost chest to chest, "Look, brother, I don't know who the fuck you think you are but I'm her older brother. She doesn't need your protection. She's got me."
"And when you're not around, she's got us."
Citra could almost choke on the testosterone coming off those two. They were both being ridiculous in their attempt to intimidate the other. If they kept this up she is going to knock some sense into the both of them.
"Citra Talugmai!" An elder warrior said loudly, interrupting the group. "You and your friends have been summoned to meet the chief. Follow me."
Kalai and Vaas gave her questioning glances as they followed the warrior. She wished she could answer them but she herself was just as clueless as they are. When they entered the dimly lit passage way, she lingered behind to walk beside Zuraidah.
"How long have you been watching me?" She asked quietly, her thoughts dwelling on the night she fed Niko to the dragons. Were they watching her then? Did they know?
He looked at her seriously. "For a long time. You are more important to us than you realize."
She was about to ask why but then they exited the passage way onto the grassy field yard where a group of tribal men were waiting for them in the middle. There stood an old man covered in tatau wielding a staff carved out of wood and beside him a notably tall and thick warrior, beefier than her uncle, who stood ram rode straight with his crooked nose held high in the air and another older man who wore heavy sets of jewelry.
Their party halted before the group. Zuraidah went to stand by the large man. There was a moment of unsteady silence as the older man with a staff observed Citra.
The old man raised a hand and beckoned her forward. "Come closer, my child." Uncertainly, she did. He circled her slowly, tapping her with his staff in certain spots such as her back to straighten it. When he came full circle, he stopped and stared at her face. "I am Chief Rognuak. This is my temple. He is my second in command, Zarak and my healer, Jebiya. I welcome you back home, Citra Talugmai. We have been awaiting your return for many years."
Citra frowned. "My return?"
"Yes. You grew up in these very walls." The chief waved his hand. "Your blood runs through the cracks in these stones. Your mortal body may not remember but a Rakyat's soul never forgets."
"I don't understand."
"In time you will."
"We won't be staying." Vaas announced flatly, breaking whatever mysticism forming in Citra's mind.
Chief Rognuak looked at Vaas as if noticing him for the first time. "Ah, son of Anaru. If that is what you want, you are free to go."
"I don't think you heard me, old man. I said we, as in me and my sister. We're both leaving."
"Watch your mouth, boy!" The large man, Zarak, barked infuriated. His ferocious anger was only tamed by the silent hand of chief Rognuak.
"You do not speak for her. What say you, Citra. Will you leave?"
She opened her mouth to say yes but... a part of her doesn't want to. A part of her wants to stay, if only just to explore the temple. Somehow, it pulls her in like magnet. There was this... energy here thrumming through her bones whispering promises of adventure and mystery. It seemed so other worldly. How could she possibly leave without entertaining it.
Vaas is going to be so mad at her...
"I want to stay."
Rognuak was pleased to hear that while Vaas made a sound of bewilderment.
"But I can't. We have to return to my Uncle. He and the other must be looking for us."
Vaas was the one to grin smugly while Rognuak clicked his tongue. "Then at least stay for one night. You and your friends must be tired after battle. Do not worry about your Uncle. We will send a scout letting him know you are safe."
"I- I don't know..."
"You must stay for tonight. There will be a grand feast in your name. To welcome your return to us."
Citra bit her lip and glanced back at Vaas. Her brother seemed to be thinking hard, most likely about the promise of food since he didn't look so opposed to the idea of staying anymore. He then shrugged and gave her a nod.
"I guess we can stay." Citra said. "Until our Uncle comes to get us."
"Then so be it. I will see you at the feast." And with that, Chief Rognuak left them.
Jebiya, the older man adorned in heavy stone jewelry came forth and bowed his head. "It is an honor to meet you, Citra Talugmai. I am the head healer in our tribe. How is your throat?"
She unconsciously reached for her neck. "Better, thank you."
"No need to thank me. It is an honor to serve you. Come to me if you feel any lingering pain and I will prepare a concoction to soothe it." Jebiya motioned to the two servant girls. "Hana and Rui will take care of your every needs." He bowed again and went on his way.
Citra felt a pinch on her arm. "The fuck is wrong with these people?" Vaas muttered into her ear.
"Don't be mean." She chastised.
Zarak greeted them next and Citra had to crane her neck up to look at him. "I am Zarak, second in command to the chief and commander of his army. We are in your service." He spoke each word forcefully, as if having this conversation was a pain to him. In fact, he looked like he would rather be somewhere else than here.
Citra was prepared to give an awkward thank you when Kalai cleared her throat and stepped forward. Strange, the girl usually held herself with confidence but now she was unsteady. In all honesty, this was the first time Citra's seen her so unsure of herself.
Kalai inhaled deeply, as if preparing herself for a long battle. "Hey Dad."
Citra blinked in surprise. She looked at Vaas but he himself was shocked too. It seemed even he, Kalai's closest friend, did not know that her father was alive, not to mention the commander of an army.
Zarak eyed his daughter, and sneered in disdain. "Kalai. Has a life without discipline made you forget how to address your elders?"
"I'm fine too, thanks for asking. How's Mom?"
"Your Mother is dead." He answered bluntly.
Citra drew a sharp intake of breath and waited for Kalai's response to the news.
The girl looked like someone had hit her. "Whe- When..." She stumbled backwards but managed to catch herself. "When did she die?"
"Years ago. There was a small funeral held for her." Zarak talked like they were discussing the weather. A temple guard appeared and said something to Zarak, who then addressed Citra. "I must leave now. I am needed elsewhere." He bowed and left them. Zuraidah stayed behind and they all looked at Kalai.
"I-" She stuttered and swallowed thickly. A tear slipped down her cheek but was wiped away furiously. Without a word she stormed off. Vaas called after her and took a step forward to follow his friend but halted and looked back at Citra.
"It's fine." She said. "Go."
Vaas smiled gratefully and kissed her forehead. "I'll see you later." He promised, trailing his fingers down her cheek before departing.
"Will your friend be alright?" Zuraidah asked.
Citra took a moment to think over his question. "I think she will. She's very strong."
"Oh, I know." He chuckled. "I'll see you at the feast then?"
"Yeah," She said. He smiled and said his goodbye. Citra watched him leave and turned around to face the two servant girls.
"Follow us. We will get you ready for tonight's celebration." Hana said and with that the two girls began walking. Citra could do nothing but follow.
They led her further into the temple. Citra thought they walked too fast for her liking. She wanted to slow down, taker her time, take everything in. Perhaps for them, who they have lived here for all their lives, it was mundane but to her it was fantasizing. They soon came upon a circular area with an opening on the ceiling allowing light to pour into the area as well as fresh air. There stood a door across from them, and inside a large room. She didn't get quite a good look at it since they passed through quickly, entering a rectangle door to the right side of the room. There was no physical door but drapes of fine cloth and hanging beads were used as a barrier between the two rooms.
In the other side was a spacious bathroom, or if she could call it that. It was more luxurious than the bathrooms she's ever seen and ten times as bigger. There was even a tree to the right, lit a glow by opening in the ceiling. Monkey's screeched when they saw them and scampered away. But it was the large, square shaped bath tub that caught her attention. It was made into the stone floor and had wide steps leading down into it but most importantly, it was a lotus pond.
Beautiful, vibrant pink lotus flowers laid on top of crystal clear water. It looked like what she would imagine the pond from the legend of the Giant and the Warrior's pond to have looked like. Hopefully, no giant lurked underneath waiting to devour her.
Rui and Hana went to lit candles; incense filled the air, sweet to the nose. Citra waited expectantly for them to leave but they remained looking at her... expectantly too.
"I'm... going to take a bath now." She announced awkwardly. Still they remained unfazed except now they began to take their clothes off! "What are you doing?" Citra exclaimed, raising a hand to block her sight. The two servant girls looked at her as if she were the odd one.
"We are going to cleanse your body. It is one of our duties as your handmaidens." Rui explained.
"No, no thank you. I'm fine. I can do it on my own." Citra said quickly, trying to force the heat in her face to go away.
"As you command. We will wait for you outside then." Hana said and the two thankfully redressed and left the bathing room. Once Citra was sure she was alone, she peeled off her dirty, bloodied clothes and left them in a pile on the floor. Nobody has ever seen her naked before, save Vaas but they were innocent children back then. The thought of someone, anyone really, seeing her naked and exposed made her skin crawl. She would hate it and as silly as it sounded, to her it felt wrong.
The water was cool to the touch. She waded in deeper and found she can stand with everything below her shoulders submerged. Taking a breath, she dunked herself underwater and came back up, smoothing her hair back. She then floated on her back and spread her limbs out.
This was all too surreal. Just hours ago she was in a war zone, had killed a man and watched her brother-
And now she was here. In the temple of old! If she didn't know any better, this could all be one huge whimsical dream that she was going to wake up from at any moment now.
Not a dream then.
Citra couldn't stop the smile tugging at her lips. With nobody around, she let out an uncharacteristic squeal and slapped the water in excitement.
This place might be heaven.
With Vaas it may be paradise.
She emerged sometime later from the bathing room and without anything to cover her she put back on her dirty clothes. As told, Rui and Hana were waiting for her right outside.
"New clothes have been laid out for you on the bed. May we dress you?"
"No, it's fine. I can dress myself." Citra went to the other side of the room and sort of shimmied on the clothes. She changed quickly and found to her dismay that she didn't know how to tighten the top. The bottom was simple, a long skin skirt with a slit on the side allowing her left leg to peek out.
"Can you help me, with the top?" She asked them when she left the bed. They rushed to her side immediately and fastened the many strings at the back of the crop top. They then guided her to sit at a table and began plucking off an assortments of jewelry laid out. They stacked bracelet upon bracelets on her wrists and adorned her with necklaces. When one of them made to put on a red circlet around her neck Citra stopped her.
"Wait, what is that?"
"It is a neck ring. It is tradition for noble women to wear them. It shows they have high status over others. You are Talugmai. It is your right to wear one."
Citra fingered the neck ring. Why not, it was only one. She nodded and they stretched it open and wrapped it around her neck. It wasn't too bad, a little tightly clamped but not to the point of bothering her.
It was when they went for her hair to weave into dreads did she stop them completely.
"It is custom for Rakyat women to wear their hair this way." They told her but still she refused. If it was one thing she knew, Vaas liked her wavy and thick hair, and she liked it to.
When they were done, Citra bounded off the chair and headed to the door, eager to explore some of the temple before the feast starts.
"You cannot leave!" Hana said, rushing after her. "The Chief has ordered for you to stay in your room and rest for tonight's festivities."
"But can't I just wander around for a little bit?"
Hana shook her head. "It is his orders."
For a fraction of a second, Citra contemplated disobeying the order and doing what she wants but she threw that thought out the window. She was a guest here and she didn't want to make a bad impression on these people.
Begrudgingly, she drudged back to the bed and crawled inside. Laying on top of the covers, she didn't know how exhausted she was until she closed her eyes and let her mind wander. Soon, she fell into a light slumber dreaming of endless stone hallways and crocodiles in lotus ponds...