Chapter 1

The Hermit Boy

Sano lifted the window cover, and peered through the finger-width gap. The shrubs outside were motionless, the dirt and the grass unmarred by any prints. The uppermost leaves in the treetops were still, no wind to make them dance. Not a single branch or twig was out of place among the trees. Sano would know. He had peeked outside a hundred times in the last three days.

There was something sinister about the forest lately. Like it was holding its breath, waiting to unleash something. Sano couldn't put his finger on it. The shadows seemed darker, the tree trunks thicker. Even the leaves appeared like pointy green teeth.

Nothing came. Strange; Sano thought he had heard some rustling.

He shook his head and lowered the cover. He had woven new rattan mats to put over all the windows of the hut. These ones were thick and tightly braided, making it impossible for even his silhouette to be seen from outside. He had also placed a second bolt over the door. If anything happened, these might just buy him some time to escape.

Sano turned back inside, stepping over the back-strap loom he’d discarded on the floor. He had wanted to finish the blanket his mother had started before she left on her trip, but his twitchy fingers kept tangling the threads.

Instead, Sano decided he was going to make a doll. Making dolls wasn’t productive, but he needed to calm himself. Ever since he'd broken The Rule, he had been too agitated. There was probably no rustling outside. The trees were likely not getting thicker, and the leaves were certainly not turning into teeth. These were all just in his head.

Sano pulled a sheet of banana leaf from the pantry, sat down on the floor, and began cutting it into strips. He rolled one strip into a cylinder, and another into a ball. A leaf torso and a leaf head.

Sano knew he was acting like a jumpy little kid who had just learned of the Ghoul of Katam for the first time. He didn't actually know any kids, having lived alone with his mother his entire life, but he had been quite terrified the first time he'd heard the tale about the creature that ate naughty children.

Sano supposed that if the Ghoul of Katam were real, it would lope out of the forest any time now, sharp teeth coated with drool and ready to sink into him. He might no longer be a child, but the Ghoul might make an exception for the severity of his disobedience.

“Never show yourself to anyone who doesn’t seek illegal magic,” Sano said, echoing The Rule to himself. At sixteen, he had heard and recited The Rule too many times to casually forget about it.

It wasn’t like nobody was supposed to know about Sano and his mother. She wouldn’t be able to make a living as the Hermit Mage if that was the case. But as a provider of illegal magic, she did restrict their interactions to a desperate few. The difference was that people who sought illegal magic had tighter lips.

The problem wasn’t that Sano had shown himself to the villagers by the bluff. The problem was that they hadn't been buying illegal magic from the Hermit Mage. But what should Sano have done, then? Abandoned the villagers to die in the landslide? Just because they had no business with his mother? Those villagers may not have known him, but he knew them. Watching their simple life cheered him whenever he was bored of his own.

Sano took the remaining strips of banana leaf, folded them into rough imitations of limbs, and stuck them into the torso. He plucked a small knife from his belt and placed the tip against the doll’s chest. With a careful stroke, he carved the symbol for ka, a single-letter word in the Kataman language. Although it was just one symbol, it was already a complete anto script – a magical command.

Sano placed a finger on it. Magic spilled from the core of his body, flowed through his arm and out his finger, and filled the grooves on the leaf with a soft blue light.

Nothing happened. Ka might be Sano’s favourite anto script, but it had never worked. None of the dolls he’d marked with that symbol had jumped up and come to life.

Sano tossed the doll aside and looked around the hut, burning with restlessness again. He didn’t actually know what to expect, now that people had seen him and had no reason to keep quiet about it. For all he knew, one of the villagers might invite him over for dinner as a show of thanks. Wouldn’t that be nice? But then again, someone could kidnap him and bring him to the king.

The colossal weight of Sano’s mistake had him trying all sorts of distractions, but nothing had worked. He had tidied the herb jars on the shelves, refolded all of his and his mother’s clothes, and tucked away all of their unfinished scripts in hidden compartments. Maybe his mother would forgive him for breaking The Rule if the house was clean.

Seeing nothing else he could do but the weaving, Sano returned to the back-strap loom. He picked up one strand of tangled thread without much enthusiasm.

The unmistakable thud of footsteps emerged from outside the hut. Someone was coming. Sano paused, heart hammering in his chest.

“It’s all right,” he whispered. It could be a customer. It would be the first time he served a customer by himself. It sure would be awesome to finally sell one of his own illegal works.

Steps pattered up the ladder. Someone knocked on the door, and a loud, masculine voice called out. In gibberish.

Sano’s hopes plunged. Whatever the man had said, it was definitely not the passphrase for clients who sought the Hermit Mage.

The knock came again, and so did the garbled call. It dawned on Sano that the man was talking in Dayungan, the official language of the kingdom. Sano's mother had taught him to read and write it, but they didn't speak it regularly.

“Good afternoon! Is anybody home?” was what the man had said.

Sano rose from the floor, fear gnawing his belly. Someone using Dayungan all the way out here in the foothills? He must be in more trouble than he'd thought.

Sano crept to his cot. From beneath, he snatched a hemp pack of emergency materials and threw it over his shoulder.

Another knock came from the door, stronger this time. “I would like to ask a few questions,” the man said. Still not the passphrase.

With his breath caught in his throat, Sano sneaked to the back of the hut. He lifted the window mat and jumped out to the garden.

Sano and his mother had a backup lair in a different part of the forest for whenever they had unexpected visitors, usually people who’d gotten lost. His mother refused to engage with anyone unless they spoke the passphrase first. The man knocking on the door didn’t seem lost; he didn’t seem like he was going to invite Sano for dinner either, so engagement was completely out of the question.

Sano started for the trees. Hopefully the man wouldn’t go around the hut before Sano was able to hide.

“Hey, you!” a voice exclaimed, a different one this time. To his left, a woman stepped out from the cover of a tree. Surprise and fear numbed Sano's feet, and he stopped mid-stride.

The man from the front of the house must have heard her, because he walked towards them. Both the man and the woman wore deep crimson turbans and carried sharp curved swords on their belts. The blades, shiny even in the dim light of the forest, bore elegant anto scripts written in Dayungan. Their hilts were carved with a gorgeous depiction of sea-serpents.

Sano gulped. These strangers were King Bunawi’s warriors. Their clothes were exactly how his mother had described them.

“You live here?” the man demanded, his words rolling off his tongue like spilled drink. Whenever Sano practised other languages with his mother, they never spoke this fast.

“Yes.” Sano could hardly deny it now.

“I saw him climb out of the window,” the woman told the first warrior, who eyed Sano up and down, like a hungry snake inspecting a newly-hatched bird.

“You wouldn’t know anything about the landslide that happened a few days ago, would you?” the man asked in an orotund voice that cowed Sano.

“Please slow down,” Sano said. So many words to parse. How was he going to tell a convincing lie when he could barely keep up with the conversation? “And no, I didn’t even realize there was a landslide.”

The warriors glanced at each other, brows raised. Did they believe him? Sano’s heart drummed a steady beat of dread.

“Well, there was. Not far from here,” the woman responded with exaggerated slowness. “It was about to destroy a village, but rumours say that a boy dropped from the sky, carried by a glowing blanket. And he raised a wall of earth just in time to stop the landslide from smashing the village.”

If Sano wasn’t in the midst of a compromising interrogation, he would be rather impressed with that description. It made him sound graceful, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Sano had been watching the village from the top of a bluff, and his heart had almost lurched out of his mouth when a piece of the bluff gave way. He’d narrowly missed being swept down in the avalanche of rocks along with the mud and the trees.

Sano hadn’t even planned to save the villagers at first. There had been a split moment when he’d almost run away. He had only changed his mind when he heard the screams.

Jumping off of that bluff using his scripted cloak was one of the most reckless things Sano had ever done. He definitely hadn't been thinking straight. Even now, what came after that jump was hazy. He could only remember that at the end, he’d stood in front of the wall of earth he'd raised, a thick fog of dust surrounding everything. The shadows of the villagers had begun to emerge just as the dust was settling. That was when Sano had realized what he’d done, and fled.

“Surely if a story like that reached us in a village outside the forest, you would have heard of it here, where you are so much closer,” the woman continued.

“No,” Sano said. “Nobody came to tell me about it.”

The man squinted at the shuttered hut behind them. “Why is that, exactly? Are you not receiving visitors, by any chance? Does anyone actually know you live here?”

Sano bit his lip. He’d accidentally hinted at his family’s seclusion. The warriors would be even more suspicious now. Those who lived in secret always had something to hide.

“What have you got there?” The woman leaned close, and she pulled Sano’s knife from his belt. Sano stood still, eyes widening. He had forgotten all about the knife!

The two warriors only had to take one look to find it riddled with Kataman scripts. The man smirked. “The rumours also said that this mysterious hero used scripts written in Kataman,” he explained. “Should I consider it a coincidence that you also happen to have Kataman scripts all over your knife?”

Coincidence or not, the warriors still had every right to arrest him. In the kingdom of Dayung, anto scripts could only be written in Dayungan. It didn’t matter that Sano lived in Katam, one of the nation’s many chiefdoms. It was forbidden to write in any other language.

With a wild burst of energy, Sano jumped back through the window he exited. He heard one warrior run around the side of the house, but the other dashed after him. Sano grasped at anything he could from the shelves and tables. He threw a pot of shrimp paste behind him and scattered sharp bone-needles on floor. He snatched down the pots of plants hanging from the ceiling, cringing at the way he made a mess of the home he’d spent days tidying.

But cleanliness wasn’t important now. If Sano was captured, the hut wouldn’t matter. He and his mother’s life would be in peril. Spurred by self-preservation, he dismantled both bolts across the door and kicked it open. It swung out with such force that it smacked whoever was behind it. Sano only had a moment to notice it was a new person entirely. Carried by his own momentum, he slammed into her, and they both stumbled head over heels, limbs tangled, down the ladder steps.

They rolled to a stop. Lying there, a few paces away from him, was a girl. She sported drab, well-worn clothes, and carried a travelling pack not unlike the one Sano held now. She sat up, glancing at him, then at the warriors pursuing him. They paused at the sight of her.

“Uh, I have a stomach ache from eating too many sour tamarinds?” she asked in fluent Kataman, as she rubbed her bruised forehead.

Now that was the correct passphrase. Great. Sano finally had a customer, and it just had to happen while he was being arrested.

“Get out of the way!” The warrior who burst out of the hut raised his sword, and swung mercilessly at the girl.

Sano grimaced, but in a blur, the warrior’s sword was flung away into the shrubs. Astonished, he found the girl poised in defence, with a strange-looking weapon in her hand. No – not a weapon at all, but a simple arms-length staff made of rattan. The only thing that marked it as special was the scattering of anto scripts – all Dayungan, it seemed – inscribed on its skin.

She had disarmed the king’s warrior.

“I-I’m so sorry!” she cried. Her eyes were wide with horror. “I didn’t mean to–”

The warrior snatched a knife from his belt, looking very much like a wild boar ready to impale a poor soul with its tusk.

Just then, a furious burst of light erupted from behind Sano and an intense heat swelled all around them. He turned, and his jaw dropped. His hut was on fire. The other warrior had her sword half-buried in the thatched roof. An anto script on her sword glowed bright with magic. Sano could very well guess what that command was meant to do.

The woman grinned, pulled her sword free, and pounced on Sano. She grabbed his arm, and raised her sword, orange with heat, near his neck.

“Distressing, isn’t it?” she mocked. “But if you come along without giving us any more trouble, I promise you won’t get hurt.”

Sano craned his neck away from the heated blade. He’d dropped his knife, and all the other weapons he had left were in his pack. He could write an anto script, but he wouldn’t be fast enough against the swing of a sword.

An ugly screech pierced the air, and a moment later, the girl’s rattan staff smacked the woman right on her snarling mouth. The warrior’s hold loosened, and Sano shook her off.

The girl bolted for the trees, and Sano ran after her. He risked one glance behind him, and found the warrior who had attacked her on the ground, clutching his knee and groaning.

Sano was suddenly grateful for his own healthy legs, pounding away on the ground.

“Thank you!” he called to the girl just ahead of him. She gave him a double glance, and ran faster. “No, wait! The remedy for the stomach ache is on the way!” That was the response for the passphrase to let her know he was the person she was looking for.

She looked at him again, then nodded without slowing down. “Come on, then!”