A Thousand Years
Dust from the wreckage swirled around the creature. The scent of mangoes assaulted Anina's nose. The Ghoul – for it must be the Ghoul – was not quite as grotesque as the stories made it out to be, but its misshapen body still struck Anina with revulsion. Paralyzed with fear, she could only observe as the Ghoul engaged the king in a silent staring match.
King Bunawi had fallen on his rump among the splintered bamboo slats. He stared at the Ghoul, eyes wide with confusion and shock. It returned his gaze with unconcealed distaste. The moment stretched for who knew how long, until finally, the Ghoul shot one of its hands upward, palms up.
Without any scripts at all, a sharp gust of wind pierced the already ruined roof. Through the new hole, the Ghoul shot to the sky, taking Lord Matiban and the smell of mangoes with it. It disappeared over the cluster of roofs in the distance, so far away Anina could barely see it in the dark. She waited for the vibration of its landing, but there was no impact this time.
The stillness in the platform stretched for a moment longer.
Then, in a wild frenzy, the warriors all turned to each other, thrusting their swords, daggers, and spears at one another in suspicion. Accusations flew from their mouths, landing on whoever was nearest them. Aklin and Danihon fell out of Anina's line of sight. A warrior fainted off to the side, and Bikon's enforcer-friend fanned him with a folded turban. King Bunawi rose from the ground, still holding Sano as he joined the shouting match. Princess Angtara followed suit, her voice forceful and shrill, but everyone was so loud that Anina couldn’t understand any one of them.
The racket knocked Anina out of her stupor. Without the rails, she was visible now. A warrior only had to turn to see her on the ground, and as soon as everyone knew she was there, it would be over for her. If Anina was going to save Sano, this was the best opportunity she was going to get.
Lord Matiban's fate was unfortunate, but it did give Anina an idea. She tugged open Sano's pack, and pulled out the cloak with anto scripts. She'd seen it before while they were travelling, but she'd encouraged him to keep it in the pack, since the scripts were all in Kataman.
Anina strapped the packs tightly to her body. She tucked one of her staffs into her sling and gripped the other. She might have enough magic to power a single script for a short moment if she timed things right.
She could hardly believe she was about to do this. If raising a weapon against the king's warriors was punishable by death, then she would deserve nothing less for attacking the king directly. After tonight, she would really seal her fate as an enemy of the kingdom.
Taking a deep breath, Anina swallowed her misgivings and focused on Sano instead, helpless in the king’s grip. She might as well have delivered him there herself. Whatever else happened, at this moment Sano’s life was hers to save.
She sprinted towards the arguing crowd. Bits of thatch and splinters of wood poked her feet, but she paid them no heed. She kept her eyes on King Bunawi. One warrior noticed her, and he swung his sword. Anina deflected it with her staff.
It was enough to get the king's attention. He turned just as Anina struck out with her staff. King Bunawi raised a hand and caught it.
But this was what Anina had wanted. He had let Sano go.
Anina funnelled her magic into one of her scripts, and the spot on her staff in King Bunawi's hand erupted into sharp spikes. He yelped and yielded his hold, and in that instant, she threw herself against Sano, sending them both out of the king's reach.
Anina and Sano tumbled to the ground. She shook loose Sano's cloak, and managed a garbled, “Fly us out,” just as King Bunawi pulled free his own sword. He stabbed towards her, but before he could hurt her, an enormous tug yanked Anina from the ground. She hung tightly to Sano as they flew up and away, out of the hole in which the Ghoul had crashed through.
King Bunawi chased them. He swung his sword at her feet, but Anina tucked in her legs. More weapons flew after them – Anina slapped away a dagger and batted away a knife. But then a spear sliced through the air so quickly and tore a hole right at the centre of Sano's cloak. Anina's insides lurched as they plunged towards the black emptiness of the crevice.
Sano yelled and tugged at the flapping cloak. A script blazed a brilliant blue, almost white with the intensity, and threads around the hole began to stitch themselves back together. They continued to plummet, the walls of the crevice displacing the empty stretch of space around them. Anina shut her eyes, preparing to hit a rock, when the tear finally closed up and wind billowed through the fabric again.
Anina jerked against the sudden change in movement. She opened her eyes. They blew out of the crevice, narrowly missing more knives and spears from the king and his warriors. She tightened her arm around Sano's shoulders, and watched the platform shrink from her sight.
Sano didn’t know how long the flight lasted, but the flow of his magic slowed to a trickle earlier than he would have liked. The wind blowing into the cloak weakened, and they teetered in the air. Their altitude dropped abruptly at times, and their descent was a staccato towards land. Sano tried to pour his magic out steadily, but the last of it came out in disappointing bursts, and he and Anina fell the rest of the way to the ground. Fortunately, the fall wasn't as far as it could have been, but Sano's body still shuddered against the impact, bones rattling, grass and pebbles scratching his skin.
As soon as he stopped rolling, Sano just lay there, shoving as much air as he could into his lungs. Excruciating cramps seized his arm muscles, and his shoulders burned from all the sudden jerks and tugs during their turbulent flight. He lay on the cool, soft grass, and stared at the star-splattered sky. It was a clear night, the half-moon blatantly on display. It was the type of night he would have enjoyed any other time.
Anina groaned from a few paces away. Though he hadn't caught his breath fully, Sano gathered all the strength he had left to crawl to her. Half of Anina's face was covered in blood. A dirty strip of cloth was wrapped around her forehead, a bloody spot blooming on one side of it. A thick layer of dust coated her skin and clothes. Bruises and cuts marred her limbs.
But she was alive. And that, more than anything, was what made Sano's heart leap with unbridled joy, what made him force his aching arm to reach out and hold her hand. “Oh Karingal, you're all right!” he rasped, slumping to the ground. “You're alive. Thank you for coming for me. I thought I'd never see you again.”
Anina opened her eyes, and she took a long look at Sano. She clasped his hand. “Me too. Thanks for getting us out of there.”
For a good long while, they just lay on the ground, waiting for their breaths to even out. It was such a tranquil night that Sano could have fallen asleep if not for the wild anxiety still coursing through him.
“What in the world just happened?” Anina asked.
“I think... Lord Matiban was working with the Ghoul of Katam?” The words sounded preposterous even as Sano said them. Not the part about Lord Matiban being the traitor – that, at least, he and Anina had both suspected. But the Ghoul of Katam?
Anina turned to face him. “You also think the creature is the Ghoul then?”
“It fit the description quite well,” Sano answered.
Anina shivered, then rolled to her hands and knees. “Oh dear ancestors, we've got to leave.”
The thought of moving made Sano want to cry. “I don't think I can do any more travelling.”
“It's not so bad. Look.” Anina pointed ahead of them. A skinny river flowed not too far away, and by its bank was an upturned boat. “We just have to get away. Right now, I don't really care where.” Anina pushed herself up, grimacing and moaning the entire time. She snatched up her staffs and her pack, and limped towards the river.
Sano struggled to do the same. One of his ankles was sprained, though he wasn’t sure when it had happened. He picked up his cloak and his own pack, and hobbled after Anina.
The boat was small and had no outriggers, and there was a short, stubby paddle inside. The river looked calm enough, so Sano hoped they wouldn't have much trouble riding on it. He just wanted to lie down and sleep. His body ached. His mind also ached. Even his very soul ached.
Once Sano and Anina finally set the boat adrift, they scrambled over its lip and flopped like fish at the bottom. Lying in a boat would have been uncomfortable any other time, but with every muscle of his body on fire, Sano was just grateful for the opportunity to rest. The gentle sway of the boat and Anina's soft warmth beside him chased enough of the stress away and lulled him to sleep.
Sano woke up when water splashed onto his face. His eyes snapped open. A shower of water was streaming into the boat, soaking the back of his clothes. Sano sat up, his muscles creaking and protesting.
It was barely after dawn, one of those murky, grey starts to a day. A thin mist occluded the horizon and covered the tips of the trees nearby. It was quiet and still. Even their boat had come to a stop. What had started out as a small river the previous night had now thinned to a rocky stream. Two boulders blocked the boat, and it swayed side to side as the water rushed beneath, and occasionally, over it. The bank on their right had a cluster of large, pockmarked rocks.
Anina was still sleeping beside Sano. She looked twice as much like death as he probably did, but there was no point staying in the boat. Gently, he nudged her. Anina opened her eyes and sat up, tense as a strung bow. She gasped at the pool of water inside the boat, and made a disappointed face at her soaked skirts.
Sano and Anina hauled themselves out of the boat, periodic grunts and exclamations of pain punctuating their movements. They dragged the boat to the bank and dumped their belongings among the rocks. Sano was so sore, he was tempted to just continue sleeping on the ground, but Anina convinced him they would both feel better after a wash and some food.
The only fruits Sano could find in the nearby copse of trees were green mandarins. When he came back to the bank with an armful of them, he found Anina stoking a fire. A narrow fish sat glistening beside her. While they waited for the fish to cook, they lounged against the boulders, attacking the mandarins with a fervour that could put a starving boar to shame. Sano's belly had been brimming with so much tension the previous night that he hadn't realized how empty it had become.
After the fish was cooked and they had their fill of it, they put out the fire and continued resting by the rocks. With his belly appeased and his strength returning, Sano's mind finally turned to graver matters. “So, where do we go from here?” he asked. He picked at the bandages on his arms. Whatever ointment had been put on him had lost its effect, and his injuries from the night of the attack flared to attention.
“First we have to figure out where 'here' is,” Anina said. Fresh strips of cloth circled her forehead and arms. On her lap, one of her staffs was now shorter than the other, since she had broken off the portion riddled with spikes. “Unless we slept for more than one night, I don't think we're very far from Masagan.”
“You think Bunawi will chase after us?”
“Oh absolutely. Our only hope is that the Ghoul of Katam would be his higher priority.” She leaned her elbows on her knees. With a shaky breath, she added, “I just don’t understand. How can all this be happening? All I wanted was to see the Hermit Mage.”
Sano knew it wasn’t funny, but he couldn’t suppress the laugh that bubbled from him. “Oh Karingal, that is bad, isn’t it? To think you could have just knocked on our door, asked my mother a few questions, and gone on your merry way.”
“Yes!” Anina nodded emphatically. “That was pretty much how I had hoped it would happen.”
“How are we going to meet up with her at this point?”
“I have no idea.”
Sano and Anina had been forced out of Masagan prematurely. Until last night, their only goal had been to make enough money to fund several days of travel. They didn’t even have a complete plan yet. Worse, the relative obscurity they'd thought they could rely on was gone. King Bunawi and many of his warriors in the area would now know what Sano and Anina looked like. Without Lord Matiban spreading conflicting rumours of their whereabouts, it would be easy to find them again.
“I don’t understand what’s going on anymore.” Anina slumped against the rock.
“Do you think the Ghoul really is the previous paramount chief of Katam?” Sano asked. If it was, then this entire fiasco might be more than just one unruly warrior trying to disgruntle the king. It could be a complex plot thirty years in the making.
“I don't know. It's more likely that the creature is an entirely different entity, and somehow people tied that to the paramount chief. But yesterday I would have said the Ghoul wasn't real at all, so I don't think I'm the best judge of reality anymore.”
Sano didn’t know what to make of the Ghoul. If it had been related to the fallen Kataman royalty, why wait thirty years to do something now? It would have been better if it had appeared during the rebellion sixteen years ago.
“Did you see the way the Ghoul jumped though?” Anina asked. Her eyes, which had been dull and half-lidded for most of the morning, now had some spark in them. “How do you think it did that?”
Sano wiggled his toes. “Maybe if it knows how to push magic out of its feet, like Mother and I do, then perhaps it was wearing scripted sandals that helped it jump. It would take an enormous amount of magic to jump that high and that far though. And when the Ghoul blew a hole through the roof, it only used its hand. I didn't see anto scripts anywhere at all. My mother has never told me of anyone who could perform magic without scripts!”
“This means the Ghoul knows some kind of strange magic.” Anina rubbed her chin, eyes staring in the middle distance like she was trying to solve an enticing mystery. Sano's mother sometimes got that look too.
It had been a thousand years since Karingal began granting magic to humans, a thousand years since the First Mages developed the system of anto scripts, and yet there were still so many things people didn't understand about magic. The fundamental laws were always the same, but regions across the archipelago had cultivated slightly different practices. That was what made a Hoarder’s job so important. By cataloguing the ways magic manifested, they could gain an understanding of what magic was truly capable of.
It definitely didn't help that Bunawi's stranglehold on the uses of magic had stunted the spread of this knowledge across the Dayungan kingdom. If a technique couldn't bring him victory, money, or glory, he didn't approve of it. And even when he did, most of the time he coveted it for himself, claiming it was too dangerous for anyone else.
To complicate matters even more, deities and spirits held incomprehensible power beyond magic that could distort magic itself. Things always got hairier when magic clashed with the sacred.
“I wish we could just escape from this mess,” Anina grumbled. “I wish there were a script I could write like, 'Transport Anina and Sano to the Hermit Mage's exact spot.' Then we could run away and disappear.”
It wasn't a terrible wish, but disappearing wasn't exactly Sano's goal either. Reuniting with his mother gave him something to aim for presently, but nothing would ever be the same for him. While Anina was trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy, there was nothing of the sort that he could anticipate for himself.
Sano's upper arm still ached from Bunawi's bruising grip during the trial. His scalp still burned where he lost strands of hair after the king had yanked some out. Even with all the additional cuts and bruises, aching muscles and heavy weariness, it was the injuries Sano had earned from Bunawi that bothered him most. Because the pain from those came with the shameful memory of his helplessness, of the choices Sano had been forced to make for the king's self-indulgent display of power.
If there was one thing Sano was certain of, it was that he never wanted to be under the king's control again. He could not live the rest of his life hiding and cowering from Bunawi.
A saccharine voice emanated from upstream. “Oh, look at what we have here!”
Sano and Anina looked at the stream and saw a boat drifting down its tepid waves. Angtara stood on the boat, her lips curved in a wide, gleeful smile. The vibrant colours of her clothes were stark against the washed-out daylight. She reminded Sano of those poisonous flowers with grey leaves that grew near his hut in the mountain. There were two warriors behind her, one of which was already steering the boat to the bank.
Anina cursed beside Sano. “Really? Can't we just catch a break?”
“Come now, don't be shy,” Angtara called. “There's nowhere to hide, so you might as well talk to me.” She stepped out of the boat and waded to the bank. She looked at them the same way Sano imagined a crocodile would eye its next meal.
Sano turned to Anina. “Should we run?”
“Where to?” she asked. “The copse?”
The copse might provide some shallow cover, but it wouldn't be enough to keep the princess and two other warriors at bay. But there wasn’t really anywhere to go that the princess couldn't catch up to, and Sano wasn't well enough yet to use the cloak again.
They stared at the copse of trees ahead, gripped by indecision. Then something small and bright indigo flapped into their view, settling on the grass by Anina's feet. Sano's heart raced. Another omen bird.
“Did you see it? I think it flew from the right!” he pointed.
Anina's eyes were wide with disbelief. “Copse it is, then.”
Sano cast one last glance at the princess, who had already climbed up the bank and was making her way to the cluster of boulders. Sano and Anina snatched their packs and bolted to the trees.
The princess laughed. “You must be joking!” she shouted after them. “You really think that will work?”
Sano heard the beat of running feet behind him and forced his legs to move faster. Pain shot up his left leg every time his foot pounded the ground. It wasn't just his ankle slowing him down. If only he wasn't so tired, he might have more energy to outpace the princess – but as it was, it took all his power just to keep a few steps ahead.
Then Sano heard a loud thump, and before he knew it, the ground cracked beneath him. Shards of earth shot up in jagged lines along their route, just like when the warriors had chased them in the forest. Sano slowed and twisted around the protrusions. Anina tripped, but she sprang back up and kept running.
They entered the copse, weaving around the trunks of the trees. Sano looked back at the princess and found her in the meadows, waving her sword in the air. Her amused laugh stiffened Sano's limbs with cold terror.
Anina stopped behind the green mandarin tree, panting. Sano halted beside her. His ankle hurt so badly, he thought his foot might fall off. But he had gotten off easy. Anina had a wound running up her right leg, bleeding through her skirt.
“Why did the omen bird tell us this was a good – ah!” Sano had taken a bad step, and what he thought was sturdy ground opened into empty space. He lost his balance, and grabbed Anina's hand, pulling her down with him.
They toppled into a hole, deep enough that roots slapped them on the way down. They landed in a heap on cold, mushy soil. Sano's skin stung from the roots, and his tailbone blared with pain. Oh, he'd have trouble sitting for days. Good thing he hadn't cracked his head, though.
Beside him, Anina gasped.
Sano opened his eyes. They were in a hovel beneath the ground. Wooden posts and rafters held up the room. Beneath them was a pile of rough, fluffy cushions, not soft soil like he'd first assumed. The light streaming from the top of the hole faded against the orange blaze of several torches.
And staring at them from the middle of the room was the Ghoul of Katam.