Chapter 2

The Malicious Wind

Sano sprinted through the crowd of trees, leaping over gnarled roots, ducking under low branches, and slipping around trunks of plantain and moringa. His rapid breath burned his throat, and a stitch of pain emerged on his side. Still, he kept pace with the girl. He could hear movements behind them; their pursuers were not far behind.

Dappled light filtered through the canopy, but it was growing darker. The afternoon was drawing to a close, and Sano didn’t think he'd do well in a chase in the night.

Sano and the girl headed downhill. When they reached flatter ground and she continued to bolt forward, he grabbed her arm.

“No, let’s go this way,” Sano said. “There’s a hiding place here.”

He pulled her around to the side of the hill, where they came upon a shallow opening half-hidden by saplings. They lay flat against it, listening for the sound of pursuit. At first Sano couldn’t hear anything beyond his own heartbeat, but soon enough the warriors’ voices emerged directly above them. Sano and the girl held their breaths, but the warriors descended the hill and continued straight, the way the girl had intended to go. Their voices receded, leaving Sano and the girl alone by the hill.

Sano swallowed large gulps of air to appease his angry lungs. His mouth was parched, and his skin stung from multiple scratches. The girl beside him didn’t seem much better. Bruises swelled on her arms and on the part of her forehead visible through her hair.

“I’m sorry for smacking you with the door,” Sano said, in between pants. “And tackling you to the ground.”

She shrugged. “It was a fair warning, I suppose.” Her voice was low and soft, with a little rasp. She returned his stare, frowning. “So you’re the Hermit Mage?”

“No, that’s my mother,” he answered.

“But you’re the one who stopped the landslide?”

“Well, I didn’t really stop the landslide,” Sano rubbed his neck. “It still happened, I just tried to save the villagers.”

The girl nodded and didn’t say anything else. Sano’s breathing remained heavy, but the pain in his side had subsided. There were no unnatural noises from the forest, and he didn’t catch any movements among the foliage that could indicate the warriors were coming back.

Sano turned to the girl again. Her hair was tied up in a messy ponytail, and she carried, not just one, but two scripted staffs. She seemed young, much younger than the woman warrior anyway, but he wasn’t familiar enough with other people to gauge her age well.

Sano had never introduced himself to a stranger before, but it seemed appropriate now. The girl sought the Hermit Mage, after all. She knew the passphrase. Surely, it was acceptable.

“My name,” he said, “is Sano.” He had always imagined introducing himself with a bit of flourish, perhaps with a wave of his arms accompanied by a strong steady voice. Neither of which was a good idea while they were trying to be inconspicuous, of course, so Sano settled for enunciating each word clearly.

“I’m Anina,” the girl returned, with none of Sano’s excitement. But he supposed that living out in the open, she must have introduced herself thousands of times before and had no reason to consider this one any more special.

Anina clutched her staffs to her chest, brows drawing together. “They’re going to execute me now, aren’t they? Raising a weapon against the king’s warriors, injuring those same warriors, interfering with their affairs? How many laws did I break back there?”

“As many as I did, probably.” Sano rested his head against the back of the alcove. Everything had happened so fast, he hadn’t had time to think. The warriors must have come to arrest the mage who had performed illegal magic in the rumours they heard. Sano had no illusions about what would happen to him if they caught him. He'd be brought to King Bunawi, who would force him to divulge all of the uncommon knowledge he knew about magic, and then execute him afterwards.

This was what Sano’s mother had warned him against. This was what The Rule had tried to protect him from.

“How do we escape from the warriors?” Sano asked Anina.

She looked at him with wide eyes. “There is no escaping them.” Sano waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.

That was not reassuring. Still, if their choices boiled down to getting caught now or getting caught later, he would much prefer later.

Sano and Anina were still in a part of the forest he was familiar with. They could head north, where they would eventually reach the edge of the forest. From there, they could climb down the cliff to the sea. If they got there before nightfall, it would be relatively easy to use the footpaths on the cliff face. Once they were at the base, they could wait for a boat and request passage.

It wasn’t stellar, but Anina agreed to Sano’s plan, and they began sneaking through the trees. The forest was even dimmer now, and it was hard to tell if the darker spots among the shadows were signs of ambush, or just a trick of the limited light.

They hadn’t gone far, when a movement at the edge of Sano’s vision caught his attention. A bird with curiously bright blue plumage landed on a branch ahead of them.

“That bird flew from the left!” Anina cried. Her voice remained soft, but was pitched high with distress.

Sano didn’t understand why she seemed so upset about that. The bird was just – hold on, it was bright blue! A bird of omen, that’s what it was! Sano had never seen one before. To be fair, he and his mother had lived a very limited lifestyle that would not have benefited from an omen before now. From what his mother had said, if an omen bird came from the right of a traveller, they would find good luck on their journey; if from the left, they would find danger.

Sano inhaled deeply. “It’s all right. The bird doesn’t even know where we’re heading. Let’s just go around in a circle, and it would seem like it flew in from the right.”

Anina gave him a flat look. “That’s not how it works. Our destination is to the north no matter what detour we take–”

Without warning, she shoved Sano to the ground. Something whooshed above his head, and when he looked up, he found a knife lodged in the tree trunk behind him, still quivering from the impact.

“Lucky dodge,” a voice called, and the two warriors emerged from the shadows. The man limped with his injured knee. The woman held out her weapon, as if her words weren't menacing enough. “We were told to bring you to King Bunawi alive, but that doesn’t mean you have to be in one piece.”

A bolt of light wound its way through a script on the woman’s sword, and when she struck its tip to the ground, tall spikes of earth sprouted towards Sano. He scrambled to his hands and knees, teeth rattling with the quake of the earth. With shaking fingers, he scratched the anto script he’d used during the landslide to raise a wall of rock. He jumped to his feet, then poured magic into the command through his toes. Blue light sparked from the symbols, just as hard-packed earth rose from the ground and intercepted the spikes.

Without wasting any time, Sano pivoted and ran, rushing to catch up with Anina, who was already fleeing. The wall might have saved them from the spikes, but it was too low and narrow to stop the warriors.

Sano and Anina sprinted through the trees, skipping over tree roots and jutting rocks. Sano took large, swift steps, his feet tingling with the nervous anticipation of more spikes thrusting out of the ground. He looked behind him, and his heart jumped to his throat when he saw the warriors closing in on them, swords aglow with magic.

Suddenly, a strange wind swept across the area, slow and heavy and frigid. As soon as it touched Sano’s skin, an overwhelming terror gripped him. The wind was so cold that he, Anina, and both warriors stopped running, too stunned to move. The leaves swayed and branches creaked. An eerie howling echoed in Sano’s ears. How could wind be this persistent in a tightly-packed forest?

The wind passed, and the sharp fear that had overcome Sano ebbed away. The forest stilled. He was about to run, but blood-curling screams erupted from the warriors and stopped him.

Sano and Anina backed away, up against a tree. With growing shock, Sano watched as the colour began to fade from the warriors' bodies. The flesh of their feet and the gold bands around their ankles warped into dull bark. So did their legs, their clothes, their arms. The transformation crawled up their bodies, changing flesh and fabric and metal into wood. It reached their necks, and the warriors’ screams were cut short, leaving Sano’s ears ringing. By the time the transformation engulfed their heads, the forest was deadly quiet.

Sano was rooted to his spot for a long time, staring at the wooden statues that had once been the king’s warriors. His skin was still chilled by the wind, and his heart was doing all the racing his legs weren’t. What in the world just happened?

After what seemed like an eternity, Anina shifted beside him. She crept to the warriors, holding her staffs ahead of her. She poked at them with the end of one of her staffs, then jumped back as if they might move and attack.

They didn't.

When Sano felt like his legs wouldn’t betray him, he pushed himself off the tree trunk to join her.

“What happened to them?” he asked.

“I think... it was the Malicious Wind,” Anina whispered.

“The what?”

“You haven’t heard?” Anina's eyes widened with surprise. “There is a wind that turns people to wood if it blows over them while they’re doing something bad. There have been several reports of it these past few years.” She lowered her staffs and added in a voice even softer than before. “I’ve only ever heard stories. I never thought I would see it happen.”

“Wait, I think I have heard about it,” Sano said. “My mother left on a trip eight days ago. A man had come to see us, saying something about his friends turning into wood. He was so upset he could barely speak.” Sano had assumed the man had been talking in metaphors. “An affliction that neither medicine nor legal magic could cure – that was what the man claimed. He wanted to try illegal magical remedies, but my mother couldn’t understand the problem, so she went to his village to see it for herself.”

Goosebumps rose on Sano’s skin, as a deep, primal part of him recoiled at the very idea of this wind.

“So let me get this straight,” he said. “The warriors turned to wood but we didn’t, because they were about to harm us and we were just running away?”

“I think so.” Anina was looking over her hands and feet, as if making sure she wasn’t turning into wood either.

Oh, this sounds like the stuff of folklore.” How was the Malicious Wind able to affect people on such a fundamental level that it could alter their essence? How could it make them not human? Sano knew then that this was not magic. This Wind was the work of a god or goddess.

Anina gave a resigned shrug. “Whatever the Wind really is, it was the only thing that stopped the warriors from chasing us. Unless we killed them ourselves.” She shuddered, and Sano almost did too. Even in his daydreams, when he was the centre of his own heroic adventures, he never really thought about killing anybody.

Sano almost jumped out of his skin when something poked him in the leg. Anina was tapping him with one of her staffs.

“How did you activate that script on the ground with your foot?” she asked, prodding his toes. “Before the warriors chased us. I saw you do it.”

That was an odd question. “Same way I do with my hands. Or any part of the body, for that matter.”

“Any part? That can’t be true. Magic always flows to the hands. I’ve never seen anyone push it out their feet before.”

Ah, this must have been one of the skills his mother had taught him that was no longer practised by most people. Before his mother had retreated to the confines of the forest in the foothills, she used to be a Hoarder, a type of mage who sought and guarded uncommon magical knowledge. His mother taught him that particular skill when he was very young, and he had never stopped to think that perhaps it might not be well-known.

Using his feet for magic was probably illegal too since King Bunawi likely didn’t know about it, and couldn’t very well approve it. Only magical techniques that the king approved of were legal, and he approved of very few. Sano’s mother once surmised that the king wanted to keep the best knowledge to himself alone and leave everyone else with limited options.

With the end of Anina’s staff still touching his foot, Sano decided to show her. He pushed his magic halfway through one of the scripts on her staff. It glowed a dim blue.

Anina’s lips parted in amazement. She then poked her staff on his thigh, just above his knee. She pointed her lips to the script again, wanting another demonstration. Sano did the same thing, watching a small smile appear on her face. Again, she pulled her staff away, only to put the tip against his collarbone. Sano, thoroughly amused now, pushed his magic through his skin.

Satisfied, Anina lowered her staff, eyes wide with wonder. Sano returned her smile.

It would have almost been a pleasant moment, had it not been for the two wooden warriors hovering nearby, too gruesome to ignore. The air was still a little chilly, and a heavy silence blanketed the area.

Anina tucked her staffs into a sling on her back. “Let’s get out of here,” she suggested, as if reading Sano’s mind.