Chapter 26

The Moon Metals

“Here, have a drink,” Sano's mother said.

Sano took the cup with his good hand and drank the water down to the last drop. He slumped against his pillow, handing the cup back to her.

“Perhaps you should go back to sleep now,” she suggested.

Sano knew he probably should, but despite the heaviness that had crept over him after hearing all the terrible news, his mind churned too wildly for him to fall asleep. After a stretch of silence, Sano asked, “How were you able to get me back to Lady Yiling's lair?”

“We have Chief Dulan to thank for that,” his mother answered. “He wanted us out of the way, to better calm his people. He sent one of his servants to escort us to the nearest river. When we were on the boat, you were lucid for a few moments, and I asked you where you had been staying. You told me where to find the lair.”

“I did?” Sano didn't remember.

“Well, I put the pieces together from your answer.” His mother smiled at him.

Sano heard footsteps and movements outside his room. Lord Matiban peered in a moment later, casting off the sword from his belt. Although the colour had returned to his skin, there were bags under his eyes, and his hair remained uncombed. The edges of his mouth dipped in an uncharacteristic sullenness.

“Good, you're awake,” Lord Matiban said. He stepped into Sano's room and gave him a once-over, before looking at Sano's mother. “Is this a good time to talk? It's been three days since Sano and Lady Yiling went to Liman. The longer we wait, the less we will be able to do.”

Sano gave his mother a firm nod. “I'd feel better too if things were less uncertain.”

Lord Matiban took a seat at the end of Sano's cot. Sano's mother straightened, and clasped her hands on her lap. “All right,” she said. “I'll begin with Angtara's weapon. I believe it is made out of something called the Moon Metal. The story of the Moon Metal is so ancient that the Hoarder who told me about it narrated it in an older Kataman dialect nobody uses anymore.

“It starts centuries ago, when the world wasn't as hospitable as it is now. Karingal granted magic to some humans, but as we know, human magic is really just a small piece of the infinite power reserved for deities. It wasn't enough to help people survive natural disasters, which were more frequent and more violent than anything we face today.

“When Karingal refused to grant humans more magic, Digmaran, god of war, took pity on humans and gifted them the Moon Metals. The metal intensifies the effect of the magic that a mage pushes through it. People with no magic still couldn't use magic, but those who did could affect their surroundings in more potent ways than before.

“By using this gift, humans were able to survive through volcano eruptions and severe typhoons. But as nature became less temperamental, our ancestors began to use the metal for other purposes.”

“Let me guess. War?” Lord Matiban asked dryly.

Sano's mother nodded. “There was limited supply of the metal, and those who owned the most became the most powerful. Soon people were frequently praying to Likubay, goddess of travellers and lost things, to find pieces of the Moon Metal. Likubay was affronted, since she wanted to be revered for her own right. And so she devised the entity we now call the Malicious Wind, which turns into wood anybody it catches in the act of evil. She linked it to the Moon Metals, so that the Wind is only active whenever the Metals are used. The more often people use the Moon Metals, the faster the Wind circulates and the closer it gets to those wielding the weapons. Likubay wanted a sure way for humans to understand that if they wanted to be powerful, they had better be prepared for the consequences, both the good and the bad – not only to themselves, but to everyone around them.”

“But the Wind isn't perfect,” Sano grumbled. “It doesn't have the same morality humans do.”

Sano's mother gave him a sly smile. “Perhaps it is humans who aren't perfect. But yes, because of our incompatibility with the Wind, the resulting situation was less than ideal. Wooden statues riddled the chiefdoms of this island, while the most powerful warriors and mages waged bloody battles against each other. With the pieces of the Moon Metal scattered and being used all the time, the Malicious Wind always circulated, always found victims.

“A few people finally regained some sense, and they decided enough was enough. They destroyed the minerals, and the Malicious Wind went away, purposeless. At least, that's how the story is intended to end. Another version says that a few pieces of the metal were preserved by shamans who considered it too precious a gift to completely obliterate. Instead, they buried these pieces, and the Malicious Wind merely went to sleep.”

“Then I suppose we're living the second ending,” Lord Matiban mused. He stood up suddenly, harbouring a deep, contemplative look as if he was trying to remember something. He went out of the room and came back with a sheet of banana leaf and a sharp writing utensil.

“Both Bunawi and Angtara own a sword made out of this Moon Metal.” Lord Matiban gripped the tool above the leaf. “I remember the day Bunawi found those metals. We went to a village here in Katam that owed him tribute. But when we arrived to collect, we found the village destroyed. Pieces of lustrous metals were strewn about the ground.”

Sano gasped. “That must have been Anina's village! She...” Sano shut his eyes. He still didn't feel like this was his secret to tell, but his mother and Lord Matiban needed to know. Sano explained the raid on Anina's village, and her magic-lashing that had destroyed it. “But she was convinced she doesn't have enough magic to cause something that powerful, so she's been trying to solve the mystery since.”

“That's why she was interested in how Bunawi and Angtara were getting stronger,” Lord Matiban concluded. “I always felt she knew more than she let on.”

“She must have somehow lashed her magic through the metals,” Sano said. It was all starting to make sense to him now. “And that's why she survived! Because the amount of magic she pushed through was not enough to kill her in a rebound. But because the Moon Metals amplified the incoming magic, what came out was so powerful that the resulting force destroyed her village.”

Sano covered his face with his hand, heart heavy. All the pieces lined up so perfectly, and yet the one person that would benefit the most from this knowledge was not here anymore. Nobody knew what became of Anina. Sano's mother patted his head, unable to give him more comfort.

Lord Matiban cleared his throat, and gently proceeded with his story. “Bunawi gathered all the pieces of the metal, hoping they would ameliorate the tribute he would no longer receive. He took those back to Little Dayung. Bunawi claimed afterwards that they were some rare type of gold. He had a goldsmith verify.” Lord Matiban paused. “Come to think of it, I never saw that goldsmith again. Nor the ones who crafted the swords.”

He drew something on the leaf, making hurried, rough marks here and there. “Let's say that for centuries, the Malicious Wind has been in hibernation. Somehow Anina's village digs up the remaining Moon Metals, and she destroys most of them when she lashes her magic. That would have woken up the Wind. However, the very first time we started to hear reports of people turning to wood was in southern Little Dayung.”

“How often do the king and the princess use their swords?” Sano's mother asked.

“Funnily enough, not very often with magic,” Lord Matiban admitted. “They're not lacking in other scripted weapons after all. They reserve their special swords for when they want to look impressive. Like that time they raised a hill in the capital of Little Dayung for the new royal compound. And during the battle with the Gamhanans.”

“Is that why the Malicious Wind has been a rarity for the most part?” Sano asked. “And why Bunawi or Angtara haven't turned to wood?”

“I'm trying to verify if that's indeed the case,” Lord Matiban replied. “Say that the Malicious Wind went to Anina's village, but since everyone but her was dead, it didn't turn anybody into wood. The king took the metal to a specialist in southern Little Dayung, where he learned about its properties. That summoned the Wind, and it caused the first case of transformation we learned about.”

Lord Matiban's leaf had a rough outline of the kingdom and the marks where the Malicious Wind had been reported. He told them about the fight with some pirates up north that Angtara participated in, and the transformation of several thieves at the nearest port several days later. There was the creation of the royal compounds, and the Wind's attack in the capital that finally prompted the king to consult with shamans to figure out what was plaguing them. There was a string of reports along the southern coast of the island following the Gamhanan battle.

However, there were also stories that didn't line up. They couldn't figure out what had incited the Wind's appearance by Sano's home or the poor Gilan village that Sano's mother had visited. And there were a few times that Lord Matiban was certain the king and the princess had used the Metals, yet there were no reports of the Wind afterwards.

“There's still a strong correlation despite those exceptions,” Sano's mother observed. “Perhaps the Malicious Wind didn't find anyone doing something bad. Or you might not have always been privy to the king's and the princess's activities.”

“That's true,” Lord Matiban agreed. He was silent for a while, staring at the map. “This complicates things. Bunawi will most likely use his special sword in the duel. Which could be happening any day now. Maybe even as we speak.”

“Oh no,” Sano said. “The Malicious Wind will likely blow over during the duel. And I don't care if Bunawi turns to wood, but what about Lady Yiling? She will die with him!”

“Perhaps, though I don't know if our problems will end there. Even if Bunawi dies, Angtara will repossess his sword and continue to use the weapons to wage war on Katam.” Lord Matiban paused. “Still, with the knowledge that these Moon Metals control the movement of the Malicious Wind, I think we’ve finally gained an advantage. If people won't sympathize with us for trying to defend ourselves, maybe they might if we're trying to save the entire kingdom from its own king. From the danger of the Moon Metals and the Malicious Wind, which the king and the princess ultimately control.”

It dawned on Sano where this was going, and he seized the tiny hope that sparked within him. “Chief Dulan told Lady Yiling that he might consider helping us if Katam will be better off once Bunawi is gone. Surely if Bunawi and Angtara are a threat to everyone, then nobody can fault Katam for making a stand.”

Lord Matiban's eyes gained the sparkle of a man who was in his element again. “Is that right? Then maybe it's time to pay the chief another visit.” He glanced at Sano's mother. “Can you come with me? You can explain everything you know about the Malicious Wind.”

“Of course,” Sano's mother replied.

“We don't have much time to lose,” Lord Matiban added. “We'll need to know if we can count on Chief Dulan's help. It would affect how we plan to intercept the king's forces from proceeding further into Katam. Did the legend ever say how the other pieces of the Moon Metals were destroyed?”

Sano's mother balked. “Ah, unfortunately not.”

“Figures. I suppose we'll just have to find a way in the meantime. I'll get a few things ready for the boat ride to Liman.” Lord Matiban stood and walked out of the room with such purposeful energy that his injury was no longer apparent.

Sano's mother turned back to Sano and asked, “You'll be all right here for a little while by yourself?”

“I'm sure I will. Might try to catch some more sleep.” Truth be told, Sano was still much too agitated to drift off.

“Perhaps some food will help with that,” his mother said. She slipped out for a moment, and came back with a steaming bowl. She placed a tray over Sano’s lap and settled the bowl there. It was gingered porridge.

While Sano ate, he told his mother everything that had happened after she left him in the forest to travel to Gila, starting from the landslide and ending with him and Lady Yiling meeting with Chief Dulan.

“I didn't mean to break The Rule,” Sano added, after he finished the whole story. By that time, his porridge was finished too. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean for things to end up like this.”

His mother pressed her forehead to his, breathing deeply. “I'm sorry too. I should have known that the world would call to you the way it always called to me. We had a safe life in the foothills, that's true, but it wasn't much of a life, was it? That fault was never in you. You're not the one who constrained our choices down to hide or die. Other people don't have to choose, and it's not fair that I made you do it. I just hope you understand why I did it for so long.”

Sano clutched his mother's hand, allowing the warmth of her voice and of her love to fill him. A part of him felt unworthy of that love, after all the mistakes he'd made.

“Do you think we're doing the right thing?” Sano asked his mother in a weak voice. “The chief of Angbun seems to think we're dragging Katam backwards. And considering what I did in Liman, it's hard to see that I'm helping at all.”

Sano knew what had spurred him to pick up Angtara's sword, what had made him activate the script. It was the wretched feeling of not being enough. He had wanted to save Lady Yiling. He had wanted to impress Chief Dulan into changing his mind. Sano had thought that if he could save everyone, he would inspire other Katamans to ally with them. He'd be the reason why Lady Yiling would have support.

However, Sano had been looking at their situation all wrong. He had volunteered to help Lady Yiling because he had seen her cause as a way out of his own difficulties. He had considered every challenge as a way to prove his worth, to show himself and the world that he deserved to live in the open. And while there was nothing wrong with Sano's desires, they made him near-sighted. The situation was so much bigger than just himself, or his pride, or even his mother. Sano had never really considered how fraught this conflict would be for other Katamans.

“Sano, I may not be the best person to answer. I led a failed rebellion after all.” His mother chuckled softly. “But what I do know now is that I was wrong to hide for so long. I turned my back on the world, and during all those years in the foothills, I tried to convince myself it was better for everyone. But in the act of escaping from the things that could hurt us, I haven’t done much good either. What happened in Liman was terrible, and maybe you'll spend the rest of your life atoning for those deaths. I know what that's like. But if we have the ability to do something good now, isn't it worth trying?”

Sano stared into the empty porridge bowl. A few grains of rice and some slices of ginger remained. It wasn't a hearty meal, but it filled him. How many Katamans across the chiefdom would consider him lucky for this porridge?

His mother was right. Sano had been wrong to act brashly, but it didn't mean that Lady Yiling's goal was suddenly worthless. The truth was that Katam was suffering, and it needed to heal. The chiefdom was stifled by the double taxes and the increasing tolls. Katamans were weighed down by the self-hate that the rest of the kingdom encouraged for its own gain. Something needed to change, and this time Sano would help – not because he wanted to be a hero, but because it was the right thing to do.