In the single day that had passed, Anina had filled up her stick with many of the same scripts she had had on her two wooden staffs, like the one that fortified the stick against sharper weapons, and the commands to move wind or water. The rest of the time, when she hadn't been scripting, she'd slept and eaten; there were fruits in the forest and fish in the river.
At midday, while she had been catching up on some sleep in the caves below, a roll of bamboo sheet had fallen through the hole, along with a servant's tunic and a skirt for disguise. On the sheet were some instructions, as well as they layout of the camp, marking which tents were the king's and the princess's.
Now Anina was tucked against the foliage near the edge of Bunawi's camp, just close enough to see a few of the warriors milling about the nearest tent. She waited for the three strings of cicada calls, the signal her brothers would give that meant she should get ready.
Anina glanced at the night sky. Once the sea-serpent appeared, everyone in the camp would be too busy trying to give it an offering, including Bunawi and Angtara. That would give her a chance to go into the camp, sneak into the king and the princess's tents, and steal their special swords.
Anina's hands were clammy with cold sweat. This plan was much better than any she could have come up with by herself, but it also gave her only a few moments to steal the swords and get back under the cover of the forest. And she also had to sacrifice the swords without being seen, just as the sea-serpent was leaving.
There were so many ways this plan could go wrong. Aklin and Danihon, in their note, had said that the king and the princess wouldn't bother wasting a few moments buckling in their swords when they would just be stepping outside to throw food and beads at the sea-serpent. But even if Bunawi and Angtara left their swords unattended in the tents, would Anina find them in time? What if she grabbed the wrong weapons? What if the king or the princess returned inside their tents while Anina was still there?
“Psst, Anina,” a voice whispered from deeper in the forest. It was Aklin.
Anina lifted her oversized servant's skirt and crawled to where her brother was frantically waving at her from behind a bush. “What's wrong?” she asked.
“Something is happening,” Aklin said, his brows furrowed. “King Bunawi and Princess Angtara have been summoned out of their tents. Apparently there is a crowd of people on the plains on the other side of the ravine.”
“What kind of crowd?”
“They're too far to see clearly, but the warriors who rang the alarm said the people seemed like warriors too.” Aklin's lips turned down at the corners. “What we know for sure is that they advanced on the plains, and didn't come by way of the river. That means they're from the Katam side.”
Anina pulled her hair into a tighter ponytail. The strands were getting matted against her sweaty skin. Had Lord Matiban been able to gather support to help save Lady Yiling? Or did these Katamans want to pledge their allegiance to the king? She didn't know what this would mean for her plan.
Shouts emerged from the camp. Aklin and Anina moved closer to the edge of the forest and found the guards who had stood near the trees running into the cluster of tents.
“Thief!” somebody yelled. “Catch that thief!”
Anina hunkered down among the bushes, heart racing. Were they talking about her? Had they noticed the missing servant's garb? But they were running away from the trees. Confused, Anina peeked over the top of the bush. All the warriors who had once been guarding the edge of the camp were gone.
Suddenly, the ground rumbled beneath Anina and Aklin, increasing in intensity until it was a bone-rattling grind. A column of rock rose in the middle of the camp, churning a wide cloud of dust. A woman stood at its top. She wore a sheer scarf on her hair, and her tunic and double skirts displayed the dull, linear Kataman design.
The woman's hand gripped a sparkling silver-gold sword. Anina didn't know whether it was the king's sword or the princess's, but she became sure of one thing: the woman was also stealing it.
“She's ruining our plan!” Anina said.
“I hope her plan is better than our plan,” Aklin mumbled.
Among the simple lines that decorated the woman's hair scarf, an anto script glowed around her neckline without any contact from her hands. A small bud of realization grew in Anina. Could this be the Hermit Mage? Who else knew the trick of activating anto scripts with any part of their body, and would willingly involve themselves in this conflict?
Anina's heart constricted at the thought of Sano and his mother.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news.” A voice, loud and clear, flew over the camp, reaching even the spot where Anina and Aklin crouched. The glow of magic brightened on the woman's hair scarf. “But I'll be doing you all a favour when I say that your king has tricked you all!”
“Who is this woman? What is she doing?” Aklin stood and turned to Anina. “Wait here.” Then he bolted out of the trees.
“No, Aklin!” Anina tried to grab him, but he ran too fast. She swore under her breath. That woman probably knew what that sword could do, otherwise she wouldn't be stealing it. But did she just want it for herself? Or did she plan to destroy it too?
With their less-than-stellar plan unravelling, Anina was at a loss for what to do. She didn't know what that woman planned, or what those warriors in the plains were for. Still, Anina couldn't bring herself to run away. She had set out to do one thing – just one thing – to help, and she would not leave simply because something unexpected was happening.
Anina snatched up the map that her brothers had given her. Two of the tents on the outskirts of the camp were for equipment. The strip of grassy land between the trees and the closest tents were empty, and surely nobody would pay attention to the forest when there was a woman yelling from the top of a rock tower.
Anina took a deep breath and sprinted for one of the storage tents. She ducked below the canvas and emerged in darkness. Once her eyes adjusted, she found herself surrounded by crates and hemp sacks. Anina felt her way to the other side of the tent, where she cut a strip of canvas so she could look out.
Her view was still mostly obscured by other tents, but there was a bit of space where Anina could observe a crowd, gathered at the base of the protruding rock.
“Oh, I'm not lying,” the woman said, her voice even clearer now that Anina was closer to her. That script on her scarf must be helping carry her voice out into the open. “And be careful sending your warriors after me. You know how easily I can hurt everyone in this camp with this sword.” Anina couldn't identify whom this woman was speaking to, but it must have been either Bunawi or Angtara.
The woman raised both her arms and looked around, addressing everyone. “This sword is not what you think it is. When a mage uses it, it boosts their magic. Interesting, isn’t it? Your king here makes it seem like he has been naturally this powerful all this time.”
“You have no proof!” a warrior yelled.
The woman leapt down from the tower of rock. Instead of splatting on the ground, she landed on her feet gently and stopped in front of an older man with grey hair.
“You try using it then.” The woman handed the sword to the old warrior.
“No, give it here!” Bunawi's voice rang out, not as clear as the woman's, but full and rich with anger. Someone in the crowd shifted, and Anina caught a glimpse of the king, eyes wide and teeth bared. If Danihon's suspicion that Bunawi had mage-illness was right, then the illness probably wasn't that severe yet, or else the king wouldn't have been able to get up at all.
The warrior was just about to hand Bunawi the sword, when his gaze strayed to the sheen of the metal and he paused. Anina was familiar with the allure of that metal; the way it captured people’s interest and enticed them to touch it. Bunawi growled, but just as he reached for the sword, a blaze of blue light zipped through one of the commands on it.
An intense surge of wind swept over the camp. The canvas of the tent flapped against Anina's face, and she hurled herself back. The poles that held up the tent shook. Anina gripped a crate, bracing for the collapse of the tent. But within moments, the poles settled, and the canvas relaxed against its frame once again.
Anina felt her way back to the slit she made, and looked out into the camp. Tents closer to the column of rock were not as lucky as the one in which she hid. They slumped on the ground, poles snapped to pieces and the canvas torn down. All around, men and women, warriors and servants alike, had toppled to the ground in heaps.
Only the old warrior remained standing. He was shaking from the top of his head to his feet, the sword wobbling in his loose hold.
“It... it's true!” the warrior exclaimed. “I have never seen my magic do anything of that sort before.”
“That's only the beginning of the deception,” the woman continued. “You all might want to know that every time this sword is used, it summons the Malicious Wind.”
The blast of wind may not have knocked the breath out of Anina, but those last words certainly did. Her mind whirled. How could the metal control the Malicious Wind? And how did this woman know about it?
Danihon had said that Bunawi had used his special sword during the duel, and that the Malicious Wind swept by not long after. And wasn't the moon one of the clues the prime shaman had received whenever she asked the deities how to stop the Malicious Wind? Maybe the clue wasn't about the moon in the sky, or that sacrifices must be made monthly. Maybe the prime shaman had been receiving hints about the moon-like metal all along!
“So what?” Bunawi shouted, sitting up on the ground. “What if the Wind is roving around the kingdom, turning people into wood? It only does it to those who are doing something vile. That's a good thing.”
Bunawi launched himself, arm outstretched, towards the old warrior. But the earth beneath the warrior rose until he was out of Bunawi's reach.
“Oh look,” the woman taunted. “Your king doesn't seem to care that his sword is the reason you've all been living in fear these last few years.”
“You can't prove a thing!” Bunawi snarled. “Maybe you're controlling the Wind, and you want to blame it on me.”
Just then, a swift figure penetrated the crowd, leaping over those who were still sprawled on the ground. Angtara. She unsheathed her own special sword just as she reached the scarfed woman, and swung it at her. The woman blocked it with her arm, a script camouflaged in her sleeve coming to life with the wild glow of magic. Anina's jaw dropped. Not even the sharpened blade of the sword cut through the cloth.
The woman pulled out her own sword and engaged the princess in a sword fight. Bunawi snatched an ordinary sword from another warrior, growling and cursing. He started to activate one of the scripts on it, when two people dropped from the sky right on top of him.
Anina's gaze snapped to the sky. Her mind blanked for a moment, unable to believe what she was seeing. The sky was was dotted with people, about a hundred of them, each hanging onto a scripted sheet that was reminiscent of Sano’ scripted cloak. They floated to the ground all across the camp, the sheets softening their descent.
Were these the warriors that had been seen on the plains by the ravine? It would make sense. Their presence on the plains had distracted the king and the princess into leaving their tents, allowing the scarfed woman to steal one of the swords. And while the woman revealed what the moon-like swords could do, these warriors had assembled in the sky to infiltrate the camp.
Anina grinned, chest suddenly lighter. They had definitely ruined her plan – but perhaps this way, she would actually have a chance of succeeding.
“Oops, sorry! Bad landing.” Sano gave Bunawi a mocking grin and a salute. The king was splayed on the ground below Sano and Chief Dulan. Bunawi’s jaw tightened, but before he could make a move, Sano and Chief Dulan shot back up into the air, swept by the sheet the chief controlled.
With only one functional arm, Sano couldn't use the scripted sheet by himself, and had to cling onto someone else. The sheets were fashioned after his own cloak, hastily scripted with only the single wind-manipulating command that allowed its users to ride in the air.
Sano and Chief Dulan landed on top of the elevated rock that had lifted the old warrior away from Bunawi's reach. “So sorry about this, good sir!” Sano said, pulling the Moon Metal sword out of the elderly warrior's grasp. Chief Dulan kept the old man restrained, though he might as well not have bothered. The old man relinquished the weapon easily and remained still while Chief Dulan tied the sword to his back.
“One down, one more to go,” Chief Dulan said, and looked out into the camp where Sano's mother and Angtara were fighting. “Want to go help your mother?”
“I ought to,” Sano answered, though he didn't know how much help he would be with a limp and one arm in a sling. It wasn't like he was a good combatant in the first place, either. However, he couldn't just sit out while everyone else fought for their lives.
The camp below them had become a jumble of grappling bodies and clanking swords. Tents tilted over broken poles, and dust swirled among stomping feet. Sano had been prepared to do whatever it took to stop Bunawi, even if it were just him and his mother and Lord Matiban. To have another hundred men and women helping them – people who owed him nothing – made Sano's heart swell with gratitude and camaraderie. This fight was both for himself and for something much larger than himself.
“I know this isn't the right time for heartfelt words,” Sano said. “But, thank you.” He laid a hand on Chief Dulan's shoulder.
The chief gave a grave nod. “That metal destroyed my home and called the Malicious Wind. It should never be used so irresponsibly. The king and the princess may not have known about the Moon Metal's link to the Malicious Wind, but... I have a feeling they're not the type to bother thinking about the consequences of their power. It's time somebody stands up to them.”
Sano hung an arm over Chief Dulan's shoulder. The chief blew them away to the spot where Sano's mother fought with Angtara. As they neared the ground, Sano let go of the chief and landed in a crouch.
“I will see that Matiban has freed the Ghoul,” the chief said, veering away.
“Keep the sword safe, please,” Sano called after him. Sano's mother had reviewed everything she knew about the legend of the Moon Metals, but she still couldn't figure out how most of them had been destroyed initially. Their plan was to steal both swords and melt them. How they were to permanently dispose of the actual metal, they still didn't know. For now, all they could do was prevent anyone from using them.
“Oh, look what the wind blew in.” Angtara glanced at Sano and cackled with amusement. “I thought you had died! That's what I told your friend anyway, before my father threw her over that ravine!”
A sharp coldness flashed through Sano. “What?”
“Hey, your fight is with me!” Sano's mother thrust her sword towards Angtara, but the princess merely angled her body away and laughed some more. She lifted the Moon Metal sword, and swung at Sano's mother. Their swords flashed in the air in swift parries and thrusts.
Sano swallowed away his hesitance. He couldn't allow Angtara to distract him now. Sano and his mother must wrest that sword away from the princess, before she could use it with magic and attract the Malicious Wind even more strongly. Lord Matiban had known that a fight would be inevitable in trying to steal the swords from the royals, and the Malicious Wind would claim a lot of victims. They had brought along one of Chief Dulan's shamans, who could sense the Malicious Wind from afar, and she would light up the sky with a red flare to warn them. Still, it was best for everyone if Sano and his comrades could get the swords as soon as possible and end the battle early.
Sano's hand, cold though it was, grabbed one of Anina's staffs tied to his back. His mother had held up this long against Angtara, and though she had been a trained warrior back in the days of the rebellion, she had spent sixteen long years without practice.
Sano kicked dust from the ground, and he swung the staff through it, instructing the wind to fly directly towards Angtara's eyes. Angtara combined her next thrust with a gust of wind, too, and the dust strayed away from her. But with the princess's attention split between the sword fight and Sano's dust, she didn't notice the lengths of fabric shooting out of Sano's mother's sleeves. The fabric coiled around Angtara's neck, wrist, and ankles.
Angtara snarled, twisting the sword in her hand, its blade grinding against the fabric. Sano's mother pushed more magic into the scripts in her sleeves, and the strips of fabric held.
Sano wrote a quick command on the ground, his heart clenching when he remembered the last time he'd used it. He pushed magic through the symbols, and the ground rumbled open beneath Angtara, swallowing her up to her chest. With just a small modification to the script, Sano tightened the hole, effectively trapping the princess in the ground.
“Quick, get the sword!” Sano's mother said. She pulled the strips of cloths that bound Angtara's arms, restraining them.
Sano knelt before the trapped princess. He scrabbled at her fist, trying to pry open her fingers, but her grasp on the sword was as tight as his mother's hold on her.
Angtara giggled. “Aww, teamwork. I'm surprised you people managed to do that.” She laughed. “You think you're being brave right now, you and your mother and every other gullible idiot you dragged here. Have you forgotten? I am the expert on Katamans! I have studied you people for years! Bravery is not part of who you are. You are only deluding yourselves if you think you can win against people smarter, stronger, and more advanced than you have ever been!”
“Don't listen to her,” Sano's mother said. “Why would you listen to a woman stuck in the ground?”
Sano growled, wrapping his fingers over the sword's hilt. He pulled with all his might, stamping his foot against Angtara's head, to gain traction as much as to muffle her expert babbling. But Sano’s own body fought against him. His broken ribs caused his chest and back to flare with pain, and his grip loosened.
Below him, Angtara roared in frustration. Blue light zapped through the length of Angtara's sword, and a ferocious wind heaved Sano and his mother from the ground, throwing them far away from the princess.