Anina slipped out of the storage tent, heart beating rapidly in anticipation. The falling warriors had picked their own battles against the king’s warriors in the camp. What once had been a quiet, organized abode had now become a loud, chaotic mess. It was great for Anina, who barely attracted attention from warriors on either side with her servant’s disguise, but it did make searching for her brothers a little difficult.
Anina pushed herself through the melee, avoiding swashing swords, flying spears, and wrestling bodies. Her gaze roved over the fight, hoping to glimpse Aklin’s dark skin and long, curly hair, or Danihon’s tattoos.
Instead, the distinct tang of mangoes caught Anina’s attention. She spun around, and there was Yiling, bounding out of a tent and leaping over groups of warriors. But the Ghoul failed to notice Anina, and she passed her by, heading straight into the centre of the camp.
Anina followed, her feet moving of their own accord. Yiling’s clothes were torn in some places, and blackened with soot in others. Other than that, the Ghoul moved with her usual poise, even though Danihon had mentioned that she had been suffering from mage-illness. Had someone helped her make a sacrifice? Anina glanced back to the tent where Yiling had come from, but it was now blocked by more fighting warriors.
Yiling slowed, then she planted herself in front of Bunawi.
Were they going to duel now? Would it even be valid at this point? Anina squatted beside a pile of broken wood and debris.
At first, Bunawi and Yiling only stared at each other. The king gripped the ordinary sword he had stolen from another warrior earlier. Anina wondered whether he was reluctant to engage Yiling in a fight, now that he could no longer boost his magic. But the king scoffed, spat on the ground, and then sprinted towards Yiling. His eyes blazed with disgust, and his sword pointed straight at her.
The king didn't make it very far. Sheets of hard-packed earth burst from the ground, catching his running feet. They crawled up his ankles and clamped him to the ground. He yelped as his momentum was thrown off. From behind him, a large, fist-sized rock slammed into his elbow. Bunawi howled in pain, and his sword clattered to the ground. He leaned down to swoop it up with his good hand, but the earth clasping his ankles worked its way up to his waist, making it impossible for him to bend any further to retrieve his sword.
Anina swallowed. Yiling’s moves had been so quick. No wonder Bunawi needed to cheat to even stand a chance against her.
Just then, a bright red light shot to the highest point in the sky, bursting with a loud bang. Anina covered her ears. Then to her bafflement, Yiling released Bunawi, and erected a high wall between them. All around, warriors lowered their swords and held up shields or ran for cover. But not all the warriors – just the Kataman ones.
Gusts of frigid wind swept over them all, and screams erupted across the battlefield.
Anina curled in on herself, an unnatural terror rising in her. It was the Malicious Wind. It was faster and stronger than the time she had experienced it back in the foothills with Sano. She braced herself against the wooden debris beside her, eyes shut tight against those whose bodies were transforming to wood. Their screams left her weak.
Only when the pained wails died away did Anina open her eyes. Chilled by the wind and the resulting deaths, she focused on Yiling and Bunawi again. The wall between them had been lowered. Both of them remained human – or in Yiling's case, mostly human.
The king had managed to retrieve his fallen sword. A few of its scripts flickered blue, but the flow of his magic seemed unsteady, unable to activate an entire length of a script. His mage-illness was getting worse, and soon he might not be able to fight anymore.
Yet Anina took no comfort in his weakened state. It surprised her to realize that even now, she was still frightened of the king. She suspected there would always be a part of her that would feel insignificant compared to him. Although he looked desperate now, standing before the mercy of the Ghoul, Anina could feel tendrils of shame crawl in her chest. She was eleven again, hungry and helpless, watching the men in her village dig up graves. Then she was back in Bunawi’s tent, thanking him for all the things she would never have. Then she was falling through the air, the roar of the river getting louder and louder in her ears.
Anina turned away, ready to look for her brothers again. Surely Yiling could take care of Bunawi by herself.
But something stopped her. It was the promise of defeat. It was knowing that if she walked away now, she would always be chained to her fear of Bunawi. She would always be that girl who, at the end, had thanked and begged him, just another Kataman who had succumbed to cowardice and selfishness under pressure.
A soft grunt escaped Anina’s lips. Underneath her dread came the pulse of resistance. Somehow, she didn’t want things to end that way between her and the king. She wanted to tip the scales again, the way she had when she had snatched Sano from the king’s grasp during Matiban’s trial. Anina had not been a prisoner of her fear then. No, she had been able to face Bunawi because at that moment, her and Sano's need for each other had been stronger than her fear. She had been brave, not just for herself, but for someone else’s sake.
And that was how she wanted Bunawi to remember her.
Bunawi was facing away from Anina, and so it was easy for her to run up to him. He turned just as she leapt, hooking an arm over his neck and using her speed to throw them both to the ground. Anina rolled away, and stood beside Yiling.
Bunawi pushed himself into a crouch, not much worse than before. It had never been Anina's goal to hurt him. But the slow widening of his eyes, the subtle rising of his brows, the realization that his sacrifice had failed – these were what she had been after. Anina savoured the look on his face.
“I have nothing to thank you for,” Anina announced, meaning every word. The king frowned, snarling. Once, that would have struck terror in her, as her mind conjured all the punishments she would receive for the insult. But she saw him differently now. He was insecure. He was fallible. He was as susceptible to the whims of the deities as any other human.
Anina’s interest in him vanished, and she knew she didn’t have to do anything else to prove herself. Now that he had seen her alive, able to stand against him and his will, he had no power over her anymore.
Anina spun to Yiling and placed a hand on the Ghoul’s arm. “I trust you’ll deal with him.”
Yiling gave her a friendly nod and a warm smile. “Of course I will. I’m glad to see you, Anina.”
Anina smiled back, and then ran off, the urge to find her brothers much stronger now without anything else to distract her. She caught sight of Danihon's Gamhanan tattoos, and wound her way around warriors who swung their swords without much heart, and who shoved each other rather than punched. They glanced around with fearful eyes. The Malicious Wind had spooked them all.
Anina skidded to a stop beside her brother. “Danihon, you must speak with the prime shaman!”
Danihon whirled on her. “Oh good, you're telling me what to do! Nobody knows what's going on anymore.” Two of Bunawi's warriors were looking expectantly at Danihon. Off to the side, a Kataman was scratching her head.
“We can still go through with the plan,” Anina said. “If the shaman summons the sea-serpent now, we can still sacrifice the swords to it.”
“Aklin's already talking with Lady Nawa,” Danihon replied.
“All right then, we just have to gather the weapons.”
“I bumped into Lord Matiban earlier.” Danihon craned his neck, searching the crowd. “He's with someone who's got King Bunawi's sword. I think the princess still has hers.”
“That's fine, keep your eyes on the king's sword. I'll try and secure Angtara's.”
Almost like a response to Anina's decision, earth rose from the ground yet again, this time in the far edge of the camp. But it wasn't a single column like before. An entire cluster of tall, finger-like hills emerged. A thick wall of dust, as tall as the trees of the forest, rolled outward. People stumbled and screamed, trying to avoid rolling boulders.
Anina shielded her eyes from the dust, focusing on the figures moving on top of the series of hills.
Like she'd suspected, one of the combatants bore the luxurious clothes of the princess, highlighted by the beautiful glint of her sword. The scarfed thief met her blow for blow. Another figure crawled up the side of a hill, struggling with one arm bound in a sling. And even though Anina was far away, she was too familiar with the way the boy carried himself not to recognize him.
A wave of emotions crashed over Anina, so sudden and so potent that she became lightheaded with it. Warmth bloomed in her chest as her limbs turned soft. Disbelief drowned out the chaos of the battle, and for a breath or two, all Anina could do was stare.
Sano was alive. He was bruised and injured, but he was moving and jumping, and very much alive.
A light laugh spilled from Anina’s lips. The sound of it pierced through her shock and returned her to the present. She waved away the remaining cloud of dust in front of her face and rushed to the hills. Anina climbed up the earthen tower where the three mages were fighting, seeking purchase with her hands and feet on the uneven surface.
She crested the top just in time to block a swing meant for Sano with her dowel. In the process, Anina saw an opening in the princess’s stance. She whacked Angtara on the rib, sending the princess doubling over in pain.
Sano stared back at Anina with wide eyes and a gaped mouth, which was probably the same expression she’d worn when she had first noticed him from the field. All of the things she had wanted to say to him vanished from her mind. She blinked once, then twice, and all she could utter was, “Are those my staffs?”
Sano stared at the stick in his hand. “Oh,” he breathed. “Uh, yes, they are.” He tossed the one in his hand to her and pulled the other from its sling.
“Keep that one,” Anina told him.
Angtara pushed herself up from the surface of the hill. “I can’t believe this. How many times do I have to kill you both?” the princess barked. “You’re like mice! Just when I think I’ve gotten rid of you, you show up again!”
“Wow, looks like our little expert here can’t accept that she’s not as well-informed as she likes to boast,” the scarfed woman taunted with a sneer. She took advantage of Angtara’s momentary low guard, and swiped at the princess with her sword. Angtara swerved, earning a cut on her side, but saving her sword arm. She didn’t even grimace.
Anina hefted her old staff in her hand, happy to be reunited with it. Her magic coursed through the script in the staff that hardened it against blows, and then she stepped into the fight. Anina aimed for Angtara’s ribs, her knees, the back of her neck – anywhere that could lower the princess’s defence against the scarfed woman. They needed to strike Angtara’s hand badly enough for her to let go of the sword.
But the princess flashed a short dagger from her hip to fend off Anina’s staff. Angtara fought both Anina and the scarfed woman with surprising agility and technique, despite her injuries. She parried Anina’s staff any time it came close, and her sword clanked against the woman’s at every strike.
“Whenever you’re ready to step in, son,” the scarfed thief called. Anina heard Sano shift into position. So, this really was the Hermit Mage. Anina never imagined they’d meet this way.
A strong scent of impending rain assaulted Anina’s nose. Locks of her hair floated with some strange charge, and even the hairs on her arm stood on their end. For a moment, she wondered if there was going to be a storm.
“Heads up!” Sano yelled.
Anina glanced at Sano, finding his sling, of all things, alight with a script she hadn’t noticed was there. She jumped back moments before lightning shot out of his sling, heading straight to the tip of Angtara’s sword.
The princess dropped the weapon and leapt out of the way.
For one tense moment, all four of them hung back, watching smoke rise from the glittering blade.
Then, as one, they all lunged for it.
Anina's hand closed around the handle, but its immense heat stung her skin and she snatched her hand back. Angtara shoved her away and gripped the sword. The princess released a pained cry, but didn't let go. She struck the sword to the surface of the hill, one of its scripts bright with magic. Anina should have expected the spikes that sprouted from the ground. The princess was so fond of using that trick. As it was, Anina only had time to roll away.
But the spikes continued to bloom right to the edge of the hill's narrow tip. Anina tumbled over the edge, and slid down the hill's slope. She tried to grab anything to stop her descent, but she failed to find any. Rough rock only scratched at her palms, and she winced as it aggrieved the blisters on her right hand.
Slowing to a stop, Anina ended up on something like a valley between two of the hills. Her hands smarted where the skin was rubbed off. Some of her nails were chipped. The old cut on her right leg was somehow bleeding again.
Anina cursed. Getting back up would take centuries. And how would she pull herself over the top of that hill? It was crowned with spikes now.
That was when she noticed something black tumble down the slope. A slipper. Its sole was covered in Kataman scripts. It must belong to the Hermit Mage then.
Anina was struck with an idea. She gazed at the towers of rock around her, then peered closer at the slipper. Inscribed on the sole was exactly the script she was looking for.
Glancing to the top of the hill, she found Angtara in the midst of the spikes, facing away from her. Tentatively, Anina pulled out the knife she'd gotten from Sungid. Could she really do this? She had worked so hard not to endanger any more lives, that planning to take one seemed counter-intuitive.
But so many more lives were at stake, with that sword in perpetual use and the Malicious Wind circulating. Anina had a chance to make a real difference now, and it seemed just as wrong to falter.
So she closed her eyes, and hopped onto the slipper. Before she could change her mind, she ejected as much magic as she could from her foot, just the way Sano had taught her, the way she'd been practising this past month.
Anina shot up into the air, buoyed by the force of the rising rock. The thrust of her magic threw her up higher than the surface of the thorned hill. She crested in the air, cringing against the vertigo, and angled her body for the perfect descent.
Somewhere in the sky came a burst of red light. The last thing Anina saw as she fell towards Angtara's back, knife poised in her fist, was Sano's horrified eyes.