Night chased away the remaining light, and the forest became almost impossible to navigate. Both Sano and Anina agreed that carrying a light might attract anyone else sent after Sano, so they remained in the dark. Where they were heading, they weren’t sure yet. They just wanted to get away from the site of the Wind’s attack.
When they reached a small clearing ringed by a few sturdy tamarind trees, by some unspoken agreement, they both stopped to rest. Sano’s legs throbbed with exhaustion, and he thought they might fall off if he forced himself to take another step. The only thing that had kept him going was the fear that the warriors might come back to life again and continue to hunt him down.
“Is the effect of the Malicious Wind permanent?” Sano asked, patting the ground for a flat spot.
“I think so,” Anina answered, pulling her pack off her shoulders. “In the cases I’ve heard about, the victims just rotted away like dead trees.”
“And their spirits?”
“Gone. The shamans confirmed that those statues are nothing more than wooden shells.”
“Why do people call it the Malicious Wind if it’s stopping people from doing bad things?”
“It doesn’t really understand what’s bad.” Anina chose a spot between some tree roots, and gathered fallen leaves into a fluffy pile. “One of the saddest cases I heard of was when the Wind turned a little boy to wood while he was stealing a rice cake for his hungry sister. Was it wrong to do so? Sure, but in most cases, a crime like that would have resulted in a fine – or if the vendor has a cruel streak, the boy might be enslaved. But killed? That’s excessive.”
Sano let out a whistle. The Malicious Wind hadn't cared that the boy, in some way, was trying to do something good for his sister. Good thing Sano hadn’t accidentally stepped on a bug while he was running away from the warriors.
“How many victims have there been?” Sano mused. If the Wind didn’t have a flexible moral code, he could imagine dozens of people turning to wood every day.
“Lucky for us, it happens extremely rarely,” Anina replied. “The earliest rumour I can trace happened about five years ago, and there have only been a handful of attacks since. It took everyone years to even realize that the Wind was transforming only those who do something wrong while it passes. We don’t have enough encounters to conclude much else. We don’t even know what it is, where it comes from, or how to stop it.”
“Has anyone consulted a shaman?” Shamans had links to spirits and deities. If anyone could glean some insight, it would be one of them.
“Certainly, but the shamans don’t get very clear answers either. Some have received coded messages about silver and gold, and that makes everyone think that the gods and goddesses are angry with us for not giving enough offerings.”
Anina lay down on the ground, and Sano mimicked her. The hard, dusty earth was a strong contrast to his smooth bamboo cot, now disintegrated into ashes with the rest of his home. Sano had a disorienting headache. A strange feeling, like he didn’t fit in his skin, washed over him.
Sano’s mother had just left him for a few days. During this time, not only had he managed to destroy their secret life, he had also attracted the attention of the king’s warriors, and had encountered a wind that could kill him if he wasn’t careful. It was hard to take it all in.
When Sano was very young, he had asked his mother why they couldn’t live out in the real world. She had said it was too dangerous for them, for the things they did, for the people they were. He didn’t fully believe her at the time, but it seemed as if she’d been right all along.
But so what? Surely Sano could cope with the world like everybody else did. He had always known that one day he would have to come out of hiding. He had always wanted to come out of hiding, and now that he had, it seemed wrong to let fear chase him back into the shadows.
Sano took a deep breath to quell his nerves. He would be all right, he was sure. He turned to his side, allowing the scent of the earth and the trees to lull him to sleep.
Sano woke with a crick in his neck. He shifted on the ground, and his back protested with a cramp. He opened his eyes and was welcomed by an umbrella of green leaves. For one moment he thought he’d fallen asleep trying to gather supplies for his home, but the events from yesterday all came back in a rush.
Sano was breathless by the time he managed to sit up. His muscles were all rubbery. He found Anina sitting across from him, a bundle of fruits piled neatly on her lap.
“Not used to sleeping outdoors?” she asked, handing him a banana. His stomach tightened at the sight of all those fruits. It wasn’t the first time he’d gone hungry – the forest wasn't always bountiful – but after everything he’d gone through yesterday, his body ached for all the food it could get.
They shared the fruits in easy silence, and after they finished, Sano led them to a stream where they were able to take a drink and wash off. With food in his stomach and the cool water easing his tired feet, Sano thought about what he needed to do.
“I can’t go back home, can I?” he asked.
Anina, crouching by the bank and washing the tips of her hair, pursed her lips. “No, I don’t think so. Those warriors who came to your home would have sent a report of the rumours to King Bunawi. You’ve given the most blatant display of illegal magic we’ve heard about in years. I don’t think he would let you off lightly. He'll send other warriors after you, and this is the first place they will search.”
“Goodness, how does word get around so fast anyway?”
“King Bunawi has his ways. Those who serve him are always listening, always watching. They can also travel faster than anyone in the kingdom with their special scripted boats. That’s how the king stays on top of things.”
Sano had briefly considered staying at the back-up lair, where he could wait for his mother to come back. But he supposed that wasn’t a possibility now.
“I guess the only thing I can do is to meet up with my mother,” Sano decided. “Speaking of the Hermit Mage, what was it you wanted from her?”
Anina perked up, eyes shining the way they had when Sano had shown her he could push magic from his feet. “I want to know if there’s a way to get more magic. I’m ready to give you the payment I saved for the Hermit Mage if you can tell me something useful.”
Sano deflated, realizing he wouldn't be any help. “Sorry, I don’t have an answer,” he admitted. “All I know is that Karingal, maker of all things, gives each person a fixed amount of magic at birth. You probably already know that though.” Most people received no magic at all, but the few who did were able to use the amount they possessed to power anto scripts.
“Isn't there anyone at all who ended up more powerful than they thought they’d be?” Anina persisted.
“Sure, but those cases are just a matter of growth from what I know. For most mages, our full potential doesn’t manifest until we’re grown. Mother always compares magical ability to height, you see. Once we’ve reached the tallest we can be, there’s nothing we can do to just get even taller. Otherwise, everyone would try to be as tall as these trees!”
Anina’s shoulders slumped. She pulled her hair into a ponytail, then sat back on her heels, arms crossed. “How do I know if I’ve reached my full potential?”
Sano shrugged. “It just comes with time and practice. I wish I could say there was another way.”
Anina didn’t say anything else, just fixed her gaze on the stream. Then she stood and grabbed her pack. “How much for that information?” she asked.
“Wait, you’re paying me for saying I don’t know?”
Anina snorted. “Oh, you’ll be surprised at how many people withhold even that much until I offer to pay up front.” She opened a small pouch and shook out a few beads of copper.
“Oh no, I can’t accept that,” Sano said.
“How much more do you want?”
“I don’t want more.” Sano waded out of the stream, an idea forming in his mind. “Why don’t you save it for my mother? She’s the person you really wanted to see. We can look for her together.”
“Would the answer be any different?”
“It might. My mother’s been teaching me everything she knows since I was old enough to talk. And even after all these years, I’m confident there are still things she hasn’t taught me yet. You at least ought to give her a chance.”
“Where is she now?”
“Remember the man I mentioned who came because of the Malicious Wind? Well, he’s from a small village in Gila, and that's where my mother went.”
“Gila?” Anina exclaimed. “That’s a chiefdom away!”
Sano winced, but continued, “I know it’s far, and it would be challenging to find her, but I think we would have a better chance of doing it together than if we set out by ourselves. I’ve never been out of these foothills, and you don’t know what my mother looks like.”
Anina cringed. “I’m sorry to say this, but – Sano, you are now a fugitive. Didn’t you hear what I said about more warriors coming after you?”
Sano didn’t miss the pointed way Anina had said ‘you,’ as if he was the only one who had defied the king’s warriors. He understood that if she walked away now, nobody would know that she was ever here, that she had aided a wanted person. Why would she entangle herself with his affairs even further?
“You don’t have to worry about the fee!” Sano declared, clasping his hands in desperation. “I’ll have Mother waive it. Ask her any questions you like, free of charge! And I can teach you how to power anto scripts with any part of your body, if you want to learn that. I can tell you all kinds of interesting ways to use magic. Look, why do you want to become more powerful? Perhaps I can even find a way to get around your problem.”
Anina tensed and turned too formal all of a sudden. “I cannot disclose my reasons. And I don’t need to know how to get around it. I need to know how to do it.”
“All right,” Sano acquiesced. “Well, from what I can see, this seems to be an important matter for you. You’ve already taken the risk of seeking out the Hermit Mage. You might as well meet her to make it worth all your effort.”
Anina’s brows furrowed in deep thought. “Where in Gila did she go?”
That Anina wasn’t flat-out turning Sano down was a good sign. “Third village from the border of Katam, along the coast. Not very deep into Gila at all.”
“All right.” Anina heaved a sigh. “And you’ll answer all my questions about magic?”
“To the best of my ability,” Sano promised.
When she nodded, Sano was flooded with so much relief that he wanted to hug her. However, her stern expression held him back.
“We’ll find your mother together, but we must be very careful, understand?” she said. “We have to lay low. And you must listen to all my warnings. It’s a tricky world out there.”