Sano watched Anina plunge from the sky, lit up by the distant red flare that signalled the arrival of the Malicious Wind. In that brief moment while she fell, Sano wished for time to stop, wished for her to miss Angtara or to drop the knife, wished for a thousand other things than what happened.
But Anina didn't miss.
The Wind hit Sano like an angry tide in a stormy sea, so much more powerful than before. So was the accompanying horror it brought, though Sano couldn't tell how much of that fear was caused by the Wind and how much was truly his own.
Both Anina and Angtara flopped to the ground in a heap of clothes and flesh. Angtara didn't get up again, but Anina did. Sano's heart rattled in his chest, hoping beyond all possible hope that the Malicious Wind was the one who'd missed.
Anina teetered. The knife in her hand clattered to the ground. She took a step back, two little jerks to the right, and then stopped completely. Her feet and legs were unnaturally still.
“No,” Sano whispered. The skin on Anina’s feet discoloured into faded brown. Sano rubbed his eyes, sure that his nerves were making him hallucinate, but he blinked and looked again. His heart plunged to his belly when he found the discoloration moving up her feet to her ankles. Her skirts were next. The material froze in its windswept state, the soft cloth turning into cracked wood. And up the transformation went, up her arms, her belly, her chest. Weak with horror, Sano sought Anina’s gaze, so afraid of the moment when they would become as unseeing as Lady Yiling's right eye.
Anina looked at him with a strange smile, despite the pain Sano knew she must feel. “It's all right,” she said, barely a whisper. The wood began to close in on her throat.
No. No, it was not all right. Hot, throbbing anger raged through Sano. He lunged for the strewn dagger, and pushed himself to face Anina. He forced himself to steady his shaking hand, to place the tip of the blade gently against her wooden chest. His instincts then took over, guiding his wrist as he flicked the knife to form the single-letter word on her chest, the one he'd written over and over his entire life whenever he'd ached for a friend.
Ka. To be human, to live, to exist.
Sano slapped a hand over the symbol and drove all of the magic he had in him into that one little mark. Brilliant waves of light flared from it, blinding him and forcing his eyes shut. He tapped into the pool of magic in his core, forcing large volumes of it into his arm and out his hand. The pathways of magic in his body grew bloated and overrun, but he kept going.
“I'm proud of you,” Anina said.
Sano's eyes snapped open, and he dearly wished they didn't. Anina's eyes were full of resignation. The wood continued to creep up her neck, up her chin, over her face. His magic wasn’t working.
“No!” Sano yelled. “No, no, no!” More magic. That was all he needed. If he could just give enough, he could fix this. He gritted his teeth and yanked more magic from his core. Sparks of pain lit up in his chest, shoulder, and arm. He was overflowing with magic, the discharge coming out too fast. Energy radiated from him, rocks and dust swirling away.
And then the once-smooth flow of his magic gave way to rough bursts. Still, Sano pushed. The bursts turned into a trickle, and the trickle into small drops. His core felt distended, strained, but he kept going.
Wood closed in on Anina’s head. The transformation had finished.
“No,” Sano cried, hand still on her chest, magic still pouring lamely out into the letter, until he had no more. But it was no use. Of course it was no use. Sano could not turn her back into a human, because he himself was just human and he could not break the laws of magic.
Pulling away from Anina seemed to take all of Sano's strength. Anina's wooden face stared back at him in that pained, hopeful expression.
Sano whipped around, and threw the dagger in the direction that the Wind had flown. “She saved me!” he screamed. Angtara would have attacked him had Anina not fallen on her. Anina had saved him, but the Wind didn't care.
Arms wrapped around Sano. His mother pulled him close. “I'm sorry,” she whispered into his hair. Sano struggled against her hold. He was too full of erratic energy to be coddled. Pressure built at the back of his head, and Sano knew he was either going to yell again or burst into tears.
A terrifying, ear-splitting roar reverberated across the camp and quaked the hills.
Sano stopped short. He was upset, but what in Karingal's name was that?
“Oh dear,” Sano's mother mumbled. “Look up.”
Sano didn't need to. An enormous serpentine shadow slithered over the camp. Sano hadn't even realized that the sun was rising until the sea-serpent blocked off the early rays of dawn.
The growling sea-serpent whipped past Sano and his mother. Wind blew over them, so strong that even the hills swayed. Sano and his mother clung to each other, watching the sea-serpent dive into the camp below.
From his periphery, Sano sensed frantic movements at the base of the hills. Amidst everyone else's inactivity, one person was cutting through the crowd. It was Chief Dulan. He was running towards the approaching creature. In the chief's hand was Bunawi's sword.
“He's going to sacrifice it!” Sano's mother said, eyes bright with the realization.
Chief Dulan leapt in the air, boosted by a gust of wind that came from... was that Aklin? Chief Dulan's aim was clean and true, and the sword shot straight into the sea-serpent's mouth.
“Sano, let's go,” his mother said. She pressed the cool metal of Angtara's sword into his hand. “We have to do the same. We have no time to waste.”
His mother's arms encircled his waist, and they jumped off the high hill. Scripts in her skirt flared with magic for a gentle landing. As soon as their feet touched the ground, they took off running towards the sea-serpent.
Sano was numb and hazed, but with the Moon Metal sword in his hand, he could at least force himself to focus on one thing. He kept his gaze on the sea-serpent undulating over the camp, its mouth stretched wide. Sano rushed through the throng of warriors, desperate to chase the sacred creature. His left ankle was wracked with pain every time his foot hit the ground. The heady dose of numbing balm his mother had applied on his left arm had worn off, and he was starting to feel the terrible wound there.
“Get him!” Sano was vaguely aware of Bunawi barking orders. Lady Yiling seemed to be blocking the king's attempt to get to him. Several of Bunawi's men gave half-hearted efforts to snatch Sano, clawing at him and tapping him with the flat of their swords. But Sano's mother gave a shove here and a push there, as well as several mouthy threats, and the warriors backed away.
The sea-serpent began to float higher after it didn't receive any more offerings. Sano lengthened his steps, his leg muscles on fire. The sword was heavy in his hand, and his palm was sweating so much he was afraid it would slip from his grasp. He closed his eyes and fought off the weariness. The devastation had to end here. They must overcome the Malicious Wind.
A flare shot to the sky, drowning the camp in a red hue. The sea-serpent coiled higher.
“Float me up,” Sano called to his mother. “Before the Malicious Wind can blow over!” She complied, and a tidal wave of wind shot him into the sky. His ears popped, his belly lurched, and his hair whipped around his face. Propelled forward by the force of the wind, Sano went careening towards the sea-serpent.
Sano pulled back his arm, and with all the strength he had left, he hurled the sword into the serpent's mouth. It wasn't a clean throw, not like Chief Dulan's. The sword spun wildly, like an orb shining through the clouds, an early morning moon ready to set.
The sea-serpent snapped its jaws shut, trapping the sword behind its ferocious rows of teeth. Sano slammed into its snout, the air knocked out of his belly. He curled into himself, protecting his bad arm as he rolled across the sea-serpent's head, slipped between its horns, and tumbled through its wispy hair. He rocked down the creature's scaly back until there was nothing beneath him anymore.
Sano was plummeting towards the earth, and he didn't even have time to contemplate what that meant for him. It was pandemonium below in the camp. The Malicious Wind roved over it like a twister, snatching up boulders, hurling tents away. The people would have received the same fate had they not been sheltered by great bulwarks of earth.
Sano entered the area infected by the Malicious Wind, and he felt like he was going to be torn to pieces by the conflicting directions of the surrounding forces. He shut his eyes, and covered his head with his arm. Sano smacked into something meaty. He endured a momentary painful tug, and then he was in the safety of one of the earthen covers. When Sano opened his eyes, he found Danihon crouched beside him. Aklin and Lord Matiban were with them, reinforcing the mound of earth with magic.
The wind batting their wall weakened and soon, ceased altogether. The men gave each other suspicious glances, and one by one they poked their heads over the wall. The reach of the Wind was shrinking. It seemed to be pulling into itself, leaving behind an outer circle of wreckage. The Wind became a skinny, spinning tunnel, and just when Sano thought it would explode, it did just the opposite. It compressed into a small whizzing ball, and completely fizzled out.
The silence was deafening in the absence of the dreadful gale. Every little scrape, cough, and hiccup seemed to echo across the plain. Morning sun beat down on them. The sea-serpent had flown away and was nowhere to be seen.
Bunawi's furious voice pierced through the silence like a needle puncturing skin. “You are all idiots! All fools! You have no idea what you just gave up.”
People slowly left the covers of the earthen barricades. Their attention was fixed on the raving man at the centre of what once was a camp.
“All I ever wanted was to build an empire worthy of the entire archipelago, worthy of the entire world!” Bunawi shouted. “I would have given you all amazing things. I would have raised temples and shaped mountains. I would have calmed volcanoes and pacified the seas for all of you. I would have given you something everyone would remember for generations!”
Bunawi was a wreck. There was no trace of his previous poise and charm, no hint of sophistication or respectability. His hair was like a bird's nest, his fancy clothes were in tatters, and he was bleeding in various places. Bunawi stood without the self-assurance he used to have, his knees half-buckled, a dull and battered sword in his tired grip.
“You are all cowards!” Bunawi yelled at Lady Yiling, who stood in front of him, but he directed his words at everyone. “You're all afraid of splendour and greatness. In case you haven't noticed, there is an empire up north. There are burgeoning kingdoms in the west and the south. The people of Gamhana are flourishing. We are being left behind. Do you want that? Do you want others to look at this place and say there's nothing worthwhile here? Nothing to be proud of? Do you want your descendants to look back and say that none of us lived a life worth remembering?”
Bunawi sneered, then laughed. And laughed and laughed. He was hysterical.
The king's cackles became too much, and Sano was forced to cut it short with the only words he could say.
“I understand!” he blurted.
Silence followed, and nobody was more shocked to hear Sano say that than himself. But he found that he was telling the truth. More than anyone, Sano understood the yearning, the desire to matter. Sano could see the way the king's longing for worth had curdled into ruthless greed; how his ambition had driven him to reject those he had deemed not good enough for his perfect world, those who reminded him of his flaws.
“I understand,” Sano repeated. “Because all my life, I lived your worst fears. You have made me and so many others feel unworthy so you wouldn't have to.”
Sano clenched his fist. He might understand, but it didn't mean he could forgive. Because although Bunawi had his reasons, they were not an excuse. Not by a long shot.
Bunawi only sent Sano a bitter look. He then limped sombrely towards Lady Yiling. She put up a sword to block him, but he kept walking until its tip pressed right against his ribcage.
“Go ahead,” he snarled. “You know I can't go back from this. Give me a warrior's death.”
At first, Lady Yiling hesitated, but then followed the command.
Sano looked away. Around him, Bunawi's warriors gasped, but none of them made any move to stop Lady Yiling. Nobody could pretend that Bunawi was a king who deserved defending anymore. Not after he had betrayed his people over a piece of metal.
“I still won,” came Bunawi's dying rasp. Sano looked back at him, and found that he'd fallen to the ground. The king stared at the sky with glazed eyes, and there was a growing stain of red on his tunic. And yet, Bunawi found something to smile about. “It's because of me that you found the courage to rise up. I taught you to be brave.”
But Lady Yiling didn't take the bait. Instead she said, “You shouldn't have spread those stories about the Ghoul of Katam. Surely you know how this ends.” And she quoted, “You only have yourself to blame.”
“Good Karingal, is the king dying?” a woman in the crowd whispered. Well, tried to whisper, but it came out loudly anyway. The man beside her did a double take.
“Kinan, is that you?” That came out even louder, and people peeled their attention from the king. “Ah, but you turned to wood just a while ago! I saw it with my very own eyes. You were screaming like one of those monkey-eating eagles. Like the monkey being eaten by the eagle!”
Sano spun in a slow circle, his gaze drifting across the entire camp. Suddenly, not a single wooden body was in sight. Warriors who had lain on the ground moments before, seemingly carved from wood, were flesh and bone again. They struggled to get up. Some marvelled at their bodies, shaking out their limbs. Others gaped wide-eyed around them, at the scattered pieces of canvas and at the walls of earth pockmarking the ground.
Exclaims of awe and disbelief rose throughout the crowd. There were shocked embraces and confused laughter. There were also stoic tears and tender reassurances, as some of those who had changed back found friends who had not survived the battle at all.
The effects of the Malicious Wind had been reversed.
When this finally sank in, Sano's head snapped to the deformed hills that Angtara and his mother had built with their magic. The hills were shadowed against the brilliant sunrise, and he was too far to see anything on them. Still, a fragile and tentative hope sparked to life inside him.
Sano's feet moved towards the hills, each step coming faster than the one before, until he was running as fast as his limp would allow him. He didn't mind the pain. Even the weariness that had consumed him moments ago receded to the back of his consciousness. All he cared about was whether, for the first time, he would finally find a beating heart beneath his favourite anto script, ka.