The Laws of Magic
When they emerged from the forest, Anina marvelled at how the sky perfectly mirrored her mood. Dull and overcast, the sky exuded an apprehension in the way it hid under thick blankets of grey clouds.
Anina had known there would be risks involved in seeking the Hermit Mage, but she’d taken them because she had already exhausted all her alternative sources. Most mages she consulted gave the same answer as Sano, and the shamans she could afford to pay were just as unhelpful. They only knew of cases where mages lost their magic, but none of where they acquired more.
Anina had considered it a mixed blessing when someone reluctantly told her to find the Hermit Mage. At first, she had dismissed the idea. The last thing she needed was to affiliate with law-breakers, but she had been desperate enough to change her mind. It had taken Anina months to save up for the journey and for what she hoped was sufficient payment.
And yet here she was, having barely escaped an encounter with two of King Bunawi’s warriors, plus the Malicious Wind, of all things. Not only did she not get the answer she’d hoped for, but she was now travelling with an outlaw, and might even be one herself.
“Ah, isn’t the sky amazing?” Sano said, eyes wide with wonder, lips stretched in a fevered smile. Anina looked up again to check if she'd missed anything other than utter drabness.
She wasn’t sure what to make of Sano. He was skinny, had a thick accent, and wore old-fashioned Kataman clothes. Not that she could say much differently about herself, but at least her clothes were of Dayungan colours and patterns, albeit faded and worn. As they made their way out of the forest, Sano had grown more exuberant about their upcoming journey. If she hadn’t been with him the previous day, she would barely guess that he had just lost his home. Perhaps he was trying to mask his grief by overcompensating with zeal.
Ahead of them was a mostly bald slope of rocks and parched soil, dotted by short shrubs. Beyond that was a long stretch of dry plains, sparsely populated by small, poor villages. They had ditched their initial escape plan to the sea, and instead chosen to move west. There was an established route that led to the chiefdom of Gila, with plenty of stops where Anina and Sano could get what they needed.
From their vantage point, Anina could perceive the outline of a village. Their goal was to reach it before nightfall.
“You’ve really never left the forest at all?” she asked as they picked their way down. She had climbed this foothill just two days ago, nursing a fragile hope that she would finally find someone who knew how a mage could get stronger.
“I’ve gone north to the seashore,” Sano answered. “When Mother and I can’t find food in the forest, we try fishing. Where do you live? You sound like a local, not like those warriors who came for me. Do you live in a nearby village?”
Anina realized she had been speaking in Kataman the entire time she’d been with Sano. Strange. She hadn't thought she would fall back into the habit so quickly. It had been a while since she'd spoken more than a few words in her mother tongue.
“I don’t live anywhere,” Anina replied.
Sano was hopping down the dusty boulders on the slope, but he stopped and looked back at her. “What do you mean? You must live somewhere.”
“I don’t,” she repeated. “I just travel. I go from village to village, and I write or power scripts in exchange for food or information. Sometimes a group of travellers will hire me to guard them from bandits.”
Travelling was not Anina’s ideal way of life, but she couldn’t settle down anywhere. Not until she found out the secret to getting more magic.
Out of habit, Anina patted the wooden figure she carried of Likubay, goddess of travellers and lost things. She kept it in a sleeve on her pack, easily accessible for when she needed it. That morning, while Sano still slept, Anina had made an offering to the spirits of the forest to address the previous day’s disturbance, and she had followed it up with an offering to Likubay. For a traveller who owned nothing more than what she could carry on her back, Anina depended upon Likubay’s favour. And she had a feeling she’d need more of it now.
“But what about your family?” Sano pressed.
“They died in a raid.” Anina pushed as much sorrow into her voice as she could to cover up all the other feelings she had about their deaths. Sorrow was understandable. Guilt, much less so.
Sano gasped. “I’m so sorry!”
She thanked him, and neither of them said any more about the subject as they continued their walk.
Anina was used to the awkwardness of revealing she was practically a nomad. Most villagers lived in the same place their whole lives. Very few would choose to not be bound to a community. Those who found themselves friendless and destitute would often loan their labour to the chief of a village in exchange for membership. There was no shame in doing so, and Anina would have considered that option if her situation had been different.
It was past midday when they reached flat ground.
“Let’s take a break,” Anina said. It would be a longer walk to the village ahead, and Sano already seemed out of breath.
They settled down on some boulders, and Sano took out the leftover fruits from that morning. “I’ve been thinking about our deal,” he said, before biting into a star fruit. “It might be easier if you tell me what you already know about magic. Mother taught me many things, but she didn’t always mention which ones were acceptable in the kingdom.”
Anina grabbed a banana from the pile. If there was one good thing that came out of her sorry attempt to meet the Hermit Mage, it was Sano’s offer to share his unusual magical knowledge. If somehow even the Hermit Mage couldn’t give her an adequate answer to getting more powerful, perhaps Anina could piece together a solution from whatever she would learn.
“I know about the fundamental laws,” Anina said, starting from the place that made most sense. “First, magic only works on inanimate objects. People, animals, and living plants cannot be manipulated by magic. Secondly, magic can only transform objects into those of a similar nature. A rock can turn to dust, but not into gold.”
“Good,” Sano remarked. He bent down and picked up a small stone. “I suppose you also know what to avoid. What would happen if you push magic into an object without an anto script?”
Before Anina could stop him, Sano did just what he had asked. The rock violently burst upward into pieces, then dropped to the ground in a sad shower of tiny crumbs.
“That was stupid!” Anina cried. “You knew it was going to hurt!”
“Just a little.” Sano flexed his hand to ease the pain that Anina knew he felt. A small rock like that might be harmless, but Anina had experienced firsthand the destructive consequences of pushing her magic into something without a script.
People called it a lashing. Without an anto script to activate, the magic built up in the object, causing it to explode. Mages who lashed their magic suffered from a painful rebound of equal magnitude. There had been cases where not only did an explosion kill others, but the lashing stunned the mage to death.
“Any other safety rules?” Sano prodded, the act all but forgotten to him.
Anina shook her head at his recklessness, but answered his question anyway. “An anto script can be written in any language, but it is advisable for a mage to activate only the ones he or she can understand.” It was why King Bunawi had criminalized the writing of anto scripts in any language but Dayungan. Because the kingdom had annexed so many chiefdoms, it would be safer for everyone if they all just scripted in one language.
Sano nodded. “What’s fascinating is that some scripts that would be very long in Dayungan can be written in other languages with just a few symbols.”
He bent again, but picked up a twig this time. He wrote something on the loose soil she couldn’t understand. The characters weren’t Kataman nor Dayungan ones. He stopped after just three characters.
“This is a short phrase that means ‘to break a rock into five pieces of equal mass’,” Sano explained. “It comes from a region in the Unconquered Lands, where the mountains pretty much bleed gold. Imagine how much quicker you can activate a script like this, how much less magic it takes.”
Sano had a good point about the script's efficiency, but that wasn't what piqued Anina's interest. “How many languages do you know?” she asked.
“Mother taught me to read and write in ten. I can only speak in four though. Mother knows a lot more than me.”
If they didn't live in the Kingdom of Dayung, Anina would have been impressed. As it was, she was rather concerned about Sano's revelation. She reached out with her foot to scratch out the script. “That’s good to know, but you must remember that writing in any language but Dayungan would get you arrested, and maybe even killed. It's a big part of the reason why you're a wanted criminal.”
Sano shrugged, subdued. “Not to worry, I doubt I would have to split a rock into five equal portions any time soon. Languages just excite me. You know the word ka?”
“Sure.” It was a Kataman word that meant ‘to be human,’ but also ‘to live’ or ‘to exist.’ Anina found it tiresome and wondered why her ancestors couldn’t have come up with three separate words to mean each of those distinctly.
Sano pressed, “How interesting that we have a single symbol representing a word that means so much. I couldn’t find an equivalent in any of the other languages I know. Sometimes, just for fun, I would put it on dolls and try to activate it.”
Anina chuckled drily. “And here I thought it was only King Bunawi’s laws that you break. Turns out the basic laws of magic aren’t safe from you either.”
Sano laughed at that. Twin dimples dug into his cheeks. “I was just bored! It gets lonely up there, with just me and my mother.”
Anina hadn’t considered how isolated Sano must have been. Wary that the conversation would take a personal turn once again, she cleared her throat and steered it back to their journey.
“In any case, we should switch to Dayungan as we get closer to Gila,” she suggested. “People aren’t fond of hearing Kataman in more upscale places.”
Anina placed a thumb-sized leftover of her banana on the ground, an offering to a spirit. She stood up, itchy to get moving again.
“Are things really that bad out there?” Sano asked.
“Bad? That’s not the word I’d use. People just prefer to converse in Dayungan, or even Gilan. They’re the more respectable languages, that’s all.” Unlike Sano, Anina’s enthusiasm for languages went only as far as whatever would allow her to blend in. She already had her Kataman accent to mark her everywhere she went. The least she could do was speak the tongue that people preferred to hear.
They slung their packs over their shoulders, and began trekking across the flat, rocky plain. Anina set a faster pace to cover a bit more ground, and for a while Sano seemed comfortable at her side. However, as time passed, he began to fall behind. His breaths came in short pants, and his skin paled to a greyish shade. A thin layer of sweat coated his forehead even though the sun wasn’t out. He never asked to stop, but she eventually allowed him a short break in the middle of the afternoon.
Anina began to worry that they weren’t going to make it to the village by the end of the day. Normally, she wouldn’t be opposed to sleeping on the ground if she had to, but the weather didn’t seem appropriate for that.
The clouds that had seemed like smooth, grey cotton just that morning now bore darkened underbellies that foretold an angry rainfall. Although the dry season was about to arrive, there were still heavy rains from time to time.
When Sano stopped to catch his breath for the third time, Anina bit back her impatience. He honestly looked like he was struggling.
“Don’t worry!” Sano held up a hand and gave a wavering smile. “I’m fine. The air is just different down here.”
Anina sent him a flat look and felt his forehead. He was burning up. Just as she feared.
“You have a fever,” Anina remarked, though he was most likely aware of that already.
“I know... I suppose there’s no use pretending otherwise. I’ve already taken a few bites of ginger, hoping it would help.” Sano wiped his sweaty forehead. “I’m sorry, Anina. Half a day out, and I’m already holding us back.”
Anina looked at the sky again, just as a drop of rain hit her cheek. Then all around them droplets of rain pelted down from the clouds.
Just their luck. Perhaps instead of Likubay, Anina should have made a sacrifice to Urulan, god of rain.
“Come on.” Anina grabbed Sano’s arm and slung it over her shoulder. She blinked against the rainfall, sullen with the thought of how much heavier their clothes and packs would be with the weight of water, how muddy the ground would turn once the soil was drenched.
They had not gone far when Sano’s knees completely buckled, and he slipped through Anina’s hold. He fell to the ground, eyes closed, limbs limp. Anina tried to shake him awake, but he wouldn’t open his eyes. She tried to search for any wounds on him, but all she found were minor scratches and bruises, nothing severe enough to warrant his sudden illness.
Just when she thought things were bad enough, the rain became a torrential downpour, soaking her and transforming the ground into a flooded slush. Anina shielded her eyes against the sheets of rain, trying to see how far they were from the village, but she could no longer see much ahead of her. And there was no point going back either. They would still be exposed until they could somehow get back up to the forest, and there was no way she could climb the slope with an unconscious Sano in a storm.
Seeing no other way, Anina readjusted her pack over one shoulder, then slung Sano’s pack over the other. With all her strength, she pulled Sano up her back until she could wrap his arms around her neck. After some awkward manoeuvring, Anina stood with Sano slumped against her back, her staffs supporting his weight.
“Here goes nothing.” She began to walk.
At first, Anina told herself that Sano wasn’t really that heavy. If he was around her age, he could easily weigh more. He wasn’t even that tall. But as her journey progressed and the rain didn’t relent, her earlier worries manifested themselves. Not only were her pack and clothes getting heavier, but so was Sano. Her muscles quivered against his weight, and she had to stop often.
The sky darkened further. Anina didn’t know how long she’d been walking and stopping, walking and stopping. All the while, she whispered a prayer to Likubay to guide her steps. Her entire world had shrunk to the tightness of her muscles, and the weariness in her bones. Her numb feet trudged through ankle-high rainwater, sinking into the mud at every step.
Anina forced herself to keep going. This was nowhere near the harshness of her journey after her village was destroyed. How long had she roamed then, without knowing anyone, without knowing where to go? At least she wasn’t starving now. And if Anina could succeed in meeting the Hermit Mage, she might finally find out the answer to the mystery that had haunted her for five years: how her magic, normally so tepid, could have caused a lashing so powerful it obliterated her entire village in the blink of an eye.