Hunted by Magic (The Baine Chronicles #3)(14)

by Jasmine Walt

Then again, Fenris was a shifter, so should I really be surprised that he hadn’t made friends with the others? The way the Council had turned on him so quickly the moment Iannis was out of sight was proof that without the Chief Mage’s support, Fenris didn’t hold much influence. It made me wonder if that was my fate, too – if I would always have to rely on Iannis to protect me from the wrath and prejudice of the Mages Guild.

Hell no, I thought, gripping the rope in my fist a little tighter. I might need Iannis now, but no way was I going to be dependent on him for the rest of my life. I was going to become a mage in my own right, a force to be reckoned with, and the other mages would have to respect me.

“Is it just me, or are we swaying a little?”

Annia’s voice startled me out of my thoughts, and I realized that my lapses in concentration were pulling the balloon in the wrong direction – a side effect of letting myself get caught up in my emotions.

“Sorry,” I muttered, reining myself in. The balloon steadied again as I straightened out our course. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Do you need me to take over?” Fenris asked, sounding concerned. “It’s important that you maintain your focus and control, Sunaya. We don’t want to wreck the balloon.”

“No, no, I’m fine.” I waved Fenris away as he started to stand up. “I’ll be good for another hour at least.”

“Very well,” he said, settling back in with Annia. I turned my attention back to the landscape, which was so very, very far below us. It had been six hours since we’d left, with at least another four to go until we crossed the border into Mexia. Right now we were hovering over the state of Aziana, the craggy, reddish-brown landscape peeking through the clouds below us. Mostly canyons and desert, with the occasional green patch of forest. I’d heard they had cacti there the size of trees, with arms sticking out to the sides and up, like a man holding up both hands in surrender. I wondered what the people there were like – I’d traveled all over Canalo on Enforcer business, but never to other states, and it made me realize I knew very little about the rest of the Federation.

If we ever get out of this mess, and I ever get some time off, I’m going to travel, I decided. From coast to coast, so I can see what this country is really like, and after that to other continents.

I steered the balloon for another hour, then with Fenris’s help landed it in a sheltered valley so we could make camp. The sun was setting, and none of us were keen on trying to steer the balloon through the night. Without light it would be tough to land safely, and the charm could well lead us to a forest or down a canyon. Also, my bladder was full to bursting – we’d had a bucket on board to relieve ourselves, of course, but I’d stubbornly held out until we landed.

“You two make camp,” I told Fenris and Annia once we’d secured the balloon. “I’m going to see if I can scrounge up some dinner.”

“Why?” Annia asked, frowning as she held up a sack. “We’ve got provisions.”

“We shouldn’t use them if we don’t have to. Besides,” I added, grinning a little, “I could use the exercise.”

“Suit yourself.” Annia turned away to unpack the small tent we’d bought. It turned out that she’d brought one of her own, so we had two shelters if the weather got rough. Thankfully it didn’t seem like that was going to happen – the air here was dry and warm. Almost swelteringly so, especially considering that we’d been freezing our asses off just a little while ago. I hoped things cooled off a little bit, or I was going to have trouble getting to sleep.

Putting the worry out of my mind, I closed my eyes and reached for my inner beast. She sprang forth eagerly, and a white light enveloped me as uncomfortably hot tingles spread through my body. I stretched and changed shape, muscles, skin, and bones reforming, and when the white light faded, I was crouched on all fours, my tail swishing back and forth. Digging my claws into the reddish-brown dirt, I stretched and yawned, muscles rippling beneath my black fur. It felt good to be back in beast form again.

I spared one last look at Annia and Fenris, then bounded forward, heading up into the tree-dotted hillside. Dirt and rocks shifted beneath my paws as I ran, and I opened up my senses to the wilderness. Birds twittered overhead, branches rustled as a squirrel hopped from one tree to another, and the scent of deer droppings mixed with the fresher scents of evergreens and shrubs urged me onward.

I tracked the deer droppings further north to a clearing, where a herd of deer grazed. I crouched in the tall grass for a little while, scoping out the options, and my eyes settled on an older female with a limp in her rear right leg. Settled on my choice, I sprang from my hiding place and bounded straight for her. The herd immediately took off, galloping to safety, and the female tried to follow, but her leg slowed her down as I’d expected. Within seconds I was on her, taking her down, my claws digging into her hide as she struggled vainly. Clamping my jaws around her long neck, I shook her neck to break the spine, the killing blow. A crack rent the air, and as the deer went limp, I pierced her jugular with my fangs. As her sweet blood coated my tongue, I was briefly overwhelmed by the urge to feast right then and there, but I held back. This kill wasn’t just for myself, after all – it was for Annia and Fenris as well.

“Wow,” Annia remarked as I dragged the deer back to camp. “You really know how to impress a girl, don’t you?” She was sitting on a log in front of a campfire, stirring something in a pot.

“I told Annia to wait for you, but she insisted on using some of the rations,” Fenris responded as I tossed my head, annoyed that Annia was cooking something else. He was sitting next to her on the log, though at a respectable distance. To the left, I noticed that the tents had been set up, and the balloon was properly secured.

“Oh well. More for you and me, I guess. Come on then, let’s eat.”

Something very much like reluctance crossed Fenris’s face, but then he nodded and stood. I dragged the deer carcass aside out of respect for Annia, and waited until Fenris had changed into wolf form before ripping into it. Shifters need a lot of food to begin with, and on top of that I’d been using my magic all day, so I was ravenous. Between the two of us, we managed to pick the bones clean in short order.

“Enjoy your meal?” Annia asked after we’d trotted back over to the campfire.