Hunted by Magic (The Baine Chronicles #3)(16)

by Jasmine Walt

As I steered the balloon again, looking out over the rugged Aziana landscape, I wondered how Iannis was faring. I assumed he was with the other delegates, but of course I could have been wrong about that. The rest of them could have all died, or they could have been separated somehow. Worse, the Resistance might have taken them alive to be tortured for information.

They’d have to have a very strong mage on their side to pull that off, I mused to myself. I still couldn’t imagine someone as powerful as Iannis being taken captive by human means. A renegade mage on their side was the only logical explanation for how they’d taken a whole dirigible full of mages captive, if that was what had happened.

Wanting to reassure myself that Iannis was all right, I tugged my serapha charm from beneath the collar of my jacket and focused on it. At first, the little white stone did nothing, but then suddenly it burst into a brilliant glow.

“Guys!” I shrieked, so excited that I nearly dropped the steering rope. “Guys, look!” I turned to show them the blazing stone.

Fenris sat up straight. “That’s great news!” he exclaimed, hope brightening his eyes.

“What’s great news?” Annia wanted to know.

“The stone’s glowing brightly again,” I explained, grinning at her. “When we set out it was only giving off a dull light, which meant that Iannis was injured or sick. The fact that it’s glowing so brightly must mean that he’s healed. He must have found help or something.”

“Well on the one hand, that’s a relief, but on the other that might mean one of the search parties has already found him,” Annia said with a huff. “I’ve heard many of them have brought healers. And if that’s the case, I won’t get any prize money.”

Fenris glared at her. “I hope you didn’t embark on this mission solely for financial gain.”

“Well, Naya is my friend and I want to help her out, but so what if I did?” Annia argued. “I’m an Enforcer. It’s a money-motivated profession.”

“Umm, guys,” I interrupted, pointing to the sky. “We’ve got some bad news too.”

“What – oh.” Fenris went silent as he stared at the black clouds gathering in the sky. “We can’t fly through that.”

“We definitely can’t,” I agreed, worrying my bottom lip as anxiety began to brew in my gut. The fragile balloon wasn’t meant to withstand a storm, but I didn’t want to stop because it would mean losing at least half a day. Iannis might be feeling better, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still in some kind of danger or in need of help.

“Annia, can you drag out the map?”

“Sure thing.” Annia reached for her pack and withdrew the map of the Northia Federation that Elania had given us. She spread it out on the floor, and I muttered the Words to a location spell Fenris had taught me – something he’d claimed to have read from one of the Palace’s library books. A greenish-blue dot lit up on the map, showing our exact location just inside the Mexian border.

“Hey! I didn’t even realize we’d crossed the border,” Annia exclaimed. “We must only be a few hours away from our target.”

“Yeah.” I glanced at the gathering storm clouds again. They were still some distance away. “I think we can get another hour of use out of this balloon.”

“Sunaya.” The warning tone in Fenris’s voice was clear. “We’re of no help to Iannis if we get struck down by lightning.”

“I know, but that storm isn’t on us yet.” I put the map away and renewed my efforts in steering the balloon. “We can make it a little further before we have to land.”

“Okay, so maybe I was wrong.”

“Maybe!” Fenris shouted over the howling winds. “Your recklessness is going to get us killed!”

The storm clouds, it turned out, were not the only thing we had to worry about. As we drew closer to them, the winds started to pick up, and soon we were fighting a ridiculously strong, cold current that was pushing us in the opposite direction. The storm clouds were coming in a lot faster than I’d expected – if I didn’t land the balloon soon, we were going to get caught in the middle of a lightning storm.

“Okay, okay, I get it!” Tightening my grip on the steering rope, I focused my attention on bringing us down. “We’re going to land this thing safely, okay?”

A flash of lightning lit up the sky, and two seconds later a crashing boom of thunder raised the hair along my arms. Biting my lip, I concentrated on bringing the balloon down, trying to find a safe place to land. Unfortunately, we were passing over a mountain range, and the trees made it hard to figure out where exactly to aim for. I was going to have to get closer.

“Sunaya!” Fenris shouted. “Incoming!”

I looked to my left, then cursed at the sight of a huge flock of large, black birds with yellow bills headed straight for us. Rushing to the burners, I turned the knob to decrease the heat, and the balloon began to drop, putting us below the level that the flock was flying at.

“Phew –” I began to let out a sigh of relief, but froze as the little bastards changed altitude as well. “Oh, shit. Take cover!”

I crouched down inside the basket just as the flock hit us – and by that I meant literally. The sound of wings beating and beaks cawing created a cacophony that made my ears ring, and I resisted the urge to clap my hands over them to block out the noise. The balloon jostled and swayed as several of the large creatures bumped into it, and my heart dropped as I heard a loud ripping sound.

“Fuck!” I jumped to my feet, then hastily grabbed the edge of the basket for balance as we dropped several feet in altitude. Leaning out the side, I saw a flap of fabric whipping around in the wind, and gritted my teeth. One of those bastards had ripped a hole in our balloon! Frantically, I tore my knife out and sawed off the ropes holding the sandbags, hoping the loss of weight would help slow our descent.

Thunder rolled across the sky again, but I didn’t even bother to look at the storm clouds now – we had bigger problems. Despite lightening the load, the balloon was dropping at an alarming rate, much faster than I wanted it to. I grabbed the steering rope as the mountainside we were headed for came closer and closer into view.

“Steer it that way!” Fenris had jumped to his feet to stand next to me, and was pointing to a patch of land on the mountainside that looked clearer than the rest. “If we can avoid the trees we might be able to patch the balloon up!”