Hunted by Magic (The Baine Chronicles #3)(17)

by Jasmine Walt

“Okay!” I shouted over the roaring wind, and tugged the balloon in that direction.

“Isn’t there any way to slow this thing down?” Annia asked. She was scrambling about on her hands and knees, securing our baggage as best she could in preparation for what was looking like an imminent crash-landing. “I’d rather not have my bones pulverized, thank you very much!”

“I’m doing the best I can!” I shouted back, keeping my eyes focused on our destination. We were close enough now that I could see the individual branches on the pine trees. My stomach twisted as the ground rushed into view and I realized we were headed straight for a very steep, very narrow ravine.

“Brace yourselves!” I cried as we cleared the treetops, and I ducked back down and grabbed onto the edge of the basket. I squeezed my eyes shut right before we crashed into the hard, unforgiving rock, and prayed to Magorah that we would survive this so that I could see Iannis again.

“Well that went well,” Annia said dryly as we stared up at the smashed remnants of the balloon. We’d hit the rocky wall of the ravine hard enough that the basket had been smashed beyond repair, and it had been wedged so tightly in the rock that we’d been trapped a good twenty feet off the ground. Even in panther form it had been challenging for me to climb out and make it to the ground, and once I did I’d had to help fashion a makeshift pulley system from a coil of rope and some bits from the balloon itself. Engineering wasn’t exactly my strong suit, and I’d been sweating bullets as I’d lowered Annia and Fenris down, but we’d eventually managed to make it out safely.

“At least we have most of our supplies,” I offered, hefting my pack a little higher on my shoulder.

“Yeah, but we’ve probably added several days to our journey.”

“We survived,” I pointed out. “We could have easily ended up as pulverized as the balloon.”

“True.” Annia shuddered a little as she glanced up at the contraption. “I’m not entirely sure why we weren’t.”

“It’s a mystery,” I said dryly, slanting a narrow-eyed look at Fenris. I’d scented magic just before we’d crashed into the rock face, and I had a suspicion he’d had something to do with it. But Fenris simply gave me a bland look before returning his yellow gaze to Annia.

“If you’re worried about food, feel free to help yourself to most of the supplies,” he said. “Sunaya and I will be able to hunt game, and we should encounter streams along the way to refill our canteens. In the meantime though, we should focus on finding Iannis. Sunaya, where does your serapha charm tell us to go?”

Closing my eyes, I focused in on the charm around my neck, paying careful attention to the tug at the center of my chest. “That way.” I pointed, and then opened my eyes to find that I was jabbing my finger directly at the rock wall.

Fenris sighed. “We’d better figure a way out of this ravine, then.”

We followed the ravine long enough to find the stream and refill our water bottles and then, with me in the lead, forged an impromptu trail towards Iannis.

The next couple of days were long and grueling – the mountainous terrain was challenging, with plenty of gorges and rocky ground to traverse, and little water to be found. Fenris and I spent more time than not in beast form, finding it easier to travel across the unforgiving landscape on all fours, but Annia didn’t have that luxury, and we often had to slow down and wait for her.

Finally, on the third day, we emerged from the treacherous mountain range. Rocky terrain gave way to wide, rolling plains covered in tall yellow grass, with the occasional scruffy-looking tree jutting out of the landscape. The air was hot and dry, and we stopped at the top of a small hillock so I could take off my jacket and survey the landscape.

The serapha charm was still pointing us in the previous direction, so Director Chen’s rescue team had not yet found Iannis either. But with every day we lost, Solantha was likely sliding deeper into chaos. Fear for the city and for Annia’s sister kept us pushing to the limits of our endurance, and we struggled through the long days with little sleep.

“You sure we’re going in the right direction?” Annia asked dubiously as she pushed her long, auburn hair out of her face. “I dunno about you, but the way I see it there seems to be a whole lot of nothing out here aside from those buffalo.” She pointed out to a large group of brown clumps in the distance.

“Not quite,” Fenris remarked as he stretched a finger in the opposite direction. “If you look out there, you’ll see we’ve got company.”

“Huh?” Annia squinted her dark eyes as she looked out in Fenris’s direction. “I don’t see anything.”

“It’s okay,” I assured her with a pat on the shoulder. “They’re little grey dots, and they’re hard for even me to see.” Especially with the backdrop of the purplish-grey mountains on the other side of the plains.

“Little grey dots,” Annia repeated. A hot gust of wind blew straight at us, rustling the grasses at our feet and sending Annia’s hair flying. Not for the first time, I was grateful for the decision to tie my hair back. “So, what are those supposed to be? Little tents or something?”

Fenris shrugged. “They could be, though they would have to be rather large for us to see them at this distance. I’m not sure what sort of dwellings the Coazi use – these people may all look the same to us, but from what I understand, they actually differ from tribe to tribe in numerous ways.”

“You seem to understand a lot,” I commented, my eyes still scanning the landscape. Now that I looked more closely, I could see the dwellings in more than one location across the landscape. “It looks like they’ve got several settlements out here. Is that normal?”

“It’s not unusual,” Fenris confirmed. “Tribes have been known to split off into different clans, especially when their territory covers such great distances. Each one will likely have its own chieftain and shaman, and there is probably a central clan as well.”

“Sounds like politics exist even amongst savages,” Annia said, huffing out a breath.

Fenris turned a narrowed gaze in her direction. “Do not make the mistake of thinking these people are simple,” he warned. “They may not speak our language or practice our customs, but their minds are as sharp as yours or mine. It wouldn’t do to treat them like children or idiots and inadvertently insult them if we run across them.”