IT’S THE SIXTH NIGHT WHEN THE HUNTERS FIND US. I’ve volunteered for guard duty, which means a cold stint on the edge of our camp. My crewmates huddle in sleeping sacks, curled up for warmth at the back of a cave. ‘Cave’ might be a bit generous. It’s more of a dimple in the cliff face, high up in a narrow canyon called the Knife.
We’ve been sneaking along a puckered stone ledge, just ten metres beneath the Knife’s upper lip. The canyon ﬂoor lies far below, veiled by a sickening drop into darkness. The Knife is our route to the fabled Magnetic Valley – and, ultimately, our only hope of escape from Taladia.
In Taladia, the king drops alchemy bombs on our cities, subduing rebellion with magic and ﬂame. In Taladia, youths are conscripted to die in foreign wars, expanding the king’s empire. And in Taladia, I have starved on the streets, dodged the guards and watched my family burn.
The Knife is more than just a canyon. It’s our route to freedom.
But the king’s hunters are on our trail. And by blowing their airbase to smithereens, we’ve also blown ourselves to the top of their kill list.
I hug my knees, huff out a cloud of breath, and keep my eyes ﬁxed on the dark. The wind is restless tonight, with a whiff of impending rain. When you grow up on the streets, you learn to tell when it’s time to seek shelter. This isn’t quite the smell I knew back in Rourton – that familiar stink of rubbish in the damp – but I still recognise the threat.
A storm is coming.
If we’re lucky, it might slow any hunters in pursuit – or make them think twice before they charge after us. But if a hunter like Sharr Morrigan is nearby, we’re in serious trouble. The Knife is a treacherous route at the best of times; I’ve already survived a few near-slips on its ledges. If we have to run for our lives tonight, in the dark, in the rain . . .
I swallow, trying to quash the idea. No reason to panic. The hunters might not even be in the Knife; perhaps we’ve given them the slip. Perhaps we can ride out this storm in our cave, shielded by stone and sleeping sacks. And I’ve cast an illusion to hide us, of course, shrouding our camp in a mirage of untouched stone.
It will be enough. It has to be.
I glance back at my crewmates. From this angle, the only one I can see is Lukas, who lies bundled at the mouth of the cave. He should sleep further back, near the shelter and warmth of the others’ bodies. But his face juts outside, a thin oval in the moonlight.
For our ﬁrst few nights in the Knife, I ﬁgured Lukas slept near the edge of the group to detect any birds nearby. His magical proclivity is Bird, so he can link into their minds. He’ll even borrow a passing hawk’s eyes sometimes, to survey the world from its perspective. But I’ve realised that Lukas only sleeps near the open when I’m on guard duty.
I don’t know what to think about that. It’s a week since we kissed in the prison tower. A week since we waited together for our executions. I still have no idea what Lukas means to me, and even less idea of what I might mean to him. It’s hard to sort out romantic feelings when you’re on the run with three other teenagers. Communal camping might be our safest option, but it doesn’t leave room for private conversations.
A breeze skips across the top of our ledge, tickling Lukas’s form. He grunts a little, adjusting his weight but doesn’t open his eyes. I feel a slow smile curl my lips. Lukas looks so peaceful when he’s sleeping. No creases at the edges of his eyes, or frowns to tug at his mouth. He’s not the son of the king, a fugitive prince on the run from his father’s hunters. He’s just Lukas Morrigan. No more, no less.
Another breeze rufﬂes his hair. I’m itching to crawl over and smooth it, but I should concentrate on keeping watch. I take a deep breath, shake my head, and swing back to focus on the dark.
Then I hear it. Perhaps it’s just a trick of the wind, or the screech of a distant bird.
It comes again, louder and clearer: ‘This way!’
My body tenses. I glance back and forth, searching for a clue. Nothing. The moon is lurking in a coil of clouds, so it’s hard to see more than a few metres ahead. Beyond that, the world curls with darkness.
‘Hurry up! Over here!’
I squint harder, but see nothing. My throat tightens. Have they found our trail? We chose this stony ledge to avoid leaving footprints, but the hunters’ tracking skills are legendary. These aren’t city guards, or the young conscripts of King Morrigan’s army: hunters are trained professionals, with years of experience in the wild. All it would take is a broken twig and they’d be upon us.
And all I’ve got to go on is a disembodied echo somewhere in the dark. No way to tell whether the speaker is a kilometre away, or just twenty metres.
Unless . . .
I recently discovered my magical proclivity is Night. Theoretically, I should be able to ﬂoat through the dark, like when Lukas borrows the eyes of a bird, or Maisy controls our camp ﬁre. I could melt into the night, invisible, and search the area for hunters. But my powers are still raw, and I don’t have control yet. The magic slips like wet clay between my ﬁngers – and if I’m not careful, my whole conscious mind could do the same. Last time I tried to mesh my body into Night, I almost lost myself forever. I’m not desperate enough to risk it again. Not yet.
As quietly as possible, I scramble back into our cave. When I duck below the overhang, I catch the glint of eyes staring back at me.
‘Hunters?’ Teddy whispers.
‘Yeah, I think so.’
He nods. ‘Foxaries are a bit jumpy. I reckon they can smell someone.’
Well, that explains why Teddy’s awake. Our foxaries doze nearby: oversized lumps of fur and body odour. Their species is famously vicious: a pack of twisted hybrids, bred via illegal experiments and alchemical manipulation. But Teddy’s proclivity is Beast, and he connects with animals in a way the rest of us will never understand. He’s the only reason these brutes stay under our control, or let us ride them across the wilds. Whenever our foxaries are restless, Teddy’s the ﬁrst to sense their fear.
‘We should move,’ he says.
I hesitate. That storm is deﬁnitely on its way, and a slippery scramble through the Knife isn’t likely to end well. But what’s the alternative – wait here and cross our ﬁngers?
I glance at the ring of magnets that encircles our camp. My illusion ricochets between them, cloaking us in stone and shadow. It can shield us from eyes, but not from touch. If the hunters search this narrow ledge, they’ll stumble right into our midst.
‘Yeah, all right,’ I say. ‘Get the foxaries ready.’
As Teddy turns aside, I cover Clementine’s lips to wake her. She’s probably enjoying some pleasant dream about ball gowns or cupcakes, and the last thing I need is a shout of alarm when I jolt her back into our considerably less pleasant reality.
Clementine blinks at me. Her blonde curls shine as she yanks herself up into the reach of moonlight. ‘Hunters?’ She mouths, when I withdraw my hand
I nod. ‘We’re leaving.’
‘I’ll get Maisy,’ she says, and turns to her twin.
I’m impressed by her composure. Even after weeks on the run, I still half-expect sisters to go to bits in a crisis. Clementine and Maisy were richies back in Rourton: wealthy heiresses whose days were adorned with high teas and sequins. They’ve proven their courage a thousand times since, but part of me still feels they’re too fragile for life in the wild.
I take a deep breath and gather our magnets. My movement breaks the circle, shattering the illusion. We are visible now. Visible and vulnerable. But we can’t stay here.
I clamber atop a foxary, thighs clenched around the furry barrel of its torso. According to Teddy, this one’s name is Garrum. I get the strong feeling Garrum doesn’t like me – either that, or he wriggles his bum around to dislodge his riders as a matter of course – but this isn’t the time to argue. Teddy straddles Borrash, our only surviving beast from Rourton, and the twins already sit astride their favourite mount. It’s a relatively placid beast called Perrim – although in foxary terms, ‘relatively placid’ translates to ‘will probably bite off your hand instead of your head’ if you approach without Teddy to pacify him.
A warm body slips into the space behind me.
‘Mind if I join you?’ Lukas says.
‘Yeah, of course.’ I’m slightly ﬂustered by how his breath tickles the back of my neck. ‘I mean, of course you can join me – not of course I mind. I mean . . .’
I grind my teeth to make myself shut up.
‘All right,’ I say more forcefully. ‘Everyone ready to go?’
The others answer with silent nods. The moonlight is still muffled by clouds, but I can read their tension in the stiffness of their spines.
I’m tempted to say something like ‘We’ve beaten them once, we’ll do it again! ‘ or ‘Let’s show those hunters who they’re messing with!’ But we’re not in some corny puppet show. The truth is that we may die tonight. Our good luck has lasted too long- and if life has taught me anything, it’s that good luck is always the entrée to bad.
So in the end, I settle for, ‘Let’s go.’