There are only two times each day when the air is stable enough to fly a hot air balloon. The first is just after dawn, and the other is a few hours before dusk. Even during these times, there are no guarantees. Saguaro had heard of many balloonists who had awakened for an early morning flight or planned the perfect sunset ride, only to find that the conditions were not right after all.
It is also difficult to fly a hot air balloon alone. A skilled crew is needed in order to spot the balloon and to help with the launch and landing. If an experienced balloon pilot were to learn of Saguaro’s plans, she would not be allowed to fly.
She, however, possessed a gift that even professional balloonists do not. She was endowed with the power of sorcery.
Admittedly, Saguaro did not have much sorcery experience. Although her mother had several sorcery pupils, she had been unwilling to teach her own daughter. “Spells are irreversible,” she had told Saguaro, “and you don’t want to do something you might regret later. If it weren’t for the income, I wouldn’t even practice sorcery myself. It’s just far more trouble than it’s worth.”
Now that she had cast a spell herself, Saguaro thought she understood what her mother had meant. She would give anything to turn back time and undo her spell. Still, if she truly wanted to run away, she needed to escape before dawn. Sorcery seemed like the only way to make this happen.
After dragging the balloon to a flat section of the beach, she reached into her satchel. She felt around until she produced the worn, leather spell book and the training wand she had stolen from her mother. She flipped through the pages until she found the spells she was looking for.
The first spell was easy. She placed her wand at the balloon’s opening and grinned as it filled with hot air. Next, she lit the burners that would keep the air at the proper temperature. But when it came time for the spell that would help the balloon fly, she hesitated. She thought of a story her mother had told her about a young woman whose spell had gone horribly wrong. She had tried to make a man lose his heart to her, and the man had ended up with no heart at all. What if she made a mistake and the balloon rose, only to fall and crash hard on the ground?
Deep down, Saguaro knew that her mother’s story was just that. Yes, casting spells could be dangerous, but the woman in the story had known nothing about sorcery, and Saguaro had watched her mother teach dozens of lessons. She knew the proper way to hold a wand and how to read the language of spells. She knew what words to emphasize and how to project properly. She just did not have much practical experience.
I can do this, she told herself, gripping the wand tightly. This spell might be more complicated than the others I’ve cast, but it’s not impossible. It will work. I know it will.
She climbed into the balloon’s basket and took a deep breath.
“Eleka datay feleka flee, eleka datey avan tatay…”
For the longest moment, nothing happened. The basket remained anchored to the ground. Saguaro was about to try the spell again when she felt a change beneath her. The balloon had begun to lift from the sand.
It continued rising until it suddenly gained momentum. The unexpected speed caused Saguaro to lose her balance, and she was thrown to the basket’s floor.
She grabbed the spell book and hurried through the pages. The balloon continued to rise higher and faster with each passing second. She had a horrible image of it flying so high that it sailed straight into the burning sun.
She scanned each page for something that would help, but the various spells blurred together. One bold title finally caught her attention: “The Navigation Charm.”
She had scarcely a moment to read the spell’s description. There was no time for fear or doubt. Though she tried to chant at an even pace, she worried that she was speaking too fast.
The balloon seemed startled by the change of spell. It stopped rising and hovered in the air. Saguaro took advantage of the pause and used the rim of the basket to pull herself up. Next, she took out her wand and pointed it toward the earth.
This time, the reaction was instantaneous. The balloon followed her lead and began descending. She continued guiding the wand until she was at a safe height for flying, then pointed the balloon forward to cross the Nonestic Ocean.
Saguaro inhaled deeply. She stared at the water below, her knees shaking. Both the ocean and the sky were the same color, and the reflection of the moon and stars on the glassy sea almost mirrored the night’s sky.
She had always hated living on an island. The water surrounding Cascadia had felt like a barrier from the rest of the world. It was difficult to believe she was crossing the same ocean that had held her captive in Cascadia her entire life.
The reality of the situation struck her. Here she was, in a hot air balloon, above the same ocean in which she had swum since she was a little girl. For the first time in her life, she was not in Cascadia. Her feet were not even on the ground.
She had never expected flying to feel like this. She felt weightless and limitless, up high in the air. The thrill was like running faster than she ever imagined possible. She felt like she was skipping across the sky.
Her worries began to disappear. She forgot about her first spell. She even forgot about her hurt and anger. Instead, she concentrated on the cool wind caressing her and the euphoria of flying. Never before had she felt as free.
Against her will, Saguaro’s thoughts turned to her mother. Saguaro could not remember the last time she had seen her smile. Not that her mother would have shared her pleasure. Flying would probably cause anxiety for someone afraid of heights.
Oddly enough, the most helpful thing about flying was the exhilaration. Saguaro managed to continue pointing her wand across the ocean without even thinking about how tired she was. The experience had awakened her completely.
After a few hours, Saguaro thought she saw something new in the distance. She blinked, but the sight did not disappear. Instead, it continued to grow larger.
Saguaro recognized that she was almost at the Badlands, the territory immediately opposite the ocean from Cascadia, which shared a border with Winkie Country. She continued guiding the balloon towards the land until she crossed the last expanse of water.
She had done it!
At first glance, the Badlands reminded her of a ribbon-trimmed card she had once received. The evergreens that etched the mountain tops were like the card’s decorative border. High peaks loomed above her, and gullies split the otherwise barren ground. Unlike Cascadia’s rainbow terrain, the Badlands were a monotonous brown.
For most Cascadians, the dullness would have been depressing. Saguaro, however, was invigorated by the absolute normalcy of the landscape, so different from anything she had ever seen before. It was refreshing to be in a place where ordinariness was the norm.
Saguaro was so immersed in her thoughts that she almost dropped the wand. The balloon began veering towards a rugged cliff. She managed to regain her grasp, but it was too late. A jagged boulder had already snagged the balloon.
It all happened in an instant. The balloon let out a rush of air that extinguished the burners and slammed onto a narrow ledge. Then the basket tipped over, and Saguaro found herself flat on her face with the basket’s contents poking into her.
She struggled to get her bearings. She was sprawled out with her head between the balloon’s ropes, her right arm twisted beneath her. It took all her strength just to sit up.
She was sitting in complete disarray. The boulder had torn a large hole in the balloon, and it now lay limp and useless. Some of the basket’s straw had also unwoven. To make matters worse, her right arm was throbbing. Even if she were to cast another levitation spell, she would have no way of guiding the basket. She could no longer lift her right arm high enough to continue using the wand.
Her father had always said that Saguaro had inherited her mother’s stubbornness. Though she ordinarily hated this comparison, at that moment, Saguaro was grateful for its accuracy. She was not going to give up. She would find a way to repair the balloon and fly it again. She would get to Oz and at last be free of intolerance and secrets. She had not escaped Cascadia, only to find herself trapped once more.
There was no way she was going back home.
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