The Lost Branch Excerpt

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(If you haven’t read Gift of the Phoenix, this excerpt will spoil the ending.)

Chapter OneThe-Lost-Branch-Web-Medium

Thrayce Island rose out of the gray sea like a hunched giant, quiet and waiting. The little boat bucked over the waves, riding close to shore. Corren gripped the edge with a hand numb from the cold, the other hand loose on his staff.

Marcellus stood next to him, somehow holding his stance in spite of the rocking boat. His hand rested on the handle of the sword at his hip. “I don’t see a vessel,” Marcellus said.

Corren nodded. He’d noticed too.

Nicolai leaned forward, sitting on the bench behind them. “Maybe on the other side.”

“Maybe she didn’t use a boat,” Marcellus said.

Yes, Corren thought. “But what about the others?”

There were no signs of habitation. No buildings, no boats, not even a lean-to. If Aradia had been on this island—and they all agreed that she had—she may have come to one of the island’s many other coves. However, she left the island from here, so for now, this cove mattered most. Even two days later, the magic Aradia had used to travel from here to the Gateway lingered in the water. Corren followed the sensation of it all the way here, like following a trail.

The two knights rowing in the stern brought them close to shore, the boat jumping in the tumultuous water. Marcellus and Nicolai leapt out and pulled until the bow wedged in the sand. Corren, in his long wizard’s cloak, clambered out and onto dry land.

Marcellus and Nicolai wore leather boots, but their trousers were wet to the knees. Corren thought the incantation to dry and warm them and immediately saw the effect this had on his brothers. They startled, looking down at their legs.

Marcellus gave Corren a wry look. “You could warn me.”

The two knights hopped out, one making a concerted effort to avoid getting himself wet. He gave Corren plenty of distance.

A billow of wind cut past them and rushed inland. The sandy cove stretched away to a rocky inlet, which ended in a thick line of towering trees. The sound of rustling branches rose up as all along the tree line they swayed and undulated in the wind. That was when Corren saw them. “Footprints.”

His brothers drew to his side and together they looked at the trail before them. The footprints were faint, the wind dusting away bits of sand from the shallow indentations even now, but they were there. The footprints came from the direction of the treeline and ended nearly at Corren’s feet. He took a step away.

Behind him, half a dozen little boats, filled with knights, dotted the water as they bobbed toward shore. They’d been launched from the king’s grand sailing vessel, anchored in deeper water half a league out.

Far beyond, the rearing Cliffs of the Realm of the Phoenix cut through the horizon, dominating the sky. Up the coast of the mainland, the Cliffs came to an abrupt halt and the nation of Caedmonia began. Her sprawling capital city, Stonebridge, claimed the bay and climbed up the hill where the castle perched on the crest. Between this city and the Cliffs of the Realm, on the coast, the ancient Rock of Light stood sentinel. At its tip, the Eternal Flame burned like a beacon.

Two days ago, when Aradia had been standing here—right here—the Eternal Flame would have been a mere pinprick in those hours leading up to the Phoenix’s death. He imagined how the distant coastline would have looked to her: dark, quiet, unsuspecting. So far away. How did she get there so quickly?

Whatever magic Aradia had used to propel herself through the water and to the Gateway, it had begun in the water. Corren wouldn’t have known where to look next had it not been for the footprints. He wanted to follow them now, but waited, gripping his staff in his right hand.

Even when not in use, the staff held a kind of radiance. An energy seemed to reside at the very core, the origin of which was the hardened ash at the tip, wrapped in the clawlike fingers of the wood. The ash was the only remnant of the three stones the brothers had used to help protect the Phoenix from Aradia.

Together the Three waited as the boats came to shore. The knights hopped out with military precision, far more graceful than Corren’s awkward deboarding. Corren hoped they wouldn’t need the knights. Marcellus hoped they wouldn’t either, but they had reason to believe Aradia may have been holed up here with troops of her own, and Marcellus wanted to bring along a battalion as a precaution. Marcellus kept an alert eye on their surroundings, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around.

In fact, the entire island had an eerie sense of desolation.

The knights settled into a predetermined pattern. Marcellus assigned two small groups as lookouts and another as scouts. The rest he commanded to follow him. He looked at Corren. “Ready?”

Corren nodded and led the way, Nicolai on one side and Marcellus on the other. They crossed the sandy beach, their strides awkward in the deep sand but settling into their normal gaits as the sand relented and the ground under them grew firm. The footprints were gone by now, but if they kept on in the same direction, they’d end up at a break in the trees. It seemed to lead to an opening of some sort. They continued toward it without discussion.

The wind shifted and the Three came to a halt. An unearthly stench, darkly familiar, assailed them. It smelled of maggots and rotting flesh. Corren heard the knights reacting to and complaining against the rancid odor.

The Three exchanged glances and Nicolai’s light green eyes darkened as he said, “I know that smell.”

Images flashed through Corren’s mind. Some unknown soul extracted in the forest. Theo’s remains in slimy piles in Aradia’s hidden stronghold. Flesh and entrails and bone. He wished he knew a spell to suppress the cold chill crawling under his skin.

He and his brothers continued to look at one another. They already knew she’d been extracting souls to use as a protective shield once in the Realm of the Phoenix. What they did not know was how many.

Corren was not keen on stumbling across more evidence of Aradia’s killing. Mercifully the wind shifted, the trees roared in front of them, and they had a reprieve from the stink. Thus released, they got in motion again.

They entered the break in the trees. Branches and bushes stopped abruptly on either side of them, as if they had been magically carved away. Charred bits of wood and leaves littered the edges of a path through the forest ahead. Corren hesitated briefly then pushed on. Though there was no immediate threat, he gripped his staff tighter.

The path was barely wide enough for two, so Marcellus stayed by Corren’s side and Nicolai fell slightly behind. The knights fell in line behind them. For a time, all they heard was the trudging of their march and the occasional roar of wind through the trees. Were it not for the path, the forest would nearly be too thick and damp to traverse.

The path curved to the right and circled past the base of a rocky knoll. The stone face was dark and covered in lichens and, as they came round it, presented a narrow opening. Like the path itself, this seemed an unnatural occurrence.

The Three stopped and the troops immediately behind came to a halt. The action worked down the line until the knights stood waiting along with the rest. Corren sensed the magic humming around the edges of the opening.

Marcellus made to go through it but Corren grabbed his arm, stopping him. He felt the protective spell, which dropped over the opening like a shroud. Sharp and waiting to bite. He waved his staff, thought the appropriate incantation, and felt the protective spell dissipate.

It had only been two days since the Phoenix had resurrected itself in the Realm. Two days since they’d nearly lost their lives defending it. Two days since the Phoenix, in a moment of glowing transcendence, had taught Corren the before-unheard-of skill of nonverbal magic. Every time he used it, a deep warmth reminiscent of his moment with the Phoenix hummed though his bones.

Corren released his brother’s arm and nodded. “Alright.”

Marcellus only gave the opening an appraising look, however, so Corren led the way. He stepped through the opening, his brothers close behind. For a few steps it was nothing but a narrow passageway, progressing darkness, and the smell of damp earth, but this soon opened into a larger space. Among the objects in shadow, Corren discerned a familiar shape and sent a spell toward it. Light bloomed in the lantern, revealing an inner room carved out of the rock.

A lounge with deep mahogany fabric sat to one side. A knotty pine table dominated the rear, its worn surface covered with various implements: a spindly iron ambitus, brass scales, a silver inkwell, Aradia’s enviable mortar and pestle collection, and boxes and vials that Corren knew contained an array of potion ingredients. Clustered on one corner of the table, half a dozen hourglasses of various sizes sat abandoned, the sand lying mutely at the bottoms. Two massive cauldrons sat on the ground near the rear wall.

Corren had hoped to find Aradia’s belongings on the island—it was part of the reason they were here—but he was unprepared for the emotions they caused in him. Aradia’s presence wrapped round him, taking hold as he stood in this strange place with all her familiar things. That’s how she was in his mind: familiar and foreign all at once. Perplexing. A known thing he did not know at all.

Unbidden and unwelcome, memories assaulted him. Tossing her head back in a rare laugh after he’d done something to amuse her as a boy. Her calm presence in front of a class as she demonstrated a fiery spell that went out in a haze of purple smoke. Her eyes on him, cold and unflinching, as she shut the carriage door and sent him to his death. Aradia leaning over the book he was studying, giving some instruction, her long silvery hair falling in a sheet over her shoulder and wrapping them in safety.

That’s how he’d felt at the time. Safe.

Now these memories of her that he wished would stay away… memories that had been trailing after him like cobwebs… they gained fresh substance being in this place. They pulsed through him, tangible and without mercy. The staff in his hand felt a mere stick. Corren stood among Aradia’s things not as the powerful Head of the Order he had become, but as the boy he’d once been. Her boy.

The flame in the lantern sputtered as it caught hold of bits of grime on the wick. The lounge, the table, the vials, the hourglasses, they shuddered in the flickering light, seeming to press toward him, nearer and nearer.

“Corren?” It was Nicolai, at his shoulder.

Corren flinched almost imperceptibly. He’d forgotten they were here. His awareness extended to include his brothers, but he would not look at them. He forced himself to glance around the room, as if he were looking for the things they sought. As if he didn’t already know every object in sight.

Everything was clearly visible. There were no trunks to look through and not a book to be seen. He should have been disappointed but was too grateful for the freedom to take his leave.

“They’re not here,” Corren said. He escaped into the narrow passageway, the smell of dank earth expanding in his lungs. The tendrils of Aradia’s presence reached after him. He came through the entrance and into weak sunlight. He took several steps until he finally stopped.
Marcellus appeared beside him. “I’m sorry.”

Nicolai came to him next.

Corren looked at his brothers at last. Nicolai gave him that concerned, piercing gaze of his. Corren did not try to hide from this—there was no hiding things from Nicolai anyway—but neither did he wish to discuss it. He did not wish to do anything but forget it.

Aware of the gaggle of knights surrounding him, watching him, he forced himself to breathe normally. Indeed, away from Aradia’s things, out here in trees with the brooding sky above, he was able to get some hold on himself. He was being foolish. It was over. It was all over.

His heartbeat slowed down in great gulps. He hadn’t realized it had been racing.

He held the smooth wood of his staff, a reassuring presence once again. As the emotions he felt in the cave sank back into that place deep inside himself, he remembered why they were here. They still faced the same problem that brought them to the island to start with.

“Where are her books,” he said, his voice hinting at his earlier emotions, “if not here?” Of course, they had already checked her office at Tower Hall South, and this was her only known hiding place; he didn’t know where to look next.

“Further along perhaps,” Marcellus said. For indeed, the path Aradia had carved through the trees kept going past the cave.

Corren nodded but did not move. This time it was Marcellus who led the way, with Nicolai by Corren’s side. The knights followed in silent obedience.

They had not gone far when Nicolai said, “Here it comes.”

Marcellus, who had been walking with his hand on his sword, drew it in response, followed by the ringing of dozens of swords behind them doing the same thing. “What?” Marcellus asked, looking around.

Corren looked around too. He saw and heard nothing.

“No,” Nicolai said. “The earth. It’s up here.”

Corren understood. It was Nicolai who had led them to the first extracted body they’d found in the woods of Caedmonia. He had felt the evil of the act leeching into the earth. He must have been feeling it now. Marcellus must have understood too, because he gave a signal and all the swords went back into their scabbards.

Corren didn’t want to investigate. He didn’t want to see. As before, they stood there a moment. Corren wondered if Marcellus was remembering Theo. He’d witnessed the whole horrible scene. Corren could not be more grateful he didn’t have that memory to add to the others.

Mercifully, the wind was at their backs, but as they continued on and, apparently, drew nearer to what Nicolai sensed, the stench overpowered the wind. Their steps slowed, but they pressed forward.

The forest, and therefore the path, gave way to a meadow stretching over a rise. They crested the hill and that’s when they saw it. A virtual field of extracted bodies. At the sight of it, Corren felt as if he’d been knocked from head to toe with a stone wall. Darkness squeezed the edges of his vision as he looked on pile after pile of remains, flesh, stench, slime, bone, rot, black, black, black. “Oh, god.”

He turned away, swaying, his knees soft and thighs trembling. He pressed his eyes closed and leaned on his staff. Gripped it with both hands. Willed himself to stay upright as he felt the world swaying around him. But he knew what lay right behind him, and felt compelled to move away. He took a step, not sure he could hold himself up. Someone took him by one elbow then the other—his brothers?—and he managed to put one leg in front of the other as they escorted him away, back through the mass of knights who stepped aside and murmured and it all buzzed in his ears and in his bones.

They were back on the path. No knights. The air smelled only of impending rain. Here Corren raised a hand and they stopped. Nicolai slowly let go of Corren’s arm. Corren held steady. Marcellus did not let go until Corren took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. Gray clouds, starting to lift, and a patch of blue, as if the sky didn’t know any better.

“Sorry,” Corren said.

“Now we know what happened to her followers,” Nicolai said, visibly sickened.

Marcellus nodded, looking a little green himself. “The troops will finish scouting. Let’s go, Corren.”

No more was said as they retreated down the path, past the cave, and back to the cove with the hulking shape of the ship off in the distance. They waited for the knights to finish scouting the island, but Corren doubted they’d find anyone. He thought he knew what fate Aradia’s followers had met.

What Corren didn’t know was how. How could she have done something so horrific? Aradia had raised him. Had taught him everything he knew about magic. Had made him want to be the man he’d become. How could he have been so wrong about her? So blind?

The Eternal Flame shone bright on the distant shore. Even by day, its light was clear and steadfast. He wished he could be there now, away from this place. He wished he could somehow forget it all.

But even if he could hide in the uppermost room of the Rock of Light, basking in the healing glow of the Eternal Flame, another mystery awaited him there. A mystery everyone was looking to him to solve.

Two days earlier, after they’d defeated Aradia in the Realm, the Phoenix resurrected itself and brought its gift—the egg of ash—to the Rock of Light. After Corren had removed the egg from the pillar of receiving, he had conducted the ceremony that evenly divided the ash between the seven branches of the Order. After so many centuries of too little ash for their needs, at last the branches of the Order would have ash in abundance. They could rebuild the magical communities that had been stripped to the bare necessities and sometimes far less. They could restore the Order to what it had been before: a glorious magical organization created and sustained by their beloved Phoenix.

But they soon discovered a new problem.

When Corren lifted his glass orb of ash off the altar, it glinted in the light of the huge Eternal Flame. All around the altar, the other Heads of the branches lifted their orbs in one fluid motion and raised them high above their heads.

All but one. Sage Kennard’s orb remained on the stone slab, his hands cupping the glittering glass, his face a palette of confusion and panic. The orb would not be lifted.

It sat there even now.

As newly appointed Head of the Order, everyone looked to Corren for an explanation. He was as puzzled as they were and could not lift the orb any more than Kennard could. Corren had gone to the Vaults of the Order seeking answers. But the Inner Vault, that which only the Head of the Order could access, had been stripped bare.

So in addition to stealing the secret books of each branch of the Order, Aradia had squirreled away the books from the Inner Vault as well. Since Thrayce Island was her last known location, and since all of her other belongings and magical implements were indeed here, it only made sense that the books would be here.

If he didn’t know Aradia better, he’d wonder if she’d destroyed them. But she would never do such a thing. She was a meticulous record keeper. In addition to the missing books, Corren knew she had dozens of folios of her own notes over the years. They had to be somewhere.
A realization took hold of him. Her office in the cave did not have a single book. Not even the innocent ones, her herbologies or encyclopedias. Nothing. Aradia never traveled without books. A folio at minimum.

Corren watched the waves rolling toward him, roaring as they hit land, lost their steam, and retreated.

Aradia never traveled without her books. Never.

He turned away from shore and headed back for the path.

“Where are you going?” Marcellus asked.

“The cave. Let’s look again.”

“There’s nothing there,” Nicolai said.

“So it would seem,” Corren replied, but did not slow.

They followed him in silence. The stone face of the knoll came into view. They again came round to the entrance. This time Corren felt his heartbeat accelerating. His temperature rising. Down the dark passageway he took a deep breath. And another.

They entered the inner room, the light still pulsing in the lantern. Looking around, the lounge, the table, the vials, the hourglasses… they all stayed put. He felt as hard as the stone walls surrounding him and turned his attention to them now. He knew what went wrong the last time he was here: he’d been too overcome by emotion and memories to sense what now seemed obvious.

He approached the wall on the right and put his hand on the rough surface. It was cool. Solid. He felt the rock beneath his hand, but he felt something else. He grunted and waved his staff. The illusion of rock disappeared, revealing an alcove with shelves carved into its walls. The shelves were loaded with books.

Nicolai made a noise of surprise. Corren could only concur. It was an impressive illusion, one that not only tricked the eye but tricked the sense of touch as well.

That old feeling of awe at Aradia’s abilities, even the sense of pride that always came with it, entered his heart. But it was tainted with the truth of her. Such clever wickedness in that woman. And he never saw it, all those years. How could he have loved someone so evil?

He felt a new emotion then: shame. So thick and hot he felt it leeching through his skin.

“Very good,” Marcellus said.

“Is that it?” Nicolai asked.

Blood pulsing, Corren glanced at the two empty trunks sitting at the bottom of the hidden alcove and flung open the lid of the one on the right. He grabbed the nearest book and slammed it onto the bottom of the trunk.

“I gather that’s a yes,” Marcellus said.

Corren leaned his staff against the wall, took two books in both hands, and dropped them on the other.

“Want help?” Nicolai asked.

Two more books. Thunk. Three. Thunk, thunk.

Nicolai stayed where he was.

Corren cleared two shelves, filling one trunk, and began working on the other. He set one massive volume on top of another then finished with stacks and stacks of her folios.

He wanted to fling them across the room.

Aradia would’ve flayed him alive.

He set each stack in the trunk, doing no damage, but feeling his blood pulse and his face burn.

A few knights appeared in the cave’s entrance. “The island is clear, my Lord.”

Corren loaded the last few folios and closed the lids.

“Take the trunks to the boat,” Marcellus said, eyeing Corren.

Corren grabbed his staff and watched the knights retrieve the trunks and haul them away.

“We got what we came for,” Nicolai said.

Corren nodded.

“Want anything else?” Marcellus asked.

Corren looked around. He had spent the last many years coveting her extensive mortar and pestle collection. Her fine brass scales could discern the slightest pinch of powder. Her heavy cauldrons were worth a tidy sum. The knights could load it all up in the boat and he could take it back to Tower Hall South where it could be put to use.

Corren shook his head.

They did not press him. His brothers turned to leave and Corren followed them. At the entrance to the inner room, Corren stopped and considered the lantern. The fire in its belly illuminated the remnants of Aradia. Corren remembered the first time he saw her. He was lying on a cot in an empty room in Tower Hall South, orphaned for the second time in his life, and here was Aradia, leaning over him, her long silver hair falling over her shoulder like a shimmering veil. Aradia, come to save him.

Corren raised his staff and slashed it through the air like a sword. Her lantern, her couch, her table, her hourglasses, everything in sight exploded and disintegrated in a haze of ash and splinters and smoke.

When he turned he saw his brothers’ astonished faces, but did not linger. “Let’s go,” he said and pushed past them.

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