Did you loved by Eric Smith? The sequel Branded releases next week – and we have the first two chapters!
In , tattoos once were an act of rebellion. Now they decide your destiny the moment the magical Ink settles under your skin. Caenum can’t escape soon enough. He is ready to run from his family, and his best friend Dreya, and the home he has known, just to have a chance at a choice. But on his eighteenth birthday, he unwittingly sets in motion a series of events that sends the corrupt, magic-fearing government, The Citadel, after him and those he loves.
Branded releases on May 23 from Bloomsbury Spark. Don’t wait – start reading below!
Kenzi swung the severed mechanical arm over his shoulder.
“I really wish you would have left that at the last town. Or the town before that. Or the town before that,” I grumbled, dodging the thing as he walked next to me, the bits of brass and machinery jangling about as he strolled along, taking wide, proud strides. “You’ve been dragging it around for days. I mean, really, do we need to take home trophies?”
“We sure don’t,” Kenzi said as he turned to grin at me. “But come on, this!” He shook the arm and I flinched away as it swung dangerously close to my face. “This will seriously raise morale. Just think about it. We could hang it up in the square; maybe on one of the storefronts.” He let out a faux gasp. “Maybe on your house! Right over the front door.”
“Ha!” I scoffed. “Dreya would absolutely love that.”
My heart sunk the second I mentioned her name, and I glanced up at Kenzi, willing him to say anything else.
“Speaking of—” Kenzi started. “Gods damn it,” I grumbled.
He looked back at me, his steel-blue eyes full of warmth, and he was totally not getting my let’s-not-talk-about-it body language.
“Have you had any word from her this week, at least?” he asked. “At all?”
And just like that, the emptiness that had been gnawing away inside of me, from my chest down to my stomach, comes raging back full force. It’d been months since her last letter.
Months. And we had messengers meeting our militia on the road regularly. They shepherded notes back and forth from the Conduits that fought with us in our rebellion, delivering updates to their family and friends back home. And when they weren’t doing that, they were sending information to Tabor and his people in Spiritrend or requesting supplies.
I shook my head.
“And I thought you had a way with words. I know we’ve been over this, but come on.
What could you have possibly said in that last letter that made her so angry? The one before she stopped writing back? Have you thought about it anymore?” Kenzi asked, playfully kicking some dirt at me. I scowled at him and waved my hand at a nearby tree, a flash of warmth surging through me, channeling the Magic through the earth. The tree’s branch lowered down toward the road, bending to my will, and Kenzi ducked to avoid it.
“Very funny,” he said, bouncing back up, the mechanical arm squeaking as it swayed about. “But I’ll have you know, my reflexes are in tune with whatever you might—”
Alongside the road, the wind rustled through the trees that lined the long dirt path. I could feel them, how their branches stretched toward the sky, their roots digging deep into the earth, running beneath our feet, tangling into one another in a handshake that spanned the length of whole towns. I exhaled, and one of the roots peeked up through the dirt.
Kenzi’s foot bumped against the root, and I felt the pressure as the weight of his body pushed forward against it and he tumbled onto the ground. The brass arm hit the hard soil with an angry clang and clattered a few feet away from him.
“Damn it, Caenum!” Kenzi laughed, rolling over onto his back. He got to his feet, brushing the dirt from his tunic. He glanced up at me, his blue eyes mischievous, and pointed a finger at the root.
“Don’t—” I started.
He blasted it away with a burst of electricity, the lightning shooting from his finger with a loud and angry snap, instantly obliterating the root. The pain seared through me, but just as quickly as he shocked the plant, the pain was gone. I grit my teeth and shook my head, and several of the Conduits in our militia ran forward, joining the two of us, their eyes searching wide, voices harried, weapons drawn and Magic igniting, bits of flame and frost and wind at the ready.
“What’s going on?”
“Kenzi, are we under attack?”
“We’re not even that close to the town yet!”
“Calm down, calm down,” Kenzi muttered, smiling at the Conduits who had stormed forward. “We’re just messing around a little.” They grumbled to one another and turned back, joining the rest of the crew behind us. It was bad enough so many were in a sour mood after all this time on the road.
“Come on, you know we can’t joke around like that,” I said, giving him a look.
“We even now?” Kenzi grinned and grabbed the severed mechanical arm. I shook my head and turned to watch the Conduits in our militia walking back to join the others. We’d begun our campaign of rebellion with far more than we were ending with, several leaving, deserting us in liberated towns or making their way home, a handful perishing at the hands of Citadel Guards in battle.
A rush of anxiety washed over me, wondering whom we’d lose next, when a figure slammed against me, pushing hard against my leather armor. I jolted back, irritated, but smiled when I saw who it was.
At least this was going to be fun.
“Kenzi, what in the Realms do you think you’re doing?!” Ryst shouted, bounding up to him, breaking away from her position in the marching militia, which had entirely stopped. We were hardly an army to begin with, a little under two dozen of us, but we still had some organization. Different Conduits walking alongside the right pairings, someone with healing powers never too far from anyone else. In the event we were ambused, we could split up, divided but still strong. Capable of supporting one another.
“Relax, Ryst, we were just—” Kenzi started, hefting the arm over his shoulder.
“Just what? How many times do I have to bring this up? Get. Rid. Of. That. Thing!” Ryst pushed the mechanical arm off Kenzi’s shoulder, and it hit the ground again, hard and loud, this time sending up a plume of dust. Kenzi sucked at his teeth and moved to pick it up.
“The two of you are determined to break this thing before we get home to—”
Ryst pushed past Kenzi, grabbed the arm, and started to drag it away, the metal making a loud, scratching sound as it was pulled across the dirt and pebbles covering the road, a couple of pieces of brass scattering in its wake.
“Hey!” Kenzi shouted. “What are you doing—”
“Just stop. Stop. We are hours, if that, away from a town that our information tells us is heavily fortified by the Citadel,” Ryst said as she heaved the arm into the woods on the side of the road, the glimmering metal disappearing into the brush. She walked back toward Kenzi, closing in on him until the two of them were face-to-face, barely an inch in between them, noses practically touching. “And you would risk revealing our location, our approach, on our very last mission before we go home—”
She looked over at me, and her eyes flared, a bright orange-red that was only rivaled by the flames she was able to control. Her lip piercing pulsed an angry red with it, the cool steel heating up like a sword being tempered in a fire.
I gulped as she turned back to Kenzi, who flashed me a pleading look. I shrugged. He was on his own.
“For what?” Ryst continued, face-to-face with Kenzi again. “Some games?” She turned back to me. “You should know better than to encourage him. The last thing he needs is an enabler.” She looked at Kenzi again, her eyes hard and red, her lip piercing flaring.
“Won’t happen again,” Kenzi said, his mouth a thin line.
“See that is doesn’t,” Ryst snapped back. “I’d hate to see you punished.” They looked at each other, the silence from the milita and the surrounding woods feeling all too loud.
“Got it,” Kenzi said, nodding softly.
And with that, Ryst turned on her heel, walking back . . . and stopped. She turned back around, ducked into the shrubs, and gave the mechanical arm a far more intense, deliberate kick. Pieces of metal and parts from the thing clinked and tinkered through the trees, bouncing off limbs and trunks, with a few bits settling back onto the road.
“I hate that thing,” She said, stepping out of the woods. She spat at the arm, looked up at me and Kenzi with a glare, and then walked away.
As Ryst wrangled the militia back into order, I turned back to Kenzi, trying with every fiber of my being not to grin at him. He was bent over, picking up pieces of the arm and tossing the largest bits back into the woods while pocketing a few of the smaller pieces. A gear here, a piece of tubing there. I looked at him quizzically, trying to figure out what he was doing. He looked up and caught me staring.
“What?” Kenzi asked.
I lowered my head and gave him a look. “What?!” Kenzi practically shouted.
“Nothing.” I shrugged, turning back to the road. “Nothing at all.”
“Good,” Kenzi scoffed. “Pieces everywhere; look at this, I can’t believe . . .”
Kenzi continued to grumble as he kicked larger pieces off to the side of the road and scooped up the littler ones. But I had seen it. That beat of silence between him and Ryst during that heated argument, while the world had quieted around them. A quick smile, not wiped away nearly quick enough, and a speedy wink they probably thought was too fast for me to catch.
Something was changing.