Chapter 53
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Home was the place Brand was born, the place he grew up, the place he returned to year after year: the Secret Tower of Abnoba. It was a small, hidden tower in the Forest of Abnoba, which was also better known as the Black Woods. Only one of his bloodline could see the tower. Besides invisibility, there were other spells that protected it, nasty spells of pain and fog and illusion. For this reason, villagers kept away.

Three days after fleeing Seri, Brand dropped inside the small, walled courtyard. The door opened to him, and the deep thrum of ancient magic sparked. The magic here was greater than in the Tower of Lehe, where he kept the girls he kidnapped. Every stone of the ivy-covered Tower of Abnoba was soaked in spells.

But magic was all it held, for the tower was under siege by the elements, and since no one but Brand could find the invisible tower, no one but Brand could maintain it. Brand lugged off sacks of grain and dried sausage from his rug—supplies he’d bought along the way. He was tired, and he wanted to sleep, but there were no sheets on the bed, no fuel for the hearth, no water.

Brand threw the food inside the pantry. He’d left some food behind from his last visit: salt, oil, vinegar, and honey. No fruit or vegetables. Normally, he came in the fall and was able to harvest apples off the trees and pull wild onions and parsnips from the ground. It was too late in the season for that. Brand grabbed a bucket and trudged to the well.

The well sat in the middle of the garden—or what was left of it. The trees were dormant, their rotted fruit and fallen leaves hidden beneath a layer of frost. The grounds were overrun with brittle, dying weeds. A few squash made it above ground, but they were starting to decompose. Brand stepped on them, as he walked toward the well.

Growing up, Brand and his mother had tried keeping a garden to supplement their food, but neither had any idea what they were doing. Any vegetables that grew was more of a happy accident than a product of their efforts. If Seri were here….

Brand shut his eyes. If Seri were here, then yes, there might be neatly pruned rose bushes, evergreen herbs, and neat paths along plots of winter vegetables—but what was the use of thinking like that? She wasn’t here. She was never going to be here. He had to stop imagining what it would be like to have her in his life.

It was a dream he couldn’t have. Because he ruined it.

He ruined everything.

Brand took his frustrations out on the weeds. He tore away the brambles surrounding the well, until he could access the water. He dipped in his bucket, drew it up again, walked back to the kitchen, and sat down at the table to drink.

He’d made it home.

Now what?

The question loomed in his mind. It had been a long hard flight to get here in the cold final stages of the autumn season. Brand had hardly slept, hardly ate or drank, and had used most of his magic on the trip. Exhaustion had put him into a stupor—but it only took the tiniest thought to strum on every nerve on his body, until he was fairly vibrating with anxiety.

Why had he flown all the way here and just left the girls on their own? He had emergency measures in place, so they’d have all the food and supplies they needed—but still, he’d left them. He never came to the secret tower while he still had girls living in Lehe. What the hell was he thinking?

It was too late to go back, though. The magic stores within him were depleted, and if he pushed himself to fly for even a few hours more, he’d most likely black out, fall off his carpet and die. Which, to be fair, would cause the Tower of Lehe’s defenses to drop and allow the girls to go home. So maybe that was the best plan. To die—everything would be solved.

Brand leaned on the table with his hands.

He did not know he had fallen asleep, until he woke suddenly. It was pitch dark. Even after all these years, the dark frightened him. Brand stood up and groped around the room for candles, before realizing he had no way of lighting them. There was no fire from the hearth, no flint, no striker. And he had never, not once, mastered combustion magic. Brand was surrounded by darkness—and there was no way of finding a light.

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