Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Hours later, Wesley crawled into bed in an empty room next to the one in which Allend slept. He ached all over from the long, arduous journey and minimal sleep. And his worry for Wen didn’t help anything. He just kept trying to reassure himself that Iann hadn’t seemed horribly concerned, so he shouldn’t be either.
Easier said than done, of course.
He sighed and rolled onto his back, stretching out and trying to relax. The softness of the mattress molded to his body and he found it unexpectedly pleasant. Was it made of feathers? He’d never slept on a feather bed before—hadn’t even dreamed of such a luxury—and was amazed to find one here, in what was supposed to be merely a guard camp. Maybe he shouldn’t be surprised, though. Allend had told him many things about Kellesborne on their travels, including the fact it was quite sumptuous. Al had also said the castle had been created and fortified with the strongest, most ancient of draegan magick, and that the interior never faded or collected dust or grew dirty, even if no one lived there for long periods of time. Wesley found such a thing hard to imagine—like something out of a children’s fantasy tale—but he’d had no reason to doubt Allend, who’d said that, basically, the stronghold needed no upkeep because the magick within and around it was so powerful.
As he lay in the dark, letting the warmth and comfort of the bed and the sound of the fire crackling in the grate lull him into a sleepy state, he had nothing but appreciation for those ancient draegans.
He wondered if the draegans’ affinity for well-appointed surroundings also extended to the holding cells for prisoners, and if Caleb was warm and comfortable, or if he were sitting in some damp, chilly hole, waiting to be questioned. From everything Wesley knew about the draegans and their fair dealings with people, he expected it was the former.
Wesley had told Iann the entire story of their journey, how they’d chased down lead after lead until Caleb had walked into the tavern that night and they’d lured him into their room and captured him. Iann had asked numerous questions, probing Wesley for every tiny detail, until finally, he must have realized how truly exhausted Wesley was because he’d smiled, clapped him fondly on the shoulder, told him what a “damn fine job” he’d done with completing the mission he’d been given and mentoring Allend, and then told him to get some rest.
Wesley had been taken aback by the idea of mentoring Allend. He was barely older than Al, who was eighteen to Wesley’s twenty, and he’d been a guard for less time. He didn’t feel like a mentor, or like he even should be one.
But Iann seemed to have guessed at his thoughts, and before Wesley could speak up, Iann had said, “You have a strength and steadiness about you, Wesley, that young guards like Allend need as an example. I didn’t only send Allend with you because you two look young and could travel more easily. I also sent him with you to give him some experience in the field under your guidance.”
“But—” Wesley tried to protest, about to say he barely had any field experience, while Al almost certainly had far more.
Once again, though, Iann seemed to anticipate his argument. “Yes, Allend has worked with his mother and brothers, but he had never been out on his own away from them before. You’ve already proven you can handle yourself admirably—as you did when you and Wen dealt with the trap Byram’s soldiers laid for you. You kept a cool head and a steady hand in a desperately challenging situation. And that’s exactly what Allend needs to learn. He clearly looks up to you, respects you. Plus, you’re not one of his brothers, so the need to show off or one-up them doesn’t come into play with you like it always does with them. My hope was that he would learn from you on this trip. I’ve no doubt he did.”
Wesley wasn’t sure how to respond, surprised as he was at Iann’s explanation and praise. “I learned some things from him, too.”
Iann smiled and squeezed his shoulder again. “Isn’t that one of the lovely things about life? That we can always learn and grow?”
At that point, Wesley had grudgingly smiled, too, because Iann had the uncanny ability to put him at ease. “I suppose it is, yeah.”
Lying in bed, re-thinking the conversation, he realized that while Iann’s praise had, initially, made him uncomfortable, it had also felt good. He still wasn’t sure he was fully worthy of it—he’d told Wen before he left that he often felt like he was wandering and lost. But he had to admit that after this journey, he felt less adrift. More comfortable with his purpose and place in the world.
Maybe, he thought, his brain growing fuzzy with sleep, he’d needed the mission to find Caleb as much as Allend had. And maybe Iann had known that, too.
Sometime later Wesley awoke in a cold sweat, his heart pounding. He sat up, tangled in the covers, disoriented at the unfamiliar setting. Darkness and silence surrounded him, except for the orange glow of the fire crackling and popping in the massive fireplace.
As the sleep fog slowly cleared from his head, he remembered where he was and why—the guard camp, in the caves near Kellesborne, because he and Al had brought Caleb here. It couldn’t have been that long ago he’d left Iann and come to bed because the fire still burned as brightly as when he’d first entered the room. Except, he didn’t feel like he’d only just gone to sleep…so maybe he couldn’t judge the time by the fire. Maybe the fires were created with the same ancient magick as the castle, and, like the upkeep on the castle, they burned without having to be fed.
If that were the case, he still had no idea what time it might be, or how long he’d slept. But the real question was, what had awakened him? Why the cold sweat? And why was his heart racing? Had he been dreaming? If so he couldn’t remember it.
He attempted to untangle his legs from the blankets; he must have really been thrashing around to be so twisted in them. As he fought with the covers, he tried to get control over the unexplained anxiety. But the more he struggled, the more his breathing grew labored and erratic, the harder his heart pounded, and the more he felt as if some impending doom were about to befall him.
What in hel had he been dreaming about to leave him in such a state?
Giving up on the covers in frustration, he closed his eyes, forcing himself to take deep breaths. If he could just breathe and calm down, surely the growing sense of dread would pass.
He’d give anything for some of Wen’s soothing magick right about now.
That thought, of course, only caused a terrible pang of missing Wen, and reminded him where Wen was at the moment, which, in turn, made the anxiety worse.
His chest began to ache from the pressure of his racing heart. And, though he wasn’t actually cold, or he didn’t think he was anyway, he found himself shivering uncontrollably.
Oh, hel no.
Wen had said he was shivering hard the night he became whatever it was he’d turned into. He’d also said he was restless and not himself. So much not himself, he’d knocked Wen unconscious and run into the woods with his burning bloodlust.
Was that what this was? Was this how it had started before and he was turning into a monster again?
Of course that thought only made his anxiety climb higher.
Please, not again. He hadn’t done anything to cause the change, had he? He’d been so careful while he was gone…
Then, without warning, sudden, intense pain slammed through his head, as if someone had just driven an axe through his skull. Crying out, he clutched his head in his hands.
Gods, what was happening? Was he still dreaming? Caught up in some vicious nightmare? If he could just…move…maybe it would wake him and end this gods-awful agony.
Struggling once again with the tangled covers, he somehow made it out of bed, and got his feet planted on the cave floor. When he tried to take a step, though, he was still half twisted in the blankets, and his knees buckled beneath him. He fell hard, causing pain to shoot up through his shoulder, which had taken the brunt of the blow. Meanwhile, his head continued to pound in excruciating agony.
The pain grew so intense, it was all he could do to curl into a ball on his side, as if that could somehow protect him from it. He continued to shiver, his body aching, as a sob escaped him. But as it did, strangely, behind his closed eyes, a vision began to take shape. A vision of a snow-filled night.
He had to be dreaming. Dreaming about a snowstorm, like the one he and Al had just gone through to get here to the guard camp. Except, if this were a dream, why could he feel the freezing air biting at him, and the icy sting of snow falling on his skin? Why could he smell the scent of wet pine?
And then, through the blizzard, he saw something. Something he couldn’t quite make out…
He squinted, the pain in his head still excruciating, trying to focus on the movement through the blur of snow.
What was it? A shadow of some sort? A shadow that appeared to be floating. And it was getting closer and closer to him.
Watching it, he barely dared to breathe.
He blinked. Blinked again, unable to look away, though a part of him wanted to, desperately.
His mouth had gone dry. His heart now pounded so loudly he swore he could feel it thundering in his ears.
And then, in the next blink, the hulking shadow was there, looming over him, it’s eyes the color of blood, its long, clawed hands reaching for him…reaching…
A scream tore from his throat.
Or he thought it did anyway, until a sharp stab of recognition jolted him.
That scream… He knew that soul-fracturing sound. Knew it bone deep in a way he’d never forget. He’d heard it before, once before…on the horrible night he’d pulled the sword out of Wen’s body.
The truth hit him hard.
Oh gods. Oh fucking gods…
No, no, no, no!
This wasn’t about him. He wasn’t becoming a monster again, nor was he dreaming. This was…Wen’s pain. Wen’s terror Wesley was feeling.
A fuzzy part of his aching brain told him the how didn’t matter right now. Only the what.
Somewhere in the dark, stormy night, Rowen was in unbearable agony, being attacked by a nightmare creature that Wesley could somehow see and feel even though he was only picking up on it through his and Wen’s emotional link.
The fact Wen was so hurt and afraid panicked Wesley, because Wen didn’t scare easily. It had to be bad for Wesley to be able to feel the overflow from it, especially if Wen was still physically far away from him. And the overflow alone was almost unbearable.
Wesley tried to push away the torment and darkness by telling his subconscious mind he wasn’t the one under attack. But even knowing now that the distress wasn’t his own, he struggled to displace it. It was so real, so intense, if felt as if it were his.
::Rowen! Where are you? What’s happening to you?::
He thought the words as hard as he could, hoping Wen would hear them. But he knew it was futile.
Gods, please…what’s happening?
Was the sorcerer torturing Wen? And what was the awful grey creature he could see hanging over him?
He had to find a way to help, but their emotional link was pulsing so hard with the horrors Wen was currently living through, Wesley couldn’t feel anything else in his own body, heart, and mind. Wen’s torment had become his own.
His panic growing, he knew he had to find a way to separate his thoughts and experiences from Wen’s. And he had to do it in such a way he didn’t lose his connection to Wen. But how in hel could he manage it?
Damn it, Wesley, you’re an empath! A magick being bonded with another magick being, and fueled by his magick as well. Find a way to do this!
Wen’s words of advice during training came back to him, and Wesley reached for them and clung…
“If you get into trouble, if a situation becomes dire, don’t panic. Instead, stop. Breathe. Find a solution. There’s always a solution.”
He could do this. He had to do this.
Find the gods-damned solution, Wesley.
Squeezing his eyes closed, he forced himself to concentrate and shut out everything except trying to find Wen.
Slowly…slowly…he searched out the thin thread of his and Wen’s connection, and it truly was thin because, he realized, Wen was still far, far away. Farther away than Wesley had ever reached with his senses before. But like a slender thread of silk spun by an elvenwitch spider, he felt their link. Saw it in his mind’s eye. It was tedious work, concentrating on it and only it, following it…but eventually he discovered that the concentration itself kept Wen’s terror at bay within Wesley enough for him to be able to function without the constant bombardment.
And then…he saw him.
Somehow, he saw Wen, lying on the frozen ground. He was outside, fully exposed to the storm, which explained the snow. The others—Lord Rizik and Jarrad—must have been there as well, but Wesley could only focus on Wen and their connection. He had no way of reaching the others.
::Rowen, I’m here!::
He sensed that the pain and intense emotions were draining Wen; they were his only reality right now. And he was frozen…from the cold, from fear, or maybe both, Wesley couldn’t tell for sure. He only saw and sensed the utter stiffness of Wen’s body and knew, whatever the reason, he couldn’t move, couldn’t run, couldn’t escape. And to make everything worse, there were now more of the gray creatures moving closer to him, looming over him.
They were the source of Wen’s pain, Wesley realized. And Wen was growing weaker by the minute from the constant onslaught. If they kept it up…
Gods, they were going to kill him.
Wesley reached for Wen, whose eyes were squeezed closed against the torture, to stroke the dampness of the snow and tears off Wen’s face. But, of course, he couldn’t really touch him because he wasn’t really there with him. This was nothing more than a tentative, empathic link.
Except…why then did he feel the moisture on his own fingertips? Was it his imagination?
No. He could actually feel it. As he stroked Wen’s cheek, Wesley experienced the wetness again, along with an odd tingling sensation, like a buzz, where he made contact with Wen. It startled him so much, he jerked his hand back.
When he did, he noticed Wen’s terror ramped up again, and that’s when he realized it had diminished ever-so-slightly when Wesley touched him.
Without hesitation now, Wesley reached for him again, cupping Wen’s cheek. If touching him through this strange, magick link comforted him somehow, Wesley wasn’t going to deny him that bit of ease. This connection wasn’t unlike how they’d bonded that day on the training field weeks ago, seeing, feeling each other, sharing the experience even though in real life they weren’t actually making physical contact.
The tingling happened again when Wesley touched Wen, but this time, Wesley didn’t fight it. Trying to understand what it was, he focused on it, and when he did, the strangest thing happened—he felt and saw the water droplets on Wen’s skin vibrate and slide toward his hand.
What in bloody hel? When he lifted his hand briefly, the tingling stopped and the water skittered back away. When he touched Wen again, the tingling resumed, and the droplets once more slid toward Wesley’s hand.
Could he…damn…could he somehow…? No, it was crazy. And he didn’t have time for crazy right now.
There had to be a way to help Wen. But what?
Wesley was gods knew how many leagues away from him. He couldn’t fly or magickally transport himself to Wen. And even if he could, if Wen couldn’t fight these monsters, if Lord Rizik, who was probably there, too, couldn’t, then how would Wesley possibly manage it?
As if in answer to his question, the buzzing sensation in Wesley’s hand amplified, and, as Wesley watched, every bit of dampness on Wen’s skin and clothes began to shimmer with a strange, ethereal glow.
He stared at it, stunned. He had no idea if it were visible to the eye in the physical plane, but he could see it through their link, and as he continued to gape at the phenomenon, it spread and solidified, as the moisture—the water droplets and the snowflakes that landed—linked together until it looked as if Wen were protected by a faint, shimmering shield. A shield made of…well…of water. Wesley could think of no other way to describe it.
The moment it was fully formed, the bleed-over from Wen’s pain dampened considerably. Wesley was so shocked that, for a brief second, his hand lifted and broke contact with Wen. The moment it did, the shimmering shield fell apart and the agony returned.
Crap! He was doing this. He was somehow controlling the water, somehow making the shield. But how?
Magick, of course.
He didn’t understand it, but right now he didn’t care. Instantly, he pressed his palm back to Wen’s cheek, then reached with his other hand to touch him with it as well, until he cradled Wen’s face between his hands. He leaned over Wen, directing all this thoughts now on recreating the protective barrier. And, once again, the water droplets skittered to do his bidding, forming the shield, this time more quickly and completely. To Wesley’s eyes, it glimmered and sparkled in the darkness. The moment it formed, the fear and pain he experienced eased up. Not fully, but enough he sensed Wen’s body and mind relaxing.
::I’m here::, he thought again at Wen. ::Hang on, Rowen. I’m here.::
It took all of Wesley’s concentration, and a shocking amount of energy, to stay connected with Wen and keep the shield up between Wen and the monsters. Wesley had no idea how long he could do this—he was already breathing hard again, this time from the sheer effort of maintaining the link—but he’d hold it as long as he could.
He tried not to think about what would happen if Wen and, presumably Lord Rizik and Jarrad, couldn’t find a way to escape the creatures, but the possibility of that very thing gnawed at him. A part of Wesley urgently wanted to find Iann, tell him what was happening, and get him to send help. But even if he did go to Iann, he had no idea where Wen and the others were; he was only certain where they were not—at Thrythgar, at least not inside the sorcerer’s stronghold anyway. So how could Iann send help? Most of all, though, Wesley was terrified that if he let go of this fragile link with Wen, he’d lose him completely and be unable to reconnect before the monsters killed Wen.
So, he hung on…
With each passing minute, however, it grew harder and harder to keep the shield up. If he lost his concentration even the tiniest bit, gaps appeared, and when that happened, he felt the pain and terror creep in again. So he focused harder than he ever had on anything in his life, and at the same time, hoped like hel for some miracle that would save the man he loved, the lord he served, and his best friend.
Please…please…please. Please save them.
Gasping for air, shaking not from the cold any longer but from exertion, and feeling his control beginning to slip, it startled him when Wen’s body suddenly relaxed, or maybe relax wasn’t the right word… It was more like Wen simply came fully back into himself and stirred. As if he were waking up from a nightmare, shaken, but no longer in any pain. Wen opened his eyes and, for a moment, Wesley swore Wen could see him, was looking straight at him. His green eyes widened in surprise, and then Wesley thought he heard Wen whisper his name, “Wes?”
With a startled gasp, Wesley let go of the magick holding the shield in place—barely at this point. When he did, Wen sat up, and Wesley sensed him dragging in deep breaths, as if he could fully catch them again. As Wen’s attention focused outward, Wesley continued to stay connected with him through their emotional link, but the sight of Wen began to blur and fade.
“No!” Wesley cried, not wanting to lose the image of him.
But it seemed he had no control over it. The last thing he saw before it faded completely was…gods, what was it? A storm? Not the snowstorm, though that was still happening. This looked like a dark swirl of wind that had caught up branches and trees and rocks, along with some of the terrifying, clawed creatures. What in hel?
Then the vision was gone, like a flame snuffed out on a candle
Wesley still felt Wen, though, albeit faintly. Sensed that Wen was more himself now. Anxious, but not experiencing the same fear as earlier.
Something had happened to free Wen of the creatures’ hold. Something much bigger and more effective than Wesley’s strange, shimmering shield. Whatever it was, Wesley was grateful beyond measure.
Except now he had no idea what was really happening. His connection to Wen was growing more tenuous by the moment, as Wesley’s energy fully tapped out.
And then it, too, was gone.
With a ragged moan, Wesley opened his eyes and found himself still curled onto his side on the cave floor. The room was dark but for the orange glow of the flames burning brightly on the hearth. Slowly, he sat up, finally able to extricate himself from the wad of blankets wrapped around his legs. Gods, he ached all over, he realized, as he reached up to rub his shoulder where he’d landed on it.
His more pressing concern at the moment, however, was finding a way to get to Wen and the others as quickly as possible. But how? Wen had been in the forest somewhere. But that could be anywhere, presumably, between here and the sorcerer’s fortress. And, again, how could he or anyone else get there, even if he did know exactly where Wen was?
The only thing that comforted him was that Wen had been back on his feet and functioning, and the unsettling creatures had been caught up in the bizarre wind storm and were no longer assaulting Wen and, presumably, the others. So, for the moment, though Wen wasn’t fully safe, he was no longer on the verge of death, either. What happened from here, however, was out of Wesley’s control and sight.
Then it occurred to him that if Wen, Lord, Rizik, and Jarrad were able to escape, wouldn’t they head straight back to Kellesborne?
Staggering to his feet, his heart racing once again, Wesley reached for his discarded clothing on the floor. He dragged on his pants and and boots, pulled his shirt over his head, then donned his leather jerkin, belt, and weapons. He made sure his bow and quiver were still strapped securely onto his pack, easily accessible should he need them, then he hefted the pack onto his shoulders. Its weight was heavy, but, honestly, he’d been carrying it every day for weeks now, so it had become second nature to wear it. His cloak hung on the back of a chair near the fire, and was nearly dry from the heat when he grabbed it on his way out the door.
The hallway was dark, but he knew where he was going. Within moment he reached the bed in the next room, where Allend lay sprawled on his back, his arms and legs spread eagle, snoring loud enough to wake the dead.
Wesley shook his shoulder. “Al? Wake up.”
Allend let out a snort, but his eyelids immediately popped open. “Wha—? It wasn’t me? I didn’t throw dung balls at him!”
In spite of his own tension, Wesley bit back a laugh. “Um, okay, glad it wasn’t you.” Then he sobered and gently shook Al’s shoulder again. “Al, wake up the rest of the way. I need your help.”
Allend rubbed his eyes, then gazed up at Wesley as if seeing him for the first time. He sat up. “Wesley? What is it?”
“I need you to take me up to the castle. I can’t get there on my own—I wouldn’t be able to find it because of the magick.” The guard camp, Al had told him earlier, was on the outside of the magick barrier that surrounded Kellesborne, and this barrier was different from the one that had been around the camp in the woods. This one caused anyone who wasn’t a draegan to grow lost on the mountain, which was why Wesley needed Al to lead the way.
Al squinted and dragged a hand through his hair, causing it to stand on end. “What time is it? Is it morning already?”
“No, I don’t think so.” There was no way to see outside from here in the caves, but in his vision-link with Wen it had still been dark.
“And you want to go now?” He dubiously eyed Wesley’s fully clothed state, his pack and weapons.
“Yes. Please.” He didn’t want to tell Allend what had just happened to Wen and probably the others because that would lead to questions Wesley wasn’t prepared to answer. Like how he could possibly know Wen had been attacked, which would then force him to explain their emotional bond, which would require an explanation about why their bond was so strong. And that would reveal what Wesley really was. Damn it, he hated all the deception. But he had to give Al some reason. “I had a bad dream. About Wen and Jarrad and Lord Rizik. It left me unsettled and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I just want to get up to the castle so we’ll be there when they get back.”
Allend studied him for several seconds. Wesley read his confusion over why a dream would make him want reach the castle with such urgency.
But then Al shrugged and mumbled, “M’kay, lemme get dressed,” and Wesley let out a silent sigh of relief.
“I’ll wait in the hall.”
True to his word, a few minutes later a sleepy but fully dressed and armed Allend joined him.
“Wish we could fly,” Al said. “It’d be so much faster and easier. But one of the other guards told me a large detachment of Byram’s troops crossed the East Road earlier and are camped not too far from here. Lucky we didn’t run into them as we approached with Caleb. Anyway, no flying for anyone except essential people between the guard camp and the castle until they’ve moved on. Don’t want the troops to accidentally catch sight of a bunch of us. Though how they could see us in a snowstorm is beyond me.” He grumbled the last under his breath.
“That’s fine. We can walk.”
Al snorted. “Walk is a bit of an understatement. Try climb. It’s a bloody brutal path going up there. Hope you were able to get at least a little sleep earlier ’cause you’ll need the energy. We both will.”
“We’ll manage,” Wesley said, but his aching body unceremoniously reminded him he’d already expended a hefty amount of energy connecting with Wen. He just hoped he had enough left to make it up the damned mountain.