Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
The outer wall that curved around Kellesborne was massive in height and, Wesley knew from experience, the climb up the winding stone staircase to the top was exactly 113 steep steps. He’d acclimated to living in the thinner air up high on the mountain weeks ago, and could train all day with minimal trouble breathing. But he still always found himself out of breath from exertion when he reached the top of the wall.
He stopped to let the stitch in his side ease, knowing it was his own fault he’d gotten it since he’d chosen to take the steps at a run.
Up here, away from the sounds of the castle, all was silent but for the sighing of the wind against the mountain peaks. While he leaned against the battlement to rest for a moment, he looked out across the mountains. As he’d told Hadlow, that mostly meant he was looking at a pitch-dark expanse of nothing since Halla was little more than a waxing crescent and Ell, the smaller moon, was less than half full. Neither put out enough light this evening to see much beyond Wesley’s immediate surroundings atop the wall. Still, he let his gaze roam, making sure there were no flickers from a campfire or any other sign of light or life that could indicate the sorcerer’s soldiers had breached the barrier. The only light he saw came from Kellesborne’s own torches burning far below him, on either side of the postern gate. He couldn’t see Sharis, but knew she was probably in the shadow of the trees nearby.
Once again, now that he was free from interruption, he set his empathic senses loose to search for a source behind the odd grating sensation, which had grown stronger now he was up on the wall. In a way, it felt similar to the buzz he got when he allowed himself to experience a whole lot of other people’s emotions at once. Except…there was more to it than that.
He concentrated harder, trying to pin down what he was picking up on.
Actually…what it really felt like was a faint flurry of underlying emotions—probably from the people in and around the castle—but those emotions were almost drowned out by something else.
What in hel was it?
The word popped into his head unbidden, but once it did, he couldn’t unthink it.
He hadn’t really noticed it before, but he wondered if magick perhaps did have a sort of tangible essence to it. A vibration of its own. After all, when Wen was using soothing magick on him, he could feel that. As Wen had described it, it was like a sensation of warm honey spreading over him. And certainly when he and Wen were intimate, he could feel that magick, too…it tingled in a distinct way inside him. So it wouldn’t be totally crazy to think he might he might be picking up on magick of some kind. Yet he was around magick here at Kellesborne all the time, from the protective magick that encircled it, to the draegans using magick in their daily lives, and Wesley had never before experienced this odd, low-grade humming sensation, at least not strongly enough he’d been aware of it.
He closed his eyes, attempting to focus on it, follow it to the source, but he couldn’t narrow it beyond the sense he was surrounded by it, almost within it. He had to assume that meant the origin of the magick was inside the castle grounds somewhere. He tried again, this time going more slowly. And once again he couldn’t pinpoint it beyond getting a general sensation the magick was coming from within or around the castle.
For a split second he wondered if maybe it was the castle itself generating the magick. But he quickly discounted the idea because the castle’s buildings and walls were merely stones mortared together by people. Those people might have used magick to help build it, and had certainly used magick to create some of the luxuries and comforts within it, but as far as he knew, and from everything that had been implied to him, the source of that magick was the people themselves, the ancient draegan lords.
In any case, this train of thought was getting him nowhere, and neither was standing here trying to find the source of the magick that might or might not even exist. It might be something else altogether he was sensing.
Though the strange buzz continued, he had work to do.
With a sigh, he set out around the battlement, something absolute on which he could concentrate.
The journey along the wall took a while since Kellesborne was so large. The stair tower he’d used was directly in the middle of the wall, so when he came up this way, he typically went one direction until the wall intersected with the sheer, icy face of the mountain, then turned around and walked it all the way to the other end, where it ran into the steep crags of the mountain on the other side. But usually Wesley didn’t mind the time spent traversing the length of it. In spite of the fact he did this walk to be sure nothing threatening had encroached on the castle, it had always been peaceful, and it gave him a chance to clear his head of any stress of the day before he went to bed.
Tonight, though, he couldn’t shake the feeling something wasn’t quite right.
As he walked, he was struck once again by the silence and just how damned deserted it was up here. If someone from Byram’s army did ever make it to the castle…up here, atop the wall, where there was no regular guard presence and civilians seldom ventured, would be an ideal hideout.
Of course that would mean someone would have to find the castle in the first place, and then either make it past the guards below…or they’d have to climb the sheer, snow and ice-covered crags on the other side of the mountain and come to it over the top of the peak. Wen had assured him the mountain on the other side was utterly impassable because of the terrain and weather.
But if someone did manage to get inside the walls…
It wasn’t so much the open walkways that bothered Wesley. From the first time he’d been up here, a few weeks ago, he’d worried about the shadowy, dark crevices created by the jagged rocks where the wall intersected with the mountain.
He was far from being an architect, but why the draegan lords would have allowed the craggy crevices at either end of the wall, he didn’t know. Maybe, since they were a race used to flying in and out of the castle, and probably had always been much larger than any of their foes, they simply didn’t think in terms of small, dark spaces where human-sized enemies could hide. Although…Kellesborne itself, for all it was built up on the mountain for winged draegans to access by air, had been designed with draegans in their human form in mind. Even the ancient draegan lords must have stayed in their land-bound shape most of the time based on the beds in which they slept, the tables where they ate, even the guard armor they’d created and kept stored in the armory for Wen and him to find a thousand years later.
Wesley had actually wondered about the armor when he and Wen first found it. Why make it when the draegans could simply shift into their winged form and go to battle? After all, this would have been hundreds of years before Byram’s nets kept the draegans out of the sky.
Wen had said maybe they made it to wear if a battle ever came to them inside the castle grounds. Wesley supposed that theory made the most sense, that they might have wanted to be prepared for anything.
In any case, perhaps the draegans of old had had plenty of guards back in those days to patrol the top of the wall, so it was never an issue for them. And maybe it wouldn’t be an issue for the current residents either, once the vellanjhere was big enough to fill all the posts. Put a few guards up here and, suddenly, it would be a much less appealing hiding spot.
Tonight, though, he was eerily aware of just how alone he was.
Several minutes later, he’d almost made it to the eastern end of the battlement, where it intersected with the mountain, when he heard a faint sound.
He paused, simultaneously listening and reaching out with his empathic senses. It could have just been the wind. Or the cry of a bird high in the sky above him. But…
No. It wasn’t either of those things.
He could make out the barest hint of what sounded like talking. Or at least one person talking. Wait…no, there was another voice as well, someone quieter.
And then he sensed a rush of fear, which had to be coming from one of the people having the conversation. It was so painfully sharp, it made Wesley wince.
When he honed in on it, his breath caught in surprise.
The fear was radiating from a presence he hadn’t sensed around the castle for a while. Though, to be fair, he hadn’t really been looking for the past few weeks. It was Jarrad’s mysterious lover. And once again, they were downright terrified like they’d been the night he sensed them weeks ago before they disappeared.
Who was this person?
Keeping a firm empathic link with them, Wesley decided this time, he was damn well going to find out.
He crept along the wall, closer to the people speaking. Because of the intense fear he was reading, he moved slowly, keeping to the shadows. Whatever was going on, he didn’t want to barge into it until he had a chance to see who he was dealing with, and why the vaguely familiar mystery person was so damned scared.
Strange that he couldn’t read the other person—the non-scared one. He had a loose sense of their existence, but mostly only because he could hear their voice—he was close enough now to tell the second person was male and decidedly unfriendly. But as he probed around a bit, trying to pick up an emotional aura, he got nothing. It was almost as if the speaker wasn’t fully…well…it was like the speaker didn’t actually exist. Which didn’t make sense when Wesley could hear the man’s voice.
What did that mean?
He couldn’t hear any specific words in the conversation yet, but the tone of the speaker was coldly brusque and he was taking the other, scared person to task for something. Wesley didn’t recognize the speaker’s voice, and he still couldn’t get an emotional read on him either. At all. Who would be capable of blocking him like that?
But when he eased around the turret, his heart surged into his throat, nearly choking him when he discovered the answer to his question.
Still hidden in the shadows, he watched in horror as a bizarre, glowing, larger than life vision of Byram, the high sorcerer himself, towered over a cloaked person cowering on the ground in front of him.
Holy fucking hel.
The high sorcerer was here. At Kellesborne.
At once Wesley both understood and experienced for himself the terror the person on the ground felt. But as the sorcerer continued speaking, an almost debilitating surge of hatred tore through Wesley as well.
“You will get me the information I want,” the sorcerer was saying, his tone as cold and implacable as the icy rock on the mountain peak.
“But I’ve told you everything,” came the whimpered response from Jarrad’s lover, or former lover, or whatever he or she was.
“I don’t believe that for one moment,” the sorcerer’s glowing image snarled, his bearded face twisted in an expression of disgust. “It’s been weeks and all you’ve given me are vague reports and half-baked promises. You know what happens when I don’t get what I want.”
“Please, Your Most Eminent Highness, I’m trying.”
“Not hard enough. Clearly you need a reminder of what happens when you play games with me.”
“No! I don’t. I swear, I’m trying,” came the desperate response yet again, but this time it edged into a hysterical sob.
“Maybe this will jog your memory and make you try harder.”
Wesley couldn’t make out what the sorcerer was doing, but whatever it was, the figure on the ground cried, “No! P-p-please Your Highness! Please!”
The last was an agonized scream that made the hair on Wesley’s arms stand on end and tore at his emotions it was so heart-wrenching.
“Make it stop! Please! I’m sorry!” the cloaked figure cried, sobbing outright now in between screams, while clutching at his or her neck.
In that instant, the person’s emotions blipped out of existence.
It happened so quickly, it stunned Wesley.
What the fuck?
He could see the person right in front of him, hear their screaming sobs, but could no longer read their terror, their pain. At all. It was just gone. As if an impenetrable wall had fallen between them and cut Wesley off.
“I’m sorry!” the cloaked figure sobbed, thrashing on the ground. The sound brought Wesley back to the moment.
His every instinct was to rush over and help them. He had no idea what kind of dark magick the high sorcerer was using on this person. Wesley only knew the figure rolling about on the stone walkway was in horrible agony, in spite of the fact Wesley could no longer read it directly.
He drew his sword and was about to leap from his hiding spot and go to the person’s aide when the next exchange rooted him to the spot.
“Tell me where Kellesborne is,” the sorcerer demanded.
His words implied he didn’t realize the cloaked figure was at Kellesborne right now. Which meant… It meant the sorcerer wasn’t actually here either and was merely some kind of magical…what? Projection?
“Or,” Byram continued in an unctuous voice that made Wesley’s skin crawl, “alternatively, you can bring me the prize I desire.”
“B-but I can’t, Most Eminent Highness! I can’t do either. I don’t—”
“Lies!” the sorcerer snarled, his face gone scarlet in obvious fury, his teeth bared. “Always lies from you, you filthy worm.”
“I-I’m not lying, I swear. I t-tell you what I know. I t-told you about Jax, rememb—?” The words cut off as the cloaked figure began to scream again, body writhing in torment, flopping about like a fish stranded on the shore.
The sight and sound once more tore at Wesley’s sympathy. But hearing Jax’s name stayed his hand yet again.
Whoever this person was, they’d spoken to the sorcerer about Jax. And they’d implied they’d given the sorcerer other information as well.
Then it hit him with a clarity he should have recognized the moment he saw them together… The cloaked figure was one of Byram’s spies. A spy who had presumably been walking freely amongst them here at Kellesborne. And who’d…gods… Who’d been intimate with Jarrad. Had the spy been using Jarrad to get information?
The betrayal caused a sick knot to churn to life in Wesley’s gut.
“No more excuses,” the sorcerer growled. “I’m tired of your pathetic attempts to stall. I don’t know what game you think you’re playing, worm, or with whom you believe you’re playing it, but your usefulness has run its course.”
The sobbing had grown even more heart-wrenching, before it once again turned to strangled screams.
“One week,” the sorcerer growled. “And I’m being far more generous than you deserve. You have one week to get me real information. I demand to know the location of the draegan’s stronghold. Or…you can prove to me beyond any doubt that you have the prize I desire in your custody. This is your last opportunity to show me you’re not completely worthless. If you appear before me without significant information again, you won’t live to see the next dawn.”
His dark eyes narrowed. “And mark my words, worm, your end will not be quick. You’ll die in horrible, writhing agony. And it goes without saying that no one, not a single living being, will miss you when you’re gone.”
He then spoke several distinct words in a language Wesley didn’t recognize.
The moment the words were out of his mouth, the sorcerer’s image faded from sight. And the person on the ground went still but for soft, choked sobs.
Wesley stood, clutching his sword, his breathing coming in short, pained bursts, as he stared at the spot where the sorcerer’s image had been. At the same time, his mind spun, trying to sort out what he’d just witnessed.
And then his gaze fell, once more, to the figure lying curled on its side on the stone walkway.
He sheathed his sword and drew his vrieg instead. With his pulse pounding, he stepped out from behind the turret and silently stalked across the stones toward the spy.
He stopped next to the person, who, now that the light from the sorcerer’s magick projection had disappeared, was little more than a dark lump on the ground.
Quiet but gut-wrenching sobs still emanated from the lump, and the spy seemed unaware of Wesley’s presence.
But Wesley was in no mood to offer comfort after what he’d just seen and heard.
He reached down and grabbed a handful of the spy’s cloak. With a swift jerk, he pulled the person to their feet, finding them surprisingly lighter than he’d expected.
The figure cried out, but before they could form any intelligible words, Wesley yanked back the hood of their cloak so he could finally see who this vaguely familiar traitor was.
In the pale moonlight, he couldn’t make out much more than a head with shoulder-length dark curls and even darker eyes in a pale face. But that was all he needed to put a name to the spy.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” he growled. “What in hel have you done, Phee?”