Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
“Nobody’s going to make you go anywhere,” Jarrad said fiercely. “And no one’s going to kill you.” The last was said with a furious gaze directed at Wen.
Shocked at the direction of Jarrad’s ire, Wen shot him a gaze back that silently said, What in hel’s gotten into you?
Why in hel would Jarrad think Wen would ever consider such an awful thing? Earlier, his brother had wanted nothing to do with Phee, and now he’d done a complete switch and was snarling like a cornered sabeen to protect him. In this case, protect him from a non-existent threat. Good gods.
Wesley must have picked up on their tension because he said, in a soothing tone, “Of course no one’s going to send you back. Nor would anyone here hurt you, Phee. You’ve been through enough.”
He knelt in front of Phee once again, and Wen suspected he was trying to give him something else to focus on besides Jarrad’s and his angry stare-down that was clearly upsetting Phee.
Wen forced himself to take a deep breath and calm down.
“I know it must be hard to talk about it,” Wesley said to Phee, “but in order to help you, we need to know as much as we can about how the sorcerer’s been controlling you. What was he doing to you tonight? He was hurting you in spite of the fact he wasn’t here. How is that possible?”
“He…he has a poppet of me.”
“A poppet?” Wesley asked. “What’s that?”
When Phee seemed uncertain how to explain, Wen responded.
“It’s like a doll. A sort of effigy of a person. It’s sometimes used in dark magick to control people from afar. If the sorcerer has a poppet that represents Phee, whatever he does to the poppet would happen to him.” He looked at Phee for confirmation. “That’s what you mean, right?”
“But it’s not easily accomplished magick,” Wen continued. “And the sorcerer would only be able to make the poppet if he had some bit of the pers… Ohhh.” His voice tapered off as his own words sunk in.
They must have sunk in for Jarrad as well because his face went slack as he looked at Phee. “Bloody hel. What did he do to you? What did he use to make it?”
Phee had set down his mug of tea on the hearth earlier and, once again, had his arms wrapped around his knees with his hands tightly gripped together. Slowly, he unclenched his hands from their death grip and held up his shaking right one for them to see.
Clearly this had been something else he’d glamoured so no one would notice it. His pinky finger had been severed midway down.
The sick knot in Wen’s gut gave a particularly brutal somersault, and he felt Wesley react similarly.
Jarrad gently took Phee’s hand in his, brought it to his lips, and kissed the roughly healed nub. “I am so sorry all of this has happened to you,” he murmured.
Phee looked taken aback at his unexpected tenderness, his eyes wide.
“So, Byram hurts you by hurting the poppet,” Wesley said in an unsteady voice. “Given the way you were clutching your neck earlier, and the fact some of the burns on your neck look new, is he somehow still able to use iron to harm you?”
“He…he wraps iron wire around the poppet’s neck and ch-chokes me. Or sometimes…” He swallowed hard and winced. “Sometimes, if he’s really angry, he stabs it with iron nails.” Wen noticed his hand reflexively creeping across his body to protect his left side.
Wesley had noticed it, too.
“Are you…?” Wesley asked. Then his eyes went wide. “Oh gods, Phee. You’re bleeding. You’re bleeding right now.”
Phee slowly lifted his arm, revealing a et bloodstain on his side that had turned his faded grey shirt dark as pitch.
The moment he did that, Wesley rose and backed away.
“Take off your shirt,” Jarrad said, not seeming to notice Wesley’s quick movement away from Phee. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
But it was Wesley Wen was more immediately concerned about. He felt Wes’s fear as if it were his own, and knew the sight and no doubt the lingering smell of blood were affecting him. The wound, along with its scent had probably been hidden by Phee’s glamour earlier, just as the scars and marks had been. But now that everything was exposed…
Are you okay? he silently mouthed.
Wesley drew in several slow deep breaths, then nodded. Wen noticed he’d taken another couple of steps away, though, keeping his distance.
With a final sympathetic look at his mate, Wen turned his attention back to Phee. When he did, he discovered he’d been right about the extent of the sorcerer’s cruelty.
As Jarrad eased Phee’s shirt up and over his head, Phee self-consciously tried to use his hands and arms to hide the marks revealed on his pale skin.
It didn’t work. There were far too many of them to hide. Old lash marks that had faded to silvery scars criss-crossed his back and sides and even his chest, along with other unidentifiable scars. And on his shoulder, he wore the sorcerer’s slave brand—an ugly, deep scar in the shape of a B.
Fucking Byram, needing to mark other beings with his own initial to make sure everyone knew they belonged to him. The sight infuriated Wen. He felt Wesley’s horror as well.
Jarrad looked over his shoulder at Wen, his face drawn and pale, registering his own shock. “We have to stop this. We can’t let the fucking sorcerer hurt him any more.”
“We will. We’ll find a way.” Gods knew how, but Wen couldn’t bear to think about Phee living like this any more than Jarrad could.
“If…if I don’t check in with him or if he’s unhappy with me,” Phee whispered, “he can kill me by using the poppet. He’s going to know I’m talking to you.”
“No. He’s not,” Jarrad said firmly.
“Even if he doesn’t do it before then, he’s for certain going to kill me in a week if I don’t give him what he wants.” He looked up at Wen. “I’ve been stalling, only telling him little things that I hope won’t hurt. But he’s a-angry because I wasn’t able to give him much of anything these past few weeks while I was away doing the job you asked of me.”
“How could you have sent him away?” Jarrad accused, once again turning a furious glare on Wen. “You sent him out there, alone, where the sorcerer’s armies are crawling all over the land. Where he’d be vulnerable and unprotected.”
“I didn’t know any of this at the time, Jarrad. And I didn’t send him…I asked. I asked, and he agreed to go.”
But Wen couldn’t stop the stabbing guilt deep down inside that had plagued him since the night he’d met with Phee at the guard camp.
“He didn’t make me. I wanted to do it,” Phee told Jarrad.
“You shouldn’t have. You shouldn’t have gone.”
Phee frowned. “I always feel useless and I wanted to help.”
“You’re not useless.”
“But I feel that way most of the time. You and your brother and Wesley…you’ve all been trained to fight, and you work day and night to protect everyone, to keep the rest of us safe. While I… I’m just…” He shrugged a thin shoulder and sighed. “I’m weak. I have no skills. I can’t do anything important—”
“That’s not tr—”
In a rare moment of standing his ground, Phee cut Jarrad off. “It is true. It’s completely true. I like it here because even with the high sorcerer’s threats hanging over me, I feel safe. Safer, at least, than I ever have anywhere else. But all I’ve done since I’ve been here is slink around, trying not to be caught, trying not to let anyone find out I’m the sorcerer’s pathetic sp…” He shook his head. “…spy. Meanwhile, most everyone here has been nice to me, even as I’ve been deceiving them. And I’ve let them, not able to offer anything in return except lies. Then you left…and I felt even more useless than ever.”
“What? That’s… I left in part because you said you didn’t want me,” Jarrad said, his posture and tone suddenly defensive. “You pushed me away.”
“Because I was scared.”
“Scared of what?”
Phee, wide-eyed, raised a hand in a sweeping gesture. “Of this. Of you finding out who and…and what I am. Afraid you’d think I was only with you to get information, even though that wasn’t how I felt at all. You couldn’t even look at me earlier when Wesley first told you.”
“That’s not fair. I was shocked by everything. I had no idea what to think.”
“Except the worst. You thought I was making stuff up to hide my guilt. That’s what you said.”
“I didn’t m—”
“It doesn’t matter. The point is, the biggest reason I told you I didn’t want to…to be with you anymore….was that I was mostly scared for you. Everything the sorcerer touches, everyone, gets destroyed in some way or another. I didn’t want to be the cause of anything awful happening to you because of your association with me. I didn’t want anyone, any of you, to get hurt. I’m…I’m tainted by the sorcerer. Everything I do is tainted.”
“Will you stop talking about yourself that way! You’re not—”
“I am,” Phee interrupted him yet again. “It’s true, whether you want to hear it or not. So when your brother asked me if I wanted to do something…something that, for the first time in my life, felt real to me, like I could actually help, maybe make a difference for the right side for a change, I wanted to. I was afraid. But I wanted, needed, to do it. It wasn’t your decision, Jarrad. And it wasn’t your brother’s. It was mine.”
Phee’s speech was the most Wen had ever heard him say. And it clearly drained him because he let out a tired huff of breath, then dropped his head onto his drawn-up knees, his face hidden against them.
When Jarrad tried to touch him, he shrugged away. When he tried again, Phee turned away from him, not letting him even continue cleaning and bandaging his wound.
Jarrad grew quiet at Phee’s rejection of him. He stood, as if he had no clue what to do with himself, and backed away toward the window once more, watching Phee, but clearly uncertain how to act or respond.
Wen wasn’t sure himself. What had begun as questions about Phee’s connection to the sorcerer had turned into a very personal conversation that he and Wesley probably shouldn’t have overheard.
Meanwhile, Phee had begun shivering again and Wen suspected it was as much from emotional exhaustion as cold.
He started to stand, to get Phee a blanket, but Wesley, bless his kind soul, had already beaten him to it.
Wesley draped one of the blankets from the bed around Phee’s shoulders, then picked up his mug of tea, dumped it out, and refilled it with fresh, hot brew from the pot over the fire.
“Here. And, please, drink some this time, okay?” Wesley said, crouching in front of Phee. “It’ll help.
Phee looked up, his expression bleak, but there were no more tears. He haltingly accepted the mug Wesley offered, and probably because Wesley was watching, took a sip, then another of the tea.
“Let’s get you bandaged up so you can put on a new shirt. That’ll help, too.”
Only Wen knew the strength of will it was taking for Wesley to be so close to Phee’s still-exposed wound. Gods, he loved this man—his strong, generous, gentle mate—so much.
“Would you like some help?” he asked, offering Wesley an out if he needed it.
Wesley gave him a brief, grateful smile. “It’s okay. Phee and I have got this. Though…if you want to get him one of our clean shirts out of the chest, that would be good.”
As Wesley worked, Wen heard Phee ask him, barely above a whisper, “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“I already told you,” Wesley said. “You’ve been through enough.”
“You can feel it, can’t you?”
Wen had no idea what “it” Phee referred to, but Wesley seemed to understand because Wen returned in time to see him nod.
Wen set the shirt next to Wesley, then sank back onto the bench, close enough he could run a hand over Wesley’s hair. He felt a responding shimmer of love from his mate along their link.
“I…I had a friend in the sorcerer’s slave dungeon,” Phee said, his voice still quiet. “Everyone called him Bog but that wasn’t his real name. He let me use his real name, Kai. He was like you,” he said to Wesley.
Wesley’s brows drew together and he looked up from what he was doing. “Like me?”
“With… With your…gifts,” Phee murmured.
Wen felt Wesley’s heart suddenly pounding. Felt the twinge of fear he experienced.
“Which gifts?” Wesley softly asked, his gaze locked with Phee’s.
“All of them,” came the whispered response.
Wesley drew in a sharp breath.
In that moment, based on Wesley’s reaction, Wen was certain Phee knew everything. But, bloody hel. How did Phee know Wesley was an ondaen?
Outwardly, Wesley kept his composure. “This friend… Are there any others like him in the dungeon?”
“No. He was the last.”
“Was? He…he isn’t still there?”
Somehow, gods knew how, but somehow, Wesley continued to work on bandaging Phee as they talked. Wen had no idea how he was staying so calm.
Phee slowly shook his head.
“The sorcerer?” Wesley asked.
“Yes. But…not…not exactly like you might think. Kai…he couldn’t take it anymore, the…the things the sorcerer wanted him to do. So he…”
“Oh gods,” Wesley whispered, His sorrow was a painful wave that broke over Wen.
Phee’s face was bleak as well, and Wen guessed it was over the loss of what might very well have been the only friend he’d ever had.
“You figured out about me because of being around him?” Wesley asked.
Phee hesitated, but then nodded.
“Had he been there long when…?”
“He was older. His family was gone. They captured him and brought him to Thrythgar maybe three years ago. They…they kept him by himself because… Well, the wall of his cell was next to mine. There was a gap between the stones and we talked almost every day. For two years. Until…”
“I’m so sorry you lost your friend.”
“He said there weren’t many more. Maybe no more.”
Wen felt another pulse of Wesley’s pain.
“What are they talking about?” Jarrad whispered, sinking onto the bench next to Wen.
Wen held a finger to his lips as he glanced at Jarrad and shook his head.
Jarrad frowned but stayed silent.
After a pause, Wesley spoke again. “You said everyone called your friend Bog but it wasn’t his real name?”
“No one was allowed to use their real name there. We…we were supposed to forget our given names, those of us who had them, because they didn’t matter anymore. Only nicknames the guards gave us or…or the things the sorcerer called us.”
“Is Phee what everyone called you?”
He nodded. “Phee is short for morphy.”
Wesley finished the bandage, then waited for Phee to pull on the clean shirt Wesley handed him, before wrapping him back up in the blanket.
“You had a real name before Thrythgar, didn’t you?”Wesley asked.
“I…” Phee’s face scrunched. “Clara always called me…Malcolm.” He said it as if he hadn’t thought about it in a long time.
Wen heard Jarrad let out a soft, painful-sounding breath. When he glanced at him, Jarrad said, so quietly only Wen could hear, “I’ve called him Phee all this time when it was nothing but a foul, awful nickname…”
“You had no way of knowing that,” Wen told him.
“I should have known. He should have been able to trust me. Instead…he was scared to talk to me.”
Wen squeezed his shoulder, offering comfort.
“Malcolm is a good name,” Wesley was saying. “An honorable name. May we call you that?”
Phee, looking slightly dazed, whispered, “I guess so. Yes.”
Wesley rose and unwrapped the partial loaf of bread that had been left on the table from their breakfast that morning. He tore off a piece of it to hand to Ph— to Malcolm.
“I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve eaten, and we can get something more substantial in a while. But for now, here, eat this. And after that, would you be willing to answer some more questions and help us, Malcolm?”
Malcolm looked completely taken aback at the sound of the name, as if it were so unfamiliar he wasn’t even certain Wesley was speaking to him. But after a couple of quivering breaths, he seemed to steady himself. He reached for the bread and nodded.
Wesley turned to Wen, and Wen knew he was still reeling from finding out there’d been another ondaen in the sorcerer’s slave dungeon and that the poor soul had killed himself over whatever heinous things the sorcerer had made him do. The news had shaken Wesley, deeply.
But in spite of all that, Wes had salvaged a difficult situation, and not only soothed Malcolm, but opened the door for asking more questions. Questions to which they desperately needed answers.
I love you, Wen silently mouthed, reaching for and squeezing his hand.
I love you, Wesley mouthed back, giving him a weak smile. “Let’s…let’s all have some tea,” he said aloud.
A few minutes later, after they’d had something to drink and shared the rest of the bread, Wen decided to try Wesley’s close-up approach. He sank onto the rug in front of the hearth to sit cross-legged next to Malcolm, who flinched only a little, before swallowing hard and looking at Wen in expectation.
“Do you feel up to talking a little longer?”
Malcolm sighed. Then, in a resigned voice, he said, “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
“Thank you. Everything you tell us helps. Maybe a lot.”
“I want to help.”
“I know. So, just to clarify… Wesley said that, up on the wall, the sorcerer didn’t seem to realize where you were. Does Byram know you’ve been staying at Kellesborne?”
“No. He doesn’t. I swear.”
“Then where does he think you are?”
“He thinks I’m living with the draegans in some caves. I told him they’re magickally hidden so I don’t know exactly where they are. Because there are caves everywhere in Velensperia, I thought that would make it harder for him to figure out. He can tell when he’s being lied to, so I’ve tried to keep as close to the truth as I can. And I was living down at the guard camp at first, so the cave part was mostly true.”
“That was good thinking,” Wen acknowledged.
“When I’ve had to contact him, if I haven’t been down at the caves, I’ve gone to the top of the wall because where it runs into the mountain it’s all rocky, so he sees that and still believes me.”
“I heard you say you told him about Jax,” Wesley said, dropping onto the floor to sit next to Wen. “What, specifically, did you tell him?”
“He was threatening me a few weeks ago if I didn’t give him something, so I told him the draegans rescued Jax. I figured he already suspected as much, so it wasn’t like I was giving away anything secret. He wanted to know if Jax was at the caves where I was. He caught me off guard, so I told him yes. That’s when he said I had to find a way to turn Jax against Captain…um, I mean Lord Rizik. He said they had a history and Jax hated him already. So I told Jax that Lord Hareldson was gone and Captain Rizik was the lord now. His face went all red and he was furious. He went to confront Lord Rizik.”
“That was you, who spoke to Jax?” Wen said. “Jax said it was a human wom— Ah. You made yourself look like a human woman.”
Malcolm nodded miserably. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to do anything he tells me, but if I don’t…”
“It’s okay,” Jarrad said, addressing him directly for the first time since Malcolm had pulled away from him. “Sometimes you have to give him something to protect yourself.”
Malcolm nodded again, glancing at him.
“Was the sorcerer hoping Jax would kill Lord Rizik?” Wen asked.
“He hoped that, yes. But I knew he wouldn’t.”
“Because I remember Lord Rizik from Thrythgar, when he was the captain of the High Guard. No one could ever beat him in a fight. Plus, Jax didn’t look good when I saw him and spoke with him. He could barely sit up in bed.”
“That was taking a big risk, making assumptions like that. Jax is far tougher than he looks, and your plan could have gotten Lord Rizik killed.”
“I…I know. I mean…I knew it might be a risk, but I truly believed Lord Rizik would handle it. Especially after I heard what he had done against the nyctophans with his magick.”
“What did the sorcerer say when he found out Jax didn’t kill Lord Rizik?”
Malcolm winced and one of his hands slid up to his neck instinctively. “He was…not happy. He wanted to know what happened, why it hadn’t worked, but I told him I didn’t know. I only knew Jax left shortly after that. And Lord Rizik left, too. And I didn’t know where either of them had gone. Like I said, I always try to stick to the truth as much as possible.”
“If you remember Lord Rizik from the sorcerer’s stronghold,” Wesley interjected, “how is it that Lord Rizik didn’t recognize you here?”
“At the sorcerer’s fortress I worked in the kitchens or cleaned when I wasn’t locked up with other slaves. Nowhere Cap— Lord Rizik would ever go. And when I was allowed to be in the high sorcerer’s presence, he would never have let me in the great hall unless I… He…he doesn’t allow anyone near him unless they’re beautiful to look at. So I had to change.”
“Fucking bastard,” Jarrad muttered under his breath.
Malcolm’s gaze flickered to Jarrad again, though Wen couldn’t read it.
“The times I saw Captain Rizik, I didn’t look like…like this, or even like how I’ve made myself look better while I’ve been here.”
“So Lord Rizik’s never seen you as you really are,” Wesley confirmed.
“What else have you told Byram?” Wen asked. “Anything and everything you can remember, even if it seems small, could be important for us to know.”
Malcolm nodded and proceeded to recount things that, for the most part, truly were minor in the grand scheme of things. It turned out that in spite of his quiet, frightened demeanor, Malcolm had done a masterful job of convincing the sorcerer he was telling the truth about knowing very little of the draegan resistance. He’d led Byram to believe that once Lord Rizik and Jax had gone, he’d been left behind with a periphery group of draegans who mostly scouted, but he was too inexperienced with weapons to go along, so he’d mainly been assigned to doing many of the same type of tasks he’d done at Thrythgar. Which was also mostly true.
The sorcerer had been pushing him to find his way to the main part of the resistance, demanding that he make himself look like any of the draegans and walk right into Kellesborne in disguise. But Malcolm had countered that because Kellesborne was hidden by magick, if he wasn’t with other draegans he’d never find it. That stall tactic had worked for a while, but not any longer. Which was why the sorcerer had been so angry and had given him a deadline tonight…because he was tired of Malcolm’s lack of action and wanted results.
“I’m out of excuses for not getting him better information,” Malcolm said, looking miserable. “I don’t know what to do. He sent me to find you, the draegans, the resistance, when others failed because I can change my appearance, I can blend in and no one would ever suspect me.”
“The perfect spy,” Wen murmured.
Malcolm nodded haltingly. “That’s what he said. But he also reminded me that I was still his slave and if I didn’t get him what he wanted, he could kill me in an instant. I would never tell him about Kellesborne. I swear. Even before tonight, I wouldn’t have. But I don’t know what to do. I…I don’t know how I’m going to appease him this time. That’s why nothing matters. A week from now…I’m going to die.”
He dropped his head onto his knees again with a sigh that indicated he truly held no hope.
“We’re not going to let you die,” Jarrad said. He’d maintained his distance, staying on the bench, but Wen could tell it was killing him to do so.
“What about the ‘prize’ Byram mentioned tonight?” Wesley asked. “He said you could give him the location of Kellesborne or provide him with the prize he wants. What prize is he looking for?”
Malcolm slowly lifted his head, and Wen was startled see his face had blanched the color of the white bedsheets.
“I… It’s… Oh gods,” he said, his face crumpling.
“Is it Lord Rizik?” Wen asked. “Since Jax didn’t kill him, does Byram want him back so he can do it himself?”
“No,” Malcom said, shaking his head. He looked like he was going to be sick.
What in hel?
“Lord Hareldson?” Jarrad suggested.
“No. It’s…it’s neither of the draegan lords.”
“Maybe it’s not a person. Maybe it’s a thing,” Wesley said. “What is it, Malcolm?” he asked him in a gentle tone. “Whatever it is, this prize, you can talk to us.”
Malcolm took a deep breath, then let it out in a shaking huff. “They’re partially right. It’s not a what. It’s a…a who.”
“Who is it then?” Wesley asked.
Malcolm bit his trembling lower lip. Then he whispered, “It’s you. It’s you, Wesley. You’re the one the sorcerer is looking for.”