Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
The sudden, rapid pounding of Wesley’s heart made him dizzy.
“What?” he whispered. “I don’t… What?”
Wen seemed far better able to verbalize it. “Why in hel would the sorcerer be looking for Wes?”
Malcom acted like he wanted to crawl into a cupboard and hide. “Because of…of what he is.”
Wesley stood, needing to…move? Deny? Escape? He didn’t know.
He paced toward the bed. Stopped. His hands had balled into fists as his side, and he dragged in a hard breath and then another.
Wen had risen as well, following him. He reached for one of Wesley’s hands, uncurled it, and enfolded it in his own. Keeping contact. Offering support and a warm pulse of soothing magick.
“Once again I’m lost,” Jarrad said. “The sorcerer wants Wesley because of what he is? Because…he’s an empath?”
“No,” Wesley said, staring at the intricate green and gold tapestry on the white stone wall. A sick knot churned in his gut. “I’m guessing he wants me because of what makes me an empath.”
“I don’t understand.”
Wesley sighed deeply. “He wants me because I’m an ondaen.”
A beat of silenced passed.
“You’re a… Did you just say ondaen?”
The word, coming out of Jarrad’s mouth, sounded like something revolting. Or maybe it was Wesley’s skewed feelings about himself that made it seem that way.
“Are you serious or is this some kind of joke?”
“Could you possibly be any more of an ass?” Wen snapped at his brother. “It’s not a joke.”
“But… An ondaen?” Jarrad murmured. “And you… You knew about this?” he accused, obviously speaking to Wen now. “Wait a second… How did you know it, Malcolm? What in hel, Wes? Does everybody know but me?”
“Jarrad, back off for a second. Let him breathe, okay?”
“Let him breathe? What in the name of all fuck is happening tonight?”
Wesley could tell from the tone of his voice the questions were rhetorical and Jarrad had turned away, probably moving back over by the window.
Even without Jarrad’s bombardment of questions, Wesley felt ill.
The sorcerer wanted him. But what did that mean exactly?
He drew in another deep breath, released it, then turned, with a grateful look at Wen for the soothing magick he could still feel washing over him, before focusing his attention on Malcolm.
Malcolm appeared terrified again. Wesley realized all three of them stood towering over him, where he sat on the rug. The situation was probably intimidating as hel for him, especially given the tension they all were radiating right now. Even a non-empath had to be able to pick up on it, it was so thick.
Fighting his internal desire to pace, or maybe even just to run, Wesley sank onto the bench, trying to get himself closer to Malcolm’s eye level and put him at ease.
“The sorcerer,” he said. “Is he looking for ondaens in general or me specifically?”
Malcolm sighed. “Both, I think. I…I told you Kai thought there were very few of you left, if any. And the sorcerer…he seems to think the same thing. He thinks you might be the only one now, and he’s desperate to find you.”
“But how does he even know I exist?”
“From what I understand…months ago, one of his soldiers out scouting saw you. In the old forest.”
“Fuck,” Wesley whispered, swiping a hand down over his face. After all the years of his mother warning him, of being painfully careful, somewhere along the line he’d slipped up and been seen. “Saw me swimming?”
Malcom nodded. “The soldier…he went back to Thrythgar and told his friends what he’d seen and word reached the sorcerer. The sorcerer was desperate to get his hands on another ondaen after…after Kai wasn’t there anymore. So he sent some of his men to find you and bring you to him.”
“The soldiers…” Wesley breathed. “The settlement at the Zekklesian…” He looked up at Wen, who’d moved to stand behind him, his throat raw. “They weren’t after Caleb, they were after me.”
“Sounds like it,” Wen murmured, his expression troubled.
“Gods… My mum, Lord Rizik’s grandmother, the others…they all could have been killed because of me. Because I stupidly let myself be seen.” He closed his eyes and rubbed his face again, as if that could somehow make the nightmare disappear.
Wen stepped over the bench and sat next to him. His palm came to rest on Wesley’s thigh, gently squeezing. “Don’t think like that. No one was killed. They’re all fine.”
“Only because you guys arrived in the nick of time. If you hadn’t…”
“But we did. Let’s not focus on bad things that never came to pass. The sorcerer didn’t get you that day, and his men didn’t hurt anyone. That’s all that matters.”
Wesley wanted to believe him, but couldn’t stop the sick twist of guilt in his already churning belly that they’d all been exposed to the sorcerer’s evil because of him.
“Don’t, love. It’s not your fault,” Wen said, obviously reading him. He curved a hand around the back of Wesley’s head and leaned in to press a kiss against his temple.
Jarrad had stayed quiet, for a change, but Wesley could almost feel more questions blazing beneath his silence. It didn’t help, and, selfishly, he was glad Jarrad wasn’t asking them right now.
To Malcolm, Wen said, “What does he want with Wesley? Obviously it’s because he’s an ondaen, but what does Byram need him for? What did he need your friend Kai for?”
“I…I don’t know exactly.”
“Malcolm, you said you talked to your friend for two years. You said he didn’t want to do the things the sorcerer forced him to. You have to know what those things were.”
“Hey, now you back off!” Jarrad said, moving to stand next to Malcolm. “He’s been honest with us all night. If he doesn’t know this, he doesn’t know.”
“It’s okay,” Malcolm said, reaching up and wrapping his fingers around Jarrad’s hand. “He’s right to ask.”
Jarrad stared down at him in surprise, probably at the unexpected physical contact.
To Wen, Malcolm said, “I’m not trying to be evasive. I don’t know exactly because even Kai didn’t. The…the sorcerer wanted his blood. But Kai didn’t know for sure why.”
“His blood?” Jarrad’s voice matched the strained expression on his face. “Please, for the dozenth time tonight, someone tell me what in hel is going on.”
“Ondaen blood has powerful healing magick,” Wen told him.
Jarrad’s forehead furrowed. “It does?”
“Don’t you remember? More stories Iann told us when we were young. This time about the ondaen?”
Jarrad looked sheepish in spite of his frustration. “I have to be honest… I was never as interested in those stories as you and the younger boys were. I didn’t always pay attention.”
For a split second Wesley felt a profound sense of relief he’d fallen for the brother he had. If it had been Jarrad out there in the hot spring pool that night, run through with a sword, he would have died, and Wesley would have had no clue what his magick could do.
“Well, rest assured, it’s true,” Wen said.
“And you know this for certain how? Have you—”
“Trust me, I know,” Wen said, cutting him off.
“How do you know? Maybe it’s nothing more than an old legend or something. Unless you’ve actually tried it, then you can’t say for su—”
“Damn it, it works, Jarrad,” Wen gritted out, his patience clearly stretched thin. “I know it does because I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if it weren’t for Wes. I’d be yet another casualty in the sorcerer’s fucking war. Wesley literally brought me back from the brink of death.”
Jarrad’s eyes had gone wide. He looked between Wen and Wesley, shock pulsing from him so hard Wesley felt it battering his senses.
“What?” Jarrad murmured. “When did…?”
“The night Wen and I fought the soldiers outside the south barrier of the forest camp. We thought we had them all and then…” Wesley winced at the memory of the soldier rising up to stab Wen straight through.
“You said he took a sword that night.” Jarrad’s face looked unusually pale in the firelight.
“But…you said the water healed him.”
“It didn’t. I wasn’t sure how to explain the truth to you that morning, so I said it was the water. We did actually go to the hot spring, hoping it might help, and for small things, it does seem to. But Wen’s injury was…” He winced again.
“It was a mortal wound,” Wen said, finishing for him.
“Holy gods,” Jarrad breathed.
“But then Wesley cut his hands and used his blood and, eventually, I was okay.”
Jarrad took what looked like a painful swallow, then shook his head as if needing to clear it. “How did you know to do it? Did you know all along?” he asked Wesley.
“I didn’t know. Wen told me. He remembered the stories. And the last thing he said to me before he fell unconscious was something about my blood. I took a shot in the dark as to what that meant, and…a few hours later he woke up and he was healing.”
“I…I don’t even know what to say.” But then Jarrad’s forehead furrowed in thought and he shook his head. “No. Actually, I do.” His gaze locked on Wesley, unexpected anger flashing in his eyes. “If your blood heals, then help Malcolm! Gods, Wes, why haven’t you done it already? Help him so he doesn’t have to hurt anymore!”
The request was completely logical from Jarrad’s perspective. Wesley knew that. And he sensed Jarrad’s genuine worry for and protectiveness of Malcolm. But he stumbled to his feet, around the bench, then backed away, his heart pounding. “I can’t.”
“What do you mean you can’t? You and Wen just finished telling me that you can, that you did. Why would you not help Malcolm like you did Wen?”
“Jarrad,” Wen warned, standing again and holding a hand out toward his brother.
Wesley didn’t sense Jarrad’s anger was enough for him to lunge at him, but Wen was clearly prepared to stop him if he tried.
Gods, what a mess.
“His blood’s good enough for you but not for Malcolm?” Jarrad bit out.
“It’s not that,” Wesley said.
“Then what is it?”
“When I use my blood to heal, there’s a price. An awful price.”
“What are you talking about?”
Amazingly, it was Malcolm who intervened. He scrambled to his feet and, with more strength than Wesley would have thought he had, he grabbed hold of Jarrad’s arm and yanked him over to the bench, forcing him to sit.
“Leave him alone,” he told Jarrad, his expression fierce. “Blood magick…it’s…it’s powerful, yes. But powerful magick is never without cost. Whatever the sorcerer was using Kai’s blood for, every time he’d make him give some, Kai would…” His chest heaved and his face scrunched up in pain as he struggled to say it.
“He would turn into a monster?” Wesley asked softly.
Malcolm slowly nodded. “Yes. Until…until he got blood in return. It haunted him. He hated it. Hated himself for it.” He turned back to Jarrad. “So, don’t ever try to force Wesley to use that gift. You have no idea what it costs him to do it.”
“What do you mean until he got blood in return?” Jarrad asked, but his tone was far more subdued.
“You say you don’t remember the stories Iann told you when you and Wen were growing up,” Wesley said. “But I bet you’ve heard some of the terrible legends of the ondaen elsewhere. Why else would you have reacted the way you did when you found out what I was?”
Jarrad looked chastened. But that wasn’t Wesley’s aim.
“Where do you think those legends about the ondaen being monsters came from? About them making wicked bargains with people, luring them to their deaths?”
“Those are just stupid stories.”
“Based on grains of truth,” Wesley told him. “Wen and I found out the hard way that if I use my blood to heal, Malcolm’s right, I have to have blood in return. And there’s nothing I can do to stop myself from getting it. Do you understand what I’m saying? I will take it, by force if necessary, in whatever form I can get it. Potentially even from the very person I healed if that’s all that’s available.”
“It’s a survival instinct,” Malcolm added. “If he doesn’t get it, he’ll die.”
Wesley and Wen both turned to look at him, shock rippling along their link
“What did you just say?” Wen asked.
“You…you didn’t know that part?” Malcolm asked, his dark eyes gone wide.
“No,” Wesley rasped.
“It’s true. Kai told me. The…the sorcerer knew it, too, because after he’d take blood from Kai, he’d… Well, he’d bring him…” He winced, clearly unable to finish. “That was the part Kai hated. He…he had no control over it and he hated what he was forced to do to survive.”
Wesley guessed it wasn’t animals the sorcerer had given Kai to feed from.
“Eventually, Kai decided he wasn’t going to do it anymore. One day he…he refused to feed afterward and…well…it was horrible. He was in s-such agony, but he chose that and death rather than…”
Oh. Fucking. Gods.
Wen quickly stepped toward Wesley and pulled him into an embrace.
Wesley wound his arms around Wen’s waist and pressed his face into Wen’s shoulder, trying to shut out the image of what had been forced on Malcolm’s friend.
“I…I didn’t know,” Jarrad said behind them. “I’m sorry. Clearly I have a lot to learn about all the new twists and turns that have come up tonight.”
“Just stop being such a pushy shit,” Wen told him over the top of Wesley’s head. ”If you keep your mouth shut and your attitude in check, you’ll learn more.”
His short-tempered words to Jarrad were a dead giveaway that Wen was more shaken from the night’s events than he’d let on. He’d been constantly sending Wesley soothing magick, had been a pillar of strength and support, but he’d been feeling the stress almost as much as Wesley had.
“Well, now at least we know,” Wesley said weakly, pulling back enough to look at him.
“I wish we didn’t. Wish you didn’t have to worry about about yet another consequence.”
“No, it’s good that we do. The books we’ve been reading haven’t had the kind of information we’ve really needed. I’d rather know this, even if it’s unpleasant, than continue being in the dark.”
“Unpleasant isn’t exactly what I’d call it.” Wen frowned as he gently pushed back a lock of Wesley’s hair that had fallen over his eye. “But I understand what you’re saying. Knowledge is power.”
“It is. For all of us. We all need to be on the same page now.”
At Wen’s nod of acknowledgment, Wesley turned back toward Jarrad. “What else do you want to know?” he asked him.
Jarrad still looked rattled. He glanced at Malcolm, who’d returned to sitting in front of the fire, but Malcolm’s gaze was fixed on Jarrad, as were Wesley’s and Wen’s.
With a troubled expression, Jarrad’s attention returned to Wesley. “I’m not sure. I guess… Who all knows?”
“That I’m an ondaen?”
“Only the people in this room. And my mum.”
“No. She’s human. She found me and my ondaen parents when I was about a year old. They, too, wore the sorcerer’s slave brand.”
He glanced at Malcom, who reached up to touch the brand on his shoulder.
“My parents had been murdered. My mum discovered me hidden in some bushes nearby and took me and raised me as her own. I didn’t know any of this until she told me a few months ago. I didn’t fully shift for the first time until I was a teenager, so for most of my life I thought I was human. And after I discovered I changed when I was in the water, I thought…” He shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought maybe there was something about my father she wasn’t telling me. I never knew she’d adopted me until after I was with Wen. That’s when she finally shared the whole story with me. I only found out there was a name for what I am the day Wen was stabbed.”
“When did you find out?” Jarrad asked Wen.
“That night, in the hot spring, when we went there after the fight. Wesley shifted in the water.”
“And you know,” he said to Malcolm, “because Byram sent you to look for Wesley, so you were aware he was an ondaen?”
“I didn’t know it was specifically Wesley, not for a while. The soldier who saw you, Wesley…the only description he gave was that you were young and had dark hair. One of the sorcerer’s spies said there was a small settlement near where you’d been seen, so the sorcerer sent his men there, assuming that’s where you lived. When none of them returned, and word got to the sorcerer they’d all been killed, he was livid. He knew from how the forest had burned around it that the draegan lord had been there, so he assumed the people from the settlement had left with the draegan lord, gone to his camp. When the sorcerer sent me out, that story was all I had to go on. And when I was found and brought to Kellesborne, you weren’t even here. It wasn’t until you were back and I”—he glanced haltingly at Jarrad—“and I learned more, that I was able to piece together who’d been at the settlement.”
“That’s when you realized it was me?”
Malcolm nodded. “But I knew you were Jarrad’s friend, and his brother’s mate, and…I also couldn’t stop thinking about Kai and what the sorcerer made him… What he…” He rubbed his eyes.
“It’s okay. Take your time,” Wesley said, understanding Malcolm’s grief and fear.
When Malcolm had composed himself, he continued. “I knew I could never live with myself if I willingly put you in the sorcerer’s path. So whenever he brought it up, I…I told him I didn’t know anything. That no one from that settlement was in the caves with me—which, technically, was true. But he kept pushing and pushing so hard, so I finally told him I’d asked around, but no one had any idea where the settlement residents had gone. That part was a lie…and that may have been the lie that made him begin to doubt me. I told you, he can tell when he’s being lied to.”
“So he doesn’t actually know it’s Wesley he’s looking for?” Wen said.
“Not technically, no. But…”
“But I’m the only one from the settlement who fits the description, so if one of his other spies finds out or he captures someone from the castle who talks…”
“No one from the castle’s going to get caught,” Wen said. “And even if they did, they wouldn’t tell the sorcerer anything.”
“Well…actually…” Malcolm looked miserable again.
“Oh gods, what now?” Jarrad muttered.
Wesley felt Wen’s tension spike again, as did his own.
“Malcolm, what else do you know?” Wen demanded.
“That’s…that’s why I was returning to Kellesborne, to report to you. It’s about Lochlann.”
The troubling sense Wesley had had weeks ago, when they’d let Lochlann go, came back to haunt him again. He’d felt in his bones that something bad was going to come of it, damn it.
“What about Lochlann?”
“The sorcerer’s soldiers captured him. Two days ago. He was screaming at them to not kill him because he had information they could use.”
“Shit,” Wen muttered.
“And after following him for weeks,” Malcolm said hesitantly, “I can tell you, he’s got no love for the three of you.”