Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Sorry for the late posting, gang. I had a slew of technical difficulties on Saturday evening, both when I was trying to get this chapter tidied up, and when I tried to upload it. Sheesh. My brand new (less than a month old) Macbook black screened on me TWICE as I was doing a few final revisions on the chapter. I was typing along and bzzzzt, nothing, black screen. Both times I had to reboot to fix it, and both times I lost whatever I’d done for several minutes before that. Grrrr! Then, my blog was being a butt and not letting me upload anything. Every time I’d try, it’d freeze up. (At that point I was even working on my old computer and still…ugh!). I think I was cursed by evil tech pixies or something, the little assholes. But here we are at last! So, without further ado…. 🙂
“But why? Why would he have…?” Jarrad looked like someone had just punched him in the gut. “I thought he trusted us. Trusted me. And we trusted him.”
“Maybe something scared him,” Wen said, trying to give Malcolm the benefit of the doubt, even as a tangled knot of concern settled in his own stomach.
Then something occurred to Wen.
“What about that time, weeks ago,” he said to Wesley, “that you sensed him—you didn’t know it was Malcolm then, but you sensed him—and then he disappeared, only to reappear again a while later?”
“I actually thought about that, about the time Malcolm disappeared before,” Wesley said.
“When he disappeared before? What are you guys talking about?” Jarrad asked, fear evident in his shaking voice.
“Weeks ago, one night I was practicing my ability to read people from a distance. To do that, I would search out people I knew well because they were the easiest for me to find. So, your mum, my mum, Al, you. When I found you, you were…well, with someone.”
“Wait… You realized I was…he and I were…? Is that what Malcolm meant last night when he said you sensed us?”
Wesley nodded, his face scrunched in apology. “I’m sorry. I didn’t intentionally invade your privacy, and the moment I realized you were…involved, I immediately withdrew.”
“I…I don’t even know how to feel about that.”
“I know, and again, I’m so sorry, Jarrad. I didn’t recognize the emotional aura of the person you were with. I had only ever met Malcolm once before at that point, and only briefly, so the person’s aura felt vaguely familiar yet I couldn’t place it. A few nights after that, as I was practicing again, I happened upon him. I still didn’t know who he was—it could have been a man, a woman, I had no idea. I only recognized it was the person you’d been with. He was alone somewhere in the castle. I couldn’t tell where. But the reason he caught my attention that night was because he was terrified. Like…live or die terrified. I was concerned for him, so I focused in more closely, trying to figure out where in the castle he was, so I could see if he needed help. And while I was reading him, his emotions just suddenly disappeared. They were gone, completely. It scared me because all I could think about was that something bad had happened, that maybe he’d been…well…”
“Killed?” Jarrad whispered, his gaze fixed on Wesley.
Wesley nodded. “Remember that night you came out of your family’s rooms and I was in the hallway?”
“That was the night. I was actually coming to find you. Because I had no idea who the person was, I thought maybe you’d know where we could start looking. But as I was coming to get you, he suddenly appeared in my senses again. He was still scared, but less so than before, and seemingly okay. So I didn’t say anything to you because I wasn’t even sure what had happened or how to explain it.”
Wesley’s retelling of that night made Wen wonder if, as crazy as it sounded, the sorcerer had some ability to snatch Malcolm out of existence. “Do you think the sorcerer might be able to…open a portal or something to get to him?”
“Oh gods,” Jarrad murmured, scuffing a trembling hand over his face.
“I don’t think so,” Wesley said. “I don’t think it’s something the sorcerer is doing to him…not directly anyway.”
When Wen and Jarrad both looked at him, he continued.
“I hadn’t remembered to tell you until now, but it happened again last night, up on the wall. I stood and watched him speaking to the sorcerer, felt his emotions, but then, without warning, he just blipped out of my senses. If I’d been reading him from a distance, I might have believed he disappeared again. But I was standing right there, watching him, and he didn’t go anywhere. Only his emotions did. So I have to assume that’s what happened before as well.”
“What in hel does it mean?” Jarrad asked.
“I’m not certain, but I wonder if…if maybe it’s a kind of defensive reaction he has when he’s scared. It didn’t happen last night until the sorcerer started torturing him. He was in so much pain…” Wesley’s voice tapered off and he winced. Wen could tell he was remembering how it had felt.
“And that’s when his emotions…?”
“Shut down. It’s like they shut down. Maybe…maybe the pain was just so much, so intense, and he was so damned frightened, that he’s taught himself over the years to, I don’t know…turn inward. Distance himself from his body and pain and fear.”
“Oh fucking gods,” Jarrad whispered, looking ill. He dropped onto the edge of the bed.
Wen sat next to him and wrapped an arm around his brother’s shoulders. To Wesley, he asked, “Is it possible something like that happened this morning? The sorcerer contacted him, or even just the thought he might contact him scared Malcolm so much he’s…shut down? And that’s why you can’t sense him?”
“I thought of that,” Wesley said. “Which is why it took me so long to try to find him. Before, both times when his emotional aura disappeared, it came back within a few minutes, presumably once the pain…or fear…or whatever faded. But even though I waited, and kept searching, I still can’t pick him up. Plus, we don’t know how long he’s been gone. He potentially left the room hours ago, and surely, whatever happens when I lose his emotions, I would be able to pick him up by now. So, I think…” He hesitated, looking at Jarrad, and Wen knew he was trying to be sensitive to Jarrad and not upset him further.
But Jarrad himself finished the sentence. “You think he’s really left.”
Wesley looked troubled. “Maybe the sorcerer tried to contact him this morning via the seeing stone,” he offered, “and Malcolm took it and got out of the castle so the sorcerer wouldn’t see where he was.”
“It’s possible,” Wen agreed. “But…” Damn, he hated to say it, but he had to. “Malcolm said if the sorcerer is trying to reach him, the stone gets hot and vibrates. Where it was, there on the table under the mug, if it vibrated hard enough to wake Malcolm, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have awakened one or all of us as well.”
“So what are we saying? That he left because he wanted to?” Jarrad asked. “Damn it, why would he do that?”
“Did anything happen last night after Wen and I went to find your mother,” Wesley asked him. “Did he say or do anything unusual?”
“No. He…he was asleep when you guys left. But he woke up shortly after that, and he was scared still about what might happen when you told Mum about him. I reassured him again that she would understand and that he wasn’t in any danger. He was still worried, though. About everything. About the sorcerer, about what he was going to do in a week when the sorcerer’s allotted time was up.”
“Did you say anything in particular to him?” Wen asked.
“I…I just told him I’d never let anything happen to him. That I’d protect him. I…I told him that I…” He swallowed hard. “That I…”
“That you loved him?” Wesley gently prompted.
Jarrad nodded. “I told him I’d die for him if that’s what it took to keep him safe. I just wanted him to not be afraid.”
“How did he respond to that?” Wen asked, his heart tight with sympathy for his brother.
“He…cried. But he let me hold him. And then he fell asleep. We both did. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I meant to stay awake until you came back, but…” He dragged his hands through his hair again. “Gods, what could have happened to him? What if the sorcerer took him?”
“From this room?” Wen shook his head. “We would have known if the sorcerer came for him or sent someone after him. There’s no way anyone could have snuck in here without us knowing.”
“Except for the fact we all seem to have slept too deeply and too long. What if…” Jarrad’s voice cracked.
Wen met Wesley’s troubled gaze and knew they were both thinking the same thing, probably the same thing Jarrad was thinking as well…
What if they’d been drugged or put under a sleeping spell?
If that were the case, who knew what might have happened while they were out.
“There’s no sign of a struggle. That’s a good thing,” Wesley said.
“That’s true.” Wen rose and paced the perimeter of the room. “Nothing’s out of place. If he were taken against his will, I can’t imagine Malcolm would have gone willingly, without trying to wake us somehow or cause a commotion.” Unless Malcolm had also been drugged or put under a spell, but Wen didn’t voice that aloud.
“Which means it’s unlikely anyone came for him,” Wesley said.
“So we’re back to him just…walking out?” Jarrad asked brokenly.
“We can’t know for sure, but we’ll figure it out,” Wen said.
“Yeah, except we can’t even go ask anyone if they’ve seen him, if they saw him leave, because he could have changed himself to look like anybody.”
“The good news is…Wesley doesn’t need to see what form he’s in. If we can get close enough, Wes can pick up his emotions.”
“It’s true,” Wesley said. “We’ll find him, Jarrad.”
But as he said it, he and Wen exchanged another glance, and Wen knew Wesley was as aware as he was that if Malcolm had a few hours’ head start, he could be long gone in any direction at this point.
“First things first,” Wesley said. “Let’s get out of the castle, outside the walls, and I’ll try again to find him.”
“He would have had to go through one of the gates,” Wen said, “and if he’s on foot, he can’t have gotten too far.
A couple of hours later, Wen was regretting those words.
They’d been able to ascertain that Malcolm had to have left through the front gate, since, after talking to the guards, they’d discovered no one had come or gone through the back gate since “Jarrad” had come in last night.
But once they arrived at the guard camp at the base of the mountain and confirmed he wasn’t there, their wisp of a trail had disappeared. Especially since Wesley still hadn’t been able to sense him from the camp, which meant Malcolm had gotten farther than they’d hoped.
“Okay, let’s make some assumptions,” Wen said. “He’s terrified of the sorcerer, so I think it’s safe to say he’s not going to head east, in the direction of Thrythgar.”
“And he’d want to stay off the road to the north of us,” Jarrad added, “since Byram’s troops are everywhere.”
“Maybe. But…” Wesley frowned in thought. “We can’t forget that he can take a different shape. So, he could, in theory, make himself look like one of Byram’s soldiers and traverse the road with no problem, or cross it and continue heading north.”
“Fuck,” Jarrad muttered, pacing. “How’re we ever supposed to find him like this? We could be looking for days at this rate, only to realize too late that we’re going in the completely wrong direction.”
“Let’s not panic yet,” Wen said. “With the White Mountains at our back—there’s no way he could or would have gone up and over them—and Thrythgar to the east, it means he’s probably going north or west, which helps narrow things down some. The road might or might not present a problem for him, so, Wes is right, we can’t discount the possibly he could have headed for it. Posing as a soldier on the road might be the easiest way for him to get anywhere, including west. So let’s start there.”
“The road’s swarming with soldiers,” Jarrad warned.
“Yeah, well we’re soldiers, too. Plus, you and I have better hearing and vision than they do, and Wesley can sense if anyone’s nearby long before they’re close enough to cause us trouble. Let’s get nearer to the road and give Wes a chance to see if he can pick up Malcolm from there.”
They moved fast, but it still took them several hours to reach the road that ran for leagues between Thrythgar in the east and Lafaria in the west. If they’d been able to fly, they could have covered the ground much more quickly. But in broad daylight, with a cold blue sky and no cloud cover, and Byram’s army crawling like a plague over the land, it was a risk they couldn’t take this day.
More than once they had to stop and wait or divert around groups of soldiers wearing the sorcerer’s black uniforms.
“This is fucking ridiculous,” Jarrad muttered when they had to stop for the fourth time and take shelter in a narrow rock crevice as a company several-hundred strong marched past them. “At this rate, we’re never going to get there and he’s going to be long gone. If the trees weren’t in the way, we could see the damn road from here. We could take wing and be there in a few minutes.”
“But since we can’t fly today, we wait,” Wen firmly whispered, sensing Jarrad’s patience was worn thin from stress and fear over Malcolm. His brother was creeping ever closer to an emotional breaking point. And when that happened, he had a tendency to make rash decisions.
He and Wesley shared a concerned look, and he knew Wes sensed it, too…that hurting, frustrated edginess in Jarrad.
“We are pretty close to the road,” Wesley said, keeping his voice low. “I can try again from here, but I need to be able to concentrate in order to reach out as far as possible. I’d feel better if we could find a more secure spot?”
“Absolutely.” Wen was already scanning the area around them, looking for better protection. He had a magic barrier up around them, but Wesley was right, while this was a sufficient temporary hiding spot between the rocks, they were still only a few meters from the passing company. The sound of the soldiers’ booted feet stomping and crunching over the frozen, snow-covered ground, and their grunts and occasional shouts would likely be nerve wracking for Wes as he tried to focus in on Malcolm. Plus, this appeared to be a major thoroughfare through the forest for Byram’s troops, so even after this company passed, there could very well be others right behind them.
Squinting against the late afternoon sun, Wen’s gaze lit on what appeared to be a rock overhang a couple dozen meters up the steep slope from where they stood. He caught Wesley’s attention and nodded toward it. “What do you think? We should wait until they pass, though, or we’ll risk being seen.”
“We can do it now,” Jarrad said before Wesley could respond.
Jarrad waved a hand, taking down the protective shield Wen had put up, and began picking his way up the slope, only half hidden behind the trees.
“Gods damn it!” Wen muttered under his breath. “He’s going to get himself killed, and maybe us with him.”
“If I can find Malcolm, maybe that’ll help to calm him down,” Wesley said.
“Or make him worse, depending on where Malcolm is.”
They exchanged another troubled look, then turned to follow him.
It was tedious going, to climb without attracting any attention. They’d made it about halfway, when Jarrad’s foot slid off a rock and sent a spray of pebbles sliding down the slope.
“Shit.” Wen quickly threw up a new shield, concealing them, he hoped. And it was a damned good thing he’d done it, because as the patter of gravel and pebbles hit the ground, one of the soldiers stepped out of formation and looked up the slope.
“Quiet,” Wen muttered to his brother and Wes. “Don’t move a muscle.”
They both froze.
“What is it?” Another soldier had stepped out of formation to join the first.
With his sensitive hearing, Wen was able to pick up their words.
“Not sure,” the first man said. “Rocks just slid down the slope. Something’s up there that disturbed ’em.”
They both were looking up now, and if it weren’t for Wen’s shield, he, Wesley, and Jarrad would be exposed. He barely dared to breathe as the two soldiers stared directly at them.
“Don’t see nothin’. Probably just an animal. You saw the size of the mountain hares the boys caught for dinner last night. Big beasties like that could make a tumble of gravel as they were hopping around.”
The first man didn’t respond right away, still staring.
Gods damn it all. Jarrad’s recklessness was going to get them all killed at this rate. Next to him, Wen could literally feel Wesley’s heart pounding as hard as his own.
Eventually, after a painful amount of time had passed, the first man looked away. “Yeah, s’pose you’re right.”
“‘Course I am. Come on, let’s go. Talkin’ bout them hares is making me hungry. Hope they have something decent to eat when we meet up with Bogberg’s company at the road.”
The two soldiers rejoined the march, but the first one glanced over his shoulder several times, even as he got farther and farther away.
“Stop! Don’t take another step,” Wen hissed at Jarrad, as Jarrad turned to continue the climb. “We’re not going anywhere until they’ve all passed.”
Finally, after several long, agonizing minutes, the last of the company tromped off into the distance through the heavy forest, leaving blessed silence in their absence. Or not so blessed, if, say, the soldier had decided to double back to be sure no one was up here. In which case, he’d be able to hear them speaking.
Jarrad started to move again, but Wen held up his hand. “No, damn it. Wait,” he whispered.
To Wesley he said, “Do you sense anyone else around? Or anyone from the company returning?”
Wesley closed his eyes. A few seconds later, he opened them and shook his head. “They’re all still moving toward the road. No one’s nearby.”
Wen said a silent prayer for that small miracle.
“Okay. Now you can climb,” he told his brother.
When they reached the overhang, it not only offered a bit of shelter from the cold wind that had come up while they’d stood waiting on the slope, but a clump of scrubby, piney bushes sat in just the right spot to block a view of them from below.
“Will this be okay?” he asked Wesley.
Wesley nodded. “Perfect. Let me see what I can find.” He sat on the rocky ground crossed-legged, his hands resting on his thighs, and closed his eyes.
Wen could feel him almost detaching. Except that wasn’t actually correct. Wesley wasn’t detaching from him or their link at all. He was just busy elsewhere, his thoughts and concentration and senses tuned outward instead of toward Wen.
Jarrad sank into a crouch, pulled his water skin off his belt, and took a drink. The last of the day’s sunlight filtered through the trees, turning his blond hair a shade of dull bronze.
Wen wanted to rail at him for putting them at risk, tell him what a dumbass he’d been. But he bit his tongue because he knew how tenuous Jarrad’s emotional state was right now, and because he wanted to give Wesley some quiet to concentrate. Still, it was hard not to say something.
Until Jarrad finally looked up at him… His eyes were haunted. And his hands shook as he put away his water skin.
In that moment, Wen realized his brother knew how foolish he’d been.
“Sorry,” Jarrad mouthed, looking genuinely miserable.
Wen sighed and gave him a sympathetic nod.
“Do you…do you think he’s dead?” Jarrad murmured, dampness welling in his bloodshot eyes. “And maybe that’s why Wes is having trouble finding him?”
“No,” Wen told him, doing his best to sound reassuring. “No, I don’t think he’s dead.”
He couldn’t deny, however, that the possibility had occurred to him, as well.
What troubled Wen even more, though, was a different fear, one that had been nagging at him on and off all day. A fear he held close and couldn’t bring himself to share with his brother and Wesley, both of whom made decisions with their hearts, including the decision to trust Malcolm.
But what if their trust had been abused?
What if, after last night’s encounter and threats, Malcolm’s fear of the sorcerer had become so intense he was no longer capable of controlling it? Kellesborne or the ondaen. Those were the options he’d been given to stay alive.
And so, in the dark hours of the night, as the three of them had slept, what if Malcolm had come to a decision? He knew Wesley’s capabilities, probably knew Wesley would be able to search for him. So, what if he’d left Kellesborne, knowing they’d follow him, especially after Jarrad’s declaration of love last night, and now he was leading them, more specifically leading Wesley, into a trap?