Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
So, when you read this chapter I think you’ll see what I meant last week, about there being a LOT going on here, and you’ll probably better understand why I broke this off from the previous chapter and made it into two separate chapters! Be forewarned…this is a long one, even on its own! Hopefully you’ll think the wait was worth it. 🙂
Wen knew Wesley was trying to understand why he was so upset, but he was too furious and worried to even put it into words. They just needed to go. Now.
They clambered back down the slope in the evening light, sliding on the scree. As they did, it quickly became apparent they wouldn’t be able to take wing here. The trees were far too dense. Even if they’d climbed to the top of the rocky hillock where they’d been in the overhang, it wasn’t high enough to get them out of the towering trees.
“We can’t fly,” Jarrad said, stating the obvious.
“No shit.” Turning to Wesley, Wen said, “What’s between us and Malcolm? Can you tell?”
Wesley closed his eyes, concentrating, but it was taking too long. Too damn long.
His eyes suddenly opened. “If we stay off the road, we should run into minimal problems. We’re not going to make it in time on foot, though.”
“Then we’ll run until we find a clearing where we can shift,” Jarrad said.
Without waiting to see if they’d follow, he took off.
Wesley fixed a questioning gaze on Wen and Wen knew he wasn’t concerned about Jarrad this time. “What’s going on with you?” he asked
A twinge of guilt knotted in Wen’s gut at not revealing his concerns to Wes, but there was no time right now. “Later, okay? We really need to go.”
Wesley’s frown and the faint ripple of hurt Wen experienced from him didn’t make him feel any better. But, finally, Wesley gave him a brief nod, before turning away and setting off after Jarrad. Wen followed, hating all of this, but there was nothing to do now but see it through.
A half hour passed, or perhaps longer, before they finally reached a clearing big enough he and Jarrad could shift into their winged forms. Wen chafed at the waiting, but it was only just now getting dark enough for them to safely fly without any fear of being seen, so maybe that was a blessing and the delay had forced them not to take an unnecessary risk. Unfortunately, though, Wen knew from mapping the area over weeks of flight with Lord Rizik that while they weren’t under a net here, there were several in the direction they were going and they wouldn’t be able to fly for long. But even a while in the air meant a greater distance traveled than they could cover on foot in the same amount of time.
He and Jarrad quickly stripped out of their weapons and clothes, stuffing them into their packs, which they could carry with them.
“How does it look between us and Malcolm?” he asked Wesley.
“Still mostly clear of people. But what about nets?”
“We can’t worry about that right now,” Jarrad responded.
“Like hel.” Wen shot Jarrad an incredulous look. “We absolutely have to worry about that. Do you want a repeat of what happened with the nyctos?”
In the last of the fading light, he saw Jarrad blanch. “No. I…of course not. But I’ve seen the maps Lord Rizik made of the nets. We—”
“Then you know damn good and well, if you bothered to look at them closely, there are numerous nets in the direction we’re going. Trust me when I tell you we’re not going to be able to fly far before we have to be back on the ground. But let’s stop talking about it and just do it. Better to go at least partway by sky to save a little time.”
With a huff of breath and a chastened but less-than-happy glare at Wen, Jarrad shifted.
Wen did the same, then lowered a wing for Wesley, so he could climb up onto him.
Wesley’s warm weight settling atop him was instantly, and oddly, calming for him. He had no idea why. Maybe it was as simple as the fact that he loved it when Wesley rode him. He still marveled that Wes had never been afraid or hesitant when Wen was in his winged form, and the first time they’d flown together, Wesley had taken to it with a joy that had bled over onto Wen and filled him with pleasure.
He felt it again now, as Wesley leaned forward and wrapped an arm around Wen’s neck.
::You ready?:: Wen asked him.
::Whenever you are.::
With a whoosh of air, he lifted off the ground and headed west.
::Don’t get ahead, Jarrad,:: Wen cautioned. ::We have to be careful to land before we get too close to a net.::
::Yeah, yeah. You’re the all-knowing one about the nets, oh great captain.::
Wen inwardly winced at Jarrad’s tone, knowing he probably deserved Jarrad’s pissed off attitude toward him.
They flew in silence for several minutes before Wesley’s voice in his head finally broke the quiet.
::Talk to me, Rowen,:: he said. ::Why’ve you been so angry since I found Malcolm? I can tell your anger’s based in fear, so don’t even think about stalling. Just tell me, whatever it is.::
Wen sighed, which in his winged form sounded like a gust of wind. ::First…can you hear Jarrad and can he hear you?::
::I…don’t actually know.:: Wen felt Wesley’s attention shift to his brother. ::Jarrad, can you hear me?::
Wen heard the question, even though he knew Wesley’s focused intention was to speak to Jarrad. But Jarrad didn’t seem to notice.
A few seconds passed with no response.
::Let me ask him,:: Wen said. He directed his thoughts at his brother. ::Jarrad, can you hear Wesley with the mindspeak?::
::Wes? I don’t think so. Why? Has he been talking to me?::
::Yeah, he wondered if he could use mindspeak with you, as well, or if it’s limited to me.::
Wesley said Jarrad’s name again, and asked him a simple question.
::Did you hear that?::
::Nothing. I think it’s safe to say that’s part of your true-mate deal.::
::Hmm. Interesting. Okay, just curious.:: Then, to Wesley, he said, ::He couldn’t hear you.::
::And, let me guess…that makes you happy because you don’t want him to hear what we’re talking about?:: Wesley didn’t miss much.
Wen sighed again. ::No, I’d rather he not. Not right now anyway.::
::What’s going on?::
So, Wen told him his concerns about Malcolm, that maybe this was a set-up and Malcom might be leading them, leading Wes, into a trap so he could turn him over to the sorcerer.
He wasn’t surprised by Wesley’s response.
::I don’t believe he’d do that.::
::I know. But you’re one of the most compassionate beings I’ve ever known, love, and you tend to always want to see the best in people.::
::You say it like that’s a bad thing. It’s not.::
::No. It’s not. But in this case, with your safety, maybe your very life, at stake, I’m not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt without solid proof otherwise.::
::And you don’t want Jarrad to know your concerns because he’s in love with Malcolm and you think he can’t see the truth either?:: Wen heard the disproval in Wesley’s tone, felt it rippling off him.
::I just think we can’t take any risks.::
Wesley was quiet for several moments. Then he said, ::Do you not trust me?::
That gouged Wen in the heart. ::Of course I do. You know I trust you with my very life.::
::Then, please, trust me on this. I was the one in Malcolm’s head and I promise you, what you see with him—the fear, the earnest desire to help—that’s all real. He spent weeks, months, living with us, and in spite of Byram’s constant pressure for him to spy, he kept all our secrets.::
::Yes, but he wasn’t being threatened with death until now. The fear of being killed can change a person. And we don’t really know him. Not well. Not well enough to assume he would stay loyal when his own life is on the line.::
::So, you don’t trust me then.::
::No, Wes, that’s not what I’m saying at all.::
::Then you need to listen to me, and listen well. Malcolm is a lot of things—terrified, unsure of himself, the survivor of a lifetime of awful abuse—but one thing he’s not, in spite of his terror, is a coward. He fell in love with Jarrad, but rather than take a chance on Jarrad being hurt by his association with him, he broke things off to keep Jarrad safe. He was taken in by the resistance, and that brief bit of freedom and comfort for the first time since he was a child was so powerful and important to him, he’s been lying to and misleading the sorcerer for months to protect us all, which is something far stronger people haven’t been able to do. He accepted a job from you that he didn’t have to, a job that scared him, because he genuinely wanted to give back to the people who had taken him in and made him feel somewhat safe. His life has been on the line from the moment the sorcerer captured him as a child, Wen. I don’t believe for a second this is first time he’s been threatened with death. I suspect it’s a regular occurrence, one he’s lived with every day of his existence as the sorcerer’s slave.::
Wen felt a rush of tired frustration from his mate.
::Not only that,:: Wesley continued, ::he saw what happened to his ondaen friend and he’s still grieving over that. So, I promise you, Malcolm is not intentionally leading us into a trap, and he will not turn me in. I understand your fear, but he’s not a threat to me.::
If Wen could have hugged Wesley right now, he would have. His Wes…always with such a big heart, and Wen couldn’t directly argue with anything he said. Yet the fear still niggled inside him.
::Then why is he heading straight back into the helys ganhedig when he knows full-well that’s where the soldiers were taking Lochlann?::
::Let me ask you a counter question. If he were truly leading me into a trap, why would he go there of all places? Why not Thrythgar? Why not turn me in to the company of soldiers that passed us earlier?::
::I…I don’t know. I just have this gnawing fear that something’s not right about all of this.::
::Something’s not right. But I promise you, it doesn’t involve Malcolm betraying us. Something else happened, something that occurred between the time we went to sleep last night and when we woke up.::
::How do you explain none of us hearing him leave? Or the fact we all slept far too long. You know you were thinking the same thing I was, that probably Jarrad was, too…that we were either drugged or put under a sleeping spell.::
::I agree. We likely were. But we don’t know how or why. We can’t automatically assume it was Malcolm’s doing, and even if it was, we can’t assume he did it with nefarious purpose.::
::I know. You think I’m being too nice. And I get it. But, please, Rowen, don’t let your fear for me cause your thoughts toward Malcolm to turn hard. He’s a victim. He’s been through horrible things, and my guess is, he’s still going through them right now and that’s why he’s out here. Let’s just find him. And then we can get to the bottom of all of this.::
::And if we discover that—::
::That you’re right?:: Wesley interjected. ::Then we’ll deal with it. But we won’t have to, because whatever reason he’s out here, let’s not lose sight of who’s really at fault, who’s caused all of Malcolm’s problems, all of our own problems, from the start.::
Wen huffed out a slow gust of air. ::Byram. Fucking Byram.::
But even knowing that, he still couldn’t fully shake his distrust of Malcolm. He hated disagreeing with Wesley, hated that Wesley knew he still hadn’t convinced him, but he couldn’t stop the nagging worry.
When they landed a few minutes later, in a tight, almost too-small clearing, he could still sense Wesley’s troubled feelings over their conversation. And that bothered him. He didn’t like being at odds with Wes. He knew Wesley wasn’t mad at him, not exactly. But he was disappointed in him, and that ate at Wen’s heart.
“Are we still on track?” Jarrad asked Wesley.
“We are. I followed him for a bit before we landed. We’re gaining on him, but the company of soldiers is still marching right toward him. And I sensed something, some being, with them, this time. Not human or draegan or fae. Something bigger. It’s sentient but completely different from anything I’ve ever felt before. It’s…it’s in pain, but I have no idea what it is.”
“What if it’s a glargak?” Jarrad said. “What if they’re traveling with it?”
Wesley’s eyes widened. “I hadn’t thought of that. It could be, but I’ve never seen one, or even heard of one until recently, so I don’t know.”
“Gods, we cannot let them get their hands on Malcolm,” Jarrad said. “If they test him with the slime, he’s not human. It would probably affect him the same way it affects us. And that’s…”
“Bad,” Wesley murmured. “Let’s go.”
They ran again, hard and fast, this time with Wesley in the lead since he knew where they were headed.
It grew dark. Only one moon was up so far this evening, Halla, the bigger one, and it was waxing toward full, so in the clear sky it gave off enough light to see decently, which was probably why Wesley was able to keep pressing on. Wen wondered, if it had been darker, if Wes would have been able to tap into their joined magick and share Wen’s natural night vision? Or was that a physical trait and something unsharable? It would be interesting, going forward, to figure out exactly what they could and couldn’t share.
Right now what he wished for most was that he and Wes could use mindspeak when they were both in their human forms but without having to be in contact and concentrating so hard on their magick link. He still felt Wesley’s disappointment and that underlying shimmer of hurt that was causing a steady ache in his own heart. If they could talk about it some more, maybe they’d both feel better. He just didn’t want to do it in front of Jarrad.
Maybe they could talk. Now that they knew how it worked, how to use their shared magick, maybe if he focused on using the magick, on what he wanted, he’d be able to reach out right now.
He tried. Several times. But Wesley never responded, and Wen finally gave up. It seemed when it came to the mindspeak, they were limited to him being in his winged form—maybe because it was the natural way draegans spoke in that form, so the magick for that particular thing was at its strongest? Or, if they were both in human form, they had to be touching and/or both concentrating on the link—the bridge as Wesley had called it—for it to happen.
Wesley stopped suddenly. “Behind the trees. Now!” he said, his tone quiet and urgent.
Once they were standing still, and the sound of their booted feet crunching over the snow no longer filled his ears, Wen’s hearing was able to pick up what Wesley had already sensed. Someone was coming. Several someones.
Quickly, he put up a shield around them, and they all stood in absolute silence as a group of twenty or so soldiers passed near them
When they were out of hearing range, Wesley said, “Malcolm’s close, but there are also a lot of small groups of Byram’s men—I assume they’re Byram’s men—milling about. The large company’s still on the march, so I’m not sure what all the rest of these smaller groups are doing. But, in any case, Malcolm’s in the midst of many of them and he might not know it. He’s slowed down. Maybe because of the dark or maybe because he’s aware there are soldiers everywhere. It’s hard to tell if he realizes he’s in potential danger because he’s just always so damned terrified.” Wesley winced and shook his head. “Gods, I can’t even imagine having to live in such intense and constant fear.”
For the first time since they’d been back on the ground, Wen reached out to Wesley. Their fingertips made contact, then, when Wesley didn’t pull away, Wen fully wound his fingers around Wesley’s. He also sent Wesley some soothing magick.
Wesley drew in and released a breath, and Wen felt his gratitude for it.
“Where is he, Wes?” Jarrad asked, his voice strained with worry. “We’ve got to get to him before he trips over some of these soldiers. Or they trip over him.”
Wesley pulled his hand free of Wen’s, and Wen instantly missed the contact.
“This way,” Wesley said.
They didn’t run this time, but instead trekked stealthily across the landscape. The trees were changing, both in type and density. As they drew closer to the Dormere Mountains, the ground grew rockier and the trees scragglier and less healthy-looking. Even in the dark, at this point they’d be hard-pressed to find a dense enough stand of them to hide in if they needed to take cover. Thank the gods for protective magick shields if a quick disappearance was required.
“Up this ridge,” Wesley said, long minutes later.
When they reached the top, they lay flat on their bellies, watching as another handful of soldiers passed below them.
“What’s with all the troop activity in this area?” Wesley murmured.
“I don’t know,” Wen said, keep his own voice low. “But it’s concerning because if the sorcerer has an outpost near here, it’s one we weren’t aware of.
“Right now, I don’t really care,” Jarrad said. “Where’s Malcolm?”
“There.” Wesley pointed toward a lone figure weaving in and out amongst the scrubby pines.
“Are you sure?”
“He looks too…tall. Too…”
“He can change form,” Wen reminded him. “He could look like anybody.”
“But his emotions don’t change,” Wesley said. “Trust me. It’s him.”
“If that’s really him, then…what about them?” Jarrad’s voice cracked as he pointed.
The second moon, El, had risen, and with it half full and Halla nearly full, the small valley below them was light enough to make out yet another group of soldiers—looked like eight or nine of them. And they were…uh oh…they were fanning out around Malcolm. To Wen’s trained soldier’s eye, it sure looked like they’d seen Malcolm and were intentionally surrounding him.
Jarrad had obviously deduced the same thing. “I don’t care what form he’s in, he’s not a fighter,” Jarrad whispered. “He has no way to protect himself… Oh gods.”
Before they could stop him, Jarrad was up and over the ridge, running down the other side.
“Shit,” Wen hissed, scrambling to his feet to follow.
Wesley had risen, too, but instead of running, he’d already pulled out his bow. “Go,” he told Wen. “With the moonlight, I can see them. I’ll take out as many I can from up here.”
Wen nodded and turned to follow Jarrad.
By the time they reached Malcolm, two burly soldiers had captured him.
But there were already two others on the ground with Wesley’s arrows sticking out of them, and as they approached, another gasped and fell to his knees, an arrow protruding from his eye.
Gods damn, Wesley was good.
“Take cover! Take cover!” one of the soldiers shouted. “We’re getting picked off by a bowman up on the ridge.”
They scattered into the flimsy coverage of the trees. But that would only make it easier for Wen and Jarrad, because scattered soldiers were easier to waylay than a group together.
Though he couldn’t see them directly, he heard Malcolm, or he assumed it was Malcolm since he didn’t sound like himself, struggling against the men who’d captured him.
Wen snuck closer, easing over the rocks and around the scrubby trees. Somewhere nearby he heard a soft whump and then a groan. Either Wesley or Jarrad had taken out another soldier. That was four down. Another four or five to go, including the two holding Malcolm.
Wesley could hear them now—Malcolm’s struggling gasps and a low, grating voice speaking.
“Shut it, pretty boy! What’re you doing sneaking around? You a spy for the magnificent preening fuckcock himself?”
“No! Please, I’m just…I’m just passing through.” The voice still didn’t sound like Malcolm’s, but the tone of the response made it clear it definitely was him.
“And ya just happened to bring your own personal bowman protector with you, did ya? Likely story.”
“I don’t know what’s going on. I…I don’t know who’s shooting arrows.”
“Riiiiight. Well, spy or not, your journey’s over now, sweetums. You’ll make a fairly pathetic addition to the wraith’s cause, but we ain’t picky out here. We take ’em as we get ’em.”
Wen edged around a clump of bushes and finally caught sight of them.
Malcolm looked like a tall, young, gangly redheaded man. His shirt and pants seemed too short for him, and if he’d had a cloak on, it had been torn off when he was captured. The form he’d taken wasn’t anyone Wen recognized.
The good news was, only one soldier was with Malcolm now, holding him with Malcolm’s back against him and his arm around Malcolm’s neck in a chokehold. The other man must have gone to help his companions find Wesley.
“Mose!” the soldier holding Malcolm shouted, obviously addressing one of his men he thought to be nearby. “Let’s get this wrapped up so’s we can go!”
“Just about to do that very thing,” a gruff voice said from behind Wen.
But Wen had heard him coming, and if the man thought he’d caught him off guard, he was quickly mistaken. Wen turned and, in a swift move, ran his sword through the man’s gut.
The soldier grunted in surprise. “You…fucker!”
Wen yanked his sword out, kicked the man so he fell onto his back on the rocks, and then drove his sword down into the man’s heart.
“Mose?” Malcolm’s captor called. “That you?”
Wen retrieved his sword and crept closer.
“Mose, answer me, ya useless sack a shite!”
Malcolm began struggling again and started to shout, but the beefy man clapped a hand over his mouth before he could.
“Told ya to shut it, pretty,” he rasped. He held a heavy short sword. In a quick move, he slammed Malcolm upside the head with the pommel of it.
Malcolm gave a soft cry, then went limp in the man’s arms.
“Nighty night, pretty boy,” the man said, letting Malcolm slip to the ground. He reached out and ran a finger down Malcolm’s cheek. “I’m gonna go save my men’s asses, but I’ll be back. And when you wake up, you and me…we’re gonna get to know each other up close and intimate-like before I turn you over to the wraith.”
“I don’t fucking think so,” came a tight, furious snarl that Wen recognized all-too well.
Jarrad stepped out of the shadows, his sword drawn. His cloak had slid back out of the way so he could fight, revealing his blue and silver vellenjhere armor in the moonlight.
“You’re one of them,” the burly man said, grinning and brandishing his own sword. “Well ain’t that rich?”
Wen eased out of the shadows himself, his own sword drawn.
Jarrad saw him. “I’ve got this. By my count there’re still three left. Find Wes. He might need help.”
“Keep him alive so we can question him,” Wen said, pointing at the soldier.
“I’ll try. But I’m not making any fucking promises.”
Wen understood. If someone had looked at, touched, spoken to Wesley like that, Wen would have felt the same. He narrowed his eyes, gauging the man’s threat to his brother. He was a full head taller than Jarrad and far outweighed him. But Jarrad was an excellent swordsman, and right now he was driven by his feelings for and protective instincts toward Malcolm, which made him more than a match for the big soldier.
Wen nodded and turned away to find Wesley.
He quickly came across another body down, this one by a blade. Probably Jarrad’s handiwork and the one Wen had heard die earlier.
But damn it…where was Wes?
He took a page out of Wesley’s book and stopped momentarily, closed his eyes, and let his senses focus in on his mate. He found him almost instantly, and took off toward him.
Wes was on the side of the ridge, fighting two of the soldiers. But where was the third? Jarrad had seemed certain there were three more, not just two…and Wen had no reason to doubt him.
He found out when he heard a faint crunching behind him, and turned to face the third, a sallow, wiry older man who’d no doubt seen his fair share of battle. And it showed. He wasn’t as easily dispatched as Mose has been.
But, eventually, Wen got the upper hand with him and left him in a pool of his own blood.
He turned to find Wesley still holding his own with the two he fought.
Damn, how much did he love this man?
He ran toward him. “Need some help?”
“Well…you know…I…” Wesley grunted as he deflected one of the men’s blades and made a thrust of his own toward the other, slicing open a new bloody streak across the man’s chest. “I could probably finish them myself. But if you’re…” Another grunt. “…bored and don’t have anything better to do, then, okay.”
Wen grinned and stepped in to take one of the soldiers off Wesley’s hands.
They made quick work of it, with both of them fighting, and a couple of minutes later, stood staring down at the men on the ground.
“Malcolm?” Wesley asked, looking at Wen in concern.
“Jarrad’s got it under control.”
“Good. That’s good,” Wesley breathed.
Wen crouched next to one of the men they’d killed and pulled open the man’s cloak, revealing the black uniform beneath. “Byram’s men,” he said thoughtfully.
“You say that like you expected something else.” Wesley stood back a couple of steps from Wen, and Wen knew why. Wes was trying not to get too close to the spilled blood.
“No. It’s just…I overheard the one who was holding Malcolm say something that…” He shook his head. “I don’t know. It was odd. Made me think for a second these men weren’t working for the sorcerer.”
“They’re wearing his colors.”
“Yeah. Maybe I heard wrong.”
He’d started to rise, when Wesley said, “Wait. What’s that? On his arm?”
The man had fallen on his back, his right arm outstretched, his sword lying next to his open hand where he’d released it when his body went slack.
Wen crouched again and reached for the dead man’s arm. His leather arm bracer had come loose in the fight and his uniform sleeve had gotten pulled up above his wrist.
Some kind of mark had been partially revealed on his inner forearm. It looked like a large scar of some sort, but it seemed too…
He pushed up the man’s sleeve farther, to better see it.
“What in hel?” Wesley had joined him now, leaning closer, next to Wen.
“It looks like a brand,” Wen said.
“But it’s not Byram’s slave brand.”
Having just seen an example of Byram’s brand on Malcolm only the night before, Wen agreed. It was hard to make out details in only the moonlight, but it definitely wasn’t the B that Byram used on his slaves.
This one was round with some kind of geometric figure on each quadrant of the circle. The brand itself looked fairly new. Healed, but without the dulling and lightening of old scarring. This was still dark in color, indicating it had likely happened only a few weeks prior.
“I’ve never seen this mark before,” he told Wesley.
“I wonder…” Wesley crossed over to the other fallen soldier.
Wen rose and followed him, knowing without having to ask what he was thinking. They crouched next to the second man, and Wen pulled out his vrieg. He cut the leather strings of this man’s bracer, causing the bracer to fall off.
Wesley pushed up his uniform sleeve.
“Okay. What in fuck is this?” Wen muttered.
Wesley rubbed his fingers over the matching brand on the second man’s arm. “This one looks newer even than the other’s was. What does it mean? That they both have this symbol? Do you think there’s a connection to what you’d wondered earlier…if these men really work for the sorcerer?”
“I don’t know.” Wen’s thoughts were spinning.
“If they don’t work for Byram, why his uniform? And who in hel do they work for?”
Wen rose, and held a hand out to pull Wesley up as well. “I know someone who can tell us.”
“Please tell me you don’t still think Malcolm has anything to do with this.” Wesley’s tone wasn’t exactly accusing, but Wen didn’t miss the disappointment behind it,
“I don’t know, love. But right now I’m leaning toward no.”
Wesley let out a breath of obvious relief. “Then who do you think is going to tell us?”
“Someone we’re going to hope like hel Jarrad hasn’t already killed.”
Since Tory asked in the comments section below…
A reminder that High Sorcerer Byram’s official seal/crest is a golden chalice. So his soldiers wear black uniforms with the golden chalice seal on their chest. I envision the chalice would look something like this, but obviously more stylized:
The brand that Wen and Wesley find on the soldiers’ arms is basically this symbol. Pardon my very bad drawing skills, LOL! This is just something I jotted out quickly on scrap paper as I was writing that scene. Ignore the bad artwork and imagine if this symbol were used as a brand on someone: