Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
When they returned to where Wen had left Jarrad and Malcolm, they found the soldier Jarrad had been fighting lying on the ground, presumably dead.
“Damn it,” Wen muttered, nudging the man with his boot.
“I had to,” Jarrad said. “I’m sorry, but he threatened to kill Malcolm, had the tip of his sword down against his throat while Malcolm was lying helpless on the ground. I couldn’t risk it.”
Wen nodded, understanding. But there went any hope in hel they had to find out what the brand meant.
Jarrad was sitting with Malcolm—still appearing like whatever ginger-haired young man he’d mimicked—half in his lap.
Wen didn’t need Wesley’s empathy to see Jarrad was worried. Especially when he looked up at them, his eyes haunted.
“What’s wrong with him?” Wesley said, sinking down next to them, a hand on Jarrad’s shoulder.
“He’s not waking up,” Jarrad said, his voice quavering. He’d taken off his own cloak and laid it over Malcolm like a blanket.
Wen knelt next to Wesley and pressed his fingers against Malcolm’s neck. At the same time, Wesley rested a palm against Malcolm’s chest and briefly closed his eyes, indicative he was concentrating.
“His pulse is strong,” Wen said. “That’s a good sign.”
“And though I can’t tell for sure, his emotions are present but quiet, as if he’s merely sleeping.”
“I think he’ll be okay,” Wen reassured his brother. “He took a pretty solid blow to the head earlier, but he’ll come around.”
Before the words were even fully out of his mouth, a moan escaped the red-headed Malcolm and he stirred in Jarrad’s lap.
“Please be okay,” Jarrad said softly.
Malcolm’s eyes fluttered open. “Jarrad?” he asked, obvious confusion in his tone.
A sudden shimmer formed around Malcolm, and before their eyes the red-haired man faded away and the Malcolm they knew lay in his place.
“How do you feel?” Jarrad stroked his cheek.
“My head hurts.” He squeezed his eyes closed again.
“I’m so sorry. I should have gotten to you sooner, before this happened.”
Wen dug in his pouch and pulled out a smaller pouch that had a bit of healing herbs in it. He handed the smaller pouch to Jarrad. “Give him a pinch of these and have him drink some water. That should help his head.”
“Here, sit up a little,” Jarrad coaxed, then offered him the herbs and a few sips from his own water skin.
Malcolm drank. But then, as if his memory, or reality, suddenly came crashing back down on him, his face scrunched and he looked at Jarrad in horror. “Why are you here? You’re not supposed to be here!”
“We came after you. We didn’t know where you’d gone or what might have happened to you.”
“No, you can’t be here.”
“Malcolm, why are you here?” Wen asked.
“For fuck’s sake, give him some space before you start throwing questions at him,” Jarrad snapped, protectively stroking Malcolm’s hair.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of time,” Wesley said. “I just checked, and that company of soldiers will be on top of us soon—I’d say a few minutes at most. We need to get out of here. Like, now.”
“Damn it all,” Wen whispered under his breath.
“You can’t be with me,” Malcolm said, rising woozily to his feet. “You have to let me go.”
“Not happening.” Jarrad wrapped an arm around him to hold him steady.
“What we have to do is find some cover,” Wen said.
“There are caves all through the Dolomeres,” Jarrad suggested. “There must be something nearby.”
“Fine. Let’s head deeper into the mountains. Wes?”
“That way,” Wesley said, pointing. “That should keep us far enough out of their path. It’s a huge company, far bigger than the one that passed us earlier in the day, and they’re fanned out wide. If we head in that direction, and Jarrad’s right and we can find a cave, that should give us some protection. The other soldiers…the small groups around here, seem to be staying out of the company’s way as well, so we shouldn’t encounter any of them either. But we’ve gotta move.”
“Before we go…”
Wen crossed over to the soldier on the ground. Wesley joined him as Wen crouched to examine the man’s arm. When he pulled up the man’s uniform sleeve, the both saw it. “He has it, too.”
“This mark is older than the others, though. See how it’s raised but not still tender-looking?” Wesley said.
“What are you talking about?” Jarrad asked.
“We’ll tell you when we get somewhere safe,” Wen said, standing. “Let’s go.”
“Please, Jarrad,” Malcolm said, “you have to—”
“No, Mal. Don’t even think about saying it again. I don’t know what in hel you’re doing out here, but you’re not doing it alone anymore.”
Wen was surprised at Jarrad’s no-nonsense tone, but appreciated his urgency. Especially since the company was close enough now he was able to hear the first rumblings of it. Jarrad probably heard it, too. And Wesley was right—it was enormous.
This time Wen led the way, while Jarrad and Wesley each wrapped one of Malcolm’s arms over their shoulders to help him.
“I could carry you,” Jarrad told Malcolm, who protested and insisted on walking.
The opening they ducked into a few minutes later was barely bigger than the rock overhang they’d sheltered under earlier in the day, but this, at least, delved back into the mountain far enough for them to all fit comfortably in the space, and it had a real entrance they could easily seal with a magick shield. Which Wen did immediately.
They’d gotten to it just in time, since the ground literally rumbled from the troops marching nearby. Wes had been right about them fanning out, as well. Why in hell were they doing that? Unless…
“It’s almost as if they’re searching for something,” Wesley murmured, standing next to him, looking out into the night where they could both see the flash of torches through the scraggly trees. “But what?”
“You think they’re trying to flush someone, or more than one someone, out?”
“I don’t know, but there’s definitely something odd going on around here.”
“Unfortunately, we can’t do anything further to find out until this company’s passed by. In the meantime, we’re stuck here in the dark.”
It was pitch black inside the cave. That wouldn’t be a problem for Wen and Jarrad, but it left Wesley and Malcolm blind.
A sudden twinkle of light rose in the air and came to a stop, hovering near the cave’s ceiling. It wasn’t particularly bright, but it gave off enough light for them to be able make out each other’s forms and features.
“What in hel?” Jarrad asked in wonder. “Where’d that come from?
Malcolm sighed and sank to the cave floor, looking like he might have fallen over otherwise. “It’s mine,” he said in a small, weary voice.
“You made it?” Jarrad stared at him. “But I thought morphlings could only change form. That you couldn’t do other magick?”
“Mostly I can’t.” Malcolm said. “Only a few small things that don’t matter much. Clara used to call this a fae light. But it’s not like I can conjure a lot of them, only one. Which, as you can see, is mostly useless.”
“It’s not useless at all. It’s brilliant,” Jarrad told him.
“You said you can do a few small things. Would one of those, by any chance, be sleep magick?” Wen asked.
Malcolm’s shoulders drooped and he sighed. Slowly, he nodded.
“Wait…what? You were the one who put us all to sleep this morning?” Jarrad pulled off his pack and dropped down next to Malcolm, staring at him in obvious disbelief.
Malcolm let out another troubled sigh. “Yes.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I had to.”
“I don’t understand. Why?”
“Because being around me is bad for everyone. Bad for Kellesborne. For Wesley. And bad for you, too.” He sounded on the verge of tears, but his words were earnest.
“Bad for me? How? I thought…last night, I thought we’d made peace.”
Malcolm looked like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world besides here, having this conversation in front of Wen and Wesley.
“Last night you said you would die for me,” he said quietly. “Do you think I would ever, ever want you to do that? I…I can’t even bear the thought of you giving your good life for my wretched one. I’m not worth it and I could never let that happen.”
Jarrad looked taken aback. “Are you saying you…you left because I told you that?”
“After you said it, it was all I could think about. That’s when I realized the best thing I could possibly do was just leave. Go far, far away so I wasn’t a threat to any of you. So the sorcerer could never find a connection between me and any of you.”
“Malcolm,” Jarrad whispered, looking devastated. “I…”
“Why here?” Wen asked.
Wesley rested a hand on his arm, silently urging him, he knew, to go easy because of the tension between Malcolm and Jarrad. But this was important and they needed answers, so he pressed ahead.
“Why did you come in this direction? This is the same general area where Lochlann was taken, so you had to have known there were soldiers everywhere. You weren’t wandering aimlessly. Wesley was able to track you, so we know you came straight here, to these mountains. Why?”
Jarrad shot Wen a scathing look. “Why are you using that tone with him? Like he’s done something wrong?”
“I’m just trying to get answers, Jarrad,” Wen said, not unkindly. “You want them, too. Don’t deny it.”
Jarrad sighed and dragged a hand through his hair. “I do. I just…I don’t understand what’s happening. ”
“Malcolm does.” Wen tried to keep his voice nonthreatening, but, honestly, enough was enough. “Tell us the truth, Malcolm. Once and for all, why are we here, specifically in these mountains? Because it was no accident you came here, was it?”
Malcolm instantly returned to the position he’d been in so much of last night, with his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped protectively around them. He dropped his forehead onto his knees with a shudder.
Jarrad lifted a hand as if he wanted to reach out to Malcolm but wasn’t sure he should. He settled for patting him gently on the shoulder before withdrawing his hand. “You don’t have to answer.”
“Yes he does,” Wen said. “I’m sorry, Jarrad, but he does.”
After another shuddering breath, Malcolm finally looked up. “You weren’t supposed to follow me. I never meant for you to.”
“Is that why you put us all to sleep?”
Malcolm nodded. “My magick doesn’t have a lot of power. I can only make someone sleep for a few hours at most. I…I hoped it would keep you asleep long enough for me to get out of the castle and far enough away you wouldn’t know where I was.”
“I’m going to ask you one more time. Why did you come here?”
Malcolm took a hard swallow. “Because the sorcerer made me.”
“What?” Jarrad was once again staring at Malcolm in shock.
“He contacted you with the seeing stone?” Wen asked.
Malcolm nodded again.
“How did we not hear it? It was on the table, under the mug. You said it would vibrate. If it woke you, it should have awakened us, too.”
“I had already left when he contacted me.”
“You didn’t leave because he contacted you?”
“No, I told you, I wanted to go away to keep you all safe. You were already asleep, so I just used some magick to keep you that way, then I took the stone and left. I was already headed down the mountain when I felt the stone. It…it scared me. I was afraid why he’d be contacting me again so soon. I didn’t want to answer, but I knew I had to. The first thing he asked me was where I was. It caught me off guard, so I babbled the first thing I thought of, that I was near Crasmere—because I had been near there a couple of weeks ago, following Lochlann. The…the sorcerer didn’t seem to notice my lie, and actually told me, good because he had a new job for me and that I was closer to it than he’d expected. I didn’t want to quibble or ask questions because I hoped if he had a new job that meant he wouldn’t hold me to the other things he’d said last night.”
His shoulders slumped even more than they already were. “But it didn’t matter,” he whispered.
“What didn’t matter?” Wesley asked.
“He said I still had to do the other as well—Kellesborne or you. But he said I had to do this first because it was urgent. He gave me only three days to find some information and get back in touch with him. That’s why I ran the whole way, and why I chose the form I did…I knew the redheaded boy from Thrythgar, from the slave dungeon. He was always a fast runner, the one they sent on errands because he was quick.”
“What’s the new job the sorcerer wants you to do?” Wen asked.
“He said I had to go to the demon’s maw.”
“The helys ganhedig,” Wen said softly. “Why?”
“He said the work there is going too slowly and he wants to know if someone’s intentionally delaying progress.”
“What work?” Wesley asked.
“I don’t know. He refused to talk about it.”
“He wants you to find out if someone’s delaying progress on something, but won’t tell you what?” Wen’s suspicious sixth sense was having trouble swallowing that.
“It’s true, I swear. He seemed…on edge about it. Like whatever it is, it’s a huge secret and he didn’t want anyone to maybe overhear us or…?” He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“How are you supposed to do a job if you don’t know what that job is?” Jarrad asked. “That’s ridiculous.”
And pretty much unbelievable, as far as Wen was concerned. “The helys is not a small area. You’re supposed to go into the mountains and somehow just figure it out? That’s a pretty hard stretch to believe.”
“He…he told me to follow the deepest gap as far as it goes and then I’d see.”
Jarrad shook is head. “But like Wen said, the whole area is called the demon’s maw.”
“He said I had to go into the maw. And that I had to watch and listen and report back to him. He said I was the only one who could do it because I can be unnoticeable. And I’m not allowed to talk to anyone or ask questions because he didn’t want them to know he was checking up on them…I could only watch and listen.”
Wen gazed at him, deep in thought, trying to make sense of it all and wondering if Malcolm was spinning them a tale. The story seemed…hardly plausible. But what would be his motivation for lying about it?
Also, Wen had a sudden flash of memory from earlier, when the soldier had first captured Malcolm and asked him if he were a spy for the sorcerer. Which meant…what? That the branded soldiers were already aware the sorcerer was suspicious? But of what?
“He’s telling the truth,” Wesley said softly. Once again Wen heard the hint of disappointment in his mate’s tone because, damn it, Wesley obviously knew he was struggling to believe that Malcolm didn’t have some other agenda.
But that specific question from the soldier, along with all the other oddities they’d uncovered tonight, backed up what Malcolm was saying.
Wen reached out to squeeze Wesley’s fingers. “It’s okay. I believe him.”
Wesley let out a barely perceptible breath, then gave him a faint smile and a nod.
Wen looked back down at Malcolm. “But that leaves us with a mess of a mystery here. We’ve got the sorcerer working on some kind of…of project. One that’s super secret, that’s taking longer than he wants.”
“And he’s suspicious someone is intentionally delaying it,” Wesley added.
“We’ve also got someone called the wraith who seems to be, if not in charge, at least a key component of whatever’s going on. The soldiers a few days ago were taking Lochlann to the wraith, and tonight that’s where they were going to take Malcolm.”
“Did the sorcerer mention this wraith when he spoke to you?” Wesley asked Malcolm.
Wesley directed the next question at Wen. “Are we still thinking the wraith could be Moh’dredion?”
“Moh’dredion?” Jarrad asked, his eyes gone wide.
Wen remembered he and Wesley had speculated about Moh’dredion with their mothers last night and Jarrad hadn’t been part of the conversation. So he filled Jarrad in.
“Holy gods…do you really think it’s Moh’dredion?”
“No idea. Just a guess.”
“Do you think all of this could have something to do with the brands?” Wesley asked.
“I think it almost certainly does. You said when you were reaching out that you sensed the small groups of soldiers seemed to be avoiding the big company. It’s possible they’re not part of the sorcerer’s main army.”
“And they appear to be working for the wraith—at least the ones we encountered tonight did.”
“What brands?” Jarrad asked.
They told him what they’d found on the men who’d attacked Malcolm.
“Okay, that’s slightly disturbing.”
“It is,” Wen agreed. He pulled out his vrieg and drew the symbol, the best he could without knowing for sure what the geometric symbols were on the four quadrants of the circle.
Wesley seemed to have been reading his mind, as usual. “I think they were triangles.”
So, Wen rubbed out the rough squares he’d used and replaced them with triangles on the circle.
“Yeah, like that.”
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Wen asked Malcolm. “This symbol? Maybe on a tapestry or medallion or something at Thrythgar? Or marked on anyone else there?”
Malcolm shook his head. “Not that I can remember. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”
“And the sorcerer said nothing to you about any of this?”
“I promise, I’ve told you everything he told me,” Malcolm said.
“A round shape with four small triangles on it. I can’t even think of anything it resembles in the real world,” Jarrad mused, his gaze focused on it.
“Nor can I,” Wen said. “You?” he asked Wesley.
“Well, there’s only one way to find out. Malcolm, you’ve got company. We’re all going into the helys gandhedig with you.”