Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Hi everyone! Thanks for your patience! I’m still not quite finished with this book, but I am making good progress and expect to finish it this month. I’m pretty content with this week’s chapter, so I hope you enjoy it!
Malcom had, of course, protested. But in the end, he’d given in. He’d had no choice and knew it.
While they waited for the company to pass—and they were taking their sweet damn time about it—Wen suggested they have something to eat and then maybe try to get a little rest.
Malcolm refused the meat and bread Jarrad offered him and, instead, curled up on his side on the bare ground and fell instantly asleep. Wesley wondered if his ability to do so was based on a life lived without any kind of regular comforts. A life where things like blankets or warm cloaks were a luxury rather than a necessity. It made him sad to think of Malcolm being forced to exist that way.
Jarrad, on the other hand, still seemed shaken over Malcom’s decision to leave Kellesborne because of what Jarrad had told him last night. When Malcolm had refused the food, Jarrad put it away without eating anything himself either. Now, he lay next to Malcolm, but Malcolm’s back was to him. And though Jarrad’s eyes were closed, Wesley knew he wasn’t asleep.
“You want to get some rest, too?” Wen asked, keeping his voice low. “I’ll keep watch, if you want to close your eyes for a while.”
“I’m not really tired.” Wesley matched his quiet tone so they didn’t disturb Malcolm and Jarrad.
“Yeah, neither am I. Malcom’s sleep magick messed up my rhythm, I think.”
Wen delved into his pack, then unwrapped some of the smoked meat they’d scavenged from the kitchens before they left this morning. He handed a piece of it to Wesley.
“Thanks.” Their fingers touched as Wesley took it from him.
“You’re welcome. And I know I’m far too late saying it, but I’m sorry I was difficult earlier. This whole situation, knowing the sorcerer is looking for you, has been looking for you all these months… it’s making me a little crazed.” Wen sighed and shook his head. “I’ve been cranky at Jarrad all day for being rash because he’s in love and worried about Malcolm, when the truth is, I’ve been doing the same thing because I love you and am worried for you.”
Wesley’s heart squeezed. He leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss against Wen’s lips, then rested his forehead against Wen’s. “I know. I know you’re worried. I can’t exactly say I’m not, too. But I do truly believe, with all my heart”—he dropped his already quiet voice to a whisper—“that Malcolm’s not going to do anything to harm me. He’s… Gods, he breaks my heart, Wen. I can’t even imagine the kind of life he’s lived.”
Wen curled a hand around the back of Wesley’s head, gently massaging. “It makes you think about your parents, doesn’t it?”
Wesley drew in and released a shuddering breath. Rowen knew him so well.
“It does,” he admitted. “Is that the kind of life I would have lived if my parents hadn’t escaped? And when did they escape? Before or after I was born? I don’t have the slave brand, but that doesn’t mean I might not have been there. Maybe I was born right where Malcom was held. Maybe…maybe that was my life for a brief while.”
“But you’re not there now, love, nor anytime you remember. And you won’t ever be in the future. Neither will Malcolm. We’ll make sure he’s never held there again.”
Wesley leaned back and looked into Wen’s eyes, which he could see radiated sincerity in the flickering light still floating above them. “You promise? Because Malcolm needs us. All of us.”
“I promise. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry again for earlier. I do trust you. Completely. Including your judgment about him. I should never have doubted. I think it was my own blind fear and a need to blame someone, anyone, for it. But that’s not a good excuse.”
“Yeah it is,” Wesley whispered, stroking Wen’s face with his fingertips.
“No, it really isn’t. But the idea of losing you makes me not think altogether clearly.” He turned his head to kiss Wesley’s fingers.
“I’m not going anywhere. Well, except deeper into the mountains tonight,” he said with a faint smile.
“Yeah, but you won’t be alone there.”
“I’m never alone. Neither of us are. Not anymore. No matter what, we’re always together,” Wesley said, resting a hand over Wen’s heart.
Wen smiled now. “Yeah, we are. And I kind of love that fact.”
“So do I.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes, but it was a comfortable, close silence, and after all the tension of the day, it felt nice. But Wesley was the one to finally break it as his mind turned, once again, toward where they were heading.
“What do you think we’ll find in these mountains?
“I honestly have no idea. I’m thrown for a loop by all of this. The sorcerer’s order to Malcolm to come here, the men with the matching brands, the implication they don’t work for the sorcerer and that they’re possibly working against him. It’s a lot to take in.”
“Even if they don’t work for the sorcerer, something tells me they’re not on the side of the resistance either.”
“Something tells me you’re right.”
“And the sorcerer was vague with Malcom, wasn’t he? Go into the deepest gap and you’ll see. What is that even supposed to mean? See what?”
Wen shook his head. “Damned if I know. Whatever it is, he’s expecting Malcolm to, I guess, infiltrate it, stay unnoticed, and observe. He told him not to ask questions or draw attention to himself.”
“Which isn’t going to be easy with the three of us trailing along behind him.”
“No, but there’s no way to prepare for it until we find out just what in hel Byram’s hiding.”
“I hate to bring it up again, but what if it is Moh’dredion? The sheer terror Moh’dredion engenders makes it hard for anyone to even function. I can’t fathom how Malcolm, who’s already wound unbearably tight with fear, might react. Honestly, I’m afraid for him if it is Moh’dredion. I’m not sure he’ll survive it.”
Wen scowled. “I hadn’t thought of that. Gods…an encounter like that would be devastating to Malcolm.”
“We’ll have to watch him closely. And protect him from it as best we can if it turns out Moh’dredion is holed up in some deep cave in these mountains.”
“On the other hand, if it is Moh’dredion, and he is here, doesn’t that mean he’s not currently with the draegan lords? Which would be good, right?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Like my mum, I’m worried about them. Lord Rizik’s been gone a long time now. Gods only know what’s happening with the lords, or if they’re even…” His voice tapered off with a tight, choked sound.
“They’re not dead. We can’t think that way.”
“But they’re clearly not good either, or they’d be back by now.”
“You don’t know that. You said time moves differently in Ballian. Maybe it’s as simple as that.”
“Maybe. I’d just feel a whole lot better if we had some kind of word from them.”
Wesley rubbed Wen’s back in comfort.
The troops were still rumbling past them, but the sound was changing from merely marching feet to wheels creaking. Wagons.
Wesley stood and crept closer to the cave entrance to look out. He knew the troops couldn’t see him because of the magick shield Wen had put up, not even with the light flickering from within the cave.
As he peered through the darkened forest, watching the flame of torches dance and bob with the troops, an odd sound caught his attention. A sort of…shuffling sound paired with a groan. But not made from a wagon or a piece of equipment.”
“What is that? Do you hear it?” he asked Wen.
“I do. But I have no idea. It’s…”
“Alive,” Wesley said, suddenly. “Whatever it is, that sound is coming from something alive. And…” A sharp jolt of agony ripped through him, stealing his breath, almost doubling him over. “Oh gods…”
“What is it?” Wen asked in concern, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.
“Pain,” Wesley gasped.
“Pain? From what?”
“Whatever…ungh…whatever it is.”
“You can actually feel the pain? Not just sense it?”
“Yes. Gods, Wen!” He clung to Wen with one arm, and reached for the cave wall with the other to support himself and keep from dropping to his knees it was so bad.
“Is it a human, a draegan?”
“N-neither. It’s…I don’t know what it is. But it’s in horrible agony.” Wesley felt the hot dampness of tears sliding down his cheeks. “And it’s scared. So scared.”
“Can you block it out? The pain? So it’s not affecting you?”
“I don’t know. It’s…powerful.”
“What’s going on?” Jarrad asked, coming to the entrance to join them.
“Wes is picking something up, but it’s hurting him.”
“I…I have to help it.”
“We don’t even know what it is. How can we—”
“It’s close. Oh my gods…it’s very close.”
“Like, with the troops just through the trees close?” Jarrad asked.
“No, it’s… It’s here. Right here.” He sensed the entity just on the other side of the cave entrance. “Light. Off,” he ordered.
Malcolm had awakened from their talking and after a quick, desperate glance from Wesley, flicked a hand and the fae light winked out, leaving them in darkness.
“What in hel is it?” Jarrad wanted to know. “One of the soldiers?
“He says it’s not human,” Wen told him.
“It’s so scared. Desperate. Gods…it hurts so much.” Wesley pressed a hand against the magick shield, not able to see the shield exactly, but feeling the faint buzz of it vibrating against his palm. “It needs help. It’s right next to us.”
A rustle of winter-dried leaves crumbling on bushes and the skitter of rocks sounded outside only seconds before a large, bulky gray form suddenly appeared in front of the cave.
“Fucking hel!” Jarrad gasped, instinctively taking a step backward.
Without thinking, reacting purely on instinct, Wesley willed the magick shield down and, much to his surprise, it faded. He started to move toward the creature, but was abruptly jerked backward, nearly off his feet, and fell into Wen’s arms
“No, Wes!” Wen’s voice was hoarse with fear.
“It’s the glargak!” Jarrad said. With one hand he put up a new magick barrier and with the other, drew his sword.
“It’s not going to harm us,” Wesley said, pulling free of Wen. “It’s hurt.”
“It’s slime will kill all of us. None of us are human, which means we’re not safe around it,” Jarrad said.
But Wesley had already dissolved the shield again and stepped out of the cave. Wen grabbed his arm, trying to get him to come back, but he tugged himself free and approached the creature, which, up close, did look vaguely like a huge, bulky hound, standing on four thick legs. Its head came to Wesley’s shoulder and its skin was a dullish grey tone, lumpy and hairless. Actually, it didn’t look unlike a weirdly shaped boulder, except for the large, frightened, gold eyes glowing in the dark.
It didn’t growl or appear threatened by Wesley’s approach, nor did it threaten him. It merely stood its ground, whimpering softly, and still riddled with pain that radiated through Wesley, making every part of Wesley ache.
“You poor thing,” Wesley murmured to it, lifting his hand so it could smell him.
“Wes, no! Please, love,” Wen said from behind him. Wesley felt Wen’s fear like a vibrating undercurrent to the creature’s.
“It’s okay. I feel him, Rowen. He’s… I think he’s empathic, like I am. I think maybe he sensed me, like I sensed him, and he came to me for help.”
“Damn it,” Wen muttered under his breath. “All right, but you can’t touch him, m’caire. Please. Don’t touch him. His slime…”
“Shhh, it’s all right,” Wesley murmured to the creature.
Mostly to appease Wen, not so much because he was worried about it himself, he pulled on his fur-lined leather gloves and then stroked the glargak’s lumpy snout.
“Oh gods,” he heard Jarrad say behind him in a shaking voice.
“I know you’re hurt,” Wesley said, keeping his own voice low, both to soothe the creature but also because they were far too close to the damned soldiers. “I know you’re afraid. What’s happened to you, hmm?”
It was hard to see terribly clearly now, with clouds beginning to whisper across the sky, chasing the moons in and out behind them, but one thing Wesley could make out was the glistening layer of what Jarrad and Wen called the glargak’s slime. To Wesley the dampness looked less like slime and more like a fine sheen of moisture, as if it had been standing in the rain, or if it were perspiring.
The creature had a vague smell to it. Not unpleasant, just…earthy. Similar to the smell of newly turned soil, a scent Wesley had comfortable associations with because of his mother’s passion for growing things. But he also smelled a faint hint of blood, which, of course, created a different kind of buzz in him. In this case, though, the glargak’s pain and fear were more powerful than Wesley’s blood lust.
Still, it made him aware that the creature had some kind of injury.
He stroked a hand over the top of its head, then along its side. It stood still while he moved to the other side, trying to see why and where it was hurt. It’s skin was so rough and thick, he couldn’t fathom how anything could have pierced it, and it seemed his instinct about that was correct, as he found no wounds.
It wasn’t until he crouched next to the beast that he saw why it whimpered…and the sight made his heart ache.
“Oh my gods,” he whispered. He lifted one of the beast’s large front feet to examine it more closely, and tears welled in his eyes once again.
“What is it, love?” Wen asked, moving up behind him, keeping his distance from the glargak, but resting a hand on Wesley’s shoulder.
“Look at this, Wen.”
Wen knelt next to him and sucked in a sharp breath when he looked where Wesley pointed. “This wasn’t an accident.”
Someone had driven what looked like heavy iron nails up into the bottom of the creature’s foot.
Wesley checked the glargak’s other feet. “No. No accident. He has them in all four paws. And we both know who did it,” Wesley ground out.
“The sorcerer. But why? Sweet gods.”
“To keep him from escaping? The pads of his feet are softer than the rest of his thick skin.”
“Holy crap, Wes. I bet he’s what the sorcerer’s company is looking for. He must have gotten away, in spite of what they’ve done to him.”
“Look here.” An iron manacle encircled the creature’s back leg, with a short length of heavy but broken chain attacked to it.
“He broke free.”
“We have to help him,” Wesley said.
“You guys are crazy,” Jarrad said, still keeping his distance, standing in the cave entrance, Malcolm beside him. “That thing kills draegans. Probably kills you and Malcolm, too, Wesley.”
“He doesn’t do it on purpose,” Wesley snapped, glancing back at Jarrad. “He’s little more than a baby. He’s terrified. And the sorcerer has literally been making his life a living hel. How would you like to live like that?”
Jarrad looked taken aback at his outburst.
“Sorry,” Wesley murmured. “He’s in so much pain it’s…it’s making me say things I shouldn’t.”
“No, you don’t have to apologize,” Wen said. He turned to his brother. “Wesley’s right. This poor creature’s been held captive, tortured, and used by the sorcerer. No different from how Byram used Wesley’s parents or Kai or—”
“Or me,” Malcolm said quietly, slipping his hand into Jarrad’s.
Jarrad looked surprised, then grateful, then ashamed. “You’re right. I’m sorry,” he said in a far more subdued tone. “What can we do to help?” he asked Wesley and Wen.
“Put up a shield around us so we can work without being seen,” Wen said. “Then keep watch.”
As Jarrad moved to do what Wen had asked, Wen donned his gloves, then pulled out his vrieg. “If you can hold his foot,” he told Wesley. “I’ll see if I can pry the nails out with my knife.”
But when he made the first attempt, the glargak let out a strangled, unnatural-sounding cry and jerked his foot free from Wesley.
Damn! Wen quickly glanced toward the company of soldiers through the trees to see if they’d attracted any attention. The soldiers couldn’t see them through the magick barrier, but could certainly hear them if they weren’t careful. The marching of booted feet and the creak of wagons made enough noise to cover their talking, as long as they kept their voices down. But eventually one or more of the soldiers would hear the glargak if they didn’t keep it quiet.
“None of them are turning to investigate,” Jarrad said.
“Shhh, shhh, it’s okay,” Wesley murmured to the creature.
He felt Wen using soothing magick on it.
“It hurts him too much to touch them,” Wesley said, petting the glargak’s snout. “How’re we going to do this if he won’t let us? He won’t stand still for it, and we can’t risk him making any more loud noises.”
“I…I can maybe put him to sleep for a little bit,” Malcolm said.
Wesley turned to him. “You could do that?”
“I think maybe. I’ve…I’ve never done it on anyone who wasn’t, you know, like us. Never on an animal or…or a non two-legged being. But I could try.”
“Do you need to touch it?” Jarrad asked, his concern for Malcolm’s safety evident in his tone.
Jarrad looked relieved to hear that.
“But you’ll need to,” Wen told Jarrad. “If Malcolm can get him to sleep, we can’t just let him fall to the ground. We’ll need to catch him and lay him down gently once he’s out, and given his size and weight, it might take all three of us,” indicating himself, Jarrad, and Wesley.
Jarrad surprised Wesley by not arguing or even hesitating. He nodded and moved to join them, putting on his own gloves as he did.
When they were situated around the glargak, with Wesley still gently stroking its snout and murmuring softly to it, Wen said, “Okay, Malcolm. Whenever you’re ready.”
Malcom moved to stand in front of the creature. He held a hand over its head with a look of intense concentration on his face. A moment later his hand began to glow with a faint yellow light that wasn’t unlike the color of the fae light he’d lit for them earlier.
Wesley watched Malcolm’s unique brand of magick in fascination.
In a soft tone, Malcolm murmured, “Sleep.”
A moment later, the glargak’s eyelids drooped over its golden eyes, it let out a soft whumph of a sigh, and then its legs gave out beneath it.
Wen, Jarrad, and Wesley did the best they could to ease the creature to the ground, on its side.
Once there, Wen and Wesley didn’t waste any time because they had no idea how long the glargak would be asleep, and Malcolm couldn’t give them any idea either since he’d never used his sleep magick on anything like this before. He said it could be a few minutes or a few hours.
Wen worked on the nails in one foot, while Wesley worked on another. Jarrad went back to standing guard, one arm protectively around Malcolm, holding him close against him, probably partly to keep him warm, but Wesley also sensed his relief at the fact Malcolm was accepting of his attention.
The nails were long, and as he pulled each one out, Wesley had no idea how the glargak had been able to walk at all. Dear gods.
“Poor guy,” Wen murmured as he worked, seemingly reading Wesley’s mind. “What in bloody fuck was the sorcerer thinking, to go to this extreme?” Wen’s horror and sorrow bled over onto Wesley.
“You said, or maybe it was Jarrad weeks ago when he first saw him, that glargaks are rare. The sorcerer obviously didn’t want to lose this one.”
“Yeah, but this is overkill. This is just…cruelness for the sake of being cruel.”
“Isn’t that exactly who Byram is?” Wesley said softly. “He’s proven over and over again all he cares about is himself and his power, and he seems to take particular delight in torture.”
“Sick fucking bastard,” Wen muttered.
“Destroying him can’t come soon enough,” Wesley agreed.
When they’d finished pulling the nearly dozen nails out of the glargak’s paws, Wen took out his pouch of healing herbs and made a paste of them with some water and, using the flat side of his knife blade, rubbed it onto the wounds.
“I wish there was a way we could wrap his feet so this salve would stay on a while,” he said as he worked. “But I fear even if we did wrap them, he’d pull off the bandages as soon as he woke. So we’ll just have to hope he stays out for a little while and gives the herbs a chance to start working.”
Wesley’s heart squeezed at Wen’s gentleness and concern for such a great, lumbering beast that had been used to harm draegans.
“I really love you,” he told Wen.
Wen looked up at him and gave him a surprised half smile. “I love you.”
“Thank you for this.”
“You were right, as usual. It’s not this guy’s fault his slime’s used to hurt people. That’s the sorcerer’s doing.”
“Speaking of slime…” Wesley knelt and studied the glargak’s skin. “Um…he’s not wet any longer.”
“I…I don’t think he’s slimy anymore.”
He pulled off his gloves and even as Wen was saying, “Wes, don’t!” he rested a bare hand on the glargak’s head, then ran it over its thick, lumpy neck.
“Bloody hel, Wesley,” Jarrad said, stepping closer, his eyes wide. “What are you thinking?”
Wesley lifted his hand and rubbed his fingers together. “I’m thinking…he’s completely dry.” He looked at Wen, then at Jarrad and Malcolm. “No slime.”
“How is that possible?” Jarrad asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Is it because he’s asleep, do you think?” Wen asked.
“Maybe. But… I’m actually no longer feeling his pain. That could be because he’s asleep. Or it could be because the nails are out and you coated his wounds with healing herbs. In either case, right now he’s not hurting. So… Whoa. I’m having a thought.”
“What?” Wen asked, his forehead furrowed.
“What if…and I don’t know this for sure, it’s just a guess…but what if the slime, as you guys call it, is only present if he’s in pain?”
Understanding dawned on Wen’s face. “If that’s the case, it means the gods damned sorcerer wasn’t only torturing him to keep him from escaping. He was—”
“Intentionally putting him in agony in order to get him to make the slime,” Wesley whispered, the horror of the thought making him sick.
“Holy shit,” Jarrad murmured. “That’s so damned twisted it makes me want to hit something.”
“Poor baby.” Wesley stroked the glargak’s head. “Poor, poor helpless baby.”
“You said he’s young?” Wen asked.
“He is. I’m not sure how I can tell. I can just…sense it. He’s not only scared of Byram and what’s happening to him, he’s scared because he’s…alone, I think.”
“Maybe. Or stolen from his parents by the sorcerer. Although…” He frowned. “If his parents were alive, Byram would have taken them, too. I can’t see him leaving them behind.”
“Unless he did take them, too, and they’re being used somewhere else in Velensperia.”
“It’s possible. But his sadness feels almost more like grief, so my gut tells me he’s probably an orphan.”
“Well, if not fully, close enough, because one way or another, he’s not with his family.”
“What happens to him now?” Malcolm asked, speaking up for the first time since he’d done his sleeping magick.
“I don’t know,” Wen said. He looked at Wesley. “I know what you’re feeling, love, but we can’t take him with us.”
“And we’re going to have to move on into the helys,” Jarrad added. “We have no idea what we’re going to face in there.”
“I know.” Wesley sighed. “I just hate that the damned army’s looking for him. If he is truly the only glargak the sorcerer has, the soldiers are going to know Byram’ll rain hel down on them if they lose him, which means they’re not going to give up easily. We’re too damned close to them here.”
“How about this,” Wen said. “Why don’t we pull him into the cave. Between us, surely we can move him that far. That way he’s out of sight. And then, before we leave, we can sweep the ground and smooth out any of his footprints that might lead a trail to him here.”
“And just leave him sleeping? Alone?” Wesley’s heart hurt at the thought.
Wen’s expression was apologetic. “I don’t think we have any choice, love. We can wait a little while longer, but the wagons passing now are mostly supply wagons, which means this is the tail end of the company. And with the timetable the sorcerer gave Malcolm, we can’t afford to linger once the soldiers are out of sight.”
Wen reached for Wesley’s hand and wound his fingers around it. At the same time, Wesley felt soothing magick wash over him. “And remember, when he wakes up, he’s going to feel so much better, all because you sensed him and weren’t afraid to help him. He’s going to heal up and be free, thanks to you.”
“And you can take some satisfaction in knowing you deprived the sorcerer of something he wants,” Jarrad added.
“Thanks to all of you, too,” Wesley said softly. “Okay. I know you’re right and we don’t have any choice but to leave him. Let’s just do what we can to make sure he’s as safe as possible when we go.”
“And let’s get this off him, too,” Jarrad said, crouching next to the glargak. He used magick to unlock the iron manacle around the baby’s leg. “There,” he said, picking it up. When we leave, we’ll take this with us and drop it somewhere far away from here, so that if the soldiers find it, they’ll think he’s gone in that direction and won’t look here.”
Wesley gave him a grateful look, appreciating how Jarrad had done an about face and really stepped up to help.
An hour later, they shouldered their packs and left the glargak sleeping in the cave as they headed into the darker depths of the mountains, toward the helys ganhedig.