Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019-2020 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
The corridors were deserted as Wen and Wesley traversed them, and no wonder since it was only a couple of hours before dawn.
When they entered their rooms, they found Malcolm curled onto his side on the rug in front of the fire. Jarrad lay on his side as well, his bigger, taller body wrapped protectively around Malcolm.
“Are they both asleep?” Wen whispered to Wesley after they’d stripped off their clothes and crawled into bed.
Wesley closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and nodded. “Why?” he whispered, a hint of a smile curving his lips.
“If you have to ask, then never mind.”
“You’re such an ass.” Wesley threaded his fingers through Wen’s hair and pulled him into a breath-stealing kiss.
“Yeah, but you love me anyway,” Wen murmured, quietly laughing, when they parted. Then he sobered. He caressed Wesley’s cheek. “You doing okay?”
“You keep asking me that. You’re more worried than you’re letting on. I can feel it.”
“So are you.”
Wesley sighed. “It’s hard not to be. It seems like we have a lot to accomplish in a very short span of time. And, meanwhile, we’ve got no bloody idea what the sorcerer’s up to, what he wants with me, who or what this wraith is, or how we’re going to save Malcolm before the week is up. Also, I’m pretty sure Jarrad’s patience is worn thin and emotionally he’s skating on the edge of losing his shit, and Malcolm’s fear is so powerful I can almost see it pouring off him in waves.”
“In other words, being in close contact with them for the next day or two is going to be hard on you and your empathic senses.”
Wesley instantly looked contrite. “No, I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t complaining about them.”
“I know.” Wen brushed a thumb over Wesley’s lips. “But I do read you well, and it’s hard for you when everyone around you is feeling intense emotions. I picked up on it earlier tonight. So, tell me what I can do to help. I mean, obviously in addition to trying to keep my own emotions in check.”
“I don’t want you to have to censor your own emotions. I’ll be all right.”
“I remember what it was like, Wes, that night after Jarrad and Lochlann fought, and I felt how you felt as you relived it all. I don’t even know how you deal with the regular constant onslaught, much less the big stuff. There must be something I can do to make it easier for you.”
“Well… You could kiss me again. That helps.”
As Wen gazed at him, the sweet expression on Wesley face mixed with the twinkle in his eyes made Wen smile. “Really? That’s what you’ve come up with?”
“Mmm. It helps. A lot.”
“Well then, I’d better get busy on that,” Wen murmured before taking his mate’s warm, pliant mouth again.
At some point later, Wen jolted awake and sat up.
Next to him, Wesley had just done the same thing, looking sleep rumpled and confused, but alert.
“What is it? What just woke us?” Wesley asked.
“I don’t know.” Wen’s heart began to pound as a sense of…it wasn’t danger exactly, but his sixth sense felt something. Or maybe he was picking up on what Wes was feeling? In any case, he instinctively reached for his vrieg on the bedside table.
Wesley, he noticed, already had his in his hand from where he kept it under his pillow.
When Wen glanced at him, questioning, Wesley said, “I feel it, too. Like something’s…off.”
“Jarrad?” Wen said. “You awake?”
“Yeah.” Jarrad’s voice came from the floor near the foot of the bed. “But what the hel just startled me?”
“Don’t know. It woke us, too.” Wen’s gaze slid around the room, not seeing anything obviously amiss.
Jarrad suddenly swore, then he scrambled to his feet and turned to glare at them.
“What?” Wesley asked, rising from the bed, taking the sheet with him. Wen felt Wesley’s heart suddenly racing, which meant, he assumed, Wes was picking up some strong emotion from Jarrad.
“Where the fuck is Malcolm? What have you done with him?”
“He’s not here?” Wen asked, standing to join Wesley.
“No, he’s not here,” Jarrad snarled. “What did you do with him?”
“Nothing,” Wesley said. “We did nothing.”
“When we came back from talking to Mum a couple of hours before dawn, the two of you were asleep on the floor right there where you’re sitting,” Wen told him. “He was still here when we went to sleep.”
Jarrad’s expression slid from one of agitation to concern, with lines creasing his forehead. “So, where is he?”
“We never did get any real food last night, so maybe he was hungry when he woke and he went down to the kitchens for some breakfast,” Wesley said calmly.
It was possible, but the explanation bothered Wen. Because the idea that anyone, even Malcom, as slight as he was, could sneak past all three of them, especially Jarrad and Wen with their enhanced hearing, open and close the heavy chamber door, and not wake them, disturbed the hel out of him. Because he knew in his gut the door was not what had just woken them. It had been something else. Something…else, damn it, that he couldn’t place.
He glanced out the window and saw that not only had they slept well past dawn—which was highly unusual for Wesley and him no matter how little sleep they’d gotten the night before—based on the pale winter sunlight streaming through the window and across the stone floor, it looked to be midmorning.
“Look at what time it is.” He gestured toward the window.
Wesley’s brows rose and Wen felt his shock. His gaze turned on Wen. “There’s no way…”
“That we’d sleep this late? I know.”
“It feels like I say this all the time now, but what…the…fuck…is going on?” Jarrad asked hoarsely. He scuffed a hand over his unshaven face. His clothes, which he’d slept in, were disheveled, as was his hair. He was beginning to look panicked.
“Don’t worry just yet. Malcolm’s probably somewhere in the castle,” Wesley soothed, once again seeking to reassure Jarrad. But beneath his words, Wen felt his mate’s worry. “Let me see if I can sense him.”
Wesley had been putting on his pants as he spoke. While he pulled a shirt over his head, Jarrad asked, “You can do that?”
“As long as it’s someone I know and have had contact with, and as long as they’re within the castle grounds, I can usually pick up their emotions.” He closed his eyes.
Jarrad looked questioningly at Wen as Wen dressed.
“Be patient.” Wen said.
Jarrad nodded, but he took a hard swallow and Wen knew his brother was likely putting together the same pieces he already had…that it would have been nearly impossible for Malcolm to sneak past all of them without one of them realizing it. And the fact it was so late in the morning, and that they’d all awakened at exactly the same time… Something about this was not normal.
“Anything yet?” Jarrad asked Wesley.
“Just give me a second,” Wesley responded. Jarrad probably didn’t notice it, but Wen recognized an edge to Wesley’s voice, which didn’t bode well for the search. Damn it all.
Jarrad began to pace.
A few minutes later, just as he was turning, presumably to pester Wesley again, Wesley opened his eyes.
And those warm brown eyes, that Wen knew and loved and could read so well, told him the news before Wesley ever said a word.
“He’s not here.”
“What do you mean?” Jarrad asked, a slight tremor in his voice.
“I’ve searched the whole castle. I can’t find him anywhere. He’s gone.”
Wen had a sudden thought. He crossed over to the table, picked up the silver mug Wesley had upended last night.
“Damn it. So is the sorcerer’s seeing stone.”
Jarrad looked like someone had just punched him in the gut. “But why? I don’t understand. I thought he trusted us. Trusted me.”
“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 him…
He turned to Wesley. “What about that incident, weeks ago, where you sensed him—you didn’t know it was Malcolm at the time, but you sensed him—and then he disappeared, only to reappear again a while later?”
“I actually thought of that—”
“When he disappeared?” Jarrad interrupted, his voice shaking. “What are you guys talking about now?
Wen felt a pang of sympathy for his brother. Jarrad had had a whole lot of new and startling things thrust on him since last night. He had every right to be reeling.
“Weeks ago,” Wesley said, “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, my mum, your mum, Allend, you. When I found you, you were…well…with someone.”
Jarrad stared at him for a second. Then… “Wait. Are you saying you realized that Malcolm and I were…? That we…? Is that what he meant last night when he said you sensed us together?”
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 withdrew.”
“I…I don’t even know how to feel about that.”
“I know, and again, I’m so sorry.”
“What does this incredibly uncomfortable topic have to do with Malcolm disappearing?”
“I had only ever seen Malcolm once before at that point, and only briefly, so I had no idea that’s who you were with. I just had a vague sense of familiarity, like I’d probably met the person but not long enough or recently enough for me to be able to connect their emotional aura to anyone specific. A few nights later, as I was practicing again, I happened upon him by accident. He was alone somewhere in the castle. I still didn’t know who he was, but the reason he caught my attention that night was because he was terrified. Like, live-or-die terrified. Then, while I was reading him, his emotions just suddenly disappeared. One second they were there and the next they were gone. It scared me because all I could think was that something bad might have happened to him. To be cut off from him so suddenly like that, I was worried he might have…well…”
“Died?” 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 I’d sensed, and I hadn’t been able to figure out where in the castle they were before they disappeared. I thought maybe you’d know where we could start looking. But as I was coming to get you, Malcolm 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…I don’t know…open a portal or something to get to him?”
“Oh my gods,” Jarrad murmured, scuffing a trembling hand over his face again.
“I don’t think so,” Wesley said. “I mean, 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’d 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, though?” Jarrad asked.
“I’m not certain, but I wonder if maybe it’s a 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 the pain was just so extreme, 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? That maybe the sorcerer contacted him, or even just the thought that he might contact him scared Malcolm so much he 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 had 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 read him again 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. “He was quite concerned last night about making sure the stone was covered, just in case. Although…” 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 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. Especially 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, anything that, looking back on it now, might have concerned him?” Wen asked.
“No! I…I just told him I’d never let anything happen to him. That I’d protect him no matter what. I…I also told him that I…” He swallowed hard. “That I…”
“That you loved him?” Wesley gently prompted.
Jarrad sighed and 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 meant to stay awake until you came back, but… Gods, what could have happened to him? What if the sorcerer took him?”
“From this room?” Wen shook his head. “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 trailed off.
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’d been taken against his will, I can’t imagine Malcolm wouldn’t have tried to cause a commotion to wake us.” 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.”
“Well, 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 told his brother, “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 must have left through the front gate, because none of the guards on duty had seen anyone come or go through the postern 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 disappeared. Especially since Wesley still couldn’t 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 petrified of the sorcerer, so I think it’s safe to say he’s not going to head east, in the direction of Thrythgar.”
“And because of that, he’d probably want to stay off the road to the north of us, as well,” Jarrad added, “since Byram’s troops hold it.”
“Maybe. But…” Wesley frowned in thought. “We can’t forget that he can take a different form. 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, which there’s no way he could or would have gone up and over them, and Thrythgar to the east, that narrows things down. 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. So let’s start there.”
“But 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 damned plague of poisonous insects over the land, it was a risk they couldn’t take this day, even in areas where they knew no nets existed.
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 said firmly. He could tell Jarrad was creeping ever closer to an emotional breaking point. And when that happened, he had a tendency to make rash decisions.
Wen shared a concerned look with Wesley. He knew Wes sensed the hurting, frustrated edginess in Jarrad.
“We are getting close to the road,” Wesley said, keeping his voice low, taking no chances of being heard by the passing soldiers. “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.”
“We can do that.” 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 place 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 portion of the forest appeared to be a major thoroughfare 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? Will that work?”
“We should wait until they pass, though, or we’ll risk being seen.”
“We can make it now,” Jarrad said.
Before Wen could stop him, Jarrad waved a hand, taking down the protective shield, 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.
“Don’t move,” Wen muttered to his brother and Wes.
They both froze.
“Whatcha see?” Another soldier had stepped out of formation to join the first.
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 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 on 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!” Wen hissed at Jarrad, as Jarrad turned to continue the climb. “Don’t take another step. 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 suspicious 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 stood waiting on the slope, but a clump of scrubby, piney bushes stood in just the right spot to block a view of them from below without them having to put up a protective shield.
“Will this be okay?” he asked Wesley.
Wesley nodded. “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.
At least until Jarrad finally looked up at him.
When Wen saw the haunted shadows in his eyes, and noticed how his hands shook as he put away his water skin, he knew his brother realized how foolish he’d been.
“Sorry,” Jarrad said, looking genuinely miserable.
Wen sighed and gave him a sympathetic nod.
“Do you…do you think he’s dead?” Jarrad murmured, “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 Malcolm had been given to stay alive. He had to turn one or the other over to the sorcerer.
And so, in the dark hours before dawn, 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?