Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
All right, gang…are you ready for this adventure?! LOL! I am! I’ve been working on this book a LOOONG time, so I’m excited to share it with all of you!
This picks up directly at the end of An Unexpected Magick.
So….here we go!
The snow, which had begun to fall in earnest around dawn, now completely covered the ground and came almost to Wesley Brannock’s ankles as he trudged through the woods. Everything from his soggy boots, to his wet shirt and pants, to the soaked, half-frozen wool cloak draped around him chilled him to the bone, making him wonder if he might have been better off not dressing at all. Or, even more appealing…right about now he’d love to trade it all in and be back in the warmth of the hot springs he and Wen had only recently left behind.
Tempting as it sounded, though, they couldn’t go back. He had to get Wen out of this wretched weather. As cold and miserable as Wesley was, he could only imagine it must be ten times worse for Wen after everything he’d been through since last night.
“You doing okay?” he asked, tightening his arm more securely around Wen’s waist, offering as much support as he could as they made their way down the narrow path that led from the hot springs to the clearing where Wen’s tent lay.
“That’s the third time you’ve asked me since we started walking, Wes.”
“Well, I’m worried about you.”
“And I love you for worrying, but I’m okay. I told you, I can feel my wounds healing.”
“Yeah, but you also said they were prickly and uncomfortable. And you’re as pale as a ghost. Plus, wearing wet clothes, hiking through the snow, isn’t going to help anything. I’ll feel better when you’re warmed up and safely in bed.”
Wen shook his head. “I swear, you’re a worse nag than my mum.”
Wesley glanced sidelong at him and raised an eyebrow. “Oh my gods, did you just compare me to your mother? I mean, she’s an amazing woman, but somehow I don’t think you meant that as a compliment.”
“Maybe I did,” Wen said, a smile curling up the corners of his mouth.
“No. If you’d said, ‘You fight as well as my mum,’ I’d be good with that. But, ‘you nag as much as her?’ Not so much,” he said drily.
“If it helps, you are much sweeter than she is.”
“If it helps? First I’m a nag and now I’m sweet? You’re slaying my ego here.”
Wen laughed, and despite how tired he looked, just the sound of his husky chuckle brought a real smile to Wesley’s face. It was the best sound in the world, and one Wesley would never, ever take for granted again.
He knew they both needed this…the lightness and teasing banter. But it couldn’t truly sweep away the terror of the previous hours, not for Wesley anyway. Nor did it shut out the odd sense of foreboding that plagued him. From the moment they’d climbed out of the hot springs pool, apprehension had been building inside him. It was as if the warm comfort of the water had been protecting them from more than the elements. And once they were back in the frigid, gray, real world, some inner demon kept pestering Wesley with a warning not to get too comfortable.
Wen had spoken of hope this morning, but as much as Wesley wanted to, he struggled to feel it. It wavered just out of his reach, like an ephemeral ray of light that couldn’t be captured. And he didn’t know why. He’d been trying to shake it off, rationalizing that he had every reason to still be unsettled, considering how close he’d come to losing Wen last night. But it was more than just that. He couldn’t put his finger on it; he only knew the anxiety gnawing at him left him off balance and uncertain.
For Wen’s sake, however, Wesley tried to force those troubled thoughts aside for the moment.
“I believed, obviously mistakenly,” he said, in a teasing tone, “that you were with me because I was rugged and sexy and an impressive fighter.”
Wen gave another quiet chuckle. “Don’t fish for compliments. You know damn good and well I think you’re an incredible fighter, and that you’re sexy as sin. But whether you believe it or not, you happen to be sweet, too.”
“Please,” Wesley mumbled, warmth creeping up his face at the sincerity in Wen’s voice.
“It’s true,” Wen said, glancing at him again. “Sweet, a little shy, a little innocent.”
Now Wesley snorted. “You didn’t seem to think I was so innocent last night, when I was on my knees in the forest with your cock down my throat. Or have you forgotten that?”
“Oh, I remember,” Wen said, giving him a look that held enough heat to melt the snow under their boots. “That’s exactly one of the reasons I love you. You never stop surprising me.”
Wesley was so caught up in that steamy gaze and the seductive words, he wasn’t watching where they were going. “Umph!” he grunted, as he tripped over a thick tree root hidden beneath the snow.
The blow was jarring enough that he and Wen, who was locked in his embrace, almost toppled over. Wesley managed to keep them both from falling, but only just, by grabbing at a low-hanging tree limb nearby. When he glanced at Wen, Wen was grimacing.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, helping Wen to straighten.
In spite of his assurances otherwise, Wen was clearly still hurting more than he’d let on. Magick had saved his life last night, but his body hadn’t finished healing yet, and Wesley was afraid he might have torn open one of his wounds. “I should have been paying better attention. Are you okay? How bad is it?”
“Wes, please, I’m all right.” There was no laughter in his tone now. Only weariness with a hint of frustration.
Wesley winced. “I’m sorry,” he said again because he just couldn’t help it.
Wen squeezed his hand. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be short with you. It’s not your fault.” He sighed. “I’m just…”
“In pain still? And cold? And tired?” Wesley shook his head and caressed Wen’s cheek. “You shouldn’t have been trying to hide it from me. You don’t always have to be a tough guy, you know? Come on, we’re almost to your tent.”
They started down the snowy trail again, but Wen’s footsteps slowed. “We really need to report in first, to let the others know that the high sorcerer’s soldiers were staking out the magick barrier last night as we’d suspected.”
“I’ll go report in after I get you settled.”
“If any of Byram’s troops come looking for their friends, we left more than a little mess out there. We need to move the bodies. I can—”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“I’ll deal with it. Damn it, Wen, you have to trust me.”
Wen stopped and stared at him in surprise. “Why would you say that? I do trust you.”
“Then there’s no reason to argue, is there? I’m reporting in and you’re going to bed. That’s the end of it.”
A beat of silence passed as Wen continued to gaze at him. Finally, he shook his head. “Bloody hel. Who knew you’d turn out to be so damned bossy? I’m starting to think I should take back the part about you being sweet.”
He sounded hacked off, but Wesley was certain he also heard a trace of humor in Wen’s tone as well.
Wesley shrugged. “You said you like it when I surprise you.”
“Gods help me,” Wen muttered under his breath, which only made Wesley smile as they resumed walking.
He spied the tent through the trees, and with Wen leaning on him, they covered the last bit of ground in silence, the only sounds their staggered breathing and their crunching footfalls in the snow.
Once inside the tent, he helped Wen remove his wet cloak, then shrugged off his own as well. He pulled back the covers on the low, grass-stuffed mattress and eased Wen into a sitting position on it. As their hands met, Wen’s felt like ice.
“We’ve got to get you warm. And then you need some real sleep,” Wesley said.
“I did sleep. At the hot springs.”
“Being unconscious for hours is not the same thing as sleep, you stubborn ass.”
Wen’s brows rose. “I’m a stubborn ass now?”
“Sometimes,” Wesley said gently, tucking a damp strand of Wen’s blond hair behind his ear. “Especially when it comes to getting rest and taking care of yourself.”
Wen curled his fingers through Wesley’s and squeezed. His tone softened to that low rasp again, the one that turned Wesley’s insides liquid. “I’m not the only one who’s stubborn; you’re cold, too. And some sleep wouldn’t hurt you either. You look like you’re about to drop in your tracks.”
Wesley sighed and lifted their joined hands to his lips, where he pressed a kiss against Wen’s fingers. An unexpected wave of lightheadedness washed over him as he did, surprising him at its intensity. It made him realize he probably did need rest. But right now, Wen was his priority. He gave Wen’s hand a final squeeze, then untangled their fingers.
“So…you’re going to ignore me?”
Wesley scoffed. “How can I possibly be ignoring you when I’m touching you every second?”
“You know what I meant.” Wen sighed, but didn’t argue when Wesley pressed him back onto the pillow and then moved to the foot of the bed and pulled off his boots.
Wesley had had to cut Wen’s shirt off him last night, which left him clad only in his form-hugging leather pants. With Wen lying on the bed watching him, Wesley unfastened the laces and tugged the sodden leather down over Wen’s hips and long legs.
Under any other circumstances, he would have taken his time, admiring the view, because, truly, Rowen Daneson was beautiful—tall, blond, lean, yet with sculpted, training-hardened muscle in all the right places. Add to that a fiercely loyal personality and an abundance of inner strength, and he was, by all rights, a being who would make anyone look twice. For weeks Wesley had barely been able to be around him without turning into a hopeless idiot at the sight of him.
But this morning, instead of savoring the view that lay before him, he had to fight to keep from staring too long and hard at the puckered, red, newly healing scar on Wen’s abdomen. Or think about its mate on his back where the sword blade last night had been driven into him from behind and come out the front. Or contemplate all the damage the steel had done to Wen’s insides before Wesley’s ondaen magick had healed him.
Wesley fought a sudden wave of nausea and wasn’t sure if it was caused by the visual proof of just how close he’d come to losing Wen last night, or if his own body was trying to remind him that, like Wen, he hadn’t had proper sleep for a full day and night.
He suddenly realized Wen was shivering, so he hurried to pull the blankets up over him.
When he did, Wen snagged his hand again. The lightness between them gone completely now, his tone radiated urgency. “Talk to me, Wesley. I’m not the only one who’s been hiding things. You know because of our link I can feel your emotions, and they’re all over the place right now. They have been ever since we left the hot springs.”
Slowly, Wesley sank to his knees beside the mattress. He should have known Wen would pick up on his inner turmoil. With a sigh, he brushed another wayward strand of Wen’s hair back off his face. Wen was so pale the golden freckles across his nose and cheeks appeared darker than they really were.
“I’m all right,” Wesley said, trying to force calmness into his voice.
“No, you’re really not. Come on, love. Tell me what’s going on. I’m worried about you.” Lines furrowed his forehead as he reached up to caress Wesley’s stubbled jaw with his thumb.
Wen was worried about him? He didn’t want Wen concerned about him when he should be thinking of his own wellbeing. But he knew he couldn’t keep pretending, not when Wen already sensed his upset.
Wesley released a shaky breath. “It’s just… I have this horrible feeling in my gut, Wen, that what happened with you last night was only the beginning of…something.”
“What kind of something?” Wen asked gently.
“I don’t know exactly. It’s just a nagging sensation that there’s some darker horror on the horizon, watching and waiting to strike. And that’s fairly terrifying, since how could there be anything darker than what we’ve already been through? You almost died last night, Rowen. And I… I can’t even…” He choked on the words, unable to continue. Gods, he wanted to be okay, really he did, but the damned knot in his gut just wouldn’t let him be.
“Hey,” Wen said, cupping his cheek. “Remember what I said earlier? Don’t dwell on the dark what ifs. No good comes from that. And there’s no reason to anyway because, thanks to you, I’m still here and I’m going to be fine.”
Wesley felt their connection like a fine shimmering thread stretched between them, rippling with the emotions they were both experiencing.
“If you get some decent rest and warm up. But what if… I don’t know, I’m just…uneasy.”
“Listen, I’m not the only one who was affected by what happened,” Wen said. “Fear is a powerful thing. It causes our physical bodies, our minds, our emotions to work overtime. It makes us hyper aware, forces our protective instincts to take over, which is all good when facing a threat. But it doesn’t just disappear instantly when the threat is resolved. It takes time to recover from it. So, it’s no wonder you’re anxious, Wes. It was a traumatic night for you, almost more than it was for me because I was unconscious for most of it, while you never let down your guard. You’re exhausted, whether you want to believe it or not.”
“I don’t feel exhausted.”
“Neither do I, but as someone keeps trying to tell me, apparently I need some ‘real’ sleep.” He said it with a smile that caused a new tug of emotion in Wesley’s heart. “So what I’m saying is, once you get some rest, too, and give those fierce protective instincts of yours a chance to recover, your anxiety might improve.”
“Fierce protective instincts?” Wesley said, feeling heat creep up his cheeks. He shook his head. “That’s you, not me.”
“Says the man who saved my life last night. Who got me up that steep ridge and through the barrier to the hot springs by sheer dint of will. Who cut himself open without a thought, to share his blood and magick with me. Who held me up in the water all night.” Wen’s eyes had grown damp with emotion as he spoke. “You refused to let me die, m’caire. You believed even when I had already given up hope. So, yes, fiercely protective is exactly how I would describe you.”
A hot lump suddenly clogged the back of Wesley’s throat. “I couldn’t bear to lose you. I don’t want to be in a world that you’re not part of…because you are my world now.” The admission sounded weak and pathetically mushy to Wesley, but it was the truth and even if he didn’t say it, he figured Wen would sense it anyway.
“The feeling’s mutual,” Wen said softly. His hand slid up into Wesley’s hair to cup the back of his head, and then he pulled Wesley down into a kiss that was both tender and achingly alive with banked desire. Desire they both knew couldn’t be consummated right now, and that was okay. It was enough to know it was there, would always be there between them.
When they parted, Wen sighed and surprised Wesley by saying, without further argument, “Promise you’ll come back here after you’re done reporting in?”
“Of course I will.”
Wen nodded and reluctantly released him.
“I’m going to get a fire started before I leave, though,” Wesley said. It was far too cold in the tent…even he had begun to shiver now. He rose and went to arrange wood in the stone-lined pit.
Another wave of nausea hit him as he knelt, but he didn’t want Wen to know—didn’t want to give him another reason to worry—so he kept his back to him and tried to hide it by working on the fire and dragging in slow, controlled breaths.
As the ill sensation passed, he wondered what was causing it, but quickly answered his own question. Wen was right. He was tired. Actually, when he allowed himself to let down his guard, he realized he was beyond tired. He was physically and emotionally gutted from last night. But he didn’t have time to sleep just yet.
One more job to do, and then you can.
When he had a good-sized blaze going, he doubled up one of Wen’s shirts he found draped over a wooden trunk, then used it to pick up and wrap around a fire-heated stone. He took it to the bed and tucked it in under the covers near Wen’s feet. “This will help warm you faster.”
“Thank you. It feels ridiculously decadent to have you tucking me in like this.”
Wesley smiled. “I kind of like tucking you in.”
“I’d like it even better if you were tucking yourself in with me.”
“I will soon. I promise.”
Wen held out his hand and Wesley took it, and for a moment they simply savored the closeness.
“Try to talk to Iann first, if you can find him,” Wen said.
“What are you going to tell him?”
“The truth,” Wesley said. “As much of it as possible. Certainly about the fight last night and Byram’s soldiers.”
“And how are you going to explain why I’m not there with you? Iann will think it’s odd that I’m not making the report.”
“I’ll tell him the truth about that, too. That you were injured.”
Wen winced. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. It’ll just make Iann or my mum or even Lord Rizik, if he’s around, ask questions. They’ll send Lilia to see me, and she’s going to take one look and know I was healed with magick. And that will bring up even more questions neither of us wants to answer right now.”
Stricken, Wesley sank to his knees beside the bed again. “That’s why you were so insistent about wanting to go with me to report, isn’t it? So you could protect me and no one would have to find out what I can do…what I am.”
Gods, it was starting already, with Wen now part of his secret and having to lie and cover up because of it.
“Stop feeling guilty. You’re not ready for everyone to know about you, and, honestly, I’m not ready for anyone to know what happened last night either. What you did for me, it was private, Wes. Intimate. It’s something that I don’t want to share with anyone else. At least not right now.” His forehead creased.
Just as Wen could feel Wesley’s guilt, Wesley felt Wen’s tangle of emotions and somehow understood them perfectly. What had happened had been intimate, drawing them even closer together in a way he wasn’t sure others could possibly understand. Except maybe the draegan lords themselves, with their own very private and intimate bond.
He and Wen stared at each other for a moment and a wealth of meaning passed between them without having to say a word. Their emotional connection was like having direct access to Wen’s heart, if not his thoughts. According to Wen, because Wesley was an empath, when his magick and Wen’s draegan magick merged, it gave them an emotional link unlike anything Wesley had ever experienced before.
“I’ll think of something to tell Iann that won’t lead to too many questions,” he said. “It’ll be fine.” He leaned closer and pressed a lingering kiss to Wen’s temple. “While I’m gone, promise me you’ll get some sleep.”
“Is that the best kiss I get?” He gave Wesley a tired but seductive grin.
“Seriously? After all you’ve been through, you’re giving me that ‘I want to fuck you’ look now?”
“I’ll always give you that look because I always feel that way.” He reached for Wes.
“Oh no.” Wesley rose to his feet, but then couldn’t resist smiling and leaning down for a quick, chaste kiss before Wen could grab hold of him and not let go. “Rest first. Then we’ll see about the other.”
“Fine, leave me here unfulfilled.” Wen’s eyelids were drooping. In spite of his attempts to pretend otherwise, exhaustion had caught up to him.
“When you wake up, I’ll be here, and I promise, you can do anything you’d like with me then.”
Damn him…all sleepy and rumpled and looking far too sexy for a man who’d been through hel last night. Wesley leaned down and kissed him properly this time.
“That’s better,” Wen sighed, when they finally parted. “Hurry back.”
“I will,” Wesley promised.
“And, bloody hel, don’t put your wet cloak back on,” Wen said, as Wesley reached for it. “Take my spare. It’s dry at least, and then get back here fast so you can take off the rest of your wet clothes.”
Wesley shot him a look and found another sleepy smile curving his lover’s lips.
“You don’t stop, do you?” he asked with a shake of his head as he grabbed Wen’s spare green cloak off a peg driven into one of the wooden tent supports. He wrapped the heavy wool around his shoulders and fastened the clasp. The cloak smelled like Wen, which sent a warm pulse of desire, but also of comfort, through him.
“Never. Not where you’re concerned.”
“Yeah, well hold that thought until later and we’ll see if you have as much stamina as you claim.”
“Count on it. I’ll have you begging me…”
“Cocky ass. It’s a good thing I love you.”
“Yeah,” Wen said softly, his green eyes sparkling. “It is.”
Wesley ducked out of the tent, smiling.
But as he set off through the woods, down deep within his gut, no matter how he tried to ignore it, the dark foreboding continued to claw.