Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Wen continued to hold Wesley long after Wes had dropped off to sleep. But rest didn’t return so easily for him. He was worried, and not just because Wesley was still shivering.
Something—and for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what—was preventing him from fully picking up Wesley’s emotions. After having such a clear and solid link between them the past couple of days, to now have that distorted…it unsettled the hel out of him. The best way he could describe it was that it felt as if a barely perceptible shadow hung around Wesley. He couldn’t tell if Wes was aware of it or not, but Wen had noticed it right away when Wesley had gotten into bed. And now, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Whatever it was, it hadn’t been there earlier. Or at least it hadn’t been strong enough earlier for Wen to sense it. Granted, Wesley’s emotions had been chaotic all morning, but this was something else in addition to that.
What in hel had happened while Wesley was reporting in? He hadn’t mentioned anything out of the ordinary.
Maybe the trauma of battle had finally caught up to him.
It happened to even the best-trained warriors sometimes. Taking lives was harder than most people expected. Even if they felt the fight was justified, horror and remorse had a way of sneaking in afterward. Last night had been the first time Wesley had ever stood toe-to-toe with real foes and been forced to kill to save his own life. He’d done an incredible job, kept a level head, fought better than soldiers who had far more experience than he did. In fact, Wen couldn’t have been more proud of him. But that didn’t mean Wesley couldn’t be suffering from a delayed emotional backlash. Wen had worried about that very thing last night, and perhaps he’d been right to worry. The strange murky shadow he sensed could very well be guilt and grief.
And yet, that didn’t account for Wesley’s physical symptoms—like the iciness of his skin even now, or his ashen tone. And the way he’d curled into Wen when he’d gotten into bed, moving so gingerly, as if he’d been in pain…
Being in the water all night and then out in the cold and snow this morning could have affected him. Maybe he was simply coming down with one of the many respiratory ailments that often arrived with the winter season—those could certainly cause comparable symptoms.
But that theory didn’t explain the fog around Wesley’s emotions.
“What’s going on, love?” he murmured, stroking Wesley’s hair.
The only response he got was another round of shivering that wracked Wesley’s body.
The tent had grown chilly, so Wen eased away from Wesley and slipped out of bed to stoke the fire and add some more wood to it. It looked as if Wes had put a few pieces on before he came to bed, but Wen didn’t want it to go out.
The wounds on his torso twinged a bit as he moved, but he felt better now than he had even a couple of hours ago. At the rate he was healing, he suspected he’d soon be back to normal. And he owed it all—owed his life—to the man lying in his bed. If not for Wesley’s actions last night, Wen knew he’d be yet another casualty in the high sorcerer’s century-long war against the draegans.
He turned to gaze at Wes again. With his dark hair spread across the pillow, and the scruff of whiskers from the beard he’d recently begun to grow, he was as heart-stoppingly sexy as ever. But right now, he also looked young and vulnerable, which caused an ache in Wen’s gut. Especially when another brutal round of shivering hit Wesley.
His worry growing, Wen opened the wooden trunk near the bed, pulled out a thick fur, and laid it atop the blankets over Wes. Then he slid back under the covers and drew Wesley against him once more to share his own body heat. He lay for a long time, holding him close, but Wesley continued to tremble long after he should have been warm.
Wen decided that if Wesley didn’t settle within the next few minutes, he’d go get-Lilia.
* * *
Wen came awake suddenly when Wesley jerked and then rolled away, pulling out of his arms.
Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes.
The tent was nearly dark, and the fact the fire had completely died made him realize several hours must have passed. It had to be late afternoon or evening at this point.
Damn it! He hadn’t meant to fall asleep.
Next to him, he heard a soft moan.
Wesley still appeared to be asleep. But it wasn’t a peaceful sleep. He twitched and continued to moan, like he was having a bad dream.
“It’s okay, m’caire.” Wen squeezed his shoulder under the blanket. But the moment he touched Wes, a fresh jolt of concern shot through him.
Wesley’s skin was even colder now than it had been hours ago when they’d gone to sleep. How was that possible, buried under all the blankets and the fur? Wen was warm and comfortable himself, but Wesley felt as if he’d been standing out in the snow.
He smoothed a hand down Wesley’s icy cheek. “Wes? It’s okay, love.”
Wesley didn’t open his eyes. But another moan escaped him, this one a raspy, ragged sound that prickled the hairs on the back of Wen’s neck because it sounded so desolate and disturbing.
Wen gently shook him, but got no response to that either. “Hey. Wesley?” He shook him a little harder.
With growing concern that he couldn’t rouse him, Wen sought out the emotional thread that connected them…and what he found hit him like a physical blow.
The strange shadowiness he’d sensed around Wesley earlier had now bloomed into a full, dark shroud that encompassed him, pulsing and thrumming around him like a live thing.
What in fucking hel?
As Wen let his senses flow farther along the faint thread, trying to determine what was causing the dark shroud, the sensation of icy fog seeped around, over, and into him. His thoughts grew fuzzy.
Suddenly panicked, he tried to pull back before the darkness swallowed him—because that’s what it felt like, like it wanted to swallow him whole—but it was too late. Anxiety, mixed with anger and terror, spread through him, and every second it grew worse until he…ungh…until he…couldn’t…breathe. As he fought for air, he also realized he couldn’t move.
What was happening?
A part of him, some tiny, remaining rational voice within him said, It’s not you it wants.
His thought were so murky now, he struggled to understand. It wasn’t him? What did that mean?
Even though the darkness seemed to be swallowing Wen, he wasn’t its actual prey. Wesley was. Its hold over Wes was so strong now, that when Wen had tried to connect with him through their link, the overflow from it had bled over onto him.
Focusing what little energy he had left, he pulled and pulled until, finally, with a tug that hurt like hel and felt as if it might tear his organs out of his body, he managed to free himself.
Once the connection broke, it took him several moments to catch his breath and slow his heart rate. He was shaking, his body half-frozen, and his head still felt fuzzy, making it hard to string together fully coherent thoughts. Except one…
If the foul plague had made him feel like this so quickly, what was it doing to Wes?
Instinctively, he reached once again for their emotional connection to try to soothe Wes, and that’s when he realized that when he’d torn himself away from the darkness, he’d disconnected from their emotional link, too.
Damn it, he hadn’t meant to do that! And now…now he couldn’t find it again. Their emotional connection had been all but devoured by the shadowy horror.
With a sense of dread, he tried again, but…nothing.
There had to be a way to stop this. Think, damn it!
If he could get Wes awake, talk to him, maybe that would help to keep Wesley anchored here, before the frozen darkness took him completely.
He shook Wesley again, more urgently than before. “Wes, you have to wake up! Come on!”
Wesley’s eyes remained closed. He didn’t seem to be aware of anything Wen was doing or saying, and Wen feared he was too late, that the shadow-fog had already claimed Wes to the point he couldn’t get free.
Damn it! How could he have fallen asleep for so long and left Wesley to suffer like this?
The tent grew darker by the second as nighttime fully set in, preventing Wen from getting a good view of Wesley. So, he slid out of bed to restart the fire, both for light and heat.
Hurriedly, he knelt next to the cold rock pit and started a new blaze, stacking the logs tightly to keep the fire burning longer. When the glow from the flames was bright enough it danced on the tent walls, he rose and lit a couple of candles in the holder on the small, rough-hewn table next to the bed. While he worked, he kept an eye on Wes, and winced each time he heard another of those disturbing moans.
Wesley’s agitation seemed to be growing and, in his restless tossing and turning, he kicked off the fur.
Wen returned to the bed to place it back over him. But he stopped suddenly to study Wesley’s hand. It had pulled free of the blankets and was tightly balled into a fist, clenching and unclenching in his troubled sleep. It wasn’t the motion that caught Wen’s attention though. It was the skin on his hand. It looked… Wen reached for it to study it more closely, but when he touched it, Wesley jerked it away, as if the contact hurt.
Determined to get a closer look, Wen grasped it again anyway and held it firmly this time. “Let me see it, love.”
When he turned over Wesley’s hand and prised open his fingers…
Carefully, so he wouldn’t hurt Wesley, who seemed extremely sensitive to any touch, Wen reached for his other hand and opened it as well, so he could examine the other palm. It looked exactly like the first, sending new waves of shock through Wen.
His heart pounding, he peeled back the blankets, exposing Wesley to the waist.
“What’s happening?” he choked out.
On both hands, the scars where Wesley had cut his palms last night to draw blood to heal Wen had turned black as Cydonian tar and were festering with blisters. Worse still, disturbing blue-black streaks radiated out from the scars, spreading over Wesley’s hands and up his wrists, which is what had caught Wen’s attention in the first place. But it didn’t stop at his hands. The streaks had spread up his arms, nearly to his shoulders.
This was obviously not trauma from battle. Nor was it any natural illness. And considering the streaks seemed to start at the blistering wounds on Wesley’s palms, it had to be related to Wesley cutting himself to heal Wen.
Was it possible something in the water of the hot springs had infected Wesley and entered through the open cuts on his palms? Except…when Wen glanced down at his own wound on his torso, which had also been exposed to the hot springs water, it looked healthy and pink and nothing like Wesley’s palms.
Still…Wesley’s magick had healed Wen’s wound, so maybe it had made him impervious to anything bad in the water. Wen had bathed and swum in that hot springs pool dozens of times over the past several months, though, and surely he’d been in it with plenty of scrapes and cuts from training and skirmishes with the sorcerer’s soldiers. It had never affected him badly in any way. And that was long before Wesley’s magick had healed him.
But what else could it be? The water was the only logical explanation.
Except for the icy shroud clinging to Wesley. There was no way that came from the water.
Wesley continued to moan and thrash, lost in some world of his own. And when Wen pressed a hand against his chest and felt his heart beating, it was much too fast. Like he’d been running for hours. The worst part, though, was seeing the bluish-black streaks continue to spread, even as Wen watched, covering Wesley’s shoulders and now creeping up his neck and down over his chest. How was that even possible? For them to spread so fast?
His heart pounded as the only possible answer came to him.
Wesley had used magick to heal Wen last night, so this almost had to be magick as well. Or maybe some aftereffect of magick?
He tried to ease Wesley into his arms as he used some of the soothing draegan magick that came so naturally to him, hoping it might counteract the ill magick.
But instead of being comforting, his attention only seemed to make Wesley more agitated. The sounds that came from him grew increasingly raw, as if he were in pain.
Wen suspected going to Lilia for help would serve no purpose at this point. Lilia was a healer of humans and draegans, so it was unlikely she’d know anything about the ondaen. Few people did…the ondaen were rare, and almost more the stuff of legend than reality.
He could find Wesley’s mother, Sarah. If something like this had ever happened before, she might have information that could help.
But at the moment, Wen was more scared of leaving Wes alone in this condition for the length of time it would take to track her down. As quickly as the black streaks were spreading, what if he didn’t make it back in time? What would happen to Wesley when the streaks had fully covered him?
And then, unbidden, another terrifying thought crossed Wen’s mind.
Had someone intentionally used dark magick against Wesley? Cursed him or…even tried to kill him?
If that were the case, who? And why? As far as he knew, no one but Wesley’s mother and Wen knew Wesley was an ondaen. But even if they did, he could think of no one in camp capable of doing such a horrible thing.
Which brought him right back to the fact that Wes had used magick—powerful magick—last night when he healed Wen and practically returned him from the dead. There had to be a connection between what was happening to Wesley and the magick he’d done. But what?
“Wesley, please, wake up.”
He heard the desperation in his voice now, felt it in the beat of his heart and every breath he took, as he watched the man he loved suffer and writhe, while the affliction continued to spread across his body.
After all his previous futile attempts to wake Wesley, he hadn’t expected a reaction to his plea this time. So it startled him when Wes suddenly stiffened and his eyelids fluttered open.
Slowly, Wesley looked up at him.
Wen flinched, and again found himself teetering on the edge of shock and horror. Because not only did Wesley’s gaze hold no sign of recognition for Wen, his eyes, those warm brown eyes Wen had grown to love, were no longer Wesley’s eyes. Somehow…they’d turned a dark, glowing amber.
“Wes?” he said cautiously.
Wesley sat up and pulled away from him. And he moaned again. But…damn, this one sounded almost like a growl. When Wen tried to reach for him, there was no doubt this time, as Wesley jerked away from him, that the noise emanating from him was a growl.
“I just want to help.” He rested a hand on Wesley’s arm. “Talk to me, love.”
His touch and words at last seemed to cause a flicker of something in those strange eyes. Hoping it might be recognition, Wen continued to speak. “Wes, it’s all right. It’s me. I don’t know what’s happening, but we’ll figure it out.”
Wesley shuddered, then growled again. He sounded far too much like a wounded, angry animal for comfort.
“Back,” Wesley suddenly said in a hoarse voice.
Wen was so surprised to hear him speak, especially in a voice that sounded very un-Wesley-like, he could only stare and get out a choked, “What?”
Wesley threw off the covers and his chest vibrated with another growl. With no warning whatsoever, he shoved Wen off the bed.
“What the hel?” Wesley was strong…but not that strong. Not naturally. Not enough to send Wen flying off the bed and cause him to land sprawled on his backside halfway across the tent.
As he scrambled to right himself, tangled in the fur from the bed that had flown off with him, he looked up to find Wesley sitting in the middle of the mattress.
No. Sitting wasn’t the correct word. It wasn’t anything that passive. Wesley crouched, as if he were ready to spring. His entire body shook with tremors, and the animal growls had once again become moans—sickly, troubled moans.
Wen pulled himself to his feet and started to approach Wesley again, but Wesley held up a hand to stop him.
“Stay…back…” he croaked, glaring at Wen out of those unnatural eyes. He sounded as if it were difficult for him to scrape together the words.
“What’s happening, Wes? Is this because of you healing me?” Wen tried again to approach.
But Wesley scrambled backward, away from him, looking panicked. “St-stay back!”
“Okay.” Wen held up his hands in surrender. “Okay…I’m staying right here. But, please, talk to me.”
“Can’t what, love?”
“You…” He shook his head, and again Wen had the sense he was struggling to put together words. “You can’t…” His voice sounded gravelly, almost foreign. “You can’t…come…near me.”
“Why? Tell me what’s wrong.”
Another moan, and this one tore at Wen’s heart it was so soulful and troubled. It seemed to beg him for help and beg him to stay away, all at the same time.
“Wesley, whatever this is, let me help you.”
“No! I don’t…”
“You don’t what?”
“Don’t… hurt you.”
“What?” His own heart racing, Wen took a step closer. “Hurt me? You’re not going to hurt me. Why would you think that?”
“Stop!” Wesley was growling again, low, under his breath.
“Tell me how to help.” Wen risked another step closer.
“Stay back!” Another growl, and this time Wesley’s strange eyes flashed with a volatile mix of anger and fear. “Back!”
“No.” Wen pressed forward. “I’m not staying back. I love you, and whatever this is, we’ll figure it out and fix it together.”
It happened so fast, Wen barely had time to register Wesley’s growling lunge at him, much less defend himself.
He fell backward from the powerful blow. His head cracked against something hard.
And the last thing he saw before he blacked out was a fuzzy version of Wes tearing through the tent flap and disappearing into the cold, dark night.