Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
When Wen awoke, he had no idea why he was on the floor of the tent. And, damn, why did his head hurt so much? He gingerly rubbed the aching knot on the back of his skull.
Then it all returned to him.
Wesley, with the strange eyes, and the growling, and the black affliction spreading over his body. Wesley caught in the grip of some dark magick hel.
From the state of the fire pit, which contained nothing but a few warm coals now, and the fact one candle had burned out completely while the other flame still flickered on a tiny stub, Wen figured Wesley had been gone at least two or three hours. Probably more. Damn it.
With a muttered curse, he sat up.
Gods, he was cold. And stiff, which became painfully obvious as he dragged himself up off the dirt floor. He threw open his trunk and pulled out a pair of pants and a shirt, which he hastily donned, followed by a leather doublet for warmth and protection. Then he sat on the edge of the mattress to tug on his still-damp boots. As he stood, he spied Wesley’s boots on the ground nearby, along with his clothes.
Wes had torn out of the tent wearing nothing. With no protection from the elements.
Driven with urgency, Wen filled a pack with supplies. Dry clothing for Wesley when he found him—and gods, please, I have to find him, and he has to be all right—along with food, a skin of water, and some other essentials. He strapped on his belt and weapons, pulled on his cloak, then lifted his pack over his shoulders. After blowing out the remaining candle, he left the tent.
Inky blackness veiled the forest, and clouds obscured any light from Velensperia’s two moons. The only sound his keen senses picked up was the sighing of the wind in the frozen trees. He knew the camp would be under guard, as always, the silent draeganjhere sentries ever vigilant at their posts. But the vast majority of the camp’s occupants had probably already tucked themselves into their beds.
Still, in spite of the silence, Wen guessed it wasn’t yet midnight, which meant he had several hours of darkness to contend with in his search for Wes. That would make it more difficult, but not impossible. Draegans had type of night vision, even in human form, which meant he didn’t need a torch or the light of the moon to see. He would have to pay close attention, however, or risk missing signs of Wesley’s passage.
He’d hoped to find Wesley’s footprints in the snow. But during the time he’d been passed out on the floor of the tent, another flurry had obviously occurred since the ground revealed nothing but icy white smoothness, except where it was broken by the occasional downed tree branch or clumps of winter-dead bushes.
Wen paused to look around and get his bearings. He was still a little lightheaded from his skull’s collision with one of the rocks surrounding the fire pit. But at least his wounds from the night before seemed to be fully healed now. He experienced no pain or discomfort from them, which was something positive.
He drew in a breath, letting the cold, damp air center him and finish clearing the cobwebs from his head. As his mind settled and he allowed himself to tune into his senses, he realized that, along with his overpowering worry for Wesley, a tight knot of anger festered deep within him.
Anger at himself.
Gods damn it, he should have done a better job of watching over Wesley. He never should have fallen asleep hours ago. He shouldn’t have pressed Wesley so hard to talk to him when it was clear Wes was already on edge. And most of all, he should have been able to stop Wes before he bolted out of the tent.
Wen reached out with his emotions to see if he could feel Wesley anywhere nearby, but sensed nothing. Then he remembered that he’d cut their emotional connection earlier. Out of fear and self-preservation, he’d pulled away. Now, he’d give anything if he hadn’t done that.
And that’s what upset him most of all. He hadn’t realized just how important that emotional link with Wesley had become to him in such a short time. Even though he’d fought against his feelings for Wes for as long as he could, because the thought of allowing himself to get close to someone had scared the hel out of him, he’d come to realize that the idea of not having Wesley in his life was even more terrifying. Right now, he felt so cut off from Wes, the loneliness was almost unbearable.
So where in hel had Wesley gone?
Think. Think, damn it!
Maybe to his mother’s tent?
No. In his gut Wen knew that wasn’t the case.
Wesley had been…well, not Wes before he’d taken off into the night. Whatever magick—and Wen was convinced more than ever now that some form of dark magick lay at fault for Wes’s affliction—had befallen him, it had altered Wesley’s appearance and demeanor to something almost unrecognizable. Wesley had been unnaturally strong. And a primitive anger had radiated from him, along with something else…
Wen couldn’t quite place it. He hadn’t been able to pick up on Wesley’s actual emotions at that point, but this hadn’t been an emotion so much as… What was it he’d sensed?
And then he recognized it. He’d seen it in animals. It had been an almost overpowering urge to hunt.
The way Wesley had stared at Wen, the way he’d crouched on the bed…it was as if he’d thought Wen was his prey.
A shiver ran through Wen in spite of his warm clothing. What had happened to turn his gentle-hearted Wesley into such a creature? It made his blood run cold to think of it.
And yet, underneath that alien ferocity, something of the real Wesley had still been intact because Wen had seen Wesley’s confusion. Wesley had been trying to fight whatever was taking him over. He’d warned Wen to stay back because he didn’t want to hurt him. It hadn’t been until Wen pressed closer in spite of the warnings that Wesley had lashed out, sending Wen flying across the tent. And then Wesley had run.
In that moment, remembering how it had happened, Wen was certain Wesley had run to keep from doing more harm.
So, no, all Wen’s tracking instincts said that Wesley not only wouldn’t have gone to his mother’s tent, he would have stayed away from the inhabited areas of the camp. If he was trying to avoid hurting Wen, he would want to avoid hurting anyone.
The dark infection had still been spreading when he bolted, though. If it had continued, by now there might not be anything of the real Wesley left. And if that were the case, then who knew what he’d be capable of…
Don’t think that way, he told himself.
But in spite of his best intentions, suddenly all the old, terrible legends about the ondaen came back to haunt him and he began to wonder if maybe there was a glimmer of truth to some of them. Maybe the people of old had been justified in fearing the ondaen if anything he’d seen earlier had been an example. The way Wes had looked, had acted…
Damn it, stop, right now! Whatever else is going on, he’s still Wesley. And he’s trying to fight it. You have to find him and help him before…
Oh gods. Before anyone else saw Wes this way and hunted him down out of fear.
Or before Wesley could hunt them.
The knot in the pit of Wen’s stomach tightened harder.
With a deep breath, and determination steeling him, he turned away from the inhabited areas, toward the open forest and the protective boundary that surrounded the camp.
Wesley couldn’t have gotten through the boundary by himself—only a draegan could open a door in the magick shield—which meant Wes had to be somewhere close.
Please, by the grace of the gods, let him be somewhere nearby…
* * *
Except he wasn’t.
Not nearby, not in the camp, not even within the protective magick boundary at all.
After hours of trekking through the snow and cold, of finding Wesley’s trail, losing it, then picking it up again far outside the boundary, it was well after the grey damp of dawn before Wen finally knew he was getting close. And by then, he wasn’t sure who, or what, he would find. If Wesley somehow getting through the magick barrier around the camp wasn’t troubling enough, Wen had seen things during his search that had left him shaken.
He tightly clutched the silver medallion he’d found snagged on some bushes earlier—the medallion he’d given Wesley a few days before. He knew in his heart Wesley would never have taken it off by choice. Which only made Wen more worried about what state Wesley would be in once he reached him. Would Wes be completely taken over by the darkness and the man Wen loved no longer exist? Or what if the dark magick had consumed him so completely it had killed him?
But even after trying to prepare himself for the worst, it didn’t make him any less terrified when, from a distance, he finally spied a human-shaped form curled next to a half-frozen stream. From where he stood, Wen was still too far away to be sure if it was Wesley. He couldn’t sense Wesley’s emotions because of cutting that tie earlier, but something in him tingled with recognition.
Whether Wesley was alive or not, however, he couldn’t tell.
His heart hammering with anxiety, Wen ran.
The first thing he noticed, as he drew closer, was how startlingly pale Wesley appeared. Even more so than he had been last night. At first glance, his skin no longer showed the troubling black streaks of earlier; instead, it was nearly the shade of the white, translucent petals of a moon flower, not much different from the snow-covered ground upon which he lay. His brown hair, tangled and wet, seemed the only blotch of color on the icy landscape.
Wen dropped to his knees next to him. A part of him, the soldier always wary of a trap or imminent danger, insisted he should be cautious, especially given Wesley’s aggressive state last night. But he ignored the warning. His only concern at the moment, with fear clogging his throat, was whether Wesley was alive.
Please don’t be dead. After everything we’ve been through…please, Wes.
He lay on his side, so still. And alarmingly cold.
“Wesley?” Wen shook him, but got no response. Quickly, he rolled him over onto his back, then searched for signs of breathing and a heartbeat. With his own fingers icy from the cold temperature, he struggled to find evidence of a pulse at Wesley’s neck.
Then he saw the slow, faint movement of Wesley’s chest.
Relief rushed through Wen with such intensity, his hands shook as he brushed several strands of hair off Wesley’s face. “Thank the gods.”
He pulled off his pack so he could take his cloak off and wrap it around Wesley, tucking it under him to protect him from the snowy ground. Wesley didn’t look like he’d suffered frostbite anywhere, but his skin felt frigid nonetheless.
As he worked, Wen saw something that halted his movements.
There were faint smears of blood on Wesley’s arms and torso, along with a few more on his neck.
A search assured him the blood wasn’t coming from any wound on Wesley’s body. Even his palms, where the black festering had begun, seemed infected no longer. The scars were red and irritated, but certainly not bleeding themselves.
To find no obvious wounds on Wesley gave Wen a measure of comfort. But a sudden vision filled his mind of the unsettling sights he’d seen on his search.
No, damn it. He’s alive. Concentrate on that. And at least the dark magick seemed to be gone. For now anyway.
Taking a deep breath, he looked around to get a lay of the land.
Wesley had somehow traveled a good two hours or more from the perimeter of the camp, and the territory wasn’t immediately familiar to Wen. They were in a forested area with tall pines, but also lots of low bushes, snow-tipped and brown now from the winter. His gaze followed the meandering line of the stream, and he spied an outcropping of boulders not too far away through the trees. The rocks looked large enough to offer some shelter.
He didn’t want to hurt Wesley if he were injured in any way Wen couldn’t see, but right now, getting him warm was the main priority. So, after shouldering his pack once again, he lifted Wesley and headed toward the rocks. Wesley moaned, but remained unconscious. “Hang on, love. I’ve got you. Just a little farther.”
Wen struggled through the ankle-deep snow, carrying his precious burden. When he reached the boulders, he found they offered more protection than he’d even hoped, since one of them hollowed inward, creating a natural rock shelter of a sort. He balanced Wes against him with one arm, while he shrugged off his pack and dug a blanket out of it. Awkwardly, with one hand, he spread it on the ground, then maneuvered Wesley down onto it.
As he did, his cloak around Wesley gaped open, reminding him of the blood.
He knelt next to Wes and used the corner of the blanket and water from his water skin to wipe away the smears, wondering if maybe the reason he’d found Wesley by a stream was because he’d been trying to clean himself up.
But that thought led to another, and another, each growing more disturbing. What worried him the most, though… What if when he awoke, Wesley wasn’t fully Wesley any longer?
When he’d gotten Wes as clean as he could with limited supplies, he wrapped his cloak and the blanket around him once more.
Wesley whimpered and burrowed down within the folds, suddenly looking young and vulnerable again, as he had yesterday. The sight turned Wen’s heart to mush, and pushed away his fearful thoughts.
He wanted to hold Wes, to assure him, and himself, he was all right. But it was going to take more than that to help him right now. Wen had seen people who’d died from the cold, and it wasn’t something he ever wanted to experience again. The lean years for the draegans, when Wen had been growing up, had been difficult. Wandering the wilderness, as many draegans had been forced to do, had been hard on the old, the young, and those who weren’t strong enough to cope with the harsh reality of their existence. He and his father, when they were out hunting once when Wen was just a kid, had come across a small camp of draegans. Hunger and cold had taken them all, and the memory of their frozen, blue-white forms, so life-like yet so otherworldy all at the same time, had never left him and still sent a shiver along his spine.
He wasn’t going to let that happen to Wesley. He’d been helpless last night to keep the black affliction from taking over Wes. But in the light of the new day, the one thing he could do was not let him freeze to death.
As much as he worried about doing it, Wen knew he needed to start a fire because body heat wouldn’t be enough to warm Wesley in this cold. But a fire was risky. He had no idea if any of the high sorcerer’s soldiers might be lurking nearby—it was a very real possibility he had to consider. Even with a protective shield around Wes and himself so they couldn’t be seen here on the ground, he wouldn’t be able to create one that was high enough to keep someone from seeing smoke from a fire escaping upward, especially since he’d have to use wet wood this morning. The barrier around the draegan encampment had the combined magick of many draegans working together, which made it large enough and high enough to mask the fires in the camp. Plus, he suspected Lord Hareldson’s magick made it so that by the time the smoke climbed above the barrier, it simply looked like innocuous wisps of clouds.
But by himself, it would be nearly impossible for Wen to fully hide the smoke.
Without a fire, though…
Almost as if the gods were looking out for them and trying to help, Wen noticed a fog slowly moving in, and could hardly believe it possible.
Except he knew it was nothing more than sheer luck. The weather was wretched, and fog wasn’t unusual this time of year. Normally, he hated its damp chill that ate through his clothes and tent walls. And after his experience last night, when he’d tried to stay connected with Wesley but the darkness, with its own icy, horrible fog, had tried to swallow him, he knew he’d never be fully comfortable with even regular fog again. He shuddered at the memory. But right now, the fog would serve a practical purpose and hide the smoke of a fire. And a protective shield would keep anyone from seeing them or the fire itself.
So without further delay, he exited the rock shelter in search of kindling and wood. It wasn’t hard to find, though everything was soaked through. Again, he couldn’t believe the good fortune of the fog, as miserable as it was, and sent up a quick prayer of thanks to the gods for their timely intervention.
After several minutes of work, he managed to get a protective barrier up and a fire started. Once the fire was burning well and he was certain it would stay aflame and not die out, he crawled into the nest under the blanket and his cloak and pulled Wes against him to share his body heat.
Once again Wesley moaned softly—no growling anymore, just the heart-wrenching sound of a man lost in his own pain and dreams.
“Rowen,” he thought he heard Wesley whisper.
“I’m here,” he said against Wesley’s damp hair. He pressed a kiss to his temple. “I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere.”
Wesley had to be okay. Had to.
But in the back of his mind, Wen once again thought of the blood…and of the other things he’d seen.
Please, Wes. Please be okay. And when you wake up, be my Wesley again.