Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
As if reading his thoughts, but almost certainly sensing his new wave of fears, Wen kissed him with so much tenderness it made Wesley’s chest tight.
“Whatever you’re thinking right now, love…” Wen whispered against his lips, “I’m not going anywhere. You and I? We’re going to be all right.”
“You promise?” Wesley whispered back, knowing it was a foolish thing to say and that of course Wen couldn’t make a promise like that. But he wanted the reassurance anyway.
Wen didn’t disappoint him.
“I promise.” Then he smiled. “Come on.”
He eased away from Wesley and struck out swimming toward the low, flat rock that rose up out of the pool.
Wesley watched him, wanting to follow because he didn’t want to be out of touching range of Wen. But a sudden, unsettling flashback of Wen lying on that very rock, bleeding out and dying only two short mornings ago held him back.
When Wen reached the rock, he turned toward Wesley and held out his hand. As he did, once again Wesley felt a flood of comfort flow through their link. Wen’s soothing magick again, he was certain.
Swallowing down his unease, and, admittedly, feeling a little better from the magick, he swam over to join him.
When he reached him, Wen reeled him in toward him, until their bodies were once again in contact, and Wen’s felt strong and solid and reassuring.
“You’re remembering what happened here the night before last, aren’t you?”
“I almost lost you. Right here at this rock.”
“And then you saved me here. I’m completely alive and healthy, Wes, thanks to you.
Wesley swallowed hard, but nodded.
“Hey,” Wen said gently, cradling his cheek. “I’m going to say it again…I’m not going anywhere. I love you, Wesley Brannock. You’re my mate, now and forever.”
Wesley’s breath caught. “Mate?” he whispered.
“Of course. How could we be anything else after everything that’s happened between us?” But then Wen’s brows drew together and a twinge of concern rippled off him. “Is that… Are you okay with that?”
It felt more right than anything else in Wesley’s world ever had. “Yes,” he breathed. “Gods yes. I want that.”
Wen’s gaze grew soft and he caressed Wesley’s cheek. “When we first met, you scared the hel out of me because what I felt when I was around you was so powerful. And then we had that startling moment on the training field. But the first time we were together intimately, there was no mistaking it. Our joining that night created a bond between us. Your magick and my magick twined together and connected us in a way that’s extraordinary. You’ve felt it, too, from the beginning, haven’t you?”
“I have.” Wesley’s heart raced as he remembered the first night they’d spent together, when their emotional link had formed, when he’d first fully experienced Wen’s emotions as if they were his own. Even as an empath, he’d never had that happen before. He could sense other people’s emotions, could read them, but with Wen he actually felt them.
“And what just happened between us this morning…” Wen continued. “It made the connection even stronger.”
Wesley could still feel it, the magick shimmering around them, through them. “What…what exactly did just happen? Do you know?”
Wen shook his head. “I’m not totally sure, but I suspect it had something to do with your blood.”
“My blood?” The thought shook Wesley. “What do you mean?”
“This is the first time we’ve been intimate since you saved my life. And I suspect what we just shared might have been so powerful because when you gave me your blood to heal me, it deepened our bond. Your blood has potent magick, Wesley. So I’m thinking maybe that’s where all the extra magick came from this morning.”
“It really was.”
“Do you think it’ll fade? As more time passes?”
“I’m not sure of that either.” He smiled and shrugged. “This is all new territory. There’s no way to be certain.”
Wesley stared at him, lost in the mesmerizing green of his eyes. “I hope it doesn’t fade. I feel closer to you than ever now.”
“I feel it, too. I feel you. Beyond just emotion. It’s like now I can feel your breath, experience your heart beating.”
“Same for me.”
“And something else… I can still sense your seed in me,” Wen said. “It’s like heated magick tingling inside me. I haven’t felt that before.” His expression grew thoughtful. “I wonder…” Then he shook his head and huffed out a breath with a faint smile.
Wen shook his head again, but he fingered a lock of Wesley’s hair and smiled for real. “I used to wonder what it would be like to be true-mated with someone. I’d heard stories, growing up, about it, but I’d never met anyone who was, until recently.”
“Isn’t that what Captain Rizik and Lord Hareldson are? True mates? I don’t know exactly what it means, but I’ve heard you and others say that about them.”
Wen nodded. “True-mating is supposed to only occur between draegans, and it means they’re…” His forehead furrowed in thought. “It’s kind of hard to explain but it means they’re joined at the very root level of their existence. Like destiny. Like they’re meant to find one another and can never quite be complete without each other. And to solidify that true-mate bond they share blood, among other things. That’s why I wondered if maybe something similar happened with us because of you sharing your powerfully magick blood with me.”
“Is that possible? I mean, the true mate thing for us?”
“Again, I don’t know for sure, but I would guess probably not. Not that exactly anyway, since you’re a different race altogether. It is possible, though, that there are physical similarities or manifestations. Abilities that other couples just don’t have. Like…have you ever noticed how sometimes Lords Hareldson and Rizik seem to be having a conversation even if they’re not speaking aloud?”
Wesley had wondered a time or two if they could read one another’s minds. There was something about the way they looked at each other, as if they were having a private chat without saying a word. He nodded. “I have noticed. Can they? Have a conversation without speaking?”
“I’m pretty sure they can. Draegans, when we’re in our winged form, communicate that way. We can’t vocalize with words, but we can communicate by thought.”
“You can?” Wesley asked, surprised. Why did he not know that? Probably because he’d only ever seen one draegan in winged form—Lord Hareldson—and it had never occurred to him to think about how the draegans communicated. “Can you, I mean as in all draegans, do it in your human form, too?”
“No. At least no draegans I’ve ever known could. But Hareldson is a draegan lord, and his magick is more powerful than that of regular draegans. And even though Lord Rizik is only half draegan and he can’t shift, I think there’s something that happened between them when they true mated that gave Lord Rizik magick above and beyond what he would normally have had. In other words, I think they can somehow share magick between them. And that’s not unlike what seems to be happening with us.”
“So, what does it mean?”
“I’ve never known anyone before who’s as strong an empath as you, Wes. And I’ve also never heard of, or have known, any couple who can do what you and I do. The way we experience each other’s emotions. I suppose that’s something Lords Hareldson and Rizik might be able to do as well, but it’s definitely not anything regular draegans can do. The fact you and I can is a gift in and of itself. But, now, what happened a little bit ago seems to have caused our magick to merge on an even deeper level. And the only thing that’s changed since the last time we were intimate is…”
“My blood healing you.”
Exactly. That’s why it made me wonder if, in some way, it’s similar to what happens when two draegans true-mate.”
“Is that why you said I was your mate?”
“No. Not at all. I already felt that way. Wes…” He caressed Wesley’s cheek. “Magick or no magick, you hold my heart. Always.”
A hot lump formed in Wesley’s throat. “I love you so much sometimes it almost aches.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Wen said softly.
This time when he drew Wesley into a kiss, it was as if he were determined to let everything he felt, everything they both felt, pour into it, making Wesley tremble all over again at how close they truly were and reminding him in his soul that he would love this draegan forever.
When the kiss finally ended, Wen smiled again, but Wesley sensed something odd radiating from him. It was faint, but it almost felt like…shyness? No. Couldn’t be. Wesley couldn’t imagine Wen had been shy a day in his life.
“I want to show you something,” Wen said. “And try something.”
With another quick smile, Wen turned to the altar rock—which is what he called the rock in the middle of the pool, since legends indicated ancient people had used it for rituals and ceremonies. He braced his hands on top of it and pulled himself up and out of the water.
“You’re gonna freeze,” Wesley said, staring up at him, once again dazzled by his beauty, but also experiencing a twinge of the cold Wen must be feeling. Which was new, he realized. Feeling whether Wen was cold or not wasn’t an emotion, yet he experienced the jolt of the frigid air on his skin even though he was still warm and comfortable in the water.
Wen rose to his feet. “Nah, I’ll be fine.”
“What exactly are you going to do up there? Besides pose like some kind of soon-to-be-frozen demigod and get me all crazy again?”
Wen’s grin alone almost did make Wesley crazy again.
“Just watch.” Then his fair brows drew together and he grew serious. “I know how hard it was for you to let me see you shift earlier, and how worried you’ve been that I might not accept you in your ondaen body. I hope the hel I’ve put that fear to rest once and for all, yes?”
Wesley felt a blush creep up his cheeks and he nodded, sheepish. “Yeah. And then some.”
“Good. But in the interest of full sharing, I think it’s only fair I show you my other side as well.”
“What do you—?” And then he realized what Wen meant, and fear sliced through him, hot and sharp. “No, Rowen! You can’t! The sorcerer’s nets up in the sky…he’ll find you if you change!”
“It’s okay. Lord Rizik can see the nets, remember? He and Lord Hareldson have been mapping them, and I know for a fact there’s no net directly over this hot springs pool. There’s one in that direction, on the other side of the magick barrier”—he pointed over his shoulder—“and one just above those trees there”—he gestured toward the forest at the south edge of the pool. “But there’s nothing directly overhead. That’s why I came here to the altar rock.”
“I don’t care! You can’t risk it! They’re too close.” Wesley’s heart thudded painfully behind his breastbone, and he was ready to drag himself up out of the pool and throw himself on top of Wen to stop him if he had to. Wen had told him what happened if a draegan took winged form and flew into or near one of the nets. They were invisible magick traps set by the high sorcerer, and what happened to the draegans who’d gotten caught was too horrible for words.
But Wen shook his head. “It’s all right, I’m not going to fly. I’m just going to shift. I promise it’s perfectly safe. Besides, I wouldn’t take unnecessary risks. I have far too much to live for.”
He gave Wesley a slow, heated smile, and Wesley felt a steady wash of love and reassurance flowing off Wen and into him. His heart slowed back to its normal beat, just like…magick.
“Damn it. You’re a stubborn and manipulative ass. You’re using your magick on me again, to calm me down so you can get your way.”
Wen gave him a cheeky grin. “Caught me. But you still love me, don’t you?”
Wesley shook his head and sighed, then couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, I do. Just promise me you won’t fly.”
“I promise. Now watch.”
Wesley’s pulse sped up again, but this time he was certain it was from anticipation.
He’d seen Lord Hareldson shift before, and he’d asked Wen if that’s what he looked like when he changed. Wen had told him he did, more or less, though he wasn’t as big and was a different color. But now that he was faced with the reality of it, Wesley didn’t know what to expect. Lord Hareldson had been huge and silver and so majestic. And while Wesley had, of course, known from the very beginning that Wen could shift into a winged form…in all the time he’d known him, he’d never seen it happen. So it had almost become something he’d sort of forgotten about.
But when Wen began to shimmer, as if his body were becoming transparent, Wesley held his breath, his gaze fixed on his lover and the magick taking place before his eyes. And then the shimmer fully engulfed Wen, expanded, and suddenly, where only the second before Wen had been…
Wesley was pretty sure he heard himself gasp, but he was too busy staring at the astonishing creature now standing on the rock to care.
“Rowen… My gods…”
Unable to stop himself, as if he were ensorcelled, Wesley pulled himself up out of the pool, barely aware of the prickle of magick happening to his own body as it rearranged itself into his fully human form. He rose to his feet, oblivious to the cold air biting at his wet skin, and still found himself gazing way up. Because while he might not be as big as Lord Hareldson, Wen was nearly so, his massive body towering far over Wesley’s head.
He was the color of the first sprigs of green on the trees in spring and, tentatively, Wesley reached out, wanting, needing to touch him, to imprint Wen’s color and texture against his own skin. He rested a hand on Wen’s front leg. He was warmer than Wesley had expected, much warmer, actually. And softer— No, that wasn’t the right word. More…pliable? No, that wasn’t quite right either. It was just that his scales weren’t as armor-plated to the touch as they looked like they should be. Instead, they were flexible and full of movement, with a sort of iridescent luster to them. It was fascinating to watch as they rippled and glistened. Wesley stepped closer and reached up to stroke the lower part of Wen’s chest, which had the same texture as his legs.
Wen shuddered, or at least that’s how it felt. A tremor shook through his massive body from neck to tail, and though Wesley had no idea how he knew it, he just knew that the shudder was because Wen was enjoying having him touch him. Then he felt a pulse of pleasure through their emotional link, which convinced him he’d been right.
That made Wesley smile, and he gazed up again to find Wen looking down at him, watching him with large eyes that were the same expressive deep green he had in human form.
“I…I just don’t even know what to say. You’re…gods, you’re magnificent. Like mind-fuckingly magnificent.”
Wesley was certain Wen smiled at him and chuffed in a low tone. His wings suddenly spread up and open, as if he were stretching and enjoying the freedom of being able to move them. His wingspan was damned impressive, nearly the width of the pool. His wings were not made of the same scales as his body, but seemed to have a leathery yet sleek texture that was a bit darker in color than the rest of him.
When he’d finished his stretch, he tucked his wings back in against his sides, then lowered his long, scaled neck and nudged Wesley with his head. As if butting against him, demanding attention.
Unable to stop grinning at this point, Wesley reached up now with both hands and stroked them along Wen’s snout, careful to avoid the unsettlingly large teeth. Not that he was afraid Wen would hurt him. On the contrary, he felt nothing but protective gentleness radiating off Wen. Still, those teeth looked like they could do some serious damage, and Wesley would rather not push his luck and lose a finger—or his hand—by accident.
Continuing to explore, he slid his palms up gently, stroking the bony protrusions between Wen’s eyes. Wen blinked a few times, then his eyes slowly closed, and Wesley knew he was enjoying it.
He was like… Wesley choked back a silent laugh. He was like one of the big, domesticated wolf-dogs that some of the villagers used to keep when he was younger. The one’s who would nudge up against your hand and insist you pay attention to them, then close their eyes and let their tongues loll out in joy as you petted them.
A loud chuff burst from Wen’s mouth, his eyes opened, and he glared…well, glared but with that hint of mischief he sometimes got in his eyes even as a human.
::A dog? I finally show you my winged form, which, I’ll have you know, some people find terrifyingly awesome, and you compare me to a useless, domesticated wolf-dog? And a lolling tongue? Please!::
Wesley stared at Wen in shock. He was pretty sure his mouth gaped open because he heard some sort of odd gasping noises and then realized he was the one making them.
“Did you just… Were you reading my mind?” he half accused, half croaked. “And did you just speak…communicate…whatever to me…with me?”
Wen bumped his head against him again, gently, but it still nearly jarred Wesley off his feet. He had to reach out and grab hold of one of Wen’s huge legs to steady himself.
::Sorry. Too much too soon?::
Okay, Wesley knew he hadn’t imagined that. It was Wen. It even sounded like him, his voice, with a bit of a gruffer, growly edge to it. Except it was in his head.
“Are you… Is this…?” Damn it all, why could he not complete his thoughts? He took a deep breath. “Is this what you meant earlier, about how draegans communicate? About how Captain Rizik and Lord Hareldson speak silently?”
“But I’m not a draegan. How can I hear you? I mean, how can I feel you…whatever…in my head?”
::That’s what I wanted to find out. I wondered if maybe because of who you are, because you have magick, too, and because of our bond, you could hear me. And if I could hear you—hear your thoughts that were directed at me, I mean.::
“It’s so….weird. To feel you… But…” And still he couldn’t finish sentences.
Wen chuffed again, like he was laughing softly.
That, of course, only caused heat to rise yet again up Wesley’s face. “You’re laughing at me. You can stop that, right now.” He tried to sound firm, but felt a smile trying hard to curve his mouth even as he fought it.
::Sorry. I love it when you get flustered. Especially when I’m the one causing it.::
“Ass.” Wesley shook his head. “So, can we do this when you’re in your human shape, too?”
::I don’t think so. I tried it earlier. You didn’t seem to hear me.::
“I didn’t…at least not that I’m aware of.”
::Still, the fact you can hear me now is pretty incredible, Wes. Even draegans—well, except for the draegan lords—can’t talk like this in their human forms. And draegans can’t communicate with humans or anyone else in this way even when shifted. Only each other. So being able to communicate with you in this manner, especially since you are fully in your human form now and not your ondaen form…as far as I know, it’s rare. Maybe unheard of.::
A little rush of excitement and satisfaction shot through Wesley, and he wasn’t sure if it was his own, or Wen’s, or maybe both.
“You’re gorgeous. And amazing.” Wesley stroked Wen’s chest again, and found himself leaning in against Wen to soak up some of the warmth from his massive body. “Obviously you can fly, which is just…I can’t even imagine what that must be like.”
::It’s like pure freedom.::
That’s how it felt for Wesley as well, when he glided through the water. But the wistful edge in Wen’s silent tone made Wesley sad. At least Wesley could sneak out at night, or far away from people, and shift and enjoy his ondaen form. Even with the constant fear of being caught, at least he still could swim if he were careful. For Wen, though, for all the draegans, the high sorcerer had effectively grounded them. Until recently, when they’d discovered Captain Rizik could see the nets for some reason, and he and the draegan lord could fly up, find them, and map them, most draegans couldn’t dare risk taking to the sky. Wen had told him when they flew into the nets, the sorcerer employed creatures called nyctophans that would torture and destroy the draegans in the most horrific way. Wesley could only imagine how awful and demeaning it must feel like for the draegans to be so restricted, to seldom be able to take their other form and do what was natural to them.
::We’re used to it,:: Wen said, with a draegan version of a sigh, which amounted to a heavy, slow release of breath that sounded like a gust of wind. ::It’s been like that all my life.::
“That doesn’t mean you should have to wear the chains the sorcerer’s put on you, damn him to hel.::
Wen nuzzled him with his large snout. ::Thank you. I know you understand what it’s like to be restricted.::
“At least I don’t have to fear imminent death if I swim, like you do if you fly. And I have a chance of hearing or seeing someone coming who might do me harm. The sorcerer’s damned traps are invisible. I hate it, that you can’t be who you’re meant to be.”
::And I love you for feeling that way. My gentle Wes. A fierce warrior, but always with a tender heart.::
Wesley wrapped an arm around Wen’s neck, which was still lowered to his level, and rested his head against him, hiding his face so Wen couldn’t see it. Wen’s words touched something deep within him, and he didn’t know what to say.
They stood like that for a long while, silent but so very close. It felt good. Right.
Finally, his curiosity getting the better of him, Wesley couldn’t help but ask, “Can you breathe fire, too? Like Lord Hareldson?”
::No. Only the draegan lord can do that. It’s part of the lord magick.::
Wesley let out a slow breath. “No offense, but I’m kind of glad.”
He felt and heard Wen softly laughing. ::Why?::
“Because when I saw Lord Hareldson do it, spewing flames everywhere when you came to help us at the settlement when we were under attack from Byram’s soldiers, it was fairly terrifying.”
::And again with the assumption that I’m just supposed to be a cuddly, non-fearsome dog creature who likes his head scratched?::
Wesley smiled. “And again with the smart-ass comments. I’m trying to compliment you, you git. I think you’re beautiful, and plenty dangerous just the way you are. I have no doubt with those teeth and”—he looked down at the talons on Wen’s feet—“and those claws, you’re more than terrifying enough.” He looked up at him and said, his voice gone husky and serious now, “Let me put it this way. I’m damned glad you’re on my side and not my enemy.”
Wen began to shimmer, and within seconds, he stood in front of Wesley, fully a man again, and so beautiful in a different way from his winged shape that Wesley’s heart stuttered a few beats.
Wen stepped close to him, dragged him against him, and whispered near Wesley’s ear, “I’m always on your side. And I’m damned glad you’re on mine.”
“Not that I can be of much help in my other form,” Wesley muttered. “Fish man? Not exactly formidable.”
But then he remembered the old tales of the ondaen, of how people were supposedly scared of them to the point they hunted them, and a sudden wave of uncertainty washed over him. Why would people have thought that? What could he or someone like him possibly have ever done to make anyone fear them?
Then another thought hit him…was his disappearing last night somehow linked to those terrifying stories about the ondaen? But how could it be? Maybe he’d just been feverish last night and wandered off, not in his right mind. But that didn’t explain why he felt different today, unsettled, and haunted, as if something bad had happened.
Wen cupped his chin and tilted his face up until their gazes met. His glinted with concern. “You’re thinking again.”
“I can’t help it.”
Wen shook his head. “You’re also cold again.”
Once more, as if on Wen’s command, Wesley shivered.
“See,” Wen said, noticing, damn him. “Come on. Let’s warm up, then swim to our clothes and get back to our tent. I don’t know about you, but I think we could both use a nap before we have to report for work later this afternoon.”
He gave Wesley a quick, sweet kiss, then, with a smile, dove into the water.
Wesley followed, not even thinking about his shift this time. All his mind could ridiculously and suddenly focus on was Wen saying “our tent.” Not Wen’s, but “ours.” It was probably stupid, but those two little words created a warmth inside Wesley that didn’t want to go away. Just like the word “mate” had earlier.
All his life he’d wondered what he was, and when he might ever find someplace where he could truly belong. And then he’d come here, to the camp of outcast and hunted draegans and their human followers, and, when he’d least expected it, he’d found a home.
But he didn’t kid himself it was the camp that was home. It was, and always would be, the draegan who stroked through the water next to him, who even now continued to send gentle pulses of love and reassurance to Wesley, offering comfort to his troubled soul.