Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Wen stood pacing under a cluster of trees, and Wesley could see a troubled look on his face in the faint glow of firelight seeping through the nearby tent wall. He stopped to look at Wesley as he approached. “Please tell me she wasn’t asking you a bunch of personal questions or something.”
Wesley was still smiling from Marta’s comments. “No, of course not.”
Wen watched him for a moment, obviously trying to read if Wesley was suffering any ill effects from staying behind with his mum for a bit. Wesley didn’t offer anything further and, finally, with a slight frown marring his forehead, Wen nodded. Then he wrapped his hand around Wesley’s and led him deeper into the trees.
They didn’t go far before Wen stopped suddenly.
“What? Do you hear something?” Wesley asked, keeping his voice low.
Wen turned to him, shaking his head. Then, unexpectedly, he cradled Wesley’s face between his hands and pulled him into a kiss that was tenderly emotional.
“What was that for?” Wesley breathed moments later.
“Because I really am sorry. You’re right, I shouldn’t have kept anything from you. I was trying to help, but…that was just stupid. Can you forgive me?”
Wesley touched Wen’s mouth with his fingertips. “I already have. And I’m sorry, too, for snapping at you earlier and assuming the worst.”
Wen shook his head. “You were in the right.”
“Maybe, but I still shouldn’t have gotten mad at you. I’m on edge, but that’s no excuse for taking it out on you.”
“It’s okay. I need to not assume I know what’s best for other people. I did it with you once before, and swore I wouldn’t ever do it again.”
“You said you wouldn’t push me away again.”
“Yeah, but isn’t that exactly what I was doing by not being honest with you?”
“You had good intentions.”
“It doesn’t matter. I still shouldn’t have done it.” Wen sighed. “Come on, let’s go relieve the other guards, and then we can talk.”
He held out his hand, and Wesley took it once again.
Once they were away from the fires of the camp, the night was mostly dark, with only an occasional hint of light from Velensperia’s two moons, as they chased in and out behind heavy clouds. Wesley was glad for Wen’s night vision and firm grip on his hand when the moons were fully obscured, otherwise he suspected he’d be tripping over his own feet.
The weather during the afternoon had tried to warm up a bit, not much, but enough to melt some of the snow from the past couple of days. Now that night had fallen, though, bitter cold had settled in again, turning the snow-packed ground to ice. And the air was damp and unpleasant as they trekked across camp to the far northern boundary.
Once the two other sentries had briefed them on what they’d seen and done during their shift, they headed back to camp, leaving Wen and Wesley alone in the silence.
“Sounds like it might be a quiet night,” Wen said softly, crouching on a boulder that looked out over the valley to their north. “With no activity from the sorcerer’s troops on this side of camp during the day, that bodes well for our shift.”
They were outside the camp’s magick boundary, up on top of a hill that offered a good view of the forest, as well as the long valley that ran below their position.
“Yeah, but with all those rocks down through the valley…” Wesley couldn’t see them well in the dark, even when the moons were giving off some light, but he knew a swath of large boulders lay scattered below them. “Remember how long those other soldiers waited hidden in the rocks a few days ago?” He did. He could still remember all too clearly how he and Wen had been ambushed.
“True. We’ll have to keep a close eye on any odd movements down there.”
“You’ll have to. You’re the one with night vision. But if you’ll pay attention to what’s going on down there, I’ll keep my eyes and ears open up here.”
Wen nodded. “That’s why we make a good team.” He reached out and squeezed Wesley’s hand, then dropped his back onto the hilt of his sword in its scabbard and returned to scrutinizing the valley floor.
Wesley could barely make out Wen’s visage in the dark, especially with the hood of his cloak pulled up over his head. But he recognized Wen’s tone as the thoughtful one he used when he was watching and listening, weighing threats and possibilities. Wesley stayed quiet, letting him do his thing, giving him space to think and assess before he bombarded him with questions, though the questions were burning a hole in him.
Their responsibilities to the camp came first. It had to be that way when they were on duty.
With that in mind, Wesley decided to try something he’d never done before. Wen had put the idea in his head earlier when he’d said Wesley was probably picking up emotions from all over camp.
When he was in close contact with people, their emotions were just sort of…there for him to feel, radiating off them. Some people’s were easy to read, while others were less so. He’d always figured that was because some people were better at suppressing their feelings, while others wore their emotions openly. Still, even with the less-open people, he could usually read something when he was near them. But he was curious if Wen might be right—that Wesley was somehow picking up on the collective emotional state of the whole camp, and that’s what was adding to his anxiety.
The idea of it seemed daunting—how could he possibly sense a whole group of people at once? But…if he could actually do it, he wondered whether or not the ability might be a potential aid in his duties with the draeganjhere. Maybe he could become accomplished enough to sense aggressive emotions that might be coming from their enemy. Or tell if parts of the camp were in danger, or when a group of Byram’s soldiers were approaching.
But for now, he just wanted to try to reach out and see if he could sense anything at all.
He closed his eyes and attempted to clear his thoughts—easier said than done. His mind was spinning, as usual. He took several deep breaths, willed himself to focus outside himself and his own concerns, and let his senses expand…listening, hearing, but most of all feeling.
Slowly, slowly, his thoughts quieted. And, as he breathed in the frigid air, and the smell of pine trees and the earthy, spicy scent of the delik trees, and listened to the sighing of branches as occasional gusts of wind captured them, he began to focus in on things not so tangible.
Next to him he, of course, picked up Wen’s emotions, but that was easy and familiar, so rather than linger there as he would have liked, he moved on, beyond Wen, out toward the valley below…where he felt nothing but stillness. That was a good thing, he hoped, before he turned his focus back in the direction of the camp.
He didn’t expect to be able to read any one individual’s emotions, considering he wasn’t near the inhabited part of the camp at the moment, so he wasn’t trying. For now, he just wanted to see if he could attune his senses to the overall mood of the camp.
But only a few seconds after he’d reached out, a staggering wave of emotion crashed over him. The wave came from one concentrated source. Whoever it was, it felt as if they’d just had their world pulled out from under them and were in shock. The experience was so powerful, Wesley had to drag in a few breaths to calm his own racing heart.
Who was it? He couldn’t tell, not exactly, though he experienced it as a strong presence. No, actually now there were two strong presences. One struggling with the roiling knot of emotions…shock was the predominant one, but he also read pain and sadness, yet it was all tempered with joy. Whoever the person was, their world was spinning. The other presence seemed to be calming the first, offering love and support.
Who were they? And how was he able to read them so clearly from what had to be a fair distance? He’d never been able to do that before.
As he pondered it, he felt a burst of pleasure from them both, and suddenly got the distinct impression he was picking up on something intimate that he probably shouldn’t be invading. Whoa. Yeah, time to move on.
So he did, though he wished he knew who he’d been reading.
He tried to find other individuals, but no one else in particular stood out the way the first two had. Which maybe was just as well. His goal for tonight had been to try to read the overall emotional tone of the camp, not any one person. So he attempted a new tactic. He let his senses broaden, not looking for anything specific, just trying to feel in general.
It was odd at first. The only thing he seemed to be able to pick up was a buzzing, like a swarm of insects. It was somewhat grating, a little annoying, and loud in his head, very much like when you were trying to sleep but an invisible buzzing beastie kept up a low racket all night long.
But then, as Wesley “listened,” the buzzing began to take on specific forms, and, little by little, he was able to identify its components—an anxious sense of waiting, of worry, and fear. But also…relief? What an odd mix.
Or maybe not. He knew people were worried and afraid of what the high sorcerer had in store for them, but many people had arrived here at the camp over the past couple of months seeking sanctuary and protection, and so the relief was perhaps from that. They no doubt sensed they were safer here than they had been on their own. The draegan lord made sure everyone was fed, had warm quarters in which to sleep, and offered them the safety of being part of a large, protected group. Still…even with that relief, Wesley understood, from what he was now certain were the combined emotions of the camp, that people knew things could change at any moment. They were prepared to have to pack up and leave if need be, and they feared for their lives and those of the people they cared about if Byram’s soldiers found and captured them. All these people had put their trust in Keiran Hareldson to protect them, and while they did trust him and believe in him, none of them—himself included—could stop the ever-growing worry of the sorcerer’s armies and threats. In fact, the anxiety across camp was almost palpable.
Gods, no wonder he’d been feeling on edge. Wen had been right.
Maybe something about his and Wen’s bond, their shared magick, had opened his senses and made them stronger now than they had been before, so he could suddenly feel all of this in the background when he hadn’t been able to before.
Wesley felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility, as he continued to reach out and touch on the camp’s emotions. And it became crystal clear to him that all these scared people were depending on them—not just Lord Hareldson, but Captain Rizik and the entire draeganjhere, including Wesley and Wen—to protect their very lives and those of the people they held dear. They were placing all their faith in the draegan lord and the guards to not only keep them safe, but win them back the right to live their own lives in peace.
All of that responsibility and fear and uncertainty suddenly became more than Wesley could bear. His heart began to race again, and he found it hard to breathe. With a groan, he drew back into himself and did the best he could to cut the broad connection to which he’d been linked.
When he opened his eyes, he found Wen standing close, only an arm’s length away, watching him with concern and his ever-present flow of reassurance and comfort. “You were trying to read the camp, weren’t you?”
Wesley nodded and emotion clogged his throat. “Gods, Wen, how are we going to protect them all? There are so many people. And they’re all depending on us to keep them safe. There are so few of us in the guard. How are we going to do it?”
Wen didn’t seem to need to ask what Wesley meant, maybe because even if he himself couldn’t read the camp’s emotions as Wesley had, he could feel Wesley’s response to it all.
Wen wound his fingers through Wesley’s and squeezed. “We’re going to take it one day at a time. We’re going to be prepared, watch, stay vigilant, and always remember who and what we’re fighting for.”
“For freedom,” Wesley murmured.
“Yes. Theirs. Ours. That of all the people in Velensperia who want out from under the sorcerer’s iron fist.”
“It’s so overwhelming. I had no idea just how overwhelming it all is.”
“That’s why we do it one day at a time, love. So it’s manageable.” Wen’s voice was low and gentle. “One guard shift, one enemy, one battle at a time because one battle turns into a dozen, and then two, and bit by bit, we weaken our enemy’s forces until, eventually, we can strike directly at the one responsible for all of this.”
Wesley sucked in a slow, shaky breath. Then another. He reached out and drew on Wen’s calm strength, letting it ground him.
“You could feel the whole camp, couldn’t you?”
“Yes. And you were right. Their anxiety…it’s…it’s so thick, like a heavy, smothering blanket atop everything.”
“And all of it weighing on you. I’m sorry, m’caire. I can feel it burdening you. I just wish so much there was something I could do to help.”
“Do you think maybe our bond has made my empathic abilities stronger? Not just between you and me, I mean, but overall?”
Wen gazed at Wesley, his face serious. “I hadn’t thought of that. Our combined magick at work in you… It might very well be strong enough that it opened you even more, made your ability more powerful, but at the same time made it more difficult to cope with. Gods, Wes”—he shook his head—“I might be responsible for how awful you’ve been feeling.”
“No!” This time it was Wesley who reached for him for a change, to offer comfort. He didn’t know why, but even though being bombarded by all those emotions from the camp had been intense, he suddenly felt, for the first time, like he knew what he was supposed to do.
“You’re not responsible,” he said. “What did you just tell me earlier today? We’re in this together. Neither of us had any idea what would happen when we began this relationship. And the incredible things that have occurred since we did… I wouldn’t change any of it.” Then he winced and his voice, when he continued, grew raspy. “Except for the part where you almost died. But…” He drew in a steadying breath. “In the end you’re here, and that’s all that matters.”
“No. If I have stronger abilities now, then I’ll just have to learn to control them when it all weighs on me too much. Isn’t that what Captain Rizik does when he has the prophetic visions? I’ve heard they make him ill to the point he passes out, and I can only imagine how awful that must be for him. But they’re a part of him and he deals with it. Just like I’ll have to learn to deal with this. But in the meantime, I think…well…I think maybe I can use these abilities to help.”
“What do you mean?”
He shared with Wen what he’d thought of earlier, that perhaps, with practice, he might be able to sense aggression or danger, or maybe even sense the emotions of a group of soldiers from enough of a distance it might give the camp enough warning to be prepared.
“Your ability to think of the greater good, and be so damned strong and selfless in the face of something that’s such a burden to you, is remarkable,” Wen said softly.
Heat flooded through Wesley in spite of the cold night. “I’m not selfless,” he whispered. “Or particularly strong.”
“Wesley, you’re far stronger and more capable than you give yourself credit for. Something tells me before this is all over, you’re going to save more lives than just mine, and be far more valuable in this war than you could ever imagine.”
Now the heat crept up onto Wesley’s face, and he was glad it was dark so Wen couldn’t see it. “I’ll gladly settle for just being useful.”
“Oh, love…” Wen curled his fingers around the back of Wesley’s neck and gently squeezed. “You are so much more than that.”
Once again, Wesley found himself not knowing how to respond, so instead he tucked his face into Wen’s shoulder, letting the scratchy-soft wool of Wen’s cloak hide his blush, and just hoped Wen could feel through their link how much his words meant to him.
Wen pressed a kiss against his temple. “About last night and this morning…do you still want to talk?” he asked, his voice warm against Wesley’s ear.
Wesley lifted his head. “I do. Is everything quiet out there for now?” He nodded toward the valley.
“It seems to be. At least for the moment. We can watch while we talk. Come sit with me. It’ll be warmer if we snuggle.”
That made Wesley smile.
“What?” Wen asked.
“Snuggle? That sounds awfully unwarrior-like of you Lieutenant Daneson.”
That made Wen grin in response. “Well, what would you suggest I call it?” He took the few steps back to the rock where he’d crouched earlier, and sank onto it. “Get over here. Don’t you know the first rule of winter survival in the field? Shared body heat keeps warriors from freezing to death.”
Wesley dropped onto the rock next to him and leaned against Wen’s side, until they were shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, and thigh-to-thigh. What Wesley wasn’t expecting was Wen’s hand snaking in under his cloak and boldly stroking up his thigh to his groin. He nearly choked at the warm, firm pressure. “And how exactly does copping a feel play into this whole scenario?”
“Did I forget to mention that part?” Wen murmured.
“What about talking?” Wesley said, fighting back another smile. “Are you trying to distract me?”
“No. I mean, yes, but…no. It was more a matter of sudden lust, and I couldn’t manage to keep my hand to myself with you so close.”
Wesley huffed out a soft laugh. “Talk,” he said.
“Okay, okay.” Wen lifted his hand to show he was complying. Then he grew serious. “I wasn’t stalling. I promise. What would you like to know?”
“Everything you know.”
Wen let out a huff of breath. “It isn’t much. Mostly speculation on my part.”
“At this point I’ll take speculation. It’s more than what I have now, which is nothing but some damned unsettling dreams and a big blank spot in my memories.”
Wen nodded, but his forehead creased in a frown. “Just remember…I don’t actually know anything. I can only tell you what I saw.”
A frisson of anxiety skittered up Wesley’s spine. “Okay. So what did you see?”
Wen sought one of his hands to hold. “You said you remember coming back to the tent and feeling sick.”
“Well, your illness only grew worse from there. You did fall asleep, but you were shivering, even after you went to sleep. You woke me up several hours after that, moaning and still cold even though you were under the covers. I got up to stoke the fire, but I…I couldn’t get you to wake up. You were thrashing around and then you started…” He paused and frowned. “You were sort of growling.”
Wen nodded, looking troubled. “And your hands… Where you cut them to draw blood to heal me…they were festering and black.”
Fear jolted up into Wesley’s throat. He yanked free the hand Wen was holding and held both his hands out in front of him, palms up, staring at them, even though it was dark and he couldn’t see much of anything. “But, they don’t…”
Wen gently wrapped both his hands around Wesley’s again and folded them together. “They’re back to normal today, Wes. By the time I found you this morning, they were fine. I don’t know what caused it, but last night they were definitely not right.”
“I don’t understand,” Wesley said, looking up at Wen.
“I don’t either. Whatever it was, it started at your hands, but it spread…and…and you weren’t yourself. You didn’t—”
He stopped speaking suddenly, leaving Wesley to blurt, “What do you mean it spread and I wasn’t myself?” as his pulse sped double time. “What spread? And I didn’t what?”
But Wen shook his head, tension radiating off him. He held a finger to his own lips to silence Wesley, and his gaze had shot out toward the forest that led back toward camp. “Someone’s coming.”
“Shit,” Wesley muttered, instantly on alert himself, tamping back his fears and questions about last night to deal with the here and now. His hand moved up and over his shoulder to give him quick access to his bow, should it become necessary. “Someone from the camp, or outside it?”
“Don’t know yet,” Wen said, his voice dropping to a nearly-impossible-to-hear whisper.
Wen slowly rose to his feet, and Wesley followed, his own senses on alert. Even he could hear the soft crunch of boots on the snow now, but it was barely perceptible, as if whoever it was, fully intended to sneak up on them. Wesley couldn’t imagine anyone from camp doing such a thing, which meant it must be an outsider, perhaps one of Byram’s soldiers who’d heard their quiet talking and had come to investigate.
They crouched behind the rock, watching as a dark-cloaked figure came into sight.
Silently, Wen drew his sword, and Wesley already had his bow in position with an arrow nocked.
“Do you sense anyone else nearby?” Wen whispered.
Cautiously Wesley reached out with his empathic ability. No time like the present to test it out.
“I don’t think so,” he whispered back, when he picked up nothing anywhere close to them except the lone figure. “Just the one, for now.”
The figure stopped and slunk behind a tree.
“A scout maybe?” Tension radiated from Wen, and Wesley mirrored it. A scout meant more soldiers would follow.
Wesley reached out again, hoping he could learn something about the figure, who had come out from behind the tree and was once again creeping toward them.
The vibration or buzz or…whatever it was that he picked up felt vaguely familiar. What did that mean? And then, suddenly, he realized…
But just as he did, a voice called out, “Hey, you two, it’s me, not some dangerous invader.”
Wen swore softly under his breath, and a flare of irritation shot off him with so much heat Wesley could swear he almost saw it. Wen rose and re-sheathed his sword. “Gods damn it, Jarrad!” he said between gritted teeth.
Wesley rose as well, reseating his bow on his back, and shaking his head at Jarrad’s entrance. What in hel had Jarrad been thinking, sneaking up on them like that? Wesley knew Wen was wondering the same thing, as well as imagining how close Jarrad had come to getting skewered or shot.
“What?” Jarrad said, stopping in front of them, radiating defensiveness.
“What?” Wen snapped. “What in bloody hel were you doing, sneaking up like that? You do realize you were about three steps from getting dead, right?”
Jarrad looked taken aback at Wen’s outburst. “I wasn’t sneaking.”
“The fuck you weren’t! We watched you, creeping along, trying to keep your steps quiet, hiding behind the tree. What were you thinking, dumb ass?” Wen shoved him in the shoulder.
Jarrad snarled and moved to shove him back, but Wesley stepped between them.
Jarrad’s hot head he was used to, but it took a lot to work Wen up into a full lather like this. Usually Jarrad and Allend were the brothers who came to blows. Wesley suspected Wen’s upset wasn’t just because Jarrad had been stupid enough to sneak up to them, but also part fear at how close they’d come to assuming Jarrad was the enemy.
“Stop. Enough from both of you,” Wesley ordered in a quiet voice, holding a hand against each of their chests. “This isn’t helping anything, and if there are soldiers out here, going at each other like this is only going to give them bigger, easier targets.”
Wen cooled down first, which didn’t surprise Wesley. He heard and felt Wen take in, then release, a deep breath, before moving a step back and holding his hands out at his side. He was still angry at his brother, but back in control.
Jarrad on the other hand, stewed for another few moments, his emotions churning with anger, resentment, and then fear as it no doubt began to sink in just how foolish he’d been.
“What the hel, Jarrad?” Wen said, his voice reasonably quiet again, but definitely tight with lingering anger.
“I just…” Jarrad took a shaky breath, and when he released it, Wesley could almost feel his self-righteous anger drain out of him. “I thought maybe you two might be…you know…occupied with each other, and I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Oh for fuck sake!” Wen sighed, loudly. “We’re on duty. What exactly did you think we were doing out here, you git? Having a passionate tryst in the woods instead of paying attention to our jobs?”
“How the hel am I supposed to—”
“Enough!” Wesley said again, silencing them both with the annoyance in his tone. “Save your brotherly pissing match for later, all right? Jarrad, next time, think! You almost got yourself killed. And, Wen, I’m sure Jarrad learned a lesson and won’t do something like this again. Will you?” He eyed Jarrad, daring him to argue with him.
Jarrad stared back at him, and Wesley sensed surprise rippling off his friend.
“Damn. When’d you get so bossy?” Jarrad muttered.
Wesley heard a suspicious snort from Wen, then heard Wen mumble, “Trust me, I’ve wondered the same thing a time or two myself.”
Wesley shot him a scathing look, or what was supposed to have been one, but when he caught Wen’s gaze in the few seconds of moonlight, Wen gave him a sexy half smile that stopped his irritation in its tracks. Instead, a different kind of heat rolled through him. And he swore he could almost feel Wen’s thoughts in addition to his emotions, and that sent another hot flush through Wesley.
“Oh gods, please, stop looking at each other like that,” Jarrad groaned. “It’s dark but I can still see you making gooey eyes at each other. I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“If you didn’t want to see the way we are around each other, then why’d you come out here?” Wen demanded. But his tone was calmer now, with a hint of humor in it instead of anger. “Surely you could have found a better, more efficient way to get a thrill.”
“Please. Seeing you two like this is far from a thrill.”
“Then why are you here?” Wesley asked.
“Because Mum sent me.” He turned to Wen. “She told me to come get you.”
“For what? We just saw her not more than a half-hour ago.”
“They need you at the command tent. Thomas finally figured out the book.”
“For sure? Because he’s been saying he’s almost got it for a while now.”
Jarrad shrugged. “So Mum says.”
“What exactly is this book?” Wesley asked. “Or is that something I’m not supposed to know?”
“I’ll tell him,” Jarrad said. “And swear him to secrecy. But you’d better go. Allend went to find Iann and the lords, and if you run, you can probably get there about the same time they do. Lord Hareldson’s been grouchy for weeks about that book so he’s not going to want to be kept waiting.”
“I can’t leave Wes out here on duty by himself,” Wen said, looking at him, and Wesley could tell he was torn between wanting to stay and wanting to go find out whatever was so important about the mysterious book.
“I’m not just Mum’s errand boy, you know?” Jarrad said. “I’ll take over your shift with Wesley until you get back.”
Wen continued to look at Wesley, and Wesley felt his unease. He didn’t want to leave. And Wesley appreciated that because he didn’t want Wen to leave either, for too many reasons to count, the least of which was because he needed Wen to finish telling him about last night. What he’d said so far had only left Wesley feeling even more unsettled.
“I’m sorry,” Wen said to him, as if he knew exactly what was going through Wesley’s head. His expression was apologetic.
Wesley reached out and grabbed one of Wen’s hands. “It’s fine. Go. You have a job to do, and Jarrad and I’ll take the watch.”
Wen used his hand to pull him close and into an embrace. Then he kissed him, and it wasn’t exactly a chaste peck either. He didn’t seem to give a damn that Jarrad stood there half gaping, half trying to pretend he was ignoring them. When he’d finished ravishing Wesley’s mouth, leaving Wesley swaying with dizzy, unfulfilled need, Wen whispered in his ear, “I’m so sorry. I’ll be back as fast as I can. I hate having to leave you right now.”
“It’s all right. I might still be able to feel you, even across camp,” he whispered back.
Wen gave him a little smile that only spiked Wesley’s need higher. “I like the thought of that.”
Jarrad cleared his throat.
Which caused Wen to roll his eyes and grumble something not-so-nice under his breath. But then he kissed Wesley once more, brushed his thumb over Wesley’s cheek, and in a husky voice said, “Love you.”
“Love you. Now go.”
“You love it.” Wen gave him another grin, then turned and jogged off into the night.
Behind him, Wesley heard Jarrad making gagging noises.
That didn’t stop Wesley from smiling as he realized, even as Wen got father away, he still felt a steady, solid thread of emotional connection with him.