Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
In the dark cold of the predawn, Wesley tucked one final object into his pack—one of Wen’s shirts. He felt silly doing it, but it smelled like Wen, and since Wesley didn’t know how long he’d have to be gone, he desperately wanted something else of Wen’s, in addition to his medallion he wore.
With a sigh and a hollow pit in his gut, he tied the pack closed, then crouched next to the fire to move the pot brewing tea to a cooler spot in the coals. He didn’t know when Wen might get here, or, honestly, if he would get here, given his new responsibilities. But Wesley was determined to wait as long as he could—which meant he’d wait until sunrise because that’s when he and Allend had arranged to leave. He just hoped with all his heart Wen would come before then, before it was too late.
After he’d left Iann and Allend, Wesley had gone to see his mother, to let her know what was happening. She’d already heard the news they were evacuating camp and was making her own preparations. Wesley had stayed only long enough to say goodbye to her and gather the supplies and clothing he’d need for his own journey, before coming here.
He hoped Wen made it back soon.
His heart leapt when, only a few moments later, he felt Wen approaching, and then heard him outside the tent, stomping off his boots. By the time he came through the tent flap, Wesley had risen to meet him, only waiting until Wen had tied the flap closed again before pulling Wen into an embrace.
Wen’s arms automatically went around him, and for several long moments they simply stood there together, savoring the contact and closeness. When Wen kissed him, long and lingeringly, Wesley clung to every moment of it.
“Being with you helps ease the utter hel of everything that happened tonight,” Wen murmured against his lips.
Wesley felt the same way, though it didn’t fully soothe the knot in his gut that told him the short time they had left together was ticking away.
Wen must have picked up on his unsettled state, because he suddenly leaned back, lines of worry creasing his brow. “What is it?” And then his gaze moved past Wesley, taking in the interior of the fire-lit tent.
Wesley knew the moment Wen caught sight of his full pack sitting near the bed because Wen’s expression turned to one of heartsickness.
“Where are you going?” he whispered. He looked between the pack and Wesley, but his gaze finally settled on Wesley’s face, and his voice was hoarse. “Wes…you’re not… You’re not leaving because of last night, are you?”
“What? Last night? What do you mean?”
Wen dragged in a deep breath and released it. “Oh gods, I’m sorry.” He shook his head, and then rubbed his eyes.
His turmoil rippled along their emotional link—fear, worry, grief, relief—but Wesley could make no sense of any of it. Wen reached for him and pulled him against him again, but this time with an almost urgent desperation, like the world was about to come to an end and he needed to keep Wesley as close to him as possible.
Wesley stroked Wen’s hair, which was loose tonight and falling in waves just above his shoulders. “Sorry for what? And why did you just react that way?”
With a shaky breath, Wen pressed a kiss against Wesley’s temple. “I saw the pack and I had this sudden fear… I thought maybe you’d remembered something about last night and it scared you, and you felt as though leaving camp…leaving me was your only option.”
“Leaving you?” Wesley’s heart began to pound. “Like…leaving leaving?”
Wen nodded, looking a little sick.
Staggered, Wesley stared at him. “Rowen…unless…unless you don’t want me anymore, I would never want to be without you now, not willingly. My gods, what happened last night that was so horrible you would think I’d choose leaving you as the only solution? Now you’re scaring me.”
Wen sighed. “I’m so sorry. It’s…it’s been a tough night and obviously I’m not thinking clearly.”
He looked so damned tired and so drained of energy, that Wesley took pity on him. It had been a truly terrible night all the way around. And he knew exactly how devastating a loss Wen had experienced, along with how much stress he was suddenly under as the leader of the draeganjhere, tasked with moving the whole camp far from here, into the mountains, through gods only knew how many of the high sorcerer’s troops.
He placed a finger against Wen’s lips. “Hold that thought for a second.” He reached for the clasp on Wen’s cloak, opened it, and then lifted the heavy wool off his shoulders and hung it on the peg on one of the support beams on the tent. Then he crouched and patted the back of Wen’s leg until he lifted his foot and let Wesley pull off one still-snow-encrusted boot, followed by the other. That done, he rose, took Wen’s hand, and led him to the side of the bed, where he sat him down.
“Just shush for a minute.”
Wesley crouched once again next to the fire, where he poured out a mug of hot, spiced tea. He handed it to Wen, along with a warm piece of bread from the pan he’d left sitting next to the fire. Then he sank onto the bed next to Wen.
“Eat. Drink. You’re exhausted.”
“Aren’t you having any?” Wen asked, lifting the piece of bread Wesley had given him to his mouth.
“I had some already, before you got here. I didn’t know when you’d come.” Or if you’d come in time.
Wen swallowed the bite he’d just taken. “I told you I’d be here a couple of hours before daybreak, and it’s actually earlier than that.”
“I know. But I also know how much you needed to get done tonight, and how many responsibilities you’ve been burdened with that could have kept you away longer. And I would have understood if that were the case.”
Wen finished the bread, swallowed a gulp of tea, and set his mug on the small, rough-hewn bedside table. “Wes, no matter what my obligations are, if I make you a promise, I will always find a way to keep it. You…” His voice grew hoarse again, and Wesley felt intense emotions once again churning inside Wen. “You’re more important to me than you could ever know.”
Wesley loved this man, this incredible draegan, so damned much. So much that he knew there was something truly, deeply upsetting Wen. “What is it?” he asked. “Something’s weighing on you horribly.”
“You keep saying that, but sorry for what? Talk to me. Please.”
Wen combed a hand through his tangled hair and then rubbed his eyes. When he met Wesley’s gaze once again, his eyes were red and Wesley could tell—could feel—how hard Wen was struggling to hold back an avalanche of emotion.
“Did I do something so truly horrible last night while I was out there beyond the boundary that you think I should leave?” Wesley asked, his own heart in his throat.
“No! No, it’s not that. It’s not really about last night at all. It’s me. It’s…”
Wen let out a heart-wrenching sigh. “Would you believe me if I admitted I’m wallowing in gut-wrenching fear?”
Wen’s voice, when he spoke, quavered. “Watching Hareldson be taken tonight by that…creature, and seeing how it affected Lord Rizik. It was beyond awful, Wes. Heartbreaking. Lord Rizik was, still is, completely devastated. Like it’s all he can do to form words, to move, to give orders and keep it together enough to function.”
Suddenly, the paralyzing, desolate grief Wesley had felt earlier tonight made sense. Lord Rizik. It had been his emotions Wesley had picked up so strongly. He’d felt Wen’s, and sensed everyone else’s to a lesser extent, but the earth-shattering loss and emptiness…that had to have come from Lord Rizik.
Wesley’s eyes stung with tears now as he relived that moment. “I felt it,” he whispered, wincing.
“Oh gods.” Wen wound his fingers through Wesley’s and squeezed. “It never even occurred to me that you might have sensed his reaction, but of course you did, being such a strong empath. I can’t even imagine…”
“Yes, you can. You experienced it, too, because you were there.”
Wen conceded, closing his eyes and nodding. “It was awful. And it scared the hel out of me,” he admitted.
Now it was Wesley’s turn to squeeze Wen’s hand. “Scared you how?”
“Because watching Lord Rizik lose his mate, seeing how he is now, so empty and haunted…it was…it was like watching my worst fears come to life. Remember how long it took me to admit my feelings for you, and why?”
Understanding washed over Wesley. “You didn’t want to let yourself get close to me because you were afraid you’d lose me. That I’d die,” he said softly, gazing into Wen’s distraught face, “like other people you’d cared about.”
Wen nodded. “I keep losing people I love. And now, Lord Hareldson is gone. And seeing how deeply that’s wounded Lord Rizik, it’s… Wes, I can’t… I don’t know how I could ever survive if…” He shook his head and swallowed hard. “Then I came here and saw your pack ready to go, and my fear ran away with me. I know it was irrational, but…”
Wesley tugged Wen into a hug. He didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know how to comfort Wen because what Wen was feeling right now was very much how he himself had felt that night at the hot springs when he’d been certain Wen was about to die. It had been the most awful night of his life. But he owed it to Wen to try to offer some type of comfort because how many times had Wen assuaged his fears and reassured him that everything would work out all right? Too many to count.
He eased back just enough so he could look at Wen. “We both know nothing in this world is guaranteed. Loss is…everywhere. But we also know sometimes hope appears in the most unexpected ways. I was certain I was losing you forever the night you were stabbed. But then you recognized what I was in my water form, and you remembered a story Iann had told you about ondaen blood having healing properties. So I was able to heal you, and now here you are. Against all odds.”
Wen let out a slow, shaky breath and nodded.
“And you said earlier that Captain Rizik is convinced Lord Hareldson isn’t dead, that he’s alive somewhere.”
“It’s almost like he can feel it,” Wen said. “Or he believes that if Lord Hareldson is dead, he’d feel that and he doesn’t.”
“So, those things mean something, don’t they? They have to mean hope hasn’t completely deserted us yet, and that caring about people, loving them…it’s worth it.”
Wesley could hardly believe he was saying all of this when just yesterday he’d struggled to believe Wen’s words of hope.
“Look, I know I’m the last person to talk about being optimistic,” he continued, “considering I’ve been nothing but anxious the past couple of days. I can feel the whole camp’s terror, Lord Rizik’s agony, and the overwhelming sense of uncertainty from every corner, pressing in on me. But I also know that if the world ended tomorrow, I wouldn’t trade a second of time I’ve had with you. I can’t even…” He choked on the words. “I can’t even imagine being without you now. But I think….I think we can’t live in fear every second of losing each other because I think living in fear of that happening maybe isn’t living at all.”
Wen didn’t say anything and simply looked at him for several long moments, while Wesley’s heart thrummed so hard it made his chest hurt. And then, softly, Wen said, “When’d you get so wise?”
Wesley swallowed. “I’m not. At all. I feel like I’m wandering and lost most of the time.”
“But you are wise, Wes, because you know how to follow your heart. You trust it. And when all is said and done, you’re right. I’d rather love you and take a chance than never have loved you at all.”
“Don’t you think Lord Rizik feels the same way? Jarrad told me tonight how Lord Rizik came here in the first place, why he stayed. Finding the draegans, discovering his true mate in the draegan lord, changed his life. Changed his world. I know what that feels like. That’s why he holds onto hope. Because he has to. Because love is worth fighting for, even when…when everything feels the darkest. Especially when things feel the darkest. He can’t give up because if he does, then all hope really is lost.”
Wen again looked at him for a long moment. Then he leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss against his lips. “Thank you for being my anchor in a world gone mad,” he breathed.
“Thank you for being mine.”
“So…the pack?” Wen’s forehead was still creased with worry, but without the blatant fear of before.
Now it was Wesley’s turn to sigh. “Iann’s sending Allend and me on a secret mission.”
“A secret mission?”
“Everyone else is supposed to believe we’re going out scouting. But we’re actually going to find Caleb.”
“Caleb,” Wen murmured. “The human man from your old camp who wasn’t there the night the sorcerer attacked it?”
Wesley nodded. “Iann thinks it’s possible he might be the spy the sorcerer mentioned in Lord Rizik’s vision. I guess the lords have considered that possibility for a while because it might have been him who gave away the location of our old settlement at the Zekklesian. But Iann said they’ve also considered that even if Caleb’s not working for the sorcerer, he may have been the person the sorcerer’s soldiers were looking for when they attacked us. Remember, that one soldier you guys captured said they’d been sent to find a specific person at our settlement, though he didn’t know who it was, and they were supposed to bring that person to Byram? If it was Caleb, Iann wants to know why the sorcerer wanted him. So, either way, spy or not, he’s what Iann calls an ‘important person of interest.’”
“So he’s sending you to find him. But…if this is a secret, should you be telling me about it?”
“I’m not going to keep something like this from you,” Wesley said, staring at him in surprise. “You’re the leader of the draeganjhere now. And…well…you’re you. I’m not going to lie to you about where I’m going or what I’ll be doing.”
Wen smiled. “Okay. Thank you for telling me.” Then he sobered. “But you and Al…why you two? Is anyone else going with you?” Wesley knew the protector in Wen was afraid for them. “And why is the mission secret?”
“It’s just Al and me. Iann believes that by having only the two of us, we can travel without drawing attention to ourselves, without raising suspicion that we might be part of the rebellion against Byram. We both look younger than we are and, I guess, that makes us appear ‘less threatening.’”
The age thing annoyed Wesley. People tended to always think he was younger than he actually was. But in this situation, Iann assured him his youthful appearance was a good thing.
“And it’s secret because if the sorcerer already has a spy in camp, Iann doesn’t want that person to know he’s actively searching for a spy. He’s sending me specifically because I know Caleb and can recognize him.”
“That makes sense, because he lived in your camp with you.”
Wesley nodded. “He lived there on and off, yeah. Iann…” He paused and took in a breath. “He put me in charge,” he said, feeling strange about it since he’d only been a member of the draeganjhere for such a short time. “I make the decisions while Allend and I are gone.”
Wen smiled again, and as if he could read Wesley uncertainty—which, of course, he probably could—said, “Of course he did. You’ve proven yourself capable in a fight, and you can think and act fast on your feet. Iann knows that.” Then he dragged in a breath and slowly let it out. “When do you leave?”
“Yeah,” Wesley whispered. “I…I was hoping you’d make it back to the tent before I had to go.”
“I know. And I’m really, really glad you are.”
“How long do you think you’ll be gone?”
“However long it takes to find Caleb.”
Wen drew in and released a shaky breath, and Wesley felt and matched every bit of loneliness and sadness Wen was experiencing at their upcoming separation.
“When are you leaving for Kellesborne?” he asked Wen.
“At sunset. We’ll try to get as many people packed up today as we can, then start moving them out in small groups, under cover of darkness. It’s going to take some time to completely empty camp, several days at least, maybe longer.”
“When I get back, how will I find you? Isn’t Kellesborne protected by magick so that non-draegans can’t discover it?”
“You’ll be with Al. He knows where it is and you’ll be able to get to it with him. Or…” A warm pulse of love spread along their link. “You could let me know you’re coming. You know…the way we can feel each other. And when you get close, I could come meet you.”
The warmth from Wen settled in Wesley’s belly and spread out from there. “Okay, I’d like that.” Then his moment of pleasure slid away, as less pleasant things filled his head.
“Before I leave, I need you to tell me everything about last night, Wen. You started, but never got to finish. And before I take off with Allend, I need to know. Because…” The words he’d been wrestling with off and on all day and night but hadn’t yet had the courage to say aloud caught in his throat. They had to be said now, though. “Because, in spite of this mission to find Caleb, I think…I’m scared…that I might be the spy.”
Wen’s brows shot up at that. “What?”
“Before I put Al at risk, I need to know what you know, in case I’m the enemy.”
“Wes, why would you even think that? You’re not the enemy or a spy for the enemy. There’s no way.”
“There is a way. I somehow managed to take off into the night without you knowing where I went, and I have no memory of how I got past the magick boundary around camp, a boundary that I’m not supposed to be able get through by myself. I don’t remember anything from the whole night. And you don’t know what I was doing while I was gone. So, what if I was out meeting with Byram’s soldiers? What if I’m the one who’s been unknowingly passing them information all along? For all we know, I could have been the one who gave the soldiers that you and I fought the other night the location of the camp.”
“No.” Wen’s tone was firm. “Absolutely not. Think about it. Have you ever missed time before? I mean before last night? Have you ever woken up and not been sure how you got to where you were, or had lapses of time that you couldn’t account for until last night?”
“Then how could you possibly have been giving the sorcerer information on the location of camp? You’ve always been with someone, mainly me, for weeks.”
“Except for last night.”
Wen turned more fully to face Wesley on the bed. “All right, let’s talk about that. I told you, you were ill. It wasn’t spy behavior, it was something else altogether. You were shivering, moaning in your sleep. Your palms, where you’d cut yourself, were… I don’t know, they looked infected, and at first I thought maybe it was the water at the hot springs, that it was tainted and had gotten into your wounds. But my wounds were fine, so it couldn’t have been the water. And the thing is—”
“You said earlier it spread,” Wesley interrupted. “What did you mean by that.”
Wen nodded. “The black…whatever it was. Infection. It spread, continued to spread as I watched, with dark streaks creeping over your skin—your arms, shoulders, chest. And when you did finally wake up, you were not yourself. You looked different. You acted different. And…you didn’t recognize me.”
“I didn’t recognize you?” For some reason, that almost scared Wesley more than anything else.
“Not at first, but I kept talking to you, and finally you started to remember. But when you did know it was me, you warned me away from you. Kept telling me to stay back. Like you were scared.”
“Like I was scared of you?”
“No.” Wen squeezed his hands gently. “I think you were scared for me. You told me you didn’t want to hurt me.”
Now Wesley’s heart was racing full-speed, and raw fear had settled in his throat, choking him. “Why would I be scared of hurting you?”
“I think you were under the sway of some type of magick, because when I tried to connect with you through our emotional link, there was something…” He winced. “It was like a dark veil completely surrounding you. It was powerful, cold, and it almost sucked me in, too, just through the overflow from you. It felt like…like it was trying to smother you or…or consume you. But you were fighting it. You were trying to keep it from taking you over completely. I think that’s why you warned me away. You were trying to keep it from making you… Well, from making you do things you didn’t want to do.”
“Like trying to hurt you? I would never intentionally hurt you, much less ever want to.”
“I know, love. I know that. That’s why I could tell you were fighting it.”
“How did I end up so far from camp and you didn’t know where I was?”
Wen dragged in and released a deep breath, and Wesley sensed he didn’t want to say anything else, that he was fighting a battle about telling or not.
“You have to say it, Wen. Whatever it is. I have to know.” He was starting to feel more than a little panicky.
After a sigh, Wen said, “I kept trying to get close to you, to reassure you, but you didn’t want me close. And when I pressured you too much, you shoved me away, across the tent, and took off into the night.”
“But you didn’t follow right away?”
“I…couldn’t. You sort of pushed me so hard I fell and hit my head and was unconscious for a while. When I woke up, you already had a head start on me.”
“Oh my gods.” Wesley yanked his hands away and stood. He paced across the tent, stopped, and fought back the sob building in his chest.
How could all of that have happened and he didn’t remember it? He felt like, for the second time in just a few days, his world had been jerked out from under him. First his mother telling him he was an ondaen, that she’d suspected it all along, and had kept it from him because of horrible stories about the ondaen. And now he was acting wrong. Hurting the man he loved. Being…consumed by some kind of darkness, but having no memory of it. How was all of this possible?
His throat burned, as did his eyes. Why was this happening?
He heard Wen rise behind him, and then Wen was pressed against his back, wrapping his arms around Wesley’s waist, offering comfort in the form of his warm, solid body, and a steady flow of soothing magick.
Wesley’s heart rate slowed, and his breathing eased in response, but the hard, twisting knot in his gut…not so much.
“It’s going to be all right,” Wen said quietly against his ear.
“What part of this is all right?” he rasped.
“The part where whatever it was, it passed. By the time I found you out in the woods, it had all gone away and you were yourself again.”
“Yeah, but that was hours later, wasn’t it? Don’t you see?” He turned in Wen’s arms to face him. “You said you thought what happened to me was magick. That only confirms my fears that I could very well be the spy. Maybe the sorcerer, or someone working for him, cast a spell or bewitched me to make me do his bidding.”
Wen shook his head. “I don’t believe that’s what happened, Wesley. Granted, at first I wondered if maybe someone had done it to you. The magick, I mean. But I’ve been thinking about it almost constantly since then, and I keep coming back to the fact that the physical…infection, for lack of a better word, started at your palms. Where you drew blood to heal me. So I’m thinking that whatever happened may very well be some kind of aftereffect of the magick you did. You saved my life when I was mortally wounded. It takes incredibly strong magick to do something like that, so maybe this is the consequence, the price if you will, for such powerful magick.”
“The kind of price where I’d want to hurt you? Even though I’d just saved you? That doesn’t even make sense.”
“But you didn’t hurt me. You warned me to stay back.”
“I knocked you unconscious.”
“You didn’t mean to.”
“You’re making excuses for me and you shouldn’t be. Gods, if I wanted to hurt you, of all people, the man I’m in love with, but I was having to fight against it so hard I pushed you down, knocked you out, and then ran, how do we know I was able to keep fighting that urge? How do we know I didn’t just go hurt someone else?”
“I tracked you, remember? You avoided the populated part of the camp and made a direct line to the boundary and then, once you were outside it, you kept going away from it. Away from people.”
“And did what? I got outside the boundary and just kept going in a straight line without doing anything at all, and then, somehow, miraculously, whatever was happening to me stopped and just went away? I don’t believe that’s all there is to it. There had to have been a reason I left camp, and the obvious one is that I was meeting with someone. Maybe I was making a direct line out of camp because the magick…spell…or whatever I was under was put on me by the sorcerer so I could be his lackey. His spy. And maybe I wanted to hurt people because that was part of his plan, too, for me to…gods!…kill people in camp? What better way to destroy the draegans than to put someone in their midst who could destroy them from within?”
He felt an odd flutter in Wen’s emotions, and instantly knew there was something else. “There’s more you’re not telling me. You tracked me. Did I meet with someone?”
“No,” Wen said unequivocally. “And I looked, especially around the boundary where you got through because I had no idea how you managed it without a draegan to help you. But there were no other prints. It was just you. You were alone. And I still don’t believe you were ensorcelled by someone, Byram or otherwise. I feel it in my gut.”
“So where was I going outside the boundary?”
“I think you were hunting.”
“Hunting? I had no weapons with me, and I was stark naked, so why or how would I have been hunting?” At this point Wesley was almost dizzy from confusion and fear, but also angry because he felt so out of control of the situation. And the unsettled look on Wen’s face made everything worse.
Wen must have sensed his runaway emotions because he gathered Wesley against him and Wesley felt another wave of soothing magick wash over him. It was warm and comforting, and he wanted to give in to it, but this time, it wasn’t enough. He needed answers before comfort.
He pulled back from Wen and locked gazes with him. “What do you mean by hunting?” he said again, his voice hoarse but insistent. He was tired of beating around the bush.
Wen’s gaze radiated sympathy and concern for him. “Something about the magick that took you over made you… I don’t know. It made you almost savage, like it dulled the part of you that’s civilized and rational, and by doing that, it allowed something more primal to take over. That…that may even be how you got through the barrier. Because…well…”
“Because animals can?” Wesley whispered, horrified.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Savage. Primal. Not civilized. Close enough.”
“It’s just a guess. But what I do know is that you didn’t sound like yourself. Didn’t look like yourself. I mean, you were you, in your human form, but your eyes were different, amber colored. And with the dark streaks on your skin…” He shook his head. “The magick changed you. It seemed to give you more basic, primitive instincts. I think you needed to…well, to hunt. And since I was closest, I was your prey.”
“But the real you,” Wen rushed on, “the Wesley who has such a good heart, was still there inside you, fighting against it. So you pushed me away to protect me, and you left. I think you didn’t want to hurt anyone else either, so you got as far away from the camp as you could. But…I think the urge to hunt was powerful, and while you could control it enough to not hurt anyone in camp, it was still there inside you, driving you, and so you…” Wen swallowed hard, obviously struggling to finish.
Wesley tried to steel himself for whatever came next, but even as he did, some part of him already knew. As Wen had been speaking, flashes of cold and darkness, and the metallic scent and taste of blood filled Wesley’s head, his mouth. And a remembered sense of fierce anger and hunger soared through him, making him want to tear into any live being to assuage the burning, hungry ache inside him.
“Oh gods,” he whispered. “What did I do? What did I kill?”
“Animals,” Wen said, his voice low. “Small ones, at first, but, apparently, they weren’t enough, because I also found a doe and a buck. You weren’t killing them for sport, Wesley. I think you needed—”
“To feed,” Wesley finished the sentence, still whispering, as memories washed over him in shades of blood red.
Dear gods. Dear holy gods… He remembered it all now…remembered the sheer, breathless pleasure of stalking and taking them down. Of ripping open their throats with his teeth. Of shredding their flesh, and drinking their…
With a strangled moan, he pushed past Wen, tore open the tent flap, and managed to stagger a couple of steps into the freezing darkness before his stomach heaved.