Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Al hadn’t been kidding. Wesley didn’t know exactly how long they’d climbed—hours, certainly—and it was well after daylight before they reached Kellesborne, out of breath, legs burning from the exertion. Snow still fell from the gray sky, and they were frozen through from the cold. But, damn, the huge white stone castle, with its multiple towers stretching up into the swirling white heavens, was a sight to behold. And though Wesley couldn’t tell it from where they stood, Al had said it had been built on the side of the tallest mountain, both for protection, but also for ease of the draegans to fly in and out of it. On a clear day, Wesley could only imagine the view must be incredible.
“Told you it was awesome,” Al mumbled from the folds of his cloak.
“It truly is,” Wesley mumbled back.
But what was even better, and even more beautiful, than the ancient draegan stronghold, was the fact that Wen was inside those stone walls right now. Exhausted, but safe and sound.
Wesley had felt the first stirrings of him along their emotional connection several hours earlier. And with each step he’d taken toward the castle, he’d sensed Wen growing close as well, from whatever direction he approached.
And now they were both here. After weeks apart.
He knew they were back because he felt Wen with their usual strongly shared link when they were in close proximity. But he also sensed Lord Rizik and Jarrad because their faint emotional signatures were familiar enough to him that he could identify them amongst the overall buzz of emotions emanating from all the beings currently inside the castle.
Wesley’s belly fluttered with longing and anticipation.
He suspected, however, that once they were inside, as much as he wanted to, he probably wouldn’t be able to see Wen right away. Wen was cloistered somewhere in the castle with Lord Rizik and the rest of the advisors, including Iann, whose emotional buzz was also familiar to Wesley, and who must have flown up here either while Wesley and Allend slept or as they struggled on foot up the steep trail. Based on the general sense of the collective emotions in the gathering, which were a tangled mix of revulsion and relief, along with a lingering hint of fear, Wesley was almost certain they must be discussing the events of last night.
But in spite of the meeting on which Wen’s mind was occupied, Wesley knew Wen sensed him and knew he was approaching, just as Wesley felt him.
He and Al passed through the guarded front gate of the massive outer wall, and entered the castle itself not through the enormous carved doors at the front, but rather through a smaller side door, which would take them into the draeganjhere quarters, Allend told him.
Once inside, they were greeted by several members of the draeganjhere, who could talk of nothing but the previous night’s events. Apparently, Jarrad had told the tale when they returned, and everyone was still in various stages of shock.
Shock because the monsters that had attacked Lord Rizik, Wen, Jarrad, and Jax, who had been successfully rescued, were nyctophans.
The moment Wesley heard the word, his gut knotted with anxiety all over again.
Of course they were nyctophans. Why hadn’t he realized that last night? Wen had told him the stories about them. And the deluge of raw fear and agonizing pain that the creatures had forced on Wen was right in line with what Wen had told him weeks ago. No, it was worse. Far worse than Wesley had ever imagined.
But the miracle that still had the guards talking was that Lord Rizik had somehow had a massive burst of lord magick and he’d fought off the nyctophans. The “storm” Wesley had seen during his visual link with Wen had to have been Lord Rizik’s doing.
No wonder everyone was so unnerved. No draegan had ever survived a nyctophan attack before. Until now.
As the truth fully sank in, it only made Wesley more desperate to find Wen, see him, and touch him to reassure himself he was okay.
“Weird that you had a bad dream about Lord Rizik and my brothers, and then we get here and find out what happened last night,” Allend commented.
“Weird,” Wesley echoed.
Allend gave him an odd sideways glance, but then shrugged. “I’m going to see if I can find Jarrad and then get something to eat. Want to come?”
Wesley hesitated for a moment, suddenly feeling overwhelmed not only by the unfamiliarity of the immense castle, but by all the churning emotions around him. “I, um…”
“You want to find Wen,” Al said, nodding.
During the weeks they’d traveled together, the topic of Wesley’s relationship with Wen had never come up. After Jarrad’s odd, somewhat uncomfortable reaction to it, Wesley had been hesitant to discuss it with Allend. He hadn’t even been sure if Al knew about it. Apparently he did.
“’S okay. I’m sure he wants to see you, too.”
“How did you know?”
“About the two of you?” Al shrugged. “You smelled like him. That first morning we were traveling.”
Wesley’s brows shot up. Damn these draegan brothers and their sensitive sniffers.
“Besides…” Al huffed out a chuckle, sounding far too much like Jarrad now. “It’s been pretty obvious for a while, to those of us who know you two best, that you were having feelings for each other.”
Now Wesley couldn’t stop his own smile. “I had no idea my life—our lives—were so interesting to everyone else.”
“Yeah, well, when someone manages to actually catch the attention of my holier-than-thou, I’m-too-loyal-to-my-duty-to-ever-have-a-life older brother, then, yeah, it’s pretty interesting. And kind of entertaining to see him fall so hard. No offense.”
Al’s grin was infectious.
“Do you have any idea where in the castle he might be? I suspect he’s probably with Lord Rizik and the rest of the advisors, but if the inside is anything like the outside, this place is huge.”
“Yeah. My guess is that they’d be somewhere private, somewhere comparable to the command tent in the old camp. Oh…wait!”
He turned and hollered at one of the guards. “Oi, Tim!”
Wesley knew Tim from training with him. He looked tired and half-frozen, like he’d just come in from working a night shift, which he probably had. But he glanced up at them as he unfastened his cloak.
“Oh, hi, Allend, Wesley. Did you just get back from your scouting trip?”
“Yeah,” Al said. “Do you know where Lord Rizik and the advisors meet these days?”
“I think up in the library tower.”
“Thanks, mate,” Al said.
Tim waved as he opened one of the many doors along the stone-floored corridor in which they stood and disappeared from sight.
“Most of the draeganjhere members live down here,” Allend said, turning away.
Wesley followed. “So where’s the library tower?”
Wesley paused. “Then where are we going?”
Allend stopped to look at him. “Well, it’s a tower, so it has to be up, right? And since there are steps at the end of this corridor”—he pointed at them, in plain sight ahead—“then going up them makes sense.”
“I thought you’d been here before. To Kellesborne.”
“I saw the spires of it from a distance once, when I was younger and we hunted in the surrounding mountains. Draegans, if you’re up high enough, can see the castle from outside the magick barrier where other races can’t. But we never got close enough to come inside.”
“Then how do you know so much about it?” They were once again moving along the corridor toward the steps. “You told me lots of stories about it before we found Caleb. I assumed you’d been in here and knew it well.”
“No, just things I heard growing up. Iann used to tell tales about it when we were little, about how luxurious and beautiful it was, and how big, and lots of details about it. That’s how I knew about the side door—because Iann used to be in the old lord’s draeganjhere like a hundred years ago. He lived here for a long time. I think he missed it and that’s why he liked talking about it.”
Al smiled and continued as they began to climb the winding stone staircase. “Jarrad, Edric and I used to pretend we were in the old-time draeganjhere, fighting battles and saving the land and getting all kinds of glory and riches. When we were kids, I mean. Who knew we’d end up being in the draeganjhere after all. Not so much with the glory and riches, though. Except, I guess, that we get to live here in the castle now, too, which isn’t so bad.”
Wesley nodded. Not so bad at all. From what he’d seen so far, from the feather beds and always-burning fires in the guard caves, to the gleaming stone floors and clean wide spaces here in the lower level, and what, presumably, would be comfortable accommodations everywhere else in the castle, this would absolutely be a step up for everyone from life in the forest camp.
“Wen didn’t play with you when you were pretending to be in the draeganjhere?”
“Nah. He was always the older, responsible one. Especially after our dad was gone. Wen helped Mum a lot, with things like hunting for food and looking out for us younger kids. I think he always felt like he had to fill Dad’s shoes.”
The idea of Wen not playing games with his brothers because he thought he had to be the grown-up made Wesley sad. But it also shone a bit of light on what made Wen who he was; it seemed he’d picked up the protective streak that was so much a part of him at an early age.
They emerged from the steps into an enormous great hall that crawled with activity this morning. Wesley hadn’t given much thought to how a couple hundred people, or for all he knew, even more than that now, could possibly fit into a castle. Especially one perched on the sheer side of a mountain, with no room for a village around it. But once again he was taken aback at just how large Kellesborne actually was. It was almost as if it were bigger inside even than the outside, which was silly of course. Then again, he was already learning that draegan magick was a wonderful thing, and if this place truly required no upkeep because of strong magick, then nothing would surprise him.
“Ed!” Allend suddenly called and made his way, with Wesley following him, through a cluster of tall, elaborately carved columns toward a group of long wood tables, around which a handful of people sat eating.
The youngest Daneson brother looked up from shoveling food into his mouth. “Al! And Wesley! You’re back.” He rose, and he and Allend shared a quick but genuinely affectionate brotherly embrace.
“Edric,” Wesley said, grasping his arm in greeting.
A shy smile lit Edric’s face. He’d always been the quietest of the brothers, and even though Wesley had hung out with him a few times in the past, alongside Jarrad and Allend, Edric had always been shy around him. Jarrad had told him he should take it as a compliment that Edric talked to him or spent time with him at all because he usually preferred to keep to himself except for his family and the blacksmith with whom he was apprenticed.
“Seems like you guys were gone forever,” Edric said, sinking back onto the bench. “Did you hear about what happened to Jarrad, Wen, Lord Rizik, and Jax last night? They just got back this morning, too.”
“We heard,” Allend said. “Where’s Jarrad now?”
“Bed. Mum sent him. He looked bad.”
“Was he injured?” Guilt sliced through Wesley that he’d been able to help protect Wen from the nyctophan attack, but could do nothing for Jarrad.
“Lilia says he’ll be all right,” Edric said. “Just needs rest. Lord Rizik and Wen seem to be okay. Kinda pale and shaken up, though. Have you eaten? Here, I’m done.”
He pushed the enormous platter he’d been eating from over in front of Allend and Wesley—it still virtually overflowed with bread and fruit, along with a slab of some kind of meat. Not only was Edric the quietest brother, he was the smallest and thinnest of them as well, so where he—or whomever had dished up the food for him—had thought he was going to put all that was a mystery.
Al immediately dropped his pack, sank onto the bench across from Edric, and began to eat. “There’s plenty here, Wes. Have some.”
“Oh right. Ed, I assume Wen’s with Lord Rizik and Mum and the others, yeah?”
Ed nodded. “Probably. Iann flew in earlier, and he and Mum disappeared after Mum made Jarrad go back to our quarters to bed.
“Tim said they meet in the library tower now. Where’s that, do you know?”
“Sure, up the main staircase four levels, and it’s in the southeast corner of the castle. Once you get to the top of the steps, go left along the wide hallway, then through the windowed atrium and you can’t miss it past that. Big double doors.”
“I’ll find it. Thanks,” Wesley said, wincing as he adjusted his pack on his shoulders. It dug painfully into the shoulder he’d bruised when he fell from the bed last night.
“Here, at least take something to eat on the way,” Allend said. He slapped a portion of the meat onto a hunk of bread and folded it in half before handing it to Wesley.
“Thanks.” Wesley’s stomach rumbled in appreciation, making him realize he was actually hungry. “And, Al—”
“I know. And you’re welcome.” Allend smiled. “I doubt either of us will get scheduled for a guard shift until tomorrow, so I’ll be around all day if you need me for anything else.”
“Speaking of shifts, I’ve gotta get to work,” Edric said. “See ya, Wesley. Al, how can you eat all that without being sick? That platter was meant to feed several people this morning, and you’ve almost finished it already.”
Allend mumbled a full-mouth reply that no one could possibly have understood.
Edric rolled his eyes, then turned away and headed toward the winding stairs Wesley and Al had just used. Which made sense. The blacksmith and armory were probably down near the draeganjhere quarters.
Wesley made his way across the massive great hall, eating the warm bread and surprisingly savory meat Al had given him. Maybe he was just really hungry, or maybe it was this place, but the food seemed better than anything he remembered having eaten anytime recently.
The staircase, when he reached it, was no less impressive—broad, with royal blue and silver mosaics in elaborate designs on each step, and decorative carving on the railings. But in spite of the beautiful surroundings, it felt like he climbed forever to reach the fourth floor, and was out of breath again once he got there.
He took a left, as Edric had indicated, and after passing through a long, broad hall of ancient tapestries and paintings, he found the atrium with enormous (as everything here seemed to be) windows looking out into the gray-white snowstorm that still raged.
He felt Wen strongly now, and experienced another quiver of longing in his stomach. When he spied the ornate double doors around the corner from the atrium, the quiver deepened. This was the place.
Wen was so close.
But, unfortunately, still so far because Wesley would have to wait until the meeting was over. As much as he wanted to go through those doors, he couldn’t. He’d have to be patient a little longer.
So he returned to the atrium and found himself a secluded corner, where he could take off his cloak and pack, and stretch his stiff body. He couldn’t have slept more than a couple of hours last night, and that, combined with the stress of experiencing Wen’s nyctophan encounter through their link, and then the physical rigor of climbing the steep mountain path to get here to the castle, were definitely taking a toll. He turned toward the closest, smaller—but still gigantic by human standards—window and, bracing himself with a hand on the polished frame, stared out at the swirling, white chaos. The sight was so hypnotic, he soon found himself yawning. He might have even dozed a little bit, standing upright, with his head resting on his raised arm.
Wen’s emotions—relief, joy, and especially love—surged through him, bringing him fully awake and alert.
Feeling all those things himself, Wesley turned, his heart tripping, his belly tight. In less than a heart beat, Wen was turning the corner into the atrium. And…gods…the moment they caught sight of one another, the world fell away and all Wesley could see, could feel, was the golden glow of love and light that was Rowen.
He didn’t remember getting there, only that within seconds they were in each other’s arms.
For long moments they didn’t speak—Wesley wasn’t sure he even could have, his throat was so tight and his heart so full. They simply—though, in truth, there was really nothing simple about it—held one another in an embrace that could never last long enough. Until their breathing and hearts beat in sync, and the world finally stopped spinning out of control.
Wen was the one who leaned back first, his green eyes awash with the same intense emotion that spilled over and through Wesley. “Gods, Wes…” His voice was choked.
As was Wesley’s when he spoke. “Are you all right? Truly all right?” he asked, cradling Wen’s face between his hands, much as he’d done last night through their link, and peered at him closely, noting the paleness of Wen’s skin and the lingering haunted expression in his eyes.
“I am now,” Wen said, before leaning in and capturing Wesley’s mouth in a deep, almost desperate kiss.
Wesley lost himself in that kiss, just as he’d lost himself in the embrace. The moment their mouths made contact, he instantly felt the tingle of magick, their magick, merging, as it always did. It rippled through his body, through his thoughts, through what felt like the very blood in his veins. And gods how he’d missed that feeling.
They kissed as if they might not ever get another chance to, pouring all their loneliness from the past weeks into it, their love and need for one another, reaffirming their bond and the unbreakable depth of it.
“I saw you last night, didn’t I?” Wen whispered, when they paused, not pulling apart, barely even putting a space between their mouths. “Somehow, you were there with me.”
Wesley nodded, his eyes stinging as he remembered all too well Wen’s pain.
“I don’t know exactly. I felt you, your distress—it woke me up. And then…” He shrugged, at a loss how to explain the rest when he didn’t even fully understand it himself.
“Thank you, m’caire. Thank you,” Wen breathed. Then he recaptured Wesley’s mouth and the kiss picked up where it had left off, the intensity and connection just as powerful.
At least it was, until Wen suddenly pulled back. And when Wesley opened his eyes, he realized why.
Lord Rizik stood only a few paces away from them.
Wesley and Wen quickly turned to face him, and Wesley felt heat rushing up his cheeks. He noticed Wen blushing, too.
Lord Rizik looked like he truly hadn’t meant to interrupt them and felt bad for it, but now the deed was done and he was left with no choice but to address them.
“My lord,” Wen said.
“Lord Rizik,” Wesley murmured.
A smile curved Lord Rizik’s lips. But in spite of it, Wesley read a deep, underlying sadness in the lord, and he wondered if catching the two of them together like this reminded Lord Rizik of Lord Hareldson and what he’d lost. Wesley felt a deep pang of sympathy for him.
The past three weeks apart from Wen had been hard and lonely, but he could only imagine how Lord Rizik must feel right now, not even knowing whether his mate was dead or alive, or, if he were alive, where he was. As it had been the night the Death creature had stolen Lord Hareldson away, Wesley felt Lord Rizik’s grief like a knife plunging through his heart. Gods, he was still hurting so much, but somehow struggling to find a way to carry on. Wesley’s respect for him, already immense, climbed even higher.
If he’d lost Wen that night in the fight with Byram’s soldiers, or last night to the nyctophans, he didn’t know if he could do what Lord Rizik was doing.
“Nicely done, finding Caleb and bringing him into our custody, Wesley,” Lord Rizik said, pulling Wesley from his empathetic thoughts.
“Thank you,” Wesley said, surprised at the unexpected compliment. “But I had help. Allend…”`
“I know. But I also know Iann put you in charge. Your first leadership role, as I understand it.”
“You did well. I promise it won’t be your last.”
“Thank you, sir,” he murmured. He felt more than a bit humbled at the praise, especially coming from Lord Rizik himself. Next to him, a flood of pride from Wen flowed along their link, and that made him almost as uncomfortable. He’d simply done the job he’d been sent to do.
Lord Rizik studied the two of them for a moment, his gaze sweeping over them, lingering on their hands, where Wesley realized he and Wen were touching because they couldn’t not be touching after being apart.
A small half-smile quirked at the lord’s lips, and then he said, “Well, carry on, gentlemen. Though…you might find someplace with a door you can shut so you’ll have more privacy and won’t be interrupted again.”
Gods, he was actually teasing them.
“If nothing else,” Lord Rizik added, “I believe the storeroom just around the corner isn’t often used. It’s small, but if you’re creative…”
Oh, bloody hel. Wesley wanted to crawl into a hole so the lord wouldn’t be able to see what Wesley knew was his flaming red face.
Next to him, he felt a hint of embarrassment from Wen as well, but his was laced with humor and…oh…oh!
A healthy dose of desire emanated from Wen, directed squarely at Wesley. In fact, the pulse of Wen’s desire was so strong, a powerful tug of need hit Wesley low in his gut, and he almost moaned. The suggestion about the storeroom had obviously given Wen thoughts of the intimate variety and Wesley was experiencing his response to it.
Wen cleared his throat, then said, in a husky voice, “Thank you, my lord.”
“Thank you, Lord Rizik,” Wesley murmured, ducking his head.
“Well, go on, then,” Lord Rizik said.
Wen curled his fingers through Wesley’s and pulled him past Lord Rizik, through the atrium, and around the corner into the tapestried hall.