Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
One of the hardest things Wesley had ever had to do was say goodbye to Wen so soon after finally seeing him again. He walked down to the draeganjhere quarters with Wen, while Wen put up the notice he’d promised, saying training would begin first thing the next morning and Wesley Brannock was in charge. Wesley swallowed back a lump of fear in his throat at seeing the words, posted in Wen’s tidy, bold handwriting in black ink for all to see.
After that, in a private corner, Wen kissed him goodbye with such emotion and passion it left Wesley weak-kneed. And then, with one more warning to be please be careful, he was gone.
The next hardest thing Wesley’d had to do was appear in the snowy courtyard the next morning, Al and Jarrad at his sides bolstering his courage, whether they knew it or not, facing twenty-seven trainees—draegan and human, young and old.
None of them, at least not openly, seemed to resent the fact he was the one in charge instead of Lord Rizik or Wen. They listened and gave it their all. And when Wesley finally called a halt to training for the day, as cold dusk settled over the mountain, he felt a sense of accomplishment that he’d managed to hold their attention and act, at least marginally, like he knew what he was doing.
From there, he and Jarrad had done a walk-around of the perimeter of the immense castle, since, as Wen had said, the guard shifts were short staffed.
By the time he’d finally fallen into his and Wen’s bed—which was far too big and lonely without Wen, but at least it still held Wen’s faint scent—he’d fallen asleep instantly.
Only to wake up and start the whole thing over the next day. And the next.
The weather held, with no more snow. But it was bitterly cold on the side of the mountain, and by the third day, Wesley had given up trying to stay warm. He’d thought he’d been permanently frozen when he and Al were out hunting Caleb, and this was a close second. He felt bad for the trainees as well, so they kept a huge bonfire burning in the center of the courtyard, and Wesley made sure everyone took frequent breaks to warm up and get something to drink.
If he could have moved them inside, he would have. But as word spread that regular training had begun again, more people began to attend. The first day there’d been twenty-seven. The second day thirty-two. By the third day he had thirty-eight trainees. There was no place in the castle to accommodate that many people wielding weapons, except maybe the great hall. But since it was always filled with families and small children, that wouldn’t have been safe. So they continued to work outside, and Wesley just hoped no one would end up in Lilia’s treatment rooms with frostbite.
By the third night, he was fairly certain his veins were running with ice, even after wolfing down hot stew and drinking a couple of mugs of steaming, spiced wine. Between that and his muscles aching from all the weaponry he’d been handling and demonstrating drills with, Wesley knew he needed more than just bed.
He figured there’d never be a better time to try the bathing pool in his and Wen’s chambers. A soak in hot water had, in fact, never sounded better.
Following Wen’s instructions, he opened the taps and, sure enough, hot water began to pour into the big, sunken, stone basin. Near the taps, he found a shelf with all kinds of herbs and bath salts, and after opening a few that smelled like spring flowers, he found one that had a pleasant woodsy scent he chose instead because it reminded him of Wen. He shook a portion of it into the water, and immediately the scent wafted around the room.
As the pool filled, Wesley returned to the main room to lock the door. He was painfully aware, just as he’d always been at the hot springs near the forest camp, that in his ondaen form he would be vulnerable to any prying eyes or unexpected visitors. But when he clicked the lock on the door, he remembered that draegans, with their magick, could easily open locks. He’d seen Wen do it. Had seen Jarrad do it, too, only yesterday when someone had inadvertently locked the armory door while they were getting weapons.
Wen had given him a key to use to enter their chambers, but what baffled Wesley, was if draegans could open any lock, then why had the ancient draegan lords, who built the castle, bothered to put locks on any of the doors in the first place? What was the point if people could come and go anytime? Maybe there was a secret to the chamber door locks to which he wasn’t privy. Or maybe the draegans just had faith that everyone would honor everyone else’s privacy and not open any doors, even if they had the ability to do so?
Whatever the case, Wesley didn’t feel like he could afford to take a risk on the honor system. So he heaved and pushed and dragged the heavy wood dining table from the alcove up against the door. That way, if someone did unlock the door, when they tried to open it, the table would slow them down and they wouldn’t be able to come in right away. And in the meantime, it would make a racket and give Wesley a chance to get out of the water and shift back to human form. Maybe he was being overly cautious, but years of secrecy had taught him it was better to be safe than sorry.
That done, he returned to the pool, which steamed invitingly, and without further ado, eased down into the water.
He shifted immediately and, for several glorious moments, savored not only the heat, but the pleasure of being in his ondaen form.
Wen was right—the pool wasn’t big enough to swim in, not even close. But it was large enough that Wesley could stretch out fully, including his tail. And gods it felt good. He hadn’t shifted since the day he and Wen had made love in the hot springs. That seemed like ages ago.
Of course, thinking of that day, of how that encounter had somehow bound the two of them together more intimately than ever, made him miss Wen all the more. Why was it that they’d been in each other’s company virtually every waking hour, without fail, for weeks when they were training, but once they’d become lovers, they’d spent far more time apart than they had together? Wesley knew that was the reality of life right now, and there was nothing they could do about it—Wen’s job would always keep him busy and probably gone a lot. But in spite of the distance between them, he had no regrets about being with Wen. Even if he could only have him for a few snatched hours, or a lucky day or two here and there, he’d still far rather have that, than not have him at all.
But, gods, he missed him. Having had the one day together earlier this week had almost made it harder to be apart, teasing Wesley with how incredible their bond was, how damn good it felt to touch and talk and share a bed, even if they were simply sleeping side by side, then cruelly snatching it away again.
Longing for Wen filled him, and he was tempted to relieve some of the physical ache. But he was so damned tired, and somehow, tonight, the thought was less than satisfying because getting himself off could never compare to the real thing with Wen. With any luck, Wen would be home soon, and Wesley decided it was well worth the wait.
He rested his head back on the edge of the pool and closed his eyes, willing his body to relax and let the hot, fragrant water seep into his aching muscles.
As he did, he opened the doors to his empathic senses, letting them wander beyond the walls of this room, reaching outward.
He’d been reading people the past three days, as Wen had asked. But he’d only been able to do it selectively because if he tried to scan everybody all at once in a group—like during training—not only could he not distinguish between individuals, it also quickly became overwhelming for him. Too much input. Too many emotions flooding in and putting him on edge to the point he couldn’t concentrate. Especially while he was also trying to do his job. So, instead, he’d been limited to reading one person at a time. It was tediously slow to do it that way, but it was the best he had while juggling his other obligations.
He’d made a point, though, of keeping his eyes open for dark-haired women, as Jax had described the person who told him about Lord Hareldson.
Wesley had only one person in training who generally fit that description—a young draegan named Risa who worked hard and, when she wasn’t practicing her skills with various weapons, seemed to spend a fair amount of time speaking shyly with Al. Which was no doubt why, when Wesley read her, the predominant emotion he picked up was what he could only describe as the fluttery, self-conscious embarrassment one felt when they had a crush on someone else. He felt nothing nefarious or disingenuous about her. Plus, Jax has said the woman who approached him was a human. It was unlikely he’d have made a mistake about that, given what Wesley’d had heard about Jax’s aversion to humans in general.
In the evenings, when he sat at one of the long tables near the kitchen with Jarrad and Al, he’d seen several dark-haired women, his own mother included. And “small,” which had also been part of Jax’s description, was subjective because to a tall man, many of the women in the castle might be considered small. Nonetheless, Wesley had done his damnedest to try to read as many of them as he could—human and draegan alike, just to be on the safe side—who fit the picture.
None had radiated any out-of-the-ordinary emotions. If they were sitting or speaking with anyone else—family members or friends—he’d scanned those people as well, one by one, and again, sensed nothing unusual. Everyone in the castle was scared to some extent, and there were always a variety of other emotions happening in each individual at any give time. But he sensed nothing that felt like bitterness or anger or hatred, which he assumed would likely be present in someone who was plotting against Lord Rizik.
Tonight, though, since he wasn’t trying to multi-task and was able to fully relax and stay centered himself, he was able to stretch a bit farther and open himself to more input. He hoped that if he kept practicing, he might get better at reading groups of people and be able to read more than just one or two of the overall dominant emotions. He was also trying to work on identifying the locations of individuals he read when he wasn’t in the room with them. So far he wasn’t having much luck with that, unless he concentrated hard and knew the person well.
He let his senses reach out along the corridor outside his and Wen’s chambers, searching along it, into and past Lord Rizik’s rooms, which were empty tonight, of course, since he was gone with Wen, then down farther to the rooms he knew Iann occupied, which were also quiet.
Next, he sought out his mother in her rooms on the second floor—she was easy to find because, aside from Wen, he knew her best of all. He sensed she was sleeping since her thoughts were quiet and peaceful.
From there, he allowed his senses to travel to another familiar spot—Marta, Jarrad, Al, and Edric’s quarters. He knew all of them well enough, they were getting easier for him to read from a distance. And, of course, he knew where they lived in the castle, so it was usually easy to find them. Tonight, he sensed Marta. Her emotions were typically steady whenever he read her, but always, always threaded with worry, which seemed to be a constant state for her. Edric’s thoughts, on the other hand, were almost always soothingly calm whenever Wesley had read him, and tonight was no different.
He couldn’t sense Allend or Jarrad, which meant they weren’t in their rooms. If he remembered correctly, Al had taken a late night guard shift, so he was probably out of Wesley’s range. Jarrad had just returned from a shift with Wesley, though, so in theory he should be somewhere in the castle.
Reaching out, and with a little searching, he finally picked up Jarrad’s emotional aura, but it was faint. Which probably meant he was almost at the far reach of Wesley’s ability to read anyone but Wen. It also meant he was much too far away for Wesley to tell where Jarrad was specifically, but this was a good chance to practice. First, though, he’d have to try to get a better connection to Jarrad. So he concentrated on the feel and texture of Jarrad’s unique emotional flavor. Because he was already acquainted with it, it made it easier to hone in on it, since he knew what he was looking for. Slowly, slowly, Jarrad’s emotions came into clearer focus. And…oh. Oh!
Quickly Wesley backed off. Damn. That was more than he’d expected.
What he’d just picked up on was, he was pretty sure, something that was none of his business. Jarrad, he’d realized in that awkward split second, wasn’t alone. And while Wesley only got a loose feel of the person Jarrad was with—someone who felt vaguely familiar—Wesley didn’t linger to look for specifics.
Though, he had to admit, he was curious…
No, damn it.
He forced himself to continue moving away, trying to forget what he’d just been party to. Some things were meant to stay private.
He pulled his empathic senses back to nearby corridors, in the hopes of being able to test his skills at reading someone else he knew—preferably when they were not engaged in intimate contact with someone else. But Wen was right; there were so many newcomers in the castle, he had no idea which individuals he was picking up on most of the time, which made it hard for him to single them out.
Finally, too exhausted to keep it up because it took a fair amount of energy to project his empathic abilities that far and wide, he called it quits for the night.
It was about all he could do to turn off the flow of water, drag himself out of the pool and dry off, then crawl into his and Wen’s lonely bed.
The next night, because it had felt so damned good to be in the water the night before, he did it again, filling the pool, soaking, and reaching out with his senses.
Again he found Jarrad elsewhere in the castle and otherwise…well…occupied.
Wesley was definitely curious now as to who had captured Jarrad’s attention. He’d watched Jarrad that day, to see if he noticed anyone in particular with whom Jarrad spent time or who he spoke to, but hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary.
Once again, a part of Wesley wanted to linger when he happened upon them with his senses, to see if he could figure out who Jarrad was with because he experienced that vague sense of familiarity again. But the better man in him once more won out, and he moved on, giving them their privacy.
He picked up nothing unusual that night in his empathic ramble about the rest of the castle.
By the fifth night, he’d gotten used to the relaxing comfort of a hot bath before bed. Plus, he was missing Wen so damned much it felt as if he had a constant empty ache in his chest. Gods, he hated being apart from him. During the day he was so busy it made it easier to bear. But the nights were the hardest. So, taking a long, soaking bath and using the time to practice his abilities gave him something to focus on to help pass the hours and wear him out enough that, when he did go to bed, he would fall asleep instantly.
He was surprised this night to not find Jarrad with whomever he’d been seeing. Instead, he sensed Jarrad in close proximity to Allend and Edric, all of them in their quarters. Marta was elsewhere tonight. Edric was his usual calm self. Al and Jarrad, however, both radiated anger. Wesley had no way of knowing for sure what they were angry about, but he had a sense it was at each other. One of their brotherly spats, most likely, but, man, Jarrad in particular was really pissed. Their anger made Wesley edgy, almost as if it were bleeding over onto him, which it maybe was to some extent. That, coupled with the fact he once again felt as if he were invading Jarrad’s privacy—and Al’s as well this time—he left them to it and moved on.
For some reason, though, he couldn’t quite shake the tension that had started with Allend’s and Jarrad’s anger, and it stuck with him as he searched the rest of the castle. The entire collective emotions from everywhere tonight seemed to have that same tense edge to them, but he wasn’t sure if it was real or if it was him projecting his uneasiness onto everything.
After several minutes, he decided maybe he’d better call it a night early since he clearly wasn’t in the best frame of mind to be doing this.
As he began to reel his senses back in, though, he felt the same flicker of familiarity he got from whoever Jarrad had been with the previous nights.
Wesley hesitated for a moment, the same niggle of guilt weighing on him that he’d experienced the two times he’d run across this person before with Jarrad, when he’d stumbled onto their intimate moments. But, his inner voice reminded him, Jarrad wasn’t with this person tonight, which meant Wesley wouldn’t be infringing on his best friend’s privacy. This was just another being, like so many others Wesley’s senses had skated across in his nightly roaming. Which meant there was no harm in taking a closer look…er…feel.
He gently probed, trying to figure out why there was a familiar buzz to this person’s emotions. It had to be someone he’d met in passing rather than anyone he’d had an actual conversation with, or else surely he’d remember it. Which meant he still had no idea who it was.
He also tried to see if he could figure out where the person was located, because maybe that would offer a clue to their identity. But, as usual, his ability to pinpoint a location for someone other than those he knew best was mostly useless. All he could intuit was that the individual was somewhere farther away in the castle than closer. Quite far. And wherever it was, the location was isolated enough no one else seemed to be nearby.
He eased in closer, hoping to pick up specific emotions. It took more concentration from such a distance, but he was determined to learn something. Though, again, he wondered if he’d spend this much time and energy trying to read anyone else, or was it because he had far too much curiosity about who Jarrad had been seeing?
He’d almost convinced himself he should, once again, move along and let it go, when like a beacon of light in a dark tunnel, a tangle of emotion walloped him. It only took a moment to realize it was flowing off Jarrad’s mystery companion.
The person’s ragged emotional state hit Wesley hard, right in the heart. He sensed sadness…but not fresh sadness. This was the dull but deep aching sadness of someone who’d felt this way for a very long time and could find no escape from it. Even more unsettling, though, was that the sadness was tightly knotted up with a cold, profound sense of fear. It pulsed off them in waves now, as if it were growing.
Gods…this poor soul was absolutely terrified of something.
No longer bothered with whether he was invading their privacy, Wesley’s only concern was to help if he could because the person’s fear was so powerful it made Wesley fear for them.
But first he had to figure out where they were in the castle.
He tried desperately to get a sense of their location. If this soul were under attack or someone was hurting them… But, no, how was that possible because, again, Wesley sensed no one anywhere nearby. The person was all alone.
What in hel?
And then, another emotion curled over and around the others like a dark, slithering snake….
Followed by a moment of excruciating agony.
And then…it was gone. All of it.
The emotions blipped out of existence, as if the person had been erased.