Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
As he pushed open the door of the draeganjhere common room, Wesley wondered how in hel this day that had started so spectacularly had degenerated into such a mess.
The large, warm room, with a fire burning in the enormous grate, was empty except for Jarrad and one other guard, Sharis. She was fastening her weapon belt, but she looked up and said hello to Wesley as he entered. If she hadn’t clearly been getting ready to go on duty, Wesley would have asked her to give Jarrad and him a few minutes alone. But as it was, he waited just inside the door while she put on her cloak, donned her gloves, and then with a nod and smile, she passed him and exited.
With the door solidly shut behind her, Wesley turned his attention to Jarrad, who stood in front of the fire, one hand resting on the stone mantle, his head bowed. He hadn’t even taken off his cloak.
Wesley started to approach, but before he could reach him, Jarrad turned toward him. He wouldn’t meet Wesley’s gaze, though—his eyes stayed locked on the stone floor.
A large bruise was blooming across one cheek, and Wesley once again scented blood. Damn it.
Jarrad’s lower lip was split, seeping a tiny bit, but the smell was more powerful than just that small amount of blood. He quickly discovered the aroma emanated from Jarrad’s hands, where his knuckles were red with it. Whether it was Jarrad’s or Lochlann’s he didn’t know.
Just breathe. You can do this, he told himself, gritting his teeth.
He stopped several feet short of Jarrad, though, to keep some distance from the coppery scent that once again stirred his unnatural urges.
“Wesley…” Jarrad’s voice sounded choked, as if he had something lodged in his throat. His emotions were all over the place—sorrow, confusion, dismay, anger, although the last, Wesley suspected, was mainly directed at himself.
“What happened out there, Jarrad?” Wesley tried to keep his voice calm. He sensed Jarrad was skating a fine line between holding it together and falling apart, and having Wesley lecture him was all it would take to break him. That’s the last thing Wesley wanted. While he was shocked at Jarrad’s actions, Jarrad was his friend and he was worried about him.
“Is Risa’s brother going to be okay?” Jarrad asked, still not looking up from the floor.
“I don’t know. I haven’t been to check on him yet. He was unconscious but breathing when some of the trainees took him up to Lilia.”
Jarrad gave a half nod, then slowly, finally lifted his head and met Wesley’s gaze. Jarrad’s green eyes, so like Wen’s, were dark with grief. “I don’t know what happened, Wes. I mean…I do, but I don’t.”
“I’ve already talked to Risa and Allend. Why don’t you tell me your version of it.”
Jarrad sighed. “Risa’s brother showed up just as we’d finished archery practice. He started yelling at Risa, telling her she was leaving with him right away. She was clearly upset he was there and said no, but he refused to accept her answer. He grabbed her and started trying to drag her away. She fought him, and Al got between them. I shoved him back from her and told him to go.”
So far, Jarrad’s account exactly followed what Allend and Risa had said. Not that Wesley had expected Jarrad to lie.
“That’s when he started spouting a bunch of awful comments.”
“What kind of comments?”
“Like, how Kellesborne was supposed to be sacred to draegans, but now it was nothing more than a hel hole swarming with humans.” Jarrad winced. “He said some terrible things about Risa training under a human, and about Lord Rizik, and humans in general, and the more he shouted obscenities the madder I got. He tried to push past me to get to Risa again, and I pushed back, and…” He dragged in a shaky breath. “He was in my face, shoving me, and when he hit me, something in me just…snapped, like a bow string with too much tension on it.”
“I’ve never seen you lose your temper with that much fury before.”
“I know. That’s what I’ve been standing here trying to figure out—why him, why like that? Have you ever had one of those times when you get so, so angry at something or someone that you have the uncontrollable urge to scream? I’ve been that way with my brothers a few times. But this was…” He shook his head. “This was worse. It’s like I just couldn’t even think straight. I only knew his words were attacking all the people I care about…Lord Rizik, you, f— friends.”
Wesley had the feeling Jarrad had been about to say something else, but he didn’t push.
“And then when he starting throwing punches, all my instincts told me to fight back. So I did.”
He drew in another breath and looked up at Wesley with confusion clouding his eyes. “But then at some point it’s like I…I don’t know… Like I forgot where I even was. I kept…I kept seeing…”
He stopped and winced again, then swiped a hand over his eyes. Wesley got the distinct impression Jarrad was fighting tears.
Wesley swallowed back his own fear and lingering bloodlust and stepped closer, resting a hand on Jarrad’s shoulder. “You kept seeing what?” he encouraged.
Jarrad rubbed his eyes again. “You’re going to think I’m making it up to cover for my bad actions…”
“I’m not. I want to understand because what happened out there wasn’t like you. Even Al said he’s never seen you like that before. What was it about Risa’s brother that made you lose control?”
“That’s just it, Wes,” he said quietly. “Even though I was furious at him for what he was saying and for how he tried to force Risa to go with him, I…I remember all that. It’s the part I don’t remember that scares the hel out of me.”
“What do you mean the part you don’t remember?”
“I mean…I don’t remember pounding on him. Because it…it wasn’t him.” He turned back toward the fire and dragged a trembling hand through his hair.
The action caused another whiff of blood to swirl through Wesley’s senses, but he brutally tamped down his reaction and stepped closer, so he could see Jarrad’s expression.
“I…it was as if I wasn’t there anymore,” Jarrad murmured. “Not there, in the courtyard with him. I was…somewhere else. And all I could see was…” His face twisted with anguish, and Wesley felt fear, thick and intense, pouring off him.
“What did you see?”
Jarrad looked up at him, his eyes wide and terrified. “Nyctophans.”
Wesley stared at him, his heart suddenly pounding and he wasn’t even sure why, except that maybe Jarrad’s fear was so powerful Wesley was actually feeling some if it himself. “What?” he whispered.
“I was back in the woods, that night, with the nyctos. At some point Risa’s brother stopped being him and became them. And all I knew was that I had to fight for my life, I had to destroy them before they destroyed me,” he said, his voice quivering.
“Oh gods, Jarrad.” Without thinking, reacting on pure instinct, he pulled Jarrad into a hug. He couldn’t even imagine how terrifying it must have been for Jarrad to relive that awful night, to think he was going through it all again.
Jarrad leaned against him with heaving breaths, one arm wrapping loosely around Wesley’s waist, and for several seconds they stood that way. But Jarrad quickly pulled away, as if afraid of things turning awkward. He wiped again at his damp eyes and sank onto the bench in front of the fire. Then he rested his elbows on his knees and dropped his face into his hands.
“I’m so sorry, Wes. I never meant to do that to Risa’s brother. I was mad, and he punched first, but I never… Gods. I never, ever meant to do what I did. What if I’d killed him?”
Wesley sat beside him. “You didn’t.”
“Only because of you. Your quick thinking is the only thing that brought me back to my senses. If you hadn’t come when you did…”
“It’s over now.”
“Yeah, but how do I keep something like that from happening again? It’s not like I had any control over it. The memory of that night…it flooded me, made me think it was real, and I didn’t even realize it had happened until after you’d pulled me off him. Next time you or someone else might not be there to stop me.”
Wesley weighed the question for several moments before he responded. “I think…maybe this is how you keep it from happening again. Being aware of how much that night affected you. Talking about it. Until now, have you talked about it at all, to anyone, since it happened?”
Jarrad drew in a ragged breath, then sighed. “Not really. Not since we got back here to Kellesborne and told Mum and Iann about the attack. I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to forget it.”
Wesley remembered Edric and Wen both saying that the attack had shaken Jarrad even more than it had Wen and Lord Rizik. Lilia’d even had to intervene to help him sleep when they returned to the castle.
“You’ve been holding the nightmare of that night inside you, trying to suppress it, and I suspect it’s been eating at you all this time. Then, this afternoon, when you were put in a position of feeling threatened again, when Lochlann—Risa’s brother—starting swinging at you, it obviously surged to the surface.”
“I’d never felt so powerless in my life as I did that night with the nyctos,” Jarrad admitted, his voice painfully quiet. “I…I couldn’t move. And the pain in my head…gods. I knew I was going to die and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I could feel my body shutting down.”
Wesley knew all too well how it had felt because of his link with Wen during the ordeal, though he couldn’t share that with Jarrad. For the first time since it had happened and he’d spoken with Wen about it, a knot of shame once again formed in his gut because he’d only been able to help Wen and not Jarrad or Lord Rizik. If only he’d been able to shield Jarrad, too…
But then he shook his head, knowing it was a futile line of thought. What ifs helped nothing.
“But you didn’t die,” he told Jarrad. “You lived to fight another day.”
“Only because of Lord Rizik’s magick. I didn’t do anything. I was useless. Weak.”
“No, you weren’t. Wen talked to me a long time about what happened in that clearing, and he felt the same way you did…helpless, terrified, in agony. He thought he was going to die, too. But, just like he did, you fought through it, Jarrad. You stayed alive until Lord Rizik was able to deal with the nyctophans, and that’s a tribute to your courage. You could have given up, but you didn’t. You not only survived, you helped Wen drag Jax out of that clearing, then you flew all the way back to Kellesborne carrying him.”
Jarrad was quiet, staring into the flames once more, but Wesley could tell he was listening.
“Those weren’t the actions of someone weak and useless. Lord Rizik and Wen couldn’t have rescued Jax without you. It would have been impossible. The four of you survived something that no other draegans ever have, and then, with incredible strength of will, you still carried out the mission you’d been given. That doesn’t make you weak. It makes you heroic.”
Jarrad huffed out a disbelieving laugh. “I’m no hero. Heroes don’t do what I did this afternoon to Risa’s brother.” He dropped his face into his hands again and scrubbed at it. “Everything’s such a mess right now,” he said, his voice muffled. “Just when I think I have something figured out, it falls apart. It’s like the ground just keeps getting jerked out from beneath me.”
Wesley understood that feeling all too well. “It’ll get better,” he offered.
“Will it? Because right now, I’m not so sure.”
“It will. It has to.”
Jarrad looked up at Wesley. “Under the circumstances, I obviously can’t help you with training anymore. I realize there has to be some kind of disciplinary action for what I did. Probably it’s best if you have Wen send me down to the guard camp, or better yet, out to scout. Me being around other people isn’t healthy for anyone right now.”
“I don’t agree with that. I don’t think going off alone to scout would be good for you. Isolating yourself from the people who care about you might only make things worse. As for disciplinary action, I think you are your own worst enemy at the moment. What you did wasn’t intentional—you’re still dealing with the aftereffects of a traumatic experience.”
“That doesn’t make it right or excusable. And, truthfully, I don’t trust myself around anyone at this point.”
“I trust you.”
“Then you’re a fool.”
“No, I’m not. I’m pretty damn good at reading people.” Better than Jarrad could imagine. “And right now, you’re hurting, and you feel guilty, which is understandable. But punishing yourself by seeking isolation isn’t the answer. Al said you’ve moved out of your family’s rooms into the draeganjhere quarters. And now you want to leave training and separate yourself even more. Those aren’t the best solutions.”
“It was time for me to move into my own space. I’ve been too short-tempered with my brothers, even with Mum, and it’s not fair to subject them to that. Besides, it’s not only that, Wes. I…I’m… Let’s just say I’m not very good company at the moment for a lot of reasons.”
His emotions, still a tangled mess, took on a heartsick quality. Which caused the mysterious person to sidle into Wesley’s thoughts, making him wonder if that relationship was also part of what had Jarrad’s emotions twisted up. But he couldn’t exactly ask Jarrad about it. Not directly.
“Is there something else going on? Something else weighing on you besides what happened with the nyctophans?”
Jarrad was silent for a long moment, staring into the fire, as heartache continued to pulse from him. Wesley sensed Jarrad wanted to talk about whatever it was, but in the end, he sighed and shook his head. “Nothing that matters.”
Wesley’s own heart ached for him, but there was nothing he could say to make Jarrad talk about whatever clearly did matter, not without admitting he’d been empathically spying on him. Damn it, and what kind of a friend did that make him?
“All right, but please, reconsider leaving training. Your help is invaluable.”
“You’re just being nice. You have Al to help you, and he’s a lot more patient than I am. Which is weird to say because if you’d asked me even a few weeks ago who had a more easy-going temperament, I would never have said Al over me. But after traveling with you, he came back…I don’t know…I guess more mature. You’ve been good for him. Just like you’ve been good for Wen.”
“I didn’t do anything for Al except just spend time with him, which is inevitable when you’re traveling with someone night and day for weeks.”
Jarrad smiled, though it was pained. “Don’t underestimate your power, Wesley. You have a way of making people trust you and want to be better.”
“This conversation isn’t about me,” Wesley said, “but if you really think I’m so trustworthy, then can you not trust me when I tell you that being off on your own is not in your best interest?”
Jarrad’s expression grew troubled again. Or, more than it already was. “How can I possibly go out there and face all those trainees after what I did? How can I face Risa? I’m supposed to set an example, but look how well that worked out.”
“Initially, you lost your temper, which is understandable, and Lochlann hit you first. From what you and Allend and Risa have told me, he said a lot of rotten things, not to mention the way he manhandled Risa. And between you and me, I have a sneaking suspicion that’s not the first time he’s hurt her.”
Jarrad’s brows drew together. “You think so?”
“She didn’t directly say so, but reading between the lines, yeah, I think it’s possible. She wants to stay here at Kellesborne, live here, with her little brother, and she doesn’t want to have anything else to do with Lochlann. That’s pretty telling as well. She and the little one are moving in with your mum and Allend and Edric as we speak.”
“Good.” He looked genuinely relieved to hear that. “But, still, even if the guy did deserve a beat-down, I lost complete control and could have killed him. That’s not okay.”
“No, it’s not. But you didn’t kill him. And now that we know how deeply the nyctophan attack affected you, you’ll know the signs to be on the lookout for, and hopefully that will help you rein it in before it gets out of control again. Plus, you’ve got me and your brothers, if you’ll let us help you.”
“Gods, I don’t want to tell Wen what happened today. He’ll go mental.”
“No, he won’t. He was there with you, with the nyctophans, remember? He’ll understand; he’ll want to help. And as far as training, I think the trainees will be more understanding than you’re giving them credit for. Especially if you’re honest with them about what happened.”
Jarrad swiped a hand over his face again, but it did nothing to clear the look of misery from his countenance. “I don’t know. I appreciate everything you’re saying, and you’re probably right about a lot of it. Or even all of it. But right now I…I just really need some time to think. About a lot of things.”
“Is that your polite way of saying you want me to leave you alone?”
Jarrad sighed, then slowly nodded.
“I’m worried about you.”
Now it was Wesley’s turn to sigh. He didn’t feel good about leaving Jarrad like this, but he also reminded himself once again that he couldn’t force Jarrad to keep talking to him. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t check in on Jarrad later, though, using his empathic senses. At least knowing he had that option gave him some comfort.
He rose and squeezed Jarrad’s shoulder. “I’ll leave you to your thoughts then. But, Jarrad, if you need to talk about anything, any time, find me, okay? At least promise me that?”
Jarrad’s softly mumbled, “Okay,” gave him little hope Jarrad would seek him out, but at least he’d acknowledged Wesley’s plea.