Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Wen landed with Lord Rizik south of the old camp and quickly dressed in the clothes Lord Rizik had carried in a pack for him so Wen wouldn’t freeze as they hiked through the woods. Lord Rizik wanted to be back in the same spot where Moh’dredion had previously opened the portal, which meant the old command tent. But one of the sorcerer’s damned nets hovered in the sky almost directly above that area, so they’d had to land outside camp where it was safe to do so, then walk the rest of the way.
They opened a door in the magick protective shield they’d left up around the camp when they moved and began the trek through the frozen forest toward their destination.
Even with everyone and everything gone, there’d been no way to fully disguise the fact that so many people had been living across the top of the forested hill for months. So, they’d decided to leave the magick protective barrier in place to hide the evidence they’d ever been there. If Byram’s soldiers passed nearby, they’d only see a reflection of the forest, feel an urge to go a different direction, and would never be any wiser to the fact the abandoned camp existed.
Everything looked very much the same as it had when they’d left here weeks ago, except for the blanket of snow covering everything in icy splendor that sparkled in the pale moonlight. Their booted feet crunched on the ground, but aside from that and the wind sighing in the trees above them, all lay quiet.
“Here it is,” Wen said several minutes later, when they reached the old tent site, his voice sounding strangely loud and out of place thanks to the silence of the night.
“Here it is,” Lord Rizik echoed. He looked around, appearing lost in thought for several seconds, before finally turning to Wen. “Okay, it’s time for you to go, Wen.”
“I don’t like leaving you here. Let me stay.”
“No. That’s not going to happen. This is my battle to fight. You have other responsibilities.”
Wen sighed. “I know. But that doesn’t make it any easier to leave you. It’s my job to protect you, and I can’t very well do that if I’m not nearby.”
Lord Rizik smiled and rested a hand on Wen’s shoulder. “One of the things I admire most about you is your sense of loyalty. It’s why I put you in charge of the draeganjhere. But, this time, you’re going to have to accept my orders to go.”
“Are you ordering me?”
“Yes. I am.”
“Well…I don’t have to like it.”
Lord Rizik chuckled quietly. “No, you don’t. But you’ll do what I ask anyway. Because that’s the kind of man you are. Loyal. Smart. Sensible. Besides…” He squeezed Wen’s shoulder. “I’m pretty sure there’s someone back at Kellesborne who is, right now, waiting for your safe return. Don’t let him down.”
There was no mistaking of whom Lord Rizik spoke, and Wen couldn’t stop the small smile that curved his lips as he thought of Wesley. “I try not to. Let him down, I mean.”
“Good. And in that vein, I have something for you, to be opened later.” Lord Rizik pulled a rolled-up parchment with a wax seal affixed to it out of the folds of his cloak. He handed it to Wen.
Wen took it, but looked at Lord Rizik questioningly.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t know about yours and Wesley’s relationship,” the lord said, “until that morning after the nyctophan attack.”
Wen was surprised at the apology. “You’ve had a few other vastly more important things on your plate, my lord, than to worry about what’s happening in my personal life.”
“I still should have paid more attention and realized how close you two had become. Our titles and ranks aside, first and foremost, I consider you my friend, Wen. We’ve spent a lot of time together over the past weeks, have talked about so much, and I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t realize all those hours I kept you in flight or in meetings or in the field, your heart was otherwise occupied. I, of all people, should and do understand how hard it is to be apart from the person you love.”
Wen started to speak, but Lord Rizik held up a hand to stop him. “Let me finish. When you get back to Kellesborne, give the parchment to Wesley. There’s a promotion for him in it, making him a second lieutenant.”
Wen’s eyes widened as Lord Rizik continued to speak.
“He’s already been working under you in the draeganjhere, obviously, but this ensures he reports directly to you and only you. That way, he won’t get sent out on any more assignments by someone else. Iann, for example, thinks highly of Wesley and wanted Wesley to escort him to Taladaria when he leaves tomorrow morning. There’s no telling how long Iann will be gone, so I intervened and told him Wesley’s job is too important and he’s needed here. Keep him close, Wen. Treasure every moment you have together, and try not to let yourselves be separated unless it’s absolutely necessary. Life’s too damn short to not be with the person who completes your world.”
Shaken, Wen let out a huff of breath. “I…I don’t even know what to say, my lord. Thank you doesn’t seem enough.”
“You can thank me by doing what I’ve asked of you.”
“I will. We will, my lord.”
“Good. And you can also show your thanks by doing one other thing for me.”
“Anything, my lord.” Truly. Wen had never respected anyone as much as he did this man.
“I know you’re stubbornly insistent on protocol and tradition, and I know trying to get you to change, especially in front of other people, is virtually impossible. But, in private, would it kill you to drop the “my lord” stuff and just use my name?”
What? Of all the things for Lord Rizik to bring up right now…
A soft laugh escaped Wen. “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t kill me. Under the circumstances. Gaige.”
They shared a smile for several seconds, but quickly sobered when an icy blast of wind swept through the clearing, reminding them where they were and why they were here.
“All right,” Lord Rizik said, his forehead furrowed in a frown. “Go. I’ve got business to take care of. And so do you.”
“Wait,” Wen said. “Speaking of Wesley, he sent me with a message for you tonight.”
That clearly took Lord Rizik aback. His brows rose. “Oh?”
“I was telling him about Ballian this evening, what you knew of it, what Lord Hareldson has seen of it, and how the stumbling block to the plan was going to be getting out of the underground caverns once you wake Lord Hareldson. You said Lord Hareldson saw rivers. Covered with fire, but rivers nonetheless, correct?”
“That’s what he told me, yes.”
“Wesley…well…he grew up around water—the lakes and rivers and streams in the old forest. And he told me to tell you that most underground rivers come up to the surface eventually.”
Lord Rizk stared at Wen for a long moment, and Wen could tell he was processing the information. “If that’s the case, then…”
“Then there’s a good chance you and Lord Hareldson can get out of there by following the water.”
The lord huffed out a slow, shaky breath. “Brilliant,” he murmured. “That’s…bloody brilliant.” He suddenly smiled and unexpectedly pulled Wen into a hug. “Please, tell Wesley thank you. He might very well have just saved two lives tonight.”
Wen smiled. “I’ll tell him”
“All right. No more delays. Get out of here. And, Wen, be safe.”
“You as well. We’ll be waiting for your return.”
Lord Rizik nodded. “Now, go.”
Reluctantly, after a final long look at Lord Rizik, Wen turned and headed back through the woods.
But if Lord Rizik thought he was actually returning to Kellesborne right now, he was mistaken. There was no way Wen could go home until he knew for sure what was going to happen. He’d honor Lord Rizik’s orders and leave the immediate area, but he wouldn’t be far away. Just in case.
Sometime later, the land rumbled under Wen’s feet as he stood on the crest of a hill not far from the camp. He couldn’t see what was happening from his position because the magick barrier and the trees blocked his sight. And he couldn’t take to the sky because of the damned net where it was. But he’d been afraid if he remained too close, Moh’dredion might sense him and it would mess up Lord Rizik’s plan. So, he’d opted to wait outside the magick barrier, where he’d still be near enough to tell if and when Death arrived, even if he couldn’t see it with his own eyes.
He was far enough away he didn’t experience the gut-wrenching terror like he had the first time Death had opened a hole in the air and come through to steal away Lord Hareldson. But even at this distance, the tremors were significant and seemed to last forever. And all the while, anxiety clawed at Wen’s gut as he wondered and worried what was going on between Moh’dredion and Lord Rizik.
And then, just as he was convinced the world would never return to normal and the ground would forever be churning beneath him, the tremors abruptly stopped.
Wen drew in a breath. Then another, steadying himself.
The land beneath him stayed solid.
Which meant Moh’dredion had departed.
The question that burned inside him was…had the demon taken Lord Rizik with him? Or was the draegan lord even now lying dead in the frozen clearing?
Gods, Wen fucking hated this. He kept having to remind himself this was exactly what Lord Rizik had wanted—it was a risk worth taking since it might be the only way to get to Lord Hareldson.
But he hated it nonetheless.
He couldn’t leave without knowing for certain that Lord Rizik was gone. So, he ran, full-out, back to the clearing.
He found no sign of the fair-haired lord.
The plan had apparently worked. For better or worse. And Lord Rizik’s life, both lords’ lives, were out of Wen’s hands now. He hated the way that felt, too, but there was nothing to be done for it.
With a sigh he turned away. And minutes later he was on his way back to Kellesborne, the rolled parchment Lord Rizik had given him tucked away in the pack, along with his clothes and boots, that he held gripped in one of his claws.
His thoughts, as usual, turned to Wesley. And the mere act of thinking about Wesley eased his mind in a way nothing else could. He wondered if Wes was reaching out right now, sensing him from afar, even as he worked his guard shift? Wen wished he had Wesley’s ability to read him from a distance, but contented himself with letting the love he felt for his mate soothe him, hoping Wes could feel it, too.
He tried to keep his thoughts easy and focused on Wes as he flew the distance between the camp and Kellesborne, hoping to hold at bay the apprehension that seemed to be a constant companion these days. But, little by little, it crept in until he could no longer ignore it.
How in hel was he going to keep the guard shifts fully staffed once Iann and the other envoys left tomorrow? He was afraid he was going to have to impose on Wesley again to offer up some trainees to help. Wen hated to do it, with as little instruction as most of them had had. But a little training was better than none. Gods knew, they could end up under attack from the sorcerer and his massive armies at any point, and then all of the trainees would have to survive a trial by fire. Maybe it was better to go ahead and expose them now, somehow work a guard rotation into their lessons and let them learn on the job.
He made a mental note to talk to Wesley about it and see what he thought.
After landing in the near the castle, he quickly dressed again, and donned his weapons that he’d left hidden in the hollow tree. Then, needing a dose of the comfort that only Wesley could offer, he sought him out, and found him, along with two of the trainees—Hadlow and another human, a woman named Merinile—guarding the postern gate of the castle.
He smiled because he heard Wesley teaching even now, explaining the merits of using a knife in close combat, and even demonstrating it using a move Wen had taught him during his training what seemed forever ago.
Watching the interaction made Wen think maybe his idea to train the new people on the job wasn’t such a bad one, if he could just find a way to make it work.
Both of the trainees turned at the same time as Wen drew near, weapons at the ready, but quickly lowered them when they recognized him. Wen knew Wesley had long before sensed him coming, but he was pleased to see the trainees aware enough of their surroundings and listening attentively enough that they heard him approach from the shadows surrounding the outer castle wall, even though he was intentionally being as quiet as possible. Another sign of Wesley’s careful training of them, which, Wen couldn’t deny, made him proud all over again at what an excellent job Wes was doing.
“Lieutenant,” Hadlow said, nodding to him in respect.
“Sir,” Merinile said.
Wesley, who’d also turned to face him, greeted him with a smile, one that warmed him to the core.
“Everything quiet tonight?” Wen asked, addressing the question to Hadlow and Merinile.
“So far,” Hadlow responded.
“Nothing but some winter hares out feeding,” Merinile said.
“Good. I like nights like that, and so should you. I know it can be tedious, even boring sometimes, but better quiet nights than the alternative.”
“Wesley says even when it’s quiet, though, to be prepared for that to change any moment,” Merinile said.
Wen’s gaze once again fell on his mate. “As usual, Wesley is right.”
At another smile in return from Wes, Wen had trouble looking away, but he did, focusing his words on the trainees. “That said, since it has been calm, and it’s only a couple of hours until the end of the shift anyway, why don’t you two hit your beds. I’ll finish this shift up with Wesley tonight. If that’s okay with you?” he asked Wes.
Surprise and a hint of pleasure flickered along their link, and Wesley nodded. “Of course.” He directed his next words to the other two. “Hadlow, Merinile, good work tonight and thank you. Take advantage of the extra sleep while you can, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Thank you, sir,” the always gracious Hadlow said.
“Yes, thanks so much,” Merinile echoed.
When they’d gone and were out of sight and hearing range, Wen stepped close to Wesley and kissed him, savoring every second of the warm crush of lips against his, and the soft sigh that followed when they parted. He loved those little sighs Wesley made.
“It’s been a long time since we worked a guard shift together,” Wesley said.
“How’d it go at the camp?” Even in the dark, Wen could feel his concerned gaze.
“Well, the plan worked,” Wen said with a sigh.
“He’s gone then?” came the whispered response, along with a rush of sadness through their emotional connection.
“He’s gone. I waited until Moh’dredion had left, then went back to be sure Lord Rizik wasn’t still there. I know it’s what he wanted, but, gods, letting him do that was hard. Leaving him there, knowing what that beast would do to him, where he was taking him… It brought back too many bad memories.”
“I’m just glad you’ve returned safely. I hated the thought of you being anywhere near that demon horror again. And I knew even though Lord Rizik would probably want you far away, you’d stay close until it was over.”
“I couldn’t leave without knowing for certain. But…” He sighed. “Now it’s done.”
“And now we wait.”
Wen nodded. “We wait, do our jobs, and hope for the best. Speaking of jobs…” He pulled out the rolled, sealed parchment. “Lord Rizik told me to tell you thank you for your suggestion about the underground rivers and how he and Lord Hareldson might be able to use them to escape the caverns. And…he gave me this before he left. It’s for you.” He held it out to Wesley.
“I don’t understand. What would Lord Rizik have for me?”
Wen smiled. “Let’s go closer to the castle so you can see it.”
They’d been standing twenty or so paces from the outer wall. When they reached it, they moved to a spot under one of the torches that burned at night on either side of the postern gate.
Wesley pulled off his gloves and, after giving Wen an odd look, broke open the blue wax seal that had kept the parchment rolled up. He spread it open and held it into the light. As his gaze scanned the writing, in Lord Rizik’s flowing, elegant hand, Wen felt Wesley’s curiosity turn to shock.
“This… Is this for real?” Wesley murmured, looking up at Wen, his eyes wide.
His expression was so disbelieving, Wen couldn’t help but laugh. “Of course it is. Why in the world would it not be? Congratulations, Lieutenant Brannock.”
“But…” Wesley’s gaze returned to the document, then back up at Wen. “Did you…?”
Wen held up his hands. “I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t even know about it until he told me tonight. But I’m not surprised, and neither should you be. You’ve been working in a command position for weeks now. No one deserves it more than you, Wes.”
“It’s just…I never expected anything like this. A lieutenant… I…I don’t even know what to say.”
“You can tell Lord Rizik thank you when he gets back.”
“I will. Gods, of course I will.” Wesley looked down at the parchment again, as if he still couldn’t quite believe it. “What are the other pages?”
“I didn’t know there were any others.”
Sure enough, Wesley pulled two more sheets of parchment out from behind the first. He glanced at the first one for only a moment, then pulled the other from behind it. As he did, his brows shot up and a hint of a smile teased at his mouth. He quickly slid the pages together, letting them naturally curl back into a loose roll, and held them out to Wen. “Um…these are for you.”
“Lord Rizik didn’t mention anything else. What are they?”
“Probably you should look at them and find out.”
Curious, Wen took them from him, stepped into the circle of light as he rolled the pages back open, and looked down at the first sheet. The parchment was, once again, written in Lord Rizik’s hand, but this was a letter. And Wesley was right…it was addressed to him.
Before I leave, I want to make sure you know just how much I appreciate you and all that you do. You are an exemplary soldier, one of the most honorable men I’ve ever known, and a true and loyal friend. I’ve come to highly value your feedback and advice, as well as your excellent company on our many journeys together. Along with your mother and Iann, you form the backbone of our unique, blended community, and I know that no matter how the future plays out, you will continue to be a stalwart anchor upon which our people can depend.
In light of that, and because I have the utmost respect for you as a man and leader, I’m promoting you to the rank of captain. You’ve more than earned it, and in the coming months the draeganjhere will need your clear head, steady hand, and fierce heart more than ever. I’ve included the formal decree here, along with Wesley’s promotion, so that you can pin them both to the board in the common room.
It is my hope that our paths will cross again soon. But if fate wills that not to be so, it’s been an honor and a privilege to work with you and call you friend.
A hot lump formed in Wen’s throat as he read the words, and by the time he finished, he could barely swallow. The fact Lord Rizik had signed it with only his given name made it even more poignant since he’d finally convinced Wen earlier tonight to use his name for the first time.
Wesley, obviously picking up on his torn emotions, stepped closer and rested a hand on his lower back. “You okay?”
Wen drew in a deep breath and slowly released it, even as he nodded and blinked back unexpected moisture in his eyes. He handed the letter to Wesley, so he could read it.
Wesley took it and when he’d finished, he looked up at Wen and smiled. “Speaking of someone being deserving… Congratulations to you, Captain.”
Wen’s breath caught at actually hearing it spoken aloud. Captain. That had been Lord Rizik’s rank before he became the draegan lord.
Lord Hareldson hadn’t ever worried much about ranks—hadn’t really had to, since most of Wen’s life they’d been a small band working together to steal food from the sorcerer’s stockpiles. There’d been no need for ranks.
But as the rebellion grew and they got more organized, several people would refer to his mum and Jax and Iann as Hareldson’s “lieutenants.” It still wasn’t really a formal rank, though—at least Wen had never thought so. He’d just always assumed it meant they were the ones who worked most closely with Hareldson. Although, perhaps Iann had held a rank back in his days in the old draeganjhere, but if he had, he’d never mentioned it or used it as long as Wen had known him.
Lord Rizik, on the other hand, had spent his whole life in an organized military system. He’d been the captain of the sorcerer’s High Guard, where everyone, even the lowest of people, had held some sort of rank. His father, the sorcerer’s right hand, had been a general. When Lord Rizik came to live with the draegans and had taken on the job of training the draeganjhere and civilians, Lord Hareldson had given him the rank of captain once again. Wen suspected he’d done it in part to make it clear to the people in camp how much he trusted and respected Lord Rizik in spite of the fact he used to work for the sorcerer.
Lord Rizik and Lord Hareldson had officially made Wen a second lieutenant when he began assisting Lord Rizik with training. Then Lord Rizik had promoted him to first lieutenant when he took over the draeganjhere. Solanis had become a second lieutenant when he was tasked with running the guard camp after they’d arrived at Kellesborne. But Wen’s mum and Iann still held no official rank.
So, to have Lord Rizik promote him to captain…
As if reading his mind, Wesley said, “He’s always had enormous respect for you. It radiates off him in waves whenever he’s around you.”
“He couldn’t possibly respect me any more than I respect him. But a captain?” Wen said, shaking his head, still having trouble wrapping his mind around it. “No one’s ever been a captain here except him. And he had years of experience.”
“As do you. A different kind of experience, maybe, but you’ve been fighting your whole life, Rowen. And you’re only a few years younger than Lord Rizik, so he doesn’t have that much more experience.”
“I just…” He shook his head again.
“You just weren’t expecting it?” Wesley softly asked, the faint hint of a smile on his face again.
“Not in the most distant reaches of my imagination.” He finally gave a quiet chuckle. “I guess I know now how you feel.”
As they moved back out away from the castle, into the concealing darkness, part of his conversation with Lord Rizik earlier came back to Wen. “Actually,” he said thoughtfully, “some of what Lord Rizik told me tonight makes more sense now.”
Wesley tilted his head in question.
“He told me to always keep you close and not be separated from you again because he knows how hard it is to be away from the person you love. And he said that your promotion would make it so that you didn’t have to report to anyone but me, that no one else would be able to command you to go somewhere or do something. I didn’t fully understand why you being a lieutenant would make that so, but he knew something I didn’t…”
“That he was promoting you, too. And that making you the highest-ranking person here means…what, that you’d have the final say?”
“But why would he be worried about that? That someone else might give me a job away from you?”
“Iann?” Then Wen felt Wesley’s understanding slide along their link. “He did send Al and me on the mission to find Caleb.”
“Exactly. And, today, Lord Rizik told him to take one or two members of the draeganjhere he trusts most to Taladaria with him when he leaves tomorrow. Guess whose name was at the top of his list?”
“According to Lord Rizik, yes. Iann likes you and thinks highly of you, so, naturally, you were his first choice.”
“But what about training? With Jarrad gone, that only leaves Al and me, and—”
“Don’t worry, Lord Rizik told him he couldn’t take you, that you were needed here. Which, I suspect, Iann already knew, but you can’t blame him for trying. If I could pick only one person to have my back, it’d be you every time.”
“Yeah, but you’re more than a little biased.”
“And, yet, I’m not the one who wanted to take you to Taladaria,” Wen said with a grin.
He sensed Wesley’s answering smile, even if he couldn’t fully see it in the dark.
“Okay, fair enough,” Wesley murmured with a tinge of pleased embarrassment that rippled along their link. “For what it’s worth, though…I’ll worry about Iann, but I’m relieved I’ll be here with you.”
“Believe me, I feel the same.” Wen sobered. “Things are about to get painfully challenging around here, and, honestly, I don’t think I could bear to face it without you, Wes.”
“Now you won’t have to,” Wesley said softly.
Wen reached for his hand, winding his fingers through Wesley’s and squeezing. “And now I won’t have to.”