Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
In the end, there’d been surprisingly few questions and most of those had been over minor issues.
Wen wasn’t sure if the lack of questions was a good thing or a bad thing, but he didn’t feel any concerning emotions from Wesley, so he decided not to overthink it.
“Anyone else have anything they’d like to discuss?” he asked, before moving on.
When he received no response, he continued. “All right, if you think of anything later, feel free to find me and ask, or, if I’m not around, check with Lieutenant Brannock.
“Now, on to the next bit of business… Current guards, and trainees who are choosing to join the vellanjhere today, Edric is in the armory right now, waiting to fit you with your own armor and update your weaponry as necessary.”
Wen and Wesley had brought Edric in on the plan for the vellanjhere last night to get his help. Wen was determined to give every single guard in the vellanjhere the best possible chance to stay alive, which meant not only excellent armor, but excellent weapons, too. Many of the current guards had decent equipment, but the trainees had been using a mishmash of spare blades taken off Byram’s soldiers or they’d been borrowing weapons. In Wen’s eyes, that was no longer good enough. He might not have a lot of soldiers at his disposal, but he was going to make damn sure the ones he had were outfitted properly, all of them, including the least experienced.
“Go ahead on down, and Lieutenant Brannock and I will be there shortly to help.”
No one moved, which was…odd. But then Wen realized why.
With a slight smile, he said, “Dismissed.”
As the group dispersed, with lots of talking amongst themselves in what Wen thought sounded like mostly positive tones, he jumped down off the fountain wall to meet Wesley.
“Well?” he said quietly, so only Wesley could hear it as people passed by them on the way to the armory. “How do you think it went? Did I shock them too much?”
“I think…that if we weren’t surrounded by so many people right now, I’d kiss you until you couldn’t breathe.”
The words caught Wen off guard. “You would?” he murmured.
Damn. Wen felt himself being sucked in by Wesley’s warm, dark-eyed gaze.
“And you did shock them,” Wesley continued. “But in a good way. You were every inch the strong, confident, inspirational leader they need right now. And all I could think about while you were speaking was, how in hel did I ever get so lucky not only to have had you as my mentor, but now to have you as my mate?”
Wen drew in a slow breath and released it. “If we weren’t surrounded by so many people, I’d gladly let you kiss me until neither of us could breathe,” he whispered.
Wesley’s smile sent a jolt of sweetly aching longing through him.
They were so caught up in one another for those few precious seconds, neither of them heard someone approaching.
“Bloody hel. I go away for a little while and when I come back, you two are even more gooey-eyed with each other than when I left.”
Wen turned at the same time Wesley did.
“Jarrad!” Wesley said breathlessly. “When did you get back?”
Jarrad shrugged a shoulder. “Pretty much now.” Then he smiled sheepishly at them. “Guess I have a habit of catching you two during naughty moments.”
“There are no naughty moments, you git. Only stupidly pathetic commentary from you,” Wen said, but the words held no bite. He pulled Jarrad into a hug, happier than he cared to admit to see his brother.
Jarrad hesitated for a couple of seconds, before hugging him back, and Wen could almost feel the tension flow out of Jarrad’s body.
“It’s damned good to see you,” Wen said.
“It’s good to see you, too,” Jarrad murmured before they stepped apart.
“How are you?” Wesley asked him. Wen could tell by Wesley’s intense expression that he was reading Jarrad.
“I’m… I’m all right,” Jarrad said quietly. “For real,” he added when Wesley continued to look at him intently.
When Wesley slowly nodded and smiled, Jarrad did the same, and whatever unspoken exchange had passed between them, they’d obviously made their peace.
“I’m happy you’re back,” Wesley said.
“Does that mean you’re staying?” Even though Wesley’s voice didn’t betray it, Wen felt his hope.
Jarrad nodded again, slowly. “Probably. Unless you need me to be out there?” The question was addressed to Wen.
“We have other people who can scout. I’d rather have you here, if you’re willing. I need my best people protecting Kellesborne.”
A hint of red crept up Jarrad’s cheeks. “Okay. I’m a little out of touch, though. Clearly I missed a few things while I was gone. Not the least of which is that the two of you were promoted. Congratulations. You both deserve it.” His blush deepened. “Just don’t tell anyone else I said that since I don’t want to ruin my reputation for being a smart ass.”
Wen smiled. “Thanks. And I don’t think your reputation’s in any danger.”
“Your secret’s safe with us,” Wesley added, a smile still flickering on his face.
Clearly trying to get the attention focused elsewhere besides on him, Jarrad said, “So, good speech. And the vellanjhere… I like it.” He dropped his voice. “I’ve noticed a couple of other fairly big things that are different, too.”
Wen nodded, knowing what he was getting at. “Lord Rizik is gone,” he said, keeping his voice equally quiet so they wouldn’t be overheard.
“Solanis told me when I got to the guard camp. He didn’t say specifically to where, but I read between the lines. He told me Iann’s away as well.”
“And a handful of others, sent out as envoys in the hopes of gathering some allies.”
“Solanis also said it’s been a couple of weeks since Lord R left. Has there been any word of him or Hareldson?”
“No one but the inner circle knows where he’s really gone, so keep it to yourself.”
“I will. Of course I will.”
“How are things out there?” Wesley asked, nodding toward the courtyard wall, his face creased with concern.
“Not good. The sorcerer holds the entire east road now, from Lafaria to Thrythgar. His soldiers aren’t letting anyone traverse or cross it who aren’t army. Any civilians are searched. And…you’re gonna love this…they have a glargak.”
“Are you joking with me?” But Wen could tell Jarrad wasn’t kidding in the least. “Bloody hel.”
“What’s a glargak?” Wesley asked, his tension rising, probably from Wen’s reaction to the news.
“It’s a sort of hound-like creature, but bigger. Much bigger,” Wen told him.
“And uglier,” Jarrad added. “It’s more like a cross between a huge grey, hairless hound with sharp teeth, and a giant, oozing slug.”
“Eww. Is it particularly fierce or something?”
“It can be used to tell who’s human and who’s something else,” Wen told Wesley. “Byram had one a century ago, when he first went after the draegans, until it was finally killed. He’d use it in villages to find draegans who were trying to pass as human.”
“How can this glargak thing tell who’s a draegan?” Wesley asked.
“That’s where the slug part comes in,” Jarrad said. “It secretes a slick, slimy substance from its skin. When humans come into contact with the slime, it does nothing. It’s like humans are immune to it for some reason. But if it gets on anyone else, any other creature of any kind, it creates big, puss-filled sores that make the skin around them rot away.”
“Oh my gods,” Wesley in horror. “But…how in the hel did Byram use this thing? Did he round up everyone in a village and make them touch the slug-hound? Surely draegans, and anyone else, could get away as soon as they saw it coming.”
“That was the problem,” Wen said. “No one saw it coming because Byram never had the glargak taken all the way into villages. His soldiers would camp with it somewhere nearby in secret, then they’d scrape off a bucket or two of fresh slime and sneak it into the village water supplies. Humans could bathe in it, drink it, and nothing would happen. But if a draegan bathed in it—”
“It became blatantly obvious who wasn’t human,” Jarrad said. “Oozing, blackened sores, not easy to hide.”
Wen nodded. “And if a draegan drank it…it was basically poison because it would do the same thing to draegan insides as it did to the outsides, which was fatal.”
“Also, its hide is damn near impenetrable,” Jarrad responded. “A lot of attempts were made to hunt and kill it before someone finally succeeded.”
“Where in hel did Byram conjure up another one of the damnable beasts?” Wen asked his brother. “We were always told the one he used was the only of its kind. A leftover relic from Byram’s dead, old mentor. And I don’t think anyone knew where he got it.”
“Don’t know. But I saw it with my own eyes,” Jarrad said. “It looked exactly like we’d always heard it described, which is why I recognized it. And, believe me, it’s not a sight easily unseen.” He shuddered. “Anyway, it’s being heavily guarded. Meanwhile, the soldiers are capturing any civilians who dare to be out on the road and testing them with the glargak slime. I’m sure if they turn up any draegans, they kill them on the spot. As for the humans…the soldiers are taking anyone old enough to hold a sword and forcing them to serve in the army, as ‘punishment’ for daring to be on the road.”
“Fucking hel,” Wen muttered.
“What about kids? What’s happening to them if the parents and older siblings are being pressed into the sorcerer’s army?” Wesley asked.
“I’m not sure. I didn’t see anyone with children encounter the soldiers while I was out. But I expect the kids are either left to fend for themselves or they’re taken to the army camps to do chores and serve in menial capacities.”
“So they’re forced to be slaves,” Wesley muttered darkly.
Wen felt, and shared, his disgust and worry at the idea of defenseless children being used, and probably abused, in such a way.
“Isn’t there anything we can do?” Wesley asked, turning to Wen.
Wen sighed, knowing Wesley was referring specifically to protecting any children left behind or abused. “I don’t know, love. But we’ll give it some thought,” he promised.
He’d add it to the already gigantic mental list of problems and things to deal with that plagued his every waking hour.
The knowledge the sorcerer held the east road and had somehow come up with another glargak unsettled the hel out of Wen.
And here we sit on the side of the mountain, with barely enough guards to keep us protected in spite of this magically fortified stronghold, much less be able to send anyone out to help fight the fucking sorcerer’s takeover of all of the land.
Wesley rested a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. Wen knew Wes was picking up on his fear and frustration.
“Sorry,” Wesley said, looking at him with understanding. “Let’s just focus on one issue and one solution at a time. Right now, we need to get our people properly armed. That’s the most important thing at the moment.”
Wen drew in another deep breath and slowly released it. Then he nodded, giving Wesley a grateful look.
“If I’m staying here, do I get one of your fancy new blue suits, too?” Jarrad asked, seemingly oblivious to the tension, and comfort, that had just passed between Wen and Wesley.
Inwardly, Wen smiled. “Only if you say please very nicely.”
“Oh my gods,” Wesley said with a snort. “You’re both asses sometimes. But right now, Wen, you need to move your ass. We promised Ed we’d help him.”
“What’s so funny?” Wen asked, looking at him askance.
“Wesley bossing you around. I kind of enjoy seeing that.”
Wesley rolled his eyes, and Wen bit back a retort.
But then Jarrad’s brows shot up. “Wait a second…you left Edric alone down in the armory to deal with everyone? Good gods, he’s probably hiding in a corner by now from being forced to have too much face-to-face contact. Way to go, Captain.”
“Shut up, dumb a—”
“For fuck’s sake. Less talking, more helping!” Wesley gave both of them a shove, but Wen sensed his humor.
He also felt Wesley’s relief over having Jarrad back in the fold.
It was a relief he fully shared, and, for the first time in weeks, Wen felt as if he could breathe just a tiny bit easier about that concern at least. For as much as he’d assured Wesley Jarrad would be fine and would come to them if he really needed help, he’d still worried every day about his brother. He had no idea if Jarrad was still haunted by the nyctophan attack—probably he was. It was unlikely his memory of it drifted away like so much magick smoke while he’d been gone. Wen just hoped that at the very least, Jarrad wasn’t living in as much fear of it now and that he’d lean on the people who cared about him if he needed to.
And then he smiled as he realized he was sounding suspiciously like Wesley. Which wasn’t a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.
When they got down to the armory a few minutes later, and Wen discovered that every trainee, without exception, had chosen to become a member of the guard, yet another weight he hadn’t realized he’d been holding lifted from him.
“I never expected all of them,” he murmured under his breath to Wesley.
Wesley smiled. “I told you weeks ago, they’re here because they believe in what we’re doing. And your speech only further confirmed it for them. Whether you realize it or not, today you convinced every single one of them to willingly follow you wherever you might lead. To the ends of the land if necessary.”
“I think that might be a slight exaggeration.”
“But it’s not. This afternoon they got a taste of how I always feel about you.”
Wen instinctively reached for Wes, stroking his cheek for too brief a moment, before remembering they were still surrounded by other people. It didn’t stop him from wanting more though.
“I’m just concerned there may yet be some draegans who are less than happy about the name change of the guard, and who might feel like we’re disrespecting, or perhaps even outright abandoning, our history.” He kept his voice low, to be sure no one overheard.
“Maybe,” Wesley responded in an equally quiet tone. “Change can be hard. But sometimes it’s also necessary. And for the one or two draegans who might be like Lochlann, I think you can see by looking at all of them in the guard who are here that the majority at Kellesborne are ready to embrace change. You’re not abandoning your history, you’re merely adding to it, guiding it farther along the new path that Lord Hareldson and Lord Rizik chose to forge.”
Wen liked that analogy. It made it seem less like he was completely overturning a thousand years of draegan heritage and more that he was simply helping things along toward the next logical step.
Though banishing Lochlann should have made it crystal clear his slurs and behavior were unacceptable, Wen had worried the event might still have stirred a quiet discord among other draegans who felt similarly. So, ever since then, he’d been searching for a way to cement in not only the guards and trainees minds, but the general population of Kellesborne as well, that everyone under the castle’s roof was equal to everyone else. It had seemed especially critical to do it once Lord Rizik had gone because without having their half draegan/half human leader visibly at the helm, with his powerful draegan lord magick as both an example of how different races could meld together successfully, and also as a deterrent to trouble, it might make bolder those who had ideas of dissent.
Wen’s idea of renaming the guard had been borne of wanting to solidify the bond between the races, as well as give everyone a sense of pride about what they were building and fighting for here, in spite of the fact they were horrifically outnumbered by Byram’s armies. When he’d broached the possibility with Wesley, and then with his mum, they’d both supported it. His mother had also said she was certain Lord Hareldson and Lord Rizik would agree were they here, which is why, as interim leader, she’d officially approved it.
Maybe it was idealistic, but Wen wanted to show people that their unified strength was a bastion upon which they could lean in the difficult times yet to come. Because, ultimately, they all needed each other if they were going to survive. It was something he and Lord Rizik had discussed many times on their nightly flights over the land.
The forward progress today gave him hope. And that was a win he’d gladly take.