DARK MAGICK RISING (Part 1)
Copyright 2016 by M.L. Rhodes
Draegan Lords, Book 5
(Wen and Wesley #2)
Snow, which had begun to fall in earnest around dawn, covered the ground and came nearly to Wesley Brannock’s ankles as he trudged through the woods. His soggy boots did nothing to keep his feet warm, and his equally wet clothes—which he’d hastily donned a few minutes ago—did little to warm the rest of him. Everything from his shirt, to his pants, to the soaked, half-frozen wool cloak draped around him chilled him to the bone, making him wonder if he might have been better off not dressing at all. Or, even more appealing…right about now he’d love to trade it all in for the freedom of his ondaen form and the warmth of the hot springs he and Wen had only recently left behind.
Tempting as it sounded, though, they couldn’t go back. He had to get Wen out of this wretched weather. If Wesley was miserable, he could only imagine Wen felt ten times worse after everything he’d been through over the past several hours.
Not that Wen would admit to it, stubborn ass that he was.
“You doing okay?” Wesley asked, tightening his arm more securely around Wen’s waist, offering as much support as he could as they made their way down the narrow path that led from the hot springs to the clearing where Wen’s tent lay.
“That’s the third time you’ve asked me since we started walking,” Wen said. “I swear you’re a worse nag than my mum.” His voice was raspy from exhaustion, yet his teasing tone caused an instant tug of emotion in Wesley’s chest.
“Oh, thanks. Thank you so much. Just what every man wants to hear…himself being compared to his lover’s mother,” Wesley said drily, rolling his eyes. He glanced sidelong at Wen.
A smile curled up the corners of Wen’s mouth. “There are worse things in the world. And, if it helps, you are much sweeter than she is.”
“Seriously?” Wesley groaned. “First I’m a nag and now I’m sweet? You’re slaying my ego here.”
Wen laughed, and Wesley couldn’t help but smile at the sound, as tired as it was.
He found himself playing along with the teasing banter because, honestly, he didn’t want Wen to know how shaken he still was from Wen’s close call last night. He knew it was better this way, trying to keep things lighthearted, at least on the surface. After the night they’d spent, he supposed they both needed it. But it couldn’t truly sweep away the terror of the previous hours, or shut out the foreboding in Wesley’s gut that more trouble hung just over the horizon.
Wen had spoken of hope earlier this morning, but as much as Wesley wanted to, he didn’t feel it. The strength of their bond with one another, yes. That he felt. And he was eternally grateful Wen was still alive and at his side when only hours ago Wesley thought he’d lost him forever. But hope…it wavered just out of his reach, like an ephemeral ray of light that couldn’t be captured. And Wesley didn’t know why. Yes, war with High Sorcerer Byram was coming, was already upon them, really. However, the draegan lord, Keiran Haredlson, had united the draegan people in a way they hadn’t been for a hundred years. And Lord Hareldson, along with his half-draegan mate, Gaige Rizik, and all the draegans and humans in camp were growing more prepared by the day to face the sorcerer and fight. There were so many positive things happening.
Yet Wesley couldn’t shake the sense that Wen’s near-death experience last night had only been the beginning of something. Some darker horror that watched and waited and would soon strike again. He didn’t have Captain Rizik’s gifts as a seer, couldn’t foresee the future. But he could read emotion. And no matter how he tried to ignore it, it seemed to him that the very air of the camp vibrated with unpleasant expectation and an underlying sense of dread.
For Wen’s sake, however, Wesley tried to force those troubled thoughts aside for the moment. He had to shut off his brain and concentrate on Wen, on getting him fully healthy again.
“Sweet.” Wesley shook his head. “And here I thought you liked me because I was rugged and sexy and a good fighter.”
Wen gave a quiet chuckle. “You don’t have to fish for compliments. You know damn good and well I think you’re a great fighter. You’re also sexy as sin. But whether you believe it or not, you happen to be sweet, too, Wes.”
“Oh, please,” Wesley mumbled, warmth creeping up his face.
“It’s true. Sweet, a little shy, a little innocent.”
Now Wesley snorted. “You didn’t seem to think I was so innocent last night, when you had me up against a tree with your cock down my throat.”
The look Wen gave him held enough heat to melt the snow under their boots. “That’s exactly one of the reasons I love you. You never stop surprising me.”
Wesley was so caught up in that steamy gaze and the seductive words that held the power to reduce him to a puddle, he wasn’t watching where they were going. “Umph!” he grunted, as he tripped over a thick tree root hidden beneath the snow.
The blow was jarring enough that he and Wen, who was locked in his embrace, almost toppled over. Wesley managed to keep them both from falling, but only just, by grabbing at a low-hanging tree limb nearby. When he glanced at Wen, Wen was grimacing in pain.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, helping Wen to straighten.
In spite of his assurances otherwise, Wen was obviously still hurting more than he’d let on earlier. Magick had saved his life last night, but his body hadn’t finished healing yet, and Wesley was afraid he might have torn open one of his wounds. “I should have been paying better attention. Are you okay? How bad is it?”
“Wes, I’m all right.” There was no teasing in his tone now. Only weariness and frustration.
Wesley winced. “I’m sorry,” he said again because he just couldn’t help it.
He must have sounded pathetic because Wen sighed and squeezed his hand. “No, don’t apologize. I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I’m just…”
Understanding, Wesley brushed a hand over Wen’s damp, tangled hair in a soothing gesture. “In pain still? And cold? And tired? You shouldn’t have been trying to hide it from me. Let’s just get you to bed. We’re almost to your tent.”
They started down the snowy trail again, but Wen’s footsteps slowed. “We need to report in first, Wes, and let the others know that the high sorcerer’s soldiers were staking out the area last night as we’d suspected.”
“We talked about this earlier. I’ll go report in after I get you settled.”
“If any of Byram’s troops come looking for their friends, we left more than a little mess out there. We need to move the bodies. I can—”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“I’ll deal with it. Damn it, Wen, you have to trust me.”
Wen stopped and stared at him in surprise. “I do trust you.”
“Then there’s no reason to argue, is there? I’m reporting in and you’re going to bed. That’s the end of it.”
A beat of silence passed as Wen continued to gaze at him. Finally, he shook his head. “Bloody hel. Who knew you’d turn out to be so damned bossy? I’m starting to think I should take back the part about you being sweet.”
He sounded hacked off, but Wesley was certain he also heard a trace of grudging humor in Wen’s tone as well.
“You said you like it when I surprise you,” Wesley reminded him.
Wen muttered something that sounded like, “Gods help me,” under his breath, which only made Wesley smile as they resumed walking.