Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


12. 12

~~There were people starting their days throughout the city and they stopped to watch as the group passed. There was no cheering that morning. By now, most people knew what had happened to the stone, as well as the king. It wasn’t difficult to figure out where the guardian was heading. Many people placed their fists against their hearts in a salute. The mood was so somber, it was a bit of a relief to step through the gates and leave the city behind, even if it meant leaving the security of the wall.
William held Josie’s hand, making sure she couldn’t stray. The child was beginning to wish he didn’t worry about her so much. She wanted him to focus on staying safe, rather than protecting her. She looked up at him at one point, tired of the silence. “How long have we been in Mirra?”
He stared at her blankly for a few seconds. “A couple of months, I guess.” He had lost track of time with everything that had been happening.
She nodded. “Before we came here, we were six weeks away from my birthday, right?”
William paused, again, and nodded. “I guess we were.” He looked down at her. “Sorry we didn’t celebrate.”
“But I’m nine, now.” She commented. “I don’t need you to hold my hand all the time.”
He couldn’t help but smile at that. “I like holding your hand.”
“Your palm is sweaty.” She told him.
“Well, sorry.” He spoke dramatically, still smiling. “Promise not to wander off?”
She nodded. “I’m nine. I’m too old for that.”
“Right.” He released her hand, but stayed close. He knew that a few weeks couldn’t have made so much difference, even if they had been very intense weeks. However, he realized he couldn’t keep holding her hand forever. If she felt ready to walk by herself, he wasn’t going to stop her.
The rest of the group had heard the conversation and it lightened the mood a little. It was hard to feel scared when a nine year old was announcing her need for independence. The conversation also got Meredith thinking about birthdays. She knew the twins had one just a few weeks after Josie. It occurred to the older girl that they would be sixteen. They should be learning to drive a car, not going on a quest to save a magical kingdom. The thought made everything seem even more surreal than usual.
They were heading in the opposite direction from whence they had come to the city. After several hours of walking, the grass faded from blue to silver. The group reached a great field of silver grass that reflected the lights and stretched out as far as the eye could see.
“Are you sure the silver plains are our best route?” Valda asked. “I dislike being so exposed.” Her hand rested on the hilt of her sword.
“We will see any enemies coming as soon as they see us.” Katherine pointed out. We may be exposed, but they will be, as well. Also, there is a stream a mile or so away. We can set up camp there for the night and use it to power protection spells.” They had been walking for most of the day and she didn’t want to risk pushing them too hard.
Valda nodded, seeing the wisdom of her plan. She kept her hand on her sword and looked around as they walked, making sure she would spot any enemies immediately.
They managed to make it through the day without incident and they bed down by the stream as planned. Valda looked at William as they made camp. “I let you have today off because of how sudden everything was, but be prepared to continue your training in the morning.”
William nodded. “Can’t wait.” He had enjoyed the respite, but he knew he needed as much training as he could get if they were going into danger. He had spent too much of their first journey either injured or unconscious and he couldn’t allow that to happen again.
“You still have to spar me.” Katherine told him with a smile as she finished the protection spell. “I would like to see how you do.”
“Maybe.” He replied, a little hesitant to let the girl he had a crush on defeat him in a spar. Somehow, it seemed more embarrassing than losing to Valda.
“It would be good for you to spar with different partners.” His teacher pointed out. “You need to get used to different fighting styles.”
“I could help with that.” Kaelen offered, politely.
“You’re not going near my student.” Valda replied, coldly.
The dark elf gave an unconcerned shrug. “Suit yourself.”
Katherine wore an amused smile as she shook her head at the pair. “You know, you might as well start getting along. We could be together for a while.” She turned to look at them and jumped up, holding her hands out, as if preparing for a fight.
Valda, Kaelen and Tristan followed her lead. They drew their swords and turned to face whatever threat the guardian had spotted. Everyone else turned to look, as well. Several yards away from their campsite stood a figure dressed in black, wearing a dark mask. William drew his sword, hoping they wouldn’t have to fight. Melody and Bard drew blades, as well, and Meredith nocked an arrow, drawing her bowstring back halfway.
“What are you doing here?” Katherine demanded.
The figure took a step closer. “I’ve come to meet the heroes of Mirra, but I seem to have the wrong place. This group does not seem particularly dangerous to anyone.”
“Who is that?” William asked Valda, who was standing beside him.
Her gaze was fixed on the figure ahead. “The shadow master.”
Upon hearing that, Meredith’s eyes widened and she pulled the bowstring back, fully, loosing her arrow. However, it went straight through the figure, much to her dismay.
Katherine, on the other hand, seemed relieved. “He’s not really here. It’s just a projection.”
“Yes, very good.” The shadow master told her. “I didn’t feel the need to come out for such a pitiful group. I simply wanted to get a look at you, now that you are away from the city. I have to go, now, but I’ll send a greeting party as soon as I can. Sleep well.” The figure disappeared.
“I don’t like the sound of that.” Tristan commented.
“We’ll set up a watch, but the spell should protect us.” Katherine told him. “We have to rest, though. He probably wants us agitated to make for easier prey. Let’s deny him that advantage, shall we?” Her voice was calm, despite her pounding heart.
The elf nodded his understanding. “I’ll take first watch. You get some sleep.”
“Very well.” Katherine looked at the others. “You all need to sleep, as well. It won’t do to have you tired in the morning.”
“What was that?” Meredith asked, having laid down her bow.
“An astral projection.” Katherine answered. “Strong shadow workers can produce them, but only while sleeping. That’s probably why he didn’t stick around. He didn’t want to stay asleep too long.”
“So he’s seen us, now.” William commented, sheathing his sword. “He knows where we are and what we look like. Should we be freaking out, now?”
Katherine shook her head. “Lay down and rest. Everything will be fine. We’ll set up watch schedules for the night. The shadow master is less powerful during the day. It would take more energy to even project himself in the light and he’s not likely to waste it.”
“I’m not sure we’ll be able to sleep after that.” Meredith replied.
Katherine gave her a smile. “You’ll never know until you try.”
The group frowned, but they all were too tired to argue, so they settled in for the night, not expecting to be able to sleep. However, the guardian started humming and all the humans were out within minutes.
“You need to sleep, as well.” Tristan reminded Katherine. “I’ll keep watch until you are rested.”
“You shouldn’t stay up so late.” She told him. “Get someone else to take over after an hour.”
“I’ll be fine.” He promised.
“I’ll take second watch.” Kaelen volunteered. “I feel more comfortable in the night, anyway.”
“I can take third watch.” Valda added, not wanting to be outdone by Tristan or the dark elf. “That should allow the guardian adequate rest, correct?”
 Katherine nodded. “That will be fine.” She looked at Tristan. “No arguing.”
He nodded. “Very well, my lady.”
Satisfied that he wouldn’t push himself too hard, Katherine lay down and closed her eyes, determined to get some sleep. Surprisingly, she found that rather easy after how much energy she had expended through walking, plus the adrenaline burst that had hit when she saw the shadow master. It only took a few minutes for her to drift off.
Valda and Kaelen found their own spots in the grass and went to sleep while Tristan kept watch. After an hour, he didn’t make any move to wake Kaelen up or get ready to sleep.
“I thought we’d made an arrangement.” The dark elf commented, taking a seat beside him. “It’s your turn to rest.”
“I’m not tired.” Tristan replied. “I can keep watch a while longer.”
Kaelen was silent for a moment. “So either you don’t trust me to keep watch or you are trying to prove your devotion in a rather misguided way. I’m doing my best not to be offended, so I will assume it is the latter. In which case, you will not prove anything by staying up all night and being too useless to help in the morning.”
“I’ll be fine.” Tristan didn’t bother to look at him.
Kaelen looked towards Katherine’s sleeping form. “What would she say right now?”
Tristan frowned at the question. “Don’t presume to know what our lady would say.”
“I am not so presumptuous as to think that I know what the guardian might say.” Kaelen assured him. “I merely think I can guess what your friend might feel about you failing to take care of yourself or do what she asked. Get to sleep and I’ll keep watch until it is time to wake the other wood elf.”
Tristan considered arguing, but remembered that Katherine had ordered him not to do so. He sighed. “If you fall asleep on watch, I’ll slit your throat, myself.”
“Sleep well, wood elf.” Kaelen replied, calmly.
Tristan picked a place away from the others and closed his eyes. He was more tired than he had let on, so it didn’t take him long to fall asleep.
After an hour had passed, Kaelen walked over to wake Valda. However, as he reached down, she spoke up. “Don’t touch me, dark elf. I’m awake.”
He pulled his hand back and shrugged. “Very well. It is your turn for watch.”
“I’m aware.” She sat up and found a spot with a good view of their surroundings.
Kaelen paused and walked over to her. “The guardian wants us to get along.”
“That’s not my problem.” She replied, coarsely.
“I assume you don’t wish to cause trouble for her and I would like to know that I can trust you in battle.” He told her.
“Have you been trying to make friends with Tristan, as well?” She asked in an annoyed tone.
Kaelen shook his head. “He tends to be rather short-sighted at times. It is hard for him to see anything besides the guardian when she is around. However, I can trust him in battle because he will not do anything that might upset her.”
Valda frowned into the darkness. “He can be a little obsessive about that girl. It’s annoying.”
The dark elf cocked his head. “Annoying?”
“Well, everything about him annoys me.” She replied. “You are not much better.”
“Be that as it may, I think it would be best for us to learn to be cordial, at least.” Kaelen pointed out.
Valda paused. “You can trust me to have your back in battle. I can’t promise much else. Now, go to sleep, dark elf. We can’t have you being tired in the morning.”
Kaelen thought for a second, trying to decide the best course of action. “Good night, Valda.” It was the first time he had used her name and he saw it as a first step to getting along better.
She ignored him as he lay down, not wanting to acknowledge what he had done.
An hour later, Katherine took over watch, allowing Valda to get back to sleep and not think about whether the dark elf might have a point.

William woke up earlier than the others and smiled a little, thinking that he would have a little time before he had to start training. He figured that Valda needed a little more sleep than usual since hers had been interrupted for watch. He looked over at Katherine, thinking he might want to make conversation with her. However, he couldn’t seem to work up the nerve. He had the nagging feeling that he shouldn’t talk to her until he was fully awake for fear he might let something slip. Besides, she was staring off, distantly, and didn’t look interested in talking. She didn’t even seem to have noticed he woke up.
He heard movement nearby and looked over to see Bard sitting up. His sister was still asleep and he was careful not to disturb her. He looked over at William and nodded a good morning.
Using sign language, William gestured the greeting and asked how he slept. He had learned sign language while living with the deaf foster brother and he was glad to have another opportunity to use it.
Fine, you? Bard gestured in returned.
William shrugged. Katherine’s humming tends to make people sleep, I think.
Bard nodded his understanding. That seems like a useful talent. He looked down at his sister, then back to William. She sleeps like that, anyway, though.
William smiled. That seems like a useful talent.
Bard looked like he was probably chuckling. Want to spar before everyone else wakes up?
William considered it and nodded, thinking it might be a good idea to get started early. It would ensure that Valda had nothing to lecture him about. He picked up his sword and stepped away from the group. Bard followed suit, coming to stand in front of him with his sword drawn. William took a stance and jabbed at Bard. They fought for several minutes before William managed to get his sword against Bard’s throat. He stared at the deaf boy with surprise. It was the first time William had won a spar since coming to Mirra. He had expected Bard to be more skilled than his blind sister, but the opposite seemed to be true.
Bard sheathed the sword and William did the same. Bard gave a sheepish smile. I’m actually better with a bow than a sword.
You’re pretty good with a sword. William assured him.
“I’m glad you’re warmed up.” Valda commented, making her student jump. “I trust you’re ready for proper training, now.”
He turned to her and nodded. “Ready when you are.”
“Bard?” Melody held out her hand and he quickly took it, sitting beside her and watching William’s training.
The others woke up a few minutes later and ate a breakfast of the provisions they had packed. They were all careful to ration themselves, having been warned that it would be a while before they found anything edible. They ate quickly and headed out, wanting to cover as much ground as possible. After a couple of hours, they started to pass trees, first one at a time, then in clumps, which gradually got larger. The trees had white trunks and silver leaves. Soon, they were walking through a forest of them and had to be careful to stay together. William resisted the urge to take Josie’s hand, remembering how she had pulled away before.
A few hours after the trees turned into a forest, Katherine stopped the group, holding out her hand for silence. In a few seconds, they heard a branch snap. Valda and Tristan nocked arrows, turning to the sound. Tristan called out, “Come out, now!”
“Don’t shoot. I come in peace.” A male voice called back, calmly.
“If you come in peace, you have no need to hide.” Katherine told the person. “We just want to know what you are doing here.”
“Looking for you.” He replied. “I was just hesitant to approach.” There was a brief silence. “Guardian, do you promise I will not be harmed if I come out peacefully?”
“You have my word that no harm will come to you if you mean us no ill.” She assured him.
Slowly, the figure moved from behind the tree, hands held up in a peaceful gesture. William’s hand dropped to his weapon and he heard Gabriella gasp as they recognized the black-clad form.
“Hello, Katherine.” Azazel’s tone was cool and surprisingly calm for a person with arrows pointed at him. “I was hoping we could talk.”

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