Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


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~~“How is he?” Jeremiah asked, standing outside the door to the king’s room.
“There hasn’t been any improvement.” Angelus replied. As promised, he had stay right by his side as much as possible, watching over the sleeping form. “However, he hasn’t gotten any worse, so that’s good. The healers were able to stabilize him so he won’t starve or anything.” He looked down at the pale face. “I don’t like seeing him in this state, though. It troubles me.”
“It troubles all of us.” Jeremiah told him, taking a step closer. “I did not realize you cared so much for him.”
“I have always cared for him, ever since he was a child.” Angelus looked up at Jeremiah. “His grandparents took me in and gave me work when I was unable to find a home elsewhere. It’s only natural that I am loyal to their grandson, isn’t it? I have known his since he was a child and I always felt he would be a great leader.”
“I’ve always believed that, as well.” Jeremiah agreed, looking down at the king. “I’m sure he will be a good ruler. I have faith that he will wake up, soon.”
“As do I.” Angelus looked back to the sleeping face. “I am sure he will wake up and be fine. He is stronger than he looks, after all.”
Jeremiah nodded his agreement. “Try not to push yourself too hard, though. It won’t do to have you falling ill when he gets better.”
Angelus smiled at the guardian. “You always worry about others. I respect that, but I wish you would worry about yourself more. I know you’ve been helping to strengthen the barrier spell and you’re going to wear yourself down.”
Jeremiah shrugged. “I can’t put the city at risk because I’m tired.”
“The city will be fine if you rest for a day.” Angelus assured him. “The wizards can maintain the spell and we will need you to be at full strength if anything happens.”
“I’ll be fine.” Jeremiah promised. “I’m stronger than I look, as well.”
“I would not dare to argue otherwise.” Angelus looked the guardian over, thinking he was probably very tired, even if he tried to hide it. “Even so, I think everyone would feel better if you got some rest.”
“I’ll consider it.” Jeremiah replied, thinking that might gain him some peace. There was no time for people to be worrying about him. There was too much to do if the city was to remain safe and Katherine was the one in real danger. “Please, let me know if there is any change in his condition.”
Angelus nodded. “I will make sure you know as quickly as possible.”
Satisfied with the promise, Jeremiah went to check on the protection spell and see if there was anything more he could do to improve it.

“We should probably tie up his hands.” Tristan suggested.
“We didn’t bring any rope.” Kaelen pointed out.
“Besides, that didn’t do much good at the palace.” William added, remembering how easily the prince had removed his bindings there.
Azazel stood in front of the group, waiting for them to decide what to do with him. Thus far, they had been more interested in talking about him, rather than to him, so he waited patiently for them to sort out what they were going to do. Katherine was the first one to address him directly.
“Why are you here, Azazel?” She asked, her face as expressionless as she could make it.
The prince was silent for a moment. “I heard my brother was injured during a recent battle. I’ve had trouble getting information on his current state.”
She stared at him, searching for any sign of deceit. “Do you know something about what happened?”
“I know that he was knocked unconscious and had to be carried back to the palace.” Azazel replied. “How is he doing, now?”
The group members exchanged looks, wondering how much they should tell him. It didn’t take long for Gabriella to speak up. “He’s still unconscious and the healers don’t know why. Do you have any idea what could cause such a thing?”
The prince shook his head, never meeting her gaze. “I don’t know of any magic that could keep a person from waking and not be detected by the palace healers. However, I would like to help, if I can. Whatever you may think of me, I wish no ill upon my siblings. I truly hope for both of them to survive this war so that we may live in the peace that follows.”
“Do you truly believe there can be peace if the shadow master wins?” Valda demanded.
“If the dark lord prevails, there will be no more need for war or death.” Azazel looked at her. “It is the lights who demand sacrifice in exchange for peace. The dark lord is not so cruel.”
“They would not need the sacrifice if the shadow master had not risen to power.” Katherine felt the need to defend the lights, since they were her source of power and guidance. “I’m sorry if it seems unfair, but your master is the one who forced them to demand your life to protect the peace. As a member of the royal family, you should have understood that such things are sometimes unavoidable.”
“Yet, I am avoiding it.” Azazel pointed out. “I have realized there is no right or wrong in this war. One side will win and the peace will be restored. I just chose the side that offered me the best deal. The darkness will give me what the lights refuse, so I threw my lot in with the dark lord. If you dislike my decision, you should talk to your precious lights about how they run things.” Despite his words, Azazel’s tone didn’t sound particularly angry. As usual, he was cold and distant, his emotions unreadable. “At any rate, I have come to find out about my brother. If I cannot help him, there is no reason for me to stay.”
Valda pointed her bow at him. “I can think of a reason for you not to leave.”
He gave her an unconcerned look. “I am much too powerful for you to strike me down so easily.”
“Please, don’t go.” Gabriella stepped forward. “You keep disappearing and it worries me. It’s bad enough that Nicholas has fallen ill. Won’t you stay so that I know you are alright?”
Azazel was silent, still refusing to even glance in her direction.
Tristan looked at the girl. “I’m not sure if it’s wise for him to travel with us.” He spoke softly, not wanting the prince to hear.
Gabriella swallowed and looked down. “I just don’t want to lose my brother, again.”
“You’re going to get the stone, aren’t you?” Azazel asked. “We knew you would have to after I destroyed the first one. Do you truly believe you will be able to retrieve it and return to the palace in time to save the city?”
Katherine looked at him. “Save it from what?”
Azazel met her gaze and lifted a finger to his lips. “You’ll see soon enough.” He looked toward William, then the twins. “Of course, I may be willing to travel with you for a while. I am bored and the dark lord does not need me back immediately. I would like to get to know the members of your rather unusual group and I’m sure you would like a chance to try and get me talking. There’s no telling what I might let slip about the dark lord’s plans.”
Katherine frowned and looked at the others, not sure what to do. They had tried to get information at the palace and that had ended badly. However, she knew he could easily follow them if he wanted, so there was no reason he would need permission. She figured he was just trying to mess with them, but she couldn’t figure out his endgame.
“Surely, it would be okay for a little while.” Gabriella suggested. “We don’t have to let him follow us the whole way, but it will be a few days before it’s an issue, right?”
“Right.” The guardian continued to frown, feeling sympathy for the young princess who was so desperate to reconnect with her brother, even if he barely acknowledged her. Katherine couldn’t bring herself to refuse when she knew that Gabriella was already so worried about Nicholas. “We can give it a try, at least. We’ll just need to keep an eye on him at all times.”
“I don’t like this plan.” Tristan informed her. “He’s caused enough damage already. What if he is simply trying to follow us to the cave?”
“We won’t let him.” She promised. “When it gets to a crucial point, I will be able to get us away and make sure he can’t follow. However, if that were his only goal, he could have just followed without agreeing to talk. Perhaps, it is best to take time and find out what he is up to.”
“Give him enough rope to hang himself?” Meredith suggested.
“We don’t have rope.” Valda reminded her.
“And we don’t want him to hang himself.” Gabriella added.
Meredith shook her head. “It’s a figure of speech.” She sighed. “Never mind.”
Katherine looked at Azazel. “You may travel with us for a time, but don’t try anything.”
“If you do, we will return you to your master in pieces.” Valda promised.
Katherine glanced at Gabriella, who seemed too focused on her brother to care about the threat. The guardian knew it had been a few years since they had spoken; not since Azazel had left to join the dark lord. She could only imagine what might be going through Gabriella’s head right then. “We may as well make camp for the night. It’s getting dark and I need to set up the protection spell.” She looked at Azazel. “You should remain outside the barrier. Your dark magic might throw it off.”
“Also, you don’t want a potential enemy behind your shield.” He noted, keeping his distance. “It’s fine. The darkness holds no dangers for me.”
“Right.” She and the elves set up their barrier, making sure the prince was outside of it.
Gabriella moved to the edge of the barrier where she could talk to him. “I’m glad you decided to come with us.”
“I had nothing better to do.” He replied, coolly, staring into the darkness.
“So you said.” She looked at him in the fading light, trying to reconcile the pale, distant person in front of her with the memory of her kind, gentle brother. “Even so, I am happy to have you here. I’ve missed you.”
“I don’t think you have.” He replied. “You miss the brother you once knew and you are worried about the one you still have, but I doubt you would like the current me very much. I am merely a replacement for what you have lost and I’m not even a very good substitute for them.”
Gabriella hesitated, caught off guard by the statement. “You think I need you to be the same person you were? Do you think I am so petty that I would love you less because you changed? You are my brother, no matter what kind of personality you take on. I will love you no matter what.”
Finally, he looked at her, his expression unreadable in the dim light. There was a drawn out silence before he found the words to respond. “You make very noble promises, but you would have me die, just as everyone else wished. You yearn for what you consider to be my salvation, knowing that means sacrificing myself to save your precious lights.” He looked away, his face becoming hidden by the shadows. “That is not the kind of love I am interested in, sister. Trouble me no more with such foolishness.”
Gabriella stared at him, speechlessly. She couldn’t argue with anything he had said. She knew the consequence of him returning to their family. Ever since she was a child, she had known her brother was destined to die for the sake of Mirra. She hadn’t liked it, but she had always been told it was for the best and had accepted that as fact. Everyone had accepted his future sacrifice without ever giving him a choice, so she could hardly judge him for making one. “I’m sorry. I never meant to seem uncaring. I don’t wish for you to die. I just want to know that you can be happy with the choices you are making. You have dealt a great blow to the people you once cared about. Have you really changed so much that you would not even feel a twinge of guilt at that thought?”
“They would all have me die.” He replied. “Why should I wish anything different for them?”
“You said you wish no ill for Nicholas and me.” She pointed out. “Are you willing to put us at risk to save yourself?”
“You and the king shall survive this war.” He replied. “You need not fear the darkness for it will not devour either of you. You need not fear for him. He is safe and will remain so, even when the dark lord prevails. I have been promised that much.”
The princess swallowed, not liking how certain he seemed that darkness would win. Even so, she tried not to focus on that. Her main goal was to reach out to her brother and hope he reached back to her. “So you are protecting us?”
“Which is more than either of you ever did for me.” He turned his back to her. “Go to sleep, princess. You have a long day of walking ahead of you.”
“You should sleep, too.” She pointed out. “You’ll be walking with us.” When he didn’t respond, she sighed. “Good night, Azazel. Sleep well.” She moved away, knowing he wouldn’t talk anymore that night.
As she sat down with the group, Henry gave her a concerned look. “Are you okay?” He had been watching them talk, as had most of the others, but nobody had wanted to interfere.
She forced a smile for him. “He needs time. At least, he is here and I can talk to him. That’s something.”
Henry nodded, not wanting to ruin her optimism. “You should get some rest. It won’t do for you to be tired in the morning.”
She nodded and lay down, closing her eyes and willing all the unpleasantness away. She heard Katherine humming and knew it wouldn’t be long until they were all asleep.
As they had before, Katherine and the elves rotated the watches. Tristan had no interest in talking to Azazel and Kaelen didn’t think it would do any good if he tried. Valda spent her hour glaring at the boy and Katherine had to talk her into taking a break long enough to sleep.
“Be careful of him.” The she-elf warned. “Shadow workers can’t be trusted.”
Katherine nodded her understanding and Valda lay down to sleep. The guardian looked over at the dark silhouette and moved closer, cocking her head. “You’re still awake, aren’t you?”
“I’m not tired.” He replied, coldly, his back to her.
“Yes, I suppose you wouldn’t be.” She sat down as close to him as she could get without leaving the barrier. “I expect you are used to staying up at night, but you should realize we will travel during the day.”
“I will be fine.” He assured her. “I find that I do not need as much sleep these days.”
“Do shadow workers not sleep much?” Katherine hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to them. The shadow workers were rare. Only certain people were taught to use the dark power and they weren’t generally chatty.
“You think I am going to tell you all about us?” He asked.
She smiled and shrugged. “You can’t blame me for being curious. I haven’t met many shadow workers. I don’t understand much about how your magic works. I know it is different for the shadow master and not nearly as strong. He gave you your power, correct?”
“It is not so simple as that, but I will not share our secrets with the guardian.” He told her. “I am not that foolish.”
“Well, let’s talk about something easier, then.” She offered. “Why do you wish to travel with us? We have no intention of allowing you to learn anything or attack anyone. You may be powerful, but you are outnumbered and my power far exceeds yours, even at night.”
“For now.” His tone was as even as ever and it was impossible to guess what he was thinking. “I am travelling with you out of curiosity. I wish to know what it is about this group that you found to be so grand. Surely, the king’s soldiers would have been better suited to this task, even if they couldn’t protect him.”
“I have my reasons for choosing them.” She wasn’t prepared to tell him about her vision. Even that small piece of information seemed dangerous. “There is more to them than meets the eye.”
“I look forward to learning all about their secret skills.” He replied.
Katherine paused, wondering if it could be that simple. “You wish to find information on them. You seek to use the heroes for the shadow master. You’ve indicated similar thoughts. Any chance you’d explain how they might help him?”
“There is no telling what I might say while travelling.” He answered, vaguely. “For now, I think it’s time for me to sleep. After all, tomorrow is a big day.” He lay down on his side, so his back was to her, still.
Katherine sighed at this most recent failed attempt to get through to the prince. “Whatever you and your master are planning, I truly hope you will be able to live with the decisions you make.” She stood and walked away, leaving him with that thought for the night.

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