Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


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14. 14

~~The next morning, everybody woke up early and got breakfast. William and Valda trained. Meredith found a small clearing and practiced her archery. They all packed their bags and got ready to go, but Azazel didn’t seem to stir.
“Should we wake him?” Gabriella asked as they prepared to leave.
“I say we leave him behind.” Valda commented. “He’s too much trouble without sleeping through breakfast. We can’t let him delay us.”
Katherine frowned. “But he may follow us in secret if we leave him behind. I’d rather be able to see him, wouldn’t you?” She took a step towards the boy. “I’ll wake him.”
“I’m awake.” Azazel replied, sitting up. “I just didn’t want to risk somebody else trying to make conversation.” He stood and looked at them. “Shall we be off, then?”
The rest of the group wore uneasy looks, but Katherine nodded. “We may as well. We don’t want to waste daylight, after all.” She started walking, doing her best to appear calm and confident, despite the presence of a shadow worker.
Tristan stopped in front of Azazel. “You stay ahead of me. I want to be able to keep an eye on you.”
The prince shrugged. “Fair enough.” He started walking, keeping a little distance between himself and the others, as if preparing to run off at the first sign of trouble.
Melody held her brother’s hand as they walked, running her fingers over his palm. They moved close to William and she spoke softly. “The prince makes me nervous. He doesn’t feel right.”
“What do you mean?” William asked, looking at her.
“He’s…empty.” She frowned, trying to find the right words. “I can sense that he’s there because there’s a chill that seems to follow him, but it’s like something’s missing. It’s almost like being near a corpse.”
William nodded his understanding. “Trust me, looking at him doesn’t help that impression any. He’s like an empty shell. I don’t know how his sister can bear to have him around.” He glanced towards the princess.
“He’s her brother.” Melody replied, simply. “Whatever’s wrong with him, that fact remains the same. I’d want Bard around, even in such a state.”
“I suppose you’re right.” William sighed. “I just can’t imagine how hard it must be for her. Meredith and the others aren’t even my real siblings, but I don’t know what I would do if one of them turned against us like that. It’s unthinkable to me and I imagine Azazel’s current behavior was unthinkable to her.”
“No one wants to believe they can be betrayed by family.” She commented. “That kind of betrayal is the most painful, I think.”
William looked at the girl, remembering what he had been told about how her family had thrown Melody and Bard out because of their disabilities. He remembered wanting to trust his own mother, but always being afraid of making her angry. “Siblings or parents…you should be able to rely on family.”
Melody nodded her agreement. “I just hope that some part of the boy Gabriella knew is still alive. Perhaps, he will make amends before this is over.”
“Right.” William didn’t really believe that was possible. He looked at the stony expression on Azazel’s face and was certain the boy had no interest in repenting any time soon.

As they travelled further into the forest, the trees faded to green trunks with brown leaves. The grass was also brown. William exchanged a look with his friends, knowing they were thinking about the trees in their world. The simple reverse of colors was yet another reminder of how different Mirra was.
Throughout the day, Jake looked over at Azazel with curiosity. Henry caught his gaze and leaned close to avoid being heard. “He creeps you out, too, right?”
The older twin shrugged. “You can’t tell me you don’t want to know his story. There must be more to it than anyone is telling us.”
“Well, I’m certainly not asking him about it and Gabriella doesn’t like to talk about what happened with him.” Henry replied. “I don’t want to upset her by pushing.”
Jake gave him a knowing smile. “We certainly wouldn’t want to upset the lovely princess.”
“Of course not.” Henry looked at him. “It’s bad enough that she has to be around your ugly face so much.”
Jake laughed and shoved him away. “Next to you, I look like prince charming.”
“Keep telling yourself that.” Henry told him, but his gaze drifted over to Gabriella who was clearly focused on her brother, still.
Jake followed his gaze. “Go talk to her. She could use a distraction.”
“I’m not sure if she wants to talk right now.” Henry didn’t look away from the girl.
“If you don’t go over there, I will.” Jake promised him.
“Don’t you dare.” Henry told him, walking over to Gabriella. “Have you ever been this far from the palace before?”
The princess shook her head. “I’ve travelled some with my brother, but it was always to safe places, not too far away. I doubt he’d be pleased if he knew where I was, now.” She continued to stare at Azazel. “Or who I was with.”
“You think he wouldn’t want you to be with me?” Henry intentionally misunderstood. “That’s harsh.”
Gabriella looked at him, making sure he was kidding. She smiled when she knew he was. “Nicholas would not mind me being around you, I promise.”
“That’s good to know.” Henry told her. “I’m not sure I could handle being unable to spend time with you, after all.”
“You’re sweet.” She replied. “I’m glad to have you as a friend.”
Henry locked on his smile as he heard her choice of words. “Right…a friend.”
“Is something wrong?” She asked, sensing a difference in his demeanor.
“Nope.” He didn’t make eye contact. “Everything’s fine.”
She watched him with curiosity, but didn’t press the issue. In truth, she felt he was probably becoming more than a friend, but she wasn’t prepared to deal with such thoughts right then. Until they had the stone and her brother was safe, she couldn’t bring herself to focus on anything else.

“I want to keep watch tonight.” Jake announced as they ate their dinner by a stream that night. “I feel bad that only the elves and Katherine have been doing it and it’s the least I can do.”
Tristan gave him an appraising look. “What would you do if we were attacked? You can’t fight.”
“I’d call out.” Jake replied. “Isn’t the point of keeping watch to let everyone else know there’s a threat? It’s not like I’d have to fight off an army alone and you couldn’t do that, either.”
“I think it’s a good idea.” Katherine put in. “You can have first watch. Does anyone else want a turn?”
Meredith raised her hand. “I’ll take second watch, tonight. It’s not fair to let the elves be the only ones to take watch. We can do it, tonight.”
“I’ll take third watch.” William volunteered. “I don’t need much sleep, anyway.”
Katherine nodded. “We’ll switch who takes watch each night so you all can get equal amounts of sleep.”
With that settled, they finished their dinners and lay down. Katherine didn’t lull them to sleep since she couldn’t risk affecting Jake. However, everyone was tired and had no problem falling asleep on their own.
Jake looked over to where Azazel sat in silence. He walked as close to the prince as he could without leaving the barrier, which Katherine had made sure to outline in the ground. “Good evening.”
“Is it?” Azazel didn’t bother to look at him.
“Not sure, but I wasn’t making a statement. I was wishing you a good evening. It means I want you to have a good evening, regardless of whether it’s currently one.” Jake smiled. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Meredith who thinks she knows everything.”
“I didn’t ask.” Azazel informed him.
“But I told you anyway.” Jake remained undaunted by his cool demeanor. “I say a lot of things that nobody asks about.”
“I can see that.” Azazel still didn’t look at him. “Did you want something?”
Jake shrugged. “Conversation? I don’t want to get bored and fall asleep, after all.”
“Then you shouldn’t have volunteered to be on watch.” Azazel pointed out. “I don’t really care if you fall asleep since I won’t be at risk.”
“Shouldn’t you care about your sister?” Jake asked.
Azazel paused. “She will not be at risk, either. She has nothing to fear from the darkness.”
Jake looked at the prince, trying to figure out what he was thinking. “You say things like that, but you don’t seem particularly fond of her or Nicholas. Why would you care what happens to them?”
“Family is family.” He replied, simply. “You don’t turn your back on them for any reason, even if they would have you dead.”
“You make it sound like they want you to die when they really just want to protect Mirra from the darkness.” Jake commented.
“A goal which is contingent upon my death.” Azazel answered. “They wish to protect what is familiar with little interest as to what is best. The dark lord seeks no more death that the lights do. People just assume that light is good and darkness is bad, even when the lights are the ones who demand the life of a boy before he is born.”
“You are very quick to defend the darkness and insist that your siblings are not in danger from it, but your brother is in a coma because of your dark lord.” Jake told him. “How can you defend that?”
“My brother is not in danger.” Azazel assured him. “You seem very concerned about the king taking a little nap.”
“You said you didn’t know what had happened to him.” Jake looked him over. “How do you know he will be fine?”
“I have faith in the side I have chosen.” Azazel replied. “I have been promised the safety of my siblings. When this war is over, they will be able to live peaceful lives in the new Mirra.”
“You seem awfully confident the shadow master will win.” Jake noted.
“That’s a stupid name.” Azazel’s face was impossible to read in the darkness and his tone was cool, so that gave nothing away. “I am certain he will win because I have no intention of being sacrificed and the prophecy made it clear that my death was necessary for the lights to win. My refusal dooms your cause.”
“And that doesn’t bother you at all?” Jake found that hard to believe.
“I don’t want to die.” Azazel replied, simply.
Jake shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand how you could make such a decision. I would never be able to turn against my brother, even if it meant my death.”
“Yes, you two do seem to be very close.” Azazel noted. “My relationship with the king was never so strong. Perhaps, that’s part of why I don’t feel guilty for betraying him. However, unlike Nicholas, I will not demand he die for my cause. I’m not the villain here. I just chose a different side.” He paused for a moment. “Your brother seems to be rather romantically inclined towards my sister and she does not appear to object to his feelings. If you were to help our cause, I could see that he remains safe, so that they might have a happy life together when this is over.”
Jake stared at him. “You think you can use my brother to get me to betray everybody.” He shook his head. “You’re pretty clueless.”
The prince shrugged. “People do all sorts of strange things to protect their siblings. If you do not help, I can’t guarantee the safety of any of your friends.”
Jake considered that. “And you say you’re not the villain.”
“Jake, it’s been an hour.” Meredith told him, walking over. “Go get some sleep.”
Jake nodded, thinking she had a very impressive internal clock. He yawned and lay down beside his brother to sleep.
Azazel watched him for a moment. “They are very close. I imagine it must be difficult to imagine one without the other. If they are to die, I hope they die together.”
“I have no intention of letting either die.” She informed him. “By the way, I heard your little offer and you’re a fool if you think you can turn one of us against the others.” She smiled a bit. “Of course, I’m glad to have heard the offer because it gave me some important information.”
“What information is that?” Azazel’s tone remained even.
“You wanted him to betray us, meaning you are not so certain of your victory.” Meredith answered. “If you were, you would have no need of a traitor in our group.”
“You are a clever girl, but you and your friends will still fall.” Azazel replied.
“Maybe.” The girl shrugged. “But if we do, you’re coming with us. That’s a promise.” She walked away and took a seat some distance from the prince, not giving him a chance to respond.
He avoided looking at her as she walked off, thinking she was rather interesting, but that wouldn’t save her or her friends.
When it was William’s shift, he kept his distance, having no interest in talking to the dark prince. He didn’t care to ask why Azazel had betrayed his family. The fact that he had done it was all William needed to know about him.
It was just over an hour before Katherine woke up to relieve him. “You can go back to sleep, now.”
He looked at her, barely able to see more than a silhouette. “You sure you got enough sleep?”
“Yes.” Even in the dark, he knew she was smiling. “And you had better do the same.”
He nodded and lay down, looking up at the stars through the treetops. “This is really an incredible world.”
Katherine looked at him as he closed his eyes. “I suppose it is.” She looked up at the golden stars, which had become all too familiar to her throughout the years. Somehow, with the Dunyans, she was able to see Mirra through their eyes. It was almost as if she were looking at it for the first time. “I’m really glad I got to show it to you.” She looked back at William and realized he was already asleep. She smiled at the peaceful expression she could see in the starlight. “Sweet dreams, William.” She moved away so she wouldn’t risk waking him.
“You really care about the Dunyan, don’t you?” Azazel commented as she drew close to him.
Katherine looked at the prince in surprise. He hadn’t been initiating conversations much, especially with her. “They are good people. I will do what I can to protect them.”
“And it doesn’t hurt that the oldest boy is rather handsome.” The dark prince had his face turned towards her, but she couldn’t see his expression.
“William?” The guardian shrugged. “I suppose he is, but that has nothing to do with it. I was prepared to protect the group before I ever saw their faces.”
“Yes, but you’ve spent time with them, now. You know them and he seems to be a rather sweet boy. You must be careful. It wouldn’t do for you to allow your head to be turned by a Dunyan when your hand is promised to the king.” Azazel advised.
Katherine smiled at him. “Are you concerned for your brother’s feelings? If so, I would be glad to hear it.”
The prince looked away. “I never claimed to hate my brother or be indifferent to his feelings. I wish him well and I am growing tired of everybody asking about my thoughts on my siblings. When this is all over, they will be able to live peaceful lives. If they hate me for granting them such a gift, so be it.”
“You keep saying they will live peaceful lives.” Katherine noted. “Do you not intend to live in this wonderful peace and harmony you have sacrificed so much to gain?”
“My intentions are none of your concern.” He replied, gruffly.
“Actually, they are one of my main concerns, at the moment.” She told him. “After all, you are travelling with us and I wish to know if you intend to cause harm to anyone in this group.”
“I will not harm anyone while we are travelling.” He assured her. “I will not lay a hand on any member of this group until this journey is over.”
“And your shadow magic?” She looked at the prince through the darkness. “May I have your word that you will not use it on anyone while we travel?”
The prince thought for a moment. “You have my word.”
“Good.” Katherine wanted to believe that she could trust his promise, but she wasn’t prepared to let her guard down, yet. “Get some sleep. We have another long day of walking ahead of us tomorrow.”
“I wonder if anyone else is aware of the direction we are going.” He commented. “I assume you intend to take refuge in the village we are heading towards, but you haven’t said anything about it.”
Katherine paused, careful to maintain her composure. “You know these parts very well.”
“I have travelled quite a bit.” He replied. “I’m not wrong, though, am I?”
“I am still deciding.” She told him. “Among the other issues, I doubt they would let you in the village at all.”
“You still need to talk to the group.” He stared into the darkness, again. “Having important information withheld from you feels like a betrayal, whatever the reasons may be.”
She stared at him, trying to figure out what that statement meant. “Was information withheld from you in the past?”
He was quiet for a moment before he lay down with his back to her, effectively ending the conversation.

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