Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


16. 16

~~When Azazel was deathly silent the following morning, Jake began to doubt his beliefs about the dark prince’s feelings. He wondered if it was possible that Azazel had simply pretended to be interested in his sister’s feelings, since he never so much as glanced at her. He maintained a distance from the group as they walked, making it clear he didn’t wish to speak to any of them.
Jake frowned and walked over to William. “You had the last watch last night, right?”
“Not counting Katherine, sure.” The older boy replied. “Why?”
Jake glanced over at Azazel who seemed deep in his own thoughts. “I don’t guess you talked to him.”
William shook his head. “He was asleep when I woke up for watch. It’s not like he wants to talk to us, anyway. I don’t know what he’s up to, but you shouldn’t try making conversation with him, either. We already know he can’t be trusted.”
“Right.” Jake continued watching the prince, wishing for some sign of acknowledgement. He wanted to know that Azazel, at least, was interested in the group. Despite travelling with them, he seemed indifferent to their thoughts or feelings. Even when one of them managed to drag him into a conversation, he was clearly holding back. Jake sighed and fell into step next to his brother. He didn’t say much, but having his twin nearby made Jake feel a little better. Realizing that, he looked over to Gabriella, wishing he could help her reconcile with her own brother.
Around midday, they reached a forest of black trees with gray leaves. This forest didn’t look as if it were thriving like the others did. The branches twisted and roots stuck out of the ground, threatening to bring down any trespassers. It spread out in either direction, seeming to go on forever.
Katherine frowned as she looked at it, knowing they had no choice but to enter. Going around the forest would put them off by a few days, at least. She looked back at the group. “Stay close to me and don’t eat anything you haven’t packed unless I hand it to you. If you hear any strange noises, block them out. The forest is treacherous and full of spirits from the departed shadow workers. They can’t hurt you directly, but they will use trickery if they can.”
“How do the shadow worker spirits wind up here?” Meredith asked, never having believed in ghosts. Of course, her definition of reality had been forced to adapt to Mirra.
“When someone takes on the power to use shadows, they give up their right to rest in peace.” Azazel replied on her behalf. “It is difficult to be a ghost and they had to gather somewhere or they might get lonely.” His voice was calm, as if he was talking about something distant from himself. However, the group realized he was acknowledging his own fate, whether or not he admitted it.
Katherine nodded at his answer. “This forest is isolated and overgrown. Light doesn’t get in, much, so they are, generally, safe here. As I said, do not let them distract you and never leave the group. There are more dangerous things than ghosts lurking in this forest, understand.”
There was a murmur of consent through the group and they followed her into the forest, staying as close together as possible, except for Azazel, who showed little concern for the dangers of the forest. As they walked deeper into it, Katherine had to glow so they could see the way and everyone drew closer to avoid being separated by the thickly-clumped trees and dangling vines. They were constantly ducking and maneuvering to avoid being smacked by a vine or tripped by a root.
Jake glanced over at Azazel, who had fallen behind the group, still keeping as much of a distance as he could. Deciding he couldn’t just let things lie, Jake walked over to him and spoke softly. “What happened to talking to your sister?”
“I never said I would do that.” The prince replied, simply. “I just said I would think about it and I did. I decided she doesn’t need me talking to her any more than I need her troubling me.”
“And we’re back to square one.” The younger boy sighed. He was thinking of giving up on the whole situation when Gabriella tripped over a root and fell to the ground. Reflexively, Azazel moved to help her, but he stopped himself at the last second and pulled back. Henry helped her up and they resumed walking. Jake smiled at Azazel. “Well, maybe not, then.”
“What was that?” The prince asked, not bothering to look at him.
Jake shrugged. “You were concerned for your sister, despite trying to pretend that she is a bother. You are not so opaque as you think, your highness.”
“Don’t call me that.” Azazel told him.
“Opaque?” Jake intentionally misunderstood, glad to note that he had figured something else out about the prince.
“You know what I meant.” Azazel informed him. “I am not a king. I am barely even a prince, since I turned against the crown and all it stands for.”
“But you didn’t really turn against the king, did you?” Jake pointed out. “You are determined to see him and the princess live through this so that they may have happy lives. Your methods may be questionable, at best, but I believe your intentions are not so wicked.”
“Don’t presume to know my intentions.” The prince warned. “I would sacrifice this whole world to have my way, so don’t pretend that you think I’m being noble. I can tell when someone is trying to manipulate me.”
“You are a very suspicious person.” Jake noted. “Here I am, trying to be understanding, and you are doubting my motives. You’ve hurt my feelings, now, your majesty.”
“Don’t call me that.” Azazel looked straight ahead, trying to ignore him. “Go bother someone else.”
“But I like bothering you.” Jake put on a sweet smile. “You are a challenge, after all, and I rarely back down from such a challenge.”
“Shouldn’t you be walking with your brother?” The prince suggested, not sure why he was letting the boy get to him.
Jake waved the suggestion away. “He has the princess to keep him company. I would just get in the way.”
“Doesn’t it concern you that she may just be allowing him to have hope for her feelings so that he will fight on her side?” Azazel asked.
Jake frowned, briefly, as he considered the idea. “Do you think so little of your sister that you would accuse her of such a thing?”
“People are selfish. How can I expect the princess to be better than the rest when she was raised by parents who were happy to sacrifice their own son because of a hundred-year-old prophecy?” Azazel pointed out, his tone never changing. As usual, he was careful not to show any emotion and it was difficult to gauge his true thoughts on the subject. His words seemed angry, but the lack of affect in his voice made it difficult to know if he meant them.
“I guess it must have sucked, knowing you were supposed to die young.” Jake could sympathize with that, at least.
“Sucked…that’s what your friend said earlier. In your world, it means that something is wrong or unfair, correct?” Azazel was silent for a moment. “I suppose it sucked, but I didn’t believe I had a choice, so I did my best to make peace with the idea. I was very young when I found out, so it always just seemed like a given that I would die.”
Jake looked him over, wishing he could tell what Azazel was feeling. “What happened to make you decide to go against the prophecy?”
“I realized I had a choice.” The prince replied. “I could allow myself to be killed to serve the lights who never offered me anything, or I could serve the darkness and choose my own destiny. I chose the side that offered me what I wanted.”
“Never mind all the people you have to screw over to get your way.” Jake commented in a scathing tone.
“Screw over?” Azazel frowned at the slang.
“Betray.” Jake corrected, not wanting to explain too much about the phrase. “You know, I doubt anyone ever really wanted you to die. I know Gabriella would keep you alive if she could, but she wants what is best for Mirra.”
“And you are certain you know what’s best?” Azazel shook his head. “I keep trying to explain to all of you that the darkness is no worse than the light. It is simply not what everyone is used to, so they are frightened. Once it comes to pass and the fear settles, they will see that life can be lived just as well in the dark.”
“You say that.” Jake agreed. “But I can’t imagine going the rest of my life without looking up into a brightly-lit sky.” He frowned as he looked around at the dark forest. “It’s human nature to crave the light. If you take it away, everybody would probably go crazy, eventually.”
Azazel opened his mouth to respond when they heard a scream come from within the forest, followed by wailing like that of a woman in agony. The whole group looked in the direction of the sounds and Jake wondered if someone had been hurt in the forest.
“Stay where you are.” Katherine warned. “It’s a trick. They want to draw you into the forest and away from me.” She glowed a little brighter. “Keep your eyes on my light and do not listen to them. We must keep moving.” She led the group onward and everyone followed, doing their best not to let the wailing sway them. However, it was a heart-breaking sound and it took all of their strength not to run off and try to help the woman they were sure the heard.
William held tightly to Josie’s hand as she started to cry. “Make her stop.” She begged, but no one could do as she asked. She looked towards Katherine. “That woman is hurt. We need to help her.”
The guardian gave her a sympathetic look. “There is no woman. There is no one alive in this forest besides us.”
“Well, now, that’s not entirely true, is it?” A voice came from up in the trees.
“Not true, at all.” Another voice agreed.
Katherine stopped and looked towards the voices. “Show yourselves.”
“So demanding.” One of the voices commented.
“And not very polite.” The other added. “But it might be fun to go down and meet them.”
“That could be interesting.” The first voice said. Two girls jumped down out of the trees, landing lightly on their feet. One had white hair and sky-blue eyes. She was wearing a silky blue dress. The other had black hair and red eyes. Her red dress was identical to the first one’s, except for the color. They appeared to be nearly identical, as well. They looked young, hardly more than teenagers, it seemed. Their skin was pale, giving them the appearance of spirits.
“What an interesting group this is.” The one with the red eyes commented.
“It is certainly unique.” The one with the white hair agreed.
Katherine looked them over, deciding they were not ghosts, at least. “May I ask who you are?”
“You may ask.” The one with blue eyes assured her.
“You may ask anything you like.” The black-haired one agreed.
“Well, then, who and what are you?” The guardian asked.
“I am the memory of a song long ago sung. I am the remnant of a voice which has now been silenced.” The one with white hair bowed. “I am Echo.”
“I am the empty, fleeting image that will disappear if you try to grasp it.” The one with red eyes bowed, as well. “I am Mirage.”
“We are pleased to meet you.” They said in unison.
Mirage smiled at Katherine. “As for what we are…”
“We are not wholly anything.” Echo told her.
“We are half of one thing.” Mirage said.
“And half of another.” Echo added. “Would you like to guess what our halves are?”
“It could be a fun game.” Mirage promised.
“We might even help you get through the forest.” Echo commented.
“If you guess correctly.” Mirage added.
The guardian looked between the pair, thoughtfully. “You are playful and have no fear of the forest. You look younger than I sense you are. I would guess you are half fairy.”
“She is good at the game.” Mirage commented.
Echo nodded. “She has guessed the first half.”
“Well, the second half is easy.” Mirage pointed out.
“Fairies don’t often have children with other creatures.” Echo said.
“So you are half human.” Katherine guessed, easily. She knew that no elf would fall for a fairy and they bore no traits of other creatures.
Echo smiled, brightly. “You have won.”
“Perhaps it was too easy.” Mirage commented.
“Shall we give them a harder game?” Echo asked.
“One with more interesting answers.” Mirage suggested.
Echo looked at the guardian. “Would you like to guess which of your group will be dead by the end of the war?”
“We could tell you how many, if you like.” Mirage offered with a smile.
Katherine stared at them. “You can’t see the future.”
“We can see death.” Mirage told her.
“We know when people will die.” Echo added.
“Sometimes, we can even tell how.” Mirage looked at the group.
Echo followed her gaze, seeming to read them. “We can see which of you will be dead soon.” Her eyes fell on Azazel. “If you guess correctly, we will help you through the forest.”
“We can help keep you safe.” Mirage assured them.
“We don’t need your help.” Katherine told them, trying not to look shaken. “Please, allow us to be on our way.”
“Oh, she said please.” Echo looked at Mirage.
“It is very polite.” Mirage smiled and nodded to the group. “Farewell, then.” She grabbed a branch and pulled herself up, disappearing from view.
“Be careful not to get hurt in the forest.” Echo followed her lead and soon it was as if they had never been there at all.
There was a long silence after they left and Tristan was the first to break it. “They were trying to cause mischief. We can’t believe anything they said.”
Katherine nodded. “We will have to make camp, soon.” She sensed it was getting late and the forest was dangerous enough during the day. She didn’t want them walking through it at night. “Tristan, you and William take first watch. I want the guards in pairs. Valda can guard with Meredith and Kaelen, you can have the third watch with Jake.”
“Will you guard by yourself, my lady?” Tristan asked, resisting the urge to argue against his pairing. He didn’t want to cause her additional stress right then.
Katherine nodded. “I’ll be fine. I am the guardian, after all.” She didn’t her best to smile.
“Hey, listen.” Josie commanded, putting a finger to her lips. Everybody fell silent, trying to figure out what she had heard.
“I don’t hear anything.” William told her, speaking in a hushed tone.
Josie nodded. “The crying stopped.”
The group exchanged looks, realizing she was right. Echo and Mirage had nearly made them forget the incessant noise.
“Maybe they got tired of messing with us since we didn’t do what they wanted.” Meredith suggested, hopefully.
Katherine’s expression said that was unlikely. “We’ll set up the protection spells and lay down. Everybody needs to try and sleep. We’ll leave as early as we can.”
The others nodded and quickly set up a little campsite while she and the elves put up the wards. They lay down, but no one felt like sleeping much as they waited to see what surprises the ghosts might have in store for them in the night.

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