Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


18. 18

~~The group started walking early the next morning, eager to be out of the forest. There had been no incidents since the wailing stopped, but they didn’t want to take any chances. Everyone felt better when they reached the edge of the forest and could see daylight again.
“You’re not leaving without saying goodbye, are you?” Echo’s voice came from the trees.
“That would be rude.” Mirage commented. The pair jumped down and smiled at the group. “After all we did to help you…”
“How did you help us?” Valda demanded. “You talked about members of our group dying, then disappeared.”
“We did help you.” Mirage told her.
“Quite a bit.” Echo agreed.
“Didn’t you notice how peaceful the woods became?”
“Didn’t you think it was strange when the wailing stopped?”
“Weren’t you relieved?”
“Couldn’t you guess that we made it happen?”
The group stared at them, blankly. Katherine was the first to find her voice. “You convinces the spirits to leave us be?”
Echo nodded. “We like you.”
“You are interesting.” Mirage added.
“We didn’t want to see you die.”
“It would have made us sad.”
The group exchanged looks and Katherine nodded to the girls. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“You are welcome.” Mirage assured her with a bright smile.
“Very welcome.” Echo agreed. “We should be friends.”
“We can be good friends.”
“Come to visit us again on your way home.”
“We would like to see you again.”
Katherine paused, not wanting to upset them, but hesitant to make such promises. “Our journey is a difficult one. I can’t say which path we will have to take.”
“This will be the best path.” Echo assured her.
“But you couldn’t know that, yet.” Mirage pointed out.
“But you will.”
“Soon enough.”
“I don’t suppose you would be willing to tell me what you mean by that…” Katherine gave them a hopeful look, but they put fingers to their lips.
“It’s a surprise.” Mirage told her.
“It wouldn’t do to spoil it.” Echo smiled behind her finger. “Besides, we should be going, now.”
“We can’t stay here forever.” Mirage agreed and the two disappeared back into the trees.
The group was silent for a few minutes after they left, not really sure what to say.
“Strange girls.” Jake commented, at last. There was a murmur of agreement as they continued on their way. The grass they now travelled on was green. The children smiled at each other when they saw it. With all the different colors in Mirra, it made since that they would find green grass, eventually, but it seemed a little strange to see something so familiar in the magical realm.
“So how much farther to the cave?” William asked, falling into step beside Katherine.
“We should be there by tomorrow evening.” She replied, smiling at the thought. She was feeling optimistic since they had made it so far without too many problems. They were almost halfway through the journey and no one had even been injured.
“That’s a relief.” William commented, thinking it would be good to know that the city was safe, again.
The guardian nodded. “Once we get back, we’ll be able to perform the ritual and set the stone in place. After the city is protected, again, I’ll be able to focus on getting Nicholas better.”
William’s smile became strained at the mention of her fiancé. “Well, we certainly want the king to get better as soon as possible.” He knew it was pointless to be jealous, since he had no chance with the girl, anyway. Even so, a dark part of him didn’t want Nicholas to wake up at all. He scolded himself for such thoughts and fell back in with the group, not wanting to risk Katherine realizing what he was thinking.
“You dislike the king?” Azazel asked softly.
William nearly jumped, not having realized that he’d wound up beside the prince. He shrugged, doing his best to seem nonchalant. “He seems like a nice guy. Why wouldn’t I like him?”
“I can think of a few reasons.” Azazel glanced over at Katherine. “You know, if darkness were to win this war, there would no longer be a need for a guardian. She could give up her burden and live a normal, human life.” He looked at William. “Were it not for her responsibilities, she might even wish to live that life with you.”
William considered that idea. It seemed unfair that Katherine had to bear the weight of the world. He wondered if she might be happier if she were free of that. The idea that he might have a shot with her made it a tempting thought. However, he was certain nobody would be happier living in a world of darkness and he wouldn’t do that to her. “She chose to be a guardian. I don’t wish to take that from her.”
Azazel considered him for a moment before looking away. “You are surprisingly noble for a Dunyan.”
“I’m not sure if I should take that as a compliment.” William commented.
“Take it however the like.” The prince replied, unconcerned.
William gave him a thoughtful look. “Do you dislike your brother?”
Azazel was quiet for a moment, then he simply moved away from William, avoiding the question altogether.
William watched him and shook his head, thinking he was never going to be able to figure the prince out.
Valda moved closer to William, so she could talk to him. “You may as well give up on that one.” She indicated Azazel. “He’s a lost cause.”
William shrugged. “I don’t usually believe in lost causes. I’m naive like that.”
The she-elf shook her head. “That kind of thinking can get you killed.”
“Maybe, but I’ve seen people so lost in the darkness that it seems they’ll never find their way out.” He replied. “The ones who did, only managed it because people believed in them.”
“You think you can save him?” She raised her eyebrows at the boy.
William shook his head and looked at Gabriella. “Not me.”
Valda followed his gaze and frowned. “You cannot expect so much from the young princess. One of her brothers lies still as the grave while the other wraps himself in shadows. If she believes that both can be saved and neither is, that would hurt more than allowing her to believe that one is beyond our help.”
“You have a rather negative view of the world.” Her student commented.
“The world has not proven worthy of faith.” She responded. “You are young, but you will learn.”
“You make it sound as if I’ve never seen the darkness of the world.” He looked at her. “I may not have seen the worst of Mirra, but I am not as ignorant as you seem to believe.”
Valda paused and nodded, remembering his scars. Nobody talked about them, but nobody forgot, either. “Then you should know that there is no point in trying to save everyone. You save as many as you can and mourn for the rest.”
“Right.” William agreed. “We’ll save as many as we can.”
Valda wondered if he really understood her point, but she decided to let it go. If he was determined to try and help Azazel, she could hardly stop him. She’d just have to make sure he didn’t do anything too foolish.
They made camp near a red stream that night and Katherine set up the protection spell with the help of the elves. Everyone felt better, being able to see the stars above them. They set up their watch shifts and fell asleep, easily, enjoying the fresh, evening air.

Jeremiah stumbled as he walked down the hall towards the king’s room. He pressed a hand against the wall to steady himself and used his free hand to rub his eyes. He had been putting as much strength as he could spare into the protection spells and the effort was taking its toll. He knew he would have to sleep soon and he wasn’t sure when he’d wake up again. He managed to make it to Nicholas’s door and knock.
Angelus opened the door and looked him over. “You look about as well as his highness.”
“I just need to rest.” Jeremiah took the nearest seat, breathing a sigh. “Any improvement from Nicholas?”
Angelus shook his head. “His condition is stable, but unchanging.”
Jeremiah closed his eyes, needing a moment to rest them. “I hope, for everyone’s sake, that we will be able to wake him when Katherine returns.”
“I’m sure he will wake up when the time is right.” Angelus replied. “Of course, if you are unconscious when it happens, he will probably be upset that you pushed yourself too hard.”
“I’m fine.” Jeremiah replied, sleepily. “I just need a minute.”
“You need more than that.” Angelus told him.
“I’m fine.” The guardian repeated, drifting off.
Angelus paused, waiting to see if he was really asleep. When he was certain he was, he smiled and shook his head. “You guardians never know when you need to take a break.” There were some spare blankets in a nearby closet, so he pulled one out and used it to cover Jeremiah. “Rest now. There’s no need for you to carry such a burden all the time.” Angelus returned to his own seat by the bed of the king, continuing to watch over his sleeping form as Jeremiah dozed nearby.

Katherine sat in silence, the next morning, watching the others eat their breakfasts. She kept glancing over at Azazel who showed no interest in eating or talking to anyone. She realized she would have to do something about him soon, but she was uncertain of the best course of action.
William moved to sit beside her, having just finished his training. “Something bothering you?” He dug around in his bag and pulled out a piece of fruit.
The guardian was careful to keep her voice low as she answered. “We can’t allow the prince to follow us to the cave, but I can’t trust him to stay away. I could force him, using magic, but that may drain me too much.”
William nodded his understanding. “And the caves are less than a day’s walk away, so you need to figure something out quickly.” He took a bite and looked towards the prince. “I don’t guess it would be easy to lose him.”
“I wouldn’t expect so.” She agreed. “He is a shadow worker and, therefore, capable of blending into shadows. He could very easily follow us without being seen.”
“Before you acted like it would be easy to get away from him.” William reminded her.
Katherine frowned. “I didn’t want to worry anyone and I thought it might be a good idea to let him travel with us as long as we could, but that time is coming to an end, now, and I need to figure out a plan.”
“I don’t suppose knocking him out would work.” William suggested.
“Probably not.” She sighed. “Don’t worry. We have a few more hours and I’m sure I can figure something out in that time.”
As they travelled, that day, she became more concerned about the issue. There didn’t seem to be a simple solution. After a few hours, she began to wonder if they would be able to knock Azazel out. By the evening, she was giving the plan serious consideration.
“Everything okay with the guardian?” Jake asked, falling in step beside William. He had seen the older boy talking to her and sensed that something was up.
William glanced at Katherine and spoke softly. “She’s trying to figure out a way to stop Azazel from following us to the cave.”
“Ah.” Jake nodded his understanding, looking back towards the prince. “Easier said than done, I take it?”
William frowned and nodded. “Any ideas?”
“We could ask nicely?” Jake offered.
“Feel free to try.” William countered, knowing that wouldn’t do much good.
Jake couldn’t resist the challenge. He slowed down, so he was walking beside Azazel. “How’s it going?”
“How is what going?” The prince asked, looking straight ahead.
Jake shrugged, not really sure how to respond to that. “Life?”
“Terrible, thanks for asking.” Azazel’s tone was cold and even, making it impossible to know if he was joking. Jake decided that wasn’t likely.
“Well, it beats the alternative, right?” Jake paused, wondering if that was the way he wanted the conversation to go. “Of course, if you’re tired of life, you could always just let yourself be sacrificed and be done with it.” He knew that was the wrong thing to say before he even finished the sentence, but it came out, anyway.
“I have come too far to give up, now.” Azazel told him.
“Fair enough.” Jake bit the inside of his lip, thoughtfully. He felt like an idiot for considering asking Azazel not to follow them, but he was determined to see the challenge through. He opened his mouth to speak, but the world suddenly sucked him in before he could get the words out. He fell into a hole and grunted as he hit the floor.
“Jake!” He heard his brother’s voice above him. Henry was looking down, his face full of concern. The others quickly joined him in looking down.
The hole was about ten feet deep and Jake knew he wouldn’t be able to climb out. He groaned, feeling pain course through his body. Fortunately, nothing seemed to be broken. “I’m okay.” He looked around and realized that Azazel had fallen with him. The prince was standing with an annoyed look on his face, so he obviously was unharmed.
“I packed some rope in my bag.” Katherine called down. “Give us a minute and we’ll get you out.”
“That’s okay.” Jake called back. “I’m pretty sure we’re safe down here and this solves the problem, doesn’t it?”
There was a pause from above before Katherine spoke again. “What do you mean?”
Jake stood and dusted himself off. “If Azazel is down here, he can’t follow you, right? How long will it take for you to get the stone and come back for us?”
Katherine took a moment to calculate. “A couple of hours, maybe three, but you can’t expect us to just leave you there.”
“Are we in any immediate danger?” Jake asked.
Katherine looked at Azazel, her thoughts clear.
“Besides him.” Jake waved the idea away. “He promised not to hurt any of us, right?” He looked at Azazel. “I’m thinking you’re a man of your word.”
“Don’t be an idiot.” Azazel told him before looking up at Katherine. “Just get us out of here.”
The guardian paused. “You will keep your word and not hurt him, won’t you?”
Azazel frowned at her, realizing where her thoughts were heading. However, he wasn’t about to break his word for it. He decided not to answer, at all.
She understood his silence and sighed, looking at the others. “He’ll be safe until we get back, I believe. If we pull them out, we’ll have to find a way to keep Azazel from following us and that could cause a delay which we can’t afford.”
“You can’t be thinking of leaving my brother down there with that psychopath.” Henry’s tone was incredulous.
“He won’t hurt him.” Gabriella promised. “He may have changed from the brother I knew, but he won’t hurt someone for no reason. I’m sure of that.”
Henry frowned at the princess, not wanting to doubt her. “If he stays, I stay.”
Katherine nodded. “Fair enough. It won’t hurt to give them a guard.” She looked around the group. “Does anyone else want to stay?”
“I will.” Gabriella volunteered, quickly.
William looked at Katherine. “Will it be more dangerous to stay with them or continue to the cave?”
“This is a much safer place than where we are heading.” She replied. “Dark creatures gather near the cave.”
He nodded. “I’ll stay with you, then. You’ll need as much protection as possible.”
She nodded her thanks and the others agreed to follow, as well. Katherine looked at Henry and Gabriella. “This place is probably safe, but don’t drop your guard.” She looked back down the hole. “We’re leaving you two here for now. We’ll be back as quickly as possible. I’m leaving your siblings as guards.”
Azazel gave her an irritated look, but didn’t bother arguing.
“Alright.” Jake called back. “We’ll just hang out here, then. It’ll be a good bonding experience.”
“You’re an idiot.” Azazel informed him.
Jake gave Katherine a thumbs-up. “We’re off to a great start, already.”
The guardian looked at the pair a moment longer before she stepped back. “We should get going. The sooner we reach the caves, the sooner we can get back here.” She led the group away, leaving Gabriella and Henry to watch over their siblings.
Gabriella slipped her bow off her shoulder and nocked an arrow. She told herself it was in case anything unpleasant approached them, but she couldn’t help feeling some concern for the boy alone with her brother. Despite her confident statement that Azazel wouldn’t hurt Jake, the princess was a little worried that she might not know him at all. She didn’t want to put Jake in danger, even if she was hesitant to shoot her own brother.
In the hole, Jake sat down and smiled at Azazel. “Well, it’s just you and me, now. What shall we talk about?”
The dark prince took a seat as far away as he could and blatantly ignored him.
Jake watched him, thinking it was going to be a long few hours.

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