Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


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~~Jake glanced over at Azazel a few times, trying to think of a good conversation starter. However, he was hesitant to say anything that might tick the prince off, so that made conversing more difficult. They were about five feet apart, but the hole felt too small. He was beginning to regret deciding to stay down there. “Henry?”
“Yeah?” Henry poked his head over the hole to check on his brother.
Jake smiled, feeling better for seeing his twin’s face. “Just making sure you’re not doing anything improper up there.”
“Shut up.” Henry withdrew from the hole.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” Jake called. He felt a little less secure being unable to see his brother, but he knew Henry was there, so he used that thought to comfort himself. After all, it would be silly to expect his twin to spend the whole time looking down at them.
“How are they doing?” Gabriella asked as Henry stepped away from the pit. She had taken a seat under a nearby tree, so she was facing the hole.
He shrugged. “My brother’s acting like an idiot and your brother is ignoring him, so I guess that works.” He looked at her nocked bow. “Hopefully, that won’t be necessary.”
“Hopefully.” She agreed. “I’m just not going to allow your brother to be endangered because I’m unwilling to believe mine is capable of hurting him.”
Henry frowned, wishing he could defend the prince to make her feel better, but knowing it was pointless. None of them knew what Azazel was capable of and he had to worry about his own brother.
“Jake will be fine.” The princess rushed to assure him. “I’m just taking precautions.”
Henry smiled and nodded, taking a seat beside her. “I’m sure you’re right.”

William regretted leaving Jake immediately. After twenty minutes of walking, he considered turning back.
“There’s not need to look so worried.” Katherine told him as she caught sight of his expression. “Azazel promised not to hurt Jake, after all.”
William nodded, not feeling any better. He found it hard to trust the word of a shadow worker and couldn’t understand how Katherine believed the prince so easily. “I was just wondering if I should have stayed behind to be safe.”
“You wouldn’t have been able to help much.” Valda pointed out. “If the prince wanted to kill your friend, a sword wouldn’t be enough to stop him.”
“But he won’t hurt Jake.” Katherine rushed to add. “Azazel may be many things, but he has never been much of a liar.”
William gave her a doubtful look. “He betrayed his whole country. That’s not the action of an honest man.”
“Well, he never lied about it.” The guardian argued. “He even left a note to let us know what he was doing before he took off.”
“So because he gave you fair warning about betraying everybody, he isn’t such a bad guy?” William’s tone was skeptical.
Katherine sighed. “I know it seems odd, but I have known Azazel since he was a baby. He may have changed, but he’s still essentially the same person. He’s just lost his way. Even so, I know he won’t hurt Jake. Even if you don’t trust him, trust me.”
“I hope you’re right.” William wanted to trust her and he did his best to stop worrying. “I just know I won’t be able to relax until we have the whole group back together.”

“You and your brother seem to be quite close.” Azazel commented, startling Jake from his thoughts.
“Are you making conversation?” Jake looked at the prince who had found himself some shadows to sit in.
“I was merely making a statement.” Azazel replied, coolly.
Jake paused, wishing he could figure the boy out. “You said that you and Nicholas didn’t spend much time together as children. Was that because you didn’t want to?”
“My relationship with the king is none of your concern.” Azazel informed him.
Jake shrugged, figuring it had been worth a shot. “Well, it seems to be a sore spot with you, so I was curious, but I won’t push the matter. We all have things we don’t want to talk about, I guess.”
“You have such things?” Azazel inquired.
“Sure.” Jake glanced up, as if afraid his brother might hear, but he dismissed the thought, figuring it wouldn’t matter if Henry had heard. “Of course, you can’t expect me to tell you what they are.”
“Obviously.” Azazel agreed.
Jake looked at the dark prince, thoughtfully. “I half-expected you to threaten to torture me for my secrets.”
“I dislike torture.” Azazel replied. “Besides, I promised not to hurt you. Do you have so little faith in my word?”
“If I didn’t trust your promise, I wouldn’t be down here, would I?” Jake pointed out. He looked up towards the sky, thoughtfully. “Do you think you’ll be happy if the darkness takes over?”
There was a pause before the prince responded. “Why would you ask a question like that?”
Jake shrugged. “You don’t seem like a happy person. I was wondering if you were just saving it all up for after you win. If you don’t think you’ll be happy, then, I wonder what the point of you fighting on their side is. You’ve lost a lot because of your decisions, haven’t you?”
“I would lose more if the lights had their way.” Azazel didn’t look at him as he spoke, but Jake was getting used to that behavior.
“So living a miserable life is better than dying in your book?” Jake shook his head. “I don’t get it. You betrayed your own family for an unhappy life. Don’t you get lonely? Do you even have any friends?”
“I have all the company I need among the dark forces.” The prince replied, cryptically. “You will not sway me with such tactics.”
“What if this sorcerer guy suddenly decides he wants you to die so that the darkness can win? Maybe, that’s how it works and he hasn’t told you.” Jake was coming up with random arguments just to keep Azazel talking. He never liked the quiet much.
“You think I am some great pawn and whichever side I die for wins?” Azazel shook his head. “I am not so important.”
“Everybody’s important.” Jake commented. “Obviously, you are, since the shadow master gave you all those special powers.”
“He would give such powers to anyone who was loyal and willing to carry their burden.” The prince informed him.
Jake frowned at that. “Then why don’t a bunch of people have powers like that? Aren’t there a lot of loyal servants on the dark side?”
Azazel paused, seeming to consider whether he should answer. “It takes a lot of training to be able to use these powers. Most people do not wish to subject themselves to it.”
“You make it sound like torture.” Jake pointed out.
“The training is important.” Azazel told him. “You would not understand.”
“Not sure I’d want to.” Jake responded. “You must really like darkness to do all this. Do you even care about how many people have to die for you to avoid being sacrificed?”
That gave Azazel pause, but his expression never changed. “If the people accept the darkness, rather than fighting it, they will be fine. It is their choice to reject it. I’m not the villain, here.”
“You keep saying that.” Jake commented. “But I haven’t seen much evidence to back you up.”

“It sounds like their having a decent conversation.” Gabriella commented. From where they sat, she and Henry couldn’t understand what was being said in the hole, but they could hear the muffled voices of the pair.
Henry nodded in agreement. “I just hope my brother doesn’t do anything stupid.”
“Like what?” She asked.
Henry shrugged. “He’ll figure something out.” He did his best to look anywhere but at her, realizing they were alone together. Even when they walked together at the palace, there were always people nearby. Now, the only people around were in a pit and not coming up anytime soon.
She giggled at his response. “You two seem to have a good relationship, even if you spend half your time insulting each other.”
“Well, he’s my brother.” Henry paused, thinking that was probably insensitive, considering her relationship with Azazel. “Of course, we don’t always get along. All families fight.” He frowned at how silly that sounded. A minor spat with his brother was a little different from hers betraying all of Mirra.
Gabriella just nodded, realizing that he was trying to be sensitive. “Have you two ever been apart for very long?”
“A few months.” He answered. “We were put in different homes in different cities and didn’t see each other at all for a while.”
She looked at him. “That must have been very difficult.”
Henry nodded. “It was harder on Jake, I think. When we were together, again, he wouldn’t talk for a while and he wouldn’t even let me go to a different room without him.” He frowned as he remembered it. “I don’t really know why. Even when he was talking again, he wouldn’t tell me.”
“He seems to be alright, now.” Gabriella pointed out.
“Well, that’s more thanks to Will than anyone.” Henry told her. “When we got put in a home with him and the others, Will looked out for all of us. The dad there wasn’t very nice, but William protected us, even when it meant he’d be the one getting in trouble. Eventually, Jake was able to trust him, which is a big deal for my brother. He doesn’t usually trust anybody besides me. That’s part of why we were so quick to agree to run away with Will. We knew he wouldn’t let anything happen to us.”
“It must be nice to have someone you can depend on like that.” The princess commented.
“Yeah.” Henry looked at her. “Well, once Nicholas is better, he’ll be able to look out for you again, right?”
Gabriella nodded, but her expression was sad. “He protects me too much, sometimes. After our parents died and Azazel left, Nicholas became determined to keep me safe. I hardly ever leave the palace and I never leave the city without him.” She traced her finger in some dirt beside her. “We weren’t even that close before our father died and I’m glad to have more of a relationship with him, but I don’t like being a burden. He’s so afraid of something happening to me and he shouldn’t have to be dealing with that.”
“Do you mind if I ask how your parents died?” Henry didn’t want to open old wounds, but he wanted to get to know her better.
“My mother died while my parents were travelling to see the wood elves and strengthen our alliances.” She replied. “They were attacked by shadow warriors. They say she fought bravely and defeated several of them, but she was struck down before the guards could destroy them all. She died in my father’s arms.” Gabriella swallowed. “I was too young to remember, but I know the stories. Afterwards, my father became determined to ensure that Nicholas would be a strong enough heir to defeat the shadow master. He separated him from Azazel and me. We rarely saw him unless we were sparring or helping him with some other activity to make him a better king.”
“Sounds like Nicholas had it rough.” Henry commented, imagining what it would be like to know his brother was close, but not be able to talk to him much.
Gabriella nodded. “Azazel and I spent a lot of time together as children. He would read me stories and he taught me how to shoot a bow, as well as use a sword. He’s a really good fighter.” She paused. “Of course, that might not seem like a good thing, now.”
Henry gave an amused smile. “It sounds like you two were really close.”
“We were.” She agreed. “I don’t really know what happened. He just started spending less and less time with me. Even when we were together, his mind seemed to be elsewhere. He was fifteen when our father led an attack against some shadow warriors and fell in battle. Nicholas was named king and Azazel disappeared soon after. It was over a year before we heard anything about him. By that time, he was a shadow worker and the brother I knew was gone.”
Looking at her heartbroken expression, Henry felt the urge to hug her, but he resisted, fearing it might not be appropriate. He looked away, trying to think of something to say that might comfort her. “I can’t even begin to imagine what you’re going through, but you should know you don’t have to go through it alone. I’m here if you need anything.”
Gabriella looked at him and managed a little smile. “Thank you. That’s really sweet.”
He blushed, but tried to hide it. “No problem.”

Katherine stopped for no apparent reason and looked around. “This is the place.”
The rest of the group glanced around, not sure if they were supposed to be seeing something in the empty plain. Meredith looked at the guardian in confusion. “What place?”
Katherine held her hand out and, suddenly, they were staring at a mountain and they stood at the foot of it. Josie yelped and jumped back in surprise.
“Sorry.” Katherine told them. “Only a few people can make the mountain appear. It’s part of the protection.”
William looked up at the mountain. It was relatively small for a mountain, but still bigger than he would like under the circumstances. “How far up are we going?”
“All the way.” She replied. “The entrance to the cave is at the top.”
“Of course, it is.” He glanced at the sky, realizing they probably wouldn’t get back to the pit before nightfall.
Katherine took a breath, doing her best to remain cheerful before the group. “Well, we had best get started. The sooner we get to the top, the sooner we can pick up Jake and head home.”

In their hole, Jake and Azazel had fallen into a drawn-out silence. Disliking that, Jake started humming. When the prince didn’t react, he started singing to himself.
“What under the lights are you singing?” Azazel asked, eventually.
“Just some Taylor Swift.” Jake replied, calmly.
“What is a Taylor swift?” The prince looked at him, mildly curious.
“She’s a singer in my world.” Jake told him. “She’s pretty cool.”
“Cool?” Azazel questioned the unfamiliar slang.
“It means she’s good.” Jake explained. “I’d be happy to sing you a medley of her greatest hits. It might be a good way to pass the time.”
“I’ll pass.” The prince answered, coolly, looking away again.
“Your loss.” Jake informed him with a grin.

“Did you hear singing?” Gabriella asked, looking towards the hole.
“Taylor Swift.” Henry sighed. “Probably best not to talk about it. He might hear us and become encouraged to start again.”
The princess looked at him and smiled. “Lights above forbid.”

It was dark when Katherine’s group reached the cave. She glowed, brightly, lighting their way. Everyone was exhausted, but she pushed them a little farther, knowing they were close. The shadows seemed to retreat as she drew close, shining like a beacon. She led them down a dark hole, the rest of the group sticking close. Josie clung tightly to William’s hand, having forgotten all about her independence.
“Do you really think Jake and the others will be alright?” Meredith asked, standing close to William. She didn’t like not being able to go back for them, immediately. She was beginning to fear they may not make it back that night.
“He’ll be fine.” William spoke with more confidence than he felt as they followed Katherine deeper into the cave. He was worrying as much as anyone, but he couldn’t let on. He knew he needed to pretend everything was okay so the others might believe it. “Azazel promised not to hurt him and Katherine trusts his word. We should trust her.”
“Right.” Meredith looked at him, wondering if he had a little too much faith in the girl. It also occurred to her that he had sounded just a little like Tristan as he’d said it.
Eventually, Katherine stopped and pressed her hand against the wall. Blue light snaked through the walls like veins, casting a glow upon the room, which revealed it to be covered in crystals. Katherine paused, considering their options. She knew it would be difficult to leave with the crystal, especially at night. The shadow creatures hadn’t been brave enough to attack her going in, but the crystal’s power would tempt them, even if it wasn’t yet activated. However, she knew the others wouldn’t want to leave Jake trapped for the night. Finally, she sighed and broke a piece of the crystal off, turning to the rest of the group. “Now, comes the hard part.”

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