Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


21. 21

~~Katherine knew there was no point in asking how Azazel had run the creatures off. She wasn’t sure if he would answer any other questions about it, but, as they started making preparations to sleep that night, she decided to give it a try. She sat near him on the edge of the group. “Why did you do it?”
“Do what?” His tone was cool and uninterested.
“Why did you help us, earlier?” She clarified. “Surely, your master would be displeased by your actions. You’ve greatly increased our chances of getting the crystal to the palace.”
“That’s unimportant.” He replied. “Getting the crystal to the palace will do you no good, so it doesn’t matter if I help you.”
Katherine didn’t like the confidence in his words, but she knew he wouldn’t explain what he meant. “Even so, there was no reason for you to help us. Why did you even bother?”
Azazel paused, seeming to think it over. “I have no desire to watch people die for no reason. Besides, losing you now would risk destroying Mirra. You can’t die until the darkness holds more power than the lights.”
“And you think that is possible?” She watched his expression in the bit of light provided by the stars.
“I believe it’s going to happen sooner than you think.” He answered. “You may as well live to see it. Afterwards, you will be free of your burden as a guardian. You should be able to rejoice in that knowledge.”
“I never asked to be freed.” She told him.
“But there are times when you wish it, I’m sure.” He never looked at her. “You can’t be happy living all these years while others fade and die. You’ve never been able to fall in love because you are bound to marry the future guardian and you won’t convince me you are in love with my brother.”
“Why not?” She demanded. “He is a good man with a kind heart. Any girl would be glad to marry him.”
“But you’re not.” It wasn’t a question. “You are marrying him out of a sense of duty to the land. You will no longer need to worry about such things when the lights lose their powers. You will be free to love as you wish.”
“You are talking about freedom, but forcing your ideals onto everyone.” She pointed out. “Shall we not be free to choose to live in the light?”
“No one can choose when it is day or night.” He answered. “We must adapt to either and everyone will learn to adapt, eventually. One day, no one will even miss the oppressing lights that you so readily defend.”
“I don’t believe that.” She told him. “Even in the darkest night, there will always be a candle to remind us of the lights. Even if darkness managed to suppress them, the people will fight to bring the lights back to life. It is in our nature to crave the daylight and we will never be satisfied with darkness.”
“Those beliefs have allowed the lights to force everyone to do their bidding for too long.” Azazel looked up at the golden stars. “But they will soon fall and you shall see the truth.”
“Truth is illuminated by light. It is darkness that blinds us to it.” She gave him a long, considering look. “I hope you understand that before it’s too late.” She moved away from him and helped the elves with the protective barriers before they set up watch and everyone settled in for the night.
Jake had volunteered for first watch and he sat close enough to Azazel that they could have a conversation.
“If you start singing again, all promises go out the window.” The prince warned.
Jake grinned at him. “I thought you liked my singing.” He paused for a minute, trying to figure out what it was he wanted to say. “Thanks for saving us, earlier. I know nobody really said anything and you probably had your reasons, but I’m grateful.”
Azazel was silent, a little caught off guard. “You should not thank me if you don’t know my intentions.”
Jake shrugged. “Whatever your intentions are, I’m glad they include me being alive. Besides, I like to think that you saved us because you have a soft spot for a certain member of our group.”
“It had nothing to do with my sister.” The prince informed him.
“Your sister? I was talking about me. I thought we had a special connection.” Jake smiled, but Azazel was looking away. “You know, it’s basic courtesy to look at people when you are having a conversation.”
“Are we having a conversation?” The prince asked, ignoring basic courtesy.
“What else would you call it?” Jake inquired.
“Harassment.” The response was immediate.
Jake put a hand over his heart. “I’m wounded.” When Azazel didn’t respond, Jake sighed. “So we’re back to the silent treatment. That’s mature.”
“Why do you bother?” Azazel’s voice was softer than usual.
“Bother with what?” Jake wasn’t really sure what he meant.
“You keep talking to me like you think we’re going to be friends, but, if I ever face you in battle, I will kill you without hesitation. We have a temporary peace, but that is only until I receive orders to break it.”
Jake stared at him, having trouble coming up with a response. “You try so hard to convince everyone that you’re a stone-cold killer, but I get the feeling that’s just a front. You’re scared of dying, so you did what you had to in order to survive. That doesn’t make you evil.”
“I never claimed to be evil. In fact, I’ve told you repeatedly that I am not the villain the servants of the light make me out to be.” Azazel pointed out. “We are just on different sides in this war. Eventually, one side will win and one of us will likely be dead at that time.”
“One of us?” Jake gave him a curious look. “So you realize you could die, fighting for darkness. Why bother, then? Why give up your family if you are still at risk of dying? Wouldn’t it make more sense to enjoy the time you have with them?”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand.” The prince replied.
“Well, that’s good because I’m pretty confused.” Jake frowned at him. “You’d rather be miserable and alone with a high risk of dying for the darkness than be happy and loved with a high risk of dying for the lights?”
“If I die in battle for the darkness, that is because I was unfortunate or made a mistake.” Azazel explained. “Either way, I choose to fight. I can refuse to go into battle and protect myself because I have free will. However, the lights demanded that I die for their cause. I was never given a choice of any sort.”
“Well, that sucks, but it seems like being a shadow worker sucks more.” Jake remembered the wailing in the forest. “Your spirit will never be at rest if you die for the darkness. At least, with the lights, you might have been at peace when you died.”
“It’s too late for that, now.” Azazel’s voice held a twinge of sadness, but he recovered quickly. “I’ve made my decision and I’ll not be swayed by a fool.”
“It’s never too late to turn things around.” Jake decided to ignore the insult. “You could give up being a shadow worker. You could join the side of the lights. I’m sure everyone would forgive you.”
“I can’t give up being a shadow worker.” Azazel informed him. “When I made the decision to accept the power, I knew there was no going back. There will be no peace for me in death, so I have no reason to rush towards it.”
Jake stared at him, blankly, not sure what to say after that. “Why would you willingly decide to suffer for eternity just to save your life? Eventually, you’re going to die, so what’s the point? You call me a fool, but you choose a slightly longer lifespan over eternal peace, so you are in no position to judge.”
“You are incapable of understanding my reasons.” Azazel replied, coolly.
“You keep saying that, but what am I not understanding?” Jake paused, feeling like he was missing something important. “There’s something else, isn’t there? The shadow guy offered you more than just your life and some fancy powers, right?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” The prince told him.
“You’re probably right.” Jake admitted, feeling certain that he was onto something. “But, whatever he offered you, it wasn’t worth your soul.”
Azazel was silent for another minute, making Jake think he wasn’t going to talk any more. When he spoke, his voice was barely audible. “You’re wrong.” He lay down with his back to Jake, effectively ending the conversation.

Jake kept glancing at the prince as they ate breakfast the following morning. He sat down beside Gabriella and spoke, softly, not sure if he wanted anyone else to hear. “Okay, this may seem like a weird question, but is there something your brother wanted that he would have given up anything to get it?”
She blinked in confusion. “Well, apparently, his life. I mean, he did betray us for it.”
Jake shook his head. “This would be something even more important to him than that or something he’d want on top of it.” He realized he wasn’t making sense and frowned. Somehow, the idea had seemed better in the middle of the night. “Was there something he wanted in this life that was really important and impossible to get?”
The princess stared at him for a moment, but shook her head. “He never wanted for anything. We played together as children and he was always quite content. The only thing he might have wanted was more time with Nicholas, but I’m guessing that’s not what you meant.”
Jake considered the answer, thinking that it wouldn’t make much sense to betray his brother in order to strengthen their relationship. “No, it really isn’t.” He sighed. “I guess I’m just looking for an answer that doesn’t exist.”
Henry had been trying to give the princess some space, but he couldn’t resist coming to sit with the pair when he saw them speaking in hushed tones. “Discussing anything interesting?”
Jake quickly put on a smile. “I was just telling the princess how her presence was all that kept me sane during my time trapped in that pit.”
“You couldn’t even see me.” She pointed out, not bothering to mention the lie. She figured there was probably a good reason for it.
“Lucky for you.” Henry told Gabriella. “It meant you couldn’t see his ugly face.”
“She would have been lucky if she’d been sitting next to meet, rather than having to bear with your apish appearance.” Jake countered. “At least, she could have enjoyed my singing.”
“You mean that catcalling you were doing in the hole?” Henry questioned. “We heard more than enough of that.” He was glad to be arguing with his brother, again. It made both of them feel more secure.
Gabriella couldn’t help giggling at their ridiculous argument. “You two are rather odd.”
“He’s the odd one.” They replied in unison, each pointing at the other.
Gabriella laughed at them and the boys smiled, clearly please with themselves.
Azazel heard his sister laugh and watched her cheerfully talking to the boys.
“She seems to be in a good mood this morning.” Katherine commented, sitting beside him.
“She has two fools entertaining her.” Azazel replied, looking away.
“You don’t need to be constantly acting like you have no interest in your sister.” Katherine told him. “You can love her without having to rejoin our side.”
“Are you saying you no longer wish to have me fighting for the light?” The prince asked.
Katherine shook her head. “I will always want you on our side. I have known you your whole life and you are dear to me. However, I realize that I can’t force you to join us and pressuring you isn’t helping. You have to make your own decision or it is meaningless.”
“A guardian who believes in free will…that’s new.” He remarked.
Katherine offered him a smile. “We’re not as rare as you seem to believe. The lights asked something difficult of you, but it was always your choice. I guess nobody ever really explained that to you, though.” She looked down. “I’m sorry for that. I should have made it clear that we weren’t going to force you to die. If I had, we may have been able to talk and find you a better option than turning to the shadow master.”
Azazel paused, caught off guard by the statement, but unwilling to show surprise. “Of course you say that, now. It won’t do any good, though. I’ve made my decision and there is no turning back.”
“Will you at least tell me one thing?” Katherine requested. “That time when you came to me, demanding to talk to the lights…what did they say to you? What was it that upset you so much that you would run off?”
The prince was silent for a few minutes as he considered his answer. “My father had just died and I didn’t want to be next. The lights refused to give me what I wanted, so I turned against them. It’s quite simple, really.”
“It that all?” Katherine gave him a dubious look.
“That’s all.” He stood up. “We should be going, now. You want to enter the forest before nightfall, I assume.”
“Of course.” Katherine replied, never looking away from him. Realizing he probably wasn’t going to answer any more questions, she stood and faced the group. Well, let’s be off. We’ll be past the worst of it before long.”

When they reached the forest, that afternoon, Echo and Mirage were waiting for them. Echo smiled, brightly, as she spotted the group. “We knew you would come back.”
“We never doubted it.” Mirage agreed.
Katherine offered the girls a smile, looking towards the woods. “You helped us last time. I was wondering if you would be able to help us, again. We are carrying valuable cargo and can’t risk losing it.”
“You mean the crystal, right?” Mirage guessed.
“She must mean the crystal.” Echo commented. “We will help you keep it safe.”
“We will help because we like you.”
“And we are sad for you.”
Mirage looked at Echo, putting a finger to her lips. “They don’t want to know.”
Echo mimicked the gesture. “We won’t tell them.” She looked back at the group. “You can count on us.”
“We are usually trustworthy.” Mirage added, not filling them with confidence.
“We will appreciate any assistance you give us.” Katherine promised, not brave enough to ask what they were keeping secret. She told herself they were just messing with their heads and she could keep the group safe. She didn’t believe anything was set in stone.
“Leave it to us.” Echo disappeared into the trees.
“We’ll take care of everything.” Mirage followed the other girl.
Taking a breath, Katherine led the group into the forest, hoping the girls were as good as they believed themselves to be.
This time, there was no wailing as the group passed through the forest. They slept that night and made it out the next day without incident, making the guardian glad to have trusted the half-fairies.
Mirage and Echo met them at the other side of the forest and smiled at the group, looking quite pleased with themselves.
“Did we do well?” Mirage asked.
“We did, didn’t we?” Echo added.
“You did very well.” Katherine returned the smile, grateful beyond words. She had been afraid that they might not succeed in getting the crystal back to the palace, at all, but her doubts were finally beginning to fade. They were more than halfway through their journey and no one had even been significantly injured. “If there is ever anything we can do for you, in return, please, let me know.”
Echo looked at Mirage and a silent conversation seemed to pass between them. The former looked back to the guardian with an almost serious expression. “It is not a favor for us, but some advice you might heed.”
“Great danger awaits you if you take the crystal back to the palace.” Mirage told her.
“You think you do it for your sake, but other forces are at work.” Echo looked at Azazel. “There are traitors within the palace who would use it for their own gain.”
Katherine stared at her, clutching her bag, tightly as she thought of the stone within it. “Without the stone, the city’s defenses will fall and we will be powerless to protect it.”
“The city is already lost.” Mirage answered.
“There is nothing you can do to save it.” Echo agreed. “You must take the stone, instead, to the dwarven kingdom under the silver mountain.”
“Your people must follow you there.” Mirage told her. “Only then, can they be safe.”
“I refuse to believe that the Domed City cannot be saved.” Katherine answered. “You cannot know all.”
“It will not harm us for you to destroy your people.” Mirage assured her.
“You are free to do as you wish.” Echo added. “We just wanted to help.” With that, she disappeared into the trees, again.
“If you are wise, you will heed our advice.” Mirage followed the other girl into the forest.
Katherine took a breath to calm herself and turned to the group, forcing a smile. “I think it’s time we headed home.”

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