Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


22. 22

~~They decided not to spend the night in the village, this time, partially, because no one wanted to leave Azazel alone. He had refused to answer any questions about what the half-fairies had said. Eventually, he stopped talking completely, but they were still hoping he might slip if they kept him around.
Once everyone else had lain down for the night, Tristan sat beside Katherine, who was sitting up and staring at the sky, deep in thought. He spoke softly, not wanting to risk being overheard. “Are you sure it’s wise to ignore the advice we were given?”
The guardian sighed, having been thinking about that the whole day. “I don’t know. I want to believe the city can be saved. If it is lost, that will deal a great blow to our side. Also, there is no way we could get everyone out before an attack.”
Tristan took a breath, knowing she wasn’t going to like what he said next. “You are very determined to protect everyone. You’ve said repeatedly that you will do whatever it takes to keep all the members of our group safe, but did it ever occur to you that such a thing may not be possible? You may risk losing everyone, instead.”
Katherine swallowed and looked away from him. “I refuse to accept that. If I can’t protect everyone, there is no point in me being the guardian.”
The elf frown as he watched her expression, knowing she was struggling with the decision. He didn’t want to cause her more pain, but he knew someone had to talk to her. “If you are unable to save everyone, what will you do? Will you sacrifice yourself and destroy Mirra in you desperation to not let anyone die? That would not work.”
“I will save the city.” She gave him a look that allowed for no argument. “I won’t let some fortune tellers dissuade me from doing that.”
“My lady, think about your decision, please.” Tristan knew there was no point in trying to convince her to sacrifice the few for the many, but he needed her to know that she was not responsible if some people didn’t make it. Many had been lost in the war, already, and it always took a great toll on the guardian.
“I have thought about it.” She looked out over the field. “I will save the Domed City and protect those within it. This is my duty as a guardian of Mirra.”
“I truly hope you are able to do everything you plan.” He told her. “You know I only ever wanted the best for you.”
It was unusual for him to speak to her like that. He was generally very distant and Katherine didn’t want him to think she was unappreciative. She swallowed and offered him a smile. “I know, Tristan. You’re a good friend.”
He looked away from her. “I am honored to be that much to you, my lady. Now, you should get some rest.”
She sighed as he reverted to formal speech. “I suppose you’re right.” She chose a spot near the group and lay down, willing herself to sleep, despite her turbulent thoughts.

She woke up a few hours later and moved to relieve Meredith, who had taken the last watch. Katherine noticed that something was missing and looked around, needing only a moment to figure out what it was. She leaned close to Meredith so no one else would hear. “Where is Azazel?”
Meredith’s eyes widened as she realized he was nowhere to be seen. “I never even heard him get up.” She looked at the guardian. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see him leave.”
Katherine waved the apology away, knowing Azazel could have easily slipped into the shadows without anyone noticing. “It’s not your fault. He was capable of leaving whenever he wanted.” She frowned, wondering if his leaving had anything to do with the prediction they’d received.
“Gabriella’s going to be disappointed.” Meredith commented, figuring her probably wasn’t coming back.
“Everyone will be fine.” Katherine assured her. She checked her bag and confirmed that the crystal had not been taken. “I suppose he just didn’t want to travel with us anymore, but everything’s fine. Get some sleep.”
Meredith nodded and lay down, trusting that the guardian knew best.

The group was rather discomforted by Azazel’s sudden disappearance, but no one knew quite what to say about it, so they avoided the subject completely the following morning as they prepared for another long day of walking.
“Are you okay?” Henry asked as he walked next to Gabriella.
She gave a sad smile, not needing to ask what he meant. “We knew he wouldn’t stick around forever. I expect he didn’t want us asking difficult questions, so he took off. I really shouldn’t be surprised.”
“It’s alright to be upset, though.” He assured her. “He’s your brother. It’s only natural to want him around.”
She swallowed and looked down. “Well, I guess he just doesn’t really want me around.”
Henry paused, but shook his head. “That can’t be the case.”
“What makes you so sure?” She asked.
“Because there’s no way anyone could not want to be around you.” He answered.
She looked at him in surprise and managed a genuine smile. “You are quite possibly the kindest person I have ever known.”
“Well, it’s true.” He told her. “I can’t imagine anyone not wanting you around.”
She glanced around surreptitiously to make sure no one was watching, then kissed him on the cheek. When his cheeks flushed, she giggled. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s…fine.” He cleared his throat and looked straight ahead, trying to hide his embarrassment.
“What’s wrong with your face?” Jake asked. He had been looking around and hadn’t seen the kiss.
“What do you mean?” Henry looked at him. “Is there something on it?”
“Yeah.” Jake nodded. “This stupid-looking grin.”
“Shut up.” Henry shoved his brother, but he couldn’t seem to make himself stop smiling.

Jeremiah sighed as he checked the city’s defenses. They were fading too quickly. He knew they wouldn’t be much good against any shadow workers, let alone the shadow master. He could sense the tension building in the palace and knew it would be mirrored throughout the city. From the roof of the palace, he looked out over the wall and into the distance. “Hurry home, Katherine. Your people need you.”

Katherine stared towards where she knew the city lay, even if she couldn’t see it from that distance. The group was settling in for the night, but she couldn’t help wishing they could keep going. She wanted to get the crystal home. The longer they stayed away, the more she wanted to be back in the city, where she knew she could help her people.
“You need to rest.” William told her, sensing her anxiety.
Katherine offered him a smile, trying not to worry anyone. “I will. I’m just eager to be home, again.”
“We will be in a few days.” He assured her. “We’ve made it this far. It’s not so distant, now.”
She nodded, breathing a sigh as she glanced around. “No shadow creatures have come near us since Azazel did…whatever he did.”
William nodded. “We should be grateful for his help, whatever his motivations may be.”
“Right.” She reached into her bag and touched the crystal, wishing she could activate it, but she knew it would take more than her power for that and activating it without the proper preparations could render it useless. “Do you think I’m making a mistake…taking it back to the palace after what Mirage and Echo said?”
“I have no idea.” He admitted. “I’m still learning the rules of this world. I don’t know who to trust or what to think, half the time. I’m just doing my best to protect the people I care about.”
“You’ve been training every day.” She commented. “I’d say you are going to be able to protect people if the need arises.”
He smiled, but shook his head. “I still have a long way to go.”
“Good.” She smiled at him. “When you believe you have mastered a skill and no longer need to practice it, you set yourself up for failure.”
“I suppose that’s true.” He returned her smile, easily. “At any rate, I trust you to do what’s best for your people, in the end.”
“You have a lot of faith in me.” She noted. “You know that being the guardian doesn’t automatically make me wise, right?”
“I figured.” He replied. “But I think you are a good person, with or without your powers. I know you will put the best interest of your people first. That is why I have faith in you.”
She looked away, not sure how to respond to such a statement. “I wish I had that much faith in myself.”
“I wish you did, too.” He told her. “I wish you could see yourself the way we see you, because then you would realize how incredible you are.”
She smiled at the words. “You should get some sleep.”
“Back at you.” He replied. He moved away from her and lay down, sensing that she needed some space to think.
Katherine watched William for a minute and sighed as she lay down, wishing she had known someone like him when she was mortal.

The rest of their journey went by without incident. No more shadow creatures attacked and Katherine feared that it might be too easy. However, as she saw the wall of the city rising up before her, she forgot all her concerns. More than anything, she wanted to have the group safe within those walls. She wanted to activate her crystal and restore the safe haven. She smiled as she led them to the city gates and the guard happily let them in.
“Welcome home, my lady.” He told her. “I trust your journey was fruitful.”
She nodded. “The domed city will soon be as it was.” She led the group past relieved citizens and knew she had made the right decision bringing the crystal to the city. She didn’t know how anyone could ever doubt it.
Melody and Bard broke away from the group and headed to their home, eager to get some rest after all the excitement. William promised to see them the following day.
Jeremiah met them at the entrance to the palace and Katherine rushed to hug him, always feeling safe in his arms. He smiled with relief as he hugged her. “Welcome home.”
Once inside, she handed him the crystal. “I trust the preparations are nearly ready.”
He nodded as he took it. “We will activate it at dawn, when the power of the lights is at its peak.”
She nodded. “And how is Nicholas? Has there been any improvement?”
Jeremiah shook his head, sadly. “There has been no change, but we will now be able to focus on healing him, since the city will be safe, again. You may go see him, if you wish.” He looked at the rest of the group. “I expect you all will be tired from your journey. Your rooms are prepared and you may rest for the night.”
Nobody argued and, soon, they were all washing up and preparing to rest, glad to be back in the city.

“My lady.” Angelus stood as Katherine entered. “It is good to see you are back. I trust you found the crystal?”
She nodded. “The city will be protected, soon, and we will be able to focus on Nicholas.” She looked at the sleeping form, wishing he would awaken, so she could give him the good news. “Have you stayed by his side this whole time?”
“As much as I could.” The half-elf answered. “I believe he will recover soon and I want to make sure there is a friendly face to greet him.”
“You are very kind, Angelus.” She told him. “I’m sure your faithfulness will be well-rewarded.”
“I wish for no reward from the king, my lady.” He assured her. “I am happy to stay here and watch over him. He means more to me than I could ever say.”
She smiled at him. “I never realized.”
“You should rest, though.” Angelus commented. “You must be exhausted.”
Katherine nodded, unable to argue. “I will return to his side, soon. Please, let us know if there is any change.”
“I promise you will know when he waked up.” He promised.
Accepting the assurances, Katherine went to her own chambers and slipped into a hot bath, breathing a sigh as the water washed over her. She was truly glad to have returned to the palace.

Once she had washed up, Valda found Jeremiah, checking on the preparations for the ritual to be performed. “Is everything ready?”
“Nearly.” He replied. “We will be prepared to perform the ritual at first light, so there’s no need for concern.” He looked at her. “Have you been to see your brother, yet?”
“Half-brother.” She correct, reflexively. “Why would I seek him out?”
“He has been good to look after the king.” Jeremiah answered. “I know you didn’t see him when you were here before and he is your family.”
“You know such things are not so simple.” She told him. “Angelus is not the same as me. Calling us family isn’t quite right.”
“He may not be permitted to live among your people, but he is still your family.” The guardian told her. “I will not order you to speak to him, but I think it would be good for both of you. You should never underestimate the value of a sibling, even a half-sibling.”
She frowned, but didn’t argue. “Is there any way I can help with the ritual.”
“None, whatsoever.” He answered. “You have plenty of free time to go see him.”
“I’ll think about it.” She walked away from the guardian, thinking she had no desire to see the half-elf, family or not.

Once Katherine had washed and changed into a clean dress, she heard a knock at the door. She opened it to find William, also clean and dressed in nicer clothes than he’d been able to wear during their travels. He had brushed his hair out of his face and he smiled as he saw the guardian. “You weren’t about to go to sleep, I hope.”
“It’s barely evening and I’m not sure if I can sleep, tonight.” She told him. “I am eager to begin the ritual.”
“But that’s not until morning, right?” He asked.
“Right.” She sighed. “I am impatient, though. I fear the worst and will not be able to relax until the crystal is activated.”
“I think I might be able to help take your mind off of it.” He told her.
“Oh, really?” She gave him an intrigued smile. “How might you do that?”
“Follow me.” He walked away and Katherine had no choice but to obey if she wanted to know what he was up to. He led her down the stairs to the ballroom and opened the door. Several lights had been lit and a box rested on a table.
“What are we doing here?” Katherine asked.
“I got a few of the palace workers to help me set it up.” He answered. “One of them had this box…” He opened it and music began to play, quickly filling the room. “It’s magic and can fill any room with music, no matter how large.”
“I’ve seen such things before.” She told him. “So what is the reason for all of this?”
“Well, the last time we were here, I wasn’t able to dance, at all, and I feel like I missed out because of it.” He replied. “I wanted a chance to dance with you, properly.” He held out his hand. “So may I have this dance?”
Katherine smiled and accepted the hand, allowing him to lead her out onto the large ballroom floor. “You didn’t have to go to so much trouble, you know.”
“Perhaps not.” He spun her out. “But you’re worth it.”
She stared at him, once again caught off guard by the mortal boy. She spun back in and they waltzed across the floor. She realized her heart was beating faster than normal and she had some trouble catching her breath. She wondered if she were more tired than she had realized, but she didn’t want to stop dancing. “William…”
“Yes?” He smiled at her and Katherine forgot what she was going to say.
“Nothing.” She allowed him to lead her across the floor as the music played, forgetting all about the crystal for a moment. She didn’t know how long they had been dancing when she suddenly realized someone else had entered the room. She turned to see Tristan, standing at the entrance to the room. Hurriedly, she pulled away from William, feeling guilty without knowing why. “Tristan.” She closed the box and the music faded away. “Were you looking for me?”
“I did not wish to interrupt, my lady, but something has happened.” He told her. “There are shadow warriors camped outside the wall. They haven’t made a moved to enter and their numbers are not great, but I thought you should know.”
“Thank you.” Katherine smiled at him. “I will look into it.” She rushed out of the room without speaking to William.
Tristan watched her go, then looked back at the human boy. “What were you doing in here?”
“Dancing.” William replied, simply. “She’s been teaching me.”
Tristan made a gesture with his hand and all the lights went out. “Be careful, Dunyan. You wouldn’t want people to think you are being too friendly with the king’s fiancé.”
“We were just dancing.” William insisted as he pushed past the elf, not wanting to discuss it further.
Tristan closed the door to the ballroom as he walked away, knowing that William could be a serious threat to the future of Mirra if he was not careful.

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