Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


27. 27

~~Leading a group of a thousand wasn’t easy, especially when most of them were not at their physical peak. They had to stop more often than the guardian liked and it was early evening before they even saw the mountain, rising up in the distance. She pushed them to walk until it started getting dark, then she and Jeremiah helped to fortify the wards. They set up sentries across the camp and everyone lay down to sleep.
Katherine watched over them for a while, not ready to rest just yet. Nicholas felt the same way so he came to sit beside her. “You seem to be fretting, still. That won’t do any good, you know.”
She managed a smile and sighed. “It’s difficult not to. I worry about the people we are trying to protect and I worry about the ones we couldn’t help.”
“You’re thinking about the Dunyan, aren’t you?” Nicholas asked. He’d been a little surprised by her reaction when he’d dragged her away. He had expected her to fight him, but she had seemed so focused on getting back to William, he couldn’t help but wonder at that.
Katherine frowned, not wanting to talk about what had happened. She still wasn’t sure what it meant. She wasn’t usually one to lose her senses like that. She had chalked it up to exhaustion combined with all the heightened emotions of the battle and she wasn’t going to give anyone a chance to prove her wrong. “Among other people. I have several friends that didn’t make it out and nearly everyone in this group has a loved one whose fate is unknown. I just wish we had some way of finding out how they are.”
The young king nodded his understanding. “I know how you feel. As their ruler, I should have done a better job of protecting them. Instead, I got captured and allowed traitors into the palace.”
“You can’t blame yourself.” She told him, looking at the ground. “If anyone’s to blame, it’s me. I was warned that the city would be lost and I shouldn’t bring the crystal there, but my hubris was so great that I refused to accept such a prediction.” She thought about the fighters that had been lost and what might be happening within the walls, now. “I am truly a failure as a guardian. I am not even worthy of the title.”
“No.” He took her hand. “Don’t ever think that. You did what you thought was best for Mirra, just as you always have. You always try to save everyone and that is risky, but you’ll never be able to do it if you don’t try.”
Katherine looked at him, thinking he was really a good man. She leaned closer and kissed him, gently. She pulled back after a moment and looked down at her hands. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that without your permission.”
“It’s fine.” He assured her, trying not to act as surprised as he felt. He cleared his throat and pulled his hand away from hers. “You should try and get some sleep. I will do the same.” He put some distance between them and lay down.
Katherine watched him go and touched her lips. She had hoped that kissing Nicholas might erase William’s kiss, but it was no good. She still felt his lips on her, tempting her to rush back to the Domed City and pay whatever price was necessary to see him again. She looked at the sleeping crowd to remind herself why should couldn’t do that. These people needed her and she couldn’t put them at risk for the sake of one human life. One day, she was going to have to learn she couldn’t always save everyone.
Katherine shook that thought away, telling herself she could still save William. She just had to be patient. They would regroup and take back the city. She just needed to be patient. She lay down and looked up at the stars, wondering if he could see them, too. She closed her eyes, willing him to be strong, no matter what happened.

William was dragged by the rope down to the ballroom. However, it didn’t look much like a ballroom anymore. Torches hung on the wall in place of the orbs of that usually lit it. The flames cast an eerie glow. In the center of the room, a long chain had been hung from the ceiling. At the end of the chain was a large hook. William was led over and his arms were raised above his head so that the rope could be attached to the hook. He did his best not to show fear as he spotted a large table, holding metal rods of various sizes. There was also a large, flat sheet of metal. He couldn’t even begin to guess what that was for.
“Do you like what I’ve done with the place?” Hel asked, slipping on some black gloves. “It took a while to get everything set up. That’s why we had to wait to play. Hopefully, that gave you enough time to rest and recover. I heard you took quite a blow and I want you at your best.”
He remained silent, not trusting his voice. He didn’t want to show fear, but he was beginning to think it would be unavoidable.
“Well, you’ve gotten silent, my pretty doll.” She commented. She picked up a thin rod and walked over to him. “That will soon change.”
“I’m not your doll.” He did his best to sound firm. He focused on glaring at her and not looking at the rod.
“Of course you are.” She replied. “Lord Hod gave you to me to play. Well, technically, I’m supposed to find out where the guardian went. It seems their wards are giving him some trouble, you understand. However, I don’t really care if you talk. In fact, I would prefer you didn’t since that will give me more time to play.”
“I have no idea where she is.” William told her. He hadn’t even tried to figure it out because he didn’t want to know. He knew it would be better if he didn’t bother to guess.
“Excellent.” Hel smiled, brightly. “Just keep saying that and we’ll getting plenty of playtime.”
He swallowed and glanced at the rod. “You going to hit me with that thing?” He figured it would hurt, but he’d built up a tolerance for pain after years of his mother’s abuse.
“Not today.” Hel looked at the rod. “This is just for a demonstration. I think it’s more fun if I give you an idea of what you’re in for, don’t you?” When he didn’t respond, she went on. “See, my tools are magic. They heat up whenever they touch bare skin. Hence the glove.” She held out one of her hands. “The smaller they are, the faster they heat up. This one is thin and heats up almost immediately, see?” She touched it to the outside of his hand and William felt it quickly go from cool to burning. He grit his teeth and stared straight ahead to avoid reacting to the pain. She watched his face and smiled as she pulled the rod away, leaving a fresh burn in its place. “Oh, yes, you will be fun to break.” She set the rod back on the table and picked up the sheet of metal. “I figured we’d start off simple for tonight. Because of its size, it heats up more slowly and will take a few minutes to really burn. That makes it perfect for a game.” She looked at the guards. “Remove his socks and shoes.”
William struggled a little as they grabbed his feet, but it didn’t do much good. He wasn’t really in a position to fight and, soon, his feet were bare.
Hel walked over and pushed the plate under his bare feet, making sure he was standing in the center. She stood and looked at him. “This game is fairly simple. The longer you stand on that, the hotter it will get. If you don’t want to get burned, you’re going to have to keep your feet off of it. Each time your feet are remove, it will start to cool down, but it cools as slowly as it heats.”
William felt the plate starting to grow warm and he frowned, considering the situation. When it got uncomfortably hot, he grabbed ahold of the rope above him and pulled himself up. The position caused the rope binding him to grow tighter. He managed to hold himself up for a minute before he lowered himself back onto the plate, which was just a little warm.
Hel walked over to a chair by the table and sat down, watching him with an amused grin. “I look forward to seeing how long you last, my pretty doll.”

Katherine avoided Nichols the following morning, feeling a little uncomfortable about what she had done. She also felt guilty for the reason she had done it and she could never bring herself to explain. She focused on watching over their group as well as she could, which was much easier said than done with how many there were.
“We’re making pretty good time, all things considered.” Jeremiah commented, having begun walking beside her. He had finally gotten over the shock of everything that had happened and was acting more like his usual self. “With any luck, we’ll be there by tomorrow night.”
Katherine nodded, trying to remain optimistic. “These people are already exhausted, mentally and physically. It will be good to finally allow them to rest. The real trick will be protecting the stone until it can be activated.
He nodded his agreement. He felt that his was largely his fault that the stone had not been well-protected enough at the palace, but he knew better than to wallow in his guilt. “We just have to keep moving forward and do our best. We remember the past and learn from it, but we can’t let it control us, understand?”
Katherine looked at him and smiled, realizing he was trying to make her feel better about what had happened. “I don’t guess it does any good to get lost in one’s guilt.”
“You did what you thought was best.” Jeremiah assured her. “You can learn from your mistake, but don’t let it define you. You have done plenty of good for Mirra and will continue to do so. That’s what’s important.”
Katherine nodded, trying to focus on that thought. She still blamed herself for letting the shadow master gain control of the crystal, but she was doing her best to move on. Her people needed her to be the guardian and she couldn’t do that if she focused too much on her mistakes. “We will save the city.”
Jeremiah nodded his agreement. “We just need time to regroup and make a plan. We are sure to find that under the mountain.”
She looked towards it, wishing they could get there faster. “We just have to keep going.”

The imprisoned group barely managed to sleep that night. They tried, but they kept listening for William to return. Jake was half-afraid they wouldn’t bring him back at all. Several hours passed before the door opened and Hel led the guards in, carrying their torches. Each of the guards held one of William’s arm and the dragged him into the cage, dumping him on the floor of it.
“Will!” Jake tried to get to him, but his chain wasn’t long enough.
One of the guards handed Hel his torch and went to work untying William’s hands. Hel walked over to the wall and pressed the torch against it. She whispered a spell and it became firmly attached. The guard finished with the rope and locked William’s ankle cuff back on before the group walked away, not bothering to speak to any of the prisoners. They closed the gate behind them and disappeared down the stairs.
Nobody spoke for a few minutes. In the glow of the torch, they could see that his feet were red and blistered. His hands weren’t much better off and his wrists were bleeding from where the ropes cut into them. He was drenched in sweat and his clothes were soaked through
“Will?” Jake feared they may have killed him, but the older boy groaned, alleviating at least one concern.
William couldn’t make himself sit up. He was exhausted from trying to keep his feet off the plate. Every inch of his body ached and he could barely move, but he wanted Jake to believe he was okay, so he forced himself to speak. “You’d think Hel would be nicer to Odin. You’re going to have to have a talk with your daughter, Loki.”
Jake forced a laugh, knowing that William was doing his best to make a joke. “She’s going to a rebellious stage.” He frowned as he looked at his friend. “You should sleep, if you can.”
“You sleep.” William grumbled, but it didn’t take long for him to pass out, despite the pain.
“He is stronger than I expect.” Tristan commented, softly.
“Of course, he is.” Jake replied. “He’s Will.” He swallowed and looked at the torch. “At least we have some light, now.”
“I doubt she put that up to comfort us.” Valda pointed out, her tone angry. Given the chance, she would happily rip off Hel’s head for harming her student. “She wanted to make sure we could see her handiwork. She wants to make sure to cause as much suffering as possible.”
Jake frowned as he understood and looked back at his sleeping friend. “I hate that woman.”
“Anger is probably good, right now.” Valda told him. Her own anger was burning strong inside of her. The more she looked at William, the stronger it grew. “Stay angry and you might not be scared.” She knew it would be difficult for the boy to stay strong and she wanted to give him any help she could.
“Do you think anyone’s going to come and help us?” Jake asked. He wanted to imagine an army bursting into the city and setting them free, but it was hard to believe that would happen and it became harder with each passing hour. William’s current state made hope a very difficult thing to hold onto. He wondered if that was part of Hel’s plan, as well. He figured she couldn’t know just how effective that would be, though. To Jake, William had always been the strongest of them. He had stood up to their foster parent when any of them was in trouble. He had always protected him. Jake didn’t believe in William the way Josie did, but he trusted him as much as he trusted anyone besides his brother. Without Henry there, William was all Jake had and seeing him injured like that was horrifying to the younger boy. He wanted to fix it, but he couldn’t even get close enough to touch William and he had no healing supplies to help him if he could.
“I think they’ll try.” Valda replied, honestly. “However, there are a great deal of obstacles between us and the guardians. It will take time for them to get here, if they come, at all.”
“They’ll come.” Kaelen’s voice was confident as he looked at William. “If for no other reason than to save him, our lady will come.”
“She doesn’t know he’s being tortured. She doesn’t even know if he’s alive.” Valda commented, not fully understanding his line of thought. As usual, the dark elf saw what most others had missed.
“She knows he’s here and she will hope for his life.” Kaelen said. “She will want to rescue everyone in this city, but he will be her strongest motivation. Our lady will come for the boy, no matter what.”
Tristan frowned at his words, fearing they might be true. “Let’s just hope she has a plan when she comes. We wouldn’t want the guardian to be lost, now.”
“Katherine’s too smart not to have a plan.” Jake wasn’t really sure what Kaelen had meant about William being her motivation, but he wanted to have faith in the guardian. He knew she hadn’t wanted to leave the battle, so he figured she would return for them as soon as she could. “We just have to hold out until she shows up.”
They all looked at William’s sleeping form and Valda gave voice to what they were all thinking. “I just hope all of us will be able to hold out.” Nobody responded to the comment because nobody had anything optimistic to say.
They were brought some food, but William didn’t wake up to eat it, so Jake set some aside for him. About an hour after they’d eaten, a guard came in, holding a rope. Jake pulled on his chain, wanting to get in front of William and shield him, but it was no use. “Just leave him be.”
“I’m not here for him.” The guard replied, gruffly. He walked over and grabbed Jake’s hands, binding them as he had bound William’s before.
Jake’s heart pounded in his chest and he glanced at his friend, fearing he may soon be in a similar state. The guard unlocked his chain and pulled on the room, leading Jake out of the cell and locking the gate behind them. The boy was too scared to fight and the others knew it would do no good, so they watched in silence as he was led out of the room towards an ominous fate.

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