Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


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~~Pain shot through William’s feet with every step and it seemed to take hours for them to finally reach the ballroom. Once again, the guards attached the rope to the hook. He looked at the table, hoping she wasn’t going to make his stand on the plate again. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hold himself up very well, this time.
Hel looked over her tools, thoughtfully. With her gloves on, she picked up a rod about as thick as a crowbar and turned to William, giving him a thoughtful look. “We may as well get rid of that tunic. It will get in the way at this point and you’re not really going to need it.” She handed one of the guards a pair of scissors.
William stared at the blades in horror, knowing that he did not want this woman looking at his scars. As soon as the guard was close enough, he kicked out, catching the man in the stomach. The guard grunted and doubled over, dropping the scissors.
“That wasn’t very nice.” Hel commented with a smile.
William felt a moment of satisfaction, but it was cut short when the guard stood back up and walked over, punching him in the stomach. He coughed as the wind was knocked out of him and gasped for breath. Before he could catch it, the guard picked up the scissors and went to work on his shirt. He couldn’t struggle without risking being stabbed in the process. Before long, the tunic was just some fabric on the floor.
“Well, somebody really had a time with you, didn’t they?” Hel stepped closer and looked him over, walking around him, slowly. William stared straight ahead, trying not to show a reaction. She smiled at his stony expression. “I’ll just have to add some new ones to your collection.” She touched her rod to his stomach. It took less than a minute for it to grow red hot and start burning.

Angelus and Azazel walked through the palace, that night and passed by the ballroom. When they heard a cry of pain, Azazel stopped short and stared at the door. Angelus just smiled, unconcerned by it. “Sounds like Hel is hard at work in there.”
“I don’t think she considers it to be work.” Azazel commented, coolly.
Angelus looked at him and cocked his head. “My, what a face you’re making.” He gently placed his hand under Azazel’s chin and turned his face to him. “Bringing up bad memories?”
“I just don’t like this sort of thing.” The prince replied. “You know that.”
“I know. That’s one of the reasons I love you.” Angelus gently kissed him. “But this is a necessary evil.”
Azazel was about to reply when another cry came from the room. “I need some air.” He rushed away, quickly.
Angelus frowned as he watched him go, but didn’t chase after him, understanding that Azazel needed some space.
Azazel made his way to a nearby room and closed the door, leaning against it for support. He slipped to the floor and covered his mouth, fearing he may throw up. He closed his eyes, tightly, trying to get the sounds out of his head. When he opened them again, they were black as coal.

Hel only kept William for a few hours that night. However, he was returned to the cell in worse shape than before. He wasn’t even conscious when the guards brought him up and dumped him on the floor.
The torch still burned brightly, making it clear some magic had been used on it. Under the light of the flame, they could easily see all the fresh burns on William’s torso. He was coved in dozens of fresh welts in various sizes. He lay on his side, showing no signs of life.
As the guards locked him back in and left, Jake leaned closer, his voice barely a whisper. “Will?”
There was no response from his friend.
“Let him sleep.” Kaelen suggested. “He needs as much sleep as he can get.”
Jake swallowed, but nodded his understanding, wishing there was more he could do to help him.
They heard footsteps and looked over to see Hod approaching their cage. “It looks like Hel has been enjoying herself.” He unlocked the gate and stepped inside, looking the unconscious figure over. “I’d have expected him to break by now. I have to admit I’m impressed.” Using his foot, he turned William on his back, eliciting a groan from the boy.
Jake was about to complain, but Tristan spoke up before he could. “Has the great sorcerer sunk so low that he would bully an unconscious child?”
Hod looked at the elf, stepping over William to get closer. “It’s Tristan, isn’t it? Azazel told me all about you, the noble elf warrior.” Hod knelt in front of him, but Tristan’s expression remained neutral. The sorcerer gave him a thoughtful look. “But you are not as noble as you pretend to be. I can see the darkness in your heart, eating you alive from the inside. If you don’t let it out, it will continue to torment you forever.”
“You think you can scare me with your lies?” The elf demanded.
“You and I both know they are not lies.” Hod replied, keeping his gaze fixed on Tristan. “I hate to see someone suffering for such a foolish reason. Perhaps, I can help you.” Before anyone could even wonder what he meant, Hod reached out and pressed a hand against Tristan’s chest. The elf gasped and his eyes went black for a moment before returning to their usual blue. As Hod pulled his hand back, he smiled. “That should allow your darkness to come out much more easily.”
Tristan glared at him, but said nothing.
“Give it time to set in and you’ll understand better.” Hod stood and looked at the group. “I do not wish to cause you all suffering. Hel may enjoy it, but I do not. Tell me where the guardians have gone and I will release all of you.” He indicated William. “I will even make sure his wounds are treated, properly. None of you needs to suffer anymore.”
Jake resisted the urge to look at William. He wasn’t sure where Katherine was, but he was starting to remember Echo and Mirage telling her where she needed to go. He knew if he looked at William right then, he would tell the shadow master everything he knew.
Hod frowned when no one spoke up. “Suit yourselves.” He locked the cage as he walked out, leaving them to think about what he had said.
After an hour, someone else came up the stairs towards the dungeon.
“We’re popular, tonight.” Jake commented, trying not to freak out about who it could be.
Azazel stepped into the torchlight, carrying a small package. Jake frowned as he noticed that his eyes were black, again. The prince looked around, as if making sure he hadn’t been followed, then opened the cage and stepped inside.
“What are you doing here?” Valda demanded.
“I came for a visit.” He replied. “Also, I brought a gift.” He held up the package and knelt beside William.
“Don’t you dare touch him!” Valda commanded.
Azazel cocked his head as he looked at her. “So you don’t want me to apply the salve?”
“Salve?” Jake stared at him in surprise, wondering if the prince had actually come to help them.
“For the burns.” Azazel elaborated. “I felt bad for him and wanted to help. Suffice it to say, you had better not let anyone else know I was here.”
“A trick?” Valda demanded. “Why would you help us?”
“I don’t know.” He replied. “I just felt like it. However, I don’t have much time, so it would be best if you just stopped talking and let me do this.” Without waiting for a response, he pulled out a jar, opened it and dipped his fingers in. He started by applying it to William’s feet, then moved to his torso. He gently rolled him over to get all sides.
“You could make her stop, couldn’t you?” Jake asked, hopefully. Even though the black-eyed Azazel was clearly more impulsive and unpredictable, Jake hoped he might also be more willing to help if the mood struck him as it apparently had.
However, the prince shook his head, gently rubbing the balm onto William’s back. “Hel is second only to Hod. I would not dare interfere with her games.”
“You call this a game?” Jake asked, looking at his unconscious friend.
“She does, so why shouldn’t I?” Azazel finished treating the wounds and laid William on his back again.
“She’s going to kill him if this keeps going.” Jake didn’t want to think that way, but he couldn’t help fearing the worst.
“That won’t happen.” Azazel replied. “She’s much too good at what she does.” He thought for a moment. “I don’t know why you think I would do such a thing anyway. If she did agree to let him go, she’d probably take you, instead, especially if she knew you were the reason I wanted to help him.”
Jake stared at him, blankly. “How am I the reason?”
“You think I step in for just anyone?” Azazel asked. “Come on, Jake, you’re smarter than that.”
“What makes me so special, then?” Jake couldn’t think of anything. As far as he could tell, he hadn’t done anything more than annoy the prince.
“I don’t know.” Azazel admitted. “Maybe, it’s because you amuse me.”
“That’s it?” Jake gave him a skeptical look. “I amuse you, so you’re risking your mater’s wrath to give my friend some relief.”
Azazel looked at William. “I dislike Hel’s games. That doesn’t mean I’m going to help you escape. Don’t be so presumptuous.”
“I know there’s good in you, Azazel.” Jake told him. “If there’s good in you, you must know this is wrong. You say you’re not the villain, yet you fight on their side. You may want to save yourself, but are you really willing to let this be the price of your life?”
“My life is not so valuable.” The prince told him. “I’ve told you before that you don’t understand what I’m fighting for. There are things much more valuable than my life. I didn’t become a shadow worker for my own life.”
“Then whose life did you do it for?” Jake didn’t really have much trouble guessing. “Your siblings? Because, if it is for them, I know they would not want their lives to be bought at such a price.”
Azazel was silent for several minutes, looking at William’s wounds. He blinked a few times and his eyes returned to their natural blue. “You’re right. They wouldn’t.” He picked up the salve and stood, leaving without another word.
Valda looked at Jake, having fallen silent during the conversation. “What was that about?”
“I’m not sure.” He admitted with a sigh. “I really don’t know what he’s thinking.”
“Well, I don’t think we can expect any more help from the prince.” She commented.
“No.” Jake agreed. “Probably not.”

Azazel hid the salve in a drawer, his head spinning. A knock on his door made him jump, but the voice that called out belonged to Angelus. “Are you in there?”
“Yes.” Azazel called back, stepping away from the drawers. “Come in.”
The door opened and Angelus stepped inside, giving him a concerned look. “I was worried about you after the way you ran off. I tried to find you, but you had disappeared.”
“I’m sorry.” Azazel told him. “I just needed some time to myself.”
Angelus came closer and touched his cheek. “You seemed pretty upset, but your eyes are still their normal color.” He smiled. “You’re learning control.”
“Yes.” Azazel agreed, not wanting to tell him the truth. “It’s difficult, but I am working on it, as ever.”
“It takes time.” The half-elf assured him. “It took me ten years to fully gain control. You are doing quite well.”
Azazel nodded. “I’m rather tired, though. I was getting ready to go to bed.”
Angelus gave him a concerned look. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Of course.” Azazel managed a smile. “I just need to rest.”
Angelus watched his expression and nodded his understanding. “Sleep well.” He kissed his forehead. “I’m sure you’ll feel better tomorrow.” He closed the door behind him as he left.
Azazel lay down on his bead and stared at the ceiling, knowing he wouldn’t get much sleep that night.

Jake managed to fall asleep for a few hours, but he awoke to the sound of a soft groan. He sat up and saw William stirring. “Will?”
The older boy managed to sit up and look at him. “How long was I out?”
“Not long.” Jake replied. “How are you feeling?”
“Not as bad as I expected.” He frowned and touched his arm, looking at his fingers. “Lotion?”
“It’s supposed to help with the burns.” Jake told him. “Azazel applied it.”
William wasn’t thrilled about that image, but he figured it was worth it for some relief. “Why would he do that?”
“Hard to say.” Jake answered, still a little confused by the whole thing.
“Well, I’m grateful, whatever the reason.” He tried not to think about what had happened, but it was difficult. Sometimes, memories of his mother would come, unbidden, which didn’t help him relax. “Any chance he’ll come back after my next session?”
“Not likely.” Jake didn’t even want to think about William being tortured again. He wished Katherine would hurry up and rescue them.
“Too bad.” William looked down at his wounds, wondering how long the salve would last. His burn still stung, but not nearly as badly as he knew they would when it wore off. He’d had enough experience with burns to know what to expect, even if these were worse than any he’d gotten before.
Jake swallowed as he looked at him. “Will…I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” William gave him a confused look. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“You stood up for me. She would have taken me, but you stopped her. You did that to protect me and you shouldn’t have had to do that.” Jake realized he was close to tears and mentally cursed himself for being so pathetic.
William stared at him for a moment. “Do you think I would feel better if you were the one being tortured?”
Jake shrugged, not knowing how to answer that.
“Listen, Jake: no matter what that psycho does to me, it won’t hurt nearly as bad as if I saw her doing it to you.” William’s tone was adamant. “I was being selfish in defending you because I can handle allowing myself to be tortured better than allowing it to happen to you. I couldn’t bear the pain you are feeling, so don’t waste your pity on me.”
“Alright, then, you’re a selfish jerk.” Jake forced a smile, but he couldn’t make it last long. “You don’t always have to be strong, you know. I know you’re in pain. You don’t have to hide it for my sake. It’s okay to be hurt or scared. I can handle seeing you that way.”
William shook his head. “I can’t do that right now. If I let myself be weak for a second, I may not be able to find my strength again. If I break, she wins, and I can’t let her win.”
Jake was about to say something else when he heard the gate open. He nearly jumped, surprised that he hadn’t heard anyone approaching. He looked over to where Azazel stood, holding a set of keys. “What are you doing here?”
“Probably making the dumbest mistake of my life.” He answered, softly. He walked over and unlocked Jake’s cuff, before moving onto William’s. “Can you walk?”
“I think so.” William remembered how much it had hurt before and hoped the salve would help enough to allow him to move more freely.
“Here.” Azazel handed him a pair of boots and a tunic before unlocking the rest.
William pulled them on, gratefully. The shoes hurt, going over his feet, but he knew it would be better than going barefoot, wherever they were going. He winces as the tunic rubbed against his burns, but he didn’t complain. “Care to tell us what’s going on?” The others looked expectantly at the prince.
He frowned as he looked at them, still uncertain about what he was doing. “I thought I might help you escape. Of course, if you’d rather stay here, that is your choice.”
“Why would you help us?” Valda demanded. “You made it pretty clear you weren’t interested before. How do we know we can trust you?”
Azazel paused, not really knowing why he was taking such a risk. “You don’t know you can trust me, but can things get much worse at this point?” He looked pointedly at William.
There was a long silence and Jake spoke up. “I say we take the risk.” He looked at the group. “It’s our best chance.”
They couldn’t argue, so nobody said anything. Azazel took that as consent. “Follow me. Stay close and don’t make a sound.” He walked out, not waiting to see if they followed.
Jake looked at the others and shrugged, rushing to catch up to the prince. William stood and winced. His feet didn’t hurt as much as they had before, but walking was still going to be a challenge. Kaelen put an arm around his waist and pulled William’s arm over his shoulder. “It will be easier if I help you.”
William nodded, gratefully, and allowed the dark elf to help him out. The others weren’t far behind them.
As Jake caught up to Azazel, he looked at the prince, trying to read his expression in the dark. “I need to ask you something.”
“I told you not to make a sound.” Azazel warned.
“One question.” Jake lowered his voice. “Why are you helping us? Why would you betray Hod like that?”
Azazel paused, looking back to see if the others were following. “You were right. He’s not a good person. You’d have to be a true villain to follow him, knowing everything he’s capable of, and, as I told you, I’m not the villain.”

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