Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


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~~Azazel looked back at William and Kaelen with a frown. They were doing their best to be quiet and keep up with the group, but it wasn’t going as well as he would like. “I don’t know if this is going to work.” They were at the bottom of a flight of steps and he was waiting for the pair to catch up. Fortunately, no one was around right then.
Tristan followed his gaze and sighed. As William reached the bottom of the steps, the elf walked over and turned his back to the boy. “Here, climb on. It will be easier.”
William stared at him, blankly. It took a moment for him to understand the offer. “I don’t need you giving me a piggyback ride like a child.”
“Whatever you want to call it, you are slowing us down.” Tristan replied, coolly. “Either climb on my back or put us all at risk.”
William was about to argue when Azazel spoke up. “This is no time for foolish pride. Do you want your friends to be captured and tortured because you don’t want to feel like a child?”
William frowned and looked at Tristan’s back. With a resigned sigh, he released his hold on Kaelen and wrapped his arms around Tristan’s neck. The elf hooked his arms under William’s legs and nodded to Azazel. “Let’s go.”
They moved slowly to avoid being detected and stayed in the shadows. Most of the shadow master’s servants and guards were not shadow workers, so they couldn’t see through the darkness like Azazel did and there were plenty shadows in which to hide. He used them as cover to move the group through one hall after another.
As they made their way through the palace with William on Tristan’s back, the boy thought about how many times he had carried Josie like that. He remembered how he had promised to join her in the tunnel and felt a pang of guilt for failing to keep that promise. He just hoped she would forgive him if he made it back to her.
Azazel led them into a cupboard on the ground floor. There were various ingredients inside and the group could barely squeeze in. He closed the door behind them to be safe.
“What are we doing in here?” Valda asked.
“There are many things the guardians know.” Azazel commented. “They know almost every part of this castle, but there seem to be some parts they forgot.” He knelt down and ran a hand over the floorboards, as if looking for something. “There are some things that you need a child who explores the castle every day to find.” He pushed down on a floorboard and one edge came up, slightly. With his other hand, he pulled it up and several floorboards lifted as a trapdoor. Underneath was a set of stairs leading into a dark pit. “Sometimes, you need a bored prince.”
“And where do these lead?” Valda demanded, still not trusting him.
“The stairs go down to a tunnel that comes out in the Golden Fields.” He replied. “It should be light, soon, so you’ll be somewhat safe until you can find a place to hide.”
Jake looked at him. “You’re not coming with us?”
Azazel shook his head. “My place is here. I may not be willing to let your friend be tortured, but I can’t leave.”
“Why not?” Jake asked. “If they find out you betrayed them, they’ll torture you, won’t they?”
“They won’t find out.” The prince assured him. “They have no reason to suspect me.”
“You think it’s worth the risk?” Jake didn’t know why he cared so much after Azazel had betrayed them, but he didn’t like the idea of abandoning the prince.
“Some things are.” Azazel replied, vaguely. “Now, go before someone hears us.”
As if on cue, the door opened and a guard stood there, staring at them in surprise. “Prince Azazel, what are you doing here?” His gaze fell upon the prisoners and the gears slowly turned in his head. “You’re helping them escape!” He started to rush out the door, but a shadow wrapped around his leg and yanked him back. He fell and hit his head, knocking him unconscious.
Azazel sighed, knowing that the man would turn him in as soon as he woke back up, so he couldn’t stay there, after all. “Well, it was a good plan, in theory.” He looked at the group. “It seems I’m coming with you, after all. Now, let’s get out of here before he sounds the alarm.” Not needing to be told twice, the group filed down the stairs with Azazel following behind. He pulled the trapdoor shut, leaving them in total darkness. There was a long silence from the group as they listened for any sign that they might be pursued. When no sound came from above, Azazel turned to them. “We need to move.”
“But we can’t see anything.” Jake argued, disliking the dark place. “How are we supposed to go anywhere?” He felt a cold hand take his in the dark and press it against a wall.
“Keep your hand on the wall, so you don’t run into it or get turned around, and walk slowly.” Azazel’s voice was closer than he expected and nearly made him jump. “The tunnel is narrow, so we’ll have to avoid running into each other, but it should be safe. I sealed the door with my magic to slow them down. Between that and the time it will take for the guard to waked up and tell them what happened, we should be able to put a few miles between ourselves and them.” He frowned as he realized he could no longer be considered a member of that group. He thought of how Angelus would react, but had to push those thoughts aside. Once the shadow master learned of his betrayal, he would not be allowed back. “Let’s go.”
The group didn’t argue as they headed down into the tunnel. They didn’t know if they could trust the prince, but it was too late to start worrying about that.

Katherine’s group reached the entrance in the Silver Mountain in the early afternoon. It was difficult leading such a large group up the mountain, but they’d finally made it. The mountain had gotten its name due to the silver stone it was almost entirely made up of. There was no vegetation of any kind, making it nearly impossible to ambush someone on the mountain. Once inside, you were almost completely protected from attackers.
Katherine approached a great, stone door with a 3-foot-tall guard in dwarven armor. He had a respectable beard, even by dwarf standards. It was red and curly, seeming to cover most of his face. The red hair sticking out of his helmet covered the rest, leaving just enough space for the eyes. He bowed to the guardian. “King Guivret sent me to welcome the guardians of Mirra and their…companions.” He looked out over the crowd, debating whether that word was vast enough for a thousand people. “I am Sir Goliath, leader of the king’s army.” He [placed his fist over his chest in a Mirran salute.
Henry, who was near the front, stared at the dwarf. “Your name is Goliath?”
Goliath looked at the boy and nodded. “Sir Goliath.”
“Sir Goliath.” Henry smiled, doing his best not to laugh. He wished his brother were there and that helped to stop his smiling.
Goliath turned back to Katherine. “Word has spread through Mirra about the Domed City. We understand that your people seek refuge here and we will do what we can to help.”
“And when the war is over, the generosity of the dwarves will be remembered.” Katherine promised.
Goliath turned to the door and made a quick gesture with his hand, muttering as he did. The door opened inward and he stepped back. “Welcome to the Stone Kingdom.”

It was well into the afternoon and the lights were shining brightly when the group finally emerged from the tunnel. With Valda’s help, William managed to walk for a while. However, every twenty minutes or so, they would have to stop for him to catch his breath. Eventually, he wound up riding Kaelen’s back to the end. As they stepped out into the daylight, they shielded their eyes against the bright light after the stifling darkness of the tunnel.
Kaelen gently set William on the ground as Azazel closed the door behind the group. It was covered in grass and blended perfectly into the surroundings. Had they not just climbed out of the tunnel, none of them would ever have believed there was one there. The field itself was made up entirely of golden grass. It shimmered in the daylight and spread out for miles.
William breathed a sigh and turned his face towards the sky, enjoying the fresh air. Jake smiled as he looked at him, but the smile faded quickly. In the bright light, William’s physical state was clearer. He was pale and had dark circles under his eyes. The blood from his wrists had trickled down and dried on his hands. Even though he was enjoying the daylight, William couldn’t make anybody believe he wasn’t in pain. Jake wondered if he was going to be able to make it wherever they were going.
Azazel looked around, his expression unreadable. “We should get moving. I don’t know why nobody forced their way into the tunnels, but we can’t afford to relax.” He looked at the group. “I know you probably don’t want me to know where the guardian is, but I was there when Echo and Mirage told her where to go. I don’t have much to lose, at this point, so I’m heading towards the Silver Mountain. You all are welcome to join me or go wherever you think she may be.”
Valda had been about to accuse him of trying to trick them into revealing Katherine’s location and she frowned as she heard him guess it. “If you know where she is, why didn’t you tell your master?”
The prince frowned at her. “I considered it for William’s sake, but I figured I would give them time to get there and activate their crystal, at least. Of course, Hel probably would have continued her games, even then, so I had to get you out.”
“They don’t have a crystal.” Valda informed him. “You took it.”
“We took one of them.” He replied. “As an astral projection, I was able to be in the caves while you slept. It was dark enough that no one realized I had left the pit, so I decided to keep an eye on your group and I saw the human girl take a second crystal.”
William had sat down on the grass and he sighed. “That sounds like something she would do.”
“After everyone escaped, I checked her room and found no sign of it or her bag.” Azazel continued. “I am forced to draw the conclusion that she took it with her to the Silver Mountain to be activated.” He looked at Valda. “To answer your next question, I did not tell the dark lord this information or take the crystal because they are not a threat and I figured the citizens deserved some peace after the attack.”
“So we’re supposed to believe that you were concerned about the people after you took over their city?” Valda’s tone was incredulous. “How noble.”
“Believe it or not, that is your choice.” He told her. “I do not have time to debate with you. I am going to the Silver Mountain. I won’t be welcome there, but I also doubt I’ll be tortured and I know I won’t be killed until it’s time for the sacrifice, so that seems like the safest place for me, right now.” He turned and walked away, not caring to wait for them.
“We can’t let him go alone.” Tristan commented. “Someone needs to keep an eye on him.”
Jake sighed. “We’d better catch up, then.” He frowned as he looked at William, but said nothing.
Tristan knelt in front of the boy and William sighed before climbing on his back, again. As Tristan stood back up, William told the group, “We are never speaking of this, again.”
Jake managed a little smile, glad that William felt well enough to be embarrassed.

Deep within the mountain were hundreds of stone buildings. Thousands of dwarves lived in the kingdom and the noise of them mining could be heard all around. The refugees were sent to stay with different dwarves, all of whom were happy to volunteer to take them in, since it helped the guardians. The beds weren’t big enough for the humans or elves, but they were allowed to sleep on the floor of one of the homes.
Meredith managed to stay with Josie. The pair was taken in by an elderly female dwarf name Fiona. She was about two feet tall and had a mess of white curls that fell down her back. Her face was covered in laugh lines, making the girls more comfortable.
“Your room will be up here.” Fiona told the girls, leading them up some steps. Meredith had to duck low due to the ceiling. Even Josie barely fit under it. “You poor dears, I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. You’re much too young to be going to battle. Well, you’re safe, now.” Fiona opened a door and let them into a room just big enough for the two girls to lay down in. “This was where my kids slept, but they’re all grown, now, and you’re welcome to it. It will be nice to have some company around the house.”
“We really appreciate this.” Meredith told her.
“I’m happy to help.” Fiona assured her. “I’ll let you two rest. Lights above know you need it.” She closed the door behind her as she headed back down the stairs.
“She seems nice.” Meredith commented.
Josie gave a silent nod and sat down on the floor. She hadn’t talked much since they’d left the palace. She had walked with the orphans and Meredith hadn’t been able to draw her into conversation.
The older girl sighed and sat down beside her. “He’s going to be okay, you know.”
Josie lay down without replying and closed her eyes, making it clear that she had no intention of talking about it.
Meredith frowned and kissed her forehead before lying beside her. “Goodnight, Josie.”

“We should keep going.” Azazel told the group as they settled in for the night by a stream. The elves had set up protective wards and Valda shook her head at the statement.
“You may be fine travelling at night, but we’re not.” She informed him. “We need daylight to protect ourselves. Besides, we have put plenty of space between ourselves and the sorcerer’s servants. We need to rest, now.”
Azazel frowned as he looked back the way they’d come.
“What’s bothering you?” Jake asked.
 “Doesn’t it seem odd that they haven’t followed us?” The prince pointed out. “I figured they’d be in the tunnels and we’d at least see them after we got out, but there’s been no sign. I find it concerning.”
“Concerning that we’re not being pursued?” Jake raised his eyebrows.
“Concerning that I don’t know why.” Azazel explained. “They should be after us, by now.”
Jake nodded his understanding. “For now, we are safe. The barriers are up and you can keep first watch if it makes you feel better.”
Azazel looked at him. “You would trust me to keep watch?”
“Probably not.” Jake admitted, looking at the group. “But Tristan already volunteered, so you wouldn’t be guarding us by yourself.”
“I appreciate your honesty.” Azazel’s gaze drifted back over the field. “I’ll keep watch for a while.” He walked away and found an isolated spot to sit down and keep an eye out for danger.
“Are we really going to travel the whole way with him?” Valda gestured towards the prince.
Jake shrugged as he sat down. “I don’t see that we have much of a choice. This way, he won’t arrive at the kingdom before us, at least.”
She frowned, but realized the wisdom of the statement. Her gaze drifted to William, who was already lying down with his eyes closed. “It will take a few days to reach the mountain, longer at the pace we’re going.”
“Well, unless you have some magical way to get us there faster, we’ll just have to keep going for a few days.” He looked at his friend, trying to remain optimistic. However, William looked like he could fade away at any moment. It was hard to be positive when the person he looked up to was so weak.
“You need to sleep.” Kaelen told him, seeing Jake’s expression. “You won’t be able to help him, tonight.”
Jake sighed. “If I had some herbs, I could do something for him. I’ve been trained by a healer and should be able to help in this situation.”
“All training has its limits.” Kaelen pointed out. “If you want to help your friend, take care of yourself. You know that is what’s most important to him.”
Jake frowned, but nodded, knowing he was right. He lay down on the ground beside William, wanting to be nearby if he woke up.
Valda and Kaelen found spots a few feet away and closed their eyes, doing their best to fall asleep, despite the concern that both felt.
“You should know that I’m going to kill you if he dies.” Tristan commented to Azazel in a hushed tone.
“Is that a fact?” The prince showed no sign of concern at the thought. “I’m sure he would be touched to know you care so much.”
“I care because it would upset our lady if he died.” Tristan replied, coolly. “What has already happened to him will cause her enough distress without adding his fatality.”
Azazel looked towards the unconscious form. “I fear that may be unavoidable if we don’t find some help soon.”
“Perhaps we could help.” A voice came out of the darkness.
“We love to help.”

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