Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


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~~When they reached the gate to the city, Meredith and Josie were asked to stay and assist those who came within the walls. Although the others didn’t say so, they all knew it was probably because of how young Josie was. None of the children came outside the wall to help.
William and the twins headed out with the other people. The older boy kept looking at Bard and Melody, surprised by how self-sufficient they seemed to be, despite their disabilities. At one of his foster homes, there had been a deaf boy who used his hearing problems to get away with things. People always felt bad for him and he used that to his advantage. However, Bard and Melody didn’t seem to care about their problems. They found their own way to work around them.
The damaged caravans started about half a mile from the city. They were messes of broken and burnt wood, along with injured people who had walked or been carried out of their wagons. Jake saw a group helping the injured and he looked to his friends. “I’d probably be more useful with them.”
William nodded. “Go on. It’s fine. We’ll meet back up when we’re done.”
Jake nodded and headed over to the healers. After a minute of talking, he was put to work.
William, Henry, Melody and Bard were sent over to a wagon to help carry some of the goods back to the city. They saw others helping the injured back as they could.
“This was a bad attack.” Melody commented. “Wasn’t it?” Her brother was handing her some things to carry and couldn’t reply.
William nodded, then remembered she couldn’t see him. “There seems to be a lot of damage. Hopefully, no one is too badly injured.”
Melody nodded her agreement. “Bard, are you with us?”
He clucked his tongue twice, his arms too full to communicate with his hands.
“Alright.” She adjusted her own load. “Let’s start heading back.”

It took a few hours for them to move everything into the city and get all the people settled. The sky was almost completely dark by the time they headed for their last load. Jake rejoined the group, having treated as many people as he could. William smiled at him. “It’s good to know your training came in handy.”
Jake nodded, looking as tired as the rest. “I can help you carry some stuff, still. Fortunately, there were no deaths.”
“That’s good.” William looked around, suddenly feeling a chill. He could have sworn that it had gotten darker and the shadows had grown longer.
“Well, this is a sad sight.” A cold voice commented.
William realized that everybody still out with them was looking in their direction, but they all seemed frozen in place. It almost made him too terrified to look and, when he did, he wished he hadn’t.
The person that stood before them wore the king’s face; everything from the black hair to the blue eyes. However, this person didn’t wear it quite as well. His eyes lacked the brightness of the king, his hair was shaggier and his skin was pale. His expression was grim and it was hard to imagine him ever smiling. William wasn’t sure if he wanted to see this person smiling. Overall, he came off as a ghostly visage of the king.
“Who are you?” William asked, wishing his tone was stronger. He feared his knees would start shaking soon. The person before him made his skin crawl and he knew, instinctively, that this man could kill him, easily.
“Forgive my rudeness.” He replied, taking a step closer. “I am Azazel, prince of Mirra.”
“You look just like…” Henry stared at him, his mind churning. The guy claiming to be a prince would make him King Nicholas’s brother, but he found it hard to believe that they wouldn’t have heard of him. It didn’t make a lot of sense.
Azazel’s gaze fell on him and his brother. “Twins, how interesting.” He moved closer to them. “I had not heard that there were twins among our prophesied heroes. I wonder which of you will die.”
“Neither.” Jake replied, fervently. He was as nervous as the other two, but he would not allow threats against his brother, even from a frightening, shadowy doppelganger of the king.
“It’s inevitable.” Azazel told them. “In these wars, one twin will die. It’s the way the lights like it.” He looked between the pair. “Would you like to hear my guess on which one it will be?”
William regained control of his facilities and stepped between the twins and the creepy guy. “Nobody wants to hear anything from some shadowy weirdo they just met, thanks.”
Azazel fixed his cold gaze on the older boy. “So you are the leader of the group. That’s good to know.”
“Azazel!” Katherine came running up and quickly placed herself in front of the self-proclaimed prince. “What are you doing, here?”
He looked at her, his expression never changing. “I was wondering when you would join us. It took you longer than I expected.”
“I was busy.” She replied, coolly. “Sorry for the delay.”
He held up a hand. “No need to apologize. It gave me time to get to know some of your heroes. They are quite interesting, but I heard there were two more.” He cocked his head. “I don’t suppose you would be willing to fetch them…”
She extended her hand in a threatening gesture. “Leave this place.”
“Now, there is no need for that.” He held out his own hand and the shadows around him creeped towards the group, making William and the twins step back, reflexively. “You know this time is better for me than you.”
Katherine showed no fear, but she didn’t attack, either. “Why are you here, Azazel?”
“I came to meet our heroes.” He replied, simply. “I was curious about them.”
“Our heroes?” Her expression was unreadable. “They have nothing to do with you.”
“Not yet.” He turned his gaze back to them. “Well, it was interesting to meet you. I’m sure we’ll see each other again, very soon.” He waved a hand and the shadows gathered around the prince, blocking him from view. When they faded, he was gone.
There was a collective sigh of relief from the group and Katherine dropped her hands. It was a few minutes before William found his voice again. “What was that about?”
“We should head back.” Katherine glanced around, furtively. “I will explain when we are safely inside the wall.”
William nodded, knowing there was no point in arguing. Making sure the twins were with them, they headed back. Melody and Bard stuck with the group, as well, running their fingers over each other’s palms in a rapid conversation. William couldn’t help wondering what they were talking about, but it didn’t seem like a good time to ask.
Katherine made sure everyone made it back inside the wall, safely, before she entered, as well. The guard looked at her, clearly unnerved. “Was it really him?”
She nodded, unhappily. “Check all the patrols. Make sure no shadow creatures come near the wall.” She didn’t wait for his response as she headed back to the palace.
William grabbed her arm to stop her. “You promised to explain who that was.”
“It really was the prince, wasn’t it?” Melody asked.
Katherine took a breath and gave a nod, not looking at them. “The prince, yes; the twin of King Nicholas.”
“Twin?” Even though William had guessed as much, it was surprising to hear.
“I need to tell him.” Katherine turned back to William, her distress evident in her eyes. “He needs to know about this.”
William released her arm and nodded. “Right, sorry.” He looked to Melody and Bard. “It was nice meeting you.”
“You, as well.” Melody replied. “I hope we’ll see each other again, soon.”
Katherine moved quickly back to the palace and he was forced to keep up. When they got there, Meredith and Josie greeted the group. The older girl wore a relieved expression when she saw them. Josie just smiled, unconcerned.
Katherine did her best to give them a brief smile as she passed. Nicholas was standing just inside, his expression unreadable. “Was it him?”
She took a breath and nodded. “He caused no harm.”
“This time.” Nicholas frowned and ran a hand through his hair. His strong resemblance to the shadowy figure outside the wall gave William a fresh chill. He looked at the twins, wondering how it would feel to see one of them like that. He shoved those thoughts out of his mind, immediately, not wanting to even consider the idea. He looked back to Nicholas, unable to imagine how he must feel.
Jeremiah stood by, quietly listening. After a few minutes, he laid a hand on the young king’s shoulder. “He didn’t hurt anyone. That should be a relief.”
Nicholas took a breath and nodded. “I guess that’s a good thing.”
“It is.” William rushed to assure him, forgetting his dislike of the king as he felt a wave of sympathy. He looked to Henry and Jake who stood close together, clearly shaken by the events. “Look, I don’t know what happened to your brother, but he never made any move to harm anyone. That’s got to count for something, right?”
“Unless his master told him not to hurt anyone.” Nicholas sighed. “This could all be part of some plan.”
“We don’t know that.” Katherine didn’t sound certain, but she took a breath and smiled. “At least, we know he’s alright.”
William cut in, trying to get a handle on the situation. “Who is his master, exactly?”
Katherine and Nicholas exchanged a look before she spoke. “The shadow master.”
William tried to figure out what to say about that. He realized the answer should have been obvious. He just hadn’t wanted to think about it. People who were clearly possessed by the darkness were one thing, but the prince had been a conscious, self-aware person who controlled them, instead.
“Are you talking about Azazel?” Gabriella asked, standing on the stairs. No one could be sure how long she had been there. “I heard everyone talking. Was he really here?”
“He was outside the wall.” Nicholas looked at her, not happy that she had heard anything. “He talked a little and left. Nothing happened.”
She frowned. “So he’s not ready to come home, yet…”
“No.” Her brother agreed. “He’s not coming home.”
There was a long silence before William spoke up. “Maybe we should head back to our rooms and clean up. It’s been a long day.”
The others agreed and started heading up the stairs. Jake smiled at Gabriella. “May we escort you back to your room, princess?”
She managed a weak smile and nodded, allowing herself to be led up the stairs by the group. However, it was clear her mind was far away.
Once the two guardians were alone with the king, Jeremiah spoke. “Do you think his presence is a threat to the Dunyans?”
She sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know why he was there. Maybe he just wanted to scare them…”
“I sense there is something else.” Jeremiah looked at her. “Did he say something we should be concerned about?”
“I don’t know.” Katherine admitted. “It’s just that he called them ‘our heroes’, as though they were meant to help him and his master.”
“Do you think the lights would send you to retrieve allies of the dark?” Nicholas asked. “Why would they do something like that?”
Katherine shook her head. “I am certain that we need then to win this war. However, it is possible that the darkness holds a prophesy in which they destroy us. It’s impossible to know, but I don’t believe they mean us harm and I will protect them until I am certain they are a threat.”
“And if they turn out to be?” Jeremiah asked, doing his best to read her thoughts through her expression.
Katherine met his gaze. “I will do what I must for the good of Mirra.”

William knocked on Katherine’s door that night, needing some answers. She opened it, quickly, having expected him to come. “You may as well come in.” She stepped back to allow it.
He hesitated, not wanting a lecture from Tristan. “I just wanted to talk to you about Azazel.”
“And that is not a conversation we need to have in the hallway.” She replied. “So come in or go to bed.”
William gave a furtive glance around, making sure no one would see before he stepped into her room. “I was going to ask about this earlier, but I figured it wouldn’t be a good idea to talk about it in front of the princess, based on her behavior when she heard us talking earlier.”
The guardian closed the door and turned to him. “What do you want to know?”
William paused, unsure where to begin. “What’s wrong with him? He turned against his own family and joined the dark side. Why?”
Katherine sighed. “Well, I can’t be sure of what is wrong with him, but I know why he turned against them. At least, I think I do.” She looked down, brushing some hair out of her face. “When I first became the guardian, the lights spoke through me and delivered a prophecy. It stated that he was destined to be sacrificed to save the lights when the darkness came close to winning.”
William thought that over. “How is that possible? He wouldn’t have even been born when you became a guardian.”
Katherine took a breath and started reciting.
“When the strength of darkness exceeds that of light
When evil dampens goodness’s light
A child born of royal blood
Shall be the dam to darkness’s flood
A life cut short to purify
Strengthening the binds that tie
The lights can be saved, but at a price
The younger twin’s heart shall be the sacrifice.”
William stared at her, wondering how long she’d had that prophesy memorized. “So Azazel, being the younger twin son of a king and queen was believed to be the sacrifice mentioned in the prophecy.”
“He and Nicholas were the first twins born to royalty in the century that I have been a guardian.” She replied. “Can you imagine knowing that you are going to die young? What kind of a burden must that be to bear?”
“You think that justifies turning against your whole family?” William asked, trying to imagine being pushed to something like that. He was sure he would die for his friends, so it didn’t seem like a strong enough reason.
“No.” Katherine agreed. “I just try to see his side of things.” She frowned. “Right before he joined the shadow master’s legion, he came to see me. He wanted to talk to the lights and they obliged. I don’t know why they did that and I can’t remember what was said because they block it, but I fear whatever it was pushed him over the edge. If it is at all possible, I would like to find a way to save him.”
William looked at her and took a breath. “Whatever the lights told him, it’s not your fault. He made his decision.”
Katherine didn’t seem particularly comforted by that. “I held him as a baby. I watched him grow and, now, I barely recognize him. It’s worse for his siblings and we all want to find a way to help him.”
“Okay.” William nodded his understanding. “Maybe, if we defeat the shadow master, you will be able to find a way to help the prince. That should give you hope, right?”
“Except that we likely have to kill him to defeat his master.” She looked at him. “I think that might have something to do with the line about purifying.”
“Who knows?” William shrugged. “I like stories and, in most of them, it is a bad idea to try and interpret prophecies. In the end, you choose your own destiny.”
Katherine stared at him and managed to smile. “Yes, I suppose you do.” She took a breath, telling herself that he was right and there was no point in worrying about things that were out of her control. “Well, you should probably go to bed before anyone catches you here.”
“Right.” He smiled. “I wouldn’t want to risk the reputation of a young lady.”
“Lights above forbid.” She opened the door to let him out and found Nicholas waiting there.
He caught sight of William and frowned. “Hello.”
“Hi.” William shifted, awkwardly. “Katherine and I were just talking. Nothing happened.” His logical mind told him to shut up, but an image of Tristan scowling made him babble on. “It was just two people talking about…stuff.”
“I was telling him about Azazel.” Katherine explained. “I figured it would be best to talk about it in a place where we wouldn’t be overheard.”
“And the only place you could think of was your bedroom?” Nicholas looked at her and sighed. “Never mind. It’s fine. I know nothing happened.” He looked at William. “You should get to bed.”
“Good idea.” William moved past him and looked back, briefly. “Good night.” Before anyone could respond, he walked quickly to his room.
Katherine watched him go with an amused smile. “I think you scared him a bit.”
Nicholas shrugged. “He was the one visiting my fiancé’s room at odd hours of the night.”
“It’s been a long day.” She reminded him. “He needed answers, as they all do. I’ll let him explain to the others, now, so that’s settled.”
The young king sighed. “I had hoped to be able to talk to them about him before they met. Why were they outside the wall without you?”
“I was helping with the wounded inside the wall. I didn’t know they had left until someone came running up to tell me about Azazel.” Katherine frowned. “I should have been more careful and made sure they stayed inside the wall.”
Nicholas shook his head. “It’s not your fault and we can’t keep them prisoner. We’ll just have to protect them as well as we can.”
Katherine looked at him and smiled. “You’re very kind.”
“I’m not.” He replied, simply.
“If you say so.” She kissed his cheek. “Good night, my lord.”
He felt a warm from her lips and it nearly took his breath away. “Good night, my lady.”

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