Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


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~~William led them into the dining hall where Katherine, Jeremiah, Nicholas, Gabriella, Valda, Tristan, Kaelen, Meredith and Josie were already seated. William suddenly regretted having Melody and Bard to dinner on that particular night. He had told Katherine about them coming and wondered if she had planned to have such a big crowd. She smiled brightly as they entered. “Good evening. Isn’t it wonderful how many people are having dinner with us tonight?”
William gave a strained smile. “Yeah…great.”
“Please, have a seat.” Nicholas suggested in a polite tone. “My lady insisted we all have dinner together, tonight since things have been so stressful. It’s best to maintain strong bonds during times like these.” He smiled at Katherine, who was sitting beside him and she smiled.
William wondered if he always talked like that, thinking again about how pompous the young king seemed. With him and Tristan at the same table, William wasn’t sure he would be able to stomach food. He looked over at the elf and noted that he was avoiding looking at the guardian with her fiancé. He felt a pang of sympathy, which he immediately tried to suppress as he looked towards his guest. “Well, this is Melody and Bard.”
“It’s nice to meet you all.” Melody told them as her brother pulled out a seat and she took it. He sat down beside her and William took the seat on her other side. He heard some snickering and turned to the twins who put on some extravagantly innocent smiles as they sat near Gabriella.
As William sat down, a servant down a plate of food in front of him. He wondered if it just got more formal because there were more people. He felt a little freaked out by the thought since he didn’t even know if table manners were the same in Mirra. He watched the others for a few minutes and noted that they all ate pretty much the same as they usually did, so he forced himself to stop worrying and took a bite out of a roll on his plate.
“So, William, how has your training been going?” Nicholas asked, politely.
William was careful to swallow his food before speaking. “It’s been going fine, I think.” He looked to Valda for confirmation.
She nodded. “He has a long way to go, but is improving steadily.”
William couldn’t help smiling a little. He knew Valda wouldn’t say something like that if she didn’t truly believe it.
“Yes.” Melody agreed. “I noticed that he is quite good, considering how little training he has. Once he has more, he will be difficult to defeat in battle.”
Katherine looked at her. “You watched him training?”
“Bard watched.” She replied. “I listened.”
“And she gave me quite the beating when we sparred.” William joked.
Melody smiled a little. “I didn’t think you would want me to mention that. Besides, it wasn’t that much of a defeat. Given a few more weeks of training, you will probably be able to beat me.”
“I have no problem admitting I was defeated by a skilled fighter.” William assured her.
Jake looked at William in disbelief. “You got beaten by a blind girl?”
“Don’t underestimate her skill or you may find yourself with her blade to your throat.” William told him.
“Can we watch you spar, next time?” Henry asked Melody, unable to resist.
The girl shrugged. “Only if William wants to spar again.”
“Of course, I do.” He smiled. “I need a chance to redeem myself, after all.”
She gave a soft laugh and nodded. “Well, I can’t deny you such a chance, can I?”
Bard watched her with a thoughtful expression, but his fingers didn’t move to communicate any message to his sister.
Katherine looked at Meredith. “Have you been practicing with your bow?”
“Some, but not as much as I should.” Meredith admitted. “I’ll have to start dedicating more time to that.”
Katherine nodded. “It would probably be wise to practice while you can. You never know when such skills might be needed.”
“I could practice with you, if you like.” Gabriella commented. “It might be more fun, that way.”
Meredith smiled at the princess. “I would like that.”
Jeremiah looked at the group, thinking, again, about how young they were. He wondered if they could really help defeat the shadow master, but he also wondered if it was possible that any of the children could betray them. He wanted to believe that could never happen, but it wouldn’t have been the first time.
They were all happily chatting when one of the palace guards came rushing in the door, his face red and his breathing strained. “Your highness, I’m sorry to interrupt your dinner, but we have a situation.” He took a breath. “It’s the prince…”
Nicholas was on his feet, quickly. “Has he been spotted nearby?”
The guard frowned and nodded. “He is here in the palace. We have him restrained in the entrance hall, but…”
The young king rushed out the door, not waiting to see how the sentence ended. The others followed him as he ran down the stairs and stopped just short of the entrance hall, where his brother could be seen with his wrists bound behind his back. The rest of the group held back, not wanting to get in their way.
The prince looked up at Nicholas, his expression cool. “This is an interesting ‘welcome home’ party. I wasn’t expecting streamers, but this is a little dramatic, don’t you think? I’m here of my own free will and do not need to be bound.”
“I beg to differ.” The older twin replied, coldly. “You are an enemy of the kingdom.”
Azazel tilted his head, slightly. “That seems a bit harsh.”
“Why are you here?” Nicholas demanded. “You must have a reason.”
“I need a reason to visit my family?” The prince asked.
“Azazel…” Gabriella’s voice wafted down the stairs as she stepped away from the group to get a better view of her brother.
Azazel met her gaze for only a moment before looking away. “I assume my old room is the way I left it. Anyone mind if I bed down for the night?”
Nicholas stared at his brother, as if trying to read his mind. “It’s not exactly the way you left it, but, if you are determined to stay here, it is ready for you.” He nodded to the guards and they looked at the prince, clearly hesitant to get near him.
Azazel glanced at the nervous guards. “No need for an escort. I can show myself there. Anyone mind getting these ropes off my wrist?” When nobody made a move, he shrugged. “I guess I’ll do it myself.” Shadows gathered around his wrist. When they were gone, so were the ropes. “That’s better.” He started walking up the stairs and the guards still didn’t come near him.
Nicholas frowned and reached for his brother’s arm as he drew near. However, the king immediately withdrew his hand. “You’re freezing.”
“One of the perks of controlling shadows.” Azazel replied casually. “Your men noticed it when I let them bind my hands. I think that’s part of why they’re so frightened.” He continued his ascent up the stairs. “I think I remember the way if you don’t want to come with me.” He paused as he reached the bulk of the group. He gave them an interested look, but said nothing.
“I’ll take you there.” Nicholas quickly caught up with his brother and the rest of the group followed, wanting to see how things played out. Seeing the brothers together was like viewing images in a funhouse mirror. One was clean-cut and full of life; the other looked half-dead, his eyes cold and lifeless. However, they were very clearly twins and that made the walking-corpse appearance all the more disturbing.
Gabriella hung back as they walked, upset at being ignored by her brother. Henry slowed to walk beside her. “You can’t let him get to you. He’s not the person you grew up with, right?”
“Right.” She stared ahead at her brothers, uninterested in talking.
Nicholas stopped in front of the door with the runes that the twins had seen during their tour. Azazel looked the inscription over, thoughtfully. “That’s new.”
“In case you ever returned, I wanted to be ready.” Nicholas pulled a key from his pocket, turned it in the lock and opened the door to reveal a room in which every inch was glowing just enough to prevent any shadow from being cast. “You’ll have no power in here and I’ll be able to make sure you stay out of trouble.”
“You didn’t have to do all this for me.” The prince tried to sound casual, but he was clearly unhappy about the enchantment on his room. He had paused at the doorway and made no move to enter.
“You’re the one who wanted to be here.” The older twin pointed out. “You may as well go in because we have two guardians who can force you if necessary.”
Azazel seemed to consider the point before stepping into the room. “You always have to have your way, don’t you, big brother?”
“Now that you are no longer a threat, we can talk properly.” Nicholas told him. “Want to tell me why you’re here?”
“I should think it was obvious why I’m here.” He turned back to them. “I came to meet the rest of our heroes and I want to get to know them all better.” He looked over the group. “So they are all as young as I’d heard.” His gaze fell on Josie. “Not much in the way of warriors, are they?”
William stepped in front of the child, protectively and the king frowned at his brother. “You’re not going to have a chance to get to know them, so your efforts are wasted. You will not have a chance to speak to them while you are here and I have no intention of allowing you to leave.”
“Why would I want to leave when I just got here?” Azazel asked, looking back to the older twin. “As for not letting me talk to them…well, I don’t think that policy’s going to last long. As you’ve said, I am no threat here; to them or anyone else. Also, you’re going to want to question me and I won’t give answers unless I get what I want. Even if you were willing to torture me, it wouldn’t work. I was trained to withstand such things.” He stepped further into the room, never looking away from the group. “It’s your play, brother dear. Just don’t take too long to decide or I may get more demanding.”
Nicholas glared at him, but didn’t respond to the statements. “Good night, Azazel.” He shut the door and twisted the key in the lock, returning it to his pocket.
“He’s quite the charmer, isn’t he?” Meredith remarked, once the door was closed.
The young king took a breath. “I’m sorry for that. I don’t know how the shadow master knew so much about you and I don’t know why the prince is here, but I will do my best to keep him away from you.”
“Are you sure that’s the best plan?” William asked. “He would have information on the sorcerer, right? Maybe, we could get him talking enough that he gives something up.”
Nicholas shook his head. “It’s too risky. I won’t have him playing mind games with you.”
“We’ll be careful.” William assured him. “I’m not talking about sending Josie in, but the older ones should be fine, especially if we avoid talking to him alone.”
Nicholas frowned, but Valda spoke up. “There’s wisdom in the boy’s plan. I don’t like giving the prince what he wants, but this is a rare opportunity to gain information on the enemy and he won’t be able to report anything back to his master, so the risk is minimal.”
The king sighed, still not liking the plan. “Give me some time to think it over and see if we can come up with a better plan. I don’t want to risk playing into his hands.”
“Fair enough.” William replied. “Let us know when you make up your mind.” He looked at Melody and Bard. “Sorry about all this.”
Melody smiled in his direction. “It’s fine. A little excitement keeps life interesting, after all.”
He smiled, in return. “Alright if I walk you two home?”
She and her brother had a quick palm-conversation before she nodded. “Sure.”
“I’ll see you all later.” He told the rest of the group before heading out with the twins.
Gabriella stood, staring at the door to Azazel’s room. When Henry caught sight of her face, he resisted the urge to hug her, thinking she might not appreciate that from a boy she barely knew. “Are you okay?”
She nodded, mutely.
Nicholas looked over at her, feeling guilty for not having considered her feelings sooner. “Maybe you should go on to bed.”
When she didn’t move, Henry took her by the arm, gently. “I’ll walk you to your room.” It was just down the hall, but it didn’t seem like she would make it without his gentle steering.
Nicholas watched her go and sighed, turning to face the guardians. “I think we should talk in private.”
“I’ll get Josie to bed.” Meredith offered, leading her away.
Jake stood around, awkwardly, for a moment. “I’ll just…get myself to my room, then.” He took one last look at the door, thinking about the person inside and glancing over to his own brother, the younger twin. He shook his head, dismissing his unpleasant thoughts as he headed to their room.
Nicholas watched as his sister entered her room and closed the door, leaving Henry to walk back alone, as well. He frowned and led the guardians to the closest sitting room, locking the door behind them, just to be safe. “I think we can all agree that his presence here is a bad sign and a threat.”
“He’s probably here at his master’s wishes, but we have no way of knowing what they want.” Katherine pointed out. “There’s no reason to panic, yet.”
“But it wouldn’t be wise to go along with their plan. We can’t let the children near him.” The young king commented.
Katherine and Jeremiah exchanged a look, making it clear they were thinking something different. Katherine was the first to speak. “We don’t want to endanger them. I have every intention of protecting the group as much as I can. You know that.”
“However, we have to consider every option.” Jeremiah added. “It’s possible that giving Azazel what he asked for is our best option. We need him to talk, after all.”
“You’re willing to put our potential saviors in danger for that goal?” Nicholas asked.
“We’re willing to make it their choice.” Katherine responded. “They are going to have to make a lot of decisions, I think; some harder than others. We may as well start them off with this one. It’s unfair to decide on their behalf, after all. You think of them as children, but the oldest is the same age as you.”
“But I was groomed for this from the day I was born.” Nicholas pointed out. “I’ve trained my whole life to be a king. They were thrust into a strange world and given all sorts of difficult expectations to live up to. It’s different.”
“It is different.” Katherine agreed. “However, they were chosen by the lights. It is their destiny to save the kingdom. They can’t do that if we lock them away and treat them like they’re made of glass.”
“I think this is a decision that is best left up to them.” Jeremiah told the king. “They must be responsible for their own fates, now.”
Nicholas continued to frown at them, but he couldn’t argue the point. “If this is what you think is best, I will trust your wisdom.” He looked at Jeremiah. “Do whatever you think is best.”

Henry couldn’t make himself sleep, that night. He did his best to lie still in order to avoid disturbing his brother, but he couldn’t relax, knowing that Azazel was so nearby. Therefore, he was wide awake when he heard someone walking around outside their door. He knew all the servants were already in bed, so he couldn’t imagine that anybody was supposed to be in the hallway at that time of night. After a few minutes of working up his courage, Henry climbed out of bed and slowly moved to the door, doing his best to make no sound. He opened the door a crack and peeked out, opening it quickly when he saw who was there. “Gabriella?”
She gave him a shy smile and spoke softly. “I didn’t think you’d be awake.”
He closed the door behind himself so they wouldn’t risk waking his brother. “What are you doing here at this time of night?”
“I don’t know.” She admitted, looking around. “I couldn’t sleep, so I started walking and ended up here.” The princess shrugged. “I guess I was kind of hoping someone would be awake. It just seems too quiet.”
“That happens when everyone’s asleep.” Henry joked, wanting to ease her tension.
She managed another smile. “You’re not.”
“I’m not.” He agreed. “Mind if I walk with you?”
She nodded. “Some company would be nice.” She slipped her hands around Henry’s elbow, making his heart skip a beat, then the pair of them started walking down the hall. “So what is keeping you awake?”
“Just lots of thoughts.” He replied, vaguely, not wanting to mention the dangerous prince they were keeping locked up. “I guess I don’t need to ask what’s bothering you, but you can talk about it if you want.”
Gabriella paused, considering the offer. “Part of me wants to talk, but I don’t know what to say. There’s a person here who I know to be my brother, but I don’t know him at all.” She looked at him. “I don’t know if that makes sense.”
“It does.” He assured her. “So what was he like before?”
“Before?” She paused to think. “He was quiet and always polite. Everybody liked him, but he never had many friends. I guess he always seemed a little distant from everyone else. We were all shielded as much as we could be, but he was guarded more because of the prophesy.” She stared ahead, unhappily. “Our parents tried to give him a good life since it wasn’t meant to be long.”
Henry remembered hearing about how sacrificial animals were always well-cared for because it was considered wicked to sacrifice one which had already suffered. “It doesn’t seem fair.”
“Fair…” She seemed to be trying the word out. “We’re in a war. Fairness isn’t a luxury we have.” She stopped and put on a smile as she turned to him. “Sorry. It’s late and I am saying things I shouldn’t.”
“It’s fine.” He assured her. “You should never feel guilty for saying what you think.”
She looked at him for a few seconds, seeming to think something over. “I should go to bed. Thank you for talking to me.” She turned away and headed to her room.
“Good night.” He called after her, softly, watching her go and wishing she had stayed.

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