Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


9. 9

~~Nicholas steered the guard away from the crowd, followed by Katherine and William. “We don’t want to start a panic and ruin the whole ball.” They found a secluded corner where they could talk and he looked at the man. “Make sure there is a guard posted at every exit. We don’t want him leaving the palace. Take all the other guards and search the place from top to bottom until you find him and return him to his room. I don’t know what he’s up to, but I’d rather not find out.” The bright lights of the room dimmed a little. Most of the guests looked around with mild curiosity, but Nicholas stared at them with wide eyes. “The Illyrian stone…he wouldn’t…”
“He couldn’t have.” Katherine agreed, but she looked just as concerned. Nicholas dashed up the steps and she followed, holding up her skirt to allow her to run.
“What’s the Illyrian stone?” William asked, chasing after them. No one answered and he became too focused on keeping up to ask again. Despite the ball gown, Katherine was able to move quite fast. The dashed up one flight of stairs after another, taking them to one of the highest parts of the palace. As they turned a corner, Nicholas stopped, looking petrified. “No…”
Katherine and William caught up. She covered her mouth in shock. There was a guard laying on the floor in front of a room which had a door wide open. William noticed runes around the door, but it looked like someone had taken a hammer to them. They were cracked and bits of stone litter the floor.
Slowly, Nicholas entered the room, followed by the other two. The room was bare, save for a pedestal right in the middle, which was surrounded by pieces of white stone. The kind knelt and picked up one of the pieces. “It’s gone.”
“He shouldn’t have been able to do this.” Katherine said, staring at the pieces. “He shouldn’t have been this powerful.”
“Would someone please tell me what’s going on?” William did his best to sound polite. “What is that?”
Nicholas took a breath. “It was the Illyrian stone, the most powerful item in the city. It was imbued with magic by Illyria, the most powerful group of magic users in Mirran history. It was our protection against dark forces and the source of much magic for the city. It allowed us to keep the darkness from overpowering us here.”
“And now that it’s gone?” William felt he could guess, but he wanted someone to tell him he was wrong.
“With the help of our sorcerers and wizards, we should be able to protect the city for a few weeks.” Katherine replied. “Father and I will do what we can to help.”
The young king nodded and stood. “Those are only temporary measures, though. At first light, I will ride out with my men to the Illyrian caves and retrieve a new stone.”
“That is a dangerous journey.” Katherine told him. “We can’t have you putting yourself at risk.”
“I can’t let my home fall to ruin.” Nicholas turned to look at her. “I will be careful, but I have to go. You know I’m right.”
The guardian continued to frown, but she nodded. “Take your best men. We will need more magic users than soldiers in the days to come.”
The young king nodded and walked past her out of the room to tell his men what was happening.”
William watched him go, then looked to Katherine. “If there are more stones, why didn’t you keep one as a backup?”
“It’s not so simple.” She told him, kneeling to pick up the pieces of the shattered artifact. “Only one stone can exist at a time. The cave was filled with the power, but the stones are useless until activated and they must be activated within a fortnight of leaving the cave or they will become unusable.” She stood, cradling the fragments in her hands. “Azazel should not have been able to do this.” She paused as a thought occurred to her. “Not alone, at least.”
William stared at the girl in disbelief. “You think there is someone else like him in the palace?”
Katherine shook her head. “They will have escaped by now. The prince knows every way in and out of the palace. No guard is going to stop him. However, I would like to know how a shadow worker got in the palace in the first place. Azazel couldn’t have gotten in the city if he hadn’t been allowed by the guards who brought him here. How could we have someone else like that here?”
William shook his head. “I don’t know enough to guess.”
She looked at him and nodded her understanding. “We can figure it out later. For now, I have to get the barriers set up. There are still remnants of magic from the stone, but they won’t last more than a few hours.” She headed out the door, clearly focused on her task.
A few guards came to collect the unconscious one and William gave the empty pedestal one last look before he headed back down the stairs to find his friends.
When he reached the ballroom, he was surprised to find the party was still in full swing. It seemed that nobody had told the guests about the imminent danger. Some of them may have noticed the king and guardian running off, but no one let that ruin their fun.
“We’re going to let them have this night.” Jeremiah told William, coming to stand beside him. “There’s no need to start a panic just yet.”
William looked at him. “Shouldn’t they know what happened?”
“Tomorrow.” The guardian told him. “Katherine told me, but we would rather not upset everyone, right now. It wouldn’t do any good. She has started making preparations on her own.”
William nodded his understanding. “Do you think I can help her? I doubt I’ll be able to have much fun here.”
“I don’t know if that would be wise.” Jeremiah’s face and tone were unreadable. “Stay here with your friends. Try to enjoy yourself.”
William frowned and looked at the cheerful crowd, thinking it seemed strange for them to be so happy when danger was so near. “I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“I cannot force you.” Jeremiah replied. “I am merely an advisor.” He walked away, leaving William to make his own decision.
Meredith walked over to him, dressed in a red gown, her hair pulled up out of her face, but already started to fall around it. “Is everything okay? Josie said she saw you, Katherine and Nicholas run off.”
He forced a smile, not wanting to ruin the night for her. “It’s nothing. I’ll tell you about it later.” He looked around the room, spotting Henry dancing with Gabriella and his smile became less forced. “They seem to be having fun.” He had thought Jake was the one interested in her, but he saw the other twin watching his brother with a grin that told William he had pushed for that.
Meredith followed his gaze and couldn’t help smiling. “He’s not much of a dancer, but she doesn’t seem to mind.”
William knew there was no way he could ruin such a scene with bad news, so he decided there was no way he was saying anything until the next day. He looked at Meredith. “Want to dance?”
“Promise not to step on my toes?” She asked with a grin.
“We’ll see.” He took her hand and led her onto the dance floor, determined to make sure his friends had fun that night.

Jeremiah found Katherine making preparations for the spell they would need to protect the city. She had told him that she would gather everyone else once she was ready. He knew she wanted a moment alone to process everything that had happened, so he allowed it. He realized that Azazel’s latest betrayal weighed heavy in her heart. Despite everything he had done before, they had all secretly hoped they might be able to help him once he returned to the palace, but it was just another trick.
Jeremiah stood quietly and watched her for a minute. “Would you like some help?”
“I’m just about done.” She drew some runes on the floor with chalk and stood, seeming to have forgotten the fine gown that she was wearing.
Jeremiah looked the runes and spell ingredients over, noting that everything seemed to be correct. “I’m impressed that you didn’t have more trouble. This is a new spell for you, after all.”
She offered him a smile. “I had a good teacher.”
He returned the smile as well as he could. “I’m sure you’ve come to the same conclusion I have about Azazel having an accomplice.”
She nodded. “I don’t know how anyone like that got in here, but we can sort that out later.”
“Has it occurred to you that the second shadow worker might still be here? They could have been here the whole time.” Jeremiah asked. “We could have a traitor in our midst, even now.”
Katherine looked at him. “We would have sensed such a thing. If someone like that came into the city, they would not go unnoticed, especially in the palace.”
“You’re probably right.” He admitted. “But we can’t ignore the possibility. We must stay vigilant.”
She nodded. “There were some wizards who skipped the ball. I’ll fetch them to begin the spell. We can have the others strengthen it when the festivities are over.”
Jeremiah nodded. “I will wait here and assist, as well.”
Katherine headed out the door and he watched her go, hoping she was right about the accomplice, but fearing they may be in more danger than anyone realized.

William found Tristan waiting outside his room when he got there after the ball. The boy sighed. “Have I done something new to tick you off, now?”
“What happened?” The elf asked. “Our lady disappeared from the party, along with the king. Soon after, Jeremiah left. I know you followed our lady out, so I assume you know what’s going on.”
“You know, calling her ‘our lady’, but calling her father by his name makes you a little obvious. You might want to work on that.” William pointed out, feeling tired and uninterested in talking. When Tristan didn’t budge, he gave another sigh. “The Illyrian stone was destroyed and Katherine was working on a protection spell. Nicholas is taking off in the morning to get a new stone. Can I go to bed, now?”
Tristan frowned, clearly unhappy about the news. “This is a grave situation, to be sure.”
“Yes, very grave.” William agreed with a yawn. “Now, I’m going to bed.” He moved around the elf and got into his room, closing the door behind himself. He wanted to get to sleep, quickly, hoping things might seem less terrifying in the morning.
Tristan stood outside the closed door for a moment, wondering how the boy could be so calm under the circumstances. He decided that it was because William was a Dunyan who couldn’t hope to understand how things worked in Mirra, so he headed towards Katherine’s room, instead, wanting to be there to talk to her after she finished the spell. He thought about seeing if he could help with it, but she hadn’t asked him and he didn’t want to interrupt or get in her way.
She made her way to her room an hour later, looking completely run-down. She gave Tristan a tired smile. “I guess you heard the news.”
“Yes, my lady.” He realized he wasn’t going to be able to discuss anything with her right then. “You shouldn’t push yourself so hard.”
“No choice.” She replied. “I am the guardian of Mirra. I have responsibilities.” She stumbled into him and he caught her before she fell. “Sorry.” She looked up at him and gave another exhausted smile. “You always take such good care of me. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
He laid his hands on her shoulders and gently pushed her away. “You should get to bed, my lady. You must be tired.”
“I must be.” She agreed, heading into her room. “Good night, Tristan.” She closed the door behind her and collapsed onto her bed.
Tristan breathed a sigh as the door closed and he realized his heart was pounding. He headed to his own room, thinking it had probably been a bad idea to stay up so late, anyway. As he turned a corner, he found Kaelen standing there. Tristan gave him a cold look. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough.” The dark elf replied. “You should really be more careful. What would people think if they knew you were having late-night meetings with the guardian?”
“It wasn’t a meeting. I just wanted to ask her about what happened.” The wood elf told him.
“Interesting that I didn’t hear any mention of a broken stone.” Kaelen pointed out. “You can’t let your feelings get the better of you.”
“I don’t need advice from a Svartálfar.” Tristan brusquely informed him. He didn’t bother asking how the dark elf knew about the stone. He figured he wouldn’t get a straightforward response, anyway.
“Maybe not, but you know I’m right.” Kaelen’s tone was as even as ever. “You don’t have to like me to realize that you can’t afford to be careless when it comes to the guardian.”
“Do me a favor and stay out of my business.” Tristan walked past the elf and towards his room, thinking he really shouldn’t have stayed up so late. He had never been a fan of the night.

The following morning, William filled the others in on what was happening and Nicholas headed off with a dozen soldiers in tow. Katherine was up long enough to see him off, but she quickly returned to her room, having used a lot of energy for the protection spell.
Valda found William just after breakfast. “I trust your ready for training.”
With so much going, on, he had almost forgotten about that, but he nodded and followed her to the training grounds. It was as grueling as ever, but he kept up better. However, he couldn’t feel too happy about his improvement since he kept thinking it wasn’t nearly enough to help Mirra or Katherine. There was an imminent threat and he couldn’t do anything to help.
“You may as well stop thinking about it.” Valda told him, seeming to read his mind. “At this moment, you can’t help.”
He looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not difficult to figure out.” She informed him. “You’re obviously worrying about the city and, probably, about the guardian. Either way, you aren’t, currently in a position to protect either. There’s no point in feeling depressed about it since I’m not much more use. For now, focus on what you can do and trust them to do what needs to be done.”
“I don’t like feeling helpless.” He replied.
“Nobody does.” Valda pointed out. “So, to avoid feeling helpless, find something you can do, even if it’s small. There is always a way to help.”
“Any suggestions?” He asked.
His teacher shrugged. “Well, I make myself useful by training fools who can’t figure things out for themselves.”
He gave a slight smile. “You said that as if there is more than one. Should I be jealous?”
“Just take your stance and keep going before I lose my patience.” She replied.
William nodded and lifted his sword, preparing for another round.

That evening, after he had finished all his training, William went for a walk around the palace. He went by Katherine’s room, but she wasn’t there. Eventually, he found her in the sitting room, reading a book. He smiled at her. “Good book?”
Katherine looked up and returned the smile. “I was just going over some extra protection spells, but I think I’ve been reading too long. The words are starting to blur.” She closed the book and set it aside. “How are you? I haven’t seen you since this morning.”
“It seems strange with how much time we’ve spent together lately.” He commented. “I’m fine. Are you feeling better?”
She nodded. “A day of resting did the trick. I am feeling more like my usual self.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He paused for a moment. “I was wondering if I might ask you a rather odd favor.”
She cocked her head a little. “You may ask anything you like of me.”
“Alright.” He rubbed his neck, awkwardly. “The thing is…I was wondering if you could teach me to dance.”
She raised her eyebrows. “What brought this on?”
He shrugged. “At the ball last night, I felt like an idiot for not knowing and you’re really good, so I thought you might teach me if it’s not too much trouble.” He also thought it might help to get her mind off of everything else going on.
Katherine smiled and nodded, standing up. “Let’s start with a basic stance.”
“You want to start now?” He asked in surprise.
“No time like the present.” She placed one hand on his shoulder and took his hand in her other. “So, let’s begin.”

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