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part six.
IP: 2.27.234.31

Part Six
The Realm of the Dead, Zone 28


Aura hit the ground hard on her chest. Grey dust billowed into her face, making her cough and splutter. From somewhere to her left, she heard a dull groan. She tried to call out Brock’s name, but her mouth filled with dust, making it impossible to do anything except cough again.

“Blauugh-ragh?” Brock grumbled.

“Bleck,” she managed to cough back.

Not too long ago, they might have laughed each other’s renditions of their own names with a throat full of dust. Now, as the dust settled, Aura spied Brock on hands and knees to her left. The dust had settled into his hair and clothes, whitening both, and emphasised the lines in his face. He looked like he’d aged ten years in the last ten minutes. His mouth was downturned, his eyes downcast.

Of course, Aura thought grimly. Kelise is the one who would have made the joke.

What were they, without Kelise? A beaten librarian and a worn-down traveller. Between the two of them, they wouldn’t have been able to muster enough humour to fill a teacup.

Brock twisted sideways and fell into a sitting position, wiping the dust from his face. Aura forced herself onto her feet and scanned the surrounding area, searching for the water which surrounded all the zones in the Realm of the Dead. In a funny kind of way, the grey, lifeless environment had a homely, welcoming feel to it. The Realm of the Living was beautiful - colourful - but it was fleeting. The Realm of the Dead was constant, dependable.

“What now?” Brock croaked, staring up at her. Aura had a feeling like this wasn’t the first time people had relied on her to supply answers.

“We need to get to Zone One and find Kelise.” She peered through the dust over Brock’s shoulder. Was that…? “The water! Come on, that way.” She grabbed his arm and half-led, half-dragged him while he squeaked in protest. “We need to get the staff off her.”

“And then what?”

“Haven’t got that far.”

A number of ferries were tied up to the docks by the water’s edge. Aura scrutinised each one swiftly before pulling Brock towards a smaller, raft-like one, big enough for no more than five average-sized people. The ferryman who owned it was stood on top, checking some of the lashings.

“Hey!” Aura released Brock’s arm and jogged up to him, slipping her rucksack off her shoulder. He ferryman turned to glare at her as she tugged at the zip with trembling fingers, praying that Arthur and his employees had come through. She had to withhold a sigh of relief as she plucked the first thing she could grab out of the bag: a pretty, warm-coloured scarf. She shook it under the ferryman’s nose. “This is yours now. You can have more colour when we reach Zone One.”

The ferryman’s mouth fell open, but he didn’t hesitate. He gestured them to board the boat and quickly began to work the knots tying it up with his lithe, nimble fingers. Before long, the boat was underway.

Aura kept a tight hold of her backpack as they sailed over the grey, unmoving water, but the ferryman seemed honest. According to him, they’d touched down in Zone Twenty-Eight - not as far from Zone One as she’d dreaded. Even so… it was impossible to record the passage of time in the Realm of the Dead, but by Life’s standards, she guessed it would be a good number of hours before they reached their destination. The last time Aura had paused for breath was the last time she’d been on a ferry to Zone One. She’d been running off to newer, grander places from the moment she met Kelise and hadn’t had so much as a second with her own thoughts since then.

Brock was sat opposite her, staring at the logs beneath their feet, lost in his own reflections. After a time, he asked to see her necklace again. She’d kept her one but handed the fake Brock had found back to Arthur after the latter had asked for it. Aura pulled the real one out of her pocket and passed it over, watching his face as he studied it in a scholarly fashion.

“You said this was the real thing,” he muttered. “The real thing, not a real thing.”

“Yeah.” Aura shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“And you knew where it was and what it was because of some kind of residual memory.”

Aura didn’t bother to confirm it. They both knew it was true. Was that really what Brock wanted to talk about? The fact that he finally had proof of his residual memory theory? What was he going to do when they inevitably came face to face with Kelise again, shout told you so! smugly in her face?

“So if this is ‘the’ real pendant and you had it, and your name is Aura,” Brock said slowly, turning the pendant over in his fingers. “And that sun-god definitely recognised you…”

Aura cut him off with a warning look and rubbed her temples with her fingers. None of that had escaped her, either. Nor had the fact that the last thing Anapa heard before an angry spirit dropped him into another world was the name ‘Aura’, which is where she had then ended up. And, now that she thought about it, she’d felt a little like… like everyone in that world had been staring at her. She’d assumed that they were just staring because she, Brock and Kelise were dead, but… well…. It hadn’t felt like they were staring at Brock or Kelise.

“How does residual therapy work?” She asked Brock after a moment. He frowned slightly.

“Well… I only had the one session, a long time ago, but you pretty much just… talk.” He shrugged. “You say things without thinking about them first, and if you know they’re true but you don’t know how, it’s probably a residual memory. You want to try?”

Aura shrugged again. “What would I say?”

“First thing which comes to your head.”

“I feel stupid,” she muttered.

“How else do you feel?” Brock pressed. “Don’t think, just say it.”

“Angry with Kelise.” Aura’s hand closed into a fist over her leg. “Angry with myself for not realising sooner and for not knowing what to do now. How is anyone meant to know how to wrestle a magic staff off the magic leader of the world in her own domain? I never signed up for that. And I never wanted to be a leader. And - ”

“Hold up,” Brock interrupted. “Who made you the leader?”

Aura shrugged a third time. “The way you were looking at me and asking me what to do back there, kind of thought…”

“Why would you be so averse to being a leader anyway?”

“Well,” Aura felt her frustration mounting again. “What if I’m no good at it and everyone’s depending on me?”

Brock raised an eyebrow. “Not depending on just you, are they?”

“Well, I was never given a choice!” Aura snapped without thinking. Brock raised the other eyebrow. She took a breath and forced herself to unclench her hand. “Sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?” A slow smile was spreading across Brock’s face. “Did you see what I just did there? I did residual therapy! If I can’t go back to the library, at least I have a lucrative back-up plan now!” He gave a little sigh of satisfaction. Aura shot him a confused look and he elaborated. “At some point in your life, you were pushed into a leadership role that you didn’t want to do, and you were scared of letting people down. You’ve never been in that position in Death, have you? So it might have come from your life.”

Aura opened her mouth to contradict him, but closed it again when she couldn’t think of anything to say. Gently, she eased the pendant back out of his hand and rubbed her thumb over it, watching it shimmer under the oils of her skin. Far from feeling relieved or satisfied with this revelation, the familiar stirrings of dread which she’d felt only a few minutes before shifted again in the pit of her stomach. What if…?

“Hey,” Brock said softly, “Kelise was right about one thing, you know. Dying means getting a new start.” He paused. “Well, dying the first time, I mean. Let’s not die a second time, okay?”

Aura gave a small smile. “Okay.”

With no need to eat or sleep, there wasn’t much to do to pass the time. Aura wanted to check the colours in their bag, but Brock reminded her that exposure to the deathly air would turn them grey, so she resisted. The ferryman said little, invisible to all intents and purposes for most of the journey. Occasionally he pointed out landmarks or identified the zone they were entering. Brock was quiet too, spending most of his time staring into the water with a faraway expression.

It was only when the zones they passed started to tick into single digits that Aura and Brock started to desperately verbalise plans, each one more ridiculous than the last.

“This is getting us nowhere,” Aura grumbled after a particularly intense session of throwing around ideas. She had a feeling like Kelise would have been laughing at them if she were here. “You knew her best. Where would she hide something she didn’t want found?”

Brock sighed for the thousandth time. “Not in the same place as before, definitely. Maybe at the bureau, at her apartment… maybe even in Angel Academy, she’s the only one who ever goes in there and she must know it really well if it’s where she trained her lieutenants. Or maybe she left it in the Realm of the Living somewhere. Who knows? She can summon it in an instant, so it wouldn’t need to be somewhere she can reach easily, would it?”

Aura grunted in reluctant agreement. They could search forever and still never find the staff.

“Could we go back to the Circle of Warlocks? Get Sniffler’s help?”

“Mmmm,” Brock shifted in his seat. “I don’t know, Aura. Kelise knows everyone, remember? What if someone told her we were looking for her stuff? What if someone we ask for help decides that they’re more pally with her than us?”

Their discussions always ended like this - with a dead end. Any suggestion either of them made, the other found a flaw. Kelise would have been the one to say, hey, let’s just try something crazy!

Hmm.

“Maybe we need to try something crazy,” Aura frowned. “There’s only one way to find the staff quickly: we have to get her to summon it.”

“What, and then wrestle it off her?” Brock asked with no small hint of sarcasm.

Aura put her head in her hands and groaned.

“Zone One,” the boatman announced, making both of them jump. They’d forgotten he was there.

The familiar cityscape loomed on the horizon. Aura stood up and squinted through the grey fog, trying to make out the familiar lines of the docks. Brock stood too, wobbling a bit, less used to water-travel. As the ferry bumped against the pier, Aura paid the ferryman with a pack of coloured pencils, swung the backpack onto her shoulder and disembarked. Brock trotted down after her, keeping his arms out for balance. He knew the city better than she did, so she fell into step behind him as he led the way through the maze of narrow streets and square, grey buildings.

The central square with the fountain bustled with people. Aura nudged Brock into a cafe opposite the bureau and paid for some murky grey drinks with a glimpse of the colour in her bag. They camped silently in the cafe window for an indeterminate amount of time, their drinks untouched, staring at the bureau across the square.

Brock sucked in his breath. “There she is.”

Kelise poked her head out of the bureau to grin warmly at a bewildered looking traveller standing outside. The poor guy must have only just arrived in Zone One; he kept staring around him, slack-jawed, at the immense buildings. Kelise touched him gently on the arm and talked to him for a moment before leading him inside, her ponytail bobbing. Aura snatched her drink up in a death grip. Kelise was just carrying on as normal, as if nothing had changed - as if no one knew her secret - as if she hadn’t just left two friends for oblivion in the Realm of the Living.

What now? Kelise had been the one who had driven them before. Nudging them along, even if it was in the wrong direction. She was the glue which had held the group together. Without her, Aura and Brock wouldn’t even have met.

Aura glanced across the table at Brock, who hadn’t taken his eyes off Kelise. His shoulders were slumped, his lips downturned. He sighed.

“What she did was wrong, but her heart was in the right place.”

Aura shifted slightly in her seat. Brock was right… Kelise had a heart. She’d done wrong, but she’d done it in the name of bringing peace to billions of souls.

The plan wasn’t one which came slowly, chewed over carefully with time. This was more one of those brilliant flashes - only half-formed, more than half insane, but absolutely certain of its chosen course.

“I know what to do.” Aura told Brock. She leant forward over the drinks, her grey eyes sparking with life, and told him the plan.

---


Brock hated the plan. In fact, the only thing Brock hated more than the plan was his own willingness to go along with it.

What had happened to him? Not that long ago he was a simple librarian, helping knowledge-seekers in their quest to understand the realms. Now he was standing outside the bureau with his face pressed against the window, waving his arms to get the attention of the insane Reaper who had sent the souls of every single one of her own employees to Oblivion.

Kelise’s desk was opposite the window. She spotted him quickly and her grey face turned to an ashen white. The traveller sat at the desk in front of her spun around to see what she was looking at. Brock knew he ought to wait to give her a chance to get out of her seat, but he just couldn’t. As soon as her dark grey eyes locked onto his he bolted, darting sideways down a particularly narrow street. After a moment he had the crash of a door slamming and the heavy beat of running footsteps.

Brock stuck his chest out and pumped his arms. Adrenaline kept his breath in usable bursts, his eyes sharp and his feet quick. Kelise’s footsteps thundered behind him, louder than ever. He imagined he could feel her fingers snatching at his clothes. She’d always been faster than him - cleverer - kinder - what the hell was he doing…?

She was hot on his heels as he jumped the fence into Angel Academy’s grounds and tore over the lawn, the dry grass crackling beneath his feet. Kelise had dragged him into Angel Academy a number of times in the past to poke around, find things or just hang out. Brock prayed he’d given Aura clear enough directions as he rounded the side of the building, slammed his hands onto a window sill and hopped through the broken window. He sprinted past the square, metal lockers, left into another corridor, through a classroom, slammed the doors to the great assembly hall open and…

Something hit him hard between the shoulder blades. Brock stumbled forward and fell onto his knees, yelping, reaching back to touch the raw area. A smooth round pebble clattered to the floor next to him.

“Enough, Brock!” He twisted around to find her standing in the open doorway to the grand assembly hall, staring at him. “What in hell’s name…?”

Brock got slowly to his feet. He hadn’t quite made it to Zone Zero, but he had to hope that Aura had heard the ruckus and would come to find him. His legs felt like jelly. Kelise watched him with more curiosity than caution, pushing her glasses back up her nose where they’d slipped down. She wasn’t even out of breath - not like Brock, whose chest was heaving. How did a corpse get out of breath anyway?

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a movement up in the rafters. A glimmer of panic rushed through his veins. What if Aura couldn’t see Kelise properly from where she was hiding?

“You don’t have the staff!” He shouted to Kelise. His voice echoed around the hall, loud enough to be heard from every corner. Don’t make a move yet, he pleaded silently to Aura. Kelise blinked at him, frowning.

“How did you get back from the Realm of the Living?” She asked, flummoxed.

“We got a couple of magicians to help.” Brock told her honestly. “One of them knew the theory of creating death portals. Aura remembered the equation to expand a portal to fit more than one person, and - ”

“She remembered it?” Kelise threw her hands up in the air. “She saw it for like a second! Who the hell is she?”

“She - ”

Where is she?” Kelise demanded to know, taking a threatening step forwards. Brock backed up a little in spite of himself.

“We parted ways when we got here. She - she’s furious with you, and she has a right to be. But I - I wanted to talk to you.” He took a deep breath. Nothing in the rafters had moved since he and Kelise had entered the assembly hall. Trust in the plan, Brock. “You and me… we’re friends. You helped me settle, found me the job at the library, and I… I understand you. Where you’re coming from.” He held up his hands and spread his palms as if in surrender, trying to look as honest as possible while sweating from head to toe. “But I - I still don’t know who I am. And now I found out that you took that from me? Do you know who I am - who I was - in life?”

Her face had crumpled slightly, her eyes narrowing to slits behind her glasses. She still hadn’t summoned the staff. Brock spread his arms wide.

“You didn’t have the right to make me spend my death this way!” He shouted, his voice echoing around the enclosed chamber. “Never knowing - always lost - seeking answers! I spend all my time in that library, reading books, hoping for a shred of residual memory to - ”

“You and your residual memory!” Kelise yelled. She thrust her right arm out forcefully. Brock backpeddled, nearly tripping over himself, as thunder clapped and electricity crackled through the air. The gilded shepherd’s crook materialised in Kelise’s hand at the same time that the shadowy robes folded over her body. Seeing the transformation for the second time made Brock curse internally; those loose robes concealed her figure, the hood casting her shadow into face. Anyone, wearing robes like that, could look like the statue in the Great Library. How could he have been so stupid to get hung up on Anapa being the Guide? “You have to let it go. Your life, your memories. That’s the only way to be happy in death!”

“For you, maybe!” Brock hurled back. Kelise’s eyes flashed and she took another step forward.

Brock would treasure the next moment with him for the rest of his death. Aura dropped from the rafters, spread-eagled, and belly-flopped right on top of the Guide of the Dead. Kelise crumpled to the floor, half-groaning, half-yelling; the staff flew out of her hand and skidded across the wooden floor. Both she and Aura were apparently too winded to make a move for it.

“Argh,” Kelise moaned.

“Bleck,” Aura coughed.

The sound of their voices spurred Brock into action. He darted across the floor towards the staff.

“Don’t you dare!” Kelise yelled, throwing her hand out. Aura knocked it to one side as the staff soared towards her, trying to pin Kelise down. Kelise aimed a wild punch upwards which didn’t land but did make Aura lean backwards, throwing her balance off-centre. The bureau worker ripped one arm free and shoved her forcefully, knocking her onto her back. “Get off me!”

Brock made for the staff again but misjudged how close it was to Kelise. She pulled herself onto all fours and kicked him in the face like a bucking horse. Brock fell flat on his back and slammed his head hard against the floor, submitting as total blackness engulfed him.

---


“Brock!” Aura screamed, twisting on the floor. He was lying on his back with his head turned towards her, eyes closed, blood seeping from his nose.

Kelise thrust her right hand out again determinedly. Without hesitating, Aura leapt onto her back and slammed her against the floor furiously, grabbing her ponytail. She’d stupidly dropped the strips of fabric she and Brock had been intending to use to tie up Kelise’s hands in her fall from the rafters, but if she could knock Kelise out - or at least daze her - she could buy enough time to grab them. Kelise thrust her head backwards and smacked it against her upper chest, right on the collar bone, twisting Aura’s hand in the process. Aura let go and automatically grabbed her injured wrist with her other hand while Kelise groaned, reaching up to rub the back of her head. Aura stood up and staggered sideways, aiming a kick at her former friend’s ribs. Kelise grabbed her leg and pulled, causing her to slam against the floor hard. Aura sucked in her breath, withdrew both of her legs and kicked again, more forcefully this time. She was rewarded with a yelp of pain. Another, more masculine groan sounded from further away.

“Brock?” Aura tried to yell, but her breath caught on the word. She managed to sit up and caught sight of Brock rolling onto his side, clutching his nose with both hands.

Aura exhaled, a flicker of relief dancing in her chest. He was alive! She twisted around, scanning the floor for the binding fabric. If they could get Kelise’s hands tied, she wouldn’t be able to summon the staff. No one would find her here because no one else ever came to Angel Academy, according to Brock. They’d be free to take the staff and find a new Guide.

She’d let her guard down for too long. Kelise tackled her from the front while she was looking behind her, throwing her head back against the floor again. The rafters on the ceiling slid in and out of focus for a second. Aura shook her head to clear it and realised that Kelise was sat on her chest triumphantly, her hands spread wide as they pinned Aura’s arms down. The two women stared at each other for a moment.

“Go ahead, move your hand to get the staff,” Aura growled. “I dare you.”

Kelise’s eyes narrowed. She pressed harder against Aura’s arms, making her hands feel numb and tingly, but didn’t get the opportunity to do much else. Out of nowhere, Brock leapt against Kelise’s back, knocking her flat on top of Aura. Brock slipped off the pile, moaning, while Kelise and Aura simply lay there, too winded even for that. After taking a second to recover, Brock pushed Kelise off Aura and knelt down next to her, twisting her hands behind her back.

“Get the fabric,” he wheezed to Aura, who had just managed to crawl forward a couple of inches.

Kelise shifted, but Brock hit her sharply on the back of her head with the heel of his hand. Aura pressed her palms against the floor and pushed herself onto all fours, waiting for the room to come back into focus. Blood dripped to the ground where she’d bitten her lip. Ahead and to her right lay the fabric, its colours dancing before her eyes, still in the same place it had fallen to when she’d dropped it earlier. Approximately the same distance to her left was the gilded staff.

Aura staggered to her feet, feeling the room spinning. She took a couple of steps in the direction of the fabric, her eyes fixed on the staff.

“Hurry!” Brock called behind her.

Aura whipped around just in time to see Kelise wrestle one arm free and smack Brock in the side of the face. She thrust her arm out, flexing her fingers, and the staff quivered. Time seemed to slow down. Aura saw the staff shoot forward as if in slow motion, spinning slightly through the still air. She took a step, twisted, and snatched it straight out of the air.

Somewhere in the background, Kelise screamed in incoherent rage. Thunder clapped and a forceful wind slammed into Aura’s face, billowing back her white-grey hair and causing her eyes to water at the corners. She gripped the staff tightly as it seemed to wriggle in her hand, its power akin to an angry blast. Aura felt a thrill run through her veins, her blood pounding as if she had a heart to pump it still, adrenaline melting away her pain. She knew, with utter certainty, that the staff was meant to be used. It didn’t do well locked away in a statue for untold time, inactive, restless.

What are you going to do about it? The glittering gold paint seemed to scream at her.

And, for the first time in what she felt was probably her life or her death, Aura felt like she had a choice.

She could choose. The staff didn’t want to return to Kelise, she could feel it. It wanted to be active - used - partnered with someone who would wave it and slam it and chip its paint. It would wait for a new owner if it had to, with Kelise remaining bound here, unable to fight against both her and Brock.

The power of the staff was awesome. Simply holding it made Aura feel simultaneously weak and strong, like she had the ability to end life or stopper death but might drop to her knees if she made the wrong move. She knew, too, that she’d never chosen power before. Power had always found her, pushed her back into a corner, thrust itself onto her. The staff didn’t want that.

If you can’t handle me, pass me on to someone else, it seemed to scoff.

With no memory of her life, Aura knew, in that moment, who she was and what she strove for. Purpose, but a purpose she had power over. The chance to forge her own path, make her own choices, live life or travel death in whatever damn way made her happy. Help people along the way because she wanted to, not because she was bound to.

She gripped the staff tightly between her fingers. “I accept you.”

The staff shifted in her hand, the gold paint darkening to a deep black. It settled, no longer trying to worm itself away. The hook at the end flipped, narrowed and lengthened, forming a long, arched blade with a metallic sheen. Shadows leapt from the corners of the room and wrapped themselves over her body, solidifying into heavy black robes which would have weighed her down but for the crackle of electricity on her skin. Aura doubled over, gasping, as the memories of her life hit her full-force, playing in her head like a dramatically sped-up movie. They shunted around for a split-second before slotting themselves firmly into place as if they’d never been gone.

The winds cleared. Aura ripped her newly-formed hood back and spun around to find Brock crouched on the floor, nursing his gut. Kelise was nowhere to be seen.

“She punched me and ran,” he gasped as Aura grabbed his shoulder and helped him to his feet. He stared at her. “Um… so… um… the new Guide of the Dead, then?”

Aura stared at the staff in her hand, which had transformed from a gilded crook to a black scythe. “Yeah, I guess so.”

She reached up to wipe some of the blood from her lip. Brock simultaneously sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

“So I guess you weren’t that averse to being a leader after all,” he smirked. It looked grotesque with his face covered in blood.

“Yeah, well,” Aura smiled back slyly. “I figured that while there are a lot of people depending on us, we could handle it with a little help. It’s not like we have to do everything alone.”

Brock smiled, pinching his nose. His eyes flicked to the far door - presumably the one Kelise had vanished through - but he didn’t say anything. What with how well she knew Angel Academy, there was no way they’d find her. Aura might have some supernatural ability to pinpoint dead people wherever they were in the Realm of the Dead, but it hadn’t appeared suddenly along with her memories. It looked like she was going to have to figure this Guide of the Dead stuff out step by step.

“My memories haven’t returned,” Brock said hesitantly. Aura frowned.

“I guess... just changing Guides wasn’t enough to fix the Realm of the Dead on its own. But I’m not sure what to do now.” She shrugged. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll get your memories back, and everyone else’s.”

Brock nodded. “You know, I don’t really think black’s your colour.”

“No?” Aura looked down at herself, scrunching up her nose in scrutiny. Brock was right: she was so light-skinned that the black robes made her look like a ghost. Or a panda. She gripped the staff tightly and focused, imagining the robes the way she wanted them to look. The fabric lightened considerably, taking on a more floaty quality, and the colour shifted from black to a pale, icy blue. As an afterthought, she reached inside the robes into the pockets of her shorts and pulled out her star-shaped pendant. She held it for a second in her hand before fastening it back around her neck, letting it fall prominently over the top of her robes. “Better?”

“Better,” Brock agreed.

Aura hooked her arm around his neck and pulled him into a half-hug. In spite of themselves, the two friends laughed. The noise echoed around the assembly hall, making it sound as if the ghosts of Kelise’s lieutenants were laughing with them.

End.




Written by Aspelta.

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