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part four.
IP: 2.27.234.31

Part Four
The Realm of the Living, Shaman, the Castle


The pen slipped from Arthur’s hand and clattered onto the desk.

Aura - Aura? - stared across the desk at him, so familiar and yet barely recognisable at the same time. Her most distinguishing and memorable feature - her sharp blue eyes - had turned to a dull grey, close to Arthur’s own colour. The effect was profound, transforming her face into something altogether more welcoming than it had seemed when… when he’d last seen her. She had her head tilted slightly to one side, an expression of faint hope on her face - two things he’d never seen from her before.

But everything else - the hair, the clothes… all the same, albeit grey.

Before Arthur had a chance to recover from the shock of seeing his deceased former partner-in-war, the door burst open and someone else charged through. Aura whipped around, her silvery-white hair just catching the tip of his nose.

“Kelise!” She shouted, leaning backwards to look through the open door. “Where’s Brock?”

“Dunno,” the other woman gasped. Like Aura, she was grey from head to toe. Her mid-length, straight black hair was scooped back in a messy ponytail and her medium-grey eyes were bright and keen behind a pair of round spectacles. She was taller than Aura - who wasn’t? - but smaller than Arthur, and moved with a quick-footed energy like she couldn’t stand still in one place for very long. She jogged over to the window, peered out of it and pointed. “Found him! He’s in the lake outside!”

“Let’s go!” Aura grabbed her arm and the pair of them ran for the door. “Sorry about your papers!” She yelled over her shoulder at Arthur as she vanished round the doorframe.

To Arthur’s credit, it only took him another second or two to recover. He stood abruptly, shoving his chair back and shouting the first logical word which came to mind: “Mallos!

He must have shouted it in his head too, because he’d only just made it around his desk when there was a tremendous bang and Mallos himself appeared out of nowhere. Arthur barely registered that he was wearing a navy blue suit and holding his phone in his hand.

“What is it?” The Spaniard asked urgently while Arthur zipped around him, making for the door.

“Aura,” Arthur replied distractedly, shoving the door open and charging out. He was just in time to see Aura and Kelise vanish around the corner at the far end of the corridor.

There was another bang and Mallos appeared directly in front of him. Arthur had to skid to a halt or else he’d’ve run into him.

“What about Aura?” He frowned.

“I just saw her,” Arthur explained, his eyes still fixed on the end of the corridor where she’d disappeared. He went to move around Mallos, but the latter side-stepped and blocked him again.

“Aura’s dead.” Mallos said flatly.

“I’m aware of it.” Arthur glanced briefly at him. “And I just saw her.”

He stepped around Mallos and sprinted down the corridor.

“Sure,” he heard Mallos say behind him, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “and I’m late for my date with Napoleon.”

---


Aura and Kelise belted down the corridor, passing several benders who stopped to stare. One serving-girl screamed and dropped the tray she was holding.

“You’d think they’d never seen a couple of stiffs before,” Kelise gasped breathlessly.

Aura laughed in spite of herself. Two completely greyscale people charging down the corridor of a colourful castle was probably an uncommon sight. She grabbed Kelise’s hand for stability as they both hurtled down a flight of stairs, but released it again at the bottom. The base of the stairs opened out into a wide corridor with a set of large doors beckoning at the other end. Without pausing to think about where they were going, Aura dashed towards them and threw them open. A pair of women in guardsmen uniforms jumped a mile as the two corpses fell out, blinking in the sunlight.

“I’ve lost my bearings!” Kelise spun around on the spot, shading her eyes against the sun with her hand.

“This way!” Aura couldn’t say how she knew. She reacted instinctively, turning a sharp left and sprinting down the side of the castle. As soon as she made the turning she knew she’d made the right move: the lake zoomed into view. “Brock!”

Brock was upright in the water, spluttering a little, the blue-brown liquid lapping at his hips. As soon as they saw he was fine, Aura and Kelise slowed down to a gentle jog. They stopped at the water’s edge as Brock waded out, wiping the water away from his face with one hand. The other hand was at his side, clutching a dripping black cord with something metal glinting at the end. Kelise grinned good-naturedly and reached out to pat him on the shoulder as he drew level with them.

“Bumpy landing, mate?” She glanced at the hand holding the cord. “Whatcha got there?”

“Found it in the water by the river entrance. Must’ve been washed downstream.” Brock mumbled. He held it up and a chill ran instantly through Aura’s bones.

The shape, which she’d carried around on her arm until the first occasion she’d seen it in a bureau, was achingly familiar but tantalisingly beyond understanding. The eight-pointed shape was silver and blue in colour with a small circle in the centre. The black cord had been looped through a hole in the upper point, transforming the symbol into a necklace. Instinctively, Aura grabbed her tattooed arm with her opposing hand, her fingers closing around the identical logo inked there. When she’d first seen the symbol on a piece of paper in a Zone 58 bureau, she’d felt a connection to it. She’d also felt, inexplicably, like it ought to be blue. Just like this one.

Dazed, she released her arm and reached out. Brock seemed to understand without being told; he dropped the necklace into her hand, pendant first, and watched interestedly while she examined it.

“Residual memory?” He asked, a glimmer of excitement creeping into his voice. Kelise lifted an eyebrow.

Aura stared at the shape, unable to find words to express what she was feeling. The metal, hard and cold under her fingers, was wet from being in the water but had not corroded. Either it hadn’t been in the water long, or it was composed of high quality materials. She rubbed away some of the clinging grit with her thumb, tracing the shape. She knew what it was. She knew she knew. But like a lost word on the tip of her tongue, the answer was just beyond her grasp. With a tingle of disappointment, Aura shrugged and slipped the necklace into her pocket.

“Maybe they can help,” Brock suggested, pointing to the small group of people running over to them.

---


Quite unintentionally, Arthur picked up a small entourage as he ran through the castle. A couple of guards dropped patrol duty to follow, assuming something important, and his sister joined the chase when he passed her in the great hall. Morgana sucked in her breath as the sprint slowed to a jog across the lawn to the lake, her black eyes fixed on Aura, but she didn’t say anything.

“Hi everyone,” the black-haired woman, Kelise, said cheerfully as they got close. “Do any of you know where the Guide of the Dead is?”

“Prince Anapa,” Aura clarified. Her grey eyes, unnerving for their change of colour, showed no hint of recognition as they flicked between the guards and the royals.

Morgana, Arthur and the older of the two guards - who, judging from his face, remembered Aura well enough to recognise her now - simply stared. The younger guard, too young to remember the civil war, smiled and nodded.

“Should I go and fetch him…?” She queried, noting her superiors’ faces with a touch of hesitation.

“Please,” Arthur asked her, still not taking his eyes off the greyscale trio. “We’ll meet you in the meeting room next to the great hall. Thank you.” He paused, and gestured for the three dead people to follow him, Morgana and the other guard inside the castle.

“Thanks, King,” Aura said brightly, further cementing his suspicion that she had no idea who he was.

“You know who he is?” The dead man - Brock - hissed to her in an undertone. He sounded hopeful.

“No, I saw his name on a paper.” Aura muttered back. The two of them were making an effort to keep their voices low, but Arthur could still hear every word. “‘King Arthur’.”

Brock groaned under his breath. “Aura! King’s not his name. His name’s Arthur. King’s just a title, like traveller, or librarian, or…” Arthur turned his head in time to see the guy gesture to Kelise. “Or… bureau… worker.”

“Smooth.” Kelise smirked.

“So ‘king’ is his job?” Aura whispered back. “What do kings do?”

“According to a book I read once, they’re a type of leader. You’re not meant to call them ‘king’ or by their names, though. You’re meant to call them ‘sire’.”

“What happens if you get a load of kings together in one place?” Kelise muttered. “Like a king convention? Do they all call each other ‘sire’? ‘Excuse me, sire - sorry there, sire - I’m just trying to reach sire. Have you heard sire’s story about sire? So hilarious.”

Aura giggled. Arthur wasn’t sure he’d ever heard her giggle before. Morgana glanced sideways at him, like, what the heck is going on? He gave a very small shrug back.

Arthur led them up the stone steps, past the great hall and into the snug meeting room. The younger guard hadn’t yet arrived. At Arthur’s request, the older guard positioned himself outside the door to make sure no one else disturbed them.

As he held the door open for Morgana and the three dead people, Aura said “thanks, sire,” before walking through.

The wait couldn’t have been long, but it felt like an age. Aura and her two friends didn’t interact with them much, more interested in the colourful tapestry which hung on the wall. Brock gazed at it in quiet admiration while Aura and Kelise kept nudging each other to point out little details. Arthur couldn’t remember Aura being especially interested in the castle tapestries when she was alive. Her and Kelise’s comments now were largely focused on the colours they could see rather than what the image was actually showing.

“Look at that little speck of purple,” Kelise pointed.

“That’s a really nice purple,” Aura agreed.

The door was pushed hesitantly open and the younger guard re-appeared, tailed by Anapa, who was rubbing his temples with a vaguely pained expression. His eyebrows lifted and his eyes widened slightly as he beheld the three grey people, all of whom had refocused on him as soon as he entered.

“Spirits,” he said. Kelise waggled her fingers, like, that’s us! “How… how can I help you?”

Arthur had a hunch that wasn’t the question he was intending to ask.

“We’re looking for the Guide of the Dead,” Aura said.

“AKA you.” Kelise added abruptly.

Kelise,” Brock hissed. “We don’t know that for sure.”

Arthur glanced at Anapa, who was frowning slightly.

“You came to the Realm of the Living to find a guide of the dead?” Anapa asked slowly, rubbing his temples again the way he did when he was sensing oncoming death. “Don’t the guides exist on your side - to help spirits find their place in Death?”

Kelise gave a low growl. Aura placed her hand gently on her shoulder.

“The Guide of the Dead was one person who vanished,” she explained. “He oversaw the Realm of the Dead. Death doesn’t work the way it’s meant to without him.”

“You might mean the lieutenants of Death,” Brock added. “They helped the Guide. But there was only one Guide.”

Anapa glanced between them. “And you think this Guide is…”

“Look,” Kelise interrupted. “We went to your home. We saw your statue. It’s exactly the same as the statue of the Guide in the Great Library in the Realm of the Dead - you were even holding the staff!”

Even as she said it, though, Aura frowned slightly, as though she wanted to disagree but wasn’t quite sure how to. Anapa was shaking his head.

“I’m sorry,” he lifted his hands in the universal gesture of surrender. “I was born in Life seventeen years ago. I’m alive. I’ve never been to the Realm of the Dead.”

“You’re lying,” Kelise said immediately.

“Kelise - ” Brock warned her gently.

“He is. We saw the statue.”

“They weren’t identical,” Aura cautioned her. “And besides, the person who made the statue in the Great Library might not even have known what the Guide looked like. We don’t even know when the Guide vanished.”

“I know how to settle this,” Brock said with more confidence than Arthur had heard from him in the short time they’d known each other. “Hold your wrists. Like this.”

Aura and Kelise glanced at each other skeptically, but held their wrists as he indicated: with their two dominant fingers over the section of the wrist just underneath the thumb.

“What’s the point of this?” Aura asked while Brock reached out and gingerly took Anapa’s wrist, to the plain bemusement of the latter.

“Hold on.” Brock frowned, concentrating, as he held Anapa’s wrist. His expression swiftly cleared. “There - see! Benders have a beat which you can feel there. Old folk legend confirmed by a book I read. We can’t feel anything on our wrists because we’re dead.”

Kelise insisted on feeling poor Anapa’s wrist before she accepted it, shaking her head. “Man, you are alive.”

“Thank you,” the prince replied dryly.

“And we know benders can’t survive in the Realm of the Dead,” Brock added. “Anapa’s clear. We’re looking for a corpse.”

“In the Realm of the Living,” Kelise muttered, visibly deflating.

---


Aura leant back against the pretty coloured tapestry, trying to swallow the bitter taste of disappointment on her tongue. They’d been so sure it was Anapa.

Nobody asked the two questions which hung in the air: what to do now, and how to get back to Death? Anapa had been their only lead. Now that he was clear, Aura had no idea where to look next for the Guide. Not only that, but she hadn’t even thought about how to get back to the Realm of the Dead. If Anapa had been the Guide then he could have just created a death portal for all of them to travel through, but since he wasn’t…

“So what now?” Brock asked in a quiet, almost whiney voice. When no one answered, he said, “Kelise? Aura?”

Anapa shifted slightly, frowning. “Orra?”

“Aww-rah,” Aura pronounced it out for him slowly, raising an eyebrow slightly. “You’ve heard my name before?”

“Once.” Anapa studied her face carefully. “When I came here. I stepped into a death portal in my home world to try and calm an angry spirit. The spirit would not commune with me, and instead deposited me here. I assumed it was an accident, but…”

“And this corpse - um, spirit - said my name?” Aura raised the other eyebrow.

“Screamed it,” Anapa corrected quietly. “Angrily. It was the only thing he would say. I didn’t recognise the word at the time.”

Kelise, Brock and Aura exchanged glances.

“Aura’s quite a common name,” Kelise offered. “After a goddess from Earth. Decent number of travellers come through the bureau bearing her symbol - you’ve got it on your arm, actually.”

She gestured to Aura’s arm, where the four logos were still inscribed in fading ink. Arthur and the black-haired woman he’d brought with him both leant forward slightly, so Aura obliged them by displaying her arm. Kelise had only explained one of the four symbols before, but somehow Aura knew without being told which one she was referring to now. Without thinking, she reached into her pocket with her other hand and pulled out the necklace Brock had found in the lake. The silver-and-blue pendant was identical to the one she’d drawn on her arm in the Realm of the Dead so long ago. Aura glanced up at the three living people in the room. Anapa’s face was unchanged, but Arthur and the woman both seemed to be watching her with more care than before. The atmosphere in the room had tightened a little. Aura held the necklace up, spreading the black cord between her fingers and letting the pendant hang between them.

“This isn’t real, is it?” She asked, looking directly at Arthur. “It’s not the real one.”

Carefully, deliberately, Arthur shook his head.

Aura studied the pendant again. For some reason, Sniffles the warlock’s words came back to her in that moment. There’s a protection charm on you. What’re you hiding?

There was only one logical place to keep a necklace. Aura had seen her own reflection in water and mirrors a hundred times since she’d died, and she knew she didn’t wear or own any necklaces. Now, somehow, she believed one was there. As she reached up to her neck, her fingers closed over a hard, cold surface which hadn’t been there a second before. She pulled it up over her head and held it in the palm of her hand, comparing it to the one Brock had found. Her necklace had a silver chain instead of a black cord, but the pendant looked almost identical. It was the same in size, shape and colour, but it had a unique shimmer when it caught the light and she could feel its power in the palm of her hand. It seemed to draw every eye to it. Even Kelise and Brock were now at her shoulders, peering over to stare at it.

“It looks just like the one I found,” Brock blinked.

Just like, but not the same. Aura glanced back at Arthur again, who was still watching closely with his lady friend, and suddenly she understood everything. She spun back around to Brock and Kelise with a wide grin.

“We don’t need the Guide of the Dead.” She held up the two pendants. “We can fix the Realm of the Dead without him.”

To be continued.




Written by Aspelta.

Replies:
    • part five. -
    • part six. -



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