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part three.

Part Three
The Realm of the Dead, Zone 1

“The Square Warlocks?” Kelise rolled her eyes. “That was your big idea?”

“It’s the Circle of Warlocks,” Brock scolded, but his voice lacked confidence. “And they can help. Maybe.”

Aura frowned skeptically at the building in front of them. On their return to the Realm of the Dead, Brock had eagerly led them away from the centre square of Zone One and down numerous, increasingly narrow alleyways. The three of them were now stood in what was certainly one of the shadier parts of town, with peeling paint doing a poor job of covering the angry graffiti. The building in front of them might once have been a series of multi-layer offices, but over time it had gradually been taken over by more obscure Settlers. A flashy sign over the main entrance advertised ‘residual therapy’, while the smaller side-entrance Brock was gesturing to had no sign except for a logo of a circle with a line through it.

“What’s ‘residual therapy’?” Aura asked.

“A load of crap, that’s what it is,” Kelise muttered. Brock shot her a stony look and she rolled her eyes. “Residual therapists supposedly identify residual memories and use them to tell you about your life. Supposedly. They charge an arm and a leg.”

“There’s a lot of science behind it,” Brock objected in a hurt tone. “Residual memories are definitely a thing. How else do you explain things that corpses like or dislike without ever having tried? Random cravings? Moments of déjà vu?”

“Have you ever been to one?” Aura asked Brock with interest.

“Once,” he mumbled. “I, er - couldn’t afford a really good one.”

“Hookum.” Kelise grunted as she knocked on the door with the circle logo. “Most residual therapists are con-men, out for your colour. Steer clear of them, Aura.”

A section of the wooden door slid to one side, revealing a tiny window with a pair of deep grey eyes peering out. The eyes were narrowed in a clearly identifiable frown.

“Password?” Sang a voice on the other side. Kelise glanced back at Brock, who shrugged. She turned back to the door.

“How about, ‘open up or I’ll kick your ass’?”

The voice on the other side of the door squeaked. “Um, close enough.”

The shliiick of a bolt preceded the dull creaaak of the door swinging open inwardly, revealing a short, robed figure sporting a dark, round face and a pout.

“Whaddaya want, Kelise?” The figure grumbled.

Kelise just grinned. The robed man sighed and beckoned them inside. Inside, the space was tiny - barely big enough for the four of them - and occupied only by a narrow set of stairs which led down into the dark depths. The robed figure led the way, griping at Kelise, who answered his complaints cheerfully. Aura nudged Brock as he went to descend.

“Does Kelise know everybody?” She muttered. Brock gave a little smile.

“I guess you meet a lot of people working in the bureau,” he suggested. “And Kelise is pretty good at helping people settle. She helps a lot of people find their place.”

He turned and hopped down the stairs. After a brief pause, Aura followed him.

The stairs brought the four of them down an entire level to some kind of basement area. Another door with a second robed figure greeted them at the bottom, but with Kelise’s new friend on their side they were admitted without difficulty. The sight which greeted them, when the door swung open, was even more unexpected than finding the death portal in a classroom supply closet.

It looked like a haphazard roomshare between a scientist, a cult member, and a standard nerd. The room was dark and dingy, lit by a combination of torches in brackets and wax candles. Several tables sporting complicated-looking board games were crammed into one corner to make space for what looked like a miniature boxing ring next to it. A spellcasting arena? The back wall had bookshelves with dusty tomes running all the way along it, while in the far corner several desks held up a mess of complicated scientific equipment. Glass beakers were suspended over bunsen burners using stacks of lego and clothing pegs as clips. Four blackboards with nonsensical equations on were being wheeled around the room at speed, occasionally knocking into some of the tables and disturbing the board gamers. Most bizarre of all, two robed corpses were pushing a third one around in a supermarket shopping trolley. The floor, which felt unnaturally cold under Aura’s bare feet, had a tile pattern and was decorated with a range of obscure symbols. More symbols hung from a picture rail on the wall, most unfamiliar, but some - she realised with a lurch - closing resembling the images she had scrawled on her arm. The spiral square logo which Kelise had identified as a solar symbol hung up on the wall next to the board games.

The people were just as interesting. A motley crew, the only thing they all had in common were their dark robes, which they all wore over their normal clothes. There was a fairly even mix of male and female, tall and short, large and small. Two corpses over by the bunsen burners had pointed ears and split, monkey-like tails, and one of the people pushing the trolley was sporting a large pair of feathery white wings. She kept flapping them excitedly and causing the nearby candles to blow out. Strangest of all, three of the board gamers looked as though they were composed of other materials entirely. Two seemed to be made out of living, moving water, and Aura was convinced the third was actually a tree until it moved.

A short, rat-faced man with a pair of folded bat-wings scuttled sideways up to them, like a crab. He paused with his arms tucked into his side like a T-Rex, his neck craned, sniffing the air by them. His watery eyes fell on Aura and narrowed suspiciously.

“Protection charm.” He muttered. “What’re you hiding?”

Aura exchanged looks with Brock and Kelise, who seemed just as baffled as she felt. “Um, what?”

“Protection charm!” The little man repeated crossly in a louder tone. Some of the nearer board gamers peeked up in interest. “There’s a protection charm on you! Hiding something!”

“Listen, I don’t - ”

“Chill out, Sniffles.” Another voice from across the room carried easily over. The board gamers ducked their heads again and ‘Sniffles’ grumbled softly under his breath, but retreated obediently. The newcomer, a tall, dark-skinned man, strode confidently towards them and swept his hood back. His dark eyes twinkled welcomingly. “Sorry about him; he thinks everyone’s up to something.”

He extended a large hand. Aura took it gingerly, feeling like she was a mouse shaking hands with a bear.

“What did he mean, ‘protection charm’?”

“Sniffler has the ability to detect magic,” the newcomer explained, releasing Aura’s hand so he could shake Kelise’s. “He sensed a protection charm on you. Nothing to fret about, it was probably placed on you when you were alive. It’ll fade over time. Brock, my friend,” he placed his hands on Brock’s shoulders and smiled.

“Zazz,” Brock acknowledged with a smile of his own. “This is Aura and Kelise. We need a bit of magical assistance.”

“My warlocks are at your service!” Zazz swept his arm out wide, proudly gesturing to his melting pot of characters. “How can we help?”

Kelise raised an eyebrow skeptically. “You don’t want colour in return?”

“We have colour,” Zazz reassured her. “What we want is recognition for our abilities. Do you know how many corpses don’t even believe in magic?”

The expression on Kelise’s face plainly said she was probably one of those corpses. Brock must have noticed, because he hastily got to the point of their visit. Producing Anapa’s ceremonial knife from inside his jacket, he presented it to Zazz and explained their predicament. Zazz listened patiently before leading him off to talk to some people called ‘Sally and Kavir’, musing out loud about location spells and portals as he went. Kelise leant back against the wall and folded her arms, watching the board gamers as they eagerly rolled a pair of twelve-sided dice. Aura stared at the symbol on the wall nearest to her: a perfect recreation of the eight-pointed star on her arm.

“Have you thought about what we’re going to do when we actually find the Guide?” She asked her friend quietly. Kelise tilted her head, as though considering a question which had never occurred to her before.

“Not really,” she admitted. “Talk to him, I suppose. Legend has it that if you take the Guide’s staff and claim it as your own, you become the Guide yourself. Failing all else, I guess we could just steal his staff, bring it back here and… I don’t know. Have an election?”

Aura smiled slightly. “You mean with manifestos? Debates?”

Kelise grinned. “We’ll figure something out. We’re a good team.”

They continued watching the board gamers for a while. One of the gamers must have rolled something really good, because he whooped as he moved his avatar forward along the squares.

“Do you think they were nerds in life?” Aura wondered.

“If you believe residual memory theory, then, yeah. Residual memory theory says that our personalities are still shaped by our lives, even if we forget who we are in death.”

Aura glanced at her. “So… in life you would have been, like… a charity worker or something?”

“That’s Brock’s theory,” Kelise smiled slightly, but it seemed a little forced. “I actually, um... ” She glanced around to check that no one could overhear. Her eyes settled briefly on Brock’s figure, his back to them on the other side of the room, before she turned to give Aura her full attention. “I didn’t start working at the bureau straight away when I settled. I only started working there when… when my brother died.”

“You and your brother found each other in death?”

“No, we were always together in death. Must’ve died together.” Kelise took a breath. “I mean he died again. The second death.”

A slight frown creased Aura’s brow. “You mean… corpses can still die?”

“When you die the first time, your soul is transported from the Realm of the Living to the Realm of the Dead,” Kelise muttered, eyeing the closest gamers. “But in… exceptional circumstances, the dead can die again. It’s called the second death, and it’s more… final. Your soul goes to oblivion.”

Aura swallowed. “Oblivion, as in… obliterated?”

“Gone completely.” Kelise rubbed the edge of her eyes with the heel of her hand. “My brother, he… I don’t like to talk about it. He was a traveller, but I wanted to settle. He died again, never finding what he was looking for. Never settling. Always looking for answers.” She inhaled slowly and exhaled again, her breath shaking slightly. “After that, I wanted to help travellers find their place. I started working at the bureau, and…”

“And followed any leads you found on the Guide,” Aura finished quietly. She reached out and gently took hold of Kelise’s hand, interlocking her fingers. “I won’t tell.”

Kelise gave a very small smile. From the other side of the room, Brock let out a cry of frustration. Aura nudged Kelise gently, and the two of them crossed the room to where Brock, Zazz and a handful of warlocks were peering at an equation on a blackboard.

“We’ll get it working,” Zazz was insisting, although he didn’t sound convinced. He scowled furiously at the board, not even noticing Aura and Kelise’s arrival on the scene.

“We determined that Anapa isn’t in the Realm of the Dead anymore,” Brock explained, presumably for their benefit. “He must have crossed back into the Realm of the Living. Unfortunately, creating death portals without the Staff of the Dead is some feat. Lucky for us one of these warlocks happens to be a…” He turned to a bespectacled woman by his side. “What did you say you were, again?”

“Master of the Orbis.” The woman replied in a clipped voice, pushing her glasses back up her nose with her middle finger. She squinted at the blackboard. “This isn’t going to work, Zazz.”

“So…” Kelise adopted an expression like she was trying to show some sentiment of belief. “So a ‘Master of the Orbis’ can create death portals?”

“They can create portals to any realm or world, but only for themselves,” Zazz clarified. “We think we can use some of the other warlocks’ power to widen the portal so that the three of you can be transported together, but the equation has to be perfect.”

Aura stared at the blackboard. Lines of code, a mash of numbers and concepts such as space and time, had been rubbed out and re-scribbled so many times that the blackboard was now a greyboard. Chalk dust clung to the air in front of it.

“Um, not to be a downer here,” Kelise began, “but this all seems a bit - ”

“That six should be a four,” Aura pointed to the board, “and the equation will then work if you assume space and time are the same thing.”

The warlocks, Brock and Kelise stared at the board. As the silence dragged on, Aura began to feel an uncomfortable twist in her stomach. Had she made a mistake? Overstepped her mark?

Zazz whistled. “She’s got it.”

The Master of the Orbis lady cracked her knuckles, grinning. “Gimme some space here, boys.”

The warlocks must have had experience with the lady’s magic before, because they all backed up hastily. Brock accidentally stepped on Aura’s foot as he backpeddled, his grey face turning a more pale ashen colour. If he was second-guessing his idea to throw the three of them back into the Realm of the Living in search of a dog-prince, it was a little late now. There was a deep crackling noise, like lightning, and the room flashed suddenly. The Orbis lady held Anapa’s ceremonial dagger up in one hand and had the other thrown out in front of her, her face a picture of concentration. At her back, two other warlocks were grasping her shoulders, their robes billowing out behind them. The force of the wind pressing against Aura’s face was so strong it felt like a hurricane. She threw her hands up in front of her face and squinted, just about able to make out the shaking, swirling black mass beginning to appear in the centre of the room. Unlike the calm death portals she had seen before, this one seemed wild, unpredictable - it quivered like a racehorse in a stable, dying to be set loose.

The Orbis lady yelled something, but it was impossible to make out what over the sound of the wind. Aura felt Kelise’s hand close over her wrist.

“Now!” The bureau worker yelled, right in her ear. With Kelise in the middle holding on to the other two by their arms, they ran forward as one and leapt into the portal.

Around them, the world creaked and groaned. Aura felt like she was caught in a tornado, twisting out of control. Kelise’s hand was wrenched from her grasp and she spiralled in what felt like a downwards motion. The ground hit her feet hard, causing her to stumble forward. She’d’ve fallen if not for the desk in the way. She slammed her hands against it, her torso thrown forward but her feet still, miraculously, on the ground. An office, complete with a middle-aged man sat behind the desk, swam into view. At first, staring into his grey eyes, Aura felt a sliver of ice in her heart - thinking perhaps that she hadn’t left the Realm of the Dead after all - until she noticed his brown hair and pink lips. His mouth was hanging open.

“Sorry, uh - ” Her hand fell on the paper in front of her, and she glanced down at the signature. “King Arthur. You haven’t seen the Lord of the Dead by any chance, have you?”

To be continued.

Written by Aspelta.

    • part four. -
    • part five. -
    • part six. -

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