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Posted on December 23, 2016 at 03:31:07 PM by aspelta
The Realm of the Dead, Zone 1
“Do we have to use the back window?” Brock whined as he and Aura scurried to keep up with Kelise’s longer strides. “We’re supposed to use the front entrance only!”
“It’s the fastest way to Angel Academy!” Kelise threw over her shoulder excitedly.
“So we’re actually going to Angel Academy this time?” Aura asked. “Why?”
“It’s where Zone Zero is.” Brock muttered.
“Right.” Aura paused. “What exactly is Zone Zero?”
“It’s the original gateway between the Realm of the Living and the Realm of the Dead,” Brock explained. “The first person to die crossed over through Zone Zero. Story goes that the Guide built Angel Academy around Zone Zero so that he could take lieutenants from Life as well as Death.”
“You didn’t think the Guide could guide everyone, did you?” Kelise chuckled from up ahead. “Thousands of people die every second in the Realm of the Living. The Guide used to train his lieutenants in Angel Academy, and they could use Zone Zero to cross between the two realms. Supposedly, benders could become lieutenants as well and could actually attend Angel Academy, even if they couldn’t leave it to see the rest of the Realm of the Dead without dying.”
“Right,” Aura repeated, shaking her head. “Er - benders?”
“Why do you call them ‘benders’?”
Kelise shrugged. “They call us ‘stiffs’. They started it.”
She led the trio back out of the rear window in the glass room and across the short open space to the squat academy building. Gaining access through a long-broken window was easy, and Kelise seemed to know her way through the lookalike classrooms and locker-lined corridors. Aura didn’t ask how. Brock kept mumbling under his breath - she couldn’t catch any of the words beyond bad idea repeated over and over.
The academy wasn’t as large as the bureau or the library. Within five minutes of entering the building, Kelise was pushing open a door marked with a faded sign which read Classroom Zero. Aura stood on tiptoe and peered curiously over her shoulder, but her first glimpse of the chamber inside was disappointing. It looked like any other classroom - square, decorated with educational displays and rammed with far more chairs and desks than it could comfortably contain. The only interesting feature of the room was an old-fashioned blackboard mounted on wheels on the far side of the room. The words When handling a medium, always re - were still legible in chalk, but the rest of the text had been smudged or rubbed away.
Following Kelise’s example, Aura picked her way through the narrow gaps between the desks and stared up at the display on the nearest wall to the door. A central, handwritten text reminded students of the ‘rules of reaping’, while the photographic images surrounding it appeared to show lieutenants-in-training posing with what were presumably fresh corpses. A few of them were throwing peace signs or thumbs up.
“Here!” Kelise’s excited voice broke through her thoughts. Aura and Brock - who had been looking at a similar display on another wall - turned simultaneously, just in time to watch her roll back the blackboard. Behind it was a grey door. “This is it!”
“That’s a supply closet, Kelise.” Brock grumbled. She rolled her eyes at him.
“And the only place in here big enough to hide - ” she threw the door open triumphantly, revealing a deep black interior, “ - a death portal!”
Aura bumped her legs on a few tables in her eagerness. On close inspection, the death portal wasn’t nearly as interesting as it sounded: just a black mass, like the opening of a pit. The three of them stood for a moment in silence, staring into it.
“You know,” Brock suggested tentatively after a moment, “there’s still time to…”
“Geronimo!” Kelise yelled, leaping through the doorway. She vanished instantly. Brock squeaked.
“Come on!” Aura grabbed his arm.
“I really don’t - !” He started to stutter, but didn’t manage to complete the sentence before Aura jumped too, dragging him with her.
Transport through the death portal was fast - near instantaneous - but disorienting. The world flipped, the landing shifting - like misjudging a step on a staircase. When her feet finally found solid ground again, Aura stumbled, blinking in darkness. A split second later, Brock slammed into her back with a soft oof noise and knocked her down onto her knees.
“Sorry,” he said meekly, grabbing her by the shoulders to help her back up again.
“Shh,” came Kelise’s voice. Aura glanced up and saw her silhouetted against the only light source: a crack in the wall. Her back was to them, peering out.
From the limited judgements Aura could make in the dim light, it seemed like they were in some kind of cave. The walls were craggy and probably made from natural rock. The black portal to their back blended in so well to the shadows that it was barely noticeable at all. Brushing her clothes quietly off, Aura crept forward and joined Kelise at the crack in the wall. What she saw on the other side was far more interesting.
They seemed to be in some kind of mortuary. The dimly lit room was clean and dry, with yellow-grey stone walls and open archways instead of doors. The colour of the walls, muted as they may be, still burned Aura’s eyes and made her blink rapidly in quick succession. When was the last time she’d seen the colour yellow? A grey stone slab, flat-topped with carved drainage canals - presumably for blood and other bodily fluids - dominated the centre of the room. On the ground beside it was a tank of clear, clean water, easily large enough to comfortably hold an adult person.
The coast was clear. Kelise wiggled through the gap first, followed by Aura and an ever-reluctant Brock. Once out, Aura turned to commit the exit to memory, just in case they needed to make a quick return to the Realm of the Dead. While the other three walls of the mortuary were made of stone blocks, the fourth was a natural reddish-brown rock. The crack through which they’d come was easily memorable, since it was the only crack in the rock large enough to emit a human being.
Kelise and Brock had already passed through one of the archways. Aura jogged hastily to catch them up.
It swiftly became apparent that the mortuary, a large building containing many embalming rooms, had been built underground. There were no windows and many of the walls were formed of the natural rock which the mortuary must have been built around. The only people they passed were already deceased, mostly lying in the tanks of water. The clear liquid magnified their ghostly, semi-bloated faces.
“Why are there no benders?” Brock tried to whisper, but the stone walls echoed his voice back to him in a louder tone.
Kelise shrugged. She went to go through another archway at random, but Aura touched her shoulder and gestured towards one on the far side of the room. All of the rooms so far had been lit by flickering torches, but this particular archway had a gentle, solid, silvery light streaming through. Kelise nodded, and Aura led the way through.
The archway opened out into an open-roofed courtyard lit by moonlight. Behind the two girls, Brock inhaled sharply.
“Never thought I’d see the moon again,” he uttered softly, his skyward eyes wide.
“Never mind the moon,” Kelise breathed. “Look at that.”
Brock inhaled again as he turned his eyes in the direction Kelise was pointing, his mouth hanging open. In the centre of the courtyard, an eerily familiar statue adorned the otherwise undecorated atrium. The cloaked figure’s hood was lowered, so it was easy to make out the sharp chin, high cheekbones and penetrating eyes which Aura had noticed on the statue in the Great Library. There were some differences: the facial features of this statue were longer and more angular, and his cloak was of a slightly different style. In one hand, he held the familiar shepherd’s crook.
“There’s writing at the base,” Aura pointed out. She leant forward to get a closer look, but jumped as another voice, sharp and loud, rang across the courtyard.
“Who goes there?”
On the far side of the courtyard, a figure emerged from the shadows. Aura’s heartbeat slowed a step as she realised that it wasn’t a person - it was a dog. Or, at least, some kind of canine. It had a long, thin body with an angular nose and bat-like ears. A slender tail, as black as the rest of its body, whipped the shadows behind it. Its narrowed, golden eyes widened out as they set upon the trio, who had all frozen where they stood.
“My apologies, honoured ancestors,” the dog-thing mumbled. Its voice was definitely male. “You have come to us on a beastmoon; the temple is devoid of followers to bring you offerings. Do you seek praise?”
Aura glanced at Brock and Kelise, who both looked stunned.
“I’ll bite,” she shrugged. “What’s a beastmoon?”
The dog-thing blinked twice. “When the stars align correctly, everyone in the kingdom takes the canid form. The transformation is forced. I alone guard the temple tonight, while the rest of the cult hunts as a pack.”
His voice had taken on a wistful tone.
“Alright then,” Kelise nodded, as if that made total sense. “What can you tell us about this statue?”
“The statue?” The dog answered, sounding bemused. “Our lord of death and heir to the throne of the kingdom, Prince Anapa. The statue was built to honour him.”
“And where is Prince Anapa?” Aura pressed, feeling a deep thrill running through her veins. The dog-thing sighed sadly.
“Many moon-cycles ago, a death portal opened on the east bank of the river.” He explained, lowering his head a little. “Lord Anapa stepped inside to commune with the spirit who opened it, but the portal closed and he did not return. King Saif ordered the statue to be built to appease our ancestors.”
“He stepped through a portal?” Kelise slapped her forehead with the palm of her hand and groaned. “He crossed back to the Realm of the Dead. We’ll never find him now.”
“Excuse me,” Brock put forward a little timidly. “Is there something of Lord Anapa’s here which we could have? Something personal to him?”
“There are many things,” the dog replied, eyeing Kelise oddly. “Lord Anapa was very particular about his work. He would not share utensils with other embalmers. Come.”
He crossed the courtyard towards them and vanished through the entranceway from which they’d come. Brock followed immediately. Kelise and Aura glanced at each other, shrugged, then followed too. Their canine companion led them back through the maze of corridors and embalming rooms to the very first room they had stepped into, recognisable by its natural rock wall and the distinctive crack. The dog gestured with his muzzle towards the stone slab in the centre, under which were a couple of cupboard doors. Brock swung the doors open, peered briefly inside, then glanced back at the dog.
“Anything he was especially close to?”
“Err…” The dog frowned. “I suppose the ceremonial knife. I understand it was a gift from his mother when he came of age; formerly the property of King Koseald.”
“This one?” Brock pulled a short silver knife out of the cupboard, holding it gingerly by its engraved hilt. The dog nodded. “Thanks. Uhh - as you were.”
The dog nodded again and backed out of the room. Kelise peered interestedly over Brock’s shoulder.
“You think that’s the staff?” She asked excitedly.
“No,” he turned it over in his fingers, smiling slightly. “But I think it can help us find this Lord Anapa.”
Written by Aspelta.
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