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part one.

Part One
The Realm of the Dead, Zone 1

“Heads up, kittens!” The boat man grinned toothlessly. “Zone One is right ahead.”

Aura didn’t look up, focusing her attention on carefully tracing the lines on her arm with a borrowed marker pen. The owner of the pen, a kindly woman who hadn’t charged her for the use, stood close by and watched. It was an especially generous move considering that Aura, like everyone else on the boat, was flat broke. The ferry to Zone One had cost her every speck of colour she had and her shoes.

She finished tracing over the last line and scrutinised her arm with pinched lips. With each re-drawing, it got messier and messier: the dark, greying marks underneath the newest coating smudged and spread across the white-grey skin. If she’d still been alive, she’d probably have gotten ink poisoning by now. Every zone, every boat, every opportunity, Aura borrowed, begged for, or bought the use of pens, paint - anything she could use to retrace the four symbols. Their meaning had long been forgotten, but she couldn’t let them go. They were her only link to a life she couldn’t remember at all.

With a heartfelt thanks, she passed the pen back to its owner and looked up to get her first proper look at Zone One. The sight of it made her jaw slack.

Most Travellers sought Zone One once they’d heard whispers of it. It was the origin: created upon the event of the first death, the mother to the ever-expanding world they all inhabited. The Realm of the Dead expanded outwards from its centre, Zone One, growing with every new soul which joined. Settlers joined the hamlets in existing zones or formed their own while Travellers moved between them, desperately trying to find the ones they loved in life. Exposure to the dull, colourless atmosphere gradually sucked the colour and memories from all the souls present, until Travellers could no longer remember what they were travelling for. As the memories of life faded, some Travellers became Settlers, while others sought a new goal: Zone One. The closest place in the Realm of the Dead to the Realm of the Living. If the whispers were to be believed, Zone One had everything which came from proximity to life - colour, laughter, warm memories. Whenever she thought of it, Aura had pictured a cosy village in the woods with real wildlife. Travellers would stay in a hostel-style inn, with a common room which had a real fire in a real fireplace. The warmth would spread the colour back into their hands.

She hadn’t imagined a city.

The hazy fog which was a permanent feature of the Realm of the Dead obscured the view from the other side of the wide river. Now that they were closer, skyscrapers and enormous monuments began to emerge through the gloom. The high-rise buildings were grey and block-like, reminiscent of architecture from the 1970s with modern glass panes tossed haphazardly into places. Water lapped at the edge of the buildings to each side, while directly ahead a gloomy-looking pier formed the centre of a half-empty docks. A shorter, squat building directly in front of the pier provided a view of the jumbled structures behind. Barbed wire over the top of the building gave it a military feel, in contradiction to the peeling letters on the front: ‘WE CO E TO ZON ONE’. It was impossible to see how far the city spread from the ground and through the fog, built the buildings were easily several times the height of even the tallest to be seen anywhere else in the Realm of the Dead. As they got closer, grey people could be seen weaving down the narrow streets. Two came forward onto the pier and grasp the ropes the boat man threw to them.

The ferry docked with a gentle bump. Aura joined the throngs of people disembarking and wrinkled her nose as her bare feet touched down on the cool, slimy surface of the pier. It was probably constructed from wood, but the original surface had long since been obscured under a layer of dark grey seaweed. As with anywhere in the Realm of the Dead, there was no customs or border police. The only barrier to travelling was your own ability to pay.

At least the ground in the city had been paved over by some kind of concrete; if Aura had had to walk barefoot across the part-sand, part-gravel floor which covered most of the Realm of the Dead, she’d’ve quickly learnt whether corpses could still bleed. She hopped off the pier and onto the pavement with a touch of relief and dodged around the crowd towards an entrance to one of the narrow streets. Within minutes, relief had turned to despair as she contemplated the sheer size of Zone One. Between the fog and the tall buildings, it was impossible to know how far she’d travelled or even if she was going in circles, since everything looked the same. None of the narrow streets seemed to open onto any main roads and there wasn’t a single sign. The few people she saw hurried past with their heads down, staring determinedly at the ground.

Two rights and a sharp turn down a very narrow side-alley brought her out into what seemed like a main square. The wide open paved space, ringed by large buildings, was marked by a fountain centrepiece. The fountain had long since been switched off; even from a distance, Aura could see that the basin was bone dry. Several homeless people were huddled at the base. She turned away from them and scanned the buildings, searching for the familiar Traveller’s logo which identified the bureaus.

There, to the left. What had once clearly been a magnificent building could now use a little bit of love. Grey paint was peeling from the walls and the Traveller’s logo, the universal symbol of a pair of outstretched wings surrounding a paper document, was faded. As Aura got closer, she noticed a thin layer of dust clinging to the gloomy windows.

Little different to most of the other buildings in the Realm of the Dead, then, and larger than any other she’d been in. She pushed open the door and stepped inside, her eyes flicking carefully over the interior. Partitions divided the vast room into smaller boxes, each one sporting a desk with two chairs. Several were occupied with harrowed-looking Travellers, while bureau workers consulted with them or dashed about carrying stacks of papers. Lined along each wall were colossal filing cabinets, each one as narrow as a single sheet of A4 but tall enough to reach the ceiling. Bureau workers stood at the base, shouting requests up to yet more workers who monkeyed up and down ladders to reach different drawers and extract paperwork. The ladders whizzed along the room, attached to the floor and ceiling by greased beams. There didn’t seem to be any system in place to make sure the ladders didn’t crash into each other.

“First time finder?” A cheerful voice asked from Aura’s left. She glanced around to see a woman in her mid-twenties standing there, her jaw furiously working a piece of gum. She had the kind of bright eyes one didn’t expect to see in a bureau. “C’mon, I’ll hook ya up.”

The woman dodged a high-speed ladder and led Aura over to one of the cubicles. Her black ponytail bobbed as she walked, a gentle spring in her step. She plopped into the chair behind the desk and lifted her elbows onto the armrests, smiling welcomingly. Aura lowered herself into the other chair a little more slowly.

“This isn’t my first time in a bureau,” she clarified.

“First time in this one though.” The woman’s eyes glinted a little mischievously. “I know that look. My name’s Kelise. How can I help you today?”

“I’m Aura.”

“Good start, you know your name,” Kelise observed. “Funny how we remember that and nothing else from our lives, eh?”

Aura smiled a little as she extended her arm, revealing the four makeshift tattoos. At least Kelise had a sense of humour, which was more than could be said for most bureau workers. That ought to make the next few hours of trawling hopelessly through pages and pages of documents at least a little more bearable.

Kelise studied the markings on her arm as though they were an interesting excerpt from a book. She’d have no idea what they meant. Aura had lost count of the number of bureaus she’d been in, and every single one of them had been a dead end.

“I know what these mean,” Kelise offered brightly. If Aura hadn’t already been sitting, she might’ve fallen over in shock.

“You - do?”

“Yeah, these are religious symbols. They span a number of worlds but are most frequently associated with Earth.” The bureau worker pulled open one of the drawers behind her desk and began rifling through the papers in there. “I pulled up a paper on one of them for someone who came through yesterday. Here, see?” She flashed the document at Aura. At the top, it sported a middling-sized image of the spiral square shape on her arm. Underneath, four or five lines of text explained the symbol’s origins. “It’s Mallosian. Symbol of Mallos, a popular solar deity. Those other marks, they’re all deity symbols too. My guess would be that you’re a polytheist who tattooed yourself with favoured gods to help you on your journey through the Realm of the Dead.”

Aura sat back in her chair, her shoulders slumping. She stared unseeingly at the paper in Kelise’s hand, tracing the spiral pattern with unfocused eyes. Time was impossible to keep in the Realm of the Dead, but it felt like she’d been travelling for years to find the meaning of the marks on her arm. Most Travellers were seeking people they loved who had passed on. She’d just assumed that that was what she was doing too. Gods weren’t tangible. They couldn’t be found.

“You want me to pull up the files on all of these?” The bureau worker asked. “Find out what they all mean?”

“I…” Aura hesitated. The silence seemed to tick by.

Kelise slapped the paper down on the desk, making Aura start, and stood up sharply. Her warm eyes had taken on a grim look of determination.

“Come with me,” was all she said.

She shunted sideways around the desk and strolled out of the front door, with Aura dodging ladders and bureau workers as she followed. Kelise didn’t cross the square, but instead ducked down another narrow side-alley. She walked so fast that Aura, with her much shorter legs, had to jog to keep up.

“Um.” Aura frowned as Kelise vaulted casually over a low fence. “Aren’t you on duty in the bureau?”

Kelise let out a warm, gentle laugh. “You Travellers are clueless. No offence. You know how there are two types of corpses - Travellers and Settlers?”

“Yeah.” Aura frowned slightly as she pulled herself awkwardly over the fence. Fortunately, Kelise had stopped to wait for her. “Travellers travel around looking for their loved ones, using the bureaus to try and find information. Settlers settle down in one place.”

“Yeah, so, when settlers settle down, a lot of them pick up work.” Kelise ducked down an even more narrow alley - this one so slim that she had to turn sideways so her shoulders would fit. “But I mean, obviously, we don’t need to. Corpses don’t need to eat or sleep. We don’t need money. But sometimes we pick up work to give ourselves something to do - a new sense of purpose when you stop travelling - or because we want to see some colour every now and then.”

“Right.” Aura’s frown deepened slightly as she watched Kelise stroll up to an iron-bar fence, whipped a hair grip out of her pocket and began to pick the lock on the gate.

“So because working is just a hobby, there aren’t really shifts or anything.” Kelise explained cheerfully as she picked the lock. “Workers come and go whenever they want, and anyone can just stroll in and start working.”

“Right.” Aura repeated, her eyes following the gate as it swung open. “Er - are you sure we’re allowed in here?”

“Oh, nobody ever comes here.” Kelise strolled through the gate. Aura noticed that she hadn’t really answered the question. “This is Angel Academy. It shut down forever ago.”

With a glimmer of reservation, Aura slipped through the gate after her. A squat, flat building which somehow managed to be an even gloomier shade of grey than the ones around it edged into view. Aura was standing on what might once have been a field, except the grass had long ago died and withered away. Kelise had already set off towards the main building, forcing Aura to jog again to catch up. Angel Academy didn’t look much different to the other buildings nearby, except for a distinctly abandoned appearance. One of the lower windows had been smashed and the doors were boarded up. At the last minute, Kelise swung to the left around the side of the building, heading towards another one which had been hidden behind it. The new building looked fresher and cleaner, with glass panelling around the lower floors. Kelise jogged straight up to it and began skirting around the edge. When she apparently found what she was looking for, she beckoned Aura over and rapped smartly on the glass.

Aura closed the gap between them a little more slowly, peering curiously into the glass room. A short, bookish looking man - only a couple of inches taller than she was - was scurrying agitatedly over to the glass from the inside. He and Kelise had a silent conversation, mouthing words and gesturing with their hands. It wasn’t difficult to make out the theme of the conversation: Kelise kept mouthing open up!, while the poor man kept shaking his head and gesturing for her to go around the building another way. After a moment or two of this, he groaned and lifted the catch on the window, letting it swing open outward like a door.

“You’ll get me fired one day, Kelise,” he said miserably in a thin, reedy voice.

“You can’t get fired in the Realm of the Dead,” Kelise pointed out, hopping inside and gesturing to Aura to join her. “Hey Brock, can you take us to the Earth room? Religion section?”

“What am I, your personal librarian?” Brock replied in exasperation while Aura stepped into the glass room. It was stacked from floor to ceiling with heavily laden-down bookshelves. “Fine. Only for you, Kelise.”

“Cheers, Brock.” Kelise grinned and dropped Aura a subtle wink. Brock turned and led them down the rows of bookshelves.

“Um,” Aura repeated, for what felt like the millionth time since she’d met the eccentric bureau worker. “Why are you taking me to an academy?”

“This isn’t Angel Academy, this is the Great Library,” Kelise clarified. “Angel Academy is just the fastest way to get here from the bureau. I’m gonna show you something.”

“Brock’s gonna show you something,” Brock corrected from up ahead.

Brock led them out of the glass room, up a three windowless flights of stairs and through two more book-filled rooms. Fortunately, he walked a little slower than Kelise, so Aura was able to keep up without too much trouble. After several minutes of travelling in companionable silence, he led them out into what appeared to be a central atrium. Open doorways leading to more rooms and corridors rimmed the large, circular room, the centrepiece of which was a life-sized statue of a cloaked man standing in the middle of a fountain. The man’s hood was pulled up, casting the face into shadow, and he was holding a tall shepherd’s crook in one hand. The statue’s aura was so strong that Aura felt it the moment she entered the room - as if a weight was pressing against her from all sides. Kelise seemed equally affected, although Brock hurried forward as if he hadn’t noticed at all. Presumably he was used to it.

As they passed by the statue (the aura of which got stronger the closer they got; Aura felt faintly sick), Aura glanced up to peer under the hood. The face was still semi-cast in shadow, but she caught a glimpse of a thin, narrow face and high cheekbones.

Brock led them down a corridor, up another flight of stairs, and through three more rooms. Finally, they entered a room with the word ‘EARTH’ printed on a neat label over the door. Aura marvelled internally at the way Brock negotiated the aisles of bookshelves without even glancing at the signs, finally bringing them to a halt by a section labelled ‘RELIGION’.

“Thanks, mate.” Kelise clapped her friend on the back in what appeared to be a genuine show of appreciation and affection. She ran her thumb down the rows of books, scanning the titles. “Here, Aura, look - Fairy Religions in the Twentieth Century. Solar Deities of Earth. The Council of Fairy Gods, Then and Now.” She took a step back from the shelves and smiled gently. “There’s everything here. If and when you decide you want to find out about those marks, you can come back any time. The library is free to enter.”

“Just enter through the main entrance,” Brock muttered under his breath from somewhere behind them.

Aura reached out with a slightly shaking hand and touched the spine of the nearest book. Deity Insignias and their Meanings. Right here, in front of her, were the answers she’d been travelling for. Free to access, any time, whenever she decided she was ready.

She took a breath. “Thanks, Kelise.”

“S’alright.” Kelise was grinning like it was Christmas. “I’ll walk you out.”

The three of them retraced their steps. This time, Aura made a point of trying to commit the route to memory, despite Kelise’s assurances that she could just find Brock any time. Brock rolled his eyes but smiled too. The warm feeling he got from helping someone else must have been enough to put his discomfort with rule-breaking at ease.

Warmth was exactly what Aura should be feeling. She’d been searching for answers for so long, she should have been over the moon. She should have hungrily torn those books from the shelves and begun leafing immediately through them. Instead, she just felt… empty. Now that she didn’t have to find answers anymore, what was she supposed to do next? Her end destination hadn’t been lost loved ones, as she’d always expected, but books about religious logos. Did faith matter when you couldn’t remember what you believed in or why? And what should she do with her time now that she didn’t have to travel anymore? Now, trudging behind Brock and Kelise in this enormous library, Aura started to make sense of what Kelise had said before about Settlers needing to find a new purpose when they stopped travelling. She could understand needing to take up work just to occupy her time.

Just before they entered the atrium, Aura braced herself. It wasn’t enough. As soon as Brock pushed the door open, she felt the statue’s power tingling on her skin.

“What is that?” She muttered, rubbing her arms with her hands. The hairs had stood up on end, probably for the first time since she’d died since corpses had no concept of temperature.

Brock glanced quickly back at Kelise, whose mouth had set suddenly in a grim line.

“Er,” he started. Aura got the impression she wasn’t the only one who did that a lot around Kelise. “That’s the statue of the Guide. It guards the library.”

“The… Guide?”

Brock coughed. Kelise sucked in her breath.

“The Guide of the Dead,” she said shortly. “He’s been known by a lot of names in a lot of different cultures… the Ferryman, the Shepherd, the Reaper. It’s his job to guide the dead to wherever they need to go in the Realm of the Dead. When he was around, there were no travellers or bureaus because they weren’t needed. The Guide took you to your loved ones upon your death, and you never lost your memories because you were with them.”

Aura glanced back at the statue. “So… he’s a real person?”

“Is, was…” Brock shrugged.

“He vanished,” Kelise clarified. “Forever ago. Just upped and gave up on all of us, like a twisted, selfish - ”

“Kelise,” Brock warned. She fell silent, knitting her eyebrows together. He shrugged again. “Nobody knows what happened to him. Some Travellers take up the quest to find him, but none have ever succeeded. He could be anywhere in Death.”

“How did he guide people over?” Aura wondered, touching the base of the fountain. “Do corpses appear in a specific place, and then he takes them from there?”

“Nah.” Kelise gestured to the statue’s crook. “That’s the Guide’s staff. It can change forms - sometimes a crook, sometimes a staff or a scythe. It has the power to create portals between this realm and the Realm of the Living, so that the Guide can bring people from there to here.”

“So…” Aura frowned. “Does that mean he could be anywhere in Death or in Life?”

Brock’s mouth fell open as if in sudden realisation. Kelise stared at the statue’s feet, her eyes wide. “I… I never thought of that.”

“Just to clarify,” Aura held up her hands. “If we bring the Guide back here, people’s memories can return? They can find their loved ones?”

“Chyeah!” Kelise’s face was lit up, but Brock looked cautious.

“Maybe. But if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, how are you even going to get to the Realm of the Living?”

“Zone Zero,” Kelise answered before Aura had a chance to shrug hopelessly. “Duh, Brock! If we cross over through Zone Zero, that’ll take us to the place in Life which is closest to Death. The least we can do is poke around, ask a few questions.”

“Uh... ” Brock frowned. “We?”

“Yeah,” Aura nodded, warming to the idea. “Let’s go find the Guide of the Dead.”

“Let’s?!” Brock stuttered, while Aura and Kelise high-fived.

To be continued.

Written by Aspelta.

    • part two. -
    • part three. -
    • part four. -
    • part five. -
    • part six. -

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