Finding the Halls of the Dead had not been an easy task, per se. Verity had spent hours doing research, but she hadn’t discovered any sort of entrance into this Underworld until winter had well and settled in.
There was a cave entrance that would lead them to the Immortal Realm, although it was guarded by a reptilian beast known as Angra and was apparently hidden behind magical barriers and physical gates. It wasn’t going to be easy, but the Wanderers hadn’t had easy lives and needed to at least try this avenue.
"It's really quiet down here," Emersyn said as she hugged her fur coat tighter around her body.
"Too quiet," Zhai agreed as he looked around with his sharp eyes.
They walked down the long tunnel and pondered the atmosphere. It was eerie, but there was a power down here that was something they could recognize. They had felt it in temples they had visited, because Immortals often resided in those places.
"Do you think Ultio lives down here somewhere?" Kiyah asked.
"Why would you even say his name, Kiyah? You never invoke the name of the Immortal of Chaos, lest you want him to pay you a visit," Emersyn said in a warning tone.
Jeriah smiled a little. "I don't think the Immortal of Chaos would spend time underground, Kiyah. I heard he lives in a cave in the deepest mountains," he explained. "Isn't that right, Verity?"
"Not exactly," Verity said as she tilted her head thoughtfully. "The last time Ultio was seen in the world was during the Unnumbered Days when he caused a rift between the continents with a massive earthquake. Nivalis, the Immortal of Nature, was so grieved by what he had done that she begged her lover, the Immortal of the Hunt, to lock him away. Venaticus and his brother, Arturious, captured Ultio and locked him away in a frozen mountain cave at the highest mountain peak. No one knows the actual location, though."
"What a fun history lesson," Zhai muttered. "Do we need to talk about such things right now? Stay focused."
"Sorry," Verity muttered as she looked down as she walked.
"I thought it was very interesting, Verity. Thank you," Kiyah said as he tugged on her sleeve. She smiled at him and they walked side by side through the cold tunnel.
Oddly enough, the Wanderers had no trouble making it down to the Gates of the Halls of the Dead. Angra wasn’t present, but there was a constant mysterious growling that echoed around the cavern that made them believe he wasn’t too far off.
“What is this? Guardians in my Realm?” a disembodied voice called out to them. It was a female voice, so it had to be Prudentius. The Immortal of the Dead. “You do not belong here, young ones.”
“We’re here to speak with you,” Jeriah spoke up as he stepped towards the closed Gates. “Please! I have an urgent need!”
“I would have thought guardians would be cautious to approach an Immortal after what happened to the Monarchs, but I am curious,” Prudentius replied. “I will call off Angra, and you may enter.”
“This is surprising,” Emersyn said as she glanced at the others. “But it seems we've had a stroke of luck.”
“Let’s just make this quick,” Zhai said as he walked towards the opening gates.
Jeriah smiled and followed happily. He felt like they were getting somewhere! They were on the way to being able to find a solution to hopefully live long enough to find a way to save the Monarchs. It was all they had at the moment, and it helped soothe the flame in his heart.
There was an eerie sensation as they entered into this Immortal Realm where the souls of dead humans rested until they no longer remembered their past life and then they were reborn into the human world.
Haunting cries could be heard softly echoing in every corner, and the place was so dark except for torches hanging from the ceiling that cast spooky shadows on the wall. Zhai was on high alert, and Emersyn kept Verity and Kiyah right next to her like a mother hen. Jeriah continued to march on next to Zhai and tried to look fearless, but there was something about this place that was so different from the human realm. Zhai was right; they didn’t belong here.
They were eventually met by a skeletal servant of Prudentius. It had no jaw so it couldn’t speak, but it simply guided them through the Halls of the Dead until they finally reached the temple where Prudentius clearly resided and made her judgments.
The temple was massive and seemed to be carved from the very stone around them, but it was so majestic and intimidating. Black stone was everywhere and the floor itself seemed to be a black marble, or some sort of stone that was reflective. Kiyah knelt down and touched the stone floor and seemed amazed by it.
“What kind of stone is this?” Kiyah asked. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“And you never will where you live, guardian,” a mysterious voice spoke just ahead of them. All the guardians looked up to see a tall woman in a long, dark blue gown that reached the floor. Her skin was almost as dark as the stone around them, but her eyes were almost white and seemed to glow. Her hair was tied up in a bun, but some braids hung around her face. Everything about her exuded power and strength. She was terrifying and awe inspiring.
The Wanderers all bowed to her, because Immortals were the very beings that formed the world and kept the order of it, and they knew that they must respect her since they were in her realm.
“Why have you come before me? This is not a place for such creatures as you,” Prudentius asked as she stood before them.
“We’ve actually come to ask for something from Renatus,” Verity said when she finally looked up. “Is there any way we can speak with him?”
“Renatus cannot grant you rebirth, if that’s what you’ve come for,” Prudentius said as she tilted her head a little. “You pitiful creatures only have one small existence.”
“Which is why we must defend it,” Jeriah said firmly. “So, please! We need to speak to Renatus.”
Prudentius raised an eyebrow, and then nodded. “Renatus!” she called out. Her voice echoed around the room before fading away. They waited only a moment before a beam of light appeared in the room, overwhelming the guardians to the point where they had to cover their eyes.
When Jeriah opened his eyes again he saw a bright figure standing next to Prudentius. They were such a stark contrast to each other. Prudentius was tall and surrounded by darkness, and Renatus was short and full of light. He wore robes of gold and had light brown hair and golden eyes. His skin was a warm tanned color, as if he’d been kissed by the sun despite living in a realm where the sun didn’t touch.
“What is it, Prudentius?” Renatus asked as he looked up at her. Then his gaze turned to the guardians who were staring at him in awe. “Why are these guardians here?”
“They wish to ask you something,” Prudentius said.
“Me?” Renatus seemed confused, but he then nodded to them. “Please, go ahead.”
Verity stepped forward, since she seemed most excited about an opportunity to see the Life Stone she had done so much research on. “I’m so sorry to trouble you, Lord Immortal. My name is Verity, and I’ve done some research on gifts that Immortals have bestowed to humanity and the gift you gave to the Queen Ameliana really interested me the most.”
Renatus seemed surprised to hear that name, and then his expression softened into a rather sad expression. “Queen Ameliana…” he whispered. “You have come here about the Life Stone?”
“Please,” Jeriah stepped forward next to Verity. “My brother is currently trapped in an awful situation and we need Life Stones to be able to survive long enough to see him returned to me.”
“Oh, a Twin Soul,” Prudentius hummed. “How unfortunate.”
Jeriah glanced at Prudentius for a moment, and then back at Renatus. “Please, my lord. I need your aid.”
Renatus sighed and glanced aside. “The Life Stone is not something I can give away anymore. I made a grave mistake by even offering that Stone to Ameliana, and she was wise to not accept it,” he said. “I was blinded by my sudden love for her, but now I understand why she said what she said. Mortal creatures cannot have immortality. The One created all of us with our differences and by offering immortality to mortal creatures of this world I would be defying His Order. I cannot do that. I am sorry, young guardians.”
“But Ari is doing things that are against the natural order! Shouldn't you punish him for his misdeeds!?” Jeriah exclaimed. “We need your help!”
“Ari is a fool, but I see no need to interfere,” Prudentius replied. “His issue is with the Monarchs, not with us.”
“But my brother-”
“Stop, Jeriah. We’ve gotten our answer,” Zhai said as he put a heavy hand on Jeriah’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Great Ones. If you will let us rest within your Halls for one night, we will leave come morning.”
“We will allow it,” Renatus said with a small nod. “I am sorry we can’t help you or your brother, young guardian. This is just the way of things.”
Jeriah looked as though he was ready to continue to beg and fight for what he wanted. He was anxious, his flame was burning in his chest again as this solution was slipping through his fingers, but then he felt a warm hand take hold of his.
“Jeriah, we have to go,” Kiyah said softly as he began to guide him out of the ancient temple. “Come on.”
“You promised to let it go if we aren’t permitted to use this option,” Zhai said. “And we clearly are not.”
Jeriah looked back to watch Prudentius walk into the shadows and Renatus disappear in a beam of light. Well, he wasn’t finished here, yet. He had one night to figure things out. He knew he had promised to give up on the Life Stone if Prudentius said no, but he also knew he couldn’t let the only option he had right now slip through his fingers.
The flame was burning too brightly in his chest for him to even find sleep tonight. He knew that much.