"Do you even know where it is?"
"Yes, I've been there when we were looking for mana spots."
"How are we going to get there? It's late, it's far and it's cold."
"I'm running really low on money, you saw it yourself, so-"
"I will pay."
"Aren't you scared? It's a cemetery during the night after all, who knows what will happen there."
"I'm used to scary stuff."
◢ Used to? Still, miss.
"But you may get kidnapped, you already were twice, right?"
◢ Small hit. This is the way to go.
"Why you didn't want to take your mother with us?"
"Using the ticket endangers Rora."
"You're right, it's not safe both for her and for you, I won't be able to protect you if something happens."
◢ Hit or miss? Hard to say. Let's go back a little.
"Try to imagine how worried Silvie is going to be if she wakes up and discovers that we're gone. She will follow you immediately."
◢ Big hit.
"Aura, let's go back. It's dangerous."
"... stop talking."
◢ Small hit.
"We can always come some other day, right? It's not as if we have to do it now. Waiting for a better moment, maybe even taking Adam with us, in the middle of a day, sounds a lot more reasonable."
◢ Big hit, almost there.
"What if I lose the demon's challenge, Rora will die, do you really want that?"
"I know that so shut up already!"
The sound of the crunching snow from under our boots finally disappeared. We were just twenty meters away from the taxi stand. Aura was standing still in the front, holding my hand.
"Then why? Come on, let's go back. We will just have to explain it to Rora later, I'm sure she will understand."
I took a long, careful look at this small girl's face illuminated by streetlights, the signs of her internal struggle were being projected upon it. Then I understood. She didn't want to go there as much as I did and yet only now her emotions crawled outside.
"Is there some reason why you don't want to go back?"
"I promised Rora to do it tonight."
Her small hand tightened on mine and it gradually became warmer. The process was longer than the ones before but I was robbed of the ability to resist physically almost immediately.
Inside my head, I was cursing at my own inability to keep mouth shut in critical moments.
But the expected order never came, murky shade of red painted over Aura's pupils for few seconds and then faded away. The heat dissipated quickly and the little girl swayed slightly, the only thing stopping her from falling was my hand she held.
As soon as I could move properly I removed my jacket, threw it on a spot with less snow and made her sit on it. There weren't many people around, nevertheless, two taxi drivers kept glancing our way suspiciously.
◢ Lucky~. The mistake I made was a huge hit.
"Are you ok?"
"My head's spinning."
"Rest for a moment. I will carry you if you want."
"No need, give me few minutes and let's continue please."
She looked at me from below in a slightly similar way to the one she had used to persuade her mother. Her weakened form was cute and made me want to protect her.
◢ Oh no, you don't, don't try to act like that after you failed to force me. Especially not when I can make use of that.
"Aura let me teach you one thing. Threats and pleads are not the only ways to obtain the things you want. Everyone seems to think that forcing me to do something is the only way to go, only Vio bothered with analyzing my personality."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm a simple guy, give me something I want and I may listen to you."
"Didn't Rora offer you her help in exchange?"
"Her pet proposal was like offering a drowning person a hand wrapped with barbed wire additionally covered in poison."
The silver princess bit her lip and was considering my words, she realized her plan B was ineffective.
◢ I bet she would use her power now if she could.
"What do you want?"
"First, you will answer all my questions."
Her face grew darker.
"Second, you will listen to me when I want to borrow your power."
She started shaking her head.
"Third, you will make some tickets for me."
Aura was shocked that I still wanted more.
"Fourth, you will tell me all about the mana spots you've discovered."
And then the silver princes had finally rebelled.
"I will just go and get it myself!"
The dizzy spell on her was apparently gone as she slowly stood up and gave me my jacket back.
"What about your promise to Rora? Even if you somehow get the doll, and mind my words opening a grave's not easy, there's still the matter of that mana spot and I heard that natural born Gatemakers don't have their personal demons. Does it mean that you can't do anything with it?"
The rebellion was stopped by the king.
◢ I must be careful not to push her too far or make another mistake.
"But... you want too much."
"Treat it like a game, don't shoot down the other player at the very beginning of negotiations, issue a counter-proposal."
She started biting her pinky fingernail in a manner similar to the one that Rora once showed, probably thinking hard about my demands.
I had to make some concessions. Letting her go there alone would bite me hard later. On the other hand, stopping her with force would end equally bad.
"I promised not to tell anyone about mana spots without Rora's approval."
"I understand, but you will have to make up for it with other things."
"I can only make one ticket every three days and all I've made till now are kept by mom."
"Don't tell me that you don't have any of them set aside, what about the one that we were going to use tonight?"
"... I've got only a few of them."
"There are four with me and I can give you two."
"Two plus the one for tonight."
"Alright, but about the questions, I can't promise anything till I hear the exact question…"
"Fair enough, but in that case I want you to unconditionally lend me your power three times."
"Three, I already let you go with mana spots, questions and lowered the number of tickets."
"Not 'ok', hand me the tickets now and make a proper promise."
◢ In the worst case, I will still have the tickets.
"But you will help me tonight?"
◢ Can't refuse anyway.
Aura considered my words for a second, the silver girl didn't look fully convinced and yet she said:
"I promise to help you three times."
"I promise to help you three times, unconditionally, but you can't make me hurt anyone."
She took out three folded pieces of paper from her pocket and handed them to me.
◢ So you can fold them after all.
"Don't break your word."
I tried to pat her head, but she stepped away unhappy.
"Breaking a promise is a death sentence in my book. Let's go already."
On the way to the cemetery, I had too much time on my hands. Of course, I tried asking Aura every question I could think of, but the only new piece of information obtained concerned the detailed description of her power.
Surprisingly it was a bit similar to mine in a way that it also recharged every day at midnight. Close proximity to the target was required, but not exactly direct skin contact. It allowed her to issue absolute orders. Sometimes she had four uses a day, sometimes three, it was random. Overly complex and impossible orders were dangerous to their target's life - she refused to say more about this part.
The target of those heat waves was deprived of the ability to fight back. As for the duration that she could keep a person in such state, it was about one minute of the order-less state prolonged by five minutes every time she issued one. Simply put, up to twenty-one minutes per day.
If she tried to force someone into that state with no charges left it would end as it had today.
After questioning her I started a chaotic round of self-reflection. Preparing mentally for the meeting with Votr was a must if I didn't want to end in the same pathetic situation like before. Lately, the whole soul reformation business was on hold, maybe it had even regressed slightly, as I swayed every time a wind blew. However, the time to choose a proper set of goals for myself was drawing near.
If possible, I would like to back off from this trip and go back to sleep, telling myself that there was always tomorrow. As long as things weren't dangerous or bothersome I could just go with the flow, having fun while at it.
◢ Serving as Rora's pet, playing with Aura, thinking of new ways to insult Adam, maybe even help Silvie with her job of scamming people - something feels wrong in this picture.
Aura's help was a major step forward to get myself out of the very bottom of the social hierarchy I got entangled in. Enduring the hardships, gathering information and keeping my anger in check was finally starting to bear fruit, but I wasn't even close to the required amount of cards in my hand.
◢ Using everything and everyone, getting back at Viktoria and Rora, manipulating in between them till I can have my revenge - I don't think I can be ruthless and merciless enough in the moments when it counts the most.
If I wanted to run away from all of this, all I had to do was to wait for Rora to leave my body. After that I would disappear, never to be seen again by any of those guys. Or not... first, I would have to sell those tickets to obtain some cash and get rid of the contract binding me.
◢ Maybe I could take Vio with me, she's the type that adapts quickly and it would be a lot of fun to travel together - starting from scratch sounds like pain and Vio may refuse.
Was I contradicting myself or not, that wasn't important. There was some truth in every one of those different approaches, even if it was sugar-coated. Simply by realizing that, I was already lowering the chances of that demon rolling a critical 20 every time he made a move.
This was the first time in both of my lives when I was at the cemetery at night.
Behind the heavy iron gate were rows of marble gravestones squeezed together side by side. Some of them black, some of them grey, but the snow covered white ones were clearly in command of the area. On their heavy grave covers stood numerous grave candles, which flickering dim lights lit the eternal slumber of the grave's silent residents.
We walked on a snowless paved path, one of many that separated the cemetery into unequal segments. On every corner stood a grim angel statue, bearing numerous marks of the passage of time and the effects of weather.
From time to time something was moving in the corners of our eyes and when we were reflexively turning our heads to follow those fleeting sensations, as if to answer our hope there was nothing there, mostly. It was already the second time when we had spotted a silent silhouette passing between the tombstones in the distance.
"What are those people doing on the graveyard so late at night?"
I asked after watching if by any chance that person with a hood on the head wasn't getting closer to us.
Aura answered in a calm voice, unaffected by the creepy mood that was oozing from all around us, while I was still stopping myself from blinking from time to time.
"You realize that you're defenseless without your power, right? Show a bit more concern."
"Whatever, give me your hand. This place is big and I don't want to lose you when we squeeze through some of the narrower passages."
"It's not as scary as I've imagined, but the atmosphere's starting to affect me a little. Would be worse if you weren't here."
This answer didn't align with the silver girl expectations and made her stop for a moment to look at me from up close.
"Give me your hand, you were grasping mine every time you wanted so humor me a little."
This time Aura obediently moved closer to hold my hand. It looked like she didn't care much about it.
"Happy now? Let's go."
"Let's walk and talk, keep an eye out for the grave of Dorothy D. Olly, but take me to the mana spot first ok?"
The cemetery was big with an astounding number of graves, checking them all might have been too much for one night. Not to mention that a lot of the names were hidden under the snowy quilt.
"Aura, what do you think of me, the real me, not the disposable Rora's container."
"I don't like you."
"When we met for the first time you wanted to confirm if Vict-, don't worry, I'm not trying to pry for information, you don't have to say anything. Just listen ok?"
I reassured her after she tried to distance herself.
"Like I've said, during our first meeting you saw me as Victor, a person who should be dead and yet wasn't. How did you see me after you left at that time?"
She answered without missing a beat, leaning over one of the smaller graves to remove the snow. Holding hands didn't help with doing that, but neither she nor I showed any signs of letting go.
◢ I bet she's not as comfortable here as she's claiming to be.
"When we met again we played a little in the snow and I had my first adventure with the mana spot. How did you see me after that?"
"Insolent suspicious impostor."
"The third time was when Rora made a contract with me. What about that time?"
"Let's ignore the ones we can't see the names of, there are too many."
"Please answer for now."
She was confused, wondering what I was aiming for, but after a while answered.
◢ That bad huh?
"Let's leave today for later and for now listen to how it looked like from my point of view. Our first meeting was on the same day when I woke up in a different body. How would you feel if that happened to you and then suddenly someone told you that you should be dead? Wouldn't you be lost and insecure about the entire situation?"
Aura tilted her head slightly, it was her signature move when she wanted to add vagueness to her answer.
"But even so I put it aside and told you the truth about everything. I stayed with you, silently keeping you company till you calmed down, right?"
"It was me who made you say the truth."
"The next time we met, I was really worried about you and wanted to somehow brighten your day. Those words you've said back then really helped me to survive inside the demon's dimension."
There was a change in the tone of her voice and behavior, she reacted like someone surprised that her effort was noticed.
◢ Oho? Hit.
"Yes, could you please say them again? I would like to remember them properly this time."
"That's my lucky charm so listen well. Don't look away. Don't let it go. It's alright. It will be fine. Don't be afraid. When it will be over, I will welcome you and explain everything. Just, don't die please."
She recited it with closed eyes, in a soft melodic voice, almost as if praying. Her grip on my hand tightened while she was doing it.
"Could you please tell them to me again before I enter the mana spot?"
The first visible effect had been achieved, there was a small smile on Aura's face that didn't disappear after a minute or two.
As I had just learned, the third meeting was an irritable topic for her and making lighthearted comments about it would almost certainly turn ugly, so I decided to omit it and moved on to the next point.
"I'm a sore loser and today when we were playing it was so much fun that I forgot myself. Sorry about that."
"It's ok, from the very beginning I was planning to backstab you. You were just better at it."
"Oh really? I almost missed that."
I tried to knock on her head in a playful manner. She was evading, but never let go of my hand.
"It's the first time I met a person who lies so much, in such an open manner. I played with you, but let's continue looking now."
Commented Aura after a while and yet despite those words she was in a better mood.
"We're business partners now."
"We're on a business trip together in the land of the death, aren't we? Look, there's even a veeeery long businesslike handshake between us."
She stopped walking and looked at our connected hands.
"You call this a handshake? Pff-hahahaha!"
The dark and creepy atmosphere that the cemetery should be filled with was nowhere to be seen, as in the middle of it stood a small laughing girl.
◢ At least it was gone from our perspective, I bet this will give birth to an urban legend or two. I just saw someone running away.
◢ During the whole exchange with Aura, my bullshit mastery must have leveled up at least once.
I waited for her to laugh her fill and asked:
"By the way Aura, why are we not moving?"
"That's the mana spot."
She pointed at one of the angel statues standing in front of a big mausoleum. It was nearly the same as many others placed all over this place.
"Alright, let's talk more when I will be back. You don't have to worry about Rora, I won't die."
After disconnecting our hands I unfolded one of the black squares.
"Really now? You said something entirely different before, but thanks-, thank you."
"I call you Aura all the time, please call me Gio, ok?"
◢ And here I thought that I actually made some progress with her.
I centered the paper on the angel statue. With each passing second it became more and more transparent and behind it, a warped world started shaping itself.
Aura placed her small hand on my back and started to recite her lucky charm.
"Don't look away.
Don't let it go.
It will be fine.
Don't be afraid.
When it will be over,
I will welcome you
and explain everything.
Surrounding graves and the blackness on the paper were swapping their places. Aura's voice was swimming falteringly, barely resisting the calling of the black gateway.
"... don't die please and...
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