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Emma L Adams

Deal of Darkness: Order of the Elements Book 4 (Paperback)

Deal of Darkness: Order of the Elements Book 4 (Paperback)

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Book 4 of 5: Order of the Elements

I've long feared my spirit magic would be the death of me.

I didn't know how right I was.

Banished to the Court of the Dead, I find myself cut off from my former life. With the Order believing I'm dead and my goals further from reach than ever, my only way out is to accept a position as a spy among the enemy's spirit mages. If I can keep my cover, I might be able to get my life back.

But I'm far from the only person facing some major upheavals. The liches are flocking over to the enemy in the hopes of having their lifelong curse removed. The Order is still unaware of the treachery that lurks within their own ranks. And the truth of the Death King's role in my missing memories may be far beyond what I ever imagined.

One way or another, I have to find the lich who stole my life from me. But all magic comes with a cost, especially spirit magic. And not everyone can be saved…

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Being dead was overrated.

I tried to pick up the dice and my hands passed right through the table. “What’s the point in having unlimited free time if I can’t play D&D?”

“You could always be an NPC like me,” said Dex, my fire sprite sidekick. “Or take over from Devon as DM.”

“I can’t even hold a pen, let alone design dungeons,” I pointed out. “Anyway, my poor tiefling rogue is stuck on standby until I figure out how to pretend to be human again. I can’t go home like this without traumatising the other players.”

Most liches looked the same, blank masked figures wearing shadowy cloaks, and had limited ability to interact with the outside world. Their leader was the exception, mostly due to his status as a former spirit mage, and in theory, I was supposed to have the same talent as he did. While I’d learned how to conjure up an illusion of my old face on top of my new masked features, picking up a die had proven trickier to master.

“If you ask me, you’ve been cooped up for too long.” Dex folded his arms across his chest, his semi-transparent humanoid form glowing the colour of flames. 

“I’ve already been around the entire castle a million times,” I pointed out.

I’d got to know the Death King’s territory inside out since my confinement here, from the vast stone castle to the high fence that surrounded the area of the swampland he claimed as his domain. The liches didn’t have a designated area in the castle, so I kept my bag of belongings in a corner of the Elemental Soldiers’ break room, next to the TV and games consoles. There was no point in asking for my own room when I didn’t need to sleep anyway, but I missed having my own space. Admittedly, I could easily float through walls and closed doors without the need for a key now. Didn’t quite make up for not being able to roll my dice, of course, but I’d long since grown used to holding onto the small victories. Even being dead hadn’t changed that.

“Not the castle,” said Dex. “There’s a whole world out there.” 

“Most of whom want me dead,” I said. “Or more dead than I already am.”

He snorted. “They can’t see your face. You could dance the tango in front of them and they wouldn’t know it was you.”

True. From outward appearances, I was just another faceless lich. Even my voice no longer sounded like mine, unless I made a strong effort to echo my former self rather than sounding like I was speaking into an echoing tunnel while wearing one of those voice-changing Darth Vader masks. Sure, I could freely swoop around the city without being recognised—if, that is, I wanted to risk being mistaken for one of the liches who’d ditched their master to join Hawker, the lich who’d done the impossible and returned himself to life again. How he’d pulled that off, I had no idea, but I’d be lying if I didn’t wish he’d share that information, even if it was almost certainly too good to be true. 

When it came to spirit magic, everything came with a cost.

Ironically, up until recently, I’d believed myself to be one of the few living spirit mages, at least those who weren’t hell bent on world domination. Then I’d found out more of them lived in hiding in Elysium, but before I’d been able to figure out what to do with that information, my mortal life had come to an end. Now I was, deceased, immortal, and bored out of my non-existent skull. 

“All right, let’s go for a flight,” I relented. “Maybe a phantom will pick a fight with us, just for a change of pace.”

Dex whooped, flying out of the room. I followed at a swift glide, still feeling that odd uncanny chill every time I looked down and saw nothing where I thought my feet ought to be. While I’d astral projected a few times as a living human, I’d always at least been able to see that my transparent form looked the same as my living body. Now, a sheer cloak covered me from head to toe, while a hood and mask filled the gaps where my face ought to be. Beneath was nothing more than an empty space, a void of nothingness to which whatever had remained of my consciousness was anchored.

Several other liches drifted around the castle grounds when we flew out, straight through the doors without needing to open them. Even being a lich didn’t make me any more able to tell the others apart, though they probably thought the same of me, too. I wouldn’t lie, it was unexpectedly liberating, in a way. I’d spent so many years afraid to put a foot out of line that it came as disarming at best to realise nobody knew or cared what I did any longer. The Order of the Elements thought my death had been permanent. Hawker and his rogue liches probably did, too. They’d fled the battlefield before the Death King had been able to bind my soul to the amulet which now kept me alive.

He'd pulled off a miracle, yet I couldn’t quite forget that I’d once had a whole life ahead of me, a myriad of possibilities which had been wiped out in one go when Hawker had divested me of my soul. 

“Stop brooding,” Dex yelled at my back.

“I’m not doing anything,” I answered.

“You are.” He looped overhead and caught up to me. “You can’t fool me with that poker face.”

“This is what my face always looks like.” I gestured with my sleeve. “I could be having the best day of my life and you wouldn’t know it.”

He made a sceptical noise. “You’re lost in your head, I can tell. Is it about the dice?”

“Not just the dice.” I looked ahead at the expanse of swamp around me. “I had a lot of things I wanted to do. It’s not like I dreamt of having an ordinary life, getting married and buying a house and all that, but I didn’t want my choice taken away altogether.”

“You wanted to get married,” said Dex. “To Brant.”

“Fuck, no.” I shook my head. “I couldn’t imagine him settling down, even if things hadn’t gone to hell.”

Okay, my dating life had already been dismal since Brant, my last boyfriend, had betrayed me in a major way, but having my future wiped out had hurt more than I’d expected. 

“You never know. I met Aria, remember?”

“You did.” Dex had met the air sprite when we’d saved her from being locked in a cage in a vampire’s basement, and despite both of them not being alive in the usual sense, they’d made their relationship work. But Dex had always been a bodiless spirit, as far as I was aware, and losing my dice sucked more than losing my non-existent dating life. Even after the Order had stripped out a huge chunk of my memories over ten years ago, I’d still had gaming and my hobbies, and I’d been able to forge a new life through connecting with my D&D group and meeting people at comic cons. Now, my new hobbies consisted of watching the Elemental Soldiers playing video games with Devon and riding zombie horses around the swamp. Hardly the life I’d envisioned for myself. Or afterlife, for that matter.

Dex and I flew back to the castle when we saw Devon standing at the foot of the stone stairs leading to the entrance. My best friend wore her hair cut short—back to its ordinary brown colour now she didn’t have access to the cantrips she used to dye it—and wore a Ravenclaw T-Shirt she’d brought from home. “Have a nice flight?”

“How did you know it was me?” I said. 

“Dex was with you,” she answered.

“So that’s what I should do—take him everywhere with me.” I landed in front of her. “Not being recognised is still weirding me out.”

“I’m getting used to it,” said Devon. “Don’t forget I have enough trouble remembering human faces, let alone dealing with the fact that most of the castle’s residents look like they’re cosplaying Dementors.”

Devon had been in the castle a lot lately, since her own latest brush with death had almost cost her the use of her hands, and she’d grown as used to its labyrinthine, draughty corridors as I had. Yet our shop back home on Earth was never far from both our thoughts. Over the last decade, Devon and I built our way up from nothing to a successful business and had upgraded from a ratty apartment to a nice house as we’d solidified her client base and I’d taken on job after shitty job from the Order. Now, thanks to my untimely death, she was left to hold the fort alone once her injury recovered enough for her to be able to work again, and even then, things would never be the same.

“I’ve been practising.” I raised a hand and an illusion of my human face slid into place. It was a good likeness, but my brown hair stopped at my shoulders and would never grow any longer, and my mouth didn’t move when I spoke unless I concentrated hard.

“That’s good,” she told me. “Really. It looks just like you.”

I looked down critically. “I don’t know. Feels like something’s missing.”

Like a beating heart, for instance. My dark lich cloak didn’t fit with my human features, either. I’d died wearing the armoured clothing the Death King had loaned me when I’d taken the bodyguard job from him, but soon after my death, my body had turned to ashes on the spot, leaving the armour behind. For that reason, I didn’t feel right wearing it again, because it was yet another reminder of the life I’d left behind. As for my soul amulet, it lay in the hall of souls along with the amulets belonging to the other liches. I figured that if it was good enough for the Death King, it was good enough for me, too.

Devon’s gaze swept over me. “Nah, it’s fine. You’re good.”

“What’s going on at home?” I knew she’d gone back to get supplies a couple of times, but she’d refrained from sharing the details. 

“Well, the good news is that nobody broke into our house,” she said. “Everything is intact. The TV, the games consoles, the dungeon I spent weeks building…”

“What about your shop?” It was more hers than mine now I was presumed dead, though I had yet to figure out how we’d handle the paperwork. Ghosts couldn’t pay bills or fill out forms.

“Untouched, by the looks of things,” she said. “Looks like we were wrong about the Order. Unless rumours of your death spread that fast. But you’d think they’d want to know what nefarious experimental cantrips we had stashed around the house.”

“Don’t forget the node was still turned off, though,” I said. 

“They never broke in using the node before,” she said. “They just walked through the door. I mean, it’s locked, of course, but that’s not a huge deterrent for them.” 

“Guess they had a lot going on.” Cobb and Hawker’s allies had crashed the school reunion half the local Order branch had been at, resulting in mass casualties. One of those had been Devon’s hands, which she’d only begun to gain full use of again, and she was a long way from being able to make cantrips at the rate she used to. Let alone deal with the potential paperwork which would land on her head when the Order realised she was still alive.

Guilt swarmed me at the thought. After all, if not for me, Devon would never have been there to begin with. Yet if I hadn’t shown up when I had, we might not have got out of there in time to avoid both of us being killed. 

“Yeah,” she said. “Anyway, I put a sign up in the shop saying we were closed until further notice. The Order hasn’t called me, either.”

“Seriously?” I frowned. “You’d think they’d at least want to check to make sure I wasn’t hiding in the house.”

“They might think I’m dead, too,” she said. “Or their meddling department might have all died in the attack. I know, I know, I shouldn’t joke about it, but they walked straight into that massacre when they let Cobb out of jail. I can’t figure out how they didn’t see it coming. Hell, I should have seen it coming. Those people didn’t have to die.”

“He must have planned it well,” I said. “None of us could have known he’d have friends in the upper room ready to pull the strings and let him out, much less that he’d try an open attack here on Earth.”

I spoke more to reassure her than me. I knew the memories of the attack haunted her at night, and they would have appeared in my dreams, too, if I’d had them.

“What’re you up to, then?” she asked. “Your illusion skills are getting better.”

“Not much to do but practise,” I said. “I’m not exactly ready to pay a visit to my mum.”

Last I’d heard, she and her wife, Elise, were trying for a baby. Instead, she’d lost her only child, and I had yet to break the news. Dad lived up north and we only contacted each other about once a month, but sooner or later he’d want to know what had happened to me as well. My family and friends should have been able to mourn me and held a funeral, but with no body to bury, I’d be hard-pressed to explain the situation in a way which wouldn’t traumatise them for life.

It seemed cruel of me to ignore my family for the rest of my life—if this existence could be called ‘life’—and I wanted to see them when I’d got the hang of pulling together a decent illusion, but I hadn’t a clue what I’d do about my new sibling. I hoped the kid didn’t turn out to be a spirit mage, though nobody else in my family was magical at all, so the odds were decently high that they wouldn’t be contacted by the Order like I had.

“Understandable,” said Devon. “I doubt the Order has got in touch with them either.” 

“They’d better not.” I’d done my damned hardest to keep my shit show of a work life away from my family, aware that my magical ties could put them in danger just by close proximity. That I’d ended up associating with people like Brant who played fast and loose with the magical laws had furthered my determination to keep them as far from the Parallel as possible.

Nevertheless, the Order was in for a reckoning. I didn’t know how many of its members were aware that Birmingham’s branch was currently under the control of a coalition of sympathisers with the spirit mages who’d started the war three decades ago, but more people than I’d ever expected had secretly opposed the Order’s decree to punish all the spirit mages for their transgression by banning it from use entirely. They’d been waiting since before I was born to take the Order back for themselves, and it was difficult to overlook the fact that my old mentor had once tried to do the exact same. I might have forgotten most my history with spirit magic, but I couldn’t erase that simple truth. 

Yet I wanted to live again even more than I wanted my memories back. It seemed a paradox that I could still miss being human when being a lich had dampened almost all other emotions aside from a cold emptiness, yet I wanted it so badly it hurt like an arrow in the heart I no longer had.

Devon spun on her heel as a dark figure floated through the closed door, clad in armour from head to toe. “I wish you’d make a sound when you do that. It’s creepy.”

The Death King ignored her, looking me up and down. “That’s an improvement.”

“Um, thanks?” I glanced at Devon, whose expression turned vaguely nauseated. “I forgot to move my face again, didn’t I?” 


I sighed. “I’ll get the hang of it eventually. Did you want to speak to me, Death King?”

“Yes,” he said.

I still called him Death King, even though I knew his real name now. Greyson Beaumont, former spirit mage. At one time, we’d been peers at the Order’s academy. Friends, even, since he’d allegedly helped me to murder my former mentor to stop him from starting another spirit war. That, of course, was before he’d ended up as the leader of the Court of the Dead, holding the souls of everyone in his domain in his hands… including me.

I floated through the oak doors and into the lobby, alongside the Death King. Now I was a lich, we were the same height, and we moved in a similar manner. His armoured clothing was more well-built than mine, and it would have been hard to tell he wasn’t solid if not for the way his booted feet hovered above the ground and a dark mask filled the spot where his face should have been.

“I take it you have an update on Hawker?” I gathered that was the reason he hadn’t been around much lately: he’d been trying to gauge Hawker’s next move. Like the Order, the former lich wanted the Death King replaced, most likely by Hawker himself.

“I had a spy among Hawker’s lich allies,” said the Death King. “He’s dead.”

“You mean alive? Or more dead?”

“The second one.” From his tone, he wasn’t amused. “Hawker caught the spy and somehow killed him without access to his soul amulet. I believe he used one of his cantrips to do it.”

“Damn. I didn’t know that was even possible.”

“The Crow made many discoveries before his demise,” he said. “And it seems his allies were assiduous in cleaning out his hideouts before we discovered them.”

“You’re telling me.” The Crow, spirit mage turned vampire, had held a secret operation involving the creation of custom cantrips, including ones which returned a lich to life with no apparent downsides—yet. Considering the first version of said cantrip had caused anyone who returned to life to start decaying and falling to pieces, including the Crow himself, everyone had assumed it was too good to be true.

Regardless, Hawker was still walking around, as far as I was aware, with no drawbacks to his sudden return to the land of the living. I assumed not, if he was murdering spies and plotting world domination.

“He has at least a few dozen liches on his side,” the Death King said. “I’d estimate only a handful have returned to life again, so it’s clear he has limited access to whatever spell he used on himself. That means it’s still possible to send spies in, especially as he is still actively recruiting from among the liches.”

“In other words, luring your people away,” I said. “Evil bastard. So, are you going to send in a new spy to take the old one’s place?”

“That was the plan, yes,” he said. “If I have any volunteers, that is.”

“I can’t say most liches would be falling over themselves to sign up.” I certainly wouldn’t. Not only did I have zero experience as a spy, I doubted I’d be able to stand in the same room as Hawker without trying to kill him. Permanently, this time. The one emotion which had survived my death had been my undying anger and the desire to stick my hand in Hawker’s chest and rip out his soul. “Unless that’s where you sent Bria?”

The new Fire Element had got her position for reasons that frankly confused me, and I’d always suspected her of having an agenda of her own. While the Death King was known for keeping his enemies close at hand, he must have her running errands for him, since she rarely showed up in the break room with the other Elemental Soldiers. Which, to be honest, was fine by me.

“No, I didn’t,” he responded. “However, they’re openly recruiting. Any lich can get in, including new liches from here in the Court of the Dead, and no matter their level of experience.”

Wait a minute. “Including spirit mages who worked against him and would sooner kill him than act as a spy?”

“He doesn’t have to know that,” he said. 

Damn. He wanted me to become his spy, infiltrate Hawker’s forces, and report back to him? “I don’t think I’m a good fit for the job, Death King. Not in the slightest.”

“You fit the criteria,” he said. “More to the point, you have more incentive than most to seek the spell which brought him back to life.”

His words hit me square in the chest. “I thought you said it was a trick.”

“It’s very much real, given his living state,” he said. “Only someone who gets close to Hawker himself will be able to find out how he did it.”

Yeah. I know. “I can’t promise I won’t try to kill him and inadvertently give myself away, but all right.”

Damn him. He knew how deep my desire to return to life ran, which put me in a prime position for manipulation. Yet the truth stood stark before me. If I infiltrated Hawker’s ranks, I’d be able to avenge my own death in the most satisfying manner possible. And if I got my hands on one of his cantrips and used it to bring myself back to life in the process? So much the better.

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