Iris heard the river before she saw it, though perhaps heard was not the right word. Rather, she felt the sibilant buzzing in her teeth and against her eyes. It raised the hair on her arms and made her throat tighten at the choking memories of sinking and flailing and succumbing to the dark abyss.
Iris shook her head. There was no need to be melodramatic. Mother Hall had given her canvas shoes for her crossing, so surely she would be safe.
Though, now that Iris thought about it, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with the shoes. They had made perfect sense at their receiving, the way the strange parades as commonplace in dreams, but now Iris looked at them with a measure of consternation. Did she wear them? Would she walk over the river? But Candlemaidens weren’t supposed to wear shoes, and surely Hall would have mentioned if their use involved such an infraction.
Iris wished her mice were around; they would know what to do. Before they would tell her, there would be a bit of teasing, she supposed, but that was no bother. She loved the way they frolicked, all coy and mischievous before they darted in for a kiss. If she left the realm now, she would be leaving them.
Iris looked longingly somewhere to her left, where she reckoned the grave village to be. She could at least say goodbye. Gain some sort of closure. But just as the dead shouldn’t linger in life, so should the living not dally in death. It made sense.
Distracted by her thoughts, Iris had approached the river, though she still stood a safe few paces away. It was all silvery froth, more like violent racing mist than water. Iris doubted, magic shoes or not, that she could walk over it. She did have the sense, though, that she knew the answer, if only her mind would let her look deeper and deeper.
But before she could fathom it out, the water before her began to swirl, the mist coalescing and darkening into a black vortex. The whole realm seemed to darken, to sink into another starker plane of existence, and soon an obsidian mirror began to rise from the vortex, tongues of mist curling around its edges and solidifying into an ornate frame. This too made some sort of sense to Iris, but felt less like a dream and more like a night terror.
Little more did Iris want than to drag her eyes away from the mirror, but instead she stared at it, her gaze transfixed. In it, her reflection skewed, her skin draining of color until it was bone-white, her hair growing sleeker and black as pitch, her eyes sinking and nose sharpening until the person who looked back at her was a woman of alien and indifferent beauty.
“Are you lost, little girl?” the woman asked, and in her voice Iris heard funeral bells and the lonely crashing of the ocean. She spoke through Iris’s silence, as the girl’s muscles all felt paralyzed. “Then perhaps you better find yourself. Restore dignity to the throne, and I’ll allow you to leave. I have high hopes for you, young one. Don’t disappoint me.”
Before Iris had a chance to breathe, the river roiled and reared up, a wave crashing over the girl who had stood so cautiously at a distance. It swallowed her whole and whisked her through its snaking self to spit her up far far away at another end of Death’s domain.
Iris woke up without her shoes and without any sense of where to go. If losing herself in the Candlewood had been like a window slowly losing its clarity to soot and grime, then losing herself in the river was like a piece a parchment having its text scraped away to make room for different lines. She felt raw and erased and like little more than a blank page waiting for foreign ink.
A flash of blue. Iris sat up and rubbed her eyes. There was grass beneath her and a purple sky above her head. She was on a gentle crest before a hill, but the rest was harder to digest.
Where to start? It was a wide low field, wearing a scandalously sheer shawl of mist. Across it grew snaking pieces of stone walls. With no sane rationale, they divided into incoherent pieces the gray-green field, whose edges were so poorly defined that Iris could not decide if it were as small as a clearing or as endless as the great midland plains. Some of the walls were tall, and on second glance seemed to tower high above Iris. Others fell into fans of rubble, which deteriorated into pebbles that cluttered through the meadow. No two seemed to be made of the same material, or alike in construction, but the eye couldn’t help but try and fail to piece them together, puzzle out the shapes they made as they squirmed across the field. They were like the incomprehensible scribbles of a mad god. Which, Iris thought, drawn towards the field and choking back a breath of heady laughter, described this whole land fair enough.
It was not quite a maze, not grand enough to be a labyrinth. Yet walking into its gaping maw, Iris felt consumed by it entirely. Her mind no longer only her own, she was ruled by her impulses. Sometimes she knew, deep in her bones and in the pit of her stomach, that it would be blasphemous, sacrilegious, obscene to clamber over the walls. At other times she was compelled to dance on them, jump from one odd path to another, to teeter on the edge of oblivion as she stared off the high walls into the sea of fog below.
As she danced, trudged, marched, dream-like, across the field, she heard, on the mist, the voices of other travelers, laughter and strangled screams. She found herself sitting on a wall as she used to back home, perched between the graveyard and the bright world beyond. Behind she could almost make out in the light mist the twisting branches of her yew tree. Moments, hours later, she was walking again, the ground cold and rough beneath her feet so that they seemed to burn, wishing she still had her canvas shoes.
One wall which she had been following, her fingers trailing behind her and tracing the stone and mud, had tumbled over at the end. As Iris watched, the stone rubble turned into a bubbling creek, flowing out of the wall into the field, where it curled up into mist. Each lazy spiral into the air left a darker spiral beneath, which writhed and unkinked itself into a tiny snake. Eyes just as empty as before, Iris followed the snakes as they tumbled together, slinking in and out of each other’s kinks, and flowed up a steep slope Iris had not yet perceived. She followed on all fours, fingers deep in rich wet mud. The snakes flowed around her, squirming through her fingers and toes like the earth itself had an animated soul.
At the top of the hill, which also seemed to be the bottom of a deep gorge, were two giant eyes bright as the moon. They were a marbled blue that seemed to encompass the world, the pupils black slits into an unending abyss. Out of breath and dizzy, Iris fell to her knees, much as she used to sit as she cleaned candlesticks. The snake waited, impassive, for her to speak.
Iris felt pressed to say something profound, but found herself giggling instead. There was something utterly comic about this situation, if only she could see it. Alas, that she couldn’t be more aware of the irony!
Thoughts swirling through her head and failing to make much sense, Iris only blinked when the snake let out a lingering sigh.
“Oh, I can’t eat you. Your emptiness is false.”
“My apologies,” Iris offered, still bent forward on her knees.
“How did you find yourself so deep in my domain?”
“Or,” a soft sibilant voice beneath asked, “have you found yourself at all?”
“Accident and coincidence, my liege,” Iris responded, still near breathless with incomprehensible hilarity.
“But is it so? A shame. Such an old soul— I had been waiting for us to meet again.”
Iris inclined her head towards the snake. “We shall, perhaps some day soon.”
The snake’s tongue flicked out for a moment. “Time is just an illusion. We have already met again and the circle is complete. I am simply waiting for you to realize it.”
“I thank you for your patience.”
“And I forgive you your ignorance. Though I must say, you continue to amaze. Here both as a trespassing soul and a playing piece. Do you ever tire of it all?”
Iris did feel tired, her limbs leaden and too heavy to move, but beneath it all was an electric energy she couldn’t call anything else than the joy and anguish of living. Strange, that she would feel it here so far from the sun, moon, and stars.
“What is a playing piece?” Through the fog filling her head, it still seemed a strange thing to call a young girl.
“It is what you have been marked. You ken the rhyme.” The snake hissed out the first stanza.
Said Death and Love and Lady Luck,
Let’s play a merry game.
The world will be our playing field;
The stakes will be the same.”
“So Death and Love and Lady Luck,” Iris continued, feeling ever more dizzy but rising to her feet, “took out their sheep-bone dice. They called their bets and rolled their sets and kingdoms paid the price.” Nausea was roiling through Iris now like that damned river, and suddenly all she wanted was the sun on her skin, or, barring that, the light of the impostor orange moon. She hadn’t realized it before, but the fog here blocked out the purple sky, until the whole world seemed to be the same and unending. She stumbled about, felt herself tumbling down a hill, and, for the third time in far too short a time, felt herself blacking out.
Author’s Note: Apologies if that chapter was a bit confusing– Iris is feeling very disoriented, so it’s only fair that the reader does too! Luckily she gets some answers in the next chapter by peering into puddles of the past and meeting with the Archivist.
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