The land past the river Alaethos was much the same as Iris had already experienced, though there were no more grave towns for her to sweep her eyes past before they swelled up under her notice. She caught sight, for the first time, of a few people wandering the land, normal spirits like those she had first seen before the Candlewood, but she saw them only from a distance. Even then, she could see the wariness in their silhouettes, in the crouch of their backs and the nervous hurry of their steps.
That chilled her, though it took a while of walking towards the castle to sift through her uneasiness and figure out why. She was in Harkenhilt, twilight realm of souls, where the dead came to rest before joining the world anew, and they were afraid. What could frighten them so? Iris had the impression that the land should be covered in spirits, all going about their afterlives in preparation for their rebirth, and instead the fields lay empty under the dusky sky and orange moon.
The archivist had said the realm was wilting in chaos, but that implied an energy at odds with the barren fields and the resounding emptiness that seemed to sneak into Iris and hollow her out as well. Or perhaps she was simply weary from her quest, from her new destiny as a playing piece and all the shocks that came with it. It seemed unfair that her mind be besieged with new questions and unstable information when her limbs were tiring from her endless wandering and her heart was sore from all the upsets of the realm.
“A lock for my key, m’lady?”
“Gah!” Arms cartwheeling, Iris fell over backwards and landed hard on the ground with a sharp out-press of breath. Standing above her was an old man with long wild hair and deeply wrinkled skin. Around his neck, oversized to the point of being comical, was a bronze two-toothed key on a fraying rope.
“I don’t have a lock,” Iris managed as she pulled herself to her feet and looked about wondering where the man had come from. “My apologies.”
“You don’t need to have a lock. You are the lock.”
The man looked sad. “No, probably not. I’d like to try, though, if that’s alright with you.”
Iris put a hand in her pocket to fiddle with candles that weren’t there. Curling her fingers and subtly settling into a balanced stance, she assessed the man and found him overwhelmingly nonthreatening, his sudden appearance aside.
“What does that entail?”
“Well, this.” With a sudden movement, the man had lifted the key and pushed it into Iris’s chest, where it sunk in a little, feeling a bit cool but otherwise remarkably nonintrusive. Iris stared at the bronze bow of the key that jutted out from her sternum for a moment, then looked up at the man in amazement, who in turn looked desolate as his inability to sink the key in any further.
“No, I thought not,” he mumbled, pulling the key out and turning to walk away. “Perhaps your child.”
Before Iris could process what had occurred or protest that Candlemaiden couldn’t have children, he was already fading from sight with every step he took. He paused, though, to turn around and tell her with a tragic countenance, “You shouldn’t be walking about when it’s so dangerous. Try keeping to the edge of the forest.” And then he was gone.
And so she went to the forest, because it was a direction and she was rudderless.
Iris was, after the Candlewood, rather wary of trees, so she kept a handful of paces away from the sharply delineated edge of the forest. Like all things in the realm, it followed its own logic and was murky and shadowy right at where it bordered the wispy grass. Iris had the impression that if she were to pass into the shadows between two of its gnarled trees, it would be like pushing through a cobweb sheet.
Still, she felt safer than she had wandering the open fields, where some animal part of her had felt dangerously exposed in the empty expanse under an unending sky. At least, she had felt safer until she became aware of the fact she was being followed.
It had been a slowly growing awareness. There would be, beneath the cottoned-ear buzz of the realm, the soft sounds of rustled undergrowth and awkward footfalls, or, if Iris were to turn her head, the glimpse of glowing eyes within the shadowy woods. Nothing untoward, when taken by itself, but ominous in its recurrence. But with no other guide and a fear of fields, she kept by the woods for hours, her feet light and her body ready to flee or fight, playing a game where she pretended not to notice the creature following her, and in turn hope it played along.
At an overloud thump and muffled curse, however, her patience fell to pieces.
“Well, who are you, then?” Iris asked, a bit petulantly. Terror had numbed down to mild anxiety and then morphed into annoyance over the uneventful hours, and, truth be told, any creature that hadn’t attacked her yet probably wasn’t worth worrying about.
She was taken aback, though, by the man- if he could be called that- who stepped unsteadily out of the shadows to face her. He was slender but not gracefully so, with stick-thin limbs that had overgrown bones. He walked almost as if he was unaccustomed to it, stumbling often and cursing under his breath when he did. Ragged fabric of deep purple and seaweed green hung from his limbs and clung to his ribs.
More striking was his countenance: waxy skin that was sallow and mottled like a gourd, fiery eyes that in the dark seemed to flicker, and a harsh slash of a mouth with only the barest hint of lips. Two horns, curled and ribbed like pumpkin stems, jutted out of unruly orange hair that was haphazardly pulled back from his narrow face.
His expression was blistering, his teeth jagged in his too-wide mouth, but his overall appearance and resemblance to a poorly made scarecrow were so absurd that Iris found herself snickering into her hand instead as he approached.
“Unbind me, witch,” he demanded angrily in a raspy voice that Iris felt only added to his ridiculousness.
“Name yourself, spirit,” Iris retorted in a growly voice, with an over-dramatic sweep of the arm that sent her into giggles. The pumpkin scarecrow was unamused and took a step forward, one spindly arm raised as if to it hit her.
Was this shock? Even as the strange apparition glowered and approached her, Iris felt herself unable to feel fear. Perhaps some part of her knew she was in no danger, for as soon as the scarecrow spirit took another looming step towards her, he fell over, his legs buckling in at odd angles. He stared sullenly up at her from the ground as Iris covered her mouth in a vain attempt to hide her over-wide smile.
“Would you like to begin again?” Iris asked after she straightened out her face. “I’m Iris, Candlemaiden and reluctant pawn of Death.” She offered out her hand to him, and only after a few failed attempts at standing did he take it and pull himself to his feet.
“I’m a guardian spirit of this realm, and my name is of no concern to you, witch.”
“Candlemaiden,” Iris corrected, not caring enough about his opinion to be offended. “And a guardian spirit like Alaethōn?”
The spirit stared at her for a bit before replying. “Something like that,” he finally acceded, turning around to stare out at the realm. “Though I’ve been detained from my duties by your binding curse.”
Ah. That explained why he looked like a pumpkin, then.”I wouldn’t have had to bind you if you hadn’t been terrorizing my city.”
“Terrorizing? I would never!” He put a hand to his chest, as if to staunch the wound to his pride. “I was in your world in order to protect it.”
“Funny form of protection,” Iris snapped, the beginnings of anger flickering in her. “Breaking glass and people’s bones.”
The pumpkin spirit frowned. “That was never my intention. I assure you I was there to stop something much worse.”
Iris stared at him for a bit, eyebrow raised, but he didn’t choose to elaborate. With a shrug, she turned away and started walking towards the castle in the distance.
“Wait! You have to change me back.”
“I don’t have to do anything for you,” Iris replied without turning around. “Besides, I’m quite busy with my quest.”
Had Iris turned around, she would have seen the spirit blink and stare at her in confusion, the fire in his eyes flickering from orange to blue.
“But then why are you here? You said, umm,” the spirit ran spindly fingers through his orange hair, “that you’re working for Death?”
His tone was incredulous, and while Iris herself could hardly believe the mess she was in, she was offended that this spirit thought her so inadequate.
With a deep breath and a focused effort to keep flames from tickling her skin, she spun around with her wrist on display, willing the mark to appear again. It stung to have her worth dictated by the intrusive Kiss, but her dignity was not the one crucial to the quest.
The pumpkin spirit didn’t step back like Jaspar had, but he did reach out and grab her wrist, brushing his waxy thumb over the mark and inhaling sharply.
“So you are,” the spirit murmured, staring into Iris’s eyes, his own deep and unfathomable. There was a fire-flicker in his gaze, but behind that screen of flames was the weight of centuries and a brim-full treasury of private pain. At that moment, Iris did feel a swelling in her chest and a following shiver akin to fear but perhaps more alike to awe.
“Very well,” the spirit said, letting Iris’s hand drop. “I will help you on your quest, and in return you will return me to my proper form. Do you accept these terms?”
Iris smiled sweetly. “If I accept, will you cease being so insufferable?”
The spirit’s monstrous face contorted, but he gave a curt nod.
“Tempting. But, uhh,” suddenly Iris felt sheepish, “I don’t actually know how to unbind you.”
The spirit stared at her.
“At least, not in this realm.”
His staring continued, his blank expression taking on a tinge of horror.
“I mean, maybe if I still had the pumpkin…”
It was becoming hard for Iris to speak under the pressure of his wide-eyed stare.
“But I imagine it’s…um… lost at sea.”
Iris expected a violent outburst, a flailing of ungainly limbs as he shot towards her, perhaps waxy fingers tight around her throat. But instead the fire in his eyes flared for a second before rushing away, leaving but the dimmest spark as he staggered back and collapsed against a tree, sinking to the ground with his eyes barely aglow. Somehow that was worse.
“I don’t know how to fix you,” Iris said, feeling once again her inadequacy as a Candlemaiden, “but I know someone who might. Help me on my quest, and I will do everything within my power to restore you to your true form.”
The pumpkin spirit looked up at her with dull eyes. “What’s your quest?”
“Well, I have to, um,” Iris turned to look at the castle in the distance. “I’m not quite sure, actually. The exact words were ‘restore dignity to the throne,’ I believe.”
Behind her, the spirit made a spluttering noise, like a pile of dry leaves catching fire. When Iris turned back to him, he was struggling to his feet and offering her his hand. A bit bemused, she shook it.
“Right then,” the spirit said, vigor returned to his stick limbs and light back in his eyes. “Shall we?”
“Let’s shall,” Iris concurred, following him as he set off at a fast and stumbling gait.