After a while of following the bound spirit’s sprightly but rather ungainly pace, Iris tired of their silence.
“Do you have a name?”
“One that no longer fits.”
“Well, I have to call you something. Will Pumpkin do?”
“It most certainly will not. It’s completely degrading and beneath my station.”
“Well pardon me, your Majesty. Will Pumpkin Prince suffice?”
“I’m glad we’re in accord. Now, where are we going?”
“The Sunset Fields.” He said this as if it were a self-evident truth.
“Right, now what is that exactly?”
The Pumpkin Prince let out an exaggerated sigh, but it was an improvement from his earlier dolorousness, so Iris didn’t comment.
“It is, as the name implies, a place of repose before the spirit returns to the mortal coil. A final place to contemplate and come to terms with the cycle of life. It is also, if I may be so bold as to assert so, the most beautiful locale in this realm. Picture, if you will, red and gold lilies blanketing a flat expanse of grassy field. In the light, they shine with muted warmth and wave in the gentlest of breezes, murmuring as spirits picnic together, sharing company and elderberry wine as they prepare to fade into their next existence.”
Iris smiled at the imagery, feeling the ghost of warm breeze on her cheeks. “Certainly better than the Candlewood, or that puddle-filled mire.”
The Pumpkin Prince shot her a narrowed-eyed glance.
“What were you doing in the Candlewood?”
Any pleasantness from the Sunset Fields imagery vanished as mud sucked at Iris’s chest and panicked fog filled her head. She tripped and grabbed onto the Prince’s arm, which felt like a gnarled branch.
“It was awful. The Candlewood, the Maze. I wasn’t myself in either of them. I didn’t mean to enter them, I didn’t know, and they sucked me right in. If Mother Hall hadn’t found me, or if I hadn’t ended up at the Snake-”
“Huge snake, with the world in his eyes. He told me a nursery rhyme.” Iris laughed a hiccup laugh. “I thought this place couldn’t get any stranger.” She shrugged and looked at the Prince, expecting a commiserating camaraderie. Instead his eyes held a light like awe.
“You met with the World Snake? With Tavaros?”
“Accidentally,” Iris said hurriedly. “And that was after the river had ‘washed me right clean.'” It was an important concession, but she wasn’t sure why.
“Right,” the spirit said, unconvinced. “Well, you are a playing piece.”
“And isn’t that just grand. I get to travel this lovely place. Might be worth it to see these fields of yours, though.”
The Prince shifted his shoulders, uncomfortable. “This isn’t the land at its best. My absence— that is, in my absence, the state of the realm has deteriorated. Rapidly.” He threw out an arm, and it took Iris a second to realize he was gesturing at the realm and not just flailing for balance. “Usually there are spirits everywhere, walking about on their paths so that the hills glimmer with them, not shut up in the grave towns, Candlewood, or memory caves. People are passing on without passing through their paths. Death is not as it should be.”
Strange to think that Death, mysterious and foreign, had a status quo. Iris smiled at the thought, a bit wistful.
“What is it like? Normally?”
“Beautiful.” Though his face looked horrific skewed by his knife-thin smile, it still conveyed his pride. “At a certain point in their journey, spirits just open up. They talk to everyone. There is no fear, no shame, none of the petty hostility of life. They realize, ‘I’m dead, you’re dead, we’re all dead, what’s the point of worrying about country or creed?’ And when that occurs, so does the learning, the acceptance, the realization. Two spirits meet on the hill, who maybe met once in battle, and they sit down for a chat.”
“They didn’t talk to me,” Iris muttered, remembering the village she had first found herself in.
“Well, that’s different.” The spirit pulled at a loose string on his purple jacket. “You’re alive.”
“Oh. I guess so.”
The spirit paused for a moment and faced her. “Why do you say it like that?”
An agitated shrug. “Like a surprise, or a disappointment. Like you forgot.”
“Oh.” Iris looked at the lavender sky and winking orange moon. “I do forget. This realm, though it feels so often like a dream, like a world barely held together, illogically, at the seams… it feels more real than my life out there, in the waking world. Or, it feels more familiar. Out there, it was all wrong. Love, laughter, and all those things that colored life, I lacked. It felt predestined at the time, but looking back, it was as if I had never found my footing. And then the Kaerents whipped me away to that stupid school for two years, and that shred of purpose I had as a Candlemaiden, as Mother Hall’s heir, that was stolen away from me.”
Iris bent and tore out a handful of grass, which slipped from her fingers in an unfelt wind and faded away. Digging her nails into her palms and squeezing her eyes shut, she took a short breath. “I only felt right again, like I was doing something right again, when I bound you in that pumpkin, and clearly that was a mistake, so I ask you, what good does it do for me to be out there? To be alive? As least this journey, this quest, gives me a sense of purpose, lets me know concretely that I’m doing something. That my life, or my death, or — whatever — my existence matters.” Iris pushed her fingers in the hollows between each eye and her nose, and swept them to the side with bruising force. She struggled to find her next words.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” the spirit said, quietly, without a scrap of his customary smugness. “That’s the beauty of life. There is no defined path. It’s not like Death, with its waystations and checkpoints. You can wander as much as you want, take all the roads untravelled or never stray from your village square. There’s love and hatred and vitriol, but you don’t have to make sense of it all. You can’t. That’s what this realm is for.
“I’m not saying you should stumble through life blindly. But no one feels perfect when they’re out there, and the ones that almost do are usually ignoring the truth. You have to find your own purpose, to forge your own routes and orchards, caves and grave towns. No one can give it to you. Or, no one can force it on you. Not even the Ladies. You get to choose what you believe and what it means, and even if you’re wrong, well, maybe you’ll have better luck next time.
“I never understood it, the human preoccupation with death. The fear. It’s a part of life’s cycle. The day coming to a close, the sun setting so it may rise again on the morrow.”
“Harkenhilt,” Iris said, “The archivist called this realm Harkenhilt.”
“A good name,” the Pumpkin Prince agreed, nodding gravely. “Enna has good taste.”
“You know the archivist?” At Iris’s surprised tone, the earnest mood was suddenly broken, and the Prince looked at her with what Iris now— Ladies help her— fondly regarded as his normal condescension.
“I know most of the enduring spirits in this realm. I am, after all…” he paused for a bit, troubled. “Or rather, I will be again one of its most prominent denizens.”
“Your horns right now are rather prominent,” Iris offered, making her tone perhaps a smidge too helpful.
The spirit glowered at her. “We’re almost at the Sunset Fields. They’re just beyond that hill. I suggest you brace yourself. I seem to recall the flowers can have a rather somnolent effect on the living.”
It was a steep hill, and Iris was surprised to see behind it the shadowy smudge of castle towers. They weren’t immediately over the crest, but close enough to reach in Iris judged to be less than an hour. Not that she trusted in this realm any estimate of time or distance.
Climbing the hill was nigh impossible, purchase almost unachievable with dirt clods crumbling under your grip, and Iris shuddered at the likeness to a childhood nightmare: step after step with no progress, the gradient becoming steeper and steeper until you seemed to be trapped on a surface gone suddenly vertically flat.
“Something is wrong,” the spirit said, panic in his voice. “Terribly, terribly wrong.”
The truth of his statement didn’t register until they both reached the top of the hill and stared, in horror, at the tableau spread out before them. Instead of the paradisiacal fields, there was a ghastly orchard of barren and skeletal trees, and as Iris watched the weather switched violently between whipping sleet and scorching heat. Beneath each tree was a huddled figure, so contorted by pain that it took Iris a moment to recognize them as people. People so caught up in their pain that they didn’t realize they could just walk away. Iris’s stomach turned and she thought she might be sick.
Improbably, though all his limbs quivered like branches in a gale, the Pumpkin Prince was still standing. His sallow face, however, was sicklier, and he had one stick-thin hand raised before his open mouth. Tears were impossible when your eyes are of flames, but his ragged breath made it seem to Iris that he was sobbing.
“Misery,” he choked out to Iris, though he didn’t turn his head to her. “She did this. Her domain is expanding and I wasn’t here to stop her. Oh, Father Fate, what have I done? What has she become?”
“Hold on. Misery? Is she a person?”
“A spirit. A guardian. A ruler of this realm.” There was more he wanted to say, but his voice trailed off in horror.
Iris tentatively reached and put a hand on his arm. “Perhaps you should explain all this to me,” she said softly, coaxing him to sit down with her. “Assume I know nothing and start from the beginning.”
“In the beginning there was nothing but the Universe, unknown even to itself.” There was an abandon verging on madness in the voice of the Pumpkin Prince, so Iris swatted at his arm, not gently.
With a grimace and an affronted look, the spirit began again.
“Harkenhilt has always been a realm for spirits between one life and the next, but it hasn’t always been so tame and orderly.”
Iris bit back her protest and let him continue.
“Death, having dominion over the realm and growing to dislike its chaos, decided it should be ruled by four governors: Denial, Misery, Madness, and Dignity. Each was tasked with a different quadrant, a different stage in the spirit’s path from death to life anew.”
“To fill each crown, she first found a spirit she thought may be capable and then led them through tasks and trials to test their mettle. And in this way, the two princes and princesses of the realm came to be.”
“All was in order for centuries, but for all the powers and responsibilities bestowed on them by their mantles, the rulers appointed by Death were, in the end, only human. When one grew weary of their title, they nominated a successor and led them through the tasks and trials appointed by Death herself.”
“People wonder. The Sunset Fields are beautiful. Do they deserve to share the realm with the likes of the Candlewood or the Labyrinth?” The spirit sighed and moved his head fractionally, an aborted attempt to look over his shoulder at the senseless orchard. “People forget. They don’t understand. Everything in this realm is a reasonable part of the process. Pain isn’t evil, and not all that is pleasant is just.”
“Are you telling me that,” Iris tilted her head at the orchard, “is just?”
“No. No, of course not. The realm is in chaos, disorder. Misery isn’t herself. And neither am I.” The spirit sighed, a drawn-out sigh that was part shudder and part-sob. “Unbalance in the world of the living echoes in to the realm of the dead, and vice versa. That is a fundamental truth. But I’m afraid the echoing this time was rather more direct. Misery has… lost herself. Lost her purpose. Become addicted to other’s suffering. She’s sick, you have to understand that. She’s not herself anymore.”
The spirit dragged his long gnarled fingers through the dirt on the top of the steep hill, leaving behind small furrows. “Misery has been passing into your world, slipping between the realms with some unknown magick, consorting with one of your Kings, whispering into his ear encouragements for war and cruelty. I tried to cross into your world to stop her, but…” He trailed off with a shrug and stared into the dusky sky.
Iris thought back to the night she had sealed the spirit in a pumpkin, to the cheering townsfolk who had dragged her afterwards to the Hallowed Moon festival. She had been exhausted and frightened that night, but the memories had still carried for her flicker-flames of warmth. That night she had begun to hope that she had purpose as a Candlemaiden, and that maybe she wouldn’t always be looked upon with disgust and mistrust.
But now those sparks of hope soured, because the celebrations had been based on a lie. He had intended to help her people, and in sealing the spirit away she had only worsened their fate.
“I’m sorry I trapped you in that pumpkin. It was remiss of me as a Candlemaiden. I should have treated with you before going on the offensive.”
The spirit was silent for a while. “I don’t blame you,” he said at last. “I did, but I understand now why you acted the way you did. I was crazed with pain, torn between the two realms, and I didn’t realize I was hurting your charges. I would do anything to protect my people, so it makes sense that you would do anything to protect yours.”
With a tilted head and narrowed eyes, Iris looked at the spirit and the towers of the distant castle that rose behind him. A fuzzy idea was forming in her mind, a nagging suspicion that had sat within her more or less since they met but that only now was coming into focus.
“Prince, are you—” but Iris was caught off by a sudden squawk and a low flying purple bird.
“Kismet!” Iris exclaimed, and then she let out a muffled curse because in throwing herself out of Kismet’s flight path she had started to tumble back down the hill.
“Candlemaiden!” The Pumpkin Prince, also deposed from the crown of the hill and tumbling down its side, threw a gangly arm over Iris, pinning her to the side of the hill. Around them, clods of dirt and small stones rumbled down the hill.
Squished against the hill, her mouth filled with dirt, Iris realized she couldn’t feel pain in Harkenhilt. At least, not sharp, clean pain like a scratch or a stubbed toe. What she could feel instead was an out-of-breath sluggishness, cotton in her head and buzzing wrongness in her limbs. Like an eclipse of self, or being dipped into wax like a wick, being buried up layer by layer.
Somewhere, someone was calling her name. How strange. Was that her name? Iris, Iris, Iris…
There were fingers in her mouth, digging out the dirt, and she spat in protest, clarity returning to herself as sharp-nailed fingers fumbled around her tongue.
“Gahh,” she said, turning her head to the side and spluttering, forcing out the last traces of unearthly earth. “What was that?”
But before the pumpkin spirit could answer, there was shrill laughter from the orchard side of the hill. Holding up one finger in quiet caution, the spirit looked at the crown of the hill— though Iris was ready to admit it was much more like a cliffside— and began to slowly and carefully climb, stopping so that he was just high enough to peer over the top.
Carefully, and hoping she didn’t look as much like a stick bug as the spirit did, Iris also climbed to the top of the hill and peered over.
A woman was walking through the orchard, the sleet and scorching heat stopping around her, so that she walked unscathed, in a bubble of calm, through the misery around her.
Misery. She was tall and thin, a pale specter of white hair, bone-sallow skin, and blood red eyes so vivid and virulent that Iris could see them even at a distance. She wore a torque of tarnished scales and a grave shroud cloak over a fitted black velvet dress, and at every tree she stopped and bent to investigate the wretched beneath, cradling long fingers around their neck and plucking them up like fruit. Those she approved of were coaxed to walk behind her, but those that didn’t meet her standards were tossed to the ground like rag dolls. Iris wasn’t sure if Misery herself or the shambling almost-corpses behind her were more frightening, but both sent a sickening wave of horror through her.
Beside her, the prince had his mouth open, as if to wail or vomit. Iris slowly rolled around, her back against the dirt, and sunk a bit down the hill.
“We have to stop her,” she whispered to the spirit beside her. “Bind her, freeze her, destroy her. Whatever it takes to stop this misery. To stop Misery.”
“No, no. Do you not understand? She’s my sister” His voice was choked and breathy. “I love her. We can’t stop her— we, we have to save her. I can’t rule this realm without her.”