“No.” There wasn’t fire in Iris’s voice, but rather cold conviction. “There is a way. I simply must remember it.”
Hall replied not with irritation but with patience. “Without the vessel, the anchor of the curse, the spell cannot be lifted.”
“Without the vessel, the spell cannot be broken. There’s a difference.”
Mother Hall took a small sip of tea as Iris stood and began to pace. “So?”
Iris could feel the answer beneath the river of her thoughts, but she didn’t grasp for it. She was already dancing around the solution- she simply had to continue her drawing-nearer movements.
“The spell is stuck, anchored to a pumpkin whose physical integrity is preserved by magic. It’ll take years for the magic to wear off, at least.” Iris watched as her words made Dignity’s sallow face- already contorted with grief- even waxier. She had to fix this. “The spell cannot be broken.” That much was true, but- “But it can be altered! It can be lifted if we lay it on another.”
Dignity’s eyes flickered, their pale flames beginning to burn brighter. But it was the red-eyed boy who spoke.
“What are you saying?”
Iris spun around to face the whole table. “We can save Dignity if we condemn Misery.”
The slightly-malicious but mostly-mischievous grins of the mice-boys paired with Dignity’s grim nod and Mother Hall’s slightly wry look of pride told Iris that her plan had their support.
But the summary of a plan glosses over its substance, and after Iris’s proclamation there were still hours of plotting and planning and mapping to do before she set out from Hall’s home, three mice-boys and a Pumpkin Prince in tow. They had two more rivers to recruit, simulacra to obtain for the thrones, and all the ingredients necessary to transfer the binding spell from Dignity to Misery left to find.
And so began Iris’s mad run around the realm of Harkenhilt.
“Right,” Iris said, hand on her hips, looking the very picture of prepared and staring at the entrance of the Candlewood. “So I’m never going in there again. Dignity, time for you to pay your brother a little visit.”
“Denial is not my brother,” Dignity grumbled. “More like a cousin.”
“Huh.” Iris looked intrigued for a moment and then shook her head. “No matter. You go in there with two of the boys and snag a good lump of candle wax for us.”
Dignity sighed and looked at the ornate doors resting before him. They were far more finely wrought than those Iris had used to enter, and she wondered to what great cathedral they belonged, for Dignity had explained to her back in the empty courtyard that church doors were the formal entrances into the Candlewood.
“When our world is in order,” he had said, “spirits flit in and out of the Candlewood to taste again the memories of their families and friends. It is a sedative for grief, one that can ease their souls frightened at the unknown. Few linger over-long except the guards, who tend in any case to already be liminal souls.”
But now, Iris knew, souls were trapped in the Candlewood, their identities melting away like the candle wax they craved. Nobody deserved such a fate- she had to save Harkenhilt, to restore to the throne its missing rightful prince.
Who was looking particularly put out at the prospect of visiting his cousin. Or perhaps, Iris thought, it was Denial’s consort he took displeasure to. Her memories were fuzzy, but she recalled sharp distaste for a waspish woman in a feigned crown.
“Well, one of the boys will stay with me, and you can be on your way. Our mission requires haste.”
“Adverse to being left alone?” murmured Dignity as he stared at the doors. Then he looked back at Iris. “Ah, I suppose it makes sense to leave you back up.”
“Oh.” Iris tilted her head to the side. “That does make sense. I just wanted a running commentary. The boys have a psychic link, you know.”
Dignity groaned. “Of course they do. Great. Well, let me preface this by saying that I have no control over my cousin or his wife.” He paused for a moment, as if planning to say more, then simply shook his head and pushed his way through the doors, two of the boys darting in behind him. Iris caught sight of the Candlewood’s murkiness and shuddered, glad she didn’t have to brave its depths again. Glad she had friends now to bear her burdens with her, though she fervently hoped she wasn’t condemning them to the same loss of self she herself had suffered.
But Dignity and the boys did, in time, come back with a lump of candle wax, but not before the blue-eyed boy had given Iris a hilarious recounting of the wasp-woman’s desperate flirtations with the uncomfortable prince.
“Not a word,” the flushed pumpkin-man had said as he exited the cathedral doors, his arms wrapped around a lump of candle wax and his eyes aflame and narrowed at Iris. “Not a single word.”
Before Iris was even allowed to approach the river Atemos, she had to smear dirt on both her arms and under her eyes.
“To remember,” the mice clarified, though Iris wondered if this wasn’t just another one of their pranks.
But Dignity seemed to agree with the precaution.
“Also, do you know any poems? Any songs close to your heart that you know deep in your bones? If so, it is vital you repeat them under your breath as you approach and leave.”
Iris knew a few, remnants from her childhood days, but strangely it was the song from the Candlewood that called out to her. Candlemaiden, Candlemaiden, eyes aflame with gold…
In his compromised state, Dignity didn’t dare risk journeying to the river of erasure, the waters of forgetting, less he lose his already tenuous hold on his rank. Instead the mice-boys, who had kept curled up vines purloined from the castle under their robes, formed a harness for Iris, who would journey alone. The river was also no place for liminal souls.
“We’ll tug you back when it’s time,” they said in harmony once the vines were snug around Iris’s waist.
“With as much force as is necessary,” the red-eyed boy admonished, and it struck Iris suddenly how distinct the three of them were. All mischievous, all playful, all a bit wicked- and all to a different degree. She hoped she could remember, after the river Atemos, the impressions that were forming in her head.
Iris came back with the songs still whispered under her breath, and the word yes scratched into the dirt of her arms, but of all else of her encounter she remembered nought.
With the mice sent to steal a stone from the labyrinth, Dignity and Iris peered down into the basin of the river Akavos, whose air had the rippling unreal quality you see over fires in the summer. It was odd- Iris had felt lazy sepia-summer warmth and the tug of coming-hunger in the Candlewood, but those feelings had been muted and more of the mind than the flesh. Her thirst at the river Alaethos had been urgent but informed, intense without the throat-rasping lip-cracking agony she could feel back in Life. But here, at the edge of Akavōn’s domain, the heat that seared her face was hyper-real, almost as if she had sunk back into earthly form rather than the abstracted phantasm she was in rest of the realm. She had the sense that here she could be injured, that here she could be altered.
“So,” Iris said, her eyes on the bubbling river down below. “Guardian of indescribable pain, you say? Alaethōn was a frog, Atemōn a newt, and Akavōn is, what,” Iris ran through all the river spirits she had seen in Erinlin, “a beaver?”
“Dragon.” Dignity’s sallow skin had a sheen of sweat, and it seemed as if he were about to melt like one of her candles. “Snapping turtle, nominally, but he also heads the Steppe Guardian Army, which gives him a certain, uhh, gravitas.”
“Dragon. Grand. Dragon guardian of indescribable pain. And you can’t accompany me because why, exactly?”
“Akavōn is not fond of me. He is far more in Misery’s domain, and there was an incident a while back with a Candlemaiden and a Zaksmander for which he holds me, quite erroneously, responsible.”
It may just have been the uncomfortable atmosphere, but Iris thought Dignity looked guilty. “Wait.” Iris’s mind flashed back to an old folk tale. “An incident with a turtle and a Candlemaiden. They didn’t, uhh, dance across his shell, did they?”
Dignity tore his eyes from the basin to look at Iris. “Yes. But perhaps it’s better you didn’t mention it.”
“Right. Alright. Dragon. I can do this.” Iris threw back her shoulders and ran a hand through her strangely shorn hair. Then she patted the pocketwatch at her side, that Dignity had given to her for the encounter. “You wait right here- I’ll be back in no time at all.”
With a lump of Candlewax for Denial and a sandy stone from the labyrinth to stand in for Madness, and with all the rivers now supporting their revolt, all that was left was an ersatz for Misery herself.
Which meant visiting her sacred grove to steal some of her fountain water.
“Oh! I didn’t think you’d visit again so soon,” said a pale women with long black-blue hair that hid her face in sheets.
“Truly a pleasure to see you again,” said a spritely woman with dark brown skin and curly brown hair, though she kept her mouth hidden with one of her long, drooping sleeves.
Strangely, the two willow sisters- retainers of Misery, according to Dignity- were focusing only on the blue-eyed boy. Iris had not thought her mice capable of embarrassment, but Blue was blushing under their attention while his brothers smirked.
Misery’s grove was beautiful, in a stark, poisonous way. All the willow trees were bare-branched, all the fountain water turned black. Yet the trees were strong and elegant, the fountains lovely and balanced, and Iris ached to see what the Grove of Misery was like when the world was in order.
“So,” the long-haired sister said, her voice suddenly sharp.
“Who are these intruders you have brought?” The shorter girl’s voice was saccharine sweet and threatening.
Suddenly the branches of the trees looked sharp, the black water looked suffocating, and Iris knew that the balance of power was far out of her favor.
“These intruders are here under my will,” Iris said, holding out a hand to silence Dignity. “My name is Iris and I seek to restore balance to this realm.”
“Balance? Hmph. Our mistress is in power. Surely you don’t think we’ll assist you?”
Iris looked at both women and saw the pain in them. Dignity had told her there would be three willow sisters, and she wondered at the lack.
“Your mistress is sick. Your grove is bare, your water polluted. This world falls into chaos, and you long for the yellow willow flowers.” Iris thought of her home, of Mother Hall and feeling secure in their cottage. She thought of the feel of the bottlebell under her fingers as she sent shades to their rest. “What you want is home. You want to return home, not to a place, but a time and situation. When all was right and in order, when the air was filled with familiar voices and your eyes drank in familiar faces. You want the world as it used to be, but tell yourself you are content with this uncertainty.
“The world may not ever be again what is was before. I cannot promise such a dream, not to you nor to me. But I can tell you that Death herself set me this quest, that I have seen the breadth of this realm and known its touch and know that Misery’s power is too much. Children are trapped in the Candlewood, the rivers rot, and I met with the world snake and walked away. All is not right. For all the souls that are and ever were and will be, we must restore balance to this realm.”
Iris took a deep breath. “We need your help. Not to hurt Misery, but to bind her, stop her, hold her still until the world can turn again as it should. Then we help her, heal her, and let the trees of your grove bloom again. Let the Sunset Fields regain their glow and all of this realm again be peopled by spirits stretching their souls. We need your help. We ask you not to harm your mistress, but to give us a token of her so that we might set it on her throne and hope it helps restore balance to Harkenhilt.”
“Pretty words,” the two said together with a sneer. “But why should we trust anyone who holds three liminal souls in thrall?”
“In thrall!” Iris exclaimed, all composure lost. “My mice are not in thrall! They were free-willed companions.”
“Your equals?” The short-haired asked.
“Then why have they no names? Why did you keep their souls from them?”
Iris wondered, horrified, if she were as bad as the Kaerents, not understanding the world and still using it to her gain. Had she really held her mice-friends in such low regard? But no. They were close to her heart, so close they never needed names to be known. But perhaps it was time to let them go.
“They have names.” Iris said, raising her eyes to meet everyone’s gaze.
“Really?” Blue blinked.
“We do?” Green tilted his head.
“What are they?” asked Red, his voice calm and trusting.
Scenes of merriment and mischief flashed through Iris’s head, and her heart was so overfull with joy that it filled her voice with an almost-sadness as she spoke.
“Timothy,” she said, pointing at the green-eyed boy, thinking of the sharp protectiveness hidden under his coat of kindness.
“Wick,” she said, pointing at the blue-eyed boy, thinking of the love of mischief tempered only by his love for his friends.
“And Allocrux,” she said, pointing at the red-eyed boy, the calm leader of the group who could stretch from kind to malicious and all that situations called for without losing his stolid sense of self.
Upon appellation, they closed their eyes, then opened them again, the glow of their inward light brightening, sharpening, and suddenly Iris got the sense that they were properly seeing her with human eyes for the first time. Chittering in that strange tongue they used among themselves, they grew closer and danced around Iris, swooping their heads up and down and reaching out with their fingers to brush against her.
“You’re beautiful,” Wick said, his voice accusatory.
“Wonderful,” Timothy said softly.
“Thank you, Iris, truly,” Allocrux said, his voice trilling around her name.
“Touching,” one of the willow sisters scoffed, but her voice wasn’t as sharp as it could be, and over the heads of the hugging boys Iris smiled at her.
They left the grove with a flower-cup filled with water from Misery’s fountain.
Back near the bone orchard that should have been the Sunset Fields, Iris sat with multicolored vines in her lap, slowly crafting a basket shaped like a pumpkin. Everything was almost in place, and they were setting a trap for Misery. Iris’s quest would soon be complete.
Author’s Note: I hope you liked the end of the twelfth chapter. If you did, consider leaving a vote or comment to let me know. If you didn’t, let me know why not so I can edit the chapter into something better 🙂