“So,” Wick said, settling down next to Iris while his brothers and Dignity talked in the distance, “what happened between you and Akavōn? That guardian of pain and suffering and whatnot?”
“Not much,” Iris said, blushing, as she continued to weave multicolored vines into a pumpkin-shaped basket. Wick waited for her to keep speaking, and after finishing the base of the basket and moving on to the lid, Iris added,”I may, uhh, have agreed to be a general in the Steppe Guardian Army and to teach all of the Steppe the ways a Candlemaiden may walk in Death.”
Wick stared at her, uncharacteristically at a loss for words, and after a few seconds Iris could feel the eyes of Dignity, Allocrux, and Timothy on her as well.
“Right,” Wick said, standing up and edging away with a smirk on his face. “Well, you have fun with that.”
With an over-loud sigh, Iris flung herself on the ground and stared at the orange sky. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Akavos had explained the plight of the people of the Steppe, the way they had to constantly travel lest too many concentrated deaths tore through the world’s and next-world’s fabric. The dragon spirit promised Iris that she would find herself one day on the Steppe, but all Iris knew from her time in the Kaerent school is that its plains and plateaus lay more than half a world away. It all sounded too much like a prophecy or another quest, but it was nice, Iris had to admit, to have a purpose. Plus, as a general for Akavos she was allowed to flit between death and life as often as she liked, permitted she found a way to do so.
First, though, she had to save Harkenhilt. Looking down at the basket in her hands, Iris frowned. It was nearly complete, which meant soon leaving this stone courtyard and facing off against Misery. It still felt wrong, almost, to save the realm by dooming another of its rulers, but she had seen the suffering wrought by Misery and knew it must be stopped. The orchard of bones reminded her too much of her own home, of the slow desolation and desiccation of Erinlin, the way its culture was being dried up and drained by the Kaerent thieves, the way people were forfeiting their heritage for the odd Kaerent coins and becoming mere skeletons of themselves. It made her sad and it made her sick and wondered what there was she could do about it.
“Yes, Pumpkin Prince?”
Dignity sighed, but there was mirth in his eyes. “My name is Dignity. And I wanted to see if you’d finished the wax figures.”
“Oh! Yes. Here!” Iris was quite proud of her work. She had shaped some of the excess candle wax into figurines resembling Dignity and Misery. For Dignity she had wrapped some strands of his bright orange hair around his neck like a scarf, and for Misery, lacking any direct corporeal link, she had stowed away some water from Misery’s fountain in a cavity in the figurine’s wide hips.
“Ah,” said Dignity. “I see.”
There was silence for a moment.
“Are you going to keep working on them, or…”
“I don’t see why,” Iris replied. “They seem pretty perfect to me.”
“Ah. Yes. Right.” Dignity looked everywhere but her eyes, before finally mumbling, “Well, I suppose it’s the symbolic resemblance that counts.”
Timothy came to peer over Iris’s shoulder at the two figures, and in the distance Wick and Allocrux cackled.
“So we’re almost ready?” the green-eyed boy asked in a soft voice.
“Almost.” Iris frowned at the basket in her hands, pulling the last few vines into place. “Have the pits and snares been prepared?”
“Have the simulacra been placed on their thrones?”
Iris sighed. “Then I suppose we are ready. Let the game begin.”
The hardest part was the waiting. They had chosen a low rough field with sparse trees as the final battle ground, and it felt appropriately desolate. If Harkenhilt was cursed and rotting, then the scraggly dirt expanse they had found with its gnarled leafless trees and struggling patches of grass felt like a redemption ground most apt. But Iris’s chest was tight, her throat dry, and her soul so very, very tired.
The plan was simple. With the simulacra set on their thrones, the power of the realm should be stable enough for Iris to transfer the curse from Dignity to Misery. If they were near enough by each other, the magic could be shifted from anchor to anchor, and Misery’s chokehold on Harkenhilt could be halted. The triplets had set a number of traps and snares hidden in the field to hold Misery still for the transfer, and Iris had the figurines to aid with the process. The spell, according to Mother Hall, would involve the symbolic switching of the two figurines in the pumpkin basket and some spiritual heavy-lifting on the part of Iris. A simple, if crude, magic.
Iris didn’t know if she could do it.
But she was mercilessly spared further worry by the sudden gasp of Timothy by her side. Wick and Allocrux were off finding and baiting Misery to come to the field, and by the sudden tautness in Timothy’s body, they were succeeding.
“Everyone in your places,” Timothy barked, his voice unusually harsh. “Misery is coming. And she’s not alone.”
Misery arrived with an army of almost-corpses, the shambling skeletal souls she had grown in her bone orchard. They strode around her in a circle, some stumbling into the trap holes and others getting snagged in the snares that looped around their ankles. Misery herself walked with perfect calm and poise, paying no mind to the souls trapped around her as if they were no more than discarded toys. She was dressed still in a tight-fitting velvet dress in a style Iris had never before seen. Still at a distance, but closer than earlier, Iris could see the emaciated curves of Misery’s face, her sharp pink lips and narrowed red eyes. Heavy on her slight shoulders was a torque all of tarnished coins that clanged and jingled, inappropriately merry, as she strode forward across the field.
And further back, before the chosen expanse, Iris could just see Wick and Allocrux held fast in the arms of the willow sisters— unable to help, but at least not injured.
Iris hadn’t expected an army, hadn’t rallied the spirits of Harkenhilt to fight literally at her side. She wondered now how she thought any of her plans could work when she faced a being both wise from centuries of existence and utterly, utterly mad.
But Iris still had surprise on her side. Misery paused to survey the field, and the frightened Candlemaiden jumped at her chance.
Chanting low and focused, she lifted the lid from the pumpkin basket and plunged her hand into the magic now swirling within. She pulled heavily at Dignity’s figurine, and as she tore his homunculus from the pumpkin, the curse lifted from him, and in place of the Pumpkin Prince stood a tall pale man with radiant black hair and a sternly-lined face. The curse buzzed around him like a lightning storm, all dark and angry and purple like a bruise, and Iris lifted Misery’s figurine, the curse-cloud shifting slightly away from Dignity. Iris dragged her hand over the pumpkin basket, with its own maelstrom of magic, and prepared to thrust the doll within, but—
Something was wrong. Deeply wrong. The magic should have resonated in Misery’s doll, but instead it still felt like empty wax. Like dead weight. The fountain water wasn’t enough— without her hair or blood, the link was too weak. Iris tried to push the doll within, but the basket wouldn’t accept the offering. Instead Dignity’s doll floated into the air in a buzzing cloud like the one around the spirit himself and flung itself back into the basket.
At the same time the larger dark magic snapped back, the cloud sinking again into Dignity’s skin and skewing away the proud man who had stood there for just a moment.
Across the field, Misery laughed.
“Charming,” she said in a voice like a high and raspy whisper. “But my toys are better than yours.”
At that she reached out one long, bony arm and laid her hand flat upon a nearby tree. Immediately it withered, turning bone white, and the ground beneath it writhed. Iris hardly had a second to wonder before the ground between her and the red-eyed spirit trembled, and suddenly there were roots lashing out of the ground and wrapping around her calves, yanking her to her knees and pinning her to the dirt.
“This is my realm now,” Misery rasped. “Not a play place for a little girl.”
A root ventured out of the ground and slowly raised itself to Iris’s eye level. She expected to be slapped or strangled, but instead it slowly caressed her face, smearing dirt onto her lips with its rough skin. She felt like gagging or screaming or clawing at her skin, but instead she just stayed still. Her hands were still free and she didn’t want Misery to take that away.
“Did you really think you could end my fun?”
Of course not. It all seemed so futile now. What chance had Iris ever even had?
“Don’t let her miasma affect you,” Dignity said, and Iris turned to see both the prince and Timothy similarly trapped by stark white roots. “She’ll call up your doubts and damaged dreams and pain and misery— it’s what she does and who she is. It used to be catharsis, but now,” Dignity spat on the ground and raised his voice, “now it’s all just madness. Have you journeyed too far into our cousin’s domain, dear sister?”
Misery hissed. “I am more myself than I have ever been— not that you can say the same. And don’t liken me to that imbecile. It’s only that I’m finally reaching my true power— not just in this realm, but in Life as well. Did you know I have a king under my command? All I do is whisper in his ear and he sends his armies out to conquer the world.” Misery giggled. “You should try it, brother. Death is so small a domain. We could rule every world if so we wished.”
“I’d rather rule this one properly. Do you not see our subjects are suffering? Where is your compassion? Your love? Your commiseration?”
Misery sighed, aggrieved, and though the tone of it was all wrong, it reminded Iris so much of Dignity she felt a shard of her heart break. “I’ve gotten rid of such useless things, brother, and I suggest you do as well. We would do well together, even if your hair in that monstrous state clashes with my skin.”
Dignity looked at his sister with sorrow. “You are not yourself, and as you are now, I could never rule beside you.”
Misery frowned, the expression skewing her face into a mien more skeletal than human. “Then I’ll have to punish you.”
“And how so? My pride’s already been ruined. My realm is already in shambles. What more can you do?”
“What do you think? Your friend is a living soul in the realm of Death.” Misery laughed, high-pitched and tinged with madness. “It’s only proper that I kill her.”
Author’s Note: Sorry if this chapter’s a little short– the second part will be up in the next few days and Candlemaiden will come to a close. I hope you’ve enjoyed it 🙂 Also, if you liked this chapter, consider leaving a vote or a comment. It makes me very happy when you do 😀