For a moment too, it seemed proper to Iris that she should die here at the end of her quest. To come so far and fail was, in a sense, comforting. No more would be required of her, she could stop frantically planning and running about, and finally, finally! she could fall asleep—
“Iris!” Dignity shouted, startling the girl out of her revery. “Stay awake and stay alive! Don’t let Misery get to you. You are wonderful and worthwhile and worthy—”
But the rest of his message was curtailed by a white root wrapping tight around his face and yanking him towards the ground.
“You’re next, girl,” said Misery, with more indifference than malice. “I can’t have anyone, including my silly brother and his little pet, standing in my way.”
Misery took a few careful steps forward, taking care to walk around her fallen soldiers pinned in their traps. Jutted and twisted and quiescent, their bodies had become part of the landscape, all their energy seemingly siphoned into the roots that writhed around their mistress.
“I could strangle you,” Misery mused, and suddenly a white root burst out of the ground to wrap around Iris’s neck. She had to half-gasp to suck in enough air to breathe, and her head suddenly felt as light and empty as dandelion fluff.
“Or I could quarter you,” Misery continued, and now Iris could breathe enough to cry out in pain as her arms were yanked in opposite directions.
“But!” Misery giggled. “That would be so crass. Where’s my hospitality? I’ll just offer you some food.”
Touching a tree again, Misery exerted her power, and this time Iris could see the way the coins around her neck glinted and shined at the magic. On a lonely, withered branch grew a lonely, withered fruit. An apple, perhaps, with skin too wrinkled and rotten to be certain.
“You must be hungry, dear, walking across all of my realm. Please, have something to eat.” Misery plucked the fruit from the tree and handed it to a white snaking root which wriggled across the ground to Iris. “Surely you aren’t so impolite as to refuse?”
Dignity made a muffled sound through his root, and Iris knew she must not eat of the withered fruit.
But still, a root wrapped around Iris’s left arm and moved it against her will until her hand bumped against the fruit and there was nothing to do but hold its thin and slimy skin in her hand.
“That’s right, dear,” Misery crooned. “Just a bit further now.”
There was another moment of crooning, this one sweet and pure rather than rotten and sour, and suddenly Kismet was silhouetted against the orange moon, the curve of her wings and her long, brilliant tail feathers shining a deep purple-blue.
Then Kismet was diving, charging towards Misery, and for a jumbled moment it seemed the pale specter had sprouted purple wings. Seconds later Kismet was flying onwards, tearing the torque from Misery’s shoulders and dropping it at Iris’s knees. But falling with the jingling coins were long indigo feathers, and Kismet’s crooning turned mournful and pained. Iris could barely turn her torso to see it, but Kismet crashed into the ground far behind Iris, a trail of feathers leading to her landing spot.
Misery shrieked, and Iris whipped her head back around to see spots of livid red burning across the mad woman’s cheeks.
“Mine! Mine!” She screamed, and Iris had the sense to snatch at the torque, her fingers and eyes searching for the change in texture or color— there! A long white hair caught within the coins. Iris wrapped it around her finger and feigned horror when Dignity, his limbs all wrapped in roots for Misery’s dark puppetry, snatched the torque from her hands.
Something was occurring. Dignity and Misery were speaking. Distracting. Dignity was distracting his sister. Good. Iris’s mind was racing so fast she could barely taste her thoughts as they flashed by. Quick as she could, she snagged Misery’s simulacrum and looped the white hair around its neck like a noose. Then she reached out for the pumpkin-basket, which still had Dignity’s figure enclosed inside, and gathered up her magic within her. But Misery was pacing— bad. The magic needed her to be still to work.
“Hand over the torque, dear brother,” Misery said, and then giggled. “Or I could just make you. Really, there’s no need to be difficult.”
“There is every reason to be difficult,” Dignity replied, affronted. “You are a threat to my realm. Your every action horrifies and disgusts me, and would you too if you had any ounce of sanity left.”
Misery raised a clawed hand to slash at Dignity, but in a sudden moment of unprecedented grace he caught her wrist instead and pulled her into an embrace.
“Dearest sister,” he said, so low Iris could barely hear. “Please forgive me.”
Then he kissed her cheek and she froze.
In that moment Iris closed her eyes and concentrated with all her might. She knew her own power wasn’t enough, so she asked Harkenhilt for its aid, and the realm answered with the feel of a flame licking above her brow. She heard the rushing of water and felt the strength of Akavos, Alaethos, and Atemos in her soul. Regent, a many-tongued voice seemed to say, we answer to your rule.
With the magic of the realm flowing through her, Iris reached into the swirling dark magic in the basket with perfect calm, slowly removing Dignity’s doll and replacing it with Misery’s. When she looked up, a regal man stood by the pale specter, whose alabaster skin was turning a bruised purple as the binding magic flowed into her.
But there was more that Iris could do. The strength of magic in her was unprecedented— all of a realm ready to do her will. So she let her hands be licked with flames and set the basket on fire. She could feel, far off in a distant sea, the core of the binding spell begin to disintegrate. She could watch as the basket crumbled into ashes even as the flames left the wax figures untouched. And she could see the dark magic draining out of Misery, leaving a frail and pale woman with golden hair in her place.
And there was Misery without any dark magic. Not cursed at all, but pitiful, limp in Dignity’s arms. Iris felt tears of something— joy, sorrow, weariness— well up in her eyes, and they tasted salty on her lips as they fell.
Finally, it was over.
After Misery’s cleansing, everyone ended up in the throne room. It was strange to see the nightmare specter of Misery made into a fragile golden-haired girl, but stranger still to see the ridiculous figure of the Pumpkin Prince replaced by a handsome young man with lush dark hair and a long straight nose. Iris kept expecting flames in his eyes, but instead they were a pale blue-grey tinted with sadness.
Bluer eyes, bright and mottled like juniper berries, belonged to Kismet, whose feathers had been completely shed to reveal a girl of barely more than eight summers with warm brown hair and peachy skin. She, like Iris, had remained completely quiet as Dignity had carried his sister in his arms to the castle. The mouse boys had chittered among themselves and with the two willow sisters as they all marched to the throne room, where Dignity had pushed aside the flower of water on Misery’s throne to lay the girl herself down on the seat.
“So,” Iris said, unable to bear the silence, “have I restored Dignity to the throne?”
Dignity laughed, his voice’s edges a bit ragged, before smiling. “I suppose you have.”
“Shouldn’t you sit down or something?”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t take everything so literally,” he said with another grin. Then he laughed again. “I’m sorry. It’s just, I didn’t imagine I could ever get my sister back. But now she’s healed, I’m healed, and the realm can begin healing.” He smiled warmly at Iris, who felt a bit uncomfortable at all his happiness and gratitude. “I owe you, no, all of Harkenhilt owes you a deep debt.”
“I just did the quest set in front of me,” Iris protested. “Anyone would have done the same.”
“Maybe,” one of willow sisters suddenly said, “but not anyone could have done it. You could and you did and the world has had some of its long-lost balance restored as a result. I have my mistress back as a result. So, thank you.”
“Okay,” Iris mumbled, blushing. “You’re welcome.”
There was a lull into which Kismet spoke in a sweet, high voice. “You have been a lovely companion, Iris. I believe these are your shoes.”
And sure enough, in Kismet’s hands were the canvas shoes stitched by Mother Hall.
“Oh! Thank you kindly.” Iris took the shoes, feeling the power thrumming within them. “You know, I’m still not certain what these do.”
“They’re boats, stupid,” Wick said, ducking in close and nudging Iris’s shoulder with his own. “You use them to cross the river. Right foot forward into Death, left foot back into Life.”
“Oh,” Iris said, shaking her head. “Of course they are.”
Another silence, in which everyone seemed unsure what to say.
“Well,” Dignity finally said, “I guess this is goodbye.” A pause. “It’s poor form for a living soul to linger over-long in Death,” he added, trying to look stern.
“Oh shut it, Pumpkin Prince. This whole quest would have gone twice as fast without your constant complaining.”
“I did not complain!”
“Well, your self-pity certainly slowed you down.”
Dignity huffed and Iris laughed. So did Kismet, in her musical tones.
“I should be thanking you,” Iris said, turning to the young girl. “All of this was only possible with your guidance and intervention.”
Dignity frowned. “What cost must you pay for helping another Lady’s quest?”
“No cost,” Kismet said slowly. “In this matter, Luck’s interest aligned with Death. I only did as I was bid.”
Dignity frowned further. “I see. I suppose balance in the realm is of benefit to all.”
Kismet tilted her head, her eyes inscrutable. “Perhaps.”
Iris suddenly felt very, very young as magical beings discussed the will of the ancients. She turned to her mice companions, seeking a sense of comfort, only to realize that such a comfort would be short-lived.
As if reading her mind, Allocrux smiled softly and spoke. “We’ll see each other again. You are a friend, Iris, and friends don’t say goodbye forever.”
Dignity nodded. “Part of me wishes I could say we’ll never see each other again, that you will go home to your world and I will stay in mine, but I fear our paths will cross again before the whole world is set to right.” He frowned. “You’re a general of the Steppe Guardian Army. It’s archaic, but there’s something you should have. Timothy, could you fetch a coin necklace from the treasury?”
The green-eyed boy nodded, then disappeared in a flash.
“Misery misused her torque, using its magic to twist the world against its order. I trust you will use its power only to uphold the balance of the world. To heal the Steppe… well, if anyone could do it, it would be you, Iris.”
“Of course,” Iris said weakly. She had almost forgotten another quest rested upon her shoulders, waiting to steer her life to its next adventure.
Timothy returned with a necklace with a triangle pattern of coins hanging from braided silk cord. He slipped behind Iris and tied it firmly around her neck. The coins felt both heavy and light, cool and warm. She could almost hear the magic jingling, feel it cascading off the coins in sparks. Then the magic settled, a slight pressure in her chest, and the coin necklace felt like nothing more than just that.
“With your shoes and your necklace, you can cross into Death wherever you find its river. And to find its river, even when you travel in foreign lands, I want you to keep this.” Dignity pulled off his pocket watch and handed it to Iris. His pale blue eyes met hers, then he looked away, a hint of pink on his cheeks. “Use it to find the river and also, if you please, to remember me. I won’t forget our quest together.”
“Nor will I.” Iris opened the timepiece and watched as the hour hand spun around then pointed out the castle door. “Well, it’s off I go.” She looked around at all her friends, the mischief-makers and misfits that had helped her restore order to Death itself. “I wish you all more peaceful journeys in the future.”
Timothy smiled. “And we the same to you.”
On the way out, Iris made sure to ruffle the hair of each mouse-boy and to shake Dignity’s hand, which turned into a warm hug. Misery on her throne was still asleep, the willow sisters gave her a cordial wave, and Kismet leaned up on her tiptoes to give Iris a goodbye kiss on her cheek.
And then Iris was wandering across the realm of Harkenhilt, again all alone, following her pocket watch to the river that would take her home.
Though she stepped on solid ground and her skin near stung with the warm prickle of the sun, Iris felt chilled to the bone, as if she had drowned herself in the river instead of crossed safely in her boat. It was humbling and grounding to have the earth spread out away from her to the horizons, but part of her missed the purple sky and orange moon she had grown accustomed to.
So! Iris looked up at the yellow sun and white clouds. She was home. Her quest was over. It was time to resume her duties as a Candlemaiden, traveling throughout the realm to battle shades, speak with spirits, and tend to the dead. She would seek alms at the villages she sought refuge at, would offer her services to all who needed them, and would live as an itinerant Candlemaiden until the time for her Steppe quest began— Akavos had assured Iris that her path would inevitably lead her to the Steppe when it was time for her quest.
Resolved to begin her duties as Candlemaiden as soon as possible, Iris opened her senses to search for spirits. Perhaps there was a recently dead parent lingering to watch their children, or an animal who had died a particularly gruesome death that needed help passing on. She opened her mind, felt it expand over the nearby plains—
But then, far away, she felt a flame flicker on a small purple candle imbued with her essence. Her vision spun, and she was just a wisp of smoke on a wooden desk by a window, twirling up and past the pale face of a silver-haired man– Cecil, Iris remembered with a start, the man from the docks— and the fathomless black eyes of a crow. Out the window she traveled with the smoke, to see the red roofs of the many-colored houses in Ramos, and to see the soldiers in the street, marching with precision in crisp Kaerent uniforms.
Home, she still thought, though the feeling had changed. Her home was all of Erinlin, its culture, its heritage, its history, and now her home was under siege.
The fight for Harkenhilt was over, but the war for Erinlin had just begun.
Iris opened her eyes and set her feet towards her country’s capital city. She would return to Ramos and fight for the freedom of Erinlin. To protect the realm’s living and dead- such was her duty as a Candlemaiden.
Author’s Note: Well, that’s it. End of story. There is a sequel, but it’s mostly unwritten, so I don’t know when I will begin posting it.
Thank you for reading Candlemaiden! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. And check out the next chapter for news and contests 🙂