Tenth Chapter, First Part: Encounters

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Chapter art by the incredible giveitameaning!

When Iris reached the river, if so it could be called, it looked small enough to leap over if one had a long enough lead up, but there was also a quiet sense of immensity to it. The water was crystal blue and clear, but so deep Iris could not see the riverbed beneath. Water flowers, though none Iris had ever known, dotted the surface and floated gently downstream. Startlingly smooth, the river's surface was straight and unblemished but for the flowers, as if any ripples or waves had been sheared off. Staring at its beauty, Iris realized she was unbearably thirsty.

It was an odd realization. Her mouth wasn't dry, nor was her throat cracked, but she knew in an abstract way that it was crucial for her to drink from the icy blue water. For some reason she thought of tea, then shook the nagging thought off as extraneous. Slowly, she knelt at the river's razor edge and lowered her head.

It was her reflection that kept her from severing her hands. As it was, her hair that fell to the water's surface was sliced away, though she only felt the gentlest tug. Her hands, cupped and hovering above the river, shook slightly as she wondered at her likeness reflected in the water. Her skin was mottled green and blue and deep purple, like Erinlin's Drowned, like Sellie, but the colors were deeper and darker than any she had ever seen. Eyes glowing gold like molten glass gleamed back at her, and hair silver and gossamer-fine floated around her head. Her antenna were back, feathery and curved, and her hands were covered in candle wax and gravedirt. Yet for all the changes, she knew it was still her own face that answered her gaze.

Then she felt a crushing noose around her neck and was yanked back hard onto the ground. Her fingers dug into the dirt as she struggled to breathe, and the pressure on her neck was quickly replaced by a sudden weight on her chest. As she gasped in a few breaths, she looked up at an angry frog glaring at her with pressed thin lips and narrowed eyes. Her wheezing began to sound more like ragged laughter before deteriorating into coughing. The frog remained sternly perched on her chest, its bulbous orange fingertips looking out of pale against the creamy wood of its long shepherd's crook. Iris struggled to make sense of the image, realized it was within her capacity if she could just force herself to focus, then gave up and blacked out.

When she came to, she had a few blissful seconds of not knowing where she was, which were rudely curtailed by the vivid orange moon and a deluge of her recent memories. She groaned and rolled over, and came face to face with a frog the size of a young sheep.

"You're the dumbest Candlemaiden I've ever met," it said.

"Yeah, well, you're the ugliest frog I've ever seen," Iris replied in a rough voice, even though she had, in fact, seen less attractive amphibians. She had not, however, ever seen a frog quite like this one, who was sitting cross-legged with the shepherd's crook planted in the ground beside him and a smug look on his face.

Iris turned eyes back to the purple sky and clinically considered not getting up ever again."How does everyone know I'm a Candlemaiden anyway?"

"You're a living child in Death's realm. You're not wearing the the robe, but you're certainly no Zaksmander, so what else could you be? Though I've never before met a Candlemaiden who would try to drink from the Alaethos river." The frog chuckled, his voice low and throaty. "You've got me to thank for your hands, by the way. The river would have cut them right off."

Iris wanted to reply that the frog was being ridiculous, but she didn't have the energy. Her mind kept returning to her skewed reflection, her long antennae and mottled skin. There had been an honesty to the image that had made the monstrous features almost compelling. Iris was reminded of gnarled old trees, which still retained a stark beauty when wet and bare and scraggly. Then she remembered her yew tree at home who had kept vigil with her in the graveyard, and she sighed at the weight of weary sadness in her chest.

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