Eighth Chapter, Second Part: Remembrance

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Iris heard the river before she saw it, though perhaps heard was not the right word. Rather, she felt the sibilant buzzing in her teeth and against her eyes. It raised the hair on her arms and made her throat tighten at the choking memories of sinking and flailing and succumbing to the dark abyss.

Iris shook her head. There was no need to be melodramatic. Mother Hall had given her canvas shoes for her crossing, so surely she would be safe.

Though, now that Iris thought about it, she wasn't quite sure what to do with the shoes. They had made perfect sense at their receiving, the way the strange parades as commonplace in dreams, but now Iris looked at them with a measure of consternation. Did she wear them? Would she walk over the river? But Candlemaidens weren't supposed to wear shoes, and surely Hall would have mentioned if their use involved such an infraction.

Iris wished her mice were around; they would know what to do. Before they would tell her, there would be a bit of teasing, she supposed, but that was no bother. She loved the way they frolicked, all coy and mischievous before they darted in for a kiss. If she left the realm now, she would be leaving them.

Iris looked longingly somewhere to her left, where she reckoned the grave village to be. She could at least say goodbye. Gain some sort of closure. But just as the dead shouldn't linger in life, so should the living not dally in death. It made sense.

Distracted by her thoughts, Iris had approached the river, though she still stood a safe few paces away. It was all silvery froth, more like violent racing mist than water. Iris doubted, magic shoes or not, that she could walk over it. She did have the sense, though, that she knew the answer, if only her mind would let her look deeper and deeper.

But before she could fathom it out, the water before her began to swirl, the mist coalescing and darkening into a black vortex. The whole realm seemed to darken, to sink into another starker plane of existence, and soon an obsidian mirror began to rise from the vortex, tongues of mist curling around its edges and solidifying into an ornate frame. This too made some sort of sense to Iris, but felt less like a dream and more like a night terror.

Little more did Iris want than to drag her eyes away from the mirror, but instead she stared at it, her gaze transfixed. In it, her reflection skewed, her skin draining of color until it was bone-white, her hair growing sleeker and black as pitch, her eyes sinking and nose sharpening until the person who looked back at her was a woman of alien and indifferent beauty.

"Are you lost, little girl?" the woman asked, and in her voice Iris heard funeral bells and the lonely crashing of the ocean. She spoke through Iris's silence, as the girl's muscles all felt paralyzed. "Then perhaps you better find yourself. Restore dignity to the throne, and I'll allow you to leave. I have high hopes for you, young one. Don't disappoint me."

Before Iris had a chance to breathe, the river roiled and reared up, a wave crashing over the girl who had stood so cautiously at a distance. It swallowed her whole and whisked her through its snaking self to spit her up far far away at another end of Death's domain.

***

Iris woke up without her shoes and without any sense of where to go. If losing herself in the Candlewood had been like a window slowly losing its clarity to soot and grime, then losing herself in the river was like a piece a parchment having its text scraped away to make room for different lines. She felt raw and erased and like little more than a blank page waiting for foreign ink.

A flash of blue. Iris sat up and rubbed her eyes. There was grass beneath her and a purple sky above her head. She was on a gentle crest before a hill, but the rest was harder to digest.

Where to start? It was a wide low field, wearing a scandalously sheer shawl of mist. Across it grew snaking pieces of stone walls. With no sane rationale, they divided into incoherent pieces the gray-green field, whose edges were so poorly defined that Iris could not decide if it were as small as a clearing or as endless as the great midland plains. Some of the walls were tall, and on second glance seemed to tower high above Iris. Others fell into fans of rubble, which deteriorated into pebbles that cluttered through the meadow. No two seemed to be made of the same material, or alike in construction, but the eye couldn't help but try and fail to piece them together, puzzle out the shapes they made as they squirmed across the field. They were like the incomprehensible scribbles of a mad god. Which, Iris thought, drawn towards the field and choking back a breath of heady laughter, described this whole land fair enough.

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