Tenth Chapter, Second Part: Encounters

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The land past the river Alaethos was much the same as Iris had already experienced, though there were no more grave towns for her to sweep her eyes past before they swelled up under her notice. She caught sight, for the first time, of a few people wandering the land, normal spirits like those she had first seen before the Candlewood, but she saw them only from a distance. Even then, she could see the wariness in their silhouettes, in the crouch of their backs and the nervous hurry of their steps.

That chilled her, though it took a while of walking towards the castle to sift through her uneasiness and figure out why. She was in Harkenhilt, twilight realm of souls, where the dead came to rest before joining the world anew, and they were afraid. What could frighten them so? Iris had the impression that the land should be covered in spirits, all going about their afterlives in preparation for their rebirth, and instead the fields lay empty under the dusky sky and orange moon.

The archivist had said the realm was wilting in chaos, but that implied an energy at odds with the barren fields and the resounding emptiness that seemed to sneak into Iris and hollow her out as well. Or perhaps she was simply weary from her quest, from her new destiny as a playing piece and all the shocks that came with it. It seemed unfair that her mind be besieged with new questions and unstable information when her limbs were tiring from her endless wandering and her heart was sore from all the upsets of the realm.

"A lock for my key, m'lady?"

"Gah!" Arms cartwheeling, Iris fell over backwards and landed hard on the ground with a sharp out-press of breath. Standing above her was an old man with long wild hair and deeply wrinkled skin. Around his neck, oversized to the point of being comical, was a bronze two-toothed key on a fraying rope.

"I don't have a lock," Iris managed as she pulled herself to her feet and looked about wondering where the man had come from. "My apologies."

"You don't need to have a lock. You are the lock."

"I am?"

The man looked sad. "No, probably not. I'd like to try, though, if that's alright with you."

Iris put a hand in her pocket to fiddle with candles that weren't there. Curling her fingers and subtly settling into a balanced stance, she assessed the man and found him overwhelmingly nonthreatening, his sudden appearance aside.

"What does that entail?"

"Well, this." With a sudden movement, the man had lifted the key and pushed it into Iris's chest, where it sunk in a little, feeling a bit cool but otherwise remarkably nonintrusive. Iris stared at the bronze bow of the key that jutted out from her sternum for a moment, then looked up at the man in amazement, who in turn looked desolate as his inability to sink the key in any further.

"No, I thought not," he mumbled, pulling the key out and turning to walk away. "Perhaps your child."

Before Iris could process what had occurred or protest that Candlemaiden couldn't have children, he was already fading from sight with every step he took. He paused, though, to turn around and tell her with a tragic countenance, "You shouldn't be walking about when it's so dangerous. Try keeping to the edge of the forest." And then he was gone.

And so she went to the forest, because it was a direction and she was rudderless.

***

Iris was, after the Candlewood, rather wary of trees, so she kept a handful of paces away from the sharply delineated edge of the forest. Like all things in the realm, it followed its own logic and was murky and shadowy right at where it bordered the wispy grass. Iris had the impression that if she were to pass into the shadows between two of its gnarled trees, it would be like pushing through a cobweb sheet.

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