Iris knew her life would be changed when she woke.
She knew by the way the stairs did not creak under her feet as she crept down them. She knew by the still silence of the usually restless city. And she knew by the dark, sun-lacking sky. But the question remained in the air, quietly being asked by the wind, and the sun, and the sky that were not shining by request, was the change for better? Or worse? Perhaps a blessing? Or agonizing curse? Soon, Iris would find out. Iris was sixteen, no older, but was deeply matured. She never did anything stupid just to please someone (or herself) no matter how imploring it seemed. School she never cut, nor ceased to study. Her siblings and family she put first. She had a great sense of duty and abnegation. She was quite beautiful with her dark, curly, hair and deep blue eyes. She seemed perfect. But secretly, as certain ominous are to be kept secret, she was deeply lonely. And with loneliness comes resentment, and jealousy. And yet, Iris hid her resentment, just like her loneliness, it was a hidden feeing of imperfection. A thought of veiled disgrace. A clandestine, very furtive, very regretful, secret. And so, she hid these dark thoughts of bitterness and revenge towards everyone who broke her heart. She tried to shut them out. She wanted to tell someone. . .Yes, telling someone would surely chase away the pain of her crowded mind and unyielding soul. But her regal sense of responsibility won over, her cryptic ways began to mystify those amidst her, though no one asked questions. Her mother, and father, and younger sister showed no dismay, although they too held secrets. Secrets much darker than Iris’s with much more harmful ends. But now, we must return to Iris’s not so normal day. And for the midst of an ordinary storm, on an ordinary day, it became so ordinary, it became extraordinary. And it started as an extraordinary day would, with a mysterious letter discovered by accident, for it was blown into the yard by the wind, by accident. Or so it was thought. Iris picked up the letter curiously, like any curious teenager would, and brought it into the house, ignoring the fact that there were no cares in the street today. “Mom,” she said indigently. “I brought you the mail.” She set on the counter in front of Mrs. Archer, and walked into the parlor without even a funny look from her mother when she kept a single letter in her hands, for she was thought to have an honest reason for doing such a thing. She opened the envelope with delicate hands, swift, yet graceful. Just a plain white envelope, though it was more than it appeared. Iris foresaw this as no one else would, but that just made her more intent upon opening it. When she discovered the letter, she found it not nearly as regular as it’s packaging. The ink was pure black, and it seemed to shift around the paper, forming words as she read. The paper itself was dog-eared and worn. Its surface to the touch was scraggly and rough. But the oddest thing of all is what was written on the old papyrus:
I am positively furious to inform you that your time has come. The curse you bear is absolute. You must meet the Grim Reaper. He lives in The Seeping Willow. If you do not visit him soon, the Raven will come, and he will reap you himself. I may not be your friend, but I warn you, if you can get to The Seeping Willow and reason with Death, he may spare you. Your meeting is inevitable, you might as well try reasoning with him. I’m sending transportation to the Unspoken Realm. Here you will meet the cause of your curse, and, as I said, the possible solution. The bird wore a human scowl as it tapped at the window. It continued to tap. Iris had no choice but to open the window for the insufferable bird, to so forth avoid suspicion. “What do you want?” Iris asked weakly, her voice shaky from what she’d just read. To her great surprise, the Raven replied, his voice scratchy and crowing:
“My master sent me to bring you to the Realm.”
“You mean you’re not the Raven sent to reap me?” It sounded as odd to say such a thing as the words written on the papyrus, or the way the stairs didn’t creak.
“No,” replied the bird. “I am here to escort you to the Realm.” Of course Iris, being quite intelligent as well as honest, didn’t trust the Raven. After all, whom would trust such a dark creature from such a dark place? But the way the bird spoke, with a gentle tone full of wisdom that was somewhere between persuasive and manipulating, was almost enough to make her want to listen. Temptation over took her with the birds ravaging words.
“Where is this Realm?”
“’T is in a place that only I can take you to,” the Raven said softly. “It is your choice, but as my master warned you, your meeting with Death is impossible to resist. Once you bear a curse like yours, there is no turning away from him.”
“Well, everyone dies,” Iris argued.
“Yes,” agreed the Raven. “Everyone dies. But the Grim Reaper is a horrid figure of death, not many ever meet him. Assuming you choose to leave and persuade him, you must always speak of him as Death, as with a capital D.”
“Iris,” called Mrs. Archer. “What’s that crowing? Is there a bird at the window?” Iris knew her mother could not hear the bird’s voice, only what a human’s ears could tolerate. But, although Iris was human, she was not normal. She carried the biggest burden of all- even if she didn’t know it. Iris carried more weight through her curse than through the sky ready to rain, and carrying millions of pounds of water. But like the sky when ready to rain, there was away release her curse, and for that, she must speak with Death.
“It’s nothing, Mom!” Iris promised. She turned back to the Raven urgently. “What is this curse I bear?” she whispered.
“I cannot tell you,” replied the bird somberly. “Only the one you gave it to you can, and if they do, your meeting with Death may be even earlier.” His voice made Iris wonder if he was talking about the Grim Reaper, or mortality.
“Take me to the Realm,” Iris decided. The Raven flew onto her shoulder, and with that, the world dissolved into darkness.
Iris felt like she was falling, with her eyes glued shut, and cold clinging to her skin. The wind whistled in her ears like the howl of a rabid dog. She could no longer feel her companion’s claws on her shoulder. The smell of the air grew musty and humid, like an attic in summer. She could tell she was surrounded by pitch-darkness, even without opening her eyes. But she couldn’t feel anything under her feet, as though she were falling into an endless void. But indeed, she wasn’t falling into any kind of chasm. She was falling upside down, meaning she was flying with her legs pointing the sky, though she still felt ground under her head, and not the slightest indication that her feet were pointing to the sky. And when she landed, she was not in a place that looked anything like the sky, for she had flown beyond it to a place that only few are unlucky enough to enter, and those few are either the ones who bear curses, or make them. Of course, the people who create these curses are not evil witches, nor sinister warlocks, they are people who disobeyed the laws of Death. Sometimes, without knowledge. The place itself, Iris saw as she landed, was the worst place she’d ever seen. The ground was made of long strands of swaying gray grass. The trees were trees that had grown without sunlight, they had branches that curved, and twisted, and curled at odd angles. The sky was nothing, for she and the Raven had passed the sky. There was simply nothing above them. The landscape, as I said, was just dark swaying grass, and the curvy trees. Iris scanned the horizon, and tried to get over her shock. Surely nothing could survive in this cold and sinister place? But soon, Iris would find out that things could survive. Horrible things. But with horrible things comes magical things, and that she would also discover. As she stood, her body trembling, she started to feel her being again. She could hear the pulse of her heart and the sound of the wind. She could feel the Raven on her shoulder. She could even sense the letter in the pocket of her jeans, stirring as though realizing it was home. “We’re here,” said Raven.
“Raven,” said Iris, her voice shaking as badly as the rest of her. “This is the Realm? You didn’t tell me it would be such a horrible place!”
“Where would you expect Death to live?” Iris was silent. He had a point. After a moment, she said,
“Where is he then?”
“As Master’s letter said: He lives at the Seeping Willow.” Iris looked around. She saw no willows among the vast, curvy trees.
“Does anyone else live here?” she asked.
“Oh, many,” replied Raven. “There are terrible monsters, gruesome creatures. As for human life, few, but yes. Lost souls who defied the laws of Death. There is one here to see you, who has also just arrived, only minutes before you. I told him to wait while I got you.”
“Who is he?”
“His name is Theseus Honor.” Iris felt her heart freeze. She knew that name, and the memory was crystal clear. It was the day she had died:
She was thirteen years old. This was before she moved to Boston, when she still lived in a small patch of forest in North Smithfield Rhode Island. Her friend, Theseus was at her side as they wondered the woods, and came across a small stream. The day was warm and sunny like any summer day, or at least it had been a moment ago. Now, the air suddenly grew cold and the birds and insects fell silent. Iris, having noticed, said, “Theseus, the birds have stopped singing.” Theseus looked at her curiousity.
“So?” he said.
“Don’t you think that’s weird?” Theseus ignored the question, for something had caught his eye. He gasped.
“Iris, look!” he exclaimed, pointing at something glittering on a tree. It was a weeping willow, and its branches swayed back and forth in the breeze that didn’t seem to exist anywhere else. On the tree, as though clinging to its bark was a black raven pendant with rubies for eyes. Iris felt wary towards the pendant. She felt its dark power, but Theseus moved towards it.
“Don’t touch it,” Iris warned. “It looks like black magic.” Theseus suppressed a laugh at Iris’s imagination.
“Who would be doing black magic here?” But Iris was right. Not about it being black magic, [though it was almost as bad] but about not touching it. It was dangerous. Theseus got closer to the tree.
“Don’t.” Iris grabbed his arm, but too late. Without even touching the mysterious pendant, Theseus had triggered it’s owner. A skeletal figure with a scythe burst from the roots of the willow. His black cloak caught every shadow in reach. Cold clung to him. But it was not Theseus he reaped. With his scythe he struck down upon a frozen Iris, who was knocked to the ground bleeding. She could barely hear Theseus screaming. The Grim Reaper was molding back into his willow. Iris didn’t feel the physical pain of the cut, she felt something much deeper. As she recalled it, she realized why Raven had spoken of him as, not death by mortality, but death by something much deeper. The soul. Yes, Iris could feel her soul flouting away. She was already dead, but she had been killed by the Grim Reaper, and that meant her soul would be taken with him. That meant he had made her soul as mortal as the rest of her body. He had broken her. And as her soul was drifting away, she saw a sort of dream. . .a vision of the present. She saw Theseus in a panic. Half-sobbing he dropped next to Iris and examined her broken, listless body.
“Iris,” he whispered. “Iris, wake up!” He pounded the ground as he spoke. “Wake up!” Then his pupils grew small. There was a voice like a thousand rocks scraping against metal, a deep, scratching noise that could only have belonged to a being hundreds of years old: ” The locket,” it hissed. “Take the locket, it will heal her.” As though finding no dismay in the voices, Theseus obeyed and took the locket to Iris. He placed it around her neck [for now that it was out of the tree the chain was visible]. Iris felt it burn, digging into her chest. She screamed and came out of her trance, gasping.
She realized she had actually seen the horrible memory. She understood more about her curse now, and why Death wanted her. She hadn’t seen Theseus since that day- a sad day, for they had once been best friends. Had their separation perhaps been by, not fault of their parents, but fault of Death? Theseus had given her the locket and defied the laws of Death. Theseus had accidently cursed her. But where was he now?
“Raven,” said Iris. “Where is Theseus?”
“First,” said Raven. “Why must you see him?” Iris chose her words carefully, for they answered to the Raven a clever test.
“For the same reason a flower needs rain to grow,” she said. Raven smirked, which would’ve seemed impossible two hours ago.
“Iris, the way you speak is not like that of any average American teenager.”
“I am not the average American teenager.”
“True, but how did you learn to use such words so delicately crafted, in a world of words so harshly cut out?”
“I answered your question as a writer or a poet would. That’s all.”
“No,” said Raven. “Don’t you understand, Iris? Simple words like those- put into such a work of art, is incredible.”
“But as you said they are simple.”
“And that is what makes them so extraordinary. They are words that anyone would use, and yet, you have made them in such a way no one would use them. Don’t you think that’s tremendous, Iris?”
“A writer can answer so.”
“And a writer is truly amazing.” Iris was starting to realize the wisdom of the old bird, she momentarily forgot Theseus.
“You promised me an answer. Where is Theseus?”
“He is coming,” said Raven imperatively. Iris waited. And waited. For an hour with Raven, who let out not a single croak. As she stood, she thought about what he had said. Her words were powerful. But what can words- simple words do to stop something as foul as the Grim Reaper? Words change lives. Save lives. Bring people together. Tear them apart. Start wars. Stop wars. Give another chance to a lonely girl who needed help. But it was not her own words, ironically, that would save her. It was someone else’s. And soon she would know whom. After the agonizing hour had passed, she saw a figure staggering into the open. She immediately recognized him: Thesues looked the same as he had three years ago, except his features showed a slight aging. He still had his dark black, messy hair, and his deep blue eyes. Just like Iris’s. He was more muscular, but not very large. And something was wrong. His face was gaunt and scraped. His eyes were wild- like he’d been chased a thousand miles by ghosts. His skin was pale and had an irregular amount of blue veins snaking across it. He collapsed on the ground, wheezing and coughing up blood. Iris’s heart dropped like she was upside down again, but worse. She ran to him and dropped in front of him. Raven quickly followed.
“Iris,” Theseus spluttered. He spat more blood. Iris lifted him close to her. His body was trembling.
“What’s happened to him?” Iris exclaimed.
“He met a freybug, by the looks of it,” said Raven. Iris paled. She’d read about freybugs [also called demon dogs, or hellhounds] and the stories weren’t pretty. Whether from an old beastary, or a modern fiction, the stories didn’t tell of cute little puppies. Iris held Theseus close, not knowing what else to do. He was in tears of pain. Every so often he would make a sound of distress, a whimper or moan. Iris had never been so physically close to him. There had never been anything romantic between them, though some would say there must be something besides friendship there. There was, but whether it was romance or not was for fate to determine.
“Help him,” Iris groaned desperately to Raven.
“There’s nothing I can do,” said Raven somberly. “Even if I could fix him physically, there’s hardly a chance he would be sane.” Iris felt like sobbing.
“Iris,” Theseus choked again. Then Iris understood. And it was too late. Theseus had been trying to warn them. A short distance away, several freybugs were running towards them. Iris knew why Theseus was insane now. The dogs were the worst things she’d ever seen. They were a little over the size of wolves, their fur was as black as charcoal, their eyes were glowing red, a lived mist followed their feet, and, worst of all, their muzzles were covered with blood from their last meal. There were three. Snarling and howling, they swiftly surrounded the trio. Iris was in a panic and desperate to protect her old friend. Just the fact that he remembered her was incredible. Oh, no! Iris thought. As soon as I get him back we both die? What sort of cruel fate is that? But soon, Iris would learn a much crueler fate. Raven tried to ward the freybugs off by clawing at their faces, but this scarcely bothered them. Their howls were like that of a deep and ancient mountain face, wind whistling in despair to the moon. Then, Iris had an idea, a crazy one. But the only one she had.
“Leave, foul creatures of the Nightmare Realm!” she said, her voice surprisingly confident. “For I bear the curse of the Grim Reaper! And with curses comes power. Death himself is after me! Should he arrive, you will all perish.” To her great surprise, the creatures shifted uncomfortably and took a few steps back. “Leave, demons of darkness! Or I shall call upon Death!” That was enough. The freybugs scattered into the dark planes.
Iris turned her attention back to Theseus, ignoring the fact that she had just scared off a pack of freybugs. He was shaking even worse now, and he’d coughed up blood on Iris’s shirt. Raven landed next to him and Iris.
“Brilliant work, Iris,” he said breathlessly. “I told you what those words of yours can do.” But Iris wasn’t listening. Because of something that seems to be so scarce and so fragile, because she was feeling Theseus. Not just by touching him, but by empathy and sympathy. And, from a perspective, the empathetic and sympathetic designed a law: That the empathetic and sympathetic persons aren’t of one thing. They are both empathetic and sympathetic, or neither. Iris wanted to ask Theseus if he remembered more about her than her name, but she couldn’t stress him with such a question now. He needed her.
“Theseus,” she choked. “You must listen to me.” Iris suddenly knew what to do. She hadn’t scared away the freybugs with just her words, nor just her power. She had used her words in a certain way to activate her abilities. She had used the aspect of the fear of Death on the wolves. She had to understand emotions. Right now, Theseus was probably feeling timid, alone, scared, tentative. She thought of the opposite of those emotions: Comfortable, loved, safe, confident. “It’s okay. The freybugs are gone. You’re safe.” She drained all her power into her words. “Theseus,” she said meekly, putting a great emphasis on his name. “It’s all right. Recline a little bit. Just relax.” Theseus stopped trembling. He took large, compulsive gasps of air, attempting to steady himself. Iris spoke kind, reassuring words, steadily stroking his hair until he came around. To explain a few things: The main cause of the insanity freybugs strike into someone is fear [once Theseus was calmed he wasn’t afraid] and the rest of his injuries were minor, except his chest, which is why he was coughing blood. Theseus drew away, which Iris found almost disappointing. She missed her old friend. Perhaps that was part of the reason she had become lonely and envious. But now, seeing him, her anger faded. Relief washed over her, and not just from Theseus recovering. She felt comforted by his presence, as if by seeing him she could imagine the whole thing was a nightmare, and he was the only real part. Him and Raven, of course. The bird already felt like a friend, even though Iris had only known him for a few hours. It was crazy, but, despite the dark Realm she was in, the curse she bore, and the figure of Death awaiting her, Iris felt herself relax. Maybe only in her head, where she told herself she had to be. “It’s really you,” she said to Theseus. He nodded. It was clear he was still in mild pain and intense shock.
“It’s been a while, Iris,” he said breathlessly. “I’ve missed you.” Iris re-gathered herself, about to tell him the same, when Raven interrupted,
“Well, you two. I should be proud, but I’m not,” he said bitterly. “Of course, I’m proud of you, Iris. You did remarkably. Your words have special power you are yet to discover. As for you. . .” He turned grimly on Theseus. “I am disappointed. I told you to wait by the river three miles down, walk and come back so the monsters didn’t sense you. Staying in one place for too long is dangerous here,” he explained to Iris, then turned back to Theseus. “And you stayed there, didn’t you?”
“No,” Theseus promised. “I did exactly what you said: I walked to the bank, and came back, and on my way, I got attacked by a pack of . . . of hellhounds.”
“Freybugs,” Raven corrected.
“Hellhound is much more suitable,” Theseus grumbled.
“This isn’t Hell,” Raven said darkly. “But for you two, it might as well be. ‘Hell’ is not a word we like to use around here. Dark words like those are too powerful. Attracts too many beasts. That’s why we use the name ‘Death’ instead of. . .well, you know.”
“Then what about words like love? Hope, faith?” Iris asked.
“Monsters hate those words, but we are forbidden to speak them.”
“Forbidden? For laws you must have a master. Aside from the Raven Master, who controls this place?”
“The Unspoken Realm belongs to Death. I wish to save you from his minions. Both of you. I wish you to escape your curse.” Iris bowed her head in respect.
“Thank you, Raven,” she said. Raven returned the gesture.
“My pleasure, Iris,” he replied. “I wish Theseus were as charming as you.”
“Hey!” Theseus protested. Iris smiled at him.
“You are plenty charming, Theseus,” she said.
“Thank you.” Iris looked around her.
“Where are we going, Raven?” she asked timidly.
“We must travel across the Realm, wherever your curse takes you. I believe we start towards the willow by forging straight ahead.” Iris helped Theseus to his feet, she wanted to ask how his life had been the past three years, but now didn’t seem like the time. They walked in silence. As they ambled [or more staggered] along, Iris noticed more changes about where they were. The air was tight, choking, and sulfurous. It smelled like rot, and decay, and festering flesh. Iris had a feeling they would encounter all of the above. She also noticed the way the ground swayed closer to her ankles than anywhere. It seemed to grasp at them, as though attempting to pull her under. The landscape was designed to irritate, and soon, it would hurt, and after that, torture, and after that, kill. Or worse. . . After a painful half-hour of silence, Theseus spoke,
“So. . .aside from this-“ [he gestured around the area] “has anything new been happening?” Iris felt a twinge of bitterness she hadn’t yet felt towards Theseus.
“How come you haven’t spoken to me for three years, Theseus?” she asked. “You were my only friend, and you haven’t talked to me in three years. Why is that? Don’t you know that I’ve been alone and heartbroken, wondering why my best friend suddenly left me behind? The only friend I never thought would do that to me?” Theseus averted his eyes to the ground. Iris refused to look at him, but he stole a furtive glance at her face. She attempted to hide the hurt behind her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Theseus said quietly. “I truly am. I didn’t want to-to. . .” He stuttered, at a loss for words strong enough to make up for all of it.
“I’m not going to guilt you into an apology,” Iris said softly. “But I thought you should know, you hurt me. And I’ve been friendless ever since.”
“Iris, I-“ He was cut short by a sudden shudder coursing through his body. He collapsed and Iris caught him.
“He’s still shaky,” said Raven. “He needs to rest.” Iris eased him to the ground gently. He supported himself, but he shook and coughed. His face was ghastly pale.
“Theseus,” Iris said meekly, forgetting her anger. “What’s wrong?”
“The freybugs,” Theseus murmured. “I-I don’t know what they’ve done to me.” Iris felt bad for him, but she didn’t know what to do to make him feel any better. Iris looked at Raven.
“There must be something I can do for him,” she said miserably. Raven shook his head.
“You can only attempt to comfort him,” he said dejectedly. Iris stared at Theseus, wondering what to do. And before she could think about it, she began to sing a poem:
“Watching, waiting, it never ended. For the maiden, that descended, beyond her ways and truth to tell. She became only lore, a legend well. She crossed her path, which ascended up a shout, and never ended. Because she wandered, she was lost. When she was found she paid the cost. Soon she saw a road that bended But she had been lost, the last one she descended. Nevertheless, she tried again, only to find the road at an end. Going back, she walked with waver, she stole a glance at something savor. But alas, there was no wager, not one that never ended. Soon to come, she found another path, one that twisted this and that. She stepped away, but never knew, that the path just grew and grew and never ended, the only path she never descended.”
Iris caught her breath, surprised. When had she learned to make poems that fast? But what she didn’t know; is that the poem was about herself. Theseus was breathing hard, but he looked at Iris in shock.
“W-where did you learn that poem?” he asked. Iris shook her head.
“I don’t know, it just slipped out of my mouth.” There was nothing extraordinary about it, but how she had come up with it that fast was tremendous.
“I told you,” Raven said with a smile, “you’ve got special powers, now you know how to use them, they’re getting stronger.”
“But how did that help Theseus?” Iris asked incredulously. Raven shook his head.
“I don’t know, but it sounded beautiful.” Theseus nodded. His breathing became steady, and he said,
“So, will you forgive me?” Iris had almost forgotten about the accusation she had made.
“Yes,” she said. “But I still want to know why you broke contact with me.” Theseus got a desperate look in his eyes.
“Oh, Iris, I. . .” He couldn’t find the words to explain how it had been to protect her without telling her the truth. It would break her. Iris looked in despair back at him. Why had he done this if he was sorry?
“Theseus, why?” she insisted.
“Because I-“ Raven through him a dangerous look. Theseus averted his words. “I can’t tell you. But I promise, it was nothing against you, it was for you.” Iris had no choice but to believe him.
“After every incredibly horrifying thing that’s happened today I find myself amidst the most simple and delicate situation of pain: confusion.”
“I’m sorry.” Iris turned away from him. Something in her knew he was being sincere, but something in her felt like being mad at him for all those lonely days, wondering where the voice of her old friend was. Her own voice was that of a lost and desperate soul. But Iris knew better than to let despair win. She would not grieve, nor burry under sin.
“I forgive you,” she whispered, her wisdom winning out. “Please don’t do it again.”
“Never.” That ended the conversation and they kept walking. The landscape began to change. The ground became moist and sticky, pulling the trio down as though attempting to yank them underground. The sulfurous air became crowded with the sickly sweet fumes of poisonous plants. The trees became thicker, the darkness growing denser as well as the fog shrouding the landscape. Green water bubbled in the distance. Strange plants of red and blue and ferns dotted the floor of the swamp. Iris didn’t know then that the freybugs were the least horrible creatures she would meet. As they approached the bog, she realized the water was thick and corrupted by the stirring of something underneath the muck. She took a step back, the smell of decay and festering flesh dulling her other senses even worse than the scent of poisons had. Then, something appeared from the murky water. It rose gradually, then hovered above the surface of the swamp. Its shape was humanoid, but the beast was not near human. Its skin was pure white, like milk, and its eyes were just gray blotches without any whites or black pupils. It had a bony blank tail, and blue veins snaked across its skin. Its fingers were like long cream sticks. But the worst part was its voice [it spoke with no mouth] like a thousand stones grinding against steel:
“IRIS ARCHER, I’VE BEEN WAITING,” It said. “YOUR ARRIVAL IS IMPERATIVE. FOR ONCE I HAVE YOUR SOUL, I SHOULD WELL HANG YOUR HEAD UPON MY DOOR.” Iris was frozen in shock and horror. Theseus tugged at her hand, trying to pull her back. His face was pale and sweat was pouring down it. He was breathing heavily.
“Iris,” he wheezed. “Get back.” But Iris was paralyzed on the spot, her body rigid, her muscles tense and unable to move.
I CAN WATCH YOUR FRIEND SUFFER AT THE LOSS OF YOU, BUT WHAT IS BETTER, IT WILL COME EITHER WAY.” The terror lunged just as Theseus pulled Iris away. They fell onto the forest floor, one over the other. Theseus attempted to shield Iris as the monster jumped toward them for the second attack. Before it could reach them, Raven flew in its way. It stopped in mid-air. “’ART THOU AN IGNORANT BIRD.”
“No, I come from the Raven’s Master,” Raven argued. “You may have heard of him.” The creature hesitated, then dived back into the swamp. Iris lay trembling, Theseus on top of her in attempt to protect her. He moved away shakily.
“Are you okay?” he asked as he helped her to her feet. “Did it hurt you?” Iris shook her head. Then, with a baffled expression, turned on him.
“You saved me,” she said. Theseus blushed.
“I had to do something.”
“You threw yourself over me, that’s sacrifice.”
“life is sacrifice.” Iris nodded.
“Perhaps you’re right.”
Raven flew back onto Iris’s shoulder. “How did you do that?” she asked.
“My master is a dangerous enemy to the Realm,” Raven explained. Iris studied his expression, but the bird’s face was blank. “We should keep moving,” Raven added after a moment of silence.
“Can we rest?” Theseus prompted.
“I suppose we could find a place to sleep.” Raven gazed at the sky, or whatever was the infinity above them. They were stuck in a twilight zone, no way to tell what time it was. “We must get out of this swamp first. The Twelfth Knight is just a tread out of here.”
“The Twelfth Night?” Iris said. “The Epiphany?”
“No,” Raven said. “Knight K-N-I-G-H-T. The forest the Shadow Knight lives in.”
“Don’t worry about him. If you want to rest, there will be dangers wherever you choose to do so.” So they descended further into the swamp. Iris hated the way the air scraped her skin and the ground tugged at her, but she did not complain. Theseus walked beside her, and Raven flew over head to warn them if there were any dangers in their path.
“How’s your brother?” Theseus asked casually, breaking the uncomfortable silence. Iris had swerved mentioning the fate of her eighteen-year-old brother.
“He died three years ago,” Iris said quietly. “In an accident. Right after you left.” Iris didn’t say it, but she had needed Theseus the most then, and he hadn’t been there for her.
“I’m sorry,” Theseus said, then murmured, “I wish I’d been there for you.” Iris wondered why, if he cared so much about her, he had been so cut off from her for so long.
“Sure you do,” Iris muttered. “If you really do, then you would have been.”
“Iris,” Theseus said, his voice choked. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
“I just don’t understand, Theseus,” said Iris, her anger rising. “If you are so sorry, then why haven’t you been speaking to me? Why have you cut your connection with me?” Iris was walking faster now, forgetting how annoying the landscape was.
“Because I was protecting you!” Theseus blurted out. There was a sound like thunder in the distance and Theseus doubled over in pain.
“Theseus?” Iris dropped next to him. What was with this guy and falling over today?
“I’m okay,” Theseus said breathlessly as Iris helped him. “I’m all right.” A voice echoed in the distance, the same voice that had told Theseus to retrieve the locket:
“THIS IS A WARNING, THESEUS HONOR,” it said. “NEXT TIME, WE WILL HIT THE GIRL INSTEAD.” Iris looked around for the source of the voice, but there was nothing visible except the stretching swamp. Theseus looked terrified.
“It won’t happen again,” he muttered.
“Did you mean ‘to protect me’?” Iris asked. Theseus shook his head.
“I’m sorry, I can’t-“ He was cut off by Raven, who came flying towards them, panting.
“Theseus,” he said. “That was too close!” He landed on Iris’s shoulder.
“What are you talking about?” Iris demanded. “What are you two not telling me?”
“I can’t tell you,” Theseus said apologetically. “I just-“
“No,” Iris said. “What aren’t you two telling me?”
“I want to, but-“ Thunder rumbled in the distance, and Theseus lurched again. Iris helped him steady himself.
“Never mind,” she said, not wanting him to get hurt again. “If it hurts you, don’t tell me.” Theseus nodded. They kept walking, their silent questions that ceased to be asked crowding their minds.
The swamp slowly morphed into a forest. The silence was more daunting than the eerie buzz of the bog. Moss and vines grew heavier, and ferns, shrubbery, and mushrooms dotted the forest floor. The trees grew larger. They seemed to be watching Iris in disdain. The ground became more solid.
“Here will suffice,” Raven said when they ambled upon a small clearing. Iris slumped against a tree, exhausted. Theseus plopped down next to her.
“Exhilarated?” he guessed. Iris looked at him. Despite his cuts and bruises, she couldn’t help but about think how handsome he was.
“You would have to have been excited to be exhilarated,” she countered.
“Yeah,” Theseus said. “And all of these curses and monsters have gotten me totally psyched.” He smirked with sarcasm. Raven landed next to them.
“It will be cold tonight,” he promised. Iris looked down at her T-shirt and jeans and sighed. Theseus took off his jacket and wrapped it around her
“Since when did you become a gentleman?” Iris asked, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
“You’re welcome,” Theseus said.
“Thank you,” replied Iris.
“We must find a way to make fire,” Raven said. Iris pulled a match from her pocket. She always carried a match in case of emergency.
“How about this?” Theseus nodded.
“We would be dead without you,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“Actually,” Iris said. “Without me, we wouldn’t be in this place.” Theseus looked like he wanted to argue, but couldn’t.
“I’ll go get something to burn,” he offered.
“One of us should go too,” Iris and Raven in unison.
“I’ll go,” Raven bartered.
“No,” Theseus said. “We can’t just leave Iris alone here, she’s got a curse. There’s no telling how many beasts are on her trail.”
“I can take care of myself,” Iris said defensively.
“I know,” Theseus promised. “I just. . .don’t want to take any chances. And I doubt that even if you can fight them off you want to battle a horde of monsters.” He had a point.
“All right,” said Iris. “So Raven will stay, and I’ll go.”
“Agreed,” Raven said.
But Iris would be no safer traveling with Theseus.
THE TWELFTH KNIGHT
As Iris walked, she hugged Theseus’s jacket closer to her. It held his familiar, warm scent of summertime; Damp grass, fresh breeze, and lilies. It was so misplaced around the horrid forest landscape, designed to get inside your head and make you think horrid things. In fact, as Iris ambled along, dark thoughts started filling her mind. Thoughts she never dared to think before. She hated it, tried to push them away. She could tell Theseus was having them too, because his expression grew strange, like he was guilty and he didn’t want anyone to see. Darkness fell in, covering them with shadow and blocking out the dim light that had once blanketed the Realm. It came so fast, dropping over them like a candle that had been blown out, that they both panicked. “Theseus?” Iris called into the unknown. The pitch darkness had swallowed her, and engulfed Theseus as well. Iris sunk to the ground, hugging her knees. In her opinion, this was the safest way to get to him. Sit still, and wait until he found her, then they could work something out.
“Where are you?” came Theseus’s voice. Where was he? Iris tracked his voice as somewhere to her right, fairly close to her. She dared to reach into the darkness. Her hand hit something warm. Was it his arm?
“Is this you?” she asked.
“No,” Theseus said. Trembling, Iris moved her hand up the victim. The surface suddenly became cold and rough and dented. Armor. When another hand slapped over hers, she screamed.
“It’s okay,” Theseus promised. “It’s me, what’s your right hand on?” Shaking and trying not to whimper, Iris tried to move her hand away from the steel body, but a hand just as rough clasped it.
“Theseus,” she said, trying to control the tremble in her voice. “Tell me that you just grabbed my other hand.”
“No,” Theseus whispered. “I didn’t grab your other hand.” Iris felt her heart beating so fast she could hear it. Fear crept into her throat. She stifled a scream. She felt a cold presence crawling up her arm.
Theseus pulled her arm, attempting to yank her away from the thing restraining her, but it had an iron grip.
“Theseus!” she cried.
“I’m trying!” Theseus responded. He pulled as hard as he could, straining against the force holding onto Iris. Her whole body had been captivated by the cold presence now, causing her to shiver. It will be cold tonight, Raven had said. Iris wasn’t laughing. “Speak!” Theseus shot at her. “Speak!” Iris understood half a second after he said it.
“Dark creature!” she cried. How was she supposed to charm it if she didn’t know what it feared? “Leave us! You have no right to set forth upon this path and destroy us, your soul will be eaten and ravaged for your crimes!” Suddenly, Iris had no control over what she was saying. Her blue eyes abruptly changed a glowing green, causing just enough dim light so that it illuminated her face. She choked and rasped in a voice that wasn’t her own:
“Many may fear you, but you also fear them.
Be careful what you do, or your life may end.
If all so comes true, you never can mend.
They control you, not you control them.”
Iris’s eyes changed back to blue and she coughed. “W-what happened?” she asked. Suddenly, the figure clasping her released her hand. She felt the cold presence tingle down her arm and discard her. The twilight returned and the creature was gone, leaving no trace of what it was. Iris was still in a panicky haze. Theseus was breathless, but he seemed to realize more about what was going on.
“Iris,” he said meekly as she blurted and spluttered.
“What-what happened? Did I black out? What had me? Did you see it?” She still felt terror screaming in her chest.
“Iris, it’s okay,” Theseus insisted. But Iris froze on the spot. Her body went rigid. “Uh--Iris?” She fainted and he caught her. Her head lolled against his chest, he shouted her name, but she couldn’t hear him. She was in a trance.
She saw scenes that were so quick and brief, she couldn’t piece them together. She saw a weeping willow with bones scattered around the edges and blue mist swirling around it. It changed and she saw herself, struggling under something that was causing her to twist and writhe. Next came pool of poison and someone rolling back and forth under it. A sarcophagus dripping blood. A blade flying towards her head. A bleeding wound. A pair of red eyes staring right at her. All in hazy flashes. Meanwhile, Theseus scooped her up and carried her off. He was panicked and breathless, but he ran as fast as he could. Iris was twitching uncontrollably in his arms. He didn’t want to let her down, not again. He saw Raven in the clearing. He rushed over and cried out for him. Raven flew over as Theseus dropped to the ground. “What happened?” Raven said grimly.
“You—were—right,” Theseus panted. “She saw—she saw, and then she fainted. She’s scared, what—do we do?” Raven looked deeply troubled. He examined Iris’s twitching body.
“All we can do is wait until she wakes,” he said dejectedly.
“But what do we tell her?” Raven shook his head.
“We can’t, she can’t know she’s a seer.”
“She’ll find out she’s gifted with sight.”
“Cursed with sight,” Raven corrected. “And if she finds out, it will only grow worse for her.” Theseus looked down at the poor girl twitching in his arms, feeling even more pain than she. Raven also felt bad for her as he stared down upon her painfully, but perhaps it would be the way he foresaw it, in which the curser is hurt worse than the curse bearer. There were many things Raven knew that burdened him, and many he had never told anyone. One was that he was present for Iris’s birth, because he brought many a foreteller. And there was one thing that had happened upon her birth that told him exactly what would happen. Though, who would endure the most pain out of it, he could not tell. “This is my fault,” Theseus said dejectedly, resting his forehead on hers. “How could I have done this?”
“It is not all thy fault,” Raven blurted out. He immediately regretted saying anything.
“What do you mean?” Theseus asked, not averting his eyes from Iris.
“She was born a seer,” Raven said quickly.
“No,” said Theseus. “What aren’t you telling me?” Raven heaved a breath. Theseus deserved to know the horrible truth about her fate, about what had decided it, rather than predicted it, as a rational creature. But the creature was not rational. It was a creature with eyes that were red and a tongue that looked like a drop of blood. And Raven knew well what it meant.
“A magpie was present for her birth,” Raven explained.
“So?” Theseus said softly.
“Don’t you understand?” Raven spat, a sadness filling his voice that turned into an emptiness. “It is a death omen!” Theseus shook his head in disbelief.
“An omen is just a superstition,” he insisted.
“In your world, perhaps,” Raven said darkly. “But here, it is very real.” Theseus shook his head.
“I refuse to believe that she’ll die,” he said. “I won’t let that happen.”
“Refusing won’t make it any less real,” Raven said grimly. “It is fate.”
“Then we’ll cheat fate!” Theseus cried. The ebony bird shook his head.
“You can’t stop destiny,” Raven said.
“This isn’t destiny,” Theseus replied. “Destiny is what you do in a life time; fate is how it will end.” Suddenly, Iris stirred and shot up.
“Theseus!” she sobbed, gripping his shirt.
“It’s okay,” Theseus said, though it was nothing of the sort. Iris groped for his hand in her haze of panic. He took it.
“What happened?” she cried.
“You fainted after the knight came,” Theseus lied. “You passed out. It was just a nightmare.” Iris sobbed in relief and fell into his arms. Theseus had no idea how to comfort her, so he simply patted her back awkwardly. Raven shook his head, disgusted by the way they had to lie to her. Iris buried her face in Theseus’s shirt, her whole body quivering with fright. His arms were strong wrapped around her. He seemed warm and comfortable. Maybe she would’ve enjoyed the embrace, had she not been scared out of her wits. Finally, nearly ten minutes later, Raven said indignantly,
“You two must rest now. We will travel very far tomorrow.” Theseus nodded.
“Are you okay?” he asked Iris gently. She shook her head.
“Of course I’m not okay, Theseus,” she mumbled. He realized how idle the comment sounded. He ran his hands along her hair. It was soft and black as Raven’s feathers.
“I meant to say, ‘how can I make it better?’” he corrected himself kindly. She shook her head.
“I-I guess you can’t . . . let’s just go to sleep.” She pulled away from him and rested herself on the cold forest floor. He nodded, lying next to her, being careful not to rest too close.
Iris took a deep breath. How could she be expected to sleep after everything? She tossed and turned and eventually, Raven was asleep, perched lightly on a branch. She turned to face Theseus. He was asleep as well. Even with his jacket, Iris was cold. The silence surrounding the woods was even more daunting than the noise and Iris was afraid the Twelfth Knight would return. Iris was afraid of a lot of things at the moment. She shivered and remembered her mother and father and how she had left them without hesitation. She really wanted to cry. She wanted to cry and be enfolded back in Theseus’s arms. Not just for the hug itself, but the fact that someone cared enough to give it to her. She almost woke him. She felt lost and alone and frightened in the dark forest engulfing her. He’s right there, she thought. I’m not alone. He and Raven are right beside me. I can wake them if there’s danger. But this did not settle her uneasiness. Perhaps she should wake Raven? Raven would not mind. But Raven would not make her feel as safe. She looked again at Theseus, lying only a foot away from her. How easy it would be to whisper to him . . . He stirred and turned over. Iris inched closer to him anxiously. She touched his shoulder. “Theseus?” He groaned a little. “Theseus?” She shook his shoulder lightly. He turned to face her groggily.
“Iris. . .” he mumbled. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t sleep. I’m frightened.” He yawned and moved closer to her.
“But why did you wake me? What can I do?”
“You make me feel safe,” she blurted out.
“I’ve been here the whole time,” Theseus muttered, still half-asleep. Iris could tell he would’ve been annoyed she had woken him if he had been more alert.
“But now you’re awake,” Iris explained. “It seems more secure.” He yawned again.
“Do you want me to stay awake until you fall asleep?” His voice wasn’t irritable now, it was genuine. Iris hadn’t realized what she had been asking. She nodded. “Okay,” Theseus said. When he watched her, Iris had no trouble falling asleep to perfectly aimless dreams of nothing but drifting darkness.
When Iris woke, Theseus was asleep again. She wondered vaguely if he had really watched her until she had fallen asleep, or if he had quit after the first five minutes. Raven was watching them intently from his branch. Iris stretched her arms and yawned. In the twilight, the darkness around her, instead of swallowing her and taking her with it, made her glow brighter, like the moon. She shook Theseus’s shoulder. “Not again, Iris,” he groaned.
“Again?” Raven said, c***ing his head. Iris blushed.
“Yes, quite. Theseus, get up.” He pushed himself groggily to a sitting position, rubbed the back of his neck, and yawned.
“Did you sleep okay?” he asked Iris, “or . . . nightmares?” She shook her head.
“I don’t even remember if I had a dream at all.” Theseus nodded, exchanging a glance with Raven. Iris could sense the tension of the lie they were telling her, but unlike most people, she believed that for this they must have a decent reason for her own sake. Or so she told herself. And yet, something inside her doubted, yearned to know the truth, as any human being has ever yearned. And part of her was skeptical of their care for her. A lie, like such, could be kept either as a secret for her protection, or a sequester for their own selfish reasons. Discernment was her only option, and at the moment, she wanted to believe that they were doing it for her good. But how could she know that if Theseus had already abandoned her once? She realized with a sudden jolt she trusted Raven more than Theseus. But for the journey they were about to go on, mutual trust was crucial.
“When are we leaving?” Iris said finally.
“Right away,” Raven said. “We are going to stay at my master’s palace.” Iris c***ed her head.
“The Raven’s Master has a palace?” Raven nodded.
“Indeed, and he will welcome you both, as well as provide food and clothing.” Excitement bubbled in Iris’s stomach, as well as a harsh grumble at the sound of food. She had not realized how hungry she was, but now, her mouth watered wistfully. “And perhaps,” Raven continued, “you may even learn my name.”
So they trekked on through the dark, silent wood. No sunlight emanated through the spaces in the forest canopy, only dim twinkles of grey sky. Fog rolled across the ground, making the trees look even more sinister with their twisting, curling branches and thick moss and vines. Theseus’s jacket did not help with the cold, for there was now a deeper cold, that seemed to go to Iris’s very soul and make her tremble. The opaque atmosphere above them was quiet and daunting. The crepuscule twilight made vision useless. Iris thought vaguely once more of her mother and father and wondered if they missed her, or if they didn’t care at all. They had known all along about her curse, and yet, they had kept it a secret, a whisper never to be heard by her delicate hears, only to be told by the ravens outside her window. Yes, what a creature, a raven! How smart, how mysterious! A raven, which by folklore is bad luck! A raven, which by group has been named unkindness! Why, how unfair for the ravens! For the crows called murders! And yet, the real sinister creature, the magpie, their flock has been named a charm. But what is a magpie but unkind? It is the ravens who are charming, and therefore are a Charming Unkindness.
By the time they were supposedly nearing their destination, the twilight had almost sunk back into a midnight. Iris was practically dragging her feet, her stomach burning with hunger and her mouth as dry as a burnt roast. Theseus looked like he might keel over and die, sweating despite the cold weather. However, Raven glided carelessly, taking refuge to a branch whenever he got tired. By this time, Iris was in a bad mood and felt slightly bitter Raven did not think that she and Theseus needed a break. When Theseus’s legs started wobbling to the point he was limping, Iris had had enough. “Stop,” she panted. “We need a break.” Theseus nodded in agreement.
“Oh,” Raven said. “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” Iris shot him a dirty look and collapsed onto a rock, breathless. She looked at Theseus, who was now sitting next to her, and the cuts on his face and arms that were sure to be scars.
“How did you escape?” Iris blurted out. He looked at her.
“The freybugs, how did you escape from them?” He shuddered at the memory.
“I honestly don’t know, Iris. It was blurry. It happened fast. They attacked me from behind, started tearing at me.” He lifted his pant leg to show her a gash and she gasped. “And I thought about you and Raven, waiting for me to get back, and I knew if I died, you wouldn’t be able to make it across alone, and I somehow managed to crawl away. It was a miracle, I suppose.” He shrugged.
“Bravery,” Iris said, smiling a little.
“Yes, that’s me, brave Theseus of Troy.” He flexed his muscles. Iris laughed and the sound seemed to cut through the air like fire through a field.
“Don’t fall off any cliffs.”
“No promises.” She smiled.
“That’s not reassuring.” He shrugged.
“Welcome to the Unspoken Realm.”
“Are you two ready?” Raven prompted.
“Sure,” Iris sighed, kicking the leaves at her feet and standing up reluctantly. She walked about five yards when the castle came into view. She gasped. In front of fields of stretching grey grass, were towering walls of stone. The proper word was palace a place for royalty, not a castle that would be a fortress. No, this was a gothic style palace, made for a king. There was no way to explain it—only one’s imagination would suffice the needs of beauty and darkness the palace emanated. It was dark, but something about it wasn’t dank or dreary, it was an alive darkness—the kind that made stars light up, the kind that made fire burn brighter. The kind that clung to Iris. But when she looked away, she could no longer see the palace as she had seconds before.
“It’s magic,” Raven explained.