Happy Halloween! This year, I have a story written by Di, featuring Iris & Phoenix, to present for the occasion.

Dead Light Paperback Cover

Sometimes things felt just plain wrong.

Not wrong like realizing too late that you answered incorrectly on the test, or say the wrong thing in front of your girlfriend’s parents. Wrong with a capital w, and it was persistent. Not constant, thank god, but close enough to it that it was starting to make everyone feel on edge. Iris was agitated, tapping the tips of her pointed fingers on the edge of the boat, while Phoenix kept himself busy leaning against the mast, flicking a lighter open and closed with his thumb. He should have retired below deck with Midnight, away from the churning visuals of the water around them, but neither spotwould lessen the misery brewing.

“I hate this,” said Iris.

Obviously; they both did. Hating it wasn’t going to change the fact that they were out in the middle of fucking nowhere with an exhausted skeleton crew and a nearly cold engine, surrounded by big floating chunks of sea ice that could tear the boat to shreds at any given moment. Cold was no bother, but the blue-black depth of the water below them was.

Aurora declined their invitation to take part in their small excursion with no hestitation, surprising not only Iris but Phoenix as well. When asked why, her voice died in her throat, and her dropped her gaze to the hull of the ship, troubled. Without further word, she left them in that room, bewildered. For as little as Phoenix thought of anything spiritual, human or alien, Aurora was no joke. Her belief in old legends was strong, and her faith, like Iris’ was never shaken. Her near-immediate refusal to participate sent up a tiny red flag.

It should have sent up a bigger one.

Phoenix kept his eyes on the lighter. It had engravings on both sides, though they were different in pattern. One side had a stylized and blocky depiction of an astakid warrior woman, and the other a more wispy and artsy flower: the fleur-de-lis, one of Iris’ favorites. He took it from the supplies out of boredom, lacking something to fiddle with in his hands while a whole lot of nothing was happening. It was hers, though she made use of it for practically everything except the device’s original purpose. Probably for the better that she didn’t pick up dangerous earth habits. At least, not ones he didn’t already try to impress on her.

“I really hate this,” she said again, firmer this time. She clicked her mandibles together in irritation and thumped her fist on the railing. The loud clack echoed off the icebergs. Her head was on a swivel at the starboard side of the boat, scanning all around them like an owl watching for field mice. A sizeable divot had been carved into the metal under her claws, though not all of it was from this trip. Many times he’d seen her stand there and tap her claws in restless impatience, frustration, or boredom. On better days, sharpening weapons or reciting prayers were her choices for passing the time.

He would’ve been talking more, but the shifting ice around them was rocking the boat with a rather unpleasant frequency, churning his guts just enough that he felt that if he opened his mouth to talk, he would’ve vomited instead. Not keen on revisiting the taste of upchucked seafood, he stuck to keeping his mind focused on literally anything else. Still he sighed, annoyed, and he watched the cloud of breath hang in the air for a few seconds before dissipating.

“I hope,” Iris began a third time, resting her weight on crossed arms over the railing, “that this isn’t all for nothing. Every source I could find pointed to this place, but none of them would explain why.”

She dug into the temple archives, intrigued by a person whose words Phoenix had written off as that of a lunatic. Given the high frequency of weird bullshit that happened anywhere and everywhere on the planet, he wasn’t about to take a crazy ramble at face value. He could do enough of that on his own, no assistance required. That said, he would be lying if he wasn’t made at least a little bit curious by the way Iris took it to heart. Gullible was not a word he’d use to describe her, but she often pursued threads with heated passion once they piqued her interest, even if they turned out to be bunk. It was charming; nothing like a little alien hyperfixation.

Fire burst out of the lighter’s spout, flickering in the gentle cold breeze. What little heat it gave off felt good, but what he wouldn’t give to instead have a warm spot in front of an actual stove fire right that moment. Iris, on the other hand, remained unbothered by the bone-deep chill they’d been sitting in for most of the day. It wasn’t much worse than the deepest parts of winter in Sweden, so while Phoenix could handle it, he was going to complain about it anyway.

It came to his attention that Iris was looking at him, tilting her head at an odd angle past her shoulder. Her eyes were fixed on his face, though she wore no strong emotion. She was thinking hard, probably how to form a question. He saw that face a lot.

“What?” he finally asked, and regretted right away. His stomach lurched, and he had to stand back with his eyes closed against the mast.

“Is that the only reason you’re so quiet?” Iris joked, walking away from her spot at the rail.

Phoenix nodded. Once they were on land again, he’d be fine.

“Then you can relax. We’re almost there. I see the shore.”

“Oh thank God.”

Regular boating rarely give him trouble, but the particular choppiness of this sea was an absolute pain in the ass. Phoenix stopped for only a moment to kick a rock into the dark water from the stony beach, then followed Iris towards the frozen hill in front of them. Worn stone steps led from the beachfront all the way into a cluster of ugly and uninviting foliage, plants and fungi alike. Goosebumps erupted along his arms under the sleeves of his coat.

“We’re going in there? Seriously?” he asked, crossing them under his cape. “What about… whatever the hell lives up here that’s big enough to eat us?”

“I will kill it,” Iris said matter-of-factly.

She probably would, Phoenix decided with a shrug. “Still.”

“I will not let anything eat you,” she sighed, pinching at his shoulder. “This walk will be short. I promise.”

“Why even bring me to this place? You knew I’d hate it, aside from the chance to wear this badass thing again,” Phoenix continued, pulling at the fur trim. It layered around the hood and shoulders of the cape, then gradually thinned to leather and woven fabrics near his boots. The inside was insulated with thick natural fibers that felt a lot like wool, and more fur. He never asked where the fur came from. A boyish grin that crept across his face every time he put it on; it made him feel like he was stepping out of some Viking storybook legend, accompanied by his very own shieldmaiden. “You know I don’t really believe in this kind of thing.”

“I know,” said Iris, sounding almost shamed.


“I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just tired, you know?” He rubbed half of his face, leading into a gentle massage of his eye. It began to bother him as soon as he hopped out of the boat. “I wasn’t expecting to round off this whole thing with DynaChemical by going on a pilgrimage to the ass end of polar bear city.”

“I did not want to go alone.”

Iris had a weird habit of saying the strangest things that were also disarmingly touching, and Phoenix couldn’t really argue with that. Turning down her offers was difficult, something he was unsure if she knew, or that it was done out of affection rather than intimidation. With the way she threw smiles back at him whenever he said ‘yes,’ however, he had a feeling she might have known after all.

She scaled a jutting rocky outcrop with little effort, then held her hand down for Phoenix to grip. After finding a suitable foothold, he vaulted up and grabbed onto her. Swiftly he was yanked past the edge and steadied flat onto his feet once again, guarded by Iris’ careful touch. Though it was some time ago, he witnessed the sheer strength that those now-gentle hands could produce, and the heart-twisting horror that followed. Sure, she would be rough with him now and again while joking or venting, but Phoenix was never worried.

“So what is this place, and why is it so shut away from the rest of everything?”

“It’s supposed to be a place of solitude, where one would travel if she wanted to find inner peace, or consult those passed.” Iris ducked under a low-hanging branch and held it out of the way for Phoenix. “But only for those who could not find their answers elsewhere. Something about this place is said to be truly enlightening, that they left with physical proof of their faith, and that it must be experienced to be believed.”

“That’s a lot to expect of some spot in the woods,” said Phoenix. To his surprise, Iris laughed.

“It is,” she said, “but I might as well try, seeing as we’ve come all this way.”

Farther along the trail, Phoenix felt another twinge in his eye. Grunting with frustration, he rubbed at it again, only to find that it neither was alleviated nor worsened. Dull and persistent, it made him squint it shut. The red border display of his implants continued to float in his vision, but something about it was bugging him, like a stuck pixel on a computer screen. At his command, it finally dissipated from view.

“Is something wrong?” asked Iris. She slowed but did not stop on her path.

“I think something got in my eye,” said Phoenix. “But it’s fine. Let’s keep going.”

Soon the forested path led to a small clearing, in which stood a towering ring of menhirs, overgrown with a coating of pale teal lichen. Rested against one another at their tips, the great stones overlapped, resembling the pieces of a camera shutter, or petals on a flower. Phoenix wasn’t certain, but they had to have been at least 20 feet tall. Above them, a string of stars in the darkening evening sky seemed to point directly down at the structure, like a celestial signpost.

Iris held out a hand in front of him, bringing him to a halt.

“What?” he started to ask, but she made a gesture that told him to lower his voice. “What is it?” he said again, quieter this time.

“Listen,” she said, then made a sweeping gesture in front of her.

Putting a hand to his ear, he did just that. The only sound that reached him was the distant crash of waves hitting the cliffs on the other side of the island.

“I don’t hear anything?” he said, confused.

Iris raised her brows and nodded.

Now that she mentioned it, he hadn’t heard a single chirp, chatter, bark, or squawk of any indigenous animal life since they stepped on the rocky beach. Since he’d been talking to Iris most of the way, he hadn’t paid it any mind, but now that it was brought to his attention, it sent a shiver up his back. Even the sea birds disappeared some ways into their journey here, like anything with instincts knew to keep away to the best of their abilities.

The twinge in his eye worsened.

“It’s like a natural sound-dampening room,” Phoenix observed. “Creepy.”


Around the menhir circle was a larger border of polished beach stones, outlining the clearing and its oddly barren ground within. While the stones sported the same lichen as the menhirs, the ground itself showed no signs of grass, flowers, or any other plant or fungal life. Stepping on the dirt sent an odd jolt up Phoenix’s leg, the hairs suddenly standing on end. Iris must have felt something similar, as he saw her antennae vibrate and tuck down against her head. Not the best sign. Taking in the environment around them, Phoenix was almost convinced that the surrounding trees seemed darker from within the circle.

“I can see why none of the texts wanted to talk about this place,” he heard her say under her breath, sounding less confident than before.

No kidding, he thought. He drew the front of his cape together and clasped it shut.

A large and rectangular flat stone sat embedded in the earth in front of the menhirs, smoothened by time and use from other pilgrims past. Iris hesitantly stood on it, then settled into a kneeling position. She sat back on her heels and set her hands on her knees, then took a deep breath.

“Will you sit across from me?” she asked, motioning with her head as to where he should sit. 

Phoenix did so, tucking the cape underneath him to put a barrier between himself and the frozen ground.

“Close your eyes,” she instructed, and he followed suit.

The dead air around them was stifling. It wanted to reach into his chest and grab his throat, to squeeze until he could breathe no longer, and make him part of this unsettling site. Unsure of what to do, he tried to steady said breathing, hoping Iris was finding what she was looking for. It wasn’t long before an odd buzzing surfaced in the back of his mind, reminding him of static from last-century media tapes and broadcasts. He tried to shake it away, but movement only seemed to amplify its noise. The sensation grew until he felt numb to the atmosphere around him, even the frozen dirt under his gloves not registering to his sense of touch. Discomforted though he was, he found he could not open his mouth to speak, let alone ask Iris just what the hell was happening to him.

Panic started creeping into his mind as the otherworldly noise seemed to oscillate, and the twinge in his eye became a pulse. Unable to keep his sense of dread fully under control, his eyes snapped open, desperate to find any kind ofgrounding element and bring him back to reality. Red displays pinged to life, appearing to be just as confused as Phoenix himself, as they were having difficulty pinpointing anything beyond the space his body was occupying at that moment. Even Iris wasn’t quite registering right, and she was only a couple feet away from him.

For all he knew, she was in some sort of trance. Her eyes were unblinking, staring past him into the forest, blown out and downright spooky in the ever-dimming light. Her body was so still that he couldn’t tell if she was even breathing, but after combing over her form, he noticed that her fists were clenched so tightly that he could hear the unusual stress squeak of her shell rubbing against its own pliant surface. Though he couldn’t ask her to confirm, he was willing to bet she was experiencing the same terror as he.

Without warning, a loud noise that reminded him of metal being sheared into pieces crashed against his eardrums. The terrible cacophony caused his whole body to flinch, breaking free of the paralytic spell that had been cast over him. He clapped his hands to the sides of his head and clenched his jaw, trying to block out even a fraction of the volume, but nothing he did helped to tune it out. Nausea returned to his stomach, worse than anything on the boat, and the thought that he might pass out crossed his mind. Blacking out in the middle of a forest that neither of them were familiar with terrified him, but as he doubled forward to rest on his elbows and knees, it was beginning to feel inevitable.

Blotchy black and red dots spanned his vision, further confusing his HUD. Back was the alarming impression of something grabbing at his throat and tightening his airway, and among the chaos, an indicator appeared towards the corner of his field of view. It pointed at something in the immediate vicinity, but no physical form entered view to match it. Unable to make any sense of it while almost choking, Phoenix tried to reach out to Iris. Maybe if he could snap her out of her state, she could help him-

– and everything around him abruptly cut to black.

Black not like the night with no moon, but like the pitchest of darks in an underground cave, where light never touched. Noise did not carry, and numbness spread from his fingertips to his core. Tingling jabs traveled along every inch of his skin, unrelenting in their burning needle pricks-

– and then he was on his back, staring up at the dark starry sky above him, flat on the frozen ground.

It took a moment for him to process that he was no longer choking, and, in a sudden jerk, sat upright, clutching at his sternum. Pulling at the collar of his jacket and shirt revealed no red marks of assault, nor did his clothes bear any indication of physical interaction with anything but the dirt and stones.

Quick glances around him confirmed he was still in the same space he was moments ago, but something felt… different. Lighter, like a weight had been lifted from the clearing, and now it was just like any other forest he’d ever stepped foot into.

“Iris?” he said weakly, finding his voice at last. “Iris!”

Iris lay across the flat stone in front of the menhirs, eyes still wide open. She did not move.


Phoenix hurried to his feet only to discover that his balance was nowhere to be found, and went stumbling right back down to the dirt. Louder, angrier swears chased his earlier profanity, and he kicked at the ground with his heel in frustration. Trying once more, he managed it a second time and crossed the distance between them, already reaching to grab and rouse her from her catatonic state.

“I don’t know what that was, but I really hope that you aren’t-”

An ear splitting snap nearly jolted him off his feet, but he recognized it: a typical astakid scare tactic, purely automatic. That meant Iris was alive and responding to something, at least unconsciously. He waved a hand in front of her face several times, hoping it would jog anything in her brain and wake her up.

At last, faint focusing movement from the yellow slivers within her eyes turned her gaze to him, and she let out what sounded like a whole lungful of air in one breath.


“Holy shit,” was all he said in reply.

“Finn,” Iris repeated, her expression shifting from blank to uneasy fear. “Are you hurt?”


“Your eye is red.”

“Uh, yeah, it’s the imp-” he stopped mid-sentence, as he could see what she was referring to, now sliding down his cheek. Was he bleeding? “Fuck me, guess it’s not. Yeah, I’m… I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.”

Iris sat up, bringing a hand to her chest while she steadied herself with the other three. Looking fully lost as he felt himself, she scanned their surroundings before moving another hand to hold the side of her head. “Where…”

“Still in the same place, as far as I can tell.”

“I don’t feel like we are.”

“Neither do I,” Phoenix admitted.

“I want to leave.”

“Did you figure out anything while you were… y’know, tranced out like that?”

“What do you mean?” Iris squinted at him, suspicious. “I sat down, heard you fall, and then I was on my back.”


They sat there in silence, taking a moment to observe the area once more. No animal noises reached them still, but the sense of wrongness that had been ever-present was now nowhere to be found, as if it had slunk back into whatever hole from which it emerged. Iris rubbed her upper arms as though she were cold, then shakily tried to stand. Phoenix offered help, but she did not take his hand, adamant on doing it herself. With another sweeping glance, utter confusion written on her face, Iris settled on him, wordless but pleading for some kind of explanation.

“Don’t look at me! I have no idea what the fuck just happened,” Phoenix said, putting his hands up. “But I do know that whatever that crazy bastard said back in town? Maybe not so bullshit after all.”

Iris looked crestfallen with this lack of information, and she might have remained unsatisfied with the situation had she not looked at their feet. Gasping, she leapt back from where she stood, clearing a spot under them. Where she had been standing was now a small, gnarled ring of what looked to be heated glass, cooked instantaneously like sand in a lightning strike. Phoenix craned his neck skyward; there were no clouds above them.

Iris picked it up, touching the object with a palpable reverence. “I saw something like this in the texts. They called it a ‘dead light.’ It’s supposed to be evidence of a connection.”

“Between us and what?” Phoenix asked, holding his arms wide at his sides. “What the fuck does ‘dead light’ mean?!”

“They didn’t say. But this was not here before our experience, and now it is here.”

Phoenix barked out a humorless laugh. “Yeah! Sure. A freaky glass ring that came out of nowhere. What a souvenir. A fat lot of good this whole trip did us.”

He glared at the ugly glass sculpture, wishing he could break it over the rocks on the beach, but knew he wouldn’t be able to so long as Iris wanted to keep it. She looked at him with sadness, and he took a deep breath to calm himself. For a brutish bug warrior, she sure could be sensitive.

“Sorry,” he said.

“I don’t think it was a waste,” said Iris, her voice soft. “But I don’t think we will understand what this was for a long time.”


“I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to drink this memory into oblivion for the time being,” said Phoenix, all too ready to wash his hands of this forest for as long as humanly possible.

“I… think I am, too.”

Iris held the glass ring close to her middle as they descended the long, low slope back to the boat. Phoenix glanced from it to her face, and he saw her staring at it with awe. A fond smile made its way to his face, despite his disbelief.

“You’re really gonna keep that?”

“For now,” she said.

“When you decide you’re done, I’m throwing that thing overboard.”

Iris’ jagged mandibles curved into her own grin. “When I do, you may have to fight Aurora for it. She would love to add it to her collection, I’m sure.”

Light glittered off the bumpy surface of the ring, changing with every step Iris took. The longer he stared at it, the stranger he felt, though the odd sensation did not carry an oppressive heft like the rest of the island upon their arrival. Instead, something about it felt almost calming. Why, Phoenix could never say. This and any other “supernatural” bullshit was way out of his league, right where it belonged.

“We’ll figure this thing out sooner than later,” he said, pulling his hood up over his head.

“You’re invested in the mystery again?”

Phoenix scoffed. “Whatever happened back there was way more than just some ‘religious experience,’ Iris. I wanna know just what the hell I went through, what I saw.”

“All in time, I suppose.”

“Uh-huh, and I know just where to start.”


The Eternal Blue came into view through the thick branches once more, a lantern beam shining out over the water in their direction. Even from this distance, they could see Aurora’s soft outline against the dark colors of the surrounding night.

“You don’t think it was weird that she clammed up the second she heard about this place? That look on her face-”

“I know.” Iris held up the ring, inspecting its underside. “Her chapter keeps detailed records of history from our earliest of days. She knows something we don’t, without a doubt.”

A curious prickling at the back of Phoenix’s neck made him stop and turn to look over his shoulder into the dark underbrush, swiping at the disturbed spot with his hand. Iris said nothing but inquired with her eyes as to his status, but he waved her off gently.

“Exactly,” he said, regaining composure and resuming his walk towards the beach. “I have a feeling she’s gonna be a lot more interested in talking after seeing a little proof of that faith and hard work.”

Settling into the boat they brought to shore, Phoenix kept his gaze on the woods while Iris cranked the motor to life. A throb still ached behind his eye, but the blood slowed to a trickle. Only when she set her hand on his shoulder did he turn away from it towards her. Wordlessly she pulled him down to sit in front of her, his back to her front, and she crossed her arm over his upper body. Setting her chin atop his head, she puffed air between her mandibles and watched the stars begin to move along above them. Phoenix’s view remained a little more level, watching the faintest of red flickers sparking to life in the corner of his vision. Artifacts responding to nothing, he thought.

He’d get his answers soon enough.