She wakes slowly.
There’s cold, damp stones under her back and the sound of dripping water out in the distance. She takes a deep breath–the air is stale–and she opens her eyes. It’s dark.
She lies there, staring up into the darkness. Where is she? How did she get here? She tries to get her thoughts together, but she can’t gather an answer. She can’t seem to remember much of anything at all.
Groaning, she sits up–or makes a valiant effort at it when she hears the shuffling of cloth and freezes.
“Are you awake?” a voice asks. It’s low and entirely unfamiliar.
A sigh. “You are,” the voice says, clearly relieved. “I thought you were gone for good this time.”
There’s some more sounds of shuffling and footsteps on stone, and a pair of green glowing eyes appears from not too far away.
She tries to sit up again, with a little more success. “Who–” She swallows, trying to get some moisture in her mouth. “Who are you?”
The person–whoever they are–stops moving. There’s a long pause, then a sigh. “I’m Lucian,” they say. “We’ve been traveling together for five years now.”
“Lucian?” The name doesn’t mean anything to her. It feels unfamiliar in her mouth and she can’t remember ever saying it, or anything else, for that matter. “There…there must be some kind of mistake. I don’t…I don’t remember you.”
“I…” Lucian looks down. “I know. You’re just going to have to believe me right now.”
There’s a long silence.
“I’m sorry,” she says when it’s clear that Lucian doesn’t have anything else to say. “But I really don’t remember you. I can’t remember anything.”
“It’s okay,” Lucian says. “It’s not your fault, I expected it. Just…give me a second.”
There’s some fumbling noises as Lucian leans over to do…something, then a soft click. A small lantern switches on, casting a faintly blue light–magical, it must be.
She looks at Lucian.
Lucian…doesn’t look human. She may have, once, but now her eyes glow washed-out green and her hair is tangled and brittle, like a bush of dead briars. Her skin is ash gray and cracked like it would flake off if someone brushed her the wrong way. There’s deep gashes in her arms, deep enough to cut to bone, but there’s no blood, just more chalky gray.
“Are you okay?” she asks Lucian. “What happened to you?”
And maybe it’s an insensitive question to ask, but if they really have been traveling for five years, then it seems like the sort of thing she ought to know.
“It’s hard to explain,” Lucian says with a tone that seems to mean she would prefer to never explain. “I’m fine, so don’t worry about me. How are you feeling?”
She has to pause then. How is she feeling? Everything aches, but other than that, she doesn’t feel much. Not happy, not sad. Mostly just confused. She says so.
Lucian sighs. “I guess that’s the best I can hope for.” She scrubs her hand over her face, then rummages in her bag. “Since you’re awake, I should give this back to you.” She pulls out a glass jar with a ribbon tied around the neck, small enough to be held in one hand.
Lucian holds it out. “Just…take it.”
She takes it, and–
She’s falling. The ground cracks and crumbles beneath her feet and there’s eyes everywhere she looks, red eyes peering through the pitch darkness, and a voice.
“If that is what you want, then you will have it,” it says in a voice like cracked leaves, like shattered bones.
The darkness flows in on her, swallows her whole so she can’t scream, can’t speak. It presses against her skin like binding ropes until she can’t even breathe.
This isn’t what she agreed to.
“I’ll give you something to remember me by,” the voice says, echoing between her ears, and she feels something cold between her fingers. “So we may meet again.”
This isn’t what she wanted.
She screams against the shadows that bind her, screams in words that nobody can hear, least of all herself. This is unfair. This isn’t what she asked for. This…this isn’t how this was supposed to go.
The voice hisses at her. “I’ve given you everything you wanted, and you will pay the price. Do not forget your promise, Isla.”
There’s a flash of red, and a sudden screeching wind so strong that she has to shield her eyes from its power. There’s a sound of cascading stones against glass, and a flash, and–
She blinks the vision away, and looks at the cold glass jar in her hands. “What was that?” she asks, her heart pounding in her chest. She looks up at Lucian. “What was that? I…I saw someone. There was a…something in the darkness, it talked to me, and–”
“That was the witch,” Lucian says. “And that–” she gestures to the jar, “–is your curse.”
“A curse?” she asks, more out of incredulity than anything else. “But that’s impossible, I’d never make a deal with a witch! I’d never…”
“But you did,” Lucian says. “We all did.”
She stares at the jar in her hands. It’s an innocuous looking thing, just a small jar, smooth and clear. There’s a steel stopper and a faded pink ribbon around its throat. It’s heavier than it looks, but it’s hardly what she would call cursed or even generally magical.
“That…” she says. “It, that witch. It called me Isla. Is that my name?”
Lucian shrugs. “Maybe. Maybe not. It seems to change every year.”
And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s the only thing she has to go on in this confusing mess. She takes a deep breath.
“What is this jar?” she, or Isla, asks.
“It holds your memories,” Lucian says. “If you don’t fill it in a year, it breaks and your memories scatter again, and we have to start over.”
Isla turns the jar over in her hands. “Then…?”
“It broke last week, and you’ve been out since. I was starting to think you’d never wake up.” Lucian grimaces. “I’m glad you’re okay now,” she says, softer.
“Yeah,” Isla says, even though she doesn’t feel ‘okay’ right now. Between not being able to remember anything and being told that she made a deal with a witch, she’s…she’s holding up pretty well, all things considered. Maybe it’s shock. “Why…why would I make a deal with a witch?”
“I don’t know. You never told me.”
It must have been something bad. She can’t even imagine what would drive her to make a deal with a witch–there’s nothing that can justify that, nothing that’s worth a life of being cursed. How could anything be worth it, when she can’t even remember what she did?
Isla turns the jar over in her hands once more, then sets it down. It’s a lot to take in.
Her stomach growls just then, and she suddenly realizes she’s ravenous.
“Here.” Lucian tosses her a small bag.
Isla catches it, barely, and looks inside. She can’t really tell what it is.
“Dried fruit,” Lucian says. “I don’t need to eat, and neither does Sol, so we don’t really have fresh food.”
Isla picks out a piece and puts it in her mouth experimentally. It might be a piece of dried apricot, but she’s not sure. She can’t taste much of anything right now. “Soul?”
The answer comes from beside her. “Oh! That’s me! I’m Solanus!” the lantern says. “Are we finally leaving? Because this cave is boring as–“
Lucian clicks the lantern off and says, “Sol says a lot of stupid things. You get used to it eventually.” She turns the lantern back on.
“Wow, Lucy. After all these years and everything we’ve been through together, you just shut me off? I can’t believe you’d betray me like this,” the lantern says. “Next time we’re by a building I’m going to possess it and fall on you, and then we’ll see who’s sorry!”
“You already tried that. Didn’t work,” Lucian says. To Isla, she says, “Sol doesn’t have her body anymore, if you haven’t noticed. She has to stick around in objects and we’re not completely sure what works and what doesn’t. She doesn’t have much luck with anything bigger than a watermelon, though.”
“Which is bullshit, because I deserve to be able to–“
Lucian turns the lantern off again. “Like I said. You get used to it. Sort of.”
Isla nods, more out of politeness than anything else. She’s not sure she’ll get used to a talking lantern, much less one that’s so…vocal. She figures it doesn’t matter much right now; she’s got bigger problems.
“We should leave as soon as you’re ready,” Lucian says, clicking the lantern back on. “I’m sick of this cave and if I have to hear another of Sol’s enlightening speeches about different types of rocks, I might have to murder her.”
“Wow, rude. I thought you liked rocks, Lucy.”
Lucian scowls. “Not after the eighth time, I don’t. And that’s not even counting when you did this last year.”
“The lantern knows about rocks?” Isla asks.
“No, she just thinks it’s funny to annoy me.” Lucian shakes her head. “My point is, the sooner we start searching, the better.”
“For your memories,” Lucian says. “You’re the only one who knows how to kill the witch.”
Isla blinks. “What? Me? But that can’t be true, I don’t–”
“You’re just going to have to believe me,” Lucian says. “Get some sleep. I’ll keep watch, but we should be fine. I don’t think anyone’s stupid enough to come out here.”
Isla refrains from making the obvious point that they were apparently stupid enough to come out here, wherever here is. Extenuating circumstances, she’s sure.
“I know you’re confused and this is all a lot to take in,” Lucian says, softer. “But I swear things will make sense soon. We’re in this together, okay?”
“What am I supposed to do?” Isla asks.
“For now, just rest. We’ll figure out the details tomorrow,” Lucian says.
Isla considers pressing further, but she’s exhausted–even sitting up for as long as she has is a bit too much. She lies down on the cave floor. It’s not comfortable, but she’s tired enough that it doesn’t matter.
She dreams of black shadows lurking in the spaces of darkness and wind. When she wakes up, it’s with dry eyes and a pounding heart, and a hollow feeling of uncertainty of what, exactly, she’d seen.
She opens her eyes slowly. It’s still dark, but there’s some faint white light filtering in from a ways off.
“Good morning!” the lantern–Solanus?–says. “Or afternoon, or night. Lucian never tells me what time it is, and I can’t even tell if you’re actually awake, but good morning!”
“Good morning,” Isla says, with considerably less enthusiasm. “Where’s Lucian?”
“Why is it always ‘Where’s Lucian?’ Why isn’t it ever ‘Where’s Solanus?'” Solanus asks. “I’ve contributed so much to this team and this is all the consideration I get. I’m really feeling underappreciated, here.”
“Oh,” Isla says. She hadn’t realized the lantern could get offended. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you felt that way.”
“Nah, I’m just fucking with you,” Solanus says. “You’ve got all your memory problems and your dumb human meat body. I’m just along for the ride. I think at the end of the day I come out on top.”
“Uh,” Isla says. “Right. Okay. Do you know where Lucian is?”
“No idea! I guess it’s just you and me until she gets back!”
“I…guess so,” Isla says. She’s not so sure she really wants to be stuck with a talking lantern, but it’s not like there’s anything else to do.
Well, actually, there’s no reason why she can’t do something else.
“I’m going to take a look around,” she says. “You know, see the sights.”
“Really?” Solanus asks with a hint of mockery. “That’s a terrible idea on account of all the demons and bullshit we already went through, but fine, whatever. I don’t have legs and you have a free spirit to express. Have fun looking at all the identical rocks, then. I’m sure you’ll have a real swell time! Try not to get murdered or Lucy’ll get upset.”
“Thanks, I’ll try not to,” Isla says. She dusts herself off and starts walking.
“Wait,” Solanus shouts after her. “Wait, I wasn’t kidding when I said it was a bad idea! I don’t have eyes, so I can’t actually tell you what’s down there, but it’s not great!”
Isla ignores the shouting and keeps going. It’s not like she’s going to go far, and if she’s survived being passed out here for the last week, she’ll probably survive walking around, too.
Unfortunately, the walk is about as exciting as Solanus said it would be–that is to say, not at all.
The cave is large and, well, cavernous. It’s also very dark, which makes Isla want to go back and get the lantern, but since that would mean picking up Solanus, too, she decides it’s better to keep stumbling around instead.
It’s a bit damp, with stones that are worn smooth by water. She can hear some rushing water not too far off, but it echoes around the cave so she can’t really tell which way it’s coming from. She’s careful to keep track of where she’s going, at least. The last thing she wants when she has no idea where she is is to get lost and starve to death.
That would be embarrassing.
She eventually comes out to a bit of an open space that’s otherwise a dead end. If she squints, she can make out a pool of dirty water in the center with some powdery smears around it. There’s nothing else of note.
With a sigh, Isla decides that this is as good a place as any to take a break and sits down on yet another damp rock. She rubs her eyes and tries to think of what she’s supposed to do now. She can’t remember anything, or, well, she remembers some things. She remembers what magic is, sort of. She remembers what grass and water and wind and rain are. She just doesn’t remember anything about where she comes from, or who she even is, or what she did.
Nothing except the witch.
She made a deal with a witch. A witch. Even now, it’s hard to swallow. She doesn’t know what for, or why. She can’t think of anything that would be worth it.
She takes a deep breath. Nobody deals with witches. At least, nobody who values their life deals with witches, and there are fates much worse than death.
She has to pause just then. She does value her life, doesn’t she? She thinks she does, but she may not have. That’s a depressing possibility.
She sits there long enough that she decides she should head back. As much as Solanus annoys her, it’s not like she’s actually trying to run off on her own. Lucian, at least, seems like she’s got her best interests at heart. Best to not make her worry.
She goes back the way she’d come. Step by step, slowly so she doesn’t slip. Unfortunately, all the caution in the world doesn’t mean much when the footing is uneven, and she slips anyways, falling on her face.
“Fuck,” she says, and her hands catch on fire.
It takes about ten seconds of screaming before she realizes that she’s not in horrible agonizing pain. Obviously, her hands are still on fire, but at least she’s not getting burned to a roasty toasty crisp, which would really be a great way to round out all the crap that’s happened in the last hour, talking to Solanus included.
Her hands burn a pale cobalt blue, and she holds them out for light. It’s unsettling for sure, but if she ignores the fact that her hands are on fire, it’s definitely functional. “Okay, my hands are on fire,” she says, taking a deep breath. “That’s completely reasonable. I can work with this.”
She makes her way back, faster now that she can actually see where she’s going, and Solanus is still there at the camp site by Lucian’s things.
“Oh, it’s you again,” Solanus says. “I thought you died or something, with all that screaming.”
“You heard my screaming and didn’t do anything?” Isla asks.
“Oh, you want my help now? I don’t have legs, jackass. What the fuck do you want me to do?” Solanus replies. “So if you didn’t get mauled by a bear or a demon or a really angry mouse, then what was all the screaming about? Or do you have to do that to warm up your vocal cords? It’s been a long time since I’ve had a meat body, so I try not to think about these things.”
Isla chooses to ignore Solanus’s crass choice of words. She can’t expect everyone to be pleasant. “My hands are on fire.”
“Then put them out. Wow, that was an easy problem. I wish everything I had to deal with was that easy.”
“I…” Isla scowls. “Solanus, take this seriously! My hands are on fire!”
“Well you’re not screaming, so I don’t see the problem,” Solanus says.
“My hands! They’re on fire! I don’t want them to be on fire!”
“I already told you what to do about that. I’m not sure what other advice you want,” Solanus says.
Isla takes a deep breath. “How am I supposed to put my hands out?”
“I don’t know, have you tried telling them to stop being on fire?” Solanus asks. “That’s a good first step.”
Isla stares at the lantern, then at her on-fire hands. “Uh…”
“You didn’t, did you? Man, people these days. Trying to get people to solve their problems without even trying to fix them themselves.”
Isla ignores that. She glares at her hands and says, “Stop being on fire.”
The fire dies down, a little. It’s a promising sign.
“Stop being on fire,” she says again, more emphatically.
Slowly, the fire shrinks and disappears, her hands no worse for wear.
“See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Solanus says.
Isla chooses to ignore that, too. She suspects that if she spends much more time with Solanus, she’ll end up doing that a lot.
“What’s going on?” she hears from a ways off. “I heard Sol talking.”
“Why do you always assume it’s a bad thing when I’m talking?” Solanus shouts. “I’m a very intelligent and nuanced individual and I have never, ever given you bad advice, ever!”
Lucian climbs over a rock up to where they are and says, “One month ago you wanted to make searching a forest easier by burning it down.”
“And it would have worked if you weren’t all such massive cowards!” Solanus retorts. “That forest never would have known what hit–“
Lucian shuts the lantern, then looks up at Isla. “Hey,” she says. “Good to see you awake again. Feeling better?”
“Uh,” Isla says.
Lucian grimaces. “Yeah, talking to Sol will do that.”
“Yeah,” Isla says. “Um. So. Quick question, uh, my hands caught on fire.”
“Yeah?” Lucian asks as she sits down and opens her bag.
Lucian rummages for a while until she pulls out a wide-toothed comb, then runs it through her hair a few times. There’s a soft crackling sound as it passes through, and it doesn’t seem to do much. She drops the comb back in her bag. “That wasn’t a question.”
“I mean…is that normal?” Isla asks. “You know. Fire. Hands.”
“Well, did you set them on fire?”
Isla makes a face. “No! Why would I set my hands on fire?”
Lucian shrugs. “I don’t know. You wanted a light because it was dark and Sol’s a piece of shit who won’t shut up?”
“No, I mean yes, but I didn’t set my hands on fire! They just caught on fire!”
“Right,” Lucian says. “Because you made them catch on fire. With magic. You’ve done a lot of weirder things, Isla.”
“I–” Isla takes a deep breath in. A deep breath out. “Magic?”
Making magic items like that lantern or artificed clothing or toys, that’s one thing. Unusual, but not unheard of. Rituals and sigils, that’s something plenty people can do, even if they’d rather not. Performing magic, that’s…witchcraft.
“Yeah,” Lucian says. “You know, that thing that you have and use all the time.”
“No,” Isla says. “No, I don’t know. I lost my whole memory because I made a deal with a witch because I’m apparently a huge idiot. Since when have I been able to do magic?”
“Since I met you,” Lucian replies, like being able to do magic is perfectly normal and not something that the imperial guard can and will execute for. “That was…a bit over five years ago now. You’ve used it a lot, you know.”
“Yeah,” Lucian says.
“Magic is illegal,” Isla says, because while she can’t remember anything about her favorite foods or friends or family, she can certainly remember that. “Only witches and demons use magic. I’ll be hanged for using magic.”
“Sure,” Lucian says. “Doesn’t change the fact that you have it.”
Isla closes her eyes and counts to five. “Why do I have magic?”
“I don’t know,” Lucian says. “That’s not something you ever told us about. But if I have to make an educated guess, it has to do with the deal you made with a witch because you’re apparently a huge idiot.” She shrugs and tosses her bag aside. “It’s not like you’re doing anything more illegal than we’ve already done. If you’ve already made a deal with a witch and you’re losing your marbles once a year, you may as well take advantage of it.”
“I–” Isla puts her face in her hands. “My memories are marbles, aren’t they? I hate you. I hate everything about this.”
“They’re more like glass stones, but yeah,” Lucian says. She stands up and starts picking up the scattered objects around the camp. “If you’re ready now, we can get going.”
Isla follows after her. “Lucian. Lucian, wait, how are we even going to find my memories? They could be–they could be anywhere!”
“Magic helps,” Lucian says. “That’s usually how we find them.”
“I don’t know how to use magic!”
“Sure you do,” Lucian replies. “You set your hands on fire earlier.”
“Lucian, I’m serious! I don’t know what I’m doing!”
Lucian looks back at Isla, then sighs and puts down the blanket she’s holding. “Okay, so maybe we should go through this real fast.” She sits down, and gestures for Isla to do the same.
“Your memories aren’t just anywhere,” Lucian says. “They scatter to places with people, usually, or where there’s a lot of magic. Sometimes they end up in items, sometimes witches or other assholes get their hands on them, which sucks because some really bad things can happen then.”
“What? Why would anyone want my memories?” Isla asks.
Lucian grimaces. “Your memories have…a lot of magic in them. The kind of magic lets people do things they shouldn’t be able to, even with normal witchcraft. It usually means that whoever has them doesn’t want to get rid of them.”
“Then how do we get them?”
Lucian shrugs. “We persuade them, one way or another.”
Isla tries very hard to not think about what ‘persuasion’ entails. She’s just not ready for that this early in the morning, or whatever time of the day it is.
“They go to different places every year, so we can’t just go back to all the places we’ve tried in the past,” Lucian continues. “It’s a real pain in the ass, that’s for sure.”
“But they can be anywhere, can’t they?” Isla asks. “The continent is enormous. How are we supposed to figure out where they are?”
“Well, wayfinding magic gets us in the general area, and then we listen for news. Weird things like demons coming out, weather doing things it’s not supposed to, that usually has something to do with your memories.”
“What? That’s–that’s horrible!” Isla says.
“Well, yeah,” Lucian says. “You made a deal with a witch. Witches are horrible all around. We just have to deal with it.”
“And I have to…find all my memories? All in a year?”
“We. We’re looking for them together,” Lucian corrects. “I don’t think you’d get very far on your own.”
“And you’re helping me because…the witch.” Isla licks her lips nervously. What was it Lucian had said? That she was the only one who could kill the witch? That seems so impossible when she doesn’t even know what the witch looks like, much less…where it is, or if she could even do anything against it.
She remembers its overwhelming power.
“It’s a little early to worry about that,” Lucian says. “Killing the witch comes later, when you’ve got some of your memories back and you’re not as confused.”
Isla frowns. “I…”
Lucian gets up and pats Isla on the shoulder. “You’ll get the hang of it soon, I promise. For now, let’s get our stuff. I want to get out of this goddamn cave.”