They make landfall in a small harbor town right around sunset. Lucian pulls the sails down while Isla takes some deep breaths and tries–without much success–to not feel ill from the long boat ride. Lucian pats her on the back.
“You aren’t seasick?” Isla asks.
“I don’t get much of anything, anymore,” Lucian says. She runs her hands across the boat’s side, glowing artifice marks trailing behind them, then pulls up a leather cord. “You might want to look away for a second,” she says.
Lucian yanks the cord, and there’s a blinding flash. Isla blinks, and when her vision clears, the boat is gone. There’s nothing left but a small wooden box about the size of a fist dangling from a leather thong around Lucian’s wrist.
Isla opens her mouth, then closes it. “That was magic,” she hisses. “What if someone saw you?”
“The boat was magic,” Lucian corrects, holding up the box. Artifice etchings are clearly visible on its sides. “Magical construct. Nothing illegal about that. It’s easier to carry around than a real boat.”
“Don’t worry about it, is what I’m trying to say. I know what I’m doing,” Lucian says, heading towards the town proper. “Come on.”
Isla hurries over the boardwalk to catch up. “Where are we going?”
“To find somewhere for the night. We can start searching for your memories in the morning,” Lucian says.
Isla looks around as they pass into the main part of town. It’s a cozy place, with smooth paved streets and close-set stone buildings that don’t go much higher than a couple of stories. Lamplighters with the dark green sash of the imperial servants dash down the streets past them, lighting each of the iron artifice lamps that bathe the darkening city in warm yellow light, much brighter than any oil flame could. Despite the coming nightfall, there’s still plenty of people in the streets, enough to fill the air with the sounds of chatter and footsteps.
“Where are we?” Isla asks.
“I don’t know yet,” Lucian says as she glances at building signs. “An imperial harbor, obviously. A town this small couldn’t afford the lamps and lamplighters otherwise.” She gestures to a marketplace as they pass. “Looks like a fishing town, too.”
Isla leans over to get a look at the marketplace. It smells strongly of fish, even though most of the street’s been cleared out now. The remaining vendors are putting their wares away for the night.
That’s unfortunate. After eating nothing but dried fruit all day, some hot food would be heavenly.
“There should be an inn somewhere around here,” Lucian says.
“If you don’t know where it is, can’t you ask someone for help?” Isla asks.
“I don’t want to,” Lucian says.
“Because I don’t like talking to people I don’t know,” Lucian says. “It’s not like inns are that hard to find.”
“Uh,” Isla says. The buildings all look the same to her, but maybe Lucian knows something she doesn’t.
They keep walking through the streets seemingly at random, long enough that the sun properly sets and it’s dark except for the street lights and Isla starts to suspect that Lucian does not, in fact, know where she is going. Even with nightfall, people are still out in the streets, going from place to place. They give Lucian and Isla some odd looks, but don’t do anything except give them a wide berth.
“The people here don’t seem to like us very much,” Isla says.
“It’s mostly me,” Lucian says. “I’m obviously cursed, so a lot of people try to avoid me. It’s bad luck or something.”
“That’s not fair!” Isla protests. “It’s not your fault a witch cursed you.”
Lucian hums to herself. “I didn’t say it was. But you know, the imperial guard’s been cracking down on witchcraft for hundreds of years, and they’re pretty good at it. Almost no one’s actually seen a witch these days. Most witches look human, but people don’t know that. If they see me looking like I do, what do you think they’ll think?”
“But that’s wrong!” Isla says, more loudly than intended. “You’re not a witch,” she says, quieter.
Lucian gives her an odd look. “Are you sure?” she asks. “You barely know me, Isla. I could be a witch, you don’t know. Maybe the trick I did with the boat earlier really was witchcraft, not artifice.”
Isla shakes her head. “You’re not. I know you aren’t. Witches are…they’re evil. A witch took your soul. A witch made Solanus the way she is, a witch took my memory. You helped me out in that cave and gave me food and got us here. A witch wouldn’t do all that, and you wouldn’t do all those horrible things.”
Lucian huffs and turns back towards the street.
“You’re not a witch,” Isla says.
“I’m not. Magic sucks, and I’ve had enough for a lifetime already. I’d rather strangle a witch than become one,” Lucian says. “But people here don’t know that when they see me. A lot of them think it isn’t worth the risk. We talked to witches, after all, and see where that got us.”
Isla can’t really argue that. “…I still think it’s unfair.”
“Sure,” Lucian says. “But we made our mistakes, so here we are.”
Some time later, they get food and finally find an inn in a quieter part of town. Lucian gets a room from the innkeeper who looks like he’s almost ready to flee in terror, then leads Isla to a room on the second floor at the end of the hallway.
Lucian sets the latch on the door, puts Solanus on the dresser, then clicks the lantern on.
“Fucking finally,” Solanus says. “What’s the big idea, keeping me off so long? It’s been like three days! If you keep treating me like this I’m going to start feeling unappreciated!”
“It’s been less than a day,” Lucian says as she puts her bag down by the door.
Isla looks around the room. It’s small, with only a desk, chair, small dresser, and a single bed.
“There’s only one bed,” Isla points out.
“That’s for you,” Lucian replies. “Enjoy it while you can. We can’t afford to go to inns all the time.”
“But what about you? There isn’t enough space for both of us.”
Lucian shakes her head. “I don’t sleep.”
Isla blinks. “You…you don’t?”
“I don’t eat or sleep. Haven’t for almost five years,” Lucian says. She makes a sweeping gesture towards herself. “Comes with the territory.”
“Oh,” Isla says. She can’t even imagine what that would be like, to never eat or sleep. “But you’re still human, right?”
“I’m as human as Sol,” Lucian says.
Isla gives the lantern on the dresser a sideways look. She’s not sure if she can call something like that living, or human. “So you mean…”
“I mean, not very much at all,” Lucian says with a snort. “We all made deals with the witch. You’re in the same boat as us.”
Isla swallows nervously at the implication. That’s not a comforting thought at all, that maybe she’s lost more than just her memories, or she’s less human now for having dealt with the witch.
“Sorry,” Lucian says, softer. “I know it’s a lot to deal with all at once. But you don’t have to worry, because we’ll get all of your memories and kill the witch, and everything will be back to normal.”
“Yeah, and then I can finally punch Lucy for that time she dropped me in a river and didn’t manage to find me for two and a half entire days and–“
“Thanks, Sol,” Lucian says. To Isla, she says, “You should get some rest. I want to leave after dawn.”
“What are you going to do?” Isla asks.
“I’m heading out and see if I can learn anything. I want a lead on where we need to go,” Lucian replies. “You read your journal, right? You need to do a wayfinding spell so we know what direction to start looking in.”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” Isla says. She remembers reading about that. It was a spell that used sigils and herbs. Magical, for sure, but not demonic–not witchcraft, meaning not illegal, strictly speaking. She drops her bag on the bed and looks through it. Sure enough, all of the ingredients are there: a stick of chalk, a small phial of blue leaves, a well-used candle, and an iron firestarter.
The spell itself is simple, only one sigil circle around the candle. It’s just…
“Nobody’s going to jump out and arrest you,” Lucian says. “The door’s locked and the curtains are drawn.”
Isla swallows nervously and sketches it out quickly on the wooden floor–it’ll wash off, so there won’t be evidence–then lights the candle. That done, she takes a pinch of the blue leaves and burns them in the flame. The smoke smells slightly spicy.
She doesn’t care for being properly mystical so much as getting this done as quickly as soon as possible, so she takes a deep breath and says, “Hello? Where should we start looking to find my memories?”
There’s a pause, then the candle’s flame turns blue and points distinctly towards her left.
Isla bows her head and says, “Thanks.” As if in response, the flame turns orange again, then goes out on its own. She wipes out the chalk lines as best as she can and tries to pretend like she hadn’t just used magic in an imperial town.
“Southwest. That’s still along the coast, I think,” Lucian says. “I’ll ask around and see if I can learn anything.”
“But…the people are scared of you because you’re cursed, aren’t they?” Isla asks.
Lucian shrugs. “Yeah, but I can work around that. Not everyone’s scared, and scared people can still give good information. I only need one person to tell me something useful. Nobody’s going to be able to hurt me, if that’s you’re worried about. I’ll be fine.”
“Lucy can take care of herself!” Solanus cuts in. “She’s big and scary!”
‘Big’ isn’t the word Isla would use to describe Lucian; Lucian’s even shorter than she is, and Isla isn’t exactly tall herself. Maybe Solanus should get some benefit of the doubt in this particular case, though, not having any eyes and all.
“I’m going,” Lucian says. “You should move Sol to something else while I’m out, since she’s been in the lantern for a while.”
“Put me in a knife!” Solanus shouts.
“Do not put her in the knife,” Lucian says, pulling out a notebook and pencil from her bag. “The last time she was in the knife, she screamed for eight hours straight.”
“I was strategically intimidating your enemies!”
“You were not,” Lucian says.
Isla looks at the lantern. “What am I supposed to…move her into?”
“Knife! Knife! Knife! Knife!”
“Use your best judgment.” With that, Lucian leaves.
Once Lucian’s gone, everything feels much more awkward. Not that Lucian’s the friendliest, but she’s definitely preferable to Solanus.
“Is she gone?” Solanus asks. “She’s gone, isn’t she? Dammit, she should have taken me with her! I want to ask people about demons!”
“That’s probably why she didn’t take you,” Isla says. “A talking lantern would be pretty distracting.”
“Yeah, but then she’d get to spend more time with the great me! What’s a little screaming between friends?”
“A pain in the ass, usually,” Isla says under her breath.
“I heard that!”
Isla sighs and shakes her head. She’s not going to get anywhere arguing with a lantern, and the sooner she can go to sleep, the better. “So I’m supposed to move you into something else?” she asks.
“Yeah, I think Lucy said you should put me in the knife.”
“She said not to put you in a knife,” Isla says.
“Okay, but I’m saying you should put me in the knife.”
“I’m not putting you in a knife,” Isla says.
“Wow, you’re going to trust Lucy over me? I’m the one in the lantern!”
“I can’t believe this! This is some real anti-me discrimination! You’re tearing this team apart, all because you won’t put me in the knife!” Solanus shouts. “I thought we were friends, Isla! Friends! Friends put friends in knives!”
“That’s not how that goes,” Isla says.
“It absolutely is! Friends stick together through thick and thin, and then they put Solanus into the fucking knife!”
Isla shrugs and starts looking through her bag for a change of clothes. “Then I guess we’re not friends. I think I can live with that.”
“Wow. Wow! You’re really gonna go there, really gonna asshole it up, huh? Be a huge weenieface to the person who can’t see or move around or defend herself? Well you know what, one day I’m gonna explode, and I’ll come back as a ghost, and I’m gonna haunt the f–“
Isla turns the lantern off.
She goes to change her clothes and wash her face in wonderful silence. She takes her time about it, and splashing some clean water on her face makes her feel magnitudes better. Unfortunately this inn isn’t expensive enough to have a bathtub or hot water, but it’s still heaven compared to a cave or boat on the open sea.
“Isla?” asks Solanus’s muffled voice. “Isla, are you there? Can you turn me on again?”
Isla sighs and wipes off her face, then goes back to the lantern. She thinks about it for a good twenty seconds, then turns it on.
“Oh hey, you actually did it,” Solanus says. “Thanks for that. Anyways, you should move me to something else or my soul might start exploding.”
“If I stay in one thing for too long, my soul starts doing bad things, and if it keeps doing bad things, it explodes and I die,” Solanus says. “So, uh, can you put me in something else, preferably metal and knife-shaped?”
Isla stares at the lantern. She really doesn’t want to deal with this, but it also doesn’t sound like Solanus is joking, this time. Lucian had said something about Solanus having to change objects, after all.
“How do I put you in something?”
“Just put me on something I can go into, and I can go into it myself. I’d put myself into something else, but I can’t, y’know. Move. Because I’m a lantern.”
Isla looks in her bag. There’s a lot of stuff in there, but there aren’t too many small things that she can put Solanus into, unless she wants to put Solanus into one of her herb vials. She eventually fishes out a thin silver bangle from the bottom of her bag that looks like it’s had some better days. She holds it on the lantern. “Like this?”
“What? That was fast, let me see…” There’s a dim blue glow, then the bangle says, “Oh, what the fuck, this isn’t a knife.”
“I’m not putting you in a knife,” Isla says. “I’m going to sleep now, so be quiet.”
“But I’m not in the lantern anymore! You can’t shut me off! Ha ha!”
Isla glares at the bangle. “Solanus, if you don’t shut up while I’m trying to sleep, I’m going to stuff you in a jar and throw you out the window.”
“Hey, now. That’s not very nice,” Solanus says.
“I’m going to sleep.” Isla starts clearing her things off the bed.
“Come on, Isla! You have to have some sympathy for me. I’m stuck in a bracelet, and you’re able to walk around and do things like eat and sleep and see stuff! I’m trapped in here and all I can do is talk, and Lucy doesn’t want to talk to me anymore!” Solanus says. “I’m trying to make the best out of a bad situation, here, but it’s hard.”
Isla sits on the bed and sighs. It’s true, Solanus probably has it even harder than Lucian. Her curse leaves her practically helpless, and if there’s no one to help her change objects every so often, she’ll die. That’s precarious enough when it happens to someone who isn’t terminally annoying.
“I’m sorry,” Isla says. “It’s got to be really hard for you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Well you could put me in the knife–“
Isla puts the bangle into a jar. Solanus’s yelling after that is pleasantly muffled.
Isla goes to sleep.
That night, Isla dreams of shadowy figures and glowing red eyes in the darkness.
“Isla,” a voice hisses from all around. “I am becoming impatient.”
Isla whirls around, trying to find the source of the voice, but there’s nothing. Nothing but darkness and red eyes, wherever she looks. “Who are you?” she demands. “Are you the witch?”
“You haven’t completed your side of the deal,” the voice–the witch, it must be the witch–says. Freezing wind picks up all around, snatching at Isla’s hair and clothes.
“What deal?” Isla shouts. “I don’t know what deal I made with you! Why would I deal with a witch?”
“Your time is running short,” the witch rasps, right behind her ear. “You have one chance left.”
Isla turns, but there’s nothing there. Her heart thuds in her chest. “What?”
“One chance,” the witch says, its voice carrying on the wind, whirling around and around as the shadows fade back into the dark. “Do not waste it.”
Isla’s eyes snap open. She stares at the darkened ceiling of the inn, skin clammy. She sits up slowly and takes a deep, shuddering breath in, a deep, shuddering breath out.
The witch. What does the witch want from her?