The next morning, Isla wakes up for the second time to the sound of the door opening.
“Hey,” Lucian says. “I’m back. Did you sleep okay?”
Isla thinks about nightmares of witches and glowing red eyes in the dark. “It was fine,” she says. “Did you learn anything?”
“Sure did,” Lucian says as she puts a small package down on the dresser. “There’s been some weird stuff going on further down the coast. A haunted forest or something, which seems like a good place to start looking for your memories.” She picks the lantern up off of the dresser and stares at it. “Where’d you put Sol?”
“Sol?” Isla asks. She takes a second to remember, then says, “Oh! Oh, right!”
She takes Solanus out of the jar.
“–thirty-three bottles of rum, take one down, pass it around–“
“Sol, I will sell you to a creepy old man if you don’t shut up,” Lucian says.
Solanus stops singing. “Lucy! Lucy, my favorite! My only friend in this cruel world! You’re back! I missed you so much!” She makes an exaggerated sobbing noise. “Isla was such a villain, she trapped me in this bracelet and then hid me away all night so I couldn’t even call for help! You have to do something about her!”
“And good morning to you, too,” Lucian says. “Why was Sol in the jar?”
Isla holds up her hands. “She was making it hard to sleep.”
Lucian sighs. “Yeah, that sounds about right. Good job on not putting her in the knife.”
“Lucy! Lucy, how could you! We’ve been friends for three years! All of the trials and tribulations we’ve been through together, do they mean nothing to you?”
“I’ve been friends with Isla for five years, if we’re judging on that metric,” Lucian says. “If you don’t shut up for once in your life, I’ll put you back in the jar.” She unwraps the package on the dresser and holds it out to Isla. “Here, I got you some food. Fish and vegetables over rice. Eat and we can go.”
Isla eats quickly. While she eats, Lucian packs their things up again.
“I bought a map last night,” Lucian says. “We’ll have to travel inland a bit before we can head back out to the coast to the haunted forest. Once we get there, we’ll have to look around and see where your memories actually are.”
“What are we looking for?” Isla asks as she finishes her food. “What do my memories actually look like?”
Lucian shrugs and slings her bag over her shoulder. “It depends. If your memories are floating around, they look kind of wispy. If they’re in something, it usually makes them glow. If they’re in a person, well, that person will probably try to kill us, which is mostly a you problem.”
“People are going to kill us?” Isla asks, feeling less confident about this situation with every passing moment.
“They’ll usually try to kill me because I look like an abomination,” Lucian says. “Which is lucky because I’m very hard to kill. Or they’ll try to kill Sol if they have to listen to her talk, but that has more to do with Sol than your memories.”
“Some people don’t understand my charms,” Solanus says.
“And thank goodness for that,” Lucian says dryly. “My point is, you shouldn’t worry too much about people trying to kill us.”
“Uh,” Isla says.
“If you’re going to worry about anything, you should worry more about demons,” Lucian says. “Come on, let’s go.”
Isla sputters. She knows Lucian already mentioned them, but she didn’t think she’d have to deal with demons right now. She’s not ready for that. “Are we really going to run into demons? I thought we weren’t going to go after the witch until we find all my memories!”
“There’s more than one witch out there,” Lucian says. “And sometimes demons can cross planes on their own, especially if your memories are involved.” She shrugs. “I don’t think we’ll actually run into any of that today, but if we’re unlucky, your memories might open up a rift and we’ll have to deal with some demons. Which is to say, banishing them, not making deals with them.”
“Considering we all kind of made deals with a witch, it’s worth clarifying,” Solanus says.
Isla takes a deep breath. It’s going to be a long day.
Lucian leads them out of town, through the west gates. The weather is calm, and the air is comfortably warm. Grasslands and trees are spread out before them, with spring-blooming wildflowers peppered all alongside the roadside.
“So what do you know about this, uh, haunted forest?” Isla asks. “Did anyone say anything about it?”
“Well, for starters, it’s haunted,” Lucian says.
“Thanks, Lucy. We probably couldn’t have figured that one out ourselves,” Solanus says from around Lucian’s wrist. “The next thing you’re going to tell us is that it’s,”–she makes an exaggerated gasping sound–“a forest!”
“Sol, don’t make me melt you down,” Lucian says. “As I was about to say, it turns out that the town we were just in is pretty new. The old one used to be some kilometers further down the coast until it got destroyed by a huge storm about twenty years ago.”
“What does that have to do with the forest?” Isla asks.
“A lot of people evacuated when the storm came,” Lucian says. “But one of the fishermen didn’t want to. Way, way back, he built a home in the forest and there were a hell of a lot of people who didn’t like that. The story goes, he made some sort of deal with a witch so that nobody would be able to evict him. Whatever really happened, nobody messed with him again. He seemed to think he was invincible after that.”
“What happened to him?”
“Well, the storm killed him, obviously.” Lucian glances down at her map and takes a left down a slightly overgrown gravel path. “Ever since then, the forest’s been haunted. They say you can hear him screaming on the new moon, or when it rains, or when the last boats come in for the night.”
“That’s a lot of screaming,” Solanus says.
“Yeah, because you’re one to talk,” Lucian says. “The stories are kind of inconsistent. The main thing is that when people tried to rebuild the town, kids started going missing and none of the boats were able to catch much fish. After a few months of that and the screaming, most of them decided it was better to cut their losses and rebuild a few kilometers northeast, hence that town we were in.”
“But not everyone moved to the new town, right?” Isla asks. “What happened to them?”
“Dead, probably,” Lucian says. “It’s not our problem. The important part is that only the southernmost part of the forest is haunted, but in the last week, a lot of people have passed through the northern parts of the forest and not come back. At night, you can see ghosts in there, or so I heard. The people I talked to may have been a bit drunk.”
Isla purses her lips. “So, we’re…”
“We’re going to take a look ourselves, obviously,” Lucian says.
“Uh, but nobody’s come back,” Isla says. “That means they’re dead, right? So this is really dangerous?”
“We don’t know that they’re dead,” Lucian replies. “That’s just the most likely outcome. But yeah, it’ll be dangerous. We should be fine. Sol and I can’t really die, and you have magic, so you’ll probably be safe.”
“Like sixty percent chance,” Solanus helpfully adds.
Somehow, Isla is not reassured.
They reach the forest after a couple hours’ walk. It’s a sparse forest, with leafy bushes and vines and undergrowth hanging over the dirty and precariously paved wood path. They go in silence, and Isla tries to not be nervous about it.
Fog settles on them the further they go in the forest, and at some junction, Lucian takes another left turn off of the path, into the soil and shrubs. Isla steps down slowly, and the squelching sound under her boots makes her wince.
“Lucian, are you sure we have to keep going into the forest?” Isla asks. She can feel a chill creeping up on her, a damp feeling of mist and darkness. It’s not a good feeling.
“Your memories are somewhere in there,” Lucian says. “If you want them back, we have to go in.”
Isla swallows. “What if I don’t want them back?”
“Then we don’t kill the witch, and you’re stuck losing your memory every year until you die, and that means you’re stuck having to listen to Sol,” Lucian replies. “I think going into one scary forest isn’t so bad, compared to that.”
The witch had said one last chance. Isla’s not sure she has time to keep losing her memory like this.
She takes a deep breath. “Okay, I guess we’re going into the big scary haunted forest.”
“That’s the spirit,” Solanus says. “Go punch a murder ghost.”
So they go deeper into the forest. They don’t speak as they walk, and even Solanus is quiet for once.
The journey isn’t quiet. There’s crickets and birds and the constant rustling of wind in the leaves all around them and the squish of moss and mud under their feet as the forest gets wetter and darker. Branches creak above them and the fog only deepens as the forest becomes denser and darker. They push onwards.
Isla clenches and unclenches her fists. She feels like something is crawling up her neck, like something is watching her. Lucian doesn’t seem to be affected, but then again, Lucian doesn’t seem to be affected by much at all.
They walk for almost two and a half hours when Lucian stops by a creek. It’s around midday, but between the fog and the canopy cover blocking out the sun, it feels much later.
“Look, that must be the house,” she says, squinting out in the distance. There’s some vaguely cabin-shaped shadow through the fog. “Which means the guy drowned somewhere around here.”
“What, in that?” Isla asks, pointing to the creek. It’s barely more than five centimeters deep.
“Like I said, there was a storm at the time. My point is, if the ghost is around, this is probably the best place to start.” Lucian looks up and around. “Now, if I were a ghost, where would I be?”
“Hey, you dead asshole!” Solanus screams. “Come out and eat my entire ass!”
“Solanus, don’t–” Isla says.
Then the ground starts shaking.