Isla looks up from her desk and all of the papers she’s got scattered across it. “Hm?”
“Isla, it’s late. You’ve got to sleep.”
Isla glaces at her pocket watch. It’s almost three in the morning. With a grimace, she rubs her face and says, “I know. Sorry.”
“Why are you up so late again? Is it about–“
Isla shakes her head. “No. No, it’s not.”
“Isla. You don’t have to lie to me.” A sigh. “I know you’re trying, but there’s nothing you can do about it anymore. There’s no way to fix it except witchcraft, and…we can’t afford that. You can’t afford that.”
Isla sighs and runs her hands through her hair. “No, there’s got to be something else. There’s something I’ve missed, or haven’t tried. I know it, I just…I need to do something. Anything.”
Another sigh. It’s an argument they’ve had before. “There’s not always something you can do, Isla.”
Isla groans. Her head hurts, and so does everything else, too. She hopes this isn’t some kind of pattern.
“Isla, wake up.”
Slowly, Isla opens her eyes, and sees green light in the darkness. Reflexively, she punches at it.
The green light dodges back. “Isla, stop! It’s just me, it’s Lucian!”
Isla stops and blinks. Lucian? Lucian is…
She looks around. The last thing she remembers is the forest, and almost getting murdered by a ghost. It’s dark now, and Lucian is here, and they’re definitely not outside anymore. “Lucian?” she asks. It feels like her mouth is full of cotton. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Lucian says as she turns on the lantern, revealing that they’re in some kind of small cabin. It doesn’t look like anyone’s lived there in years. “We got separated and I had to fight a lot of ghosts. They disappeared after a while, so I assume that’s when you found your memories.”
“You fought them? Are you okay?”
In response, Lucian holds up her own severed arm.
“Lucian! They tore your arm off?” Isla asks. “Are you okay? Are you dying?”
Lucian puts her arm on the table. “Technically, I tore my own arm off,” she says. “I’ll be fine. I just have to stick it back on and it’ll be better in a few days.”
“You don’t just get better from having your arm ripped off!” Isla says.
Lucian shrugs. “Sure I do. Like I said, I’m really hard to kill. I’ve recovered from worse.”
“Lucian! That’s not reassuring!”
“Lucy’s not very reassuring in general,” Solanus pipes in. “She’s basically the worst person to break any kind of bad news ever.”
“Sol, this whole mess is literally all your fault. If you hadn’t told off that ghost, I would probably still have both arms attached,” Lucian says.
“You don’t know that, and besides, it seemed like a good idea at the time, okay?” Solanus says. “I said I was sorry.”
“You absolutely did not say you were sorry. I actually remember you saying, open quote, ‘I’m not sorry and this was totally worth it,’ end quote,” Lucian says. “If you keep doing this bullshit I’m going to throw you in a river and leave you there.”
“Lucy, how could you be so mean to me? Me, your best friend, your truest companion, the great and wonderful Solanus–“
“Anyway, how are you feeling, Isla?” Lucian asks. “You were passed out in the mud. I had a hell of a time trying to find you, you know.”
Isla sits up slowly with a wince. Everything hurts, but she supposes that under the circumstances it could be a lot worse. Her arm and torso have been bandaged, and she’s dry and mostly clean.
“I’m okay, I guess,” she says. “Where are we?”
“In that ghost guy’s cabin. Since we’ve taken care of him for now, we should be safe staying here for a little while,” Lucian says. “It’s kind of a shithole, though. It’s definitely not the kind of place I’d have made a deal with a witch for.”
“Maybe he had something important here,” Isla says.
Lucian shrugs. “Maybe. Don’t know what, though. There’s not a whole lot left. There’s some knives, some really old bags of what probably used to be noodles, and some notes. Most of them are completely illegible though.”
Isla nods. It had been, what, twenty-three years? It’d be asking a lot for anything to last that long in a place like this. Probably the only reason it had was because he’d made that deal with a witch. Otherwise, storms and nature would have destroyed everything.
“So is he…gone now?” Isla asks.
“I don’t know,” Lucian says. “I’d guess not, though. Ghosts are really hard to kill, for what should be pretty obvious reasons. Chances are he’ll come back the next new moon, or full moon, or something like that. The important thing is that we got your memories back, so he won’t be able to do as much murdering, so long as people stay out of this part of the swamp.”
“Right,” Isla says. She’s not sure how she would feel, if she died and had to stick around as a ghost for so long. She can’t imagine it would be any fun, though. He probably never got a proper send-off, with the storm and everything. “Do you know his name?” she asks.
“Uh,” Lucian says. “It was something like an R name? Ramon? Riley? Reinhard…Rayner. I think it was Rayner, that’s what they said back in town. He was kind of a weirdo, nobody really liked him. It’s probably why he ended up building a house out here instead of in town, closer to the coast.”
“Oh,” Isla says.
“It doesn’t matter, though,” Lucian says. “You know what they say. The dead leave their names behind. There’s nothing else for us to do here, so we’ll stay the night, then move on. That’s all there is to it.”
Isla grimaces. Maybe it’s true, but Isla’s not sure she likes it.
She gets up and paces around the cabin. It’s not very large at all, not even large enough for two, but it’s definitely an okay place for one, all the cobwebs aside. There are finished planks for the flooring and walls, and some old framed paintings on the wall that have completely faded or been attacked by mold. There’s a bookshelf on the far wall and even from where she’s standing Isla can tell that the books have been destroyed by moisture and mold. There’s an oil-burning stove in the corner, and a basin for water that’s been recently used–Lucian probably used it to get all of the mud off them both.
She has to agree with Lucian; it’s not a place she would have made a deal with a witch for. There might be something special about the place to that ghost, but there’s nothing that Isla can see.
She looks out the window into the forest. Faint moonlight filters down through the tree leaves, but even that doesn’t light up the forest much. There’s crickets chirping late into the night, and fireflies flashing out by the shallow creek. It seems so much more peaceful now that the fog is lifted and there’s no more ghosts trying to murder them.
She wonders if those ghosts, at least, have moved on.
“What time is it?” she asks.
“Past midnight. You should eat something and sleep,” Lucian says. “Staring out the window isn’t going to do much for you.”
Isla ignores her and keeps looking out the window for a while longer. She’s not sure she wants to sleep right now. She’s got a single golden stone rattling in her jar in her bag, and it’s not nearly enough.
Who was she talking to? What happened? Who or what was she trying to save?
Why was it worth making a deal with the witch?
If she ever wants to find out–and she feels like she’s not going to have a choice, in the end–she’s going to have to learn more. She’ll have to find the rest of her memories, that’s what it keeps coming down to.
She sighs and eats some slightly dry rice balls and fruit, then goes back to the bed. It smells musty even when she’s using her own blanket, but she’s aching and tired. Lucian is over in the corner, doing something to fix her arm, and Solanus is probably in one of the bags.
Isla rolls over and goes to sleep. Tomorrow, they have to move on. That’s all there is to it.
Isla wakes up just as dawn breaks the next morning with the last traces of black shadows and red eyes drifting in her dreams. She wonders if she’ll dream of the witch every night until she gets all her memories back.
“Oh, you’re awake,” Lucian says. Her arm is bandaged and in a sling, which is better than being detached entirely, but Isla still can’t help but feel a little concerned about all that. “Well, if you’re up, we should figure out where we’re headed next.”
Isla nods and does the wayfinding spell again. It points them north-northeast, and Lucian looks at her map.
“It looks like we’ll hit the mountains going that way,” she says. “It doesn’t look there’s a whole lot of cities, which probably means we’ll end up running into some witches. Witches like living out in the middle of nowhere.”
“We’re going to find witches?” Isla asks.
“Not the witch,” Lucian says. “Nobody ever knows where that witch is, or we’d have killed it by now. That witch just shows up wherever it wants to be, it seems like. No, I’m talking more small-time witches. Dangerous, obviously, but nothing we can’t handle.”
“Handle as in…killing them?”
Lucian raises an eyebrow. “Killing them? No, we’re only trying to kill the one witch. If we run into some random witch that’s gotten a hold of your memories, we can probably get them back in return for a favor of some sort. Or, you know. We can kill them. But we try not to do that.”
“Well, because witches are a pain in the ass to kill,” Lucian says. “You never know what kind of bullshit magic they’re going to use and a lot of them like to summon demons, which I hate.”
“Right,” Isla says, somewhat faintly. “Yeah, of course. Should we really be doing favors for witches, though?”
“No, probably not, but it’s safer than fighting a witch and all of the demons they might be commanding,” Lucian says. “And that’s experience talking. Maybe one day I’ll tell you that story again.”
Isla nods, though she still feels a bit unsteady about the whole thing. She’s at least glad they probably won’t have to kill a witch. She doesn’t think she’s ready to kill someone, witch or not.
She eats, packs her things, and changes into a clean set of clothes. They head out, leaving the cabin and its ghosts behind.