It takes them the better part of the day to get out of the forest, and the rest of it to hit the main roads again. Nothing exciting happens. Given what had happened yesterday, Isla is perfectly fine with that. It’s nice to have a leisurely walk and not be running for her life from a murderous ghost.
The second day, they continue down the road. The land goes from wet to dry, and the inclines only get steeper and rockier. They take frequent breaks and Isla looks around and takes it all in.
Land stretches out in all directions, with no settlements anywhere in sight. There’s trees to the west and mountains to the north, climbing up to the clouds. The road beneath them is wide and paved with smooth blue stones, with wild grasses poking out between the gaps, and for a moment the world feels so, so big.
She wonders how they’ll ever be able to find all of her memories in only a year.
They take a break under a wide-canopied tree that doesn’t do much to protect them from the sun, but is at least better than nothing. Isla eats some fruit and bread, then looks up at the birds chirping in the tree boughs.
It’s all so…peaceful.
“Hey, Lucian?” she asks.
“How did we meet each other? You said we’ve been traveling together for five years?”
“Oh,” Lucian says as she unwinds the bandages from her arm. “Yeah, it was a bit over five years ago. You helped me after I made my deal with the witch. You must have found me, I don’t know. Right afterwards, probably. I don’t know if I’d have survived if you hadn’t picked me up.” She pulls the last of the bandages and examines the crack in her arm where it had been severed. “I was really confused at the time, you know? I didn’t even know what had happened, and it’s not like I looked like this then. I still looked, you know. Normal.”
“How did you end up like…how you are, then?” Isla asks.
“Well, you know how curses are,” Lucian says. “Sometimes you don’t get the full effect right away. It’s kind of like that.”
“Ah,” Isla says, even though she doesn’t really get it. “How did we end up with Solanus?”
“Sol? That was…three years ago? Three and a half years ago,” Lucian replies. “We were up in the mountains looking for your memories and got separated. When we met up again, you hadn’t found your memories, but you found Sol. I didn’t really want to keep her around, but since she was cursed by the same witch that cursed us, well.” She shrugs. “Ought to stick together, right? Even Sol can be useful sometimes.”
“Excuse you, I’m useful all the time!” Solanus shouts. “I know you all love me. You don’t have to be shy, you can just say it, you know. I don’t mind.”
“We’ve been together since,” Lucian says, completely ignoring Solanus. “We’ve gotten really close to getting all of your memories back, especially…” She makes a face and trails off.
“It’s okay,” Isla says quickly. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“My point is that we’ve all been together for a while,” Lucian says. “It feels like we’ve been all over the Empire by this point, but then we keep finding new places. It’s never not interesting, I just…wish my soul wasn’t on the line, you know?”
“Right,” Isla says. Being on an adventure wouldn’t be so bad if it were more like this than getting attacked by ghosts. It’s good to be on the road with someone who can help her and see…all of this. “Are we friends?”
Lucian’s eyebrows go up. “I’d like to think so, after everything we’ve been through. You helped me out when I needed it, and I’m here for you. Even Sol isn’t so bad when she can keep her mouth shut for more than fifteen seconds.”
“Hey, I resent that!” Solanus says. “You love talking to me! My conversation skills are the absolute highlight of my character! You’re just afraid to admit that I’m the best person who ever happened to you!”
“Well, you certainly are a person who happened to me. You can tell yourself that’s a good thing if that helps you sleep at night,” Lucian says. “But anyways, Isla. I meant to ask yesterday, but I forgot. Did you remember anything important?”
Isla thinks on it for a while. She remembers talking to someone, and being desperate for a solution, but no names, no faces, nothing like that. She shakes her head.
“Ah,” Lucian says. “I guess that’s fair. It’s only the first one.”
A thought strikes Isla. “Do you know how many there are in total? My memories?”
Lucian shakes her head. “We find them all when we find them all. I don’t know if there’s a specific number. Maybe it’s different every year, or maybe not. They’re supposed to fill the whole jar, I think.”
Isla sighs. The jar, which seemed so small before, suddenly seems enormous. Filling it with memories, one stone at a time, doesn’t seem possible. Not in one year.
“If it’s worth anything to you,” Lucian says, “most of the time getting your memories doesn’t involve ghosts trying to kill you. Sometimes we have to make a really hard hike to some temple in the middle of nowhere or fight an angry bird, but no murder, at least.”
“That kind of makes me feel better,” Isla says. “I would prefer to not have to deal with people trying to kill us at all, though.”
“Well, we can’t have everything we want,” Lucian says. She rolls back, then back up to her feet. “Come on, we should keep going. If we have to set up camp, I want to at least get into the mountains first where there’s some better shelter.”
They keep traveling for about two more days, making periodic checks with Isla’s wayfinding spell to make sure they’re headed in the right path.
Isla still has mixed feelings about using magic so casually. She knows that without magic, those ghosts probably would have killed her, but there are a lot of things humans shouldn’t be able to do. Not without having to mix in with forces they’d be better off not knowing about, things that Isla doesn’t even understand right now. Rituals and sigils may not cross the line into witchcraft, as far as she understands witchcraft, but magic is magic and she never forgets that it’s an executable offense.
Out here in the wilderness, she’s safe, but she can’t help but worry that the imperial guard might leap out and seize her when she sketches out sigils.
Lucian doesn’t comment on her reticence, but Isla can see from her expression that she’s annoyed, or disappointed. Isla…doesn’t know what she should do, so she does the minimum amount of magic she can, and hopes that’s good enough. The wayfinding spell is simple, and necessary for them to find her memories, so Isla puts aside her fear and casts it.
She checks it one more time near sunset and it gets no reaction at all.
“Did I do it wrong?” she asks, looking at the perfectly normal and not magical candle. She looks at the sigils; they look exactly the same as the last few times she’d done it, so she can’t think of what she could have done wrong.
“No,” Lucian says. “That means we’re close. Now we wander around until we find a witch, I guess.”
“Oh, right, that sounds completely safe,” Solanus says. “And when we’re done with that, why don’t we go and put our hands inside the mouths of some hungry wolves? I hear that’s a whole load of fun, too.”
Isla sighs and puts her things away. “Solanus, you’re not helping.”
“She usually doesn’t,” Lucian says. “Come on, we might as well keep following the path until we see something weird.” She pulls a sheathed knife out of her bag and holds it out, handle first, to Isla. “Here.”
Isla stares at it. “What’s that for?”
“In case we get separated again, mostly,” Lucian says. “We’ve only got the one knife that’s worth peanuts for fighting, and I’m better at using it, but you’re the one who can actually die, so you should hold onto it in case we run into anything.”
“Run into what?” Isla asks.
“Demons, possibly,” Lucian replies. “Since we might be going after a witch right now. Usually the first warning that there are demons around is that it’s trying to set you on fire, so it’s probably better if you have some kind of weapon, since you don’t want to use magic.”
“Look, I get it,” Lucian says. “Magic sucks, and I hate it. But if you’re not going to use it, you should probably have something pointy to use. Take the knife.”
Isla takes the knife. The sheath is dark leather with what looks like very good craftsmanship. There’s some stitched embellishments on the edge that don’t look particularly imperial. “Are…are demons really that common? They’re too dangerous to work with, even for witches, aren’t they?”
Lucian shrugs. “Sure. But witches get greedy sometimes, or sometimes they really can handle demons, so they like to have them around. We don’t run into them that often, but the last time we ran into a demon I got all my limbs ripped off and you almost got disemboweled, so I think it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Isla makes a face at that mental image and clips the knife to her belt. “I guess that’s fair.”
“Wait, you’re going to fight demons?” Solanus asks. “Does that mean you’ve got the knife out? You got the knife out and you’re not putting me in it? What the fuck guys, I thought we were a team!”
Lucian sighs. “If we put you in a knife you will scream nonstop.”
“No, I won’t! You’re making unfounded assumptions!”
“You literally said that the last two times, and you screamed for over eight hours straight. Both times.”
“Hey, I don’t need to be in a knife to scream, just watch–“
“Can we go?” Isla cuts in. “If we want to find a witch, we should do it before it gets dark.”
“Yeah, let’s get going,” Lucian says. “Maybe we’ll see something up–”
A shrill scream fills the air.
Isla claps her hands over her ears. “Solanus, what the hell?”
“That’s not me, I’m not screaming, I swear,” Solanus says.
Isla looks around, trying to find the source of the screaming, but between the sound echoing off of the rocks and the sheer volume of it, she can’t discern where it could be coming from.
“I think it’s coming from over there,” Lucian says, pointing over a stone outcropping. “Come on, let’s go check it out.”
“Wait, but what if it’s a demon?” Isla asks.
“That’s clearly a person screaming,” Lucian says, as if someone screaming in agony is something she deals with on a regular basis. “Maybe there’s a demon killing them, but we’d probably hear more fire if that was the case.”
Without waiting for Isla, Lucian hops up to climb the outcropping. She pulls Isla up after her.
Once Isla makes it up, she sees the person under a large stone formation, screaming.
They appear to be on fire.
“Lucian,” Isla hisses.
Lucian makes a face. “Okay, maybe you should take your knife out.”
Just then, the person collapses to the ground, and the fire goes out. Lucian goes closer, slowly, but the person doesn’t react.
“I think it’s safe,” Lucian says. “They’re not moving.”
Isla walks over carefully. “Uh…Hello? Hi? Are you okay?”
“If we’re asking questions we should probably ask if they’re alive, first,” Lucian says.
As if in response, the person groans. They sound about as good as someone who was just on fire–that is to say, not very.
Isla takes a step back, her hand on the hilt of her knife.
“Hey,” Lucian says, ducking down to get a closer look. “Can you hear me?”
“What…what are we going to do?” Isla asks. “Are we supposed to dig a grave or something?”
“Calm down, Isla, they’re not dead,” Lucian says.
“But they were on fire!” Isla says.
“Yeah, curse fire,” Lucian says, poking the person in the shoulder. “You can tell because they’re already healing, which is good. That means it probably wasn’t demonic curse fire.”
Sure enough, the burn wounds on the person’s skin are slowly closing up as they speak. The person twitches on the ground, but remains otherwise unresponsive.
“Are they going to be okay?” Isla asks. “Aren’t they in pain?”
“Sure. Curse fire can hurt even more than normal fire, so they’re probably in excruciating pain. But whoever set this jackass on fire wanted them to survive.” She stands up and sighs. “That’s not a fun curse. I wonder who they pissed off. Whoever it was, this is a pretty good lead on where your memories are.”
“Lucian!” Isla shouts. “How can you think about my memories at a time like this? There’s a person here who was on fire literally thirty seconds ago! They need our help!”
“Isla, your memories might be the reason they were on fire to begin with,” Lucian replies. “If we find your memories, maybe they’ll stop catching on fire.” She shrugs. “Or maybe not. If they made a deal with a witch, then that’s their problem. There’s nothing we can do.”
“But we can’t leave them here!” Isla says. “That’s…that’s inhumane!”
“Waiting around isn’t going to do anything for them, either. And we don’t have the time,” Lucian says. “It’s not like we know when they’ll wake up, and we need to find a place to build camp for the night so you don’t die of exposure.”
“Well, I don’t care!” Isla retorts, crossing her arms. “I’m staying here until they wake up.”
Lucian looks at Isla for a long moment, then sighs. “Fine,” she says, not too happily. “You can wait here if that’s what you want. I’ll go and actually scout around for your memories.”
With that, Lucian hops down the ledge and heads off without so much as looking back. Isla stays there next to the unconscious person that doesn’t seem to be moving anytime soon.
Isla doesn’t know what she should do, or what to think about all of this. She thought Lucian would be…she doesn’t know, more considerate? Kind? She hadn’t thought Lucian was so cold, and she’s not sure what it says about her that they’re apparently friends.
She wonders what she must have been like, before she lost her memories. It’s not a great thought.
She pushes that line of thinking away and looks over at the person that’s face-down on the ground. Their hair is short and light-colored where it isn’t burnt in patches, all the way down to the roots in some places. Their clothes are burned through with wide swathes of ash-black, and what skin shows through is red and covered in awful burns, but like Lucian said, the damage is slowly healing.
“Hey,” Isla says. “Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
Predictably, there’s no response.
“I, um. I don’t know what happened to you, but you were on fire,” Isla continues. “I hope you’re okay, even though you seemed to be in a lot of pain, and you’re probably not going to heal from all these burns for at least a day, even if it’s healing as fast as it is.” She pauses. “I wonder if you made a deal with a witch, too.”
Silence stretches on. Isla’s starting to see what Lucian meant when she said there wasn’t much point sticking around.
“Okay,” Isla says awkwardly. “I guess I’ll just wait, then.”