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That night, Isla dreams of the witch.
“Why did you curse me?” she asks to the darkness and wind.
“It’s what you asked for, Isla,” a voice says.
“But I didn’t!” Isla shouts. “I didn’t want this, I didn’t want to be cursed like this, I didn’t want you to curse Lucian or Solanus or anyone else!”
“You wished for this,” the voice hisses, right beside her ear. “And every person who asks me for a wish must pay.” The presence hovers at her shoulders, then pulls back. “Most are not ready, but you will be different, correct?”
Isla can feel cold, shadowy fingers against her face, around her arms, tightening like strangling vines.
“You will complete our deal, won’t you?”
Isla wakes with a start, the touch of shadows still faint against her skin.
“You know, you don’t have to wake up so early,” Lucian says from across the room. It seems to be just before sunrise. “I mean, I don’t sleep, so I don’t care, but if you want to sleep later than the absolute crack of dawn, you can.”
Isla rubs her eyes and sits up. “I don’t think I can go back to sleep. I had a…a nightmare.”
“Oh?” Lucian asks. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Isla hesitates. There’s not much to talk about, even if she wanted to. “I dreamed about the witch. It…wanted something from me.”
“Doesn’t it always?” Lucian asks.
“Lucian. Be serious for a second.”
Lucian shrugs and says, “What? I’m just saying. I wouldn’t worry too much about the nightmares. They seem pretty normal at the start of a year. They go away after a while.”
Isla frowns. “I hope so.”
“Come on,” Lucian says. “If you’re awake we can cook some more food from the pantry and pack. Make sure we have everything we need.”
They get prepared. Isla uses a canvas bag–maybe Caelan’s–to replace her torn knapsack, and they load some of the perishable vegetables and cured meats for the road, then head out.
They leave the door unlocked.
They head east, first going down the mountain slope around to the bottom of the waterfall, then following the river downstream. It’s not the easiest walk because the ground is rocky and the paths aren’t well-used, but they make their way down without too much trouble. There’s a town a couple of days’ travel away, assuming the weather stays good.
“Gold Valley? What a name,” Lucian says, squinting at her map. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Wait, holy shit, we’re going to Gold Valley?” Solanus cuts in, even more loudly than usual.
Isla glances over. “What, have you heard of it?”
“You haven’t?” Solanus asks. “There’s a lot of cool magical stuff there. Artifice, mostly, and a lot of mechanics. It’s supposed to be super rad.”
“You’d expect a place that’s known for magic to get burned down by the imperial guard,” Lucian says. “But I guess we’re pretty close to the border. They don’t usually bother to come this far.”
“The guard can’t come out here,” Solanus says. “There’s this legendary artificer who’s from around here and if anyone tries to mess with the area bad things happen to them.”
“A legendary artificer?” Isla asks.
“Yeah, some dude from like, a thousand years ago.”
“That’s older than the Empire,” Isla says. “And the town is still here?”
“Right! The guy’s super dead now, but the story is that he built a bunch of stuff around here because it had some special magic or something and then he left a bunch of defenses to protect it. Since he was really good at artifice his stuff is supposed to still be around?”
“Defenses that can last a thousand years? Like what?”
“Oh, nobody knows. He had an army of automatons at some point. Maybe some of them are still around.”
Isla rubs her chin. “Really? I thought making automatons was impossible. They’re too complex.”
“It’s not impossible if you’re really good, right?” Solanus replies. “The legend says he built a whole city in the sky. It was huge, and he hung it in the clouds with artifice.”
Lucian tucks her map back into her bag. “It is a legend, I suppose. You can’t really do that kind of stuff with artifice. That boat construct we used back at Dragon’s Cape is one thing, but an entire city is impossible even if you ignore the floating part.”
“It’s nice to think about, though,” Isla says. “There’s something romantic about a magic city in the sky.”
“That’s because you’re a hopeless romantic,” Lucian grouches.
Isla shrugs. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
That night, they camp out by the river under the darkness of the new moon. Isla stares up at the black sky and the bright white stars dusted across it.
The new moon means a new month, which means it’s late spring now. There’s only about eleven months left for her to find all of her memories, wherever they may be.
That doesn’t sound too bad if Isla doesn’t think too hard about it. Her jar is only so large and the last two weeks have been manageable, if stressful. If they can keep this pace up, they should be able to find all of her memories, no problem. The Empire may be large, but it’s not as if they’re looking around randomly–they have magic to lead the way.
But…she’s already failed six times, and five of those times she had Lucian to help. Maybe it’s too big of a task for two people and a talking knife and they were doomed from the start. The three of them will be cursed forever until something inevitably kills them.
She can’t believe that, though. She can’t bear to think there’s no hope and that Lucian and Solanus are stuck with their curses and no way out. There has to be a way to get all of her memories and finish this quest so everything can go back to normal, even if she can’t remember what normal is.
Isla takes a deep breath. The air is warm and there’s nothing to hear except for the chirping of crickets and the flowing water. She knows there’s large animals in the mountains, but they haven’t seen any since they went into the range. It’s not unreasonable to assume that they keep away from the trails. For the moment, everything feels so still.
Tomorrow, they will continue searching, but for now, Isla lays back and looks up at the stars.
It’s around midday two days later that they finally reach town. They’re still in the mountains, cutting a path along the river which has only gotten deeper and wider as they continue downstream.
The town itself is large, set in a steep valley with buildings carved out of the cliff faces on either side of the river. Creeper vines cling to building facades and cliff rocks in a wide swathe of green leaves, and there’s plenty of trees and shrubs planted around the streets and in the town center. The river cuts through the center of the city, clear with fish glistening near the surface and people taking boats back and forth.
“Is this Gold Valley?” Isla asks.
“It’s certainly a valley,” Lucian says. “It’s more gray and green than gold if you ask me. Either way, we should stop in and ask if they know about anything interesting. Any hints to find your memories, and all that.”
They climb up from the riverside into the city proper. There’s people all around, on bridges crossing above them, on hollowed-out paths through the cliffs, and going in and out of the buildings. There’s mechanical contraptions carrying people between the tiers of the city, as well as strange machines set in the cliff walls that flutter and creak with every turn of their carefully oiled wooden gears.
The whole town is so frenetic and different from anything Isla has ever seen that it seems like she’s not in the Empire at all anymore.
“Have you ever seen anyplace like this?” Isla asks.
“No,” Lucian says. “It looks like these guys have their own thing going on out here. It’s impressive. How did they mine out all of these tunnels?”
Isla wonders about it a bit. There’s too many tunnels going back and forth for them all to be natural, but they look too large to be mined out by hand.
“Maybe it was magic,” Isla says.
Lucian shrugs. “Maybe. It’s an old place, after all. They’ve had time.”
Lucian takes them into what seems to be an open market. There’s brightly colored fruits stacked high next to jars of spices and salted fish that make Isla’s mouth water just looking at them. There’s shouting and bargaining and conversation and movement that makes her feel like she’s caught up in a whirlwind of people.
Lucian nods at one of the merchants to get their attention. The merchant looks up, sees her, then deliberately looks away without acknowledging her presence.
“Uh,” Isla says. “Excuse me?”
The merchant ignores her, too.
“Wow, uh–” she says.
Lucian tugs her along by her wrist to the next stall. “We can try someone else.”
Talking to other people only gets the same results. Other people are, if anything, even more hostile, and none of them are willing to exchange a single word with Lucian. No matter where they go or who they talk to, people’s gazes slide straight past them, and Isla can see everyone carefully trying to avoid any eye contact with them.
“What’s with this place?” Isla asks. “This is even worse than that first town we were in.”
Lucian grimaces. “It’s how it is, sometimes. They’re probably superstitious.”
“I don’t know,” Isla says. “They don’t seem to want to talk to me, either.”
“Well, you are cursed,” Lucian says. “They know more about magic out here. Maybe they have some way to tell.”
Isla frowns. “Then what do we do?”
“We’ll keep looking,” Lucian says. “Sooner or later we’ll find someone who’s willing to talk.”
It takes them until nearly sundown to find someone who will even look them in the eyes. It’s down by the river, where one of the fishermen is unloading his things, when he slips on a stone and falls. Isla grabs him before he tumbles into the river and pulls him back up to the dock.
He starts to thank her, then stops when he gets a look at her. “You’re cursed,” he says.
“We are,” Lucian says. “We’re trying to fix that. Can you help us?”
The man shakes his head and pulls away from Isla. “I-I can’t talk to you. You’ll bring ruin to me, and this city.”
“What? No, we–”
“Get away! Leave!” the man says, scrambling to pick up his things.
Isla moves to block him. “Please, we’re looking for a, um, a thing. Has anything weird happened lately that we can try? Anything?”
The man gets a panicked look in his eyes. “I can’t tell you anything,” he says. “You have to go.”
“What? We can’t leave, we have to find–”
“I don’t have any answers!” the man shouts. He pulls his hat brim down and pushes past Isla.
Lucian grabs him by the collar. “Guy, we saved you from falling into the river and losing all your stuff. Give us something to work with and we’ll leave you alone.”
The man looks at Lucian, then at Isla. “L-leave the town before nightfall,” he says. “Follow the river downstream until you get to a clearing. Wait there until the moon is at its highest. That’s all I can say, I swear. Go, leave this town, please!”
Lucian lets the man go, and he runs away as fast as he can manage.
Lucian sighs. “I guess we have to keep going downstream.”
“The sun’s already setting,” Isla says.
“Yeah,” Lucian says with a nod. “We have to go now.”