Isla wakes up feeling generally like crap. She opens her eyes slowly, and sees a blue ceiling and walls. Her head feels foggy.
“Isla,” Aurel says from beside her. “Are you feeling well?”
Isla turns to see Aurel sitting in a chair beside her bed. “Where am I? What happened?”
“You lost consciousness in the gardens about an hour ago, and I brought you to the infirmary immediately,” Aurel replies. “The conditions are harsh for humans at this altitude, when you are not acclimatized, and I apologize for not being more mindful of it. How do you feel?”
“I…” Isla slowly sits up, and immediately regrets it. “My head hurts.”
“I see. Again, I apologize,” Aurel says, bowing his head. “I should have been aware of your body’s needs.”
“No, it’s…it’s fine,” Isla says with a wince, slowly rubbing her temples. It seems to help her headache some–it’s bearable, at least. “I guess I’ll have to be more careful.”
“That would be wise,” Aurel says. “I was hoping that you could attempt a wayfinding spell that I found during my research, but I believe it would be best if you rested.”
Isla’s head snaps up. “You found a wayfinding spell? Another one?”
Aurel nods. “It is described as a spell to visualize where a person or place is. I believe it is classified as a form of farsight. It is a very old spell, but I was able to translate it so that you may try it.”
Isla pulls her blanket off. “Then let’s go! I’ll do it right now!”
Aurel sets a firm hand on her shoulder, stopping her from getting up. “For the sake of your health, I would prefer you did not attempt the spell right now. If you feel better today, then we can bring the reagents together and you may attempt the spell, but for now, I would like to prioritize your health.”
“But I need to find them!” Isla protests. “They could be anywhere, and I’m lying in bed and not doing anything!”
“Bear in mind that it is not a locating spell,” Aurel says. “It allows you to see the target, that is all. It is not a very flexible spell, and unfortunately, my knowledge of magic is too limited for me to attempt to modify it to make it more useful for our purposes.”
Isla opens her mouth to say something, then closes it. That sounds like something she should be able to do, but if it is, it’s part of the many memories she’s still missing. The only magic she really knows how to do is shouting and hoping things work out.
“At the very least, wait until my initial scan has completed, which will take another hour and a half. If it turns out that your friends are no longer within the continent, they will be too far away to be seen with this spell,” Aurel says.
Reluctantly, Isla has to admit Aurel has a point. She slumps in her infirmary bed and says, “Okay. Fine. But I’ll be able to do it, Aurel. Don’t worry about that.”
“I have the utmost faith in your capabilities, Isla. But please, mind your health.”
Isla grumbles and gets herself situated on the bed again. She wants to do the spell and figure out where Lucian and Solanus are, her health be damned, but there is an annoying thread of logic in Aurel’s argument. After all, she can’t be very useful if she passes out again.
There’s a knock at the door, and Aurel sweeps his hand aside. The door slides open on its own, and a masked servant enters. This one looks different, with a more bold design engraved on the silver mask and a pale shirt with the sleeves rolled up past the elbow. Their arms are made of intricate silver mechanics.
The servant bows, then faces Isla. “Please allow me to check your health, Miss Isla.”
Isla acquiesces, and the servant goes through a series of simple tests that involves a bit of poking and prodding. After a few minutes of examination, the servant carefully rolls up Isla’s sleeves, then clasps her hands in theirs. There’s a moment of silence, then blue artifice lines flash on her skin, trailing up into her sleeves and sending an icy chill through her entire body. Almost identical blue lines flash up the servant’s arms.
The servant lets go and nods. “Miss Isla, you appear to be healthy with no complications. However, please rest and do not overexert yourself.” They bow towards Aurel, then leave, the door shutting itself behind them.
Isla looks at the symbols on her arms, stark and unnatural against her skin. They pulse slowly, and fade into darkness again. She looks at Aurel. “What are these? These marks on my arms. They’re the same ones that were on that servant.”
Aurel nods. “They are necessary to remain on the palace grounds without coming to harm,” he says. “All the servants have them. The servant wished to verify that your marks had not degraded, and that your condition was not a result of that.”
Isla grimaces and rubs her forearms. She still feels cold under her skin from magic. “I’m not sure if I like that. You didn’t ask to put them on me.”
“You were incapacitated and injured at the time,” Aurel says gently. “You required medical attention, and we had no other choice.”
Isla frowns. She can’t really argue with that, but she still doesn’t like it.
“I apologize if it makes you uncomfortable,” Aurel says, “but it was necessary.”
Isla clasps her hands in her lap. “Yeah, I get it. The servant said I was okay, right? That means I can get out of here?”
Aurel makes a noise that’s vaguely similar to a sigh. “Yes, we may leave, if you insist on doing so. I believe it is still best that you remain indoors for the time being, however.”
With some assistance, Isla gets up out of the bed and Aurel steadies her when she wobbles on her feet. She still feels a bit dizzy, but she doesn’t think she’ll pass out again. Probably.
Aurel says, “If you are feeling unwell–”
“No, I’m fine. Really, I, uh.” Isla stalls, trying to think of anything to change the subject. “I want to see the library.”
Aurel gives her a look that’s clearly disapproving, but says, “If that is what you wish, I can escort you there. However, if you begin to feel ill again, you must stop and rest.”
“Yeah, of course,” Isla says. “I don’t actually try to pass out, you know.”
There’s a long silence as Aurel regards her, possibly judging, possibly gauging the veracity of her words. “Very well,” he finally says. “We have the main library in the south wing of the palace. It is a bit of a walk from here.”
Isla nods. “That’s fine. Just…go slowly, okay?”
It is, as Aurel says, a long walk. They pass through several corridors and large chambers and reach a part of the palace that is decorated differently, with dark grays and light blues. Glowing tapestries hang from the hallway walls with intricately woven patterns that must have some significance, but not any that Isla can discern.
“My creator was very much aware of his brilliance and prodigal skill as an artificer. He chose to immortalize some of his greatest achievements and discoveries in these tapestries,” Aurel explains. “Of course, the language they are written in is now extinct, so I would not expect you to be able to read them.”
Isla pauses to look at one of them. It must be almost twice as tall as she is, in a pale cream color with dark blue text and diagrams of what appear to be humans and automata.
“This tapestry details the theory of the spirit,” Aurel says without prompting. “It was the precursor to some of his greatest works. He spent almost thirty years on this work alone.”
“The theory of the spirit?” Isla asks. It sounds vaguely familiar, but she can’t put the thoughts to words or memories in any useful sense.
“The spirit that is in all living beings,” Aurel replies. “Without a spirit, you cannot be, you can only exist. Beings can and have survived without a body or soul, or both, but without a spirit, there’s nothing. It is the source of free will and all magic, including artifice. My creator was and remains the only artificer who was capable of constructing a spirit out of artifice. It is how I may speak to you today.”
The magnitude of that is something Isla can’t even wrap her head around. Trying just makes her head hurt. “So does that mean you’re…alive?”
Aurel tilts his head. “I do not have a soul, so I cannot be said to be truly alive in the traditional sense,” he says. “But I have an existence, and I can produce artifice, and observe the world around me as any other living being can.”
“What about the…the servants around here?”
“They have neither souls nor spirits,” Aurel says. “Even with my creator’s knowledge, I cannot replicate the feat that he did. They can react and act as their inscription wills, but they cannot perform artifice, and are not true beings. It is admittedly difficult to detect where sufficiently complex inscription becomes a true individual, and we must respect all automata, regardless of their complexity, or lack thereof.”
Isla isn’t sure she entirely understands that, but she nods and says, “I guess that makes sense. Was your creator ever able to make a soul?”
“No. He made many attempts over the years, but there is no way to create a soul except through organic means. The only way to ensoul an individual is to take it from another, and even then, there are difficulties. A spirit is not meant to be united with a soul not its own, nor is it meant to be separated from its soul to begin with.”
“Oh,” Isla says. “What if it…does get separated?”
“I do not know,” Aurel replies. “While it is relatively safe to remove both the spirit and soul from the body together, and there are many well-documented methods to distill a soul by destroying the spirit and body, it would take very powerful and esoteric magic to separate a soul from its spirit without damaging the spirit. It is not something I have had the opportunity to study, unfortunately.”
“I, uh, I see,” Isla says. The concept of using magic to do anything with the soul makes her feel vaguely ill, much less using magic to pull it out of the body.
Aurel nods and turns back towards the hallway. “Let us continue. The library is not far.” As the two of them continue down the long corridors, and Aurel says, “You mentioned you had a task to complete which prevented you from staying in the palace for longer than necessary. What was that task, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Isla thinks for a moment, trying to figure how much she should say. After everything Aurel’s done to help her, she figures she should be honest. “My friends and I were cursed. We’re trying to…fix that, but we don’t have a whole lot of time.”
“I see,” Aurel replies. “I am sorry to hear that. I understand it is nearly impossible to undo curses?”
“Yeah,” Isla says. “Something like that. They’re, uh, kind of permanent.”
Aurel considers that for a few moments, then says, “I wish I could assist you, but curses were not practiced until the Empire’s War about seven hundred years ago. At that time, I was occupied with raising the palace, and the Empire’s ban on magic has made it difficult to find research materials on the matter. Witchcraft as a whole is not a topic I am well-versed in, much to my dismay.”
“Oh,” Isla says, feeling somewhat deflated. Somehow, she’d figured that Aurel would know everything, but it has been a long time, and he’s literally older than the Empire. A lot of things have changed–even magic.
“What do you know about curses?” Aurel asks.
“What? Um.” Isla bites her lip for a bit, then says, “I, uh, well, witches use them to become stronger, and they take things from people who make deals with them. Except…sometimes they don’t need to make deals? Sometimes they just take stuff. It’s kind of confusing, I guess. The only way to break a curse is supposed to be through more witchcraft, or killing the witch.”
“I see,” Aurel says. “If that is the case, can you not, then, undo your curse by reclaiming what was stolen from you?”
“It’s not that–” Isla trails off, thinking, because there’s no fault in that logic. It’s just that, well, taking something back from a witch is easier said than done. “I wouldn’t know how, though.”
“I did not suggest it would be an easy task, no,” Aurel says. He stops in front of a large set of dark double doors. “But here we are: the library.”
He pushes the doors open.