Isla stumbles her way out of the building, her whole body shaking. Her head hurts, and she aches all over. She more collapses than walks through the door, and Aurel catches her by the arms.
“Are you okay?” he asks. “You are not injured?”
Isla shakes her head and takes a shuddering breath. “Lucian–Lucian’s been captured by someone. I saw her, she was in some kind of prison cell, I don’t know if she’s okay, she might be in danger right now–”
“Isla. Isla, please. Take a deep breath,” Aurel says, carefully guiding Isla to a seat. “Take a few deep breaths, then tell me what you saw.”
Isla takes a few deep breaths. It’s hard at first, but she breathes in, then out. In and out. It helps with her headache, but not much.
“S-Sorry,” she says. “I’m just, I was…” She takes another deep breath. “I’m not sure if I finished the spell properly. I think I got some backlash, or something.”
“You’re not hurt?” Aurel asks.
Isla nods. “I…I think I’ll be fine. It’s just a headache.”
Aurel sits next to her. “So the spell worked? And you saw Lucian?”
“I did. Lucian, she…she didn’t have hands. Someone broke her hands off. I don’t even know who would do something like that.”
“I am sure that whoever did such a thing had a reason to. You saw her within a prison cell?” Aurel asks.
“I…I mean, I don’t know what else it could be,” Isla says. “It was gray, and there was a bed bolted to the ground, and she…she didn’t have any stuff. None of her stuff was there.”
“And what about Solanus? Did you see her?”
Isla shakes her head. “She has to be with Lucian, I’m sure of it. Lucian was holding onto her when we got separated.”
“I see,” Aurel replies. “This is useful information. We should be able to narrow our search considerably with this.”
Isla nods, feeling a bit sick in the stomach. She puts her head in her hands and tries to think. Lucian and Solanus need help and she still doesn’t have any idea where they are. What can she even do about Lucian’s hands? What happened to them? Did they get eaten by a wolf? Or did someone break them off somehow?
“Perhaps we should move back to the main palace,” Aurel says. “You can have something to eat, and rest. After performing such an involved magical spell, you are likely very tired.”
Isla’s head snaps up. “No, I need to find Lucian!” she protests. She’s aching everywhere, and she’s dizzy and lightheaded, but she can’t just rest when she knows Lucian’s in trouble.
“I know,” Aurel replies, “but you must mind your own health, first and foremost. It would complicate matters greatly if you were to locate your friend and immediately become incapacitated yourself. I can run a more thorough search for your friend while you rest.”
Isla takes a long breath in, a long breath out. “Okay. Okay, right. I know. I’m sorry, I’m just…I’m really worried about them, Aurel. They’ve been with me for a long time and they need help and–”
“I understand,” Aurel says, setting a silver hand on her shoulder. “But you have done what you can for now, and you must eat, and rest.”
Just thinking about eating makes Isla’s stomach hurt. She should, but she’s so anxious that she’s not sure she can.
“Let’s return to the main palace,” Aurel says. “Can you stand?”
Isla nods and lets Aurel pull her up to her feet. She still feels shaky, and he supports her by the arm as they head back to the palace.
It’s a quiet walk; Isla doesn’t have anything to say, and apparently neither does Aurel. By the time they’ve gotten back, it’s sunset, and Aurel takes Isla to a small cozy lounge. He helps her sit down in one of the squishy chairs and Isla curls up with her cloak. It’s not the polite thing to do when in front of royalty, or company in general, but she’s tired and Aurel doesn’t seem to mind.
“I have sent for food. One of the servants will arrive shortly with a tray,” Aurel says. “Something simple which will hopefully not upset your stomach.”
“Thanks,” Isla says.
“I am sorry for the circumstances of your friends,” Aurel continues as he sits nearby. “I did not realize that seeing them would cause you so much distress.”
Isla shakes her head slowly. “You didn’t know. Lucian could have been anywhere, and she was…she was locked up, that’s all. We just have to find her.”
There’s not much to say after that, so Isla sits on the big squishy chair with her cloak wrapped tight around her. She’ll have to find another spell to find Lucian. Something that can tell here exactly where she is, something so she can find her and help.
She doesn’t know how long that will take. She hopes Lucian can last a few more days, wherever she is.
Not too much later, a servant arrives with a modest meal on a tray. They set it out and Isla eats some, slowly. It’s not as rich as everything else she’s eaten, but it tastes perfectly fine. Wonderful, even, but she’s not in the state of mind to enjoy it. Her dizziness subsides a bit after eating, so there’s that.
“I will start another scan for your friends tonight,” Aurel says. “Now that we know your friend is in a holding cell of some sort, within fifty miles of the palace, we should be able to run a more accurate scan within a reasonable amount of time–no more than two days.”
“Two days?” Isla asks. “You can’t do it any faster?”
“I understand your struggle, Isla, but you must understand that artifice is not as simple as magic is. My scan can only find your friend by searching every rock in the area,” he says. “Even your finding spell took almost three hours to complete, and that was the most direct search we could accomplish.”
Isla takes a bite out of a roll and says, “Then I can do more magic. I can find her faster.”
“With your current health, I would not advise it,” Aurel says. “And certainly not today.”
Isla sighs, frustrated. “Then what am I supposed to do? Just sit around eating dinner doing nothing?”
“You can recover your strength and have faith,” Aurel says, completely unfazed by Isla’s outburst. “As I said, my search will take a maximum of two days. If we are fortunate, it will be faster. If you wish to perform more magic, perhaps you may attempt it tomorrow.”
It’s not the answer Isla wants, but there’s not much she can do. She’s tired and achy and hungry, and she knows that if she tries to cast another spell, especially a big one like the farsight spell, she’ll pass out for who knows how long. She needs to rest and figure something out.
She doesn’t have to like it, though.
She finishes eating and a servant comes to take her tray away. She looks out the window. It’s completely dark now.
“Would you like to return to your room and sleep?” Aurel asks.
Isla shakes her head. “I want to check the library again.”
“It is getting late. There will be time to check the library tomorrow,” Aurel says.
“I know,” Isla says. “But I have to do something. I can’t just sit around. Researching is the only thing I can do right now. Please.”
Aurel regards her for a long moment, then says, “Very well. I can escort you back to the library, if that is what you desire.”
Aurel takes her back to the library. “You will want to take this route from the library to return to your quarters tonight,” he says as they walk. “Of course, if you are lost, the servants will be happy to escort you.”
“I suggest you do not stay up too late,” Aurel continues. “Most of the servants come out late at night, which I understand is disquieting for some guests.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“As you wish,” Aurel says. He stops in front of the doors to the library. “Here we are. I will leave you here for tonight, as I have my own matters to attend to. I hope you will find what you are looking for and sleep well, Isla.”
Isla nods. “Thanks. Have a good night, Aurel.”
Aurel nods and leaves. Isla turns towards the library doors, takes a deep breath, and enters.
The library looks very different at night. It’s dark, with silver lamps between the shelves that cast an eerie blue glow over the entire space. Servants go between the shelves, shuttling books with silent footsteps. A servant stops next to Isla and offers a small handheld light with a wrist loop. She takes it with a nod and slides it over her wrist. It glows white, bright enough for her to see without any strain.
Isla makes her way over to the shelves of books about magic that Aurel had indicated earlier. She hadn’t had time to look at any of the books about magic or witches earlier, but she has a reason to now. She’ll find something to help Lucian, no matter what.
She starts taking books mostly at random. She feels feverish and not entirely sure what she’s even looking for, but there has to be something useful in all of these books. A spell, some information, anything.
She brings the books over to a table and sits down, then takes her lantern off. It unfolds into a small reading light on the table, and she sets her first book, ‘The Damned and Accursed’, beneath it.
Witches, it begins, are among the vilest creatures on this earth known to humans, for without exception they were once human.
The process through which a human becomes a witch and loses its humanity is murky and surrounded in superstition, but involves a process of permanent magical corruption through invocation of demonic forces. Such procedures allow a witch to use magic without the usage of ritual or potions, and to increase its power through special magical exchanges, colloquially referred to as ‘curses’. Such power is known to damage the soul and spirit of the witch, causing drastic physical changes on the witch’s body, often to the point where it no longer appears human.
While true immortality is yet impossible, many witches may emulate it through a process known as magical immolation, in which it will burn away its mortal soul and body in cursed fire, producing a physical form that is impervious to damage and age, free from sickness or pain. This form may be human in appearance or made to look like it, but does not bleed when cut and heals supernaturally quickly so long as the witch’s magical power allows. Witch hunters report that the only way to kill such a witch is to burn the form in spectral fire until not even ashes remain.
Most witches attempting magical immolation end up burning away the spirit along with the soul and body, destroying their magic and life, or otherwise are unable to purify the soul or body, resulting in permanent damage. Witches who fail magical immolation are permanently marked, often in ways that appear grotesque.
Isla stares at the passage for a long time, thinking about red eyes glowing in the dark.
She and Lucian and Solanus need to kill the witch, but the witch isn’t even human now. It was at some point in the past, maybe a hundred or thousand years ago, but not now. Her pencil hovers over the end of the worlds, ‘spectral fire’. She knows something about that–a special form of curse fire that’s brought in from another plane entirely. It’s made of the same stuff demons are, and just as dangerous. The sort of thing that’s rumored to end civilizations.
She’s not sure if that’s something they can do, and surely if killing the witch was that…she hesitates to say, simple, then why hadn’t she written it in her journal to begin with?
She continues reading.
An immolated witch, newly unbound from the restraints of its soul or body, is free to increase its magic power seemingly without bounds. Reports of individuals with great magical power living for hundreds of years have surfaced in folklore and mythology, as well as in scattered eyewitness reports. It is unknown whether or how these witches may have died.
It is believed that the immolated witch, just short of the spectral demon, is the most magically powerful being to have ever walked the earth (see Destruction of the Dragon’s Isthmus, pp. 348-356). Very little is known about them outside of rumors.
Isla isn’t exactly filled with confidence.
She keeps reading. There’s some information about the history of witches, and how the way they used magic was different several hundred years ago, and how they were respected as great assets in the many wars between the factions that eventually made up the Empire. It wasn’t until the founding of the Empire, when witches began to summon demons and curse people, that they, along with magic, were banned from the Empire and persecuted mercilessly.
She skims through most of it, not really interested in the history lesson. She needs to find some information that will help her help Lucian, and to do that, she needs to know how to make magic do the thing she wants it to.
The rest of the book is singularly useless in that respect, and she moves on to the next. She starts feeling drowsy halfway through, about the time where she’s reading an explanation of sigils and herbs and their effects in rituals, and tries to stay awake even when she can feel her eyelids drooping against her will.
She only just manages to reach the end of the part of the book which explains spells with very large areas of effect when she can barely think straight. She decides she’s going to rest her eyes, only for a moment.
She sets her head on the desk and closes her eyes. She doesn’t open them again.