03.12 – The Palace Toll

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“–at me, Isla! It’s me, Lucian!”

…Lucian’s voice. Where is it coming from?

“–have to get out of here, Isla, get me out of here, don’t–“

“–look at me like that, it’s me, you know me, please, don’t–“

Lucian grabs her by the shoulders and holds her against something hard. A wall? A table? Where is she?

Lucian isn’t smiling, isn’t doing anything, really. There’s no hint of recognition in her eyes as Isla pushes back, tries to move, and can’t. She tries to open her mouth to scream, but she can’t seem to–

There’s a knife. Lucian stares down at her with blank eyes and there’s voices all around that Isla can’t understand, words she can’t hear. The tip of the knife touches the hollow of her throat, just between her collarbones, and–


Isla feels like she’s choking. There’s pins and needles all through her body, too present and too numb all at once. What’s happening? Is this a nightmare?


Isla freezes. She refuses to look up, when she knows all she’ll see are red eyes in the dark.

“It’s been a long time.”

Isla feels something twining around her arms, dragging her closer to something she can’t see–or doesn’t want to. “Get away from me,” she breathes, her voice shaking.

“Six years, and you still haven’t paid. My patience wears thin,” the witch says.

“I didn’t want this. I don’t want this, or you!”

“You asked me for help,” the witch says. “You wanted magic and you wanted power. I gave it to you. Now you say you don’t want it? All this time later?”

A cold presence draws nearer, pressing Isla in suffocating power. She can hardly breathe.

“I–I don’t!” Isla says. “Why would I want magic? I don’t even know how to use it! I…I can’t even use it for anything useful!”

“You are the one who asked for it,” the witch hisses. “And you will give me what I asked for.”

“I don’t know what you want! I don’t have anything to give you!”

“There’s always something,” the witch says.

Tendrils of darkness close in, squeezing Isla like chains. There’s light at her feet, crawling up her skin. She tries to break free, but there’s no give. “No, no–“

“There is always something.”

Light bursts into red flames, trapping her in cursed fire, and she–

Isla wakes up in her room with tears in her eyes and a blinding headache.

It takes a long time for her heart to stop hammering in her chest and to be able to breathe normally again. She stares at the ceiling of her room, trying to orient herself. White walls, silver lamp, hanging picture on the opposite wall.

What happened? She…she was in the library, and it was late, and she wanted to rest her eyes for a little while, and now…now she’s here. She must have fallen asleep.

She sits up, and instantly she’s hit with a wave of dizziness. She feels achy all over, in her joints and muscles, and looking to directly into the lamp light makes her head throb.

Slowly, she pulls her blankets off and gets out of bed. Someone’s changed her into loose sleepwear, and someone must have noticed how cold she was yesterday, because it’s warmer now.

She changes clothes. The clothes left out for her aren’t as heavy as yesterday’s, but that’s probably fine. She doesn’t think she’ll be going outside. She pulls them on and sits on her bed for a few minutes.

Her head still hurts.

She rubs her temples trying to make the ache go away, but it doesn’t do much. She’s not sure she ever remembers feeling this awful–not that that says much, when her memory only goes back a few weeks. Maybe she’s sick.

Her journal is on the bedside table along with her jar of memories and the mechanical clock reading sometime around noon. She’s not sure what to think about how late she’s been sleeping in since she’s come to the palace–usually she’s up by the crack of dawn, but she’s also usually not sleeping in a room with no windows.

She looks at her arms again. If she looks closely, she can see the marks trailing up her arms in thick bands of symbols so dense that she can’t even read them. She wonders if the marks have always been so broad, or if it’s just difficult to tell when they’re not active.

It takes her somewhere around ten minutes to get the motivation to get off of the bed again and leave the room. As she opens the door, a servant stationed outside stands at attention and faces her.

“Good morning, Miss Isla,” they say. “I apologize for the lack of attendance. I did not realize you had awoken.”

Isla shakes her head. “It’s fine. I slept late, that’s all. I think I’m sick.”

“You are feeling ill?” the servant asks? “The master will be displeased to hear that. He is very invested in your continued health.”

Isla grimaces. It’s true, she’s sure, but it sounds bad when it’s said like that.

“That’s very nice of him,” Isla says.

“You should see the medical staff,” the servant says. “To ensure there are no complications.”

“Later. I just want to eat something now.”

She’s not all that hungry, truth be told, but food would probably make her feel better.

The servant bows. “As you wish. We will bring a tray so you will not have to travel to the dining hall.”

Isla considers protesting, but with her headache and achiness, she would greatly prefer to walk as little as possible. “That would be great, thanks.”

The servant bows again. “We will return with food promptly, Miss Isla. Please rest.”

Isla nods and goes over to lay face-down on the sofa. If there’s one thing to be said about the palace besides how nice it all looks, it’s that all of the furniture is very comfortable.

She’s not sure why she feels so terrible. Maybe it’s the altitude, or something she ate, or something about that spell she cast yesterday, or some combination of the three.

There’s a knock at the door a few minutes or many minutes later and a servant enters with a bowl of hot soup, some bread, and a few other things. Isla murmurs her thanks.

“I have called for the medical staff,” the servant says. “They will arrive after you have finished eating.”

Isla sits up and nods. She eats, and she’s more hungry than she realizes. It’s not too difficult to finish her soup, though she barely tastes any of it. She tears off a piece of bread and wipes her bowl with it, thinking about what she needs to do today.

Aurel is searching for Lucian and Solanus, which helps, but Isla needs to do something, too. She still hasn’t found a spell that can help her find them–she wasn’t looking in the right places, she supposes. She’ll have to go back and try again, even when the mere thought of reading makes her eyes hurt.

She chews her bread and rubs her temples again. Would it really be so bad if she let Aurel do the searching?

“He won’t find them.”

Isla’s head snaps up towards the voice, but there’s nobody there. There’s nobody in the room at all except her. Her brows furrow, but she continues eating her bread.

She can’t help but feel like she’s being watched.

Later, after she’s finished eating and servants have taken her tray away, the medical staff arrives. It’s the same servant she’d seen yesterday, or another one wearing the same clothes–the masks make it hard to tell.

“Hello, Miss Isla,” they say. “You reported feeling ill?”

Isla nods.

The servant asks her a series of questions about her health, then does some poking and prodding. At the end of it all, the servant rolls Isla’s sleeves back and draws delicate brass fingers across the marks on her forearms. They examine the marks for a few minutes, then put Isla’s arms down. The marks don’t glow this time.

“You appear to be suffering from exposure to high-altitude conditions. As you may know, there is less air at higher altitudes, which is detrimental to humans who have not been modified or acclimatized,” the servant says. “Frequent symptoms are dizziness, confusion, and aching. I will have the apothecary bring you medication that will alleviate most of the symptoms.”

Isla doesn’t feel like she’s not getting enough air, but she’s also not a medical professional, so she nods.

“You must get rest, Miss Isla. Drink fluids and eat well until you recover,” the servant says. “I will inform the master of your condition, and postpone your meeting with him until you feel better.”

“My meeting with him?”

“He wished to see you, but he understands you are hampered by your current health,” the servant replies. “You may see him after you take medication and rest.”

The servant leaves, and Isla lays back down. She looks at her forearms again, wondering what they were looking for.

“It wanted to see if you had tampered with them,” a spidery voice whispers in her ear.

Isla bolts upright, looking around, but there’s nothing but tendrils of darkness at the edges of her vision.

“Who are you?” she asks, even when she knows the answer. “How are you talking to me?”

There’s no response, but Isla can feel eyes boring into her, darkness creeping out of her nightmares, crawling up her skin with its trapping vines. She rubs the back of her neck and tries to shake the feeling off, but can’t.

She stares at her forearms again. Tampering? How could she possibly have tampered with the marks on her arms? Why would they even care?

The witch’s voice offers no answers.

Some time later, a servant delivers a small phial with a clear green fluid.

“This medication will help with your symptoms,” they say. “Please take the entire dose.”

Isla takes the phial and uncorks it. It smells acrid with a tang of herbs she doesn’t recognize. She grimaces and tips the entire thing into her mouth.

It’s slightly viscous and it tastes bitter and a little sour and she chokes it all down with some difficulty. She feels it slide down her throat and it leaves a cold, numbing sensation.

The servant offers her a glass of water and she takes it thankfully to wash the taste out.

“Please rest,” the servant says. “When you wake up, you may meet with the master.”

“When I wake up?” Isla asks. “But I–”

Vertigo hits, and darkness floods in on her vision. Her skin feels like it’s covered in frost, spreading from her heart outwards, and–

She sways and her head hits the sofa, and she sleeps.

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