Isla slowly regains consciousness some unknown amount of time later. Her head feels clearer, and she’s not aching anymore. She’s still on the sofa, and someone’s put a light blanket on top of her. It’s warm enough in the room that she doesn’t really think she needs it.
“Miss Isla, are you awake?” a servant asks from the door. “Are you feeling better now?”
Isla takes a moment to drink from a glass of water on a nearby end table, then says, “Yes, I’m feeling a lot better now. What time is it?”
“It is two o’clock in the afternoon. You have slept for an hour and a half,” the servant says. “If you are feeling better, the master would like to see you at your earliest convenience.”
“Oh, of course,” Isla says, pulling her blanket off. “That would be great. Did Aurel find anything about Lucian and Solanus?”
“I do not know the reason for which the master wishes to meet you,” the servant says. “He is in his workshop.”
“I’ll go there right now,” Isla says. She stands up experimentally, and while her legs feel a bit shaky, they don’t hurt, and she doesn’t think she’ll fall over if she walks. She looks up at the servant. “It’s okay if I go now, right?”
The servant bows. “I will escort you to the master’s workshop. Although your symptoms may be temporarily alleviated with your medication, please be mindful not to overextend yourself.”
The servant helps her to the door and out to the hallway. She walks out, and a dark figure flashes in her vision.
She stops and blinks, and the figure is gone.
Aurel’s workshop is just as far away as it was the day before, no surprises there. Even this palace doesn’t have the ability to make rooms shift around at people’s convenience, Isla thinks. It would have been nice, though.
She knocks on the door. There’s a long pause, then the door opens on its own, and the servant gestures for Isla to enter.
Last time she’d been here, she’d been so preoccupied that she hadn’t even thought to look around, but she takes a moment to do so now. The floor is dark lacquered wood and the walls are lined with bookshelves, each holding several volumes and journals and miscellaneous small trinkets and tools. On the far wall, there’s a tool rack and hanging rolls of wire. All around the room are tables with different projects in various states of completion.
Aurel is at one of the far tables with a pair of magnifying artificer’s lenses, parsing through a series of tools. There’s a silver wolf lying across the table behind him, and Isla recognizes it immediately as one of the wolves that had attacked her.
“What–Why is that here?” Isla asks, slowly approaching the table.
Aurel looks up. “Ah, Isla. I heard you were feeling ill this morning. I hope that is no longer the case.” He picks up a set of pliers and says, “This is, as you are no doubt aware, one of the wolves that attacked you and your friends. We tracked down and retrieved it to see if there was any information that would tell us of their origins or where your friends currently are.” He lifts one of the wolf’s metal legs. “These are no doubt automata, but the artifice markings on this one have been burned away. With this level of damage, there is no wonder this automaton is no longer functional.”
“What?” Isla asks. “The marks got burned off? That’s possible?”
“Not by physical means,” Aurel says. “Artifice marks can normally only be destroyed by further artifice or by destroying the object beyond repair. It is the nature of artifice to imbibe the affected object with power so that it takes the new properties as its own, permanently.” He puts the leg back down. “However, as I have mentioned before, magic has a volatile reaction with artifice. Very strong demonic or natural magics can both cause artifice to decay or burn away entirely. Unfortunately, the nature of the damage in both cases is identical. There’s no way to tell which one did it after the fact.”
Isla makes a face. She’s heard of magic and artifice not going well together, but she’s never heard of magic burning artifice off completely.
She steps closer to look at the wolf. There are marks all down its back and limbs in stark black against the silver limbs and plates of fur. There’s no light at all in its eyes, and Isla can see the gears beneath its armor, sitting completely still. The marks on its right foreleg are completely scorched away.
“I believe this may be the wolf you attacked,” Aurel says. “As you can see, the markings have been damaged beyond repair.”
“But I…it attacked me even after I hit it,” Isla protests.
Aurel nods. “The effects magic has on artifice tend to occur over a long period of time. It may take over a week or two for this sort of damage to occur.”
“I’ve only been here for three days.”
Aurel shrugs. “And your magic is provably more potent than most, especially what is normally tested in the literature. The spell you used the last time we spoke was not a low-level spell, nor was it meant to be cast by one person alone. Of course, the markings on this wolf are very rudimentary with no shielding, but there is no way for me to know how quickly your magic would affect something like this.”
“Oh,” Isla says.
“I am still trying to extract some information from this automaton,” Aurel says. “I had hoped to complete it before you woke up.”
“Who made it?” Isla asks. “Do you know?”
Aurel puts down the tool he’s using and takes off his magnifying lenses. “I did, of course. Or rather, I made the original versions of these wolves, over eight hundred years ago. The inscription is still mine, but the mechanics are not nearly as resilient and have been changed in the intervening years.”
“So you made the wolves that attacked us?” Isla asks.
“At one point they were my wolves, yes. I built them to protect a territory when the palace was still on the ground. The settlement they are meant to protect most likely no longer exists, so their behavior may no longer align with what I originally intended for them.” Aurel pulls back an armor plate and looks under it. “And it appears that some people have made additional inscriptions to them as well. I do not know who owns these wolves now.”
“You think whoever modified the wolves is the person who took Lucian?” Isla asks.
“Whoever modified these wolves is, in all probability, dead,” Aurel says. “There may be someone in charge of these wolves now, or they may be acting on their own now. It makes no difference to me; I only wished to see if there was any blood, clothes, or belongings I could use to more quickly track your friends with. I have, unfortunately, found none, so my next step is to attempt to view the automaton’s memory and see if that has any hints as to the whereabouts of your friends.”
“You can look at an automaton’s memory?” Isla asks. “I didn’t know that was possible.”
“It often isn’t. Most automatons do not have recoverable memory,” Aurel says, wedging the wolf’s mouth open with his bare hands. “But I design my inscriptions so that I may view their memories in case things go wrong. If that part of the inscription is still intact, then I may be able to learn some useful information.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Isla says. She glances back from where Aurel is working, feeling that pressure on her back again of someone watching her.
“This may take several minutes,” Aurel says, forcing the wolf’s mouth open even wider. “Please, feel free to sit, or to look around, if you wish. Please do not touch any of my tools or projects–they are very delicate.”
Isla opts to look around. She stops by a table with some small mechanical birds in a cage. When she waves her hand in front of them, they chirp at her with a sound much like a bell. “What is this for?”
“I am testing a revised design to produce sustained flight in small automata,” Aurel says. “I had a recent breakthrough in my research in how to make flight possible with fewer inscriptions. The design still needs refinement, but I believe it is almost complete.”
The birds are small, with silver and brass feathers and small eyes that glow blue. When they flap their wings, Isla can see blue lines on the undersides of their flight feathers, pulsing softly.
“Do your automata ever get away from you?” Isla asks. “It seems like it would be difficult to catch one of these if they got out of the cage.”
“All my automata have safety inscriptions that allow me to remotely disable them when necessary. It is useful when an automata starts to exhibit undesired behavior, which is always a danger when inscriptions become extremely complex,” Aurel says. He picks up another one of his tools, something that looks like a large set of pliers. “If it pleases you, you may take one of the finished birds when you leave the palace. They are not very intelligent, but I understand that humans sometimes find that charming.”
“That would be wonderful,” Isla says, leaning in to get a better look at them. Each one could fit in the palm of her hand with room to spare. “Are you sure? They’re so delicate.”
“As I said, they are tests,” Aurel replies. There’s a grinding sound, then a snap as he detaches the wolf’s lower jaw and sets it aside. “There is no more data to be gained from them, and so I have no more use for them. If an automaton may find a caring home, then so much the better.”
Isla smiles and looks at the next table. There’s a polished contraption with colors ranging from green to pink to blue to orange to gray. It’s about the size of a fist, mounted on a pole with pipes leading into and out of it, and blue marks pulse all the way down the outside surface, so dense that Isla can barely even see the metal beneath.
“What’s this?” she asks.
“That is a mechanical heart,” Aurel replies. “It is the most important part of any automaton. Any artifice applied to it will spread to the rest of the body. The one you are looking at is made of anodized titanium.”
Isla leans in and she can see tiny gears spinning smoothly against each other in the open chamber of the heart, set together in tiny metal chains. She can’t even imagine how complex it is. “It’s beautiful,” she says.
“Thank you,” Aurel replies. “I am very glad you think so.”
“It’s so complicated, though. How long have you been working on this?” Isla asks.
“I started it just before you arrived at the palace, “Aurel says. “It is still not yet finished.”
“But that’s only been three days!” Isla says. “You can work that fast?”
“I have made many mechanical hearts, including my own,” Aurel replies simply. “I also have assistants to help me with my builds, and of course, I do not sleep.”
“That’s amazing.” Isla stands up straight again and looks around the workshop with all of its tools and small contraptions that tick, whir, and spin on their own through nothing but artifice and mechanical skill. She wonders just how much Aurel can do with artifice. “Aurel?” she asks.
“You said your creator was trying to achieve immortality, right?”
“That is correct,” Aurel replies.
“But you’ve been alive or, you know, existing for this long,” Isla says. “Did your creator ever try putting his soul into an automaton or something?”
Aurel pauses in his work with the wolf, then puts his tools down. “He theorized about it, but was not able to complete the theory of how to transfer a soul to an automaton before his death. He only barely finished the theory of how to extract a soul and spirit from the body before his illness finally took him.”
“Does that mean his…his soul is still around?” Isla asks.
“No,” Aurel says. “It was not for another hundred or so years that I discovered the method to safely stabilize the soul and spirit for transfer from one body to another. My creator did not wish to have only his soul preserved, and rightly so. While a soul with no spirit may be preserved indefinitely, a being with only a soul and no spirit has no free will or lasting memory, and he preferred to die than to exist in such a state.”
Isla grimaces. She can understand that much, at least. “What do you mean, no lasting memory?”
“True memory may only be established when the spirit and soul are united. Separating one from the other makes it so the being may only form temporary memory that is lost once the spirit and soul are reunited,” Aurel explains. “Unfortunately, in my research, I have found no way to circumvent this.”
Isla tries not to think too hard about the number of experiments Aurel must have run in the last thousand years, and the creatures whose spirits and souls may have been involved. They probably volunteered–it was in the name of immortality, or health, or something like that. Plenty of people would be willing to risk everything for that, right?
“So you know how to transfer someone’s soul and spirit into an automaton?” Isla asks.
“In theory,” Aurel says. “The occasion to actually do so has not yet arisen, but once the spirit and soul have been extracted, it is a simple matter of ensuring the body can accept a soul. As you have read, a soul will self-destruct in a body not its own, especially if that body once had a soul that belonged to it, as is the case with organic materials. It is exceedingly difficult to insert a soul into a complex object such as an automaton.”
“So what do you do?”
“There is a complex set of inscriptions that may allow a body to accept a soul without the body destroying the soul. After that, the body may easily accept any soul,” Aurel says. “Of course, if the spirit and soul are not properly stabilized, one or the other may become sheared apart in the transfer process. It is very delicate.”
“What happens if, uh, the spirit and soul get sheared apart?” Isla asks.
“Death,” Aurel says. “It is not an undertaking I would recommend for an amateur artificer. There is enough risk when I attempt it.”
“I…I see,” Isla says.
“Regardless, placing a soul and spirit in an automaton body is not the form of immortality my creator wished to achieve,” Aurel continues. “He wished to live in his own body, maintaining all of his senses, and even with all of the complex inscriptions of the world, an automaton still cannot and never will achieve the level of sensory input that humans experience. Humans, in that regard, are extremely remarkable despite their short lifespans and the sensation of pain.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Isla replies, moving on to another table. “I’m not sure if we should get the credit. We’re not really the ones who came up with it.”
“If you are interested in the theory of transferring a soul, I may compile the notes for you by the time we speak next,” Aurel says.
“Uh, that’s okay,” Isla says. “I’m…I’m not sure if I’m really at a high enough level to do that…that kind of thing.”
“There is always time to learn,” Aurel replies as he starts removing gears and other pieces from inside the wolf’s skull. “It is a useful skill for an artificer to practice.”
Isla can’t imagine any point where knowing how to transfer a soul would be useful, but it’s probably better not to say so out loud. Instead, she says, “Thanks, but I think I’m okay. I don’t think I want to take anyone’s soul out of their body.” She hovers by the next table, which looks to be a set of brass hands, one of which is incomplete. “Are you making another set of hands?” she asks, changing the subject.
“Yes. One of my servants recently had an incident that resulted in breaking their hands. I am building new ones that are hopefully sturdier.”
“That’s really neat,” Isla says. “So you have to do all the maintenance on the automata in the palace yourself?”
“No, I have specialized servants that can help with normal repairs. These hands, however, I choose to do on my own. It is the only way I may ensure that they all function at the standard I desire,” Aurel says. “And of course, as in cases like this one, sometimes I must use alternate designs for alternate needs.”
“This servant has broken their hands before?” Isla asks. “Doesn’t the inscription stop them from doing that?”
“This will be the fourth set, and hopefully there will be no need for a fifth,” Aurel says. “As for the inscription, it is not always so simple to remove undesirable behaviors, though sometimes I wish it were.”
“So you don’t just get rid of them?” Isla asks.
Aurel shakes his head. “Absolutely not. That would be a waste, and terribly cruel.”
“Oh,” Isla says. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
Aurel pulls a metal disk from the wolf’s skull that’s pulsing with blue lines. “Ah,” he says. “It looks like this is still intact. Wonderful. I will examine this later. I believe you were interested in hearing the status of my most recent search.”
“Oh,” Isla says, turning back towards Aurel. “Yeah, did you find anything?”
“I was able to determine the general area where your friends are. They are not too far away, within a radius of a few miles, but there are shielding methods in place that prevent me from finding their exact location. Whoever is currently holding your friends does not want them to be found, by magical means or otherwise. That is why I wished to see if there was any additional information I could obtain from this wolf.”
“Then…should I try finding them again?” Isla asks.
“The spell you used will not yield any more information that it hasn’t already,” Aurel says. “You are ill besides, so I would not suggest attempting magic for the time being.”
“But you can’t find them,” Isla says. “I can.”
“Isla, I understand you are concerned, but I am just as concerned about your continued health,” Aurel insists.
Isla opens her mouth to protest when she feels something cold and dark creeping up her skin, around her shoulders.
“You already know how to find your friends,” that voice whispers in her ear. “If you wish to use my power, you need only ask.”
Isla presses her lips together. She’s not going to ask a witch for help, especially not the witch. She’s not a witch; she’ll save her friends without witchcraft. That’s non-negotiable.
“I’m going to the library again,” she says firmly.
Aurel regards her for a long moment then says, “Very well. I will call for you if I find anything new.”