“–away from her, don’t you dare–“
A flash of knives, blue and white light in her eyes, cold pressure against her bare skin.
Lucian stands above her, a knife hanging delicate between her fingers. Isla can’t move, can’t speak, can’t do anything to make her stop as the knife sinks in–
“–wake up, Isla, it’s me! Isla, stop, you have to listen–“
Red eyes. Darkness.
There’s pressure on her from all sides, constricting shadows around her neck and burning pain trailing down her arms, glowing blue.
Then, through the darkness and the noise–that voice.
“I’m waiting, Isla.”
Isla snaps to consciousness, heart pounding in her chest. She almost expects to see the witch hovering over her, examining her with its blood-red eyes, but there’s nothing. Nothing but the plain white ceiling of her room in the palace, peaceful and still as ever.
She clenches her fists and sits up slowly. It’s been four days. Four days, and she still doesn’t know where Lucian is. Her arms sting, and she rubs them irritably. The marks trailing down her forearms remain stubbornly dim. She still doesn’t know what they do. They haven’t lit up since that incident two days ago in the infirmary.
“Perhaps they have already served their purpose,” she hears echoing in the room.
Isla closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “Go away,” she mutters. “Go away. I can’t hear you. You’re not real.”
“You are always so eager to deny the truth, aren’t you? But the truth is, you can’t run away anymore,” the witch taunts. “There’s no more time.”
Isla presses her lips together and forces herself to stay silent. If she ignores the witch, it’ll go away. That’s what she tells herself.
She gets out of bed and dresses herself in a loose tunic and trousers; it’s warm enough that she doesn’t need more. She goes out, and the servant at the door makes the same apologies they made yesterday, which is odd considering she’s up at a decent hour this time, but she decides not to think too hard about it. Automatons aren’t human–they do what they’re inscribed, that’s all. Maybe they’re just worried about her–inasmuch as an automaton can be worried–after she passed out from her failed conjuration.
The servant asks her a few questions about her health, and when they’re satisfied, they take her down to eat breakfast. Isla doesn’t really feel hungry and the food all tastes like sawdust, but she chokes down what she can because she needs her strength.
Despite Isla’s best efforts, she only manages to finish about half of her plate before she can’t eat anymore, and a servant comes to take her dishes away. “The master extends his deepest apologies,” they say. “But he will not be able to attend to you for now. He is in his study with an important project that cannot be interrupted. He expressed his wishes that you rest after your recent hardships.”
Isla smiles; it feels a bit strained. “Of course. I’ll be able to okay without him for today.”
She doesn’t say she’s going to find Lucian today, no matter what Aurel wants. If he’s not here to see it, that’s his problem.
She goes back to her room, past the masked statues–deactivated automata, she reminds herself–in the hall, past the wall mosaics and wide-spanning windows looking out across seas of clouds. She plucks the stick of chalk from her bag and leaves.
Artifice messes with magic. Aurel had said as much, and that’s why he had her casting magic outside of the main palace. Of course her spell hadn’t worked when her room was full of artifice, trailing down the walls and into the stone floor. That was too much artifice, that’s all. That makes sense.
If she goes back out to the outer towers again, surely she’ll be able to get her searching spell to work this time. It’s got to. She doesn’t have any other plans.
“Even if your spell works, how will you find your friends?” the witch hisses. “If they are on the ground, you can hardly find your way down to them.”
“Then I’ll…I’ll fly,” Isla says. “I’ll figure it out when I get there.”
“And you still believe you can find your friends without my power? Death will not release you from the terms of our deal, Isla.”
Isla grits her teeth and walks faster down the hallways to the outer reaches of the palace. She’s just scaring herself. The witch isn’t real, it’s not actually talking to her. It’s just some delusion brought on by…high altitude or something. It’ll go away if she ignores it.
She keeps walking, feeling eyes on her all the while.
It’s a shorter walk than she remembers to the outer towers, or maybe it only feels that way because she’s in such a rush. She takes a quick look around, but there’s no servants around. She sneaks her way into the chamber.
It’s dim, with only long slices of sunlight streaming through the tall narrow windows. It’s been cleaned up since she cast that searching spell for Aurel, with no signs of ash or chalk marks on the floor.
She takes a deep breath. Hopefully nobody will come by while she’s doing this–she knows Aurel wouldn’t approve. She doesn’t want to disappoint him after everything he’s done for her, but when it comes down to helping Lucian, she knows what’s more important. She glances back at the closed doors nervously, then starts drawing.
Minutes turns into hours until she finishes the complicated set of interlocking sigil circles needed to conjure a finding-spirit. She failed yesterday, but today, she won’t.
She steps into the center of the array, holds her hands together, and says, “Lead me.”
Trying to pull on her magic feels like trying to pull a mountain. She tries to draw power, but even pulling the slightest amount of it feels like drawing a burning iron against her skin. After excruciating effort, a faint light glows in her hands, but it’s barely visible, even in the dim lighting. She grits her teeth and tries to pull even more power.
“Lead me,” she says, more forcefully. “I conjure you, finding-spirit, and implore you to lead me to Lucian, my traveling companion and friend.”
A flickering wisp comes to life in the palms of her hands, pink and so faint it’s barely visible. Sweat drips down Isla’s face as she strains to not let it disappear completely.
Isla hisses and clenches her jaw to keep from snapping at the witch when she feels power rush down her arms like a rushing waterfall, crashing and raw, tearing through her as it reaches the wisp in her hands and it flares alive–bright and strong and deep, deep red. It hovers in her hands, pulsing with dark fire, and it takes everything Isla has not to scream out from the burning in her skin, to keep calm enough to hold the wisp in her palms and keep it from bursting.
She opens her mouth to send the finding-spirit off, but her mouth is dry and she can’t form the words. She’s so close, she can find Lucian, she knows it–
The chamber door opens behind her.
Isla startles at the sound and steps back–
Her foot leaves the center of the spell array, and the wisp in her hand swells explosively, shedding red fire with burning heat that scorches her fingers. She throws her hands out defensively and the wisp collapses in a flash of red light.
Energy bursts outwards, burning Isla’s hands and arms, blasting Isla across the room. She skids on the floor and comes to stop against the wall, hurting, but otherwise seemingly no worse for wear.
She sits up with a groan and some difficulty. Who…?
There’s a figure lying motionless in the doorway and she scrambles to her feet as quickly as she can. She couldn’t have, could she…?
She makes her way over to the door, and there’s a servant lying prone on the floor, motionless. She bites her lip with a sinking feeling in her stomach.
She didn’t…kill them, did she? Automata don’t feel pain, but that doesn’t mean she can just do…something like that. She didn’t mean to, but she knew the spell was volatile. She should have blocked the door or something.
The servant’s mask is lying to the side. She picks it up carefully. The outside is completely featureless except for the eye holes, but there’s glowing blue artifice etched in intricate lines on the inside and bent bolts at the edges that are clearly meant to attach to something.
She turns the servant over, and…
The servant’s face isn’t automaton. It’s human flesh, with grotesque plates of metal grafted into the skin. It stretches up, up from the collar, up past the jawbone, up along the edges of their face and fitted with bolt holes that match the ones in the mask. There’s artifice marks trailing down from their blank eyes, etched across the cheekbones and nose and mouth like some strange and awful tattoo. There’s burns across the servant’s face, and blood smeared from their mouth, dripping down to the ground.
Automata don’t bleed.
Isla recoils, her heart pounding in her chest. She doesn’t even know what she’s looking at, at this unmasked servant with metal sewn to flesh and bone. Hands shaking, she forces herself to kneel next to the servant and she tears off their tunic.
The metal travels all the way down their neck, down the collar into half of the torso and one of the arms, which has been replaced entirely. Faint blue markings pulse all the way up their arms, across the torso, centering around the heart, and the servant’s wide-open eyes glow blue, apparently completely unaware and unresponsive. There are burns splotched down the neck, and Isla can see their skin healing before her eyes, unnaturally fast.
Isla drops the servant, feeling acutely ill. How could this have happened? Are all the servants like this? This…abomination of flesh and machinery?
She stumbles back and sees the marks trailing down her own arms glow blue as the magic burns on her own hands fade right in front of her.
Oh. Oh, gods.
What is Aurel planning?