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Isla stands frozen for an entire minute, staring at the horrifying creation lying limp on the chamber floor.
She has to do something. She doesn’t know what Aurel is trying to do, but she has to stop him, somehow. He’s working on some project in his study, she knows. She can confront him, talk to him, get him to explain himself, or…or something. He’s reasonable. He’ll listen, surely. Surely, he understands that this is not okay, that he can’t do this kind of…thing to people.
After a long time, her legs begin to move again. She stumbles out of the chamber and runs.
The ground flies past beneath her as she sprints back to the palace, as fast as she can manage. Aurel’s study is in the far spire, at the very top. It’s not so hard to make her way to the appropriate lift, but it’s not so easy to make the lift actually take her up. She has to mess around with some knobs and levers, but after some trial and error, the symbols light up, and the lift begins to rise.
Isla tries to take deep breaths. What is she going to do?
She has to say something, at least. Aurel won’t attack her, she’s pretty sure. Aurel isn’t that kind of person. But on the other hand, she didn’t think Aurel would be the kind of person to turn people into…what he turned people into.
Maybe there’s something she’s missing here. Maybe they…maybe they asked for that. Isla can’t even imagine ever wanting something that horrific to happen to her, but maybe there were some sort of extenuating circumstances.
But…she remembers Aurel telling her the servants in the palace had no soul, no spirit. So what happened to them? What did he do?
The lift stops at the top of the spire, at the mouth of the corridor leading directly to Aurel’s study. Isla takes a shaky breath and steps out.
The black and blue stones look so much more foreboding now, as Isla walks down towards the dark towering doors. The stones don’t light up under her feet, not like they did for Aurel. She creeps more than walks down the hallway, feeling like some common criminal just for being here.
A servant posted outside the study door regards her as she approaches. Their silver mask is expressionless and dull in the darkness, and they stand completely still with their brass hands clasped in front of them.
“The master is busy,” the servant says, their voice flat and with even less emotion than the servants usually manage to muster. “You may not enter his study while he is working on his research.”
Isla stares at the servant, who, for all they’ve moved, might as well be a statue. There’s no emotion in their glowing blue eyes that Isla can discern.
“I need to see him,” Isla says.
“You will not enter,” the servant replies in the same flat tone as before. “If you attempt to enter despite these warnings, I will stop you by force.”
Isla clenches her fists. “I’m going in. I’m talking to Aurel whether he likes it or not.”
The servant steps towards her. “You will not.” Artifice markings on their hands begin to pulse blue, and Isla isn’t inclined to find out what they do.
She calls power to her hands, and it burns down to her arms and gathers in her palms as a mass of white light. She tries not to feel guilty about it. These servants don’t feel pain and she needs to get through them to stop Aurel. It’s the only way she’ll get out of here and find Lucian.
Isla lunges, but the servant is faster and jabs her with sharp brass hands. Pain explodes across Isla’s entire body and she screams and stumbles back. She presses a hand to her side and it comes away wet.
The servant takes another step towards her. Their hands are glowing with artifice so brightly that Isla can’t even see the brass underneath. “You will not disturb the master,” they say.
Isla grits her teeth. “Get away from me!” she shouts, flinging out her hand.
There’s a white flash and the servant is blasted back into the wall. They collapse to the ground, but slowly stand again, seemingly no worse for the attack. Blue eyes raise slowly to meet Isla’s. The servant approaches her.
Isla takes a shaky step back, blood pounding through her ears and veins and heart. Her side feels like it’s on fire and her tunic’s already soaked in hot blood. She holds out her free hand, the magic light in her palm flickering faintly. “I–I have to talk to Aurel.”
“You will not disturb the master.”
With three swift steps, the servant closes the distance between them and in a movement too quick to see, they’ve got Isla by the neck, crushed against the wall.
Isla struggles against the cold brass fingers tightening around her throat, but the servant is strong–too strong. Her fingers slip off of the metal, useless and unable to get a grip on them to pry them away. She can’t scream, can’t even breathe, and her vision is starting to go black as the pressure only increases.
Blue eyes, blank and bright, inches away from her. They’re so bright that they make it impossible to see anything else.
She reaches out and tries to push the servant away, but her arm feels like so much lead and she only manages to hook her finger into one of the eyes of the mask. She tries to pull her hand away, but the mask is stuck fast–
The servant’s grip falters, just the slightest bit.
Isla blinks. The mask–?
She blinks again, trying to clear the fog from her vision, and the servant’s face is right there, eyes bright and blue, yes, but there’s light inside the mask, too–
The mask has inscription on the inside. Isla doesn’t know what it’s for, but there’s inscription inside that mask–a lot of inscription–and it’s important. It has to be important.
She yanks on the mask, more forcefully this time, and there’s the smallest amount of give.
It’s enough to make the servant drop her.
Isla collapses, gasping for air and scrambling to make some precious, precious space. The servant steps towards her unsteadily–more like shambles now, with slow and uneven steps. The dull silver mask is still firmly attached, but it’s loosened now, dipping lower on the servant’s face enough to slightly obscure their vision. Isla can see the tiniest edges of inscription down the servant’s face, right below the eyes, lines and lines and lines of them.
Isla gets to her feet as fast as she can manage–there’s not a lot of time, not when the servant keeps coming after her, as sure as a coming storm. She keeps moving back and calls magic to her hands–magic that feels like fire burning her inside out, accumulating in strange whitish-pink masses of light in her hands.
The servant raises a hand, still wet with Isla’s blood. “You will not disturb the master.” They lunge for Isla again.
Isla dodges and rushes in. Frantically, she slams her fingers around the edges of the cold metal mask–and pulls.
There’s a flash of white, and a crack of something snapping apart, and Isla falls back as the mask comes away. Isla blinks reflexively to try and clear her vision, and…
The servant, unmasked, stands before her, artifice glowing across their face like a spider’s web, and beneath it all, gray skin.
Isla feels something like a drop of cold poison sink into her stomach and shakily holds out one of her hands, lit with magic. Praying. Hoping. White light settles on the servant’s face.
“Lucian?” Isla breathes.
Lucian stares at her with blank blue eyes. There’s no recognition or emotion in her face–just deliberation as she lifts her hands again, reaching out for Isla.
“You…will not interrupt…the master,” she intones slowly. With the mask gone, it’s impossible to mistake her voice for anything else–it’s Lucian, her voice dead and cold like Isla’s never heard except in her nightmares.
Isla backs away, unsteady. She feels dizzy and her legs feel like they might give out at any moment. This can’t be real. It can’t be. “No,” she says. “No, Lucian, stop!”
“You…will be subdued,” Lucian says, stepping forward. Blue light pulses down from her eyes, across the intricate lines inscribed across her face, down her neck, down under her collar, down to her brass hands, shining bright and sharp, still glistening with Isla’s blood. “The master…does not accept disobedience.”
“Stop!” Isla shouts. “Stop! Stop! Lucian, it’s me! You know me! Listen–listen to me!”
Lucian doesn’t stop. She takes one step after the next, slow, but inexorable. The sound of each footstep is like the blow of a hammer as she draws nearer and nearer. “The master…will not be…disturbed.”
Isla steps back and bangs her foot against one of the flagstones and her legs give out completely. She collapses and can only stare in horror as Lucian steps over her and brings her brass hands down in a slow, deliberate motion that Isla’s powerless to escape from.
Lucian’s brass fingers fasten around Isla’s throat and tighten slowly.
“Lucian–!” Isla gasps. “It’s me, it’s Isla! You–you’re hurting me!”
Lucian only squeezes harder. “Undesired behavior…is grounds for deactivation…and correction.”
Isla can’t move. Her side is burning with pain, and her limbs all feel like lead–she can’t feel anything except the crushing fingers against her neck and the blood pounding frantically against her chest and in her ears.
She squeezes her eyes shut. She doesn’t want to see Lucian like this. She doesn’t want to see Lucian killing her.
There’s nothing she can do to stop it.
The familiar sensation of cold shadows creeps behind her ear, around her arms. A rushing sensation fills her with burning–so much burning that she has to scream if only she had air, ripping her apart from the inside.
She opens her eyes, not of her own will, and sees only red.
A rushing sound fills her ears and power swells outwards–
There’s a blinding flash and a crashing sound of stone hitting stone, and the fingers around her throat–gone.
Isla closes her eyes. Opens them again. Does it again for good measure.
There’s a vicious black streak of magic residue across the flagstones and at the end of it is Lucian, slumped against the wall, completely motionless.
“What–” Isla rasps. “What did you do to her?”
The witch doesn’t answer.
Painfully, Isla rolls over and gets to her feet. She checks her side–her tunic is still wet and reeks of blood, but the wound…the wound is gone. She can’t even bring herself to think about what that means.
She goes over to Lucian. She turns Lucian’s head to get a better look at her face, and…
Lucian’s eyes are wide, blank, and blue. They don’t see Isla, or anything else. The inscription on her face is dim in spots, and it makes Isla sick just to think of how much there must be in total. What it must mean.
How…how could this have happened?
She has to put Lucian back down and look away before the sick feeling in her stomach turns into something more substantial. She can’t look at Lucian like this. She…she hadn’t helped Lucian at all, had she?
“I’m sorry,” she says hoarsely. “I’m so sorry. I…I’ll make this better, I swear. I swear I’ll make it better, Lucian. I don’t know how, but–” She swallows. It hurts a lot.
She looks up at the doors to Aurel’s study. Aurel is in there, and there’s nobody stopping her anymore.
She gets up. Walks to the doors. Pushes them open.
“Aurel,” she says, her voice barely more than a hoarse whisper. “We have to talk.”