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Aurel is at his drawing table, working on a piece of metal. He doesn’t even seem to notice Isla in the doorway.
Isla steps into the workshop. “Aurel,” she says.
Slowly, Aurel puts down his tools and turns around. He’s wearing a set of magnifying lenses and doesn’t seem particularly pleased to see Isla. “I believe I told the servants to inform you I couldn’t be disturbed while I was working,” he says. “You are lucky you did not enter while I was doing anything delicate. What happened to my guard?”
“Your guard was Lucian!” Isla shouts.
“It’s her body, certainly. I do not know if you would consider it her in her entirety. I thought you might be happier to see her,” Aurel says.
“Her–” Isla splutters. “Wh-What did you do to her!?”
“The same as I do to all my subjects. She was uncooperative, so I corrected her behavior.” Aurel removes his lenses and sets them on his drafting table. “What did you so urgently require?”
Isla clenches her fists. She can’t even believe this. She doesn’t want to. “You–You lied to me! You said you’d help me find Lucian and Solanus!”
“I did attempt to find your friends,” Aurel replies evenly. “That I knew where the were does not negate that.”
“And you’ve been doing all of–of this! You said the servants were automata that didn’t have souls or spirits! You–those people, they were people, and you did–” She can’t even bring herself to say it.
“They are automata. Almost all of them were human once, but after my failed experiments, I repurposed their bodies so they could continue to serve the palace. They are automata now; that they still have flesh and blood is irrelevant.” Aurel selects another tool and examines it closely. “Is that all you wished to see me about?”
Isla takes a deep breath. “I…I wanted to believe in you. I thought you were a good person, but–” she swallows and raises her hands, flaring with magic. “Aurel, you can’t do this. I won’t let you. I’m stopping this now.”
Aurel regards her and her magic, not even remotely concerned. “No,” he says. “I don’t believe you will.
He raises his hand and blue light flashes across Isla’s skin.
And then, darkness.
There’s no voices this time.
Out of the darkness, she sees Lucian’s face, eyes glowing blue. There’s a shining silver blade, delicately gripped in golden fingers. It comes down slowly and rests at the hollow of her throat, and–
Hands. There’s hands on her, hands in her chest, hands pulling her open and hands around her heart. She can’t feel it. She can’t feel it or see it but she knows it’s there, she sees the flash of silver and gold and she can’t move, can’t scream, can’t–
Her back is against a hard table. Metal hands are holding her down.
“The subject is reactive. Sedate her.”
Isla tries to scream, tries to struggle, but it’s useless. She’s dead weight–trapped. Gold hands flash in her vision and there’s a pinch at the base of her neck–
There’s eyes. Red eyes all around her.
Isla snaps awake, gasping for breath.
She’s in her room again. White walls, white room, like it was all a dream. Just a dream and red eyes and cold sweat and her heartbeat pounding like–
She can’t feel her heartbeat.
She bolts upright in bed and pulls her tunic down, and there, there’s a long scar trailing down her sternum, cutting through faint intricate marks that don’t glow.
“No…” she breathes. “No, no, he can’t–” She presses her hand against her chest, but she can’t feel anything under the skin, no pulse at all. “No–“ She shudders and tries to get up, tries to get out of this somehow, but she can’t manage it. Her legs give way the moment they hit the ground and she collapses on the stone floor.
She tries to breathe. She tries to get up, but her whole body shakes as she blinks away hot tears and tries not to look at the marks on her arms, trailing all the way down to her heart–or whatever it is that’s in her now.
What is she supposed to do now?
“I have waited long enough,” a familiar voice whispers in Isla’s ear, and slowly, a form of darkness coalesces before her, hazy and flickering, as if it’s not quite in this plane or the next, but somewhere in between. “Use my power. Take back what is yours.”
Isla looks up at the witch, and there’s something about it, too much between here and there for her eyes to focus on it–too unreal for her to capture its appearance besides the darkness and red eyes. “I–I can’t,” she says. “That’s witchcraft, I can’t–”
“It’s never stopped you before,” the witch hisses, and Isla feels something under her chin forcing her to look up. “You will use my power.”
Isla stares into red eyes–demon’s eyes so endless and powerful that she feels herself lulled into their grasp with no chance of escape. It drags her mind down into darkness, down to some cold place far from her understanding, leaving nothing but the words:
“Use my power.”
There’s a sharp feeling of something shattering against Isla’s darkened consciousness and a sudden inferno rages to life and burns away the darkness until the light crashes in on her again, the white lights of her white room in a white palace. Fire floods through her limbs, fills her with burning power, too hot to handle, and slowly, she feels herself move.
The fire moves in her, and like a puppet pulled on strings, she stands. Her hands move, drifting slowly until they’re positioned neatly in front of her.
“Lead me,” she hisses, or perhaps hears–there’s no way to tell.
Instantly, magic bursts to life in her hands, easy as breathing, and burning blood red.
“Take me to what is mine.”
The fire swells with caustic power and jets off, out of the room. Isla’s legs, unbidden by her, carry her after it. She can’t open her mouth, can’t force herself to stop the fire moving her limbs, driving her forward. She follows the finding-spirit down corridors and chambers and corridors and chambers until she finally stops in front of Aurel’s workshop once more. The red-black finding spirit bobs once, then dissipates into nothing.
The burning feeling in Isla’s limbs fades slowly, and she slumps, feeling the shakiness return.
“Do not falter,” a voice echoes in the deep recesses of her mind, and just like that, Isla feels the fire in her again, burning her from inside out.
She stands and pushes the door open.
Aurel is there. Of course he is.
“Aurel,” Isla says. Her voice is hoarse, but it comes out loud and clear.
Aurel turns towards her slowly. “Isla,” he says. “I didn’t expect you to wake so soon after your procedure.”
“You…You stole my heart.”
“I replaced your heart, Isla,” Aurel replies loftily. “I thought you would be happy. You said yourself that it was a beautiful piece of work.”
The mechanical heart. Isla remembers it, torched in rainbow colors and made of the most intricate mechanics she’d ever seen–and wishes she didn’t. She feels sick.
“You…you didn’t,” she says.
“And why not? I made it from titanium so as to not interfere with your biological systems,” Aurel says. “And the inscription needed to integrate with your body and the magic in your system…it took many tries and many long days of research, but now that it is complete, I believe it is one of my greatest creations.”
Isla feels faint, but the fire burning her from within keeps her upright and firm. She takes a deep breath. “Why? Why would you do that to me?”
Aurel tilts his head slightly, blue eyes inscrutable. “Do humans not desire immortality? Many humans would die for the chance, and in fact, have, but rest assured that you will not. I believe magic was the last needed element to complete my creator’s research, so I thank you for your demonstrations and time. You have yielded invaluable data.”
“No!” Isla screams. “I never asked for this! I didn’t want any of this!”
“No? Humans are so fickle about particulars, aren’t you? You are stronger with my heart inside of you, Isla.”
Isla seethes. She clenches her fists so tightly that her nails bite into her palms, and yet she can’t feel her heart in her chest, can’t feel the blood rushing in her ears.
“Take back what is mine,” the witch hisses.
Isla raises her hands, glowing red.
The time for talking has passed, and Isla doesn’t hesitate. She lashes out with her magic, red cords shooting straight through Aurel’s torso, piercing layers of metal and machinery in an instant. His body flashes with blue artifice, pulsing outwards from his heart, and then–
A gray flame bleeds out of his chest, coagulating into a drop of magic fire. Isla reaches out and grabs it, and it condenses into a small, glassy stone. She holds it in her palm, and it’s warm against her skin.
Isla’s cords dissipate into shadows, and Aurel’s eyes and markings are faded to a dull, dark blue. He moves after a long moment, his motions slow and uncoordinated. The markings around his the hole in his chest flutter like a failing heartbeat.
“Are you a guest in the master’s palace?” he asks.
Compared to all of the servants in the palace, he sounds like the most emotional man in the world, but compared to how he was just two minutes ago, he sounds flat and dead.
Isla clutches the memory in her hand. “Aurel?” she asks.
Aurel nods. “My creator and the master of the palace. If you wish to see him, I may escort you to his study.”
Isla grimaces. There’s something deeply disquieting about seeing Aurel like this, reduced to this. All his emotion, all of his kindness, as deceptive as they all were, was her memory really enough to do…all that?
“It was never his to begin with,” the witch says.
Isla swallows. It’s not something she wants to think about.
She holds out her hand. “Lead me,” she says. “Take me to Lucian and Solanus.” A red wisp flares to life in her hands, and it flies off, out of the workshop.
Isla follows after it.