The wisp leads Isla down into corridors of the palace she’s never been to, away from the opulent stonework and mosaics and stained glass. The stone hallways are plain and gray. She follows the wisp down one, then the next until it stops in front of a door, then dissipates in a flash of red light.
Isla opens the door.
The room is…bleak. There’s a metal table on one side, jars on a shelf on the other, with tools hanging underneath. There are cells along the back wall, and one of them is occupied.
Isla steps closer, and sure enough, it’s Lucian, with brass hands, slumped against the wall. She’s still wearing palace clothes–ones that look a lot like the ones the medical staff wears, only a lot less clean.
“Lucian?” Isla asks. “Lucian, are you okay?”
It sounds stupid even as she says it. Of course Lucian isn’t okay. Nothing about this is okay.
Isla reaches through the bars and tries to shake her, but before she can even touch Lucian, Lucian groans and slowly looks up. Her eyes are light blue. “…Isla?” she asks. “Oh, fuck, Isla, you’re here!” She tries to stand, but falls over immediately. “Isla, please get me out of here.”
“I know, I know,” Isla says. “I just need to find the key, and–”
“No!” Lucian shouts. “Not the cell! Get me out of this fucking crusty goblin body!”
Isla pauses, and then the other shoe drops. “Solanus?”
“Yes! Please, Isla. Get me out of here right now,” Lucian, or Solanus in Lucian’s body says. “This is the fucking worst. Do you know how difficult it is to manage four limbs? And I have to breathe to talk? How do you assholes live like this?”
“Why–” Isla swallows and tries again. “How did you end up in Lucian’s body? What’ happened to Lucian?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Solanus asks from the floor. “I was sitting around, being a happy, happy rock, and then bam! Some dickhead shoves me into Lucy’s shitty, shitty body. Please, please get me out of this thing. Being in here makes me feel dirty, and not just because she smells bad.”
“Lucian doesn’t smell that–”
“Not the point!” Solanus shouts. “Get me out, please!”
Isla takes a deep breath, then goes over to grab a tool off of the wall. It’s an inscribing awl or something like that, and she slides it through the bars. “Here, will this work?”
Solanus flails a bit until she manages to lay her arm across the awl. There’s a blue flash, then she goes completely limp.
“Oh, fuck me, that’s so much better,” the awl says. “I don’t care if I could see, Lucy’s body is the absolute fucking worst.”
Isla looks at Lucian’s prone body. “Is she okay?”
There’s a long pause. “That’s, uh…kind of a hard question to answer. Lucy’s been through some rough stuff lately. You’re going to have to give her a few minutes.”
Isla waits. Lucian still doesn’t move.
“Solanus,” Isla says. “What happened to Lucian?”
“…That’s really something she should tell you herself,” Solanus says. “Because, uh, yeah. Let me tell you, this? Not a fun way to spend a month.”
Isla’s mind stutters for a moment. “What?” she asks. “It’s only been four days. Five days.”
There’s another long pause, heavier than the last one. “Isla, I don’t know what was going on with you and that creepy dickhole, but if all of Lucy’s yelling was any indication, it wasn’t anything good. We got attacked by wolves a little over five weeks ago.”
Isla tries to take a deep breath, but somehow her chest doesn’t seem to move like she wants it to. Five weeks. That’s thirty days, and she only remembers about four. How…How could that even happen?
She can’t wrap her mind around it, and she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want to think about that at all, not now, hopefully not ever. She stands up and starts looking for a key.
“Hey,” Solanus says. “Hey, uh. I’m real sorry that you got your shit fucked up, but, you know. If you’re here, you, um, is everything fixed now?”
Isla purses her lips and clenches her fist around the memory in her palm, pulsing gently like the heart she doesn’t have. She’s not sure she can call any of this fixed.
“I got my memory back,” she says. “Aurel, the, um, the automaton. He had it. He absorbed it or something, and I took it back.”
“Wait, seriously? Is he dead?”
The image of Aurel’s mangled chest and fluttering artifice drifts to the surface of Isla’s mind. “He was alive when I left him,” she says. “I don’t know if he’ll last very long.”
“Oh. Well, good. Fuck that dude. What can an automaton even do with your memories? Act outside his inscriptions?”
“Solanus, you were stuck here for a m–a month. Don’t you already know?”
“Yeah, I guess. I was just curious and all. When I thought I’d end up in a cool sky palace, I thought I’d get to see cool rich rooms and machines and food. Not get locked up in the dungeon. We didn’t even commit any crimes this time!”
“Yeah, that…sounds rough,” Isla says. She walks by another desk, covered in neatly organized piles of tools and notes. Everything is written neatly and legibly, and still Isla can’t make out more than a word in five. There’s no way for her to tell what happened down here, right under her feet this whole time.
She keeps looking around, not for anything in particular besides keeping her mind off of…recent revelations. She’s looking at the jars on the shelf when she hears a low groan.
Isla snaps to attention. “Lucian?”
Lucian slowly and shakily sits up, like she can’t quite support her own weight. She puts a hand to her forehead, or nearly does until she sees it, then scowls and deliberately puts her hand back down.
“Lucian?” Isla asks again.
Lucian turns towards her. Her eyes are green. Normal bright green, and Isla doesn’t think she’s ever been so happy to see a specific color. “Isla?” she asks. “Isla? Is that actually you?”
“What? Of course it’s me, Lucian. What do you mean, actually me?”
Lucian grimaces. “I…Never mind. If you don’t remember, that’s fine. Can you get me out of here?”
“I haven’t been able to find a key,” Isla says.
“That’s because there isn’t one,” Lucian says. “It’s some artifice bullshit. The m–that asshole would do something to the lock and it would flash blue before opening.”
Isla goes over to look at the cell, but she doesn’t see any marks on it. “I don’t know how to open it.”
“Then fucking break it open! I don’t give a shit! Use a hammer or magic or something!” Lucian snarls. “Just get me out of this fucking cell!”
Lucian’s got a point. Isla goes over to the cell door and puts her hand on the latch and tries to summon some magic power, but the endless burning strength the witch had summoned is gone now, and it feels like reaching down into an empty well. Nothing happens.
“Okay,” she says. “I…I guess I’ll try something else.”
It takes some searching around and irritated grumbling from Lucian, but she eventually finds a large hammer. She smashes it on the latch, and it holds for the first six or so strikes, then snaps off on the seventh, and the cell door swings open.
Lucian tries to get up, but can’t. Isla has to help her up to her feet and support her out of the cell–not an easy or fun task, with Lucian’s weight.
“Get me over there,” Lucian says, pointing at the shelves of jars. “There’s something I need to do.”
Isla helps Lucian over, and Lucian takes a dull red jar off of one side. She looks at it carefully, tracing her brass fingers over the artifice marks so they glow, then violently flings the jar to the ground. It smashes into tiny ceramic pieces, scattering all over the floor.
“Good riddance,” she says with a sneer.
Isla blinks. “What was that? Why did you do that?”
“Souls,” Lucian says darkly. “All the jars here hold souls in them. That’s the one he put yours in.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Now help me get these fucking hands off.”
Isla pulls Lucian back. “Wait, wait, did you just throw my soul on the ground? Do I not have a soul anymore?”
“Your soul is fine,” Lucian says. “He put it back. I don’t know if it’s the same as it used to be. I don’t know what the m–” She scowls. “I don’t know what that…automaton did. Now help me get these hands off or stay out of my way so I can do it myself.”
“L-Lucian! If you break them, you’re not going to have hands anymore, maybe you should think about this a little–”
“Isla,” Lucian snaps. “That asshole broke my hands off and bolted these onto me. I am not keeping them. Now help me or for the love of everything that’s still worth living for, I will smash these fucking hands myself.”
Isla takes a deep breath. “Okay,” she says. “Okay, just…give me a second.” She sets Lucian by a table to lean on, then grabs the hammer.
“I hate these things,” Lucian growls. “I managed to break the first three sets, but then he got clever and made it so I couldn’t break these. Can’t take them off, either. They might be fused to my wrists with more artifice bullshit. The bolts don’t help, either.”
“I’m sorry, Lucian,” Isla says. She holds the hammer up.
Lucian lays her hands out on the table. “Smash them. Hit them as hard as you can. I won’t feel it if you hit me on accident.”
Isla takes a deep breath, then brings the hammer down with a crash.