They drift in silence. Isla stares out over the side of the vessel and the ground flying past below them. They’re getting close to the ground now.
“Uh, Lucian?” Isla asks. “How are we going to land?”
Lucian glances over the side. “Good question. Sure wish I knew the answer.”
“Lucian, that’s not helpful. We’re getting close to a forest, there’s no open space to land,” Isla says. “If we don’t do something, we’re going to crash.”
“I gathered that much for myself, funnily enough,” Lucian replies flatly, looking back at the steering column that they’ve barely touched since getting on the vessel. “Can you, I don’t know, cast some kind of spell so we don’t smash straight into a tree?”
Isla purses her lips. “I…”
“Because if you can, sometime in the next minute would be a good time to do so,” Lucian says.
“But I–” Isla’s cut off when a tall branch nearly swipes them.
“Faster would be good, too!” Lucian adds, scrambling to steer the vessel away from sudden death. Now that they’re close to the canopy, everything seems to be moving too fast to even see. “Isla! Do something!”
Frantically, Isla screams, “Protect us!” She tries to grasp for her magic, but it’s too slippery and she can’t grab hold of it, and nothing happens.
Another tree rushes towards them and Lucian swerves so hard left that Isla falls over onto the deck. “Hold on!” Lucian shouts.
Isla gropes blindly for something and manages to grab a rope dangling from the mast. Another tree flies towards them and this time, Lucian can’t get out of the way fast enough. The trunk shears the sail right off, and with a crack, they’re sent hurtling over the side of the vessel and into freefall.
Isla throws her free hand out. “Protect us!” Something swells inside her and a surge of power rushes out like fire down her arms, burning through the lines inscribed on the insides of her forearms, and a red shield bursts to life around them. She crashes down through the branches and leaves with all the force of a falling star, and swiftly–too swiftly–the ground rises up to meet her–
She wakes slowly.
Everything hurts from her head to her sore arms to her back, and there’s stars in her eyes. She’s on something hard. She blinks to clear her vision and sees sunlight filtering down through the treetops. It’s sometime in the afternoon.
Isla sits up–or tries to, when excruciating pain shoots up her right arm, painful enough to make her nearly black out. She falls back to the ground. When the pain has subsided enough that she can stand to look at it, she finds it’s swollen horribly; she must have hurt it in the fall.
It hurts too much to move around and she has no idea where she is or where anyone else is, so she does the next best thing and moans pitifully to herself. After everything she’s been through in the last however many days, she thinks she deserves at least that much indulgence.
She lies there for a while, her injured arm throbbing. She’s not sure how long she’s there. An hour? Maybe two? She should splint her arm, or use some medication if she has any. She should do…something. Call out for help. Get up. Anything besides lay on the ground, useless, with her arm cold and–
She looks over at her injured arm again and is greeted by the sight of blue lines running under her skin, pulsing slowly from the injury. She tries moving her fingers experimentally and finds them numb. Her whole arm is numb and cold, and with the artifice flowing over it and drowning out its color, it could as well be someone else’s arm.
Isla lets her arm fall back to the dirty forest floor and tries not to feel sick. Is that how it’s going to be now? Artifice running over her skin and in her chest cavity like she’s one of Aurel’s steel servants?
She can’t feel anything but numbness in her arm and wishes that she had the pain back.
Slowly, she gets up and takes off her outermost tunic–it’s too warm for the clothes she’d gotten in the palace anyways–and fashions it into some sort of sling. She puts her injured arm in it and wraps it as best she can so she doesn’t have to see it.
She looks and listens, but doesn’t find anything useful. She picks a direction and starts walking.
It’s another hour or so until something happens.
“Isla?” she hears Lucian shout from a long ways off. “Isla, where are you?”
“I’m here!” Isla shouts back. She starts walking faster. “Lucian? Over here!”
Lucian makes her way through the underbrush as quickly as she can, and Isla grabs her in a big hug–or at least as much as she can manage with only one arm.
“Isla, you’re okay,” Lucian says. “I’m glad you’re okay. I was scared you’d break your neck or something–” Lucian pauses, then pulls away. “What happened to your arm?”
“Uh,” Isla says. She doesn’t really want to talk about that. “I hurt it on the way down.”
“What?” Lucian asks. “Are you bleeding? Does it hurt?”
“It’s–it’s not so bad right now!” Isla says.
Lucian has Isla sit down. “Let me look at it. And this sling, I’ll need to retie it.”
With some cajoling, Lucian takes Isla’s injured arm and unwraps it. There’s still a few scrapes and it’s still as numb as ever, but the artifice isn’t glowing anymore, and the swelling is almost gone. Isla stares at it. It hasn’t been very long since she, what, broke her arm? And now it’s almost gone.
She has mixed feelings about that.
“Oh,” Lucian says. “This isn’t so bad. You scared me with the sling and everything, but this is just a sprain, if that. You’ll get better soon.” She still wraps Isla’s arm back up with gauze and helps Isla retie her makeshift sling. Sure enough, it’s a lot more comfortable when Lucian does it, even when she’s missing a hand and needs help tying the knot.
“You’re pretty good at this,” Isla says.
“After all the bullshit you get into, I’d hope so.” Lucian pulls Isla to her feet. “Come on, let’s find our way out of this forest and into a town. I want to stay somewhere tonight that isn’t a dungeon cell.” She sighs. “It sucks we crashed the boat, though. That probably would have helped us get where we needed to.”
They pick a direction and start walking. It takes about an hour and a half until they run into an overgrown dirt path cutting through the forest that doesn’t look like it’s been used in weeks.
“Well, left or right,” Lucian says. “Which way do you want to go?”
“Which one will get us to a town faster?”
A sudden gust of wind blows through the trees, towards their left.
“Okay,” Isla says. “How about left?”
“Right. Hopefully whatever town we get to will be nicer than the last one.”
They head down the road, and they exit the trees just as the sky starts to turn orange. It’s warm with a gentle breeze, with wildflowers dotting the sides of the path and the grasslands further afield, and it’s clear that summer is well underway.
It’s jarring to Isla, considering the last time she was traveling, it was still the thick of spring. She knows, from what Solanus and Lucian have said, that it’s been over a month since she was last on the ground, but the thoughts in her mind can’t connect what she felt to what she sees.
She’s lost time.
She rubs her chest nervously. It doesn’t hurt–there isn’t even a scar there now, but she wonders if she were to take off her shirt and use a looking-glass, if she would see glowing blue lines around her heart, radiating outwards like the nearly invisible spiderweb of black lines still trailing across Lucian’s face.
She wishes she knew more about artifice so she could see what Aurel had done to her, but even the thought of it and the lines etched into her skin makes fer feel ill. She can hardly stand to think about it, much less look, but–
Aurel did something to her magic. She doesn’t know what, but that shield was red, and her magic isn’t red. She remembers that conjuration, and deep red flames dripping out over her fingers as she sent it out in the witch’s voice, and–
“Lucian?” Isla asks.
Lucian glances over. “Yeah?”
“You said I wasn’t a witch, right?”
“Yeah,” Lucian says. “Your magic doesn’t feel like witch magic. Sol doesn’t think so, either, and she’s real good about that kind of stuff. Why do you ask?”
“I…” Isla swallows nervously. “I mean, if I’m not a witch, then what am I?”
Lucian shrugs. “There’s different kinds of magic out there. Ritual magic, potions, natural magic, there’s plenty of magic you can do without being a witch. It’s probably something we’ve never heard of.”
Isla thinks of spidery voices below her ear and shadowy tendrils wrapping tight against her throat. She hasn’t seen the witch since she got her memories back from Aurel, but…
“Yeah,” she says. “Maybe that’s it.”