That night, Isla dreams of a long road, and of searching for something. She walks and walks until darkness falls and red eyes peer at her from all around, but she never stops and never finds what she’s looking for–whatever that even is.
She wakes to an odd shuffling sound, and has to blink a few times to find Lucian–in a new set of faded clothes that seem to be very worn-in–feverishly pacing back and forth.
“You, uh, okay there?” Isla asks. “Is everything okay?”
“Fine,” Lucian says tightly. “I don’t like being in small rooms, that’s all.”
“This room isn’t that small, is it? We’ve been in smaller places.”
“Yeah? Well, that was before I got locked in a dungeon cell for most of a month,” Lucian snaps. She stops pacing and takes a deep breath. “Sorry. I’m not trying to be an asshole. I just don’t like being holed up like this.”
“You spent all night in here? Couldn’t you go outside?”
“Sure, if I wanted to risk running into demons. Which I didn’t. I loitered in the hallways for a while until the innkeeper yelled at me.” Lucian tries to rub her face with her left hand, then remembers she doesn’t have one anymore. She puts her arm down. “Look, are you awake now? Can we go? I want to get out of here.”
“I need to eat and get dressed, Lucian,” Isla says. “It’s daytime now. You can go stand outside for a bit while I do that, right?”
“What? Oh. I guess so,” Lucian says. “Fine. I’m going to wait outside. Come out when you’re ready.” She picks up her bag, clips Solanus to her belt, then leaves.
Isla takes care of her business. She eats the rest of the fresh foods they’d taken from the palace–they won’t last much longer anyways–then starts to get dressed. In the meantime, she checks her injured arm, or formerly injured arm, as her arm seems to be perfectly fine now. Marks still trail up and down the insides of her forearms, except now…
Parts of the artifice marks have been burned away.
She stares at the blanked out spots in the broken lines trailing down her arms for a long moment, taking in how unnatural it looks. Artifice isn’t supposed to be removed–it’s not like a drawing that can be erased or covered up–it’s supposed to be indelible, except…
Magic can destroy artifice. Aurel had been explicit enough about it–magic breaks down artifice over time. She has magic.
She rubs her arms irritably and she thinks she imagines the skin feeling raw and painful. It can only be a good thing, right? After all, she doesn’t want these marks, or whatever they’re doing to her. They go away, and she’ll be back to normal–
Isla freezes as she comes to a sudden, horrifying realization.
She reaches for her chest on impulse, and still, she can’t feel any heartbeat. She can’t feel something that isn’t there.
She’s not sure if she’ll ever get used to it, or if she’d even want to.
What can she do? She can’t…she can’t take her heart back out, she can’t put in a new one. If she keeps using magic, eventually her heart will stop, and then…then that’s it.
“Death will not release you from the terms of our deal,” she hears, or perhaps remembers, and she wonders what would happen if she did die. Would she be stuck as a ghost? Would she be brought back to life somehow? Or would…would something even worse happen?
Death isn’t the worst case scenario. Not now. Not when witches are concerned.
Isla pulls her sleeves down and puts her bag over her shoulder, then hurries out. She doesn’t want to think about that. She’s not ready to die to a witch’s curse or an automaton’s machinations. She needs to find her memories and keep moving. That’s all.
Lucian is waiting outside, just like she said she would be. She looks calmer now, or at least until she sees Isla.
“Isla? Is everything okay?”
“What?” Isla asks. “Of course everything’s fine. Nothing’s wrong at all.”
Lucian’s brow furrows. “You know you’re a shit liar, right? You look like your dog died.”
“I don’t have a dog,” Isla says automatically.
“I know you don’t. It’s a saying. I’m just saying you look like something bad happened.”
Isla tries to school her face into something less terrible and says, “No, my face just looks like that. I’m perfectly fine, see?” She smiles. “Everything is okay. We need to go find my memories, right?”
Lucian sighs. “You know you can talk to me, Isla.”
And she would, if there was anything that needed saying, but there isn’t. She doesn’t need Lucian to worry, and really, there’s no guarantee that her heart will fail, just based on the marks on her arms. Aurel had over a thousand years of his horrible experiments, so surely he knew how to work around something like her magic. There’s nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
If her heart was still beating, it would be racing right now.
“I know,” Isla says. “I’ll tell you if anything happens.”
Lucian’s skepticism doesn’t fade, but she says, “Okay, if you say so. Do you know where we need to go?”
Isla nods. “North.”
“North, huh?” Lucian asks, more to herself than to Isla. “That’s getting pretty close to the border. All right, let’s go.”
They head north into the town center, and the difference between night and day there is, well, like night and day. There’s people everywhere in the streets wearing bright colors amidst cheering and banging of drums.
“What’s going on?” Isla asks.
“Looks like some kind of festival,” Lucian says.
Isla looks around from the colorful banners to people’s clothes and games. “I want one of those dresses.”
Lucian sighs. “Yes, Isla. I know.”
They wade their way through the crowds to the square where some sort of parade is going on. Everyone is wearing colorful patterned clothing with long sleeves that trail behind them, along with painted masks and headscarves in various shades and patterns.
“What is this? What’s happening?” Isla asks as people bustle past her. “Hey, hey? What’s going on here?”
She has to do a little bit of asking around before one of the girls wearing a long striped headscarf stops and says, “It’s the Firelight Festival, of course!”
“The what?” Isla asks.
“The Firelight Festival!” the girl says a second time. “Do you mean you haven’t heard of it?”
“We’ve come from a long ways off,” Lucian says. “Is this a common thing around here?”
“I thought everyone celebrated it!” the girl says, giggling. “I can’t believe you don’t–you’re even reading for the Lighting!” She makes a vague gesture to Lucian’s face.
“I’m sorry, the what?” Lucian asks.
The girl giggles again, hiding her mouth behind her hands. “Wow, you really don’t know, do you? The Lighting is this…big performance we have at night on the last day of the festival. We have dancers go up in the town square and they perform a reenactment of the killing of the Great Demon.”
Lucian takes a deep breath. “The…Great Demon.”
The girl nods enthusiastically, and just as she’s about to answer, she’s called upon by someone out in the crowd. The girl flashes a quick smile at Lucian and Isla, then says, “Sorry! I’ve got to go! Have fun!” She runs off.
“I’m not sure if I lie the sound of this ‘Great Demon,'” Lucian says after a pause.
“I think it’s exciting,” Isla says. “I mean, a hero came along and saved everyone by killing it. That’s amazing.”
“It’s probably easier when it never happened,” Lucian grumbles.
“You don’t have to take the fun out of everything, Lucian!”
Lucian makes her way through the crowd, dragging Isla along with her. It takes some more wading through crowds, but eventually they get out of the streets and into another building. It’s much quieter, to say the least.
Lucian all but collapses against a wall. “I can’t believe there are so many people in this town. And they’re all so loud. Why can’t they do something else?”
“It’s a festival! They’re excited!” Isla says.
Lucian crosses her arms. “Excited about what, some demon getting killed? That’s nothing to get all shouty over. Demons get banished all the time, you know. They’re not stable in this plane and they disappear after enough time passes. As long as you can wait it out, you can beat any demon.”
“Not if it’s possessing a witch,” a voice says from behind them.
Isla whirls around. An older woman is standing there, wearing a zig-zag pattern wrap around her shoulders.
“What are you talking about?” Lucian says. “Demons don’t possess people, they murder them.”
The woman leans in. “Don’t doesn’t mean they can’t. And you’re lucky they don’t, or we’d have many more demons running around than we already do.”
“Okay,” Lucian says. “That’s great and all, but we’re not planning to stick around town. We’re looking for something north of here. Have you heard of anything unusual in that area?”
The woman laughs and says, “There’s nothing north of here, dear. There was a town over a hundred years ago, but demons destroyed the whole thing and there’s nothing left. Nothing’s happened there since.”
“What about past the town?” Lucian presses.
“Beyond that, there’s wilds, and you won’t want to go there,” the woman says. “And beyond that? Well, you probably wouldn’t survive to find out.”
“Great,” Lucian says. “Well, thanks.”
Lucian tugs Isla along away from the old woman.
“So…are we checking out that town?” Isla asks.
Lucian nods. “Yeah. We are.”