Lucian sighs, then slowly gets to her feet. “So what do we do now?”
“I could…get rid of your artifice marks,” Isla says.
Lucian shoots her a look. “Isla, you told me earlier today that you couldn’t do that. Why are you so gung-ho about it now? Were you just being an asshole earlier? Is that how you get your kicks?”
“No, uh,” Isla says. “I mean…”
“You’re not helping your case,” Lucian says.
“Well…” Isla takes a deep breath and rolls her sleeves up so Lucian can see the broken lines on her arms. “Using magic is doing this to the artifice Aurel put on me.”
“Yeah? What about it?”
“Lucian, the heart Aurel put in me isn’t just metal and clockwork. It’s artifice, too. My heart is powered by artifice right now.”
It takes a few seconds for Lucian to process that. She purses her lips, then stares up at the ceiling for what seems like a very long time, then looks back at Isla. “So you mean if you use enough magic, you’ll die,” she says slowly.
“Uh, not necessarily,” Isla replies. “I mean, Aurel was very good at artifice, so maybe he figured out a way to work around the whole magic thing and my heart will be fine. Well, I don’t know if he knew that much about my magic, but–”
“You mean you were about to use a bunch of magic to try and burn the marks off of me, even though you clearly think that your heart will stop if you do,” Lucian says. “Is that what happened?”
“Uh, it sounds really bad when you say it like that.”
Lucian pinches the bridge of her nose. “Isla. I love you and all, but you’re a fucking idiot.”
Isla makes a face. “Don’t be mean. I was just trying to help–”
“You were about to give yourself a heart attack! A literal, kills people heart attack!” Lucian shouts.
“But the marks, there’s so many of them, and–”
“Isla, I want these marks off, but I don’t want you to die! That’s not super difficult to understand, is it?”
Isla swallows. “If I don’t get them off, what are you going to do?”
Lucian takes a deep breath. “Isla. You are not the only person in the world who has magic. Holy shit, if I hadn’t woken up when I did, everything would be a complete mess.” She cards her fingers through her hair. “I can live with the marks if it means you’re not going to literally stop your heart trying to get rid of them. The master–the automaton is all the way back at his shitty palace, and I don’t think he’s coming after us. I hate these things, but it’s not worth having you kill yourself trying to get rid of them.”
“Please,” Lucian says. “Please, Isla. Do not do something incredibly stupid and get yourself killed trying to help me. Promise me.”
“Isla,” Lucian presses.
“…Okay,” Isla says. “I won’t get myself hurt trying to help you. I promise.”
Lucian sighs in relief. “Good. Good. Look, I know you care a lot, but you have to watch out for yourself, too. We’re not going to make it through all of this if we don’t stick together.”
“Don’t forget me!” Solanus says. “I’m here, too!”
“Sure. And Sol, too,” Lucian says. She leans back against a drawer and looks up at the ceiling. “So now that we’ve taken care of the most recent life-threatening situation, what do we do? I don’t really have a plan besides figuring out what’s up with that kid and hope it leads us somewhere. Ideally, we’ll find where that kid’s hiding your memories, take them back, and get out of here.”
Isla bites her lip, thinking. She doesn’t know much more than Lucian does, unfortunately. “How do you know that kid’s hiding my memories?”
“I don’t, but we don’t have any better leads.”
“…Oh,” Isla says. “Is it always like this? Making things up and hoping we find my memories along the way?”
“You mean, do we ever know what we’re doing? No,” Lucian replies. “We do our best. Things work out or they don’t. Sometimes it doesn’t and we run out of time. There’s not a lot we can do about that.”
That sounds about correct, if depressing. Somehow, when they set out on this journey, Isla had been under the impression that Lucian knew how to do everything and find out all they needed to know, but really, they’re all lost and traversing unknown territory. Despite everything, it’s oddly reassuring to Isla that she and her memory are not completely left behind in that respect.
They lapse into silence for a long moment. It’s quiet out in the distance, except for the chirping of grasshoppers and other night bugs, and Isla wonders if that means the time has reset again. She’s not sure how late into the night it is.
“We can’t stay here all night, can we?” Isla asks. “In this shop. Someone’s going to come in in the morning and we’ll get in trouble.”
Lucian nods. “We’ll have to leave before dawn. Until then, you should rest. Sleep a little and I can wake you up when we need to leave.”
The conversation goes on a little longer, but nothing of import is said. Isla goes to sleep on the floor of the dress shop, tired and aching in her arms from where she tried to use so much magic earlier. It doesn’t take much to fall asleep.
She dreams of darkened forests and monstrous screams and crashing sounds and silver fire that turns everything to ash. There’s a hand on her shoulder, guiding her forwards.
It’s close now. What’s close, she doesn’t know, but she can feel the magic crackling and bending all around her. There’s been damage–too much damage. Too many lives lost.
Out past the trees, the sun finally dips below the horizon, plunging the forest into black darkness, impossible to see anything except for smoldering silver flames.
She looks down at her hands, wrapped in torn gloves and bandages that are coming loose. She tightens the bandages and holds her hands aloft. Red light sparks between them, brightening until a magic light is stable in her palms. She sends it forth with a gesture and follows it deeper into the scorched trees.
She hears it before she sees it. A low hissing sound like bones scraping against each other, a keening wail of a hundred voices not meant for human ears. There’s a crunch of breaking underbrush, then…
It stands tall, towering over her, only visible from its silhouette even in her magical light. It snarls with a force of magic that she feels in her soul, whatever’s left of it, and there, against the black night, a pair of shining gold eyes.
It hurts to stand so close, but she has to do it. She has to–
Isla startles awake.
The demon. The golden-eyed demon. So huge, so powerful that it could tear someone apart just by standing too close, never mind its fire and magic.
She lays there, staring at the darkened ceiling, breathing in and out, shaking all over.
“Are you okay?” Lucian asks.
Isla looks over. Lucian’s sitting at a table, next to an open book. She looks…concerned.
Isla sits up slowly. Her head hurts, though she can’t say why. “Yeah,” she says. “I had another nightmare, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Lucian says. “Do you…want to talk about it?”
Isla hesitates. She doesn’t exactly want to, but there’s no reason not to, either. “I saw the demon. It must have been the Great Demon. It was in that forest Rebecca was talking about–all burned down from curse fire and it…it was enormous. It was destroying everything.”
“The Great Demon’s a story,” Lucian says. “That demon isn’t real, and even if it was, it was killed a long time ago.”
“I…I know.” It’s true. She knows the Great Demon isn’t something she needs to be worried about now, but it’s not so easy to purge the image of a towering monster with gold eyes from her memory. She grips her arms tightly. “It still scares me, though. Even if it’s only a story.”
“Stories have truth to them,” the witch whispers outside her ear, giving her goosebumps all over. “You would do well to heed their warnings.”
Isla grits her teeth. She doesn’t want to face down a demon. She doesn’t have that kind of strength.
“You can, if only you ask,” the witch says.
But she won’t, Isla thinks. She doesn’t want that. She doesn’t want to ever need it.
“It’s too late to say that,” the witch hisses. “You will pay your dues, Isla.”
Isla can’t even imagine what that means.