Isla stares at the empty space where Em was only a moment ago. “If they weren’t human, then what were they?” she asks, her voice still a bit strained.
“I don’t know,” Lucian says. “But I don’t think they’ll be back for a while.”
Lucian nods and pulls Isla along down the street. “I’m guessing that light show means they didn’t have a body. It’s a lot harder to kill things that don’t have a body to be killed.”
“Let’s not worry about Sol,” Lucian says. “The point is, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to come back. When they do, they won’t be happy.”
Isla bites her lip. That’s not good, especially when Lucian’s going to forget everything about Em in a few minutes. “What do we do?”
“We figure this shit out before they come back.” Lucian stops and scans the streets back and forth. “Where the hell did that kid go?”
Isla takes a look herself, but the kid’s nowhere to be seen. “I…I think we lost them.”
Lucian scowls. “Fuck. We’ll never find them in this crowd. They could be anywhere by now.”
“I, uh,” Isla says. A memory slowly surfaces in her mind. “They told me they were–will be–at the river later. To collect herbs for their demon’s elixir. That was–is–in the early afternoon, but they said something about a first batch of elixir that went bad. So…they had to go in the morning, too, right?”
“No, not necessarily. Someone else could have gone in the morning.”
“But it’s worth a shot, right?”
Lucian thumbs her lower lip. “Yeah, I guess so. Get something to eat and we can try to catch the kid by the river.”
Lucian seems unhappy.
“What’s with this town?” she asks as they head towards the outskirts of town.
Isla bites into another one of her meat-filled pastries and looks around. There’s crowds of people putting up decorations and selling wares and talking and moving from building to building with baskets of goods. As far as she can tell, there’s nothing out of place. “What do you mean?”
“Nobody’s noticed anything,” Lucian says. “We got attacked in the middle of the street and nobody’s said a word about it. Maybe they can’t sense magic power, fine. Not everyone can. But the wind was real, and so were the rocks.”
Isla pauses with her pastry halfway to her mouth. Lucian’s right–Em had confronted them in a busy street, yet nobody seemed to have noticed, much less say anything about it. “What does that mean?”
“It means something’s messed up about this town,” Lucian says. “Not that we didn’t already know that. I don’t like it. Honestly, I’m about ready to grab that kid by the ankles and shake them upside down until they tell us where your memories are.”
“They’re too tall to hold up like that,” Isla says. “You’d have to stand on a chair or something.”
“Shut up, Isla. I was talking metaphorically.”
“Right. Metaphorically.” Isla takes another bite of her pastry and chews slowly. Even if the kid has her memories, she’s still not sure on how she can get them. She remembers the red cords she’d used against Aurel to rip her memories free, and it’s not a pleasant thought, especially when that amount of magic could stop her heart permanently. She’d been willing to risk that to help Lucian, but she’s not so sure she would do the same to get her memories back, especially if there’s any other way around it.
She sighs. “If we stop whatever is making the time reset, will that get my memories back?”
“I don’t know,” Lucian says. “But it seems like a good first step. If it doesn’t, well, we can deal with that when the time comes.”
They cross the stone border of the town on their way out, and Lucian casts another disparaging look down the lines of weathered and worn-out etched stones. “These look like shit.”
“We haven’t had any demon attacks in town, though, so they seem to work fine.”
“I guess. You’d think these guys would care more about their anti-demon defenses, that’s all.”
Isla can’t help but agree. If she lived in a town where demons were a problem, she’d want to make sure her barrier stones were as good as they possibly could be. It only took one failure to ruin everything, after all.
They make their way up towards the river, and the land quickly becomes grassing and untamed, full of shrubs and plants and gnarled trees covered in creeper vines. The river stretches out before them, at least two kilometers wide, and a very old-looking dock stands forlornly against the shore a ways off. There’s no ferry in sight.
“Some river crossing this is,” Lucian says.
“Maybe they’re repairing the ferries…or something,” Isla says. “The kid said the plants were here by the river. I don’t know where exactly, but they’re kind of blue with a long stem and big leaves.”
“That…hmm.” Lucian rubs her chin thoughtfully. “That sounds vaguely familiar, but I’m not sure…”
Isla points upstream. “I’ll look that way, and you can look the other way? The kid made it sound like they grow in the same place every year, so it might be cleared out or marked or something.”
Lucian nods. “Okay. Don’t go too far. Shout if anything happens.”
“You, too,” Isla says. “I’m not the one who got knocked out in a creepy house.”
Lucian makes a face at her, then turns to search downstream. Isla makes her own way upstream, looking for the plants the kid had shown her. They were fairly large plants, so they shouldn’t be difficult to find, but the grass around the area wasn’t exactly small, either. She hopes she won’t have to spend the rest of the day crawling around–who knows what kinds of bugs might be hiding in all of these plants at this time of the year.
She searches around for ten or fifteen minutes looking for these mysterious plants when she hears rustling nearby. She looks up and sees an old woman in a long green dress with embroidered flames around the hem. She’s wearing a dark veil over her hair and a cloth around her face, pulled over her nose so only her eyes are visible.
Isla ducks back down into the grass, but it’s too late, the woman locks eyes with her and says, “Ah, sister. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Isla looks up slowly.
The woman beckons to her slowly. Her movements are slow and deliberate. “Come here, sister. Please, stand where I can see you better.”
Carefully, Isla stands. She can’t tell much from the woman’s appearance, but it’s obvious that they aren’t actual sisters, if she even has one. She’s sure of that much. “Uh. Hello,” she says.
“Hello,” the woman says, eyes crinkling with what may be a smile. “You are not from town, are you?”
“No, uh. I’m traveling.”
The woman’s gaze passes over Isla once from top to bottom. Isla has no way to tell what she is or isn’t looking for. “I thought as much,” the woman says. “Can you spare some food for a fellow traveler?”
Isla looks at the woman. She’s nondescript, but there’s a threatening air about her, something that keeps her on edge. It can’t hurt to be kind, though, and she says, “I have some bread and fruit. If that’s okay.”
“That would be sufficient,” the woman says. “Thank you.”
Isla pulls her bag aside to take out the last of the food they’d taken from Aurel’s palace. The woman seems content to wait patiently and makes no sudden movements. Gently, Isla hands the food over, and the woman bows her head in thanks, and pulls the mask down her face.
There are orange and black scales crawling up her neck, over her chin and cheeks. She smiles, and her mouth is full of fangs.
Isla takes a step back.
“Do not fear, sister,” the woman says. “You were kind to me, and I will not harm you.”
“Did…did something happen to you?” Isla asks.
“No,” the woman says as she tears off a small piece of bread. “My appearance is the fruit of my labors, and nothing more. Perhaps one day you will look similar.”
“What–what do you mean?”
“Witchcraft, dear,” the woman says. “When you, too, have accumulated enough curses and power, it may show on your body the way mine have.”