Isla bites her lip, staring out over the road where the witch had departed. There’s nothing around her but the sound of the river and wind through the grass.
She decides, after a long moment, that she might as well listen to the witch’s advice. Sure enough, in the spot pointed out, there’s a wide patch of dark plants under the shade of a large willow tree, many of which are distinctly blue with broad leaves like the plants the kid had shown her yesterday. She reaches out to touch one–the stem is rough, and it makes her fingers slightly numb. With a grimace, she pulls her hand back and rubs her fingers to bring the feeling back into them. She’s willing to bet a lot that these plants, whatever they are, are poisonous.
She glances back downstream, looking for wherever Lucian went.
“Lucian?” she calls out. “Lucian!”
There’s a long pause, then a response from a long way off that might be, “Isla?”
So at least that means Lucian hadn’t gotten herself knocked out again, probably. Isla makes her way back towards Lucian.
The two catch up to each other a few minutes later. Lucian looks perfectly fine, except that now there’s a lot of plant matter stuck to her clothes and she looks grumpy about it. Isla self-consciously dusts her own clothes off.
“Did you find anything?” Lucian asks.
“I found the plants we were looking for.”
“Oh,” Lucian says, pleasantly surprised. “Wonderful. Something’s actually working out for us for once.”
“Please don’t say that,” Isla says. They’ve tempted fate enough as it is.
The two of them make their way over to the patch of plants under the tree, and when they’ve nearly reached it, Lucian stops and frowns.
Isla glances back at her. “Is something wrong?”
“Yeah, this place feels…demony,” Lucian says. She reaches down and flips Solanus on. “Sol, what do you think?”
“What?” Solanus asks. “Oh, are we talking to Sol now? We’re letting her out of the lantern to do some tricks? You can’t just pull me out all the time whenever you want, what if I was busy?”
“You were not busy,” Lucian says.
“That is not true, I was taking a nap. I had a lovely dream about a giant fish that sang songs, and it was going to teach me one when you woke me up.”
“Right,” Lucian says dryly. “Well, now that you’re awake, what do you think of this place? Does it feel demony?”
“Oh, that. Yeah, it feels demony as hell. We might be close to a rift.”
Isla glances over at the dark patch of plants, then back at Lucian. “A rift?”
“Yeah,” Solanus says as Lucian steps closer to the plants and kneels to get a better look at them. “Rifts, where demons come through so they can murder your face off.”
“They only open at night, though,” Lucian says. “So we’re safe right now.”
“Probably, but you never know!”
Isla nods, not entirely reassured. “I see. So, uh, what about the plants?”
Lucian hums to herself thoughtfully and plucks a plant out of the ground. It seems to writhe a little in her fingers, then fall limp. “Looks like Planeswalker Thorn,” she says, pulling back a leaf for closer examination.
“I thought they were called Demon’s Thistle?” Isla asks. “Or that’s what…” she trails off, not sure if she wants to talk about the strange witch right now. “Well, that’s what I thought it was called,” she says instead.
Lucian’s eyebrows furrow, and she purses her lips. “I…they might be. I saw some of these back at the palace garden, or–” She closes her eyes and taps her wrist stump against the side of her head. “No, they didn’t have any of these, they had them a long time ago. The transplanted ones couldn’t survive on the floating island, no matter what the master did, because they can only grow in places with natural magic or…or rifts, I guess.”
“So, uh…Aurel told you that?” Isla asks.
Lucian blinks a few times, then looks up at Isla. “No, he– The soul he put in me, I kind of–” Lucian shakes her head. “It’s hard to describe. I remember some…things, that’s all. He called these plants Planeswalker Thorn and he kept trying to grow it in the palace.”
“Oh,” Isla says. “Can you, um, remember anything else about them?”
“I don’t know. I can try.” Lucian closes her eyes tight in concentration and goes silent for a bit, then says, “The master took his plants from a place in the mountains with a lot of natural fire magic. The leaves were orange then, and hot to the touch. He wanted them because…because they absorbed ambient magic, and the–the sap or something could be used to concentrate it, or reuse it, or–” She lets out a breath and opens her eyes, flashing blue–
Lucian blinks, and her eyes are normal again. “That’s all I can remember. Sorry.”
“No, that’s fine, that’s more than enough information,” Isla says quickly, trying not to think too hard about that flash of blue she may or may not have seen. “So these plants are growing on a rift, so they can absorb some…demon magic?”
“I suppose so,” Lucian says with a grimace. “And they use it for their demon’s elixir, and…drink it.”
“So they drink demon magic as part of the ceremony,” Isla says. “That doesn’t sound safe.”
“Well, it’s better than the alternative,” Lucian says.
“…Not drinking demon magic?” Isla asks.
“Drinking demons!” Solanus shouts. “You know, summoning some demons and slurping them up, just like–“
Lucian shuts the lantern. “Thanks for that image, Sol. What she means is, drinking demonic energy directly. It doesn’t end well.”
Isla can’t imagine drinking demonic energy ever ending well. “Possessed?” she asks.
Lucian tosses the plucked plant back on the ground and picks grass off of her shirt. “Well, summoning a demon and pulling demonic energy is basically the same thing. Once enough demonic energy gets together it turns into a demon, and if the demonic energy happens to be inside you because you drank it, then, you know.” She makes a bursting gesture with her hand. “And then you have a dead witch, or a witch-wannabe, usually. Good riddance, really.”
Isla shudders. “That’s horrible.”
“Well, when you try to be a witch, you get what you get,” Lucian says. “Let’s find somewhere to hide. You said the kid was going to show up in the mid-afternoon, right? That’s not too long from now.”
“Oh, right, yeah,” Isla says. With the witch and all the talk of demons, she’d nearly forgotten why they were looking for the plants in the first place. “We should get out of the sun, then.”
The two of them scout around for a hiding spot and there’s a lot more options here than there were in town. They end up sitting in a tree a ways off, high enough that nobody will see them unless they look directly up. Behind the leaf cover, they’re effectively hidden.
Lucian leans back against the trunk, making her branch creak under her weight. “And now we wait.”
Isla groans. She’s had enough waiting for one day.
They sit in the tree and wait. And wait.
A few birds land, chirp curiously, and fly off again, but besides that, nothing happens.
There’s not much to do in the silence except think. Think about the town, about the people, about Em. Think about Lucian and what’s happening to her, or has happened.
She shifts her weight on her branch and winds her fingers together nervously. She still can’t get the sight of blue eyes out of her mind, or the spider’s web of lines trailing over Lucian’s chest and face.
“Hey, Lucian?” Isla asks.
Lucian glances up. “Yeah?”
“When you were…at the palace, how many…how many souls did Aurel put in you?”
There’s a long pause. “Do we really have to talk about this now?” Lucian says.
“I, well, no. We don’t if you don’t want to,” Isla says. “I just…I don’t know. It was a month, and…”
“We’re trying to do a stakeout, Isla. Now’s not a good time.”
“Oh, right. Sorry,” Isla says, appropriately chastised.
They lapse into awkward silence. The time stretches on slowly, until maybe ten minutes later, when Lucian clears her throat and says, “Seven.”
“What?” Isla asks.
“There were seven of them,” Lucian says. “They were original servants of the palace, back when it was still on the ground, and they were, you know. Actual people. Not…those fucked-up people automatons the master–the, the automaton made afterwards.”
Isla stays silent.
“They loved the master, you know? Thought rainbows came out of his shiny metal ass and all his inscriptions were basically the best thing to ever happen. It’s just–ugh.” Lucian rubs her temples. “I really try not to think about any of it, because if I think too much about the souls he stuck in me, I remember how much I–they loved him and how great he was and I forget how much I hate that fucking–” She cuts herself off and scowls. “I’d smash that smug asshole to pieces if I could, putting all these thoughts in my head and–”
“You get memories from the souls that…possess you?” Isla asks.
Lucian sighs. “It’s not like that, not really. I get…got feelings, mostly, and sometimes I remember some things they know, or…I don’t know. I don’t think about it most of the time, but sometimes I’ll see things and think things that make no sense or I’ll remember some things about the palace that I shouldn’t know, and…it sucks, okay? I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay,” Isla says. “We can stop.”
Lucian nods, staring down at her hand in her lap. “Right. Okay.”
They sit there in silence for a little longer.
“Lucian?” Isla asks.
“Thanks for telling me. I really appreciate it.”
Lucian huffs. “Yeah, well. Had to mention it at some point. You got a metal heart, I’ve got thoughts in my head that won’t shut the fuck up. Full disclosure and everything.”
That makes Isla feel a little nasty, because even after telling Lucian about her heart, she’s a long ways off from ‘full disclosure’. There’s so many more secrets, with the witch whispering in her ear and whatever she did to start all of this…
“Ah, right,” she says. “I guess we–”
She cuts herself off as they hear the sound of footsteps on gravel a ways off. Isla pauses and pulls a branch out of the way so she can see, and the kid is there, coming down the road.
Isla sucks a breath in through her teeth. “It’s them.”