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It’s a long, quiet walk. There’s a lot of claw marks in the road as they go forward, but nobody comments on them. They already know there’s a demon problem in the area. No need to belabor the point.
It’s a few hours later, when the sun is dipping under the horizon, that they see something out in the distance.
Isla squints. “Is that the town?” she asks.
Lucian unfolds her map and checks it. “If my math is correct–which, to be fair, it’s usually not–that’s around where our destroyed town should be.” She puts her map down. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but that doesn’t look very destroyed to me.”
“Maybe someone built a new town on top of it,” Solanus says.
“No, it’s bad luck, remember?” Lucian says.
“Then maybe someone built a new town on top of it and never told anyone about it. Some people are antisocial, Lucy.”
“I don’t think that’s what happened,” Lucian says. “Whatever, let’s keep going. If it’s the wrong place, they can point us in the right direction.”
They keep going, only pausing to look at a rotting sign on the side of the road that’s all but illegible.
“I guess if you apply some imagination, that could say ‘River’s Crossing’,” Lucian says. “I don’t think any of these other nearby town names would fit.”
Isla squints at the sign, then at Lucian’s map. It’s starting to get dark enough that she can’t make out much of either. “Does that mean we’re in the right place?” she asks.
“Yeah. River’s Crossing was a pretty big deal before they got destroyed since they were, you know, right up against the river. They had ferries across and the next ferry isn’t for another sixty kilometers downstream so a lot of people were shit out of luck when they went down. Maybe someone set it up again.”
“You’d think someone would keep track of that,” Solanus says. “Or someone would tell people about it. It’s not great business to have a ferry nobody uses. What’s on the other side of the river anyways?”
“Not much,” Lucian says. “A few more scattered towns, the border, and the wilds.”
“Hey, not to interrupt or anything, but it’s getting dark,” Isla says. “Are we going to that town or not?”
It takes about an hour and a half to get to town, and it is emphatically not destroyed. There’s a set of border stones around the town’s edge, just like the previous one. They cross them without difficulty.
“Keeping demons out, huh?” Lucian muses. “These are some pretty shitty-looking stones if you ask me.”
Isla glances back. They’re definitely old–very old–but the sigils are still intact, which means they’re still functional. “I guess if they still work, they don’t need to change them.”
“Yeah? But the old town got destroyed by demons, unless everyone was lying to me for a laugh. You’d think they’d update the border protection,” Lucian says. “But that’s not really our problem. I just want to find your memories and leave.”
“Are we sure they’re here?” Isla asks.
“No,” Lucian says. “But there’s houses and we can stay somewhere for the night, and you can cast your finding spell. If we don’t get a response, then you’ll know it’s in town or somewhere else close by. Either way, we can ask about weird magic shit. Hopefully, someone will tell us something useful.”
They cross into the town proper and it’s…a sizable town. The buildings are similar in style to those of the last town, but larger, towering at two and three stories high. There’s colorful lanterns and banners strung up across the buildings, glittering in the moonlight. The roads are paved with wide cobbles, which are dotted with colorful trash and confetti, and there’s still plenty of people out and about, wearing long flowing clothes in all sorts of colors.
“Abandoned, my ass. These guys must be having that firelight festival thing, too,” Lucian says. “How annoying.”
They make their way to the town center which is full of people running back and forth, carrying torches and banging on drums. There’s a large wooden floor laid out, though Isla can’t tell through the crowd what exactly is going on on it, but whatever it is, it seems to be pretty close to done.
Someone pushes them out of the way with a cart full of something that smells vaguely like gunpowder. Isla hopes those are fireworks.
“These guys look pretty busy,” Lucian says. “Maybe we should wait until tomorrow to ask them about your memories. Find someplace to stay for the night. Clearly, these guys have their own thing going on.”
“Since we’re here anyways, can we go to the festival?” Isla asks. “They’re having that Lighting thing tonight, aren’t they? That dance or whatever? I want to see it.”
“If you want to see it, you can, Isla,” Lucian replies. “I will be staying in tonight. Come on, let’s find somewhere to sleep.”
Lucian drags Isla by the wrist over to an inn, only to find that it’s closed and the door is locked. The next two attempts turn up the same results.
“What kind of town has this many inns and no place to stay?” Lucian asks with a huff.
“Who are you?” a voice asks from behind them.
Isla turns around and sees a person, taller than her by about a head. They’ve got a cap over their messy brown hair and an extensive scar across the right side of their face that might be from a burn.
“Uh,” she says. “We’re new in town. Just visiting.”
The person squints at her and Lucian. “New in town? I haven’t seen anyone new in town in a long time,” they say.
“Yeah, sure, great,” Lucian says. “You know anyplace where we can stay for the night? All the inns we’ve tried are closed or full.”
“It’s the Lighting,” the person says. “All the inn rooms have been booked for months. You won’t find anything.”
Lucian sighs. “Great. That’s great.”
“Uh, if all the inns are closed, then is there anywhere else we can stay?” Isla asks.
The person looks at Isla, then at Lucian, and smiles. Even with the scars, they don’t look half bad. “Well, I have a few extra rooms. If you don’t mind, you…you could stay with me.”
“We can take a look,” Lucian says. “And you are…?”
The person shrugs. “My name’s…my name isn’t important. But I guess you can call me Em for now.”
Em points out towards the west side of town. “I live out on the edge of town. It’s quiet there. I don’t really have any food, but if you’re just looking for a place to sleep, it’s not bad. It’d be nice to have company for once.”
“You don’t want to go to the festival?” Isla asks.
Em shakes their head. “I’m pretty tired of the festivals, honestly. I stopped going to the Lighting ages ago, but it’s nice to see everyone so happy about it.”
“What actually happens at the Lighting?” Isla asks. “We heard it was some kind of dance, or…”
“A dance?” Em asks. “No, it’s this…I guess you’d call it a ceremony. There’s a bunch of people up on the stage and one pair goes up at a time, and one acts as the hero and the other acts as the demon, and they fight until the hero kills the demon. Not really, of course, it’s all pretend, sort of. Some people have gotten really hurt a few times. It’s a big deal to be elected for either role.”
“The last town we were in called it a dance,” Lucian says.
“It’s definitely not a dance,” Em says firmly. “It’s kind of a fight, if anything. But maybe things have changed. Maybe some other towns don’t want people to get hurt anymore, and scaled it back. This is how we’ve done it for as long as I can remember.”
“Wow,” Isla says. “How old is the festival?”
“How old is it?” Em thinks about it. “I don’t know. Three hundred years or so? It’s been performed since the whole thing with the Great Demon. You can probably read about it sometime.”
They stop in front of a reasonably-sized stone and log house at the border of town which is worn-out, but in livable condition. “Here’s where I live,” Em says. “It’s not much, but it’s home. Come on in. The door’s unlocked.”
Isla goes in, and Lucian and Em follow after her. It’s a cozy house, with wood plank floors and quilts and a fireplace towards the back that doesn’t look like it’s been used in a very long time. There’s bookshelves along the far wall with cracked leather-bound books, and the kitchen has a wood-burning stove that also seems like it hasn’t been used in a long time. Overall, the house is clean, but everything does seem a bit…old.
“I know it’s probably not as nice as an inn. I hope you don’t mind,” Em says. “Make yourself at home. The bedrooms are just through there.”
“That’s really kind of you,” Isla says, looking around. It really is fortunate they could get somewhere to stay for the night, just… “I, uh, can you give me a second to talk to my friend?”
“Of course,” Em replies.
Isla grabs Lucian and pulls her aside, then says in a low voice, “Quick question. How do you feel about this?”
“About what?” Lucian asks.
“You know, the whole staying over at this place thing,” Isla says. “Do you trust Em?”
Lucian snorts. “You’re asking me? I thought you trusted everyone.”
Isla makes a face. “Lucian. You know why I’m asking.”
Lucian looks at her, then schools her expression to seriousness. “Yeah, I do. This is all really convenient–worryingly convenient. I’m not sure if I trust them, but as far as I can tell, there’s no dungeon for them to lock us up in, so they’ve got at least that much going for them.”
“We’re together this time,” Lucian says. “If we keep an eye out for each other, we should be okay. I don’t think they’ll try anything.”
Isla takes a deep breath. “Okay. But what if they do try something?”
“If it comes down to it, we have a knife, and you have magic,” Lucian says. “Stay on your guard, that’s all. For now, we’ve got a roof to sleep under and we might as well take advantage of that.”
“Okay,” Isla says. “Okay. That’s fine.” She straightens out, then looks over at Em, who’s sitting at a table and not doing much in particular. “We’d love to stay for the night, Em. But we’re, um, we can’t stay that long. We’re looking for something in town, or nearby. Do you know if there’s anything, uh, strange that’s happened recently? Around here?”
Em glances up at her. “Strange?” they ask. “The entire town is strange.”
“In what way?” Lucian asks.
“The festival in the square,” Em says. “It never finishes.”