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There’s a lot of things about that statement that don’t make sense. Isla decides to tackle the obvious one. “What do you mean, it never finishes?”
Em shrugs. “Just how it sounds. It never gets to the end. It starts over before it finishes.”
“They…start over?” Isla asks. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I can’t describe it any better,” Em says. “But if you want to see it for yourself, you can. Down in the square, they’re doing the Lighting. If you get there fast enough, you might get there before everything starts over again.”
Isla blinks. “But how–?”
“I think I’d like to see this,” Lucian says. “Come on, Isla. I think I’m feeling festive all of a sudden.”
They hurry to the square. It’s full-on night now, and there’s a glow of fire from the center of town as well as distant drums and singing. Whatever is going on there sure seems to be coming to some kind of climax.
Lucian and Isla pick up their pace.
“Do you know what they meant?” Isla asks. “By starting over, I mean.”
“Something magical, probably,” Lucian says. “But I don’t know what. I’ve never heard of such a thing. That’s why I want to see it for myself.”
Hurrying, it takes about fifteen minutes to get down to the town square. There’s colorful banners posted around the area, and a crowd has gathered around the wooden stage. There’s a small group of performers in long flowing clothes and gloves on the stage. Most of them are on the side, and two of them are in the center. One of them is wearing a mask and holding a staff, and the other is a girl wearing an amulet and cracked gray face paint.
Isla nudges Lucian. “That performer looks a lot like you.”
“Maybe they lost their soul,” Lucian says.
There’s some signal that Isla misses, and there’s a tremendous sound of beating drums. The two performers step back from one another and a tall guard in robes steps up to the girl with the amulet and hands her a bowl of some kind of liquid. The girl puts it to her lips, and–
There’s a sound of wind, and of rushing magic in the air, and all at once, everything around them turns to silence.
Isla blinks, and it takes her several seconds to register that everything is gone. The people, the performers, the banners, the wooden stage, even the torches. The town square is empty except for her and Lucian. They stand there in the dim moonlight, looking back around the suddenly silent town. There are lights in the windows, and some of the garlands and lanterns are still there, but…
“Well, that’s…interesting,” Lucian says. “I guess that means we’re in the right place.”
“What was that?” Isla asks. “Did magic just…vanish everyone? That shouldn’t be possible, right?”
“At this point, I don’t know what magic is and isn’t capable of. Especially when your memories are involved.” Lucian crosses her arms. “Well, there’s still people in town, so maybe we should ask around before we head back.”
“Yeah. That sounds like a good idea.”
They go to a small pub first, which is very empty for this hour in a town this size; there’s only five people in the entire building that Isla can see. Clearly, whatever lifestyle the people here lead, it’s not one with much of a nightlife.
“Ay, customers!” the bartender, a rather cheerful looking man, says. “What will it be for you?”
“We’ve already eaten, thanks,” Lucian says. “Is this place always so…uncrowded?”
“Oh, you should have seen us yesterday,” the bartender says. “We had people spilling out the doors, but since the festival is tomorrow, it seems everyone must head in early. It wouldn’t do to sleep through the Lighting, oh ho!”
Lucian opens her mouth, then closes it, an expression on her face like someone just did something embarrassing.
“The Lighting is tomorrow?” Isla asks.
“Of course it is! You don’t know? You must be new in town! Yes, it’s tomorrow. It’s a very big festival, very exciting. You must come to see it tomorrow night, just after sunset.”
Just then, the bartender is called away by one of the other patrons, and he gives Isla an apologetic smile. “Come see us tomorrow morning, okay? When you are hungry, perhaps. We make the best stews in the entire empire, guaranteed.” Then he hurries off, leaving Lucian and Isla alone by the doorway.
“Didn’t the Lighting just happen?” Isla asks after a long pause.
“No, didn’t you hear him? It’s not happening until tomorrow,” Lucian says, scowling. “I don’t think I like this at all.”
“You don’t seem to like anything.”
“And with the bullshit we keep running into, can you even blame me?” Lucian asks. She turns and heads out of the pub. “First this town is destroyed, now it’s not. Then there’s a festival today, then there’s not. What’s next?”
They step back out into the darkness. The sky is bright with moonlight and stars, and the streets are lit by the faint firelight of hanging lanterns strung between buildings. It’s very peaceful, Isla thinks, if only it weren’t for the strange things occurring around them.
“I don’t know,” Isla says. “Is it even possible for magic to do…what it just did? Whatever that is?”
“What, make today into yesterday? How would I know?” Lucian asks. “You’re the magic expert, not me. Clearly something is going on, because this isn’t something that should normally happen–not that you need me to tell you so.”
“If I find my memories, then will that stop all of this?”
“It’s got to. I can’t think of anything else that would cause this to happen.”
“So then where are they?” Isla asks.
“Great question. Obviously, I don’t know, or we’d be going there right now,” Lucian says. She unhooks Solanus from her belt and turns the lantern on.
“Oh, hey,” Solanus says. “Fancy that. You’re talking to me again. What’s going on now? Kill a demon? Run into a witch? Fell face-down into the dirt and lay there for a few hours?”
“We’re not actually talking to you,” Lucian says. “We just need some light.”
“Wow. Wow! Really, Lucy? You’re going to bring me out here just to put me down? You’re a real pal. A true friend. An absolute piece of–“
“The town just went back in time, we think. To the day before,” Isla says.
“That’s a thing that can happen? That’s pretty fucked up.”
Lucian grumbles. “Yeah. Lucky for you, it’s our problem.”
“So what can we do, talk to more people?” Isla asks.
Lucian nods. “That’s all we can do. Maybe someone has an idea of what the hell is going on.”
They ask around some more, but it quickly becomes abundantly clear that everyone’s getting ready for the Lighting tomorrow night. Nobody seems even the slightest bit aware that there’s some strange magic in the town, much less that the Lighting happened less than an hour ago before magic…undid it.
“What can we even do?” Isla asks, sitting down on a bench. “Nobody knows what’s going on.”
“Unfortunately, that’s more common than not,” Lucian says. “It makes our lives hard, that’s for sure.” She looks up into the sky and says, “It’s getting late. Maybe we should head back. Get some rest. Tomorrow we should be able to learn something.”
“Do you think…all this has to do with the festival?”
“Yes, but don’t get all excited about going to a festival. We have work to do, remember.”
Isla wisely keeps her mouth shut. She can’t help but feel excited about the festival in spite of herself. It’s not like she’s ever been to one in her life–that she can remember, anyways.
They head back to the house on the edge of town. The door is still unlocked, and Isla goes in.
“Em?” she asks. “Em? We’re back.”
There’s a long silence.
“I guess nobody’s home,” Lucian says, stepping in behind her. She closes the door and secures the latch, then sets Solanus on the table. “Get some sleep, Isla. I’ll keep an eye out.”
Isla goes down the hallway. There’s two bedrooms, and she checks both. Em isn’t in either one, and neither room seems particularly…in-use. There’s no mattress, just a woven cot stretched across a bed frame with no pillows. She’s not sure how anyone could live like this. She can make out an end table and what looks like an empty set of shelves, but not really anything else. It’s…bare.
She sits on the cot. It’s comfortable enough, so there’s that.
“Isla?” Lucian says, coming in with Solanus. “Everything good?”
“Yeah,” Isla says. “I just thought this place would have a little more…stuff. Not to be ungrateful or anything, of course, it’s just not what I expected.”
“It’s an abandoned house,” Lucian says. “I’m not sure what you expected. We’re not going to get royal furnishings here.”
“I know, I just wasn’t expecting Em to be so…ascetic.”
“Do you even know what that word means?”
“Don’t be rude, Lucian.” She pats the cot beside her. “I just feel bad, coming in here like this when Em isn’t home. I wonder where they’ve gone to.”
Lucian gives her a look, then says, “Well, Em clearly doesn’t live here anymore. There’s no food in the kitchen or blankets or clothes or any of those other things you like to have when you, you know, live in a place. This is basically just a roof to sleep under and nothing else, which is fine. It’s better than sleeping out in the street, anyways.”
That is weird. Why would Em tell them this was their house if they don’t actually live here? Maybe Em’s homeless and stays here on occasion and wanted to help them find a place to sleep for the night?
Isla’s not sure what to think.
“Go to bed, Isla. We need to figure out what’s making this town all weird, and talking about someone who doesn’t live here isn’t going to do that,” Lucian says. “Good night.”
Isla nods. She’s tired from traveling, and she needs rest. She’ll figured things out tomorrow.
Isla sleeps, and dreams.