Isla’s eyes widen and she whirls around towards the source of the voice. Em stares back at them, looking less than happy.
Lucian’s eyes narrow. “Who the hell are–”
“What are you doing here?” Isla asks.
Em crosses their arms. “I’d ask you the same thing. This house is outside the town border. You shouldn’t be here.”
“We were just looking,” Isla says. “We heard about an abandoned house on the edge of town, and–”
“Then stop looking. It’s not abandoned, and no one’s going to let you in,” Em cuts in. “Get out of here.”
“You can’t kick us out,” Isla protests. “We’re not doing anything wrong, we’re only looking around!”
Em steps closer, and a burning sensation of magic fills the air. “Look somewhere else,” they hiss.
“We’re trying to fix what’s wrong with this town,” Isla says, pulling away from Em. “Don’t you want that?”
“I never asked you to fix the town,” Em says, and as they speak, the feeling of energy intensifies, making stones and leaves rattle around them. “Neither did anyone else. So maybe you two should mind your own business.”
Lucian touches Isla’s hand. “I don’t think we want to make this guy mad.”
Isla looks at Em, then at Lucian. “Okay, we’ll go,” she says. “We’ll look somewhere else.”
She and Lucian go past Em and out of the gate, then turn the corner and walk until they can’t see Em anymore.
“What are we supposed to do?” Isla asks. “Solanus is still in the house.”
“What do you mean, ‘what are we supposed to do?’ We go back the second that guy’s away from there, obviously,” Lucian says. “Who the hell was that, anyways? Did you know them?”
Isla opens her mouth, then closes it again. She shakes her head. “It’s complicated.”
Lucian purses her lips. “I don’t like it when things get complicated. Do you know why they got all up in our faces about that house? That was definitely not a normal reaction, and you felt that, didn’t you? They’ve got some magic going on. It’s bad news, all around.”
“There has to be something in that house,” Isla murmurs. “Em’s the only person in this town who can remember more than one day happening. They’re hiding something, I’m sure of it.”
Lucian rubs her face. “What’s the chance that Em’s the one causing all of this? I mean, what can they possibly gain?”
“I…I don’t know. Can you get anything from putting a town through the same day for a month?”
Lucian leans over to look back at the house, then grimaces. “They’re still there. And I don’t know. I don’t get the point of any of this, but Em probably knows more than they’re letting on.”
Isla nods slowly. That makes sense.
“This time thing…isn’t random,” Lucian says. “I’ve thought about it a bit, and it’s not like the festival happened a month ago and then someone decided to put this town through the last day of it over and over. The festival was supposed to happen yesterday, so what happened when this loop started? Did the town shoot forwards in time when this happened? Did it go backwards? What’s going on with all the people in this town? Are they trapped here?”
Isla grimaces. She doesn’t have answers to any of that. She doesn’t know how any of this could have happened.
“The only thing we know is that Em is the only one besides us who knows this is happening, and they don’t want us in that house,” Lucian continues. “So naturally, we have to go in that house and see what they’re hiding. Maybe we’ll figure out why they’re doing all this, if they’re the one causing it or what.”
“Yeah,” Isla says. “And we need to get Solanus back before she dies.”
Lucian bites her lip. “Yeah, that too.” She takes another nervous look back at the house, then says, “They’re gone. We need to get back there, now.”
The two of them run back to the house, Isla keeping an eye out for Em. She’s not sure where they went, but she doesn’t think she wants them to come back. They definitely weren’t happy the first time around.
“Sol!” Lucian shouts. She ducks down to pick something up from the ground. “Sol, holy shit, what happened?”
The small metal bird makes a few abortive motions in Lucian’s hands. Lucian unhooks her lantern, then puts it against the bird. There’s a very long silence, and the bird becomes motionless.
“Sol?” Lucian asks. “Sol, can you hear me?”
“Yeah, I’m–I’m here,” Solanus says. Her voice is quieter than usual, which does nothing to reassure Lucian, if her face is anything to go by.
“What happened? Why were you outside?” Lucian asks.
“Someone was–someone’s in the house. They grabbed me and threw me out the window.”
Isla leans in. “Was that Em?”
“Who the fuck is Em?” Solanus asks. “I don’t know, it was some scrappy looking kid. There was a room with a lot of fancy clothes and banners and weird books, and then they grabbed me and threw me out.” Solanus makes a few concerning noises, like gasping for breath, if someone without a body could ever do such a thing. “I couldn’t get the door. Sorry.”
Lucian shakes her head. “It’s fine. We can try again another time. Thanks, Sol.”
“Lucy. Lucy, I’m tired.”
“Okay,” Lucian says. “Okay, you’re tired. Get some rest. I’m going to shut you off, is that okay?”
“I’m…really tired,” Solanus says.
Lucian shuts the lantern off, and Solanus is silent.
“…Will she be okay?” Isla asks.
“Eventually, probably,” Lucian says, hooking the lantern back on her belt. “She needs to rest for a while.” She gets up and dusts herself off unenthusiastically. “So now what? We can’t get into the house anymore. There’s someone inside, and they’re not going to open the door if they haven’t already, and Sol’s too tired to break us in.”
Isla looks up at the house again, which still doesn’t look even a little inviting. “I guess we can…investigate something else. Before Em comes back. Solanus said there was a bunch of fancy clothes and banners, right? So maybe whoever is living here is doing something with the festival.”
“The festival…” Lucian sighs, then says, “Okay, well, the day resets before the festival can end. What happens at the end of the festival?”
“I don’t know. But…that girl, Rebecca, she’s one of the performers, so she probably knows. Maybe we can ask her about it.”
Lucian takes a deep breath in, a deep breath out. “That’s not much to go on, Isla.”
“I can’t think of anything else,” Isla says. “What, do you have any better ideas?”
“Other than shaking someone down for answers, no,” Lucian says. “And somehow I don’t think that would end well for us.
Isla agrees. She can’t imagine that Em would want to answer any of their questions, especially with how angry they were about her and Lucian’s simply being around the house.
“Let’s go back to town,” Isla says. “Maybe we’ll get some better ideas on the way, or we can talk to Rebecca and see what she knows.”
They head back towards the main part of town, away from the house. It’s about midday now, and there’s silence between the two of them.
Isla’s not sure what to think. She knows her memories are somewhere in this town, maybe even in that house, and they’re probably causing this town to repeat this one day, over and over. But why?
Why this day? Why is Em the only person who knows it’s happening? What is Em trying to stop them from finding?
“That shopkeeper said that Em’s house didn’t even exist,” Isla says after a long time “Like, nobody would be crazy enough to put a house there, it was that unlucky.”
“They said something to that effect, yes.”
“Do you think they’d lie about that?” Isla asks. “I don’t know why anyone would.”
Lucian pauses, considering that, then says, “I don’t think the shopkeeper was lying. They probably thought there really wasn’t a house there.”
“But how does that work? It’s not like the house is invisible. It’s not even a little hidden–you could see it from a few blocks away. You can’t not see an entire house.”
“I don’t know,” Lucian says. “There’s a lot of things about this town that don’t add up.”
They walk around town a bit, then stop in to get lunch at a stall a few blocks off from the square. Isla orders something at random, and Lucian sits by, waiting.
“Who cursed Em?” Isla asks in between bites. “I know they said they asked for it, but you can’t just…get cursed.”
“Who the hell is Em?” Lucian asks.
Isla sighs, then shakes her head. The thing where Lucian keeps forgetting about Em is getting exhausting. “Ignore Em. The important thing is, they got cursed, and they said they were cursed by a witch.”
“Yes, that’s kind of the definition of getting cursed,” Lucian says.
“So where’s the witch? Is it somewhere in town? Maybe it’s involved in this…magic thing going on in this town?”
“I hope not,” Lucian says. “The last time we ran into a witch, he tried to murder us, and literally every other time a witch has gotten your memories, we’ve had a very, very bad time.” She flags down the stall owner and asks, “Hey, do you know if there are any witches around here?”
The stall owner gives Lucian an extremely disgusted look. “There are no witches in this town. We’re respectable folks, thank you very much.”
Lucian opens her mouth to ask something else, but the stall owner gives her another dirty look and walks away.
“Hm,” Lucian says. “Well, that wasn’t very helpful.”
“If I were a witch, I wouldn’t want to live here,” Isla says. “These guys don’t seem to be very nice to them.”
“Nowhere is nice to witches, Isla,” Lucian says. “These guys have a legend that says a witch summoned a demon, got possessed, and destroyed a bunch of towns. They probably have even more reason to hate witches than the rest of the Empire.”
Isla nods and keeps eating. She’s not sure what she expected, really. Nobody likes witches. And who would, when they go around summoning demons and cursing people and–
“You would do well to reserve judgment, Isla.”
Isla’s eyes widen and she whips around, only to see nobody behind her.
“Uh, Isla, you okay there?” Lucian asks.
Isla rubs the back of her neck. “Yeah, I think so. I just…I thought I heard someone.”
Lucian looks behind them, then back at Isla, a concerned look on her face. “First you’re talking about some imaginary Em person and now you’re hearing voices? You’re…sure you’re okay, right?”
Isla takes a deep breath and looks down at the counter. It feels like someone’s watching her. “I’m fine,” she says. “I’m fine, really.”
Lucian is far from convinced. “If you say so. But you know you can talk to me, right?”
“If only your friend knew what you were keeping from her,” the witch whispers below Isla’s ear. “Then perhaps she would not be so willing to extend her friendship.”
Isla squeezes her eyes shut and takes a deep breath. It’s not real, she tells herself. It’s not real, she’s just hearing things, scaring herself. She’s fine. Everything is fine. “Yeah, don’t worry about me, Lucian,” she says. “I’m not hungry anymore, that’s all. Let’s go.”
She gets up and walks out of the stall, not even waiting for Lucian to come after her.