Isla walks down the streets, picking directions at random, as if she can physically shake her thoughts off. She feels like she’s being watched, and if she slows down, she thinks she feels tendrils of darkness creeping over her shoulders again.
Isla looks back. It’s Lucian, right behind her.
“Isla, I’ve been trying to get you to listen to me for almost four blocks now. What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Isla says. The witch’s voice offers no comment. “I just needed some air, okay?”
“So you stormed out of the food stall and ignored me shouting after you, just for fun? It’s not nothing. It’s really, really obvious that something is bothering you.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Isla says. “It’s just…it’s the witch, okay?”
Lucian’s expression darkens. “The witch who cursed us, you mean? It’s involved in all this?”
“Yes! Wait, no, I–” Isla purses her lips. “I don’t know. I just started thinking about it, and I don’t want to. I don’t know if the witch has anything to do with the festival or this town or anything.”
“Then what do you know?”
“I don’t know!” Isla shouts. “I can’t help thinking about the witch, it’s a thing that happens, okay? I don’t think it means anything. I don’t want it to mean anything. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Lucian looks her in the eyes. “Isla, you’re going to have to, at some point. Our witch problem isn’t going to go away.”
“But I don’t want to talk about it now, Lucian. Please.”
Lucian’s mouth draws into a thin line. “Fine. Not now. We still have to find your memories anyways, but we need to talk about this sometime. Maybe soon.”
Isla doesn’t think she’ll ever be ready to talk about the witch, much less any time soon. She nods anyways.
Lucian, not entirely satisfied, has Isla sit down for a bit, then gives her a canteen of water to drink from. It helps, a little.
The streets are still busy with people going back and forth and hanging up banners of different colors and designs she doesn’t recognize. They’re stringing up lanterns, rolling out water barrels, carting clothes around. It’s kind of relaxing, to get lost in the noise, but Isla finds it hard to concentrate on anything at all.
What do you want from me? Isla thinks to the witch. Why are you popping up again now?
There’s no answer, but Isla thinks she might hear the witch laughing in the distance.
“Are you feeling better?” Lucian asks.
Isla’s not really sure if she’s feeling better, but as long as the witch keeps its mouth shut, she’ll be fine. Probably. She nods. “I think I’m okay for now. Thanks.”
“Okay,” Lucian says. “Well, we wanted to go see Rebecca at that dress store, didn’t we? You know, to ask about the festival? Maybe see why time keeps resetting?”
Isla nods again. She does remember that, mostly. “Let’s do that, then.”
The dress shop is pretty quiet. There’s a few customers looking at the wares or talking to each other, but other than that there’s not much more there than the dresses, of which there are a few on display. Isla sees Rebecca making measurements for a customer and waves hello.
“Oh, hi,” Rebecca says. “I, uh, sorry. Do I know you?”
“We saw you this morning,” Lucian says. “You ran into us.”
Rebecca looks from Lucian to Isla, then back to Lucian and says, “Oh! Oh, yes, I remember now. I ran into you earlier.” She gestures to Isla. “And this is your friend? I’m so glad to see you! I just need to finish this, and then I can come talk. Is that okay?”
“Yes,” Lucian says. “We actually wanted to ask a few questions about the festival. We’re from pretty far out of town, so we don’t know much.”
“Oh! The festival! I’d love to tell you about it!” Rebecca says. “Give me a few minutes and then we can go talk in the back room, okay?”
Lucian nods and Rebecca goes back to her work.
“She’s still as enthusiastic as ever,” Lucian says.
“These are really pretty dresses,” Isla says. “Can we get one?”
Lucian crosses her arms. “No. We can’t afford any.”
That doesn’t stop Isla from looking, though, at the numerous hand-painted dresses in bright colors and stylish cuts. After a few minutes, Rebecca returns from her work and shows them into the back room. “Hey, sorry again for what happened earlier,” she says as she pulls out some chairs for them to sit. “I was in a rush and I wasn’t looking where I was going. You aren’t hurt, are you?”
Lucian waves the concern off and sits. “It’s fine. Do you know anything about the festival, since you’re…you know.”
Rebecca claps her hands together. “Yes! I know a lot about it. What do you want to know?”
“Well, uh, what is it?” Isla asks. “It’s supposed to be some reenactment of a hero fighting a demon, but that’s all we know.”
Rebecca nods. “That’s right. There’s a pretty big story attached to it. Do you want to hear about it?”
Isla looks at Lucian, and Lucian shrugs. “If you think it’ll help.”
Rebecca grins. It’s a cute grin. “It’s a pretty interesting story. I think you’ll like it.” She takes a deep breath, then begins:
“A long time ago, about three hundred years ago, there was a witch. We don’t know much about the witch, but it lived in this area, traveling from town to town. This witch was very powerful, but it wasn’t satisfied, and it wanted more magical power.”
“Sounds like a witch,” Lucian says under her breath.
Isla elbows her. “Don’t interrupt.”
“Well,” Rebecca continues, “it wanted more magic, so it pulled magic from the demonic plane to make itself more powerful.”
Isla blinks. “You can do that?”
Lucian glances at her. “Most witches get their magic power by imbibing demonic power. From what I understand, the process is kind of similar to summoning a demon. It’s not exactly safe.”
Rebecca nods. “The witch got even more powerful by taking in demonic energy, but no matter how much it took in, it wasn’t enough. So it decided to summon a demon and absorbed that, too.”
“That sounds awful,” Isla says.
“Yeah, and I’m sure it ended up happy for everyone concerned,” Lucian says. “How did that turn out?”
Rebecca shrugs. “Well, it worked for a while. The witch had unparalleled magic power that it used to curse people and gain untold riches. But then, it became too powerful, and it couldn’t control the demon inside of it anymore, and the demon took over.
“The legend says that when the demon took over the witch, it turned into something huge and monstrous. Power flowed out of body in black shadows until it would scorch the ground just by walking across it. Its eyes glowed gold and it spat silver curse fire that burned entire towns to the ground. It rampaged across this country for a hundred days and a hundred nights, destroying everything and anyone it came across.”
Lucian’s eyebrows draw together. “Demons can’t survive that long on their own.”
Rebecca waves a finger at Lucian. “They can if they’re possessing someone’s body. It’s said that a demon possessing someone will eat their body away until there’s nothing left. Only then will it dissipate. The witch this demon possessed was still really powerful, so it lasted for a very long time.”
“Okay, sure,” Lucian says, still sounding skeptical. “So what happened next?”
“Well, the demon was completely out of control, and nobody could fight it. The imperial guard sent their greatest forces to try and stop the demon, but they all got burned up in curse fire, and there was nothing left.”
“That’s horrible,” Isla says.
Rebecca nods, then leans in. “But then, the stranger appeared,” she says. “The stranger wore a mask and was completely covered from head to toe. They walked into town one day and said they’d heard about a demon causing death and destruction, and asked where they could find it. The townspeople told the stranger that the demon was out in the forest, but going after it would be certain death. The stranger didn’t care, though. They said okay, and went that way.”
“They…went after the demon?” Isla asks. “Weren’t they scared?”
“Of course not!” Rebecca says. “They were a great hero! They weren’t scared of a demon, even a really huge one that destroyed towns. They went into the forest where the demon was rampaging, and after fighting for three days and three nights, they finally banished the demons.”
“How did they do that?” Isla asks.
Rebecca holds her hands open and says, “Nobody knows. The stories say there was a huge fire in the forest, and that’s why nothing ever grows there anymore, and that the townspeople, at dawn after the third day, saw a flash of divine light from the sky coming down into the forest. That very day, the stranger returned, carrying the remains of the witch who had been possessed. There wasn’t very much left–only bones and what looked like charred ash. You couldn’t even tell it used to be a person. The stranger buried it.”
“So who was this hero?” Lucian asks.
“Nobody knows,” Rebecca replies. “Nobody ever heard about them or from them ever again. The stories are different everywhere–they can’t even agree if the stranger was a man or a woman or anything else, but they agree that the stranger was completely covered, head to toe, and wore a mask over their face. They didn’t have a weapon, or at least, not any that anyone could see. I think maybe they were some kind of priest, or working for a divine power to stop the demon.”
Lucian looks far from convinced. “I see.”
“So now we have the Firelight Festival every year to remember the hero who banished the demon,” Rebecca says. “It lasts three days, and after sunset on the third day, we have the Lighting ceremony to reenact the fight between the demon and the hero. It goes all night so the demon can be ‘banished’ by the hero at the dawn of the third day.”
“That sounds…difficult,” Lucian says.
Rebecca nods. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a great honor to participate. A number of people are called up to participate each year, and they take roles as the hero or the demon, and they have to fight each other from dusk until dawn. They’re not really fighting, of course, and nobody can really go for an entire night, so there’s a lot of demons and a lot of heroes and they switch out when they get tired. There’s music and fireworks and other things that happen throughout the night, but the fight is the big part of the ceremony.”
“Wow,” Isla says. “That’s so exciting.”
“Mmhm,” Rebecca says. “It’s really important that the hero and the demon performers really trust each other, or they might get hurt. It’s a lot harder to be the hero role than the demon role, since the performers acting as the demon get some help in the ceremony by taking the demon’s elixir.”
“People acting as the demon take the what?” Lucian asks.
“It’s a potion,” Rebecca replies. “It’s made from special plants that grow by the riverside that gives people strength and it symbolizes how the witch let itself be possessed by the demon, and it makes people a little…wild. That’s why you have to trust each other, or the hero might really hurt the demon while fighting them.” She leans in and drops her voice. “I’m a little bit scared, honestly, but everyone else says it’s not so scary. You don’t really even remember that much afterwards.”
That doesn’t seem to reassure Lucian very much at all. It certainly doesn’t reassure Isla.
“Is that safe?” Isla asks.
“Oh, yes!” Rebecca says. She fumbles with her collar a bit, then pulls out an amulet that looks very similar to the ones they got in the last town. “Everyone acting as a demon wears one of these so we can stay in control even if something goes wrong.”
“Does that…work?” Lucian asks.
“Nothing’s ever gone wrong in the years I’ve been to the festival,” Rebecca says. “So it has to work, right? And at the start of the festival, the hero gives the demon a new amulet to make sure the magic doesn’t run out during the ceremony.”
Lucian shoots Isla a look. “The magic runs out?”
“Well, all magic runs out eventually, doesn’t it?” Rebecca says.
Lucian opens her mouth, presumably to say that no, artifice doesn’t generally run out, ever.
“Thank you,” Isla says. “For telling us about the festival. It helps a lot.”
They certainly have a lot to think about now.