Lucian glances out the window. “Sunrise is pretty soon. If you’re awake anyways, we should get out of here.”
Isla shakes off her thoughts of the witch and nods. “Okay. Where do we go?”
“Let’s check the abandoned house again,” Lucian says. “The kid lives around there. If we follow them around, we’ll probably find something out about whatever they’re cooking up. If they’re doing anything like that.”
“We’re going to stalk someone?”
“We’re going to tail someone who definitely has your memories, Isla,” Lucian says. “And who’s somehow tied to this town’s messed-up time problem. I’m pretty sure we’re morally in the right, here.”
Isla frowns. Following someone around all day seems more than a little untoward, though not necessarily more than things they’ve already done, like breaking and entering. “We’re not going to hurt them or anything, are we?”
“What?” Lucian asks. “No, we’re just seeing where they go and if they talk to anyone suspicious. We don’t try to fight everyone we run into, and I don’t generally go out of my way to beat up kids.”
“But what about that time when–“
“Shut up, Sol! That ‘kid’ was fifty years old and nearly ripped my leg off!” Lucian shakes her head and turns back towards Isla. “So long as the kid doesn’t try to kill us, we’re not going to do anything violent, okay? I realize our track record this year has not been phenomenal, but we try to minimize the risks we have to take.”
“Uh,” Isla says. She’s not sure how true that can possibly be, considering all the messes they’ve gotten into and are sure to run into soon enough–maybe ‘minimizing risks’ means something different to Lucian than it does to her. “Okay, but isn’t it kind of hard to follow someone around when you look like…well, how you look?” she asks, gesturing broadly to Lucian’s gray skin, glowing eyes, and disastrous hair. “You’re a little conspicuous.”
Lucian rolls her eyes. “Yes, thanks. I hadn’t noticed. Look, don’t worry about it–as long as we stay out of sight, there shouldn’t be any problems. Let’s go.”
The two of them pick up their things and leave, Isla pausing a moment to look at the dresses in the front display.
“Come on, Isla,” Lucian presses. “You can look at the dresses after we figure out the evil magic bullshit.”
They creep out of the dress shop and into the still-dark streets. There’s lanterns strung up between buildings, glowing softly and casting the streets in a gentle orange glow. As far as Isla can tell, nobody’s out and about yet. Resting for the Lighting, perhaps.
They head east, out towards the abandoned house. Dawn comes on as they walk, overtaking the lantern light with early morning sun that brightens the world in light and color. The abandoned house stands silhouetted in the rising sun, ominous as ever. Isla swallows.
Lucian tugs her along. “Come on, we’ve got to hurry. We don’t know how early the kid likes to get out and about. I know most kids like sleeping in, but sometimes you get some weirdos who get up at the crack of dawn. Maybe they’re used to farming schedules. Or they’re masochists.”
Lucian must not be a morning person, Isla thinks.
As the sun rises above the horizon, the town slowly comes to life. There aren’t many people out this early, but there’s enough to start the rounds of working and talking and moving around. They pass by carts full of banners and the earliest food stalls with fresh-fried treats and a couple of people arguing over something that has to do with money and the cost of lumber.
Isla takes a moment to wonder how that works. Surely, the festival needs some outside materials and involves talking to a few people coming in from out of town, so how far does the time loop effect go? How many people are affected by it? Were there any people who were out of town on this day only to come back and find it trapped in the festival?
Thinking about it all makes her head hurt. Who would want to do this? There’s nothing to gain from trapping this town and all its people like this, or at least, none that she can think of.
Nobody gives Lucian or Isla a second glance as they head towards the abandoned house on the eastern side of town. It’s an uneventful walk, and they get there not too long after proper sunrise. Lucian takes a quick look around at the gates, but doesn’t seem to see anything. They go in.
“Well, here we are,” she says. “The creepy house again.”
Isla grimaces. “Yeah. So…what do we do?”
“We sit in a bush and wait for the kid to come out,” Lucian says.
Isla looks at the house and around it. There’s an overgrown yard, some thin trees, and other plant debris, but there aren’t a whole lot of bushes, large enough to hide in or otherwise. “Are you sure?”
Lucian concedes the point. “Sit somewhere out of sight and chill, I guess. Make sure the kid can’t see you, that’s all.”
Lucian goes around the house to sit behind a pile of rotting lumber, out of view of the main entrance but where she can still see the path leading out. Isla sits next to her.
“So now we wait?” she asks.
Lucian nods. “That’s usually how this goes.”
“Usually? You mean we do this a lot?”
“Depends on how you define ‘a lot’. We’re not usually doing stakeouts like this every month or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. Too much risk of Solanus shouting something stupid and giving us away, which is why her lantern is closed and in my bag, wrapped in two shirts.”
A muffled sound comes from Lucian’s bag, but Isla can’t tell if it’s actually a response or just her imagination.
Lucian pats her bag and the muffled sound stops. “Now be quiet. We don’t want anyone to know we’re here.”
They wait for a long time. Time feels a lot longer when they can’t do anything but wait and watch, especially when nothing interesting at all happens. For all that Lucian was worried about it, the kid doesn’t seem to be much of a morning person, either.
It’s an hour or two later that they hear something. Isla leans over to look, and sees that girl, Rebecca, with a package under her arm, walking up to the door. She knocks, and after a pause, the door swings open and she goes in.
“What’s going on?” Lucian asks from behind Isla.
“Rebecca just went in. It’s got to be about the festival,” Isla says. “She said her friend lives here, didn’t she? They’re performing together tonight.”
“Hm,” Lucian says. “I guess we wait until they leave and see where they go.”
They wait a while longer. It’s maybe ten minutes after that Rebecca comes back out of the building, says something, then waves goodbye and leaves. She doesn’t have the package anymore, and nobody else leaves with her.
The door closes, and then it’s silent again.
“Well, I’m having fun,” Isla says. “I love waiting around and not learning anything.”
Lucian nudges her. “Shush. We’re trying to get your memories back, not have a party here.”
Isla sighs. “I’m just saying, we don’t know how much longer we’ll be waiting. We didn’t learn anything from Rebecca coming here.”
“Stakeouts are like that, sometimes. If it makes you feel any better, I’m not having fun, either.”
That does not, in fact, make Isla feel better.
They end up waiting about twenty more minutes until there’s another sound. Isla glances up and sees the kid leaving the house, wearing a cap and a bag slung over their shoulder. They lock the door, then rush down to the street.
Lucian holds out a hand to keep Isla from moving. When the kid’s a little further down the road, she gets up and starts after them.
“Try not to get too close,” she says. “Don’t want them getting suspicious.”
“I’m really concerned about the fact that you’ve clearly done this before,” Isla says as she scrambles to follow Lucian down the path.
“It’s been five years. Of course we’ve had to tail at least one person in that time.”
“Yeah,” Isla says. “It’s the ‘at least’ I’m worried about.”
They head down the street after the kid, down into the main part of town. They keep a fair distance back–about half a block, not so far that they lose sight of them for long.
As the kid goes, they talk to a few other kids along the way that Isla doesn’t recognize and hopefully won’t need to down the line. Afterwards, the kid goes into a stall to grab food, then into one of the nearby shops.
“What are we looking for, again?” Isla asks.
“Anything suspicious,” Lucian says as she peeks into the shop window. “Or anything magical. It looks like they just bought a mask and an inscribing awl. And–look natural, they’re coming out.”
The kid leaves the shop with a green-patterned mask in one hand and an awl in the other. They fumble with their bag to put their things into it, then continues down the street.
Isla and Lucian follow after them again.
As the kid continues down the streets, they stop every so often to take out an old battered notebook and read a page or two, then continue on.
“That their list of errands or something?” Lucian asks.
“They’re performing tonight,” Isla says. “Maybe they’ve got a lot of preparations to do.”
“Hmm, I guess that’s what the mask is for. They need those for–”
“And what do you think you’re doing?” Em asks from behind them.
Isla nearly jumps and whirls around to face them. “Uh, hi, Em,” she says. “How are you?”
Lucian glances from Em to Isla. “Who’s this?”
Isla elbows her. “Shut up, not now.” To Em, she says, “Em! We didn’t think we’d see you!”
“Obviously not,” Em says, glaring at the two of them. They jab a finger at Isla. “I thought I told you to stay away from that kid.”
“We are!” Isla says. “We’re not…we’re not anywhere close to that kid. At least half a block away, mostly.”
Em’s eyes narrow. “You’re following them, and I don’t like that.” There’s a crackle in the air like lightning and chill wind, and Isla can feel power rising around them.
Isla swallows. “No, we’re definitely not following that kid or–”
Lucian nudges her in the side. “Sorry, am I missing something? Who’s this joker?”
Em, ignoring Lucian, rounds on Isla. They’re at least six inches taller than her, though it feels like a lot more with the palpable anger rolling off of them. “I warned you once,” they growl. “Get out of this town. There’s nothing for you here.”
“We’re trying to help!” Isla protests, stepping back. “We’re trying to get this town out of this time loop.”
“I never asked for your help,” Em snarls. “Nobody did.”
“Maybe not, but all these people–they don’t deserve this! They’re trapped in the same day and maybe they don’t know it, but they can’t stay like this!”
“Forget these people.” Em steps forward and shoves Isla back hard enough to make her stumble. “Get out, or I’ll force you to.”
“Hey, now, wait a second!” Lucian says, stepping between Isla and Em. “You can’t get in our faces and tell us to piss off–”
Em turns on Lucian, and the pressure in the air spikes upwards. The energy crushes down on them, charged with wild energy that shakes Isla down to her bones. She thinks she can feel tremors in the ground beneath them.
Em bares their teeth. “Get. Out.”
“No,” Lucian says.
There’s a snap, and a sudden howling wind that forces Isla to cover her eyes and gasp for breath. She staggers back as stones lift around them in a whirlwind of debris.
Lucian lunges at Em. “You’re not hurting anyone, asshole!” she shouts, and with a swift motion, she unsheathes her knife and thrusts it straight into Em’s chest.
The knife goes in without resistance, all the way up to the hilt, and there’s a pause as Em stares at it, wide-eyed, before there’s a burst of light and they disintegrate into nothing at all. The wind quiets around them, the ground stills, and Isla stands there, staring at open, panting.
“That–” she gasps. “That wasn’t human.”
Lucian looks at the bloodless knife, now pulsing with white artifice symbols running down the side of the blade, then sheathes it. “No, they weren’t.”