The two of them get a spot about as close to the stage as they can get without actually standing on it and have to wait for somewhere around half an hour as the sun goes down and the torches around the stage are lit. Even with the torches, it’s quite dark. Several people in black clothes stand around the edges of the stage, with weapons visible on their belts. Isla hopes those are just a precaution and not a part of the actual ceremony.
Soon enough, the sun dips below the horizon and the last of the torches are lit, and silence falls over the crowd like a heavy blanket.
Then the drums start.
It’s a slow crescendo, rising in the night as all the performers step out onto the stage in two lines. There’s about twelve people in total, half of them dressed in long flowing clothing of all different colors, veiled and masked, the other half in relatively plain tunics with gray-painted skin. Isla can just make out Rebecca standing at the very end of the line.
The sound builds, then stops, and the line of masked performers step forward and place medallions over their partner’s heads and around their necks. The medallions flash briefly with artifice markings–a sign that their magic is still strong–then go dim again. There’s near-silence as the partners bow to each other, then the drums start again and the lines separate. The performers break, leaving only one pair in the center of the stage, hero and demon. They kneel opposite each other.
A tall man in long white robes and a black mask gives the masked performer a staff, and their partner a small bowl. Isla can’t see what’s in it from where she’s standing, but she supposes it’s the elixir. Two other people in black go to the demon performer’s side as the performer bows their head, then drinks.
There’s no reaction at first but a faint shudder as the masked performer stands, readying their staff. Then the demon performer spasms violently and falls limp, only prevented from falling when they’re caught by the two helpers beside them.
“…Is that supposed to happen?” Isla asks.
Lucian doesn’t answer, keeping her eyes fixed on the performers.
There’s another bang of percussion, and the demon performer shudders again, then moves, slowly standing up with the assistance of the two helpers. Their motions are jerky and sporadic until they’re standing, staring straight ahead with a faint glow in their eyes but not seeming to see anything.
The masked performer slams their staff down on the stage and the sound rings out clear across the square. The demon performer jerks at the sound, then looks directly at their partner, growling. It’s a deep, inhuman sound that grows into a horrible roar that makes Isla wince just from the noise of it. They lunge forwards at their partner, only stopped by the two helpers restraining them.
Blue flames spill from their mouth.
“Holy shit,” Isla says.
On some hidden cue, a chorus of voices joins the sound of rising drums, soon joined by the townsfolk around them in a language Isla doesn’t recognize. The singing rises high into the darkness louder and louder as the demon performer’s thrashing only becomes more violent. The sound reaches its climax in a crash of percussion so strong that it reverberates in Isla’s chest–and finally, the demon performer is released.
They lunge at their partner, face wild in the torchlight, hands outstretched.
The masked performer jabs with their staff, pushing their partner back, but it doesn’t do much to dissuade them at all. The demon performer snarls, eyes flashing deep blue, flames dripping from their mouth, flames burning in their hands.
“This can’t be safe,” Isla says as the two performers clash a second time. “Kids are supposed to do this? All night?”
“I don’t know,” Lucian says.
The demon strikes and their partner, with no small effort, blocks it with the staff. The two lock against each other, and the staff begins to glow softly white with artifice marks. The demon pushes forward, and in a flash of white, is thrown backwards, skidding across the stage.
Isla hisses. “That’s not going to keep them down.”
Lucian shakes her head. “It’s not supposed to.”
The two performers go at each other, clashing again and again in flashes of white and blue. There’s no sound except for the frenzied rhythm of the drums, the demon’s inhuman snarling, and the clash of wood against flesh. More than once, the demon lands hits on their partner, leaving a dark burn on their clothes.
“This is so dangerous,” Isla says. “What if they kill each other?”
“Well, I hope that doesn’t happen,” Lucian says. “I guess that’s why they need to trust each other. Otherwise that guy with the staff might beat the other person to death.”
“Lucian. Don’t say that.”
The fighting continues, and maybe twenty minutes after they start, the demon gets blown back again and doesn’t get up. The blue flames fade, and they lie motionless on the stage. The helpers in black grab them and pull them off to the side.
“There’s no way they can go all the way to morning,” Isla says as the next pair of performers go up.
Lucian crosses her arms. “Not with only twelve people. They’d be too tired. Maybe there’s some other events after the fighting we don’t know about.”
The next set of performers go through the same motions as the previous one–drinking the elixir and fighting. The second demon performer’s eyes flash pale green and they attack their partner viciously, hands outstretched.
This performer is much more aggressive than the previous one, and they keep up the offensive, pushing back their masked partner in a flurry of strikes. There’s a bright white flash from the staff, and the demon performer goes flying back–
Just as they’re about to slide off the stage and into the crowd, a ring of artifice at the stage border flares, pushing them back.
“I guess someone thought about safety,” Lucian says. She reaches out carefully and the barrier stops her from reaching into the stage. “Looks like it works both ways.”
“How strong is it?” Isla asks.
Lucian grimaces. “There’s only one way to learn that answer, and believe me, we don’t want that to happen.”
The performers attack each other some more, only pausing briefly between clashes for breath. It’s clear right from the start that the masked performer is tiring quickly, but they keep fighting–not that they really have a choice. It’s near the fifteen minute mark when the masked performer starts taking more hits in their sluggishness that Isla sees a flash of orange out the corner of her eye.
She leans over to look, and sees them under the torchlight at the edge of the stage–Em.
Isla sucks in a breath. “They’re back.”
“Who?” Lucian asks.
Isla points. “There, in the cap. You see them?”
“What? What about them?”
“They’re involved with this somehow,” Isla says. “I know you have no idea who they are, but you’ve got to believe me, they’re going to do…something.”
She keeps watching, but Em only stares straight ahead at the stage, arms crossed as the performers fight. Eventually, the demon performer is struck down and doesn’t get up. They’re pulled off the stage as the next set of performers go up to replace them, and, with calm deliberation, Em steps out onto the stage.
“What the hell?” Lucian says. “They just crossed the barrier! Why isn’t anyone doing anything?”
Isla bites her lip nervously. “They can’t see them. What are they doing?”
Em stands at the center of the stage as the third set of performers takes their place, and when the demon’s elixir is brought out, they snatch the vessel away with a glowing orange hand and fling it to the ground. It shatters into a thousand pieces of broken ceramic and shimmering black fluid, startling the performers and everyone around them. All around them, the people in black stationed around the stage draw their weapons.
Em looks at them, then at the demon performer, and lifts another glowing orange hand. Violent wind rises around them and the ground begins to shake.
“We’ve got to stop them!” Isla shouts, lunging forward into the stage–only to be repelled by the barrier and thrown back into the crowd.
Pandemonium breaks loose all through the crowd as Em grabs the demon performer in orange hands and flings them to the side, just as the unnatural wind picks up to a howling pitch, extinguishing all the torches at once and throwing dust and ash into the air to where Isla can’t even see through the tears in her eyes. There’s a crashing sound and a sharp scream, and–
Isla feels a rush of magic all around her, and she staggers back, unable to even breathe, and then, all at once, it’s gone. She blinks slowly and looks around.
The town square lies silent around her, with only Lucian at her side. There are banners strung up between the buildings and lights in the windows, but no festival, no performers, no stage. Nothing.
“It’s started over again,” Lucian says.