Nobody sees them or tries to stop them on their way out. It all goes remarkably smoothly, considering how the last couple of days have gone. Isla doesn’t say so out loud, of course. She’s not superstitious, but there’s something to be said about tempting fate.
She’s had enough of that already, thanks.
They find a place to look through the book a few blocks off, safely out of sight from the abandoned house or anyone else who might pry. The book is in such crap condition that it’s hard to read and doesn’t smell great, but it’s legible enough.
“Well, this will be fun,” Lucian says, sounding about as enthusiastic as Isla feels, which is not at all.
“This was your idea,” Isla says.
Lucian grimaces and they start reading.
The first part of the book largely concerns the history of the festival. The story of the hero and the witch who was possessed by a demon are recounted once again, though the details leave a lot to be desired.
There’s a fairly in-depth account of the witch, who’s described as having ash-gray skin and glowing eyes, and a somewhat…inhuman appearance after it allowed the demon to possess it. At this point, the accounts become more fragmented, with some mentioning fangs, claws, and spines, to things a little more esoteric like eyes and mouths where there shouldn’t be any, or extra limbs unlike any earthly creature’s. The only thing the stories seem to agree on is that it couldn’t be killed, even if it was stabbed through the heart–the only thing that seemed to hold it off was curse fire. Once the witch lost control of the demon possessing it, nothing was able to stop it at all.
The hero, though, has no description at all, or rather, no legible description. The entire section of the page that probably talked about the hero has been stained so severely it’s impossible to make anything out. The only thing Isla can discern from what’s left is what she’s already been told–the hero had covered their entire body and worn a mask so they wouldn’t be recognized.
“Who would do this?” Isla asks, looking at the soiled pages. “It looks like someone did this on purpose. Why destroy the description of this great hero?”
“They were not meant to leave a trace in history,” Isla hears whispering behind her. “And so it was destroyed.”
Isla whirls around. There’s nothing there.
“Isla?” Lucian asks, looking over her shoulder. “You okay?”
“I–” Isla says. She scans the area, but there’s no sign of anyone, least of all the witch. She turns back towards the book, frowning. “Yeah…I’m fine. I was just thinking, who would destroy information about a hero who saved so many people? It doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t know,” Lucian says. “Maybe someone who didn’t like them very much. Even heroes can be dickheads.” She turns the page. “Whoever did it was pretty thorough, I’ll give them that much.”
Isla grimaces. Chances are, this deliberate destruction of information is a lot more than just a person with a grudge.
The two of them continue reading. They reach the part about the Great Demon, which describes it as hideously powerful, to the point where it could destroy towns with a single swipe of its claws or a single breath of its silver curse fire. It towered higher than any person ever could and it could black out the sun with its shadowy demonic magic.
“That sounds scary,” Isla says.
“Sounds like bullshit,” Lucian replies. “Demons can kill people just fine already. They don’t need to black out the sun, too. Looks like someone’s trying to make the demon sound bigger and scarier than it was for the sake of a story.”
“But it’s not just a story,” Isla says. “It’s history!”
“You seriously think that?” Lucian asks. “I mean, do you seriously think some demon possessed a witch and went around destroying an entire country? And there’s absolutely no information about who managed to stop this thing. That just doesn’t track. It’s obviously just some folk story that got blown out of proportion.”
Isla huffs. “Just because it’s not likely doesn’t mean it’s completely made-up. What’s so hard to believe about a Great Demon?”
“I’m just saying that if demons were strong enough to destroy entire countries, we would probably have fewer countries,” Lucian replies. “It’s really not hard to summon a demon, you know. You don’t even have to be a witch to do it.”
Isla can’t argue that. Anyone with an instructive enough grimoire and a stick of chalk could summon a demon, no prior magic necessary. But while summoning small demons is easy enough for just about anyone, summoning large, strong demons was hardly on the same level. Even that demon that Liam had summoned however long ago probably would have taken over an hour of invocations, and losing focus at any point could undo the entire process. Something as strong as the Great Demon…under normal circumstances, it shouldn’t be possible at all.
She tries not to think too hard about how she knows that. She hopes it’s not personal experience.
“Demons are not always summoned at their full strength. As long as they do not dissipate, they can feed and grow,” the witch’s voice murmurs to her.
Isla shakes her head. It’s definitely not out of the realm of possibility that the witch would have summoned a demon and kept it around long enough for it to grow in power until it couldn’t be controlled anymore. Until it took over the witch instead of the other way around.
“Anyways,” Lucian says, moving onwards, “there’s some stuff performers are supposed to do before the ceremony. There’s some rites to protect them from possession and generally getting hurt. There’s, uh, actually a really long list of things the performers are supposed to do so nobody dies.” She turns the book towards Isla.
Isla squints at the page. There’s a diagram of protective artifice that should be used on the hero’s clothing, to keep their partner from burning them with curse fire.
It’s more than a little concerning that there needs to be precautions against that.
“The protective artifice goes on the innermost layer,” Lucian reads. “Otherwise curse fire might burn them off.” She looks up. “Curse fire can do that?”
Isla shrugs. “It’s magical fire. I don’t see why not.”
Lucian lapses into thoughtful silence, and Isla takes the book to look more closely at it. The list of precautions is quite long. Besides wearing artifice on the innermost layer of clothing, there’s the spelled staff to repel the demon performer when they get too close for comfort, and the drinking of certain potions in the months leading up to the festival for fortitude.
They…don’t really have time for that.
There’s also a number of defensive strategies described to wear down the demon performer without hurting them too badly, with the noted caveat that performers who drink the elixir have a worrying tendency to spit fire and be much stronger and vicious than normal humans–though to exactly what degree seems to depend on the person and the extremely vague metric of ‘strength of soul’.
Isla flips to the next section and finds almost twenty full pages about how to properly make a medallion to protect from possession.
“I guess that’s one thing nobody wants to mess up,” Isla says. “Can we even get possessed from drinking the demon’s elixir?”
“I don’t know why you think I would know,” Lucian says. “I don’t make a habit of drinking demonic energy, thanks.”
Well, that’s good. Isla didn’t need that confirmation, but at least it’s better than the alternative. She’s pretty sure drinking demonic energy is bad for anyone.
Isla takes a deep breath. “Well, I guess we should get started. This is a lot of artifice to do in one day, and putting artifice on cloth is not fun.”
“Right,” Lucian says, nodding slowly. “You know I don’t know anything useful about artifice, right? I’m not sure how useful you think I can be here, unless you want moral support or something.”
Isla would like moral support, but there are unfortunately more important things to handle first. “If I want to put artifice on my innermost layer of clothing, I’ll need an innermost layer of clothing to put it on first, so if you can find the clothes I need, that’ll be a good start. I can look through all this stuff about the medallion while you get that. I’ve already got an inscribing awl, so I can work this out.”
Lucian nods and stands up. “Sure. I guess I’ll go find you, what, a shirt and leggings?”
“That’ll be fine. Be careful, okay?”
Lucian rolls her eyes. “I know how to buy clothes, Isla.”
“I’m just saying that the last time you were alone, some mysterious thing happened and I found you passed out four hours later,” Isla replies. “I’m just being cautious.”
Lucian says something that’s a little less than perfectly polite, then leaves to take care of the clothes issue, leaving Isla alone with the book.
The manual of inscriptions for the medallion is some of the most dense text she’s ever seen, something that’s certainly not helped by the age of the book and the muddiness of the printing. It’s daunting, to say the least, but those anti-possession inscriptions aren’t going to learn themselves. If she wants the two of them to be safe at that festival tonight, she’s got to learn what’s in there and fast.
Isla takes a deep breath to brace herself and starts reading.