04.31 – Prep Time

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It’s good that the book is so extensively detailed about the anti-possession procedures, Isla thinks, because while she’s decent at artifice, she doesn’t know a damn thing about soul magic–and for a very good reason, she would think. That’s the kind of stuff that artificers aren’t supposed to mess with. Otherwise, things like Aurel happen.

She stops that train of thought before it can go any farther.

Still, it brings up the question of whether this ceremony is really safe, if they need a charm this…potent to do it. She doesn’t really know anything about imbibing demonic energy, except that it sounds like a terrible idea, but it shouldn’t call for measures this drastic, should it? She thumbs through the diagrams and symbols and can tease out the sense that they’re meant to keep souls from contaminating each other, and to keep the ‘proper soul’ connected to its body. It’s frankly alarming that these are concerns at all.

She kind of wishes she knew more about demons and demonic possession so she could better gauge what she’s about to throw herself into, but then again, what kind of person would she have had to been to know that kind of thing? She wouldn’t like that at all.

Isla pulls her awl out and starts tracing out shapes on the pewter medallion. She’s reminded, once again, of why artifice is usually left to the specialists–even ignoring the sheer amount of knowledge it takes to do anything moderately complex, it’s painstakingly precise work. Working at it for more than twenty minutes at a time gives her a hand cramp.

Still, there’s something calming about it. Isla can’t remember why she learned artifice in the first place, but it’s clearly something she spent a lot of time studying, up to and including extensive experiments, some of which were better ideas than others. Normal magic is so…temperamental sometimes, and it’s nice to have artifice marks that work the same way every time, as long as she inscribes the lines straight.

Even following the book’s instructions, it takes three failed attempts and about two hours to properly inscribe a protective medallion with marks that glow white when the final marks are etched. Isla smiles at it. It’s nice to have something work out after everything else has gone so wrong.

Carefully, she etches a second medallion–just in case. After all, Lucian somehow lost her first one, and it’s always better to be safe. Whatever happens tonight, she needs Lucian to be safe.

She takes a deep breath and rubs her eyes just as the bell tower rings midday.

“You okay there?” Lucian asks. She’d returned sometime a while ago, not that Isla has any idea when–she was too busy working on the medallions.

“Yeah. Just a little tired, that’s all.”

“It doesn’t look very fun,” Lucian says. “Artifice.”

Isla shakes her head. “No, it’s fine. I…it’s been a while, that’s all, and I don’t think I’ve ever done this kind of artifice before…”

Lucian holds out a canteen of water. “Well, take a break if you need to. We’ve got time.”

Technically, they have time, but not really. They only have until the evening and she still needs to learn all the ceremonial customs and make sure the two of them don’t cock everything up and put protective marks on her clothing so Lucian doesn’t–

She doesn’t think further than that. Everything will be fine. She’ll make sure of it.

She takes the water, and after a few mouthfuls, she asks, “Do you really think this will work?”

“Of course it will. You know what you’re doing with artifice.”

“No, not that, I mean–” Isla fastens the cap back onto the canteen. “I mean this plan. Performing, going up to the stage, stopping anyone from interfering. Will that really work?”

“It’s the best option we’ve got,” Lucian says. “Something is going to happen, and I’d prefer to be up there than behind the barrier again.”

Isla stays quiet. She agrees, but she’s not sure if something will happen that they have to stop, or if something will happen because of their interference. She’s definitely not sure if this will get them any closer to her memories.

“And if it doesn’t work out, I guess we can try again tomorrow,” Lucian says.

“I don’t know if I want to,” Isla says. “Something bad happened to this town, Lucian.”

Lucian nods solemnly. “It sure did. That’s why we have to do something about it, right?”

That really is the crux of it. Something is going on, and they can’t just let it go on–it wouldn’t be right. Even if this might not work, they have to try it and see where it goes.

It doesn’t make Isla feel any less uneasy, though.

She hands the canteen back to Lucian, then stretches. “Right. I guess I’ll…work on the clothing. We should have enough time to get this worked out and figure out the other ceremony stuff before sundown.”

“Yeah,” Lucian says with a grimace. “At least we don’t have to memorize any lines–I don’t think we’d be able to pull it off if we did. Especially considering your memory.”

“Hey!” Isla protests. “Don’t be mean.”

Lucian holds up her hand. “Sorry, sorry. You know I’m joking.” Her expression becomes serious again. “But really, we should be fine. I mean, we’ve done some pretty crazy stuff before and we came out the other side just fine.”

“Yeah, but I don’t remember any of it,” Isla says. She rotates the medallion gently in her hand so it catches the light. The thin inscriptions radiate outward from the center like rays from the sun, dormant for the moment.

“That’s true,” Lucian says. “Maybe I’ll tell you some stories.”

“Wait, really? Right now?”

Lucian shakes her head. “No, not right now. Once we’re done here and on the way to the next place, maybe. Right now, we’ve got all this to deal with.”

“Right,” Isla says. “Okay, well, I…guess I’ll get started on the clothes.”

“Sounds like a plan. You work on that, I’ll go grab some lunch.”

Isla nods, and the two of them get back to work.

Between everything Isla has to do to prepare for the ceremony, sunset comes quickly. She finishes the inscriptions on her clothes maybe an hour before the ceremony starts, and she puts them on, and the protective marks trailing down her torso and legs make her feel a lot more confident about whatever is going to happen tonight. Lucian, who had spent the day gathering all the other things they would need for th ceremony and going over the procedures, seems a lot less confident.

“You said we’ll be fine, Lucian,” Isla says as they surreptitiously find an alleyway to change into festival clothes in. “It’s just a few hours. We can do this.”

“I do think we’ll be fine,” Lucian says. “Doesn’t mean it’ll be fun.”

“It’s a festival,” Isla replies. “It’s going to be plenty of fun!”

Lucian doesn’t dignify that with a response as Isla helps her pull her shirt off to change into a set of festival clothing.

“We should be okay,” Isla says softly as she straightens Lucian’s tunic. “I mean, we have to fight each other, but we’ll be fine. I’m wearing a lot of protection, and you’ll be careful not to drink too much demon elixir. As long as we put on a good show, nobody will know anything is wrong.”

“That’s easier said than done,” Lucian says. She pulls the silver bangle out of her bag and turns Solanus’s lantern back on. “Hey, Sol. Get in the bracelet.”

“Woah, hey. You turn me on and then immediately start telling me what to do? Is this what our friendship has devolved to? I thought we had something important, Lucy! I thought we were–“

“We’re going up on stage in about an hour, so get in the bracelet. I don’t want to lose track of you,” Lucian says.

“Oh, that’s so sweet of you, Lucy, I didn’t know you cared so much about me–“

“Because we need your to help kill that witch and I am not in the mood to go searching for your dumb ass again. You remember what happened last year,” Lucian says.

Isla doesn’t know what happened last year, but apparently whatever it was left a strong enough impression that Solanus goes into the bracelet without further complaints. Lucian puts the bangle on her wrist–the one that’s still connected to a hand–and says, “And we have to go on stage, so that means no screaming, okay?”

“You suck the fun out of everything,” Solanus says.

Isla puts her dress on, and it fits perfectly on her just as it did that morning, red and gold waves falling gently down her body. She ties her hair back with her headscarf and pulls on her long gloves so nothing but her face is showing, and wonders if this really is how a hero would dress.

“Cover your sins so no one may see them,” she hears whispering in the wind. “Leave your name behind in the past so no one will remember you.”

“Not now,” Isla mutters. “I don’t need your stories, you stupid witch.”

“Stories are more than just stories. Surely, you’ve learned that by now?” the voice hisses. She can feel darkness pressing against her throat, constricting her breath like poisonous vines–

“Isla?” Lucian asks. “Are you okay?”

Isla takes a deep breath. “I’m fine,” she says, not feeling fine at all. “I’m just…looking for my mask, that’s all.”

Lucian holds it out to her. “Here. Any last words before we go up there?”

“I wish you wouldn’t say it like that,” Isla says. It’s part of the ceremony that performers can’t talk when they’re in full costume. Maybe it’s so nobody can identify them, but there are other reasons and they’re not taking any chances tonight. It’s not worth it. “You’re asking for things to go badly.”

Lucian crosses her arms. “I don’t think it’s asking for it when we already know it will go badly. We’re here to see exactly how badly.”

That’s what Isla’s afraid of. She sighs and puts the mask on. It’s heavy and cold on her face, but it fits comfortably enough and she can see clearly out of it.

Lucian adjusts Isla’s collar, then steps back. “All right, then. It’s showtime.”

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