They stash their belongings in the alleyway. It’s not the safest place to put them, but with the festival and the whole time thing, it’s unlikely anyone will come by and swipe it. That’s the hope, at least.
In any case, they go out to the square. It’s nearly sunset and the stage has been laid out with the torches lit. Other performers are already gathered along the outer edge of the stage, and Isla and Lucian take their places among them.
Nobody comments on their presence or calls them out for the pretenders they are, and Isla takes a deep breath to calm herself.
First step complete. All they have to worry about now is the rest of it.
Preparations go on for what feels like an eternity. It’s frenetic around the square, with so many people in ceremonial clothes running this way and that and yelling instructions to each other to take care of all the final preparations before the ceremony really starts. The performers wait in silence, as they’re required to, and Isla and Lucian wait along with them. It’s not an easy wait, especially as the crowds grow in size as the sunset turns to dusk to true night.
The ceremony starts, as it always does, with the heavy beat of the drums. They strike powerfully, filling the entire square with their tremendous sound. From so close, Isla can feel the sound pounding in her chest like the heart she no longer has, but so much stronger than any heartbeat could ever be. There’s a nearly palpable sense of rising power as the sound resonates, drawing all eyes to the fourteen performers at the edge of the stage, dressed in their festival clothes.
There’s a sound cue, and one by one, they step onto the stage in two lines: heroes on one side, demons on the other. They face each other and another crash of the drums and the two lines step together. Isla slides her medallion over Lucian’s head. It flashes white, then goes dim again.
She steps back, then follows the others to the outer edge of the stage, leaving only the first pair of performers at the center. Isla doesn’t watch them, instead trying to organizer her thoughts.
She and Lucian will go third, which gives them somewhere between a half an hour to a full hour. When they go up there, all bets are off. There’s nothing more to plan at this point–they’ve made all the precautions they could, and whatever happens, happens.
It’s easy enough to say that, but there are a lot of things she would prefer did not happen. Thinking about it doesn’t do much for her anxieties.
In an effort to distract herself, she scans the crowd. With the dim torchlight, it’s hard to make out anything more than a mass of people in their festival clothing, all watching the performers at the center of the stage. All of them except for one.
Em is there, standing by one of the torches, looking directly at her. They must know what she and Lucian are planning, but the two of them have already made it onto the stage as performers–there’s nothing Em can do about that.
Isla takes a deep breath. She’s not letting Em ruin the festival this time. She’s going to see what Em’s trying to hide, whether they like it or not.
The performers clash at the center of the stage, but Isla doesn’t watch them. She keeps her eyes trained on Em the whole time, waiting for when they make their eventual move–after all, she’s the only one who can see them.
Em glares right back, but they seem content to cause no trouble, at least for now. They turn their eyes back to the ceremony, as the performers attack each other again and again in a clash of white artifice marks and blue fire.
That’s fine, Isla thinks. Em’s patient? Well, she can be patient too.
She threads her fingers together and tries to keep them still. She’s not nervous, she tells herself. She’s been through this and more and come out the other side intact. Six years hunting memories, and she’s still fine, or as fine as someone can be, when they forget everything once a year. This will be fine.
Sound settles around her as the first set of performers finish. The demon performer doesn’t look injured, but they have to be carried off the stage and the hero performer doesn’t seem to be faring too well either, which is…concerning. The second pair of performers takes their place, and with a crash of the drums, they launch into combat.
Em stands at the edge of the stage, deep in thought.
“Time is approaching,” the witch murmurs to her. “I wonder if you will follow in my footsteps.”
Isla turns to ask what in the world that’s supposed to mean, but there’s nothing there.
Time passes. Too slowly, or maybe too quickly, because before Isla knows it, the second set of performers has fallen. The people in black take the demon performer off the stage, and Isla steps up to the center, opposite Lucian.
Isla nods once. Lucian kneels. The people in black grab her arms to restrain her, and someone in a mask hands Isla a staff.
She accepts it. A glance over it shows deep gouges and wide burns from the previous two fights. She’s not sure if the staff will hold out to the end of the night at this rate. Hopefully there are spares.
Someone in white hands Lucian the elixir. It’s a very small vessel, and the fluid is entirely flat black, impossible to see any depth or color. Lucian stares at it for a few seconds, clearly uneasy, then accepts it. She nods to Isla, then bends down to put the vessel to her lips.
She barely drinks from it before she shudders violently, shaking the vessel loose from the person holding it. It shatters across the stage in a puddle of viscous black fluid. Lucian’s entire body shakes as she falls forward, gasping for breath she doesn’t even need. The people restraining her hold tight, but clearly aren’t having an easy time holding her back as she coughs and sputters.
It takes a lot of Isla to not step back. Lucian barely drank any of the elixir–she should be fine. She should be fine, not having this kind of reaction–
Lucian lets loose a low growl and tears away from her restraints. Her eyes squarely meet Isla’s, burning bright and gold.
Isla’s barely able to get her staff up in time to stop Lucian from barreling straight into–and through–her, and Lucian hits it, hard enough to make the shock go all the way up Isla’s arms. They lock against each other and Isla struggles to push back against Lucian’s force and weight, her feet sliding back on the stage. Lucian snarls, teeth bared, dripping silver flames.
Isla musters up her strength and twists the staff. It flashes white and Lucian is thrown back.
It hardly seems to deter her, however. Lucian slides to a stop and turns back towards Isla, golden eyes blank without the faintest hint of recognition. She hisses, spitting silver fire that scorches the stage where it lands.
–a demon, the likes of which she’s never seen. How could it come this far? It’s no wonder it would destroy so much, not after it’s had so much time to grow in strength. And it’s there, towering above her with golden eyes and silver fire, and–
“Pay attention!” the witch’s voice snaps.
Isla slams back to reality and Lucian is right there, nearly on top of her with a trail of silver magic in her remaining hand. Isla swings her staff upwards to deflect it and she swears she can feel the wood crack.
Lucian disengages, growling. The fire she’s holding flares bright, and Isla dives to one side to avoid the crash of silver flames. It sears overhead with heat and magic power, burning the air.
Isla rolls and scrambles to her feet, only for Lucian to bear down on her again. Her staff only partially deflects the strike, and Lucian’s hand burns a hole straight through her dress, only stopping when the markings on Isla’s undershirt flash white, throwing Lucian back once again.
Isla gasps for breath, her muscles already burning from exertion. How long has it been? Ten minutes? Five? One? She can’t do this. She can’t fight Lucian like this, she can’t–
“This is no time to show mercy,” the witch hisses. “If you do not fight, she will kill you.”
“I can’t–” Isla gasps.
Isla clutches her staff, forcing herself to breathe. She’s spent. She’s done. She’s through, but Lucian…Lucian doesn’t seem to even be slowed down. Lucian crouches, breathing silver fire that falls to the floor and doesn’t go out.
She doesn’t want to die here. She doesn’t want Lucian to kill her.
“Get up. You will not give up.”
Groaning, Isla steps forward and holds her staff at the ready.
She feels it then, a rush of energy that surges through her body. It burns down her arms like molten glass that sears her from the inside out, flesh and bone. Magic fills her body and she blinks.
–Golden eyes fill her vision. Golden eyes and silver fire, and a forest burning to ash all around her–
She blinks again. Silver fire is barreling towards her and she breathes in. Out.
She strikes with her staff, and the fire splits in front of her, instantly filling the air with unbearable heat. Isla grits her teeth against the force of the magic flames, then slams her staff down onto the stage. With a flash of red, the silver flames dissipate in a hiss of smoke.
Lucian leaps out of the smoke, swinging wildly. Isla steps into the attack and Lucian’s hand scrapes her mask–she can smell the painted wood burning under silver fire–but Isla swings her staff back into Lucian’s side. There’s a flash of white light and they’re both thrown backwards.
Isla slides to a stop and looks up to see golden eyes leering through the darkness.
“Do not falter. That is not your friend.”
Lucian shudders again, her eyes flashing. With a snarl, she charges at Isla.
Isla lowers her staff. I’m sorry, she thinks.
She thrusts with the staff and there’s a bolt of deep red light, piercing Lucian straight through the heart. For a moment, everything is still.
Then it explodes.
There’s a crashing sound, louder than thunder, louder than the incessant drums around the stage, and Lucian is thrown back in a burst of red, skidding across the stage all the way to the edge of the barrier. Everything falls silent.
Isla holds her staff ready in case Lucian stands up again, but she remains motionless.
“Oh, gods.” Isla throws aside the staff and runs to Lucian. “Oh, no. No, please, no.”
She grabs Lucian by the arm, forgetting all ceremony and decorum. She can’t have killed Lucian, she can’t have–
Lucian groans and her eyes open slowly. They’re green again.
The people in black appear to help them off the stage. They’re done.