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Isla and Lucian get off the stage–Lucian is more carried off than anything, but that’s not the point. Isla kneels at Lucian’s side. “Lucian,” she murmurs. “Lucian, are you okay?”
Lucian grimaces in pain, but doesn’t respond otherwise.
“We’re going to be fine,” Isla says, more trying to convince herself than anyone else. “We’re going to be okay.”
Lucian makes no response.
Isla takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Lucian. I’m really sorry, but…” she trails off. She doesn’t know what ‘but’ is. There is no ‘but’. She didn’t have to do what she did. She doesn’t know what she should have done instead, but it wasn’t that. “I’m sorry.”
Long moments tick by and Lucian still doesn’t answer, and Isla bites her lip, wondering if she should say any more. She knows she’s not supposed to, with the ceremony and everything, but if it would help…
One of the people in black leans over and says, “Your partner should be fine. The elixir wears off completely after a few hours.”
Isla nods her thanks. That’s good. Lucian should be okay. Everything should be all right.
She breathes in. Out. She looks up to the stage and sees the next performers are at it, locked in combat. It’s not nearly as vicious as her and Lucian’s confrontation, but then…what happened to Lucian wasn’t normal. That wasn’t supposed to happen, but they got through it. They’re past it now.
That doesn’t mean they’re done, though. She has to remember that. They still have to stop Em, whatever it is that Em’s going to do to try and stop the festival this time. They have to find what Em is trying to hide.
Isla looks through the crowd and sees them there, still standing under a torch at the edge of the stage, biding their time.
What are they waiting for?
Isla clenches her fists. They have to finish this tonight, no matter what. She can’t put Lucian through this a second time–she can’t put herself through this a second time.
Lucian groans again. “What–”
“Lucian!” Isla says. “Lucian, are you okay?”
Lucian struggles to sit up, and Isla helps her upright. Lucian winces and rubs her forehead. “I…I’ve had better days. What happened?”
“You drank the elixir and we fought,” Isla says. “The performance is still going. Nobody’s tried anything yet, so I’ve been keeping an eye out.”
Lucian nods. “Good–good. Do…that.”
The ceremony continues on through the night. Between checking on Lucian and making sure Em doesn’t pull anything, Isla loses track of which set of performers is going. She thinks it’s the fifth or sixth set, but she’s not sure if it really matters.
One thing’s for sure–the ceremony’s gone much further tonight than they’ve ever seen. Is it possible they scared Em off? Maybe they won’t do anything after all? But no, they’re still standing there, arms crossed, still waiting.
Lucian rubs her face and checks the amulet around her neck. It’s still glowing faintly white. “This sure did me a lot of good,” she mutters. “What a load of–” She winces, and Isla swears she sees Lucian’s eyes flash gold.
Lucian blinks, and it’s gone.
“Lucian? Are you okay?” Isla asks.
“Just peachy,” Lucian says. “Pay attention to the ceremony. I don’t want to do this again.”
Isla nods and shifts her attention back to the stage as the current performance comes to an end. Rebecca and the kid go up to perform. They’re the last ones.
That’s when Em moves. They step onto the stage as the performers do, their hands glowing orange.
“Lucian,” Isla hisses. “It’s them. We have to stop them now.”
Lucian looks up and stumbles to her feet, swearing. “Let’s go.”
Em stands by, invisible to the crowd as they loom over the two performers. Rebecca kneels, and just as she picks up the vessel of elixir, Em reaches out to snatch her by the wrist and–
Lucian full-body tackles Em, throwing both of them to the ground. Rebecca startles and a wave of murmurs rises from the crowd. The people in black stationed around the stage reach for their weapons.-
“Get off of me,” Em snarls.
“We’re not letting you interrupt the ceremony,” Lucian says. “You’re the one who’s got this town trapped in the same day, aren’t you?”
“So what if I am?” Em asks. “You can’t stop me.” They swing out with hands full of orange fire and in a single motion, rips the pewter medallion from Lucian’s neck.
Isla whirls towards the sound. Who…?
It’s not Lucian who’s screaming. It’s Rebecca. She screams, a full, blood-curdling shriek of pain and horror as she collapses to the ground, the vessel of demon’s elixir empty beside her. The medallion around her neck swings forward, just enough for Isla to see it glowing a sickly shade of green.
The pattern inscribed on it is not one of protection.
“No–!” Em shouts, shoving Lucian off and–
Em disappears in a flash of orange, and Lucian falls to the ground, limp.
Just then, Rebecca’s horrible scream shifts to something–inhuman. It’s a screech that fills the entire square, stunning everyone into silence as she shudders violently and…
Black shadows flood out from her body, and there’s a distinct cracking sound of bones breaking and a reek of fresh blood as her body shudders and transforms into something massive and bestial. The shadows swallow her entirely, and her–its–eyes open, glowing red.
It towers above everyone, nearly twice Isla’s height even on all four legs. The kid, clearly terrified, scrambles back as fast as they can.
“No,” Isla hears Lucian say behind her. “No!”
“Lucian, what’s–” Isla turns to see orange eyes. “…Em?”
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” Lucian, or Em, says as she, or they, shove past Isla. “This can’t happen, this can’t–”
The demon rears back and roars. It’s a horrible sound that grates against the ears and lungs, crashing against the heart. There’s fire in its teeth and its claws gouge into the stage’s wood and the stone underneath like soft cheese, and–
“Do not falter.”
The moment shatters. The crowd breaks and flees, person over person to get away from the monster, anywhere that’s safe. All around the stage, the guards in black step step forward, their weapons drawn and shining with glowing artifice.
The demon crashes down, swiping with its massive claws, sending the kid flying to the end of the stage. The mask splits and falls from their face, destroyed by the force of the demon’s attack.
The demon roars again, curse fire building in its mouth as it rounds on the guards. They lunge for the demon but it lets loose its cursed flames, instantly burning at least one person to ash. The fire builds, flooding the air with caustic magic power that makes it hard to move, hard to even breathe.
Isla stares, paralyzed. This is nothing like the demon she had faced before. This is a *monster.* How can she possibly stop it?
But how? How is she supposed to fight something like this? How could she possibly–
The fire swells and bursts outwards, and it’s all she can do to fling her hands up with a blast of magic to shield herself from its sheer destructive power. Behind her is a crashing sound like smashing glass.
White flares all around the stage, and the barrier shatters.
The blast sends Isla to the ground, reeling, and she shakes her head to try and clear it. She has to do something. She has to–
She forces herself up to her feet. She’s not steady. She’s not even seeing straight. Ahead of her, the demon rages on, flinging people aside like rag dolls and tearing them apart just as easily. It shoots black fire into the sky that rains down like a meteor shower, ripping apart houses and roads. It steps back to crush yet more people under its claws and–
A blast of orange fire hits it in the side.
The demon staggers back, and Em-in-Lucian is there, hand outstretched with orange fire. “Get away from them!”
They throw another bolt of orange magic and it pierces the demon through the eye. It screams, crying out with a horrifying screech that echoes deep into the night.
But it’s not enough. The demon snarls and sprays black fire, directly at Em in Lucian’s body. Em screams, collapsing to the ground as flames engulf them, burning hot with magic. Em thus taken care of, the demon swings around and spots the kid again. Its mouth fills with fire again–
Isla throws her hands out and pink light cracks through the air, hitting the demon in the side. It throws the demon’s aim off just enough so the fire only glances on the side of the kid’s face. The kid gasps and falls, crying and clutching at the black flames that won’t go out. The demon rears back to rip the kid apart, but Isla blasts it with another wave of magic, forcing it back.
Her magic strikes the demon, and it hurts. Shock reverberates all the way down her hands, down her arms, down her body, down to her metal heart. It hurts and it burns as the demon pushes back against her with its caustic energy, but she holds it back because she can’t let it do more damage than it’s already done.
Isla grits her teeth. “Get back!” she screams, and throws all the power she can muster into a single blast.
It pierces the demon through the heart, and she feels something connect. The caustic energy flows back through the brief connection, flooding her with venomous, feral power, and she pushes back against it.
She forces the energy away from her. Out of her, out of the poor possessed girl, out of this plane from which it was summoned and back to wherever it came from.
The demon cries out as it shrivels away, howling until its voice fades into that of a dying human’s scream, and it collapses, shadows falling away like burned clothes until there’s nothing but a cracked and broken girl.
Isla falls to her knees, gasping for breath. She can barely feel her arms. She can barely see through the stars in her eyes and the blackness encroaching on the edges of her vision.
“Rebecca!” she hears the kid shout. “Rebecca, no, no–”
The kid runs up to Rebecca’s broken body, the right side of their face bloody and raw from curse fire. It’s still better than how Rebecca fared.
“Rebecca, no, you can’t be, how–”
Rebecca…moves. She looks up, just enough to see the kid.
“I–” Rebecca coughs, spitting out blood. “I’m sorry.”
The kid kneels beside her, desperation clear on their face. “No, no, don’t say sorry, it’s not your fault, you didn’t–”
“I’m sorry,” Rebecca says. “I’m sorry, Marie.”
Something in the air shifts at that moment, sending magic and wind rising all around them and through the shattered village. It saturates the air until Isla can’t even breathe. She fights against it, tries to stand, but–
The wind whirls around her and takes her into darkness.