Kara opened her door with a stern expression on her face. “Figured I might be seeing you tonight.”
Henry stepped inside. “Have you thought about it at all?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Then you’re going through with it?”
“I’m doing something that I have done every month since I moved to Tortus Bay.”
He wanted to shake her. “You don’t understand.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“Things are different! You saw what happened last time, and the time before. It’s dangerous. You can’t expose yourself to -”
“I can do what I want to do.”
Henry pulled his charms out of his pocket, and thrust them at her. “I did something to the mayor. Something serious. I don’t want to explain it all right now, but I think that he might be out looking for revenge tomorrow.”
Kara wasn’t listening to him. She was staring at his hand. “Do you have any idea how much work went into those? No one’s ever given one back.”
“Well, I am.”
“No,” she said. Her eyes reddened. “No, this is what I do. Why don’t you understand that? It’s important to me that -”
“I can’t save you again! I already watched you die once. If your game goes wrong again, I won’t watch it a second time.”
Henry let the charms fall out of his hand. They clattered against the stone floor.
Once more, Henry slept not a wink the night before the festival. He hauled himself out of bed well before dawn, spent a useless hour trying to convince himself to read more of the books he had liberated from the Gauthe estate, and then resigned himself to laying on the couch, waiting. Sometime after the sun rose, Niles set a cup of coffee down on the floor beside him. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I’m too old to be pulling all-nighters.”
“You took care of Noel.”
Henry sighed, and sat up. “I think I did. I carved that symbol onto him, but I didn’t exactly stick around to do any tests. Maybe it didn’t work at all, and he can still do his magic. Or maybe he has some way to get rid of it. Or, hell, maybe he doesn’t need to do anything spooky. If he knows what Emmaline is really after, all he would need -”
Niles took him by the shoulders, and pressed his lips against his head. “Today is about you. Whatever else happens, nothing changes that. We’re looking after your arm. Speaking of, are you ready to get going?”
“I don’t get to finish the coffee?”
“Take it with. Teresa said we should start as early as possible.”
“I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Day proper came along with chilly winds and downcast sky. The ground in the old graveyard was hard from the night’s frost, and the leaves around paled toward autumn yellow and orange. “I don’t understand why we have to do this here,” Teresa said. She had brought with her several bags stuffed to their brims with herbs, phials, and notebooks.
“He’s scared of boney down there,” Clair said. She was perched on a headstone opposite the Cass monument, yawning and rubbing her eyes.
“I’m not scared of her,” Henry said, “I just think it would be wise for us to keep our eye on things. We don’t know how long this will take, and we don’t know what’s going to happen here. Two birds, one stone.”
Niles nodded. “Let’s get started, then.”
Teresa began rummaging through her many bags. Henry cleared his throat. “Actually, I wonder if we couldn’t start with something else.”
Clair laughed. Teresa paused, and looked up with ice in her eyes. “We are a month behind, as it is. And, like you said, we don’t know how long this will take.”
“She talked to me, the last time I was here. Emmaline. You told me yourself that one of the sigils on this spire allows for communication. We don’t know what’s going to happen today. But we do know that we have a chance to do this now.”
“You’ve been acting very strangely recently, Henry.”
Niles frowned. “You’ve still been dreaming about her, haven’t you?”
He ignored him, focusing instead on the woman with the bags. “Something serious is happening right now. You know that better than I. What we need is knowledge. We need to figure out what’s happening.”
Before he finished speaking, he knew the argument had worked. Teresa scowled, but approached Emmaline’s grave nonetheless. Once again she closed her eyes, and spread her arms to either side of her body, but this time her feet did not leave the ground. Neither she, nor the monument, glowed. The sigils remained dormant. Her eyes opened.
“What happened?” Clair asked.
“There’s nothing,” Teresa said.
“What do you mean, nothing?” Henry asked.
“Can’t you feel it? Concentrate.”
As soon as she said it, he felt it—but still he closed his eyes and reached out. That growing sense of electricity which had come to him during the past two festivals was nowhere to be found. It felt, in every way, like any other regular day. “What happened?”
Teresa shrugged. “There are ebbs and flows. Some months are like this. The average festival was something more like this, before you showed up.”
“We have to keep trying.”
And so they did. They made a strange party, arrayed in silence around the graveyard. Teresa and Henry sat under the monument, waiting for a hint that the magic was going to come. Niles leaned against a tree trunk, reading a ruffled paperback. Clair wandered through the woods, surfacing every fifteen minutes or to check that nothing had changed before disappearing again. Time passed. Whenever one of them opened their mouth to suggest that maybe they were better off changing course, Henry would glare at them until they fell back in line. The sun passed over their heads and was well on its way into the west when Teresa broke the silence. “It’s time to take care of the shoulder.”
Henry screwed his eyes shut tight.
“Didn’t you hear her?” Niles asked.
“I’m not going to do it,” he said.
Silence followed those words. Henry did not open his eyes, but he imagined that each one of his friends had affixed him with some bewildered look or another. Clair was the first to speak. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“I agree,” Teresa said. “I told you how serious this was, did I not? Was I not dire enough for you? This thing will kill you, if given the time.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
“Then why? What in the world could possibly make you not want to at least try to save your own life?”
Hesitantly, Henry opened his eyes. Found Niles’ face. There, he expected to see betrayal. Hurt, or even anger. But it was none of that. Niles looked at him with a sadness, it could not be denied—but also an understanding. Support. “Emmaline once sacrificed herself to save this village,” Henry said. “She is the reason Tortus Bay still exists. She is the reason that magic lives here. And she called to me. That is why I am here. She wants to talk to me; she thinks we have some sort of connection. And whatever her bones might have done, I’m not convinced that she is the villain here. Noel is trying to pervert her legacy, or replace her in some way. And he offered to heal me. That is enough for me to take the risk to carry on with the wound.”
Silence. Then again, Clair gave the group’s reply. “That is the second dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Henry walked alone in the small hours of the night. Though the village’s attitude toward activity after dark had softened, few people took advantage of it. Especially on a festival day, and especially at the truly absurd hour that he drew up outside of the Anderson warehouse. “I’m not waking you, am I?”
“Not at all,” Kara said.
“It must have been a light day.”
“Still not used to sleeping until it’s all over.”
He held up a greasy bag of take-out food. “Hungry?”
“You haven’t heard, have you?” She smiled, and stepped outside. “You’ll have to tell me what kept you so preoccupied. Come on, let’s eat somewhere more scenic.”
She led him down the road, away from the Anderson, and then away from the village entirely. He trailed behind, asking where they were going, but she refused to answer. Finally, it dawned on him. They must be headed for the lighthouse.
The tall white spire loomed into their vision on the horizon, and Kara veered off to the side. She brought them through the open grass field which buffeted the lighthouse and the village, then continued onto the beach. There, she stopped. Waves lapped at the shore. The water carried the light of the moon better than the dirt, or even the sand, casting illumination forward and back on the shadowed forms of moving beasts. They milled in lofty circles, unconcerned with their new spectators. “Tortoises,” Kara said. “They came back.”
Dozens of them roved the beach. The smallest was no larger than a dachshund; the largest, in the distance, might have rivaled an economy car. That one looked like a wandering mountain, casting shifting shadows on the glittering sand. “When did this happen?”
“If I had to guess, I would say the minute the festival started. But nobody noticed for a while. Most people hunkered down. Old habits die hard, and who can blame them after the last few months?”
Moss covered many of the tortoise’s shells. Henry guessed those were the older ones. The rest—the younger ones, as he supposed—had brown or dark green colorations. Nothing fantastic. Nothing magical. Still, he thought they were more striking than an entire forest full of ethereal wolves. “I’m sorry that I tried to tell you what to do. I was scared, but that doesn’t give me an excuse.”
“I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have jumped down your throat. All my life people have been telling me not to do the things that I love doing. I guess it threw me off, hearing the first good argument.”
They sat on the outskirts of the shore, sharing stale tacos and congealed fries. Kara had nothing to say, when he told her his decision about his shoulder. Instead she hugged him. Together they watched until the last of the tortoises slipped away into the grey-blue ocean, and the crest of the rolling horizon broke deep purple.