“What’s that sound?” Delilah asked. Just as she and the rest of the group were about to pass through the door and to the Drowned Palace, a light humming sounded in the air.
“The Hikarescence!” Isabelle said excitedly. She’d been the keeper of the vial of glistening liquid, their one connection to Annabelle and Sarabelle at the Library of Solitude. Pulling it from a side pocket of her backpack, she stared at the glowing vial. Shaking it once, she opened it, and a cloud of steaming mist emerged, hovering over the bottle. In the mist appeared faces — Annabelle and Sarabelle. Isabelle waved at them happily. “Hi!”
“Hello, little one,” Sarabelle said, laughing softly. “It’s good to see you well. How are the others?”
“We’re all still safe and sound,” Maribelle said, kneeling behind Isabelle so she could be seen. “What have you discovered?”
“We pooled our knowledge with Selphine,” Sarabelle said, “and we’ve discovered what the Drowned Palace really is — and what awaits you there, and beyond.”
“Good timing,” Delilah said. “We’re just about to enter the Drowned Palace.”
Annabelle let out a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness we got to you in time,” she said. “Mari, Marcus, you two could feel the echoes of a memory when you learned of the Drowned Palace. That makes sense — it used to be, and still can be if restored, the Revue Palace.”
“Revue Palace!” Maribelle said, eyes widening. “To think I’d forget about it at all… and all the clues point exactly to that. It truly is the Lost of the Lost, then, if I could forget about it.”
“So lost that it even changed its name,” Marcus said gravely. “So our goal must be to restore it, not just to defeat the foes that await us there.”
“What’s the Revue Palace?” Alice asked.
“It used to be the Prime Bastion of the entire Dominion, before the Library of Solitude took that title,” Maribelle said. “And in time… the crowds dwindled. It thrived on attention, on crowds and visitors.”
“Not just thrived on,” Sarabelle said, “but desperately needed such attention to survive. Its name change must have to do with that.”
“It’s essentially a collection of the grandest, greatest theaters in all the universe,” Marcus said. “If the Library of Solitude is the largest library in existence, the Revue Palace has the largest theaters in existence.”
“And so many of our clues pointed towards a performance,” Delilah said.
“That’s not just a metaphor, either,” Sarabelle said, “nor will it be for show. You can’t just fight your foes like you normally would. There will be rules, a structure.”
“The conflict that awaits you will be divided into Acts, which are further divided into Scenes,” Annabelle said. “Each Act has its own set of rules, and is separated from other Acts by an Intermission.”
“This sounds way too complicated,” Alice said. “Why can’t we just pummel the bad guys and call it a day?”
“Break the rules, and you’ll be ejected from the stage,” Sarabelle said. “Not only that, all rule-breakers are forever banned from the Revue Palace.”
“Who sets the rules?” Delilah asked.
“The ones who get there first, unfortunately,” Annabelle said. “So they’ve set it all up in advance. But they can’t rig the show. Depending on your roles, you’ll probably be at a slight disadvantage, but it won’t be too lopsided to have any hope.”
“Roles?” Delilah asked.
Sarabelle nodded. “Every show needs at least two groups: Heroes and Villains. Some shows also have a third group, the Fools, who often play for and against both sides.”
“How do we even know what the rules and roles and stuff are?” Alice asked. “This all sounds too complicated, you know?”
“We’re not sure how the change from the Revue Palace to the Drowned Palace will affect things,” Sarabelle said. “But their clues all point towards things at least being similar to how they were in the Revue Palace. The important thing is, they can’t hide the rules from you. Either they’ll have to explain them, or you’ll be able to know instinctively what the rules are and when they change.”
“This also gives you a bit of an advantage,” Annabelle said. “You don’t have to overpower them, you don’t have to win in a fight. You just have to win over the crowd, and be the stars of the show. That, or…”
“Or what?” Isabelle asked.
“We think you might be able to claim victory by restoring the Revue Palace,” Sarabelle said. “It’s a theory with little to support it — or rather, we simply haven’t found anything to support it, but nothing to say it isn’t possible, either. Considering that restoring a Lost Bastion banishes the darkness within, restoring the Drowned Palace to the Revue Palace should have a similar effect.”
“But restoring it will be more complicated than other Lost Bastions,” Maribelle said. “It used to have the same role as the Library of Solitude, and we had to undergo a vicious trial to reclaim our home.”
“And unfortunately, we don’t know the method by which the Revue Palace can be restored,” Sarabelle said. “We’ll do our best to keep searching, as will Selphine — we can still contact you, even in the midst of the revue, so don’t worry about waiting on us.”
“So this… show, revue, whatever you call it,” Alice said, shuffling her feet. “Is it, like… a musical?”
“Yes,” Annabelle said. “A musical performance, telling a story.”
“Well, that makes me a weak link, then,” Alice muttered. She looked up at the questioning gazes directed her way. “I, uh… can’t sing.”
“You’re not alone,” Marcus said. “I’m not much of a dancer.”
“We’ll cover for each other,” Maribelle said. “Belle-Belle and I are skilled at a variety of instruments, and at singing, dancing, and acting. Whenever needed, we’ll pick up the slack for the rest of you.”
“We’re on it!” Isabelle said, grinning.
“It won’t be entirely musical,” Annabelle said. “There are always opportunities for speaking lines, for normal stage movements. The most important thing to remember are the fundamentals of stage performances: project, project, project.”
“Project your voice,” Sarabelle said, “project your body’s movements, and project your facial expressions. Subtlety is not a helpful tool to you here, not unless you’re a virtuoso of the stage.”
“Whatever the revue is, it’ll push us all out of our comfort zones,” Maribelle said. “We’ll need to pour ourselves onto the stage. There’s no hiding our emotions if we want to be stars.”
“Man, we could really use Addie,” Alice said, pursing her lips. “She could transform our clothes into cool stage outfits.”
“We’ll have to make do with what we have,” Marcus said. “Though it’s now the Drowned Palace, if it’s still set up for effective stage performances, they may yet have a backstage, costumes and props that we can use.”
“We won’t get to rest during Intermissions,” Maribelle said. “We’ll need to be searching the place, planning out what to do next, revising our strategy, improving our performances… this will be a long fight. And it won’t be the kind of fight any of us are used to or expected.”
“You said you also found out what’s beyond the Drowned Palace,” Delilah said.
Annabelle nodded. “Our mother is being held on the other side of a pathway only accessible through the Drowned, or Revue, Palace,” she said. “The only name we could find for that place is The Storm.”
“It appears to be some sort of prison,” Sarabelle said.
“But Mother went there willingly,” Maribelle said.
“Apparently,” Sarabelle said. “We won’t know why until you find her.”
“We’ll find her and bring her home,” Isabelle said. “We’re not losing to anybody.”
“That’s the spirit,” Alice said, grinning. “Okay, yeah. Why not? I’ll give this musical stage thing a shot. Maybe I’ll actually be good at it.”
“Is there anything else we should know?” Maribelle asked.
“Everything you’ll need to know beyond the guidelines we could provide will be specific to the revue that awaits you,” Sarabelle said. “So… there’s nothing else we can tell you. You’ll have to improvise, and do your best with what they’ve prepared for you.”
“It’s just Sen and Valgwyn,” Alice said. “We’ve got them way outnumbered now. And I doubt they can sing or dance all that well.”
“Let’s not get cocky,” Maribelle said. “Anna, Sara, we’ll be back as soon as we can, with Mother. If you have anything else for us, don’t hesitate to contact us.”
“We’ll do all we can for you,” Sarabelle said.
“Good luck,” Annabelle said.
The mist vanished, and Isabelle stoppered the vial.
“So,” Alice said, turning towards the door. She looked up at Rabanastre, then held up her fist. The hulking rabbit Summon bumped knuckles with her. “Everyone ready?”
Delilah stepped forward, her Felines each sending her silent declarations. They were prepared for this.
“Teddy’s ready,” Isabelle said, patting the head of the stuffed bear in her backpack. “And so am I.”
“Let’s go,” Marcus said. He opened the door, its mechanical hinges creaking. Through a sheet of light he stepped first, and Delilah followed.
One by one, the entire group stepped out into a vast, dim space. Delilah could tell how huge it was, but the low lighting made it difficult to tell details of any kind. There was some sort of ceiling, dozens of stories above her, and there was space below. She stood on some platform about halfway up the height of the great room. Faint glimmers shone now and then far below, like light reflecting off of water. The scent of mold made her wrinkle her nose. From the distance came a faint echo of dripping water.
“Where’s the light switch?” Alice asked.
A sudden boom sounded, like a breaker being thrown in the distance. Then another, and another. Above, lights flickered, then flared to life, huge industrial caged lights overhead that shed a harsh, white glow.
Their platform was part of a vast network of seating, with rows of theater-style seats to the left and right, before and behind, above and below. They were ragged, faded, torn. Moldy stains could be seen here and there. Far below, the seats continued underwater, several rows completely submerged in calm, placid liquid.
The seats went around in a full circle, surrounding a great stage that was completely curtained from all sides.
Even as the lights above cast their harsh, strong light, some still flickered. There was a faint buzzing, and a mild acrid aroma.
“Are we early or something?” Alice asked, hands on her hips. “Do we get to avoid the show entirely?”
“Only in your dreams,” came the cold, lazy, detached voice of Valgwyn. “Let us raise the curtain and begin the preamble.”
“Totally terrible voice for a theater director,” Isabelle muttered, pouting.
The curtains came up, fluttering and flapping as they tied themselves to metal posts embedded in the high ceiling. Out of the water surged four walkways, each crossing the distance between the seating areas and one side of the massive stage.
On the stage were Sen, and Valgwyn…
But they weren’t the only ones.
Sen stood in the center, dark and imposing, his massive sword planted point-first on the stage floor. Near the edge of the stage closest to Delilah’s group stood Valgwyn.
A dozen feet to Sen’s right was a dark figure, nearly twice as tall as Sen and clothed in darkness itself. Waves of shadowy blackness roiled around him, billowing over his broad, massive shoulders. In one hand he held a giant scythe, its midnight-black blade curving sharply round like a crescent moon, hooking back at its tip like a giant fisherman’s hook.
To Sen’s left, near the edge of the stage farthest back from Delilah’s group, was a more familiar figure to Delilah and Alice.
“Jormungand,” Delilah said, staring at the white-haired figure with the scar running down his face. Darkness coiled around his feet, a silky black mist that seemed ready to explode into something far bigger at a moment’s notice.
“Dullan!” Maribelle cried out, eyes flashing with rage. The figure with the scythe tilted his head slightly in her direction, but said nothing.
“Which one frightened you, Valgwyn?” Jormungand asked.
Valgwyn pointed at Alice. “She absorbed the darkness, then spat it out,” he said. “She isn’t possible.”
“Did she?” Jormungand asked, his dark gaze turning on Alice. After a moment, his eyes widened slightly, and he spoke in a hushed tone. “It can’t be…”
“Can’t be what, scar-faced punk?” Alice asked, taking a step forward, glaring with white eyes at Jormungand. “You got something to say, then come out and say it!”
Jormungand’s lips twitched upward in the smallest of smiles, just for a moment. “Continue, Valgwyn. We mustn’t delay the show any longer.”
“Very well,” Valgwyn said. He bowed lazily. “Ladies and gentlemen, the curtain now rises on a new show, the first and greatest revue in the Drowned Palace. We welcome one and all to ‘The Night’s Revue’ and its first Act: ‘An Ashen Star Rises’!”