Delilah returned to the backstage area, running for the door, but at the doorway she saw Alice and Isabelle.
“We were wondering where you ran off to,” Alice said, eyeing Delilah strangely. “Act Two’s already started.”
“Marcus and Mari are holding the fort for us,” Isabelle said with a smile.
“It’s holding down the fort,” Alice said.
“Why?” Isabelle asked. “That doesn’t make sense. How do you hold an entire fort down? Even your Rabanastre isn’t strong enough to do that.”
“It’s just how the phrase goes,” Alice said, narrowing her eyes slightly. “What the heck does just ‘holding’ the fort mean, anyway?”
“It means…!” Isabelle said, somehow extremely excited. “It means keeping everything together!”
Alice raised her eyebrows. “Huh. That actually makes sense.”
“Right?” Isabelle asked, looking very proud of herself.
“Um, so…” Delilah said, peeking past the girls at the doorway. “What’s going on out there? What are we still doing back in here?”
“Apparently Act One was left open to let everyone understand how it all works,” Alice said. “Now that we’ve been through one Act, whoever’s not part of the active scene can hang out backstage like in a normal play.” She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “But we’ve set up lots of stuff here, close to the door for easy access. Might be worth seeing if there’s a prop or set to your liking.”
That was when Delilah noticed that numerous racks of clothes and props, along with various pieces of set elements for staging. Along with that, while Alice was still dressed as usual, Isabelle had changed out of her white-and-blue pleated dress into a fluffy pink winter dress under a red, fur-lined coat. She still wore her backpack, with Teddy’s head sticking out of the top, and she still went barefoot, as always.
“Is our current scene in winter?” Delilah asked.
Isabelle spun in a circle to show off her costume. “Nope!” she said. “But it’s all rainy and gloomy, so I thought it probably gets really cold. I thought Alice should change too — her clothes are still all wet! — but she’s no fun.”
Alice shrugged. “I don’t get cold,” she said. She squeezed the edge of her sleeve tightly, and a few drops of water dripped to the floor. “Besides, they’re dry enough at this point. And I’ll probably get rained on some more, considering the scenario.”
“Well anyway,” Isabelle said, rolling her eyes in a hilariously exaggerated manner. “Whenever you’re ready, Delilah, we should really go out there. Technically the scene right now is Maribelle and Marcus waiting for us, while having a strategy session.”
“Ah!” Delilah said, quickly pulling herself together.
It’s time to take on the stage again.
We need to do well. We need to succeed to the best of our ability in Act Two. For now, I need to not worry about Etude and Nocturne — I’ll go back to them in the next Intermission and finish things there. I already have a good idea of what needs to be done — I think.
Is there anything here I can use? Or am I good going on stage just like this?
This is fine. Maybe between scenes later I can think about changing, but for now…
“Let’s go,” Delilah said. But as she started towards the open door, she spotted among the props a silver pocket watch on a long chain. She snatched it, clutched it tight, and then tucked it in her pocket.
Out on the stage, Maribelle and Marcus were lit by spotlights, while the ambient lights around helped illuminate their set, a ramshackle sort of cottage with a fireplace in the far wall, smoldering with orange coals.
“We’ve escaped for now,” Maribelle said, her voice carrying easily, that “stage voice” of hers immediately putting Delilah in the zone for the stage. “But we can’t just run. Sen’s forces threaten to devour all in darkness, and we’re all that stand against them. And yet…”
“And yet we’re sorely outmatched,” Marcus said with a nod, his mouth set in a grim line. “And with our leaders so young, and so overwhelmed…”
“Who said we’re overwhelmed?” Delilah asked, stepping boldly into the set, a spotlight snapping to life above her. “We’ve faced defeat, and all of this is coming fast after so much tragedy. But we aren’t overwhelmed.” She took a deep breath, fixed her face in a determined stare, and breathed out. “Marcus, Maribelle, report if you please. I need to know where we stand, so we can properly prepare a counterattack. I won’t allow Sen to throw us into a corner.”
Maribelle beamed with pride, and Marcus’ grim countenance turned into a smile. “Well then, My Lady,” Marcus said, “let us display to you the way things are.”
Maribelle nodded to the slightly “off-stage” Isabelle, who raised her hand. Light blossomed from her palm, splashed onto the ground, and transformed into a beautiful white grand piano. Taking her seat, Isabelle began to play, and before Delilah realized it she was swept up in a song.
Marcus and Maribelle sang together, moving all through the set, using props and dramatic movements, as well as the lyrics, to give their situation report to Delilah. All the while, Delilah got to just take it all in, doing her best to remain in character — nodding thoughtfully, giving analytical stares to maps handed to her, that sort of thing. The song was a bouncy, almost jovial tune, and Marcus and Maribelle had a playful sort of banter to their duet, bouncing off of each other and finishing each other’s stanzas in humorous, engaging ways, his soothing tenor harmonizing beautifully with Maribelle’s energetic alto.
In the end, what remained of their forces was the smallest force — just the five principal characters. Delilah, Alice, Isabelle, Maribelle, and Marcus stood alone against Sen, Dullan, Jormungand, Valgwyn, and all their armies.
And yet there was hope. That was what Delilah came away with.
“Hope remains,” she said, smiling, as the final note faded away and Isabelle turned the piano back into light, joining her along with Alice.
“So they often say,” came a slow, bored drawl. Delilah, Alice, Isabelle, Maribelle, and Marcus all wheeled around, as a spotlight snapped on, its light illuminating…
“Valgwyn,” Delilah said, staring at the pale, tired-looking Son of Night.
“You’ve already found us?” Maribelle asked, raising her hands, her palms gleaming with white light.
“Please,” Valgwyn said, raising both hands innocently. His bow and quiver of arrows were nowhere to be seen. “I have not come to fight.”
“Then, pray tell, why have you come?” Marcus asked.
“Traitor,” Alice added under her breath.
“I did betray you,” Valgwyn said. “I know how that stung. But I… I know if I say I regret my choice, you will not believe me.”
“Certainly not,” Maribelle said venomously.
From the shadowed space around the perimeter of the stage came faint music, the solemn plucking of a single harp. “I merely… came to warn you,” Valgwyn said. “You left more of a trail than you thought. They’ll be here soon.”
“Why tell us, assuming you’re even telling the truth?” Alice asked, placing a hand on her hip. “You were pretty active about chasing us out of our home back there, you know?”
“I’m… a coward,” Valgwyn said. “But even a coward can do something right on occasion. Please. You won’t have much time, but the advantage you have is that the armies aren’t coming. In order to mask their presence, you only have the three to contend with.”
“Acting like you’re actually gonna just stay out of it, huh?” Alice asked.
“I am,” Valgwyn said, bowing his head. “My part in this fight is over. I can’t… continue to live this lie.”
“We’ll still —” Maribelle started.
“Go,” Delilah said, offering a smile.
I know this isn’t who he really is, and he’s just playing a character…
But this is how I’d want to treat that kind of character. And… I want to believe that our foes are more than mere monsters.
At Valgwyn’s shocked expression, Delilah continued, “Leave the fight. Go live your life somewhere. We can’t trust you, but you don’t want to fight anymore. So leave it all behind.”
“I…” Valgwyn started, staring. “Thank you.” He bowed his head again and then turned, striding from the scene, the spotlight leaving him to vanish into the shadows of the stage.
“I am not sure that was wise,” Maribelle said.
“It’ll be all right,” Delilah said. “We need to prepare for the three that come for us now.”
“Sen is mine,” Alice said, flicking her wrist, her scissors appearing in her hand.
“None of us should fight any of them alone,” Delilah said. “No matter how we feel or what we desire, what’s important is that we win. And if we’re forced by circumstance or otherwise to fight one of them alone, none of us should face Sen alone. If we need to split our forces and leave someone alone, that someone should never be matched against Sen. He’s our most dangerous opponent. No one fights him on their own.” She gave Alice a meaningful look.
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Alice said with a sigh.
“If any of us is left alone with one of them,” Maribelle said, “leave me with Dullan.”
“Can we stop talking about feuds and rivalries and stuff?” Isabelle asked. “Let’s just work together and save the day!”
“That’s what I’d like, too,” Delilah said, smiling.
“Then, shall the five of us go out to meet our terrible foes?” Marcus asked.
Delilah nodded. “We shall,” she said.
The lights went dark, and the sets went into motion, rolling and sliding, lowered into trap doors or sent backstage through other doors by the stage’s perimeter. New props and scenery came to take their place in the shadows.
“It all seems like we’re accelerating way too quickly,” Isabelle said softly. “Shouldn’t the final battle come in the third Act?”
“Which means they have some scheme in mind,” Maribelle said. “Keep your guard up. Be ready for anything.”
“And watch out for each other,” Delilah said. “We’re all in this together.”
The movement of scenery stopped, and for a moment all was silent. Faint lights slowly faded into existence, shedding only the slightest illumination to the shadowed scene. Valgwyn spoke in his narrator voice, “The five went out to meet the three, unwilling to hide and wait for the end. A great battle approached… but would this really be the end either party sought?”
The lights grew stronger, properly illuminating the scene with the bluish tint of nightfall, finding Delilah and her team in a rustic village, with low buildings and easy access to rooftops. A pond was in the center of the village, filled with clear, still water.
All was quiet.
“Here they come,” Maribelle said softly.
Delilah’s Felines readied their weapons. Rabanastre put up his fists, and Alice twirled her scissors. Isabelle pulled Teddy from her backpack and tossed him in the air, where he transformed into the giant, animated teddy bear from before, and he picked up Isabelle and placed the girl lightly on his shoulder. Marcus tapped his staff on the ground, the ring-shaped bells chiming lightly.
A blur of darkness. That was all the warning they got for Sen’s arrival. Maribelle managed to divert him from his path with a blast of light from her hands, and Rabanastre and Felix together blocked a sword slash. Sen dashed away, leaping atop the highest roof in the village, planting his sword in the tiles between his feet.
“Let the battle begin,” he said in that imposing baritone of his.
Music swelled to life. Dullan and Jormungand appeared at Sen’s side.
Under the lights of the stage, accompanied by bombastic battle music, five heroes and three villains charged at each other.