[Please read the Instructions before jumping in]
For a second, looking at this dying Lord in front of him, Lucien longs to make himself wake up. Perhaps he can try to draw another deep breath of the airless air and think about how he’s not breathing, which has always woken him up before. If he wakes up before she dies, perhaps she will live. That’s how it works in dreams, right?
But—what if it doesn’t? What if that’s just running away? What if, instead, she’ll die alone out here?
It’s that thought that sends him to his knees, lifting the Moonlit Lord’s upper torso a little, taking that outstretched hand. “I’m here,” he says, and if he’s still panicking, well, he’s been panicking this whole time. “What do you need? I’ll do it, whatever it is.”
Those eight eyes are fixed on him, and normally they glow so brightly that she nearly blinds any actors who look up at her directly, so that she can only look down at the stage with her new moon eye open and safely make eye contact. But now she’s so dim that he can see her otherwise human face here, the nose and mouth and general shape that makes him really register that what Katarin said may be true: that she was once just an actor like him. “G-give,” she rasps out, struggling to breathe. “I need—”
She can’t seem to get more words out, and there is only one thing he has ever known how to give to a Lord, and so he draws on that now. He closes his eyes, trying to focus on the feeling of her hand in his, and thinks of the lines Arcane uses if the scenes are arranged so that he mistakenly kills Revelle instead of Logos. “Oh, sweet Revelle, my revelation, why so quiet?” he begins, his voice shaky with tears. It’s part of the role, but fed right now by his very real fear. “You accused me once of not protecting you as I should. Is this the logical end to that fear? Is this truly how it ends? Does night’s bright eye, the moon, illuminate only your lifeless body?”
He dedicates this scene to the Moonlit Lord, forcing that power into it, letting the words and feelings pour out of his body as he clenches her hand. And when the scene ends, his eyes still clenched tightly closed, he feels her sigh and her hand loosen.
Lucien opens his eyes and he cannot see; she is glowing. He averts his gaze instead to the ground, sees silver light pouring into that cracked earth, and does not know if this is her power overflowing with renewed strength or if it is her lifeblood leaving her. He cannot imagine either helping, really, her power feeding it or her lifeblood spilling. Either way, this world is so empty, so dry—he can only believe that it will surely suck away whatever power is put to it, and he thinks about that, and his chest seizes at the thought. He himself is being sucked away into this ground where he cannot live and cannot die and cannot live and cannot die—
He wakes in a tangle of limbs and blankets, and he sloughs all of them off and stumbles over to the window, throwing it open and staring out at the moon. Is it paler than usual? Brighter? He can’t tell, not with the clouds roaming in front of it, and he feels a little absurd that this is his first impulse. The Moonlit Lord is not the moon itself; it’s just part of her portfolio, the things that power her, the magics and meanings associated with it.
“Lucien? What in the hells—” Shuni is sitting up, rubbing his face. “What happened?”
“The dream…” Lucien turns from the window, coming back over shakily. When he sits on the bed it feels less deliberate and more as if his legs wouldn’t hold him. “I went running in that world and found the Moonlit Lord. She was dying.”
Shuni sits up too, twisting around so his back is to the wall, the blankets piled in his lap. “I didn’t see that,” he says. “But I didn’t go anywhere. I just sort of sat down and dug in the dirt. I think I was looking for something? But of course there was nothing there. Nothing can thrive in that ground.” He shakes his head. “…So what did you do?”
It sort of hurts to remember. “I tried to give her the power to keep going,” Lucien says. “A dedication—I recited the scene where…” It’s foggy in his mind. What was the scene? “You know, if Arcane kills Revelle…” He can’t remember the lines.
“Yeah, that scene,” Shuni says. “Did it help?”
“I don’t know,” Lucien says, letting go of the effort of remembering. “I guess I’ll have to find out later. From one of the other Lords, or… if she shows up again.”
Shuni lets out a breath, seeming a bit overwhelmed. “So these dreams, they’re not just happening? They can… actually kill? I mean, I’ve died in those dreams repeatedly, but I haven’t really died.”
“You’re not a Lord,” Lucien says. He hesitates only briefly over what to tell Shuni about this. But… anyone at the theater could have taken Shuni’s heart, and that makes everyone else there inherently untrustworthy, even Katarin. He can’t trust her, or any of the rest of the cast or crew. Not even the director, who he’d normally go to with concerns about a show.
But, at this point, he’s made a promise to help Shuni; they’re in this together. “Listen, Katarin came to talk to me yesterday, after the show. It’s about the dreams.”
He tells Shuni everything, and Shuni sits there listening with an incredulous expression that melts into a frowning curiosity. When he gets to the end of it—the dreams, the prophecy, the potentials marked for change, the mysterious person who may have triggered it—Lucien asks Shuni, “Did she talk to you about any of this, or just me?”
“She hasn’t,” Shuni says. “I mean, it sounds like she got to you first because she thought you were me. …She really thinks I started this? I haven’t, by the way.”
“Sounds like she thinks it had to be one of us and doesn’t think it’s me.” Lucien doesn’t mention the mildly insulting reason why.
Shuni lets out a breath, tilting his head back against the wall with a clunk. “Well, it’s not me, and it sure sounds like it’s not you. So it’s either her, and she decided to turn us against each other in case we figured something out, or it’s another person that she hasn’t figured out as related. Marked with change, huh… so anyone with a tie to the concept of change could finish this ritual? Become exalted?”
Lucien nods, but the gesture slowly turns into a helpless shrug. “Theoretically. I only know what she said, which sounds like it’s only the one who started the ritual who would cause that ruination we keep seeing, but… she also admitted she didn’t have the wording entirely written down in her old notes. And of course, anything we know about that also relies on her having told us the truth.”
“So we essentially know nothing. Great.” Shuni’s expression is sour. “Well, I feel like it’d be too coincidental for whoever stole my heart to not be involved in this, since I was obviously given the casting call by the thief. Someone wanted me here, and if I’m one of the people marked by change, I guess there’s a reason.”
Flopping against Shuni, Lucien says softly, “So we find the culprit, we find your heart? Or vice versa. Finding your heart might be easier, and a way to figure out who started the ritual.”
“I wish it has been easy,” Shuni mutters sourly.
“Did you have help taking it out?” Lucien asks. “Where did you get the pendant?”
“Made a sacrifice to Lord the Endless,” Shuni says. “A big one, asking for a favor. The rib-opener was left for me under my pillow the next day, and I knew how to use it. You think I should try to talk to Lord the Endless to see if they can track it somehow?”
“It’s worth a try, if they show up at the play. Or maybe you can find another way to get their attention,” Lucien says. Then, “Fuck, the play. We have to get going.”
Shuni checks the clock. “We have a little time, if you have any plan for today’s performance, or anything you think we should do at the theatre…?”
[Please leave suggestions for Lucien in the comments.]