iv - Ghostly Illusions
✬ Weeks 1-2 - Summer: The Aftermath and the Dream
Lyla was now absolutely certain she was not crazy, despite everything around her telling her she must be.
The ticket booth where there was most certainly an alive person manning it just last night, and all the days prior, was now empty and very clearly disused, familiar vandalised drawings on the side of the thing. The Theatre was back in its ruined, blackened glory — abandoned with a padlock blocking off access to outsiders. Not that anyone would want to go into place where a mysterious fire took place.
Standing in front of the great burnt-down building, she had thought she was crazy the first time the Theatre returned, alive and well, and now here she was, testing her sanity yet again. And with the way people on the streets did not even bat an eyelash, she knew better than to try and see if they saw what she saw. It was a given by now that they didn’t.
Spinning on her heel, Lyla went about her day, visiting the markets and picking up groceries for her home. She may be doing normal chores but what she was really after were the whispers in the wind, listening to the people around her just to make absolutely certain she wasn’t alone in experiencing the return and disappearance of the Theatre. It was just as she’d thought; not a single peep made its way to her ears, nothing about the Theatre or Aeternalis.
The only proof she had that it was not a hallucination was the flower mark on her arm and the dress she’d woken up in. Even the leaf she’d taken from the Theatre had vanished. If the blackened ruins was not an illusion, did that mean the entirety of what happened in the past week was?
Back at home, Lyla combed her fingers through her hair, the motion keeping her grounded. She did the right thing by taking leave off from the boutique for a few weeks. She’d put in the request almost immediately after receiving the letter and was grateful for the time she would have to try and figure out what was happening. Time was a fickle thing, and she did not think she’d be able to focus on her work properly until she could have some of her questions answered.
At first, during the first week after the “Aeternalis” show, nothing out of the ordinary happened. She didn’t reach out to anyone nor was she reached out to. They all needed to gather themselves, she supposed. But the quiet, almost peaceful time came to an end when the second week rolled around, bringing along with it a reminder of Risskov and a new discovery of the flower mark.
It had now turned into a tiny flowering bud.
Lyla didn’t have to pinch herself to know she was dreaming.
Staring at the waif-like figure standing before her, backlit by a burning Risskov Theatre, her eyebrows furrowed together.
The figure lifted a hand up, as though about to reach for her. “You have it, don’t you?’ they ask, their voice quiet, plaintive. “They’re fixing what they started.”
It was a wonder she could hear them so clearly over the roar of the fire —except she realized that the noise of the burning building was but a dull commotion in the background, not loud enough to interrupt the conversation.
Lyla blinked, confused as she recalled their earlier question. “Have what?”
They grabbed her wist without any preamble, their touch cold, barely there. Lyla’s eyes dropped down to their hand as they did so, noticing a black tattoo, almost like a lace glove, black bands encircling their wrist.
“Your mark,” they murmured, tracing their fingers over the flower mark on her wrist, and for a moment, Lyla watched as her hand went translucent, almost ghost-like. Before she could process what just happened, the figure dropped their hold on her, and she became solid again. She lifted up her hand, staring at it, relieved that she could no longer see through it.
“What do you—” Her sentence died on her tongue as she noticed the figure seemed to be gazing at her mark . She couldn’t see their features, but it almost felt like they were frowning.
“They got it wrong,” the figure said. “You have six months.”
What did they mean? Who got what wrong? Six months for what?
They breathed out another sentence, soft, quiet. “Before they bind you to the Theatre. Before everyone’s bound to it. For good.”
“What do you—”
A scream cut through the air, startling her and the figure into jumping back, away from each other. Lyla whipped her head around, trying to locate the source of the scream. It sounded almost… triumphant. She turned back to the figure, opening her mouth to ask—
But they stopped her, bringing a finger up to what she presumed was their lips, indicating for her to be silent. She closed her mouth, watching them, waiting for something to happen. They turned their head, casting a glance behind them as though watching out for something - or someone.
“Gotta run,” they murmured, and Lyla could now definitely see a flicker of a smile on their face. Before she could reach for them, to ask something, anything, there was a howl of wind, a thunderclap, and then —
Jolting awake and filled with even more questions than when she fell asleep, Lyla let out a shaky breath, running a hand through hair that was now damp with sweat. Gods, what kind of dream was that?
Glancing down at her budding mark, Lyla ran her fingers over it. At least she got one answer from that weird dream — the flower was definitely a mark, and apparently, it was a countdown to their impending doom.
v - Spirited Dreams
✬ Week 2 - Summer: After the Dream
“Andrei,” Lyla greeted, more than happy to see her friend. He was somewhat of a warm comfort to her, his light-hearted, bright nature always bringing out the more relaxed side of her. Or, well, the more protective side.
Andrei smiled widely as he walked up, already opening up his arms to hug her. She returned the embrace, pulling away with an affectionate pat on his arm. Around them, children chatted loudly as they were picked up by their parents or siblings. She and Andrei waved at the kids as they walked off, and it was only as the last child left the field that she turned to focus on her friend.
“You seem to be in a good mood,” she observed, leaning her hip against the railing, watching as he sat down on a bleacher, stretching out his legs. She glanced at his wrist, seeing the exact same flower mark on his wrist, identical to the one she had. However, unlike her, Andrei didn’t seem to be much bothered by it. He was rarely bothered by much anyway.
He grinned up at her, looking so adorably similar to a golden retriever puppy that she almost wanted to reach out and pat his head. She had great self-restraint however, and managed to not do just that.
“Got great news today. Remember how I said that some of the kids needed a new kit?”
Lyla nodded, recalling the conversation from a while ago. “Yeah, Sarah, Josie and Nathan, right?”
“Yes. Well, they’re being sponsored, so the new equipment will be coming in in a few days,” he said enthusiastically, eyes bright with excitement. Lyla couldn’t help but mirror his happiness, feeling her own smile stretch across her face.
“That’s so great, I’m thrilled for them! When did the sponsorship come in?”
Andrei let out a happy sigh, leaning back against the seat. “Early this morning. You should have seen Jason’s face — it was priceless.”
“Oh please, Jason’s always looking shocked at everything,” Lyla laughed, shaking her head. “You could catch a ball in front of him and he’d look absolutely speechless.”
Andrei chuckled, stretching out one more time before getting to his feet. “Oh, by the way, Ta—”
“Hey, there you are.”
“What the—” Lyla’s heart almost leaped out of her chest as Tajun appeared by the bleachers behind her, his expression perfectly neutral. It was the sparkle in his eyes that made Lyla point an accusatory finger at him, her other hand clutching at her chest as she tried to calm her hammering heart.
“Gods, don’t sneak up on me like that! Haven’t you fixed that bad habit of yours?”
“I walked in, no sneaking here,” he said, giving her an innocent blink of his eyes, a look that she definitely did not buy. If Andrei was a golden retriever, Tajun was a cat, as elegant and mischievous as one.
“There was an entrance right there,” she complained, pointing to the one across her. “You did this on purpose, going all the way around to get the back entrance.”
“I assure you, I did no such thing,” he said, moving smoothly over to where Andrei was, and clapping him on the shoulder. “Just heard from Jason that you got a sponsor for your kids. Happy for you.”
“Thank you,” Andrei beamed. “Let me go grab my things and then we can head out.”
Lyla could almost swear he had a bounce in his step as he left. She watched him walk away, all too aware of the presence she was now in. Only once Andrei was out of view did she finally turn to face Tajun. He was already looking at her, sitting on the bleachers and somehow managing to make even that look effortlessly cool. She felt almost disgusted by that. How did he do it? Did he take lessons for it?
“You’re giving me a dirty look,” he said, sounding very amused. “I haven’t done anything yet.”
“Why is there a ‘yet’ in your sentence?” she asked, once again leaning her hip against the railing and crossing her arms over her chest so that she didn’t do something stupid like reach out and brush away that goddamn strand of hair in his face. A memory of her doing just that as he hovered over her flashed through her mind, causing her to immediately drop his gaze and look down instead, at his hands. His lovely hands with their long and elegant fingers, yet rough to the touch. Those hands that had been all over her bod—
Her eyes narrowed onto his wrist. “You’ve got one too, hm?”
Tajun’s eyes dropped down to where his own mark sat on his skin, just barely peeking through the long-sleeved shirt he wore. He grinned up at her. “Nothing misses your sharp eyes, huh? Bet you’d notice lipstick stains on my—”
Lyla rolled her eyes, not liking the idea of lipstick stains on him. Well, lipstick stains that weren’t hers. She held out her hand, palm up. “Wrist, please.”
As though it was automatic, Tajun gave her his wrist without hesitation, his lips still curved up in a playful smirk. She leaned in, getting a good look at his mark. Yep, it was exactly like hers and Andrei’s, in the same small budding form. And if she were to guess, Kelsahn probably had one too. She brushed her thumb over Tajun’s mark, back and forth, once again wondering how that mark got formed. What kind of magic was in play here?
“You have one too?”
Lyla nodded, still staring at Tajun’s flower mark. “We all probably have one.” There was a very probable chance that everyone who was invited to the Aeternalis event also got one. Were they brought there specifically to get marked? If so, why? To bind them to the Theatre like the dream said?
“Can I see yours?”
Absently, she gave him her wrist to look at. “There’s something really weird happening and I—”
Lyla blinked as she looked up and almost head-butted Tajun’s expensive looking button-up shirt. The shirt that was covering his chest.
She didn’t realize he’d gotten up and was now standing directly in front of her, holding her wrist so gently in his hand, pressing lightly against the mark with his thumb. He was looking at her wrist, focused on the flower but Lyla’s attention was now focusing on the fact that he was close enough for her to smell him. Her heart took off and she immediately dropped his wrist, embarrassed.
“What are you doing?” she muttered, her fingers twitching with an urge to push him away, or maybe pull him in. Gods, he smelled so good. Okay, she was gonna push him.
His eyes flickered to her, unfathomable but still somehow warm. “I’m just looking at your mark.”
Her hand landed on his arm and she gave him a light pat. “You’re invading my space. Don’t make me poke you.”
His eyes brightened with mirth as he leaned an inch closer. “You wouldn’t. You don’t have your needles on you.”
“Mhm, come closer and we’ll see if I have them on me or not.” She tipped her head back, jutting out her chin slightly. “You know better than to invade my space, Tajun.”
His eyes darkened slightly, his smile widening almost flirtatiously as he cocked his head to the side. Lyla stared, unsure how to handle the full force of Tajun when she was so unprepared to be around him. Her breath caught.
“I’ve invaded mor—” he stopped, dropping his gaze suddenly as though remembering himself. With a last brush of his thumb across her wrist, he stepped away with a long sigh. “Fine, I don’t want to experience acupuncture by your hands.”
She swallowed, grateful he turned away.
“Why not? It could be a thrilling experience for you,” she managed, clearing her throat and pretending she was about to spontaneously combust just then. “I thought you liked to chase thrills.”
“Ah, any experience with your needles will be thrilling,” Tajun agreed. “But I’d rather not become paralysed. I still have so much to do, so many more screams to hear.”
“Of the audience I presume.”
He nodded, deadpanned. “Of course, what else could they be?”
She rolled her eyes as a snicker escaped her, glancing at the exit as Andrei’s footsteps sounded. “Whatever you say.”
Andrei appeared, his things in hand. He nodded to Lyla. “Shall we go?”
Tajun tilted his head. “Where are we going?”
“Um,” Lyla cleared her throat, chancing a glance at him. “My place. For coffee.”
Tajun just looked at her as they made for the exit, Andrei rummaging in his bag, oblivious to the situation around him.
“I’d like for you to come,” she murmured to Tajun. His lips twitched.
“Isn’t that invading your space?”
Lyla sighed, resisting the urge to roll her eyes yet again. “You know that’s absolutely not the same thing.”
“Are you sure? Because—”
“Tajun, don’t make me stab you.”
As Lyla had suspected, both Tajun and Andrei had the same dream of the waif-like figure. But while Lyla was more concerned about what the dream could possibly mean, Andrei was quite the opposite. He had been more relaxed about it, only admitting that he did find the dream a little odd but, well, he’d never really put a lot of stock in dreams or visions.
“Yeah, because he’d probably wait for me or Kialmirn to tell him if something was wrong,” Tajun interjected with a laugh. Andrei shrugged, not the least bothered by that statement.
“Well, I think there’s something wrong and that the dream was weird,” Lyla said, bringing up her legs and sitting cross legged at her little round table where her seamstress bunny was sitting. Tajun had been glancing at the toy since she’d served them coffee and now that they were done with their drinks, his self-restraint must have broken because he reached out to grab the bunny, looking wholly satisfied as he smiled down at the toy.
“Bunny Lyla,” he said, impressed. “Sanny?”
“Yep.” She didn’t want to tell him what the toy did but he’d quickly figured it out, eyes widening in delight as the bunny hopped about, threatening the air with her needle. Lyla sighed, rubbing the back of her neck, where she was sure all the stress had gathered. “Doesn’t the dream bother either of you?”
“Oh no, I am very spooked,” Tajun said, nodding, not taking his eyes off the bunny. “I fear I may never close my eyes again.” Although he was obviously playing it off, Lyla could see the tightness in his eyes, like he wasn’t sure himself about how to go about the dream.
She let out a long-suffering sigh, deciding that it might be better not to push him. “Are you ever serious?”
He feigned offence at her statement. “Of course I am. Just not around you.”
Lyla stared at him, making a show of slowly reaching into her pocket to pull out a cute little tin can and popping it open in front of him, showing him the rows of various sized needles. She’d grabbed it once she got home, waiting for this very moment. “How would you like to be my guinea pig? I’ve always wanted to tie a man down—”
“Well, that does sound promising—”
“—and stab him with my needles,” she finished, pulling out her biggest needle. “Won’t you let me tie you up, Jun?”
He was grinning as she spoke but at the mention of his nickname, his smile froze for a moment, eyebrows raised. He licked his lips, leaning back in his chair, lifting his hands up in surrender. “Normally, we would go on a date first before I let myself get tied up.”
She scoffed, putting away her needle. “But you’re so pretty, won’t you just let me skip the date part and go right to the action?”
“You think I’m pretty?”
“Is there anyone who doesn’t?”
“No, but it’s nice to hear it, anyway.”
Lyla shook her head at him, eyes flickering over to where Andrei sat, fiddling with his empty mug, seemingly lost in thought. “Andrei? What’s up?”
His brows furrowed together briefly before he offered her a smile, albeit a little forced. “Nothing… really. Just thinking about the dream.”
“What is it?”
He hesitated for a few moments, twirling the mug slightly. “There… was something familiar about both the speaker and the… well, the triumphant scream. I just — I don’t know why.”
Lyla’s lips pursed in thought. “Could it be someone you know?”
“Or even someone we all know,” Tajun added, lazily fiddling with the bunny’s enchantment to get her hopping around again.
Andrei shrugged helplessly. “Could be? I just can’t tell what it is…”
“Andrei, I wanted to ask you something.”
The man paused in slinging on his bag, turning towards her with a smile. “Sure, what is it?”
Tajun had already left for the evening, and Andrei was on his way out, too. She figured there was no better time to ask him a question that had been weighing on her mind.
“The night of Aeternalis…” she started, quietly, hesitantly. “Who were you talking to — back then, on the roof?”
Andrei stared at her, mouth gaping open. “I… ah, no-one.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, watching as his eyes darted away nervously and he fiddled with his bag, forcing out a laugh.
“Are you suspicious of me? Ha… ha, ha. No one. Really.”
Lyla tried not to smile, Andrei really was always easy to crack under her accusatory glare. She crossed her arm, letting out a disappointed sigh and leaning against the door frame. Andrei’s eyes widened slightly and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Oh, Andrei,” she said with a sigh. “I thought we were close. You know you can’t fool me so why bother trying?”
“I’m… not trying to… fool you,” he muttered weakly. Lyla chuckled, reaching out to lightly punch his shoulder.
“I’m just messing with you, angel.” She cleared her throat, looking down at her feet for a moment to try and gather her thoughts. “But I do know you were talking to someone on the roof.” She looked up at him. “Was it Vivi?”
He was silent for a long moment, mouth opening and closing like he wasn’t sure what to say. Finally, he dipped his chin in an affirmative nod. “Yes, but before you ask, I don’t where or how she managed to appear in the Theatre.”
“Wow… how did that happen? Especially with everything that’s going on?” Lyla murmured, straightening up and crossing her arms over her chest.
“As far as I know,” Andrei said with a frown, “ and with what she told me, she didn’t get an invitation, somehow seemed to just appear.”
Lyla rubbed her forehead tiredly. “Gods, what on earth is happening around here?”
vi - Blurred Phantoms
✬ Week 3 - Summer: Summer Solstice Festival
The Borough of the Enlightened was the best place to go in search of information —or atleast that was what Lyla believed. And what place better to dig for information than the Library of Perandir?
With the Summer Solstice Festival coming up, the people of Khoyesa were out in the streets, filled with excitement and running about preparing for the event. The excitement in the air was almost infectious, but Lyla didn’t care much for it, and really, she could only blame the fake Aeternalis event for dampening her spirits. She was glad the library was quieter than she’d expected, it made concentrating all that much easier for her.
Browsing through the old newspaper reports, she searched for the reports from five years ago, before the fire. Anything pertaining to the Circus of Marvels, she grabbed a hold of, eager to see if there was anything that could help her figure out what was happening. Once she collected everything, she moved to sit over in a secluded spot, not that it was necessary seeing how the archival newspaper room was all but empty. Oh well.
She went through report after report, skimming through the news of the Circus and reading through the extensive and very gossipy coverage of the feud between Venezia and Rochelle, rumoured star-crossed lovers of Olledi and Ronan. The feud between Venezia and Rochelle was not news to her, but reading it again spiked her interest. There were also awful columns about the two, accusing them of all sorts of awful things.
Lyla’s brows furrowed together, her lips pursing in distaste as she read reporters accusing Rochelle of sleeping her way into the Circus, and of Venezia using enchantment magic to achieve success. There was no telling how true these accusations were, and she couldn’t exactly go and ask them, considering they were dead—
Lyla paused, looking up from the reports briefly. She had definitely seen them that night, and they had seemed perfectly alive. But again, she suspected illusion or magic was at play then… hmm, she’d have to dig further because if her memory served correctly, there had been coverage of the casualties on the day of the fire. An impish face flashed across her memory, making her hesitate for a moment. That’s right, she had to confirm another person’s death… or not death, too.
Going back to the task at hand, she continued to read through the news. Amongst the gossip columns were blurry photographs of what was allegedly Olledi and Ronan meeting in some weird back alley, and some other photos of Olledi dropping off something.
Lyla stared at the photographs.
“What are you two doing there?” she whispered to the blurry photograph. “Doesn’t seem suspicious at all.”
She lifted up the photo of Olledi dropping off something, pointing an accusatory finger at the photo. “And you? What’s that you’re carrying? Come now, don’t be shy.”
When the photographs remained stubbornly silent, she pushed them aside, pulling forward a different news paper where she finally found what she had been looking for — news of the fire. Glancing at the large, decidedly dusty clock hanging on the wall, Lyla almost couldn’t believe it had taken her a little over an hour to get through all the gossip just to reach news of the fire. But as she read through the reputable, extensive report, she straightened up, intrigued by the paper.
How had this not caught her attention before?
The report went that on the night of the dress rehearsal for the Aeternalis show, the Theatre had burnt to ground, claiming the lives of Venezia, Rochelle, Ronan, Olledi and Anette. There was no other reported death, which had to mean that Kelsahn’s impish helper, Vivi, must have survived somehow. But that was not all that got her attention.
According to the report, investigators discovered that the fire started on the stage before spreading to the rest of the theatre. But what was interesting was that the fire seemed to spread from the stage itself, seemingly climbing up the pillars. According to witnesses, it had spread on thin, wire-like lines and then gathered in the ceiling, causing the roof to collapse.
Lyla read through the article once, twice, three more times.
The stage was not ravaged by fire, but rather, that the fire spread out from the stage itself? And that it spread to the pillars and then on thin-wire like lines, lead to the ceiling, causing the roof collapse.
Well, she’d already wanted to check if Vivi was still around, but now this just gave her more reason to pay a visit to the ruined building.
The door swung open to reveal Kelsahn in all his glory — well, all his slightly unkempt glory.
Lyla shook her head at him as he waved her in. “I thought this might happen so I brought you some happiness — food and coffee.” She lifted up the bags in question.
Kelsahn rubbed his chin, absently gazing at the bags. “I think…” Whatever he thought died on his lips as he trailed off with a sigh.
“You think what, Sanny?” she asked gently, placing the bags on the table and letting her sleeves ride up as she unpacked so that he’d get a nice good look at her budding flower mark. Kelsahn’s eyes widened as he lurched forward, staring down at the mark.
“I’m not crazy, after all.”
“You are,” she said, handing him the still warm mug, flicking off the enchantment so that he had access to the drink. “But you’ve not totally lost your marbles yet, Sanny. It happened.”
“The Aeternalis happened.”
“It was whole, and now it’s a big burnt ruin all over again,” she confirmed, taking out the food she’d made especially for him. She had long ago gotten into the habit of making a little extra food and bringing it to her work room back at the Theatre because like Lyla, Kelsahn had a habit of staying late nights. But unlike Lyla, he didn’t have much habit of feeding himself when he got too absorbed in his work. There wasn’t much she could make, and she wasn’t that great a cook but well, it fed people. Including the ones who ran errands for her, and the ones who came to bother her for no reason.
“Hm.” He sat at the table with his coffee, his eyes wandering, distant. Lyla observed him, hoping he was alright. She knew he had spent time with Ganz, mourning the death of Anette, so seeing her again must have been quite shock. Lyla reached over and squeezed his hand, trying to express what she couldn’t seem to find in words.
That brought him back and he looked down at her hand, offering it a pat before withdrawing his hand to lift the coffee to his lips. Her eyes fell on his mark.
“Andrei and Tajun have these ones on them too,” Lyla murmured, resting her chin in the palm of her hands. “I’m guessing we were all lured there just to get marked. And then that dream… what was it that went wrong? And just who was it behind all this?”
Kelsahn took another sip, a longer one this time, before putting his cup down to trace the flower pattern on his wrist. “There’s the faintest pin prick of magic.” He winced, pulling his finger away. “It feels like static skipping up my finger.”
“I’m glad I can’t feel that,” she murmured. A light suddenly entered his eyes as he contemplated his finger.
“Hm. There’s a theory I would like to test…” his sentence trailed off as he slipped back into his thoughts. She decided not to interrupt that, content to just sit in silence and stew in her own thoughts. Lyla waited for him to finished eating before she decided to fill him in on her discovery at the Library.
“Spreading up thin vertical lines?” Kelsahn repeated, startled, eyes wide. “The Pillars, too?”
Lyla nodded. “Do you know anything about that? You did say you worked on enchantments in the sets.”
He frowned, tilting his head to the side in thought. “I did —supposedly.”
“No, I did,” he muttered, nodding to himself. “As far as I know, the enchantments were only in my sets, but the pillars along the stadium were untouched.” He paused before nodding again, frowning at her. “Yes, completely untouched.”
“Hm, that’s really strange.” Lyla leaned back in her seat, drumming her fingers against the tabletop.
“Yes, that… is.” Sanny’s eyes drew down to her drumming fingers and she stopped immediately, not meaning to distract him.
“I wonder if those lines are still there,” Lyla wondered aloud.
“I’ll see if I can go in and investigate,” Kelsahn decided. “This is making me very curious, though I don’t think I’ll go in at night.”
“Huh, why?” Lyla didn’t peg him for the uneasy type, especially considering all his late-nights back in the day.
He shrugged. “Something about that place really puts me off.”
vii - Glimpses of the Past
✬ Week 4 - Summer: Summer Solstice Festival
Lyla should have really been more creeped out than how she was feeling right now.
One would think that visiting an old burnt ruin, at night no less, where mysterious things were happening would be more scary, and perhaps it was, but Lyla chalked her lack of fear due to her being totally exhausted with the whole situation. The fake illusions, her feelings and hopes and dreams getting crushed then brought up again, and then getting crushed again really left her emotional state a mess. Now she was just angry and wanted to get to the bottom of this so that she could experience a peaceful life again.
And maybe this time, if she got out alive within the six-month mark, she’d try and go for a boutique that would actually accept her designs.
As she approached the building, she was in awe at how she couldn’t quite make out whether the building was still in ruins or if it was back in its illusionary restored version. It was dark enough for her to come up with an excuse for it, and she certainly could not see any blazing lights the way it had been on the night of the opening. Fake opening? Opening trap? Hm.
Lyla pushed at the gate, expecting it to be locked. Perhaps she could find another way—
With a start, she realized the gates opened with ease and that they weren’t padlocked… How interesting. She glanced behind her at the deserted, silent street, and then turned back to her mission, stepping in.
As she stepped through, the air shimmered around her, flickering momentarily before she found herself standing inside the dimly lit Theatre, a feeling of bittersweet familiarity washing over her. This was exactly how the Theatre looked on all those days where there were no performances.
There was a lone janitor sweeping the front, but other that her, there was no one else.
“Good evening,” the janitor greeted as Lyla walked by, heading in the direction of the Stadium. Surprised, Lyla glanced over her shoulder, a half smile drawn onto her face.
The janitor looked very much alive, but Lyla was almost certain it was another illusion, much like the ticket booth guy.
As she entered the Stadium, Lyla was not the least bit surprised to find it deserted. She walked down the aisle between the seats, heading straight to the main stage. As she moved, she ran her hand over the audience seats that were folded upright, testing to make sure this was as real as the vines had been that night.
For a second, Lyla saw dull red instead of the bright red upholstery, and when she drew her hand away, it was covered in soot and dust. Hm, interesting. Her eyes scanned the environment around her, where everything looked almost exactly as it had all those years ago. She looked down at her hand, brushing off the dust, and continuing on her way.
She reached the stage, her eyes immediately latching onto a bunch of abandoned sets, as though they were still in the process of being built. The stage was strewn with hammers, paints, cloth — and though it had been 5 years, Lyla recognized many of the items lying about haphazardly. She remembered the night preparing for Aeternalis in this very spot, advising Kelsahn, or rather trying to advise him on what would fit best for the theme they were going for.
It was a startling feeling, like the illusions around her were all suspended in time.
She blinked, eyes going back to the abandoned objects as Kelsahn’s words suddenly rang through her head, of how he mentioned using magic and enchantment in his sets.
Lyla climbed up on stage, moving around to get a clearer look at the abandoned sets. However, as time went on while she observed and studied the sets, she started to realized something — the enchantment and magic wasn’t in the set. Her eyebrows furrowed together as she moved on stage, eyes boring onto the floor of the stage.
Now, she was no magician, nor did she have any magic, but the dark, scorched lines on the stage looked awfully like they were forming specific patterns… intersecting and — huh. Lyla tilted her head to the side to get a better look at what seemed to be symbols in circles around the place. What the hell?
She followed the circles across and realized there wasn’t just one, but two similarly patterned circles stretching across the stage. Lyla stopped in the middle of the stage, frowning down at the ground. She didn’t remember those circles or symbols being there last time…
Did this have something to do with the fire?
Lyla recalled the news report from the library, the one about how the fire seemed to be spreading from the stage itself. Eyes flickering down to trace the symbols on the floor, Lyla was positive it had something to do with the fire. But who would do such a thing… and why? It didn’t make any sense for—
A glint from the corner of her eye caught her attention and she glanced up to see — a gorgeously made sphere, looking much like a clockwork sun on its rotating orbit. She stared at it, jaw dropping in awe at the magnificence of it. She didn’t remember what exactly it was for and… hm? Lyla squinted up at it, suddenly noticing that it was glowing, casting a soft light over the stadium. What seemed to be magical mist swirled around the damn thing, making her frown.
Was this the centrepiece that Kelsahn had mentioned making for Anette? The one he’d said burnt down with the Theatre? As she stared at it, she wondered what would happen if she threw something at it. It was a big glowing thing, with magical mist surrounding it…
Searching her pockets for something she could use, she came away with a coin in hand. She gauged the distance between her at the beautiful clockwork sun and then drew her arm back for momentum before throwing the coin with all her might. Playing catch with Andrei’s little league kids really helped her with her aim, and she watched, half proud as the coin flew directly at the sun—
Her eyes widened and a gasp left her lips as she watched the coin get close, too close before it suddenly changed, dropped to the floor, now a colourless husk. Lyla sprinted over to it, bewildered, and as she bent down to pick it up, the coin crumbled to dust in her hand.
Her breath left her on a surprised huff.
“Well, that’s… curious.”
Tajun had seemed mildly impressed as Lyla recounted her mini adventure at the Theatre’s Stadium the night before, but Andrei had not. They were at her apartment, seated on the floor in her living room after a pleasant dinner, backs against the couch as she sketched in her trusty sketchbook, trying to unwind and untangle her thoughts. Andrei had left a little while ago, after expressing his massive concerns of her visiting the Theatre late at night. It was less that he worried the magic would get her and more that there could be someone dangerous lurking in the shadows.
“Jun, you said you wanted to talk about the Theatre,” Lyla said patiently before lifting her eyes from the sketchbook to fix him with a stare. “Why have you just been lounging here and not saying anything?”
Tajun lazily lifted his head up to glance at her. “Because silence is quite nice.”
“I imagine silence would sound better in the comfort of your own home,” she muttered, though there was no heat to her words. Truthfully, she was thankful for his company, it calmed her slightly frayed nerves. Though, now that she though about it… Tajun was also one of the reason her nerves were all a mess.
Lyla sighed, there was just no winning at this point.
Tajun flashed her a winning smile. “Do you really want to send me home? Most would pay to be in my company.”
She snickered, going back to her sketch. “Not for your personality. Bet it would be just for your looks.”
Tajun chuckled, the sound coming out low and deep, sending a shiver down her spine.
“I’m starting to think you find me attractive.” He cocked his head to the side with a cute smile. “You know, you can just compliment me without playing hard to get.”
“Aha, and where’s the fun in that?”
“So you are playing hard to get,” he snickered, shuffling closer to her. “And here I thought I was misreading the signs.”
“You are, my dear Tajun. I think your feathers have gotten to your head.”
“Yes, my little peacock.”
“You keep referring to me as yours,” he pointed out with another smile. “Why, you’re making me blush these days, Lyla. Talks of wanting to tie me up, finding me attractive, calling me yours…”
“Somehow, you’re doing extremely well at not including context,” she said dryly, waving him away. “And also, you’re making it sound like you have your… hm, kinks.”
He laughed, leaning back against the couch and fixing her with an amused glance. “What can I say, I’m a very open person.”
“No, you’re not.” The words fell from her lips automatically, accompanied with a roll of her eyes. “You’re extravagant, sure. But I wouldn’t go as far as describe you as open.”
At his silence, she glanced up to find him simply observing her, cheek resting against his closed fist, elbow propped against the couch while his other hand reached out to play with the ends of her loose hair.
“And what about Andrei?” he asked with a small smile, and Lyla got the sense that he was masking again. She didn’t push it.
Thinking about Andrei, Lyla grinned. “He’s definitely an open book. He needs to be protected at all times. You know, sometimes I think that the world needs more people like him, where kindness and trust comes so naturally. But also, I don’t think the world deserves him.”
“The world does keep trying to scam him.” Tajun nodded, his hand becoming bolder, now stroking her hair with soft, gentle movements. She ignored the way her body was unknotting and relaxing itself, soothed by his ministrations. And she definitely ignored the fire slowly igniting deep within her core.
She went back to drawing, hoping he wouldn’t notice her fingers trembling ever so slightly.
“And Kelsahn?” he asked. “Open book or no?”
“Sanny is…” Lyla thought about it, tapping the butt of her pencil against her chin. “Unpredictable for the most part. But he’d tell you if you asked.” Her eyes flickered to Tajun and then away.
He laughed. “Are you implying I don’t?”
“Would you prefer I said it directly?” Lyla’s eyebrows lifted as she gave him her best dead-panned expression. “You don’t tell even when asked.”
His lips pulled into a secretive smile and her heart stuttered for a moment. After a moment of silence, he ran his hand higher up her hair, fingers brushing against her scalp. She couldn’t stop the jolt that zinged through her body. Flustered she pushed his hand away.
“You’re gonna mess up my hair.”
“I was untangling it.” His grin told her that he knew his touch was riling her up. She gave him a long-suffering sigh, refocusing on her sketch of a jacket design.
“What about you, Lyla?”
“Are you an open book, too?”
Lyla snorted. “Far more than you are. I enjoy sharing my feelings and thoughts. Obviously.”
She looked up, narrowing her eyes at him. “Hah?”
Tajun nodded, looking at her like she was something he could not believe existed. “Did you fall somewhere and hit your head? That would explain the delusion.”
She gaped up at him. “Well, that’s rude.”
He just rolled his eyes. “Bite me.”
“If I did, you wouldn’t like it,” she scoffed, reaching for the eraser that was right next to him. As she grabbed it, he shifted closer, causing her hand to brush up against his thigh. She flushed and nearly dropped the eraser.
“What if I did?”
Lyla blinked at him, amazed at his ability to keep entering her personal zone without her noticing and even worse, not minding it the slightest. Dumbly, she said, “What?”
“What if I did like it — you biting me?”
A weighted silence filled the air between them, slowly sucking the oxygen out of her lungs. Why couldn’t she look away from those eyes? She was such a damn sucker.
A nervous laugh bubbled out of her. “You get scared every time I bring up my needles. Teeth would hurt far more than those.”
“You sure about that, Lyla?” His lips twitched into a dangerous smile, his gaze lowering to her lips, down to her neck, and then slowly back up to her eyes. Her breath was stolen away by that gaze, and heat bubbled low in her belly, spreading out to the rest of her, and for the first time since they got reunited again, she suddenly didn’t feel shy anymore — no, she wanted to return the favour in full force. She gazed at him, wondering why he had this awful, magnetic effect on her. And briefly, she wondered if she have this kind effect on him too? Probably not.
After a few moments, she turned back to her drawing, breaking the spell and having now totally forgotten what it was she was working on. “Honestly, Tajun, you’re such a terror.”
He chuckled lowly, shifting about until his back was against the sofa, his shoulder brushing against hers. “You don’t seem very frightened.”
“Hard to be scared of someone who makes your eyes want to roll right out of your head.”
“Funny,” he said, dryly.
“Thank you, I do try.”
As a comfortable silence filled the air, broken only by the sounds of her pencil running across the paper, Lyla peered up at Tajun, finding the man leaning against the couch, cheek pressed into the cushion as he watched her draw from over her shoulder. She couldn’t stop her smile at the sight.
He was absolutely adorable, and he reminded her of their quiet moments all those years ago, when she would be working on her lavish sketches while he’d hang around, perfectly content with just watching her draw.
Prompted by her growing affection for him and a sudden urge to want to spend more time in his company, Lyla decided she’d try and make a move. And see if it got reciprocated.
Frightened as she was at the idea that she might just be, to him, another woman fawning over him, she also had many regrets of how she’d left their situation all those years ago. It wouldn’t hurt to try… and fail, right? At least she would have tried this time around.
“Tajun… do you want to go to the Flower Show? With, ah, me?” she asked the question while steadily keeping her eyes on her sketching, not sure she wanted to be facing him if he turned down her offer.
As she waited for his answer, she suddenly wondered if she was being an idiot by potentially touching on a past between them that he may not want to rekindle. She opened her mouth to try and magically stuff the words back in, already chickening out.
He sounded mildly surprised. “I thought you didn’t like events like that?”
She turned then, miffed he would think that when she’d made it abundantly clear so many times in the past that she adored such events. “What are you talking about! You know I like those kind of—”
His eyes twinkled at her as he playfully bopped her nose. “I know.”
“You should look at someone when you’re asking them out,” he said, climbing to his feet. “It’s the polite thing to do.”
“You said I’m rude, so I thought we’d already established that.” She put down her sketchbook as she also got up, escortin-g him to the door like the not-rude host that she was. She replayed his words in her head, suddenly realising what he’d said. In a panic, she gave him a strained smile, all too aware that her face was hot. “Are you unwell? Do I look like I would ask you out on a date? It’s for an investigation.”
Gods, she should sew her own mouth shut. Why was she like this!
He stared at her for a moment and then burst out in laughter. “It’s been a long time, but you really haven’t changed all that much. All right then, Miss Investigator, I’ll come pick you up. I only hope nothing dangerous jumps out at us from all those beds of flowers.”
“Tajun,” she warned.
He faked a gasp as he feigned remembering something, stumbling backwards, clutching at his chest oh so dramatically. “Gods, we may have to take our job seriously! There could indeed be something dangerous — you’re onto something, Miss Investigator.”
Lyla was sure her face resembled a tomato, but she calmly reached into her pocked for her little tin box. “And what is that exactly, Jun?”
“We have to be on high alert at all times, and be absolutely cautious of these highly suspicious things…” he leaned forward, beckoning for her to do the same. She obliged, shivering as his breath warm against her ear, his hand resting lightly on the small of her back, the heat of his hand sending another zing through her. It took all she had not to slide her body against his, to feel him on her.
His lips brushed her ear. “Bees.”
Lyla whipped open her box, yanking out the biggest needle she had. “Tajun, I swear—”
He dropped a peck on her cheek and then winked, easily manoeuvring out of her reach. “I’ll see you then, Miss Investigator.”
“You…!” Lyla stared after him as he strolled away, her mouth agape in shock. What the… that man…
What a flirt!
“Sanny!” Lyla called out as she closed the door behind her.
“Yeah!” His voice rang in from the direction of his home studio so she picked her way down the hall and into the room, careful not to bump into any of his tools or incomplete projects lying around. She found Kelsahn sketching out something at his desk, brows furrowed low over his eyes as he concentrated on his task.
She walked over to him, once again very carefully making her way over and trying not to touch anything. Who knew what kind of incomplete enchantment he had on those projects? Peering over his shoulder, her eyes widened as she realized that he was sketching out certain diagrams, like he was re-visiting the Risskov Theatre.
“What’s this?” she asked, tilting her head to the side.
“Trying to think,” he replied, sounding half tired and half distracted. She gazed down quietly over his shoulder as he continued to sketch, the diagrams bringing forward the memory of the building on fire in her dream.
The fire and the waif-like figure, warning her of the mark and the short time frame they had left. The figure’s words rang through her mind; They’re fixing what they started. They got it wrong.
Now all Lyla and the others had to do was figure out who got it wrong, what it was they were trying to achieve, and how to stop it. Yeah, definitely a piece of cake.