Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
“Doesn’t anyone worry about the noise of the Arcade getting noticed?” Kasumi asked, glancing over her shoulder at the fake wall that the three of them had just passed through.
Cyrin shook their head, leading them further in. “No,” they said. “There’s a tiny bit of Chant in the Projection spell. It muffles the sounds coming from this side.”
“Hasn’t anyone ever followed someone in when they weren’t supposed to know about it?” Kaja asked. “It seems… unguarded.”
“It does happen, but it’s not as much of a problem as you’d think.” Cyrin scanned the closest meeting area. The two of them had been throwing questions at them all the way here. “A lot of the people that do are drunk from the bar— there’s a reason we have that in front— and don’t know what they’re seeing. If they do figure out what this place is… Well, Aphirah’s gotten rid of witness protection measures, so they always keep quiet.”
Kasumi grimaced. “That makes sense.”
Was that really a wince from her? Cyrin didn’t know how to explain that reaction.
“Anyway,” Kaja said. “You talked to your friend, and she couldn’t help you with getting magic. What are we doing here?”
“We’re going to find someone with magic,” Cyrin said, rather plainly. “And then we’re going to steal it.”
Kasumi paused. “…We are? Do we have to?”
Cyrin gave her a meaningful look. “You’ve literally hired me to steal something for you. You don’t get to be high and mighty about this.”
Kasumi bristled. “It’s not like that. I just— haven’t stolen anything before.”
If you’re rich, you certainly have taken something that isn’t yours, Cyrin thought, but he kept the thought to himself.
“You’ll be fine,” he said instead. “I’ll do the work. I’ve just got to find a target first.”
The Arcade had a lot of mages, and Cyrin knew plenty of them. It wouldn’t do to pick one who didn’t already dislike him, or else he’d just make a new enemy. He examined the people seated at the tables and standing by the bar, looking over faces, until he spotted a familiar one. Pia was on her own, leaning against a pillar with a glass in her hand and a bored scowl on her face. They’d never been great fans of each other, and she was easily one of the more unpleasant people he’d ever had to work with, so he didn’t have many reservations about picking her.
“We’re stealing from her,” they said, subtly gesturing to Pia. “The person by the pillar.”
“I’ve seen her,” Kaja exclaimed, to their surprise. “I nearly got to fight her.”
Cyrin frowned. “That’s not something I generally recommend doing with Pia. Why did you almost fight her?”
“Shane and I were talking here, and she took offense to something she overheard. It was about to get physical, but then Sparrow stepped in and pacified her. That’s how we found him.” Kaja clicked her tongue. “It’s been so long since I’ve gotten to fight someone.”
“Pia’s one of Sparrow’s mages,” Cyrin said. “Not the nicest of them. He’s the only person she’ll take orders from. Picking her to steal from also has the advantage of hindering Sparrow.”
“Can I fight her?” Kaja asked hopefully.
Cyrin wasn’t sure what to think. “We’re here to steal from her, not to throw hands with her.”
Kaja huffed disappointedly.
“Personally, I’m just impressed you asked for permission first, Kaja,” Kasumi remarked.
“Well, I’m still deciding whether I’m going to accept the no.”
Saints help me. Cyrin closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“I guess I’m not too concerned about messing this up,” he said reluctantly. “So the two of you can help in whatever way you want, and I’ll recover whatever goes wrong. I can’t say I’ll be thrilled if you end up in a fight, but I’m not sure I can stop you if you’re that intent on it.”
“Yes,” Kaja crowed triumphantly.
“What could I do?” Kasumi asked. “Just to be useful.”
Cyrin thought for a moment, then pointed to the interior wall that the bar was against. “Kaja and I are going to hide on the other side of that,” he said. “Try to lure her over. If that doesn’t work—”
“No, no, I’ve got this,” Kasumi assured him. “Go ahead and sneak over there.”
Cyrin was somewhat confused at the confidence, but they slipped off without another word, weaving swiftly through the crowd in a direction that they made sure Pia wasn’t looking in. It wasn’t terribly important that they were quiet, with the background noise of the Arcade covering up any sound they could make, but they stayed cautious. They could tell when they reached the wall and turned around that Kaja wasn’t the stealthy type. Her height and figure made her stand out in a crowd, and she walked like she wanted to be noticed. Cyrin doubted that it was because she wanted to be admired.
They pulled a cluster of magic from their MagicBox when Kaja joined them, beginning to shape it into a spell. They’d been disappointed to find that what they’d gotten from their attacker was Keravara magic, which wasn’t of the best quality, but it would be fine as long as they didn’t need to cast any Salve spells. Cyrin stopped their work one small twist away from a completed Force spell, still undetectable to mage senses.
They saw Pia round the wall, her head swiveling as she searched for something, but her gaze didn’t land on them.
With one fluid motion, Cyrin made the final twist with a flick of their wrist as they activated the Force spell and flung it at her.
Pia was caught entirely off-guard, pushed to the ground with a grunt of surprise. Unexpectedly to them, Kaja moved with stunning speed, tugging Pia’s hands behind her back and wrapping a muscular arm around her neck as she tugged her up. Pia spluttered, but she didn’t sound like she was suffocating, and Cyrin knew Kaja wasn’t squeezing all that hard. Yet.
Well. This wasn’t how he’d envisioned this going, but he could work with it.
“I’d apologize for the brutality, Pia, but I don’t think you understand remorse very well,” Cyrin said, folding his arms over his chest.
Pia narrowed her eyes once her gaze landed on him. “I take it Sparrow wasn’t sending for me.”
He had to admit, he was impressed with Kasumi’s choice of a lie. She’d only just heard that Pia answered to Sparrow alone.
“You guessed right,” Cyrin said. “A little late, though.”
Pia huffed. “Is this because I took your stupid bronze wristbands that were artificed with Flare a couple years ago? I returned them because they didn’t even do anything with fire like I hoped. Useless.”
No, it wasn’t. He hadn’t even been thinking of it during his planning. Cyrin had been bitter over it, and he hadn’t forgotten— he still felt like retorting that they weren’t useless or stupid— but he didn’t believe in revenge where he had to stoop to someone else’s level of pettiness. He didn’t care whether or not Pia thought him to be above that, though. “It can be.”
Pia sighed, as if bored. “What do you want?”
“Tell him where you’re hiding your MagicBox,” Kaja snapped. “I don’t see it on your belt.” Cyrin realized with a start that she was right.
Pia shrugged, her shoulders barely able to move against Kaja’s arm. “Well, people get cautious when some aristocrats talk about putting a stranglehold on magic,” she drawled, then wheezed a little when Kaja’s squeeze tightened.
Cyrin could certainly now see why she’d taken offense to the conversation Kaja had mentioned having with Shane. At least they’d made the decision not to trust their clients upfront.
“I’d worry about this stranglehold on you more if I were you,” Kaja growled, but her gaze flicked over to Cyrin with uncertainty that Pia couldn’t see, and it confused them. Did she not want to go any farther after all? Did she only want to fight when the other person cowered immediately?
Cyrin honestly didn’t want to go any further with physical threats, either. This was already past what they were comfortable with. But they had been putting on a tough act, and maybe Kaja thought they wanted her to go through with it.
They hesitated, and it was for long enough that intimidation wouldn’t work anymore.
Pia snorted defiantly, still short of breath. “You can worry about yourself.”
Something bright flashed before Cyrin’s eyes, but that wasn’t what made him stumble back a step. It was the dark, thick snake that had appeared on the floor between him and Pia, curling and shifting in rings of black. He heard Kaja swear. The snake’s tongue flicked the air as it rose slowly, yellow eyes on him and flashing malevolently—
It’s a Projection, he realized dimly, quelling his panic. She’s just trying to scare you.
He barely noticed that he was weaving a hasty Concealment spell in his hand before he shakily tossed it at the snake. Immediately, the snake went invisible, the illusion hidden.
The three of them were silent and wide-eyed for several moments.
Pia finally sputtered. “Did you— did you seriously just Conceal my Projection?”
Kaja was laughing maniacally, her shoulders shaking heavily as all her fear from the snake turned into amusement. “I’ve never even thought of someone doing that,” she wheezed through a cackle. “It seems so obvious now that one spell just cancels the other.”
Cyrin blinked. “Um. I guess? That’s all I really needed to do?”
“That spell took me ten minutes to make,” Pia muttered disgustedly. “Projection magic is hard. I’ve been saving it for something impressive. And you decided you just didn’t want to look at it.”
“In my defense, it wasn’t very pleasant to watch.”
Kaja reached behind Pia’s back and held up a MagicBox that had been hidden close to where her hands had been. “Sneaky,” she commented. “I think we’ll keep this.”
Pia hissed softly as she thrashed out of Kaja’s loosened grip, dusting herself off as she got to her feet. “Are you working with her even though you know what she thinks should be done with magic?” she spat. “That’s disappointing, even for you.”
“If I ever got your approval, I’d know I was doing something wrong,” Cyrin replied. He wasn’t happy with Kaja’s ideas either, but he wasn’t about to tell Pia that. “Go complain about me to your boss. Tell him he’s a bastard on my behalf.”
Pia’s glare was as venomous as the snake she’d Projected had appeared to be, and for a moment, he wondered if she’d try to fight for her magic back without the help of any spells. But she finally stepped back, eyes narrowed, and stormed away without another word.
Nearly the moment she was gone, Kasumi poked her head around the wall. “Nice job!” she said brightly. “What now?”
“We can just head back to the hotel, right?” Kaja asked, handing Cyrin the MagicBox.
Cyrin paused. They would have to return there before they all left, because their jetpack was sitting invisibly by a couch, but they had another stop to make too. They had finally checked in with Autumn again before they’d left for the Plaza of Claws, but they still had that quilt to bring over. They wanted her to have that before they were gone again.
“Will someone let me up again later if you head back now?” they asked. “I have something I need to do.”
“Sure,” Kasumi promised. “Good luck.”
Cyrin was already thinking about which quilt to give to Autumn when Kasumi and Kaja turned away. They knew she’d like their red one. It didn’t feel right to leave Crystal City again so soon after they’d gotten back, with the days getting colder and bleaker. But if they and Mireya could do this right— and they were sure they could— Autumn wouldn’t have to worry about anything for a long time.