Shane had been in a museum late at night before. He’d interned at one during his time in college as part of getting his history degree, and he’d enjoyed it, but he’d always done his best to minimize the number of times he had to stay there with the lights off. During the day, the exhibits amazed him, but they became a different place in the dark. The eyes in paintings turned soulless and judgmental; the heroic forms of statues suddenly seemed like they could snap into motion. Even the shadows of ancient pottery made evil-looking curves of darkness on the floor, the shapes morphing into ghostly hands stretching out for something to grab. He’d always rushed by the displays whenever he’d stayed too late, taking care not to look too hard at the art.
A museum after closing time was a place where it felt like reality had shifted a little bit, a place where he really shouldn’t be, even if he worked there. But it was made much worse by knowing that this time, standing in the darkened fortress of the Permafrost’s Fall, he wasn’t supposed to be here at all.
They were stealing from it.
The group of seven had entered the museum the lawful way— with a ticket— but they’d all had to hide in a closet that Cyrin had picked the lock of. Shane had spent what had felt like ages in the dark, cramped between file drawers in a very humbling hiding spot, until Mireya had declared it was long enough. Now, he watched Mireya tug on the ropes she’d dangled into the ice pit, testing their functionality.
“We’re not even doing anything and this feels intense to watch,” Shane muttered to Leilan.
“I know,” Leilan said quietly. “We’re safe, though.”
Shane leaned in the direction of the Fall. But they’re not.
He’d seen pictures of the ice pit on the surface, but he wasn’t prepared for how unguarded it was. It was definitely a dangerous fall, but there was no railing around the circle cut in the ground, just a painted curve around it that warned viewers to stand back. Shane supposed there wasn’t much of a need for a protective barrier if everyone was deathly afraid of what was below.
Dawn seemed to be wondering about that threat, because she cleared her throat. “Where are the Banes at? I can’t see them.”
“Right now, they don’t actually exist,” Mireya explained. “They’re created when someone reaches the bottom, and they float out of the walls. They then drift around harmlessly until that person has the bright idea of trying to leave.”
Mireya grinned. “And then a daunting escape, that’s what.”
No chance of death instead? Shane wanted to ask. But Mireya seemed utterly fearless of death, or at least her words did, and Cyrin apparently had a gift for escaping it, since he’d survived that downtown attack. This wasn’t a team that thought of their mortality.
I know them both. They’re good at everything except dying, believe me. He wondered how seriously Sparrow had meant his words.
Cyrin was pulling on their gloves, rubbing their hands together. Their face had that same calm composure that Shane was starting to know them by, and he couldn’t tell what they were thinking. From the way their gaze was fixed on the bottom of the chasm, though, they had to have something on their mind. They’d looked the same on their flight over to Storm City.
“We’ll climb down the ropes,” Cyrin said, finally looking up. “After that, I’ll open the shield entrance and set the trap, while Mireya goes in the inner vault. You’ll notice when we start to head back up, trust me.”
“Do you want us to keep watch?” Kasumi asked.
Mireya shrugged. “You can if you like. We didn’t have any trouble last time.”
Cyrin gracefully dropped onto one of the ropes, glancing into the depths below. “Hopefully, we’ll be back with our lives. Oh, and your treasure.”
Mireya clicked her tongue. “It’ll be both or nothing.” She clambered down onto her rope, offering them all a wave. “Stay safe.”
After a chorus of “you too”, Cyrin and Mireya started climbing down, and they soon disappeared out of sight from where Shane was standing.
Kaja must have deemed them to be out of earshot once a minute or two had passed without a word being spoken on the surface, because she huffed boredly. “We really don’t need to be here.”
“You don’t want to be here,” Leilan said, not harshly. “That’s a little different.”
Kaja snorted. “We’re not doing anything, are we? They’re just dragging us around because we’re paying for them. They aren’t actually trying to determine whether we’re worthy or not.”
“You’ve hardly talked to any of them,” Dawn pointed out. “If you did, you’d see they’re paying pretty close attention to us.”
Kaja rolled her eyes. “Why would I pretend to be friends with two weird strangers for a few days while they break the law for us?”
“It’s not pretending to be their friends,” Dawn said with a soft sigh. “It’s just being friendly. We need them to like us.”
“Who are they to judge that we can handle this, though?” Kasumi asked, scowling. “The First Spell isn’t theirs. I don’t think they have any kind of authority over it.”
“They technically do, if they steal it,” Shane started, “and it’s an artifact from their culture, so—”
“Their relics don’t really belong to them anymore,” Kasumi said flatly. “So, it doesn’t matter that much.”
Shane frowned. “Don’t you realize that’s worse?”
“No one asked, Shane,” Kaja snapped. “You majored in being insufferable. We know. Stop flaunting it.”
Shane wasn’t sure what was burning more, his cheeks, or his jaw from clamping it shut to bite back a retort.
“Kaja, as long as Shane’s right about something, he doesn’t need to keep it to himself,” Leilan said sharply. “He has good input on our discussions and a helpful perspective, and he has a point. A point that you should all listen to.”
“It’s fine,” Shane muttered. “Never mind.”
“It’s not.” Leilan’s gaze was calm but firm as he looked between Kasumi and Kaja. “Stop shutting down other people’s voices. We’re a team, for Saints’ sake.”
“Hey, everyone?” Shane could barely hear Dawn speaking over the others.
“Are we?” Kaja asked, folding her arms over her chest. “Or are we just five people who’ve agreed to be semi-tolerant of each other while we wait for our power?”
“Not everyone here is waiting for that.” Leilan’s voice was hushed. “We aren’t all just hoping for something to happen to our Heads of Houses.”
“Can you please listen to me for a moment?” Dawn pleaded, but the argument didn’t stop.
“Regardless, we aren’t even all on the same side,” Kaja argued.
“We don’t have to be,” Leilan said, sounding like he was losing his patience. “There’s room for debate so we can reach the best ideas. That’s why there’s five of us instead of one.”
“Could you imagine there being seven of us today, like we were supposed to be?” Kasumi muttered. “I’d lose my mind.”
“We just have to cooperate with each other,” Leilan said. “Not necessarily agree.”
Kaja’s laugh was bitter. “You think you can get us to do even that? That’s very naïve of you. We’re no team.”
“I think there’s someone nearby,” Dawn said weakly.
“Everyone,” Shane snapped, and all the Heirs turned to him. “Dawn is trying to speak.”
Dawn cleared her throat. “Thank you, Shane. It’s hard to tell, because you’re all being noisy and distracting, but I think I’ve been seeing a flashlight beam coming out from one of the rooms in the hallway leading here. Someone must be cleaning things up past closing.” She pointed. “Listen.”
Silence fell over the Heirs, but it wasn’t absolute. Shane could just make out the sweep of footsteps over cobblestone, a sound that was far too leisurely for the threat that it carried.
Footsteps that were slowly getting more distinct.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Kaja spoke quieter than he’d ever heard her before.
“Really?” Dawn asked, sounding very tired. “I think I did.”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Kasumi hissed.
“No, we can’t, the ropes.” Leilan swore softly. “They’re in plain sight, even if we leave.”
Shane moved past the line marking off the Permafrost’s Fall and leaned over the side, heart hammering. He softly tugged on one of the ropes, testing its strength. He had gloves, so if it came down to it…
“We could climb down,” Shane said.
The other Heirs all went quiet, even though he hadn’t spoken very loudly. Behind him, he heard Kasumi ask, “What?”
“We could climb down,” Shane repeated. “Cyrin could Conceal the ropes, but he and Mireya don’t know there’s a problem.”
He couldn’t see her, but he just knew Kaja was shaking her head. “I think Shane’s lost it.”
“But we can’t talk our way out of this if that person comes over here,” Dawn whispered. “We can climb down a rope, can’t we?”
“What about those Bane things?” Kasumi sounded terrified.
“Mireya and Cyrin did swear to protect us,” Shane said. “They… They wouldn’t be thrilled, but they would have to do that if we joined them down there.”
He didn’t turn around, but he knew exactly what their faces looked like. Panicked. Uncertain. Torn. Desperate.
“I don’t like it at all, obviously,” Shane said shakily. “But I don’t want to get caught up here, and I don’t want to ruin this whole operation either. This is our best chance.”
He heard someone walk up behind him, and Leilan joined him on his right. His friend pulled on the other rope like he had done before, biting his lip. Shane watched him think before he turned back to the others.
“It might be more than that,” Leilan said, grimly. “It might be our only shot.”
He put both hands on the rope and slipped off the edge of the ice cliff, wrapping his legs around the rope for safety. Shane’s breath hitched a little when he saw a shadowy shape tear away from the frozen wall far below, and he could have sworn he saw it look up at them. He wasn’t sure at this distance, but he thought it had an animal mask with a staring, dark gaze, before it drifted away and he lost sight of it. Shane shuddered.
“We’re doing this, then?” Dawn asked weakly.
“Yeah,” Shane muttered, watching Leilan start the climb down before he took the other rope in his hands. “We’re going down.”