Mireya stepped aside to let Kaja through the opening. The sizzling sound of magic on magic abruptly ended as the Acid spell was deactivated from the outside, and the gap sealed shut, leaving them cut off from the outside world.
“Well,” she said, unsure how much she meant the cheerfulness in her voice. “Our time starts now.”
“Was there something that used to be right here?” Leilan asked. “You said something was gone. Is that a problem?”
Mireya looked down at his feet, where he should have been standing in the skeleton’s ribcage. “I guarantee, you’re happier without it here.”
Leilan looked baffled, but he didn’t ask any more questions.
“So, what does the First Spell look like?” Dawn asked. “We haven’t actually heard of its appearance.”
“Oh. Of course.” Mireya laughed. “It’s a scroll.”
Kaja scrunched up her nose. “A scroll? That’s impressive.”
“It is, actually,” Mireya said, ignoring the sarcasm. “An old scroll in surprisingly good condition, tied up with a white ribbon. It unrolls to become a world map. Once you have it flat, there’s this…” She paused, wondering how to describe it to someone who had never seen it before. “A thin layer of water spreads over the map, but doesn’t spill over. Under the water, some regions start to glow and bubble.”
“How’d they make that?” Leilan’s voice held the same wonder she’d had for it.
“No clue. I don’t even know what magic they used for it.”
“Do you know how it’s used?” Kaja asked.
Mireya shook her head. “That’s your job to figure out.” Our job. “You don’t really need to know what it looks like ahead of time, though. I’ll just lead you there, and then we’ll search for anything useful.”
She led them out of the small tunnel the shield was in and to the open, cavernous vault. As she’d expected, her three clients froze and took nearly half a minute to take in the array of artifacts sprawling before them. She let them stand wide-eyed and awed until Dawn finally spoke up in a voice that was a little quieter than normal.
“Which way to it?”
“It’s just over…” Mireya started pointing in the general direction she and Cyrin had taken, but by the time her finger got there, her gesture had slowed. The artifacts in that row didn’t look familiar to her, even though she was sure she’d passed those stands.
“What is it?” Leilan asked.
The skeleton. It hadn’t disappeared, it had moved. She was sure of it.
“I think everything’s switched positions since I was last here,” Mireya said. “This isn’t where everything used to be.”
Dawn swallowed. “Someone rearranged the artifacts?”
“No,” Mireya reassured her. “Not someone. I bet it’s an enchantment the vault has, for security reasons, that was automatically activated after Cyrin and I left. People aren’t supposed to leave this place.”
Leilan looked relieved. “So it’s not a big deal, but we have to search for it again.”
“Exactly.” Mireya nodded. “I guess it’s good I told you what it looks like. We should split up.”
“I’ll go with you,” Dawn volunteered. Kaja and Leilan both nodded after a pause, agreeing to tolerate each other.
“Awesome.” Mireya grinned. “This way, Dawn.” This way was an arbitrary left, because she didn’t want to have trouble making a decision around Dawn. She felt pleased with herself for a moment, then something in her chest stung a little.
Saints, it would be so annoying if Cyrin was right about what they’d talked about.
“Can you tell me a bit about this place?” Dawn’s voice was hushed, like she thought she was still in the museum. “A lot of my knowledge on it is murky or conflicting. Most of it comes from legends.”
Mireya hummed softly, scanning the artifact stands.
“It’s got an old history,” she said. “The Permafrost’s Fall was built over a natural reservoir of magic, just like a well. The magic in artifacts usually wears off over long periods of time, but not when it’s around a lot of raw magic, so this place acts as a figurative storage freezer—and honestly like a literal freezer— and then the artifacts in here work just like they did thousands of years ago. When Ren mages made an artifact that they wanted the public to have access to, they’d place it here, and people could borrow from it.”
“Like a library.”
“Much like a library. There used to be a staircase down here for easier access— a spiral staircase, one that wrapped around the vault and would fill the circular chasm we climbed through, if I recall correctly. It was melted eventually.”
“Because of security concerns.” Dawn’s fingers trailed over the curve of a bronze bell artifact.
Mireya watched her, making sure nothing unexpected happened with the bell. “In the last century or two before the Renvara annexation, the stewards of the Permafrost’s Fall got more and more concerned that Aphirah would try to take from here. They got cautious. They started limiting access to the vault, and then had to limit the lending of artifacts. Eventually, the threat was so great, they had to keep anyone from leaving the grounds.”
Dawn stayed silent, nodding slightly.
“As a last resort, they created the Banes,” Mireya said. “It was a clever idea, because the spell would allow new stewards to enter and leave them be as they served here while being a deadly threat to thieves, but it was a huge sacrifice. The moment they entered, they weren’t able to leave ever again. They spent the rest of their lives keeping this space safe.”
“The last stewards would have all survived the Fading, though,” Mireya said.
“And then starved.”
Mireya bit her lip. “It’s better, trust me.”
Dawn didn’t say anything for a few moments as she stepped away from the bell and kept walking. The vault was so quiet that she could hear Kaja trying in vain to persuade Leilan that she could wear a suit of armor— perhaps the same one with Salve that she and Cyrin had found— on the rope climb up and out.
“It must have been so hard,” Dawn said finally. “Not being able to see the sky.”
Mireya agreed with the sentiment, but she hadn’t been expecting something that specific. “The sky?”
Dawn shook her head. “Just— the stars. The clouds. All the different colors it has. Something different than a cold, unyielding ceiling overhead.”
“Dawn,” Mireya said suddenly, causing her to stop and turn around.
“What?” Dawn’s brow furrowed.
Mireya was going to sound strange, she knew it, but she had to ask.
“When was the last time you saw the stars?”
Dawn seemed taken aback. “Well, it was…” She trailed off, coming to some realization as she frowned confusedly at Mireya. “Are you actually asking?”
Dawn’s gaze got a little distant, like she was searching for a memory— or just replaying it.
“It was about five years ago,” she said at last. “My older sister took me out to Hetavare for a short camping trip, which was really special, because I almost never go outside somewhere that isn’t a city. We sat in the hills among the flowers— the ones that glow in the dark— and I saw them. I never realized they were that bright, that they were supposed to look that way, before the rest of our world got so bright.”
Mireya could only nod.
“I can’t remember a time before that.” Dawn shook her head. “I— I hadn’t ever thought about that.”
“We don’t really see the sky either,” Mireya said. “Not as it really looks. We have cities named after starlight that we can’t see anymore. We’ve got forgotten constellations that are archaic pieces of trivia to everyone except astronomers. I feel sorry for those stewards, too. But it’s not all that different for us.”
Still looking a little distracted with her revelation, Dawn nodded. “You must be right.”
They walked on, and Mireya scanned the shelves further out to make sure they weren’t missing anything.
“Cyrin’s name,” Dawn said suddenly, and when Mireya gave her a questioning look, she chuckled. “It comes from one of those forgotten constellations, doesn’t it?”
“It’s the mountain climber.” Mireya was surprised she had heard of it. “It’s a Ren constellation, and those stopped being recognized after the annexation because Aphirah had its own, so it’s double forgotten.”
“A dead constellation.”
“Yeah, that’s what we call them.” Mireya cracked a thin smile. “It’s poetic, if a bit sad.”
“You’re named after Saint Mireya, right?” Dawn asked.
Ah, great. Mireya paused, unsure how much she should say. “It’s more of a coincidence than anything, honestly. It’s an old name that existed before her, even though most of the time today it’s given in her honor.”
Technically, she wasn’t lying, and that felt good.
Dawn nodded quickly. “Oh, yeah, I recognize it has a history other than that. What does it mean, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Now that was easier to answer. “In the Ren language, it’s ‘child of the fireplace’.”
“That’s pretty nice,” Dawn said. “A name always seems cooler when its meaning isn’t just at face value.”
Mireya laughed. “I can promise yours is perfectly lovely. It’s probably my favorite time of day.”
Dawn’s smile was soft but genuine. “Well, thank you.”
This isn’t so bad, Mireya admitted to herself. It’s a nice chance to spend time with someone you never would have met otherwise.
Even if you’re going to leave soon and she’ll probably hate you.