“Did they get caught?” Leilan hissed, taking care not to slip on the ice in his rush. “If someone was above, they could have heard them talking.”
“If that’s the case, we would actually have comparatively little to worry about,” Mireya said.
“Why’s that?” Kaja demanded.
“The museum security is far less threatening than what the Fall comes with.”
As he thought about her meaning, Leilan heard a surprised cry behind him, and he turned just in time to witness Dawn tripping forward, hands outstretched. Mireya caught her by the hand just in time to keep her from hitting the ice, and after a moment of stunned silence, Mireya pulled her upright.
“Are you okay?” Leilan asked.
Dawn bent to pick up something on the ground with a baffled expression. “I… I tripped on a… tiny mushroom…?”
“You found my earring?” Mireya exclaimed, taking it from her. “Cyrin told me I wouldn’t be getting it back. I can’t wait to see his face.”
“You should wait,” Kaja said. “The effect might be lost if he’s too busy thinking about how not to die.”
“He has never spared a thought for that in his life,” Mireya said. “But point taken.”
Beside him, Leilan heard Dawn mutter, “I’m starting to think these two are immortal or just exceptionally lucky.”
Kaja pointed into the tunnel. “Is the shield supposed to be open already?”
“No,” Mireya said. Her forehead creased as she frowned. “Is it?”
“There’s a gap, without a spell that I can see.”
“Saints, Cyrin,” Mireya muttered as she moved into the passage. “Are you in trouble or having a bit of fun? Can you tell the difference?”
Puzzled, Leilan followed, and he soon saw what Kaja had described. The gap in the shield was the same size as it had been for them to enter, but Cyrin wasn’t standing there to hold it open with Acid. In fact, he couldn’t see any of them through it.
“Should we—?” Dawn started to ask softly, but she was interrupted by Kaja clearing her throat.
“Are any of you alive out there?” the Heir of Strength bellowed.
“Kaja, that’s a bad thing to ask,” Leilan hissed.
“It tells us what I’d like to know,” Kaja argued. “What’s the point of asking if they’re alright? There’s no such thing as alright in this pit of frostbite and doom.”
“You’re there?” Kasumi’s voice came from the other side, worried but relieved. “You need to hurry through. We might have angered the Banes a bit.”
Mireya sighed. “Did you call them something mean?”
“No, we didn’t!” Shane protested. “In our defense, we didn’t know using the rings on the shield would activate a hidden Flare spell, causing some of the ice to thaw. And we really didn’t know they would take badly to it.”
“Won’t they get more riled up if we leave the vault?” Leilan asked.
“The sooner I can close up the shield, the better.” Cyrin’s smooth voice was unusually strained, like he was speaking through gritted teeth.
Leilan didn’t know what that meant, or why he sounded that way, but it was probably for a reason that he would have to see for himself. With a nod, he moved forward, carefully slipping through the hole and stepping out of the way to let the others through.
The scene on the other side was like a still-life painting, so motionless that it seemed like the event had been frozen in the ice. The specter-like shapes of the Banes formed a circle surrounding the entrance to the vault, unmoving except for their shadowy forms rippling in the windless environment. Kasumi and Shane stood like statues facing in opposite directions, watching for any break in their formation. In the center of the circle, Cyrin held their arms outstretched to both sides with their hands braced and open, a look of intense concentration on their face. A nearly finished spell sparkled on the ground at their feet.
“What’s going on?” Dawn asked slowly, as she was the last to leave through the shield.
“Cyrin’s holding them back,” Shane said.
It was then that Leilan noticed the rose-gold Force rings gleaming on Cyrin’s fingers. The Banes were motionless only because they couldn’t move any closer— they were being held in place. He could read the effort it was taking in the way that every one of Cyrin’s muscles was pulled taut.
“I’m going to close the shield so we reduce the damage we’ve caused.” It was difficult to tell Cyrin was speaking, not only because his voice sounded too stiff to belong to him, but also because his jaw barely moved to shape the words. “I suggest everyone moves to my right side.”
“That’s an order, actually,” Mireya said quickly. “Everyone to their right. Shane, other right.”
Leilan didn’t waste a moment and backed up. Setting their jaw even further, Cyrin flexed the fingers of their left hand. The opening in the shield rapidly sealed up. In the same moment, the Banes on the left surged forward, gaining a couple feet before Cyrin returned their focus to them. Everyone except Mireya and Kaja flinched.
“What about the trap?” Dawn asked after a long, tense pause.
“That’s the spell on the ground,” Kasumi explained. “We were working on it, but then they decided they should strike, and using the rings was the quickest thing we could do. It’s almost finished, but not yet.”
“Cyrin,” Mireya said. “What if I took the rings from you? Would that allow you to finish the spell and cast it so we can get out of here?”
“You’d have to be careful,” Cyrin cautioned.
“When am I not?” Mireya asked, with a laugh, then she paused. “No, don’t answer that.”
“Just do it,” Shane urged her.
Biting her lip, Mireya slowly reached for one of Cyrin’s hands, taking the first of eight rings off his little finger and sliding it on her own.
“You’re going to have to start holding them back as you take them,” Cyrin said. Leilan noticed that while he was standing very still, his hands were shaking.
Mireya nodded, holding out one hand as she kept placing rings on it with her other one. Her movements were slow at parts and rapid at others, taking time to remove the rings but quick to put them on. When she finished with one of Cyrin’s hands, he lowered it, and started placing the ones he had left on her other hand.
“This is hard,” she remarked, standing stiffly in the way that Cyrin had.
“Oh, now I get some credit.”
Cyrin stepped back after Mireya had all the rings, scooping up the incomplete spell. In the corner of his eye, Leilan saw more Banes drifting over to join the siege. It was hard to tell with their blank masks and his panicked imagination, but they were starting to look more bloodthirsty to him.
“I have an idea,” Cyrin said, looking up from their magic.
“Don’t say that, just say your idea,” Kaja snapped.
Leilan gave her a dirty look, but Cyrin showed no reaction to her rudeness. “If Mireya can keep pushing the Banes away and slowly work her way back to the ropes, and we move with her, we should make it through,” they said. “I’ll have finished the spell by then, and I can activate it there, which will buy us some time to climb up the ropes before they come back.”
“They’ll come back?” Kasumi asked.
“They’ll replenish,” Cyrin said. “There’s no way of telling how long it’ll take, but it’s incentive to climb fast.”
“We’ll go last,” Mireya added, already sounding tired. “Ready?”
There wasn’t exactly an alternative, so Leilan nodded with the rest of the Heirs.
Mireya flexed her fingers. “We’re going this way. Stay close to me.”
Leilan’s shoulder brushed against Shane’s as Mireya started herding the Banes in the direction of the ropes back while allowing the ones on the other side to press forward so they could start walking. He was nearly as worried about what would happen when they got to the surface as he was about everything that had to happen for them to get there.
“Did everything go alright outside?” he whispered to Shane.
“We managed,” Shane whispered back. “Things didn’t go as planned, but we got along.”
“Just be prepared for that to change.”
Shane frowned. “Why?”
Leilan glanced back at Cyrin. “I can’t explain right now, but the more you anticipate them being distrustful soon, the better.”
Cyrin was completing the final twists of his spell, all of his attention concentrated on the magic in his hands. Leilan saw his hands were still shaky, even without the rings, and he looked a little weary. He nearly asked if he was alright, but he didn’t want to distract him, and he wasn’t sure if Cyrin would want his concern.
“All finished,” he said a few moments later. “We’re nearly to the ropes.”
Leilan saw the ropes appear from around the curve of the ice walls, and a chill that had nothing to do with the air’s coldness raced down his spine. The climb down had been daunting, especially in a hurry. It looked far more dangerous to make it up. He found himself speeding up, and the others were too, all of them eager to leave this setting behind.
When they reached the bottom of the ropes, he looked up at the opening to the Fall. The surface seemed eternally far away, impossible to reach.
“Dawn, Shane, you’ll go first,” Mireya said, turning to make sure none of the Banes were breaching her hold. Her words were sounding strained. “Be ready to climb the moment the spell goes off.”
Dawn nodded, placing a hand on one of the ropes. The Banes seemed to get more agitated when she touched it, swarming like ants at the edges of the circle. Shane tensed, but he took the other rope, curling his grip around it.
Cyrin breathed deeply, cupping their spell in their hands. Leilan could barely hear them whisper, “If we make it out of here, I’ll be saying some prayers.”
The trap flared to life.
A sharp pop resounded over the ice as magic splashed from Cyrin’s hands, showering the Banes like water from a mighty fountain. Ghostly snarls and shrieks filled the air, and even though Leilan wanted to watch, he found himself closing his eyes and covering his ears. When he opened them again, the circle of Banes had dissipated into hazy smoke, like a freshly dead fire.
“Wow,” Shane breathed, craning his neck to see better.
“What are you waiting for?” Mireya urged him, lowering her arms and shaking them out. “Can’t you hear that imaginary clock ticking?”
Shane muttered a hasty sorry, sorry under his breath and clambered up the rope, Dawn just behind on her own.