“The elevator broke down a few weeks ago, and Clarity hated it,” Mireya told Dawn as she pushed the door from the fire escape staircase open. “She started doing experiments at home sometimes to avoid going here, but this is still where most of her work is kept. After you.”
Dawn stepped through the door, scanning the dark hallway with interest as she shone a flashlight around. “It’s creepy up here,” she said, and Mireya could somewhat see it. There was an eerie feeling to empty places at night, especially in bleak-feeling workplaces. The building Clarity rented her lab room in was desolate, with nothing on the walls except for white paint and exposed pipes, and Mireya had the feeling her friend would like somewhere nicer if renting work space in Crystal City wasn’t so expensive.
“Is it? Well, maybe that’s part of being here at midnight. During the day it’s just boring.” Mireya followed behind her, letting the door slam shut. No one was around to hear the sound anyway.
Dawn glanced upwards, letting her flashlight shine on industrial lightbulb panels. “Have you come here before, then?”
“Yeah, a fair amount. Clarity likes keeping her work to herself most of the time, but sometimes she gets hungry during work. So then she calls me or Cyrin to bring her some fast food.” Mireya laughed. The sound echoed, feeling a little out of place in the silent hallway. “I know her orders by heart.”
“Friends as a food delivery service.” Dawn nodded. “I need to get one of the Heirs to do that for me.”
They moved down the hallway, footsteps echoing softly over the ground, before Mireya waved Dawn in the direction of a door. “This is the one,” she said. “Well, I think it is. It looks a bit different up here in the dark.”
Dawn nodded. “Is it locked? If so, can I try kicking it down?”
“Oh, yeah, Clarity’s very careful to lock up after herself,” Mireya confirmed with a nod and a grin. “Are you getting into this heist business? I think you should give it a shot.”
“I’ll be hilariously bad at this,” Dawn said with a laugh, tucking the flashlight in a pocket and stepping back.
Dawn knew where to kick— right around the lock— though her kick lacked the force it would have taken to break it down. It didn’t matter, though, because the door swung open with no resistance. It had never been locked at all. They stared at the open door silently, and Mireya found herself starting to frown in confusion. Her heart had picked up a few beats from a feeling of alarm that was just starting to build up in her chest.
“I don’t think it was supposed to be that easy,” Dawn said quietly.
“No,” Mireya said slowly. “She either didn’t lock it, or…” There’s been something very bad. “Let’s go inside.”
Her heart now properly racing, she went in, leading the way this time. She felt for the switch to the side of the door while Dawn joined her, eventually finding it and flicking it. She sensed the rush of electric power as the lights overhead snapped to life, flooding the room in clear florescent white.
It only took a single look in the light for her to tell that Clarity’s lab was near destroyed, but her gaze bounced to carnage after carnage anyway. A shelf of files and lab equipment that normally stood against the wall closest to them had been toppled, with broken glass scattered everywhere on the tiled floor. Vials and bell jars, the containers Clarity kept her spell compounds in, had been swept off counters or smashed. Shreds of magic, their glow dying out, had been left to deteriorate.
The light overhead flickered, and it took Mireya a second to realize that it was because she was burning up with anger. She could only imagine how heartbroken Clarity would be, or already was, if she knew. How could this have happened to her work? How could Sparrow do this to one of the greatest Alchemists in Aphirah— his greatest Alchemist?
“Did she do this?” Dawn whispered in the silence. “To destroy her findings for safety?”
“No, she wanted us to find something here.” Mireya shook her head, crouching to examine the broken glass. “Even if she could have brought herself to destroy this place, she’d have been thorough. This wasn’t her. This was a pillage of random, blind destruction, and it’s Sparrow’s fault.”
“Can we assume that it’s not here anymore?” Dawn asked. “And that she’s in trouble?”
Mireya swallowed, standing up. “We need to search for a spell. Let’s see what we can recover.”
There was no path through the lab without broken glass paving it, so it crunched under Mireya’s boots as she moved to Clarity’s workspace, Dawn just behind her. She picked up a shred of what had once been part of a magnificently designed spell, now barely bright enough to light the lines of her palm, and she clenched her jaw.
“All the magic left here looks like that,” Dawn said, after scanning the counter and floor. “If this was the surprise spell she was working on, it’s destroyed. If it’s not, then they took it, and those are ruined past experiments or creations of hers.”
“We don’t even know what she wanted us to find, but Sparrow found out before we could get here. Saints, it’s probably only been hours since this happened.” Mireya couldn’t keep the rage out of her voice. “It was supposed to help us stop Sparrow. It’s either destroyed forever, or Sparrow has it, and we can’t use it against him. Clarity could be in terrible danger, too, because he’s figured out she’s been working against him.”
“Would he hurt her if she’s been useful to him but then betrayed him?” Dawn asked quietly.
“I… I don’t know what he’d do.” She was remembering signs of Clarity’s fear. The moments where it seemed like she wanted to say something but couldn’t, her insistence that everything was fine when her face said otherwise. Maybe even the way she’d stayed with Sparrow when Mireya and Cyrin had made the decision to leave. What’s been going on that I don’t know about? “I don’t know.”
Dawn moved closer to her. “I know you don’t want to talk about Sparrow, so… What can you tell me about her?”
“Clarity’s the smartest person I know. She has a way of looking at magic and seeing the new ways that it could be used that no one’s ever thought of or managed to make work before.” Mireya set the broken spell back on the counter, in a pile of glass shards. “And then she does it. She was good enough and unlucky enough to land in Sparrow’s employment when she was… about fourteen, I think, around ten years ago.”
“She sounds talented,” Dawn said softly. “Uniquely so.”
Mireya nodded absently. “Socially, she’s a bit reserved, and it might seem like she doesn’t think things through sometimes, but she does. She’s just an experimental thinker, even in everyday life. It’s resulted in some unintentional things that weren’t the best, because she wanted to see what would happen, but she is a good person, and my friend. She never did leave Sparrow, which has especially hurt Cyrin, but she’s supported us just the same since we left him, and we see each other nearly the same amount.”
Dawn nodded, then hesitantly asked, “What do you mean about especially Cyrin?”
“It’s a little complicated.” Mireya shrugged, dropping her gaze to the floor as she watched a magic shred’s glow slowly die out. “I’ve known her for longer than them, because they joined Sparrow after the two of us did, but the two of them got pretty close. For a while, maybe two years, they were in some sort of relationship. I think Cyrin was confused about their feelings— they still seem to be sometimes.”
She glanced at Dawn out of the corner of her eye, dimly wondering if this was right to share. Normally, she wouldn’t ever unpack Cyrin’s personal experiences to someone else, but this was about more than filling Dawn in. There was still some sort of mystery, and Mireya was trying to work through it out loud, hoping something would occur to her.
“At some point, they switched back to being friends again and it wasn’t a rough transition, but they were still hurt by her staying when we left a few months later. It stung for me, too, but I guess I understood it better than them. Clarity and I both chose to join Sparrow and later realized there were problems.” She curled her hands around the edge of the counter, leaning on it. “Cyrin was forced in, and they never saw Sparrow as promising for one moment. They didn’t fall for the lure, and they wish she’d stop falling for it too.”
But there was more, she knew. Mireya knew Clarity was least partially disillusioned, because without barriers, she was sure she’d have left with them. Sparrow built those barriers himself with threats and promises, both to draw people in and to keep them from leaving once he had them. Mireya’s revenge-filled mind had fully fallen for his talk of challenging the Houses and changing the world with the help of powerful mages, and she’d gladly joined his ranks at first. By the time she’d started wanting to leave, she’d been too scared to.
It must have been harder for Clarity, she knew— she’d joined years earlier, much younger, without fully realizing what she was doing, and then she’d gotten stuck. She hadn’t taken the step with her and Cyrin, though, not even once they’d gotten safe on the other side. There had to be another reason for her staying. But what?
Mireya shook her head, scanning the room again. “Sorry, I should still be looking,” she murmured.
“I’m sorry,” Dawn quickly apologized. “You looked like you had a lot on your mind, so I wanted to give you the space to say some of it.”
“You’re okay. I appreciate it.” Mireya gave her a small but genuine smile before she went back to looking, taking a deep breath to think.
This wasn’t the only mystery she had for Clarity. They still had to figure out what they were there for, and it was looking bleak.