Mireya stood once more to the side as Cyrin reached for his MagicBox again, pulling a small cluster from it. She watched as he rubbed his hands together for warmth, then let it float above his fingertips so he could twist the magic strands into a simple and thin net. When he was done, he set it in her palm.
“That’s your Concealment,” he said, already starting on his next spell.
She chuckled. “Do I actually need this?”
“Well, you might be nearly a full minute ahead of me, and if you’re in trouble the moment you get through this shield, it might help to hide for as long as you can.” They glanced at the skeleton. “This person probably didn’t have that.”
“See, we wouldn’t have this issue if you weren’t so tall, because then you could get to deactivating the Banes right away without waiting to get through first.”
Cyrin looked up from their work, squinting at her. “Sorry that I can’t look like a fairy from a children’s storybook,” they said, tipping their head to indicate her appearance— her short height, her vivid blue hair tied up in a pair of buns, her outfit with a long embroidered turquoise coat and dangly earrings in the shape of mushrooms.
Mireya snorted at the accuracy. “Fine, I guess you’re allowed to be tall.”
He finished casting the same Acid spell that he had done before, leaving him with roughly a third of the magic he’d started with. He gave her a teasing look as he sent the spell to the shield, letting the web shape spread over it without activating it. “So, you know what to do if something goes wrong?”
“Your list of people to contact if something happens to you only has four names on it, and one of them is mine. I’m pretty sure I can remember it,” Mireya said. “And if it looks like you die, I’m supposed to set a stopwatch to see how long it takes for you to show up again.”
“Just checking,” Cyrin said with a nod. “I don’t want a faulty personal record for a fake death.”
“Have you got a plan for me in that situation?” Mireya asked.
“I have the impression that you won’t get there, based on my experience.”
She smiled, gesturing to the blocked exit. “Then we’re all figured out.”
Cyrin snapped his fingers, and the Acid spell tore away at the Force magic. He must have used less magic this time, because it did its work slower, but within a few seconds the gap got to the size where she could slip through. Mireya held out her hand, letting him activate the Concealment spell before she threw it over herself, letting the net wrap around her. She waited until she got a nod from him to confirm that she was no longer visible before she took a deep breath and ducked through the hole.
The moment Mireya was through, she saw the shadowy shapes of the Banes that had been calmly drifting around stir into action. They prowled in the hallway in search of the intruder they’d only just become concerned with, claws slashing at the air, but missed her standing just in front of the passage to the artifact room. She watched their wild movement for another second before running as fast as she dared over the icy floor.
She passed between the smoky Projections without getting noticed, gradually picking up her pace when she felt more confident about her boots having a good grip. Even though Cyrin’s spell would be good for another minute or two, she kept expecting to see their jackal faces turn to her, their dark eyes focused on a target. How terrifying would it have been, she wondered, to live here for a lifetime guarding these artifacts and never be able to leave without getting hunted by these monsters? The Permafrost’s Fall hadn’t had been inhabited for centuries now, but that past didn’t feel so far away to her when it was visible in everything she could see.
When their ropes were in sight, Mireya quickly moved to hers and pulled herself up, climbing as fast as she could now that the spell didn’t have much longer to last. She did pause briefly once she felt comfortably high enough to glance down. There was no echo over the ice that she could hear, or any sign of Cyrin yet. He should have made it past the shield by now at least.
She was about to look away before she saw a few of the Banes that were swirling around below her break away and move in the direction she’d come. Just a moment later, Cyrin ran into view, both of his hands glowing with white energy and outstretched. More Banes followed him from behind. With several quick gestures that Mireya couldn’t quite catch at this distance, he wove a spell that he flung at the magical guards in his way. The Acid splattered against the Banes, which hissed and shuffled backwards as they faded into empty air. Cyrin dashed through the space where the Projections had been moments before.
“You were supposed to use Concealment on yourself too!” Mireya hollered at him.
“I needed to save on magic!” Cyrin shouted back, skidding to a stop by the bottom of the other rope and getting started on his climb. “You’re just as visible as me now, why don’t you worry about that instead?”
Mireya frowned, confused for a moment before realizing that the magic net over her had dissipated while she’d been distracted. That was something to worry about, because she saw a few of the Banes changing course to float upwards in her direction, sharp teeth bared in snarls.
“Oh, that is less than ideal,” she agreed.
She gained a little more distance up her rope, making it look like she was trying to get away from them before she stopped and tightened her grip on it. Mireya waited until the closest Bane was just a couple feet away before she swung her body, her legs colliding with the center of it as she twisted to hit her target. As it much as it looked like thin air, there was something solid to hit. The wispy creature snarled as it was pushed back, and its smoky coils thinned to be see-through, like wind scattering a cloud of dust.
Mireya beamed at it victoriously as she scrambled up higher. The Projections had claws and teeth that were very much real, but the magic wasn’t practical. The illusions that could be created with it were stable, but using Projection to create physical form was difficult and fragile enough that Cyrin had never bothered with trying it. Most creations couldn’t handle physical contact—unless it was those claws she came into contact with. Those would hurt her more.
As the Bane she’d kicked floated slowly down, too weakened to chase after her further, another two rose up to her height. A burst of Acid magic hit and deactivated one of them before she did anything, which told her Cyrin was still at work while they climbed. The other swiped, all eight claws close enough to count, and she barely held in a gasp as she quickly shifted to the other side of the rope to dodge it. Mireya knocked it back with a well-placed kick, and watched it fall while she caught her breath.
“Close call?” Cyrin asked, now just below her. The MagicBox was open on their belt and starting to get empty, but they held another prepared spell in one hand. She hadn’t been watching them very closely, but she guessed they’d been fending Banes off non-stop, and their shoulders were rising and falling in quick breaths.
“Not quite close enough to count as that,” Mireya replied, going back to her climb.
They threw the spell at two Banes below that were starting to catch up to them, then followed her. “It’s not much farther. With any luck, we’ll get to wave down at them from the top with a smug smile.”
Mireya hadn’t even noticed that they’d made it most of the way up. She moved faster, ignoring the burn that was starting to set in her arms. The air was ever so slightly warmer up here, and she found herself wishing to get back in front of a fireplace and stay there until she forgot what it was to be this cold. A little sleep somewhere comfortable would be nice too. If only they didn’t have a red-eye flight right after this to make it back to Crystal City.
“Mireya, watch out!” Cyrin yelled, making her snap out of her thoughts about being so miserably cold and tired.
She instinctively pressed herself as close to her rope as she could, going still. A blur of black shot past her just a moment later, and it took her several seconds to realize just how close that Bane’s claws had been to her neck. More surprised than afraid, Mireya waited to it to come back to her before she leaned as far as she dared with one hand holding on and swung a fist at it. The Bane’s hazy shape contorted and warped before it fell again.
A glance below told her that Cyrin was having a harder time with two more. He’d gotten his back against the rope from having to dodge, and she thought she saw a flash of red on his wrist as he flung a spell with barely any magic in it at one of his attackers. It wasn’t effective enough to deactivate the Bane entirely, even though it became far more transparent. The other Bane slashed at him, and Cyrin twisted out of reach. The claws went through his coat, and a few feathers fell out, drifting down into the ice pit.
“Do you want me to get out?” Mireya called. “I might be able to help from up there.”
“I know what you’re thinking, but it won’t work on Projections,” he shouted back, fumbling with another spell and kicking at the Bane he’d hit already to drive it off. There was definitely red on his hand.
She didn’t know what to do for a moment and just held onto her rope without climbing up or moving down. He was unfortunately right. She’d loved seeing the artifacts and setting foot in a place that no one had entered in ages, but she didn’t ever want to be somewhere that left her so useless ever again.
Cyrin managed to take care of it on their own, to her relief. They didn’t even have the time to throw their Acid spell as the Bane flew at them, and instead pressed it into the Projection at the last moment. The Bane hissed as the magic holding it together tore apart and it dissolved like mist. Cyrin was immediately moving again, closing up the MagicBox that still held just the tiniest shred of magic and continuing their climb. “Keep going!”
Mireya didn’t look back as she scaled the last bit of distance and pulled herself over the edge with a soft grunt of effort. She rolled over onto the floor—the normal cobblestone floor of the fortress room that the pit was dug in, not the cold ice of below— and flopped on her back, filling her aching lungs with deep breaths. Only when Cyrin made it up beside her did she scramble to her feet again and lean over the edge.
The Banes were starting to drift back into the walls, apparently unconcerned that the two thieves had made their escape and gotten out of range. There seemed to be no fewer of them than before their fight, and she wondered if their numbers replenished themselves naturally. This was a well of magic, burrowing into the mountains where the best of Aphirah’s magic was extracted from. Maybe it could sustain itself forever.
There was so much power down there, and they’d made away with a sliver of it.
Cyrin stopped their recording and rolled up their torn coat sleeve to heal the cut running up their forearm with a shred of Salve magic. She hadn’t heard them shout, whenever they’d gotten it. A thought occurred to Mireya about her closest encounter with a Bane, and she raised a hand to one ear, noticing the absence of a familiar weight. Her fingers found her earlobe, not the small shape of a mushroom, and she remembered the Projection had been on that side of her.
“I think I lost an earring,” she said distantly, leaning further over the drop, and she chuckled a moment later.
Cyrin looked up at her, with one of his thin smiles of amusement that only looked like a smile to those that knew the look well enough. “I don’t think you’re getting it back.”
“Really?” Mireya said, sounding as indignant as she could. “You aren’t willing to go back down there to recover it?”
“We’ve narrowly escaped with our lives and a treasure worth a million, and I would rather not risk it again,” Cyrin said. “In your own wise words, your vanity would be too expensive.”
Mireya snorted. “I can’t believe you.”
“My advice would be to save your disbelief for the flight back.”
They peered down into the depths of the legendary Permafrost’s Fall for a moment longer, watching the glimmer of the Flare lights and the aimless motion of the Banes. Then Mireya smirked and gave it a wave, and Cyrin did the same. With their farewell made, the pair went back through the fortress and out, retracing the footsteps of their own and of others who had seen only half of the glory that they had witnessed here.