“Kasumi,” Leilan started, his frustration setting in. “What were you thinking—”
“Shhh, not here,” Kasumi hushed him, grabbing the sleeve of his coat and pulling him along to a corner by the bar, where she motioned for them to all huddle around her. “This place is really weird, and I don’t want to talk about it in the open.”
“Weird how?” Dawn asked. “Did you figure anything out?”
“Sort of. Not really,” Kasumi admitted. “There’s a little that I’ve learned, but first, I can’t find Favia, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Hmm, yeah, that is a problem,” Kaja agreed. “Have you tried moving your head towards the wall and back really fast? I can even do it for you.”
Kasumi blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“Well, you seem to have no reservations about causing us problems, so I thought I’d be as unhelpful for yours as I could be.”
“For Saints’ sake,” Leilan groaned, holding up a hand to placate Kaja. “Kasumi, you shouldn’t have gone here, plain and simple. This isn’t your job, and you’ve put yourself and us at risk. I know you’re worried about Favia, and that you’re curious about what’s happening here, but it was a bad idea. Let someone else investigate this.”
Kasumi bit her lip, having the grace to look at least a little sorry. “But I already investigated some. I think there’s more to this place— like, literally more to it.”
The rest of them exchanged uncertain glances, before Shane sighed and shrugged. “Since we’re already here, we might as well hear it.”
Kasumi nodded, taking a slow and deep breath before launching into it. “I’ve been watching the people here a bit. Most of them really are here to play games and gamble. But a few seem to have other things in mind. I saw a pair that were talking together, and one of them asked the other if they wanted to go visit the arcade.”
“That’s perfectly normal, isn’t it?” Dawn asked.
“Exactly,” Kasumi agreed. “It wasn’t an odd or suspicious thing to say at all. Except they then walked in the opposite direction of what they were talking about. The rows of slot machines and games are all over there—” She pointed behind Leilan. “—and they walked this way, towards the bar we’re near.”
Leilan frowned thoughtfully. “Did you see where they actually went?”
“I followed, but not close enough to see exactly where they had gone when they disappeared. They took a turn into this empty corner space on the other side of the bar, and I didn’t know where they could have gone at first. There weren’t any visible exits that way. But—” Kasumi paused. “I think there’s a hidden one to some VIP section.”
“You think?” Shane asked. “Why?”
“It’s weird, but it makes some sense, right? They were talking about going to an arcade, but they didn’t go to that one, so they must have gone to another. A lot of exclusive locations have a secret entrance, usually thanks to an illusion. Those walls are strangely clear of everything, so it looks like you could just walk straight through them if they were Projections.”
“Did those two look rich, fancy, anything like that?” Shane asked.
“They were dressed like they’d committed a white-collar crime or two,” Kasumi confirmed. When she got a few puzzled looks in response, she cleared her throat. “I mean, yes, rich and important, just the typical businesspeople appearances.”
“Could Favia have stumbled into there?” Dawn mused. “That could be why you can’t find her.”
The silence between the five Heirs was deep and, Leilan could tell, rich in thoughts.
“I guess that might be worth checking out,” Kaja said grudgingly. “If this public spot is suspicious, then a VIP section might hold some real secrets. Favia probably would have gone in if she’d noticed it, and if admission is regulated, I think they’d let the five most important people in Aphirah inside.”
“Five out of the ten most important,” Shane corrected. “Our Heads of Houses still outrank us. But otherwise, I agree.”
Leilan was slow to realize what it was they were discussing. “Wait a moment, hold on. Are you talking about staying here and checking this possible place out?”
“It might get us some answers, or closer to those thieves and what they know,” Kasumi argued. “Besides, I haven’t seen anything threatening here, and we won’t get in any more trouble than we already would if you’re worried about someone finding us here. We could learn a lot from there, if it exists.”
Leilan didn’t need to check everyone’s faces to tell that he was the only one who disagreed with that, but he did anyway. Kasumi was eager, seeming to buzz with excitement at being this close to something important. Shane was nodding, looking fascinated by the possibility. Kaja didn’t look thrilled, but that was most likely because she wasn’t happy that Kasumi had a point that she agreed with. Even Dawn was giving him an apologetic shrug.
“Right now, I really don’t like that we make decisions as a team by popular vote,” he muttered.
At his words, the other four all raised a hand.
Leilan sighed. “Fine. I’ll try to walk through a wall with the rest of you. But if it seems dangerous, we’re getting out of there immediately, and if we hit our heads trying, I reserve the right to mock you for the next five years about it.”
“No, if we all walk into a wall, you have to pretend to be the only sober person among us and complain about how dumb we are as you lead us out,” Shane said with a grin.
“What do you mean, pretend?” Leilan muttered, shaking his head. “I feel like I already do that all the time.”
They went over to the other end of the bar that Kasumi had indicated, turning the corner. As she’d said, the walls here were clear of hanging items, and so was the space in front of it, except for a sign on a post that said NO LEANING. Leilan examined it thoughtfully. The wall was underwhelming, but a secret entrance wasn’t supposed to be notable.
“Who wants to go first?” Dawn asked hesitantly, gesturing at the wall adjacent to the bar. “This doesn’t seem like it has space behind it because the bar’s right there, but—”
“Oh, this happens far too much,” someone muttered angrily, and Leilan poked his head around the corner to see the bartender glowering at them. “It’s the other wall! For Saints’ sake, are you new here?”
“…Yeah, first time,” Leilan said, nodding quickly. “Sorry.”
The bartender snorted, shaking his head. “Newcomers,” he grumbled to himself. “Like we need any more of those. Bet they don’t even know what the name of the casino means.”
“The name of the casino means what?” Shane spoke up, suddenly standing right behind him.
“Never mind that. We’re going now.” Leilan nudged Shane away and moved back towards the group.
“So, with that information, there’s definitely something behind this other one,” Kasumi said, stretching a hand out towards it. “We might as well all go in together.”
“Well, I’m not holding hands with any of you as we go through, but I would like to get moving,” Kaja said, elbowing Shane. “You’re in the way.”
“Right, right,” Shane said. “Let’s go.”
Leilan wasn’t expecting how stepping through the wall went. He thought there might be some thickness to the illusion, or maybe a physical feeling brushing against him, but instead the Projection wall felt paper-thin, like he’d just passed through the air. He supposed he had. There was a change in the lighting in this new space, and he blinked, surprised by the sudden neon and color in his vision.
“Now that’s a wall I don’t mind hitting my head against, Kaja,” Kasumi remarked.
“Are we really just on the other side of this wall?” Leilan heard Shane ask behind him. “It doesn’t feel like anything happened—”
“Shane, shut up, open your eyes, and look at it,” Kaja said.
The space behind the wall was far bigger than the casino in front of it. They seemed to have stepped onto one of many floors, with more above and below visible through an open space ahead of them. Leilan put his hands on the railing enclosing it, leaning forward to get a better look at whatever this place was. Different areas were labeled with glowing symbols he didn’t recognize, but the people there seemed to understand them, because they moved between the locations with purpose. Rather disturbingly, almost every belt seemed to have some weapon hanging on it. Magic floated in the air, twisting into spells above people’s hands. All of it confused and alarmed him.
“This doesn’t look like a VIP section,” Dawn said after a long moment.
“And definitely not an arcade with better games,” Kaja added.
“It doesn’t,” Leilan said slowly, watching the movement of the crowd. Something about the people was sinister, like none of them were up to any good. The neon reflected off metal weaponry and white magic strands, lighting up his vision with warning colors. “But everyone here is definitely playing at something. So… what’s the game?”