The blurted demand came from both Shiori and Asenath in the wake of the news that, rather than being closer to finding the latter’s father, now their mother had disappeared. Both of them looked like they were reminding themselves that killing (or even just smacking) the messenger was both totally wrong and would be a really bad idea right now, all things considered.
But, of course, they controlled themselves. Senny found her voice first, while the two Vestils and Eldridge all looked briefly nervous. “What do you mean, they’ve disappeared? How can that happen? This…” She took an obvious calming breath, though I could see her fist tighten at her side, fingers digging into her palm. “This place has ridiculous security measures, doesn’t it?”
“The ridiculousiest,” came an answer from a new approaching figure from down the hall. It was another Vestil, and from the description Shiori, Columbus, and Senny had given of their visitor that started all this, I was guessing that was this guy. An assumption proven right as the Vestil glanced in the direction of Bobbi, Miranda, Tabbris, December, and me. “Bol Sampson. Glad you could all make it. And yes, our security is absolutely top notch. It has to be, to run a casino like this. But that doesn’t seem to have helped, in this case. Come on, I’ll show you what happened.”
His voice was tense despite his attempt to sound cordial. Which made sense. Even ignoring the security failure, having a bunch of children apparently abducted right from under your nose, to say nothing of a temporary ally who was trying to help you find what amounted to a literal supernatural mob princess? Yeah, no wonder the poor guy sounded like he was right on the edge of an actual breakdown.
Together, we all followed Bol. The other two Vestil trailed behind us, along with Eldridge. The hall we were walking along had an open wall to one side overlooking one of the casino floors, clearly meant to entice everyone with all the bright, flashy games below. Glancing that way, I saw plenty of humans obliviously enjoying their gambling. But I also saw other things, Alters of every shape and size. There were Relukun, crystal people, various elementals, a couple orcs, and more. Most were having fun, though there were a few who looked like they had just gambled away the last pennies in their pockets. One guy in particular, a large onyx-skinned humanoid with burning flames where his eyes were, looked like he was about to cause a scene. But just as he started winding himself up, two figures dressed the same as the security guys I’d seen outside stepped that way. One leaned in and whispered something to the man while putting a hand on his arm. After a second of that, the upset guy gave a short nod, stepping back as he deflated a bit, the moment neatly deescalated. With a somewhat embarrassed-looking expression, the big guy hurriedly left the gambling floor.
Eldridge had moved behind me as I watched that, his voice quiet. “If their security is anything like ours, those guys just informed him that a nice bottle of something they know he enjoys was sent up to his room, on the house. Then it’s his choice to either go up and enjoy it or escalate things. With a little reminder of just how that kind of thing tends to go inside these places. Which, believe me, isn’t well for the person making a scene.”
By that point, we’d reached the conference room where the kids were supposed to be. The place was one of those with a bunch of plush, comfortable chairs arrayed in a semi-circle in front of a smallish, slightly raised stage. There was room for a hundred or so people in the room. At the moment, there were various toys, books, and coloring things all over the place, along with a few snacks and drinks clearly meant for kids. Apparently they didn’t want their young witnesses to be bored. Which was nice. I wondered who had been in charge of that.
Asenath moved immediately to the front of the room, near the stage. She crouched, putting a hand on the floor before exhaling. “Mother was here. Right here, just a few minutes ago.”
“What happened?” Shiori asked, voice tense as she stepped near her sister and stared at Bol. “How could someone make our mom and a bunch of kids you guys were supposed to be taking care of just disappear right from under your noses? You’ve got like… anti-teleportation things?”
“Yup!” That was December. She hopped right up on a chair, pointing up to a corner of the room. “There’sonethere…” And then she started literally leaping from chair to chair, hopping around the room while pointing seemingly randomly in every possible direction. Seriously, she was like some kind of bouncy ball, a blur of motion and energy. “Andonethere… andthereandthereandthere…” Turning to us after stopping on the back of the last chair, she brightened cheerfully. “Doyouwanttogo… backdownthehallso… Icanshowyou…. alltheothersIsaw?”
See, I had no idea what I expected SPS Seosten under Cahethal’s authority to be like, but this? This wasn’t it. Was it all just because she mostly left the so-called ‘Calendar’ on their own?
“Ah, that… “ Bol shook his head. “Thank you, but I don’t believe that will be necessary, Miss…”
“Ember,” she promptly supplied with a cheeky grin, barely able to restrain the obvious giggles.
“Miss Ember it is,” Bol agreed with a slight bow, the glowing, multi-colored smoke-liquid in his glass-like body pulsing with what I… thought might be a silent chuckle of sorts before he moved on. “Yes, the room, like the rest of the casino and hotel, are filled with anti-teleportation markers along with defenses and sensors against other magic. But even with those… well, here.” With one hand, he produced a small blue ball with runes drawn on it. “You should see for yourselves.”
With that, he activated the ball. Immediately, a bunch of glowing figures appeared in the room around us. Holograms. They were holograms of all the Vestil children. Each of them looked different. Like, really different. There were a couple humanoids, but there was also one shaped like an octopus, a big dog, a bird of some kind, even one that was basically a long snake. The only way I could tell they were all Vestil was that each body, no matter what shape it happened to be, was clear and filled with colored smoke and liquid. I supposed since these people’s physical bodies were essentially just magically-summoned constructs, what they actually looked like didn’t actually matter. They were basically a race of shapeshifters or whatever. Crystal shapeshifters. Briefly, I wondered what it was like to grow up in a society where everyone literally just shifted between liquid and gas forms, with your only physical bodies being whatever you conjured and shaped to place yourself in. Bodies that looked like whatever you wanted. Did that end prejudice sooner?
No, I reminded myself, they didn’t have to be as prejudiced against each other as humans have been, because they had three other intelligent species on their planet to compete against.
Jiao was there in the magical hologram too, of course. Just as Asenath said, the woman was standing on the stage. She was watching the kids scattered around the room while alternately looking at a phone in her hand. Then she turned, looking off toward what appeared to be the wall. A second later, they all vanished. Just like that. One second Jiao and the kids were there and in the next, poof. Gone.
“What was she looking at?” Miranda asked, stepping up to where Jiao was before turning to look in the same direction she had right before the whole disappearing thing. “It’s a wall.”
“One of the teleportation blockers,” Asenath replied, already stepping over that way. She pointed to a small, barely visible design half-hidden in the woodwork. “That’s what this is, right?” Frowning, she added a quieter, “But there’s something wrong with it.”
Bol joined her, leaning in to examine it himself while the rest of us approached. “Yes,” he agreed. “Someone has definitely tampered with this one.” Glancing that way, the man added a quiet, “Good catch for someone who can’t use magic at all yourself.”
“I’ve learned to adapt,” Senny replied flatly before looking over her shoulder. “Bobbi, come taste this. See if you can figure out anything about it.”
“Taste…?” Bol echoed curiously. He, Eldridge, and the two other Vestil watched as the younger girl stepped up to put her hand against the symbol.
“There’s… there’s two kinds of magic there,” Bobbi murmured. “One is older, sort of… set into the wall. It’s been there for a long time. Or at least the shape of it has. But the other magic is new. It tastes… strange, like it doesn’t belong there.”
“Would you recognize it if you felt it again?” Asenath asked while everyone else watched. This, from what the vampire had told me, was a new trick Bobbi had picked up over the past few months, being able to identify what she called the ‘taste’ of the energy in magic to know the general type of spell it was and who had cast it. Or at least, that the same person had cast a particular spell.
Now, the girl hesitated, touching the symbol again before giving a hesitant nod that grew a bit more firm after a moment. “I–uh huh. Yeah, I think so. It’s pretty distinct magic. Whoever put it there, if I can feel their magic, I’ll know it’s them.” Her words were somewhat uncertain at first, but gradually became confident toward the end. “I can do it, I can identify them. Mr. Rendell’s been teaching me.”
“A Stardrinker-Heretic,” Eldridge noted with an approving tone. “Now those are rare. Particularly one so… young.”
“Yeah, she’s pretty special,” I agreed with a thumbs up at the girl in question, a gesture that she returned with a bright smile. Then I turned my attention back to Bol. “Please tell me you guys locked this place down as soon as they disappeared. Not that I expect it’ll stop them if they were able to teleport Jiao and the kids out past all your security anyway, but still.”
“Actually,” came the response, “we know they haven’t left. They may have been able to get a teleport past our security, but we still detected it. Our alerts let us know it was happening, and it hasn’t happened since. We locked everything down, and the only spot the teleport happened was right here in this room.”
Tabbris piped up then. “Could they maybe have not been in this place to start with? Like, maybe they set the spell up and then left before triggering it.”
If answering a girl as young as Tabbris was bothering Bol, he didn’t show it. He just shook his head. “What they did was hard enough to begin with, just doing it from the inside. I don’t believe it’s physically possible for them to project magic through the defenses we have around the outside of the building. At the very least, our alarms out there would have detected it. The magic had to be triggered from within this building, we locked everything down the moment the one and only teleport happened in this room right here, and there’s been no alert of another one since.”
“So whoever did it is probably still in the building,” Miranda put in with a small frown. “Maybe this was a one-time thing? Or they’re just arrogant enough to think they can wait you out. I mean, important or not, you can’t lock down this building forever.”
“We have magic keeping the Bystanders from thinking about leaving,” one of the Vestils whose name I didn’t know announced. When we looked that way, he added, “Peace, we do not use it constantly or without cause. The magic is used to keep Bystanders inside when events are happening outside that would be hazardous to their health, and difficult to explain. We ensure they win enough to compensate for their time and to keep them happy, magic or no.”
“The point,” Eldridge informed us, “is that the Bystanders aren’t wondering why they can’t leave, and the non-Bystanders know something’s up and that they’re supposed to sit tight. Everyone’s still having a good time, so no one’s going to panic or get upset. People at the front?” He added with a look toward Bol.
“They’re being turned away,” the other man replied. “Our security is informing them that the venue is at capacity, given certain construction that’s taking place, and that they should try their luck at one of our other locations.”
Shiori spoke up. “So we just have to get Bobbi near everyone in the casino so she can check them? That… um, seems like the person would notice something first and maybe get away if they decided to bolt for it. Or just, you know, kill themselves rather than be taken by you.”
Eldridge gave a nod of agreement, “The Dhampyr is right. We don’t have time to take the girl near every single patron, and the moment we start doing that, the… perpetrator will probably notice something and escalate the situation.”
“So use her to confirm it’s the right person,” I pointed out, “but narrow it down some other way. We can do that, right? If this is a casino, you’ve got cameras all over the place. We just have to look through the footage and find anyone doing what might be magic. That should help cut down on the possibilities.”
“What if they were doing it in the restroom, or their hotel room?” Miranda asked. “Then we won’t see them at all.”
“Simple,” I replied, “they look through the footage themselves and check it against guest records. Make a note of anyone in the hotel who is not on the footage, as well as anyone who was in the restroom at the time the teleportation happened. If we don’t find the right person while watching the people we can see, it was one of the people we can’t. Then it’s still narrowed down.”
“Do we have time to look at all the camera footage?” Shiori sounded (understandably) worried.
Bol snapped his fingers to one of the other Vestil, who left the room quickly. “Yes, we’ll keep things as calm as we can. Our own people are looking through the footage as well, but… perhaps you will see something they don’t. Take a look, see if you can narrow it down while we make a note of anyone not on camera at the time.” As he said it, the Vestil who had left came back in the room. Behind him floated a half dozen laptops, which flew around to land on various surfaces. On their screens I could already see camera footage playing.
“It will be within a two to three minute window at the time of the abduction,” Bol informed us. “See if you can spot anything before our own people do.”
So, we spread out around the room with the provided computers and spent the next little while staring at the camera footage. We watched the same couple minutes over and over again from as many different angles as possible. Sped up, slowed down, zoomed in, zoomed out, we watched all of it again and again. Miranda even split herself into several duplicates to watch her screen with multiple pairs of eyes.
None of it helped. The only magic we could see being used was some of the dealers making cards float back to them, flip through the air, change colors or give off little sparks, that kind of thing. Clear and obvious entertainment tricks for the non-Bystanders. Showmanship.
“Uuuurgggh,” December groaned. She wasn’t watching a screen. Instead, the girl was hanging upside down from one of the ceiling lamps, watching us. “Sooooo bored, can’twejustgopunchsomeone?”
“We have to know the right person to punch,” Tabbris reminded her, though I could tell she was bored too. It was frustrating, staring at the same two minute time period, sometimes slowed down and sometimes sped up, while trying to spot any of the guests doing anything untoward. But they just weren’t. The security in this place was too good. They would have noticed a guest casting a spell if they were on camera. Which–
My hands quickly danced over the controls on the keyboard, adjusting the playback timeline as I rewound and then pushed it forward, my eyes staring intently.
“This is impossible,” Shiori announced, clearly too distraught about her missing mother to sit and focus on this for any longer. “All these people aren’t using magic. I swear we’ve stared at every single guest in this whole place and not one of them is–”
“That’s because it wasn’t a guest,” I cut in. “Camera thirty-two, zoom in on the dealer at the table and go back an hour, then play it forward at five times speed.”
They all did so, and I pointed. “There, see it? Pause… there.”
“Yeah, he’s using magic,” Asenath confirmed. “They all use magic, the dealers. It’s just performance art, and not powerful enough to actually trigger a teleport for one person, let alone a whole group.”
My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Yeah, but look at his other hand. He’s using hold and pass magic.”
Most of the others asked what I was talking about, while Bol took a step my way, his voice clearly surprised. “Are you sure?”
“Hold and pass magic,” I quickly explained to the others. “It’s…basically you start the very bare bones of a spell and then hold it, hold the… the shape of it. Normally you do that by repeatedly tracing a rune of the spell against your palm or a flat surface or something every minute or so to keep it fresh. You hold the power that way, keep it shaped the way you want it so the spell doesn’t fade. The pass part comes from the way you empower the spell. Basically, you kind of… push it into someone else, let the spell take some of their power, usually so little they don’t notice it’s gone. Then you pass it into someone else and take a bit more power from them, then someone else, and so on. You can empower really big spells without draining yourself by passing the spell back and forth between willing or unwilling subjects, even without letting them know what’s happening if you’re careful enough. And that’s what this dealer guy right here is doing. For an hour before the teleport, he keeps putting his thumb against his palm like right… there. He’s tracing a spell against his own hand and passing it through people that sit at his table, empowering it over that hour. He’s using hold and pass magic to set up the teleport.”
The others stared at me, Miranda finally asking, “How do you know about that?”
Chayyiel, of course. She’d been giving me magic lessons in addition to the combat ones. I couldn’t do the hold and pass spells yet, but I had the basic idea. I also couldn’t tell them about it.
So, I settled on a simple, “I have really good teachers.” It wasn’t a lie. “But that’s him, that’s your guy.” I looked at Bol pointedly. “And it’s why your people haven’t caught him yet. Because they’re looking for a guest using magic.”
Bol stared at the screen, his eyes focused on the dealer who had apparently helped abduct Jiao and a whole group of Vestil children. Not to mention the fact that this guy was obviously connected to the original disappearance of the Vestil-Akharu princess.
“Well then,” the man murmured.
“I think someone should go have a little chat with our new friend.”