The acrid smell of magic and alther drifted through the doors every time they slid open to admit someone. Tavia stood just outside the automatic doors, watching the busy lobby through the glass, and trying to focus on her friend's words rather than the squirming fear in the pit of her stomach.
"It'll only be for a few minutes," Izak said. "I just need to find my mom and give her the papers she forgot."
He was half a step ahead of her, and looking down at Tavia over his shoulder—he was a good eight inches taller than her these days. Izak was carrying a folder filled with loose papers in his arms. He'd almost lost some getting out of the convei they had ridden here, and now his hands were clutching the bundle to his chest to keep from losing any.
"I'll wait out here," she replied.
"It's way too hot to stay outside," Izak said. "I won't be that fast."
She looked up at the sky and scowled at the sun. It really was too hot. Even now a bead of sweat was working its way down Tavia's back, and she had only been out of the cool air of the convei for a few minutes. She should have tied up her hair, but but long, wavy mess was too much a hassle deal with, and besides, tying it up meant exposing her ears to the world. The tips of her ears came to fine points—they were hardly longer than those of a typical Marquestian native, like Izak, but between her ears and the dark ashen tone of her skin, it was obvious at a glance that she had some Terrisian blood in her.
She'd dressed for the heat in a simple shirt and a pair of shorts. The outfit hadn't met her mother's standards—it wasn't as if being a noble lady meant much these days, but Septia still held to the belief that Tavia needed to look the part a duchess's daughter at all times. Tavia hadn't paid much attention to the dark, judging look her mother had seen her off with, but there was sure to be something said when she returned home. Even in her simple outfit she was still hot though—summer in Edelheiss was always miserable.
Tavia returned her gaze to the building before them, and her mood soured further. Why had she even agreed to come here in the first place? It had been a good excuse to get out of the house, sure, but Tavia hadn't really thought she would have to go inside. She wasn't sure what was worse, staying home and having to deal with her mother, or setting foot in a place like this.
Built of dark gray stone, the three story building was dwarfed by the sky towers that surrounded it. It had been built in the era before Artificers learned to work alther into the very structure of buildings, creating impossibly tall structures that brushed against the sky itself, and unlike many old buildings in the area, it had managed to remain untouched by progress, almost like it was trapped in a single moment of time.
Large letters hung above the doorway that had been updated at some point into the modern, convient sliding doors. The letters spelled out RIOAR, the Royal Institute of Artifact Research, a unmistakable reminder of where she was that jabbed at Tavia's heart. The facade of the building featured the ascetics of an early time, with scroll work and stained glass windows resembling the ostentatious churches found in Terris.
Tavia took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The hot sun was beginning to bake her skin; it was so dry outside too. Izak was right, standing outside was stupid.
"Fine, but I'm only going into the lobby," Tavia said.
Izak sighed and continued forward, Tavia trailing just behind him. The doors opened as they approached, and the cool air from inside the building enveloped Tavia before she even passed through the doors.
"See? Much nicer," Izak said as the doors closed behind them.
Tavia mumbled her agreement and then looked around. RIOAR was a large organization, and there were several buildings all throughout Edelheiss that allegedly worked toward the same goals. This particular building was the main headquarters, but the one Tavia knew was larger in size, and more austere in design. That place hadn't been designed for visitors, but it was clear with just a glance that the main headquarters at least expected guests.
Beyond the doors was a simple lobby. The walls and floors were white, pristine and sterile. Inane pictures of flowers and other innocuous scenes decorated the walls, but their impact was small. There was a modest desk with a bored receptionist sitting against the wall opposite the entry doors, and Izak was already heading there—probably to find out where his mother was. Hallways on either side of the desk led deep into the institute to where the labs were.
To the right of the doorway was a small sitting area with uncomfortable-looking chairs slid up against one of the walls. Across from the chairs, a vid-screen played the news, and as Izak spoke to the receptionist, Tavia watched the report. It was just another story about about the Scarver attack Khester, a city near the northern border, close to Terris. The Knights had made barely made it in time to keep damage to the city at a minimum, but there had been casualties among the citizens. It was all anyone seemed to talk about recently.
As she watched the reporter make judgements about the ability of the Knights, Tavia's thoughts turned to her brother. He was Knight himself, a good and proper child of Septia Renegarde, and had probably been among the Knights who stopped the insectoid Scarver from destroying the city. Hopefully he wasn't among the injured himself.
Tavia sighed, and looked away from the screen. Izak finished talking to the woman, and he waved Tavia over as he walked away from the desk.
"Is something wrong?" Tavia asked as she met him in the middle of the lobby.
"No, but instead of going to look for her, my mom's just going to meet us here," Izak said.
Tavia frowned and folded her arms. She put on a stern expression, hoping to hide the fact that she was a little relieved Izak wouldn't be leaving her alone in the lobby. This place didn't look like the other RIOAR, but it smelled the same, and the Artificers constantly passing through the lobby from hall to the other were making it more nervous that she liked to admit.
"Calm down, we don't have to go anywhere," Izak said, "and it isn't like anyone is going to just jump you or something. I doubt any of them even know who you are."
Tavia looked around. Sure enough, the few Artificers passing through the lobby hadn't even given her a second glance. He was probably right; there wasn't any need to be so nervous, right? This was a different branch. The people here weren't the same as the ones in that place. There was no need to be so paranoid. She took a deep breath and peered down the length of the nearest hallway.
"How long did they say it would be?" she asked.
Izak shrugged. "Few minutes at the most?"
His guess was a little shy of the mark. It was closer to ten minutes before Tavia spotted a familiar woman coming down one of the hallways into the lobby. Even if she didn't know Lenore, she would have recognized her as being related to Izak in an instant. They had the same angular face, and the same shade of pale skin with light brown hair, but Izak's was kept short, and his mother's was long and curled.
"Finally," Tavia muttered as Lenore approached them.
Izak glanced at her, but she didn't care if he was annoyed. She was ready to get out of this place. Simply being here was enough to dredge about bad memories.
"Izak," Lenore said when she spotted her son. "Why didn't you just call me?"
"I tried before we even got here," Izak said. "You didn't answer. Did you leave your vox somewhere again?"
Lenore came to a stop beside them. She was wearing a long pale-blue lab coat covered in gray and blue dust, and she reached into the pockets. Her hands came out, still empty, and Lenore frowned. She looked away from a moment as she thought.
"It's probably in the lab?"
Izak shrugged. Lenore looked at Tavia and smiled.
"Tavia, how are you?" she asked, and the sound of her voice almost glowed with warmth. "It's been so long since I last saw you."
Tavia couldn't help but smile back. She and Izak had been friends since they were little. Well, their families had been friends to begin with, but Tavia had always liked Lenore, even if the woman was a little absent minded. She was an Artificer, but she worked in designing and refining techniques for maintaining Artifacts and the devices based on them, not in creating new magic from Artifacts.
"I heard from Izak you're aiming to get into Avel'lier as well?" Lenore asked. "He said you applied as a general studies student, but...was your mother alright with that?"
Tavia grimaced and shot a glare at Izak. Of course he had told his mother. She should have expected that. Lenore wasn't the only one surprised at Tavia's curriculum choice, but it wasn't really a matter of her preferences.
"I don't really have much of a choice in programs," she told Lenore. "And no, Sep—my mother wasn't, but she wasn't going to be happy with anything I chose. I'm wait-listed though, so it doesn't matter, I probably won't get in this year anyway."
There was a small silence after Tavia's words, and she looked away, trying to seem interested in the news playing on the vid-screen again. Being wait-listed to get into the university hadn't come as much of a surprise—it was more an expected disappointment—but it was still hard to talk about. It wasn't even that she wanted to attend the school in and of itself. She just...wanted out of that house.
Izak shifted his weight, and then shoved the papers in his hands at his mother.
"Uh, anyway, Mom, here are your papers," Izak said in a breathless rush.
She took them with more composure than he had given them away with, and while sorting the disheveled stack in to a neater, more manageable pile, smiled.
"Thank you for bringing them," she said. "I should know better than to try to bring work home with me. We've just been so busy lately, there just aren't enough hours in the day."
Lenore heaved a sigh, looking far more tired than Tavia had ever seen her before. She hadn't paid it much mind before, but were those dark circles under her eyes?
"Did something happen?" Tavia asked.
Lenore smiled and looked around at the lobby. She waited a moment as a pair of men in coats that matched Lenore's walked by, and then leaned forward conspiratorially. "I shouldn't be saying this, but we found the Grand Hero's tomb."
Izak coughed, and then looked away.
"Mom, isn't that just a myth? I thought there was no such thing as the tomb, isn't that what you told me?" he asked.
"Well, I guess I was wrong," she said with a laugh. "The Altheists who discovered it are pretty certain it's the real tomb. So a team of Artificers have been studying the Artifacts found in the tomb, which has left the rest of us shorthanded."
"Can you even learn anything from Artifacts that old?" Izak asked.
"Of course," Lenore said. "There's all kinds of things we can learn from historical Artifacts, but the most interesting thing about this one, is that no matter what we try, we can't activate it."
"Doesn't that just mean it's broken?" Izak asked.
Lenore scoffed. "Just like your father. Is it an Althiest thing to have no imagination? It could mean a million different things, and besides, this particular Artifact is rather famous in its own right."
Izak shrugged, giving his mother a mischievous smile. Izak was Lenore's only child, and though Lenore had clearly wanted Izak to follow the path of Artificer, Izak had chosen the more dangerous and less stable path of an Altheist. It had been a tense time, but in the end, Lenore had accepted his decision. She simply requested Izak not carry around his grimoire when he wasn't practicing casting spells.
As interesting as talk of the Grand Hero was, Tavia was ready to leave. She gave Izak a quick glance that she hoped he would understand. He saw it, and she saw him smirk.
"Mom, we—" Izak began, but Lenore hardly noticed her son speaking and cut him off.
"Would the two of you like a tour of the labs?"
Tavia looked back over at Lenore. Though she had included them both in the question, it was Tavia she was looking at for an answer. Izak was already nodding, but when he caught sight of the grimace on Tavia's face, he stopped.
"Didn't you just say you're busy?" Tavia asked. "Do you have that kind of time?"
If the woman realized Tavia was trying to make a polite excuse not to accept the offer, she ignored it. Tavia didn't want to stay here any longer than she had to, but Lenore probably wasn't thinking about that.
"It won't take long, and I need a break anyway," Lenore said with a smile. "We have some really interesting things going on in the testing area right now. I'm sure there would be something you'd enjoy seeing there."
"I can't imagine anything would be that interesting," Tavia said. "I'd really rather—"
"Nonsense," Lenore said, "we're talking about some state-of-the-art Althieology here. It's something a student entering Avel'lier should be eager to see. And...it'd do you some good to see what RIOAR is really like."
Lenore looked down for a moment, before smiling at Tavia once again. Tavia returned the smile with an uneasy one of her own. Lenore was someone who'd always had Tavia's best interests at heart, but as Tavia thought about the winding hallways and dark labs she'd seen at the branch facility, she shivered.
"Tavia," Lenore interrupted, "This is the leading research facility on Artifacts in the world. Is this an opportunity you should really let pass by?"
Tavia looked down to hide the scowl on her face. Lenore was like Izak—or maybe that was the other way around? Either way, she wasn't going to give up now that she had this idea in her head. And besides, it...was nice and cool in here, and the more time Tavia spent here, the less she had to spend at home. It couldn't be that bad, could it?
Tavia schooled her expression, and gave Lenore another smile, one she hoped was better than the last. It still wasn't a very good one, but Lenore gave a satisfied nod at the sight.
"Then, let's not waste any more time," the woman said.