Even with the door closed, Tavia could hear Izak saying something to Audri. She couldn't make out the words, but the serious tone was enough for her to know where the conversation was heading. She wasn't about to go back in and stop Izak, but the shocked voice from Audri that made it through the door hurt more than Tavia could admit even to herself. She stepped away from the door, she didn't need to hear anything more.
The sterile hallway stretched in both directions before her, but Tavia turned left. The institute building was large, but the layout wasn't too complicated; she should be able to get out without any issues.
As Tavia followed the white, linoleum flooring, she passed by the closed doors of several labs. Behind a few doors, raised voices were leaking out into the hall, the excitement in them easy to decipher even if the words were unintelligible. As she passed by one door, a thunderous crash made her jump and face the door. Silence followed the loud sound, and after a moment, Tavia looked away and hurried down the hallway. She wasn't interested in what lay beyond those doors. No good would come of sticking her nose into the business of Artificers.
As she searched for the way out, she passed a few of Artificers, and though they gave her some odd looks, none of them tried to stop her. They seemed to busy to really care anyway, hurrying down the halls carrying boxes and books. One Artificer was holding a grimoire, staring at the pages as he mumbled to himself. Tavia stepped around the man, or they would have collided, and the man didn't even notice her presence as he continued onward. Carrying a grimoire meant he was likely an Artificer and an Altheist, not terribly unusual, seeing as both careers had their own stringent requirements, it wasn't very common either.
Tavia came up to an intersection with another hallway. Her feet slowed to a stop and she looked at the three directions she had to choose from. Which way had they come from before? Left again? She looked down the hallways, but they all looked the same. There wasn't anyone nearby to ask either, and she was not about to go knocking on a door to ask for directions. She shrugged, it was best to follow your gut at times like this.
She turned left and followed the hallway, but only a short way down, the corridor ended in a set of stairs ascending to the second floor. She stopped and looked at the stairs with a scowl. She hadn't seen any stairs while following Lenore. Well, it was possible for intuition to be wrong sometimes, right?
Tavia turned to head back the way she came, but before she had even taken a few steps, someone began descending the stairs. She hesitated, stopping as she ran the possible scenarios of what would happen if she was caught here. Would she get into trouble for being here? None of the Artificers had said anything to her in the halls, though Lenore had tried to stop her in the beginning. Regardless, it was clear to anyone with eyes that Tavia had no business being in this section of the institute, but it wasn't as if there was anywhere she could try to hide. The simplest option was just to be honest about being lost and ask for directions.
She turned around to face the stairs and waited. A middle aged man, light skinned and with a dark beard and well groomed head of hair, came into view. He paused for a moment when he saw Tavia watching him, and his mouth turned down. He was practically radiating disapproval, and she bit back a groan—maybe this was actually more serious than she had thought. The man was a little on the heavy side, but not enough to make it difficult for him to navigate the stairs.
He reached the ground floor and approached her, his broad shoulders squared in preparation for a confrontation. Tavia watched him with growing alarm. She hadn't even said anything yet, shouldn't he at least wait that long before getting angry? The man's gaze traveled up and down her, taking in her plain shirt and shorts.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "And why are you wearing those? You should be wearing something more appropriate for an intern."
Well, if he thought Tavia was an intern, that might explain his impatience, but she could only pity the poor person that had to work under this man.
"Ah, no I'm—" Tavia began, but the man didn't even listen to her.
"It doesn't matter, it's good you were here. I was looking for someone to help. Come with me."
He reached out and grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the stairs.
"What are you doing?" she asked. "I don't—"
"Enough," the man grumbled, "just come. I don't know if Lenore sent you here or not, but I need more hands on this project."
Lenore? Did this man work with Lenore? Tavia's resistance faltered just enough for the man to successfully pull her and begin to drag her up the stairs. Halfway up, Tavia pulled her hand out of the man's grip. He looked back, prepared to snarl at her.
"I'm not an intern," Tavia snapped.
The man's expression changed from anger to perplexed, and then finally suspicion.
"Oh?" he said narrowing his eyes. "Then why are you here? This isn't a place for children to wander about."
"Lenore was giving me a tour of the building, and then I kind of...got lost." Tavia looked away, trying to avoid the scorn in the man's gaze.
The man sighed. His shoulders fell and he placed a hand to his face. After a moment he lowered his hand and looked over at Tavia.
"I see," he said. "Well, I can't just let you wander around here alone. Some of the projects here are classified. Even if Lenore brought you here, I can't just give you free rein."
"If you just tell me how to get back to the entrance I'll—"
"No, no that won't work," the man said. "Just come with me back to my lab and I'll have someone escort you to the entrance. I don't have the time to do it myself."
The man continued to ascend the stairs, muttering to himself about missing interns and a general lack of decent help during such a busy time. Tavia listened but kept silent. She didn't want to give this man anymore reason to be upset with her. Not like this was really her fault in the first place. It wasn't as if she had wanted to get lost.
They reached the second floor and the man headed down the hallway, leading Tavia through the twisting corridors. The layout of the second floor was more complicated, but after getting lost on the ground floor, Tavia was careful to pay extra attention this time. She wouldn't let herself get lost so easily again. It was quieter on this floor, even though there were even more labs here.
Eventually the man came to a stop before a door. The door was shut—locked most likely— and a small sign above a silvery panel to the right of the door read "Unidentified Artifacts Laboratory 3." The man placed his hand on the panel and a blue glow, not quite as brilliant as the cyan of natural Althier, surrounded his hand before the panel beeped and the door opened.
Aura-sensitive door locks? That was certainly some next-level Althieology. Leave it to an Artifact research facility to have the most devices around.
The room beyond the door was a lab like the kind Tavia was used to seeing. It was fairly large, large enough to accommodate the three people in the room, walls full of devices hooked up to vid-screens, a table in the middle with a long, dark object on it, plus both the man and Tavia when they entered, with room to spare. Coffee mugs and pictures sat on the consoles and shelves lining the walls. It gave the lab an awkward homey feel, as if the Artificers were half-heartedly declaring this lab as their own, but at the same time afraid to lay claim to it.
The object on the table caught Tavia's interest. It was sword made of dark, near-black alther. Black was a hard alther to work with, durable and strong, but it was very unrefined, making it difficult to channel Althier with. Even at first glance, the age of the sword was evident. With a broad blade and a hilt intended for two hands, the sword was more reminiscent of the broad-sword of the age of the Grand Hero, not like the narrow light weight blades that relied on the Althier flowing through them for power.
"Professor Abram," a woman standing before a screen said as soon as the door closed behind Tavia and the man.
"Daina," the man responded to the greeting with a nod of his head.
Abram? Tavia had heard that name before. He was a famous Artificer, one known for his work on medical devices. It seemed this lab was studying that old sword though, so why was Abram here?
Abram glanced at Tavia, and the look in his eyes was enough to convey the message that she was to stay put. She hung back, near the door, hoping to avoid the notice of the other Artificers. There wasn't much she could imagine that was worse than being trapped inside a RIOAR lab, and in a desperate bid to keep from letting the panic bubbling up from her stomach overwhelm her, she asked the first question she could think of.
"What's with sword?" she asked.
Abram frowned as if her simple question was crossing some kind of line, but he stepped up the table, his back to Tavia, and placed a hand beside the sword.
"We found it in the Grand Hero's tomb, and we think, it's The Ageless Sword," he said. He looked back over his shoulder, and scowled. "And that's enough questions. Wait there quietly until I can spare someone."
His harsh gaze made Tavia flinch, and she backed up to the wall beside the door. Crossing one arm across her chest, she watched the man turn and begin snapping out orders to the others.