"A null-aura. How...unusual," Abram said as he leaned in close to examine Tavia's face.
Tavia turned to the side. It wasn't as if her lacking an aura made her look any different, it wasn't a physical disability after all. Auras couldn't be seen unless they were being used, otherwise, there was no apparent mark that signified having or not having an aura. After a moment of looking Tavia over, Abram straightened. He lowered the sword to his side, holding the priceless Artifact in one hand with a careless grip.
"Don't null-auras typically...well...ah..." Abram backed up as if realizing his question wasn't something he should ask the person concerned.
She knew what he wanted to say. It was the same comment most people made when they first realized what she was.
"Most null-auras don't make it past sixteen, is what you wanted to say, right?"
"Exactly, so that's..." Abram began and then fell silent.
He turned away and set the sword on the table. As he stared down at the sword, his back to Tavia, he began to mumble.
"No, no, I do recall hearing about a null-aura girl. She was at one of the RIOAR sub-branches for a bit a few years back." He turned to face Tavia. "Would that happen to have been you?"
She looked away, but nodded. There weren't that many null-auras around. Tavia had never actually met any other null-auras before, but then again, she had never really gone looking for any. What was she going to do if she found them? Join in some kind of sad, "poor-me" symposium? Null-aura was a rare condition, and normally terminal.
"I didn't think that girl was still alive," Abram said. "From what I understand, without an aura, Althier builds up in the body, leading to Althier poisoning."
It was hard to tell if he was making her uncomfortable on purpose, or it he was just oblivious to the meaning behind what he was saying. Althier poisoning was a real and painful thing, not just for null-auras, it was something anyone who was careless could get, but dying from Althier poisoning was rare for anyone other than null-auras.
Althier existed naturally within the world, unseen but always present, and with every breath, all living things took in Althier. It was like oxygen, necessary to live, but too much Althier was toxic and would destroy the body from the inside out. Tavia was foggy on the details, but that was where the aura came in, protecting people from the excess Althier. Without an aura, the excess Althier would just sit inside her, rotting her body from the inside out.
Either way, what all this really came down to at the moment was that she didn't have an aura. She couldn't help him even if she wanted to.
"Anyway, I don't have an aura, so I can't activate that Artifact for you," Tavia said,
She couldn't activate any devices actually. The only things she could use were devices like her vox, or light switches that didn't require an aura to work. There was no way she could use an alther weapon, and certainly not a grimoire. She would never be able to be a Martial, no matter how hard she tried.
"Fascinating," Abram said. "Are there others in your family with the same condition? Is it inherited? Who are your parents?"
Unfazed by her words, his focus had already shifted. He was staring at Tavia with the eyes of a man who only sees a subject for study. She shivered and took another step away from him. This had to be the worst thing that could have happened.
"I'm the only one," Tavia replied. "And I'm the only there's ever been in the family."
"You know for sure?" Abram asked.
"We keep good records of the family."
She didn't want to tell him who her family was. A reluctance that stemmed from hating the pity it always brought. The Renegardes were a family famous for producing only the most talented and skilled Martials. They had a history as long as Marquest itself, and a null-aura like Tavia was just a stain on their good reputation.
Abram signed and shook his head, finally taking a step back. He looked back at the table, at the sword specifically.
"Well, that's certainly interesting and all, and it would be fascinating to find out how you've managed to live so long," Abram said, and Tavia didn't bother hiding her dark look this time.
"But I suppose you're right. Having you test this Artifact would be rather pointless, wouldn't it?"
Abram sighed again and looked around, as if just realizing he had been utterly ignoring the other Artificers present. One of them waved Abram over, and after sending Tavia a crooked grimace he turned away.
"Hey, wait," Tavia called after Abram.
He paused and glanced back at her.
"Aren't you going to have someone show me the way out?" Tavia asked.
She wasn't spending another moment here. If Abram didn't agree to have someone guide her out right now, she'd turn around and leave, even if he tried to stop her. Though Abram had been the only one to show interest in her, these people were all Artificers, she couldn't trust that they didn't see her as just some rare specimen.
"Ah, right, that," he said.
He looked around the lab and pointed to someone.
The woman who had been bent over her console, focused on her work jumped at the mention of her name.
"Help show the girl to the lobby," Abram said, and then he turned away for good to resume his work.
The woman, Daina, looked back at Tavia, her lips drawn into a tight line of annoyance. She sighed, tapped something out on the keyboard, and then turned to Tavia. She was somewhere in her mid-thirties, younger than Abram, but old enough she could have been running her own lab. Was working under Abram really that great?
As Daina approached Tavia, her expression softened.
"Don't take it to heart," she said. She used her head to gesture towards Abram and her voice lowered in volume, "He's not the most...socially aware person. I'm sorry you had to deal with that."
"I noticed," Tavia replied, but a small part of her that still remember to be courteous made her grudgingly add, "Thanks."
Daina smiled, but it wasn't a very good smile. She looked back at Abram as he stood beside another Artificer, discussing something Tavia couldn't quite hear from the other side of the room.
"He's brilliant though. He's handling both this project and another, as well as continuing his work on finalizing testing for the medical devices."
The admiration in Daina's voice was clear, but just because Tavia heard a list of the man's accomplishments, that didn't mean she liked him any better.
"Can we just go?" she muttered.
Daina gave Tavia a small half-smile and then nodded.
"Sure thing," she said. "To the lobby, right?"
Tavia nodded, but before she could even turn to the door to open it, a loud rumbling emanated from the floor at her feet. She looked down, but of course all she saw was the pale carpeting of the floor. Her confusion last only a moment though, because immediately after the noise, the entire lab shook as if the walls were about to collapse.
Tavia and Daina were both tossed to the ground, and Tavia landed on top of the woman's legs. Daina's knees slammed into Tavia's stomach, and both women gasped in pain. The lights overhead flickered as the Althier power was disrupted by the shaking, and anything not tied down in the lab slid of the walls and tables before tumbling to ground. The homey mugs and picture frames shattered as they hit the ground, turning the quiet lab into a scene of destruction in a matter of moments.
The shaking stopped, and Tavia sat up, looking around at the mess. Daina moved away from her and stood up, racing for her desk to check and make sure the console hadn't been damaged. The other Artificers were doing the same, checking their work, unconcerned with the dangerous shards of glass and ceramic scattered about the sword. One of the men had thrown himself over the sword on the table, as if to protect it, but the ancient thing was probably more durable than he was.
Papers were scattered along the floor, and someone's full coffee mug had shattered on the ground, its contents splashed across the carpet. At some point in the violent shaking, a long, sinuous crack had appeared in the wall farthest from the door.
An earthshake? But if that was the case, then what had been the sound she heard? It had sounded something like an explos—
A loud beeping rang through the lab. An alarm for emergencies. The beeping paused only long enough for an evacuation order to be given.
"Evacuate? Are you kidding?" Daina asked the other Artificers, and then looked to Abram. "We have to make sure the equipment survived the shaking."
Abram's mouth twitched into a frown and he reached a hand into his coat pocket. He pulled out his vox, a thin, nearly see-through panel and tapped on the screen a few times. Whatever he saw on there, it was clear the information wasn't good.
"That wasn't an earthshake," he said. "Someone just set off a bomb in the lobby."