Though Tavia had thought Ikarios's explanation had been clear enough, as they raced through the institute for the third floor, she came face to face with the awful truth that she hadn't understood a thing about the power they were facing.
Dieos and Abram must have taken over RIOAR right after their encounter in the underground hideout, because there were still Artificers in the building who had yet to leave for the day. They had become trapped within the dome, but after seeing several of the prisoners, it was clear they were likely unaware that anything had even happened.
The first pair they passed were standing just outside a lab, two Artificers discussing something. At first glance, there didn't seem to be anything wrong, but as they drew nearer without stopping, a sense of unease filled Tavia. They didn't seem to be moving. It was as if they had been stopped mid-conversation, but on a closer look, the mouth of one of them was moving, just so slowly it was impossible to make out the words coming from her mouth.
Then there were the people walking the hallways. Artificers hurrying to some other destination, but they never arrived. They would take a few steps forward, before time skipped backwards for them, and they were once more in their starting position. Lenore was amongst their number, and despite the hurry they were in, Tavia couldn't help but stop and watch Lenore for a few repetitions. The woman would take four steps forward, her expression focused on something ahead, only for the moment to restart and Lenore would reappear once again in the place she had started, as if the four steps she had taken had never even happened. It made Tavia's stomach twist into knots.
"We can't stop here," Ikarios said.
Lenore didn't even notice them. She was trapped in another time, one where Tavia and Ikarios didn't exist, a time where they hadn't yet passed through this hallway. Tavia struggled against reaching out and touching Lenore. If she did that, what would happen? Would she get pulled into Lenore's cycle? Or would it free the woman? Even if it did free Lenore, where was she going to go? She wouldn't be able to escape, and at least this way, she didn't have to suffer through the knowledge that she was trapped. It wasn't easy though, to watch Lenore's cycle of four steps and then a reset and to know there was nothing Tavia could do to help her.
If Dieos regained his strength, would everyone in the city be trapped like this? An eternal prison of ten seconds?
"The best way to help these people is to stop Dieos," Ikarios said, but then he gave Lenore a dark look. "Though honestly, these people are just getting what they deserve."
Tavia shook her head as Lenore reset once more. "No one deserves this."
Ikarios gave a half-hearted shrug, and Tavia stepped away from Lenore with only one last look back. They continued on their way, arriving at the third floor within only a few minutes, and it was only another minute or so before they arrived at the elevator to take them down to the lab.
"We're sure Dieos and Izak are down here?" Tavia asked, as they stood before the elevator.
Abram had said as much, but then again, Abram had also deceived her once before.
"They are," Ikarios said. "I can sense their minds below us. Your friend is still asleep, but he's alive."
She was glad he was alive, but hearing Izak was really down there with Dieos wasn't comforting in the slightest. She would have much rather him be somewhere else, anywhere else.
She arrived at the elevator first, but waited for Ikarios before gesturing to the call button. Though Evos had the Althier she channeled under control, she still wasn't sure how that would affect other devices, and the last thing they needed was for her to break the elevator by being careless.
Ikarios hit the button, and the door slid open as if it had been waiting for them. He eyed the elevator and then with an uneasy smile, stepped inside. Tavia followed after, and they began the long descent to the lab below.
"So, do we have a plan?" she asked.
Ikarios shifted his posture.
She stared at him in silence. No plan? She'd thought he was more of the careful and thorough type. Up till now, everything he'd done had seemed well coordinated and thought out.
"Even if we had one," he said when her surprise became apparent, "do you really think it would last more than twenty seconds against Dieos? Not to mention, we don't know the first thing about the other, really. You do your thing, and I'll do mine."
"And what's your thing?" Tavia asked. "I thought Demis couldn't use their powers on others? Didn't you say you can't control his mind?."
"Stronger Demis typically can't be affected by the powers of weaker Demis," Ikarios said. "But a strong Demi could certainly force their power on one weaker than them. That's why I need to maintain a connection with someone unaffected by Dieos's power, in this case you, to stay grounded in real-time."
"Wait then, does that mean Evos is—?" she looked down at the sword in her head, leaving her thought only half spoken.
"I don't think so," Ikarios said as Evos echoed his denial in the back of Tavia's mind. "I guess, mitigating the powers of other Demis is part of Evos's abilities. Or maybe it's the sword's. Hard to say since they're so interwoven.
"Either way, if Dieos is focused on you, I should still have a chance of getting into his mind," he said. "I'm not looking to control it, just...hinder it."
Tavia looked away from Ikarios. She had expected him to be more of the planner type, but was he actually someone reckless? Ah well, at least she didn't have to worry about messing up a hastily made plan. One less thing to be concerned about.
The elevator ride ended in silence, and as the door slid open, Tavia and Ikarios hid against the walls, staying out of immediate sight. Tavia tried to peer around the edges of the door without being seen, but that was easier said than done.
"Why bother hiding?" Dieos's voice reached inside the elevator. "It's not like I don't know you're in there."
Tavia's eyes met Ikarios's. He gave her a tight frown and then gestured for her to stay where she was before stepping out into the open. He left the elevator, stopping where Tavia could still see him.
"Hello Ikarios," Dieos said. "Come to join me at last?"
"Join you?" Ikarios asked, and his shoulders shook. "Why would I ever choose to side with someone who is following the orders of a human Artificer?"
"Is that what you're worried about?" Dieos asked, sounding bored. "That man and I are nothing but tools to each other. He thinks he can study me; I intend to do away with him once I've learned about the changes in this world since my last awakening. He's too foolish to be trusted any longer than that."
Even Dieos didn't trust Abram? If Abram hadn't been the cause of this entire problem, Tavia might have felt bad for him, but he didn't deserve any pity.
Ikarios didn't reply, and after a moment, Dieos sighed.
"I don't understand you accuse me of aiding humans, but aren't you the one protecting this city?" Dieos said. "Is there some reason you've chosen to help the humans?"
"This isn't a matter of Demis versus humans," Ikarios replied. "I just don't want this city to fall under your control."
"Ah, well, if it's something like that, then I suppose there's no helping it," Dieos said. Tavia couldn't see his expression, but he sounded annoyed. "I was going to let you live, but since you insisted on coming here, I suppose I'll have to kill you. Maybe next time around you'll be more inclined to cooperate."
Footsteps, but Ikarios wasn't moving. That meant they belonged to Dieos, but Tavia couldn't tell whether he was coming closer or getting further away. Ikarios's shoulders rose, stiffening as the boy took a step back. Closer then, otherwise Ikarios wouldn't look so stressed.
Tavia gripped the Ageless Sword in both hands. She took a deep breath, focusing on the feeling of the Althier in her body, on the feeling of the strength given to her by Evos, and on the encouragement and belief he was sharing with her.
Tavia faced the door and darted through it, scanning the room until she spotted Dieos. He was standing before Ikarios, only a few feet from the boy. Tavia charged forward. She wouldn't hesitate this time. She wouldn't.
Ikarios stepped out of her way, and Tavia brought the sword to level with Dieos's chest. The Althier around the edge of the blade gathered on the tip, and when Tavia was close enough, she lunged forward, striking with a speed that left her breathless and dizzy.
Dieos raised his hand to intercept the path of the sword, and looking bored, stopped the sword inches before it pierced through his hand. The red Althier from when she had fought him before, swirled around him.
"Well, well, if it isn't the would-be hero," he said. "As I expected, you just couldn't stay away."