Audri met them at the entrance to the elevator on the third floor. She was pacing back and forth, and when the door finally opened, she faced Tavia with a grim expression.
"Abram escaped," were her first words, and then a small flicker of relief lit up her expression when she realized Tavia was carrying Izak on her back.
That was probably going to a problem later, but right now, Tavia didn't really care what Abram did with himself.
"We need to get out of here. Ikarios says the Althier forming the barrier is going to implode," Tavia told her. "We can talk about Abram later."
She tried not to think about what Abram escaping would mean, what he would do after this. There were more pressing concerns at the moment.
"What's the fastest way out of here?" Ikarios asked.
Audri looked back and forth between the two of them, her skin flushed with the exertion from her fight, turned pale.
"Wait," she said. "There are people here. Do you plan on just leaving them?"
Tavia blinked at Audri. She had completely forgotten after her fight with Dieos, but they weren't the only ones in RIOAR.
"I don't care if some Artificers die," Ikarios muttered. "And we don't have time to save them."
He pointed out a nearby window. The barrier was still there, but it was throbbing, and cracks had begun to spread across it as if it were made of glass.
"When that thing shatters, anything inside that's alive is going to be bombarded with corrupted Althier," Ikarios said. "I don't care who you are, that much Althier is a death sentence."
"How long do you think we have?" Audri asked as she peered out the window.
Ikarios shrugged. "Ten minutes, at most, maybe not even that long. You won't have time to find everyone, and even if you do, do you think you'll be able to get them through the barrier before it implodes?"
"We don't need to find everyone," Tavia said. "We can use the emergency system to announce that people need to evacuate, then get them to go to one area to let them out."
"Tavia," Ikarios said. "Be honest, do you think you can keep the barrier open long enough for everyone to escape?"
Could she? It had taken almost everything she had to open it the first time. And that was before the fight with Dieos, before her body ached and burned from her injuries and the over-channeling of Althier.
"I'll just have to do it," she said through grit teeth.
"No," Audri said as she pulled away from the window. "There's another way. Do you remember the Artifact test-chamber, where we first met?" Tavia nodded and Audri continued. "Lenore once told me that it's built to keep Althier trapped inside the room, just in case there's some kind of accident."
"That doesn't mean it'll keep excess Althier out," Ikarios said.
"I think it will," Audri said. "We didn't even feel the vibrations from your attack on the lobby when we were in there."
Ikarios turned to Tavia. "We need to escape. Just forget the others. You rescued your friend, what more do you want?"
Audri said nothing. She only stared at Tavia, her blue eyes filled with determination and her hands balled into fists. Audri was going to go through with this even if Tavia didn't. She wasn't asking for permission, only for help.
"Do you know how to use the announcement system?" Tavia asked.
Audri nodded. "It's on the second floor, I know where it is. I need you to get the access card to open the door to the test-chamber. There should be one at the desk in the lobby"
Tavia nodded. They could do this, it would work.
They split up at the stairs, Audri stopping on the second floor, while Ikarios followed Tavia to the first. She ignored the people they passed, but she was relieved to see they had all returned to follow a normal flow of time. If they had still been trapped, Tavia didn't think this would have worked. Those she saw were confused, and a few tried to stop Tavia, but she ignored them.
Audri would take care of the announcement, so Tavia didn't have time to worry about them.
They passed by the test-chamber on the way there, and Tavia left Izak lying against the locked door. With her burden lifted, she was able to get to the lobby that much faster.
Ikarios continued to follow her, panting as he tried to keep up with her pace. She was still letting the Ageless Sword give her strength and speed, and Ikarios quickly fell behind. The ice from the fight with Abram had melted, but it had left puddles all across the floor. Tavia splashed through them in her hurry to get to the desk and begin her search.
Audri's announcement rang through the air. Good, at least that was done. She only hoped the people trapped here would listen.
She swallowed a whimper when she saw half of the desk had been crushed by rubble. Hopefully the access card hadn't been in that half.
"Why are you risking your life for them?" Ikarios asked.
He had finally caught up? Good, he could help search.
"Come help me look," Tavia said.
He didn't move, and she wasted valuable time to look up at him. He was staring out the front doors at the barrier. The cracks spreading across it had grown in size, and the color was deeper, no longer scarlet. It had taken on the hue of old blood. It looked like a broken mirror—one stained with blood.
"They're Artificers. Do you know what kinds of things they've done?" Ikarios asked.
Tavia pulled open another drawer, dumping the contents on the desk's counter to search through them. There were cards here, but they were all for different rooms. Where was it? She had already searched through most of the drawers.
"Just because of their job, you think I should leave them to die?" she asked.
"Artificers are—" Ikarios began, but Tavia cut him off.
"Humans too," she said as she knelt down and pulled open a cupboard.
This was the last place to search, and her heart was sinking. What if she couldn't find it? It was too late to search anywhere else.
"Humans who do cruel things, who make cruel choices about who has the right to live." Ikarios's voice was flavored with resentment and bitterness.
"And you're trying to make that same choice," Tavia snapped. "Look, I don't have any fond feelings for Artificers either, but I'm not going to let them die just because of what some of them have done."
Why was she having this conversation with him? This was neither the time nor the place to try to convince Ikarios of anything, especially when Tavia was half-convinced he might be right.
Tavia dumped the contents of the cupboard onto the floor. It was nothing but old documents and dust. The access card wasn't anywhere to be seen. She looked up and met Ikarios's eyes.
The access card wasn't here.
Tavia bit her lip and stepped away from the ruins of the desk. Ikarios gestured to the door, and the barrier beyond. They could escape right now. It was just a short distance to freedom and safety, but after coming this far, Tavia wasn't going to take the easy way out.
Without saying another word to Ikarios, Tavia left the lobby behind and returned to the hallway. There was no access card, but she still had to get that door open.
She raced back to the test chamber, her heart sinking when she saw the crowd of people gathered in front of the locked room.
"Does anyone have a key?" she called out as she pushed her way through the crowd.
There were murmurs and shaking heads all around. She would have to find another way to open it. Tavia stood before the smooth white door. Like the others in the institute, it was designed to slide open when powered with Althier, but right now, it was locked and wouldn't budge. The building shook again, and the Artificers cried out.
Well, she'd have to see about that. Tavia put her fingers at the edge of the door and began to pull on it, trying to drag it across the track to open it. The door groaned and wobbled, but it didn't open. She strained, putting all her weight and strength granted by the sword into opening the door.
There was a hiss, and a click, and then a gap appeared between the door and the frame. Tavia slid her hand into the gap and pulled even harder. The door slid open at a snail's pace. She groaned against the weight of the door.
Another pair of hands, covered in silver gauntlets, appeared beneath her own. Audri pushed against the door, not even wasting breath to ask where the key was. The door opened with agonizing slowness, but as soon as it was open wide enough to admit a person, Tavia signaled for the gathered Artificers to run inside. One of them slipped inside and hit the button inside to slide the door open, freeing Tavia and Audri. Lenore, giving Tavia only a worried glanced, dragged Izak inside behind her, and Tavia heaved a sigh of relief as she saw him safely inside.
Ikarios entered after the Artificers, a dirty look on his face. As soon he was through, Audri ducked inside, followed by Tavia who hit the button again to close the door as soon as she was safe inside. The door slid closed again, and Tavia sank to the floor as the world outside the test-chamber was dyed in red.