Tavia leaned against the back of the bench she sat on and took a deep breath as she looked up at the stars above her. There were only a few that could shine through the bright lights of the city, but those that did were all the more beautiful for it.
Evos perched on the edge of the bench, more concerned with looking around the park. It wasn't very large, but it was nicely secluded, blocked from view of the street but a row of thick, tall trees. A small fountain sat in the middle of the park, the water turned off for the night, and a few grassy areas surrounding it. There were some more benches circling around the fountain, and a few ornate lamp posts decorating the winding paths that led from the fountain deeper into the park.
Tavia had taken a convei straight home after leaving Ikarios at RIOAR, but halfway home, she had stopped the convei and gotten out. She had chosen this park at random, halfway between home and the institute; it matched how she felt, being stuck in the middle, transitioning from one place to another. It wasn't really that she wanted to stay here, sulking in this park, but—
Don't expect to be welcomed back.
That was what her mother had said. It still hurt—a little more than Tavia had thought it would—but she didn't plan to go crawling back now. There was no way Septia would disown Tavia or do anything that drastic. If she did, there would be no way to hide the shameful disappointment that was her daughter from the world. Tavia's own failings were also the one thing protecting her.
"Maybe I'll stay with Izak until the semester starts," Tavia said to the sky above her.
Oh right. She still wasn't enrolled. She pulled her vox out of her pocket and stared at the screen. She was lucky her vox had survived all that fighting; she had always thought they were fragile things, but maybe the vox was more resilient than she imagined.
"An Artificer, huh?" Tavia muttered as she looked at Jaiden's contact number, but it was Ikarios she thought of. "Think he'll hate me for this?"
It was too late to call the prince. She would contact him tomorrow. Maybe... maybe being an Artificer wouldn't be so bad. It wasn't as if she had to be like the ones Ikarios hated, or even like the ones she herself feared.
Evos looked at her, but didn't say anything.
"What about you? What do you plan to do now?" she asked.
Evos frowned, but before he could answer, someone nearby laughed. This time of night, there shouldn't have been anyone around. But that laugh...it sent a chill down Tavia's spine. She knew that laugh; why was she hearing Abram here?
She stood up, and Evos followed suit. A figure appeared out of the darkness, stepping into the light of one of the lampposts a few yards away. It was Abram, but any remaining vestige of his prestigious position as Head of Artifact Research was gone. His coat was torn and stained with something dark, blood maybe. A grimace covered his bruised face, and he was breathing hard, his shoulders heaving with exertion.
"So you won?" he asked, but it sounded more like an accusation than a question. "Do you even understand what you've done? All that work, all that time and money spent to bring him back. Now it's all wasted, because of you."
"I stopped him from destroying the city," Tavia replied. "Did you even see what it was like in that place? For the people trapped there? Don't tell me you think living like that would have been a good thing."
"Sometimes sacrifices must be made to advance our goals," Abram said.
"Like how you sacrificed your son?" Evos asked.
"Savin knew what he was doing," Abram said Desperation filled his voice, like a starving man overwhelmed my his base desires. He took a step forward and spread his arms out wide. A smile twisted his features "He wanted to become the vessel."
Under the lamplight, it was difficult to see, but Abram's eyes were sparkling, glowing with an unnatural light. They were unfocused, darting here and there as if he couldn't control them.
"You're insane," Tavia said.
"You act like what I've done here is some great tragedy," Abram said. "All great advancements have come from studying the Demis. It's not just me. This has been done countless times, and will continue for as long as humans have something to learn from the Demis."
"Great advancements?" Tavia asked.
"The voxes that everyone uses?" Abram said with a sneer. "At their core, they're just a device that allows you to reach the information stored in the Althier that makes up the corvex. Which, happens to be structured around the concept of the human mind."
"The human...mind?" she repeated.
There was something unnerving about that piece of information, but she just couldn't grasp it.
"Ikarios," Evos whispered. And then in a louder voice, he said, "The vox is based on Ikarios?"
"Looks like one of you has a brain," Abram scoffed. "Funny it's the one who isn't even a real person."
Tavia felt the weight of her vox in her pocket. Why did it suddenly feel so much heavier?
"The research was done years ago, but he was neither the first nor the last. All the countless breakthroughs we've had? Everything has come from studying the Demis, and let me tell you, they aren't the most cooperative bunch. The best thing about them is that they can't die. You can do anything you want to a Demi; dissections, testing of chemicals. Just make sure you capture the soul after the vessel dies, and you can bring them back as many times as you want. They are the perfect test subjects."
Tavia's stomach twisted. How many times had Ikarios died to create the voxes?
"Does...does RIOAR know you're doing this kind of research?" she asked.
"Do they know?" Abram laughed. "RIOAR is the largest Artifact research laboratory in the world. Do you have any idea how many Demis have passed through that place?"
Tavia's breath caught in her chest. No wonder Ikarios hadn't wanted to save those Artificers. The disdain she had for Artificers was nothing compared to what he must feel. He had told her as much, hadn't he? Back before Dieos had woken up. Protecting the Demis from the Artificers.
If Tavia had realized what he had really meant at that time, would she still have saved the Artificers? It wasn't as if she'd had to save them, and she could probably have made Ikarios force Audri to come along quietly. It could have been done. Would she—
No. The things some of them might have done were cruel, but Tavia was sure not all of them were involved, and even if they were, she couldn't...just leave someone to die. That wasn't a choice she was able to make, it wasn't a choice she ever wanted to be able to make.
"If that's the case, then why didn't you hire real guards?"
It was something she had worried about when all this started, but events had driven the question from her mind. Abram had claimed he didn't want his project to be revealed to the Shields or others, but if studying Dieos was actually sanctioned by RIOAR, that reasoning didn't hold up.
"Ah, has that been bothering you?" he asked. "I chose you, and those...friends of yours, because I knew you would fail. I didn't need guards to begin with, in fact, it would have been more of a problem if you'd been capable enough to stop Ikarios."
"You wanted Savin to be captured?" Evos asked.
"I needed Savin to be captured," Abram replied. "Unlike humans and even most Demis, Dieos uses corrupted Althier, and though it seems his very presence is enough to corrupt the Althier around him, the more we had the faster he would gain strength, and the best place to find that corrupted Althier was in the places like my lab and Ikarios's hiding place. I didn't know where the entrance was though, so you ended up being very helpful. Absorbing the Althier made him—" he frowned,"—should have made him strong enough to gain control of the city. I suppose the Ageless Sword was stronger than I expected."
She'd asked, but now that she'd heard his answer, she regretted her curiosity. Abram had used her and Evos from the very beginning. The man was rotten to the core.
"Now then," Abram said. "The only person who knows what I've done is you. Ikarios is thorough, so I'm sure he erased the memories of your friends, and of course, no one would believe the wanted leader of the Wardens even if he told them what I've done."
His hands were no longer empty. How had Tavia missed him drawing his grimoire? She reached out to Evos, but before they could touch, Abram cast a spell. A gust of wind, invisible but audible in its fury, struck Evos square in the chest and he tumbled backwards up and over the bench.
Tavia scowled as she stared at Abram.
"I don't plan on letting you make this difficult," Abram said. "Now, it's time to die."