“I can’t believe no one else has ever found this place,” Tavia muttered as she and Evos pushed their way through a tangle of leaves and branches covering the entrance to the stairs.
The branches pulled the hair that had fallen loose of her hair-tie, tugging at her scalp as the branches scratched at her arms. When she finally cleared the greenery, she stopped and looked back, impressed, despite the annoyance, with how well the entrance was hidden by a trio of evergreen trees and a cluster of scraggly bushes. The entrance, hardly more than hole in the ground ringed in by the black alther that formed the entire structure, was entirely hidden by the plants. Secreted away behind a disused building, there were few people who would even have business in this area, let alone searching some random shrubbery, but Avel’lier University was still a busy campus. It was unusual there hadn’t been at least one person to stumble across it.
“In the past someone might have,” Evos replied. “But no one’s using it now, and that works in our favor.”
The early autumn sunlight lit their way back to the more civilized areas of the campus. A month into her first term at Avel’lier, and Tavia was growing accustomed to finding her way around the sprawling school grounds. Calling Avel’lier the most prestigious university in Edelheiss — make that all of Marquest — wasn’t just for show. The campus itself was a vast space, encompassing open fields for large scale trainings, and even a part of the Breachwood forest that brushed up against the south east part of Edelheiss had been included in the campus. She still hadn’t seen most of it, but that was probably the case for a good portion of students. Most of the departments and lecture halls were near the northern half of the campus, closest to the city proper, and, of the departments, Tavia really only had business in two — the Artificer department and general studies. The rest of the university’s grounds weren’t used regular, the patch of Breachwood forest included in the walls around the campus were deliberately infested with Scarvers, making it unsafe for most.
Even here, in areas closest to the streets of Edelheiss, they were too far away to make out the sounds of traffic and conveis running through the city. The only indication of the city that lay just beyond the school’s boundaries were the dark shapes of the skytowers downtown rising up in the distance, destroying the horizon to create a distinct skyline famous the world over.
As Tavia and Evos appeared from the seeming wilderness and stepped onto the white paved paths with the other students, a few sent looks her way before ignoring her and continuing with their boisterous chatter. Though they’d been the target of more than a few stares when she first started, that had mostly died down now. Tavia and Evos were almost always together, and, as if her appearance wasn’t already unique enough, Evos’s exceptionally pale features when stood beside her dark appearance made for a striking juxtaposition. At least, she hoped that was why she found herself the occasional target of a confused stare or two. People being confused about her looks was far better than being confused about why a member of the famed Renegarde family was in the Artificer department.
Though most Marquestians were blond haired and pale skinned — not to the extent of Evos — there were still enough others like Tavia who had inherited the features of their foreign ancestors — a grandmother hailing from Terris in Tavia’s case — that it wasn’t too strange to not fit the perfect, light skinned mold of Marquest. Though Tavia’s appearance might be distinctive and stand out in a crowd, it wasn’t distinctive enough to instantly out her as the daughter of the famed Septia Renegarde, ducal head of one of the the seven Lyon houses of Marquest and disputably the greatest Knight of the previous generation.
Evos nudged her, a gentle reminder to keep moving, and Tavia started forward again. She hadn’t even realized she’d come to a stop, and she hung her head for a moment as frustration burned in her chest. She’d told herself when she started here — promised herself — she wouldn’t care about what others were saying or doing. She wouldn’t care if they laughed or if they pointed fingers. Erent and Izak had both warned her that things could be hard, but Tavia wasn’t going to give up. She wasn’t going to run back to that house with her tail between her legs.
Avel’lier was an old campus, having been built shortly after the last war with Terris two hundred years ago, right after the Grand Hero defeated the monster of legends. Because of that, the architecture was stuffy and old. It was designed with a war mentality in mind, thick and sturdy walls, and minimal adornments. The newer buildings added on over the years had been given a sleeker and cleaner appearance that matched the modern aesthetics of today — wide windows that glistened in the sunlight and pointless details like fake spell-sets adorning the eaves — but the campus was still overwhelmingly old.
Students, ranging in age from eighteen like Tavia to much older, rushed to and fro between classes or strolled leisurely, in no hurry to get anywhere as they enjoyed a conversation with a friend or two. Their chatter filled the courtyard the Artificer department’s main buildings were centered around, a wide space with a small green knoll in the middle. Tavia belonged to the Artificer department, but she was still struggling to think of herself as one of them, unable to shake the feeling that she was an impostor hiding in the midst of the legitimate students.
A small crowd had gathered atop the knoll, all focused on a young woman standing in the midst of the crowd. Tavia paused, looking their way to see what the cause of the commotion was. The woman was holding a book in her right hand, the palm of her left resting gently on the open pages.
An Althiest, preparing to cast a spell from her grimoire.