As the door shut behind her with a solid thud, she looked back over her shoulder. Valorie’s words implied she was leaving the country soon, and Tavia wondered what kind of urgent business she would have to share that actually involved going out of her way to visit her son at the university. It wasn’t really Tavia’s business though, and she certainly didn’t want to get involved in anyone else’s family affairs. Hers were already enough to deal with on their own.
Truthfully, Alvis’s abrupt dismissal was really a blessing. She had a free afternoon now, one she hadn’t been expecting at all, which meant she could catch up on some of her homework. It was certainly more productive than wasting her time cleaning up after the slovenly Alvis. She didn’t mind organizing his things, but it did get old seeing it revert to a mess within the span of a single day.
She started down the path, but hadn’t gone far when she noticed a strange man staring at her from a short distance away. She slowed and turned to stare back, but, as his gaze met her and his expression twisted into one of pain and sympathy, she stopped. She glanced around, wondering if that pitying gaze was directed at someone else, but no matter how she looked, they were the only two people standing at this end of the path.
The man was clearly in his late twenties, his face gaunt and his arms almost bone thin. His light hair was dull and limp, and his skin the kind of pale that came from illness rather than genetics, but his eyes were vibrant and clear. They were a soft mint-green sprinkled with gold, almost like blades of spring grass glowing golden from sunlight.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
He flinched, as if just now realizing he’d been staring. His gaze slid away from her, towards the door of the 14th lab, and he shook his head without looking at her again.
“If you need something, I can—“
The man’s gaze jerked back to Tavia. His eyes widened, the green seeming to become more vibrant for a second before he closed his eyes.
“Is it hard?” he asked as he opened them once more.
Hard? What exactly? Being an Artificer, or maybe he meant being a student here? As she tried to decipher what he meant, the pitying gaze returned, sending a shiver down her back. Was he with Valorie and just waiting for her to come out? Or was he here for something else?
”Is what hard?”
He frowned, and then lifted his hand, staring at it for a moment. Green and gold light, his aura, flickered across his fingers, and when it faded, he returned his gaze to Tavia.
“Not having one,” he said.
Her stomach twisted as she set her jaw in a grimace. It was considered terrible manners to ask someone what color their aura was, but the man before Tavia didn’t even need to ask. He seemed to already know she didn’t have one, but there wasn’t any kind of physical defect that came along with the lack of an aura. It wasn’t something that could be seen, at least, not under normal circumstances.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Did Ikarios send you to find me?”
The pity was replaced by surprise, and then the man shook his head.
“I’m not—“ he frowned. “I came to speak with the woman who just entered that building, I wasn’t aware there would be someone like you here.”
His answer wasn’t actually anything of the sort, and Tavia frowned. He’d reacted to Ikarios’s name, and it was unique enough she could only imagine the ones they knew were one and the same. Evos wasn’t here, which meant if trouble happened, she wouldn’t be able to do a single thing.
“Are you a Demi?” she asked.
The man flinched again, and glanced around at their surroundings. They were still alone. The path they were on wove between labs assigned to the squads, but though this was normally a busy area, there wasn’t a single person outside other than them. A large grove of trees lay just beyond the 14th’s lab, but it was still and silent within the shadows of the trees. There was no one to overhear their words.
The man sighed, his shoulders slumping as he gave a dismayed nod.
“That’s right,” he said. “My name is Elijah, and as you’ve probably surmised I can see your… lack of an aura.”
“What are you doing he—“
He held up a finger to forestall Tavia’s words. There was nothing forceful in his actions, but for some reason, she shut her mouth, waiting for him to continue.
“It’s polite to introduce yourself as well, isn’t it?” he asked.
Tavia scowled. Introducing herself to a Demi? They were nothing but trouble, and if she was smart, she’d just walk away right now. But Elijah had been staring at the door to the lab, and though she wouldn’t go as far as to call Alvis or Jaiden her friends, it didn’t sit right with her to just let a potential threat remain right outside their door.
“Tavia,” she replied. “I’m a student here.”
He grimaced, but the most important part of her answer was what was left unsaid.
“I’m surprised you know about… us,” he said. “I was led to believe it isn’t common knowledge.”
The existence of Demis was a well kept secret, though who exactly was keeping it, she wasn’t certain. The Shields, despite their role as the protectors of the peace and the people, didn’t seem to be aware, but that was only possible if someone was actively suppressing the information. Ikarios could erase memories, but that was only feasible for certain situations. Someone else was likely doing their best to suppress the information as well.
“It isn’t,” she said. “But I’ve met a few of your kind before. So if you’re here to cause trouble then—“
Elijah held his hands up before himself, as if to ward off Tavia’s words like a bad omen. He took a step closer to her, and though she wanted to step back, Tavia remained where she was, holding her ground in the middle of the empty path.
“I’m just here for a peaceful conversation with that woman,” he pointed to the door. “I’m not going to be stirring up any trouble here.”
“You’re not a student though, so why here of all places?” she asked.
Avel’lier was a large campus, and for someone who didn’t already have business on the school grounds, it was a long way out of the way to come just to meet someone who also didn’t belong to the school.
“She’s rather elusive, you see,” he said. “And this may be my last chance to meet her for a while. I have a favor to ask.”
What kind of favor could a Demi have to ask of Alvis’s mother? Tavia turned her attention to Elijah once more, noting his sickly pallor and his gaunt face.
“You don’t look well, wouldn’t it be better to go to a hospital instead of hanging around here? There’s one here on campus.”
“I’m afraid a hospital can’t help me,” he said. “Valorie is the only one who can.”
Despite claiming she could help him, Elijah didn’t seem eager about the prospect. His gaze kept darting from Tavia to the door, as if he was expecting Valorie to emerge at any moment and needed to be ready. Tavia opened her mouth, ready to ask more questions, but then shut it after a moment. Was this something she really wanted to be involved in? It was clear Elijah wasn’t planning to just barge into the lab, and though he was a Demi, he looked far too sickly to be able to do anything even remotely dangerous.
In the end though, her curiosity was what got the better of her.
“How can she help when a doctor wouldn’t be able to?”
Elijah frowned as he stared at the door. He then shook his head and looked fully at Tavia.
“She did something, and she’s the only one who can fix it,” he said. “Though I wish it were otherwise. She’s the last person I want to ask a favor from.”
Valorie’s face flashed through Tavia’s mind, but no matter how Tavia thought about it, she didn’t seem to be anyone dangerous. Alvis and Jaiden had both been at ease up until the point Tavia left, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a hidden side to Valorie.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Elijah said. “Isn’t being a null-aura hard?”
His repeated question took Tavia by surprise, and she found herself the target of an inquisitive stare.
“I don’t know,” she said dryly. “Is it easy having an aura?”
Despite her sarcastic tone, Elijah replied with an utterly serious nod.
“It’s just that you’re the first one I’ve ever seen, I was just a bit curious,” he said. “If I was stronger I could—“
He stopped himself and shook his head, but Tavia wasn’t really curious about the rest of his sentence. Rather, she was more interested in how he had known she was a null-aura in the first place.
“See?” She asked. “What, can you see auras or something?”
He nodded, a smile lighting up his features for a moment.
“It’s like a vibrant glow surrounding people. I know humans and other Demis can only see an aura when it’s being used at all times, but I see it all the time.”
“I see,” she said. “Well, I’m not going to—“
Elijah’s expression shifted to a dark glower, but he wasn’t looking at Tavia. He was looking over her shoulder, towards the door of the lab. She looked back just in time to see the door open, and Valorie emerge from the lab, a small frown on her face. She froze the moment she spotted Tavia and Elijah, but rather than say anything immediately, she shut the door firmly behind her, and then approached them like she was preparing for a fight.
Tavia took a step away as Valorie neared, but the woman didn’t even spare Tavia a glance. Her gaze was firmly on Elijah.
“AUE-Eleven, just what brings you here?”