The moment her feet touched ground, Gwen stumbled away from both men, and began retching. Her eyes brimmed with tears, the teen doubling over as the bile burned its way up her esophagus, the acidic liquid coating her tongue and splashing onto the grass below.
“My apologies,” Forneus’ voice came from behind her, his hand resting lightly between her shoulder blades, “I should have warned you before teleporting. It can be pretty jarring the first time, around.”
As her stomach fluttered, threatening to unleash yet another torrent, she heard Phenex scoff in an undertone, “Tch. Human beings are far too delicate.”
Wiping the last of the bile from her mouth, she glared over her shoulder at him, retorting, “You know, for someone with such a grim outlook on humans, you sure seem to like taking the form of one.”
A shadow passed over his face at this, his eyes glinting dangerously when Gwen turned to face him. “Watch your tone, girl; the only reason I don’t take my true form is because it does more harm than good in the mortal wor—” He stopped then, his lips pulling into a grimace as he cast a wary look in Forneus’ direction.
Gwen looked from the humanoid phoenix to the daemon and back again, scowling at the secretive gaze that passed between them. Shifting, she firmly planted both hands on her hips. “You were going to say ‘mortal world’, weren’t you?” When neither one of them spoke up, she demanded, “Well? Answer me!”
Phenex rounded on her then, his nostrils flaring as he spat, “Who are you to demand answers from us?”
This only made her madder, the teen fixing the auburn-haired man with an icy glare.
“Oh, I don’t know,” She countered angrily, “I’m just the girl you dragged into this whole mess! I have no idea what’s going on, I don’t know how I’m going to explain disappearing in the middle of the night to my father—I don’t even know where I am right now!” She gestured to the expanse of empty field around them.
There wasn’t a single tree or house to be seen, not a soul in sight; just an endless sea of yellow and green stretching out on either side of them, shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from the half-moon and stars, above. Rows of cattails and Queen Anne’s lace swayed in the evening breeze, the tall grass seeming to change from emerald to sage and back again, rippling like ocean waves.
“Trust me, that is the least of your problems,” Phenex said scornfully, crossing his arms over his chest as he peered down at her through a fringe of reddish-brown hair, “Now that the seals have been released…” He put a hand to his forehead then, sighing wearily.
Gwen stared at him, curious. “What is this about seals?” She prompted, unconsciously taking a step closer despite the burning glare he threw her way.
Forneus came up beside the auburn-haired man, clapping a hand on his shoulder sympathetically. “It seems you’re having a rough time keeping things discreet, old friend.” There was laughter in his words, his silvery eyes dancing with amusement.
“Forneus, please,” Phenex implored, a note of exasperation in his voice when he turned his gaze on the other, “This is serious. You know that better than anyone.”
“Indeed, I do.” The daemon became solemn then, smile fading as he let out a long, shuddering sigh. “But, the girl is right. We did drag her into this, so it’s only fair that we let her know what it is we’re up against. Like it or not, she is involved now, and after what we sensed back at her home…well, I’d say there is a high probability she’s been targeted.”
Gwen’s breath hitched upon hearing this, the teen turning wide, fearful eyes on the beings in front of her.
“Targeted? Why would someone target me?” She felt the blood drain from her cheeks, sickened as yet another realization hit her. “No…What about my dad, will he be alright? We have to go back! Please!”
“Calm down,” Forneus soothed, touching her shoulder lightly, “No harm will come to your father; we’ll just have to keep our distance to ensure it stays that way. I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to return home—at least, not yet.”
Stricken, the teen lowered her gaze, a coldness settling in the pit of her stomach as the weight of his words washed over her, saturating her every pore. I can’t go home…dad will probably go out of his mind with grief and worry, and there’s nothing I can do to help…he could be in danger at this very moment, and I wouldn’t know it…
Tears pricked the corners of her eyes at this thought, her breath coming in shallow gasps. It took every shred of willpower she possessed to keep the tears from falling, pain blossoming in her bottom lip as she bit down to keep the sobs from surfacing.
“At any rate, we should report back to the council,” Phenex declared, “They’ll want to know about everything that’s happened, tonight.”
Gwen didn’t know what he was talking about, nor did she care; her entire life had been turned upside-down in the course of a single night, and she hadn’t the slightest clue as to why. She didn’t have the strength to be angry, anymore; all she felt was icy dread, slowly filling her until nothing else existed, spreading into her limbs until she no longer felt the soft, damp earth under her bare feet.
Two hands suddenly grasped her upper arms, the one on the left using a much lighter touch than the other. Wrenching herself free, she folded her arms across her chest, glowering at both men.
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what the hell is going on!” She said hotly, noting the difference in their reactions at her sudden outburst. Whereas the daemon’s silver eyes had widened, shocked, the humanoid phoenix’s had narrowed, flashing back and forth from amber to gold.
Gwen didn’t give a damn if he was mad—she was, too!
She hurried on before either one of them could open their mouths, her voice hoarse. “After being abducted in the middle of the night by a couple of supernatural men, I don’t think it’s a lot to ask!”
“You self-centred child,” Phenex growled, looming over her angrily, “There is a lot more at stake than your—”
Forneus raised a hand, cutting his tirade short. “Take it easy, Phenex.” For a moment, it seemed as though Phenex was about to argue; instead, he averted his gaze, folding his arms across his chest with a contemptuous snort.
The daemon turned to Gwen, leaning forward so that he was eye-level with her. “I promise you, I will tell you whatever you want to know once we’re somewhere safe. But for now,” He held out a hand to her, “Please, will you bear with us for a little longer?”
She glanced from the proffered hand to the kind smile on his face, the shadows beneath his eyes the only indication of his unease. Feeling a twinge of guilt, she reluctantly placed her hand in his, her bangs fluttering when she let out a weary breath. “Alright, I’ll go…but you’d better keep your promise.”
Forneus squeezed her hand gently, and straightened, casting a meaningful glance in Phenex’s direction as he did. The other took his cue, looking away from the teenaged girl as he firmly grabbed hold of her shoulder.
The same blurred colours she’d witnessed during their last teleportation flashed before her eyes, forcing her to shut them tightly against the dizzying sense of vertigo that came with it. As the warmth flooding her system finally peaked, she took a deep breath, once more plummeting into nothingness with the two strange beings beside her.
Gwen’s feet came into contact with a cold, smooth surface, the impact much lighter than it had been the first time around. Still, dizziness swept over her, causing her stomach to clench, unaccustomed to the form of travel she was being subjected to.
Much to her relief, the feeling passed, and she opened her eyes, giving a start at what she saw. Phenex let go of her almost immediately, folding his arms across his chest and turning away as the teen gaped around at the colourful, arid space surrounding them. Once she was steady on her feet, Forneus’ grip slackened, and she spun in a slow circle, drinking in everything from the crystalline walkway she was standing on, which was just one in a network of many, reminding her of the intricately woven threads of a spider’s web, to the softly undulating hues of pink, purple, and green that seemed to fill the entire space, for there were no discernible walls.
It looks just like the Northern Lights. She mused, gasping when she realized it extended far above her, as well. Each walkway was lined with columns of dark marble, evenly staggered on both sides; at the end, there were large, glowing archways, all of which had strange red glyphs above them, no two the same.
“What is this place?” She breathed, brushing her bangs from her eyes as she tried to make sense of the strange lettering; it was unlike anything she’d seen in her father’s books.
She glanced between the daemon and the human-personified phoenix, the former gifting her with a smile as he gestured for her to follow them. “Come, we can talk on our way there.”
“On our way to where?” Gwen asked, keeping pace with the two men as they headed down the winding path. The rhythmical clacking of Forneus’ boots echoed as they descended a long, spiralling staircase leading to yet another level of crystalline pathways, several of them branching out from the central junction that lay ahead, reminding her of the spokes of a chariot wheel.
“Well, since we’re just giving away all of our secrets now,” Gwen hazarded a look in Phenex’s direction when he muttered this, the auburn-haired man maintaining a steady gait as he glanced back at her, “The place you find yourself in is a realm simply known as ‘the Spectrum’.”
“This is where the gods reside, as well as all of the entities in their employ.” Forneus explained, drawing the teen’s gaze from one to the other, her eyes lingering on the coloured lights that reflected off of the daemon’s black hair before returning her attention to what he was saying, “This includes Phenex, and of course, myself, as well.”
Gwen shook her head, numb disbelief causing her to falter in her steps as she tried to absorb the information she was being given. Despite everything she’d witnessed first-hand since meeting the two, beings, despite standing in this vast, strange world of theirs, the truth was still a tough pill for her to swallow. For the second time that night, she couldn’t help wondering if all of this really was nothing more than a dream.
This must be how Alice felt when she fell down the rabbit hole. She decided, picking up the pace when she realized she had fallen several paces behind them.
Forneus glanced at her when she sauntered between him and Phenex, a look of mild concern on his face before continuing on with his explanation—an explanation Gwen felt she’d missed the first half of when she’d inadvertently tuned him out.
“I’m sorry,” She could feel her face growing warm, suddenly embarrassed. “What were you saying? Something about the gods forming the council more than a millennium ago?”
Forneus smiled at her, his expression one of understanding. Phenex, on the other hand, scoffed openly, making the teen’s face burn even hotter.
“Just like a human,” he declared, “Such fleeting attention spans, even when it’s something of great importance.”
Gwen scowled up at him, eyes narrowing when his lips pulled into a self-satisfied smirk. What she wouldn’t give to wipe that smug look right off of his face!
Phenex snorted, tilting his head as he studied her. “Well, as you have undoubtedly noticed,” he drawled, gesturing at the grand, obsidian door directly in front of them, Gwen regrettably not having done so until he’d mentioned it, “We’ve arrived at our destination, so the rest of your questions are just going to have to wait.” He finished this statement with a mock bow, infuriating her, further.
Forneus shook his head with a sigh, casting an apologetic look in her direction before turning to his colleague. “I suppose I’ll make my report, first. I trust you have no objections, watching over her in my stead?”
If not for the fact that it meant she’d be stuck with him, too, Gwen would have openly laughed at Phenex’s long-suffering expression. As it stood, however, she was just as sickened by the arrangement as he was, her stomach giving a painful twist when she wondered how long they would be left alone in one another’s company.
“It’s not like I have a choice,” Phenex muttered, “Just hurry back, will you?”
The daemon smiled faintly, “I’ll try, but I can make no such promise.” He cast one last look at Gwen, and disappeared through the massive door, leaving the two of them to stand awkwardly on either side of the doorway.
Having nothing more to do, and having no particular desire to talk with the man standing an arm’s breadth from her, she allowed her thoughts to wander. She was uncertain as to how many hours had passed since Forneus had shown up in her house, but looking back over everything that had happened to her since, it felt like a lifetime ago. Despite still being somewhat frightened, she could no longer contain her growing curiosity about the world she was in, and its inhabitants. As shocking as it had been to learn that the gods of old actually existed, it was even more so, now that she was standing here, in their world. She wondered just how many of them there were, what they were like, how much of the stories she’d read about them were actually true…
Her thoughts then turned to Forneus; the daemon seemed pleasant enough, though she still found herself slightly afraid of him. She wasn’t sure what to make of this, and couldn’t help thinking that perhaps her fear stemmed from the very essence that made her who she was—her humanity. After all, hadn’t she learned in school that by nature, people were often afraid of what they didn’t understand; that it went back to the days when mankind functioned on instinct, alone? He hadn’t done anything to earn her distrust, but the simple fact of the matter was that they hadn’t known one another long enough for her to trust him, either—at least, not yet. Still, she felt she should at least give him the benefit of a doubt, since he had been kind to her from the very beginning of this whole endeavour—unlike a certain amber-eyed someone…
Gwen peered at Phenex out of the corner of her eye, studying everything from his tousled hair to the youthful set of his face, his mouth set into a grim frown as he stared straight ahead. She was at a greater loss as to what to make of him; so far, he’d been incredibly hostile toward her, and her first impression was that she didn’t like him—not one iota. But, hadn’t he rescued her from whatever had shown up back at her house, just the same as Forneus? Surely he couldn’t be all bad.
Even so, she thought stubbornly, it doesn’t excuse the way he’s been treating me.
He must have felt her gaze on him then, for he turned his head, quirking an eyebrow when their eyes met. Feeling heat creeping into her cheeks, she quickly averted her gaze, giving herself over to the uncomfortable silence that seemed to be pressing in all around her, all the while wondering just what Forneus had meant about being the guardian of the artifacts…
Phenex leaned against the doorframe outside of the council chamber, shoving his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket with a sigh. Each minute seemed longer than the last, the humanoid phoenix pointedly ignoring the furtive glances of the girl next to him. The one time he had deigned to make eye contact with her, she had looked away; one emotion after another had flitted across her face, going by with such swiftness, it was impossible to determine the thoughts behind them. He was certain he had seen conflict in those large, jade eyes, though what she felt conflicted about, he hadn’t even begun to guess.
Not that it particularly matters, He thought with an agitated sigh. Leave the molly-coddling to Forneus; after all, he’s the one who likes the girl. I’m not here to be her friend—I’m here to do my job. My only concern is to keep her out of the enemy’s reach, nothing more.
And yet, despite the vehemence behind his thoughts, he found himself staring at her once again, noticing the way she chewed her bottom lip, her eyebrows knitting together as though she were deep in thought, gaze fixated on the transparent walkway below her feet. Something glinted behind the stray locks of blonde hair when she tilted her head forward, catching the coloured lights of the Spectrum.
Earrings, he realized; two gold studs in the lobe, and a tiny, silver hoop in the cartilage, no doubt identical on the other side. Seeing the way she trembled, her arms wrapped tightly around her, he supposed he might feel a bit sorry for her. Even with the amount of heat his own body generated, he found the Spectrum quite cold at times, so it wasn’t difficult to imagine just how much colder it was for a fragile, human girl.
He contemplated offering his jacket to her, but thought better of it—why the hell should he care if she was cold right now? He didn’t owe this self-absorbed child a single thing; he didn’t owe any human being anything, for that matter. If not for the fact that he believed in the council’s objective, preserving the sanctity of the mortal world and everything in it, he wouldn’t bother interacting with humans, at all. After everything he had been through…
His fuming was interrupted when the girl spoke to him then, the meekness in her voice catching him slightly off-guard.
“Forneus said you guys work for the council, right?” She paused, continuing on when he made no attempt to respond. “He told me he was the guardian of the artifacts. I just wondered what that meant…” She trailed off, the blush in her cheeks deepening to crimson as she lowered her gaze.
Phenex felt one eyebrow rise involuntarily as he studied her, unsure what to make of the sudden change in her demeanor. It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes ago that she’d been glaring at him, eyes filled with something bordering on hatred—now she was interested in showing him respect?
Humans, he thought with an internal sigh, such fickle creatures.
He was actually considering giving her an answer, when the council door opened, its hinges groaning as Forneus stepped out of the chamber, and onto the crystalline walkway. The girl looked at the daemon the same time he did, her frown mirroring the firebird’s own concern, when he saw the exhaustion lining the guardian’s face.
Forneus offered him a weak smile when their eyes met, giving a single, nearly imperceptible nod of his head, letting him know he was fine. Phenex was certain the report had been no less gruelling, of course, but it seemed as though the council had gone easy on him, all things considered.
Then again, what more could they really do to the daemon?
Phenex gave him a quick pat on the shoulder, and grabbing hold of the edge of the door before it could close, looked over his shoulder at the girl, meeting her startled gaze.
“Why don’t you ask him?” He told her, and with that, he stepped over the threshold leading into the chamber, taking a steadying breath in preparation for the many questions the High Council no doubt had in store for him.