Forneus stared after Phenex until the door closed behind him, his brow furrowing in confusion. Ask me what? He wondered, turning inquisitively toward the adolescent girl next to him. Her gaze was still fixed on the door, a frown of uncertainty settling across her face.
“Miss…?” Forneus inquired, the girl giving a start as she looked up at him, clearly having been deep in thought.
“It’s Gwen,” She responded, somewhat distractedly, “Gwenyth Lamelle—but you can just call me Gwen. Everyone else does.”
“That’s right…how could I have forgotten?” Dumbfounded by the lapse in his memory, he hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud until he caught sight of Gwen’s expression. She eyed him warily, tilting her head as though trying to put a difficult puzzle together. He didn’t understand it, but much to his relief, the teen decided to forego asking him what he had meant, and turned to a different topic, instead.
“You told me before that you were the guardian of the artifacts,” She shifted from one foot to the other, one of her nervous habits, one he was familiar with, though he couldn’t quite remember the first time he’d seen her do it, “What does that mean, exactly?”
Forneus contemplated her for a moment, not quite certain where to begin with his explanation. There were so many factors that needed to be taken into account; with everything Gwen had already been through, he wanted to make things as simple for her as he possibly could. Absently fiddling with the cuffs of his sleeves, he decided that the beginning was as good a place to start as any.
“I was appointed guardian by the High Council of Deities, themselves—the very gods that Phenex is reporting to, as we speak—to watch over and prevent the artifacts from ever falling into the wrong hands.” Seeing that he had the teen’s full attention, he continued on. “It was a task assigned to me seventy-five years ago, and one that I would have been relieved of in only a few short months, if not for two things; what happened eight years ago, and then what occurred, tonight. Now that the artifacts have disbanded, a successor guardian cannot be appointed until they are reclaimed.”
Gwen tilted her head. “What happened eight years ago?” She asked, frowning.
Forneus clasped his hands at the small of his back, for lack of anything better to do with them, his gaze lowered. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure,” he admitted, “One minute, I was watching over the artifacts via the Ethereal Network—that is to say, the Spectrum’s surveillance centre—when someone, or something, attacked me. I didn’t realize what was happening, until it was too late. When I awoke…”
“…Eight years had passed?” Gwen guessed, her eyes widening. Despite looking baffled at what she’d been told, she seemed to be taking it all in stride, her voice only shaking marginally when she asked, “I don’t understand, though…why are the artifacts so important? What is it that they do?”
Well, she was bound to ask that question, sooner or later, He thought ruefully, though I wish it had been later, rather than sooner…
Exhaling slowly, he resigned himself to walking the tenuous line between too much information and not enough. He had promised to tell her anything she wanted to know, but doing so had been poor judgment on his part; the council had made it clear that telling her too much could lead to future complications—that it could very well put her life in jeopardy—but in his experience, the opposite also held true.
Gwen’s voice broke through his thoughts, the daemon offering her a reassuring smile when he noticed her anxious expression.
“My apologies, I seem to have gotten lost in my thoughts for a moment, there.” He replied, bowing his head, “Do you recall what Phenex said earlier—to be more specific, when he made mention of the seals?”
She nodded, her eyes lighting up as though she’d found the final piece of the puzzle. “Wait…he was referring to the artifacts, wasn’t he?”
“Very good, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Forneus smiled, “The artifacts originally were just that; ordinary items belonging to the gods who had forged them. However, the Greek god, Apollo, enchanted them, imbuing them with ether, which in turn made them into seals; these seals served as protective barriers to the realm, ‘Nowhere’.”
Having been engrossed in his explanation, Forneus hadn’t noticed Phenex emerge from the council chamber—and judging from the way she’d nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of his voice, neither had Gwen.
Doing his best to suppress his grin, he turned to the auburn-haired being, noting with slight amusement that the other didn’t bother concealing his own smirk from the girl; clearly, her startled reaction hadn’t gone unnoticed by either of them, but unlike the daemon, the human firebird had no qualms with antagonizing her.
Gwen glowered at both of them, her gaze flitting back and forth from one to the other, the irritation of being startled melting away to be replaced with puzzlement. Finally, she seemed to have reached some sort of decision, her soft, green eyes coming to rest on Forneus. The daemon could only guess what decision she’d come to, but he had a feeling it had something to do with who she preferred talking to—him, or his fiery companion—and by the looks of it, he had won that particular ‘contest’. He wasn’t sure what to make of this, but he’d be lying to himself if he denied being the slightest bit pleased by the outcome; not because he wanted her to favour him over his oldest friend, but…
“What do you mean,” Gwen asked, bringing Forneus’ attention back to her, “they served as the seals to ‘Nowhere’?”
He hesitated at this, unsure of how to proceed; would he be crossing that line into dangerous territory, if he answered her question, or was it essential that she be made aware of this particular truth? Images of her being captured by the enemy came unbidden to his mind, the daemon biting back the mixture of fear and anger he felt at the mere thought of it. He didn’t want to entertain the notion of harm befalling her, the very girl he’d kept watch over since…
No, don’t think on it. He scolded himself, swallowing against the lump in his throat. If we fail, losing her will only be one of many problems we face on a much larger scale.
The daemon cast a helpless glance in Phenex’s direction—silent, pleading. What was he supposed to do?
The human firebird shook his head with a resigned sigh. “You may as well,” he declared, running a hand through his hair and fixing Forneus with a meaningful look, “The council has permitted her to know certain information…just be sure to stick to the basics.”
Catching his meaning, the guardian nodded, and turned to meet the teen’s expectant stare, noting her somewhat perplexed expression. “Shortly after it was founded, the High Council concocted a plan to seal away any of their brethren who posed a threat to the natural order of the mortal world, along with any lesser entities who served under them—and thus, the prison realm of ‘Nowhere’ was created.”
Gwen gaped up at him, her arms falling limply at her sides. He could practically see the information turning over in her mind, her eyes going unfocused then lighting up again.
“Whoa, whoa…they created a whole other world?”
The daemon smiled at her look of wide-eyed astonishment. “Indeed, they did.”
“That’s…that’s…” Gwen stammered, putting her hands to her head as she tried to find the words.
“…Beyond your comprehension?” Phenex supplied, sneering when the teen glared back at him.
“Phenex,” Forneus warned mildly, and returned his gaze to Gwen. “I believe the word you were searching for was ‘unbelievable’?” He offered, knowing full well that at this juncture, the teen was well passed any skepticism she had previously held on the matter.
She nodded, a slight blush rising in her cheeks as she lowered her gaze. “So, the seals…?”
“That’s right, now where were we before we were interrupted?” He looked pointedly at Phenex when he said this, the other giving an apologetic shrug of his shoulders, though it was obvious from the way his lip curled that he wasn’t the least bit sorry. “Ah, yes. In their role as the seals, the artifacts kept the doorway to Nowhere closed, preventing all who were imprisoned within from escaping.”
“So, now that the seals have been released…does that mean…?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” Forneus nodded, frowning. “According to the reports the council received from the Regulations Force—an elite team equivalent to your world’s police and military forces, if I’m not mistaken—many of the prisoners have already broken free, with many more following closely behind them.”
“If they know that the prisoners are escaping, then why isn’t anyone trying to stop them?” Gwen’s words came out somewhat strangled, her eyes wide with fear.
As the daemon started to reply, Phenex cut in.
“Tell me girl,” His eyes betrayed the faintest hint of curiosity as he tilted his head to look at her, “Are the tactical units in your world capable of catching every criminal, of meting out punishment and justice for every act committed against the laws they uphold?”
The teen gaped up at him for a moment, sputtering over her answer. “Well…I…no, I…I…suppose not…”
“I thought as much.” Gwen seemed to burn an even darker shade of red at the humanoid phoenix’s words, her obvious annoyance fading slightly when he went on.
“Unfortunately, the Force’s units are too thinly spread between here, your world, and elsewhere; we simply don’t have the numbers to contain them.” He seemed to take notice of her frightened expression, for much to the daemon’s surprise, he continued on in a milder tone. “However…the convicts were stripped of their powers upon incarceration; therefore, it will take them some time to replenish those lost powers. With any luck, we should be able to flush them out of hiding before they can do any real damage.”
An uncomfortable silence fell between them then, Forneus turning his gaze toward Gwen, gauging her reaction. Despite Phenex’s assurances that the Regulations Force would do everything in their power to prevent total destruction from occurring, the teen visibly paled, her eyes unfocused as she stared passed his shoulder into the multi-coloured void beyond.
“I promise you, Gwen,” He gently laid his hand upon her shoulder, noticing that despite flinching, she didn’t withdraw from him as she would have, before, “The convicted entities will be dealt with as swiftly as possible; no harm will befall your world. After all, what affects one world affects the other.”
She seemed to consider his words, a line forming between her eyebrows as she absently clutched at the hem of her pajama top. Sensing her unease, he went on.
“However, the only way to ensure the continued preservation of the mortal world is to track down each and every one of the artifacts. Bringing them all together again is the only way to reactivate their seals, and thus, the only way to close the portal to Nowhere once again.” He cast a surreptitious glance in Phenex’s direction to make sure he hadn’t said more than he was permitted to, the human firebird merely giving a curt nod in reply. “Of course, before they can all be brought together, the convicts will have to be detained once again. Unfortunately, there is no way to open the portal in order to admit a prisoner, without running the risk of the others escaping in the process.”
“But that is a matter for the Regulations Force and the council,” Phenex declared, somewhat flippantly, “Let them be diligent in their duties—ours is merely to get hold of the artifacts before anyone else does. If we need to take down an enemy or two along the way, so be it.”
Seeing the feverish glint in his companion’s eyes, a sigh drifted from Forneus’ lips, the daemon shaking his head wearily. Leave it to Phenex to let his battle lust get the better of him…
Returning his attention to Gwen, he noticed that she was shifting from one foot to the other, the skin of her face ashen, bringing attention to the dark circles forming beneath her eyes. A subtle tremor wracked her shoulders, the girl wrapping her arms around herself as she vigorously rubbed her hands over them.
As comprehension finally made its way to the forefront of his mind, Forneus swept into a bow, pressing one hand to his chest, the other curled behind his back. “My apologies,” He shrugged out of his coat, and gently placed it across Gwen’s shoulders, “You must be exhausted after everything you’ve endured, tonight. Come, I will show you to your temporary lodgings.”
“Thank you.” Her words were so softly spoken, that if not for his exceptional hearing, he wouldn’t have known she’d said anything, at all.
“Think nothing of it.” He assured her, beckoning with his hand for her to follow him back up the crystalline walkway. As she followed along beside him, he just happened to catch the look of disgust on Phenex’s face; the human firebird’s hands were shoved deep within his pockets, his shoulders hunched as he scowled at the daemon.
Forneus bit back a snicker, the sight calling to mind that of a petulant child. He knew full well what had merited such disdain from Phenex, and the knowledge only served to amuse him, further. To think that kindness toward a human could bother him this much. He thought with a shake of his head. His grin faded, however, when he recalled the reason behind Phenex’s hostility toward humans in the first place, his stomach clenching guiltily in response. Though I suppose, if it had been me, I would feel much the same way he does…
Maintaining his pace, he glanced over his shoulder, his silver eyes meeting striking tawny ones. His contrition must have shown, for Phenex’s expression softened, one corner of his mouth twitching into a lopsided grin. Relief washing over him at the telltale sign of forgiveness, the guardian returned his smile in kind, before facing forward once again.
Gwen continued to walk along beside him, completely unaware of the silent exchange that had passed between the two beings, the teen appearing to be concentrating all of her energy into putting one foot in front of the other. Convincing himself that she probably just needed a good night’s rest, that she’d be back to her regular self in no time and there was no cause for concern, Forneus’ thoughts wandered to other matters, his eyes only vaguely taking in the shifting of the colours surrounding them as they continued toward a split junction at the centre of the translucent walkway.
It wasn’t until a few minutes after they headed down a path on the left that Gwen broke the silence, the daemon observing the way her eyes flitted from him to the auburn-haired being at her right, and back again, her pale cheeks taking on a rosy hue as she kept pace with them both. “So, if Forneus is the guardian of the artifacts,” she hesitated a moment, peering at Phenex out of the corner of her eye, “then what does that make you?”
Sensing that he was far more likely to make a smart remark than give an honest answer, Forneus cut in smoothly. “Phenex is actually a high-ranking, elite agent of the Regulations Force, First Unit; however, he serves as a solitary foot soldier.” He looked down at Gwen, adding with a wink, “This is because he doesn’t play well with others.”
This elicited a giggle from her, the teen quickly putting a hand over her mouth when the human firebird turned his burning glare from her to Forneus, the daemon unable to stop the grin twitching at the corners of his mouth. In truth, he was relieved; teasing Phenex had simply been a bonus—hearing Gwen laugh after all that had happened, even if it was only the tiniest bit, counted as a positive omen, in his books.
“Don’t encourage the girl.” Phenex muttered, his eyes flashing in irritation.
“This girl has a name, you know.” The teen scowled, “It’s Gwen—Gwenyth Lamelle.”
“I didn’t ask, and nor do I care.”
What on Earth occurred in my absence? Forneus wondered, staring between Phenex and the adolescent girl with a mixture of confusion and amusement. He nearly laughed aloud, noticing how very alike they were—something that he was certain, if he were ever to voice it, would be met with blatant denial, possibly even fiery retribution.
Deciding he’d teased Phenex enough for one night, he opted to keep his counsel. Dread of incurring his painful wrath aside, Forneus didn’t wish to push his friend any further; it had been a trying night for them all, and he didn’t wish to create more friction between the human girl and phoenix than what already existed. Frankly, he’d prefer if there was no tension between them at all, but he knew it was far too much to hope for, given the current circumstances.
As they continued their journey up the crystalline walkway, making many twists and turns along the way, Gwen spoke up again, casting a furtive glance at Forneus as she did. “So, what happens now…you know, since I can’t go home, yet?” There was a tremor in her voice as she said this, the daemon noticing the clenching of her jaw as she fought to maintain control of her emotions.
“You will remain here, until such a time when the council decides what to do with you.” The daemon replied. When he saw her pale further, he mentally cursed himself for his poor choice of words.
The poor girl is already frightened enough as is, He admonished himself, the last thing she needs is another reason to be afraid.
He turned to face her when she halted in her steps. She was trembling, her hands clasped against her chest as she stared up at him with wide, tear-filled eyes. Feeling Phenex stiffen beside him, he cast a furtive glance in his direction; the firebird bore a look of disdain, his eyes narrowing as his mouth pulled into a severe frown. Realization hitting him like a thunderbolt, Forneus experienced a wave of sorrow, knowing full well the cause of his companion’s reaction.
No matter how long you’ve lived, no matter how many years have passed since that unfortunate day…will you never truly heal? He wondered morosely, his gaze meeting Phenex’s for a fraction of a second, before his attention was diverted back to Gwen.
She had retreated a few more steps from him, her mounting terror evident from the way her eyes flitted between the daemon and the humanoid phoenix. Human though she was, it was clear to Forneus that she was picking up on the intense hostility radiating off of Phenex at that precise moment, her lip quivering whenever her gaze landed on him. Glancing between the two, he heaved a sigh. Phenex’s past scars were going to have to wait. Right now, a very confused, petrified human girl needed reassuring, and since his slip of the tongue had been the catalyst for this entire situation, it was his duty to make it right.
“I apologize,” He held his hand out to her, placating, “That was poor wording on my part. I assure you, we have no intention of causing you any harm—quite the opposite, in fact. The council wishes to protect you until all of the artifacts have been reclaimed, to ensure you don’t end up caught in the crossfire between us, and those who oppose us.”
The adolescent visibly calmed at his words, Forneus’ coat sweeping across the translucent walkway as her arms fell back at her sides. There were still traces of anxiety lining her face, her eyes wary as she asked in a timid voice, “I don’t understand, though…what do I have to do with the artifacts, in the first place?”
When the daemon failed to answer, she continued on.
“I mean, there must be some sort of connection; all I did was touch one of them—and they all vanished! Then, you showed up, out of nowhere…and now I can’t go home, because someone or something is after me? I don’t understand…why is this happening, and why to me, of all people?”
Forneus attempted to answer again, only to have Phenex interrupt, the human firebird glancing over his shoulder at him, the mottled golden-amber of his eyes glittering dangerously. “Take care of things with the girl,” he murmured, “Something important has come to my attention. I’ll catch up with you, later.” With that, he turned on his heel and stormed off, heading back down the same path they had just come from.
The daemon followed him with his gaze, watching when he turned the corner just beyond a set of twin pillars, and disappeared from view. He knew, no matter what Phenex said, no matter the excuse he came up with, there was nothing important for him to take care of at that very moment. He had seen that look in his eyes before. The firebird needed time to cool off, and as such, had decided to remove himself from occupying the same space as the teenaged girl. Despite his agitation toward Gwen, Forneus knew that he had left every bit as much for her benefit, as for his own; Phenex would never admit it to himself, let alone to anyone else, but he still cared enough that he would never go out of his way to deliberately harm a human being, no matter what horrors he had endured in the past.
“What did I say…?”
He was brought out of his ponderings at the timid sound of Gwen’s voice, the daemon looking to his right to meet her startled gaze. Allowing his features to settle into a relaxed smile, he patted her on the shoulder, and beckoned her to follow him further down the winding quartz path.
“Don’t take Phenex’s attitude too personally.” He told her as they came to one of the few enclosed passageways the Spectrum had to offer, a faint smile tugging at his lips as the girl studied the cavernous walls, her eyes lighting up when she caught sight of the glimmering flecks of gold imbedded within the dark stonework. “He isn’t as bad as he seems. Things have just been…difficult, for him.”
The hues of colour were softer in this part of the Spectrum, the deep blues and violets undulating hypnotically as they ran between the crevices in the walls on either side, while the continuous sea of colour that rolled below the crystal walkway cast prisms of light on the ceiling. Forneus observed Gwen out of the corner of his eye, the teen casting her curious gaze around from the shimmering ceiling, to the many doors that lined the walls on either side, each one of varying colour.
Leading her to one streaked with grey and black marble, he grabbed hold of the old-fashioned brass door handle, and threw it open, gesturing for her to take a look inside. “Welcome to your personal living quarters,” He declared, “I hope you find them to your liking.”
Gwen stepped over the threshold, casting a furtive glance at Forneus as she entered the modest, yet sizable room, her fingers grasping the edges of his coat to keep it from slipping off of her shoulders.
“Wow…” She breathed, noting that the walls undulated with the same, calm tones as out in the corridor, the temperature seeming to be warmer here than in the rest of the Spectrum. A bed with pristine, white linen sat in the far corner to her left, a simple, mahogany nightstand next to it. The rest of the room was bare, though it was reasonable to assume that with the amount of space left, a great deal more had once occupied the quarters.
“It once served as the barracks for some of the Regulations Force’s operatives,” The daemon explained as Gwen continued to investigate her surroundings, “However, with the department being downsized significantly within the last century, this entire corridor is currently vacant.”
A feeling of tranquility fell over her, the adrenaline she’d experienced before beginning to ebb away, her thoughts becoming hazy as the sudden desire for slumber seized her. Was there some enchantment within the room making her feel this way, she wondered, or were the events of the night finally catching up to her? Just how long ago had she been in her own bed, staring at the numbers of her clock radio? It felt as though a lifetime had passed since she’d been in her kitchen, staring at the artifacts…
She hadn’t realized she’d voiced this out loud until Forneus gave a slight chuckle, declaring, “With everything you’ve witnessed tonight, it’s hardly surprising that you feel that way. In truth, though, we’ve only been in one another’s company for little more than two hours—by the mortal realm’s standards, at any rate. It’s approaching 3 a.m., where you come from, of course.”
It’s really only been that long?
However, with this realization came another—she needed to go to the bathroom, and badly. Glancing around the room, she was sorely disappointed to see that there wasn’t one. When she voiced this aloud, Forneus laughed again, and snapped his fingers. What happened next caused Gwen to stumble backward with a gasp. The adolescent watched in wide-eyed fascination as first, a doorway appeared in the wall to her left, expanding until a small room had formed off to the side of the one she was standing in. Once the walls and linoleum had finished materializing, a stand-up shower, toilet, and bathroom sink appeared, complete with earth-tone green countertops and matching bathmats. A simple, metal towel rack laden with soft, cream-coloured towels and washcloths appeared next, showing up on the wall closest to the shower, the modest facility filled with what looked to be fluorescent yellow light.
It took the teen a moment longer to stop gaping, and to make use of it, her face warming with embarrassment as she strode passed Forneus, the daemon’s chortles continuing even after she’d re-emerged from the bathroom, returning his coat to him with a scowl; clearly, he found something in her startled reactions amusing. Between him and the humanoid phoenix, it seemed her frayed nerves would never know a moment’s peace, again.
“My apologies,” Forneus bowed, his shoulders still quaking with residual giggles, “Being that the Spectrum’s residents have no need to relieve themselves, lacking bathroom facilities hasn’t been a problem, until now. Fortunately, we have vast knowledge of how they work. I hope you find it adequate?”
Try as she might, Gwen couldn’t hold his laughter against him, even if it had been at her expense; she supposed, if the roles had been reversed, she would have laughed, just as he had. Feeling her lips twitching into a smile, she replied, “Yes, it’s fine. So, if…you guys…you know,” she shifted awkwardly, the rest of the words coming out in a jumble, “then does that mean you guys don’t eat, either?”
“Yes and no.” Forneus paused as he pulled his coat back on, his rich voice filling the room once he’d buttoned it nearly all the way up. “While we don’t relieve ourselves, we do still require rest and sustenance—the latter coming in the form of ether, while slumber simply allows us to replenish whatever magical energy we’ve used.”
Before she knew what she was doing, Gwen found herself sitting down on the edge of the bed. Her curiosity getting the better of her for what she felt must have been the hundredth time that night, she echoed, “Ether?” Hadn’t he mentioned it once before, while explaining the roles of the artifacts?
Grinning, Forneus patted her on the shoulder. “All in good time, Gwen—for the time being, you should try to get some rest.”
Feeling her eyelids beginning to droop, she reluctantly agreed with him, and crawled beneath the thick, white comforter with a yawn.
As the daemon made his way over to the door, he looked over his shoulder at her. “I will ensure that food and other necessities are provided for you, as well. If you need anything else, be sure to let me know.” With that, he bid her goodnight, and left the room, the marble door closing with a soft click behind him.
She didn’t know how long she stared into the darkened room, watching the effervescent walls on either side of her pulse from blue to violet, and back again, but as time passed, she started feeling nauseous, her temples throbbing in time with the pounding of her heart. Abandoning her theory that the room had been enchanted to make her feel drowsy, Gwen curled up on her side, a whimper escaping her when her stomach clenched painfully. Now that she was alone, homesickness began to take hold, her breath coming in quick, shallow gasps as she fought back the tears that were threatening. As memories of her parents and her home flitted across her mind, she surrendered to them, the tears continuing to trail down her cheeks long after she’d fallen into a fitful sleep.
When Gwen awoke, she was surprised to see a folding tray next to her bed, a gilded platter laden with an assortment of fruits, muffins, and other baked goods sitting on top of it. Next to it was a pitcher of clear liquid and an empty glass, the teen realizing just how parched she was after her fitful sleep in the strange, forbidden world she found herself in. Sitting up, she poured the liquid from the pitcher into the glass, and cautiously sniffed at it. Satisfied that it was only water, she swallowed the contents of her glass and refilled it, draining another half cup before her thirst was finally quenched.
As another bodily need brought itself to her attention, she lowered her feet to the smoky, dark tile that made up the room’s floor, and sauntered over to the bathroom Forneus had created for her mere hours earlier. The teen winced at the sudden brightness that surrounded her, shielding her eyes from the light that had come on automatically the moment she’d stepped through the door.
It was only upon exiting that she took notice of the toothbrush, shampoo, and other assorted toiletries sitting on the bathroom counter—she would make good use of them soon, but not until after she’d had something to eat. Her stomach growled loudly right then, as if reminding her of the hunger gnawing away at her insides, her mouth beginning to water as the tantalizing smell of freshly-baked blueberry muffins called to her from the other side of the room.
It wasn’t until she was sitting back down on the bed, buttered muffin in hand, that she saw the clothing lying at the bottom of the comforter—bra, underwear, a pair of boot-cut jeans, a green long sleeve, and a pair of blue and white sneakers balanced on top. Swallowing the bite of muffin she’d taken, Gwen slowly got up from the bed, and checked the clothes over. She didn’t have time to wonder why everything was the proper size, nor to be mildly disconcerted by it, for a knock came at the door just then, startling her out of her thoughts.
“Come in…” She called, repeating herself when her voice refused to come out louder than a whisper the first time around.
The door opened soundlessly, admitting the silver-eyed being she had met short hours ago in the comfort of her own home. He seemed hesitant to impose at first, only crossing the threshold when Gwen waved him in, her breakfast still in hand. Noticing the crumbs she’d inadvertently dropped all over the floor while gesturing at him, the teen stooped to pick them up, flushing in mild embarrassment. She furtively glanced at the daemon out of the corner of her eye as she straightened, immediately taking notice of the troubled expression darkening his features.
What’s eating him? She wondered, still glancing over her shoulder at him as she tossed the crumbs into the bathroom sink. She didn’t get the opportunity to ask him out loud, for the black and grey marbled door opened yet again, startling the thought from her mind. In walked Phenex, his gaze darting around the room before it came to rest on her, lips curling into a mocking smirk. Had he seen her flinch when the door opened?
Of course he did, she huffed in annoyance. He wouldn’t be grinning at me, otherwise.
Feeling the heat rising in her cheeks, Gwen glared back at him. “You could have knocked, first,” she snapped, striding across the room to stand in front of him with her hands on her hips, “Or is it that you haven’t heard of this little thing called privacy? Where I come from, it’s all the rage.”
It was quick, but she just managed to catch a glimpse of it. A flicker of irritation in Phenex’s eyes, his expression darkening for a split second until the mask of indifference carefully slipped back into place, the feverish afterglow in his eyes the only evidence that the teen’s sarcasm had hit its mark.
Pleased with herself, she didn’t realize he’d closed the distance between them until his hand came down on her shoulder, gripping it tightly, Gwen gasping at the amount of heat radiating from the palm of his hand.
“You forget yourself, human.” Though his tone was soft, there was no mistaking the underlying current of indignation in his words. However, this was as far as he went, the humanoid phoenix removing his hand and turning his attention to Forneus before she could fully register what had just happened. “I have news; the first one has been located.”
A chill raced up Gwen’s spine the moment he removed his hand, the teen repressing a shudder as she looked between the two beings. It was clear Forneus hadn’t noticed the exchange, and being the stubborn individual that she was, she refused to run crying to him over what may or may not have been a threat.
No, he couldn’t have meant it like that, she reasoned, he’s a jerk, but he’s one of the good guys…right? He was probably just trying to scare me. Yeah, that’s it.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed her thoughts aside, and returned to the discussion at hand. “What do you mean, ‘the first one’?” She asked, mentally cursing herself when she lowered her gaze under the intense scrutiny of his. It was made even worse when she saw the superior grin tugging at his lips, making Gwen’s cheeks burn with anger all over again.
“The first artifact we need to collect, of course.” He declared, his eyes seeming to brighten as he looked down at her, no doubt relishing in her discomfort.
Bastard, Gwen seethed, unconsciously balling her hands into fists. I’ve just about had it with your superiority complex!
Having missed Forneus’ response to Phenex’s news, she just barely caught his question to the guardian. “Can you ensure she’s ready in time for our departure?”
It took her a moment to catch up, the teen drawing back slightly. “Whoa, hang on a sec,” she protested, “What do I need to be ready for? Where are you taking me?” She glanced at Forneus, the daemon giving her an apologetic look in return.
“I meant to tell you this, but Phenex got here before I had a chance.” He sighed then, pressing the tips of his fingers to his forehead. “The council has ruled that you accompany us on our mission.”
“T-They…what?” She stammered, her arms dropping limply at her sides as the gravity of his words sank in. “Why do I have to go along? Isn’t it going to be dangerous? Wasn’t that the whole reason behind why I can’t go home, why I have to stay here—because of the danger? And now, you’re telling me the council wants me to go along with you?”
She couldn’t keep the incredulity from creeping into her voice, her words wavering as she glared accusingly at the dark-haired being. “You said the council wanted to keep me safe until after the artifacts were found!”
Forneus’ face fell, his luminous eyes dulling as he looked back at her guiltily. He opened his mouth to respond, but stopped short when Phenex stepped in between them, golden-amber eyes flashing as he stared down at the adolescent girl.
“Look, we wouldn’t be in this situation, if you hadn’t touched the artifacts to begin with!” He snapped, his upper lip twisting into a snarl. “Thanks to you, we’re on the brink of having a full-blown crisis on our hands!”
By this point, Gwen was too angry to be intimidated by him. She stepped forward, glaring at him with as much venom as she could muster. “How on earth was I supposed to know touching them would make them disappear like that?” She declared, “Until last night, I didn’t know a single thing about them, much less that they were enchanted!”
“Regardless,” Phenex countered, his eyes turning a burnished gold as he glared back at her, “You did release them, and as such, you are obligated to help Forneus retrieve them.”
“You’re not being fair,” She stated, voice breaking with exasperation, “I didn’t know!”
The firebird glowered at her, a look of disgust on his face. Turning his head slightly to the side, he peered down at her from the corner of his eye, muttering under her breath, “Tch. Like that’s any excuse…”
Gwen flared at this, her arms trembling with suppressed rage. “Are you even listening to yourself?! You’re being completely irrational.” Her voice quavered, “It’s not just an excuse—it’s a legitimate reason! My father brings artifacts home all the time. How the hell was I supposed to know these ones were any different from the ones he’s collected, before?!”
The air seemed to swell between them, though whether it was just her imagination, or whether Phenex was, in fact, responsible for the sudden rise in temperature, Gwen couldn’t be sure. Either way, she’d never felt as frustrated as she did right now, her skin prickling as hot blood pumped through her veins. Determined not to break eye contact with him this time, lest he take it as a sign of weakness, she remained rooted to the spot, eyes narrowing when she saw his stance become more rigid.
Before Phenex could retort, Forneus interjected, the daemon holding up his hand in a placating manner. “I’m sorry, Phenex, but Gwen is right—she isn’t to blame for what happened. The artifacts never should have been brought together, to begin with…and they wouldn’t have been, if I hadn’t failed my duties as guardian. If not for the failsafe Apollo put in place, preventing whoever is responsible for bringing the artifacts together from using them, we would have a full-blown crisis on our hands. But still…it never should have come down to this…the failsafe shouldn’t have been necessary…”
Gwen gaped up at him, shocked by the heaviness in his words. Seeing the sorrow-filled lines beneath his eyes, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. After all, it wasn’t really his fault—he’d been attacked, so how could he really hold himself accountable for what had happened? Tentatively taking a step closer, she reached a hand out toward his shoulder, but stopped, letting her arm fall back at her side. Just as Phenex’s anger had filled the room moments ago, so too did Forneus’ despair. His sadness seemed to settle over the room, blanketing everything it touched in a dread-filled fog, permeating her very pores.
“Why…why weren’t they meant to come together?” She asked softly, afraid that her words might upset him further, but feeling the information was too important to pass up. “What is the ‘failsafe’ that’s keeping things from being worse than they already are?”
“A little more than one thousand years ago—one thousand, two-hundred, to be precise—shortly after the High Council was formed, Apollo proposed that they appoint the very first guardian. It was decided that entities serving under the gods, and not the gods, themselves, would carry out this task, as the deities had a great deal of responsibility in governing the various realms, already. The role of this individual, as I told you last night, was to watch over the seals, and ensure that the artifacts remained apart.” The daemon paused, breathing a sigh. When he continued, his tone was far heavier, his eyes having lost some of their luster. “The reason for this was to prevent the convicts of Nowhere from escaping, for if the seals were brought together, the gateway to Nowhere would be opened. As such, it was decreed that the guardian responsible for failing to prevent this from happening would…” Forneus trailed off then, lowering his eyes under Gwen’s inquisitive stare.
Despite her curiosity, she couldn’t bring herself to prompt more out of him. Whatever had happened in addition to Nowhere’s gateway being opened was obviously a source of great pain for the daemon.
Phenex sighed heavily beside her, casting a stern look in her direction as he continued on in the guardian’s place. “The guardian appointed at the time of such an occurrence loses a sizable portion of his power upon the seals’ release.” His voice was thin, impatient. “This is intended both as penance for his failure in his capacity as guardian, and as incentive to the reclaim the artifacts—and in doing so, the power he has lost.”
“So, in short, a second chance…?” Gwen murmured, more to herself than anyone else. Still, as she looked at Forneus, she knew the price had been steep for him. The ‘second chance’ being permitted to the daemon was more like a double-edged sword, than an opportunity to make up for his mistakes. What power he had lost would only be returned to him once he got the artifacts back. If he failed in his mission, would those powers be lost to him, forever? Would the High Council truly be so unforgiving to one of their own? Even as the thought crossed her mind, she knew the answer; the punishment for failure may be harsh, but according to everything they had told her, it was also fair. Both Phenex and Forneus had made it perfectly clear just how important the artifacts were, and as such, that losing them could mean the end of the very worlds they were sworn to protect.
Gwen stirred from her thoughts when the firebird spoke again, his words edged.
“Judging by the look on your face, you’re finally starting to get it.” His breath hissed between clenched teeth, as though he was trying to keep his temper under control. “If you care about anything besides yourself, you will take responsibility for your part in this whole mess, and you will help Forneus in whatever meager way you can! Or does the suffering of the one who saved your life short hours ago mean nothing to you?”
Turmoil burned its way up through her stomach and into her chest at Phenex’s words, her breath catching in her throat as she stared back at him, unseeing. She didn’t know Forneus well, but she did care—she really did. He had saved her life, and in their short time together, he had been nothing but kind to her; for Phenex to suggest she didn’t care at all only angered her, more. How dare he assume he knew her, how she felt?
Feeling the heat creeping up from the back of her neck and into her cheeks, Gwen glowered back at the human firebird. “I do care!” she didn’t mean for it to, but desperation crept into her voice, her eyes beginning to sting, “But how am I supposed to help? I don’t know what you want me to do, or if I can even do it…I didn’t ask for any of this! After everything that’s happened, I don’t know if I’ll ever see my family again…”
Phenex seemed to tower over her just then, the teen trailing off as she shrank back from him. Outrage was written all over his face as he glared down at her with feverish, glittering eyes. “You’re even slower than I thought,” He said, lip curling in disdain, “You don’t get it, you simple, foolish girl! The very fate of the worlds are at risk—this one, and yours. Your petty concerns are nothing in comparison!”
It was like being slapped. So that was it, then; how she felt, what she was going through…it didn’t matter. Nothing about her life, not her concern for her family, or her fear of what was to come—as far as he was concerned, it was nothing more than triviality. But could she really deny his logic? She hated to admit it, hated him even more for saying it, but she couldn’t close her eyes to the truth. He was right, and there was no way around it; what was her life, really, when balanced against the fate of the world?
‘The very fate of the worlds are at risk—both this one, and yours!’
The words kept repeating in her head, becoming more urgent with each syllable, driving all other thoughts from her mind. She stared between both beings then, unblinking, vaguely aware that Phenex was still glaring down at her, his mouth moving, though no sound seemed to be coming out…
What am I supposed to do, now?
Phenex reprimanded Gwen for a few moments longer, not even caring when he noticed the glazed look in her eyes, her expression blank—as though she were somewhere else, entirely, worlds away from the room they were standing in. It wasn’t until Forneus gave his shoulder a shake that he finally stopped short, and glanced back at his dark-haired friend. The daemon gave him a significant look, before tilting his head toward the girl.
It was only now that he was no longer scolding her that Phenex took notice of her wide, green eyes, the trembling of her lower lip. The vacant expression had vanished, replaced with frightful awareness. Had he really scared her that much with what he’d said…or was his temper the culprit? He looked away, turning his glare toward the tiled floor. Revulsion settled in his stomach like a heavy stone, the thought that it was probably both nagging at the back of his mind. While he didn’t feel any remorse for revealing to her the cold, hard facts of what was at stake, it was troubling that he’d lost control of his emotions so easily. What was it about her that made him so quick to anger? Sure, she was a self-absorbed human, but—weren’t they all? So why should this one, insignificant girl, upset him as much as she did?
Because she’s not insignificant at all, He admitted to himself, casting a long, hard look in Gwen’s direction. She could be the difference between the success and failure of this mission…and that’s only if she helps us!
Frustration stirred within him in that instant, rolling off of him in waves—frustration at the girl for her unwillingness to help, and frustration at himself, for ever entertaining the notion that she would. Spinning on his heel, he made his way over to the door, vaguely aware when Forneus started to say something, but stopped. Grabbing hold of the handle, he glanced back at the daemon.
“There’s no help for it. I’ll inform the council of the girl’s lack of cooperation; they’ll just have to come up with another plan.”
Just as he was about to wrench the door open, Gwen’s voice reached his ears. “Wait…” He stopped, the near-pleading note of that one word catching him off-guard. “I’ll do it…I-I’ll help…”
If not for the particularly awful mood he found himself in, he might have felt a bit of smug satisfaction that, in having conceded defeat, he had brought about her sudden change of heart. The very irony of it was too much to ignore. As things stood, however, he was in a bad mood, and whatever victory he had claimed felt hollow. That tremor in her voice…
He glanced over his shoulder, eyes locking with jade ones that seemed much too bright. “Good,” He muttered, his attention drifting to the daemon, “Forneus, make sure you and the girl get to the rendezvous point on time.”
Forneus bowed his head in reply, the human firebird returning the token of respect with a quick nod of his own.
“Alright, then; once I’ve taken care of a few personal matters, I’ll meet you there.” Throwing the door open with more force than he’d intended, he squared his shoulders, and without another word, stepped out of the room. As the door closed behind him, he could hear the soft murmur of Forneus’ voice, the guardian attempting to comfort the girl. Heaving a sigh, he quickened his steps up the quartz pathway, determined to force the whole event from his mind. He might have been able to do it too, if not for how the teen had looked at him before he’d left the room.
Exasperated, he ran a hand through his hair, and headed up the long, curved path leading to his own quarters, Gwen’s stricken expression haunting him the whole way.