Forneus stared after Phenex as the door closed behind him, brow furrowing in confusion. Ask me what? He wondered, glancing inquisitively at the girl next to him. Her gaze was still fixed on the door, an uncertain frown on her face.
“Miss…?” Forneus inquired. The girl gave a start before looking at him, clearly having been lost in thought.
“It’s Gwen,” she said, somewhat distractedly, “Gwenyth Lamelle—but just call me Gwen. Everyone else does.”
“That’s right…how could I have forgotten?” He didn’t realize he’d said it out loud until he caught sight of Gwen’s expression, her eyes alight with curiosity. Forneus didn’t understand why, but for whatever reason, she didn’t ask him what he’d meant. Instead, she turned to a different topic entirely.
“You told me that you were the guardian of the artifacts,” she said, shifting from one foot to the other, “what does that mean, exactly?”
Forneus contemplated her for a moment, not quite certain where to begin. There were so many factors—too many, in fact—that he needed to take into account before answering her. With everything Gwen had been through tonight, 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—the very gods that Phenex is reporting to, as we speak—to watch over the artifacts, and prevent them from ever falling into the wrong hands.” Seeing that he had her 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, undoubtedly trying to digest what he’d told her. “What happened eight years ago?” She asked, frowning.
For lack of anything better to do with them, Forneus clasped his hands at the small of his back, and lowered his gaze. “I’m not entirely sure, to be honest.” He admitted. “One minute, I was watching over the artifacts via the Ethereal Network—that is to say, the Spectrum’s surveillance centre—and the next, someone, or something, attacked me. I didn’t realize what was happening to me until it was too late. When I awoke…”
“…Eight years had passed?” Gwen guessed, eyes wide with shock. In spite of everything that had happened since he’d appeared in her kitchen—something not consciously done on his part, but the result of the enchantment placed upon him when he’d become guardian of the artifacts—she appeared to be taking it all in stride.
She’s a lot calmer than I would have expected, he mused. Aloud, he said, “Precisely.”
“I don’t understand,” Gwen said, her voice shaking slightly, “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, Forneus resigned himself to walking the tenuous line between too much information, and not enough. He had promised to tell her everything 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, and he offered her a reassuring smile.
“My apologies, I was just trying to decide how best to explain it to you.” He replied, bowing his head. “Do you recall what Phenex said earlier? To be more specific, when he mentioned the seals?”
She nodded, her eyes lighting up in understanding. “Wait…he was talking about the artifacts, wasn’t he?”
“Very good, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Forneus said, “The artifacts were originally just that; ordinary items belonging to the gods whose names they shared—Ceridwen’s Cauldron, Osiris’ Crown, and so on. However, the Greek god, Apollo, enchanted them by imbuing them with ether. This in turn made them into seals, and these seals served as protective barriers to the realm, ‘Nowhere’.”
Both Forneus and Gwen glanced up as Phenex emerged from the council chamber. Before she could do more than sputter in protest, he seized Gwen’s hand, sliding a simple golden band onto her right thumb. Forneus instantly recognized what it was, given its intricate markings; unsurprisingly, Gwen did not.
Snatching her hand back from his, she scowled. Her irritation softened however, once she got a good look at the ring. “What is this?” She asked, not quite meeting Phenex’s gaze. Judging by the blush creeping up her neck and into her cheeks, she didn’t know what to make of his sudden gift-giving gesture.
Clearly having read her reaction the same way, Phenex sneered at her. “Don’t flatter yourself; council orders.” When Forneus threw him a warning glance, he went on less defensively, “That ring emits a special energy signature, one that’s unique to the Spectrum’s own energy. Think of it as a ‘visitor’s pass’, allowing you to come and go without the security team breathing down our necks each and every time.”
At Gwen’s puzzled expression, Forneus cut in. “We only received clearance to bring you here because of the danger you were in at the time,” he explained, “since you’ll likely be staying with us for a while, it’s simply a precaution. Nothing to worry about.”
Gwen studied the ring, seemingly absorbed in the magical symbols engraved deep into its metal. When she glanced up at him, eyes swimming with questions, it was a long moment before she finally settled on one.
“What did you mean,” she said, eyebrows drawing together, “when you said the artifacts served as protective seals to ‘Nowhere’?”
Forneus hesitated, 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, forcing him to bite back the mixture of fear and anger they invoked in him. 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 that had formed in his throat. If we fail, losing her will be only one of the many problems we face on a larger scale.
He cast a helpless glance in Phenex’s direction. What was he supposed to do?
Phenex shook his head, sighing in resignation. “You may as well,” he said, running his 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, Forneus nodded, and turned to meet Gwen’s puzzled expression. “Shortly after it was founded—one thousand, two hundred years ago, to be precise—the High Council of Deities concocted a plan to seal away any of their brethren who posed a threat toward the natural order of the worlds under their protection, along with any lesser entities who served under them. Thus, the prison realm of ‘Nowhere’ was created.”
Gwen gaped at him. “Whoa, whoa…they created a whole other world?”
Forneus smiled. “Indeed, they did.”
“That’s…that’s…” Gwen brought her hands to her head, seemingly at a loss for words.
“…Beyond your comprehension?” Phenex supplied, smirking when she 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, she was well beyond any skepticism she’d previously held on the matter.
Gwen nodded, blushing as she lowered her gaze. “So, um…the seals?”
“That’s right, now where were we before we were interrupted?” He looked pointedly at Phenex, the other giving an apologetic shrug, though it was obvious from the curling of his lip that he wasn’t the least bit sorry. “Ah, yes. In their role as seals, the artifacts kept the doorway to Nowhere closed, preventing all who were imprisoned within from escaping.”
Gwen’s eyes widened, suddenly understanding. “So now that the seals have been released…does that mean…?”
“Unfortunately yes.” Forneus nodded. In spite of the direness of the situation, he was impressed with how quickly she’d caught on. “According to the reports the council received from the Regulations Force, Seventh Unit—a tactical force equivalent to your world’s police and military forces—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 pupils contracting with fear.
As he 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?”
She gaped back 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 his 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 Forneus’ 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. Forneus turned his gaze toward Gwen, gauging her reaction. Despite Phenex’s assurances, she visibly paled, her gaze unfocused as she stared past his shoulder at the multi-coloured ether trails beyond.
“I promise you, Gwen,” Forneus gently laid a hand on 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. We will do everything in our power to keep your world from harm—you have my word.”
When Gwen only nodded, he went on. “However, the only way to ensure that 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. Unfortunately,” he sighed, running a hand along his jaw, “all of the convicts will have to be detained again before the final seal is reactivated; there is no way to open Nowhere’s portal to admit a prisoner without running the risk of releasing any others caught beforehand.”
“But that is a matter for the Regulations Force and the council.” Phenex declared with a flippant wave of his hand, “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 eyes, Forneus sighed, shaking his head wearily. Leave it to Phenex to let his battle lust get the better of him…
Hearing the quiet whisper of cloth rubbing against cloth, Forneus glanced back at Gwen, noticing she was shifting from one foot to the other. The skin of her face was ashen, lined with dark circles beneath her eyes. A subtle tremor racked her shoulders, and she wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her hands over them vigorously.
Finally comprehending what the problem was, Forneus swept into a bow. “My apologies,” he shrugged out of his coat, and gently placed it across Gwen’s shoulders, “you must be exhausted after everything that’s happened, tonight. Come, I will show you to your temporary lodgings.”
“Thank you.” She said it so softly that if not for his exceptional hearing, Forneus 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. As she came up beside him, he just happened to glance Phenex’s way; his shoulders were hunched, hands shoved deep in his coat pockets, a scowl darkening his face.
The sight called to mine that of a petulant child, and Forneus chuckled softly; the sound didn’t go unnoticed by Phenex, his scowl deepening in response. To think that kindness toward a human could bother him this much, Forneus thought with a shake of his head. His grin faltered however, remembering the cause of Phenex’s hostility toward humanity. Guilt settled into the pit of his stomach like lead, sobering him. Though I suppose if it had been me, I would feel much the same way that he does…
Maintaining his pace, he glanced over his shoulder, silver eyes meeting striking tawny ones. His contrition must have shown, for Phenex’s scowl softened, one corner of his mouth twitching into a lopsided grin. Relief washing over him at the telltale sign of forgiveness, Forneus returned the smile in kind, and turned his attention to the winding quartz walkway in front of him.
Gwen quietly walked beside him, unaware of the silent exchange that had passed between them. She seemed to be concentrating all of her effort on putting one foot in front of the other, her eyes never leaving the walkway. Convincing himself that she 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 took in the shifting of colours around them, his feet continuing toward the split junction that lay ahead as if by their own power. He knew each and every turn along the Central Junction—the network of walkways at the Spectrum’s very core—off by heart.
It wasn’t until a few minutes after they’d headed down the path on their left that Gwen broke the silence, her eyes flitted from Forneus to Phenex, and back again. Her pale cheeks took on a rosy hue, and she lowered her gaze. “So, if Forneus is the guardian of the artifacts,” she hesitated, 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’s more of a solitary foot soldier than anything.” He looked at Gwen, adding with a wink, “This is because he doesn’t play well with others.”
This elicited a giggle from her, Gwen quickly putting a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. It wasn’t her, but Forneus that Phenex turned his burning glare on. Forneus merely grinned, unfazed. In truth, he was relieved; teasing Phenex had simply been a bonus. Hearing Gwen laugh after all that had happened—even if only the tiniest bit—counted as a positive omen in his books.
“Don’t encourage the girl.” Phenex muttered, eyes flashing in irritation.
“This girl has a name, you know.” Gwen scowled, “It’s Gwen—Gwenyth Lamelle.”
“I didn’t ask, and nor do I care.”
Glancing at the near-identical glares they threw at one another, Forneus nearly laughed aloud. How very alike they are, he mused, if only they could see it, too. He didn’t say it out loud, however; if he had, he would have only been met with blatant denial—and there was a distinct possibility fiery retribution would follow. Sensing he’d teased Phenex enough for one night, he opted to keep his counsel. Dread of incurring his wrath aside, Forneus didn’t wish to create any more of a strain between him and Gwen than what already existed. Frankly, he would have preferred if there was no tension between them at all; but under the current circumstances, he knew it was far too much to hope for.
As they continued their journey, making their way up a spiralling crystalline staircase, Gwen spoke again; this time her gaze solely on Forneus. “So what happens now…you know, since I can’t go home yet?”
“You will remain here, until such a time when the council decides what to do with you.” Forneus replied. When he saw Gwen pale further, he bit back a groan.
That was some very poor wording on your part, he admonished himself, the last thing she needs is another reason to be afraid.
He turned to face her, noticing the way she trembled as she halted in her steps, bringing her hands to her chest; her eyes wide, fearful. Feeling Phenex stiffen beside him, he cast a furtive glance in his direction. Disdain was written across his face, eyes narrowed with his lip curling into an angry sneer. The realization hit Forneus like a thunderbolt, filling him with sorrow. Something about Gwen’s reaction was triggering the ghosts of Phenex’s past all over again; Forneus didn’t know what, specifically, but he couldn’t help thinking that he was to blame. If only he had chosen his words more carefully…
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 returning to Gwen.
Forneus sighed. Phenex’s past scars would have to wait. Right now, a confused, petrified human girl needed reassuring—and since his slip of the tongue was to blame, it was his duty to make it right.
“I apologize,” Forneus held his hand out to Gwen, 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 that you don’t end up caught in the crossfire between us, and those who oppose us.”
It was subtle, but Forneus saw her relax, the tail of his coat sweeping across the glassy surface of the walkway as her arms fell back at her sides. There were still traces of anxiety lining her face, her eyes wary and bright.
“I don’t understand though,” she said timidly, “what do I have to do with the artifacts in the first place?”
When he failed to answer, she went 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 the blue, and now I can’t go home until god knows when…because someone or something is after me? I just…don’t get it. Why is this happening, and to me, of all people?”
Forneus opened his mouth to answer, but Phenex interrupted. “Take care of things with the girl,” he murmured, tawny eyes flashing, “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.
Forneus followed him with his gaze, watching when he turned the corner just beyond a set of twin pillars, and disappeared from sight. He knew, in spite of what Phenex said, there was no other urgent matter that required his attention. He had seen that look in his eyes many times before. He needed time to cool off, and as such, had decided to remove himself from occupying the same space as Gwen. No matter his agitation toward her, Forneus knew that he’d left every bit as much for her benefit as for his own; Phenex would never admit it to himself, let alone anyone else, but he still cared enough that he would never go out of his way to deliberately harm a human being—regardless of the horrors he’d endured in the past.
“What did I say…?”
Roused from his thoughts at the sound of her voice, Forneus turned to meet Gwen’s startled gaze. Smiling reassuringly at her, he patted her on the shoulder, and led her further down the quartz path.
“Don’t take Phenex’s attitude too personally,” he told her, finally reaching one of the few enclosed passageways the Spectrum had to offer. A faint smile tugged at his lips when she stopped to study the cavernous walls on either side, her eyes lighting up when she caught sight of the glimmering flecks of pyrite imbedded within the dark stonework. “He isn’t as bad as he seems. Things have just been…difficult, for him.”
Gwen only appeared to be half-listening, her gaze roving over the coloured veins that ran through the walls; each one reflecting the endless sea of colour that rolled below the crystal walkway and casting prisms of light on the ceiling above.
Once he was certain she’d finished drinking all of it in, he beckoned her over to one of the many doors lining the corridor, this one streaked with grey and black marble. Grabbing hold of the old-fashioned brass door handle, he threw it open, and gestured for her to take a look inside.
“Welcome to your personal living quarters,” Forneus smiled at her, “I hope you find them to your liking.”
Gwen stepped over the threshold, casting a furtive glance at Forneus as she entered the modestly sized room. Grasping the edges of his coat to keep it from slipping off of her shoulders, she peered at her surroundings.
“Wow…” she breathed, noting the way the walls undulated with the same hues of colour as out in the corridor. The temperature seemed to be warmer here than it had been out in the corridor, more comfortable. A bed with pristine white linen sat against the far left-hand corner of the room, a simple mahogany nightstand next to it. The rest of the room was bare, though with the amount of space left over, Gwen wondered if a great deal more had once occupied the quarters.
“It once served as the barracks for some of the Regulations Force operatives.” Forneus explained as Gwen continued to investigate her surroundings, “However, with the department being significantly downsized within the last century, the entire pyrite corridor is vacant.”
As she listened to him speak, a feeling of tranquility stole over her; the adrenaline that had been pumping through her system ebbed away, leaving her head feeling heavy with the desire for sleep. She idly wondered if some kind of enchantment in the room was responsible, or if the night’s events had finally caught up to her. Just how long ago had she been in her own bed, staring at the numbers of her bedside clock? It felt as if a lifetime had passed since she’d laid eyes on the artifacts in her kitchen…
Gwen hadn’t realized she’d voiced this aloud until Forneus gave a slight chuckle, “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 a little more than two hours; by the mortal realm’s standards, at any rate. Currently, 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 chuckled again, and snapped his fingers. What happened next caused Gwen to stumble backward with a gasp.
She 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. Finally, the modest facility filled with what looked to be fluorescent yellow light.
It took her a moment to stop gaping and make use of it, her face warming with embarrassment as she strode past Forneus. His quiet laughter continued even after she’d re-emerged from the bathroom, Gwen returning his coat to him with a scowl; clearly he found something about her reaction amusing. Between his mirth and Phenex’s bad attitude, it seemed her already frayed nerves would never know a moment’s peace, again.
“My apologies,” Forneus bowed, his shoulders shaking 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 trust 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’ve have reacted much the same way he had. Feeling her lips pulling into a smile, she said, “Yes, it’s fine. So if you don’t…well, you know,” she shifted awkwardly, the rest of her 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 need to relieve ourselves, we do still require rest and sustenance. The latter of which comes from ether; which if we’re feeling particularly whimsical, we can manipulate into the form of food or drink. Sleep, on the other hand, is all we require 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 must have been the hundredth time that night, she echoed, “Ether?” Hadn’t he mentioned it once before, 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 comforter with a yawn.
Forneus made his way over to the door, and glanced 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.
Gwen didn’t know for how long she stared at the effervescent walls on either side, watching as they pulsed from blue to violet, and back. But as time passed, she began to feel nauseous, her temples throbbing in time with the pounding of her heart. Abandoning her earlier theory that the room had been enchanted to make her feel drowsy, Gwen curled up on her side with a whimper. Now that she was alone, homesickness had taken hold, her stomach clenching painfully as she tried to hold back the tears that were threatening. As memories of her parents flitted across her mind, she surrendered to them; tears continuing to trail down her cheeks long after she’d fallen into a fitful sleep.
When Gwen awoke, it was to the sight of a folding tray sitting next to her bed; a gilded platter sat on top, laden with an assortment of fruits, muffins, and other baked goods. Next to it was a clear pitcher and an empty glass, Gwen realizing just how parched she was after her fitful night’s sleep. Pouring the contents of the pitcher into the glass, she cautiously sniffed at it. Satisfied that it was only water, she downed it in three gulps, draining another half cup before her thirst was quenched.
As another bodily need made itself known, she lowered her feet to the dark, smoky tile of the room’s floor, and sauntered over to the bathroom Forneus had created for her mere hours earlier. 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; the tantalizing smell of freshly baked blueberry muffins called to her from the other side of the room, making her stomach growl with longing.
Settling onto the edge of the bed with a buttered muffin in hand. She noticed 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 sneakers balanced on top. Swallowing the bite of muffin she’d taken, Gwen scooted toward the end of the bed, and checked the clothes over. She barely had time to wonder why everything was the proper size before a knock came at the door, startling the thoughts from her mind.
“Come in…” she called, repeating herself when her voice came out no louder than a whisper the first time around.
The door opened soundlessly, admitting Forneus. He seemed hesitant to impose at first, only crossing the threshold when Gwen waved him in, muffin still in hand. Picking up the crumbs she’d inadvertently dropped all over the floor in the process, she made her way over to the bathroom, and dumped them into the toilet bowl, casting a glance in Forneus’ direction as she did.
What’s eating him? She wondered, noticing his troubled expression. She didn’t get the opportunity to ask him before the door opened again, Phenex barging in as if he owned the place. His gaze darted around the room before coming to rest on her, his lips curling into a mocking grin.
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, Phenex’s expression darkening for a split second before the mask of indifference carefully slipped back into place; the feverish afterglow in his eyes the only evidence that her sarcasm had hit its mark.
Pleased with herself, Gwen didn’t realize he’d closed the distance between them until his hand came down on her shoulder, gripping it tightly. She gasped, recoiling 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 in his words. However, this was as far as he went, 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 her spine when his hand left her shoulder, Gwen repressing a whimper as she glanced between him and Forneus. It was clear Forneus hadn’t noticed the exchange, and being the stubborn individual that she was, Gwen refused to run crying to him over what may or may not have been a threat.
He couldn’t have meant it like that, she reasoned, he’s a jerk, but he’s still one of the good guys…right? He was probably just trying to scare me; that’s it.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed her thoughts aside. “What do you mean, you found ‘the first one’?” she asked. When Phenex stared back at her, Gwen lowered her gaze, mentally cursing herself as she did. It was made worse when she saw the superior smirk tugging at his lips, her cheeks beginning to burn with anger all over again.
“The first artifact we need to collect, of course.” Phenex declared, his smirk seeming to grow as her face grew hotter.
Jerk, Gwen seethed, balling her hands into fists. What she wouldn’t give to knock him down a few pegs…
“Can you ensure she’s ready in time for our departure?” Having missed Forneus’ reply, Gwen just barely caught Phenex’s question to him, her anger momentarily forgotten.
“Whoa, hang on a sec,” she looked from one to the other, “what do I need to be ready for? Where are you taking me, now?”
Forneus fidgeted awkwardly. “I meant to tell you, but Phenex got here before I had the chance,” he looked at her apologetically, “the council has ruled that you accompany us on our mission.”
“They what?” Gwen exclaimed, incredulous. “Why do I have to go along? Isn’t it going to be dangerous? Wasn’t that the whole reason behind me coming here in the first place—because of the danger? And now you’re telling me the council wants me to go along with you?” She narrowed her eyes accusingly at Forneus, “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 was stopped when Phenex stepped in between them, golden-amber eyes flashing as he stared down at her.
“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 time, Gwen was too angry to be intimidated by him. Stepping forward, she glared up 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? Until last night, I didn’t know anything about them—much less that they were enchanted!”
“Regardless,” Phenex said, his tone lethal, “you did release them and as such, you are obligated to help Forneus retrieve them.”
“You’re not being fair,” Gwen snapped, exasperated, “I didn’t know!”
Phenex glowered back at her in disgust, tilting his head slightly to the side so that he was looking at her out of the corner of his eye. “Tch. Like that’s any excuse…”
Gwen flared at this. “Are you even listening to yourself?” She asked, voice quavering, “I’m not just making excuses! My father brings artifacts home all the time; how the hell was I supposed to know these ones were any different?!”
The air swelled between them, crackling with their combined anger; though whether it was just her imagination, or if Phenex was, in fact, responsible for the sudden rise in temperature, Gwen couldn’t be sure. All she knew was that she wouldn’t break eye contact with him, not this time; the last thing she needed was for him to take it as a sign of weakness. She might be afraid, but she certainly was not weak!
Before Phenex could retort, Forneus stepped in-between them, his hands held up 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 it weren’t for Apollo’s failsafe, we would have a full-blown crisis on our hands. But still, it never should have come to this…the failsafe shouldn’t have been necessary…”
Gwen gaped, shocked at the heaviness in Forneus’ words. Seeing the deep-seated worry lines rimming 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 happened? Taking a tentative step forward, she reached out toward him, and stopped; her arm falling back at her side. Just as Phenex’s anger had filled the room moments ago, so too did Forneus’ sorrow. It settled across the room, blanketing everything beneath it in a dread-filled fog, permeating her very pores.
“Why…why weren’t they meant to come together?” She asked softly, afraid her words might upset him further, “What did you mean by ‘Apollo’s failsafe’?”
Forneus ran a hand along his jaw, and sighed. “After the High Council’s formation, and after the creation of Nowhere, Apollo proposed that a guardian be appointed to watch over the artifacts. It was decided that entities serving under the gods, and not the gods themselves, would carry out this task; as the gods already had a great deal of responsibility in governing the various realms, the vote was unanimous.”
“The role of the guardian, as I told you last night, was to watch over the seals to ensure that they remained apart.” When he continued, it was in a far heavier tone, “The reason for this was to prevent Nowhere’s convicts from escaping; for if the seals were brought together, the gateway would be opened. As such, it was decreed that the guardian responsible for failing to prevent this from happening would…” He trailed off, lowering his gaze in what Gwen thought was shame.
In spite of her curiosity, she couldn’t bring herself to prompt more from him. Whatever had happened in addition to the gateway being opened was obviously a source of great pain for him.
Phenex heaved a sigh, and continued in Forneus’ place, casting a stern look in Gwen’s direction as he did. “The guardian appointed at the time of the gateway opening loses a sizable portion of his power once the seals are released.” he explained, “This is intended both as penance for his failure, and as incentive to reclaim the artifacts—and in so doing, the power he has lost.”
“So it’s a sort of…second chance?” Gwen murmured, more to herself than anyone else. Still, all she had to do was look at Forneus to know that the price had been steep. The ‘second chance’, if it could be called that, was more like a double-edged sword. What power he had lost would only be returned to him once he got the artifacts back. If he failed, 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, Gwen knew the answer. The punishment for failure may be harsh, but according to everything Forneus and Phenex had just told her, it was also fair. Both had made it perfectly clear just how important the artifacts were and that as such, losing them could mean the end of the very worlds they were sworn to protect.
“Judging by the look on your face, you’re finally starting to get it.” Gwen stirred from her thoughts at the sound of Phenex’s voice, his words edged. “If you care about anything besides yourself, you will take responsibility for your part in all of this, and you will help Forneus in whatever meager way you can. Or does the suffering of the one who saved your life 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 him. “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 towered over her, eyes flashing. “You’re even slower than I thought. What about this do you not understand, you simple, foolish girl?” His voice rose, tinged with anger, “The very fate of the worlds are at stake—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…none of it mattered. Her life, her concern for her family, 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?
It wasn’t until Forneus gave his shoulder a shake that Phenex stopped yelling at Gwen, finally taking notice of the trembling of her lower lip; her jade eyes wide as saucers. Had he really frightened her so much with what he’d said…or was it his temper that was the culprit? Phenex looked away, turning his glare toward the tiled floor. Revulsion settled in his stomach like a stone, the realization that he’d lost control of his emotions yet again nagging at the back of his mind. What was it about her that made him so quick to anger? He didn’t understand it. Oh 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, 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, Phenex 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 him. “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-I’ll do it…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 Forneus, “Make sure you’re both at the rendezvous point on time.”
Forneus bowed his head in reply, Phenex 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 as he attempted 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 she 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.