The moment her feet touched ground, Gwen stumbled away from both men, and began retching.
“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.”
Scrubbing her mouth with the back of her hand, Gwen glared over her shoulder at him. “You know, for someone with such a grim outlook on humans, you sure seem to like taking the form of one.”
What the heck am I doing? She wondered. I must be out of my mind, taunting him like that.
Even though he had done nothing but insult her since introducing himself, there was something about him that suggested she was better off keeping her mouth shut. Who knew what he was capable of, if she made him angry?
“Watch your tone, girl,” he said, eyes flashing, “the only reason I don’t take my true form is because it does more harm than good in the mortal wor—” He faltered, lips pulling into a grimace as he cast a wary look in Forneus’ direction.
Gwen glanced between them, scowling at the look they exchanged. “You were going to say ‘mortal world’, weren’t you?” When neither of them spoke, she demanded, “Well? Answer me!”
Phenex rounded on her, nostrils flaring. “Who are you to demand answers from us?”
Ignoring the voice at the back of her mind that urged caution, she rose to her feet. “Oh, I don’t know,” she snapped, glaring at him, “I’m just the girl you dragged into this whole mess! I have no idea who you are or what’s going on. I don’t know how I’m going to explain disappearing in the middle of the night to my dad—I don’t even know where I am right now!” She gestured helplessly at the expanse of empty field surrounding them.
There wasn’t a single tree or building to be seen, not a soul in sight. Just an endless sea of green stretching out on either side of them, shrouded in darkness; rippling like waves of emerald and sage in the evening breeze. The only light that of the half moon and stars above, brighter than Gwen had ever seen them.
“We’re on the outskirts of town,” Forneus informed her, “I thought it would be better to bring you here, first.”
“First? No, you know what? Forget it.” Gwen sank to her knees, holding her head in her hands, “I don’t know why you brought me here in the first place, but I’m not going anywhere with you. Take me home. Please.” She looked up at them, voice quavering as the realization that she’d somehow been magically transported finally sank in.
“You ought to be thanking us.” Phenex said scornfully, arms crossed as he peered down at her through a fringe of reddish-brown hair. “If we hadn’t taken you with us, you’d probably be dead by now—or worse. Now that the seals have been released…” He stopped, and heaved a sigh. “Damn it…”
Seals? Gwen wondered. What is he talking about?
Forneus clapped a sympathetic hand on Phenex’s shoulder, “It seems you’re having a difficult time keeping things discreet, old friend.” There was laughter in his words, his silvery eyes dancing with amusement.
“Forneus, please,” Phenex said, clearly exasperated, “This is serious. You know that better than anyone.”
“Indeed, I do.” Forneus’ smile faded, and he grew solemn. “But, she’s right. Regardless of our reasons, we did drag her into this. As such, it’s only fair that we let her know what it is we’re up against. Like it or not, she’s 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 felt the blood drain from her cheeks. “Targeted? By who, and why?” As another, sickening realization hit her, she jumped to her feet, grabbing the lapels of Forneus’ coat as she did. “What about my dad? Will he be alright? We have to go back! Please!”
“Calm down,” Forneus soothed, gently taking hold of her hands, “no harm will come to your father, I promise.”
“How do you know? How can you be sure that he—?”
“I just received word from Terran,” Phenex cut in, holding his first two fingers against his temple, “the First Unit is on their way to the girl’s house already. Once the threat level’s been assessed, we can decide what to do from there; for now, we should report back to the council.”
Forneus sighed. “After everything that’s happened, I expect you’re right.” Then, returning his attention to Gwen, he said, “I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to go home—at least, not for a while.”
He seemed genuinely sorry, but Gwen didn’t care. Her whole life—everything she’d ever known or believed to be real—had been turned upside down in the course of a single night. Despair settled in the pit of her stomach like a stone, hard and unyielding. Her father was probably sick with worry right now, might even be calling her mother or the police—and she had no way of letting him know she was alright. Worse still, she had no way of knowing that he was alright; all she had was Forneus’ word.
And really, what was that worth? She didn’t even know him, so how could she trust him—especially with something as important as her father’s safety?
When two hands suddenly grabbed her upper arms, one gentler than the other, Gwen jolted. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She asked, wrenching herself free. To his credit, Forneus withdrew without complaint; Phenex, on the other hand, glowered at her.
“It isn’t safe for you here, at least not right now.” Forneus explained, “We’ve been given clearance to take you with us.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on!” Gwen said hotly, “After being abducted in the middle of the night by a couple of supernatural men—or whatever the hell you are—I don’t think it’s a lot to ask!”
“You self-centred child,” Phenex growled, “there is a lot more at stake than your—”
Forneus raised a hand, cutting his tirade short. “Easy, Phenex.” For a moment, it seemed Phenex would argue. Instead, he folded his arms across his chest, averting his gaze with a snort.
Sighing, Forneus returned his attention to Gwen, crouching so that his silver eyes were level with her green ones. “I promise, I will tell you whatever you want to know once we’re somewhere safe. But for now,” he straightened, holding his hand out to her, “please, will you bear with us for a little longer?”
Gwen glanced from his hand to the kindness in his eyes, the shadows beneath the only indication of his weariness. Feeling a twinge of guilt, she reluctantly placed her hand in his. “Alright, I’ll go,” she sighed, “but only because you saved my life from…whatever that was back there.”
She had only a moment to wonder if she was making the biggest mistake of her young life when Forneus rested his hand on her shoulder, Phenex reluctantly doing the same on the other side. The same dizzying swirl of colours she’d witnessed the last time flashed before her eyes, forcing her to shut them tightly for fear she’d get sick again. Warmth washed over her, covering her from head to toe. When it finally reached its peak, 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. Even so, dizziness swept over her; her body unaccustomed to the form of travel she was being subjected to.
Much to her relief, the feeling passed. When she finally opened her eyes, she gave a start at what she saw. Phenex let go of her almost immediately, folding his arms across his chest and turning away as she gaped at the colourful, arid space surrounding them. Once she was steady on her feet, Forneus’ grip slackened, and Gwen spun in a slow circle, drinking everything in. From the crystalline walkway she was standing on—one in a network of many, all spread out like the intricately woven threads of a spider web—to the softly undulating hues of pink, purple, and green filling the entire space. There were no discernible walls as far as she could see, and yet, the colours continued to ripple on all around her.
It looks just like the Northern Lights. She mused, gasping when she realized it extended far above her as well. There were walkways crisscrossing both above and below, each one lined with columns of dark marble, evenly staggered on both sides; some ended with large, glowing archways, while others had spiralling crystal staircases branching off of them. Each walkway was seemingly supported by nothing more than the thick, silvery pillar at the very heart of the colourful void; stretching as far up as she could see, and extending just as far below.
Swallowing back the panic she felt upon looking down, Gwen focused on the glowing archway nearest to her instead, squinting against the brilliant light pouring from its centre. As her gaze travelled the full height of it, she noticed a curious red symbol hovering above it; unlike anything she’d ever seen.
“What is this place?” She glanced between Forneus and Phenex, the former gifting her with a smile.
“Come, we can talk on our way there.” He said, gesturing for her to follow them. After a moment’s hesitation, she followed, hurrying to keep pace with them.
“On our way to where?” Gwen asked. The rhythmical clacking of Forneus’ boots echoed as they descended a long, spiralling staircase leading to yet another level of crystalline walkways; several of them branching out from the central junction that lay ahead.
Just like the spokes of a chariot wheel, she thought.
“Well, since we’re just giving away all of our secrets now,” Gwen hazarded a look in Phenex’s direction when he said this, the auburn-haired man maintaining a steady gait even as he glanced back at her. “Where you are right now 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 her attention from one to the other. Her gaze lingered on the coloured lights reflecting off of his hair, momentarily mesmerized by the sight until he spoke again. “This includes Phenex, and of course myself, as well.”
Gwen faltered in her steps, shaking her head in numb disbelief. In spite of everything she’d witnessed since meeting the two of them, in spite of the fact that she was standing in this strange, magical world of theirs—it was still a bit much to take in. For the second time that night, she couldn’t help thinking that she must be dreaming.
This must be how Alice felt when she fell down the rabbit hole. She decided. When she realized she’d fallen behind, she ran to catch up with them, panting as she fell into step with Forneus.
Forneus glanced back at her, 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 said, her cheeks warming in embarrassment, “what were you saying? Something about the gods forming the council over a thousand years ago?”
Forneus smiled at her, his expression one of understanding. Phenex, on the other hand, scoffed openly.
“Just like a human,” he declared, “such fleeting attention spans—even when it comes to matters of great importance.”
Gwen narrowed her eyes at him. What she wouldn’t give to wipe that self-satisfied smirk right off of his face!
“As you have undoubtedly noticed,” he gestured at the grand obsidian door directly in front of them, Gwen regrettably not having noticed until he’d mentioned it, “we’ve arrived at our destination. The rest of your questions are just going to have to wait.” He finished with a mock bow, infuriating her further.
What the hell is his problem? Gwen seethed, scowling at him.
Casting an apologetic look in her direction, Forneus sighed, and turned to Phenex. “I suppose I’ll make my report first. I trust you have no objections watching her in my stead?”
If not for the fact that this meant she was stuck with him too, Gwen would have openly laughed at Phenex’s long-suffering expression. As things stood however, she wasn’t in the mood for laughing. The idea of being left alone with him—after all of the hostility that had passed between them in such a short span of time—made her feel sicker than ever.
“It’s not like I have a choice,” Phenex muttered, “just hurry back, will you?”
A faint smile tugged at the corners of Forneus’ mouth. “I’ll try, but I make no such promise.” Casting one last look at Gwen, he disappeared through the massive door, leaving the two of them to stand awkwardly on either side of it.
Uncertain as to what she should do, and having no desire to talk to the man standing an arm’s breadth from her, Gwen allowed her thoughts to wander. She had no idea how many hours had passed since Forneus had shown up in her house, but as she looked back at everything that had happened since, it felt like a lifetime ago. In spite of her fear, she could no longer contain her growing curiosity about the world she was in. As shocking as she’d found it, learning that the gods of old actually existed, she was even more shocked to find herself standing in their world. A large part of her still hadn’t come to terms with the fact that it was all real; that she wasn’t back home, asleep in her bed, about to wake up from this bizarre dream…
And yet another, smaller part of her was swept up in the magic of it all. What were the gods like, she wondered; how many of them were there, and how many of the stories were true?
Her thoughts then turned to Forneus, focusing on the silver of his eyes and his dazzling smile. The daemon seemed pleasant enough she supposed, but even so…she was still afraid of him. 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 him to have gained her trust, either—at least not yet. Still, she felt that she should at least give him the benefit of a doubt. He’d been kind to her from the very start of this whole endeavour, after all; more than could be said about a certain tawny-eyed someone…
Gwen peered at Phenex out of the corner of her eye, studying everything from his tousled auburn hair to the youthful set of his face; his mouth set into a grim line as he stared straight ahead. She was at a loss as to what to make of him; so far, he’d done nothing but treat her with hostility and disdain. Her first impression was that she didn’t like him—not one iota. But had he not saved her from whatever had been lurking outside her house, just the same as Forneus? Surely he couldn’t be all that 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, for he looked at her, quirking an eyebrow when their eyes met. Feeling heat creeping into her cheeks, Gwen quickly averted her gaze, giving herself over to the uncomfortable silence pressing in around her. All the while she found herself wondering just what Forneus had meant about being the guardian of the artifacts, and whether she would ever see her home again…
Phenex leaned against the doorframe, shoving his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket with a sigh. Each minute seemed longer than the last as he pointedly ignored the furtive glances of the girl next to him. The one time he had deigned to make eye contact with her, she’d looked away. He’d watched one emotion after another flit across her face; going by with such swiftness, it was impossible to determine the thoughts behind them. He was certain that he’d seen conflict in those large, green eyes of hers, the colour of jade—though what she felt conflicted about, he couldn’t even venture a 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, in spite of the vehemence behind his thoughts, he found himself staring at her once again, noticing the way she chewed her lower lip. Her eyebrows were drawn together, gaze fixated on the transparent walkway beneath her feet; as though she were deep in thought. Something glinted behind the stray locks of blonde hair when she tilted her head forward, catching the ethereal 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. When he saw the way she trembled, her arms wrapped tightly around her middle, he supposed he might feel a bit sorry for her. Even with the copious amount of heat his own body generated, he found the Spectrum quite cold at times; as such, it wasn’t difficult to imagine just how much colder it was for a fragile, human girl like her.
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—in preserving the sanctity of the mortal world and everything in it—he wouldn’t have joined the Regulations Force. And if he hadn’t joined, he wouldn’t have been sent to investigate the large output of energy the council had detected less than an hour ago—and thus, wouldn’t have been forced into close proximity with this human, much less any others. After everything he had been through…
His fuming was interrupted when the girl spoke to him, the meekness in her voice catching him off-guard.
“Forneus said you guys work for the council, right?” When he made no attempt to respond, she continued, “He said that 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 demeanour. 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. Forneus stepped out of the chamber, appearing far more exhausted than he’d been prior to entering. The girl looked at him the same time Phenex did, concern equal to his own shining in her eyes.
Forneus offered Phenex a weak smile when their eyes met, giving him a single, nearly imperceptible nod; his way of assuring him that he was alright. Phenex was certain that delivering his report still had been no less gruelling—though it appeared the council had gone easy on him, all things considered.
Then again, what more could they really do to him?
Phenex gave him a quick pat on the shoulder, and grabbing hold of the edge of the door before it could close, glanced back at the girl.
“Why don’t you ask him?” He told her. With that, he stepped into the chamber, taking a steadying breath in preparation for the many questions the High Council no doubt had in store for him.