Author's note:Please don't hate me! I realise I took forever to update, I've been really busy lately with Science exams and my school production (I got to be a bar wench. It made me happier than it probably should have done) but I promise I will update much quicker next time. I had real problems with this chapter, I kept going back and changing it and I'm still not entirely happy with it, but I thought that I really should post it seeing as I've made you guys wait so long. I realise it's a lot of info to absorb, but please comment some feedback :)
Even though I was used to it, I still stared. I do every time. Going through into the Caster world is a weird thing. You don't go from one place to another, you stay in the same place but cross through a tear in the fabric of your world and into the other one: the Caster world. Our particular portal emerged in one of the most beautiful nymph gardens I had ever visited.
Nymphs look a lot like Mortals (specifically beautiful young women) but their bodies are impervious to age and illness, meaning that in theory they could live forever. Because of this little quirk, my great-grandmother Magdelane looks younger than my mother, and always will do. It's quite disconcerting. The difference between nymphs and Mortals is that nymphs are attached to a part of nature: it's where they get their life force, it's part of their soul, and without it they would die. The most common nymphs are the dryads, who are each attached to a tree, but there are nymphs for stars, the sea, freshwater and pretty much any other part of nature other than animals.
They're very proud of their gardens, each of which can contain the attachments of up to a hundred nymphs, and they spend most of their time singing and dancing together. Nymphs are generally harmless (as long as you don't say their leaves look funny or insult their hair or something) but there is one big problem with them: Mortal men are infatuated after one kiss. And nymphs love nothing more than tempting men away from their lovers. It's how they amuse themselves. Sometimes, like in the case of my grandmother's sister Dariah, a nymph will actually fall in love with a Mortal, but it happens very rarely because it will inevitably end in heartbreak for both of them. I mean, how would you feel if you were steadily getting older and your partner was going to stay eternally young and beautiful? And the Mortal man eventually dies, leaving the nymph utterly devastated, at which point she normally commits suicide. Fun stuff.
I realised how dangerous it could be to take Gabe to the nymph gardens, but that was where the portal in our garden led to, and they really were beautiful. They would show him the most natural and stunning part of my world, which might make my explanation slightly easier for him.
Looking over at him, I realised he was still staring around himself in disbelief, and to be honest I wasn't surprised. This particular garden belonged to my (sort of) cousin Demeter and her friends. Demeter was a dryad, and her tree, like all dryad trees, looked similar to a willow tree, but with a wonderful bright red fruit which is often used in Fae foods, but can be poisonous to Mortals if not prepared correctly. Of course, if it is prepared correctly it still has a huge effect on them… But more about that later. The entire garden was full of red flowers and leaves, and a large pool in the centre of it reflected the bright blue sky back at us. Underneath the surface I could just see the golden hair of the water nymph who was attached to it, and I knew the rest of the nymphs would be hiding, watching us like this one was.
"Where are we?" asked Gabe, finally finding his voice. His eyes were wide as he tried to take everything in, and he turned to see the other side of the portal behind us. He walked all the way round it, peered closely at it, and even stuck his hand back through before turning to look at me, expecting an answer to his question.
"A nymph garden," I replied.
"A what now?"
"A nymph garden," I repeated. "A garden where nymphs live."
"What the hell are nymphs?" asked Gabe. "How did we get here? What is that?" He pointed to the portal. "Why is it in your garden? Why are we in this garden? How did this -"
"A nymph is a spirit of nature," I interrupted him. "Part of their soul is in the form of a part of nature, like a tree or a star. For example, this tree," I patted the trunk of the nearest tree. "Is part of my cousin Demeter."
"Well, sort of. She's my grandmother's sister's granddaughter. On my mother's side."
"And she's a tree…"
"No. The tree is part of her. The rest of her is in a body just like yours. Well, not really. She'll never get old or sick. But basically the same." Demeter peered out from behind her tree, then danced over to my side and gave Gabe a shy smile. He looked stunned. Demeter had long, chestnut hair which fell down her back in perfect curls and her eyes were a light hazel colour. What really caught people's attention, though, was her face: she had the perfect bone structure, and her skin was pale and flawless, with just a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. I tried to ignore the fact that her tall and youthful body was only covered by her hair and some very carefully placed leaves. Nymphs were many things, but modest was not one of them. "Gabe, this is my cousin Demeter. Dem, this is Gabriel, from my school." Touch him and I'll kill you, touch him and I'll kill you, touch him and I'll-
"Uh, hi," said Gabe, extending his hand towards her. She shook it, then quickly dropped it when she saw the look on my face.
"It's nice to meet you," said Demeter. "I hope you'll find our gardens hospitable. Would you like something to eat?" She plucked one of the fruits from her tree and held it towards him, and he was about to take it when I knocked it from her hand.
"Dem, are you crazy?" I demanded. "He's Mortal!" Her eyes widened, and she took two quick steps backwards.
"I-I'm sorry, Ash, I didn't realise," she said quietly. "You know I would never - I mean, I wouldn't do that. Never."
"And you didn't even think to check? You could have killed him!" That thought scared me so much that I stopped short in the middle of my rant, suddenly lost at the thought of a world without Gabe. At that moment, I realised what had happened. Oh shit.
"What the hell is going on? What do you mean I'm Mortal?"
"Um, there's a lot to explain. Come with me." I took his hand and led him through the gardens until we came to a tiny pool which I knew was uninhabited, as the water nymph who had been attached to it had been killed in an argument with a succubus.
"Where am I?"
"You're in my world. The Caster world," I said slowly. "This is where my family comes from, originally."
"Caster? What the hell is a Caster?"
"Mortals often called us witches or sorcerers. Depending on our parents and whether we choose Light or Dark, our powers can vary from the ability to manipulate people's emotions to being able to control one of the elements, like fire or water. We have to Declare ourselves for either Light or Dark before our twentieth birthday, at which point we develop our full powers and can perform full Casts. Once you've Declared yourself, you can never go back. You're on that side forever."
"So… You're magic?"
"No. Well, sort of. Yes. I suppose you could call it that. But not really."
"What are your powers?"
"I have no idea," I replied honestly. He was taking this remarkably well. Then I remembered what had happened. That's why he's not freaking out. "I haven't Declared myself yet."
"Because I haven't decided yet," I said simply. "You'd be able to tell if I'd Declared myself, because I'd have either bright blue or purple eyes."
"Like your brother and sister?"
"So how come you haven't decided yet? Why don't you just choose Light?" asked Gabe.
"It's not that simple. Light and Dark aren't like your ideas of good and evil, they both have good and bad points. They both have a leader, who controls all of the Casters who have Declared themselves for that side, and there are certain laws which preside over both sides. No mass killing of Mortals, for example."
"Seems a lot like good and evil. What's so different?"
"Light Casters can still be bad, and Dark Casters can still be good, they don't fit into specific categories. Casters make the choice based on which side they think will benefit them the most. A Declaration is an entirely selfish thing. Both sides have opportunities, and both have drawbacks. Most Casters have a sense of which side they want to pledge themselves too very early on, and many Declare themselves long before their twentieth birthday. Not usually as early as Adi, but still. A Dark Caster isn't necessarily evil, but a Light Caster could be, depending on if they've been drawn in by Chaos." He raised an eyebrow. "You can't Declare yourself for Chaos, but once you've Declared yourself you could be recruited by Chaos to work for them. They have no morals, no boundaries, and no problems with manipulating or taking Mortal lives."
"Basically they're the bad guys?"
"So in your world there are nymphs and Casters, both of which look like normal people. Why do they live here?"
"Well, the nymphs choose to live here because they know what Mortals are like when it comes to nature. And Casters generally do live amongst Mortals, but this is where we originate from. We come back for festivals and celebrations, and just to see somewhere unpolluted. But nymphs and Casters aren't the only people who live here, and some of the others look rather noticeably different to Mortals."
"What else is there, then?" asked Gabe. His face was open and his eyes were bright, as though he was having the time of his life. I was expecting his face to show shock or confusion, but instead it looked more like… Wonder. He actually likes it here. He understands. He accepts you. These three thoughts were bouncing around in my head and I had to resist the urge to jump up and do a little dance. It's not his choice to like it, said a little voice in the back of my head. He doesn't have any other options, after what you've done to him. I shook my head, trying to dislodge the irritating little voice, then focused back on Gabe and his question.
"Well, there are incubi and succubi, like Uncle M, who feed off of Mortal energy, and they look quite a lot like Mortals. Slightly creepier versions, but still. And then there are lycans, like my father, who look like normal Mortals other than their eyes, which are usually quite yellowish. They're much stronger than Mortals, but their strength changes with the moon, and so does their mood. They can turn into wolves at any point in the lunar cycle, but the pull towards the wolf is much stronger at full moon. The longer they spend as a wolf, the more of their normal self they lose. Normally they choose to live off of Mortal energy, a bit like incubi, but they can live on Mortal or Fae food as well."
"So you're half werewolf?"
"No, I'm half lycan. Werewolves don't exist - the idea of them is based on old legends of lycans, but they've been warped and distorted so much that most Mortals wouldn't recognise a lycan if they walked past one in the street."
"They still look like Mortals though."
"I'm getting to the others. The other two main races in this world are Fae and sprites. Fae are humanoid, but very different. They have silvery skin, green eyes and white-blonde hair, and they can change size at will. Most of them are very athletic. If you find out a Fae's true name you can control them, they'll become a slave to your will. Oh, and they can't lie."
"Really? Like not at all? Ever?"
"Nope. If they try to lie their mouths just won't form the words, and they'll start gagging," I told him. "And if you want protection from Fae, always carry around iron, they can't go anywhere near it, like literally anywhere near it. Or if you need general protection carry rowan. Fae can't harm anyone or anything touching rowan because it's sacred, and most other people here won't either."
"Iron and rowan equals protection against Fae. Got it."
"They have glamours, meaning they can make things appear to be something they're not, but no matter what they say or what it looks like, never eat their food. You'll be stuck forever, unless you have iron or rowan with you."
"Yup. You'll never be allowed to leave. You'll have to serve them until the day you die."
"Brilliant," muttered Gabe. He glanced around for a second, as though scared that a group of Fae would appear from behind a tree and attack him with bagels or something, then turned back to me. "What about the other ones you mentioned? Sprats, or something?"
"Sprites," I corrected him. "They're tiny elementals, the kind of things your fairy stories are based on. They're not malicious, but they can give a nasty bite if they're provoked, particularly fire sprites."
"There's more than one type?"
"Yeah, there a whole bunch of them. The four most common are earth, which are green; fire, which are red; water, which are blue; and air, which are white. They live in huge colonies in nests, a lot like bees or wasps, and each have their own powers. A whole nest of them, even though they're only the size of my thumb-" I held it up for him to see, "-can be formidable. They're determined little buggers, won't give up once they've decided on something."
"Why are you showing me all this?" asked Gabe suddenly, gesturing around us. "You could have just let me think you were normal." For some reason his words stung, and I sprang to my feet.
"Yeah, okay, I get it, I'm a freak. Just forget about it, alright?" I knew why I was really freaking out, but I didn't want to admit it to myself: we were soul bonded. I took off between the trees, leaving him sat on the grass.
I sat there for a second, shell-shocked, before jumping up and running after her, following the brief glimpses I could catch of her bright hair between the trees.
"Ash! I didn't mean it like that! Ash wait up!" She ignored me. "Come on, Ash, you know that's not what I meant!" The trees in this part of the garden were getting closer and closer together and it was getting harder to spot her between the dark trunks. "Just wait up a second! Come on Ash, please?"
"Leave me alone!" I kept thinking I'd lost her, but I always caught sight of a flash of red between the trees and I carried on following, not caring that I didn't know where I was or where I was going or how I was going to get back.
My breath was coming in short gasps and my legs were screaming when I realised I'd lost her. I spun around, hoping I'd see her hair in the corner of my vision. Nothing. I sank to the ground, panting, and realised I was truly lost. The trees around me were dark and crowded, nothing like the graceful nymph trees I'd seen in the gardens. Am I even in the gardens anymore? The second that thought entered my mind I was back on my feet, acutely aware of the dangers of Ash's world. I knew I had to find a way back, but no matter which way I turned the forest looked exactly the same.
"Crap," I muttered. "Now what the hell do I do?"
"Come with us," said a silky voice behind me. I jumped about a foot in the air and spun around to face its owner, equally apprehensive and curious. The creature stood in front of me was vaguely humanoid, like Ash had described, but at the same time entirely different. He had a kind of ethereal beauty, and his skin glowed with a silvery inner light which somehow managed to mask all of his features in shadow. If I'd been asked to describe him afterwards, all I would have been able to say was 'beautiful'. I couldn't see anything about his face clearly apart from the white hair framing it and his piercing green eyes. "Hello, Mortal. My name is Raphael. I believe you've met my cousin."
"Uh, hi, I'm Gabriel," I said. Normally I would have shaken his hand, but I was somehow reluctant to touch this otherworldly being. "And, uh, have I?"
"Aislinn Orviatti." As soon as he said her name I knew I was in trouble, but at the same time I was slightly calmer. If he knew Ash, he could easily be dangerous, but at the same time he might be less inclined to hurt me. And she might be able to find you.
"Yeah, I came here with her," I told him. He nodded, then turned to his two companions.
"These are my friends, Luri and Candar," he said, gesturing to the Fae girl and boy who were with him. They both nodded to me, and I noticed that their faces were shrouded in shadow like Raphael's.
"So Ash is your cousin?"
"In a way. My grandmother Madrigal is Magnus Greenfeld's half-sister." The more I heard about it, the more complicated Ash's family seemed. I need to get her to draw me a family tree.
"Their father had an ill-fated relationship with a Mortal. It did not end well for her. My grandmother was the result."
"My great-grandfather Jonathan was an incubus. He killed her shortly after she gave birth."
"If he was an incubus, how come you're Fae?"
"My grandmother is a Dark Caster. She had a brief relationship with my grandfather, Candril, who is Fae, and gave birth to my mother, also Fae. My father is a Mortal and I am the result of my mother's stupid decision to have a relationship with him."
"So you're only half Fae?"
"Technically, yes. However because Mortals have no powers or real importance, I still have full Fae powers."
"Come with us," repeated Raphael. Although I knew I should stay away from Fae, particularly as I didn't have any iron handy, his voice was oddly compelling, and I couldn't help myself from following him and his friends.
They led me through the trees, navigating with ease despite the unending monotony of the landscape, until we came to an abrupt halt in front of an intricate metal gate.
"Open the gate please, Mr Williams," said Raphael. Again, I found myself doing exactly what he asked me to before I even realised I was doing it. I should have been alarmed that he could so easily control me but my thoughts were slow, like they were moving through syrup. I closed my eyes for a second, trying to break through the sticky barrier in my mind.
"Why can't you open it?" I asked, keeping my eyes closed.
"Do you have to be so childish?" replied Raphael impatiently. I heard the gate swing on its hinges, and felt a gentle hand on my arm, guiding me so I didn't have to open my eyes.
"Where are we?" I asked. Even though it should have made me uneasy, having my eyes closed in such a dangerous place, it somehow made me feel slightly more comfortable. The syrup effect was lessening the longer I kept my eyes closed, so I guessed that it wasn't just Raphael's voice that was controlling me. I had to be looking at him.