Forneus sat in the centre of the surveillance room, the only light in the cramped space provided by the ten, transparent images that floated around him, almost as though they were caught in orbit.
A large amethyst cluster, a winged staff, an elegant sword, a feathered crown…one after the other they went on by, continuing from the crown to the amulet, from the amulet to the cauldron, from the cauldron to the jewel-encrusted goblet, and so on, until the ghostly images had circled back to the amethyst.
He muttered absently to himself, his eyes roving over each one of the images while his long, thin fingers tapped the keys of the crescent-shaped console in front of him. He had just finished his hourly log, when the whole system began to sputter, the projections wavering, before vanishing completely. Pinpricks of light danced across his vision when the images flickered out, the room plunging into total darkness. The very projections he’d just been looking at continued to flash before his eyes, only now they were inverted—much like the negatives of photographs.
What’s going on?
Forneus was not easily panicked, but something in the way the blackness fell over the room had him spinning in a wide circle, his luminous, silver eyes darting every which way as he tried to catch a glimpse of whoever, or whatever, was responsible for his sudden lack of sight. He never got the chance, for just as he’d begun to feel a familiar, prickling sensation along the back of his neck, fatigue stole over him, his eyelids drooping heavily. A fog settled across his mind, causing him to stumble forward, his legs no longer able to support his weight. He landed face down on the hard, cool floor, a rush of air ghosting passed his lips as he reached out toward the last image he’d seen before the system had gone down; a young, blonde-haired girl.
Forneus could feel himself being pulled into slumber, unable to fight against it as he watched the girl’s after image swim across his vision, seized by a pang of guilt as fat droplets poured from the child’s large, green eyes, a stuffed bear clutched to her chest.
I’m sorry…I failed…
Eight years later…
Gwen bolted upright in her bed, her eyes wide as she peered around at the long, disfigured shadows cast by the assortment of furniture and knick-knacks scattered across every square inch of her small bedroom. The lavender walls appeared a deeper shade despite the brilliant, silver light of the moon peeking through the cracks of the venetian blinds, a light breeze coming in through the small, square window opposite from her.
As the frantic thudding of her heart abated, she let out a sigh, and leaned back against her pillow, tucking one arm beneath it as she did so. Letting her eyes drift closed so that only the faintest glimmer of light made it beneath her eyelids, the fifteen-year-old frowned.
What had woken her from the dream, the recurring nightmare about the large, grey serpent she’d been having for as long as she could remember? Of course, she always woke up before the end, before its coils squeezed the breath right out of her, but still…
It wasn’t until she heard the soft click of a door closing down the hall that she realized what had brought her out of the dream before the worst part could happen.
It looks like dad’s home late again; that’s the third time this week.
As a curator for the local museum, her father’s hours were unpredictable at the best of times. As a result of this, and of her mother always travelling on business for the car company she represented, Gwen spent a lot of time on her own. Even though she sometimes felt lonely, she didn’t mind the solitude that much; whenever she had spare time, she would either take a bike ride down to the nearest coffee shop and chat with a few of her schoolmates who worked there, or she would sit at home, fixing anything from the grandfather clock in the spare room, to her dad’s ancient laptop.
Even still, she had found herself alone a lot more than usual…
Rolling onto her side, she pressed both of her fists into her pillow, fluffing it up until it was just the way she wanted it. Brushing back the tendrils of hair that had fallen across her forehead, she let out a sigh, and closed her eyes, willing her mind to go blank in the hopes of falling back to sleep once again. This proved to be futile, for now that she was awake, she couldn’t seem to return to the blissful state of unconsciousness she had so suddenly been jolted out of in the first place.
She tossed and turned for some time, finally kicking her blankets off and glaring at the bright, crimson numbers of the alarm clock sitting on the nightstand beside her. 12:18 a.m. With a huff of annoyance, Gwen lowered her feet to the cool, hardwood floor, and pushed herself up with a groan, stretching her arms high above her head, and letting them drop limply at her sides once she’d worked out the last of her sleep-induced stiffness.
Deciding that a late night snack might be in order, she made her way out of her room, through the short length of hallway, and down the winding stairs leading to the kitchen. Beams of light from the streetlamps outside shone through the window above the kitchen sink, bathing the mocha countertops in a soft, orange glow. The only sound that could be heard in the otherwise silent household was the ticking of the clock that hung on the wall separating the kitchen and the living room.
As she began rummaging through the cupboards, she caught sight of something glittering on the dining table. Turning around, she was surprised to see an assortment of items strewn across it, ranging from decorative to just plain bizarre; a feathered crown, a black cauldron, a strange looking staff…
When her gaze fell on an amethyst cluster that looked to be the size of both of her hands put together, she drew nearer, extending her fingers toward the deep purple crystals lined with quartz. Gwen had developed a keen interest in gemstones at a young age, and as a result, had a true appreciation for a wide assortment of them. Amethysts were no exception, and had been amongst the first ones she’d learned to distinguish from all others.
Dad must have brought them home for cleaning, she mused, her gaze flicking over each one of the nine items on the table with mild interest. They’re probably for the new exhibition at the museum.
A spark emitted from one of the uppermost shards the moment her fingers made contact with the surface of the stone, causing her to draw back with a startled gasp. Before she could even wonder what had just happened, a white light began to radiate from deep within the amethyst’s core, spreading upward through the lower portions of quartz, and up into the peaks of lavender and violet. Pinpricks of light shot out from between the grooves of the stone, dancing across the surfaces of the walls and floor like refractions from a disco ball.
“What…what’s going on?” Gwen gasped aloud, retreating a few more steps as each of the other items began to emanate the same light as the amethyst crystal. The light seemed to flow in a counter-clockwise fashion, moving from the stone to the sword, then to the crown, and continuing on until all nine items glowed as one.
In the midst of all of this, Gwen just happened to notice her own hand. The same one she’d touched the crystal with shone with the same intensity as the items, lighting up from within so that each tendon, vein, and membrane of skin became nearly transparent. Before she even realized what she was doing, she had backed into the refrigerator, watching in morbid fascination as the light permeated the rest of her body, sending a warm, tingling sensation into each one of her limbs.
The strength of the light continued to grow, forcing her to squeeze her eyes shut against its blinding glare. It ended just as quickly as it began, a flash of light cutting through the thin protection her eyelids offered before fading to black, leaving her to blink away the red specks before her eyes.
When the last vestiges disappeared, it took every shred of willpower Gwen possessed not to scream. Not a single trace of the items remained, the surface of the dark wooden table gleaming back at her almost guiltily. However, her father’s missing artifacts weren’t the cause of her panic.
A dark-haired figure clad in a navy blue frock coat and trousers lay coughing and sputtering on the linoleum directly in front of her, and if the radiant afterglow surrounding him was anything to go by, he was not what he seemed…
Gwen stared uncomprehendingly at the man in front of her, his face level with hers; so close, in fact, that she could see the faint traces of stubble lining his jaw, his lips seemingly moving without sound, though it was hard to tell, passed the buzzing in her ears. It wasn’t until her eyes met with his that she finally snapped out of her stupor. Drawing away from him with a gasp, she realized she was sitting on the linoleum, her back pressed firmly against the stainless steel refrigerator.
“Miss..? Miss, are you alright?”
How had she wound up on the floor, and for just how long had she been sitting there, staring into nothingness with this strange man talking to her? Where had he come from, anyway? One minute, there were artifacts on her dining table, and the next…
“W-Who are you?” Her voice was hoarse, barely above a whisper.
Aside from his navy frock coat, which Gwen thought looked suspiciously like the ones she’d seen in her history textbook, he wore a black dress shirt, the collar just visible beneath the unbuttoned lapel. Nearly every one of his fingers bore a ring of silver or gold, all of them etched with strange markings. Runes, she thought. One in particular stood out above the rest, a gold ring on his left middle finger, the only one with a stone set into it; a modest, oval-shaped sapphire.
“Please, do not be afraid,” Gwen jumped at the sound of the man’s voice, her gaze snapping up to meet the startling silver of his eyes, “I assure you, I mean you no harm.”
Summoning her nerve, the teen slowly rose to her feet, fixing the man with a distrustful glare. “You didn’t answer my question,” she bit icily, “Who are you?”
There was the slightest twitch at the corners of the man’s mouth when she said this. Is he making fun of me? She wondered, taking another step away from him.
“My apologies,” He swept into a courtly bow before straightening again, standing at least a foot taller or more than Gwen’s five-feet-two-inches. “My name is Forneus. I am the guardian of the artifacts—the very ones that, until recently, were in your possession.”
Gwen edged around him warily, refusing to let her guard down in the event he tried anything. The man named Forneus studied her with curious eyes as she moved in a wide circle, strategically putting the dining table between them. It was only once she did so that she was able to take a better look at him. He was actually quite handsome, in a regal sort of way, with short, wavy black hair, high cheekbones, a prominent nose, and a well-defined chin. Judging from the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled, she guessed he was probably in his mid-to-late thirties; or appeared to be, at any rate.
“Okay,” she said slowly, frowning, “You’re talking about the weird stuff my dad brought home, right? But what do you mean, ‘guardian’? Why would a couple of old relics need protection?”
Forneus opened his mouth as if to speak, and shut it again. As the seconds ticked by, Gwen grew more wary of the silver-eyed man. His demeanor had shifted, his expression becoming troubled, the skin around his eyes tightening noticeably. As far as she could tell, he didn’t seem to be angered by her question; but no matter how long she studied him, she couldn’t seem to get a clear read on him.
Who was this stranger, and what did he want? Why did it appear as though he was carrying the very weight of the world on his shoulders? She had seen that look before; on the faces of her parents every time they received the monthly bills, in the eyes of the substitute teachers that came to her school when they were assigned to that one, troublesome class that delighted in their suffering—yet somehow, when she looked at this man, who must have been far younger than either her parents or her teachers, the look in his eyes spoke of a far heavier burden.
Finally, he answered. “I…I can’t say.”
Gwen narrowed her eyes at him, all the while edging closer to the kitchen’s entrance. She wouldn’t let whatever sympathy she felt for him get in the way of common sense. He was still a stranger in her house, after all.
“What do you mean, you can’t say? You show up in my house, completely out of the blue, and you can’t answer a simple question?”
“I assure you, this is far from simple.” Forneus ran a hand over his face with a sigh. “They’re not going to be happy about this…”
“Who are ‘they’?” She demanded, absently clenching her fists at her sides. This secretive nonsense was getting old, fast.
Forneus studied her for a moment, his lips pursed as if he were deep in thought. Gwen held his gaze for a few minutes longer until he averted his eyes, his shoulders slumping. “I can’t tell you that, either.”
That did it.
Gwen sucked in a breath, preparing to scream. In the blink of an eye, a bejeweled hand had clamped over her mouth, her scream turning into nothing more than a muffled yelp. Eyes wide, she tried to catch a glimpse of the man behind her, his other arm pinning her body against his.
“Please, you mustn’t,” He begged, his breath warm against her ear, “No one else can know about what has happened, tonight.”
She continued to struggle in his grasp, surprised by the control he possessed despite pinning her with only one arm. In fact, it seemed like he was hardly having any trouble at all, and on top of it, he wasn’t even hurting her. She had to admit, it took a great deal of self-control to restrain someone without causing them the least bit of physical harm; if he had wanted to hurt her, he would have done so, already—the fact that he hadn’t had to mean something.
Breathing deeply through her nose, she relaxed. She still didn’t know whether she could trust him, but struggling certainly wasn’t getting her anywhere. As soon as she went still, his grip slackened, and he drew back with an apologetic bow.
“I’m sorry to have restrained you like that,” He told her, his tone gentle, “It is of the utmost importance that I fulfill my mission as discreetly as possible. If anyone else were to learn of what happened here tonight, it would cause no end of trouble.”
Gwen crossed her arms, studying him closely. “You’re not human.” It wasn’t a question, but an affirmation, and one she had become certain of the moment he’d taken hold of her.
Surprise flitted across his face, quickly disappearing as the mask settled back into place. Canting his head to the side, he stared at her curiously. “Oh? What makes you think that?”
“Don’t play coy with me,” She shifted her weight, glaring at the man accusingly, “There isn’t a person alive anywhere that looks like you do, not to mention your speed—I didn’t even blink, and you were right behind me. So you can try telling me you’re human all you want, but I’m not buying what you’re selling.”
There, it was out. It frightened her beyond all reasoning, but it was true; she could feel it. She couldn’t explain it, but she knew it, deep down inside—like a memory from long ago, hazy and fragmented, lost to the passage of time.
Forneus stared back evenly, his lips pulling into a tentative grin. “Alright, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to tell you that much,” He sighed in resignation, “You’re right, I’m not human. I’m a daemon, an entity borne of this earth, and moulded by the gods, themselves.”
Gwen looked at him in dumbfounded silence, her mouth open slightly, trying to process what he’d just told her. What in heck’s name was a daemon, and what had he meant, ‘moulded by the gods’?
“There’s no such thing as the gods.” She blurted instead, eyeing Forneus warily when he let out a soft chuckle.
“Oh, but there are,” He declared, “In fact, I know some of them, personally.” As soon as he said the words, he seemed to regret them, his mouth forming a grim line as he looked away from her.
Gwen only vaguely took notice of this, however. She started to tremble, mind reeling with the information he had inadvertently given her. Emotions had begun warring within her, far too many for the teen to give a name to, causing her to swing between disbelief and certainty, and back again, all the while struggling to stuff them back down into the depths they had come from. She had no reason to trust this man, this daemon, as he’d called himself—absolutely none. And yet, despite all her reasoning, she couldn’t help actually believing what he’d told her. Every word he’d spoken had been with such sincerity, such conviction. The fact that he seemed genuinely distressed by what little he had let slip couldn’t be overlooked, either.
Get it together, Gwen! She admonished herself, gripping the wall for support. Okay, so he’s not human—that much is obvious. It doesn’t mean that you can trust everything else that comes out of his mouth. For all you know, he lied about what he is—he could be some evil spirit, or some sort of devil…
She was trying to create some sort of order to counteract the chaos in her mind, when a brilliant flash of golden light came through the doorway separating the kitchen from the living room. Both the teen and daemon exchanged a look, turning simultaneously at the sound of approaching footsteps.
The light faded, flickering like a flame being extinguished. A figure emerged from the darkness, his auburn hair turning a fiery red as he stepped into the pale glow that came through the kitchen window. As he turned his molten amber gaze on Forneus, Gwen found herself instinctively moving to stand behind the daemon, her mouth going dry as the stranger drew nearer.
“Hello, Forneus. It’s been far too long.”
Gwen stood rooted to the spot, unable to coax her muscles into moving, no matter how desperately she wanted to. Her pajama shirt clung to her back, a cold sweat breaking across her skin as she studied everything from the two hoops in the newcomer’s right ear, both engraved with the shape of a single, golden bird, to the leather jacket, t-shirt, and jeans ensemble that he wore—complete with a pair of black and white sneakers.
Who is he? What is he? She wondered. Fear clawed its way up from the pit of her stomach and into her throat when his eyes met hers, her heart pounding deafeningly in her ears.
Whatever he was, he wasn’t human—of that much, she was certain. A human couldn’t have entered her house without making even the faintest amount of noise in the process, and there wasn’t a person alive with eyes that same brilliant, mottled shade of amber—or was it gold? They seemed to be shifting from one colour to the other, depending on just where the light hit them. There was something very, very unsettling about those eyes…
Forneus smiled warmly, shaking hands with the stranger, “It has been a long time. Though seventy-five years is nothing but the blink of an eye for us, wouldn’t you say, my friend?”
“You exaggerate, as always.” The man replied, his lips quirking into a wry grin.
Gwen gave a start upon hearing this. Seventy-five years?
She stared at the duo, perplexed. Neither one of them appeared to be older than their mid-twenties or thirties. They looked younger than her father, by far. And yet, she couldn’t deny the possibility that they were much older than they appeared. Forneus was wearing clothing straight out of the eighteenth century, for crying out loud! If he truly was a daemon like he claimed to be, then wasn’t it possible for him to be decades older than he seemed—perhaps even centuries?
And the newcomer—she didn’t even want to begin guessing how old he really was. Or what he was, for that matter.
All the while, the duo spoke in hushed tones, neither one of them paying any attention to the adolescent girl as she grabbed hold of the kitchen counter for support, knees knocking together as black specks began dancing before her eyes. T
his can’t be real…I must be dreaming…what other possible explanation is there?
It wasn’t until both Forneus and the stranger turned to face her that she realized she’d begun hyperventilating.
“Miss, you’re shaking…are you alright?” Forneus asked her, taking a step closer and resting a hand on her shoulder, “You’re rather pale.”
Gwen shrugged him off, her gaze flicking between him and the newcomer. “Don’t touch me,” she demanded, her voice quavering. “And who the hell is he?”
She thought she saw the faintest hint of sadness in Forneus’ eyes, the silver dulling to grey as he complied and withdrew from her.
She didn’t have long to ponder on it, however, as the newcomer turned inquisitive eyes on her. After a long, uncomfortable moment of holding his gaze, he finally turned back to Forneus with a frown. “Wait, is this girl…?”
“Yes,” The daemon replied simply, his gaze never straying from the teen as he shoved his hands into his coat pockets, “She is.”
“Well, I’ll be damned…”
Gwen felt her shock dissipating, giving way to exasperation at being studied like some kind of micro-organism. Gritting her teeth, she rounded on them both. “Hello, did you even hear me? Who are you?”
Whatever she had seen in Forneus’ eyes moments ago disappeared then, the daemon smiling fondly at her. It almost seemed to Gwen as if he had expected her outburst, perhaps even admired it. She didn’t know what gave her this impression, but something in the way he was looking at her was oddly familiar.
An eternity seemed to pass with them staring at one another, so when the amber-eyed man snapped out of whatever trance he’d been in and reached out toward her, Gwen couldn’t help recoiling at the unexpected movement. She didn’t know what he was going to do, but she was suddenly afraid, and without consciously doing so, she stiffened, squeezing her eyes tightly shut in the process. Upon hearing quiet laughter, she peeked out warily from beneath her lashes, her eyes going wide when she realized he was no more than a foot away from her, his hand resting on the counter next to her hip. The sudden proximity was unnerving, to say the least.
“Well, aren’t you a jumpy little thing,” He chuckled, grinning crookedly as he continued, “Not that it’s any of your business, human, but the name is Phenex.”
Annoyed, she glared up at him, the feeling passing as what he’d said sank in.
Wait…does he mean…?
“Like the legendary bird, phoenix?” She asked aloud, feeling her cheeks warm in embarrassment when he sneered back at her.
“Not just like it, little girl.” Gwen made a sound of protest at his gibe, but he ignored her, and continued on, “I am a phoenix. However, the spelling of my name is undoubtedly different from what you may know of it, having been derived from a primitive dialect dating back to when your kind were nothing more than simple-minded beasts. Though from what I’ve seen, not a lot has changed.”
She was just opening her mouth to deliver a scathing reply, when both men suddenly went rigid. Forneus moved closer to her, while Phenex crossed the kitchen to draw back the filmy white curtain covering the window, peering out into the darkness with a scowl.
“Shit,” He swore, moving quickly to join Forneus at Gwen’s other side, “They’re coming.”
“Even with the artifacts disappearing, I never would have anticipated they’d respond so quickly.” Forneus’ cheek twitched, a line forming between his eyebrows as he looked worriedly from the window to his companion, and back again.
“Who’s coming?” Gwen glanced frantically between the two men, letting out a gasp when they simultaneously grabbed hold of her arms. “Hey, what are you doing? Let me go!”
Warmth washed over her, each nerve ending tingling as if little bolts of electricity were dancing across the surface of her skin. The heat was particularly overwhelming where Phenex’s fingers met the inside of her forearm, resembling the feeling she experienced any time she’d ever stood too close to the stove while cooking.
As a bubble of golden light radiated around them, she stopped struggling, her mouth hanging open when she caught a glimpse of movement outside of the window. Before she could discern what it was, everything exploded into dazzling colour, the kitchen vanishing as she was pulled into nothingness.