Idly stroking the sapphire ring on his middle finger, Forneus sighed, and leaned back against the edge of the doorframe, eyes half closed as he stared at the glittering wall opposite. His gaze drifted over each one of the doors lining the corridor, though he didn’t take in the unique beauty that each one of them had been crafted with. His thoughts were elsewhere—specifically on a certain fiery being, and the teenaged girl that seemed to be the target of his ire. It had taken him several minutes after Phenex’s departure to calm the girl down, gently rubbing her back while assuring her it hadn’t been her fault, and thanking her for agreeing to help him in the restoration of both the artifacts, and his powers. Once her tears had finally subsided, he had left her in the privacy of her quarters to shower and dress, telling her he’d wait for her just outside the door.
This was what he was doing now, as he pondered over the level of hostility his old comrade had displayed toward the girl. He couldn’t make sense of what it was about the youth that had him so bothered. Phenex had interacted with humans—however briefly—sometime after the regrettable incident had occurred over three-hundred years earlier, and on occasion ever since.
Then what is it about Gwen that upsets him, so? He wondered for what must have been the tenth time in as many minutes, running his fingers through his hair and sighing again. As his gaze lingered on a particularly large pyrite fragment imbedded in the wall, yet another thought occurred to him; when should he tell Gwen about her past, about her true role in regard to the artifacts?
The door behind him opened just then, chasing the thought from his mind as the teenaged girl emerged from the room. The guardian turned to look at her. Her chin-length blonde hair was still damp, droplets of water trickling down from the tips of her bangs, and splashing onto the green long sleeve he had laid out for her while she’d been sleeping, along with the rest of the clothes she now wore. Even though she wasn’t looking at him, Forneus could see that her eyes were bleary, her eyelids puffy and rimmed with red as though she had recently been crying—certainly more recently than when Phenex had left. Seeing her so miserable sent a pang through his stomach, but he knew there was nothing he could do to help her, and that even if he were to bring it up, she was much too proud to admit what she was feeling, anyway. Instead, he simply rested a hand on her shoulder, and asked her if she was ready.
As her brilliant jade eyes finally found his, the teen nodded, her lips forming a grim line. Tightening his grip on her shoulder ever-so-slightly, so as not to lose her during the teleportation process, Forneus concentrated. As the power began to build in his chest, he could feel each individual fragment of crystal, pyrite, and marble blending together, until the entire corridor was nothing more than a warped blur. The skin on the back of his hand—the same one gripping Gwen’s shoulder—began to tingle. It felt as though little bolts of static electricity were dancing across his larger knuckles, until they finally arced all the way up his arms, through his torso, and back again. He felt Gwen stiffen under his grip, the girl letting out a gasp when she no doubt felt the power coursing from him and into her. Fortunately, having travelled this way a couple of times, already, she didn’t attempt to withdraw from the daemon’s touch, instead clenching her eyes shut against the dizzying blur of the Spectrum corridor.
Good, He thought, it’s just about time for us to meet with Phenex, anyway.
Closing his own eyes, Forneus focused all of his will into visualizing the rendezvous point Phenex had spoken of. It was only once he could see the beautiful, cobblestone streets of Wiesbaden clearly in his mind that he opened them, again. There was a brilliant flash of white light, and in an instant, the cool, arid environment of the Spectrum had vanished, giving way to the chilly, inky night in the capital of Hesse, Germany.
Stumbling as her feet finally made contact with solid ground, Gwen was grateful when she felt Forneus’ hand gripping her own, preventing her from falling face-first onto the concrete. As she blinked away the trace images of light dancing in her vision, she realized she wasn’t standing on concrete at all, but rather on rain-slickened cobblestones. A stiff breeze blew her hair back from her face, the teen shivering slightly from the cool night air.
“So sorry, my dear,” Forneus murmured, glancing guiltily at her as he settled his coat over her shoulders, just as he had done in the Spectrum the night before, “I should have provided you with a coat of your own.”
Gwen took the frock coat gratefully, assuring him that she would be fine. It was only once she’d shoved her arms through the sleeves that she took notice of the building directly in front of them. Up above the black, glass-paned doors that she was certain marked the main entrance, were large, dark letters declaring the building to be, “Hessischer Landtag”. What this meant, she didn’t know, but looking at the white-washed stonework, fringed with rough-hewn bricks surrounding the building’s many windows, the teen couldn’t help being enthralled by the sheer magnificence of the structure. The entrance sat at the very corner, the building taking up the full width of the intersection as it stretched from one street, and onto another.
Gwen glanced around, realizing that the Landtag was framed by an assortment of other buildings along the city block, the only divide between it and the others coming in the form of arched alleyways at the furthest ends of its pristine white walls. Sitting along the edges of the streets were old-fashioned, iron lampposts, each one casting pale, yellow light onto the glistening stones below. Some bore only one lantern, while others were made up of three or more, all fixed to a single post. It was beneath one of the single lanterns that she spotted Phenex. The human firebird was leaning casually against the lamppost’s base, arms folded across his chest, looking down the opposite stretch of road from where Gwen and Forneus stood.
Forneus must have noticed him at the same time as Gwen, for the daemon called out to him, ignoring the stares of the few pedestrians taking an evening stroll on the opposite side of the street. Looking at him, the teen could understand why they stared—after all, how many other men were wandering around in clothing reminiscent of the eighteenth century?
When Forneus began to approach Phenex, Gwen knew she had no choice but to follow, despite the intense burning sensation chewing its way up from the pit of her stomach. She wasn’t particularly eager to be in his company so soon after their last encounter—especially considering the fact she’d been weeping because of him no more than fifteen minutes, earlier. Doing her best to keep her gaze averted, she just caught the brief flicker of his gaze in her direction, before he turned to the daemon, grasping his hand in greeting.
“I was starting to wonder if you got caught up with something else.” Gwen thought maybe Phenex had looked in her direction yet again when he said this, that he might even be implying this ‘something else’ had to do with her, but since she was too busy staring at her own feet, she couldn’t be sure.
“My apologies, I wanted to be sure we didn’t draw any attention upon arrival.” Forneus replied, his black boots scuffing the cobblestones as he shifted his weight, “I trust you haven’t met with any trouble while waiting for us?”
At this point, she was only half listening. The teen contented herself with studying her surroundings, taking in the breath-taking style of each building, wondering if it was neo-classical or neo-gothic, only to realize it didn’t matter—it had to be the most impressive work she’d ever seen in her young life, and yet, she knew, given how very little she’d seen of the world, there were undoubtedly far more beautiful architectural wonders yet for her to discover.
Catching movement to her left, Gwen found herself staring down one of the arched alleyways she had noticed before. Squinting, she tried to get a good look down it, but could see nothing but pitch blackness. Perhaps it had been a cat, if indeed she had seen anything at all.
Probably just a trick of the light. She told herself, pulling Forneus’ coat more securely around her as the wind started picking up. Clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering, she swept her gaze up and down the street, realizing that the last of the stragglers from before had long since left the area. The only ones here—wherever here was—were Forneus, Phenex, and herself. It was then that she began to feel a bit uneasy. Something felt off; she didn’t know what, but she knew it was something. There was a tingling sensation starting at the base of her spine, slowly travelling upward to the back of her neck, making her skin crawl.
She looked up at the duo then, aware that they’d abruptly stopped talking, both of them wearing identical frowns; could they feel it, too?
“I don’t like this…something feels…wrong.” She said finally, choking against the feeling of terror growing in her chest. “Where are we, anyway?”
Forneus looked as though he was about to reply, when a high-pitched whistling interrupted him, the sound growing louder with each passing second, giving Gwen the impression that whatever was making it was getting closer. Feeling the hairs along her arms and the back of her neck standing on end, she drew back behind the daemon, her gaze flitting around as she tried to catch a glimpse of something, anything that would indicate what was happening. Forneus moved into a defensive position in front of her, his shoulders tensing as he glanced behind him to make sure she was safe, his eyes suddenly bright, alert.
“Phenex!” He barked, casting a sidelong glance to his right. The auburn-haired man mirrored the guardian’s tension, his lip curling into a snarl.
Heeding Forneus’ call, he nodded curtly and dashed forward, a stream of fire coming from his right fist as he swung around to meet his target. The flames fanned outward when they collided with something unseen in the alley, though Gwen couldn’t even begin to guess what it had been. Between the shock of seeing Phenex conjure flames out of nothingness, and with everything shrouded in darkness the way it was, the teen was finding it difficult to process much of anything, right now. The blast that followed sent a shower of sparks down around the human firebird, the embers igniting and flickering out when they made contact with both clothing and skin, alike. The teen just caught a glimpse of his predatory grin before he lunged forward again, the flames leaping from his fingers and throwing the shadowed walls on either side into sharp relief as they spiralled toward a group of creatures that, until now, had been concealed at the far end of the alleyway.
Gwen gasped; there had to be two dozen or more of them, all in varying shapes and sizes. Most of them were unlike anything she’d ever seen, while others bore a striking resemblance to the pictures of mythical creatures she’d seen in the books her father kept in his study. At the head of the pack was a two-legged creature with the head of a bull, a large gold ring looping through both of his nostrils with a small length of chain hanging from it. A massive, double-sided axe was held out in front of him, his yellow eyes glowing brightly in the fiery aftermath of Phenex’s attack.
Could that really be…a Minotaur? Gwen wondered, her breath catching in her throat as she watched the beast shake its large, horned head with a snort.
Glancing around, the teen was certain she recognized several of the other monsters, as well; chimera, gorgons, basilisks, gargoyles…as well as a few others she couldn’t remember the names of, and felt she was probably better off not knowing.
As she watched, the horde of creatures suddenly broke apart, dodging as Phenex launched one fiery attack after another, the flames nearly taking up the full breadth of the alley. A cacophony rent the air as many of the monsters were engulfed in flame, their shrill wails piercing the night air with such intensity that Gwen felt compelled to clap her hands over her ears to block them out. Resisting, she watched as the Minotaur bellowed, rushing forward with his axe raised high over his head, ready to strike the human firebird. Phenex was quicker however, ducking beneath the massive axe as its owner swung it in a downward arc, and thrusting his fist forward into an uppercut. Embers sizzled over his knuckles when he connected with the beast’s jaw, spittle flying from the Minotaur’s mouth as it reeled from the unexpected force of the attack.
Several of the other monsters lurched forward with angry cries as their leader attempted to recollect himself, their eyes of crimson alight with complete and utter loathing. As they swooped down upon Phenex, Gwen found she was able to understand snippets of what they were saying to him.
“You will pay for what you’ve done to our comrades!”
“How dare you strike Lord Asterion?!”
“The boss sends his regards…now, prepare to die, beloved pet of the gods!”
Gwen didn’t have time to wonder on what that last had meant, for at that moment, intense light radiated around Phenex, appearing as though it was pouring out of him. Suddenly, the light burst outward, a massive ball of golden flame that engulfed all of those who had dared get too close to him. As the smell of burning flesh reached the teen’s nostrils, she brought her arm up to her face, desperately trying to block it out with the sleeve of the frock coat, for fear she would end up sick to her stomach, otherwise.
Eyes watering, she glanced up at Forneus in wonder; how was he not the least bit affected by it? Throughout the entire ordeal, his gaze never strayed from the human firebird, simply watching in silence as he incinerated one enemy after another. Was it because he wasn’t human? Or, was it because in all of his years of existence, he’d bared witness to too many battles, just like this one?
She didn’t get to ponder further, for Phenex unleashed another salvo, flames leaping off of his hands and feet with every punch and kick he threw at the enemy horde, the creatures seemingly having recovered from the deaths of their comrades as they closed in around him. Watching as his fire lit up the night, gleaming against the damp cobblestones beneath his feet, Gwen could only stare on in wonder. Every movement was so precise it was almost elegant, the flames streaking through the air only serving to support this impression. She couldn’t deny it, at least, not to herself; she was awestruck. The very idea that Phenex could inspire such a feeling should have been absurd to her, but as the glowing streaks of fire trailed all around him, accentuating each movement of his body, all thought and feeling pertaining to their mutual dislike of one another was forgotten, completely. She had never seen someone move so gracefully while fighting, and yet with such raw masculinity, at the exact same time.
“Everything will be alright, Gwen. I won’t let any harm come to you, I promise.” Forneus’ sudden declaration startled her, the teen peering at him questioningly before taking notice of her hands. Both were wrapped around his forearm, her knuckles white from the intensity of her grip. Embarrassed, and having no memory of having grabbed onto him in the first place, she hastily let go, thankful that the daemon’s eyes were still focused on Phenex and not her, for she could feel the heat creeping into her cheeks.
Gasping when Phenex was knocked to the ground with the flat of the Minotaur’s axe, she breathed a sigh of relief when he twisted around and did a kip-up, flames lancing from his heels and slamming squarely into the broad head of the beast with enough force to plant his face, muzzle first, into the street.
“What should we do?” She asked, casting a furtive glance at Forneus. She followed his gaze, watching as the human firebird began fighting in earnest, just barely holding his own against the onslaught. He’d been doing so well against the horde until now, but the more time passed, the more it seemed likely he’d be overrun by them. His movements were no longer as lightning quick as they had been moments before, and though she didn’t want to say it out loud, Gwen was worried for Phenex’s safety, despite his earlier attitude toward her.
Forneus seemed to share her train of thought, for he gave her an anxious backward glance, his silver eyes much brighter than usual. “Phenex can hold them off, but he won’t be able to do so indefinitely,” He replied, returning his gaze to the humanoid phoenix as he unloaded another torrent of fire on the creatures surrounding him, “We need to find Loki’s Amulet. Only then will this battle come to an end.”
That’s when it dawned on her. Earlier, when Phenex had mentioned the artifact being located, he’d been referring to the amulet. “Okay…do you have a general idea of where it might be, then?” She asked the daemon, “It’s got to be around here somewhere, right? Wherever here is…”
Startled by his reply, she glanced up at him. “Sorry?”
“Wiesbaden,” he repeated distractedly, continuing to follow Phenex’s battle, his silvery eyes dancing with the orange glow of the firebird’s attacks, “It’s the capital of Hesse, Germany.”
Gwen gaped up at him, dumbfounded. “We’re in Germany?”
She didn’t have time to make sense of this information, however, for at that moment, an ear-splitting shriek cut through the air, forcing the teen to cover her ears. She glanced over just in time to see a large, dark-feathered woman backhand Phenex with enough force to take out a small pick-up truck, her scraggly features contorting into an ugly scowl as she shrieked again. The attack sent the firebird tumbling across the cold, hard ground, coming to a stop no more than three feet from her and Forneus, face down on the cobblestones.
“Not that it isn’t fun, getting batted around by the harpy, and all,” Phenex coughed up a mouthful of dirt, and pushed himself up on his elbows, glancing back at the daemon, “But I could really use your help, right about now.”
Forneus seemed to be caught in a moment of indecision, his gaze flitting back and forth between the teen and firebird. Taking notice of the many cuts and scrapes criss-crossing all along Phenex’s neck and face, Gwen opted to make the decision for him.
“He’s right.” Even then, she knew just how foreign the words must have sounded, both the guardian and humanoid phoenix giving a start when she said them. “You said the artifact is close by, right?”
Forneus faltered, before giving a single, sharp nod. “Yes, though with the seal being dormant, I cannot pinpoint its exact location. That’s why—”
“That’s why you brought me,” Gwen interrupted him, the realization causing an uncomfortable prickling at the back of her scalp. “That’s it, isn’t it? The reason the council told you to bring me along is because, for some reason, I’m able to sense the artifacts in their dormant state, when you can’t?” And it was true; ever since they’d arrived, she could feel a warm, familiar thrumming just at the edge of her consciousness, the sensation spreading until it flowed from one limb, and into another. It was the same feeling she’d experienced when she’d touched the amethyst on her dining table the night, before. Not even twenty-four hours had passed, and for the second time since meeting the phoenix and the daemon, she felt like a lifetime had passed her by.
The stronger the sensation became, the more certain she was that the energy coursing through her veins must be coming from the artifact they were looking for. She didn’t know why she could feel it, nor could she explain how she knew it was the artifact she was sensing—she just simply knew.
Before Forneus could reply, Gwen gasped, noting with alarm that the monsters had been inching closer the entire time they’d been talking, with only Phenex’s blazes keeping them at bay. The daemon turned to see what she was looking at, only to find himself beset by three of the monsters at once. Scales, feathers, and clothing blurred together as he held them back, the sound of guttural snarls resounding off of the nearby buildings. Flames leapt from Phenex’s fingers in great tendrils, the firebird creating a circular divide between Gwen and the horde, but it seemed to be of little use, for several had made it across the divide, just the same. Worse still, they had made it passed Phenex, himself—and they were coming straight for her.
There were six of them, each one of them identical to the last; four legs, with wrinkled, charcoal-coloured skin beneath scraggly patches of grey fur, protruding lower jaws, wickedly curved teeth, and long, dual-split tails. If Gwen had to compare them to anything, she would have compared them to dogs, maybe even lizards, for between their teeth poked long, forked tongues.
As they crept closer, she drew back, nearly tripping over the curb behind her. Fear trailed down her spine like icy tendrils, until it seemed each one of her limbs had been filled with lead, keeping her rooted to the spot. She could hear their deep, throaty growls; smell their hot, sour breath. Each muscle in her body screamed for her to run, but she just couldn’t seem to break free of the terror. Just when the pack of reptilian dogs seemed about ready to pounce, a crackling sound reached her ears, followed by a blinding flash of violet light.
The next thing she knew, Forneus was directly in front her, his black dress shirt rumpled and slightly torn, though he seemed otherwise unharmed. Blinking dazedly, she looked around, startled when she realized the creatures that had been bearing down on her just seconds before were nowhere to be found. That’s when she finally noticed it. She hadn’t been able to see it before, with his back to her, but now that he turned around, she could see the electricity dancing across the daemon’s left arm, violet sparks crackling along the rings on his fingers.
Did he just summon lightning? She stared, fascinated. What else can he do, I wonder?
“Are you alright?” Forneus asked, eyebrows drawn together in concern. Gwen could only nod, her vocal chords seized with fear from her close encounter. He seemed to understand this, for he squeezed her shoulder, a sympathetic glint in his eyes when he spoke again. “I know you’re afraid. Given the circumstances, it’s perfectly understandable. But we really need your help right now, okay?”
“You need me to look for the artifact,” She managed to squeak out, swallowing against the terror threatening to take over once again, “by myself…”
“I’m sorry. If we had any other choice…” He trailed off, casting a furtive glance in Phenex’s direction. When the firebird seemed on the verge of being overrun again, he went on hurriedly, “I promise you, Gwen, we will keep you safe…so will you help us?”
She stared at him, wide-eyed, not knowing what to say. When she did open her mouth to answer, to tell him she didn’t know if she could do it, Forneus pulled one of her hands into both of his own, his luminous eyes pleading. When he spoke, his voice shook slightly, “Please, we can’t do this without you…”
How could she say no? He had just saved her life, yet again; if she didn’t help, like she had promised she would…if she failed to find Loki’s Amulet…
…All three of us will die, here.
The realization was all that it took to set her legs in motion, the teen giving Forneus a quick nod before pulling her hand free from his, and tearing off down the street. With her heart pounding in her ears, and the steady, familiar thrumming in her veins becoming stronger, Gwen shut out all other sights and sounds, the square around her becoming a distant blur as she concentrated on finding the amulet.
Rounding a corner to her left between a long stretch of white and rose-coloured buildings, she had just passed another one of the arched alleyways, when the tingling in her limbs became overpowering. Skidding to a stop, she backtracked, and tentatively stepped into the entryway. A single ring of pale, white light shone at the far end of the alley, illuminating a stack of cardboard boxes against one wall, and a couple of skids propped against the other. Casting one last look behind her, she took a deep breath, and ventured into the alley, straining her ears for the faintest sound, the slightest hint of whether or not she was being followed. The only sound that greeted her were her own footsteps as her shoes crunched over debris, the narrow passageway seemingly devoid of all else. It wasn’t until she reached the far end that she realized the alley turned into a split junction leading onto another city block, this one appearing to be residential.
Just before she could set foot onto the street, however, she froze, unable to take another step further. The buzzing sensation that coursed through her body peaked, the feeling almost unbearable; if she had been able to collapse, she would have, but whatever had taken hold of her kept her from falling, now. It seemed the most she could do was move her eyes and twitch her fingers, and nothing more.
What’s happening to me?
Afraid, all she could do was stare at the rows of houses in front of her. Fear built in her chest with every beat of her heart, growing until it was almost suffocating. She could barely see the twinkling lights lining the street, all of her senses seeming to intensify one minute, and go numb the next. A sudden warmth started to blossom in the tips of her fingers and toes, spreading inward until it reached the very centre of her being. Something about the warmth stole her fears away, settling over her like a comforting glow. It was then that she realized she was glowing, a soft pillar of white light surrounding her, the light wrapping further back around than she could see in her peripherals.
Just when she was really beginning to wonder what to do about her predicament, a flash of green caught her eye, drawing her attention to a spot no more than seven feet from her; something was hovering there, just beneath one of the street lights. Squinting, she tried to make out what the object might be. As it started floating toward her, she managed to catch a glimpse of a green stone set within gold filigree, strange symbols accenting each of its four corners.
It’s Loki’s Amulet! Gwen thought, excitement chasing away the last of her anxiety.
Was the artifact responsible for her current state of immobilization? As it drew nearer, the surge of power she’d felt upon entering the alley enveloped her once again, almost as though something within her was greeting the amulet’s return. It was a strange thought, one that seemed both familiar, and foreign. She didn’t know why, but it called to mind how she had felt upon meeting Forneus, when the daemon had smiled at her. There had been something familiar in the way he had looked at her with such fondness in his eyes. But why anything about Forneus should be familiar to her, and why he should have been looking at her with fondness, she didn’t know. And so it was the same with the artifacts; she didn’t know what her connection to them was, but she had to conclude that there was one. Why else would they respond to her, otherwise?
Gwen was in the midst of thinking she needed to ask Forneus again just what that connection might be, when a voice echoed all around her, forcing a startled gasp from her lips.
“You, who have awakened the power of Loki’s Amulet, have proven yourself worthy of its gifts!”
She stared, wide-eyed, as her right arm lifted of its own accord, the amulet moving toward it, and nestling into the palm of her hand. As the voice continued, she realized it wasn’t echoing all around her—it was coming from within her own head!
“Behold! By the grace of the Greek god, Apollo, you have been blessed with the ability to control the weak-willed of all those who would dare oppose you.” The voice was a pleasant richness, its disembodied words flowing melodiously, “Have a care, however; you must use this gift sparingly, for its effects are only temporary. Now, dear child, go forth, and make use of your newfound abilities in the name of all you hold sacred.”
It was only after the voice faded completely, that Gwen found she could move again, the pillar of light vanishing from around her. She collapsed against the cool, grey bricks of the alley wall beside her, limbs trembling as she fought to stay on her feet. Taking several slow, deep breaths, she savoured the cold burn of the night air in her throat, the last traces of shock beginning to wear off as adrenaline flooded her system, filling her with a sharp sense of awareness.
Casting a quick glance at the amulet in her hand, she straightened, gritting her teeth when her legs threatened to buckle under her. When she finally managed to steady herself, she took off running, turning down the alley she had come from with such speed she nearly went sprawling over the garbage bins at the far end. All the while, she only had one thing in mind—getting back to Forneus and Phenex, before it was too late…
“Forneus, behind you!” Forneus ducked, his skin prickling from the heat as Phenex sent a jet of flame streaking passed his right shoulder, setting the man-sized serpent behind him ablaze before it could sink its fangs into the unsuspecting daemon. The guardian had been too preoccupied with the mixed group of demons in front of him at the time, fighting them with the only means he currently had at his disposal; his intellect, his lightning, and when defense was necessary—which it was, quite often—his force field.
Getting even one of my other powers back will be a blessing. He thought, watching as the basilisk writhed on the ground, its shrill wail piercing the air. Yellow eyes widened, the vertical pupils contracting as the serpent’s scales turned from bronze to black, the flames consuming it until nothing remained but a scorch mark on the cobblestones. Meeting Phenex’s gaze, he gave him an appreciative nod, and the two returned to the task of keeping the remaining monsters confined to one area, preventing even a single imp from slipping down the alley Gwen had disappeared into.
Despite all of the enemies they had taken down, the Palace Square littered with the remains of hellhounds, cockatrice, harpies, and the like, many more still remained—and while his amber-eyed companion seemed to have no shortage of energy, Forneus himself felt more than a little fatigued. Still, the guardian pressed on, grabbing hold of a hybrid demon-hound when it lunged at him, both its upper and lower jaw firmly in his grasp, the beast snarling as it struggled to get free.
Gritting his teeth, he widened his stance, and with a growl of his own, slammed the beast full force into the ground, finishing with an electrical surge through his fingertips, directly into the creature’s brain. Even with his full attention on the task at hand, he was aware of Phenex at all times, both hearing and feeling the roar of his fire as he wiped out a dozen enemies or more in one, fell swoop, permanently silencing their anguished cries.
Satisfied that the hybrid wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon, he rose into a defensive stance, arms up and knees slightly bent, his eyes sweeping back and forth as he took in the remaining enemies in front of him. He felt Phenex’s body heat before the other’s back met his own, the daemon glancing over his shoulder to see that they were surrounded on all sides. Somehow, in the course of their attempt to corral the enemy horde, they had wound up cornered, themselves.
“Well, I don’t know about you,” Phenex declared, the firebird’s head cocked slightly in his direction, sparks licking his fingertips as he maintained a constant state of readiness, “but I’m running out of ideas.”
“That makes two of us.” Forneus murmured, manifesting a concentrated dose of lightning in the palm of his hand. Where was Gwen? The daemon could only hope that, wherever she had run off to, whether she’d found the amulet or not, she would be alright.
That’s when she appeared, almost as though heeding his silent call, the teen half running, half stumbling, as she made her way out of the alley at the end of the block. Her bangs were plastered to her forehead, sweat trickling from her temples, the guardian experiencing a twinge of concern upon seeing her ashen complexion.
As she got closer, more and more of the creatures turned to look at her, a cacophony of shrieks and roars filling the Palace Square as the horde readied themselves to attack the seemingly powerless human girl before them. If this indeed had been their impression of the teen, they were gravely mistaken, for she came to a stop about fifteen paces from where they stood, her expression settling into a mask of determination, eyes taking on an almost feverish glow.
“Leave them alone!” She shouted, her voice carrying up and down the alleys of the empty square. Staring at the teen in dumbfounded silence, Forneus just happened to glimpse Loki’s Amulet, the green stone gleaming as it peeked between the cracks in Gwen’s fingers, casting its emerald rays onto the wet cobblestones when it caught the light of the streetlamp behind her.
Surprised as he had been by Gwen’s outburst, Forneus was even more so, when several of the enemies actually seemed to be listening to the girl. Did the amulet grant her such a power? He wondered, exchanging a furtive glance with Phenex, golden-amber eyes betraying confusion equal to his own. His bafflement was short-lived, however, the humanoid phoenix sporting bright, orange flames in the palms of both hands as he held them out at his sides. From the way he bared his teeth, knees bent with his shoulders hunched, the daemon knew he was moving into a more combat-ready stance, waiting to spring forward at any moment.
“Forneus, we’ll never get a chance like this again.” Phenex murmured. His eyes were fixed on the enemies before him, all of which had gone still the moment Gwen had yelled at them. He had no doubt come to the same conclusion the daemon had; that the teen had somehow gained control over their enemies, and that the amulet was responsible. “I’ll carve a path through them; all you have to do is make it to the girl. What d’ya say, old friend—you up to the task?”
“Need you ask?” Forneus replied, lips twitching into a faint smile.
“Alright then, on my mark…” Phenex was nearly crouching now, the twin fires in his hands flickering wildly, a toothy grin lighting his face. The daemon didn’t even have time to feel amusement at his comrade’s obvious battle lust, before the firebird shouted, “Now!”
Forneus bolted into the air at the exact same moment that Phenex unleashed his fire, the blaze moving in a clockwise burst, lighting up the enemies that had been closest in the circle surrounding them. Those who had been standing behind their now incinerated comrades drew back in surprise, leaving a narrow gap between the two beings and the girl. Landing lightly on his toes, the guardian didn’t spare a single moment, and raced forward, taking full advantage of the firebird’s diversion. Releasing little bolts of lightning into the throng of enemies on either side of him, his face split into a grin when he glimpsed the burning glow in his peripherals—Phenex was providing literal ‘cover fire’ for him. Even though more than half of the creatures had stopped at Gwen’s command, neither the daemon, nor human firebird, were taking any chances.
Forneus was almost to her, now, the teen stumbling forward part of the way to meet him, her pale features relaxing into a wan smile. When they were only an arm’s length from each other, she reached forward, the tips of her fingers barely making it passed the sleeve of the daemon’s frock coat as she held the amulet out to him.
“Forneus, I got it! I got the—” Her jubilation was cut short, as a bright streak of white light suddenly jumped from the amulet in her hand to the daemon, striking him directly in the chest. Both came to a halt, neither one of them able to move, Gwen yelping in surprise when she was frozen, mid step. As soon as it began, it was over, Forneus letting out a gasp as he felt the power coursing from his chest, and into the rest of his body, a frothing, blistering heat surging through his veins; a familiar sensation, and one the guardian had sorely missed in the short time that he’d been without it.
He was just about to congratulate her for pulling through on her part in the mission, when the teen’s head lolled forward, her knees giving out under her. He caught her in one, swift movement, her head resting against his chest as he scooped her up in his arms, bridal-style. Peering down at her, he could see the sweat beading across her forehead, her breath coming in laboured gasps. Clearly, in returning the amulet to its seal state, as well as returning one of the daemon’s powers to him, the journey to Wiesbaden had taken a toll on her.
“You did well, Gwen. Thank you.” Forneus murmured, cradling her with one arm and raising the other in front of him. He would take care of her soon, but first, he and Phenex needed to rid themselves of the remaining enemies. Keeping an eye on the enemy horde, he became acutely aware of the restless shuffling of those that had stopped at Gwen’s command. They were moving toward him once again, their dull eyes lighting up, transfixed on the teenaged girl in the daemon’s arms.
Their movements were slow, at first, almost uncertain, the gargoyle at the head of the pack taking a few tentative steps forward, its granite wings spread wide as though for balance. Rubble crunched beneath its feet, the creature growling between stone lips half eroded from both time and battle, dull fangs protruding over the lower half of its jaw. Suddenly, the beast rose to its full height, massive fists clenched on either side as it let out an ear-splitting roar. This must have been the signal the rest of the monsters had been waiting for, for they all lunged forward as one with howls and shrieks of their own, hooves and claws thundering over the rain-slickened ground, sending vibrations up through Forneus’ boots.
Well, this isn’t good…
Rotating his arm so that his palm was facing outward, Forneus gritted his teeth, willing the flames to come forth. A few embers sputtered, the daemon mentally pleading for them to ignite, all the while keeping his gaze on the approaching horde. Flames lanced outward, only to disappear, yet again. Crimson eyes flashed wickedly, the pack nearly on top of him…
Finally, the flames came to life, splitting into three concentrated balls of fire that circled around the guardian’s wrist, ready to be launched at his command—and launch them, he did. All three fireballs streaked through the air, wisps of smoke floating up from where they impacted the gargoyle. The grotesque beast faltered in its steps, causing the rest of its compatriots to do the same, eyeing the daemon warily.
Hmm, not up to full power, yet. He mused, sighing. Oh, well. All in good time, I suppose…
He was just preparing to summon a series of thunderbolts down upon the horde, when a fiery wave rolled through the pack, leaving nothing but blackened ash in its wake. As he looked up, he was met with Phenex’s familiar, playful smirk, the firebird cocking an eyebrow as the embers on his fingers flickered out. Feeling his lips twitching into a smile, Forneus averted his gaze, only to realize the sudden quiet around them, the only sound that of the cool, evening breeze whistling between the alley ways. Not a single enemy was left, the Palace Square empty save for the two of them, and the unconscious teenaged girl, secure in the daemon’s arms.
“It’s good to see you have your fire back,” Phenex came to stand beside him, chuckling, “Even if it does pale in comparison to mine.”
Forneus chortled at this, the sound dying on his lips as he looked down at Gwen, her face half hidden by the fringe of hair plastered against her cheek. Guilt gnawed at his insides. He had promised not to let harm befall her, and he had failed—had been doomed to fail from the start, it seemed, for there was no avoiding her destiny with the artifacts. Whether he liked it or not, there was no escaping the truth; the teen’s fate was intertwined with their own.
“Will she be alright?” Glancing up, he noticed Phenex’s gaze on the girl, the corners of his mouth turned downward into a frown.
“I hope so.” He replied softly, brushing the hair back from Gwen’s eyes. Gathering her up in his arms more securely, his frock coat wrapped tightly around her, he couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen her so vulnerable, so helpless. It was as though he’d gone back in time, the teenager in his arms reverting to the seven-year-old girl with braided pigtails, soaked to the bone and crying after pursuit of a minnow had sent her tumbling, headfirst, into the river just on the other side of the campsite. Her parents, who had been packing up at the time, hadn’t heard their daughter’s cries. In leaving his post that day, he had taken a great risk. But, being seen by mortal eyes and suffering admonishment from his superiors had been the least of his concerns; in fact, there had been no thought to either of these things—there had been only impulse, the driving force to save the single most important thing under his protection.
Shaking himself out of his reverie, he glanced up to see Phenex studying him intently, face half obscured in shadow beneath the tousled fringe of his bangs. Even still, Forneus could see traces of unease within the tawny eyes, the firebird turning his gaze away as though embarrassed, “I’ll get in touch with the Fifth Unit, and make sure clean-up is taken care of. You just worry about getting the girl back to her quarters, alright?”
Giving a start at the unexpected show of concern, Forneus bowed his head, smiling. “Thank you. I appreciate this, truly.”
Even though he shrugged off the daemon’s gratitude, Forneus knew Phenex was pleased, just managing to glimpse the other’s grin before he turned his head away. Prying the amulet from Gwen’s fingers, he put it in his pocket, and allowed himself one last, backward glance at his long-time friend. Readjusting his hold on the teen, he closed his eyes, concentrating until only images of the Spectrum drifted through his mind. A warm, tingling sensation started in his chest, flowing until it reached his fingers and toes. Golden light spread outward, surrounding both him and his human charge in a radiant bubble. There was a sharp jerking sensation, and then, something solid beneath his feet. The daemon opened his eyes to the sight of familiar incandescent walls around him, the ever-changing hues of blue and violet reflecting off of the smoky tiles of the floor.
Feeling Gwen shudder in his arms, he strode toward the bed at the other side of the room, and pulled back the comforter, the teen still wrapped in his coat as he settled her onto the plush mattress. As he brought the edge of the blanket all the way up to her chin, he sighed, relieved to see that some of her colour had returned, her breathing more even.
Staring down at her sleeping form, he touched her cheek lightly, making certain that she wasn’t feverish. Surprised when the girl sighed, turning her face into the caress rather than away from it, Forneus drew back, puzzled. Reaching out tentatively, he stroked her cheek again, resulting in the same reaction—only this time, she actually smiled. The guardian experienced a rush of affection when Gwen’s face settled into a look of contentment, realizing that his touch had been a source of comfort to her. To think, after all this time…
Your eyes may not have remembered me, but some part of your mind still does.
Letting his arm fall back at his side, he studied her for a moment longer. Satisfied that she seemed to be alright, he swivelled on his heel, and quietly made his way to the door, hand resting on the brass handle as he peered back at her. Even though the teen’s condition had improved rather quickly, he couldn’t dispel the guilt he felt, his throat becoming uncomfortably dry the longer he looked at her.
“I’m sorry,” He whispered, “I’ll find some way to make it up to you…I promise.”
With that, he stepped through the door, making sure to shut it quietly behind him. Once out in the corridor, he inhaled deeply, allowing the pulsating colours beneath the transparent walkway to draw his attention, soothing him after the ordeal in Germany. Putting his hands in his pockets, he felt the cool, smooth surface of Loki’s Amulet pressed against the palm of his hand, reminding him of what he had to do, next.
Forneus heaved a sigh, and squaring his shoulders, slowly made the trek toward the council chambers, filled with dread at the prospect of a secondary debriefing in less than twenty-four hours.
Less than an hour later found Forneus in Gwen’s room again, the daemon setting the clothing he’d brought for the teen on the nightstand beside her. Casting a critical eye around the room, he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to put a bit more furniture in her quarters, since she would be staying with them for an undetermined amount of time. He was certain she’d feel more at home, if the room weren’t so barren; a dresser, maybe a couple of chairs and a table…
Hearing the girl whimper, he looked down, noticing that she was still rather pale, the blankets falling halfway off the bed as she tossed and turned. Sometime between him leaving and returning, the teen had wriggled free of his coat, the navy blue garment lying in a heap beneath her legs. Careful not to wake her, he gently took hold of it, and snapping his fingers, returned it to its former state, cleaned and freshly pressed. Draping it over his shoulder, he fixed the comforter next, making sure Gwen was fully covered, for she had begun trembling, arms wrapped tightly around her torso.
You’re having a tough time of it, He thought, resting his hand on her forehead. Relieved when her temperature felt normal, he snapped his fingers again, and settled into the folding chair that had materialized behind him. But, I think you’ll be alright, now. Don’t worry Gwen…I’m here.
It wasn’t long before Forneus could hear the slight click of the marble door opening, the guardian not needing to turn his head, for not only could he see who it was from his peripherals, he would have known, either way.
“I was wondering where you’d gone off to,” Phenex strode toward him, keeping his voice low, “I guess I should have known you’d be here.”
“I take it the clean-up went well in Wiesbaden?” Forneus asked, draping an arm over the back of his chair as he met the firebird’s gaze.
“Fortunately there wasn’t much to worry about,” Phenex answered, shoving both hands into his coat pockets. “No humans witnessed the ordeal, so no memory wipes had to be performed—mostly just superficial damage to the street that needed cleaning up, nothing special.”
Forneus nodded, relieved. As his attention returned to Gwen, the teen starting to mumble in her sleep, he felt his lips tugging into a smile, watching as her mouth puckered, forming a childish pout. The overwhelming urge to laugh took hold of him, the daemon desperately looking for something—anything—to distract himself with, lest he wake her. As his gaze flitted back to Phenex, he was surprised to see the firebird frowning down at him, arms crossed over his chest.
“Tell me…why do you even like the girl?” He asked, somewhat accusingly. “She’s a spoiled, self-centred brat, with absolutely no respect for authority.”
“For you, you mean.” Forneus laughed softly, shaking his head. “Don’t be so quick to find fault with the girl. Why not try to get to know her, first? Who knows, Phenex—you might surprise yourself, might even find that you like her, too. Trust me, old friend…she isn’t as bad as you think.”
Phenex snorted in response, his dubious expression making the guardian chuckle. Rolling his eyes, the firebird sat at the foot of the bed, the daemon grinning as he watched him gingerly lower himself onto the very edge of the mattress, as though trying not to disturb the sleeping girl.
“So, what do you plan to do, now?” He asked, running a hand through his hair and letting it drop to his side, absently curling his fingers around the edge of the bed.
Forneus tilted his head back, thinking. “Now that we’ve begun retrieving the artifacts, enemies far worse than the ones we faced in Germany are sure to surface,” Keeping his tone modulated, he looked at the firebird meaningfully. “And since rumours of Gwen’s involvement won’t be far behind, my only option is to become her acting guardian.”
“I suppose you have a point, there.” Phenex murmured. Silence fell between them, the firebird’s gaze drifting around the room, lingering on the luminescent walls before coming to rest on the daemon once again. “Have you told her anything yet—you know, about what she is?”
When Forneus hesitated, the firebird cocked an eyebrow at him. “I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”
“I know that I should,” he admitted, lowering his gaze with a sigh, “Every time I consider it, I can’t help worrying that it will be too much of a shock for her.”
He looked up when Phenex snorted. “Because having us show up out of thin air, only to drag her back to our world somehow didn’t qualify, already?” The daemon could tell he meant it playfully, but he took it to heart, all the same.
“That’s exactly my point,” He insisted, massaging his temples with the tips of his fingers, “That, in and of itself, must have been hard enough for her; to burden her with more might prove to be too much of a strain, right now.”
“You are far more concerned for the girl than the task requires.” Hearing the mixture of curiosity and disgust in his tone, he simply grinned back at the firebird, neither confirming nor denying the accusation. He knew if he gave it enough time, Phenex would eventually come to understand it on his own. Until then, there was no point in trying to force it.
After a moment, the firebird rose from the bed, sighing wearily. “Whatever you decide, I’m behind you every step of the way…even if I don’t understand your reasons.” Tawny eyes narrowed at the daemon as he went on. “I just hope you know what you’re getting yourself into…hell, what you’re getting us into.”
“As do I, old friend.” Forneus gave the other a rueful smile.
Phenex gave him one last, long look before turning on his heel, waving at the guardian half-heartedly as he strode toward the door. “If you need me, I’ll be in my quarters, sleeping.” He glanced back over his shoulder, the corners of his mouth quirking into a wry grin. “I would suggest you do the same, but I know you won’t listen to me, anyway.”
Laughing softly, Forneus bid him goodnight, his gaze lingering on the door long after the firebird had left, lost in thought. His attention returned to the bed in front of him when he saw Gwen shivering out of the corner of his eye, the teen letting out a soft whimper. Wrapping the blankets around her more securely, he brushed the bangs from her eyes, and settled back into the folding chair, the daemon’s eyes drifting closed as sleep finally claimed him.