No sooner had they arrived within the crumbling ruins of the Roman Coliseum, amongst the broken columns standing in the very heart of the arena, when they were ambushed by a strange trio, all exceedingly different from one another, yet the same. From the flow of energy he felt rippling off of them, Forneus was certain that they were Akuma—Japanese demons, known for their use of elemental magic, and their penchant to cause natural disasters. But there was something strangely familiar about the power coming from them, something he couldn’t put his finger on, though he was positive he’d felt this specific presence once before.
A stiff breeze blew through the arena, kicking up a thick cloud of dust around the two parties, though neither side dared to move. The daemon was keenly aware of Gwen’s hold on his arm as she stood behind him, her grip tightening reflexively when the slim, platinum-haired female of the trio took a threatening step forward, crouching with her hand on the hilt of her sword, the blade still in its sheath. Her violet eyes, despite the heavy scarring of her right eyelid, shone brightly as day faded to night, the golden flecks of her irises catching the rays of the setting sun as they came through the slats lining the spectator stands; or what formerly had been the stands, Forneus thought, for the passage of time had thoroughly ravaged the coliseum of its former splendor, the stacked, circularly-seated rows surrendering to the wild vines pushing their way up through limestone and mortar, alike.
Phenex moved forward in response to the female demon’s unspoken threat, flames already crackling in the palms of his hands. Though he couldn’t see from his vantage point, Forneus could easily imagine the firebird’s expression; everything from the shifting of his feet, to the way he rolled his shoulders, spoke volumes of his eagerness for battle.
Between the terrified teen behind his back, the three enemies in front of him, and the humanoid phoenix at his side, the tension had become overwhelming, the pressure in the air reminiscent of the onset of a thunderstorm, the guardian’s skin prickling with anticipation. His gaze shifted from one Akuma to the other, from the large, muscular one with heterochromatic eyes in his dark, solemn clothing, to the smaller male and female in their far less conservative garb. Despite their contrasting complexions, the duo could pass for twins, though the male seemed worlds apart from his ‘sister’, if that was indeed what she was; for while hunger gleamed in her eyes, there was nothing but fear to be seen in his.
Eventually the female seemed to bore of their silent stand-off, for she glanced back at her two companions. “This is them? These are the guys the boss wants us to take out? Man, I’m disappointed,” She went on in a disparaging tone, sneering, “How about you guys—Cife, Kizah?” Neither of her companions said anything. They simply nodded, the smaller Akuma visibly twitching with his eyes downcast, the larger one expressionless, as if the whole situation held very little interest for him.
Though he, himself, remained unperturbed by the female’s comment, Forneus could see Phenex stiffen, a low rumble starting in his chest.
“Take it easy, old friend…” Forneus murmured, his voice just barely a whisper. “She’s trying to goad a reaction out of us. Don’t be fooled—they might not look like much, but they’re radiating a lot of power; I can feel it.”
Phenex glanced back, eyes flitting from the daemon to Gwen, his gaze lingering on the teen for a hair longer before returning his attention to the female Akuma. When he gave one of his usual, nearly imperceptible nods, Forneus understood, immediately; the firebird would err on the side of caution, if only for Gwen’s sake.
Not that he would ever admit it out loud. He mused, fixing his gaze on the three Akuma when they began pacing, their steps slow, deliberate. Taking hold of Gwen’s wrist, he mirrored their movements, gently guiding the teen so that she remained behind him at all times, both groups now circling one another, Phenex positioning himself between the Akuma trio and Forneus. There was no doubt in the daemon’s mind that this was intentional, the firebird providing an extra buffer for the girl; regardless of his personal feelings towards humans, he would perform his sworn duty as an operative of the High Council to the utmost of his ability.
Forneus didn’t know for how long they continued on in this manner, circling one another, weaving between the broken, fluted columns scattered throughout the arena, with only the sound of their footsteps crunching over rubble, when the larger Akuma finally spoke.
“Remember the boss’ orders, Misa…” His order was met with impatience from the female, her eyes narrowing as she glared over her shoulder at him.
“I heard you the first ten times,” She growled, her already dark complexion appearing to deepen a shade further in irritation, “Come on Kizah, what are you waiting for? We’ve got ’em right where we want ’em!”
The one named Kizah said nothing, and simply continued his leisurely stride, his mismatched eyes flitting from the daemon to the humanoid phoenix, and back again.
Yes, what are you waiting for? Forneus wondered, echoing the female, Misa’s, question. Why hadn’t they attacked, yet? Were they biding their time, and if so, why? Noticing their attention on Gwen, he was given to wonder if their orders had something to do with her. So many questions flooded the daemon’s mind, and all the while, he continued on in the same steady manner, not once faltering in his steps as he kept Gwen behind him. Phenex appeared to be growing more restless by the minute, the fire spreading until it encompassed each one of his fingers, the firebird balling his hands into fists.
Whatever their reasons for not having attacked, yet, it didn’t matter. What did matter was finding the second artifact as quickly as possible, but this would prove difficult with the Akuma trio dogging their every step. If he could just get Gwen a safe distance away, he knew that he and Phenex would be able to hold the trio off while she searched for the goblet…
Forneus glanced back when he heard the teen gasp, surprised when he saw the colour drain from her face. “What is it, Gwen? What’s wrong?” He asked, worried. He could feel her trembling, her eyes wide, unfocused.
“I-I…I think it’s nearby…” She whispered, her eyes clearing when she met his gaze, “I’m not sure…but I think it’s—”
The guardian shook his head, shooting a warning glance at her. Gwen seemed to understand, for she abruptly stopped talking, pressing her lips firmly together and casting an apologetic look back at him.
“Now, now,” Forneus’ attention was drawn back to the one known as Misa, her violet gaze fixed on him and the teenaged girl, “It’s not nice to keep secrets, blondie. Why don’t you share with the class?” Her banded lips were drawn back into a cruel smile, the fingers of her left hand tightening around the hilt of her sword, her right hand grasping the sheath.
At this rate, it wouldn’t be long before she gave into impulse, and launched the first strike. This in and of itself didn’t worry the daemon, not when he knew Phenex was primed and ready for action; but there was something disturbing in the way the female Akuma looked at Gwen, with such maliciousness, such savagery. The sudden, overwhelming need to protect the girl stole over him then, coming through so strongly, so violently, it forced a rumble from deep within his throat, furious, turbulent waves struggling to break free as his gaze locked with Misa’s, challenging her.
Without looking back at the teen, he murmured, “Gwen, when I give the word, I want you to make a run for it. We’ll hold them off; you just concentrate on finding the artifact, okay?” He felt her free hand come to rest on top of his, confirming she’d heard him. That’s my girl. Aloud, he said, “Good. Okay, let’s take this nice and slow…”
Despite keeping his voice low, Forneus was certain that the female Akuma and her companions had heard the exchange, all three sets of eyes trained on him and his human charge, though they still cast furtive glances in Phenex’s direction, undoubtedly aware that to ignore him completely would be to invite their own deaths. Whoever they served, he or she was clearly well acquainted with what the firebird was capable of, or so it appeared to Forneus; perhaps the female Akuma, Misa, was of a far more reckless persona, but it was obvious to him that the large one known as Kizah was the leader of their little group, and not her. As such, they continued treading carefully, never once lowering their guard.
A wise choice, Forneus mused.
Deciding he’d had quite enough of their endless pacing, he brought his arms forward, calling forth three, fiery orbs to circle above the palms of both hands. “Get ready.” He declared, as much for Phenex’s benefit as for Gwen’s.
Phenex’s own fire, having dwindled somewhat over the course of the last few minutes, flared back up again, the flames bathing his leather jacket and the shirt underneath in a soft, orange glow, the firebird’s gaze fixed on the trio, golden-amber eyes taking on a feverish gleam.
“…Now!” Forneus shouted, sending the fireballs whizzing through the air with a simple flick of his wrists, the female Akuma drawing her katana and blocking with the flat of her blade. He could hear the distant thudding of Gwen’s shoes as the teen ran off to do as he’d instructed of her, her footfalls echoing between the ruined columns and archways. Meanwhile, Phenex had engaged Kizah the moment the daemon had unleashed his attack on Misa, rushing him with one fiery punch after another, leaving the large Akuma no time to retaliate.
“Cife, get the girl!” Misa shrieked, baring her fangs as she charged Forneus, the guardian sidestepping each vertical slash of her sword with practiced ease. Spotting an opening, he delivered a devastating palm strike to her chest, adding an electrical surge for good measure, effectively stunning her. She tumbled over backwards, falling in an awkward heap, limbs akimbo.
He watched out of the corner of his eye as the thin, pale Akuma named Cife moved to do as he was told, both hands roving over the utility belt slung across his narrow hips to withdraw the throwing daggers sitting there, gripping three of them between the knuckles of his right hand. Preparing to intervene, the daemon summoned a series of fireballs into his open hand, twisting them until they formed a rapidly-spinning wheel of flame. His efforts proved unnecessary, however, when Phenex landed beside him, beating him to the punch.
“Not so fast!” He growled, knocking the thin, diamond-shaped blades from Cife’s grasp with a thin stream of flame, the grey-eyed demon yelping as he cradled his wounded hand to his chest, staring fearfully at the firebird. Phenex had returned his attention to Kizah by this time, however. The brutish Akuma bore down on him with an angry roar, his gauntlet-covered fists smashing the ground as he tried to land a hit, though the auburn-haired entity was far too quick for him. Forneus was certain he’d caught the faintest hint of a smile when Phenex streaked passed him, the expression mocking, almost playful, as he continued evading each swing of the demon’s massive fists. When the Akuma was thrown off-balance by his own haphazard attacks, the firebird took advantage, and sprang forward. Gaining a foothold along the bewildered Kizah’s shoulder, he rebounded off of him, launching high into the air, and unleashing a rain of fire down upon his russet-skinned adversary.
Forneus’s attention was drawn back to Misa when he heard a high-pitched growl, the female Akuma fully recovered and running full-tilt toward him, her katana extended. Thinking this was as good a time as any to switch tactics, he held his right hand out in front of him, focusing on the ether flowing through his body and concentrating it into an electrical form, his knuckles tingling as the current travelled through his shoulder and into the tips of his fingers.
When the tip of Misa’s blade was no more than a foot away, he released the electrical discharge, the lightning taking on a brilliant, indigo glow as it coursed through the katana and into her. The female Akuma screamed, her knees buckling under her, the daemon only stopping when she was writhing on the ground. Really, it gave him no pleasure to do this, to cause pain and suffering to any being, be they benign or malevolent—but after she had threatened Gwen? Well, the Japanese demon deserved far worse than what he had just bestowed upon her.
As a high-pitched whistling reached his ears, Forneus instinctively threw a force field up, the three knives that had been sailing through the air toward him emitting a green flash of light when they glanced off of the energy barrier, falling to the sand-covered arena floor with a soft thud. As the shield dispersed, he stood, levelling his gaze with Cife’s, the Akuma’s grey pallor taking on a slight green tinge as he stared back at him with wide, frightened eyes.
Sighing, Forneus concentrated, summoning lightning into his outstretched hand. His fingertips tingled as indigo-violet energy arced from his thumb to his pinky finger and back again, forming a ball of static within his open palm. He didn’t know what to make of the timid, red-headed Akuma, other than to assume that perhaps, unlike his cohorts, he derived no enjoyment from combat, and had simply been forced into service.
Regardless, he still poses a threat to Gwen, and to us. Turning his hand so that his palm was now facing downward, he was just about to release a powerful, electrical surge into Cife, when the Japanese demon spoke, his voice full of youth.
“N-No…please…” He pleaded, retreating a few steps from the daemon, only to trip over a broken piece of column and fall on his backside with an audible thump.
If it hadn’t been for the sheer magnitude of the mission, and if not for his ever-growing desire to protect Gwen from any and all who would do her harm, Forneus might have actually taken pity on him. However, the guardian had been around long enough to know that, in such matters, showing the enemy mercy would be most unwise; for even if Cife were to surrender, his companions certainly would not.
Swallowing back his feelings of reluctance, the daemon held out his hand, preparing to send just enough voltage into his foe to knock him out, when his suspicions were confirmed, Misa’s high, grating voice rising above the electrical crackle.
“Cife…you disgust me…” Allowing the static to fade, Forneus swept his gaze over to the dark, iridescent-skinned Akuma, watching in silence as she struggled to her feet with the help of her sword, the blade firmly planted in the ground. “Don’t you dare beg the enemy for mercy…the boss taught us better than that!”
Her exclamation was followed by a series of explosions a short ways behind both her and Cife, all three entities turning to stare as brilliant flames of red and orange rose up, towering over the second and third rows of the spectator stands. A blast of hot air swept the entire diameter of the ground floor, both Akuma raising their arms to shield against the searing heat, crying out as their skin started to bubble and blister. Forneus, for his part, was wholly unaffected, merely feeling the heat washing over him as one feels the waves of the ocean on a tropical beach. Between having his own penchant for fire magic and his long-standing friendship with Phenex, the daemon had built up something of an immunity over the centuries. This wasn’t to say that the firebird’s flames couldn’t burn him, of course, but simply that it would take more than a gust of hot air to cause him physical harm.
With the two, smaller Akuma lying injured on the ground, and Phenex in the midst of combat with Kizah, Forneus was afforded the opportunity to look at the expanse of stands behind him. Peering through the billowing dust, his gaze flitted from one tier to another, following the entire breadth of the stands in hopes of catching a glimpse of Gwen somewhere amidst the overhanging archways and eroding stone benches. But with the sky deepening from lavender to navy blue, the coliseum walls cast long shadows over the stands, shrouding the lowermost portions in complete darkness. He couldn’t see the adolescent girl, but he knew she was there, somewhere; there was no doubt about it in his mind. If he strained his ears, he could just make out the sound of her sneakers crunching over dirt, of pebbles skittering across the ground when she inadvertently kicked them.
When the arena was rocked with yet another explosion, he heard her frightened cry, cut off by the sound of the battle raging on just beyond the gladiatorial pits. Had it been the explosion that scared her, or had Gwen run into some sort of trouble? What if there were more enemies here, than just the three he and Phenex had been fighting all this time? What if she was hurt? Anxiety gnawed at his stomach, his throat constricting at the mere thought of it.
He couldn’t wait around any longer; he had to go to her, right now.
Glancing over his shoulder, he was relieved to see that neither the dark or the pale-skinned Akuma would pose a problem, at least not for the time being; both were still nursing their wounds, Misa muttering curses under her breath as she clutched her burnt midriff, Cife lying face-down as muffled whimpers came from between his clenched teeth.
Forneus took a steadying breath, and with a burst of determination, bolted forward, desperately hoping that he would find Gwen, and that when he did, she would be alright.
Gwen’s heart had been pounding out the same rapid, erratic rhythm from the moment she’d sprung into action, the teen tearing off toward the coliseum stands in search of the second artifact, the ‘Goblet of Bacchus’, as Forneus had told her. The adrenaline pulsing in her veins pushed her onward, even when her legs threatened to collapse under her, the steady, sharp pain that had started with every inhalation of breath like a knife between her ribs. The familiar thrumming she’d experienced with Loki’s Amulet had grown stronger with every step, the warm tingling that raced down her spine seeming to tell her that she was drawing nearer to her goal. The arched entryways that lined the stands suddenly seemed menacing, the last of the sun’s rays fading down into the horizon, throwing everything around her into gloom. Even the silvery light of the moon, nearing fullness, wasn’t enough to penetrate the deep shadows, despite the fact that the coliseum lacked a roof.
Up the worn, broken stone steps Gwen ran, continuing on passed the first row and then the second, all the while guided by the overwhelming feeling that seemed to set each one of her nerve endings aflame, her sense of urgency growing by the second. She could hear shouting far behind her, the sudden whoomph of fire as it ignited, the orange light throwing her surroundings into sharp relief before fading again, leaving her to blink away the pinpricks of white light before her eyes. It wasn’t until she tripped and fell, scraping her knees through her black denim pants, that she decided to stop moving. The teen scanned the darkness on either side of her, unable to make out more than a fuzzy ledge here, the corner of a seat there, everything else blacker than pitch.
That’s when she saw it, peeking out from beneath the rubble of one of the benches far to her left, a sliver of bronze reflecting off of the divider that separated the second row from the third. Is that it? She wondered, her eyes squinting through the darkness. She couldn’t quite make it out, though she was certain she caught a flash of something—perhaps a diamond, just like the ones from the goblet she’d seen on her kitchen table no more than three nights, before. Beyond that, nothing else was discernible, and unless she moved from her spot on the steps, and crawled her way over to it, she wouldn’t know for sure.
Choking back a startled yelp when a resounding crash came from the other end of the coliseum, Gwen crept forward on her knees and elbows, moving along the ground like a soldier crawling through the trenches, her gaze fixed on the glimmer of bronze in front of her. Just keep going…never mind what’s going on behind you…that’s it, almost there…
It became clear with each move forward that it was the ‘Goblet of Bacchus’ after all, the vertical diamond and ruby patterns lining from its lip down to the stem glittering between the blackened vines entangling it. She could almost touch it, now, the fabric of her sweater whispering against the edge of one of the benches as she stretched her fingers out toward the goblet.
That’s when it dawned on her; not even a full seventy-two hours had passed since she’d first been pulled into all of this chaos—so how could the vines have wound around it, already?
This…this doesn’t make any sense!
As if on cue, the vines that had been holding the goblet shot out toward her. It happened so suddenly that she didn’t have time to think, much less act, the vines beginning to snake all the way up from her wrist to her elbow, and tightening. “No!” She yelled, yanking her arm backward, the fingers of her other hand digging into the divider next to her, using it to anchor herself. As she continued to struggle against the vines, more of the dark, wispy tendrils winding their way around her neck and torso, it occurred to her that the goblet wasn’t glowing; why hadn’t she been struck with a pillar of light like she had the first time? When she’d gone after Loki’s Amulet, she had only to get close to it, and it reacted! So, why wasn’t it the same with this one? Was it not the second artifact, after all?
No…it has to be! I know it is—I saw it that night! Please, wake up! I need your help!
The vines were closing in faster, now, binding her from head to toe, wrapping so tightly, she could scarcely breathe. Her vision started to fade until the coliseum stands had become no more than a blur, fogging at her peripherals.
“Gwen! Gwen, where are you?”
Was that Forneus’ voice? She tried to move, tried to call out to him, but no sound came out—the vines tightened around her throat, their thin tendrils gagging her as they then proceeded to close over her nose and mouth, her body growing colder with each passing second. Soon she would lose consciousness, and there would be nothing but darkness to welcome her.
“Hang on, Gwen! I’m coming!”
“Gwen! Please, answer me!”
I’m sorry…I let you down…
“Oh, thank Mythos…I’m right here, sweetheart. You’re going to be alright…”
She felt something brush against her cheek, her body being pulled to one side, cradled against something firm, yet soft, the feeling soothing, familiar. It took her a moment to realize she could breathe again, the vines no longer constricting her air flow. As soon as she thought this, her eyes fluttered open, and she began coughing, her chest heaving as she tried to suck in deep lungfuls of air. Two strong, gentle hands grasped her shoulders, the one on her right trailing down to rub between her shoulder blades, Forneus’ voice murmuring in her ear, telling her everything would be alright, that he was there, now.
“The…the goblet…” she managed, before succumbing to another coughing fit, her throat burning with the effort.
No sooner had she felt Forneus shift, reaching toward where she had indicated, when they were both shrouded within a dazzling pillar of light, the daemon ceasing to move just as he had before with the amulet. She couldn’t understand why the goblet was only now reacting, when the first artifact had reacted twice, but watching as it floated toward them, she supposed it didn’t matter. As long as the seal had been reactivated, that was all that mattered.
A wave of pure sensation rushed up from her toes to the top of her head, seeming to eat away at the shadows surrounding on either side of her and the silver-eyed guardian, the daemon gasping when the light that bathed her suddenly enveloped him. His grip on her shoulder reflexively tightened then relaxed again, the teen catching a glimpse of his wide-eyed astonishment, his pupils contracting when the light grew brighter. It seemed so strange to her, that despite being a supernatural being, he reacted in much the same way a human would, under the same circumstances. No, it wasn’t just strange—it was downright fascinating. In a moment of pure, innocent curiosity, she wondered what other similarities he shared with humans, if he experienced sensations or emotions the way they did.
When the light suddenly vanished, Gwen, unable to feel much of anything, couldn’t stop herself from falling limp, her back resting against the stone bench behind her, heart hammering against her ribcage as she struggled for breath. Why hadn’t a voice spoken to her, as it had before? She wondered, bemused. Had she gotten another gift, like the strange mind-control power she’d received from Loki’s Amulet? What about Forneus; didn’t he say that his fire magic had returned to him back in Germany? After all, that was one of the conditions of finding the artifacts, having portions of his power returned to him—so just what had they gained from the goblet? I suppose we’ll just have to find out, once we get out of here…if we get out of here…
She was startled out of her thoughts when Forneus asked her if she was alright, his voice unsteady. He sounded as breathless as she felt, as if the reactivation of the artifact had taken a toll on him, as well. She could feel a tremor go through her shoulder where he rested his hand, his silver eyes bright and alert, though lined with exhaustion underneath. Perhaps he does experience things the way humans do, after all.
Seeing the genuine concern in his luminous eyes, Gwen was overcome with gratitude, warmth slowly blossoming in the very centre of her chest. She averted her gaze when she felt her eyes beginning to sting, moisture budding in the corners, though she was determined to not let him see the tears fall. He’d been so sympathetic toward her, so caring, so understanding—it was more than she could bear. But she needed this, needed to have just this one time when he wouldn’t feel obligated to comfort her; she was tired of crying, goddamn it! She’d done far too much of it in the last few days already, more than she’d ever done in the past two years of her life.
Well, no more. She thought resolutely, digging her nails into the palm of her hand until the tears receded. From now on, I have to be strong.
Gingerly swiping at her eyes so as to conceal the fact that she’d been on the verge of crying at all, she turned to face him again, forcing a smile to her lips. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Forneus gave her a long, searching look, the guardian finally rising to his feet, and offering her his hand with a resigned sigh. It was obvious from his frown that he didn’t believe her, though he said nothing more on the matter, merely pulling her to her feet with one hand, and pocketing the goblet with the other. When another violent tremor went through the coliseum, they both turned toward the source of the explosion, the teen squinting as she took in the fire blazing in the arena below.
“We’d better get back, before Phenex burns the entire coliseum to the ground.” Gwen glanced at him when he said this, the daemon gently taking her hand in his, his expression suggesting that he was only half-serious.
Nodding her agreement, she took a deep breath and shut her eyes, giving herself over to the familiar, dizzying sensation of being teleported.
It was all Phenex could do to stay on his feet, dodging one blow after another as the large, russet-skinned Akuma swung his gauntlet-clad fists at him, occasionally grazing him but more often than not, hitting nothing but open air and the sand-covered arena floor. The latter always stirred up a massive cloud of dust, the human firebird given to wonder if this was intentionally done, for it always rendered him immobile for a few seconds, seized with a coughing fit as he tried to regain his bearings.
It was during one of these times that he felt his suspicions were true, Kizah managing to land a solid hit, planting his fist directly in Phenex’s gut, knocking the wind right out of him. He hit the ground hard, jagged rocks digging into his side where he landed. He could tell from the sharp pain as he exhaled that two of his ribs were broken, an intense burning sensation starting above his navel as his regenerative abilities kicked in, healing the breakage within a matter of seconds. Rolling onto his back, he did a kip-up and dodged to the right, Kizah’s bronze-plated knuckles just missing him by a hair, the Akuma thrown off-balance by his own bulk, yet again.
Phenex took advantage of this, swinging his left fist in a wide hook, and slamming it into his opponent’s jaw, singeing the flesh on impact with a last-minute ember burst across his knuckles, a tactic that had become his bread and butter when facing off against an opponent much larger than himself. This did the trick, the Akuma staggering back a few steps with a grunt, one hand coming up to touch the blistering skin on the right side of his jaw. The firebird wasn’t about to wait around for him to recover, not now that he had the upper hand. He lashed out with his right leg, fire trailing along behind his heel as he snapped his foot forward, connecting with Kizah’s midsection.
The Akuma stumbled back several paces, eyes of grey and violet narrowing as he glared down at the auburn-haired entity. He continued moving backward in an obvious attempt to put some distance between himself and the firebird, but Phenex was having none of it. Baring his teeth, he rushed the Japanese demon, leaping high into the air with his arm drawn back, crimson flames licking across his knuckles. Kizah’s eyes widened in alarm, too late, as the firebird brought his fist down with a growl, the punch connecting just beneath the left eye, knocking the dark-clad entity off his feet.
Kizah immediately brought both hands up to his face, a guttural wail echoing off of the perforated walls of the coliseum as he writhed on the ground, blood trickling down his cheek from where the burn had already begun to blister. Shaking the hand he’d struck him with, Phenex ignored the unearthly noise floating up from the Akuma’s mouth, and decided now was as good a time as any to take stock of his surroundings. He cringed as his gaze drifted from the lower levels of the stands behind him, to the broken columns scattered on either side. Everywhere he and the Japanese demon had wound up during their fight showed signs of their battle; from blackened scorch marks criss-crossing along the ground, to large impact craters that put the surface of the moon to shame. On top of everything else, most of the columns and stone archways, having already been in a state of ruin, had now been reduced to a fine powder.
The unit was not going to be happy about this—not in the slightest. And guess who they’ll blame? He thought bitterly with a sigh.
“You bastard,” He turned at the sound of Kizah’s voice, the demon letting out a snarl as he lumbered to his feet, Phenex instantly taking notice of the angry, swollen red patch of skin beneath his left eye. “I’ll tear you limb from limb!”
The human firebird dove to the side, rolling across the ground as the Akuma brought both of his fists down, the tremor causing several of the columns that had still been standing up to that point to come crashing down, the sound of stone shifting and cracking as large pieces broke away resounding across the entire pit. He barely made it to his feet before Kizah was looming over him once again, the gauntlets coming down faster now, one after the other, drilling the ground barely an inch away from him each time. He could feel the air move with every strike, his bangs fluttering against his forehead as he deked from side to side.
“Phenex, look out!” Forneus’ voice reached him faintly, barely making it through the barrage of attacks being thrown at him by the large Akuma.
I am looking out, He thought to himself, hazarding a glance over his shoulder to see the daemon running toward him with Gwen in tow, what the hell is Forneus talking ab—
It happened all at once; a sharp pain between his shoulders, and again in his right calf, followed by a vicious uppercut from Kizah, the large Akuma taking advantage of his momentary distraction. Phenex landed on his back, the sharp pain intensifying as whatever he’d been hit with dug deeper into his flesh. It’s gotta be that coward with the knives. He surmised, trailing his fingers along where Kizah had hit him, the contours of his jaw swollen, tender. Thankfully, it was already beginning to heal, a warm, tingling sensation travelling along the abused area. The wounds in his calf and back were another matter, however; he would have to remove the blades in order to let the regenerative process take over.
Not that I’ll get the chance. He thought grimly, rolling off to the side as another hammer-punch hit the ground barely an inch from where he’d just been. He winced as the blades dug in deeper, but staggered to his feet, nonetheless, leaping backward when the Japanese demon threw another punch his way. Vaguely, he could hear the sound of approaching footsteps, coming faster now, though from the number of footfalls, he knew it was more than just Forneus and Gwen. The other two Akuma were no doubt coming to the aid of their comrade, just as the daemon was coming for him.
Wrenching the throwing knife from his calf with a snarl, he lobbed it at the russet-skinned demon, the blade bouncing off of his chest harmlessly, distracting him just long enough for the firebird to unleash a single, fiery burst between both hands, palms facing forward. The flames fanned out on impact, sizzling along the open edges of the Akuma’s long coat, and burning a hole in the dark blue shirt underneath.
Phenex had just enough time to feel the muscles in his calf starting to heal, when the demon unexpectedly lunged forward, slamming his elbow into the firebird’s shoulder. Searing pain travelled down the full length of his arm, his stomach churning when he heard the sickening crunch of his collarbone breaking. Momentarily weakened, he stumbled, jarring his left knee when he landed on it, a cold sweat breaking out across the back of his neck. He could just make out the sound of the female Akuma screeching over the blood rushing in his ears, ordering Kizah to finish him off.
As quickly as the feeling of nausea had come, it vanished, his collarbone shifting back into place with an audible pop, the torn ligaments mending between both shoulder and socket. Now if only he could get the damned blade out of his back! Temper flaring, his furious gaze met Kizah’s just as the demon pulled his arm back to deliver the final blow. Phenex was too fast for him. He brought both hands forward, cupping them so that his wrists were touching, and with renewed strength, unleashed a fiery torrent nearly the full width and breadth of his foe. As blood-curdling as Kizah’s screams had been before, they were nothing in comparison to the guttural wails coming from his mouth, now, his heterochromatic eyes bulging in their sockets as he fell back with a loud thump.
The flames dissipated, but not before they left a series of raw, angry welts over every exposed inch of the Akuma’s skin, as well as the patches that could be seen through the sections of clothing that had all but burned away. The agony must have proven too much for the demon, for he’d gone still, his chest just barely rising with each breath.
Unconscious, Phenex realized, good.
Groaning, he slowly got to his feet, the sting of the blade in his back growing ever more irritating; he would have ripped it out long before now, but with it sitting directly between his shoulder blades, he couldn’t brush it with the tips of his fingers, much less get an actual grip on the damn thing, and pull it out. Still he tried, twisting every which way, reaching back with one hand, then the other, all to no avail.
Guess I’ll just have to ask Forneus, then. He thought, defeated.
Startled by the sudden flash of indigo-violet light just behind him, the firebird turned in time to see Forneus unloading a bolt of lightning into the two androgynously-built Akuma, the female apparently having been in the process of thrusting her sword toward his exposed, leather-clad back, her one good eye wide in a mixture of surprise and agony. Both dropped to the ground, writhing and screaming, the daemon continuing on for several seconds afterward.
Noticing the usually silver eyes darkening to a slate grey, Phenex knew from experience that he was well past the point of being furious, something that could only be brought on under rare circumstances—such as the lives of those he cherished most being threatened. And while he was certain a portion of Forneus’ ire came on his behalf, he figured something awful must have occurred, no doubt when he’d gone in search of the girl, Phenex having otherwise been engaged in combat. Whatever it was, it must have frightened him, terribly, he realized, the firebird experiencing a twinge of concern at the other’s anguish. If there was anything that pained him, it was seeing Forneus in this very state.
It was only once all three of the Akuma were safely out cold that Phenex took stock of Gwen, the teen silently clinging to the back of Forneus’ coat, jade eyes large with fright. She looked paler than he remembered, scratches covering her face, neck, and arms, a few of which were still bleeding.
“Are you alright?” He looked up at the sound of Forneus’ voice, the words coming out strained.
The firebird nodded, volleying back. “Are you?” He allowed his gaze to flit from the daemon to the girl, letting his silver-eyed companion know the question was meant for both of them, even if he was reluctant to say so.
As if in answer to his question, Gwen’s eyes rolled back, her knees buckling under her. Forneus grabbed hold of her before she could hit the ground, and in one fluid motion, had her cradled in his arms, head resting against his chest, her expression peaceful. Phenex stared at her for some time, unsure of how he felt at that precise moment; try as he might, he couldn’t quash the concern he felt for her, for the strain she was under. He didn’t much like the girl—she was a human after all, and they had long since proved that they couldn’t be trusted—but he didn’t exactly hate her, either. Ambivalence, He mused. Isn’t that what they call it?
“It must be the artifacts, taking a toll on her like this.” He said aloud, hissing through his teeth when he felt the dagger shifting in his back, “Damn it…I hate to ask, but do you think you can take this thing out for me?” He turned so that Forneus could see the dagger.
The daemon obliged, ripping the blade out as quickly as possible, Phenex gritting his teeth against the brief flash of pain. Once the warmth started, he heaved a sigh, his posture relaxing. He could feel his torn clothing mending as well, all thanks to an enchantment Apollo had given him shortly after the Greek god had taken him under his tutelage. Quite the useful spell, all things considered, though it sometimes took a while to kick in. Luckily for him, fire had absolutely no effect on his clothing, having been hand-crafted and tailored specifically for him—otherwise he would have found himself in many an uncomfortable, drafty situation, by now.
When he turned to face Forneus, the guardian was gazing at the girl in his arms, eyebrows drawn together and his lips turned down at the corners. If there had ever been a time he’d seen him this anxious, this vulnerable, Phenex couldn’t think of it. “She’ll be alright,” the words were out before he even realized he was saying them, “She just needs rest, that’s all.”
“I know.” Forneus’ expression softened, the daemon managing a tentative smile.
But Phenex barely noticed. His mind had started racing, the firebird studying the three unconscious forms lying at their feet. Something about them had seemed…off. “Who are they, anyway?” He nudged the small, red-haired male with the toe of his shoe, and glanced up at Forneus.
“I’m not sure,” The daemon’s expression became thoughtful, “You could feel their power, right? You could tell for certain that they were Akuma?”
Phenex nodded, “Of course. We dealt with a lot of them back in the day. I don’t think it’s possible for me to forget their presence, even if I tried.”
“Even still, something feels strange about these ones,” Forneus murmured, almost to himself, “Something about their energy is…unstable, yet, familiar. I just can’t seem to put my finger on it.”
Phenex was quiet for a moment, contemplating what the daemon had said. Now that he had mentioned it, it seemed so obvious to the firebird, so much so that he wasn’t sure how he could have missed it, himself. Something did feel familiar about the trio of Akuma, something far beyond just being able to identify them for what they were. What it could be, however, he didn’t know.
It was then that he became acutely aware of something moving in his peripherals, something dark and shadowy, creeping closer from every visible angle. “Forneus,” he said in warning, “I think we’d better leave.”
The daemon, who had been looking down at Gwen once again, glanced up sharply, suddenly alert. The firebird saw him unconsciously tighten his grip on the teen, hoisting her more securely in his arms, silver eyes flashing. As he peered around at the ethereal shadows sliding across the ground toward them, he replied evenly, “Yes, I suppose we should.”
As they teleported, returning to the calm, undulating walls of blue and violet in Gwen’s quarters, Phenex felt a primal growl building in his chest, clawing its way up his throat, fighting its way out between clenched teeth.
Forneus, who had been laying Gwen on the bed, looked up at him, bewildered. “What is it?”
For a minute, he couldn’t speak, his gaze fixed on the opposite wall, unfocused. White-hot rage frothed in his veins, bubbling up like lava. No—hotter than lava, scorching him from within. “Those shadows…” He choked out, barely able to suppress his anger.
The guardian stared at him, uncomprehending. Then, his eyebrows lifted, his expression alight with understanding. “You think it’s—?”
“There’s no doubt about it,” Phenex answered, nostrils flaring, “Reeves.”
Reeves studied the three Akuma in front of him, gaze flitting first from one, then to the other, taking in their battle worn appearance. Kizah was almost completely covered in burns, his skin a shiny, raw pink crusted with yellow, one of his eyes completely swollen shut. Cife and Misa stood on either side of him, faring only slightly better than their larger counterpart. At first glance, they appeared to be covered in lacerations, but upon closer inspection, the Shade realized that the bluish-violet markings zigzagging over every exposed inch of their skin were also burns, just of a different kind—nowhere near as severe as Kizah’s, and most of which had already begun to fade. Studying the strange pattern, which, curiously enough, reminded him of forked lightning, he knew these hadn’t come from Phenex; the wounds were too precise to have been the firebird’s doing. No, this had to be the handiwork of the daemon, the entity he knew far too little about for his comfort; the one he’d have to keep a closer watch over from here on out.
He had only arrived in the coliseum ten minutes before, having received reports of the mission’s failure from the network of shadow minions under his command, namely those he’d sent with the Akuma. In that time, the trio—mostly Misa—had gone into a fast, albeit lengthy explanation of all that had happened, from the moment they’d confronted the firebird and daemon, to when they’d awoken a few minutes before his arrival. None of them had seen the girl or daemon with the goblet, but that didn’t matter; Reeves knew from his minions that they had gotten a hold of it, his ethereal forces having witnessed the brilliant pillar of light that had shrouded the two of them the moment they’d touched the artifact, how the light had been too painful for the shadows to intervene. The Shade didn’t fault them for this, of course—he knew full well how devastating light could be, especially to those lesser entities of darkness.
What he didn’t know was what the light portended. He supposed it might just be a sign that the seal on the artifact had been reactivated, but from what he’d heard about the first one, there was more to it, than simply reinstating the seals. Indeed, his shadow minions had been adamant that, upon retrieving Loki’s Amulet, not only had the girl been able to exercise control over some of his lesser grunts, the daemon had displayed another power that, until that moment, had been absent during the battle. Because of that, he suspected something of a similar nature had happened this time, as well.
It begged the question, though; was it because of the girl that the daemon gained more power, or could the artifact alone do that? More importantly, if it could grant a common daemon that kind of power, what could it do for someone like him…or for someone as powerful as her Ladyship? Had his Mistress known about this power-granting ability all along? Was there more to her desire for the artifacts, than merely preventing the prison realm from being reopened? Or was she truly only doing this under the orders of her own Master?
Too many questions, and not enough answers.
Stirring from his thoughts, he was somewhat surprised to see the Akuma still kneeling before him, all three of them looking anywhere from mildly nervous, to outright terrified; from their expressions, and the way Cife continuously trembled, it was clear they anticipated punishment for their failure.
“You guys can relax,” he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, “The fact that you failed doesn’t really come as a surprise. Not only did you underestimate the daemon—even now whose powers we know next to nothing about—you were ignorant of the phoenix’s strength. Even if his daemon pal hadn’t been around, you still would have lost. The firebird alone is stronger than the three of you put together.”
“Over-glorified fire chicken…” Misa muttered. Judging from the way she quailed under his baleful glare, the female Akuma hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
“That ‘over-glorified fire chicken’, as you call him, is responsible for the imprisonment and deaths of many of our brethren,” Reeves flared up, “You would do well to remember that, Misa…or had you forgotten that even I once fell victim to his flames?” His voice took on a quiet edge, more lethal and deadly than if he’d roared in outrage.
She seemed to shrink away from him as the seconds ticked by, both male Akuma to her right remaining silent, though Reeves could see the furtive glances that passed between them. It was only once he felt she’d gotten the message that he tore his gaze away, noting the way all three seemed to slump with relief. Not that this surprised him, of course, given their origins.
Having no further need of them for the time being, he levelled his gaze with Kizah. “You’re dismissed…for now.” He declared, tilting the brim of his fedora. “Rest up, and get yourselves healed. I’ll call on you when there’s more work to be done.”
The three Akuma left without a word, disappearing into thin air before his eyes; no brilliant flash of light, no shadowy vortex, nothing that usually happened with other entities when teleporting from one place, to another—just simply vanished.
My turn, Reeves smirked, and to think, not even twenty-four hours ago, I couldn’t even do this much for myself.
The Shade raised both hands, holding them out so that it looked like he was gripping something between them, his stance relaxed. It started out small, no bigger than a grain of rice; a dark speck, floating a mere two feet from him at eye-level. As he spread his arms wider, so too did the speck grow, until finally, it was large enough to encompass him from head to toe—a portal comprised of his very own shadowy essence, able to take him wherever he wanted. Even if he still wasn’t up to full strength, it was more than enough, having the ability to do something as simple as teleport once again. Until he had lost it, he hadn’t realized just how much he would miss travelling by his own power.
Well, never again, He vowed, never again will I be at the mercy of that damnable firebird, or his High Council masters!
Once he was satisfied that it was stable, he moved closer to the swirling mass of black and grey energy, the vortex humming softly with something akin to electricity as he drew nearer. Well, might as well get this over with…
Taking a steadying breath, Reeves stepped through the portal, already filled with dread at the prospect of how her Ladyship would react to this latest development.