“Don’t worry about me, just go! You…have to…run! Do you hear me, Gwen? Run!”
Violet bolts of lightning jumped from the tips of Forneus’ fingers, dancing across the ground between the daemon and the three Akuma opposite whenever one of them seemed about to make a move toward the teenaged girl behind him, all three sets of eyes following Gwen when she took an uncertain step back. The Akuma weren’t the only ones staring at her with hunger in their eyes, however; an entire army of monstrous beasts stood behind them, eyes of crimson and yellow glowing feverishly, saliva dripping from their fangs as low, threatening growls resonated from deep within their throats. Forneus was the only entity standing between them—Gwen’s first and last line of defense—and instead of doing as she was told, she just stood there, gawking at him.
I have to run, she told herself, I have to find the caduceus; Forneus is counting on me!
Gwen stared back at the guardian in wide-eyed terror, and a fraction of a second later, took off running, nearly losing her footing as she slipped across the grass. She followed the full length of the stone wall bordering the Lithaios River, her hands fumbling across the protruding rocks before she finally managed to get a solid grip, preventing herself from falling over the wall and into the swirling rapids, below. All the while, her heart pounded frantically in her ears, the unearthly sounds of roaring and snarling far behind her urging her to keep on running, lest the three Akuma or any of the other monsters got passed Forneus, and came after her. If they caught up to her, she would most certainly die; that’s what she had to keep telling herself, or her legs really would give out under her. Fear, no matter how debilitating, was the one thing pushing her forward, now; fear for the daemon risking everything to protect her, and fear for her own life. It was the only thing that kept her exhaustion at bay, the teen continuing on despite the burning ache building within each one of her limbs, stabbing at her calf muscles and along her ribcage like a series of small, hot needles.
So she kept running, adrenaline flooding her system, arms pumping at her sides, breath rising and falling in time with the steady thudding of her shoes over wet ground. Gwen skidded across the pavement, making a sharp right turn onto the bridge, and bolted toward the spot the steady thrumming in her veins seemed to be telling her to go. The sensation was every bit as overwhelming as it had been with the first two artifacts, directing her with the same keenness that left her wondering if the artifact, itself, was sentient, and thus, could somehow guide her through some sort of telepathy.
The people on either side of her became a blur as she streaked on by, the teen barely noticing their surprised gasps or mutters of disapproval as she shoved her way passed them, unable to afford the luxury of being courteous when the fate of the world was at stake.
What were these people doing here, anyway? Okay sure, it was broad daylight, Gwen knew that—but couldn’t they see the monsters, hear and feel the explosive tremors that passed through the ground each time they unleashed an attack against the dark-haired man on the other side of the river, who alone was doing anything and everything possible to keep their city from falling into ruins?
Why the hell weren’t these people running for cover?
It was at that moment that they began to do just that. It started with two or three people, raising their hands to point at the opposite side of the bank, their eyes growing large as shrieks of terror burst forth from between fear-stiffened lips. Within seconds, nearly every person along the bridge had started screaming, the sound of their footsteps becoming a deafening roar as they clambered back the way they’d come, Gwen frantically scrambling out of the way as the people she’d passed seconds before came thundering behind her.
She had just reached the end of the bridge, her gaze roving passed a large, white building emblazoned with unfamiliar, blue neon lettering at the very top of it, when her toe caught on something—most likely someone else’s foot—sending her sprawling across the pavement, sharp pain shooting through her arms when she landed hard on her elbows. As people continued to run passed her, all she could do was curl into the fetal position, hands over her face with her eyes tightly shut, and hope that none of them trampled her in their panic-stricken state.
Gwen didn’t even get the chance to peek out between her fingers, before she felt a weight pressing down on her back, forcing her flat against the ground. There was a sudden explosion of pain in her shoulder, followed by the sound of cloth tearing as a very large, sharp something ripped into her flesh. Biting her bottom lip to keep from screaming, she caught a glimpse of the thick, black talon puncturing the skin just below her right shoulder blade, the teen watching in morbid fascination as dark, crimson blood seeped into the grey fabric of her sweater. A yellow beak suddenly came into view, the teen letting out a startled cry as it latched onto her upper arm. The right side of her body exploded into searing agony the same moment she heard the sickening crunch of bones breaking, the pain unlike anything she’d ever experienced, before.
The creature, whatever it was, had bitten clean through the bone, tearing through flesh and sinew alike. Blood spurted from the wound in a stream, like water from a fountain, only instead of clear liquid, a rich burgundy came out of Gwen’s shoulder, pooling on the ground around her.
She couldn’t hold it back any longer; she screamed.
The pain was beyond excruciating, as if each one of her nerve-endings had caught on fire, a hot, bitter liquid rising from her abdomen and up her throat, filling her mouth before she vomited it onto the pavement. The bile kept on coming in one violent torrent after another, until finally there was nothing left in her stomach, the teen left to dry heave as the monster on her back loosened its grip.
This brought her no relief whatsoever, for as Gwen peered up through a haze of tears, she realized other monsters had gathered around her, undoubtedly coming to finish what their companion had started, their low, savage growls carrying the promise of still more agony to come.
This is it…I’m going to die here. The thought should have instilled her with terror, but instead, a dreamlike calm stole over her, the pain wracking her body beginning to fade as it gave way to nothingness, her consciousness slipping away. I’m going to die here, and my parents will never know…
“Gwen!” She could hear Forneus calling her name, the heartbreaking tremor in his voice more than she could bear, but there was nothing she could do to comfort him. She wanted to reach out to him, let him know it was alright, that she didn’t blame him for all that had happened, that she was sorry she’d failed to fulfill her promise to him—but she couldn’t. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t get her vocal chords to cooperate. Worse still, the darkness had started closing in, pressing in from all sides until she could only see straight in front of her, for the blackness now filled her peripherals, entirely; very soon she would succumb to unconsciousness, and then…
There was a sudden, blinding flash of golden light, the teen catching a glimmer of it between her eyelids before it faded. The last thing she saw was a familiar figure haloed by a nimbus of orange light, before oblivion took her, Gwen unable to fight the growing darkness any longer.
For a long time, there was nothing—only the cold, unforgiving darkness. It surrounded her, penetrating every pore, replacing everything that made her who she was, until finally, Gwenyth Lamelle was no more; only this twisted, shadowy perception of her remained, unthinking, unfeeling—simply existing.
Then something broke through the darkness, slowly, at first—just the faintest glimmer of golden light, far beyond her reach, a mere pinprick in the ever-darkening void. The speck of light began to grow, and as it grew, the blackness seemed to melt before it, starting from the furthest corners—if there were indeed corners surrounding her, at all—and steadily moving closer, until only a pale silhouette remained, like a shadowy, grey cocoon around her. In what seemed to be no time at all, that too had yielded to the radiant, golden light, thawing her from the inside out until she was brimming with its comforting warmth.
Am I dead? Is this the afterlife?
As the warmth continued to flow into her, blossoming at her centre and pouring into each finger and toe, she became aware of a dull aching in her right shoulder, the pain pulsating up and down her arm until it was no more than an uncomfortable tingling, not unlike the kind she’d get whenever she slept on one side for too long. No, she couldn’t be dead; once you were dead, you wouldn’t be able to feel anything…right?
When she felt something touch her collarbone, feather-light, Gwen opened her eyes, letting out a startled gasp as her vision sharpened, taking in the familiar, tawny eyes staring back at her.
“P-Phenex…!” She stammered, trying to sit up, and failing. A wave of nausea went through her, the teen biting back a groan as a strong, yet gentle hand pushed her back down, again.
“Lie still.” Phenex ordered, cupping both hands over her shoulder.
Dazed, Gwen did as she was told, at first not understanding what was going on, her thoughts hazy, muddled. Slowly, her mind started to clear, glimpses of what had happened coming back to her in fragments. With an effort—and despite the warning glance he shot her way—she craned her neck just enough to peer at him through the fringe of hair that had fallen across her field of vision, taking notice of the golden glow coming from the firebird’s fingertips. It was then that she realized the light touch she’d felt before had been from an actual feather—a small, fluffy golden one, in fact, sitting just beneath his hands.
Phenex must have read the confusion on her face, for he spoke then, his tone far gentler than she’d ever heard it, “Phoenix feathers are imbibed with magical properties,” He explained, eyes never straying from his task as he went on, “By placing them on a wound, I can heal pretty much anything, no matter how severe. The feathers act as conduits between me and whoever I’m treating, helping to focus my powers into a more concentrated area.”
Settling back with her eyes closed, Gwen surrendered to the warmth, letting the soothing, tingling sensation saturate her from head to toe, occasionally glancing up at the firebird from beneath her lashes. Phenex’s gaze remained on her shoulder, both hands gently resting over it, golden-white light peeking between the cracks in his fingers. The more she stared at him, noticing everything from the subtle clenching of his jaw, to the way he narrowed his eyes in concentration, the more bizarre the whole situation became. To think that, someone like him, a being capable of great feats of strength, capable of creating flames within the palms of his hands that incinerated his enemies in the blink of an eye—could also use those very same hands to do something so gentle, so selfless, as heal the injuries of a human like her.
The fact that she was a human, the very species he seemed to detest beyond all reasoning, only added to the absurdity of this fact; how could it be, that despite his hatred of her kind, he still went out of his way to help her? She supposed it was possible he only did it because the High Council and the Regulations Force expected it of him, and yet, was it also not possible that he would give her aid, regardless of the fact that he worked for the gods of old, who amidst their other priorities, desired the preservation of her world? If he truly didn’t believe in their vision, what was to stop him from walking off the job? No, beyond that, even—what was to stop him from becoming like the very entities he hunted down for a living?
Gwen didn’t have the answers; she might never know what drove him, what had made him the being he was, today, and by that exact same token, she couldn’t be certain that he wouldn’t become one of the monsters he slayed with such fervor.
No, she might never know for sure—but she believed in him; with all of her heart, she believed. No matter his hostility, no matter how sharp his tongue when he spoke to her, no matter how intimidating his actions, she could do nothing else but believe in him; whatever he said or did in anger, it paled in comparison to the actions he took, here and now. As far as she was concerned, the very fact that he was taking the time to heal her spoke volumes louder than the few, snarky comments he’d made ever could.
Perhaps there was more to him than being a golden-eyed jerk, after all. She could admit that to herself now, if to no one else.
That’s when something else dawned on her; hadn’t she been covered in cuts and scrapes after their mission in Rome? She could clearly recall the deep, stinging gashes the black vines had left on her, red welts marking everywhere from the base of her throat to her ankles, and yet, when she’d awoken the next day…
“Have you done this, before?” The words were out before she could stop herself, her face starting to burn, “Used your healing powers on me, I mean.”
Her question was met with silence for what felt like an eternity, her face growing hotter each passing second. Phenex glanced at her, one eyebrow cocked in bewilderment. Finally, he answered her.
“Yes.” His gaze lingered on her for only a moment longer, before he turned back to the injury that, thanks to his ministrations, no longer hurt. The crippling pain she’d experienced from the monster attacking her had been reduced to nothing more than a stiff ache; for all the pain she currently felt, she may as well have overdone it during a rigorous workout, never mind having gone on a life-threatening mission in pursuit of a magical artifact.
In all of her confusion, she’d completely forgotten about retrieving Hermes’ Caduceus. And what about Forneus; what had become of the daemon, the silver-eyed guardian that had risked so much, just to keep her safe?
Before she realized she was doing it, Gwen had started to sit up, only to fall back again when her stomach twisted in protest. Apparently her injuries weren’t as healed as she’d originally thought.
“Didn’t I tell you to lie still?” Phenex admonished her, returning the feather to its perch on her shoulder with a sigh, and cupping his hands over top of the wound once again. “You’ve suffered a fair bit of damage; it’s going to take me a few more minutes to undo it all. You can at least try to stay put long enough for me to do that much…or is it that you enjoy feeling like absolute hell?” He glanced up at her as he said this, his expression hard.
Oh, good—the attitude’s back. I was beginning to wonder if I’d hit my head, or something.
“But…what about Forneus?” She protested, ignoring his sarcasm, “And the arti—”
“Forneus is fine.” He interrupted her, tone gentle once again as his molten gaze locked with hers, canting his head slightly to the right.
After a confused moment, she realized he was gesturing toward a group of people standing some distance away on the other side of the river, the daemon among them. Relief washed over her at the sight of him, noting that he only bore a few, minor scratches, his clothing much worse off, for both the dress shirt and coat were torn in several places, revealing slivers of pale skin underneath. His lips were moving quickly as he spoke to a strange, ivory-skinned man in flowing, lilac robes beside him, though what he was saying, and to whom he was speaking, Gwen didn’t know. She’d never seen the man, before, but judging by the worry lines creasing Forneus’ brow, they must have been discussing something of great importance.
“Members of the Regulations Force, Third Unit,” Phenex’s voice startled her, the teen glancing up at him inquisitively, “The one Forneus is talking to is Mathis, their commander.”
Glancing back at the pair, she noticed that the one named Mathis had hair similar to Phenex’s, only honey-coloured, the short, feathery locks sticking up every which way. His eyes were a rich, liquid brown, flecked with traces of olive—and currently staring right at her. His gaze flitted from her to Forneus, lips moving, though he was too far away for her to hear. It seemed whatever he’d said must have been about her, for Forneus turned around, luminous eyes brightening and lips twitching into a smile as his gaze met with hers.
When he noticed Phenex beside her, however, the smile faded. His gaze turned steely, the crows’ feet that had been at the corners of his eyes mere seconds before smoothing out, his expression inscrutable. The firebird stood then, as if on cue, startling Gwen when he drew away from her, hands shoved deep within his pockets.
“There, you should be alright, now.” He muttered, averting his gaze. She thought she saw a glimmer of something in his eyes, regret maybe, but it was hard to tell, for as he tilted his head downward, his feathery bangs fell across them, obscuring them from view.
Gwen didn’t budge, only stared up at him in dumbfounded silence, unable to make sense of what had happened between him and Forneus, for she was sure something must have; ever since she and the daemon had left the Spectrum, she had known something was wrong, but unable to figure out just what, had pushed the thought to the back of her mind, knowing she would need her wits about her, if she was to have any chance of finding the caduceus. She could recall the sadness in the guardian’s eyes when he’d told her it would just be the two of them going to the capital of Thessaly, a city in the northwestern region known as Trikala; she remembered how the silvery orbs had lost their luster, darkening to the shade of storm clouds, his usual, ready smile absent.
The teen was roused from her thoughts when Forneus came forward, holding a bejeweled hand out to her. Phenex had drawn back several more paces, awkwardly shifting from one foot to the other; neither one of them looked the other in the eye. Pretending she didn’t notice the tension between them, Gwen accepted the proffered hand, gasping when the daemon pulled her up with dizzying speed, and wrapped her in a gentle embrace.
She stiffened, disoriented by the unexpectedness of it. It was only once she realized that he was just hugging her that she finally relaxed, eyes closed as she rested her head against his chest, listening in wonder to the rhythmic beating of his heart; it was a sound she hadn’t expected, given the guardian’s mystical nature.
“I’m so sorry, Gwen.” Gwen lifted her gaze to meet his when she felt the rumble of his words vibrate through her cheek, caught off-guard by the sorrow in his voice. “I promised to keep you safe, I swore that I’d protect you, no matter what, and I…” He broke off, the pained expression on his face more than she could stand.
Though she had only known him for a short time, Gwen had become particularly fond of the daemon; between the contradictory feelings of familiar unfamiliarity he invoked in her, and the many dangers they’d already faced together, the six days that had passed felt more like years. The kindness in his eyes, the sincerity with which he always spoke, the way he laid a steadying hand upon her shoulder after every teleportation, how he was always so patient and gentle with her, no matter the situation…
His every word and gesture had become so natural to her, so familiar and comforting, that as she looked up into his pale, anguished face, she had trouble remembering what life had been like without him. When she saw countless, blood-red welts on the right side of his neck, running under the thin shadow of stubble covering his jaw, she frowned, extending her fingers toward the angry-looking marks, only to draw back, fearing that her touch—however light—would only wind up making the gashes hurt more than they undoubtedly did, already.
“You have nothing to be sorry for.” She said earnestly, searching his eyes, “You did everything you could Forneus, so please…don’t blame yourself. Besides, I’m okay, now. Phenex healed me, see?” She pulled back from him, and gave an experimental roll of her shoulder, “Good as new.”
“So you are.” The words were spoken so softly that she almost didn’t hear him. But even if she hadn’t caught what he’d said, there wasn’t a chance of her missing the turmoil in his eyes when he looked over at the auburn-haired entity. Following his gaze, she wasn’t the least bit surprised to find that the firebird wasn’t looking at either of them, instead staring fixedly at the pavement under his feet.
Gwen jumped when she heard someone clear their throat, the teen having forgotten all about the lilac-robed man Forneus had been talking to, earlier. When she met his gaze, it was to see his liquid brown eyes dancing with amusement. It took her a moment to figure out why, but once she did, she was mortified, her cheeks starting to burn as she hastily disengaged from the daemon. Had she really been clinging to him all that time? Forneus, for the most part, had the decency to look every bit as abashed, the guardian busying himself with trying to make his frock coat as presentable as possible, which was a futile effort at best, given its ragged condition.
If Mathis had noticed any of this, he didn’t show it. “While it is certainly good to finally meet you, Miss Lamelle,” He nodded courteously, and continued on, “I fear time is of the essence; we must locate the caduceus, as soon as possible. Have you sensed it, dear child?”
Gwen opened her mouth to reply, and shut it again. Now that he’d brought it up, she noted with a sort of curious dread that she no longer felt the familiar, overwhelming pulse she experienced with each artifact, the same feeling she’d gotten just before the bird-monster’s attack had rendered her unconscious.
“I have,” she hesitated a moment, casting a worried look in Forneus’ direction, “But that was before I blacked out. I don’t know if it’s still there, or if it ever was to begin with, but I could swear I felt its energy coming from somewhere over there.” She pointed toward the building she had noticed while running along the bridge, the one with the bright blue neon lettering anchored above its uppermost windows, forming words she didn’t understand.
“The Achillion Hotel…” Mathis murmured, frowning as he gazed up at the vast building. “Why on earth would Hermes’ Caduceus wind up there, of all places?”
“Does it really matter?” Gwen spun around at Phenex’s voice, surprised to hear him speak for the first time since he’d tended to the gaping wound in her shoulder. The human firebird wasn’t looking at any of them, his gaze was transfixed on the hotel, both hands buried deep within the pockets of his coat, “The real question is whether it’s still there, or not.”
An awkward silence fell between them; the only sound that of the Third Unit’s members as they called out to one another, setting to work at whatever duties were expected of them. As she watched them, the teen couldn’t help thinking of the cop dramas her parents watched from time-to-time. Several of Mathis’ agents—some humanoid in appearance and others not—were gathering what she assumed passed for forensic evidence in their world, placing whatever oddities they found into small, clear vials. Many of the vials held everything from plant matter to soil, from broken shards of concrete to loose fabrics, all of which were carefully placed in what she thought might be packing crates, though they didn’t look like any she’d ever seen—they were mostly transparent, almost like glass, with iridescent whorls of red, green, and violet gleaming across their surfaces whenever they caught the sun’s light. Other vials held liquids that ranged from crimson to almost black, no doubt blood samples of the monsters that had laid siege to Trikala. The Third Unit members who weren’t collecting evidence seemed to be setting up a perimeter around the entire area, not unlike a crime scene being cordoned off—only they weren’t using yellow tape, but raising some sort of protective barrier similar to what she’d seen Forneus use, only instead of a brilliant green, theirs was a soft indigo.
As she swept her gaze passed the hotel with its shining white façade, to the ramshackle apartments on the other side of the river, it suddenly dawned on her—what had happened to all of the people? No sooner had the thought occurred to her, when a short, silver-haired man came forward, answering her unspoken question as he addressed Mathis.
“Sir, we’ve just finished the evacuation of the city; the Second Unit arrived a few moments ago, and Commander Lithias is having them perform memory wipes, as we speak.” Eyes of navy blue met Gwen’s for a fraction of a second, before the man, dressed in what looked like black and grey camouflage, went on. “We’ve also taken several of the entities responsible into custody, and will be transporting them, shortly.”
“Very good, Kamish,” Mathis replied, clapping a hand on the shorter entity’s shoulder, “Once everything is set, be sure to report to the council as swiftly as possible.”
“Of course, Commander,” the man named Kamish hesitated a moment, his gaze flitting first from Gwen to Forneus, to Phenex standing behind them, and back to the Third Unit commander, “Sir…?”
“Yes, what is it?”
“Begging your pardon sir, I don’t mean to pry,” His voice rose, slightly, the faintest sheen of perspiration at his temples, “but several of the unit members and I were wondering about the artifact?”
Feeling Forneus shift beside her, Gwen cast a sidelong look at the daemon, swallowing against the sudden lump in her throat. There was something in the guardian’s expression that suggested he was deeply troubled, the skin around his eyes pinched; if he was worried about her inability to sense the caduceus, she shared in his discomfort. What if the bird-like creature had somehow robbed her of the ability to sense the artifacts when it attacked her? As bad as that would be, she was certain the High Council would have no problem finding another means with which to locate them. No, there were far worse things, than her losing her ‘artifact-tracking talent’; what if, in all of the mayhem, the Akuma trio had gotten their hands on it?
“We were actually just discussing that,” The serenity in Mathis’ voice surprised Gwen, the commander spreading his hands wide as he went on, “We’ve hit something of a snag in our search, but I’m confident we’ll find it, soon.”
Judging by his expression, Kamish wasn’t comforted by his commander’s words, and who could blame him? Gwen certainly didn’t. Even still, the agent kept his silence, and with a simple bow of his head, excused himself to continue on with his duties.
After a moment, Gwen cleared her throat, aware of the three pairs of eyes that had turned to look at her when she did, the teen self-consciously tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She was just about to ask how they would find the caduceus, now that she could no longer sense it, when a painful throbbing started in the right side of her chest, building up until it spread to the entire right side of her body. A wave of nausea seized her, bringing her to the ground, the city swimming in her vision.
“Gwen! Gwen, what’s wrong? Please, answer me!”
“You, there—get in touch with Commander Asclepius of the Fifth Unit; inform him that solo operative Phenex requires that his unit be on standby! He is to prepare to receive us within the next five minutes, unless I say otherwise!”
She could see all three of them standing around her, now, faces etched with worry. But something was wrong; their faces were distorted, rippling like water. Their voices were equally strange, almost hollow, fading until they were nothing but white noise. Gwen gasped for air, but whether from panic or from whatever it was that had taken hold of her, she couldn’t seem to draw in a single breath. Bile burned in the back of her throat, the teen clutching desperately at her chest, rocking back and forth on her knees as one torrent of pain after another tore through her body.
Somehow through the haze of pain, she heard the sharp intake of breath beside her, felt the warm, rough fingers grasping her right shoulder and collarbone, followed by a rush of heat, almost burning her. She felt herself being moved, the teen almost lying on her back now instead of kneeling on the hard pavement, her head resting against something soft, yet firm. A voice swore softly by her ear. Gwen bit back the whimper rising in her throat, blinking away tears as she tried to see who it was.
At first she couldn’t see much of anything, her vision too heavily blurred; everything bled together, forming a swirling, nauseating mass of colour. Eventually, she could make out a face framed with tousled, auburn hair, a pair of golden-amber eyes peering back at her. As the scent of leather and warmth filled her nostrils, she knew. Phenex knelt beside her, his image becoming sharper and fading again, the firebird holding one hand over her chest, the tips of his fingers emitting a soft, golden light.
“What’s wrong with her?” It was Forneus who spoke, the teen struggling to lift her head to look at him, only to find she couldn’t. Phenex was holding her, cushioning her head with his free arm as he continued to work his magic.
“Whatever attacked her before, it left something of itself inside of her,” He answered, “If I had to guess, whatever it is, it’s toxic, and I’m willing to bet all of Mythos it’s inhibiting her powers.”
If anything more was said, Gwen didn’t hear it—blinding pain shot straight through her, a scream coming unbidden to her lips as her muscles started to spasm. As the convulsions worsened, the firebird swore again, and his hold on her grew tighter. Somewhere amidst the chaos of her screams and the sounds of Forneus’ dismay and of Mathis shouting orders to his unit, she could hear Phenex’s voice, a soft murmur against her ear. What he was saying, she didn’t know, but she got the impression it was meant to be soothing. The teen squeezed her eyes shut, gritting her teeth to hold back the rest of her cries as what felt like fiery needles continued to prickle across the surface of her skin.
“What is that?” Forneus’ voice was muffled, almost as if he were talking through a wall.
“I recognize it,” She heard Mathis reply, though his words were every bit as garbled as Forneus’ had been, the teen stifling a whimper at the throbbing pain in her shoulder, “It’s a shadow seal, no doubt courtesy of that damnable Shade.”
There was more cursing at her ear. “So I was right, then.” Phenex declared bitterly, “He meant to clip our wings, keep us from finding the rest of the artifacts.”
“Yes, it would seem so. No doubt the seal was triggered to react to any foreign presence, your healing technique included. But, since you were able to draw the seal out of her, you shouldn’t have any trouble healing her, now.”
The words of the Third Unit Commander proved to be true, for no sooner had he said them, the pain began to subside, the sensation of having been set ablaze dwindling to a dull, throbbing ache in Gwen’s joints. Her vision cleared, her hearing becoming sharp once again, warmth flowing through her veins and into each one of her nerve-endings as Phenex’s healing powers took over, completely.
As she took deep, steadying breaths, the teen couldn’t recall the air ever having smelled sweeter than it did at that moment; the subtle scents of freshly-trimmed grass and the cold, clear water of the Lithaios River mingled with the heady perfume of flowers and the tang of leather, until they all merged into one peculiar, yet pleasant aroma.
She peered up just in time to see Phenex crush a dark, cylindrical piece of what looked like stone within the palm of his hand. Flames licked out between his fingers, then vanished as he opened them, the ashes scattering in the breeze.
And that’s when it started, no more than a faint prickle in the tips of her fingers, at first, growing into an overwhelming surge that encompassed her whole body. Gwen gasped, bolting upright as the powerful tingling travelled up and down her spine.
“Gwen, what is it?” Forneus was right next to her now, down on one knee with both hands on her shoulders. She could hear the scuff of Phenex’s shoes and the squeak of leather as he rose to his feet, the firebird backing away a couple of steps. Now that she was no longer cloaked in the ample heat generated by his body, Greece’s balmy weather felt like a winter chill to her, the teen shivering despite the sun still hanging high overhead.
Mathis spoke before she could answer, his violet robes swishing around polished black boots as he stepped forward, the teen catching the barest glimpse of silver laces before she glanced up at the commander’s hopeful expression. “Is it the caduceus, my dear?”
By this point the tingling had become maddening, almost ticklish as it forced the hairs along her arms to stand on end. “Yes, it has be,” Gwen told him, gritting her teeth against the sensation coursing up and down her arms while Forneus helped her to her feet, “Every time I’ve been near one of the artifacts, I get this weird, tingling feeling all over, only it’s got a rhythm to it…like the sound of a heart beating, but not.” It was a pale comparison to what she was actually experiencing, but it would have to do; she didn’t have the words to explain it.
Not that it matters, anyway. She thought. Wheeling around, she glanced up at the Achillion Hotel, the thrumming sensation growing more insistent as her eyes fell on the rows of balconies overlooking the river. Her gaze roved over each floor and doubled back, coming to an abrupt halt on the second tier, third balcony from the left.
“There…” Gwen took off toward the hotel, sprinting the short distance between the bridge and the broad side of the building, the sound of Forneus’ boots crunching over rubble following along behind her, the daemon silent. Coming to a stop almost directly under the first row of balconies, she craned her neck, squinting against the harsh glare of the sun as it glinted off of the glass enclosures that, until then, had been all but invisible to her.
“Great,” She muttered, bringing both hands up to shield her eyes, “Even if I could climb up, how the heck am I supposed to get onto the balcony with that glass in the way?”
She glanced around, barely noticing that Forneus had come up beside her, her gaze falling on a door at the furthest corner of the building. It didn’t look like the main entrance, but it didn’t matter; any door would do, and since all of the people had been evacuated, getting to the room with that particular balcony shouldn’t be a problem. Or so she thought, until she tugged on the metal door handle, only to find that it wouldn’t budge; the door was locked.
“There are other entrances scattered throughout the hotel’s lower levels,” Gwen peered at the daemon, listening intently, “Keep trying the doors; I’ll check the rest of the building, see what I can find.”
“Wait!” She called before he could round the corner, the guardian stopping mid step, “Why don’t we just teleport?”
Forneus studied her for a moment, his mouth forming a grim line. She stared back at him, perplexed; it had seemed a good idea to her, a necessary one, in fact—so why did he look so worried at the very prospect?
“Teleportation is hard on you at the best of times,” He answered, his voice gentle, “After everything you’ve endured during this mission already, are you certain you can handle it?”
If the question had come from anyone else’s lips, or at any other time, Gwen might have been insulted; but since she was still fairly weak from the shadow seal Phenex had pulled out of her, and since it was obvious that the daemon’s intentions were sincere, she gave him what she could only hope was a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine, Forneus. I promise. Besides, it’s not like we have a choice.”
“She’s right,” Mathis’ voice came from directly behind her, making her jump, “The sooner we secure the artifact, the better.”
Half expecting to be startled again, Gwen glanced suspiciously over her shoulder, and frowned; where had Phenex gone off to?
As if reading her mind, the Third Unit Commander said, “If you’re looking for your fiery friend, he said he had some urgent matters to attend to back in the Spectrum.”
“I’m sure he did.” Something in Forneus’ words sounded bitter to her, the teen casting a critical look in his direction, all to no avail; if he felt her gaze on him, he made no sign of it.
What the hell happened between you two? She wondered, though she didn’t dare ask. Instead, she put a hand on his shoulder, silver eyes meeting hers as if just seeing her for the first time. They stared at one another for a long while, and strangely enough, Gwen didn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable; as she watched his eyes brighten, slowly going from slate grey to lustrous silver, the only thought that went through her mind was to offer him the same comfort he had given her so often since their first meeting.
She didn’t know what was troubling him, and she didn’t need to; all she needed to know was that he was troubled, and that at that very moment, he needed her every bit as much as she needed him. It was because of this that she reached out to him now, the teen struck again by how quickly things had changed since their first meeting. Could it really have only been six days ago?
“So, how about it, Forneus,” Gwen broke the silence then, smiling as she squeezed the daemon’s shoulder affectionately, “I think it’s about time we reclaim another one of your powers, don’t you?”
“Very good, my dear,” She glanced back at Mathis, the fair-haired entity bowing courteously, though whether to her, or Forneus, or even both, she couldn’t be sure, “My operatives have just about finished their work. If you do not require additional assistance, then I shall take my leave.”
The daemon returned the gesture, and murmured his thanks, the teen watching as the commander pivoted on his heel, and took long, brisk strides toward the nearest batch of operatives. By the look of it, they had just finished packing up the last of their forensic crates, a large procession of them standing guard around the few enemies they’d managed to take captive. Gwen noticed that neither the monster that attacked her, nor the Akuma trio, were amongst them.
She would have to ask Forneus what had become of them later; for now, she had more important matters to attend to. Not a word passed between them, as both turned toward the hotel simultaneously, their gazes upward.
Closing her eyes, Gwen took hold of the daemon’s hand, and after a dizzying rush, opened them to find that she had a spectacular view of the Lithaios River, the sun’s light reflecting off of the softly-lapping waters.
Okay, now to find the caduceus.
It didn’t take more than a few minutes, both the teen and guardian seized in a bubble of radiant light as a winged staff, no longer than Gwen’s forearm, floated down, seemingly from the ridge separating the balcony above them from the one they stood on. Once it was nestled in the palm of her hand, a beam of silver-white lanced out from it, striking Forneus square in the chest. Just as with the goblet, no voice resounded in the teen’s mind to tell her whether she had gained another power, or not; but Forneus had, she knew, for as soon as the glow surrounding them had receded, the daemon had immediately called it forth.
It being the ability to summon weapons out of thin air, or so it appeared to her as the guardian held out his arm, a brilliantly shining long-sword materializing in his grasp, and disappearing with a flick of his wrist. The ‘arcane arts’, he called them, telling her that this was but one of its many uses. She told him that whatever they were called, they were about the coolest thing she’d ever seen. He had smiled at that.
When they noticed that members of the Third Unit were leading people back into the city, tourists and locals, alike, Forneus decided it was time to go. However, with so many people pouring into the streets, making their way toward the hotel, it would have been impossible for them to teleport without being sighted. So, they did the most inconspicuous thing imaginable—they walked out, appearing as nothing more than a couple of regular, everyday people, only the daemon drawing mild attention with his old-fashioned attire.
Once they were a safe distance away, standing on the opposite side of the river, the daemon’s hand on her shoulder, Gwen just happened to glance up at the hotel’s sign. Something seemed different about the blue, neon lettering, but for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what it was.
She was just about to ask Forneus if he noticed anything strange about it, when her temples started to throb, her vision becoming blurred. She had one last, fleeting impression that the mission had indeed caught up with her, just as the guardian had said it would, when exhaustion stole over her. Unable to keep her eyes open any longer, she succumbed to it, the last vestiges of consciousness fading as she was swept up into a pair of familiar, lightly-muscled arms.
Teeth clenched in fury, Reeves dismissed his subordinates with a wave of his hand, watching as the three Akuma vanished like smoke into the chilly night air. He stared at the spot where they’d been kneeling mere seconds ago, the only proof of their having been there the three shallow indentations—all nearly identical—in the rooftop gravel. Kizah, of course, had left the more prominent mark of the three companions, leaving two massive, circular depressions where his left knee and right fist had rested.
Another mission, another failure, He swivelled around, dress shoes crunching loudly as he crossed the gravel pit leading to the very edge of the roof, the shadow demon peering down at the dimly-lit city below. Lights of red, orange, and white stared back at him, evening traffic of the mortals who commuted to and from work, or so he supposed; he didn’t care in the least for the stupid, weak-minded creatures, but he had been around long enough to notice some of their habits—much to his chagrin.
More than twelve hours had passed since the mission in Thessaly had gone up in flames, and yet, it had taken the Akuma until only twenty minutes ago to report in. Not only had every one of the shadow minions he’d sent ended up eradicated the moment the firebird had shown up, two-thirds of the rest of his force had been captured. Where the High Council planned on keeping them detained, he didn’t know, but it was reasonable to assume they had a temporary facility set up, until their main prison was back up and running, again.
Though I suppose I should be relieved that the mission failed. He thought bitterly, gripping the brim of his fedora when a particularly strong gust threatened to rip it from his head. It had been a fool’s errand to send the crossbreed along on the mission; wyvern and manticore blood did not mix well, as it turned out, and according to Misa, the creature had nearly killed the human girl, instead of retrieving her, as it had been commanded to do. If it had come from only Misa, Reeves might have had cause to question it, but Kizah had confirmed it as well. Cife had been too bloodied to do more than tremble, but that wasn’t unexpected of the pale-skinned Akuma; he always trembled.
Really though, what had her Ladyship been thinking, providing the Shade with such an unstable creature, a mere prototype, on a mission as important as this one? And worst of all, if the beast had succeeded in killing the girl, it wouldn’t be her Ladyship to blame, no—it would be Reeves that took the full brunt of the master’s wrath. Her Ladyship’s anger was bad enough—the serpent god’s was far worse.
Turning his gaze toward the silvery fullness of the moon, he sighed. He would just have to err on the side of caution, from here on out. Even with the new moon no more than two weeks away, he knew he wouldn’t be strong enough by then, not for what her Ladyship expected of him, nor for what he expected of himself. Another month from then, however? Well, that would be a different story all together.
Six more weeks…just six more weeks; and then, I’ll be unstoppable!
In the meantime, he would just have to ensure that things were as inconvenient as possible for the firebird and his friends…