There was still so much Gwen didn’t understand. She knew that three days had passed since she’d aided in the retrieval of the Goblet of Bacchus, and that it had been six days since that fateful night, when she’d stumbled across the artifacts sitting so innocently on her dining room table—a false innocence, she now knew—that led to her meeting Forneus, and his less-than-pleasant associate, Phenex.
She had even come to learn that the Spectrum, despite not being governed by the known laws of time, itself, carefully monitored the passage of time across the globe, as well as every other world under the High Council’s protection. Additionally, because she played a major role in regards to the artifacts—yet another thing that she found mystifying, as she didn’t understand why she held such importance, to begin with—Forneus was under orders to pay careful attention to how long she resided within the realm of the gods. Why this was necessary, she hadn’t bothered to ask, but she assumed it must bear some significance; whether it had to do with the collection of the artifacts, or something entirely outside of the information the guardian was permitted to give her, she could only venture a guess.
No, there were still a great many things the teen didn’t understand about this frightening, yet beautiful realm; not the strange red glyphs above the glowing archways stationed at intervals along the vast web of crystalline walkways, nor why the majority of the Spectrum was filled with a kaleidoscope of colours, instead of solid walls. If she were braver, she would have attempted to touch the ever-shifting void, just to see if it was a solid, a gas, or a liquid. Or perhaps it was made of something lacking a physical form, such as light, in which she wondered if it would feel warm as the rays of the sun did when coming in through a window—if it was tangible, at all.
This, however, was not what currently puzzled her. At first, all she could hear were muffled voices, garbled as though she were listening to someone speaking while under water, only the odd word here or there making it passed the distortion. Warm, comfortable numbness washed over her, random images flitting through her mind, moving too quickly for her to catch more than a vague impression, here and there; sometimes the briefest glimpse of a face, other times a specific location, though none of them were the least bit familiar to her. It was because of this feeling and the images that came with them that she instinctively knew she was dreaming—or rather, had been dreaming, until the voices pierced through the veil between sleep and consciousness.
“…the Caduceus should be…”
“…Thessaly? This could prove to be much more challenging than the last…”
“Agreed, and with it being such a populated area, it would be a miracle if…”
“What about…did the council…”
“Yes, it was him, just as I knew it would be. Listen, there’s something I have to…”
The voices had become sharper now, the conversation less broken, though she could make no more sense of it than she could at the beginning. Who was talking, and where was she, anyway?
“Now is not the time to be reckless.”
Was that Forneus?
“This is the perfect time to take Reeves out of the equation,” Strange, that sounded a lot like Phenex. “Forneus, old friend…no, brother…please, we might never get another chance like this! Please, Forneus. Don’t try to stop me…”
The longer she listened, the more aware she’d become, and with that awareness came the absolute certainty that it was Forneus and Phenex’s voices she could hear. But something was wrong; not only were they arguing, which due to the daemon’s patient and gentle nature, was hard for her to imagine, but even stranger still, she could have sworn that Phenex had been begging, just a moment ago. That didn’t seem right—she must have misunderstood. Being the proud individual that he was, it certainly didn’t seem like something he’d do, and yet…
“Tell me, is this coming from ‘Phenex, elite soldier of the Regulations Force, First Unit’, or is it, ‘Phenex, the harbinger of vengeance’ doing the talking?”
An exhalation of breath followed this question, no doubt the firebird sighing in frustration. As the last traces of sleep-induced fog cleared from her mind, Gwen opened her eyes, seeing only the fuzzy, soft hues of cerulean and lavender of the ceiling above her, until her vision sharpened. Peering first to her right, where the bathroom was located, its door ajar, and then to her left, where a tray of food had been left for her, the teen sat up with a groan. Rubbing the crust from her eyes, she blinked a few times, her gaze coming to rest on the two beings standing on the other side of the room, just in front of the black and grey marbled door. When neither one of them looked up, continuing their argument in hushed tones, she cleared her throat.
“Who is Reeves, and more importantly, why are you guys holding a conference in my room?”
Both Phenex and Forneus glanced up simultaneously, surprised. It didn’t last long though, before the firebird averted his molten-amber gaze, leaning with his back against the wall and his arms folded over his chest. Everything about him just screamed moodiness, and it seemed to Gwen that he’d been like this ever since they’d returned from Rome; but why, she didn’t know, and in all honesty, she had no inclination to find out—especially not when he looked like a bomb about to go off at any given moment.
The daemon glanced at him meaningfully, as though trying to relay a silent message, the look in his eyes almost pleading. When Phenex didn’t meet his gaze, he heaved a sigh, and settled into the folding chair next to the bed, offering the teen a smile as he did so, though there was something undeniably sad about his expression.
“My apologies for waking you,” He said, grabbing the crystal pitcher from the tray next to him and filling one of the empty glasses with water, the teen taking it from him with a grateful nod. “How are you feeling?”
“Better than I have for the last couple of days.” Gwen replied, taking a long gulp from her glass, and setting it back down on the tray. “So, what did I miss? It sounded like you guys were having a serious discussion.” Seeing the flicker of tension that crossed the daemon’s face, she hastened to add, “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I was sleeping, but then I could hear you guys talking…”
Forneus placed his hand on top of hers, offering her a reassuring smile. “It’s quite alright, Gwen. After all, we’re the ones who decided to ‘hold a conference in your room’, as you so aptly put it.” His eyes seemed to dance as he said this, his playful smile proving to be infectious, the teen unable to stop from returning it in kind. “In truth, I was just coming to check up on you, when Phenex showed up with information from the council.”
Though warmed by his concern for her, she couldn’t help but glance Phenex’s way when he said this, noticing the way his expression darkened. Though for once, his agitation didn’t appear to be directed at her; he was staring at the wall opposite, his gaze clouded over as if he were lost in thought. Gwen didn’t know what it was, but something about the look on his face made her uneasy, her skin prickling, as though signalling the onset of a storm.
Giving herself a mental shake, she returned her gaze to Forneus, absently grabbing a warm, sesame-seed bagel from the tray as she asked, “Okay, so…what’s the news?”
The guardian leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, his expression serious. “We now know the identity of at least one of the entities trying to impede the reclamation of the artifacts, though we didn’t learn this from the High Council—it was Phenex who confirmed this, just after our mission in Rome.” Having just taken a large bite out of the bagel, Gwen simply nodded at him, encouraging him to go on, in which he seemed more than happy to oblige.
“However, this specific being isn’t the only one hindering our progress; there are many others, running amok and creating disturbances across the globe. Some, like the trio we faced in the coliseum, come after us with the sole purpose of interfering with our mission, while others are merely content to cause havoc. Of course, all of this spells trouble for the council and the Regulations Force, regardless.” He paused then, his brow furrowed as if he were reciting the report verbatim. “Furthermore, we suspect that ‘the Akuma trio’, as we’ve come to call them, is either working for, or with, the entity we’ve identified. There may be others, as well. Admittedly, most of this is simply conjecture on our part; but we are also trying to ascertain if there is more to their agenda than the mere prevention of the seals being reactivated, or not.”
Gwen took a quick sip of water to help wash down the piece of bagel that had gotten lodged in her throat, the teen gasping, “What other reason could they have?” To her, whatever plan the ‘bad guys’ were concocting seemed fairly straight-forward; prevent the High Council and the Regulations Force from reawakening the seals on the artifacts, and they would never have to worry about being trapped within their hellish prison, again.
“As far as we can tell, there isn’t really anything to support our theory—except for one thing,” Forneus ran his fingers through his hair, a gesture the teen was beginning to recognize as a sign of his unease, “If they simply meant to keep themselves from being thrown back into Nowhere, all they would need to do is destroy the artifacts. And yet, from what we’ve observed, they seem interested in claiming them for themselves; though to what end, we don’t know.”
Between the pensive expression on the daemon’s face and the firebird’s palpable agitation from the other side of the room, Gwen suddenly found she’d lost her appetite. Setting the bagel down, she stared at the clean, white comforter still covering her from the waist down, pondering over what the escapees of Nowhere could possibly want the artifacts for. No answer came to her, though this didn’t really come as a surprise, given how very little she still knew about the artifacts and their powers, to begin with.
Unable to think of anything to say, she excused herself and made her way to the bathroom, taking her time while she brushed her teeth, and doing her best to ignore the shadows under her eyes when she caught her reflection in the mirror. Not a word was spoken even when she returned, Gwen suddenly conscientious of her every movement, the soft slap of her bare feet as she padded across the smoky tile seeming loud in the otherwise quiet room. She settled back down onto the bed, cringing when the bed springs groaned under her weight, and drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them as she first looked from one being, to the other. Phenex still wasn’t looking at her, though seeing his frown deepen, she didn’t doubt he could feel her gaze on him; Forneus, however, was looking at her, his expression troubled, almost helpless.
When she saw that neither one of them seemed inclined to speak, she broke the silence, “So, this entity you’ve mentioned…I’m guessing it’s that Reeves guy you were talking about, before?”
From the way Forneus looked at Phenex before answering, the teen was beginning to get the sinking feeling there was a lot more to Reeves than just being an ordinary, run-of-the-mill enemy; it was almost like…
“You are correct,” The guardian’s voice cut across her thoughts, drawing her attention back to him, the teen taking notice of how he sat more languidly than before, one leg crossed over the other with one of his arms hanging over the back of the chair. “Reeves is an entity known as a Shade; not like the souls of the dead you’ve undoubtedly heard about in the old Greek legends. In this context, it refers to a shadow demon—a particularly powerful one, capable of giving life to the surrounding shadows and controlling them in whatever way he sees fit, more often than not for his own personal gain.”
The room seemed to be getting warmer as he said this, and Gwen had a feeling Phenex was responsible, for when she glanced his way, she could see the barely contained fury lighting his eyes, the mottled amber giving way to fiery gold. Forneus must have felt it too, for his posture became rigid once again, the daemon leaning forward, his voice dropping an octave as he continued. “The High Council has made his capture high-priority, though they have also issued orders for his immediate execution, should he refuse to surrender; this scenario is much more likely. The closer we get to the new moon, the more powerful he becomes, and once that happens…”
He didn’t need to say the rest. Gwen had no trouble imagining the worst-case scenarios on her own, most of which involved complete and utter global annihilation. Given Phenex’s reaction to the mere mention of the shadow demon, she again found herself wondering if there was more to this story than either one of them was letting on. Surely the firebird wasn’t worried about fighting Reeves; she had seen him in the throes of battle, had caught a glimpse of his true strength, of the amazing feats he was capable of. So, what was it about Reeves that put him on edge like this? Peering at him surreptitiously from beneath her lashes, she was certain he wasn’t afraid. No, this definitely wasn’t fear—the gleam in his eyes was pure, unbridled fury. This went far beyond his duties as an operative; this was something personal.
Then it struck her—there was a vendetta between him and Reeves!
When she met Forneus’ gaze, the daemon gave a brief nod, as though to confirm her suspicions, despite her not having voiced them aloud. From what she’d managed to learn from him over the past few days, the guardian had a wealth of magical gifts at his disposal—and thankfully, reading minds wasn’t one of them. Because of this, she could only assume he’d noticed the way she’d been looking at Phenex, and had put two-and-two together, from there. Gwen had never been particularly good at concealing her thoughts or feelings from anyone, be it a close friend, family member, or an acquaintance. She wasn’t sure what category Forneus fit into, anymore, and not just because she’d been in his company for six days, straight. Once again, she was seized by the feeling of familiar unfamiliarity, as though she knew him, yet didn’t—or perhaps it was more like she had known him once, a long time ago, and for whatever reason, could no longer remember.
She wanted to ask him about this, about the familiarity she experienced every time he was near, of the jolt she felt whenever she heard his voice—she’d been on the verge of asking him quite a few times, in fact— but each and every time, something more important had come up, or she’d lose her nerve. If she was completely honest with herself, she was scared of knowing; once you know something, you can’t un-know it, right? And what if the truth proved too much for her to bear?
Pushing the thought away for the time being—not just because she wasn’t ready to hear Forneus’ answer, but because there were more pressing matters at hand—Gwen decided to change the subject, fearing that any further talk of Reeves would send Phenex flying into a rage, one he just barely seemed to be containing, in the first place. Thinking that she may have heard one of them mention the location of the next artifact when she’d still been half-asleep, she decided asking about it and where they’d have to go in order to get it was a far safer topic than anything else, at the moment.
“Okay, so…with everything that’s going on, now…is it still safe for us to…you know, search for the artifacts?” Catching Forneus’ look of gratitude, she knew the guardian must have felt as she did, equally as desperate to leave the subject of Reeves behind. She went on, “I thought I heard you guys mention something about the third one…what was it, the cad…the cad-u-ceus?” She tested the word out, unable to remember how it sounded, for it had been garbled when she’d heard it.
“Hermes’ Caduceus,” Forneus replied, his pronunciation of it careful, like that of an English professor speaking to one of his pupil’s, “And in answer to your question, yes. Despite our present situation, our orders remain firm to reclaim the artifacts, and reinstate their status as seals. In fact, with the current goings-on, you might say our mission has become all the more urgent. Regardless of whatever foes await us, our efforts to quell them will be for naught, if we fail to retrieve every last artifact.”
The weight of this wasn’t lost on Gwen; for the first time since she’d arrived in the Spectrum, she could feel her perception of everything she’d known, everything she had ever believed possible, starting to shift. The feelings of reluctance and uncertainty had begun ebbing away, and though fear and self-doubt still remained, a newfound resolve had taken root deep within her, growing until it overshadowed all else.
Turning so that she was completely facing him, she asked, “So, where is it? Hermes’ Caduceus, I mean.”
“We don’t have exact coordinates, but we’ve traced it to somewhere just on the outskirts of Thessaly, Greece.”
“Okay, when are we going?”
“That depends entirely on you,” Forneus seemed to be studying her, his eyes lined with worry, “Are you well enough to undertake this mission?”
Gwen squared her shoulders, determined to keep her fatigue from showing. “Yes.”
“Then as soon as you’re ready,” Climbing to his feet, he clapped a hand on her shoulder, and smiled. “We’ll be waiting for you out in the corridor.”
The moment he’d stepped outside the confines of Gwen’s quarters, Phenex mentally prepared himself for what would follow. Forneus would undoubtedly want to continue the conversation they’d started prior to the teen waking up, and this meant the guardian trying to convince him not to do what he had full intentions of doing; going after Reeves—alone.
Inevitable as it seemed, it didn’t stop him from trying to get away from Forneus before the entire, unwanted conversation could come to pass. Regardless, he wasn’t fast enough; the daemon was hot on his heels, and before he could get more than a few steps down the pyrite-flecked corridor, a firm, familiar grip took hold of his right shoulder, forcing him to turn and meet the other’s luminous gaze.
“I know what you’re going to say,” He interrupted, brushing the other’s hand off with a scowl, “There’s nothing more to discuss, Forneus. My mind’s already made up.” He tugged at the collar of his leather jacket, fixing the guardian with a baleful glare, a look that demanded he drop the subject immediately, unless he wanted to be on the receiving end of the phoenix’s flames.
Not that he could ever bring himself to actually harm Forneus, and the black-haired entity knew it, too; but still, if Phenex could just make him see the depth of his resolve, that he planned on going through with this, whatever the cost, how could he not try? And if it meant he stood even the slightest chance of winning the daemon’s approval, no matter how reluctant he might be in giving it, wouldn’t that make it more worthwhile? Why couldn’t Forneus understand that what he was trying to do would benefit them all?
“Reconsider, old friend. I beseech you.” The pleading in Forneus’ voice was almost too much, but Phenex stood firm, determined to keep the warring emotions within him from showing. He forced his expression into a blank, unreadable mask…or so he hoped that was what he was doing; with the desperate look the daemon was giving him, his resolve had begun to weaken.
So much for determination…
As if sensing this, Forneus pressed on, the firebird unable to shrug out of his grasp this time, as both hands came to rest on his upper arms, “Phenex, please. There is still so much about the situation we don’t understand; we don’t know who or what else we’re up against. We don’t even know Reeves’ location at present, or anywhere else he might frequent, when he grows weary of staying to the shadows. How will you find him? How can you be sure this isn’t a trap? For all you know, he could be making preparations to ambush you. He probably already has.”
Gods, if only Forneus knew how much it was killing him, having to look him in the eye right now. But no matter how much it pained him, Phenex couldn’t afford for the daemon to know just how vulnerable he had become, hearing his continuous pleas—regardless of how heartfelt he knew them to be. Instead, he swallowed against the dryness in his throat, willing his gaze to remain steady when he spoke.
Summoning as much scorn into his voice as he could, he scoffed, “You’re joking, right? I can take down Reeves and his lackeys by myself, no sweat.” He narrowed his eyes, refusing to back down now that he was getting closer to accomplishing his goal. “Besides, the longer we wait, the stronger he gets; you said it, yourself. We have an obligation to either capture him or kill him, and I’m not going to lie—I really like the sound of the latter.”
“You’re letting your personal feelings cloud your judgment,” Forneus countered, his words taking on a sharper edge, eyes flashing angrily, “What we have an obligation to is the reclamation of the artifacts!”
“No, that’s your responsibility,” Phenex declared, attempting once again to dislodge the daemon’s hands, his grip having tightened in his moment of anger, “Losing the artifacts was your screw up, not mine. The only reason I’ve helped you this far is because the council ordered me to; if you really want to make up for your mistakes and get your powers back, do it without me, because I won’t suffer for your failure any longer!”
As soon as he said the words, he regretted them. He hadn’t meant to say any of it, he really hadn’t, and from the stunned expression on his face, Forneus hadn’t expected him to, either. The pressure on his arms left him, suddenly, the daemon’s hands falling limply at his sides. Phenex could do nothing but stare, horrified, as the look of shock melted into one of unbearable agony, as though the words the firebird had spoken had caused him physical pain.
And with the way those eyes dulled from silver to grey, he knew without question that he had; with those few, careless words, he had managed to cut Forneus more deeply than he could ever have done with the sharpest blade. He wanted to take it back, would have given anything to take back every last syllable, but it was too late; the damage had already been done. No amount of apologizing would make up for the hurt he’d just caused, and even if it could, his stubborn pride wouldn’t allow him to utter the words, not while he was still in a state of agitation.
So, he did the only thing he could do. He fled. No parting words, no warning of any kind—just up and teleported, not even bothering to pick a destination, beforehand. He needed to get away from Forneus as fast as possible, away from the broken, dejected look in his eyes, and this was the only way he knew how.
When he found himself standing on a quiet, familiar street, he groaned. Of all the places he could have teleported to—it just had to be Gwen’s hometown. As if he needed another reason to feel more wretched than he already did.
“Good job, Phenex. You really stepped in it, this time.”
Phenex wandered around the deserted streets, only vaguely aware of where he was going, his footfalls echoing softly as he turned off of one of the main roads, and onto a suburban boulevard. He estimated that it was sometime after midnight, probably closer to dawn. Maybe three or four in the morning, well before the sun would make its ascent into the sky—or more accurately, before the Earth would have made its full revolution toward the dwarf star, causing the sun to appear as though it were ‘rising’.
Either way, it didn’t matter, none of it did; not the fact that it was particularly cold for the month of May in this region, or that the wind had steadily been picking up since he’d first arrived half an hour, ago. He hadn’t even noticed that it was raining until it had become a downpour, soaking him through within a matter of minutes. He felt the cold, and yet he was physically removed from it, as if he wasn’t really walking along the faintly-lit streets with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, giving a shudder whenever droplets of ice cold water fell from his bangs and onto his nose, or reflexively hunching his shoulders when they’d trickle down the back of his neck, T-shirt clinging to the contours of his shoulder blades.
Some distant part of his mind took notice of the manicured lawns on either side of the boulevard, of the neatly-trimmed boxwood hedges running parallel with the sidewalks, of the coloured solar lights and lawn ornaments scattered throughout the lavish gardens of tulips, pansies, and marigolds. But his mind was elsewhere, in a place of vibrant colour and crystalline walkways, a place of gods and entities, alike, filled with the pleasant memories of his youth; far removed from the cold, dreary greyness currently surrounding him.
As he made his way down the very centre of the road, his gaze flitted from the ranch-style house on the far corner with its faded, powder blue siding and wooden swing set in the front yard, to the rose-bricked bungalow next to it on the adjoining street, the lattice trellis along the eastern wall laden with fragrant, purple wisteria blossoms.
There was a massive oak tree on the property line between the two houses, probably three-hundred years or older, and though Phenex ordinarily would have stopped to marvel at the beauty of such a healthy, magnificent tree, perhaps even go so far as to take a well-deserved nap under it, the feelings nature often invoked in him just wouldn’t come, this time.
All he could think about was how callously he had treated Forneus—Forneus, out of all of the beings he had ever known in the entire universe, his oldest and dearest friend—the moment his own selfish wants and desires had called to him. Forneus, the one being he could always count on to watch his back, to listen to him and spar with him when he needed to blow off steam; the one entity who always knew just what to say to make him smile, or to show him tough love when he needed to be pulled out of one of his moods.
Forneus had been there for him since he’d first joined the Regulations Force, welcoming him into the First Unit’s ranks and taking on the role of mentor, the daemon ever patient and understanding in his guidance of the young firebird, even when Phenex lacked patience with himself. No, he had been more than just a mentor; he’d been like a brother to him, their friendship forged at an age when both were considered young for their kind, filled with youthful vigour and excitement. It was a rare bond, one that had lasted through the centuries, despite the time they’d spent apart. And just like the hot-headed idiot that he was, Phenex had let his temper get the better of him, casting Forneus aside like yesterday’s newspaper.
If the daemon never forgave him, it would be exactly what he deserved; and yet, he couldn’t stop himself from hoping that, despite the terrible way he’d treated him, Forneus would welcome him back with open arms, that somehow, all would be forgiven and forgotten, and they could go back to the way things were before the artifacts had been lost, before Gwen—before the daemon had ever been appointed guardian, to begin with—just go right back to the days when it was just the two of them, sharing a private joke at the expense of their fellow unit members, whom they had been leaps and bounds ahead of, and whom they had taken great pleasure in annoying from time-to-time with their mischievous tendencies.
But you can never go back. At some point, without even realizing it, he had stopped walking. He stood in the middle of the road for what felt like an eternity, rain cascading down his face as he tilted his head back to stare at the ominous storm clouds high above him, their heavy, swollen forms promising that the storm was far from over. Heaving a sigh, he glanced around, noticing that he had wandered onto yet another street, this one ending in a cul-de-sac.
The pavement gleamed beneath the streetlights, everything bathed in brilliant white, instead of the soft, orange glow of the lights in Gwen’s neighbourhood. The construction of the houses here seemed newer, too, and when the firebird turned to his left, it was to see the grey and white real-estate trailer sitting just beyond the orange, mesh fencing marking where the next house would be, the light from the street reflecting off of the trailer’s rain-splattered windows. The more he looked around, the less he liked what he saw; this area was still too underdeveloped, which on its own wouldn’t have bothered him, if the lack of civilization had been filled with forestry and wildlife instead, but it wasn’t. The land had been cleared for the sole purpose of creating human dwellings, leaving the landscape rather barren. At least Gwen’s neighbourhood had been—
Why was he thinking about Gwen, anyway? It wasn’t like she had anything to do with the guilt currently clawing its way up from the pit of his stomach. He may have felt concerned for her well-being at one time or another, but that was only because her help was needed in the reclamation and reactivation of the artifacts and their seals; he’d be damned if he let himself care about a human beyond what his station required of him, now. Mortals had proven themselves unworthy of his devotion and loyalty long ago, in a time when he had freely given it—a mistake he wouldn’t be making, ever again.
Running a hand through his hair with a sigh, the damp auburn locks clinging to his fingertips before falling limp against his forehead again, he turned on his heel, and started back the way he’d come. It was only now that he took notice of the ghostly, grey shadows shifting in his peripherals, coiling up from the pavement like steam. It hadn’t dawned on him that Reeves wouldn’t have to make an appearance, in order to launch an ambush against him—not until now. Chances were, after being incarcerated for fifty years—courtesy of Phenex, himself—the Shade most likely wasn’t up to par just yet, and thus, wouldn’t risk going up against the firebird until his powers were fully restored.
How could I have been so stupid? Phenex scolded himself, calling sparks to both of his hands and sweeping his gaze from one side of the street to the other, watching as the shadows peeled away from the walls of the few houses sitting there. They advanced toward him, slowly at first, their crimson eyes peering warily at him from deep within their wispy forms, no doubt cautioned by their master to avoid his flames at all costs. Then all at once they sprang forward, a swirling mass of black and grey tendrils merging together to form one large, hideous shadow beast, appearing to the firebird as a multi-headed feline with more than a dozen shadowy tentacles draped across its back. Meanwhile, a sea of red eyes glowed at him from all over the creature’s body, the ghastly sight distracting him just long enough for the beast to lash out at him with one of its razor-sharp claws.
Shrouding his body in flames, he wasn’t the least bit surprised when he felt himself flying backward, colliding with the real-estate trailer with enough force to knock it off of the cinderblocks holding it up, the sound of fiberglass shattering making his ears hurt. Fortunately, the fire had taken the brunt of the shadow beast’s attack, the creature drawing back with a pained howl while Phenex got to his feet and brushed himself off, barely a scratch on him. The impact had hurt though, both when the claw had slammed into his ribs, and when his back had met the trailer, and for that, the shadow minions were going to pay, dearly.
“You wanna play rough? Fine, we’ll play rough,” He growled, focusing the flames onto the tips of his fingers, “Since your coward of a boss can’t be bothered to take me one-on-one, I guess you guys will just have to do.”
Judging from the way all four heads snarled at him, their ethereal fangs bared, the shadow minions didn’t appreciate his criticism of their master one bit, the red eyes covering the rest of the creature’s body narrowing to almond-shaped slits.
Good, get angry; I’m counting on it.
The rain, having dwindled to a steady drizzle at this point, started to pick up again, turning into yet another torrential downpour, causing the flames in the firebird’s hands to dance wildly. They burned much too hot for anything as common as rain to extinguish them, however; only Poseidon, himself, could quell Phenex’s flames, and luckily for him, the Sea God had no such desire.
Just as Phenex knew it would, the shadow creature lashed out, roaring in fury as it brought one tentacle after the other to bear on him, the firebird dodging from side to side with ease, all the while channelling energy into his hands until his entire body was bathed in a radiant, golden glow. When the monster lifted one of its claws, ready to bring it directly down on him, Phenex seized the chance he’d been presented with, and released a fiery discharge at the beast, the ordinarily orange flames flecked with the molten gold of the energy he’d stored up. At first, it seemed as though he’d scorched a hole through the creature’s chest, but when it didn’t cry out in pain or anger like his opponents were often wont to do, he knew instantly that something had gone wrong. The hole, easily twice as thick as he was and nearly as tall, closed up again, the sides stringing together like melted wax so all that remained of the wound’s existence was a puckered outline, until that, too, disappeared.
It didn’t take long for him to figure out what had actually happened; the shadow minions had split apart when he’d launched his attack, the flames passing harmlessly between them at the moment of impact. In the short amount of time it took for him to realize this, more shadows had come to join their brethren, their wails rising to meet the thunderous roar of the storm. Forked lightning pierced the sky, throwing the nearby houses into sharp relief, before plunging everything back into darkness. Only the glow of crimson eyes and his own flames prevented the street from falling into utter blackness, for the streetlights had gone out—whether from the storm or from an errant attack during his battle with the shadow minions, he didn’t know.
He didn’t have time to ponder on it at that moment, either, for a dozen or more of the shadow minions had now gathered around him, and from the way they were closing in, he had the distinct impression they were trying to corral him toward the shadow monster.
You think you’ve won this fight, do you? Red embers licked along his fingertips, flaring up in reaction to his insatiable hunger for combat. Well, prepare to be disappointed.
His opponents didn’t have time to do more than squeal in terror when he thrust one fist forward and then the other, sending a fiery wave tearing across the pavement toward them. The flames broke apart, splitting into twin streams, the two halves swirling around one another before merging together once again, forming a crimson double helix that sent most of the shadowy spectres into a panic, scattering every which way; others were less fortunate, and got caught in the blast, their ethereal bodies reduced to cinders.
It wasn’t long before more came after him, however, the firebird gritting his teeth as shadowy tendrils shot out of the darkness, pinning his arms to his sides, and dragging him to the ground. Several more had converged together, following the example of the ones forming the hideous, multi-headed feline. Some bore the likeness of one type of animal or another, while others were indiscernible, merely writhing, pulsating shades of black and grey with malicious, gleaming red eyes.
Peering up through his bangs at the approaching herd of shadow monsters, Phenex strained against the tendrils binding him, and within seconds, broke out of their grasp, the shadow minions crying out when he sent flames arcing across their ethereal limbs.
“Consider that a parting gift.” He told them, unleashing a salvo of fireballs into the throng when they seemed about to retaliate. He barely got out a snicker, before the four-headed shadow feline bounded toward him, the rest of the pack right behind it. “Well, I guess play-time’s over…”
Phenex leapt into the air a split second before the lead monster could reach him, planting his foot against one of the creature’s heads and vaulting high above it. The tentacles lining its back snapped out toward him, but having anticipated this, he sent a shower of sparks down upon it, the fire sputtering as each one of the appendages ignited. The shadow creature roared, turning to watch his ascent through the sky. All four pairs of ears flattened against its heads as the creature let out a low growl, its body tense as it prepared to launch a counterattack.
The firebird wasn’t about to give it the chance; the moment he started plummeting back toward the ground, he brought both hands forward, and released a torrent of fire directly into the monster’s face. The shadow minions, no longer able to sustain the creature’s form, separated, their anguished cries rising in a deafening cacophony over the howling of the storm.
No sooner had he landed on his feet when he was knocked off of them again, surprised when he felt a crushing weight settle across his chest. “You need to go on a diet,” he ground out between clenched teeth, shoving at the shadow blob with both hands, “For the love of Mythos, you’re a shadow! How the hell did you get so damned fat?”
This was clearly the wrong thing to say, for several thin appendages shot out from the blob, pinning his wrists above his head and wrapping firmly around his torso, a savage growl resonating from somewhere deep within the creature’s ever-changing form. This was the least of the firebird’s problems, however, for the rest of the shadow minions—both shadow beasts and single entities, alike—were drawing closer, gathering around him like predators before the kill.
It was by sheer luck that he happened to notice that the shadow blob, despite having bound his entire upper body, had neglected to bind his legs. Smirking, Phenex brought his legs up, and slammed the bottoms of his feet flat against the pavement, the concrete exploding as fire erupted from beneath it, zigzagging between the cracks and devouring the few, solitary shadow minions that were crowded there, their surprised yelps drowned out by the roaring flames. When the blob shifted on top of him in what he could only assume was an attempt to see what had become of its companions, he concentrated on the fire burning within the core of his body, bringing it to the surface of his skin until it enveloped him, completely.
The moment the embers touched it, the shadow blob began to writhe, falling off of the firebird and rolling to the side, the horrible sound of its screeching abruptly coming to an end as it was consumed by the flames. Smoke started to rise from where it had lain on the ground, Phenex wrinkling his nose against the dank, acrid odour that suddenly filled the air, and clambering to his feet with a groan.
As he glanced around at the remaining shadows, brushing the dirt and grime from his leather jacket, he felt his lips pull into a feral grin at what he saw in their large, crimson eyes, a low chuckle rumbling from deep within his throat. He could smell the sweet, heady aroma of their fear, mingling with the crisp, clean scent of the rain, the effect of the two smells blending together nearly intoxicating. The storm had finally ended, a strong gust of wind carrying off the few, fluffy clouds that had been left behind, the full moon bathing the world below in its soft, silvery glow.
Scanning the sea of fearful, red eyes staring back at him, he breathed deeply, and summoned flames into the palms of his hands once again. As soon as he did this, a terrified wail started at the centre of the mass of shadows, spreading around the group until it reached a deafening pitch. The ethereal beings forgot all about the monstrous forms they’d taken and broke apart, becoming individual shadows once again, each one scrambling over the other in a feeble attempt to escape the firebird’s wrath.
“Tell your master I send my regards,” He declared to their retreating forms, the orange flames in his hands growing brighter, “If any of you actually survive, that is.”
If they had been scared before, they were outright terrified, now. Cries for mercy and screams of terror jumbled together into a desperate wail as the shadowy mass pushed and shoved their way toward the portal that, until that precise moment, Phenex was certain hadn’t been there, before. In fact, he was positive; that was the spot where the first shadow monster had attacked him, creating a massive crater with its claw when it tried to grind him into the ground.
Figuring he’d tormented his opponents long enough, the firebird unleashed his flames, the twin fires converging into a single blast when he brought his hands forward, the explosion rolling across the broken pavement until nothing of the ethereal shadows was left, except for smouldering heaps of ash.
Surveying his surroundings to make sure there were no survivors, he shook his head at the amount of damage that had been done, already dreading the report he’d have to give the council upon his return to the Spectrum—and given the fact that he was supposed to be in Thessaly right now, he’d be surprised if they didn’t demote him on the spot.
Now that the thrill of battle had begun to die down, Phenex could no longer keep the guilt at bay, his stomach churning as the words he’d spoken to Forneus resounded in his mind, repeating mercilessly until he thought his head would burst. He wondered if the daemon had waited for him, or if he and Gwen had gone after the artifact without him, braving whatever conditions awaited them in Greece.
No sense in standing around here, feeling sorry for myself. He sighed, tilting his head back to stare up at the moon, its brilliant glow reminding him of a pair of eyes of the same colour, I have to face him, sooner or later. Might as well get it over with…
Swallowing against the lump in his throat, he closed his eyes, forcing all other thoughts from his mind until only images of the Spectrum remained. His body tingled, the cool gust of wind blowing his bangs back from his forehead disappearing as he was transported from the damp, suburban streets, to the still, arid space of the timeless realm. Seeing the familiar pyrite corridor stretching out on either side of him, he squared his shoulders, and gripping the brass handle of the marbled door, threw it open. It took his eyes a moment to adjust, the firebird watching the veined walls pulsing from blue to violet, and back again. It took him even longer to comprehend what he was seeing, his gaze drifting from the partially open bathroom door, over the neatly-made bed, and to the other side of the room, completely devoid of furniture.
Phenex blinked a few times, trying to ignore the painful clenching of his stomach, despair settling over him until he could feel nothing but the cold, lonely isolation that surrounded him.
The room was empty.