Two miserable, stinking days, since Reeves had first arrived in the city, having detected an all-too-familiar presence; that of his long time arch nemesis, the human-personified firebird, himself—Phenex. Despite his weakened state, the Shade just couldn’t resist the overwhelming desire for revenge frothing in his veins. It had been most fortunate however, that the trail had gone cold. As much as he hated to admit it, he knew that if it had come to a fight, the firebird would have had him at a disadvantage. Even now, he was far from being at full strength. Being locked away in the realm of Nowhere for as long as he had had drained him of all but the most basic of his powers. If not for the aid of his mistress, he likely wouldn’t have made it this far.
For everything that flame-wielding bastard has put me through, I’m going to pay him back—in spades. He seethed, leather-clad hands clenching into fists. Just you wait, Phenex…when I get my powers back, you’re gonna be beyond sorry!
Lowering the brim of his fedora to shield his eyes from the midday sun, Reeves leaned back against the alley wall, melding with the shadows as he watched humans passing him by; scurrying about to do whatever it was that mortals did with their short, insignificant lives. Not a single person paid him any mind, though even if they had bothered to, all they would have seen was a man with curly brown hair in a dark brown hat and trench-coat, looking for the world like a gangster from the 1930’s, or a private eye from the old black-and-white films.
Sighing, he folded his arms across his chest and stared down the opposite street, absently taking notice of the heat haze that rose off of the pavement, shimmering in the air like water. ‘Mirages’, the mortals called them, though these were far from being the dehydration-induced hallucinations that men experienced crawling in the desert. Not that it mattered to him, one way or another. He couldn’t have cared less about the bustling downtown core of this city, or its many shops. The people wandering to and fro, gossiping about everything from their next door neighbour to the latest celebrity divorce held no interest for the shadow demon, whatsoever. The only information he cared about involved one thing, and one thing, only—the location of the next artifact.
It had been eighteen hours since he’d received word of what had occurred in Germany; a mission that had resulted in the scorching deaths of each and every one of the operatives he’d been ordered to send there. Even without the intelligence reports his shadows had provided, he would have known who was responsible for their deaths. After all, only one entity possessed fire that nearly rivalled the sun, itself. He had learned one thing of interest, however; not only had the firebird been there, but a daemon and human girl, as well. According to his information, the daemon had served on the Regulations Force until being promoted to the position of guardian of the artifacts sometime before the Shade’s incarceration. As to the girl…he couldn’t help but laugh. For the High Council to include a human girl, of all things, on such an important mission? Well, it was downright unthinkable.
They really must be scraping the bottom of the barrel. He mused, chuckling to himself. His gaze roved up and down the street, taking in the storefronts that lined either side; old, rundown brick buildings in shades of grey, white, and red, the paint long since beginning to yellow and peel. Every fourth shop or so, the building’s separated, leaving an alley between them that led to the parking lots out back, the concrete cracked and broken in several spots along the sidewalks. Some of the shops were new with bright, neon signs, or large, gold and black lettering set into cream-coloured backdrops; advertising anything from florists and coffee shops, to burger joints and night clubs. Others looked like they had been there since the dawn of man, their signs so worn with weather and age that it was hard to tell what was sold, there. The street itself was clogged with noon-hour traffic, cars of every make and model driving slowly, bumper-to-bumper, the sun glinting off of their taillights as they passed by.
Reeves was just beginning to wonder how much more tedium he would have to suffer through, when something caught his eye; the very someone he’d been waiting for all this time.
Double-checking to make sure no one was watching him, he focused his power until he felt a coldness settle across his shoulders, the feeling akin to being dragged beneath the icy, still surface of a frozen lake, literally ditching his physical form to become one with the shadows. Dark, smoky wisps coiled off of him as he melded with the pavement, evaporating once the transformation was complete. Once in this form, it was all too easy for him to sneak about, darting from shadow to shadow, until finally reaching his destination—the back of the alley across from the very one he’d been standing in only moments, before.
Taking shelter behind a stack of cardboard boxes, he slowly rose up from the ground, startling the individual standing there with his declaration of, “It’s about time!”
Chuckling under his breath as the small, wiry being let out a yelp, he let the last of his shadow self fall away, revealing his physical form. Recognizing him, the other being stepped forward with his hands clasped in front of him, and bowed.
“Sorry for making you wait so long, Master Reeves.” Cife murmured, his voice trembling.
Reeves studied his subordinate a moment, taking in the straight, vibrant red hair as it fell around his shoulders, steel grey eyes averting under his intense scrutiny, the left one obscured by his bangs. Between the milky pallor of his skin, and the brilliant white of his one-piece suit, it was difficult to tell where Cife ended, and his outfit began. In fact, if not for the many zippers and chains adorning the one-piece, and the Shade’s superior eyesight, he might not have known the Akuma was wearing anything at all. Except for his black ankle boots, that is; given the colour contrast, those were a tad harder to miss.
Figuring he’d let him squirm long enough, Reeves gave Cife one of his charming, toothy grins. “Don’t sweat it, kid. Where are Misa and Kizah?”
The two beings in question stepped forward then; one female, and one large, particularly muscular male. The female, built every bit as androgynously as Cife himself, was night to his day. Inky black, iridescent skin, cropped, feathery platinum hair, and deep, violet eyes flecked with gold—the right of which was partially closed due to the grotesque, grey scar running from the top eyelid to just behind her ear. Misa, the second one born of the trio; clad in a blue, single strap halter top and skin-tight white pants with red whorls along the sides. The ‘demon mouthpiece’, as Reeves had come to call her, completely devoid of common sense—and by far one of his best subordinates. With a katana at her hip and the aggression of a skilled predator, there was no better soldier in his arsenal—except for perhaps Kizah, himself.
The tallest of the three Akuma, though considerably larger, was not particularly aggressive unless in the throes of combat. His sheer size made him a powerhouse in battle, the russet-skinned entity only requiring a pair of gauntlets and his two fists to get the job done. While both Cife and Misa’s appearances were rather garish, his was far simpler. A network of black, tribal tattoos covered his entire neck, back and chest, most of it hidden beneath a form-fitting navy blue long sleeve shirt. With black slacks, dark brown combat boots, a long black coat, and an eight-point star hanging from a silver chain around his neck, he was the very picture of intimidating. However, the most interesting thing of all about him was his eyes. The left one was a steely grey like Cife’s, and the right a golden-flecked violet—just like Misa’s. The contrast between his heterochromatic eyes and his short, curly black hair and sideburns made for a striking, imposing figure, and in their line of work, this made him the perfect fit.
“Good, now that we’re all here, we can get down to business.” Reeves declared, eyeing each one of them expectantly. “So, what news do you have for me?”
Misa gave him a superior look, her banded red lips stretching into a feral smile. “Thanks to yours truly, we know where those Reg. Force lackeys are heading, next.”
Ignoring the fact that it was probably Cife he had to thank for that bit of information, Reeves asked, “And just where would that be?”
“Rome. And you’re going to love this, boss! Looks like the next artifact is supposed to be there, something called ‘the Goblet of Bacchus’.”
Reeves perked up at this. Her Ladyship had mentioned something by that name, he was sure of it. It looks like we’re on the right track, after all. He mused, tugging at his gloves absently.
“Boss…?” Misa was still standing in front of him, one fist planted on her hip as she stared up at him curiously. “Did the name ring a bell, or somethin’? You wouldn’t believe what we had to go through, to get that info. The place was just crawlin’ with—”
Kizah cut in before she could go off on one of her usual tangents, the larger Akuma speaking softly despite his deep voice. “Unfortunately boss, we don’t know exactly where in Rome the artifact is supposed to be,” he explained, idly stroking the soul patch on his chin, “We only managed to get the general coordinates.”
“Hey, after two days without any leads, I’ll take what I can get.” Reeves declared with a dismissive wave. Grasping the brim of his fedora, he gave them a curt nod. “Good work, you three. Now, haul your tails to Rome—take some of my shadows with you. Once there, use them to set up a perimeter so that you’ll know exactly when the firebird and his friends show up. I’ll go inform Her Ladyship of the news.”
“As you wish, sir.” Kizah bowed, his coat swishing around his calves when he straightened. He seemed about to speak, when Misa cut across him.
“Besides taking the artifact from them, what do you want us to do with the council’s little pets?” There was a savage gleam in her eyes as she asked this, the fingers of her right hand trailing along the silver hilt of her sword, tracing the outer edge.
Chuckling, Reeves replied, “You are to engage the enemy in whatever way you see fit—as long as you don’t destroy the artifact, you can maim and kill to your heart’s content.”
Though I doubt you’ll manage to kill him…
Just as the three Akuma were about to leave, he raised his hand, stopping them. “Oh, yeah—capture the human, if you can. The mistress would like to have a…shall we say, ‘little chat’, with the girl?”
This, of course, was an understatement. He didn’t know why she wanted the girl kept alive, but something about the human had Her Ladyship vexed, and whatever had her vexed was bad news for everyone under her command. If they failed to do exactly as she had specified, there would be hell to pay.
With Kizah’s assurance that they would fulfill their duties as ordered, he turned on his heel to leave, trench-coat swirling around him, the smart clacking of his dress shoes against the pavement echoing off of the alley walls. Glancing over his shoulder, he grinned in satisfaction. The trio had already departed; no doubt in eager anticipation of what awaited them, should they succeed in their mission.
Making his way to the mouth of the alley, Reeves ignored the overpowering stench of diesel as a transit bus lumbered past, and turned down a short drive leading to the underground parking lot of the new condominiums; their tall, glassy facades overlooking the bay-shore. Voices floated down to him as he descended into comfortable darkness, a slight breeze whistling between the large, concrete supports that stood sentry every eight parking spaces, or so—a sound that, while no doubt eerie to human ears, was music to his own.
Casting a surreptitious glance around to make sure no mortals were present, he strode toward the very back, making his way to the unfinished portion in the far right corner, the section cordoned off. The vibrant, orange mesh was a stark contrast to the shadowy wall behind it, but even the Shade doubted that any of the humans who resided here had noticed the dark, pulsating vortex stretching from the corner to the third parking space beyond it. With his powers being less than half of what they once were, he couldn’t teleport just anywhere at will. As a result, Her Ladyship had set up portals for him all over, granting him the ability to report to her from any part of the city.
Allowing himself a predatory grin, Reeves leapt over the mesh fencing, and stood before the portal. It’s only a matter of time, Phenex. As soon as my powers are restored—you’re mine!
Emboldened by the mere thought of having the firebird at his mercy, he steeled himself, and stepped into the swirling vortex, no doubt in his mind that Her Ladyship would be most pleased with his diligence…
Her Ladyship sat languidly, back resting against the pool’s edge with her elbows braced against the dark, shale bricks framing it. A weary sigh drifted from luscious pink lips as she gazed at her surroundings. It had taken her many years to find a location befitting her station, but as she took in the ambiance of the candlelit garden around her, with its dozens upon dozens of white candles sitting around the bath itself—some in sconces, others simply sitting on crystal dishes—and the assortment of potted azaleas and angelica sitting amidst the burgundy lace, she knew she couldn’t have found a better place than this quaint, romantic Japanese hot spring.
When she had first come upon it, it had been a thriving business, something she’d come to learn was known as a ‘spa’ to the mortals who dwelled here. Humans would enter the modest-sized teakwood reception house at the very front of the property, just beyond the main gate. Then they would follow the path that snaked around the side of the building, making their way passed the flowering cherry trees, and over to the dividing screens just opposite from where she currently sat. Once there, they would discard their clothing, and take advantage of the supposed healing qualities the hot spring had to offer. It hadn’t been long, however, before the half-siren had claimed the place for her own, scaring away all of the humans with the help of her most trusted operatives, and setting up an invisible barrier to prevent any more from ever finding the place, again.
Separating the rows of blossoming magnolia trees were white-washed flagstones, scattered with flower petals of pink, white, and lavender; the sweet, fragrant smell of the magnolia blossoms wafting in the warm, evening breeze. Tilting her head back, she gazed up at the moon, the silvery orb approaching fullness with each night that passed. The sky was a mixture of blues, ranging from cerulean to navy, and from navy to midnight, billions of stars twinkling far beyond the reaches of those who dwelled on Earth.
Her eyes were just beginning to close, lulled by the water’s enticing promise of slumber, when she felt a presence, sending a thrill down her spine. The sensation was cool, familiar, like that of fog ghosting across her skin. Certain that she knew who it was, she rose from the comfort of the warm, bubbling pool, the water trailing down her curved form, and vanishing beneath the gown of deep violet that suddenly appeared; covering her in a rich, smooth silk that hugged each one of her curves nicely. Only a single strap held the gown in place, leaving the smooth, mocha skin of her left shoulder completely untouched.
Slipping her feet into the pair of strapped high heels she’d left next to the pool, she stepped lightly onto the flagstone path and called out into the darkness, inviting whoever was there to come forward. A figure moved from beneath the lone Japanese maple standing sentry at the far end of the garden, face cast in shadow, though she knew at once who it was. He took a few more steps toward her, falling to one knee on the white-washed stones, eyes concealed by the brim of his hat as he inclined his head reverently.
“Mistress, my sincerest apologies for interrupting,” He rasped, the tenor of his voice one of devotion, “I bring news from our Akuma operatives.”
Her Ladyship appraised him with hooded eyes, drinking in everything from the black, leather gloves on his hands, to the neatly trimmed goatee that complemented his angular jaw. His dark trench-coat billowed on the ground around him, catching the flickering, orange glow of the candles that lined the walkway. It was only when he turned his gaze upward, staring at her quizzically with those piercing blue eyes of his, that she finally spoke, her lips quirking into a smile. “You may speak, Reeves. What news is it that you have brought me this night?”
“Word has it the High Council has their sights set on Rome. It’s likely that the second artifact, the ‘Goblet of Bacchus’, can be found, there.” The Shade declared, the briefest flicker of interest lighting his eyes when he continued, “I believe they intend to send Phenex and the daemon he hangs around with, as well as that new human pet of theirs—just as they did with the last artifact.”
She nodded slowly, considering his words. Before his incarceration, Reeves had been her most trusted subordinate, her second-in-command. Something, it seemed, that not even the passing of fifty years could change—regardless of the fact that his powers were in a temporarily weakened state. When the phoenix had locked him away in the prison realm of Nowhere, she had found herself in a most troubling position; for though the council didn’t suspect her of any wrong-doing, it wouldn’t have been long before she found herself in one of their interrogation cells, suffering the same fate as Reeves. Fortunately, with the help of one far more experienced in matters of betrayal, she had succeeded in escaping the council’s suspicions completely—the one she had eventually come to call Master framing some poor, unwitting demigod in her place.
Poor Hercules, She grinned slyly to herself, you never did see it coming, did you? Perhaps if you hadn’t spurned my advances, things would have been different. No matter; if we should meet again, I’ll know just how to deal with you.
Returning her gaze to Reeves, she smiled. “I see. And what orders did you give to our Japanese demon friends?”
“They’re in Rome now, waiting to ‘greet’ the firebird and his pals,” Reeves was all teeth now, the corners of his mouth curling into a feral grin, “Since we don’t know the exact coordinates of the artifact, I sent some of my shadows to set up a perimeter. Once the council’s pets go after it, our little trio will snatch it right out from under their noses.”
“…And the girl…?” She asked, pacing, the sharp click of her heels against the flagstones the only sound in the dead quiet of night.
“All taken care of,” The irises of Reeves’ eyes briefly flashed crimson before reverting back to their usual, crystal-clear blue, “The Akuma will bring her to you alive, as ordered.”
Laughing softly, Her Ladyship stooped so that she was nearly eye-level with him, his breath catching in his throat when she reached out her hand to cup his chin, fingers gently trailing along the rough stubble of his jaw. “You have served me well, my beloved.” She crooned, experiencing an overwhelming rush when he trembled under her touch. “If our mission should succeed, I shall reward you most lavishly for your dedication.”
Reeves rumbled low in his throat, sending a vibration through her fingertips. The power she held over him was simply intoxicating, a familiar hunger she hadn’t experienced in decades beginning to stir within her. With something as simple as a few words and a teasing caress, the Shade would go to the very ends of the earth for her; not a doubt in his mind that, when all was said and done, his efforts truly would be rewarded. Not that she didn’t have full intentions of rewarding him, of course she did—but if he were anyone else, if she didn’t truly hold him in the high esteem that she so claimed…well, how easy it would be to take from him what she wanted and then discard him, just as she had with so many others.
True, she had originally taken him on as her subordinate all of those years ago with the sole intention of doing just that, but with the passing of time, she had eventually grown to appreciate him. With each success he’d secured for her, it had become obvious that she needed his exceptional skills on her side. Reeves belonged to her, and her, alone—not even her master had sway over him, though she would pretend that he did whenever he granted her an audience, for both her sake, and his. If the master were to ever discover the truth…
Before she could take leave of her own senses, she stood, breaking contact with Reeves so suddenly that all he could do was stare at her dazedly, eyes clouded. The half-siren scolded herself, her fingertips pressed against her temples. She needed to tread more carefully; it would be all too easy for the master to read her mind, even from this distance, and if he did, it would be the end of everything she’d worked so hard to achieve.
Not to mention our lives. She thought bitterly, glaring up at the moon until the feelings of unease ebbed.
Sighing, she returned her attention to her subordinate, his eyes shining brightly in the darkness as he looked at her, a bewildered frown tugging at the corners of his lips. “Mistress, have I done something to offend you?”
Gesturing with her forefinger for him to rise, she waited until he’d drawn himself up to his full height before she answered. “Not at all, beloved. On the contrary, you have done exceptionally.” She leaned toward him, feeling him stiffen in surprise when she pressed her lips against his, urgency pumping in her veins. When the soft contours of his mouth finally melded with hers, the passion was overwhelming, forcing her to pull away, breathless.
Once they had both composed themselves, she took his face in both of her hands, holding his icy blue gaze with her own. “If there are any changes in the situation, report them to me immediately.” She instructed, continuing on in a hushed whisper as she brushed her lips against his cheek. “Until your powers have fully returned, you must stay to the shadows as much as possible; we cannot risk your exposure just yet.”
Reeves tilted his head to the side, his expression shifting into one of impatience—a look the half-siren had become far too familiar with in the last forty-eight hours. She knew what he was going to say before he even said it, and as he opened his mouth to speak, she gently pressed a finger against his lips.
“Hush, darling. You will get your chance to settle the score with Phenex, I promise you.”
“But if the Akuma—”
“The Akuma are far too weak to kill an entity of his caliber.” She interrupted, letting her hand fall to his shoulder, “Quite frankly, I would be impressed if they were able to land a scratch on him, period. You, however, are an entirely different matter.”
This seemed to placate him, his expression softening as he took hold of her hand, gently kissing it. “You are too kind, mistress. I promise you, I will not fail my mission.” He pressed his fist to his chest, bowing.
“I trust that you won’t. Now, attend to your duties,” She ordered, gracing him with a final smile, “I have my own preparations to make.”