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