Eight years later…
Gwen bolted upright in bed, eyes wide as she peered at the long, disfigured shadows on her bedroom walls, momentarily frightened. Realizing that the assortment of knick-knacks cluttering her shelves were the culprits, she settled back against her pillow with a sigh. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed the lavender hues of her bedroom walls looked a shade darker than usual, in spite of the moon’s silver light peeking through the cracks of her venetian blinds. A warm spring breeze wafted over her from the small window opposite, soothing her until the frantic thudding of her heart finally abated.
Letting her eyes drift closed so that only the faintest glimmer of light made it beneath her eyelids, the fifteen-year-old frowned.
What had woken her from the dream? The recurring nightmare about the large, grey serpent she’d been having for as long as she could remember? Of course, she always woke up before the end, before its coils squeezed the breath right out of her, but still…
It wasn’t until she heard the soft click of a door closing down the hall that she realized what had brought her out of the dream before the worst part could happen.
It looks like dad’s home late again; that’s the third time this week.
As a curator for the local museum, her father’s hours were unpredictable at the best of times. Because of this, and her mother always travelling on business for the car company she represented, Gwen spent a lot of time on her own. Even though she oftentimes felt lonely, she didn’t mind the solitude that much; she’d always found ways to keep herself preoccupied.
Even so, she couldn’t help noticing that she seemed to be spending a lot more time alone than usual…
Rolling onto her side, she pressed both of her fists into her pillow, fluffing it up until it was just the way she wanted it. Brushing back the tendrils of hair that had fallen across her forehead, she closed her eyes, willing her mind to go blank in the hopes of falling back to sleep once again. This proved to be futile, for now that she was awake, she couldn’t seem to return to the blissful state of unconsciousness she had so suddenly been jolted out of in the first place.
She tossed and turned for some time, finally kicking her blankets off and glaring at the bright, crimson numbers of the alarm clock sitting on the nightstand beside her; 12:18 a.m. With a huff of annoyance, Gwen lowered her feet to the cool, hardwood floor, and pushed herself up with a groan, stretching her arms high above her head and letting them drop limply at her sides.
Deciding that a late night snack might be in order, she made her way out of her room, through the short length of hallway, and down the winding stairs leading to the kitchen. Beams of light from the streetlamps outside shone through the window above the kitchen sink, bathing the mocha countertops in a soft, orange glow. The only sound that could be heard in the otherwise silent household was the ticking of the clock hanging on the wall separating the kitchen from the living room.
As she began rummaging through the cupboards, she caught sight of something glittering on the dining table. Turning around, she was surprised to see an assortment of items strewn across it, ranging from decorative to just plain bizarre; a feathered crown, a black cauldron, a strange looking staff…
When her gaze fell on an amethyst cluster twice the size of her hand, she reached out toward it, admiring the deep purple crystals lined with quartz. Gwen had developed a keen interest in gemstones at a young age, and as a result, had learned to tell certain ones apart. Amethysts were no exception, and had been amongst the first ones she’d learned to distinguish from all others.
Dad must have brought them home for cleaning, she mused, her gaze flicking over each one of the nine items on the table with mild interest. They’re probably for the museum’s new exhibition.
A spark emitted from the stone the moment her fingers made contact with it, causing her to draw back with a startled gasp. Before she could even wonder what had just happened, a white light came from deep within the amethyst’s core, spreading upward through the lower portions of quartz, and up into the peaks of lavender and violet. Pinpricks of light shot out from between the grooves of the stone, dancing across the surfaces of the walls and floor like the refractions of a disco ball.
“What…what’s going on?” Gwen gasped aloud, retreating a few more steps as each of the other items began to emanate the same light as the amethyst crystal. The light flowed in a counter-clockwise fashion, moving from the stone to the sword, then to the crown, and continuing on until all nine items glowed as one.
In the midst of all of this, Gwen just happened to notice her own hand. The same one she’d touched the crystal with shone with the same intensity as the items, lighting up from within so that each tendon and membrane of skin became nearly transparent. Before she even realized what she was doing, she had backed into the refrigerator, watching in morbid fascination as the light permeated the rest of her body. Each one of her limbs filled with a warm tingling sensation, growing in intensity as the light glowing beneath her skin began to do the same.
Gwen squeezed her eyes shut, the kitchen no more than a haze beyond the blinding white glare. It ended just as quickly as it began, a sudden flash cutting through the thin protection her eyelids offered before fading to black, leaving her to blink away the red specks before her eyes.
When the last vestiges disappeared, it took every shred of willpower Gwen possessed not to scream. Not a single trace of the items remained, the surface of the dark wooden table gleaming back at her almost guiltily. However, her father’s missing artifacts weren’t the cause of her panic.
A dark-haired figure clad in a navy blue frock coat and trousers lay coughing and sputtering on the linoleum directly in front of her, and if the radiant afterglow surrounding him was anything to go by, he was not what he seemed…
Gwen stared uncomprehendingly at the stranger in front of her, his face level with hers; so close that she could see the faint traces of stubble lining his jaw, his lips seemingly moving without sound.
“Miss..? Miss, are you alright?”
It wasn’t until her eyes met his that she finally snapped out of her stupor. Drawing away from him with a gasp, she realized she was sitting on the linoleum, her back pressed firmly against the refrigerator. How had she wound up on the floor, and for how long had this strange man been talking to her?
Where did he come from? She wondered. One minute, there had been artifacts on her dining table, and the next…
“W-Who are you?” Her voice was hoarse, barely above a whisper.
Aside from his frock coat, which Gwen thought looked suspiciously like the ones she’d seen in her history textbook, he wore a black dress shirt; the collar just visible beneath the unbuttoned lapel. Nearly every one of his fingers bore a ring of silver or gold, all etched with strange markings. Runes, she thought. One in particular stood out above the rest. A gold ring on his left middle finger, the only one with a stone set into it; a modest, oval-shaped sapphire.
“Please, don’t be afraid,” Gwen jumped at the sound of the man’s voice, her gaze snapping up to meet the startling silver of his eyes, “I assure you, I mean you no harm.”
Summoning her nerve, she slowly rose to her feet. “You didn’t answer my question,” she bit icily, “Who are you?”
There was the slightest twitch at the corners of the man’s mouth when she said this.
Is he making fun of me? She wondered, taking another step away from him when he rose to his feet. Her legs began to tremble, threatening to give out under her. No, this can’t be happening. This isn’t real; people don’t just…pop out of thin air. This has to be a dream. Any minute now I’ll wake up, and everything will be just the way it—
“My apologies,” the stranger’s words broke through Gwen’s thoughts, making her jump. He swept into a bow and straightened again, standing at least a foot taller than her five-feet-two-inches. “My name is Forneus. I am the guardian of the artifacts—the very ones that, until recently, were in your possession.”
Gwen shook her head mutely as she stared back at him, disbelieving. “This isn’t happening,” she muttered, “you’re not real. I’m not really in my kitchen…I’m asleep in my bed, and any minute, I’m going to wake up from this nightmare, and laugh the whole thing off.”
Even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t true. She had seen the artifacts glowing, and when they’d vanished, he had appeared. It was impossible, but it had happened, anyway.
Either that, or she was losing her mind. What other possible explanation was there?
When the stranger took a step forward, Gwen took another step back, edging away from the refrigerator warily. The man named Forneus watched her with curious eyes as she circled to the other side of the kitchen, strategically putting the dining table between them.
There’s a stranger in my house, she thought, trying to remain calm. There’s a stranger in my house, and the phone’s on the other side of the living room.
For whatever reason, he didn’t attempt to approach her again, simply contenting himself with staring at her. Now that there was some distance between them, Gwen was able to get a good look at him for the first time. He was actually quite handsome, in a regal sort of way; with short, wavy black hair, high cheekbones, a prominent nose, and a well-defined chin. Judging from the way his eyes crinkled at the corners, she guessed he was probably in his mid-to-late thirties.
Or appeared to be, at any rate.
“Okay, so let’s pretend you are who you say you are,” She said slowly, frowning, “what do you mean you’re the ‘guardian of the artifacts’? What the heck just happened? How did they disappear like that, and where did you come from?”
Forneus opened his mouth as if to speak, and shut it again. His expression became troubled, the skin around his eyes tightening noticeably. Who was this guy, and why did he suddenly look so forlorn? It was almost as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Gwen had seen that look before; on the faces of her parents whenever finances were tight, and they received the monthly bills. In the eyes of the substitute teachers that came to her school when they were assigned to that one, troublesome class that delighted in their suffering. Yet somehow, when she looked at this man—who had to be at least a decade younger than either her parents or her teachers—his expression spoke of a far heavier burden.
Finally, he answered. “I…I can’t say.”
Eyes narrowed, Gwen edged her way toward the kitchen’s entrance. Whatever sympathy she felt for him, she wasn’t about to let it cloud common sense. He was a stranger in her house, after all, and for all she knew, he was dangerous.
“What do you mean, you can’t say? Look pal, you showed up in my house completely out of nowhere, so I think you owe me some answers! It’s a simple question: what the hell just happened?”
“I assure you, this is far from simple.” Forneus ran a hand over his face with a sigh. “They’re not going to be happy about this…”
“Who are ‘they’?” She demanded, voice shaking. Her mind conjured up all manner of explanations, and none of them pleasant; from the possibility that he was an escaped patient from an asylum, to an ex-member of the mafia on the run from powerful crime lords.
Forneus studied her, the flicker of his eyes indicating that he could see her moving further away, though he did nothing to stop her.
He held her gaze for a few minutes longer and then looked away, shoulders slumping as he said, “I can’t tell you that, either.”
That did it.
Gwen sucked in a breath, preparing to scream. In the blink of an eye, a bejeweled hand clamped over her mouth, her scream turning into nothing more than a muffled yelp. Eyes wide, she tried to catch a glimpse of the man behind her, but with his arm pinning her body against his, it was impossible.
“Please, you musn’t,” he begged, his breath warm against her ear, “no one else can know about what has happened tonight.”
Gwen continued to struggle in his grasp, all to no avail. In spite of his lean build, his grip was like iron; and yet somehow, he wasn’t hurting her. She was too afraid to consider this however, and finally managing to get her mouth free of his hand, bit down on his index finger—hard.
He let out a surprised yelp of pain before covering her mouth with his hand again, his grip relaxing only slightly as he turned her around so that she was now facing him. “Please, calm yourself. You have my word—I’m not going to hurt you.”
There was something soothing in his tone as he said it, giving her pause. How was he able to hold her like this? So firm, yet gentle enough that he wasn’t causing her the least bit of physical discomfort?
“I’m going to release you now,” Forneus said, “but before I do, I need your word that you won’t scream. In return, I will tell you what you want to know. Do we have a deal?”
Gwen stared at him for a moment, unsure of whether she should trust him or not. Deciding that he had a lot more to lose than gain from letting her go, she nodded. As soon as he released her, she took several steps back, eyeing him warily.
“I’m sorry to have restrained you like that,” He told her, his tone gentle, “It is of great import that I fulfill my mission as discreetly as possible. If anyone else were to learn of what happened here tonight, it would cause no end of trouble.”
“How’d you do that?” Gwen asked, hugging her waist.
Forneus canted his head to the side. “Do what?”
“Drop the innocent act,” She said, glaring at him, “There isn’t a person alive anywhere that can move that fast. I didn’t even blink, and you were right behind me.” It struck her suddenly, and she drew back with a gasp. “Oh my god…what are you?”
Gwen didn’t know what had compelled her to ask, but she could feel it; every nerve-ending, every instinct…screaming that something about him was out of the ordinary. She couldn’t explain it; she just simply knew, deep down inside—like a memory from long ago, hazy and fragmented, lost to the passage of time.
And his eyes…they were unlike anything she had ever seen. The way they seemed to shine with an inner light, his strength and speed…
It was like the bedtime stories that her father used to tell her had come to life. Stories about mythical creatures and far-off places; stories of gods and other powerful beings, both malevolent and benign…
“I suppose there’s no point in hiding it from you,” Forneus replied, subdued, “I am a daemon; an entity born of this Earth, and molded by the gods, themselves.”
“No…it can’t be…” Gwen said, trembling, “Those were just stories…legends. There’s…there’s no such thing as the gods…”
“There are,” Forneus told her, “I know this must be a great deal for you to take in, but you did ask. I wouldn’t have felt right, concealing the truth from you; especially not now.” There was regret in his voice when he said this, but Gwen scarcely noticed.
Her mind was reeling with the information he had given her, one emotion after the other rising to the surface, struggling for dominance over the others. Far too many, more than she knew how to cope with. She swung from disbelief to certainty, from fear to acceptance and back again. She had no reason to trust this man, this daemon, as he’d called himself—absolutely none. And yet, despite all of her reasoning, despite everything logic stated was impossible—she couldn’t help actually believing him. Every word he’d spoken had been with such sincerity, such conviction…
Get it together, Gwen! She admonished herself, gripping the wall for support. Okay, so he’s not human—that much is obvious. It doesn’t mean that you can trust everything else that comes out of his mouth. For all you know, he lied about what he is—he could be an evil spirit, or some kind of…
A sudden flash of golden light came through the doorway separating the kitchen from the living room, chasing all thought from her mind. She looked at Forneus, frightened, the self-proclaimed daemon only offering her a shrug in return. Both turned simultaneously at the sound of approaching footsteps, Gwen unconsciously drawing closer to Forneus in fear.
The light faded, flickering like a flame being extinguished. Out of the darkness emerged a figure, his auburn hair turning a fiery red as he stepped into the pale glow coming through the kitchen window. Gwen found herself instinctively moving to stand behind Forneus when the figure approached, her mouth suddenly dry.
“Hello, Forneus. It’s been far too long.”
Gwen stood rooted to the spot, unable to coax her muscles into moving, no matter how desperately she wanted to. Her pajama shirt clung to her back from the cold sweat that had suddenly broken out across her skin, the palms of her hands clammy.
Her gaze flitted over the newcomer, sizing him up from head to toe; two gold hoops in his right ear, each engraved with the shape of what looked like a bird. Jeans and a simple white t-shirt, with a black leather jacket over top, unzipped; a pair of ordinary black and white sneakers.
And yet, in spite of his casual attire, Gwen suspected that like Forneus, there was something otherworldly about him.
Who is he? What is he? She wondered. Fear clawed its way up from the pit of her stomach and into her throat when his eyes met hers, her heart pounding deafeningly in her ears.
Whatever he was, he wasn’t human; of that much, she was certain. A human couldn’t have entered her house without making even the faintest amount of noise in the process, and there wasn’t a person alive with eyes that same brilliant, mottled shade of amber—or was it gold? They seemed to be shifting from one colour to the other, depending on just where the light hit them. There was something very, very unsettling about those eyes…
Forneus smiled warmly, shaking hands with the stranger, “It has been a long time. Though seventy-five years is nothing but the blink of an eye for us, wouldn’t you say, my friend?”
“You exaggerate, as always.” The man replied, his lips quirking into a wry grin.
Gwen gave a start upon hearing this. Seventy-five years?
She stared at the duo, perplexed. Forneus looked as if he was in his mid-thirties at most, the newcomer appearing younger, still—in his mid to late twenties, maybe. Either way, they looked younger than both of her parents. And yet, she couldn’t deny the possibility that they were much older than they appeared. Forneus was wearing clothing straight out of the eighteenth century, for crying out loud! If he truly was a daemon as he claimed to be, then wasn’t it possible for him to be decades older than he seemed—perhaps even centuries?
And the newcomer—she didn’t even want to begin guessing how old he really was.
Or what he was, for that matter.
Legs shaking, Gwen grabbed hold of the kitchen counter for support. Neither one of the men appeared to notice, the duo continuing to speak in hushed tones.
Oh god, I’m going to faint. It was only when they looked back at her that she realized she’d begun hyperventilating.
“Miss, what is it? Are you alright?” Forneus asked, taking a step toward her and resting a hand on her shoulder, “You’re rather pale.”
Gwen shrugged him off, her gaze flicking between him and the newcomer. “Don’t touch me,” she demanded, “And who the hell is he?”
She thought she saw the faintest hint of sadness in Forneus’ eyes, the silver dulling to grey as he withdrew from her.
She didn’t have long to ponder on it, however, as the newcomer turned to look at her, his gaze inquisitive. After a long, uncomfortable moment, he finally turned back to Forneus with a frown. “Wait, is this girl…?”
“Yes,” Forneus replied simply, shoving his hands into his coat pockets, “She is.”
“Well, I’ll be damned…”
Gwen felt her shock dissipating, giving way to anger. What the hell do they think I am, a zoo animal? She seethed. Gritting her teeth, she rounded on them. “Hello, did you even hear me? Who are you?”
Whatever she had seen in Forneus’ eyes moments ago disappeared then, the daemon smiling fondly at her. It almost seemed to Gwen as if he had expected her outburst, perhaps even admired it. She didn’t know what gave her this impression, but something in the way he was looking at her was oddly familiar.
An eternity seemed to pass, neither one of them saying a word. When the amber-eyed man snapped out of whatever trance he’d been in and reached out toward her, Gwen recoiled, squeezing her eyes tightly shut in the process. She didn’t know what he was going to do, but she was suddenly afraid. Upon hearing quiet laughter, she peeked warily from beneath her lashes, eyes widening in surprise; he was less than a foot away from her, his hand resting on the countertop next to her hip. The sudden proximity was unnerving to say the least, and she was about to tell him so, when he spoke.
“Well, aren’t you a jumpy little thing,” He chuckled, grinning crookedly as he continued, “Not that it’s any of your business, human, but the name is Phenex.”
Annoyed, she glared up at him, the feeling passing as what he’d said sank in.
Wait…does he mean…?
“Like the legendary bird, phoenix?” She asked aloud, feeling her cheeks warm in embarrassment when he sneered back at her.
“Not just like it, little girl,” Gwen made a sound of protest at his gibe, but he ignored her, continuing on, “I am a phoenix. However, the spelling of my name is archaic, derived from a primitive dialect dating back to when your kind were nothing more than simple-minded beasts. Though from what I’ve seen, not a lot has changed.”
Caught between fear and anger, Gwen half considered making a scathing remark, when both men stiffened, their gazes going toward the kitchen window. Forneus moved closer to her while Phenex crossed over to the window, drawing back the filmy white curtain with a scowl.
“Shit,” he swore, moving to join Forneus at Gwen’s other side, “they’re coming.”
“Who’s coming?” Gwen glanced frantically between them, letting out a gasp when they simultaneously grabbed hold of her arms. “Hey, what are you doing? Let me go!”
Warmth washed over her, each nerve ending tingling as if little bolts of electricity were dancing across the surface of her skin. The heat was particularly overwhelming where Phenex’s fingers met the inside of her forearm, almost like standing too close to the oven when it was on.
As a bubble of golden light radiated around them, she stopped struggling, her mouth hanging open when she caught a glimpse of movement outside of the window. Before she could discern what it was, everything exploded into dazzling colour, the kitchen vanishing as she was pulled into nothingness.