Whispers of Nowhere: Chapter Six (Revised)

Chapter Six

No sooner had they arrived at the very heart of the Roman Coliseum, when they were ambushed by a strange trio; all exceedingly different from one another, yet something about them was the same. From the flow of energy he felt rippling off of them, Forneus was certain that all three were Akuma—Japanese demons known for their use of elemental magic, and their penchant to cause natural disasters. But there was something strangely familiar about the power coming from them, something he couldn’t put his finger on, though he was positive he’d felt this specific presence once before.

A stiff breeze blew through the arena, kicking up a thick cloud of dust around the two parties, though neither side dared to move. Forneus was keenly aware of Gwen’s hold on his arm as she stood behind him, her grip tightening reflexively when the slim, platinum-haired female of the trio took a threatening step forward, crouching with her hand on the hilt of her sword, the blade still in its sheath. In spite of the heavy scarring of her right eyelid, her violet eyes shone brightly as day faded to night, the golden flecks of her irises catching the rays of the setting sun as it came through the slats lining the spectator stands. Or what formerly had been the stands, Forneus thought. The passage of time had thoroughly ravaged the coliseum of its former splendor; the stacked, circularly-seated rows surrendering to the wild vines pushing their way up through limestone and mortar, alike.

Beside him, Phenex moved forward in response to the female demon’s unspoken threat, flames already crackling in the palms of his hands. Though he couldn’t see from his vantage point, Forneus could easily imagine his expression; everything from the shifting of his feet to the way he rolled his shoulders spoke volumes of his eagerness for battle.

Between the terrified teen behind his back, the three enemies in front of him, and Phenex, the tension had become overwhelming; the air crackling like the onset of a thunderstorm, causing his skin to prickle in anticipation. His gaze shifted from one Akuma to the other, from the large, muscular one with heterochromatic eyes in his dark clothing, to the smaller male and female in their far less conservative apparel. Despite their contrasting complexions, the duo could pass for twins—though the male seemed worlds apart from his ‘sister’, if that was indeed what she was. Whereas hunger gleamed in her eyes, there was nothing but fear to be seen in his.

Eventually the female seemed to bore of their silent stand-off, for she glanced back at her two companions. “This is them? These are the guys the boss wants us to take out? Man, I’m disappointed,” She said, lip curling into a sneer, “How about you guys—Cife, Kizah?” Neither of her companions said anything. They simply nodded, the smaller Akuma visibly twitching with his eyes downcast, the larger one expressionless, as if the whole situation held very little interest for him.

Though Forneus remained unperturbed by her comment, he could see Phenex stiffen; a low rumble starting in his chest.

“Take it easy, old friend…” Forneus murmured, his voice just barely a whisper. “She’s trying to goad a reaction out of us. Don’t be fooled—they might not look like much, but they’re radiating a lot of power. I can feel it.”

Phenex glanced back, eyes flitting from Forneus to Gwen. His gaze lingered on her for a hair longer before returning his attention to the female Akuma. When he gave one of his usual, nearly imperceptible nods, Forneus understood, immediately; he would err on the side of caution, if only for Gwen’s sake.

Not that he would ever admit it out loud. He mused, fixing his gaze on the three Akuma when they began pacing; their steps slow, deliberate. Taking hold of Gwen’s wrist, he mirrored the trios’ movements, gently guiding his human charge so that she remained behind him at all times, both groups circling one another with Phenex positioned between the Akuma and Forneus. There was no doubt in Forneus’ mind that Phenex did this intentionally, providing an extra buffer to further shield Gwen from harm. Regardless of his personal feelings towards humans, he would perform his sworn duty as an operative of the Regulations Force to the utmost of his ability.

Forneus didn’t know for how long they continued to circle one another, weaving between the broken, fluted columns scattered throughout the arena, the only sound that of their footsteps crunching over rubble, when the larger Akuma finally spoke.

“Remember the boss’ orders, Misa…” His words were met with impatience from the female, her eyes narrowing as she glared over her shoulder at him.

“I heard you the first ten times,” She snapped, her already dark complexion appearing to deepen a shade further in her irritation, “Come on Kizah, what are you waiting for? We’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em!”

The one named Kizah said nothing, simply continued his leisurely stride, his mismatched gaze flitting between Forneus and Phenex warily.

Yes, what are you waiting for? Forneus wondered, echoing the female—Misa’s—question. Why hadn’t they attacked, yet? Were they biding their time, and if so, why? Noticing their attention on Gwen, he had the uneasy feeling that whatever orders they’d received had something to do with her. But what? Was it possible that they knew…? So many questions flooded his mind, and all the while, he continued on in the same steady manner, not once faltering in his steps as he kept Gwen behind him. Phenex appeared to be growing more restless by the minute, the fire spreading until it encompassed each one of his fingers, his hands balling into fists.

Whatever their reasons for not having attacked yet, it didn’t matter. What did matter was finding the second artifact as quickly as possible—but this would prove difficult with the three Akuma dogging their every step. If he could just get Gwen a safe distance away, he knew that he and Phenex would be able to hold the trio off while she searched for the goblet…

Forneus glanced back when he heard Gwen gasp, alarmed when he saw the colour drain from her face. “What is it, Gwen? What’s wrong?” He asked. He could feel her trembling, her eyes wide, unfocused.

“I-I…I think it’s nearby…” She whispered, her eyes clearing when she met his gaze, “I’m not sure…but I think it’s—”

He shook his head, shooting a warning glance at her. Gwen abruptly stopped talking, pressing her lips firmly together and casting an apologetic look in his direction.

“Now, now,” Forneus’ attention was drawn back to the one known as Misa, her violet gaze fixed on Gwen, “It’s not nice to keep secrets, blondie. Why don’t you share with the class?” Banded red and black lips drew back into a cruel smile, the fingers of her left hand tightening around the hilt of her sword, her right hand grasping the sheath.

At this rate, it wouldn’t be long before she gave into impulse and launched the first strike. This in and of itself didn’t worry Forneus, not when he knew Phenex was primed and ready for action; but there was something disturbing in the way the female Akuma looked at Gwen—with such malicious savagery—that gave him pause. The sudden, overwhelming need to protect the girl stole over him in an instant, coming through so violently that a warning rumble sounded in his throat, turbulent waves of fury struggling to break free as his gaze locked with Misa’s.

Without looking at her, he murmured, “Gwen, when I give the word, I want you to make a run for it. We’ll hold them off; you just concentrate on finding the artifact, okay?” He felt her free hand come to rest on top of his, squeezing it in confirmation.

That’s my girl. Aloud, he said, “Good. Okay, let’s take this nice and slow…”

Despite keeping his voice low, Forneus was certain that all three Akuma had heard the exchange. Three sets of eyes were trained on him and Gwen, though they still cast furtive glances in Phenex’s direction, undoubtedly aware that to ignore him completely would be to invite their own deaths. Whoever they served, he or she was clearly well acquainted with what he was capable of, or so it appeared to Forneus. Perhaps the female Akuma, Misa, was of a far more reckless persona, but it was obvious to him that the large one known as Kizah was the leader of their little group. As such, they continued treading carefully, never once lowering their guard.

A wise choice, Forneus mused.

Deciding he’d had quite enough of their endless pacing, he brought his arms forward, calling forth three, fiery orbs to circle above the palms of both hands. “Get ready.” He declared, as much for Phenex’s benefit as for Gwen’s.

Phenex’s own fire, having dwindled somewhat over the course of the last few minutes, flared back up again, the flames bathing his leather jacket and the shirt underneath in a soft, orange glow. His gaze was fixed on the trio, golden-amber eyes taking on a feverish gleam in his eagerness for battle.

Well, he was about to get his wish, and the coliseum was about to play host to a battle the likes of which it had not witnessed for many centuries—if ever before.

“…Now!” Forneus shouted, sending the fireballs whizzing through the air with a simple flick of his wrists, the female Akuma drawing her katana and blocking with the flat of her blade. He could hear the distant thudding of Gwen’s shoes as she ran off to do as he’d instructed of her, her footfalls echoing between the ruined columns and archways. Meanwhile, Phenex had engaged Kizah the moment Forneus had unleashed his attack on Misa, rushing him with one fiery punch after another, leaving the large Akuma no time to retaliate.

“Cife, get the girl!” Misa shrieked, baring her fangs as she charged Forneus. He sidestepped her, evading each vertical slash of her sword with practiced ease. Spotting an opening, he delivered a devastating palm strike to her chest, adding an electrical surge for good measure, effectively stunning her. She tumbled over backwards and fell into an awkward heap, limbs akimbo.

He watched out of the corner of his eye as the thin, pale Akuma named Cife moved to do as he was told, both hands roving over the utility belt slung across his narrow hips. He withdrew the throwing daggers sitting there, gripping three of them between the knuckles of his right hand. Preparing to intervene, Forneus summoned a series of fireballs into his open hand, twisting them until they formed a rapidly-spinning wheel of flame. His efforts proved unnecessary when Phenex landed beside him, beating him to the punch.

“Not so fast!” He growled, knocking the thin, diamond-shaped blades from Cife’s grasp with a thin stream of flame. The grey-eyed demon yelped, staring fearfully at the firebird with his wounded hand cradled against his chest.

Phenex had just enough time to return his attention to Kizah, the brutish Akuma bearing down on him with an angry roar. His gauntlet-covered fists smashed the ground as he tried to land a hit, though Phenex was far too quick for him. Forneus was certain he’d caught the faintest hint of a smile when he streaked past him, the expression mocking, almost playful, as he continued evading each swing of the demon’s massive fists. When Kizah was thrown off-balance by his own haphazard attacks, he took full advantage of it, and sprang forward. Gaining a foothold along the bewildered Akuma’s shoulder, he rebounded off of it, launching high into the air and unleashing a rain of fire down on him.

Forneus looked up just in time to see Misa running full-tilt toward him, her katana extended. Thinking this was as good a time as any to switch tactics, he held his right hand out in front of him, focusing on the ether flowing through his body and concentrating it into an electrical form, his knuckles tingling as the current travelled through his shoulder and into the tips of his fingers.

When the tip of Misa’s blade was no more than a foot away, he released the electrical discharge, a brilliant indigo glow coursing through the katana and into her. She screamed, her knees buckling under her, Forneus only stopping when she was writhing on the ground. Really, it gave him no pleasure to do this, to cause pain and suffering to any being, be they benign or malevolent—but after she had threatened Gwen? Well, she deserved far worse than what he had just bestowed upon her.

As a high-pitched whistling reached his ears, Forneus instinctively threw a force field up, the three knives that had been sailing through the air emitting a green flash of light when they glanced off of the energy barrier, falling to the arena floor with a soft thud. As the shield dispersed, he turned, levelling his gaze with Cife’s. The small male’s grey pallor took on a slight green tinge as he stared back at him with wide, frightened eyes.

Sighing, Forneus concentrated, summoning lightning into his outstretched hand. His fingertips tingled as indigo-violet energy arced from his thumb to his pinky finger and back again, forming a ball of static within his open palm. He didn’t know what to make of the timid, red-headed Akuma, other than to assume that perhaps, unlike his cohorts, he derived no enjoyment from combat and had simply been forced into service.

Regardless, he still poses a threat to Gwen, and to us. Turning his hand so that his palm was now facing downward, he was just about to release a powerful, electrical surge into Cife, when the demon spoke in a shrill, youthful voice.

“N-No…please…” He pleaded, retreating a few steps from him, only to trip over a broken piece of column and fall on his backside with an audible thump.

If it hadn’t been for the sheer magnitude of the mission, and if not for his ever-growing desire to protect Gwen from any and all who would do her harm, Forneus might have actually taken pity on him. However, the guardian had been around long enough to know that, in such matters, showing the enemy mercy would be most unwise; for even if Cife were to surrender, his companions certainly would not.

Swallowing back his feelings of reluctance, he held out his hand, preparing to send just enough voltage into his foe to knock him out when his suspicions were confirmed; Misa’s high, grating voice rising above the electrical crackle.

“Cife…you disgust me…” Allowing the static to fade, Forneus swept his gaze over to the dark, iridescent-skinned female, watching in silence as she struggled to her feet with the help of her sword, the blade firmly planted in the ground. “Don’t you dare beg the enemy for mercy…the boss taught us better than that!”

Her exclamation was followed by a series of explosions a short ways behind both her and Cife, Forneus turning to stare at the same time as brilliant flames of red and orange rose up, towering over the second and third rows of the spectator stands. A blast of hot air swept the entire diameter of the ground floor, and both Akuma raised their arms in an attempt to shield against the searing heat—only to cry out when their efforts proved in vain.

Forneus, for his part, was wholly unaffected, merely feeling the heat wash over him as one feels the waves of the ocean on a tropical beach. Between having his own penchant for fire magic and his long-standing friendship with Phenex, he had built up something of an immunity over the centuries. This wasn’t to say that Phenex’s flames couldn’t burn him, of course; just that it would take more than a gust of hot air to make it happen.

With the two, smaller Akuma lying injured on the ground, and Phenex in the midst of combat with Kizah, Forneus was afforded the opportunity to look at the expanse of stands behind him. Peering through the billowing dust, his gaze flitted from one tier to another, following the entire breadth of the stands in hopes of catching a glimpse of Gwen somewhere amidst the overhanging archways and eroding stone benches. But with the sky deepening from lavender to navy blue, the coliseum walls cast long shadows over the stands, shrouding the lowermost portions in complete darkness. He couldn’t see her, but he knew she was there, somewhere; there was no doubt about it in his mind. If he strained his ears, he could just make out the sound of her sneakers crunching over dirt, of pebbles skittering across the ground when she inadvertently kicked them.

When the arena was rocked with yet another explosion, he heard her frightened cry, cut off by the sound of the battle raging on just beyond the gladiatorial pits. Had it been the explosion that scared her, or had Gwen run into some sort of trouble? What if there were more enemies here, than just the three he and Phenex had been fighting all this time? What if she was hurt? Anxiety gnawed at his stomach, his throat constricting at the mere thought of it.

He couldn’t wait around any longer; he had to go to her, right now.

Glancing over his shoulder, he was relieved to see that neither the dark nor the pale-skinned Akuma would pose a problem, at least not for the time being. Both were still nursing their wounds, Misa muttering curses under her breath as she clutched her burnt midriff, Cife lying face-down, his whimpers muffled against the dirt floor.

Good.

Forneus took a steadying breath, and with a burst of determination, bolted forward, desperately hoping that he would find Gwen, and that when he did, it wouldn’t be too late.

***

Gwen’s heart had been pounding out the same erratic rhythm from the moment she’d torn off toward the coliseum stands in search of the second artifact; or the ‘Goblet of Bacchus’, as she had learned it was called. Adrenaline rushed through her veins, pushing her onward even when her legs threatened to collapse under her. Steady, sharp pain came with every inhalation of breath, like a knife lodged between her ribs. The same prickling she’d experienced with Loki’s Amulet pulsed beneath her skin, growing stronger with every step as if to tell her that she was drawing nearer to her goal. The arched entryways that lined the stands suddenly seemed menacing, the last of the sun’s rays fading down into the horizon, throwing everything around her into gloom. Even the silvery light of the moon, nearing fullness, wasn’t enough to penetrate the deep shadows despite the coliseum lacking a roof.

Up the worn, broken stone steps she ran, continuing on past the first row and then the second. All the while guided by the overwhelming sense of urgency setting each one of her nerve endings aflame. Gwen heard shouting far behind her, the sudden whoomph of fire as it ignited. Orange light threw her surroundings into sharp relief and faded again, leaving her to blink away the pinpricks of white light before her eyes. It wasn’t until she tripped and fell, scraping her knees through her black denim pants, that she decided to stop moving. She scanned the darkness on either side of her, unable to make out more than a fuzzy ledge here, the corner of a seat there, everything else blacker than pitch.

That’s when she saw it, peeking out from beneath the rubble of one of the benches far to her left; a sliver of bronze reflecting off of the divider separating the second row from the third. Is that it? She wondered, squinting through the darkness. She couldn’t quite make it out, though she was certain she caught a flash of something—perhaps a diamond, just like the ones from the goblet she’d seen on her kitchen table no more than three nights, before. Beyond that nothing else was discernible, and unless she moved from her spot on the steps and crawled her way over to it, she wouldn’t know for sure.

Choking back a startled yelp when a resounding crash came from the other end of the coliseum, Gwen crept forward on her knees and elbows, moving along the ground like a soldier crawling through the trenches, her gaze fixed on the glimmer of bronze in front of her. Just keep going…never mind what’s going on behind you…that’s it, almost there…

It became clear as she drew closer that it was the ‘Goblet of Bacchus’ after all, the vertical diamond and ruby patterns lining from its lip down to the stem glittering between the blackened vines entangling it. She could almost touch the goblet now, the fabric of her sweater whispering against the edge of one of the benches as she stretched her fingers out toward it.

That’s when it dawned on her; not even a full seventy-two hours had passed since she’d first been pulled into all of this artifact madness—so how could the vines have wound around it, already?

As if on cue, the vines holding the goblet shot out toward her. It happened so suddenly that she didn’t have time to think, much less act, the vines snaking all the way up from her wrist to her elbow, and tightening. “No!” She yelled, yanking her arm backward, digging the fingers of her other hand into the divider next to her, trying to anchor herself. As more of the dark, wispy tendrils wound their way around her neck and torso, it occurred to her that the goblet wasn’t glowing. Why hadn’t she been struck with an explosion of light like she had the first time? When she’d gone after Loki’s Amulet, she had only to get close to it and it had reacted! So, why wasn’t it the same with this one? Was it not the second artifact, after all?

No…it has to be! I know it is—I saw it that night! Please, wake up! I need your help!

The vines were closing in faster now, binding her from head to toe; wrapping so tightly, she could scarcely breathe. Her vision started to fade until the coliseum stands were nothing more than a blur, fogging at her peripherals.

“Gwen! Gwen, where are you?”

Was that Forneus’ voice? She tried to move, tried to call out to him, but no sound came out. The vines tightened around her throat, their thin tendrils gagging her as they proceeded to close over her nose and mouth, her body growing colder with each passing second. Soon she would lose consciousness, and there would be nothing but darkness to welcome her.

“Hang on, Gwen! I’m coming!”

Forneus…     

“Gwen! Please, answer me!”

I’m sorry…I let you down…

“Oh, thank Mythos…I’m right here, sweetheart. You’re going to be alright…”

A flash of light cut through her eyelids and disappeared, leaving behind a darkness much deeper than before.

She felt something brush against her cheek, her body being pulled to one side, cradled against something firm, yet soft; the feeling soothing, familiar. It took her a moment to realize she could breathe again, the vines no longer constricting her air flow. As soon as she thought this, her eyes fluttered open, and she began coughing, her chest heaving as she tried to suck in deep lungfuls of air. Two strong, gentle hands grasped her shoulders, the one on her right trailing down to rub between her shoulder blades.

“Everything’s going to be alright,” Forneus murmured in her ear, “I’m here, now.”

“The…the goblet…” she managed, succumbing to another coughing fit, her throat burning with the effort.

No sooner had she felt Forneus shift, reaching toward where she had indicated, when there was an explosion of dazzling light, both ceasing to move just as they had with the amulet. Gwen didn’t understand why the goblet was only now reacting, but as it floated toward her, she supposed it didn’t matter. As long as the seal had been restored, that was all that mattered. She would just have to ask Forneus about it, later.

A wave of pure sensation rushed up from her toes to the top of her head, eating away at the shadows on either side of them, Forneus gasping when the light that bathed her suddenly enveloped him. His grip on her shoulder reflexively tightened and relaxed again, Gwen catching a glimpse of his wide-eyed astonishment, his pupils contracting when the light grew brighter. It seemed so strange to her that, despite being a supernatural being, he reacted in much the same way a human would under the same circumstances. No, it wasn’t just strange—it was downright fascinating. In a moment of pure, innocent curiosity, she wondered what other similarities he shared with humans, if he experienced sensations or emotions the way they did.

When the light suddenly vanished, Gwen couldn’t stop herself from falling limp. Her back connected with the stone bench behind her, heart hammering against her ribcage as she struggled for breath. Why hadn’t a voice spoken to her like before? Had she gotten another gift, like the strange mind control power she’d received from Loki’s Amulet? What about Forneus; didn’t he say that his fire magic had returned to him back in Germany? After all, that was one of the conditions of finding the artifacts—having portions of his power returned to him. So just what had they gained from the goblet?

I suppose we’ll just have to find out, once we get out of here…if we get out of here…

She was startled out of her thoughts when Forneus asked her if she was alright, his voice unsteady. He sounded as breathless as she felt, as if the restoration of the artifact had taken a toll on him, as well. A tremor went through her shoulder where his hand rested, his silver eyes bright and alert, though lined with exhaustion underneath.

Perhaps he does experience things the way humans do, after all.

Seeing the genuine concern in his luminous eyes, Gwen was overcome with gratitude, warmth slowly blossoming in the very centre of her chest.

When tears stung the corners of her eyes, she gingerly swiped them away, carefully concealing the fact that she’d been on the verge of crying at all. Forcing a smile to her lips, she turned to face him. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

Forneus gave her a long, searching look as if he didn’t quite believe her, though he said nothing more on the matter; merely pulled her to her feet with one hand, and pocketed the goblet with the other. When another violent tremor rocked the coliseum, they both turned toward the source of the explosion, Gwen squinting as she took in the fire blazing in the arena below.

“We’d better get back, before Phenex burns the entire coliseum to the ground.” Gwen glanced at him when he said this. Forneus gently took her hand in his, his expression one of half-seriousness.

Nodding her agreement, she took a deep breath and shut her eyes, giving herself over to the familiar, dizzying sensation of being teleported.

***

It was all Phenex could do to stay on his feet, dodging one blow after another as the large, russet-skinned Akuma swung his gauntlet-clad fists at him; occasionally grazing him but more often than not, hitting nothing but open air and the sand-covered arena floor. The latter always stirred up a massive cloud of dust, rendering him immobile for a few seconds, seized with a coughing fit. With the number of times this had happened, he was beginning to think this was anything but coincidence.

It was during one of these times that he felt his suspicions were true. Kizah landed a solid hit, planting his fist directly in Phenex’s gut and knocking the wind right out of him. He hit the ground hard, jagged rocks digging into his side where he landed. He could tell from the sharp pain as he exhaled that two of his ribs had broken, an intense burning sensation starting above his navel as his regenerative abilities kicked in, healing the breakage within a matter of seconds. Rolling onto his back, he did a kip-up and dodged to the right, Kizah’s bronze-plated knuckles just missing him by a hair and throwing him off-balance like before.

Phenex took advantage of this and swung his left fist in a wide hook, slamming it into Kizah’s jaw, singeing the flesh on impact with a last-minute ember burst across his knuckles; a tactic that had become his bread and butter when facing off against opponents larger than himself over the last few decades. This did the trick, Kizah staggering back a few steps with a grunt, one hand coming up to touch the blistering skin on the right side of his jaw. Phenex wasn’t about to wait around for him to recover, not now that he had the upper hand. He lashed out with his right leg, fire trailing along behind his heel as he snapped his foot forward, connecting with Kizah’s midsection.

The Akuma stumbled back several paces, eyes of grey and violet narrowing as he glared down at him. He continued moving backward in an obvious attempt to put some distance between Phenex and himself, but Phenex was having none of it. Baring his teeth, he rushed him, leaping high into the air with his arm drawn back, crimson flames licking across his knuckles. Kizah’s eyes widened in alarm, too late, as Phenex brought his fist down with a growl. The punch connected just beneath the left eye, knocking the Akuma off his feet.

Kizah immediately brought both hands up to his face, a guttural wail echoing off of the coliseum walls as he writhed on the ground, blood trickling down his cheek from where the burn had already begun to blister. Shaking the hand he’d struck him with, Phenex ignored the unearthly noise floating up from the Akuma’s mouth, and decided now was as good a time as any to take stock of his surroundings. He cringed as his gaze drifted from the lower levels of the stands behind him, to the broken columns scattered on either side. Everywhere he and Kizah had wound up during their fight showed signs of their battle; from blackened scorch marks crisscrossing along the ground, to large impact craters that put the surface of the moon to shame. On top of everything else, most of the columns and stone archways—having already been in a state of ruin—had now been reduced to a fine powder.

The unit was not going to be happy about this—not in the slightest. And guess who they’ll blame? He thought bitterly with a sigh.

“You bastard,” He turned at the sound of Kizah’s voice, the Akuma letting out a snarl as he lumbered to his feet, Phenex instantly taking notice of the angry, swollen red patch of skin beneath his left eye. “I’ll tear you limb from limb!”

So, he can get mad, after all…

He dove to the side, rolling across the ground just in time as Kizah brought both of his fists down. The tremor caused several of the columns that had still been standing up to that point to come crashing down, the sound of stone shifting and cracking as large pieces broke away resounding across the entire pit. He barely made it to his feet before Kizah was looming over him once again, the gauntlets coming down faster, one after the other, drilling the ground barely an inch away from him each time. He could feel the air move with every strike, his bangs fluttering against his forehead as he deked from side to side.

“Phenex, look out!” Forneus’ voice reached him faintly, barely making it through the barrage of attacks being thrown his way.

I am looking out, He thought to himself, hazarding a glance over his shoulder to see Forneus running toward him with Gwen in tow, what the hell is he talking ab—

It happened all at once. A sharp pain between his shoulders and again in his right calf, followed by a vicious uppercut from Kizah; the larger entity taking advantage of his momentary distraction. Phenex landed on his back, the sharp pain intensifying as whatever he’d been hit with dug deeper into his flesh.

It’s gotta be that bastard with the knives. He surmised, trailing his fingers along where Kizah had hit him, the contours of his jaw swollen, tender. Thankfully, it was already beginning to heal, a warm, tingling sensation travelling along the abused area. The wounds in his calf and back, however, were another matter; he would have to remove the blades in order for his regenerative process take over.

Not that I’ll get the chance. He thought grimly, rolling off to the side as another hammer-punch hit the ground barely an inch from where he’d just been. He winced as the blades dug in deeper, but staggered to his feet nonetheless, leaping backward when Kizah threw another punch his way. Vaguely, he could hear the sound of approaching footsteps, coming faster now, though from the number of footfalls, he knew it was more than just Forneus and Gwen. The other two Akuma were no doubt coming to the aid of their comrade, just as his was coming for him.

Wrenching the throwing knife from his calf with a snarl, he lobbed it at Kizah, the blade bouncing off of his chest harmlessly—and distracting him just long enough for him to unleash a single, fiery burst between both hands. The flames fanned out on impact, sizzling along the open edges of the Akuma’s long coat, and burning a hole in the dark blue shirt underneath.

Phenex had just enough time to feel the muscles in his calf starting to heal when Kizah unexpectedly lunged forward, slamming his elbow into his shoulder. Searing pain travelled down the full length of his arm, his stomach churning when he heard the sickening crunch of his collarbone breaking. Momentarily weakened, he stumbled, jarring his left knee when he landed on it, a cold sweat breaking out across the back of his neck. He could just make out the sound of the female Akuma screeching over the blood rushing in his ears, ordering Kizah to finish him off.

As quickly as the feeling of nausea had come, it vanished. His collarbone shifted back into place with an audible pop, the torn ligaments mending between both shoulder and socket. Now if only he could get the damned blade out of his back! Temper flaring, his furious gaze met Kizah’s just as he pulled his arm back to deliver the final blow. Phenex was too fast for him. He brought both hands forward, cupping them so that his wrists were touching, and with renewed strength, unleashed a fiery torrent nearly the full width and breadth of his foe. As blood-curdling as Kizah’s screams had been before, they were nothing in comparison to the guttural wails coming from his mouth now, his heterochromatic eyes bulging in their sockets as he fell back with a loud thump.

The flames dissipated, but not before they left a series of raw, angry welts over every exposed inch of his skin, as well as the patches that could be seen through the sections of clothing that had all but burned away. The agony must have proven too much for him. He fell silent, his chest just barely rising with each breath.

Unconscious, Phenex realized, good.

Groaning, he slowly got to his feet, the sting of the blade in his back growing ever more irritating. He would have ripped it out long before now, but with it sitting directly between his shoulder blades, he couldn’t brush it with the tips of his fingers, much less get an actual grip on the damned thing to pull it out. Still he tried, twisting every which way, reaching back with one hand, then the other; all to no avail.

Guess I’ll just have to ask Forneus. He thought, defeated.

Startled by the sudden flash of indigo-violet light just behind him, he turned in time to see Forneus unloading a bolt of lightning into the two smaller Akuma, the female apparently having been in the process of thrusting her sword toward his exposed, leather-clad back. Her one good eye was wide in a mixture of surprise and agony, her mouth forming a nearly comical ‘O’ of surprise. Both dropped to the ground, writhing and screaming; Forneus continuing his electrical onslaught for several more seconds before finally relenting.

Noticing the usually silver eyes darkening to a slate grey, Phenex knew instantly that he was well past the point of being furious; something that could only be brought on under rare circumstances—such as the lives of those he cherished most being threatened. And while he was certain a portion of Forneus’ ire came on his behalf, he figured something awful must have happened to Gwen while Phenex himself had otherwise been engaged in combat.

Whatever it was, it must have frightened him terribly, Phenex realized, experiencing a twinge of concern; if there was anything that pained him, it was seeing Forneus in this very state.

It was only once all three Akuma were safely out cold that Phenex took stock of Gwen, the teen silently clinging to the back of Forneus’ coat, her jade eyes large with fright. She looked paler than he remembered, scratches covering her face, neck, and arms, a few of which were still bleeding.

“Are you alright?” He looked up at the sound of Forneus’ voice, the words strained.

Phenex nodded, volleying back. “Are you?” He allowed his gaze to flit from one to the other, letting Forneus know the question had been meant for both of them, even if he was reluctant to say so.

As if in answer to his question, Gwen’s eyes rolled back, her knees buckling under her. Forneus grabbed hold of her before she could hit the ground. In one fluid motion, he had her cradled in his arms with her head resting against his chest, her expression peaceful. Phenex stared at her for some time, unsure of how he felt at that precise moment. Try as he might, he couldn’t quash the concern he felt for her, for the strain she was under. He didn’t much like the girl—she was a human after all, and they had long since proved that they couldn’t be trusted—but he didn’t exactly hate her, either.

Ambivalence, He mused. Isn’t that what they call it?

“It must be the artifacts taking a toll on her like this.” He said aloud, hissing through his teeth when he felt the dagger shifting in his back, “Damn it…I hate to ask, but do you think you can take this thing out for me?” He turned so that Forneus could see the dagger.

Forneus obliged, ripping the blade out as quickly as possible, Phenex gritting his teeth against the brief flash of pain. Once the warmth started, he heaved a sigh, his posture relaxing. He could feel his torn clothing mending as well, all thanks to an enchantment Apollo had given him shortly after the Greek god had taken him under his tutelage. Quite the useful spell, all things considered, though it sometimes took a while to kick in. Luckily for him, fire had absolutely no effect on his clothing, having been hand-crafted and tailored specifically for him—otherwise he would have found himself in many an uncomfortable situation, by now.

When he turned to face Forneus, the guardian was gazing at the girl in his arms, eyebrows drawn together and his lips turned down at the corners. If there had ever been a time he’d seen him this anxious and vulnerable, Phenex couldn’t think of it.

“She’ll be alright,” the words were out before he even realized he was saying them, “She just needs rest, that’s all.”

“I know.” Forneus’ expression softened, the corners of his mouth curling into a tentative smile.

Phenex barely noticed, his mind racing as he studied the three unconscious forms lying at their feet. Something about them had seemed…off. “Who are they, anyway?” He nudged the small, red-haired male with the toe of his shoe, and glanced up at Forneus.

“I’m not sure,” His expression was thoughtful, “You could feel their power, right? You could tell for certain that they were Akuma?”

Phenex nodded, “Of course. We dealt with a lot of them back in the day. I don’t think it’s possible for me to forget their presence, even if I tried.”

“Even so, there is something peculiar about these ones.” Forneus murmured, almost to himself, “Something about their energy is…unstable, yet, familiar. I just can’t seem to put my finger on it.”

Phenex was quiet a moment, contemplating what he had said. Now that Forneus had mentioned it, it seemed so obvious that he couldn’t understand how he’d missed it in the first place. Something did feel familiar about the three Akuma, something far beyond just being able to identify them for what they were. What it could be, however, he didn’t know. Stranger still, why hadn’t they used any of their real power? Where were their attacks of fire and ice, of thunderstorms and gale-force winds?

It was then that he became acutely aware of something moving in his peripherals, something dark and shadowy, creeping closer from all around them. “Forneus,” he said in warning, “I think we’d better leave.”

Forneus, who had been looking down at Gwen once again, glanced up sharply, suddenly alert. Phenex saw him unconsciously tighten his grip on the teen, hoisting her more securely in his arms, silver eyes flashing.

As he peered at the ghostly shadows sliding across the ground toward them, he replied evenly, “Yes, I suppose we should.”

Between Forneus’ arms being too full of unconscious teenaged human to fight, and the large number of enemies closing in on them, there was simply no time to contact any of the Regulations Force units to collect the three Akuma. Perhaps with any luck, the trio would still be in the coliseum when one of the units did arrive.

As they teleported, returning to the calm, undulating walls of blue and violet in Gwen’s quarters, a primal growl built in Phenex’s chest; clawing its way up his throat and out between clenched teeth.

Forneus, who had been laying Gwen on the bed, looked up at him, bewildered. “What is it?”

For a minute, Phenex couldn’t speak, his gaze fixed on the opposite wall, unfocused. White-hot rage frothed in his veins, bubbling up like lava. No—hotter than lava, scorching him from within. “Those shadows…” He choked out, barely able to suppress his anger.

Forneus stared at him, uncomprehending. Then, his eyebrows lifted, his expression alight with understanding. “You think it’s—?”

“There’s no doubt about it,” Phenex answered, nostrils flaring, “Reeves.”

***

Reeves studied the three Akuma in front of him, gaze flitting first from one then to the other, taking in their battle worn appearance. Kizah was almost completely covered in burns, his skin a shiny, raw pink crusted with yellow, one of his eyes completely swollen shut. Cife and Misa were on either side of him, faring only slightly better than their larger counterpart. At first glance, they appeared to be covered in lacerations, but upon closer inspection, he realized that the bluish-violet markings zigzagging over every exposed inch of their skin were also burns, just of a different kind—nowhere near as severe as Kizah’s, and most of which had already begun to fade. Studying the strange pattern which, curiously enough, reminded him of forked lightning, he knew these hadn’t come from Phenex; the wounds were too precise to have been the firebird’s doing. No, this had to be the handiwork of the daemon, the entity he knew far too little about for his comfort; the one he’d have to keep a closer watch over from here on out.

He had only arrived in the coliseum ten minutes before, having received reports of the mission’s failure from the network of shadows under his command, namely those he’d sent with the Akuma. In that time, the trio—mostly Misa—had gone into a fast, albeit lengthy explanation of all that had happened; from the moment they’d confronted the firebird and daemon, to when they’d awoken a few minutes before his arrival. None of them had seen the girl with the goblet, but that didn’t matter. Reeves knew from his shadows that she had gotten a hold of it, his ethereal forces having witnessed the brilliant pillar of light that had shrouded both her and the daemon the moment they’d touched the artifact; how the light had been too painful for the shadows to intervene. Reeves didn’t fault them for this, of course—he knew full well how devastating light could be, especially to those lesser entities of darkness.

What he didn’t know was what the light portended. He supposed it might just be a sign that the artifact’s seal had been restored, but from what he’d heard about the first one, there was more to it than simply reinstating the seals. Indeed, his shadows had been adamant that upon retrieving Loki’s Amulet, not only had the girl exercised control over some of his lesser grunts, the daemon had displayed a power that had been absent earlier in the battle. Because of that, he suspected something of a similar nature had happened this time, as well.

It begged the question, though; was it because of the girl that the daemon gained more power, or could the artifact alone do that? More importantly, if it could grant a common daemon that kind of power, what could it do for someone like him…or for someone as powerful as Her Ladyship? Had his mistress known about this power-granting ability all along? Was there more to her desire for the artifacts, than merely preventing the prison realm from being reopened? Or was she truly only doing this under the orders of her own master?

Too many questions, and not enough answers.

Stirring from his thoughts, he was somewhat surprised to see the Akuma still kneeling before him; all three of them looking anywhere from mildly nervous, to outright terrified. From their expressions, and the way Cife continuously trembled, it was clear they anticipated punishment for their failure.

“You guys can relax,” he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, “The fact that you failed doesn’t really come as a surprise. Not only did you underestimate the daemon—even now whose powers we know next to nothing about—you were ignorant of Phenex’s strength. Even if his pal hadn’t been around, you still would have lost. The firebird alone is stronger than the three of you put together.”

“Over-glorified fire chicken…” Misa muttered. Judging from the way she quailed under his baleful glare, she hadn’t meant to say it out loud.

“That ‘over-glorified fire chicken’, as you call him, is responsible for the imprisonment and deaths of many of our brethren.” Reeves flared up, “You would do well to remember that, Misa…or had you forgotten that even I once fell victim to his flames?” His voice took on a quiet edge, more lethal and deadly than if he’d roared in outrage.

She seemed to shrink further away from him as the seconds ticked by, both male Akuma to her right remaining silent, though Reeves could see the furtive glances that passed between them. It was only once he felt she’d gotten the message that he tore his gaze away, noting the way all three slumped with relief. Not that this surprised him, of course, given their connection to one another.

Having no further use of them for the time being, he levelled his gaze with Kizah. “You’re dismissed—for now.” He declared, tilting the brim of his fedora. “Rest up, and get yourselves healed. I’ll call on you when there’s more work to be done.”

The trio left without a word, disappearing into thin air before his eyes. No brilliant flash of light, no shadowy vortex, nothing that usually happened with other entities when teleporting from one place, to another—just simply vanished.

My turn, Reeves smirked, and to think, I couldn’t even do this much for myself twenty-four hours ago.

He raised both hands, holding them out so that it looked like he was gripping something between them, his stance relaxed. It started out small, no bigger than a grain of rice; a dark speck, floating a mere two feet from him at eye-level. As he spread his arms wider, so too did the speck grow, until finally, it was large enough to encompass him from head to toe—a portal comprised of his very own shadowy essence, able to take him wherever he wanted. Even if he still wasn’t up to full strength, it was more than enough, having the ability to do something as simple as teleport once again. Until he had lost it, he hadn’t realized just how much he missed travelling by his own power.

Well, never again, He vowed, never again will I be at the mercy of that damnable firebird, or his High Council masters!

Once he was satisfied that it was stable, he moved closer to the swirling mass of black and grey energy, the vortex humming softly with something akin to electricity as he drew nearer. Well, might as well get this over with…

Taking a steadying breath, Reeves stepped through the portal, already filled with dread at the prospect of how Her Ladyship would react to this latest development.

***

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About rebeldynasty

Hello, there, and welcome to my humble little corner of the internet! Here you will find posts about my literary journey, and all the ups and downs that come with it. If you want to get in touch, please don't hesitate to drop me a line. ^^
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