Face Value

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Chapter 20: The Phoenix in the Lion’s Den


The name resounded through my head. My pursuer had me mistaken for someone else, doubtless because I had forgotten to take off my disguise.

As I stood, a sharp metal point found its home in the hollow of my back, “So good to see you, Tomas,” the voice spat, dripping with sarcasm, “It really has been too long since our days at the Academy. It’s a pity our reunion couldn’t have been a more cordial one.”

I turned to my head to the side in attempt to get a glimpse of my attacker, and was rewarded with a painful, sensation in my back which began as a tingling and then swelled into an uncomfortable burning. Suddenly, I screamed in pain as the sensation spread from my back to the ends of my fingers and toes. My arms shook uncontrollably as I only partially stifled a scream.

The villainous voice chuckled, his voice rumbling and crackling like live embers, “How does it feel to taste fear, Tomas? How does it feel to be the one in pain? Well, it’s about time you learned, because some of us have already lived with it for years and that just isn’t fair now, is it?”

If his breath had been flame, my hair would have been singed from my head. Breathless and confused, I was about to whirl about and counterattack with my super strength, when I realized that the effects had worn off. Paralyzed with terror and questions, my mind reeled about for answers.

The voice continued its terrible gloating, “I knew you would come, Tomas. The bait was irresistible. You just can’t help tramping after someone who needs help, even if that means tramping off to your own destruction. It is a pity you didn’t acquire that knack sooner or you might have been there for me.”

Not wanting to blow my cover, I remained silent, soaking up his gloating with apparent indifference. “Nothing to say, oh noble one?” the voice hissed, “You are lucky that I’m letting you live so long. It would much more efficient just to get it over with now, but I’d much rather like to wait for your friend Face to arrive. I would just love to see the look on his face when he realizes that he has failed, so I think I will prolong your life a few precious moments longer.”

My mind burst alive with panic. How does he know my name? What does he mean that I’ve failed?

“Don’t try anything stupid. Thanks to your little feathered friend, my guards are well, shall we say,out of sight. You move an inch, and I assure you that I will not wait for Face, no matter how much the thought disappoints me.”

Sweat trickled down the back of my neck there as I stood, trapped in the deadly limbo for what seemed like an lifetime and a half trying desperately in my mind to put the pieces together

With every second that ticked away, my hopes for Fred and Christine’s survival waned until I had almost given up hope. Dropping my eyelids, my life flashed before me in my mind’s eye. I felt the arms of my wife encircle me, felt the breeze through my hair as I raced triumphantly through the canyons, swelled with joy at the birth of my baby girl, laughed, cried, and then drifted into peace, all within the tiniest fraction of a second. I was ready to die.

Just then, my eyes flew fully open at the sound of advancing footsteps. Suddenly my back went as rigid as a beanpole and the blood in my veins froze. “It looks as if your time is up, doctor,” the voice said, “any last words?”

As I was about to break my oath of silence and spew forth a final noble speech, another voice from behind stepped in and took the honor, “Yes,” the voice stated level and low, “take two of these and call me in the morning.”

Two blinding pulses of light illuminated the chamber, and at once, the sharp object fell from my back. Time slowed, and I whirled about, rage billowing in my heart, and suddenly let loose on my attacker with bestial fury.

I saw no more than a blur of gold and brown, as I channeled all the pent up rage from the past few days, magnified by the locket’s strange powers. My firsts landed in a steady rhythm like a mighty piston. Then as if we had been suddenly suspended in water, the flurry of motion screeched to a near halt for a spilt second, and I beheld the face of both my attacker and my savior.

As I had been dreading, Mercos’ twisted face stared back at me. His golden armor glittered in the new light, projected by the real Tomas, who stood brandishing a pointed staff in the entryway. As before, Mercos’s muscled arms were bare, flaunting the fiery image of the phoenix.

All this details blurred together as I glimpsed the jewelry about his neck: the ultimate lockets, which governed life and death now glowing. To my surprise, next to them, lay two other lockets, both carved like owls.

Acting on impulse, I thrust out my hand and yanked with all my strength at the nearest locket, and by some crazy stroke of luck chance, the gold chain by which the locket hung snapped of and I was flung sprawling backwards.

All at once, time snapped back into its proper frame. The next second, the locket-induced rage drained from my body and my head slammed into a rough boulder. I retained just enough consciousness to witness the coming carnage. Quickly, I concealed the stolen locket into my pants pocket.

Though a few seconds after being ambushed, Mercos appeared miraculously unscathed. In fact, the onslaught appeared to have merely stunned him, and now he returned to his full capacity and stood ready to unleash his wrath, seemingly unaware of his loss of a locket. “Fools!” Mercos roared with fury, “you like to play with words? Then, I have a few words for you!”

He thrust a mighty hand towards both Tomas and me, and spoke, “Not to be!”

A bolt of destruction leapt from his fingertips, crackling like lightning, and blossoming in every color of the spectrum. The bolt slammed into Tomas and snuffed him out as if he had been evaporating water. The foundations of the tunnel shook under the strain sending a torrential shower of rocks on our heads.

Then, suddenly, a second bolt of destruction leapt from his other hand hurling directly towards me. Desperately shielding my face with my bruised hands, I silently bid farewell to the world.

The end never came. Inches from my face, the bolt dispersed leaving me frightened, but unharmed. Gripped with fear, I could neither move nor speak for several seconds.

“Begone! I said begone!” Mercos raged, his eyes glowing with savage resolve, “Why can’t I destroy you, pitiful dog?”

Furious, the gigantic warrior slammed the wall with his mighty fist, raining even more dirty hail upon our heads. Then without another word, a hideous, high-pitched shriek burst from his lips, nearly shattering my grip on consciousness. The intricate phoenix on Mercos’ arm flared with new light, cruel and terrible. The phoenix on my own arm grew unbearably hot.

“If I can’t destroy you with this.., Face,” he spat, “then, at least let my minions take care of it.”

At once, the room exploded with motion as no less than a dozen gargoyles leapt into view. Unlike the ones I had encountered in the garbage dump, each gargoyle’s skin glowed deep crimson and was painted to give the appearance of rippling flames. Each creature’s eyes and talons shone like polished obsidian. Like sparks flickering about a bonfire, they leapt and danced about their master, grimacing and laughing cruelly. From deep in their throats rumbled a crude but terrifying chant”

Fire, fire, spark and ire

Hunt and burn

And never tire

Black as pitch

Gray as Ash

All consume

All hopes dash

Crimson as the phoenix feather

Strike with fear

One, together

If we fall

One or all

Rise again

With blazing call

Fire, fire, spark and ire

Hunt and burn

And never tire

Mercos grinned wickedly. “Entrancing, aren’t they? The Phoegoyles are the pride of my army.”

At the mention of themselves, each of the Phoegoyles halted its dance and bellowed its approval, their breath searing my face like wind from a blazing furnace. “However,” he continued, “I believe that now the well of your luck runs dry. These Phoegoyles will have no trouble taking care of you, but just to make sure... ”

Mercos shot an accusing finger at me, as if sealing my fate for a serious crime. Wielding his sharp-pointed scepter with the other hand, he flung a fiery bolt from the end completely engulfing me in crimson light, and rendering my muscles useless. An icy chill set in to both muscle and bone, and my whole body fell limp like a windup toy at the end of his winding.

Taking the signal from their master, the Phoegoyles advanced slowly on my position. Wincing from the pain of my aching muscles, I wriggled and floundered about.

Andrus, where are you? Reinforcements won’t be worth the dirt under my fingernails if I die before you arrive…

“Mercos!” I cried, “What do you want of me? I’ve done nothing more than try to save my brother who was lost in an accident. I’ve done nothing to you, but if you insist on killing me, I promise you that you’ll curse the day. I have powerful friends.”

My remarks sent the Phoegoyles into a frenzy of amusement. Their master, however, was not amused. He sniffed, “Don’t try that tough talk on me,” he seethed, “like it or not, you are in my way., a pest that needs prompt extermination.”

Mercos snapped his fingers and the grotesque creatures continued their advance, nearly unhindered by my diversion. Thinking quickly, seeing no sign of aid, I blurted out, “Please, Mercos, don’t I even get any last words? As I recall, mine were cut short by that other unfortunate fellow.”

The warrior made no attempt at slowing the plodding advance of his minions, who seemed to be holding off, relishing the moment of their strike.

“I don’t see why you deserve them. I never gave that chance to your brother, who by the way, has been quite a nuisance. It seems that once was just not enough. It is not often that I have to kill a man more than once to keep him down. Let’s just hope that’s not a trait that runs in the family.”

Already the Phoegoyles had surrounded me, huddling around me in a broken circle, their sweltering breath stinging like a swarm of angry wasps on my exposed face. Desperately, I cried, “In like a lion! In like a lion!”

To my horror, the words hung dead in the air and produced no more effect than giving the monstrous creatures something else to cackle at.

Then, suddenly stopping, their leader, the largest and most heavily decorated of the lot raised a single terrible razor-like talon. Each of his followers took suit one by one until a terrible crown of daggers encircled my head. Each terrible beast drew in a horrible crackling breath, and, for a terrible moment, silence hung in the air.

In that great and horrible second, the only thought in my mind pertained to the cruel irony of the situation.

I closed my eyes, relishing my final moments, when, like an angelic decree issuing from the heavens, a women’s voice burst from the doorway, “Go out like a lamb, you filthy snake.”

Immediately, the cavern flooded with a warm white light, Unable to react before the light grabbed them, each hideous Phoegoyle dropped to the floor, and flailed about, seemingly no stronger than a newborn kitten. Mercos, equally caught off guard, crumpled to the ground wriggling like a snake.

Muttering a silent prayer of thanks, I attempted to identify my last-minute savoir. Good going Andrus. Your timing could not have been more impeccable if you had staged that on purpose…

As if not wishing to miss taking a bow for his actions, Andrus suddenly came into view in front of my gaze. Never was I ever so happy to see him. “Andrus!” I cried, “what’s going on? You must have found that locket. That was a stroke of genius.”

Andrus nodded curtly, “Yes, thank you. Now, we need to leave before the effects wear off.”

I scoffed, unable to move, “That is not exactly in my power at the moment. The lion locket seems to be out of order and I’m not going anywhere.”

Andrus nodded rapidly, vibrating madly like a hummingbird, “Don’t worry about that, Face! Samot here can transport you to safety and we can talk about everything later! Just trust her, and we’ll mop up things here.”

As if on cue, the doctor, Samot appeared in my view, hovering over me with a long, golden rod with a clear, diamond shaped stone on the end of it. Gently, she stooped over, and I could sense the anguish in her gaze, “Face,” she said, “I’m going to touch you with the end of this, and it will transport you to safety. Don’t worry about the others. I’ve already sent them.”

Her voice trailed off into nothingness, and a single crystalline tear glided down her smooth cheek landing on the front panel of her helmet. Viciously biting her lip, she stretched out the staff towards me, but just before it could connect with my skin, a desperate, last minute thought graced my brain, “Andrus! Get the other locket from Mercos while he is out! I’ve the got the other one here.”

Startled a bit by my outburst, Samot leapt back a bit. However, her features quickly melted into a benevolent, yet pained smile, “Don’t worry, Face,” she crooned.

The staff came down on my chest, and immediately, I was embraced by a warm, comforting glow of ivory light. Immediately, I felt as if my body had been placed on the back of an invisible bird, which was bearing me into the clouds and away from pain and filthiness. “Don’t worry, Face. Don’t worry.”

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