As they reached the valley floor and headed towards the small ruined building, Lydia’s mouth went dry and her stomach clenched. She screeched to a halt and looked back at the other two.
“Scatter!” she yelled and ran off the path.
Karen and Andrew just stared at her, too startled to react.
They ran in the opposite direction just in time. A split second later, a large boulder crashed into the path where they’d been standing. Lydia looked up and saw a huge eagle, large enough to lift a car, hovering over them. As it swung towards her she saw electricity sparking through its multi-coloured feathers and a shining yellow gem embedded in its forehead. It glinted with an inner light – the only warning before a bolt of lightning crackled forth at her. It was enough, though, and she scrambled out of the way.
Bennu gave an almighty screech, flying at their attacker and clawing at its horned head. Their assailant gave a shriek, revealing vicious teeth within its beak, and batted him with its wing. Bennu cried out as he tumbled through the air but got cut off as another bolt sliced through the air and clipped his wing. Unable to fly, he plummeted towards Lydia.
“Bennu!” She leapt forward, and he landed in her outstretched arms with a thump. She moaned and fell to her knees when she saw his burned wing. “Bennu…” He stirred weakly.
“I am okay, it barely clipped me,” he said, “but you’ve got to run. I can’t fly. Even if I could, that thing’s too powerful…”
“B-but where can we hide? The building is too far.” She looked round for somewhere to shelter.
“Look out!” Andrew yelled.
Lydia looked up to see the bird diving at her. She flung herself sideways and lay there winded as its talons gouged into the ground where she had been a moment before. She struggled to get up as her breathing eased but couldn’t because she suddenly felt lightheaded, tired and very warm. She made it into a kneeling position and looked down.
“What the hell?” She was glowing with the soft yellow orange of flames. Bennu started to glow as well and his wing healed before her eyes. His feathers developed a strong flame like tint and he flew up again – glowing and growing as he did – before bursting into flames.
“A phoenix!” Lydia stared at him as she finally made it to her feet. “You’re a phoenix!”
Bennu made another of those screaming cries. A ball of fire emerged from his beak and clipped their attacker’s wing. Lydia felt a tugging sensation in her navel and her vision blurred. A second fireball cracked the gem in the other bird’s forehead and sent Lydia crashing to her knees. It turned to flee, shrinking as it did until it was the size of a large crow. Bennu grabbed at it, but it slipped through his talons and flew off. The phoenix returned to normal and flew back to Lydia, who was fighting to stay awake.
“Lyd?” Karen knelt down by her.
“So tired…” Lydia said. “I think he used my energy to transform.”
Bennu didn’t respond. He just nuzzled up against her, but from the way he was holding himself, she was right.
“That makes sense,” Andrew said. “It’d explain why they need us. Give me the rucksack. I’ll carry it for a while.” They helped Lydia to her feet. “Are you up to walking? I don’t think we should stay in the open.”
“You’re right,” she said. “I’m okay.” She handed over the rucksack and staggered a few paces before falling again.
Karen caught her. “Come on, Lyd,” she said. “I’ll help you.”
Rai laboured against the wind and his injuries as he flew towards the Storm Palace. The small form struggled, but the remnants of his power supported him. After what seemed like forever he finally spotted the goblin built towers of Queen Valeria’s palace. With one final burst of effort, he launched himself over the walls and crashed headfirst into one of the courtyard fountains. He splashed around and swallowed water as he tried to get out, but he was so tired he couldn’t fight his way free. Spots had started to cloud his vision when a pair of slender golden-skinned hands plucked him from the water and placed him on the ground. He panted through his beak before looking up, cawing in surprise as he realised that Queen Valeria herself had saved him, and he’d splashed water all over her white silk robes! He gave a little flap of his wings and tapped the ground with his beak in a bird bow.
“You have a report for me, Rai?” The tall storm sprite looked down at him with her calm yellow eyes. “And from the state of you, not a happy one.”
“I’m afraid not. A portal opened as you predicted and three more humans entered. I-I tried to eliminate them, but one had met her heart friend – a phoenix. He cracked my heart jewel. I had to flee.”
“Yes, yes, you would have to. Phoenixes are dangerous,” she said. “It’s unfortunate they met up with the treacherous bird so soon. Idiots! Bonding with humans? They’re insane!” Anger made sparks fly from her golden hair, and he cowered. “Stop that! It’s not your fault. I’ll just have to come up with another plan since they’re stronger than I expected.” She bent down and stroked the flash of yellow feathers which indicated where his heart jewel lay in his other form. “You’re lucky he only cracked it. A phoenix would’ve shattered it with a direct hit. Go and find one of the dryad healers to tend you and rest until your jewel repairs itself.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” He watched as she walked quietly from the courtyard before leaving to obey her order.