“Hey, Phoenix?” Sam says, staring into the far distance. She’s sitting on the kitchen counter, legs crossed, her altar of candles lit. She must be done with her daily prayer.
“Hmm?” I hum, floating lazily on my back, watching her out of the corner of my eye.
She picks up one of her crystals—amber, I notice—twirling it between her fingers. “Remember when we met?”
How could I forget?
“What about it?” I ask.
“You told me a story that one time—when you drew in the sand. What was it about?” She looks at me then, her lips pursed to the side.
“It was the tale of the snake and the falcon.”
She cocks her head to the side. “Is that what those squiggles were?”
I scowl. “I’m sorry my drawing skills weren’t up to your standards.”
She waves a hand airily. “Tell me the story again.”
“Why? You’ve never asked before.”
“I dunno.” She shrugs, still playing with the piece of amber. “I just… I wanna hear it now that I’ll understand.”
“Okay,” I say, staring at the gemstone. It catches the light of the candle flames, sparking and glinting with each turn, reminding me of the sun. “But no interruptions this time.”
Sam’s gaze locks on mine, the start of a retort on her lips, but she catches herself, nodding.
I take a deep breath I don’t need, floating over to sit across from her on the other side of the candles. The silly girl had fussed over their alignment when she’d first placed them after she’d moved in, agonizing over the compass app on her phone and the cardinal directions, making sure they were “Perfect, Phoenix! They have to align perfectly!” Her yellow air candle is positioned to the east, red fire to the south, blue water to the west, green earth to the north, and silver spirit in the center. She uses them to invoke a spiritual connection to the goddess, but I’m not sure if Hecate ever hears Sam’s prayers.
I mirror her position, hovering just above the counter, my ghostly ass trying to sink through the laminate, and meet her eyes through the light plumes of smoke wafting off the candles. Like the dancing smog, I weave my tale.
“In the days of old,” I begin, recalling my father’s first telling of the story, “the days before we forgot the gods, forgot magic and wonders, in the days when the very gods roamed the earth, there were two kingdoms, long at odds with each other.” I smile, seeing my home as I stared into the willowy candle flames. “It was on the outskirts of the desert where they met, hidden beneath the palm trees of Falcon’s private oasis. He was a warrior of his god, honing his skill with his weapon in order to defend his mighty sovereign from his enemies.
“Snake was an adventurer but no less a warrior for her goddess. On that fateful day, she came upon Falcon while he practiced with his spear. Snake couldn’t help but watch, enthralled by his grace. And when he paused to drink from the oasis’ waterhole, she revealed herself.
“Falcon, startled by the newcomer, attacked with all the deadly prowess he possessed. Before he could land a blow, Snake ducked beneath his arm, twirling in time with his movement, her hands easily transferring his weapon from his grasp to hers. She held the point to his throat, an excited grin on her face.
“‘You have bested me,’ Falcon admitted in defeat. ‘Take my life, for it is rightfully yours.’”
“Ohmigoddess!” Sam shouts, snapping me back into reality.
I blink, the images I thought I’d seen in the candles vanishing as I’m brought to awareness. “What did I say about interrupting me?”
“Sorry…” She chews her lip. “What did Snake say?”
I glower at her before continuing. “Snake replied, ‘It is not your life I seek, young warrior, but your name.’”
Sam’s lips part in excited-wonder and I can’t help but smile and shake my head.
“‘My name?’ Falcon asked, his gaze narrowing on Snake,” I continue. “‘Your name,’ Snake agreed, pulling the blade from his neck. She curtsied deep, looking up at Falcon from under lashes that he would remember as the longest and prettiest he’d ever seen in his life, her dusty-rose irises holding his own amber gaze.”
“What odd colors,” Sam says.
“What did I just say?”
She mimes zipping her lips, but even I don’t know why I’ve picked those colors. The story I’m telling now is nothing like the one my father told me before. In his story, Snake and Falcon were the animals their names stood for, but in my mind, I always envisioned a heart-stoppingly beautiful woman and an incredibly muscular man, his looks equally as impressive as hers. I enjoy telling tall tales, so that must be why.
“Snake smiled up at him,” I pick up where I left off, “and Falcon relented, telling the young woman his name.
“‘Falcon?’ she demanded, rising to her feet in front of the warrior. ‘Son of he who rules these lands?’
“‘Y-yes,’ Falcon stammered, surprised. There were few who knew his parentage. ‘I am he.’
“‘Then I fear you are my bitterest enemy,’ she said, sorrow in her eyes. ‘For I am the daughter of she who poses a threat to your rule and reign, Highness.’”
“No way!” Sam exclaims, leaning a little too close to the dancing flames. The window isn’t open, so I’m disturbed by their rampant flickering. “Keep going!”
I look from the candles to her shining eyes, and her excitement makes me forget all about the candles. “‘Are you Snake of the Land Beyond?’ Falcon asked, his heart pounding with adrenaline.
“‘I am she,’ Snake echoed, holding out Falcon’s weapon in peaceful offering. ‘I have spared your life this day, so may you spare mine as I leave your kingdom, Highness.’
“Falcon felt a pang in his heart at her formal words, accepting his weapon from her. He clenched it in both his fists, staring at it like it was the true threat. When he looked up again, Snake was already outside the safety of the oasis.
“‘Wait!’ he called, and she stopped, keeping her back turned to him. Falcon walked to the edge of the trees that shielded him from the all-seeing sun. ‘Will I… will I see you again, princess of the Land Beyond?’
“Snake didn’t turn to face him, but her words were sad when she spoke. ‘It is on fields of death that you and I shall meet again. War is coming, Highness.’
“Before Falcon could protest, Snake vanished into the swirling sands.”
“Do they meet again?” Sam asks.
It takes me a minute to pull myself from the vision of Snake’s back, her long, dark tresses swinging with her steps, the sands devouring her in a ferocious gale. My eyes sting in a way they haven’t since I was alive, and I blink rapidly, the feeling fading into a distant memory, like the smell of hot sand and the sound of trickling pond water filling my senses.
“Well?” Sam prompts. “Do they?”
“They…” My chest aches and I smile sadly. “They do.”
“And?” She leans closer to the wild flames. “Do they fight or what?”
As I stare into Sam’s eyes, the flames dancing in the depths of her jade irises, they almost shine a dusty color, like rose petals in spring. But it’s a trick of the candlelight, which finally catches on her shirt when she leans too close. She screams, I shout, and we both start panicking as she rushes to the sink, dousing her sleeve. If I had a beating heart, it would’ve just given out at the fear assaulting my mind. The girl is clumsier than a rhino in a china shop, and one of these days, she’s going to get herself killed.
Next: A Ghost of a Tale – Pt 4