Testing? Testing? Is this thing working? What even is modern technology? Whatever.~Bennu (Phoenix) of Zau
Hey, Sam, can you help me with this? Sam? Sam? Sam! That damn girl.
Where did she get off to this time?
So here’s the thing: I’m a ghost. Dead. Have been for…Ra, how long has it been? If I was born before Alexander the Great by four-hundred years…
It’s really not that important. As Sam would say, I’m older than dirt.
Speaking of Sam…That girl could make a ghost want to bash his brains out. And she does—every day. The only thing about that? I have no brains to bash out!
Anyway, let me tell you a little bit about my life as Sam’s babysitter. Basically, I serve as the reverse function of a battery. In a way, you could say Sam is my battery. Every other morning, depending on how much magical energy she regains during the day, I steal her energy. Not in a malicious way. It’s to keep her hidden from the Hunters. You see, the Hunters track her by her energy signature. If I take her energy, then they can’t find her. Even better, once I have her energy, I pop in and out of the ether, releasing the energy all around the Pacific Northwest, keeping them running all over the place.
So long as she’s safe, that’s all that matters.
What? You want to know why I help her? How a ghost from ancient times came to be in the twenty-first century instead of moving on? That’s a long story. But the gist of it? Sam saved my father from slavery. Naturally, since I couldn’t pay her a life-debt—since she was a girl out of time—I took matters into my spectral hands after I was put to death.
Because Sam and I had a language barrier, I was left to interpret everything she ever said when I was alive. Her wild hand gestures as she pointed to herself, then to me, helped us learn each other’s names, but that wasn’t enough to find her. I didn’t know where she lived or where she came from.
Over the centuries, I scoured the earth and learned new languages, but none of them matched hers. I learned them, hoping to hear the syllables she’d spoken, hoping I was getting closer to finding her. I had no idea just how far in the future she’d come from.
As time went on, I heard the tales and lore told about her. The myths gained momentum, becoming more and more outlandish, and I soon realized she was in danger. My search became more and more frantic. I needed to warn her. But she was nowhere to be found.
During the Middle Ages, I discovered an archaic language similar to hers—Old English. I was getting closer to finding her, and that gave me hope. I stayed with the Anglo-Saxon people on a continent that would become Great Britain, far north of my own home in Egypt. It was several hundred more years before their language evolved into Middle English. It was the closest dialect I’d heard to Sam’s language, but the clothing was still wrong, the accent still wrong, the people wrong.
When they started voyaging across the ocean, my non-existent heart nearly pounded in my incorporeal chest. The ocean—Sam had pointed to the west, pantomiming boats and water. When I hadn’t understood, she’d drawn it in the sand—home, her home. I dared to follow a group of guild mages as they journeyed the turbulent seas, questing for new land upon which to enforce their rule. Long before that pilgrimage, I’d learned that I could remain in the corporeal world longer if I borrowed the energy of living things—and mages were prime targets. I could leech their magic and not fade into the ether as often as I used to. More than that, I was able to learn about them and their beliefs.
The Sibyl was now seen as nothing more than a myth, a bogeyman in a nighttime story told to young Casters. Over a thousand years had passed, but the Magical Community still feared her like a phantom in the mirror, like a monster in the closet. They wondered if her wraith would someday come back for them. They prophesied that she would.
My quest spanned more than two millennia before I found her, but she was just a child. She couldn’t see or hear me. And as creepy as it may sound, I watched her grow up. (Please don’t tell her I told you that. So far as she knows, I found her on her thirteenth birthday, when she finally came into her powers).
It’s a miracle I found her at all, and even that was a fluke.
I saw Sarah—Sam’s mother—first, and mistook the woman for Sam. Albeit, an older, more mature version of Sam, but she really had been an astonishing match for the girl I remembered. When I heard someone say the woman’s name, my hopes were crushed…until Sarah called to her daughter.
The second I saw Sam, I knew it was her. She was a bubbly little eight-year-old, and she held the same light I’d seen in her eyes and smile over two thousand years before. But shortly thereafter…her mom died, stealing a great deal of that light. I couldn’t do anything for her, and I felt useless. I finally found her, to try to repay the life-debt I owed her, and I was useless to her.
It was another five years before she could see and speak to me. Since then, it’s almost been another five years. She’s no little girl anymore. She’s an adult…one that acts like an obnoxious child, but I don’t mind—not that I’d ever tell her that. If that’s what makes her happy, then I’ll keep protecting her light. Her light, and her.
I’ll do anything to keep her safe.
“Gather one, gather all—I’ve got a tale to tell,” I say, spreading my arms wide.
Sam rolls her eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic.”
There’s a storm outside, and we’re holed up in her apartment. It’s a rinky-dink studio on the eighth floor in the middle of the city. We’re having a seasonal storm, and while Sam loves thunder and lightning, she’s bored since the electricity went out an hour ago. Her cell phone apparently died, too, so now she’s being an annoying brat and demanding that I tell her a story.
Her prayer candles, normally circled around her collection of precious stones and gems, are placed throughout the room, providing the only lighting in the apartment. They cast eerie shadows on the walls as the flames flicker and sway.
“I’m not being dramatic,” I tell her, pursuing my lips. “I’m setting the mood.”
“Yeah, and what’s the ‘mood’? Snide and sarcastic?”
“Just because you don’t know how to be serious, it doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t be.” I grin when she scoffs. “Now, pay attention.”
Sam straightens up, wrapping her comforter tighter around her as she sits on her bed. I’m not sure how cool the room is, but it can’t be too warm if she’s all bundled up. I’ve long since stopped feeling heat and coolness—but that’s what happens when one dies.
“It’s night time; lightning flashes and thunder shakes the skies,” I start, hands moving as I try to paint a picture with my gestures. “The rain pounds against the rooftop and the floorboards creak and groan.”
With a yawn, Sam sing-songs, “Bor-ing.”
Crossing my arms over my chest, I glare at her. “Pay attention or I’ll go find something else to do. Then you can figure out how to keep yourself entertained.”
She presses her lips together.
“That’s what I thought,” I mutter. “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. The storm is raging outside, the wind howling through the trees. The thunder is so close, it shakes the house. Inside, there’s a little girl—and she’s all alone.”
“Where are her parents?”
“They went outside when the power went out—but that was hours ago, and she hasn’t seen them since.” I pause, watching Sam shiver. “The girl is huddled on the couch, waiting for her parents to come inside, when, suddenly, there’s a loud knock on the door. THUD! THUD! THUD!” I shout, making her jump. “The little girl stares at the door, then gets to her feet, walking slowly, so slowly. ‘Mom?’ she calls. ‘Dad?’ Nobody responds.”
“Who’s at the door?” Sam asks meekly.
I stare her down, letting the seconds tick by.
“Well?” she prods, fidgeting with her blanket. “Who is it?”
I grin slyly, going back to my story. “Hand trembling, the girl reaches for the doorknob. She grips it, heart pounding in her chest.” I draw out the moment, watching Sam shrink into her pillows and blankets. “She pulls the door open and—”
Lightning flashes across the window, and Sam jolts.
“—nobody’s there. She walks out onto the porch and,” I say in an undertone before shouting, “SOMEBODY GRABS HER!”
BOOM! Thunder claps outside, and Sam yelps.
I laugh as she burrows into the blanket, hiding her face.
“It’s not funny!” she grumbles, pulling her pillows around her under the blanket. She curls into a ball until I’m not sure which round shape is her and which ones are the pillows. From under the comforter, she whispers, “What happens next?”
“Nothing. It was her dad.”
Sam’s head pops out from under the blanket, a scowl on her face. “That’s the dumbest story I’ve ever heard!”
I shrug. “Scared you, didn’t it?”
“No,” she says petulantly.
The electric lights flicker before illuminating the small space. The refrigerator starts humming, the heater clicks on, and the microwave beeps in protest.
“Look at that,” I say. “Now you can keep yourself entertained.”
Sam gets up, dashes to the wall, and turns off the lights before turning, running, and diving back under the covers. “Tell me another story.”
“Hey, Phoenix?” Sam says, staring into the distance. She’s sitting on the kitchen counter, legs crossed, her altar of candles lit. She must be done with her daily prayer, because the prickling sensation it gives me has stopped. I’m not sure if I feel it because her power thrums within me, or if it’s because she sends her prayers to the goddess Hecate. Of all the gods in the Greek pantheon, she would worship the goddess of ghosts and necromancy.
I’m partial to Ra myself.
“Hmm?” I hum, floating lazily on my back as I watch 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, 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 and nods.
I take a deep breath I don’t need and float over to sit across from her on the other side of the candles. The silly girl fussed over their alignment when she first placed them after moving into the apartment. She agonized over the compass app on her phone and the cardinal directions, making sure they were “Perfect, Phoenix! Their alignment has to be perfect!” 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 homeland as I stare into the willowy candle flames. “They met on the outskirts of the desert, hidden beneath the palm trees of Falcon’s private oasis. He was a warrior of his god, honing his skills 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’s 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’d seen in the candle flames 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, 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.
“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, green eyes, and her excitement makes me forget all about the candles. “‘Are you Snake of the Land Beyond?’ Falcon asked, heart pounding with adrenaline.
“‘I am she,’ Snake responded, holding out Falcon’s weapon in peaceful offering. ‘I have spared your life this day; will you spare mine as I leave your kingdom, Highness?’
“Falcon felt a pang in his heart at her formal words as he accepted the 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. 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 to douse her sleeve. If I had a beating heart, it would’ve given out from the fear assaulting me. The girl is clumsier than a rhino in a china shop, and one of these days, she’s going to get herself killed.
After the excitement of Sam lighting her shirt on fire, she hops up onto the counter, sitting, yet again, in front of the candles. “Okay. Don’t think you’re done telling me what happens.”
I purse my lips, taking my spot across from her. “Not until you put out the candles.”
“I’ll be careful this time.”
“Why do they have to be lit at all?”
“’Cause, Phoenix, they’re magical,” she says whimsically.
“What are you, twelve?”
She glares. “You’re such a jerk.”
“Then I’m not finishing the story.”
“Phoenix!” Sam shrieks, miming strangulation.
I raise a brow, looking at her curled fingers. “What are you gonna do? Kill me again?”
“Now who’s twelve?”
I roll my eyes. We could be here all day if she doesn’t get her way. While I could simply disappear into the ether and leave her here by herself, her uncanny ability to find trouble keeps me from going. If I did, she’d likely take off in a huff, and with her luck, she’d run into Hunters.
“Sit there, shut your yap, and listen this time,” I tell her. “First peep you make, story time is over.”
Sam presses her lips together, but I know she won’t be able to resist. The first thing that excites her will have her asking me questions. I try to scowl to show I’m serious, but it’s difficult with her looking like the perfect picture of youth and innocence.
“Let’s see,” I mumble. “Where was I?”
“Snake just left the oasis!” Sam answers, and I put my hand over my eyes, slowly dragging it down my face. “Sorry…”
Shaking my head, I pick up the story where I left off. “Days passed where Falcon would train at his oasis, always quick to startle at the slightest breeze or rustle of the palm trees. Each time there was no one there, his heart would sink. His desire to see Snake’s grinning face again was more distracting than he cared to admit. His sisters noticed his aloofness and confronted him several times, trying to pry the truth out of him. Even his father summoned him to his chambers a time or two to ask if Falcon was ill.
“‘No, Father. I am worried about the possibility of war,’ he lied, although it was also true.
“‘It is wise to fear, my son, but do not let it cloud your mind so.’
“‘Yes, Father,’ Falcon replied, doing his best to appear more alert when he walked the palace.”
“What about Snake?” Sam asked, finally unable to keep her questions to herself. “Was she thinking about Falcon, too?”
I glare, but I can’t help but smile. “She was.”
“Shh. Don’t rush me.”
She chews her lip and nods. She’s rolling the amber stone between her fingers again. Every time she turns it, the rose quartz on the counter in front of me seems to pulse. If I could get goosebumps, I’d be shivering. I wonder if Sam is aware of the effect she’s having on the gems.
I continue the tale. “Weeks passed, and Falcon finally stopped jumping at every small disturbance while at the oasis. In an attempt to alleviate Falcon’s worries, his father gifted him with a terrifying and deadly weapon, a spear with a blade like a scorpion’s claw. He cherished it, and his sisters helped train him to wield it. The gift was enough to distract him from his wandering thoughts, and he sank back into his normal routine.
“On a day hotter than any other, Falcon visited his oasis for a swim. It was while he was swimming that Snake finally caved to her own traitorous whims and sought him out. She imagined watching him spar and seeing his beautiful grace and skill again. She was curious about him, too, not that she would admit to herself why. Neither of them did.”
“But…but if Falcon is swimming…” Sam’s cheeks turn prink. “Did he have swim trunks?”
I can’t help but grin at her. “Swim clothing is a modern invention, Sam.”
Her cheeks turn a bright shade of red.
“No,” I tell her, chuckling now. “He did not.”
“Ohmigoddess.” She puts her face in her hands. “So…?”
“So, when Snake arrived at the oasis, she was disappointed to find Falcon’s training spot abandoned. Heart sinking, she was just about to return home, lecturing her own foolishness, when the shine of something golden caught her eye. Whatever it was, it was concealed behind a boulder, obscuring her view. Mischievous woman that she was, Snake wove through the palm trees, not leaving the protection of their shade until she was next to the boulder that the golden object leaned against. Her lips parted in wonder as she admired the beauty of Falcon’s incredible weapon. Unable to help herself, she slowly reached a hand toward it, wanting to see if it soared through the air like she believed it would. Fingers just shy of grazing its surface, she was startled by a shout.
“‘Stop!’ Falcon called out, his head surfacing from the oasis, eyes wide in alarm. He reached toward her, as if he could ward her off. ‘Do not touch that, fair princess. It will harm you.’
“Believing his words were patronizing, Snake snatched it in her hand and grinned at him…until unimaginable pain assaulted her palm. It was like fire searing her flesh. She tried to drop the spear, but the weapon held fast, and she wailed as the heat of it threatened to consume her.”
“Oh no!” Sam gasps.
“Falcon reached the shore, leaping from the water and tearing the enchanted weapon from Snake’s hand, but his aid came too late. She’d collapsed to the ground, the agony shredding her nerves from her fingertips to her shoulder. Kneeling over her, Falcon tried to catch her attention. She could do little more than writhe, the pain was so unendurable.
“Terrified the shock might stop her heart, Falcon carried her into the oasis’ healing waters that were blessed by his sister’s healing touch, just as the lush palm trees surrounding them were a gift from his nephew. He pulled her deep into the spring, submerging them both beneath its surface and holding them there, his mouth pressed against hers to breathe air into her.”
“But they’re enemies!” Sam shouts, even though she looks pleased.
“They are,” I say, my gaze a million miles away. “But he owed her his life because she’d chosen to spare his.”
“But she invaded his land!”
“Boundaries were more…flexible back in those days.”
“So,” I continued, “because she spared his life, he saved hers. But if Falcon was being honest with himself, just as Snake hadn’t been honest with herself, his desire to save her was selfish. The truth was, the two had fallen into a reckless kind of love in those brief moments they had stared each other down on their first meeting.”
“But they barely know each other!” Sam protests, interrupting me yet again.
I meet her gaze, unsure how to explain the magnetism that comes with meeting someone your heart deems you can’t be without. The skepticism in her wide jade eyes tells me she hasn’t met someone who draws her in that way.
“Someday…” I hesitate, not sure this is a conversation I want to have. “Someday, you’ll…understand.”
“I’m not just gonna, BAM, fall in love with a complete stranger.” She purses her lips. “Wait. You said I would understand. Does that mean you’ve been in love?”
I grimace. How did the conversation steer into this death trap? My ancient love life is the last thing I want to talk about.
“We’re not talking about me right now,” I say sternly. “And if you don’t stop interrupting, I’ll never tell you what happens to Snake and Falcon.”
“Okay, okay!” she concedes. “What happens?”
“It took a minute for the water to have an effect on Snake, but when it did, she came into awareness, sputtering, flailing, and choking on the water she inhaled. Falcon took the abuse from her rampaging arms and dragged her up to the surface, where she spat water in his face as she gasped for air and clung to him.”
“So romantic,” Sam mutters sarcastically.
“ANYWAY,” I say, overtop her commentary, “when Snake calmed down enough to realize what happened, she locked gazes with Falcon and…”
“Okay, gotta go!” I shout, disappearing into the ether, Sam’s shriek of horror chasing me when she finally realizes what I said.
Phoenix first appears in King’s Chaos (Light of Chaos #1), free on KindleUnlimited.
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