A Ghost of a Tale

Testing? Testing? Is this thing working? What even is modern technology? Whatever.

Hey, Sam, can you help me with this? Sam? Sam? Sam! That damn girl.

Where did she get off to this time?

~Bennu (Phoenix) of Zau

So here’s the thing, I’m a ghost. Yup. You heard me right. Dead. Have been for…Ra, how long has it been? If I was born before Alexander the Great…Hmm. 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 own 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 of a battery. So, 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.

No, 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’d been put to death.

Because Sam and I had had a language barrier, I was left to interpret everything she’d ever said when I’d been alive. Her wild hand gestures helped me learn her name, but that hadn’t been enough to find her. I didn’t know where she lived or where she came from.

Over the centuries, I scoured the world 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 rumors told about her. They gained momentum, and I realized she was in danger. My search became more and more frantic. I needed to warn her. But she was nowhere to be found.

When it was the Middle Ages, I finally discovered an archaic language similar to hers, but it was still wrong. I was getting closer to finding her, and that gave me hope. I stayed with these people, far north of my own home in Egypt.

It was several hundred more years, but finally, I found the English language. And that was it! It was the closest 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, I took a chance, following a group of guild mages. They offered me the safest route, considering I could leech their magic and not fade into the ether. But more than that, I was able to learn more about them and their beliefs.

It was no surprise to me that the Sibyl was now seen as nothing more than a myth. Over a thousand years had passed, but they still feared her. They wondered if her ghost would someday come back for them. They were morons.

Another two hundred years passed before I found her, but she was just a child. She couldn’t even see 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 was a miracle I found her at all, and even that had been a fluke.

I saw Sarah—Sam’s mother—and had mistaken the woman for my friend. Albeit an older, more mature version of Sam, but she really had been an astonishing match for the girl I remembered. But then I heard someone say her name, and my hopes were crushed…until Sarah called to her daughter.

I knew it was Sam the second I saw her. She was a bubbly little eight-year-old. But she held the same light I’d seen in her over two thousand years before. But shortly thereafter…her mom died, stealing a great deal of her light. I couldn’t do anything for her, and I felt useless. I’d finally found my friend to try to repay the life-debt I owed her, and I was useless to her.

It was another five years before she could finally see and speak to me. Since then, it’s been almost 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 protect 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.

“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 say, grinning 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 hot and cold—but that’s what happens when one dies.

“It’s night time, and thunder flashes and lightning shakes the skies,” I continue, hands moving as I try to paint a picture with my movements. “The rain pounds against the rooftop and the floorboards creak and groan.”

With a yawn, Sam sing-songs, “Bor-ing.”

I glare at her, crossing my arms over my chest. “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 out into the storm when the power went out—but that was hours ago, and she hasn’t seen or heard from them since.” I pause, watching Sam shiver. “The girl is huddled on the couch, waiting for her parents to come inside. 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, she 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. “The girl reaches for the doorknob, hand trembling. 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 pulls her blanket tighter around her.

“—nobody’s there. She walks out onto the porch, and,” I drawl, before shouting, “SOMEBODY GRABS HER!

Boom! Thunder claps outside, and Sam screams, jumping into the air.

I laugh as she burrows under the blanket, hiding her face.

“It’s not funny!” she yells, 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. “What happens next?” she whispers.

“Nothing. It was her dad.”

Sam’s head pops out from under the blanket, a scowl on her face. “That’s the lamest story I’ve ever heard, Phoenix!”

I shrug. “Scared you, didn’t it?”

“No,” she lies.

The 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 light before turning, running, and diving back under the covers. “Tell me another story.”

I smile.

***

“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 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’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, 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, 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 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.

***

After the excitement of Sam lighting her shirt on fire, she hops back up on 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?”

“Cuz, Phoenix, they’re magical,” she says whimsically.

“What are you, twelve?”

She glares. “You’re such a jerk.”

“The candles?”

“Nope.”

“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 just 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, that means finding Hunters on her way to her destination.

“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.

Yeah, right.

“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 more distracting than he cared to admit. His sisters had even begun to notice his aloofness, having confronted him several times. Even his father had 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, 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 bubbling questions to herself. “Was she thinking about Falcon, too?”

I glare, but I can’t help but smile. “She was.”

“Tell me!”

“Shh. Don’t rush me.”

She chews her lip, nodding. She’s rolling the amber stone between her fingers again, and I’m not sure when she picked it back up. 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.

“Weeks passed, and Falcon finally stopped jumping at every small disturbance while at the oasis,” I continue. “For all his troublesome worries, Falcon’s father had even gifted him with a terrifying and deadly blade, 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 mind, 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 had finally caved to her own traitorous whims and had sought him again. She’d imagined watching him spar, seeing his beautiful grace and skill. 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 burn red. “Did he have swim trunks?”

I can’t help but grin at her. “Swim clothing is a modern invention, Sam.”

Her cheeks turn a brighter 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 about to return home, lecturing her own foolishness, when the shine of something golden caught her eye. Mischievous that she was, Snake weaved through the palm trees, not leaving the protection of their shade until she was next to the flat boulder that Falcon often meditated on.

“When she reached the boulder, her lips parted in wonder, appreciating 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, but she was startled, fingers just shy of grazing its surface.

‘Stop!’ Falcon shouted, his head surfacing from the oasis, eyes wide in alarm, hand outstretched toward her as if he could ward her off. ‘Do not touch that, fair princess. It will harm you.’

“Believing him a liar, Snake snatched it in her hand, grinning at him…until a pain unlike anything she’d ever felt attacked her, a fire searing her flesh. She tried to drop the spear, but the weapon held fast to her, 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. The burning finally ended its assault. But she’d collapsed to the ground, the agony shredding her nerves from her fingertips to her shoulder, and Falcon kneeled over her, trying to catch her attention. Her eyes wouldn’t focus, you see, because the pain was more than she could endure.

“Understanding the shock might stop her heart, Falcon carried her into the healing waters, blessed by his sister’s healing touch, just as the lush trees were a gift from his nephew. He pulled her deep into the pond, 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 although she looks pleased.

“That they are,” I say, my gaze a million miles away. “But he owed her his life, for she could’ve taken his on their last meeting, but she’d chosen to spare him.”

“But she invaded his land!”

“Boundaries were more…flexible back in those days.”

“Still…”

“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, playing with their words, even as they played with each other’s hearts.”

“But they barely knew 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’s never met someone who draws her in that way.

“Someday…” I hesitate, not sure this is a conversation I want to be having. “Someday, you’ll…understand.”

“I’m not just gonna, bam, fall in love with a complete stranger.” Then 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 to 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 awakened, sputtering, flailing, and choking on the water she’d now inhaled. Falcon took the abuse of her rampaging arms, dragging her up to the surface where she spat water in his face, gasping for air and clinging to him.”

“So romantic,” Sam mutters.

“Anyway,” I say really loudly, overtop her commentary, “when Snake calmed down enough to realize what happened, she locked gazes with Falcon and…” I grimace.

“And?”

“And-they-consummated-their-love-under-the-watchful-eye-of-the-sun—the end!”

“They what?”

“Okay, gotta go!” I shout, disappearing into the ether, hearing Sam’s shriek of horror when she finally realizes what I said.