What even are mages? Seriously. I’m so over this—over them hunting me. What did I ever do to them? I swear, if one more Hunter chokes me, I’m gonna develop a complex.~Samantha Anders
And I already have so many of those.
For once, just once, I’d like to be able to go out into public without watching my back. It’s already bad enough going into public with my bow and quiver of arrows slung over my shoulder. The looks Seattlites on the bus and link rail give me are priceless. I’m so far past caring, I should be given a gold star.
Whatever. It’s fine. Well, it’s not. But there’s nothing I can do about it now. I screwed myself over long before I’d known what I was doing. And that’s the catch, isn’t it?
When I was thirteen, I screwed up royally. It wasn’t my fault—at least, I don’t think it was. But that’s not the point. The point is, I’m a witch. But not just any witch; I’m so powerful, I’ve got enemies in high places.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On my thirteenth birthday, I discovered I had powers. Powers that allowed me to time travel and see auras. The auras weren’t the issue. The issue was my powers flaring and dragging me over two millennia into the past.
That’s right. Two. Millennia.
That’s where I met Chibale. Real cool dude—not that I’d been able to understand a word he’d said, but he was nice. He’d also been enslaved to guild mages. And that’s where my entire legacy begins. I’d dared to rescue him—to free him—and the mages hadn’t taken too kindly to that.
Since I used magic—I didn’t know then that I gave off a terrifyingly large and threatening magical energy, which was how I’d been found and captured in the first place—to liberate us from the guild dungeon, I’d gained a bit of a reputation. And by “a bit,” I mean they titled me the Sibyl, a fierce, evil woman with wicked powers.
That title hadn’t died with the end of the era, with the death of the century. Oh, no. The damn title carried through the ages, picking up steam and blowing out of proportion bit-by-bit with each retelling of the story. Before long, the Sibyl was myth and legend.
A myth and legend that the guilds of today still consider a threat.
But back to my story.
After I rescued Chibale, we trekked the desert of Ancient Egypt back to his home. I collapsed long before we got there, dehydration and the journey more than my frail body could endure. He carried me the rest of the way.
That’s when I met Bennu, Chibale’s son.
Bennu was kind enough to see me back to good health while his mother, Tauret, did the same for Chibale. His father had been in better condition than me, used to the harsh climate of the desert, and had recovered quickly.
Now, flash-forward to the twenty-first century—to right now, literally right this second. There’s a mage on the bus with me, and I can feel his eyes on me the way I can feel his magical energy grating along my skin. His aura is lethal. His presence is menacing. But I pretend not to see him.
I’ve dealt with stronger Hunters than him. I could take him. That is, I’d be able to take him as soon as we aren’t both crammed into a city bus with dozens of bystanders sitting between him and me. But that’s the thing; as soon as I get off the bus, so will he.
Then the chase will be on.
Which will be faster…my arrow or his knife?
I’m off the bus the moment the door opens—hell no, I’m not waiting a second longer than I have to. I push out, fellow Seattlites glaring but used to much stranger behavior from city-dwellers. The length of the bus, the handful of people getting off, and whatever distance I manage to run before the Hunter’s foot touches pavement is all I have for time.
My feet pound the street, lungs screaming with pain already. The Hunter is fast, but luckily not one of the faster mages I’ve encountered. As I run, I pull my bow off of the clip on my back. His knife is within grabbing range, but as opposed to using it, he prefers to pump his fists harder as he slowly closes the gap between us.
Thank the goddess he hasn’t decided to turn me into target practice by throwing his knife. That he hasn’t tells me a few things: he only has the one knife, he sucks at throwing, or he’s not confident in his magical abilities if he were to lose the knife. If the goddess favors me today, all three will prove true.
Hoping for the best, I turn down an alley and stop at the end, bow raised, arrow nocked, string taut, staring down the sight. As soon as he comes around the corner, I release. Thunk! The string vibrates, making my arm tremble under the recoil. The Hunter screams, the arrow burying to the fletching in his right shoulder. I just hope it’s his dominant one because I’ve been wrong before.
His left hand reaches across his hip to grab the knife sheathed there, and I try not to scream in frustration. Either he’s left-handed, ambidextrous, or doesn’t care if his coordination is crap. It appears to be the latter when he comes at me, his aim not terrible, but not great either. I can’t imagine the pain helps, but he’s going to kill me if I don’t get my head out of my ass and move.
The blade grazes my arm, drawing blood as I jump out of the way, diving into a pile of garbage bags stacked next to the large dumpster. I’m a little too enthusiastic with my jump because my forehead knocks the metal, the sound reverberating through my skull. I’m stunned for a moment, unsure if skinning my arms on the pavement would’ve been better than seeing stars.
Get up, the working part of my brain screams.
Still dazed, I roll to the ground, air wheezing from my lungs when I land on my quiver. It was a farther drop than I thought, but I don’t mind the pain shooting up my spine—especially when the Hunter’s knife sinks deep into one of the bags I’d just been getting acquainted with. Whatever his blade hits, it reeks. Worse than that, it’s wet, and since I’m sprawled on the pavement, still trying to get to my feet, it sprays me. I barely close my mouth in time to not have the pleasure of tasting it, but it still douses my neck and shirt. Now, I smell like rot.
Great, just great.
I’m so caught up in my misery, it takes me a moment to realize it sprayed the Hunter in the eyes.
He’s busy fumbling, trying to wipe his good arm across his face. I stumble to my feet, blinking when stars cross my vision again. There’s a good chance I gave myself a concussion, but at this range, I won’t miss.
I load another arrow, aim for the mage’s calf, and wince at his shrill scream. It rips through my throbbing skull like glass shattering in my eardrums. I cover my ears, regretting shooting him.
Then, thinking, the hell with it, I grab my bow in both hands and bring it down over the back of his head. The noise his skull makes is enough to make me gag—or maybe that’s just the stench of the garbage finally getting to me. Both, I decide, watching the now-silent man hit the ground.
He won’t be coming after me anytime soon, but most Hunters are extremely resilient. It won’t take long for him to get back up, but it will be long enough for me to get far, far away from here. Speaking of, I should haul ass before other Hunters find us. Besides, I could really, really use a shower right about now.
I turn toward the mouth of the alley and search for the closest bus stop.
Dad and I make our way to the cemetery for our monthly ritual of visiting Mom’s grave. I often come here alone, but he doesn’t know that. It’s comforting being there, nothing but the silence and my thoughts to ground me.
Sometimes, I worry about Dad. He’s still grieving all these years later, refusing to love again. It’s admirable, in a way, his dedication to the one and only woman he’s ever loved. He says he’s content with me and his work, and while I know it’s true, I still can’t help but worry.
“He’s a big boy,” Phoenix says directly into my mind, where he’s currently residing, allowing us to carry a conversation without freaking out Dad or the other riders on the bus. “If he was unhappy, he’d let you know.”
Phoenix is right, of course. Dad has no problem telling me exactly how it is. As a longstanding businessman, he’s constantly working with difficult clients who try to twist his words around. He’s adopted a no-nonsense attitude and a direct communication style. If he was was upset or unhappy, he’d tell me…
Kinda like how he freaks out at me every time a guild Hunter finds me. It’s why I haven’t told him about the other day’s run-in. I’m safe and alive—a little bruised but breathing—and that’s all that matters. Why needlessly worry him when he’s already got so much on his plate?
“Sam, you should at least tell him something happened,” Phoenix chides in my mind. “I’m still worried about how hard you said you hit your head.”
“No,” I think back at him. “Then he’ll freak out and go on a tirade about my safety for at least an hour and a half.”
“That’s what parents do! They worry!”
I scowl, choosing to ignore him in favor of staring out the window.
“Sorry I’ve been so busy, Sammy Girl,” Dad says, and I look over at him. “Ricky’s been counting on me to help while he’s away on business…I just didn’t realize how many accounts he manages.”
“It’s cool,” I tell him. “You’ve got your own thing going. I’ve got mine.”
“Working weekends at my sister’s club isn’t a thing, pumpkin. I’m worried that I leave you alone too much since you graduated high school.”
“Nah. I just catch up on reading and stuff.” I shrug. “I’m at the range often, too.”
“Your mother would be so proud of your progress. You’re getting really good.”
I beam at him, remembering the last time we had a father-daughter day, he came to the archery range with me and I showed him my badass skills. It’s a tradition in my mother’s family for the women to learn how to shoot with a bow. Mom and I used to practice together before the diagnosis…then cancer took her.
When we reach our stop, Dad and I get off the bus and walk arm-in-arm, his foot and hip pressed up against the side of mine, moving in-sync and wobbling like a three-footed goober monster into the graveyard. Entering the grounds used to be the hardest part of coming here, but now that I’ve come to accept the reality of Mom’s passing, it’s not so bad. Being here is soothing for Dad and me, spending our visits remembering her life, not dwelling on her death. I miss her with a fierceness that could break my heart to pieces, but I let it hold me together instead.
I think Dad does the same thing.
When we get there, I lay on her grave like I normally do, and Dad settles down beside me. We lay with her, staring up at the clouds passing overhead. It’s a nice day out, which is rare in Seattle. Normally, it’s gray skies and even darker clouds, but today, they are fluffy and white, the sky a soft baby blue. A gentle breeze blows the grass, and it tickles my skin.
“So,” I drawl, arms folded behind my head, “what story are we going to tell today?”
Dad purses his lips, linking his fingers over his stomach as he thinks. “Well, we could tell her about how you tripped on stage at graduation—we haven’t shared that one yet.”
“You can tell them you hit your head on a dumpster,” Phoenix offers offhandedly, still merged with my mind.
“You’re not funny!” I snap at them both. In my mind, I think the middle finger at Phoenix, and his chill amps up, letting me know he’s displeased. He’s nearly giving me a brain freeze.
Dad laughs. “Too late now. She’s heard me say it.”
“You’re so mean to me,” I whine. “Why am I cursed with such a bratty father?”
Phoenix snorts. “Says the biggest brat I know.”
“Me? A brat? No, no, no.” Dad grins. “I like to consider myself educated in the fine art of Fatherhood.”
“Mhm,” I hum, but I’m fighting a smile.
“So, shall we give her the details?”
“Might as well.”
As Dad launches into the story about how I stepped on my too-long robe when crossing the stage, my heels slipping on the slick surface, bringing me crashing to my knees in front of my entire graduating class and their families, I close my eyes and let his voice lull me into a false sense of security.
Dad and I are still at the graveyard, but he started lightly snoring a handful of minutes ago. That he can sleep on the hard ground in a graveyard is a testament to just how overworked he is while his boss is abroad, settling their newest partnership for their firm. I really do worry about him. He already has a habit of getting sucked into his work, but now that he’s managing twice the number of accounts, I’m worried he’ll get sick or drop from exhaustion.
“You’re one to talk,” Phoenix says when he emerges from my mind.
“Can it,” I whisper-hiss, getting up and walking a little ways away from where Dad is resting. The sun is still high in the sky, and no one else appears to be here with us.
“Well, go say it somewhere else.” I walk deeper into the graveyard, admiring the headstones as I go. “I’m so not in the mood for a lecture today.”
“Fine, fine. I can tell when I’m not wanted,” he mutters, disappearing into the ether.
I frown, feeling like an ass. I didn’t mean for him to leave. I just didn’t want to have one of our explosive arguments today, not with Dad within hearing range.
Heaving a sigh, I continue walking until I reach the farthest tombstone, a weatherworn, beat-up thing. It’s so old, I can’t even read the inscription. A cloud passes under the sun, bathing me in shade and sudden darkness. I shiver, the hair on the back of my neck rising.
Feeling uneasy, I turn to head back toward Dad…and freeze. Soft whispers come from behind me, so many at once, I can’t tell what they’re saying. I hear a man’s and a woman’s voice, a boy’s and a girl’s. They all seem to speak at once, a static noise that makes my skin prickle and a bead of sweat drip down my spine despite the sudden chill.
Gulping, I force myself to face the forest’s edge again and stare in. I don’t see anyone, ghosts or otherwise. It’s just the blackness under the canopy of the trees, their leaves howling in the sudden wind. Lightning cracks across the sky and rain pours down, but I can’t seem to tear my gaze from the abyss just beyond the trees.
As if in a trance, I take one step forward, followed by another and another. I reach the first tree, my wet hair slapping my face as the wind continues to rage. Soon, all I hear is the cry of the wind…and the whispers, the insistent voices, getting louder and louder as I get closer. Twigs snap under my feet, and I stumble, shivering as I go deeper into the darkness. I know it’s midday, but it looks like night has fallen.
“Closer, closer, come closer,” the whispers seem to hiss.
“Samantha!” Dad calls, but I can scarcely hear him over the pouring rain, the wailing wind, and the loud, frantic whispering.
The whispering…that suddenly stops.
I stop too, blinking as if coming out of a dream.
Confused, I look around the small clearing. It’s dark as pitch, the shapes of the trees barely discernible in the faint lighting. There’s nothing but dirt and weeds at my feet, but it’s—
I stumble back, tripping over my own feet and falling on my ass. It’s not dark here, the ground itself is giving off a grim miasma…an aura. And as I stare at the blackest point, something rises up from the ground. My lip trembles and I whimper.
It’s head snaps around, it’s milky eye and cavernous socket staring at me, the rotten flesh peeling and oozing down its sunken and grotesque face. Faster than I can blink, it’s directly in front of me, the smell of musk and rot filling my nose. I can scarcely breathe, a scream lodged in my throat. It pulls its ragged lips back to grin, and my heart leaps in my chest when its hand reaches for me.
Right as it’s about to touch my face, it goes hurtling backward, the brightest light I’ve ever seen ramming through it. It’s so intense, I have to turn my head away and shield my eyes. A wail pierces the air, and I clamp my hands over my ears, a sob tearing its way from my lips. Whatever that thing is, I can sense its pain, can feel its fear…its anger, rage, and anguish.
It’s ravenous for revenge.
And when I stop sensing it, I finally turn my head back and open my eyes. I have to blink to adjust to the blinding light directly in front of me. No, not a light…a man. No again—not a man, a ghost. I’ve never seen one shine before.
He smiles at me, his amber eyes twinkling, and for a minute, I can’t breathe. Then he attempts to wipe away my tears, his incorporeal hands unable to help me. I hadn’t even known I’d been crying.
“Thank you,” I finally manage to say, wiping my face.
“Samantha!” Dad calls again, and my head whips around. “Samantha, where are you?”
When I turn my head back to the ghost…he’s gone. Him, and the malevolent spirit…and I realize that that was what the creature had been because, if it had been anything else, my mystery savior wouldn’t have been able to touch it, let alone hurt it. But the fact that it had anything akin to an aura when it was dead—that I could sense its feelings and smell its flesh—is beyond concerning. Whatever it was, I don’t want to be anywhere near this place any longer.
“Coming, Dad,” I shout, getting to my feet and running back the way I’d come.
I force myself not to look over my shoulder as I leave the forest behind.