It’s getting to a place that’s easy. It’s knowing when you’re there that’s hard.
The words of the journal were in her mind as Dia opened her eyes against the pale blue of the sky and the early-morning rays that had settled on the forest. For that short time, everything was in the right place. Dia could forget that she had left her best friend far behind or that the new boy she thought to maybe love had been stolen.
But undertaking a journey alone was not nearly so rewarding. There was too much time to think, especially as she sat with her back propped up against a tree trunk, smoke slowly curling up from the ashen embers of a fire at her feet.
Dia’s felt a cramp in her back from her slouched position and one of her outstretched hands gripped a book. She had fallen asleep trying to record her journey as the doctor had recommended. She turned her head to the side so that she faced the direction of the valley.
Ever so faintly Dia could see Tess between the spaces of oak and pine trees, standing by the cliff edge. There was no real battle here, three days around the edge of the valley and all there was to find were steeper cliffs and territorial squirrels, but from above you could watch the injured limping back towards the city and the fresh young men answering the call to the field.
Going through the low valley might have been faster, but at least this way there was nobody to question her presence. No doubt the soldiers would send her away for her own good. Besides, Tess deserved not to be reminded of how invisible she was.
Tess. There was someone else with too much time. The ghost would not have slept. She must have watched the movement in the valley all night long. Dia wondered what the girl would be thinking. Did space feel vast to her? Did she feel small? Did time move or did fragments of then and now fall together?
Dia pulled the weighty book to her lap and opened it to a page in the middle that held only two lines of writing that ended a paragraph from the previous page. The pages to this point were covered in the crooked doctorish scrawl of the first owner as he fretted about finding a future, but that came to an end with her application of ink on the previously empty following page, her oddly unrelated entry; a slow script that was unsure of itself even as each ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ crossed. And this is what it spoke:
I would never be the first girl he cared for. In all my time knowing him I would always catch him looking back the other way.
Her name was Tess.
I shouldn’t have known her. A man, even a boy, is allowed to silently hold to the people they once loved and not be judged. But I have had the unfortunate pleasure of hearing the rumors about this now-dead girl, right from the girl herself.
Because Tess was not just a name.
Dia sighed. She glanced towards the cliff where Tess was no longer and noticed a coolness by her shoulder. Dia raised her head to Tess who read the words with concentration held on her face. Dia expected a haunty joke or a mean response but got something else.
“Is it…a fiction story?” Tess questioned of it. “Can I be in it all the way to the end?”
As usual, the silly girl was thinking about herself.
“That depends,” Dia told her. “If you’re willing to come to an end.”
“You mean, die,” Tess said offended, catching on. “Ugh, how awful. I ought to get a fairy tale kiss.”
Dia shrugged and softly closed the book.
“It’s not that kind of story.”
“But it’s your story,” Tess complained.
“Then you’ll have to bribe me,” Dia gently teased back.
“Humph,” Tess said looking away.
Dia knew that dissatisfied look anywhere. Her younger sister had made the same face once.
“What?” Dia asked.
She couldn’t believe that she was still taking pity on a ghost.
“Can’t we go any faster?” Tess pouted instead. “The war will be over before we get there.”
While Tess prolonged her pouting Dia got up from the ground, retrieved her dusty pack, and resumed her walk through the woods. It wasn’t that she had not thought about it.
“Hey!” Tess exclaimed.
Dia ignored her.
“Come on, we were finally getting somewhere. What happened to the conversation?” Tess argued.
Dia was not answering that. She focused on the natural sounds of sparrows fluttering and chirping from overhanging branches. Dia knew that ghosts had a bad sense of empathy, but she didn’t have the patience nor the desire to feel any more disappointed with herself.
“Why do we have to stop and rest anyways?” Tess asked more gently.
“Because I get tired.”
She didn’t want to think about how many miles more this trek would be.
“But your immortal?”
Gods. Why didn’t they teach any magic in school? Given the chance, Dia would make it mandatory and she would feed and toss all the street urchins in class too. Spirit-chosen ones like Keenin ought to know what was going on before they got dragged into another’s war.
“Listen. I can starve and exhaust myself to death like any other. My body is the same as everyone else. It’s just that when I die it returns to perfect health,” Dia explained.
“So you get healed by getting killed?”
“Yes. Except I would like to avoid always dying given that it’s awkward. And I’m not immortal. I’ll die at exactly the time I was meant to.”
Whenever that is.
“Which is when?”
“I don’t know.”
“So like, in five seconds you could…
“Tess. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Guess it wasn’t five seconds. But any second. Really?”
“Tess!” Dia exclaimed in frustration.
She stopped to turn her anger on Tess, but then ahead Dia saw a collapsed body not far from where she stood. Her eyes seemed to adjust and she saw a greenish ghost sitting beside the body, but he didn’t seem to be the same person. Tess materialized in front of him before Dia could tell her not to.
“What are you doing?” she asked curiously.
Dia knew that Tess would annoy him. She seemed to like picking on other lost ghosts. It wasn’t a nice hobby, but if it kept other ghosts away Dia could live with it. The ghost raised his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was with a group of other ghosts walking along a crystal walkway, acceptance settling into my heart, when I had this nagging, tugging feeling that I had forgotten something important. Then I was here.”
“Iscara,” Dia said aloud for them. “I was told that he could summon spirits, but this is much worse.”
“Why?” Tess asked.
“He isn’t calling specific spirits. Our guy here is unused and forgotten, meaning Iscara lacks control.”
“Isn’t that good if he can’t control it? I might be safe,” Tess explained.
“Maybe,” Dia said. “But he might not be able to stop. Like a fire raging through a city. I wonder if the death god knows.”
“Oh, the death god knows,” Tess said. “He’s just occupied at the moment.”
Dia scrutinized her.
“Uh…,” the ghost started to say.
Dia slid the pack off her shoulder and rummaged inside. She pulled out a handful of salt that even now slipped from between her fingers. Tess blinked out of existence to get out of the way.
“Don’t think about it too hard,” Dia told him.
She tossed the salt at him. The grains of salt filled his figure with holes where it touched and he broke apart into the air. His spirit wasn’t gone, only scattered temporarily where it would not have to think. Ghosts were always aroung. They only began to be visible to her and others with spiritual sight when they formed a conscious collection, pulling bits of air and dust into a semblance of their bodies.
“Your death god better do something fast or we might all be dead,” Dia observed.
“I do not want to be dead with you. Your death god better fix this.” Dia complained. “And we better figure out what Keenin is doing.”