“Have any of your heard of the Song of Stars sapphire? “
The question was posed—as such questions usually were—by Cecil. We were having drinks on the back patio after dinner and admittedly the conversation had grown somewhat dull. But Cecil was no storyteller. His mention of this exotic-sounding sapphire most likely had intentions beyond livening up a chat among friends.
Lyn stiffed so slightly that only I noticed and only because I’d seen it before many times, long before she met and inexplicably fell in love with Cecil. She would stiffen like that when I got one of my cockamamie ideas about what to do on a Saturday night. Sweet Lyn’s idea of a good time was lying on a blanket on the grass under the sun reading a book or listening to some radio show. Honestly, I don’t know how a homebody like her could have married someone like Cecil. The man never seemed to sit still. And he always wanted to venture where no one else had yet been. I’d have wagered that if man was heading to the moon, Cecil would have paid all his fortune to ride on that vessel.
I glanced at Martin and he winked at me behind his raised sherry glass. I felt a flush move across my face. Martin grinned. It always amused him that he could still make his wife of ten years blush with a mere facial expression. It amused him and flustered me. I’d known Martin and Lyn—or rather Martin and Marilyn, fraternal twins—since we were all in university. I should have been over such silliness.
Lyn gave an exasperated sigh and leaned back in her chair, but then she smiled indulgently at Cecil. These obvious gestures did not go unnoticed by the gentlemen.
“I’ve told you this one, have I, dear?” Cecil asked.
“You’ve told me. But I don’t think Marty and Nessa have heard it.”
Cecil set down his drink. A sign that he had a proposal to make.
“A sapphire. Not the largest, not the loveliest. But unique. For it is enchanted. And it sings for in its heart is captured a most singular treasure, the voice, the song…of a siren.”
“Why is it called the Song of Stars sapphire if it’s actually got the song of a siren?” Martin asked.
“Ah, because a god—probably Zeus—took pity on the poor lovely song-less siren and gave her a place among the stars.”
“Of course,” I said. “She’s a constellation.”
“Was her name ‘Stella’?” Martin quipped.
Cecil raised a brow. “Don’t be a cad.”
Lyn twirled a curl of her hair. “What about this sapphire, darling?”
“It’s legendary. But it’s real. Mock me not, my friends. I see the looks on your faces. Sirens are myths. Indeed that’s where I started my research into the sapphire. With myths.” He picked up his tumbler and took a swig of some rare imported whiskey he’d opened for the occasion. “This precious treasure was used once or twice by heroes and adventurers long after the time of the ancient Greeks. It was used to enchant and defeat scores of enemies, so long as those enemies were men. Some legends have it that the siren’s song doesn’t affect women. But that may be neither here nor there. For over time, it was said, the song in the sapphire lost its power, being removed from its original source, the body of the unfortunate siren from whom it was taken. Supposedly, the song has lost its bite, but not its beauty.”
Cecil had ever been drawn to the siren song of adventure. Now he sought the siren’s song itself.
“I traced legend after legend and tracked down what should be the current location of the sapphire,” he said. “It’s locked away in a cave underground under a range of mountains—and I’ve figured out which mountain range is the most likely location. A wandering ghost is said to haunt the mountains and perhaps to guard the sapphire. Who this ghost is, no one knows. But some claim seeing a disembodied head wearing a bandanna and looking sad, rather than menacing. It could be unrelated.”
“I assume there are booby traps and the like around such a valuable treasure,” I said. “And does the government of the country where this mountain range lies know of the sapphire?”
Cecil smirked. “I’ve obtained official permission to go searching for it. Because no one believes it is real. And there doesn’t seem to be any other archaeological significance to the spot.”
“Really?” Martin raised a brow, his skepticism brow.
“Really. I’ve even been authorized to use a small amount of dynamite if need be to break through any landslide or anything that might be in the way.”
I felt my eyes grow wide. Cecil…and dynamite. “What do you mean ‘a small amount’?”
Cecil waved away my concern. “I won’t personally be using it. We’ll have experts along with us, trail guides, climbers—“
Martin breathed a sigh. “Sounds like you’ve got it all planned out, old chum. And are we to assume we’ll be your traveling companions?”
“If you’ll come, and I hope you will. What else have you got to do this summer? You can leave someone in charge of whatever projects you’ve got going, can’t you?”
“So, what do you plan on doing with this sapphire once you acquire it?” Martin asked.
“We, my friends. We will acquire it and share it. And it’s not the sapphire I want. We have plenty of those, don’t we, darling?”
Lyn gave a nod.
“It’s the song. We’ll be the first people in the world since the ancients to hear the song of a siren.”
Martin leaned forward. “We should take protection then.” And his comment was only half in jest.
In a week, we were ready to embark. Cecil being Cecil, he had made most of the preparations before he recruited us and had only to make a few phone calls and wait for the rest of us to pack. Martin and I had decided to go for the adventure, the vacation aspect of it. Cecil had discovered many a rare treasure, which to his credit, he first offered to the nearest local museum or other authority in antiquities wherever he was. And he only brought home whatever was unclaimed. But if there truly was a huge sapphire hiding in a cave somewhere, singing or not singing, it would certainly be claimed by someone. We expressed our worry about robbery, but Cecil insisted that few knew our true purpose. All the porters and guides and such who would accompany us only knew we were affluent foreigners on holiday.
According to Cecil (and legend), the cave entrance was hidden to any who did not approach the mountains during the right conditions. After a rain fall, as the sun rose over the mountains, a rainbow would appear that ended right where the cave entrance was supposed to be. If one was at the right distance from the mountains, one could see where the rainbow ended. And furthermore, Cecil acquired from an acquaintance who dealt in occult artifacts, a pair of spectacles that when donned allowed one to see the remnants of spectral and magical energies. Knowing how rainbows work, it would only vaguely send us in the right direction. It certainly wouldn’t land directly before the cave entrance.
Cecil did indeed bring the promised dynamite, which made the twins and me nervous. It’s not that we didn’t trust Cecil’s word that he had obtained the proper permissions. We just feared whoever he’d dealt with would go back on their word. We were, as I expected, in the far, far east. In a country full of friendly people but perhaps not-so-friendly officials. I just hoped we wouldn’t have to use the dynamite and that no one caught us with it.
If not for the spider or insect bite I got on my elbow during the last week of our sojourn, the trip would have been mostly a lark. For until we reached the mountain, we four friends abided in relative comfort even after we left the security of civilization behind. Our adventure consisted of eating exotic food and drink, occasionally residing in a tent (albeit a kingly one), purchasing an obscene amount of souvenirs, touring through ruins, and suffering upset “stomachs.” Cecil had secured protection against more serious dangers, such as highway thieves, kidnappers, and even a few common illnesses we didn’t have back home. Cecil’s information about the mountains was, unsurprisingly, good. He’d even had some weather forecasters help him figure out when and where he should be to see that fabled rainbow into the mountains. So it was that we stood outside to watch the sun rise over the mountains one rain-soaked morning. We were traveling east and the rainclouds moved westward. We watched the rainbow appeared. And as the rest of us marveled, Cecil measured and calculated. He checked and re-checked his figures. On we went.
When we finally reach the mountain, Cecil put on the spectral spectacles and led us all through the mountain. The four of us, a few donkeys, and half a dozen guides, porters, and bodyguards. We were alert for any traps or ghosts or spirits. On the narrow paths and in the cold shadow of the mountains, walking gingerly beside jagged rock face, it was not so easy to dismiss the thought of unnatural things hiding in the cracks and caverns. It was all too easy for me to wish I was back on Cecil-and-Lyn’s patio, sipping a cocktail and shrugging a shawl as comfort against a reasonable summer evening chill.
We camped two nights in those mountains, sleeping uneasily. And while the wilderness beyond made a pretty sight in the mornings from halfway up the mountain’s height, it was a sight we had little time to enjoy. The bite on my elbow had healed and was scabbing up, much to my relief. It had only throbbed for a day or so, but the itching afterward had lasted what seemed a week, though by then we’d been in the wilderness so long I had lost track of time.
We were about to break for tea on our third day in the mountain, and I longed to hold a hot cup in my frozen fingers, when we heard a cry from ahead and Cecil came running back to us with his guard.
He had found the cave entrance.
There was, blessedly, no need for dynamite. The entrance was open and a stair led downward, though from outside, one could not see past the first few steps. Cecil was loathe to drop any flares down for light. He instructed the porters, guides, and even bodyguards to stay above and guard the supplies and animals. He wanted to go down that cave entrance by himself, with only his wife and friends to accompany him if they wished.
I’m not sure why I joined them. I’d decided that if and when Cecil found the cave entrance, I would wait outside. The only thing I could picture in any caves in those mountains were bears. I wasn’t even sure if they were native to this area, but I couldn’t imagine anything good hiding at the bottom of a cave.
Still, I couldn’t let my friends and my husband go without me. At best I would worry. And truth be told, despite seeing nothing but a few stone steps melting away into darkness, I was curious.
“There will be traps,” Cecil said, taking the lead. “So do as I’ve instructed for the ones I know about. And be on the lookout for any I may not have found out about.” He pushed plugs into his ears as he descended.
I actually gulped.
The rest of us likewise plugged up our ears, our protection against the siren song, should it still contain the power of enchantment.
And on we went. There were traps, but Cecil had sussed them all out. We were careful. We took delicate steps, made measured movements, and breathed gently. We followed Cecil’s instructions, but we paid our own attention, and even managed to avoid a trap that he hadn’t figured out. It had to do with balances and pulleys, not his strong suit it seemed.
“You see, this is why I needed you,” he said. “I’d be dead without you, my friends.”
There was even a riddle or two. Those weren’t too difficult. The four of us played riddle games often. And these may have been challenging in ancient times, when not many people were privy to such knowledge, but we knew them. The only challenge was in the language, but Cecil, the old rapscallion, had been preparing for this trip for a few years now and had studied the ancient language from a professor (after much cajoling and a handsome tuition fee).
We made it past each challenge with our collective cleverness. And then as the cave opened into a small chamber, we saw it, or him, or it. Even though Cecil was the only one wearing the spectral spectacles, we all saw it.
The floating head. The ghostly guardian of the treasure. He was not as frightening as I expected. Despite the legends that claimed he wasn’t frightening, ghosts had always been my particular phobia. I’ve never had the desire to see one as some people do. It was another reason I had considered not going down into the cave. But none of the obstacles thus far had been supernatural. I had quite forgotten about the ghost part of the legend and had expected to come upon the sapphire at any moment.
Just as Cecil’s legends had claimed, the ghostly head wore a bandanna. The face looked somewhat plump, and it’s expression was indeed sad.
He floated before us, glowing with a ghostly white light.
“You must leave, trespassers,” he said.
A chill went through my body. My every hair stood on end at the sound of that voice. It sounded hollow and it echoed in the chamber and in my mind. I felt a prickling in my jaw behind my ears, as if I’d just bitten into a lemon.
The ghost seemed to have some control over the physical realm, for he made our lanterns and even our flashlights go out. The chamber fell into pitch darkness. Even the ghost was gone. His ghostly light must have been reflected from our own lanterns.
Someone lit a torch. Martin. He held it aloft. In torchlight, the ghost’s whole form appeared, the rest of his body now being displayed in ghostly green flame. But Cecil was determined. And Cecil was prepared. He repelled the ghost with an iron rod long enough to get past it. Martin distracted the ghost by wielding an iron rod of his own. Salt and iron, Cecil said, were the bane of ghosts. Indeed, Lyn and I were tasked with drawing a salt circle around the ghost to hold him in place. The ghost made no move to harm or intercept Cecil or any of us.
“Do not unleash it,” the ghost said, and he seemed to be begging Cecil. “You cannot contain it. It will destroy you. It will destroy all. If you cannot contain it.”
“Then contain it, I shall.”
Cecil lit a torch of his own and held it against the far wall. There was a flat panel with a final riddle on it. Cecil gave a triumphant laugh. He pressed the wall in a few places and pushed the panel. It flipped over and within, casting its own cool blue light, was a sapphire. It was set inside of a glass case which had barely a speck of dust from the look of it.
The others moved closer to Cecil. But I stayed where I was. And having lit my own torch, I held it two-handedly, against the ghost.
Cecil did not immediately reach for the sapphire. He was eager but not foolish. He studied the glass case and moved his torch around the panel area, searching for some final trap he may not have learned about.
And that is when the ghost moved out of the circle of salt and toward my friends. I stood frozen with a sudden fear.
“Martin!” I cried. It was little more than a whisper, but he heard and turned. He held up his iron rod, but the ghost moved closer still. And as it did, a strange thing happened.
I started hearing music. The others must have heard it as well for they also froze and turned their heads upwards as if the music was coming from the heavens. But it wasn’t.
It was coming from the sapphire.
I pictured a choir, but it wasn’t quite the music of voices singing. It wasn’t quite the music of any instrument I’d ever heard. It was enchanting. But besides enchantment, some other power, or force, seemed to waver just behind the song, just beyond it.
Was this what a siren sounded like? If so, then no man or woman was immune. Lyn and I were as transfixed as Martin and Cecil.
“Do you know what you are hearing?” the ghost asked. He was facing Cecil.
“Song of the siren,” Cecil answered. “It’s…” And for once, he was speechless.
“That legend is false.”
My jaw prickled again. As lovely and soothing as the sapphire’s song was, the ghost’s speech was the opposite, jarring and discordant. That was the point, I supposed, as my attention and Cecil’s went to the ghost. He told Cecil then what he claimed was the true legend.
The Song of Stars sapphire did not contain the song of a siren. It contained the Song of Stars. The celestial stars. Every star sings a song throughout its life and that song changes as the star burns older. The pulsing and beating of their hearts, the sweeping of their flaming arms, the turning, the spinning, the burning and burning. It is a cosmic primal force, the song. The song was like breathing in mortal creatures, sometimes a reflex and sometimes purposeful. But never was the song meant for the ears of mortal creatures.
In all of Cecil’s research, he never came across a reference to the legend of which the ghost spoke. Perhaps because it happened long before the time of the ancient Greeks. Long before the time of the even more ancient tribes of men. A group of stars made some trespass on whatever deities were charged with governance of the world at the time. Their crime was singing unsanctioned worlds into being. And so their songs were removed and placed into vessels that would contain them and stop them from creating worlds. These vessels were distributed among the cosmos. One ended up on our Earth. Heard through the filter of the celestial crystal that held it—which to us appeared to be a sapphire—the song was bearable and beautiful for a time. But if the stellar voice within was brought out into the open, into the presence of its brother and sister stars, it would become stronger and stronger, until it was strong enough to burst from its crystalline prison and sing a world not into creation but into destruction. For the Song of Stars would lay waste to the earth as we knew it and remake it into another world.
But so long as it remained in the darkness of the mountain, the voice could be contained until the end of the earth. So said the ghost.
“Do not unleash it,” the ghost said again.
Cecil peered at the ghost through narrowed eyes. I knew—and the others must have known as well—what he was thinking. He was trying to decide if the ghost was lying or if the ghost’s legend was some final riddle.
Could he take the sapphire? And could he keep it safe? What if the ghost was right but someone else found it? The cavern was open. And though few ever traversed those mountain paths, someone at some time must stumble in.
Lyn put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve heard the song, love,” she said. “Let’s leave it be.”
“You don’t seem to have the power to stop anyone from taking it,” Cecil said to the ghost. “If we leave it, what will happen the next time someone else finds it? Someone who’s not as…honorable.”
The ghost said nothing.
The sapphire sang. And my gaze turned toward it. Was it getting louder? I didn’t want to lose sight of the ghost, but I felt my eyelids grow heavy. What I wouldn’t have given for a great comfortable cot so I could lie back and listen and drift. I closed my eyes.
The first thing I heard was the sound of Martin’s voice.
“Vanessa! Ness. All right?”
I opened my eyes to darkness. Then the dark became dim as Martin helped me to sit up. It was night. And we were outside. There were stars overhead and a sliver of moon. I heard the commotion among our team then. And saw them help Cecil and Lyn up. We were later told that we had just appeared at the foot of the cave entrance, all of us lying down on the ground, not collapsed, but napping it seemed.
Cecil jolted upright and looked around, searching I presumed, for the entrance to the cavern. It was gone. Not sealed, but just gone. A part of the mountain face. One of the guides asked Cecil a question and I heard the word “dynamite.” But Cecil shook his head and he looked at all of us.
We gathered and seeing that no one was hurt, we huddled together.
“Did someone drug us, or did we really go down into that cave?” Martin asked.
“We really did,” I said. I looked up and saw Cecil nodding.
“We were judged worthy, friends,” he said. “I wonder why though. To learn a lesson? To keep others away?”
“Don’t be so full of yourself, chum,” Martin said, clapping Cecil on the shoulder. “It may have been some enchantment that only stays active for so long. Maybe triggered by that rainbow.”
“That poor ghost fellow,” Lyn said, glancing back at space in the mountain wall that was once the cavern entrance. “Who was he?”
I shuddered. “I hope he didn’t carry us out. Do you think he touched us?”
“I came for a sapphire and I’m leaving with more questions,” Cecil said. But he was smiling as he said it.
I shook my head at him. “You have enough sapphires, remember? You came to hear the song of the siren. Instead…”
“I heard the Song of Stars.”
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel