The first thought that popped into my head when we entered the Roman city limits was: Hunh?
I squinted into the wind, droopy blond hair streaming behind me, feeling more than a little deflated as I soared over a landscape that was pretty much exactly the same as all the others before it.
My guide Bodhi, my dog Buttercup, and I had flown a great distance to get there, and even though flying was hands down our favorite way to travel, there was no denying how after a while the scenery tended to get a bit dull--fading into a continuous blur of clouds, and nature, and man-made things, all piled up in a row. And though I'd grown used to it, I guess I still hoped that Rome would be different, but from where we hovered, it all looked the same.
Bodhi turned to me, his green eyes taking note of my disappointed face. He shot me a quick grin and said, "Follow me."
He thrust his arms before him and somersaulted into a major free fall as Buttercup and I did the same. And the faster we spun toward the earth, the more the landscape below came to life--blooming with such vibrant color and detail, I couldn't help but squeal in delight.
Rome wasn't boring. It was more like the opposite--a city chock-full of visual contradictions practically everywhere you looked. Consisting of a maze of crazily curving, traffic-choked streets that curled and swooped around newly renovated buildings and crumbling old ones--all of it looming over dusty old ruins dating back thousands of years--reminders of a long-ago history that refused to go quietly.
Bodhi slowed, his hair flopping into his face when he nodded toward the ruin just below him and said, "There it is. What do you think?"
Buttercup barked with excitement, wagging his tail in a way that made him spin sideways, as I gawked at the massive old amphitheater, marveling at its size, and finding myself suddenly sideswiped by doubt.
I mean, yes, I'm the one who'd practically begged the Council for a more challenging Soul Catch--I wanted to glow brighter, wanted to turn thirteen more than anything else in the world, and I wrongly believed that excelling at my job was the one and only way to speed that along. But the longer I gazed upon that massive stone structure withits arching columns and sturdy old walls--the more I took in its sheer size and scope--the more I thought about the activities it was known for: barbaric cruelty and slaughter, blood-soaked battles fought to the death--well, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd maybe been a little too ambitious, if I might've overreached.
Not wanting to let on to my sudden fit of cowardice, I gulped hard and said, "Wow, that's um ... that's a whole lot bigger than I thought it would be."
Continuing to hover, my eagerness to land all but forgotten until Bodhi yanked hard on my sleeve and got us all moving again. But instead of leading us to the middle of the arena, he landed on the balcony of a very fancy restaurant, its all-white décor serving as the perfect backdrop to what may be one of the earth plane's most spectacular views.
He perched on the balcony's gray iron railing, gazing down at the landscape that loomed several stories below, while I sat alongside him, hoisting a not-so-cooperative Buttercup awkwardly onto my lap, his legs flopping over either side, as I said, "Do we have a dinner reservation I don't know about?" Knowing the joke was a dumb one, but I couldn't help it, nerves made me jokey.
Bodhi gave the place a once-over, taking in the spacious terrace filled with well-dressed diners enjoying elegant candlelit dinners and a sunset-drenched view that bathedthe Colosseum in a glow of orange and pink--all of them blissfully unaware of the three ghosts sitting among them.
Then returning to me he got down to business and said, "Okay, here's the deal, this ghost you're supposed to deal with--his name is Theocoles. No last name that I know of. And, please, do yourself a favor and call him by his full name. No shortcuts, no Theo, or T, or Big T, or--"
"I got it, Theocoles," I snapped, thinking it was certainly a mouthful but it's not like it mattered, his name was pretty much the least of my concerns at that point. "What else?" I stared straight ahead, hoping to appear confident despite the way my fingers were twisting in Buttercup's pale yellow fur.
Bodhi squinted through his heavy fringe of thick lashes, his voice low and deep as he said, "According to the Council, he's been haunting the Colosseum for a very long time." I turned to Bodhi, arching my brow, in need of a little more detail, watching as he shrugged, pulled a dented green straw from his pocket and shoved it into his mouth, where he proceeded to gnaw on it. A habit meant either to calm his nerves or help him think, I could never be sure. "This guy is intense," he continued. "He truly is a lost soul. He's so completely immersed in his world, he has no concept of anything outside of it, or just how many years have passed since his death, which, by the way, number into the thousands."
I nodded, giving Buttercup one last scratch on the head before allowing him to leap from my lap to the ground so he could go sniff all the diners and beg for table scraps--clueless to the fact that they couldn't see him.
"Sounds like business as usual," I replied, with a little more bravado than I felt. While the Colosseum was certainly intimidating, nothing Bodhi had said sounded like all that big a deal. "Pretty much all the ghosts I've dealt with were intense," I continued. "And yet I was still able to reach them, still able to convince them to cross the bridge and move on, so I'm pretty sure I can convince this Theocoles dude to cross over too. Easy-peasy." I nodded hard to confirm it, turning just in time to catch the wince in Bodhi's gaze.
"There's something more you need to know," he said, his voice quiet and low. "Theocoles was the champion gladiator back in his day. Feared by all--defeated by none."
"Did you say ... gladiator?" I gaped, thinking surely I'd misunderstood.
Bodhi nodded, quick to add, "They called him the Pillar of Doom."
I blinked, tried to keep from laughing, but it was no use. I know the name was supposed to sound scary, but to me it sounded like some silly cartoon.
My laughter faded the second Bodhi shot me a concerned look and said, "He was a champion gladiator. A real primuspalus, that's what they called them, which, just so you know, translates to top of the pole. Widely considered to be the toughest, scariest, strongest, most fearless creature in the bunch. This is nothing to laugh about Riley; I'm afraid you've got some serious work cut out for you. But then again, you did beg for a challenge."
My shoulders slumped as I buried my face in my hands, my short burst of confidence dying the moment the reality of my situation sank in.
I mean, seriously--a gladiator? That's the challenge the Council saw fit to assign me?
It had to be a trick, or maybe even some kind of joke.
It had to be the Council's way of getting back at me for always ignoring their rules in favor of making my own.
How could I--a skinny, scrawny, semi-stubby-nosed, flat-chested, twelve-year-old girl--how could I possibly take on a big, strong, raging hulk of a guy who'd spent the better part of his life chopping his competition into small, bloody bits?
Just because I was dead--just because he couldn't technically harm me--didn't mean I wasn't quaking with fear. Because I was--I really, truly was. And I'm not afraid to admit it.
"I know it seems like a lot to ask of a fairly new Soul Catcher such as yourself," Bodhi said. "But not to worry, theCouncil only assigns what they know you can handle. The fact that you're here means they believe in you, so it's time you try to believe in you too. You have to at least try, Riley. What is it Mahatma Gandhi once said?" He looked at me, pausing as though he actually expected me to provide the answer, and when I didn't he said, "Full effort is full victory." He paused again, allowing the words to sink in. "All you can do is give it your best shot. That's all anyone can ever ask of you."
I sighed and looked away. Believing in myself was not something I was used to struggling with--if anything I bordered on dangerously overconfident. Then again, the situation I faced wasn't the least bit normal, or usual for that matter. And even though I knew I'd asked, if not begged for it, I still couldn't help but resent the Council just the tiniest bit for indulging me.
"And what about those other Soul Catchers?" I asked. "The ones who were sent before me and failed? I'm assuming the Council believed in them too, no?"
Bodhi chewed his straw, ran a nervous hand through his hair, and said, "Turns out, it didn't end so well for them ..."
I squinted, waiting for more.
"They got lost. Sucked so deep into his world that they ..." He paused, scratched his stubble-lined chin, and took his sweet time to clear his throat before he said, "Well, let's just say they never made it back."
I stared, my mouth hanging open, empty of words.
I was outmatched. There was no getting around it. But at least I wouldn't have to go it alone. At least I had Bodhi and Buttercup to serve as my backup.
"But please know that Buttercup and I will be right here if you need us. We're not leaving without you, I promise you that."
I looked at him, my eyes practically popped from their sockets, my voice betraying the full extent of my hysteria when I said, "You expect me to go in alone?" I shook my head, unable to believe how quickly things had gone from very, very bad to impossibly worse. "I thought that as my guide it was your job, not to mention your duty, to guide me. And what about Buttercup? Are you seriously telling me that I can't even bring my own dog to protect me?"
I turned, gaze sweeping the restaurant until I'd zeroed in on my sweet yellow Lab all crouched under a table, chewing on a shiny gold stiletto a diner had slipped off her foot. Reminding myself that historically speaking, he'd never proved to be all that great of a backup, when push came to shove he was actually more scaredy-cat than menacing guard dog--but still, he was loving, and loyal (well, for the most part), and surely that was better than going alone.
Bodhi looked at me, his voice full of sympathy when hesaid, "Sorry, Riley, but the Council made it crystal clear that this was your Soul Catch. Yours and yours alone. They asked me to stay out of it, to supervise only, and leave you to work it out on your own. But we'll try to throw you a lifeline if you need it--or should I say soul-line? And while I thought about letting you bring Buttercup along, for the company if nothing else, the thing is, thousands of wild animals died in that arena, and some of them are still lurking in ghost form. Being chased by a lion or bear could be pretty terrifying for him since he doesn't really get that he's dead."
I squinted into the dying light, gazing at the long, rectangular space filled with rows of narrow, crumbling, roofless structures all sprawled out below us--yet another ancient ruin. From what I'd seen, Rome had no shortage of them.
"It'll be dark soon," Bodhi said, voice softly nudging. "The sooner you get started, the better--and you might want to start there." He gestured toward the ruin I'd been looking at. "It's an ancient ludus--the Ludus Magnus--known as one of the biggest, most important gladiator schools in Rome's history. Could be a good place to begin, get your bearings, get a feel for the place ... you know, before you hit the arena."
I gulped, nodded, tried not to think about my fellowSoul Catchers who never made it back. I mean, if the Council thinks I can handle it, well, who knows, maybe I can. Maybe they know something I don't.
I pushed my bangs from my face, took one last look at my dog still gnawing that shoe, then pushed off the ledge. Hoping more than anything that the Council was right, that I really was capable of more than I thought.
But already betting against it as I made my way down.