This is a Young Adult story tackling issues of self-harm and suicide. It is intended for teen readers or older. If you want to read from the beginning, click over to chapter 1.
This time Kassandra didn’t fall through the darkness. It felt more like stepping into a pool of black water. She held her breath and submerged into a cold, wet night. Around her, nothing. Not even a hint of the door she’d come through.
Her lungs strained, clamping on to the tiny bit of air. She needed to find the surface. Right now. One direction held a slightly lighter shade of black. Kassandra paddled toward it. The water lightened and beyond, sunlight filtered through interlacing branches. She broke the surface and sucked in breath after breath, so glad to have air around again.
After swimming to the shore, Kassandra found herself in the middle of a forest. Trees lined the bank in both directions—a mix of evergreen pine and those other types that lost their leaves in the winter. Clumps of grass and shrubs clogged nearly every open space except directly around the pond.
The nightingale splashed out of the water, waddling onto the muddy beach. It held its wings outward, the feathers scraggly and soaked. The bird looked pissed.
Kassandra jerked her head toward the pond. Where was Gabriel? He’d stepped through the door first, but he wasn’t here. She sat up as water dribbled from her shirt and pants, the fabric forming an icy blanket. Was he still swimming down there, lost in the blackness?
Kassandra glanced along the shore. Dim light passed through the trunks and branches, a strange twilight, neither morning nor evening. Maybe Gabriel arrived here first and wandered off. But where would he go?
The bird shuffled around in circles, every so often flapping its wings as though trying to take off, but its feathers were too wet.
The hairs along Kassandra’s neck prickled. Something stalked those woods, just out of sight. Even the nightingale paused and cocked its head toward the trees. She grabbed a broken branch poking out from the water and held it up like a club. Her fingers slid along the slimy muck coating the wood.
A twig snapped and Kassandra focused on the location. A few feet in, the forest dissolved into shadow, leaving patches of blackness between the slender trunks. Her mind filled these in with all sorts of strange silhouettes. She stepped toward the tree line, holding the branch like a baseball bat. The nightingale hopped alongside.
A guttural snarl rumbled back. The muddy branch quivered and Kassandra stumbled backward. A massive shadowy thing shouldered through the trees.
Ditching the club, she hauled ass toward an opening in the trees to the left. The creature pounced, missing her by inches. It pursued, crunching twigs underfoot. Kassandra risked a glance and saw a shimmer, almost like rippling water in sunlight.
A branch speared her ribs, leaving a scrawl of blood beneath the torn shirt. She shot forward, but the forest closed in from all sides. Tightly packed trees banged her shoulders and twigs clawed at her face. Roots snagged Kassandra’s shoes, making her almost trip, but she didn’t dare stop. It felt like the forest wanted to stop her. Finally the trees gave way to a small meadow filled with knee high grass.
Kassandra spun around. Nothing moved. She held her breath, listening. Had she lost it? Her lungs raged, craving fresh oxygen, but hearing was more important. No sound except the grass swishing back and forth.
Kassandra whipped in the direction of the sound. It was only the stupid nightingale. The bird perched on the branch of a tree. It flapped its wings, now mostly dry.
A bone-rattling growl came from behind. She spun, facing the line of trees at the far end of the meadow. How had it circled around her? This time the silhouette was easy to pick out. An enormous creature on all fours bulldozed through the trees. The thing had once been a lion. Its golden fur now glinted with thousands of razor blades embedded into its skin. Pins jutted out from its snout, forming whiskers.
Kassandra’s arms itched. She scratched at the skin, but the pricking sensation seemed to run beneath the crisscrossing scars. Her fingers dug deeper, trying to reach the source of the irritation, but she couldn’t reach it. The pain was underneath.
The lion padded closer, yellowed grass pushed to either side.
“Stop it!” she screamed, as much at herself as the lion.
The lion walked within arm’s reach, its head nearly to her shoulders. The mane bristled with a mixture of real hair and wicked razor blades. It seemed to be waiting.
Kassandra continued to claw at her arm, a fingernail ripping open the skin. She needed to stop, but her hand wouldn’t listen. It operated on full autopilot. Finally she dove down and bit her wrist, yanking the hand away from the bloody arm.
The lion bared its teeth and let out a roar. The force nearly knocked Kassandra over. Instead of claws, thin curved knives slid out. The creature lifted one paw and swiped. She held up the mangled left arm—a feeble attempt to block the blow. The knife-claws slashed her skin.
Her shoulder thumped as more blood flowed out of the wound. A chill swept over her, burrowing down into the bones. This was what dying felt like. Kassandra collapsed to her knees.
Her imagination pinwheeled through images until settling on Dad’s funeral. His polished coffin sat on a table at the front of the church. She stepped toward it and peered inside. The worry lines around his eyes were finally relaxed. But the face was so still. Kassandra wanted to grab his shoulders and shout: wake up. He would open his eyes if I only she wished hard enough. That thought cycled through her brain over and over, refusing to be silenced. There was only one way to switch it off.
Kassandra stroked the polished wood of the coffin. The scent of cedar filled her nose. Dad’s chest didn’t move. The laugh lines curled around the corners of his mouth as if etched there. No hint remained of the mischievous grin he’d always sported. Dad would never smile again.
He was really gone.
She opened her eyes and the lion loomed inches away. The skin along her left arm was tinged blue.
“He’s dead!” Kassandra shouted at the lion. It stared back—two pinpricks of black against amber irises. “Is that what you want to hear?”
She blinked, the world going blurry, and slumped to the ground. Dirt flew up into her eyes and mouth. Everything became dark as the lion leaned its head forward. This was it. The creature would finish her.
Something wet and sticky slid along Kassandra’s arm. She looked, not trusting her senses. The lion licked the wounded arm, and where it cleared away the blood, the skin was healed. Only the lines of scar tissue remained.
She was alive. The lion hadn’t killed her. But why?
Kassandra’s breath came out raspy, but steady. She reached up and felt the lion’s mane. The razor blades had vanished and her hand passed through coarse hair. Grabbing hold, she pulled herself up.
The lion was different now. It had changed when she shouted at it. Kassandra glanced at her arm, still covered in white scars. This was a test. It all had to do with her Dad. The lion only attacked when she denied the truth.
The lion led her into the forest. She staggered, leaning against the scratchy mane for support. This time a trail wound back to the pond. The nightingale followed, fluttering from branch to branch. At the water’s edge, the lion knelt down, depositing her on the muddy beach. It nudged, but Kassandra didn’t need encouragement. She drank until her lungs protested and then rolled onto the bank, gasping.
Kassandra didn’t ever want to move again. Her body felt like a pillow emptied of stuffing. Sleep clouded her eyes and she let it come.
Sometime later she awoke, face crusted with sand. The lion was gone. A scan of the shore revealed a line of paw prints leading back into the forest.
Puh-twee-too. The nightingale sat on a nearby branch.
“Morning,” she said spitting up some sand. Her voice sounded as if someone had poured gravel down her throat. Now she knew what smoking felt like. Everything ached. Kassandra inspected her left arm. The skin appeared normal again, no sign of the damage done yesterday. If it even was yesterday. Murky light filtered through the trees, the same dim twilight as before.
Shouldn’t she be hungry? Starving in fact? But Kassandra didn’t have the slightest desire to eat. Maybe people didn’t have to in this place. It would explain how Gabriel survived for years strung up in his prison.
She looked over to the pond. Her throat was still sore and the water looked cool and inviting. Scooting to the edge, Kassandra peered in. A door lay at the bottom of the water, as if someone ripped it off a house and let it sink down. It sure hadn’t been there before.
The door swung open and a cascade of tiny bubbles emerged. When the pond cleared, it revealed a room with marble floors. She hoped it didn’t lead back to the Hanged Man card. Although if it meant finding Gabriel, Kassandra was all right with that. She stood, but her leg muscles spasmed with cramps, and she twirled each foot to loosen them up.
The nightingale flapped its wings.
“I don’t think you’re going to like this very much. But I guess you have to stick with me.”
Kassandra sucked in a deep breath and then dove. The water was icy but perfectly clear. She swam down and grabbed hold of the doorframe, rooted in the sandy bottom and pulled herself through. The dim light illuminated a round room with a marble floor. Paintings covered the walls this time, not mirrors. She glanced up through the door, which was now on the ceiling. Beyond it, the surface of the pond rippled in the scant sunlight.
As if in answer, the door began to swing shut. Her chest seized and a bubble of air escaped her mouth. Kassandra paddled upward. The door thudded closed just as her fingers reached the knob. With the light cut off, the room went completely black. Kassandra twisted and pushed. She’d come too far to drown in some crazy lake bottom room. The door held fast, refusing to budge.
Kassandra gripped the knob, not for escape, but to simply hold onto something solid. Her lungs tightened. In a matter of moments she’d need to take a breath. She was trapped in a swirling watery darkness.