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.
The front door squealed shut, the sound reverberating through the glass walls. Kassandra searched for a place to hide, but the options were limited. No way was she going to slip under the covers with paper doll girl.
Kassandra spied one more set of stairs leading up and scooped her nightingale off the floor. The prick of its claws against her palm created a tingling sensation. What would happen if she held it to her chest? The bird would probably leap inside like the one from the room full of cages. But what then?
Kassandra hurried up the stairs, her footsteps creating little clouds of dust. No one had climbed them in a long time. At the top, she emerged into an area only slightly larger than Mom’s room back home. This had to be the top of the tower. Even though the walls were composed of stained glass, it seemed darker. She ran one finger along the wall and pulled away a layer of soot.
Squawking from the bird room echoed through the tower, the noise dampened only a little by the two floors of stained glass. A chill swept through Kassandra. It was Luke. He was chasing down the birds she’d set free. Corralling them back into their cages.
The nightingale fluttered out of her hands. As it scuttled around the floor, the bird left tiny footprints in the layer of dust. Various bits of wood and stained glass lay stacked everywhere. The room swayed, boards squeaking as they shifted position, and she planted her feet to keep from teetering. After a moment, the floor swung back, tilting the other way. Bits of glass clinked together. It felt like a ship rocking back and forth over waves. Of course. The tower hitched a ride on the massive snail.
The door downstairs opened and she jumped. Luke was right below her. Any second, he would climb to this level.
She scanned the stacks of wood for a hiding place and spotted a thin ladder leading to a trap door in the ceiling. Several long planks blocked the way. Kassandra rushed over and began setting them aside.
Her heart leapt. But she hadn’t made the sound. It came from downstairs. Then another crash along with glass shattering. Kassandra knelt down and wiped dust from a section of floor. Luke stomped around the room, flinging papers from the desk.
The sound of wood scraping against glass alerted her and she jerked her head up. One of the boards had slipped, and was now sliding to the floor. Kassandra lunged for it, but too late. It thunked into a pile of scraps. The whole mess tumbled to the floor with a resounding smack, sending the nightingale shooting into the air. A glance down showed Luke running for the stairs.
Kicking the last plank aside, Kassandra scrambled up the ladder and threw open the trap door. A blast of wind slapped her face. The sky outside was a perfect cloudless blue. She scrambled through the opening. The nightingale attempted to follow, but it was hampered by its crippled wing. It landed on the ladder, three rungs down.
Through the stained glass walls, she saw a distorted silhouette of Luke climbing steadily.
“Come on,” Kassandra said in a sharp whisper.
The bird launched off the rung and flapped up through the opening. She slammed the trap door shut, cutting off the room below.
Shards of broken glass and twisted bits of lead made up the parapet of the tower. Once it must have been gorgeous, but now the edges were hacked apart. This must have been where Luke salvaged all the chunks of glass.
The floor swayed with the motion of Monstro the Snail. Below, two massive eye stalks fixed forward as the creature continued its journey through the bleak landscape. The nightingale waddled around, pecking at the floor. The tower shifted to one side and it threw out its wings to hold its balance.
Kassandra scooted toward the edge for a peek down. The parapet would have provided a railing, but now the floor went straight to the edge. The tower tilted again. Thrown off balance, she grabbed for a twisted strip of lead molding. It snapped free and her feet flew off the side. Kassandra flung her arms out, clasping the remains of the parapet. The glass cracked, but it held. She dangled half over the edge.
Her feet groped for a foothold along the slick wall. Kassandra wanted to haul herself up, but the more pressure she put on the thin sheet of glass, the more it fractured. A strip of lead ran along the edge, keeping her hands from being shredded.
A squeaking sound grabbed her attention. The trap door was opening. The nightingale scuttled to the side as the door fully opened. Kassandra tensed, preparing to face Luke. Instead Gabriel popped through the hole.
He rushed over, callused hands gripping her wrists with surprising strength, and heaved her up. Once on solid flooring again, she wrapped him up in a fierce hug.
“I thought you’d left me.”
“Never.” He squeezed her tighter.
Kassandra picked up his musky wood scent again. “Don’t go again. This place sucks even more when you’re alone.”
She pulled away, realizing what a horrible thing she’d just said. This guy had been locked in the Tarot deck for centuries and Kassandra was complaining about a couple of hours.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
Gabriel squeezed her shoulders. “You have endured more of this cursed deck than most. You need not apologize.” The tower lurched to one side. “Let us go below.”
He let her climb first. Kassandra felt the whoosh of air as the nightingale dropped down. Then came a crescendo of chirping. Gabriel had brought up the other nightingale, setting the cage on a table with a sheet draped over it. Stepping off the ladder, she was drawn to this piece of furniture. Various objects bulged under the white sheet, creating odd shapes.
Kassandra lifted the birdcage off and snagged a corner of the fabric. Pulling the sheet away released a cloud of dust right into her face. She stepped back, coughing and fanning the air. The dust cleared to reveal three brass cups and a small leather ball. They reminded her of the trick Luke had played with the bottle caps and the pea. The room swayed and the ball rolled on the table, leaving a little trail in the dust. Kassandra caught the ball before it plummeted off the side.
“Luke could have tossed these into the corner and torn up the table like the others.” She nodded toward the scraps of wood. “Why leave it?”
“This was Luke’s favorite trick. He loved fooling people into thinking the way he wanted.”
Kassandra dropped the leather ball into a brass cup. It landed with a clunk and kicked up a puff of dust.
“This is just sleight of hand. No magic or wizardry.” Instantly she recalled what Auntie Jo had said about the original meaning of the card. “Luke is nothing more than a con man.”
“You’re wrong. The cards change you somehow. They amplify your natural talents.”
“What? He’s an even better juggler now?”
Gabriel looked her straight in the eye. “Luke can read minds.”