Kassandra Clings to Her Last Hope

Chapter 44

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.

Kassandra wanted to be shocked, but it made perfect sense. She ran one finger along the rim of the brass cup. Luke always seemed to know just what to say and when to say it.

“My brother bragged about his new talent when he visited me. He recounted the many times he had played with young girls’ emotions, pushing them toward crisis.” Gabriel glanced at Kassandra and then stopped speaking.

“It’s all right.” She gave a weak smile. “I kind of figured that part out for myself. I just didn’t know he could actually read my every thought.”

“Luke cannot open your mind like a book and see what he likes. He can view only the page you are currently on.”

“So, what I’m thinking right when I stand in front of him?” 

Was there a way to turn it off? Shut the book so Luke couldn’t read anything? It would mean she’d have to think about nothing. Or something totally different.

Kassandra glanced at Gabriel. “The paper doll down there…” She pointed to the room below. “That was you, right?”

He nodded, eyes taking a far off look. “I had no idea what my drawings could do. If I had known what Luke used them for…” A snarl of disgust slithered across Gabriel’s features.

“It’s the deck, isn’t it? It let Luke read minds and it caused your drawings to come to life.” Kassandra turned to the table with the cup and ball trick. “How does this game work?” She picked up the leather ball. “What does he do to make the ball vanish?”

Gabriel shrugged. “No one could best Luke at the game. It was his favorite and he never shared his secrets.”

“He’s cocky, that’s for sure.” She set the ball back on the table and rolled it back and forth between her fingers. An idea bubbled up. “If I can get him to forget about the cards, even for a moment, then they’ll zap back to me. I’ve seen it happen before.” The experiment with The Magician card flashed fresh in her mind. The minute Auntie Jo ignored it, the card zoomed back to her. Only this time, maybe the whole deck might return.

Kassandra lifted one of the brass cups—it felt surprisingly light—and plopped it over the ball, making it disappear. Gabriel watched. This trick was mesmerizing. It made people want to find the ball.

“If I dangle the final card in front of him, he’s sure to give me his full attention.”

“No, you cannot let him have the card! Luke fears The Magician card. It is his prison, as the Hanged Man was mine. You must lock Luke back in the Tarot deck.”

“No.” The answer can automatically from Kassandra’s lips. “The cards make him powerful. Without them, Luke’s just some six-hundred-year old guy.” 

“You deceive yourself. Luke will never abandon the Tarot deck. He has waited too long.” Gabriel’s eyebrows bunched together. “What has he promised you?”

Goosebumps sprouted along Kassandra’s skin. She shook her head and grabbed a brass cup off the table. Distracting Luke would make the cards come back to her. It had happened before with Lindsay. She forgot about the Fortitude card and it zapped back. Only, would the one Magician card be enough to pull back the whole deck?

Gabriel snatched the cup away and held it up. “Luke plays with your mind. He tells you what you crave to hear.”

Kassandra turned away. “I can get the cards back. I know I can.”

“No.” He hurled the brass cup across the room. It slapped into a pile of wood, sending the whole assortment crashing to the floor. Both birds startled, chirping their displeasure.

Gabriel stepped right up to her face, inches away. His frustration hummed in the air between them, yet he tenderly gripped Kassandra’s chin.

“What has he promised you?” 

The words came out as a whisper. “My dad.”

A look of puzzlement crossed Gabriel’s face.

“He’s… like Ezabell.”

The name acted like a slap, startling Gabriel.

“You have succumbed to the very same illness as Luke. My brother has clung to that false hope for centuries. If there were a solution to be found, he would have solved it by now.” Gabriel grabbed her. “He would not listen to reason. I pray you will. There is no return from death.”

Kassandra had seen Dad before. Here, in the cards. It meant there was still hope. 

“I tried to get Luke to understand this. I refused to illustrate the final card.” Gabriel let go and stepped back. “In return, he locked me in here.”

An idea appeared in her brain, like a fogged mirror suddenly wiped clean. “You.” She pointed at Gabriel, who looked truly baffled now. “Luke has to know you’re gone from your card. And he totally freaked when I said I’d talked to you.

“I do not know what you mean.”

“Luke’s afraid of you. That’s why he locked you in here.” Kassandra turned toward the table with the cups again. “If I could make you appear in the real world, it would really throw Luke off his game. Then I could get the cards back.”

“You are mistaken. Luke fears nothing, certainly not me.” Gabriel glanced at the surrounding stained glass walls. “I am also not in my card. I cannot return to the real world.”

“Yes you can. Luke almost pulled me out of the Fool card, so it must be possible. Plus this is the only card he doesn’t have. So Luke has no idea you’re in here.”

“Kassandra. Do not fall victim to the same illusion that has plagued my brother.”

She ignored him, scanning the room for a way out. Kassandra scooped the nightingale off the floor, palms tingling as it fidgeted.

Gabriel grabbed her arm. “Consider for a moment. You have a friend trapped in these cards.” 

She remembered Auntie Jo stuck in the chair, watching the endless parade of floats. But Kassandra needed the cards to free her. It was the only way. 

“This plan of yours.” Gabriel looked her in the eyes. “Is it the best idea for your friend? Or for you?”

A heaviness filled her chest. Was she abandoning Auntie Jo to save Dad? Maybe there was a way to save them both. Kassandra held the bird up. It cocked its head. Was she being selfish? It fluttered its wings, testing the damaged one.

“I don’t know what I want anymore.” She glanced at Gabriel.

“I understand the temptation of Luke’s offer.”

Puh-twee-too.

Kassandra caught movement out of the corner of an eye. The bird’s claws momentarily gripped her skin and released. Then it was in the air, shooting forward.

“Gabriel!”

The instant the bird touched her chest, Gabriel and the tower burned away. Everything became pure white light. Muscles spasmed, each one pulled in different directions. An ache spread through Kassandra’s bones almost like they were stretching. A blast of air pumped her lungs open to the bursting point.

Then she smacked, face first, onto an icky grey carpet. This was not Auntie Jo’s house. Someone she knew leaned over her.

“Hi Mom.”

Kassandra Clings to the Glass Tower

Chapter 43

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.

Crash.

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.”

“I know.”

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.”

“Yeah.”

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.”

Kassandra Steps Through a Painting

Chapter 36

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.

In the dark, Kassandra ran one palm along the solid weight of the door. Her chest shuddered, needing air. One hand clawed at the wood, frantic to escape. Then she snatched a breath, head popping up above the water. The air tasted stale and moldy. Kassandra kicked to stay afloat as the water gradually drained from the room, lowering until her feet touched the marble floor. A series of candelabras sputtered to life with a crackle, illuminating the area. The last of the water sluiced through the cracks along the perimeter. Rivulets streamed down her shirt and pants to puddle in her shoes.

There were no doors, only five oversized paintings. It figured. A door would be too easy. The one in the ceiling remained, taunting her. As if she had any chance of reaching it again.

She heard a muffled chirping and turned in the direction of the sound. It came from a painting of the pond and forest. There were even the lion’s footprints leading away. Then the nightingale popped out of the painting into the room. 

Wee-tee-tee-tee-tweet.

“Yeah, I know. You’re dry.” Kassandra wrung water from her soaked shirt. The bird circled the room before perching on the corner of a picture frame. “Glad you’re happy about all this.”

She faced the painting of the pond again. “Okay, if this is where I came from, then one of these others must lead out.”

The next painting depicted a hallway filled with mirrors—definitely the Hanged Man card. She didn’t want to go there again. 

The next one presented a night scene of New Orleans with lights reflecting in the rain slicked boulevard. A parade of floats clogged the street, surrounded by crowds of people—a Mardi Gras celebration. Kassandra stepped closer and examined the picture. Layers of oil paint shimmered in the candlelight. She scratched her head. What did New Orleans have to do with the Tarot deck? Then she noticed something printed at the bottom of the frame. A single letter ‘X’. That seemed random. Was she looking for buried treasure now?

The painting with the mirrored hall had three letters below it: XII. Of course, Roman numerals. The Hanged Man was number twelve. Which meant Mardi Gras was ten. Maybe it was the next card.

Since there were still two more paintings, she decided to check them out first. The next one showed a vast desert. Craggy rocks filled the foreground and the landscape receded into windswept dunes under an intense blue sky. Nothing else. Pretty boring.

Kassandra was about to switch but caught a flicker of movement. A distant figure hurtled through the dunes, still too far away to tell exactly what it was. Then a second shape followed the first, but this one blended into the sand, making it hard to see. 

Kassandra squinted, leaning closer to the painting. A girl scrambled across the dunes and the shape following was…The lion. It was back! Kassandra spun and looked at the painting of the pond, half expecting to see the creature there again, glistening with razor blades and needles. But the scene looked the same—trees and water, nothing else.

The nightingale had flown right out of there. Maybe she could enter into the paintings. Kassandra looked back at the desert. The girl clambered up a dune, close enough to see her strawberry curls bouncing. It was Lindsay.

Kassandra chewed on a fingernail. All she had to do was step inside. Yet she didn’t move any closer to the painting. The nightingale was oddly silent up on its candelabra perch. It cocked its head.

“What are you looking at?”

Lindsay neared the clump of rocks in the foreground, eyes wide with fear. The lion pursued, its mane nearly blending into the sand. She screamed, although no sound made it through the painting.

Kassandra looked away. The final painting showed a winter scene with a frozen lake. The glassy ice reflected the clouds above. A figure skidded along the slick surface, trying to run. It was Gabriel. Instantly she reached for the painting, but her hand clunked against the canvas. No way in. Kassandra glanced back at the desert. She hadn’t even tried to help Lindsay. What did that say about her?

Gabriel floundered along the frozen lake, trying to escape something, but the landscape was barren. A blond shape flashed along the ice. Kassandra leaned in, but still didn’t see the lion. Gabriel was almost full size now, his face drenched in sweat. He whipped around to look at the empty lake.

Then she saw it. The lion wasn’t above the water. It was reflected in the ice. It swiped and clawed at Gabriel’s reflection, only a few feet behind.

“Hurry!” Kassandra shouted, though he didn’t seem to hear.

In another instant, Gabriel hurtled past the border of the painting and vanished from sight. The lion followed. Kassandra slapped the canvas, causing the picture to billow. Was this some kind of torture? She could see him but couldn’t help.

Kassandra stepped over to the desert scene. No sign of Lindsay. But what if she could enter this one and not Gabriel’s? She shook her head. Didn’t matter. Kassandra reached forward, but bumped into canvas again. Still a no. 

Okay, with five paintings, there had to be an exit. She glanced around the room and counted. Now there were only four.

Kassandra turned, pointing at each one: the icy lake, the desert, Mardi Gras, and the hall of mirrors. What had happened to the pond? There wasn’t even an empty space on the wall. It was like the room shrunk, or the paintings grew. The four remaining painting hung evenly spaced along the wall. 

Her chest clenched up. Would more paintings vanish if she didn’t make a choice soon? Neither Gabriel’s or Lindsay’s were an option. Plus they both had the lion running around, same as by the pond. She hooked a strand of hair over one ear. Maybe that was the trick to this card. People had to face the lion on their own. Kassandra examined the icy lake. It would explain why Gabriel hadn’t show up with her by the pond. He’d gotten sucked into his own confrontation.

That left only two paintings—the mirrored hall and the Mardi Gras. Not a choice really.

She stepped over to the painting of New Orleans and examined the scene. It had to be the smallest parade in history, all concentrated on a single block. People jammed together, cheering the floats as they passed. Hadn’t Auntie Jo lived there?

Kassandra inspected the scene and spotted a small viewing platform on one side of the street. A single person sat on top, watching the parade. She wore a purple apron. A shiver ran through Kassandra. It was Auntie Jo. 

Turning around, both the desert and icy lake landscapes showed no sign of Gabriel, Lindsay or the lion. What if she couldn’t enter the Mardi Gras painting. Then she’d be stuck here. Or worse, have to go return to the Hanged Man card.

Kassandra turned back to the New Orleans painting and reached forward, fully expecting her fingers to thunk the canvas again, but this time they dipped into a cold slimy goo. She jerked her hand back, fingertips smeared with fresh paint. Rubbing them together only smudged the colors into a mucky brown.

This was going to be messy. Kassandra stuck her whole hand in and paint swirled around the arm, a few drops dribbling down the picture. It felt gloppy, like reaching into a bottle of grape jelly. She pushed the other arm and right leg into the painting, trickles of color dribbling down her skin. Finally Kassandra pushed off with her left leg and shut her eyes. 

Paint oozed up her nose and into her ears. It trickled down her back and along every inch of skin. Finally, it settled, seeming to mold to Kassandra’s body. Panic erupted inside her. What if she was trapped this way? Like in some sort of wet coffin. 

She waved her arms and they swung freely. The gooey resistance had vanished. Kassandra’s eyes sprang open to find a deserted street in New Orleans. She spun around. No door, meaning no way back.

Chirping caught her attention. The nightingale sat on an iron railing. Kassandra jogged toward the corner and heard the whooping sounds of a crowd. The sign on the lamppost read: Bourbon Street. She rushed down the rain dampened asphalt. The multicolored buildings on either side looked uninhabited. Everyone seemed to be attending the parade.

Kassandra reached the crowd. They swarmed the street, all shouting and hopping up and down. As she pressed through the mass of people, an elbow whacked her in the face.

“Hey, watch it.”

The guy didn’t seem to notice. He was too intent on the parade. Then she spotted the girl next to him, hands held over her face to mask the tears streaming down.

Kassandra stepped closer, but then noticed another lady, this one Mom’s age. She was crying too. In fact, lots were. Some openly, some with their faces covered.

The men jumped and shouted like this was the best party ever. Only the women were crying. They looked familiar. Some were old and withered, and some were young. Then an icy chill slithered down Kassandra’s spine. Every woman looked like Auntie Jo. 

Kassandra Battles a Lion with Razor Blades for Fur

Chapter 35

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.

“Lindsay?” 

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. 

Twee-ta-ta-ta-ta-weet.

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.

Cutting.

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.

Now what?

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. 

Gabriel Succumbed to the Sin of Vanity

Chapter 34

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.

Gabriel’s mouth tightened into a straight line as he touched his wounded cheek.

“Help me stop Luke.” Kassandra looked him straight in the eye. “Can you do that?”

“I want to help you.” He looked toward one of the mirrors, body slumping under the pressure of those images.

She grabbed his face. “Focus on me. Ignore the mirrors. They’ll show you everything you’ve done wrong.” Kassandra leaned close, pressing their foreheads against each other. “Close your eyes. Shut it all out.”

Gabriel did what she said. Except now he was back to square one—surrounded by these horrible mirrors and trapped in the middle. The room was still in control.

“Think. The mirrors only show your mistakes.” Kassandra glanced at the reflections. “What’s something you did right?”

“I can think of nothing.”

“No, I won’t accept that.” She scanned the room, settling on the easel. “Listen, you said you only drew the cards, right? Luke was the one who did the nasty part. He filled them with people’s souls, not you.”

Gabriel nodded.

“So what did you really do wrong?”

“Vanity. That was my bargin with Donald Cloots.”

She glanced at the mirror holding Mr. Creeps, still draped with the black cloth. Her skin prickled. Could he see her through the sheet? 

“I wanted my work to live forever. Now it is my curse.”

“Yes, but we have a chance to stop it. To stop Luke. Isn’t it worth trying?”

Gabriel opened his eyes and looked straight at Kassandra. “Pain and misery have surrounded me for these many years. Yet you…” He ran his fingers along her cheek. “You are filled with so much hope.”

Kassandra looked down. Of all the ways to describe her, hope would never be the word she used.

“Perhaps, I can atone for my misdeeds a little by helping you.” He leaned closer and she picked up the musky wood scent again. “Thank you.”

Kassandra smiled. Not something she’d done a lot of lately. 

“You say Luke has all the cards?” Gabriel flexed his right arm, testing it. 

“Except The Magician.”

“And you hid it?”

“Yeah, more or less.” Kassandra could picture the card wedged behind Mom’s phone.

“If we hope to defeat Luke, we must travel to his card to discover his secrets.” Gabriel picked up a sliver of mirror from the ground. He pulled off a shirt button and used the mirror to slice the thread. 

Wee-tee-tee-tee-tweet.

The nightingale chirped from its perch on one of the candelabras. The bird had done the same thing when she was gathering the supplies on the workbench. It acted like the world’s smallest cheerleader.

“We shall need a portal for our escape.” Gabriel set the mirror and button on the ground and used the rope from his ankles to create a thick knot. Then he spat into his hand. 

Kassandra made a face. He wasn’t going to make her shake his hand, was he? Some sort of friendship bond?

“Bring the mirror, the rope, and the button.” Gabriel scooted to a clear section of marble floor and squatted down. She gathered the items and brought them over. 

“Are you going to make one of those door things?” 

“Yes. The portal opens a passageway between cards.”

He dipped a finger in his hand, and then drew a watery spit line on the floor. After the first line, Gabriel had to spit again for more liquid.

“Okay, I get that the mirror represents swords and the button is coins.” Kassandra knelt down on the floor. “I’m guessing you knotted the rope to make it like a club for the wands suit. But how does spit equal a cup?”

“I cup my hand to hold it.” He dipped his finger again and completed the rectangle drawn on the floor. “In addition, each suit relates to one of the four elements. Water is the element for cups, air for swords, earth for coins, and fire for wands.”

Kassandra flashed back to the items the bird set out on the workbench. The match looked sort of wand-shaped. But it could also light on fire. Maybe it was the fire part that really made it represent the wand suit. 

The nightingale fluttered down and landed next to the rectangle.

“Each card is hitched to another in a series, like a caravan of wagons.” Gabriel waved in the direction of the mirrors. “You can see them there.”

Scanning the mirrors, Kassandra found the one with Ezabell. Behind her ran a line of covered wagons, strung together like a train.

Gabriel’s fingers brushed hers as he took the knotted rope, placing it in the upper right-hand corner of the rectangle. “We must reach Luke’s castle in The Magician card, yet ten cards stand between us and our goal.” He placed the mirror shard and button on opposite corners. “The Wheel of Fortune might prove useful to alter our course.”

“That’s Auntie Jo’s card. Luke used the card on her. Is she’s trapped in there?”

“Most likely, but…”

“We need to save her.”

Gabriel paused, thinking a moment. “You cannot rescue your aunt from inside the Tarot deck.”

“Now wait a minute, I cut you down. Why can’t I do the same for Auntie Jo?”

“If I glance away from the floor at those mirrors, I will become lost again in a world of my sins.” He glanced up at her once. “Your aunt will be overwhelmed by the illusion of the Tarot deck. She will not leave except by force.”

“Then I’ll force her.”

Gabriel gave a half smile.

So what if he thought Kassandra was nuts. She wasn’t about to give up on Auntie Jo. Not if there was even the slightest chance of saving her.

“So how come Luke said you betrayed him? It seems like you were both screwed by this Cloots guy.”

“I did betray my brother, though it was only to save his soul.” Gabriel rubbed his elbow where an old scar ran along the skin. “Once I learned of how he empowered each card, I refused to draw the last illustration, the Tower. Without a complete deck, there could be no deal with Cloots, and therefore no chance to save Ezabell.”

Kassandra looked at the mirror where Luke held the scraps of paper showing the creepy tower. He screamed, shaking the torn illustrations. She’d never seen him so angry.

“Luke would often visit here.” Gabriel pointed to the knocked over easel. “He made me illustrate Ezabell.”

“Why would you do anything for him?”

“So I could see her again. Not in death, but how she was in life. Luke would cover the mirrors and I drew from memory.” Gabriel took a long breath, letting it out slowly. “It was a serene moment in a sea of tumult.”

Kassandra glanced at the rectangle. Only three corners held items: the button, the knotted rope, and the mirror. “Wait. Isn’t there something missing?”

“I am the last symbol.” He cupped his hand again and rested it on the lower right corner. The floor rumbled. Then the marble inside the rectangle crumbled and fell away to darkness. 

Kassandra trembled. Going into the blackness last time felt like swimming through tar.

“First we must traverse the card of Fortitude.” Gabriel stood slowly, teetering a little. “Be wary of what you see. Although I designed each card, I have never been inside any but this one. I do not know what we shall encounter.”

Kassandra strained to remember the illustration from Fortitude. It was the card Lindsay had taken in the hall at school. And the one Luke used against her. Did people end up being trapped by the cards they chose? Auntie Jo said the Wheel of Fortune was her card.

Kassandra stared at the black rectangle in front of her. There was a lion loose in there. But also Lindsay. She swallowed. Which one scared her more?