Luke Rykell Tries to Pull Kassandra Out of the Tarot

Chapter 40

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.

A fierce wind gusted from behind, snapping the curtains shut and flicking Kassandra’s hair forward. She hooked the curls away and found herself perched on top of a narrow rocky pillar. The wagon had vanished. Only the curtains remained, fluttering loose in the air, no longer attached to anything. The nightingale struggled within the fabric, screeching as the curtains plummeted. 

“No!” The shout came out like a croak.

Kassandra darted to the cliff. Far below, waves surrounded every side, crashing into the base of the rocky column. As the curtains drifted nearer to the surf, the bird wriggled free and flew into the sky. It was safe.

Kassandra scooted back and exhaled. Wait. Where was the coughing? Another deep breath brought salty air. Her lungs worked effortlessly with no tightness in the chest. Feeling along the neck, she found the boil gone. At least the plague sickness had vanished. Things weren’t so bad.

Kassandra examined the patch of rock—hardly bigger than one of the lunch tables back at the school’s cafeteria. The only thing visible was a single red rose planted smack in the center.

Which card was this? She thought hard. If the next wagon over was The Magician, then this had to be the second card or the zero card. But she had no clue what either of them represented.

Kassandra needed to build one of those doors out of here. She had a rose. The rest of the rock was flat and barren. Scooting to the edge, Kassandra glanced down. The curtain hung along the rocks. She probably could’ve used that. 

The tide rolled in and out. Each wave brought another crash as the water battered the column, kicking up explosions of spray. The wind carried the drizzle up. Kassandra shut her eyes and took long, lingering breaths as the sea mist dappled her skin. It felt like the time Dad had let her drink champagne on New Year’s Eve, her mind light and bubbly. She’d wanted this moment to last forever. 

A gust of wind whipped by, rocking her body forward. Yes. She was ready. Kassandra leaned toward the cliff. Almost over the edge. Then her arms pinwheeled and she pushed away. Her heart hammered. Why had she zoned out? It was no accident. It felt like she’d wanted to go over. Something about this place. It affected her mind.

Someone giggled. Kassandra looked around but there was still nothing on this pillar of rock except the rose. There it was again, a muffled laughter. She looked up and saw the clouds bunching together to form a face. 

Luke.

“Hello, Kassandra.” His voice was wispy, as though the words were hardly there. “So that’s where you’re hiding out. I’ve been searching the cards for you. Pity you ended up in The Fool. I would have pegged you as a Hermit sort of girl. Or at the very least The Lovers.” He winked.

The muscles along Kassandra’s neck bunched up. He wanted to get her mad. And it was working. She took a deep breath and let the frustration drain out. Then she stared up into the clouds. “I saw her die.”

At first Luke looked confused—the clouds making up his face shifted erratically. Then realization settled in. He looked straight at her. “You and I are so alike. We’ve each lost someone close. But we can change things. Together we can bring them both back.”

“What? And destroy Auntie Jo’s soul in the process? Gabriel told me all about the Tower.”

“So you’ve met my brother.” The clouds darkened and roiled. “Maybe I should pluck you out of this card right now. Bring you back to this world.” 

He couldn’t pull her out. Not now. She was so close to his card. “I’ll never tell you where the final card is.”

Luke paused, contemplating. “You’re so right. I should leave you there a little while longer. Until apathy creeps in.” He glanced around. “Oh, by the way, this is a lovely house you have. I can’t wait to meet Mom again.”

“You keep away from her!” Kassandra’s teeth clamped together so tightly it hurt. She wanted to hurl something at him. The nightingale swooped up from below and darted straight into the clouds, momentarily disrupting his face. Luke seemed not to notice.

“Of all the cards to stumble into, you picked an empty one. No other soul is trapped there.” His face took on a somber look. “The longer you stay, the more you’ll bond with the card. Until finally there’s nothing left of you.”

Luke smiled, but it wasn’t one of his typical wicked grins. More weary. Like he wanted the whole ordeal to be over with. “Just remember. You can stop all of this.” The details of his face faded. Then the clouds broke apart and drifted away.

He was waiting at the house, but for how long? She had no idea of time in these cards. Mom could already be on her way home.

Kassandra looked back at the rose. It had to be important. Otherwise why would it be here? Gabriel said he’d left tools to make a door in every card. But what the heck could she do with a flower? She stared at the stem. The way it twisted from the rock fascinated her—the thorns poking out at odd angles. So beautiful. Kassandra blinked, as if waking from a nap. She was getting sucked in just like Auntie Jo with those floats.

“Okay, I know I need the rose.” 

Kassandra reached to grab it, but the thorns jabbed her hand. Inspecting the skin showed tiny dots of blood. Kassandra brought the fingers to her mouth to stop the bleeding, but hesitated. She wasn’t getting all weirded out by the blood. 

“It’s just a prick.” She chuckled. “That’s all.”

Looking at the rose, an idea clicked into place. The stem could be the wand and the rose blossom would be the cup. She had two. What else was there? Kassandra scanned the rocky surface and then laughed. Still nothing. No mini-mart popped up while she’d been daydreaming.

Gabriel had said each suit also represented an element. Kassandra had wands and cups covered. Did coins stand for earth or air? Earth made more sense. She had to dig in the ground to get gold and silver. Problem was, the ground up here was flat sandstone. Maybe with a knife or a shovel, she could gouge some earth out. Even just a handful. 

Kassandra scooted to the edge. The wind and water had eroded the rocky column, revealing stones embedded in the side. She reached down and pried one out. Bingo. The stone was even coin shaped. Albeit a really big one.

Now all Kassandra needed was something for swords. They represented air, but how could anyone capture that? She glanced up. Maybe a feather from the nightingale? The bird flew lazy circles. Clouds bunched together, blown around by the wind. A little concentration produced shapes. She squinted, her gaze darting all over the sky. 

Kassandra was doing it again. Zoning out.

She scooted over to the rose and reached out to grip the thorns. Another prick would focus her brain. But before jabbing herself, Kassandra noticed the thorns. They could represent swords. She twisted off the rose’s head and then broke the stem at the base. Finally Kassandra plucked off some thorns and set everything down on the ground next to the stone. Now she had all four suits. Take that Luke.

The wind picked up. 

“No no no!” 

Kassandra slapped a hand down and caught the parts of the rose before they flew away. Too close. She couldn’t let it happen again. Kassandra slipped the stem and thorns into a pocket. The rose flower was too big, so she tucked it between her legs.

There. Now she needed something to draw with. One side of the stone was thinner, forming a sort of dull cutting tool. Kassandra used this to gouge the lines of a rectangle into the sandstone.

The wind snaked up her shirt and goose pimples spread along her back. 

“What are you doing?” Luke’s face appeared in the sky again. The clouds clumped together, darkening to muddy grey. 

She didn’t want to talk to him. He was only trying to distract her. Kassandra hunched over the rectangle, so Luke couldn’t see it, and set out the items representing the Tarot suits. The rock went on the upper right corner for coins.

“Stop it.” His voice was twinged with worry. 

Kassandra set the rose flower on the lower right for cups, and then dug into her pocket for the stem representing swords.

“I think it’s time for you to come out of there.”

Something tugged at Kassandra’s shirt. The wind whipped, kicking up bits of grit. The items began to shift away from the rectangle. 

She yanked out the stem and hooked her feet and free hand over the sides. Using her body, Kassandra pressed down on the flower and the rock.

“Come on.” Luke’s voice slithered through the wind. “It’s time to leave.”

“No, I’m going to beat you.”

“It’s sweet that you try.”

Air whipped around the column in a fury of gusts and blasts, trying to lift her up. Kassandra shoved the stem onto its corner and then dove into her pocket, groping for the thorns.

A surge of wind lifted Kassandra away from the ground. It felt like a giant hand grabbing her around the torso. The stem skittered side to side and the rose flower began to roll away.

“No.” Kassandra strained, pulling down onto the rocky pillar.

She fumbled around in the pocket. Each muscle strained to pull flat against the rocky pillar. Then a thorn jabbed her palm. Wrapping a hand around it, she pulled the thorn out.

The wind thrust up again, but Kassandra clung to the sides, legs and arms screaming.

“Kassandra.” Luke’s voice was a blast of air in her ear. “You will exit this card.”

“Damn right I will.” 

Her palm slapped down on the last empty corner of the rectangle. The wind stopped and she collapsed onto the ground.

Kassandra scooted away from the rectangle, but no door opened up. Why hadn’t it worked? Luke’s face had vanished from the sky. At least it did that much. The rocky pillar rumbled. When she peered over the side, hundreds of other stone columns emerged from the waves. Bits of seaweed and chunks of coral dotted the tops as water poured away. The pillars surged upward, blotting out any view of the ocean. Each one rose to the same height as her rocky platform. Together, they formed a piecemeal landscape.

A dark shape darted between the columns of rock. Kassandra inched closer to the edge to see what it was. The rocky pillars snapped together like puzzle pieces, forming a smooth plain. Seconds before the last hole was plugged up, the nightingale swooped into the sky. The bird squawked as it circled overhead.

“Where have you been?”

Twee-ta-ta-ta-ta-weet. The bird zoomed up into the sky. 

She spun around, taking in the new environment. Was this the next card? Every direction was flat, flat, and more flat. Only the slapping of the fish brought up by the pillars broke the silence. Which way should she go?

Kassandra pointed toward a distant cloud. “That-a-way. It’s as good as any.”

She walked, leaving behind the rose and rock. After a few dozen paces, Kassandra couldn’t tell where she’d started. Everything looked the same—bits of sea moss drying under the blazing sun. One foot struck something sticky. Kassandra lifted it up and saw a tendril of gray snot connecting her shoe to the ground. Gross. What was this stuff? 

She stepped back. A whole line of the sludge headed off left and right, a sort of slime boulevard. Kassandra peered in each direction. Nothing to the left. Nothing right either. Wait. There was something there. A slight bulge in the otherwise flat landscape. She didn’t run—her legs were too tired. But she did pick up the pace.

After a while the thing on the horizon turned into a bulbous shape. Kassandra strained to make it out. It looked round at the bottom but with a rectangular section sticking up like a building.

“What the heck is it?” She tilted her head up toward the nightingale. “You’re way up there. You tell me what I’m marching toward.”

The bird flew across the sun, forcing her to look away. The afterimage created a black dot in the center of her vision. Kassandra kept looking down and blinked the image away. When her eyesight returned to normal, she glanced toward the horizon and saw a massive snail crawling along the flat plain. 

The creature was the skyscraper of snails. It made dinosaurs look like Chihuahuas. The shell shimmered in iridescent reds and blues. A tower jutted out of the top of the shell, built of glittering stained glass. Instantly, Kassandra saw the red and blue glass pattern from The Magician card.

So this was Luke’s home. He certainly won the prize for the freakiest house ever.

The Plague Infects the Tarot Cards

Chapter 39

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.

Luke stood on the grass, the scent of oranges and cloves strong in the air. Kassandra stared at him. Somehow he entered the cards. Came to get her.

“Prithee, kind lady. Might I have back my ball?” She gave the barest of nods and he scooped the leather ball from her hand. “Thank ye.”

He swiveled and slipped into the crowd. Kassandra blinked. What just happened? Luke was dressed like everyone else, wearing a red outfit with oversized puffy sleeves. A wicker basket, strapped to his belt, contained assorted orange peels and various herbs—the source of the orangey smell. This wasn’t the Luke she knew. He’d been time warped six-hundred years.

She hopped up and followed. People in the crowd glared at her jeans and Converse sneakers. Kassandra avoided eye contact, glancing down at her shadow. By now the sun had risen enough to shine over the wagons.

She located Luke standing on a stump, juggling the balls. A teen girl sat in the grass at his feet with long dark hair, braided at the back—Ezabell. Kassandra recognized the girl from the mirrors in the Hanged Man card. Luke bounced one of the balls off Ezabell’s head. She smiled and plucked them out of the grass. 

The nightingale swooped by, landing on the roof of one of the wagons, which had one side folded down to make a stage. Kassandra scanned the rest of the circle. All the carts were like this one, with movable platforms. One stage showed a man dressed in a skeleton outfit wielding a scythe while another depicted someone in a lion costume clawing at a girl who hammed it up. Each wagon represented a Major Arcana card from the Tarot deck. She inspected them more closely, searching for The Magician. Maybe she could use the wagon as a way to enter the card. 

Someone in the crowd knocked into her shoulder. “Pray pardon.” It was Gabriel, but now he bustled away in the crowd.

“Gabriel!” She caught up to him.

He turned, but bunched his eyebrows together in annoyance. “I did say pardon. Now let me pass.” He gave a little bow and then slunk off.

He didn’t know who she was. Kassandra glanced back at Luke, who giggled while deliberately sending the balls flying all over. No one was the same here. Sweat beaded along her forehead. She wiped it away and noticed the sun directly overhead. How could it be noon already? It was morning only a little while ago. 

Kassandra hurried after Gabriel, who stopped by a cart where the stage had been folded up. Leaning against one of the wheels, he took out a small leather book and sliver of charcoal and started to sketch.

She tried to see what he was looking at, but couldn’t make it out through the mass of people. Finally she hopped up and caught a glimpse of the juggling balls looping above people’s heads. He was spying on Luke and Ezabell.

As Gabriel whipped the charcoal around on the paper, the shadows inched across the grass by his feet. The sun was already slipping into late afternoon. Kassandra wished she had her watch from her purse. It seemed like an entire day might last less than an hour.

Gabriel snapped the book shut and walked off, a scowl twisting along his mouth. After he passed by, Kassandra stepped forward and glanced at the tree stump. Luke held Ezabell’s face and the two kissed. 

The sky shifted colors, filling with oranges, and violets. People raised the stages and latched them to the sides of the wagons. The cooking fire at the center of the ring glowed brighter in the dim light of dusk. A scream cut through the night air as an older woman fainted to the grass. A young girl knelt down, pressing her head against the woman’s chest and weeping.

Kassandra walked toward them, but a hand gripped her shoulder. She turned to see a man’s face drained of color. Blood leaked from his nose and mouth and a thick purple boil protruded from his neck. She struggled backward but the man’s grip was tight. He tried to say something, but only a dry cough came out. His fingers squeezed her shoulder before he crumpled to the ground.

Kassandra shuffled back, putting distance between her and the man. He clutched at his stomach and coughed, spattering the grass with blood. She scooted away as a cold sweat slicked her skin. All across the clearing, more people collapsed. One boy coughed hard enough to vomit. Those not affected were wailing and sobbing.

Gabriel and Luke crouched next to Ezabell, who had collapsed on the grass. Tears streamed down their faces. Luke held Ezabell’s head up, stroking one cheek, but the skin was chalk white. This was just like the scene Kassandra had seen in the mirror, a memory. All of it happened before.

With the sun gone, only twinkling stars and the cook’s fire gave any illumination. The temperature dipped and goosebumps erupted on her arms and legs. Even her teeth chattered. She wrapped her arms around herself. 

Kassandra stepped around the bodies, now littering the ground. Some squirmed in pain, while others lay eerily still. All had bulging purple boils on their necks and armpits, signs of the Black Plague. The one she’d always read about in books. But why was everyone getting sick at the same time? She glanced up and saw the Rykell brothers still tending to Ezabell. They weren’t affected?

Kassandra maneuvered around a person in the grass, but paused. She knew him. It was the old man who’d cooked her sausages. He stared up at the stars, tongue hanging out. She knelt down, reaching forward to shut the man’s eyes. She hesitated, noticing the blood leaking from his nose and mouth. Touching him might infect her too.

Kassandra edged away as something squirmed in her gut. She bent over and hacked up a long gob of saliva. A jackhammer throbbing took up residence in her brain. She was overreacting to the sick people. That was all. Kassandra looked around. No one moved. Everyone lay silent. 

“It should have been you.” Luke clutched Ezabell to his chest. He glared at his brother. “Why do you live?”

Luke glanced across the circle of wagons, distracted by something. Kassandra turned to follow his gaze and saw a man in a black cloak. He stood amid the bodies, unaffected by the sickness, his face hidden under a wide-brimmed hat.

A shudder passed through Kassandra and she slumped to the grass. Her skin shivered as if doused in ice water. She’d caught it. The Plague (or whatever it was) had found her too. She coughed again and this time dark blood spattered the ground. The sight of it only made her want to hurl again.

Luke walked directly in front of her, his shoes swishing the grass. At the far end of the circle, the mystery man lifted his hat and the firelight caught his face. Bristly white eyebrows exploded along his brow. Wrinkles crisscrossed the skin like a roadmap. Kassandra looked down and instead of feet, the man sported hooves. It was Donald Cloots, the creep from the room of mirrors.

He turned when Luke reached him and they both walked out of the circle together, disappearing into the night. Kassandra tried to swing back to look at Gabriel, but something felt weird about her neck. She searched along the skin and discovered one of those boils, like a gigantic pimple. But that couldn’t happen. Not to her. The Black Plague was something from her history book. 

Kassandra hunched over on all fours, panting. She was infected. What was going to happen to her?

The sky lightened to a pale blue, shaking off the stars. Someone moved off to the right. Kassandra managed a glance and saw the old man standing up. He wiped the blood off his face with the back of a hand and then shuffled toward the fire. 

Other people stirred. Each one seemed fine now. The color returning to their faces. All signs of those purple boils had vanished. Even their clothes appeared clean and new again. Everything was backtracking to when she arrived.

Then why did Kassandra still feel like crap? Bile inched up her throat. She held it back, dreading to see what might come up.

People unlatched the stages from the carts and folded them down. Everyone seemed wide wake, but Kassandra felt drowsy. If she could curl up and sleep, then everything would be great.

No. Lying down meant death. Kassandra pushed herself up. Her arms shook, but held. She needed to find a way out of this place. People bustled all around, blocking any view of the wagons. All she saw were legs. The smell of roasting sausages almost made her retch. The taste of grease from her previous meal was still strong. Her stomach did a somersault. 

The nightingale landed on the grass only inches away and hopped toward the right. Puh-twee-too.

Kassandra turned that direction and spotted a wooden pole jammed into the ground. She reached over, muscles searing with fire, and grabbed it. The bird chirped, hopping around. She pulled herself up, inch by inch, body quivering under the strain until another clench seized her gut. Now she was high enough to see the stages. One performer dangled on the edge of a platform, wearing a feathered hat and whirling a long staff. Maybe this was The Magician. She coughed, speckling her sleeve with red. 

The old man tending the fire glared at her, his lips curling into a scowl. “The witch has it.” He poked a gnarled finger toward Kassandra. “She has the plague.” People turned to stare.

Kassandra took one step away and everything spun. The thudding in her head felt like firecrackers going off. The crowd pulled back, creating a space. The wagon lay just ahead. She staggered forward and nearly tripped, finally smacking into one of the wheels.

The world blurred and Kassandra blinked, forcing her eyes to work. Applause erupted as the performer with the feathered hat seemed to float in midair. She couldn’t be seeing that right.

The man took one step off the stage and hovered a moment before swinging back onto the platform. He had to be keeping his balance somehow. But with the way her brain was working, it really did look like magic. 

She stumbled over to a set of stairs leading up to the stage.

Twah-twah-twah-too-weet. Her nightingale wouldn’t shut up. It kept chattering and chirping nonstop.

She concentrated on moving, one hand in front of the other, and crawled onto the platform. The people stopped laughing and applauding. Even the guy in the feathered hat leapt off and backed away. Kassandra coughed again, and this time pain jabbed her gut, like something ripped open. Each breath hacked up more blood and saliva. 

This was it. She was going to die.

Blue curtains hid the rear of the wagon. Kassandra reached for them, but then noticed the skin on her fingers had turned black. Needles stabbed the joints, but she forced her hand to grip the fabric. Almost there. 

The nightingale fluttered onto the stage. It hopped up and down, chirping and making a fuss. She jerked the curtain to the side and crawled into the dark beyond.

The bird pecked at Kassandra’s hand. She tried to shoo it away and caught sight of Luke Rykell. He was juggling again, but not at the stump. This time he stood on the platform of the cart next to this one. 

A cold shiver slid through her bones as she remembered Auntie Jo’s words. The original name for The Magician card was the juggler.

Kassandra had picked the wrong wagon.

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? 

Gabriel Wallows in Misery

Chapter 33

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!” This time it was Gabriel’s voice, but he sounded so distant, like shouting down a long tunnel.

She staggered back, turning away from the mirror. Her skin felt feverish and clammy. 

“Cover up the mirror.” Gabriel pointed to the fallen easel where a black cloth lay in a heap.

Kassandra staggered over and bundled up the fabric, the smell of rotting milk was everywhere. Something clenched inside. She was going to hurl. Staring only at the floor, Kassandra calmed her breathing until gradually her stomach muscles relaxed. Inch by inch, she moved closer to the mirror.

“I was there.” A whisper in her ear. Mr. Creepy was talking to her. “I saw the noose tighten around Daddy’s neck.”

She gagged, spiting up a thin line of drool. 

“I live inside your blood.” Hot rancid breath on her face. Even staring at the floor, she couldn’t avoid it. “With every cut, I bubble to the surface.”

“Kassandra.” Gabriel’s voice was clam and cut through everything. “Cover it up.”

She squeezed the fabric. Then a throbbing started in both arms. The tiny white scars seemed to pulse like a heartbeat.

“Do it now!” Gabriel shouted.

“Only Mommy is left.” The sour air slithered along her skin like a reptilian tongue. “I shall guide Luke to her.”

“No.” Kassandra hauled the black cloth up, hooking it over the mirror. Then she collapsed to the floor, gasping for breath. The foul stink vanished and she sucked in clean air.

“Who…was… that?”

“Donald Cloots. He is a true devil.”

“You mean like The Devil? As in from Hell?”

“Not the master of the realm, but one of its servants. When we met him, he was but a shade, a hint of his true form. We built the Tarot deck to give him power in the form of souls.”

“So when the Tower falls, does he get out?”

Gabriel nodded. “Yes, he intends to break free of the Tarot deck.” 

Kassandra shivered. If that creep escaped, the world would be done for. She lifted the bottom of the cloth only a little to reveal the cracked section of the mirror. One kick and shards scattered along the floor. Leaning down, Kassandra chose a large triangular sliver, but then caught sight of Mr. Creep’s feet. There was something odd about his shoes. Too short. Her pulse kicked up a notch. Those weren’t shoes. They were hooves. The dirt he stood on steamed, as if his feet scalded the ground. 

She dropped the flap of cloth, hiding Mr. Creeps, and gingerly picked up the shard of glass. Then Kassandra hightailed it back to Gabriel. Standing on tiptoes, she reached the rope securing his ankle. Several gouges marred the thick fiber as if someone had tried to tear at it. Kassandra pressed the glass shard down and began slicing.

“So why is the Donald guy here? I mean, I get the other mirrors. They’re your memories. But he seems different.”

“Donald Cloots is not a memory. He lives within the cards. His will drives the Tarot.”

Kassandra thought back to the accident in front of the bus. Then Lindsay’s dissolving clothes. Each time she used one of the cards, Cloots decided the outcome. Even Luke had said the cards needed to be tricked.

“Donald Cloots came to my brother and I the night Ezabell died. The plague took everyone but us. Only God knows why we survived.” Gabriel’s face scrunched up in pain, tears clinging to the corners of his eyes.

“You cared for her, didn’t you?” She paused cutting the rope. “That’s why she’s in the mirror. A mistake you wanted to undo.” 

“Ezabell is so close. I yearn to touch her once more.” Gabriel closed his eyes, turning his head in the direction of Ezabell. The girl in the mirror fell again, a rerun of the dying scene. Gabriel sobbed. Even without seeing it, the image of her death took control.

Kassandra had to make him think of something else. “So what did this Donald guy offer to make you create the Tarot deck?”

Gabriel blinked, tears still in his eyes. “To each of us he would grant our heart’s desire.”

Kassandra stopped sawing the rope. Her heart’s desire. If that were a wish, she’d have no trouble choosing. But, how far was Kassandra willing to go to get Dad back?

“Luke desired nothing more than to bring back his Ezabell. He believed she might return from death’s firm grip. Yet it is a devil’s promise.”

The rope snapped. She jumped back, but Gabriel didn’t drop. His body twirled under the now slender rope.

“This is going to be a nasty fall.” 

“Hand me the shard.” He held out a hand.

Kassandra passed it over. Gabriel bent at the waist, pulling himself up, and used the shard to saw at the remaining rope. After a moment he straightened to catch his breath. Gabriel huffed in and out several times, building up for another attempt. He surged forward, hacking at the rope as if holding an axe. Blood trickled from his cut hand.

Kassandra glanced away. It was stupid. She, of all people, should be used to looking at blood. 

Gabriel’s shoes clunked on the floor, sending the nightingale darting into the air. He stood, but wobbled as if suddenly seasick.

“You all right?” 

Gabriel leaned forward and Kassandra grabbed him. He had a musky scent, like some kind of wet wood. “The blood rushes away from my head.” Gabriel held the bleeding hand over his eyes and then swayed again, finally slumping to the ground.

“I am sorry. My legs cannot hold me yet.”

“Let’s take care of your hand first.”

Kassandra reached for the shard of glass, now broken into smaller pieces on the floor. Her fingers trembled—remembering the razor. She shut the memories out. No time for that now. Kassandra picked it up and jabbed the glass through her shirt, ripping off a strip of fabric. 

“Let me see your hand.” Gabriel’s palm was covered with rough callouses. It reminded her of Dad’s hands. She laid the strip of cloth over the gash. The fabric soaked up the blood, instantly red. She wasn’t sure how to do this. In the movies, it always looked so easy. Kassandra wrapped the strip a couple of times around, but then stared at the dangling end. What to do with it? She settled on pulling it tight and tucking the loose fabric into the wrap. It was the best nurse Kassandra could do.

“There, done.” 

Gabriel wasn’t looking. His gaze zeroed in on a mirror showing a version of him bent over a small wooden desk with a bottle of ink, scribbling something with a quill pen. The reflected Gabriel backed away to examine the work, revealing a line sketch of a rope stretching down from a wooden beam. The Hanged Man. So Gabriel drew the card he’d been stuck in all these years. It was like he built his own prison. No wonder he couldn’t look away. 

Kassandra grabbed his shoulder and gave it a little shake. “Gabriel.”

“I created all of this.” His trembling hands reached up to cover his eyes. “I am responsible.”

“You must go on. I am tied to this room and can never leave.”

Kassandra slapped Gabriel across the face.