Pray to the Gods to Overcome Writer’s Block

Arkane Curiosities

As long as writing has existed, there have been writers staring at the blank page, utterly blocked. Often, we look to the divine to intervene and help us overcome writer’s block.

Here are three ancient deities of writing that might inspire your to greater narrative glory. 

Seshat, the Mistress of the House of Books

Seshat was a goddess credited with the invention of writing, though her consort, Thoth, received most of the credit. Seshat oversaw all libraries and was the patron of any form of writing. She is seen as either an aspect of Thoth, or his daughter or wife (Egyptian mythology is complicated). 

Seshat would guide the hands of scribes as they held their reeds, helping with their attempts to communicate with the divine. In fact, her name translated to “female scribe”. She is the only Egyptian goddess seen in the actual act of writing. 

Want your writing to live on forever, then Seshat is the one you should look to. The Egyptians believed that everything done on Earth was mirrored in heaven. When an author pens a story on the mortal plane, an ethereal copy was also created in the celestial realm. Seshat then placed this book in the library of the good, preserving it forever. Thus, when you pass on as a writer, everything you’ve written is waiting for you on the other side. 

Quetzalcoatl, the Rescuer of Light and Knowledge

After the world was created, the gods and humans lived together in harmony. Only Quetzalcoatl felt sorrow for he saw that the humans were subjugated by the other gods. Quetzalcoatl adopted the human form to share divine knowledge and writing with humankind. 

Quetzalcoatl was the god of writing and books. His name comes from the Nahuatl and is a compound of “Quetzal” and “Coatl”, or a combination of bird and snake. He was venerated in religious colleges and temples, where future priests were educated. 

The “Plumed God” consistently went out of his way to help us poor humans. According to legend, the Aztec people ate only roots and wild game. They knew about maize, but the plant only grew on the other side of a great mountain range. Other gods attempted to move the mountain with brute force. 

Only Quetzalcoatl used his wits. He noticed a stream of ants marching over the mountain. He transformed himself into an ant and finally reached the fields of maize. Still in ant form, he retrieved a single kernel and brought this back to the Aztec people, thus bringing them the gift of maize. 

Saraswati, Giver of Speech

The Hindu goddess Saraswati embodies all of the arts. She endowed us the Hindu people with speech, wisdom and the ability to learn. She is depicted with four hands, each representing aspects of human learning — mind, intellect, alertness and ego. In one hand she holds a lotus, the symbol of knowledge and the opposite hand, she grasps the sacred scriptures, the Vedas. 

A Hindu festival celebrates Saraswati’s birthday, on the fifth day of the month of Magha, known as Saraswati Puja and Saraswati Jayanti in India. Families encourage their young children to write their first words with their fingers, the very first step in writing. Educational institutions decorate statues of Saraswati, and often arrange poetic and musical celebrations. 

A Sanskrit mantra can be said to the goddess, asking to grant knowledge and wisdom. Here is the the Sanskrit version: 

“Om Saraswati Mahabhagey, Vidye Kamala Lochaney
Viswarupey Vishalakshmi, Vidyam Dehi Namohastutey
Jaya Jaya Devi, Charachara Sharey, Kuchayuga Shobhita, Mukta Haarey
Vina Ranjita, Pustaka Hastey, Bhagavati Bharati Devi Namohastutey.”

The English translation shows off the beauty of this mantra: 

“May Goddess Saraswati,
who is fair like the jasmine-colored moon,
and whose pure white garland is like frosty dew drops;
who is adorned in radiant white attire,
on whose beautiful arm rests the veena,
and whose throne is a white lotus;
who is surrounded and respected by the Gods, protect me.
May you fully remove my lethargy, sluggishness, and ignorance.”

There is also a curse of Saraswati. When we indulge in the arts, our fragile ego often drifts away from the pure pursuit of knowledge toward the bright lights of fame and wealth. All the more reason to ground yourself with the original intent Saraswati embodies. 

Perhaps one of these deities can inspire your own words. At the very least, you can feel in good company as writers for thousands of years have looked to the divine for inspiration. 

Tim Kane

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Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Everyone wants to lower our carbon footprint and stop climate change. So imagine when scientists come up with a novel solution — a fungus that gobbles up carbon from the air. It could be the savior of the planet. The only problem, this fungus likes to eat carbon wherever it exists. It’s particularly fond of the carbon locked in living cells.

This story tracks a teen girl who is left at home to care for her younger brother and baby. It plays off the tale of the Three Little Pigs with the carbon-gobbling fungus taking the role of the wolf. Can she keep her family safe with dwindling food and the fungus chewing up the house around her?

This story appears in the new anthology by Write Hive titled “Navigating Ruins.” You can find it on Amazon, both in Kindle and print.

Tim Kane

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.”

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.