Text copyright © 2017 by Robert Beatty
Designed by Maria Elias
Cover illustration © 2017 by Alexander Jansson
Cover design by Maria Elias
All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
Asheville, North Carolina
Serafina opened her eyes and saw nothing but black. It was as if she hadn’t opened her eyes at all.
She had been deep in the darkened void of a swirling, half-dreaming world when she awoke to the sound of a muffled voice, but now there was no voice, no sound, no movement of any kind.
With her feline eyes she had always been able to see, even in the dimmest, most shadowed places, but here she was blind. She searched for the faintest glint of light in the gloom, but there was no moonlight coming in through a window, no faint flicker of a distant lantern down a corridor.
She closed her eyes and reopened them. But it made no difference. It was still pitch-dark.
Have I actually gone blind? she wondered.
Confused, she tried to listen out into the darkness as she had done when she hunted rats deep in the corridors of Biltmore’s sprawling basement. But there was no creak of the house, no servants working in distant rooms, no father snoring in a nearby cot, no machinery whirring, no clocks ticking or footsteps. It was cold, still, and quiet in a way she had never known. She was no longer at Biltmore.
Remembering the voice that had woken her, she listened for it again, but whether it had been real or part of a dream, it was gone now.
Where am I? she thought in bewilderment. How did I get here?
Then a sound finally came, as if in answer to her question.
For a moment that was all there was.
The beat of her heart and the pulse of her blood.
Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.
As she slowly moved her tongue to moisten her cracked, dry lips, she sensed the faint taste of metal in her mouth.
But it wasn’t metal.
It was blood—her own blood flowing through her veins into her tongue and her lips.
She tried to clear her throat, but then all at once she took in a sudden, violent, jerking breath and sucked in a great gasp of air, as if it were the very first breath she had ever taken. As her blood flowed, a tingling feeling flooded into her arms and legs and all through her body.
What is going on? she thought. What happened to me? Why am I waking up like this?
Thinking back through her life, she remembered living with her pa in the workshop, and battling the Black Cloak and the Twisted Staff with her best friend, Braeden. She’d finally come out into the grand rooms and daylight world of the fancy folk. But when she tried to remember what happened next, it was like trying to recall the fleeting details of a powerful dream that drifts away the moment you wake. It left her disoriented and confused, as if she were grasping for the tattered remnants of a previous life.
She had not yet moved her body, but she felt herself lying on her back on a long, flat surface. Her legs were straight, her hands neatly lying one over the other on her chest, like someone had laid her there with respect and care.
She slowly separated her hands and moved them down on either side of her body to feel the surface beneath her.
It felt hard, like rough wooden boards, but the boards felt strangely cold. The boards shouldn’t be cold, she thought. Not like this. Not cold.
Her heart began to pound in her chest. A wild panic rose inside her.
She tried to sit up, but immediately slammed her forehead into a hard surface a few inches above her, and she crashed down again, wincing in pain.
She pressed her hands against the boards above her. Her probing fingers were her only eyes. There were no breaks or openings in the boards. Her palms began to sweat. Her breaths got shorter. A desperate surge of fear poured through her as she craned her body and pushed to the side, but there were boards there, too, just inches away. She kicked her feet. She pounded her fists. But the boards surrounded her, closing her in on all sides.
Serafina growled in frustration, fear, and anger. She scratched and she scurried, she twisted and she pried, but she could not escape. She had been enclosed in a long, flat wooden box.
She pressed her face frantically into the corner of the box and sniffed, like a trapped little animal, hoping to catch a scent from the outside world through the thin cracks between the boards. She tried one corner, and then the next, but the smell was the same all around her.
Dirt, she thought. I’m surrounded by damp, rotting dirt.
I’ve been buried alive!
Serafina lay in the cold black space of the coffin buried underground. Her mind flooded with terror.
I need to get out of here, she kept thinking. I need to breathe. I’m not dead!
But she could not see. She could not move. She could not hear anything other than the sound of her own ragged breathing. How much air would she have down here? She felt a tight constriction in her lungs. Her chest gripped her. She wanted her pa! She wanted her mother to come and dig her out. Someone had to save her! She frantically pressed her hands against the coffin lid above her head and pushed with all her strength, but she couldn’t lift it. The sound of her screeching voice hurt her ears in this terrible, closed-in, black place.
Then she thought about what her pa would say if he was here. “Get your wits about ya, girl. Figure out what ya need to do and get on with doin’ it.”
She sucked in another long breath, and then steadied herself and tried to think it through. She couldn’t see with her eyes, but she traced her fingers along the skirt and sleeves of her dress. They were badly torn. It seemed like if she had died and there had been a funeral, then they would have put her in a nice dress. Whoever had buried her had been in a hurry. Had they thought she was dead? Or did they want her to suffer the most horrible of deaths?
At that moment, she heard the faint, muffled sound of movement above her. Her heart filled with hope. Footsteps!
“Help!” she screamed as loud as she possibly could. “Help me! Please help me!”
She screamed and screamed. She pounded the wood above her head. She flailed her legs. But the sound of the footsteps drifted away, then disappeared and left a silence so complete that she wasn’t sure she’d heard the sound at all.
Had it been the person who buried her? Had he heaved the last shovel of dirt onto her grave and left her here? Or was it a passerby who had no idea she was here? She slammed her fists against the boards and screamed, “Please! I need your help! I’m down here!”
But it was no use.
She was alone.
She felt a dark wave of hopelessness pour through her soul.
She could not escape.
She could not survive this…
No, she thought, gritting her teeth. I’m not gonna let myself die down here. I’m not gonna give up. I’m going to stay bold! I’m going to find a way out…
She slid herself down toward the end of the coffin and kicked. The coffin’s rough boards felt thin and crudely made, not like a proper solid casket, but like a ramshackle box nailed together from discarded apple crates. But the earth behind the rickety wood braced the boards so firmly that it was impossible for her to break them.
Then she had an idea.
“Six feet under.” That was what her had pa told her years ago when she asked him what they did with dead people. “’Round here they bury folk six feet under,” he’d said.
She squirmed inside the dark, cramped space, bending her body up like a little kitten in a lady’s shoe box, and positioned herself so that she could put her hands on the top center of the coffin’s lid. She figured that six feet of dirt must weigh an awful lot. And her pa had taught her that the center of a board was its weakest point.
Remembering something else he’d taught her, she knocked on the board above her and listened. Tap-tap-tap. Then she moved down a few inches and knocked again. Tap-tap-tap. She kept knocking until she found a place with a slightly deeper, more hollow sound where the dirt was packed a little less firmly behind it. “That’s the spot.”
But now what? Even if she managed to crack the board, the dirt above would come crashing down on her. Her mouth and nose would fill with dirt and she’d suffocate. “That’s not gonna work…”
Suddenly an idea sprang into her mind. She buttoned her dress tight up to her neck and then pulled the lower part of the dress up over her head, inside out, so that the fabric covered her face, especially her mouth and nose. It was cramped in the coffin and difficult to move, but she managed to get the dress bundled around her head and then wriggled her arms out of the sleeves so that her hands were free. If she was lucky, the fabric over her face would give her the seconds she needed.
Knowing that her hands alone weren’t strong enough to break the boards, she rolled onto her stomach and positioned her shoulder at the top center of the coffin.
Bracing herself, she pushed upward with her arms and legs and the strength of her whole body. There wasn’t enough space inside the coffin to get herself all the way up onto her hands and knees. But she bent herself into a coil and pushed the best she could, slamming her shoulder against the coffin’s lid over and over again. She knew that one strong blow wasn’t going to do it. And slow pressure wasn’t, either. She needed to get a good, hard, forceful rhythm going. Bang, bang, bang. She could feel the long boards of the coffin’s lid flexing. “That’s it, that’s what we need,” she said. Bang, bang, bang she slammed. “Come on!” she growled. Then she heard the center board cracking beneath the weight of the earth above. “Come on!” She kept pushing. Bang, bang, bang. The board began to split. Then she felt something cold hit her bare shoulders. She should have been filled with joy that her plan was actually working, but her mind filled with fear. The lid had cracked! The coffin was caving in! Cold, clammy, heavy dirt dumped all over her, pushing her down to the coffin floor. If she hadn’t tied her dress over her head, her mouth and nose would have filled with dirt at that very moment and she would have been dead.
Working blind, with nothing but her grasping hands to guide her, she grabbed great handfuls of the incoming dirt and chucked them into the corners of the coffin, packing the dirt away as fast as it poured down through the hole, but it just kept coming, coming, coming. The terrible weight of the dirt surrounded her legs and shoulders and head. It was getting more and more difficult to move. She sucked in breaths through the fabric of her dress as fast and hard as she could. Her chest heaved in panic. She couldn’t get enough air!
Finally, when there was no more space in the coffin to push the dirt, she tried to make her escape. She jammed her head straight up through the hole, pushed with her legs, and started digging toward the surface. But the dirt came down so fast, and pushed in so hard, she never had a chance. Even as she dug, the dirt began to suffocate her. Its crushing weight pushed against her chest, driving one last scream from her lungs.
Loose earth poured down around her head and shoulders, collapsing onto her faster than she could dig it away. She felt the pressing weight of it all around her, closing in on her, trapping her legs, but she kept clawing, kicking, squirming her way blindly up through the darkness, desperately trying to pull gasps of air through the fabric covering her face. She felt the material pushing deeper and deeper into her mouth as the dirt pressed in, gagging her, shutting off the flow of air to her aching lungs.
Then she heard a fast scratching sound above her, like the frenzied digging of an animal. She hoped that Gidean, Braeden’s dog, was trying to rescue her, but a terrible, low growling sound told her it wasn’t her canine friend. Whatever kind of creature it was, the beast’s claws tore at the earth, ripping it away with terrific power. Was it a bear digging up its supper? It didn’t matter. She had to keep climbing. She had to breathe!
Sharp claws raked across her upstretched hands. Serafina shrieked in pain, but she grabbed hold of the beast’s paw. Gotcha! She held on for dear life. The force of the paw yanked her body up through the ground.
The snarling beast jerked its paw again, trying to free itself of her, yanking and pulling, but Serafina held on tight.
When her head finally broke the surface of the ground, she sucked in a mighty gasp of air, flooding her lungs with new life. Air! She finally had air!
She lost her grip on the beast’s paw and it pulled away, but she clambered out of the dirt until her shoulders and arms were free.
Hope filled her heart. She’d made it! She’d escaped! But as she reached up and pulled the fabric from her head, she heard a loud roaring snarl, and the claws came down at her again, raking across her scalp just as she tried to duck away. Clutching wildly at the earth with her hands, she quickly scrambled out of the grave and got up onto her hands and knees to defend herself.
She had crawled out of the ground into a moonlit graveyard, overgrown by a dense forest of trees and vines. A large stone angel, with her wings raised up around her, stood on a pedestal in the center of the small clearing. Serafina had no idea how she’d gotten here, but she knew this place. It was the angel’s glade. But before she could take it all in, she heard something behind her and spun around.
A black panther was coming straight toward her, crouched low for the lunge, its ears pinned back, its face quivering with fierceness as it opened its mouth and hissed with its long fangs bared and gleaming, ready to bite.