“This is the World of the Dead?” she asked. Cronk nodded.
“Can’t be,” she continued. “This seems like home, even nicer than home, in fact. And it smells like strawberries.”
“This is the La-La-La-land of Deaths,” said Cronk. “A ni-ni-ni-nice place.”
“But where are the skulls and fires and stuff?”
“Wou-would you ra-rather have those?”
“No, of course not.”
“Come on,” said Cronk. He led her away from the forest and down a hill. They were on a path, leading away from a small stone on the spot where they had first appeared. The moon above shone bright, and though nighttime, she could see.
Cronk led her beside something shimmering. The reflection of the moon glistened on the water, probably a pond or small lake. Cronk held out a finger, pointing.
She leaned over and let out a gasp. A girl stared back at her: her reflection, yet, unlike the one she had seen at home for months. The girl staring back was fleshy but not plump. Her features were pretty. Her usually stringy black hair looked thick and smooth, hanging like silk around her lightly freckled cheeks. Her cheeks were full; the skin didn’t cling to her skull. Even her gray eyes seemed to shine. The skeletal girl she had come to expect in the mirror was gone.
“Is that me?”
“Yes, your tr-tr-tr-true self. This is your home now.”
She gazed again. She wasn’t her old self, she looked better than she ever had. She smiled, but glanced up. The smile faded as she remembered.
“I’m only here for a year. Then this nightmare will be over.”
Cronk shrugged. “Few p-p-pass the test. Too ha-ha-hard.”
“What’s on the test? What makes it hard?”
Cronk shook his head. He either didn’t know or wouldn’t tell her.
“You can’t tell me?”
Again, he shook his head. He motioned her to follow and they walked along the shore, climbing a rise, moving away from the water. They reached a flight of marble steps and Suzie followed. Small lights stood on either side of the steps. They lit up when Cronk walked near them, and turned off behind Suzie. She peered closer, bending down, and realized they were flowers. Each flower glowed brighter the closer she got; the lit ones shined like hot flame. Cronk coughed and she kept moving.
They climbed higher and higher. From the top of the steps, a vast plain opened, stretching beneath them. A path was lit with flowers, and many men in black robes walked beneath two enormous mountains. Or were they towers? The two pillars stretched for miles into the sky, like enormous stalagmites: great columns of twisted, gnarled rock pocked by thousands of tiny lights. They stood taller than any skyscraper Suzie had dreamt of, yet were far too narrow to be mountains.
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Christopher Mannino’s life is best described as an unending creative outlet. He teaches high school theatre in Greenbelt, Maryland. In addition to his daily drama classes, he runs several after-school performance/production drama groups. He spends his summers writing and singing. Mannino holds a Master of Arts in Theatre Education from Catholic University, and has studied mythology and literature both in America and at Oxford University. His work with young people helped inspire him to write young adult fantasy, although it was his love of reading that truly brought his writing to life.
Mannino is currently working on a sequel to “School of Deaths” as well as an adult science fiction novel.
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Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AeszKiTz0k
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