Average family. Average job. Average existential crisis.
After thirty boring years, nothing about Cora Riley’s life has measured up to her childhood dreams of being truly extraordinary. It’s too bad that the night she decides to seek out her specialness she crashes on a rural highway.
Cora wakes in the clutches of the Mistress of the underworld who sets her a seemingly impossible quest. If she wants a second chance at life, Cora must find her way through the dozen heavens and return to the castle in three days.
With the help of an unusual guardian angel named Jack and a little boy named Xavier, Cora navigates the afterlife doorfield and quickly learns that gods and monsters are very real indeed. Terrifying and tempting obstacles litter her path; only the power of belief–in the Otherworld, in her companions, and in herself–will return her to the land of the living.
The Mistress takes a step back and holds out an arm to indicate the field of doors. “Here is your quest, Cora Leigh Riley. You are tasked with returning to the castle through the thirteenth door within three days. You must begin at the beginning, and anything you bring with you on your return is forfeit to me. Should you succeed, I will release you back into the mortal world as you have asked. Should you fail to return by the appointed time in the appointed way, your soul will forever rest where it stands in that moment.” She grins with wicked satisfaction. “Those are the terms of your quest. Do you accept?”
A million questions chase each other through Cora’s mind, but a quiet, calm voice pushes aside any panic she feels.
This is my only way out. The only way I’ll ever get to have a chance at making a life worth living. I already wasted so much time being safe and small. There can’t possibly be a better time to risk it.
She takes a slow, deep breath and considers the gently swaying grassy field. How hard can it be to find a door, anyway? Six are practically visible from right here. Thirteen should be a piece of cake.
Turning back to the Mistress, she squares her shoulders and nods. “I accept.”
A rushing breeze nearly knocks Cora to the ground with the smell of apples, and a chord of metallic chimes peals across the sky. The Mistress inclines her head in acknowledgement, somehow more regal and imposing. The same oozing sensation she felt in the dungeons creeps down over Cora’s scalp in what she’s come to recognize as the sealing of a deal.
Two mystical oaths in twenty-four hours–not the best idea I’ve ever had.
There’s a tense moment that last long enough that Cora starts to feel awkward. An expectation is hanging there, but she’s at a loss to name it, so she decides to get moving, as unstorylike as it seems to stroll away.
“So, uh, I’m going to go ahead and get started on that, then,” she says.
She makes a slight wave to the Mistress and starts down the aisle between the first two doors, heading toward double digits.
Three steps is as far as she gets.
Before her foot falls for the fourth, she’s yanked violently backwards by an iron hand digging into her collarbone. Her boots drag in the grass, tearing up a skid as the high, echoing laughter of the Mistress fills the air. There’s a blur of brown, gold, and white as the first door is flung wide, blowing damp-smelling air into the dry field, and Cora is thrust bodily through the frame. She keeps her feet but wobbles dangerously as her boots sink into soft, loamy soil, the shift from soft yellow light to near darkness making her head spin. The sound of the Mistress’ laughter behind her makes Cora whip around. There’s stark divide between where she stands in damp darkness and the bright dry field where the Mistress stands only a few feet away, like a hole cut from a landscape painting and replaced with another scene. Cora makes a grab for the door’s frame to pull herself back through to the field but is easily shoved down by one of the Mistress’ fingers against her forehead. Cora totters backwards from the remarkable pressure and trips over a gnarled tree root, landing hard on her tailbone.
Even through the flashbulbs of pain going off in her brain, Cora sees the Mistress framed in a rectangle of warm light cut from the dark greenery of her own surroundings, clearly enjoying the sight of Cora thrown off balance and confused.
“Did you think it would be that easy, foolish girl?” she chuckles.
Sort of, Cora thinks.
“Remember, you have three days. If you can survive that long.”
And with that the door slams shut, erasing the edges of the doorway until there’s no hint there was ever anything in that spot besides the massive oak looming over Cora like an executioner sharpening his axe.