DBS Publishing LLC
Copyright 2017 by DBS Publishing LLC
Rain pattered on the top of my umbrella as I walked into town. It was the end of September, late in the year for a storm, and though mud splattered my Wellington boots, I took pleasure in the soft rolls of thunder and misty rain. For someone else, the weather might have been depressing, but I had a soft spot for dreary days. The world was loud and boisterous, and sometimes the noise was too much for me to process. Rain muted everything. People hurried from doorway to doorway, ducking beneath the hoods of their slickers, desperate to get inside. Cars slowed to navigate the sharp angles of the wet road around the town square, the tires churning up waves that washed over the curbs. Yew Hollow was a painting, and its autumn hues ran like a beautiful mess over the edges of the canvas.
Suspended between two trees at the front of the town square was a garish orange banner displaying the words “Yew Hollow Fall Festival” in bright yellow font. It sagged in the middle, and a pool of water had collected in the heavy-duty plastic, tugging the branches of each tree inward like a sad hug. Soaked streamers lay limp in the trees, mushy and deteriorating. I set down my umbrella, planted my boot in the fork of the first tree, and hoisted myself up to untie the first side of the banner. As it fell free, the trapped rainwater deluged down the plastic like a cheap slip-n-slide. I jumped to the ground, hopped over the resulting puddle, and scaled the other tree. The second knot held fast.
“Come on,” I grumbled. The hood of my coat fell back and rain danced on my face as I pried at the slick rope. I blinked to clear my vision. My boot lost traction against the slippery tree trunk. I lurched, scraping my palm on the rough bark as I grabbed for the nearest branch. Drenched, I tried the knot again, but it stubbornly refused to let go. “Really?”
I looked around. The square was empty except for a few stragglers in the distance. It was safe. I shot a single dart of dark green light from my fingertips, which entwined itself around the knot. The banner loosened and fell. I leapt to the ground, and with a snap of my fingers, the banner rolled itself up into a neat cylinder. I tucked it under my arm, picked up the now obsolete umbrella, and set my path toward the hill at the top of the street.
A car ambled up behind me, slowing as it approached. I recognized the driver. It was Mrs. Raleigh, the polite woman who ran the local pharmacy. She rolled down her window.
“Gwenlyn!” she called. “Need a ride?”
I shook my head. “No, thanks. I like the rain.”
Mrs. Raleigh smiled. “All right, suit yourself.”
Thunder crashed as she drove off. The storm was getting closer. I picked up my pace. It wasn’t too long of a walk to my destination, but I didn’t want to get caught beneath an angry sky. I liked rain, but I preferred to watch lightning from indoors. The hill rounded out, and I caught sight of the house. My house, my home. It had been ten years since I’d first moved in, but sometimes it felt like a dream. My boots squelched against the warped wood of the wraparound porch, and the front door creaked noisily on its hinges when I pushed it open.
This was another reason I loved gloomy weather. When everything was cold and damp outside, it made inside all the more warm and comfortable. A fire crackled in the living room, breaking up the dull gray light from the windows. Someone was baking in the kitchen. It smelled like cinnamon and cloves. Paul Anka crooned softly from an old radio even though its batteries had died years ago. I set down the banner, kicked off my muddy boots, and shook off my slicker. The hooks in the entryway were bogged down by a collection of coats, scarves, and hats. I balanced mine on top and sidled away, pretending not to notice when it fell right off.
“Hey! What have I told you about water on the hardwood floors?”
Morgan Summers leaned against the doorway of the kitchen, one eyebrow raised at my delinquent behavior. She was nowhere near old enough to be my mother, but that was the role she had taken on when I showed up at her house when I was sixteen. Then again, she was mother to an entire collection of women, whether they surpassed her in age or not.
“Like the floor hasn’t seen worse,” I retorted with a grin.
Morgan pointed to my fallen coat. It leapt up to settle on top of the other clothes. The puddle of rainwater on the floor evaporated and an arrow of blue magic pinched my arm.
“That’ll teach you to talk back.” Morgan smirked, crossing her arms. “How’s the square look?”
I examined the pink welt on my arm. “It’s kind of a disaster. I got the banner down, but we’ll have to wait until the rain stops to clean up the rest. The streamers are practically inert matter.”
Morgan sighed. “I suppose that’s what we get for not checking the weather report before scheduling the Fall Festival. The locals are going to riot.”
“They’ll be fine,” I assured her. “It’s just the festival anyway. What are they missing out on really? The pumpkin pie eating contest? Honestly, it makes me nauseous. At least we didn’t have to postpone the reenactment. That would inspire a level of disappointment that I’m not prepared to deal with, so look on the bright side!”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“I’m always right.” I nudged her aside to enter the kitchen and peered through the oven window. “Ooh, spice cake.”
Morgan lightly smacked the back of my head. “It’s not for you.”
“What? But you know it’s my favorite!”
Morgan grinned. She was screwing with me. It was one of her favorite pastimes. “It’ll be ready in a few minutes. You’re going to have to wait until after dinner though.”
“I could die during dinner,” I countered, faking a dramatic faint as though I had a case of the vapors. “And I’ll have never tasted the world’s best spice cake.”
“Nice try, slick.” Morgan twisted a damp dish towel into a whip and snapped it in my direction. I dodged the attack, waltzing out of reach. “Malia planned a family dinner for tonight.”
“The whole family?”
“Yes, ma’am. They’ll be here any minute, so go change. You look like a drowned rat.”
“You flatter me.”
I left her to finish the baking and took the rickety stairs up to the second story. In a normal household, it might’ve worried me that Morgan was anticipating guests so soon and hadn’t visibly lifted a finger to prepare a meal. This wasn’t a normal household though, and Yew Hollow wasn’t a normal town.
In my bedroom, I stripped off my damp shirt. As usual, the faded scars on the underside of my forearms caught my attention, undeniable reminders of a troubled childhood. Before Morgan, I struggled through sixteen years of abandonment, foster homes, and psychiatric wards, but she kept me, loved me, and taught me to trust again. Now the scars were just scars. The only one that mattered stretched from my wrist to the inside of my elbow and subtly glowed electric blue. Unless someone inspected it too closely, they would think it was just a prominent vein. In actuality, it was the mark that linked me to the Summers family even though I never bore the surname.
Ten years ago, Morgan Summers made the national news. It was a small story, one that didn’t get a lot of attention. It was a passing comment on a late night news show, the same news show that I’d used to tune out the yells of that month’s foster parents. Morgan Summers of Yew Hollow, accused of murder and proven innocent. To this day, I didn’t know why or how I’d known that there was more to the story. Maybe it was the dead look in Morgan’s eyes in her old mug shot from the time she’d shoplifted at a gas station in New York City. Maybe it was an inexplicable kick from the universe in the right direction. All I knew was that I had to find Morgan Summers, because I couldn’t be the only person on the planet plagued by a secret no one else understood.
In short, Morgan Summers was a witch, and so was I. Yew Hollow belonged to the Summers coven. The town was a legend and a history lesson that began with Morgan’s ancestors two hundred years prior to my existence. Every Summers woman bore the gift of witchcraft. Long ago, we openly practiced in Yew Hollow, but times had changed and grown more dangerous. Disaster befell the coven, and the witches learned from their mistakes. They cast a memory enchantment so that the townspeople drifted off into blissful ignorance of our influence. The mortals loved the stories and the lore—Yew Hollow’s tourism relied on it—but that was all it was. Nothing more. Or so they thought.
Downstairs, the murmur of voices grew as the family arrived in sets of threes and fours. A low hum resonated through the walls as though the house itself were alive. Auras waxed and waned, pulsing through me like invisible waves. Each one told me a little bit about the witch it belonged to. Aunt Alberta was grumpy as always. Cousin Elena needed a glass of wine. The littlest witch, seven-year-old Amelia, was positively starving. The spicy scent of pot roast wafted up to my room. My stomach rumbled. Amelia wasn’t the only one jonesing for dinner.
I pulled on a fresh shirt and toweled my hair dry. At the top of the stairs, I saw a small group of children down below, so I balanced on the polished wood banister and slid down to the first floor. It wobbled beneath my weight as the children of the coven whooped and hollered at my entrance. Unfortunately, I didn’t stick the landing. There were too many witches in the foyer, greeting each other as they wiped their boots, and I ricocheted off of Aunt Alberta’s wide berth.
“Oops. Sorry, Al.”
“Who are you?”
“It’s me, Gwenlyn.”
“I don’t know a Guinevere. Ah, my love!”
I rolled my eyes as Aunt Alberta squeezed little Amelia so tightly that her face turned purple. The old woman was senile, and she was known to slip tricky potions into the drinks of those sitting closest to her.
Upwards of forty witches made up the Summers coven, and all of them had arrived at the house for dinner. There were no men, save for the youngest of the children. Witchcraft belonged to the women of earth. The Summerses kept the opposite sex around long enough to continue the bloodline before sending them on their way. They formed lifelong bonds with each other, and the platonic love between witches was far superior to the fleeting romance of spontaneous trysts.
“Out of the way!” a voice shouted. Morgan’s sister, Karma, followed me down the stairs. “I can’t stand being packed like sardines in here. Everyone, back up!”
A path cleared at her request. She twirled her hands like the director of an orchestra, and her lilac aura blossomed around her. It expanded through the dining room, pushing the walls outward. The room grew, the dining table lengthened, and extra chairs popped into existence from out of nowhere. Karma dusted her hands off.
“There!” she said. “That’s better, isn’t it? Not so claustrophobic.” She slung an arm around my shoulders. “Gwen, I tried a new cocktail recipe. What say you act as my guinea pig?”
Knowing Karma, the drinks were beyond potent. “How could I say no?”
We weaved through the sea of witches. When the entire family gathered, I remembered how much I stood out. The Summerses’ genetics took two routes. Half of the coven looked like Morgan and Karma, with golden brown hair and any variation of hazel or green eyes. The other half resembled Morgan’s other sisters, Malia and Laurel. They sported pale blonde locks and light gray eyes. In comparison, I was the only member of the coven with hair the black color of night and golden green eyes like a forest at sunrise. There was one other witch—Morgan’s Aunt Alana—who differed from the masses with red hair and bright blue eyes, but she was prone to skip family dinners so my single hope for solidarity was lost. In the beginning, I was hyper aware of the differences. Now I ignored the creeping feeling of self-consciousness during times like these. This was my family, whether we shared blood or not.
In the kitchen, Morgan and Malia argued over the temperature of the roast, which sat steaming on the counter, while Laurel filled water glasses and lazily levitated them out to the dining room table.
“Medium!” Malia insisted. “No one likes their cow still kicking!”
“It’s roast,” Morgan countered, guarding the slab of meat with her arms out to the side like a hockey goalie. “It’s meant to be pink in the center.”
“Pink, not breathing!”
“I am the leader of this coven—”
“And I am your oldest sister!” Malia interrupted. “I don’t recall you helping Mom cook dinner for all those years—”
Karma powered between her siblings to reach the refrigerator. “Excuse me! We just want the booze.”
“Have Gwenlyn decide,” Laurel suggested airily as another water glass floated away. “She’s an objective entity.”
I waved my hands in defense. “Oh, no. Don’t drag me into this.”
“Actually, that’s a great idea,” Morgan said. She stepped aside to give me an unimpeded view of the roast. “What’s the verdict, Gwen? But before you answer, you should know that if you make me put this thing back in the oven, I will intentionally burn it.”
Malia cuffed Morgan over the head. The meat looked perfect to me. It was crispy on the outside but pink and juicy on the inside.
“I’m partial to the pink,” I admitted.
“Ha!” Morgan exclaimed.
“Traitor!” Malia accused. “You always take her side!”
Glass clinked as Karma unearthed a pitcher full of frothy purple liquid garnished with rosemary from the fridge. She took me by the arm with her free hand. “Run away,” she instructed. “Run away.”
It took a solid half hour to seat everyone around the extended dining room table. Morgan won the roast battle. It served itself, making the rounds. Dishes of mashed potatoes, sautéed vegetables, and other side items soared from one witch to the next. I snatched a bread roll from a basket in mid-flight and snapped my fingers for the butter dish. Morgan sat at the head of the table to my right. Karma seated herself on my left. The pitcher rested between us, half-empty. Thanks to its contents, my head was already fuzzy. The room babbled with conversation like a rushing river, ebbing and flowing over the rocks. Malia and Laurel discussed the best spells for combatting a case of indigestion. Morgan argued with one of her cousins across the table. Karma chatted my ear off about a new reality show she’d started watching. Everyone talked over everyone else. My ears rang from the dull roar. Auras connected and overlapped until one witch was no longer distinguishable from the next. We were a single entity, blurred together in a rainbow of hues.
It turned out that it wasn’t Aunt Alberta’s potions I should’ve been worried about. Karma refilled my glass at any chance she got, and before we made it to the spice cake I’d been looking forward to for the entire evening, I swayed and almost toppled out of my chair.
Morgan caught me by the shoulder to balance me. “Why don’t you call it a night?”
“But spice cake—”
“I’ll save you Karma’s slice,” Morgan promised.
“Hey!” Karma protested.
I laughed, leaning over the back of Karma’s chair to kiss her cheek. “You know what they say about karma, Karma.” I waved to the coven. “Good night, all!”
The witches chorused a farewell. Somehow, I made it down the length of the immense table, into the foyer, and up the stairs without breaking an ankle. My vision blurred as I collapsed in bed. In the morning, I would kill Karma for pumping me so full of whatever she’d mixed into that cocktail. Tonight, I would sleep.
I woke with a start in the middle of the night, staring up into the dark at the angled ceiling and wondering what had rustled me out of unconsciousness. A face swam into view. My face. I looked at myself. She looked back. I covered my eyes with a pillow.
“No,” I said. “No, no, no.”
I looked again. She was still there. A ghost. Of myself.
“Oh my God,” I moaned. “Am I dead?”
There was a reason for my childhood insanity, and this was it. Every witch was born with a specific ability through which she channeled her craft. Aunt Alberta had a knack for potions. Malia was psychometric, which meant she could read the history of objects just by touching them. Laurel communed with nature. Karma made voodoo dolls. Morgan spoke to the dead, as did I. Of all the abilities available to witches, this one was the worst. First of all, it was rare. Morgan and I were the only two psychic mediums in the United States. Second, it was exhausting. I’d met ghosts who died in all sorts of ways, from common old age to suicide to murder. Ghosts wanted one thing and one thing only—to pass over—and they didn’t have any moral qualms about haunting you until they figured out how to do it.
“I’m not even thirty!” I protested, staring up at my own face. “I can’t be dead!”
“You’re not dead,” the ghost said. “I’m dead.”
My head pounded. Between my oncoming hangover and the literal out-of-body experience, I was completely bewildered. “But you’re me.”
“Decidedly not,” she replied. “It would appear we’re twins.”
I had to be dreaming. I didn’t have a twin. I was practically born into the foster system. I didn’t know anything about my family. My mother and father’s identities were a mystery to me. To be honest, I didn’t care who they were or what happened to them. They had left me in the lurch. I was kicked out into an unfriendly world of temporary mortal guardians, none of whom had the capacity to fill me in on the details of my preternatural powers. When I was a kid, I told anyone who would listen that dead people followed me wherever I went. No one believed me. I was labeled an attention seeker early on. I ran away from foster homes, frequently practiced truancy, and spent more time in a social worker’s office that I cared to remember. All the while, I tried to convince myself that ghosts weren’t real, but it was difficult to ignore the dead when they followed you around like lost puppies. As a medium, it was my duty to help them cross over to the next life, but I never knew that until I arrived in Yew Hollow. As far as family went, I didn’t owe my absentee parents anything. A sister, on the other hand, was another matter entirely.
She stuck out a hand for me to shake. Ghosts weren’t corporeal enough to physically interact with the living, but old habits died hard. “I’m Winnie. Winnifred, actually, but everyone calls me Winnie.”
I stared at her hand. It was vaguely translucent. If I concentrated hard enough, I could see the writing desk on the opposite side of the room through her body. That was good. It meant she wasn’t supposed to be here for very long. The more solid a ghost appeared, the less likely they were to move on. I felt relieved. I didn’t have the headspace to process a long lost twin sister, let alone one that was already dead.
I waved her off. “I’m not touching you. Ghosts are freezing, and I run cold.”
Her face—my face—fell at my reaction. No matter how many ghosts made contact with me, my level of tact in receiving them remained supremely low.
“Sorry.” I rubbed my eyes and looked up at her. “Could you float down? My neck hurts.”
Winnie alighted on the bedspread. Though we were theoretically identical, I noticed immediate differences between us. Winnie kept her hair long and wavy, whereas mine was cut short to my chin. She was thin and graceful while I moved with all the subtlety of a tank. She was also much more relaxed in death than I knew I would ever be. If I ended up trapped between worlds, I would be pissed.
“Who are you again?” I asked.
“Winnie Bennett. And you?”
“Gwenlyn,” I answered. “Gwenlyn Bennett.”
She lit up, as though having the same last name confirmed our connection more than sharing the same face. “I didn’t know about you.”
“Me either.” I had no idea what to say. I didn’t know how to feel either. I took stock of my thoughts. Subdued shock hit me first. I did have family. Someone else had been walking around with my face for twenty-six years, and I had no idea. I shared a womb with a person meant to be my built-in best friend, only for the world to force us in different directions. We were identical strangers, robbed of the chance to get to know each other. I had a sister who was already dead. That alone was more tragic than our lifetime apart.
Winnie cleared her throat. “So you’re not a hugger, I presume. Should I get some party poppers to celebrate our unexpected reunion?”
“I hate confetti.”
“Okay. How about that cake downstairs?”
I folded my pillow in half and stuck it behind my shoulders so that I could sit comfortably against the headboard. “You can’t touch anything. You’re dead, which by the way, I commend you for handling extremely well.”
“I saw it coming,” she replied. “Metastatic melanoma.”
“You had cancer?”
“Yup. I was diagnosed four years ago. At some point, you come to terms with the fact that it’s all ending soon. It was easier to let go than suffer in pain.”
“So you were ready to die?” I asked. “You accepted it?”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why not?” She reclined across the foot of my bed, her essence dipping through the covers and chilling my feet. I drew them in toward my chest. “There’s no point in being bitter about it. It’s just life, and then it’s death. I wasn’t afraid.”
“No, not like it doesn’t metaphysically make sense,” I tried to explain. The concept of getting trapped between worlds was wishy-washy at best. “I meant that you shouldn’t be here. People stay behind because something is preventing them from crossing over, like they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to their dog, or in worse cases, they have to avenge their own murder.”
Winnie lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “That happens?”
“More than you know,” I grumbled, recalling past events. “My point is: if you weren’t afraid to die and you don’t have unfinished business on earth, then there’s no reason for you to be stuck in between. There has to be something you haven’t thought of.”
She pursed her lips, thinking hard. “Nope. I made peace with the hand I was dealt, hugged my parents, kissed my boyfriend, and nuzzled my cat. I’m all squared away.”
When she mentioned her parents, a chill rocked my spine that had nothing to do with her ghostly presence. “Your parents?”
“Yeah, they were heartbroken but—are you okay?” She interrupted herself when she caught sight of my lips twisted into a scowl. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. It’s just… you had parents.”
I overflowed with animosity at Winnie’s naiveté. She’d grown up with a family and assumed that I had too, but not everyone was so fortunate. I answered diplomatically, trying to keep my voice level. “No, I was a foster kid.”
As someone who was well-practiced at keeping my darker emotions bottled up, it was an experience to see Winnie’s dimples mirror my own as her expression turned to concern. “We were babies though. Most adopting couples want a baby.”
“Well, no one wanted me.” I gathered the duvet out from under her and swung it over my shoulders like a quilted cape. “Makes sense though, doesn’t it? Mortals might not be able to see auras, but they can feel them. Why would someone adopt a baby that felt like death?”
Winnie finally looked away from me. There was a patchy hole in the fitted sheet. She fiddled with the threads, plucking them out of place. “I’m sorry.”
The apology sounded so sincere that I automatically felt like a jerk for bringing it up. “It’s not your fault. Anyway, aren’t you a witch too? How did your adoptive parents deal with that?”
She looked unsure, as though she knew the answer might upset or annoy me. “I got lucky. My adoptive mom is a witch too. She saw my aura and knew that so many things could go wrong if I grew up with a mortal family.”
I swallowed another mouthful of jealousy. I knew about those things firsthand. “Are you a medium too?”
“No, I’m an anodyne.”
She chuckled lightly. “That’s what my mom calls me. It means that I can relieve stress or pain. My ability functions like meditation. I soothe people’s minds, feelings, illnesses, so on and so forth.”
“Let me guess,” I said sardonically. “You went to med school.”
Winnie stuck out her tongue. “Are you kidding? I’m a daydreamer. I barely graduated from high school. No, I teach yoga.”
I laughed, covering my mouth so that my amusement would not wake up Morgan or her sisters. “Oh, man, you’re a yogi? Can you align my chakras for me? Are you into energy crystals?”
“Excuse me, but witchcraft literally works off a woman’s personal energy, so you of all people should understand that there is legitimacy in using yoga to increase awareness and flow,” Winnie chided. “It’s so effective that even mortals can feel it when they practice.”
“I never thought about it that way,” I admitted.
“You should try it sometime,” she suggested. “It might help with that tension in your back.”
I rolled my arms so that my shoulder blades relaxed. “How did you know that?”
“Part of the package.”
“You really did get lucky,” I muttered. Winnie’s soothing presence was faint but palpable. It was the leftover remnants of her aura. The fact that I could feel it was remarkable. She was a powerful witch when she was alive, totally in tune with her ability. Comparably, I had a bad habit of running from mine. “So no regrets? We kind of need a place to start if we’re going to get you to the next life.”
“Just one,” she replied.
“Good! What is it?”
“That I never knew you.”
In the morning, I padded down the stairs in flannel pajama pants and borrowed bunny slippers, massaging my temples. My hangover could’ve been worse, but the bright sunlight of the first floor made me wince all the same. Morgan sat at the head of the table, her feet perched next to a half-eaten stack of pancakes. She sipped coffee from a handmade mug across which the artist had jokingly painted “World’s Best Coven Leader,” reading today’s issue of Yew Hollow’s local paper. She glanced up as I slouched though the doorway, and her eyes widened with apprehension.
“There’s a dead girl following you,” she informed me. “Normally, this wouldn’t be cause for alarm, but said dead girl has your face. I have questions, comments, and concerns.”
I’d almost forgotten about Winnie, chalking the whole incident up to a booze-induced dream. She stood in the foyer, gazing around the house to take it all in. The sunlight poked pin-sized holes in her appearance, shining through her as though she was made of poorly woven fabric. I wondered where she grew up. I guessed it wasn’t a place like Yew Hollow. The Summers coven was one of a kind, and the interior of the house highlighted our eccentricities.
“That’s Winnie,” I told Morgan. “She’s my dead twin. Winnie, this is Morgan. She’s our coven leader.”
Winnie waved cheerily. “Hi there!”
Morgan caught me by the arm as I passed by, squinting at Winnie’s shimmering figure. “Should I be concerned?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” I replied.
“Ah.” Morgan raised her mug to Winnie. “In that case, it’s nice to meet you, Winnie.”
Winnie beamed. “Thank you. I hope you don’t mind if I stay for a while. Gwenlyn and I are bonding.”
“What’s mine is yours, darling.”
As Winnie floated off to explore the rest of the house, Morgan stared after her. “Wow. It’s weird to see your face smile like that.”
I sat down, picked up Morgan’s fork, and started in on her leftover pancakes. “I know, right? I forgot I had dimples. She’s going to completely wreck my reputation as a snarky jerk.”
“I think your hair this morning has already dismantled any hope you harbored of being viewed as intimidating, my love.”
I stretched out of the chair to glimpse my reflection in the mirror of the china cabinet. Half of my hair was flattened to the side of my head. The other half stuck up like a ruffled peacock’s plumage. I groaned, forcing it down with my fingers, but the attempt was fruitless.
“Come here,” Morgan said, beckoning me toward her. She combed through my erratic hair, and I felt the fizzle of witchcraft against my scalp. When I checked again, my hair was perfectly presentable.
“Mm-hmm. In all seriousness, are you okay?” Morgan’s eyes crinkled as she studied me for signs of distress. If that look came from anyone else, I would scold them for pitying me. With Morgan, I knew it came from a place of love and concern.
“I think so,” I said, returning to the pancakes. They were perfect post-hangover breakfast. “I don’t know. It’s weird, you know? I had no idea she existed. Plus she’s dead, which is kind of a downer.”
“That and she shouldn’t be here.”
“We already discussed that.” I swirled my breakfast through a puddle of maple syrup. “She doesn’t know why she hasn’t moved on.”
“No, not that,” Morgan said. “You know the rules. Ghosts are physically restricted from visiting places that they’ve never been before. I don’t recall your sister ever stopping in for a cup of tea, so how is it that she’s in Yew Hollow at all?”
“Maybe it’s different with twins,” I suggested. “Even mortal twins claim they share an inexplicable telepathic bond.”
“Maybe,” Morgan mused. “It’s the only reason I can think of.”
“I need to get my mind off it,” I said, wiping syrup off my fingers. “What’s on the schedule for today?”
A legal pad appeared in front of Morgan with a faint pop! and she flipped to the second page of her to-do list. “Let’s see. Malia and Laurel are meeting with the community volunteers to work out a new date for the Fall Festival. Karma is due at the police station in ten minutes to talk to Chief Torres about some of the safety concerns we had. I doubt she’ll make it—neither one of you can hold your liquor—so I’ll probably go instead. Do you want to tag along? It’s a slow day. I don’t have much for you to do other than help clean up the mess in the town square.”
I deliberated. A slow day in Yew Hollow was exactly what I needed to recuperate from last night’s festivities. “I’ll go to the square.”
“All right, but the kids are going too,” Morgan said.
“Teaching them the value of hard work?”
“You bet. That okay with you?”
“You know I love the kids.”
Morgan looked up from the legal pad in time to catch Winnie passing through the hallway on her way to the back porch. She patted my hand. “You can’t ignore your sister forever, Gwen. She wants something from you, no matter what she says, and the longer she stays, the harder it gets.”
Winnie’s figure refracted sunlight on the antique wallpaper like water did in a swimming pool. I sighed heavily. “I know. Believe me, I know.”
Morgan was right. Ignoring Winnie wasn’t an option. It wouldn’t help her move on to the next life or banish my lingering jealousy of the difference in our upbringings. Everything had turned out all right, and it was petty of me to be envious of a dead girl, especially one that had thoroughly suffered for the past four years.
We strolled along the sidewalk, heading into town. Yesterday’s storm was gone. The blue sky stretched on for miles as the breeze coaxed brown leaves from the trees. The coven children bounced alongside us, hopping over puddles of rainwater and singing gleeful songs absent of musical prowess. I counted heads. All seven children were my responsibility for the day. Keeping track of them wasn’t usually the problem. The bigger challenge was ensuring that they didn’t use any witchcraft in front of the locals.
One of the kids tripped, sprawling in front of Winnie. She gasped, kneeling down to help the little witch to her feet, but Winnie’s hands passed right through her. The girl, Sandra, shuddered, popped upright like a jack-in-the-box, and sped off to rejoin her friends.
“They can’t see you,” I reminded Winnie when I spotted her dejected expression. “She didn’t mean anything by it. When a ghost touches you, it’s like being doused in ice water.”
She gazed longingly after the kids. “I don’t mind spending time here, but I can’t say I’m a fan of the supposed perks of ghostdom.”
“I know it’s tough,” I agreed. “Neither here, nor there. The worst part is being disconnected from the world. You can see it, but you can’t touch it.”
“Why does it sound like you know from firsthand experience?”
I shuffled through a pile of damp leaves, kicking them up to expose their colorful undersides. “I don’t. I’ve met hundreds of ghosts though. They all tell me the same things.”
“How long does it usually take to pass over?”
“It depends,” I answered. “Sometimes it’s short and sweet. I once met a single mother who died in a car crash, and all she wanted was to check on her kid to make sure he was okay. It only took two hours to track him down, and she disappeared right after.”
“That’s so sad.”
Up ahead, Amelia and Sandra fenced with fallen tree branches resembling sabers. I sent a surreptitious jet of magic to race between them. The makeshift weapons morphed into rubber snakes. The girls groaned then promptly resumed their battle by whacking each other with the new toys.
“Circumstances like that are the worst,” I said to Winnie. “But in my experience, selfish people are the ones who stick around the longest.”
“Yeah. They don’t want to die. They care too much about all of the things they never got to have. Once, this old business tycoon haunted me for three months because he wanted to be buried in his Maserati, but his brother took it instead.”
Winnie laughed. “You’re kidding.”
“I wish I was,” I said. “Some people hang around for the most ridiculous reasons. Others don’t know why they’re here at all.”
I glanced her way. “We’ll figure it out. I’m well practiced.”
The town hall marked the top of the high street, which bustled with activity. The mortals were out in full swing, taking advantage of the beautiful day.
“Look alive!” I called up to my brood of kids before they charged into town. “Don’t use your craft until we get back to the house.”
The eldest witch, thirteen-year-old Ariana, gave me the thumb’s up. “Don’t worry, Gwen. I got this.”
As Ariana collected the rest of the crew and herded them toward the town square, I returned my attention to Winnie. “Why don’t we start with the cancer? It might have something to do with all of this. Do you mind telling me about it or is it kind of a sore spot?”
A cool wind rustled my hair, but Winnie’s remained untouched. “It’s fine. Basically, my love for the sun caught up with me. I was outside constantly. I taught sunrise yoga classes, and I loved to hike nature trails. My skin always tanned but never burned, so I didn’t put a lot of thought into protection. The sun made me feel alive.”
She took a deep breath and tipped her chin up to the sky. I knew that she couldn’t feel the warmth of the sun without a living body, but the memory remained. I was thankful that ghosts could assume whatever appearance they liked best rather than what they looked like at the time of their death. Winnie wore a summery dress patterned with sunflowers. She had freckles on her cheeks, across her nose, and on her shoulders. Though the air was chilly, she made me feel like it was the height of summer.
“One day, my boyfriend found a mole on my back,” she continued. “I’d had it since I was a kid, but it started to change shape. We caught it early, and I figured that would be the end of it. I started using wards to protect myself from the sun. It wasn’t enough.”
“So what happened?” I asked her. I had never met a witch with cancer before. “Did you go to a mortal doctor?”
“Of course not,” Winnie replied. “My mother and aunt treated me, much to my father’s dismay. I outright refused chemotherapy. It was the one time he ever got upset over the fact that we were witches, but I figured if magic couldn’t fix me, how could science? We used the most intense healing spells out there. It went back and forth for a while. Sometimes, we thought we had finally beat it down, but it kept coming back. When it spread everywhere, no spell in the world could’ve stopped it from killing me.”
We passed the local pharmacy, where I waved to Mrs. Raleigh. It was harder to talk to Winnie now that we were in the thick of things. More than once, I’d made the mistake of holding an audible conversation with a ghost within earshot of a non-witch. Word spread quickly in Yew Hollow, and as a result, I was considered a polite but peculiar girl. To me, that was far more agreeable than being classified as insane. The town excused the Summerses’ oddball behavior on principle, but the occasional whispered comment reminded me of the therapy reports from my youth. I was grateful when we reached the square, where the shadow of the trees protected us from prying eyes and listening ears.
“Wow.” Winnie stopped short, staring up at the large tree in the direct center of the humble park. “Is that a yew tree?”
“It’s the yew tree,” I confirmed. The kids had already climbed the trunk, perching in the branches like weird birds as they picked desiccated streamers out of its needle-like leaves. “Yew Hollow was named for it.”
“I heard yews have all sorts of magical protection properties,” Winnie said, circling the trunk to examine it from all sides.
I ducked beneath the lowest layer of branches, where the tree sheltered me from the view of onlooking mortals. The air was frigid and damp. Trash rained down as the children reverently combed through the needles above. I vanished the debris before it tangled in the grass. No one would notice the subtle green flashes of witchcraft through the thick needles. I grew warm as we worked and rolled up the sleeves of my sweater to my elbows. The long scar on my forearm flared, and the yew tree responded with a quick pulse. The leaves shook, the children shrieked, and Winnie looked around in alarm.
“It’s just me,” I called up to the kids. “Sorry about that.”
As they settled down again, Winnie tracked the jagged blue line on my arm. “That’s ancient magic, isn’t it? You’re connected to the tree.”
“So is the entire coven,” I said, warding off questions. “It’s a long story.”
“What about the other scars?”
I ignored her, ripping streamers from where they were wrapped tightly around the yew’s trunk.
Winnie pressed on. “You were upset earlier, when I asked you about your family. What really happened with your foster parents?”
“Which ones?” I asked in a biting tone. “I went through about thirty different homes.”
“Thirty?” she repeated in disbelief. “Why so many?”
I balled up the streamers in my fist. “Because I was the little kid from the Sixth Sense, except way worse. Ghosts followed me everywhere, and I had no idea why. They diagnosed me with schizophrenia when I was five years old, and it went downhill from there.”
“But you weren’t schizophrenic!”
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “When every adult tells you that the spirits haunting you are just the voices in your head, you start to believe them. It drove me nuts.”
“When did you start cutting yourself?”
I looked into the tree to make sure the kids weren’t listening in on the conversation before I answered. “When I was thirteen, I was assigned to a particularly nasty set of foster parents. There was an incident. I won’t go into the details, but it ended with the police finding me standing over their unconscious bodies. I was committed to a children’s psychiatric ward.”
“As it turns out, psychiatric wards have more ghost stories than actual patients,” I told her. Memories arose, but I pushed them down. I straightened my shoulders and stood tall. The past was in the past. “That’s when I started cutting. Then I realized if I was going to survive, I needed to get out of there.”
“What did you do?”
“Jumped out of a third-floor window in the middle of the night.” I grinned, recalling the rush of wind through my hair as I hurtled toward the ground. “Didn’t break a single bone. I figured it was dumb luck since I didn’t know what witchcraft was at the time. Looking back, I know I conjured a ward at the last second before I hit the ground. I outran the night guard, jumped clean over a fifteen-foot fence, and got the hell out of there. That was the first time I realized that I wasn’t crazy. Something else was at play.”
Winnie took a deep breath and blew it out. “When did you find out you were a witch?”
“Not until I met Morgan,” I answered. “I was on the streets for a year or so before I got picked up and placed in another foster home. When I was sixteen, I saw a news story about Yew Hollow, ran away, and never looked back. This has been my home every since.”
“So you finally found your place.”
Peals of laughter echoed from above, resonating in the secret space beneath the yew tree. I smiled and counted heads again, just to be sure none of the kids had run off while I wasn’t looking. “I did. Morgan officially adopted me before I turned eighteen. It was the first time the Summers coven ever accepted a witch outside of their bloodline.”
“That must’ve been a big deal,” Winnie said.
“It was. Some of the witches still don’t accept me as one of their own.”
A fat raindrop navigated the needles of the tree and splashed against my cheek. I ducked out from underneath the yew. The blue sky was gone, replaced by a blanket layer of gray clouds.
Winnie turned her hands up and watched the drops fall through her palms. “That’s weird. I wasn’t expecting rain today.”
Neither had I. Something was off. The weather had changed too quickly. In Yew Hollow, that wasn’t always a bad sign, but the wind accompanying this storm had an acrid scent to it. A bolt of lightning scattered across the sky.
I clapped my hands together to get the attention of the kids. “Arianna! Get everyone down here. I don’t need any of you up high when this storm breaks.”
We ended up haphazardly sprinting back to the house through a torrential downpour. This was not one of the storms I cherished. It was scary and violent. Thunder boomed so loudly, I half-expected Zeus to drop out of the sky to smite us all. I toted one kid on my back and dragged another two by each hand. Arianna handled the others, but I could tell that she was stressed too. They were all frightened half to death and soaked from head to toe as I ushered them up the hill. Winnie ran alongside us, looking upset that she couldn’t assist.
“Go, go, go!” I shepherded the kids up the front porch and into the safety of the house. Winnie followed them inside, and I shoved the door shut to drown out the mayhem of the skies. As the kids shivered in the living room, I heard the screen door of the back porch slam. Morgan and Karma appeared, just as drenched as we were. “What’s going on?” I asked them. “I tried to conjure a weather ward, but it wouldn’t work.”
“Neither did ours,” Morgan said.
Karma’s lilac essence bloomed as she conjured hot tea and towels for everyone. A plate of warm cookies appeared on the coffee table as she helped the children dry off and get warm.
I pulled Morgan out of earshot of the kids. “Something’s wrong, Morgan. This storm came out of nowhere, and now you’re telling me it repels wards?”
“I know,” she replied grimly. “It’s not natural, and it stinks of dark magic.”
“I smell it too,” I said. “Who would do this?”
Morgan glared through the windows at the raging storm. “I’m more worried about what’s coming next.”
Lightning struck a telephone pole down the street. It splintered in half and fell over, taking the power line with it. The lights in the house went out, and the kids howled in protest. Karma cast another spell, and purple glowing orbs appeared to illuminate the house.
“Great,” Morgan muttered, watching as the power line sparked. “Let’s go deal with that before the fire department shows up and makes a complete mess of things.”
“This isn’t messy?” Winnie murmured in my ear.
“Stay here,” I told her, forgetting that falling trees or power lines wouldn’t affect her anyway, and followed Morgan out into the insanity.
I leaned steeply into the wind as it buffeted me about, guarding my head with my hands against flying debris. Morgan attempted another weather ward, but her blue craft flickered and died as the rain battered against it. She gave up, focusing instead on the fallen power line. It sparked with live electricity.
“You take that side,” Morgan yelled over the noise, pointing to the far end of the splintered telephone pole.
I jogged over. Morgan was barely visible through the gray sheet of rain, but I saw her witchcraft gleam as she began the spell to repair the power line. I joined in, muttering Latin phrases under my breath to strengthen the enchantment. In this storm, we would need all the help we could get.
My green craft collided with Morgan’s blue. Together, we raised the telephone pole and fixed the splintered pieces together again. I gasped for breath as we planted it firmly in the ground. My energy was already petering off, a sure sign that the supernatural storm was weakening our abilities. Morgan called out to me, but the rain carried her voice away, and my hands trembled as I aimed at the live power line.
A jolt of power ripped through me without my consent. The power line rose into the air, connected to me by a thin electrified line of my own energy. My feet remained rooted to the ground, no matter how much the wind pushed and pulled at me.
Morgan’s anguished warning cry was the last thing I heard. The live end of the power line punched me in the chest. At the same time, a bolt of lightning flashed overhead, making contact with the live wire. Thousands of volts surged through me. I convulsed, rocketed away from the power line by the force of the blast, and blacked out before my body hit the ground again.
Miraculously, I woke up. Dawn fought through the clouds, but the storm raged on, thundering against the windows of my bedroom. Someone had layered pillows on either side of my body to keep me from falling out of bed. I ached all over, and the smell of burnt hair didn’t soothe my anxious thoughts. My legs were full of pins and needles, and a ringing sound filled my head.
Winnie sat at the desk in the corner. My throat felt like sandpaper. “What happened?”
“Morgan got you back to the house.” She pointed to a glass of water on the table next to my bed. I gratefully drained the contents. “All four sisters worked on you. It was bad, Gwenlyn. You were covered in burns. I almost thought you’d be joining me in the afterlife.”
“Not a chance,” I rasped. “Too much to do here. Is everyone else okay?”
“As far as I know.”
I swung my feet over the edge of the bed, kicking aside the pillow barrier. “Morgan’s going to need help.”
Winnie blocked the doorway. “Whoa! Right now? She told me to keep an eye on you, and I don’t think you should be getting out of bed for a while.”
I limped toward her. “I appreciate the concern. Really, I do. But this is my coven, not yours. If someone’s using dark magic, it’s my responsibility to help Morgan figure out who.”
Winnie pouted but stepped aside. “Fine, but if she asks, I’m telling her that you bullied me. Honestly, Morgan kind of scares me.”
I coughed out a chuckle as I walked across the hall to the bathroom. I balked at my reflection. My neck, chest, and arms all sported evidence of magically healed burns. The skin looked new and shiny, but sparkled with the residual energy of Morgan and her sisters.
“My hair,” I whined, fingering the burnt ends of the black strands. I’d have to cut it shorter to get rid of the ruined bits.
“Yeah, that’s not a good look,” Winnie quipped from the hallway.
I turned the tap on, letting the cool water rush over my heated skin. My head pounded as I splashed my face, so I moved carefully. Even reaching for the hand towel made me feel like I was over-exerting myself, but at least I was alive.
I leaned heavily on the banister as I made my way downstairs with Winnie’s supervision. Morgan, Karma, Malia, and Laurel sat at the dining room table, discussing the storm outside. It was early in the morning. Abandoned scones and scrambled eggs littered the table, and each of the witches nursed a cup of coffee or tea. Laurel noticed my struggle first and surged to her feet to help me the rest of the way down and into a chair at the table.
“Well?” I prompted the sisters. “What are we dealing with here? Is this storm going to stop anytime soon?”
Morgan waved my questions aside. “We’ll get to that in a minute. How are you feeling?”
“I tried to get her to stay in bed,” Winnie said.
“Don’t worry, honey,” Morgan replied. “I never expected her to stay in bed. Gwen?”
Though Morgan’s sisters could not see Winnie, they had enough experience with ghosts over the years that it did not alarm them to watch Morgan speak to thin air. Personally, I always got a kick out of watching them try to figure out where a ghost was standing in the room. They took cues from us, but only Laurel’s gaze came close to Winnie’s actual position.
“I feel like I’m full of bees,” I admitted. There was no other way to explain the buzzing feeling that lingered in my limbs due to the electric surge. “Other than a raging headache, I’m intact. That was a freak accident, right?”
Morgan rubbed her eyelids. She looked exhausted. “We’re not sure yet. You got unlucky, kid. This storm is something else.”
As if in reply, the rain intensified, drumming on the windows of the house. I grimaced at the racket. Laurel conjured another mug. It was full of cloudy yellow tea. Normally, I wouldn’t have touched a drink that looked like algae-infested swamp water, but knowing the positive effects of Laurel’s turmeric healing recipe, I took a long sip and let the peculiar flavor wash over my tongue.
“Thanks, Laurel. What’s the plan?”
Malia rapped her fingertips on the table. “I think our best bet is to wait it out. Keep everyone indoors. We don’t know what kind of power this thing has behind it.”
“Agreed,” Karma said. “What happened to Gwen might not have been an accident. I checked the weather report. The storm targeted Yew Hollow specifically.”
Laurel’s tea was a lifesaver. My headache began to subside, but I massaged my temples to further release the tension. “It’s been relatively quiet for ten years. Who has the gall to start something now?”
All at once, the storm stopped. The pounding rain ceased so abruptly that the sudden absence of sound made the dining room feel like a vortex. I looked to each sister, but none of them, not even Morgan, appeared confident that our worries would vanish with the rain.
“So,” Laurel whispered, as though afraid to break the seal of quiet. “When will the real storm break?”
On cue, the front door burst open, and Yvette, one of Morgan’s many aunts, appeared in the dining room. She was soaked through, her pale blonde hair pasted to her forehead and the hood of her raincoat limp against her back as though it had fallen off in her haste to reach us.
“Morgan!” she gasped, dripping water across the wood floors. “I think you need to see this.”
Morgan stood up from her seat at the table, in full coven leader mode. “What is it, Yvette?”
“The whole town is gone.”
Morgan assigned her sisters to check on the rest of the coven while she inspected the square. Though Winnie begged me to stay behind and rest, I chugged the rest of my tea, donned my raincoat, and followed Morgan and Yvette into town. Morgan didn’t argue. Over the years, an unspoken agreement was forged between us. In any given situation, I went where she went. The coven was as much my responsibility as it was hers, and we worked better as a team than as individuals. As we hurried down the road after Yvette, she linked her arm in mine. Whether it was for her own peace of mind or to help me stay upright, I didn’t know. Laurel’s tea usually worked within minutes to heal any plight, but recovering from a heavy voltage shock was a different type of injury. I wobbled along, willing my legs to work properly, but I had yet to regain full feeling in all of my extremities.
The storm left utter destruction in its wake. The power line outside the Summers house wasn’t the only victim. Others hung like limp laundry lines from askew telephone poles. Thankfully, none of them were live. The power was out to the entire town. Debris littered the ground. The wind had ripped shingles from roofs, uprooted entire trees from the ground, and scattered trash everywhere. Clouds lingered overhead. They weren’t normal storm clouds, but rather an unbroken sheet of solid gray. In the distance, a distinct curved line separated the gloom from an exquisite blue sky, a sign that the weather outside Yew Hollow was as fine as it should’ve been on a day like this. The ominous acidity of the air had not dissipated either. The wind tasted bitter and smelled faintly of vinegar.
When we reached the town square, Yvette’s words became reality. Not one of the locals had ventured out to assess the damage. There was no one left to do so. The streets were empty except for evidence of the disaster. Cars lay abandoned in the middle of the road. Doors to houses and businesses were left wide open. The police station was quiet, despite the fact that the chief should’ve arranged a clean-up party to help the residents by now. There were no residents to help. Yew Hollow was deserted.
“What the hell is going on?” I muttered, gazing around at the empty town.
Morgan dropped my arm to check the police station. She disappeared inside for a minute or so before emerging again. “It’s empty,” she reported. “Chief Torres is gone. The place is a wreck, like everyone panicked and left as quickly as possible.”
“So what do we do?” I asked.
Once, Morgan had worked as a paranormal detective for Yew Hollow’s police force. She planted her feet, spreading her shoulders as she transferred into command mode. “Spread out. Check the nearby houses and businesses for anyone who might’ve stayed behind. Meet me at the yew tree.”
Yvette and I hustled to obey. I took the lefthand side of the square, sweeping through the daycare, Dover’s Fresh Market, and Ms. Winning’s Antique store. Every building was hauntingly desolate and showed signs of hurried evacuation. Winnie floated along as I stumbled through a row of vacated houses, looking on in concern every time I paused to catch my breath or stomp feeling into my toes again. I was grateful for her presence, however ironic it was that I found a ghost’s companionship less eerie than our desolate township.
As I checked under the bed of a child’s room in one of the houses near the yew tree, Winnie scoped the closet. I jumped when a pair of glowing eyes peered back at me from beneath the bed, but it was just a gray tabby cat. It tore out of the room, its paws windmilling to find purchase on the smooth wood floor and down the stairs before I could react. I glanced out of the window in time to see the cat shoot across the square toward the woods.
“Even the animals are spooked,” I murmured as Winnie joined me at the window. “Have you noticed they’re all gone too? No birds, no squirrels. I haven’t seen so much as a housefly this morning.”
“Have you ever witnessed something like this before?” Winnie asked, her eyebrows knitting together worriedly.
I shook my head. “No, but this isn’t worst thing we’ve been through. Morgan will figure it out.”
Winnie peered at me sideways. “What was the worst thing?”
I unconsciously scratched the blue scar on my forearm. “When I first got to Yew Hollow, a warlock commanded an army of demons to rise from the dead. That was bad. This is just weird.”
Winnie looked astonished at my nonchalance. “Warlocks? Demons? What is this place, the setting of a Charmed reboot?”
“Dibs on Piper,” I quipped. Outside, Morgan stepped out from a house down the street and headed to the next. “Let’s get moving. Morgan will be finished soon. Didn’t your coven ever have to deal with an uprising?”
Winnie glided out of the bedroom and followed me out to the front porch. “We lived in a tiny town in New Mexico. My coven included me, my mother, my aunt, and my dad, if you count mortal men as honorary members.”
“We don’t,” I replied shortly.
“I’ve never seen anything like the Summerses before,” Winnie said. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen a place like Yew Hollow before. An entire town run by witches?”
“It’s more common than you think. Ever been to New Orleans?” I tripped off the curb. Without thinking, I reached out to Winnie to steady myself. My hand sank through hers with a wintry chill, and I sprawled across the grass. Groaning, I picked asphalt out of my palms.
Winnie grimaced in solidarity. “I still think you should’ve stayed at the house. You shouldn’t take electrocution so lightly.”
My head swam as I pushed myself to my feet. “I told you. I won’t lie around while the coven might be in trouble. We pull our weight here. We don’t have a choice. This isn’t New Mexico.”
When Winnie pursed her lips and looked away, I realized that the statement had come across with a bitter tone behind it.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I added hurriedly. “You said it yourself. You’ve never seen a coven like this, and it’s true. We’re one of the biggest in the nation. Your family flew under the radar because of how small you are, but the Summerses are allied with a lot of the larger covens throughout the country. We operate differently. That’s all I meant.”
“I get it, Gwen.”
She drifted off, leaving me to meet with Morgan and Yvette under the yew tree alone. I sighed, watching Winnie as she scouted the square. We would never find out why she was lingering on earth if my pride kept getting in the way.
I beat the other witches to the tree, settling on one of the white stone benches that bordered the area with a relieved moan. It was good to sit. The sole of my right foot prickled uncomfortably. I kicked off my tennis shoe to dig my thumbs into the arch but froze at the sight of my skin. A black Lichtenberg figure snaked up my ankle and the back of my calf. I rolled up the leg of my jeans for a better look. The marks didn’t extend past my knee, but I worried all the same. It wasn’t the tree-like pattern that concerned me though. If I were mortal, that kind of scar would be a common after-effect of a lightning strike, but the color should’ve been pink or red, not jet black.
“That is an aura.”
Yvette’s voice caused me to jump. She was what we called a wind warrior, able to manipulate the air around her. As a result, she was stealthier than a falcon. I hadn’t heard her approach. “How could it be?”
She knelt down to examine the scar. Now that she mentioned it, I noticed it sparkled just like a witch’s aura. She traced the peculiar pattern with her finger. “It’s a witch’s mark. Dark magic. They’re unintentional, but if a witch casts a curse too big to handle, it leaves leftovers.”
“I’ve never met a witch with a black aura,” I said.
“That’s because they don’t exist,” Yvette replied. “If a witch consistently uses dark magic, her aura darkens over time. Whoever created this storm is too far gone to save.”
“On the upside, at least this means that no one in the coven betrayed us.” I rolled my pant leg down to cover the marking. “None of the Summerses have black auras.”
“You need to tell Morgan,” Yvette said.
Before I could reply, Morgan herself appeared from the opposite side of the yew tree, one hand perched on her hip.
“Tell me what?”
“That’s a witch’s mark, all right,” Morgan declared, examining my calf. The mark flared beneath her touch and turned bright blue, the same color as the scar on my arm. “Whoa. Never seen that happen before though.”
“How many times have you seen this?” I asked. Morgan, like myself, had a haunted past, but I knew she had never used dark magic herself.
Her lips tightened in a grim expression. “This would be the third.”
“So what does it mean?” My leg tingled as the mark faded back to black. “Did someone intentionally target me?”
To my relief, Morgan shook her head. “Haven’t you seen the clouds? They stop at the county line. If that storm was any indication, whoever cast this enchantment included all of Yew Hollow. That can only mean one thing.”
“They’re targeting the coven,” Yvette supplied. She paced back and forth in front of the yew tree. “Gwen, you just happened to get caught in the crossfire. If you weren’t pumped full of ancient magic, that attack would’ve killed you.”
One look at Morgan’s troubled face told me that Yvette was right.
“Yvette, I need you to go back to the house,” she ordered. “Send a message to the heads of the covens in the alliance. Tell them to check for dark magic users in and around their areas. We need to kill this thing off before it gets out of hand.”
Yvette hurried off. Halfway across the square, her wispy gray aura carried her away into the wind. Within seconds, she was out of sight.
Morgan made to stand, but I caught her wrists and pulled her toward me. “Morgan, be honest with me. How bad is this?”
She tucked the burnt ends of my hair behind my ear. “It’s not good,” she admitted. “Let’s put it this way. If the yew tree couldn’t protect us from this attack, then nothing could have. Whoever did this means business. The sooner we catch the culprit, the better. Can you stand?”
I held on to Morgan’s forearms as she helped me to my feet. My marked leg felt heavier than the other, but I wasn’t sure if that was a product of my paranoid imagination. “What do we do?”
“You don’t do anything,” Morgan answered. “I need you to rest. Get your strength back up, Gwen. Talk to your sister. Maybe the two of you can work out why she’s stuck here while you’re recovering.”
I rotated my leg to get another glimpse of the witch’s mark. “And what about this?”
Morgan frowned. “I don’t want to alarm you, but Yvette wasn’t exaggerating. It would’ve killed you. I imagine it will take several rounds of healing spells to get rid of it.”
“Should I be worried?”
She swallowed hard. “Let’s not think about that yet. We need to get home. I have work to do.”
She looped my arm around her neck, but before I could protest that I didn’t need her help, a curious movement at the base of the yew tree caught my eye. “Wait! Look, Morgan.”
I pointed to the grass below the tree. Yesterday, it had been bright green, lush and full from the summer rainstorms. Today, it was dry and dead, as though winter had come early. Then, right before our eyes, another inch of grass withered and died right before our eyes.
“What the—?” Morgan muttered.
I inched forward to get a closer look, but Morgan tugged me away. The destruction spread further, increasing in power every time it claimed a bit of the earth as its own. Flowers wilted, shedding petals like tears, and the leaves on the trees bypassed orange and red and went straight to brown. They dried and shriveled, shaking and sad.
Morgan took my hand. “We need to go. Now.”
Yew Hollow died faster than we could return to the Summers house. By the time we arrived home, the world was slate-gray from the ground to the sky. Not a single blade of grass remained untouched by the pernicious spell. Thankfully, its effects did not seem to extend to humans. I half-expected the deadening gray to crawl up my legs and consume me, dragging me into the ashy ground.
A number of witches were already gathered at the house, awaiting Morgan’s instructions. I took in their worried expressions. Some of them remembered the last time Yew Hollow had been the target of a dark magic attack. None of us wanted to go through that again. We were bombarded with a flurry of questions as Morgan helped me up the porch steps and into the house.
“What’s going on, Morgan?”
“Is it Dominic? I thought he was dead!”
“Why isn’t the yew tree protecting the town?”
“Listen up!” Morgan bellowed over the clamor. Immediately, the modest crowd in the living room fell quiet. Morgan lowered her voice. “This is not the time to panic. It will do us no good. That being said, stay vigilant. We cannot take this lightly. I want everyone here in ten minutes so that we can come up with a plan. Where’s Yvette?”
Yvette’s hand rose over the heads of the witches. “Here.”
“Did you make contact with the other coven heads?”
“No one in the greater New England area has reported any dark magic activity,” Yvette replied. “I’m waiting to hear from those farther out.”
“Keep me posted,” Morgan requested. “Everyone else—”
A shriek interrupted Morgan’s instructions, and a commotion erupted amongst the witches near the fireplace. Voices broke out again, this time in panicked confusion.
“Quiet!” Morgan barked. “Everyone quiet! What’s going on over there?”
“It’s Alana,” someone replied. “She’s seizing.”
Morgan shoved through the throng. “Move. I said move!”
I followed behind Morgan as the crowd parted. The witches nearest Alana knelt on the floor next to her, keeping her convulsions contained as she writhed uncontrollably. I averted my gaze as bile rose in my throat. Alana’s blue eyes had dilated; her pupils were so large that her irises looked black. The strands of her bright red hair tangled together as her body contorted itself into inhuman shapes.
Morgan dove to her knees at Alana’s side. “I need a healer!”
At once, two witches pushed forward, both of whom possessed healing abilities of separate varieties. They joined Morgan on the floor, clasping hands with the coven leader. The familiar buzz of witchcraft grew. Morgan’s bright blue aura combined with the healers’ cobalt and violet colors. As the hues wrapped around Alana, swathing her in a cocoon of whirling lights, her tremors lessened in intensity. The room calmed, the craft faded, and Alana lay still before the fireplace.
“Is she… dead?” Yvette ventured in a small voice.
Morgan pressed two fingers to Alana’s neck. “No,” she announced to the great relief of the witnesses. “Just unconscious. Yvette? Yvonne? Take her home.”
Morgan surreptitiously wiped tears from her cheeks as Yvette and her sister levitated Alana from the floor and out of the living room. When she approached me, I slipped my hand into hers.
“No, indeed,” she muttered, squeezing my fingers. She raised her voice to address the remaining witches. “Everyone else, please come into the dining room. We need to discuss a course of action.”
The women sprang into action to obey Morgan’s request, shuffling into the dining room, which once again expanded to accommodate the growing number of bodies. More of the coven arrived in groups, responding to the unspoken call of their sisters, aunts, and cousins. Morgan stood at the head of the table. Some witches took a seat while others paced or fidgeted, unable to contain their nerves long enough to stay still. Usually, I would have been one of them, but the mark crawling up my calf felt as though as it had taken hold of my muscles. My leg cramped, and I drew out a chair just in time to catch myself before my injured limb betrayed me.
Winnie cast a chill over my shoulder. In the recent events, I forgot that Yew Hollow’s sudden devastation wasn’t the only thing on my plate. Winnie deserved attention too, and I had never been good at prioritizing.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. If it were possible, I would’ve held her hand. “What I said earlier was out of line. I didn’t mean to insinuate that your coven was any less than ours.”
“I appreciate the apology, but it’s not necessary,” Winnie replied. “If anything, I owe you one. I was insensitive earlier. I automatically assumed that our lives would reflect each other’s. That wasn’t realistic.”
I could see how Winnie and I might have interacted with each other throughout the course of our lives if hers hadn’t been cut short. We were opposite in interests and personality, but we both possessed immense respect for those around us. I sensed that we would disagree during a lot of our discussions, but the important thing was that we could talk everything out.
“How about we agree to not make assumptions about each other?” I suggested. “Deal?”
“Deal.” Winnie smiled softly. “Now tell me what happened to your leg, because my assumptions are actually kind of worrying me.”
Morgan clapped her hands together, commanding the room’s attention.
“Later,” I murmured to Winnie.
“Everyone here?” Morgan asked the room. There was a general mumble of consent, and Morgan nodded. “All right then. Settle down. Here’s what we know.”
The witches fell quiet. All eyes were on Morgan, including mine. It was times like these I remembered why she had become coven leader. There was something about Morgan that the other witches didn’t have, a type of unwavering determination that could not be derailed by a bump—or a gaping canyon—in the road.
“Yesterday’s storm was not one of natural development,” Morgan announced. “If that was not obvious already, it appears that the entire population of Yew Hollow has fled the area.”
This was news to the witches who had not accompanied us to the town square. Murmurs broke out as the women discussed what the impromptu evacuation could mean.
“While this is not an ideal situation,” Morgan went on, “it does give us the freedom to tend to matters without alerting the townspeople to our true nature again.”
“What matters are those exactly?” someone voiced from the back of the room.
“Don’t you sense it?” Morgan questioned, gazing at each witch in turn. “The uncertainty in the air? The scent on the wind? Something has shifted, ladies, and that shift bears all the signs of dark magic.”
Anxious conversation swelled, drowning out the rest of Morgan’s words. I resisted the urge to stick my fingers in my ears. The low drone of worrying buzzed like an annoying kitchen timer in my brain. I pinched the bridge of my nose, willing my headache to subside. My head pounded with each beat of my heart. It was time for another round of healing spells, but the coven was otherwise occupied.
“Quiet!” Morgan boomed. She was a small woman, but her voice echoed throughout the house, bouncing off the walls until she had the coven’s attention again. “What did I say ten minutes ago? This is not the time to panic. If you cannot control yourselves, I must ask you to leave. Anyone?”
No one moved. Everyone knew that this was the first big challenge the coven was to face in recent years. All of the witches needed to be informed.
“Good,” Morgan said. “First things first—”
“Can you blame them?”
I leaned forward to see who had interrupted Morgan. Camryn Summers stood up at the opposite end of the table. She was one of Morgan’s distant cousins, a few members removed from the central bloodline. Subtle differences separated her from the rest of the coven. Her golden hair was curled in perfectly messy ringlets, and she had hazel eyes instead of gray or green ones. Her curvaceous figure was the envy of the coven, many of whom were too thin to be considered sensual. Camryn was known to use her appeal to get what she wanted. Morgan told me stories from when they were kids in the coven together, and I’d seen enough of Camryn’s antics to know that her interjection meant trouble. My hackles rose as soon as she spoke up. To interrupt the coven leader was to declare an immediate sign of disrespect.
Morgan made no indication to give Camryn the floor. She remained standing, cocked one eyebrow in her cousin’s direction, and waited for the bomb to drop.
“Our coven is frightened,” Camryn said. Her voice grated on me. It was low and raspy like a chain smoker’s. “You cannot dismiss the severity of this situation. We won’t stand for it. The town has fallen, Morgan, and you have done nothing to prevent it from happening.”
I tensed in my seat at Camryn’s accusation, but a throb in my calf reminded me that I was in no condition to defend Morgan’s honor at the moment. It was a good thing Morgan’s patience was not so limited as mine. She merely appeared bored.
“Yew Hollow is far from ‘fallen,’” Morgan said, “but by all means, continue your diatribe.”
Camryn took the bait. “Ten years ago, you promised us protection under any and all circumstances. We had no choice but to accept your word as true and to go along with your harebrained schemes. When the time came to elect a new coven leader, you robbed us of that opportunity too.”
“It wasn’t your decision,” I snapped at Camryn. “Cassandra—”
“Yes, baby Morgan,” Camryn interrupted. Anger coursed through my veins, but a look from Morgan prevented me from retaliating prematurely. “It is indeed tradition for the current leader to select her successor, but it is also tradition for her to request the opinions of her coven. Do I need to remind you that Morgan abandoned this coven at eighteen and did not return for a decade?”
Malia spoke up from her seat across from me. “Are we really arguing about a leadership switch that occurred over ten years ago when there is a more trying situation at hand? Camryn, sit down—”
“Doesn’t it bother you, Malia?” Camryn asked, honing in on the eldest Summers sister. “If I recall correctly, you were being groomed as the next coven leader before the prodigal daughter fell back on her family. Did it sting when your mother decided that you were no longer her favorite for the position?”
“Morgan was better suited for the role,” Malia replied calmly. I admired her composure. If Camryn had said something like that to me, I would’ve hit her with the first curse that came to mind. “In case you’ve forgotten, Camryn, Yew Hollow has been at peace. We have not faced a challenge like this since Morgan’s inception, and you would do well to thank her for that rather than berate her leadership skills.”
“Morgan instated laws that changed the very core of our existence,” Camryn countered. She began to stroll leisurely around the room, trailing her fingers across the shoulders of the witches sitting at the table. “Hiding from the mortals, playing games with covens weaker than our own—”
“Cooperation is not a game,” Morgan said. “No one coven is omnipotent. It is essential for us to work together if we intend to keep our kind from dying out.”
“And what have those covens ever done for us?” Camryn challenged. I sneered as she brushed by me, but she didn’t dare to touch me. “The alliance was supposedly built on a foundation of sisterhood, but where are they now? Where’s the help that was promised to us in times like these?”
“I have already sent word to the other covens,” Morgan replied. Camryn made to stroll past her, but Morgan stepped in her path. “Any other questions?”
Camryn’s answering smile was wily at best. “My question is how you’ll decide to solve our newest problem, Morgan.”
Morgan leveled a stare at Camryn. “If you sit down,” she said in a calm, collected voice, “I would be happy to address that as I planned to do five minutes ago.”
The witches glared at each other, their noses only inches apart. Finally, Camryn blinked. She gave Morgan one more knowing smile before sauntering back to her seat. Subtly, so that only I could see it, Morgan rolled her eyes.
“As I was saying,” Morgan continued. “This spell has already affected the majority of Yew Hollow. We cannot allow it to permeate any further. Since the townspeople are gone, there’s no reason for us to forego a good defense. I want to build a ward large enough to encompass the entire town. Who will volunteer their efforts to do so?”
A number of hands went up, including mine. Morgan counted heads, assigning tasks to each witch. When she reached me, she paused.
“Not you, Gwen.”
“Why not?” I challenged. “I’m fine, Morgan. I swear.”
“You’re not fine,” Morgan replied. “And until I figure out whose mark that is on your calf, you won’t do anything other than rest. Understood?”
There was no room to argue. Morgan’s mind was made up.
“Fine,” I grumbled.
Morgan addressed the room again. “That’s it then. Those of you who are working on the ward, let’s get started right away. The rest of you should research the nature of yesterday’s storm.”
The witches surged to their feet, but Camryn wasn’t through with causing trouble for the day. “And what about Alana?” she questioned, raising her voice to be heard over the bustle.
“What about her?” Morgan asked wearily.
“Are we supposed to believe that her collapse was pure coincidence?” Camryn asked. The witches paused to hear her out. “A storm comes through Yew Hollow, and all of a sudden one of our own kind falls ill without explanation. Who’s to say this ailment won’t spread?”
Morgan snapped her fingers. In an instant, time slowed. The coven was frozen in place, unaware of the sudden change. Only Morgan, Camryn, and I remained in full possession of our faculties. The spell to expand and slow time was not a simple or easy one. Morgan rarely employed it, and I had a feeling that she only did it now to remind Camryn of her power.
“Do you mean to incite a riot?” Morgan asked the other witch. “Is that what you want? To instill fear and mistrust in this coven? Because I can assure you that it will not further your agenda, whatever that may be. It will only make this situation all the more dangerous.”
Camryn gazed around the room at her frozen sisters, but she looked more amused than impressed. “You haven’t changed, Morgan. You can pretend all you like, but I remember what you were like back then.”
“You mean when we were children,” Morgan retorted. “I never understood the competition between us, Cam. You made it what it was.”
“You were handed opportunities that most of us could never dream of, and you squandered them,” Camryn replied. “Then, after years of neglecting us, you picked up right where you left off. You do things your way, Morgan, with no regard to what the rest of the coven needs.”
“My way has kept this coven safe for ten years,” Morgan declared. She checked her watch, the hands of which had slowed too. It was not safe to slow time for longer than a minute or so. “And no one else has complained thus far.”
“Why would they when you so obviously have already picked your favorites?” Camryn pointed at me. “Exhibit A. Why include Gwenlyn in this conversation? She isn’t even a true Summers witch, yet you make a point to shove her presence in everyone’s faces. You favor an outsider over your own family.”
“I am not an outsider,” I said indignantly.
Morgan silenced me with a quick look. “Gwenlyn is an essential member of this coven,” she said to Camryn. “She saved my life and yours by extension. I suggest you treat her with the utmost respect.” She checked her watch again. This conversation was nearing a dangerous length. “Camryn, I have one last thing to say to you before we wrap this us.”
“What’s that?” Camryn snapped.
In a flash, Morgan disappeared from my end of the table and reappeared near Camryn. Camryn stumbled backward, tripping over her chair. For the first time since she had stood up to challenge Morgan, she looked unsure of her decision to do so. Morgan loomed over her, her eyes and expression dark with the severity of her next sentence.
“Do not interfere,” Morgan began, her voice quiet but authoritative, “with any aspect of today’s work. If I hear so much as a whisper that you’re stirring up trouble, I will mix the batch of black salt myself. Understood?”
I contained a wicked grin. Black salt was a mixture of sea salt and yew ash. The combination was meant to ward off those who were unwelcome. If a witch betrayed her coven, black salt was used to banish the perpetrator from returning to her sisters. It was a depressing and lonely fate. I doubted Morgan would ever go through with the threat, but the shocked look on Camryn’s face satisfied me to no end.
“Understood,” Camryn replied through clenched teeth.
Morgan snapped again. Time resumed at its normal pace. The coven looked between the feuding witches, awaiting Morgan’s answer to Camryn’s question.
“We are not yet aware if Alana’s illness is linked to the storm or not,” Morgan announced. “Her collapse might simply be a reaction to the stressful scenario at hand. We’ll monitor her closely and keep you updated. In the meantime, I expect your full attention to be trained on defending Yew Hollow. That goes for everyone in this room.”
On Morgan’s orders, I spent the rest of the day in my room with Winnie. For the first hour of my prescribed relaxation time, I stared out of the window at the gray town, watching the witches gather the necessary items for the massive defensive spell Morgan had asked them to build. It was the biggest ward the coven had ever attempted, and if my calculations were correct, it would take approximately three days to complete it. Afterward, no one would be able to enter or exit Yew Hollow. The thought didn’t sit well with me. Yes, Yew Hollow was home, but in the event of an emergency, the ward would not allow us a ready escape route. Unfortunately, it was our best option to defend against whatever enchantment had been cast over the town.
I flopped down on my bed. The coven was so wrapped up in their preparations that no one was free to help me perform a healing spell. I needed it badly. It felt as though someone had tightened a rubber band around my head. The pressure built up behind my eyes until I couldn’t keep them open anymore, while my calf grew more and more agitated. I’d made the mistake of inspecting the witch’s mark again and discovered that it had grown. The lightning-like patterns inched toward the back of my knee. Instinct told me it would continue to spread if we didn’t find some way to contain it, but I was too exhausted to bother with dark magic research.
A drop in temperature near my feet indicated that Winnie had sat at the foot of the bed. She stared blankly at the floor. Without me around, there was nothing for her to do, and I was down for the count. Temporarily, anyway.
“Hey,” I mumbled.
Winnie glanced up. “Yeah?”
I propped myself against the pillows, doing my best to give Winnie my full attention. “This has all been incredibly inconvenient. I swear I’m not as callous as I seem. I want to get to know you. I really do. I want to help you move on.”
Winnie sighed and stretched out across the duvet. “I don’t think you’re callous.”
“I’ve pretty much been ignoring you since the moment you got here,” I admitted. “That’s my fault. I don’t expect you to understand, but it takes a lot for me to open up to someone new, even my own twin.”
“I thought it was just me.”
“It’s definitely not you.” I tucked my feet under the bedspread, snuggling against the pillows. I may have fought against Morgan’s orders to stay in bed for the day, but sleep was overtaking me quickly. “I’m so tired though. I’m desperate for a nap.”
Winnie smiled, and I didn’t think I was ever going to get used to watching someone else’s expressions on my own face.
“You should rest,” she said. “But before you do, could you do me a favor?”
“Do you mind turning on the TV?”
I chuckled and reached for the remote. Winnie lay next to me, leaving enough space between us to offset her chilly presence. I flicked through the channel list. “Any requests?”
“A cooking show.”
I found a rerun of a bizarre food truck competition show and left Winnie to it. I curled up beneath the sheets, trying to ignore the all-over ache in my muscles and my pounding head. Unintentionally, I rested my forehead near Winnie’s arm. She acted like an ice pack, soothing my nagging headache. In such close quarters, I swore I could sense her aura. It was impossible, but the thought of it helped me forget about the raw mark on my calf. Whether it was in my imagination or not, Winnie’s anesthetic effect relaxed my tender muscles and lulled me to sleep.
Later that night, after several hours of on-and-off napping and binge watching cooking shows with Winnie, I hobbled downstairs in search of relief for my leg. I limped along to keep the weight off my foot, but with every step, the witch’s mark burned and throbbed.
The house was quiet. Everyone had gone to bed after a long day of preparing the ward. I staggered into the kitchen, balancing on one leg as I hopped around and gathered the ingredients for a healing salve. While I was at it, I scoured the fridge for leftovers. I hadn’t eaten all day, so while a bowl of soup warmed in the microwave, I mixed turmeric, olive oil, and star anise. However, when I tried to infuse the ingredients with the spell that would turn ordinary spices into a healing salve, my aura fizzled and faded. I was burned out. Frustrated, I threw the mixture across the room, where the ceramic bowl clanged loudly against the aluminum sink and shattered. Yellow paste spattered the kitchen floor.
Morgan ambled in from the dining room, dressed in flannel pajamas and a satin robe. She blearily rubbed her eyes. “Gwenlyn? What are you doing up? It’s late.”
The soup bubbled over in the microwave. I wrenched the appliance open as it beeped feebly. “I was hungry. Go back to sleep, Morgan. It’s been a long day. I’m fine.”
Morgan’s gaze wandered to the shattered ceramic and the wasted turmeric paste. Then she noticed my one-footed flamingo stance. She summoned a chair from the dining room. “You’re not fine. Sit down, Gwen.”
I collapsed gratefully, cradling the steaming bowl of soup in my lap. Morgan knelt down and took my leg between her hands, examining the dark mark on my calf with a worried look.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was getting worse?” she asked.
The soup was too hot to eat. The broth rippled as I blew across the surface to cool it. “You have enough things on your plate already.”
“One of those things is you,” she reminded me. She picked up a shard of ceramic. “What happened with the healing salve?”
“I couldn’t complete it.”
Morgan’s aura glowed as she swept a hand lazily across the kitchen. The broken shards collected themselves from the floor and landed in the trash can. Then Morgan took up the ingredients I had abandoned, mixing a new salve and effortlessly infusing it with her craft. She sat on the floor next to my chair, propped my leg up, and smeared a thick coat of paste from my ankle to the back of my knee. Immediately, the healing spelled dulled the burning ache of the witch’s mark, and I sighed into my soup.
“Better?” Morgan asked.
“It’s spreading,” she noted matter-of-factly. “We’ll have to figure out a way to contain it.”
“And if we don’t?”
Morgan finished painting my calf and wiped the excess salve off of her fingers. She patted my knee. “Don’t worry. We will. In the meantime, I have a favor to ask of you if you’re up for it.”
I straightened in my chair, setting the bowl of broth on the counter. “Always.”
“Camryn is vying for coven leader.”
A sneer tilted my lips. “Officially?”
“Yup.” Morgan stood to rinse the leftover paste from the bowl. “She officially announced it this afternoon, claiming that I’m ‘no longer fit’ to lead.”
“On what grounds?”
“You heard her earlier,” Morgan said. The dish clanged in the sink. “I abandoned the coven when I was young, I was never meant to be the head, her intuition makes her a better choice. Blah, blah, blah.”
I scoffed as I inspected Morgan’s handiwork. The yellow healing salve obscured the worst of the witch’s mark. “Her intuition?”
“Yeah, she’s claiming that her intuitive ability would be more of an asset to the coven than my, as she so delicately put it, ‘necrophilic tendencies.’”
“I’m going to kill her.”
Morgan’s craft pinched my arm. “No, you won’t,” she ordered. “I can handle Camryn. She’s been pulling crap like this since we were in grade school.”
“Why does she hate you so much anyway?” I asked.
Morgan shrugged and rolled her eyes. “I don’t really know. We were always in competition when we were kids. She made it that way. I didn’t care who the coven favored. Back then, all I wanted was to be a normal mortal. Camryn was the complete opposite. She loved being a witch, but because I was the daughter of the coven leader, I always got more attention than her. Not that I wanted it. According to Karma, Camryn was over the moon when I left town after graduation. I guess she figured she’d finally proved to the coven that she was right about me.”
“I’m sure she was pleased when you showed up again,” I guessed.
“Actually, there was so much going on that I never spoke to Camryn,” Morgan explained. She leaned against the kitchen counter, where the moonlight stained her skin silver. “What with all the murders and demons and dark magic, I didn’t have time to waste on a petty childhood battle that I never wanted anything to do with in the first place. Camryn’s been pretty quiet until now.”
The healing spell from the salve spread up my thigh, relieving the ache in my lower back and the leftover buzz from the electrocution. I rested my chin in my hands. “What changed then? Why is Camryn making trouble now? Doesn’t she understand it’s the worst time for something like this?”
“I think that’s exactly why she’s doing it,” Morgan answered. “She sensed an opportunity. The coven is already scared. They don’t want a repeat of the last time. It’s no secret that the yew tree, even with my mother’s influence, isn’t as strong as it used to be. It needs time to grow, which we don’t have. Camryn knows that, and she’s using it to her advantage. The witches need something to believe in, and Camryn’s trying to make damn sure it’s her instead of me.”
“If Camryn wanted to be coven leader in your stead, why didn’t she try for the position while you were gone?” I asked. “That would’ve been easier for her, right? One Summers sister down, three to go.”
Morgan laughed without humor. “Camryn never would have dared to challenge my mother. Cassandra was the strongest leader this coven ever had, and she also held the position for an unusually long time.”
“Some would argue that you’re stronger than Cassandra was,” I reminded her, gesturing to the faded ancient marks that snaked up her forearms. “She didn’t survive a trip to the otherworld.”
Morgan involuntarily rubbed her shoulders. “Gwen, when you find yourself in charge of more than forty witches, you have to find the balance between humble and confident. Do I think that I could hold my own against Camryn if it came down to it? Without a doubt. But do I consider myself the most powerful witch to ever lead the Summers coven? Not even close. Power is a fickle thing, Gwen. You don’t play with it. You simply manage it.”
“Yeah, but just once I’d like to see you kick some butt,” I told her. “Like the old days.”
Morgan laughed, but her lighthearted chuckled morphed into a dry cough, and she leaned over the sink, heaving for breath. I stood up, hopped over to her, and patted her on the back.
“Are you all right?” I asked as the fit subsided.
Morgan cleared her throat. “Mm-hmm. Must be a cold coming on.”
I filled a glass of water from the tap and handed it to her. “You said you had to ask me a favor.”
She sipped gratefully. “Yes, of course. Thank you for reminding me. As I was saying, I can handle Camryn, but I’m going to need your help to figure out who’s casting this spell over Yew Hollow. I know you have a lot going on right now with your sister in town, but you’re my best bet, Gwenlyn.”
“You really don’t want my help with the ward?”
“I think it’s better if you sit this one out,” Morgan replied. “Research will be less strenuous on you while you’re healing.”
“I can tell when you’re lying, Morgan. You make an unreasonable amount of eye contact when you do.”
Her eyes flickered away from mine. “I just want you to get better.”
“Or you think this witch’s mark is worse than you’re letting on.” I confiscated the water glass as she tried to swallow her response. “Come on, Morgan. It’s me. Tell me the truth.”
“Fine,” she conceded, swiping the glass from me. “I’m worried about the mark. It’s no coincidence that the only witch in the coven completely outside of the Summers bloodline is the one that gets marked. It makes me uneasy.”
“The spell targeted Yew Hollow,” Morgan reminded me. She pressed a hand to her chest and drew in a deep breath. The air rattled through her lungs. “That means whoever’s behind it cast it with the intention of challenging the coven. I keep waiting for the rest of this curse to drop. One thunderstorm, an empty town, and a bunch of dead grass can’t be the end of it. When it comes—and it will come—it will affect the entire coven. Except you. That’s what makes me uneasy, Gwenlyn. That mark may not be coincidence at all. They’ve been watching us. They know that you were adopted, and they ensured that you would be weakened too. They’ve been planning this for a long time.”
As the weight of this settled between us, I drew Morgan into a hug and rested my chin on top of her head. “Everything’s going to be okay. I have faith in you.”
Morgan bottled up another round of coughs. “I sure hope you’re right.”
In the morning, Winnie stood by the window, looking down at the front yard. I kicked the sheets off my legs. The turmeric paste had stained the linens bright yellow. They would need a healthy cleaning spell to recover their original cream color. I picked dried bits of salve from my calf. The witch’s mark hadn’t faded, but it also hadn’t grown any more. I felt much stronger than yesterday, and the strange buzzing feeling had finally ceased. A knot of hope grew in my mind. Maybe Morgan didn’t need to worry so much about the mark after all.
I joined Winnie at the window. “Morgan wants us to figure out who cast the spell over Yew Hollow. You up for a little magical reconnaissance?”
“Sure, sure,” she muttered.
I followed her gaze out to the front yard. The clouds obscured the angle of the sun, but I could tell it was nearing mid-morning. The witches should have been working on the ward by now, but the yard was empty and quiet.
“Something’s wrong,” Winnie said, surveying the gray landscape. “I can feel it.”
I took her word for it and didn’t waste any time, tugging on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt before rushing downstairs. This time around, my leg supported all of my weight. I hurdled the last four steps and landed in the foyer.
Morgan sat at the kitchen table, her head bowed. A collection of what looked like blueprints littered the table, calculating the size and angle of the ward. As I approached, Morgan remained hauntingly still, immersed in her papers.
Very slowly, she looked up. I halted, taken aback by the sight of her face. The skin around her eyes was dark, and her cheeks were sunken in. I tried to hide my horror, but Morgan knew me too well.
“I know,” she rasped. “It’s bad.”
“What happened?” I gasped, sitting down next to her. I couldn’t look away from her mummified appearance.
“I told you I was waiting for something else,” Morgan said, her voice so hoarse that I worried for her vocal chords. “This is it. It’s not just me.”
“What do you mean?”
Malia, Karma, and Laurel appeared from the kitchen, each holding a large mixing bowl full of healing salve. Like Morgan, they all bore the signs of some kind of intense illness.
“Camryn was right,” Morgan whispered. “Everyone’s sick. Alana was just the first.”
The mysterious illness swept through the coven overnight. It spared no one. Every witch bore some symptom or another. Alana was the worst off. She had not awoken since her collapse the day before. Yvette and Yvonne—the twin sisters who lived with Alana—watched her round the clock. When she stopped breathing on her own, the twins implemented spells to keep her alive. Alana was officially in a coma, a fact that terrified the rest of the coven. If Alana had succumbed so quickly to the illness, the other witches assumed they were not far behind.
There was no rhyme or reason as to why the illness affected some witches worse than others. Morgan and her sisters looked like hell, but they were comparatively healthy to some of the other women in the coven. Morgan bore only the symptoms of a common cold—coughing, runny nose, sore throat—while others developed an itchy red rash or agonizing muscles aches. I spent the morning lugging buckets of healing salve from one house to the next, distributing enchanted compresses to those who needed them, and feeling guilty that I appeared to be the only witch on the mend in the entire neighborhood.
The work was far from over though. Tasks were redistributed amongst the healthiest witches. Morgan and her crew began building the ward from the ground up, patrolling the perimeter of Yew Hollow in order to lay down the first layer of our defense. I helped where I could, despite Morgan’s protests. Even with the witch’s mark, I was the strongest witch of the coven at the moment, and Morgan couldn’t deny that for long. As the hours wore on, she gave up on trying to get me to go home and rest. The ward was too important, and it was taking longer than usual to construct. I led a group of witches around town to reinforce our base layer. In the evening, as the gray day faded into a gray night, I sent my workers home with a sad farewell. They were exhausted and sick, and they deserved to rest.
When I returned to the house, I went up to my room with Winnie, where we watched television in silence. I stared vacantly as images of Korean barbecue and speciality tacos graced the screen. Winnie deserved so much more from me, but our daily pattern of not having enough time for each other continued. At this point, pure guilt prevented me from speaking to her, but I used my exhaustion from the day’s work as an excuse to avoid conversation.
In time, Morgan wandered upstairs and peeked into my room. “Did you eat?”
Winnie and I reacted at the same time, turning our heads to acknowledge our visitor. Morgan’s gaze ping-ponged between us, as though she’d forgotten which one of us was alive or dead.
“No,” I replied. “Not hungry.”
“Karma made lobster bisque. Your favorite.”
“I’ll get some later.”
Morgan sat at the edge of the bed and smoothed the wrinkles in the duvet. “I wanted to say thank you for your help today. It meant the world to me. And Winnie? I wanted to apologize to you.”
Winnie looked away from the television, surprised. “What for?”
“Were it not for all of this, Gwenlyn would have more time to focus on you,” Morgan answered. “I’m sorry we haven’t had the opportunity to help you cross over. I know it must be frustrating.”
Winnie tucked her chin to her chest sheepishly, her hair swinging forward to cover her face. “Morgan, I can’t begin to fathom how challenging the situation is for you right now. Please don’t worry about me.”
Morgan surprised Winnie again, reaching out to cup the younger woman’s translucent cheek in her palm. Winnie’s eyes widened, and I smiled. Ever since Morgan’s return from the otherworld, she had honed powers that no other psychic medium had the hope of acquiring. I wished that the ability to interact physically with ghosts was more commonplace. Morgan’s touch was comforting to lost spirits. It reminded them of true compassion, and oftentimes, it helped ease them into the world beyond this one.
“I need the two of you now more than ever,” Morgan said. “Tomorrow, I would like you to go to the library and look through the archives.”
“But the ward—”
Morgan shook her head to silence me. “I’ll take care of the ward. The hardest part is through. All we have to do now is work on reinforcing it and complete the spell. I need you to research this illness, Gwenlyn. You’re the only witch in this coven as familiar with the archives as I am. We need a cure and a plan to combat the curse. Otherwise, this ward acts as nothing but a quarantine. Find me the cure. Find me the culprit. Anything that will help us get Yew Hollow back on its feet.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’m going to keep Camryn off my back,” Morgan replied. “She’s been using this ailment as fuel for her fire. I found her preaching to a few of the sicker witches today, trying to convince them that if she was coven leader, she would’ve never let this happen.”
“They can’t possibly believe her,” Winnie piped in. “I know I haven’t been here long, but I can see that the coven trusts you, Morgan. They should understand this isn’t your fault.”
Morgan patted Winnie’s knee and stood up. “Thank you, Winnie. Unfortunately, it isn’t always about trust. Camryn’s building a following based on fear, and I need to focus on containing it before it morphs into a mutiny.”
“That wouldn’t happen,” I said.
“Thinking like that will guarantee that it does,” Morgan rebutted. She leaned over the bed and tugged at the burnt ends of my hair, which I had yet to trim off. “Please, Gwen. Do the research.”
“First thing tomorrow.”
The Summers coven archives were stored in the local library, hidden away from prying mortal eyes by a few simple illusionary spells. With the town vacant, we didn’t have to worry about being discreet. Winnie and I walked to the library together. The sky was gray, as it had been for the past three days, and an annoyingly cold drizzle numbed my ears and the tip of my nose. I started questioning my love of dreary weather. This was definitely a “be careful what you wish for” scenario. The monochrome setting dampened the entire coven’s energy, bringing the already morose mood down further, and I couldn’t wait to see the sun again.
The witches worked in small clumps to strengthen the ward. Their auras entwined to feed the defensive spell, stretching up toward the sky and arcing out toward the horizon. I worried that the scale of the ward might negatively impact its effectiveness, but with Morgan’s craft at the epicenter of its architecture, the witches had a decent shot at constructing a fully-fledged fortress. Morgan herself was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Camryn. I wondered if they were hidden in the woods somewhere, duking it out with an old-school style witch’s duel, then laughed at the thought. Morgan had long since abandoned her hotheaded tendencies, and she no doubt had a better plan to taper off Camryn’s backlash.
The library was deserted, save for thirteen-year-old Arianna hunched over a desk in the corner. Since the town’s teachers had left too, the coven children were on a hiatus from public school. Most of them ran rampant like they did on summer vacation, but Arianna dutifully kept up with the curriculum, reading ahead in the textbooks to further her education. I waved to her.
“Anything good?” I asked.
She held up a workbook and made a face. “Geometry proofs.”
“Ew. Shout if you need help. I’ll be in the archives.”
Winnie and I made our way to the back of the library, where the shelves grew taller and the book titles more incomprehensible with every step. Yew Hollow’s literary collection was small and sacred, but the hidden stacks of witch history put the mortal volumes to shame.
“Here we are,” I announced, stopping in front of the self-help section.
Winnie turned her head sideways to read some of the titles. “Gwen, no offense, but I don’t think The Power of Positive Thinking is going to help Morgan get rid of this curse.”
I chuckled and rubbed my hands together. My aura sparked between my palms. Green flecks of energy reflected off the spines of the books. With the tip of my glowing index finger, I traced a delicate pattern through the self-help section. When I was finished, I stepped back to admire my handiwork. My craft outlined a set of two-dimensional stairs that were, at first glance, no more accessible than the bookshelf itself.
“Ready?” I asked Winnie.
I completed the spell with a small push to the top step. The books fell forward, as though the wall behind the shelf didn’t exist, flattening on their sides to construct a staircase of hardbacks that wasn’t there before. The whirl of pages settled, revealing a passageway into the nonexistent basement of the library. A cozy glow beckoned us downward.
I led the way down. The books beneath my feet were protected by another spell, but I always felt bad about stepping on them. They led us into a small circular room. Two leather armchairs rested on a collection of handwoven rugs. A desk sat across from them, in case a witch needed a better surface to study at. The glow came from several lit candles and a burning fireplace, all of which warmed the underground room. Curved shelves lined the walls, but these books were not for self-help. They were full of stories that mortals considered old wives’ tales or moral lessons to read to children at night. In actuality, everything we knew about our kind was stored in these pages, including the entire history of the Summers coven.
“Nice digs,” Winnie commented, impressed. She sat down in one of the cushioned chairs and bounced up and down. “Has this always been here?”
I shucked off my raincoat and dropped it by the staircase. “Nope. We used to keep the archives at the house, but we kept acquiring new volumes. Witches from other covens would drop things off, our coven updated the history of the town, et cetera. When a hurricane came through and nearly ruined the entire collection, Morgan decided we needed a better place to store everything.”
“Ever think about going digital?”
I snorted. “The Summerses don’t do digital.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Winnie joked. “How am I supposed to help you look for information when I can’t touch the books?”
“Morgan thought of that already.”
I took a vial from my pocket. Inside, a little will-o-the-wisp glimmered with Morgan’s blue craft. When I uncorked the vial, it levitated in front of Winnie for a moment before floating straight into her heart space. Her diaphanous skin glowed blue and became opaque.
“Voilá,” I said as Winnie examined her alien appearance. “Technically, you still aren’t able to touch anything, but it will at least let you help me search the stacks. Try it out.”
Winnie wandered over to a shelf and reached for a book. The volume responded to Morgan’s craft rather than Winnie’s touch, floating out to meet her fingertips. She grinned as she guided the book through the air to rest on the desk.
“I feel like a real magician,” she remarked. She waved her hands around another hovering book. “Look! No strings!”
I rolled my eyes in amusement. “It won’t last very long, so don’t waste it. Let’s get to work.”
Unlike the library above, the archives were poorly organized. The Dewey Decimal System didn’t exist down here. Witch literature was difficult to keep track of. Most of it was written in the form of personal diaries and never edited. The pages preserved the essence of the authors, but when it came to research, search and find was the only method available.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Winnie asked, skimming the titles on the shelf nearest the fireplace. “101 Uses for Toadstools? Come Hell or High Water? Is this a romance novel?”
She held up the book. Sure enough, a cheesy picture of a witch and her human lover set against a background of hellfire graced the front cover.
“Don’t judge me,” I said, “but I’ve read that.”
Winnie whacked my shoulder lightly with the novel. “Got a thing for forbidden romances, huh?”
“Yew Hollow gets pretty boring when there aren’t any demons or dark witches to vanquish,” I explained. I snatched the book from her grasp. “I’m starting to think letting you borrow Morgan’s craft for a little while was a mistake.”
“Fine,” she laughed. “Point me in the right direction, would you?”
“We’re looking for accounts of dark magic.” I drifted toward a shelf full of hand-bound notebooks and chose a random stack to skim through. “Personal diaries or history textbooks are our best bets. If a witch has seen something like this before, she would’ve written it down.” I sat down at the desk with my haul. “Look for anything that seems similar to our situation, like crafted thunderstorms or widespread disease.”
Winnie collected her own handful of notebooks and settled in one of the armchairs. “Morgan said that this was some kind of curse. Is that different from another type of enchantment?”
“Curses are inherently malevolent,” I answered, gingerly turning the front cover of the first journal. It was dated 1878, and the yellowing pages were fragile. “Witches balance power just like any other supernatural entity. Light and dark, so to speak. Everyone starts off neutral. Usually, we’re taught to follow the general rules of morality, but some witches, just like mortals, want something more. It’s the arrogant or the petty ones that usually turn to curses, personalities that need attention and power. They start out small, a pox curse here or a trip hex there. If they continue, it gets worse. Famine, plague, war. Half of this world’s historic disasters were due to some kind of witch’s curse.”
Winnie forgot to skim the books for information. Instead, she stared at me with rapt attention. “So what happens to the witches who continue to cast curses?”
“They go dark,” I answered simply. “Curses morph into dark magic. You start to access something that isn’t of this earth anymore. It’s created by your own faults, stemming from guilt or rage or vengeance. Then every spell you cast, every enchantment you create, is dark. You aura blackens and you lose yourself.”
Winnie rested her chin in her hands. “Why would anyone want that?”
“Power,” I replied. “That’s the biggest reason, but not all witches intentionally turn to black magic. Some of them are merely overwhelmed by their own internal darkness.” I faltered, staring at a page in the journal without reading the words. “I should know. When I was a kid, I did a lot of questionable things to stay alive. I pushed myself to the brink.”
“But you came back,” Winnie reminded me.
“Yeah,” I said, returning my attention to the journal. “I came back.”
Day after day, Winnie and I descended into the archives to comb through the coven’s collection of literature. We scoured crumbling textbooks, read moth-eaten journals cover to cover, and even decoded a few scrolls written in French and Latin. I extinguished the fireplace most days, wiping sweat from my brow. The temperature was regulated by witchcraft to accommodate the weather outside, but the room seemed to grow smaller and warmer with the passing time. I grew weary of the alcove beneath the library. As the weeks passed, it began to feel like Morgan had banished me to the sub basement as some kind of punishment.
The ward was finished. It was invisible to the naked eye, but everyone knew it was there. The air in Yew Hollow didn’t move. There was no wind or sun, just the gray gloom that coated the entire town like a thick layer of ash. Our self-imposed quarantine was complete, but it did nothing to ease my mind. On the contrary, I felt trapped in the desolate prison of small town charm. The upside was that the witches’ illness had plateaued. No one’s condition had improved or deteriorated. We kept everyone except Alana—who was still unconscious—semi-healthy and functioning by sharing energy with each other. Morgan and the strongest witches cast high-level healing spells across the coven, but I knew time was running out. No matter how effortlessly Morgan disguised her stress, she and the others were growing weaker.
So I held my pride and my tongue and returned to the library every morning with Winnie. Most days, we were there until late in the evening. Every so often, we came across a tidbit of information that appeared helpful but had no luck in discovering an actual solution to the coven’s problem.
“A witch in 1918 fought off the flu pandemic in her coven with an enchantment she created with healing crystals. I guess that doesn’t apply here though, since the pandemic didn’t stem from a curse. Or did it?”
“Here’s something. A witch cursed her own coven because they elected her subordinate coven leader over her. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Oh, wow. The coven killed the witch to get rid of the curse. I guess that’s one way to solve the problem.”
During yet another fruitless session of hunting through the archives for any hint of a similar curse, I groaned in frustration and pushed away from the desk. My eyes watered from squinting at the tiny lines of text, trying to decipher the cramped handwriting of some eighteenth century witch doctor’s journal. I rubbed them furiously. “This is useless. It’s been weeks and we’ve only made it through an eighth of the books in here. We need a better system.”
Winnie tossed a textbook to a pile of volumes on the floor that she had already read. “Like what? Got a spell to read faster?”
“I wish,” I grumbled. “I don’t know what Morgan was thinking. I’d be of better use elsewhere. I could help with the healing spells or maintaining the ward.”
“She assigned this task to you for a reason,” Winnie reminded me. “Morgan respects you. She wouldn’t make you do something without good reason.”
“Really?” I reorganized a stack of journals according to date and returned them to the proper shelf. “Because it feels like she just wants me out of the way.”
“She’s worried about you.”
“I get that, but I’m fine.” I scratched the bag of my leg. My jeans hid the dark spiderwebs of black craft on my skin, but I felt its unwanted presence at every second. “The mark isn’t spreading anymore. I’m the only witch that isn’t sick. I should be doing something that actually matters.”
Winnie blew a sigh through her nose. “Maybe our search is too broad. We’ve been looking for a way to beat this curse, but what if we just find something to subdue it first? To stop it from getting any worse? Something that would take place of all those healing spells Morgan’s been casting. That can’t be healthy for her.”
I flicked a speck of dust off the desk and watched it float lazily to the rug below. “How are we supposed to do that? I’m not a healer.”
“I am,” Winnie countered. “Or at least I was. I might not have practiced traditional healing witchcraft, but my family took a specific interest in holistic measures. There might not be a magical cure for cancer, but I bet we can find something that at least slows down the symptoms of the coven’s illness that doesn’t nuke Morgan. That might buy us some time until we figure out how to shut this curse down for good. Why are you looking at me like that?”
I glanced away, unaware that I was staring until she called it out. “Nothing. It’s just—you keep saying ‘we’ and ‘us.’ I’ve never had that before. Not with a blood relative anyway.”
Winnie grinned. “You getting soft on me, Gwenlyn?”
I scoffed. “Don’t push it.”
Winnie raised her hands in defeat. “Whatever. We’re in this together, and nothing you do or say is going to change that.”
“Good to know.”
She made to put her books away, but they fell through her hands, landing on the floor in an uneven heap. The textbook on top fell open, displaying a side-by-side comparison of two different family trees and several confusing graphs.
“Looks like Morgan’s spell is wearing off for the day,” I said, kneeling to collect the fallen volumes. “I guess we’re done.”
“Wait!” Winnie tried to grab my wrist, her fingers sinking through my skin. She ignored my resulting shudder and pointed to the textbook. “That’s it.”
I checked the title. “This is a study on genealogy. We already know everything about the Summers’ bloodline. I don’t think this is going to help us much.”
Winnie motioned frantically with her hands. “I’m not talking about the Summerses. Open it back to that page!”
I flipped through the book until I caught side of the family trees again. “Here. What are you going on about?”
Winnie leaned over the desk to examine the diagrams. “Look. The one on the left shows general power levels for witches who had only one magical parent. The one on the right makes the argument that witches with two magical parents have significantly higher ability levels.”
I squinted at the page, trying to make sense of the scribbled figures. “I don’t understand. How can a witch have two magical parents?”
“Men may not be able to wield witchcraft, but some are still born into covens,” Winnie said. She gestured impatiently for me to flip the page. I obliged. “Genetically, boys born into a witch family are classified as magical mortals. Kind of an oxymoron, I know, but when a coven-born man has a daughter with a witch, the child’s ability has the potential to be ten times stronger than that of a normal witch. Gwen, this is it!”
I lifted an eyebrow at Winnie’s enthusiasm, leaned over the textbook, and read a line of the next paragraph out loud. “Witches born of two magical parents are incredibly rare. Studies reveal that coven-born men are less willing to procreate with witches, and if they do, the resulting child is almost always male.”
“So this doesn’t sound like ‘it’ to me, Winnie,” I said, closing the textbook and carrying it back to the shelves. “It sounds like we would have to leave Yew Hollow in search of a witch with incredible healing powers. There are two problems with that. Number one: the ward is complete. It would take an arm and a leg to open a portal through it. And number two: who’s to say we could even find one super-powered witch, let alone one with the healing ability that we need? It’s impossible.”
“But that’s the thing.” Winnie jumped into my path to catch my attention, and I dodged quickly to avoid walking straight through her. “I already know one.”
“A witch born of two magical parents with a healing ability.”
I stared at Winnie. “You’re kidding. It can’t be that easy.”
Winnie caved, wringing her hands as she paced in a circle around the room’s circumference. “Okay, fine. I don’t exactly know her, but I know of her.”
“How?” I demanded. “Who is she? And why didn’t you tell me all of this before we spent weeks down here with our noses an inch from these smelly old books?”
“I just remembered,” Winnie replied. She cradled her head in her hands, as if wracking her memory for more information. “I’d totally forgotten about it until now.”
“That’s normal.” I finished putting away the books and collapsed in one of the armchairs. “Ghosts have shoddy memories. Is anything else coming back to you?”
Winnie took the chair across from mine. “While I was dying, my mother and aunt did everything in their power to try and save me.”
I swallowed hard. This wasn’t the direction I thought this conversation was going to go.
“Don’t look so morose,” Winnie ordered, playfully kicking my shin. For a ghost, she often forgot that her touch did nothing but chill me to the bone. If she were anyone other than my twin sister, I would’ve long since given her a firm lecture about it. “I don’t want you to pity me. This is informational. The point is that my mother looked far and wide for a cure. She figured there had to be something out there to stave off the cancer cells. She found out about super-powered witches and set her mind to locating one with a healing ability.”
“And she actually found one?”
“My aunt did,” Winnie replied. “She searched from here to California for two years. Then, right before we realized that the cancer had spread pretty much everywhere, she found her in some place called Windsor Falls.”
“Windsor Falls? Hold on a second.” I conjured a state map of Massachusetts, tracing the tiny titles of the neighboring towns with my finger. “That’s what I thought. Windsor Falls is only two hundred miles from here. We could find this witch today!”
“Uh, I don’t know about that,” Winnie said skeptically.
“We never made contact with her,” she answered. “There was no point. I was beyond help. No spell in the world could’ve saved me.”
My heart sank. I didn’t want to think about how much Winnie had suffered in the end. It didn’t mesh with the image of the light-hearted woman who had spent the better half of her day looking for a solution to a problem that wasn’t hers. I couldn’t imagine Winnie sick and dying. I couldn’t imagine her without her infallible energy or sweet disposition. If I was being honest, I didn’t want to.
“If we asked, do you think she would help us?”
Winnie grit her teeth. “That’s the thing, Gwen. I hate to disappoint you, but the only thing I know is that this woman exists. Near the end, I was in and out of consciousness. My mother and aunt didn’t bother to keep me informed. I don’t know her name or where she lives or if she would even be willing to talk to you.”
“But she’s out there,” I insisted, leaning forward in my chair. “She’s a two-hour’s drive from here. That’s better than the absolute lack of leads we had a few hours ago.”
“What are you going to do?” Winnie asked. “How are you supposed to find her? Drive out to some town you don’t know and start asking around for the local super-powered healer?”
I stood up, grabbed my raincoat, and pushed my arms through the sleeves. “It’s easier than that. Morgan has a scrying mirror. Let’s go.”
Winnie followed me up the set of book stairs. “Morgan has a scrying mirror? How? They’re supposed to be really hard to get your hands on.”
“It’s an heirloom,” I explained. “It was passed down from a previous coven leader. It’s a bit of a mystery as to who acquired it. The general consensus is not to ask, so I imagine the story isn’t pleasant.”
I sealed the entryway to the archives room with a lazy wave of my hand. Arianna—who spent most of her free time studying in the library—was gone for the day. Outside, it was hard to tell what time it was. The overcast sky tampered with my internal time clock, but I guessed it was late afternoon. Usually, Morgan spent the evenings fortifying the ward with a few other witches, but there was a distinct lack of auras in the sky today. Winnie side-eyed me when I broke into a light jog.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Let’s go find out.”
The closer we got to the Summers house, the more I felt like something had gone wrong. The witch’s mark on my leg pulsed as we crested the hill, but I ignored it, favoring my other foot. In the front yard, I located the source of my anxiety. Morgan tended to a group of witches that had been helping with the ward. From the looks of things, the witches had collapsed simultaneously. They lay in the grass at odd angles in various states of consciousness. I sprinted over.
“What happened?” I asked, kneeling next to Morgan as she worked a healing spell on one of the motionless witches. I joined hands and auras with her. The combined colors flowed over the witch’s skin, and her eyes fluttered open as the spell took effect.
“They all dropped,” Morgan said, her voice hard and bitter. “All at once. I felt it too. My knees went completely weak for a second, but I didn’t pass out. It’s getting worse, Gwen. We can’t keep this up for long. Did you find anything in the library today?”
I helped the witch to sit up. “Yes, we have a lead, but I need your scrying mirror. Winnie knows of a healer—”
The crunch of footsteps through the dry grass interrupted me. I moved my fingers just in time to prevent a pair of fashionable leather boots from crushing them. I followed the furry leg warmers and designer coat upwards and found myself staring at Camryn’s voluptuous figure.
“Well, well,” she said, sneering down at me and Morgan. “What do we have here? Morgan and Morgan Junior wreaking havoc as usual.”
I stood up. At my full height, I towered over Camryn. “Morgan and I have been working nonstop to fight off this disease. What have you been doing for the past few weeks?”
“Educating the masses,” Camryn replied smoothly.
It was then I noticed that eight or so witches accompanied her. They waited patiently behind Camryn with varying expressions. Some looked anxious. Others looked determined. One thing united them all. These women were outside of the immediate Summers’ lineage, distant aunts and cousins whose blood had been watered down by other genetic factors. Their ties to Morgan were weaker than that of Karma, Malia, or Laurel’s.
“What the hell is this?” I growled.
Camryn smirked. “It’s a learning experience.”
Morgan shuffled through the grass to tend to the next witch. She didn’t spare Camryn a passing glance. “Gwenlyn, get them out of here. Unless they’re helping, I don’t want them around.”
Before I had the chance to herd Camryn’s flock away from Morgan and her patients, Camryn constructed a personal ward. Her aura was a dark blue-gray, like slate, and it blended so well with the color of the sky that she almost disappeared behind it. The defense was just a demonstration. It vanished as soon as I took a step back to avoid its reach.
“See?” Camryn said, but she was not addressing me or Morgan. She spoke to the uncertain gaggle of witches behind her. “You wanted proof of Morgan’s betrayal? Here it is.”
“I don’t have time for whatever games you’re playing, Camryn,” Morgan said wearily. She checked the pulse of another drowsy witch.
“It’s no game,” Camryn hissed. “We all see the signs, Morgan. You’ve grown complacent over the years, and who’s always there to finish the work for you?” She threw me a disgusted look. “Your mini-me.”
“You’re upset because I’m helping the coven?” I asked incredulously. “Just a friendly reminder. I’m the only one of you that isn’t sick with a fever right now. If you’re the next one to drop into a coma, you’re going to have to rely on me to save you. You sure you want to go on with your little diatribe?”
“This isn’t about the curse,” Camryn spat. “This is about straying from the fundamental traditions of the Summers coven.”
Morgan finished healing the last of the immobile witches and finally stood to face Camryn. I slipped my arm through hers as she swayed, keeping her upright. She didn’t have the strength to heal six women on her own, and now she was paying for it.
“What traditions are those?” Morgan asked in the strongest voice she could muster.
Camryn’s eyes drifted down to where Morgan and I were connected at the hip. “It’s been ten years, Morgan. You aren’t Cassandra. It’s about time the coven found another leader, but we refuse to instate one that isn’t really even a Summers.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, glancing between Morgan’s enraged face and Camryn’s disgusted expression.
“Don’t play dumb,” Camryn ordered. “We all know Morgan’s grooming you to become the next coven leader.”
The world fell away. I forgot about Camryn, Morgan, and the other witches. Winnie’s shimmering presence was a mere distraction. The gray grass blurred into the gray trees and the gray sky as I lost myself in the simple statement.
I could not be the coven leader.
To even think of the possibility was blasphemy. In this sense, Camryn was absolutely correct. There were rules, conditions, and traditions that governed the way a new coven leader was chosen. The Summerses upheld those traditions to the highest standard, or they did until Morgan came along.
I could not be the coven leader.
First of all, I was far too young. I didn’t have enough life experience to know what to do in a position of such power. Morgan’s mother, Cassandra, was elected in her early forties. Then again, Morgan succeeded her at twenty-nine. She was the youngest coven leader the Summerses had ever had, but extraordinary circumstances called for an extraordinary solution. This was not the same. Morgan was an exception to the rule, whereas I was the rule itself. No one in their right mind would put me in charge of an entire coven.
My age wasn’t the only point of contention. There was a much larger issue at hand, the one that Camryn had already caught on to. I wasn’t really a Summers. No matter how much of my life I dedicated to this family, I would never share their blood. That was simply fact, and it automatically excluded me from the running. At least, I thought it did.
“Did you think we wouldn’t notice?” Camryn asked. “Ever since that girl showed up in Yew Hollow ten years ago, you’ve been playing favorites.”
Morgan stood stock still. Her fingers tightened on my forearm. I contained a wince as her nails dug into my skin. One thought kept me from internally combusting. Morgan had never discussed the possibility of leadership with me. Not once. This wasn’t happening. My leadership was never Morgan’s intention, no matter where Camryn’s accusations took the conversation. And yet—
“You will not rob me of this decision, Camryn,” Morgan replied. Her voice was low and rough, lit with a deadly menace. “If I conclude that Gwenlyn is best fit to run this coven following my retirement, then so be it.”
My stomach heaved. Morgan’s skin felt like fire against mine, but I couldn’t let go. Camryn’s flock broke out in disapproving mutters. Their eyes bore into me, lingering in certain places. My calf, where the witch’s mark lay in wait beneath my jeans. My forearm, where the bright blue scar reminded everyone of the ancient magic that flowed through my veins. My face, which bore no resemblance to their own features.
“She’s not one of us,” Camryn declared, voicing my own thoughts aloud.
“As you so recently reminded us, Gwenlyn has been a member of this coven for over ten years,” Morgan countered.
“She was adopted,” Camryn fired back. “She does not truly belong in this coven. Summers’ blood does not run in her veins, and no amount of mortal paperwork will ever change that.” Camryn turned her back on Morgan to pontificate to her supporters. “My sisters! For too long, we have waited in the shadows. Too long we’ve allowed our current leader to trifle with our customs. Too long we’ve held our tongues about the mistreatment and favoritism that runs rampant in this coven.”
I rolled my eyes as Camryn stepped up to an old tree trunk in order to peer over the heads of the wide-eyed witches who’d agreed to confront Morgan. Apparently, she needed a soapbox.
“I urge you to consider your options,” Camryn went on. “The girl is not one of us. If Morgan instates her as our leader, it will truly mean the end of the Summers coven. Who are we if our blood bond means nothing? Join me instead, sisters. Not only will I lead this coven to safety, but I will ensure that every witch is promised a fair and bright future in Yew Hollow.”
“How?” Morgan asked dryly.
The simple rebuttal derailed Camryn’s righteous speech. She lost her footing on the tree stump and tripped to the ground. Morgan stepped up to meet her before she could recover, dragging me along with her. We were uncomfortably close to the opposing group of witches. Instinct screamed at me to pull Morgan away. Simultaneously, I wished for Morgan to slam Camryn into the ground with an attack spell. The coven had never questioned my presence in Yew Hollow before, and I had never felt unsafe in the company of the Summers witches until now. In a matter of weeks, Camryn managed to alter their opinion of me.
“You have no chance,” Morgan said. Her words were hushed, but not because she wanted to keep them private. On the contrary, we caught every whispered syllable. Morgan’s power as coven leader did not lie in a show of bravado or arrogance—unlike Camryn’s attempted coup—but rather in her quiet rage. The witches knew she was livid. We could feel her aura pushing against us, even if she wasn’t actively employing her craft. “You have no earthly idea what it means to manage this coven. You have no experience to judge what’s best in any given situation. You have no sense to lead these women. You have no courage to do what it is right. You have no humility to put others before your own selfish needs. You have no potential at all to do what I do.”
Morgan moved even closer to her cousin. Camryn hardly dared to breathe.
“Do not challenge me, Camryn,” Morgan warned. “Look around you. Look at the women who have spent today ensuring that this coven does not meet an early end. They wore themselves out to protect their sisters and aunts and cousins, and I will not allow you to insult them with your misdirected stand for justice. As for the rest of you—” Morgan looked over Camryn’s head to address the witches behind her. “—I am ashamed of and disappointed in you.”
Immediately, the witches bowed their heads in remorse or guilt. It was easy to stand behind a loud mouthpiece like Camryn, but when Morgan extinguished the bluster of Camryn’s arrogance, they could not deny that Morgan was their leader. They were a lesser brand of Summers witch, whereas Morgan was the true heir of the coven. The Summerses had never seen a leader like Morgan before, and no matter how much she denied it, I knew the truth. Morgan was, without a doubt, an indestructible force. She was the most powerful witch in the coven, if not the greater New England area. If not the entire nation.
“While your sisters fight for your survival, you belittle their bravery with petty acts of rebellion,” Morgan continued. She leveled a stare at Camryn, who glowered back. “Perhaps your time would be better spent aiding our cause rather than hanging onto the empty promises of a jealous adversary. Be gone now, and if you wish to regain my respect, I suggest you make yourselves scarce for the next several days. Perhaps then I will be able to meet your gazes without being repulsed by your actions today.”
The witches dispersed, murmuring to one another in defeat. My muscles relaxed as they went their separate ways. The gray world swallowed their remorseful figures one by one as they retreated from the front yard of the Summers house. Camryn too turned on her heel to make an exit, but a bright blue force field stopped her in her tracks. She glared at Morgan.
Morgan gazed back, and though she said nothing aloud, the set of her lips communicated a specific message. If Camryn had the audacity to impinge on Morgan’s authority again, she would not escape the confrontation so easily.
Morgan released the force field, allowing Camryn to saunter off after the other women. As soon as she was out of sight, Morgan slackened. Her hands shook as she leaned against me. For once, I couldn’t support her.
“I’m sorry,” I said to her. I detached myself from Morgan’s side and jogged toward the house. There was too much going on in my brain, and the one person I always counted on to talk to about these kinds of things was the same person causing some of the mayhem.
Winnie appeared in my peripheral. “What are you doing? She shouldn’t be alone!”
“She’s not,” I said, vaulting up the porch steps. At the front door, I looked over my shoulder just long enough to see Morgan sink down to sit on the ground at the base of the tree trunk. The witches she had so recently healed came to her aid. Theirs was a bond I could not hope to emulate. I tore my gaze away and punched through the front door. “But I am.”
Morgan’s scrying bowl was hidden away in her room on the third floor of the house. The third floor rippled with Morgan’s essence. Not many people visited her here. There were three rooms: a small study, Morgan’s bedroom, and the connected bathroom. It seemed modest for the leader of such a powerful coven, but all Morgan wanted was the privacy of the sloped ceilings and porthole windows. The attic rooms felt like a chapel, hushed and divine, so it was with care and grace that I rifled through Morgan’s closet in search of the scrying mirror.
The mirror was hidden in the bottommost drawer of Morgan’s dresser. I shifted aside piles of clothes, shoes, and coats to reach it. Morgan wasn’t the neatest person. She spent her time organizing the coven rather than organizing her closet. I was one of very few people that she trusted to be alone in her room. Usually, the thought filled me with pride, but today it sank into the pit of my stomach and stewed there like a bad case of food poisoning.
When I found the mirror, I sat amongst Morgan’s dirty laundry and turned it over in my hands. At first glance, there was nothing special about it. It was a simple piece of reflective glass. It had no frame or handle, and the surface was marred by age spots and tiny spiderweb cracks. It gave no clues as to when or how it had been made. I turned it to face me. The glass reflected my face but not the rest of the room. It showed a mirrored void around me, nothing and everything in the universe all at once. I looked at the scowl on my lips and my furrowed brow and the wisps of hair on my head that would never lie flat. My reflection scowled back. Then she looked over her shoulder, as if someone or something in the abyss behind her had shouted her name.
I placed the mirror face down. There was a reason scrying mirrors were hard to come by. They were dangerous pieces of equipment. Scrying itself was an imperfect art. To look at a life that was not your own was an intrusion of privacy. To use a scrying mirror was to open a portal between space and time. It was a little one, unnoticeable by mortals, but any dip in the plane of our dimension rippled outward like a rock skipping across the surface of a pond. There were rules for using a scrying mirror. Only use it at night. Never allow anyone else to consult the mirror at the same time as you. Do not get lost in an image that doesn’t belong to you. Always close the portal before you look away from the mirror.
“Is that it?”
I jumped at the sound of Winnie’s voice and pressed a hand to my racing heart. “You scared me.”
I held up the mirror for her to inspect, making sure to avoid eye contact with my reflection.
“Doesn’t look like much.”
“The important things never do.” I jumped onto Morgan’s bed to look through the porthole window above her headboard. Dusk was upon us. We would be able to use the mirror soon. I gestured for Winnie to follow me. “Let’s go.”
I kept the scrying mirror tucked against my shirt as we quietly tiptoed down to the first floor. The less it saw, the better. Morgan was nowhere to be seen, nor were any of her sisters. This was a relief. I wasn’t in the right mindset to speak with any of the Summerses. All I wanted was to take the scrying mirror out under the stars and look for answers. If I was the one to bring a super-powered healing witch into Yew Hollow to save the coven, maybe it would convince the Summerses that I had the same right to be here as they did.
“Where are we going?” Winnie whispered into the night as I led her out the back door and across the expanse of the backyard.
As we disappeared into the forest, I replied, “Into the dark.”
The trees closed in around us. The woods were so thick that the sky was lost overhead. The moon, which should have been close to full, was nowhere in sight. The stars were just as absent. The curse stole the night from Yew Hollow. No longer could I lay among the leaves of grass in the backyard and question the constellations about my future. Artemis could not answer me when she was too busy hunting for her moon in the empty sky.
I paused in a small clearing, where there was just enough space to sit cross-legged in the dirt. Winnie watched over my shoulder as I unwrapped the mirror from the front of my shirt and balanced it face-up in my palms. I kept my gaze perpendicular to the horizon, readying myself to consult the mirror.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Winnie asked. She gazed around the hushed clearing. “Have you done this by yourself before? I’ve heard all sorts of horrible stories about witches who’ve gotten stuck in scrying mirrors. Maybe we should ask Morgan for help.”
I missed the lightning bugs. They had vanished with the rest of Yew Hollow’s residents. I took them for granted before. Their little specks of twinkling lights were comforting in an otherwise black night. Now it was all dark.
I took a deep breath.
“Gwenlyn,” Winnie warned. “I think we should wait—”
I lowered my gaze to the mirror. The surface was as bottomless as the world around me. My reflection winked at me. And then I plunged headfirst into a world that wasn’t mine.
Morgan had taught me how to scry. We started off easy, using small bodies of water as our visual mediums. This was the safest way to learn, since any disruption of the water would break the connection between the witch and her subject. Morgan claimed scrying was an important lesson for all witches, especially psychics. It served many purposes: reflection, information, meditation. The trick was to clear your mind and focus solely on the thing you wanted to see. The concept was simple. The execution was nothing of the sort. It took years for me to learn how to empty my thoughts, to stop worrying about the world around me and dive into another one that didn’t technically exist. That was the problem with scrying. If you stayed too long or if you strayed off course, you were stuck in the nothingness between one space and the next.
Winnie’s doubts echoed in my mind as I hurtled through the mirror. No, I had never used it without supervision before. Morgan was always with me. Now it was time to learn to get along without her, so I let the void swallow me. I lost track of what I was meant to be looking for, a dangerous mistake. I refocused my intention. Windsor Falls. I needed Windsor Falls. Two hours northwest of Yew Hollow.
The town popped into existence all at once. The first thing I noticed was the moon. I could actually see it here, dancing among the stars. I lost myself for a brief moment, appreciating the cosmos. As for the town, I’d never been there before, but I could tell right away that this was the wealthier end of Massachusetts. The houses mimicked estates with sweeping lawns and towering pillars. The cars whizzing along the roads were illustrious foreign models with shiny emblems. The people were impeccably dressed in designer threads. Whoever this witch was, she had money.
I ignored the busy high street, concentrating on the image in my mind. I didn’t have much to go on in order to find our healer. Winnie’s well of information was dry. Scrying was much like performing a web search without being able to use the ten most relevant keywords. You knew what you were looking for, you just didn’t know how to find it on the first try.
The mirror showed me a petite brunette shopping in a small boutique. She chatted amiably with another customer as they compared dress styles. Her sunshine yellow aura sat atop her head like a halo, but the mortals in the store were completely oblivious to the fact that she was different from them. Instinct prodded me along. She was not the healer.
Along the high street, sitting at the outdoor table of an expensive French restaurant, a leggy blonde hooked her high heel around the calf of the well-dressed man sitting across from her. Her aura was siren red, and she was hunting. Definitely not who I was looking for.
Nearby, an unusually tall redhead manned the hostess stand at the restaurant’s front door. I bypassed her completely. Her aura was so faint that I could barely make out the orange glow of it around her hands as she penciled in a reservation. A super-powered witch would not suppress her magic for the sake of the mortals around her.
I broadened my search. Private roads let outward from the high street, up into green rolling hills decorated with mansions, equestrian yards, and extravagant swimming pools. One witch swam lazy laps under the stars. A trio of young sisters lured a woodland nymph from the trees to sing them songs beneath a string of fairy lights. An older woman with a teal aura reclined in bed, levitating a book at eye level so that she didn’t have to hold it.
A bout of nausea overwhelmed me. Time was running short. I’d have to pull out of the mirror soon or risk imprisonment in the illusionary world of Windsor Falls, where I would observe everyday life without ever being a part of it. I squeezed my eyes shut.
Focus, Gwenlyn. Focus.
A new image appeared: a girl on a white mare racing bareback through a meadow of wildflowers. Her rosy pink aura was a cloud of happiness and freedom. She laughed as she bent low over the horse’s neck, entwining her fingers in its mane. Together, the pair vaulted over a small stream. The girl slipped on the mare’s silky coat, and my heart skipped a beat thinking she’d fall, but they landed neatly on the other side without breaking stride. The horse gave a satisfied whinny, looking over its shoulder to check on the rider. The girl whooped and grinned, adjusting her precarious seat as she tugged on the mare’s mane to slow her down.
“Atta girl,” she panted, patting the horse’s neck affectionately. “Nice job.”
As they slowed to a languorous walk, I got a better look at girl. At first glance, she reminded me of a younger version of Morgan’s mother, Cassandra. Her fair hair was white-gold, contained by a neat plait that rested along her spine. She had almond-shaped green eyes, high cheekbones, and a delicate jawline cut from glass. She was small but strong, her lean muscles standing out against the fabric of her clothes as she guided the mare toward a massive estate house.
“No,” I whispered. “It can’t be her.”
Because she was no more than sixteen years old. I had not been looking for a child—which was why the scrying mirror had most likely led me to so many dead ends—but there was no doubt in my mind that this skinny teenager was the witch I needed. She projected her aura at an impossible level of luminance. It touched everything within a twenty-foot circumference. Wildflowers stretched their petals toward her essence, the horse nickered happily beneath her touch, and the moon itself seemed to kiss the girl’s skin like a blissed-out lover. I had never seen anything like it.
I retched suddenly. My body was rejecting the fake world around me, begging to go back to the real one. The girl looked up, catching my eye as I floated in the nonexistent ether of her dimension, almost as if she could hear my struggle. Her lips moved.
I swallowed hard. Something wasn’t right. The warped voice didn’t match the girl’s crystalline features, but it sounded familiar.
With a feeling like the plug being pulled out of an overflowing bathtub, I was ripped away from Windsor Falls. The stars and moon vanished, the green grass faded to gray, and the rosy pink glow of the girl’s aura dimmed to nothing. I slammed back into my body in the clearing of the woods and immediately toppled over. As my cheek pressed to the cool dirt of the forest floor, a tear trickled out of the corner of my eye and soaked into the ground.
Morgan knelt next to me, rubbing my back in slow, comforting circles. I saw a flash of light as she stored the scrying mirror in an inner pocket of her long overcoat. Winnie hovered behind her, peering down at me with worried eyes. I turned my head to the other side, avoiding their lingering gazes.
“What happened?” I croaked.
“You started disappearing,” Winnie reported. “It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen, like the mirror was sucking you in piece by piece.”
“That’s what happens when you aren’t cautious,” Morgan said. I couldn’t ignore the scolding tone to her voice. “You stayed too long, Gwenlyn. Why didn’t you wait for me? I can’t believe you would do something so irresponsible.”
I groaned and rolled over on my back. Yew Hollow’s vacant sky haunted me from above. It was no wonder why Windsor Falls was so tantalizing. At least I could actually see the stars there.
“Can you just give me a minute?” My head spun as I sat up. I couldn’t admit to Morgan that I didn’t want her help, so I put my head between my knees and focused on breathing evenly.
Morgan, of course, was not so easy to dissuade. She combed her fingers through my hair, brushing away leaves and twigs. She was the one person I could never be mad at, even if she had kept me in the dark about the coven leader elections.
“Well?” Winnie prompted, oblivious to the loaded silence between me and Morgan. “Did you find her? You were in there forever.”
I wiped dirt and tears from my cheekbones, but the mud on my hands only smeared what was left on my face. “Yeah, I found her.”
I looked up at Winnie and Morgan’s expectant expressions, unwilling to instill false hope. “She’s just a kid. Fifteen or sixteen. There’s no way she has complete control over her ability already.”
Morgan sat back on her heels. She looked better than she had when I’d left her earlier. Her cheeks weren’t so hollow and her eyes not so dark. Her sisters must have helped her recover from her outlay of power. She didn’t seem as put out by my information as I thought she’d be.
“We don’t necessarily need her to be in complete control,” Morgan said thoughtfully. “There are enough of us to lend a hand if she needs it. No, I sense a bigger problem with her age.”
“What?” Winnie asked.
“Her coven,” Morgan replied. She picked up a small twig and began tracing Latin words into the dirt in loopy, flawless cursive. “A girl like that is bound to have a lot of witches watching over her, especially if they know how valuable she is. Did you see anything else, Gwenlyn?”
“No, she was alone.”
“Hmm. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much. Scrying only allows you to see what’s happening at that exact moment. Unless she was with her family at the time, you wouldn’t have noticed them.”
I brushed off my palms, trying to dislodge most of the dirt. “Should I go back? Maybe another glimpse would help us—”
“No,” Morgan and Winnie chorused.
I glared at Winnie, who balked.
“I’m sorry, Gwen,” she said, wringing her hands. “But you didn’t see it. You didn’t even look human anymore. I don’t want you to go back in there.”
“She’s right,” Morgan added. “You’ve had enough for the day. Let’s get you back to the house. I think a hot bath would do us all some good.”
“I wish,” Winnie muttered.
I suppressed a laugh at Winnie’s downtrodden tone as Morgan offered me her hand. I clasped our fingers together, and she pulled me up out of the dirt. As we began our walk through the woods, she didn’t let go of me. Instead, she tugged me closer, wrapping one arm around my shoulders. She planted a kiss on my temple.
“Don’t do things like that,” she murmured, hugging me tighter. “Do you know how much I worry about you? You’re too important to me.”
I stooped to rest my head on her shoulder. “Why? Because you want me to take over the coven? That’s one way to piss off your cousins.”
Morgan stopped short, jostling me from her grasp. “Is that what you think? That the only reason I care about you is because I’m trying to prove a point to the rest of the coven?”
I dropped into sullen silence, plodding determinedly through the woods no matter if Morgan was following or not. She quickly caught up and looped her hand through the crook of my elbow.
“Hey,” she said, pulling me to a stop. She cradled my face in her hands, forcing me to look at her. “Gwenlyn, you are not some sort of political ploy to me. I can’t believe that you would even think that.”
To my utter humiliation, my chin wobbled in her grasp. “Then why would you spring something like that on me? You never asked me if I wanted to be coven leader, Morgan. You just let Camryn sucker punch me with that information.”
“I never meant for that to happen,” Morgan insisted. “Camryn got lucky. She guessed correctly. But I do owe you an apology, Gwen. I should’ve told you as soon as I started considering the possibility.”
“Why me?” I asked her, lifting away from her touch. “You heard Camryn. I’m not even a Summers.”
“You,” Morgan began, “are my daughter.”
My composure broke. My waiting tears spilled over, tracing clean lines down my dirty cheeks. Morgan pulled me into a hug, and I rested my chin over her shoulder, trying not to completely lose myself.
“It doesn’t matter that we don’t share blood,” Morgan murmured as she gently collected me in her arms. “It doesn’t matter that your last name is Bennett or that we didn’t meet until you were sixteen or that the rest of the coven might not understand how deeply I care about you.” She drew away to look at me, and I saw that her eyes shone with emotion too. “What matters is that I love you to the moon and back. You matter, Gwenlyn, and I don’t think enough people in your life have told you that.”
“Honestly, I only ever needed to hear it from you.” I wiped snot from my nose with the sleeve of my shirt. Classy.
Morgan laughed and conjured a handkerchief out of thin air, which I used to mop up the rest of my face. “You’re a mess. Come on.”
Winnie lit the way as we continued out of the dark woods. Morgan and I walked arm in arm. Were it not for the missing moon, stagnant air, and general lack of good fortune as of late, it would’ve been a nice evening.
“Is it true?” I asked Morgan as we emerged from the tree line. The lights in the windows of the Summers house beckoned us home to its cozy interior.
“Is what true?”
“That you’re planning on stepping down as coven leader soon,” I clarified. “Because, to be honest, it doesn’t make any sense to me. The Summerses would be lost without you, Morgan. You’ve done this for ten years without any trouble, and I know that most coven leaders only last for five or six years, but do I need to remind you about your mother’s two-decade reign? Just because one challenging circumstance pops up doesn’t mean you should give up—”
Morgan held up a hand to cut me off. “While I appreciate your rousing pep talk, it isn’t necessary. I have no plans to abdicate my position anytime soon.”
“Then why did Camryn make such a huge stink about it?” I asked. “Isn’t it up to you to decide when the next leader ascends?”
“Yes and no,” Morgan answered. “Traditionally, the coven leader chooses her successor. However, in the event that a majority of the witches consider the current leader unfit to make that decision, they can hold an official vote to determine the next leader on their own.”
“Do you think Camryn would try something like that?”
Morgan’s expression hardened as we stepped up to the back porch. “I’m going to make damn sure she doesn’t.”
The atmosphere in the Summers household grew tense and taut in the days following Camryn’s coup. There was a palpable difference in the way some of the witches behaved around Morgan. The coven divided into two mindsets: those who believed Morgan was and would always be the best leader in recent history, and those who were easily swayed by Camryn’s negative influence. Each group was plainly recognizable. Morgan’s supporters worked tirelessly to combat the effects of the curse. Malia, Karma, and Laurel headed this charge, parsing out duties and tasks for each witch to complete. They fortified the ward, distributed healing spells, and held energy renewal rituals to invigorate each other. In addition, they picked up extra responsibilities to keep daily life running as smoothly as possible. With no mortals to run the fresh market and no supplies going in or out of Yew Hollow, we were running low on food and other necessities. The age old ideas of hunting and gathering weren’t going to help either. The curse had killed all of the vegetation and driven the animals away.
Laurel was the one who came up with a solution. As an elemental witch, her ability was connected to the earth. She spoke with nature in a profound way that the rest of us could not understand. In less than a day, she constructed a greenhouse as close to the edge of the ward as possible, where the sunlight almost permeated the invisible force field to brighten Yew Hollow. Everything inside was fed and fertilized by Laurel’s witchcraft, from budding lettuce bibs to flowering soybean plants. Soon, the Summers coven would embrace a plant-based diet, a thought that made my stomach rumble for a cheeseburger. Of all the things I expected out of this curse, reluctantly becoming vegan wasn’t one of them.
Other witches followed Laurel’s example in order to keep daily life as normal as possible. Our resident water witches constructed a well and a mill to ensure the coven always had something clean to drink and bathe with. The mothers of the coven’s children banded together to create a bizarre home school that encompassed everything from arithmetic and mortal literature to useful potions and witch history. Clean-up crews cleansed the town. It had been over a month since the locals had inexplicably abandoned their homes, which resulted in a lot of moldy laundry and rank refrigerators. The witches swept through like a professional maid service, leaving each home pristine and ready for its family’s uncertain return.
In contrast, the lesser known witches made themselves scarce. They stayed in their homes, tending to the sick on their own. They grudgingly contributed to the coven’s survival efforts, doing the least amount of work possible to guarantee food and fresh water for themselves. Otherwise, Camryn’s followers kept to themselves. Morgan and her sisters hardly noticed their absence, but I kept a wary eye open for trouble. The way they looked at their coven leader had changed. A month ago—before this dreaded curse derailed our peaceful small town lives—every witch in the coven viewed Morgan with respect and admiration. Nowadays, they whispered behind their hands when Morgan walked by, throwing looks of dissatisfaction in her direction.
Camryn herself seemed to have taken Morgan’s warning seriously. She did not make another misjudged public attempt to preach injustice, though I had the feeling she was feeding her followers plenty of misinformation under the table. The shift in perspective had happened too quickly, and I wondered if Camryn was somehow using her supposed “intuition” ability to convince the lesser witches of her leadership qualities. Morgan repeatedly requested that I ignore Camryn. She wasn’t the biggest threat to the coven right now, and we needed to focus on more important things.
My main goal was to find out more about the girl on the horse in Windsor Falls. It wasn’t as simple as it sounded. I was no longer permitted to use the scrying mirror without direct supervision, so I had to make do with a bowl of water, the fickle and commonly mocked crystal ball, or the small pond in the woods behind the Summers house. No matter what visual medium I used, the images were muddled. The most important aspects of the girl’s history remained a puzzle to me. There were no hints that she belonged to one of the three covens in her hometown, which left me wondering who had trained her to hone her aura at such a radiant level. She lived in one of the biggest estate houses in Windsor Falls, which indicated a radically different upbringing than the children of Yew Hollow.
Not for the first time, I realized how selfishly ensconced the Summerses were in their own history. They believed that their rules of witchcraft and way of life were the only rules, but Winnie and the mysterious teenaged healer had taught me otherwise. This was not Morgan’s fault. She was simply raised by women who upheld archaic ideas and traditions. While this was admirable in preserving the Summerses’ rich history, it hindered my research of our super-powered witch. Without an idea of how other covens operated, I had little to no hope of discovering additional information about her abilities. As time passed and I made infinitesimal progress, it became apparent that our plan would not move forward while I was trapped within the ward that encompassed Yew Hollow.
“Let me build a door,” I insisted to Morgan one morning over a breakfast of homemade wheat toast and fresh peanut butter. “It doesn’t even have to be a door! It could be a window or a tunnel or whatever, something just wide enough for me to pass through.”
Morgan wearily sipped black coffee. She was in need of another dose of healing energy. I was beginning to think that the dark circles under her eyes were permanent fixtures on her face. “Out of the question. The ward is the only thing keeping us safe right now. I can’t have you poking holes in it.”
“The coven isn’t getting any better, Morgan,” I reminded her hotly. “You’re getting weaker every day. Your sisters too. And has anyone checked on Alana lately? Is she even still alive? How much longer can we survive in this perpetual quarantine?”
“Yvette and Yvonne have assured me that Alana’s condition is severe but stable,” Morgan replied, kneading the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “They’ve seen no distressing changes in her.”
“They haven’t seen any good ones either.” My toast lay cold and abandoned as I tried to get through to the older witch. “Come on, Morgan. You’ve always said that you trust my judgement, and my judgement is telling me that what we’re doing isn’t working. Not well enough, anyway. I need to find this girl, and I can’t do that if I’m stuck in Yew Hollow.”
Morgan set down her mug. It left a tired ring of coffee on the mahogany tabletop. “I do trust you, Gwenlyn, but you’re also young. This ward keeps us safe. If we open a rift, we open ourselves up too. The ward doesn’t just keep the curse from progressing. It prevents the culprit from locating us. I can’t risk that. We’ll find another way without the healer.”
“What if there is no other way?” I asked. “What if we waste away under this glorified circus tent because we decided that it was too dangerous to venture outside? I’m not asking anyone to go with me, Morgan. No one else has to risk their health, but I’m not really a Summers, remember? I’ll be safe outside the ward.”
“No,” Morgan growled.
“You’re being stubborn—”
“I said no, Gwenlyn!”
Her voice boomed through the dining room, echoing to the far corners of the house as she magically amplified the sound waves to get her point across. Her aura slammed me against my chair, stunning me into silence. As her power settled, Morgan rested her elbows on the table and dropped her head into her hands, staring straight down into her coffee to avoid my gaze.
“Fine,” I said quietly. “Let me know when your pride cools down and you realize that I’m right about this. I’ll be in my room.”
I left her to stew in the kitchen and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Winnie was waiting for me, lounging on my bed as she watched some famous chef whip up a pot roast.
“Wow,” she said as I collapsed face down into the pillows next to her.
I flipped over, giving the pillows a frustrated thwack as I maneuvered them to sit against the headboard. “She’s being ridiculous. Ignoring this won’t make it go away. We can’t manage a curse. It’s like living in purgatory. Eventually, it’s going to escalate and catch up to us, and when it does, we won’t have a damn clue what to do.”
Winnie stretched and rested against the pillows with her arm behind her head. “I think Morgan is doing what she thinks is best for the coven.”
“Oh, so you’re taking her side? Great. So much for support. What kind of twin are you anyway?”
“I didn’t say I agreed with her,” Winnie retorted, swiping her hand through my head and causing my brain to momentarily freeze over. “Actually, I think her anxiety is affecting her judgment. Even the best leaders fall prey to self-doubt sometimes, and when they do, it’s often up to their second-in-command to step up to the plate.”
I wrenched my eyes from the chef’s hypnotic onion dicing to study my sister. “What are you suggesting?”
A line appeared between Winnie’s eyebrows, the same line that appeared on my own face whenever I was deep in thought. “You can open a portal in the ward on your own, right?”
“It wouldn’t be easy,” I answered. “But I could do it. Yes.”
“Far be it from me to encourage you to disobey your coven leader,” Winnie said, shifting into a more active pose as her ideas took over. “But I agree with you. I think the only hope of saving this coven is to find the healer. Morgan may not approve now, but she might change her mind when she sees how much a super-powered witch can flip the advantage.”
I chewed anxiously on my lip, considering the possibility. “She would kill me.”
“Probably,” Winnie agreed nonchalantly, “but then she’d most likely thank you for doing what she couldn’t.”
I groaned and tossed the TV remote across the room out of frustration. It collided with the image of the steaming pot roast, and the batteries toppled out. “I don’t feel comfortable with sneaking out. It would be blatantly betraying Morgan’s trust.”
“You know what they say,” Winnie said with a shrug. “Better to beg for forgiveness than—”
“To ask for permission,” I finished. I already felt queasy at the thought of directly disobeying Morgan’s orders, but something needed to be done. “I’ll go tonight. Will you come with me?”
Winnie answered with a warm smile. “Of course.”
As she returned her attention to the television screen, I subtly studied her from the side. It had been well over a month since she’d first appeared in my bedroom. It was one of the longest hauntings I’d ever experienced. Part of me felt guilty for not doing more to convince her to cross over. Ghosts who lingered on earth for too long eventually found themselves unable to venture into the otherworld at all. I didn’t want to condemn her to such a fate. She had suffered enough in life, and she deserved a peaceful one after death. On the other hand, I cherished the time we spent together. Somehow, between the research and the coven’s feud and the hunt for the healer, Winnie and I managed to laugh, share stories, and connect with one another. She told me about growing up in a small coven in the southwest and I filled her in on all the quaint chaos of Yew Hollow. I grew accustomed to her presence, and in the long run, I realized one selfish fact about myself: I didn’t want Winnie to go.
“Stop staring at me,” she instructed without straying from the television.
“It’s all right. What’s on your mind?”
I sighed wistfully. “You.”
Winnie glanced over at me, saw my distressed expression, and stretched out to face me instead of the TV. “What about me?”
“I feel like I’m letting you down,” I mumbled, picking at the pattern of the purple quilt. “I’ve been so focused on the coven that I haven’t spared even a minute to think about getting you to the otherworld.”
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“You,” she replied. “And Morgan, by extension. See, you keep going on about how you’re supposed to help me, but I told you already, Gwen. I have no debts to settle or goodbyes to give. You don’t have to help me do anything.”
“There has to be something,” I insisted. “Otherwise, why are you here?”
She tapped my nose with the tip of her finger. “To help you, silly.”
Winnie rolled her eyes, as if my bewilderment was endearing. “Here’s the problem with you and Morgan being so alone in your psychic medium education. In your experience, every single ghost you’ve encountered has come to you for assistance. That’s understandable. Most people are inherently selfish, especially in death. But did it ever once occur to you that maybe—just maybe—each ghost that appeared to you taught you a valuable lesson?”
“Every single one of them?” I asked skeptically. “Because I’d really like to know what I learned from the eighty-year-old grandpa that tried to hit on me before I could throw him into the next dimension.”
“All I’m saying is that you should stop worrying about me,” Winnie said, smirking at my anecdote. “It’s no coincidence that I showed up here on the exact same day Yew Hollow experiences its biggest disaster in ten years. You want to help me cross over? Focus on saving the coven. That’s why I’m here—to help my sister.”
Before I could agree or disagree, a rumble of thunder shook the house. I scrambled to my feet and looked out of the window.
“Crap,” I said, squinting up at the gathering black clouds.
“What is it?”
“There’s a big storm rolling in.”
These days, the only weather Yew Hollow got was rain. It pelted the town regardless of news reports or radar readings. I was not naïve. Each bout of rain stank of the same acrid smell as that of the first. The storms were part of the curse, and every time another one swept through the area, it left the witches weaker and sicker than they had been before.
Morgan’s voice echoed up the staircase and into my bedroom. “Gwenlyn?”
I momentarily forgot about our tiff from earlier. Any moment now, the skies would open up, showering the town with more bad luck. Morgan needed my help. I abandoned the sickening sight at the window and hurried into the hallway.
“On my way.”
An hour later, the Summers house was full to bursting with nearly every member of the coven. The storm raged on, the worst one we had witnessed since the initial downpour that had left me with a witch’s mark and the lingering effects of electrocution. Water poured off the roof in buckets, constant thunder made a deafening racket, and lightning flashed so close to the windows that the children were hiding under the dining room table out of fright.
The witches were panicking. Their health deteriorated by the minute. All of the work we did to hold the effects of the curse at bay was meaningless. The house now resembled a makeshift hospital ward in the middle of a war zone rather than actual living space. I had vanished all of the furniture on the first floor and replaced it with a number of twin-sized beds. Each one was occupied. Auras flickered and trembled like dying embers, a sight that ate away at my heart. It seemed impossible that one dark hex could reduce a once-ferocious coven of witches to the quivering helpless collection of women before me.
I did my best to tend to everyone, but even though the curse didn’t affect me, I didn’t have enough energy to go around. I rationed myself off to the best of my abilities. The witches were in pain, and it hurt me to see my family so afflicted. I gave as much as I could—soothing muscles aches, clearing clogged airways, and guiding witches into unconsciousness—until I felt woozy and unsteady on my feet. As I mixed an anti-itch healing salve in the kitchen to combat the nasty red rash on some of the witches, vertigo overtook me. I dropped the bowl of salve and gripped the edge of the counter, trying my best to make sense of the world around me.
Just as I went spiraling toward the floor, someone caught me from behind and lowered me gently to the cool tile. I recognized Morgan’s gentle aura through my haze. She propped my head in her lap, and I closed my eyes until the room stopped spinning.
“You know, wearing yourself out isn’t going to counter this curse,” she murmured, wiping sweat off my forehead with a damp dishtowel.
“They need help.”
She fell silent, rhythmically combing her fingers through my hair. I’d finally trimmed off the burnt ends, which left the style shorter than ever.
“My pride has cooled down.”
I wearily opened one eye, catching an upside down glimpse of Morgan. All night, I’d only seen her from across the room as we triaged the witches and did our best to treat them. Now that she was so close, I could see how badly the curse was affecting her too. Morgan had died once. She’d been to the otherworld and back, and she had looked better then than she did now. Morgan was a living corpse, the stuff of nightmares, with sunken cheeks, haunted eyes, and pallid skin. No one could fight a curse looking like the living dead.
“We have to go to Windsor Falls,” I said, closing my eyes again to ward off additional images of Morgan’s frightening features.
I felt her nod in agreement. “We need to wait for this storm to pass, and you need to get your energy back up. I want you to go upstairs and sleep. You’re done helping for now. We can hold on through the night. Tomorrow, we’ll figure out a way to open a door in the ward. Laurel?”
I peeked through my eyelids as Laurel came into the kitchen. She fared slightly better than Morgan, but the curse took its toll on her as well.
“Help Gwen up to her room,” Morgan said. “Make sure she gets to bed.”
With Laurel’s help, Morgan and I stumbled up from the floor. Laurel and I leaned on each other as we made our way through the dining room. At the bottom of the stairs, I turned to look at Morgan, who had already returned to aiding the other witches despite her wearied state.
“Are you sure?” I asked her. “I can stay.”
Morgan shook her head firmly, pointing up the stairs. “Go. I need you at your best.”
So Laurel took me upstairs, lay me down in bed, and tucked the duvet around me. As she left, I noticed Winnie glimmering like a night light in the corner of the room. She was hiding. I knew why. There were people in pain downstairs. If she were alive, she would be able to help them. Instead, her death rendered her useless. At some point, she couldn’t take it anymore. Neither could I.
“Tomorrow,” I muttered to her, my face mashed against the pillows. “Tomorrow, we fix this.”
I slept soundly through the night, and by the time morning broke, my craft had restored itself to full strength. I slid out of bed in last night’s clothes and looked out the window. The storm had wreaked havoc on Yew Hollow. Dead branches, leaves, and debris were scattered throughout the yard. In the distance, a fallen tree rested on the roof of Laurel’s greenhouse. It would need repairs. The water mill had most likely taken damage too. I sighed heavily. The witches were in no state to clean up the town after this storm.
I showered, got dressed, and trod downstairs. Most of the witches were asleep, recovering from yesterday’s fallout. They were united in unconsciousness. No one argued about coven leaders or Yew Hollow’s fate. Even Camryn was quiet, sitting on a cot in the corner of the living room and gazing out at the side yard in contemplation. I tiptoed through the slumbering witches, following leftover wisps of Morgan’s aura to locate her. She was sitting on the back porch with Laurel, rocking in one of the wooden chairs as she sipped a potent-smelling concoction from a coffee mug. Laurel sat on the porch steps, her bare feet resting in the dead grass of the backyard. She looked solemn. Yew Hollow’s lack of greenery was wearing thin on her.
“Morning,” I said, careful not to let the screen door slam and wake the others as I joined them. “How are you feeling?”
“Slightly better,” Morgan replied. She tipped her mug at the empty chair, gesturing for me to sit down. “And you?”
I ignored the chair and propped my ankle up on the railing of the porch to stretch out the back of my leg. “Fully rejuvenated. I think we should get going as soon as possible. I just need your help to get through the ward. Then I’ll be there and back by the end of the day, hopefully with this healer in tow.”
Morgan shook her head. “No way.”
My sneaker thunked to the wood planks of the porch. “Seriously? You changed your mind already?”
“I mean you won’t be going alone,” Morgan said. “Laurel and I are coming with you.”
“Oh.” I looked between them in consternation. “Is that a good idea? You said yourself that the ward might be the only thing preventing this illness from getting worse.”
Laurel trailed her fingers through the dirt at her feet. “Morgan and I are the healthiest out of the coven. If we keep our venture short, we should be fine.”
“Why risk it?” I asked. “Stay here. Save your strength.”
“Gwen, we don’t know anything about this girl,” Morgan pointed out. She wiped a droplet of spilled potion from the side of her mug. “I can’t send you to find her on your own.”
“I won’t be on my own,” I countered. “I’ll have Winnie with me.”
“While Winnie gives excellent direction and advice, she won’t be able to help you should you find yourself in a sticky situation.” Morgan beckoned me over to her, so I finally sat down in the chair opposite her. “We’ll go together. We’re stronger that way.”
I had not been to the edge of the ward since it was constructed, so when we reached the line between Yew Hollow and the rest of Massachusetts, I was alarmed to see that the curse had somewhat bled out beyond the borders of the town. It was nothing in comparison to the gray world in which we lived, but the trees that lined the road leading to the interstate showed unnaturally early signs of frostbite. Even so, I relished the color outside of the ward. I forgot how beautiful the world looked in the fall. The red, orange, and yellow hues warmed me from the inside out, and I bounced up and down on the balls of my feet in anticipation. Today’s excursion would be a welcome respite from the monotony of the last month.
It was no easy task to open a trapdoor in the ward. Layers and layers of witchcraft made up the magical force field, and it was so well fortified that it took two hours for me, Morgan, and Laurel to punch a tiny hole in the surface of it. We widened it just enough to scramble through to the other side. I went first, flattening myself out and crawling military style through the narrow opening. It was like navigating a clear glass tunnel. I could feel the ward, but I couldn’t see it, which made moving through it all the more peculiar. Winnie followed behind me, her icy presence biting at my heels, and we waited on the other wide for Morgan and Laurel to worm their way through.
I inhaled through my nose, savoring the scent and feeling of fresh air through my lungs. It was a brisk cool morning, and the chill already permeated the fluffy liner of my green bomber jacket. I cherished it anyway, knowing that the feeling of freedom would vanish when we returned to Yew Hollow later that day.
I lent Morgan and Laurel a hand as they emerged from the ward. They took great gulps of the refreshing autumn morning. As a bit of color flushed their cheeks, I wondered if creating the ward hadn’t been the best decision after all. Morgan and Laurel looked healthier outside the barrier than they had in the past several weeks. Maybe we should’ve followed the locals’ lead and evacuated Yew Hollow instead.
Since there was no way to get a car through the ward, we walked to the highway, lured a friendly man driving a passenger van to the side of the road, and lightly spelled him to pass out. I took over the steering wheel as Laurel and Morgan belted him into the backseat, and just like that, we were on our way to Windsor Falls. We reviewed what little information I had gathered about the super-powered healer and formulated a rough plan as I piloted the van through upstate Massachusetts.
“We’re just looking,” Morgan said from the backseat. “All I want to do is check this girl out. We don’t even know if she’s the one we’re looking for.”
“It’s her,” Winnie confirmed, riding shotgun. “I can feel it.”
“We have to be cautious,” Morgan replied, as if she hadn’t heard Winnie. “Gwen, you’ve spent a lot of time scrying the town. What’s the least conspicuous way for us to go about this?”
I caught a glimpse of Morgan’s drawn features in the rearview mirror and steered the van around a snail-paced sedan. “From what I could tell, she lives in one of the big estate houses. I would recognize it if I saw it. There’s a lot of land around, including a pretty dense forest. She rides her horse through the nearby meadow almost every day. I think that’s our best bet. If we snuck through the woods and waited for her to ride out, we could get a pretty good idea of what kind of power she’s wielding.”
“And what about her family?” Laurel asked. “Which coven does she belong to?”
“From what I can tell, none of them,” I answered. “I guess that’s why we needed this trip. She doesn’t operate like a normal witch, and I couldn’t scry the people around her. I tried multiple times. All I got was a tiny hint of a yellow or orange aura, which could simply be residual energy from someone else—”
“Or it could be her coven leader disguising herself as someone of lesser importance,” Morgan finished. “Whoever she is, we can’t risk her or anyone else discovering us. None of the covens in Windsor Falls are part of the alliance. We overlooked them because they were smaller in number, but that doesn’t mean we should underestimate them. I want you all to treat every single witch we may come across as a suspect. Understood?”
Though I nodded, I couldn’t help but question Morgan’s paranoia. I caught Winnie’s eye and quickly looked away, but I could tell she was thinking along a similar train of thought. If we couldn’t speak to any of the covens in town, how were we going to figure out which one the super-powered hero belonged to?
We dumped the van and its driver on the shoulder near the exit sign for Windsor Falls. We would go the rest of the way on foot to avoid attention. Together, the three of us cast a silencing spell. I pushed my craft past Morgan and Laurel’s, saving them from expending more energy than necessary, until the space around us was eerily quiet.
Morgan naturally took point as we slithered into the woods and disappeared amongst the trees. I directed her from behind, allowing instinct and memory to guide me toward the girl I’d spent hours upon hours scrying. Laurel spoke to the trees in soft Latin as we walked, trailing her fingers over the bark in reverent awe, and the trees whispered back in breezes and rustles. I caught every few words of Laurel’s side of the conversation. What I heard was unsettling. The trees deeply mourned their lost sisters in Yew Hollow. They did not expect the nature in our hometown to recover. I pursed my lips at the daunting thought but stayed quiet.
Golden light filtered through the trees as we neared the edge of the forest. In the distance, the outline of a massive house loomed on the horizon. I almost stepped beyond the shadows of the woods for a better look, but Laurel caught my shoulder and drew me back, shaking her head a fraction of an inch. The whispers of the trees grew louder, and I wondered why Laurel had stopped me. Then a slender rider on a golden mare galloped right past our hiding place.
The girl’s rosy pink aura washed over us like a tidal wave of good fortune, leaving a feeling of ease and a sweet taste in its wake. As she cantered away, I leaned out of the woods, desperate to follow. Even Winnie seemed affected by the teenager’s charming essence. She smiled and sighed as the girl rode out of sight, staring blissfully after her.
Morgan emerged from the forest, gazing at the vanishing girl. “That was her, wasn’t it?”
It was a rhetorical question. No other witch could have that kind of effect. The girl’s presence alone was enough to support a second wind for Morgan and Laurel’s flagging energy.
“She’s so young,” Laurel said. “I wouldn’t have expected it for—”
“For someone so powerful,” I finished, still reeling from the girl’s effect. “She’s dripping with energy, isn’t she? Have the two of you ever felt anything like that before?”
Morgan shook her head. The girl’s aura seemed to have affected her most. Her eyes were brighter than they had been a moment ago, and though she looked more alert, she also appeared to be subduing her emotions under a mask of nonchalance. “Let’s go,” she ordered.
We followed the trail of the girl’s pink aura, keeping to the edge of the forest. I hurried to catch up to Morgan’s long strides. “I was right, wasn’t I? She really is as powerful as I thought.”
“You were right.”
Her rough tone worried me. “So what’s the problem them?”
Morgan tripped over a tree root. I caught her by the elbow before she could fall. She brushed herself off. “The problem is that we have to kidnap a teenager from her home.”
I stopped short. Winnie, not anticipating my sudden halt, walked right through me. For once, her freezing presence had no effect on me because Morgan’s words had already made my blood run cold. “Who said anything about kidnapping?”
Morgan trekked on, climbing over a viney bush. “It’s the only way.”
I looked at Laurel to see what she thought of this development, but she was too deeply immersed in the surrounding nature to reply. I hurtled the bush to catch up with Morgan. “I’m lost. At what point did we decide that abducting a child was the best way to cure the coven?”
“What did you think we were going to do?”
Morgan huffed, glancing behind her to make sure that Laurel was keeping up. “Gwenlyn, I love you, but this is not a game of chess. There are lives at stake here—our lives—and we cannot afford to make a mistake this late in the game. We need that girl.”
“So why not just talk to her coven?” I insisted.
“What did I say on the way here? The covens here aren’t a part of our alliance.” She slid down a small embankment, nearly falling into a small pond at the bottom. “I don’t have any pull with them. I can’t negotiate a deal for this girl.”
I plucked Morgan away from the dingy pond water. “Why not? Maybe they’re amiable.”
“Or maybe one of these witches is the woman that cursed us in the first place,” Morgan replied. “Did you consider that possibility?”
“Why would some random witch in Windsor Falls curse us?” I asked. “We’ve kept to ourselves. No one had a reason to attack us.”
“And yet here we are.”
“May I interject?” Laurel had finally pulled her focus out of the trees in order to join the conversation.
Morgan gestured for her to continue. “By all means.”
Morgan’s grumpy mood was offset by Laurel’s soft calm. The younger Summers sister looped her arm around my shoulders and drew me close. She allowed Morgan to forge ahead, leaving us to follow along in our coven leader’s agitated wake.
“Do you remember what Morgan was like ten years ago?” Laurel murmured. She spoke to me in the same dulcet tones she used to speak to the trees. I felt like a furry woodland creature, manipulated by Laurel’s earthy vibes. “She’s changed so much since then. She learned to control her emotions so well that half the time I don’t know what she’s thinking anymore. I forget how wild she used to be. Untamable. The epitome of a lone wolf. And then I remember the reason why she changed.”
I thought back to when I first met Morgan. She was disagreeable, cynical, and spoke in a series of sarcastic comebacks. Over time, her temper cooled, and she dealt with trivial coven matters with an air of nonchalance, even if an argument between witches was more heated than usual. I looked ahead to make sure Morgan wasn’t listening in. “What was the reason?”
“She wasn’t a lone wolf anymore,” Laurel replied. She swooped down to rescue a toad from where it was stuck in a boggy puddle. “She came back to us. She remembered who she was. It’s only when something truly threatens this coven—her family—that the old Morgan resurfaces, and she is a force to be reckoned with.”
“That doesn’t mean she should abandon her morals,” I said.
Laurel released the toad with a long face. “There are no morals in war.”
There was no further discussion. It was decided that, at the first opportunity, the girl would accompany us back to Yew Hollow. Her family would not be notified. We would make her as comfortable as possible, but there was no denying that what we planned on doing went against humanity’s laws of decency. Time was running short. The situation worsened the longer we were away from the coven. We needed to return with the girl as quickly as possible, but Morgan wanted one more thing before we did.
“We need to test her,” she declared.
As the sun fell, we set up camp in the bordering woods. I did most of the work, constructing tents, summoning sleeping bags and other gear, and starting a fire to keep us warm. Winnie acted as an LED lamp, illuminating the clearing so that I could see what I was doing. Laurel did her best to collect food and water, but her energy was waning, as was Morgan’s. I finished up for her, making a salad out of the various greens she had managed to find in the surrounding area. As we ate, I kept a mental journal of Morgan and Laurel’s flagging health. As Morgan’s breath came in short gasps and she struggled to get through an entire sentence without coughing, I realized that the curse wasn’t central to Yew Hollow. Evacuating would’ve done the witches no good.
I offered Morgan a canteen of fresh water from a nearby spring. “What do you mean? What kind of test?”
“There’s no point in bringing her in if she doesn’t have the capacity to heal us,” Morgan replied in a hoarse voice. She cleared her throat and sipped the water, but it did little to alleviate the issue. “We don’t know anything about these super-powered witches.”
“They’re rumored to be ten times more powerful—” Winnie began, quoting our research.
“Rumored to be,” Morgan said. “As in, it’s not necessarily fact. She’s still a witch. She still has to hone her skill over time.”
I picked greens out of my teeth, wishing for a toothbrush. “How are we supposed to figure out if she’s as powerful as we need her to be?”
“We force her to use the full extent of her power,” Morgan answered.
I gestured for her to continue. “And to do that, we…”
Morgan remained stoically quiet, and Laurel answered for her. “A healer’s greatest gift lies in being able to mend herself first.”
Morgan’s intention dawned on me slowly. I dropped my canteen to the ground, where it rolled over and collected a layer of dirt. “You want to hurt her, don’t you?”
“No,” Morgan said. “Of course I don’t want to.”
“That wasn’t the point of the question,” I argued. “Is this what it’s come to, Morgan? We’re going to harm an innocent teenager, force her to heal herself, and then abduct her for our own selfish needs?”
“I don’t like the idea any more than you do, Gwen—”
“Then find a different way!”
I pushed myself up from my seat around the fire and stormed off. I didn’t know what had gotten into Morgan. We were pressed for time and we needed the girl, but why was it necessary to test her beforehand? There was no solid reason for harming the girl other than to serve us peace of mind. The woods grew darker as I wandered away from the fire, but Winnie’s luminescent glow soon caught up with me.
“I can’t do this,” I admitted to her, plopping down to sit in the fork of a tree. “I can’t force a kid to save the coven.”
Winnie floated upward, hovering in the overhead branches and glowing like a second moon. “Look at it from Morgan’s point of view. She can’t afford for this not to work. She doesn’t have a backup plan.”
I shivered in the damp, cold night. “It’s not right.”
Winnie settled next to me, keeping a few inches between us to save me from her chill. For the hundredth time, I wished she was alive, if only so she could give me a warm hug.
“Listen,” she murmured gently. “Toward the end of my life, my mother almost went insane. She panicked because she knew she couldn’t save me, but that didn’t stop her from trying. If things had progressed—if my aunt had found this girl in time—I don’t doubt that my mother would have gone to the same lengths as Morgan. It wouldn’t have mattered to her that she was putting another woman’s child at risk. I was the only thing on her mind. That’s how Morgan’s thinking now. Her only responsibility is to save the coven, and this is how she’s decided to do it.”
“So you think there’s no stopping her,” I said defeatedly.
“I think that the world needs balance.” An owl hooted overhead and Winnie looked up to see if she could spot it. “You and Morgan are on opposite sides of this argument right now. Come to the middle. Find common ground. How can you test the girl without hurting her and appease Morgan’s demands at the same time?”
I wracked my mind for alternate ideas. “A false hex maybe? It would give the girl the illusion that she’s hurt, convince her to use her powers to heal herself, and reveal the extent of her craft.”
Winnie nodded, satisfied. “There you go. See? Wasn’t that easy?”
“Sure, if Morgan will go for it.”
“I’m sure you can persuade her.”
I wasn’t in any hurry to return to Morgan and Laurel. The night was cold but beautiful. I tipped my head back to stare up at the stars. It had been so long since I’d seen them properly. The owl hooted again, this time closer, and I spotted its yellow eyes in a neighboring tree. The longer we sat, the more we blended in with nature. Animals emerged from their hiding places to inspect Winnie’s inexplicable presence. Unlike mortals and most witches, animals could sense when a ghost was present. A family of raccoons, a skunk, and even a curious coyote passed by us. The moon drifted overhead, indicating the passing time.
“Hey, Winnie,” I whispered after a while. “Do you think your mom is okay?”
Winnie looked down at her hands, tracing the lines in her palms. “I hope so, or I hope she will be. I imagine she’ll need time to grieve. My father too. Do you think parents can ever recover from the death of a child?”
“I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask,” I replied. “I didn’t grow up with a standard version of parents.”
“Sometimes I think this would’ve been easier if I didn’t have a good relationship with them,” Winnie said wistfully.
“Hey.” I moved as close to her as possible without sinking into her incorporeal form. “Don’t ever wish for that. You lived a beautiful life surrounded by beautiful people. A premature death doesn’t change that. Your family will look back on their time with you and remember love and happiness rather than regret.”
Winnie rested her head on my shoulder, and I suppressed a shiver. All I felt was her cold absence against my own skin. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t supposed be like this. We should’ve found each other sooner. Unlike the rest of her family, I wouldn’t remember Winnie alive. She would always be a ghost to me.
“Something’s wrong,” she murmured, lifting her head. “The trees are talking.”
Sure enough, a soft whisper rode on the breeze, urgent and worried. The trunk beneath us shuddered. I leapt to the ground. Though I couldn’t understand the conversation, the trees’ urgency was adamant.
Morgan’s voice sounded far off. I’d wandered farther from the camp than I’d thought. At her panicked call, I broke into a run. What could have gone wrong now? Winnie and I rushed through the forest until I skidded into the clearing. Morgan and Laurel no longer relaxed along the ground. Morgan paced alongside the fire while Laurel flitted from tree to tree, flower to flower, listening to messages that the rest of couldn’t understand.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s the coven,” Morgan replied, her tone colored with worry. “Malia and Karma can’t hold the curse off on their own. Two more witches passed out.”
I combed through my windswept hair with my fingers. “Like Alana? They’re in a coma?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Morgan took Laurel’s hand as the younger witch rushed by her to reach another tree. Without missing a beat, Laurel spun Morgan into a cocoon of a hug, all while maintaining contact with some leaf or stem. “They’re weak though. Dauntingly so. We need to return to Yew Hollow immediately.”
“We can’t go!” I protested. “We need this girl.”
“Let me rephrase,” Morgan said. “Laurel and I are returning to Yew Hollow. You will stay here and fetch the girl.”
Morgan withdrew from Laurel’s embrace to grasp me by the shoulders. “You wanted to do this on your own, remember? Test the girl and bring her back to us as quickly as possible.”
Morgan took my chin between her fingers, forcing me to look at her. Her green eyes met mine, but where mine were wild and panicked, hers were calm and steady. “I believe in you, Gwen. You can do this.” She looked to Winnie. “Take care of her, won’t you?”
Winnie nodded. “Of course.”
Morgan shouldered her backpack, coughing, and tapped Laurel on the shoulder. “It’s time. Let’s move out.”
Laurel planted a kiss on my cheek. “See you soon.”
They snaked away through the shadows of the woods, and just like that, the sisters were gone. I sat cross-legged near the dying fire, watching the embers glow with a blank expression. This was what I wanted—to help the coven on my own and prove myself worthy of their bloodline—so why did I feel so alone?
The forest woke me at daybreak. Birds whistled and chirped, animals rustled in the underbrush, a breeze crept through the threads of my sweater, and the pinkish sunlight crawled across the meadow to tickle the beds of wildflowers. I curled up in my sleeping bag, listening to the world around me wake up. For a moment, I forgot why I was there. In my mind, I was fourteen again, living on the outskirts of society without a family or a purpose. This was what it had been like all those years ago—sleeping on the ground, waking to the sun instead of an alarm clock—except if I had noticed a ghost hovering in the trees above me then, I would’ve taken extreme measures to prevent myself from seeing her. Instead, I stretched, reveling in the morning breeze, and smiled up at Winnie, who perched like a cat in the highest branches of an oak tree.
“See anything good?” I called up, startling a flock of sparrows into the air.
Winnie glanced down, swinging her legs over the edge of her sturdy branch. “All sorts! There’s a beautiful stream not far from here, and a family of deer came through while you were still asleep.” She inhaled deeply through her nose. “Boy, do I miss this. Being outside heals the soul.”
I climbed out of my sleeping bag, pulled an extra jacket over my sweater, and laced up my hiking boots. “Can you even feel anything?”
“Not really,” Winnie replied. She tipped backward, dangling upside-down from the branch and using her knees to keep herself rooted in place. “But who says that should stop me from pretending?”
“I wish I was that optimistic,” I said, marveling at her gymnastic-like abilities. “Can you see the house? Or the girl?”
“It appears they’re preparing for some kind of party,” Winnie reported, swinging down from her perch. She leapt from twenty feet up, landing in a crouch beside the remains of last night’s fire. “Phew! I could get used to that.”
I began packing up the camp, rolling up my sleeping back and stuffing it back into my knapsack. “Okay, Catwoman. What kind of party?”
“No idea,” she answered. “But I haven’t seen any witches at all yet. The decorators and staff are all mortal.”
“So not any kind of coven gathering then,” I mused. “Who are these people? It’s like this girl doesn’t have a coven at all.”
“Or they’re concealing themselves,” Winnie suggested.
“For what purpose?” I asked. “And why would they leave the girl unprotected?”
I froze in the middle of loading my backpack. “You think they’re expecting me?”
Winnie motioned for me to continue cleaning up. “In a game like this, you have to consider every possible angle. Maybe Morgan was right. Maybe someone in this girl’s coven attacked the Summerses as a power play. They knew you’d come looking for her. It’s a perfect trap.”
The possibility made me paranoid. I kicked the burned wood pieces of the fire aside and scattered dirt over the rest. With a flicker of witchcraft, I rid the clearing of any traces of our visit. Morgan and Laurel’s footprints disappeared, along with the lingering colors of their auras.
“What I don’t understand is why anyone would target the Summerses in the first place.” I hiked the pack over my shoulder and led the way out of the clearing. “It’s not like we’re trying to take over the world.”
“You underestimate Morgan’s influence,” Winnie said. “The Summerses are incredible in numbers compared to these other covens. You’re one of the five largest families in the United States, and none of them are close to New England.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How did you know that?”
“I’ll admit I was researching more than just cures for curses during all our time in the archives,” Winnie replied with a wink. “I was curious about you.”
“I would’ve told you whatever you wanted to know,” I said. “For instance, the alliance includes four out of five of those covens. Morgan’s binding spell prevents any coven in the alliance from attacking another without suffering severe consequences. It’s not foolproof, but it was a huge step forward in coven politics.”
At the border of the trees, I crouched down and peered across the vast backyard of the estate house. In the daytime, it was easier to see how privileged the other half was. The house was enormous. It would easily fit four of the Summers residence comfortably inside. In addition, there was a massive pool, stables, and a separate garage that no doubt housed several expensive vehicles. I rolled my eyes at the extravagance of it all. There were people who lived on the streets, begging for scraps, while the residents of Windsor Falls planned their next badminton tournament.
“What’s the plan?” Winnie asked.
I heaved a sigh, shielding my eyes from the rising sun. “Honestly, the only plan I’ve got is to play it by ear. Keep an eye on the girl, get her alone, and bring her back to Yew Hollow.”
I nudged Winnie’s ribs before I remembered that she couldn’t feel it. My elbow sank into her midriff. “Do you have a better idea?”
“Active reconnaissance,” she replied. “We aren’t going to find out anything about the girl if we sit out here in the dirt. I say we head for the high street, sit down at a cafe, and eavesdrop a little. It’s a small town. If there’s a party tonight, it’s likely that everyone’s invited. Maybe we can get a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”
“And if we’re lucky, we might get a glimpse of our super-powered witch herself,” I said. “Have I ever told you that you’re a genius, Winnie?”
“Once or twice.”
In my dirty jeans, mussed sweater, and hiking boots, I felt conspicuously out of place as we walked past acres of pristine lawns toward the high street of Windsor Falls. I envied Winnie her invisibility. Her airy bohemian style would’ve blended better with the community than my camping clothes. On the upside, it appeared that Windsor Falls favored sleeping in on Saturday mornings. There weren’t many people about as Winnie and I strolled into town, so I found an open bakery, ordered overpriced coffee and a fresh chocolate croissant, then sat down at one of the patio tables outside to wait for everyone else to wake up.
An hour or so later, the entire scene changed. I abandoned the bakery as the line snaked out the door and through the patio tables. Breakfast restaurants advertised peach mimosas and avocado toast. Boutiques opened their doors to display racks of designer clothing in the streets. Woodsy smoke wafted from the windows of a cigar emporium. As I lazily explored the area, nursing my cold coffee, Winnie hovered a few feet above the crowds. I waved her down.
“I don’t see how we’re supposed to gather intel like this,” I mumbled out of the corner of my mouth. “There are too many people here. How are we going to single out the ones who know about this girl?”
A group of giggling teenagers shuffled by us. Winnie nodded toward them. “Start with the obvious.”
I waited until the teenagers passed before falling into step behind them. As I pretended to inspect the shop windows, I listened in on their conversation. There were four of them, two boys and two girls, all well-dressed and about the same age as the healer we were looking for. One of the girls, a tall blonde, playfully slapped her friend’s butt.
“Isabella!” the friend scolded.
Isabella grinned and stuck her tongue out. “Just keeping you on your toes, Lexi. Are you guy still planning to go to Nora’s party tonight?”
“I can’t,” a black-haired boy replied with a sullen look. “I’m grounded. My mom found out that I’ve been selling essays at school.”
“Duncan, you are the only person I know who gets in trouble for doing extra homework,” Isabella said, cuffing her friend lightly over the head.
The other teenager, a spindly boy with lopsided glasses and floppy brown hair, roughly jostled Duncan’s shoulder to place himself beside Lexi. “Don’t worry, D,” he said, draping his arm around the shorter girl’s shoulders. “I’ll take care of Lexi for ya.”
Lexi shrugged the taller boy off. “Get off, Mark. It’s not really Nora’s party though, is it? It’s just another charity gala her mom is throwing, so it’s bound to be boring anyway.”
“Which is why we go and form our own party separate from the adults,” Isabella countered, steering Lexi away from the boys. “Can anyone say free champagne?”
“Free champagne,” Duncan supplied.
“I’m definitely going,” Mark declared. “We can’t leave Nora all alone in a sea of old drunk losers. Maybe I can finally—”
Duncan clapped the taller boy on the back. “Give it up, buddy. Nora already turned down your invitation to the homecoming dance. She doesn’t like you like that. Just accept it.”
“Shut up, D!”
As the conversation devolved into an argument over where the elusive Nora’s affections lay, I let the teenagers disappear into the crowd and ducked into a narrow vacant alleyway between two buildings to talk to Winnie without drawing attention to myself.
“What are the chances this Nora is the girl we’re looking for?” I asked her.
A gust of wind swept through the alley, blowing my hair against my cheeks. A colorful flyer dislodged itself from the window of the nearest shop and wafted between the buildings. I snatched it out of the air and examined the fancy font. It was a town-wide invitation for the gala in question, some kind of charity event meant to benefit cancer research hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Owen McGrath. The address matched that of the estate home we spent the night scoping out.
“I’d say a very good chance,” Winnie remarked, examining the invitation over my shoulder.
“Looks like we’re crashing a gala fundraiser.”
By eight o’clock in the evening, I had pilfered a dark green ball gown in my size through the back door of a boutique with the help of an illusionary ward, stolen a pair of black pumps from the shoe store next door, and procured diamond earrings from the local jeweler. I got ready in the woods beside the estate house, careful to keep the gown out of the dirt. Winnie laughed as I used witchcraft to set my hair and makeup. I never had the patience or the need for materialistic beauty until now, so it took me a few tries to get it right. Once I was fully dressed, I transformed a small pond into a makeshift mirror to check my work. I looked more like Winnie than Gwenlyn, something my twin sister noticed as well.
“You look more like yourself in jeans,” she commented. “Not that you aren’t gorgeous, of course. After all, we have the same face, so how could you not be?”
I rolled my eyes, rummaging through my backpack. Near the bottom, I found a small container full of black capsules and popped two into my mouth.
“What are those?” Winnie asked.
“Aura blockers,” I replied after I had swallowed. “Once they kick in, they’ll trick other witches into thinking I’m mortal. I made them before we left Yew Hollow, just in case.”
“Any side effects?”
A wave of tremors shook my body as the blockers worked their magic. “Yeah. I won’t be able to do perform any spells until they wear off.”
“Is that safe?”
I stowed my backpack at the base of an elm tree with funny-shaped branches so that I would remember where I’d left it. Then I circled to the front of the house through the woods, holding the train of my dress in one hand and my heels in the other. The guests arrived in droves, piloting luxury sedans up the driveway and handing their keys over to a valet attendant. Each and every one of them was dressed to the nines. The men wore full suits complete with cummerbunds and bowties, while the women donned every color of ball gown imaginable. I let down my dress, stepped into my heels, and slipped from the shadows, effortlessly blending in with the flow of affluent blue bloods toward the front door. There were so many people in attendance that no one questioned my presence. Rather, they chatted excitedly to one another about what they expected from the night.
When I finally made it through the front door, I gasped aloud. The interior of the estate house was even more decadent than I expected. A marble staircase led to a decorated mezzanine that looked over the entry hall, but I didn’t have time to marvel at the architecture before the crowd ushered me toward another set of doors at the opposite end of the room, which were set under a massive replica of the Eiffel Tower. The mouth-watering scent of catered food washed over me, and I craned my neck to see over the heads of those in front of me for a look at the banquet table, momentarily forgetting what I was really at the gala for. Winnie, who hovered overhead, reminded me with a quick swipe through my skull.
“Don’t get distracted,” she shouted over the hubbub echoing through the hall.
With so many people around, there was no discreet way to respond to her, so I gave her a minuscule nod instead and resumed surveying the room. There were several witches in attendance, their auras shining brightly in the crowd. I picked up on their interactions with each other. Some embraced, while others nodded curtly, which made it clear which women belonged to which coven. The teenaged healer was nowhere in sight, and I assumed that she was already in the main room beyond the Eiffel Tower doors.
I spotted the teenagers from earlier. As promised, Duncan was missing, but Isabella and Lexi both surpassed the physical expectation for their age bracket in floor-length gowns of gold and purple respectively. Even Mark, the gangly bespectacled teen, looked too sophisticated for a high schooler in a tailored black tuxedo. The trio ignored the adults around them, instead searching the crowded floor. Occasionally, they waved to another teenager who’d been dragged along to the gala, but they seemed to be looking for someone in particular.
I was nearly through the second set of doors when I felt the girl’s unmistakeable aura arrive in the room. I stopped dead, causing a backup of guests behind me, and turned around. There, having just descended the extravagant staircase, were two witches. I paid little attention to the first, enraptured by the stunning pink glow of the girl’s power. Within seconds, the pair disappeared into the throng below, but it was easy to keep track of the younger woman’s ethereal light. I stepped aside and hugged the wall as the crowd surged into the main hall, bringing the girl toward me slowly but surely.
The girl reached her friends before she reached me. Isabella and Lexi pulled her into a hug before holding her at arm’s length and twirling her around to get a three-sixty view of her stunning red dress. As she danced in circles, laughing, her aura hit me in waves. I glanced around, wondering if any of the other witches in the room were as affected by the girl as I was, but they did not even spare her a passing glance.
“Oh my God, Nora!” Isabella squealed, spinning the girl again. “You look amazing!”
“Seriously beautiful,” Lexi agreed, nodding.
“If I wasn’t here, you’d be the sexiest person in the room,” Mark added and winked.
The girl, Nora, made a face. “Gee, thanks, Mark. Where’s Duncan?”
The group of friends passed me, jostled along by the crowd, and I followed them beneath the paper mache legs of the Eiffel Tower and into the main hall. Again, I was overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the party. Models in antique couture strutted up and down a runway, burlesque dancers commandeered another stage, and some of the guests had already taken a place on the illuminated dance floor. Nora and her friends headed straight for the banquet table, laughing and catching up as they loaded small plates with hors d’oeuvres and fondue. I trailed along behind them, keeping them within earshot. No one paid me any mind as I joined the line at the banquet table and mindlessly collected salmon puffs from a crystal platter.
Mark popped a piece of bacon-wrapped sirloin into his mouth with his fingers. “So, Nora. How long do you have to stick around here before we can form our own little after party?”
Isabella smacked his chest with the back of her hand. “Hey, that was my idea!”
Nora giggled at her friends’ antics. “It depends. I think my mom wants me to chat with a few people first. You know, investors and a few people from application committees for Harvard and Yale.”
“Is this a business luncheon for you?” Lexi asked dryly. “Why don’t your parents entertain their investors?”
“Also, why are they pimping you out to the Ivy Leagues already?” Isabella added. “You just turned sixteen. Isn’t it kind of early?”
“Apparently I make an excellent first impression,” Nora replied, topping off her plate with a dollop of chutney from the condiments bar. “And it’s never too early to think about college.”
Mark groaned and crumpled a paper napkin in his fist. “Don’t remind me. My dad’s already talking about how I need to follow in the footsteps of the men in our family and start thinking seriously about getting into Columbia.”
“Columbia’s a great school,” Nora said, patting him on the back.
“Yeah, and it’s in New York,” Isabella added with a smirk. “Which means if the rest of us get into Harvard, we only have to see you on holidays.”
As Mark and Isabella bickered, Nora looked on endearingly before piloting Lexi away from them, balancing her plate in her palm. I sighed deeply and squeezed between two portly guests to follow them. It was going to be a long night.
For three and a half hours, I tailed Nora around the extravagant party. She mostly stuck with her friends, laughing and dancing, but every so often a tall, good-looking man that I assumed was her father introduced her to some other suited business official. As the night wore on and the guests guzzled glass after glass of champagne, the party grew sillier and messier. Business deals and polite chitchat went by the wayside, replaced by raucous conversations and erratic dance moves that should never have seen the light of day. I was getting tired, and Winnie was so bored that she joined the models on stage and struck dramatic poses to make me laugh. All the while, I kept an eye on Nora, waiting for an opportunity to get her alone. Approaching midnight, I got my chance.
I leaned against the wall behind the banquet table, allowing the tipsy crowd to keep me hidden. Nora approached the table, glanced left and right, and liberated an unopened bottle of champagne. She froze suddenly, gazing out of the floor-to-ceiling window. I checked her line of sight. Another witch sat on the porch outside—the same woman who’d escorted Nora down the stairs at the beginning of the party. Her features were hazy through the glass, but I could just make out the faintest hint of her aura, which seemed to be orange or red. A silent exchange occurred between the pair, then the woman outside grinned, winked, and looked away from Nora. Nora’s shoulders visibly relaxed, and she scuttled toward the opposite end of the room with the champagne.
I pushed off the wall and followed her out. She sidled through a back door and into the side yard of the house, where there was no cover for me to tail her without being noticed. I propped the door slightly open with my heel, spying on Nora through the crack at the hinges. She joined her friends, who pumped their fists at the sight of the pilfered booze, and the quartet stole away from the party toward the driveway. When they had enough of a head start, I left the cover of the house behind, hugging the wall to stay in the shadows.
The kids hopped into a black Range Rover at the front of the valet line, whispering and giggling to one another. Nora settled for the passenger seat, responsibly buckling her belt. As the car trundled down the gravel driveway, Winnie appeared beside me.
“What now?” she asked, looking after the Rover.
Without answering, I stunned the valet attendant with a quick hex. The witch’s mark on my calf responded in kind, twinging as I stole a pair of keys from the valet stand and slid into the driver’s seat of the matching vehicle. It was a sleek sedan with luxurious leather seats and a power button. I jammed my index finger into the button to start the car, revved the engine, and peeled out in an attempt to catch up with the teenagers. My calf stung like a fresh burn, but I ignored it in my haste.
Winnie materialized in the passenger seat beside me, holding on to the dashboard as we careened through the neighborhood. “I guess the aura blockers wore off just in time.”
I gunned the engine, putting on an extra burst of speed. Whoever was driving the teens’ getaway car had a lead foot, but as we crested a hill, the Rover’s tail lights appeared at the bottom of the road. They were heading out of town, in the opposite direction of the high street, where the houses grew farther and farther apart before giving way to endless rolling hills and green grass. In ten minutes or so, the Rovers passed under an extravagant stone welcome gate guarded by two gargoyles. The accompanying sign read Windsor Falls Preparatory School.
“Really?” I grumbled, turning off my headlights to avoid detection as I steered the sedan after the teenagers. “Who goes to their own high school to party?”
The school itself was a daunting structure of stone masonry, looming above the land like a castle fortress. I ditched the sedan behind a maintenance building, chucked my heels into the passenger seat, and proceeded barefoot. Nora and her friends were easy to keep track of. They whooped and catcalled gleefully as they skipped through the campus. The click of the girls’ heels on the stone walkways echoed through the halls. I shadowed them at a safe distance until we all arrived in a grand courtyard with a giant water fountain. The girls shucked off their shoes to dip their feet in the pool as Mark struggled with the champagne bottle.
“He’s going to blow his eye out,” Winnie mumbled, watching as the lanky boy steadied the bottle between his knees. Thankfully, Isabella snatched it from his grasp and expertly wiggled the cork free. They all cheered at the effusive pop, and Isabella quickly sipped from the top to catch the escaping foam.
“To freedom from that boring party,” she toasted, lifting the bottle into the air before passing it to Lexi.
“To Nora’s excellent thievery,” Lex added, nodding at Nora before taking a swig.
Nora saluted, hiked her dress up to her knees, and hopped into the fountain’s pool. Lexi passed her the champagne bottle as Nora waded around, happily dodging the spray from the waterfall that poured over a large stone arch in the center of the pool. Mark rolled up his pant legs to join her. Isabella dipped her hand in the water to splash the outnumbered boy.
I settled in to wait, casting a quick illusionary ward to hide myself from the teenagers should one of them happen to look my way. For another forty-five minutes, the group of friends chatted about everything under the sun, from the approaching homecoming dance to Duncan’s unfortunate grounding to their test in English Literature on Monday. Just as my eyes were beginning to drift shut, the click of boots behind me jolted me awake.
It was a security guard, patrolling the school grounds to check for harmless hooligans like the teenagers in the courtyard. His eyes passed right over me, guarded as I was by the illusionary ward. He followed the kids’ voices toward the courtyard. If he found them, I would never get the chance to get Nora alone. I readied myself to cast another hex.
“Wait!” Winnie ordered in my ear. “We can use him. Protect Nora and let him chase off the others.”
“I knew I kept you around for something,” I mumbled back.
In one quick movement, I dodged around the security guard and emerged into the courtyard before him. Nora was closest, so I took care of her first, firing an offensive spell at the nape of her neck. She toppled backward, falling off the low bordering wall of the pool. Isabella and Lexi rushed to her aid, blaming the half-empty champagne bottle for Nora’s tumble. Mark, on the other hand, froze suddenly as the beam of the security guard’s flashlight tickled the edge of the courtyard.
“We have to go,” he hissed, tugging at Lexi’s forearm.
“Get off, Mark!”
“You wanna get caught? Security’s just around the corner!”
Isabella helped Nora to her feet, but she was unsteady. Mark grabbed Lexi’s hand, yanking her out of the guard’s line of sight.
“Hey!” the guard called out in a gruff voice.
Isabella panicked. She gave Nora’s hand a halfhearted tug before letting go, her eyes fixed on Mark’s retreating back. “Come on, Nora!”
In the split second between Isabella’s exit from the courtyard and the security guard’s entrance, I cast an illusionary ward over Nora. She disappeared from view, taking on the appearance of her surroundings as the security guard rushed around the fountain and sprinted after the fleeing teenagers. A jolt of triumph flooded through me. Finally, I had Nora on her own.
She sat down on the edge of the pool, cradling her head in her hands. The jinx I’d hit her with wasn’t a fun one. It gave the victim a nauseating case of vertigo and a wicked headache. I felt bad for employing it, but if I was going to go through with Morgan’s test, Nora had more than a headache in store for her. I lifted my hands, summoning my craft, and my fingertips glimmered with the dark green light of my aura, but Winnie’s hand sunk through my forearm, stopping the flow of magic.
“What are you doing?” I demanded, stepping out of her reach.
Winnie’s expression was startled and sad. “I’m leaving.”
“You’re leaving? What do you mean—?”
When her body shimmered without warning, flickering on and off like a faulty light bulb, I abruptly understood. The otherworld was calling to her. Winnie was passing over.
“No,” I gasped, my attention straying from Nora. “You can’t go! I need you.”
Transparent tears flowed down Winnie’s cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Gwenlyn.”
A cloud shifted overhead, revealing the bright light of the moon. It shone down on Winnie, and she nearly disappeared in its silvery glow. She reached out to caress my cheek, but all I felt was the frosty touch of her nonexistent fingers.
“I’m so glad I got to know you,” she murmured as I began to cry. “All my life, I felt like I was missing something. It was you, all this time.”
“We’re not finished,” I sobbed, sinking to my knees. The silk dress pooled around me like a puddle of liquid emeralds. “You said you were here to help me cure the coven. The curse isn’t broken yet!”
Winnie flickered out of existence and back in again. “I’ve done my part. The rest is up to you. I wouldn’t be leaving if you couldn’t do it on your own.”
She floated down to my level, taking my face between her frigid, immaterial palms. “You can do this. Get the girl. Bring her home. Save the Summerses. I love you.”
The moonlight shone down, almost as if opening a portal between this world and the next one. Winnie faded ever-so-slightly.
“Say you love me too.”
“I love you,” I choked out.
My own dimpled face grinned back at me, and I flashed back to the first night Winnie and I had met. In a little over a month, she had grown to mean everything to me, and now I couldn’t bear the idea of letting her go.
“See you later, sis,” she said.
When the moonbeams swallowed her and the last outline of her face was no longer visible, my emotions overflowed and ran wild. I heaved for breath, crouched on all fours in the courtyard, as sobs wracked my body. The rough stone scraped against my knees and hands, but the pain of saying goodbye to Winnie was immeasurable compared to something so trivial.
“Why are you doing this?”
My head snapped up at the sound of the soft voice. The girl in the red dress, Nora, stared at me from her spot on the edge of the fountain.
“You…you can see me?” I stuttered. At some point during Winnie’s passing, I’d forgotten to maintain the ward that kept me out of sight.
The girl nodded and winced. The jinx was still in place. “I saw you at my parents’ party too. You’re like me, aren’t you?”
I swallowed hard, trying to regain my composure. “Yeah, I’m like you.”
She heaved forward like she was going to retch but managed to hold her nausea at bay. “You followed me. You attacked me just now. What do you want?”
At the sight of her challenging stare, an angry determination rose within me. Panting, I lifted myself from the ground and wiped the tears from my eyes. The train of my dress trailed behind me as I approached the younger girl. She glared up at me, and I saw the comprehension in her glazed eyes. She knew I was not here to be kind to her.
“I’m sorry,” I told her.
Green witchcraft exploded, setting the courtyard alight. My leg felt as though someone had set it on fire, but my energy circulated through the witch’s mark and amplified itself. A sinister satisfaction flowed through me as Nora crumpled at the foot of the fountain. She fought valiantly, casting her rosy pink aura as far as she could, but she was no match for the burst of dark power that rushed through me from the witch’s mark. As our colors combined, bathing the courtyard in a queasy hue, she collapsed and passed out. I heaved for breath, staring down at the girl as the witchcraft settled and the power dissipated from my aura. Winnie was gone, but I’d done my part. Nora was mine.
Gwenlyn Bennet has lived peacefully as an honorary member of the notorious Summers coven for ten years, but she’s never known a blood relative until she wakes up with the ghost of her twin sister hovering above her bed. When the coven falls mysteriously ill, Gwenlyn embarks on a quest for a cure with the dubious help of her dead sister, but can the duo accomplish their task before the witches run out of time?