“I think,” Delali said, as they left MJ’s building. “I have an idea.”
“What?” Abbie asked.
“What if we tried to change the weather?”
Vic let out a guffaw. “Excuse me?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Delali said, now sheepish about her idea. “I just think it would be cool. And it would definitely cause a commotion in the Witch Sphere if we made it start snowing in the middle of May.”
“Do you think we can do that?” Abbie asked.
“We’ve shot light out of our chests and magically transported ourselves to a random witch store. I’m sure we can handle it,” Vic said, reaching up to tighten her high pony.
“How will we get to New Jersey in time for the meeting— won’t they call it as soon as they realize it’s snowing?” Abbie asked.
“Council meetings have to be called at least three hours in advance, including emergencies. We can make it if Adrien’s driver is down to take us— I’ll text him now.” Delali began tapping at her iPhone screen.
“What about the storm?” Vic asked. “Don’t we have to do it in from of a lot of people?”
Delali nodded. “Yeah.”
Vic and Abbie looked around at the quiet streets of the Upper West Side, dubious.
“Guys, come on,” Delali said as she called a car to pick them up. “You know there's only one place we can do this.”
A short car ride later, the girls were both horrified and pleased to find that Times Square was as crowded as ever. Tourists spilled onto the four most sickening square blocks of Manhattan as if there would be a ball drop on a random spring Saturday. Vic touched her fingers to the window and groaned.
“First month in NYC memories, am I right?” Abbie said.
Vic looked around in disgust. “I’ve never actually been here before.”
Delali laughed at them both, pushing the door of the Dryve open and stepping out. Abbie slid out after her. Vic leaned over into the driver’s seat, a hundred-dollar bill in her hand. “Do you think you could wait for us here? I have a feeling there’s gonna be a surge.” The driver accepted, and Vic hopped out of the car, joining the other two girls on the sidewalk.
“Should we just pick a random spot on the sidewalk?” Delali asked, looking around. Vic was about to answer when a man selling comedy show tickets popped his head into their conversation.
“The most sought-after tickets in the city—”
“Excuse me, we’re having a private conversation,” Abbie snipped.
The man, surprised by Abbie’s reaction, turned obediently and left.
“Anyway,” Vic continued as though they hadn’t been interrupted. “Right here is probably as good as anywhere else. I mean, at least that guy would see us.”
“Actually, I know what would be better,” Delali said, leading the girls around a corner. One thing that had always confused Delali about New York was Shake Shack. She’d had the miniature burgers and cafeteria lunch fries at least a dozen times before, but only because she kept letting the hype trick her into thinking she’d accidentally gone to the single worst Shake Shack in the city, only to go to a new location and realize that she’d been right the last time.
“Here,” Delali said, gazing at the restaurant. There was a line out the door and down the block, and some people were even sitting on the sidewalk as they waited.
Abbie nodded. “People will definitely see us here.”
The girls looked at each other uncertainly before grabbing each others’ hands and standing in the triangle formation that more and more felt like the natural state of things. They closed their eyes.
“Wait— what is our intention?” Abbie asked. She wanted to be sure.
“To protect all witches,” Vic responded matter-of-factly.
Abbie nodded, and one by one the girls closed their eyes. Just as it had that night in front of The Bar and then Tompkins, the world fell mute around them. Honking horns, buskers, and costumed adults offering to take pictures with children all faded to silence. Each girl felt a warmth grow in her stomach, leaping up to her chest and swallowing her mind, a blinding white settling behind her eyes. Their clasped hands began to pulse with heat and a humming noise started up around them. The ground dropped out from beneath them and all signs of the physical world disappeared until the girls could only feel themselves and each other. They stayed like this for what felt like hours, and then finally, something disturbed the heat. A cool drop fell on Abbie’s cheek. Then one on Vic’s shoulder. Another on Delali’s arm. They opened their eyes at once to find a flurry of snow traveling down to them, growing thicker and faster by the second, until they could barely see each other through the storm. The blinking lights of the shops and billboard floodlights soon became the only evidence that there was still a city at all. On every side of the girls’ triangle, people rushed about, more concerned with the sudden change of weather than with the girls who had caused it.
Charlotte was in her study, alternately poring over Nadine’s latest AME report and making last minute changes to The Gathering’s decor, when Camille burst into the room without warning. She looked up from the paper in alarm, wondering what could’ve happened to make Camille depart so sharply from the decorum and professionalism she was known for.
“Regent,” she said breathlessly, closing the door loudly behind her. “I’m so sorry for my intrusion, but—”
Charlotte sat up straighter in her chair, waving away Camille’s apology. “What, what is it?” she demanded. “What’s going on?”
“The map is the dead,” Camille said.
Charlotte’s mouth dropped open. The map was host to some of the oldest, most powerful magic in their world. The idea that it was no more was unfathomable. “What do you mean?” she asked, pushing away from her desk and standing. The abrupt movement jostled her mug of tea and sent it spilling onto the table. Charlotte distractedly spun her index and pointer fingers in a counterclockwise circle, and the mug righted itself and refilled with the cooling liquid.
“Somehow the enchantment has been broken,” said Camille. “Olivia—”
“One of the junior agents alerted me to a monumental spike in the Baseline,” Camille said. “By the time I arrived to see what had happened, the map was no longer registering changes in atmospheric magic. It’s frozen.”
“What do you mean, frozen? Magic doesn’t freeze.”
“Regent,” Camille said gently, giving Charlotte a grave look that bordered, annoyingly, on sympathetic. “We’ve called in experts to do a final examination, but I think it’s safe to say that the map is no more.”
Charlotte walked away from her desk and back again, a clammy sense of panic overwhelming her. She pressed her hand to her temple, letting out a deep sigh. “What about the Council?” she asked. “Do they know?”
As she said it, it occurred to her that perhaps the Council was behind the sudden deficiency of the map, and the attack on her reign she’d spent decades anticipating had finally arrived. For this to happen now, just a few days before the first Gathering in over thirty years...Charlotte sat back at her desk, clamping down on the fear rising in her stomach and rearranging her features into a cool, neutral mask. Suddenly, Camille, with her solemn expression, no longer seemed like a trusted agent but a potential adversary, maybe an instrument for the other side. “Well?” she asked Camille briskly. “The Council?
“They don’t know anything. We wanted to inform you first,” Camille said carefully, registering the change in Charlotte’s tone. Charlotte turned to her desk, as if there were something there that could help her, but both she and Camille knew that wasn’t the case. She looked again to Camille, whose face had contorted with emotion.
“What?” Charlotte asked. “What is it?”
“I was just wondering about The Gathering,” Camille said uneasily. “Do you think it’s...safe to proceed with the festivities?”
“Of course,” Charlotte replied. It had to be. Canceling was not an option, and Charlotte gave Camille a withering look to make clear that she’d crossed a line. She drummed her nails on her desk, thinking of how to proceed. It was too hard to focus with all the competing threads of thought fighting for her attention: the chaos of the map’s brokenness; her growing panic at the thought of tens of thousands of witches swarming across the Sphere, potentially plotting against her. Now, the practicalities of bringing together an event with the scale of The Gathering: food, decorations, music, outfit changes, seemed insignificant, and yet they too required her undivided attention. To push The Gathering aside to focus on the map would be to reveal to her subjects yet another shortcoming of her reign. She couldn’t risk it. Charlotte let out a long breath and closed her eyes, reaching into her drawer for a quick sip of Soothing Solution. She thought of what her mother and grandmother would’ve done in the time of their regencies—how they would handle a conflict that threatened The Gathering, the rule of the Abbott family, and perhaps the safety of the Witch Sphere at large.
“Call together another two teams of top agents,” she said finally, opening her eyes to peer at Camille. “We’ll need to at least double security for the event.”
“Double?” Camille gaped.
“Yes,” Charlotte said evenly. “Will that be an issue?” Her tone slid from authoritative to cold, and she tilted her head to look at Camille head on.
Camille closed her mouth. “No,” she said meekly. “Absolutely not.”
Camille gave Charlotte a slight bow, preparing to leave the room, but Charlotte held up a hand to stop her. “Camille.”
“Request that the Council members be in the Hollow, seated and prepared, in half an hour,” Charlotte said, leaning back in her chair. “I’m calling an emergency meeting.”
Camille nodded. “Of course,” she said, and with that she scurried off to carry out Charlotte’s orders.
As the storm began to blanket the city, the girls found their Dryve, climbed in, and gave the driver hurried directions to Adrien’s apartment. Adrien had taken Isaac out to Brooklyn for a podcast interview but he was on his way back into Manhattan, and the girls waited for him to return at the parking garage near his apartment, standing beneath the broad awning to shelter themselves from the snow.
“I’m sorry,” Delali said to Vic and Abbie, walking in a small tight circle. “Adrien’s, like, never late.” This was true of Adrien even back when he was Adrian Carter, and it was something Delali had been pleased to note had stayed with him in the newest, genuine artiste iteration. She was just about to send him another “where are you” text when a black Escalade turned into the garage, Adrien, surprisingly sitting behind the wheel. Delali hit the sleep button on her iPhone.
“Hey, sorry we’re late,” he said, stepping out of the car. “I drove so Isaac could get some rest before taking you guys out to Jersey, but I haven’t been behind the wheel in forever, and with this freak snowstorm, traffic was weird.” He gave the girls a bashful smile, adjusting the hem of his now weather-inappropriate black T-shirt.
“No prob,” Delali said. “I can’t believe it’s fucking snowing.”
“Climate change,” Adrien said earnestly.
Delali hid her amusement and turned to Vic and Abbie. “Adrien, this is—”
“Abbie, hi,” Abbie jumped in, eagerly holding her hand out. “So nice to meet you.”
“The blogger, right?” Adrien asked, bypassing Abbie’s hand and pulling her into a hug. Abbie swooned. Delali had spoken to Adrian Carter about her blog.
“Yep, that’s me,” Abbie said, recovering. “And OMG, I just have to say; I loved you in Georgia on My Mind. Tony Carmichael is like, my forever crush.”
Adrien laughed. “Dela’s too,” he said, giving Delali a wink over Abbie’s shoulder. Delali rolled her eyes as Abbie stepped out of Adrien’s arms and pulled out her cellphone. She glanced at her watch impatiently, wondering whether Abbie had forgotten that they had a secret witch duty to fulfill. Between the ride to Chelsea and Adrien’s lateness, they’d already burned through an hour and fifteen minutes since the beginning of the storm. Though the ride to Alpine only took forty, she was worried about what the roads would be like considering their diversion. Plus, she wanted to be in and out of New Jersey before her Shondaland shows came on.
“Wait, sorry to be annoying.” Abbie adjusted her hair in the front-facing camera of her iPhone. “But can we take a pic for my Instagram? It’s kind of a thing for me,” she said, thinking of how Crafting & Coconut Oil’s readers would go crazy in the comments.
Adrien gave her a serious nod. “Of course.” He took the phone out of Abbie’s hand and tossed it in Delali’s general direction. “Anything for a fellow creative.” In a way that probably looked crazy to Adrien, both Delali and Vic lunged for the phone, and Delali narrowly caught it before it crashed to the ground, hoping to avoid another phone situation like the one on their birthday. Adrien slung an arm easily around Abbie’s shoulders and flashed an effortless smile, and Delali bristled at having become the photographer for their little shoot.
“Are you ready?” she said faux-brightly. Abbie nodded excitedly. Just before Delali snapped the pic, Adrien turned and kissed Abbie on the cheek in an annoyingly charming move that was so Adrien.
“I’ll make sure to regram,” Adrien promised as he and Abbie separated.
“Oh my God, seriously?” Abbie asked.
“Yeah, totally,” Adrien said. “It’s no trouble at all.”
Abbie looked at the photo. “Oh my God, it’s perfect,” she said, cradling the phone to her chest. Adrien gave her a gracious smile.
“Thanks for letting us borrow Isaac for the night,” Delali said to Adrien before Abbie could melt into a puddle on the ground. He quickly introduced himself to Vic before turning to Delali.
“See you later,” he said before making his way out of the garage and toward his apartment.
The three girls piled into the backseat of the car, Abbie still raving about Adrien.
“Ooooooh my God,” she said, zooming in on the photo. “He’s soooooo hot.” She turned her screen to face Vic and Delali as proof. “Like, look at his smile. Look at his jawline. Like, I just—” Abbie broke off, overcome with emotion.
“Adrien’s...just Adrien,” Delali said. Vic slid her eyes from Abbie to Delali, grinning at Delali’s obvious feigned nonchalance. Although she’d never admit it in forty thousand years, she was slightly excited by meeting Adrien. So many of her sorors would die for the opportunity, and she was annoyed that Abbie’s extra-ness had made it so she couldn’t take a pic with him and post it to her group chat with her line sisters. She thought, immediately, to let Tatiana know—she was a huge Georgia fan—but even though they had resolved to work on their relationship following the Cake Maestro blowup, Vic still wasn’t entirely sure where they stood with one another. Sometimes a cute, funny text or a casual update about her day would be perfectly received, and other times it would be left unanswered for days.
The girls talked aimlessly for a while, the conversation moving away from Adrien before it died away completely. The gravity of what they were about to do settled in as Isaac got further and further out of New York. The sky darkened as they drove, casting the interior of the car first in the soft lavender-orange light of the sunset and then into shadow. The snow slowed, then disappeared as they neared their destination.
“What if it doesn’t work?” Abbie asked after a long silence had taken hold.
“I don’t know,” Vic said, and they were all quiet as Isaac turned off the highway
and onto the small winding roads of Alpine, where the streets were lined with pre-fab McMansions with manicured lawns. Delali looked at the digital clock on the car’s dashboard-- the Council meeting would start in fifteen minutes. The terse British-accented voice of the car’s GPS announced that they were nearing their destination and Delali’s stomach cramped uncomfortably.
“Wait!” she burst out, and Isaac stopped short, sending the girls jerking against the restraint of their seat belts.
“Is everything okay?” he asked, turning around to face the girls.
“Yes, everything’s fine. Sorry, Isaac,” Delali said, embarrassed. “But do you mind letting us out here?” She turned to Vic and Abbie. “I feel like we probably shouldn’t get too close to the house.” They both nodded in agreement.
Delali thanked Isaac and told him she’d call when they needed to be picked up, and the girls exited the car. They made their way to the address they’d copied from the first lesson pamphlet, surrounded by the warm darkness of the balmy spring night.
The facade of 33, 26 was so ordinary that the girls had to double-check to make sure they were in the right place. With its stately gray brick, black shutters, and outsized white columns, it perfectly matched the surrounding houses. Looking at it, the girls understood why it wasn’t shrouded from typics: there was no need to shroud a structure so uniform. The grounds of the mansion extended for acres, first neatly cropped, then growing thick with woods. An eerie quiet repelled the girls as they approached, but an alluring beauty invited them despite their hesitation.
Much like the witches they had seen during their failed transport, 33, 26 appeared normal, still somehow asserted it was of another world, the grounds underscored by an uncanny energy. Now that they were there, bypassing the front of the massive house to huddle beneath the arms of the Cradle as MJ had instructed them, the girls felt aimless, like little kids unchaperoned on a field trip. They were vulnerable, hidden only by the dark of night and armed with a spell that, despite their efforts, had repeatedly slipped in and out of their grasp, seemingly without reason.
“Whoa,” Vic said as they stepped beneath the tree, sweating through the thin fabric of her cotton T-shirt dress. She took a step backward, thinking she had imagined the temperature change, but she hadn’t: it was at least fifteen degrees warmer beneath the tree’s branches, glossy and black in the moonlight.
“Kinda wish MJ would’ve mentioned the temp change,” Abbie said, fanning beneath her armpits. “I’m roasting.” Vic and Abbie turned to Delali, waiting for her to chime in, especially since she was particularly inappropriately dressed in her knit short-sleeved turtleneck, but she wasn’t even paying attention to them, instead looking skittishly around the grounds as though someone was following them.
“I am not into this,” she said finally, shivering despite the obscene heat. “Let’s just do the spell and bounce.” She extended her arms, waiting for Abbie and Vic to grip her hands, ready, at last, fulfill MJ’s prophecy.
Camille emptied the house for the Council meeting, as was protocol, supervising as non-essential occupants of 33, 26 transported to various destinations. During emergencies, only the Regent and members of the Council were allowed to be in the house, to protect potentially sensitive information. Nadine slipped into the meeting just on time, transporting to Charlotte’s door from the city, where she’d just spent hours on another fruitless search for the Mothers. Tiredness dulled her senses, making her late to notice the tension in the room. Charlotte called emergency meetings once every couple of months, more than any regent ever had, and almost always because of a spike in the Baseline that would be easily explained away—a cloaking spell too weak to adequately hide a party from the typics, a drunken transportation that left a witch sloppily appearing out of thin air in public. But the mood in the Hollow made it clear that this was not one of Charlotte’s normal panics. All around the table, Council members sat looking at each other gravely, startled by the abrupt summons and the clipped message Charlotte had dictated to Camille. Nadine pulled out her chair, settling into it deliberately. Beside her, her mother sat ramrod straight, her hands folded carefully in front of her.
Charlotte had yet to sit—instead, she was standing at her usual spot by the windows, staring intently at the thick velvet of the curtain that had been lowered in preparation for the meeting. Nadine wondered if Charlotte had given any more thought to her hypothesis about the Mothers’ return, but when Charlotte turned to face the room, her expression was indecipherable. She walked from the window to the table but did not sit, instead standing behind her chair at the head of the table, holding lightly onto its ornate wooden frame.
“I have been informed by one of our senior agents that there was a snowstorm in New York City today,” Charlotte said carefully, looking at each of them in turn, wondering if there was another betrayer in their midst. The room was silent until Stella Hampton let out a disbelieving noise caught between a laugh and a scoff.
“Don’t,” Dr. Diop said to Stella quietly under her breath, and Stella threw her a look, flipping her limp relaxed strands over her shoulder.
“Honestly, Alison,” Stella pressed on. “Is this the kind of thing that warrants an emergency Council meeting nowadays?” she asked. “I mean, climate change, hello.”
“Thank you for that detailed scientific explanation,” Charlotte said coldly. She fixed her eyes on Stella. “But this was not a freakish act of nature. This was deliberate. This was magic.” The room erupted with murmurs.
Stella gawked, her mouth falling open. “What?” she asked. “Who would do something so reckless?”
“We don’t know,” said Charlotte. “And now we can’t. The act caused such a spike in the Baseline that it has rendered the map ineffective.”
“What?” Nadine clamped a hand over her mouth, realizing the voice she’d just heard was her own.
“It attempted to register levels of magic beyond its capability.” Charlotte explained. “The witch behind this must be extraordinarily powerful, and she’s completely untracked.” The panic Charlotte had been trying to keep inside ever since Camille burst into her office threatened to seep out, her voice beginning to rise.
“Or witches,” Dr. Diop interjected.
“What?” said Charlotte.
“You said ‘the witch,’” Dr. Diop replied. “But based on what we know about the powers of individual witches, even with the strongest of intentions, it would nearly impossible for a single witch to perform an act of magic of this magnitude. We are almost certainly looking for a group.”
“A group.” Charlotte repeated. Then she felt the room spin around her, and was overcome with a nauseating dizziness. The whole table reached for her as she fell dangerously to one side before quickly catching herself.
“Regent.” Dr. Diop reached toward Charlotte but restrained herself, hesitant to make contact. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” she said, struggling to regain her breath. She pulled out her chair and sat gingerly, overwhelmed by the undeniable truth before her. Charlotte pressed her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes as she fought the headache rapidly settling in, but it was no use. When she opened her eyes they immediately met Nadine’s. She had been right all along. The Mothers had returned.
“This is unacceptable,” Charlotte heard. It was Natasha speaking, fixing her gaze squarely on Charlotte. On her left, Stella had straightened dramatically in her seat, and it was jarring to see her in such a businesslike pose instead of slouching and lounging as she usually was.
Charlotte opened her mouth to respond, but was shocked into silence as Natasha pushed away from the table and stood. “The primary responsibility of the Regent is simple,” she said. “To maintain the secrecy of the Witch Sphere. Yet throughout your reign you have consistently struggled to do so.” Charlotte took a step away from the table. They couldn’t be… she thought, yet Natasha continued.
“In the thirty plus years since Charlotte ascended the throne, her reign has been marked almost exclusively by catastrophe, all brought on by Charlotte’s ineptitude.” Now she addressed the members of the Council, speaking as if Charlotte were not in the room. “The births of our daughters have turned from a cause for celebration to an occasion marred by anxiety and stress. The Gathering, an event with the sole purpose of bringing our world together and celebrating its creation, has been phased out, resulting in a Witch Sphere more fragmented than ever before. Countless among us, myself included, have had to make unimaginable sacrifices to protect the reign of a weak, ineffectual Regent. It is unfair that we all have to contort ourselves to compensate for Charlotte’s failures.” Natasha stopped, her accusations ringing in the air, to carefully make eye contact with the members of the Council before at last meeting Charlotte’s eyes. “I move to depose the current Regent and suspend all Council activities until a suitable replacement is found,” she said, her eyes remaining on Charlotte’s.
“I second the motion,” Stella said immediately. A flash of a smile appeared on Natasha’s face as Charlotte’s mouth fell open in complete shock. Charlotte gripped the edge of the table, unable to find the words as her greatest fear unfolded before her. But she couldn’t just let the regency be wrenched away from her without a single word in her defense. She had been young when she’d ascended the throne. Her mother had just passed. So much had happened that was beyond her control.
“I—” Charlotte began, her voice weak, but Natasha was swift in her cutting her off.
“The motion has been seconded,” Natasha said. “We must move to a vote. All in favor of the deposition?” Her hand shot up in the air, and she was quickly followed by four others: Stella, of course; Gabrielle Joseph, whose only daughter had left the Witch Sphere entirely after having two typic children; Gelila Bekere, who Charlotte could tell disapproved of her reign, and Claudia Page, whose desire to be drafted into Natasha and Stella’s clique could impel her to do nearly anything.
Charlotte laced her fingers together on her lap, trying to calm herself, humiliated as she thought of how easy it must have been, how fun, for Natasha to whip those votes. The pressure that had wrapped itself around her chest loosened its grip when no one else raised their hand. But then Thea Routeledge slowly lifted her arm. Charlotte’s lips flattened into a straight line as she gave Thea a hard look. Thea carefully avoided her eyes. She could only imagine what Natasha and Stella had promised Thea to get her to change sides as at such a crucial time. A cold sheen of sweat broke out on Charlotte’s forehead as she thought of other loyal supporters defecting to the other side. But, mercifully, Candice’s hands were still folded on the table before her, and when Charlotte looked at Fabiana, she received a nod of confidence.
The vote had reached a tie. It held until Stella’s arm began to sag and Natasha’s forehead creased in uncertainty. Finally, she spoke.
“Nadine,” she said pointedly, looking down at her daughter beside her. Nadine shrank in her chair. She had hoped that her mother would forget she was there—the other members of the Council often did, their brows furrowing whenever it was her turn to present the latest happenings in the Atmospheric Magic Effort. Now that they knew the program had been unsuccessful, Nadine had been waiting for a summons from Charlotte, letting her know that her position on the Council had been terminated, but it had yet to arrive.
She had known of her mother and Stella’s distaste for Charlotte her whole life. Hearing them and other high-ranking friends disparage Charlotte over a glass of wine had become so commonplace it was essentially background noise; she simply tuned them out. Nadine realized, thinking of how smoothly her mother had spoken, how prepared she’d been to capitalize on the map’s brokenness and Charlotte’s misfortune, that she and Stella must have planned this. But in recent months, she’d been so busy with the AME and her discovery of the Mothers that she hadn’t even been around enough to notice.
An almost inconceivable thought thundered through her head as she remembered Natasha’s unexpected vote for The Gathering. Nadine leaned away from her mother, looking up at her as though she had never seen her before. No one Nadine knew was more committed to preserving the secrecy of the Witch Sphere than her mother...but there was also no one who harbored a more potent dislike of Charlotte. Nadine wanted to think this was beyond her mother, who was so respected by everyone, and who made such a show of always being dignified and fair. She wanted to believe that Natasha would never put their world at risk like this—but when she really thought about it, Nadine couldn’t be sure. Natasha rarely spoke of The Shatter these days, but Nadine knew how deeply her mother resented Charlotte for forcing her to Execute the Betrayer after Natasha spent her whole life believing she, like the Noxes before her, would never have to use her power. Her anger was understandable to Nadine, but this, this clumsy, near-sighted attempt at settling the score, was not.
“Nadine,” Natasha said again, but Nadine had already made up her mind. No good could come from deposing Charlotte now, just after a reckless display of magic had put their whole world in jeopardy, and mere days before the first Gathering in decades. The instability would only push them all further into danger, and Nadine was disappointed her mother couldn’t see beyond her feud with Charlotte to realize that.
“I abstain,” Nadine said.
“What?” Natasha asked, her arm sagging. “Nadi—” she tried again, but Nadine cut her off, looking away from her mother and down at her lap.
“I abstain from the vote.”
Everyone in the room turned toward the head of the table to face Charlotte. She had let out a surprised little laugh, unable to help herself. Her reign was as fragile as ever, but most importantly, still intact.
“To perform the perfect binding / Question all that you are finding.”
It was always the girls’ instinct to speed up as they chanted, but every time they had been successful it was because they’d kept the same steady, plodding rhythm, speaking in unison and keeping their pronunciation crisp and clear. They knew now to anticipate the warmth that began at their cores and then spread throughout their bodies, filling them with an impossible fever that was nearly unbearable beneath the heat of the Cradle. The heat encouraged them, though they knew not to presume anything— they’d had many practices that started hot and turned suddenly cold. The girls kept their eyes closed, repeating the words with meticulous determination. Soon, they felt the tickling sensation of ropes of light emerging and wrapping around their arms, and despite the instinct to marvel that the spell seemed to be working, they continued on. The light pressed against their eyelids, the threads cutting away at the darkness around them.
“Handed to the one we trust / Use it only if you must,” the girls repeated, and the cords of light thickened, wrapping tighter and tighter still. Almost all at once, pulled by some inexplicable instinct, Vic, Delali, and Abbie opened their eyes and looked from their linked hands to each other, before turning in concert to the house, focusing the might of their collective intention onto the veiled window of Charlotte’s study. The girls continued, maintaining their concentration even as something completely unprecedented happened. A cage of light surrounded the house, the gold beams thin at first and then, like the wisps circling the girls’ arms, thicker and more dazzling. The light gripping both the girls and the house started to pulse in time with the frenzied rhythm of the girls’ heartbeats. “Should you decide this is best / Say it loudly from your breast.”
The light burned to an impossibly bright blaze, and the girls began one last repetition of the chant. They closed their eyes against the glow before the beams let out a final dangerous flash, disappearing and leaving nothing but darkness in their wake. The girls opened their eyes, blinking at one another. It was done.