After recovering from the humiliating meeting and getting dressed, Nadine stood just outside the perimeter of the Cradle, the condensation on her glass cooling the palm of her hand. She’d taken several drops of Soothing Solution, and she no longer felt hot and jittery, anticipating a catastrophe. Though she’d struggled to calm herself between her meeting with Charlotte and the arrival of the festival’s first guests, now that night had descended and the party was in full swing, it seemed they had evaded disaster. She allowed herself to become distracted by the undeniable beauty of the gala. She’d only been able to imagine it before, drawing from the tales her mother, schoolteachers, and other elders had told her growing up, and now it felt surreal to watch it unfold.
The Cradle had been charmed with tiny twinkling lights hidden amongst the lush green branches. They moved and sparkled, evoking the night sky and, of course, the Mothers. On the patio, Charmony, a famous band of three witches, harmonized over jazzy bass, their voices emitting waves of purple, blue, and gold light as they sang, projecting over the party as if through speakers. At round tables on either side of the patio, bartenders dressed in identical businesslike periwinkle gowns conjured drinks as quickly as they could, endeavoring to impress guests with showy flourishes. Puffs of light, smoke, and fire rose up from their tables in myriad colors.
Beyond the patio, the massive grounds of the mansion were dotted with tents, each glowing with soft light and housing a long wood table where guests would at some point eat from exorbitant spreads of food and drink. There were rumors that later, once the food had been cleaned up, Charlotte planned to bring out thousands of vials of psychedelic serums to shift the tone of the party from dignified to debaucherous, reminiscent of the Gatherings from her youth, but for now things remained tame.
The space between the tents and the patio was a sea of guests drinking, dancing, and gossiping, half wearing unique dresses they had conjured themselves, the other half in the most decadent typic fashions they could find. All were breathtakingly glamorous, their hair worked into sky-high up-dos, floor-sweeping shapes, or soft, tight curls that framed their faces. Rich, raucous laughter filled the air as witches mingled, seeing and being seen. All around there were booths for different traditional magic games, delighting both children and adults. Helia was engaged in a round of stop-and-start, a game in which people would run away from an unusually strong witch, seeing if they could escape her pull. Nadine herself had indulged herself in a game of rocket, where a talented witch was hired to launch others into the air with sheer intention before gently guiding them back to the ground on a soft plume of warm air.
Children chased each other around the base of the Cradle, tackling one another and pretending to do spells they had read about in storybooks but were several years away from mastering. One of them, a little boy, scrambled over to Nadine and clutched her leg, hiding beneath the skirt of her minimalist Clarke Stein gown.
“Home base!” the boy yelled to his friends. “Home base, home base, home base!” The kids stopped short of Nadine: apparently the boy was, in fact, at home base. Nadine allowed her face to lift into a reluctant smile. She'd always found kids gross, but becoming an aunt must've softened her, because she’d decided the display beneath her was actually kind of cute.
“Hi,” she said, bending to speak to the boy. In the next second, his mother scooped him up, apologizing.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. When she straightened, Nadine realized she knew her— it was Magdalena Prince, an acquaintance of hers from university.
“Magda, hey,” Nadine said. “How are you?”
“Oh, Nadine, hi. I didn’t realize it was you.” Magda leaned down to her son and spoke in a saccharine voice. “Say hi to Nadine. Eddie, say hi.” Eddie shook his head before running off to join his friends. “Sorry,” Magda said. “He’s a bit shy.”
“That’s fine,” Nadine said, smiling. “I didn’t know you had a son.”
“Oh, yeah. I got married and had Eddie shortly after graduation. I’ve heard your family had some luck in that department,” she said. “I know it was your sister’s daughter but still, what good fortune.”
Nadine beamed. “Thank you.”
Nadine and Magda turned to watch the festival unfurling around them.
“It’s so gorgeous,” Madga said. “Absolutely breathtaking.”
“I know,” said Nadine. “I guess we’re both too young to have ever seen the festival in its original glory, but this is incredible.” Madga hummed but said nothing, and Nadine followed her eyes to a graying woman sitting in a hovering chair near the patio. They could see the woman laughing with another witch near her age, and Nadine sensed a sobriety in Magda that she hadn’t first arrived with. She touched her friend on the shoulder.
“Sorry,” Magda said, her voice thick. “I was just thinking how wonderful it is that my grandmother gets to see this one more time.”
Nadine turned to look at Magda, to share a look of consolation or understanding, but instead her face fell into shock, as she caught something in the background, just behind Magda. Three witches had entered the party, stepping into the brilliant, iridescent light of the deck. In many ways they resembled the other partygoers; each girl wore a long, elaborate gown and they entered the party as if on air, each carrying herself with the telltale poise of a witch. They looked young, perhaps early twenties, and blinked at the spectacle before them in awe, just as Nadine and the other witches of her generation had. Yet something about the three girls was conspicuous, and they commanded Nadine’s attention.
Despite their naive facial expressions, there was something authoritative in the girls’ strides, something stately and compelling. Nadine looked at them carefully, wondering why she felt as though she knew them, or at least had seen them before. Her eyes lingered on the tallest of the girls, who wore a floor-length pale pink dress. Nadine had seen her before, she was sure of it—had she been one of the students Nadine used to tutor? A lower classman from training school? As she stared, something inconceivable happened.
The girl’s face rippled and went blank for a split second, as though her features had been erased, and then in the next second she had a new face entirely— one Nadine knew well. The girl had turned into Stella Hampton, who Nadine knew was wobbling drunkenly around The Gathering, making a spectacle of herself. The girl wearing Stella’s face mimed spilling a drink down the front of her dress with mocking exaggeration, sending the other two into peals of laughter. Then, so quickly Nadine would have missed it if she blinked, the girl’s original face returned.
A chill ran down Nadine’s spine. Her legs felt weak. Madga touched her arm, concerned. “Are you alright?”
Nadine turned frantically. “Did you see that?” she demanded. “Did you see what that witch did?”
Magda backed away from her. “Nadine, please lower your voice.” She looked around the surrounding crowd anxiously. “People are beginning to stare.”
Nadine ignored her, whipping her head from side to side as she searched the party. Someone else had to have seen what she had, right? But as she looked out onto the grounds, all she saw were revelers, indulging in food, drink, dance and gossip. Not one person appeared as shaken as Nadine. Nadine gathered the skirt of her gown and hurried toward the girls, ignoring Magda as she called after her. She intended to confirm what she’d seen, but as she neared the girls she realized she feared the answer. Being an Imitator wasn’t like being a Seer, where several were born a generation. It wasn’t even like being an Executioner, which was limited to the Nox family alone. The ability to Imitate was mythic, otherworldly, the stuff of children’s books and elaborate fiction. It was a power attributed to the Mother who had provided love of self. No one knew for certain why the powers of the Mothers had never manifested in any witches. But Nadine, now unnerved by what she had seen, felt that she could guess. Reading, Imitating, Influencing—such powerful abilities were too dangerous to be sprinkled across the witch population at random.
Finally Nadine reached the three girls, a realization coursing through her. Now that she was closer to them, she saw that the girl in the pink dress was the same one who had almost knocked her over during her search for the Mothers, the one she had seen at The Bar. In that context, the girl had seemed ordinary—Nadine wouldn’t have even guessed she was a witch. But now, alongside the other girls, it was clear she was special, that they all were. When Nadine considered each girl individually, she felt nothing, but as a group, they were brilliant, striking. It was clear they were a triptych, a unit in three parts, an assembly to be considered as one. Nadine’s heart began to race. Could it be? Could these girls be the Mothers?
“Hi, I’m Nadine,” she said, holding her hand out to the girls. Her voice bore no evidence of her distress. Each shook it in turn. “Can I ask what your names are and how you found yourselves here?”
Delali straightened up and spoke. “I’m Delali. This is Vic and Abbie,” she said, gesturing to the girls beside her. “We’re here for The Gathering. We were invited here by our mentor, MJ.”
Nadine recoiled, her face contorting as if she’d just seen a dead body.
“What?” Abbie asked. “Are you okay?”
“That depends,” Nadine responded brusquely. She took a moment to think before closing her eyes and shrouding the five square feet of space around her the Mothers. Though she was sure other witches would notice her creating the shroud, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was protecting the girls from whatever MJ was trying to lead them into.
“When you say MJ, do you mean you’ve been in contact with Macy-Jo Watson?” Nadine whispered fiercely. The name felt like dirt on her tongue. “The Betrayer?” Nothing registered on the girls’ faces.
“Who is that?” Vic asked. “We’re talking about MJ the witch— about this tall,” she raised her arm, holding it to chest level. “Small blond afro, dope penthouse on the Upper West?”
Nadine blinked at them, desperate to stay grounded as the world began to lurch around her. “Macy-Jo Watson is not just a witch,” Nadine hissed. “Macy-Jo Watson is the Betrayer, the entire reason for the state of the Witch Sphere right now.”
The girls looked at her dumbly, their faces moving between confusion and disbelief.
“No,” Abbie said. “No way. How could MJ be responsible for Charlotte being a tyrant?”
“Yeah,” Delali jumped in, though Nadine had rattled her. “What does she have to do with the branches of the Cradle dying? And all the witches losing their powers?”
Nadine paused, realizing that MJ must have filled the girls with anti-Charlotte rhetoric. Of course, Charlotte was a flawed Regent, but tyrant was a strong word. “MJ’s lied to you, hasn’t she?” she asked the girls. They stared at her. “You don’t know anything about The Shatter or the typic crisis, do you?” Nadine continued.
Panic spread through Delali’s chest. “What are you talking about?”
Nadine sighed, closing her eyes to regain her focus. “I don’t know what MJ told you, but Charlotte isn’t a tyrant. She’s not a perfect Regent, but much of that is not her fault. Her biggest mistake, in truth, was trusting Macy-Jo—your MJ—and appointing her to the Council.”
The girls’ mouths fell open, and they racked their brains, thinking of the hundreds of hours they had spent working intimately with Macy-Jo in her home. In all that time, she had never mentioned that she was amongst the most influential women in the Witch Sphere.
“Macy-Jo and Charlotte were childhood best friends,” Nadine began. “But even in those early days, things were tense. Charlotte and Macy-Jo were both clever girls poised for positions in the Council, Charlotte the daughter of the Regent and Macy-Jo a talented Seer. But Charlotte’s guaranteed seat on the Council made her frivolous in her studies, something that irked Macy-Jo deeply. Her future depended on her Seeing ability—a gift from the Mothers, but a gift Macy-Jo worked diligently to hone. Like so many others, Macy-Jo planned to work her way into the Council by excelling at training school and university, but the sudden death of Charlotte’s mother changed all of that. By law of succession, Charlotte became Regent at the age of twenty-two, and overnight, she found the fate of the Witch Sphere was in her hands.
From the beginning, the Council was against Charlotte’s taking the throne. They claimed she was too young and unserious, and pushed for a temporary governor. But Charlotte knew that if the Council had their way, she might never have the opportunity to rule. She went against all advice, and, asserting that the Regency was her birthright, she ascended the throne just days after her mother’s passing. She quickly made enemies in the Council: as her first act as Regent, she appointed Macy-Jo head Seer, disregarding the long-held customs of appointment. Despite Macy-Jo’s ability, the Council underestimated her— she was too young, too inexperienced, even if she did have what no other Seer before her did, an ability to see the future with one hundred percent certainty. The councilmembers bristled at what they called a pair of schoolchildren running the Sphere, failing to realize Macy-Jo was different from Charlotte, and always had been. She was book smart and attentive to detail, a natural witch whose almost fanatical ambition brought her near perfection. She was ready for Council life, and though Charlotte was not, she knew that with Macy-Jo’s talent in her employ her success as Regent was guaranteed.
“But the doubt of the councilmembers and the high-ranking families around them colored Charlotte’s every decision, and that included Macy-Jo’s appointment. Together, the two became an emblem for potential disaster and a magnet for endless critique, but uniting against the censure of the Council healed the old strain in their relationship. Macy-Jo used her Seeing ability to circumvent the Council’s impending criticisms and demands, and Charlotte leveraged her authority when other Council members attempted to undermine Macy-Jo.
“But the harmony was short-lived. Just months into her appointment, Macy-Jo had a vision that changed the course of our world’s history. Later, at her trial before the Magistrate of Magic, she would claim she saw her own frame from the back, dressed in the Regent’s crowning robes, drowned in a spectacular light. She took the visions as fate and fact: she was to become the new Regent and rule in Charlotte’s stead.
“A once latent ambition took hold of her. She was consumed by the vision of herself as Regent, became fixed on forcing the future she had seen. In each new vision she had, she farmed for clues about her fate— but often they offered nothing but visions of the pedestrian near future: a storm or a strike or another doubter in Charlotte’s midst. She read tirelessly, looking for historical precedents to help her create the future she’d seen. How could she take the crown she felt was rightfully hers without overthrowing a friend? A childhood friend who had only supported her? A friend facing unfair doubt as she learned the ropes of her new position? A friend who, thus far, had made no impeachable errors? Macy-Jo put the vision aside, disgusted by the ugly feelings it inspired in her.
“She dedicated herself anew to her position on the Council, conducting the weekly meeting with her team of Seers and using her ability to keep Charlotte abreast of potential catastrophes. Traditionally, every Head Seer had led at least five seers, but with Macy-Jo’s skill, the team had become a formality. Even if all five members had the same vision, Charlotte made no decisions without Macy-Jo’s cosign.
“But even as she tackled her Council duties, Macy-Jo found herself again and again returning to her vision, and against her best efforts, the desire to fulfill it blossomed into obsession. Every conversation she had with a fellow witch seemed to hide some reference to her future— but how? How would she become the first Regent with named powers? Would there be a war— a crisis?
An answer didn’t come to her until late one night, deep into a session of reading arcane historical texts. She was leafing through a long-forgotten volume about governance in the time of the Mothers, immediately after the Regency was developed, when she found something that could be useful. It was—and still is—nearly impossible to remove a Regent, but if a disaster that threatened the secrecy of the Witch Sphere happened on the watch of a given Regent, she could be dismissed and replaced by a more capable witch selected by the High Council. An idea budded in Macy-Jo’s head.
“She needed a fiasco of such gigantic proportions that it would force the Council to consider the centuries-old, never used rule. There was only one thing in the Sphere that could cause such turmoil—the magic of the Mothers. Not even the most beloved Regent’s reign could survive its disappearance, let alone Charlotte’s shaky rule.
“So, Macy-Jo resolved to take the magic of the Mothers. As a member of the High Council, she could easily gain access to the chamber where it was held, and as the Regent’s best friend and closest advisor, she would never be suspected. All that remained was the question of when. With her plan in the back of her mind, Macy-Jo doubled down on her duties as Head Seer, priming the other Council members to see her as a worthy replacement.
“She continued to plan before an unexpected obstacle appeared in her path. At a routine meeting of Seers, all five witches saw a vision of the Mothers’ powers being stolen. Of course, Macy-Jo had had this vision too, and it only confirmed that her plan would be carried out perfectly. But she withheld the truth from her team. Instead she claimed she hadn’t had such a vision, and so it shouldn’t be reported to the Council. Some Seers protested: due to the severity of the vision, they felt it would be appropriate to break protocol and notify Charlotte. What if? they said. But Macy-Jo reminded them of the facts of the situation: no proposed vision that had ever come to fruition had ever evaded her. So they agreed to let it go, save for one witch, Ada Brown, who snuck into Charlotte’s chambers after the meeting to recount her vision, unbeknownst to Macy-Jo, the other seers, and the remainder of the Council.
“On the night she entered the Mothers’ chamber, the grounds were silent, the Council members asleep. Macy-Jo stole across the grounds with complete confidence, and when she arrived the chamber was empty as planned. The magic of the Mothers stood on their altar, glittering and alive, as it had been since the first Executioner took them so long ago. Macy-Jo collected the jars in her arms, on the verge of accomplishing everything she had lusted over for the last several months. But as she turned to leave the chambers, a figure appeared in the doorway; it was Charlotte, draped in the Regent’s robes Macy-Jo dreamed of.
“Macy-Jo ran, skirting past Charlotte but unable to escape the fleet of guards that swarmed her. Panicked, and with the realization that she could not continue to watch Charlotte continue to hold the throne, she made a decision. Macy-Jo dropped the vessels before her. They shattered on the ground, and the magic of The Mothers soared into the air. It’s said that the magic hovered momentarily, then separated into three distinct, brilliant, streams before disappearing into the night sky.
“Macy-Jo was arrested and put on trial, sentenced to Execution, and excommunicated from the Witch Sphere, but not before leaving disaster in her wake. It was from then that babies started being born without powers. She’s the reason for the typic babies,” Nadine stressed. “Not Charlotte.”
The girls were silent as they realized the gravity of what they’d done. Finally, Vic spoke. “So, taking the Council’s powers is a bad thing?”
“Is that what Macy-Jo asked of you?”
The girls nodded, and Nadine gaped at them.
“It’s a terrible thing,” she said, panicked, thinking of her mother, of Dr. Diop, of herself. “Did you cast the Executioner’s spell?”
“The what?” Delali asked. “We were told it was a binding spell, that the powers would come back eventually.
Nadine let out a humorless laugh. “That’s not how it works in our world,” she said. “It’s all or nothing.” She wanted to believe the spell would have been totally ineffective, the way it was when any non-Executioner attempted it, but then abandoned the idea. She knew the regular rules did not apply here, not with the witches who housed the magic of the Mothers.
“Wait,” Abbie said. “The Council members are going to lose their powers forever?”
Nadine nodded, a wave of nausea crashing over her. She looked at her hands, wondering if this was the last time they would be privileged with magic ability. As she did, something else occurred to her. If the spell had already been cast, the only way she could still have her powers was if Macy-Jo had told the girls to let the spell Steep, an old-fashioned technique witches used in the past to make spells more powerful. They cast them three days before they took effect, harnessing the power of the most magical number in the Sphere. She felt her knees get weak at the thought of an exceptionally powerful Executioner spell cast by The Mothers. “There must be something we can do,” Delali said. She had gathered her skirt in her hands and was preparing to step out of the shroud.
“Yeah,” Vic said. “MJ did mention a reversal spell, but said basically no one uses it because it’s so difficult to get right.” She paused, doubtful. “Is that true?”
“Or was she just telling us another lie?” Abbie grumbled.
“She wasn’t,” Nadine said, racking her brain. She was familiar with the reversal spell, but only vaguely. It was one of the things she’d learned in a required core class in university, deemed useless, and promptly forgotten after the exam. “The reversal spell is incredibly finicky. When it’s cast, the conditions have to be more or less exactly as they were when the original spell was cast. There can be some minor differences but—” Nadine broke off, looking skeptically at The Gathering around them. “Even the strongest intent will have difficulty conquering such radical discrepancy.”
“But we have the magic of the Mothers,” Abbie said. “That must count for something, right?”
“We cast the spell two nights ago, and the Council’s all here— we still have time,” Vic added.
“Just tell us what we have to do and we’ll get it done,” Delali said.
Nadine watched them, at last beginning to see why the magic of the Mothers had chosen these girls. “We have to work fast,” she said. “We have until midnight until the spell takes effect.”
“It’s 11:49,” Abbie said, unsure.
“Well, then we need to get to work,” Nadine said, and then she lifted the shroud, looking to the Regent’s mansion. Through the large kitchen windows, she could see there were nearly as many people inside as there were outside—mostly staff, but party guests as well.
“I’ll get everyone out of the house,” Delali offered.
“Good,” Nadine said. She gestured to herself, Vic, and Abbie. “The three of us will gather the Council members. You guys start out here,” she said to Vic and Abbie. “I need to find the Regent.” With that, Nadine disappeared, transporting herself away. The others shared a quick look before Abbie spoke.
“Let’s do this,” she said, and then the three dispersed.
Inside 33, 26, Charlotte gazed at The Gathering through the large windows of her study. From up here, the chaos of the party seemed tame, as though it followed a pattern. The guests converged at the bars on the patio, then spread out as they bounced from tent to tent, stopping along the way for conversation, before coming together again at the bars again, beginning the pattern anew. Although she had pushed so fiercely for the reinstatement of The Gathering, dismissing both Camille and Nadine’s concerns, now that the night had arrived, she found herself paralyzed with an all-consuming fear that disaster would strike. Natasha’s words echoed in her head, even now, as she looked out onto the gala that she had somehow managed to pull together: her reign has been marked almost exclusively by catastrophe.
She’d spent barely half an hour outside with the guests, embracing her loyal supporters and greeting her adversaries with an ingratiating friendliness, before immediately retiring to her study, where she could watch Camille’s minute-by-minute security updates pop on an enchanted wall. Per Camille’s plans, which Charlotte had fastidiously edited and reedited until she was satisfied with them, a massive Tracking charm had been cast on 33, 26 and the surrounding area: no one with the Track would be able to transport onto the grounds without Charlotte and the Shrouded Vow Taskforce knowing of it. That wouldn’t stop the Mothers, but it was a start.
On the ground, two teams of Camille’s top agents roamed the party, dressed in gowns to avoid detection. They used miniaturized recorders worn on their wrists to monitor changes in the Baseline, but more important than that was the perception and awareness that years of training had given them and no charm or device could mimic. Typics were shielded from the event through an intricate shroud Charlotte had commissioned. While they could see 33, 26 and the Cradle as before, the witches themselves and the festivities around them were hidden from view. By all counts, it seemed like she had done it—that she’d finally come back from The Shatter, that she had, at long last, solidified the Abbott dynasty into the annals of the history of the Witch Sphere. She was ready to accept this as true, to relax for just a moment, when she heard a noise behind her. Charlotte turned to find Nadine Nox before her, clutching her skirt in her hands. Charlotte’s stomach filled with dread. The unusual lack of decorum Nadine had displayed in transporting herself directly in Charlotte’s study could portend nothing positive.
Nadine let out a relieved sigh. “Good,” she said, more to herself than to Charlotte. “I had hoped you would be here.”
“What is it?” Charlotte snapped. “What dreadful news do you have for me now?”
Nadine’s eyes narrowed. “I need you to listen to me very carefully, Charlotte.” Charlotte jerked backward, unnerved. “The Mothers are here, right now,” Nadine said.
Charlotte gripped her desk for support. “What? How do you know?”
“I saw one of them Imitate,” said Nadine. “One second she had Stella Hampton’s face and the next, another entirely.”
“We don’t have time for your questions,” Nadine said shortly. “The girls have cast an Executioner spell on all the members of the High Council at Macy-Jo’s urging, and I’m working with them to cast a reversal,” she said. “You need to go to the Hollow immediately and take your seat at the head of the table.”
Charlotte's jaw dropped. “What? Macy-Jo and the Mothers? But how—what of the other members of the Council?” Charlotte asked. “I can—”
“I’ve enlisted the help of the Mothers in finding them. They’re working on it as we speak.”
“But,” Charlotte began, though she had no idea what she meant to say. “What can I do?” she asked finally.
Nadine looked at her, her expression caught between cold and pitying. She waved her arm, and the door of the Hollow, adjacent to Charlotte’s study, opened. “Please, Charlotte, just take your seat.”
Charlotte looked at Nadine for a long while, studying her face before suddenly Nadine transported herself out of 33, 26 and presumably, back outside to the party. Then she walked into the Hollow, and for the first time in over thirty years, simply did as she was told.
Delali walked onto the deck and into the Regent’s mansion. The kitchen was high-ceilinged and well lit, chandeliers hanging over the counters and kitchen tables. Dozens of staff members rushed around in their mauve uniforms, some of them preparing typic dishes and others using their powers to create Sphere specialties. Delali stood on a bar stool by the kitchen island and cleared her throat.
“Excuse me, everyone,” she said loudly. A few people turned to look at her, but most carried on with their tasks. “Excuse me, everyone,” she repeated, this time louder. “I have an announcement from the Council.” This got everyone’s attention, and they all stopped to stare at her. “Charlotte will be making an important announcement outside in just a few minutes, and she’d like for everyone to move out to the lawn.” Delali knew it was risky to promise something on Charlotte’s behalf — there could easily someone inside who knew better—but she knew invoking the Regent was the only way to get the stressed staff and slow guests to move.
To Delali’s relief, the crowd began to move towards the exit, flooding out onto the deck and into the night. She peered out at the party through the windows as the guests filed out, praying Abbie and Vic were having as much luck wrangling all the members of the Council.
As Nadine ushered Stella Hampton and two other Council members into 33, 26, Vic approached with another, Candice Thompson, on her arm.
“What’s going on, Nadine?” Candice asked hurriedly. She jerked her arm out of Vic’s taloned grasp. “Who is this?”
“I’ll have to explain later,” Nadine said. “Please just understand that you’re in grave danger, and that you need to be inside right now.” She nodded towards the mansion. “Go to the Hollow and sit down in the exact same place you did at the last emergency meeting. It’s imperative.”
The added instructions made Candice’s eyes widen in alarm. “Nadine, what’s going on?” she asked again, this time more urgently. “Have we been cursed?” Panic was evident in her tone.
“I don’t have the time to explain right now,” Nadine said. “Please, just do as I’ve said.”
Candice entered the house as Abbie approached with two more Council members, who she’d found on the outskirts of the property. Vic left and returned again with more, giving them the same instructions Nadine had given Candice.
Vic counted on her fingers. “That’s only nine. Who’s missing?”
“My mother,” Nadine said. She bit her lip, knowing that after her abstention, it would be hard to convince her mother of anything. Both Natasha and Eve had ignored all of Nadine’s attempts at communication since the vote— but she had to try. Nadine rushed between groups of people, narrowly avoiding dramatic displays of magic and the gesticulations of guests as they spoke. She zeroed in on her mother’s narrow back, cased in a silk cobalt gown, and hurried toward her, fear growing in her chest. She finally reached the table where her mother sat with Eve, feeding Helia tiny bites of cake.
“Mother,” Nadine said as she approached. Both Natasha and Eve continued to chat as though they hadn’t seen her at all, but she was sure they had.
“Mother,” Nadine repeated pleadingly. “Mother, there’s an emergency,” she said to Natasha’s stoic profile. Eve looked down at her hands. Helia giggled. “Everything that I thought about the Mothers was true—is true.”
Natasha’s hand stopped short, her dessert fork centimeters from Helia’s mouth.
“The Mothers are back. And so is Macy-Jo.”
Eve gasped, and Natasha turned slowly to face Nadine. “You’re sure?”
“Certain. The Mothers have found three young witches as their vessel, and they cast the Executioner’s spell on 33, 26.”
Natasha’s grip on Helia tightened. “But why?” she asked. “And when? I still have my powers— perhaps it didn’t work.” She shot a puff of smoke from one of her fingers to make sure, and Helia giggled and clapped.
“Macy-Jo misled them; they thought they were helping the Sphere,” Nadine explained. “They cast it three nights ago, during the emergency meeting.”
“It’s been Steeping?” Natasha said incredulously. She handed Helia over to Eve in a businesslike motion and stood.
“Growing stronger by the day,” Nadine confirmed.
“They’ll have to attempt a reversal immediately,” she said.
Nadine nodded emphatically. “That’s why I’m here. You and I both need to be in the Hollow now— the other Council members are there, and the reversal needs to be cast before midnight.”
Nadine and Natasha hurried across the grounds, snaking through the festival. Natasha entered the house, disappearing up the stairs toward the Hollow, but Nadine paused on the patio, where the Mothers had congregated in a corner.
She conjured a piece of paper, using all her energy to recall the reversal spell. When she thought she had gotten it, she focused her intent into her index finger and began to write.
“Here,” Nadine said. “Perform it quickly, but carefully. It will require every last shred of your intention to work.” She handed the paper to Delali and then hurried into the house, rushing to take her seat in the Hollow.
The girls ran from the patio to the Cradle, dodging partygoers with every step. When they arrived, Abbie and Vic crowded around Delali to see what Nadine had written.
I come here now to heal my deed
Reverse what I had past decreed
All things here are as they were
My intent, now true and sure
The old pursuit I now negate
May I avoid an ugly fate
Abbie checked her watch again. It was 11:58.
“Ready?” Delali asked.
“Ready,” Vic and Abbie responded.
Delali let the scrap of paper fall to the ground, and the girls grabbed each others’ hands as they had three nights ago. They closed their eyes and began to chant, feeling the same heat on their bodies, melting of the physical world, and sublime harmony that always accompanied their acts of magic.
As they breathed out the spell, light grew around the house, climbing up and around it like vines of ivy, just like it had three nights ago. Around them, a commotion was beginning to erupt as guests noticed the grid of light enveloping 33, 26, but the girls were oblivious : they had surrendered their senses completely to the spell. The earth around them shook, and there was a deafening silence when they finished. Slowly, the girls let go of each other and opened their eyes, exchanging worried looks, unsure if they had succeeded.
Abbie glanced at her watch again. “11:59,” she said, and the girls sighed. They walked toward the empty house as the clock struck 12 and entered, looking for Nadine. After a few seconds, she came running down the stairs in her heels.
“We did it,” Vic said when Nadine reached them, and the look of concern on Nadine’s face fell away. The four women fell into an embrace as naturally as if they’d known each other for years. But when they pulled away, Vic saw something in the corner of her eye that stole her breath. The others followed her open-mouthed gaze to see a figure at the top of the winding stairs. The other Council members filtered out of the Hollow, bottlenecking in the hall as they caught sight of what the girls had seen. MJ.
Her figure was wrapped in a floor-sweeping white dress, a cape falling from her shoulders. One of her hands closed around the banister, and the other rested on her hip. Her lips were painted a matte burgundy that evoked dried blood, and her signature afro was pinned into fluffy mohawk. Macy-Jo let out a ringing laugh as she descended the stairs, a truly mirthful sound the girls had never heard from her before. The dumbstruck Council trailed after her, following as though in a trance.
It was immediately evident as Macy-Jo walked towards them that they were seeing the woman as she truly was for the first time. She had none of the delicate, wounded movements that she’d performed before, which now struck the girls as clearly false. Instead she moved with powerful determination, just as youthful as the girls themselves.
Macy-Jo turned and trained her eyes on Charlotte, who had stopped at the base of the stairs, holding the banister as though she would fall without its support. Macy-Jo approached her with a menacing swagger, her hips swinging with each step. Every witch the house fell away as she walked, clearing her path to the Regent.
“It’s good to see you again, old friend,” Macy-Jo said to Charlotte. “Your quarters are as lovely as ever.” It then dawned on the girls that MJ must have been in the house all along, rendering the reversal spell ineffective. They turned to Nadine, wondering if she had come to the same conclusion, and it appeared she had. She was staring uselessly at her hands, flexing and unflexing her fingers. One by one, the other Council members realized and did the same. Each attempted some act of magic, wondering at the lack of vigor or electricity in their veins, all of them coming to the same conclusion. They were typics.
Even at her most powerful, those heady days leading up to her attempt to steal the magic of the Mothers, Macy-Jo had never felt this capable. With the powers of the Council members coursing through her, threading together with what little remained of her Seeing abilities, MJ felt overstuffed, corpulent with the magic ability she had been without for so many years. She waved her hand, and every door and window in 33, 26 flung open. The party outside had quieted somewhat, the guests worried and confused by the spectacle of the reversal spell. Macy-Jo stepped out onto the patio. A wide circle cleared around her, the crowd gasped, and some attendees immediately transported out of the event. Others ran to the edges of the property, frightened, but curious to see what would happen next.
Macy-Jo looked around the grounds, surprised at how few people she recognized in the crowd that remained. Every so often, she noticed an old classmate or acquaintance, but most of the people she had hoped would be around to witness her triumph were nowhere to be found. Then again, Macy-Jo thought, most of those people would’ve had the good sense to leave as soon as they saw her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the members of the Council begin to file out of the house in a defeated line, clustering near the door like a pack of wounded animals.
Stella Hampton, a classmate of MJ’s in training school, shook with wailing sobs, making the motions that accompanied basic charms and howling louder when her movements spawned no action. Alison Diop, an unfortunate victim in all this, was rubbing her hands together as though the feel of them was unfamiliar to her. MJ had always liked her—they had studied together at Bekere and completed the same research track—but she had known that there would be collateral damage when she first conceived of this plan, that day the girls had come to her apartment for their first lesson. The jumble of unconnected sounds and images that constituted the vision confused her at first, but she’d been able to latch on to one image in particular— a string of lights floating in the night sky. MJ had seen them before, but couldn’t place where, and she didn’t know why a memory would be laced in with a vision. But later it came to her. The place she had seen those lights before was the last Gathering before her banishment from the Witch Sphere.
Charlotte’s mother had been ailing and fading quickly. It was unsaid but understood that it would be her last festival, and as such, pulling the event together fell largely on Charlotte’s shoulders—frivolous, unserious Charlotte, who despite her mother’s diagnosis seemed to think she would live forever until the very end. She had come to MJ, as she always did with her problems back then, and together with Charlotte’s advisors, MJ had put together the event herself. Charlotte had shown up the morning of to give her final approval, distractedly signing off, but conjuring a gaudy thread of lights to circle the property, her only contribution to the event. When MJ made the connection, it was then she knew she would return to 33, 26 for another Gathering: she had not seen a memory, but the future.
One by one, the remaining Council members left the property, Natasha Nox and her daughter the last to exit. MJ turned to look at them. She had never seen the girl before, but the resemblance between the two women was striking: they had the same broad nose, narrow cat-like eyes, prominent chin and bony frame. The girl was not crying like other members of the Council, but looked sunken, deflated. Only Natasha looked fine—better, in fact, than the last time MJ had seen her, when she was a slight wavering thing, terrified to be the first Nox in over a hundred years to use the Executioner power. Natasha stood tall, her shoulders back and her hands clasped in front of her, and her face flattened into an unreadable expression. When MJ met her eyes, she didn’t falter, instead lifting her chin slightly. MJ couldn’t be sure, but she read it as a confirmation of an idea she had begun to privately consider a few years after her expulsion, after she had gotten used to her diminished capability: that Natasha had deliberately let her retain a tiny bit of her power, too squeamish to strip her completely. Natasha looked away and gathered the dark folds of her iridescent silk dress, walking around to the front of the house and out into the night.
The sight of Natasha’s departure reminded Macy-Jo of one more thing she had come here to do: right the wrong she had done so many years ago. She turned toward the girls. After their bungled attempt at the reversal spell, they had huddled beneath the branches of the Cradle, holding each other and watching the events in awe. Even now, knowing they had successfully caused a snowstorm in New York City in the middle of May, knowing they had executed the entire Council and were the reason Macy-Jo now had her powers, Macy-Jo was shocked that these girls were the vessels selected by the magic of the Mothers. It had floated free for over a decade before choosing them. Every time the girls had showed up at Macy-Jo’s apartment over the past few months she’d thought—why these girls? She had yet to settle on an answer.
A path to the Cradle cleared as MJ approached them, and she surprised herself with the affection she felt as she stood in front of them. They had given hours, days, and months to each other, and each time they bested a task she prepared for them, she had felt the genuine thrill of a teacher. And yet, each action had only gotten her closer to this day, to this moment.
Macy-Jo tapped into her unfamiliar well of magic again, conjuring three fortified glass containers. They which appeared in a row at her feet. “I’ve grown so fond of you all,” she said to the girls. Then she raised her arms, the magic of two Executioners coursing through her, and said, as steadily as if reciting her address:
To perform the perfect binding
Question all that you are finding
Handed to the one we trust
Use it only if you must
Should you choose that this is best
Say it loudly from your breast
The effect was instantaneous. Three streams of a glittering purple mist, so dark it seemed black, were wrenched from the girls, emanating from every exposed inch of their skin. Abbie’s knees buckled. Delali let out a grunt as though she’d been punched in the stomach. Vic gasped sharply, pressing a hand to her chest. The magic settled into the vessels with a bloodcurdling hiss, and a seal formed over each. Inside the jars, the girls’ magic swirled tumultuously, straining against the glass. Macy-Jo scooped them up, cradling them in her arms as though they were children, and in the next second transported away. In the center of the lawn, far from anyone’s notice, the new sprout withered, shrinking until it was a pathetic, desiccated stem.
After that, the grounds descended into chaos. Before MJ stripped the girls of their powers, only two living witches had ever witnessed an Execution—Charlotte and Natasha. Now, suddenly, hundreds of witches had. The sense of immediate danger emptied the grounds quickly. Everywhere witches disappeared noiselessly, gripping their powerless partners and children, and their daughters who had yet to learn how to transport.
Nadine stood from where she’d been slumped against the wall of the house, staring at the women who had been the Mothers, and now were ordinary girls—just like she had become. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, surprised when it came back wet. Her mother, she knew, had slunk away in the immediate aftermath of their Execution, and though Nadine wondered where she’d gone, she didn’t want to go looking for her. Most of the other Council members had staggered away, exhausted. Charlotte had followed Macy-Jo, attempting to make her way to the Cradle—to do what, Nadine wasn’t sure—but she had crumpled to the ground halfway to the tree, fatigued by the Executioner’s spell. She had bent over, and even from where Nadine stood she could see Charlotte shudder with the force of her weeping. Nadine turned away, feeling distantly happy that she had ignored her mother’s advice to transport to the event and instead elected to drive.
Vic had never been in a physical fight before—she hadn’t been that type of girl growing up—but she imagined this was how the aftermath would feel: draining and defeating, her whole body tender and raw. She closed her eyes and doubled over, letting her head hang before she felt a small hand on her lower back.
“Vic,” she heard Abbie say. Vic ignored her and Abbie said her name again.
“Yeah,” she said, straightening. Abbie said nothing, instead jutting her chin forward. Delali had collapsed onto the grass, her eyes round and stunned, glassy with the sheen of unshed tears.
“She won’t move,” Abbie mouthed.
Vic crouched beside Delali, careful not to teeter in her heels. “Dela,” she said quietly. She wrapped a tender arm around Delali’s shoulders. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
“Yeah,” Abbie said. She stooped at Delali’s other side, winding her arm around Delali’s torso. “Maybe you guys can finally come up to Washington Heights and see my apartment,” she said, smiling weakly at her attempt at a joke. Stragglers gawked at the trio, each hoping to catch a glimpse of the girls who had housed the magic of the Mothers before transporting to their homes.
“Delali,” Vic tried again, and then finally Delali cleared her throat.
“Yeah, right,” she said, her voice hoarse. She moved to stand, and Vic and Abbie stayed twined around her, propping her up. “Let’s go.”
The girls walked around to the front of the house and ambled for a few aimless steps before Vic pulled out her phone to call a Süper. But her phone wouldn’t turn on, even though it had been fully charged before they’d left the city. She tried to reset it, holding both the power and home buttons, but the screen stayed black. “My phone’s dead,” she said, turning to Abbie and Delali. “Are yours working?”
They both took out their phones and tried to turn them on, but it didn’t work.
Delali ran a frustrated hand through her hair, ruining the delicate curls Abbie had styled earlier that night. “It’s all the magic in the atmosphere,” she said. She held up two weak fingers and added, “Lesson 2.” She stomped away from Vic and Abbie before letting out a scream that made them both jump. “FUCK,” she yelled, kicking off her shoes. She whirled around to face them. “How the fuck are we supposed to get home?”
“Hey,” Abbie said gently. “Just calm—”
“Don’t tell me to calm down,” Delali spat. “We just found out the last eight months of our lives were a lie, we’ve lost our powers, and to top it all off, we’re stranded in fucking New Jersey.”
“We’re gonna have to take the bus,” Vic said. A strange, detached calm had settled over her, and though it disturbed her, it was exactly the mindset she needed to get them back to city. “Isaac passed the stop when he brought us here the other night,” she said. “I think I remember where it is.” She headed down the street, Abbie and Delali following her mutely.
The wait for the bus was thankfully, mercifully short. The girls paid their fare, then hefted up the long skirts of their gowns and walked down the bus aisle until they collapsed in the very last seat, ignoring the bus driver’s knowing “rough night, huh?” smile. As though on cue, their phones all buzzed on, the screens flashing white in unison as the bus whipped down the Palisades, drawing nearer and nearer to the George Washington Bridge. A calendar alert popped up on Delali’s phone, reminding her that tomorrow would be the first day of filming, and she was grateful for the little lurch of excitement that accompanied the realization. Vic noticed a text from Tatiana, a gentle reminder that she hadn’t actually fucked up their relationship beyond repair: going to bed, txt me to let me know u got home safe xo. Beside her, Abbie looked out the window, opening and closing her messages app as she stared at the glowing lights of the city’s jagged skyline. Finally, she texted Faizan a short message— “u up?”—and she kept the conversation open, hiding her smile as she watched the ellipsis bubble refresh and refresh.