Joy of Witchcraft
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Sometimes a thunderstorm is just a thunderstorm. But not this time.
Jane Madison’s school for witches is in session, and the first order of business is an intricate Samhain ritual. Alas, in the midst of a sudden, unseasonable deluge, a classic Greek monster is released into the magic circle. Jane succeeds in vanquishing the beast, but only with the assistance of her sworn enemy, the Coven Mother of Washington DC.
Crisis averted, Jane would be perfectly happy to plan her wedding to her astral protector, David Montrose. But how can she look at seating charts when she’s under attack by more monsters, the Coven Mother, and the highest law in the witchy land, Hecate’s Court?
All these disasters can’t be coincidence. One of Jane’s students must be a traitor. But will Jane find the turncoat before she loses everything—and everyone—she holds dear?
<<< Chapter 1 >>>
Sometimes a thunderstorm is just a thunderstorm.
Opaque black clouds, torrential rain, and wind whipping across the front yard at hurricane force don’t have to mean anything arcane. At least, that’s what I told myself as I looked out the farmhouse window after sunset on Samhain.
Alas, I knew better. Plenty of people wanted to see the Jane Madison Academy fail, and this was exactly the type of tactic they’d use. Threaten me with direct lightning strikes, and I couldn’t very well celebrate the witch’s new year. Without a magic ritual, I couldn’t officially welcome my first real class of students. No students meant no classes, and then I’d be in violation of my hard-won charter.
And it wasn’t just the Academy on the line. My enemies wanted my magical tools—the books and runes and crystals laid out on shelves in the farmhouse basement, painstakingly organized by all the principles I’d mastered as a librarian before I ever knew I was a witch. They wanted Neko too, my familiar.
As another torrent of rain slashed across the front porch, Neko shuddered from the crown of his immaculately coiffed head to the tips of his leather-clad toes. There were times I almost forgot I’d awakened this man out of a magical statue of a cat, that I’d bound him to my service on the night of a full moon. But when he trembled the way he did now, he looked every bit like his feline avatar. I half expected him to lick the side of his palm and use it to smooth down the flawless velvet of his close-cropped hair.
Instead, we both jumped as a vicious fork of lightning struck the main road. I barely had time to brace myself for the crash of thunder that followed. The entire house shook under the assault.
“We’ve got to get everyone in here,” I said, squinting through the glass into the rain-whipped darkness. “They aren’t safe in the garage apartment. The barn, either.” The school year might not have officially started yet, but I was already responsible for more than a dozen souls out there.
Neko cocked his head, as if he could hear something in the distance. “They’re fine,” he said.
I gave him a penetrating look. Neko could speak to other familiars; they had some obscure network that was hidden from us witches. I’d asked him to explain it before, but he always ran out of words. Familiars weren’t telepathic; they didn’t transmit individual words from mind to mind. Rather, they spoke in entire images, in complete concepts. That’s how a newly awakened familiar knew details about the world he faced, about how to best serve his witch.
But Neko wasn’t above lying if he thought he could spare himself a drenching.
“What?” he asked, the picture of complete innocence. “You don’t trust me?”
“I didn’t get to be magistrix of the Jane Madison Academy by trusting the world’s craftiest familiar.”
He preened, as if I’d just given him a compliment. “I’m the one who recommended that anti-frizz shampoo, didn’t I? And it’s worked wonders for your hair.” Neko devoted a lot of time to sounding like the most blatant stereotype of a gay man who ever belted out a Broadway anthem. I was convinced he put on the act just to astonish everyone when he proved to be the most attentive familiar a witch could ever ask for. “And I told you your fingernails would stop splitting if you added a tablespoon of protein powder to your smoothies. And just the other day, I distinctly remember telling you to practice your Kegel exercises if you really want to drive—”
A dry cough cut him off, and we both whirled toward the arch that led to the dining room. David Montrose stood there. My warder and I had met on a night much like this one—storm-tossed and chaotic, my then-newly-awakened powers tingling like the aftermath of a too-close lightning strike.
The first time I saw him, I thought he was an egotistical boor. I’m pretty sure he thought I was a naive twit—at best. I’ve never had the nerve to ask him what he thought, even though he’d stood by me through more arcane adventures than any witch should have in one lifetime. Even though I now wore his diamond engagement ring on my left hand.
“TMI?” Neko asked demurely.
“By half,” David said, striding across the room. His black Lab, Spot, stayed close by his heels, whining softly when another flash of lightning gave way to a roll of thunder. David automatically settled a hand on the dog’s broad forehead, murmuring a few words before he said to us, “The students are safe in their dormitory. Their familiars and warders, too. That barn has withstood worse storms than this.”
David came to stand behind me, and heat radiated from his body, all the warmer for the chill coming off the glass. His palm was warm against my nape, and I leaned into the firm touch of his fingers on my scalp. Spot pressed his head under my hand, eager for a comforting pat.
“Fine,” Neko said. “Believe your warder. Don’t trust what your familiar has to say.”
I smiled serenely, certain he would pick up my reflection in the window. “My warder completed the construction on those buildings. Of course he knows if they’re secure against this storm.”
Neko spluttered in mock protest as David slipped his hands to my waist. “You should get ready,” David told me. “In half an hour, we’ll get a break in the rain.”
I looked out at the storm savaging the lawn. “I didn’t know warders could work the weather.”
“We can’t. But we can check apps on our phones. According to the National Weather Service, we’ll get a break around ten. By midnight, though, we’ll be back in the middle of the deluge, so we’ll have to move quickly.”
I brushed a kiss against my boyfriend’s—my fiancé’s—lips before I headed upstairs to our bedroom. My Samhain finery was spread across the bed. The gown was a new one, carried home by a victorious Neko after a recent shopping foray in nearby Washington DC. Sewn of crushed velvet, the gored skirt rippled like a burgundy tide pool. Its laced bodice was backed with ivory linen and princess sleeves fastened tight, with a row of onyx buttons.
I could use the bolstering effect of onyx. The Jane Madison Academy had gotten off to a rocky start, launching before I was fully ready. We’d barely secured our charter from Hecate’s Court by completing a Major Working at the last witch’s sabbat, on Mabon in late September.
Even then, we’d only succeeded because of the rather…unconventional style of my witchy powers. With the new year and my new students, I had a chance to prove I could conform to the Court’s rigid bureaucracy. I’d have to, or they’d shut me down for good.
And my first test was dressing appropriately for the upcoming working. At least my thoughtful familiar had supplied a Victorian buttonhook made out of tortoiseshell. I fastened the last onyx button with a satisfying tug.
As I smoothed my hands over my luscious skirt, I realized the spatter of rain against the window had died down. The wind had slackened as well; I could no longer hear the starving wolf howling around the corners of the farmhouse. David’s weather app had been accurate.
By the time I got back to the living room, my warder had knotted a pewter-colored tie around his throat. The fabric echoed the glint of silver at his temples. A well-worn leather belt sat low across his hips, supporting a matching scabbard. The sword would have looked absurd on most men, a bizarre accompaniment to office attire, but on David it looked right. His ease soothed me, even though I had not consciously realized I was nervous.
His ease, and the fact that his eyes widened appreciatively as I entered the room. I indulged in a full-skirted twirl. “You like?” I asked.
“Very much,” he said.
I wondered if I’d ever get tired of that flip in the pit of my stomach, that sudden awareness that David was looking at me as a woman, not just a witch. I tugged quickly on the bond between us, the magical connection deep within our minds, and I offered up a promise that made the corners of his lips curl in the suggestion of a smile.
“Oh, get a room,” Neko snorted.
There’d been a time when his awareness of the bond between David and me would have made me blush. But it wasn’t like my familiar stinted with sharing his own love life. Gander, meet goose. Spoon up the sauce.
David didn’t deign to answer. Instead, he commanded Spot toward his bed in the kitchen and opened the front door, gesturing for Neko to lead the way. My familiar collected a reed basket from the coffee table before he stepped outside with a moue of distaste. That pout turned to outright misery when a fat drop of rain fell from the porch eaves, splashing onto his tight black T-shirt. His pitiful moan would have made a lesser woman consider mercy. Hard-hearted magistrix that I was, I strode past him and headed toward the clearing where we would launch our working.
The sacred space had been my responsibility while David supervised the rapid conversion of the barn and the garage to dormitories. As workmen labored over plumbing and electricity, drywall and flooring, my original pair of witchy students and I had sanctified a clearing for magical workings.
Trimming the grass had been the easy part. We’d erected a centerstone, a marble altar that we washed with mugwort tea. That purifying bath would add to the marble’s inherent protective powers, securing our circle against unwelcome invaders.
We’d added to the perimeter, alternating stones and plants known for bolstering defenses. Obsidian for grounding. Vervain to stand against metal weapons. Malachite for safety. Rosemary for protection against the evil eye. Agate for strength. Radish to guard against poison.
I’d combed through the books in my basement horde, searching for the best options, trying to combine magical strengths with the very practical considerations of keeping green, growing things alive in Maryland’s variable weather. And I loved everything we’d settled on. Even now, before I’d officially called the Academy into session, this circle felt like a spiritual home.
As we approached the altar, I chalked up another win for the silent communication of familiars. My entire student body was waiting when we arrived at the ritual space—six students, their warders, and familiars, all eyeing me with respect and a healthy dose of nerves. All we had to do was complete our ritual and get the Academy under way by midnight. Then we could rest easy until the end of the semester. We’d have six months to prepare a new Major Working, to show Hecate’s Court that we were an academic power to be reckoned with.
I’d been robbed of the opportunity to offer an official welcome to my first students—water under the astral bridge. But I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity a second time. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and said, “Witches, familiars, and warders, all. Be welcome at the Jane Madison Academy. We’ll learn from each other and share our knowledge of the world, arcane and mundane. Our powers together will be greater than our powers apart. So mote it be.”
“So mote it be,” the witches said together, their voices ranging from soprano to contralto. Shimmers of power echoed across the circle, skeins that tangled and stretched without plan, without design. My pulse picked up at the thought of bringing those strands into order, at sculpting our new future together.
A dull rumble of thunder echoed in the distance, and I shoved down an uneasy mix of fear and excitement. Samhain was the time when the barrier between the arcane world and the mundane was thinnest. Ordinary folk remembered that magic by going out in the darkness, defying their fear with costumes and offerings of sweets. This night was Halloween to most people, All Hallows Eve to some, and Samhain to the witchy few.
I gestured to Neko, bidding him to step forward with his reed basket. As he raised our offerings, David swept his sword from his scabbard.
The other warders reacted to the sound of metal scraping free, becoming more alert, more present. Each took a stand outside our sacred circle, automatically spacing themselves along the perimeter that had not yet been defined by magic. My students and their familiars clustered inside the nonexistent boundary, each watching with expressions that ranged from wary to enraptured.
I nodded to David, and he strode to the eastern corner, to the cardinal point dedicated to the element of Air. Neko followed, moving with confidence. He produced a candle from the basket, a fat column of red wax that he set on the small marble plinth at the precise eastern limit of the circle. Passing his hand over the wick, he raised up the twisted fiber, readying the candle for the magical energy that would pass through it, consuming it slowly and steadily for as long as we witches used our powers.
When Neko stepped back, I took his place, raising my palm over the scarlet wax. I could already feel the potential energy in the offering, the power ready to be unleashed. “Guardians of Air, light our way,” I cried, and the fresh wick kindled. I collected the light in my cupped hands, carrying it toward my eyes as a gesture of humility toward the entire natural world. As my fingers brushed against my forehead, I felt a breath of air, the softest memory of the storms that had ripped across this clearing not an hour before. We were in the presence of Elementals of Air.
Dropping my hands to my side, I walked with David to the next candle. He traced the tip of his sword just above the grass, and the metal seemed to magnetize the air, raising up a shimmering curtain of steel-grey fire. Power sizzled against the damp lawn, sparking away the sodden remnants of the storm. The energy arched above my head, wavering in time with my pulse.
Neko placed the second candle. “Guardians of Fire,” I proclaimed. But before I could entreat, “Light our way,” another voice rang out across the circle.
I grabbed Neko’s shoulder, forcing him close to my side. His latent abilities opened before me. His entire being shifted to echo my magic, to reflect it back to me like a thousand mirrors casting back the light of a single flame.
Adrenaline jangled my fingers, and my ears were filled with a high-pitched whine. I wanted to fight. I wanted to flee. I waited for the assembled warders to react, for David to step in front of me, offering the physical protection of his body and his sword.
But David didn’t move.
“Stop this ritual right now, Jeanette.”
And then I understood why David wasn’t reacting. There was only one person in this world who called me Jeanette: the woman who’d given me that name on the day I was born. She’d abandoned me a year later, leaving me to be raised by my loving grandmother. I’d grown up believing my mother had died in a car crash. Clara Smythe had only walked back into my life four years ago, the summer I discovered my arcane power.
David didn’t move to protect me from my mother because he wasn’t just my warder. He was Clara’s warder too. For that matter, he guarded my grandmother as well, on the relatively rare occasions when she engaged in witchy activities. He’d volunteered for the unusual triple assignment when I first forged my unconventional ideas about witchcraft and community. Hecate’s Court hadn’t intervened to say he couldn’t do the job.
I planted my hands on my hips. My fingers still trembled in the aftermath of adrenaline, but I tightened them to hide my annoyance. “Not now, Clara. We’re busy with an important working.”
“I know, Jeanette. But this is a matter of life and death.”
“Life and death,” I repeated wryly. Clara could turn a hike in the woods into high drama.
“You cannot cast your circle here,” my mother said, striding past my astonished students to stand before our centerstone. “This is a place of danger.”
My mother and I often disagreed about arcane matters. She had a soft spot for auras and astrology, for claptrap that had no place in any self-respecting witch’s arsenal. I could only imagine what hocus-pocus she intended to fling at us now.
As if she could read my mind, Clara tugged at her silk caftan, drawing herself up to her full height. “You’re standing on the edge of a hellmouth that can destroy the entire world. You must not seal the circle, Jane.”
Clara never called me Jane, not without a dozen exasperated reminders that I’d long ago set aside my birth name, that I’d built a life on my own, that I didn’t need her, didn’t want her interference. If she called me Jane, she wanted me to listen.
But hellmouths were only myths, stories invented in the Middle Ages to keep wayward children in line. There was no such thing as a gaping hole to a different dimension. No one had ever seen a passage between planes of being, a maw that released ill-formed ravening fiends into the world around us.
Nevertheless, my students reacted to Clara’s pronouncement by stepping toward their warders. They settled anxious hands on their familiars, looking around our magical clearing as if they expected demons to spring from the sodden ground.
If a hellmouth actually existed, I surely would have felt it as I’d prepared our circle.
Of course I would.
Clara was merely being her usual dramatic, disruptive self. I nodded tersely to David and said, “Proceed.”
“Jane!” Clara cried.
To David’s credit, he merely shifted his grip on the quillons of his sword, resuming his stance to carve out the next protective quarter of our circle. I met his eyes and said, “There is no hellmouth here.” To all who listened, my voice was as hard as marble. No one would ever know how much comfort I took from his tight nod of agreement.
Lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating the heavy clouds that once again covered the sky. Automatically, I started to count: one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four. Thunder growled, low and urgent.
I knew a cue when I heard one. Ignoring Clara’s whimpering, I rushed through casting the rest of the circle. I set a candle at the southern edge and called on the Guardians of Water. I lit the last wick on the western point and drew in the Guardians of Earth. David traced the outline with a matching urgency, pouring his warder’s energy into a steely arc.
He was three strides away from closing the circle. Two. One. And then I heard my name again, shouted across the field, from the direction of the house. “Jane! Jane Madison!”
Even as I gritted my teeth against the new interruption, I recognized the voice. Teresa Alison Sidney.
Teresa was the Coven Mother for nearby Washington DC, a woman widely regarded as the most powerful witch in the Eastern Empire—at least until I’d come into my own. I’d first met her three and a half years before, when my greatest magical dream had been to join her prestigious coven. When I’d watched her lead a ritual in her classic black cocktail sheath, with her perfect strand of pearls across the pulse points in her throat, I’d felt as if I were watching the ghost of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or Grace Kelley, as if Kate Middleton herself shared a bit of magic she’d never quite admitted to the British royal family.
Teresa Alison Sidney’s veil of sophistication was so strong that virtually everyone called her by all three names, the way people referred to certain movie stars. Or serial killers. But always contrary where authority was concerned, I’d made myself the exception to that rule.
She’d never forgiven me for walking away from her coven. And she’d never stopped lusting after the Osgood collection, the arcane library I hoarded in the farmhouse. Only two months ago, I’d discovered her magical powers bound up in a document meant to destroy me.
She was my enemy, and now she stood on my lawn, accompanied by her warder and her familiar.
Clara might have interrupted our working out of a misguided fear of a hellmouth. But Teresa certainly had a more selfish motive. All she had to do was distract me for a few minutes, a quarter of an hour at most, and the rapidly returning thunderstorm would do the rest. My untried students could never complete a ritual in the midst of a downpour like the one we’d already seen that evening. Without a proper opening to our academic year, my magicarium would stand in violation of its charter, and my magical belongings would be fair game for any witch daring enough to pluck them from my grasp.
Teresa would finally get the magical goods she’d craved from the moment we first met.
I nodded tersely to David. He slashed with his sword, closing the circle before the Washington Coven Mother could make herself heard. Through the shimmering cordon of warder’s magic, I could see the rigid lines of David’s back. If I squinted, I could just make out other figures beyond the curtain of power—four robed and hooded forms on the very edge of darkness.
Hecate’s Court, then. As expected, they’d arrived to witness my working, to verify the operational status of the Jane Madison Academy. The Court had jurisdiction over all witches in good standing. But I didn’t have to like being put under their microscope.
Gritting my teeth, I turned to face my students. “Sisters,” I said. “We are gathered beneath the sky, above the earth, between the fire and the rain. Be welcome and at peace.”
Right. Like any of them would relax during a ritual that began like this one had. Clara fretted beside me, working her hands inside the sleeves of her caftan as if she were auditioning for the role of Lady Macbeth. Emma, the calmer of my first-term students, looked wary but determined. Raven, a firebrand who could give lightning bolts a run for their money, seemed invigorated by the opportunity for something to go awry.
At least Raven had chosen to wear a black robe for our working, forgoing her usual preference for working skyclad, naked to the elements. I was strangely heartened by the violet sash that closed her midnight garment. Its vibrant purple matched the stripe in her hair, underscoring all the ways she and I were different. We disagreed on almost everything, but we’d found a way to work together.
And I would find a way to work with all my new students, to build the bonds of a healthy magicarium. I was their mentor, their magistrix. I could do this.
With Neko at my back, I extended my arms to either side. Emma understood immediately. She stepped forward and placed her fingers against mine, automatically reaching for her sister. Raven followed suit, bringing one of the new students into the chain. One by one, they all matched hands, until Clara closed the circuit to my left.
“Jane,” she whispered, her voice low and demanding.
I merely shook my head. I was committed to this path, and Clara’s imagined hellmouth wasn’t going to stop me. Not when Teresa paced outside, waiting for me to fail. Not when new rain had set up a steady beat against the steely dome above us. The wind had picked up as well; gusts buffeted the sloping sides of our shielding cordon.
We were running out of time.
“Well met, sisters,” I said, faking a confident tone. “Here at the Jane Madison Academy, you’ll be asked to set aside much of what you think you know about magic. You’ll view the world through new lenses, from angles that will make your old practice seem limiting and strange. For tonight, though, all I ask is that you join with me to complete a simple, familiar spell.”
Moving slowly enough that each of my students could follow suit, I touched my fingertips to my forehead, offering up the power of my pure thoughts. I touched my throat, adding the power of pure speech. I brushed my fingers against my chest, giving my pure belief. Raising my voice to counter the steady hiss of rain against the cordon, I chanted, “Join me, sisters, near the loom.”
It was the first line of an old spell, an easy one. While mundane little girls were making their first elastic potholders on a plastic frame, young witches learned to weave their fledgling powers into a similar magic fabric. At this launch of the school year, my students and I would weave our powers in and out, creating a cloth unique to the Jane Madison Academy. Down the road, when I taught everyone how to create a true merged power, we’d laugh at the simplicity of this working.
As I spoke the first words, I lobbed a golden globe of power into the center of our circle. I nudged the physical manifestation of my astral abilities until a rectangular shape shimmered in the night-time air. When it was stable, I sent a mental invitation to the witches I knew best—to Emma and Raven to add their energy to the uprights of the loom, to Clara to feed her power to the horizontal struts. Purple, silver, and emerald light wrapped around my golden glow, each strand pulsing with unique power.
When I was certain the astral loom’s structure was stable, I drew a deep breath and recited the second line of the spell. “Set the warp threads, leaving room.”
I nudged Neko along our arcane bond, urging him to send a message to my new students’ familiars. Cassandra Finch responded first. Cassie, I reminded myself. She’d made it clear she preferred the nickname. Her magic was pale green, the soft shade of new leaves unfolding beneath a spring sky. It made me think of young things, fragile things, like the spray of freckles that spotted her cheeks, like her twin braids of unruly blond hair. She bit her lip and fluttered her hand against the shoulder of her familiar, Tupa. I was no expert on the animal roots of familiars, but I was willing to bet the curly-haired, obliviously awkward young man had begun life as a lamb. In fact, Cassie herself had a somewhat disturbing resemblance to Little Bo Peep.
Reaching out to her familiar, Cassie gathered the grounding she needed. Tupa leaned in, actually butting his head against her arm, and the tendril of green strengthened, winding its way toward the centerstone and the waiting frame. Green light wrapped our structure from top to bottom, again and again, until a dozen strands formed a warp suitable for weaving.
“Lift the shuttle, feel its weight,” I continued, my voice warming with approval. Neko did his part again, thinking an invitation to another familiar, and a sturdy russet strand of energy flowed from the next student, Bree Carter. Working quickly to increase our momentum, I chanted the next line: “Wrap the new thread, figure eight.” Neko pulled another student into the working, Alex Warner, who offered up a skein of indigo energy. “Now the shed stick, straight and true,” I intoned, raising my voice to do battle against the storm outside our protective arch. Skyler Winthrop and her cobalt blue magic came into our circle.
All that was left was bringing our concentration together, gathering the energy of all eight witches. Working together, we could create a fabric of light, passing Bree’s thread-filled shuttle along the straight line created by Skyler’s shed stick, tamping down Alex’s first thread in our weaving and preparing the warp for another pass at the loom.
Even though we remained separate, each strand of magic apart from every other, we were working toward a common goal. This wasn’t the true power I would ultimately offer my students, the true melding I knew we could achieve. But it was a start. I took a deep breath and cried, “All our powers, cloth imbue!”
There was the expected flash of darkness, the moment when the physical world shifted out of existence, overwhelmed by magic’s force. For one timeless instant, my heart ceased to beat, my lungs stopped breathing. I couldn’t worry about my students, couldn’t fear the consequences when David sliced open the cordon, when my magicarium emerged to face Hecate’s Court and Teresa Alison Sidney and the increasing rage of the storm.
As quickly as the world disappeared, it returned. Every witch’s eye was trained on the altar. We all waited to see the cloth we had crafted with our effort.
But there was no cloth.
Instead, there was a shadow, darker than the stormy night outside our shield. The absence swirled above the altar, seething, reaching out with clinging tentacles.
“The hellmouth!” Clara shouted, and adrenaline fired through my body.
Somehow, the shadow deepened, becoming a darker shade of black. It contracted, sucking in its outer edges, swirling tighter and tighter, like a tornado determined to bore its way through the centerstone. A blast of rain battered the steely shield above us, a sudden downdraft strong enough to dent the protective dome. At the same time, lightning forked directly overhead, shattering across the cordon as if it sought the heart of the altar.
The warders’ arch vanished beneath the direct hit.
Before I could blink, my burgundy gown was drenched. The thunder was literally deafening. The silver lightning afterglow bleached my vision.
But none of that mattered, because the shadow had disappeared above the altar. And in its place, very real and very mad, was a full-grown satyr, tossing his head and looking like he was ready to murder every single witch who had called him into existence.
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