What was I thinking? This was a terrible idea. Probably one of my worst, and given my track record, that was saying something.
Here I was, standing in a field outside of New Orleans, 2505 miles away from home, all because a woman at a crystal shop had suggested I attend a magic retreat. Sure, this particular retreat was heralded as the best in the country, but given that I was a complete novice, did it really matter? I didn’t know up from down when it came to the occult. They could teach us how to use a Ouija board and I’d be happy. So why had I thought traveling so far from my house, using all my savings, was a rock-solid plan?
Because I was a lunatic with terrible decision-making skills, that was why.
I sighed and scratched my head. Then shook it.
But I didn’t turn and leave.
Something was missing from my life. Something that gnawed at my gut and frayed my nerves. I didn’t feel complete. For some reason I couldn’t understand, this was what kept drawing me in.
Well, not this, per se. Not the church I stood awkwardly in front of, strangely removed from civilization. Or the giant price tag on the journey. Or even the lying I’d done to my mother to come this far for something I probably could’ve found much closer. But witchcraft. Magic. The secrets hidden within the majesty of nature.
My mother thought I was in Eugene, Oregon, looking at haunted houses with my best friend Veronica. She would’ve lost it if she’d known the truth.
I shouldn’t have lied to her. It wasn’t that she was unreasonable, after all, it was that—
No, she was unreasonable. I’d already lied to her; I didn’t need to lie to myself.
The only way I could’ve gotten her permission to attend this retreat was if I’d sat her down in her favorite chair, plied her with a plate of brownies and an obscene amount of alcohol, told her what I’d planned while she was roaring drunk, and then snuck out before she regained her senses. In any other scenario, she would’ve forbidden it. Didn’t matter that I was twenty-four years old.
That wasn’t why it was a terrible idea.
I surveyed my destination—a large church flanked by weepy trees and surrounded by Louisiana’s flatland. Shadows draped across the oddly shaped structure, stones stuck together with mortar and tired souls. Large, gothic-style windows dotted the front. Gargoyles crouched near the roof, their mouths open and waiting.
There was no way this church had come from this century. Or this continent, for this matter. When it came to an old-world feel, New Orleans couldn’t hold a candle to this structure. The church was as out of place here as I was.
I blew out a breath and closed my eyes.
The dark cloud of intent hung heavy over the grounds surrounding the structure. Coated the walls and pooled at the base. Evil purpose existed in that church, I knew it. It lingered and it waited, hoping someone would mold its energy into a useable design bent on destruction. All it needed was the right tweak, and anything alive inside would meet its maker in a horrible, gruesome death.
I ran my hand over my face. My imagination was running amok, even by my standards.
I glanced down the lane where brown dust billowed up from behind the retreating cab. My flip phone from yesteryear sat quietly in my clenched fist. Looking back at the church and the animosity hanging invisibly in the air, I thought this all through one more time.
On the one hand, I was going against everything my mother had always said—every rule she’d ever made—and throwing myself into the deep end without much more than internet searches, a wing, and a prayer. I was seeking insight and practical knowledge on something she had expressly forbidden me to pursue. Something she’d tried to guard against with threats and really itchy powders.
Something that had killed my father.
But on the other hand… I knew I had a little spark of magic in me. I knew it. Despite my mother’s favorite saying—all women have premonitions, intuition, and a natural talent for mischief, and you, Penny Bristol, have the same dose as everyone else—it certainly didn’t seem that way. My best friend Veronica couldn’t make a mixing bowl explode by filling it with the right combination of glue, sage, and honey. She’d tried, and nothing had happened besides wasted ingredients. My mother couldn’t make the pictures come to life in the untitled red volume stuffed between the dictionary and the book on medicinal uses of herbs in her workroom. She didn’t even view the passages the same way, like sleeping wonders waiting to be awoken by the soft whisper of words.
And wasn’t Greta the mail lady always eerily surprised when I recited for her what she’d just dropped off into our mailbox without seeing the letters for myself?
Well…she’d accused me of spying on her with hidden cameras, which was nearly the same thing. I felt like they belonged in the same camp.
All of those things hinted at magic flowing through my blood. Didn’t they?
You just have a temperamental third eye, dear. You get that from your father, God rest his soul. You’d do best to ignore it, lest you wind up in jail.
I gritted my teeth and shoved my mother’s voice away.
I did have a bit of magic. I knew I did. And I was tired of pretending I was normal when I felt anything but. I was tired of being an outcast, however much I tried to fit in. If there was a hope that I belonged here, belonged anywhere, I wanted to check it out. Just once.
And really, what harm could any of this do? I’d read reviews and testimonials about this retreat, and they’d all been glowing. It even had a positive Yelp score. The setting—just outside of New Orleans, in a rustic church—only made it more delightful. According to my research, and I’d been fairly thorough, this was an ideal retreat for beginners.
My smile turned into a grimace as I looked at the church.
Rustic wasn’t the word I’d use.
Decrepit was a better choice.
“Haunted with the blood of the lost” was a string of words that might also apply.
“Soul eater” and “life stealer” would have also been accurate choices for the online brochure.
I worried a rock with my toe.
Did I listen to my temperamental third eye, which definitely failed me at least half the time, or my heart, which said I needed to learn this side of myself, if only to see if these feelings were real?
I sighed. This was stupid. I was an idiot, but I hadn’t come all this way to balk in the final hour. Sure, there was a Cloud of Doom hanging over the church, and yes, the ancient building was somehow in a place it did not belong. But after twenty-four boring, dutiful years spent living in my mother’s shadow, it was time to seize the day. To stretch my comfort zone.
Doing my best to ignore the butterflies filling my stomach, I stepped forward. My feet didn’t make a sound on the squishy grass. As I moved closer to the large wooden door, energy prickled across my exposed skin and soaked into my middle. My guts danced with unease.
Summoning my courage and hoping all this was all just a trick of my imagination, I grabbed hold of the large iron handle and pulled the door open.
A musty smell accosted me, like I was unsealing a centuries-old chamber that had been closed up tight. Cold, damp air replaced the warm stickiness from outside. A few wooden benches dotted the mostly empty floor in the spacious room.
A cluster of men looked up in expectation and the room fell silent—their conversation halted, their eyes hard.
“H-hi,” I stammered, then cleared my throat and straightened my spine. I knew a thing or two about bullies, thanks to all of stupid Billy Timmons’s tormenting, and one thing you couldn’t do was look small and weak. I might as well paint a big red target on my forehead. “H-hey.”
It would have to do.
The closest man, a burly guy with a permanent sneer, hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “In there. You’re late.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, and gave them a wide berth.
I paused at the door at the back of the large main room. It wasn’t a great idea to wander through this pit of doom blindly. I needed to scout out exit plans in case my temperamental third eye wasn’t being temperamental at all.
Turning back, I noticed another man walk in through the main door. Young, gangly, but stiff, he walked into the cursed church like he owned it. He patted the satchel at his side, and I realized all the men had accessorized similarly. Not a lot of originality in man-purses for this crew.
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