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To the right and left there were single doors that presumably led to smaller rooms beyond. Unless flying brooms were real, and these guys lent them out at the retreat, the windows along the front of the building were much too high for a person to break through in a mad dash. Unless there was a back door, there was only one reliable exit.

Letting out a slow exhale to release some of my pent-up anxiety, I quietly opened the door the burly guy had indicated and stepped through, not disturbing the sudden raucous carry-on of the men. The back room spread out before me, and I had to stop and take it all in before I could look for my contact. It wasn’t your average setup.

Understatement of the century.

Running the entire width of the church, the space was unexpectedly gigantic—equally as deep as the previous room. The hard, uneven stone floor stretched out in front of me, shinier than the walls. Polished, almost. Ahead, a big fissure cut across it, four feet wide and as long as the room. I inched forward to see if it was a fire pit, or something like that, but as I progressed, the bottom remained elusive. It had to be pretty deep. “Feed the snakes with a virgin” kind of deep.

Beyond the pit was a slightly raised area where a big cauldron sat off to the left, and a podium stood in the center. Maybe that was where they’d lecture? I excelled in school. That method of fact delivery was fine by me. Though…the strange pit separating the professor from the students was jarring. Would we be thrown to our deaths if we didn’t pay attention?

A sludgy, get-out-of-there-while-you-still-can feeling rolled over me, prickling my skin, as I caught sight of a group of women chatting in the corner on my side of the pit. They all leaned over a shared sheet of paper. One reached forward and traced a line with her pointer finger.

Nervousness ate through my middle like a cancer. I skulked closer while trying not to fidget, my unease at meeting new people warring with my desire to seem confident. One of the women glanced over, her pale skin framed by a thick mop of black hair. She nudged a portly woman next to her, and her neighbor jerked up her round face to study me.

I smiled, something that probably looked strained. “Is one of you…Tessa?” I asked.

The rest of the women looked up, the expressions ranging from curious to surprised. An older woman with graying hair bobbed around her face took a step away from the others. Her eyes narrowed as they studied me.

“I’m Tessa,” she said in a cautious way. “And you would be…?”

“Penny. Penny Bristol. I emailed you. Several times. About the retreat?”

Silence filled the room, only interrupted by one woman shifting. Her shoe scraped against the stone floor.

“The retreat on…witchcraft?” I said, hoping that might jog someone’s memory. This was a little awkward, to say the least. The retreat’s Yelp page was going to get a piece of my mind.

“You’re so young,” Tessa said, stepping closer.

I frowned, swiftly running my gaze over their group. While I was certainly the youngest, I didn’t stand out that much. The next youngest probably had fifteen years on me. That didn’t seem like much of a cause for ageism.

Although perhaps it could be said that Billy Timmons had a point, and my large alien eyes, the clear skin I tried desperately to hide from the sun for fear of sunburn, and the wilting posture I couldn’t shake at the moment (if only they’d stop staring!) conspired to make me look much younger than my actual age.

“I’m twenty-four,” I said confidently.

“Yes,” Tessa said. “And you were able to cross the barrier.”

“I…didn’t see a barrier. There was just a lane, some strange grass, and this church.”

“You passed through the doors of the church.”

My smile had probably turned a little toothy at this point. Holding it in place was starting to get difficult, because of course I had passed through the door. I was standing right in front of them. What other way would I have gotten in? With a Batman belt and some climbing gloves?

“Yes,” I said.

“Yes,” she repeated.

“This is the witchcraft retreat, isn’t it?” I ventured.

A couple of the women chuckled softly and the group as a whole twisted and turned, looking at one another. A smile slowly crept up Tessa’s face.

“No,” she said, cool as day. “That was last weekend. We had a shift in plans. I thought we’d contacted everyone.”

I could feel the blood drain from my face. Coldness washed through my body, followed by a blast of alarm. I’d paid for the tickets and lodging with my scant savings. I’d lied to my mother, flown halfway across the country, and suffered a constant stomachache from the spices that seemed so prevalent in the French Quarter, all to attend a retreat that I’d missed? Even if they refunded me for the retreat ticket, all that other money was out the window.

“She passed through the barrier, so there must be power in her,” the portly woman said, studying me with a narrow-eyed gaze. “Maybe this misunderstanding was fate.”

Fate, or my grabby spam folder…

A gleam sparkled in Tessa’s eyes. “Yes. Exactly right, Beatrice. I had not thought of that.” The women continued to exchange those quiet, knowing glances before shifting their attention back to Tessa.

“Okay, young Penny.” She smiled at me, an inclusive, sweet, witchy sort of expression. This was why I’d signed up in the first place. My sigh coincided with my shoulders relaxing. “Our coven must take responsibility for the confusion. As such, we will invite you into our fold for our activities here today. You may watch and participate as you can, depending on your power and your experience level—” I held my tongue to prevent myself from telling her I had very little of one, and none of the other. “We’ve been called here for a specific purpose, and you’ll get to experience that. Think of this as a rare gift, because it is not often a new witch, such as yourself, would be invited to something like this.”

Excitement built within me. It was a gift, definitely. I would get a real glimpse of the forbidden world of magic and the sisterhood that went with it. I could scarcely wait. “Thank you,” I gushed.

The door to the main body of the church burst open. A few of the men from earlier sauntered in, their man-purses proudly draped at their sides.

“What are you still doing here?” one of the men said to Tessa in annoyance. “They’re getting ready to cast the spell outside. Time is running out, and they need to bring in the vamp.”

Did he just say vamp? As in…vampire?

I grinned, clearly hearing things, and earned a scowl for it. Or maybe he just had resting snarl face.

“We were just leaving,” Tessa said frostily.

“See that you do,” he spat back.

“Vile,” one of the women murmured as Tessa turned with a straight back and marched for the nearest door. Unless there was some sort of spatial trickery afoot in the church, the door would lead to one of the smaller rooms adjoined to the main room I’d entered. “Just because they’re mages, and we’re witches, they think they’re on a higher level than us.”

“They are on a higher level than us,” someone said as Tessa opened the door. She stepped through and gestured for us to follow her.

“In magic, sure, but not in social status,” Beatrice replied.

“They’re barely mages, anyway,” a gaunt-faced woman said. “They were witches before they were somehow elevated in status. Oh how quickly they forget.”

Apparently the term witch applied to both women and men. There you were. I’d already learned something.

“They were?” someone asked as we entered a rectangular room with another large black cauldron set up in the middle.

“Yes, didn’t you hear?” Gaunt Face said. “They were witches before the high mage approached them. Then, suddenly, they became mages. I find it all rather suspect.”

“And I think it’s a golden opportunity,” a woman with a tight bun replied. “I’ve never heard of that ability, but if it’s true, I want in on it.”

“It could be illegal!” someone spat out.

“We use magic,” Tight Bun said with a scowl. “We have one foot in the human world and one foot in the magical world. What is illegal in one place might not be illegal in another. I vote for leveling up and showing those boys out there what a bunch of determined women can do.”

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