Iris sits bolt upright from her brief slumber, her eyes as round as dinner plates. But she hasn’t had a nightmare. She shushes him back to sleep and rushes downstairs to pull Winifred aside. After several minutes of both the women pacing and alternatively nodding they return to the rest of the family.
“I’ve had a dream,” Iris tells her family. “A sight. The Abbey where the High Priestess resides can only be entered by witches who haven’t been baptized yet. I called to confirm this morning but I saw it in the night - one of our sisters - one of our kind - tried to enter this place and… she perished.”
“One of those nice Lewellyn girls from California, Elana. I’ve only met her a handful of times. I know her older sister quite well. But the High Priestess said so whenever the girl perished. She said if Elana had come last year, before her baptism, she would have been able to get in.”
“That means…” Esme begins. “That means only Rose and I can enter the Abbey? Where we’ll find the Priestess?”
Iris nods. “Just you two. And if this old swamp woman gives us anything to help us on our way, she’s giving it to the two of you.”
“We’re still going,” Rose says, sternly.
“You can reconsider-” Iris tries to say.
“Of course we can’t.”
“We can’t,” Esme shakes her head. “Everyone will continue to be in danger if we don’t just try. We have to go see this woman and ask for her help. Maybe she can keep us safe.”
Iris sighs heavily.
The women slip into the darkness in a cluster, moving surprisingly quickly and silently for such a sizable group. They are two blocks from the dock, where some small fishing rigs bob peacefully in the dusty early morning. Everything is just black and shadow, the sky only hinting at changing colors as they pile into a fishing rig that must belong to Rowena and Winifred - either that, or they just offer no remorse for stealing it. Rowena starts up the motor and Winifred steers into the wide river beyond.
Before much time has passed the boat is slowed by the swamp, twisting and turning to avoid tree roots that jut from the water, and rocky little islands where toads sing their mindless songs. The music of the insects and nightbirds create a cacophony while the water whispers below. There is a breeze during this time of morning, but even that is hot, and almost everything seems excessively moist.
The sky is growing lighter and lighter, phasing into day each time someone blinks, but the bayou is dim beneath the shady branches of the oaks that stretch across the little veins of river, Spanish moss and resurrection fern clinging to them to create curtains of foliage. Rose takes in a little air to see a gator crawling up onto the bank, its body nearly as long as the fishing rig in which they currently drift. The metal sides of the boat no longer feel sturdy enough to Rose and she wishes they had cast some protection spells on the vessel.
The sun is beginning to break through, filtering into the muggy swamplands just as Rowena exclaims. “Nearly there.”
Has Rose imagined they’ve been getting further and further from any solid embankments? No. For they slip through a sheet of greenery to see a large island up ahead, and if she looks close enough she can almost make out the little glass windows below the tree roots, and a crooked purple door in the trunk of the grand tree that stretches both to the heavens and towards hell.
“Wow,” Esme whispers. We have to go in there? she thinks to herself.
There are no lights on in the half buried bungalow and Esme can’t help thinking it’s pretty early in the morning for a visit, but Rowena kills the engine as the boat floats swiftly toward the bank. Rowena may forget her own mind but she can certainly steer a fishing rig, and within moments they are all stepping a thankful foot onto solid land.
“Go quickly and keep your eyes peeled. There’s gators everywhere out here,” Winifred says. “They don’t bother Madame Boucher but they’ll eat us like an afternoon snack.”
“Madame Boucher is her name?” Iris whispers.
“So…” Selene adds, “Madam Butcher?”
Looks are exchanged.
“Girl’s got to fight for a reputation,” Winifred shrugs. “I figure a name helps.”
This does little to soothe anyone’s nerves, but they continue on, nevertheless.
The muggy air seems to work as a glue stick - a glue stick made of sugar for the mosquitos that dive again and again. The steps are covered in moss and slick to stand on. Rose begins to wonder how old this Madame Boucher is because her entire house seems to be a hazard even for a teenager. They’re halfway to the door when it opens with a creak of complaint. The sun is up now but it’s so dingy beneath the thick blankets of treetops that the lantern emerging from inside the bungalow illuminates the walk.
“Who’s tresspassin’ in my swamp?” the old lady asks, her voice still sharp and alert.
“It’s Winifred and Rowena… and a few more of our kind,” Winifred calls up to her. “Can we come up?”
“I s’pose,” grumbles the old lady, and returns to the depths of her hovel, but leaves the door open behind her. Her cane makes the noise of an extra step with each shuffle of her feet. They can hear her mumbling about calling first as she walks away. “What’chu want w’me?” she asks them when they enter her home.
It does not feel underground, or built into the trunk of a tree. It is deep, with high ceilings, and large, open rooms with wood paneling with moss and mushrooms growing out of the cracks. She has chandeliers and lamps everywhere, and old clocks and antique chairs that wobble. Madame Boucher herself is just a tattered mess of fabric ambling from shadow to shadow, her hair mainly dreads, piled onto the top of her tiny head. She gives the impression of an owl shuffling across the forest floor, fluffy and low to the ground, with enormous eyes always watching.
Rose finally puts her finger on it; this woman’s house feels like the inside of a boat in fact, the walls are curved in just the way they would be beneath the deck of a great pirate ship.
“We need your advice,” Iris says. “We are being hunted. All of us.”
“Er’body bein’ hunted, child,” says Madame Boucher. She lowers herself into a wing backed leather chair and clicks on the lamp beside her, finally illuminating her decaying features. “That’s why life goes in a circle.” She rests her cane across her lap.
She has facial tattoos and piercings, and her fingernails are long and yellow and thick as popsicle sticks. She doesn’t look particularly evil or nasty, but she does appear to be the type of woman who might, at any moment, say something nobody wants to hear.
“Y’all don’t touch nothin’, ya hear? There be dark magic in all dem trinkets and toys up on these here shelves.”
“Yes ma’am,” Selene whispers, backing away from a shelf of shrunken heads whose eyes follow her as she moves.
“Can you tell us anything about The Order, Madame Boucher?” Selene asks.
“Y’all sit down first. Ain’t civilized to speak ’bout magick just standing round.”
Neither Rose nor Esme had ever heard that rule before, but everyone sat. Be it perched on the edge of chairs or on the dusty floor; everyone sat.
“It’s that ole’ Cassia at it again, I tell ya. She ain’t nothin but trouble. Ain’t been nothin but trouble since the day she was born.”
“Cassia?” Iris inquires. “That’s the High Priestess’s name?”
“She’s adopted some other name now, but yes, that’s what her momma and daddy called her when she’s born.” Madame Boucher rocks slowly forward and back in her old wing backed chair, nodding her head as if she can feel the water in the swamp outside.
“Where is she from? Who is she?”
“She’s from Sussex and she’s just like y’all - just a witch that got bored. She stumbled onto The Order and realized she ain’t never gonna be nobody unless she starts a damn cult. So she turned it into what it is today.”
“She’s a witch?” Camilla confirms. “A real witch? Just like us?”
“Just like y’all. Just gone sour, if ya ask me. Sour as a lemon she is.”
Iris probes again. “If she’s a witch, why is she killing other witches? Or, having us killed?”
“She just wants to be special,” Madame Boucher says. “Don’t underestimate somebody wantin’ something. Wantin’ and wishin… that’s some strooooong magick.”
A silence follows. Then Rose interjects.
“We have to stop her. We have to protect the other witches she’s harming.”
“Ain’t your place,” Madame Boucher says. “Y’all always meddling with everythin’.”
“So you won’t help us?” Rose asks.
“Didn’t say that. I’ll do business with just ’bout anybody for the right price.”
Everyone falls silent again. This is not something anyone expected, and Selene can’t help looking at the witches who are acquaintances with her. Winifred and Rowena suddenly refuse to meet her eyes; they knew of this chaotic neutral. They knew Madame Boucher would want something in return. But they still brought the witches to her front door. Selene is disappointed and confused, but Iris’s daughter and niece are the ones being stood before this woman, and their blood has begun to boil.
“What price?” Esme asks, breaking the silence like glass.
“Funny you should ask,” Madame Boucher meets Esme’s eyes.
Is it everyone’s imagination or does Madame Boucher emphasize the word ’you’ when speaking to Esme?
“I don’t need nothin’ right now. But you do, don’tcha. I think, maybe, I could think of somethin’ eventually. But nothin’ now.”
“You want a favor on the back burner?” Iris poses. “A favor we don’t even know the nature of? And you want my daughter and niece to promise it to you - ”
“I will give you a favor,” Esme says.
“Esme - ” Iris attempts.
“Stop. Let me do this. We aren’t baptized, and we can go. Let me owe the favor. Let me go.”
“Can’t stop her,” Madame Boucher laughs. “Can’t nobody stop you.”
This time no one could imagine anything outside the emphasis and the knobby finger pointing directly at Esme’s chest.
“You promise to owe me one favor, Esmeralda Noelle Soricelle? Whenever I should call upon you?”
Esme is startled by the use of her full name. She leans away from the old woman’s finger instinctively, as if it is poisoned, or full of bullets. She swallows hard, and nods.
“I give you my word. I will owe you one favor, Madame Boucher.”
Madame Boucher nods more vigorously and laughs again. “Oooo goody. Well then! I think it’s time to do some magick!”
She stands surprisingly easily and begins fingering some bottles on a nearby shelf, working her way along the dusty cork tops and peeling labels. “Let’s see here…” She nearly trips Camilla over, who scurries out of the way of the startlingly quick old lady. “I need a little more room than this. Why don’ chy’all clear out. Head up them stairs and wait on that there porch.”
Iris is the most hesitant to leave, but Camilla takes her by the hand and heads towards the staircase tucked into the back of the room. They follow the rest of the family onto a landing that opens up to a porch which wraps around the backside of the tree trunk, providing a view of the swamp below. A gator glides through the water, his back shiny and coarse and glistening in the crisp sunshine.
“I just don’t feel right about this,” Iris says, running her hands through her hair.
“What can we do?” Camilla says. “They can make their own decisions.”
“Can they? I mean, should they?” Iris says, her voice lathered in desperation. “Who is this woman? What kind of favors does she ask of people?” She is looking to Winifred and Rowena now. “And why didn’t you warn us?”
“This is just the way magick is in these parts… there are costs to things,” Winifred explains.
Iris is glaring at Winifred now, her eyes full of fire.
Meanwhile, inside the whimsical swamp home Rose and Esme sit very still, glancing between Madame Boucher and each other. Madame Boucher has gathered ingredients from her shelves and cabinets - ingredients so decayed and covered in dust the girls aren’t confident in their potency. She’s crushing bones and butterfly wings and shriveled up eyeballs with a mortar and pestle, and stokes a fire in the fireplace no one noticed before - a fire that burns purple. She hangs a caldron over the fire and pours moon water into it. Into the water she adds the spine of a rat, some sunflower petals, and a large chunk of some gemstone the girls don’t recognize. She stirs clockwise and begins to chant under her breath, in french.
“You’re both very powerful,” she says, catching the girls off guard, who weren’t expecting much conversation.
“The Soricelles are a powerful line of women-”
“No, no. You girls are exceptionally powerful. I can sense it. You’re illuminated with it, you are,” she gestures to Esme. “And you been just growin’ into yours, haven’cha?” she waves to Rose.
Rose nods. “Astral projection…”
“Rare. Now, Esmeralda, this one is for you. You drink this up. You drink all of it.” She hands Esme a little glass of thick, sludgy goop. Esme gags but takes a deep breath and does as she is told.
“Rosalyn, sweetie, you come over here with me now.” Madame Boucher takes a pendant down from its spot on a tree root which has grown into the house, high up on a wall above a series of black and white photographs.
Rose keeps glancing at Esme who is trying not to regurgitate the potion, but she follows the old lady. Madame Boucher proceeds to reach up on her tiptoes, then says “Fuck it,” and uses her knobby old cane to loop through the chain of the pendant, lowering it into Rose’s hands.
“You wear this when you wanna stay in the astral realm. You don’t take it off so long as you wanna be there, alright? If you wanna come back, you take it off. Understood?”
Rose nods. “But how is astral projecting going to help us? I won’t be asleep, will I?”
“You don’t gotta be sleepin’ to astral project, baby. Didn’t nobody tell ya?” Madame Boucher cackles. “You girls sure you wanna go steal that book?”
“Steal what book?” Esme says.
“The book you’re gonna need to take down The Order, ’course! Their bible. You gotta burn it…” She lowers herself into her armchair once more, rocking forward and back and pursing her leathery lips. “But y’all knew that, didn’t cha.” She smiles a little smile and the girls realized she’s helped them more than they’d expected. “Now y’all go gather your relatives and get outta my swamp.”
Neither of the girls can tell whether they particularly like Madame Boucher, but they have to admit she’s generous.
The trip back home is a sleepy one, and when they’re settled into Winifred and Rowena’s place once more Iris is itching to just turn around and head straight back to The Soricelle House. But she knows if they do this Esme’s promise will all be for naught.
Esme and Rose have both gone to take long naps before they’re to find the abbey that night, but neither of them can fall asleep. Rose is wondering if she’s good enough at astral projection and Esme is sick from the potion. What did that old lady mean by telling her she was powerful and apparently poisoning her? Her stomach lets out a big lurch every time she begins to nod off.
“Can you sleep?” Rose finally asks her cousin from the adjacent twin bed.
“No,” Esme groans. “You?”
“Not a wink… Should we just go now?”
“Go save the world and confront a dark priestess on little to no sleep?” Esme clarifies, sitting up. “I might honestly say yes if we knew where to go.”
“Don’t you know?” Rose asks. “Madame Boucher just kind of… told me, somehow. I don’t understand her magic. But we could get there by gateway, if we can summon one.”
“It takes three witches to summon a gateway,” Esme says.
A little while later the girls have lured Rowena into their room and are telling her what they need from her. She hesitates only a moment before hearing Rose’s honest concerns that Iris might try to stop them if they wait any longer. After all, she isn’t yet baptized, and her mother still has some say in her life.
“If this goes horribly wrong they’ll never forgive us,” Esme says as they begin to draw the portal on the floor of the room.
“Good thing it won’t go horribly wrong,” Rose replies, steadfast.
Rowena looks worried, but she and Winifred obviously care more about the safety of thousands than two teenagers. Esme, Rose, and Rowena hold hands. They all picture clearly where they want to go, Rowena the clearest of all, because she’s been there before.
“This is as close as we dare drop you,” she mutters, her eyes wide. “You will exit the cafe through the window in the bathroom, and head down the alley. Head East, looking for the little red house. Near the house there should be a park with a swing set. Stand under the swing set and look to the North. She’ll be in the church.”
Esme shuts her eyes, trying to drill the information into her own brain. When she reopens her eyes she realizes the portal has been yawning open for some time. It’s nearly touching the tips of her toes. They can see down into a dark room which looks like a small closet of some kind. There are no stairs this time, but they can easily sit on the edge and drop with two quiet thuds onto the black and white checkered floor.
“Good luck,” Rowena tells them in a whisper.
The portal closes overhead, plunging the girls into darkness, but they realize there’s a light under the door; someone must have left one on during closing. Rose cracks the door open and a sliver of light illuminates what appears to be a tiny, rather shabby, storage room. To Rose’s surprise, it is daytime in the cafe, and there are several customers.
“Oh shit, there’s people in there… we have to figure out how to get out of here without being seen.”
“Shit!” Esme echoes, peering through the crack. “What if someone needs something from in here? Someone like that waitress… coming this way…?” Her voice is lathered with high pitched panic.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Rose whispers. Without thinking too much about it she puts on the necklace, and suddenly, she is outside the door.
No one in the cafe can see or hear this version of Rose, and when she rushes past the waitress she doesn’t feel anything at all. The waitress’ hand is on the doorknob when Rose knocks over a french press in the middle of the cafe, sending it crashing to smithereens at her feet. The whole cafe is distracted and the waitress retreats.
Esme and the real Rose slip out of the closet and around the corner, where the bathroom is. This projection of Rose follows herself, conscious and able to control the movements of both versions of herself. When they reach the bathroom someone is inside.
“What did you do?” Esme asks in a harsh whisper.
“I projected,” Rose says. “Somehow I’m… still doing it.”
“Well, project in there and hurry them along.”
An old lady emerges from the bathroom and smiles at the girls before shuffling away. The girls enter the bathroom and immediately go to the window. Esme clutches her stomach.
“Ugh. I do not feel like crawling through windows at the moment.”
Rose moves a little stool over and they’re both able to crawl out fairly easily, dropping onto the cobblestone alley outside. When they emerge from the alley they receive several glances from the people on the patio, but as they slip into the bustling square they realize they must be somewhere in Italy.
“If only you got a compass tattoo,” Rose says, pulling out her phone to use the compass on it.
“Next time,” Esme says.
They follow the compass through the square, looking for a little red house. All the buildings are stacked on top of one another, shops and cafes quickly becoming bustling houses with clotheslines stretched between them. It must be a smaller village because they’re beginning to reach the edge of what a person might call town before they’ve even walked a whole mile.
“I wish Rowena said how far everything was. What if we missed it?” Esme asks, worried.
“I’m sure we didn’t miss it. She did say it was red, so that sounds hard to miss.”
“What about that mauve house?”
“You mean the mauve house that was not red?”
Esme’s stomach growls again and she lets out a little whimper.
“You okay?” Rose asks.
“There!” Esme points.
The house is skinny and long, sandwiched between two other homes on the street. Despite being dingy with dirt it is still bright red, and the shutters are black, giving it the look of a giant poppy flower. They begin to look for the park, finding it only when they make their way down a side street. It is in a little grassy courtyard behind the red house, and consists of a slide, and a swing set, and a broken merry-go-round. They run to stand under the swing set.
The Italian sun burns high and hot and beats down oppressively, flattering the curve of their already low energy levels. The chains on the swings whine in the gentle breeze. A child watches from the edge of the grassy area, thumb in mouth.
“Okay, now North…”
They start of at a run which quickly becomes a jog, then melts into a walk. They wonder if they’re getting any closer. They wonder if it’s hours away. They wonder why Rowena couldn’t get them nearer to the church they’re supposed to be able to see. They can only see a dirt road now, and fences, and wildflowers peppering the sides of the path. They can see horses and a vineyard in the distance.
“What if there’s a spell on the church? What if it’s invisible?” Rose asks.
“Maybe. That would explain why we’ve walked five fucking miles already.”
They fall silent, conjuring water to drink and pausing to stand still a few times. Then, after another mile or so, they see it. It’s a grand old thing, tall and stone and ancient. It’s got some stained glass windows though others have been boarded up, and the grass comes up to the girls’ waists. They stand before it for a long moment, noticing the cemetery on the hill behind the abandoned church.
“I hope Madame Boucher was right,” Rose says.
“I don’t think Madame Boucher has ever been wrong,” Esme says.
They hold hands and head towards the front door. When they reach it, it swings open without so much as a touch, blowing a gale of hot air back into the girls’ faces and tossing their hair about. The teenagers are filled with the anticipation of crossing the threshold, but the church allows them to enter easily.
“You know what’s odd?” Esme asks as they begin making their way into the dark sanctuary with the rows and rows of pews. “If she is in here, she mustn’t have ever been baptized.”
Rose nods. That means Cassia left the craft at a young age, or never properly joined the craft to begin with.
Light sifts into the dusty sanctuary, speckling the pulpit with gold. Neither of the girls are sure where they’re going, but they both begin to suspect Cassia might not be in the church after all. The dust is inches thick in some places, guano built up feet high in the baptismal. The bats are currently sleeping in the rafters - those unbothered by the sudden opening of the front doors. But Esme and Rose aren’t afraid of bats; they’re afraid of what they’ve come to find.
Esme goes to the pulpit and searches for a bible, but finds nothing. Rose discovers a little door where the reverend would have had an office. She opens it and reveals yet another dusty room. Esme follows her inside.
“These are christian bibles,” Rose realizes, dusting off some books on the ancient desk. “It looks like the congregation left in a hurry… can evil take over churches?”
“It is catholic,” Esme jokes. “What about projecting? Maybe you’d be able to find - ”
Suddenly a bookcase begins to sink backward, grinding against its counterparts on either side. Then it moves to the side to reveal a set of stairs.
“No! Did you?”
Neither girl touched anything to trigger this, but there are the stairs, waiting for them to travel downward. They would hold hands but the space is incredibly narrow. There is, however, a light at the end. Esme goes first, turning sideways a little to fit into the gap, then Rose follows. They can hardly take a breath in the tight space, but eventually they spill out into a cold room underground. Both cousins stand slack jawed, facing Cassia.
She is wearing a dark red velvet dress with black lace accents. It plunges low to reveal a milky white chest and a necklace dripping with diamonds. Her deep red hair cascades down her shoulders and a split in the fabric comes up to her hip, revealing an elegant, pale leg. She smiles, her deep scarlet lips full and unsurprised.
“Hello there. It’s not often I have visitors.”
“Well you live kinda out of the way,” Esme mutters.
“Witches? Come to defend your people? Come to kill me?” she laughs a throaty laugh.
Then without warning she raises a hand and slams Rose into the wall of solid stone. Rose crumples to the floor in a small, golden heap. Esme gasps, turning to face Cassia. Rose would have made some speech about being Soricelle Women, and how dare she, but Esme only stares at Cassia, awestruck and terrified.
“You, my dear, have a darkness about you,” Cassia smiles. “Why don’t I show you around?”
Suddenly they’re sinking through the floor, falling into another level - another realm? Cassia lands gracefully but Esme falls over. It is a dungeon lit with candles. Esme’s skin prickles and she crosses her arms.
“Where are you taking me?” Esme asks.
“I’m taking you to the book,” Cassia tells her, reaching down to help the younger woman up.
“It’s what you want, isn’t it? Silly girl.” Cassia smiles and brushes a strand of hair out of Esme’s face. “This way.” She leads her down a hall off the side of this room, into a colossal chamber. The floor is black marble, which reflects tall stone pillars along the edges of the room. If someone brought pews down here it could be the church of satanism, but it’s just an ominous cavern. How far underground had they gone? The ceiling of this chamber is barely visible, but painted with scary faces, fangs dripping blood and cherubs being torn in half. Esme follows Cassia to the end of the room, which takes some time, their footsteps noisy in this unfathomable silence. She gestures to the book. A small table has come into view which holds an old book.
There it is. Esme slowly goes to stand behind the table, her fingertips inches away from this mysterious bible.
It’s decrepit, its pages weathered and yellowed. The symbols on the page aren’t written straight across like english, but in spirals, and twists, and tilts lines. With a flick of her wrist Cassia turns one of the pages, then another, and Esme’s eyes try to soak up anything they can. Should she just snatch it up? Just set it on fire here? Why did Cassia allow Esme to see it but not Rose?
Esme tries to think fast. She summons an athame from home to her grip in a millisecond and attempts to stab through the book. As if protected by a layer of plastic the knife refuses to penetrate the book.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Cassia asks, completely ignoring Esme’s attempts, circling the table to stand behind her She whispers in her ear. “It’s beautiful and dark… like you…”
Esme glances at the woman, unsure of how to respond. “Why can’t I do anything to the book?” she asks, but she’s beginning to forget she hadn’t been able to harm the book. She’s actually beginning to forget quite a lot…
“You look so much like your mother,” Cassia says, touching Esme’s chin with a manicured finger.
“You know my mother?” Esme asks, startled.
Cassia nods. “And your father. He’s somewhere in the south of France if I understand it correctly.”
“Why do you know where my father is?” Esme asks, unsure she believes this woman. Surely her father is dead. That’s what she’d always assumed, anyway.
“You really know nothing about them, do you? Nothing about yourself?”
“I mean, we always assumed my father was dead and…” Esme isn’t trying to buy into her stories, but she hungers for information about her family. She forces herself to be silent, trying and failing to focus on why she’s here.
“He misses you terribly,” Cassia says. “Wishes you were there with him, I’m sure.”
“I… I thought he left… I thought he - ” Esme begins. She’s staring at the page before her, but when she meets Cassia’s eyes again she realizes they are no longer in the enormous chamber, but in a smaller room, with a circle of candles surrounding them. They are sitting, the book between them.
“He was forced to leave. With your mother gone, your aunts and grandmother wanted all the control over you… to turn you into what they wanted you to be, and not allow you be who you truly are.”
“That’s not true,” Esme says, unable to peel her eyes away from the book. Wasn’t she supposed to be doing something with it?
“Ask them yourself. Ask them if your father is alive.”
Esme looks up again and they’re sitting on a round white bed, which is much softer than the stone floor.
“Ask them who you really are,” Cassia tells her.
Her dress is different now, in this lower room. Most of the bits are lace and they cling to her hourglass figure in such a way that makes Esme want to push them aside, like petals off a blooming flower. Esme is now unable to look away from Cassia, and when Cassia crawls over the book that is suddenly not there, Esme doesn’t stop her. Cassia leans in, her hooded eyes intense and dark as blood on black, and when she presses her red lips to Esme’s, Esme feels powerless to resist. She can’t even consider the book, for Cassia smells of flowers and old lace and herbs, and she is kissing Esme with the softest, fullest lips. Esme kisses her back, allowing herself to lay down, and the woman to get on top of her. Cassia kisses Esme’s wrist and suddenly a silk chord binds her arm flat against the bed. She kisses her other wrist, and once again, her arm is held taught. Cassia picks up one of Esme’s little pale feet and kisses it, and she can no longer move that leg. She repeats the action with the other leg.
Esme is spread-eagle on the round bed, tied down by invisible chords, her limbs stretched out like a starfish. She is wearing a white slip now, somehow, which Cassia peels off one shoulder as she kisses it.
“Poor, sweet, Esme. You just want to belong, don’t you?” Cassia whispers.
Esme’s skin is covered in goose bumps from Cassia’s soft kisses. When the older woman finally plunges her tongue into the younger woman’s mouth she is trembling with desire. She’s never met anyone so beautiful before, or so dangerous. Cassia’s breasts are overflowing from the red velvet, spilling over onto Esme. Esme wishes Cassia was clothed less, yet it’s Esme who is laying there in nothing but a white slip.
Cassia cradles Esme’s head as they kiss. “Do you want me to touch you?” She asks her.
Esme nods, realizing she’s never wanted anything so badly.
Cassia’s hand traces the inside of Esme’s thigh and up towards the warm spot between her legs. Her deep red fingernails make Esme shiver, her stomach full of butterflies, their wings beating hard. Cassia uses the gentlest of touches to trace Esme outside of her slip. Then she tucks her fingers beneath the fabric and draws her fingertips ever so gently over the outside of Esme’s pussy, meeting her eyes. Cassia’s eyes are hooded, her lashes unbelievably thick. Esme is already short of breath.
“Does that feel nice?” Cassia asks.
Esme nods. It does feel nice. It feels nicer and more intense than any encounter she’s ever had. Is she high? Did she smoke something or eat something? Or is she under a spell?
Cassia spreads Esme’s lips and strokes her vagina and clitoris in long, even motions. Esme gasps. Cassia smiles, raising her fingers to Esme’s face. She pulls apart her thumb and forefinger to reveal strands of passion, then puts her fingers in Esme’s mouth. Esme sucks Cassia’s fingers, which slowly pet her tongue. Cassia then takes her wet fingers and strokes Esme again. When she dips a finger into Esme’s tight pussy, sliding it all the way in and all the way out again, Esme’s mouth is open, her eyes wide. No one has ever touched her like this before - so assuredly - so confidently - so intoxicatingly.
“Are you a virgin?” Cassia asks.
Esme shakes her head a little.
“You might as well be,” Cassia smiles. “You’ve never been fucked properly. By someone who knows how to bring you to the edge of the precipice of pleasure and… toss… you off.”
She plunges two fingers into Esme’s pussy, making a come-here motion. Esme groans with pleasure. Cassia kisses her, the wet, hot kiss of a lover who wants nothing else than to die in that kiss. Esme closes her eyes and melts into the sensations of Cassia touching her all over. Cassia rips the slip off Esme’s body, right down the middle, and closes her mouth over one of Esme’s breasts, which is soft and fleshy, her nipple hardened by desire. Cassia licks and sucks hard at Esme’s breast, two fingers still in her vagina. Esme’s head is spinning. She wants to reciprocate, but she can only have what Cassia will give her.
Cassia stops all at once and raises herself to her knees. She removes her diamond necklace, then proceeds to remove her lacy panties, wearing only the velvet corset, garter belt, and thigh highs now. Her pussy is clean shaven and porcelain white, like sweet cream against the deep scarlet outfit and hair. She crawls up Esme’s body, meeting her eyes with a smirk on her perfect face as she mounts Esme’s face. She gently lowers her vagina towards the younger woman’s mouth, her hand atop her head. Esme understands what Cassia wants her to do and she willingly opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue, stretching only a little to taste the milky white crevice. She tastes different than Aimee. Esme licks her a few more times, guided by the forward and backward movement of Cassia’s hips. Cassia moans with pleasure, closing her eyes.
The older woman doesn’t say on Esme’s face for long. Instead, she grinds only a little while, just enough to shorten her breath, then begins to lower herself to Esme’s hips again. Cassia lifts the slip off Esme’s hips, revealing her pale, trimmed pussy. She kisses her inner thighs then dives into the wet, fleshy folds, burying her face in the younger girl’s vagina.
“Fuh-huck,” Esme breathes, her eyes rolling back in her head.
She is beginning to wonder what exactly is happening here, but can’t seem to think straight. This is a euphoria she’s never known, but isn’t Cassia the enemy? Shouldn’t she be repulsed? And now every time she closes her eyes she pictures the spinning symbols in the book. What do they mean? What does any of this mean?
Esme’s head is spinning as waves of pleasure and chaos wash over her. Cassia licks her clit with firm pressure, somehow finding the perfect rhythm in a heartbeat. Esme keeps picturing the book, though the most erotic sight of her life is currently before her.
Her muscles begin to seize. Esme is writhing, gritting her teeth and gasping, her breasts bouncing up and down, and up and down. Her hands are clenched in fists and her teeth gritted as Cassia licks, and sucks, and holds the smaller girl down. Esme looks down to meet Cassia’s hooded eyes and sees something in them that resembles darkness itself. Then she black spots cloud her vision, and her muscles all activate at once, causing her to freeze in place, her back arched against the bed. She finds she can’t move for a few seconds, and then she begins to convulse in waves of pleasure. And as she convulses she sees only the book. And she understands it. She understands their mission, and the depth of the history, and the meaning. She can see what the world would be like with this old magick concentrated among a small order rather than spread out across the globe. It terrifies and excites her.
When Esme returns to her senses she is panting and covered in a cold sweat. Her slip is still torn, her breasts heaving, but she is no longer tired to the bed. In fact, there is no bed. She’s in the big, cavernous room again. But where is Cassia? She turns to see the woman dressed once more, and sitting in a literal throne, holding the book, slowly turning the pages.
“Now you understand,” she says, sending off eerie echoes.
Esme is scrambling to get up off the cold floor, clutching the slip closed, her breasts spilling from the top. She attempts to bind the fabric with magick, but it isn’t working. Is her magick immobilized here? Could she not have gotten away if she’d wanted to? She suddenly remembers summoning the athame in an attempt to stab through the book, yet it was somehow impenetrable…
“You’ve seen the truth,” Cassia continues.
Esme takes a few steps nearer. “I… I understand now… what you’re trying to do.”
“Yes, you do.” Cassia smiles. “The question is, are going to join us? I see a great darkness in you… and a dark greatness.”
Esme knows she isn’t lying. She saw it for herself, and in herself. Esme takes another few steps. She feels drained, and weak, and is struggling to form even the tiniest spark of magick. But a part of her is relieved she isn’t strong enough to destroy the book after seeing what power it holds. This is an artifact of beauty belonging to no one individual.
“I… I’m not a killer,” Esme says.
“Nor am I,” Cassia coos. “But I understand that a few lives must be sacrificed for others to thrive.”
“That’s not our decision to make,” Esme says. She’s struggling to stay upright, her legs weak and shaking.
“No,” Cassia smiles. “It’s mine.”
Suddenly Rose bursts into the room - no, not bursts; she is being dragged. She is awake again, and flailing everywhere, her eyes wide with fear. She’s whimpering as Cassia brings her to hover near Esme, her toes desperately kicking for some brush of floor. There is a scroll in Esme’s hand, and when she holds it up it unrolls. There is a line to sign on. In her other hand is an athame. She holds it up too. Her arms jerk and flail as she does so, as if she’s fighting the movement.
“Sign the contract or your cousin dies,” Cassia says, calmly.
“No,” chokes Rose.
Esme realizes Rose is struggling to breathe, as if whatever is levitating her is wrapped around her neck. She looks like she’s swimming underwater, her image a little blurry at the edges.
“Don’t do it!” Rose whimpers, opening her mouth wide for air.
Esme knows she is to sign it with blood. She knows she is to sign it and Cassia will kill Rose anyway.
Esme nears the blade to her wrist.
“I’d like to keep you as my personal pet, I think,” Cassia smiles, standing from her throne and stretching casually, holding the book to her chest. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you.”
On either side of Cassia are two tall flames, illuminating her features and creating the appearance of a beautiful devil. Cassia draws the cool blade slowly, closer and closer to her skin. She is watching the book and watching Cassia as Cassia begins to descend from her throne.
Esme notices a shadow Cassia clearly doesn’t see. It is standing behind one of the torches by the throne. Then she looks to Rose and realizes she’s still wearing the necklace. Esme immediately understands what Rose wants her to do. She presses the tattoo on her wrist, causing the torches to extinguish at once. She reminds herself to ask Selene why the tattoo is working, and the necklace, when their internal Magick failed. The three women are plunged into pitch darkness - a darkness so soft and thick everyone feels as though they’ve drowned.
“What’s happening?” Cassia asks. “How are you doing this? It’s not possible!”
Esme presses the tattoo again and the torches come back full force, only one of them is much nearer to Cassia now. It’s angled too, facing the book in her hand. The book is engulfed in flames all at once, and Rose’s body drops from whatever force it was submerged within. She crumples to the floor.
Cassia is shrieking and drops the book. She attempts to use magick to put out the flames but there is something to this fire… Just as Esme’s athame wouldn’t penetrate the pages, Cassia’s magick cannot extinguish this flame. Perhaps the book is kept in this specific sacred dungeon for a reason.
The woman has dropped to her knees, burning her palms in her attempts to hush the fire, screaming and begging for an answer.
“No! It’s burning! Do you know what you’re doing?” she shrieks.
“Magick,” Esme says.
Rose begins to stir, pulling the necklace off herself before even fully opening her eyes.
“We have to get out of here,” Esme says, rushing to her cousin’s side. “Come on.”
Cassia is still in anguish over the book, but Esme and Rose start off towards the exit. Where is the exit? They turn to find a dead end, turning again to find another.
“She’s not going to let me go,” Esme whispers.
“Stop. We’ll get out,” Rose croaks, her voice weak.
“We need help,” Esme realizes.
“No one can help us,” Rose whispers.
Another dead end, and another. The girls are exhausted from not sleeping, and walking so many miles. They’re both weak from the physical exertions and emotional warfare. Their hopelessness is bleeding through like black ink.
“Rose,” Esme says. “I don’t think she’ll let me leave this place. But maybe you - ”
A shadow appears against a nearby wall, and around the corner slinks a little black cat, halting the girls in their tracks. He meows and races down a corridor that wasn’t there before.
“He’s leading us!” Esme realizes, holding Rose up as they chase the cat.
They find the staircase once more and slip into the office, then race after the cat towards the front doors to the sanctuary. Esme wonders if she’ll ever be able to shake the feeling of being chased by Cassia as they break into the hot, sunny day, and fall into the arms of their relatives.
“You’re okay!” Iris gasps.
Everyone embraces and exclaims their surprise and relief while the cat rolls in the dirt.
“We did it,” Esme says, looking back at the eery church. “The book is burned… Something to do with the fire that was already down there…”
“What did we do, exactly?” Rose asks her cousin as they head towards the portal her mother her her aunts opened for them.
Esme doesn’t answer right away.
It isn’t until later that night when the girls are bathing and settling into bed to finally sleep, back at The Soricelle House (which they thought they would never see again) that Rose asks her cousin one more time. “Esme? What happened in there?”
Esme is on the window seat, looking out at the garden and thinking about how small everything is.
They recounted the story to the whole family, but no one quite understood the loopholes in the magick. Adam told Iris the magick already contained within the abbey was likely the key to destroying the book.
“But don’t count on it being destroyed completely,” he added. “Don’t count on anything.”
They could all hear his voice over the phone, Iris holding it away from her face.
Mortimer couldn’t be returned to his human form until they knew it was safe, so asking him for clarity was out of the question. But the girls were safe, and no more witches had reported injuries or death at the hands of The Order, so if they were planning a revolution, they had yet to organize.
“I don’t know,” Esme tells her cousin from the window seat. “I honestly don’t know.” She folds herself into her bed and falls asleep almost immediately. But not before noticing Rose hovering above her body in astral form.
On the backs of her eyelids the symbols of that book spin round and round and round… but she is too tired to fight back.
Glasses clink, the champagne inside fizzing over and onto the kitchen table which has been cleared of the grand dinner in honor of the young witches. Oliver and Ben are there, though Ben isn’t ever entirely sure what they’re celebrating. Adam arrives, knocking for some unknown reason. Iris goes to get the door, happy she wore the green dress Adam always loved her in. But when she pulls the door open he is standing with someone else…
“Iris… This is Gabriella.”
“Hi!” says the woman, extending her hand
She is petite with a dark pixie cut. Her eyes are big behind her glasses, but she has the look of a sexy librarian, Iris can’t avoid noticing. She’s speechless, staring at Gabriella with a gaping mouth.
“We were on our way to dinner but I wanted to come tell the girls how proud I am of them for… completing their project.”
“Oh, sure… come in…” Iris steps aside.
“Only for a minute,” Gabriella tells her. “We don’t want to intrude for long.” She hands Iris her coat, and Iris is punched in the gut to notice a ring on Gabriella’s left hand.
She looks up at Adam, who appears as though he wants to say something. But she turns abruptly, hanging the coat on the hook behind her and hurrying to rejoin the party.
Gwen gives a toast to her granddaughters. Everyone is smiling but Esme, who looks out the window, and thinks of her parents. Could her father really be in France? Perhaps it would be a wonderful adventure to travel to France. Perhaps she would send Rose a postcard or two…
Esme strokes the black cat, surprised when a second one jumps up beside her. She glances at her Grandmother across the room, who winks. Esme wonders when Rose will notice, and what an awkward realization it will be for her to find she’s shared such passions with someone who now regularly hacks up hairballs.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” Selene says. “Madame Boucher gave you this to keep… But what did she give Esme?”
Adam, Gabriella, and Ben are out of ear-shot, so the women speak about magick freely.
Esme realizes she, herself, doesn’t know what exactly she ingested. “I think she gave me courage. But I’m honestly not sure.”
Rose has joined them. She understands Esme was alone with Cassia for a long time in that dungeon. “She must have,” Rose agrees. “Because I sure as hell didn’t have it.”
After dinner Esme and Rose stand on the porch together, watching a soft rain fall. Rose puts her arm around her little cousin. “What are you thinking about?”
Esme smiles a genuine smile, reaching out to feel the cool drops of rain on her skin. She shuts her eyes and the moon comes out from behind a cloud. “Oh not much… Magick.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“I still have to pick a dress for my baptism.”
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