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Chapter 1 – The Reckoning

If Flynn Hawthorn actually believed things couldn’t get worse, her current predicament would surely prove her wrong.

She looked down at her sun-browned hand, streaked with green plant matter and smelling of lavender, and firmly clenched in the aged bony grasp of the Mistress of Herbs. Now what? She had no idea why Mistress Tamsin dragged her through the late afternoon heat toward the Meeting House to stand before the Grand Coven of the Sacred Wood.

The warm breeze caught her hair and she tucked a loose obsidian-black strand behind her ear. She thought back over the long hot summer months following that fateful night in the House of Magical Items. Somehow, after saving the village from destruction, with the help of her best friend Hazel and their new pal, Po—Flynn had ended up the only participant to suffer. Well, aside from Lania, but she pushed that thought from her mind.

Hazel had received another promotion, to Level Three training, because of her magickal skill. While Po’s reputation grew each day as versions of his heroic role in the defeat of Magdelana, High Priestess of the Shadow Coven of Southeil, gained him a loyal following.

Hazel and Po freely walked around the village with heads held high—and a growing trail of fans and fresh-formed friends consistently expanding behind them. However, based on results, none of the Masters or Mistresses in the Coven of the Sacred Wood had believed Flynn’s pivotal part in the events of that night. So she had been labeled an instigator and spent every afternoon of the planting season stuck in the prep room of the Herb Hut. She didn’t exactly enjoy her afternoons in the Herb Hut, but attending the upcoming training sessions without her best friend, Hazel, promised to be a far worse consequence.

And now, the friendless, falsely-accused Flynn found herself pulled along behind the Mistress of Herbs like a moa in a training harness.

Tamsin kept looking over her shoulder at Flynn as she tugged her toward the marae. Her huge bulging eyes were tinged with fear and she kept clearing her throat, as though she could not swallow what she observed.

“Mistress Tam—”

“Silence! Do not speak to me, witch.” Tamsin huffed out a stifled moan and increased her pace.

Did she just call me a witch? Flynn’s golden-brown eyes widened in astonishment and a fresh wave of confusion fogged her thoughts. Everyone in the Grand Coven knew the truth about Flynn—a Watcher, born into the world of magick with no ability to wield it. Tamsin had always been her biggest non-supporter, and now she had used the other “W” word. This day couldn’t get any stranger for Flynn. (BUY the book)

Po sat on the thick grass in front of the House of Magickal Items, waiting for his mother. Despite his much-improved reputation around the village, his mother no longer allowed him to enter the revered building and assist her with the new ancestral carvings. He hunched forward, long black hair hanging over his face as he carved an intricate weasel-like witara out of a small piece of rimu wood. He heard Mistress Tamsin’s shout and looked up.

“Flynn. Flynn!” he called.

She looked across the carefully groomed Ceremonial Lawn, surprised to see Po alone, and raised her hand in a “how should I know” gesture.

He stuffed the half-finished carving into the small leather bag tied to his belt and jogged across the open space toward Flynn.

Mistress Tamsin saw him coming and ground to a halt on the dirt path. “Don’t come any closer.” She extended her free arm toward him.

Flynn saw a thick wand clutched in Tamsin’s white-knuckled hand.

Po instantly froze, his left hand swiped once across the raised scar on his olive-skinned cheek.

“Get your mother and tell her the Grand Coven will be meeting at once,” ordered Tamsin.

Po looked at Flynn and raised one eyebrow.

“Now, boy! And gather up the rest of the coven, too. This is most urgent,” snapped Tamsin. She resumed her tugging on Flynn’s arm and yanked the girl through the gate of the marae and up the steps. Her strength belied her age.

Po raced off to notify his mother of the gathering. Most residents of Moa Bend sought relief from the late afternoon heat in the breezy shade of the community arbor. The grove witches from The Hagathorn tended to the structure each spring, as they had for generations. They carefully wove the branches together to create a delicate latticework dome—pruning, trimming, and bending—all with a dose of their special Earth magick. Many villagers would bring their weaving, mending, or carving projects to the arbor and share stories while they completed their chores. Po knew his mother was in the House of Magickal Items and he hoped most of the remaining members of the Grand Coven would be taking advantage of the communal shady retreat. His goal was to be quick and avoid the wrath of Mistress Tamsin.

Flynn stopped to remove her sandals, out of habit and respect, before stepping across the polished wooden threshold of the Meeting House.

Tamsin jerked the girl’s arm without looking back and toppled Flynn to her knees. The Mistress of Herbs turned with an angry look on her face before she noticed the sandals—one on, one off. She kicked off her own shoes and pointed her wand at Flynn. “Go sit on the bench. Don’t move a muscle until the coven assembles.”

Flynn nodded obediently. She moved her sandals off to the side, glanced up at the tekoteko of Tane Mahuta on the peak of the roof, and entered the sacred Meeting House. She took her place on the well-worn kauri wood bench next to one of the ancestral carvings and stared at the shimmering paua stones placed in the eyes of the main tiki figure while she absently braided a piece of her jet-black hair. Mistress Paitongi, Po’s mother, had a true gift for carving. A familiar voice interrupted her admiration.

“What have you done now, daughter?” The High Priestess of Aotearoa stood in a thin summer shift, hands on hips, her red-blonde waves caught in a simple leather tie at the side of her proud neck.

Flynn dropped her hasty braid and marveled at her mother’s beauty and power for the hundredth time. She longed to follow in her mother’s footsteps and lead her people out of the danger of the shadow and back into a time of balance, but a High Priestess must be a vessel for the Mother Goddess and confidently manage the magick of the five Elements. Flynn could barely manage to get from her cottage to the Herb Hut without tripping over her own feet. She lost track of the number of times she had disappointed her mother and it seemed today would be no different. “I honestly don’t know.”

A red-faced Mistress Tamsin raced across the room and clutched at the arm of the High Priestess. “Careful, Kahu. She’s tainted.” (BUY the book)

Kahu’s strong fingers firmly removed her arm from Tamsin’s grasp as she turned to face her. “I’ll thank you to remember that I am your High Priestess. I may not have had time to don the robes of my station, but I expect you will honor my rank, regardless.”

“Yes, Priestess. My apologies. My concern for your safety got the better of me.”

“My safety? Tamsin, need I remind you that my daughter cannot touch the magick?” Kahu rubbed at the intricate moko tattoo on her chin and cast a sidelong glance at Flynn. “Has there been some change, daughter?” she asked, her voice a mix of irritation flecked with bitterness.

“No, Mother, no change,” came Flynn’s despondent reply.

The members of the Grand Coven trickled in and took their seats. The tall sun-haired Master of Protections, Cabot, arrived last. He stationed one of his trained Arei at the door of the Meeting House. Ever since the incident with the hex bag and the attempt on Flynn’s life he had insisted on the extra measure of protection any time the Grand Coven gathered. The Arei were human shields—with a magickal twist. They were trained to protect by using their own bodies to absorb magickal energy and deflect it into the earth, or at another target. Each Arei was handpicked by Cabot and privately trained. When a candidate successfully completed the rigorous program—and few did—he or she received ta moko arei, the mark of the shield. The Grand Coven would hold a secret ceremony where Cabot would shave the Arei’s head and Mistress Paitongi would create the moko that both physically marked the human shield and held the secret to the deflective magickal powers. The candidate was no longer considered male or female—they were Arei.

Master Cabot squared his broad shoulders and stoically made his report, “My Priestess, Master Orfila is away on family matters and Mistress Rehia currently leads a hunting party into Ti Kouka Peaks. Do you wish me to summon the honorary members?”

“No, thank you, Cabot. I think we can handle this matter, without the bias of Pounamu and the girl’s grandmother,” replied Kahu.

Flynn had no problem accepting the absence of her Nana Kapowai, the former High Priestess. She didn’t think her grandmother had any bias in her favor; in fact, the opposite notion held more truth. However, Pounamu would be missed, the mysterious witch of the wood had proven a good friend to Flynn.

Kahu took her place at the table. “Flynn, please stand before the Grand Coven.”

Outside the high window at the front of the marae, Po slithered into position to eavesdrop in earnest.

Flynn rose, swallowed drily, and walked to a spot in front of the assembled coven.

Kahu glanced down the table, “Mistress Tamsin, I believe you called this urgent meeting.”

Tamsin stood shakily and repeatedly tucked her cobweb-like grey hair behind her large thin ear. She steadied herself with her other hand and drew a long ragged breath. “Mistresses and Masters of the Grand Coven, it is with great disappointment that I report this to you.”

Flynn looked at her mother, shame already weighing on her young shoulders.

Kahu pressed her fingers to her creased forehead and exhaled.

“This afternoon, while in the Herb Hut, I witnessed the youngling to be touched by tainted magick.” Tamsin paused and leaned on the table, the blood visibly pulsing beneath her sheer skin.

“Mistress Tamsin, I’m sure you have a point,” impatience clawed at the edges of Kahu’s voice.

Tamsin pointed a trembling finger at Flynn and breathed, “She vanished. That’s dark magick, as all of you know.”

Murmurs flowed up and down the table. (BUY the book)

Thelema, Mistress of the Firmament, hoisted her girth out of her chair and boomed, “This is what I foretold, Kahu. I have seen the omens in the tainted water of Hokitika Haven and read the signs in the night sky. The Shadow Coven of Southeil must be dealt with.” She collapsed into her chair on the last word and the resulting whoosh of air nearly unseated the ancient Master Sorrel.

“You may refer to me as High Priestess, Mistress Thelema, and I suggest we focus on the matter at hand before we race off on another tangent.” Kahu looked from Tamsin to Flynn and back again. “Please explain yourself, Mistress Tamsin.”

“I was taking a bowl of raupeti to the extraction room. I walked into the prep room to see this one’s,” again she pointed to Flynn, “boline knife cutting up lavender stalks all on its own. No hand wielded it. I dropped my bowl in shock and when it crashed on the ground she reappeared.” Tamsin crumpled into her chair shaking her head and squeezing her eyelids closed over her protuberant eyes.

Thelema nodded fervently, her corpulent jowls creating their own rhythm.

Flynn noticed there had been no mention of Tamsin’s scream, or Flynn’s efforts to clean up the mess.

Kahu silenced the coven with a wave of her hand. She rose to her feet and stared directly at Flynn. “Do you mean to tell me, Mistress Tamsin, that my daughter, the Watcher, has suddenly gained the ability to make herself invisible? An ability lost to this coven since the time of the Rift, more than six hundred years ago, do you?” she said, without masking her condescending disbelief.

“I know what I saw, Priestess. It’s no coincidence that this one was involved with the Daughter of the Betrayer a few moons ago. The shadow witch touches our shores again.”

“Tamsin, clearly I must remind you that invisibility is not shadow magick. It requires mastery of all five Elements and is lost to us because the secrets of Earth and Fire were taken to Southeil with The Book of Shadow. If this girl can suddenly wield that magick it would be a blessing to Aotearoa.” She gave Tamsin a curt nod and turned her attention back to the accused. “Flynn?” Kahu tilted her head and waited for an explanation.

“Mother, I honestly have no idea what she’s talking about.” She couldn’t keep the fear from her voice. She remembered how Pounamu, in her dragonfly form, had manipulated the initiation tests and Flynn wondered if the witch of the wood orchestrated this latest debacle.

“I am your High Priestess when we are in these walls, initiate.” Anger bubbled out of each syllable as Kahu spoke.

“Yes, Priestess.”

Tamsin and Thelema exchanged worried shakes of their heads.

The plump, kindly Mistress of Births, Adriana, stood and waited for the permission of the High Priestess, the angular locks of her flame-red hair crouched under a snug linen headwrap.

“Yes, Mistress,” said Kahu.

“I could assist her in remembering the events of the day, Priestess. May I lead her through a simple visualization?” asked Adriana.

Kahu granted her permission with an exhausted wave of her hand.

Mistress Adriana walked over to Flynn and asked her to close her eyes and breathe deeply. “Now, as you exhale I want you to let go of this room and this meeting. As you inhale I want you to see yourself back in the Herb Hut.”

Flynn dutifully breathed in and out—nothing could be gained by resistance.

“Think about what you were doing. See yourself cutting the lavender, smell the freshly released oils,” Adriana continued softly.

Flynn could smell the lavender and she remembered how alone she had felt. She relived feeling jealous of Hazel and Po and wishing she could disappear. She recalled thinking her village would be better off without her and wanting to wander off and live in Dreamwood Forest.

She felt the taste of the bitter laugh that had stuck in her throat at the thought that no one would notice her absence. She had wanted to be invisible, to disappear and never have to see people look at her with that hint of pity in their eyes. She could feel what it would be like to be gone—to feel nothing—

A collective gasp and the sound of several chairs scraping the floorboards as coven members rose to their feet, jolted Flynn out of her visualization.

“She vanished!” boomed Thelema.

“The gift, she has the gift,” said Windemere.

“I can’t believe my eyes,” whispered Kahu.

The day had gotten stranger.


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