Cooper pushed open the door of Crones' Circle, stepped inside, and shut the door behind her. “That is a lot of snow,” she remarked as she removed the black knit hat she was wearing and shook off the stubborn white flakes that clung to her dark blue wool jacket. She ran her hands through her hair, which was suffering from having been confined beneath the hat, and wiped her boots on the mat that Archer had placed near the door to prevent people from tracking snow and dirt across the store's wood floor. A line of shoes and boots sat beside it, a further hint that the proprietors would prefer their customers to go shoeless.

“Is it still coming down hard?” asked Annie, who was perusing the latest additions to the store's stock of books. She had removed her own boots and was walking around in her socks.

“I took the bus instead of driving,” Cooper told her, bending down to take off her boots and add them to those already lined up by the door. “You can hardly see out there.”

Annie went to the window and peered out. In the light of the street lamps she could see snowflakes swirling madly, like moths fluttering around a candle flame. On the street outside the shop the snow blanketed the sidewalks, and the fire hydrant on the corner looked like a tiny snowman. More like a snow gnome, Annie thought happily, enjoying the way the snow made everything look enchanted.

“Is Kate here?” asked Cooper, pulling off her second boot and coming to stand by Annie.

“She's in the back,” Annie said. “She's helping set up.”

Cooper nodded. “Remind you of anything?” she asked Annie as they watched the snow.

“You mean Yule?” replied Annie. “I was just thinking that. But this is no magic snowstorm,” she added, referring to the blizzard that had threatened to turn their week at a remote hotel, where they had gone to celebrate the Winter Solstice two months before, into a long winter's nap of the permanent variety. “This is just Mother Nature giving one final blowout before spring comes along.”

“Yes,” Cooper said, “but how convenient that it just happened to come along on the night of our big test.”

“Speaking of which,” Annie said, “they're all being way mysterious about that.”

“Big shock,” said Cooper. “Witches being mysterious. I'm surprised they aren't blindfolding us like they did at our dedication ceremony.”

“There's still time,” Annie remarked, laughing.

“Did you get anything out of them?” Cooper asked her as they turned and walked toward the rear of the store and the room where they held their weekly Wicca study group.

Annie shook her head. “Not really,” she replied. “All Sophia would say was that we were going to be facing a final challenge. Then she disappeared into the back office and hasn't come out.”

“She's probably afraid we'll use cunning and guile to make her talk,” said Cooper jokingly. “Or just nag her until she can't stand it anymore.”

They walked into the meeting room, where they found Kate arranging cushions on the floor. “Oh, sure,” she said sternly as she saw her friends, “come in when all the hard work is done.”

“Hey,” Cooper said, pretending to be offended, “I was out there shoveling a path to the front door.”

Kate laughed. “All right,” she said. Then she pointed an accusing finger at Annie. “But you were definitely skipping out on me.”

“But you arrange cushions so well,” said Annie.

Kate snorted. “Flattery will get you nowhere,” she said, sitting down. “I'm immune to your charms.”

Annie and Cooper joined her on the floor. It felt good to be inside, where it was warm, while outside the snow fell, wrapping the world in cold. As usual, there was incense burning on the little altar in the store, and the air was scented with the rich smells of cedar and sage. In the meeting space, candles placed around the room gave off cheerful light, and soft music played on the store's CD player, something harplike and dreamy.

“Can you believe this weather?” asked Kate as they relaxed and waited for the other members of the class to arrive.

“We were talking about that before we came in,” said Cooper. “It's very omenlike.”

“I wasn't even thinking about that,” Kate responded. “I was just thinking about how cold it is.”

“Well, we only have to put up with it for three more days,” Annie said. “I can guarantee you that there will be no snow in New Orleans. I talked to Juliet before I came over here, and she said it's eighty-two degrees there today.”

“How do you feel about seeing your big sister for the first time?” Cooper asked her, referring to the fact that they were going to New Orleans so that Annie could meet the sister that, until recently, she hadn't even known she had.

Annie looked thoughtful. “Excited,” she said. “And scared,” she added after a moment. “I'm glad you guys are going with me.”

Kate sighed. “I can't wait to get there,” she said. “I am so stoked about this trip. Thank Goddess my mom has that wedding to cater. She's so distracted with planning it that I don't think she quite realizes that she's letting me go during Mardi Gras.”

“My mother knows, all right,” Cooper said. “If she reminds me one more time to be careful I think I'm going to start drinking.”

Annie and Kate looked at her, shocked. “I can't believe you said that,” exclaimed Kate.

Cooper rolled her eyes. “Please,” she said. “We are so beyond the days of the after-school special. This isn't some deep dark secret we aren't supposed to talk about. My mother had a little drinking problem. Now she's dealing. I'm not going to pretend it didn't happen.”

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