A whirl of color and wind sent my hair flying from my face as twelve witches thundered past on broomstick; the sheer speed of their movement filled Veilside Stadium with a tornado-like roar.
My heart lodged in my throat as the racers leaned into a dangerous, tight left turn, moving so quickly I couldn’t keep track of them — much less make out their details — and in a matter of seconds, twelve bolts of color zipped by my face again.
“I hope you aren’t expecting me to do that,” I shouted to Raina, my magical mentor and newly minted campaign manager as I gripped the handle of my new broomstick like my life depended on it. She laughed and shook her head.
“We’re here to shoot a campaign ad with you on broomstick, Zoe, not murder you,” Raina said. Auburn strands of hair dangled out of the tightly pulled bun that perched on top of her head like a bird in its nest.
“Though I’m sure there are more than a few people who wouldn’t mind seeing you crash and burn,” Mallory, my best friend and partner-in-crime, taunted.
“Thanks for the encouragement,” I groaned and wiped my sweat-soaked palms on my violet racing robes.
Sometime in the month since I’d decided to run for Head Witch, one of the most powerful positions in the magical town of Moon Grove, my staff decided it would be a good idea for me to learn how to fly a broom — and shoot a campaign video to prove it. How could I expect any respectable witch or warlock to vote for me without that basic skill?
Of course, it was a strategy that assumed I survived the attempt.
“Oh, come on. You’re gonna do great, just like you do with everything else,” Mallory teased and playfully punched my arm. Her brown curls shook with the motion and nearly took flight themselves as the racers zoomed past us again.
“She’s right, Sugar, much as it might kill ya to admit it,” Elle, my grandma and number one fan, said with a smile. I scowled at her and Mallory both.
“You’re lucky I love you two; otherwise I’d find someone else to write my speeches and cheer me on,” I said.
“Be my guest. You’d lose the election for sure,” Mallory said, beaming, and Grandma cackled. Raina tried to cover for herself by biting her lip, but I didn’t miss the smirk on her face.
“I hate it when you’re right,” I said.
“Why don’t we rehearse your lines to take the edge off?” Mallory asked.
“That’s a fine idea,” Grandma agreed.
I swallowed hard and took a series of deep breaths to unravel the anxiety clenching my chest like a fist.
“Zoe, are you with me?” Mallory asked, waving a hand in front of my face.
“Yeah, sorry, my mind’s racing faster than they are right now,” I said, gesturing at the track as the witches slowed and eventually landed in its center. Knowing that their practice session was almost over didn’t do anything to ease my nerves — because it meant it was closer to showtime for me.
“Don’t worry, you won’t be moving that quickly anytime soon, dear. You have to learn to walk before you can run,” Raina said and rested a hand on my arm. “Besides, the safety staff will catch you if you fall.”
“Oh, I’m definitely going to fall, you can bet your broom on that,” I said. Raina frowned.
“Zoe, you’ve faced down some of the most frightening people and creatures our world has to offer. I think you can handle a broom,” she said.
“You’re right,” I sighed, though I felt the opposite.
“It looks like practice for the racers is over,” Raina said, pointing at the witches in their vibrant robes and goggles as they walked off the field, broomsticks in hand.
“Come on, let’s get started. We’ve only got the track for an hour. Places, everyone! We need to make this count,” Raina bellowed to the crew that followed her out onto the grass.
“It’ll be over before you know it, Sugar,” Grandma whispered in my ear as she slipped her arm through mine and tugged me out on the field.
“I wish Beau was here. Just looking at him would make me feel better,” I said. I had my entire campaign staff with me, but the only person I wanted to see was Beau Duncan, my boyfriend and lead anchor on Channel 666’s Moon Grove Tonight.
“I bet he’s just running late at work. You ain’t the only candidate in the race he’s gotta keep an eye on, you know,” Grandma said.
“Yeah, I’m aware,” I said. In that moment, with the handle of a broomstick stuck to my sweaty palm, I would’ve traded everything to be back at The Moon Grove Messenger covering the election myself — but I couldn’t be a reporter and a candidate for office; talk about a conflict of interest.
“He’ll be here as soon as he can. I’m sure of it,” Grandma said. “Now get out there and break a leg.”
“Poor phrasing, Gram,” I groaned, but marched to the center of the track to meet Raina anyway. In the time I’d spent dragging my feet, the production crew had already magically constructed our set.
A massive green screen cast a two-hundred foot shadow over everything in front of it, and below a series of plush cushions had been arranged to break my fall if I fell from high up on my broom — assuming the safety team didn’t catch me with a net of magic first. More cameras than I could count perched on tripods and shoulders alike, each of them ready to get the perfect shot.
Everyone and everything was ready — except me — but Raina was done waiting. She led me to the center of the cushions where a hollow had been carved out for me to stand and placed both her hands on my shoulders.
“Are you ready? It’ll be just like we practiced at home, only a bit higher up this time,” Raina said, and I swallowed my fear as memories of my first disastrous attempts to fly came flooding back. Eventually, I’d managed to levitate a few inches off the ground, but it’d come at the cost of several bruises to my body and ego.
“As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess,” I said with a shrug.
“Remember, your broom is an extension of you. Don’t think about it as separate; move with it rather than against it,” Raina said.
“That’s easier said than done. Sometimes I swear this thing has a mind of its own. It’s like it’s out to get me,” I said as I slipped the handle between my legs and tried not to panic.
“All brooms have autonomy, in a way,” Raina said, smiling. “Perhaps yours senses your fear.”
“Pfft, I think anyone in a three-mile radius could sense my fear,” I scoffed. Raina fixed me with a disapproving look and I sighed. “Sorry, I’ll stop with the self-deprecation.”
“Good. No one ever won an election by making fun of themselves. If you want the people of Moon Grove to vote for you in two weeks, you’ve got to make them feel you’re someone worth voting for, even if you don’t believe it at the moment. Sell it as best you can,” Raina said.
She had a point, so I nodded and prepared to fly or fall; probably both.
“All cameras and crew take your positions,” Raina barked, her voice commanding despite the size of the space. A bustle of noise and motion took over as the crew swept in front of Raina like a swarm of insects. Cameras whirred to life, shutters clicked, and flashes popped. By the time I was supposed to take off, I could barely see.
“Remember your lines!” Mallory called, her hands cupped around her mouth. The only thing I could focus on was trying not to fall off my broom before I got off the ground. My head spun, a combustible cocktail of nerves and fear, and for a few moments that seemed like an eternity I worried I might pass out.
“Action!” Raina shouted, and my brain snapped to the tune of a clapboard slamming closed, though I couldn’t have guessed where it’d come from. I stood frozen, staring at the glossy camera eyes that reflected my own deer-in-the-headlights gaze back at me, and almost started crying. How did I ever fool myself into thinking I could lead an entire town when I couldn’t face a camera?
“Zoe!” a voice shouted, but it might as well have come from another dimension, it was so distant in my consciousness. “Zoe!” They shouted again, and as slowly as if I were in a dream, I turned to find the warm, buttery smile of Beau Duncan in the bleachers.
His honey-brown eyes and perfectly white teeth sparkled in all the lights and my fears vanished at the sight, but I almost didn’t believe he was there. Was my mind playing tricks on me?
“What are you waiting for, the sky to fall?” Beau shouted, his hands on his hips, and my laughter convinced me he was really there. With a gust of courage, I gripped the broom’s handle with both hands, crouched and pushed off the ground — and to my amazement, the grass spiraled away from me as I rocketed into the air like a firework.
Wind whistled in my ears like a freight train as I climbed higher and higher in a dizzying blur. The broom’s handle vibrated between my fingers as if it were giddy to be back in the sky where it belonged.
Willing the broom to balance, my spinning slowed until I evened out and found myself floating far above the green screen where I was supposed to be. None of the crew seemed to care though, because they were all hooping and cheering for me on the ground, their cameras still rolling.
Using the slightest bit of my weight, I pointed the broom’s handle down and like a knife through butter, it glided toward the ground. I scanned the bleachers for Beau but couldn’t find him, no doubt due to how turned around I’d gotten in the air. But I was doing it! I was flying, much higher than I’d ever managed before, and that had to count for something.
But then the ground was approaching too fast, the people below growing too much, and before I realized it, I was falling toward the stadium floor like a wounded bird. I jerked the broom’s handle upward, but it didn’t respond; it was pointed straight at the ground like some sort of heat-seeking missile determined to crash.
I let go of the broom and opened my mouth to scream, but the air was stolen from my lungs when something firm and fast collided with me. My broom tumbled through the air and clattered to the ground as I inexplicably zoomed away from the action, wind and robes flapping in my ears.
A gloved arm wrapped around my stomach, holding me in place, and it wasn’t until my feet were back on solid ground that I realized I’d been saved from the mess I’d created by one of the racers I’d watched practicing minutes earlier.
Silky black hair darker than a solar eclipse showered over the racer’s shoulders as she rested her matching black broomstick in the crook of one elbow, lifted her goggles and headband off her head, and shook it free. Her pair of frigid, piercing blue eyes bored into me, though out of mockery or sympathy I couldn’t tell until she offered me a hand to shake.
“Lydia Crowe,” she said with a smile, her voice much softer than her looks implied. She was beautiful in the most haunting, intimidating way possible.
“Th-thanks, Lydia. I’m Z—”
“Zoe Clarke, yes, I know,” Lydia interrupted, her smile broadening as the sound of footsteps pounding the field in our direction filled the awkward silence between us. How and why had she saved me? I hadn’t seen anyone else on the field when I took off. Did she have some suspicion I might need help? If so, I wasn’t sure if I should’ve been happy or embarrassed.
“Zoe, dear Lilith, are you okay?” Raina cried when she caught up to us.
“I’m nice and awake now, that’s for sure,” I said, unable to take my eyes off Lydia.
“Thank you so much for your help, I don’t know what we would’ve done if you hadn’t been there,” Raina said.
“My pleasure. I’ve wanted to meet Zoe for a while now, but I didn’t think it would happen like this,” Lydia said.
“Oh, goodness, where are my manners? You’re Lydia Crowe, the Black Wing!” Raina said, offering a hand to Lydia, which she took graciously. The Black Wing? That explained her choice of colors, from her hair to her robes all the way down to her broom. It was all black.
“Why did you want to meet me?” I asked.
“I’ve heard a lot about your potential and your run for Head Witch. Why wouldn’t I want to meet you?” Lydia asked as she tugged off her gloves by their fingers, one at a time.
“That’s very kind of you to say, Ms. Crowe,” Raina said, saving me from my inability to make pleasantries.
“I like what you’re doing with your campaign, Zoe. It’s very, well, different. But I mean that in a good way,” Lydia said and slung her gloves over one shoulder. “You know, just the other day my sisters and I were talking about you. What a coincidence that we’d meet like this.”
“Right, yeah, a coincidence. Not a crash scene,” I said and Lydia chuckled.
“Hey, we all have to start somewhere when it comes to the art of broom flying,” Lydia said. “I wasn’t always this much of a natural myself.”
“Your racing record says otherwise,” Raina said.
“That’s kind of you.”
“And true. Ms. Crowe, we owe you a great debt for saving Zoe, a debt I don’t think we’ll ever be able to repay,” Raina said.
“Sure you can. Join me at my estate tomorrow evening. My sisters would love to meet you all, and maybe we’d be able to work together on your campaign somehow. We do know a lot of people,” Lydia said with a mischievous glint in her glacial eyes.
As fierce as she was, I knew right then and there that I wanted her on my side — and would’ve even if she hadn’t saved me from my tailspin.
“As much as we appreciate the offer, it’s really not necessary. We should be thanking you, not the other way around,” Raina said.
“Then thank me by humoring me. I’ll see you all tomorrow night around seven. I trust you know where we live?” Lydia asked.
“Yes, of course,” Raina said, blushing.
“Good. It really was nice to meet you, Zoe, but I need to get going. The life of a racer never slows,” Lydia said, smiling. “I’d be happy to give you some flying tips sometime, by the way.”
“Lilith knows I need them,” I said and Lydia chuckled as she mounted her broom and kicked off, leaving us in a cloud of dust as Grandma Elle and Beau threw their arms around me.
“Who the heck was that lady?” Grandma asked.
“The best thing that ever happened to me,” I said and Beau furrowed his brows.
“Are you sure you’re feeling okay?” he asked, cradling my face in his hands to look me in the eyes for any signs of illness.
“I’m fine,” I said and shrugged my way out of his grip. “A little shaken, but fine.”
“This meeting is a good omen if I’ve ever seen one,” Raina said, her voice distant.
“I take it you know her?” I asked.
“Know her? Zoe, she’s one of the three richest, most influential witches in all of Moon Grove. Everyone knows the Crowes,” Raina said.
“Why didn’t you get me an autograph?!” Mallory wailed as she came skidding to a halt beside me.
“Because I didn’t know I should’ve,” I said, shrugging. “So does that mean we’re going to meet her tomorrow night?”
“We’d be fools to refuse, if for no other reason than to see what the Crowes have to offer,” Raina said.
“Wait, what? The Crowes want to meet with us?!” Mallory asked, her eyes as wide as dinner plates under the magnification of her coke-bottle glasses.
“Tomorrow at seven,” I said.
“At their mansion?” Mallory asked, her eyes somehow growing even wider.
“I assume that’s what she meant when she said estate, yeah,” I said.
“Well hot dog on a stick, Sugar. I knew you was doin’ somethin’ right with this campaign, but this seems like it might be a home run,” Grandma said.
“It’s beyond a home run, Elle, this could be a shut out!” Mallory shouted. “The Crowes make and break people in this town and if they think you’re worth talking to, that’s huge. Lorelei Riddle and Ruby Cromwell are gonna be shaking in their robes when they get wind of this meeting.”
“Who would’ve thought falling off my broom would be the best thing I could do for my campaign?” I asked. Grandma cackled and threw her arms around me again.