Heather looked around the elegant ballroom; it was exactly what her contact told her to expect. There were almost a hundred women here, all wearing black floor-length gowns with sheer black veils that covered their faces without obstructing vision. They were mixing and talking, everyone careful to whisper. That was part of the mystique.

This would be the centerpiece of her new book: “Witches in America.” The Whispering Sisterhood was a coven, plain and simple. It had no public face and its existence was one of the best-kept secrets in the country. And here she was at a Grand Chapter meeting, where there would be an important ceremony: they were choosing a new member of their inner circle.

A few moments later the guests of honour arrived. A dozen women in pearlescent white gowns with white veils entered, accompanied by one elderly woman in a simple gray shift. The old lady was the only one not wearing a veil.

A hush fell across the room as the twelve women formed a circle. The gray woman walked from person to person, muttering quietly to herself. Nobody moved toward or away from her, but all eyes followed her. There was a palpable air of anticipation.

The old woman stumbled near Heather, who instinctively reached out to steady her. A gimlet stare pierced her veil as the old woman’s eyes met hers.

The voice was a whisper, but it filled Heather’s perception. “Nature would have let me fall.”

She whispered back. “I’m human, I have compassion.”

The old woman cackled loudly. “Ha ha! Well spoken, child. Come.”

The woman’s fingers wrapped around her wrist like iron talons and pulled her to into the circle. When they arrived something was pressed into Heather’s hand: a knife. The same grip of steel guided the knife so it rested against the old woman’s chest, right over her heart.

“What are you…?” Heather flinched under the woman’s look. “Isn’t there some kind of ceremony?”

“Does a sperm ask permission when it fertilizes an egg? Does it wait for a brass band? You know what comes next, girl.”

Heather tried to drop the knife but it wouldn’t leave her hand. The woman thrust forward, plunging the knife into her own chest. A tiny drop of blood dripped onto Heather’s hand as the old woman went limp, then fell away to land on the floor.

Heather stared at her hand. I’ve just killed someone. A human life ended by my hand.

But not by your will. Nature doesn’t require your permission before it uses you.

Heather looked around for the source of the whispering voice, but nobody was near enough. She backed away from the body, unable to stay but unable to turn away. The others crowded in now, each dipping a finger in the blood and touching it to their forehead.

The voice started again. You were looking for witchcraft, you have found it. But your thinking is backwards. Nature does not bend to the witch’s will.