Authors: Jen McConnel
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #magic, #curses, #paranormal, #fantasy, #witch, #witches, #spells, #science fiction
She eyed me with a cynical twist to her mouth, but she didn’t speak. The goddess was beautiful; even in the middle of the night, her blond hair hung in perfect ringlets, and her red dress looked like she’d just come from a fancy party. What must I look like to her? I was drenched in sweat, my hands were bleeding, and dirt from the road clung to my skin. I pushed my hair out of my face and stood up.
“It was you who helped me, right?”
She sighed. “I left the instructions in your book, yes.” She sounded like she regretted it, and I scanned the path behind her, worried that the trucker would find me here and she would do nothing to save me.
Aphrodite waved a hand. “He’s already forgotten everything.”
I looked at her skeptically. “What about his truck being turned over?”
She shrugged elegantly. “He thinks he fell asleep at the wheel. He’s going to take a vacation after he finishes this run.” She rubbed her hands together as if they were dirty. She sighed again, deeply, and squinted at me in disapproval.
“Why did you come when I called if you don’t want to help me?” I hadn’t been racking up many politeness points with goddesses lately, but my ordeal in the truck had left me in no mood to mince words.
“Who says I don’t want to help you, you silly thing?” Her laughter chimed through the dark night, both soothing and irritating at once.
“Then help me. Please,” I added belatedly as her eyes narrowed slightly.
“If you can learn manners, Darlena, I might do just that.” She put her hands on her hips and glared at me.
I bowed my head, waiting for her to take the lead.
“Do you understand Red magic yet, child?” Her voice held a trick, so I thought a moment before I spoke.
“I think so. Red magic causes chaos. Death, destruction, and disasters all seem to be a part of it.”
The goddess sighed, and I shot her a quick look. “There is so much more subtlety to it, child. Red is the magic of chaos, yes, but chaos is the greatest force in the world. Chaos is neither good nor bad; it simply is.” She paused to let me absorb this. “Do you realize the world was created in chaos?” I nodded, dim memories from mythology class tugging at my mind.
“Chaos is higher than all else, and chaos magic is the magic of the cosmos. Red magic does not cause chaos, child, it governs it.”
Her words sank into my mind, and suddenly I felt like I could see clearly.
“So I don’t have to kill people to be a Red?”
Aphrodite’s laugh tinkled like sleigh bells. “You don’t have to do anything to be a Red. You use chaos magic, for good or for ill. It’s not the power that causes death and destruction, but the Witch who wields that power.”
I thought about that for a moment. “But what else can I do with it? Hecate seems to think I will kill more people, Pele asked for a good disaster, and Persephone said I’m not strong enough to handle it. What else is there to chaos?”
“Love.” That one word echoed around me as if Aphrodite spoke with a thousand voices, and tingles raced up my spine. “Love is the greatest chaos of all.”
She had a point. I’d never felt so out of control, so consumed by chaos, as when Justin and I had been dating. Still, I hesitated. “But what do I do?”
I stared at her in shock. Even though Mom seemed happy with her patron, I’d never considered making the same kind of vow. Working without a patron didn’t mean you couldn’t ask the gods for help from time to time, and that had always seemed preferable to the binding of choosing just one god to serve forever. I drew a shaky breath.
“Without a patron, you are at the mercy of the many forces of chaos. You have only met a few. There are others who make those goddess look like kind old aunts and grandmothers.” I swallowed in fear and she went on. “If you are mine, they cannot touch you. They cannot manipulate you.”
She had a point, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to trade freedom for security. “But you would have control over me. I’d give up the fear of these unknown gods to become your slave. Tell me if I’ve got it wrong.”
She glared at me. “There is always free will, Darlena. Unless you swear to be a slave, you will never be one. But yes, if you were mine you would obey me. It is a small price to pay for the protection I can offer you. And,” she pressed on, a glint in her eyes, “there is beauty in the service of love. More beauty than in the service of fire or madness.”
I considered her words. Even though this might be the only way to gain protection from Hecate, I wasn’t sure it would work. Besides, something had been bothering me ever since I’d first read the golden words in my book. “Helen of Troy was sworn to you, wasn’t she?”
“Yes.” Her smile slipped. “I was Helen’s patron.”
“And she was a Red Witch, wasn’t she?”
Aphrodite nodded, looking uncomfortable.
I glared at her, amazed that she would try to convince me that serving her was safe. “What protection did you offer her? She started a war!”
“Because she was beautiful and beloved. I made her famous. She is, after all, the face that launched a thousand ships.”
I felt anger boiling up inside me. “Ships that came home empty! How many men died at Troy? How many people were murdered when the city was sacked? And,” I continued, ranting, “I don’t seem to remember Helen making it out of that situation the way she wanted! She ended up right back where she started. What a great deal.” I had been an idiot to think Aphrodite could help me. She was as dangerous as the other Red goddesses I’d met.
“Helen lived. My protection spared her.” The goddess spat her words. “I led Aeneas onward to safety. He founded the greatest empire the world had ever seen, with my protection. Troy may have been a battle, but those who swore allegiance to me lived to see another day. You would do well to follow their example.”
I looked at her flushed face and shaking hands, and I tried to reel my emotions back in. The last thing I wanted to do was make a goddess angry enough to attack me. I wouldn’t stand a chance, even with Red magic at my disposal. Besides, Aphrodite was the only help I’d received, and unless another god swooped out of the sky and offered to protect me, I had to make the best of what I could get. I drew a deep breath.
“How do I know I’ll fare any better than Helen?”
“You don’t. But I offer you the protection of my name and my power. Has anyone else offered even half as much? Be grateful, Darlena, that I did not just turn you over to Hecate immediately.”
I licked my lips, deciding to do it. I couldn’t possibly be in any worse trouble than I was now, and maybe Aphrodite’s protection would allow me to go home. If Hecate was no longer hunting me, things could return to normal. “Are you still offering to be my patron?” She nodded. “Then tell me how to make my vow.”
“First you must kneel. Now, here, before me.” Her hands spread wide in a gesture at the ground in front of her. I knelt gingerly, hoping I wouldn’t cut myself on any broken beer bottles or other roadside garbage.
“Good. Now, you must speak these words: Aphrodite, Queen of Love, Daughter of the Sea, I promise you my loyalty and give to you freely this pledge. For all of this life, I will honor you above all others, and I will act in a manner which pleases you. May all the waters turn against me, may all the creatures of the air become my hunters, and may I never rest if I break this trust with word or intent.”
I repeated the speech haltingly, and I felt my pulse speed up when I spoke the words that would condemn me if I broke my vows. The goddess wasn’t playing around; I had to obey her now or suffer the consequences. Aphrodite placed her slender hands on the crown of my head and I looked down. My own arms and torso had begun to glow with a rosy light, and I sat, spellbound, after finishing the vow.
My reverie was broken by the sound of slow, mocking applause. Hecate emerged from the shadows, clapping her hands loudly. I jumped to my feet, but the air around me solidified, holding me in place. The Queen of Witches moved forward until she was standing barely five inches from me, her owl eyes piercing my soul.
“That was a lovely ceremony, my daughters. So touching! I haven’t witnessed such an impassioned Dedicancy for many years.” Her tone belied the kindness of her words, and I shivered despite myself. The pink glow that had surrounded me had faded, and the clearing was instead lit in the eerie gray glow radiating off of Hecate. “You are safe, Darlena. For now.” She leaned forward and whispered in her rasping voice, “But how many of those ships never left Troy?” With a cackle, she vanished.
Aphrodite sent me home using magic, and the journey that had taken me over six hours took under a minute. It was like I blacked out: one minute I was standing with the goddess by the side of the road, and the next minute, I was there in the street in front of my house. I took a step and crumpled to the ground. I struggled to crawl up the walk, then pulled myself upright and drew a few deep breaths. Everything had happened so fast: the trucker, my Dedicancy to Aphrodite, and then Hecate’s threat. I wanted to crawl up to my bed and sleep for a month.
The old door creaked painfully and I paused, clutching my keys in one hand to muffle any telltale clinks. I counted slowly to one hundred, my heart thundering in my ears. Nothing. No parents, no angry goddesses, nothing made any sound. Maybe the door had only sounded loud to me. I breathed a quick sigh of relief and stepped into the house.
Suddenly, I froze in my tracks. There was a faint rustling noise coming from the kitchen. I paused, praying that it was only my overwrought imagination. As I stood there, my eyes adjusted to the dark and I began to count slowly, the way I used to during thunderstorms. One, two, thr—
I heard it again. There was definitely somebody in the kitchen. Creeping around the corner, I tried to still my frantic heart. The blue streetlights outside cast strange shadows, and everything in the familiar old kitchen suddenly looked alien and threatening. Unless my eyes were playing tricks on me, there was a vaguely human shape seated at the table. Had Hecate changed her mind and decided to go after me despite my patron? I drew a deep breath and flicked the light switch, flinging my hands up in preparation for a protection spell.
Rochelle laughed softly. “Turn the lights off, you idiot. Do you want your parents to know you’re back?”
My mouth hung open. “What are you doing here?” I flicked the switch after she lit the stub of the white emergency candle that still sat on the table. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sharp glow.
She shrugged. “Waiting for you. Your mom called my house when you took off, guess she thought you might have been with me.”
“What did you tell her?” I grabbed a chair and sank into it.
“That we were having a slumber party, that you were pissed and you’d call them in the morning.”
She cocked her head to one side. “Where were you, really?”
I hesitated. I’d gotten so used to keeping secrets since I became a Red Witch, I’d almost forgotten how good it felt to confide in my best friend.
“Atlanta.” Rochelle arched an eyebrow, so I continued, “I went looking for Aphrodite. I thought she could help me.”
“Why Atlanta? I mean, can’t the gods come and go wherever they want?”
I struggled to put my confused thoughts into words while Rochelle stared at me, unblinking. “I thought that if I could find Aphrodite anywhere, it would be in the city named after one of her devotees.”
“But why not just summon her here?”
“Because I hoped she could protect me from Hecate if we were on her own turf.”
My best friend whistled. “Dang, girl, I’ve never talked to any goddesses, and here in one week you’ve chatted it up with two!”
“Four, actually,” I interjected without thinking. “Persephone and Pele have both been here, too.” I shuddered as I remembered Pele’s request for sacrifices.
Rochelle looked stunned. “What do they all want with you?”
I sighed. “Red magic. It turns out that being a Red Witch means I have power over the forces of chaos. Pele wants me to kill people for her, and Persephone … well, I’m not sure what she wanted.” For some reason, I didn’t want to tell Rochelle about the pomegranate seeds. “And Aphrodite offered to help me find a middle ground that won’t require death and destruction.”
Rochelle scrunched up her nose. “But why would a love goddess care what you do with chaos magic?”
I shrugged. “I don’t totally get it, but I guess Helen of Troy was a Red, and I think Aphrodite feels bad that she didn’t help her more.” I held up my hands at the skeptical look on my best friend’s face. “That’s what she said! I just knew I didn’t want to face Hecate again without some kind of protection.”
“So, what, you have a patron now?”
I nodded, hoping that Rochelle wouldn’t tell me I was an idiot.
She shrugged thoughtfully. “I haven’t found the right god yet, but I think it’s a good thing for you.”
“Really?” I was surprised. Rochelle always complained about old-fashioned Witches, and I had just assumed she considered patrons old-fashioned.
She nodded. “I mean, you won’t be any worse off than you are now, right?”
I exhaled quickly. “Right.” I covered a yawn, but Rochelle kept talking.