Authors: Jen McConnel
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #magic, #curses, #paranormal, #fantasy, #witch, #witches, #spells, #science fiction
I leaped at the chance to leave the room. “I do. Actually, I just remembered that I have a test tomorrow, so I really should go upstairs and finish studying.”
Mom nodded and Dad grinned. “That’s our girl. Just don’t stay up too late!”
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on the clock.”
As I went upstairs, I glanced over my shoulder and caught Mom’s eye. Did a flicker of sympathy cross her face? Dad had already turned back to the kitchen to finish the dishes, and Mom broke off her gaze almost immediately. I must have been imagining things.
Once I was safely inside my room, I sat down at my desk, puzzled. I had thought Mom and Dad’s ignorance might be a blessing in disguise, but I had never considered they wouldn’t remember that I had been kicked out of Trinity. Obviously, I would have to get ready tomorrow morning and leave the house, but I couldn’t go back to school. Principal Snout had made that very clear, and frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to my old life. I had enjoyed the time I’d had at home, studying and trying to discover the limits of Red magic. How would I continue my training outside the house?
“You could just go to the mall.” I jumped out of my chair, startled. Aphrodite was standing beside the window.
“Don’t you ever knock?” I asked, irritated. She glared at me, and I reminded myself that this was my patron, my only protection from Hecate. I needed to keep her on my good side, and being grumpy and rude wasn’t likely to do that. I took a deep breath and tried to start over. “I’m sorry. I was thinking, and you startled me.”
She smiled wryly. “I could tell.” Glancing around my room, she wrinkled her nose. “Haven’t you tidied up in here since my last visit?”
“You just left this morning! Besides, I like clutter. It helps me think.”
“Well, it’s not doing a very good job of that, now, is it?” She smirked at me, and I had to fight to control my thoughts.
Her eyes narrowed. “You shouldn’t try to keep secrets from me, Darlena. I’m disappointed in you for even thinking such a thing.”
“How do you do that, anyway?”
She batted her eyes innocently. “Do what?”
“The mind-reading trick.”
“It’s not a trick! Don’t think to compare me to some fortune-teller at a street fair. It’s magic, and it’s magic that I could teach you—if you didn’t insist on being so rude.”
I rolled my eyes. “If you teach me, won’t you stop being able to read my thoughts?”
She laughed. “I can teach you the magic of mind reading without teaching you how to guard your own mind, silly child.” Aphrodite crossed the room and took my chin in her hand. “Don’t presume to outthink a goddess. And don’t believe everything you read in those silly novels. Real magic isn’t always a two-way street.”
Her nails bit into my chin, and her stormy blue eyes were making me feel hot and cold in turns. I nodded my head, but she stared at me a moment longer before releasing me. I rubbed my jaw and felt the indents left by her fingernails.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” I lowered my head in a bow and held my breath. She laughed lightly.
“Submission does not become any Red, but most especially not a Witch who is sworn to me. See that you save your sass for someone other than your patron in the future, and spare me your apologies.” She crossed my room and again stood by the window, looking up at the sky. “Come here, Darlena.”
I hurried to her side, tripping over my discarded backpack as I did. Maybe she was right; I needed to clean things up a bit. She smiled, but didn’t say anything to my unvoiced thought. I was grateful.
“Look at the moon.” She pointed to the window, and I drew in my breath in awe. I had been so wrapped up in fear the past few weeks, I had stopped paying attention to the moon. It was almost full, riding low on the horizon: a true harvest moon, tinged orange and floating like a magical orb.
“The moon is just a rock, floating in space. But,” Aphrodite continued, “she is also a goddess.”
“But one of those things is scientific, and the other isn’t.”
The goddess laughed in her tinkling voice. “Everything in life is a contradiction. Nothing is ever only one or the other. Remember that.”
I looked at the moon, and I thought about what she had said. Perhaps the goddess was trying to help me view Red magic as something more than chaos.
“That will come to you with time and practice.” She spoke softly and I met her eyes. “Tonight, I only want to teach you to look at the moon.”
That night, I dreamed of an earthquake: fire and blood, sirens and screams. But I wasn’t afraid, and I didn’t try to stop any of the chaos around me. In fact, I danced in the street, and each time my foot hit the ground, another tremor shook the earth. When I looked down at my hands, they were stained red, and even as my mind realized I was covered in blood, I couldn’t take control of the dream. I lifted a hand to my brow, then brushed it across my lips and my heart. I licked my lips, tasting the metallic tang of the blood, all the while dancing and causing the earth to shake. In the dream, I began to laugh wildly.
I woke somewhere between a laugh and a scream. I sat bolt upright in bed, drenched in sweat. I rushed from my room into the bathroom and shut the door. I examined my face and hands in the mirror under the blindingly bright vanity lights. I couldn’t find a trace of the blood from the dream, but when I rinsed my mouth out with a cup of water, my saliva stained the sink red. I gradually became aware of the sharp taste of blood.
I rinsed my mouth again, this time with peroxide, but the spit in the sink was still crimson. Horrified, I brushed my teeth, but nothing could get rid of the metallic tang that filled my mouth. Had some part of my dream been real? The blood in the sink was real enough, unless I’d started hallucinating. I didn’t like either option. I was either going crazy or, worse, I was a maniacal killer.
Frightened, I sank to the bathroom floor and clutched my knees to my chest.
“It is a shame, girl, that you are sworn to another. You have the bloodlust to serve me, that is certain!”
I almost didn’t look up.
, I prayed,
let that deep, rasping voice be a hallucination
Please don’t let me be locked in the bathroom with another goddess
. I drew a deep breath and counted to three.
When I looked up, I almost screamed. Perched on the edge of the sink was a grotesque woman. Her lips were stained red, and from the trickle that was smeared across her chin, I didn’t think it was makeup. Her skin was the color of campfire ash, and her eyes were wild. But what was even more frightening was her jewelry: a necklace of bones and, draped across her hips, a belt of white skulls. I shut my eyes, willing her to disappear.
She just laughed. “You know better than that, girl. You know who I am.”
It wasn’t a question, and I nodded. There was no mistaking the goddess who crouched before me.
I shook my head, not looking at her. I felt the bathroom floor sway.
“You are not stupid. You will do as you are told.” Her unspoken threat hung in the air, and my stomach churned.
“You are Kali Ma. You are the destroyer.”
She threw back her head and laughed gleefully. The bones around her neck danced, and her belt rattled. My throat convulsed but I kept my eyes down, still not looking at her.
“And you are a Red. Why did you waste yourself, girl? Red magic belongs to me. That goddess you serve is nothing but perfumes and passion. You will not go far in her service.”
“But I am sworn.”
She waved her hand in the air. “A waste! You would be better at my feet. What work can a goddess of love have for a Witch such as you? With me, you would be unstoppable.”
She leaned forward, and I caught a whiff of decay. I started breathing shallowly through my mouth and tried not to grimace.
“Let us make a deal, no? You want more than the bargain you have made. There is a way to unmake your choice.”
Suddenly, I remembered Persephone and the pomegranate seeds. I stared at Kali, my thoughts flying. If I could somehow trick her into telling me what to do, maybe I could unbind myself from Aphrodite if I ever got tired of her.
“What would happen then?”
She grinned wickedly. “You would be unclaimed. And then you could be mine.”
“But—” I didn’t want to belong to this goddess. I didn’t even want to be stuck in the bathroom with her for another minute, but I had to tread carefully. “But what would you ask of me?”
“Blood. And you would love it; I have seen it in your heart. You crave chaos, and your mistress will not let you have your fill. I would never stint you on your share of blood.”
I nodded even as I tried to swallow the bile rising in my throat. “How do I become free?”
Her eyes lit up with joy, but after a moment she bared her teeth at me in a snarl. “You will not hear it from me. You smell like deceit. Unless you will bind yourself to me, why should I help you find your freedom?”
I nodded at her, palms sweating. “Then I’ll just figure it out for myself.”
Kali laughed. “It will not be as easy as you think. Maybe I shall enjoy watching you ruin what little you have left.”
She leaned back against the mirror above the sink. There was no reflection behind her.
I didn’t even try to go back to sleep that night. I lay awake in my bed, thinking about everything Kali had said. I didn’t want to believe that I would be better off serving such a bloodthirsty goddess, but I had this annoying fear that she might be right. Even if I didn’t want to accept such a thing, there was my dream to consider. I had been enjoying the destruction I caused, and reveling in the blood of my victims. Dreams had to mean something, didn’t they? What if that dream meant Kali was right?
I tossed and turned, my thoughts shifting from the dream to the frightening goddess I had just met. They came to rest on the three pomegranate seeds.
Silently, I got out of bed and crossed the room. My eyes were accustomed to the dark after hours of wakefulness, and I didn’t need a light to locate the blood-red seeds. I held them in my hand and stared hard at them, wondering.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Aphrodite’s voice rang out sharply. I turned to face my patron.
“Things will not work quite the way you are thinking.”
I closed my fingers around the seeds, but made no move to set them down. “How are things working now?”
“No other god or goddess can harm you. You are under my protection. And I am going to help you learn how to manage your power.”
“That sounds great. But why haven’t you done anything yet?” Maybe it was unreasonable to expect, well, magic, but I was irritated that all she’d shown me was the glamour.
To be fair,
I reminded myself,
she hasn’t been my patron for very long
, but before I could apologize, Aphrodite loomed in front of me, doing her larger-than-life trick again.
Her cheeks were tinted red with anger. “How dare you call my patronage nothing?”
I should have been frightened, but I thought about what Kali had said and stood my ground. “You saved me from that trucker. And you taught me the art of glamour. But what else have you done?” I felt frustration bubbling up inside my chest, and I started speaking faster, not waiting for a response. “Did you protect my parents when Hecate brainwashed them? Have you shown me any useful magic? It’s no wonder Helen screwed up, with a patron as helpful as you.”
She slapped me with an open palm, and I stepped back, stunned. With a gesture, she used air to seal my jaw and I stared at her, helpless.
“You will not speak to me in such a way again. It would be within my rights to call down a brutal punishment on you. Did you not vow to me that you would follow me with devotion and obedience?” The goddess smoothed her robes, her hands lingering over her hips. “However”—she smiled sweetly—“I am in the mood to be magnanimous. Consider this your last chance. You will not cross me again.”
She turned away from me. I tried to open my mouth, but found I was still bound by her spell. I stood, mute, waiting for her to decide what to do with me.
“You are so eager to learn to do things. Fine. We will begin the real work tomorrow.”
She vanished, but my jaw was still locked. If it hadn’t been, I probably would have eaten the pomegranate right then just to piss Aphrodite off. But I guess she knew that and wasn’t taking any chances. I only hoped my parents wouldn’t notice my silence.
Luckily, Mom was in such a rush that morning that she barely noticed how quiet I was. As she flew out the door, she called over her shoulder, “Have a great day at school, sweetie!”
I smiled and waved, but my stomach churned. How much longer could I keep my parents blissfully ignorant of the situation? Telling them once had been hard enough; I couldn’t imagine telling them a second time.
I cleaned up the kitchen in silence, waiting for Aphrodite to reappear. When all the dishes were washed and she still hadn’t put in an appearance, I went upstairs. Xerxes raced ahead of me, determined to trip me up on the stairs.