Authors: Jen McConnel
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #magic, #curses, #paranormal, #fantasy, #witch, #witches, #spells, #science fiction
I looked down at the stack of newspapers in my arms. There was a yellow sticky note on top of the pile: “read these—look for chaos—lesson one.” The handwriting was spidery, and with a chill I felt certain that Hecate had been the one who delivered my homework. No wonder Dad had looked disturbed! Gingerly, I moved the stack of newspapers to one side. I didn’t want to deal with them tonight: between the meditation and the note from Hecate, I was starting to get a picture of Red magic, and it wasn’t one I liked. Exhausted, I fell into a deep sleep.
Dinner the next night was a strained affair. I guess I could have stayed in my room. I always kept a stash of granola bars and dried fruit that I saved for whenever I can’t bear to be around my parents (plus, eating after doing magic is one of the quickest ways to bring you back to reality), but I felt like I owed it to them to at least pretend to be their normal daughter for a bit longer. Besides, I hadn’t really seen them since the day after Hecate’s visit, and sooner or later, Mom was bound to come looking for me.
Mom’s a vegetarian and she does the cooking, so I’ve grown up on tofu and lots of spices. Vegetarian food is great, but for some reason, I was craving a juicy, red steak. I’d never had a steak before, juicy or otherwise, so I thought this was pretty weird and didn’t say anything. I just tucked into the chana masala Mom served, keeping my mouth as full as I could to avoid talking.
I was sopping up the last of the spicy orange sauce with a piece of freshly baked flatbread when Dad cleared his throat. He set down his glass of wine and looked at me. Mom paused, her fingers twitching with anticipation, and I looked at them both, too nervous to swallow the food that sat on my tongue.
Instead of the lecture I was expecting, Dad reached his arms across the table, clasping my hand and Mom’s in his. Now was not when I would have expected Dad to start saying grace at the table. Besides, we were done with the meal. I looked at him curiously. Mom squeezed my other hand in hers, but didn’t speak.
“Darlena,” Dad began, “I know I may have sounded harsh yesterday. This—” He cleared his throat. “Your path has come as quite a shock to both your mother and me. However,”—he looked at Mom for a minute, and she nodded back at him gently—“we are your family. It is up to us to raise you, to shelter you, and to aid you, even in the face of something like this.” He was staring at me intently, and I forced a small smile. I still didn’t understand what Red magic entailed, but his words were the first real comfort I’d had since Hecate had appeared in the living room.
Mom began to speak. “There will be many things you can’t tell us, and many things we might not want to know. But you need to know that we will support you, and if our actions can ease this burden you now bear, we will do what we can. We love you, Darlena.” I looked at my beautiful mother, realizing that she suddenly looked years older than she should have. I suppressed the feeling of guilt that surged into my mind.
They both looked at me expectantly, and finally I asked the question that I had been struggling with. “Just what exactly have I chosen?”
They looked startled, so I hurried to explain. “I know I said I would practice Red magic.” At the word ‘Red’, my mother blanched and my father looked angry, but I pushed on firmly, “But I didn’t know what I was saying. I thought it didn’t exist, but everyone seems to believe otherwise.”
Dad raised his eyebrow. “You swore to follow a path as a joke?”
I shook my head. “That’s not what I meant.”
“You just said you didn’t think it really existed. That sounds like some kind of ridiculous joke to me.” He crossed his arms and gave me
. My dad had always been the disciplinarian, and his look could usually make me apologize for whatever he thought I’d done, but I resisted the urge.
“She was pressuring me! I didn’t know what I wanted; I still don’t.” I looked down, fiddling with the tablecloth. “I guess I thought that if I pledged to an imaginary path, everyone would back off for a while.”
Mom looked stunned. “What do you mean, everyone?”
I didn’t look up. “Ever since my birthday, it seems like everyone has been on my case about my stupid path.”
“It’s important, Lena. Your path is your future.” Mom touched my cheek, and I looked up into her concerned eyes.
“But I don’t even get why we have to pick our paths, anyway. Can’t I just practice magic and not worry about the color?”
Dad exhaled through his teeth. “That’s a childish thing to say.”
Mom shot him an inscrutable look. “Either way, her choice has been made.”
I swallowed my irritation at Dad. They seemed to know more about what was going on than I did, and right now, I needed all the help I could get. “I don’t know anything about any magic but the Trinity paths. I’m scared. Should I be?”
Dad nodded, and my heart sank. “The path you have pledged is challenging.”
“And dangerous,” Mom whispered.
“It is dangerous,” Dad echoed, “to others and to yourself.”
Confused, I looked at both of them, searching for answers. It was Mom who began to speak.
“The magic you will practice is ancient. And powerful. There is so much about it that is unknown, and so much more that seems like half-remembered myth. I don’t know enough to teach you anything.” Her face looked defeated, and I felt small and alone. My mother was brilliant and a skilled Witch; there had never been anything magical that she couldn’t explain to my satisfaction.
Dad opened his mouth and the lights in the dining room surged brightly and then went out. I let out a startled shriek. Mom stood up, and I heard her rummaging around in the dark. I guessed that she was searching the junk drawer for matches to light the candles that sat unused on the table. The sulfuric smell of the match brought eerie illumination, and my mother’s head looked like it was floating in the darkness. Then the candles were lit, and everything felt normal, if somewhat quaint. We didn’t usually eat in candlelight, since candles served more of a purpose for my family than providing romantic lighting. Witches rely on candles to focus their magic for all kinds of spells, but the two that stood ready on the table for power outages were plain white tapers that had never been used for magic.
Across the table, Dad shifted uncomfortably and gestured to the candles. “I don’t think we’re supposed to tell you anything else right now. Otherwise, the power would still be on.”
His words made my skin crawl. “What do you mean?”
“Someone is watching you, Lena,” Mom said, “and she’s not a goddess I want to cross.”
That pushed me over the edge. I stood up so fast my chair toppled over behind me, and Mom jumped at the crash. “I need to know! This is going to be my life, and I can’t be ignorant!” I ranted, stomping around the table with pent-up anger. “I’ve been kicked out of school and now you two just told me that whatever it is I am is dangerous, but you won’t tell me how, or why, or anything. It’s not fair! None of this is fair!”
A shadow moved in the corner of my eye, and Mom gasped. I turned and found myself facing a shimmering specter, a woman robed in blue. Her hair was black as ice and her eyes were cold. Her mouth was stained unnaturally red, and at first I thought she was some kind of vampire until I saw the halved fruit in her hand. Pomegranate seeds tinkled to the floor as she moved forward, and my mother bent her head in reverence. That’s when I figured out who this goddess was: she could only be the daughter of my mom’s patron. Dad hadn’t moved since the apparition had appeared; it was as if he was frozen.
“Of course it’s not fair,” Persephone whispered. “If it were fair, would I have been forced to choose between my love and the light of the sun?” She clenched the fruit in her right hand. Juice squirted onto her blue gown, but she didn’t seem to notice. “You are a Red, girl, like it or not, and like myself, you are bound by forces beyond human conception.”
I darted a panicked look at my parents. Mom still had her head bowed, her eyes turned to the floor. Frightened, I looked back at the goddess, not sure what she expected me to say or do.
“I’m sorry,” I said lamely. Persephone didn’t answer.
She considered me for a moment, and then her expression altered. She didn’t seem angry anymore, but I couldn’t tell what emotion now possessed her. She stretched her hand out to me.
“Take a seed. Take three. Keep them. If you ever feel that you’ve made a devil’s bargain, you may eat them.” A smile played across her lips, but I didn’t think she was really happy. What did the seeds have to do with anything? Suspicious, I shook my head, and her eyes turned to steel.
“Take them. What you do with them is up to you, but do not refuse a gift from the gods.”
Hesitantly, I held out my palm and three jewel-like seeds dropped into it. I closed my fingers cautiously, almost as afraid of crushing the gift as I was of accepting it. Persephone seemed satisfied.
“The Red is the blood. My blood was virginal when I was taken from the springtime, but now I am neither of this world or that. The blood changes, but the blood compels. Remember this lesson, and obey your own blood.”
With these strange words, red light filled the room and I blinked. In that instant, the lights came on and the goddess who had stood in our dining room was gone. I looked at Mom, then down at the pomegranate seeds clutched in my hand. Mom looked at Dad, who was blinking in the suddenly bright light, and I realized he had no idea what had just happened. Mom shot me a warning look and I nodded. We wouldn’t say anything about this to Dad for now.
I tucked the seeds carefully into my pocket, my mind racing. What had Persephone meant about blood? I was sure that her presence had something to do with Red magic, but I wasn’t sure what to make of her words. She hadn’t given me advice, exactly, but she had given me the seeds. I just didn’t know what she wanted. Dad was watching me warily, and I tried to remember what had happened before the power went out. Oh yeah, my outburst. I righted my chair and forced an apologetic smile.
“I’m sorry I got upset.”
Dad smiled faintly. “This has upset all of us, I think. Maybe we should call it an early night.”
Mom nodded, but when Dad looked away, she pointed upstairs once. I understood. We would talk about everything later, away from Dad. I nodded, wondering what she would be able to tell me alone that she hadn’t said at the table.
When I headed to bed after loading the dishwasher, Mom followed me into my room and closed the door.
“Lena.” She choked on my nickname, tears threatening to well up in her eyes. I looked at the floor and waited, and in a minute she continued. “Persephone is, well, she is the daughter of my patron, Demeter.” She paused, sorting things out in her mind before speaking. “Maybe,” she paused, “her presence might mean that Red magic isn’t as different as I thought. Maybe the things I’ve heard—” She broke off with a nervous glance at me.
“Demeter is the goddess of the harvest, right?” I interjected. Mom nodded, relieved to have the conversation back in familiar territory. “And she lost her daughter to the lord of the Underworld, right?”
“Hades. He broke through the earth and took the girl, kept her in his kingdom against her will and broke her spirit.” Mom recited the words like a well-learned lesson, but her eyes looked uncertain. The goddess herself had seemed to allude to a different version of the tale.
“And then she ate the pomegranate seeds and was forced to return to the Underworld.”
Thoughtfully, Mom nodded. “But from what she said, it sounds more like the seeds caused some kind of balance, not entrapment.”
Our eyes turned to the three pomegranate seeds I had set on my dresser.
“Not yet,” I whispered. “She said to eat them if I ever felt like I’d made a bad choice, but right now I still don’t understand the choice I’ve made. I need to know more.”
Mom looked into my eyes and I felt her strength filling me. “I thought blood magic was just about death and chaos. But now I think there is more to it, and I know that if Demeter’s daughter is involved, I must be involved, too. I will try—” Her voice cracked. “I will try not to be afraid anymore of what I think you have become.”