Authors: Jen McConnel
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #magic, #curses, #paranormal, #fantasy, #witch, #witches, #spells, #science fiction
Her words startled me. I had realized my parents were upset, but I hadn’t thought they were afraid. What force could make a mother fear her own daughter? And twice now I’d heard that word:
. Persephone and Mom had both called Red magic
. What had I gotten myself into? I sank down onto my bed and looked at Mom in confusion.
People had always said I looked like my mom, but I didn’t see it. She was beautiful, with her long hair flowing down to her shoulders. She’d never colored her hair, yet women were constantly asking her what product she used; no one believed that rich reddish-brown color could be natural. But if Mom’s patron was indirectly involved in Red magic, maybe I was more like her than I thought.
As if echoing my thoughts, she said, “Persephone would make a nice patron. Maybe you should consider—”
“I don’t want to take a patron yet. I don’t even understand Red magic; how am I supposed to know who the Red gods are?”
Mom pursed her lips. “Lena, it would be good to have help, and a patron can provide you with more help than your father or I can.”
I turned over, pressing my face to my pillow. “I don’t even know if I want a patron.”
“You’re young. You don’t understand how wonderful it is to work directly with a god.”
I looked up at her curiously. Mom had never talked about her relationship with Demeter that much, and I had never asked. “When did you swear to Demeter?”
Her eyes got misty as she remembered. “When I was fifteen.” She noticed my startled expression and laughed self-consciously. “We did things differently back then; the patron and the path sort of came together.”
I counted on my fingers. “So you’ve been a Green Witch for—”
“A long time.” She laughed. “And since day one, Demeter has been there to guide me.”
“Does she appear all the time? How do you work with her?”
Mom hesitated. “She appeared to me during my Dedicancy ceremony, but other than that, it’s mostly been a long-distance relationship.”
My mouth dropped open. “And that’s what you want me to get myself into? How can she help you if she isn’t here?”
“It’s hard to explain. But my powers have sharpened because of her presence in my life.”
“Your green thumb.” Mom could grow anything in the thick clay that pretended to be our yard, and the neighbors were always amazed by her garden.
She shrugged modestly. “That, and other things. Trust me, Lena, a patron is a huge blessing.”
“Who’s Dad’s patron?”
I couldn’t read her expression, but her tone was tense. “That’s a question you’ll have to ask him.”
“You know he and I can’t really talk anymore.” It was true. Once, I’d adored my dad, but then he’d grown overbearing and distant. He’d always been the one to dole out punishment, but it was as if he stopped going easy on me all of a sudden when I hit high school. There were days that I hated him, although I’d never say something like that out loud.
Mom sighed. “Your dad loves you. It’s just hard for him to understand you. Remember, he was never a teenage girl.”
I snorted. “You can say that again.”
“Think about what I’ve said, Lena. If you worked with Persephone, maybe I would be able to help you.”
“You can help me even if I don’t have a patron, right?” I tried to keep the panic out of my voice, but she heard it.
“I will always do everything in my power for you.”
It wasn’t really an answer, but it would have to do. I forced a smile. She touched my cheek softly before she left my room, but her eyes looked troubled.
I lay back on my bed, staring up at my ceiling. Instead of thinking about what Mom had said, I found myself wandering through childhood memories.
My parents used to take turns reading to me every night before bed when I was younger. I don’t know how old I was, but I must have been old enough to go to school. I hadn’t always attended Trinity. My parents had started me out at a public elementary school. Most Witches didn’t mix with Nons, but because Mom and Dad were Greens, or maybe just because of their personalities, they weren’t inclined to segregate themselves. I don’t know when they would have sent me to Trinity if I hadn’t run into a narrow-minded teacher at the public school. Maybe they’d planned to keep me with Nons as long as possible, or maybe they would have sent me to Trinity that year anyway. I’d never thought to ask.
The night everything changed, Dad and I were reading together before bed. I remember we were reading the story of Rapunzel for about the millionth time. Right after the witch cut Rapunzel’s hair, I turned to my father.
“Witches are nasty, right, Daddy?”
He looked down at me for a second, stunned. “What makes you say that?”
I pointed at the book. “It’s true! Ms. Brenamen said so today in class.”
My father frowned. “Witches are not nasty, sweetie.”
I was confused. “But look at what the witch did to Rapunzel! That’s mean.”
Dad sighed. “Magic is powerful, so you have to be careful to do the right thing.”
I giggled. “You’re silly, Daddy. Magic isn’t real.”
He closed the book and looked at me with a serious expression. “Darlena, you are a Witch. So am I, so is your mother. This doesn’t mean we are evil. It just means”—he snapped his fingers and the candle beside my bed dimmed and then flared up—“that we have to be careful with our magic.”
He kissed my cheek and tucked me in, but I still didn’t believe in magic. It wasn’t until later that week, when my parents pulled me out of the public school and enrolled me in Trinity, that I began to understand what he’d been talking about. At first, it was really cool, like falling into a fairy tale. But Trinity didn’t believe in using magic unnecessarily, and soon I felt more stifled than before. I’d always hated the fact that I could do magic, but I wasn’t supposed to use it all the time. What was the sense in that?
When I finally fell asleep, I plunged immediately into a dream. I was walking along a dark, stone corridor, feeling my way with hesitant steps. In the distance, I could see a dim glow. As I walked, the glow brightened and I realized the light was tinted red. I hesitated, but a gust of wind swept down the tunnel and forced me forward. I stumbled and reached out to catch myself, but my hand grabbed something fleshy and soft. I shuddered. When I looked, I was relieved to see that I was gripping a rotten pomegranate, not something human. My hand was stained red from the juice, and I was suddenly overwhelmed with an urge to lick my fingers. Before I could, I heard a crash in the corridor ahead of me and dropped the fruit, distracted.
I took a few more hesitant steps down the corridor, rounding a bend. The red glow grew blinding. As I struggled to see, a shape began to form in the red light. A figure stood before me, robed in black and engulfed in flames. I felt my skin prickle, and all of a sudden I realized that I was looking in a mirror. I was the one burning.
I woke with a thump. Startled and disoriented from my dream, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was staring at a pair of glowing green eyes. As my awareness returned, I realized that I was on the hardwood floor of my bedroom. I must have fallen out of bed as I struggled to escape my nightmare, and Xerxes was eyeing me with something approaching interest. The old gray cat had never seemed to care about anything that wasn’t tuna, but clearly my new sleeping habits were intriguing. He stretched languorously and touched his cold nose to mine. The cat and I both flinched at the static charge that zapped us. He looked at me, offended, before turning tail and stalking into my closet.
I stretched my tired muscles and touched my face. No burn scars. I exhaled in relief. My dream had seemed so real.
As I sat up, I noticed the stack of newspapers sitting by the foot of my bed. The yellow sticky note winked up at me, and, curious, I reached for the first paper. I skimmed the headlines, wondering what kind of chaos I was supposed to be looking for: robberies, terrorism, natural disasters; what did Hecate want me to see? The headlines on the first page were gruesome: a bomb in the Middle East, flooding in the Caribbean, and a high schooler in the Midwest who brought a gun to school. Those all sounded pretty chaotic to me, but I kept turning the pages. I made it more than halfway through the paper before I found any stories that weren’t about chaos. By that point, I was too depressed to keep reading.
Tossing the paper aside, I picked up the next in the stack and began skimming. Once again, it seemed like the only news stories were about horrors around the world. Announcements of births and weddings and interviews with interesting people were buried in the back. Why did the press insist on sharing only the bad things that were going on? Surely these articles couldn’t represent the ratio of misery to joy in the world, could they?
“Now you see why your choice is so valuable.” The voice made me jump. A woman had materialized out of thin air and was leaning against my dresser. Her hair was like a black waterfall across her shoulders, and she wore a red floral dress that set off her caramel-colored skin. Her eyes were glistening amber, like the burning embers of a fire. I stared at her, stunned.
“The world feeds on the chaos generated by Red magic. Without it, what would people read in their paper each morning?” Her voice dripped with power, and I wanted to shrink back against the bed to avoid her reach. She went on, oblivious to my revulsion.
“You have chosen to be a keeper of chaos. You will remember to honor me as you keep the balance.” She smiled like a cat, and my hair stood on end.
“Um, I don’t want to be rude … ” I paused, searching my mind frantically for some clue about this goddess. I was terrified of being incinerated, but my mind was completely blank. “But I don’t know who you are.” I cringed, waiting for her reaction.
The goddess growled. It sounded like a rumble, as if the entire house were on the verge of collapse.
“I am Pele. You will not forget me, girl. It is my fire that creates your realm.”
“I don’t understand.” I scrambled to my feet, spreading my hands in an apologetic gesture. At least she hadn’t killed me yet.
“You are one of the keepers of Red magic, and the boundaries of your territory are set by my fire mountains.”
“You’re a goddess of volcanoes?”
She rumbled again. “I am the great keeper of the fire mountains. They worshipped me in the South Pacific, but my realm includes all mountains of rock and flame.”
“But how should I honor you? I don’t even understand what my job is yet.” My throat tightened around the words. I was starting to understand Red magic, but I still had no idea what it meant to be a Red Witch.
Pele stared at me, her eyes sparking. After a moment, her gaze cooled and I could breathe again. “I see that is true. You do not know yet, but you are starting to understand. And when you take your power, you will honor me with sacrifices. My mountains do not like to be silent.”
The room suddenly filled with the smell of burning flesh. My eyes watered and I rubbed my hand across my face. When I looked up, Pele was gone, but my room still smelled like rancid barbeque. I shuddered. What did she mean about sacrifices? I shook my head and attempted to return to my newspaper reading but was distracted. The scorched smell lingered in my nostrils, and my stomach rocked sickeningly. I set down the paper and stood up. I had learned long ago that the best way to re-ground my body after an intense magical experience was to eat, and I hadn’t had breakfast yet. Glancing over my shoulder just in case Pele had reappeared, I shut my door firmly and headed downstairs. Maybe if I got food, I could forget about the goddess who had appeared in my bedroom. My thoughts raced. Where were all these goddesses coming from, anyway?
The kitchen seemed oddly empty, and after rummaging around in the fridge for a few minutes, I decided to hit the bakery around the corner from Trinity. For some reason I felt a little uneasy leaving the house, but I scribbled a note to my parents and grabbed my scarf from beside the door. The weather in North Carolina is bright and sunny most of the year, but this was one of those strange days that cropped up in late summer. It had been a steamy eighty degrees the day before, but the air had turned crisp, and I was grateful to have the warmth of the ratty wool scarf my dad had brought home from a trip to Scotland. Soon the days would all be like this: chilly and beautiful. Drinking in the blue sky overhead, I tipped my head back with a smile.
Fall is my favorite season not only for the perfect weather, but because my two favorite festivals are in autumn. My parents always made a big deal about celebrating Mabon, the fall equinox, since it’s directly connected to Mom’s patron. I’d grown up weaving grass crowns for each of us, and the annual ritual was always punctuated with rich apple cider and donuts. I loved it, but not as much as Samhain, which most Nons, and even many Witches, now know as Halloween. To most Witches, it is the crux of the year, and my parents always did a great job of blending magical traditions with the things Nons expected to see. We decorated the house like crazy every year, and I was hoping to help my dad this year by hiding under the candy table and making ghostly noises. Later, after the trick-or-treaters went home, the three of us would light a fire in the fire pit and talk quietly. Mom always told a different story of the Underworld: some years, it was the tale of Orpheus, while other years, she spoke of Inanna. I loved everything about Halloween, and I couldn’t wait for the weather to change into true fall.