For months, I thought I’d killed my best friend.
Now I sort of wish I had.
What kind of person does that make me?
Justin had once told me that I’d go crazy if I tried to decide who should live or die, but I kept thinking that if I’d been able to make that kind of choice in the first place, none of this would have happened. If Rochelle had really died on that rooftop last fall, then the world wouldn’t be falling apart, and I wouldn’t be to blame.
Sometimes, it sucks to be a Witch.
I used to scoff at people who preached about the end of the world, but ever since Marcus, I hadn’t been able to laugh off the sandwich-board crazies popping up everywhere. Maybe it would have been funny if I didn’t know the truth.
The world was ending. Or at least it would be if I couldn’t stop it.
Sulking, I followed my parents into our favorite breakfast place. They didn’t seem to notice the group of people standing on the corner holding signs that promised the end was nigh.
“Phew,” Mom said, pulling off her light-blue cardigan. “Summer will be here before we know it!”
A waitress bustled over, handing out menus and smiling at us. “Feels to me like summer’s already started!”
“Weather like this is exactly why people need to pay attention to global warming. I’ll have a sweet tea, and the breakfast special,” my dad added, settling back into his chair without glancing at the menu.
The waitress scribbled on a notepad. “I don’t know about all that, but eighty degrees in March is odd, even for North Carolina!”
Mom nodded, shooting a look in my direction. “We just have to stay cool and try not to think about what July will be like.”
After the waitress had taken our orders and moved on, I leaned forward. “You don’t think this heat has anything to do with … ” I gestured helplessly.
Mom shook her head. “Not something we should talk about here.”
Dad snorted, and I heard him mutter, “Not something we should talk about, period.”
My stomach clenched, and I stared at my hands, trying to pretend I hadn’t heard him. Ever since I got back from Scotland in January, my parents had kept me at arm’s length. Well, not Mom as much, but even she was more reserved than usual. My father seemed to want to pretend that I didn’t exist.
I had thought I’d only been away for a month, but the trip had actually taken over a year. I’d ended up in the Celtic Underworld, and time runs differently in Underworlds; I should have remembered that. While I’d been there, Rochelle had glamoured herself and pretended to be me. My parents said they believed I was who I said I was, but there was an edge to our relationship that hadn’t been there before.
It probably didn’t help that I had participated in what had become the biggest nuclear disaster in the history of the world.
Mom and Dad are both Green Witches, hippie-dippie earth-loving types, and they seemed to take it personally that their daughter had so thoughtlessly damaged the earth. To be fair, I had thought what Marcus and I did could be fixed, but that’s beside the point. My parents seemed to think the fact that I had messed with nuclear power at all was an intentional act of rebellion. It made talking to them nearly impossible, but I kept trying. Whether they liked it or not, I needed their help to fix the mess I’d made of things.
“So,” I began, forcing myself to sound cheerful, “what are you guys going to do this weekend?”
Dad muttered something about saving the world, but Mom shot him a dark look. “I might work in the garden.” She hesitated. “Did you want to help?”
Before I could answer, Dad butted in. “Lena doesn’t exactly have a green thumb.”
His words stung, but he was right—my gift seemed to be destruction, not growth. I tried to shrug it off. “I can help, if you want.”
Mom smiled, and for a moment, I could almost forget about everything that had happened, but by the time the food came, the familiar knot was back in my stomach, and I picked at my pancakes without enthusiasm. It had been hard for me to eat ever since Marcus died.
Marcus had been another Red Witch, like me. He was a little older than me and hard as granite. He’d been trained by his patron, the goddess Cerridwyn, and she had shown him how to use his magic by subjecting him to countless battles and acts of brutality. I’d never known anyone as powerful or frightening, and I had killed him.
Well, not directly. I released this crazy god of chaos, Loki, and Loki was the one who instigated Marcus’s death. But it still felt like the guilt rested solely on my shoulders: if I hadn’t listened to any of the Red gods, maybe Marcus would still be alive, and then I could figure out if I hated him or was in love with him. Yeah, I’m not messed up at all, I thought sourly.
“How’s breakfast?” Mom interrupted my thoughts, staring pointedly at my plate.
I looked down, surprised. I had eaten everything in front of me, and it even looked like I’d licked the plate clean. I didn’t remember taking a single bite. “Um. Good,” I lied. “What about you?”
She shrugged. “The toast was a bit dry, but the omelet was good.”
I nodded, struggling to make small talk. Before I could think of anything else to say, someone cranked up the volume on the TV suspended over the doorway.
“Europe is still in a state of chaos as leaders scramble to secure the countryside of France. Meanwhile, the president is preparing for a visit to Germany to discuss nuclear energy. It is assumed that he will push for stricter safety regulations.” The reporter read the teleprompter with no emotion, clearly unaware of the effect his words were having on my family.
Dad slurped his sweet tea loudly. “I thought you said you were working on it.”
I shrugged, but I felt my hands starting to shake. “I’m trying. There’s not a lot I can do, remember? It’s not my territory.” If I didn’t get a grip on myself, I knew I’d light up like a sparkler in a minute.
“You should have thought of that before.”
“Richard.” My mom’s voice was low with warning. “This is not the place.”
He glared at me. “Fine. But she needs to think about the consequences of her actions.”
I met his gaze, furious. “Believe me. That’s all I’ve been doing lately.” A burst of Red energy crackled on my skin, and I gritted my teeth, pulling the power back inside.
Dad snorted, oblivious, and Mom flagged down the waitress for the bill. When my arms stopped sparking, I stood up and headed for the door. Neither of them asked where I was going, but I didn’t care.
I marched up to the apocalyptic group, still chanting on the corner. “Give me one,” I said, sticking my hand out for a flier.
An older man with gray hair and a sagging chin frowned at me. “There isn’t much time left.” He handed me a flier solemnly. “Repent now, before it’s too late.”
“It’s already too late.” I pretended not to notice the fearful look he shot me as I sat down on the curb, skimming the paper. It was the same old religious drivel, talking about Armageddon and God. According to this group, the only way to escape the coming end times was to give up worldly goods and join them in their quest to spread the truth.
I crumpled the flier in disgust. It had been foolish of me to expect Nons to have a solution, but I couldn’t stop hoping that they might know more than they let on. Evidently, that group didn’t. What am I going to do? Resisting the urge to bury my head in my hands and sob, I slapped the hot pavement underneath me instead. Cracks shot through the sidewalk, like ice, and someone in the little group on the corner shrieked. Good. You should be afraid. I glared at them, and one by one they picked up their signs and crossed the street.
When my parents finally walked by me, I stood without a word and followed them to our Subaru parked at the curb. The seatbelt buckle burned my fingers, but I barely noticed. The heat was miserable, but something about it made me feel powerful, too. I almost laughed at that thought. Powerful and destructive. Red magic was linked to fire, something I’d learned firsthand after meeting Loki. It’s no wonder the hot weather is winding me up. I glanced up at the front seat, wondering if I should tell my parents how close to exploding I’d come that morning, but then I shook my head.
We drove home in silence, even though I knew the storm would have to break sometime.
A few blocks from our house, my phone buzzed insistently in my pocket, and I looked at the screen. My throat clenched. Justin. My ex had been trying to get me to sit down and talk with him ever since I came back, but I hadn’t felt up to it. I didn’t know what to say to him about Loki and Rochelle, and I couldn’t even imagine telling him about Marcus. So, yeah, I met the other Red Witch, and we sort of made out, but now he’s dead, so we can get back to normal, right? Still, talking to him would be a break from not talking to my parents. Anything was better than that.
“Mom,” I leaned forward, tapping her on the shoulder, “could you drop me off at Justin’s house?”
She hesitated, glancing at Dad, but he didn’t act like he’d heard my question. Finally, Mom nodded. “I suppose. But be home in time for dinner.” Her eyes flicked quickly to the rearview mirror, and I heard her unspoken thought: sooner or later, we’d have to deal with all this.
“Thanks.” I hopped out of the car as soon as we pulled up in front of Justin’s house. He only lived a few blocks away from us; I could have just walked over once we got home. But for some reason, now that I’d decided to see him, I couldn’t wait a minute longer.
He was sitting on the sidewalk in front of his house. His shoulders looked a little wider, and maybe his hair was shorter than I remembered, but nothing else about Justin had really changed. He was still the first boy I’d ever loved, and the poor guy had been the recipient of my disastrous attempts at love magic twice. And he’d spent a year with the fake me. My stomach clenched.
I had no idea what had happened between him and Rochelle while I was gone, but I had a feeling whatever it was would be more than I could handle. That was only one of the reasons I had been avoiding him: the whole Marcus situation had been holding me back, too. I tried to push the other Red Witch out of my head when I saw Justin.
He stood up and smiled his heart-melting smile, and just like that, it was like I’d never been gone. Without thinking, I threw my arms around his neck. He embraced me, and it felt good to just stand there, safe in his familiar arms. Tingles raced up my spine, and I shivered in pleasure. It wasn’t the same electric shock I’d gotten whenever I touched Marcus, but I still leaned into his body, enjoying the sensation.
“That’s quite a hello.” He chuckled, letting me go, and I tugged on the bottom of my T-shirt, not meeting his eyes. Maybe I still wasn’t ready to be around him.
I cleared my throat, preparing to tell him everything. “I’ve been gone a long time.”
He nodded. “I know.”
Startled by his serious tone, I looked at him closely. “What do you know?”
Instead of answering, he silently opened the front door. He led me up to his bedroom, and then warded the door behind us. “I know that you were gone for over a year.”
If I had been sitting down, I would have fallen off the chair. Instead, I lowered myself shakily to perch on the corner of his desk. “How long have you known?”
“Lena, come on. Do you really think I can’t tell the difference between the real you and a glamour?”
I blushed, thinking about the glamour Aphrodite had taught me to weave. Justin had been fooled by that for a few days, but there was no way I was going to bring that up. “My parents didn’t know.”
He shrugged. “They probably expect you to be different all the time. We’re teenagers, right?”
I laughed weakly. “So you knew this whole time. But I thought—” I broke off, remembering something Mom had said over the phone while I’d been gone.
“I kept hanging out with her. I mean you. I didn’t know who it was, and I didn’t want to do anything to make your parents suspicious. But nothing happened.” He spread his palms wide. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you.”
So you got back together with the fake me, but you didn’t do anything? I looked at him, wanting desperately to believe what he said. “It was Rochelle.”
He stared at me as if I’d slapped him. “I thought she was dead.”
“So did I. But I didn’t kill her, I guess, and she glamoured herself to look like me to take revenge.” I forced a laugh, trying not to imagine Rochelle making out with Justin. “I’m actually surprised she didn’t hurt you. She’s always hated you, you know.”
His brown eyes were full of concern. “How did you get rid of her?”
“My friend Izzy helped me.” I kept my words short, hoping he wouldn’t ask me any questions about Izzy. Talking about her would lead to talking about Marcus, and I wasn’t sure I could do that yet.
Justin closed his eyes, pressing his fingertips to his forehead in concentration. “How has she gained so much power? Black magic is strong, but this is ridiculous.”
I took a deep a breath. We’d gotten there quicker than I’d hoped, but I couldn’t lie to him. I could never lie to Justin, but that didn’t mean I had to tell him everything. I measured my words carefully. “Another Red died, and Rochelle took his place.”
Justin opened his mouth, and I shook my head.
“It’s complicated. But Rochelle is a Red Witch now.” I took a deep breath. “And it’s even worse than that. While I was gone, I found out what Hecate wants.”
I told Justin what I could, haltingly, doing my best to leave out Marcus while telling him about Hecate’s plan to remake the world. Finally, with shaking hands, I told him about Loki.
“So now the worst of the Red gods is free again, and between him and Hecate, the world could end at any time.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to sound matter-of-fact. “Rochelle controls a third of the world, and if you’ve been watching the news, this hasn’t been a good few months for Europe.” I held up my hands helplessly. “I just don’t know how to stop any of it.”
Justin didn’t say anything for a minute. I watched him nervously, waiting for the cold glances and accusations that I’d gotten used to from my parents, but he didn’t tell me I was a monster. He studied me, and then he sat down on his desk chair and reached for my hands. Smoothly, he pulled me into his lap, one arm circling me firmly for support, and I leaned against him, surprised at how easy it was to be so close. “You said your friend Izzy helped you stop Rochelle. So maybe it’s a question of working together.”
I nodded, relieved that he wasn’t asking any questions yet, and I tried to think straight. It wasn’t easy with his breath tickling my ear. “Did you know that there are six types of magic?”
He looked at me as if I’d grown wings. “There’s White, Black, and Green. And of course, Red.” He squeezed me gently when he said that, and my heart began to speed up.
I shook my head, trying to focus. “For some reason, when magic came to America, part of it was left behind. There’s also Blue and Yellow; my friend Izzy is a Blue Witch.”
Justin paused for a moment, digesting what I’d said. “Why wouldn’t they teach us that?” He rested his chin on my shoulder, and I shivered at the contact.
“I don’t know.” I wanted to lose myself in the simple sensation of being pressed against Justin, but finally I leaned away from him, still perched on his knees. “I have a lot of questions, and I don’t know where to start. But the important thing is the six magics. Together, they’re balanced. Green is earth magic, Blue controls water, Yellow is for air, and Red is for fire. And White and Black are the balance of spirit.” I twisted around, watching his face. “If we can balance the paths, maybe all six together is more powerful than any Red Witch.”
“Or the Red gods.” Justin spoke without inflection, and I watched him nervously.
“If we could form a group, a Coven—”
He stood up abruptly, dropping me onto the chair. “What kind of crap did you get into over there?”
I hopped out of the chair, clenching my fists. “It isn’t crap! I met a Coven there, and Izzy and I think that might be our only option.” I could feel the swirl of Red energy pulsing through my hands, but I struggled to control it.
His lips parted in surprise. “Covens are things in horror movies, Darlena! And besides, how could Witches of such different paths work together? It would all turn into chaos.”
“No,” I said tightly. “This is our only chance to stop chaos.”
He shook his head. “Look, I want to help you. You know that.” His eyes searched mine. “But you’ve changed since you came back. I can’t,” he paused, taking a deep breath, “I can’t tell what it is, but it’s as if you’re somebody else.” He stared at me for a long moment. “Maybe I just got used to the way Rochelle felt.”
I reeled as if he’d slapped me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He held up his hands quickly. “You were gone for over a year. I knew that she wasn’t you, but I still spent a lot of time with her. I got used to the way her energy felt. Yours feels—well, it isn’t the way I remember it.”
I glared at him, fighting the urge to kiss him and show him I was exactly the girl he remembered. Instead, I gritted my teeth. “People change. That’s part of life.”
Justin shook his head. “But are you sure you’ve changed for the good?”