HEXED AND CONFUSED
I drummed my fingers on my car’s steering wheel, not sure what to make of the black plastic sheeting over Sophie’s bedroom window. The magical warding over the house, a writhing blue color like Sophie’s and her mom’s auras, looked intact. Silver duct tape held shut a rip down the middle of the plastic, keeping out Portland’s favorite form of weather–light, drizzly rain.
My little sister, Katie, stood at the front door of the Harris’s house, waiting for someone to answer the door.
Since our first day of kindergarten, Sophie and I had gone to school together. Every day. One or the other of our moms drove us until I got my car for my sixteenth birthday. Since last fall, I’d driven both of us and Katie every morning. At seven-fifteen, every school day, I pulled into the Harris’s driveway, honked the horn, and watched Sophie scurry to us.
Katie met my gaze and shrugged.
I waved for Katie to come back. If the Harrises had overstayed a trip for Christmas break or something, I would’ve thought Sophie would let me know. My best friend and birthday twin, also my cousin, had never gone dark from me for this long.
On Christmas, she’d severed her link to the Petal Society coven. I’d felt it like a taut string tied to my heart had snapped from the other end. Since then, nothing.
Yesterday afternoon, something happened to her mom, but no one would talk about any of it. My mom had told me not to worry.
Sure. Nothing to worry about. Only total silence from someone I usually saw or heard from at least twice a day.
Katie slid into the car and shut the door. “If anyone’s home, they’re being super quiet.”
If we waited any longer, we’d both wind up late to school. Mom would get a robocall letting her know. We’d get into trouble.
I backed the car out of the driveway and headed for the middle school to drop off Katie. “It’s probably no big deal.”
“Yeah. Probably. Maybe she got grounded on vacation. Her dad probably took her brothers to school on his way to work, so now no one’s home. Aunt Belinda might’ve taken away Sophie’s phone and forgot to text you.”
“Sounds reasonable.” If you didn’t know about the coven stuff, that is.
We didn’t talk about magic in front of Katie. At thirteen, she hadn’t expressed into witch power yet. After the disaster of Sophie having her power forced active, no one wanted to do that again. If Katie developed power, it would happen in its own time.
If she didn’t, she’d be like Aunt Anne’s little sister, who never become a witch and married a spirit knight dumber than a box of rocks.
Every witch in the coven was my aunt or cousin, in a manner of speaking. All of us could trace our lineage to Jacqueline Whidby, born in 1871. My grandmother was Sophie’s grandmother’s older sister.
My relation to Aunt Anne is more removed. I still call her an aunt. Everyone in the coven more than five years older than me is an aunt.
“Aunt Belinda is kind of a bitch,” Katie muttered.
“That’s not a nice thing to say.”
“It’s true, though.”
I sighed. In my opinion, Aunt Belinda did keep too tight a leash on Sophie. She hadn’t even let Sophie get her learner’s permit yet. “She’s just strict. And it’s only with Sophie.”
“I don’t like the way she looks at me,” Katie said. “Like I’m a dog about to crap on her carpet or something.”
“I never noticed.”
“Of course not. She likes you.”
Frowning at the car in front of us, I wondered if Sophie had left the coven because of her mom. How many times had I held her while she cried about how pathetic she was? A lot. She could barely light a candle with her power, which made her pretty useless as a witch. As a person, though, she had a great laugh, a nice smile, and a good eye for color.
I stopped a block away from Katie’s school. If I got any closer, I’d get swept into the conga line of parents dropping off kids, and I’d never make it to my first class in time.
We exchanged a wave and I headed to my school, Grant High. Even though I wouldn’t have Sophie by my side, I still had other friends to see. We’d all trade stories about our vacations. I had my eye on Chris Ricci. His mom was part of the Rose Quarter coven, and my mom had asked if I would try and date him to see if we could maybe ease up the rivalry between the two covens.
For a century, the two covens had competed for anything and everything related to roses in Portland. I didn’t really care about it. If I did what they wanted, though, I got nice things. My car, for example. Spending money. No curfew.
Sophie couldn’t do any of the things they wanted.
To the point, though, Chris Ricci was tall, dark, and handsome, and I could do a lot worse. He had witch potential. Combined with my power, any daughters we had would become impressive witches. Sons would be in demand.
My parking permit guaranteed me a space in the school lot so I didn’t have to worry about showing up super early. I found a spot in the back row and slung my backpack to go hunt down my friends.
Halfway across campus, I stopped dead in my tracks. Sophie stood with three other people in a tight, comfortable group. Her aura…I’d never seen it like that before. She usually had a weak, thin blue wrap clinging to her body like it would dissolve if she sneezed. This morning, her aura pulsed strong with threads of silver running through a thick layer of firm sky blue shrouding her like a gentle blanket.
The people with her blew me away even more. One, I knew. Gabriel Avenatti, a senior on the soccer and track teams, had chased Sophie for two years, trying to date her. His aura had only ever flickered with wisps of slumbering potential. This morning, deep, cobalt blue flowed over him, declaring his status as a major power. Of some kind.
The other boy, a skinny redhead wearing glasses, pulsed with an aura matching Sophie’s for color, yet so much more powerful than anything I’d ever seen. If he wanted, that guy could probably flatten Portland by glaring at it too hard. I would swear he had witch power, except boys couldn’t be witches.
And the girl. Like a lot of the Rose Quarter witches, she had some obvious Mediterranean ancestry. Unlike them, she had this bizarre, pure white aura, and it blazed like a bonfire. It looked like a spirit knight’s aura, except amped to eleventy zillion. Girls couldn’t be knights, though.
I had no idea what any of these people were. Even Sophie seemed alien this morning.
Even weirder, their auras played together, like they’d worked cooperative magic a zillion times and could mesh without thought.
Some of the older ladies in the coven, my grandmother’s age, had worked together a lot. They took hands and meshed auras in moments. When standing near each other, their auras didn’t do what these kids’ did.
Compared to these four giants, I could maybe muster the power of an ant.
Sophie laughed at something. She glanced to the side and saw me. Her smile dimmed and she looked away, back to her new friends. I noticed she, Gabe, and the redheaded boy all had the same weird rose tattoo on the right side of their faces, like a gang marking. The other girl didn’t.
I stood rooted to the spot. Sophie had more power than me. She’d never had more power than me. She’d never had more power than a tomato.
While I gaped like an idiot, Sophie said something to her new friends, then turned and headed toward me.
“Soph,” came my automatic reply.
She didn’t touch me. We usually hugged. Sophie stayed at arm’s length.
“You left the coven,” I blurted like a twit.
“Yeah.” She crossed her arms and twisted to see her friends, then returned her attention to me. “I found somewhere I fit better. The Petal Society is a good place for you, though.”
For some reason, that hurt. Shouldn’t I want her to find a place she fit? Sophie’s happiness made me happy, didn’t it?
No, it didn’t.
“What happened to your face?”
She touched her cheek like she’d forgotten about the tattoo. “Oh, it’s no big deal.” As she waved me off, I thought she sounded strange. I couldn’t put my finger on why. “I’m sorry for not letting you know I didn’t need a ride this morning. I lost my phone. Just don’t bother coming to pick me up anymore. I’ve got another ride.”
“With them?” I pointed at Gabe. “Are you dating him now? I thought you didn’t like him.”
“Yes, with them.” Sophie grinned like I’d made a joke. “No, I’m not dating him.”
I wanted to slap her. She seemed so smug. Had she really ditched me for these people because she wanted more power? Had they given it to her?
Could they give it to me?
What price did they ask?
“Can I meet them?”
Sophie cocked her head and looked at me like I’d surprised her in a bad way. “I suppose so.”
Falling into step beside her as she led the way, I tried not to gape at the three of them. The redheaded boy especially grabbed my attention. If mom could see him, I knew she’d ask me to try to date him instead of Chris. All that power…
What did he do with it? Why did he have it? Where had he come from?
“Ah,” Drew said, like that explained everything and he didn’t think highly of the coven.
Claire nodded in the same obnoxiously superior kind of way.
“Yes,” Gabe said. Because he knew already? Somehow?
Five seconds after meeting them, I already hated these people. They had all this power, and they did what with it? Shoved it in everyone’s faces?
“Hey,” Drew said. He snapped his fingers. “That means you’re likely to see Aunt Stace soon. Sooner than me, anyway. Tell her, from me, that she can go to hell.”
“Who the hell are you?” I demanded. Power didn’t give him the right to insult my coven.
“People you shouldn’t screw with.” Claire crossed her arms over her chest. “Sophie’s not your bitch anymore. She has a real family now, of people who actually care about her. Take your crappy little coven cult and shove it up your ass.”
Sophie blushed, but she didn’t say anything. My best friend for my whole life didn’t stand up to defend me from these assholes. She shifted closer to them, abandoning me.
Her betrayal stung. I’d done so much for her, and she sided with these awful people over me.
Gabe took a step in front of Sophie. Water coalesced in his palm, forming a ball the size of his fist. With that simple flex of power, he terrified me. Water neutralized magic. “Go ahead, rose princess. Try something. We won’t let you hurt her again.”
Hurt her? What? His words cut through my fear. “I would never hurt her,” I gasped. “Sophie, what’s going on?”
This was all a big misunderstanding. It had to be. Something had happened with the coven aunties, and they blamed me for being part of it.
“Please, what did Aunt Stace do? I don’t know anything. No one will talk to me. I felt it when you left the coven, and I know something happened to Aunt Belinda, but that’s all.”
Sophie opened her mouth.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Claire said. “It’s not your job to teach people why they’re toxic assholes.” She stabbed a finger into the air at me. “Walk away. And tell your coven she’s off-limits, under the protection of knights. Anyone comes looking to start trouble with her?”
Claire flipped a dagger out of nowhere, let the silver blade flash in the light as it pointed at me, and stowed it where I couldn’t see it anymore, all so fast I barely saw it. “Let’s just say we know how to deal with witches, and we’re not putting up with your crap anymore.”
Drew stood between Claire and Gabe, examining his fingernails as ribbons of destructive energy writhed over his hand, ready to unleash.
I didn’t know what to say or do. They’d all just threatened me and my coven. With how much power they commanded, I thought they could carry out those threats. They certainly wouldn’t listen to reason, not from me.
“Sophie,” I pleaded.
She sighed. “I’m not your pet anymore, Ash.”
Sophie turned away and shook her head. “Just leave me alone.”
As I stood, watching without comprehending, they left me. Drew flipped me off on his way.
Not only did they hate me for something the coven had done, they didn’t respect the power I could command. These people had turned their backs on me. They knew what I could do and didn’t care.
I’d give them a reason to care. No one treated me or the coven like this. I flung a spark into the ground and used the ley line I touched to feed me power. Instead of gathering it, I funneled the raw magic at Claire’s back.
Drew turned his head like he’d expected this. He lifted a hand lazily. Despite my wishes, the power flowed to him. It washed over him and spun into his aura.
Nobody could do that.
Force blasted me in the gut, knocking the wind out of me. Too amazed and horrified by Drew’s ability, I hadn’t even noticed Gabe punching me from ten feet away with a huge fist made of water. I blinked. The world turned sideways. Colors blurred with movement. My head hit the ground. I blinked again.
Claire sat on my chest, pinning my arms with her knees. Cold steel pressed against my neck. Nothing in my entire life had ever terrified me as much as this deranged girl holding a knife to my throat.
“I don’t want to kill you, Ashley,” she purred. “I don’t want to kill anyone. But I’m a spirit knight, and part of my job is putting down witches who won’t play nice. Because you apparently didn’t understand the first time, I’m going to say this again. There won’t be a third time. Sophie is under my protection.”
Though I didn’t want to take my attention from the lunatic holding me down and threatening to kill me, I noticed Sophie standing behind her.
My best friend watched this and couldn’t muster anything other than sadness and disappointment. I wanted to cry.
“No matter how tiny the injury you cause,” Claire growled, “it will be the last thing you do. I’ll feel bad about it for a while, but I can live with that if it keeps Sophie safe. You’ve already done more than enough to her for me to feel that way.”
“We were friends,” I whispered, blinking back tears. This girl thought I would ever hurt Sophie. She thought I already had hurt Sophie.
“No,” Claire said. “Friends give to each other. You only ever took. Stay away from her.”
Claire stood and they left me lying on the cold, hard concrete. My head hurt. I shivered and cried, adrift from the one person I cared about most. We’d gone everywhere together except home at night to sleep. Our shared birthday parties stood out as bright, shining dots of joy.
How could she have taken all those years and thrown them in the garbage? What had she told those people to make them think I’d hurt her? Why would she do that?
I sat up and hugged myself. She must’ve done it to get power. Sophie didn’t have any kind of natural ability to wield as much power as her aura promised. They had some way to swell her potential. Maybe they’d convinced her to hate me, that I’d done things to her.
Who had protected her in the coven? Me, not them. I’d wiped her tears. I’d held her while she cried. I’d shielded her when they wanted to include her in things she couldn’t handle. I’d helped her make sense of the limitations they put on her for her own safety. I’d made sure she felt useful even when she couldn’t do anything worthwhile. I’d attracted attention from boys so they wouldn’t break her heart.
Me. Not them.
For all that, she cut off her ties with me. To gain power.
I could find someone to grant me more power. It wouldn’t take much effort. I’d start with Chris Ricci. After that, with the right questions asked to the right people, I could find whatever I needed to make her see what she’d done.
“Hey, Ashley. Are you okay?” Chris Ricci crouched beside me with his soft, oblivious eyes. I hadn’t noticed him approaching, and he must not have seen what happened.
“I am now,” I said, taking his hand and smiling at him.
Sophie would regret choosing them over me.