I don't know about you, but I've been missing "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" since it went off the air back when I was in high school (I am old). Lucky for me -- and you -- we MAY have a substitute on our hands: Michelle Krys' upcoming YA book "Charmed," the sequel to "Hexed." And guess what? We have the first chapter right here.
"Charmed" picks up where "Hexed" left off -- with former cheerleader/current witch Indigo Blackwood on a quest to save her best friend, Paige, from some kind of demonic version of Los Angeles, her warlock boyfriend Bishop on tow and her aunt, Penny, on her case.
The book officially hits shelves on May 26, but we've got a sneak peek below. Check it out!
“You have one new message, left yesterday at nine-forty-five p.m.”
Static plays through the speaker, and then . . .
“I’m here with your friend Paige, and you know, even though you and I have had our problems in the past, I can agree with you on this one thing: she is an absolute doll.”
There are muffled moans in the background. Someone grunts, and the sound of china shattering pierces through the phone. When Leo speaks again, his cool confidence is gone, and his voice is cut with an edge of hostility. “I was really hoping you’d come by and join us, but since you’re not answering your phone, I think we’ll just have to come to you.”
Two Weeks Later
In medieval times, people were tortured with head crushers and limb-stretching devices. More recently, my ex-friend Bianca Cavanaugh tortured the 15 members of our cheerleading squad with her brutal drills. And now? My aunt Penny is torturing me. Forcing me to have “a nice family dinner” with her -- the very person who betrayed me -- all while my best friend, Paige, is missing, possibly dead.
I think I’d prefer the limb-stretcher.
Aunt Penny sits across the dining room table from me, sawing into her dry pork chop. Cutlery scrapes against china. The grandfather clock ticks away the seconds and I stare at her through eyes narrowed to slits, clutching my fork so hard my hand trembles in my effort not to leap across the table and go zombie-apocalypse on her.
She sighs heavily. “Indie—”
“It’s Indigo,” I interrupt.
She tenses at the venom in my voice.
“OK... Indigo,” she corrects herself. “I know you’re very mad at me right now, but as your legal guardian, I couldn’t let you keep living at your boyfriend’s house.”
I bark a laugh. “You really think I’m mad about that?”
OK, so I am mad about that -- after what my aunt did to me, she’s the last person who should be telling me what to do, legal guardian status or no. But her barging into Bishop’s house and demanding I come home or she’ll call the cops to haul me back doesn’t even crack the top 10 list of the reasons I hate her. (Yes, I said hate. And yes, I know it’s a strong word.)
“Oh,” she replies.
And then it’s back to the soul-sucking silence. Whenever Aunt Penny and I used to get together, we’d talk for hours about everything from boys to nail polish to our favorite movies -- there was never a moment of quiet, and if there was, it was never awkward. But right now a conversation with a gynecologist while in stirrups seems comfortable by comparison.
“So what are you mad about, then?” she finally asks.
The heat grows in my core quickly, swirling and spitting like a ball of lava.
Before I know what’s happened, it’s surged up and spread down my arms, stinging my fingertips like I’ve just come inside from the cold.
I lay my fork down and draw my hands into my lap.
Aunt Penny knows exactly what I’m mad about. But as completely frustrating as her fake ignorance is, unleashing magic right now will just make everything worse. And so I close my eyes and take measured breaths until the heat sucks back into my core.
“You know who had to tell me?” I raise my eyebrows, challenging her to answer. “The Priory -- one of the sorcerers who kidnapped Mom was the one to tell me my own aunt is a witch.”
For a second it seems like Penny’s going to cry, but then she closes her eyes, and when she opens them again, she levels me with a look more mom than aunt.
“Listen, Indie, you don’t know everything. Yes, I’m a witch.”
My stomach does a little flip at hearing her admit the truth, but I try not to let it show on my face.
“But I can’t use my magic,” she adds.
I blink at her, trying to make sense of her words. In the 16 days I’ve spent living at Bishop’s house, I must have run through every possible reason, every possible scenario that could have led to my aunt not helping me when she knew my life was in danger. Every single one of them resulted in me cheerfully beating her to death. But this? This, I didn’t think of.
She gets up and starts pacing behind her chair, twining her hands together. “See, a long time ago, when I was maybe a year older than you are now, I was well on my way to being a very, very powerful witch. I’d advanced so quickly with Mom’s training that I’d caught the Family’s attention.”
“You?” I blurt out.
“Yes, me,” she says.
I can’t hide my surprise. You’d have to be pretty damn great at magic to catch the attention of the leaders of witches and warlocks everywhere, and the only thing I’ve known Aunt Penny to be damn great at is body shots and being known by her first name at every club in Los Angeles County.
“They wanted me to work for them,” she continues. “Which was, like, this huge honor.”
Honor, my ass. If the Family hadn’t created fake copies of The Witch Hunter’s Bible to divert the Priory’s attention from the location of the real Bible -- the means that allows a sorcerer to kill a witch without draining them of their powers -- then Mom would be here right now, instead of buried six feet under.
And Paige wouldn’t be missing.
Aunt Penny is thrown by my outburst, but she continues.
“I was the youngest witch ever to have an offer like that. So I went to work for them. I started out doing small jobs, but I moved up quickly. And it was great for a while. I mean, there were some people who didn’t like me, but Damien -- he was the leader -- he said it was natural, that they were just jealous of my talent. Truthfully, I think they were jealous that Damien treated me like his little pet.”
“And then?” I prompt impatiently. Because I know how Aunt Penny’s stories go, and they usually involve a lot of superfluous details and a lot of people having crushes on her. To think I used to love her stories.
“And then... I did something bad. Something very bad.”
“Bad?” I repeat before I can stop myself. To say Aunt Penny isn’t the most mature 28-year-old is like saying Lindsay Lohan has had a bit of trouble with the law. But Aunt Penny’s always been the first one to brush off her problems. Like the time she was fired from a bistro for putting Tabasco sauce in an ex-boyfriend’s drink -- the tips were crappy anyway. If Aunt Penny thinks what she did was very bad, I’m willing to bet it’s impressively bad.
Aunt Penny’s face flushes, and she bites a corner of one manicured nail. “It was years ago, Ind. I was stupid, stupider than I am now. I wasn’t really thinking. I mean, I knew I shouldn’t have done it, but I was blinded. I just loved him so much, and--”
“Oh God,” I say. “This is about a boy, isn’t it?”
“It wasn’t just any boy,” she pleads. “I was in love with him! His name was Nate. God, he was so cute. The bluest blue eyes and the darkest hair. And he had these dimples.”
I wave my hand impatiently.
“He was a sorcerer,” she blurts out, then buries her face in her hands. “From the Priory.”
“Oh, Penny.” I mash my own palms into my eyes. “What were you thinking?”
Hooking up with a member of the governing body of sorcerers everywhere? Sorcerers whose sole mission in life for centuries has been to maim and kill witches?
“I wasn’t thinking, obviously. But you know how it is -- I was in love! It could have worked out too if that wench Kendra hadn’t followed me.” She mutters swearwords under her breath, her brows drawn down over angry eyes.
I shake my head, my own anger boiling my blood. Right now, best-case scenario, Paige is somewhere scared for her life, and I’m sitting here listening to Aunt Penny’s sexcapades.
“You know what?” I stand up so quickly the chair topples back. “This is too much. I really don’t have time for this crap.”
I storm up the stairs and slam my bedroom door so hard it’s a miracle it doesn’t come off the hinges. And then I fall facedown on my bed.
I won’t cry.
I won’t cry.
I will. Not. Cry.
My eyes sting with the threat of tears, so I think of everything that makes me mad -- Mom’s death; the fact that the Family used us as bait and didn’t care if we all died; that Paige was kidnapped by Leo, the vilest sorcerer I can imagine, all when our friendship had only just begun; that we killed Leo without knowing he’d kidnapped Paige, leaving us no way of finding her or even knowing if she’s alive or dead somewhere. That I can’t just be a normal 16-year-old girl whose biggest problem is a zit on prom night. Who answers Seventeen magazine quizzes to find out if my crush really likes me, and who drinks too much and regrets it the next day.
I don’t want to cry -- it’s just so much easier to be mad.
But all my tricks don’t work this time, and a tiny gasp escapes me.
So I’m going to cry.
As soon as I give myself permission, the ragged hole in my chest opens up, and I sob. I bury my face in my pillow to muffle the sound, but I’m sure I can be heard blocks away.
God, I’m so mad at her.
When Mom died, I felt like I’d been tossed into a raging sea in the middle of a storm, struggling to stay above water and losing strength by the second. But then Aunt Penny moved in, and between her and Paige, I felt like I’d been given a life preserver. Penny’s the only family I have left with Mom gone, and to discover she lied to me, didn’t help me when my life was on the line, made me feel like that life preserver had been violently ripped away.
By the time a few minutes have passed, my pillow is warm and damp, my eyes are hot and puffy, and my head pulses with the promise of a whopping headache.
I hear the door creak open, but I don’t have the energy to get up and tell Aunt Penny to go away. She doesn’t say a word, but I can feel her lingering in the doorway. Finally, her footsteps pad across the carpet and her weight sinks onto the end of my bed. A long minute passes in silence, save for my raspy breath.
I speak without turning to face her, finally asking the question that’s been plaguing me since it all happened. “Why?”
I don’t have to explain -- she knows what I’m asking her. I’ve thought about this every day since that night at that swamp, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Aunt Penny might not have known about the trouble I was in before Mom died. But sometime between her death and the night of homecoming, Penny knew.
Instead of helping me, she waved me out of the door in my crystal and taffeta gown, giving me some cryptic message that only by sheer luck I figured out was the key to saving our lives. I was chased by a fire-breathing dragon through the sewers of Los Angeles, starved, nearly drowned in a marsh in the middle of nowhere, and barely escaped being stabbed to death by the same sorcerers who killed my mom, all while I had a powerful witch living right under my nose.
I want -- no, I need -- to know why she didn’t help me. Even without using magic -- why she didn’t do anything at all. Call the cops, for God’s sake. Do something!
She sucks in a shuddery breath as if holding back tears of her own.
“I think about it all the time,” she says, her voice high and tight. “There’s no good excuse. There isn’t. There’s nothing I can say that will make my actions okay.”
It’s not like Aunt Penny to apologize. And it’s so surprising, I’m glad I’m not facing her so she can’t see the tears that brim suddenly in my eyes.
“All I can do is tell you what went through my mind and hope” -- she presses her hand against my calf tentatively, but when I tense, she draws it away -- “hope you can understand, even in some small way, why I did what I did.”
I say nothing.
“Getting together with Nate -- that was considered treason by the Family. The last witch punished for treason was burned at the stake, and the one before was sent to the most god-awful place full of murderers -- just a really bad place.” She shudders. “So when the Family found out what I’d done I thought I was a goner. But I guess because Damien liked me so much he slapped me with an AMO instead.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“An Anti-Magic Order,” she clarifies.
She lifts the hem of her pants to reveal a thin silver bracelet around her ankle. A tiny round charm hangs off the chain. What looks like a family crest is stamped into the delicate metal.
“It’s basically a magic tracker. If you use magic while you’re wearing one of these, the Family will find out. I was ordered to wear one for the rest of my life, and Damien said if they discovered I’d used my magic he’d make me wish I was dead. And you don’t understand -- Damien, the Family -- they’re not nice people, Indie. If he threatens you, he will follow through.”
She lets go of her pant leg. “Anyway, that’s why I didn’t help you. But Indie, you have no idea how hard it was for me to sit back when I knew something big was going on. I wanted to help. Really, I did. I was just so scared. I know now that’s not good enough. I know I was wrong.”
She lapses into silence. It’s my turn to speak now, if I’m going to.
My brain fires a million miles a minute, trying to process all the new information. I don’t know how to feel. All I know is that I’m still angry.
And so I say nothing. After a while she leaves.
When I’m sure she’s gone, I roll onto my back and think about everything my aunt said. One minute I decide she couldn’t have done anything to help without her magic, that she could have been burned alive if she’d tried, but in the next I decide she’s the most selfish person in Los Angeles -- nay, the world --for valuing her life over mine. I’m so confused about how to feel that I become resentful of Aunt Penny all over again for making me use this much headspace on her when there’s a bigger issue going on: Paige is missing.
I haven’t admitted it to anyone -- not even to myself -- but I feel like I’m failing her. Statistics say if you don’t find a missing person within 48 hours, they’re likely dead.
It’s been 16 days.
Bishop and I have searched for her everywhere, done every spell imaginable. I’ve replayed the voicemail message Leo left me over and over, trying to get a hint, listening for something I might have missed. But nothing. If I’d only known Paige had been taken hostage by Leo the night of homecoming instead of safely watching a marathon of "Jeopardy!" at Jessie’s house, I never would have let him die. Not until we’d found her. And now we’re reduced to questioning various lowlifes of Bishop’s acquaintance for information, and though he won’t say it, I know he’s wondering if it’s hopeless.
But I won’t give up.
When that thought even dares to flicker into my mind, all I have to do is think of Paige -- of her bangs shuffling over thick-rimmed leopard-print glasses, of the violin case hiked over her shoulders, of her unlaced Doc Martens and fishnets worn way before hipster clothes went mainstream, of her dashing across the street at two in the morning when I needed help, just to be a good friend -- and I know I won’t give up. I’m her only hope. It’s too late for Mom, but not Paige. Not yet.
My phone vibrates on the end table, Bishop’s name flashing across the screen. I remember I was supposed to call him.
“Bonding with your aunt yet?” he asks.
“Yeah, if that’s what you want to call it.” I wipe my nose with my sleeve, because no one’s watching and I can.
“So it didn’t go well then, huh? Are you upset?”
“I’ll be fine,” I answer unconvincingly. I start picking at a loose thread on my quilt.
“So I have a plan,” he says. “It involves a violin and a fat man.”
“I’m not in the mood for joking,” I mutter.
“I’m serious. About the violin part, anyway. Can you get Paige’s violin? Unless you’d rather we sneak into her bedroom, which is also doable.”
“What?” I sit up, like it’s going to help me understand his crazy talk a bit better.
“We’re going to try a locating spell. Paige was always lugging that violin around, so I figured it’d be good for the personal-object part of the ceremony.”
“A locating spell? But I thought you said we couldn’t do one because we were missing the key ingredient -- the magic mushroom or whatever.”
“I did. And we were. I found it.”
“You said it was impossible. If it was so easy, then why didn’t you find it earlier?”
“Who said it was easy? I got a tip. And I had all this free time on my hands after my girlfriend moved out, so it was either follow that tip or turn to booze and strippers. It was a tough call but the tip won out.”
I huff. “So where did you find the mushroom?”
“In this delightful little west-facing valley in Erlbach. We should really go there sometime. You’d love--”
“Yeah. In Germany.”
“You went to Germany,” I say, incredulous.
“In the last couple of hours?”
“After I left your house?”
“Don’t act so surprised,” he says. “I’m getting offended. I am a practiced warlock, you know. So think you can get it? The violin.”
My mind slips back to the morning after Paige went missing, when I’d knocked on her front door. I’d expected Mrs. Abernathy to be a mess of snot and tears, but instead it went something like this:
Me: OMG, is Paige here? Please, dear God, tell me she’s here!
Mrs. Abernathy: Would you like some tea? You seem like you could use a cup of tea.
Me: I don’t think you understand: I’m looking for your daughter. I think she’s in grave danger.
Mrs. Abernathy: I have mint and chamomile. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Me: She could be dead -- her guts could be spilled out in some alley for rats to feast on.
Mrs. Abernathy: Chamomile it is!
Okay, so that’s not exactly how it went. But still. It was obvious she’d been brainwashed by someone, and she wasn’t concerned Paige was gone.
“It’s not at her house,” I say.
“How can you be sure?” he asks.
“I looked around after Mrs. Abernathy told me about the music school.”
During tea -- that part actually happened -- Mrs. Abernathy had broken the news to me that, due to a medical emergency with another student, Paige had been accepted late to the fancy-schmancy music school she’d applied to. Her mom didn’t seem the least bit disturbed about the fact that she’d left in the middle of the night, on a weekend, midterm.
“Think Leo took it?” he asks. “You know, since she’s supposed to be at this music school.”
“Too much foresight for a grunt like him,” I mutter.
“Hmm,” Bishop says. “How ’bout her locker at school?”
“That’s if she even has a locker anymore. She transferred, according to the school administrators. They might have emptied it already.”
“Can you check?” he asks.
“You mean go to school?”
“I know. I hate to suggest such a torturous plan,” Bishop chides.
I groan. It feels like centuries since I’ve been to school. “Well, I guess Aunt Penny’s going to make me go anyway. She started talking about my grades slipping and me not getting into college like I actually care about that right now. God, she’s impossible.”
“Yeah, what a bitch,” he says without any real heat behind it. “So you get the violin, and I’ll get the other stuff ready. Pick you up after school?”
Then there’s this awkward pause that’s been happening a lot lately. We’ve been dating for less than a month, but sharing a bathroom and running for your lives together tends to make a couple close. A simple goodbye doesn’t seem like enough. Finally, I mumble a goodnight and end the call.
I pull my body up, and when I do, I catch a glimpse of Paige’s bedroom window glaring back at me accusingly through a break in my curtains. I cross over to my window.
All my life, Paige has lived so close I could reach out and touch her house if I wanted to, but instead I listened to Bianca when she’d said I couldn’t afford to be friends with a loser. I wasted all those years pushing away the only real friend I’d ever had, and now she was gone.
The lampposts on Fuller Avenue flicker on, and I realize the sky has become the blue-gray color that comes just before full dark. My eyes are heavy with exhaustion. I know every minute counts, but I’m just so tired. I haven’t been able to get in more than fitful naps since the night of homecoming -- how could I, when Paige was out there somewhere, in danger? -- but now it’s almost impossible to stay awake.
I wake up sweat-soaked and gasping for air. I blink my eyes open into the damp pillow, the image of Mom from my nightmare -- of her bound to a chair under the spotlight of a single bulb, a steady flow of thick blood oozing out around the knife buried in her temple -- seared into my brain. My heart gives a painful twist. I do everything in my power not to think about Mom’s gory death during waking hours, but it always finds me at night.
I wordlessly reach for Bishop, but all I find are cold sheets. It takes me a moment to realize I’m not at his house. And that something woke me.
The floorboards under the carpet creak behind me.
“I was sleeping,” I say, irritated. Though I’m actually relieved to be woken up, whether or not it’s for another sob session with Aunt Penny. My alarm clock flashes 1:26 a.m. in bright blue numbers; I probably could have slept all night. That’s just unacceptable when Paige is missing.
Aunt Penny doesn’t take the hint, though, and I need her to go away so I can sneak out. Growling, I roll over onto my back. “Can’t this wait, I’m really--”
My words die in my throat. It’s not Aunt Penny.