This Coven Won’t Break – Isabel Sterling

SUMMER WAS STILL BLISTERINGLY hot when classes resumed at NYU, where a young Caster Witch named Alexis Scott was starting her sophomore year. After her final lecture of the day, Lexie gathered her things and hurried home. Her professors had wasted no time piling on assignments and complicated labs, leaving her with hours of coursework to complete. At least this year, she didn’t have to learn how to navigate Manhattan on top of everything else. With her bag secure on her back, she moved confidently through the city streets. Her life was coming together exactly as she’d hoped. She headed east toward her apartment, weaving through the crowd of Regs as the sun warmed her brown skin. She ticked through the to-do list in her head. Read chapters three through five for molecular and cell biology. Finish problem sets for calculus. Attempt the invisibility potion again and hope the new version doesn’t explode. The Regs around her—people who had no magic of their own—couldn’t find out about the potions she created in her apartment. They’d never know that creating new uses for magic was her favorite part of being a Caster. She’d figure out the invisibility potion, even if it took a hundred permutations to get it right. Halfway home, her phone rang.

The number showed up as a fire emoji, but she had no idea who it was. Someone from class? Did her roommate, Coral, mess with her contacts again? “Hello?” A pause on the other end. Then a sudden inhale. “Lexie?” Lexie didn’t recognize the voice. It was feminine and young, probably around her age. “Who’s asking?” “It’s Veronica.” She racked her brain, trying to connect the name with the voice. She came up empty. “You must have the wrong number.” “Wait!” the voice on the other end shouted.

“We met last May. I’ve been trying to reach Tori, but her phone is disconnected.” When Lexie didn’t respond right away, the girl on the other line groaned. “I’m an idiot. She blocked me, didn’t she?” A series of goose bumps rose along Lexie’s arm in the wake of those words. In a flash, she remembered exactly who Veronica was. It was at the end of last semester. Lexie had decided to spend the summer in the city with her Caster roommates, Tori and Coral, instead of going back home to Chicago. That particular weekend, the three of them had met a pair of Elementals who were visiting the city on a school trip. Veronica and the other girl—Heidi or Hannah or .

something—snuck out of their hotel room to hang out Saturday night. But the Blood Witch who had been threatening Lexie and her friends for weeks attacked again, breaking into their apartment and covering their walls with bloody runes, meant to do goddess knows what. The memory made Lexie shudder. Tori had tried to wash the blood away. She scrubbed frantically until the bucket of soapy water ran red with the other witch’s blood. When the Elementals saw what the Blood Witch had done, they wanted to protect Lexie and her friends. Tori convinced her it was a good idea to let the Salem girls help, and together, they’d captured the Blood Witch. But things got more . complicated than anyone intended. At least the Blood Witch wasn’t a problem anymore.

The Elementals made everything so much worse that weekend, and Lexie wanted to put the whole thing behind her. She didn’t want some near-stranger dragging it up again. “Lexie? Are you still there?” “What do you want from us?” Her voice snapped out, harsh and bitter. She should have changed her number. She shouldn’t have let Tori talk her into giving it to Veronica in the first place. “Did you hear?” She paused to wait for the signal to cross the busy street. Surrounded by Regs, she kept her voice low. “Hear what?” “The Witch Hunters,” the younger girl said, voice breaking. “They’re back.” Lexie’s entire body turned to stone right there on the Manhattan sidewalk.

The signals changed. Regs pushed past her, unaware that her sense of reality was shifting. Someone bumped into Lexie’s shoulder, and the touch was enough to make her legs work again. “What do you mean they’re back?” Lexie kept her voice low, which wasn’t hard since she could barely breathe. She hurried across the street, heart slamming against her ribs, and counted the blocks until home. Only two left and then her five-story climb. “How do you know? What happened?” “They tried to kill me. Hannah, too.” A shuddered breath cut off Veronica’s words, and she had to clear her throat to try again. “The Council doesn’t want to cause panic, but I thought you should know.

Coral didn’t answer her phone, and Tori—” “Tori isn’t around anymore.” The words ripped from her throat. They shredded her chest and raised an invisible flush of shame along her skin. Lexie squeezed her empty hand into a tight fist. “Oh. Do you know where she is?” Lexie shook her head as she reached her building, even though she knew the Elemental couldn’t see her. Once she was safe behind the closed door, she started the climb. At least Tori wouldn’t have to face this new horror. “Lexie?” Anger twisted up from Lexie’s gut, but she forced her voice to remain neutral. “Don’t call this number again.

” She hung up before the other witch could protest. On the fifth floor, Lexie walked down the hall and unlocked the deadbolt on her door. Inside her small, shared apartment, she let out a shaky breath and dropped her bag. The heavy textbooks thunked against the wood floor. Coral was in their kitchen-turnedCaster-workshop. She bent over a notebook, filling the page with symbols as a potion bubbled before her. “Hey, Lex,” she said, brushing a thick curl behind her ear. Coral glanced up, and something in Lexie’s expression must have alarmed her, because she abandoned her notes. “What’s wrong?” Lexie picked up a bundle of dried rosemary and twirled the plant between her fingers. The herb’s power hummed against her skin.

It wanted to be shaped and combined and made into pure magic. There wasn’t time for that. She focused her gaze on her roommate. “We have a problem.” 1 HIGH SCHOOL. THEY SAY it’s the best time of our lives. A time of exploration and endless possibilities. We can try out for any sport, dabble in any form of artistic expression. And by the time we walk across the graduation stage, we’re supposed to know exactly who we want to be. They say a lot of things, but as I sit in my dead father’s car, parked at the back of the student lot for the first day of senior year, I can’t help but call bullshit.

Salem High isn’t a place to discover who you are. It’s a place to survive and move on. A place where the swing from celebrity to outcast is only one misstep away. Especially for a girl like me. I cut the engine and check my hair in the visor mirror, brushing the bangs out of my eyes. Even though the local news never mentioned my name, it didn’t take long before everyone figured out that their top story—Recent Salem High graduate Benton Hall arrested on charges of attempted murder—was about me. The entire school probably saw the gruesome re-creations of Benton’s makeshift pyre, where he tied my ex-girlfriend Veronica and me to a stake and tried to burn us alive. If any of my classmates managed to miss the news, and the social media fallout it created—which did mention my name—I’m sure they’ll find out the second they step onto school grounds. Not that any of them will be able to guess why Benton did what he did. The only people at school who know that Veronica and I are Elemental Witches—the only ones who know about the Witch Hunters trying to kill us—are the handful of covenmates who go here, my Blood Witch girlfriend, and my best friend.

A sharp knock raps against my window. I flinch, nearly stabbing myself in the eye as my hands jolt away from the mirror. “Sorry, Hannah!” The muffled voice of said best friend penetrates the closed window, and its familiarity calms my pounding heart. “Are you coming in?” “Just a sec, Gemma.” I grab my backpack from the passenger’s seat and force out a slow breath, counting to ten as I exhale. I can do this. I’m okay. When my ragged heartbeat has calmed to a more normal rhythm, I leave the safety of Dad’s car and lock the door behind me. Gemma follows me toward the school, using her fluorescent pink cane to reduce some of the pressure on her leg. Veronica and I weren’t the only ones the Witch Hunters hurt this summer.

Gemma was with me when Benton forced my car over a bridge. He didn’t know Gem was in the car, but the door crushed her leg anyway. My magic was the only thing that saved us from drowning, and there was nothing I could do to hide it from her. Gemma saw everything, leaving me no choice but to explain. If the Council finds out what Gemma knows though . that could be the end of my magic. It could end Gemma’s life, too. Despite the danger of her knowledge, being my whole self around her has brought us closer. I wouldn’t change that, even though I wish I could take away the lasting damage done to her leg. I wish I could repair her ruined dreams of a professional dance career.

It could be worse, a voice inside reminds me. At least Gemma’s still alive. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to fight the rising panic. Fight the constant reminder whispering at the back of my head. Dad didn’t survive. “Hannah?” Gemma’s voice pulls me from the edge of drowning grief, and I focus on the aggressive pink of her cane. She doesn’t use it all the time, only on her bad days. Which are usually after she pushes herself too hard in physical therapy. When I glance up, she’s watching me, the space between her brows pinched with concern. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?” I flash a smile, far brighter than what I feel inside, and head toward the horde of students mingling outside the school.

“I’m good, Gem. I swear.” I slow to match her pace and lower my voice so no one overhears. “Besides, Mom already vetoed my plan to drop out of school and fight the Witch Hunters.” “Your mom is such a buzzkill.” Gemma goes quiet as we pass through the crowd of students. Dozens of conversations dry up and turn to dust when they spot us. When they spot me. I try to smile when I see familiar faces, but there’s so much pity in the rise of their brows that I have to look away. I can’t stomach the obvious hunger for gossip that has infected the entire high school.

Can’t bear to see the glimmer of morbid curiosity shining in their eyes and the reminder of why they watch me like an impending car crash. Missing Dad is too heavy. It hurts too much. I can’t let myself think about it. About him. Yet as Gemma and I move past our classmates, and whispered conversations pick up in fits and starts, some small part of me wants to know exactly what kind of rumors are circulating. Everyone loved Benton. He was easily the most crushed-on senior last year. I saw at least three people cry when he signed their yearbooks back in June. No one wanted him to leave for college.

But now that he’s accused of attempted murder, have they turned on him? Or have they found a way to forgive the charismatic boy they used to know? I reach for my magic, shoving past the strange barrier that’s been there ever since Benton drugged me to suppress my power. My magic resists my call, and I push harder, asking the air to bring their conspiracy theories close enough to hear. Pain lances up my spine, sharp and fast, when I reach too hard. I stumble on the steps and grab the handrail to steady myself. Tears burn, and I shut my eyes against the shame as my magic crumbles inside me. It shouldn’t be this hard. Such a tiny, simple piece of magic shouldn’t hurt like this. It’s so small it isn’t even against Council laws, since no one would ever notice. “Hannah?” This time, it isn’t Gemma who’s calling for me. It’s Morgan.

My girlfriend’s Blood Magic vibrates deep in my bones, soothing away the sharpest parts of the pain, and then she’s there, reaching for my hand. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine,” I say, but I let her thread her fingers through mine as I climb the rest of the stairs. “Between the two of you, I should get that tattooed on my forehead.” Morgan shoots me a look, one that says she’s acutely aware that things are not as fine as I’d like to pretend they are. Once we’re inside, she leads us into a still-empty classroom. “You don’t have to pretend with us, Hannah. I know this summer has been hard on you.” Under the fluorescent lights, I fight to keep my eyes from shimmering with tears. I shove the grief down, down, down until it’s so deep I can’t find it. “I’m fine,” I repeat, keeping my voice steady.

“No, you’re not. Your heart rate shot through the roof.” Morgan casts a worried look at Gem, and I get the distinct impression my best friend and my girlfriend are about to gang up on me. This is one of the few downsides to dating a Blood Witch, besides the strange looks my fellow Elementals give me: it’s impossible to hide my feelings when she can sense the literal rhythm of my heart. Morgan can’t sense that for everyone, just people whose blood she’s touched, and if my coven knew that I’d voluntarily given her access to mine? Well, the weird looks would be the least of my problems. The worry on Gemma’s and Morgan’s faces lingers, and I shift nervously. “Really, I’m good. I tripped on the stairs. It’s not a big deal.” I nudge Morgan with my shoulder, aiming to distract her with flirtation.

“Not all of us have impeccable grace.” Morgan flushes a satisfying shade of pink as the first warning bell clangs through the halls, effectively ending their interrogation. We melt into the flow of student traffic and head deeper into the school. The press of shifting bodies sends a tremor of unease through me, but I do my best to keep it hidden. To bury it deep enough that Morgan won’t notice. I see Benton in every tall, dark-haired figure that passes the edge of my vision and have to remind myself to breathe. The Benton I knew in these halls, the friend I joked with and confided in, is gone. The Witch Hunter he became, the boy who tried to kill me—whose parents murdered my dad—is rotting in a jail cell while he waits for his trial. Fresh nerves turn my stomach. Jury selection begins in less than a month.

Twelve strangers who will determine his fate. And mine. Gemma heads for her locker on the other side of the school, and I look for a distraction. “Are you nervous?” Since it’s Morgan’s first day at Salem High, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like she swallowed a migration of butterflies this morning. Morgan shrugs, a movement so graceful that walking beside her makes me feel like a robot, all stiff limbs and mechanical expressions. “I miss my friends,” she says as we turn a corner. “But it could be worse. I have Gemma and Kate and the other people from dance.” Morgan tucks a red curl behind her ear. “You’re not half-bad, either.

” “That’s the goal. A half-decent girlfriend and a not-terrible friend.”

.

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