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Spellbinder (Chapter 2)

The crowd erupted in panic.

Everything was happening at once; Thea couldn't sort out the different impressions. Half the people in front of her were running. The other half were yelling.

"Call nine-one-one-"

"It got Eric-"

"I told you to kill it!"

The red-headed boy was darting forward with his stick. Other kids were rushing around, looking for rocks. The group had become a mob.

The snake was rattling wildly, a terrifying sizzling sound. It was in a frenzy, ready to strike again at any moment-and there was nothing Thea could do.

"Hey!" The voice startled her. It came from Eric, the boy who'd been bitten. "Calm down, you guys. Josh, give me that." He was talking to the redhead with the forked branch. "It didn't bite me. It just struck."

Thea stared at him. Was this guy crazy?

But people were listening to him. A girl in baggy shorts and a midriff top stopped hefting her rock.

"Just let me get hold of it… then I can take it out into the brush where it won't hurt anybody."

Definitely crazy. He was talking in such a matter-of-fact, reasonable way-and he was going to try to pin the snake down with that stick. Somebody had to act fast.

A flash of ruby-color caught Thea's eye. Blaise was in the crowd, watching with pursed lips. Thea made her decision.

She dove for the snake.

It was watching the stick. Thea grabbed for its mind before grabbing its body-which kept it immobilized for the instant she needed to seize it just below the head. She hung on while its jaws gaped and its body lashed.

"Grab the tail and we'll get it out of here," she said breathlessly to Eric the crazy guy.

Eric was staring at her grip on the snake, dumbfounded. "For God's sake, don't let go. It can twist in a second…."

"I know. Grab it!"

He grabbed it. Most of the crowd scattered as Thea wheeled around with the snake's head held tightly at arm's length. Blaise didn't run, she just looked at the snake as if it smelled bad.

"I need this," Thea whispered hastily as she passed her cousin. She snatched at Blaise's necklace with her free hand. The fragile gold chain broke and Thea's fingers closed around a stone.

Then she was heading out into the scrub brush, the weight of the snake dragging on her arm. She walked fast, because Eric didn't have much time. The grounds behind the school sloped up and then downward, getting wilder and more gray-brown. When the buildings were out of sight, Thea stopped.

"This is a good place," Eric said. His voice was strained.

Thea glanced back and saw that he looked pale. Brave and very, very crazy, she thought. "Okay, we let go on three." She jerked her head. "Throw it that way and back up fast."

He nodded and counted with her. "One… two… three."

Giving it a slight swing, they both let go. The snake flew in a graceful arc and landed near a clump of purple sage. It wriggled immediately into the brush without showing the slightest hint of gratitude. Thea felt its cool, scaly mind recede as it thought, That smell… that shade… safety.

She let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.

Behind her, she heard Eric sit down abruptly. "Well, that's that." His own breathing was fast and irregular. "Now could I ask you a favor?"

He was sitting with his long legs straight out, his skin even paler than before. Perspiration beaded on his upper lip.

"You know, I'm not really sure it didn't bite me," he said.

Thea knew-and knew Eric knew-that it had. Rattlers did sometimes strike without biting, and did sometimes bite without injecting venom. But not this time. What she couldn't believe was that any human would care enough about a snake to let a bite go untreated.

"Let me see your leg," she said.

"Actually, I think maybe you'd better just call the paramedics."

"Please let me see." She kept her voice gentle, kneeling in front of him, reaching slowly. The way she'd approach a scared animal. He held still, letting her roll up his jeans leg.

There it was, the little double wound in the tanned skin. Not much blood. But surrounded by swelling already. Even if she ran back to the school, even if the paramedics broke every speed law, it wouldn't be fast enough. Sure, they'd save his life, but his leg would swell up like a sausage and turn purple and he'd have days of unbelievable pain.

Except that Thea had in her hand an Isis bloodstone. A deep red carnelian engraved with a scarab, symbol of the Egyptian Queen goddess, Isis. The ancient Egyptians had put the stones at the feet of mummies; Blaise used it to heighten passion. But it was also the most powerful purifier of the blood in existence.

Eric groaned suddenly. His arm was over his eyes, and Thea knew what he must be feeling. Weakness, nausea, disorientation. She felt sorry for him, but his confusion would actually work to her advantage.

She pressed her hand to the wounds, the carnelian hidden between her tightly closed fingers. Then she started to hum under her breath, visualizing what she wanted to happen. The thing about gems was that they didn't work on their own. They were just a means of raising psychic power, focusing it, and directing it to a certain purpose.

Find the poison, surround it, dispel it. Purify and eliminate. Then encourage the body's natural defenses. Finally, soothe away the swelling and redness, sending the blood back where it belonged.

As she knelt there, feeling the sun on the back of her head, she suddenly realized that she'd never done this before. She'd healed animals-puppies with toad poisoning and cats with spider bites-but never a person. Funny how she'd known instinctively that she could do it. She'd almost felt that she had to do it.

She sat back on her heels, pocketing the bloodstone. "How are you feeling?"

"Huh?" He took his arm away from his eyes. "Sorry-I think I sort of blanked out there for a minute."

Good, Thea thought. "But how do you feel now?"

He looked at her as if he were struggling under pressure to be gentle. He was going to explain to her that people who got bitten by rattlesnakes felt sick. But then his expression changed. "I feel… it's weird… I think maybe it's gone numb." He peered doubtfully at his calf.

"No, you were just lucky. You didn't get bitten."

"What?" He scrambled to roll his jeans leg up higher. Then he just stared. The flesh was smooth and unmarked, with just the slightest trace ot redness left. "I was sure…"

He lifted his eyes to hers.

It was the first time Thea had really gotten a chance to look at him. He was a nice-looking guy, lean and sandy-haired and sweet-faced. Long legs. And those eyes… deep green with gray flecks. Just now they were both intense and bewildered, like those of a startled kid.

"How'd you do that?" he said.

Thea was shocked speechless.

He wasn't supposed to respond like this. What was wrong with him? When she could talk again, she said, "I didn't do anything."

"Yes, you did," he said, and now his eyes were clear and direct, full of an odd conviction. Suddenly his expression changed to something like wonder. "You… there's something so different about you."

He leaned forward slowly, as if entranced. And then… Thea experienced an odd duality. She was used to seeing herself through the eyes of animals: a big, hairless creature in false skins. But now she saw herself as Eric saw her. A kneeling girl with yellow hair falling loose over her shoulders and soft brown eyes. A face that was too gentle, with a very worried expression.

"You're… beautiful," Eric said, still wondering. "I've never seen anybody… but it's like there's a mist all around you. You're so mysterious…."

A huge quivering stillness seemed to hang over the desert. Thea's heart was beating so hard that it shook her body. What was happening?

"It's like you're part of everything out here," he said in that wise, childlike voice. "You belong to it. And there's so much peace…."

"No," Thea said. There was no peace at all in her. She was terrified. She didn't know what was going on, but she knew she had to get away.

"Don't go," he said, when she shifted. He had the stricken expression of a heartbroken puppy.

And then… he reached for her. Not roughly. His fingers didn't close on her wrist. They just brushed the back of her hand, sliding away when she jerked.

But it didn't matter. That light touch had raised all the hairs on Thea's forearm. And when she looked back into the gray-flecked green eyes, she knew he'd felt it, too.

A sort of piercing sweetness, a dizzying exhilaration. And-a connection. As if something deeper than words was being communicated.

I know you. I see what you see….

Almost without knowing what she was doing, Thea raised her hand. Fingertips slightly outspread, as if she were going to touch a mirror or a ghost. He brought his hand up, too. They were staring at each other.

And then, just before then- fingers made contact, Thea felt a jolt of panic like ice water.

What was she doing? Had she lost her mind?

Suddenly everything was clear-too clear. Her future stretched out before her, every detail sharp. Death for breaking Night World law. Herself centered in the Inner Circle, trying to explain that she hadn't meant to betray their secrets, that she hadn't meant to… to get close to a human. That it was all a mistake, just a moment of stupidity because she'd wanted to heal him. And them bringing the Cup of Death anyway.

The vision was so clear it seemed like a prophecy. Thea jumped up as if the ground had lurched underneath her, and she did the only thing she could think of to do.

She said scathingly, "Are you nuts? Or is your brain just overheated or something?"

He got the stricken look again.

He's a human. One of them, Thea reminded herself. She put even more scorn in her voice. "I'm part of everything; I did something to your leg… yeah, sure. I bet you believe in Santa Claus, too."

Now he looked shocked-and uncertain. Thea went for the coup de gras. "Or were you just trying to put the moves on me?"

"Huh? No," he said. He blinked and looked around. The desert was the ordinary desert, gray-green and parched and flat. Then he looked at his leg. He blinked again, as if getting a fresh grip on reality. "I… look, I'm sorry if I upset you. I don't know what's wrong with me."

Suddenly he gave a sheepish smile. "Maybe I'm kind of weird from being scared. I guess I'm not as brave as I thought."

Relief trickled through Thea. He was buying it. Thank Isis that humans were stupider than chickens.

"And I wasn't trying to move in on you. I just-" He broke off. "You know, I don't even know your name."

"Thea Harman."

"I'm Eric Ross. You're new here, aren't you?"

"Yes." Stop talking and go, she ordered herself.

"If I can show you around or anything… I mean, I would like to see you again…."

"No," Thea said flatly. She would have liked to have kept it to that monosyllable, but she wanted to crush this new idea of his completely. "I don't want to see you," she said, too rattled to think of any more subtle way to put it.

And then she turned and walked away. What else was there to do? She certainly couldn't talk to him anymore. Even if she would always wonder why he'd been crazy enough to care about the snake, she couldn't ask. From now on she had to stay as far away from him as possible.

She hurried back to the school-and realized immediately that she was late. The parking lot was quiet. Nobody was walking outside the adobe buildings.

On my first day, too, Thea thought. Her backpack was on the ground where she'd dropped it, a notebook lying beside it on the asphalt. She grabbed them both and all but ran to the office.

It was only in physics class, after she'd handed her admission slip to the teacher and walked past rows of curious eyes to an empty seat in the back, that she realized the notebook wasn't hers.

It fell open to a page that had Introduction to Flat-worms scribbled in sloping, spiky blue ink. Below were some pictures labeled Class Turbellaria and Class Trematoda. The worms were beautifully drawn, with their   nervous   systems   and   reproductive   organs shaded in different colors of highlighter, but the artist had also given them big goofy smiling faces. Grotesque but lovable in a cross-eyed way. Thea turned the page and saw another drawing, the Life Cycle of the Pork Tapeworm.

Yum.

She leafed back to the beginning of the notebook. Eric Ross, Honors Zoology I.

She shut the book.

Now how was she going to get it back to him?

Part of her mind worried about this through physics and her next class, computer applications. Part of it did what it always did at a new school, or any new gathering of humans: it watched and cataloged, keeping alert for danger, figuring out how to fit in. And part of it simply said, I didn't know they had a zoology class here.

The one question she didn't want to ask herself was what had happened out there in the desert? Whenever the thought came up, she pushed it away brusquely. It must have had something to do with her senses being too open after merging with the snake.

Anyway, it hadn't meant anything. It had been a weird one-time fluke.

In the main hallway at break, Blaise came rushing up, quick as a lioness despite the high heels.

"How's it going?" Thea said, as Blaise drew her into a temporarily deserted classroom.

Blaise just held out her hand. Thea fished in her pocket for the carnelian.

"You ruined the chain, you know," Blaise said as

she shook back midnight hair and examined the stone for damage. "And it was one I designed."

"Sorry. I was in a hurry."

"Yes, and why? What did you want with it?" Blaise didn't wait for a response. "You healed that boy, didn't you? I knew he got bitten. But he was human."

"Reverence for life, remember?" Thea said. " 'An ye harm none, do as you will." She didn't say it with much conviction.

"That doesn't mean humans. And what did he think?"

"Nothing. He didn't know I was healing him; he didn't even realize he got bitten." It wasn't exactly a lie.

Blaise looked at her with smoky, suspicious gray eyes. Then she glanced heavenward and shook her head. "Now if you'd been using it to heat his blood, I'd understand. But maybe you were doing a little of that, too…."

"No, I was not," Thea said. And despite the warmth that rose in her cheeks her voice was cold and sharp. The horror of that death vision was still with her. "In fact, I don't ever want to see him again," she went on jaggedly, "and I told him so, but I've got his stupid notebook, and I don't know what to do with it." She waved the notebook in Blaise's face.

"Oh." Blaise considered, head on one side. "Well… I'll take it to him for you. I'll track him down somehow."

"Would you?" Thea was startled. "That's really nice."

"Yes, it is," Blaise said. She took the notebook, handling it carefully, as if her nails were wet. "Okay, well, I'd better get to my next class. Algebra." She made a face. " 'Bye now."

Suspicion struck as Thea watched her go.

Blaise wasn't usually so accommodating. And that " 'bye now"… too sweet. She was up to something.

Thea followed the ruby of Blaise's shirt as Blaise went back into the main hallway, then turned without hesitation into a locker-lined corridor. There, searching through one of the lockers, was a lean figure with long legs and sandy hair.

Fastest tracking I've ever seen, Thea thought sourly. She peered around the Mediterranean-blue door of a broken locker.

Blaise walked up behind Eric very slowly, hips swaying. She put a hand on his back.

Eric jumped slightly, then turned around.

Blaise just stood there.

It was all she needed to do. Blaise reeled guys in just by being. It was the glorious dark hair, the smoldering gray eyes… plus a figure that could stop traffic on the freeway. Curves galore, and clothes that emphasized every one. On another girl it might have been too much, but on Blaise it was just breathtaking. Guys who thought they liked the waif look dropped everything to follow her just as fast as guys who thought they liked blonds.

Eric blinked at her, looking hazy already. He didn't seem to know what to say.

That wasn't unusual. Guys always got tongue-tied around Blaise.

"I'm Blaise Harman." The voice was low and liquid. "And you're… Eric?"

Eric nodded, still blinking.

Yes, he's dazed all right, Thea thought. The jerk. She was surprised at her own vehemence.

"Good, because I wouldn't want to give this to the wrong person." Blaise produced the notebook from behind her back like a magician.

"Oh-where'd you get that?" Eric looked relieved and grateful. "I've been looking everywhere."

"My cousin gave it to me," Blaise said carelessly. She held onto the notebook as he tried to take it, and their fingers touched. "Wait. You owe me something for bringing it back, don't you?"

Her voice was a purr. And now Thea knew, without a doubt, what was going to happen.

Eric was doomed.

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