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Spellbinder (Chapter 3)

one for, lost, a goner. Blaise had chosen him, and it was only a matter of how she was going to play him.

A parade of names marched through Thea's mind. Randy Marik. Jake Batista. Kristoffer Milton. Troy Sullivan. Daniel Xiong.

And now: Brie Ross.

But Eric was talking, sounding animated. "Your cousin? Is she that other new girl? Thea?"

"Yes. Now-"

"Look, do you know where she is? I really want to talk to her." The hazy look descended again, and Eric stared into the distance. "She's just… I've never met anybody like her…."

Blaise let go of the notebook and stared.

From her hiding place, Thea stared, too.

It had never happened before. This guy didn't even seem to see Blaise.

That was strange enough. But by the Blue Monkey-headed Goddess of Inquisitiveness, what Thea really wanted to know was why she herself felt so relieved by it.

A bell rang. Blaise was still standing there flabbergasted. Eric stuffed the notebook in his backpack.

"Could you just let her know I asked about her?"

"She doesn't care if you asked about her!" Blaise snapped, voice no longer honeyed. "She said very explicitly that she never wanted to see you again. And I'd watch out if I were you. Because she has a temper." The last word was uttered in rising tones.

Eric looked slightly alarmed-and crestfallen. Thea saw his throat move as he swallowed. Then, without saying good-bye to Blaise, he turned and walked out the far side of the corridor.

Well by the Red Crow-headed Thunderbolt Goddess.

Blaise turned around and stalked up the corridor in Thea's direction. Thea didn't even try to hide.

"So you saw all that. Well I hope you're happy," Blaise said waspishly.

Thea wasn't. She was confused. Strangely agitated-and scared, because the Cup of Death was still floating before her eyes.

"I guess we should both just leave him alone/' she said.

"Are you kidding? I'm going to have him," Blaise said. "He's mine. Unless," she added, eyes glittering, "you've already staked a claim."

Thea floundered, shocked. "I… well no…"

"Then he's mine. I like a challenge." Blaise ran a hand through her hair, disordering the black waves. "Isn't it nice that Gran has so many love charms in the shop," she mused.

"Blaise…" Thea had a hard time collecting her thoughts. "Don't you remember what Gran said? If there's any more trouble…"

"There isn't going to be any trouble for us," Blaise said, her voice flat and positive. "Only for him."

Thea walked to her next class feeling oddly empty.

Ignore it, she thought. There's nothing you can do.

She didn't see many Night People along the way to class. A young kid, probably a freshman, who looked like a shapeshifter; a teacher who had the hunting light of the lamia-the born vampires-in his eyes. No made vampires, no werewolves. No other witches.

Of course, she couldn't be certain. All the people of the Night World were masters of secrecy, of blending in, of passing unseen. They had to be. It was what allowed them to survive in a world where there were so many more humans… and where humans loved to kill anything different.

But when she was sitting in the world literature classroom, Thea noticed a girl in the next row.

The girl was small-boned and pretty, with thick eyelashes and hair as black and soft as soot. She had a heart-shaped face-and dimples. But what caught Thea's eye was the girl's hand, which was playing with a pin on the girl's blue-and-white-striped vest. A pin in the shape of a black flower.

A dahlia.

Thea immediately turned to a blank page in her notebook. While the teacher read a passage from the story Rashomon, Thea began drawing a black dahlia, tracing it over and over until it was large enough for the girl to see distinctly. When she raised her head, she saw the girl was looking at her.

The girl's lashes swept down as she looked at the drawing, then up again. She smiled at Thea and nodded slightly.

Thea smiled and nodded back.

After class, without any need to discuss it, Thea followed the girl to the front of the school. The girl looked around to make sure no one was in earshot, then turned to Thea with something like resigned wistfulness.

"Circle Midnight?" she said.

Thea shook her head. "Circle Twilight. Aren't you?"

The girl's face lit up with shy delight. Her eyes were dark and velvety. "Yes!" she said and rushed on, "But there are only two more of us-two seniors, I mean-and they're both Circle Midnight, and I was afraid to hope!" She thrust out her hand, dimpling. "I'm Dani Abforth."

Thea felt her heart lighten. The girl's laughter was infectious. "Thea Harman. Unity." It was the age-old greeting of the witches, the symbol of their harmony, their oneness.

"Unity," Dani murmured. Then her eyes widened. "Harman? You're a Hearth-Woman? A daughter of Hellewise? Really?"

Thea laughed. "We're all daughters of Hellewise."

"Yes, but-you know what I mean. You're a direct descendent. I'm honored."

"Well, I'm honored, too. Abforth is 'All-bringing-forth,' isn't it? That's a pretty impressive line itself." Dani was still looking awed, so Thea said quickly, "My cousin's here, too-Blaise Harman. We're both new-but you must be, too. I've never seen you around Vegas before."

"We moved in last month, just in time to start school," Dani said. Her brow puckered. "But it you're new, what do you mean you haven't seen me around?"

Thea sighed. "Well, it's kind of complicated…."

A bell rang. Both she and Dani looked at the school building in frustration, then at each other.

"Meet me here at lunch?" Dani asked.

Thea nodded, asked which way her French class was, and then flew off toward the other side of the building.

She sat through her next two classes trying to actually listen to the teachers. She didn't know what else to do. She had to concentrate to keep the image of gray-flecked green eyes out of her mind.

At lunch, she found Dani sitting on the steps out front. Thea settled beside her and opened a bottle of Evian water and a chocolate yogurt she'd bought at the snack bar.

"You were going to explain how you know Vegas," Dani said. She spoke softly because there were kids everywhere in the front courtyard, sprawled in the sun with paper bags.

Thea eyed a row of sago palms and felt herself sighing again. "Blaise and I-our mothers died when we were born. They were twin sisters. And then both our dads died. So we grew up sort of moving around from relative to relative. We usually spend the summers with Grandma Harman, and we live with somebody else during the school year. But these last couple of years… well, we've been in five high schools since we were sophomores."

"Five?"

"Five. I think five. Isis knows, it could be six."

"But why?"

"We keep getting expelled," Thea said succinctly.

"But-"

"It's Blaise's fault," Thea said. She was mad at Blaise. "She does-things-to boys. Human boys. And somehow it always ends up getting us kicked out of school. Both of us, because I'm always too stupid to tell them she's the one responsible."

"Not stupid, I bet. Loyal," Dani said warmly, and put her hand on Thea's. Thea squeezed it, taking some comfort in the sympathy.

"Anyway, this year we were in New Hampshire living with our Uncle Galen-and Blaise did it again. To the captain of the football team. His name was Randy Marik…."

When Thea stopped, Dani said, "What happened to him?"

"He burned the school down for her."

Dani made a sound halfway between a snort and a giggle. Then she straightened out her face quickly. "Sorry, not funny. For her?"

Thea leaned against the wrought-iron stair railing.

"That's what Blaise likes," she said bleakly. "Having power over guys, messing with their minds. Getting them to do things they would never ordinarily do. To prove their love, you know. But the thing is, she's never satisfied until they're completely destroyed…." She shook her head. "You should have seen Randy at the end. He'd lost his mind. I don't think he'll ever get it back."

Dani wasn't smiling anymore. "Power like that… she sounds like Aphrodite," she said softly.

And that's right, Thea thought. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love who could turn passion into a weapon that brought the whole world to its knees.

"Remind me sometime to tell you what she's done to the other guys she's played. In a way. Randy was lucky…."

Thea took a breath. "So, anyway, we got shipped back here to Grandma Harman because there weren't any other relatives willing to take us. They figured if Gran couldn't straighten us up, nobody could."

"But that must be wonderful," Dani said. "I mean, living with the Crone. Part of the reason my mom moved us here was that she wanted to study with your grandmother."

Thea nodded. "Yeah, people come from all over to take her classes, or to buy her amulets and things. She's not always easy to live with, though," Thea added wryly. "She goes through a couple of apprentices a year."

"So is she going to straighten Blaise up?"

"I don't think anybody can. What Blaise does-it's just her nature, the way it's a cat's nature to play

with mice. And if we get in trouble again, Gran says she's going to send us to our aunt Ursula at the Connecticut enclave."

"The Convent?"

"Yeah."

"Then you'd better stay out of trouble."

"I know. Dani, what's this school like? I mean, is it the kind of place where Blaise can keep out of trouble?"

"Well…" Dani looked dismayed. "Well-I told you before, there's only two other witches in our class, and they're both Circle Midnight. Maybe you know them… Vivienne Morrigan and Selene Lucna?"

Thea's heart sank. Vivienne and Selene-she'd seen them going to summer Circles, wearing the darkest robes of any of the Circle Midnight girls. The two of them plus Blaise would make… well, a lethal combination.

"Maybe if you explain to them how important it is, they might help you keep Blaise under control," Dani said. "You want to go talk to them now? They'll be on the patio by the cafeteria-I usually eat with them there."

"Um…" Thea hesitated. Talking to those two- well, she doubted it would help. But on the other hand, she didn't have a better idea. "Why not?"

On the way to the cafeteria, she saw something that made her stop dead. Taped to the stucco wall was a giant piece of butcher paper, painted orange and black at the margins. In the center was a grotesque figure: an old woman with a black dress, disheveled white hair, and a wart-covered, haglike face. She was straddling a broom and wearing a pointy hat. Lettering under the picture said coming

OCTOBER 31  … THE ULTIMATE HALLOWEEN PARTY.

Hands on hips, Thea said, "When will they learn that witches never wore pointy hats?"

Dani snorted, her heart-shaped face surprisingly dangerous. "You know, maybe your cousin has the right idea after all."

Thea looked at her, startled.

"Well, they are an inferior species. You have to admit that. And maybe it sounds prejudiced, but then they're so prejudiced themselves." She leaned closer to Thea. "You know, they even have prejudices against skin."

She held out her arm. Thea looked at the flawless skin, which was a deep, clear brown. "They'd think we were two different races," Dani said, pressing her arm against Thea's tan one. "And that maybe one was better than the other one."

Thea couldn't deny it. All she could say, feebly, was, "Well, two wrongs don't make a right…."

"But three lefts do!" Dani burst out, finishing the old witch carol. Then she dissolved into laughter and led Thea to the patio.

"Let's see, they should be over there…. Oh. Oops."

Oops, Thea thought.

Vivienne and Selene were at a secluded table on the far side. Blaise was with them.

"I should have known she'd find them first thing," Thea muttered. From the way the three girls had their heads together, it looked as if trouble were brewing already.

As Thea and Dani approached the table, Blaise looked up. "Where've you been?" she said, waving a finger reproachfully. "I've been waiting to introduce you."

Everybody said hello. Then Thea sat down and studied the other two girls.

Vivienne had fox-red hair and looked tall even sitting down. Her face was animated; she seemed sparkling with energy. Selene was a platinum blond with sleepy blue eyes. She was smaller, and moved with languid grace.

Now, how do I politely say, "Please help me suppress my cousin?" Thea wondered. She could already tell it wouldn't be much use. Viv and Selene seemed to be under Blaise's spell already-they turned to her every other second as if checking for approval. Even Dani was watching Blaise with something like fascinated awe.

Blaise had that effect on people.

"So we were just talking about guys," Selene said, twirling a straw languorously in her bottle of Snapple iced tea. Thea's heart plummeted.

"Toyboys," Vivienne clarified in a lovely melodious voice. Thea felt the beginnings of a bad headache.

No wonder Blaise is smirking, she thought. These girls are just like her. She'd seen it at other schools: young witches who seemed to flirt with breaking Night World law by flaunting inhuman power over boys.

"Aren't there any of our kind of guys here?" Thea asked, as a last hope.

Vivienne rolled her eyes. "One sophomore. Alaric Breedlove, Circle Twilight. That's it. This place is a desert-no pun intended."

Thea wasn't really surprised. There were always more witch girls than guys-and nobody seemed to know why. More girls got born, more survived to grow up. And in some places the ratio was particularly unbalanced.

"So we just have to make do," Selene drawled. "But that can be fun sometimes. Homecoming dance is this Saturday, and I've got my boy all picked out."

"So," Blaise said, "have I." She glanced at Thea significantly.

And there it was. Thea felt her throat close.

"Eric Ross," Blaise said, savoring the words. "And Viv and Sel have told me allll about him."

"Eric?" Dani said. "He's the basketball star, isn't he?"

"And the baseball star," Vivienne said in her beautiful voice. "And the tennis star. And he's smart-he takes honors courses and works at the animal hospital, too. He's studying to get into U.C. Davis. To be a vet, you know."

So that's why he cared about the snake, Thea thought. And why he's got flatworms in his notebook.

"And he's so cute," Selene murmured. "He's so shy with girls-he can hardly talk around them. None of us have gotten anywhere with him."

"That's because you used the wrong methods," Blaise said, and her eyes were very smoky.

Thea's insides seemed hollow and there was a circlet of pain around her head. She did the only thing she could think of.

"Blaise," she said. She looked her cousin directly in the face, making an open appeal. "Blaise, listen. I hardly ever ask anything of you, right? But now I'm asking something. I want you to leave Eric alone. Can you do that-for me? For the sake of Unity?"

Blaise blinked slowly. She took a long drink of iced tea. "Why, Thea, you're getting all worked up."

"Ism not."

"I didn't know you cared."

"I don't. I mean-of course I don't care about him. But I'm worried about you, about all of us. I think…" Thea hadn't meant to say this, but she found the words spilling out anyway. "I think he might have some suspicions about us. This morning he told me that I seemed so different from other girls…." She managed to stop herself before she mentioned that he'd guessed she had healed him. That would be incredibly dangerous, especially since she didn't know who Vivienne or Selene might blab to.

Blaise's pupils were large. "You mean-you think he's a psychic?"

"No, no." She knew he wasn't a psychic. She'd been inside his mind, and he wasn't from any lost witch family. He didn't have any powers. He was as much a human as that snake had been a snake.

"Well, then," Blaise said. She chuckled, a rich, rippling sound. "He just thinks you're different-and that's hardly something to worry about. We want them to think we're different."

She didn't understand. And Thea couldn't explain. Not without getting herself into very hot water.

"So, if you don't mind, we'll just consider my claim staked," Blaise said courteously. "Now, let's see, what to do with the boys at the dance. First, I think we need to spill their blood."

"Spill what?" Dani said, sitting up.

"Just a little blood," Blaise told her absently. "It's going to be absolutely vital for some of the spells we'll want to do later."

"Well, good luck," Dani said. "Humans don't like blood-they're going to run like bunnies from you after that."

Blaise regarded her with a half-smile. "I don't think so," she said. "You don't understand this business yet. If it's done right, they don't run. They're scared; they're shocked; and they just keep coming back for more."

Dani looked shocked herself-and still fascinated. "But why do you want to hurt them?"

"We're just doing what comes naturally," Blaise purred.

I don't care Thea thought, it's none of my business.

She heard herself say, "No."

She was staring at a pile of squashed napkins in her hand. Out of the corner of her eye she could see

Blaise's exasperated expression. The others might not know what Thea was saying no to, but Blaise always understood her cousin.

"I asked you before if you wanted him," Blaise said. "And you said you didn't. So now you're changing your mind? You're going to play him?"

Thea stared at her wad of napkins. What could she say? I can't because I'm scared? I can't because something happened between him and me this morning and I don't know what it was? I can't because if I keep seeing him I have this feeling I might break the law, and I don't mean the one about never telling humans that we exist; I mean the other one, the one about never falling in love….

Don't be ridiculous.

That sort of thing is out of the question, she told herself. All you want is to keep him from ending up like Randy Marik. And you can do that without getting involved.

"I'm saying I want him," she said out loud.

"You're going to play him?"

"I'm going to play him."

"Well." Instead of snarling, Blaise laughed. "Well, congratulations. My little cousin is growing up at last."

"Oh, please." Thea gave her a look. She and Blaise had been born on two different days-just barely. Blaise had been born one minute before midnight, and Thea one minute after. It was another reason they were so connected-but Thea hated it when Blaise acted older.

Blaise just smiled, her gray eyes glinting. "And,

look-there's lover boy right now," she said, feigning elaborate surprise. Thea followed her nod and saw a figure with sandy hair and long legs at the other side of the patio.

"What luck," Blaise said. "Why don't you just walk over and ask him to the dance?"

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