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The Captive (Chapter Fifteen)

Cassie jumped off the motorcycle and ran up the driveway. But as soon as she entered the red light, she slowed. Something about the light made it hard to move through it, hard even to breathe. It was as if the air here had thickened.

In slow motion, Cassie fought her way to the door. It was open. Inside, the ordinary lights, the lamps in the hallway, looked feeble and silly against the red glow that pervaded everything, like flashlights in the daytime.

Then Cassie saw something that made her breath catch.

Footprints.

Something had tracked mud across her grandmother's pine-board floor. Only it wasn't mud. It was black as tar and it steamed slightly, like some primordial muck from hell. The prints went up the stairs and then back down again.

Cassie was afraid to go any farther.

"What is this?" Nick shouted, coming in behind her. His shout didn't go very far in the thickened air; it sounded muffled and dragging. Cassie turned toward him, and it was like turning in a dream, where every motion is reduced to a crawl.

"Come on," Nick said, pulling at her. Cassie looked behind her and saw Deborah and Melanie and Laurel in the doorway, also moving in slow motion.

Cassie let Nick guide her and they fought their way up the stairs. The red glow was dimmer up here; it was hard to see any prints. But Cassie followed them more by intuition than by sight down the hall to the door of her mother's room, and she pointed to it. She was too frightened to go in.

Nick's hand grasped the doorknob, turned it. The door slowly flew open. Cassie stared at her mother's empty bed.

"No!" she screamed, and the red light seemed to catch the word and draw it out endlessly. She forgot to be frightened then and ran forward-slowly-into the middle of the room. The bed was rumpled, slept-in, but the covers had been thrown back and there was no sign of her mother.

Cassie looked around the deserted room in anguish. The window was closed. She had a terrible sense of loss, a terrible premonition. Those black and steaming footprints went to the side of her mother's bed. Some thing had come and stood here, beside her mother, and then…

"Come on! Downstairs," Nick was shouting from the doorway. Cassie turned to him-and screamed.

The door was swinging slowly shut again. And in the shadows behind it was a pale and ghostly figure.

Cassie's second scream was cut off as the figure stepped forward, showing a drawn white face and dark hair falling loose over slender shoulders. It was wearing a long, white nightgown. It was her mother.

"Mom," Cassie cried, and she launched herself forward, throwing her arms around her mother's waist. Oh, thank God, thank God, she thought. Now everything would be all right. Her mother was safe, her mother would take care of things. "Oh, Mom, I was so scared," she gasped.

But something was wrong. Her mother wasn't hugging her back. There was no response at all from the upright but lifeless body in the nightgown. Cassie's mother just stood there, and when Cassie pulled back, she saw her mother was staring emptily.

"Mom? Mom?" she said. She shook the slender white figure. "Mom.' What's the matter?"

Her mother's beautiful eyes were blank, like a doll's eyes. Unseeing. The black circles underneath seemed to swallow them up. Her mother's arms stayed limp at her sides.

"Mom," Cassie said again, almost crying now.

Nick had pushed the door open again. "We have to get her out of here," he told Cassie.

Yes, Cassie thought. She tried to convince herself that it was the light, that maybe outside of the red glow her mother would be okay. They each took one of the limp arms and led the unresisting figure into the hallway. Melanie, Laurel, and Deborah converged from different directions.

"We looked in all the rooms on this floor," Melanie said. "There's no one else up here."

"My grandmother-" Cassie began.

"Help us get Mrs. Blake downstairs," Nick said.

At the bottom of the stairs, the black prints turned left and then crossed and recrossed. A thought flashed into Cassie's mind.

"Melanie, Laurel, can you take my mom outside? Out of the light? Will you make sure she's safe?" Melanie nodded, and Cassie said, "I'll be out as soon as I can."

"Be careful" Laurel said urgently.

Cassie saw them leading her mother to the door, then she made herself stop looking. "Come on," she said to Nick and Deborah. "I think my grandma's in the kitchen."

A line of footprints led that way, but it wasn't just that, it was a feeling Cassie had. A terrible feeling that her grandmother was in the kitchen, and that she wasn't alone.

Deborah walked like a stalking huntress, following the black marks down the twisting hallways to the old wing of the house, the one built by the original witches in 1693.

Nick was behind Cassie, and Cassie realized vaguely that they were protecting her, giving her the safest place in line. But there was no safe place in this house now. As they crossed the threshold into the old wing, the red light seemed to get stronger, and the air even thicker. Cassie felt her lungs laboring.

Oh, God, it looked like fire in here. The red light was everywhere and the air burned Cassie's skin. Deborah stopped and Cassie almost ran into her. She struggled to see over Deborah's shoulder, but her eyes were sore and streaming.

She felt Nick behind her, his hand gripping her shoulder hard. Cassie tried to make her eyes focus, squinting into the thick red light.

She could see her grandmother! The old woman was lying in front of the hearth, by the long wooden table she had worked at so often. The table was on its side, and herbs and drying racks were scattered on the floor. Cassie started toward her grandmother, but there was something else there, something her mind didn't want to take in. Nick was holding her back, and Cassie stared at the thing bending over the old woman.

It was burned, black, hideous. It looked as if its skin was hard and cracked. It had the shape of a man, but Cassie couldn't see eyes or clothes or hair. When it looked up at them she got a brief, terrifying impression of a skull shining silver through the blackness of its face.

It had seen them now. Cassie felt as if she and Nick and Deborah were welded together; Nick was still holding her, and she was clutching Deborah. She wanted to run, but she couldn't, because there was her grandmother on the floor. She couldn't leave her grandmother alone with the burned thing.

But she couldn't fight, either. She didn't know how to fight something like this. And Cassie could no longer feel any connection to the elements; in this horrible oven of a room she felt as if she were cut off from everything outside.

What weapons did they have? The hematite in Cassie's pocket wasn't cool anymore; when she thrust her hand in to touch it, it burned. No good. Air and Fire and Earth were all against them. They needed something this creature didn't control.

"Think of water," she shouted to Nick and Deborah. Her voice was stifled in the oppressive blistering air. "Think of the ocean- cold water-ice!"

As she said it, she thought herself, trying to remember what water was like. Cool. . . blue. . . endless. Suddenly she remembered looking over the bluff when she'd first come to her grandmother's house, seeing a blue so intense it took her breath away. The ocean, unimaginably vast, spread out before her. She could picture it now; blue and gray like Adam's eyes. Sunlight glinted off the waves, and Adam's eyes were sparkling, laughing ….

Wind rattled the windows in their casements, and the faucet in the sink began to shake. It burst a leak somewhere at its base and a thin stream of white water sprayed up. Something burst in the dishwasher, too, and water gushed on the floor. Water was hissing out of the pipe under the sink.

"Now!" Deborah shouted. "Come on, get him now!"

Cassie knew it was wrong even as Deborah said it. They weren't strong enough, not nearly strong enough to take this thing on directly. But Deborah, always heedless of danger, was lunging forward, and there was no time to scream a warning or make her stop. Cassie's heart failed her and her legs went weak in the middle of the rush toward the black thing.

It would kill them-one touch of those burned, hardened hands could kill-but it was giving way before them. Cassie couldn't believe they were still alive, still moving, but they were. The thing was backing away, it was crouching, it was running. It turned and went through what had been the old front door, searing the handle black as it went. It went out into the darkness and then it was gone.

The door hung open, rattling in the wind. The red light died. Through the doorway Cassie could see the cool silver-blue of moonlight.

She dragged in a deep breath, grateful just to be able to breathe without hurting.

"We did it!" Deborah was laughing. She pounded Nick on the arm and back. "We did it! All right! The bastard ran!"

It left, Cassie thought. It left, deliberately. We didn't win anything.

Then she turned sharply to Nick. "My mother! And Laurel and Melanie-they're out there-"

"I'll go check them. I think it's gone for now, though," he said.

For now. Nick knew the same thing she did. It wasn't defeated; it had withdrawn.

On trembling legs, Cassie went and knelt by her grandmother on the floor.

"Grandma?" she said. She was afraid the old woman was dead. But no, her grandmother was breathing heavily. Then Cassie was afraid that if the wrinkled eyelids opened, the eyes underneath would stare blankly like a doll's- but they were opening now, and they saw her, they knew her. Her grandmother's eyes were dark with pain, but they were rational.

"Cassie," she whispered. "Little Cassie."

"Grandma, you're going to be all right. Don't move." Cassie tried to think of anything else she'd heard about injured people. What to do? Keep them warm? Keep their feet elevated? "Just hang on," she told her grandmother, and to Deborah she said, "Call an ambulance, fast!"

"No," her grandmother said. She tried to sit up and her face contracted with pain. One knobby-knuckled hand clutched at the thin robe over her nightgown. Over her heart.

"Grandma, don't move," Cassie said frantically. "It's going to be all right, everything's going to be all right. . ."

"No, Cassie," her grandmother said. She was still breathing in that tortured way, but her voice was surprisingly strong. "No ambulance.

There's no time. You need to listen to me; I have something to tell you."

"You can tell me later." Cassie was crying now, but she tried to keep her voice steady.

"There won't be a later," her grandmother gasped, and then she settled back, her breathing careful and slow. She spoke distinctly, kneading Cassie's hand in her own. Her eyes were so dark, so anguished-and so kind. "Cassie, I don't have much time left, and you need to listen. This is important. Go to the fireplace and look on the right-hand side for a loose brick. It's just about the level of the mantel. Pull it out and bring me what's inside the hole."

Cassie stumbled to the hearth. A loose brick-she couldn't see; she was crying too hard. She felt with her fingers, scraping them on the roughness of mortar, and something shifted under them.

This brick. She dug her fingernails into the crumbled mortar around it and worked it back and forth until it came out. She dropped it and reached into the cool dark hollow now exposed.

Her fingertips found something smooth. She eased it closer with her nails, then grasped it and pulled it out.

It was a Book of Shadows.

The one from her dream, the one with the red leather cover. Cassie took it back to her grandmother and knelt again.

"He couldn't make me tell where it was. He couldn't make me tell anything," her grandmother said, and smiled. "My own grandmother showed me that was a good place to hide it." She stroked the book, then her age-spotted hand tightened on Cassie's. "It's yours, Cassie. From my grandmother to me to you. You have the sight and the power, as I did, as your mother does. But you can't run away like she did. You have to stay here and face him."

She stopped and coughed. Cassie looked at Deborah, who was listening intently, and then back at her grandmother. "Grandma, please. Please let us call the ambulance. You can't just give up-"

"I'm not giving anything up! I'm giving it all to you. To you, Cassie, so you can carry on the fight. Let me do that before I die. Otherwise it's all been meaningless, everything." She coughed again. "It wasn't supposed to be like this. That girl-Faye-she fooled me. I didn't think she would move this fast. I thought we would have more time-but we don't. So, now listen."

She drew a painful breath, fingers holding Cassie's so hard it hurt, and her dark old eyes stared into Cassie's. "You come from a long line of witches, Cassie. You know that. But you don't know that our family has always had the clearest sight and the most power. We've been the strongest line and we can see the future- but the others don't always believe that. Not even our own kind."

Her eyes lifted to look at Deborah. "You young people, you think you come up with everything new, don't you?" Her seamed old face wrinkled in a laugh, although there was no sound. "You don't have much respect for old folks, or even for your parents. You think we lived our lives standing still, don't you?"

She's wandering, Cassie thought. She doesn't know what she's saying. But her grandmother was going on.

"Your idea about getting out the old books and reviving the old traditions-you think you were the only ones to come up with that, don't you?"

Cassie just shook her head helplessly, but Deborah, brows drawn together in a scowl, said, "Well, weren't we?"

"No. Oh, my dears, no. In my day, when I was a little girl, we played with it. We had meetings sometimes, and those of us with the sight would make notes of what we saw, and those with the healing touch would talk about herbs and things. But it was your parents' generation who got up a real coven."

"Our parents?" Deborah said in disbelief. "My parents are so scared of magic they practically puke if you mention it. My parents would never-"

"That's now," Cassie's grandmother said calmly, as Cassie tried to hush Deborah. "That's now. They've forgotten-they made themselves forget. They had to, you see, to survive. But things were different when they were young. They were just a little older than you, the children of Crowhaven Road. Your mother was maybe nineteen, Deborah, and Cassie's mother was just seventeen. That was when the Man in Black came to New Salem."

"Grandma…" Cassie whispered. Icy prickles were going up and down her spine. This room, which had been so hot, was making her shiver. "Oh, Grandma, please…"

"You don't want to know. I know. I understand. But you have to listen, both of you. You have to understand what you're up against."

With another cough, Cassie's grandmother shifted position slightly, her eyes going opaque with memory. "That was the fall of 1974. The coldest November we'd had in decades. I'll never forget him on the doorstep, kicking the snow off his boots. He was going to move into Number Thirteen, he said, and he needed a match to light the wood he was carrying. There was no other kind of heat in that old house; it had been empty since he'd left it the first time."

"Since what?" Cassie said.

"Since 1696. Since he'd left the first time to go to sea, and drowned when his ship went down." Her grandmother nodded without looking at Cassie. "Oh, yes, it was Black John. But we didn't know that then. How much suffering could have been prevented if we had… but there's no use thinking about that." She patted Cassie's hand. "We lent him matches, and the girls and young men on the street helped him rebuild that old house. He was a few years older than they were, and they looked up to him. They admired him and his travels- he could tell the most marvelous stories. And he was handsome-handsome in a way that didn't show his black heart underneath. We were all fooled, all under his spell, even me.

"I don't know when he started talking to the young people about the old ways. Pretty soon, I guess; he worked fast. And they were ready to listen. They thought we parents were old and stodgy if we opposed them. And to tell the truth, not many of us objected very strongly. There's good in the old ways, and we didn't know what he was up to."

The shivers were racing all over Cassie's body by now, but she couldn't move. She could only listen to her grandmother's voice, the only sound except for the thin hiss of water in that quiet kitchen.

"He got the likeliest of the young ones together and paired them off. Yes, that's about the size of it, although we parents didn't know then. He made matches, giving this girl to this boy, and this boy to that girl, and somehow he made it all seem reasonable to them. He even broke up pairs that had planned to marry-your mother, Deborah, was going to marry Nick's dad, but he changed that. Switched her from one brother to the other, and they let him. He had such a grip on them they would have let him do anything.

"They did the marriages in the old way, handfasting. Ten weddings in March. And we all celebrated, like the idiots we were. All those young people so happy, and never a quarrel between them, we thought; how lucky they were! They were just like one big group of brothers and sisters. Well, the group was too big for one coven, but we didn't think about that.

"It was good to see the respect they had for the old ways, too. They had the Beltane fire in May and at midsummer they gathered Saint-John's-wort and mistletoe. And in September I remember all of them laughing and shouting as they brought the John Barleycorn sheaf in to represent the harvest. They didn't know what the other John was planning.

"We knew by then the babies were coming soon, and that was another reason to celebrate. But it was in October that some of the older women started to worry. The girls were all so pale and the pregnancies seemed to take so much out of them. Poor Carmen Henderson was flesh and bones except for her belly. That looked like she was carrying twin elephants. There wasn't much celebrating at Samhain; the girls were all too sick.

"And then on November third, it started. Your uncle Nicholas, Deborah, the one you never knew, called me to come to his wife's bedside. I helped Sharon have little Nick, your cousin. He was a fighter from the first minute; I'll never forget how he squalled. But there was something else, something I'd never seen in a baby's eyes, and I went home thinking about it. There was a power there I'd never seen before.

"And two days later it happened again. Elizabeth Conant had a baby boy, with hair like Bacchus's wine and eyes like the sea. That baby looked at me, and I could feel his power."

"Adam," Cassie whispered.

"That's right. Three days later Sophie Burke went into labor-her that kept her own name even when she married. Her baby, Melanie, was like the others. She looked two weeks old when she was brand-new, and she saw me as clearly as I saw her.

"The strangest ones born were Diana and Faye. Their mothers were sisters and they had their babies at the same moment, in two separate houses. One baby was bright like sunlight and the other one was dark as midnight, but those two were connected somehow. You could tell even at that age."

Cassie thought of Diana and a pang went through her, but she pushed it away and went on listening. Her grandmother's voice seemed to be getting weaker.

"Poor little things … it wasn't their fault. It isn't your fault," the old woman said, focusing suddenly on Deborah and Cassie. "Nobody can blame you. But by December third, eleven babies had been born, and they were all strange. Their mothers didn't want to admit it, but by January there was no way to deny it. Those tiny babies could call on the Powers, and they could scare you if they didn't get what they wanted."

"I knew," Cassie whispered. "I knew it was too weird for all of those kids to born within one month … I knew."

"Their parents knew, too, but they didn't know what it meant. It was Adam's father, I think, who put it all together for them. Eleven babies, he said-he guessed that with one more that made a coven. And who was the one more? Why, the man who'd arranged for all those babies to be born, the man who was going to lead them. Black John had come back to make the strongest Circle this country had ever seen-not from this generation, but from the next, Adam's father said. From the infants.

"Nobody believed the story at first. Some parents were scared, and some were just plain stupid. And some didn't see how Black John could come back from the dead after all those years. That's one mystery that hasn't been solved yet.

"But gradually some of the group were convinced. Nick's father, who'd lost his own fiancee, seen her married off to his younger brother-he listened. And Mary Meade, Diana's mother; she was as smart as she was pretty. Even Faye's father, Grant Chamberlain… he was a cold man, but he knew his infant daughter could set the curtains on fire without touching them, and he knew that wasn't right. They got some of the others talked around, and one cold night, the first of February, the bunch of them set off to talk to him about it."

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