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The Captive (Chapter Thirteen)

"Cassie, no!"

Later Cassie would realize it was Diana who had shouted. At the time the words came to her only through a fog, and they sounded slow and dragging. Meaningless, like the continued mad barking that was going on somewhere far away. Cassie's fingertips brushed the transparent black fingertips before her.

Instantly, she felt a jolt like the thrill that the hematite had given her. She looked up, shocked, from her own hand to the smoky, swirling face, and she recognized it-

Then everything shattered.

There was a great splash and icy-cold drops of water splattered Cassie from head to foot.

At the same instant there was the hissing sound of red-hot embers being suddenly drenched. The smoky man-thing changed, dwindling, dissolving, as if it were being sucked back into the fire. A fire that now was nothing more than a sodden black mess of charred sticks.

Adam was standing on the other side of the circle, holding the cooler, whose contents had doused the fire. Raj was behind him, hair bristling, lips skinned back from his teeth.

Cassie stared from her own outstretched hand to Adam's wide eyes. She swayed. Then everything seemed to go soft and gray around her, and she fainted.

"You're safe now. Just lie still." The voice seemed to come from a great distance, but it had a note of gentle authority. Diana, Cassie thought vaguely, and a great longing swept over her. She wanted to hold Diana's hand, but it was too much trouble to move or try to open her eyes.

"Here's the lavender water," came another voice, lighter and more hasty. Laurel. "You dab it on, like this…"

Cassie felt a coolness on her forehead and wrists. A sweet, clean smell cleared her head a little.

She could hear other voices now. ". . . maybe, but I still don't know how the hell Adam did it. I couldn't move-felt like I was frozen." That was Deborah.

"Me, too! Like I was stuck to the ground." That was Sean.

"Adam, will you please sit down now so Laurel can look at you? Please? You're hurt." That was Melanie, and suddenly Cassie could open her eyes. She sat up and a cool damp cloth fell off her forehead into her lap.

"No, no-Cassie, lie still," Diana said, trying to push her back down. Cassie was staring at Adam.

His wonderful unruly hair was blown every which way. His skin was reddened, like a skier with a bad case of windburn, and his clothes looked askew and damp. "I'm all right," he was saying to Melanie, who was trying to sit him in a chair.

"What happened? Where are we?" Cassie said. She was lying on a couch in a shabby living room she knew she should recognize, but she felt very confused.

"We brought you to Laurel's house," said Diana. "We didn't want to scare your mom and grandma. You fainted. But Adam saved your life."

"He went through the four circles of protection," Suzan said, with a distinct note of awe in her voice.

"Stupid," Deborah commented. "But impressive."

And then came Faye's lazy drawl: "I think it was a tremendously devoted thing to do."

There was a startled pause. Then Laurel said, "Oh, well, you know Adam and duty. I guess he is devoted to it."

"I would've done it-so would Doug-if we could've got up," Chris insisted.

"And if you could've thought of it-which you couldn't," Nick said dryly and a little grimly. His expression was dark.

Cassie was watching as Laurel dabbed with a damp towel at Adam's face and hands. "This is aloe and willow bark," Laurel explained. "It should keep the burns from getting worse."

"Cassie," Diana said gently, "do you remember what happened before you fainted?"

"Uh… you guys were asking questions-too many questions. And then-I don't know, this voice started talking in my head. That thing was staring at me…" Cassie had a sudden thought. "Diana-at the skull ceremony in your garage, you know how you had the skull under a cloth?" Diana nodded. "Did you have it facing any particular way under the cloth?"

Diana looked startled. "Actually, there was something about that that worried me. I put the skull facing the place where I'd sit in the circle-but when I took the cloth off, it was facing the other way."

"It was facing me," Cassie said. "Which means either somebody moved it or … it moved itself." They were looking at each other, both puzzled and uneasy, but communicating. Cassie felt closer to Diana than she had in weeks. Now was the time to make up, she thought.

"Diana," she began, but just then she noticed something. Adam's mask of horns and oak leaves was sitting on a chair beside Diana, and one of Diana's slender hands was resting on it, caressing it as if for comfort. It was an unconscious gesture-and a completely revealing one. A bolt of resentment shot through Cassie's heart. Herne and the goddess Diana-they belonged together, right? And Diana knew it. Later tonight they'd probably perform that little ceremony Faye had been talking about.

Cassie looked up and found Faye looking at her, golden eyes hooded and ironic. Faye smiled faintly.

"What is it?" Diana was saying. "Cassie?"

"Nothing." Cassie stared down at the threadbare violet rug on the hardwood floor. "Nothing. I feel all right now," she added. It was true, the disorientation was almost gone. But the memory of that smoky face stayed with her.

"What an ending to our Halloween," Laurel said.

"We should have stayed at the dance," said Suzan, sitting back and crossing her legs. "We didn't learn anything-and Cassie got hurt," she added, after a moment's thought.

"But we did learn something. We learned that Black John's ghost is still around-and it's malevolent," Adam said. "It certainly wouldn't answer any of our questions."

"And it's strong," Diana said. "Strong enough to influence all of us, to keep us from moving." She looked at Cassie. "Except Cassie. I wonder why."

Cassie felt a flash of discomfort, and she shrugged.

"It doesn't matter how strong it is," Melanie said. "Halloween's over in a few hours, and after that it won't have any power."

"But we still don't know any more about the skull. Or about Kori," Doug said, unusually serious.

"And I don't think we even know that Black John is-how did you put it, Adam? Malevolent," came Faye's husky slow voice. "Maybe he just didn't feel like talking."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," began Laurel.

Before an argument could break out, Diana said, "Look, it's late, and we're all tired. We're not going to get anything solved tonight. If Cassie really is okay, I think we should all go home and get some rest."

There was a pause, and then nods of agreement.

"We can talk about it at school-or at Nick's birthday," Laurel said.

"I'll take Cassie home," Nick said at the door.

Cassie glanced at him quickly. He hadn't said much while she'd been lying on the couch-but he'd been there. He'd come along with the rest of them to make sure she was all right.

"Then Deborah can come with me," Melanie said. "She rode in with you, right?"

"Can you drive me, too? I really am tired,"

Diana said, and Melanie nodded easily.

Cassie scarcely noticed the rest of the goodbyes. What she was noticing was that Adam was leaving in his Jeep Cherokee, heading north, and Diana was going with Melanie and Deborah, going south.

No Herne-and-Diana ceremony tonight, Cassie thought, and a wash of relief went through her. Relief-and a ripple of mean gladness. It was wrong, it was bad-but she felt it.

Just as she got into Nick's car, she saw Faye smiling at her with raised eyebrows, and before she knew it, Cassie had smiled back.

The next day when Cassie stepped out of her house she stopped in shock. The sugar-maple trees across the street had changed. The blazing autumn colors that had reminded her of fire were gone. So were the leaves. Every branch was bare.

It looked like a Halloween skeleton.

"Nick won't let us do much for his birthday tomorrow," Laurel said. "I wish we could give him a real surprise party."

Deborah snorted. "He'd walk right out."

"I know. Well, we'll try to think of something he won't think is too infantile. And"-Laurel brightened-"we can make up for it on the other birthdays."

"What other birthdays?" Cassie said.

All the girls of the Club looked at her. They were sitting in the back room of the cafeteria, having a special conference while the guys kept Nick away.

"You mean you don't know about the birthday season?" Suzan asked in disbelief. "Diana didn't tell you?"

Diana opened her mouth and then shut it again. Cassie guessed she didn't know how to say that she and Cassie didn't talk that much anymore, at least not in private.

"Let's see if I can keep it straight," Faye said with a low chuckle, eyes on the ceiling. She began to count on fingers tipped with long, gleaming scarlet nails. "Nick's is November third. Adam's is November fifth. Melanie's is November seventh. Mine-and oh, yes, Diana's, too-is November tenth…"

"Are you kidding?" Cassie broke in.

Laurel shook her head as Faye went relentlessly on. "Chris and Doug's is November seventeenth, Suzan's is the twenty-fourth, and Deborah's is the twenty-eighth. Laurel's is, um …"

"December first," Laurel said. "And Sean's is December third, and that's it."

"But that's…" Cassie's voice trailed off. She couldn't believe it. Nick was only a month older than Sean? And all the witch kids were eight or nine months older than she was? "But you and Sean are juniors, like me," she said to Laurel. "And my birthday's July twenty-third."

"We just missed the cutoff date," Laurel said. "Everybody born after November thirtieth has to wait another year for school. So we had to watch everybody else go off to kindergarten while we stayed home." She wiped away imaginary tears.

"But that's still…" Cassie couldn't express herself. "Don't you think that's pretty incredible? All of you guys being born within a month of each other?"

Suzan dimpled wickedly. "It was a very wet April that year. Our parents all stayed inside."

"It seems odd, I admit," Melanie said. "But the fact is that most of our parents got married the spring before. So it really isn't that surprising."

"But…" Cassie still thought it was surprising, although clearly all the members of the Club were so used to it they didn't wonder about it anymore. And why don't I fit in the pattern? she thought. I guess it's because I'm half outsider. She shrugged. Melanie was probably right; anyway, there was no point in worrying. She let the subject drop and they went back to planning Nick's party.

They finally decided to combine all the birthdays for that first week-Nick's, Adam's, and Melanie's-and hold the party on Saturday, November seventh.

"And," Laurel said, when they explained their plan to the boys, "this one is going to be really different. Don't ask now-it's going to be unique."

"Uh, it's not some health-food kind of thing, is it?" Doug said, looking suspicious.

The girls looked at each other and stifled laughter. "Well-it is healthy-or at least some people think so," Melanie said. "You'll just have to come and see."

"But we'll freeze to death," Sean said, horrified.

"Not with this," Laurel laughed. She held up a thermos.

"Laurel." Adam was having a hard time not laughing himself. "I don't care how hot whatever you've got in there is-it's not going to keep us warm in that."

A silver moon, slightly more than half full, was shining down on an obsidian sea. It was the sea Adam was pointing to.

"It's not Ovaltine," Deborah told him impatiently. "It's something we mixed up."

The five boys were facing the girls, who were lined up behind Laurel. There was a bonfire going on the beach, but at this distance it did nothing to cut the icy wind.

"They're obviously not going to believe us," Faye said, and Diana added, "I guess we'll just have to show them."

Laurel passed the thermos around. Cassie took a deep breath and then a gulp. The liquid was hot and medicinal-tasting-like one of Laurel's nastier herbal teas-but the instant she swallowed it, a tingling warmth swept over her. Suddenly she didn't need her bulky sweater. It was positively hot out here on the beach.

"To the sea, ye mystics," Melanie said. Cassie wasn't sure what it meant, but like the other girls, she was shedding suddenly unnecessary clothing. The boys were goggling.

"I want a birthday party like this," Sean said urgently, as Faye unzipped her red jacket. "Okay? Okay? I want-"

The guys were mildly disappointed when it turned out the girls had bathing suits on underneath.

"But what are we supposed to do?" Adam said, sniffing at the thermos and grinning at the bikini-clad girls.

"Well…" Faye smiled. "You can always improvise."

"Or," Diana put in, "you can look behind the big rock. There just might be a pile of swimming trunks there."

"Now this really is different," Laurel said happily to Cassie some time later, while they were both floating in water up to their chins. "A midnight swimming party in November. This is witchy."

"Be more witchy if we were all sky-clad," Chris commented, shaking his shaggy blond head like a wet dog.

Cassie and Laurel looked at each other, then at Deborah, who was bobbing nearby.

"Good idea," Deborah said, nodding at the other girls. "How about you first, Chris?"

"Wait a minute-I didn't mean-hey, Doug-help!"

"Come on, girls," Laurel shouted. "Chris wants to go skinny-dipping, only he's a little shy."

"Help! Guys, help!"

It turned into a sort of combination of tag and aquatic wrestling. Everyone joined in. Cassie found herself being chased by Nick and she fled, kicking up great splashes while he cut cleanly through the surf behind her. He got close enough to grab her.

"Help!" Cassie shrieked, half laughing, so that she accidentally drank some salt water. But there was no help in sight. Laurel and Deborah were heading an assault on the Henderson brothers, and Adam and Diana were far away, their sleek heads bobbing side by side.

Nick tossed wet hair-blacker than onyx in the moonlight-out of his eyes and grinned at her. Cassie had never seen him smile before. "Surrender," he suggested.

"Never," Cassie said, with as much dignity as she could muster while wavelets slapped her. Nick was handsome-but she didn't want him to get hold of her out here. He made another grab at her and Cassie shrieked for help again, and suddenly there was a heaving wave between them.

"Go on! Get out of here!" Faye said. Her eyes gleamed wickedly under long, wet lashes. "Or do we have to make you? Cassie, grab him around the neck while I get his trunks!"

Cassie had no idea how to grab a guy as strong as Nick around the neck, especially when she was laughing so hard, but she surged forward. Faye dove like a dolphin, and Nick twisted and made a hasty retreat, swimming away as fast as he could.

Cassie looked at Faye and found Faye smiling sideways at her. Cassie grinned.

"Thanks," she said.

"Any time," Faye said. "You know I'm glad to do anything for my friends. And we are friends, aren't we, Cassie?"

Cassie thought about that, treading water in the silver-glinting ocean. "I guess," she said, finally, slowly.

"That's good. Because, Cassie, there's a time coming up when I'm going to need all my friends. This Tuesday, when the moon is full, the Circle is going to have a meeting."

Cassie nodded, not getting it for a moment. Of course they were going to have a meeting. And another party; it was Faye's and Diana's birthday. They were both seventeen-

"The leadership vote!" Cassie said, taking an involuntary gulp of salt water again. She stared at Faye with a sudden terrible apprehension. "Faye…"

"That's right," Faye said. In the moonlight she looked like a mermaid, staying afloat effortlessly. Her glorious mane of hair hung soaking-wet down her back like twining seaweed. Her eyes held Cassie's. "I want to be leader of this coven, Cassie. I will be leader. And you're going to help me."

"No."

"Yes. Because this time I'm serious. I've been going easy on you, letting you have your way, not making you play by the rules. But that's over now, Cassie. This is the one thing I want more than anything else in the world, and you are going to help me. Otherwise…" Faye looked over her shoulder to where Adam and Diana were still bobbing, far away. Then she turned back.

"Otherwise, I'll do it," she said. "I'll tell Diana-and not just about that little cuddling session on the bluff. I'll tell her about the way you and Adam were kissing at the Homecoming dance-did you think nobody would see that?

And the real reason Adam went through four circles of protection to save you at Halloween. And"-she floated closer to Cassie, her hooded golden eyes as unblinking as the eyes of a falcon-"I'll tell her about the skull. How you stole it from her and gave it to me, so we could kill Jeffrey."

"That's not what happened! I'd never have let you have it if I'd known-"

"Are you sure, Cassie?" Faye smiled, a slow, conspiratorial smile. "I think, deep down, that you and I are just the same. We're… sisters under the skin. And if you don't vote for me on Tuesday, I'll let everyone know the truth about you. I'll tell them what you really are inside."

Evil, Cassie thought, staring out at the ocean. It reflected the moonlight back like a mirror, like a piece of hematite, and it surrounded her. She couldn't say a word.

"Think about it, Cassie," Faye said pleasantly. "You have until Tuesday night to decide." And then she swam away.

It was Tuesday night.

The full moon was directly overhead, the circle had been cast. The members of the Club sat around it. Diana, who was wearing all the symbols of the Queen of the Witches, had called on the four elements to protect them, but now she was silent. It was Melanie who was calling for the vote, from oldest to youngest.

"Nicholas," she said.

"I told you before," Nick said. "I won't vote. I'm here, because you two insisted"-he glanced from Faye to Diana-"but I abstain."

With a strange feeling of unreality, Cassie watched his handsome, cold face. Nick had abstained, why couldn't she? But she knew that would never satisfy Faye, unless Faye had already won. And Cassie was no closer to knowing which way to vote tonight than she had been three days ago. If only she had a little more time-

But there was no time. Melanie was speaking again.

"Adam."

Adam's voice was firm and clear. "Diana."

From a pile of red and white stones in front of her, Melanie put forward one white. "And as for me, I vote for Diana too," she said, and put out another white stone. "Faye?"

Faye smiled. "I vote for myself."

Melanie put out a red stone. "Diana."

"I vote for myself too," Diana said quietly.

A third white stone. Then Melanie said, "Douglas."

Doug grinned one of his wildest grins. "I'm voting for Faye, naturally."

"Christopher."

"Uh…" Chris looked confused. Despite Faye's frown and Doug's frantic coaching, he was squinting into nothingness as if searching for a lost decision. Finally, he seemed to find it and he looked at Melanie. "Okay; Diana."

Everyone in the circle stared at him. He glared back defiantly. Cassie's fingers clenched on the piece of hematite in her pocket.

"Chris, you feeb-" Doug began, but Melanie shut him up.

"No talking," she said, and put out a fourth white stone next to the two red. "Suzan."

"Faye."

Three red, four white. "Deborah."

"Who do you think?" Deborah snapped. "Faye."

Four red, four white. "Laurel," said Melanie.

"Diana's always been our leader, and she always will be," Laurel said. "I vote for her."

Melanie put a fifth white stone out, a trace of a smile hovering on her lips. "Sean."

Sean's black eyes shifted nervously. "I…" Faye was staring at him relentlessly. "I … I … Faye" he said, and hunched up his shoulders.

Melanie shrugged and put out another red stone. Five red, five white. But although her gray eyes remained serious, her lips were definitely curved in a smile. All of Diana's adherents had relaxed, and they were flashing smiles at each other across the circle.

Melanie turned confidently to the last member of the coven and said, "Cassandra."

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