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The Power (Chapter Four)

"Hey, watch out, Cassie," Chris said, running into her as she stopped in her tracks. "What's wrong?"

"I just saw someone." Cassie could feel how wide her eyes were as she stared into the crowd. Portia had disappeared in a sea of bobbing heads. "A girl I knew this summer . . ." Her voice trailed off as her mind boggled at the task of explaining Portia to the Circle.

But Adam had seen her too. "A witch hunter," he said grimly. "The one whose brothers carried a gun. They're seriously into it – not just as a hobby, but as an obsession."

"And they've come here?" Deborah scoffed. Cassie looked back and forth between the dark-haired girl and Adam; obviously witch-hunting was something these people had encountered before. "They ought to know better."

"Maybe it was a mistake – or an accident. Maybe her parents moved and she was just transferred here or something," Laurel said, ever the optimist.

Cassie shook her head. "Portia doesn't make mistakes," she murmured. "And I pity the accident that tries to happen to her. Adam, what are we going to do?" She was almost more upset by this than she had been by the knowledge that Black John was loose somewhere in New Salem. That terror was mind-numbing, too much to deal with rationally. Fear of Portia was more familiar, and Cassie felt herself being sucked toward an old pattern of helplessness. She'd never been able to deal with Portia; she came out of every encounter tongue-tied and humiliated, defeated. Cassie shut her eyes.

I am not like that anymore. I won't be like that, she thought. But dread churned in her stomach.

"We'll deal with her," Adam was beginning bleakly when Doug leaned in, his tilted blue-green eyes sparkling.

"Hey, she's an enemy, right? Black John the Witch Dude said he wanted to help us destroy our enemies, right? So – "

"Don't even think about it," Melanie cut in swiftly. "Don't, Doug. I mean it."

Doug hunched his shoulders, but he looked at his twin sideways under his lashes.

"Bad magic," Chris muttered, staring into the distance.

Cassie looked at Adam.

"Never," Adam said reassuringly. "Don't worry, Cassie. Never."

Cassie was living with Diana now. "Obviously you can't stay in that house alone," Diana had said, and that afternoon she and Laurel and Melanie helped Cassie move her things. Adam and Deborah came too, for protection, pacing around the house restlessly, and most of the other Club members stopped by for one reason or another. Only Faye was conspicuously absent. No one had seen her since she'd disappeared from school.

The house itself wasn't too badly damaged, aside from the strange burned places on the floor and some of the doors. The official story, as decided on by the adults who'd come last night to take Cassie's grandmother's body away, was that there had been a fire and Mrs. Howard had been frightened into a heart attack. The Club hadn't mentioned an intruder, and the police hadn't even cordoned the house off. How the police thought a hardwood floor had caught fire in such a strange pattern, Cassie didn't know. Nobody had asked her and she certainly wasn't going down to the station to volunteer anything.

The house seemed empty and echoing despite the Circle members bustling around it. There was an emptiness inside Cassie, too. She'd never have thought she would miss her grandmother so much – just a stooped old lady with coarse gray hair and a mole on her cheek. But those old eyes had seen a lot, and those knotted hands had been deft and kind. Her grandmother had known things, and she had always made Cassie feel better.

"I wish I had a picture of her," Cassie said softly. "My grandma." Witches didn't like being photographed, so she didn't even have that.

"She was a pretty cool old broad," Deborah said, slinging a tote bag over one shoulder and picking up a cardboard box full of books and CDs. "You want anything else?"

Cassie looked around the room. Yes, everything, she thought. She wanted her four-poster bed with the dusty-rose canopy and hangings, and her damask-upholstered chairs, and her solid mahogany chest that was just the color of Nick's eyes.

"That's bombe, that chest of drawers there," she told Deborah. "It was made here in Massachusetts, the only place in the colonies that produced that style."

"Yeah, I know," Deborah said, unimpressed. "My house is full of it. It weighs a ton and you can't take it. You want the stereo, or what?"

"No, I can use Diana's," Cassie said sadly. She felt as if she were leaving her life behind. I'm only moving down the road, she reminded herself as Deborah left.

"Cassie, if you want to stop by and see your mom this afternoon, it's okay with Great-aunt Constance," Melanie said, appearing in the doorway. "Any time before dinner."

Cassie nodded, feeling something twist in her chest. Her mother. Of course her mom was going to be all right; Melanie's great-aunt was willing to take care of her, and it would be better for her to stay at Melanie's house than to be taken – somewhere else. Say what you mean: an institution, she told herself fiercely. If the doctors saw her they'd want to put her in an institution or a hospital. But she doesn't belong there, and she's going to be just fine. She needs to rest a little, that's all.

"Thanks, Melanie," she said. "I'll come after we finish moving. It's nice of your aunt to take care of her."

"With Great-aunt Constance it's not so much nice; it's duty," Melanie said, turning to go. "Great-aunt Constance believes in doing your duty."

So do I, Cassie thought, pausing as she picked up a bundle of clothes from the bed. So do I. "I just thought of something – I'll be down in a second," she said.

What she'd thought of was the hematite. One-handed, she opened the jewelry box on the dresser – and then stiffened. She stirred through the contents of the box with her fingers, but it was no use.

The piece of hematite was gone.

Panic swelled in Cassie's throat. She'd kept meaning to do something about the stone, but now that it was out of her hands she realized how dangerous she thought it really was.

This time, she told herself, you are not going to keep it a secret and worry and stew about it all by yourself. This time you're going to do what you should have done in the beginning, which is tell Diana.

Cassie went downstairs. Diana and Laurel were in the herb garden, salvaging things Laurel thought might be useful. Cassie squared her shoulders.

"Diana," she said, "I've got something to tell you."

Diana's green eyes widened when Cassie explained about the hematite, how she'd found it, how she'd kept it a secret. No one had known about it except Deborah – and Faye.

"And now it's gone," Cassie said. "I don't think that means anything good."

"No," Diana said slowly. "I'm sure it doesn't. Cassie, don't you see, when you were carrying the hematite, it affected you. It made you do things . . . were you wearing it at the Halloween dance when you tried to make Adam kiss you?"

"I … yes." Cassie could feel the blood rising to her cheeks. "But, Diana – I wish I could say the hematite made me do that, but it didn't. It was just me. I wanted to."

"Maybe, but I'll bet you'd wanted to before and you didn't actually do it. Hematite might not force you to do things against your will, but it makes it easier to give in to things you normally wouldn't."

"Like onyx. Surrender to your shadow-self," Cassie whispered.

"Yes," said Diana.

"It must be one of us who has it; one of the Circle," Cassie said. "Because I put it in the box this morning and nobody else has been by the house today. But which one of us?"

Diana shook her head. Laurel grimaced. "I stick to plants," she said. "They're safer, as long as you respect them and know what you're doing. They don't influence you."

At Diana's suggestion, the three of them searched Cassie's room again. But the hematite was nowhere to be found.

Cassie went to school on Thursday. It was strange to sit in her writing class and see life going on around her as usual. All these people – students counting the days until Thanksgiving vacation, teachers giving their lectures, the vice-principal walking through the halls and looking harried – had no idea what was loose in their community, just waiting to strike again. Of course, Cassie didn't know exactly, either. What form was Black John going to take now? What would he look like when she saw him next? But she knew there was danger.

Faye didn't show up for English. Cassie had to stay after class to explain to Mr. Humphries why she'd been absent for two days. He was sympathetic and told her to take extra time for her next assignment, but it was hard to get away from him. Cassie was already late for algebra when she hurried into the third-floor bathroom. But once in a stall, she heard voices outside that made her freeze and forget the time.

They were carrying on a conversation that had obviously been going for a while.

"And then she was supposed to go back to California," the first voice was saying. Cassie had heard it too many times not to recognize it. Portia. "But that was obviously a lie too, if it's the same Cassie I knew."

"What did you say she looked like?" asked the other voice. A strident, contentious voice. Cassie recognized Sally Waltman.

"Oh, she's just a little nonentity. She's completely average, average height, a little taller than you …"

A throat-clearing sound from Sally.

"Not that you're short, of course. You're –  petite. Anyway, she's got a fairly slim build, and everything about her is just ordinary: ordinary brownish hair, ordinary little face, ordinary clothes – not anything to write home about. Overall, she's unutterably dreary – "

"It's not the same Cassie," Sally interrupted curtly. "This one had every guy at Homecoming dance following her around with his tongue hanging out. Including 11151 boyfriend – and look where it got him. She looks ordinary at first, maybe, but there are all sorts of colors in her hair; it changes depending on the light. I'm serious. And I'm sure it's just an act, but she's the kind that looks all fragile and sweet, the kind guys are just dying to take care of – and then she starts ordering them around. And she gets away with it, probably because she opens those great big eyes and pretends she thinks she's inadequate. The 'Oh, I'm just the girl next door, but I'll do my best' routine – they lap it up."

Cassie opened her mouth indignantly, then closed it again.

"And she's got eyes to kill for," Sally was going on bitterly. "Not the color, so much – they're sort of grayish blue – but they're so big and sincere it's disgusting. They always look like they're full of tears just ready to spill. Drives the guys crazy."

"It is the same girl," Portia said positively.

"Only when I knew her she had the sense not to flaunt herself. She knew her place then."

"Well, right now her place is with the most popular clique in school. They all think they're so wonderful; they think they can do anything. Including kill people."

"Well, not anymore," Portia said with satisfaction. "Things around here are about to change dramatically – for the better. You know, I'm glad my mom decided to move here after the divorce. I thought it would be terrible, but it's all turning out for the best."

Cassie held herself carefully still. So Sally and Portia were joining forces. Now if they would just be so obliging as to describe a little of their plans…

But the sound of running water drowned out the next few sentences, and then she heard Sally say, "I'd better get to calculus. Want to meet for lunch?"

"Yes, and I think you should come over to my house at Thanksgiving vacation," Portia said. "I think you'll like my brothers."

Cassie stood protectively surrounded by the rest of the Circle. It was Saturday and the burial was almost over.

This wasn't the old burying ground, the one which had been "vandalized" (that was the official story) the night her grandmother died. It was the modern cemetery where Kori had been buried. Modern in New Salem terms, that is: the oldest graves were from the 1800s. Cassie wondered why the parents killed by Black John in 1976 hadn't been buried here. Maybe someone had felt the old graveyard was more appropriate.

People were coming up to her, saying how sorry they were, asking about her mother. The official story on her mother was that she was in shock over the death of Cassie's grandmother and too ill to come. Cassie told them her mother was going to be fine.

Faye had showed up, to Cassie's surprise. Her lacy black dress was beautiful, if a little too clinging to be appropriate at a funeral. Her red lips and nails were the only touches of color about her.

"So sorry," a familiar voice said coolly, and Cassie looked up to see Portia. Sally was right behind her; those two seemed joined at the hip these days.

"What a surprise to see you here," Portia added, her hazel eyes fixed on Cassie's. Cassie remembered them; mean as snake's eyes, she thought. They seemed to have a mesmerizing effect, and Cassie felt the crushing sense of helplessness start to descend.

She fought it, and tried to speak, but Portia was going on. "I didn't realize you had family up here. But maybe now that you don't you'll be going back to California . . . ?"

"No, I'm staying." To Cassie's frustration, she couldn't think of anything else to say. She'd come up with a devastatingly witty retort tonight, undoubtedly.

But she wasn't alone in New Salem. Adam said, "Cassie still has family here," and moved to Cassie's side.

"Yeah, we're all brothers. All life is, like, linked," Chris said, coming up on Cassie's other side. He stared at Portia out of his strange blue-green eyes. Doug joined him, grinning his mad grin.

Portia blinked. Cassie had forgotten what the Henderson brothers looked like to people who didn't know them.

But Portia recovered quickly. "That's right –  they say all you people are related. Well, maybe someday soon you'll meet my family." She looked at Adam. "I'm sure they'd enjoy that."

She turned on her heel and walked away.

Cassie and Adam exchanged a glance, but before they could say anything, Mr. Humphries had stepped up.

"It's been a beautiful service," he told Cassie. "We'll all miss your grandmother."

"Thank you," Cassie said. She managed a smile for him; she liked Mr. Humphries, with his neat little salt-and-pepper beard and his sympathetic eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. "It was nice of you to come."

"I hope your mother is feeling better soon," said Mr. Humphries, and then he moved on. Ms. Lanning, Cassie's American-history teacher, came up to talk then, but Cassie's attention lingered on Mr. Humphries. A tall man with dark hair had joined him, and Cassie heard the rumble of a deep voice, followed by Mr. Humphries's lighter, quicker tones.

" – introduce me?" the dark man was saying.

"Why, certainly," Mr. Humphries said. He turned back to Cassie, bringing the dark man with him. "Cassie, I thought you might want to meet our new principal, Mr. Jack Brunswick. He's interested in getting to know his students as soon as possible."

"That's right," the tall man said, in deep, pleasant tones. He reached out and took Cassie's hand in a firm grip. His own hand was large and strong. She glanced down at it as she opened her mouth to say something polite, but then froze, paralyzed, feeling her heart pound like a trip-hammer while the blood drained out of her face.

"I don't think she's feeling well – this must have been a long day – " Ms. Lanning was saying, but her voice seemed to come from a distance. She took hold of Cassie's arm.

But Cassie couldn't let go of the dark man's hand with its strong, well-made fingers. All she could see was the signet ring on his index finger, carved with a symbol that reminded her of the inscriptions on Diana's silver bracelet – Faye's silver bracelet now. The stone in the ring was black and reflective, with a metallic luster. It looked like hematite, but Cassie knew it wasn't. It was a lodestone.

Then, at last, Cassie looked up at the new principal, and she saw the face she'd seen during the skull ceremony in Diana's garage. The face that had rushed at her, faster and faster, bigger and bigger, trying to escape from the crystal skull. A cruel, cold face. For an instant she seemed to see the crystal skull itself superimposed on the principal's face, its bone structure clearly visible. The hollow eyes, the grinning teeth –

Cassie swayed on her feet. Ms. Lanning was trying to support her; she could hear Adam's alarmed voice, and Diana's. But she could see nothing except the darkness of the new principal's eyes. They were like glassy volcanic rock, like the ocean at midnight, like magnetite. They were swallowing her up. . . .

Cassie. The voice was in her mind.

Rushing blackness surrounded her and she fell.

Darkness. She was on a ship – no, she wasn't. She was fighting, struggling in icy water. Cassie clawed out, trying to get to the surface. She couldn't see –

"Take it easy! You're safe. Cassie, it's all right."

A wet cloth fell away from Cassie's eyes. She was in Diana's living room, lying on the couch. It was dim because the curtains were drawn and the lamps were off. Diana was leaning over her, and the long, silvery cascade of Diana's hair was falling down like a shield between Cassie and the world.

"Diana!" She clung to the other girl's hand.

"It's all right. You're okay. You're okay."

Cassie let out her breath, leaning back against the couch, her eyes meeting Diana's.

"Jack Brunswick is Black John." It was a flat statement.

"I know," Diana said grimly. "After you went down we all saw the ring. I don't think he expected us to recognize him so fast."

"What happened? What did he do?" Cassie was envisioning chaos at the cemetery.

"Not much. He left as we were carrying you to my car. Adam and Deborah went after him, but they weren't obvious about it. They're going to try to follow him. Nobody else – none of the adults – realized anything was wrong. They just figured you were exhausted. Mr. Humphries said maybe you'd better take some time off from school."

"Maybe we'd all better," Cassie whispered. Her head was spinning. Black John in charge of the school. What in the name of God was he planning?

"You said Adam went after him?" she asked, and Diana nodded. Cassie felt a pang of anxiety – and frustration. She wanted Adam here, so she could talk to him. She needed him….

"Hey, everything okay in there?" Chris and Doug were hanging in the doorway, as if it were a lady's boudoir that they weren't allowed inside of.

"She's all right," Diana said.

"You sure, Cassie?" Chris asked, venturing a few steps in. Cassie nodded wanly, then suddenly thought of Sally's words in the bathroom. She's the kind guys are just dying to take care of. That certainly wasn't true . . . was it? Sally had warped everything; she'd had it all wrong.

"Come on, you two, there's double-fudge cake in the kitchen," Diana said to the brothers. "Everybody in the neighborhood's been dropping food off, and we need help eating it." Cassie thought it was strange that Diana was leaving her, then she saw that Chris and Doug hadn't been alone.

Nick was standing in the hallway outside the living room. When Diana ushered the Henderson brothers out, he came in, walking slowly.

"Uh … hi, Nick," Cassie said.

He gave her an odd, fleeting smile and sat on the arm of the couch. His customary mask of stone was gone today. In the dim room, Cassie thought he looked a little tired, a little sad, but maybe that was only her imagination.

"How're you doing?" he said. "You had us scared for a minute there."

Nick, scared? Cassie didn't believe it. "I'm fine, now," she said, and then she tried to think of something else to say. It was the same as it had been with Portia: when she really needed it, her mind wouldn't work.

The silence stretched out. Nick was looking at the scrolls and flowers on the upholstery of the couch. "Cassie," he said finally, "I've been meaning to talk to you."

"Oh, have you," Cassie said faintly. She felt very strange; hot and embarrassed and at the same time weak. She didn't want Nick to go on – but some part of her did.

"I realize this isn't exactly the perfect moment," he said ironically, transferring his gaze to the wallpaper. "But the way things are going we may all be dead before the perfect moment comes." Cassie opened her mouth, but no sound came out, and Nick was going on, relentlessly, inevitably, his voice low but perfectly audible. "I know you and Conant were pretty attached to each other," he said. "And I know you thought a lot of him. I realize I'm hardly the perfect substitute – but like I said, the way things are going maybe it's stupid to wait for perfection." Suddenly he was looking directly at her and Cassie saw something in his mahogany eyes she'd never seen before. "So, Cassie, what do you think about it?" Nick said. "About you and me?"

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