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The Power (Chapter Fourteen)

"So you have to go now," Cassie said, trying to get her breath, speaking not only to Sally but to everyone in the cafeteria. "Forget school, forget everything. Leave. Get out if you can, and if you can't – well, do whatever you can to protect yourselves." She stopped. "Look, it's true. Sally, tell them."

The rusty-haired girl had been staring at Cassie, eyes wary, poised on her chair as if to bolt from this social pariah. Now she stared at Cassie another moment, then nodded once, as if to herself. Taking a deep breath, she stood.

"Okay, you heard it," she said in clear, strident tones that carried through the room. "We're going to have a hurricane. Everybody tell somebody, and tell them to tell somebody else. Come on, get moving."

A boy stood up. "I saw on TV last night that the storm isn't coming anywhere near us. How does she know – "

"She's a witch, isn't she?" Sally yelled back in her raucous voice. "You telling me witches don't know these things? They know more about nature than you ever will! Now come on!"

"Sally, have you lost your mind?" The thin angry voice came from the door of the back room, where Portia was standing in front of a group of students with badges, her face chalky with fury. "You're a hall monitor – " "Not anymore! I said move, you guys!" "This is completely against regulations! I'm going to tell Mr. Brunswick – "

"You do that, cupcake," Sally shouted back. "I/ you can find him! Now for the last time, people, get moving! Who are you going to listen to, her or me?"

The hall monitors behind Portia hesitated for an instant, then, as a group, they surged forward to obey Sally. Portia stumbled back as they pushed around her, leaving her the sole inhabitant of the room. Cassie's last glimpse of her showed her standing there, rigid, furious, and utterly alone.

Sally began to shout more instructions to the cafeteria workers, and Cassie turned to go. But as Cassie reached the door, each of the girls paused a moment, and looked back at the other across the room.

"You going to be okay?" Sally said. Cassie knew the "you" didn't just mean Cassie. It meant the whole Circle.

"Yes."

"Okay. Good luck."

"You too. Good-bye, Sally."

It wasn't much of a brilliant cultural exchange, Cassie thought, running toward the parking lot to meet Diana. But it was a truce, witch with outsider. More than a truce.

And now, she thought, I've got to put them out of my mind – all the outsiders. Sally will take care of her people; we have to take care of ours.

It was raining hard now, and it seemed to get worse as she and Diana drove toward Crow-haven Road. Gusts of wind swayed Diana's car as they pulled into Adam's driveway.

Right behind them, Adam's jeep was pulling in. "They've got Sean," Cassie said, twisting to look. She and Diana hurried to help.

Nick and Doug were holding the smaller boy in the backseat. They marched him to the door the way Portia's brothers had marched Cassie. It seemed a little incongruous; Sean was so small – but then Cassie looked into those shiny, darting black eyes.

"You'd better get the hematite off him quick," she said.

Nick pulled Sean's sweater up – and there it was, the engraved belt Cassie had seen that first week of school. Adam unbuckled it and threw it on the floor, where it lay like a dead snake. "Where's the other piece?" he asked Sean roughly.

Sean just fought to get free, panting, his eyes wild. It took all three of the guys to hold him, and if Chris, Deborah, and Laurel hadn't arrived at that moment, he might actually have gotten away. Working together, the boys and Deborah managed to strip off his sweater and shirt. Underneath, where the other members of the Circle had been wearing amethysts, Sean was wearing a small leather pouch. Adam shook it gingerly and Cassie's piece of hematite fell out.

"Thief!" Deborah said, shaking a fist in Sean's face. Sean stared at her blankly, still panting, terrified.

"He probably didn't even know he had it," Melanie intervened. "He's been under Black John's influence from the beginning. Somebody take that hematite out and bury it. Laurel, is the herbal bath ready?"

"Ready!" came Laurel's shout from the downstairs bathroom, over the sound of running water. "Get him in here."

The Circle had been planning this purification ritual ever since they'd found out about Sean, and everyone knew his or her part. The boys dragged Sean into the bathroom while Laurel stood just outside the door. "I don't care if his clothes are off or on," Cassie heard her calling. "Just get him in the tub."

Deborah scooped up the hematite in a dustpan and went to bury it, and Diana rapidly completed an herbal charm she took from her backpack. She charged the canvas pouch of herbs with Earth, Water, Air, and Fire by sprinkling salt on it, flicking water from a glass on it, breathing on it, and passing it over a lit candle which had been sitting ready on the coffee table.

"Okay, it's done," she said. "Melanie, what about you?" Melanie looked up from laying a ring of white stones on the floor. "I'm done too. By the time we're finished with Sean, he'll be so pure we won't know him anymore."

Cassie wanted to look something up in her Book of Shadows, but there was another priority first.

"We have to warn the parents around here," she said, "the ones who're at home, who don't . work. Is somebody doing that?"

"I'll go to my house," Chris said. "Both of my parents are home."

"My mom works," Deborah said. "That just leaves Faye's mom," said Diana. "I'll go tell her," Suzan offered, surprising Cassie. "She knows me, she might take it best from me."

"And the crones," Cassie said. "I mean," she amended quickly, "Adam's grandmother and Granny Quincey and Aunt Constance."

"They're at my house; they came over this morning," Melanie said. "Something to do with your mom, I think, Cassie. But I can't leave this circle." "I'll go," Cassie said.

Diana flashed a smile at her. "I think crones is a good name for them," she said. "It's what they are, and I think Granny Quincey, anyway, would be proud to be crone to our coven."

So would my grandma, I bet, Cassie thought, and she plunged outside again.

There was a strange smell out here, a smell like low tide, like crawling and decaying things. Cassie ran to the edge of the cliff, taking the back route along the bluff to Melanie's house, and she saw that the ocean was dark and wild. The water was neither blue nor green nor gray, but a sludgy, oily color that seemed to be a mixture of all three. Specks of foam were flying on the wind, and there was white froth everywhere.

Above, the clouds took on fantastic shapes, boiling and changing as if molded by unseen hands. The rain drove into Cassie's face. It was a savage and awe-inspiring scene.

No one answered her knock at the door of Number Four. Cassie wasn't sure anybody inside could hear it over the wind and rain. "Aunt Constance?" she shouted, opening the door and peering inside. "Hello?"

She started toward the room that had been given to her mother, and then stopped, turned back guiltily, and wiped her sandy, muddy Reeboks on the mat. Even so, she dripped water on the spotless, mirror-polished hardwood floor as she hurried to the bedroom. The door was barely ajar, and a strange brightness flickered inside.

"Hello? … Oh, my God!" Cassie poked her head around the door and froze. The room was lit entirely by dozens of white candles. Around the bed were three figures, three women whose appearance was so strange and fantastic that for a moment Cassie didn't recognize them.

One was tall and thin, another was short and plump, and the third was tiny and doll-like. They all had long hair: the tall one's was black and thick, longer than Diana's, the plump one's was silvery-gray and untidy, waving down past her shoulders, and the tiny one's was gauzy and white like floating wisps of seafoam. And they were naked.

Cassie's eyes were popping. "Great-aunt Constance?" she gasped to the one with long black hair.

"Who did you expect?" Melanie's aunt said sharply, her meticulously tweezed eyebrows drawing together. "Lady Godiva? Now go away, child, we're busy."

"Don't be unkind to her," said the plump woman, whom Cassie was now able to identify as Adam's grandmother. She smiled at Cassie, entirely unself-conscious.

"We're trying something to help your mother, dear," the tiny figure, Laurel's Granny Quincey, added. "It's a sky-clad ritual, you see; that's why we're naked. Constance had her doubts, but we convinced her."

"And we need to get on with it," Great-aunt Constance said, gesturing with the wooden cup she was holding. Granny Quincey was holding a bunch of herbs, and Adam's grandmother, a silver bell. Cassie looked at the bed, where her mother lay as motionless as ever. Something about the light in the room made that sleeping face look different, just as it made the three women look different.

"But there's a hurricane coming," Cassie said. "That's why I'm here; I came to warn you."

The women exchanged glances. "Well, if there is, there's no help for it," Adam's grandmother sighed.

"But – "

"Your mother can't be moved, dear," Granny Quincey said firmly. "So you go along and do what you have to, and we'll try to protect her here."

"We're going to fight Black John," Cassie said. The simple statement seemed to hang in the air after she'd said it, and the three old women looked at each other again.

Great-aunt Constance opened her mouth, frowning, but Granny Quincey interrupted her. "There's no one else to do it, Constance. They have to fight."

"Then be careful. You tell Melanie – and all of them – to be careful," Aunt Constance said.

"And you stick together. As long as you stick together you'll have a chance," said Adam's grandmother.

And that was that. The women turned back to the bed. Cassie stood for one more moment looking at the candles – so white, with their flames even whiter, a golden white like Diana's hair – and at the myriad ghostly shadows on the ceiling and walls. Then she left. As she quietly shut the door, all the candle flames danced wildly, and she had a last glimpse of the three women in the room, arms raised, beginning a kind of dance too. The silver bell chimed softly.

She hadn't noticed the wind inside the room, but now she did. Everything outside that door seemed colder and noisier, and the dim light coming in through the windows looked gray and wintry. Cassie had an impulse to go back into the golden room and hide there, but she knew she couldn't.

She walked back to Adam's house, Number Nine, with the wind pushing her all the way.

She was the last one back. The Circle was in Adam's living room, sitting around Sean, who was sitting within the circle of quartz crystals. Sean's face was very pink and scrubbed-looking, his hair was wet and spiky, and he was wearing clothes too big for him. Adam's, Cassie guessed. Around his neck was the canvas pouch full of herbs Diana had prepared. He looked dazed and terrified, but he didn't seem to be trying to get away.

"Were they there? Did you find them?" Diana asked Cassie.

Cassie nodded. She didn't quite want to tell Diana how she had found them. She didn't know how Melanie and Adam and Laurel would feel about their elderly relatives dancing naked around a sickroom. They might think there was something wrong with it; they might not understand about the golden light.

"They said they'd stay where they were," she said. "Granny Quincey said my mom couldn't be moved, and that they were trying to help her. They said we should be careful, and Adam's grandmother told us to stick together."

"Good advice," Adam said, looking at Sean. "And that's just about the point we've gotten to, here. Are we going to stick together or not?"

"We tried asking him about the murders," Laurel informed Cassie in a low voice, "but he doesn't remember anything – doesn't know what we're talking about. We had to convince him that it wasn't a joke. He believes us now, but he's scared to death."

"So here's the choice, Sean," Adam was saying. "You can stand with us, or you can spend the rest of the day locked in the cellar where you can't make trouble."

"Or," Diana said softly, "you can go to him, to Black John. It's his right," she added quickly, as some of the others began to protest. "He has to make the decision."

Sean's frightened eyes roved all around the room. Cassie felt sorry for him, sitting surrounded, with everyone looking at him. When he spoke, his voice was squeaky but definitive. "I'll stand with you guys."

"Good boy," Laurel said approvingly, and Deborah thumped him on the back so hard he nearly fell over. The Hendersons said nothing, simply looked at him out of their strange blue-green eyes, and Cassie had the feeling they might never forgive him for what had happened to Kori, even if it hadn't been his fault. But at least for now, the Circle stood together.

Except…

Cassie looked at Adam, and they both looked at Diana. Diana nodded.

"Now's the time," she said. "This is Faye's last chance – let's hope she takes it."

Cassie didn't have much hope, but she picked up the cordless phone lying on a pile of unfolded laundry on the couch. "What's her beeper number?"

Diana unfolded a scrap of paper and read it off. "After it rings, press pound and then dial Adam's number," she instructed.

Cassie did and turned off the phone. She waited. Nothing happened.

"We should give her a while to get to a phone," Diana said.

They all waited. Rain beat at the windows, and the wind howled in the chimney.

"Isn't there anything we should do? Like – I don't know, nail boards over the windows or something?" Cassie asked.

"Normally, yeah. We'd put up storm shutters, lash everything down, all that stuff," Adam said. "But if this one hits us, I think we're history, so there's not much point."

They waited.

"Try her again," Diana said, and Cassie did.

"Her mom hadn't seen her since this morning," Suzan said. "I wonder where she and Black John are?"

Cassie wondered too. Wherever they were, Faye wasn't answering her beeper.

"I think," Cassie said at last, "that we're out one coven leader. And – well, I wanted to look this up in my Book of Shadows first, but Melanie, doesn't it say somewhere that in an emergency you can elect a new leader?"

Melanie smiled faintly, then nodded, as if she knew what Cassie had in mind. "In a crisis," she said. "If the remaining coven all agrees, a new leader can be elected."

There was a shifting around the Circle, people straightening up and looking interested. "Oh," said Laurel, "that's a good idea."

"Especially since we've got the Master Tools," Adam said.

"Let's do it," said Deborah.

Cassie was excited. She'd taken an oath while watching Faye draw that circle at the crossroads, and now she was going to see her oath fulfilled. She'd promised that Faye wouldn't be leader forever, and in a few minutes Faye wouldn't be.

She opened her mouth joyfully to say, "I nominate Diana," but before she could speak she heard Diana's voice.

"I nominate Cassie," Diana said clearly.

Cassie simply stared at her, amazed. When she got her breath back she said, "You're joking."

"No," Diana said. Then she turned, speaking to the rest of the Circle, speaking formally. "Cassie," she said, "has shown the most power of any of us, including Faye. She can call on the elements – we've seen her call on Fire. She can communicate over long distances. She's had true dreams, and she was the one who led us to the Master Tools. Her grandmother told her that her family has always had the clearest sight and the most power. And she's strong, stronger than I am for this kind of fight. I nominate Cassie."

Cassie was stunned, but the others were nodding.

"She's pretty tough," Deborah said, "even if she doesn't look like it."

"She got that dog off me," said Chris, sticking out his foot and examining it.

"She's smart, too," said Laurel proudly. Aside from Diana, Laurel had been Cassie's first friend in the Circle. "She thinks of things most people wouldn't think of."

"She has ideas," Suzan agreed, nodding her strawberry-blond head sagely.

"I like her," Sean ventured hesitantly, from his place in the ring of white stones. "She's nice to me."

"She's a natural," Doug said, grinning his wild grin.

Nick just said, "Yes."

Cassie realized they were serious. "I'm also Black John's …" She stopped and tried again. "The fact that Black John is my …" She still couldn't say the word.

"I think that may actually work for us," Melanie said, looking at Cassie with thoughtful gray eyes. "If he doesn't really want to hurt you it might handicap him – a little."

Everyone was still nodding. Cassie swallowed and gazed around the Circle. It didn't seem to have occurred to anyone that she might just be too scared to do it, to lead the fight against Black John. In her own heart, she knew she didn't want to face him again – that she wasn't ready. She didn't know if she'd ever be ready.

But they were all looking at her: Diana with earnest faith; Deborah and the Hendersons with innocent confidence. Even Nick and Melanie were nodding, urging her.

Cassie looked at Adam.

His blue-gray eyes were something like the ocean outside – murky and full of turmoil. "You can do it," he said tersely, answering her unspoken question. "And I think it's best for the coven. I don't know if it's best for you."

Cassie let out her breath.

They believed in her. She couldn't let them down.

"If everybody agrees," she said, scarcely knowing her own voice.

"We'll do it the easy way," Melanie said. "All in favor of Cassie as leader, raise your hand."

Every hand was raised.

Diana jumped up. "I'll get the things," she said. She and Adam headed for the cellar and returned a few minutes later with the brass and leather document box. Everyone leaned forward to look as she opened it, and there was a soft hiss of amazement around the Circle.

"They're beautiful," Suzan said, touching the silver diadem with one perfectly manicured nail.

"Yes," said Diana, unzipping her backpack. "Here, Cassie, put this on." It was the white shift Diana wore at meetings.

Cassie felt heat stealing into her face. She couldn't wear that. She would look . . .

"Don't worry, you won't be cold," Diana said, and smiled.

"But – you're taller than me. It'll be too long-"

"I hemmed it," Diana said. And then, in the silence that followed, she said gently, "Take it, Cassie."

Slowly, Cassie took it. She went into the bathroom, still slightly steamy now, where the boys had washed Sean, and she put on the raw-silk shift. It fit perfectly.

Diana had this planned, she realized.

She was embarrassed to walk back out, but she told herself this was no time to be worried about how much skin she was showing. Chris and Doug whistled as she rejoined the group.

"Shut up, this is serious," Laurel said.

"She might as well stand here, in the circle of white stones," Melanie said. "Get out, Sean."

Sean, looking relieved, stepped out. Cassie stepped in.

Silence fell.

"I adjure thee to work for the good of the Circle, to harm none, to be faithful to all. By Water, by Fire, by Earth, and by Air, lead us peacefully and with good will," Diana said. Cassie realized she was getting the part of the ceremony that Faye had missed when Faye had become leader.

"Look – this is only temporary, isn't it – ?" she began.

"Sh," said Laurel, kneeling. Cassie felt something soft being fastened just above her right knee. She looked down to see Laurel buckling the green leather garter.

Coolness encircled Cassie's upper arm, and she turned to see Melanie clasping the silver bracelet there. It was surprisingly heavy; Cassie knew she'd feel the weight whenever she moved that arm.

"Look at me," Diana said. Cassie did. Between her two hands Diana was holding the diadem of delicate twisted silver, with the crescent moon on top. Cassie felt it settle into her hair, lightly but firmly. And then, all over her body, from the silver of the garter buckles, to the silver of the bracelet, to the circlet touching her forehead, Cassie felt a rush of tingling warmth. An – aliveness.

These are the real tools; not just symbols, she thought. They have power of their own.

In that moment, she knew she could direct their power. It was part of her, suffusing her with strength. She was a witch, from a line of powerful witches, and she was leader of this Circle.

"All right," she said, stepping out of the ring of stones and going over to take her Book of Shadows from her backpack. She was no longer worried about how she looked; she knew she looked good. That didn't matter. They had a little time ahead of them, and she wanted to use it to their advantage.

"All right, look; while we're waiting I think we should go through our Books of Shadows –  my grandmother told me to study mine, and it's better than doing nothing," she said. "We can take turns reading out loud until it gets dark –  he won't move until then."

"Are you sure?" Melanie said.

"Yes." Cassie didn't know how she knew, but she knew. Her grandmother had called it the Sight, but to Cassie it was more like a voice –

an inner voice, a voice at her core. By now, she knew enough to listen to it.

Nobody argued. Those who had them reached for Books of Shadows. Outside, the wind wailed dismally.

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