Spellbinder (Chapter 8)

A sharp, acrid odor assaulted her nostrils. She had to blink away tears as she held the bottle over the fire and very carefully tipped it.

One drop, two drops, three.

The fire flared, burning blue.

It was ready. The balefire that was the only way to get a spirit from the other side-apart from crossing the veil and fetching it back yourself.

Thea took Phoebe's amulet in both hands and snapped it, cracking the clay and breaking the seal. Then, holding the broken amulet over the fire, she said the words of power she'd heard the elders speaking last Samhain.

"May I be given the Power of the Words of Hecate."

Instantly, she found words coming to her, rolling off her tongue. She heard them as if it were somebody else talking.

From beyond the veil… I call you back! Through the mist of years… I call you back! From the airy void… I call you back! Through the narrow path… I call you back! To the heart of the flame… I call you back! Come speedily, conveniently, and without delay!

She felt a rumbling vibration like an earthquake rock the floor. Above the ordinary fire different flames seemed to burn; cold, ghostly flames that were pale blue and violet and rose to lick at her knuckles.

She started to open her hands, to let the amulet fall into the magical flame. But just as she was about to do it, there was a bang.

The door to her bedroom swung open, and for the second time in twelve hours she found herself horrified to see Blaise.

"The whole place is shaking-what are you doing?"

"Blaise-just stay back!"

Blaise stared. Her jaw dropped and she lunged forward. "What are you doing?"

"It's almost finished-"

"You're crazy!" Blaise grabbed at the amulet in Thea's hands, and then, when Thea snatched her hands back, at the silver box.

"Leave it alone!" Thea grabbed the other side of the box. They were struggling with it, each trying to pull it from the other. Fire scorched Thea's hands.

"Let go!" Blaise shouted, trying to twist the box away. "I'm warning you-"

Thea's fingers were damp with sweat. The box slipped.

That was when it happened.

The silver box flipped in Blaise's hands, sending a spray of amulets everywhere. Locks of gray hair, black hair, red hair, all flying. Most of them hit the floor-but one landed directly in the balefire.

Thea heard a crack as the clay seal broke.

For one second she was frozen, then she plunged her hand into the fire. But the clay was already burning-not red hot, but white hot. She couldn't close her fingers around it. For just an instant she seemed to see a symbol etched in blue flames, and then a flash like sheet lightning exploded from the fire. It knocked her into Blaise's bed and Blaise into the wall.

The lightning formed a column and something shot out.

Thea didn't so much see it as sense it. A wraith shape that tore around the room like a blast of arctic wind. It sent books and articles of clothing flying. When it reached the window, it seemed to pause for an instant, as if gathering itself, and then it shot through as if the glass didn't exist.

It was gone.

"Great Mother of life," Blaise whispered from against the wall. She was staring at the window with huge luminous eyes-and she was scared. Blaise was scared.

That was when Thea realized how bad things were.

"What have we done?" she whispered.

"What have we done-what have you done, that's the question," Blaise snapped, sitting up and looking more like her ordinary self. "What was that thing?"

Defensively, Thea gestured at the scattered amulets. "What do you think? A witch."                        ,

"But who?"

"How should I know?" Thea almost yelled, fear giving way to anger. "This is the one I was going to call back." She snatched up the "auburn hair and cracked amulet of Phoebe Garner. "That one was just whichever one fell out when you grabbed the box."

"Don't try to make this my fault. You're the one doing forbidden spells. You're the one summoning ancestors. And whatever happens with that one"- Blaise pointed at the window-"you're the one responsible."

She got up and shook out her hair, standing tall. "And that's what you get for trying to sic the spirits on me!" She turned and stalked out the door.

"I wasn't trying to sic the spirits on you!" Thea shouted-but the door had already slammed shut.

Thea's anger collapsed. Feeling numb, she looked at the overturned silver box, where she had temporarily stored the tissue with Eric's blood.

I was just trying to find a protector for him. Somebody who'd help him fend off your spells, who'd understand that he's a person even though he's a human.

She looked forlornly around the room. Then, feeling older than Gran, she struggled to her feet and started mechanically cleaning up the mess.

When she dumped the ashes out of the bowl she found some sort of residue sticking to the bottom. She couldn't wash it off and she couldn't pry it off

with a steak knife. She stashed the entire bowl under her bed.

All the while she cleaned, her mind kept churning.

Who got out? No way to know. Process of elimination wouldn't help, not with all those unmarked amulets.

What to do now? She didn't know that either.

If I tell anyone-even Gran-they'll want to know why I was trying to summon the dead. But if they find out the truth, it means death for me and Eric.

Around sunset, a limousine pulled up in the back alley. Thea saw it from her window and rushed downstairs in alarm.

Grandma was being helped out of the car by two politely expressionless vampires. Servants of Thierry's.

"Gran, what happened?"

"Nothing happened. I had a little weak spell, that's all!" She whacked at one of the vampires with her cane. "I can help myself, son!"

"Ma'am," said the vampire-who might have been three or four times Grandma's age. To Thea, he said, "Your grandmother fainted-she was pretty sick there for a while."

"And that good-for-nothing apprentice of mine never showed up," Gran said, making her way to the back door.

Thea nodded good-bye to the vampires. "Gran-it was my fault about Tobias. I let him have the day off." Her stomach, which had been clenched like a fist all day, seemed to draw even tighter now. "Are you really sick?"

"I'm good for a few years yet." She began laboriously working her way up the stairs. "Vampires just don't understand old age."

"What did you go there for?"

Gran stopped to cough. "None of your business, but I had to settle some arrangements with Thierry. He's agreed to let the Inner Circle use his land on Samhain."

Upstairs, Thea made some herb tea in the tiny kitchenette. And then, when Gran was in bed with the tea, she gathered her courage.

"Gran, when the elders call up the spirits on Samhain-how do they send them back?"

"Why should you want to know?" Gran said crossly. But when Thea just looked at her, she went on. "There are certain spells that are used for summoning-and don't you ask me what they are-and you say those backwards to send them back. The witch who calls a spirit has to be the one to dismiss it."

So only I can do it. "And that's all?" Thea asked.

"Oh, of course not. It's a long process of kindling the fire and strewing the herbs-but if you do it all right, you can draw the spirit down from between the standing stones and send it back where it came from." Grandma went on muttering, but Thea had snagged on a earlier phrase.

"From between-the standing stones… ?" she got out.

"The standing stones that encircle the spirits. Well, think, Thea! If you didn't have a circle of some kind to hold them in, they'd just-voom." Gran made a gesture. "They'd zip out and how would you ever find them again? That's why I went to Thierry today/' she added, taking a noisy sip of tea. "We need a place where the sandstone forms a natural circle… and naturally it's up to me to arrange everything…." She went on grumbling softly.

Thea felt faint.

"You have to be-physically close to them-to send them back?"

"Of course. You have to be within spitting distance, And don't think I don't know why you're asking."

Thea stopped breathing.

"You're planning something for Samhain- and it's probably all Blaise's idea. You two are like Maya and Hellewise. But you can forget about it right now- those spells are for the elders, not for girls." She stopped to cough. "I don't understand why you want to be crones before you're done being maidens. You ought to enjoy your youth while you have it…."

Thea left her still grumbling.

She hadn't cast any kind of a circle before calling the spirit. She hadn't realized she was supposed to.

And now… how could she ever get close enough to the spirit to send it back?

Well-it'll just have to stay out in the world, she told herself bravely. Too bad… but it's not as if there aren't other spirits floating around out there. Maybe if it doesn't like roaming around, it'll come back.

But she was sick with guilt and disheartened. Not to mention worried-if only a little-about Gran's fainting spell.

Blaise didn't come to bed. She stayed downstairs and worked on her necklace long into the night.

On Monday, everyone at school was talking about Randy Marik and the ruined dance. The girls were annoyed about it and furious with Blaise; the boys were annoyed and furious with Randy.

"Are you okay?" Dani asked Thea after world lit class. "You look kind of pale."

Thea smiled wanly. "It was a busy weekend."

"Really? Did you do something with Eric?" The way she said "do something" alerted Thea. Dani's heart-shaped face looked as sweet and concerned as ever… but Thea couldn't trust even her. She was a Night Person, a witch, a human-hater.

It didn't matter. Thea was so edgy that the words just seemed to burst out. "Do something like what? Smash his car? Turn him into a toad?"

Dani looked shocked, her velvet-dark eyes wide.

Thea turned and walked quickly away.

Stupid, stupid, she told herself. That was so dumb of you. You may not have to pretend to be playing with Eric in front of Blaise anymore-but in front of the other witches you've got to keep acting.

She headed almost blindly for Eric's locker, ignoring the people she passed.

I've only been here a week. How can everything in my life have become so awful? I'm at war with Blaise; I've worked a forbidden spell; I don't dare talk to Gran-and I've broken Night World law.

"Thea! I was looking for you."

It was Eric's voice. Warm, eager-everything that

Thea wasn't. She turned to see green eyes flecked with dancing gray and an astonishing smile. A smile that drew her in, changing the world.

Maybe everything was going to be all right, after all.

"I called you yesterday, but I just kept getting the machine."

Thea hadn't even looked at the answering machine. "I'm sorry-there was a lot going on." Eric looked so kind that she groped for something that had been going on that she could tell him about. "My grandmother's been sick." He sobered at once. "That's terrible." "Yes." Thea fished in her backpack for the small herb pillow she'd put there this morning. Then she hesitated. "Eric… is there somewhere we could go to talk alone? Just for a few minutes? I want to give you something."

He blinked, then waggled his eyebrows. "Nothing I'd like better. And I know just the place. Come on." He led her across campus to a large building that stood apart from the rest of the complex. It had a shabby look and the paint on the double doors was blistered. A banner announced in orange and black letters: don't miss the .ultimate Halloween party. "What is this?"

Eric, who was opening the door, put a finger to his lips. He glanced inside, then beckoned to her.

"It's the old gym. They're supposed to be renovating it as a student center, but there isn't enough money."   He   snorted.   "Probably   because   they're

spending too much on renovating downtown. Now- what was it you wanted to give me?"

"It…" Thea stopped dead as she took in her surroundings. All thoughts of the herb pillow vanished. "Eric-…" She stared around her, feeling a slow wave of sickness roil through her stomach. "Is this… for the Halloween party?".

"Yeah. They do a couple fund-raisers a semester here. This is kind of a weird one-but they did it last year and it brought in a lot."

Not weird, Thea thought numbly. Weird doesn't begin to describe it.

Half the room was empty, just scuffed hardwood floor, a broken basketball backboard, and exposed pipes in the ceiling. But the other half looked like a cross between a medieval dungeon and a casino. She walked slowly toward it, her footsteps echoing.

Wooden booths of various sizes were decorated with orange and black crepe paper and fake spider webs. Thea read one banner after another.

"Fortune telling… Drench a Wench… Bobbing for Shrunken Heads?"

"It's bobbing for apples really," Eric said, seeming embarrassed. "And the gambling isn't real. You do it all with goblin money and exchange it for prizes."

Thea couldn't stop looking at the booths. Wheel of Torture: a money wheel with a dummy dressed like a witch spreadeagled in the middle. Bloody Blackjack. Devil's Darts… a dart game with a cork witch as a target.

And there were witch figures everywhere. Cloth witches on nooses hanging from the overhead pipes.

Cardboard witches leering from the tops of booths. Paper witches dancing on the wall. They were fat, skinny, white-haired, gray-haired, cross-eyed, squint-eyed, warty, funny, scary… and ugly. That was the one thing they all had in common.

That's what they think of us. Humans. All humans…

"Thea? Are you okay?"

Thea whirled. "No, I am not okay." She gestured around the room. "Will you look at this stuff? Do you really think it's funny? Something to party about?" Hardly aware of what she was doing, she spun him around to face The Iron Maiden-a wooden replica with rubber spikes.

"What are people going to do? Pay to step into that? Don't they realize that it used to be real? That real people were put in it, and that when the door closed, those spikes went into them, into their arms and their stomachs and their eyes…" She couldn't go on.

Eric looked as stricken as Dani had earlier. He'd never seen her like this. "Thea-look, I'm sorry… I never thought…"

"Or that." Thea gestured toward the Wheel of Torture, the words tumbling out. "Do you know how they really put a witch on the wheel? They broke every bone in her body so they could just thread her arms and legs through the spokes like spaghetti. Then they put the wheel on a pole and left her up there to die…."

Eric's face contracted with horror. "God, Thea…"

"And these pictures–the witches who got tortured didn't have green skin and evil eyes. They weren't monsters, and they didn't have anything to do with devils. They were people."

Eric reached out for her, but she spun away, staring at a particularly ugly hag on the wall. "Do you think this place is all right for a party? That this is good fun? That witches look like that?" She flung out an arm, close to being hysterical. "Well, do you?"

In her mind's eye she could see the world: Dani and Blaise and all other witches on the left; Eric and the students here and all other humans on the right, both races hating and despising each other-and herself somewhere in the middle.

Eric caught her shoulders. "No, I don't think it's all right. Thea, will you just listen to me for a second?"

He was almost shaking her-but she could see that there were tears forming at the corners of his eyes.

"I feel awful," he said. "I never thought about taking this stuff seriously-and that's my own stupid fault, and I know it's not an excuse. But now that you say it, I do see how terrible it is, and I'm sorry. And I never should have brought you here, of all people…"

Thea, who had been starting to relax, stiffened again. "Why me 'of all people'?" she demanded.

He hesitated a moment, then met her eyes and spoke quietly. "Because of your grandma's store. I mean, I know it's just herbs and positive thinking- but I also, know that in the old days, there would have been somebody out there pointing a finger and calling her a witch."

Thea relaxed again. It was okay for people to think

Gran was a witch-if by "witch" they meant someone who talked to plants and mixed up homemade hair tonic. And she couldn't disbelieve Eric, not under the intensity of those steady green eyes. But she saw an opportunity and seized it. "Yeah, and they'd probably have burned me for giving you this present," she said, opening her hand. "And you'd probably have been scared or superstitious if I asked you to keep it with you all the time: you'd think I was putting some kind of a spell on you-"

"I wouldn't think anything," he said firmly, taking the little green pillow from her. It smelled like fresh New Hampshire pine needles, which was what was in it-mainly. She'd also added a few protective herbs and an Ishtar crystal, a golden beryl in a star cut with thirty-three facets, carved with the name of the Babylonian mother goddess. The charm was the best she could do to help him fend off Blaise's spells.

"I would just kiss it and put it my pocket and never let it out of my sight," Eric went on. And he did, stopping after the kiss to say, "Mm, smells good."

Thea couldn't help smiling at him. She chanced saying, "Actually, it's just to remind you of me."

"It will never leave my pocket," he said solemnly.

Well, that worked out nicely.

"Look, there's probably something we can do about this place," Eric said, glancing around again. "The school board doesn't want any bad publicity. Why don't I run and borrow a camera from the journalism class, and we can take some pictures so people will see what we mean when we complain?"

Thea glanced at her watch. "Why not? I think I've already missed French."

He grinned. "Back in a minute."

When he was gone, Thea wandered slowly among the silent booths, lost in her own thoughts.

For a few minutes there, when I was ranting, I almost told him the truth. And then later I thought maybe he'd figured it all out for himself.

And would that be so terrible? He's already under sentence of death just because I love him; it doesn't matter if he knows or not.

But if he did know… what would he say? Witches may be okay in the abstract-but does he really want one for a girlfriend?

The only way to find out was to tell him.

She leaned against a ladder and gazed sightlessly at an oilcloth lying beneath a hanging noose. Of course, it was probably all academic anyway. What kind of future could they possibly have… ?

Suddenly Thea realized what she was looking at.

Underneath that oilcloth was a shoe-and the shoe was connected to something. Subconsciously, she'd been assuming it was another witch dummy… but now she focused. And she felt the hairs on her arms lift and tingle.

Why would they dress a witch in black Nike high-tops?