The Captive (Chapter Sixteen)

Cassie's grandmother shook her head. "To talk! If they'd come to us, to the older women, we might have warned them. Me and Laurel's grandma, and Adam's grandma, and Melanie's great-aunt Constance-we could have told them a few things, maybe saved them. But they went alone, without telling anyone. On Imbolc, February first, more than half the group that he had put together went to challenge him. And out of that group, not one came back."

Tears were running slowly down the seamed old cheeks. "So you see, it was the brave ones, the strong ones that went and died. The ones that are left are the ones too scared or too stupid to see the danger-I'm sorry, Deborah, but it's true." Cassie remembered that both Deborah's parents were alive. "All the best of Crowhaven Road went to fight Black John that Imbolc Night," her grandmother said.

"But howl" Cassie whispered. She was thinking of that row of gravestones in the cemetery. "How did they die, Grandma?"

"I don't know. I doubt if anyone alive knows, unless it's…" Her grandmother broke off and shook her head, muttering. "There was fire in the sky, and then a storm. A hurricane from the sea. The older women got together the babies that had been left with them, and the young parents that hadn't gone with the group, and we managed to save them. But the next day the house at Number Thirteen was burned to the ground, and all the ones who'd gone to challenge Black John were dead.

"We never found most of the bodies. They were washed out to sea, I suppose. But one thing we did find was the burned corpse at Number Thirteen. We knew it was him by the ring he wore, a shiny black stone we used to call lodestone. I forget the modern name. We took him out to the old burying ground and put him in the bunker. Charles Meade, Diana's father, dropped that chunk of concrete in front of it. We figured that if he'd come back once, he might try again someday, and we meant to stop him if we could. And after that the parents that had survived hid their Books of Shadows and did their best to keep their children away from magic. And it's strange, but most of them forgot what they could. I guess because they couldn't remember and stay sane. Still, it's funny, now, how much they've forgotten."

The cracked voice had been growing weaker and weaker, but now Cassie's grandmother grasped Cassie's wrist hard. "Now, listen to me, child. This is important. Some of us didn't forget, because we couldn't. I'd named my daughter for a prophetess, and she did the same for her daughter, because we've always had the second sight. Your mother couldn't bear what her gift showed her, and so she ran away from New Salem; she ran all the way to the other coast. But I stayed, and I've watched all my premonitions come true, one by one. The babies that were born on Crowhaven Road in that single month grew up different, despite everything their parents could do. They were drawn to the Powers and the old ways from the beginning. They all grew up strong-and some of them grew up bad.

"I've watched it happen, and in my mind I've heard Black John laughing. They burned his body, but they couldn't burn his spirit, and it's always been here, waiting, hanging around the old burying ground and the vacant lot at Number Thirteen. He was waiting for his coven, the one he'd planned, the one he'd gotten born. He was waiting for them to come of age. He was waiting for them to bring him back.

"I knew it would happen-and I knew only one thing could stand against him when it did. And that's you, Cassie. You have the strength of our family, and the sight, and the Power. I begged your mother to come home, because I knew that without you the children of Crowhaven Road would be lost. They'd turn to him, the way their parents did, and he'd be their leader and their master. You are the only one who can stop him from taking them now."

"So that's what you and Mom fought about," Cassie said in wonder. "About me."

"We fought about courage. She wanted to protect you, and I knew that by protecting you we'd lose all the others. You had a destiny even before you were born. And the worst was that we couldn't tell you about it-that was what the prophecies said. You had to come here all unknowing and find your own way, like some innocent sacrifice. And you did. You've done everything we could have wanted. And the time was coming when we could have explained it all to you… but she fooled us, that Faye. By the way, how'd she do it?"

"I…" Cassie didn't know what to say. "I helped her, Grandma," she said finally. "We found the crystal skull that belonged to Black John, and it was full of dark energy. Every time we used it, somebody died. And then-" Cassie took a deep, ragged breath. "Then, tonight, Faye told us to bring the skull to the cemetery. And when she uncovered it there-I don't know-all this darkness came out…"

Cassie's grandmother was nodding. "He was master of dark things. Just like the real Man in Black, the lord of death. But, Cassie, do you really understand?" With a supreme effort, the old woman tried to sit up to look in Cassie's face. "When you took the skull to his burying place and let that energy out, it was enough to bring him back. He's here now; he's come back again. Not a ghost or a spirit, but a man. A walking, breathing man. He'll look different the next time you see him; once he's had a chance to pretty himself up. And he'll try to fool you." She sank back wearily.

"But, oh, Grandma I helped let him loose. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…" Tears swam in Cassie's eyes.

"You didn't know. I forgive you, child, and what's done is done. But you have to be ready for him…" Cassie's grandmother's eyes drifted shut, and her breath had a frightening sound.

"Grandma!" Cassie said, shaking her in panic.

The old eyes opened again, slowly. "Poor Cassie. It's a lot to face. But you have strength, if you look for it. And now you have this." Feebly, she pressed the Book of Shadows again into Cassie's hands. "The wisdom of our family, and the prophecies. Read it. Learn it. It'll answer some of the questions I don't have time for. You'll find your way…"

"Grandma! Grandma, please…"

Her grandmother's eyes were still open, but they were changing, filming over, as if they didn't see her anymore. "I don't mind going now that I've told the story… but there's something else. Something you need to know…"

"Cassie!" The voice came from the doorway, and it startled Cassie so much that she jerked and looked up. Laurel was standing there, her elfin face white with concern. "Cassie, what's happening in here? Are you okay? Do you want a doctor?" She was staring at Cassie's grandmother on the floor.

"Laurel, not now!" Cassie gasped. She was crying, but she held on harder to her grandmother's knotted old hands. "Grandma, please don't go. I'm frightened, Grandmother. I need you!"

Her grandmother's lips were moving, but only the faintest of sounds came out. ". . . never be afraid, Cassie. There's nothing frightening in the dark if you just face it…"

"Please, Grandma, please. Oh, no…" Cassie's head dropped down to her grandmother's chest and she sobbed. The knotted hands weren't holding hers anymore.

"You said you had something else to tell me," she wept. "You can't go…"

An almost inaudible breath came from her grandmother's chest. Cassie thought it was the word "John." And then, ". . . nothing dies forever, Cassie…"

The chest against Cassie's forehead heaved once and was still.

Outside, a yellowing moon hung low in the sky.

"The Mourning Moon," Laurel said quietly. 'That's what this one is called."

It was appropriate, Cassie thought, although her eyes were dry now. There were more tears inside her, building up, but they would have to wait. There was something that had to be done before she could rest and cry. Even after her grandmother's story, she had so many questions, so much to figure out-but first, she had to do this one thing.

There were a bunch of cars parked near the street. The rest of the coven was there-no, not all of them. Cassie saw Suzan and Sean and the Hendersons, and Adam and Diana. But she didn't see the person she was looking for.

"Melanie and Nick took your mom to Melanie's aunt Constance," Laurel said hesitantly. "They thought it was the best place for her, tonight. She was still kind of spacey-but I know she'll be okay."

Cassie swallowed and nodded. She wasn't sure; she wasn't sure of anything. She only knew what she had to do right now.

Never be afraid, Cassie. There's nothing frightening in the dark if you just face it.

Just face it. Face it and stand up to it.

Then Cassie saw who she was looking for.

Faye was in the shadows beyond the headlights of the cars. Her black shift and her hair blended in with the gloom, but the pallor of her face and the silver ornaments she wore stood out.

Cassie walked up to her without hesitation. At that moment, she could have hit Faye, strangled her, killed her. But all she said was, "It's over."

"What?" Faye's eyes gleamed a little, yellow as the moonlight. She looked sick and unsettled-and dangerous. Like a pile of dynamite ready to go off.

"It's over, Faye," Cassie repeated. "The blackmail, the threats… it's all over. I'm not your prisoner anymore.

Faye's nostrils flared. "I'm warning you, Cassie, this isn't the time to push me. I'm still leader of the coven. The vote was fair. You can't do anything to change it …"

"I'm not trying to change it-now. Right now I'm just saying that you don't have a hold over me anymore. It's finished."

"It's finished when I say it's finished!" Faye snarled. Cassie realized then how close Faye was to snapping, how dangerous Faye's mood really was. But it didn't matter. Maybe it was even better this way, to get it all over with at once.

"I'm not joking, Cassie," Faye was going on heatedly. "If you can turn on me, I can do the same to you …"

Cassie took a deep breath and then said, "Go ahead."

There's nothing frightening in the dark if you just face it.

"Fine," Faye said between her teeth. "I will."

She turned around and strode to the place where Diana and Adam were standing, arms around each other. Adam was practically supporting Diana, Cassie saw, and for a moment her heart failed her. But it had to be done. Despite the oath, despite Diana's pain, it had to be done.

Faye turned back once to look at Cassie. A look that said, clearly, you'll be sorry. Cassie wondered in sudden panic if it was true. Would she be sorry? Was she doing the wrong thing after all, defying Faye at the wrong time? Wouldn't it be better to wait, to think about this…

But Faye was turning back to Diana, malicious triumph written all over her face. The coven wasn't happy with Faye tonight, but Faye was still the leader and nothing could change that fact. Now Faye was going to start her reign by getting revenge on the people she hated most.

"Diana," she said, "I have a little surprise for you."

[The End]