The Captive (Chapter Three)

"I think," Melanie said quietly, "that it's time to talk about the skull. Adam's never told us exactly how he found it-"

"No, you've been very secretive about that," Faye put in.

"-but maybe now is the time."

Diana and Adam looked at each other, and then Diana nodded slightly. "All right, then, tell it. Try not to leave anything out."

After the walk back from the cemetery they had crowded, all twelve of them, into Diana's room. Cassie looked around at the group and realized that it was divided. Suzan, Deborah, and the Henderson brothers were sitting on one side, near Faye, while Laurel, Melanie, Adam, and Sean were on the other side, near Diana.

At least, Cassie thought, watching Sean's uneasily shifting eyes, Sean was sitting on Diana's side for the moment. He could change any time. And so could Nick-Nick could vote with Diana one day, and then for no apparent reason vote with Faye the next. Nick was always an unknown factor.

And so, a voice inside her whispered, are you.

But that was ridiculous. Nothing-not even Faye-could make Cassie vote against Diana. Not when it really counted.

Adam was talking in a low, thoughtful voice, as if he were trying to remember precisely. "It wasn't off Cape Cod, it was farther north, closer to Boston. Everybody knows there are seventeen islands off Boston Bay; they're all deserted and covered with weeds. Well, I found an eighteenth. It wasn't like the others; it was flat and sandy and there was no sign that people had ever been there. And there was something strange about it. … I'd been to the place before, but I'd never seen it. It was as if my eyes had suddenly been opened after-" He stopped.

Cassie, looking at the lamp's reflection on Diana's gleaming pine-board floor, felt as if she were smothering. She didn't dare breathe until Adam went on, "-after working on the fishing boats all summer. But when I tried to head for the island, the tiller bucked, trying to keep me away or run me aground on the rocks. I had to wrestle with it to bring the boat in-and I had to call on Earth and Water or I'd never have made it. When I was finally safe I looked at the rocks and saw the wreckage of other boats. Anybody that had made it there before didn't make it away again alive." He took a deep, slow breath.

"As soon as I stepped on the sand I could feel that the whole island was electric. I knew it was the place even before I saw the circle of stones in the middle. It was just the way Black John described it. Sea heather had grown up around the rocks, but the center was clear and that's where I dug. About a minute later my shovel hit something hard."

"And then?" said Diana.

"And then I pulled it out. I felt-I don't know, dizzy, when I saw it. The sun was glittering on the sand and it sort of blinded me. Then I wrapped the skull up in my shirt and left. The island didn't fight when I went; it was like a trap that had been sprung. That was- let's see, September twenty-first. As soon as I got back to the Bay, I wanted to start up to New Salem, but I had some things to take care of. I couldn't get started until the next day, and I knew I was going to be late for Kori's initiation." He paused and threw an apologetic glance toward Doug and Chris.

They said nothing, but Cassie felt eyes flicker toward her. Kori's initiation had become Cassie's initiation, because on that morning Kori had been found dead at the bottom of the high-school steps.

"Just what is the point of all this storytelling?" Faye asked, her husky voice bored. "Unless"-she straightened up, looking more interested-"you think the rest of the Master Tools may be on that island."

"I told you before," Adam said. "There was nothing else there, Faye. Just the skull."

"And the point is that we need to know more about the skull," Diana put in. "For better or worse, we're stuck with it now. I don't think we should put it back on the island-"

"Put it back!" Faye exclaimed.

"-where anybody might find it, now that the protective spell is broken. It's not safe there. I don't know if it will be safe anywhere."

"Well, now," Faye murmured, looking sleepy. "If it's too much trouble for you, I'll be glad to take care of it."

Diana just shot her a look that said Faye was the last person she'd ask to take care of the skull. But, Cassie noticed with a sinking feeling, Faye's heavy-lidded amber eyes were not fixed on Diana's face. They were trained on the little gold key at Diana's throat.

There was a knock at the door.

Cassie started, hard enough that Laurel turned around and looked at her in surprise. But it was only Diana's father, who'd come home with a bulging briefcase in his hand.

Mr. Meade looked around the crowded room in mild surprise, as if he didn't quite know who all these people were. Cassie wondered suddenly how much he knew about the Circle.

"Is everyone staying for dinner?" he asked Diana.

"Oh-no," Diana said, looking at a dainty white and gold clock on the nightstand. "I didn't realize it was after seven, Dad. I'll fix something quick."

He nodded, and after one more quick, uncertain glance around the room, left.

Bedsprings creaked and clothing rustled as everyone else got up.

"Tomorrow we can meet at school," Melanie said. "But I've got to study tonight; this whole last week has been shot and I've got a biology test."

"Me too," said Laurel.

"I've got algebra homework," Suzan offered, and Deborah muttered, "Meaning you've got a week's worth of soap tapes in the VCR."

"All right, we'll meet tomorrow," Diana said. She walked downstairs with them. Faye managed to catch Cassie's arm as the others were leaving, and she breathed in her ear, "Get it tonight. Call me and I'll come and pick it up; then we'll put it back before morning so she won't notice it's gone."

Cassie pulled her arm away rebelliously. But at the door, Faye gave her a meaningful look, and the flash in those amber eyes alarmed her. She stared at Faye a long moment, then nodded slightly.

"Do you want me to stay?" Adam was saying to Diana.

"No," Cassie said quickly, before Diana could answer. They looked at her, startled, and she said, "I'll stay and help make dinner, if it's all right, Diana. I told my grandma and my mom I'd be gone and they've probably already eaten by now."

Diana's graciousness rose to the fore. "Oh- of course you can stay, then," she said. "We'll be fine, Adam."

"Okay." Adam gave Cassie a keen glance, which she returned woodenly. He went out, following Chris and Doug into the darkness. The flicker of a match up ahead showed where Nick was. Cassie looked up at the night sky, which glittered brashly with stars but not a trace of moon, and then stepped back as Diana shut the door.

Dinner was quiet, with Mr. Meade sitting there, leafing through a newspaper, occasionally glancing up over his reading glasses at the two girls. Afterward they went back up to Diana's room. Cassie realized she needed to stall.

"You know, you never told me about that print," she said, pointing. Decorating Diana's walls were six art prints. Five of them were very similar, black and white with a slightly old-fashioned look. Diana had told her they were pictures of Greek goddesses: Aphrodite, the beautiful but fickle goddess of love;

Artemis, the fierce virgin huntress; Hera, the imperious queen of the gods; Athena, the calm gray-eyed goddess of wisdom; and Persephone, who loved flowers and all growing things.

But the last print was different. It was in color, and the style was more abstract, more modern. It showed a young woman standing beneath a starry sky, while a crescent moon shone silver down on her flowing hair. She was wearing a simple white garment, cut high to show a garter on her thigh. On her upper arm was a silver cuff-bracelet, and on her head was a thin circlet with a crescent moon, horns upward.

It was the outfit Diana wore at meetings of the Circle.

"Who is she?" Cassie said, staring at the beautiful girl in the print.

"Diana," Diana said wryly. Cassie turned to her, and she smiled. "The goddess Diana," she added. "Not the Roman Diana; another one. She's older than all the Greek goddesses, and she was different from them. She was a Great Goddess; she ruled everything. She was goddess of the night and the moon and the stars-there's a story that once she turned all the stars into mice to impress the witches on earth. So they made her Queen of the Witches."

Cassie grinned. "I think it would take more than that to impress Faye."

"Probably. Some people say that her legend was based on an actual person, who taught magic and was a champion of poor women. Other people say she was first a Sun Goddess, but then she got chased out by male Sun Gods and turned to the night. The Romans got her confused with the Greek goddess Artemis-you know, the huntress-but she was much more than that. Anyway, she's always been Queen of the Witches."

"Like you," Cassie said.

Diana laughed and shook her head. "I may not always be leader," she said. "It all depends on what happens between now and November tenth. That's the day of the leadership vote."

"Why November tenth?"

"It's my birthday-Faye's too, coincidentally. You have to be seventeen to be permanent leader, and that's when we both will be."

Cassie was surprised. Diana was still only sixteen, like her? She always seemed so mature, and she was a senior. But it was even stranger that Faye was so young, and that the cousins had the same birthday.

She looked at Diana, sitting there on the bed. As beautiful as the girl in the last print was, Diana was more beautiful. With hair that indescribable color, like sunlight and moonlight woven together, and a face like a flower, and eyes like green jewels, Diana resembled something from a fairy tale or legend more than a real person. But the goodness and-well, purity that shone out of Diana's eyes were very real indeed, Cassie thought. Cassie was proud to be her friend.

Then the light flashed on the gold key around Diana's neck and she remembered what she was there to do.

I can't, Cassie thought, as her stomach plummeted giddily. She could feel the slow, sick pounding of her heart. Right this minute around her own neck was hanging the crescent-moon necklace that Diana had given her at her initiation. How could she steal from Diana, deceive Diana?

But she'd been through all that before. There was no way out. Faye would do exactly what she had threatened-Cassie knew that. The only way to save Diana was to deceive her.

It's for her own good, Cassie told herself. So just stop thinking about it. Do what you have to and get it over with.

"Cassie? You look upset."

"I-" Cassie started to say, no, of course not, and change the subject the way she usually did when somebody caught her daydreaming. But then she had an idea. "I don't really feel like going home alone," she said, grimacing. "It's not just the walk-it's that house. It creaks and rattles all night long and sometimes I can't even get to sleep. Especially if I'm thinking about. . . about…"

"Is that all?" Diana said, smiling. "Well, that's easy to take care of. Sleep here." Cassie was stricken at how easily Diana made the offer. "And if you're worried about the skull," Diana went on, "you can stop. It's not going anywhere, and it's not going to do anything more to hurt people. I promise."

Cassie's face flamed and she had to struggle not to look at the cabinet. She would never have mentioned the skull herself: she couldn't have gotten the word out. "Okay," she said, trying to keep her voice normal. "Thanks. I'll call my mom and tell her I'm staying over."

"We can drive to your house so you can get dressed in the morning-I'll check on the guest room." As Diana left, the voices in Cassie's mind were rioting. You little sneak, they shouted at her. You nasty, weaselly, lying little traitor-

Shut up! Cassie shouted back at them, with such force that they actually did shut up.

She called her mother.

"The guest room's ready," Diana said, reappearing as Cassie hung up the phone. "But if you get scared in the night you can come in here."

"Thanks," Cassie said, genuinely grateful.

"What are big sisters for?"

They sat up and talked for a while, but neither of them had had much sleep the night before, and as the clock's hands edged closer to ten they were both yawning.

"I'll take my bath tonight so you can have one in the morning," Diana said. "The hot water doesn't last long around here."

"Isn't there a spell to take care of that?"

Diana laughed and tossed a book to her. "Here, see if you can find one."

It was the Book of Shadows Diana had brought to Cassie's initiation, the one that had been in Diana's family since the first witches came to New Salem. The brittle yellow pages had a mildewy smell that made Cassie wrinkle her nose, but she was glad to have this chance to look at it. Toward the beginning of the book the writing was small and almost illegible, but further on it became stylized and beautiful, like copperplate. Different authors, Cassie thought, different generations. The Post-it notes and plastic flags on almost every page were the work of the current generation.

It was full of spells, descriptions of coven meetings, rituals, and stories. Cassie pored over it, her eyes moving in fascination from one title to the next. Some of the spells seemed quaint and archaic; others were like something out of a modern pop-psychology book. Some were just timeless.

A Charm to Cure a Sickly Child, she read. To Make Hens Lay. For Protection Against Fire and Water. To Overcome a Bad Habit. To Cast Out Fear and Malignant Emotions. To Find Treasure. To Change Your Luck. To Turn Aside Evil.

A Talisman For Strength caught her eye.

Take a smooth and shapely rock, and upon one face carve the rising sun and a crescent moon, horns up. Upon the reverse, the words:

Strength of stone

Be in my bone

Power of light

Sustain my fight.

I could use that, Cassie thought. She continued flipping through the pages. A Spell Against Contagious Disease. To Hold Evil Harmless. To Cause Dreams.

And then, as if her guilty conscience had summoned it up, another spell appeared before her eyes. For an Untrue Lover.

Standing in the light of a full moon, take a strand of the lover's hair and tie knots in it, saying:

No peace find

No friend keep

No lover bind

No harvest reap

No repose take

No hunger feed

No thirst slake

No sorrow speed

No debt pay

No fear flee

Rue the day

You wronged me.

Cassie's pulse was fluttering in her wrists. Would anyone really put a curse like that on someone they loved, no matter how unfaithful?

She was still staring at the page when there was a movement at the door. She shut the book hastily as Diana came in, hair wrapped in a towel turban. But her eyes were drawn instantly to the gold chain Diana was dropping on the nightstand. It lay there next to a round stone with a spiral pattern in it, gray swirled with pale blue and sprinkled with quartz crystals. The chalcedony rose that Diana had given to Adam, and that Adam had given to Cassie. Now it was back where it belonged, Cassie thought, and something around her heart went numb.

"The bathroom's all yours," said Diana. "Here's a nightgown-or do you want a T-shirt?"

"A nightgown's fine," Cassie said. All the time she was washing up and changing she kept seeing the key. If only Diana would leave it there…

It was still on the nightstand when she popped her head back in Diana's room. Diana was already in bed.

"Want me to shut the door?"

"No," Diana said, reaching up to turn out the light. "Just leave it open a bit. Good night."

"Good night, Diana."

But once in the guest room next door Cassie propped herself up on two pillows and lay staring at the ceiling. Strangely, it was almost peaceful, lying there and knowing that for the moment there was nothing she could do but wait. She could hear the sound of the ocean behind Diana's house, now louder, now softer.

She waited a long time, listening to the quiet sounds. She felt relaxed, until she thought about getting up-then her heart started to pound.

At last she was sure Diana must be asleep. Now, she thought. If you don't move now, you never will.

Breath held, she shifted her weight in the bed and let her legs down. The hardwood floor creaked slightly as she crossed it, and she froze each time.

Outside Diana's door, she stood straining her ears. She could hear nothing. She put her hand on the door and slowly, by infinitesimal degrees, she pushed it open.

Carefully, lungs burning because she was afraid to breathe too loud, she placed one foot inside the threshold and let her weight down on it.

Diana was a dim shape on the bed. Please don't let her eyes be open, Cassie thought. She had the horrible fantasy that Diana was just lying there staring at her. But as she took another slow, careful step inside, and another, she could see that Diana's eyes were shut.

Oh, God, Cassie thought. I have to breathe. She opened her mouth and exhaled and inhaled silently. Her heart was shaking her and she felt dizzy.

Take tiny steps, she thought. She crept farther into the room until she was standing directly beside Diana.

On the nightstand, just a few inches from Diana's sleeping face, was the key.

Feeling as if she was moving in slow motion, Cassie put her hand out, placed it flat on the key. She didn't want to make any noise, but as she slid the necklace toward her, the chain rattled. She closed her fingers over it and held it tightly.

Now to get away. She forced herself to creep, all the time looking over her shoulder at the bed-was Diana waking up?

She reached the cabinet, and the little brass keyhole.

Fit the key in. She was fumbling; her fingers felt clumsy as sausages. For a moment she panicked, thinking, what if it isn't the right key after all? But at last she got it in and turned it.

The lock clicked.

Hot relief swept over Cassie. She'd done it. Now she had to get the skull and call Faye- and what if Faye didn't answer? What if Diana's father caught her phoning in the middle of the night, or if Diana woke up and found the skull missing… ?

But as she eased the cabinet door open the world blurred and went dark before her eyes.

The hall light was shining into the cabinet. It was dim, but it was clear enough to show that all Cassie's caution had been in vain, and all her fears about getting the skull to Faye were pointless.

The cabinet was empty.

Cassie never knew how long she stood there, unable to think or move. But at last she pushed the cabinet door shut with shaking hands and locked it.

If it's not here, then where is it? Where? she demanded frantically of herself.

Don't think about it now. Put the key back. Or do you want her to wake up while you're standing here holding it?

The journey back to Diana's nightstand seemed to take forever, and her stomach ached as if someone were grinding a boot there. The key clinked as she replaced it on the nightstand and the chain stuck to her sweaty hand. But Diana's breathing remained soft and even.

Now get out, she ordered herself. She needed to be alone, to try and think. In her hurry to get away she forgot to be careful about placing her feet. A board creaked.

Just keep going, never mind, she thought. Then she heard something that stopped her heart.

A rustling from the bed. And then Diana's voice.