The Power (Chapter One)

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

Diana's emerald eyes, with their thick sooty lashes, were swimming already. She still hadn't recovered from the shocks of tonight, and her face was strained as she stared at Faye.

Well, there was worse to come.

Now that it was finally going to happen, Cassie felt a curious sense of freedom. No more hiding, no more lying and evading. The nightmare was here at last.

"I suppose I should have told you before, but I didn't want to upset you," Faye was saying. Her eyes burned golden with a savage inner fire.

Adam, who wasn't stupid, glanced from Cassie to Faye and obviously came to a quick, if shattering, conclusion. He swiftly cupped a hand under Diana's elbow.

"Whatever it is can wait," he said. "Cassie ought to go and see her mother, and – "

"No, it can't wait, Adam Conant," Faye interrupted. "It's time Diana found out what sort of people she has around her." Faye whirled to face Diana again, her pale skin glowing with strange elation against the midnight-dark mane of her hair. "The ones you've chosen," she said to her cousin. "Your dearest friend – and him. The incorruptible Sir Adam. Do you want to know the reason you couldn't make it as leader? Do you want to know how naive you really are?"

Everyone was gathering close now, staring. Cassie could see varying degrees of bewilderment and suspicion in their expressions. The full moon shining from the west was so bright that it cast shadows, and it illuminated every detail of the scene.

Cassie looked at each of them: tough Deborah, beautiful Suzan with her perfect face marred by a puzzled frown, cool Melanie, and graceful, elfin Laurel. She looked at Chris and Doug Henderson, the wild twins, who were standing by the slinking figure of Sean, and at icily handsome Nick behind them.

Finally she looked at Adam.

He was still holding Diana's arm, but his proud, arresting face was tense and alert. His eyes met Cassie's and something like understanding flashed between them, and then Cassie looked away, ashamed. She had no right to lean on Adam's strength. She was about to be exposed for what she was in front of the entire Circle.

"I kept hoping they would do the decent thing and control themselves," Faye said. "For their own sake, if not yours. But, obviously – "

"Faye, what are you talking about?" Diana interrupted, her patience splintering.

"Why, about Cassie and Adam, of course," Faye said, slowly opening her golden eyes wide. "About how they've been fooling around behind your back."

The words fell like stones into a tranquil pool. There was a long moment of utter silence, then Doug Henderson threw back his head and laughed.

"Yeah, an' my mom's a topless dancer," he jeered.

"And Mother Teresa's really Catwoman," said Chris.

"Come on, Faye," Laurel said sharply. "Don't be ridiculous."

Faye smiled.

"1 don't blame you for not believing me," she said. "I was shocked too. But you see, it all started before Cassie came to New Salem. It started when she met Adam down on Cape Cod."

The silence this time had a different quality. Cassie saw Laurel look quickly at Melanie. Everyone knew that Cassie had spent several weeks on the Cape last summer. And everyone knew that Adam had been down in that area too, looking for the Master Tools. Cassie saw the dawning of startled understanding on the faces around her.

"It all started on the beach there," Faye went on. She was obviously enjoying herself, as she always enjoyed being the center of attention. She looked sexy and commanding as she wet her lips and spoke throatily, addressing the entire group although her words were meant for Diana. "It was love at first sight, I guess –  or at least they couldn't keep their hands off each other. When Cassie came up here she even wrote a poem about it. Now how did that go?" Faye tilted her head to one side and recited:

"Each night I lie and dream about the one Who kissed me and awakened my desire I spent a single hour with him alone And since that hour, my days are laced with fire."

"That's right; that was her poem," Suzan said. "1 remember. We had her in the old science building and she didn't want us to read it."

Deborah was nodding, her petite face twisted in a scowl. "I remember too."

"You may also remember how strange they both acted at Cassie's initiation," Faye said. "And how Raj seemed to take to Cassie so quickly, always jumping up on her and licking her and all. Well, it's very simple really – it's because they'd known each other before. They didn't want any of us to know that, of course. They tried to hide it. But eventually they got caught. It was the night we first used the crystal skull in Diana's garage – Adam was taking Cassie home, I guess. I wonder how that got arranged."

Now it was the turn of Laurel and Melanie to look startled. Clearly they remembered the night of the first skull ceremony, when Diana had asked Adam to walk Cassie home, and Adam, after a brief hesitation, had agreed.

"They thought they were alone on the bluff – but somebody was watching. Two little somebodies, two little friends of mine . . ." Lazily, Faye worked her fingers, with their long, scarlet-tipped nails, as if stroking something. A flash of comprehension lighted Cassie's mind.

The kittens. The damned little bloodsucking kittens that lived wild in Faye's bedroom. Faye was saying the kittens were her spies? That she could communicate with them?

Cassie felt a chill at her core as she looked at the tall, darkly beautiful girl, sensing something alien and deadly behind those hooded golden eyes. She'd wondered all along who Faye had meant when she talked about her "friends" who saw things and reported back to her, but she'd never imagined this. Faye smiled in feline satisfaction and nodded at her.

"I have lots of secrets," she said directly to Cassie. "That's only one of them. But anyway," she said to the rest of the group, "it was that night they got caught. They were – well, kissing. That's the polite way to put it. The kind of kissing that starts spontaneous combustion. I suppose they just couldn't resist their lustful passions any longer." She sighed.

Diana was looking at Adam now, looking for a denial. But Adam, his jaw set, was staring straight ahead at Faye.

Diana's lips parted with the quick intake of her breath.

"And it wasn't the only time, I'm afraid," Faye continued, examining her nails with an expression of demure regret. "They've been doing it ever since, stealing secret moments when you weren't looking, Diana. Like at the Homecoming dance – what a pity you weren't there. They started kissing right in the middle of the dance floor. I guess maybe they went somewhere more private afterward …"

"That's not true," Cassie cried, realizing even as she said it that she was virtually confirming that everything else Faye had said was true.

Everyone was looking at Cassie now, and there was no more jeering from the Hendersons. Their tilted blue-green eyes were focused and intent.

"I wanted to tell you," Faye said to Diana, "but Cassie just begged me not to. She was hysterical, crying and pleading – she said she would just die if you found out. She said she'd do anything. And that," Faye sighed, looking off into the distance, "was when she offered to get me the skull."

"What?" said Nick, his normally imperturbable face reflecting disbelief.

"Yes." Faye's eyes dropped to her nails again, but she couldn't keep a smile from curling the corners of her lips. "She knew I wanted to examine the skull, and she said she'd get it for me if I didn't tell. Well, what could I do? She was like a crazy person. I just didn't have the heart to refuse her."

Cassie sank her teeth into her lower lip. She wanted to scream, to protest that it hadn't been that way . . . but what was the use?

Melanie was speaking. "And I suppose you didn't have the heart to refuse the skull, either," she said to Faye, her gray eyes scornful.

"Well …" Faye smiled deprecatingly. "Let's put it this way – it was just too good a chance to miss."

"This isn't funny," Laurel cried. She looked stricken. "I still don't believe it – "

"Then how do you think she knew where to dig up the skull tonight?" Faye said smoothly.

"She stayed over at your house, Diana, the night we traced the dark energy to the cemetery. And she snuck around and figured out where the skull was buried by reading your Book of Shadows – but only after she stole the key to the walnut cabinet and checked there." Gleeful triumph shone out of Faye's golden eyes; she couldn't conceal it any longer.

And nobody in the group could deny the truth of Faye's words any longer. Cassie had known where to dig up the skull. There was no way to get around that. Cassie could see it happening in face after face: the ending of disbelief and the slow beginning of grim accusation.

It's like The Scarlet Letter, Cassie thought wildly as she stood apart with all of them looking at her. She might as well be standing up on a platform with an A pinned to her chest. Helplessly, she straightened her back and tried to hold her chin level, forcing herself to look back at the group. I will not cry, she thought. I will not look away.

Then she saw Diana's face.

Diana's expression was beyond stricken. She seemed simply paralyzed, her green eyes wide and blank and shattered.

"She swore to be loyal and faithful to the Circle, and never to harm anyone inside it," Faye was saying huskily. "But she lied. I suppose it's not surprising, considering she's half outsider. Still, 1 think it's gone on long enough; she and Adam have had enough time to enjoy themselves. So now you know the truth. And now," Faye finished, looking over the ravaged members of the Circle, and especially her deathly still cousin, with an air of thoughtful gratification, "we'd probably better be getting home. It's been a long night." Lazily, smiling faintly, she started to move away.

"No." It was a single word, but it stopped Faye in her tracks and it made everyone else turn toward Adam.

Cassie had never seen his blue-gray eyes look this way before – they were like silver lightning. He moved forward with his usual easy stride. There was no violence in the way he caught Faye's arm, but the grip must have been like iron – Cassie could tell that because Faye couldn't get away from it. Faye looked down at his fingers in offended surprise.

"You've had your turn," Adam said to her. His voice was carefully quiet, but the words dropped from his lips like chips of white-hot steel. "Now it's mine. And all of you" – he swung around on the group, holding them in place with his gaze – "are going to listen."