The Power (Chapter Seven)

There was a scattering of applause, hesitant, dying away quickly. Already the atmosphere in the auditorium was uncertain, alert. The usual whispers and fidgets snuffed out like candle flames, until the great room was utterly still. All eyes were on the stage.

He's a handsome man, Cassie thought, fighting the pounding in her brain that was telling her to run, run. Why did she react so violently to his presence? It was like her reaction on the night of her initiation, when Adam had produced the crystal skull. Cassie had taken one look at it and felt horror creep up her spine – to her, it seemed surrounded by a halo of darkness. It had only been later that she realized not all the coven members could see what she saw.

As Cassie looked around now, she could tell by the expressions of the other students that they didn't feel the darkness emanating from the new principal. To her, he cast a shadow across the entire auditorium. To them, he simply seemed powerful, impressive.

"I realize there has been some turmoil at New Salem High School recently," he was saying, his eyes moving slowly up and down the rows of students. Cassie got the odd impression that he was memorizing each one of them. "But you'll be happy to know that's over now. The – unfortunate occurrences – that have plagued this school are behind us. It's time for a brand-new start."

"Turmoil" meaning two students and one principal dead, Cassie thought. Since you killed all three of them, I guess you can decide when it's over. At the same time she wondered exactly how he'd managed the murders from his grave. Did the dark energy itself do it? she wondered. She wanted to whisper the question to Nick or Suzan – or Sean, her mind added hastily, guiltily – but it was hard to turn her head away from the man on the stage.

"I've heard reports that the last administration's attitude toward discipline was somewhat – lenient. A policy of, shall we say, permissiveness which was undoubtedly intended to be benign." The principal glanced toward the teachers lining the auditorium walls, as if to intimate that he knew they might use other words to describe that policy, but there was no point in speaking ill of the dead. "Certain activities were allowed which were detrimental not only to the students they affected, but also to the very spirit of formal education. Certain groups were afforded special privileges."

What is he talking about? Cassie thought. It's like a politician; lots of fancy words and no meaning. But something inside her was sinking in dismay.

"Well, the policy has changed now, and I think in the end most of you will be pleased with the changes. There's a new hand on the tiller of this boat." The principal held up one hand with a slight, self-deprecating smile.

Then he started talking again. Afterward, Cassie could never remember exactly what he said, but she remembered his voice, deep, authoritative. Commanding. There were buzzwords scattered through his speech: "tough love," "old-fashioned discipline," "punishment fitting the crime." She could feel the response from the audience: dark, dark. Like something swelling and growing in the crowd. It frightened her almost more than Black John himself. It was as if he were feeding and cultivating some horrible power inside the students. They should have hated him, but instead they were enthralled.

The rules. The rules must be obeyed. Students who didn't obey the rules would be sent to the office . . .

"I think it's time for the handout now," Jack Brunswick added in a soft aside, and Faye and several other girls moved down from the stage, passing out papers. Cassie watched the principal as he watched the audience, standing at ease, commanding their attention effortlessly even when he wasn't speaking. Yes, handsome, she thought. He looked something like a young Sherlock Holmes: deep-set eyes, hawk nose, firm mouth. His voice even had traces of an English accent. Cultured, thought Cassie. Cultured – and full of conviction.

More like a witch hunter than a witch.

Faye reached Cassie's row, thrust a sheaf of papers at her. Cassie whispered "Faye!" and was rewarded by a swift flash of golden eyes before Faye moved on. Bewildered, Cassie took one handout and passed the rest to Suzan. It was three pages long and covered with small type.

Prohibited Actions – Type A. Prohibited Actions – Type B. Prohibited Actions – Type C.

It was a list of rules. But so many rules, line after line after line. Her eyes caught words here and there.

Wearing clothing inconsistent with the serious and dignified purpose of formal education . . . using a locker or being in the corridors at any time other than the passing period between classes . . . possession or use of squirt guns . . . littering . . . running in the halls . . . chewing gum . . . failing to comply with an order from any teacher or hall monitor . . .

Hall monitors? Cassie thought. We don't have hall monitors. Her eyes skimmed on.

Public displays of affection . . . failing to recycle styrofoam lunch trays . . . placing feet on seats or chair backs . . .

"They can't be serious," Suzan whispered. There was a faint whistle from Nick.

"You'll have time in class to go over these guidelines and become thoroughly familiar with them," the new principal said. In the corner of Cassie's eye she saw rows of heads lifting. The rustling of paper stilled.

"Right now I'd like to ask for volunteers to be hall monitors. This is a position of great responsibility, so please think carefully before you raise your hand."

Hands flew up all over the auditorium. The students at New Salem High had never volunteered so fast for anything. Cassie saw Portia, rigid and trembling like a hound dog pointing in the air. Sally, in the next seat, was waving madly, like a third-grader dying to get called on by the teacher. The room was like one giant Nazi salute.

Black John's eyes moved up and down, scanning them, examining each one.

Then Cassie realized that Sean's hand was going up.

"Sean!" she hissed. The auditorium was so quiet she didn't dare speak loudly. Suzan glanced at Sean, then shrank back from him. He was out of Nick's reach. "Sean!" she said.

He didn't seem to hear her. His shiny eyes were fixed on the stage. His face was eager, tense.

Desperation tingled in the palms of Cassie's hands. She reached across Suzan to grab his left arm, and with all the power she could summon up, thought: Sean!

She felt it go out of her like a blast of heat, just as she'd felt it when she was facing the pumpkin-patch dog. A burst of pure power. Sean's head snapped toward her, his expression full of astonishment.

"Put your hand down," she whispered, feeling shaky and exhausted in the aftermath. Sean looked at his hand as if he'd never seen it before and hastily snatched it down. He gripped the seat of his chair, eyes still sideways on Cassie.

Now Suzan was cringing away from her, Cassie realized. Both the strawberry-blond and Sean looked scared. Cassie looked toward the stage and saw the new principal looking directly at her, his lips curved in a faint smile.

Great. He likes it, and my own friends are afraid of me.

Black John continued to gaze at her steadily for a moment, then turned the slight smile on the rest of the auditorium.

"Very good. Those of you who've been chosen will please remain after the assembly to learn about your new duties. The rest are dismissed. Good morning."

Hairs lifted on the back of Cassie's neck. "Chosen?" she whispered, looking around. There hadn't been any selection. But some of the students who'd had hands up were moving to the stage in a quiet, orderly manner. Portia and Sally were among them.

Don't you see? You've got to see now how strange this is, Cassie thought, twisting to look at Mr. Humphries standing in the aisle. But Mr. Humphries didn't seem to find anything unusual about the proceedings. He looked calm and rather pleased as he motioned his class out. Tranquilized, Cassie thought, shivering. Hypnotized.

Black John was still standing at the lectern. She could feel his eyes on her back as she walked out of the auditorium.

Cassie fell back as her writing class walked down the hall, slowing to stay with Nick and Suzan and Sean. Suzan and Sean looked at her oddly, but Nick put his arm around her.

"That was pretty good," he said softly. Cassie felt better, until she noticed he didn't have his handout.

"I left it on the seat," he said, and Cassie's heart sank a little further.

"That's littering," she said. "And littering's a Type-A offense. Nick, we've got to be careful – he's out to get us."

"No kidding," Adam said, joining them. His blue-gray eyes flickered once over Nick's arm around Cassie's shoulders, but his expression didn't change. "Have you read over the Prohibited Actions, Type C?"

Cassie hadn't. She thumbed to the last page of the handout and looked. "Skateboarding, roller-skating, or bike riding . . . playing or wearing radios on school grounds . . . smoking or using tobacco products . . . these are supposed to be worse than Type-B offenses like using drugs or fighting?"

"They seem to be a little specifically directed," Adam said grimly.

And then Cassie knew. She remembered her very first day of school at New Salem High, "nearly being knocked off her feet by the Henderson brothers – only at the time she didn't know it was the Henderson brothers. She'd only seen two crazy guys with heavy-metal T-shirts and disheveled blond hair, rollerblading down the halls and listening to Walkmans.

She swallowed hard. "They're for us," she whispered. Adam met her eyes, nodding.

"Smoking," Cassie said. She clutched Nick's hand, turning to look him full in the face. "Nick, please, you've got to be careful. He wants to get us and we're not ready to confront him yet . . . Nick!" She had a terrible feeling about this. Nick hated authority, took any rules as a challenge. Right now she didn't see any sign of him changing, by his expression. "Nick!"

"Punishment for Type-C offenses is getting sent to the office," Adam said. "He is trying to get us, Nick. He's playing his own little game."

"Nick, I want you to promise me you'll try not to get in trouble," Cassie said. "Please, Nick. You have to promise."

Nick looked down at her slowly. Cassie tightened her grip on his hand, returning the intensity of his gaze. Please, she was thinking. For me, please.

Nick's brow furrowed and he turned away.

"Okay," he said, nodding slightly, eyes on the ceiling. "Okay, I'll try – not to get caught."

Cassie's muscles relaxed. "Thank you," she whispered, just as Diana, Melanie, and Laurel came up, faces bleak.

"Did you get that stuff in the beginning, about the previous administration allowing certain activities to go on?" Melanie asked. "That was us he was talking about. The Club and its special privileges. He said all that was going to change now."

Cassie spoke softly. "He was telling them we're not in power anymore. He was as good as giving them permission to …"

Her voice died away. She and the other members of the Club looked at one another silently.

"Everybody get your guns. Sounds like it's open season for witches," Nick said finally. He put his arm around Cassie again.

"Let's get out of here," Suzan said.

"We can't," said Laurel. "Leaving school grounds without permission is an offense."

"Everything is an offense," Suzan said.

"Where are Chris and Doug?" Cassie asked sharply. "And Deborah?"

Everyone looked around. Aside from Nick, the Henderson brothers and the biker were the ones most likely to get into trouble.

"They have history first period, but I think their class went back without them," Sean volunteered. "I think they're still in the auditorium."

"Come on," said Adam briefly.

Chris and Doug were just outside the auditorium. They were in the center of a group of outsider students and they were getting ready to fight.

" – not gonna get away with it anymore," one of the outsider boys was caroling triumphantly.

"Oh, yeah?" Chris yelled back.

"Yeah! Your days are over, man! You're gonna get sent to the office."

"Didn't take them long to catch on," Nick murmured in Cassie's ear.

"You're all going to get sent to the office," Adam said, pushing between the outsiders to get to Chris and Doug. He faced them, holding up the handout like a magic talisman. "Fighting's a Type-B offense. You'll all go down for it."

There was a moment of uncertainty, then the outsiders drew back, eyeing each other.

"We'll see you later," they decided finally, and turned down the hall. Doug tried to go after them.

"Any time, any place," he yelled as Nick caught him and held him still. "Leggo of me!" he snarled at Nick.

"We can't afford a confrontation yet," Diana told him. "Good job," she added to Adam.

"It worked – this time," Adam said. "If I'm right about what he's doing, they'll eventually figure out that the rules are mainly against us. They may not get in trouble for fighting, but we will."

To Cassie's vast relief Deborah came around the corner at that moment. "Deb, where have you been?"

"Watching the hall monitors get their orders. They're giving them badges like SS men."

"It is like the Nazis," Cassie said.

"He's organizing a witch hunt," said Adam.

"I wonder if he's done it before," Suzan said.

Cassie started to say, "What do you mean?" but stopped in the middle of it and stared at her. Suzan, who looked so – fluffy, so brainless, who even now was groping in her purse for a compact, had done it again.

"And Faye is working for him – " Diana was saying. Cassie interrupted.

"No, wait, listen. Did you hear what Suzan just said? Don't you get it? I wonder if he's done it before. You know, I'll bet he has."

"In 1692," Adam said slowly. "In Salem. How could we be so stupid?"

"Huh?" said Chris.

"I think they're saying that Black John could have organized the Salem witch hunt," Diana said. "But – "

"Not organized, maybe, but contributed, helped it along," Cassie said. "Made sure it didn't just die out, fed the hysteria. Like he was feeding it today."

"But why?" asked Laurel.

There was a silence, then Adam lifted his head, his frown clearing. His voice was grim. "To get the coven to leave. To follow him. They couldn't hang around in that atmosphere anymore, so they followed him to New Salem, with all their tools – including the Master Tools."

"You told me that he was a leader of the original coven," Cassie said. "But I wonder if he was a leader before the coven moved to New Salem – or only after."

The faces of the Circle members were very sober.

"I think he's trying to do the same thing again," Adam said. "Turn everybody against us so we don't have anywhere else to go – but to him. He's the only one who can defend us."

"He can go to hell," Deborah said, as if this ought to be obvious.

"Yeah, well, I'm sure he doesn't think we're going to come crawling to him right now," Nick murmured. "Things may look a little different in a couple of weeks."

"I think we'd better have a talk with Faye," Diana said.

They lay in wait for Faye by the back entrance of the auditorium, where Deborah thought she was most likely to come out. When she did she had the clipboard on her arm.

"Alone at last," Nick said, and they surrounded her, the eleven of them, forcing her to a stop. Looking at the faces of the Circle members right then, Cassie was reminded of the way Faye, Deborah, and Suzan had looked when they had caught her spying on them in front of the school. Beautiful, focused, and deadly. Dangerous.

Faye looked around at them and tossed her head. It didn't work as well with her hair gathered up in a bun.

"Get out of my way. I have work to do," she said.

"For him?" Adam asked tightly. Diana laid a hand on his arm and spoke herself.

"Faye, we know you can't talk now. But we're going to have a ceremony tonight, because it's the night of Hecate – "

"And our birthday," Chris put in, aggrieved.

" – and we want you to be there."

"You're going to have a ceremony?" Faye said, looking less like a rich man's girl Friday and more like her old self, the black panther. "You can't. I'm the coven leader."

"How can you be the coven leader when you're never even with the coven? We're going to have this ceremony tonight, Faye, at the crossroads of Crowhaven and Marsh Street. With or without you. If you're there, you're welcome to lead it."

Faye looked for backing from Deborah and Suzan, her age-old supporters. But the biker's petite face was set in a hard scowl and Suzan's china-blue eyes were blank. No help was coming from that quarter.

"Traitors," Faye said contemptuously. Her beautiful, sulky mouth pinched, but she said, "I'll be there – to lead the ceremony. Now you'd better get out of here before a hall monitor spots you."

She turned and stalked away.

They all managed to get through that day without serious trouble, although Suzan received a detention for not throwing away a cupcake wrapper. Not for leaving it at a table or anything, just for not throwing it away as soon as she was done eating. It was a Type-A infraction.

That night they celebrated the Henderson brothers' birthday quietly, at Adam's house. Chris and Doug were extremely disappointed. They wanted a beach party with skinny-dipping. "And all kinds of wildness," Chris said. Adam said it was this or nothing.

Faye showed up around ten, wearing the black raw-silk shift she'd worn the night of the leadership vote. "In my day it was white," old Mrs. Franklin chuckled, leading her into the untidy living room with its comfortable, shabby furniture. "But times change."

Faye didn't even answer her. "I'm here," she said with a haughty glance around. "Let's go."

Cassie studied the silver diadem nestled in Faye's midnight-dark hair, the silver bracelet on Faye's rounded arm, and the garter, made of green leather lined with sky-blue silk, on Faye's thigh. She wondered what the real ones, the ones used by the original coven, looked like.

There wasn't much talking as the seven girls walked slowly down Crowhaven Road. Diana and Faye were in the lead, and Cassie heard Diana speaking in a low voice. The blond girl was carrying a white bag that held the things necessary for casting a circle and beginning a meeting.

They reached the crossroads. "It has to be a junction where three roads diverge," Diana had said, "to symbolize the three stages of womanhood: maiden, mother, and crone." Here Marsh Street met Crowhaven Road running north and south.

"Do we have to be right in the road?" Suzan said now. "What if somebody comes driving up?"

"We get out of the way, fast," said Laurel.

"I think we're safe," Diana said. "There aren't many cars this late. Come on, you guys, it's cold."

"It's my ceremony," Faye reminded her, taking out the ritual black-handled knife.

"I never said it wasn't," Diana said quietly. She stepped back to watch Faye cast the circle. Cassie felt blood burning in her own face as she stood behind Diana, watching Faye do what Diana had always done, what Diana would still be doing – if not for Cassie. She wanted to whisper something to Diana but instead she just made the promise in her own heart.

Somehow I'll make things right. Faye won't be the leader forever. Whatever I have to do, I'll see to that, she thought. She added, almost absently, I swear by Earth, Water, Fire, and Air.