The Power (Chapter Six)

"Aunt Constance!" Melanie gasped.

"You heard me," the dark-haired woman said to Adam. She looked at the rest of the group. "Get out of here, all of you! I don't like that kind of joke, especially now. Haven't you made enough trouble with your meddling? Poor Alexandra in the guest room, and Maeve scarcely in the ground . . . Melanie, I want them out of the house!"

Laurel and Granny Quincey were both fluttering. "Oh dear, oh dear," Granny Quincey was saying, raising hands that looked like little bird claws, and "Oh, please, Miss Burke," Laurel was beseeching, almost in tears.

"You have no respect at all," Aunt Constance said, breathing hard. Her eyes were as bright as if she had a fever.

"Young people never do, Constance," Adam's grandmother said, chuckling. "Why, I remember when we were their age, the mischief we used to get up to … oh, me." Still laughing and shaking her head, Adam's grandmother popped another cookie in her mouth.

"Grandma, please listen. It's not a joke," Adam began helplessly, but it was no use. There was too much noise; everyone was talking at once. Over it all Great-aunt Constance continued to order them out, telling Melanie to forget about the mess on the floor and just go. Granny Quincey was twittering and making calming gestures, which everybody ignored. Old Mrs. Franklin was smiling at them all benevolently. Diana was pleading with Melanie's aunt to listen, but to no avail.

"For the last time!" Aunt Constance cried, flapping a hand as if to shoo Diana and the Club out the door.

"Miss Burke!" Cassie yelled. She felt close to tears herself, although Nick had been quietly trying to escort her out since the shouting had started. Cassie didn't want to go; she thought she understood what Great-aunt Constance was talking about when she mentioned the kids' meddling. "Miss Burke," she repeated, forcing her way forward again. She found herself directly in front of Great-aunt Constance.

"I'm sorry," Cassie said, and it was suddenly quiet enough that she could hear the unsteadiness in her own voice. "It's my mom that's in your guest room, and you know how grateful I am that you're taking care of her. And it's my grandmother that's in the ground. But who do you think did that to them? It wasn't the Club. My grandmother told me before she died that he had planned all along to come back, and that she always knew he would manage to do it. It's true that it's partly the Circle's fault he's back –  it's partly my fault. And we're sorry, more sorry than you can know. But he really is here." She paused a moment, then added in almost a whisper, "Really."

Aunt Constance was breathing very quickly through her nose. She drew herself up more regally than ever, her lips a thin red slash across her face.

"I'm afraid I can't believe any of what you're saying. It is simply im-impossible – " The woman's expression changed, twisting in pain. She gave a gasp and clutched at her chest.

"Aunt Constance," Melanie cried, rushing to her. It took both her and Adam to help the rigid woman to a chair.

"Should I call a doctor?" Diana asked.

"No!" Aunt Constance said, lifting her head. "It's nothing. I'm all right now."

"It's not nothing, Constance," a quavery voice said, and Cassie saw Granny Quincey getting off the sofa to come stand beside the chair. "It's your heart telling you the truth. I think we'd better listen to these children."

There was a silence while Melanie's aunt looked at Melanie, then at Adam, then at Cassie. Cassie forced herself to return the piercing gaze.

Aunt Constance's eyes shut and she slowly leaned back in the chair.

"You're right," she said, without looking at anyone. "Come in, all of you, and find somewhere to sit down. Then you can tell your story."

"So finally we decided we'd better talk to you three, since you were the ones who might remember him from the last time," Diana said. "We thought of asking our parents, too – "

"Don't go to your parents," Aunt Constance said flatly. She had sat and listened to the whole tale, her expression getting grimmer and grimmer. An aura of bleak horror hung in the room. "They wouldn't understand," she said, and her gaze settled on Cassie emptily, making Cassie think of her mother's blank eyes. "They won't remember. Dear God, how I've wished that I could forget too …"

"What's past is past," Granny Quincey said.

"Yes," said Great-aunt Constance. She straightened. "But I don't know how you think three old women are going to help you – against him."

"We thought that you might remember something about him, some weakness; something we can use to fight him," Adam said.

Aunt Constance slowly shook her head. Granny Quincey was frowning, her face pursed into hundreds of wrinkles. Old Mrs. Franklin wore a very pleasant expression; Cassie couldn't tell if she'd been following the story or not.

"If he can come back from the dead, he can't have many weaknesses," Aunt Constance whispered harshly. "And he was always clever at manipulating. You say that Faye Chamberlain is on his side?"

"We're afraid so," Adam said.

"That's bad. He'll use her to get at you, at your weaknesses. Lure her away from him if you can. But how?" Aunt Constance's brow lined in concentration. "The hematite – take that from her. It's very dangerous; he can use it to influence her mind." Diana glanced at Cassie, as if to say, I told you. Aunt Constance was going on. "And you say the skull is gone now? Are you sure?"

"It's gone," Adam said.

"It looked like it exploded when Faye was holding it, just before we were all knocked out," Cassie said. "Something exploded out of it, anyway. And we couldn't find a trace of it afterward."

"Well . . . there's no way to use that against him, then. And you, Cassie, you haven't found anything in your grandmother's Book to help you?"

"Not yet. I haven't gotten all the way through it, though," Cassie admitted.

Aunt Constance was shaking her head. "Power, you need power to use against him. You're all too young to fight him – and we're too old. And in between our ages are nothing but fools. There's no power strong enough around here.. ."

"There was once," Granny Quincey said in her reedy voice.

Aunt Constance looked at her, and her expression changed. "Once . . . yes, of course." She turned to the Circle. "If the old stories are true, there once was a power strong enough to destroy Black John."

"What power?" Laurel asked.

Aunt Constance countered with a question. "How did Adam happen to find the skull, exactly?"

"It wasn't an accident," Diana said. "He was out looking for the Master Tools . . ." She stopped. "The Master Tools," she whispered.

"Yes. The ones that belonged to the original coven, the real Salem witches. Our ancestors who founded New Salem after the witch hunters drove them out of Salem Village."

Cassie was speaking out loud before she" thought. "But just what were the Master Tools, exactly?"

It was Granny Quincey who answered. "The symbols of the witch leader, of course. The diadem, the bracelet, and the garter."

"The ones we use are just imitations," Melanie said. "They are just symbols. The original coven's were very powerful; real tools to be used.

But, Aunt Constance" – she turned back to her aunt – "it was Black John who hid the Master Tools. Adam's been looking for them for years, from here to Cape Cod. How can we find them now?"

"I don't know," the woman said. "But you've got one thing wrong there. Black John didn't hide them, the original coven did. They hid the tools from him, so he wouldn't be able to use them. They knew that with the power of the skull and the tools together, he would be invincible. That's what my grandmother told me, anyway."

"They wouldn't have taken the tools far to hide," Granny Quincey added. "That's just sense. Black John was a traveler, but our ancestors weren't. They were peaceable, home-loving people."

"You came for our advice – well, that's mine," Aunt Constance said. "Find the Master Tools. If you all stand together, using those, you may have a chance against him." Her lips were a thin line again.

"All right," Adam said slowly. "We understand."

Cassie let her breath out, trying not to feel disappointed. It was good advice, but she'd hoped – for what? For her own grandmother, she supposed. She wanted her grandmother, who had been so wise, and had somehow always made Cassie feel as if she were stronger than she'd thought.

"And keep reading that book your grandma gave you!" Granny Quincey said suddenly, looking right at Cassie. Cassie nodded and the old woman gave her a wrinkled but oddly intense smile.

Mrs. Franklin was smiling too, patting her knees and looking around as if she'd forgotten something.

"What's tomorrow?" she said.

There was a pause. Cassie wasn't sure if Adam's grandmother was speaking to them or to herself. But then she repeated, "What's tomorrow?" looking at them encouragingly.

"Uh – our birthday," Chris offered.

But Diana looked startled. "I think – I think it's the night of Hecate," she said. "Is that what you mean?"

"That's right," old Mrs. Franklin said comfortably. "Oh, when I was young, we would have done a ceremony. I remember ceremonies under the moon, when there were Indians in the shadows.. ."

Glances were exchanged. Mrs. Franklin couldn't possibly remember that; there hadn't been Indians around here for centuries.

But Diana was getting excited. "You think we should have a ceremony?"

"I would, dear," Mrs. Franklin said. "A girls' ceremony. We girls always had our secrets, didn't we, Connie? And we stuck together."

Diana looked a little puzzled, then nodded slowly, determinedly. "Yes. Yes. It would be good for the girls to get together – all the girls. And I think I know what kind of ceremony to have. It's not the right time of year, but that doesn't matter."

"I know you'll enjoy it, dear," Mrs. Franklin said. "Now let me see – Cassie!"

Cassie looked at her, startled.

"Cassie," Adam's grandmother said again. Her head was on one side, and she was sighing, the way you do when somebody shows you a picture of smiling baby. "Dear me, you are a pretty little thing, though you don't look at all like your mother. Still – " She broke off suddenly and looked around. "Hm?"

Great-aunt Constance was looking more severe than ever, her snapping eyes right on Mrs. Franklin. "Edith," she said, in a flat voice.

Mrs. Franklin looked at Granny Quincey, who was also staring at her with great concentration.

"Why – I was only going to say I could see a bit of her mother in her expression," she said, and nodded at Cassie pleasantly. "You try not to worry so much, dear. It'll all come right in the end."

Aunt Constance relaxed almost imperceptibly. "Yes. That's all, Melanie; you'd better take your friends away."

And that was that. The eleven of them got up and said thank you and good-bye politely, and then they were outside the big white house in the thin November sunlight.

"Whew!" said Cassie. "Adam, do you know what was going on there at the end?"

"Sorry," Adam said, grimacing. "She gets like that sometimes."

"It wasn't her so much as the other two," Cassie began, but Deborah broke in, impatient.

"So what's this night of Hecate thing?"

"It's the night of the crone," Diana said. "That's what Hecate stands for."

"The crone?" Suzan echoed in distaste, and Cassie knew what she meant. The word conjured up an unpleasant image – a stooped, wrinkled figure holding up a poisoned apple.

"Yes." Diana looked at Cassie. "It's not a bad thing, Cassie. Crone just means old woman – it's the last stage in a woman's life. Maiden, mother, then crone. Crones are wise and – well, tough. Not physically, maybe, but mentally. They've seen a lot; they've been through it, and they know things. They're the ones who pass things on to us."

"Like my grandmother," Cassie said, understanding dawning. Of course – that stooped, wrinkled figure was the very picture of her grandmother. Not a poisoned apple, then, she thought. If her grandmother offered anything to anybody, it was help. "Fairy tales give us the wrong idea," she said.

"Right." Diana nodded firmly. "When I'm old I hope I'm a crone like your grandmother."

"Whatever you want," Doug said, rolling his eyes.

"They're all trying to help," Melanie said. "Even Aunt Constance. But what are we going to do for the night of Hecate, Diana?"

"It's a night for fortune-telling and prophecies," Diana said, "and we have to find a crossroads where we can celebrate it. Hecate was the Greek goddess of crossroads – they're supposed to symbolize transformation. Starting on a new passage of life. It could be old age, or death, or some other kind of change."

"I think we're all at a crossroads," Melanie said soberly.

"I do too." Diana looked at Adam. "I think your grandmother was right; this is something we girls should do. But that'll leave you guys alone …"

Adam grinned. "Oh, I guess we could manage to amuse ourselves for one night without you. Maybe Chris and Doug have some ideas." He spoke easily; Cassie had noticed that all the guys in the Circle were undisturbed by the girls' rights and privileges. They didn't feel threatened; they seemed to know that they were just as important, in a different way.

"But I think you should be very careful," Nick said, without a trace of humor in his voice. Chris and Doug were punching each other, arguing about how they wanted to celebrate their birthday. When Nick spoke they shut up.

"I think you'd better find a crossroads right near here," Nick went on, speaking to Diana and Cassie. "And that we'd better not be too far away."

Cassie looked into his face, saw the concern behind the careful control in his eyes. She took his hand, felt his strong fingers interlace with hers.

"We'll be careful," she promised quietly. She saw Deborah's sharp glance at their linked hands, saw a knowing grin flash across the biker girl's face. Chris was poking Doug, who was glowering indignantly. Melanie's normally cool gray eyes were wide, and Laurel and Suzan were smiling.

Cassie couldn't help but notice that Adam was not smiling. He didn't smile again the rest of the day.

That night, Cassie had dreams. Swirling, formless dreams that seemed to have something to do with Books of Shadows. She and Diana had been up late, reading and studying. They hadn't found anything helpful. But in Cassie's dreams she felt she was on the verge of a momentous discovery.

She caught a glimpse of the sunlit room again. Just a swift bright flash that melted almost instantly into darkness. She found herself awake, staring around Diana's bedroom as if she might find it here.

"Cassie," Diana murmured. "You okay?"

"Yes," Cassie whispered. She was glad when Diana went still again. Diana was the one who'd insisted Cassie sleep with her, worried about Cassie having nightmares. But if Cassie really started disturbing Diana she couldn't let herself stay here anymore. She was enough trouble to Diana without keeping her up all night.

Actually, Cassie had slept very peacefully in the Meade house. It wasn't like Number Twelve, which had groaned and popped so much in settling that Cassie had been constantly jolted awake. Some difference in the way the houses were made, she supposed. The additions to Diana's house were much newer; perhaps they'd used better materials.

Cassie lay for a while in the warm darkness, listening to Diana's soft breathing. Where was Black John tonight? she wondered. Out there on the mainland in his rented cottage? Or here, on the island of New Salem?

For some reason thinking of New Salem as an island upset her. She felt – isolated, somehow: besieged. As if Black John could cut all of them off from the rest of the world and cast them adrift on the ocean.

Don't be silly, she told herself. But the threads of panic churning in her stomach wouldn't be stilled. She wondered suddenly if her mother wouldn't be better off in an institution – away from here. Anywhere away from here.

There's no reason for him to hurt her. It's us he hates, she thought desperately.

But he had come after her grandmother. Why? For the Book of Shadows?

I'm the one who has the Book of Shadows now, she realized with a sick lurch of heart. What if he decides to come and take it?

The thought grabbed hold of her imagination. She could feel the bed quiver with the pounding of her heart. What if Black John were to come here, now? He was a living, breathing man – but he was also a witch. Was he bound by the rules of other men? Or could he come sliding in here like a shadow, crawling along the floor toward the bed?

I have to stay calm. I have to. If I crack up, it's all over. For Mom, for the coven, for everyone. It's going to take all of us to fight him. I can't be the weak link.

"There is nothing frightening in the dark if you just face it," she whispered to herself between clenched teeth. "There is nothing frightening in the dark if you just face it."

Burning tears spilled out of her eyes, but she kept on whispering her grandmother's phrase.

On and on until at last she fell asleep.

The next school day began with an assembly. Faye hadn't been in her normal seat in writing class again, but as Cassie filed into the auditorium she was astonished to see the dark-haired girl up by the stage.

Faye was standing quietly, almost demurely –  for Faye. She was wearing a tailored suit and looked like a very smart, very sexy secretary. Her mane of dark hair was piled up softly on her head, and she was carrying a stack of papers and a clipboard. All she needed was a pair of hornrimmed glasses and she could have been some billionaire's girl Friday.

Cassie couldn't believe it.

She looked around the auditorium and caught sight of Suzan and Sean, who both had the same remedial-English class first period. She jerked her chin at them and they split off from their class and joined her. Suzan's blue eyes were enormous.

"Did you see Faye? What's she doing up there?"

"I don't know," Cassie said. "Nothing good."

"She looks good," Sean said, wetting his lips quickly. "She looks great."

Cassie glanced at Sean, really noticing him for the first time in a long time. Since she'd danced with him at the Halloween dance, maybe. It was so easy to overlook Sean; in a crowd he just seemed to blend in. But here, with only him and Suzan beside her, Cassie focused.

I should pay more attention to him, she thought. An image skittered through her mind: Sean as he had appeared the first time she'd seen him. Shiny eyes, shiny belt engraved with his name. Standing by his locker full of Soloflex ads, grinning at her. Something about the picture disturbed her profoundly, but she couldn't think what.

The last of the junior and senior classes were coming into the auditorium. Cassie saw the Henderson brothers and Deborah sitting down with their history class. There was Diana and Melanie and Laurel from British Literature, and Sally Waltman, too, with the now-familiar straw-colored head of Portia Bainbridge next to her. She saw Adam and his chemistry class, but didn't spot Nick.

"Looks like Faye's doing a little extracurricular activity," a voice behind her murmured, and Cassie turned gratefully. Nick nodded at the guy who was occupying the seat there, and the guy scrambled up and left. Cassie hardly noticed the occurrence, it was so common. The kids from Crowhaven Road indicated what they wanted, and the outsiders gave it to them. Always. It was the way things worked.

Nick sat in the vacated chair and took out a pack of cigarettes. He opened it, shook one forward. Then he noticed Cassie.

Cassie was staring at him with her eyebrows lifted, her best Diana expression on. Disapproval radiating from her like heat waves.

"Ah," Nick said. He glanced at the cigarettes, then at her again. He tapped the protruding cigarette back into place and tucked the pack in his pocket.

"Bad habit," he said.

"Testing, one, two, three . . ." It was Faye's voice over the microphone. Cassie turned quickly.

"It's on," Faye said, with a smile Cassie could only describe as kittenish. Faye moved away from the lectern, and the tall man also standing onstage walked up to it. He adjusted it, his eyes on the crowd of seated students.

"Good morning," he said, and his voice sent waves of darkness crashing through Cassie. Every muscle in her body tightened defensively, ready to obey some deeply buried instinct to fight or flee. Just his voice, she thought dazedly, how can someone's voice alone do that?

"As some of you already know, I'm Mr. Brunswick, your new principal."