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The Initiation (Chapter Eight)

"You sent the note," Cassie said flatly.

Faye smiled her slow, terrible smile. "Somehow I didn't think you'd come if I used my own name," she said.

And I fell for it, Cassie thought. She must have coached that girl Tina on what to say – and I swallowed it.

"How do you like the little presents you've been finding?"

Tears came to Cassie's eyes. She couldn't answer. She felt so drained, so helpless – if only she could think.

"Haven't you been sleeping well?" Faye continued, her throaty voice innocent. "You look awful. Or maybe your dreams have been keeping you awake."

Cassie turned to cast a quick look behind her. There was an exit there, but Suzan was in front of it.

"Oh, you can't go yet," Faye said. "I wouldn't dream of letting you."

Cassie stared at her. "Faye, just leave me alone…"

"Dream on," said Deborah, and she laughed nastily.

Cassie could make no sense out of this. But then she saw that Faye was holding a sheet of paper. It was smoothed flat, but it had once been tightly crumpled.

Her poem.

Anger blazed through her exhaustion. Blazed so bright that for an instant she was full of energy, lifted by it. She lunged at Faye crying, "That's mine!"

It took Faye by surprise. She reeled back, dodging, holding the poem high out of Cassie's reach.

Then something caught Cassie's arms from behind, pinning them.

"Thank you, Deborah," Faye said, slightly breathless. She looked at Cassie. "I suppose even a little white mouse will turn. We'll have to remember that. But just now," she continued, "we're going to have an impromptu poetry reading. I'm sorry the atmosphere isn't more – appropriate – but what can you do? This used to be the science building, but nobody comes here much anymore. Not since Doug and Chris Henderson made a little mistake in a chemistry experiment. You've probably seen the Henderson brothers – they're hard to miss. Nice guys, but a little irresponsible. They accidentally made a bomb."

Now that Cassie's eyes had adjusted again, she could see that the room was burned out. The walls were black with soot.

"Of course, some people think it's unsafe here," Faye continued, "so they keep it locked. But we've never let a little thing like that stop us. It is private, though. We can make all the noise we want and nobody will hear us."

Deborah's grip on Cassie's arms was painful. But Cassie started to struggle again as Faye cleared her throat and held up the paper.

"Let me see… 'My Dreams,' by Cassie Blake. Imaginative title, by the way."

"You don't have any right – " Cassie began, but Faye ignored her. She began reading in a theatrical, melodramatic voice:

"Each night I lie and dream about the one – "

"It's private!" Cassie cried.

"Who kissed me and awakened my desire – "

"Let me go!"

"I spent a single hour with him alone – "

"It isn't fair – "

"And since that hour, my days are laced with fire." Faye looked up. "That's it. What do you think, Deborah?"

"It stinks," Deborah said, then gave a little wrench to Cassie's arms as Cassie tried to tear away. "It's stupid."

"Oh, I don't know. I liked some of the imagery. About fire, for instance. Do you like fire, Cassie?"

Cassie went still. That lazy, husky voice had a new note in it, a note she recognized instinctively. Danger.

"Do you think about fire, Cassie? Do you dream about it?"

Dry-mouthed, Cassie stared at Faye. Those honey-colored eyes were warm, glowing. Excited.

"Would you like to see a fire trick?"

Cassie shook her head. There were things worse than humiliation, she was realizing. For the first time this week she was afraid, not for her pride, but for her life.

Faye snapped the piece of paper in her hand, forming it into a loose cone. Flame burst out of one corner at the top.

"Why don't you tell us who the poem is about, Cassie? This boy who awakened you – who is he?"

Cassie leaned away, trying to escape the blazing paper in front of her face.

"Careful," Deborah said mockingly from behind her. "Don't get too close to her hair."

"What, you mean this close?" said Faye. "Or this close?"

Cassie had to twist her neck to evade the flame. Little glowing bits of paper were flying off in every direction. The brightness left an afterimage, and she could feel heat on her skin.

"Oops, that was close. I think her eyelashes are too long anyway, Deborah, don't you?"

Cassie was fighting now, but Deborah was astonishingly strong. And the more Cassie struggled, the more the grip hurt.

"Let go of me – " she gasped out.

"But I thought you liked fire, Cassie. Look into the fire. What do you see?"

Cassie didn't want to obey, but she couldn't help it. Surely the paper should have burned up by now. But it was still blazing. Yellow, she thought. Fire is yellow and orange. Not red like they say.

All her senses were fixed on the flame. Its heat brought a dry tingle to her cheeks. She could hear the crumple of paper as it was consumed; she could smell the burning. And she could see nothing else.

Gray ash and yellow flame. Blue at the bottom like a gas burner. The fire changed shape every second, its radiance streaming endlessly upward. Pouring out its energy…

Energy.

Fire is power, she thought. She could almost feel the charge of the golden flame. It wasn't the. vast quietness of sky and sea, or the waiting solidity of rock. It was active. Power there for the taking…

"Yes," Faye whispered.

The sound shocked Cassie out of her trance. Don't be crazy, she told herself. Her fantasy about the flame collapsed. This was what happened when you didn't get any sleep. When the stress became unbearable and you got to the end of your resources. She was going insane.

Tears flooded her eyes, fell down her cheeks.

"Oh, she's just a baby after all," Faye said, and there was savage disgust in her voice. Disgust and something like disappointment. "Come on, baby, can't you cry any harder than that? If you cry hard enough, maybe you can put it out."

Still sobbing, Cassie tossed her head back and forth as the blazing paper stabbed closer. So close that tears fell on it and sizzled. Cassie was no longer thinking; she was simply terrified. Like a trapped animal, a desperate, pathetic trapped animal.

Dead meat dead meat dead meat dead meat…

"What are you doing? Let go of her – now!"

The voice came out of nowhere, and for an instant Cassie didn't even attempt to locate it. Her whole being was focused on the fire. It flared up suddenly, dissolving almost instantaneously into soft gray ash. Faye was left holding only a stump of charred paper cone.

"I said let her go!" Something bright came at Deborah. But not bright like fire. Bright like sunlight. Or moonlight, when the moon is full and so dazzling you can read by it.

It was her.

The girl, the girl from the yellow house, the girl with the shining hair. Utterly dumbfounded, Cassie stared as if seeing her for the first time.

She was almost as tall as Faye, but unlike Faye in every other respect. Where Faye was voluptuous, she was slender; where Faye was dressed in red, she was dressed in white. Instead of a wild black mane like Faye's, her hair was long and straight and shimmering – the color of the light streaming in the window.

And of course she was beautiful, even more beautiful this close than she had been at a distance. But it was a beauty so different from Faye's it was hard to think of it as the same thing. Faye's beauty was stunning but scary. Her strange golden eyes were fascinating, but they also made you want to run away.

This girl looked like something from a stained-glass window. For the first time Cassie saw her eyes, and they were green and clear, brilliant, as if light were behind them. Her cheeks were faintly flushed with rose, but it was natural color, not makeup.

Her breast was heaving with indignation, and her voice, though clear and musical, was filled with anger.

"When Tina told me she'd delivered that note for you, I knew there was something going on," she said. "But this is unbelievable. For the last time, Deborah, let her go!"

Slowly, reluctantly, the grip on Cassie's arms loosened.

"Look at this… you could have hurt her," the fair-haired girl raged on. She had a Kleenex out and was wiping ash – and tears – off Cassie's cheeks. "Are you all right?" she asked, her tone gentling.

Cassie could only look at her. The shining girl had come to rescue her. It was like something out of a dream.

"She's frightened to death," the girl said, turning on Faye. "How could you, Faye? How could you be so cruel?"

"It just comes naturally," Faye murmured. Her eyes were hooded, sullen. As sullen as Deborah's face.

"And you, Suzan – I'm surprised at you. Don't you see how wrong it is?"

Suzan mumbled something, looking away.

"And why would you want to hurt her? Who is she?" She had a protective arm around Cassie now as she looked from one of the senior girls to another. None of them answered.

"I'm Cassie," Cassie said. Her voice wobbled at the end, and she tried to steady it. All she could feel was the girl's arm around her shoulder. "Cassie Blake," she managed to finish. "I just moved here a couple of weeks ago. Mrs. Howard is my grandmother."

The girl looked startled. "Mrs. Howard? At Number Twelve? And you're living with her?"

Fear darted through Cassie. She remembered Jeffrey's reaction to hearing where she lived. She would die if this girl responded the same way. Wretchedly, she nodded.

The fair-haired girl whirled back on Faye. "Then she's one of us! A neighbor," she added sharply as Faye's eyebrows shot up.

"Oh, hardly," Faye said.

"She's only half – " Suzan began.

"Shut up!" said Deborah.

"She's a neighbor," the fair-haired girl repeated stubbornly. She looked at Cassie. "I'm sorry; I didn't know you'd moved in. If I had – she threw an angry glance at Faye – "I'd have stopped by. I live down at the bottom of

Crowhaven Road

, Number One." She gave Cassie another protective squeeze. "Come on. If you want, I'll take you home now."

Cassie nodded. She would have happily followed if the girl had told her to jump out a window.

"I forgot to introduce myself," the girl said, stopping on the way to the stairs. "My name's Diana."

"I know."

Diana had a blue Acura Integra. She stopped in front of it and asked Cassie if she wanted to get anything from her locker.

With a shudder, Cassie shook her head.

"Why not?"

Cassie hesitated. Then told her. Everything.

Diana listened, arms folded, toe tapping with increasing speed as the story went on. Her green eyes were beginning to shine with an almost incandescent fury.

"Don't worry about it," was all she said at the end. "I'll call and have the custodian clean out the locker. For now, we need to get you out of here."

She drove, telling Cassie to leave the Rabbit.

"We'll take care of it later." And Cassie believed her. If Diana said it would be taken care of, it would be taken care of.

In the car, all Cassie could do was stare at a strand of long, shining hair falling over the emergency brake. It was like sunlight-colored silk. Or sunlight-and-moonlight colored, rather. For an instant, in the back of Cassie's mind, a thought popped up about someone else who had hair that was more than one color, but when she grasped after it, it was gone.

She didn't quite dare to touch the strand of hair, although she wanted to see if it felt like silk too. Instead she tried to listen to what Diana was saying.

"… and I don't know what gets into Faye sometimes. She just doesn't think. She doesn't realize what she's doing."

Cassie's eyes slid cautiously up to Diana's face. In her opinion, Faye knew exactly what she was doing. But she didn't say anything – they were pulling up to the pretty Victorian house.

"Come on," Diana said, jumping out. "Let's get you cleaned up before you go home."

Cleaned up? Cassie found out what she meant when Diana led her into an old-fashioned bathroom on the second floor. Soot stained her gray sweater, her hands, her jeans. Her hair was a mess. Her face was smudged with black and striped with tears. She looked like a war orphan.

"I'll lend you some clothes while we get yours clean. And you can get clean in this." Diana was bustling around, running hot water into a claw-footed bathtub, adding something that smelled sweet and bubbled. She put out towels, soap, shampoo, all with a speed that bewildered Cassie.

"Throw your clothes outside when you get undressed. And you can put this on afterward," she said, hanging a fluffy white bathrobe on a hook on the door. "Okay, you're set."

She disappeared, and Cassie was left staring at the shut door. She looked at the slightly steamy mirror, then at the bathtub. She felt cold and achy inside. Her muscles were trembling from tension. The hot, sweet-scented water looked perfect, and when she climbed in and it rose around her, she let out an involuntary sigh of bliss.

Oh, it was lovely. Just right. She lay and basked for a while, letting the heat soak into her bones and the light, flowery smell fill her lungs. It seemed to clear the last tired cobwebs from her head and refresh her.

She took a washcloth and scrubbed the grime off her face and body. The shampoo smelled sweet too. When she finally got out of the tub and wrapped herself in the big white terrycloth robe, she was clean, and warm, and more relaxed than she could remember being in weeks. She still could scarcely believe this was happening, but she felt filled with light.

The bathroom was old-fashioned, but not in an ugly way, she decided. Pretty towels and jars of colored bath salts and what looked like potpourri made it nice.

She slipped on the soft white slippers Diana had left and padded into the hall.

The door opposite was ajar. Hesitantly she knocked, pushed it open. Then she stopped on the threshold.

Diana was sitting on a window seat, head bent over Cassie's gray sweater on her lap. Above her, in the window, prisms were hanging. The sun was striking them so that little triangles of rainbow fell in the room: bands of violet and green and orangy-red. They were sliding across the walls, dancing on the floor, on Diana's arms and hair. It was as if she were sitting in the middle of a kaleidoscope. No wonder the window had sparkled, Cassie thought.

Diana looked up and smiled.

"Come in. I was just getting the soot out of your sweater."

"Oh. It's cashmere – "

"I know. It'll be all right." Diana took some book that had been open on the window seat and put it into a large cabinet that stood against one wall. Cassie noticed she locked the cabinet afterward. Then she went out with the sweater.

Cassie looked at the window seat curiously. She didn't see any spot remover. Only a packet of potpourri and what looked like part of somebody's rock collection.

The room itself was lovely. It managed to combine pretty, antique-looking furniture with modern things, as if the past and the present existed side by side in harmony here.

The hangings on the bed were pale blue with a delicate trailing-vine design, light and airy. On the walls, instead of movie posters or pinups, there were some kind of art prints. The whole place looked – classy. Elegant and artistic, but comfortable, too.

"Do you like those? The prints?"

Cassie turned to find that Diana had noiselessly entered the room again. She nodded, wishing she could think of something intelligent to say to this girl who seemed so far above her. "Who's in them?" she asked, hoping that wasn't something she ought to know already.

"They're Greek gods. Or Greek goddesses, actually. This one's Aphrodite, the goddess of love. See the cherubs and doves around her?"

Cassie gazed at the woman in the picture, who was reclining on a sort of couch, looking beautiful and indolent. Something about the pose – or maybe it was the exposed bosom – reminded her of Suzan.

"And this is Artemis." Diana moved to another print. "She was goddess of the hunt. She never married, and if any man saw her bathing, she had him ripped to pieces by her dogs."

The girl in this picture was slim and lithe, with toned-looking arms and legs. She was kneeling, aiming a bow. Her dark hair fell in tumbled waves down her back, and her face was intense, challenging. Deborah sometimes looked like that, Cassie thought. Then she glanced at the next print and started.

"Who's that?"

"That's Hera, queen of the gods. She could be – jealous."

Cassie bet she could. The young woman was tall and proud, with an imperious set to her chin. But it was her eyes that held Cassie. They seemed almost to blaze from the print, full of passion and will and danger. Like a crouching jungle cat…

Shuddering uncontrollably, Cassie turned away.

"Are you all right?" Diana asked. Cassie nodded, gulping. Now that she was safe, it was all coming back. Not only the events of the last day, but of the entire last week. All the hurt, all the humiliation. The hanged doll in her locker, the scene in the cafeteria. The rubber snake. The game of keep away with her backpack…

"Cassie?" A hand touched her shoulder.

It was too much. Cassie turned around and flung herself into Diana's arms, bursting into tears.

"It's okay. It'll all be okay, really. Don't worry…" Diana held her and patted her back. All the tears Cassie hadn't been able to release in front of her mother or grandmother were flooding out now. She clung to Diana and sobbed like a little child.

And it was just like the images she'd had in the library. As if she were seven years old and her mother was comforting her. Somehow, Diana made Cassie feel that everything was going to be all right.

Eventually, she slowed to hiccups and sniffles. Finally she lifted her head.

"Tell you what," Diana said, handing a Kleenex to Cassie. "Why don't you stay here for dinner? My dad won't be back until late tonight – he's a lawyer. I can call a couple of friends and we can order a pizza. How does that sound?"

"Oh – great," Cassie said, biting her lip. "Really great."

"You can put on these clothes until yours dry

– they'll be a little big, but not too bad. Come downstairs when you're ready." Diana paused, her emerald-green eyes on Cassie's face. "Is something wrong?"

"No… not really, but…" Cassie floundered, then shook her head angrily. "It's only… it's just… why are you being so nice to me?" she burst out. It all still seemed like a dream.

Diana stared at her a minute, then she smiled with her eyes, although her lips remained grave. "I don't know… I guess I think you're nice and you deserve it. I can work on trying to be rotten if you want."

Cassie shook her head again, but not angrily this time. She felt her own lips twitch.

"And…" Diana was looking off into space now, her clear green eyes distant. "We're all sisters, you know."

Cassie caught her breath. "Are we?" she whispered.

"Yes," Diana said firmly, still looking far away. "Yes, we are. In spite of everything." Then her face changed, and she looked at Cassie. "You can call your mom from this line," she said, indicating a phone. "I'll go down and order the pizza." And just like that, she was gone.

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