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The Initiation (Chapter Eleven)

Cassie didn't know where she was going. The school was trying to hold classes, even though there were probably more kids outside the classrooms than inside. They were in the halls, on the stairs, hanging around the main entrance. Cassie looked dazedly at a clock and then went to her science class, conceptual physics. She could probably call her mom and just go home if she liked, but she didn't want to face her mother right now. She just wanted to try and pretend to be normal.

As she sat taking meaningless notes, she could feel eyes on her. She had the odd feeling that she'd been transported back in time and that it was two weeks ago, when Faye had blackballed her. But after class she saw the difference. People kept coming up to her and murmuring, "Are you okay?" and "How're you doing?" They looked ill at ease – as if they didn't want to be talking to her but felt they'd better. After her last class there were more little visits: people coming in groups of two or three to say, "Sorry" or "Just want you to know we'll miss her too."

The truth of it struck her suddenly, and she almost laughed at the irony. They were condolence calls! Cassie was standing in for the Club. All of these outsiders were coming to her, not realizing that she was as much outside as any of them.

When a cheerleader came and said, "Oh, this must be so hard for you," Cassie lost it.

"I didn't even know her!" she burst out. "I only spoke to her once in my life!"

The cheerleader backed off hastily. After that the condolence calls stopped.

Ms. Lanning, the history teacher, drove Cassie home. She sidestepped her mother's worried questioning – apparently the school had called to explain what had happened – and went outside. She climbed down the steep bluff to the beach below her grandmother's house.

The ocean had never looked bleaker. It was a heavy, shining silver color – like the mercury in a thermometer. The day, which had started out so bright, had turned overcast, and it got darker and darker as Cassie paced.

And paced. This beach had been one of the good things about living here – but what good was it now? She was walking on it alone.

Her chest was bursting. It was as if all the terrible events of the day were locked inside her, struggling to get out. But there was no release.

She'd thought being an outcast at school was the worst thing that could happen to her. But it was worse to almost belong, and to know inside that you didn't, and never would. She knew it was selfish to care about herself after what had happened to Kori, but she couldn't help it. With all the rage of confusion and pain inside her, she almost envied Kori. Kori was dead, but she still belonged. She had a place.

Cassie, on the other hand, had never felt so lonely.

The sky was dark gray. The ocean stretched out endlessly beneath it, even darker. Looking at it, Cassie felt a strange and terrible fascination. If she just started walking toward it and kept on going…

Stop that! she thought savagely. Get hold of yourself.

But it would be so easy…

Yes, and then you'd really be alone. Alone forever, in the dark. Sounds good, doesn't it, Cassie?

Shivering violently, she wrenched herself away from the whispering gray waters. Her feet were numb and cold and her fingers felt like ice. She stumbled as she climbed up the narrow, rocky path.

That night, she pulled all the curtains shut in her room so she wouldn't have to see the ocean or the darkness outside. Chest aching, she opened her jewelry box and took out the piece of chalcedony.

I haven't touched your gift in a while. But I've thought about you. Whatever I'm doing, wherever I am, you're somewhere in my mind. And oh, how I wish…

Her hand shook as she shut her eyes and put the stone to her lips. She felt the familiar crystalline roughness, the coolness of it warming to her warmth. Her breath came more quickly and tears started to her eyes. Oh, someday, someday, she thought…

Then her mouth twisted in pain. A surge of something like lava welled up in her chest, and she threw the stone as hard as she could across the room. It hit the wall with a sharp sound and fell, clattering, to the floor.

Someday nothing! the cruel voice inside her cried. Stop fooling yourself! You'll never see him again.

She lay in bed staring with sore eyes into the dimness, lit by a small night-light on the far wall. She couldn't cry. All her tears had been scorched away. But her heart felt as if it had been torn open.

Cassie was dreaming of the ocean – the dark and endless ocean. The ship was in trouble – she could hear the timbers creaking beneath her. They were going aground. And something was lost… lost…

She came awake all at once, sucking in her breath. Was that a noise?

Body tense, she listened. Silence. Her eyes struggled to pierce the darkness. The night-light had gone out.

Why hadn't it occurred to her to be afraid earlier? What had been wrong with her this evening? She'd gone out there on the beach alone, never even wondering if the person who'd killed Kori might be watching, waiting…

Accident, she thought, every sense alert and straining. They said it was probably an accident. But her heart was thundering dizzily. She seemed to see scintillating lights in the darkness. And she could feel …

A presence. Like a shadow in front of her. Oh, God, she could feel it. She sensed it like a pressure on her skin, like a radiation of cold. There was something in her bedroom.

Her eyes were staring into the utter blackness, her body trembling with tension. Insane as it was, she had the wild thought that if she didn't move, didn't make a sound, it couldn't find her.

But she was wrong.

She heard a shuffling noise, a stealthy advancing. Then the unmistakable creak of a floorboard.

It was coming toward her.

Suddenly she could move. She drew in breath for a scream – and there was a rush in the darkness and something clapped over her mouth.

Instantly, everything changed. Before, all had been stillness, now all was dizzy motion. She was fighting. It didn't do any good; her arms were being caught and held. Something else had her feet.

She was being rolled over and over. Wrapped in the sheet. She couldn't move. Her arms were trapped in the material. She was trying to kick, but her feet were trapped too.

She felt herself being lifted. She couldn't scream; she was choking. Something was over her head, suffocating her. And the most terrible thing was the silence, the utter, continuing silence. Whatever had her was as noiseless as a ghost.

As a ghost… and she herself was now wrapped in a shroud. Wild thoughts careened in Cassie's head.

It was taking her out of her bedroom. Taking her downstairs – out of the house. It was taking her outside to bury her.

She had envied Kori – now she was going to join her. It was going to put her in the ground – or in the sea. Frantic, she tried to thrash, but the restraining material was too tight.

She had never been so frightened.

In time, though, the violence of her first panic exhausted itself. It was like fighting against a strait jacket; her struggles only served to tire her out. And overheat her. She was smothering and she was so hot… if only she could breathe…

Panting, Cassie felt her body go limp. For the next few minutes all her concentration was devoted to getting enough air. Then, slowly, she began to think again.

She was being carried by more than one person. That was certain. Her arms and legs were being restrained not only by the winding material of the sheet, but by hands.

Human hands? Or… images flooded her mind. Images out of horror movies. Skeletal hands barely covered by withered flesh. Dusky hands with nail beds the cyanotic blue of death. Mutilated hands, hands from the grave…

Oh, God, please… I'll lose my mind. Please make it stop or I'll die. I'll die of terror. Nobody can be this frightened and live.

But it wasn't so easy just to die after all. It didn't stop, and she went on living. It was like a nightmare, but Cassie knew she was not asleep. She could pray all she wanted, but she wouldn't wake up.

Then everything stopped.

She was no longer being carried; she was being held. Then tilted… her legs kicked and touched ground. She was being set on her feet. The sheet was unwinding; she felt a breeze on her legs, and her nightgown hem flapping against them. Her arms were free.

Weakly she grabbed out, and her wrists were caught and held behind her. She still couldn't see. Something was over her head, some kind of hood. It was hot inside, and she was breathing her own carbon dioxide. She swayed, wanting to kick, to fight again, and knowing she didn't have the strength.

Then, from directly behind her, she heard a sound that changed everything.

It was a chuckle.

Slow and rich. Amused. But with a grim edge to it.

Unmistakable.

Faye.

Cassie thought she had been frightened before. She'd imagined ghosts, the living dead come to drag her back into the ground with them. But all those wild and supernatural fears were nothing compared to the sheer terror she felt now.

In one blinding instant she put it all together. Faye had killed Kori. The way she was going to kill Cassie now.

"Walk," Faye said, and Cassie felt a push in the center of her back. Her hands had been tied together behind her. She staggered and then took a step. "Straight ahead," Faye said.

Cassie staggered another step, and an arm steadied her. It came from the side. Faye wasn't alone, then. Well, of course not; she couldn't have carried Cassie by herself.

Cassie had never realized how important it was to see. It was terrifying to be made to walk like this, on and on into nothingness. For all she knew Faye might be marching her straight off a cliff.

No, not off a cliff. They weren't on a bluff; they were on the beach. Although she couldn't see, now that she was no longer wrapped in the sheet her other senses were functioning. From her left came the slow, rhythmic roar of waves. Very close. Under her feet she could feel crumbling, slightly damp sand. The breeze that lifted her nightgown around her calves was cold and fresh. It smelled of salt and seaweed.

"Stop."

Cassie obeyed automatically. She tried to swallow and found the inside of her mouth was like glue.

"Faye – " she managed to get out.

"Be quiet!" The voice was sharp, no laziness now. Like a cat with its claws unsheathed. A sudden pressure at her neck made Cassie stiffen – someone had grabbed the bottom of the hood and was tightening it warningly. "Don't talk unless you're asked a question. Don't move unless you're told. Do you understand?"

Numbly, Cassie nodded.

"Now take one step forward. Turn to your left. Stop. Stay right there. Don't make a sound."

Hands moved at the back of Cassie's neck. Then there was a glorious rush of cool air as the hood was lifted away. Light burst in on her, and Cassie stared in astonishment at the fantastic scene before her eyes.

Black and white, that was her first thought. Everything was stark black and white, like a scene from the surface of the moon.

But there was the moon in front of her. Pure white, just risen, it formed a perfect crescent over the ocean. The ocean was as black as the sky, except for the ghostly white foam on the waves. And in front of it stood a figure that seemed to shine with a pale light.

Diana?

She was wearing a thin white shift that left her arms bare. Clasped around one upper arm was a wide cuff of silver with strange engraving on it. On her forehead was a sort of diadem with a crescent moon, the horns pointing upward. Her long hair, hanging loose beneath it, seemed to be woven of moonlight.

In her hand was a dagger.

With terrifying sharpness Cassie now remembered the dream she'd had of her mother and grandmother in her room. Sacrifice, one of them had said. Was that what she was here for now? Sacrifice?

Mesmerized, she stared at the blade of the dagger, at the moonlight shimmering on it. Then she looked at Diana's face.

I would never have believed it – no, I wouldn't have believed that you would help Faye do this. But you're here, with a knife. I'm seeing it. How can I not believe my own eyes?

"Turn around," a voice said.

Cassie felt her body turn.

A circle was drawn in the sand, a big one. Inside and outside were candles, stuck right into the beach. Wax was melting on the sand. The candles were all sizes, all colors. Some looked as if they had been burning a long time, from the amount of wax pooled beneath them and the way they had slumped. Every flame was dancing in the slight breeze.

Inside the circle were the members of the Club. Cassie's frightened mind registered glimpses of faces and no more, like flashes seen in lightning. The same faces she had seen gathered around the table in the back room that afternoon. Proud. Beautiful. Alien.

Faye was one of them. She was dressed all in black. And if Diana's hair seemed to be woven of moonlight, hers was woven of gloom,

Diana walked past Cassie and stepped into the circle. Suddenly Cassie realized that the ring drawn in the sand was not complete. There was a gap in its northeast corner, directly in front of her feet.

She was standing just outside the threshold.

Startled, her eyes came up to seek Diana's. Diana's expression revealed nothing; her face was pale and distant. Cassie's heart, which had been thudding dully, now picked up speed.

Diana spoke, her voice clear and musical, but she was not speaking to Cassie.

"Who challenges her?"

Faye's throaty voice rose in answer. "I do."

Cassie didn't see the dagger until Faye held it at her throat. It pricked, pressing slightly into the hollow, and she felt her eyes widen. She tried to hold completely still. Faye's hooded, enigmatic eyes were gazing straight into hers. There was a sort of fierce pleasure in their depths, and the same heat Cassie had seen in the science building when Faye had threatened her with fire.

Faye smiled her slow, scary smile, and the pressure of the blade against Cassie's throat increased. "I challenge you," Faye said directly to Cassie. "If there is any fear in your heart, it would be better for you to throw yourself forward on this dagger than to continue. So what is it, Cassie?" she added, her voice dropping to a lazy, intimate murmur that could scarcely have been heard by the others. "Is there fear in your heart? Careful how you answer."

Dumbfounded, Cassie only stared. Fear in her heart? How could there not be fear in her heart? They had done everything they could to terrify her – of course there was fear in her heart.

Then, moving only her eyes, she looked at Diana.

Cassie remembered Laurel in the back room today, after Faye had implied Diana might have had something to do with Kori's death. Laurel had looked confused for a moment, then her face had cleared and she'd said, "I don't care what you say; you're never going to make me believe Diana would hurt Kori."

That was faith, Cassie thought. Believing no matter what. Did she have that kind of faith in Diana?

Yes, she thought, still looking into Diana's steady green eyes. I do.

Then can I trust her no matter what? Enough not to be afraid anymore?

The answer had to come from inside. Cassie searched through her mind, trying to find the truth. Everything that had happened tonight – them dragging her out of bed, carrying her down here without any explanation, the knife, the strangeness of this whole ceremony – it all looked bad. And someone had killed Kori…

I trust you, Diana.

That was the answer she found at the bottom of her mind. I trust you. Despite all this, no matter how it looks, I trust you.

She looked back at Faye, who was still wearing a little catlike smile. Gazing straight into those honey-colored eyes, Cassie said clearly, "Go on. There's no fear in my heart."

Even as she said it, she felt the symptoms of terror drop away from her. The weakness, the giddiness, the thudding of her heart. She stood straight even though her hands were still tied behind her back and the dagger point was still at her throat.

Something flared in Faye's eyes. Something like grim respect. Her smile changed, and she nodded almost imperceptibly. The next instant her black eyebrows were raised ironically as she spoke.

"Then step inside," she invited.

Straight forward? Into the dagger blade? Cassie refused to let her eyes drop from the golden ones in front of her. She hesitated an instant, then stepped straight forward.

The blade yielded before her. Cassie could feel a tiny trickle of wetness on her throat as it withdrew and Faye stepped back.

Then she looked down. She was inside the circle.

Diana took the dagger from Faye and went to the break in the circle behind Cassie. Drawing the knife through the sand, she bridged the gap, making the circle complete. Cassie had an odd sensation of closure, of something sealing. As if a door had been locked behind her. And as if what was inside the circle was different from anything outside.

"Come to the center," Diana said.

Cassie tried to walk tall as she did. Diana's shift, she could see now, was slit all the way up to the hip on one side. There was something on Diana's long, well-made upper leg. A garter? That was what it looked like. Like the ornamental bands of lace and ribbon that a bride wears to throw at a wedding. Except that this was made of something like green suede and lined with blue silk. It had a silver buckle.

"Turn around," Diana ordered.

Cassie hoped the cord binding her wrists was going to be cut. But instead she felt hands on her shoulders, spinning her faster and faster. She was being whirled around and pushed from side to side, from person to person. For an instant panic surged through her again. She was dizzy, disoriented. With her hands tied she couldn't catch herself if she fell. And that knife was somewhere…

Just go with it. Relax, she told herself. And magically, her fear dissolved. She let herself be bounced from one person to another. If she fell, she fell.

Hands steadied her, stood her facing Diana again. She was slightly breathless and the world was reeling, but she tried to draw herself up straight.

"You've been challenged and you've passed the tests," Diana informed her, and now there was a little smile in Diana's green eyes, although her lips were grave. "Now are you willing to swear?"

Swear what? But Cassie nodded.

"Will you swear to be loyal to the Circle? Never to harm anyone who stands inside it? Will you protect and defend those who do, even if it costs you your life?"

Cassie swallowed. Then, trying to keep her voice level, she said, "Yes."

"Will you swear never to reveal the secrets you will learn, except to a proper person, within a properly prepared Circle like the one we stand in now? Will you swear to keep these secrets from all outsiders, friends and enemies, even if it costs you your life?"

"Yes," Cassie whispered.

"By the ocean, by the moon, by your own blood, will you so swear?"

"Yes."

"Say, 'I will so swear.' "

"I will so swear."

"She has been challenged and tested, and she has been sworn," Diana said, stepping back and speaking to the others. "And now, since all of us in the Circle agree, I call on the Powers to look at her."

Diana raised the dagger above her head, pointing the blade at the sky. Then she pointed it to the east, toward the ocean, then to the south, then toward the western cliff, then toward the north. Finally, she pointed it at Cassie. The words she spoke as she did sent shock waves running down Cassie's spine:

Earth and water, fire and air,

See your daughter standing there.

By dark of moon and light of sun,

As I will, let it be done.

By challenge, trial, and sacred vow,

Let her join the Circle now.

Flesh and sinew, blood and bone,

Cassie now becomes –

"But we don't all agree," an angry voice broke in. "I still don't think she's one of us. I don't think she ever can be."

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