THE CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
THE CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
“Are you afraid?”
Michelle shook her head and looked at the other girls in the room, which was only illuminated by the candles they were holding. Like her, they were naked. But while they were all standing with their candles, she was kneeling down.
veryone was completely naked,e
There was an eerie atmosphere in the dark room. A cool, night breeze seeped in through the slightly open windows, making the flames of the candles flicker and throw dancing shadows on the walls.
Michelle was kneeling in the middle of the red circle that had been drawn on the floor. The others formed a wall around her. She tried to count how many girls were around her, but after counting up to thirteen, she got confused. Maybe I had double-counted some, she began to wonder. Could there be as many as thirteen?
“Just relax, Michelle. We have all gone through the same process before. It’s the only way that you can become complete like we are. It’s the only way that you can become strong.”
Michelle looked up at the girl who had just spoken. She was the only one amongst them who was not completely bare. Tied around her head was a red scarf, and she was not holding a candle. Rather, she was holding a black clay pot.
“Are you ready to join us, Michelle?” she asked.
“You need to speak out, Michelle. Your words are what the spirits and we here are going to hold you to. Speak out; let us all know what your intention really is,” the girl with the red scarf said, a trifle impatiently.
Michelle nodded again. “Yes. Yes, I willingly choose to be part of your sisterhood. I make this choice of my own freewill.”
She deliberately enunciated each word and syllable clearly and loudly so that there was no chance of her not being heard or understood.
The girl with the red scarf raised the black pot high above her head. She then looked up. “Ancient spirits of old, ancient spirits from beyond. Behold, we commit to you Michelle here. On her knees she sits, waiting with her heart and spirit open in freewill to receive from you the powers that you have once granted unto each and every one of us gathered in this room tonight. May you find her worthy to become one of us.”
Michelle glanced up at the girl in front of her. As she did, she noticed that the black clay pot in her hands was glowing. Its sides appeared orange in colour, as if something was being cooked within the pot.
Michelle frowned in surprise. The pot was not above a fire. It was being held high above the girl’s head—and yet it was glowing red-hot. How?
As if to confirm Michelle’s suspicions, the girl brought down the pot. Clouds of smoke could be seen coming out of the top.
Michelle backed away as the pot was laid before her.
The girl with the red scarf smiled. “Do not be afraid, Michelle. The spirits have accepted the sacrifice that we gave to them, and the way they show their acceptance is by incinerating the animals that were within the pot. All that remains now is the ashes from their cremated bodies. In order to complete tonight’s rites, you’re going to now bathe yourself completely with the ashes, and eat some of it.”
“Did you say ashes? Ashes from animals?”
“Yes, Michelle. Ashes from animals that we caught on our way here.”
Michelle glanced at the pot in front of her. Soft wisps of smoke could be seen rising out of it. “What kind of animals were they?”
“You need not bother yourself with all that, Michelle. Are you still interested in becoming like us?”
Michelle looked around. Several pairs of eyes were staring back at her. She took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes. Yes, I want to become one of you.”
“Then complete the rite, Michelle. Taste some of the ashes and rub your body with the remaining.”
Without a word, Michelle pulled the pot close to her. She went to dip her right hand into the pot but the girl with the red scarf stopped her.
“Use your left hand, Michelle. Your left hand is what you should dip into the pot, not your right one.”
Michelle nodded. She transferred the candle to her right hand. She then dipped her left hand into the ashes. It felt warm to touch.
She scooped up some of the grey dust and opened her mouth. Her mind suddenly became clouded with several thoughts.
Why did they refuse to tell her what animals had been incinerated? And how did the animals become incinerated? Maybe the pot was some form of an electric stove. But even if it was, how was it possible that the girl with the red scarf had been able to hold up the burning pot with her bare hands and still not get burnt?
She opened her eyes to see the girl with the red scarf watching her intently.
“Are you hesitating? Are you no longer sure that you want to go ahead with this?”
Michelle shook her head vigorously.
“But it looks like you are. You still haven’t ingested the ashes in your hand. You do know the consequences of backing out at this point, don’t you?”
“I’m not backing out. I’m all right. I’m ready.”
She had to go ahead with this. There is no turning back, she thought.
“Then complete the rite to prove your willingness to become one of us.”
Michelle bent her head backwards and raised her left hand. She allowed the ashes to fall into her mouth. She did not stop pouring in the ashes until her mouth had become full.
She then began to swallow. The ashes tasted like freshly burnt wood. Somewhere in her mind, Michelle began to wonder if these really were the remains of some animals that had been incinerated.
The other girls watched her quietly as she ingested the entire contents of her left hand. When she had finished, Michelle looked up at the girl with the red scarf.
“Now pour the remaining on your body and rub it all over as if you were applying body lotion,” the girl with the red scarf said with a smile on her face.
Michelle picked up the pot and raised it above her head. She closed her eyes and upended the pot. The ashes fell on her head clustering into a heap before cascading down to her shoulders and the rest of her body. When she was sure that the pot was empty, Michelle placed it back on the ground. She bent over to scoop some of the ashes off the ground, then began to rub it all over herself. She rubbed it all over until she was completely covered in the grey ashes.
Once she was done, Michelle looked up at the girl with the red scarf. “You have completely covered yourself with the ashes, both inside by ingesting it and outside by rubbing it on your body. You are now whole, Michelle. Reborn into our sisterhood. How do you feel?”
Michelle looked down at her hands and arms. She could feel some kind of spark, a wave of energy flowing through her veins. Even in the dimly lit environment, she could see her skin glowing from underneath the dark ashes that she had covered her body with.
She looked up at the girl with the red scarf, smiling. “I feel different.”
“Yes. Different. And, and, and—” Michelle found herself stammering. She was suddenly overtaken with alarm and confusion. She was never one to search for words to say. She was never known to stammer. Yet, here she was, on her knees, covered in ashes, stammering, as if she had lost the words she wanted to say.
With fear in her eyes, she looked up at the girl in the red scarf. She only smiled back at her. It was not a smile of friendliness and warmth. It was a smile of determination and resolve.
“Do not be afraid, Michelle. You must allow the spirits to completely take control of your entire being. They must possess your body, your soul, and your spirit.”
“What?” Michelle managed to ask in a voice that she could have sworn was not hers.
“The spirits, Michelle. They need to possess you completely. Do not try to resist them. Let them do their work. Just relax.”
“Relax?” Michelle asked in horror and confusion.
But how could she relax when her entire body now seemed to be on fire? The skin that Michelle had been admiring just earlier was now literally on fire. With eyes filled with horror, Michelle was watching herself burn up from within.
The pain was excruciating and numbing.
Michelle doubled over and fell down in the circle. She lay there writhing and shuddering. She tried to scream out in pain, to beg for mercy and help. But all that came out of her mouth was a sinister hiss.
The other girls, along with the one with the red scarf, watched with disinterest, as Michelle jerked, tossed and turned on the floor. Her body was now bright orange and red as if fire was burning her from deep within. As if Michelle’s skin was merely holding the fire from bursting out and consuming the environment around her.
Michelle could not think anymore. She struggled to overcome the pain of the searing heat to no avail.
I should accept it. It’s my fate. My only path to salvation. There is no turning back. No going back to how it used to be. It’s time to be reborn—more powerful, more robust and more in control. Wasn’t that the reason why I wanted to join them in the first place? Michelle thought to herself.
Suddenly filled with the new realization, Michelle got up from where she had previously lain, writhing and tossing. This was not a normal process of pain and anguish, she said to herself. She had wanted to be with them, to join them, and belong to them. She knew what was entailed in the rites: her having to surrender her entire being to the spirits. She had asked for this willingly, and she was going to give in willingly.
Still in pain, Michelle struggled to kneel and raised her hands high above her head, as if in total surrender and submission to her fate.
The other girls, who had been watching without much interest before this moment, were startled at Michelle’s sudden behaviour. They began to look at one another, wondering what to make of the new convert’s acceptance.
It was the girl with the red scarf who called them to order. She raised her hand, motioning for all to be still and silent while Michelle underwent the process. They watched in disbelief or intense interest, or both, as Michelle’s entire body changed. The transformation was rapid and immediate. From the colour of a young fire that had just sparked into life, Michelle’s skin began to glow as the deep red flames started to rise, the girls had to step backwards because of the intensity of the heat.
As they did, they saw that the flames were burning wide and high, sometimes gushing and sprouting forth like a geyser from her mouth, eyes and hands. This display continued for a while before the redness began to simmer down like a dying fire. Eventually, her skin turned into deep blue colour before it became pale pink once more.
By this time, Michelle was completely spent and exhausted. Involuntarily, her hands fell to her sides and she collapsed on the floor, unconscious.
Michelle opened her eyes. She could see herself floating through a dark void filled with flashing stars and other celestial bodies. She wondered where she was and what she was doing there. Looking at herself, she realized that she was still naked and her body was glowing in different coloured patterns. The glow was changing from orange to red, then blue, as if there were fireflies embedded deep within her skin.
She remembered that she had gotten used to the glowing fire inside her at some point, and that had been because she had decided to accept her fate and the consequences of her decision to join the sisterhood. Now, as she floated effortlessly and her skin glowed with different colours, she found herself enjoying the experience.
Suddenly, she felt herself being pulled. The environment around her seemed to move away fast. Then she saw herself inside a room. She looked around. The walls were all white, and there were no doors or windows. Just a brown chair in centre of the empty room.
Michelle was standing alone, looking around and wondering what to make of all this. She noticed that her body was no longer glowing. Instead of an internal heat, she was now beginning to feel a bit cold. She rubbed her bare shoulders and arms, silently wishing that she could experience more of the warmth and heat of the internal fire that she had previously felt.
The voice startled her. She felt her body temperature shoot up.
She looked at her arms, hands and legs. They were now glowing again in red and orange colours. Her breath was also warm, and she could see wisps of flame and smoke emitting from her mouth and nostrils. Somehow, in her excitement and fright, her body had heated up once more.
She remembered the voice that had startled her in the first place. Michelle turned and looked in the direction of the chair. Seated on it was a big, black, ominous-looking cat.
Confused, Michelle searched the room again. There was nothing else in it. She couldn’t see anybody there, except for her and the cat.
Michelle turned her attention to the cat. Its fur was black and seemed to shine as if it had been polished. But the most remarkable aspect of its body was its eyes. They were bright yellow, and they were staring at Michelle with a level of intensity that seemed abnormal.
“You’re wondering what a cat is doing here with you in this room, aren’t you?”
Michelle looked around the room again. “Who’s saying that? Who’s there? Come out, whoever you are, and stop talking to me while you’re hiding,” she said, feeling her body flush with anger.
“Michelle, I’m here.”
Michelle spun around. She was getting irritated and angry. “Where are you? Show yourself now.”
“I’m right here, Michelle.”
“On the chair in front of you.”
Michelle turned to face the chair. The yellow-eyed cat was still staring back at her. Then its mouth began to move as it spoke. “You seem too engrossed with what you perceive to be the norm, Michelle. But in our world and in our existence, we know that the norm is never what it’s supposed to be. You should always bear that in mind, especially now that you have joined the sisterhood.”
Michelle gasped and took a step backwards. As she did, she noticed that some flames escaped from her mouth. She looked at her hot breath, then glanced back at the cat on the chair.
“You’re confused, aren’t you, Michelle? You’re wondering what to make of your transformation—the fire that now exists inside of you, that you now carry in your body. And then there is me, a cat sitting on a chair, talking to you. You wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t find this downright bizarre.”
Michelle knew there was no point trying to pretend that this was not real. The fire inside her and the talking cat were now her reality. She had to accept it, just as she had accepted becoming a sister in the nether-world shadowy group. Without reservation, she nodded.
“I thought as much too. Most sisters experience this sort of confusion whenever they come into my presence for the first time. They are like you, filled with unimaginable powers, then they see me and really do not know what to make of it.”
“Who are you?” Michelle asked, full of curiosity and awe.
“I go by many names, but I don’t think that it’s going to be of any benefit to you right now. So, let’s just simply say that I’m a guardian to you and the other sisters. More importantly, I’m a representative of the spirits you and the sisters serve.”
“A guardian and a representative?”
“Yes, Michelle. You could say that I serve as a sort of liaison between your sisters and the spirits. Such a demanding task it is, and yet it can also be quite fascinating.”
“Okay. And where are we?”
“Do you really want to be bothered about that right now? Where we are is not important. What you should be asking is why we’re here.”
“Why are we here?”
“Good. I need you to know that you’re no longer the person you used to be. I’m sure you can still remember the person you used to be, Michelle, can’t you?”
Michelle looked away from the cat. She could feel her mind searching through a whole lot of thoughts, struggling to get the exact information she sought.
“Sometimes the transformations have a way of wiping away any unpleasant memories of the past, but if you dig deeper and try harder, you will be able to bring it up to the surface,” the cat said.
Michelle closed her eyes and began to visualize her past. She saw herself climbing up the stairs that led into her high school. She was a shy, sixteen-year-old girl with dark brown hair, big brown eyes and pleasant face that looked a little flushed on account of acne. As she walked with her head down, someone bumped into her, making her school bag fall off her shoulder. As it hit the floor, her books spilled out of her bag. She bent down to pick them up, but someone kicked away one of her books. Then another person kicked another. Then another. And another. Until all of her books were strewn all over the ground.
She stood up and screamed at her fellow schoolmates to stop, but they only laughed at her. Then the laughter began to crescendo until it was like a roar.
Michelle sat down on the staircase, covering her ears with both of her hands as she was being laughed at. Hot tears of rage and helplessness spilled out of her eyes and streaked her young teenage face.
She tried harder to close her ears, hoping to shut out the sound of the laughter around her. But she couldn’t. She looked at all her books scattered on the floor. Deep inside, she felt helpless, and could feel hot tears gathering inside her eyes.
“Come with me,” someone said. Michelle looked up and saw the outstretched hand of another schoolgirl. She looked different from the others, and had a red scarf tied on her head. Under it, Michelle could see strands of golden hair sticking out. The girl’s beautiful green eyes showed her concern for the poor hapless Michelle being bullied by her classmates. In her moment of despair and sadness, Michelle had not noticed the strange girl walk up the staircase and pick up all her books.
The girl stood with her hand stretched out towards Michelle. In the other hand was Michelle’s bag, with all her books packed in it.
Michelle took her hand and stood up. The other girls were no longer in the corridor. It was as if they had just vanished.
Michelle glanced around, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of those cruel schoolgirls.
“You won’t find any of them around. At least not while I’m here,” the girl with the red scarf said, with an air of confidence. “You’re new in this school, aren’t you?”
Michelle nodded. “This is my third week.”
“I see. It must have been three weeks of hell for you.”
“Not really? Or very truly?”
Michelle frowned at her. “What do you mean?”
The girl smiled at Michelle. “It’s okay. You can be open with me. To tell you the truth, I have been watching you for quite a while now.”
“Ever since you stepped onto the grounds of this school. I have been present through all your incidents with those nasty girls, the ones who have been bullying and making fun of you—but I just didn’t know how you’d react if I decided to intervene. That’s why I did not want to do anything.”
“But you changed your mind today. Why did you help me?”
“I felt that it wasn’t going to stop. Soon enough, you’d do what most newcomers always do when faced with such hardship.”
“And what is that?”
“Many simply go away and never come back. Others just take their own lives.”
Michelle gasped. “Oh no!”
“Oh yes. When they can’t stand it anymore, they give in and give up. I did not want any of that happening to you. And that is why I decided to intervene. If you come with me and join my circle of friends, you won’t have to take any of that from them. Once you join us, your tormentors will always scamper away for their own safety whenever you’re in their presence. Wouldn’t you like that?”
Michelle could feel her cheeks blush as she smiled. She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, I’d love that.”
“I bet you would. You would be invincible. Nothing and no one would be able to hurt you anymore.”
“I’d really love that.”
“I know you would. I can tell that you’d make a good friend.”
“When can I join you?”
The girl with the red scarf looked at her closely, as if she was thinking of the most appropriate response. “You know that everything has a price, don’t you?”
“Yes, a price. You cannot expect to join such an exclusive circle without some form of cost on your part.”
“You mean membership fees?”
The girl with the red scarf smiled. “You can consider it something like that.”
“I don’t mind. I’d gladly pay to join you and your friends.”
The girl caressed Michelle’s face. “I know. I’m sure you will.”
Everything suddenly became blurry. When she was able to focus once more, Michelle found herself on the floor. She was in the middle of a circle, surrounded by other girls, all of them naked. The girl with the red scarf stepped forward, smiling. “Now you’re going to become one of us, Michelle.”
“You do remember the past, don’t you?”
Michelle blinked and looked up. She was back in the strange white room, kneeling in front of the black cat.
She nodded in acknowledgement.
“That is good, Michelle. It’s good that you can still remember your past and what motivated you to become one of the sisters. Because this is going to guide you in performing the tasks assigned to you.”
“Yes, Michelle. From time to time you should expect tasks to be assigned to you. They are nothing that you won’t be able to handle, especially with your renewed awareness and capabilities. As long as you remain focused and remember why you’re one of us, then completing the tasks should never pose any difficulty to you.”
The cat laid its left paw on her forehead. “I now beseech you to go forth and manifest your powers, Michelle. Go and become the best you can be—for us all.”
Michelle could feel herself begin to fall. She looked down and saw a deep, dark tunnel underneath her. When she looked up, she could see the cat disappearing into the distance above her. She tried to hold onto it, or the chair that it was still seated on—but her efforts were futile. All she could do was fall deeper, and deeper, and deeper.
Then she woke up.
Michelle raised herself up from the floor. The other girls were all clapping around her. The girl with the red scarf helped her up with a smile on her face. “Congratulations, Michelle. You finally made it through. You’re now one of us.”
As Michelle stood up, she noticed that she was still weak and dizzy. Her knees wobbled a bit.
The girl with the red scarf held her by the waist. “Careful now, Michelle. We don’t want you falling down. Usually the final stage of the rite is the most strenuous and dangerous, especially the visions and trances that you undergo when you meet the black cat.”
“A lot of inductees end up getting lost or stuck.”
“What happens to them?” Michelle asked as she joined the other girls to put on her clothes.
“They never come out. They remain there.”
“But that’s a spiritual exercise, so is it their spirit that is stuck?” Michelle asked.
“That’s right. Are you wondering what happens to their bodies?”
“Their body remains here as it was left by them.”
“But don’t you do anything? I mean, surely you can help them out somehow? You can’t just leave the poor souls lost just because they aren’t strong enough,” Michelle protested.
“How? How can we help them? Remember that it’s their rite of passage, and it’s theirs and theirs alone to go through without any assistance whatsoever. We all went through the same thing and came out successful. All alone, without any assistance. That’s what makes one strong, focused and determined. Anyone who cannot complete that passage is not fit to belong with us.”
“Let’s leave all that for now. Tonight, we all need to rest. Tomorrow, we can see how you’re going to fare in your first task.”
In the morning, Michelle joined some other students in the school’s cafeteria for breakfast. There were few of them standing in queues waiting to be served. While waiting, someone tapped her arm. She looked up to see the girl in the red scarf smiling broadly at her.
“Hello,” Michelle said.
“Hi, Michelle. You look bright and beautiful this morning.”
Michelle smiled back at her. “Thank you. So do you.”
The girl in the red scarf came closer to Michelle and whispered. “Your first task is going to take place here in the cafeteria. One of those bully girls is going to accost you. You can decide what you want to happen to her. The other sisters and I will be watching and assessing your performance.”
Michelle frowned. But before she could say anything, the girl with the red scarf had left, leaving Michelle standing alone. She bit her lip and looked around the queue. She was hoping that she would see her sisters, the new friends she had joined.
Not one of them appeared to be close by.
Michelle turned back around, hoping to spot one of the bullies. She didn’t see any of them either.
For a moment, Michelle was tempted to heave a sigh of relief. But a thought occurred to her. The girl in the red scarf had mentioned that she was going to be accosted by one of the bullies. And it was supposed to happen here in the cafeteria. How did she know? Michelle wondered.
After she had been served by the cafeteria lady, Michelle bumped into a girl standing in front of her. Michelle recognized her as one of the girls who were fond of bullying her.
“Idiot! Can’t you watch where you’re going, or are you as blind as you are stupid?”
The other sisters will be watching and assessing, Michelle remembered.
“Maybe you should move out of my path,” Michelle replied.
The bully, a girl with a far larger frame than Michelle, raised her hand and poked Michelle. “Wow, what do we have here now? Are you talking to me? When did this happen? Did you get drunk and forget your place in this school, or did your stupid brain stop functioning altogether?”
“Get out of my way,” Michelle said as she felt her anger beginning to build up.
The bully pushed Michelle roughly. “Or what? Tell me. What will happen if I refuse to move, you little sewer rat?”
Michelle stared at the bully. She could feel the fumes and wisps of smoke beginning to escape from her slightly open mouth.
The bully was smiling when she heard everyone around begin to gasp. The bully turned, and that was when she felt it as well. The skirt of her uniform had suddenly burst into flames. With a shriek, the bully struggled to pull off her skirt but it refused to come off.
She then began to jump and scream. But as she did so, the flames only grew.
By now, pandemonium had broken loose in the cafeteria. The students ran out of the cafeteria, screaming.
But not Michelle. She stood there with her tray, watching the bully get consumed by fire. The bully had now fallen to her knees, screaming and begging for help as the fire continued to eat her up in a hungry inferno.
Michelle didn’t do anything to help. She simply turned and went to go sit down, leaving behind the charred remains of the bully in a kneeling position, with arms reaching for mercy.
Michelle ate her meal silently, watching the bully, still smouldering, not too far from her. Someone came and sat by her side. Michelle looked up and saw that it was the girl with the red scarf. Soon, the nearby seats were filled by the other sisters. They were the girls whom Michelle easily recognized from the night before.
“That was quite bold, Michelle,” the girl with the red scarf said.
Michelle smiled. “Was it? That particular one has always been a pain in my neck.”
The girl in the red scarf turned around to look at the burnt remains. “Yes, I can imagine. But you need to learn the art of being discreet. And when you can’t be discreet, then you should use the art of concealment.”
The girl with the red scarf snapped her fingers. Instantly, the burnt remains of the girl disappeared. There was no trace of any burnt body anywhere in the cafeteria anymore. She turned to smile at Michelle, who was staring back at her in bewilderment and surprise. “See? That way, when the authorities or anyone else come asking questions, they will look like fools.”
Just then, the doors of the cafeteria burst open and several teachers walked in briskly. They were followed by several other students and a few police officers.
The girl with the red scarf nudged Michelle. “See? I told you that they would come, didn’t I?”
One of the men in a police uniform approached Michelle’s table. “We got a report of someone being burnt alive in this cafeteria. What happened?”
The girl in the red scarf looked around and made a face. “I’m sorry, Officer. Did you say someone was burnt alive? In this very cafeteria? When?”
The officer bit his lip and glanced around. In the distance, he could see some girls pointing at a particular spot, talking agitatedly to his colleagues. He turned back to face Michelle and her friends. “Did you by any chance notice anything unusual while you were here this morning? I mean, anything out of the ordinary?”
Michelle shook her head. “No, Officer. Nothing out of the ordinary happened this morning. What are you talking about?”
The officer was now feeling foolish, and the sheepish expression on his face revealed his level of discomfort. “I don’t really know. My office was called not too long ago. A report had been made to your school authorities that a girl was on fire. Obviously, this must be some kind of hoax or a sick joke.”
The officer turned to look at the girls who were still chattering and talking. “Obviously, they must be under the influence or something.”
“Why would they play such a prank?” Michelle asked.
“That beats me, miss. I don’t know yet, but I sure as hell am going to find out. You don’t waste police time on hoax calls,” the officer said.
“Well, I have been here this whole time having breakfast with my friends. I’m sure that if there was any sort of trouble, we wouldn’t still be sitting here,” Michelle said.
The officer nodded. “You’re right. My apologies. I’d better go and pull away my men. Have a nice day girls.”
As the officer walked away, the girl in the red scarf tapped Michelle’s arm. “You were splendid, Michelle. Welcome to our circle of friends.”