“Do you have the materials?” he whispered, intoning to the hooded figure next to him. The figure nodded, though he moved so little and the forest was so dark that it was difficult to see him through the gloom. The only light came from the fire in the middle of the circle of figures, all hooded, all stooped towards the flames.
The figure who had nodded stepped forward and withdrew a small vial from his cloak. On first glance, it appeared not to contain anything, but in the glow of the fire, a thin, almost clear liquid could be seen shimmering inside the glass container. The figure gently pulled the cork out of the top and looked up at the sky.
“Brothers and sisters,” the first man said in a strong, clear voice, “We are gathered here tonight, on the third night of the third month, to offer our bodies and service to the Great Being. It is She who has burned through our world, bathing us in the glow of suffering and casting our souls alight. Today, we once again praise Her name in the hopes that we too will be blessed by Her.”
“Aaaaahhhhhh,” the circle of figures chanted, some of them groaning more than others. “Infect us, Great Being, infect us with your love!”
Across the circle from the speaker, one of the figures collapsed. The two robed people beside her immediately reached down and rolled the figure onto her back. Her hood fell down from her head, exposing a forehead glistening with sweat. Her breathing was labored and heavy. The rest of the figures gazed at her in reverence, almost enviously.
“Is she—?” asked the first man, barely above a whisper; even though his voice was quiet, it still carried clearly across the circle and bounced off the surrounding trees as though in echo.
One of the figures next to the collapsed woman nodded. “She has been chosen,” she said, her voice rising with every word. “She has been CHOSEN!”
A hushed silence fell among the figures, who had been whispering amongst themselves. The man with the vial put the cork back into it as he walked around the fire. He knelt down next to the woman, looking at her closely. After a few moments, he stood back up again and said, “We shall add her to the fire.”
A man on the other side of the collapsed woman gasped involuntarily, then tried to cover it up. It did not go unnoticed: the man with the vial turned on his heel and looked straight at him. “Something bothering you, Addison?”
Addison looked down at his feet. “No sir. Well, it’s just…” He gave a small shudder. “It’s-just-that-she’s-not-even-dead-yet,” he blurted out, his cheeks reddening underneath his hood. “Shouldn’t we wait for her to, erm, finish first?”
The man with the vial looked at Addison imperiously. “Infection is the task the Great Being has set before us,” he said boomingly, standing taller than anyone in the circle. “Elaine has become infected. Our task now is to add her to the flames, in the hope that the smoke will share her infection with us. If she dies first, the infection may die with her. Were you not told the procedures during your initiation?” Addison mumbled incomprehensibly and put his head back down.
The figure put the vial back into this robes and lifted Elaine into his arms. She tried to say something, but it was clear that she was struggling just to breathe. He carried her to the fire and held her over the flames. The first man stepped forward once again, the fire flickering in the lenses of his wire-frame glasses.
“Elaine, may the blessing the Great Being has endowed you with be passed on to the rest of us. In sickness, there is health. Be spread!” he yelled, motioning to the man holding her.
At this gesture, the man dropped Elaine into the flames. She screamed as soon as the first flame touched her, and her screams became higher and higher in pitch as the fire engulfed her body. All of the figures except for Addison watched Elaine burn soundlessly; he looked down at the dirt below his sandaled feet, wishing desperately for the comfort of his own bed. At the moment she was thrown into the flames, it was though all of his resolve had gone up in smoke.
Albert rose and stretched, the sun streaming in through his window. He tossed the covers off his feet and stood up, narrowly missing stepping on his cat, who hissed and streaked under the bed. After rubbing his eyes a fair amount and spitting out his retainer, he grabbed his bathrobe from a nearby chair and traipsed out of his room and into the kitchenette.
The apartment didn’t have a ton of room, but at least it wasn’t the box he lived in while in school. He pulled a jug of orange juice out of the fridge and was just about to throw some bacon in a pan when he heard the creaking of another door opening.
Albert turned around, taking in his roommate’s appearance. He had heavy bags under his eyes, and based on the number of holes, it appeared as though moths had gotten to his pajamas. He stumbled across the kitchen until he reached the fridge and pulled out a single slice of salami, which he chewed slowly with an unfocused look in his eyes. Albert watched this scene bemusedly.
“Addison, dude, you have got to stop partying so hard. This can’t be good for you,” Albert said in between sips of his orange juice. The bacon popped and snapped happily in the pan, the flames in the range cooking it quickly.
“I what? Oh, yeah, whatever, man,” Addison said sleepily. He finished his salami and slumped down onto a chair, looking as though he could fall asleep at any moment.
“Those must be some weird parties you’re going to. Who throws a rager on a Monday night? Someone who doesn’t have work the next day, that’s for sure,” Albert said resentfully, answering his own question. He sniffed the air. “And you smell like a campfire. Did someone shower you with cigarette ashes again?”
Addison grunted noncommittally. Albert jabbered on. “I had the weirdest dream last night, man. I don’t remember much, but there was this weird circle of people, and they all had hoods on, and this woman got thrown into a fire…I think.”
At this, Addison’s eyes widened. He was struck by recollections of the previous night, the night of the sacrifice of Elaine. His dreams, too, had been haunted by images of fire. He could still hear her screaming, pleading…could nearly smell the smoke…
“Oh hell, the bacon’s burning!” shouted Albert, jumping out of his chair. He hurriedly tipped the bacon out of the pan and grabbed a magazine on the counter to fan the smoke. Addison watched in silence, subtly smelling himself. He did smell like smoke.
Albert’s fanning efforts weren’t enough, and within minutes, the smoke alarm went off. Sprinklers erupted from the ceiling, spraying the two roommates with cold water. The cat yowled in Albert’s bedroom. The bacon sizzled dejectedly on the counter. Albert looked at Addison ruefully. “Guess we won’t need to shower before work, huh?”
Addison wiped the sweat off his forehead for what seemed like the millionth time. He learned even further over the fryers, trying to hide the dark circles under his eyes from his boss; thankfully, it seemed as though she didn’t feel like bullying him today. He glanced up at the small TV in the corner of the McDonald’s kitchen, shaking the frying baskets absentmindedly as he read the subtitles of the news report.
“—disappeared yesterday, after saying she was going to meet an old friend for dinner. Her family and boyfriend have tried unsuccessfully to contact her. If you have any information on the disappearance of Elaine Hastings, please call 1-800-NO-CRIME,” the pretty blond newscaster mouthed.
The broad-shouldered male anchor next to her read the next segment. “It is suspected that her disappearance has something to do with the recent rise of the ‘fire disease’ that has had everyone talking for the last week,” he stated. “Friends report that Elaine developed a strange interest in the disease shortly after it was first reported, saying that she was curious about its symptoms and means of spreading. Researchers from the CDC cannot confirm anything yet, but it is suspected that the disease travels through the air via fire smoke. Government officials are encouraging people to cease creating outdoor fires until they have a more complete grasp on the situation.
“Confirmed symptoms of the disease include excessive sweating, extreme fevers, and the inability to feel cold. If you experience any of these symptoms, please go to your local hospital at once.”
As the female newscaster made a halfhearted joke about “smoke on the water” to segue into the weather report, Addison mopped his forehead again. Was his sweating excessive? No, but he was sure he didn’t usually sweat this much at work. He glanced up at the thermostat on the wall. His boss usually kept it locked at 71 so that the food didn’t spoil, but someone had cranked it up to 75. Addison nearly fainted in relief. So it wasn’t him.
If you’d asked Addison how he’d gotten involved with a cult that worshipped this new fire disease, he couldn’t have told you. Addison never really did things; it was more like things happened to him. At first, he’d been really curious about the new disease, just like Elaine had been. (Those screams…) He’d spent hours after work Googling the disease on his phone, wondering how a pathogen could spread through fire smoke. He read every article he could, even those really weird conspiracy pieces that his grandmother shared on Facebook.
And then…they didn’t seem so weird anymore. The pieces began to fit together, and Addison could see the whole tapestry of information in his head. The Great Being, the articles claimed, was a goddess of fire who had sent the disease to Earth in order to burn away the old order and start again, sort of like a fiery version of the Noah’s ark story. It was a gift to be infected with this disease, because according to people who’d had it and survived, they’d seen miraculous things: great fields of flame, otherworldly planets, and even the Great Being herself, who supposedly blessed the infected with new power.
A day or two after Addison had fallen down this rabbit hole, Facebook recommended an event to him. “Fire Disease Discussion Party,” it read. “All are welcome. Meet at the edge of the Monastery Woods at dusk for intelligent conversation around a campfire.” As Albert and his coworkers were sick of hearing Addison recount stories and facts about the fire disease over and over, Addison decided it would be nice to go to a place where he could discuss this newfound hobby—if it could be called that—with people who were also interested.
It turned out that the party was actually a cult initiation. Before Addison could run, a hooded robe was thrown over him and a man with a strong, clear voice was saying words he didn’t understand. Addison was told a lot of nebulous things about “imbuing oneself with the disease” and “fiery graves,” but he was so concerned about getting out that he didn’t listen to much of it. The other cult members threatened to find him through the Facebook event if he didn’t come back again, so he did. Again and again and again. It didn’t seem as though there was a way to escape.
Addison sighed. Maybe this was what he deserved for making a hobby out of someone else’s illness. All he knew was that he didn’t want to end up like poor innocent Elaine, whose image was still burned into his mind.
The oil in the fryer sloshed as Addison shook the frying baskets a little too hard. A drop of hot oil landed on his wrist and he yelped. His boss came running from around the corner; at the sight of Addison sucking on his wound, her expression of surprise changed to one of impatience. “Again, Addison? Pay attention!” she shouted exasperatedly before rounding the corner and disappearing from view.
Addison looked at his wrist and noticed that there was a little ash left on his hand from the previous night. He brushed it into the fryer.
By the end of his shift, Addison was more tired than he’d thought possible. He handed the fryers off to Albert, who worked the night shift, and trudged through the parking lot to his car. As he sat down in front of the steering wheel, his phone jingled. He pulled it out of his pocket to see a notification—a message from the cult. “MEETING NEXT FRIDAY. TELL NO ONE,” it read. Instead of a name at the end, it was signed with a fire emoji. Addison thought this was incredibly stupid, but he wasn’t about to say something to the cult leader about it.
While sitting in traffic on his way home, he noticed that he was feeling unusually damp. He cranked up the air, tilting the vents toward his face to blow his car’s ice-cold A/C at his forehead, but it was as though the air bounced right off. After a minute or so, Addison turned the air off, now sweating profusely. He rolled down his window, but all he could feel was the hot exhaust rising from the cars sitting around him. The heat shimmered in front of his windshield. Someone behind him honked their horn.
When he finally got back to the apartment complex, he peeled off his clothes and walked around his room stark naked, desperately trying to catch a breeze. He knew Albert would kill him if he turned the air down too low—something about bills or energy or whatnot, Addison didn’t pay attention—but he had to at least try it. He turned the thermostat to 68 and sat on his bed, panting pathetically. An hour later, after an attempt at an icy shower, he still wasn’t feeling any colder.
And then it hit him with the force of a brick: he had it. The fire disease, he had it.
Panic drove all thoughts of cooling down from his mind. If he went to the cult in this state, the leader and the other members would surely throw him into the fire. He must have caught the disease from Elaine’s—oh god, oh no—Elaine’s ashes. Addison sweated even more profusely, which in turn made him even more worried. It was a very hot cycle.
After a half hour’s worth of worry with no productive results, he decided he’d have to go into hiding. The cult claimed it could find him through Facebook, but was that really true? How did they know he was who he said he was online? That’s what he would wonder, he reasoned desperately, were he in the same situation as the cult leader. Oh god, the cult leader…
"Great Being," Addison prayed desperately, his eyes squeezed shut. "Great Being, if you really do exist, please, please get me out of this." 🔥