The edifice behind the altar, which stood in front of the choir, depicted the face of a burning man; his mouth mangled, his skin marred, and his eyes gauged. This was the image of the Plightests. Yoseph, once humbly named Jonathan Richmond, stood at the pulpit declaring to his followers the latest in a revelation given to him by the Almighty, one that promised those who followed with exact obedience would be spared from the great devastation of Basabainu, the demon.
“For today, today my children, is the last day. From among the words of the Almighty I’ve been given; we know that the Demon will fall upon us at any time. He will breath his fiery breath across the land and devour any and all souls who have saw fit to reject the Almighty! We must sacrifice the sinner within us. We must sacrifice the sinner without in order to appease Him, for if we do, then in that day each and every one of us might be saved. Amen,” Yoseph stepped from the pulpit and donned his ceremonial robes and hat, covering his dark peppery hair and dark leathery skin. His followers came up to him, one by one, offering a kiss on the hand, and money in the pot. They loved him. They loved his words. They loved giving to him everything they had.
“Please, dear, Yoseph, my beloved, you must take her. We are not fit for her. Please, we cannot be spared, we have gone too far into sin, but our daughter. She has not. She is still pure, and we know for certain that with you has her husband, she will be saved. We have nothing left but this to give, please, we’ve given everything else.” A disheveled man and woman knelt before Yoseph; a young woman stood behind them.
“You have given everything to the Almighty. You will surely be saved, as well as your daughter. It is not my place to take that which is most precious from my beloved children. Especially one to wed. I am not to wed in this life, for my only calling is to give to you the word of the Almighty. Blessed be him,” Yoseph said, his voice calm and benevolent. He caressed the face of the scared girl and placed both his hands on the heads of her parents, kneeling down to embrace them. Such was the life of Yoseph, once humbly named Jonathan Richmond, dealing down the voice of the Almighty to the poor souls lost within the city. There within the chapel on the edge of the forest upon the coast, hidden among the misty trees, they practiced their religion.
Yoseph slumped into his chair, hidden in the basement of the chapel. He threw off the robes and dumped the pail of money onto his desk. $17,854. The total had been rising lately. How? Yoseph clasped his hands to his forehead and leaned onto his elbows. No, no, no, no. This ends tomorrow. I’m giving it all back. All of it, Yoseph thought as he tossed the cash into a safe behind him. $1,989,723. That’s how much he had since he stopped spending it. After the chapel had been built there was no longer a need for it. He survived off the generosity of his followers. They gave him everything he needed. They offered more than he wanted. Some things he could never accept, no matter how much he ached for it. There yet remained a piece of humanity in Yoseph’s blackened soul.
“Yoseph?” a young man no older than 18 stood before Yoseph, kissing his hand.
“Yes, my son?” Yoseph said. When they all sit, I’ll tell them. I’ll end it all.
“Thank you. Without you, well I don’t know what I’d do with my life. Everything makes sense now. Your words bring so much light and love. I know that the Almighty loves me. I know how much he cares. I know that I’ll be saved at the last day. Thank you,” the young man said.
“Do not thank me. Thank the Almighty.”
“I have a gift for you.” The young man stepped over to a pew and pulled out a large paper wrapped rectangle. “Go ahead, open it.”
Yoseph tore open the present and gazed upon a soul wrenching depiction of Basabainu emerging from the sea to set ablaze the people and their city. The piece bore the young man’s belief onto the page. It told the story of the fiery beast better than Yoseph’s words ever could.
“We can recreate it. It’s easy enough to copy paintings. I can make the brochures. I have others we could use as well. What do you think, Yoseph?” the young man stood poised behind his painting, eagerly awaiting Yoseph’s decision.
“What is your name, son?” Yoseph asked.
“Joshua, this is the finest work of art I’ve ever laid eyes upon. I gave you inspiration for this?”
“Yes, you give it to us all. Your words and your connection to the Almighty keeps us all sane. Without it, well, like I said, I don’t know wha-” Joshua was cut off by the sound of screams and chanting.
“Sacrifice the sinners within. Sacrifice the sinners without. Sacrifice the sinners within. Sacrifice the sinners without!” A crowd of people burst through the chapel doors carrying a tied-up man, who wailed and moaned in pain. Yoseph could barely recognize the people who he knew to be his follows. An insatiable hunger sat upon their demeanor. They sought blood. Yoseph had seen these same faces many times. Many times, had he been successful in controlling his followers. He at least held his head high, despite his lies, that none of his people had become radical enough to actually kill.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Yoseph shouted.
“This man was caught seducing one your followers. She claims he cast a spell upon her and used the power of a demonic spirit to force her into doing unspeakable acts. She now carries his demon spawn. He ought to be punished,” said William, the most zealous of Yoseph’s followers. He had always been overly defensive of the Plightests.
“Where is the woman that casts these claims?” Yoseph asked. I promise, as soon as I’ve calmed them down. I’ll end it all. Yoseph’s hands grew clammy and he shivered. I can’t tell them. I can’t…
“She is here!” William said grasping the hand of a young woman, her name was Darlah, the very girl whose parents attempted to gift to Yoseph.
Yoseph’s heart sunk, Is this my doing? Yoseph thought before he spoke. “Darlah? What has happened?”
“He bewitched me. He’s a warlock, possessed by a demon to cast spells upon my womb. I didn’t want to give it to him, but his spell made me,” Darlah’s speech was frantic and her breathing heavy.
“Bring me the man,” Yoseph said. William lifted the man from the floor with a single heave and tossed him in front of Yoseph. Yoseph took the rope and gently loosened the knots, allowing the man to wiggle free. “What is your name?”
“Ryan, sir,” Ryan said rubbing his wrists and ankles, his voice hoarse.
“Ryan, is this true? Are you possessed?”
“No, sir, they lie. I’ve done no such thing. Darlah came to me in a bar. We talked and she asked to come home with me. We’ve been seeing each other for a few weeks. I thought everything was fine until one day she came to me, heartbroken. She wouldn’t say what happened, but she said she was damned and that she wasn’t pretty enough or good enough to save her parent’s souls. The next day, this mob broke into my home and…” Ryan stifled back sobs as he recalled the events of the night.
“Oh, my son, do not fear. You are forgiven. The demon in your heart has been purged by the light of the Almighty. Go, fear not, and sacrifice your sin,” Yoseph said as he touched the man’s forehead.
“Yoseph! He’s blasphemed the name of the Almighty. He’s defiled one of His daughters. He’s put his devil spawn into her. You cannot let him go! He must pay for his sins!” William yelled as he lurched forward.
“That is enough!” Yoseph said, stern and heavy. William stopped moving and bowed his head in shame.
“I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
“That will be decided later. Show this poor soul some kindness and set him free,” Yoseph said.
“Yes, but please. Help me set him free, I fear I do not have the strength to do so without you. The demon’s anger may take me before then. Please, Yoseph, do not abandon me.” William knelt before Yoseph and splayed his hands to Yoseph’s feet.
“Stand up, William, I will come with you,” Yoseph said. I have to tell them. This is it, set this man free and then let them all go.
“Thank you, Yoseph. The Almighty bless you.” William stood and tenderly grabbed Ryan’s arm, helping the man to his feet. He led the man to the edge of the wood where the sea met the forest. The wet fog billowed from the trees into the cool evening air. Scattered lights lit the path through the thick woods from the rocky beach to the quaint chapel hidden in the forest. The trees creaked, groaned, and hissed as the crowd of people inched passed. Yoseph never particularly liked the trees, but his followers were enthralled by the mists. They loved the seclusion and secrecy of the cult. They loved how superior and special it made them feel. They were the chosen. The ones who did not fear the wood. They entered into the trees and came out unscathed, while all others feared the fog within.
It had never been Yoseph’s intent to create such a zealous cult, but the silent voice urged him forward as he brought this first congregation to that open grove within the mist. His only intent was to scam just a few souls of their life savings, but from that first day in the woods he could not resist the call to return, until he spent all his time within the forest. This day was the first time he had left the chapel in over three years. Why should he have left? Everything had been provided to him. The forest kept him alive and comfortable through his deceptions. Each time he tried to end his lies; it was the forest that convinced him otherwise.
When Yoseph reached the beach and first laid eyes upon the moist dark green algae covered rocks he almost fainted. The sight nauseated and shocked him. Strewn about the rocks were concourses of human remains in varying states of decay. Yoseph particularly noticed water lap at a pile of bones dripping with rotted flesh. Crabs and small fish tore at chunks of meat to devour in the black waters. Some of the bodies were burned, while others were simply carved to pieces.
“Is something wrong?” William asked.
“What have you been doing here?” Yoseph managed to say without dropping his façade.
“Only what the Almighty has commanded. As you’ve said, Yoseph, we must sacrifice the sinner within and without. Throughout our days with you we’ve never felt purer and more alive than when we can purify a soul to the Almighty and please him, that he may stave off the day of Basabainu just a little longer. All who have been forgiven must be set free in this way. Your word is our scripture. We cling to it and follow with exact obedience as the Almighty has always commanded. Soon the whole city will follow our will.” William pushed Ryan to the ground while the crowd of followers encircled the man, ensuring there was no means for escape. A single boat was lodged on the shore, ready to be rowed out to sea.
No, no, no, no. I didn’t do this. I didn’t do this. This was them. They’re insane. I’ve always known that. This would’ve happened whether it was me or someone else. I’ve been able to control them, Yoseph repeated to himself over and over. Yet, he knew it was wrong. I have to tell them.
“William,” Yoseph began. They won’t believe me. They’ll kill me, find someone else to follow, and continue this. I can’t get out. But they have to know. It’s what’s right.
“Yes, Yoseph?” William stopped tying Ryan to the boat for a moment and looked up.
Yoseph hesitated and watched as Ryan’s terror peaked within his cries for help. William tightened the knot around Ryan’s wrist and reveled in the whelp that released from the struggling man. If I tell them, he will lead them, Yoseph thought. “The Almighty is pleased with our sacrifices. We’ve proven to him our devotion. This will be the last sacrifice. He requires no more. The day of Basabainu will come when it comes and no longer will a sacrifice of the forgiven be enough to stave it off any longer. We can only do so much, and the Almighty is proud of what we’ve done. Thank you, William.” I’m sorry, Ryan. One more man must perish because of my mistakes, but no more.
“He’s ready, Darlah, you may take him.” William handed Darlah a torch and a bag. She climbed into the boat and the crowd helped push her out to sea. They watched her row until the boat almost faded into the setting sun. Then, in a flash, the boat burst into flames. Yoseph could hear two blood curdling screams dance with the flames in the distance, overpowering the voice of the wind and crashing of the waves. They died down, eventually, but Yoseph remembered the final sacrifice his followers made. He knew he could never leave. He knew he could never tell them the truth. It was only him now that could save the city from Basabainu, the demon of his own creation.