The house had a white picket fence, peeling slightly with age, along with a simple, well-kept garden. It even had a welcome mat in front of the porch. The mat had the image of a dog sleeping in it.
There was also a small sign by the gate announcing the house as a proud member of the “New Hope Foundation”. Below it the sign read “Offering aid to troubled minds and souls - Our door is always open!”
The front door to the house was closed.
“Let me guess. This ‘New Hope Foundation’ is the suicide cult you mentioned,” I said, without any sign of surprise.
“Correct,” said Suzy, walking past me to the front porch.
“Some new hope,” I muttered, following her. Suzy rang the doorbell and we both waited as the cold morning air brushed against our faces. Suzy, as always, was not bothered by anything, but I jammed my hands into my pockets and looked at the sun rising above the town. We had spent all evening in the diner, whiling away the hours nursing coffees and, in Suzy’s case, enjoying plate after plate of cheeseburgers. She stopped on her fifth burger and paid in cash as the sun was about to dawn, telling me it was time to meet our new friends.
Despite how I accepted it as necessary, the idea of meeting with a suicidal cult filled me with unease. I shook my mind, pushing away those thoughts. The end of the world, that is all that mattered. I needed to be stronger if I was going to change that.
“Good morning!” The door opened and a nondescript, balding man in his fifties greeted us while rubbing his eyes. “Are you two in need of help or…?” He looked sleepily from one of us to the other, letting the question hang in the air.
“Grandmaster,” said Suzy, addressing the man. “This is Cody and I am Suzy. We have come to offer our assistance to your cult.”
“Oh.” He blinked. “Yeah, you guys sent me that e-mail. And the money. Alright! Come in, let’s talk inside.”
He welcomed us inside and then closed the door on the sleepy town as it woke up to another ordinary day.
“Coffee?” He offered, bustling with an old fashioned kettle of hot water and a jar of instant coffee.
“We’ve already had some, thanks,” replied Suzy, smiling. She was back to her ‘normal’ act while in front of the Grandmaster.
“In the future let’s talk about our worship indoors only, yes?” He chuckled apologetically. “It’s a small town so gossip spreads fast and most of them are unenlightened souls, doomed to die.”
He spoke those words so cheerfully too.
“We’ll be on our best behavior,” said Suzy innocently.
The Grandmaster nodded. “If you must, call it New Hope Foundation business, or charity work. That’s how we disguise ourselves around here.”
“As a charity foundation?” I raised an eyebrow while questioning him, but he only chuckled again in response.
“We do a good amount of actual charity around here, so people are accepting of us. It’s also a good way to recruit worthy souls for our cause.”
“For your suicide cult,” I replied bluntly. He paused as we stared at each other and I cursed myself for immediately being so confrontational, but I couldn’t help it. It came out without me even thinking it.
“I see you are still struggling to grasp the truth of our world,” said the Grandmaster, finally breaking the silence. Then he smiled at me, like a grandfather would when a young child says something silly.
“He has a lot to learn,” replied Suzy, smiling at me, although her grin was less like an understanding grandfather and more like a mocking leer. I made a face and looked away, trying to keep my mouth shut.
“Still, he does know of the approaching truth, yes?” The Grandmaster directed this question to Suzy, who returned her face to a more normal expression in the blink of an eye.
“Yes, we both follow the King in Yellow, and have been bestowed his wisdom regarding the end of times,” said Suzy in reverent tones, so authentic one could almost forget she was literally talking about herself.
The Grandmaster smiled like usual, showing nothing but peace and quiet understanding. “You and I follow separate paths sister, but our journey is not so different. Unlike the other poor sheep, blindly walking to their slaughter, we understand the truth of this world, and the path that can lead us to salvation.”
“So, you guys worship something else?” I asked. He paused, then gave me another one of his serene smiles.
“I lead a small cult of Shub-Niggurath, The Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young,” he replied. “We ask for her ever-bountiful powers of life to save us from the End.”
“Right...” I tapped on the table, wondering how far I could push him. “So, on a scale from one to ten, how much of an asshole is your goddess?”
He blinked as his smile dropped, taken aback for a brief moment. Then he chuckled, not the usual serene smile but a slightly nervous laugh of a guy who got asked a hard question.
“It’s difficult,” he confessed at last. “Our goddess is powerful and kind, but… She’s always hungry. And… in order for her to not turn away from us, we must give her food. Always.”
“And by food you mean...” I left the question hanging, but he hesitated before responding.
“Sacrifices. People.” The Grandmaster smiled again, but it was a small, pitiful one. “We must either offer one of our own to the goddess, or... We must find a victim and offer them against their will. About once every fifty days or so. Unfortunately.” He gave another nervous laugh, but it felt empty and hollow.
“You don’t seem very happy about it,” I commented, somewhat surprised at that. I was getting so used to cold-blooded killers that someone with actual morals felt unusual. I think it’s telling of my standards lately that a guy who, apparently, killed and sacrificed people for his alien goddess was the one surprising me with his morality.
“Of course I am not happy!” The Grandmaster raised his voice, emphatic. “I wish it was different, I truly do! But… If I must achieve my goal, then sacrifices must be made.”
“And that will let you survive the end of the world?” I asked, quietly, as I felt my heart drumming within me, louder and harder with every beat. For a moment I wondered if, when faced with that choice, what would I do. Could I do that? Could I run a cult that offered human lives like that, people with hopes and families and dreams? Would I be capable of doing that, if it meant saving the lives of the ones I loved?
My thoughts went briefly to my family, my stubborn and complicated mother, my quiet younger brother. My friends, especially Marcus, with whom I had shared a night at the bar before starting this journey. Marcus, who stayed with me when my life was at its worst and no one else wanted to see me. Could I kill people to save his life?
And what he would think of me if I did that?
“When we sacrifice enough lives to Shub-Niggurath, then I will ascend to become a greater being,” said the Grandmaster. “A being that can survive and thrive after the end of the world, and keep humanity alive after the End..”
“You?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “And only you?”
He smiled before replying, “I was the one the goddess approached, offering salvation in exchange for sustenance. I… I was only taking a walk on the woods when I witnessed her. I did not choose this path, it chose me.” And he bowed his head humbly, and I could feel the regret in his voice. His sadness that he could not save more.
“Hmm,” Suzy pursed her lips, staring firmly at the Grandmaster. “Well, once you have shed your mortal shell, you will have more power than before, and your mind will be ready to accept deeper knowledge as well. Maybe that will let you save more people than you ever could as a human being. Maybe.”
“I… Yes, that is my hope.” The grandmaster nodded at Suzy.
“Still, how many people have to die for the sake of a single person?” I asked, skeptical. “It doesn’t look like a fair trade to me, no offense intended.”
He smiled, taking no offense at my swipe, while he put two slices of bread in a toaster and set it on. “No, it isn’t. But I’m afraid it’s the best we have. Unless… You two have discovered a better alternative?”
Suzy looked at me and smiled innocently, to which I scowled and looked away. “No...” I muttered.
“I’m afraid sacrifices are inevitable on the road to power,” added Suzy with a small shrug.
The Grandmaster nodded. “But… At least that road is finally coming to an end. Within two weeks, when the stars are right, we are ready to offer Shub-Niggurath our final offerings, and I will ascend into a greater being. Soon, all of this will be over.”
He smiled sadly at us and continued, “This is why I welcomed you two when you offered your help. Two followers of the King in Yellow, to remember and memorialize those who are about to pass. I want you two to carry their names with you, so that when your memories are absorbed into the library of your god, at least a small mention of my cult should still remain, a memory of their existence, even after the end. Into eternity.”
Suzy smiled back. “They will be remembered. Don’t worry about that.” She was certain of that fact.
“Good,” said the Grandmaster, looking genuinely relieved. “We have a meeting this morning, right after breakfast! I will introduce you to them!”
The toast popped out with a clack, and he took the toast and put it on his plate. Breakfast had been fully set while we talked, but I wasn’t hungry. While the Grandmaster and Suzy ate, I wondered what kind of brainwashed cult would be glad give all their collective lives, everyone committing suicide so that only a single person could live? What kind of crazy people would do such a thing?
“... I never understood why she had to change her phone so soon. It had only been a few years since she bought her previous one, but when I asked her...”
“Oh, they break really easy. Clara - you know? My youngest granddaughter - she broke her phone by dropping her backpack with it inside. I’m afraid they break really easy, which is kinda crappy workmanship if you ask me. In my time...”
The conversation between the two old ladies slowed as we entered the room, the Grandmaster followed by me and Suzy. The two ladies were chatting while seated at a table, one of them cross-stitching while she talked, and both turned towards us as we walked in. One of them had a large, gaudy necklace hanging from her neck while the other had dyed her hair purple, for some reason. Their faces lit up when they saw me and Suzy.
“Oh, hi! New members of the Foundation?” Said one of them, getting up and offering her wrinkly hand to us while looking at the Grandmaster.
“Not exactly… But they are enlightened, like us. They will help,” replied the Grandmaster, smiling patiently at the two. “Amanda, Stephanie, these are Cody and Suzy. They will be helping us for these next few days...”
“Oh, that’s good! We need help!” The one with purple hair, Amanda, interrupted him. “The owner of the Sunrise told me they’re closing down for a whole week starting next Wednesday, because their cook is going on vacation. So we have to find another place to get the food for our soup kitchen, and someone to drive there to get it...”
“Please, Amanda! We just came in!” Pleaded the Grandmaster after a good-hearted chuckle. “Let us settle down first.”
“Still a while before the meeting starts anyways,” added her friend, taking a look at the clock mounted on the wall, before resuming her cross-stitching. “Most people haven’t even arrived yet.”
Indeed, there were only three other people on the room we had entered, a rented meeting room that was apparently some kind of worship place during regular hours. The tables and chairs were made of cheap plastic, weathered and stained from years of use, and in the corner were plastic cups, plastic spoons and sugar packets piled next to a coffee urn that groaned and plinked regularly. Two of the other people was a couple in their sixties or so, man and wife, talking softly a few chairs away. The man was hunched on his seat and holding onto a cane for support while his wife held his other hand. At the far end of the room was the other occupant, a middle aged man with glasses and a hoodie. He nodded nervously at me when I stared at him and then went back to reading the newspaper he was holding.
“I have an important announcement to make,” said the Grandmaster to the two ladies, smiling mysteriously. “So let’s wait for everyone to arrive.”
“Oh? What announcement? Does it have anything to do with them?” Asked Amanda, peering at us with open curiosity.
“I’ll tell when everyone is here,” repeated the Grandmaster. “But I can say this, it’s good news.”
I looked at the people in the room now, most of them staring at us, and all I saw were regular people. Most of them were older women, and me and Suzy were easily the youngest in the room. Well… At least I was. A chill went down my spine when I thought that these people were ready to kill themselves in the service of an eldritch god.
“Are you alright, young man?” Asked Amanda, looking me up and down. “You look a bit peaky! If you want we have free coffee over there! Have you had breakfast yet?” She punctuated her barrage of questions with a kindly smile.
What kind of suicide cult offers free coffee?
As we waited for the other members to arrive, which they did slowly as the clock approached 8:30 am, me and Suzy were bombarded with more questions as Amanda fussed over our health, our appearance, our clothes, and asked us all sorts of questions. She was joined by two other ladies who joined us, all with greying hair and on the sixties or older, who were also curious and eager to chat, with us as well as each other.
The cult reminded me strongly of some sort of social club that attracted older people, like bingo or a bridge club, and there was nothing indicating its nature anywhere on the room, or on the people that arrived. No cowls or runes or sinister symbols.
So I was surprised when, as one of the last people to arrive, I saw the waitress at the diner from last night come in and take a seat, the one with black hair and gloomy expression like she was always going to her own execution. She noticed us and opened her mouth in mute surprise, before slowly waving her hand with her usual enthusiasm. By now mosts seats were taken and the room was alive with muttered chatter from everyone sitting. The Grandmaster gently broke off a conversation with Amanda, who was trying to make another point about the soup kitchen, and then cleared his voice. The room went silent.
“Thank you everyone for coming here,” he spoke, his words clear and strong, but not overly loud. He did not shout, but with the silence in the room he didn’t need to. “First I’d like to introduce Suzy Blaine and Cody Melo. They are not part of our group, but they are enlightened to the truth, just as we are. They are here to help us with the final preparations.”
Some were openly staring at us, but immediately looked back at the Grandmaster with those last words. There was a sharp intake of breath from a few of the people sitting, and the atmosphere grew even more expectant than before. The Grandmaster paused for dramatic effect, smiled and spoke:
“Yes, I know. I can scarcely believe it myself, but it is true. Our goddess has granted me a vision. She is pleased with out efforts and the stars are right. In the next two weeks we will finally reach what we have long dreamed of and worked so hard for! In two weeks, the great Shub-Niggurath will grant us her gift, in exchange for our lives After that, we will be no more.”
He took a deep breath, and smiled before continuing. “There is no virtue greater than giving your life for a higher cause, and there is no cause higher than this: To fling a light into the future. To pass on our existence beyond the end of all things. And that is why we are here. I ask you all for courage in these final days. Our work is almost over. And to those who gave so much, and are about to give their most precious thing of all: Thank you for your sacrifice. It has been an honor.”
There was a brief, tense moment when all was quiet. Then the applause started, quickly spreading to every member, sitting or standing. Some were openly weeping, others smiling widely, and many were doing both as they clapped and cheered and commemorated with each other. It was not unrestrained joy, there was a bittersweet nature to the celebration - some regret showing in those eyes - but they were still happy to hear these words, and so they celebrated.
I glanced at the gloomy waitress from earlier and caught her smiling for the first time ever, even as tears welled in her eyes. Tears of sadness or tears of joy, it was impossible to tell.