I just finished my short story! I titled it "Purity of the Flame." I hope it isn't too long to post here. It's a little over 2,000 words.
Purity McGrory stared at the billowing flames of the large fire in front of her. The heat from the blaze was intense; she could feel it licking at her flesh even as far back as she was. The center of the flame was the palest, prettiest shade of white she had ever seen and it wavered slightly as the gentle wind blew past. Built from more than a hundred wooden logs, the fire stood nearly three feet above her head.
She stood naked, beside a dozen other girls named Purity. Each family would name at least one daughter after the Goddess of Fire in order to beseech her blessing. On top of that, only girls named Purity could choose to go through the Fire Ritual, which would select a new temple Priestess. It was a great honor to have a Priestess in the family. Of course, anyone who failed the Ritual was killed. It was the price the family paid to have the blessing of the Goddess. Purity knew that if she failed today and was killed, her parents would name their next daughter Purity and try again.
The full moon was just beginning to rise over the ocean. Even its vibrant light was made wan by comparison to the fire burning on the sandy beach. All the onlookers, gathered in a semicircle further back than the girls, kept their eyes to the flames. Because their attention was focused so directly on the fire, Purity didn't mind her nudity. No one, not even her own parents and siblings, would take their eyes from the inferno to look for her. Purity, likewise, had her eyes glued to the red-orange flames. Tears welled in her eyes from the brightness.
"Who will be first?" intoned the old Priestess, her voice clear and deep despite her age. She had been serving as Priestess for over fifty years and was nearly eighty years old. After a new priestess was chosen tonight, she would be laid to rest in the roaring fire, the Goddess' protective powers no longer in her possession.
A few girls to either side of Purity moved their feet, but no one stepped forward. Despite their love of the Goddess and their wish to be her Priestess, it was scary to think of entering the flames. Purity was trembling with fear, though she kept her muscles clenched so it wouldn't show.
For the process of the Ritual, each girl would walk into the flames. It was said that the Goddess knew who she wanted as her next Priestess and would put her protective arms around the girl she chose. All other girls to enter would be consumed alive by the burning embers. It was a horrible way to die, yet, it was all done in praise of the Goddess and was considered to be their duty. Not all of them had to enter, though. Only one at a time until a girl was selected. If it happened to be the first to enter, no one would have to perish. If it was the last, all others would be killed.
Only a few moments had passed since the Priestess had called for a volunteer. If time passed too long, their families would begin to mutter about their lack of faith and love for the Goddess. It was considered very dishonorable to refuse to enter. So, a few places to her right, a girl stepped forward. Even if she died, she would still be praised for her courage at being the first to enter.
"I will go," she told the Priestess. The girl's voice quavering just a bit, but her words echoed loudly over the gathered people. The Priestess nodded, almost a bow, and the girl stepped forward. The heat was frightful, even from where Purity stood; she couldn't imagine taking a single step closer to its source. But she would have to, unless someone was chosen by the time she was forced to go.
The girl, her lower lip shaking, took another step forward. Purity could see her features scrunch up in a painful expression. Another step and another, and the girl let a soft cry escape her lips. Still, she pressed on.
Oh Goddess, Purity prayed. Please let her be chosen.
The girl had taken a handful of steps and was only two more from the fire. Her flesh was already melting and black fissures were running up and down her body. Her cries grew more and more desperate the closer she got to the flames. Now, she was screaming as loud as she could. Purity could see that the girl's eyes were shut tight as her hair caught fire; she took the final steps into the flame.
There was a moment more of the shrill scream then all sound cut off. The girl's figure inside the flame had disappeared. Purity wasn't sure how long they had to wait to see if the girl came back out--the current Priestess was chosen so long ago, no one but the grandparents would remember. The legend said that the chosen girl would come out as unblemished as she had gone in.
The old Priestess, standing to the side of the fire, sadly shook her head. "Who will be next?" she asked. Purity heard an audible gulp come from the girl beside her. No one wanted to go through that agony. But it's for the Goddess, Purity reminded herself.
Another girl stepped forward and said she would go. Again, Purity prayed that the Goddess would choose this girl, than none of the others would be forced to go through the Ritual. The girl's face and body reacted the same as the first's, her flesh began to char and her hair caught fire. Her screams, as well, echoed loudly over the beach, reaching such a high tone that Purity winced.
Please choose her. Please, Goddess.
Once the cries of the second girl cut off the Priestess shook her head again. "Who will be next?"
Purity shivered. This was barbaric. What kind of people would willing send their daughters into a fire to be burned alive? But it's for the Goddess, she repeated to herself. This is our act of worship, our act of praise, our act of obedience.
Another girl stepped forward; the Ritual repeated itself with the same outcome. That was three, now, consumed by the fire, dead. Purity felt like she was going to be sick. If I wait too much longer, I won't have the courage. Their screams... I can't stand anymore screams.
Purity stepped forward. It was not bravery that made her do this, only her cowardice. She would not be able to do it if she saw one more body burned alive by the Goddess' flames.
"I will go," she told the Priestess and received a nod in return. Purity had to force her legs to move forward. What she really wanted to do was turn around and run in the opposite direction. Instead, she took a step towards the flames; the heat increased. She bit the inside of her mouth to keep her screams inside. She didn't want to scare the other girls who were still waiting. If she died, they would have to go next; she didn't want to make it harder for them.
Another step and she had to bite down harder on her cheek. She tasted blood. Another step and the blood began to gush. It was all she could do to keep her mouth shut and the cries of agony inside. Her skin was beginning to boil; she could feel tiny bubbles begin to protrude all over her exposed flesh. Torturous pain filled her and she could hardly form coherent thoughts; all she wanted was to be free from the overpowering ache.
With a final step, she placed her body into the open flames. She felt them leap out and consume her hair, caressing her scorched body with their tongues. Unable to keep the horrified sob inside, she let out a wail as it embraced her.
Please don't cry, child, said a voice inside her head. Immediately, Purity stopped her screaming. Though she knew her whole body was being burned, she forced her eyes open and looked around. Instead of seeing the inside of the fire and the previous girls' bones at her feet, she saw a white hall filled with tall, fluted columns. The roof was peaked into a magnificent archway and beautiful statues of marble sat atop stone buttresses all around.
"Who are you?" Purity asked, amazed her ruined face could still make her mouth move. Her eyes, no longer filled with pain, glanced around the room, looking for the speaker.
I am the Goddess, named Purity.
"Goddess!" Purity exclaimed, then fell to her knees in reverence. She still wasn't able to find where the Goddess was, but she didn't dare stand in her presence.
Please rise, child. There is no need for you to do this.
Purity did as she was told and stood to her feet, but kept her gaze at the swirling marble tiles under her bare toes. As she stared, she noticed her skin was whole and pale; no trace of the black, scorched skin remained.
"Have I been chosen to be Your Priestess?" Purity asked.
That depends, child. Answer my three questions without lying and I will grant you back your life. Do you understand?
"Yes, Goddess," Purity replied, her eyes still on the floor.
Good. First question: Do you wish to serve me as my Priestess?
"No," Purity said, shame burning her cheeks instead of fire now. She hadn't had the desire to be a Priestess before the Ritual started; after she had witnessed the burning of live bodies, she had been disgusted and wanted to be a Priestess less than before.
That was an honest answer, the Goddess said. Second question: do you wish to die rather than serve me?
Purity had to think for a moment. Could she, after what she had seen, serve this Goddess? Could she devote her life to a creature that sent girls into a fire to be consumed alive by it? Could she get over her revulsion at the barbaric practices of their religion? On the other hand, did she wish to die?
"Yes, I would rather die," Purity said, knowing the Goddess would smite her for such insolence. She braced for a blow, or for the fire to eat her once more, but nothing happened.
That was also an honest answer. Final question: if I choose you, regardless of your wish to die, would you serve me faithfully?
"I would," Purity replied. She knew if she was left alive, that she would be in the Goddess' debt and her service. Purity was sickened by this Ritual, but the Goddess was still the Creator, the giver of life. Purity could not defy her in any way.
I see, said the Goddess. Then, you are selected to be my Priestess.
"But why?" Purity asked, daring enough to raise her face from the ground. Her eyes fell upon the Goddess standing in front of her and all the emotion inside her vanished. The Goddess was in the physical form of a small dragon. Her body was covered with bright and shiny scales in all the colors of a sunset. A long, broad snout poked out of her head and steam rose from each nostril. Eyes, shifting through every shade of red, stared back at the girl. The dragon's body stood no taller than Purity, though its wingspan, if extended, would be twice her size. On the marble floor, a pointed tail curved around clawed feet.
Why would I choose you, if you would rather die than serve? the Goddess asked. Because I seek someone who is pure in spirit and heart. No one can watch this Ritual and not be disgusted by it; that is, no one who is worthy of being my Priestess. You are what I need to serve my will to the people. Please accept.
"I accept," Purity said, taking her eyes away from the creature in front of her. "I will do as you command."
Thank you, child.
Purity was suddenly surrounded by the roaring fire again. This time, the flames did not hurt or sting her flesh. The embers danced merrily along her skin, frolicking along her flesh. She held up a hand in front of her face and saw her pale skin from before. She was not burned at all. Raising her hand to her hair, she felt her thick locks falling to her shoulders. Even her hair had been restored to her. Purity walked the rest of the way through the fire and reemerged among her people.
There was a collective gasp from the onlookers and then the Priestess said in a loud voice, "A new Priestess has been chosen." Then, without another word, the old woman threw herself into the flames. No scream escaped the woman's lips and in her head, Purity heard the Goddess whisper words of greeting. Welcome back, my old friend.
From that day, Purity lived in the Goddess' palace, on the top of the cliff facing the sandy beach where the Ritual took place. Every day, she would bathe in flames and commune with the Goddess, hearing her wishes and her commands.
The fire used for these meetings was not the same as the fire for the Ritual. The Ritual fire was a sacred thing, where a person's whole soul would be joined with the Goddess. In the palace, Purity had need only to speak to the Goddess, who already knew her spirit. The flames were smaller, confined to five candles spread around the room.
As the embers danced across her skin, tickling her with their playful wisps, Purity was glad she had been chosen. She understood now the need for the Ritual and knew her whole body and soul had been purified by her embrace with the sacred fire.