A bonfire of no less than a literal ton of lumber sits unhinged at the outskirts of Avarice, Missouri. Population of 865, give or take 100 people every ten years. A handful of people dressed in hooded, crimson robes meander near the six tents parallel to the woodline, each with a different job. One mixes a substance with a well-aged mortar and pestle, another wraps cloth around some lumber for makeshift torches.
Another stands staring in awe of a twelve-foot tall effigy that will be hoisted into the fire during the ceremony. The smoke is getting to her eyes, as they redden and tear up. She wipes a tear away and a tail of platinum blonde hair pops out of her hood. She tucks it as quickly as it came out, and adjusts a small nude-colored earpiece. She can’t quite figure out what the effigy is. She resolves that it’s a very artistic interpretation of a chimaera, but appears to have humanoid legs with arms like a praying mantis, a wretched face like a warthog spliced with a hyena, and slender tendrils like some other-worldly god of ancient lore wrapping around its core.
“Sara. It’s been a half hour. What are you seeing? What are they waiting for?” a voice whispers through the earpiece. She glances around, slides behind the effigy, and spots a good vantage point at the woodline. One particular tree is close enough to where the effigy will be hoisted. She ducks into the brush, comes up around the tree trunk, and pulls a credit card-sized camera from her robe. She uses an adhesive strip to mount it on the tree in one motion and waits to see the single green strobe to show the tool is on. She turns her eyes to the others a few yards away that are too absorbed in their tasks to be of any threat.
“Chill out. I’m the only one with skin in this game, Rob. It looks like a fucking occult ceremony, as the briefing described. Eerily quiet, the only thing I see are some ugly-ass guys in robes doing weird shit. Doesn’t look like any criminal intent here. And I don’t know the timeline–I’m guessing when the effigy is upright, it’s gametime.”
She resumes a slow, slinking pace towards a tent that matches the spade-like emblem on her robe.
“Only males so far?”
“They might’ve cut her hair.”
Sara pushes open the tent to see three figures dropping their robes. She covers her mouth with her hands as three unclean, bare asses welcome her. One non-nude looks to Sara, not expecting a reaction. She can only see his stained teeth expose more and more into a horrifying grin. He raises a mortar of what looks to be herbs, mud, and metal shavings, and motions for Sara to apply it.
Sara nervously smiles, looks at the naked bodies in front of her, and takes a handful from the mortar. The cretin wobbles over to the first victim, a teenage boy with curly brown hair, obese, with such pink skin that one would think he’s been hit all day.
“Prepare them for cleansing, yes.”
She pats the substance onto the boy’s back, follows the cretin’s pointing to go down. He flips the boy to come face to face with Sara suddenly, her face mere inches away from definitely being criminal activity. She slowly stands up and looks at the cretin, who mimics a cross on his chest. The boy doesn’t look all there. They drugged them. She completes a cross on his chest with the concoction. The cretin motions her to the next victim. She does the same without direction, tracing this body’s spine with goo and gulps harder with every feel of a tender vertebra. This body is more athletic, a little taller, but continues to be motionless with each cold slap of the mud. The cretin motions to Sara’s final subject.
Sara gets the next clump of gross and places her hand on the nape of the neck, which gives a slight shiver. This body is much more fragile, slender…younger…more feminine. Sara completes the first line of mud. The body doesn’t turn. The cretin frowns and pulls a switch from his robe.
Outside the tent, the call to commence is made. The cretin growls.
He scuttles from the tent with the first two victims. Sara is alone with the last. The body slowly turns to face Sara, with hazel eyes drowned out by darkened bags under them and dried tears. Sara covers her mouth with one hand and pulls her hood down with the other. She embraces the body.
Kendra Fuller, 13 year old white female, abducted from a Chicago orphanage 6 months ago. She’s not drugged, it must’ve worn off. Poor thing.
“Let’s get you home, Kendra. We’ve just gotta make it about a hundred yards west of here. Got it? I’ll lead you.”
The girl nods. Sara grabs a large burlap sack and pulls it around Kendra. She pulls her phone from her robe and turns on her camera app, showing the feed directly behind the effigy. It burns, hoisted nearly out of frame of the camera view.
“Rob, come in. I found her. Returning back to you as soon as possible. But the ceremony is starting.”
“Sara, I hear you loud and clear. We’ll be–,”
Sara watches the feed as gunshots ring out, on deaf ears. The group chants a guttural call to the bonfire, as the effigy catches more and more flames. The darkness of the forest extends as the flames climb up the effigy, appearing focused and determined to breathe life into it.