Scarecrow Factory
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rating: +78+x

October 24th

On the western part of the Hubble estate, there was a sign that proudly proclaimed "Birthplace of Gourdon, Largest Pumpkin in Wisconsin, 1969". Behind it was a pumpkin patch which, during any other year, would be filled with families looking for suitable fruits to carve into Jack-O-Lanterns. It would have had several colors of pumpkin, from red to orange to white to blue.

But now, on top of everything else, the patch was full of pits, and around those holes were bright red, bloody pumpkins, which were in the process of being collected, at which point the vines were incinerated. Each of the pits contained at least one skeleton, and nobody could explain it. The Hubbles weren't serial killers, or if they were, the Foundation didn't know about it.

Watching this carnage were Christopher Hastings and Keith Partridge. The latter was sipping from a travel mug, shivering in the cold morning air.

Partridge put away his phone and frowned. "Still no response from Hennessy about my theory."

"She's getting security clearances pinned to her like thumbtacks on a conspiracy theorist's corkboard," Hastings sighed. "She doesn't exactly have much time to take requests. Probably half the reason she called Code Vandal in the first place."

Dr. Malcolm Guillard climbed out of one of the pits. He was a robust man, and his years of digging in the dirt and hauling bodies as a member of the Foundation's forensic studies division had given him a surprising amount of muscle mass. He presented to the pair of botanists what looked like a human skull. However, the size of the incisors and the large, ridged plate on the front of the skull showed it was most certainly not human. "Well, this might, might explain the vam-pie-er."

Partridge groaned at the pun. "One, I made that joke the other day. Two, that was completely unprofessional."

"Not as bad as this," Hastings took the skull, carefully and held it in his hand, away from his face. He looked at Partridge and Guillard, and began speaking in a theatrical voice. "Alas, poor Edward. I knew him, Jacob, a fellow of infinite sleaziness, of most godawful writing. I hath borne him in my eyes but once, and now, how abhorred in my memory! Here hung those lips Bella kissed I know not how oft—"

"Hastings," Partridge laughed. "Stop! I'm going to spill my coffee!"

A good part of the forensics team who had been in earshot had leaned against the sides of their pits, snickering, and Guillard just palmed his face. "All right, comedy night is over," he said, looking over the pits. "A dozen bodies. God knows what the Hubbles were up to. We're bringing his family into the PD in Duluth for questioning."

Hastings handed the skull back to Guillard and took out his notepad, starting to sketch and plot the locations of the bodies. He connected the dots in a few different variations, and took out his phone. "Dammit. Anyone have Reynolds's number?"

"Why?" Guillard frowned.

"I think that this might be some kind of ritual circle, the way the bodies are arranged. He and Sinclair are finally signing the relationship declaration forms, so I figured I should just facetime him or something."

"I have him on my phone," Partridge took out his smartphone and dialed Reynolds. "How do you do a video call on this?"

"Here," Hastings walked back over, and fiddled with a phone. One very annoying dialtone later, they were connected to the face of Montgomery Reynolds.

"Hastings, glad to see you're all right," the thaumatologist commented. He was in the Occult Studies laboratory, a large bottle of golden liquid behind him. "I'm expecting Katherine soon. You're at the Hubble estate?"

"Yeah, and we found bodies. Twelve of them." He held up his notepad to the phone's camera. "I plotted them out. Any of these look like anything to you?"

Reynolds frowned, and pointed at the camera. "That one, with the shape like an electrocardiogram's output. Add a thirteenth point to it, and you have a Granola Sarkic ritual for promoting bountiful harvest."

"I'm sorry, Granola What?" Hastings asked.

"Granola Sarkic. It's a valid branch of Sarkic carnomancy, though no Karcist will tell you that. Popped up in the sixties, promoted the use of human sacrifice for the sake of natural harmony— higher crop yields, the ability to commune with animals, that sort of thing. Well, human-ish sacrifice."

"Would vampire qualify as Humanish?" he held up the phone to face the vampire's skull.

Reynolds whistled. "That explains where poor Mr. Hubble got his infection from, at least. Vampiric sacrifice in carnomancy isn't unheard of, but it's risky, for this exact reason." He rubbed his chin. "The Foundation registers all known mages in Nexus zones it controls, and they bar any dangerous cult activity within them."

"So, what the fuck was a Sarkic cultist doing in Sloth's Pit?" Hastings's face screwed up."This isn't right."

"We'll begin looking into it as soon as we can." Reynolds frowned. "There are only twelve bodies?"

"As far as we can tell," Guillard piped up.

"There should be thirteen. Look for signs of soil disturbance, one of them may have been moved or removed. A broken spell matrix would account for the bloody pumpkins."

"Where would the thirteenth point in the matrix be?"

Reynolds leaned closer to the camera. "If up on your diagram is north, then, then it would most likely be at the eastern-most point of the matrix."

"Thanks, Monty. Give my regards to Sinclair when you see her. Oh, and congratulations." Hastings disconnected the call and handed the phone back to Partridge.

"How old are the bodies?" Partridge asked.

"They easily date to the 1960s, if not earlier," Malcolm pointed at each of the pits. "Other than the vampire, we have three that show signs of polio, one with a lead slug in the hip that one of the ballistic guys thinks dates to World War Two, and a male with a Class of '63 ring from Jackson Sloth Memorial."

"So, locals," Hastings frowned, making his way to the easternmost spot on the farming patch. The shifted his foot in the dirt, and frowned. He brushed the topsoil aside with his foot, and found a skull's eye socket staring out from beneath the dirt. "Yeah, there's something buried here." He knelt to inspect the skull, frowning. "Huh."

"What is it?" Guillard frowned.

Chris carefully lifted the skull from the dirt, and shone a light into its jaw. "There's a taproot growing through the skull." He turned it over, finding a wilted dandelion on the opposite side. "This was… maybe not dug up. But pushed to the surface by something."

Guillard presented Hastings with a slab of gel, and Chris pressed the skull's teeth into it. "How long will it take to get a result from the imprint?" Chris asked.

"Well, looking at it now, I can tell you that it's from a male, late fifties. Probably killed by a blow to the head." The investigator indicated a large crack on the top of the skull. "Maybe by a baseball bat or something?"

Chris shook the skull, and frowned. Something small and metal rattled about inside. He tilted the head back, and out of the hole at the base, a key fell out. He caught it, and read the inscription. "'Key to the City of Sloth's Pit, awarded by Clive Carter to Marian Carter, 1969.' Good to know that nepotism is eternal." He frowned. "You said that this was a man's skull, though."

"It is." Guillard chewed his lip, and looked at the teeth. "He has a porcelain crown. So, definitely pre-50s; that's around when they started using amalgam fillings. Key was placed in their skull after." He took the key from Chris's hand. "Pretty recently, too. There's some wet mud on this, still."

Chris scratched his head, and started pacing. "What does that mean, though? Why would someone dig up a skull and place the key to the city in it?" The researcher stumbled, his foot getting caught in a hole. "What the hell?!"

"Calm down, Hastings." Partridge looked within. "Looks like a critter hole. Probably a woodchuck or something. Move your foot."

"I can't," Hastings swallowed. "It's stuck. I—" He felt something squeeze his leg. "Oh shit, something's got me. I-It feels like a snake."

"Shit, probably a joint snake hole." Guillard produced a knife. "I'm going to cut off your pant leg, and we're gonna peel it off, okay?"

"O-okay," Hastings swallowed. He winced when the fabric was cut from his pants.

Guillard backed away. "That's… not a snake."

"What, then?" He asked.

"It's," Partridge swallowed. "It's a root. Maybe a vine."

"Oh. Shit — " Hastings gasped and sank to his knees, the root sinking under the ground and pulling his legs with it. He felt himself being pulled under. "Fuck, fuck, it's got me, it's pulling me." He quickly removed his shirt and put it over his face, trying to claw at the dirt. At the very least, he wouldn't inhale dirt when he got dragged under. He gasped and whimpered. "Shit, I think it's gonna break my leg —"

The two senior researcher stood back, and Partridge spoke into his phone. "Helen, b-begin phone tracking of Site-87 r-research personnel Christopher Hastings."

Chris swallowed, tears in his eyes. "If I don't… if you don't find me, the research I got for you, Doc— it's in my desk, locked drawer. Break in if you have to."

"Understood." Partridge swallowed, and told the same lie he'd told countless other personnel who had gone missing in the line of duty. "You're going to be okay, Hastings."

Chris felt a sharp tug, and gasped. His leg wasn't broken, but at least one joint was dislocated. He wrapped his arms around himself and took a long, deep breath, before he was tugged underneath.

"Son of a bitch," Partridge rubbed his face. Hastings had performed protocol to a T; suffocation prevention, minimizing surface area and protecting the chest when being dragged, not attempting to be pulled out and drag others with him. He was smart, and he might be gone. "Call March. Tell him we need a squad of Sigma-10 scrambled yesterday."

Christopher Hastings felt his skin being scraped away by Wisconsin soil. Thousands of insects, rocks, and roots peeled off his flesh, bit by bit, and he felt blood trickle into the soil. Some part of his mind was thankful for his tetanus shots, but that was soon drowned out by the pain.

Then, he started being dragged lower by the roots, beneath the ground. At this point, he doubted his phone would broadcast any signal. But if by some miracle it did, at least they'd be able to find his body.

The Foundation had a high mortality rate in most professions, and botany was certainly up there. Between dealing with poisonous flowers and trees that could eat you, botanists could be gone through like tissue paper. It seemed far too appropriate that he'd be killed by a plant.

He felt himself start to run out of air. His vision started going grey, and his body went limp. It was better than being eaten or squashed. Relatively painless. And then—

He found himself exposed to air, and gasped, coughing and gagging. The root let go of his leg, and the researcher fell in the dirt, whimpering in pain. Above him was the ceiling of a large cavern— he estimated to be about thirty meters high, and some light coming from a crack in the ceiling meant that he may be close to the surface.

Hastings crawled forward, not wanting to test the condition of his leg. He closed his eyes, forcing them to adjust to the darkened surroundings. He saw something along the top of the cavern— some form of root system, most likely the pumpkin he had been taken by. But the actual plant was nowhere in sight.

Chris saw what he had landed on, and let out a miserable groan. He had fallen on top of a half-buried skeleton, with its clothing still intact. The chest cavity of the skeleton had plant matter in it, pumpkins fused together to form facsimiles of organs. Vines splayed out from these plants, which pulsed and seemed to breathe; the 'heart' and 'lungs' were the most active. Chris felt its body, finding its pants and rooting through them. Technically mistreatment of a corpse, but he needed something to do while waiting to die.

He found its wallet, and looked inside. The contents were three-hundred dollars in small bills, a membership card for the "Sloth's Pit Hunter's Club" (defunct as of 1988 due to an explosion that flattened their lodge), a driver's license for one Clive Carter, and a Polaroid photograph, folded up.

"Hello, Clive. Guess we know where the key came from." He looked down at the organs. "Trying to tell us where you were?" Chris unfolded the photograph, and found a picture of four men standing in front of a Ferris wheel, smiling at the camera. The youngest among them, Chris recognized, was Jeffery Hubble Senior. The three others were unknown to him.

On the reverse side of the Polaroid, in pen, was:

C. Carter, J. Hubble, R. Gideon, & Z. Allen
Douglas County Fair Organization Committee
Photo by M. Isimeria

Hastings took out his phone, and snapped photographs of the Polaroid's front and back. Then, he placed the phone on the ground, propped it against the skeleton, and set it to record video.

"If the words 'esoteric containment' mean nothing to you, stop watching." He paused, and rubbed his eyes. "My name is Christopher Hastings. I'm a researcher at S & C Plastics in Sloth's Pit, Wisconsin, known internally as Foundation Site-87. I am in a cavern approximately… I don't know, deep below Nexus Zone 18, which includes the town of Sloth's Pit, Wisconsin.

"This cavern appears to have a complex root structure on the ceiling, leading me to believe that… this is inhabited by some form of fruit-bearing vine organism, originating from pumpkins that have replaced the organ systems of one Clive Carter. Hold on." He retrieved the phone. "I'm activating the flashlight to get a better view of the cavern."

He turned on the flash bulb on the camera, illuminating the ceiling with a gasp. "Oh my god."

On the ceiling were scarecrows, hung upside-down. There were fifteen of them, moving along the vines like they were on conveyor belts, occasionally enveloped in plant matter, emerging with new parts; newly attached limbs, a different head, and a hat. The process was slow, and a single scarecrow took half an hour to complete. Hastings was glad he had a high-capacity memory chip in his phone.

"These are where the scarecrows are coming from," he swallowed, bringing the camera down. "I think this may be where everyone around town was taken to, to be… converted. But that doesn't explain why they started up—" he looked at Clive's skeleton, inspecting his head. "Cracks in the skull. Blow to the head might have killed him; did Hubble throw you down here?" He touched the breathing pumpkins. "Maybe he was using you to… as an extra power source for his ritual? I…" Chris's head pulsed. "Shit."

He aimed his camera at the ceiling. "It seems that your hypothesis was correct, Dr. Partridge," Chris swallowed. "The scarecrows do, in fact, originate from plant matter. The plants present in the body of Clive Carter appear to be mimicking the functions of organs long after death. Current hypothesis: the plant-organs pushed the… skeleton found at the Hubble estate out of position, breaking the… spell matrix, and causing Jeffery Hubble's infection." He swallowed. "I'm going to attempt to destroy the heart analogue. I realize that this is seriously against Foundation policy, but at this point… my leg's dislocated, I'm bleeding from half my skin, and… shit, my knife's gone. Must have lost it while being dragged here."

Hastings looked at his phone. "I am going to attempt to use my phone as a blunt instrument to smash the outer casing of the heart analogue. This recording will cease, possibly resuming when… when I destroy it. Hastings out."

Hastings turned off his phone, and clutched it in his hand. It barely weighed half a pound, but all he had to do was nick the skin of the pumpkin. Then he could press his nails in and rip it apart. He forced his phone down onto the pumpkin, the screen glitching and cracking. Again, he brought it down, but it seemed to bounce off. Pumpkins had thick skin, and whatever this was wasn't willing to give way.

Still, one did not get into the Foundation without some ingenuity. The corners of the phone itself were blunted, but the battery within was a different story. He peeled off the back plastic covering, and extracted the battery from the phone. The corners were sharp enough that, with the right application of force, he could break through.

Hastings dug the corner of the battery into the pumpkin's skin, and pushed. It slowly gave, and as it did, the cavern around him started to rumble. The skeleton twitched, unseen by him. He twisted the battery in deeper, starting to see the pumpkin's guts leak out. But it stalled on something, a hard inner shell. "No, shit, dammit," he sobbed. "Fuck."

The skeleton's hands jumped up to grab Christopher's. The researcher gasped, and shut his eyes, fearing that it would be torn off. He prepared a scream, but instead, he felt the bones tug his hand downward, sharply, towards the pumpkin heart. The battery pierced the skin, and he felt it dig into the ground beneath.

The bony hands went limp, except for one finger, which wrote a message in the dirt.


It then drew a sloppy triangle, and laid still. All the other pumpkins withered, and Hastings's eyes followed the withering. It went up through the roots, the scarecrows dropping off the ceiling, the entire cave rumbling.

Christopher Hastings was tired. He clutched the phone in his hand, and laid besides the skeleton of Clive Carter. "You're welcome, mate," he said, eyes landing on a triangle. From his point of view, he realized that it was not a triangle, but a pyramid. This was the last thought that crossed his mind before he slept.

Christopher Hastings had no right to wake up, but he might, some day.

The researcher had been lifted out of the cavern and rushed, not to Site-87's trauma center, but to the recently commandeered St. Francis Memorial Hospital. Standing outside his room were Dr. Partridge and Dr. Claude Mattings, fresh out of psychological evaluation.

"How'd you find him?" Claude asked. "You said his tracker went dark."

"Whatever he did down there made every plant on the Hubble estate die out, and left a huge line of dead plant life from there to the cavern we found him in. Seems like it tapped into hundreds of root systems, and when it died, it all went…" he mimed a 'poof'.

"You said you had something for me?" Mattings asked.

Partridge nodded, taking the Polaroid out of his pocket. "We found Hastings clutching it." He gave a brief explanation as to the contents of the video he had recorded, as well as the wallet found by him. "I finished sending this information to Site-87's mailing list about forty minutes ago. We're seeing what we can piece together."

Mattings looked over the Polaroid. "Yeah. That Ferris wheel was in the anomaly Pickman and I encountered. I'm positive."

Partridge rubbed his face. He rubbed his face. "So, to recap…"

"Hubble's gone the way of Dracula, and Carter's body is beneath Sloth's Pit, filled with rotting plants. That leaves Z. Allen and R. Gideon, plus the photographer, M. Isimeria. We don't even know their gender." He handed the Polaroid back to Partridge. "Pickman… something happened to him over a photograph that showed evidence of Foundation presence in Sloth's Pit a full seven years before we officially knew it existed. Something doesn't want us finding out about what it was they did."

"You think it's something from within the Foundation?" Partridge asked.

"Of course not," Mattings frowned. "If it was, they'd have no reason to let me live. They could have had me trip and fall in the psych ward, or cut the brakes of my car on the way over here." He looked into Hasting's room and sighed. "Christ, he got beat badly."

"He'll live," Partridge sighed. "I finally got in touch with Hennessy. She's meeting with me tomorrow."

Mattings nodded. "That's good. I'm going to talk to Reese, see if she can fast-track botany's research into those vampire pumpkins. I—" Matting's phone began to ring. He fished it out, and smiled. "It's Cassandra. Do you mind?" he asked.

"Be my guest," Partridge waved at him and nodded.

Claude answered the phone. "Hello, hon. What's up?"

"Claude?" Cassandra's voice was quiet. "I need— I need help. Call the task force."

"What's wrong?" He straightened up.

"J-Jules said that she wanted to check something out at Equinox Ridge, a-and she dragged me and Fred along. When we got there, w-we were jumped. Jules got grabbed, b-but she's fine, we're in the van."

"Something jumped you? What?"

"I-It was something that was all b-black, wearing a black veil, and—"

"Did it have rotten teeth?" Claude's skin went cold.

"Yeah. Looked like dead leaves." There was a loud thunk from the other end. "Shit! Fred, can't this go any faster?"

A muffled response came from the other end.

"Hon, t-the van's breaking down. I…" she swallowed. "I think we're gonna have to run."

"I-I'm gonna help you, Cass. I promise." Claude yelled at Partridge "Get Sigma-10 on the horn now! We have personnel in danger at Equinox Ridge!"

Partridge fumbled with his phone, and started up a conversation with Harold March, the commander of Sigma-10.

There was a loud bang from the other side of Claude's phone call. "Holy SHIT!" a voice in the background called. Female; Juliette Hobb.

"The whole side of the van just buckled. Something's trying to get in," Cassie whispered. "We're going to run."

"Come back to me." Claude swallowed. "Please."

"I will." Cassie kept the call on, and there was the sound of a door opening, followed by the cry of "RUN!"

Hundreds of footsteps and thousands of minutes seemed to pass. Claude's phone was glued to his head as he heard the steps retreat. Then, a scream. The sound of plastic and glass hitting the forest floor. The call disconnecting.

Claude Mattings stood in the hallway of an almost-empty hospital, paralyzed. The soundtrack to his life turned into the electrocardiogram of a mercifully unconscious man, beeping away in the dark.

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