Near Grantville, 1635
The scarecrows flowed along the road towards Grantville like a river of death. The Monster Society stood their ground watching them come. As always, John took the lead, barking orders at Ray and the others. Scully and Red opened fire on the monsters. Scully’s up-time handgun thundered as she squeezed off round after round into the monsters’ ranks. Ray watched a scarecrow stumble as a bullet blew apart a good portion of its upper torso. The scarecrow quickly righted itself, however, and rejoined the others streaming towards his team.
Red’s crossbow proved just as ineffective. She had managed to fire two shots already, an impressive feat in so short a time. Ray watched as she struggled to load a third bolt. The scarecrow that was her target had one bolt protruding from the center of its chest. Its head was tilted sideways at an unnatural angle by the wound Red’s second bolt had inflicted upon its neck.
John stepped forward, chanting in a long-dead language. He met the closest of the scarecrows head on and flung a vial of water into the thing’s face. Smoke rose from the scarecrow’s face as its head erupted into flames. Its body twitched and spasmed, jerking around like a ragdoll on the strings of a mad puppeteer before it collapsed upon the road and finally lay still.
“Fall back!” John cried, panic filling his voice.
“No!” Ray yelled, shoving past him. “I got this!”
Ray raised the wand he carried at the army of scarecrows. It wasn’t a wand like the sort that wizards and their ilk used. It was a high-tech marvel beyond even the tech the up-timers had brought with them through the Ring of Fire. Wires dangled from the sides of the wand and it gave the appearance of being a jury-rigged piece of junk salvaged together from discarded up-timer devices, but Ray had spent months working on it. The wand gave a low whine as Ray flicked it on.
With a wicked grin parting his lips, Ray’s thumb depressed the wand’s firing mechanism. A stream of crackling blue energy blasted outwards from the wand’s tip. The energy washed over the scarecrows setting them ablaze while also pushing them back. Ray pressed his attack, moving in for the kill.
As he did so, something shook his entire body. He could feel hands clinching his shoulders and shaking him.
“Ray!” he heard a voice call, “Wake up!”
Ray came awake with a start. He was disoriented at first but the world around him slowly came into focus. He lay in the field where Red and Scully had been preparing things for the Monster Society’s next adventure. They were far from done by the look of things but the sun had sunk low in the sky.
Scully was squatted beside him where he rested in the grass. The look of anger and frustration on her face told him he was in trouble. Before she could tear into him for falling asleep when he was supposed to be helping set up the two rows of scarecrows that Red was still at work on, Fox came bounding up between them to leap onto his chest. Fox’s wet tongue slimed his right cheek as Ray tried to turn his face away from the dog’s overly enthusiastic greeting.
He gently pushed Fox away from him and sat up.
“Sorry,” Ray mumbled. “I guess I needed sleep more than I thought.”
Scully huffed at him. “Look, I know you went all out getting the stuff for us to make these scarecrows but that doesn’t mean you get out of the work of setting them up before John gets here.”
“Right,” Ray nodded. “Only John gets to just show up.”
Scully ignored his jab. “Just get up and help us, okay?”
“Sure thing,” Ray said as he got up. He knew both of the girls were interested in John. Ray couldn’t blame them. John was handsome and worse, annoyingly charming when he wanted to be. Ray grunted as he thought about just how much John had it made as their leader. He couldn’t bring himself to hate John, though, no matter how much he wanted to. Unlike the character he played, John had a good heart and, for the most part, did a great job as the Monster Society’s leader. If not for John, there wouldn’t even be a Society. John had brought them all together and given them something to live for and look forward to.
Ray’s eyes scanned over the two rows of scarecrow warriors in progress and knew tonight’s adventure would never live up to the dream he’d just had but still, it was going to be fun. John had let him write the adventure on this one, and Ray hoped the others would really get into it. But first they had to finish setting everything up.
He peered over Red’s shoulder as she used a piece of charcoal to draw faces on the burlap sacks they’d be using for the scarecrow heads. “Make those scarier? More teeth and beady eyes.” He nudged the stack she’d already finished with his foot. “These too.”
“But I’ve already finished with those.”
“So, do them over again. You want it to look right, don’t you?”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine.”
Scully finished jamming the last of the poles into the ground. “Hey, Ray. Why don’t you finish up hanging the bodies? I’ll help Red with the heads.”
“I thought you were hanging the bodies up.”
“Yeah. But I’ve done most of them. And you’re taller.” She flopped down in the grass next to Red and grabbed a piece of charcoal and a sack.
He scowled, but tried to square his shoulders and suck his gut in. “I guess I am stronger.”
Red made a noise in the back of her throat—part laugh, part boo. “She said you were taller, Ray. Not stronger. Right?”
Scully giggled. “Right.”
Ray straightened his coverall and turned away, keeping his mouth in a determined frown. He liked the fact that the girls didn’t get along so well. If they found a common ground in mocking him for his size and temperament . . . He shuddered. “I guess we can’t all be John.”
The invocation of their leader’s name was as effective as any spell. Scully and Red both smiled at the mention of him. Then glared at each other for having smiled.
Ray picked up one of the last three scarecrow bodies to be hung on the remaining poles, feeling both pleased and a little disgusted with himself. Sometimes a little diversion was necessary. If he could keep the girls from thinking about how awkward he was, it would give him a chance to prove himself some other way. The up-timer term nerd fit him so much, and he often thought of himself that way. From his understanding of things, nerds rarely “got the girl,” but that wasn’t going to stop him from trying to impress them any way he could.
He hefted the straw-filled bundle up, balancing the arms along the pole crossing at the top, then using a bit of string to tie it into place. Another bit of string around the waist and it stayed put, the ends of the sleeves moving eerily in the light wind across the field. “Perfect.”
He bent to pick up the second one, repeating the process of draping and tying. All the while listening to see what the girls were talking about.
It wasn’t that he disliked John. But he was certain that if John weren’t around, he’d have a much better chance with Scully. Maybe not Red—she was tough and pretty and knew it. But Scully liked books and, outside of the Monster Society, she didn’t seem to have many friends. Not even ones from Grantville. She was an outsider, just like Ray. But with John around, flashing that crooked grin and swaggering in his trench coat, pretending to smoke and reminding everyone he was the oldest . . .
Ray sighed. Even he couldn’t help but smile and say yes when John turned on the charm. He picked up the last of the scarecrow bodies and heaved it up onto the pole.
Scully cleared her throat, and Ray perked up his ears and moved around to the other side of the scarecrow so he could watch them without being too obvious.
“Do you know when John’s going to get here?” Scully said. She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear nonchalantly.
Red looked up at her. “How would I know?” she asked sharply.
“I just . . . you live closer to him. I thought maybe you knew why he wasn’t here.” She bent back over the sack in her lap, cheeks flushed.
“Oh.” Red chewed her lip for a minute. “I think he was going to talk to someone about the church thing.”
“So stupid. The church folks, I mean. What harm does any of this do?” She touched the carved wooden gun holstered under her jacket. “It’s just pretend.”
Red shrugged. “No such thing as pretend witchcraft. So they say.” She lifted her head so she could stare down her nose, face wrinkled in the imitation of someone who has just smelled something nasty. “Opens a door to the devil in your heart. And he won’t pretend about dragging you straight down to fire and damnation.”
Scully giggled and shook her head. “Like we’d be wasting our time with all this out here if there were real monsters and demons to slay.”
Red nodded. “They don’t see it that way. What do you call us? Down-timers? We see things a lot differently than you folks from Grantville do.”
“John’ll be all right, won’t he? I mean, this is fun.” Scully smiled shyly. “More fun really than I’ve ever had before. But I don’t want anybody getting in trouble because of it. Especially not John.” Her cheeks flushed and she ducked her head, working furiously on one of the last of the burlap heads.
Ray, still lurking behind the final scarecrow, scowled and waited for Red to say something hard and sarcastic.
Red frowned, tapping her fingers on her knee as she watched Scully. Finally. “You like him, don’t you?”
She shrugged. “I like all of you.” She glanced toward Ray, who busied himself with the string around the waist of the last monster. “Well, mostly.”
Red shook her head. “I mean, you’re fond of John.”
“Aren’t you?” Scully looked at her keenly.
Red paused. “I’ve known him for a while. And he helped me with . . . some things.”
“Yeah, all that stuff with your brother right? I can understand how you’d be fond of him.”
She pushed her hair back out of her eyes and glared at Scully crossly. “Yes. But I think he likes you more.”
Scully blushed. “No, he doesn’t.”
“Yes. Fascination with all things up-time.” Red tossed the last burlap sack onto the pile of finished ones. “It includes you, you know.”
“But you’re his friend. And . . . prettier.” The last word came out strangled.
For a moment, Red smiled, and then shook her head. “So are you. He’s quite pleased about having an up-time girl in the group. Ray and I . . .” She sighed.
Scully frowned. “Hey. I don’t want things to be weird. I just want to play the game.”
Red looked at her doubtfully.
“Seriously. I mean, I like John. I do. But where I come from, up-time, it wouldn’t even be legal for us to do anything . . . romantic.”
“He’s too old. For someone my age. There are laws about it.”
“Older? That’s foolish. What if you die first? I know a lot of up-timers who have married folks from around here.”
Scully laughed. “Supposing we don’t get snatched by a monster, we live longer, I guess.”
Red stood up, hands planted on her hips. “Now you’re teasing me.”
“A little.” Scully stood up and brushed bits of grass from her pants. “Look. You and I are both fond of John, but the group is more important. Right?”
Red nodded, hesitantly. “I suppose you’re right. The Monster Society is my family, maybe even more so than my real one.”
“So, maybe we just stay friends and play the game. You, me, and John. And Ray.” She held her hand out.
After a moment, Red clasped hands, awkward. “All right.”
“Good.” Scully grinned. “So that’s settled.” She looked over at Ray. “Aren’t you done yet?”
He twitched and made a show of straightening the scarecrow before walking toward them. “Now we just need to put the heads on them. If we each do some it shouldn’t take very long.”
“Right.” Scully and Red divided up the burlap sacks and they spread out along the two rows of headless scarecrows.
Ray glanced over at the girls as he stuffed straw into each of his sacks, then positioned them on top of the poles and tied them into place. They seemed less tense, giggling and pulling faces in imitation of the grimacing scarecrows. He hoped maybe they would be friendlier toward him too.
He stood up on tiptoe, settling the last head into place. Maybe if they were busy being friends with John it would give him a chance to show them he wasn’t just big and awkward.
Ray stepped back to examine their work. The scarecrows loomed in two rows, their limbs dangling and faces snarling, or scowling, like real monsters. He smiled, feeling a flush of pride.
“They look good,” Scully said. “But maybe next time we do pygmies instead.”
“Pygmies?” Ray looked at her puzzledly.
“Short people from Africa. That way we don’t have so much trouble getting them up on the poles and everything,” Scully grinned at Ray.
He rubbed his chin. “Maybe next time we could assemble them on the poles before we stand them up.”
They blinked at him, then Scully started to giggle. “Oh, gee.” She slapped him on the shoulder. “You should have told us that before you took that nap, Ray.” But she smiled at him.
He smiled back shyly. “I thought maybe you had a reason for doing it this way.”
“Not a good one.” She laughed again, and even Red smiled.
“Hullo!” They all turned as John swung over the wall at the edge of the field and strode toward them, coat flapping dramatically. He shoved one hand in his pocket and plucked his wooden cigarette from the corner of his mouth with the other. “What’s so funny, love?”
Scully shook her head. “Ray’s just living up to his namesake. Showing off the brains under that goofball exterior.”
“Oh.” John looked past them to the rows of scarecrows. “Oh, that looks good.” He clapped Ray on the shoulder. “Brilliant, love.”
“Is everything okay with that man from the church?” Red asked.
John flashed a smile at her. “Let’s not worry about that this evening, love. We’ve got an army of scarecrows to stop.”
“Amen to that.” Ray laughed. He straightened his utility belt. “If everyone is ready, we’ll start over there, and I’ll get us started.” He led the way across the field toward the road.
The sun was down, the sky turning from purple to sheer black as the moon crept slowly above the bare branches of the woods at the end of the field. A cold breeze swirled around the four of them, fluttering the edge of John’s coat and Red’s cloak.
Ray cleared his throat. “We’ve been hearing stories of something coming out of the field to haunt the road. The local farmers are terrified and won’t travel this stretch of road past sundown. One man said he saw something walking, but it made no sound and left no footprints.”
“Like a ghost?” Scully plants her hands on her hips. “You know these so-called phenomena are usually the result of an overactive imagination.”
John dragged his fingers through his hair with a grin. “You still think everything has a logical explanation, love?” He rolled the wooden cigarette to the other corner of his mouth and looked around at the three of them solemnly. “We’ve all seen things we couldn’t explain.”
Scully shrugged. “Maybe because we didn’t have all the facts, John.”
Red hefted her crossbow impatiently. “Are we going to talk about it all night or go find this monster and kick it in its illogical teeth?”
Ray nodded. “The first thing to do is check out the place where the sightings have taken place.” He pointed down the road. “That way.”
“Come on, then.” Red started down the road, John and Ray behind her.
Scully followed more slowly. “If this turns out to be swamp gas or squirrels . . . I could be home eating dinner, not stomping around this godforsaken road.”
Red paused, staring out across the field. “What are those?”
“Scarecrows.” John leaned on the top of the wall.
Ray clutched at his wand. “Pretty creepy for scaring birds.”
They were silent for a moment, watching the rows of snarling, straw-filled scarecrows. The moon threw their shadows out across the lumpy ground like long fingers that stretched almost to the road where the Monster Society stood. A few of them stirred, long legs flapping.
“There are a lot of them.” Red shifted her grip on her crossbow.
John grinned. “Not scared of a bunch of straw men, are you, Red?”
“No. I mean, there’s a lot of them to just be for scaring birds.”
Ray nodded. “And the field’s empty too.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “That one too.”
A couple of scarecrows on the end of the row shuddered, arms and legs twitching back and forth like a puppet on a string.
Scully pulled her up-time gun out. “Do any of you feel a breeze?”
Ray shook his head. “Are you cold?”
“Yes. But more importantly—if there’s no wind, why are they moving?”
Red sucked in a breath. “It’s an army.”
“We have to protect the town,” Ray said firmly.
John rolled his sleeves up. “Well, then. Shall we go stop them, love?”
For a moment they all grinned at each other, then fell back into their characters.
“I’ll go left,” Ray said. “John, you go right and the girls can go up the middle.”
“Ready?” John said. “On three.”
Red and Scully stepped closer to the wall, weapons at the ready.
“One. Two. Three.” John swung over the wall, the others right behind as the Monster Society settled in for a long night of defending Grantville from supernatural evil as only they could.
When the battle was done and Grantville was safe once more, John collapsed, exhausted, onto the grass of the field. Scully sat down beside him.
“That was some battle,” she commented.
John nodded, “Tell me about it. We need to let Ray come up with our adventures more often.”
John shifted nervously where he sat as Scully scooted closer to him.
“John,” she said quietly, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”
John met her eyes, staring into them. “Yeah, uh, me, too, actually.”
“Would you, maybe, like to do something sometime that wasn’t part of the Society? You know—something for maybe just the two of us?”
“Yes, love, I would. Very much so.” He smiled and started to lean towards her.
Fox came wandering up and nudged himself between them.
They both laughed.
John lifted his arm, placing it around Scully’s shoulders with Fox pressed between them.
“Soon then?” he asked.
Scully nodded, shooting him a grin. “Soon. Just promise me it won’t involve monsters.”
“We’ll see, love,” John smiled. “We’ll see.”