One of the first things Jack learned about hunting was conservation of energy. Never do work yourself that you could conceivably get your prey to do instead. That concept led rise to what Jack and Sam referred to as “throwing rocks at a hornets nest.” Why wander around town looking for cultists if you could just get them to come to you? In their ample experience, the best way to do that was to file a missing person’s report. The only thing left was to make up a story. At Jack’s insistence, they decided to do one better. Since neither one of them knew the identity of the person who called them, they couldn’t look for anyone specific. Thankfully, they didn’t have to. All they had to do was call back home and have someone look up a list of people who had recently vanished from the area under strange circumstances.
Sam wasn’t on the phone for more than five minutes before she had a match. “Chip Sunderson, he came out east from Minnesota to live here. He worked at the diner for a few months before he stopped showing up for work. They figured he must have quit work, but Madeline seems to think it’s far more likely that he just quit life.”
Jack nodded and scanned the street. The simplest lies were the easiest to remember and also the easiest to come up with. Not that their lie being discovered would ruin their plans, because either the lie or the truth would have the desired effects. They could even combine the truth with a lie and really get the cult worked up. Events were sliding into play quite nicely. The story they came up with was something between the stuff of madness and the actual harsh, cold reality with a dash of telemarketing thrown in.
For the next hour, they wandered around town, talking to everyone who would listen. The story went something like this. Their friend, Chip Sunderson, moved out here. At first, they had written back and forth, but eventually they lost contact with him. They didn’t know if he still lived in this town or not, but Ramshead was where he moved and they were ever so worried. They had saved up their money to come here and please help them. Then they left the conversation with the full knowledge that if anyone were interested in making sure they never left town, they would do it that night. Having eaten, Jack decided to pick a few things up for his sister before they turned in for the knife. Her chopper was already gone by the time they went by where they had left it.
Once they had returned to the room, they turned in early. In a town that small, the conflicting stories would be told and the cultists would have to decide on their own what to make of them. Jack knew from sad experience that rather than crushing their suspicions, it would only create more tension.
Sam slowly flicked her knife open and shut, sitting on Jack’s bed and flicking her eyes at the door, “When are they coming? I’m already bored and I had plans for the evening.”
Jack sat on the floor between the two beds and cracked his knuckles. His cleaning bag was across the room, but he doubted he would need it for the first wave, “Usually, it’ll be around two or three in the morning. It depends on how zealous the curfew crew is and how many rocks hit the mark earlier. You might as well try and get some sleep because they won’t come until they’re sure we’re asleep.”
No two cults were alike in every respect, but there was one ritual Jack could count on just about every cult possessing. He called it the curfew crew, and their job within the cult was deadly and simple. Weed out the dissidents and the out of town nuisances, and then kill them. Final call, if you will. With a town like this, where everybody was a member of the cult, Jack expected a crew of fanatics with little training in actual fighting. Smaller, more violent cults sometimes employed a special crew hired on just for that purpose. That way, the trouble gets taken care of and the cult’s hands stay clean.
“But what if we’re asleep when they come?”
“You won’t miss it. You average curfew crew has around ten to fifteen guys, since these are small town locals not some hardened group of thugs. Other than this kind of work, the messiest thing most of them have had to deal with is throwing a drunk out of the local bar and murdering unsuspecting tourists in their sleep.”
True to his word, the hotel and the whole town grew suddenly silent around ten at night. The general hush spread out further and further until even the chatter of people outside of town stopped and the lights in the street were unceremoniously turned out. Within that quiet, endless crushing quiet, the sounds of the curfew crew crowding up the stairs towards them sounded like a herd of elephants trying to sneak up on a circus tent in the middle of the night. Jack gestured to Stan, who slid the croquet mallet out of his bag and slowly tread his way over to stand behind the door. When they pushed the door to come in, they would push it right into Stan. It wasn’t like he would be able to hide behind the door, but it was amazing how many people miss Stan when he was standing in a place where one wouldn’t expect a giant like him to stand. Jack stayed right where he was and Sam hardly moved from where she had apparently fallen asleep. Jack almost believed it too, until he saw the slight smirk on his sister’s face.
Nothing takes longer than waiting to ambush someone about to launch an ill performed sneak attack. After what felt like an eternity, the door finally opened. Around two dozen of them in the hallway and down the stairs, judging by the shadows and the sound. What caught Jack’s attention was what they wore, farmer’s clothes. Well, there was the uniform Jack had been looking for before. It tickled his brain, which was slightly worrying. The first one stepped in and tried very hard to whisper quietly to his compatriots. They all had to see it, so much the better. Jack tried so very hard to keep his eyes closed as they shuffled in, almost letting a slight chuckle slip out a few times in spite of himself. The greatest hunt really was where the hunters were being hunted. It always started with that moment of primal triumph turned into non-comprehension and fear. It almost made up for being in Maine in the first place.
They filed in one by one, filling the hallway behind them until it was time to spring the trap. One of the burly men grabbed Jack by the suit lapel and dragged him up slightly, raising his other hand above his head. Jack suddenly reached up and grabbed the man, pulling him close and whispering the one thing that would confuse him most into his ear, “It’s a trap, run.”
There it was. His eyes went wide, surprise and anguish clearly written in them. If this was a trap, why had Jack warned him about it? The man struggled to cry out but Jack rammed his free hand over the man’s mouth, muffling his voice. To complete the effect, Jack kicked his legs under the man uselessly, as though he were struggling to escape. The crowd grew closer until the trap finally snapped shut in earnest. Stan kicked the door hard, sending the thug in the doorway flying back into the hallway. The very instant the door was closed, Sam got to work, her knife a mere whisper of steel cutting through the air like a razor until the blade met the resistance of a throat or some other soft spot on her victim.
After an instant, Sam sat back on the bed, twirling her knife. The door slowly opened again as all the cult members in the room sagged to the ground. The look of shock was definitely worth the price of admission. Jack held the one last cult member still alive in his arms as his sister looked at him, waiting for instructions. Jack groaned in irritation, “Well!? Don’t stop now, I need some time to question our bold late night visitor and we have an audience. You know how I hate that.” Sam nodded and got up, stalking out the door. Well, there goes one problem.
Jack flipped the cult member onto his back and released his hand from over his mouth, “So we got your attention, you came here to kill us but now I’m going to ask you one question and you’re going to answer it or my friend there will play whack a dummy with your head.”
“I will never betray the outer plant gods! I will never talk! ”
“No, that’s what’s going to happen after we’re done with you. I’m not offering amnesty, I’m offering a postponement. Who called us? It had to be one of your own.”
“You’re too late…” the cult member cackled softly to himself, Jack only now noticing the insanity in his eyes. He kept laughing, but the sound grew quieter. Without warning, the man’s eyeballs seemed to vanish. In their place, nothing but darkness remained.
That memory which had tickled the back of his mind came forward to block everything else. All Jack could see was his brother. Ripping open the cultist’s shirt, he found white hairs springing out from his chest. They weren’t hairs, though, they were too white. They appeared to be coming from a vegetable. Wrapping them around his fingers, Jack yanked hard. Erupting from the man’s chest was what appeared to be a large ear of corn. The kernels were black, dull and began to shrivel the instant they met the open air. Towards the bottom end, a mouth and nose gradually protruded from the kernels of corn. It slowly opened, wider than Jack would have thought possible. Before he could react, it started to scream and spew blackened kernels of corn at his face.
Slamming it against the walls a few times shut it up. It also left black stains on the wall, which immediately started melting the wood around them. The body of the cultist deflated. As it did, the cultist managed one last sentence, “Long live the gods of the trees and rocks and fields!”
Jack actually shuddered for an instant, “Ah, damn. Stanley. We’re in worse shape than I thought. This is another one of those weird farmer cults.”
Stan seemed genuinely confused, “What’s the deal with them farmer cults anyways?”
“They believe in creatures that live out in the fields who were here long before people were even growing crops. I’ve heard those creatures, gods really, were the ones that taught us to cultivate crops in the first place but that was in return for our crops.”
“People ain’t crops, boss.”
“Maybe livestock would be more appropriate, but they wanted our first crops in return for theirs.”
“Is anya’ that true, boss?”
“I used to think the answer was no. I’m starting to remember the answer is actually yes. That does mean there may be no saving this town.”
Jack strode over to the window and looked out. They needed to capture at least one cultist alive. This goal was complicated by the fatal error that had been sending his sister out to deal with them first. Peering out the window, the scope of the disaster became apparent to Jack. Sam had already left the building and the rest of the goons they had sent were sprawled out dead on the floor. If he didn’t catch up to her soon, she would kill every single person in town regardless of how connected to the cult they were. Sam was thorough, if nothing else.
While Jack watched, the streets pushed upward and rippled outward like waves, pushing the streets around it back towards the buildings. His sister stood in the middle of it all, when the street around her erupted. An ear of corn burst from the ground and wrapped its husks around her until she was completely covered. Memories threatened to break Jack’s mind. Memories which had been sealed away for so long, and remained yet hidden just out of sight. Soon, she was wrapped from head to toe and the monstrosity rose from below the ground to stalk off towards the center of town. It stood taller than the buildings on Main Street, none of which were above three stories. All around it, throngs of asparagus tentacles writhed and twitched. At the top of the corn sat a crown of red tomatoes with grotesque faces, their soundless screams sounding out over the town. Apparently, the cultists could hear it, because they stepped out to follow it. Jack snapped out of it. That elder plant god was running away with his sister.
Despite the lights still being out, the street was visible. The cultists milled around on the street corners, waiting to ambush any unwary travelers and sacrifice them for crops or power or better cell phone reception in the mountains or whatever the hell their current leaders wanted. Turning to the hallway, Jack followed the trail his sister took. Long strands of blood decorated the walls, clearly his sister’s handiwork. “And this is why I never let her do the dirty work. Sam! You need 1to leave at least one more alive so I can question them! No point if I can’t question them!” Jack grumbled and dashed out into the hallway, followed behind by a determined Stan.
By the time he arrived at the ground floor, the streets had turned into a churning, boiling mob of people. Other than hurting the outsiders, maybe sacrificing a few to those gods they had, Jack was entirely uncertain of what they wanted. Still, if he wanted to get through this crowd he needed a weapon and that left his bag up in the room. Jack raced back upstairs to grab it. The mop was out of the question as was the broom. The problem with cults like this is that they take away a person’s freedom. No, Jack amended his statement mentally, it took away the desire for freedom. It planted fear and awe and the desire to submit to complete lunatics who wanted power. The dustpan it was, then. Jack yanked the long handled dustpan out of his bag and gave it a swing. The handle at the end and the shaft were heavy in his hands, made of steel that wouldn’t bend or break. The dustbin at the end only swung slightly when he moved it. When he couldn’t kill, he used this heavy duty tool for knocking out. Not that he could kill anyone, given what he had just seen. He, Stan and Samantha were likely the only living people in the town. The cult was made up of plant puppets being controlled by evil produce gods.
Stan lumbered out to join his employer, his massive mallet slung over his shoulder. A stray cultist ran down the street, unseeing and unthinking beyond the siren call of his ancient produce god. Stan laid him out with one swift tap from his mallet.
“Well, we got one of them anyways. Stan, tie him up and I’m going to head to the town hall and do a little hunting. This has gone well and truly beyond the point of cleaning.”
Shouldn’t you switch up for another one a’ them weapons a’ yours?”
Jack shook his head and stalked off in the direction of downtown cultville, “If we kill them, we can’t get any answers to the questions I want to beat them…I mean ask them. If they’re possessed by those plant things, they’re very likely connected to the plant god. If we’re going to find my sister, we need information.”
The walk to the town hall took too long for Jack’s liking. Outside the town hall, Jack froze at what he found. Corn husks as large as a man were littered outside the front steps. With no sign of his sister or the god, Jack feared the worst. Grasping his dustbin, Jack marched on towards the town hall. It seemed the most likely place to get some information. Jack was afraid, but the worst thing he could do was panic. He was going to get her back, no matter what it cost them.