177: Pitchforks

on March 13, 2008 in 07: Pitched Battles

In Which Mackenzie Gives A Scarecrow A Piece Of Her Mind

I’d never had more than a passing interest in The Magisterius University Labyrinth before being dumped into the middle of it. It was a famous landmark, and one of the most highly enchanted pieces of real estate in the central I.R.M., but dungeoneering wasn’t really my thing.

Enchantment was very much my thing, though, and so I knew a little bit about its properties. From the outside, it looked like a square brick enclosure fifty yards across with an opening in the middle of each side. The space inside it, though, was magically created. Some suggested it was infinite, but since some of the upper level delving courses had fighting from one end to the other as a final, that didn’t seem likely.

The walls were unbreakable, and too tall to be climbed… exactly too tall to be climbed. You could get a headache if you tried too hard to work that out when more than one person was involved.

Did Professor Proust know where I’d turned up? If he didn’t, I could be waiting for a long time to be rescued. Scrying and divination were difficult within the variable space within the labyrinth walls. When parties of students went in on an official basis, they wore jewelry that allowed instructors to track and monitor them.

When students ignored the clearly posted warning signs and wandered in on their own… well, there was a good reason Two had headed for the labyrinth when she’d wanted to “get lost” for good.

I hadn’t thought about that for a while. Maliko had a lot to answer for there… her and her mistress both. If Sooni really wanted to be my friend, she’d have to do something about her nekos’ behavior and her treatment of them.

Would she? Could she?

Asking her to behave like a decent being might be too much… in which case we’d be best enemies again, but oh well. It wasn’t like her company was so pleasurable that it was worth putting up with her being absolutely evil and vile. I’d gone through that with Puddy. I didn’t need anybody’s friendship that badly.

I was getting ahead of myself, of course. If I couldn’t get out of the labyrinth, none of that would matter.

The sensible thing to do when you’re lost and people are looking for you is to stay put. An orderly search will eventually lead to you. However, an orderly search of the labyrinth was not really possible and I didn’t know if anybody would even think to look for me there. If I started moving, I might find my way to an exit.

On the other hand, the stretch of maze I’d landed in seemed to be empty. If I started exploring, I might blunder into a wandering monster.

But then, if I stayed where I was, a wandering monster might blunder into me. They were called wandering monsters for a reason, after all.

It was the cold that made up my mind. It was still fairly early Friday morning; the sky overhead was blue but the sun wasn’t yet in sight. The Calendula morning would have been uncomfortably cool without a jacket. Without clothes, it was intolerable. I didn’t know if I could actually freeze to death, but it seemed less likely if I moved around a bit.

I picked a direction and started walking. It was seeming less and less likely that I was going to get my hot bath and pancakes, but if I got out of the maze quickly enough, I could still make my classes. Luckily, the one I could least afford to miss—the history class I’d just joined—was late in the afternoon.

I hated to think about the possibility that I’d be stumbling around naked past lunch time, but there it was. Hopefully by then they would have managed to pinpoint me with locator spells, in spite of the labyrinth’s confusing effects. Hopefully they’d have a better method for extracting me than Professor Proust’s long distance service.

Would they actually try that hard to find me?

It was a sobering thought, and a frightening one… more so than any thoughts of the creatures which populated the walled maze. It would probably solve so many problems in some peoples’ minds if I simply dropped off the face of the world and disappeared forever.

Had I been dumped here on purpose? Didn’t seem likely, but I couldn’t completely rule it out, either.

I turned right at each fork I came to. In the event that I hit a dead end, I would backtrack if I could and go the other way. “If I could,” because some parts of the maze were less stable and less literal than others. From what I understood, things made the most sense near the edges. Passages ran alongside each other in ways that could be mapped in two dimensions, and they didn’t rearrange themselves when your back was turned.

Near the very center, they didn’t even always wait until your back was turned.

I couldn’t yet tell if the stretch of maze I was in was fully behaving or not. The paths I took didn’t seem to be doubling around and “covering over” a path I’d already been on or anything really strange like that, but on the other hand, I couldn’t really tell if I was in a loop since the walls looked the same. After passing the second fork, I came up with the idea of gouging an arrow in the dirt, showing the path I’d picked.

Right, right, right. right… I never came across one of my arrows, but I was almost sure I was getting nowhere fast, all the same. The angles and passage length varied a bit, but it seemed like I should have been doubling back around, or that the path should have cut across itself several times. The systematic approach didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere. At the next branch, I went left instead, and went down a curving corridor that opened into a wide field.

“Field” was simply the descriptor my mind attached to an open space, but as I took in the surroundings I realized it was pretty apt. All the way down the right hand side of the space was a plot of cornstalks, brown and desiccated, but somehow still tall and proud. Towering above them was a dark figure on a pole. The field covered about a third of the area. A small barn and a haystack with a pitchfork were on the opposite side. The bare ground which formed the floor of the maze continued down the length of the environment, cutting a lane through browning grass.

A flock of huge crows circled noisily over the left hand side.

My eyes were on the pitchfork. If I ran into something nasty, a weapon would be very useful… particularly one with a good, long reach.

At my approach, though, the crows began to circle lower and lower, and then one launched itself into a dive, screaming like a bansidhe. I threw myself to the side, and ate grass while the giant crow swooped through the place where I’d been. Up close, the things were about the size of eagles.

Could they harm me? I didn’t care to find out. I decided to just go back out the way I’d entered, but a rusted gate of twisted iron now blocked the entrance. Damn. I tried my strength, but wasn’t terribly surprised to find it useless.

I didn’t bother trying to melt through it… the fact that I couldn’t muscle through it meant it wasn’t there to be bypassed with force, and I’d already got a taste of how the labyrinth dealt with smartasses with my “right, right, right” plan.

Couldn’t go back, so I was going to have to go forward. I could possibly have ignored the pitchfork and simply headed straight down the path, but now that I knew it was guarded I couldn’t ignore the feeling that it would be useful, or even necessary.

Anyway, crows on one side… scarecrow on the other. It wasn’t that hard to work out where this was leading, was it? I could just traipse on down the road, but chances were very good it would turn out I couldn’t proceed much farther without dealing with the things that were in front of me right now.

I headed into the cornfield. Having cut through plenty of such fields in real life, I had a certain amount of confidence. These dead stalks were harder to push through than I’d expected, though. They weren’t as brittle as they looked. Instead of snapping off when I pushed, they almost seemed to push back.

The deeper I got, the more pronounced it became, until I was sure it wasn’t my imagination. They weren’t just repelling me, either. The plants were crowding in from all sides, the edges of leaves and husks cutting against my skin and unnaturally flexible stalks wrapping themselves around my limbs.

I kept as calm as I could. I had an ace here… fire was the natural enemy of plants, especially dry plants. I didn’t want to burn down the whole field, though, because I might need to use the scarecrow. I tried to pull myself free, but there was a problem of leverage. The cornstalks were acting as long and springy limbs. I could only flail my arm so far in any direction, and they seemed to have just enough give to make that useless. New stalks actually shot up from the surface of the parched soil to replace the few I managed to damage.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t being pulled this way and that… I was being moved in one specific direction, carried along towards the towering figure of the scarecrow. Okay. I’d go along with that. Easier to submit than to resist… story of my life, lately.

It wasn’t exactly rapid transit, though, and that gave me time to think. The crows attacked you if you went one way, the cornfield attacked you if you went the other… what kind of sadistic dick dreamed this up? It was like there was no way through without fighting something.

I wondered if somebody on the faculty past or present had created this encounter. The labyrinth was far older than the school, and nobody was sure who had actually designed it.

I found myself more or less on my back looking up at the dark form, stalks wrapped around my arms and legs like vines. They were grabbing tighter now, and I probably could have started tearing them off, but I didn’t know what my next move would be. There were plenty more where these came from. Anyway, I’d wanted to get to the scarecrow and now I was there.

From a distance it had seemed to be merely dark colored, but as it loomed above me it seemed to be permanently shadowed, as if lit from behind but without an actual light. I was pondering what to do next when I thought I saw the head of the scarecrow shift, as if it were tilting its shadowy face down to look at me.

“Hello?” I said.

I heard a sound like a raspy cough, and then I was being lifted upright in jerky steps. The stalks binding me grew higher and higher, more than doubling in height until I was almost on a level with the scarecrow on his pole. My arms were spread out wide, and a plant circling my head just above my eyes forced me to look straight ahead, at the dark thing which apparently controlled the cornfield.

“You may ask three questions,” it rasped.

Questions. We were going to cover this sort of thing in the second quarter of logic class, along with wishes and the like. Well, I could be logical if I wanted to. It hadn’t said anything about how it would answer. With unlimited questions, it was easy enough to verify if a question-taker always lied, but it wouldn’t be worth using up a question just to ask what color the sky was.

The most likely scenario was that it would answer the questions and it would do so truthfully. It was the nature of the game. Still, it wouldn’t do to be cocky or careless. After all, it hadn’t given me a time limit.

“What is the price?” I asked. I couldn’t afford not to ask that. The scarecrow didn’t answer, and I realized the question was incomplete. “For the answers?” I added.

There was a sound something like a rueful chuckle, and the dark scarecrow said, “There is no price for my answers.”

Okay, so this wasn’t an “I’ll tell you nothing but what you ask me.” situation, this was a “I’ll answer your questions but throw in creepy implications which suggest that you should have asked a question that was either broader or more precise.” one. Nice. If I’d had more logic classes, I’d probably have known the technical terms for these types of question-takers, but I could make do.

“Under what circumstances would I need the pitchfork?”

This seemed like a better question than “Do I need the pitchfork?”, because the scarecrow could just chuckle and answer, “At this moment, you do not.” The fact was I could go my whole life without needing the pitchfork. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t find it necessary to get out of this section of the maze, though.

“You would need it if you wished to pass through the gate at the end of the road.”

“How can I get it without being harmed or killed by the crows?”

“By asking me to retrieve it for you,” he said. “You may now ask me for one service.”

“What does that cost?” I asked, though predictably I received no reply. The word “service” bothered me. Not “boon” or even “favor.” A boon might be presumed to have already been earned. A favor might mean I owed it something later, and that could be dangerous. A service, though, suggested an exchange.

It was possible that there was no cost for this, beyond the obvious. The trap was already there: if I asked the scarecrow to get the pitchfork, I was still stuck in the field. If I asked to be let down and allowed to leave, I didn’t have the pitchfork.

Still, I doubted that was all there was to it. The creepy mirth it had displayed when it told me the questions had no price could not be ignored.

How did this work when there was a party of delvers? The game wouldn’t work if they each got three questions and a boon. Could everybody shout out the first thing that popped into their heads? I could see inexperienced adventurers getting into trouble that way… the smart ones probably elected a leader to do all the talking in this kind of situation.

Well, I needed the pitchfork and I stood a better chance against the animated cornstalks than I did against the monster birds.


“I want you to give me the pitchfork and let me go.”

“That is two services,” the scarecrow said.

Okay. That pretty much counted as confirmation that letting me go at the end of the transaction was not going to happen in the course of things.

“Then I want you to give me the pitchfork,” I said. “In the ordinary understanding of the verb ‘to give’.”

“Of course,” the scarecrow said. “You ask, and it is yours.”

Its arms decoupled from the pole as if they had not been attached and it bowed, sliding down off the pole and landing nicely on its feet. The corn parted before him, clearing a broad path. The structure that bound me twisted to let me follow its progress.

The giant crows began circling lower as the dark figure moved towards the haystack. It raised its arms up and waved them, and the crows fled. As one, they descended on the roof of the barn, blanketing it in blackness. The scarecrow plucked the pitchfork from the hay and returned to the field.

When it stood before me, it bowed absurdly low and held the pitchfork out before it, level to the ground. I was still bound up in the air, but a pair of stalks burst out of the ground and raised it up, turning it upright and putting its haft into my hand. My fingers closed around it.

“I have given to you the pitchfork. That concludes our business,” the scarecrow said. “Except for one thing.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“In payment for my service,” it said, reaching back and touching the pole it had so recently vacated, “you may take my place until you have done a service for another.”

The post began to visibly dip, both sinking into the ground and lowering itself so that it was angled towards me. The stalks holding me in the air grew, lifting me, and also angling me in line with the pole.

“Oh, fuck this,” I said, and very calmly and deliberately, I lit myself on fire on purpose. Just my arms and legs… lower legs. I didn’t want to lose the pad that was protecting the last shreds of my dignity.

The scarecrow howled in pain as the stalks binding me caught fire and the plants below literally fled as I fell, clearing a wide circle around me… a circle that contained me and the scarecrow, as well as the post, which seemed to be wagging around in fear and confusion. I didn’t douse my flame even when I hit the ground.

“I know you’re done answering questions,” I said, getting to my feet. “So instead of asking, let me tell you what I’ve worked out. You’re tied to this field, in more ways than one: if it goes up, you go down.” That probably would have been obvious even if I didn’t have an intimate relationship with a cereal nymph. “If you get me on that pole, then you’re free… whether to get on with your life or move onto the next one, I don’t know… and I become like you until somebody else stumbles along. The hitch in that scenario is that I’m a half-demon. Now, I don’t know where that pole thinks it’s going, but you might as well climb back up on it because I’m out of here.”

“If you kill me, you will take my place,” the scarecrow said. “It cannot be avoided.”

It wouldn’t tell me that if it didn’t fear death, I realized. It would provoke me into attacking it.

“If I don’t kill you, I’ll still take your place,” I said. “But I’ve got a feeling that getting killed in the line of duty would not be a pleasant outcome for you, compared to whatever release you’re looking forward to once I’m skewered. If my choices are kill you and become you, or become you knowing that you’re going onto something better, I know which I’m going to do.”

“Threaten me, but even if I let you pass, the field will not let you go so easily. I did you a service,” the scarecrow said. “That must be paid for. You will not be able to leave the farm unless the deed is paid in full.”

Suddenly I had a sickening insight into how this encounter would play out with a group.

There probably were ways for a party of well-trained delvers with varying talents to get the pitchfork without the scarecrow’s help, but once accepted, it had to be paid for by somebody. Attempts to circumvent the rules of the encounter were probably as unwise as trying to measure the height of the walls or otherwise get around the nature of the labyrinth.

When students went through this scenario as part of their scheduled classes, did teachers step in before they made a deadly mistake, or did they teach them how to avoid them in the first place and then let things unfold as they would? I knew the delving and discovery program had an attrition rate higher than diabolism and necromancy put together, but I wasn’t sure how deadly it was.

Still, my threat obviously carried some weight. Even without an apparent face, the scarecrow visibly fretted. The idea of burning to death, even by proxy, clearly scared it.

“Right then,” I said. Maybe the magic would give me a pass if I fulfilled all the requirements of the scarecrow role without actually assuming it. “Ask me three questions and I’ll do you the service of not burning this field to the ground in less time than it takes you to stake me on that pole and release yourself. That puts you on the spot instead of me.”

The scarecrow lowered its head for several seconds.

“Your way, you die for good,” I say. “My way, you live on until the next group of saps blunders in here and gives you another shot.”

“What is your favorite food?” it asked.

It had accepted my terms, and what’s more, it was apparently taking the easy way out and just asking whatever popped into its head.

Except… what was my favorite food?

“Sekihan, I guess,” I said. It stared at me without comment. “Or anything sweet. I like lemon candy.”

It said nothing.

“Next question,” I said.

“You have not answered the first.”


Was this the new game? I didn’t have a real favorite food, so I couldn’t answer. That made me stuck here with it. Was it banking on the fact that I’d eventually give up and submit to becoming the next scarecrow? Even if I didn’t do so voluntarily, eventually I’d get tired…

“Banana pudding is my favorite food,” I said. Okay, I didn’t care for the stuff but it reminded me of Two.

The scarecrow shook its head.

“Yes, it is!” I insisted. “Or how about amaranth? That’s a foodstuff, even if I haven’t ever tasted…”

I stopped. I could feel my lack of breakfast rising up in my throat. That was it. That was the answer that would satisfy the magic. Not Amaranth in particular.

“Flesh,” I said. “Human flesh. I need blood, virgin blood in particular, but it… it all tastes so good. My favorite food is humans.”

“Whom do you love most of all?”

“My… my mother,” I said. I knew I wouldn’t get off with Amaranth or Two or Steff. She had been my world. For half my life, she had loved me like nobody else… and then nobody else had loved me for the other half.

“What happened to her?”

“It isn’t my fault,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about it. That’s all I know.”

The scarecrow stared at me. I felt anger welling up within me.

“That’s all I know,” I said, and very slowly, it nodded. “And now, you may ask for one service, and if you ask me to willingly take your place… if you ask me for any service except to leave in fucking peace, I will tear you apart one very small piece at a time and burn your field before you have a chance to die from that.”

“You must perform the service requested of you,” the scarecrow said, and from the desperate glee in its voice, I knew I’d guessed its intentions.

“Or it doesn’t count and I’m not released,” I said. “I honestly have no idea how things would play out if I performed the service that releases me by agreeing to submit willingly to becoming the next scarecrow. Do we both get released? Do we both become scarecrows? Does the magic say ‘fuck this shit’ and turn us both into lawn ornaments? I don’t plan on finding out. Ask me to leave in peace, or die horribly. I won’t become any more of a cursed scarecrow thing if I renege on the task and kill you.”

“Go in peace,” the scarecrow said.

“It’s a freaking pleasure doing business with you,” I said. I turned up the fire on my upper torso and around my ankles and calves and strode away, down the wide avenue that opened for me.

Though getting away in one piece beat any alternative, part of me regretted not being able to tear into the scarecrow. I was pissed. Not just at Mr. Creepy for being so perceptive in his questions, either. Getting dumped into the maze without a weapon or even a fucking shirt I could enchant for protection had left me too worried to focus on anything else.

Well, in the words of the ancient bards: Fuck. That. Shit. I was done worrying about if I got out and thinking about what would happen when I did.

Tales of MU is now on Patreon! Help keep the story going!

Or if you particularly enjoyed this chapter, leave a tip!

Characters: ,

5 Responses to “177: Pitchforks”

  1. pedestrian says:

    Seize the moment Mack, seize that fucking moment and dismember it!

    Current score: 4
  2. Arakano says:

    In hindsight… some things about Mack’s behaviour here make a whole lot more sense!

    Current score: 2
    • Nocker says:

      In greater hindsight, the Scarecrow even moreso.

      The pitchfork was made by her father and carries demonic power. By proclaiming herself a half demon with stronger ties to her mother she implicitly proclaims herself an enemy of the forks previous master.

      It also seems to know a few things about her given it’s replies to her answers. It knows she’s half demon, and all that implies from a sensory perspective. It also knows to ask who does she “love most of all”, which is important given her father only deals with his daughters when he can snatch them up from birth or near enough. “What happened to her” is probably another kicker given it means he knows she died without being told.

      The three simple sounding questions, with their phrasing, reveal a whole lot about both the scarecrow and Mackenzie.

      Current score: 2
      • zeel says:

        What? When is it ever stated that The Man made the pitchfork? The only even remote link is that the fork is at least demonic, and that he once used a pitchfork. There is no implication that it was this pitchfork.

        And even if it was. I doubt he actually made it.

        Current score: 0
  3. MentalBlank says:

    Love it when Mack’s a badass. And ‘Demon with a pitchfork’ is just a classic image. NAKED demon even more so.

    Current score: 5