Pumpkin Oaksgourd and the Birthday Contract
Precious, isn't she? Well this is Pumpkin Oaksgourd, the focus and main character of today's blog entry, with artwork done by my friend, Gladisk Studio.
This story is one that I did near the end of Halloween while experimenting with YA-oriented stories. I do a lot for my nieces, this project being one of my endeavors, both to get them reading and to give them a character they can gravitate towards. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked so far, as they're more concerned with their electronic devices.
Kids today, eh?
Well, no use in letting a potentially good story go to waste. So I'm sharing with everyone here Pumpkin's very first story, "The Birthday Contract."
The Talon Scale Inn, two days before Halloween
Robin “Pumpkin” Oaksgourd sat at a table alone as the live entertainment blared their trumpets and the pianist fingered his keys like no tomorrow. She downed her third glass of Dragon Spice Rum; she was determined to feel some kind of buzz, no matter where it came from before her contract went into effect in thirty minutes.
Ten more minutes passed. Pumpkin looked around, sweeping a lock of her curly dark hair from her face. The hood of her cloak was not needed; she didn’t need to hide, especially not in the Talon Scale Inn. Everybody who’s anybody in Hollowmore made the Talon Scale Inn their main hangout and meet up place.
“Come on, Masaka,” Pumpkin uttered while her eyes darted to and fro, trying to spot a certain Correbosque with quick hands and even quicker feet. “If you don’t get your butt here, I’m canceling the contract.”
As if on cue, the wind whipped at her face; Pumpkin sputtered as she dashed more hair from her face and angrily glared ahead at a young Correbosque woman with ebony skin and ears at a point. She herself was cloaked, a confident smirk exuded from her face, and she flicked a coin up and down on her black-painted thumbnail.
Pumpkin called for another stein of Dragon Spice Rum. “How many so far?” Masaka inquired as she stopped her juggle and crossed her arms. “Do I need to clear your head?”
“Maybe if you, supposedly capable of running faster than sound, got here on time, I wouldn’t be wasting my birthday waiting to do a friggin’ job!” Pumpkin’s cheeks and the bridge of her nose took on a crimson hue and her eyes dulled themselves. “Besides, I got about two more steins left before I even think about passing out.”
Quaffing the bar’s spirits buoyed Pumpkin’s spirits. Things got lively and Masaka herself took quick glances around. She groaned and sucked her teeth.
“What’s wrong? Your ringer team decided to renege?” Pumpkin lightly teased.
Masaka ignored her and closed her eyes before she turned her ear towards the Inn’s entrance. Pumpkin raised an eyebrow and let go a light belch. “Oh, there they are.”
As the Rogue spoke, three new figures entered the bar, completely ignored by the rest of the patrons. The one who moved at the head of the trio, a Swordsman with light armor and a Katana affixed to his belt sash, scanned the room with cautious eyes.
The second, a lightly burly man clad in a greyish-black gi and a short haircut, cracked his knuckles through his padded gloves. He looked curious as if it was his first time in an establishment like the Talon Scale, and he cracked his neck back and forth.
The last was the most audible. He slung a rifle over his shoulder, his long straight hair pulled into a single ponytail, and looked around like a child in a confection shop. “Ohh, I can just spell the rum! Who’s got a couple of Jacks on them so we can get a stein?”
The Fighter responded, “Don’t you think we should handle business first before we consider getting you drunk?”
“Our money’s limited, and hopefully this Rogue pays us up front,” the swordsman added.
A calling whistle caught their attention, and they turned to Masaka’s table as Pumpkin downed the Spice rum stein. “Argh, she’s drinking all the rum!” the marksman cried as he hurried to the table.
“First things first: it’s my birthday, so all the booze is mine!” Pumpkin proudly announced. “Furthermore, sit down and let’s get this over with before this job drains what’s left of my birthday away.”
The fighter huffed. “Someone’s manners went down her gullet with the rum.”
Pumpkin immediately turned towards the man as he took a seat, his arms still crossed. “Excuse me, what was that?” She held out her palm and a small plume of flame ignited, and it contorted itself into the visage of a jack-o'-lantern. “Me and my fireball want you to speak up.”
Masaka grabbed her wrist and shook her head. “Ugh, you always get so testy when you’re drunk.”
“Well, Mr. Brawler here shouldn’t be mouthing off right off the bat!” Pumpkin argued.
“Just like a Witch; quick to use magic to assert strength.”
“Kayl!” The swordsman called. When the fighter looked at his comrade, the swordsman slowly shook his head while the marksman laughed.
“So what do we call you?” Pumpkin questioned as she cleared her throat. “Got the name of muscle head there.”
Kayl leered at the witch who calmly craned her neck in a testing manner. The swordsman spoke up, “I’m Maxwell from the Southeast. I, unfortunately, don’t have a surname. This is--.”
“Cassian Winslett, the gunslinger for hire, at your service, ladies! And happy birthday to the inebriated witch!” He exclaimed. The entire bar whooped and raised their mugs and steins to commemorate.
Pumpkin growled. “Big mouth!”
Cassian merely smiled as he set his rifle down and clasped his hands together. “I’m thirty, I’ve got a family in the west, and I like shooting as much as I do a drink. Can we PLEASE get a stein over here?!”
“I hope you’re paying for that,” Masaka informed.
Cassian’s eyes danced a bit before he leaned towards Maxwell, his own grip tight on his sword while he fought not to scowl at the marksman. “Front me a couple of Jacks.”
Maxwell let loose an exasperated sigh. “Fine. It’s coming out of your cut of the money.” He flicked five Jack coins into Cassian’s hands, and the latter squealed with delight as the tanned-skinned female server set down a new stein of rum.
Cassian wasted no time in downing the stein, and he shook his head to stave off the effects of the spirits.
“Now that introductions are finally out of the way,” Masaka began while she rolled her eyes, “Saloman the Guild-master contracted us to provide assistance to a warrior he knows, someone by the name of Marius. The map he gave us,” the rogue rolled out a piece of parchment with a map rendering on it, “places him by the Temple ruins of the Yatagarasu.”
“Damn,” Maxwell exclaimed softly. Pumpkin heard and raised her eyebrow.
“Something you’d like to share?” the Witch questioned as she splayed her hands at her sides as questioning gestures.
Maxwell looked at his sword and clutched a grip around the pommel of the Katana. His weapon, Yamato, was forged by the same clan, but this was at a time when the Yatagarasu was...more accepting of other races. “They won’t be happy to see us. To see me,” the swordsman simply explained.
“Why?” Pumpkin inquired. “You stole that sword from them?” The witch knew she could be blunt at times but she’d rather things wouldn’t be kept a secret, only to come out at the most inopportune times. “If there’s anything we need to know before we get started, I’d appreciate it if you’d loosen your lips.”
Masaka cut a look at her old comrade. She herself shook her head. “All business as usual, eh Pumpkin?” The Correbosque thought.
“A load of rumors swarm that area. That they’ve joined with Myotal’s forces, they’re providing him with magic, or that their brain’s been infected by devils. I’ve seen them recently; they’re shades of their former selves. They’ve truly become the shadow warriors they’ve trained to be.”
Pumpkin leaned back in her chair, her boot tapping the side of the table. She couldn’t hide the irritation on her face. “Something tells me I’m not gonna enjoy my birthday at all. The Witch flicked ten Jacks on the table for her steins and stood. “All right, Masaka. Lead the way.”
The newly-formed party passed by several townsfolk carrying their wares on their way out of town. The people spotted Pumpkin and wished her a happy birthday in various manners, and each one mounted her irritation.
“So how far away are these temple ruins?” Pumpkin inquired. Masaka was silent as the witch spoke; the latter turned to elicit a response out of whoever.
“Half a day’s travel--” Maxwell could barely get out the proper syllables before Pumpkin exclaimed, “Yeah, no. We’re using an Akashic Gate.” The party followed as Pumpkin steadily trekked to the western entrance of Hollowmore, and she softly grumbled about her birthday going to complete crap.
Ten minutes of a walk later, the party stood in front of their town’s Akashic Gate. These were ports known only to Mages, Witches, and the Correbosque, where if one knew the correct words and had the proper image in their head, they can use the portal to head anywhere in Masquerade.
The Akashic Gate was a rounded arch with the effigies of gods and prophetesses holding it up on opposite sides. The power of the spirits and the spoken word empowered this gate; Pumpkin had a quick thought about the destination, removed a piece of parchment from her cloak, scribbled on it and handed it to Maxwell.
“You know the area better than I. Repeat these words and keep that image in your head.” Maxwell opened his mouth to speak the spell, only for Pumpkin to interject one more time. “Make sure your elocution is proper. I don’t want to end up inside of a wall.”
The swordsman spoke the words provided and the Akashic Gate boomed before energy sparked to life and stabilized a portal. “If we end up inside a wall, I’m coming after you in the afterlife, swordsman.”
The lands of Masquerade whipped past the party and bled into coherency like the oil paints of a mosaic. When reality finally snapped back into making sense, the party glanced around to gain their bearings. The landscape was wrought with harsh winds and the sky was black and purple, a drastic offset from its usual twilight hue of orange and red. Before them were shorn wooden planks and discarded swords, arrows stabbed into broken structures, and torn paper walls.
Many things lie within the ruins of the old Yatagarasu sanctuary, some quiescent, some far less so. An ancient dragon spoke of in myths is said to have destroyed the Yatagarasu clan in a single night. This dragon, more powerful than the ones who live to this day, wrought flaming terror on foes it deemed worthy.
So many lives lost just for amusement.
Pumpkin looked around as Masaka put her ear near the ground to detect any signs of movement.
“That won’t work, thief,” Maxwell commented as the Correbosque cut her ruby eyes at him. “The Yatagarasu won’t make a noise you can pick up.”
“You underestimate a Correbosque’s hearing, swordsman. You underestimate me greatly. Behind you.”
Maxwell whirled and saw a sword coming straight for his head! He couldn’t draw in time; Kayl reacted and barreled himself into what looked to be a black-garbed figure with a backside that was curved forward. His face was masked, and it seemed that his skull protruded out to make what looked like a beak.
Kayl wasted no time in attacking; he could read the thing’s aura, and to him, it blazed like fire, a deep crimson signifying a killing intent. The pugilist spun in mid-air for momentum, which led to a second twirl, this time accompanied by a heavy kick to the face. As the assailant reeled backward, Kayl grappled it and violently threw him into an already-shorn crate.
The jagged wood impaled the creature - they decided it wasn’t human or any other race they recognized as it let loose an unearthly howl before its body burst into green flame.
“Heads up!” Cassian anchored his rifle, snapped the lever back and forth, and unleashed a well-placed shot that liberated the brains of a second assailant that came from above.
Pumpkin threw back her cloak and tensed her gloved hands. At her urge, chaotic flames burst into existence and formed into jack-o'-lanterns. “Twin Lantern Bombs!” she called as she hurled them, one after the other, and they exploded on two more would-be assassins. Body parts flailed down from above. “Eyes open, marksman. Can’t keep watch at all times.”
The sound of blades cutting air whooshed above both their heads and two more assailants fell dead as Masaka reappeared in a sudden BOOM of sound. “Same to you, Pumpkin.
Maxwell drew his sword and in that single draw, within the span of a thought, the swordsman divided four killers. Their bodies did not fall until his sword slid back into the sheath. “Sounds like the element of surprise is long gone,” Maxwell commented as he looked around, his eyes on the hunt for any sign of movement.
“Please... help…” A dainty voice caught the party’s attention. Pumpkin exuded an influence over a row of debris near the location of the sound and moved it, revealing a violet-skinned Fae. Its beautiful multicolored wings flittered quickly as it tried to hover - Fae legs were weak, and their flight helped them overcome this natural weakness. Pumpkin and Masaka examined the Fae and found she was female - her skin was bare, and so were her breasts - and her antennae twitched. Her coal black eyes switched back and forth between the Witch and the Thief, a single speck of light acting as an indicator of her sight’s direction.
The Fae levitated, her hair flowing behind her like a steady flame. “You saved me. You’re just as brave as the other warrior,” the Fae said in a voice as soft as a kiss.
“Well,” Pumpkin stated, “We’re hired to find a warrior named Roland. Is that who you meant?” The Witch stepped forward and knelt to her height. She was barely five feet in comparison to Pumpkin’s five foot, five-inch posture.
“Hold that thought,” Masaka stated as she dashed over to a chest, seemingly unmarred by whatever battle took place here. “Some extra Jacks on the side never hurt.” The thief went for her lock pick, only to freeze as the sound of some... thing inhaling caught her by surprise.
Her blades flicked out in a dervish of speed and metal, and Masaka darted away like a badger as the chest exploded in a geyser of wood and purple blood. Limbs were rent from it, followed by a throbbing tongue and the sound of weakened breathing.
The Fae yelped and flew behind Pumpkin. “Keep me safe, keep me safe, keep me safe…” the fairy repeated her mantra as she lightly tugged on the Witch’s cloak.
“It’s a Mimic. Scary as they are gross,” Masaka commented.
Pumpkin jutted her index and middle fingers, both pressed together, and traced words in mid-air. “Need to salvage whatever it ate. I suggest you all hold your breath,” she ordered as she sucked in air.
An orange glyph widened underneath the mortally wounded Mimic and a large bag of coins popped out of the glyph, followed by a horrid stench. “Oh, that’s really rank!” Kayl commented as he plugged his nose.
“Which is why I said to hold your breath,” Pumpkin answered while she dispelled the glyph.
The party continued until they came across a stable structure with lit candles outside. It overlooked a mountain pass, and a freshwater river flowed through it. Pumpkin took note of her sights as it resembled a fortress more than a sanctuary. Weapons were strewn about the courtyard and dislodged desiccated limbs were discovered near the main steps of the building.
The signs of a recent battle were evident as the ashen bodies of assassins littered the steps that lead to the main entrance. Maxwell examined certain gashes in the steps and the bordering stone, all being marks not easily made with a blade. Whoever killed these assassins had a very steady hand that belied massive power behind their strokes.
The Fae looked back and forth and fretted as she felt the departed spirits clawing at her like rabid dogs.
“Such darkness here!” The Fae exclaimed. “We need to get safe!”
“Not until we find Marius,” Pumpkin informed. “Masaka, you hear anything?”
Masaka twitched her ears and listened. Nothing, which worried her. She shook her head and Pumpkin gave an exasperated sigh.
“I don’t hear anything either,” Cassian commented. “The wind sings to me, you see. I’m not hearing her song. Almost as if someone stitched her mouth closed.”
“Maybe it’s Marius?” Pumpkin interjected. “He pegs me, from rumor alone, that he’s the type to go down fighting.” She crossed her arms and continued to give off an inquisitive expression.
“It may be someone else,” Maxwell answered. “Someone I didn’t expect to meet so soon.”
The party pressed on, their nerves and senses alert, each ready for an attack. A sudden cough down the hall of the sanctuary made them all jump in unison. Once they realized what they did, the party straightened themselves up and made a silent pact never to regale this part of their quest.
More ashen bodies led them to the main hall, constructed as a meditation room. There was no light present except for a single candle, the muted light of the moon that peeked from outside, and the glint of a sword.
Maxwell was the first to speak: “A Zanbato.”
The sword designed to slay mounts in battle lay in possession of a hooded man who leered at the party and sat cross-legged. Masaka could see as clear as a sunny day, and she gave the man a once-over. His hair - both his beard and ear-length hair that draped from his hood were a mix of sapphire and gray. His arms were wrapped in bandage taping, one hand firmly gripped on the Zanbato, and he seemed to watch them like a beast awaiting the proper time to strike.
“Marius? You Marius?” Pumpkin stepped forward and asked. The Fae moved herself to the rear, out of range of whatever the killer could do to her. If she had enough energy, she’d disappear and make her way back home right this instant.
The man moved within the space of a thought and his Zanbato flicked up in a shining whirl of steel. Pumpkin dodged and spun into a twist as the spot she stood in was ripped apart by his sword. The Witch looked up and saw Maxwell had blocked the attack with his own, and the tip of his Katana now bore a crack.
Kayl jumped over the swordsman and dived forward with a kick that could shatter a boulder. The man merely shifted his blade in front of him, the tip grinding to a red-hot point with Maxwell’s weapon, and blocked Kayl’s sudden assault.
“If you wish to contest me, don’t hold back, Fighter.”
Both Maxwell and Kayl pulled themselves into a backflip to evade the man’s unexpected attack. Kayl aimed a kick at his head and Maxwell swung at his torso. The swordsman blocked them both, one with his bare hand, the other with the edge of his sword, and forced them back with sheer strength.
“Wanna see a trick?!” Pumpkin exclaimed as she flung two Lantern bombs at the swordsman while Cassian silently took aim.
“Steady...steady…” The marksman thought as he awaited his chance…
...Which came when their assailant maneuvered to block her magic. The gunshot rang out, and the swordsman reacted on reflex. He calmly moved his sword in the round bullet’s path to cut it in half.
Kayl maneuvered past Maxwell and caught the man in a grapple. He shifted weight and flung the swordsman over his shoulder and slammed him on the hardwood floor. He let loose a sudden pained gasp, the first sound from him since he spoke.
“Oh, don’t think it’s over yet, jerk!” Pumpkin had a larger Lantern bomb conjured and wasted no time blasting him with it, and a harsh orange light filled the room.
Once the party could see again, Pumpkin was caught in his grip, her groans of frustration were coupled with her struggles to speak. “A little...help...here, people?!”
Cassian fired again, and the man kicked his sword up to act as a shield and stop the bullets. This allowed Maxwell to draw in close and he drew Yamato once again. The man jumped upwards, Pumpkin still in his grasp, but his distraction gave her the opportunity to conjure more fire.
The Witch struck him in the chest with a Lantern bomb and distanced herself with a backflip. Kayl was already reacting as he leaped and smacked the swordsman across the head with both hands clamped together to make one larger fist.
The swordsman hit the floor once more; he bounced and rolled back onto his feet. Pumpkin could see he was staggered; he fought to keep his footing, and he sauntered about like a wounded animal.
The party moved to finish him; Maxwell was at the forefront with Pumpkin backing him up with two more Lantern bombs at the ready. Yamato was flicked out, and the swordsman rolled backward, his guard up and prepared.
The opponent sighed as he loosened himself up. “The Yamato sword. I thought it to be lost in the Sacred Wilderness.”
Pumpkin leaned towards Masaka and whispered, “You ever think some people just make up locations as they go?” The thief shrugged as the swordsman continued to speak.
“The sword was forged here long ago and given to me as a gift, Maxwell answered.”
“So we’re all hunky-dory now? You just tried to kill us!” Pumpkin exclaimed. The Fae fluttered to her backside and peeked out like a scared child protected by her mother.
“I was unsure. I was attacked by the Yatagarasu ninja; they poisoned me, clouded my mind,” the swordsman responded as Pumpkin focused her untrusting glare on him.
The Witch shook her head. “So you are Marius, then. Those knocks on the head got you back to normal, eh?”
Marius the Swordsman bowed to them, his head tilted up slightly. “Yes. I am Marius. I apologize for my conduct before.”
Masaka turned to the Fae, who kept her own gaze affixed on Marius. “And who are you? You’ve been more than scared of him than us, and we’ve been getting knocked around by him.”
The Fae released Pumpkin’s cloak and fluttered to the front of the party. “I am Minora of the Fae. I was captured by the Yatagarasu. I lost count of how long I was in captivity from my kingdom. Since you rescued me, I am in your debt.”
“You’re in our debt, huh?” Pumpkin interjected as she rubbed her finger underneath her chin to simulate being deep in thought. “So does that mean we get wishes? If so, I want a big house, with a butt ton of servants at my every beck and call, and a lifetime supply of Dragon Spice Rum, sweets, and cake!”
Pumpkin giggled madly on her knees as the fantasy of her wish overtook her. Masaka shook her head and gave her firm taps on the shoulder. “Snap out of it, Pumpkin. She’s not that kind of fairy.” Unfortunately, her words were hitting candy-coated walls of grand delusion.
Kayl uttered, “All this magic is stupid. We found Marius; what now?”
Marius answered, “I must ask your help before we leave. The area submerged in water; I’m searching for people abducted by the Yatagarasu. I’m hoping to bring them back alive.”
Masaka questioned, “And if they’re dead?”
Marius sighed heavily. “Then bring their bones back if they’re dead.”
Pumpkin snapped out of her fantasy and rejoined the party just in time to hear Marius’ declaration of retrieving the departed’s bones. “Oh my goodness, I’m never getting out of here. Crap, I really need a drink.”
The party, with Marius added, marched on through the fortress, their steps cautious. The experienced swordsman kept himself at the front with Pumpkin right behind him. Minora kept herself in the middle while Cassian protected her and their flank from the rear. His rifle oscillated to and fro as he kept his sharp eyes focused…
A gunshot rang out, which frightened Minora to the point that she yelped. The bullet struck something ahead of them - a ninja fell from off a wall, and it let loose a horrid hiss as its body died.
“Good eyes, Cassian,” Masaka commented.
“Not as good as yours,” he retorted as he discarded the empty shell.
Masaka looked ahead and spotted a chest, this one tattered and cracked. The Correbosque darted forth and appeared in front of the chest, but hesitated. She produced a blade from her cloak and tapped it a few times before a second pause.
The rogue gave a sigh of relief as her comrades examined the destroyed room, which looked as if it once stored a lot of treasure and other valuables. Masaka picked the chest lock and delighted when there was more jacks in a medium sized sack. To other humans, lugging all this treasure was a goal but nearly impossible due to the weight, but Masaka hoisted it and the bag they found before over her shoulder.
Meanwhile, Marius swam like a dolphin as he sped around in the water beneath the fortress, an area meant for water-logging prisoners. Pumpkin absolutely refused to set one toe into the water, and if Marius wanted to play hero, he can do it alone and they’ll attack whatever jumped out of the water that wasn’t him. She herself sat on a steady crate with a small bag of candy, consuming piece after piece as Masaka twirled her blade around her finger.
Minutes passed, Cassian nodded off, Kayl did push-ups, and Minora fluttered around and hummed a sweet melody to herself. Maxwell sharpened Yamato and sighed exasperatedly.
“Not the most ideal to spend your birthday, eh Pumpkin?” the swordsman questioned.
“It’s like he’s a psychic!” Pumpkin said with a full mouth. “Soon as he gets out of the water, I’m going to a party.” She continued under her breath, “Hopefully it hasn’t died down already.”
Masaka, who could hear every single word, responded, “It hasn’t. Those parties have been known to last for days.”
The water churned and bubbled and Pumpkin dropped her candy, her scepter at the ready and glowing. Marius popped out of the water, huffing and puffing, dragging another person with him.
“Oh, thank God!” Pumpkin exclaimed. “Can we head back, now?” She began scratching symbols into the floor with the edge of her scepter.
The others remained quiet as Marius hoisted the person, a young female with sunken skin, wide eyes, and matted hair, up from the watery pit. The party members grumbled; they were tired and the job had gone over longer than they expected.
“Yes, young witch. We can head back –”
Before Marius could finish his sentence, Pumpkin cast a spell that opened an Akashic point in the middle of the room without hesitation. “See you on the other side!”
Masaka followed a second later with Minora right behind her. Marius’ jaw nearly struck the ground.
“But I—but, but…”
Cassian laid a hand on the swordsman’s shoulder. “You don’t want to get in the way of a girl on her birthday.”
A pile of gold jacks before them, Pumpkin and Masaka clinked two steins full of Dragon Spice Rum, the former’s cheeks cherry-red and puffy. “I didn’t know we’d get paid this much!”
The rogue responded, “ I think the guys threw in a little extra into our pot. A birthday gift, you might say.”
Pumpkin looked silently at the money, the golden Jack-o-Lantern shaped coins staring back at her, and she smiled with a slight chuckle under her breath. “We did what we could. Saved a man and whoever the girl was to him.”
“And you got your rum,” Masaka added.
“And I got my rum!” Pumpkin reiterated before drinking a couple of gulps.
Minora popped up beside Pumpkin with a plate of food, staring at it curiously. “We’ve never had meat in the Sacred Wilderness. You think I could get a pasta salad or something—”
Pumpkin pulled the Fae close with an arm around her shoulder. “Nonsense! You need some meat on your bones, so to speak. Eat up!”
Minora bit into a piece of steak and had trouble breaking it with her teeth. Pumpkin and Masaka giggled before the latter motioned for her to pass the plate. “You’re just like a little kid!” The rogue assured.
“Well, I’m the youngest of my people! I’m 80 years old!” Minora announced through a chuckle.
The Witch and the Rogue exchanged a look before they burst into laughter. The three enjoyed a late birthday dinner and Pumpkin drank her fill of Dragon Spice Rum. Minora decided to stick around with the two for a little while; she’d been away from home for so long, so what’s a few more days?