Pumpkin Oaksgourd's Game of Hide and Seek

New Pumpkin Oaksgourd art by 10juu!

Hello, my intrepid readers, and thanks for joining me for another Pages from the Memorandum post!

This week's flavor, the week of Christmas, is something a bit unheard of: a Halloween story! Last time, we were introduced to the world of Pumpkin Oaksgourd, my candy-obsessed freelance witch, and over the course of the past couple of weeks, I've been hard at work with the help of a few others prepping to begin a book series.

So allow me to be the first to announce the "Misadventures of Pumpkin Oaksgourd" book series, a YA sword-and-sorcery yarn in the vein of the JRPG "Tales of" series. The series will follow Pumpkin as she embarks on a journey to go from amateur witch to full-fledged Chevalier knight.

In the meanwhile, today's post is the short story that should've been done two months ago, my take on hide and seek starring Pumpkin. As I write this, I'm surprised at how far Pumpkin's conception has progressed - she started off as my version of a magical girl after seeing the Female Mage character from Dungeon Fighter Online (If you don't play it, why aren't you?! It's amazing!) and now she's a budding hero in her own right.

And now, here's Pumpkin Oaksgourd's Game of Hide and Seek. Enjoy.



Festival Grounds, Hollowmore

It was finally Halloween, and as soon as the sun set properly, the music kicked up in a near-deafening orchestra and spread across town. They made sure not to make too much noise, for fear the King of Hollows would magically apparate into the sky as a gigantic and frightening head, bellowing for them to shut up. The last time he did that, the townspeople’s ears were ringing for two weeks.

As the rum was passed around, food was cooked and the dancing began, the costumes followed suit. Their realm was unlike any other, so their masquerade, for lack of a better term, came in the form of highly-detailed masks bearing the face of different creatures. Ancient devils and gods and heroes got their time to walk amongst the living once more in the form of giggling children bolting to and fro like badgers evading danger.

“Hey, have you ever played Quis Venari?” a kid questioned his friends, a small roving band of upstarts who were known to play pranks around Hollowmore for cheap laughs. As they entered the Town Square, all eyes were on them in an instant.

“Yeah!” responded a girl with long, pink hair who jumped in excitement. “It’s that secret game that all the cool kids play with gold jacks! They play it in creepy places, right?” She kept jumping, her pouch of gold jacks jingling with each step.

“I heard only ghosts play the game! It’s really cool!” a husky kid who looked older than he was and wore a mask of a bear-like creature in mid-roar spoke up. His voice hinted at him being at the threshold of puberty and he easily towered over the rest of his gang.

“Yeah, I guess,” retorted the kid standing next to the burly one, easily the shortest of the bunch. His voice let off a whiny tone. “But I also heard it’s really dangerous. Those who go to play never come back.” The boy lowered his head as if suddenly stricken with fear. “Everyone says not to go near wherever they’re playing.”

The leader nearly jumped on the smaller kid. “That’s exactly what’s so cool about it! I bet they’re just trying to keep all the fun to themselves! You know how the cool kids get!”

“Wait, I thought we were cool too!” the husky kid stated, and the so-called leader made unsure sounds.

“Well… We are! We’re so cool, the other cool kids are afraid to talk to us!”

“Oh, okay!” the husky boy chuckled. It was too easy to convince him.

The smaller boy stepped up to the leader and fought to keep his knees from quivering. “I heard that...devils created the game. If you look into their lights, you’re lost forever.”

The leader burst into hollow laughter from behind his mask. “Devils!”

The people near them looked on with curiosity, hoping the band of delinquents weren’t planning some new prank that would take days to clean up. They’d had their ears pulled for unleashing mayhem on Hollowmore, and the next time would get them a one-way ticket to the King of Hollow’s throne room.

The meek one continued. “Ye-yeah! They say devils made it to have fun each Halloween! Their lights are so alluring...little devil kids run around and only gold can distract them!” he explained and pantomimed with his hands to drive his point home. “If you follow them, they’ll snatch you up in a burlap sack! I heard...a lot of kids went to go play last Halloween and never came back.”

The burly boy spoke up, working to hide his sudden fear. “Stop with the ghost stories! That’s a pile of crap; you’re totally lying!”

As if on cue, another girl appeared beside the leader, her mask in the shape of a fox. She stood as thin as a rail, not moving, not breathing. The frightful boy nearly jumped out of his skin when he noticed her.

She spoke as if her voice was put through a filter. The other kids disregarded it as a feature of her mask or some weird vocal trick, yet the meek boy couldn’t shake his uneasy feelings about the new girl.

“Maybe he’s not lying.”

Letting loose a huff, the meek one dialed back his fear to keep providing information. “It’s no lie! Okay, my friend once told me he saw a wraith with five candles on its fingers walking through a forest while he was trying to get home.”

The leader boy cocked his head to the side while the first girl, who stood by in silence until now, decided to speak up.

“Then why don’t we ask your friend more about it? Where does he live?”

The meek boy lowered his head. It almost sounded as if he fought back tears. “I haven’t heard from him since he told me. His mom said he disappeared.”

The leader threw up his hands. “You see?!” His exclamation attracted more people’s attention, and several adults itched to tell the congregating children to move along. “Why don’t we all go there and find out for ourselves?”

“WHAT?” the meek boy yelped. “No way!”

“Alright, kids!” A larger man shouldering a slab of meat came up from behind, startling them all. “Let’s move it along!”

The kids were ushered forcefully from the main square until they were out of sight, out of mind. Now on a quiet street, where the only place still open was a fortune telling shop with a huge tree poking from its roof and a private investigation firm, the small gang looked around for anyone else who could interrupt them.

“Looks like no more looky-loos,” the leader noted as he situated his hands on his hips. “Now, back to what I was sayin’...”

The girl in the fox mask laughed. Her giggle felt empty, but it was loud enough to keep the other kids’ attention.

“What’s so funny?!” The husky kid lumbered forth as if he meant to strike her.

“The game you’re so eager to play,” she answered. Under her breath she continued, “Fools are easily amused…”

“What was that?” Her current opponent was suddenly filled with bravery.

“Wait, you know about it?” the leader spoke up, holding back his feisty friend. “You better not be jerkin’ our chains!”

The long-haired girl found herself gripped with curiosity. “Well, come on! Spill the beans!”

The Fox girl laughed again, this time a hearty chuckle. “Quis Venari is a secret game known only to those with...friends on the other side. It’s a game of hide and seek,” she explained, circling around the group with her hands before her. Her fingers danced as the girl continued, “The only Halloween game worth playing. Sometimes, the lights get eerily brighter as the silence mounts. You can’t even hear your own breath, and the chosen place becomes a labyrinth. When that happens, it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught.”

The others were unnerved while the leader stood strong and brave. “So how do we win?”

“If you follow the right lights...and avoid the Candle Man, you can find your way and win. I hope you have enough gold…” The Fox Girl let loose another giggle as the gang dug in their pockets to pool their gold jacks.

---///---


Robin “Pumpkin” Oaksgourd sat on a bench outside of the Talon Scale Inn and Tavern, both arms crossed, an irritated look set firmly on her face. The 19-year-old couldn’t help but feel gypped out of another night of fun due to a job. She patted her cloak to feel around for a bag of concealed candy, but it was absent, which made her drum her lips in exasperation.

“Forgot to restock my candy from two nights ago. Well, that’s not a good start.” Pumpkin fought not to pout. Being a freelance witch meant she could set her own hours, but when she set out a contract with a magical ping, she was bound to fulfill it, no matter where or when. It was especially prevalent when she was forced to work on her birthday two nights ago.

At least she could choose who she was able to work with. The Correbosque rogue Masaka leaped from a rooftop and landed in front of Pumpkin with two ice cream cones, one in each hand. Pumpkin was unimpressed by her landing, and instead, stuck her hand out to receive a cone.

“One of these days,” Pumpkin began, “you’re gonna break your knees doing all those ninja flips and crap.”

“But I am a ninja,” Masaka noted as she handed the vanilla cone to Pumpkin, who wasted no time in dabbing her tongue over that. “And if you keep doing that, some saggy perv’s gonna get the wrong idea.”

“My my, someone’s mind’s in the gutter,” Pumpkin said with her mouth full. “Where’s Minora?”

Minora was a Fae that Pumpkin rescued during her contract two nights ago; she was captured by the Yatagarasu clan of ninja and held for an unknown amount of time, and when Pumpkin arrived with the party she was hired to join, Minora pledged herself until the debt was repaid in kind.

Masaka looked back and forth, her long ears twitching to pick up specific sounds, namely Minora’s distinct fae humming. “She’s been cooped up in a cage for Spirits know how long. I guess she’s gone off exploring Hollowmore.” The rogue opened her mouth wide and swallowed her cone whole. “I don’t hear her nearby.”

Pumpkin’s eyes nearly bulged out of her skull. “It still freaks me out when you do that,” she commented as she lapped at her small lump of vanilla.

“We Elves don’t need to waste time on eating all the time. We just get it out of the way.”

The Witch leered at her friend. Masaka noticed this and laughed nervously. “Of course, that’s not to say you’re wasting YOUR time eating your ice cream! By all means, take your time!”

Pumpkin made a “Mm-hm” noise in her throat before taking another lick. “I can’t take my time even if I wanted to. Where’s Minora? She’s gonna get left behind.” The witch had to make some changes in order to make sure Minora didn’t get herself captured again.

Fae were very valuable in the world of Masquerade, and snaring one meant you had condensed magic at your beck and call. Minora’s blood could heal wounds and her tears could turn into diamonds. That paled in comparison to the other tricks she was capable of.

As Pumpkin finished her ice cream, the familiar humming of a jovial Minora reached her ears. She and Masaka turned to see the young fairy fluttering up and humming while she held a bag of candy.

“Oh Pumpkin!” the Fae said in her singsong voice. “I noticed you were out of candy before we left so I made sure to get you some!”

Pumpkin’s eyes lit up like fireworks. She immediately snatched the bag and hugged it like it was her child. “Kimyouna Vanilla candy...you made my night, Minora.”

“It’s not Halloween without candy!”

Minora giggled and twisted in mid-air, while Masaka craned her neck to look past the two.

“Hey,” she caught their attention and motioned her head in a nod. “Who’s that?”

Pumpkin and Minora turned and immediately jumped in surprise - behind them was a boy half of the Witch’s size who stood as still as a statue. His face was covered in that of a blank-expressed skull, and he seemed to examine them like a creature sizing up potential new encounters.

The Witch and Fae exchanged looks, Pumpkin looking unsure and Minora emitting a subdued crystalline light as she inched herself between her friends. At a moment's notice, she'd fight or fly away.

“I’m sorry, did I startle you?” the Skull Kid spoke, but he felt...off. As if his words just didn’t fit his body. He looked to be no more than ten years old, but the tone of his voice portrayed knowledge far beyond his years. “That’s not a good marking. I’m looking for a Witch who isn’t so easily scared.”

Pumpkin’s unease quickly flipped a switch as her left eye twitched, coupled with a soft growl. “Unfortunately, I take it you pulled my contract?”

The Skull Kid was silent and merely looked at the Witch. “Why is it unfortunate? Do you not want money?”

“Of course, I want money; who doesn’t?” Pumpkin answered.

Masaka leaned close and added, “Agrarian people.”

Minora fluttered behind and whispered, “Fairies.”

“You two aren’t helping at all,” Pumpkin growled while cutting her eyes at the two as they stifled giggles.

“You haven’t answered my question.” The Skull Kid didn’t change posture at all.

Neither Pumpkin nor Masaka could read his face due to the mask, and Minora’s giggle couldn’t erase her nervousness about the boy.

“It’s because the fourth Halloween night is one big party. I couldn’t go to this party last year, thanks Mom, and now that I’m out on my own, I’m stuck working.” Pumpkin situated her hands at her hips and raised an eyebrow, waiting for an answer.

“If you’d like me to, I can retract the contract--”

Pumpkin held up her hand to stop the Skull Kid from talking any further. She shook her head.

“You hired me, so I got no choice. Besides, you can’t retract a Witch’s Contract.” She sighed and recited her next words as if reading from an info pamphlet, “Witches sponsored by the Brauner Institute of Magic are obligated to fulfill a client’s request or risk paying a termination fee. So I’m not going to waste money.”

“It seems money is the big issue here,” the Skull Kid responded as he dug his spindly hand into a rucksack.

“You bet your sweet bippy it is--” Pumpkin began before she was stopped by the large bag of gold jacks the boy produced from out of thin air. Masaka’s beady eyes widened, as did Minora, whose own eyes nearly popped from her face. “Just how much money is that?”

“Enough money for you to stop being freelance. I see so much untapped potential within you. It’s what drew me to you, but your job holds you back.”

Pumpkin chuckled. “Okay, okay. Even I know someone offering this much money wants something in return.”

The Skull Kid nodded. “Of course. I want you to help me find my sister,” he said directly.

Masaka, who observed up until now, interjected, “Just who are you, kid? I can’t smell you or hear you breathing.”

“That I can’t tell you,” he answered. “What I can tell you is I care a great deal for my sister, and I need to find her at any cost.”

“What happens when we find her?” Minora spoke up.

“We?” Pumpkin turned to face the fairy.

“Yes, we, Pumpkin. I don’t want to get left behind again!” Minora balled her fists and jutted them up and down. Her cheeks were as vibrant as roses as they puffed up like small berries. “I can’t help it because I’m a fairy!”

“When we find my sister,” the Skull Kid continued, “your job is finished. I need someone with considerable magic talent to accompany me.” He handed the bag of gold jacks to Pumpkin, who tapped it with her hook-ended scepter crafted of Elder wood, the conduit for her magic. The sapphire bubble suspended from the hook emitted a sparkle, and the Jack-o-lantern emblem within it spun like a top.

The sack divided itself into three bags, hers the largest, Masaka’s at medium-sized and Minora’s the smallest. “Well, where do we start?”

The Skull Kid turned around and pointed west. “We’re heading to Hallow Vault.”

Pumpkin and Masaka exchanged looks again.

“Hallow Vault? That old distillery?” The witch had a perplexed expression as she tried to wrap her mind over the significance of an old, dilapidated factory.

“It’s the chosen location of this year’s game of Quis Venari,” the Skull Kid informed.

The trio’s expression went from perplexed to surprised.

Masaka spoke up first: “Quis Venari?”

“Oh crap,” Pumpkin uttered. She regretted taking the money now.

“Yes, Quis Venari. The game that--”

The Witch finished for the Skull Kid, “The game of hide and seek with ghosts, basically. Not the friendly kind, the big bad ones.”

Minora said with fear deep in her gut, “The Candle Man.”

The Skull Kid nodded. “Yes, the Candle Man. My sister was taken and I need your help in finding her.”

Masaka took Pumpkin by the arm and pulled her about five feet away. “Are you crazy?”

“Yes, Masaka, I’m crazy! That’s me, a complete loony!” Pumpkin retorted and threw her hands up.

“Some freaky kid comes along--”

“I resent being called a freaky kid,” the Skull Kid defended himself.

“As I said,” Masaka continued, “Some freaky kid comes along and throws money our way to play Quis Venari. So we got a death wish now?”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Pumpkin crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “The Candle Man, the lights, the whole shebang. I know.”

“Pumpkin, there’s some jobs where you need to draw the line,” Masaka stated.

“This coming from a Rogue, Masaka. The pot calling the Cauldron black and whatnot,” the Witch retorted.

Masaka glared at her friend through luminous eyes. Pumpkin returned the glare.

“No one’s telling you to come, Masaka. I’ve already given you your share, and the same for you, Minora. But, I can really use your help. We just stick together.”

The Rogue and fairy looked to one another. They both gave a small smile.

“All right, kid. Lead the way,” Pumpkin stated.


---///---



Hallow Vault, Two Hours Later


“So why am I hearing a bunch of kids acting a fool nearby?”

Pumpkin and the group walked through a small forest clearing that slowly became a clear-cut area, opening the way to a small abandoned district. It bore neon signs, old storefronts, and run-down vehicles, and in the rear of it all was the distillery.

“Why else?” Masaka began. “Kids love playing with crap they shouldn’t.”

The group looked ahead and saw a group of masked kids, vaulting over various structures, whooping, and exploring.

The burly masked kid noticed Pumpkin and company approaching and shouted, “Hey, who are those guys?”

The leader of the kids ran up to his friend and stopped short. “Some lost trick-or-treaters. Look, sisters escorting their dumb little brother around!” He laughed and looked back at his entourage, who picked up their own laughter as well.

Pumpkin approached, did a mental head count of each kid, and turned to her client. “Okay, is the girl right there your sister?” she questioned while pointing at the female member of the group, who looked shocked and slightly embarrassed from her body language.

“No, she is not my sister,” the Skull Kid answered, stern as a mast.

“I don’t have a brother!” the girl answered, still confused.

“Hey, who are you guys anyway? Here to horn in on our fun? Did the party back in Hollowmore kick you out?”

“Please don’t make me kick you in the mouth,” Pumpkin implored. “I will do so without blinking.”

The wimpy member of the small gang examined Pumpkin closely.

“Like what you see?” Pumpkin asked as the boy reflexively jumped back.

“Hey boss,” he began, “I think she’s a Witch. Look at her scepter!”

The so-called boss stepped up to Pumpkin, crossing his own arms. “So, what? You’ve been hired to take us all home?”

“If I was, there’s nothing you’d be able to do about it. But nope. If you want to go and fall into a dark void, go ahead; you’re not my kid.” The bluntness of her statement surprised the boss, and he took a step back.

“You kids got no idea what you’re in for, do you?” Masaka questioned. “You should get home while you still can.”

The Skull Kid scanned the group, but didn’t find anything of interest. “She’s not here.”

“Why do you adults always suck the fun out of everything?” the girl spoke up.

“Because if we didn’t,” Pumpkin began. “You’d be DEAD. Now get the hell out of here before I put you all over my knee.”

The small gang didn’t budge, which made Pumpkin raise her eyebrow. Masaka stifled a laugh and urged Minora to come to her as the Witch cracked her neck.

“Okay, let’s try this another way.” Pumpkin tapped her scepter and waved her free hand in front of her face. As she did, a gigantic flaming pumpkin appeared in place of her head with a devilish grin across its face. “GET HOME RIGHT NOW!” She bellowed with a rumble that quaked the children to their knees.

The kids fled, save for the boss, who was rooted to the spot. His pants were soaked and his knees knocked louder than castanets. Pumpkin glared at him.

“Brave one, aren’t you?!” She cackled like an old crone.

“Not at all!” he whimpered, before he took off like a shot. “Wait for me!” he wailed.

Pumpkin snapped her fingers and the illusion dissipated. Masaka howled with laughter while Minora cowered behind a box.

“Is it gone yet?” she asked.

The Witch stifled her own laugh and said, “Yes, it’s gone now, Minora. Sorry about that.”

Fluttering nervously, Minora glanced back and forth. “Why would you make such a thing?!”

“It got my point across, didn’t it?” Pumpkin answered, while fighting not to burst into a laughing fit.

Her laugh was cut short as she heard a new source of eerie, disembodied feminine laughter. Minora’s eyes went wide as her head jutted around, searching for sight to add to sound. Masaka’s ears played tricks on her, an uncomfortable feeling as it gave her multiple sources to track. Her eyes could pick up nothing useful.

“Oh crap,” Pumpkin uttered. “He’s here, isn’t he?”

“Tell me,” the Skull Kid started, turning unafraid to the Witch. “What do you know about the Candle Man?”

“Some guy with a lantern that older people say is the reason lights can be seen over bogs at night,” Minora answered first.

“Ghost lights, jack-o-lanterns, hinkypunks, corpse candles, will o’ the wisps, and fool’s fire. You name it, I’ve heard of it,” Masaka added. Her eyes still darted around, keeping track of their surroundings.

Pumpkin sighed as her eyes did their own work. “He was once called Stingy Jack, a wand blacksmith who invited a daemon for a drink. Jack, the sorry little ingrate of a cheapskate he was, didn’t want to cough up the dough from his own pocket, so he got the bright idea to convince the daemon to turn into a coin to settle the tab. Funny enough, that’s how Masquerade got its money now, from a cheapskate.”

The group decided to move towards the distillery as one by one, the lights in the old city blinked to life right as they passed. The electricity running through the signs provided a low and spooky hum, and Minora held Pumpkin’s free arm tight.

“The daemon turned into the coin, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the daemon in coin form in his pocket with a silver cross to keep it from shifting back. He let it go and made it promise not to seek revenge.”

“I guess it didn’t go over so well?” Masaka questioned as her blades were fully drawn and gripped tight.

“Well, Jack managed to trick the daemon again and convinced it not to snag his soul. This bit Jack full on in the ass, because when he died, his soul --”

“Turned into a fairy with a pink tutu?” Minora commented. Pumpkin and Masaka shot her uncomfortable glares, and she immediately buttoned her lips. “I’ll shut up now.”

“His soul couldn’t pass because of his deceptions,” Pumpkin started again. “The daemon gave him an enchanted burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” So Jacky-boy put the coal into a carved-up pumpkin that bore his grimace at his goof-up. He’s supposedly been roaming Masquerade with it ever since.”

“So we’re being chased by some dillhole who tried to trick the devil. Just flippin’ wow,” Masaka grumbled.

Just as she finished speaking, a cold chill ran down the spine of each of them, raising the hair on the backs of their necks. Pumpkin watched as the shadows around them appeared to expand and darken, returning to normal almost immediately. She rubbed her eyes in confusion, chalking it up to be her imagination.

“Did you feel that?” Minora asked, running her hands up and down her arms as though she were freezing.

“What the heck was that?” Masaka demanded, eyes wide as she observed their surroundings with suspicion.

“You felt the mortal world melding with the spirit world,” the Skull Kid explained.

“WHAT?” Pumpkin exclaimed. “What exactly does that mean?”

“Everything on the other side is now here with us,” he stated.

“Are you kidding me?” Minora muttered, flying closer to Masaka for protection as they moved further into the dark distillery. She elicited a scream as a ghostly apparition abruptly materialized in the outer reaches of light cast by Pumpkin’s Lantern bomb.

“Hell! Did you have to scare us all half to death? It’s just a ghost!” Pumpkin stated, paling as they heard a voice speak from somewhere nearby in the darkness.

“This is not your grave...but you are welcome in it.”

“What the crap? What the actual crap?!” Pumpkin fretted as she struggled to maintain focus. She grunted and the Lantern bomb increased in volume to provide more light, but as she did, the looming darkness seemed to consume her efforts.

“Just a ghost, huh?” Masaka ensured. “Who said that?!”

“Keep following me,” the Skull Kid urged.

The feminine laughter rose again, and the boy reacted by pointing ahead.

“There!”

Ahead they spotted the wispy, fair form of the Fox Girl, who kept still in a crouch before she giggled and pointed back.

“She’s right there!”

“I oughta blast her right now!” Minora squeaked. “Trap her in crystal!”

“It won’t work,” the Skull Kid advised.

As they drew closer, the Fox Girl ran off and the Skull Kid followed. The trio slowed to a stop, exchanging worried looks.

“He left us. The little turd left us,” Pumpkin spoke through a trembling voice.

“Do not be afraid. I am peace. I am salvation…”

The women fretted and fought to keep their composure. Minora was on the verge of tears and Masaka gripped her blades even tighter.

“Okay, who said that?!” Pumpkin whined before she corrected her tone.

“If we die,” Minora babbled, “I just want to say, I ate all of the candy behind your cupboard!” Pumpkin stopped in her tracks and gave the fairy a death glare. “I WAS HUNGRY!!!”

“I was the one who sucked all of the cream filling out of the pastries in Mr. Bagfeld’s shop,” Masaka fessed up.

“Wait, you’re the reason we got banned? Oh my damn, I don’t know you anymore!” Pumpkin was flustered, but she had her bearings back. “I swear, I’m gonna get you both when we get out of -- HOLY CRAP!”

The Skull Kid stood motionless in their path, holding his hand up to stop them. “She got away.”

“Really?” Masaka said in a sarcastic tone.

“Ya don’t say?” Pumpkin followed up.

“Now the gate has been unlatched, headstones pushed aside, corpses shift and offer room - a fate you must abide!”

“Who is saying that?” Pumpkin inquired.

“The Candle Man. He’s trying to drive you crazy,” the Skull Kid didn’t hesitate to answer.

Masaka cracked her neck to collect herself. “The girl that rabbeted - was that your sister?”

The Skull Kid lowered his head slightly. “I believe so. I don’t think she’s herself. She went to play Quis Venari last year, where she was spirited away by the Candle Man.”

Masaka pressed her thumb to her chin. “I’ve heard of those rumors. I want to look into them more --”

“Can we save the chatter?” Pumpkin interrupted. “I want to finish the job and get the heck out of here.”

The group moved through the distillery, navigating the ins and outs of the facility. Apparitions spooked them, but on they pushed. The Fox Girl made herself known several times, forcing them to give chase. Pumpkin started to convince herself they were chasing wind.

As they rounded a corner, they were greeted by a new sight: a large apparition in a narrow hallway bearing the only source of light, coming from its hand. Minora gasped and Pumpkin clamped her hand over the fairy’s mouth. The apparition appeared to take up most of the hallway, towering up to twelve feet tall with no discernable features. It seemed solid, the light in its hand casting a pale blue glow around it, but the group were unable to see past the figure.

The sound seemed to drain from their surroundings. Pumpkin’s eyes darted frantically, as she couldn’t hear herself think. She resorted to hand signals to tell Minora to calm down and Masaka to back away slowly.

Children’s laughter marked a return to sound, yet it was the only sound present - Pumpkin was the last to back away and she saw five lights transform themselves into five individual children with glowing pumpkin masks.

“Will-o’-the-wisps,” the Skull Kid commented.

As he spoke, the wisps turned in their direction, prompting the rest to run in the opposite direction.

“Ohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrap!” Pumpkin sputtered as she held on to Minora and ran full tilt down a corridor. Masaka sped past her and immediately slipped on the ground, her footing lost from some sort of fluid sprayed in their path.

“That smells like...rum? Pumpkin, wait!”

Pumpkin heard too late as she slipped and tumbled head over heels, while Minora hovered above.

The Witch smelled herself. “Ugh, I smell like that weird guy behind the herbs shop that winks at people.”

“Better than that one guy who farted as he--”

Footsteps ceased their reminiscing as they looked behind them and saw the Candle Man standing there with a ring of blue fire in its right hand. It spoke not, slowly lowering its hand to ignite the fluid on the floor.

Pumpkin and Masaka clambered onto their feet, quickly protecting their rum-soaked clothing from immolation. The corridor was coated with fire and Pumpkin twirled her scepter to cast a water spell, spraying it with a high-pressure cannon. It only managed to briefly ebb the sea of flame.

“Okay, he’s trying to kill us!” Pumpkin noted.

They turned to run in the opposite direction and immediately skidded to a halt.

“I am a timeless chorus. Join your voice with mine, and sing victory everlasting…” The voice came from the wisps, who collectively blocked their path.

Pumpkin brandished her scepter, Minora exuded her deep glow, and Masaka brandished her knives. Out of thin air, the Skull Kid appeared and urged them to follow. Masaka wasted no time in zipping past the wisps, faster than Pumpkin’s eyes could process, before she dashed down the corridor he pointed her to. Pumpkin pursued her, followed by Minora; the Witch slammed two Lantern bombs into the wisps and jumped clear as an explosion consumed the corridor.

The Skull Kid approached Pumpkin with an object in his hand. The darkness made it difficult for her to make sense of what it was.

“I am sorry for what you’re going through. I found this to make you feel better.” He handed her a bottle of Dragon Spice Rum.

Pumpkin’s eyes lit up brighter than fireworks. “Vintage Artemis Vannage Dragon Spice Rum?!”

“I found an entire case down bel--”

Before he could finish, the Skull Kid was yanked along as Pumpkin ran in the direction he pointed. The group found themselves in the main production section and the Skull Kid motioned towards a small box. Sure enough, there were unbroken bottles of vintage rum.

“Oh my goodness! Enough for three weeks!” Pumpkin tapped the box with her scepter and it shrank until she could fit it in a plastic bag.

Clinking was heard and the group’s attention was drawn upward. Like a nightmare, the Candle Man was perched on an overhead ledge, the Fox Girl standing next to him. The ring of blue flame still burning bright, the apparition laughed a deep, horrid laugh.

“Give her back,” the Skull Kid ordered.

“I’m not yours anymore,” the Fox Girl responded, acting as the Candle Man’s voice. “I’m not anyone’s. They can’t hurt me anymore, Brandon. Just like they can’t hurt you.”

“Are we out of the loop here or what?” Pumpkin asked.

“Yep, totally lost,” Masaka commented.

“Shh! I’m trying to listen!” Minora hissed.

The Fox Girl jumped down and landed in front of the Skull Kid. They both removed their masks to reveal nothing underneath. The trio’s eyes went wide in surprise and horror.

“He changed us both,” the Fox Girl announced.

“I should’ve never played the game with you. We’re both damned.” In his hand he held a bottle of rum; the Skull Kid shattered it between them, smearing the ground with alcohol. “Pumpkin, do what you do best, and thank you.”

“Gladly,” the Witch said, igniting a Lantern bomb so massive she needed to hold it with two hands. The Candle Man moved to react, but Pumpkin flung her attack at his ring of fire, the resulting explosion snuffing out the candles.

“Ha!” Pumpkin screamed triumphantly. “Find your own hell, jerkface!”

The Skull Kid ignited a small flame in his palm and tossed it to the floor. Before the Fox Girl moved, he grabbed her and held tight while the apparition wailed like a wayward banshee.

All happened in the span of a thought.

The world around the trio changed as the darker shadows receded and the hair on the back of their necks returned to normal. The energy around them lessened into the calm, cool October night they remembered from earlier in the evening. Minora hovered about, pleased the night sky was back to normal. Pumpkin and Masaka slapped each other a high-five.

“Hey guys, look!” Minora directed their attention skyward and the trio saw a boy and girl walking off into the stars, their backs turned to them.

“Wow. After all that, we still don’t know what he looks like,” Pumpkin commented as she pulled out the small bag with the shrunken rum. As she examined it, she noticed the bottles were broken. “Oh, son of a--”

Masaka stopped her swearing short by holding out an untouched bottle of rum. Pumpkin shook her head and sighed harshly.

“Well, I guess one’s better than nothing,” the Witch noted.

“Plus, we’ve got money now. Enough to do whatever we want. Well, whatever you want; I love dungeon crawling too much.” Masaka chuckled as she turned to walk back to Hollowmore.

“Yeah…What am I going to do now?” Pumpkin said to herself, trailing off as she looked toward the stars.

The Skull Kid and Fox Girl were gone, and only the moon looked back at her, offering some solace that the night ended favorably.


THE END.

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