With the help of a wise old owl (in Part 5), our heroes, now a trio plus bats, near the witch's cottage. And though they may have a plan, I can only tell you that nothing will go as expected...
Watrous & Valmora: Further Tales of Pumpkinheart
The little queen, the talking black cat, and the sad drippy ghost peer out of the bushes, out upon the dreary cottage. The house looks much worse than Valmora remembers and they are all amazed to see the cottage is actually shedding. Every once in a while, a shingle will slide toward the eaves, or a shutter swing off its hinges, or a piece of brick, a plank, or pane of glass flake off and come crashing violently down. Surrounding the weird cottage, the yard swarms with shrill crows all of which occasionally speed off, startled, as pieces of the house clatter to the ground. In agitation most of the flock squabbles and brawls.
Valmora’s group remains hidden, not daring to get any closer. They watch the black form of the witch, with her pointy hat and long crooked nose, moving around past various windows. Her unfriendly silhouette is like an eyeball in the leering windows of the cottage, and it appears as if the building itself is rolling its eyes in search of intruders. Our heroes, hidden in the bushes, strain to catch any indication of Watrous or the Pumpkinheart, without a sign.
Carbon takes charge. “Okay, my good company, with this terrible lot of crows there is no way, even for a sneaky cat like me, or a waterspout ghost, to reach any side of this building without the witch getting the alarm. We’ve most certainly got to use our plans for stealth and surprise,” and he looks over to the ghost who lets out a pitiful little sniffle.
On this unfortunate cue the sad spirit departs toward the road, toward a gutter. There he slips into the grill as a ribbon of vapor until some moments later he has traveled through the pipe system and found a drain leading into the house. The thin body as nothing but a vapor trail wafts upward from the basin. And there a head slowly coalesces, floating above an old sink.
He peers about the empty kitchen. The room, like the rest of the cottage is illuminated, and here the light reveals walls of innumerable shelves covered in various bottles coded with indecipherable labels for unknowable contents. They are apparently the ingredients used in the recipes of variously abandoned concoctions stacked here and there throughout the room. Each cooking pot has spilled over in an assortment of fresh oozing glop, fuzzy green spores, and ancient crusts. “I’m glad I can’t smell,” he whispers quietly and miserably to himself.
From the other room he hears the witch stomping madly back and forth through the house, and it makes bottles rattle nervously. She doesn’t seem to have any interest in the kitchen, so the ghost decides to start snooping. He uncurls out of the drain and drifts as a non-embodied head, in and out piles of variously sized pots. Then reaching a connecting door, he peeks out ever so slightly.
The distant end of the larger room burns with a massive fireplace of dirty smoke occasionally belching around the mantel. Strewn about it are bulky antique cabinets and tables that reverberate as her feet impact unsteady floorboards. The witch is currently in the middle of the room, her silhouette dark against fire. She is walking place-to-place, frantically packing up assorted things into a black leather case. High upon an elaborate metal stand, beside the case, shimmers the Pumpkinheart casting reflected beams upon every surface. And in a large chair beside the table, the ghost spies the reflections hitting the frightened face of a small boy sitting with legs tucked, chin to knees, and face flinching every time the witch flings something into the open bag.
On one particular circuit, the witch pauses by one of the cabinets. After sniffing the air with her big nose, she makes a hasty exit. The ghost sees his chance and immediately drifts over to the little boy. As he floats across the room his ethereal arms begin to materialize reaching outward, as he hopes to tell of the mission and of his sister. But unprepared for this fantastic apparition, the little werewolf howls in fright! The ghost moans and shushes him, and tries to explain… but it is too late. From behind him the witch’s black form is already towering.
In her hands she holds an upside down jar and a wand. As she taps the wand to the rim, the ghost feels his body drawn toward the container. Though he frantically tries to pull away back toward the kitchen, and escape through the drain, instead his body turns into a ribbon of plasma and flows like thin syrup in reverse. And before he can release a single tear of dismay, she has tightly spun the container’s top. He is completely bottled up, a trapped spirit.
The boy whimpers in his furry werewolf costume, having no idea what to make of any of this, while the dark lips of the witch let slip a dry cackle of laughter. “I am sorry little whelp, but that was someone come to save you. But I won’t have it! Do you hear?” And as she cackles some more, the laughter is joined by the rough cawing of a crow landing upon her shoulder. The horrid pair leer at the disembodied face whimpering in the jar. The crow tormentingly taps the container with his beak, and the ghost winces which sends his despicable captors into a raucous outburst.
The witch sets the jar on the table and sneers over her shoulder. “We’ve got a couple more guests, my little pup! I think it’s time we allow them inside.”
She glances at the now attentive crow and lifting the bird to her face, whispers. The crow flies out of a nearby window, and in flight around the house carefully scans the edge of the woods. During a wide circle, it spies the little queen and the black cat worriedly whispering to one another behind a bush; they have heard the screams and are desperately discussing plans. Having spotted them, the crow calls its fellow minions away into the night, their departure leaving the house fairly quiet except for occasional shedding of deconstruction. The little girl and the cat peek out through the bushes astounded to hear the great sound of so many wings taking off at once, leaving the molting house now completely unguarded.
“Stay here!” Carbon commands, and then runs toward the house, and there leaps upon the porch railing. Clambering up a rickety lattice, he finds his way to an open window. But to complicate matters, Valmora, being obviously headstrong, is far too concerned after hearing her brother’s scream. With ideas of her own, she is also making her way toward the house. Bats flurry around her in an effort to keep the child safe; and she reaches the house just in time to see Carbon slip out of sight inside the nearby window.
At this stage any existing plan the group may have made is completely lost. Having no idea what to do, Valmora runs around to the front of the house, to the old porch where the children’s night of trick-or-treat derailed just a short time ago. She boldly pushes open the front door, to meet the danger that lurks inside.
Entering directly into the large fire-lit room, Valmora is greeted by a long dark silhouette, the horrendous creature that transformed beneath the streetlight. Suddenly confronted by the witch, the fearful girl stalls now, unsure what to do next. Sensing the danger, a small contingent of bats flood into the room to defend her, but they instead drop, one by one stunned as they pass the threshold. The remaining bats flutter hesitantly outside the door, away from the spell.
“You have a severe deficiency when it comes to manners, your royalty? And the place is an absolute mess,” the witch snarls. “Well, it’s no matter. Do come closer. I was packing for a trip before you so impolitely dropped by my humble abode. And I see you’ve brought friends. Sadly though your new acquaintances are as dreadfully rude as you.” And she sweeps her hand toward the table holding both the ghost-filled jar, and a new addition, a birdcage holding Carbon. There is no jewel; there is no sign of her brother.
“I’m so sorry Valmora,” worries Carbon. “She certainly is a most wretched creature.”
“You see,” interrupts the witch, “a good hostess plans ahead no matter the occasion. But, unfortunately, I really have to leave town you see. With so many uninvited guests you never know who is going to show up next! But since you are all so eager to see me, I’ve decided just to pack you all up for the trip. It’s going to be horrible fun, my dear! Shall I show you the royal dungeon?”
“You tricked me,” scowls Valmora, as if suddenly sharing new information.
“Tsk-tsk, your honored highness. This is All Hallow’s Eve! And I am a dark nasty witch! Would you honestly expect any different? You humans can be so naïve. You come to a stranger’s door and request trick-or-treat. Well, I didn’t give any treats you see. You were tricked! You took the jewel from the pumpkin patch, which I could not, and from there willingly handed it to me. So by the rules of this Halloween charm, it now belongs to me.
“But we have a bit of a problem, your majesty, and so I accept your intrusion. You see, once the Pumpkinheart is removed from the ground it begins to fade. I know how to tap its powers but the jewel needs a battery, or it could become inert. I need to transplant the little jewel as quickly as possible! But I don’t dare plant it in the ground where the pumpkins may find it again. So as a dark and nasty witch, I can think of nothing better than testing it on what my kin abhor the most - children!”
Valmora stares dumbly at her, having no idea what the long-winded hag could mean. And this only sends a sneer across the lips of the witch who laughs again. “My dear monarch of ignorant mortals. You really have no idea of the powers that move through the earth this night, and every night. A seed needs to be nourished, especially one that catalyses the transference of power to a billion pumpkins in a single night.”
Valmora looks to Carbon and the ghost, who both shrug their shoulders in shared misery at their helplessness. Carbon can only guess. “I have no clue what this revolting monster is babbling on about…”
The witch laughs unnervingly at her mad inventiveness. She glares down at the little girl and comes frighteningly close. “Hasn't anyone told you, to never ever swallow a watermelon seed? Well, let’s say we try a magical pumpkin seed, and see what happens!” And at that she shrieks even louder in maniacal amusement.
Confused and tired, Valmora interrupts the woman’s insane babbles, and demands of the atrocious, conniving witch, “Where is my brother!”
“Don’t fret. He’s safe for now.” The witch fumes, “But I have no more time to argue. I believe it’s time to pack our suitcase, and we will all just have to see what happens next.” And with those words, so much indeed happens. The witch removes her hat and places it upon the table, the hat revealed as some sort of mechanical contraption. The conical top of the hat opens up like shutter doors, and reveals a pair of horrific mechanized eyes and a terrible gear-work maw, rotating and aligning upon objects in the room. While Carbon is pleading from the cage for Valmora to run, the hat faces toward the black feline who, covered in orange beams of light, disappears. This is followed by a similar occurrence upon the shivering ghost that upon vanishing leaves behind a trembling bottle of empty air.
The hat then slowly rotates toward Valmora. But during this final rotation something bizarrely wonderful happens. That something is altogether different, and it is taking place outside of the witch’s control; in the ceiling from behind the old crone, large black hands are ripping a hole through the roof of the small cottage.
(to be continued...)
Stay tuned for Part 7, and the exciting conclusion of Watrous & Valmora. Our heroes are going to need a big hand to help against a very terrible witch. Can they succeed?
Tonight's story was brought to you by Bindlegrim - maker of fine vintage-style arts for the autumn season. We thank you for tuning in to this special presentation, celebrating the release of On Stranger Winds: Tall Tales for Shorter Days, (a book offering both light to dark writings of whimsy for autumn and winter), coming soon in both digital and print formats.