You can’t even process seeing Jim like that, your mind refuses to wrap around it. Instead, you focus on the one thing you can effect, the racing figure clutching a struggling child. It might be a good thing that you couldn’t find any authentic boots for your cowboy costume, because suddenly you are hauling ass for all you’re worth, and sneakers are far better suited to the task.
The world seems to narrow down to just the ghoul and Annabeth, the edges of your vision growing dark. If you knew more about the human body, you’d realize that these symptoms, combined with a suddenly racing heart, is more likely a panic attack at seeing your best friend transmogrified than it is some badass focusing ability. Luckily, you showed up drunk or slept through most of your biology classes, so you have no idea that your brain is trying to shut you down as you power through, running with every ounce of strength you have.
Go figure, panic is actually a pretty good performance enhancer, as you quickly gain on the fleeing ghoul. You can make out Annabeth’s face, pinched in annoyance as she whacks her kidnapper with her pumpkin pail. Miraculously, not so much as one chocolate bar falls out of it, even as she assaults the ghoul over and over.
They both turn a corner onto a new cul-de-sac, and you sprint after them, trailing only by seconds. What greets you is not another cluster of houses, however. It’s the entrance to a graveyard, with squeaking iron gates slowly drawing shut. You start to run again, but that pause cost too much time. The gates slam together, and just like with the ghouls themselves, are suddenly gone. In front of you is just a normal cul-de-sac, with no sign of Annabeth or her kidnapper.
It’s only now that you realize you’re alone. Victoria didn’t follow, in spite of the fact that it was her sister being taken. Part of you hopes that she was fixing Jim, but when you make your way back to the scene of the attack, he’s still got a big, grinning jack-o-lantern of a face. Victoria is standing over a pile of rags, which you suspect are all the remains of the ghoul. Hope fills you again; maybe she got back whatever they took.
“Can you save him?” Right to the point, huh? Well, I can’t blame you this time.
“Unfortunately, this one was not the thief,” Victoria says, her teeth clenched together. “It was a distraction, meant to occupy us while Jim’s true attacker escaped with their prize.”
“I… they got away.”
“Of course they did, the shadows of the world have always been friendly with the Whisper family. Take heart, though. I turned their trap against them. Before this one was done, I persuaded it to tell me where they are holed up.”
“Is it a graveyard?” you ask.
“It was, and sometimes still is, depending on the night,” Victoria replies. “I can take us there, though what happens once we arrive is impossible to predict.”
“Are they going to turn Annabeth into a pumpkin scarecrow too?” She might not have been the most outgoing of kids, but you’d still rather not see anyone else get turned.
“Perhaps they will try, but it will be a vain effort. We are not so easily stolen from. But there are other things they can do, other ways to take vengeance on a true family of All Hallows Eve. We must hurry. I only paused because I thought you would like to find a safe place to store Jim.” Victoria motions to the lifeless body of your roommate. She’s right, you can’t leave him out in the open like this, it’s too dangerous.
“Let’s fine a porch to put him on,” you tell her. Both of you reach down and grab one of his shoulders, which is why you’re only a few feet away from his jack-o-lantern face when the eyes blink and it opens its grinning mouth.
“Whew, I need to lay off the heavy stuff, I feel like my whole body is stuffed with hay.”
You and Victoria let out unexpected screams and jump away from the scarecrow, which is currently trying to hold up its own head, a surprisingly difficult task with a body made of straw. It looks down at its new form, turning its hands over twice. “Oh. I am stuffed with hay. Guess that makes more sense then.”
“How does any of this make sense!” You yelp at him, not sure whether you’re happy or more terrified.
“Herb of False Life,” Victoria mutters, quickly regaining her composure. “That’s what you and the driver smoked in that pipe, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t really ask, he just offered me some puffs and I took them.” If there was any doubt in your mind that this is Jim, it vanishes at his words. Jim is pretty much the only person you know who would smoke something supernatural, no questions asked.
“Wait, does this mean he’s okay?”
“No, it’s temporary,” Victoria says. “When the magic fades, he’ll be like all the others, unless we restore them by sunrise.”
“Well then let’s go fight these assholes.” You walk back over and help Jim the scarecrow to his feet. It’s a wobbly stance, but he eventually manages to get sort of balanced. He’s definitely leaning on you for support though.
“They have taken my kin, you do not need to encourage me to battle,” Victoria assures you. “However, it might be prudent to gather some weaponry before we charge into their territory. I can have the driver swing by with a few emergency goods, though it will take some time.”
“If we wait too long, something might happen to Annabeth,” you tell her, like she didn’t already know. “And Jim’s magic could fade.”
“Yes, I’m aware of the risks, that’s why I proposed it as something to discuss instead of just doing it,” Victoria says. “Worried as I am for Annabeth, it does us no good to get caught as well. The family’s heads will not be so easy to defeat as their minions. I favor taking the time to properly arm ourselves.”
“Yeah, seeing as I only have so much time as a talking pumpkin monster, I’m going to vote for moving while I still have the option,” Jim says. “Plus we want to make sure the kiddo is safe, and every minute lost puts her at risk.”
Looks like you’re the tie-breaker, what’s it going to be?