17:05 ST

Chapter 1: Halloween



The house had no name, though it looked like the sort of house that should; it was neat and white and tall, and it sat on a hill beside a river that ran through a cavern big enough to hold a small town. It wasn’t a terribly old house, but its mistress had been around for years—long enough to have answers for everyone who came knocking, their hearts brimming with questions.

Today, the house was full of ghosts.

Seelby could feel their eyes on her as she went about her morning. It took all of her willpower not to look over her shoulder, but even still, she caught herself staring suspiciously at the shadows once or twice. The house’s more permanent residents had explained Halloween to her, telling her how the spirits crossed over and how this was a good thing, but Seelby couldn’t help the way the fur rose on her neck. She didn’t like being watched by things that she couldn’t see.

Seelby tried to pretend everything was normal. She did. But all these invisible eyes unnerved her, and so it wasn’t really her fault she nearly dropped the plates she was carrying when someone behind her said, "Good morning."

"Mont," she said through gritted teeth as she turned around. Her heart hammered at a ridiculous speed.

The tawny fox Ineki took the plates from Seelby, grinning at her over the top of the stack. "Sorry," Mont said, not sounding sorry at all. "Not a morning person, are you?"

Seelby narrowed her eyes.

Mont, who apparently did have a sense of self preservation, decided not to pursue that and instead said, "The kittens are helping Piatt bring in the statues from the garden. They’re going to dress them up after breakfast. You should come watch."

"Watch kittens play dress-up?" Seelby grabbed two large mugs, filling one with spoons and the other with forks, and bumped the drawer closed with her hip. "No, thanks. I need to talk to Tam before she leaves again, and Piatt said she’s heading out after lunch."

"It’s Halloween," Mont said. "Take a little time off and see what a festival’s like here. I can guarantee it’s different from anything you remember."

Seelby thought that everything was different from the things she remembered, but she knew better than to say so. She’d only woken up two months ago, and she still missed the open sky and everyone she’d known with a deep, relentless ache. She was surprised the grief wasn’t more painful than it was, but Tam had said it was part of the cave’s magic. When the sorceress had moved her stone people into these yawning caverns, she had given them the strength to continue their lives should they ever awaken.

Seelby was lucky to have found the house. Or rather, she was lucky Ledore had found her and brought her here. Ledore and the others had done their best to help Seelby get her bearings, and the world made a lot more sense now than it had two months ago; but waking up in a giant cave and finding out you’d spent the last few decades as a rock was pretty startling. Seelby was still coming to terms with the fact that she didn’t know where her family was, that she’d probably never feel the open air again, and that ghosts here were so real, they had an entire festival dedicated to them.

"Seelby?" Mont was watching her with his eyebrows raised.

Seelby shook her head, pushing away her thoughts. "Let’s take these out," she said. "I want some tea."

—————

The dining room was crowded with statues. Seelby helped Mont set the table out in the garden instead, then took her tea to the library, where it was at least quiet, if not entirely ghost-free.

She sat by the window, her back legs curled up beneath her, and tried not to think about the spirits watching her. She tried not to think about her family and how they might be one of these ghosts, not yet awakened or, even worse, Lost forever. Tam had explained how statues finished on Halloween became Lost, their souls disappearing into the spirit world instead of returning to their bodies. She’d also said there were stories circulating lately about people purposely carving statues on Halloween, which was why the house’s statues were now indoors. Seelby felt sick at the idea; she couldn’t fathom the amount of anger or spite someone must feel, in order to do something so hateful.

Seelby heard footsteps in the hall outside, and she quickly tore her gaze from the window and looked down at her book instead, pretending she was absorbed in it. The footsteps stopped, then became louder as whoever it was veered from their course and came into the library.

"Not much of a hiding place," Mont said.

Seelby closed her book with a sigh. Of course it was Mont. "I’m not hiding," she told him.

"Really? Because it looks like you are." Mont held up his paws when Seelby flattened her ears and hastily added, "It’s not an accusation or anything. I’d be hiding, too, except the pups can track me down wherever I am, so I don’t really bother anymore." He smiled wryly. "The kittens have sharper claws, but at least they have a hard time finding me."

Seelby glanced at the door, suddenly afraid she’d see one of the young Ineki sniffing his way down the corridor. She generally didn’t mind the children, but right now she wanted to be alone.

The hallway was empty, though, except for the ghosts. Seelby turned back to Mont. "Did you need something?"

Mont scratched the back of his head. "Not really." His ears twitched, pulling back in something like embarrassment, and he added, "I was looking for you, actually. I want to show you something."

Seelby sighed again. "You can tell Ledore she doesn’t need to worry about me," she said. She patted the cover of her book, tipped her head back, and managed a smile for Mont. She didn’t know how convincing it was, but hopefully he’d buy it. "I’m in good company. She doesn’t need to send someone to spend the day with me."

Mont snorted. "Try to do a good thing, and this is what I get," he muttered to himself, and then said in a normal voice, "Ledore didn’t send me; I just figured you might like to see a bit more of the cave. You haven’t left the house much."

"Mont," Seelby began. Mont blinked at her, his smile going from wry to a little hopeful; and somehow, the refusal that had been on the tip of her tongue changed, and she heard herself say, "Alright. Fine. I should probably get out of the house now while I can, anyway." She set her book down on the table and stood. "Lead the way."

—————

Seelby didn’t remember much from the time between waking up and being brought to Ledore’s house. Most of it was a confused blur, but she did have an impression of tight spaces and low ceilings, of feeling like she couldn’t breathe. She hadn’t left the house much, largely because she was afraid she’d just find more walls, cold stone closing her in on all sides.

The walls were there; the sorceress had moved their world into a cave, after all. But as Seelby padded quietly behind Mont, she noticed that there was more open space than she had imagined. When she closed her eyes, she thought she could feel a breeze coming in from down a small tunnel, swirling around her feet and tugging gently at her fur. There was no sky, but the roof of the cave was high enough up that she could almost imagine clouds drifting beneath it.

"Tam will be back day after next," Mont said as they walked. "She’s just going out to scout the nearby caves. The bone monster pushes deeper inside around Halloween, and the newer folk tend to get lost while running from it." Mont glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure Seelby was still following. "The monster’s never really hurt anyone before, but when you’ve got something big like that roaring after you, you don’t stop to ask questions. Ledore sends some of us out to direct them home again or to bring them up to the house, if they don’t have anywhere else to go."

"How does she know where they are?" The light from Mont’s lantern spilled out around them, throwing shadows up on the tunnel walls. They danced at the corner of her vision, and Seelby eyed them and ventured, "Is it magic?"

Mont shrugged. "If it’s not magic, it’s close enough that it might as well be. Ledore keeps tabs on everything that goes on nearby, especially when the bone monster’s this far inside the cave. No one likes to talk about it, so you didn’t hear this from me, but the monster’s…different this time of year. We keep an eye out for it, just in case." He looked at the wall to their right, searching for something Seelby couldn’t see. He must have found it, because he added, "Here, this way."

Mont ducked into what looked to Seelby like just a crack in the wall. Seelby hesitated. Then she gathered her courage, told herself firmly that she could very well do anything Mont could do, and followed him through, flattening herself out as small as possible and squeezing into the tiny passage. She had a bad moment where she was afraid she was stuck, but as soon as she had started to panic, the passage widened and spat her out into a much larger space. She stumbled, caught herself, and looked instinctively around for Mont’s lantern-light.

Her breath caught in her throat.

A great willow grew in the center of the cavern, its tendrils lightly dusting the earth. Incredibly, all around the tree, filling the cavern, were statues. They lined the walls, all of them fully carved, their stone faces impassive as they looked down on the two living Ineki who had come into their midst. They were beautiful, but none of them had the spark of life that Seelby had learned to recognize in the boulders that sat in the house’s garden, waiting for Piatt’s careful chisel. Those boulders might have been untouched, but they pulsed with something Seelby couldn’t quite put a name to. These statues were entirely finished, but they felt empty in a way that made Seelby want very much to cry.

"I found this room two years ago," Mont said. He set the lantern down a few feet from the willow, letting the light fall softly upon the statues closest to him. "Or rather, I was led here. A little glowing ball of light brought me here, which I know sounds ridiculous, but apparently it’s something they do sometimes." He reached into the pouch he’d slung over his shoulder, carefully pulled out a flower, and passed it over to Seelby with a smile. "Here."

Seelby held the flower on the edge of her paw, afraid to bruise the delicate yellow petals. She glanced at Mont, and he nodded towards the nearest statue.

"It’s Halloween," Mont said. His voice was quiet, perhaps in deference to the Lost that surrounded them. "They say this is the day the souls of the Lost cross back here to watch over the ones they left behind. Some of us from the house come here to say hello, in case they’re listening."

Seelby approached the statue hesitantly. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about ghosts, but the presence in this cave wasn’t at all like what she had felt in the house. She still had the sense that there were eyes on her, but they weren’t expectant or prying. This presence was, if anything, calm, which was not an emotion Seelby had felt in a long time.

She met the statue’s unseeing eyes and placed the flower in its outstretched paw, then curled her own paw around it briefly. The stone was cold against her skin, and Seelby closed her eyes and offered up a silent apology to it. She hoped the statue’s spirit, wherever it was, had managed to find some sort of happiness outside of this world.

As she opened her eyes, Seelby felt the breeze again, brushing up against her cheek before drifting with a sigh towards the ceiling. Something inside her loosened, and Seelby let out a breath that seemed to start in her toes and move through her entire body. It didn’t exactly ease the knot that had been sitting inside her heart all morning, but it smoothed out the edges, made it easier to bear.

Seelby turned back to Mont and watched as he laid a flower at another statue’s feet. He caught her gaze and straightened up, wordlessly holding another flower out to her. She took it. Together, they decorated the statues they could reach, placing small, bright flowers in stone paws, behind stone ears, and upon stone shoulders. When they were done with the innermost ring, Mont took the rest of the flowers and scattered them across the floor, spreading them in a lambent arc at the statues’ feet.

They stood in silence for a minute afterwards, breathing in the quiet. The air smelled faintly of fresh grass and sunlight. Then Mont picked up the lantern and gestured towards the crack in the wall, and they squeezed through it, one after another, leaving the cave and its stone occupants.

When they were halfway back to the house, Seelby turned to Mont and said, "Thank you."

Mont smiled. "Anytime."

They went the rest of the way in comfortable silence, Mont’s lantern-light leading the way and ghosts all around them.

—————

Credit goes to Octopoda for the idea of statues being carved on Halloween out of spite; to BlackSapphire, Darktornathore, Eluii, Paradoxical, and Corvani for the idea of espíritita as guiding lights; and to Insigne for the image of the cavern and of flowers being gifted to the Lost. Thanks also go to everyone who ran with the idea of the bone monster being more active on Halloween, and to those who made their Halloween entries tributes to the Lost.