A ghost is different from a spirit or the Lost. They’re specters, but they’re able to manifest both visibly and physically, unlike the espíritita or Lost souls. Their origins remain unknown, but most of the Mycenians I’ve spoken to believe that they are the spirits of the deceased who, for various reasons, can’t cross over from this world. Ghosts manifest most strongly during Halloween, but it is unknown if—
Ambrose frowned down at the parchment in his paws, quill twitching as he thought. No, this wouldn’t do. There was simply too much that he didn’t know about ghosts, and he didn’t like the idea of writing down such incomplete information. He had started this journal as a compilation of everything that he learned on his travels, but if all he could say was ‘currently unknown’ and ‘nobody has any idea,’ what was the point? It’d only give him more questions when he came back to these pages later.
Frustrated, he crossed out the last sentence and rested his forehead against the edge of the table with a great sigh.
"Is something bothering you, love?"
Ambrose raised his head to see the innkeeper standing over him, a steaming bowl in one hand and a concerned expression on her face. "No," he told her, then immediately changed his mind and said, "Yes, actually. Ghosts. Or rather, the utter lack of them."
The innkeeper blinked. "Most people would rather not be seeing ghosts. All they do is cause mischief, this time of year."
"There," Ambrose said, gesturing at her with his quill. "That’s exactly what I mean. You talk about ghosts as if they were a common occurrence, and yet I can’t seem to locate a single one."
"Is that all?" The innkeeper put the bowl down a respectful distance from Ambrose’s parchment and propped her paw on the table. "I’m surprised you haven’t seen them at work; they’ve been active this year, and it isn’t even Halloween yet."
"I think perhaps they know I’m hunting them."
The innkeeper eyed Ambrose’s parchment and quill dubiously.
Ambrose followed her gaze, looking blankly at his equipment, before understanding dawned. "Oh, no," he said with a small laugh. "I’m not trying to capture them. I don’t think that would be possible, even if I had something more substantial than this. I’m only looking for information and a few answers to my questions."
"Are you a scholar?" the innkeeper asked.
"You could say that."
The innkeeper tilted her head, her eyes narrowing slightly as she looked Ambrose up and down. Ambrose smiled at her and tried to appear as harmless as possible. He knew he didn’t look like a scholar. If anything, he looked like an adventurer who had lost his way and finally stumbled back to civilization after a week in some dark, dank cavern—which, incidentally, was exactly how Ambrose had spent the past seven days. He had been following a rumor about the Sorceress’ spirit, taken a wrong turn, and realized he’d stumbled into a part of the cave that wasn’t on his map. This happened to him fairly often, so he’d been well prepared with equipment and food, but he knew he still looked disheveled and like he hadn’t taken a proper bath in days.
"There’s to be a party at the mansion in the wall," the innkeeper said finally. "They’ve been having a bit of trouble, though, with things falling off the shelves and doors getting stuck. You might want to check there if you’re looking for ghosts."
Ambrose brightened. "Do you know how I might get to the mansion?"
The innkeeper nodded. "There’s a stream that flows past the east side of the settlement. Follow it north, and it’ll take you to a path that leads right to the front steps." She tapped her claws against the table, just beside the bowl. "Eat up first. You look like you could use it."
Ambrose dutifully reached for the bowl and slid it close to him, careful not to spill any of the soup. "Thank you," he told the innkeeper with a smile.
She nodded again, though she was already turning towards another table, where someone was waving hopefully at her. "Good luck," she said over her shoulder. "And remember to bring a present with you. Something small and shiny should do."
Ambrose glanced down at his parchment, wondering if he should write that down. He decided against it and instead rolled up his parchment, placed it and his quill into his pack, and tucked in to his soup. Dried fruit and oatcakes were all well and good, but nothing could beat a nice, hot bowl of soup on an autumn day like this one.
It didn’t occur to Ambrose to ask who the present was for until he was standing at the mansion’s door. He had assumed it was to attract the ghost’s attention, but now he suspected that the innkeeper had meant he should bring something for the mansion’s owner.
The house was nothing like Ambrose had ever seen before. It was made entirely of stone and looked like it had been carved out of the back of the cave, its sides merging seamlessly with the wall. The front of the mansion was impressive enough, but Ambrose suspected that it went deep into the cave wall and that there was much more to it than what he could see. He fingered the brooch in his bag’s side pocket and hoped that the mansion’s owner wouldn’t be offended that he had turned up empty-handed; he could hardly present this gaudy, inexpensive bauble to someone who resided in such a grand home, but he didn’t have anything more fitting on hand. He might be an explorer, but he was far more interested in knowledge than in treasure, which meant he rarely had anything valuable in his pack.
Ambrose hesitated for another moment, then raised a paw and pulled the cord that dangled beside the wooden door.
A bell chimed within the mansion, echoing between the great stone walls, so loud that Ambrose winced. The sound faded slowly away, but no one came to open the door. Ambrose looked warily at the cord, wondering if he dared pull it again, and was just reaching for it when the lamp by the door flickered suddenly to life. He twitched a little bit, surprised, before bending towards the lamp to study the candle inside with great interest. It had clearly been lit by magic. Perhaps it was somehow connected to the bell pull? He had heard of automatic responses like that, where an action triggered a reaction elsewhere without a command from a magic user, but he had never seen it firsthand before.
He heard the click of a bolt being pulled back, and he straightened up as the door slowly opened. The candle might be fascinating, but it wasn’t the reason Ambrose was here.
A pale-furred cat Ineki stood in the doorway, her green eyes wary as she studied Ambrose. "Can I help you?" she asked.
Ambrose smiled. "I hope so," he said. "My name is Ambrose, and I’m a traveling researcher. I’m currently studying ghosts, and someone directed me here. I understand that you have one or two in residence."
The Ineki looked at him, clearly undecided. Ambrose couldn’t blame her. He was, after all, a perfect stranger, and although he liked to think that he didn’t look dangerous, he couldn’t fault her for being cautious. Most of the Mycenians that he had encountered on his travels had been happy enough to talk to him, but none of them had lived in great, echoing mansions on the edge of a cave, isolated for the most part from any settlements. The lady of the house probably didn’t get visitors here very often.
"I’d just like to ask you a few questions," Ambrose said hopefully. "I’ve been searching for ghosts, largely just to obtain a better understanding of them. They’ve eluded me, though, and I’m afraid I—hey!"
Someone was pulling at Ambrose’s bag. He spun around, clapping a paw down on the flap of it. He felt something slip away from beneath his paw, but when he looked, he saw absolutely nothing behind him. There was no one there: not another Ineki, not a human, not even a lizard or a bird that might have fallen onto his bag.
He turned back to the cat Ineki, smiling somewhat embarrassedly. "I’m sorry," he said. "I thought I felt someone trying to get into my bag."
The Ineki blinked at him. She glanced down at his bag and then back at Ambrose, and though her expression was still guarded, some of the tension had eased away from her posture. "You might as well come in," she said, opening the door wider. "I’ve just put some tea on to boil. I hope you like chamomile."
The mansion was just as big and foreboding on the inside as it was on the outside, and Ambrose looked around in silent amazement as he followed his hostess down the corridors. She led him past two doors and down a short flight of stairs, with the smell of brewing tea and fresh-baked pastries getting stronger and stronger as they went. Eventually, they stopped in a small sitting room, where a round table had already been set up with cups and plates.
"They’re my brother’s ghosts," the female Ineki said without preamble. She left the door to the sitting room open and gestured for Ambrose to take a seat.
The Ineki picked up the pot, carefully cradling it between her paws, and poured out two cups of steaming tea. "Adis. He says they keep him company."
Ambrose accepted the cup that she handed him, though his gaze never left her face. "Do you believe him?"
"I didn’t at first," the Ineki admitted. She sat down in the chair opposite Ambrose’s, curling herself into one corner of it and tucking her hind legs up. "He’s always had an active imagination, and I knew he was lonely. I thought that he had invented them so he could have friends."
"What happened to convince you otherwise?"
"Our first Halloween came," she said.
A drop of water landed in Ambrose’s cup, falling with a quiet plop. He looked down just as another drop fell, sending rings rippling out across the tea. He glanced up, searching for the leak, and watched in fascination as a line of water droplets crawled across the ceiling, barely visible against the dark stone.
"Adis," the Ineki said with a sigh.
A moment later, Ambrose heard footsteps coming down the hall towards the sitting room. A kitten appeared not longer after: a male, and obviously younger than his sister, but otherwise the spitting image of Ambrose’s hostess, with her same silver-tipped fur and jade green eyes. He hesitated in the doorway and smiled uncertainly at Ambrose, then turned towards his sister, his brown nose twitching. "Blue said we have a visitor," he said. "And pumpkin pie."
The female Ineki gestured towards the table, where a pie indeed sat. "You’ll have to get another plate," she said. "Could you also please ask Blue to stop dripping in our guest’s tea?"
Adis walked towards the cabinet at the side of the room, pulling a drawer open noisily. "You know he doesn’t listen to me, Fern." He closed the drawer again and came over to the table, a plate and a fork in his paws. He glanced at Ambrose and asked, "Are you here to take Blue away? He probably won’t go with you."
Ambrose blinked. "Er, no," he said. "I just wanted to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind."
Adis thought about this as he cut the pie. He divided it into twelve perfect slices and plated three of them, moving them carefully from the tin to the plates. He gave the first to Ambrose, the second to Fern, and dug into the third, humming happily as he licked pumpkin filling off the tines of his fork. "You brought Blue a present," he said to Ambrose.
"I did." Ambrose reached into his bag and pulled out the brooch, which he set on the table beside his plate. It rolled, spinning slightly in place, before Adis reached over and picked it up. "I wasn’t sure what Blue might like, but I’ve heard that ghosts are fond of things that shine."
Adis examined the brooch, turning it over in his paw, before nodding and slipping it into his pocket. "You can ask me questions, if you want," he said, forking up another bite of pie.
Ambrose had so many questions, he didn’t know where to start. "Is Blue the only ghost here?" he asked, deciding eventually that maybe it’d be best to begin with the easy ones.
Adis shook his head. "There are a few," he said. "Blue’s just the biggest. He’s lived here all his life."
"All his life?" Ambrose echoed. "Has he always been a ghost?"
Adis shrugged. "He’s never said."
"Could you ask him?"
Adis shook his head again. "I can’t talk to him," he said. "Sometimes he tells me things, but he doesn’t really use words. He isn’t alive, you know."
Fern cut in, lowering her tea cup and explaining, "They don’t communicate the same way you and I would. The ghosts are sometimes able to move things to draw our attention, but that’s usually only possible on Halloween. Blue and Adis have a system, but it has its limits." She smiled slightly when Ambrose turned to her with his eyebrows raised. "I’ve been gathering information as well," she said. "I live in a house full of ghosts; it’s impossible not to be curious."
"Do you know what a ghost is?" Ambrose asked.
Fern and Adis exchanged a glance. "That’s always been the biggest question," Fern said, looking back at Ambrose. "Adis has asked for me, in as many ways as he can, but the ghosts themselves don’t seem to know. They’re simply ghosts."
"How long have you lived here?"
"Five years. This will be our sixth Halloween."
Adis cleared his throat, drawing their attention back to him. "Can I go now?" he asked. His plate was empty, without even crumbs to show that there’d been a slice of pie on it. "I haven’t finished decorating the ball room."
Fern nodded. "Don’t climb too high," she said as Adis turned to leave. "If there’s anything you can’t reach, just set it aside for Jesk and Veera."
Adis sniffed dismissively. "There’s nothing I can’t reach. Besides," he added, nodding at Ambrose, "shouldn’t I just ask him instead? Jesk and Veera won’t come until tomorrow, and you know how they’re always late."
"You do not—" Fern began.
"I’d be happy to help," Ambrose cut in. He placed his teacup down on its saucer and looked between Adis and Fern. "What do you need me to do?"
The entire settlement, it turned out, had been invited to the mansion for the annual Halloween celebration, and although various Mycenians had been coming out to help prepare, most of the cleaning and decorating had fallen on the siblings. Adis had done a good job gathering supplies; heaps of ribbons and evergreen branches sat in piles through the ballroom, and festive tablecloths had been laid out on the tables. A great chandelier hung above the center of the floor, and beside it, tracking across the ceiling, was the same trail of water drops that Ambrose had seen in the sitting room.
"I don’t know how Blue does it," Fern said, following Ambrose’s gaze up to the ceiling. "He’s always bringing in water from the stream and leaving a trail behind him."
"I’ve heard other accounts of ghosts becoming marginally corporeal during Halloween," Ambrose said. "I suppose that’s where the trouble comes from."
Fern stooped to pick up a stray length of orange-and-blue-striped ribbon. "Have you heard much about ghosts?"
"Not as much as I’d like, I’m afraid," Ambrose replied. "Of all the things that I’ve looked into, ghosts are the least well known. They’re not a recent phenomenon, but since they only appear around Halloween, it’s difficult to learn anything about them before they’ve gone again. I’ve taken some notes, but it doesn’t amount to much."
Fern was silent for a moment as she wound the ribbon around her forepaw, rolling it back into a neat circle. "Would it be possible for me to take a look at your notes?" she asked as she placed the wound ribbon on a table. "Adis and I were lucky to find this place to call home, but it requires a great deal of maintenance. We don’t get to travel far from here, and so neither of us know much that the townspeople don’t tell us."
Ambrose was startled by the request, though he was happy to let Fern read what little he had. "They’re somewhat disorganized, though," he told her apologetically. "I’d never intended for others to see them, so they’re a bit disjointed. They really are just notes."
Fern smiled then—the first smile that Ambrose had seen on her. "Disorganized is fine," she said. "Anything that you have is likely new information for me."
That struck a chord with Ambrose; it was exactly how he felt about information-gathering, and he thought he’d said something along those lines not that long ago himself. He pulled back the flap of his bag and rooted through it, leafing through the pages until he found the sheet of parchment he was looking for. "Here," he said, pulling it out and handing it to Fern. "This is all I’ve managed to find on ghosts."
Fern took the parchment carefully, as if afraid to wrinkle it. "Thank you," she said.
Ambrose closed his bag again. "Thank you for the tea," he told her with a smile.
Fern retreated to a corner of the room, parchment in paw, and Ambrose turned his attention to the ballroom. Adis was already busy, climbing up on window sills in order to drape ribbons above the frame so that they fell gaudily on either side of the window. Ambrose grabbed several ribbons and went to join him, keeping an eye out for ghostly mischief as he went.
The next two hours passed quickly. Though Ambrose hadn’t come here with Halloween in mind, he found that he fell into the spirit of the season easily. Adis turned out to be a cheerful, quick-witted kitten once he had gotten over his shyness, which took barely any time at all, and he was perfectly happy to talk to Ambrose about Blue and the other ghosts. He didn’t know the answers to the questions that Ambrose had, but Ambrose found that if he simply made encouraging noises, Adis could talk for a long, long time.
Fern rejoined them in the middle of one of Adis’ long-winded ramblings. "He’ll chatter at you forever if you let him," she said, sounding amused and fond at the same time.
"I think I’ll let him," Ambrose said. "He’s a font of information."
"You’re asking about his favorite subject," Fern replied. "Not many Ineki are comfortable talking to him about the ghosts, so he’s always pleased to have a new audience." She handed the parchment back to Ambrose, smoothing a paw over a small wrinkle before she let it go. "Have you ever considered circulating your notes?" she asked him. "There are Mycenians out there who would find all of this information very useful."
Ambrose paused in the middle of putting the sheet away. "I haven’t, actually," he said. "I’ve always just taken notes for my own reference. I intend to organize them into articles in the future, but these aren’t really meant for reading.
Fern nodded, as if in understanding. "Think about it," she suggested. "Articles would be good to have, too, I’m sure, but most Mycenians around here are too busy to sit down and read much. Your notes might be a little jumbled, but they’re to the point." She smiled, showing a brief flash of humor that was almost a grin. "I especially enjoyed your drawing."
Ambrose looked down at the parchment in his paw. From here, he could just see the sketch he’d drawn in the corner: a ghost chasing a toad, doodled when he’d been feeling particularly frustrated with all the dead ends. "Thank you," he said dryly.
There was a resounding crash then, as if something fragile had fallen from a very high place. Fern flinched, and Adis jumped down from where he had been gluing a ribbon to the wall.
"He didn’t mean it!" Adis said immediately to Fern. "I’ll go clean it up right now. He’s very sorry!"
"Adis…" Fern began.
Adis had already run off, though, darting quickly through the door in the direction of the crash. The air seemed to waver behind him, as if something invisible were following in his wake. Fern watched him go, her tails held stiffly behind her and her shoulders rigid.
Ambrose slid the parchment the rest of the way into his bag and closed the flap. "I should go," he said. Though he would have liked to stay and see what had fallen, and why, now seemed like a diplomatic time to leave. "Thank you again for the tea and for speaking to me; it was a much greater help than you know."
"You’re welcome," Fern said, turning to him, and managed a smile. "I’m glad we were able to help."
Ambrose glanced down the corridor, then looked back at Fern. He thought about asking if she’d like his help, but he could read the situation well enough to know that this was a family matter, whatever Tam might say about him and social cues. "You did, immensely," he said, adjusting the strap of his bag so that it hung more snugly across his chest. "And I’ll see what I can do to get you a copy of my notes, if you’d like them."
Fern’s smile deepened into something more genuine. "I’d appreciate that."
There was another crash. Fern sighed, and Ambrose waved for her to go check on her brother and his ghosts. "I can see myself out," he told her.
"Do you know where the door is?"
"I’m sure I can find it again."
That was all Fern needed. She nodded at him, maybe in farewell or maybe just in acknowledgement, and moved swiftly down the corridor towards the source of the crashes. Ambrose stayed a moment longer, wondering if a ghost was lingering in the room with him. When nothing happened, when there were no more crashes or any mysteriously waving curtains, he left the ballroom and headed for the front door, hoping he remembered which hallways he was supposed to take.
Ambrose was about halfway back to the settlement, already mentally sorting out the information he’d gathered that afternoon, when he realized that he didn’t know why Fern had let him into the mansion to begin with. He was fairly certain it had to do with the ghosts, but he didn’t know exactly how. Perhaps he would ask, when he came by again to deliver her notes—sooner, he thought, rather than later.