When the Halloween Knight goes mysteriously missing, misfit hearth witch, Merry Claus (yes, that Claus) must team up with their mercurial steed to find Hallow and save Halloween.
Creatures is a cozy, whimsical adventure through the Halloween Realm. It is a story of friendship, family, and celebration of self, featuring a grey-ace protagonist, nonbinary Halloween Knight, and enough dark forest creatures for any princess (traditional or otherwise). Rated T for mild language. Creatures is not a horror but is filled with cozy spooks and friendly Halloween monsters, adventure and romance. 10k words/32 pages; average reading time <90 mins. Perfect for a cup of tea (or two). This is a free estory, posted in its entirety below, but if you are interested in a .pdf or .epub, please fill out this request form with your email address and file choice. Thanks for reading and Happy Halloween! ❤
Banner and Cover Art by Shadowheart Design.
Pinterest Mood Board to help you get into the warm and spooky spirit.
‘Twas the Night of All Hallows
and through the Dark Wood,
All the Creatures Were Stirring,
as well that they should
Merry Claus was born a frightening nearly eight weeks early, on what would have been Halloween night if Christmas Town had such. She was very like every other Claus in a hundred generations–face pleasingly round, moon-pale, red-cheeked, and dimpled—and she laughed twice before she ever once cried. Her hair was so wild and wispy that she always needed a cap, but it wasn’t the rainbow-white of new-fallen snow, it was the color of cobwebs and dreams of woodsmoke. The shape of her eyes was the same as her father’s, wide and wondering, but they did not twinkle as a good Claus’s should. Instead, they gleamed darkly, deep as a scrying mirror.
In time, Merry grew as plump as her parents, with her father’s strong shoulders and her mother’s broad hands, and she was as ever stalwart, loving, and true. But it became quickly obvious to everyone that she would never be fully happy at the North Pole. The Winter Forest was too quiet. Faced with perpetual hibernation, most creatures had chosen a warmer clime, and Merry, who read every wildlife book she could find, loved every creature, great and small, beautiful and terrible. So much so that she was lonely for them. She tried making friends among the arctic creatures, but they were shy or more solitary even than she. And after the incident with the polar bear, her poor parents had no choice but to keep her close to home, which meant she had only the reindeer, and the chickens, and her mother’s two turtle doves.
None of whom wanted to abscond on fright-night adventures with the young cobweb-haired witch of Christmas Town.
Merry did her best to fit in, though that was never demanded of her. No Santa worth his snow, her father always said, would repeat the mistakes of Rudolph’s. Still, Merry didn’t mind wearing the family’s traditional red. It was as dramatic as any vampire cape and layered well with autumn plaids. And she shared her mother’s love of baking, of cinnamon and spice. No one ever complained that she added pumpkin to every recipe, or carved spooky silhouettes into her pie crusts.
When the elves baked Winter Solstice cookies, Merry iced the stars in orange, the moon in harvest yellow with black shadows flying before it: witches and bats, ravens and owls. The elves laughed good-naturedly, asked if she had gotten lost, but her parents would not let anyone correct her.
“That would imply,” said Father Christmas sternly, “that she had done anything wrong.”
But Merry would realize that she was different, even if different didn’t mean wrong. She loved orange—the color no one could wear; certainly not a Claus—and she covered her small world in every shade. She painted a pumpkin patch on her bedroom wall, planted sunflowers in the family’s greenhouse. She hated the snow. She longed for midnight rides and graveyard haunts and trees that weren’t evergreen. When the elves traveled to September and October for apple picking, she begged to tag along. Her spirit was autumn, not winter.
Her parents knew before she did, as some parents often do, though they waited for her to tell them.
“I’m an autumn hearth witch,” Merry confessed to Olwen and Ember when she was thirteen.
She had long known the truth, but she hadn’t quite found the words until she was old enough to venture to the edge of winter alone. There she had found a wild, dark forest and autumn’s cusp, the promise of crackling leaves and her heart’s yearning.
Then she added, because she was afraid, and not in that wonderful way of hayrides and haunted houses. “There’s never been an autumn Claus.”
But her mother only smiled. “You come from a long line of hearth witches,” she reminded Merry.
“Winter hearth witches.” The truth was a cold weight in Merry’s chest. Though her parents had never made her feel that she had to, she had always wanted to belong. “And it’s winter here, and Christmas!”
“And it’s Halloween there, and thanksgivings!” Ember replied. “And Easter, Passover, and Ramadan. And other glorious days.” She smiled. “The southern hemisphere does exist.”
This last was with a teasing glare at Merry’s father. There had been no Claus who loved summer, but perhaps one day.
“But they’ve no need for a Claus.”
Merry’s father, who was often so jolly she forgot the power of his earnestness, caught her by the hands, held tight though hers were trembling. “We are more than what other people need, Merry Claus.”
And because it was Santa—whose wonder and joy and generosity the world so needed, but who Merry knew was also mischievous and rebellious and justice-seeking, and a huge Star Trek nerd—she believed him.
“If your heart is called to service, your service will call to you.” Her mother took Merry’s face in her hands, turned her toward the firelight so that her eyes gleamed. Merry often thought her mother read them like a portent. “In the meantime, my darling girl, find yourself and live, joyfully. Every world needs that, more than you know.”
“I think I might be a forest witch too,” Merry mumbled.
Olwen’s laugh boomed, belly shaking. “Now that is not so surprising.”
“My so-many-greats grandfather was raised in the Woodland Realm.” He elbowed her gently. “You’re as much mine as your mother’s, you know.”
Merry smiled; she knew.
Merry’s cottage stood upon the autumn-edge of winter, built of warm, brown stone and red cedar shingles, smoke curling lazily from chimneys like half-told ghost stories. Her yard was a patchwork of fallen leaves, flowerbeds crowded with bright red, orange, and yellow mums. There was always an old dog snoozing on the porch—if he looked more lupine than canine, that wasn’t unexpected so close to the Dreadful Wood—and a black cat underfoot in a kitchen that always smelled of fresh bread.
Outside was a mostly tidy garden where jewel-bright orb-weavers cast marvelous webs, and a small orchard of poison-green apples that weren’t poisonous at all, but perfect for baking, canning, and candying. Merry’s pumpkin patch was filled equally with crows and sunflowers, and Crane, the Not-So-Scare-Crow, could often be heard directing the opossums and raccoons to a compost-pile buffet.
The children of the realm called her Claws, for she was friend to all creatures, and she wore the nickname with the same pride as the one she had been born to. Merry’s heart may have been misfit, but that had never meant misloved.
“Say hello to your father.” Merry’s mother held up a cellphone covered in snowflake bling. She had been giving Olwen a virtual tour as he was stuck at the North Pole, tinkering with some new miniaturization tech gone awry. And only weeks before Christmas.
“Happy Halloween, Papa!”
“Happy birthday, baby girl!” Was his voice…squeaky? “Have you opened your present yet?”
“Not yet,” Ember reproved in feigned exasperation. “She’s still packing a Santa-size sack of goodies into that little hamper you sent me with.”
She was using the camera as a mirror and, rather adorably Merry thought, fussing with her snow-white hair while Olwen assured her that her costume was perfect. She usually dressed elaborately and in opposition of herself—last year she had been a fairly convincing ghoul—but this year she had chosen one of the characters from Merry’s favorite childhood Halloween films, a grandmother witch with distinctly Mrs. Claus vibes.
“And there’s room for it all” –Merry grinned— “because you brought just as much for me.”
She and Ember regularly exchanged homemade goodies. Halloween always saw a greater embarrassment of riches, including a three-tier birthday cake covered in marshmallow spider webs.
“Papa.” Merry glanced up after one last inventory. “Your pie is frozen, but all you have to do is thaw it, then bake it until the blood oozes out of his nose and mouth.”
As a child, she had made a cranberry and apple pie, sweet rosemary crust carved with a remarkable likeness of Santa; the filling oozed like blood as it baked and bubbled. Her father had been delighted.
“Merry, my darling, you spoil me.”
That was a sleigh that went both ways.
“Your birthday gift,” Ember said as if she knew exactly what Merry was thinking, “is tucked under your tree.”
The thrill of Christmas morning never faded for a Claus. Merry dashed to the living room, Morpheus a sleek shadow bounding in her wake.
“And a lovely tree it is this year!” Olwen called after her, his voice unquestionably tiny this time.
Merry’s Halloween tree was her favorite seasonal decoration. Each Halloween Eve, she and her closest friend Hallow culled a dead or dying evergreen from the edge of the Winter Forest. This year’s fir would grow greener and fuller as Christmas approached, but for now was dry and twisted, decorated with candy corn string lights, garlands of bright autumn leaves, ornaments a macabre mix of dark woodland creatures and cheerful monsters.
And now, front and center, was a large square parcel wrapped in corpse-green paper, tied with a blood-red bow.
“It’s beautiful!” Merry called.
“He’s been working on that exact shade of green all year,” Ember said, following close behind; Olwen demurred modestly.
Poe, the black lab who lay in front of the fireplace, thumped a greeting at all of them and for a moment her father’s attention was taken by the “best boy in the whole wide world.” Ember took the overstuffed chair beside the fire, careful to keep the phone steady between them even as Morpheus jumped up on her lap, light as a ghost, and loudly purring.
Merry plucked slowly at the ribbon as her parents and pets fussed over one another. She had her mother’s knack for drawing out the unwrapping of a gift, though she was half-convinced they had come by it solely to torment her father. When Olwen finally shouted in cheerful exasperation “just rip it open!” Merry set the ribbon aside and tore into the paper.
For a moment, she didn’t have words. The hooded cloak was pumpkin orange velvet, gothically ruched, and wickedly heavy, but lined in cool satin, a shimmering, blinding chartreuse that belonged truly to Halloween.
“It’s…bewitching.” Merry bounced to her feet, swinging it around her dramatically before settling it upon her shoulders. The clasp was a beautifully wrought spray of autumn leaves.
“It will change color,” Ember said, “as Christmas nears. The orange will deepen to red, the lining to evergreen, but the clasp will remain.”
“Does she like it?” Olwen whispered when she had been silent too long.
“I love it.” Merry was not crying. There were no tears on Halloween. No rain. No storms. Just moonlit thrills and chills and star-bright laughter. She turned a slow circle and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the fireplace, all velvet cloak and cobweb hair, big dark eyes, a flash of the witchy mole on her nose. “It’s perfect. Thank you, both.”
“You’re welcome,” her father said. “Your Aunt Noelle found the velvet in Germany and we knew it was just what you needed.”
“How goes—?” Merry started to ask, but the doorbell lurched a delightfully ominous toll. “I’m sorry, Papa.”
He waved her off. “Go enjoy your day, Merry-girl. I have more than enough to do with this blasted contraption. I just wanted to see your face. I love you.”
She blew him a kiss, called “I love you!” and left her parents to wrap up the call with their usual sweet everythings.
“I’m not getting any younger!” Elli complained from the front porch. She hovered above Merry’s Beware Mat, glowered up through the screen door with wide, dead-fish eyes.
“You look,” Elli huffed, “like the Queen’s favorite coffin.”
Merry took that as a great compliment and so offered one in return. “You sound like a grumpy old lady.”
Merry stepped back so that Elli wouldn’t have an excuse to walk through her. It was not her favorite sensation
“You think so?” Elli stretched wispy arms toward the floor like long balloons, teasing Mo away from the hem of Merry’s cloak; Mo leapt harmlessly through blue-white ectoplasm. “I’ve been working on it.”
“Very much.” Merry nodded across the parlor. “Elli, you remember my mother, Ember. Momma, Elli Casper.”
A Casper was a low-level haunt, a misty vaguely child-shaped drape of moonlight and soft-fright, descendants of Casper I.
“I don’t.” Elli ignored Ember’s offered hand. She walked through the coffee table, setting Merry’s books and gardening magazines a-flapping, then sent out a waving tendril of self in Poe’s direction. “One thing the old and the young have in common is a bad memory. I was probably Cassie last we met anyway. You should know I’m a Casper like Claws here is a…” The small haunt scowled. “Well, a Claus.”
Merry hid her amusement in the cinnamon-scented drape of her hood.
“I’ve no interest in being childlike or friendly,” Elli continued. Though she had the great misfortune of being the former. Merry had been there the night she was born, just a few short years ago, a curl of boo rising from Merry’s pumpkin patch.
“Who says you have to?” Ember mused. “‘Elli’? From the Norse?”
Elli’s grin was immediate and ghastly; she had been working on that too. “After the old hag who fought Thor,” she said, glancing at Merry. “Your mom knows her stuff.”
“Yes, she does.” Merry picked up her ribbon and paper. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“That turmeric and cinnamon blend, please,” Elli decided. “For my arthritis. You know how my joints ache when the air cools.”
Merry left them chatting pleasantly about aches and pains that neither of them had, Morpheus curled between them on the sofa. It was a perfect Halloween morning, Merry thought, staring out the kitchen window as she filled the tea kettle. The morning was cool enough for a favorite sweater, but the sun was warm. On the back porch swing, Patches, the calico cat, was sunning; she cracked a sharp-toothed yawn, incisors glinting.
Merry put the kettle on, measured out Elli’s favorite blend into a skull-shaped teapot. Bonfire promises scented the air, and she couldn’t wait for sunset. For Halloween Town to come alive with festival, and the Wood to fill with hoots and haunts and hollers. This year the moon would rise full and harvest bright, perfect for Hallow, the Halloween Knight, to usher in the holiday with their yearly ride to Pumpkin Tower.
“Happy Halloween.” Merry snagged one of her mother’s gingerbread moons and toasted the quiet kitchen.
And nearly dropped it when the kettle screamed, high and shrill.
Merry set the cookie down with a laugh, heart racing in cheerful fright as she turned back to take the kettle from the stove.
But the screams didn’t stop. They rattled the kitchen windows as if trying to get inside, rising to roar over the watery whistle of the cooling kettle. The strident shrieks were not quite living, and certainly not so easily confused with a novelty tea kettle.
Merry poured water into the teapot. She had lived on the edge of the Dreadful Wood for thirty years now; the most horrifying sounds were usually owls, sometimes their prey, and usually at night. But it was Halloween, and the sun was shining. It was just as likely to be a young banshee practicing for tonight.
Merry grabbed a candy apple from the counter—in case whoever it was wanted an early treat—and stepped outside.
Into a night-dark storm.
A fell wind whipped her cloak close around her, bitter cold and filled with stinging rain. Rainclouds bruised the sky, low and violent, too thick for sunlight or moonlight. The lightning that rent the air was no charming ambiance; it was angry, fearsome, the kind of storm to be weathered inside under covers.
“Merry?” Ember called from the kitchen.
“Stay inside!” Merry shouted back, fingers slipping on the doorknob as another scream cleaved the false-night. “Something’s wrong!”
She held the door for Patches to frantically herd inside the toads who lived in the tombstone topiaries, then stepped out from the porch. The wind slammed the door closed behind her, and icy rain lashed her cobweb hair to her face as she peered into the tumult. It seemed to be centered just beyond her pumpkin patch, in the newly cut hayfield.
Merry made her way carefully across the yard, dodging hailstones and puddles, startling with each horrified scream. She found Luke, the lupine dog, at the back gate, yellow eyes aglow, lips lifted to reveal sharp white teeth. Ophelia the opossum and Merry’s favorite red squirrel, Archie, clung to Luke’s thick, wet fur. All three were trembling.
“Go home.” The wind howled. Lightning struck again. Closer this time. “Momma’s in the kitchen.”
Luke’s hackles rose and Merry worried that he would stay to protect her. “See to the little ones,” she ordered, touching his shoulder. She sighed in relief when he slowly backed away.
The next scream was bone-splintering, heartbreaking panic. Merry stumbled hurriedly through the gate, witchy boots sinking deep into the soft, wet earth. Fear was fine. Fright was delight. But true panic had no place at Halloween.
The storm surged as if in answer. Darkness billowed closer, knife-edged and red with teeth, and Merry took a breath, reached into the heart of the storm with both hands.
Her fingers brushed a familiar warm coat; the next scream traveled through her hands, up her arms, to strangle her heart. When the rough slap of leather struck her arm, she grabbed for that too.
The storm fell back. The false-night receded. And Harrow, famed Night Mare of the Halloween Knight, reared over Merry, eyes rolling, nostrils flaring. Merry called her down, tugging gently, then less gently upon her broken reins, and she landed on all fours, shaking, her ink-black coat lathered white with sweat. She stood close to Merry, saddle dangerously askew, great sides heaving, fighting for quiet, fighting for calm.
Merry pressed one hand to Harrow’s neck, murmured soothingly, and the day began to slowly return. Still cloudy, still rumbling, but daylight again.
“Where,” Merry whispered as Harrow pressed her quivering nose to the candy apple still clutched in her hand, “is Hallow?”
Hallow—graceful, powerful, fiendishly clever—would never have simply come unseated. Not that there was anything simple about Harrow’s twisted saddle, or the deep grooves scratched across black leather. In thirty years, Merry had never seen them fall. Of course, Harrow was panicked. Merry was a little panicked too.
But if Harrow had an answer, she did not give it.
“What do you need?” Ember asked as Merry led Harrow into the barn.
Ember held open the door of the stall next to Rusty, Merry’s stout Haflinger. Elli was already inside, brushing him down. Ordinary horses tended not to like ghosts, but Rusty—for all that he was quite mundane—had never been ordinary. He and Elli were as thick as forest fungi.
“I don’t know what has happened to Hallow,” Merry said, checking Harrow for injuries before taking a curry comb to her sweat-slicked coat. She hummed a cooling, soothing charm. “But I have to ride out as soon as Harrow’s ready.”
“Of course we do, dear.” Ember leaned lightly on the stall door. “Just tell me what you need.”
We. Merry smiled. Of course.
“Are you alright riding Rusty with Elli?” Merry asked. That was easy enough. Harrow was a magical hell-beast, but Rusty was somewhat rarer: solid, dependable, and smarter than most horses, magical or otherwise. “There are breeches and leggings—”
“I’m fine.” Ember pulled up the skirt of her dress revealing bat-patterned leggings.
“First-aid kit’s in Rusty’s saddlebags.” She kept one hand on Harrow’s neck, giving her a nudge now and again so that she didn’t drink too much too fast. “We need water. I need a change of clothes…”
But she didn’t. Her hair was soaking wet, but her new cloak had protected her long, divided skirt and ruffled blouse from the weather. A practical spell from a practical hearth witch.
“Thank you, Momma.”
Ember smiled. “You’ve always liked to run about in the rain.”
Merry laughed softly; even with its trembling edge, the sound seemed to warm Harrow. The mare pressed her shoulder against Merry’s, and Merry took her own comfort in the familiar sounds of Rusty and Elli preparing for what they clearly saw as a grand Halloween adventure. She wished she shared their optimism. Merry didn’t want to think of what could possibly have separated knight from Night Mare.
Twenty short, but endless minutes later, Merry secured her favorite weeding sickle to Harrow’s saddle. She had never used it as a weapon, but she was comfortable with swinging it with intent if she had to.
“We have no idea where we’re going,” she admitted to the rest of Hallow’s rescue party. “So Harrow is going to have to lead us.”
It wasn’t usually a good idea to give Harrow her head, but now that she was cool, if not entirely collected, she had been staring west, eyes bright as coals.
“Would you be still?” Merry muttered. Harrow’s saddle was mended, the tangles brushed from her long mane and tail, but she danced in place beside the mounting block Merry definitely needed. Merry was a foot shorter than Hallow, and Harrow was at least as much taller than Rusty and rail-thin besides. Perfect for a lithesome Skin-and-Bones, less so for Merry. “You came to me, remember? Do not toss me.”
Harrow managed to look utterly offended. As if she would never. As if she hadn’t twice before. Behind them, Rusty gave a disdainful snort. He mostly tolerated Harrow’s theatrics.
“How are we doing?” Merry asked, as much of herself as the others.
She kept her hands light on the reins, spine tall as she found her seat, trying to keep Harrow at a slow walk. Harrow’s gait was jagged as they crossed the yard, all sharp bones and wild movements and exhilarating speed. When Merry and Hallow rode together, Harrow’s longer strides had a habit of leaving Merry and Rusty behind.
“As right as snow on Christmas morning,” Ember replied, comfortable in Rusty’s wide saddle, burgundy skirt draped prettily over his sides.
Rusty, who enjoyed nothing so much as a leisurely ramble, trotted gamely behind and to one side of Harrow. Even in the weak sunlight, his red coat gleamed like autumn leaves, shading to flaxen gold down his legs, his mane and tail that same pale shimmer. Behind Ember, Elli was more ghost than girl, one hand clutching Ember’s arm while the rest of her floated—balloon-like—in the air above Rusty’s broad rump.
Harrow side-stepped, snorting anxiously at the sight, but Rusty remained unperturbed.
“Easy,” Merry soothed even as she entreated, “I can’t help you find Hallow if you dump me on my head.”
Merry’s Attempted Murder—the trio of crows who lived with Crane—called out in rough, echoing gladness, taking flight to join the party as they rode by. Merry mentally braced for another wild dance from Harrow, but the Night Mare held fast.
“Good girl,” Merry praised as they stepped into the forest. “There’s a basket of candy apples waiting for you back at home.”
The Dreadful Wood was old-growth hardwoods gnarled with age and ancient, misshapen conifers. Here, most of the trees still had their leaves, crimson, saffron, and ocher. It made for weak sunlight, cool, moist air seething along the forest floor, tendrils of mist coiling out like ghostly tentacles. In the canopy above shadows loomed—owls, wild cats, the occasional devil-eyed goat—silence soft but filled with bright blinking eyes.
There was no warning, no coo or hoot, just the hair-raising hunting cry of a Screech Owl. Merry startled, her legs too tight against the mare’s sides. Harrow shivered, but she didn’t balk, even as the wind rose and the forest chorus began the dreadful moaning for which the Wood was known.
Elli, who never could pass on a chance to make things creepier, began to sing an old Halloween song.
“There was an old woman all skin and bones, ooo-ooo-wahooo.”
Harrow fidgeted with her bit. Fog rolled from the Night Mare’s wide nostrils, her hooves barely touching the ground as she danced along. Merry sank her heels down, reminded herself to relax.
“She lived down by the old graveyard, ooo-ooo-wahooo”
Harrow’s whinny was surprisingly cheerful and the crows cawed when Elli lifted her head to “oooo” at the sky. Merry could almost pretend they were on yesterday’s tree-seeking ramble. Ember’s smile was no less indulgent than Rusty’s sigh. He swished his tail lazily at Harrow as he drew near, not quite herding the other horse onto the Whistling Hedges. Harrow tossed her head in indignation as he trotted by in unsubtle goad.
“One night, she thought she’d take a walk,” Elli sang, and Harrow settled, putting aside her theatrics in order to catch up with Rusty.
The road was lined with ancient beech trees and lower than the forest floor, years of travel carving the path deep into the earth. Roots tangled the banks beside them, branches laced above them, a net holding back the sunlight. It was like walking through a tunnel of long, knotty limbs, something eerie and alien, almost of another world.
“Ooooo, oooo, wahooooo,” Merry said, thankful for her warm cloak.
The bower path was a delicious shiver on the best of mornings. Merry was determined that today would not be the worst. They had to find Hallow. They would find Hallow. She repeated the mantra as the shadowed path stretched, the road narrowing. Harrow’s hooves slipped as if on ice, but Rusty plodded steadily along. Merry, who was more Rusty than Harrow, lifted her chin and plodded—mentally if not physically—forward.
“And there you are!” A voice like thunder shook the ground beneath them. “You daft murderous bastard!”
Trees and hearts trembled, and the wind rose with a scream. What had been a narrow, icy path was suddenly warm and wide enough to split in two. At the center of the fork a yellow elm rustled and swayed, leaves bright in a sharp slant of autumn sunlight. The crows cackled and cawed, swooping forward to perch upon a low branch.
Merry’s heart skipped a beat, in wonder and in delicious dread. “And there you are.”
Hallow—fiercest denizen of the realm, fey horror, and Halloween Knight—stood armorless beneath the elm, stooped like a crone and leaning on their war scythe like a crutch.
“Here I am,” Hallow drawled.
They made their way slowly to Harrow’s side, bones clicking and grinding—and not with their usual graveyard song. Soaked to their corpse-grey skin, their plague doctor robes clung to their lean form, dragging the ground behind them. Their eye sockets, wide and empty and filling with blue flame, never left their mercurial stead.
“I’d be madder,” they added, “if you hadn’t gone straight to Merry.”
Hallow’s flickering stare warmed to gold on Merry’s name. Harrow snorted, tossed her head so that her thick mane snapped in the wind, but beneath Merry the Night Mare was quiet, obviously as relieved as the rest of them to see that Hallow was alright.
Well, mostly alright.
“How badly are you hurt?” Merry started to dismount, but Hallow stopped her, one skeletal hand coming to rest lightly upon her calf.
“Nice cloak,” they said, with a harrowing smile at Ember. “Your doing, Mrs. Claus?”
Ember smiled. “For her birthday.”
“I’ve half a mind to give her a horse,” Hallow said dryly.
Harrow squealed in over-acted pique. The exchange—so familiar it might have been a favorite song—eased the last of the worry around Merry’s heart.
“Did she tell you what she did?” Hallow was always specter pale, but there was a green tinge around their square jaw. Their hand was still on Merry’s calf, not quite steady against heavy velvet.
Merry wasn’t quite steady either. Which was ridiculous now that Hallow was safe.
“No.” She shook her head, scattered those moth-wing musings before they could land in her belly. “But it looks like she finally tossed you on your bony butt.”
Merry grinned. She had been tossed on her plump behind more than once and Hallow had always made sure she was alright before teasing her mercilessly. The only reason she kept trying to ride Harrow at all was because Hallow had worried there would be a day she would need to. A day like today.
“She spooked!” Hallow declared.
Rusty nickered, a soft hello, and they turned, treat already in their other hand. Rusty—like Hallow—had a fondness for mealworms, and Hallow always carried extra.
“We rode out to Sleepy Hollow,” Hallow huffed, glaring at Harrow with eyes that were suddenly a terrifying void. “You know…like we always do on Halloween morning. To get the flame from Irving.”
Irving was the Headless Horseman. His flaming head held the fire Hallow carried every year to light the lantern atop Pumpkin Tower.
“And this…great…bumbling! decides after a hundred years that she doesn’t like the Headless Horseman.”
Hallow’s voice took on the nagging singsong of tattling children. Their fingers drummed along on Merry’s leg. Why was their hand still on her leg? And why, after decades of perfectly affectionate friendship, was she suddenly not able to think about anything else?
“She’s afraid of the Headless Horseman,” Hallow continued, “of the clip-clop of her little hooves over Irving’s bridge.” They huffed, as loud as either of the horses and a fair impression of Harrow at that. “She may as well be a mundane spooking at plastic bags!”
Rusty’s grunt drew Hallow to an immediate and apologetic halt. Merry hid a grin.
“I’m sorry, old chap.” They fished another mealworm from their tattered robe, all the while glaring at Harrow. “I know that you would never dump me ass over tea kettle into the River Styx.”
Oh, this was just too much. Merry covered her mouth to keep from laughing. “How hurt are you?”
“Broke my tibia in two places,” Hallow grumbled. “It doesn’t hurt,” they hastily assured a gasping Ember. “Perk of my people. But I can’t ride this brute until I heal.”
Harrow tossed her head and glared down her nose, insulted.
“Oh, shut up,” Hallow said. “You pick today of all days to go through your midlife crisis and look where you’ve landed us.”
It seemed that holiday calamities were the order of the day.
“You can ride Rusty,” Merry offered. It wouldn’t take much to set Hallow’s leg; they could even ride side-saddle if they needed to.
“Thank you, Claws.” Hallow finally moved their hand from Merry’s leg, turning to give Rusty their full attention, and scratching lightly at his ears. “I have no doubt Rusty would make a magnificent Halloween Charger.”
Rusty preened; Harrow’s back legs bunched and Merry snapped the reins smartly before the Night Mare could kick out at Rusty.
“That is enough, ma’am,” Merry snapped with a crack of exasperated authority. “Your ill-temper has caused quite enough mess.”
The Wood shivered and Harrow dropped her head.
“Harrow would never forgive us.” Hallow grinned up at Merry, lips thin, teeth sharp, eyes lit like a lantern. “The two of you could make the ride.”
They were a madcap cavalcade as they made their way through the Dreadful Wood to Mourning Manor—horses and riders and following crows. Half-ruined and wholly haunted, Hallow’s gothic mansion perched at the top of Deadman’s Drop. It required a pleasant march through the realm’s largest and oldest graveyard, Restless Vale, followed by a heart-plummeting climb. Ember and Elli walked along beside Rusty, atop whom Hallow cut a comfortable if rather ridiculous figure, long legs hanging nearly to Rusty’s knees.
Merry and Harrow pranced too far ahead of them, Harrow’s longer strides and fidgety energy carrying them to and fro along the windswept path. Merry would have dismounted and walked along with the others, but the truth was she needed time alone to think. Hallow had apparently cracked their skull when Harrow tossed them; Merry had half a mind to tell them so.
The Halloween Knight was more than Hallow, though Hallow had filled the role beautifully for a hundred years. But the mantle itself belonged to no one and was more important even than the Halloween Town royalty. The Halloween Knight was the embodiment of…well of Halloween Night!
For as long as Merry had known them, Hallow and Harrow had ridden as skeletal horrors, Hallow’s armor and robes emphasizing their gaunt features, Harrow’s void-black coat the perfect canvas for a glowing white outline of the bones beneath. From a distance, the Night Mare looked like a skeleton in truth, and when she and Hallow flew a wild hunt joined them, ghostly and ghastly warriors and riders streaking across the sky in their wake. It was thrilling! Terrifying!
Certainly not a hearth witch in pumpkin orange cloak, no matter how spectacular.
“You’re scowl-ing,” Elli sang.
Harrow didn’t spook at the ghost’s sudden appearance in the air beside them, but then, Merry jumped enough for them both. She patted her on the neck in thanks.
“I’m thinking,” Merry corrected, pushing back the hood of her cloak. The wind shrieked by, blowing her hair from her face.
“You’re thinking Hallow should ask someone else,” Elli said.
“I’m a Claus.” Merry swept one arm out and down to encompass the picture she knew that she and Harrow cut, no matter how fetching her new cloak looked draped over Harrow’s black coat. One of the crows took her extended arm as an invitation and swooped in, landing on her forearm. “I am not Halloween Knight material.”
Brandon purred at her and Merry leaned in so he could rub against her cheek. “I mean, really,” she continued, “I’m a cartoon princess who bakes a lot and is far too attached to her autumn aesthetic.”
“You’re The Claws,” Elli returned.
Hallow called ahead, “With a sickle hanging from her saddle.”
“Your saddle!” Merry exclaimed. Harrow, bless her, gave a half rear in exasperated camaraderie. “And it’s a gardening tool!”
“That she was gonna lop heads off with,” Elli volunteered helpfully.
“Only if I had to.” Merry cast a desperate glance back at her mother.
Ember was doing a terrible job of hiding her smile despite very pointedly enjoying the scenery. She gave a quiet click to Rusty and the three of them jogged gently forward.
“Merry.” Hallow started to reach across the small distance between their horses, but seemed to think better of it. “You are no cartoon princess. You command wolves. You raise ghosts.”
Elli floated between them, her attempt at a cajoling smile more frightening than any of her usual glowering. “Her best friend is a Skin-and-Bones.”
“Your best friend is a Skin-and-Bones,” Hallow echoed softly.
Harrow slowed to a creeping walk, more for Ember’s sake than Rusty’s, Merry thought. Merry stared down at Hallow, mouth agape. “I have a calico cat and a Labrador Retriever!”
Surely they could see how ridiculous they were being.
“You also have a black cat named Morpheus,” Hallow retorted. “And there is, at this very moment, a crow on your shoulder, dutifully ignoring the very pretty spider in your hair.”
“Oh!” Merry said, reaching up to move Arachne to the other side of her head. In all the fuss she hadn’t realized the young widow had tagged along on their rescue mission. “Brandon, don’t you dare.”
The crow chirruped agreeably.
“The same cobweb hair,” Harrow added, “that a fell wind was kind enough to push out of your face only a moment ago.”
Merry’s stare was gimlet; they absolutely had a head injury.
Hallow smirked. “If you don’t want to make the ride, or you don’t think you can, that’s fine, but if you think you’re not worthy, well…”
“It’s not about being worthy.” Merry tossed her head in a very Harrow-like manner. She had put those doubts out of her head years ago. “It’s about having the right qualifications.”
“You braved a Night Mare’s fear and fury,” Hallow continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “And have won her completely.”
“I have not,” Merry protested, patting the neck of the Night Mare in question. “She and I simply came to an understanding so that we could find you.”
“Merry.” Hallow’s voice was a low rumble of thunder, the promise of a perfect stormy evening curled up by the fire. “I know you. Trust me when I say you’re perfect.”
Perfect was not a word to throw around lightly. Merry stared past them into the deep shadow of the wood. Thirty years. Three decades, they had been friends, best friends, but nothing more than friends. Now, for no reason she could fathom, there was something new—something more—in Hallow’s witchfire eyes.
“I am not,” Merry said.
“For m—” Hallow cut off abruptly, started again. “For this you are.”
Merry couldn’t take it. She cued Harrow for a canter and put a sudden and impolite distance between them and the others.
Elli was not so easily left behind; she rode a curl of leaf-filled wind. “Merry?”
“I’m thinking,” Merry said, as if the entire disconcerting exchange with Hallow had not rattled her utterly, “that Hallow might have a head injury.”
She dared a look back to where Ember and Hallow were deep in conversation. Rusty, whose brown eyes had often held answers to Merry’s problems over the years, was listening intently, one ear lolling back.
Elli snickered. “You know Skin-and-Bones don’t have to worry about those fragile flesh poppet bodies of yours.” She managed not to sound too superior; Merry managed not to feel too offended on behalf of her—not-at-all-fragile-thank-you-very-much—flesh poppet body. “We don’t have brains to get concussed.”
“Brains?” asked George, caretaker for Restless Vale and zombie, as he held open the cemetery gate. The wrought iron was ancient and imposing, spiked finials curved backward to keep in the unquiet dead. He asked again, more hopefully, “BRAINS?”
It began to rain then, a slow, sorrowful fall. Merry drew Harrow to a halt, allowing the others to precede them into the rolling grey acres of not-so-abandoned graves. It rained every day in the Vale, the melancholy ambiance yielding only to frightful, star-bright nights filled with hags and hauntings.
“Next Thursday,” Merry promised George; they had tea twice a month. “Four o’clock.”
Hallow met her gaze through the gloom, flames burning hearth-warm, and Merry’s heart went again to fluttering. She might as well give George her brain now for all the sense it was making.
“Four….O….Clock…” George groaned in agreement, closing the gate behind them with a long, shrill creak.
The graveyard was quiet. Halloween was one of the few days it was empty. Even George would join the festivities in town closer to evening. They made their way between crumbling mausoleums and leaning tombstones, vases filled with dead or dying flowers, graves covered in toadstools and lovely rot. Restless Vale bore the air of a place forgotten, but it was in fact one of the busiest haunts in the realm. George and his crew worked very hard to make it look abandoned, but that was no simple task when more people lived in the graves and mausoleums than in the entire adjacent town.
“Almost there, Mrs. Claus.” Rusty had come to stop at the foot of the Savage Ascent, the trail that led up, up, up to Mourning Manor. “Though I think we’ll all fare a bit better if you ride with me for this last little bit.”
While Merry watched, eyes wide as moons, Hallow swung Ember up behind them with one arm. Merry—who couldn’t help but grin at her mother’s girlish giggle—refused to appreciate that inhuman strength any more than she usually did. There may have been a gothic manor waiting for them atop the mountain, but that did not make her some damsel swooning over smoldering glances, innocuous hand touches, or feats of gallantry.
“Hold on to me,” Hallow said to Ember, giving Merry a cheeky wink as Ember wrapped her arms around them. “Can’t have anything happening to you.” They patted Ember’s hands, surreptitiously holding tight as Rusty began the climb. “And not just because Mr. Claus would leave switches in my stocking.”
The same mysterious distance magic existed here as beneath the Dark Hedges. The trail was dreadfully unpredictable unless Hallow or Harrow was present. Slate grey and sheer, ringing in storm clouds and perpetual lightning, the only creatures who dared the howling summit were the bats in Hallow’s belfry and the vampires in the basement.
Harrow, who seemed to have decided that the climb home warranted a little pomp and circumstance, shoved past Rusty, head high, hooves prancing, tail flagging out behind her. Elli clung to the end of Merry’s cloak, riding the wind currents and cackling like a wicked witch.
“Bastard,” Hallow muttered affectionately. “Elli, that cackle is coming along nicely!”
Elli cackled again.
Bastard or not, thanks to Harrow, the climb up was short and sweetly uneventful. At least in front, Merry didn’t have to watch Hallow charm the striped socks off of Ember or dote upon her stalwart pony, or any other thing that they had been doing for years now without sending her heart to pounding. She should have been worrying about tonight. About riding Harrow across the sky, for Jack’s sake. Instead, she was…what? Wondering if her best friend was flirting with her?
“Oh, thank the North Star,” Merry said as they clattered into Mourning Manor’s courtyard.
Harrow went immediately to the fountain in the center, plunging her nose into cold, clear water beneath the shadow of a—surprisingly lifelike, according to Harrow—statue of the demon lord Mephistopheles. Merry’s crows lit upon his black marble shoulders, picking ants and aphids from splotches of grey-green moss on his wings.
Merry had a single moment of relief and then Rusty trotted in after them, ears pert, gait easy even carrying two. Ember’s blue eyes were winter-sky bright, her cheeks rosy.
“You look like you’re having way too much fun,” Merry said.
“Does old bones good to keep moving.” Ember laughed prettily, sliding down from Rusty’s back. She straightened her dress, stared up at the manor house in fascination. “Your father is going to be so disappointed to have missed this.”
“You’re both welcome anytime,” Hallow said, and Merry knew that this Christmas, they would find their hearth filled with goodies. Her parents had only been waiting for an invitation after all.
“Just beware the hounds,” Merry warned.
As if in answer, a deep bark echoed from the house, part alert, part warning, and then a chorus of terrifying, joyful yips filled the afternoon shadows. Hallow’s hellhounds swarmed out the manor’s creaking, sagging doors, racing out to surround them.
“Oh, look at you hideous beasties!” Ember exclaimed, hands held out, palms up, undeterred by their fierce forms and brimstone stench.
“Merry.” Hallow was—suddenly, so suddenly!—beside Harrow, close enough for Merry to touch.
Merry covered her uncharacteristic gasp with a frown. “Hallow.”
But she couldn’t meet their gaze. Instead, Merry made the long drop from Harrow’s high back, not realizing until she landed in the brimstone cloud of a dozen hounds that Hallow had been holding out one long, bony hand.
She had no idea what she was apologizing for, but the hellhounds didn’t give her time to catch her breath, let alone figure out how Hallow had stolen it. They swarmed forward, a writhe of leathery hides and scaly heads, spiny chins begging for scritches.
“Wait,” Merry laughed. “Let me get my legs under me.”
She bounced on the balls of her feet and the pack bounced with her, tails whipping back and forth. Harrow exhaled, a great, rattling, long-suffering sigh, and then headed for the stable, Elli floating along behind her.
“Elli and I will see to the horses,” Ember called, leading Rusty after them.
Which left Merry alone with Hallow. If Merry suddenly devoted more attention to the hounds than her injured friend, well, she couldn’t be faulted, could she? It had been a few weeks since she’d seen the hounds, and Hallow was fine. They were fine.
“You’re cross with me,” Hallow said. They didn’t sound so much concerned as amused.
Merry rubbed Layla’s batwing ears. “I had no idea what had happened to you!” she hissed, turning her face so that her cheek took the brunt of an exuberant, hellfire lick. “Harrow scared me half to death, storming into my hayfield. To say nothing of the ride! Now, you want me to ride in your place tonight! And—!”
And surely that was why she had moths in her stomach, standing next to her best friend of thirty years.
“And?” Hallow’s voice was full of laughter, rich as grave-soil. They caught the edge of Merry’s bright cloak, tugged her away from the hellhounds’ adoration, close enough to…
Well, Merry wasn’t going to think about how close they were standing.
“And,” Merry huffed, glaring toward the house. “I’m clearly losing my mind because…” she took a deep breath. May as well get it out there so they could deal with it. She finished in a rush, “I would swear you’ve been flirting with me today.”
Hallow’s eyes brightened. “Merry Claws.” They reached up, brushed one knuckle to a wisp of her hair; they were laughing in earnest now. “I have been flirting with you for the past two decades.”
Then, while Merry gaped like a starving ghoul, Hallow turned and crutched to the house.
“You what?! How—?” Merry and the hounds raced after them; even with a broken leg, the jerk was faster than she was. “I never noticed!”
“You never wanted to notice.” Hallow waited beneath an artfully sagging portico on a cracked and crumbling stoop. They gestured Merry inside when she caught up, then followed, hounds and crows at shoulder and heel. “And I was so happy with things as they were that I never felt the need to make you notice. Question is, why are you realizing it now?”
Merry didn’t know, and if Hallow wanted an answer, then they were going to have to wait for her to catch up.
“We don’t have time for this.” Merry nodded across the grand foyer to the ominous tick-tock of a towering grandfather clock. Twilight was fast approaching. Whatever they were going to do, they needed to do it. Merry didn’t know what preparations were required. If there was a ritual involved or—
“We have plenty of time.” Hallow crossed the uneven stone floor to the door of the coat closet tucked beneath the main staircase. “But only if you’re certain.”
And she knew that they were talking about more than the Halloween ride.
“I’m certain that you’re too stubborn to call someone else,” she retorted.
Layla’s whine was plaintive.
“Not true, Merry Claws.” Hallow idly stroked Layla’s head. “I’d never manipulate you so.”
Which she knew. Of course, she knew. Merry sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s nothing.” They opened the closet door wide. “Just a wardrobe change.”
Merry found herself staring into her own mirror-dark eyes.
“If you’re worried about being…appropriate enough, know that the mantle is quite particular.”
“And if it doesn’t approve?” Merry asked.
Hallow grinned. “Then we’ll let Elli and Harrow make the ride and have the most curmudgeonly Halloween of all time.”
Merry snickered. All the treats would be healthy, homeowners would feel an overwhelming need to yell at the kids on their lawns, and everyone, absolutely everyone, would be at home abed by nine.
“We can’t have that,” she said.
“No.” Hallow’s gaze found hers in the low light of the coat closet. “We can’t have that.”
Merry closed her eyes. “Just a wardrobe change you said.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hallow gently nudged the hood of Merry’s cloak back. “And it starts with something shiny. I know how much you love shiny things.”
Brandon cooed and Merry opened her eyes to see Hallow holding a large, heavy necklace, a brutish abstract all moon-bright silver and gleaming amethyst, holy black onyx and orange carnelian.
“Oh…” Merry sighed, no less dazzled than Brandon. “Why didn’t you just lead with the fact that I get to wear amazing jewelry?”
Hallow snorted. “Your hair, Claws.”
Merry, who was every bit as enchanted by shiny baubles as any crow or raccoon, lifted her hair from her neck. Hallow stepped behind her, and a chill danced up Merry’s spine.
“Do you know the difference,” Hallow asked, “between a mirror and a looking glass?”
Merry swallowed hard. “One is for seeing. The other for searching.”
But Merry didn’t know what she was searching for. It had been a long time since she doubted herself. She was happy on the edge of the Dreadful Wood with her friends and family—both found and given—and her cozy home filled with creatures and comforts.
Though she had to admit, she was curious about what her armor would be.
“Ready?” Hallow asked.
As she could be. Merry nodded.
They draped the heavy collar around her neck, fingers a rasp against her collar. Merry had a single moment to wish that she had worn a different blouse, one with a lower neckline so that she might feel the cool magic of metal and stone against her skin.
Then the lights went out.
But the closet had vanished and Hallow with it. Brandon and the hounds too for that matter. Merry stood alone, neither here nor there, as Halloween night closed around her, unearthly and deathly silent. Waiting.
Was this when the mantle appraised her? But even as she had the thought, Merry knew it was wrong. It was not the spirit of Halloween to judge, only to welcome.
And she was being welcomed now. Warmth spread to her chest from the lovely weight of the necklace, and a breeze ruffled her cloak, candy-scented and forest-tinged, countless whispering wonders echoing beneath scares and shrieks and children’s laughter, all but begging for Halloween adventure. Ride with us.
“I would be honored,” Merry said.
“Well, that’s very good to hear,” Hallow teased. “Seeing as how you’re holding the Halloween lantern.”
Merry opened her eyes. The closet was dim, but as ordinary as anything ever was here. Hallow was still a cool presence behind her. She found their gaze in the dark surface of the mirror, blinked.
“A lantern?” She didn’t remember picking it up, but there it was in her hand, a simple black iron frame with heavy glass panes.
“How else are you going to carry Irving’s flame to the tower?”
“I assumed the lantern was the ordinary part.” Merry frowned at their reflections. “I…I thought… you said I’d get a wardrobe change.”
She turned this way and that, but she couldn’t see any changes. Same cobweb hair and scrying mirror eyes. Same split skirt and ruffled shirt. Same witchy boots and magnificent magic cloak. As pretty as the necklace was, it wasn’t Hallow’s armor or Harrow’s skeletal visage.
“The mantle isn’t a transformation,” Hallow said. “It’s a costume. Isn’t that part of what makes Halloween so grand?”
“Yes,” said Merry a trifle impatiently, “but I didn’t get one.”
Was it selfish to be so disappointed? She had rather hoped for something at least as dramatic or terrifying as Hallow. It was Halloween after all! Was she really going to make such an epic ride dressed as…herself?
“For some, Halloween is a chance to be someone else, someone we would never even want to be. Maybe we like the aesthetic.” They twirled their war-scythe, set one end down, and did a limping, but still graceful spin around it, robe billowing ominously. “Maybe we just like to shock and horrify. But for others, it’s a chance to be the person they wish they could be.”
“I am who I wish to be,” Merry said.
“Then celebrate it.” Their hands came to rest on Merry’s shoulders. “It isn’t always enough to be comfortable in your own skin, Merry. Though when you’re born not being so, that is a victory in itself. But every now and then, we should revel. When better than Halloween?”
There was no time better. And really, no costume better than her new cloak and her favorite boots, her purple skirt, and vampire-bait blouse. Was there any mantle better than Arachne’s beautifully tangled web?
“You’re right.” Merry reached up, placed her hands over Hallow’s with a smile.
Full of fangs.
“I knew it,” said Hallow, with a wide, wondering grin.
“What in the—?!” Merry’s voice was a roar, a hiss, a shriek, the inexorable horror of every dark forest creature. She clapped one hand over her mouth, nearly sliced open her hand on a sharp white fang. “Knew what?” The words were a muffled croak.
Hallow squeezed her hands, no her claws—razor-sharp and poison-tipped—and in the mirror, Merry caught a predator’s glint reflected behind the smooth, dark surface of her eyes.
“How terrifying you are.”
Merry raised a skeptical brow.
“Merry, you command wolves,” they said for the second time in so many hours. “You consort with crows and ghosts, frogs and bats. You have a wolf at your back door, a black cat in your kitchen, a black snake in your garden, and a black widow, even now, building another web in your hair.”
So they’d noticed that too.
“You’re a monster, Merry Claws.” Hallow turned Merry gently to face them, cupped her cheek with one hand cold hand. They captured one of Merry’s claws with the other and drew it to their chest. “A terrible, delightful Halloween monster and there is not a single denizen of this realm who isn’t better for you being here. How can you not see the creatures you stir?”
Beneath her palm came a solid, echoing thud. Merry stared up at Hallow, fang-filled mouth agape.
“It only beats once or twice a year,” they said, “but when it does, it’s because of you.”
“Hallow…” Their name was a low growl, but Merry had no idea what else to say.
Hallow spared her the trying. “And I cannot wait to see what Harrow looks like for you.”
They dragged her back outside, a tap-tap of the war-scythe crutch, a horrible grinding of leg bones that really did need setting. Harrow stood in the center of the courtyard looking exactly as she always did for Hallow, white bones glowing fiercely.
But before Merry could voice her concern, Harrow—arrogant, snarky, over-dramatic Harrow—sank into a low, graceful bow. And held it.
“Mount up, Claws,” Ellie called cheerfully.
“We’ll see Hallow back to the house for Midnight Munches,” Ember said, folding Merry into a tight hug. “You look just lovely, dear.”
“Thank you, momma.”
“Have a wondrous ride,” Ember said, as she did each year to Olwen.
Hallow handed Merry up onto Harrow’s back and Harrow rose slowly, neck arched and proud. She gave a single sharp squeal and a pair of wings burst from her sides, feathers crow-black and raven-bright.
“I knew it,” said Hallow again, so smugly that Merry couldn’t decide if she should kick them or kiss them. Though why when she had never wanted kisses before was a conundrum for another time.
“Of course you did,” she replied, one hand wrapped in Harrow’s thick mane. She stared down at Hallow, a hundred thoughts swarming. Finally, she squeaked, “Twenty years?”
“I’m a Skin-and-Bones.” Hallow smirked. “We aren’t exactly driven by the desperate biology of the mortal. When we want children, we bury our heart ribs in the backyard and dig one up the next spring. Nothing has to change except that you know I love you.”
“I already knew you loved me,” Merry griped. “You’re my best friend.”
“And you’re mine.” But there was a different shade in that last word, for all its possession it promised a greater sharing. A new adventure yet waiting.
“I can’t believe you picked today,” Merry huffed. “We’re officially one of those trite Halloween couples.”
She had no idea which of them had reached for the other, only that their fingers were now laced together, tight as bone lattice.
“You picked today,” Hallow corrected. “If I’d known all it would take was a fall off of my bastard Night Mare, I’m sure Harrow could have arranged it years ago.”
Harrow whinnied in agreement. Merry squeezed Hallow’s hand once before she let go. “No one asked you,” she told the Night Mare, shaking her head in exasperation. “It’s my birthday.”
“I know.” Hallow’s smile was a lantern-bright rictus. “And it wasn’t the plan, but I’m trying very hard to give you Halloween.”
Halloween was not entirely Hallow’s to give, but they weren’t the only one determined in the gifting. The sky filled with dark wings, bats, owls, crows, so thick as to blot out the sun. Hallow’s own Wild Hunt joined them, shapes yet misty in the waning light of day, as Deadman’s Drop came suddenly alive with creatures—the creeping, the crawling, the climbing, the falling. The hellhounds lifted their muzzles in a howling song. From the graveyard far below, there came the great shuddering crack of a hundred mausoleum doors.
“There was a wild woman, all tooth and claws,” Elli sang.
And the wind moaned, low over the mountain, “Oooooo, ooo, wahooo.”
“Is that certainty enough for you?” Hallow asked, lips a gentle, knowing quirk.
Harrow nickered impatiently and Merry, who could’ve argued with Hallow, but certainly not every Halloween creature, settled more fully onto the Night Mare’s back.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll see you at home?”
“Let my mother set that leg.”
Harrow’s wings beat twice, first with feathers, then with the wind-catching snap of a bat’s fine membranes. They lifted off in a screech of forest fury, night birds and harbingers screaming, crickets chirping, wolves and hellhounds a sonorous chorus. Brandon left Merry’s shoulder, soaring with his siblings beside her as the moon rose, full and golden, in the steel-grey twilight.
“Happy Halloween!” Merry cried with a jolly laugh.
They flew first over Merry’s house, gathering a wake of flying, skulking, scuttling, slithering things to further fill forest and sky.
“Happy Halloween!” Crane called from the pumpkin patch.
The scarecrow broke free of her moorings, burlap face twisting into a grim, terrifying mask, and just like that it was night, deep and violet and fright-filled. Merry and Harrow turned toward Halloween Town and a murmuration of starling rose from the field below, an undulating cloud thick enough to blot out the moon.
Merry shivered as they flew over the Dreadful Wood, where shrieks and screams and laughter danced, mist rising, fog rolling toward the unsuspecting town.
“Happy Halloween,” Merry called down in a voice as dark, as unknowable as the forest’s heart.
Below, in the happily haunted streets, the tidings echoed. Happy Halloween! Happy Halloween!
The night wind roared as Merry’s creatures swept into town. Familiar wishes turned to exclamations of surprise and cheerful terror, and then there was only laughter and welcome. Joyous welcome.
Claws! It’s Claws! It’s Merry Claws!
Merry’s breath caught in her chest, a bright, delicious sting and she raised the lantern high for all to see.
“To the tower!”
Her voice was the night, filled with a cacophony of creatures, great and small. Harrow streaked toward Pumpkin Tower, a dark meteor trailed by dreadful beasts and a wondrous joy, the whole town following. The bone stairs shivered and creaked, the tower groaned, filled near to bursting with monsters and mayhem, and Merry Claus, hearth witch and forest horror, lit the great waiting head of Jack O’Lantern I.