I've never liked it here.
That thought entered the girl's mind every time she'd walk through the front doors to her suburban home, or when she'd stroll into a grocery store, or arrive at school. All the outfits, lightly colored and flattering, along with the bright florescent lighting—and those teachers, who, just like her parents, spent their lives under the impression that they're undoubtedly doing the right thing while they indoctrinate younger minds with their misguided teachings and beliefs. In truth, there was nothing right about this world. In a country that so heavily approves of war, where the wealthy treat the ninety-nine percent like a slave race, and where bullies run rampant in the schools the way predators roam the wild—how could anyone have the nerve to call it right? Teachers allowed the bullies to target her, and the bullies never faced any consequences for it. It was the same at home. Her teachers and her parents simply didn't care.
Alison's hand skimmed over a plastic black crow on the shelf. She stood in the seasonal section of the store, where Halloween decorations were dominating at least three of the isles. The fake feathers on the fake crow were incredibly soft to the touch, and as she gazed into one of the false red eyes of the creature, she found herself wishing that it would come to life in her grasp.
It was seven in the evening, and Alison had just stormed out of her house after having yet another fight with her mother. Her father had returned home during the spat, but he hadn't expressed any interest in the ordeal. He merely walked passed them and entered the living room, paying his family no mind, as usual.
The Halloween decorations made her feel oddly at home. Alison wondered why she'd always been drawn to the crows, the pumpkins, the dangling corpses in hoods, and the glow-in-the-dark skeletons that always seemed to be smiling when she'd look at them. This wasn't the first time she had absconded from her home. But every time she ran from her family, she wished more and more that she wouldn't have to return to her house. Alison hated her family; her mother was a screaming, cursing lunatic that yelled at everyone around her, while her father was a selfish adulterer that didn't care about his family at all. It was sickening, seeing her prim-and-proper family acting the part of the friendly neighbor or the selfless humanitarian whenever they'd be out in public, but behind closed doors in their overpriced house, they were both monsters. The two of them were just like everyone else, smiling and accepting on the outside, but made of nothing but darkness beneath the shell.
I wish they'd disappear, Alison thought bitterly. I wish they'd all just go away.
When she stared into one of the reflective serial killer masks, she was vaguely able to make out a distorted reflection of her face. Her short black hair barely reached the top of her neck, and her brown eyes were big, shiny, and tired—too tired for a sixteen year old girl like herself.
Maybe that was why nobody seemed to respect her as a human being. Alison was certainly nothing special to look at; she was just a pale girl with dark hair and dark eyes, who always seemed to be hiding inside of a gigantic hoodie, never talking to anyone and never smiling. Of course nobody looked at her twice. Why would they?
These false black crows were better than her family, her teachers, or her peers at school. They wore their darkness on the outside. They didn't have anything to hide at all. They, at least, were honest—and they weren't even real living creatures.
Alison wasn't sure how long she stood around and stared at all the different decorations before leaving the store. By the time she stepped outside, night had fallen, but she wasn't about to head home yet.
Alison wandered away from the shopping center and stepped into the grass, approaching the forest and not looking back. There was no telling where she was headed, but it didn't matter, as long as it took her further from her house.
After a while, her eyes adjusted to the darkness, and she marched onto a secluded railroad and followed it for about ten minutes, aiming her steps at the old wooden planks as she did. Thnk, thnk, thnk.
A tunnel came into view.
The tunnel ran underneath a mountain, but it didn't have any lights like the tunnels meant for cars did. It was an endless void of blackness. Alison became drawn towards it.
She vanished into the shadows, allowing the pitch black tunnel to engulf her completely.
Alison followed the tunnel curiously. For some reason, Alison wanted to see where this tunnel led and what was on the other side. She walked for nearly half an hour before she began to second guess her decision. Her toes would smash into the wooden planks because she wasn't able to see her own footsteps anymore.
"Excuse me." A voice spoke out, making Alison freeze mid step. "Hello? Who's there?"
Alison stood in the center of the railroad as stiff as a tree, her hands curling shut and her heart beginning to pound. She gazed into the darkness, but of course, she wasn't able to see anyone.
"Hello?" The voice called again. "Is someone there?"
It was a soft, kind voice, one Alison had never heard before.
Should I respond? Alison thought. Maybe it's a hobo... or a lunatic...
Gulping, Alison took a step backwards.
"Ouch!" The voice cried when her shoe flattened on top of something solid.
Alison jumped and scrambled away. What just happened? Did I just step on someone? Is someone laying on the railroad?
That didn't make sense. It felt as though she'd stepped on something very hard, like a rock or a stick. Whatever it was, it certainly didn't feel like a body part.
"Oh my, I think that was my funny bone." The voice echoed from seemingly nowhere. "Could you pick it up for me? I'd put myself back together, but I can't see very well in here."
Alison blinked. I couldn't have heard that right...
"If I'm not mistaken, I think I'm right at your feet." The voice said. "My head, I mean. Could you grab me, please? I'll have to put myself back together like a puzzle, and I'll need some help..."
"Um..." Alison knelt and groped around in the darkness until her hands made contact with a round, hard object. She lifted the skull and held it very close to her face, narrowing her eyes at it and trying to see it clearly.
"Hello there." The skull said kindly.
Alison's heart skipped a beat. This can't be real.
"Um... hi." She replied blankly.
"Oh wow, you're someone new!" The skull exclaimed. "I've never met anyone new before. Oh my... you must have come from the other world! Oh, how exciting! Oh, yes—I was venturing in the tunnel, and I think I may have traveled a little too far. A train came and hit me, broke all my bones apart and scattered them everywhere. I'm sorry to burden you like this, but can you help me find them?"
"Sure." Alison agreed. I must be dreaming.
After a moment of patting her hand around on the gravel, Alison wrapped her fingers around what felt like a spine. She picked it up and caressed it, realizing that it still had the ribs and a few other bones attached, so she placed the skull on the top of the spinal cord. There was a flash of sparkling red light at the connection; the skull and the spine latched onto each other like magnets. Alison was so startled that she nearly dropped the incomplete skeleton.
"Very good!" The skeleton said.
Alison managed to find the arms and the legs shortly afterwards. They all connected to the skeleton the same way, with a searing red light and a sudden magnetic pull. Soon, the entire skeleton was put together.
"Thanks a lot!" The skeleton said gratefully, standing upright and opening and closing its bony fingers. "Oh, that feels much better. Now, I think I should introduce myself properly. My name is Steven. It's very nice to meet you."
Steven the skeleton extended his fleshless hand.
Alison grasped it and returned the handshake. I can't believe this...
"My name's Alison."
"Oh, that's a wonderful name." Steven said. "Oh, my.... now I understand..."
His hand lightly grazed her cheek, and he stared into her face very intently.
"You have beautiful red eyes." He told her. "You're one of them, aren't you?"
"One of who?" Alison asked in bewilderment. "My eyes are brown, not red."
"Oh no, your eyes are a deep crimson. They're quite beautiful, too. They're practically glowing in this darkness." Steven said. "My, I can hardly believe my luck. I've run into one of them out here. You're one of the humans from the other world... and not just any human. You're one of the humans infected with the light of our world. You must be, if you're capable of crossing from one world to the other. Not to mention those red eyes."
"What're you talking about?" Alison questioned, trying to hide her rising anxiousness.
"Come with me, and I'll show you." Steven replied. "That is... if you really want to know."
Steve took Alison by the hand and led her further into the darkness.
They walked in silence for a little while.
"Where are we going?" Alison finally asked. "Won't the tunnel just... lead to the other side of the mountain?"
"Oh, most certainly." Steve replied. "The mountain is a junction point between your world and mine. It's the bridge... or tunnel... between the two worlds. You see, everyone in my world is gifted with the light. But humans in your world are almost completely void of it."
"Yes. The light is our power. It is our life force. It’s what keeps a skinny bag of bones like me sentient and mobile. We, that is to say, me and my family on the other side, we are mostly dependent on the light in order to survive. But humans on the other side—from what I’ve heard, that is—have progressed without it. They have been mostly absent of the light for many years, and their spirituality has been replaced by... other things. Automobiles, and cell phones, and... other things.”
"So, only people who have the light can travel from one side to the other?" Alison asked. "Does that mean that I have it?"
"Oh yes." Steven responded. "Your eyes are a fiercer red than anyone I've ever seen. It's quite exciting to think I'm bringing a guest home, too. I never thought I'd actually... you know... run into one of you in the tunnel. I'd always hoped, though."
The skeleton spoke with a voice that sounded almost giddy.
Alison empathized with him. I never thought I'd find a real life Halloween creature, either.
The light at the end of the tunnel came into view about five minutes later.
It was night time, but the darkness didn't look anywhere near as dark or bleak as Alison's regular nights did; the sky shone a vibrant blueish-purple, the stars illuminating the sky and the moon hovering overhead like a massive, ominous beacon. The moon looked much bigger than Alison had ever seen it. The sky was still dark, but somehow, it was glowing...
"This is my home." Steven said proudly, grasping her hand a little more tightly. "Welcome."
"This looks like a movie..." Alison muttered, marveling at the new world before her.
It was truly a sight to behold.
"Come on!" Steven said cheerfully as he pulled her onward.
They both walked until they reached what appeared to be a ranch, but in this world, it looked more like a haunted house. It had a barn and a few chicken pens, as well as acres of land that held a variety of dark animals.
"Stevey!" The voice of an old woman entered the scene. "Where have you been, eh?"
The woman was short, stout, and a little pudgy. Her long dark hair lie frayed and unkempt over the sides of her face, while a roughly knitted hat sat on top of the mangy hairdo and tried to keep it in tact. Upon closer inspection, Alison was able to see that the old hat had a round rim and a flopped-over point, almost like a handmade witch's hat. The woman's clothing was just as rough; it was very crudely stitched, and, for all Alison knew, this woman could have found numerous articles of discarded clothing and sewn them all together to manifest her current garment.
The woman ran around the corner of the large black building and approached the skeleton, her wrinkled face forming into a smile.
"Mother, I've brought a guest home." Steven told the woman. "Her name is Alison."
"I see... and you brought her from the tunnel, eh?" The woman glanced off towards the mountain where the tunnel resided. "Oh lord have mercy, deary. You brought home a human from the other side, you know that? You have any idea how big of a deal that is? You bone headed dingus!"
The woman hammered her fist on Steven's bare skull a few times. Her knuckles made a few hollow knocking noises when they made contact with his head.
"Ouch—mother—please stop!" Steven backed away. "She had already crossed the border when I found her! Well, actually, I guess it'd be more appropriate to say that she found me."
"What on earth are you jabbering about?" The woman squawked. "Well, come on, bring her inside. I won't have any hungry guests passing through my neck of the woods. Not today, no sir. Alison, is it? What on earth are you wearing? Come inside, my dear. I've got something much better for you to wear. You won't fit in around here dressed like that."
Alison and Steven followed the woman without speaking. Alison wasn't sure what to make of the old woman, but she still hadn't wrapped her mind around the fact that she’d entered an entirely new world, either. Nothing would surprise her right now.
"My name's Mahilda, deary." The old woman told Alison. "You can call me Mahilda, or Mamaw, or Mom. Whatever you like."
"Yes, ma'am." Alison replied.
"Except that. Don't call me ma'am." Mahilda retorted. "Call me anything but Ma'am. I hate ma'am."
When they approached the front door of the black ranch, two more figures came into view. Alison blinked several times as she stared at them, wondering if her eyes were playing tricks on her.
"Maaaaw!" One of the strangers—the biggest, burliest, and hairiest man Alison had ever seen—growled at Mahilda from yards away. "Garth ain't lettin' me eat my dinner! I'm hungry! I ain't fed all day!"
"Table manners apply to everyone in the family, including you, you mongrel." The second figure, a tall, slim individual in a long black overcoat, replied to the hairy man. "We don't start dinner until everyone is at the table. Mother's own rules."
"That's easy for you to say!" The hairy man snapped. "You can get by just sipping on blood in a wine glass—but I need meat! I'm wastin' away over here! Come on!"
"Shut up, you miserable idiots." Mahilda ordered them both. "It doesn't matter, because everyone is home now. Come on, inside, all of you. We have a guest tonight. Her name is Alison. Treat her with respect, make her feel at home, so on and so forth..."
"Yes, mother." The tall stranger said.
"Yeah, yeah, suck up all you want." The hairy person snarled. "You're a momma's boy, Garth. You sicken me, y'know that? You're disgusting. You're like a grown man in diapers."
"The opinion of a mongrel hardly fazes me, Raddince." The tall person replied. "You heard our mother. Go inside."
Mahilda opened the door to their home, allowing the light from inside to reach out onto the front porch. Alison squinted at the two strangers named Garth and Raddince; Garth was a lanky, sleek man with stringy black hairs that reached the top of his neck. He had a beautiful face with shimmering red eyes, and the collar of his outfit stuck up so high it was nearly level with his cheekbones. The inside of the cloak was a deep crimson red, while the rest of it was as black as a shadow. The second stranger, Raddince, was not quite as human as Alison had first guessed; he had fur all over, and a normal pair of jeans with a button-up shirt that covered much of his dog-like body. His face harbored an elongated snout, and his head carried two pointy ears. His hands didn't look like hands at all; they were paws with fully functional fingers and very large claws attached.
Alison took in a deep, nervous breath.
A vampire and a werewolf, she thought. Garth is a vampire, and Raddince is a werewolf. Oh man, this day can't get any weirder...
Stepping into the home reminded Alison of why she loved Halloween stores so very much; the large home had numerous Halloween decorations strewn about: glowing pumpkin lights, false animal statues standing near the door, portraits of witches, ghosts, and goblins (which were not actually decorative, they were pictures of Mahilda's distant family members), as well as many other things. This was probably how their home looked on a regular basis. This entire world seemed to have a Halloween theme, so it made sense that their home did as well.
"Welcome to our humble abode." Raddince the werewolf said, thumping her on the back with one of his gigantic paws and nearly knocking the wind out of her. When Alison met his gaze, she realized that Raddince had a pair of large, golden eyes, which probably would have terrified anyone else. "What's yer name? Alison?"
"Alrighty, Alison, welcome." Raddince's lips curled in a way that made Alison think he was attempting to smile, but really, he was just flashing his fangs at her. "You a friend of Steve's, or...?"
"Yes, she's my guest." Steven appeared by her side and shooed Raddince's hand away. "Paws off, if you please. Mother is about to serve dinner."
"You really think I'd eat some random innocent girl?!" Raddince exclaimed. "You ain't got no faith in me! You sorry bag of bones! Jus' go sit at the table so I can eat already!"
"A girl, you say..." Garth hunched over and examined Alison very closely. "A very beautiful girl. Oh, and what stunning red eyes you have..."
"No, no, no." Steven placed one of his index fingers on Garth's forehead and gently pushed him backwards. "Come now. Can't I just bring a friend home without you two oggling her like she's prey?"
"Since when do you have friends?" Garth asked.
"Enough talking! Food time!" Raddince declared, just before wrapping one of his massive hands around Steven's spine and forcefully escorting him into the hallway. Alison and the family then entered the largest room of the house; Mahilda's dining room. The food on the table was comparable to a Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a freshly cooked turkey in the center of it all. It smelled delicious.
"Hold on, hold on!" Mahilda cried. "Everyone sit down—except you, deary, come'ere. I've got something that'll look great on you. You walk around in those old rags, and some hungry werewolf might mistake you for a hobo. The criminals always eat the hobos. They know they'll get away with eating someone who doesn't have a family to notice they're gone."
Alison allowed Mahilda to drag her further down the hallway and into her bedroom. The room almost looked like an antique shop featuring exclusively Halloween items.
The thought of hungry werewolves roaming the streets and eating people sent a shiver down her back. How likely was it that she'd be eaten by someone in this world?
"Here you go, dear." Mahilda slapped a long, black gown over her head. "Go and get changed in the bathroom and meet us at the dinner table. Everybody around here knows what my outfits look like. Nobody'll lay a finger on you if they know you're one of mine."
Alison did as she was told. It took her a few minutes to find the bathroom—which, like the rest of the place, was filled with Halloween decor. Once her old clothes were removed, Alison examined her new outfit in the mirror. It wasn't as crude as Mahilda's apparel, and the black gown covered her knees and part of her shins, so it wasn't very revealing. That was a good thing. This outfit had a simple charm to it. It made her feel much lighter than before.
Steven waved for her to sit beside him when she returned to the dining room. Raddince had already devoured half of the turkey and the rest of the family was scrambling to claim some of the meat before it would all vanish. Garth sipped on a glass filled with red liquid. Alison couldn't tell if it was blood or wine.
"Here you are." Steven slid a plate over to her. "I thought I would make you a plate before my brother ate everything in sight. Mother is a fantastic cook. You'll love it, I'm sure."
"Thank you." Alison said gratefully before taking her first bite of turkey. "Oh man, this is yummy!"
The shadow underneath Alison's seat began to shift and distort. Alison, who became lost in her meal, didn't notice it until the shadow began to climb her leg. A wave of cold air crept up her thigh, making her jump and scoot back in alarm.
In her lap sat a tiny ball of darkness, a shadow with two tiny red eyes that peered up at her innocently. Alison's hands were raised, her mouth drooping and her eyes wide.
"Oh, that's Shadow." Steven told her. "Don't worry. He's our pet. He's harmless."
Shadow let out a squeak, then took the form of a little black bat and flew into the air, fluttering its wings over the table and hovering around everyone as they ate. Alison was stunned, and Steven chuckled.
"He's a shape shifter." Steven said. "He loves being a bat. Bats are his favorite."
Shadow grew tired of flying very quickly. He hit the floor and morphed into a black cat, then hopped back onto Alison's lap and curled into a ball.
"He seems to like you." Steven told her.
Dinner didn't last much longer. This family ate rather quickly, and while Alison proceeded to clean her plate, Garth gave her a few thorough stares from across the table, and Mahilda was quick to scold the vampire for it. Steven was the only one who wasn't eating. Alison figured it wouldn't make much sense for a skeleton to eat. Steven didn't have a stomach, after all. Where would the food go?
"Was it good?" Steven asked her.
"Oh yeah. It was awesome." Alison replied. "My mom doesn’t cook. My family and I never sit at the table together like this. This is really nice."
"I'm glad." Steven said. "When you're finished, come with me, and I'll show you where to sleep. That is, if you're staying tonight. I thought you might not want to walk all the way back to your world now. It's a little late."
"Sure, I can spend the night here." Alison grinned. I might never go back home. I love this place.
"You're free to stay as long as you like, so long as you don't mind doing a few chores." Mahilda said. "That's my rule. Everybody's family, but everybody pitches in."
"Definitely." Alison agreed.
"Come." Steven stood and led her out of the dining room. "You can stay in my room. I think I'll sleep in the barn tonight. I've been neglecting the animals, you see. I think they miss me."
Shadow pranced at Alison's feet and followed her up the creaky stairs. Steven motioned to the furthest room to the left, the one overlooking the farmland behind the building. Steven's bed sat beside a huge window, and the view was magnificent.
"You're not..." Alison muttered. "I mean..."
"You're not gonna sleep inside tonight?"
"Oh, you can have my bed. I don't mind."
"No, I mean..."
Alison sighed. It was difficult trying to convey her thoughts to him. Raddince and Garth seemed nice enough, but Alison couldn't shake the feeling that she might get eaten by one of them if Steven were to leave her alone in the house. After all, she hardly knew either of them.
Steven cocked his head at her. "You're worried about my brothers."
Alison swallowed. "Y-yeah. Kinda."
"Rest assured, they're very timid souls. They can't help what they are any more than I can." Steven said. "You needn't worry about them. Mahilda looks after them because they're kind souls who need guidance. I suspect that's why she adopted all of us. Trust me. No harm will come to you here. Now... good night, Alison. Sleep well."
Steven gave her a wave and exited the room.
Alison tried to make herself comfy in Steven's small bed, the scent of it oddly calming. The silence engulfing the room became very apparent after Steven was no longer in her company, though she was able to hear Garth and Raddince bickering with each other downstairs...
This is a real family, Alison thought with a smirk. This is how a real family should be. Family dinners, funny little fights, and a parent who takes care of everyone...
About an hour went by, and Alison still wasn't able to rest. She found Steven's confined room cozy rather than suffocating, but for some reason, she simply couldn’t sleep.
Feeling as restless as ever, Alison rose from the bed and tip-toed down the wooden stairs as quietly as she could. She slipped out the front door of Mahilda's home, walked around the large building, and stepped over the fence around back. Alison wanted to get a closer look at the mysterious farm animals.
One of the bulls trotted towards her.
The animals didn't appear dark because of the night; all of them had black fur and red eyes. When the bull came dangerously close to Alison's face, it attempted to sniff every inch of her face.
Alison's heart skipped a beat.
She raised her hand to pet the animal, though when she did, many small strings of glowing red light followed each of her fingers through the air. Alison studied her hand, then began to move it back and forth very slowly, feeling the red energy as it emitted from her fingertips.
The bull watched the light with great captivation.
"Restless evening?" Steven asked, climbing over the fence and strolling towards her. "Yes, I couldn’t sleep either. They won't hurt you. The animals are all very docile. They won't hurt anyone who doesn't hurt them first."
"This is the light." Alison attempted to control the power in her hand, strengthening the red light, then retracting it. "This is the light, right?"
"Oh yes. You have a lot of it." Steven responded. "Be careful. I'm guessing you've never had to control it before. If you let it get away from you, it could become rather destructive."
"I'll be careful." Alison said. "Are the animals attracted to the light?"
"No. The animals all carry light, just like we do." Steven answered. "The animals are just attracted to you. They like you. They don't care much for Raddince, though... but I suspect that's because Raddince has those predatory instincts, you know. None of the animals want to be eaten by a werewolf."
Alison let the light escape her hand a third time, gazing into it in a trancelike way. If she, Alison, held destructive power in her hands, then perhaps she could go home and pay her family a visit, maybe enact some justice, or take her new power to school and show it to her old bullies...
No, Alison fumbled in her mind. I can't really be thinking about hurting them, can I? I mean, it's not like they don't deserve it, but...
"Something on your mind?" Steven asked.
"No, nothing important." Alison replied. "I'm glad you have a family here, Steven. I like your family."
"Oh, so do I. I mean, Garth and Raddince can be a bit... rough... sometimes. But they're my brothers, and I love them." Steven said. "We try our best for our mother. After her daughters left her, we try to be good children for her."
"Mahilda had daughters?" Alison wondered.
"Yes. You see, many witches and warlocks believe themselves to be superior to the other people and creatures in our world because they are skilled at channeling their light and using it as magic. They are disciplined, certainly, but they aren't superior. They view the rest of us as lesser beings. That's why Mahilda's three daughters left her. They didn't approve of Mahilda adopting so many of us."
"Indeed, it is. Mahilda's daughters actually live nearby, and we have to deal with a lot of flak from them. They live in the mansion across the field. We usually avoid that area, otherwise those girls will start trouble with us."
"Why don't you guys just fight them off?" Alison questioned.
"It's a difficult situation." Steven said exasperatedly. "They're Mahilda's daughters. We don't want to hurt them. It'd make Mahilda unhappy if we did."
Alison made a troubled face, weaving her fingers through the air and drawing the light from her soul for a fourth time. Steven observed her.
"It takes discipline." He said. "I can teach you."
"Oh yes. Watch this."
Steven held up a bony hand, and he too began to channel the red light. His light appeared much more stationary, much more controlled, than hers did.
"I've been a skeleton for as long as I can remember." He said, flipping his hand backwards and forming a ball of red hot energy in his palm. "When my body died, and the skin and organs began to decompose, my soul decided to stick around. It's one with the skeleton of my former self. The light is our soul, Alison. It's as strong as we will it to be."
Alison tried to mimic what Steven did.
They remained outside for hours practicing how to use the light, laughing, joking, and firing off loose sparks of energy on occasion. They both lost track of time completely.
Alison got to bed around midnight.
It was strange; she only slept for about five hours, and when she awoke in the morning, she didn't feel tired at all. Alison could feel the light flowing through her like a spreading wildfire. Perhaps it was giving her extra energy, and it meant that she wouldn't need as much sleep as usual. She sat upright in Steven's bed when a far off howling noise snapped her out of her slumber. Raddince was behind the ranch outside, making yowling and snarling noises at the cows and scaring them all away from him.
The daylight of this world shone differently than what Alison was used to. Rather than a bright blue sky with white clouds, the sky of this world had an ominous blue-and-grey glow, as well as numerous storm clouds that Alison guessed were always there during the day. This Halloween world simply wouldn't look right without storm clouds.
"Fried snake drizzled with a little cow blood." Mahilda said when Alison arrived in the kitchen, handing her a plate of what looked like a bloody sausage. "It's good for you, dear. A regular breakfast in this household. It's Raddince's favorite."
Alison ate the peculiar food quickly. It tasted much better than she thought it would. After finishing her meal, she placed the plate in the sink and walked outside. The smell of an oncoming rainstorm slithered up her nostrils as she took in a deep, hefty inhale.
Steven stood elegantly at the end of the picket fence in the front yard, drawing thin red lines in the air with his fingers. Last night, the two of them had spent a lot of time practicing with their powers, and it seemed that Steven still hadn't grown tired of it. The skeleton created a few crimson designs midair for Alison to see. The bright red pattern that followed his fingers could have been a work of art. It was beautiful.
A flash of lightning occurred in the clouds, followed by a low rumbling thunder. Steven used both hands now, stringing together shimmering lines of energy in a gorgeous way, while the red-eyed crows at his feet all ascended into the air and flew away from the ranch. They were similar the fake crows from the store from Alison’s world—the black birds with red eyes—but here, they were as real and alive as ever.
"I don't want to go home." Alison blurted. "I want to stay here."
Steven let his light fade and lowered his arms by his sides.
"That's a very big decision to make." He said. "Don't you have a family back in your world?"
"Sort of. But they don't really care about me, and I don't care about them, either." Alison replied. "Being around them makes me angry all the time. I feel happier here. And with this new power, I... I don't know if I wanna be around people who make me upset. I might do something I regret."
"I understand." Steven said.
There was a small silence.
Alison stared at him. "Is it alright if I choose to stay? Is it... allowed?"
"Allowed?" Steven repeated in a high voice. "Everyone here is human, Alison, just like you are. I mean, we're all different variants... ordinary humans often become witches or warlocks and discipline their power, while the rest of us come into being with less than natural circumstances... but we're all human. I, for example, am a dead human, while people like Garth and Raddince are humans infected with a condition that changes them slightly. But my point is, we don’t shun ordinary humans here. You're as welcome here as I am."
"Really?" Alison asked, trying to hide her hopefulness. "So, if I wanted to stay... I'd be allowed to stay?"
"Well, yes." Steven answered. His jaw moved in a way that looked like a grin. "Yes, you're certainly allowed to stay. I'd love it if you did."
"RAAAAWR!" A booming voice exploded from behind Alison, making her jump so hard she nearly fell over.
"Bwahahahaha!" Raddince laughed. The werewolf walked oafishly through the grass and approached the two of them. "Did I scare yah? Did I? Bwahahaha! I use that voice when I'm herding the cows! They're all scared of me! Yahahahahah!"
"Now, was that really necessary?" Steven sighed. "You can't be finished herding the cows already, Raddince. Go and finish your job, and leave Alison alone."
"Or what, bone bag?" Raddince leaned in close to Steven and bared his fangs. "You gonna tell mommy on me? I wasn't hurting anybody. I was just havin' some fun!"
"You terrorizing my friend isn't fun in my book." Steven said.
"I'm not terrorizin' her!" Raddince moaned. "I was just playin' around!"
"I have an idea." Garth's voice chimed in.
The vampire glided out the front door with his black overcoat flowing along behind him. He traded eyes with all of them.
"Listen, little brother." Garth said to Steven. "If you want to get rid of a mongrel, you play the mongrel's game. Like... for instance... fetch."
Then, Garth yanked one of Steven's ribs off of his body and tossed it with all his might into the field. Raddince galloped into the grass as quickly as his gigantic paws would carry him in pursuit of the flying bone. The wolf man sniffed around frantically in an attempt to locate the rib.
"He has the attention span of a rodent." Garth muttered.
"I'm going to need my rib back..." Steven said glumly.
"Now, little brother." Garth slid two of his slender fingers into Steven's rib cage and lifted him off of the ground quite effortlessly. "What do you need your ribs for? You haven't any organs to protect. You're the plaything of a mongrel, and I rather enjoy using you as such."
"That's... I..." Steven said, his legs dangling a foot above the dirt. "I'd just... like to have... all my parts... is all."
"Yes, yes." Garth exhaled and placed Steven back on the ground. "My, I've grown bored of you even more quickly than usual today. I suppose watching that idiot stumble around in the dirt has me fairly entertained."
Everyone's attention shifted to Raddince, who was still pawing at different sections of the grass in search of Steven's missing bone.
"Well then, I'm off to work. Farewell." Garth said, winking at Alison. "I'll see you at dusk, beautiful."
Then, something miraculous happened. Garth's overcoat engulfed his entire body; he shrunk down to the size of a small animal, his tiny wings carrying him into the air and away from Mahilda's home.
"Whoa..." Alison marveled. "Vampires really can turn into bats?"
"Oh, yes." Steven responded. "He takes that form when he goes to work in the mornings. He's the town's mailman. He says it saves him time to fly to half of his destinations, although I'm not sure where he keeps the mail when he's in that form..."
"Did that hurt?" Alison asked. "Your rib..."
"Not really." Steven shrugged. "I mean, it's hard to tell. Some days I feel pain, others I don't. It's very strange. I may be overextending my judgment on this, but I don't think my nervous system works very well anymore."
Shadow emerged from the front yard and coiled up Alison's leg. The pet was now in the shape of a cobra. It was startling to see a deadly snake crawling up her leg before she remembered that the creature was actually harmless.
"Oh! I nearly forgot, I'm supposed to gather pumpkins from the pumpkin patch today." Steve said, smacking his skull. "Mother's going to make pumpkin pie tonight. Want to accompany me to the pumpkin patch?"
"Sure." Alison agreed happily.
They trekked off together down the dirt road.
"There it is." Steven pointed off to the right, where a long field extended for acres. The enormous patch of land looked like a vast ocean of pumpkins. "Let's go. Oh, and don't mind their attitude. They act rude to everyone."
Alison, thinking she'd heard him wrong, marched down the hill beside the skeleton and entered the pumpkin patch. They both dodged vines and rocks until they were close enough to the pumpkins to see their creatively carven faces; all of the pumpkins were jack-o-lanterns with numerous different expressions etched onto them.
Shadow reached Alison's shoulder and turned into a bat once more. He perched himself on Alison and remained still as she walked.
"Oi!" One of the larger pumpkins shouted. "Here to take more of us to the slaughterhouse, are yeh?"
Many of the pumpkins moaned and heckled in protest.
Alison froze. Am I living in a cartoon? How can all the pumpkins be alive?
"What're you doing here, dusty bones?" A small pumpkin yelped at Steven with a shrill voice. "You don't even have a stomach! Whaddoya' want pumpkins for?!"
"Quiet, you." Steven chuckled. "You silly things are grown to feed people. You know that."
"So we're all meant for the slaughterhouse? That's all we live for? Then what's the point in living!" A fat pumpkin complained. "Get off my property, skinny boy! Don't you dare touch my family!"
Steven paid the angry pumpkins no mind. When he realized that Alison was no longer following him deeper into the pumpkin patch, he stopped.
"It's only a spell." He assured her. "Mother and the other witches enjoy casting spells on the jack-o-lanterns to give them more personality. They like giving the pumpkins alter egos that match whatever facial expression is carven onto them. They aren't actually alive, I promise."
Still, Alison remained completely silent while Steven picked out two ripe pumpkins. He carried them back to Mahilda's ranch and placed them on the kitchen table, then departed the house and returned to Alison's side.
"What's the matter?" Steven asked her. "You look like you've never seen a talking pumpkin before."
Alison let out a breathless laugh.
"Well, I've done what Mother's asked of me. Hmmm..." Steven placed his back against the fence and slid down into a sitting position on the dirt. "I'm actually lacking in chores today. Is there anything you'd like to do, Alison? For fun?"
Alison sat beside him and channeled a small amount of power into her palm. The red light sparkled and flickered in her grasp, heating the skin of her hand more and more the longer she held it in place.
"This never gets old." Alison gazed into the energy with rapt engrossment. "It's probably nothing to you. It's normal for you guys. But I never imagined that I'd have... power... like this."
"Oh, it's everything to me!" Steven said. "You're right, it really doesn't get old. Garth and Raddince don't see the point in practicing with their power. They're both fairly spirited, but they hardly use their gift. Of course, I suppose they don't need the light as much as I do. One of them is a shape-shifting blood drinker, and the other is a terrifying werewolf. They can defend themselves just fine without the light. They don't need the light as much as I do. That's why I practice so often. I want to be as good as I can be."
"Can everyone use the light like this?" Alison questioned. "Can all of you use it like power?"
"It is the manifestation of our souls. But it answers to our call if only we have the will to call it forth. And it's ideal to have discipline to back it up, otherwise it could become a disaster." Steven told her. "Some people are more spirited than others, and they carry more light than everyone else. Those who harbor a great light have a lot of drive, a lot of motivation. They have something in the core of their hearts that they strive for, and whatever it is, it keeps them burning like fire. And for you, Alison, I can't help but wonder..."
Steven's skull turned towards her. His empty sockets gazed into her crimson eyes.
"What drives you so fiercely?" He asked with deep interest. "You have such light in you, so very much of it. You act so composed, but there's a raging fire beneath that exterior. It's quite compelling."
"Really?" Alison hugged her knees and rested her chin on her legs. "I don't really know what's driving me."
"Hmmm." Steven's finger bones tapped his jaw. "For my family members, it's obvious. What drives them is... each other. You see, Mahilda is a very powerful witch, but you wouldn't know it by looking at her. She lives a very peaceful lifestyle because what drives her most is to look after her family. And... despite the way Garth and Raddince act sometimes... they feel the same way, and so do I."
Shadow made a chirping noise from Alison's shoulder.
"Yes, yes. I couldn't forget you." Steven patted Shadow lightly on the head. "I know, Shadow. I know you love your family too."
"But... you told me that you've been a skeleton as long as you can remember." Alison said. "That means your old self must have died a long time before you met Mahilda and the others. The light held your soul onto your body before you met your family. Something else must have been driving you back then."
Steven nodded. He went quiet for a moment, appearing to be in thought.
"I can hardly remember..." He murmured softly. "I remember... rain. It was a rainy evening. I don't remember why I was dying, but I remember feeling... incomplete... as if I wasn't finished with the world. As if I wasn't satisfied with the life I'd had. And so, I... I held on. I held on with all my strength, and the light bound me to my bones."
"Why did you feel that way?" Alison asked him.
"I was lonely." Steven replied without much thought. "I remember feeling lonely. I was dying alone... and I felt as though I had lived alone... as though I'd wasted my entire life by myself, with no family, and with no friends... that's why... that's why I didn't want to die... that's why the light kept me alive..."
"Because you were lonely?" Alison said.
Steven faced her again.
"No... and yes." He responded. "I stayed alive because I wanted... more than anything else, I wanted... I wanted..."
"Friends." Alison finished for him. "You wanted friends and family. You wanted people to be close to. Right?"
"I... I suppose so." Steven agreed. "Yes, that's... that sounds exactly right. Goodness, how is it that you're better at deciphering myself than I am?"
"I don't know. I guess I want the same thing." Alison said honestly. "Back home, my family never really felt like a family, and I never had friends in school. I felt the same way you did."
Alison and Steven both looked up.
Raddince hopped up from the tall grass across the road, holding Steven's severed rib in between his many jagged teeth. The werewolf thumped over to them and dropped the bone at Steven's feet.
Without warning, Raddince slid his large flat tongue across Alison's cheek, leaving a thick trail of saliva up the left side of her face. The wolf man wagged his fluffy tale and trotted proudly into the house without saying another word.
"I... want to be your friend." Alison said as she used her new gown to wipe the spit from her cheek. "I want to be all of your friends. I think that's all I've ever wanted. You guys are like a dream come true."
"I'm honored." Steven said genuinely.
Alison picked up the rib and pressed it into the section of his rib cage from where it had been taken. A jolt of red light zapped along the edges of the bone, and the rib reattached itself to Steven's body.
"I'll never get tired of that." Alison grinned. "That's so cool."
"Just know something, Alison." Steven said seriously. "Whatever you choose to do, you'll always be a friend to me. Whether you choose to stay or go, you'll still be my friend."
Alison smiled at him. Nobody had ever been so nice to her before. Steven's kindness was even stranger to her than his lack of skin or organs—but it didn't matter. He, like everyone in this world, was wonderfully, outlandishly different, and they were oddly loving despite their spookiness. This was the sort of family that Alison had always wanted. Alison could only imagine what her relatives and peers back home would say about this world, a world filled with grim Halloween creatures and talking jack-o-lanterns. Everyone in this world would be deemed a monster by those who inhabited Alison's world, even though Alison's world played host to war, famine, disease, and generally dysfunctional families all around. This Halloween world was as dark and creepy as ever—but it was nowhere near as wicked as Alison's world.
"I still haven't decided." Alison said, not entirely truthfully.
She wanted to miss her family, wanted to enter her home to find that her parents had, in fact, missed her and worried about her—but Alison couldn't force herself to miss them. Her family would move on with their lives if she were to disappear. They were empty souls, selfish and broken people with no interest in caring for others or repairing themselves. It seemed that this family--Mahilda, Steven, Garth, Raddince, and Shadow—cared more for her after only knowing her for a day than her real family did throughout her entire life. Returning to her home world was the obvious logical choice, but it wasn't what she wanted to do at all.
Alison faintly heard the sound of Raddince howling at the herds of black cows again. The pumpkins in the pumpkin patch hadn't yet stopped talking, though most of their voices didn't carry all the way over to the ranch. From where Alison and Steven sat, the pumpkin patch sounded like a very far away crowd.
They stayed silent for a little while. Then, Steven stood and led Alison back into the house. Steven began cleaning the kitchen in preparation for dinner, as it was nearing time for Mahilda to cook, and Alison decided to help him. After about an hour, Mahilda moseyed into the room and shouted at both of them to go do something entertaining and not take up all the space in the kitchen doing her job for her...
So, with nothing else to do, Alison and Steven spent the rest of the day on the dirt road playing with magic, drawing lines of energy in the air and even shooting small balls of light into the tall grass, burning the tips of it and causing small explosions of dirt in some places. Shadow squeaked joyfully every time one of them used their light. The lightning crackled the sky and the thunder became louder and louder as the time passed. Amidst the fun, Alison was nearly convinced that she was living in a dream world entirely of her own making. She hoped that she'd never wake up.
"Soup soon!" Mahilda hollered from the front door when Alison decided to fire a burst of energy into the sky. The light erupted into a series of sparks that looked very much like fireworks. "Keep watch for your brother, Stevey!"
"Yes, Mother!" Steven called back from the center of the grass patch. "We will!"
Mahilda shot them both a sly smile before disappearing into her home again.
"Hey, I'm gonna go ask her if she needs help cooking dinner." Alison told Steven. "I think it'd be nice to help her."
"Oh, don't worry about that. She hates it when we try to help her cook." Steven warned.
"But still, I think It'd be polite." Alison said, turning and heading towards the house. "I'll be back soon!"
When Alison stepped into the kitchen, Mahilda was doing many things at once; a pan filled with meat patties sat sizzling on the stove beside a gigantic cauldron, and Mahilda's hands were both occupied with a large spoon and a flipper. She was using one of them to flip the burgers, and using the other to stir the mysterious yellow liquid in the cauldron.
"Do you need help?" Alison asked.
"Nope." Mahilda answered shortly.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
"Go outside and keep Steven company, will you?"
"Listen, you keeping him company is more than enough help, dear. Do you know when the last time was that he brought a friend home? Never. He doesn't bring friends home. Now you go keep him entertained and let me do my job, aw'right?"
Alison nodded and stepped out the front door again, only to see Steven standing still in the road and waiting for her to return to his side. Raddince was having far too much fun herding the animals out back, and Garth hadn't come home from work yet. Strange, how she worried about them getting inside in time for dinner, how she expected to see Garth in bat form descending from the sky at any moment, how she wished that she and Steven could stay awake all hours of the night to play with their powers again...
Despite having only been with them for twenty four hours, Alison somehow felt as if she'd lived with these people all her life. They made her feel right at home.
Something caught her eye.
Across the field of tall grass was a structure that Alison hadn't noticed until now. With the afternoon fading into an evening and the clouds overhead darkening, the gigantic mansion standing at the top of a faraway hill looked all the more menacing. The building, like everything else in this world, seemed like something straight out of a horror movie.
"What's that place?" Alison pointed towards the building.
"That would be Mahilda's daughters' home." Steven responded. "I told you about it last night, remember? The Xanaguard Mansion. That's the place we avoid. We don't go near that property. Mahilda's daughters will never pass up a chance to start trouble with us."
Alison frowned. Even here in this alternate universe, family problems were ever present.
A small black shape floated down behind Steven's head. After a few seconds of wobbling around in the air, the bat morphed into a large wave of black, and Garth's overcoat spread itself open to reveal his human form. The vampire's feet hit the ground, and he stumbled forward a bit.
Something was wrong; Garth didn't walk with his smooth stride now. He wore a pained expression, and the top of his forehead had been cut open, allowing his vampiric blood to trickle down his face. Small sections of his clothing were missing along the parts of his body that had been singed. He had quite a lot of cuts up and down his arms, legs, and torso. The only part of him completely intact was the small handbag on his side that held a collection of envelopes.
"What..." Steven gasped. "What happened?"
"Wicked wenches..." Garth complained, placing his hand on the ground and sitting against the fence. "Our lovely neighbors saw me flying over their home to deliver their mail, so they decided to take turns trying to blast me out of the air with their silly magical incantations."
"They did what?" Steven exclaimed. "How could they..."
"Because they're wenches." Garth grumbled. "I wish Mother wasn't so tolerant of their frankly intolerable behavior..."
"Are you okay?" Alison said as she knelt in front of him.
"Oh, my dear. I feel weak. The only thing that can restore me now is... blood." Garth replied. "Fresh blood, pure blood... perhaps... the blood of a beautiful young girl could heal me."
Steven would have rolled his eyes if he had any.
Alison bit her lip.
Garth had injuries all over. If there was any chance that she could help, she wanted to try.
Slowly, Alison held out her wrist, bracing herself for the pain and waiting for Garth to sink his teeth into her skin.
Garth's charming smile vanished.
"I was only kidding, my dear." He told her. "You... you'd really trust a vampire not to bleed you dry? My, you're something else indeed."
"Mahilda's daughters have gone too far this time." Steven said. "No, I... I can't allow this to happen anymore. This has gone far enough. They can't continue to treat us like this. This is far too much."
"Now listen here, brother. I don't need your sympathy." Garth stared up at the skeleton irritably. "Don't go fretting over nothing. Mother will handle it, I'm sure."
"I'm not so sure that she will." Steven replied. "They never seem to learn their lesson. And now... look at what they've done to you. No, I can't stand for this. Go inside and allow Mother to treat your wounds. I'll be home shortly."
Steven spun a 180 and headed for the tall grass. From the looks of it, he planned to walk straight to the Xanaguard Mansion and confront the witches by himself.
"Wait!" Alison shot upright and followed the skeleton. Shadow sprinted along at her feet as a black cat. "Steven, you can't go there alone. You told me you didn't want to fight them!"
"I'm not going to fight them. I only want to talk." Steven said, storming through the grass without slowing. "You needn't come with me, Alison. You'd be safer back at the ranch."
"I'm not letting you go alone!" Alison protested. "You're crazy!"
Shadow released a timid meow.
Alison glanced over her shoulder at Garth, then turned and continued following Steven through the field. She'd never met Mahilda's three daughters and there was no telling how dangerous they were—but she wasn't about to let Steven face them alone after what they'd done to Garth. If they could hurt a vampire so severely, then what chance did a skeleton have against them?
"Don't you think we should've just told Mahilda?" Alison asked. "Maybe she'd..."
"I love my Mother, don't get me wrong. But she's been hesitant to do anything about her daughters." Steven responded. "It's understandable. They're her children, after all. Mother believes them to simply be misguided in their practices. And I may even agree with that, but it doesn't excuse their actions. They attacked my brother. I can't allow that to slide."
"I won't fight them. I just want to talk to them."
"Yeah, but they..."
"You're very kind to worry, Alison, but everything's under control."
Alison swallowed her doubt and stayed by her friend's side, hoping dearly that he wasn't walking directly into a trap that he wouldn't be able to escape from. Steven had a certain aptitude for diplomacy, but after what the witches did to his brother, Alison doubted very much that they would simply sit and listen to whatever Steven had to say.
Still, Alison wouldn't turn away now. The best she could do was to stay with Steven and give him backup if he'd need it. The power she held wasn't something she had complete control of—honestly, she wasn't sure how the light worked at all—but if things got violent, she'd have to intervene somehow. The light wouldn't go to waste when it was needed. She would see to that.
Her hand opened and closed, the heat of her power tingling her skin like a small electrical current.
I don't know if I can do it, Alison thought anxiously. The reason I wanted to stay here was because I was worried that I'd hurt people with this power if I went back home. But now... now that I'm about to be in danger... I don't want to hurt anyone...
Steven stepped out of the grass and marched up to the long cement stairs which led up to the decorative doors of the mansion. The building, while incredibly old, was very elegant and oddly beautiful. Alison attempted to ignore the nervous pounding of her heart as she trailed behind Steven towards the double doors.
"Hello?" Steven thrashed his fist against the stained glass windows. "Anybody home? I need to talk to you all. Open up, please."
Alison's fingers curled shut and reopened many times. The light warmed her fingers, but she didn't look down to see if she was giving off any visible energy.
"The two youngest sisters are Janet and Carla." Steven whispered. "Both brunets, both fairly gifted. They're twins. But the one who's exceptionally powerful is the oldest sister, Alinda. Alinda is the redhead. Watch out for her if you see her."
Steven knocked on the door again. "Hello? I know you're in there, ladies. My brother just came home with a lot of new injuries after trying to deliver your mail. Alinda, open the door!"
Nobody answered. The mansion remained completely silent.
"Oh, for..." Steven turned the knobs and pushed the doors open. "I'm not leaving until someone answers me. Ladies! Where are you?"
The inside of the mansion was an extensive, wide open area; the room circled around the two of them, and along the walls were a few articles of loose clutter, discarded gowns and boxes that hadn't been touched for years. On either side of the room was a rounded staircase, which both led up to the balcony overlooking the spacious room from the other side. The colorful glass on the windows had turned into a dull swirl of blues and purples due to the years of dust buildup, while the red rug in the center of the place covered the entire floor, apart from the platforms in front of the stairways and the hallway beneath the balcony. Absolutely nothing stirred inside of the mansion. The building was and still and quiet as death.
Steven and Alison sauntered inside and stopped in the center of the room. Steven peered around in search of the witches and Alison merely continued heating and reheating the energy in her palm.
Shadow pitter-pattered in as well and sat on the rug in between Steven's ankle bones.
"Alinda!" The skeleton hollered. "Show yourself!"
I didn't want to go home because I wanted to avoid this, Alison realized. I've always wanted to avoid confrontation. Always wanted to avoid conflict. That's why I was so angry before I came to this world. But now... now, I don't have a choice. Now, things could get heavy, and I have to be ready. Now, I have someone to look after other than myself. There's no room for weakness or hesitation anymore.
"Alinda!" Steven called again, still to no avail.
"Maybe they're not home." Alison said.
"They're always home." Steven replied. "Alinda! Carla! Janet! Show yourselves at once! You hurt my brother and I won't have that! Come out here so we can talk! Certainly you're not afraid of mere words, are you? Haven't you ever talked out your problems before? Must you hide in the shadows like children? I—"
Something clasped over his jaw, cutting him off midsentence.
A thick red fog whirled around Steven like a crimson ghost; the fog solidified in some places, forming what appeared to be a very long and twisted red belt. The magic belt wrapped around the skeleton's jaw, arms, legs, wrists, and ankles, rendering him completely immobile.
"What..." Alison uttered breathlessly. "What the..."
Shadow became a bat and flew away from the fog frantically.
A large, plump figure stepped into the opening from the hallway across the room. The woman cackled to herself, exhaling a wicked laugh and flashing a toothy grin at the people who had invaded her home. Her gown looked identical to Mahilda's, but her hair was much longer and it shone a fierce red. Her head carried a pointy witch's hat and her nails were so long Alison suspected that the woman could claw a person's eyes out if she had a mind to.
"Of all the little pests to come knocking on our door, it had to be the really annoying one." Alinda snickered. "Garth can at least put up a verbal fight, and Raddince is the only one out of you who can actually fight at all—but you? What're you even doing here? Wanna talk out our pwobwems wike good widdle kiddies?"
Alinda made a swift hand motion, and Steven glided across the rug towards her. The witch took hold of the skeleton's rib cage and glared into his face relentlessly.
"I could take you apart and make you into a variety of household objects." The witch sneered. "You could be... a lamp. Or, perhaps a scarecrow. Or maybe your bones would work better as curtain rods."
"Leave him alone." Alison demanded in a powerful voice, one that sounded strange coming out of her. "Let him go. Now."
Alinda let out a few soft giggles. "Or what, little girl? Who are you, anyway? What, you got all chummy with a useless skeleton and now you're convinced that he's something worth fighting for? Ha! He's the same as the rest of Mother's pet abominations. He’s wasted energy!"
Alison's teeth ground together. A steady rage began to build in her; her hand opened once more, this time very slowly, to reveal the sparkling ball of red hot energy she had manifested. She wasn't aware of it, but her eyes had started to glow the same brilliant scarlet color.
"Oooh." Alinda murmured, an impressed grin creeping across her round face. "A sorceress. Or... no... your light is wild. Very uncontrolled. You’re no sorceress. You hold the power, but with no restraint or training, you're only a ticking time bomb waiting for the opportunity to blow. That's quite staggering power, sweetheart, but you'd be very foolish to use it."
The two brunet witches, Janet and Carla, appeared on both sides of the balcony up top. Alison paid no attention to them. The twins were just as plump as their older sister, but they looked far less intimidating than Alinda. They both laughed and cracked jokes about Alison and the skeleton, though Alison barely heard them.
Alinda easefully lifted Steven from the ground and held him like a trophy. With his bones still tied and bound by magic, he couldn't resist her.
"I very much doubt a little girl has the nerve to detonate herself like a bomb." Alinda snarled. "Using that power without any idea how? That would kill every one of us, you dumb little brat."
Alison gave the witch a devilish smirk. "Try me."
I can control it enough. I won't hurt myself or Steven. I can do it.
Alinda lifted Steven a little more, making the skeleton's back face Alison.
"Go on then." Alinda urged. "Blast us away. Just be careful not to hurt your little boyfriend here."
The light sent off a few sparks in Alison's hand. She was growing very agitated very quickly.
I can do this. I can do this.
Alison reared her hand back.
I have to. I have no choice.
The raw energy in her palm began to distort and expand.
But... what if I hurt Steven by accident?
There was a pause. Alison and Alinda stared into one another from across the room.
Then, something unexpected occurred.
Shadow, who had been flying around in the air and twittering madly, soared towards the ground at once. The little shadow doubled in size, then tripled, then quadrupled. When Shadow hit his target—Steven's skull—the creature of darkness engulfed all of the skeleton's bones like a protective shell.
Yes! Good work, Shadow!
At that, Alison released the power.
Alison shot off the energy like a blast from a cannon; she threw it towards the balcony with every ounce of her strength. The structure exploded into a thousand chunks of debris. Alinda released Steven and the skeleton's body flashed a blinding red. Steven succeeded in removing the magic binds with one quick burst of his own energy, and he took several steps backwards rather hurriedly, narrowly dodging the falling debris that had pummeled Alinda into the ground.
"Oh my..." Steven raised his arm and examined it closely. "This is new."
Shadow still covered most of Steven's body. It looked as though Steven was wearing a black robe, which only left his hands, feet, and head exposed.
"You've outdone yourself, Shadow." Steven said. "Alison, are you alright?"
Steven stood in front of Alison and made a round motion with one of his hands, drawing a red shield in the air before him. Carla and Janet took stances and prepared to fight, and Steven was ready to do the same.
Alison channeled a second ball of energy and slung it towards one of the twin witches. Another magnificent explosion took place in the upper left corner of the endless room. Alison couldn't tell if her blow had connected with the witch or not. There was far too much rubble falling from the ceiling now.
Carla, the witch furthest to the right, spun her wrist and yelled out an incantation in a language Alison didn't recognize. A streak of blue light shot towards Steven.
Steven caught the spell with his shield. The light seemed to fuse into the shield just before Steven drew his hand back, thrusted his palm into the shield from behind, and fired off the very same spell that Carla had used against him. The blue light struck the woman in the shin, making her topple over and yelp in pain.
"Whoa." Alison breathed. "You can deflect spells?!"
"With a lot of practice, yes." Steven replied. "I'll teach you some time. Stay behind me now, Alison. I don't think we're quite finished yet."
Janet disappeared in the pile of rubble, and Carla lost all interest in fighting after having her leg burned. But Alinda had all but given up; the redheaded witch jolted her arms outward, making a yellowish wave of power sweep away all the debris that had fallen around or on top of her. The woman's face was scrunched up in anger, her once green eyes now flaring a familiar red, her hairs flying upwards as the energy of her soul began to radiate from every part of her body.
Shadow formed a round shape around Steven's head, which looked very much, to Alison, like a hood. Steven now resembled what Alison knew a grim reaper to look like, and the skeleton kept his shield held high, his free hand upright and carrying a very solid concentration of his light, ready and waiting to fire.
"I only came here to talk." Steven told Alinda calmly. "I don't want trouble."
Alinda released a piercing screech and shoved both of her hands forward. The witch sent a thunderclap of energy across the room, which proceeded to tear up the surface of the rug and pull many floorboards out from beneath it.
Alison almost reacted very impulsively; she placed her hands together and tried to create an unthinkably large ball of energy, but Steven grasped her by the wrist and secured her behind him before she could finish. Once the wave was only feet away from them, Steven expanded his shield into a thick force field. Both of them were blown backwards by the power. Alison's back hit the door frame harshly before she collapsed onto the floor.
Above the doorway was a large, beautiful window, and Alison hadn't noticed it until the entire thing shattered above her. Shards of glass sprinkled down from up top, and Steven, who sat on the floor only a foot away from Alison, looked upwards when he heard the commotion.
Somebody stood in the broken window, leaning on its frame and kicking away what little of the glass remained.
Alinda stared up at the figure angrily.
"Oh, now you've gone and hurt my plaything." Garth said in an eerily monotone voice, glimpsing down at Steven. "I've been waiting for a very long time for you wenches to give me a reason to... well... react to your petty little attacks. It seems the time has finally come. All bets are off, from the looks of your living room. Ladies... shall we dance?"
At hearing Garth's voice, Alison wasn't sure if she ought to be relieved or worried. How well was Garth able to fight against a powerful witch? The vampire was already injured. What chance did he stand against Alinda?
"Brother..." Steven uttered to himself. "Please don't..."
The doors came apart in the claws of the werewolf. Raddince blundered into the mansion after having ripped the doors most of the way off their hinges, baring his fangs and snarling at the witch. The wolf man charged between Steven and Alison, his paws spread out and ready to strike.
"Oh, this is turning into a disaster..." Steven sighed.
Alison's gaze drifted over to the pile of debris.
Somebody's under there, she remembered. I probably seriously hurt someone.
"Stupid mutt." Alinda griped. "Come and get it, boy."
Raddince exhaled a long, reverberating howl, then dropped down onto all fours and dashed towards the witch at top speed.
"Idiot." Garth said. "That's not going to work."
Alinda's arm outstretched, firing off a blast of power and hitting Raddince squarely in his furry chest. The wolf man flew back several yards and flopped out of the doorway, landing on the stairs outside.
Garth descended and landed very smoothly on the floor, his mouth widening and his two long fangs now visible in his smile. He walked in a manner most casual towards Alinda.
"I can only imagine how sweet and tender your blood tastes." Garth said with a strange, dark pleasure in his tone. "Juicy, tasty, sweet, and... salty... by the looks of you. To drink the blood of one's most powerful enemies? There are few things in this world that rival such a pleasing treat."
Alinda shot another powerful blast.
Garth smacked the ball of energy out of the air, making it blow a hole in the floor.
"Come now." The vampire grinned. "Incantations aren't a thing that I regularly waste my time with, but it's not as if I don't know how to play with magic if I have to. What do you take me for?"
Both of Alinda's hands shot forward again. She sent another golden wave of power through the room.
Garth's slender hands came together, and once the wave reached him, he parted the energy and stepped through the wave as if he'd opened a doorway for himself. Steven rapidly drew another force field in order to protect himself and Alison from the attack.
Alinda soon began tossing spells left and right. Many reds, oranges, yellows, and blues whizzed around the room, and Garth continued to dodge and deflect them in such a smooth and effortless way it almost looked like he was dancing.
"Alright—ENOUGH!" The witch bellowed.
Following her scream was a third wave of power—but this one wasn't yellow or gold. The eruption of energy was black; it burst out of the woman from every part of her, making much of the surrounding debris turn to dust and tossing Garth across the room like a rag doll.
Garth flipped midair and landed painfully on his side near Steven's feet. Alison took a step forward, but Steven shoved her back.
"That's quite enough." Steven said. "This ends now."
The reaper's robe that was Shadow seeped into the skeleton. The darkness swirled around within Steven's rib cage and consumed the area where his heart once was many years ago. Then, Steven's bones began to darken, to blacken, the cracks along his ribs, hands, skull, and everywhere else on his body shining a red so bright it might have burnt a hole in a person's eyes if they were to look directly into it. Steven's sockets glowed like two red suns. His light merged with Shadow, his body transformed, and when he held out his arm and opened his hand, an object started to appear as if from nowhere.
It was an elongated, crooked thing, and Alinda didn't recognize the forming object until the blade became visible at the end of it. Steven now held a fully sized scythe.
Alison's heart could have stopped. No way...
"I'm... witnessing the birth of a reaper." Alinda said, trying to mask her astonishment. "My, my. It's always the quiet ones, isn't it?"
"You've crossed a line with my family, and you will pay the ultimate price." Steven said, though when he spoke, it wasn't his voice anymore. Now, it sounded as though he was speaking with several different voices at once, all of them bouncing off the walls of the mansion horribly with every syllable. "I am a bringer of death, an entity of darkness, and now I harbor no hesitation to see that you meet your end. Goodbye, Alinda."
Steven's empty hand raised. It trembled furiously as the skeleton's newfound power emitted from his bony fingertips.
Alinda's jaw hug open.
Alison squinted at the witch. Judging by the expression of terror on Alinda's face, Alison figured that, whatever Steven had become, it was something of astronomical power—something that was feared by even the most powerful individuals of the Halloween world.
"Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the realm of the dead will not stand. When the overwhelming scourge sweeps by, you will be beaten down by it." Steven announced with a raspy, petrifying echo. "It is so for all wicked souls. Prepare yourself for the end."
"Wait!" Alison said, though she doubted Steven heard her.
He's really going to kill her? He wouldn't. Would he?
"Hold it right there, Stevey."
Steven's shaking hand froze. He halted his attack.
Everyone turned to face the door.
Mahilda entered the home, her wrinkled face hardened into a furious expression.
"Put your friggin' hand down, bone head. Reaper or not, nobody disciplines my daughters but me." Mahilda ordered. "Take your brothers and your friend home. Listen to me, boy. Obey your mother."
"Mother. I have become a bringer of death. I can end our troubles once and for all here today." Steven said. His voice still shook with the intensity of many voices, but now, Steven's own voice was audible among them. "It is a reaper's job to determine who should live, and who should die."
"Really, Stevey? Since when have you ever wanted to kill anyone?" Mahilda challenged. "You won't even kill the spiders that we find around the house. Who're you kidding? Put your hand down and go home."
Garth sat partially upright and listened to the argument, as did Alison and Alinda. Mahilda continued staring expectantly at Steven and waited for him to do as he was told.
"Come on." Alison grabbed one of his skeletal hands with both of her fleshy ones. "Please? I don't want you to kill anyone. Let's get out of here."
Steven went quiet. The orbs of crimson in his eye sockets faded away, leaving only the two empty black spaces that had been there before. His bones returned to their whiteish color, and the cracks ceased their glowing.
"Very well." Steven agreed, his reaper voice now having vanished completely. "Come along, Garth."
Garth staggered to his feet and followed Steven and Alison out the front door, leaving Mahilda alone inside, face-to-face with her oldest daughter.
"You’ve really forced my hand here, girl." Mahilda said. "I've told you time and time again to leave them alone—and now you've gone and ticked them off real good. And you know what? I ain't gonna punish them for destroying half of your house. You deserved it. In fact, I think it's time the family home was brought down. You three have done nothing but bring shame to the Xanaguard family. It's time for you to move out."
"You're disgusting." Alinda spat. "You bring those filthy creatures into the house and expect us to treat them as equals? They're mixbreeds and corpses! They're disgusting horrible trash! How could you put them under the same roof as us?!"
Mahilda's anger didn't dissipate, but a sparkle of sadness shimmered in her eyes at hearing this.
"You could have been beautiful." Mahilda said gravely. "I suggest you get your sisters, and I suggest you run for the hills. You won't want to be in this house much longer. Trust me."
Alinda's eyes tore themselves open; she understood her mother’s intentions at once.
So, Alinda spun around and yelled for her sisters to follow her into the hallway. Mahilda knew that they were going to retrieve their broomsticks and make a quick escape, and that was what she wanted.
By the time Alison, Steven, Garth, and Raddince all reached the bottom of the stairs in front of the mansion, they all heard the crumbling of the building. Mahilda stood front and center, hands raised, eyes burning, and she made a series of movements, carefully guiding her energy up, down, left, and right, effectively slicing the mansion into many tiny bits. Once she made enough cuts in the structure, she stepped outside and observed the mansion’s destruction from the top of the stairs while her children watched from down below. The Xanaguard mansion fell into itself, many slabs of concrete and brick hitting the ground with a lot of hard thumps.
Alison never would have imagined that she'd get to witness a war of spells, much less a building being demolished with magic. There were no words capable of describing it.
In the distance, three shapes floated into the sky and flew out of sight. Alinda and her two sisters had absconded on broomsticks. That was good; that meant that burying one of them in rubble hadn't resulted in one of them being killed. This made Alison feel very relieved.
The ruins of the Xanaguard mansion became still. The destruction of the home was complete.
"Are you guys okay?" Alison looked between Raddince, Garth, and Steven.
Garth had numerous injuries all over, but he seemed unfazed by all of them. Raddince didn't seem to be hurt at all, and Steven still wore Shadow as a robe and carried the scythe that had materialized in his hand earlier, completely unscathed from the altercation.
"That was quite fun." Garth replied. "It's been a long time since I was in a challenging fight."
"Are you alright?" Alison asked the vampire. "You look like you should be hurting everywhere."
"Now, now. Don't go wasting your concern on a monster." Garth responded.
"And you..." Alison shifted her attention to Steven. "You really scared me. I thought you turned into a completely different person. Are you okay?"
"I..." Steven examined himself. "I never would have thought that I'd become a reaper. Me, of all people. Mother was right. I'm not a killer. And Shadow, he... he's..."
Steven tugged at the sleeve of his robe.
"I think he's become a part of me." He said. "I think Shadow has merged with me permanently."
"Wow..." Alison ran her hand over the skeleton's new cloak. "I didn't know he could do that. This world is full of surprises at every turn."
"Hey, bone head." Mahilda cut in, stomping down the stairs and approaching her children. "It takes a very passionate soul to become a reaper, y’know that? And it's gotta be someone who's very disciplined with their power, too, but who's also pure of heart. It takes a bone head like you."
Mahilda hit Steven on the skull with her knuckles.
"But don't you go losing your sight of right and wrong, boy. Don't go killing anybody unless you absolutely have to, you hear?"
"Alright, you all." Mahilda glanced at the remains of the mansion, then over towards her ranch. "I left dinner on the stove, and the pies are almost done. Who's hungry?"
Garth was the last one to find a seat at the dinner table. Alison spent the evening with the family, all of them conversing while they ate and repeatedly complimenting Mahilda's cooking. Now, even Steven was able to enjoy the meal; fusing himself with Shadow and becoming a reaper somehow gave him the ability to eat food. Alison would never forget the priceless gasps and marveling phrases that came from Steven when he tasted his mother's pumpkin pie for the first time.
Once dinner was over, Alison sneaked out the front door and walked through the yard. She traveled down the dirt road for a while, and about ten minutes later she arrived at the mountainside, at the tunnel that would take her back to her home world.
Alison adored this world, really she did, and not a day would pass that she didn't think about it—but now, after watching a family literally tear themselves apart, Alison wanted very much to see her own family, to cast aside her grudges towards them, to make amends with them however she could. After she’d make some peace with her family, she would return to the tunnel, and she would visit her new family of Halloween misfits whenever the opportunity would arise.
"Don't go." Steven's voice came from behind.
Alison turned to him. Crap, I knew he would follow me...
Steven, despite being made of only bones, appeared a little healthier with the cloak draped over his body. His face had no skin or muscles, but Alison was sure that she could see an expression change whenever the skeleton's mood would rise or dampen. Right now, he looked very sad.
"I'm being selfish, I know." Steven said. "But I... when... when Mother came to the mansion earlier, she tried to stop me, and she couldn't. It was you who stopped me. You... my friend... my only friend. I... I can't be a reaper without you, Alison. I need you."
Alison heaved a thick breath.
"I'll come back." She told him confidently. "I'm not leaving forever. I just want to see my family. I don't want my family to end up like Mahilda's did."
Steven didn't speak for nearly a full minute.
"I promise." Alison grasped both of his hands. "I promise I'll come back."
"I'm so that glad that I was curious." Steven told her. "I'm glad that I decided to explore the tunnel on a whim, or I never would have met you."
"Me too. We were both curious about the tunnel, weren’t we?" Alison replied with a smile. "That's how we met. We just happened to explore the tunnel at the same time."
"I really hope you'll come back."
"I promise I will."
Alison pulled Steven into a hug. Steven felt unusually warm for someone who had only bones for a body. When they separated, Alison pressed her lips into the skeleton's forehead before turning and marching into the darkness of the tunnel. Steven watched her until she was completely out of his sight.
Alison would be able to balance the two worlds, she was sure of it. She'd be able to visit the Halloween realm whenever she pleased, and she'd spend a lot of her time in her home world trying to repair her family.
The walk was long and grueling.
By the time she finally reached the other side of the tunnel, her red eyes had returned to their original deep brown color. Her legs throbbed and her feet ached. She wanted more than anything to sit down, but she couldn't stop until she reached her home. After all, she’d been missing from her home for over twenty four hours. Plus, with Alison still wearing Mahilda's hand crafted gown and with all of her belongings missing from her person, there was no telling what her family would think she she'd return.
None of it mattered, though.
Because now, Alison finally had a smile on her face. Her family would be saved, and Alison would rest easy tonight knowing that she was trying her hardest to help them. Her family had issues, yes, but who's didn't? If a witch was able to adopt a skeleton, a vampire, and a werewolf and have them all living peacefully under the same roof, then what excuse did Alison have for not working things out with her family?
It was midnight before Alison strolled towards her large suburban home. The streetlights casted their usual round glares on the street, while the cars sat quietly in the driveways and their owners slept soundly in their homes. Oh, how very different this world was compared to Steven's world. Still, even though she'd only been gone for a day, Alison missed it. It took her a few minutes to notice the drastic temperature change from when she left, or the visible clouds of breath that would appear in front of her face with every exhale. Some areas along the street had patches of snow, and there wasn’t a Halloween decoration in sight throughout the neighborhood anymore. Now, it was exclusively Christmas décor.
How long have I been gone? Alison wondered. Does time pass more quickly in this world than the Halloween world? Why is everyone’s yard covered in Christmas decorations?
Alison inched down the driveway, her eyes narrowing at the living room window, where she was able to see that all of the lights inside were still on. The television played from across the living room, and all of her siblings sat on the couch watching cartoons.
Maybe they don't know that I've been missing, Alison thought. Yeah, Mom and Dad probably didn't tell them. They're all just kids, after all. Yeah, that must be it…
A moment later, Alison's mother appeared from the kitchen holding a wine glass filled to the brim with tequila. Alison squinted into the garage, where her father's car sat. Her father was home as well. But there were no police, no panicking adults. Nobody seemed to be acting any differently, even though Alison had been missing from their home for—in this world—almost two months.
Everything inside her shrank, her confidence crumbling the same way the Xanaguard mansion had. Her eyes formed tears before she could think twice.
They don't even care that I'm gone.
Suddenly, Alison was reminded of why she never liked it here, never liked her home, her family, her peers, or her school—because nobody cared. How was it that a beautiful home with perfectly trimmed bushes and a flawlessly kept lawn was so very ugly beneath the exterior? How was it that a family of monsters was more loyal and loving than her human relatives? And how, how on earth, could she have ever thought that these people were fixable? They cared nothing for her, and they cared nothing for each other. They didn’t care about anything at all.
Alison's body moved by itself; she found herself sprinting away from the house, down the road, back towards the shopping center, towards the woods, towards the railroad, towards the tunnel...
Her legs pulsating painfully and her feet feeling bruised all over, Alison kept going, ignoring the tears that blurred her vision and the hammering of her heart. She never wanted to see them again, that wicked and heartless family of hers. She never wanted to see the cars again, or the streetlights, or the paved roads...
Alison ran into the blackness of the tunnel without bothering to listen for an oncoming train. Over the tracks she darted at full speed, back to the other world, the one she loved, the one composed of spooky Halloween creatures, the one that contained the light, the one where her new family lived...
Alison entered the Halloween realm once again. The purpleish-blue of the night sky was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. Steven wasn't standing near the tunnel anymore. Nobody was around to see what she would do next.
Her hands ignited with the light of her soul, her eyes shining like two red stars. Alison was unsure of how Mahilda had brought down the mansion, but she would try her best to simulate it.
With a few wide swings of her arms, Alison unleashed as much of her energy as possible. Blasts of crimson power hit the tunnel's entrance, then the mountainside, then the tunnel again. Alison continued firing and slicing at the structure with her power, quickly becoming exhausted, but she wouldn't stop until she got the result she wanted.
At long last, the entire mountain rumbled.
The tunnel came apart the same way the mansion had. Giant chunks of brick came down, and in the seconds following, rocks and dirt began to fall as well. Alison observed as the mountain's boulders collapsed the tunnel completely. The earth under her feet shook. She knew what that meant; the tunnel was caving in, just like she had intended.
Never again would she make the mistake of entering that horrible world of hers.
Here, with Steven and the rest of her new family, was where she belonged.
And here, in the Halloween realm, she would remain forever.