Before you start, be aware this story is a continuation of two others - "The Wine of Ages" and "In Between," both recently updated and shiny new. If you haven't read 'em, this won't make sense, so get on it!
Helene Winnifred Chastity Philomena Van Dort was by all accounts a morbid child, a fact most often attributed among the townsfolk to her ill-fated parentage and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding her birth. Born on All Hallows' Eve to a fishmonger's son and the Everglot family's only daughter, both of her parents were said to have been found dead in their beds come the morning of All Saints' Day, passed from this world by means that no one was quite sure of. Relegated ever since to a life with the fishmongers rather than the nobility, the poor girl, from earliest childhood, had always shown an open tendency toward asocial and unchristian behavior. She disliked wearing gloves to church, and well into her fifteenth year could be found with toads in her apron pockets. She seemed to have an affinity for the creatures.
Far be it from anyone in the town to insinuate that the granddaughter of Lord Everglot was a witch. But it was a common enough, if ostensibly playful, sentiment to hear behind peoples' hands, that such a strange girl certainly had "a bit of the devil in 'er."
Helene did not care much for the mutterings of others. In truth, she didn't care much, for much at all. The Van Dorts had done everything in their power to turn her into a proper lady, but their power was frankly limited. Their previous experience in raising a quiet son had made them feel well-prepared for raising their quiet granddaughter, but unlike her father, Helene had a mean and subversive streak beneath her shy exterior. She was never one to be outright confrontational, but more than once, dead mice had been found in the shoes of children with whom she'd had past disagreements.
In light of her grandparents' general impassiveness and their failure to teach her proper etiquette, wardship of the girl was informally passed to the housekeeper. Mrs. Agnes Hall was strict but kind, a fair cook and a brilliant haggler, and had a temper that may have tended to rub off on her charge. Agnes had no great fondness for men or boys, and the more Helene listened, she found that she had to agree with that sentiment. Even Helene's own father, Mister Van Dort himself, was not exempt from scrutiny. "Your father always seemed a kind man," Mrs. Hall had said once, when Helene asked, "but you do know, he disappeared days before your birth when Missus Van Dort's consumption was at its worst. Disappeared until you'd been born, and showed up again when you were just an hour in this world. Brought back by guilt, I'm sure," she added, and her knuckles whitened on the edge of the washbasin where the laundry was whitening. The story had always perturbed Helene. It did not mesh at all with the image of the slight, thoughtful-looking man she held in her mind.
In the cool summertime, Helene spent most of her days outdoors, in the scrub garden behind her grandparents' townhouse. Occasionally green things could be coaxed into blooming from the cold soil, but most years the garden remained as gray and brittle as the sky. In the winter and spring she was inclined to stay in town for lessons, but in fall, the season of her birth, she was always happiest. Her grandmother insisted that she not be outdoors after dark, but from the crack of each autumn dawn until the dark of the evening, she spent most of her time in the pine forest at the edge of town. Even Mrs. Hall didn't know what the girl spent her time doing in there, and Helene generally did not tell, but it was no great secret: she was visiting the graveyard.
The Van Dorts had taken their granddaughter to visit her parents' graves many times in her childhood. They were situated at the edge of the main cemetery, under a weeping pine that scattered its needles across their names every year. But in the time since then, Helene had discovered much more to the cemetery than first met the eye – unconsecrated graves a hundred years old or more dotted the area beyond the wrought fence, and when one ventured further into the woods, there were cairns and standing stones to be found between the trees. It was highly mysterious.
Helene could be a frank and humorless girl, and might have spent her week-ends tromping like a wild child through the woods, but she was not a barbarian; she knew to wear her petticoats into town and to tie up her hair for company. On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, with a half-moon half-hidden in the sky, she was dressed in her finest and served a tinny, distant dinner in the enormous hall at Everglot Manor, as her maternal grandparents shot looks of deepest loathing at one another under the onslaught of the Van Dorts' jabbering about fish. She was gifted an ivory comb and a golliwog with hair made of dyed cotton batting. That night she took down her hair to comb it, and sat by the window to look over the town rooftops and think about herself.
The conditions of her birth normally held little weight for her. She had never known her parents and did not feel lost for them. But sixteen years ago tomorrow, she thought, my father and mother died. Wasn't that strange? She closed her eyes and tried to feel dead. It felt very much like becoming tired at the end of the day.
She had never gone out after dark before, but in a moment then she decided that she would. It seemed a very pagan thing, to visit a cemetery on All Hallows' Eve night, but tomorrow, she resolved, she would see her parents' graves after the sun was gone, as it had been when they'd died. It was the right thing for her to do. She climbed down from the windowsill and threw her brown hair over her shoulder, now clean as ivory could make it. She tried to hold the golliwog as she lay in bed that night, but his hair tickled her nose, and it seemed a very childish gift anyway, so she pushed him to the other side of the bed. He ended up on the floor before she fell asleep.
She dreamed vaguely of brushing a thousand pine needles from her parents' graves that night, but otherwise slept without incident. When she rose in the morning, it was with firm determination and a plan in mind. The sun was invisible behind clouds and the sky was a cracked gray. Rain fell lightly, and all the world smelled of rotting leaves. It was a perfect autumn day.
Somewhere beneath and slightly off to the side of that little town in the mountains, the Land of the Dead was bright with lanternlight in the face of unending night. Over the market and square could be heard a great ruckus from the tavern on the corner; the sounds of brawlers and drinkers mixed with the chiming of a cheerful piano and a synchronized clap.
The world here was colorful even in the darkness. The square was bustling with corpses and skeletons in various states of decay, but their permanent grins seemed only indicative of their good spirits. The wine was good, the streets were warm, and Hallowe'en was near.
Only one figure seemed not to be participating in the festivities. He was bent and haggard-looking, with a mean glint in his eye. Most of the criminals in the Land of the Dead had long since given up their bile and frustration in deference to the realization that once one is dead, there is little to fight over. Lord Barkis Bittern was not most criminals.
He was a corpse with a grudge, a tentative plan, and nearly two decades of brooding behind him. He was as dangerous and angry to this day as he had been for seventeen years.
But it was almost Hallowe'en, and things were going to change.
He did not move for the rest of the night. He kept his eye on the market square and sat in absolute silence.