What does Hallowed Eve on Innistrad look like? Happy Halloween, everyone!
* * *
"I certainly hope we never see this sort of trouble again. Is that understood?"
Runo Stromkirk did not enjoy having to clean up the messes his children created when they went on reckless feeding sprees. It was becoming more frequent lately, and not just from the newly sired. This one in particular, who sat in his study with a sullen look, was at least a decade old. Sullen, and mad about being caught, but not truly sorry, Runo noted. He would have to talk to his children about those they chose to sire. They were becoming less discerning of late. This would not do for the Stromkirk line and their delicate balance with the locals of Nephalia.
"We are Stromkirks," he continued to lecture. "We're the patrons and protectors of the fine society in Nephalia. We only make sacrifices to live. We're not wild animals who go about gorging like those savage werewolves. Now, get out of my sight."
The youngling gave an exasperated sigh like a petulant child, but a disapproving glance from Runo made him turn a bit more fearful. It seemed, though, that today was just not a day to get a moment's peace. Another youngling, thankfully one of the more obedient ones, burst through the doors. "It's happened again," he said. "Philomon is trying to hold her off in the ballroom."
Runo only rolled his eyes as he stood to follow. Such was a common occurrence when acquiring a new guest. As he entered the ballroom, he was rather amused by the sight. Their latest acquisition was a merchant's daughter from Kessig. Not their usual fare, but something stood out about her that was too hard to resist. Still not used to the finery offered her at the manor, she preferred to wear a heavy fur over her lovely green dress. Such a shame. His seamstress had really outdone herself, too. No matter. She would get used to things around here soon.
She had taken hold of a wooden stool and was using it to keep the other vampires at bay, as if she were trying to tame wild beasts. Runo laughed to himself. That might have worked in Kessig, but not here. Blood ran down her hand from two small wounds in her left wrist, and it was starting to drip on the carpet. He would have to get that cleaned. He had bought it from planeswalkers from Kaladesh, but alas, his spawn would never understand the wonders of the multiverse. Philomon, a third generation, stood, a saber pointed at her. Despite how loyal he was, he never quite knew how to handle delicate situations.
Runo sighed. "Philomon, your form is all wrong. Your stance should be like this. Here, allow me."
He took the saber and with a deep breath, began a series of swift movements, all in flawless form. The girl tried to beat him back with the stool, but he used her momentum against her, and pretty soon had it knocked out of her hands, and had the saber pointed at her throat. "Avacyn, help me," she prayed.
Runo put down the sword and gave a hearty laugh. "My dear, you are in Drunau. Avacyn no longer hears your prayers." He reached out to examine her wound. "This would happen less if you'd hold still. Lana, dear, go and fetch something to dress this with."
Upon her return, he bandaged the wound. Looking around, he could tell that the others still needed sustenance. With a snap of his fingers, he summoned his own favorite. Runo might have been a big supporter of the traders and craftsmen of the area, but of late, he'd taken an interest in the fine arts. Many of his guests housed in his manor were artists of sorts. His latest, and most prized, was a gifted musician. Under his tutelage, she had become a fantastic soprano. She was one of the few he could take out of the manor so that she could perform. She was not only afraid to leave his protection, she was dependent upon him. Her blood was like a fine vintage that could only get better with time. She stood before them all, not even the slightest bit afraid. "I'm sorry, but there will be no lesson today, Ana, but if you could entertain some of my close family for a few moments."
She nodded politely and led the group out. Runo held Philomon back. "Remember, gentle, not too much, and nothing near the neck. I'm not risking that beautiful voice."
He nodded before leaving. Now it was only Runo, and the Kessig girl, who had been desperately trying to pull her arm away from him. "Now then, it's Elisia, yes? I think you will find this a much more pleasant experience if you understand that we mean you no harm. We're protecting you from the dangers of the world. As you know, it is quite a dangerous place out there. All we ask in return is a small sacrifice."
It was then that she bolted, only getting past the doorway when Runo grabbed her again. "You are protecting no one!" she shouted. "I've seen your prisoners. We're nothing but your cattle."
"Guests," he corrected, "not prisoners."
"Guests can leave!"
He could not argue with her there, but she just had to see, had to understand what a blessing it was for her to be here. An idea struck him. "Do you know what day it is?" he asked, changing the subject. She refused to answer him. "Well, for you humans, it is the Hallowed Eve, a festival honoring the ancestors of old and celebrating all things that frighten you. Quite droll really. You humans think that by wearing masks you might frighten away the things that stalk you in the night. You think that by placating and embracing the darkness of this world with your meaningless trinkets, you may be spared this night." He laughed at the thought of it. "But did you know that it is a holiday for us as well? It is the Long Night, the longest night of the year, and all beings of darkness, such as myself celebrate it. Why, that's it! I'll take you with me tonight to enjoy the festivities."
"No," Elisia said, becoming uncomfortable with the thought, "I'll stay if that is what you desire."
"Nonsense," Runo said, waving her off. "You want to see this world I'm keeping you from. You may go to your quarters. You will find a suitable outfit for tonight."
* * *
Runo greeted Elisia in the front hall, just as the sun was setting. "My, that dress does look lovely on you," he complimented her. "It's certainly much better than those atrocious and crude furs, yes?"
She hated the idea of wearing the red and black dress, similar to what she had seen her captors wear. She also felt incredibly exposed. Without the furs, her neck and shoulders were bare, of course, all the more accessible to those horrid vampires. "Now then, our first stop is the Stitchers' Ball in Selhoff. It is a masquerade, you know."
She reluctantly held up the pale white mask that had been provided to her. Runo bowed politely and offered his arm, ready to leave. She tentatively took it, flinching at the deathly cold feel of his skin. The sun was almost gone as they walked out to the carriage. A misty fog began to pour out into the street. "Ah yes," Runo said, "I suppose I should warn you, if you think about running, my children are always watching."
She had heard the rumors that Stromkirks could transform themselves into mist, but had never seen it done before. She turned to look behind her and could have sworn she saw a few gold-yellow eyes looking back at her through the mist.
As the carriage rumbled along towards Selhoff, Runo tried filling her into some of the traditions and goings on that were common in Nephalia. "I much prefer stitchers," he said casually. "Their work actually has potential, not like those ghoulcallers. They're more like children playing with dolls."
Elisia only glanced up at him once during this conversation, but it was only then that she noticed his appearance had been completely altered. He noted her surprise. "Oh yes, my beneficiaries know what I am, but they would prefer not to see it firsthand. Best to keep up a human guise to make them feel more at ease. I assume it might make you feel better, too."
Nothing could make her see anything other than the monster who sat before her. "Do you kill your guests?" she asked, dreading the answer.
"Oh yes," Runo answered quickly. "Though a select few we turn, if they really are special. But to answer your big question, we never do it against their own will. After a certain period of time under our care, our guests decide they are ready, and give themselves completely, not out of fear and exhaustion from us, but out of desire. Ah, here we are, the Stitchers' Ball."
She could never imagine anyone desiring to die by vampires.
* * *
Looking out of the giant bay windows of the stitcher's home, she could see down the hills to the docks on the coasts of Nephalia. She could see the lanterns carved out of freshly hollowed gourds on the streets, a sign of the humans celebrating the Hallowed Eve. She could even see a few milling about the streets, still enjoying the festivities, clearly having had too much holiday spirits. And here she was in the belly of the beast. Runo kept her close throughout the masquerade, introducing her to the gathering of stitchers and alchemists that had gathered for this party. Some of them looked as though they had been stitched together in a lab, she thought. She often had to hear them go into great detail about their "experiments." What frightened her most was how much more they enjoyed their failures rather than their successes. At the moment, he was speaking to a stitcher, Zanros, she had heard him say, a thin and fidgety fellow wearing a cracked blue and black plague mask. "The experiments are going well. I expect we'll see some results about blood and necromancy, though funding is running low," Zanros finished.
Runo caught his meaning and waved him off. "Please, we can always discuss business tomorrow. Let us enjoy the evening."
There was a loud tinkling against a glass as the host stitcher was ready to make an announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, guests of all walks of life, welcome to this year's Stitchers' Ball! As always, none of this would be possible without the support of Runo Stromkirk and his family." Runo politely bowed at the toast in his honor. "But now, it is time for this evening's main event."
Several of the stitchers' lab assistants wheeled in carts, billowing mist from dry ice. Opening the carts, the host pulled out several severed body parts, all well-preserved. Elisia was immediately sick to her stomach and almost threw up then and there. Runo noted her discomfort and grabbed her hand reassuringly. "Incredibly fresh," the host said. "To the Hallowed Eve, and the false sense of courage it gives the people of Nephalia! Makes it so much easier to find 'volunteers.' Now then, we have work to do."
They set upon the body parts, haphazardly sewing them together with no regard for human anatomy. Elisia buried her head into Runo's shoulder, trying not to watch. "I have brought you here for a reason," he whispered in her ear. "It may be painful, but I need you to watch."
She slowly turned back as the stitchers finally pulled away from their 'creation.' It was nowhere close to human in appearance. It had far too many arms, legs, and other appendages, none of which were sewed together in a logical fashion. "Well done, my friends," the host said, hooking the creation up to a series of tubes and wires. "I believe it might even make it out the door."
"They create these monstrosities every year to see how long they last out in the streets," Runo explained. "It's sort of a party game to them. Cover your eyes, though, the light will be blinding."
The host flipped a large switch and the lights in the home flickered and liquid bubbled through the tubes, causing the creation to convulse. Flashes of light that burst forth were indeed blinding, and Elisia shielded her eyes. A few pops and sparks later, it seemed they were satisfied with the experiment. When the ordeal was over, the creation finally stopped convulsing and slowly slithered off the slab and managed to stand on one arm and a leg. Its two heads looked around the room, unsure what to do with its new 'life.' "Fantastic work, friends, this skaab is a success! Now go, beautiful creature! Go, and enjoy the night!"
The skaab slumped and hobbled out of the party, and out the open doors, following its only orders as best as it could process. "Now then, to the roof," the host called to his guests. "I want to see this one in action."
The guests began to file out of the parlor. Runo and Elisia remained behind. "The Long Night is still young," he said. "Come, there are other matters to attend. If we make good time, we might catch the end of the Court."
* * *
"Runo Stromkirk," Olivia Voldaren greeted, "I'd recognize that bauta mask anywhere. And here I thought you wouldn't make it."
She kissed him on the cheek of his black and gold mask. She noticed Elisia. "Oh, and you brought someone," she said with a hungry gleam in her eye. "This one looks new and fresh."
Olivia began to reach for her, but Runo brushed her away. "No, no, this is not that sort of trip," he said, politely, and then proceeded to whisper in her ear, explaining.
She was clearly disappointed, but still managed to keep her air of superiority. "Hmm, you do treat them too well," she said. "Oh, but you are staying for the festivities, aren't you?"
He declined. "Only watching this time. I haven't been here for the first couple of days, so it wouldn't be right."
She pouted. "You used to be fun, you know? No matter, this certainly has been a marvelous time. The King this year is just an absolute delight."
A timid, human youth came forward, dressed uncomfortably in the Elizabethan attire the Voldarens all preferred. "Your majesty," Runo said, bowing, "quite the honor."
He only managed to make a helpless squeak. He was quaking, Elisia could tell, his eyes darting around, looking at all the other vampires in attendance. He did not look like any sort of king. "I believe you owe me a dance, your highness," Olivia said. "Runo, I would be a horrible host if I left you empty handed. Please, go to the cellar, you know the way, right? Have your pick, on me, of course."
It was the wicked grin with which she said it that made Elisia's skin crawl. Runo took her hand, and led her with him. "I don't understand," she said as they walked. "Why is a human a king among vampires?"
"It is this holiday," he replied. "You can thank Olivia for its creation. It is the Court of the King or Queen of the Vampires. Many vampires host this kind of party around this time of year, but Olivia's parties are the best. A human is selected from the local area and is brought here as King or Queen of the vampires. For the next three days, they are treated as if they were true royalty. Any command they give, aside from being allowed to leave, is granted. We are joining in on the last night."
"What happens on the last night?" she asked, already dreading the answer.
"You'll see. Now, as we go into this cellar, I want you to understand the vampires of Stensia house their guests differently."
As the door creaked open, she could tell the difference. Dozens, if not hundreds of iron cages swung from the ceiling, too high to see the captives within, but low enough for them to lower their wrists through the bars. They were trained to respond to a vampire entering. She could hear their moans and whimpers as he examined them, like a connoisseur. It was the nightmares, she knew. She had them after the first bite. The dread of living there had to be getting to them too, or perhaps they no longer cared. Runo had finally picked one he liked. She only saw his fangs extend an inch before turning away. She hated it enough when they did it to her. Seeing it happen to another was worse. She did not turn to face him until she could no longer hear the gulping sounds. He was wiping his mouth, the little arm twitching in the cage above him. "Don't give me that look," he said. "I've had nothing all this evening. We'd better head back up if we want to see the finale of the Court."
That sick feeling from the Stitcher's Ball was returning, but she followed him back up to the ballroom. Upon their arrival, it was clear that the party was nearing its end. Their "king" had been strapped to a gaudy-looking throne, trying desperately to break free from his restraints. "The Court gathers today to bid farewell to our beloved king this year," Olivia announced. "You have been a benevolent and noble ruler, but like all great kings, you must sacrifice for your subjects."
Elisia had, until now, only seen the elitist airs and high manners of the vampires, despite how horrible she knew they were. But now, she saw them at their worst, at their most bestial nature. They set upon the young man like flies to rotting meat. His ear-splitting shrieks drowned out the sound of the vampires as they fought each other for a good place.
Elisia threw herself at Runo and sobbed into his chest. "Please," she begged, "take me back. Take me back to Drunau. No more, please."
That was certainly a quick turnaround, Runo silently congratulated himself. He'd have to remember this plan for the next time. "Are you sure?" he asked. "We might still have time to see Gavony's Parade of Spirits. That's quite a treat. The possessions are spectacular. No, you'd probably want to see the Great Hunt the Leeraug Howlpack has in Kessig."
She only looked up at him with her tear-stained eyes, silently pleading. "No," he said, gently, "no, that wouldn't be right because you've already seen those horrors before. Please understand, I did not enjoy doing this to you. However...the Long Night reminds us all of the dangers of the world."
Tears still streamed down her cheek, but she had quieted and offered him her wrist. He took it gingerly, a small grin creeping to his lips as his fangs began to extend. "And we will protect you from all of it. Don't worry, you'll get used to things soon."