Delilah paced the upstairs greenhouse, tugged her elbow length gloves all the way back up, donned her plain black mask, and gave her spiky pink hair an experimental shake, then stuck her head out the window to look down at Millicent, who was pulling laundry down from a long clothesline.
“Oh, Millie, are you almost done with that?”
“Almost. I just want to bring this in before it gets dark.”
“Hmm, yes.” Delilah grinned at the lengthening shadows in the garden, happy that her plan to keep Millicent busy and out of the castle all day had worked. “Anyway, I don't want you to be late, so...”
“Late? Late for what?”
Millicent dropped the shirt she had been folding and said “Oh, shoot!”, then started to pull laundry down so fast that clothespins went flying.
“I'm coming! I'll be there in a minute...”
“No rush. Just set that inside and come up when you're ready.”
With this, the queen whirled around and left the greenhouse, entering the long hall of portraits that led to the throne room. Painted, snake-like eyes followed her as she walked past pictures of her ancestors. She stopped briefly at the painting of her smiling parents—her mother had her father in a headlock—and wished they could have been here for her party, though she was sure that wherever they were, they were happy.
“I wish I could retire and travel all over the place,” she told the painting, pouting her lips, then chuckled and went through the enormous double-doors that opened onto the throne room, which was teeming with goblins, some towering over her, others scurrying around her legs as she made her way through the sea of scales, feathers, and fur to check on the progress of the decorations.
The room had been bedecked with purple and pink streamers and floor cushions that clashed magnificently with the green and yellow mosaic on the walls. Goblins ran here and there carrying plates of snacks and stacks of teacups, and a large banner reading “Happy Hatchday” hung over the throne, beside which lay a large blue wyrm, fast asleep, but with curls of steam rising from the end of its long snout.
“Happy Hatchday,” Millicent said, gasping for breath and casting a concerned glance at the wyrm. “I wish you'd told me it was today.”
“I kept it a secret on purpose, Millie. Last time you outdid yourself cleaning the castle and then slept through half the next day. Not this time! I have enlisted the help of my other guests, and all I need you to do is run down to the kitchens and bring enough candles for everyone.”
Millicent nodded and began to count each goblin in the room, while Delilah gazed at the large stained glass clock window behind the throne. It glowed dimly in the last rays of the setting sun as its hands crept closer the appointed hour of the party.
“Go get the candles, Millie,” Delilah said quietly. “And hurry, before we lock the doors.”
“Lock the doors?”
“Of course. Hatchday tradition demands that no one leave until the last ghost story is told. You didn't forget that we tell ghost stories at hatchday parties, did you?” Delilah asked as Millicent blanched.
“N-no, I... So we have to stay the whole time?”
“The whole time. But that's what makes the party such fun. I would make it last all night, if I could.”.
“Are goblin ghost stories scary? Human ones usually are, but...”
“Hmm, well, they used to be, but it seems like they've been lacking lately. And several of my guests last year actually went for comedy. Don't worry, Millie, I'm sure whatever story you tell will be fine.”
“I have to tell one?” she asked in a panicky voice.
“Hmm... Don't you know any?”
“Not really... well, I did see a will-o-wisp one time while I was working in the garden, but I'm not sure that counts.”
“No. Wil-o-wisps are a common phenomenon around here, hardly ghost story material.”
“I guess not.”
“Hmm, well, since it’s only your first party I suppose I can make an exception to the rule,” the queen said, sitting sideways on the wide, plush throne, “but bring a candle for yourself in case you bump into any ghosts on your way back from the kitchens and live to tell the tale.”
Millicent left, reluctantly, and Delilah lounged across her seat, waiting and watching, as each floor cushion was taken by the owner of a scaly tail, segmented shell, or furry paws. Finally, Millicent poked her head through one of the many secret passages leading out of the throne room, carrying a large wooden box full of long, thin tapers and metal candle holders.
“We are all assembled,” Delilah said, tossing a large ring of keys to Millicent, who tried to catch them, but ended up spilling half the candles on the floor instead. “Lock the doors.”
As Millicent locked each of the hidden doors, two large, bovine goblins took a halberd and wedged it through the main doorway's two curled handles, bringing visual emphasis to the fact that there was now no way out (though Delilah noticed that Millicent stowed the ring of keys in her own apron pocket rather than return them).
“Ahem,” the queen began, once Millicent took a seat beside her on the throne. “Pass the plates and cups, and then we shall begin.”
Those standing at the edges of the room, where tables had been set up, began distributing plates of meat, cheese, sliced mushroom, and pineapple chunks around the crowd. Though at first the guests civilly handed each plate from person to person, about halfway through the room goblins started grabbing and plates started flying.
“Should we stop them?” Millicent asked, dodging several pieces of mushroom that flew at her face. Delilah caught one of them out of the air and ate it.
“As long as I get enough food, it's fine. This will not do for the tea, however.” She stood up, one foot on the arm of the throne, and cried, “Hey, if I don't get dinner, heads will roll. Also, don't let a single tea cup hit the floor!”
The goblins all quieted and continued to politely pass the food, cups, and teapots around the room until everyone had what they needed.
“Teacups are a precious commodity,” Delilah said, sipping demurely. “They shouldn't be thrown until after we're done.”
Millicent paused for a moment, as if struggling with the second part of that sentiment, then nodded. Drinking her own tea, she grimaced but tried to hide it.
“No need to stand on decorum,” Delilah said. “Goblin tea is terrible. From our Flytrap Tea to our Tongue's Bane Blend, it's really an offense against flavor. And I'm not even sure you're supposed to steep mushrooms.”
“But why do you drink it if it's so bad?”
“Oh... Well, why not import human tea? The Empire has an entire principality devoted to growing tea. It's called Camellia, and—”
Delilah grabbed Millicent's face and pulled it close to her own so they were only an inch apart.
“I know that and you know that, but if they find out I'll have to let everyone in on my secret stash. After they leave, we'll drink like Camellian kings, or princesses, as the case may be. You know, because it's a principality? And we're ladies, so... Well, you get the idea.”
Once everyone had eaten their fill and drunk as much as they could stand, they handed the plates over to those goblins closest to the window, who flung them out into the night. Everyone hushed their dinner conversations, and a slow ripple went through the crowd as the box of candles and candlestick holders was passed around, until everyone in attendance was holding a thin taper. The wyrm breathed a thin steam of flame onto Delilah’s candle, which she used to light the wicks of those closest to her, who lit their neighbors’, and so on. Finally, a tall, spindly goblin turned down the gas lamps, so that the only light in the room was that of the candles.
All the movement settled down and a complete silence filled the room, until a single, walrus-like goblin stood up, cleared his throat with a mighty shake of his beard and tusks, and began the first story:
When I was young, I lived in Bombast, and worked in a factory with my Pa. Factory work has always been dangerous, and sure enough, I got my flipper caught in some machinery and had to go to the hospital. Well, there were so many injuries in that town that almost every ward was full. When the doctor admitted me, she told me that I would have to be up on the top floor, in the old ward. It hadn't been used for a while, she said, since her staff always used to complain about all those stairs, but it was the only room they had, and I would luckily get it to myself.
Well, she fixed me up as well as she could, and plopped me into bed so I could get some rest, then left the room. I blew out my lantern, and for some reason found myself looking out into the darkness instead of lying down. In truth, I felt almost as if it would be rude to go to sleep, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you why. So instead, I sat and waited, looking at nothing but darkness.
Only I was looking at darkness, and... also darkness. There was something somehow blacker than the rest of the room. In the corner it stood, whatever it was, and I wanted to figure it out. I couldn't remember if it was a cabinet, or a hat rack, or what had been there before I blew out my light, so I just stared at it, waiting for my eyes to adjust. And as I waited, I could just make out what looked like an arm, then another, and two long legs. I had the sudden urge to stop looking, for I had been assured that there was no one else in this ward. At the same time, I feared what those dark limbs might do if I looked away,
I kept looking, widening my eyes, and soon I saw that the head of this dark shape had a long, crooked nose running down it, like a broken branch, and above that, two incongruously large, staring eyes that were somehow blacker than even the rest of the face.
I stared into those eyes, and the eyes stared back at me. The face just stared, and stared, and I got the feeling that it couldn't do anything but stare, and maybe it had just been standing in that corner forever, waiting for someone to finally notice it and stare back.
And then I blinked, and it was gone.
“A bit anti-climactic,” Delilah said as the walrusy goblin blew out his candle.
“But what was it?” asked Millicent, who had latched tightly onto the queen's arm halfway through the story and was making no sign of letting go.
“Precisely. A whatwasit, one of those typically invisible, indescribable things that inhabits old houses and dark corners. Surely you have those in the Empire, don't you?”
“I hope not,” she mumbled, as a feathery little goblin hopped up and gave a small bow.
“Me next,” she said. “I haven't got a story, exactly, but perhaps something just as terrifying. As some of you know, I dabble in amateur photography, and was taking a few pictures in that little patch of woods just north of here. Well, I was trying for a shot of a particularly lovely hunk of moss, but if you'll just look at my picture, you'll notice behind the tree...”
She handed the photograph to another goblin, and as it went around the room, each person who saw it gaped, gasped, or muttered something along the lines of, “but that can't be a face?” or “that's not... that's not a noose tied to the branch above it, is it?”
“Ooo, Millie, look!” The queen said, gazing at the blurry shape in the photograph, while Millicent looked resolutely at her own shoulder and made a non-committal noise. “Excellent work, Cacophony. I don't think I shall set foot in those woods again, not that I've ever done so before.”
Cacophony bowed again, and blew out her candle.
Next, a hairy goblin that resembled a yak stood up, saying, “This is the tale of the Wisp Walker, and it is a true story:
Years ago, my brother and I used to deliver garbage to the Wastes. Alone we would tread, for mile on lonely mile, pulling our wagon to the mountains of trash that cover the blood red soil of that barren land. We reached our destination after midnight, when the mist from the sea was thickest. Clammy tendrils of fog wrapped around the two of us as we threw our load of old, discarded items onto one of the piles. I had often had the feeling of being watched out there, though I knew not a soul, living or dead, was around. My brother thought it was all nonsense, of course, but even so, I did my job quickly, eager to get back to civilization. Our cart empty, we turned and began to drive away, only to hear a long creeeeeak of wood, and then a snap. My body turned as if by its own accord, but there was nothing there.
“Did you hear that?” I asked my brother.
“It's just the trash,” he said stoically. “It's old. And every time we throw more trash on the pile, more falls off, that's all.”
“I suppose so.”
I gave one last look at the mound of trash behind us, and felt every hair on my body stand on end. There was a Thing, thin and white, crawling on the trash pile.
“What's that white thing?” I whispered.
“What white thing?”
My blood froze.
“On that trash pile,” I said, pawing at him. “You see it, you see, don't you?”
He slapped my hands away as I pointed at the Thing, which had picked up an old rag doll in a long-fingered, spidery hand. Finally, my brother looked right at it.
“I don't see anything.”
I screamed. The Thing screamed, and then vanished. The doll dropped to the ground. There was nothing out there but the trash, the mist, and us.
Delilah attempted to clap, though it was difficult with Millicent's shaking arms now coiled around her.
“Oh, don't worry, Millie, I'm sure the Thing was just as scared of them as they were of it.”
“Metaphysically unlikely,” the yak-goblin’s brother said, wiping his thick spectacles on his sleeve and squinting at them. “I doubt the ghost, for it was surely the ghost of the person to whom the rag doll belonged, was even aware of our existence. It was probably just recalling some trauma from it's own past.”
“That's kind of sad,” Millicent said, loosening her grip on Delilah.
“Sad or not,” said an elderly female goblin from the corner of the room. “It wasn't nearly spooky enough. I'll show you how to tell a ghost story. Mine is called 'The Watcher in the Well'...”
The stories continued on through the night, mostly scary, some funny, and a few simply odd, until it seemed that everyone in the room had told a story, each time blowing out their candle, until the only flames in the room belonged to the two women seated on the throne.
“Excellent story, Shenanigan!” Delilah said, as the latest storyteller curtsied and took a seat. “I don't think I'll ever be able to look at meat pies quite the same way again. Now, let me begin the final tale of the evening... Unless you want to tell a story, Millie.”
The maid shook her head, unable to put even two words together after the nightmare that was Shenanigan's story.
“Very well, then. My story is the most traditional of all Hatchday stories, and in fact hails from my father's native land of Catawampus. It's a historical tale, so it would help if I knew how much you know about Ataxian history and geography.”
“I don't really know anything,” Millicent managed to squeak out.
“That's fine. Long story short, the capital of the country of Catawampus is a walled city called Catawampus. They aren't very imaginative there, I'm afraid. Anyway, long before the country existed, the city existed, and all the various lands around it were being conquered by a terrible goblin named Havoc the Slayer. All the land west of the Hogwash River fell under his thumb, and the poor people who lived out on the moor surrendered without even putting up a fight. Finally, the last stronghold against Havoc was Catawampus. The city, that is, not the country. That came later.”
“Got it... I think.”
“Walled city, horrible conqueror. That's all you need to know.”
“Now, our tale begins with the siege...”
Though the city was renowned for it's wealth and technology, all the food in Catawampus came from outside the walls. Knowing this, Havoc made camp and waited, but the massive city gates did not open. He demanded that the king submit to him without a fight, but what he did not know was that in the influx of refugees that his plundering and pillaging had brought to the city, no one in Catawampus was sure who the king was—they traditionally changed kings two or three times a month back in those days; who knows why? Anyway, as they argued about the identity of their true ruler and whether surrendering to Havoc would invalidate the kingship, the people starved.
In the third month of the siege, a group of concerned citizens rallied together with a plan. Havoc watched the gates open, pleased that the city had come to its senses. But his troops could not get through the gates, because Catawampians were already pouring out of them, swinging clubs and throwing spears. They fought for their lives and their loved ones, but in the end, the mighty army of Havoc the Slayer overwhelmed them. They lay dead around the city wall. The gates closed. The siege continued.
One month passed, and then another, and another, but nothing changed, as far as Havoc's army could tell. Sick and tired of waiting for Catawampian politics to play out, the army began dismantling the gate by hand. No archers shot them from above, no burning oil fell down on them. No one was strong enough to stop the army coming in, and no one wanted to, for when Havoc and his troops finally crossed the threshold of the city, the scent of death hung heavy in the air, as hungry eyes looked out from bare windows. No one tried to fight. Most of the people had starved, and those who hadn't wished they had. The streets were strewn with goblin bones... and broken eggshells.
A collective shudder went through the room, and Millicent assumed she had missed some sort of cultural connotation. Delilah went on.
As night fell, a soft, bitter weeping could be heard throughout the town. The invaders, who had thought nothing of subduing army after army, had to steel themselves for the long march to the palace. Finding no king in sight, they declared it their own. The only thing left was to loot the city.
From house to shadowy house they went, ransacking the empty ones and robbing from those still occupied, until they came to a tall, thin house with a light in the upstairs window. They burst through the first floor doorway, but were met with nothing but cobwebs and dust. Rushing to the next floor, they found the upstairs empty and dark. They thought perhaps they had just imagined the light. No one had been in this room for months—not a single footprint, clawprint, or pawprint had disturbed the dusty floorboards— and yet it felt as warm as if a fire had been blazing in its hearth a moment ago.
Shrugging off their feelings of incongruity, the soldiers looked for something valuable and spied a single large trunk in the center of the room. Seeing that it had no lock, one of the men approached, but stopped and whirled around.
“Who said that?” he asked.
“Said what?” His fellows answered.
“One of you just called me 'Palter Capricious'.”
“But your name's just Palter.”
“My middle name is Capricious. Didn't any of you know that?”
They all shook their heads, so Palter Capricious turned back to the chest and placed his hand on the lid, only to draw it back as if it had been burned.
“I'm sorry! I won't!” he cried, and ran from the room. Thinking him mad, or more likely just stupid, the rest of the soldiers each in turn tried to open the chest, yet they all fled from the room as a voice commanded them, by their first and middle names, not to touch it.”
“I love that part,” Delilah said to Millicent. “My mom would always whisper 'Delilah Glossolalia, stay away from that chest!' in her creepiest voice.”
Rumor spread of the ghostly voice that could not be disobeyed, so that none of the foot soldiers would dare go near the house. A month after the siege, one of the captains heard the tale, and thought that perhaps his men had found some treasure they were trying to hide from him. He took six of his strongest, most fearless men to the house and commanded each of them to try opening the chest. The first approached it, stopped and looked around him, tried again, stopped, and tried once more before grabbing up his scaly tale from the floor.
“Every time I get close, I feel like someone's spanking my tail,” he said. “Maybe this place really is haunted.”
“You'll get spanked on the face if I catch you!” the captain yelled, chasing the goblin from the room.
The next soldier approached the chest.
“Even if there is a ghost, so what?” he roared. “I'll tell you what I'll do to that ghost...” And he let out a stream of curses and swears so awful that even the hardened soldiers around him blushed. The next moment, however, he was spitting and sputtering like a overfilled tea kettle.
“Soap!” he cried. “I taste soap! Disembodied soap!”
“You'll taste my fist if I catch you!” the captain bellowed, chasing the goblin from the room.
The next four goblins reasoned that perhaps they could outwit the ghost if they approached the chest from all four sides at once. They made their move, but a strange dark form rose out of the chest and hovered over the goblins, who each marched to separate corners of the room and stood facing the wall, unmoving for five minutes. The captain tried to shake them out of this, but they wouldn't respond. When five minutes were up, the men finally came back to their senses.
“We couldn't move,” one said.
“We couldn't speak,” said the next.
“We couldn't even look at each other, or else we would have had to stand there for five more minutes,” the third explained.
“I'm just glad the ghost didn't actually make us touch our noses to the wall,” the fourth said. “I always hated that as a child.”
“I'll punch your noses through the wall if I catch you!” the captain screamed, chasing the goblins from the room.
He stood, alone, with nothing but the chest before him. The dark form that had risen out of it was still there. He looked at it and got the feeling that it was looking back at him. The room was warmer than ever, but he shivered.
And then he heard it. In the silence that had fallen over the room, he now heard a soft, fast rhythm, barely audible, but no longer ignorable. The dark form had neither moved nor changed; the sound came from the box itself. It was a heartbeat.
The captain, who had slain three hundred men with his own hands, who had threatened his own soldiers for fleeing, slowly backed out of the room, then bolted down the stairs.
Another month passed, and no one dared approach the famously haunted house. Weird rumors continued to circulate. Every night, the upstairs window lit up and faded to darkness by daybreak. When rain fell, the house's roof steamed, and when the rest of the city was covered by the first thick snowfall of the year, the house dripped with melting ice like a day in spring.
Even Havoc the Slayer could not long ignore the tales of the house. He thought that the chest must contain a magic item capable of creating heat and flame, most useful for a warrior such as himself. Though his soldiers begged him not to go, he refused to allow their stories to dissuade him. By now, three months had passed since the walls had fallen; it was time for him to claim the city's secret treasure.
He marched to the house in full armor, bringing his top generals with him, and threw open the door. Though it was sweltering, they climbed the stairs and burst forth into the upstairs room. He took three strides to the chest and threw open the lid, unhindered by any soul, living or dead.
But he stopped, and his men with him. The only thing the chest contained were some blankets and the corpse of a goblin, cradling a round, white egg to her chest.
“She must have starved to death,” one of the soldiers remarked, “during the siege.”
“She died trying to keep her egg warm,” another said.
“Warm, or safe from starving eyes,” a third remarked. “It's too bad it couldn't live to hatch.”
No sooner had he said this, however, than the sound of cracking filled the room, and from the egg came the wail of baby. First a leg, then an arm, punched through the shell. The soldiers helped peel off the shell, and soon they were holding a living, breathing baby. His teeth were pointy and his claws were sharp and all the soldiers agreed that they had never seen a healthier looking child. They all wondered to themselves how it could be that the baby could have survived so long inside the empty house, next to his dead mother.
“I kept him warm,” a voice said. The soldiers who had been to the house before recognized it. “I laid my egg the same day my husband died while trying to drive you from our city. He wanted to save us, but couldn't. The siege continued, and everyone was starving. When people looked at my egg, they licked their lips and ground their teeth. Fearing the worst, I decided to hide in the chest until the siege was over. I died, hungry, and worried that my egg would grow cold without me. So I decided to stay until he hatched.”
The soldiers marveled at the ghost's story. There was not a dry eye in the room, save for Havoc's. He held the baby at arms length, unsure of what to do with him. On the one hand, he was an enemy, and would probably grow to hate the army if he ever learned his parents' fate. On the other hand, his mother died protecting him, like a true warrior.
“I have a final warning for you, General Havoc Impetuous Palaver the Slayer” the ghost whispered in his ear. “If you harm my baby in any way, or forget to tell him what I did for him, I'll tell the ghost of your mother what you've done.”
Needless to say, the child was told the truth, and grew up to liberate his city.
The goblins in the room burst into applause, and Delilah jumped off her throne to take several bows.
“You tell it better every year, Your Majesty,” Amphigory said, and several goblins around her nodded.
“Well, Millie, what did you think?”
“I liked it. It was heartwarming, in a weird way.”
“Indeed. Mothers tell that story to their children on their hatchdays, reminding them that even after their layday, their mothers still cared for them the whole time.
“And you must lock everyone into the room to commemorate the siege, right? And when you blow out each candle, it's to commemorate all the people who died.”
“Don't be morbid, Millie! We lock the door to keep the cowards in and blow out candles to be spooky. Speaking of which, we still have ours, don't we. Well, my story was fabulous enough to warrant two. Ready? One, two, three!”
They blew out their candles together, but the room did not go dark.
“All right, who's the wise guy?” Delilah said, jumping up and floating over her throne to spy the source of the light. A single candle sat at the edge of the crowd, still flickering.
“I thought everyone blew their candle out after their story,” she muttered.
“They did,” Millicent said. “There must be one person left.”
“But we told all twenty-four stories, not counting yours...”
“Yes, but there were twenty-six people here total.”
“But there were only twenty-three guests, plus the two of us.”
“I'm sure I counted twenty-six, though, when I got the candles ready.”
“Well, let's count again....”
All the goblins in attendance sat stalk still as the queen and her maid counted. The two of them finally said, “Twenty—”
The two of them looked at each other as their skin rippled with goose bumps. Delilah's hair became even bushier than normal.
“Right,” she said, clapping her hands. “What say we extend the festivities even further by staying up all night and turning up every light in the castle?”
There was a resounding cheer from all in attendance, however many that actually was.