Skeletons danced in silver mist, and Kira wondered whether he was dreaming.  He pinched his arm and gasped.  Nope; definitely still awake.  There really were dancing skeletons, and the cavern floor really was covered in a swirling layer of silver mist.  His breath was hot and stifled behind his mask, and his robes were starting to stick to his skin.  Gross!  The mist gathering around his feet cooled him off a bit, but the cavern was so full of people that it was getting unbearably hot.  “This is not my idea of a good time,” he said, tugging the neck of his robes and trying vainly to get some circulation going.  “At least I don’t have to smile.”  It was true- the mask covered his entire face, so nobody would tell if he was grimacing or not.
“Just behave, my little honey-badger!”  His mother spun by him, ice-blue robes swirling around her as she moved.  Her mask was painted a bright red, to contrast her robes, and its eyes were cast to the heavens in in joyous delight.  “Try to have fun, okay?”  Her voice was so lilting that her words could almost be described as sung, not spoken, and Kira frowned.  He wished she didn’t sound so… happy all the time.  It was annoying.
“I will,” he said, exasperation coloring his promise, “don’t worry.”
Evidently satisfied, his mother left, laughing as she joined the crowd.  Nobody knew who was who, which was part of the festival’s point.  It gave everyone in the tribe a chance to really get to know people outside of their usual social circles, free of any stigma or pre-conceived notions they may carry about each other.  Not even family members knew who was who- everyone had designed their masks and chosen their outfits in complete secret.  Of course, close friends and family never had any trouble recognizing each other, but the festival wasn’t about them- it was about making new connections with people previously considered strangers. 
A skeleton whirled by Kira, and the boy shivered.  The dead spirits majorly creeped him out- he’d always been sensitive to magical energies and the magical world in general, and the aura of necromantic power these things exuded was just hair-raising.  He didn’t dislike parties, not exactly, but he hated these skeletons.  They were the main point of the festival, too, which made this whole affair ten times worse.  They were the guardians of Death’s Door; these skeletons were responsible for keeping the doors to the beyond firmly shut until a newly departed soul needed to pass through.  This festival was in their honor.  Knowing what they did, knowing that he would see their leering skulls staring down at him after his death, only made watching them dance among the living all the more eerie. 
The dance was already in full sway when he arrived.  Kira was a little late- he’d left making his mask to the last minute, which probably wasn’t the best idea ever, but whatever.  His robes were a very dark red, almost black, and emblazoned with patterns of bursting flames and floating embers to reflect his chosen magical study.  His mask was painted a bright gold.  Gold was something Kira loved, preferably in great quantities.  Anything shiny or valuable, really, but gold was Kira’s favorite.  His greedy nature was hardly a secret, since he’d displayed kleptomaniac symptoms since early childhood, but he was actually kind of glad that it wasn’t a secret to anyone.  At least he didn’t have to make up a reason for why his mask was painted gold.  Everything had a why, see, and if he couldn’t explain a why, people would know it was for a secret reason and pry.  Whys weren’t meant to be hidden, especially not during festivals.
A skeleton whirled by Kira, and the boy started in shock.  Its glowing red eyes had looked straight into Kira’s blue ones, and a dreadful feeling of unease had settled over him.  The skeleton passed him by without a second glance, and Kira stood, shivering, in its wake.  He’d always prided himself on his magical abilities and sensitivities, and now every bone in his body was screaming that something was terribly, horribly wrong.  It wasn’t just the normal weirdness of being around a spirit of death; it was a very real, very abnormal fear.  Kira backed up and ran into the crowd.  He needed to find the Shaman.  If there was one thing he’d learned in his training, it was to trust his instincts, and his instincts were telling him to get help. 
The Shaman wasn’t too hard to find, even in the masked crowd.  There were only so many short, hunch-backed old women with elaborate staffs in the tribe, after all.  She was dancing with an elderly gentleman, and Kira bounced from one foot to another while he waited for her to finish.  When the man finally wandered away, Kira tapped the Shaman on the shoulder.
 “Kira,” she said, her golden bird’s mask gleaming in the flickering torchlight, “how nice to see you again!   You’re looking well.”  She took his hands in hers, and the two began to dance.  “Enjoying being an adult, then?”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding impatiently, “it’s great, but listen.  There’s something really wrong here.  Those skeletons- I looked one in the eye a minute ago, and a great feeling of trepidation swept over me.  I don’t think they’re who they’re supposed to be; whatever those spirits are, I don’t think they’re the guardians of Death’s Door.”
The Shaman hummed and twirled under his arm.  “Yes,” she said, “I know.”
“What?”  Kira’s eyes widened, and he nearly broke the dance.  He stumbled back into step and lowered his voice to avoid attracting attention to them.  “You know?”
“Something must have gone wrong in the summoning,” she said.  Kira realized that her eyes weren’t on him, but were instead scanning the room around them.  He also noticed that their dance was subtly avoiding all the skeletons in the room.  “You’re quite right, Kira- very good of you to notice.  I’ll be sure to put in a good word with your teacher when this is done.”
“But- but-”
“There’s nothing we can do about it now,” she said.  “The summoning’s already done- these spirits are here until the end of the festival.”
“There has to be something we can do!” 
“Keep your voice down!”  For Kira’s exclamation had caused some heads- live heads, thankfully- to turn in their direction.  “I understand your frustration,” she said, once the curious tribesmen had looked away, “but it is not within our power to send them away after they have been summoned.  At the stroke of twelve, the spell will break, and their bones will crumble to dust, their spirits returning to wherever they were summoned from.  We just have to watch and wait.  They seem content simply dancing and taking in the festival- as long as we don’t alert them to our suspicions, this night may yet end without incidence.”
“But,” Kira said, his eyes darting nervously from skeleton to skeleton, “what if this isn’t an accident?   What if they have some sort of secret agenda?”
“We will simply have to wait and see,” the Shaman said.  “Stay alert.  Do not drink anything that dulls the senses or slows the mind.  If our fears are confirmed, we will need every stroke of cunning and every ounce of power we possess.”
A loud clacking suddenly broke through their conversation.  One of the skeletons had begun to clap, and the dancing and talk ceased as everyone turned to look.  The skeletons were quite larger than everyone else, so it was easy to see its grinning skull above the heads of everyone else.  Kira and the Shaman drew apart to watch. 
“It is good,” the skeleton said, raising a goblet high, “to see you all live and merry this night.  I and my fellows have not lived for a good many centuries, you understand.  We’d quite forgotten.” 
The crowd of robed, masked figures began to murmur.  The guardians of Death’s Door had never spoken during the festival.  Kira and the Shaman shared a look, and Kira allowed a single tongue of flame to trickle down his arm and gather into his hand. 
“A lovely little party you’ve got going on here,” the skeleton continued.  “We’re honored to be invited.”  It toasted them with its goblet and raised the cup to its jaw to drink.  The fluid splashed against its bones and pooled on the floor by its feet.  The spirit sighed.  “You see,” it said, “we do not share the delightful senses of the living.  Food, drink, pleasure; all are denied to us.  We are cursed in death to be deprived of all the things we delighted in the most in life.  We weren’t the best sort of bunch, I’ll admit, but do we deserve this?”  The spirit raised its arms and looked meaningfully at its bony appendages.  “I don’t think so.  Do you, boys?”
A loud roar of dissent from the gathered spirits made Kira jump.  The skeletons had surrounded the tribe while everyone had been busy staring at the speaker, and he looked around at them with a sense of rising fear.  
“Well, there you have it.”  The spirit dropped its arms.  “Quite unfair, you see.  And that’s where you come in.”  It reached up to its skull and, with a sickening pop, pulled it right off.  Decapitation didn’t keep it from chattering on, though.  “So much magic here,” it said, “so much life.  It radiates from you all like light.”  Its jaw set.  “I want that light.”
The Shaman thumped her staff against the cavern floor, and a dome of energy suddenly shined around the gathered tribe, separating them from the unwanted spirits.   “You are the damned,” she said, her voice clear and unwavering, “and you will find no place with us.  Begone!  Leave us in peace, and spend your eternity of suffering somewhere else.”  Kira winced.  She certainly didn’t waste any time mincing words. 
The lead skeleton stepped in front of her, so close that the barrier began to crackle around it, and grinned.  Its head was nestled into the crook of its elbow, and Kira wasn’t sure whether to stare at the disembodied head or the awkward way the spine just sorta… stopped.  He decided to stare at the Shaman instead, judging the sight of her to be less of a puking hazard.
“We’re not going anywhere,” the skeleton said. “We want your life, see, your magic.  There’s enough energy in here to end our damnation and give us back life!  To feel, to see,” he scraped a finger against the barrier before the Shaman, “to love… would you really deny us these pleasures, wizened one?”
The Shaman thumped her staff against the ground again, and the barrier crackled threateningly.  “You have no power here,” she said.  “You will take nothing from us!  You indulged in your passions in life, and your punishment in death is rightly deserved.  Leave us!”
The spirit tossed its head into the air, somehow managing to reattach it to its spine, and cackled.  “You stupid mortals don’t have the power to banish us,” it said.  “You invited us in, and in we’ll stay until midnight.  And last I checked,” it said, leering, “we’ve still got two hours.”
Kira, quivering with fear, swallowed and yelled over the crowd at the skeleton.  “You can’t touch us,” he said.  “Like you said, we’ve got power.  Two hours are nothing!  We can hold this barrier, and then, when midnight comes, your bones will crumble to dust, your spirits sent back into whatever dark pit you crawled from.”
The spirit didn’t answer.  Instead, it held up one bony finger and pressed it against the barrier the Shaman had made.  Instead of throwing the skeleton back, the barrier quivered.  The shimmering light seemed to be sucked into the figure of the damned, and the barrier began to thin.  The Shaman thumped her staff against the ground and poured more energy into the barrier, fighting against the spirit.  Terror spiked through Kira’s body, but everything still seemed to be under control.
Then the other skeletons joined in, and Kira’s hopes were dashed.  Each of them raised a hand and pressed it against the barrier, and the Shaman gasped as she was forced to pour an inordinate amount of energy into maintaining it.  There were over a dozen skeletons, and each was sucking energy like a little kid sucks away at a milkshake.  Many of the tribesmen raised their own hands and concentrated, helping the Shaman and pouring their own power into keeping the skeletons out. 
Kira raised his own hand, preparing to lend his own energy, but a hiss from the Shaman stopped him.  “Don’t!”   She was panting, and Kira was sure that if he lifted her bird’s mask, he would see sweat glistening on her ancient forehead.  “My room.  Red book.  The damned shouldn’t be among the living like this- we need help!”
“Run through the barrier.”  She thumped a nearby tribesman on the back.  “Cloak him in shadows,” she said.  “Hide him from the spirits’ sight.”
“Yes, Wise One!”  Kira blinked behind his mask.  That was his father’s voice!  Booming and loud- it was impossible to mistake.  “Are you ready?”  Kira nodded, and without warning, all color seemed to have left the room.  Was that supposed to happen?
“Go!”  The Shaman pushed him, and he staggered through the barrier.  He nearly bumped into a skeleton, and he had to bite his lip to keep from screaming.  He glanced back to the barrier and ran for the Shaman’s home.
            He hurried into the Shaman’s room, safely cloaked in shadows, and looked around.  “Red book, red book.  How am I supposed to find a red book when everything’s all grey?”  He ran a frustrated hand through his hair and groaned.  There were books everywhere in this room!  Set in bookshelves, scattered across the floor, spread all along desks, even left open on the bed- without proper sight, he would never be able to find the right book in time.  There was no way the tribe could last it out for two whole hours like this- he needed to find the red book now!
           There was only one thing to be done.  He had to break the cloaking magic and just hope no spirits came for him.  He lifted his gold mask, spat into his palms, and pressed his hands against his eyes. Kira exhaled gently.  When he took his hands away from his eyes, his sight had been restored.  Colors jumped out at him, and it didn’t take long for him to find the only solid red book in the bunch.  With the relief came a sense of urgency- his protection was gone.  He was naked before the magical eyes of the spirits.  Would they sense his energy and come, or would they be too preoccupied with the barrier to notice? 
            He picked the book off the bed and flipped through it, scanning each page frantically.  “The damned shouldn’t dwell among the living,” he said, repeating the Shaman’s words, “we need help.  There must be some sort of supernatural police force in here, come on….”
            Thirty seconds later, he was dashing back out of the Shaman’s home.  The barrier was failing- dark, diseased patches were growing all along its shining surface at an alarming rate.  More than a couple tribesmen had already fallen, their bodies and energies spent.  The skeletons, in contrast, didn’t show any signs of slowing down.  They leered down at the weakening gathering, sucking the people’s energy into themselves and growing stronger by the second.  Kira’s heart fluttered against his chest as a few skulls turned and chattered in his direction.  An unprotected mage.  An open target.
            Kira ran for the barrier.  A few of the spirits abandoned their attack and turned to grab him.  Kira raised his hand and made as if to throw something on the ground.  Bright light erupted from nowhere, and the skeletons rattled, momentarily stunned.  Kira slipped through the barrier and made straight for the Shaman, who was leaning heavily against her staff. 
            “I found it,” he said breathlessly.  He held the opened book before her, and she smiled in approval.
            “That will work,” she said.  “Summon them.  I don’t have the strength to spare.”
            Kira nodded and stood tall.  “Spirits of the damned,” he said, his voice loud and sure, “your very presence here is an abomination; a crime against nature.  This isn’t your world anymore, so get out!”
            The spirits laughed and mocked him.  Kira looked down at his book and ignored their taunts and insults.  There was nothing else to be done.  He would have to summon them.  He licked his lips.  The last time he’d summoned a spirit hadn’t gone well- it had nearly killed him and attacked the whole tribe.  The Shaman was counting on him, though, so he would have to do his best and hope that this time would be better.
            He looked down at the book, swallowed, and began to read the summoning spell.  “Spirits of justice, great and wise / I call now for help, my time of need / cross over now from the other side / come to me, your aid I plead.” 
            Nothing happened.  The lead skeleton began to laugh.  “Your call has gone unanswered, little man.  It was a good try, though.”  It leered, and Kira knew he was being mocked.  His shoulders drooped. The Shaman took his arm and smiled.
            “The summons won’t be ignored,” she said.  “They’ll come when they deem it time.  Keep faith, Kira.”  She stood up a little straighter.  “Spirits of justice, great and wise….”
            Kira looked at her.  They were about to die, and they were waiting on some spirits to ‘deem it time?’  How stupid was that- why couldn’t they come now?  He wanted them to answer the summons now!  Still, this was their only hope.  He exhaled.  Magic, especially summoning magic, wouldn’t work unless the mind was clear.  Frustration, desperation, and anger would only make the magic fail.  “I call for help, my time of need….”
            More voices picked up and joined them.  Kira recognized his mother’s lilt and his father’s boom.  “Cross over now from the other side / come to me, your aid I plead.
            The skeletons laughed, their cackling skulls filling the cavern with the sounds of echoing malice.  “You naïve children,” the leader said, “believing the spirits will come to your aid!  They gave up on you long ago- they gave up on all of us!  If the spirits were good, would they condemn us to such a fate?  Would they leave you alone to be devoured by us, the spirits of the unjustly damned?  Give it up!”
            “Don’t waver,” Kira said, speaking to the entire tribe, “keep going!  Spirits of justice, great and wise….”
            Everyone’s concentration was on the summons.  Nobody was paying attention to the barrier, and it faltered and died under the skeletons’ dead touch.  The leader advanced on them, reaching out a lifeless hand, but it could not touch them.  It was as if an invisible wall lay just between them, a wall that kept all the skeletons from touching any of the tribesmen.  They got freakily close to everyone, but they were absolutely unable to touch them. 
            “What?”  The lead skeleton pressed harder, but it was unable to drain whatever was keeping it at bay.  A light began to shine around the tribe, a light that glowed so fiercely that Kira winced and had to look away.  His peripherals showed the skeletons stumbling back, hissing at the unwelcome light.  “What is this magic?”
            “Come to me, your aid I plead!”  The entire tribe lifted their voices in the summoning, and the light exploded outwards, grabbing each of the skeletons and enveloping them in burning white light.  The voices of the damned screamed in pain and fury, but despite all their wails and flails, they couldn’t break free of the light. 
            “The spirits,” the Shaman said, “they’ve answered our summons!”  Kira looked over to her.  She was leaning heavily on her staff, but her quivers seemed more from joy than fear and exhaustion now. 
            With a final roar and a flash of great light, the skeletons disappeared completely.  Kira looked at an hourglass set against the cavern wall.  One hour and forty-five minutes until midnight.  The spirits of the damned were gone, banished back into the other world.  No mortal magic could do that, but they’d called on powers greater than anything mortals could comprehend.  Kira turned and hugged his mother, doing his best not to cry. 
            “You did well, Kira.”  The Shaman was kneeling by a collapsed tribesman, but her eyes gleamed brightly from behind her golden bird’s mask.  “I hope you’ve learned from this, Kira.  When a problem seems insurmountable by mortal means, call on them who know no limits; they can do things we could never dream of.  Never believe that they’re ignoring your summons, either- they always answer our calls.  Have faith.”