“Now this is a spread,” Thundar laughed, eyeing the mountain of steaming food that lay in front of the group.
Everything had been laid out on wide platters and set on tables Alex had borrowed from the university for the occasion. Despite their length—suitable for a banquet hall—they were filled to bursting with fine looking food.
At the centre of one of the tables was a massive copper cauldron where Alex’s stew steamed. The thickened, slowly simmered dish was filled with chunks of tender beef, venison, and vegetables all topped with a deep layer of melted cheese. Wondering if there might be some sensitivity for his friend if he served the dish, he’d asked Thundar if beef would be a problem.
“Ain’t gonna lie, it creeps some minotaurs out,” Thundar had said. “And some even have a whole special diet that avoids the stuff, but I don’t really mind it. That’d be like a fish beastman not eating other fish: what else are they gonna eat from the ocean, only seaweed?”
Surrounding the cauldron were Theresa’s fried fish fillets placed near bowls of various sauces. Near to these, Thundar had placed a whole smoked ham glazed in sweetened apple puree, and decorated with slices of a candied fruit Alex had never seen before: pineapple.
Yet, these weren’t the only dishes that had been brought to the table: his other guests had their own departed to honour and so each had brought foods to add to the feast.
Orders had been placed at the school restaurants: Isolde had picked up a small mountain of potato pancakes with sour cream, a batch of pretzels served with sweet mustard, and slices of a hearty, smoked sausage. Prince Khalik had brought a type of spongy flatbread from his homeland along with ground meat sautéed in an aromatic spice blend, as well as several pots of different types of brewed coffees.
Shishi had made a dish of stuffed mushrooms, braised with vegetables and chicken, served on a mound of scented rice. Svenia and Hogarth had been given leave by Isolde to have a celebration with other friends they had met on campus, and Shiani and Angelar were spending the Festival of Ghosts with their own friends or loved ones. One guest who Alex had not expected to answer his invitation was Grimloch, but he was there.
“Nua-Oge’s with her friends,” the giant shark man had said upon arrival, carrying a massive platter of fire-roasted eel. “They’re not my friends, and you make better food, so, here I am.”
And so he had joined them at one end of the table—sitting on the grass instead of a chair because of his towering height.
Another table filled with desserts was set up nearby: Alex’s pumpkin pies and cookies were on display, and Thundar had added apple cake to them. Of course, Theresa’s portion of cookies had been set aside and hadn’t made it to supper. Others had contributed their own desserts to the spread, filling the table with delightful smelling treats. The only thing on the table that wasn’t baked were pitchers of a refreshing drink called ginger beer, which the university provided to everyone for the festival.
The masks people were wearing were interesting too.
Selina hummed to herself in her troll mask, while Theresa self-consciously fidgeted in her wolf mask. Thundar was wearing a leather mask of a demon—with holes at the top for his horns to fit through. Khalik wore a wooden mask of a snarling beast that Alex couldn’t put a name to, while Isolde also wore a wooden mask, but hers was painted to look like the snarling face of an air elemental. Shishi’s mask was stark white with a wide grinning mouth and strange, protruding, tusk-like fangs.
Grimloch hadn’t gotten the concept of masks and hadn’t bothered with one.
“I’m scary enough for any ghost,” he’d said proudly.
Alex didn’t disagree with that statement. At all.
Brutus just came as himself—some would think that was scary enough—while Khalik had placed Najyah’s leather hood on her.
“Alright, Thundar.” Alex looked at the minotaur now that everyone was seated. “So…how does this all work exactly? We’re here in our masks and everything and, sorry to everyone who knows what’s going on.” He turned the snout of his dragon mask to everyone at the table. “But I have no idea.”
“We honour the dead now,” Thundar said. “With our masks on to frighten away ghosts of evil folk that might be called by our words. We keep those we’re honouring in our minds, and dedicate the food we eat to them. But, we have to start two hours before sunset, which is about nowish. Then we’ll need to be finished eating and have our masks back on by the time sunset comes. Then, before we can each go home, we need to go somewhere as a group so that the dead don’t follow any of us ‘cos we’re alone. From there, that‘ll mark the end of the first day of the festival.”
“Hmmm, you know a lot about this,” Theresa noted, scratching beneath her wolf mask. “Why don’t you lead us then, Thundar? If that’s alright with everyone.”
There was a murmur of agreement from all around the table, and Thundar seemed to swell a little bit with pride.
“Alright, bow your heads,” the minotaur said. “Close your eyes and think about who you’re honouring with this meal.”
Alex did as his friend said, bowing his head and closing his eyes beneath his dragon mask. He felt a small hand slip into his from beside him: Selina’s. His hand gave hers a quick squeeze.
“Oh, honoured ancestors,” he heard Thundar’s deep voice begin. “Lost friends and family, fallen members of the herd: we think about you through the year, but during this feast, we bring you into the centre of our thoughts and we dedicate this food to you. We eat for you so that—through us—you can taste mortal sustenance again. Please watch over us throughout the year and please keep those that might harm us from death’s plane away from us.”
He paused. “Please bring forward whoever you’re dedicating this feast to in your thoughts.”
Images of Alex’s mother and father came to his mind. They were more vivid than they had been in a long time. He wasn’t sure if it was because he’d been thinking about them so much lately, or if it was the atmosphere of the festival, or nostalgia from the scent of their dishes. Or maybe it was The Mark’s habit of drawing sharp memories from his mind that had enhanced his memories, but he could hear their voices more clearly in his mind and notice details about them that he’d forgotten over the years.
“Now, say out loud who you want to honour,” Thundar said.
“Mother and father,” Alex said quietly.
He heard the murmur of the others around the table, but couldn’t hear what they said specifically over his own words.
“Let the dead join with the living in feast from beyond,” Thundar pronounced. “And let our memories of them grow happier and stronger. Alright, let’s begin. All of you can open your eyes and take off your masks. And-Oh holy shit!”
Alex’s eyes snapped open to find everyone else staring at Thundar—who was looking up with his mouth hanging open—except for Khalik, whose mouth wasn’t gaping, but he was also staring up at the sky.
Alex slowly looked up. “Oh, by Uldar!” he cried, holding Selina’s hand tighter.
The evening sky was filled with glowing beings drifting through the air, like silvery cloth pulled from a clothesline. There must have been hundreds of them, and they flitted through the air silently. Most were humanoid, but many bore the shapes of animals and other beasts. Some had a peaceful look about them while others were covered in signs of violence.
“Ghosts,” Khalik said. “My brother spoke of this, but to see it is incredible.”
“You knew this’d happen?” Thundar said incredulously.
“Should we run?” Isolde was halfway out of her chair, her face pale.
“Wonder if ghosts taste like chicken,” Grimloch rumbled.
“It is fine, it is fine.” Khalik waved them back down. “Generasi is so full of magic that lost spirits can more easily manifest themselves here, especially on this night sacred to them with our calls going out to the dead. They cannot harm us.”
“Are you sure about that?” Theresa said stiffly, her hand immediately grabbing for a silver table knife. She was staring at one particular ghost of some kind of monster: a serpent-like creature with nine heads that had snapping jaws. “They sure look like they can harm us.”
“They cannot,” Khalik assured her. “At least, according to my brother. They simply are weak, normally invisible spirits that are made visible on this night. Besides, the rituals we do for the festival will protect us, and there are wards on Generasi that help stop most ghostly mischief. If anything, we do them a favour: giving any spirits that were trapped in this world the strength to move on to the next.”
“Is…are our families up there?” Selina asked hopefully.
Khalik paused, and shook his head sadly. “Only those that were too weak to pass over, those that have lingered near this place, or those that have died very recently are in the tide above. I am sorry, little one.”
“That’s too bad,” Selina said a little sadly.
Khalik reached over and patted her shoulder.
“Well, then,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “We have until sunset to put all of this away!”
Despite their uneasy focus on the ghosts floating above, the guests glanced around to see that many of the other students picnicking on the campus green had begun enjoying their meal without a second look at the ghosts.
Alex glanced at Theresa, who was staring at the sky with her ‘death stalker face’. She looked at him, they exchanged shrugs and started eating. Selina stared at the sky a little longer—her expression a puzzle of different emotions—and then she also jumped into the feast.
Soon, the air was filled with sounds of appreciation and high spirits. Alex noted with a degree of self-satisfaction that—after tasting it once or twice—his guests immediately dove for his father’s stew before it could run out. Even the fine dishes made by Generasi’s expert chefs were attacked only after his friends had filled their bowls with seconds of the stew.
Once the stew and fish he’d helped Theresa fry disappeared—which didn’t take long—they tore into everything else heartily.
Shishi’s mushroom dish didn’t last long, and neither did Khalik’s and Isolde’s offerings. After everyone took a serving of Grimloch’s fire-roasted eel, he made short work of the rest, sucking it back like a mana vacuum.
Alex had to admit, Thundar was a pretty good cook. His ham’s smoky flavour blended well with the tart sweetness of his apple puree glaze, and the yellow candied pineapple added pops of sweetness to the cured meat.
“Thundar, you gotta share this recipe with me,” he said appreciatively, shoving a chunk into his mouth. “I’d eat this everyday.”
“Then you’d weigh more than him,” Thundar jerked his head toward Grimloch.
The shark man grunted. “He could use the weight.”
Alex balked, grabbing at his own growing muscles defensively. “I’m getting there! Not all of us can be ten feet tall, you know!”
“Maybe you could use some magic to fix that,” Theresa said, then glanced over to Thundar and Grimloch. “As for you two, have you thought about trying life enforcement? I’d love to see what it’d do for people already as vigorous as you.”
“Didn’t work for me.” Thundar shook his head. “I already tried it: A classmate showed me. Thought I was gonna explode.”
“Ah, that’s too bad,” Theresa said. “I’m surprised you didn’t try it in a class, though. You might have enjoyed it with an experienced instructor. ”
“Found out about the class later, after I’d already chosen my classes,” he said. “Also, didn’t really have anything motivating me to do it, at least at first. But, I’m kinda interested now."
Theresa raised an eyebrow. “What finally got you into it, then?”
“Well, there’s this club I’m in and…” He paused. “Well, let’s just say I thought it might be interesting after that. Someone I know from there is into it.”
The minotaur went back to sipping his ginger beer.
Alex’s eyes narrowed, then he looked to the side. “Hey, is that person over there wearing a fox mask?”
Thundar immediately doubled-over coughing, sputtering, and spitting out his drink.
Isolde yelped and quickly moved her chair a distance from him.
When the minotaur looked up, he saw Alex’s evilly grinning face. “Soooo,” the young man said. “Thaaaat’s how it is.”
The minotaur instantly went back to eating his food.
Alex filed the information away for later.
Dessert was as enjoyable as dinner, with Alex’s slices of pumpkin pie, his mother’s cookies, and the other desserts disappearing into everyone’s mouths.
Selina said that the cookies reminded her of their mother and she was going to eat an extra one for her. He had two extra for her.
He’d asked Thundar for his apple cake recipe, which the minotaur refused to give him at first, saying something about fox comments being off limits. Alex had looked at him with complete innocence on his face, while Thundar had looked back at him sidelong. In the end, he promised to give Alex the recipe while muttering something about replacing the sugar with salt and the apples with gravel.
Groaning and rubbing their bellies, they finally got up from the table and made their way away from their picnic sight, taking Brutus and Najyah along with them. There was a heavy Watcher of Roal presence all throughout the university grounds, which helped everyone feel more relaxed.
The group strolled the campus, their faces hidden behind their masks as they checked out an assortment of after-supper activities that had been set up for the festival. There were games for children and adults alike, dancing on the school grounds, and spectacles crafted by illusion and other spells.
Then there were the scares.
People had set up activities that took full advantage of the spookiness of the festival—haunted houses converted from some of the smaller school buildings—as well as tests of courage and other scary activities.
The first stop the group made was at a haunted house filled with illusions and wizards who’d transformed. There were massive ‘spiders’, and ‘demons’ that spit illusionary acid, monstrous wolves, and other creepy beasts that sprang at them. Screams filled the air from throughout the house, including from Alex’s group, though he noticed that Grimloch wasn’t one of the screamers.
At one point, a wizard who’d transformed into a demonic looking bear leapt at them from behind a corner and ran right into the giant shark man’s grinning fangs, then abruptly fled—shrieking—back around the corner.
At the end of their visit, they had to pause when an enthusiastic student approached Grimloch—thinking that he was wearing a costume—and asked him if he could be part of the haunted house the following year. He said he’d consider it.
Wizards dressed like fairy tale witches in long blood-red robes conjured up bound demons to swoop over cauldrons spitting smoke and horrifying moans. Alex even saw a laughing fairy tale witch—complete with a green warty mask—shoot by them on a skeleton horse while spreading smoke behind her that formed the shapes of shimmering bats and gargoyles.
From her voice, Alex was about 70% sure it was Professor Jules. Despite the recent trouble, spirits were high and everyone’s sombre mood had faded to the background.
“I think…” Selina giggled as she watched an illusion of two grey-skinned beasts dancing in the air. “Mother and father would have liked this.”
“Oh I know they would have,” Alex said. “I know they would have.”
“I think so too.” Theresa suddenly raised an eyebrow in surprise, recognizing a young man with a certain frost drake, which was lying on its back and allowing children to pet its cool scales. “And it’s too bad my parents couldn’t be here for this.”
“Tell them to come next year,” Alex said. “They’ve gotta see this.”
He took in all the sights, trying to imagine such a spooky, but fun festival taking place in their homeland. Probably not, he thought: monsters would bring up too many bad memories of The Ravener’s aggressions toward the people.
Just another reason for him to see what information he could get from examining the dungeon core’s remains. He glanced at the flying witch who he was sure was his potions professor.
Hopefully, he could do that soon.
“For the last time, Alex, no,” Professor Jules said as they finished their weekend work in her lab. It had been a few days since the Festival of Ghosts. “You will have to take the second semester potions course. No Challenging the Exam for Credit here.”
Alex noticed a catch in her voice when she refused him this time and nearly twitched in excitement.
He had a feeling he was wearing her down.
If he was persistent, this might be the day he could take a huge leap toward gaining access to a lab to analyze the dungeon core.