Please ignore the fact that ghosts are a literal monster in D&D. It’s spooky season, dangit. We’re pretending.
* * *
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
Knowles couldn’t help but note the tiny quirk of mischief at the corner of Cybilene’s mouth as she asked the question. They were fairly sure that Tode noticed too, although he opted to mirror the look, ready to join in with mischief of his own. He was doing that more and more, falling easily into step with his twin. It was probably healthy, Knowles thought.
“I mean, it seems silly to dismiss the possibility, given everything I’ve seen,” Castor posited.
“Still though, like, ghosts?” Rosie waved a lackadaisical hand. “I don’t really know. There’s plenty of weird stuff that’s real without adding spirits. Like the actual undead.”
“You don’t believe in ghosts? Really?” Killiker asked. He was laying down beside the fire and had been whistling up until that moment, a lonesome song that Knowles could feel kneading the stress out of their shoulders. They were sorry he stopped.
“Nah, not really,” Rosie said. She leaned back on her hands, long and lean, soaking up the glow of the fire. “What about you, Zara?”
Zara, who was never cold, not even in the chill of the late fall, was nevertheless hunched over closer than anyone to the flames. She looked…pensive. Thoughtful.
Usually Knowles had no trouble reading people, not even Zara, who was as closed-off as a mussel. Today though…what was she up to?
“I’ve seen one,” she said finally.
“What?” Rosie gasped.
“No way,” Knowles commented, grinning.
Zara nodded. “It was while I was at the Circle.”
“Well, I must know this story,” Tode said.
“Yes, do tell,” Cybilene agreed.
Zara nodded again, slowly. “The other students said…I didn’t ever believe it, really, but they said that a long time ago, there was a professor who was just a little too strict. They were all strict, of course, but this guy…apparently he really had it out for one particular young wizard. And this wizard…snapped.”
She said it with so much grit that Knowles felt themself leaning away. Was this an autobiographical ghost story?
“The wizard cornered the professor and murdered him,” Zara went on, her tone darker than the surrounding night. “Not with magic. With a knife. They stabbed the professor over and over again…the number goes up every time you ask anyone about it, but it was at least five times. And they were so far gone that they didn’t even bother to clean up the evidence. They went to class the next day absolutely spattered in gore. People said they…they didn’t even seem to understand what was wrong with the way they were dressed.”
The friends around the fire were struck silent, horrified. Knowles’ knew their own eyebrows had shot up, and everyone else was downright appalled.
“What about the ghost?” Castor murmured.
Zara sighed…or no, she released a controlled breath, a shaky breath. Oh gods.
“I didn’t buy it,” she said finally. “I’d heard that kind of story before, and it was always…kid stuff. But then…then one day I was…walking the halls after lights-out.”
“Whyyyy,” Rosie moaned.
“That’s a surefire way to see a ghost,” Killiker commented, enraptured.
“I didn’t believe in ghosts,” Zara snapped. “I’m still not sure what I saw.”
“What did you see?” Cybilene asked.
Zara paused again.
Aha. The barest hint of a smile. Now Knowles knew the game.
“It was just a shimmer at first,” she said. “A weird little…floating patch of light. And then it took shape.”
“What shape?” Tode asked.
“A human man,” Zara said. “A professor. He looked me in the eye and…and reached out to touch me. He was…he was covered in blood.”
“Oh my gods,” Castor said, in a tiny voice.
“Really?” Rosie said breathlessly.
Zara’s usual scowl appeared. “No, of course not.”
All six of the others exhaled. “Zara!” Rosie protested.
“You really had us going there,” Cybiline said, chuckling.
“You are all so gullible,” Zara said, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know if ghosts are real or not, but I’ve never seen any evidence.”
“It’s interesting, the idea of refusing to leave after you’ve died,” Tode said thoughtfully. “I wonder if such a thing can be.”
“Do you believe in ghosts, Knowles?” Killiker asked.
Knowles considered this, shifting a little to lean up against a convenient rock. “I’m not really sure. I feel like the only thing that ever haunts me is the past.”
The others fell silent, and suddenly Knowles regretted it. They meant it almost as a joke, but the longer they spent opening up to their friends, the more they realized how many of their jokes were rather grim.
“It haunts all of us, from time to time,” Cybilene said quietly.
“Well,” Killiker said, changing the mood with a single word, “not much to change about the past. But for the present, perhaps I can tell a real ghost story?”
“Oh yes!” Cybiliene said, perking up immediately.
Zara tilted her head. “If you think you can top mine.”
Killiker grinned and sat up straight, instantly commanding the party’s attention. “A worthy challenge. Gather around, friends, for this is a tale so harrowing, your hair will turn white, and your toes will curl.”
“Promise?” Rosie teased.
“I always deliver,” Killiker said haughtily. He leaned in, his face in just enough shadow for the maximum spookiness. “It all started on a night like this one. In fact, I was told that this story took place…not far from here.”
Smiling, glad for their friends, Knowles scooted in a little closer as Killiker went on.