Johnny Napalm trudged his way up the path toward the crumbling ivory towers of Karazhan. Bjorn huffed restlessly at his side. One of the mages guarding the door—ensemble complete with a skeletal helmet and ghastly green glow—held out his staff to block the hunter’s entrance; he looked over the invitation as it was handed to him, then scrunched his face behind his helm.
“Costumes or no entry. Even says right here.”
Johnny merely pushed a finger into the underside of the wide brim of his witch’s hat—the only piece to his outfit. “I’m a witch.”
The two guards regarded one another. The other shrugged. “The bear cannot enter, however. No animals.”
The undead man bristled and gestured to the animal beside him. “But he’s wearing a costume!” Bjorn lowered his pustule-laden head as though showing off the tiny bat wings secured between his massive shoulder blades.
Johnny eyed a pair of pandaren guests as they were permitted in. “But—”
“Allow this exception,” came a familiar voice behind the two men.
“Oh! Uh. Of course, Archmage,” the disgruntled guard stammered and the pair stepped away from one another to permit them entrance.
“Thank you,” Johnny sighed and followed Archmage Khadgar into the foyer just beyond the inside staircase.
The taller man smiled, his false fangs poking into the skin just beneath his lip. “I figured they’d give you a problem so I told them to warn me when you’d arrived.” He tapped a gloved finger against his chin. “Though, in retrospect, I could have just written a personal invite for you permitting your companion.”
“No, there’s no need to go through such trouble.” Johnny waved a hand.
“I can trust your friend will remain…docile?”
“Of course! He’s not prone to doing things unless commanded…or threatened.”
The mage—dressed in fairytale-esque, vampiric regalia—seemed to shift in discomfort. “Right. Well. I suppose I owe you a favor regardless.” He motioned to the next room where loud murmuring over the soft playing of orchestral music wafted through the archway. “Please, enjoy yourself.”
He thanked his host and the two made their way into the crowd—which promptly parted at the sight of the massive animal. No sooner had he neared the archway to the next room than a figure adorned in a flowing, tattered dress streaked by with a wicker picnic basket under her arm. She giggled madly and stopped in the doorway to turn and observe her pursuer.
“Ali! Give me back my basket!”
Johnny perked at the familiar voice and watched with mild amusement as a woman with pale blue skin and face shadowed beneath a red cowl ran by as well. She crashed into the white-haired woman dressed as a marionette and the two fell to the shining checkered tile of the banquet room. Bjorn quickly made his way to the thrown basket as it flew into the crowd near the hors d’oeuvre table and patrons just as quickly got out of his way.
Alisbeth Redblade crowed with laughter and sat up, adjusting her wild hair.
The red-hooded woman scoffed and spat out one of the white braids that’d found its way into her mouth. “You’re lucky there’s nothing in it.”
The girl’s head snapped to look up at Johnny and an embarrassed smile pulled across her face. She scrambled to her feet and smoothed out her pleated crimson skirt. “Yes! Hello! Johnny, wasn’t it? Heh.”
He chuckled quietly, his own smile tightening his already sunken cheeks. “Still is.” He pat her on the back when she hugged him in greeting. “I’m…actually surprised to see you. You seem the type to avoid big affairs.”
“Costume parties are always an exception,” she laughed, then jerked as a sharp elbow made contact with her ribs. “Oh! Uh. This is Alisbeth.” She gestured at the woman who had silently slunk to her side.
He shook the woman’s hand and had to grab his own arm when she shook with the strength and fervor of an orc. “I’ve heard of you, yes—”
“You have?!” Alisbeth suddenly blurted, icy eyes widening over the red circles painted onto her cheeks. “All good things, right? I hope. Though I know I do bad things sometimes.” Her smile immediately faded and their arms stopped. She scowled and tore her hand away. “Really bad things,” she whispered, glaring coldly up into his face.
Anarchaia tensed and cleared her throat. “Uh…yes. Good things. Ali, can you please go find the boys for me?” She tittered nervously and gently pushed the death knight away from Johnny as though breaking up an imminent fight between two tom cats.
“A very nice man, yes. Please?”
Alisbeth shot Johnny one last glare before turning and stomping begrudgingly off into the masses of people.
Anarchaia sighed and rested a gloved hand over her chest. “She doesn’t like…us,” she said quietly as though the woman were still near enough to hear. “Are you sure you don’t have another costume?”
Johnny furrowed his decaying brow. “Uh… Oh! Thanks, Bjorn.” He pulled the plaid cloth from the bear’s mouth, then bent to pick up the trashed remains of the basket. “Sorry. He must have thought there was something inside.” He gave the animal a loving scratch behind its rotten, moldy ear.
She gave an uneasy smile and took the pieces with the hand furthest from the animal as well as took a step back. “N-no harm done. Heh.” The basket’s parts swirled in the space between her hands and in a moment it was reassembled. She placed the cloth back over the top and tucked the handle back into the crook of her elbow.
She opened her mouth, but before any words could come out, a bone-chilling scream was heard from the upper mezzanine. The music screeched to a halt and the murmur immediately died with it. A human woman, breathless and frazzled, leaned over the railing above. “Dead!” she screamed. “Dead man! In the theater! Someone, please!”
Johnny and Anarchaia threw one another a look before bounding for the stairs.
“Not again,” the mage girl grumbled as they neared the upstairs entrance to the grand theater.
“Not again?” Johnny spat, throwing her an incredulous look.
She merely gave an uncomfortable smile in response.
When they reached the ground floor of the theater, the two slid to a halt. Hanging from the second story by a thick silken rope was a man, glossed-over eyes staring blankly ahead and a stream of fresh, vibrant green ichor pouring from his stomach and into a thick pool on the floor below. Johnny flinched and wiped away a droplet as it splashed onto his cheek.
Anarchaia whirled around, face set in a tight scowl, as a group of four people came running up behind them. “You promised!” she hissed low enough for the frightened patrons just outside the door to not hear.
Alisbeth’s eyes widened up at the hanging corpse and she ooo’d. She blinked, then gave a delayed response to the accusation. “But it wasn’t me!” She cried, then chirped when she was elbowed by a tall man dressed in tall ears, a tail, and shaggy gray fur. She lowered her voice. “It wasn’t me!”
Khadgar turned to regard the group of people not inside the theater. “A prop!” he said, hands out like corralling cattle. “Just a decoration! F-for the show! Later.”
The majority of the onlookers mumbled in apprehension, but otherwise turned and returned to the ball room.
“Seriously?” spat a man beside Alisbeth, his long white hair pulled up into a ponytail over his cowl and leather tunic. A bow was strung across his back accompanied by an empty quiver, and a thick belt around his waist held an assortment of daggers. “Can’t we just have one Hallow’s End where something doesn’t happen?”
“You heard Cadmium, Kolty! It’s a decoration! It wasn’t me!”
“It’s not a prop,” Johnny said gravely, rubbing the ichor between his gloved fingers. Bjorn lapped at the liquid, then curled his lips back in disgust before clawing at the puddle as though it may be hiding something edible underneath.
The wolf man pursed his lips and gave Alisbeth a grave look. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “I believe you, Ali.”
She pressed herself to him when the others gave frustrated glares.
“That’s pretty dense, Grim. Even for you,” Koltira snapped.
The blond squared his shoulders. “She said she didn’t do it!”
“She’s most likely lying to avoid the punishment she’s so accustomed to,” Anarchaia mumbled.
“But I’m not!” Alisbeth sniffled, tears welling in the corners of her eyes. “But they did do a really good job…”
Grimory placed a clawed hand over her face. “Ali, stop talking.”
“A trail.” Johnny said quietly in the brief moment that the group had stopped talking.
They all turned to see him crouched near the entryway backstage. His bear companion sniffed suspiciously at the door frame.
The group looked at one another. Anarchaia turned to follow the hunter. “Kolt, you and Ali stay and guard the door—and her.”
Alisbeth threw her hands up. “But—!”
“Got it.” Koltira grabbed Alisbeth by the arm and sat her down in one of the seats facing the stage.
“Grim, you and Master come with me.”
Khadgar straightened. “Me? But my guests—”
Anarchaia closed the space between them in two steps and scowled up into his pale-painted face. “Do you need another reminder of what happened last year?”
The Archmage’s face fell into a guilty frown. He shook his head slowly.
“Good. Come, then.”
The men followed her into the doorway. Bjorn, however, found himself stuck inside the frame.
Johnny gave a breathy chuckle and pushed the beast back out into the theater. “You stay here, then, friend.” He ruffled the cheek fur that crowned the bear’s face. “Watch the others.”
Bjorn gave a sort of snuffle of forced compliance and shook his mane.
The party backstage followed Johnny through the back corridors. Every now and then he’d stop to closely look at a misplaced prop or faint trace of ichor. It wasn’t long before the four came upon yet another mangled corpse—this one human—in the upper levels of the theater. The man had a set of gaping holes in his chest and his face was set in a frozen state of horror.
Anarchaia grabbed at Grimory’s arm, lips twisted in disgust and anxiety. He pat her comfortingly on the head.
“Clearly a bite,” Johnny mused as he leaned down to inspect the body. “From something big.”
“So it wasn’t Ali,” Grimory growled down at the girl beside him, wrenching his arm away.
“Can you really blame me?” she hissed. “The first victim was Forsaken!”
“I can hear you!” came Alisbeth’s voice from over the balcony.
Anarchaia flinched, then sighed. “Fine, I’m sorry. Okay?” she said to Grimory in a tone she was sure wouldn’t carry to the ground floor. She conjured a thick blanket and draped it over the body while doing everything in her power to not look at it.
“Tell her that then,” the demon hunter grumbled as they continued.
The other three aided Johnny in looking for clues and trails. Every so often they’d come across an overturned table or a tapestry that had been knocked to the floor. Their trails led them into the quiet hallways near the alternate entrance to the castle-like building. They found themselves delving deeper, coming upon a staircase that zigzagged downward. More blood streaked the path before them, dripping down each step.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Anarchaia said in nearly a whisper back to her teacher, eyes narrowed.
Khadgar perked and looked down at her. “What am I meant to be saying?”
“I don’t know. This is terrible? Why does this keep happening?”
“I don’t know. This is terrible. Why does this keep happening.”
She scoffed loudly enough to echo through the corridor they were descending through.
“Okay, stop.” Johnny turned around and looked up at the three following him. “You keep saying things that imply that stuff like this happens every year?”
The trio glanced at one another.
“Not every year,” Khadgar muttered, scratching at the short hairs on the back of his neck.
Johnny’s eyes widened some beneath his tightly knit brow. “And you keep having these parties?”
The Archmage’s disposition changed to one of disbelief. “You expect me to not throw a Hallow’s End party?”
“Last year wasn’t ours. We were invited to one,” Anarchaia interjected. She paused, then rested a curled finger over her lips in thought. “Though even before then something bad does seem to happen every year…”
An awkward silence was shared between them.
Johnny stared, unamused, for the briefest second then turned and continued down the staircase. “What’ve I gotten myself into?” he mumbled as they reached the bottom.
The air around them dramatically changed to a thick, cold aura. Both Anarchaia and Khadgar lifted their hands to light the few sconces that lined each side of the long, dark hallway before them.
The hunter furrowed his brow at the floor. The messy trail they’d been following split into two and veered off in separate directions hallways branching from the main one. He turned to his party. “Okay, I know this sounds cliché, but this’ll be faster if we split up. Grim, you come—”
“Oh, no no no.” Grimory grabbed Anarchaia by the upper arm and pulled her to him. “You get a stupidly powerful mage and I get a stupidly powerful mage, yeah?”
Johnny and Khadgar exchanged glances before both shrugging and turning down their respective hallway.
Anarchaia gave Grimory a smirk when the others were well out of earshot. “Too scared to be left without me?” she said and turned down the opposite hallway. “The big bad wolf can’t handle a little murderous beast?”
The demon hunter scowled in her wake, then smirked as well and followed. “Maybe I am the murderous beast,” he growled playfully and crept up behind her.
“Please, we already know that a creature with large fangs is responsible for—” She jumped and cried out when he grabbed her and pinned her against the wall, his smoldering claws readied above her head and glowing eyes a short distance from hers.
“Or maybe large claws?”
She stared up at him before breaking into laughter and pushing him away, the faintest color in her pale cheeks. “We both know you wouldn’t hurt an innocent person.”
His hand morphed back as he gave the back of her head an unamused glare. “Ugh, at least play along.”
Johnny found himself straining to see in the faint light of the corridor. The Archmage was diligent in lighting each torch as they neared, but the light they offered was only a small help.
“Do you have any suspicions?” Khadgar said as he stepped over a thick tangle of spiderwebs.
“Hm,” Johnny thought, avoiding a scurrying rat that had been alerted to their presence. “I want to say…spider? Most beasts don’t have two, cone-shaped fangs that close together…or of that size.”
Khadgar hummed and nodded. “An apt observation.”
“So what happened last year?”
“We’d received a mysterious invitation to a castle in the countryside. Turned out to have been sent by the Headless Horseman himself.” He chuckled, then trailed off. “It didn’t end well.”
Johnny scrunched his face at the thought—half horrified that people had actually fallen for such a trick, and half offended that he himself hadn’t been invited.
They finally came to the end of the hallway were a third corpse, attached to the wall with bloodied webbing like wings, gaped down at them in a silent scream. There were several signs that the orc woman had not gone without a fight. The surrounding area was a bloody mess and there were less patches of clean stone than there were blackish red.
“I’m beginning to think you’re right,” Khadgar said down to him with the gentlest hint of a smile. He cleared his throat and looked away from the woman secured to the wall like a piece of macabre artwork. “I think it’s ti—”
The two started and looked at one another when a scream pierced through the cold air from the direction they’d come. “Ana!” the men said in unison, then broke into a run back down the hallway. After moments of ducking beneath spiderwebs and avoiding loose bricks in the floor and walls, Johnny and the Archmage came upon the other pair at the end of their corridor.
A spider the size of a wagon hissed at them angrily. A small armada of smaller spiders chittered excitedly from the walls and ceiling.
Johnny instinctively reached for his bow, then stopped when he’d remembered he hadn’t brought one as per the invitation’s request.
Grimory, however, was undeterred. His arms morphed and mutated into hulking black claws and he stepped in front of them. He hadn’t much time, however, before the smaller beasts were upon him, crawling over him and ultimately bringing him to the floor as he struggled to rip them off himself.
The massive spider stepped over the writhing elf towards the other three.
The hunter took a step back, suddenly wishing he’d somehow shoved Bjorn’s fat behind through the door with him.
Anarchaia, nearly paralyzed with fear, stumbled backward into her teacher.
The arachnid lifted its hairy front legs, then leapt at them.
“Master!” the undead girl cried and turned to bury her face into his chest as though that were enough to protect her.
But nothing happened. Khadgar’s chest seemed to shake beneath her face and clenched fists. She looked up to see him with a wide grin on his face and shoulders shaking. He was laughing.
Anarchaia pushed away from him and shared a confused glance with Johnny. She turned to find the spider frozen mid leap. It suddenly swirled into a fluttering whorl of purple smoke, soon followed by the smaller ones still terrorizing Grimory; the elf lay motionless on the floor and glared at the ceiling.
The Archmage held his stomach with uncontained laughter.
“What is this?” the smaller mage demanded. “What’s so godsdamn funny?”
“You!” Khadgar chuckled, wiping a tear from his eye. “You were terrified! Oh, if only you could have seen yourself!” He put a hand dramatically to his head and mimicked her voice, “Master! Master, help!”
Anarchaia’s jaw fell open. “Y-You! This was all you?!” She scowled. “The bodies!”
“Actors. Looked quite real, yes?”
Johnny gave a faint chuckle.
She turned on him then. “Don’t encourage him!”
Grimory slowly stood and dusted himself off, clearly agitated. “You’re a real cockbite, old man.”
Khadgar laughed, the irritation only amusing him more. “Say what you will, but it was priceless.”
Anarchaia narrowed her eyes. “Considering last year, you don’t think this was all in bad taste?”
The Archmage shrugged, still grinning wide. “I like to think this is the one time of year where nothing is in bad taste.” He paused. “Except black licorice.”
Grimory glanced back into the corner at the end of the corridor where another body, wrapped in a cocoon of bloody silk sat, staring lifelessly into the ether. “So, uh, this guy can drop the act now, yeah?”
Khadgar blinked past the demon hunter and a brief second of silence followed.
“Uh…I have no idea who that is.”