The night was auspicious for a summoning, all the stars and planets in their ideal locations. The date, Beltane, was excellent. The mansion was old, Gothic, and had more than a passing reputation for being haunted, not to even mention the town. The candles were high-quality all-natural beeswax. The chalk was the purest white. The altar at the center of the geometrically perfect chalk circle was of clean-cut marble. The practitioners were experienced. The ritual...
Well, that remained to be seen.
But still, they couldn't ignore the opportunity to summon the Dark King, the Lord of the Afterlife, the Ruler of All Ghosts and Spirits. It was the kind of thing that only came along once in a lifetime, if that.
Each of the thirteen of them had their lines, their part of the ritual that they had memorized after months of practice. It was complex, but also oddly simple. Elegant. Refined. Perfect.
The grandfather clock in the drawing room began to toll midnight, the signal to begin. The practitioners' voices wove together, reaching up, up, up, and hopefully through the veil separating the mortal world from the one belonging to the spirits.
The candles flared, first yellow, then red, then green, reaching higher and higher until the circle looked like a cage with bars of fire. A wind whipped through the room, twisting and tangling the flames. The hoods of the practitioners' robes were blown free, exposing their faces. A few put up their hands to shield their faces from the flames, but none of them stopped chanting.
The leader, their high priest, took his dagger from beneath his robes and drew it smoothly across his hand. He let the blood puddle there, before flinging it out, towards the altar at the center of the circle. The book they had read had suggested that the ritual was more likely to be successful if the high priest made a more significant sacrifice at the altar, or if the high priest made the sacrifice at the altar, in the circle, thereby putting himself at the King's mercy, but, well. The practitioners were all dedicated. None of them was that dedicated.
A few drops of blood hit the altar, and there was a flash of light that was bright and somehow dark all at once. The practitioners had to avert their gazes.
"What have you done now, Daniel?" asked a mature, highly annoyed voice. It echoed weirdly around the room.
"I didn't do anything," said a much younger, but still male voice. "I never do anything. Whenever something happens, it's because you decided to go all power h- Ellie!?"
"Ow," this third voice was younger and female. "That was weird. What happened? Where are we?"
"I don't- Oh. Hello. Uh. Hm." Two pairs of green eyes and one pair of red blinked out of the circle at the practitioners. "We seem to have been summoned by a cult. Hi, Mr. Thunder." As the practitioners' eyes adjusted, they saw one of the three (three!) ghosts they had summoned wave to one of their more junior members.
Lance Thunder made a strangled noise. "Phantom? And the Wisconsin Ghost?"
The smallest ghost snickered. "The Wisconsin Ghost? Really?"
The largest ghost growled. "That is not my name. I am-"
"Oh my gosh, is that blood?" asked Phantom, pointing at the altar. His finger traced the line back to the high priest. "Dude, you're bleeding. Are you okay? You should probably get that looked at, it looks pretty deep from here."
The high priest blinks for a minute, then turns his gaze to the eldest ghost. "You... must be the king," he said, forgetting his planned speech, "and these," he hesitated for a moment, "phantoms are your attendants?"
There was a beat of silence then an uproar of laughter. "Him? King? You're joking right?"
"He's so bad at getting people to listen to him that he makes his own followers from scratch!" exclaimed the younger ghost. "And I still told him to stuff it!"
"People hate him more than they hate me!" Phantom took a deep breath and seemed to settle himself. "Why would you think he was a king?"
"We were, er, we were trying to summon the King of All Ghosts," said Lance Thunder when it became clear no one else was going to answer.
"Pariah Dark? Why?" asked Phantom, clearly taken aback. "The heck would anyone want to do that? Don't answer, we all know you're the lunatic that let him out last time."
By this point, the ghosts had moved so that they were standing on opposite ends of the altar, the Wisconsin Ghost on one side, and the two green-eyed ghosts on the other.
Lance glanced at the high priest again. "To... ask a boon."
"Right," said Phantom. "Well, it's a good thing you didn't get him, honestly."
"But-" said the high priest, reemerging from his stupor. "Why you? Why three of you? This doesn't make sense! This was for one, specific, ghost! There shouldn't be three."
The ghosts exchanged glances. Phantom, with the air of someone trying to be subtle, tested the boundary of the circle and winced slightly as his hand met an impenetrable wall.
"Most likely," said the Wisconsin Ghost, clasping his hands behind his back and standing straight, "it is because Daniel and I were the last ghosts to be in Pariah's presence, as we were the ones to defeat him."
"Please, you showed up at literally the last second and turned a key. You didn't fight. I guess you were there, but that doesn't explain Ellie. You secretly a king, Ellie?"
"Nah, but I bet I'd make a great queen." She struck a pose then let it drop, shrugging. "I'm going to be honest, though, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"The similarities between Danielle's ectosignature and yours probably confused the spell. Now, if you are all quite satisfied that we aren't the ghost you are looking for, release us. I'd prefer not to have to waste time breaking out. My night has been disrupted enough."
The high priest twitched, then clenched his uninjured hand. "No," he said.
The Wisconsin Ghost raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
"No. Perhaps you aren't the ones we wanted, but we would be fools to throw away this opportunity." The high priest took a deep breath and uttered a word of binding.
Lines of light sprang up from the circle, wrapping around the ghosts. The boy was the first bound, then the older ghost, and finally, after what almost seemed like confusion, the girl. The lights tried to arrange them on the altar, but that only resulted in the ghosts being mashed together in a confusing pile.
"Oh, come on!" said Phantom, wriggling. "I've already filled my ritual sacrifice attempt quota this week!"
"Stop that at once, Daniel, you're kicking me in the face!"
Phantom wriggled harder.
"Bring the book," ordered the high priest. "Perhaps it can shed some light on these events and tell us how we might reap benefits for ourselves."
"Are we going to put them in thrall?" asked one of the practitioners, excitedly. "Make a bargain? Collect their powers? Sacrifice them to higher beings?"
"Wow, all of that sounds terrible," said Phantom, craning his head back so that it hung off the edge of the altar. "Like, really terrible. You shouldn't do any of those. Trust me, they'll all backfire horribly."
The book, an old crumbling thing that had long been in the family of the high priest, was brought forward and opened. He flipped through the pages, slowly. He had read the book cover to cover many times, but some kind of power had been infused into the pages, and he often found passages in them that he would swear he had never laid eyes on before. That was how he had come across the ritual to summon the Ghost King and extract a boon from him.
The priest stops, a sentence catching his eye. Should a title be contested, it may be that all spirits with a claim to it are called. This gives the priest a sacred task, to mediate the dispute. The priest read through the next few pages.
In all honesty, the high priest didn't put much stock into things like sacred duty. Although his great-grandfather had been invested in the art and ritual for spiritual reasons, the high priest was of a more practical bent. So what if ghosts existed? People had always at least suspected that. All it meant was that you had to secure your position in the afterlife, too.
One of the other practitioners cleared their throat. "Master," said Lance Thunder. "I really think that we should just let them go. I mean, Phantom is a tutelary spirit."
"I mean, thanks, but I'm actually terrible at school."
"Be quiet, Daniel."
"So?" asked the high priest.
"So, we need him to keep the town from being overrun with ghosts," said Lance Thunder.
"With the powers we can gain from this, we could protect the town ourselves," said the high priest.
"You know," said Phantom, "saying 'could' sort of implies you won't. And this is a really uncomfortable position. The last cult I got kidnapped by was much better about positioning. I'm definitely going to have to give you a negative review."
"This happen to you a lot?" asked the girl. "Where do you even go to review cults? Yelp? What are the criteria?"
"Oh, the usual. Comfort level, sincerity, complexity, effectiveness, originality... I'll give them points for originality, since I'm usually summoned by myself. I mean, I don't summon myself, but I'm the only one summoned."
"No, no, I get it."
The high priest pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew there were spells to shut up summoned spirits, but he needed them talking, for now.
"One of you," he said, "will be King."
"No, we aren't," said the girl. "We just established that."
"Hold up," said the boy. "'Will be?' Not 'are?'"
"You are the contenders for the position," said the high priest, with as much authority as he could muster. "You must determine which of you it is to be."
"Well," said the Wisconsin Ghost. "Clearly I am the only suitable option."
"Oh, come on. You have to see he's trying to play us," said Phantom. "We pick one of us, and then that's the one that has to do this 'boon' thing, and they'll turn the rest of us into 'thralls' or whatever."
"Perhaps. But, then, you should have no trouble acknowledging me as King."
"I literally just outlined why I would have trouble doing that."
"What does 'thrall' mean, anyway?" asked the girl.
"Like, slave or something. I don't know. It was in a song that S- uh, a friend likes."
Obviously, they weren't going to cooperate. The high priest would have to get more serious. "Fetch the water of life," he ordered, pointing at Lance Thunder. It would do the junior practitioner good to remember who was in charge.
The man scurried off, light from the next room briefly spilling past the doorway.
"Isn't that vodka?" asked the girl. "Like, alcohol?"
"I don't know. Ask this guy. Reminds me of a sci-fi thing, though."
"What about this situation is sci-fi? I'm not up on genres, but, still, this has to be horror."
"Or humor, yeah."
"If you two are quite done," said the Wisconsin Ghost. "Perhaps you might share your plan to get out of this mess."
"You don't have a plan," said Phantom, "you have a power grab. A really dumb one, that won't work, just like all the other ones."
"He's got a point, though. How do we get out of these ropes?"
"I thought you did this all the time."
"Not this specific variation," protested Phantom. "None of the others had this glow-y rope thing going on. They don't exactly feel like real ropes, though, if you get me. A human could probably put their hand right through them."
"Wonderful, Daniel, but that isn't exactly something we can take advantage of, is it?"
"I'm just pointing it out, you don't have to be a jerk about it," said Phantom. He shifted again, very deliberately putting his feet in the older ghost's face.
"Daniel, stop that."
"Weren't you complaining about being enslaved a moment ago?"
"Oh, yeah, I'm totally on that. Got it covered," said Phantom.
"What do you mean, you have it covered?" said the high priest, aggravated by the constant banter. "You can't possibly believe you're getting out of this. This circle was designed to hold the King of All Ghosts!"
"Sure," drawled Phantom, "and government was designed to keep things in order, but it doesn't do a particularly good job of that, does it? Not to mention, you got three for the price of one, here. Ghost King is pretty singular, generally."
The high priest let his eyes flick over the circle and the bonds. Nothing was out of place. Everything was secure.
"Also, I'm pretty sure Mr. Thunder bailed on you, dude."
"Yeah," said the girl, "unless this house is way bigger than it has any reason to be. Even bigger than Vlad's."
"Or if he can't find it, I guess."
"Or if he has to buy it from the nearest liquor store."
"Nice. Hey, guess what, guys? If any of you want to bail, now's your chance." Phantom smiled, showing off a set of too-sharp teeth.
"No one is going anywhere," snarled the high priest. Lance Thunder had been gone for much longer than he should have been, however. He frowned at the door.
"Oh, hey, I got the blood," announced Phantom.
"I'm sorry," said the girl, "you got what?"
"The blood. I knew there was some on here. I saw it before. Really dumb leaving it out like this, you know. There's lots of stuff people like us can do with blood. It's way better than hair."
"Daniel, are you implying that you know magic?" said the Wisconsin Ghost, completely incredulous.
"That's the part of this situation you're having trouble with? But, yeah. Enough to screw with cultists who don't understand the meaning of 'personal space' or 'bio-hazard' and leave their stupid blood everywhere."
"You're going to have to teach me," said the girl.
"My friend, you know the one, is way better than me."
"That makes sense. So, are you going to blow him up?"
"I was thinking about it, but that would leave all the other guys."
"Not if you made the explosion big enough."
"That's true, but I was thinking about maybe turning him into, like, a werewolf or something. Have him tear apart all these other guys. I did say you could bail, it isn't my fault you've stu-"
"You can't do that!" snapped the high priest. "He can't do that. He's trying to trick you into letting him go free."
"Are you sure about that? I'm a ghost after all. I'm old enough to have seen Rome burn. I know more than you, even if I like playing the teenager. It makes people underestimate me." Phantom's lazy smile turned sinister. "Don't you feel what I'm already doing to you? To all of you. You could still escape," his voice buzzed uncomfortably. "All you need to do is let us go."
A few of the practitioners shifted.
"Don't-" started the high priest.
It was too late. One of the others had darted forward and upended a candle. Wax spilled over the clean chalk lines, breaking them, obscuring them. The lights flickered. The ghosts were gone.
"You don't actually know any magic," stated Vlad as they hovered over the house.
Danny rolled his eyes. "I know enough to scam a cultist," he said. "But, if you're asking if I could do what I was saying? Nope."
"Aw, that's too bad," said Ellie. "I was excited."
"Clever, I suppose," admitted Vlad. "But this doesn't resolve our previous business. Which of us is King?"
"Oh my gosh, Vlad, let it go," said Danny.
"I can't do that. This is a very important matter, not that a child like you would understand." Pink sparks leaped from his fingertips.
The other two ghosts drifted back, their dropping body temperatures making mist condense from the air around them.
"Well," said Ellie, "I'm not sure that it counts for anything, but I nominate Danny. Full offence, Vlad, but you suck."
There was a tiny popping sound, very like the sound a tiny firework might make, and a green and glowing crown expanded into being above Danny's head. All three ghosts stared at it for a minute. Danny was practically gaping.
"Oh," said Ellie after a moment. "I guess it does count."
Danny made a very strangled sound before diving out of the way of Vlad's attack. Ellie responded with a ghost ray of her own. The chase was on, and soon they had left the mansion far behind.