The Canteen was a huge building whose ground floor was given over to the feeding and watering of the students of Gorillamumps, the premier school for the supernatural in the country. Of course there were other, lesser, schools that liked to bill themselves as schools of wizardry or magic academies or sorcerous colleges, but in all of them death was only seen as an occasional problem, perhaps when a lesson got a bit out of control or a teacher was unfortunately possessed. At Gorillamumps death was considered a criterion of admission and possession an occupational hazard. If you couldn’t handle a minor possession every few months then you probably weren’t fit to study at Gorillamumps, and many of the students and faculty had either conquered death at least once or at least considered him the kind of old friend you invite in for a sherry and cigar before tossing a coin to see who got a piece of whom.
The ground floor of the Canteen was called the Refectory and both Lunch and High Tea were served there. Usually there would be about eight hundred students in attendance over a period of three hours, and they would be divided among four halls capable of seating about a hundred people each. The first floor was Breakfast and Banqueting and served a meaty buffet in the morning and hosted parties and banquets of all kinds in the evenings. The floor above that was the cocktail reception lounge that students were generally disinvited from, and the top floor and the basement were the actual kitchens themselves.
Jermander folded his cloak tidily around him, aware that it made him look skinny and malnourished with his pale skin, his jet black hair and his sunken, reddish eyes. However, he was a vampire and he had a certain amount of reputation to keep up. Compared with the young mummies who were gathered in a little clique of tatty bandages and dusty clouds near him, and the Dread Young of Shub-Niggurath who were literally indescribably horrible to look at he was exceptionally presentable. The Canteen was full to bursting. All the tables had been moved to the side and the chairs stacked outside in the quad to make room for the gathering, and at a guess he thought that there were nearly two thousand people crowded in there. There were still more outside; some sitting on chairs that they’d unstacked and others looming, lurking, floating or shadowing as was their particular demeanour. It was Beltane Eve, and they were all gathered to receive a piece of Beltane cake and see who who receive the Beltane Carline.
There was a murmur as something moved near the staircase, but it turned out to just be a dislodged Right-aligned Ancient of MuMu tumbling in slow motion. Jermander sighed quietly and relaxed a little. He was here more because it was an ancient ceremony and part of the school’s tradition than because he wanted to be. Four days earlier they’d had the equally ancient and venerable festival of Belting, where the older students spent the day attempting to catch the younger students and beat the crap out of them. Jermander had planned to spend the day hanging out with the Labouring Zombies as they were slow and tended to go to pieces when chased, but they’d given him the slip around lunchtime and he’d suddenly found himself surrounded by a small mob carrying pitchforks and burning torches and his ancestral fears had paralysed for just too long. He winced a little as he relaxed too much and his bruises started aching again.
Another murmur, and this swelled suddenly into cheers as the Butler led a procession of cooks down the stairs, each bearing aloft a Beltane cake, iced in white and yellow, to present to the gathered throng. The Butler was in all his desaturated glory, the black-and-white of his shirt and suit pulling the colour from everything around him and making the whole world seem a tiny bit flat and two-dimensional. His grey skin was almost like a rip in reality, and his eyes glittered like very pure diamonds caught in the glare of burning thermite. He led the cooks through a widening gap in the throng, and came to a halt in the dead centre of Jermander’s room.
“The Beltane cakes!” he proclaimed, his voice bouncing off the ceiling and descending on the crowd. “First come, first served!”
There was a surge as the students and faculty alike pushed forward, each eager to receive a slice of Beltane cake. Jermander, not actually pushing himself, was nonetheless pushed forward by the people around him, and he could hear eager panting and yelping, the gasping rasps of the young mummies’ excitement, and the ultrasonic scream of the undines. For a moment it was all a little too much and he felt his teeth lengthen in his jaw and his nails harden and start to grow as well. Then suddenly he was in front of a cook and he forced himself back to a more human state. The cook silently thrust a piece of cake at him, skewered on the end of a thin, lethal-looking boning knife, and he pulled it free. Then he was jostled aside and, like a cork bobbing on the waves, gently ejected from the Canteen and outside. There he took a moment to look around and saw Banx, a Left-aligned Ancient of MuMu who was in his Religious Studies class, standing with a couple of her house-mates. He sauntered over, and noticed that they all had pieces of cake too.
“Any luck?” he said casually, and received a deathly stare from a green-eyes Ancient of MuMu who was pulling her cake apart between fingers as long as his forearm without apparently eating any of it.
“It’s not lucky to find the Beltane Carline, Jern,” said Banx. She lifted her piece of cake to her ear and shook it thoughtfully. “Quite the opposite, really.”
“What do you mean?” Suddenly the piece of cake in his hand seemed surprisingly heavy.
“Well, whoever gets the Carline gets set on fire, don’t they? To appease Bel the sun-god, and beseech him to rise in the morning.”
“We don’t have much truck with sun gods,” said Jermander. “Vampires and sunlight don’t always mix that well.”
“He’s also a fire god,” said Banx. She poked a long finger through the middle of her cake and licked it when it came out of the other side.
“Nuh-uh, we have less interest in fire gods,” said Jermander. “Does he do anything like darkness, prayers for the desperate, animating cold bone in the tomb or preserving flesh from corruption?”
“Pretty much just a burning god,” said Banx. “Jer, why have you taken a slice of cake then? If you get the Carline it’ll kill you. We will set you on fire.”
“Not you, Banx,” said Jermander, but there was worry in his voice. “We’re friends, right?”
“Classmates,” said Banx, “and yes, we would. It’s important that Bel is appeased. It brings the summer back, and it’s not like the ordinary humans do much of it any more. The best they do is pretend.”
The green-eyed Ancient made a noise like a harp gently destringing itself, and Banx nodded. “Well, some of them do it right, but only if they’re not caught by other humans. It’s only really placed like Gorillamumps that still get it right, and that’s important these days.”
“Crap,” said Jermander with feeling. “Swap you?” He held his cake out.
“Hah,” said Banx. “You already know that I haven’t got the Carline though.”
“You’ve poked the cake a bit, but it could still be hiding in there,” said Jermander. “Why aren’t you eating it anyway?”
“Allergic to eggs,” said Banx. “Oh, look!”
On the other side of the quadrangle there was a sudden cry and then a young mummy leapt for the wall and tried to climb the side of the building. Its bandaged hands gave it no purchase on the old stones though, and it fell back, only to be seized promptly by the crowd. A moment later and there was a whumph and then a growing empty circle around a young mummy set on fire and burning like a pitch torch.
“They found the Carline,” said Banx. “I wonder if there was only one this year?”