The lobby was perfect. The wood paneling floor gleamed with fresh polish and oil; the windows sparkled and cast a faint rainbow on the lounge furniture tucked around the room, beautiful antique pieces restored to their original glamour. The walls were papered with deep maroon and subtle gold leaf, recently checked for scrapes and cautiously scrubbed into a satin appearance. Soft summer curtains fluttered in the air-conditioning, the cool breeze stirring the most delicate of the crystals hung in the impressive gold chandelier above the large, thick, oriental carpet in the center of the floor. But the star attraction of the room was the reception desk: a long, tall, dark oaken counter settled in a neat cross-section of the main door and the halls leading out to the left and right wings. The desk itself was backed by a long row of guest mailboxes interrupted only by the hotel coat-of-arms, the front adorned with the long brass plaque entailing the Manor legend. Even the out-of-place computer and office supplies just visible over the edge of the counter couldn’t spoil the prestigious atmosphere.
Yet, as she moved all the desktop files to a CD and emptied the drawers of valuables into a box for storage, Miss Lydia knew it could all be gone in a matter of hours. Or at least there was the potential that it could be so horribly, terribly wrecked as to be unrecognizable.
Miss Lydia placed the CD in the box between a ceramic frog and ancient fountain pen, items guests left long ago and never returned for. If she could read much of the old, yellowed registry book, she would have mailed them back.
The Manor manager and receptionist turned and drew a long Siamese tom from the depths of a guest box, putting him up against her shoulder. While the cat began to purr, she lifted the crate and balanced it against her hip.
She was halfway across the floor to the right wing when the hand holding the cat snapped. She put both down and, almost as an afterthought, returned to the reception desk. Miss Lydia faced the crest and traced the dividing cross section with her finger. “Can’t forget you,” she whispered, the light shining from the crest reflecting across her glasses. The bottom half of the shield dropped down with an easy “clink” and a tissue box, the top sealed with duct tape, slid out into her waiting hands.
Humming, Lydia returned to the box, which now held a cat as well, and put the treasure inside next to him. She lifted the whole thing and left, stopping only to press on a butterfly hidden in the wallpaper scenery with her back on her way to the right convention hall.
Behind her, the crest slid shut, the lights turned themselves off, the remaining drawers locked, and a thick, iron, gate slid down over the hall entrance, the rare spark jumping off its bars and falling harmlessly to the floor. The only light left came from the windows, bright from the midday sun, and the only sound from the slowing air conditioner.
Miss Lydia’s entrance into convention hall went unnoticed. The guests, crowded with anticipation around the various viewing stations and refreshment tables, were too excited to notice a tall, blonde woman go by with a cat in a box. Miss Lydia, for the most part, ignored them as well, though she allowed herself a smile to see so many. Some of them had even dressed up.
She pushed open the “Employees Only” door to the hall’s kitchen and temporary hotel headquarters. She could hear Paul, her head chef, cursing amongst the bang of pots and pans in the back. Emily, his assistant, came over to help her, but she waved her off with a shake of her head.
She set the box on the floor and fished out the tissue box. The cat jumped out and rubbed against her legs, purring again. “You go have fun,” she told him, picking at the edge of the tape with her nail. “Be good, Darcy.”
The tom vanished out into the hall. Paul came out from behind the supplies shelves. He looked like he wanted to say something, and from his worried expression, Lydia could only guess it had something to do with his cooking or, his new worry, the various aspects of the tournament. She put up her hand and silenced him before he could start. “Don’t worry, Paul; I have everything under control. You and Emily just stay here in the kitchen, and you’ll be perfectly safe.”
She left before they could reply.
On the top floor, all down the corridor, the electric lights in the ceiling flickered and came to life, followed suite by every ceiling light on the floors below. On the ground floor, the left wing filled with light as well, and the lobby began to glow faintly from the ceiling.
The convention hall was an expansive room, but not nearly as elegant as the lobby or the rest of the hotel. The floor was linoleum, and the walls were only painted plaster, though this time they were decorated with the Manor crest and large banners of the tournament roster and a few sponsor advertisements. There was a small stage at one end, with a door to the kitchen on one side, and stairs to the backstage on the other. Across from it was a single pair of emergency double doors to the outside, though no one noticed the occasional spark popping from the handle.
Miss Lydia stepped onto this stage and checked her pocket watch. The microphone in her hand quietly turned itself on. The speakers hung from the ceiling fizzled less quietly and carried the deep tolling of a bell throughout the hall.
Guests abandoned their screens and conversations, speculations and crab rolls, and turned to listen. “Hello,” Miss Lydia greeted them amiably, “to the Manor’s honored guests. We are now ready to begin the tournament.”
She waited for the roaring applause and cheers to simmer into a patter before she continued. “As you can see, we have several stations set up around this hall, eight of them, each featuring a different participant or team. Here, you can find information and footage specific to each corresponding competitor, and, later, replays of their battles.”
Like a great wind barreling through the hotel, every door to every room was flung open by an unseen force. Televisions turned on simultaneously, though they played only static, and the sound system set in the ceilings spat and prepared to receive.
Miss Lydia looked around at each station while she spoke. “There are cameras scattered around our grounds, set to catch the competitive action for us here.”
She had been able to see each of them, when she was still working in the lobby for registration. There was a cat girl, who had given her some trouble when trying to enter her in the computer guestbook; she couldn’t tell whether to give her two lines or to record the one with the body. In the end, she had put only their first names, on one line together.
“If you look on the walls, you will see, ladies and gentlemen, that we have four large-screens.”
There was a young woman and what she could guess was a high-school boy, though he appeared older and was very mature for his age. She found him and the woman, a wild child with a fondness for costumes, to be quite an amusing pair.
“For this first round, each will feature a different match. In the second round, two will play one each.”
One woman, whose feet didn’t quite touch the ground, had arrived with a young man, who had also enjoyed elaborate costumes, and his father, whom she had eventually been able to dissuade from trying to see some of the more affluent guests.
“Now, let’s tune our contestants in.” The crowd erupted with a furious ovation.
The clap echoed out the sound system through the grounds. The TVs blinked, and began to broadcast Miss Lydia on the stage. “Hello?” she called cheerfully. “I’m on? Wonderful.”
A man with a white hood and shorts had also registered alone. She had almost called him “miss”; he had such a soft, sculpted face. He hadn’t spoken much, and she had to send him in without much information beyond that on the application sheet.
“You should all be able to hear me, wherever you are, but please move to a television set. You can find one in any of the guest rooms; they’re all open to you.”
There was a very thin man with strikingly messy blonde hair, who looked like he had just gotten out of the hospital. Actually, if the record served accurately, he had. But there was too much potential to let that stand in the way.
“First, I’d like to welcome you all to our lovely house. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your stay, and we’ll all enjoy having you here. Some basics we need to cover; the right wing of the hotel on the ground floor is entirely off-limits to all participants still in the running. If you drop out or are defeated, you may come here for medical attention or other peaceful reasons. If you are still competing, for your own safety, please do not try to force your way into this area. We have taken precautions that you will not be able to get past, and we would be very sorry to have to sew you back together,” she informed them politely. The blue sparks on all the doors and windows fizzled happily to be mentioned.
Two girls arrived after a storm, the one in camouflage looking none too happy and the one in pink looking all too happy. She couldn’t spare anyone to rescue their car from the mud, but she was glad to have them, and the pink girl seemed enthusiastic to sign up behind the other’s back.
“Also, do not leave the grounds or you will be disqualified. Other than that, you and the hotel are fair game,” she said, pushing one of the stray locks of hair behind her ear. “Oh- and if by any chance you should be horribly murdered while in our company, I’m afraid there is little we can do beyond reserving a quaint plot of land and a wooden box for your person.”
A college boy had been one of the first to register, and he was certainly the most “normal” among them, at least in appearance. But like the roofer, she felt she had another wild card on her hands; from his application, he had the stuff, if not the attitude.
“Now, the reason you’re all here.” Miss Lydia put the microphone on the floor and lifted the taped and battered tissue box for all to see. Snickers and giggles rising from her audience were quashed immediately by the cool intensity of her gaze. “This,” she announced, her voice carrying across the room without help, “is our grand prize.”
She tore off the top and shook it into her hand.
The last to join had literally fallen out of the sky and into the garden. She had recognized him instantly from her very old readings; luckily, he had already taken adaptive measures for the event, or she would have to do some meddling.
Clutched in Miss Lydia’s hand, held high above for the sake of the guests, was a key. It was old-fashioned, but slender and simple, like the kind in detective novels or black and white movies. It was the length of a whiteboard marker, and the metal reflected the ceiling lights like a million tiny stars. Miss Lydia brought it down for the camera, the curious whisper of her observers ignored. “The ‘key’ to your heart’s desire,” she quoted playfully as a sly smile lit up her face.
She retrieved the microphone from the floor and addressed both her audiences. “This is the key to Myntion’s study, the place where the legendary wizard who built this house worked his magic. With it you can open up the room where generations of his descendants have locked away all the family’s most valuable possessions. Ancient texts of wisdom, enchanted artifacts of power, and Myntion’s own tomes of spells and the many contraptions he magicked himself. With this key, in that room, you can find any one object you could use to fulfill your wildest wish and fondest dream, whatever it could be.”
Miss Lydia turned the key and weighed it in her hand. “Or, if you find the legend of the house too nonsensical, the idea of magic too absurd, the study holds treasure as well; more gold and silver and jewels than you can imagine, enough for you to buy your desire, should spells and incantations suit you poorly.”
The crowd began to shout and holler as she stepped back and let the camera zoom out. She let the key drop from her hand, where it hung temptingly on a ribbon, spinning and glimmering. “And so,” she called from a hundred screens and speakers on all floors, her eyes bright and sparkling and her smile long and brilliant, “I wish you all the best of luck, and look forward to meeting the victor. Ladies and gentlemen, let the tournament begin.”