Miss Lydia placed her hands on the side of the man’s face. He lay on the floor, cold and motionless. Her touch was electric and unusually hot against such a chilled face, but nothing could bother him now.
She closed her eyes and became perfectly still, not a muscle moving on her entire body. Then she breathed in, long and deep, as if it were the first breath a human ever took, and the sparks on the doors went mad like drunken fireworks. A wind began to whirl from the corpse’s chest, stirring the hair and cloth of patient and healer, and respectfully disappeared almost as quickly as it had risen.
Suddenly, the man coughed and spat and began gulping down air faster than he could use it. Miss Lydia opened her eyes and smiled. She sat him up as gently as possible and helped him inch his way back to the wall. “Rest, dear,” she told him kindly, the blood in his face, frozen only a moment before, already warming and bringing color to his cheeks again. “You’re out for now.”
He didn’t answer, but his breath soon became regular and hushed. When she was sure he was asleep, Miss Lydia stood and brushed the feeling back into her hands on her skirt. A clattering racket of pots and cutlery accompanied by a loud, wet “thump” brought her attention to the functioning side of the kitchen, where Paul had just thrown the raw chicken he had been preparing into a pan on the floor, and now stood over it, the knife shaking in his hand.
“Paul, the chicken’s not going to back to life to take revenge for your ‘pollo parmigiano.’”
“He was dead!” he cried hysterically. “That man was dead!”
He instantly looked like he was going to be sick, and his voice trembled. “And you brought him back! You can’t do that! No one can- I know this place is off, but- you said you couldn’t do that!”
“I lied,” she said simply.
The chef’s mouth fell open. It grew uncomfortably quiet. Miss Lydia crossed her arms and looked at him with new concern. “Are you all right, Paul? You don’t look well.”
“That’s it!” he suddenly shouted. He ripped off his apron. “I’m not staying in this house of- of- voodoo!”
The sparks on the back door subsided for him as he flung it open and ran out.
“I’m not a witch doctor,” Miss Lydia said to the vacancy. She waited until she heard his car door slam and the engine start, and snapped her fingers. “I’m much more refined than that.”
Emily appeared from farther in the maze of stainless steel with a freshly-iced cake. “Miss Lydia? Was that Paul?”
“Yes, Emily. He should be in his driveway by now. I don’t think he’ll be coming back.”
“But why…” the assistant cook questioned, and caught sight of the man in the corner. An emerald spear, red-stained ice beginning to melt off its tip, lay off to the side. She gaped at them, the lines connecting in her head. “Is he…was he…oh!”
Miss Lydia spoke quietly, her eyes bright with sympathy for the girl’s distress. “Do you want to leave as well?”
“No,” she whispered, her hand clutched over her heart. “But…how?”
“This place is filled with magic.” Lydia unfolded her arms and checked her pocket watch. “I can feel it everywhere, and it knows me. Most of it radiates from the contents of the Manor’s heart, Myntion’s study. That, together with the spells, charms, and imprints of all the gifted residents and visitors it has seen over the years, is powerful enough, with the right guidance, to suspend death.”
Emily placed the cake on the counter and clutched her shaking hands, looking at her employer with newfound awe. “Amazing…”
“So you’ll stick it out, Emily?” Miss Lydia put away her watch and smiled at her. “Wonderful. Would you like a promotion?”
A meow interrupted her answer, and suddenly the kitchen was filled with the foul smell of blood and wet fur. Miss Lydia went to the door without hesitation, rolling up her sleeves as she went. “Darcy, thank you,” she was saying when she met the cat, soaking wet, with his head against the hand of another limp man. “Good boy, I’m so glad you brought him back for me.”
Her companion stood in silent horror, taking in the long bloodstains down his mouth, over his shirt, and splashed onto his pants. While Darcy ran off somewhere to dry, Miss Lydia knelt and touched the face, investigating. “This one seems to be lacking something. A little empty on the inside.”
Then she noticed the white Styrofoam cooler box sitting by the door, the kind of expendable container brought on camping trips. Its corners were turning a disturbing shade of pink. Miss Lydia scrutinized it passively, and then waved her hand at the new head chef. “Emily, please prepare something for our friends when they wake up. Oh, and I believe something strong to drink.”
When she was gone, Lydia lifted the top. She peered in, winced and pursed her lips at the mess. “Let’s get this done quickly.”
Placing one hand on the body’s collar bone, and the other over the top of the cooler, Miss Lydia began to work. Her fingers itched. Her eyes grew moist. Blue, electromagical sparks danced in crazy riots all over the hotel, startling nearby guests as they responded to her channel. Then it was over.
The manager exhaled and removed her hand from his collar. His eyelids fluttered, but he did not open them. He turned and coughed a little blood up onto the floor, which she politely wiped away with a handkerchief, and was still. The steady rise and fall of his chest convinced her of her success, and she picked up the empty cooler.
She did not move him; it had been much more difficult to replace organs than to revive a freezing victim, and he would need to stay down for a time yet.
Miss Lydia tossed the cooler box and lid in the same disposal the kitchen staff used for undesired meat cuttings, and left a note for one of the replacement workers she had found to dispose of it immediately. Though she had kept her own activities far from food preparation, secluded from the working area in that little pocket by the entrance, she made herself a mental reminder to get someone to clean that as well. It was surprisingly spotless for its purpose, but it never hurt.
The guests out in the hall buzzed with excitement, still talking about the events and results of the last round. If you stood in the stage rafters, and looked out, past the ropes and sandbags, rows of lights and edges of the curtain, you read the entire scene like a crane, reading the river. They made tight bunches around stations, fans hungry for updates and reruns on their favorites, rising and falling, coming back again and again like waves on an island. Great swirling eddies were the tell-tale mark for a contestant’s presence among them, though Miss Lydia was too far up and away to tell who they were, if and when they appeared.
Darcy joined her at the rail, and hopped in one nimble bound onto her shoulders. Purring loudly, he snaked himself behind her neck, pushing his face into her cheek, hoping for a scratch.
Lydia continued to watch and lean as she obliged. The girls from the military were the only ones who had come back on their own. It had taken longer than necessary to remove the bullet in her shoulder and heal the injured one’s leg, with her friend hovering protectively in the background the whole time.
She had not had the time to attend to the exorcists for long. Thankfully, the boy was not hurt, and the girl’s wounds had not been so serious she could not leave her in the care of her watchful partner. She had, however, been able to find them a trunk of old costumes from various conventions in the Manor’s past, to replace the one the young woman had lost.
“I had hoped that telling them death is as permanent here as it is anywhere else would make them more cautious, make them more appreciative of another’s life,” she told Darcy, scratching the spot under his chin he loved so much. “Though it seems I made no difference.”
She moved her glasses higher up on her nose. “It’s tiring, too.”
The cat purred comfortingly and rubbed his head against her neck. Miss Lydia smiled and patted his back. “I suppose I’m just happy that there were only two,” she said, her usual cheer restored. “They have made quite a mess of the place. I’d fix it now, but it would only get dirty again, wouldn’t it?”
“It’s that time again, and we are now ready to begin our semi-finals!”
The crowd, a second ago focused entirely on its screens, faced the stage and went positively crazy. The camera zoomed out to capture the full effect of the mighty roar, and then made its focus on the hostess again. Television sets and speaker systems, deployed for their second mission, broadcast all over the estate.
“We have four contestants still in the running, still out there with the chance to make it to our finals, the chance to win,” she announced into the microphone, her voice clear and pure as a bell, “and make their dearest dream come true!”
Screams and applause rose to new heights as she drew the key from around her neck and held it aloft, bright and sparkling. Miss Lydia smiled specially for her camera audience, letting it dangle off her hand on its ribbon. “Let us wish them all the best of luck!”