“Ridiculous!” a man was saying to his companion, waving his hand at the screen for emphasis. “There’s no way, none whatsoever! It must be a fluke; or a trick! There’s probably more footage they’re not showing us, where he…swings the pig sticker and knocks him off his feet or something!”
“You just don’t want to pay on the bet,” his friend said amiably, clapping the disgruntled loser on the back. “C’mon, man, give it up.”
The man dug out his wallet and began to hand over a stack of bills, one by one. “You saw what it did to the last one; it should have been shoo-in, for sure!”
“We run a house of unpredictability and enchantment,” Miss Lydia replied, startling them both as she appeared from among the crowd. “Absolutely anything can happen.”
The hostess excused herself and slid past them, pulling a mouse and keyboard out from under the screens, and began to update Fell Lennox’s terminal. “Personally, I have come to believe that the tusks were deliberately set up in such a manner; the first to kill, and the second to heal. Together, each became a neutralizer for the other.”
Numbers flicked around on the screen devoted to statistics, and more detailed information appeared next to the picture of the tusk. “However, when taken apart,” she continued, sliding the controls out of sight, “they become active, and their respective powers can be used. It is pure luck, debatable of which kind, that Mr. Lennox drew them in the order he did.”
She pardoned herself again, and returned to the base backstage.
The door closed on the noisy convention hall, and the pristine kitchen was peaceful and quiet again, the silence blissfully relieved by the cheerful sounds, and smells, of cooking drifting over the shelves which blocked it the real working space from view. Lydia took a moment to lean against the door and just breathe in, enjoying the comfort of a familiar and focused place. She glanced at the list tacked to one of the shelves. It had grown so long after this round, that she had created a separate sheet. It was taped next to the other, plainly titled “Blown Up.”
Since he was alive and well, Fell had not been returned to the convention hall, though he might have come back on his own. She hadn’t really looked. Either way, she was quite happy with the Morstend and Lennox match, despite the overwhelming damages caused by a few hours of hectic pursuit and dynamite. A bit of an anti-climax for all the boom and flash it had caused, but, miraculously, no one had been killed. No one had even been injured.
Sparks on the doorknob tickled her arms like a small child begging for attention, when they suddenly flared up and became an alarming tug. Without question, Lydia spun and flung open the door, letting in two hotel bellhops. Slung between them on a make-shift stretcher was the badly mangled body of a girl, stuck with smashed glass and plastic like a pin cushion. Blood still oozed from where she had been cut and crushed open. The bag they had used swung like a hammock, splashing the floor with red.
“My God,” she whispered, her narrowed eyes the only sign of distress. “So much for that.”
Abruptly, one of the bellhops, the one closest to the girl’s head, made a distressing croak and began to flicker. “What?” she exclaimed in disbelief. “No!”
She dove, catching her against her shoulder when the man suddenly exploded into a few shreds of smoke. When they cleared, a large mouse flicked its ears once by Miss Lydia’s feet, and scampered out the open back door as she spilled half a stretcher’s worth of cooling blood down her front.
The glorified “pop” must have been louder than it seemed, because Emily ran up from the depths of the kitchen, calling, “What was that? Miss Lydia, what’s- oh!”
She clapped her hands to her mouth in shock, and her knees began to tremble as four unremarkable people in cooking staff clothes stepped out as well, looking unperturbed at the sight of blood, body, and shrapnel that so horrified Emily. Lydia tilted her head to see, and abruptly pointed at one of the people behind her. “Emily, take the tray!”
The girl faltered and stared at her, confused. “Take the tray, Emily!” she ordered, and the slight cook grabbed it, a platter full of meticulously layered pastries, painfully hot symbols of hours of work, from the unresponsive woman.
But the effort went to waste anyway, because when the woman faded and burst, she threw up her hands and screamed. Jam and chocolate splattered all over the tile. She literally squeaked as a starling rose from the smoke, circled once, snatched a piece of ruined biscuit, and flew away to the yard.
“What- what was that?” she cried in great distress, jumping back with a yelp as a second wavered and failed, and a pigeon flew away with another scrap. “Help! What’s happening to them?”
“Nothing is happening to them,” the manager replied calmly, as she carefully lowered the cat-girl to the ground. “They are only reverting back to their original forms.”
She flicked her hand reasonably clean of blood and straightened the glasses on her nose. “Or, more accurately, the illusion spelled upon them is breaking. It would be cruel to truly change them.”
Emily stifled another shriek as the remaining two became a sparrow and another starling. “I-is everyone l-like this?” she stuttered. Her eyes spun around the room, searching for any more explosions, and at last down to her own hands, as if she too might suddenly become a bird or rodent.
“No. I, for one, am exactly as you see me. The majority of our staff, including your kitchen crew, is real. After the first death in round one, I decided it was too dangerous to have to worry about them, as well as the guests, so I sent them home. I had to supplement with these,” she informed, indicating the remaining bell hop.
“Oh, you might as well go, too,” she told it indifferently. “Go on.”
The “man” blinked once, and popped like a balloon. Another mouse appeared on the ground. It sniffed Miss Lydia’s shoe, and ran off to the yard without even bothering to nab a morsel for the road. “They’re very useful, though it makes me uneasy to let magic touch any of the food,” she said, wrinkling her nose at the thought. “It’s why I was so glad when you and Paul decided to stay; I figured I could keep at least two more safe.”
“But…but why are they disappearing?” her employee questioned. Seemingly recovered from her shock, though her wide, curious eyes still carried a leftover trace of fear, she managed to keep her voice from croaking too much.
Darcy had left one of his mysterious hiding places after a rat, and now stalked around to sit a few steps from the red puddles, scenting the air around the cat-girl. “What about him?” she asked. Her laugh was frazzled. “Does he turn into a man?”
“Darcy is a very unique cat, but he is still only a cat. As for how my replacements suddenly became so fragile…” Miss Lydia trailed off. She felt weary, and the mixing smell of blood and the fallen desserts was churning the bile growing in her throat. It was highly unpleasant, and very distracting. “I don’t know,” she finally finished.
It was quiet for a moment, as everyone settled their thoughts and recollected themselves. Miss Lydia eventually cleared her throat and remarked pointedly, “We’ll need to get more refreshments to replace those, Emily.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, the thought of work drawing her back to a more comfortable reality. “Of course!”
“I’ll just clean these up first,” the girl added helpfully, but turned to find the mess was already cleared.
“Um…thank you,” she cautiously spoke aloud, before hurrying to her world of ovens, whisks and pans.
Miss Lydia waited until she had gone. She leaned over the girl’s face, and carefully pulled back her eyelids. Red. So that one had taken all the pain. They were both gone, of course; completely put out of the body they shared. The two were probably drifting about the ceiling together, though they wouldn’t remember anything when they were back.
Brilliant blue sparks trembled with excitement. Though her blouse and waistcoat were already dark and hard with blood, the tournament hostess rolled up her sleeves, and became a magician.
The patient lay against the wall outside the kitchen door, hidden from the guests and unknown behind the stage curtain. She was breathing softly, though it was difficult to tell exactly who it was under the blanket.
Outside the curtain, however, it was a riot. Rowdy, unintelligible shouts, cheers, whoops and hollers, deafened any comparable amount of sound as Miss Lydia stepped onto the stage, resplendent in the dark dress shirt and scarlet waistcoat she had changed into out of occasion and necessity. She had even put on slacks.
She could only voice an easy, “Hello again,” before they roared so massively even the microphone became useless.
Pixie smile bright and open, Miss Lydia tried again, shouting, “We’re on to the grand finale!”
The river had become a hurricane, and she ducked behind her arm to avoid the full front. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she announced eloquently as the waves began to settle, “we are down to our last two contestants!”
“All of our competitors have fought hard and long, but only two remain, and only one can win!”
Ribbon came off, over her head, and the glittering gold key went up, turning beautiful arcs in the air. Cameras and gasps of awe and delight followed its descent, until Miss Lydia nimbly caught it, flipping it around to fall in that trademark, tantalizing wave. “Only one person, only one team, can earn the key to their heart’s desire!”
The four massive television screens rose into the ceiling as two more, even greater in size, descended on either side. Sparks on their corners evolved into great streaks of lightning, erupting into fireworks midair. The audience loved it; a cry of delight rattled the tables. More adventurous guests leapt to touch the electromagic, an attempt that passed through with barely a shiver.
“Let us wish them all the best of luck,” she called as the Manor crest beamed onto the screens, awaiting footage. “And may the most deserving win!”
Miss Lydia blinked slowly, unable to place her location, until she realized she was looking at the room sideways. The hotel manager and receptionist lifted her head and rubbed her eyes. For the first time, she had to admit with some guilt, she had fallen asleep at her desk. Though, in this cramped corner of the kitchen, her “desk” was only a table, covered in baskets of papers.
Darcy meowed by the foot of the chair, watching his mistress. “I’m all right,” she assured him softly, finding her glasses and putting them on. “But what…”
The answer to her question was a sharp sting, an angry wasp, within her chest. Miss Lydia winced and felt her forehead. “What is that?” she whispered.
Rising quietly from her chair with the cat at her heels, she snuck past Emily, who slept on unaware in her sleeping bag.
Following the prickling in her hands and her own instinct, the hotel manager found herself outside in the night, in front of the large, ornate fountain that stood in the driveway. Though she didn’t expect any activity for the moment, she felt lucky she had avoided any of the remaining competitors.
The key came out of its hiding place, its yellow metal white in the moonlight. “That’s not it,” she mumbled, turning it over to make sure, while Darcy climbed the spigots and leaped onto her shoulders.
Approaching the fountain, she exchanged the key for the pocket watch. Clicking one of the knobs on the side stopped the hands, and the other worked an odd little mechanism, dropping the face of the clock so the tiny gold numerals stood above. She pried off one of the decorative flowers on the second tier, and delicately pressed the watch face into the carving hidden underneath.
The soothing burble of water stopped, and within a few seconds, the entire fountain was dry as a straw. Part of the bottom-most layer, which to the eye of the ignorant was at ground level, fell several inches and vanished under the rest. When it was completely gone, Miss Lydia descended into the underground. The top closed after her.
The air was damp, and water dripped down the walls where the fountain had overflowed, leaving a clashing mix of green moss and rusty stains. But Miss Lydia was more interested back of the tunnel. The ceiling was high where some anonymous visitor had carved away the foundation of a room the hotel owners had removed many years before. As such, a nondescript piece of wood had been revealed, the appendix of the palace; useless to its success and survival, but still a living attachment of the greater whole.
Lydia reached up to touch the wood, and was met by a sudden flash of light. Darcy hissed as she jerked back with a gasp, shaking her hand rapidly. “It’s not good, Darcy,” she told him, watching the smoke rise off her fingertips. “It’s not good. I tied the illusions to the Manor; that’s why they expired.”
Her next sentence was a struggle to finish. “Because the magic…is fading.”
Fur brushed against her neck as she ran through the entire history of the property, searching for any precedent to such a distressing phenomenon. She found none, only a startling revelation that made itself clear, not by what had happened before, but what had not happened.
Despite a hundred-fifty-odd years in the area, and all its changes, destruction and violence had never crossed the border of the grounds in anything close to the force of the tournament. And now, she, the manager, vowed to its care by profession and her own ancestral lineage to Myntion himself, had brought them into the very heart of his home. Her family’s home. And it was killing it.
“The building itself is probably quite unstable,” she mused, her words making a hollow echo, “that much is certain. Yet I can’t tell if that’s the reason, or if the nature of the fights themselves has been draining it. Perhaps both.”
She laughed wryly. “If I wasn’t tired before, I am now.”
Darcy mewed his concern into her ear, and pawed at her neck. Miss Lydia smiled and scratched his back as she walked to the stairs, and departed the underground. The fountain fixed itself and began to flow again as she left it behind. “Don’t worry,” she said pleasantly.
The stars twinkled overhead as she crossed the backyard and employee lot, winding easily through the garden to the kitchen step. “Even if the Manor loses its magic, and I’m the receptionist for a lifeless building next week, I still have my own spark.”
Clusters of dancing electricity all over the estate rocketed through wires, wood, and plaster, destined to cover the entirety of the right wing, ground floor. She pulled the door open and stepped into the warmth.
“And if that isn’t enough to see this through, nothing is.”