Drek gasped like a devil in heaven and bolted upright, chest heaving with exhaustion and disbelief. The competitor sat on a luxurious bed in a comfortably darkened room, wonderfully furnished with only a dull glow beneath the drapes to brighten it.
“It’s good to see you’ve finally come to; we have much to talk about, Miss Drek.”
The fighter whipped her head around to find a tall, blonde woman, the tournament hostess Miss Lydia, leaning in the doorway. “I hope this accommodation suits your taste,” she intoned conversationally, stepping inside and pulling the door closed behind her. She opened the curtains for light. “It’s one of our guest rooms. Single bed, first floor, garden view. Left wing. It would have been more convenient to take you to my little base in the convention hall, but out of respect for the condition of your previous opponents, I thought it prudent and more sensitive to keep you segregated.”
Drek’s eyes narrowed to suspicious points. “How do you know?” she snarled.
Miss Lydia pointed a slender finger. “You were stabbed through the chest and charred, my dear. With the current state of affairs, it took every last smidge of magic in this house to bring you back and keep those wounds from killing you a second time. As difficult as it is to resurrect the dead and not learn something about them, patching you up by hand provided a few lessons.”
Looking down, Drek saw the thick mesh of bandages around her torso, and the dead, somewhat blackened skin peeling away from her hands and shoulders. “I did my best for that,” the manager said apologetically, “but you’ll have to let it come off like bad sunburn.”
“Why did you help me?”
“I help all my guests, and that includes my contestants. Every single one will leave this place alive. Yes, even the ones you so viciously dispatched. I’m afraid that means your mission has failed.”
Drek lunged out of bed, but caught herself against the adjacent table as her wound protesting with throbbing, unforgiving pain. “What do you know about that?” she hissed through grit teeth, keeping her gaze towards the wall.
A flesh-colored chunk of plastic bobbed up and down in the air. Instantly, she felt an empty itch in the curve of her ear.
“Only a lucky guess,” Lydia said, letting the mechanism hit her palm as it caught fire and burned to a fine powder. Ignoring the other woman’s turbulent face, she shook it off and observed, “From this and your astoundingly conspicuous actions and style in fighting through this tournament, I can make an educated guess that you are currently the victim of a miserable and desperate situation, one I don’t believe you can escape by yourself. The effort alone seems to have caused you and anyone depending on you quite a bit of pain.”
“Shut up!” she shouted, striking out wildly. Her injury screamed, she doubled over, and only a shimmering mass of azure sparks kept her from falling. Pushed back into bed and held there with enchantment, Drek shut her eyes. “What do you know about it?” she cried, throwing her words like a challenge.
“Though I have sucked my manor dry for your sake, I still have my own powers, Miss Drek. We may both be handicapped at present, but I can promise it is not a risk you want to take,” she answered evenly, daring her to contradict or disrupt.
Miss Lydia lowered her faintly glowing hands and crossed her arms. “What do I know? I know you and your colleagues disrupted my communications and surveillance systems. I know, despite the work of your fellow competitors, you single-handedly caused over half of the total destruction to my hotel. I know you used the facilities of this estate in acts of unusual and inexplicably gruesome nature. ”
“I know you unnecessarily killed three people- yes, I am counting the cat girls as two- in cold blood,” she told her, her voice unusually hard and cold. “And I know you smiled as you did it.”
Steadfastly refusing to credit this confrontation, Drek was silent as Miss Lydia drew near and rested her hand on the table. “Your grand adventure is finished,” she remarked, “so I suppose you’ll have to return to your employer and inform him of the regretfully disappointing news.”
Hands clenched the sheets until their knuckles blanched.
“Or,” she suggested with a smile, “you could work for me.”
Drek’s eyes flicked open and rolled to stare at her in disbelief. “What?”
“I’ve recently become convinced we need better security at the Manor. And a lounge singer. From your past performance and what little we have for a file, I think you’d be an excellent fit. I can give you a more extensive idea of pay and benefits when this has officially wrapped up and I have better access to our main computer, but I can already say it comes with on-location quarters and the protection of our name.”
The staring continued without cessation, though it had transformed from shock to doubt. “This is a sincere offer,” Lydia assured her. Interrupting, Darcy shoved his way through the door and chirped at her.
“So they’ve made it back. I’ll be right there,” she told him, and left Drek with a wave. “I’d be glad to have you, but I can understand if you’d prefer the waiting arms of your inevitably sympathetic coworkers.”
She paused a second before the woman called, “Wait.”
Drek shifted over to scrutinize the wallpaper again, saying quietly, “I’ll need some time to think.”
Lydia only smiled. “Take all the time you need,” she answered kindly.
Over her shoulder as she closed the door, she added, “And if you know anyone who could help with our technology- television, computers, cameras- I have an opening there as well.”
Miss Lydia’s speech was full of kind words and soft, sweet smiles. The hostess was, as always, the picture of grace and elegance. The two men in front of her, however, were anything but. They gazed about them as if they did not fully take in everything they were seeing. Indeed, they had gone through their own personal brand of hell within the last few hours. Neither would have imagined that the cost of gaining everything back would be to lose all they had once again.
There was no joy in Donavon’s eyes as he took the key from Miss Lydia. He did not hear as she spoke her words of congratulations. The key felt cold and ever so heavy. For the second time in his life, the Irishman’s fire had been reduced to ash. He felt older than his age and as helpless as a newborn babe.
Michael also only listened with half an ear. The sleeve of his polo had been artfully folded and pinned to minimize the lack of his missing limb. Miss Lydia had earlier offered to restore his arm. Michael had declined, however. It seemed to him that that would have belittled the battered rag doll’s final sacrifice to them. That rag doll was also a memory of Florence. There was no way that he would do anything to smudge the memory of her.
The arm that remained was slung protectively over his father’s shoulders. He was focusing on just putting one foot in front of the other. If his lost his forward momentum now, he would end up bawling his eyes out.
Once the key had been awarded, there was only one logical course of action: to unlock the study door. The pair of men politely declined Miss Lydia’s invitation to accompany them to the infamous study. It was a trip that they had to make alone. They had to stay together in this and support each other.
Donavon clutched the key as though it was the only thing keeping him together. Perhaps it was. His hand shook as he placed the key in the lock and turn it until there was a small, almost inaudible, click. The door swung open easily, seeming to beckon the two into the dimly lit room. And so, still holding onto each other, they timidly entered.
And immediately they stopped. There was someone already in the room.
Sitting behind a stately mahogany desk sat a man. He didn’t appear to be very old, forty, maybe fifty at the oldest. His elbows were resting on the desk and his hands were folded primly, as if some long dead great aunty had cuffed the back of his head enough to put him into the habit of sitting thus. As he gave the Morstends the once over, his silvery blue eyes glittered. It was that kind of glitter that is an intriguing sort of warning, the classic “Right now I like you, so don’t cross me.”
Seeing his grand personage occupying what ought to be an empty room, Mike exclaimed the first thing that came into his head.
“Who the hell are you?”
The sly-looking, sandy-haired gentleman chuckled. “I could very well ask the two of you the same question. However, allow me to introduce myself.” At this, he rose from his chair. He was much taller than he seemed at first. Maybe it was an illusion, but his head seemed to be just a few scant inches short of brushing the ceiling. “I am Horatius Myntion.”
Horatius moved from around his desk and walked toward the thoroughly bewildered father and son. The closer he came, the more he seemed to shrink. This continued until he was within two feet of the pair. He still was rather tall, but no longer abnormally so.
It was Donavon who gathered his wits first. “That’s impossible! Horatius Myntion has been dead for decades!”
“True,” the wizard replied, one hand stroking his close-cropped beard. “It would be more accurate to say that I am a copy of Horatius Myntion. When he created this study, he thought that it might be prudent to leave me as a protective spell, just in case. After all, it wouldn’t do to have someone accidentally turning themselves into a mongoose, would it? Which brings us to the question. To quote your young companion, ‘Who the hell are you?’ And, might I add, what are you doing here?”
Still confused, and no less dazed then they had been, the two Morstends spent the next three hours explaining who they were, why they were there, and what had happened over the course of the past few days. Throughout this whole justification, the Horatius who was not Horatius nodded, hemmed, and hawed at the appropriate moments. He was silent for a long while after the two had quit talking. Eventually, he huffed a small, sad laugh. “So that’s what my great-granddaughter has been getting up to. Pity she deemed it necessary to destroy the house to get some excitement.” He shook his head before fixing his gaze on the two men once again. “Now, gentlemen, I believe there is the matter of your prize. What is it that you desire?”
Son looked at father and father looked at son. They both nodded in silent agreement. The doctor spoke up and made their wish known. The old wizard’s eyes glittered as he listened. He definitely knew much more about them than he was letting on.
“Yes,” he said. “I do believe we can grant your wish quite easily.”
Miss Lydia jumped as the door to the study opened. Michael and Donavon stumbled out, followed by a rather smug-looking Siamese. Neither of the men seemed to notice the animal as it gracefully sauntered over to Miss Lydia and wound around her ankles. Each man carried a large sack. On the bright side, the Morstends were looking better. The doctor had some of the fire back in his eyes. There was a smile tugging at Mike’s lips. Perhaps it wasn’t his normal smile, but it was better than nothing.
“Miss Lydia,” Dr. Morstend stated in a crisp voice, “if you would be so kind, would you direct us to the guest lounge?”
Miss Lydia was bewildered, but replied with an affirmative. After all, the contest was over and the battle won. There was no need to keep the competitors separate from the hotel’s patrons. The males were silent as she guided them through the maze of hallways. The spritely woman didn’t quite know what to make of this. Did the triumphant doctor want to hunt for funding? Well, to each their own.
Shortly their destination was reached. The large parlor was filled with well-dressed red blood nobles. Miss Lydia was prepared to start introducing the doctor to some of the more affluent guests, when he brushed past her before she had even opened her mouth. Donavon stalked toward one table where a lone man sat. With a slight jolt, Miss Lydia realized that the seated man’s name was Morstend.
The doctor was now standing across the table from the white-haired gentleman. As the two glared into each other’s eyes, the air between them crackled with dark energy. Without ever breaking eye contact, Donavon lifted his arm and threw the bag he was carrying onto the table. The bag slid just past the center of the table, opening enough to show its glittering contents. The older man’s gaze slipped down to take in the riches.
“Well, good-for-nothing, it seems like you’ve finally done something.”
Donavon remained silent.
The old man huffed a sigh and leaned back in his chair. “Very well. You are free of your debt. Take your worthless Irish name back and get out of my sight.”
Donavon nodded once to his former father-in-law before turning on his heel and quickly marching back to where his son and Miss Lydia stood.
“Doctor Morstend?” Miss Lydia began.
“O’Kelly,” he interrupted. “My name is O’Kelly. I’ve finally got our name back, though the cost was far too high.”
Michael handed the hostess the remaining bag. “This is for you.”
“Oh, but really, there is no need...”
“Please,” the young man spoke softly, refusing to take the bag back. “Even if it’s not needed to pay for the damages, it will help our consciences.”
Miss Lydia nodded and accepted their offering without further comment.
The doctor and his son, their business done, matched each other stride for stride. First, they went down the hallways... Then down the steps... Then out the door.
They never looked back.
The long trip home was uneventful. The newly renamed O’Kellys didn’t converse with their fellow travelers. Their fellow travelers might have tried to converse with them, but in doing so would have discovered that it was a rather fruitless activity.
The first thing the doctor and his son did upon reaching their house was to go the garage and find a shovel. That shovel dug a small, shallow hole. Into that small, shallow hole went a small shoebox. The earth was replaced carefully over the shoebox. Donavon and Michael stood there in silence for a long while before offering the little rag doll their quiet thanks and returning to the house.
It was a week before the doctor or his son could muster the energy, determination, or inclination to enter the laboratory. Nevertheless, the first of the two doors swished open easily, almost as if they had never been gone. The second of the doors swung open more slowly, revealing the well-known chamber.
The room was already lit. The Bunsen burner was turn on. Miscellaneous beakers containing brightly hued fluids were bubbling and boiling. Everything was just as like it would be on a normal, busy work day.
The figure who had been perched on the far counter laid down her notebook and pencil. Swinging her heels, she tilted her head and smiled a kind but smirking smile.
“Did you think you would get rid of me that easily, my dears?” Her eyes twinkled as her transparent hand tucked a lock of gossamer hair behind her ear. “I will always be around.”