“Gotta say, Dom,” said Tess, eyeing the towering fortress with a wary grimace, “you sure know how to pick ‘em.”
“What?! How’s this my fault?! It got like a thousand five star reviews!”
“Uh-huh. Sure. On which site? Hotels from hell dot com?”
“No, I’m not that stupid!”
Tess met Dom’s glare with a raised eyebrow.
“I’m not! Here, I’ll prove it.” Dom fished out his smartphone. “See?” he announced several minutes of complaining about poor connection later, “I used that real popular website. The one Curtis kept going on about? Lairbnb, or whatever?”
“Lairbnb?” Dread curling in her stomach, Tess glanced at the screen. “Really, Dom, really?! Lair?! Are you kidding?!”
“Huh?” Dom frowned at his phone again. “I don’t get it. What’d I do — ?”
“Oh, I think you’re about to find out,” said Tess, sounding more chipper than she felt, “Come on. Let’s go.” Then she began ascending the cobblestone stairs.
“N-Now, just remember,” said Dom, “I’ll do the talking.”
“And don’t look them in the eyes too much. They might not like that.”
“Or show your teeth when you smile. In some countries, it’s a sign of aggression.”
Tess stopped before a forbidding iron door. There was no doorknob or handle, no bell or knocker. She gave the door an experimental push. It didn’t budge. How were they supposed to…?
“Hey!” said Dom, planting himself in front of Tess. Behind him, the door whispered open, and a skeletal silhouette emerged. “Are you listening?”
The creature’s jaw cracked open to emit a croak that might have meant “Welcome!” or “Die!”
Dom scowled. “Are you making fun of — ?”
Tess shook her head and pointed. “That’s your cue, Mr. Linguist. You’re up!”
Blanching, Dom whirled.
Dom gaped. “Uhhh…”
“Just show him the reservation,” hissed Tess. When Dom didn’t move, she grabbed his phone and grumbled, “Pretty sure staring is rude no matter where you go.”
A few taps later, she found the email and showed it to the creature. The creature turned its sunken eyes to the phone. A moment later, it croaked and ushered them inside.
“Wow,” said Tess, her eyes climbing the lobby’s sculpted walls to its vaulted ceiling, “Incredible.”
“Yeah, incredibly creepy!”
Tess followed Dom’s gaze to a grotesque statue looming over the concierge desk. “What, the gargoyle?”
“Well, yeah, that too, but I meant more…” Dom waved his hand in an encompassing gesture.
“It’s called Gothic.”
Dom leveled Tess with a scathing glare. “Him too?”
Tess looked again. “Yikes,” she muttered under her breath when she saw what she had missed. There, in the shadow of the gargoyle, stood a spectral figure dressed all in black.
Seeing Tess notice it, the specter’s bloodless lips split to reveal a toothy smile. “Wilkommen!” it said, approaching the desk, “Haben Sie eine Reservierung?”
Tess elbowed Dom. Before he could speak, though, their skeletal escort scuttled forward to croak in the specter’s ear.
“Ach, so! Sehr gut,” said the specter, then beckoning to Tess and Dom, “Bitte, komm!”
“U-Um,” said Dom, searching his pockets, “W-Wir haben unsere Reisenpässe…” Out of the corner of his mouth, he hissed at Tess, “Passport! I need your passport!”
“Oh!” exclaimed the specter, its dark eyes crinkling, “Your German is very good!”
Dom’s cheeks glowed. “Th-thank you…er, I mean, danke schön!”
Tess rolled her eyes. “Here,” she said, presenting both hers and Dom’s passports.
“Vielen dank, meine Dame.”
The specter glanced at the passports, then reached for a dense tome lying nearby. Flipping the book open to a marked page, it traced one pointed claw down a long list of names. “Herr und Frau Parish,” it said a moment later, “Zimmer eins-drei-vier.” Unhooking a key from its belt, the specter unlocked a desk drawer and plucked out a second key. “Room one-three-four,” it translated, holding out the key to Dom.
When Dom made to take the key, though, the specter did not immediately let go. “We would love you for dinner.”
Dom tensed, his eyes growing wide. “Er, sorry, what?”
“Dinner,” repeated the specter, tilting its head, “Is that not how you call the evening meal?”
“O-Oh, yes. That’s right…”
“You will join, yes?”
“Gladly,” cut in Tess, smiling pointedly, “Just as soon as we drop off our things.”
“Wunderbar,” said the specter, at last releasing the key. “Your room is that way.” It motioned at an adjoining hallway.
Pushing away from the desk, Tess seized Dom by the elbow. Without so much as a backwards glance, she steered him towards their room, not releasing him until they were inside.
“We’re not really going to dinner, are we?!” Dom burst out the moment Tess threw the lock.
“Of course!” said Tess, looking for a light, “Why wouldn’t we?”
“But…didn’t you hear what he said?”
There, on the windowsill, was an oil lamp. “A slip of the tongue, I’m sure.”
“Maybe, but — ”
“But what?” Tess found matches on the dresser. “You made me eat bugs — bugs! — on our last trip. Said I’d offend somebody if I didn’t. Remember?” She lifted the lamp’s shade, struck a match, and lit the wick. “Or are you afraid they’ll serve you blood?”
“That’s not — !” Dom started, then falling silent once light filled the room.
“Whoa!” said Tess, seeing his stricken expression, “I was just kidding!”
“B-B-B-” was all Dom could manage as he stared at something across the room.
Frowning, Tess turned. She gasped when she saw the bed. It was beautiful, an antique canopy with lace drapes and a mattress covered in spikes. Tess hesitated only a moment.
“W-Wait, what’re you…?” asked Dom as she rushed back to the window.
“What do you think?!” hissed Tess, fumbling with the latch. “Or do you actually want to sleep on that thing? Assuming they don’t eat us first?”
The latch slid free.
“And Dom?” said Tess, one leg out the window.
“Next time, I’m picking the hotel.”
Sahara Frost grew up in the foothills of Tennessee, reading anything and everything she could find. When books were not enough to feed her ravenous imagination, she began to write her own. An M.A. in English and an M.S. in Information Science later, she now supports her reading addiction by daylighting as a librarian while staying up all hours of the night to pursue her real job: writing fantasy. Fortunately, her supportive husband tolerates her many obsessions and makes sure her coffee mug stays full so that she can continue writing.