My watch vibrates an alert that I know full well is coming. I know I’m late. I know that’s a problem. My luggage had gotten lost at the airport and unfortunately, leaving it behind was not an option. Without it, all of this was for naught. I’m not sure how many parties are in line ahead of me. Maybe six? There are so many more people than I anticipated. I didn’t think this was the kind of thing to which you’d bring a plus one, or three for that matter. It seemed like there were whole families on line ahead of me.
The lobby was unsettlingly designed with twin front desks each mirroring the other perfectly. A high, dark marble fronted desk illuminated by soft purple lighting. On a dark wooden table behind each was a simple black ceramic vase holding a tall white orchid, a spray of green its only accompaniment. The orchids leaned away from each other at impossibly perfect angles. Beside each orchid was a black ceramic lamp providing soft yellow light to match the wall of eighteen by eighteen-inch suspended bamboo tiles that reached from floor to ceiling, backlit to radiate a soft golden glow. Even the desk staff were identical, one working right-handed and the other left with their tools laid out in perfect opposition.
They were surprisingly efficient. The line was moving quickly but my watch once again vibrated its alarm. It had been the same intensity as the last but it felt as if it were frantic in its notification. I was sweating now. I did not want to cut things this close and risk the unpleasantness that comes from being late. I had flown to Hong Kong specifically for this appointment. This was my first time visiting and I wanted everything to go perfectly.
“Good afternoon, sir.” One of the hotel staff greeted me as I was still at least two guests from the front of the line. “Are you here for the retreat?” She was dressed identically to the two employees manning the desk. Her makeup was identical also and I saw that on a beaded lanyard around her neck was a tag that did not have her name but her picture and the word staff, written large in Cantonese and subtitled smaller in English.
“Yes,” I answered in Cantonese. I was always self-conscious about my Cantonese. “I am concerned that I will be late.”
The woman looked speculatively towards the windows, out into the dusk, and turned back with a smile. She extended her hand to take my luggage and saw my hesitation. She nodded sympathetically and motioned once more. I tentatively handed her the bag and she nodded her thanks. She led me from the lobby, around a corner, and to a solitary desk behind which was nestled an elevator.
The identical woman behind that desk looked up and smiled the same smile I’d been shown only moments before. There was a brief exchange of pleasantries and she asked for my name.
“Joseph Archer,” I replied with growing concern.
“Mr. Archer,” She said by way of greeting. “How long will you be staying with us?”
“Three days,” I answered. Her satisfied nod showed that I had passed the first of her tests.
“What is your lineage in the hui?” She asked, not looking up from her computer screen.
“Five generations, on my father’s side,” I replied.
“Did your family join us here in China or were you inducted in America?” She asked.
“America,” I supplied.
“I really am in a hurry.” I looked around for an external facing window but could not find one. The sun must have set by now. My watch alert vibrated again and my sweating returned in force. “The matter is somewhat urgent.”
“We understand your urgency, Mr. Archer.” She said. “We must properly classify you and your disposition before you enter the retreat or your experience may not be satisfactory. We do want to ensure that you stay with us in the future. I assure you that this little bit of time now will provide for a much more enjoyable experience overall.”
I nervously mopped the sweat from my brow. My skin was beginning to itch and I could feel my frustration growing. The woman who helped me with my bag set it down beside me and placed a hand reassuringly on my arm.
“Enjoy your stay, Mr. Archer.” She said sweetly. “You will be well taken care of.”
“Your ancestry, Mr. Archer.” The woman at the computer asked.
“Chinese. Norweigian. A bit of the British Isles.” I replied, for the first time feeling self-conscious about how messy that must sound.
“Your classification?” She asked.
I was not comfortable talking about it like this. Not at all. After all, people treated you differently once they knew. I looked around to make sure I would not be overheard. I opened my mouth to speak and the elevator behind the desk pinged sharply and its doors slid open. Two identical members of the hotel staff emerged and walked to either side of their associate.
“Therianthrope” I supplied, my eyes scanning those of the three women behind the desk.
The woman at the computer started. She looked up at me from the screen for the first time since I’d arrived at her desk. She assessed my appearance, making certain adjustments in her mind. I’d learned that most members of the hui were Kitsune. Perhaps my appearance led her to make the same assumption.
“We will have to move you to a suite, Mr. Archer. It will only take a moment.” The woman, now smiling, made the arrangements. “We rarely host such an extraordinary guest. I shall be happy to escort you up.”
The two clones flanking her started at their concierge’s offer. I was uncomfortable with the use of the word “extraordinary”. After all, weren’t we all “extraordinary”? For her part, her demeanor had changed entirely. She motioned for me to circle the desk and meet her at the elevator, pushing the button so that it opened just as I arrived.
“You’ll be staying on the top floor with a panoramic view of the city,” She explained. “And the sky.”
I nodded, finding it difficult to focus my attention on any one thing. It was always difficult at times like these. I faced forward to see the city descending below me through the glass panel of the elevator climbing ever skyward. The sun was just about to go down and I saw the shadow of the emerging moon standing in opposition. I looked from the moon to my guide and she simply smiled, nodded knowingly, and eased back into her tour.
“Your suite is in a block of four rooms occupying your floor.” She supplied as the doors slid open.
The suite was paradoxical, sitting here atop the bright lights of the big city. It was as if I had been magically teleported to the Pacific Northwest. The sights, the sounds, the smells, it felt like home. I took a deep breath, plunged through the door, and entered the combination of my suitcase lock. It popped open to reveal a change of clothes, three bottles of whisky, and the hand-carved totem I’d been gifted from my father. I said a silent prayer as I undid the hidden stopper at its base and took a long pull from the draught.
"It helps." I said, by way of explanation.
“You will be cohabitating with three other members of the hui. We encourage guests to assume their hybrid form during the retreat to facilitate social interaction. Your meals will be provided as part of your room fee. I see you’ve brought your own supply of spirits. Should you require more, those would also be included in your package. The time is nearly upon us, Mr. Archer. I hope you enjoy your stay.” She said simply and departed.
A shriek echoed throughout the room. The full moon crept from the shadows and burst into luminosity. I watched it for a few fleeting seconds before my body was wracked with pain. Letting loose a barbaric yawp just as my father had shown me. I rode the wave of pain mixed with my father's potent drink until adrenaline shot through my body. My mind exploded in pain and exaltation as my muzzle extended and my claws grew long and sharp. My coat bristled and I raised my fanged maw to the heavens and once again let loose that battle cry calling all opponents to me.
I saw my reflection in the shining copper finish of the elevator door and nodded in satisfaction. My bipedal stance only served to amplify the bear’s powerful image towering above my former size. My body was carpeted in coarse brown and black fur and my eyes glowed with a menacing internal fire.
“How many had fallen before me in these whirlwind three-day cycles?” I asked the question for the hundredth, millionth time since my first transformation.
“No way!” I heard a male voice bursting with excitement say in Cantonese.
I turned and saw the young Kitsune, his fox frame supple and his smile wide. Darting through my legs and then around my ankles, it looked up to take it all in.
“You’ve got to see this! A Bearserk!” He called out, his hand holding my ankle as if it were a light post.
There was another terrible shriek devolving into pain, anguish, and then death. My nose caught the scent of blood and my mouth began to work. I looked down at the Kitsune.
“Come on, big guy!” He said, bunching his muscles to run. “Dinner is included!”
Off he went, bounding over a fallen log, across the leaf-strewn floor, and into the painstakingly recreated forest.
“Lycanthropy sucks.” I thought to myself. “But, this might just work.”