“I just need somewhere to stay.”
It’s not a very consequential thing to think, I just need somewhere to stay, especially if one were in the position Lorelei Fischer was, driving almost blindly down an unfamiliar, unlit, unstraightening road while torrents of rain pelted her windshield, but Lorelei had had the good sense, or perhaps just the dumb luck, to speak this thought out loud. Words have more power when spoken aloud, they’re all about intent, you see, and maybe Lorelei knew this somewhere deep down in a dormant hidey-hole of her unconscious, or maybe some otherworldly power had coaxed the words out, or maybe our heroine just had a bad habit of talking to herself. Whatever the reason, she did articulate that desire, and at that moment a sign appeared at the very farthest reach of her high beams, flailing in the storm’s gales.
It was a rickety, old thing, wooden with chipping paint, and if it hadn’t been for a perfectly timed moment of abnormal stillness in the rain and wind, and another lustrous strike of lightning somewhere in the distance, Lorelei would not have been able to read the elaborate lettering:
Moonlit Shores Manor
For The Weary Traveler
And the very fortunate, smaller sign that clung just below on two thin chains:
She slowed immediately, turning down the gravel drive just beyond the sign. Moonlit Shores Manor sounded like a perfectly acceptable place despite that it was out in the middle of nowhere with almost no advertising. She navigated the narrow pathway in the dark, thick branches overhead shielding her car from the worst of the rain. Maybe the place would be run by a tiny, wrinkled woman and her gaggle of cats, she thought, taking another turn, the road so far behind she’d forgotten it. Maybe there would even be cookies. Lorelei felt the tension leave her body, if only for an instant, at the mere thought of chocolate chips, then every muscle tensed again at what she came upon.
Moonlit Shores Manor was, in fact, an immense, daunting, hulk of a place, impossible to take in with one glance. It towered over her, its many stories disappearing into the black sky as she peered up through her car windshield between torrents of rain swept to the side by tiring wipers. She made out its wood-paneled face and a pair of windows, elaborate molding sinking down over the glass like the heavily-lidded eyes of a skeptical stranger. Looking rather like it had skulked straight out of a horror film, Lorelei contemplated the place and her choices, but the rain, you see, funny as it always is, was the deciding factor. A pair of doors were just beyond the reach of her headlights, and though she was at first apprehensive, the relief of finding somewhere to stay, the sleep in her eyes, and the chill in the car forced her out into the storm, across the gravel walkway, and in through the great entrance.
Wind caught the door, slamming it behind her, the echo rattling through the foyer. Outside, the storm raged, but the sudden quiet shot though her like a cold lightning strike. Whether it was the massiveness of the entryway, or the disturbing shadows the dual staircases at the ends of the room cast, Lorelei felt her stomach flip over as she dripped on the wooden floors and clutched her bag to her chest.
When no one came, she took a few steps deeper into the entryway, wondering exactly what time it was as she hadn’t thought to check. To the left, an archway lead into a sitting room, a fire crackling at its far end. Someone sat in a rocker, their silhouette illuminated by the dull flames. She crept up to the back of them, her mouth dry, unsure what to say.
Lorelei jumped, turning to see a shadow in the archway she had just come through.
“Welcome, welcome,” the woman motioned to Lorelei to follow her back into the foyer, “I’m sorry; it’s so late I didn’t think anyone would be showing up–and in this weather–but we’re always open!”
Lorelei cleared her throat, glancing back at the form in front of the fire, apparently undisturbed, then returned to the entryway. Nothing like how she’d imagined, this woman was young and gorgeous, though the word barely did her justice. Tall, with great bunches of black hair that trailed over her shoulders and stopped at the small of her back, she floated to the counter in the foyer and pulled her silken robe a bit tighter.
“Storm’s nasty,” she flashed Lorelei a knowing look, her heavily rimmed eyes sweeping over her soaking form, “Thought about doing something about it, but so many are from all over, they like the change. They say it’s soothing!” There was a crack of thunder then and the foyer lit up with a blinding whiteness for an instant. Lorelei gasped, and the woman chuckled, a comforting, throaty sort of laugh. “Are you from around here?”
Lorelei shook her head, “A little ways west.” She pointed over her shoulder as if that told the whole story and immediately felt like an idiot.
“Ah,” her smile was warm and sincere, “Well, do you have a reservation?”
Lorelei’s heart dropped right into the pit of her stomach and, had it been feasible, a resounding splash would have echoed throughout the manor. Her face must have fallen as well because the young woman only smiled more comfortingly, if that were possible, “Oh, you don’t need one, we’ve always got room, but some folks like to call ahead. So,” she started rustling papers under the counter, then ducked beneath it, “You’re…?”
“Lorelei–” she answered, but was immediately interrupted.
“A Lorelei?” she popped back up and placed a book on the counter, “Well, I’ve never met one before.”
“Yeah…” Lorelei watched her shuffle through the papers in the book, pulling out loose ones and stuffing them back under the counter distractedly, “Fischer.”
“Well, there’s some paperwork,” she flipped through more papers then sighed heavily, “I’m so disorganized, Arista’s always reminding me…Have any pets or other live creatures to declare?” Lorelei shook her head, and the woman continued more to herself then to her guest, “Oh, lovely; Ren will appreciate not being woken up, the grumpy bastard. And Grier, well, ha,” she chuckled to herself, “You should have seen him with the direwolves last–oh, damn, where is it?”
“I’m sorry,” Lorelei took a step back from the counter, guilt swimming in her stomach, “I know it’s late.”
“No, no,” she smiled again and waved at her, “It’s just that we lost our other receptionist over a month ago, and I seem to be falling behind more than I’m catching up,” she giggled to herself in a weary sort of way, “You’re not looking for a job are you?”
Lorelei stood quite still and blinked down at the mess the woman was still shuffling through. It was weird, really, as she stood there staring at the complete stranger in the dead of night in an unfamiliar, almost spooky place, during a frightful storm and soaking wet, how wonderful she suddenly thought it would be if she could stay there. Genuinely stay there. Her whole chest warmed at the idea.
“What am I saying?” the woman suddenly broke into laughter and dropped a second massive book onto the counter with a resounding slam, “You’re on vacation, and here I am trying to rope you into work! My apologies!” She thrust a pen into Lorelei’s hand and pointed at the top of the page she’d opened to, “If I can just get you to sign in, we can sort out everything else in the morning. I bet you’re exhausted.”
Lorelei realized just how drowsy she felt at that moment and could hardly focus on the roster she was signing. She squinted down at the words, written in the same elaborate script as the sign outside, only much smaller: Name; easy enough, Race; what? She squinted harder and realized it must have said Date, scribbling “August 12”, Mode of Transport; weird, but alright, then finally Reason for Visit.
She pondered this for a quick moment: why was she here? Well, she had driven there, an entire day’s drive really, and there had been that sign. But why was she driving? The image of all her family and friends in one big room suddenly filled her mind, their countenances annoyed, growing into bewildered, then finally horrified, and she just as quickly shook the image away and scrawled “vacation” in the space.
“Right then,” she glanced at the roster for a split second, “Oh, a car?” Her eyes lit up as they fell on Lorelei again, “How contemporary of you!”
Drowsiness beginning to settle on her, Lorelei followed the woman up the creaking staircase to the catwalk above the foyer and down a narrow hall. What looked like real burning candles dimly lit the way in a pleasant, warm glow. She almost reached out to one, but stopped herself–they couldn’t be real, of course, that was just her sleepiness getting the best of her.
The woman took her down another corridor all the way to its end, stopping before a door with a blue stone embedded above the lock and revealed a key from her pocket. She plunged the sapphire-colored bit of metal into the lock and swung the door open.
The room was pitch dark, save for two tiny spots of light that Lorelei could have sworn she saw, but disappeared as soon as her escort walked in. “Breakfast’s between seven and nine in the dining hall, just off the entryway, but I’m assuming you’ll sleep in, poor thing, so I’ll make sure Ando’s around to make you something else to eat.” She flicked on a light and the room filled with a warm glow. Everything, the rug, the comforter, the armchair, seemed to be a slightly different shade of blue. “Is there anything I can get you tonight before I leave you?”
The words hung on her lips, and Lorelei found herself watching them for a minute longer than what she knew was socially comfortable. She shook her head, feeling the warmth in her cheeks.
She shot her a fantastic grin and stepped out, slipping her the sapphire key as she passed her, “Well, if you do think of anything, I’m Ziah. Goodnight.”
Ziah stopped on the threshold, glancing back over her shoulder.
“Um,” she was a bit embarrassed suddenly, but forced herself to speak, “Were you serious? About needing someone to work here, I mean?”
“Oh, well, yes, but,” she shifted in the doorway, appearing uncomfortable for the first time, “I didn’t mean to offend you. I do apologize.”
“No,” Lorelei put up her hands, “I’ve just been looking for a change and, ya know, if you’re taking applications…”
“I do get a good feeling from you,” she crossed her arms and leaned against the doorway, taking a long look at Lorelei. “I would say think about it, but now I’m feeling I’ll hold you to it come the morning. Absolutely no one has applied. There’s a process, of course, but if you still want the position, I can most likely make it happen.” She squinted, pursed her lips, then grinned again, “We’ll talk in the morning.”
Lorelei stared at the door as it closed and continued to stare long after. Had she really just offered to take a job here? Where even was here?
She felt compelled to take a few steps back, knocking gently into the bed and dropping down onto it. Lavender rose up to meet her from the downy comforter, a shade of light teal. “What am I doing?” Her voice sounded far away, and her eyelids were too heavy to keep open.
Then, a noise sounded from the corner of her room. She couldn’t move, a mixture of concern and overwhelming fatigue grounding her to the bed, but she listened very hard. Something scurried, or fluttered–she couldn’t tell–across the room. This place was old, she reminded herself, and it was probably only a mouse which, at this point, she didn’t care if it climbed under the covers with her, as long as it let her sleep. Lorelei felt herself slipping into that state between reality and dream, remembering Ziah’s words, “Lorelei…never met one before,” and managed a meek laugh.
The rain pelted the window above the bed in a steady hum. In her mind she heard distant voices as she slipped into a dream. It was something she was used to at this point in her life. She always heard far-off, ambiguous voices when on the edge of sleep, as if her dreams were rehearsing. There was quiet laughter, then an even quieter gasp, some whispering, and she thought she even felt a tiny wisp of breath on her ear. Then something happened that Lorelei was not used to: one of the voices rang clear: “Oh, my, Bur, this one…she’s…oh! She’s human!”