The afternoon sun fell in wobbly blotches across the grass, cutting between the oaks that had sprung up all over the yard decades prior. Lorelei rushed across to the barn, this time empty-handed, but happily laden with direction. She found Ren, bent at the waist and staring at a large bird perched on a rail inside the structure. The bird’s sharp eyes were locked on the man’s. Neither moved.
Lorelei took a careful step toward them, her foot falls quiet on the hay. Then there was a screech, and the odd little hatchling that she had delivered to him that morning popped its head out of Ren’s pocket. The man gently guided it back down without looking away from the massive hawk that was staring him down. Finally, Lorelei cleared her throat. Ren still did not look away, “Yes?”
“Ziah sent me.”
The bird puffed itself up, its chest dotted with brown and gold feathers expanding.
Ren mimicked the creature, standing to his full height and taking in a deep breath. “Oh?” He sounded mostly disinterested.
“Yes, she told me to come to you and get the cart so I can get the luggage.”
“Did she?” He raised a nearly white eyebrow, and the bird appeared to mimic him.
“And she had a message for you. She said she needed your help with something tonight.”
“Hm?” Ren looked at her then, and in the moment he broke their gaze, the bird took flight, nipping the point of his long, extended ear. He grunted and pulled away, and Lorelei swore the bird laughed as it swooped out though the open doors at the back of the barn.
“That’s all she said?” he asked, a hand cupped over the side of his face.
“Yeah, super vague, I know.” Lorelei shrugged and offered a laugh which Ren did not return.
“Well,” he looked away again, his interest piqued and past, “I’m a bit surprised she’d ask you, but I suppose it’s simple enough.”
He turned and went to the back of the barn, and Lorelei followed, though she was unsure if she should. From the shadows of the stalls, errant noises sounded, perhaps like horses, perhaps like something she couldn’t begin to imagine.
On the other side of the building, a wagon was parked, four-wheeled with a tented roof. It was charming, with old painted sides in red and purple flowers, faded from the elements. At its head was a makeshift bench that served as a seat, and a yoke to which Ren was fastening an animal.
Lorelei caught her breath at the sight. Not horses, but massive stags were strapped to the cart, their antlers crawling up to the sky. They were very still as Ren fastened the yoke, and she stepped toward them and reached out a hand to touch the velvety length of an antler, but then it turned a black eye on her, and she froze.
Ren barely noticed, “Here you are, then.” He motioned to the cart and took a step back.
She hesitated, “But I’ve never…driven deer before.”
He shook his head as one of the stags pawed at the dirt, “I assure you, no one else has either. They know the way.”
Lorelei hoisted herself onto the cart, and settled in, turning to Ren, “Thank you.”
He scrunched up his face as if he wanted to say something, but the creature in his pocket chirped at him, and seemed to break the thought he was having. “Don’t go wandering.”
She glanced ahead and could see a worn path leading down from the barn, through a field, and into a dense treeline. “I don’t intend to.”
The stags traveled at a quick rate, gracefully pulling the cart along the flattened path. Wind swept back the sprays of Lorelei’s hair that were uncontained in the bun atop her head as they went, the forest gently humming all around. She breathed in the piney scent and smiled up at the sun’s warmth breaking through the branches. Without human voices to speak with or tasks to complete, time lost meaning, and before she realized, the forest had become denser and darker, and the sounds changed. She spoke to the stags with a chuckle in her voice, “You do know where you’re going, right?”
They glanced back at her with a huff, but continued on. Lorelei stammered out an apology and sat back.
The darkness wasn’t wholly unnerving, the bounce of the cart lulling her into some kind of calm, but the question of what lay beyond in the shadows left her on edge. She wiggled her toes and drummed her fingers, sitting with her back pressed firmly to the seat. There weren’t birds singing out here, she noted, and the stags were slowing. Was she there, wherever there was? Ziah hadn’t told her, had she? No, she’d just sent her off, alone, into the woods.
Lorelei swallowed hard.
Then there was movement in the trees, a soft rustling that grew quickly as the something beyond the ferns came closer. Lorelei held the reins tight and, unblinking, stared at the dark foliage before them. The stags had come to a complete halt, but her heart was flying a mile a minute.
A glow, shimmering white light, parted the leaves, though how a light could become corporeal and affect the physical world, Lorelei had no idea, but that wasn’t the exact thought she was having. No, it was more of a What the hell? kind of thought. A creature emerged from behind the light with a soft, silvery glow and the very obvious shape and build of a horse, but atop its head from between its ears, a golden horn protruded.
The creature stood at the path’s edge, black eyes locked on the cart. The stags moved then, tipping their heads down, and the white animal returned the nod then continued ahead of them across the path before its glow was swallowed up completely by the dark leaves on the other side.
Lorelei sat, mouth agape, as the stags continued on. They were back to a normal pace almost immediately and she wondered if she’d hallucinated. Broken from her trance, she whipped around, but there was no trace left of the animal. “Did you two see that?” she rubbed her eyes, still searching the wood for any sign. They did not respond.
The rest of the trip was a blur for Lorelei, more dark forest, but the fear replaced by wonder, until finally the path ahead changed, leading to a cave. The mouth of it was quite wide and tall, but inside it fell into total darkness. Without hesitation, the stags led her within.
A gentle, yellow glow of something crystalline jutting out from the earthen walls lit the opening, but the way ahead betrayed nothing. With a glance back at the shrinking light of the entryway, Lorelei squeezed the yoke’s reins tight, and pulled her knees up closer to her chest. The darkness closed in around her and silence filled up the cave as even the sound of the stags’ hooves fell away. She tried to grip the reins tighter, but they seemed to just be floating in her hands. She couldn’t feel the seat beneath her, and the air had lost its chill, a breeze, everything. For a moment, Lorelei was unsure if she even existed at all.
Then there was light, dim and blue, but all around her. She glanced up to see a ceiling high above, curved walls coming down to a floor laid with large, mismatched tile. Lights hung on the walls projecting a sapphire cast over the place, and benches dotted the way. In the massive room’s center was a giant divot running across its length and through a tunnel at each end. Somehow, despite entering a cave, she’d ended up inside what she could only call a train station.
“Finally come for the luggage?”
Lorelei jumped at the creaking voice. An elderly man leaned against the wall just beside where she had entered. He wore dirtied coveralls and a deep frown, but his eyes twinkled when she met them.
“Yes.” She did her best to sound like she knew what she was doing, simple and to the point, she thought, would pull that off.
“Them dwarves is like a hurricane,” he remarked, pushing himself off the wall with great effort as the stags rounded the cart up to him, “Don’t recognize you though.”
“Oh, uh, Lorelei,” she gestured to herself, “Ziah sent me.”
“Well you don’t gotta brag,” he waved her off the cart, and she jumped down. “They brought lots, might take some time.”
Around a corner, the man pulled back a sliding door onto which “Moonlit Shores Manor: Luggage Depository” was carved. Inside, a mountain of bags, boxes, and suitcases was piled taller than Lorelei herself, the uppermost pieces teetering dangerously. There were many, but they were at least small.
Her eyes big, then determined, Lorelei reached for a bag at waist height that didn’t appear to be too load bearing, and slid it from the pile, knowing she had to start somewhere. It came out with ease, but the moment it did not have others supporting it, its full weight became realized, and Lorelei crashed to the ground under it with a yelp. What were these dwarves traveling with? Rocks?
The old man laughed deeply from his belly, “Nope, you’re not going to be able to move these, I reckon.”
She grimaced, but held back the desire to ask how he planned to move them if she couldn’t. Not responding also likely had something to do with the weight that was crushing her chest.
Her answer came then in the form of the walls shaking. An earthquake was coming upon them suddenly and without mercy, but only the wall closest to them seemed to be suffering any damage. Bricks broke away from the wall, crumbling into a fine dust onto the tile, but leaving behind two clearly defined forms. Man-shaped stone creatures stepped out onto the tile with slow, meticulous steps, leaving giant-shaped holes in the wall. The stags were unphased, but Lorelei squeaked up at the newly animated beings without words. One came to her and lifted the bag from atop her with bulky, brick fingers and gently placed it in the cart.
“Might be a bit,” the old man laughed and settled down on a bench nearby. Lorelei nodded and picked herself up; she could see they moved the luggage with no effort, but they were incredibly slow. Without eyes, she didn’t know how they saw, and without ears, she didn’t know how they were called, and without organic material, she didn’t know how they were alive, but at this point she’d given up trying to reason anything. She’d see a unicorn for crying out loud, so she just turned away to admire the building.
The terminal was otherwise empty, and she walked its length. She could see from where she’d come there was an archway that appeared to lead into a black tunnel, but she knew, if anything would make any kind of sense, it would spit her back out into the forest. Above it hung a sign that read simply “Moonlit Shores.” Two other archways were in the station, one reading “Hagan’s Academy” and the other “Bexley.” She stood in front of the center archway and stared up at it. If she traveled down it, where would it lead? Presumably to Hagan’s Academy, as the sign read, but it appeared to go in the same direction as the Moonlit Shores archway. How did it work? Farther down the archway she thought she saw movement, a light perhaps, or a shadow, and she took a step toward it.
The terminal exploded into life. Bodies were suddenly coming out of the archway and knocking into her, pushing her toward the platform. A rush of sound hit her, many voices all at once, talking and shouting, and she felt herself be turned so that she was staring at the large opening in the middle of the space. Then a gust of wind flew by, pulling at every part of her. If she had been alone, she thought she would have been sucked right down along the path, but instead, the great tug finally released her and instead of the hole in the ground, a bullet-shaped train sat before her.
The doors opened and more bodies piled out of it, tall, short, wide, thin, and seamlessly traded places with those that had been standing on the platform. Lorelei was jostled about, the only real wrench in the otherwise smooth moving machine that was the platform’s transition, and she was eventually and unceremoniously shoved to the back with more than a few sneers. In an instant, the bodies loaded themselves up, and the train’s doors closed. There was another flash of wind and the train disappeared.
Lorelei spun around to see those that had disembarked filing through the three archways, barely stopping to admire the station. Just as quickly as they came, they were all gone, leaving her alone again with the stone creatures and the old man and the cart pulled by two stags of which no one had even stopped to take a picture.
Lorelei found herself staring up at the Hagan’s Academy archway again. Many had gone through, both in and out, but she was as alone now as she’d been moments prior. She took a step into the archway and the darkness. Her footsteps sounded hollow and echoed down the tunnel. She took another step in, Ren’s warning forgotten. The light from the station dimmed behind her and she took another step and then was met with a moving wall.
From her spot on the floor, Lorelei looked up to see two wide eyes peeking over an open book he’d obviously just been reading. While walking. The jerk.
“Maybe I should just stay down here. I think gravity wants me on the ground,” she mumbled to herself, sitting up.
“So sorry,” his voice was low but panicked as he dropped the book at her side. She cocked her head to read the title, Theoretical Necromantic Pharmacology, then took a steady breath, bracing herself to look up at whatever odd creature might be staring down at her.
Lorelei was somewhat startled to see there was nothing outwardly odd looking about the man. In fact, he was so normal looking, she cringed at herself for thinking otherwise.
He pulled back, biting a lip, brows furrowed over green eyes. A few days scruff covered his jaw and his hair was pulled back in a short, messy ponytail, and he wore a look that suggested he was genuinely sorry.
Lorelei grabbed the book and hopped up. He was significantly taller than her, but not so tall as Ren, not that anyone would be. “No harm done,” she handed off the book to him, “Heavy.”
Taking the tome, then locking eyes with her, he shortened the distance between them in an instant, and Lorelei felt herself frozen under his gaze. Her heartbeat thumped in her ears and she feared he could hear it too. Looking on him for longer, she studied his jaw, his eyes, the way his hair fell, and concluded, as most would, that he was particularly handsome, if in a sort of off-putting way, and simultaneously realized that without showering that morning, cleaning up goop all day, and running everywhere, she must look absolutely disgusting. Color rose in her cheeks, and the man took in a sharp breath, shaking his head, “I’m sorry, what?”
“Uh,” she stammered, finally letting go of the book, “The book. It’s heavy.” What a stupid thing to say, she thought, only the kind of thing people who don’t read say.
He raised a thick brow, “Oh, right, well turns out there’s lots to know about keeping the dead alive…theoretically.” He chuckled to himself and she did as well, hoping that had been a joke, but feeling in the pit of her gut it wasn’t, then he gestured over his shoulder, “Were you headed to class?”
“No,” she answered quickly, remembering Ren’s warning not to wander. This is what happens, she chastised herself silently, you run into a hot guy and he thinks you’re in high school. She scowled, “I’m twenty three.”
“Are you,” he paused and looked her up and down, “lost?”
Lorelei felt she should be offended, but admitted to herself she probably did look that way. Still, she couldn’t help but return the up and down he’d given her. The man carried a bag over one shoulder and wore a long, brown coat with many pockets. Plenty of places to keep that book. She huffed, “No.”
“Well, I’d offer you a tour of the place as apology for the, uh, knock down, but my ride’s here.” He gestured to the cart Lorelei had ridden in on.
He nodded, looking around the empty station, “Though I don’t see Grier anywhere–”
“That’s my ride.”