Vacancy – 1.17 – What They Were Looking For

Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

v - 1.17

Lorelei nudged the door open again, her candle illuminating the hall and the watery footprints. “Should we assume whoever left these is responsible for this no light situation?”

Conrad grimaced but nodded, “Most likely.”

“They look small.” There were no sounds coming from outside the room, and she stepped out into the hall, holding her candle out to see further. Though her light didn’t reach its end, it appeared the footsteps trailed the entirety of the hall, “Like a child, maybe?”

“It could be a lot of things,” he sighed.

“Many its.” The breathy voice came from back toward the water. In the light of the rocks, Lorelei could see a set of hands gripping the end of the boardwalk, long, thin fingers, then wet, black hair, plastered against a white forehead rose up from the water until two eyes peered back at them. “They came all at once, we could not stop them,” she hissed, her head bobbing hypnotically with the gentle wave of the water, “and they scuttled away.”

“What were they?” Conrad didn’t appear frightened by her sudden appearance, but Lorelei’s instinct was to bolt the other direction despite that that was down the pitch black hall behind some unknown monster. Instead, she just inched behind him as the woman spoke.

“I don’t know what you call them,” with her mouth hidden below the dock, it was even harder to place her voice as it echoed back off the water and over the rocks, “but they do not belong in the seas. And they do not belong here.” With a plunk in the black waters, the woman disappeared as if she’d never been there at all.

“It seems all of the manor’s defenses are down,” Conrad looked back to the dark hall, “except us.”

“Should we go get Ziah?” Lorelei questioned the back of Conrad’s head as he inevitably followed the footprints into the darkness.

“It might be too late by then.”

She found herself following close behind him, hugging the wall to avoid the wet prints and noting it did appear as though there were more than one of whatever had climbed out of the pool from the marks across the stone floor. “Too late? For what?”

“I’m not sure.” They came upon another door, this one already pushed open. It appeared to have been storage, but the boxes inside were open, canister lids stacked on shelves, and cabinet doors swinging wide. Nothing, however, was strewn across the floor, ripped, or pushed over.

The prints continued beyond the room into the hall. “Didn’t find what they were looking for?” Lorelei whispered and continued to follow Conrad into the dark.

Two more doors had been opened and rooms had been raided, but when they came to the laundry, a sound made them stop. Sheets had been strewn about so that every machine and line was covered. Candlelight fell into the folds of the sheets, moving with them as they tiptoed across the stones. Lorelei found the source of the shuffling, thrusting her candle toward a sheet that had been tossed down and was hanging from a rack. She could see movement beneath, and she reached out for the sheet.

Pulling it back revealed a creature no taller than two feet with grey and blue skin, hunched away from her and digging furiously into a box of miscellaneous socks. It spun toward her once uncovered, abandoning the box and letting out a creaking, wet screech. The thing lifted an arm so long it trailed the ground when it stood at its full height, curled claws at its end. Lorelei shrieked, jumping back as it moved on her, slashing a jagged, yellow talon.

Her jeans ripped on the thing’s claw as she stumbled away, but it kept coming. Lorelei pulled back her foot and connected with it, sending the creature across the room until it hit the wall with a splat. Another two of them emerged from under the sheets, muttering a garbled, guttural language to one another. When they spied the two, they brandished their claws, but Conrad was quicker, pulling a vial from his pocket and throwing it to the ground at their feet. An orange dust filled up the room, obscuring everything and Lorelei began to choke on it. Conrad’s hand was around her arm, pulling her back from where he’d thrown the vial, and she stumbled into one of the washing machines with a reverberating clang, knocking a box of powdered laundry detergent to the floor, the white dust mixing with the orange.

The two creatures, followed by the third, scurried from the room amongst the clatter. They followed, but the creatures were impossibly fast, already disappeared by the time they skidded out into the hall. In the distance they heard three tiny splashes.

“What were those?” Lorelei asked breathlessly, grabbing the door frame for support, her candle having gone out in the run.

“Trow?” he screwed up his face, turning back to her, “Kobold maybe? I’ve never seen anything like them around here though. Hey, your leg!”

His candlelight revealed that the creature had sliced through through her pants and left a long scrape down her shin. “Woah,” she took a step, suddenly feeling the pain pulse across her shin.

Conrad dropped to the ground and took her ankle in his hand, throwing her off balance. She dropped her candle and scrambled for the doorway to stay upward. “It’s not too deep. I have something for this.”

“Oh my gods.”

At the hall’s end stood Conrad’s girlfriend. She looked more than a bit disgusted, carrying her own candle that illuminated her face in a fiery glow.

“Britney?” Conrad looked over his shoulder, “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing?” she gestured wildly to him.

Conrad stood, turning to her, Lorelei’s ankle still in hand. She squealed and gripped the frame more tightly, managing to stay up, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Lorelei was just attacked by some type of halfling.”

She pursed her lips, but couldn’t deny the blood, “Ew.”

Conrad glanced back to Lorelei then, realizing, dropped her foot. “Can you walk?”

Lorelei found she could manage down the hall, declining Conrad’s offers for assistance. He grumbled at Britney as he passed her, “I told you I was working tonight.”

“Oh? Down here in the dark?” she sniffed, leaning up against the wall outside his office. Conrad went inside to rummage for a salve and Lorelei stood beside her awkwardly. She had a candle, after all.

“The lights went out,” Lorelei offered meagerly.

“Duh,” Britney rolled her eyes then looked off down the hall toward its dark end and away from Lorelei. She really was quite pretty, even when she turned up her lip and exuded disgust, Lorelei thought, and that certainly counted for something. Today she wore her hair in a thick braid over her shoulder and a dark grey knit sweater, seasonably appropriate but she didn’t appear wet from the storm. There was a buzz in the silence of the hall, and Britney pulled a phone out of her pocket. She held it close to her face, illuminating her skin with a blue glow in the dark, then scoffed. She banged out out a message with her thumb and quickly pocketed the device, mumbling to herself, “I’m twenty three, father, not thirteen.”

Lorelei watched Britney lean her head back against the wall and close her eyes with a deep sigh, the repulsed look she typically wore gone. “Hey,” Lorelei pointed at her, “Your phone works!”

Britney flashed her eyes as if realizing she was there for the first time, but Conrad emerged from his office at that moment. He got down on his knees to apply the salve, but Lorelei was quick to take it from him and insist on doing it herself. As she sat on the ground, and slathered on the beige paste, she listened to the uncomfortable silence between them, wanting only to break it.

“Wow, this really takes the sting out,” she had put on her peppiest of voices.

“Thanks.” She didn’t even have to glance up at them to know they were glaring at one another. “I make it myself.”

“That’s great,” she faltered, “Uh, so those little halfling things, kinda crazy, huh?”

“Yeah,” Britney sucked her teeth, “It is pretty crazy that a halfling thing would be here. Almost unbelievable.”

Lorelei scowled at herself. How had she dug this hole deeper? She knew there was little she could say to smooth the moment over, hoping for a distraction, when fate answered her in the sound of a crash from upstairs. “Oh, thank god,” she sighed, jumping to her feet, “Let’s shift all our attention to that, shall we?”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

 

Hey, are you enjoying Vacancy? If so, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!

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Podcast: Vacancy 1.01 – For The Weary Traveler

Episode 1.01 – For The Weary Traveler

Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading or listening here.

Vacancy‘s Theme is “Planet Bullspit” by Corey Major

Vacancy Episode 1.01 uses these sounds from Freesound, all of which have been modified. The inclusion of any sound does not indicate endorsement of this completed work or its author:

Podcast: Vacancy – Episode 00

So I’ve been thinking for a while about accessibility and, of course, wanting to reach a larger audience with my blog in general, but especially with Vacancy, and after some careful planning, I came to the conclusion that making an audio recording of the story, like a podcast, was the best way to go. So, Dear Reader and Dear Listener, I did just that!

Episode 00

The audio will always be behind the written work, unless I take a hiatus from writing between seasons which seems likely, but definitely not long enough to let it catch up. I’m playing around with adding sound effects and general ambiance to the story, but I’m not changing the prose beyond correcting minor errors (and editing all the “hu”s to “huh”s because Husband is being driven insane by those, apparently). So neither is needed to make the other work, but if you’d like to take a listen I would really appreciate it.

A separate post with episode 1.01 will show up tomorrow, but the episode is already live on my Anchor channel, and I am extremely proud of it. There are plenty of things that are imperfect, but I feel incredibly accomplished right now in the afterglow of wrapping it all up. Am I even allowed to feel this good about something? Honestly, it must be illegal. Poseidon is coming for my hubris-riddled ass!

Vacancy’s Theme is “Planet Bullspit” by Corey Major

Vacancy – 1.16 – Here’s The Thing

Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

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There were no footfalls on the stairs, no clinking dishes in the dining room, not even turning pages in the den. The only sound filling up Moonlit Shores Manor was the creaking of the rocker by the fireplace in which their omnipresent–and that night, their only– guest sat. But as always, he was very little trouble.

It was so quiet, in fact, that if Lorelei closed her eyes and strained, she could hear the gentle patter of rain as it began on the windows, something she wouldn’t normally notice until it had turned into a complete downpour.

It had been all hands on deck once the last guest checked out that morning, with Arista overseeing the scrubbing and polishing of floors, deep-cleaning of bathrooms, the removal of mysterious stains with both cleaners and the right words, and come evening the staff collapsed into the sitting room. Arista and Seamus had retired to their cottage with strict instructions to hold any and all issues until the morning, and Aoyagi had headed to the city with equally strict instructions regarding the kitchen. This left Hotaru a bit giddier than normal and Grier, well, exactly the same as always, and he kept trying to steal her seat out of shear force. She’d finally given up with him squeezing alongside her into one of two identical overstuffed, purple paisley chairs. Across from them, Ziah splayed out on the couch beside Lorelei paying no mind to their antics and sinking into the cushions. She still wore the over-sized, dirty flannel she’d worn to clean all day, unfit for welcoming guests. It seemed the manor was closed.

“Does this happen often?” Lorelei asked hesitantly, pulling a foot up under her on the couch. She certainly hoped the hotel didn’t regularly sit empty with no income.

“Almost never,” Ziah bobbed her head back and grinned, “Isn’t it lovely?” Thunder rumbled far off in the distance.

“The quiet is good,” Ren entered carrying in a tea tray for the group, choosing to sit with them instead of retire to his room above the barn. The little winged creature popped out from his shirt pocket and let out a squeaky mew. “Of course it could always be quieter.”

Conrad followed behind him laden with mugs, handing out the cups as Ren poured, then took the seat beside Lorelei. He lifted his mug, “To a job well done.”

Then, the lights went out.

No one moved for a rather long moment until Lorelei finally spoke, “I bet that almost never happens either.”

“Strange,” Ziah sat up, the faint glow of candles still illuminating the room, “But it’s probably just the storm.”

Then, as if they lived atop a birthday cake, the candles were all snuffed out with one massive blow.

Grier whistled, “And that never ever happens.”

The sounds outside, rain and wind, intensified as their sight was taken away. They sat with their cups, listening to the building storm, their figures silhouettes of shadow against the darkness of the room. Then there was a crash and lightning lit up the room.

Ziah jumped to her feet with a growl, “Conrad, you and Lorelei go flip the breakers downstairs. Ren, come with me to reset the candles. You two,” she pointed at Hotaru and Grier as if they had already committed whatever crime she’d made up in her mind, “stay right here.”

Lorelei took out her phone to light her way as she followed Conrad toward the basement stairs. The darkness in the sitting room had been familiar, but the illumination of her screen made the surrounding darkness that much darker, and approaching the basement steps made her a bit queasy.

The temperature dropped as they descended, the unlit candles eerie in the dark. Lorelei squeezed her arms in tight beside her, “I’m afraid to ask, but how do these candles go out all at once?”

“It’s a spell, sometimes they malfunction.”

There had been hesitation in his voice, and against better judgement she decided to prod, “At the same time the electricity goes out?”

“Yeah,” he grunted, “It…happens.”

At the bottom of the stairs, the pool remained lit in blues and purples from the bio-luminescent creatures that crawled across the rocks, but without additional lighting, their colors were magnified. Lorelei covered the light on her phone and stared out at it, “Wow.”

“You should go swimming sometime,” he gestured out at the water, “It’s warm year round.”

She dropped her voice to a whisper, “With whatever lives in there?”

“Why not?” he smirked, “You’re probably cousins.”

Lorelei screwed up her face then forced out a laugh, “Ha, oh, yeah.” She’d figured out a lorelei was some kind of water being that sang, something like a siren, but sometimes she thought the less she knew the better. An air of mystery–that was the plan.

“Speaking of,” Conrad started down the boardwalk across the water to the basement’s other side, “Is that why you came east? To get closer to the ocean?”

Lorelei swallowed, then spoke assuredly, “Yes.” It was as good a reason as any, better than hers, anyway.

“Well, Moonlit Shores is great for that. Have you been to the beach yet?”

“No.” This realization was odd to Lorelei–she hadn’t thought that the city of Moonlit Shores, the manor’s namesake, was in fact a shore. “I haven’t even been to town yet.”

“It’s not much,” he shrugged, “But I really love it.”

“Did you grow up there?”

“Sort of.” They came around the large rocks that lined the back of the pool and found themselves in the block corridor of the more traditional basement, “I went to school in town, I played there as a kid. My first job was at the fish market.”

Lorelei smiled, “Sounds nice.”

“Yeah but I smelled terrible for a year and half straight,” he sighed, “Okay, so where is the breaker box?”

“You’re asking me?” she lit up his back with her phone.

He turned back to her, the light from his own phone too bright for her eyes, “Yes?” It was more of a question than an answer.

“Haven’t you, like worked and lived here for years? And you don’t know where the breaker is?”

“That does seem like a thing I should know, huh?” She nodded vigorously. “Thing is, it moves a lot, and I haven’t seen it in probably six months.”

“It moves?”

“Well, the manor doesn’t like us messing with it.” There was a decidedly loud creak like the house was settling. Or agreeing. “See?”

Then they were plunged into darkness as their phones died. Simultaneously.

Lorelei tried waking hers up, pressing buttons and flipping it around, but nothing happened. The dwarf had said this couldn’t happen, hadn’t he? She felt a sudden panic at being trapped in the dark with a large body of water between her and the topside of the earth.

“Well, that’s not right,” Conrad’s voice was lower, darker, having lost its typical lilt, and it did nothing for her confidence.

Then a candle flickered before her, illuminating his face in a warm glow. He’d taken one down from the sconce in the wall and lit it.

“Thanks,” she took it a bit more aggressively than she meant when he handed it off, watching him as he took down another and squeezed the wick between his fingers. Snapping, a flame jumped to life. She stopped herself from asking him what the hell he’d just done and just nodded. “Right, you’re a witch, this makes sense,” she tried assuring herself.

“Well, that’s accurate,” he scratched at the back of his head, the candlelight contouring the muscles in his arm as he moved, and chuckled, “but warlock is a little sexier.”

That’s accurate,” she mumbled, then shook her head.

“The breaker has never not been in the basement, so I guess we just have to look. It was in my office for a week once, so let’s start there.”

The first door off the corridor was the apothecary’s chamber, and even in the dark it was identifiable by the smell alone. Spicey and a bit medical, the room woke you up when you entered it. Lorelei had only been past the open door a time or two, but never inside. With her candle, she took in the space as much as she looked for the breaker box. The walls were lined with open shelves, much like the store they’d been to, but his jars were mismatched and mostly unlabeled. She hoped he was as good at what he did as he seemed.

“So, Lore, what did you do before you came here?”

She felt herself go red at his shortening of her name, glad for the lack of light, “Oh, well, I guess you could say I’m a serial receptionist. I don’t have a big dream like you,” she touched one of the jars filled with a bright yellow seed.

“You don’t?” He had gotten down onto his knees and was peering under the exam table, “When we met you seemed kinda interested in Hagan’s.”

“The Academy?” she didn’t want to admit she’d just been jostled into staring up at the sign, “I actually went to school for a while, but it got expensive,” she sighed, running a finger over the spine of a book on curative snake bites, “Especially just taking elective after elective. I was on the road to a degree in everything and nothing.”

“That’s why you left? To sort of…find yourself?”

“Yeah, actually, I think so,” she turned toward him unsure why she was telling him this. He was already looking at her.

“Is it working?”

She bit her lip, “I’m not sure yet.”

There was a muffled noise from the hall and they both jerked toward the door. Lorelei ran through who it could possibly be in her head, but none of them seemed likely. Without a word, the two looked at one another and told the other to creep toward the door. Conrad eased the door open and slipped his candle out into the hall. On the stone floor they could see the shine of small puddles running from one end to the other. They were wet and misshapen but unmistakably footprints.

Lorelei leaned against the wall in the office when Conrad eased the door shut again. She started chewing on a nail, her voice at a whisper, “You know when the lights went out, I was like, okay that’s normal, but then the candles went out and that seemed kinda weird, and then our phones died, at the exact same time, and that seems extra weird. Is there something I should know?”

“So, here’s the thing,” Conrad tugged a hand through his hair, “Those are all normal things for Moonlit Shores Manor. Magic is finicky, spells overload, you get weird electrical things in the air. Any one of those things it totally legitimate.”

She looked at him eagerly to go on, “But all of them together?”

“That seems a bit more…purposeful.”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

 

Hey, are you enjoying Vacancy? If so, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!

Upgrade – Flash Fiction

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“What are you doing? I want to go.”

“Five minutes,” he pulled open a drawer, it contents rattling against themselves.

“No, now,” she stood with purpose, but didn’t move from the spot.

Ben locked eyes on Lucy then slammed the drawer shut without a word.

When he turned to another drawer and began to rifle through it, she moaned and dropped herself back on the couch, “There’s no way what you’re doing is more important than the previews!”

Ben paused just before wrapping his fingers around the tiny screwdriver, something catching in his throat at her words–or were they his own–but he pushed the feeling away. The tool was small enough to hide in his palm, though it wasn’t as if she’d recognize it. Probably not anyway. Not this time.

“Ya know what? No, fuck it,” Lucy stood again, grabbing her purse, “I’m going without you. You didn’t even read all the comics anyway.”

“Don’t,” he sighed, rolling his head back and regretting introducing her to the extended universe, “Can you just wait a second?”

“I’ve been waiting a second all day!” she ripped her bag open and pulled out a tube of lipgloss as she stormed her way to the mirror in the entryway, “I’m always waiting on you, doing whatever you want. Don’t you ever give a shit about what I want?”

Even as he moved toward her, he felt something inside him pulling him back. Was anything she wanted different from what he wanted? He came up behind her like a ghost, his reflection over her shoulder, but she didn’t even glance at it. The pink she swept across her lips was bright, too bright for Ben’s liking, but the rest of her was nearly perfect. She’d been worth the cost.

“That’s what I thought,” she turned on him, pouting full lips, narrowing heavily-lashed eyes, “Nothing to say. Fucking loser.”

Ben felt her words hit him in the gut so hard he nearly doubled over. “Lucy,” his grip tightened on the screwdriver, “Please.”

“I’m leaving.”

There was blood, there was always blood, and it never failed to surprise Ben, but it was fleeting. The only way to really hide the jack was to cover it completely in organic matter, he’d been told, and accessing it should always be a last resort, but this called for a hard reset. He’d lost track of which number this one was.

Lucy gurgled, her throat flushing itself with a viscous fluid in reaction to the stab to her neck. It added to the cleanup, but it at least muffled the screams. She flailed her arms, but he pinned them expertly behind her back, trapping her between himself and the wall. Ben jiggled the screwdriver against wet, soft tissue until he felt it jab something hard. Back and forth he scraped it across the metal, Lucy making things exponentially difficult as she tried to squirm away. Her eyes had gone red and puffy immediately, and he thought to ask them about disabling that feature.

Finally it clicked, sinking it and catching, and with a twist and push, he’d begun the clock. Now he just had to count and wait, backwards from eight. He whispered the numbers, his mouth against her ear as he held her in place. Something in her eyes recognized what was happening, they always did around five, and he closed his own so he didn’t have to see.

She writhed against him, and if it hadn’t been for the watery sound in her throat and the hot, wet blood on his hand, he might have found it arousing, but he finally reached one, and all at once Lucy stopped moving.

She was heavy then, even for such a little thing, and he crumpled with her onto the floor. The bleeding stopped itself, but the thick black liquid would have to be drained out, and he wasn’t going to bother cleaning anything up until after they’d come to patch her. He was a genius with software, but hardware was a whole different game.

Rolling her body off his, Ben headed for his study. He had a lot of code to rewrite, and he was starting with her affinity for pink.

Night Librarian – Flash Fiction

pexels-photo-590493Gabrielle sprinted past the thrillers, her breath catching in her throat. With each row of stacks she passed, she felt her heartbeat quicken, expecting to find the flames at any moment swallowing up bookcase after bookcase, barreling toward her with the unstoppable fury that only the kindling of thousands of old, dry pages can provide, but they never revealed themselves. She skidded to a stop at the end of the room in the midst of the mysteries. Where was the smoke coming from? It was so thick, so pungent, so…everywhere, and yet–

She turned on her heel and flew down a row to the dark corner that was philosophy. The books were untouched, and she let out a short breath: she didn’t want to find the fire as much as she did. Chewing on a lip, she looked up. Why had they left her alone? It was only her first shift on the job, and they hadn’t even shown her where the extinguisher was!

Gabrielle clanged her way up the metal spiral staircase, and in a dizzying blur, she tripped out onto the landing. The smoke splayed out before her in all it’s cloying, ensnaring glory, curling up over the tops of the stacks below and slowly descending on the ancient tomes. The catwalk that ran the outer perimeter of the library was already so thick with smoke she could not see its far side.

Racing past the biographies, she cursed her predicament: she only wanted to be lazy, to sit back and scroll through endless nothingness on her phone with her feet thrown up on the desk, the doors locked until sunup and get paid for it. Was that so much to ask? They put the ad in, after all. It wasn’t her fault the position seemed absolutely pointless!

The cloud was thick and she couldn’t see where she was going until she ran face-first into shelving on the far wall, knocking a book free. She picked it up, glancing at the title, A Concise Introduction to Logic, and started waving it in front of her face. “Shit, should I have called 911?”

It was then she realized the smoke was everywhere but she wasn’t coughing or even winded. She took in a deep breath, the musty smell of old pages and varnished wood, but no smoldering, not even any heat. And the alarms–if there were any–had yet to sound.

Gabrielle turned, gripping the banister and looking out over the whole of the place, the criss-crossing shelves, the long oak study tables, the chair still spinning in the flurry that she left it moments earlier behind the desk, and of course the originless smoke. It swirled before her and she reached out a finger toward it. As if it were alive, it shot away from her hand, and she gasped, jumping back. The smoke came together then, in front of her, away from the books, moving on its own above the cases. Silently she watched it twist and contort until it became recognizable, letters, forming two words in the sky:

GOT YA

Then as fast as it had appeared, it cleared in a single poof. Gabrielle shuffled back into the shelves and slid down onto the ground, taking in big gulps of air. In her slide she’d knocked a book free and it had landed at her side, a dragon on the cover.

This is why they need a night librarian.”

Vacancy – 1.15 – Turn Around

Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

V 1.15

Their footfalls crackled ominously over dead leaves as they traipsed through the dark wood, Lorelei constantly shushing Grier only to find that it was actually her making all the noise. When they came to the the pond that Axel had specified, moonlight illuminated the clearing running around its shore in an delicate, silvery blue. It would have been beautiful if not so rife with impending doom. She checked once more with Grier that the moon didn’t control a werewolf’s change and he confirmed, rolling his eyes and mocking her for what he assumed her taste in fiction was.

The air was still, the pond like a black mirror reflecting the trees at its far end so that they seemed to go on forever. Then, their figures began to emerge from the forest. One, then two, then four, until seven looming shadows stood out against the tree line, staring her down. Axel was at their center, strutting toward her around the pond, an arm outstretched, “Tonight, we battle.”

Lorelei suddenly felt this was a very bad idea. “You guys don’t look like you brought any instruments.” Her voice was small as it drifted across the pond. The seven had come around the body of water to stand even with them. Though they were at least fifty paces away, at a full run–and on paws, Lorelei assumed–they’d be on them in an instant.

“Don’t worry about us,” Axel smiled, “You should only be concerned with yourself.”

Lorelei was concerned, among many other things. She felt a rush of warm, liquid courage, the nauseating nag of stage fright, and the very sudden urge to pee. But instead of addressing any of that, she held her hand out to Grier, and he dropped the microphone into it. With a nod from her, and his own heavy sigh, he pressed a button on the machine.

The tiny box projected an ethereal sound out over the pond, a tinkling of piano keys reaching out to get lost beyond the trees. There had been a great number of songs on the machine that she didn’t recognize, probably more than she did, but some music, she reckoned, was universal. Lorelei cleared her throat and brought the microphone to her mouth. From the box a strangled, stock voice cued her, “Turn around…” And she began, “Every now and then I get a little bit lonely, and you’re never comin round…”

As she continued, she heard herself as the sounds floated away from her, slightly distorted and haunting in the darkness. She accompanied the lone piano in a quavering alto, determined to look no one in the eye. She was buoyed by the addition of the bass and raised her voice a bit, “Every now and then I fall apart.”

When the percussion on the karaoke machine kicked in, she gripped the microphone sincerely with two hands. She glanced at her challengers, catching two stepping closer to her, and took one step herself toward them. She wished her hair were bigger. “Every now and then I get a little bit terrified but then I see the look in your eyes!”

The music built and she took a deep breath: this was it. “Every now and then I fall apart!” Lorelei’s voice traveled over the pond, echoing back at her from the trees, but she could barely hear it. She was focused, the words coming to her like a long forgotten memory. She could feel the lyrics erupting from her chest and she swayed with the melody.

She raised a finger and pointed squarely at Axel, “And if you only hold me tight, we’ll be holding on forever,” and his eyes went wide. She belted the words out to him as if they were bullets, “Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time!”

Lorelei threw an arm up, teetering for a moment then regaining her balance as she shout-sang. With a stomp, she shouted, “We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks!”

There was no way the entire manor could not hear her, or at least some spectral version of her voice, even as far as they were, but she didn’t care. She wanted the world to hear. And she wanted to have the foresight to have worn a white gown. “I really need you tonight!” She threw her head back and closed her eyes, screeching out a note humans could barely hear let alone make. With a deep breath she let her voice run, trill, reach up, down, over hill and dale, until finally she ran out of breath, “Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I’m only falling apart,” she panted for a second, then fell to her knees, “There’s nothing I can do, a total eclipse of the heart.”

Lorelei pawed at the pond’s shore, lifting up a handful of damp earth before her, “Once upon a time there was light in my life–” then she threw it to the side, “but now there’s only love in the dark.” Falling forward, she crumpled over the microphone, “Nothing I can say, a total eclipse of the heart.” Smashing the microphone against her lips, she whispered, “A total eclipse of the heart!”

Lorelei could hear her own breath over the speaker as she lay slumped over the microphone in the dirt. In a falsetto she whined, “Turn around bright eyes, turn around…” The music had ended, and her last shred of energy went with it. That had to have done it, she thought to herself, though she wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to be as she peered up through strands of hair fallen free in her performance.

They were stunned into silence. The pack stared at her, mouths agape. She blinked back at them knowing she had done it. Somehow, from the depth of her soul, she’d mustered a performance to win over the pack. They wouldn’t even counter perform. She had won. A smile slowly spread across her face.

Axel grinned back, his teeth shining. The grin spread from one to another until the whole pack was a blinding set of white fangs. Lorelei, still on her knees in the dirt, sat up, “Did I win?”

Grier was quiet, and she finally glanced back at him. He looked as if he were petrified, his eyes locked on the wolves. Her guts churned, and she thought she might throw up. “I really want to take your speechlessness as a yes.”

The boy managed a tiny shake of his head, then Lorelei looked back to the pack. Something was happening. Something odd. Their figures were contorting in the moonlight, heads being thrown back, arms stretching impossibly wide. And the noises. Something between a howl and a growl and a human’s scream, but they weren’t entirely painful, almost celebratory, rapturous.

Axel growled, his voice like gravel, “Now it’s our turn.” There was a cracking like bone snapping.

Lorelei gingerly placed the microphone on the ground and began to get to her feet, her hope that they would perform dwindling, “What song are you guys going to do?”

“No song.”

Her stomach flipped again. “But that was the challenge,” she sputtered, taking a step back.

Axel laughed low then fell to his knees. The female werewolf was by his side, “We just wanted to see you make a fool of yourself before you died.”

Lorelei’s body went cold: she certainly wasn’t interested in dying. She grabbed for Grier, but the boy was frozen to the spot. “We need to run,” she was pulling at him, but he didn’t budge, “Now!”

“No,” his face fell, utterly devoid of emotion, “There’s no use. They’ll catch us. I need to just surrender.”

“No way,” she yanked at him again, the popping sounds of bone on bone echoing out around them as they changed, “Come on, let’s go!”

But Grier pulled himself away, taking a step toward the changing pack, “You should run. If I give myself up they might let you go.”

Lorelei watched him take another stunted step toward the werewolves, torn in two directions. She couldn’t physically drag him back to the manor, but everything in her screamed to stay and at least try. Standing at the edge of the pond and watching the pack writhe around on the bank ahead of them, she wished she could somehow swallow them up with the water, buy them more time, and run away.

And then, the water did just that.

Like a hand coming up from the depths, the water receded from the shore, forming into a massive wave, looming high above them all. Lorelei grabbed Grier, and as he was distracted by the sudden shadow above, she yanked him back and away from it. In an instant, the wall of water came crashing down, barely missing Grier and Lorelei, but drenching the group as they completed their transformations. The howls were swallowed up in the crashing wave and there was silence for a moment, then the heads of not-man but not-wolf creatures surfaced, spitting, gasping, gurgling, but the water did not let them escape. No, the water had encapsulated them, and was rising around them, pulling them out to the center of the pond and holding them there.

“What is the witch doing?” one of them growled.

“She’s no witch!” Axel responded with a sputter, “She’s a lorelei!”

Unsure if she really did have control over what was happening, Lorelei watched with mounting horror as the water made waves, pulling the werewolves under then allowing them up just long enough to get breath before sucking them back down. The pond churned with the force of an ocean in a hurricane, but the forest around was completely still.

Grier grabbed Lorelei’s arm, “Are you doing this?”

“I don’t think so,” she whispered, but it was then she realized the wolves didn’t know that.

When the water had calmed for a moment, still holding the creatures captive but barely afloat, she stood as tall as possible, “You thought you’d break our agreement, huh?”

The wolven-faced creature that had been Axel gasped and coughed, then sputtered, “Please, have mercy on us! We didn’t know!”

“Mercy?” she balled her fists and yelled out at them, “Why the hell would I do that?”

The water seemed to respond, jostling them around and dunking them again.

“You’re right!” a voice rose up, different from Axel’s, “We don’t deserve it!”

Others joined in, agreeing, then they began to beg between coughing and dunking. Lorelei felt a sudden panic. She hated Axel in her gut, but she felt for a moment the rest were victims, just like Grier. “Fine!” she shouted over the splashing, and she held up her hands as if to ask the water to stop, “Fine!”

The pond stagnated, but the werewolves appeared to still be trapped amongst the waters.

“But this is a win!” she pointed out at them, “I win, Grier is mine, and your pack has no jurisdiction here, all right?”

“Yes!” they were shouting in unison.

“I know I can’t really take your word for it,” she hesitated, and the pond started to rock them, gently, but fear grew on their faces instantly, “But if any of you ever return, the last thing you’ll ever see is–” she glanced at Grier, “are there eels in there?”

He raised his shoulders, his face frozen in awe.

“The last thing you’ll ever see is whatever lives at the bottom of this pond!”

There were watery agreements from the pack, and she nodded, “All right then.”

As if she were in control of the water, at her word it lifted the pack out and dumped them on the bank with a splat. Sopping and out of breath, they tried to raise themselves up, falling back all over one another. Looking up at her through soaked fur, they had a new fear in their eyes. Resigned, they began to back off toward the treeline.

Axel looked as though he wanted to say something, but the claw-like hands of one of his companions were on him, pulling him back, and he turned with the group, fleeing.

“How?” Grier’s voice was low as he stared at Lorelei.

She shrugged, “Pond’s enchanted or something, right?” It seemed obvious to her. He shrugged back, his eyes locked on the spot the pack had disappeared into. “Well, probably,” Lorelei remarked more to herself than anything, then turned back toward the path they’d taken to get there.

A small body lay on the ground just at the forest’s edge. It almost glowed, pale in the moonlight that reached there. Cautiously, they began toward it, but when Lorelei recognized the form, she broke into a sprint.

Hotaru was limp as Lorelei pulled her onto her lap. She tapped at her face and called her name, Grier dropping down at her side, the pack forgotten. The girl’s eyes fluttered open.

“What happened? Are you okay? How did you get out here?” Lorelei asked questions with rapid fire, and the girl just blinked back. “We need to get her back. Now.”

There was no time to discuss their victory as they carried her back to the manor and brought her inside to the sitting room, empty save for the sleeping man in the rocker by the fire who Lorelei expected wouldn’t tell a soul what was going on anyway. They placed her on the couch, but she’d stayed conscious for the trip and was breathing normally again.

“Should I get Conrad?” Grier was already moving for the door.

“No!” Hotaru sat up, then slumped back down. “No, no,” she placed a hand on her forehead and closed her eyes, “I will be all right, I just need to rest.”

“Was that…was that you in the woods?” Lorelei knelt down before her on the floor, remembering the trick Hotaru had showed her with the bowl of water.

“Don’t be stupid,” Grier rolled his eyes.

But Hotaru’s guilty face told them both the truth without words.

“No way,” his hands fell at his sides.

“I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she spoke quietly and deliberately, “but I had to do something; you would have been killed.”

“Hotaru,” Lorelei grabbed her hand and scream-whispered, “You are amazing! You were eavesdropping on us, huh?”

The girl smiled weakly, “Accident.”

“I can’t believe it,” Grier flopped down onto the couch next to her feet, “Well, thanks. You really saved our skins.”

Her face went pink, “I just want to go to bed.”

They helped her to her room and saw to her getting under the covers where she instantly fell asleep. Back in the hall, Lorelei yawned and Grier followed suit. “Well, I’m glad you’re going to get to stay. And I’m extra glad I’m not dead. Pretty successful night, huh?”

Grier stood in the hallway, glancing at Hotaru’s closed door, then to Lorelei. His eyes were glassy, and his face was red. Then, in a move that neither of them really expected, he threw his arms around her and buried his face into her shoulder. For a moment Lorelei didn’t move, afraid it was a trick, then she relented and hugged him back. He squeezed her harder then, and she chuckled, “Well, I didn’t know my singing was that good.”

He pulled back from her and wiped at his face. He may have been crying, but neither of them would ever say. “Oh no, that was terrible.”

“Terrible?” she frowned, “Really?”

“Spectacularly bad. Like, I’m impressed at how bad it was.”

“All right, all right!” she hissed trying to stifle her laughter.

“The absolute worst,” he turned and went for his door, “Humans, they just can’t carry a tune to save their lives.” Then, offering her a quick smile, he slipped into his room and shut the door.

 

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