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?”
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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