Lorelei’s concern that Conrad had forgotten completely–unintentionally or otherwise–about the letter from Ms. Pennycress had been erased when she found him waiting at the reception desk that morning before her shift even started. It had been two weeks since he’d suggested they visit his parent’s home, but he raised a hand to her even before she reached the bottom of the steps as if the conversation had just been moments earlier, “Avail!”
That night, after she wrangled up exactly seventeen extra pillows for a family of kumiho for fort building, and he diagnosed a banshee with RSV, respiratory supernatural virus as he’d enthusiastically explained, they took the hidden road that Lorelei drove in on the night she first came to Moonlit Shore’s Manor. With the brooch in her pocket, she held tightly to the back of Conrad’s jacket as he steered his motorbike off the main gravel drive and down a slightly narrower one into the woods.
A short drive later, they emerged in a raised clearing. The house loomed above them, cutting into the darkening, grey-blue sky as it reached upward. At its attic peak, it stood four stories, tall windows bordered with dark green shutters freckling its face. The siding had been yellow at one time, but to call it yellow now would have been an insult to the color. Detailed framework lined every edge and roof, but the patterns were obscured by thick vines, and the long shadows of the preemptively dark fall evening. A freezing gust of wind blew across them as they stared up at it, and they both pulled their coats tight, the smell of rain heavy in the air.
“This place is definitely haunted,” Lorelei found herself saying before she could stop. The memory that Conrad’s family had all perished hit her hard then, and she snapped her head toward him to apologize.
“They didn’t die here,” he told her matter-of-factly, “I mean, I’m sure someone did at some point, the house is just a few decades younger than the manor, but I don’t remember any ghosts hanging around when I was growing up.”
Lorelei began to wonder about the implication of a world where ghosts existed and people you loved had died, when she realized Conrad was already headed up the discolored steps leaving her in the increasingly dark yard. She scurried up behind him, the front porch creaking under their feet. Lorelei instantly felt uneasy, as if she were going somewhere she weren’t allowed, somewhere no one was allowed. “When was the last time you said you were here?” She wasn’t entirely sure he actually had said.
Conrad pushed the key, an ancient, rusted looking thing, into the lock then wiggled it around until it finally unlatched, “Oh, just a little while.” Inside, it was dark, and Conrad reached for a switch. He flipped on the lights, they flickered, and unceremoniously went back out. “Maybe a long while.”
From his satchel, he handed her a flashlight and flicked on his own. “What, no magic?” Lorelei feigned disappointment, lighting up her own face to show him that she was pouting exaggeratedly as he pulled the front door shut against the intensifying wind, plunging them into an even deeper darkness.
“It’s not free,” he chuckled, “Everything comes with its cost, and you never know when you’re going to really need it.”
She wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but hoped she wouldn’t find out.
The foyer was small with a single staircase headed upward and a narrow hall beside it, and under different circumstances, it would have been inviting. It was not unkempt, but it was obvious no one was maintaining the place, a layer of dust over the once reflective surface of an accent table, and the landscape painting hanging above at a slight angle.
Lorelei shined her light over the archways that lead further into the house, casting long shadows across the strips of the rooms she could make out. They moved eerily in the steady wake of her light, as if the entire space were waving back at her, then there was a flutter of movement just at the edge of her beam, and she yelped, dropping the light and jumping behind Conrad.
He turned, quickly panning over the area “What? What is it?”
“I thought I saw,” she squinted back into the room, peering out from behind him. “Nothing,” she took a big breath, “I’m sorry, guess I’m just jumpy.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her. She was gripping his arm. “That’s all right.”
She groaned at herself and let him go, picking up the flashlight and taking a step further into the house. “It’s okay, I’m tough,” she snorted, turning her back on the darkness of the hall to face him, “I’ve dealt with ghosts, trow, werewolves: this is nothing!”
A crack of thunder ripped through the house, and the place lit up so bright they were blinded. Lorelei threw herself at Conrad again, this time into his chest. Her heart was beating a mile a minute, and she didn’t dare move until she got her breath under control. When she finally pulled back, she looked up at him. This time there was a hint of panic on his face, and he stood stockstill.
“Sorry!” she took another step back, her heart still racing. Rain began to plunk against the front windows in thick drops. There would be no going back now.
Conrad cleared his throat and stood a bit straighter, “No, no, it’s fine.” He took a couple steps forward then stopped, “Did you say werewolves?”
Lorelei shook her head quickly, “Nope, I don’t think so.”
Shrugging, Conrad stuck his head through to the dining room directly off the foyer. A table that sat eight, surrounded with high-backed chairs took up the space, with a bar at the back of the room, and a glass-doored hutch. “Yup, just like I remember.”
“So you live full-time at the manor just like us? You don’t come back here?”
“I moved into the cottage with Arista and Seamus right after my parents died,” he crossed the foyer and peeked into what looked to be a receiving parlor with stiff-backed furniture and an ashy fireplace, “I was only eleven, so it made sense. I moved into the manor proper at about sixteen just to get some space. I used to come back here sometimes, but eventually stopped.”
“Eleven?” Lorelei followed him, “I didn’t know you were so young.”
He flipped through a stack of books on the small table in the room’s center, “It didn’t feel like it. Not afterward anyway.”
Lorelei ran her light over the outer rim of the space. An upright piano sat in the corner, painted teal and pink, beside it mismatched but fancifully upholstered chairs, and across the room shelving filled with knick-knacks. There was a feeling here, faint, but pulsing. Something felt alive, even joyful.
“It’s probably been two, maybe three years since I’ve been inside. I’ve ridden up here, but didn’t have the guts to come back in.”
Lorelei watched him pass through another archway. His flashlight illuminated just enough of his face for her to confirm the sadness she’d heard in his voice. She went up to him and hesitated, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder.
“But look, we’re here!” he smiled and flicked the flashlight all over the space, illuminating a mirror on the opposite wall so that shadows looked like they moved across every surface.
She smiled uneasily back, the skittering shadows making her pull into herself as another clap of thunder roared above them. “Right, so what exactly should we be looking for?”
“Well, my parents had a lot of stuff–old stuff, weird stuff–passed down through the family, and I’m hoping that something will give us a clue about the brooch, the letter, maybe even the society.”
“So just rifle through your heirlooms?”
Where they stood appeared to be a library, bookshelves lining every wall and comfy seating in its center. Amongst the barely legible spines sat what she assumed were some of the heirlooms, an elephant carved from wood, a jade dragon, a taxidermied crow. The shelves themselves were almost as beautiful as the artifacts, stained dark with ornate corners and built into the wall with intricate floral details that complimented the wallpaper. “This place is really beautiful,” she called over her shoulder as she ran a finger along a thin piece of notched wood atop a stand, “I know you’re not comfortable here, but it’d be a shame to let the house just sort of…die, ya know? Maybe if you did some upgrades to it or restored it you’d feel more at home?”
“You really think it’s nice?” he came in and looked around, grabbing a book off the shelf, “Britney says I should demolish it.”
“What?” Lorelei stomped, and lightning flashed into the room. Conrad jumped, but she wasn’t sure from what. “That’s insane!” she crossed her arms and frowned at the idea, then she grit her teeth and sighed, “Well, unless she thinks you’d be happier for it. Maybe that’s not totally insane.”
Conrad rolled his eyes, “No, I’m pretty sure she just thinks it’s old and gross.”
She watched him thoughtlessly leaf though the book with one hand wanting to ask how he really felt about that, but instead chewed her lip and pulled a book down herself. The pages were in a language she didn’t know, and the drawing she came upon, a black and white etching of a group of people standing in a circle around a shining orb, had her even more confused. She peeked up at Conrad again. He was staring at the shelves, but not really looking at anything.
“So what did you parents do?” she asked, forcing a lilt into her voice.
“Mom was a midwife, actually, and my dad was just wealthy, I guess.” He chuckled, gesturing to the objects on the case, “He traveled a lot, collected things, and managed the manor along with Arista.”
“I’m assuming that was passed down through your family too?”
“Yup,” he shone his flashlight in the upper corners of the room’s vaulted ceilings, “Arista and my father grew up here, but she had the cottage built shortly after my mom came into the picture. Didn’t get along, big surprise.”
“Shocking,” Lorelei flicked her light through the doorway into a massive kitchen. The room was also filled with shelves holding curios. “Man, there’s a lot of stuff here,” she mused, taking a few careful steps onto the tile. When she glanced back at Conrad, he was carefully opening a drawer, sweeping his eyes over its contents, and closing it again. “And you don’t seem to be looking very hard for anything.”
“Um, well,” he scratched the back of his neck, “that’s probably because I have a good feeling where we ought to look, and I’m just avoiding it.”
“Oh?” she turned her light onto him with a half smile, “and where might that be?”
“My father’s study. If there’s something here, that’s where we’ll find it.”
“Where the sword came from?” she both dreaded and delighted at his pending answer, “Upstairs?”
“Yup,” he was eyeing the entry hall, “I just wasn’t really allowed in there as a kid, so…”
She turned abruptly and headed for the stairs at the front of the house, passing him with a smirk, “You have issues.”
Conrad scoffed after her, “Says the woman who left someone at the altar.”
“We’re not talking about that right now,” she flicked her light over her shoulder so that he had to shield his eyes from it. Her biggest, well, second biggest secret had been brought to light the week prior, but no one had spoken of it since, and she’d hoped it had been forgotten.
“Oh, but I think I am,” his voice floated up the stairs behind her as she tried to escape it. She took the stairs a little faster than she would have otherwise in the dark, but stopped at the landing. “How does one manage to get so close to saying ‘I do’ and then change their mind? I’ve been meaning to ask.”
She glared at him as he came to stand next to her. He was grinning, and though annoyed, she had to fight back her own smile, “It’s complicated.”
The rain was louder here, echoing from the top of the stairwell at the attic. The second floor’s landing had four doorways off of it and another set of ascending stairs. With the doors open, Lorelei glanced into them and saw one had a single bed and the trappings of a young boy’s room. “Yours?”
Conrad lingered in the doorway before stepping in, “Yeah. Well, when I was a kid.”
“You liked dinosaurs?” She stood on the threshold, shining her light over three stick figures on the dresser, well loved. Something about a warlock being interested in the prehistoric amused her.
“Still do,” he picked up the triceratops and inspected it, then pointed it at her, “I mean, how can you not?” The room appeared complete and untouched as if he brought nothing with him when he left to live with his aunt and uncle. “I didn’t make them fight though, I used to pretend they were trying to figure out how to not go extinct. Ya know, I think this one and this one were even married.”
When he raised an eyebrow at her she grunted and turned out of the room, “Which of these is the study?”
Conrad groaned loudly, “None of them,” and motioned up the next staircase.
Thunder rattled the house. Lorelei sighed, “Of course.”
The third floor was more open, with a larger landing and a small seating area by a window. Outside, rain pelted the glass and a flash of lightning illuminated a doorway on either side, one open onto a bedroom with an over-sized four poster bed and downy bedding. Across the landing another door was closed, but only just.
Conrad stopped, slowly panning his light around the frame.
She could feel his hesitation, “What’s wrong?”
“I was almost certain we’d have to pop the lock off. I don’t remember this door ever being open.”
She tried to sound confident, but her voice hitched, “How, uh–how else would Arista have gotten the sword?”
Conrad took a few careful steps up to the door, and Lorelei stayed on his heels. Pushing it open with the head of his light, he illuminated the room. Unlike the rest of the house, still neat even if dusty and aged, this space stood in stark contrast. The floor and desk were covered in tattered papers. Drawers had been scattered from their homes, contents spilt on the floor and left wherever they landed, and shelves had been cleared, pieces of what once lined them unidentifiable now.
“Dad was a little messy, I guess?”
“This can’t be right,” he strode in amongst the papers, looking around frantically, “There’s no way it was left like this.”
Lorelei took a few steps into the room, and though she was careful, managed to crunch something underfoot. Shining her light on the floor, she found a framed photo of a woman and two boys, one a toddler, and the other a pre-teen, the glass of the frame shattered long before she’d gotten there.
“Finally broke into daddy’s study, huh?”
Lorelei spun, shocked to see a man leaning haphazardly against the door frame in her light’s beam. He wore a large, dark coat, but she could see he was slim beneath, tall, and with dark hair and light eyes that were strangely familiar. Stumbling backward, she shot a look at Conrad. That was it–he wore his hair cropped short with a clean-shaven face and a look like he knew something that could ruin you, but he looked enough like Conrad to be related. Even brothers.
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