Lorelei Fischer stood at the front desk of Moonlit Shores Manor, head dipped down over a tome of thick pages so engrossed with the odd building’s moving layout–it had to be in there somewhere, but where?–that she did not hear the heavy footfalls coming into the foyer. It was only when letters were dropped atop the book that she was startled backward, abruptly looking up and seeing Helena, the mail carrier. She was, of course, right on time, as always, wearing something like half a grin and half a grimace. Lorelei was used to the grey locks of the woman, her sharp features, her inordinate height, but the wings were always a bit of a shock.
After exchanging embarrassed pleasantries, she flipped through the mail and separated out what was meant for guests, disappointed yet again to not receive any word from Ms. Pennycress, but the package at the pile’s bottom soon stole her attention. Square and wrapped in thick, brown paper, the package was tied with a velvety ribbon, and from under it was secured a card.
The card’s outside was water-stained, the To and From illegible, but inside the words were clear:
My deepest gratitude for a most pleasant stay to my favorite employee at Moonlit Shores Manor. Tampering by any other will earn the meddler grave disappointment and a gruesome curse.
“That’s ominous,” Lorelei mumbled to herself, looking up again, but the mailwoman had gone and with her any chance for clarification.
With a shrug, she turned to secure it in the office when Ziah emerged from the door behind the counter. Lorelei handed off the package, asking for her thoughts: Ziah typically had all the answers anyway.
“Oh, well, this is…lovely.” Her voice, which could almost always be described as a purr when she was not shouting, this time sounded far away and dreamy.
Lorelei eyed the box again, nicely wrapped, but nothing extraordinary, then her companion, “I suppose.”
From the dining room, Conrad passed through the foyer carrying a basket filled with dried sprigs and flowers. He offered them a wave and a smile as he hurried toward the basement, and Lorelei waved a bit overzealously back, though when she turned back to Ziah, the woman appeared to have not noticed him at all.
“Ya know, I bet it is for you,” she sighed, staring at the succubus, “I bet people fall in love with you all the time. Must be nice.” Ziah did not respond, but instead lifted the box, blinking dark cat eyes as she examined the packaging. She turned it over delicately in her hands then held it to her ear.
Lorelei raised her voice, “So, uh, who do you think it’s for?”
Ziah cocked her head, her answer more alarming in how it sounded than what she said, “I don’t know.”
“Are you feeling okay?” Lorelei waved a hand before Ziah’s face, and when the woman didn’t react, she snatched the parcel back. Ziah, startled, lunged for it, then stopped herself with a gasp.
“That isn’t good.” The woman backed away from the girl, gripping the counter and glancing worriedly about the room. Nibbling on a nail, Ziah’s eyes widened when Grier entered the foyer, and she stopped him and ordered him to take the box from Lorelei.
The teen balanced the parcel in one hand and rolled his eye, though the other milky and scarred one looked equally annoyed. “Now what?”
“Hm, maybe I’m wrong,” Ziah touched a finger to her lips, “I felt very…odd with that thing. Like I was enchanted, sort of like, well, how I imagine people might feel around me. You didn’t get that feeling, Lore?”
She shook her head.
“Stop that!” Ziah suddenly slapped the box from Grier’s hand. A corner of the paper was torn and his eyes–even the white one–were glassy.
Ziah kicked the package over to Lorelei’s feet, “You may be the only one who can be trusted with this,” she shifted her gaze left and right, “for reasons. Hold onto it. Tight. Maybe someone here is expecting it.”
With the package in hand, and Ziah and Grier in tow, Lorelei went on through the dining room and into the kitchen, bustling as ever with bubbling and chopping. Ando’s voice rang out the minute she crossed the threshold, “No!”
She stopped, letting the door swing backward and hearing it connect with Grier’s face, and he swore from his new spot on the ground.
“Bad magic,” the man emerged from behind a steaming pot, his eyes trained on the package.
“How do you know?” Lorelei could see Hotaru peeking out from the pantry as her uncle came toward them, brandishing a cleaver.
He crossed both sets of arms and frowned, his curt mustache twitching, “You don’t live over five hundred years and not know bad magic when you feel it. Get it out of my kitchen before it taints lunch!”
Lorelei backed out with the box clenched tightly to her chest. “So we should throw this away, right?” She knew as soon as she asked what the answer would be. Both Grier and Ziah shook their heads frantically, insisting that of course not, she shouldn’t be so silly, the contents would surely outweigh whatever mishap might befall them, and Ando was prone to exaggeration anyway–he was barely three hundred from what they understood.
“And tampering with mail is a federal offence!” Grier reminded them with a knowing look.
Lorelei scowled, pointing to the tear he’d made, “You’re one to talk.” She lead them through the dining room where a few guests were enjoying a late breakfast, and out onto the empty side porch. Clearing her throat, she tucked the box under her arm, “Plus, I imagine you people have different rules about these things.”
Just as Grier began to growl in her ear about what she meant by you people, Ziah asked more loudly with an air of forced casualty something more pressing, “Where are you taking it?”
“Ren is usually pretty sensible.” Lorelei marched toward the barn, her pace quickening as she tried to shake them, and found the elf inside as she expected. He tended to something large and loud concealed inside the stables, his disinterest in them changing when he eyed what Lorelei was holding. “This stupid box is cursed,” she said matter-of-factly, presenting it to him.
As Ziah and Grier protested the meaning of cursed, a pair of small hands whipped the package away from Lorelei. Hotaru paced the length of the barn, evading Ren, and turned the package over as she stared down at it. Lorelei followed, as did the other three, but the girl was suddenly graceful even with her eyes glued to the box, murmuring how pretty it was.
“You see?” Lorelei gestured to her, but even Ren’s attention had all but fallen to the mysterious container. “Ren?”
He twitched a long ear toward her and stood straight, clasping his hands behind his back. Ziah had gotten the package back, for only a moment, when Ren’s companion scampered out from his pocket and tripped Hotaru, then Grier had stolen it from her hands. With his superior reach, Ren plucked it away from the boy finally and held it above all of their heads, his winged, cat-like friend perched on his shoulder, reading the card. “Puzzling.”
With a bit of a struggle, the elf handed it to Lorelei, “The answer is likely to find its true owner. I can assist with this.”
There was a clatter from the shadows of the stable. “Are you sure?”
Without even a glance back at whatever creature was causing the ruckus, Ren nodded, “Yes.”
The band of five traipsed across the yard again, Lorelei with a tight grip on the box and an even tighter frown. At this point, she realized, she might not even be able to discard it as they’d all just clamor after it, and she knew she’d feel awfully guilty if any of them came down with a particularly bad case of being cursed, despite how vague that had been. Her own uncharmed status seemed to make her immune–it was good for something, at least–but she wondered how long the others would remain amicable while she denied them what they wanted. Especially those that knew her secret.
As they took to the stairs to Moonlit Shores Manor’s basement, bright, flitting lights crossing her path stopped them all. Bur, the head of the manor’s janitorial staff, hovered just before Lorelei’s nose. “What you got there?”
She was blurry for a second, then Lorelei was able to focus, the tiny woman’s bright red hair haloing around her body in a mass, and her wings flapping so quickly they were transparent.
“Nothing,” Lorelei answered quickly, remembering all the ways she’d been tricked by Bur’s ilk in the past few months, “So don’t worry–hey!” The box was lifted from her hands straight up to the ceiling of the stairwell. She felt the lurch of those behind her reaching for it and steadied herself with a hand on each railing to hold them back and keep herself from tumbling forward.
The blonde fairy, Tuatha, stuck her tongue out from the underside of the box where she held it up, and even Habian’s melancholic gaze held a special sort of excitement as he carried the package by the corner of its bow down toward the base of the stairs.
“You guys, wait!” Lorelei thundered down the stairs after the three dots of light, the sound of her colleagues behind her a great catalyst to move quickly. She followed the fairies across the boardwalk over the black pools and into the long, stone corridor. They were out of reach and impossibly fast, but came to an abrupt halt when one of the doors swung open and Conrad stepped out into the hallway.
The package bounced off Conrad’s head and fell to the floor at his feet, and the fairies immediately began bickering with one another about whose fault the mishap had been. Lorelei shouted at him to stop, but he’d already picked it up and his jaw had gone slack. He’d been the fastest yet.
Swearing, Lorelei ripped the box from his hands before he could react and pushed past him into the apothecary, rounding on the small crowd that nearly trampled one another to get in through the door. “Listen up, all of you,” she held the box over her head, “You’re acting crazy. This is just a stupid box, and whatever’s inside might just kill you if you open up. Is that a chance any of you are willing to take?”
Their voices came at her all at once, a garbled mess of pleading and shouting, some of them turning on each other. She watched their faces change as they fought, arguing, calling names, hardly recognizing people she would have considered friends earlier in the day. Her stomach twisted into a knot, “Stop it!”
A hush fell over them as they turned their eyes back to her, slowly. Too slowly for comfort.
“Clearly we can’t tell who this really belongs to, so–”
“Obviously it’s for me,” Ziah announced, jutting out a hip and holding her head up, “You said it yourself, Lorelei, people send me gifts all the time.”
“Of course you’d think that,” Grier huffed.
“Well, it’s obviously not meant for you,” Ziah scowled back.
The boy grinned, “You don’t think someone might send me a big old thank you? Like maybe your sister?”
While Lorelei contemplated how similar the magic of the box was to a succubus, Hotaru piped up, a particularly annoyed look to her scrunched up face, “You know there are other ways to earn gratitude than sleeping around. Like taking special care of dietary restrictions!”
“Or care of beloved companions,” Ren spoke a bit more loudly than he was wont to do, his pet chirping in agreement.
“Or how about the guests themselves?” Conrad sneered at the elf, and was met with a less than stoic gaze.
As they fell again into bickering, the fairies’ tiny voices buzzing about as well, Lorelei sighed and rubbed her temples. This was getting her nowhere.
“There you all are!” Arista’s dagger of a voice sliced through them all as she appeared in the doorway, Seamus cowering behind her. “What is all this racket, and why can’t it wait until after hours? I had to check someone in myself just now, and I’m certainly not paying all of you so that I can do your jobs!” She stomped into the room, walking straight up to Lorelei, “Specifically, siren, your job! I didn’t expect to have a–” she breathed in suddenly, her eyes falling to the parcel, “to have a, uh, huh.” Arista leaned over, Seamus just behind her, and she plucked the box from Lorelei’s hands, “How peculiar. Is it…is it meant for someone?”
With a long, low breath, Lorelei, prepared herself. She screwed up her courage and grabbed the box back, flying past the others and down the hall. Behind her, she could hear the group realizing what had happened and their footsteps as they hurried behind her, but she’d already taken to the stairs. Back on the main floor, she skidded past the reception desk and across the foyer into the sitting room.
“Excuse me!” she called out to the couple who was enjoying tea on the loveseat, “If you don’t mind, we’re having a staff meeting. We’ll only be a minute.”
“We?” the man looked behind her where no one stood, then jumped up the minute he saw the mob that plunged into the room.
“The conservatory’s lovely this time of year,” Lorelei nodded at them frantically as she hurried them out and shut the door fast behind them, shivering at the last of the autumn chill. From the front of the room, they were shouting at her, the whole lot of them, and coming at her like a wall. She glanced to the sleeping man for help, but he only rocked methodically and let out a gentle snore. Then Lorelei’s mind ticked, and she held the box–the utterly stupid box–over her head. “Don’t try me! I’ll do it!”
Looks of horror settled on their faces, the fire crackling in the silence left in wake of their arguing. It was warm on Lorelei’s back, doing nothing to alleviate her panicky sweat.
“Do I have your attention now?” Worried heads nodded back at her. “If the wrong one of you opens this box, you’ll be cursed! Do you all understand that? Are you prepared for that?”
“I won’t be!” A chorus of dissent rose up from those before her insisting they were the true recipient. But of course, there was no way to tell, and none of them were being reasonable.
“You’ve all completely lost it,” she felt her arms go lax though she still held the package aloft, “This stupid little box has made you all go completely mad. I should just destroy it.” As she dropped her hands down to fling it in the fire, the group was suddenly louder than they’d ever been. Their faces contorted, and they advanced on her until she froze.
The group appeared as if they might just rip her to shreds right there. If she threw the box in the fire, would its hold over them actually dissipate? And even if it did, would it happen fast enough to save her from being chucked along into the fire right behind it?
The girl sighed, “Fine.” She glanced down at the ribbon, slightly askew now, and the brown paper, corners ruffled. There was only one way out.
Lorelei tugged the bow, and it fell away easily. As the paper unfolded, those assembled gasped, but none converged on her. Instead, a light shone from inside the parcel, blinding for a moment, then it was gone.
“Well, what is it?” Ziah’s voice was panicked, desperate.
“Nothing.” Lorelei turned the empty container toward them, lifting her head and frowning. She shook it, just to be sure, then tossed it toward them, Ren reaching out and catching it, then passing it around.
Lorelei took a deep breath, ready, but nothing came. She did not feel suddenly ill or woebegotten. She took a step but her legs worked, and she didn’t trip on nothing. For a second she was quite pleased, then felt an incredible sense of doom: the curse was likely something much worse than she imagined.
“Nobody invited me to the party.” Britney leaned against the entrance to the sitting room, arms crossed, a lip upturned. No one had heard her enter in the commotion, and the woman seemed especially annoyed at that.
“Oh,” Conrad, rubbed the side of his face, “There was some mail.”
“Stupid, really,” Ziah laughed meekly.
“So dumb,” Grier agreed, “could have been for anyone.”
Britney perked up, raising an eyebrow.
Ren stood very straight and clasped his hands behind his back, “It was supposedly cursed, but it must have been a bit of a hoax.”
“Cursed?” Britney smirked, “And let me guess: she was dumb enough to open it?”
Lorelei felt all their eyes go back to her then watched their faces change again. “What? What’s wrong?” She turned swiftly to glance in the mirror above the fireplace. Marks were forming, red and angry, across her nose, her cheeks, her chin, and leaving white pustules that were already beginning to ooze. They suddenly burned, and she cried out. That stupid box!
“I have something for that!” Conrad announced, striding up to her and whirling her toward him. His face inches from hers, one of the pimples burst and splattered him with white puss. “Yeah, standard one hundred level her. Not to worry!” He gently took her elbow and guided her across the room. Her eyes were swelling.
“Hey, we have lunch plans,” she heard Britney growl from the doorway as they passed.
“Medical emergency, dear.” He lead her with his arm, and though she couldn’t see him, she all but heard him roll his eyes.
Maybe the box wasn’t that stupid after all.
Well it was a bit behind schedule, but it happened! Happy season two premier! More to come, hopefully on time, as fall unfolds.
If you’re enjoying Vacancy, 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!