Vacancy – 2.06 – The Other Side

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

v 2.06

Lorelei and Britney both scrambled behind the mirror, sliding into the tight space and smashing up against one another. Britney tried to shove Lorelei back out, but Lorelei pushed back, and they two slapped at one another as they fumbled to be completely hidden from whoever was headed their way.

The footsteps came into the room, and both girls froze, holding their breath and listening. A floorboard creaked under a silent step, then again, until finally a voice, small and feminine, “Is someone there?”

They were caught. Lorelei glanced at Britney who was glaring at her and shaking her head silently. Lorelei shrugged, and peeked out from behind the mirror. There in the center of the room stood a short girl with a round face, her hair pulled back in a knot at the back of her head and freckles spattered across her cheeks. She wore a stiff top and a striped skirt down to her ankles, and looked as though she’d stepped out of a Thanksgiving play. Of course, Lorelei realized, it may have been more likely she’d stepped into one. “Uh, hey there.”

The girl was frozen, her eyes locked on Lorelei’s, an apple in her hand hovering just before her mouth. Then her face lit up, “It worked!” She jumped in place, and laughed, “I can hardly believe my eyes!”

Britney popped out from the other side of the mirror, brow narrowed, and the girl’s smile only grew, “Two of you? By the greatest powers, I’ve done it! And just in time too!”

Lorelei stepped carefully out from behind the mirror, taking in the room again. It was simple, a bed, an armoire, and very dimly lit only by the setting sun outside. The mirror, of course, was also there, but Conrad’s figure had completely vanished and it now only showed her reflection. “In time for what?”

“The ceremony,” the girl strode up to Lorelei and grabbed the edge of her sweatshirt, running a hand over the stitching, “My word, even my magic doesn’t work as evenly as all this.”

“Wait, did you,” Britney came around the mirror looking up at it, “did you make this?”

“Of course. Well, I enchanted it,” the girl moved on to Britney, petting the woman’s curled hair and gasping as her ringlet bounced back, “What craft is this?”

Britney pushed her hand away with a scowl, “How old are you?”

“Fifteen,” she answered quickly, squatting down to inspect their pants, “And trousers! How wonderful! Now, I must know,” she jumped up again, “Tell me everything.”

Lorelei looked from the girl to Britney, but Britney was already shaking her head, “No. You’re going to tell me: why’d you make this thing?”

There was a noise from the hall, and a voice called out, “Alice? How fair thee?”

“More than fair, father!” she shouted back and scrambled for the door, closing it and turning back to the girls, “He can’t know you’re here.”

Lorelei could sense Britney’s annoyance, and stopped her before she could start, “Alice? That’s your name? What’s this ceremony?”

Alice’s eyes pulled away from the two as her shoulders fell. She took a deep breath and crossed the room to her bed, “I’m to be inducted into the order and begin training. I’ve agreed, but in truth, I’m not sure. I want to see the world, to meet new people and hear about their adventures, not be trapped in this dark little house for the rest of my life looking after some rock.”

“Rock?” Lorelei whispered, placing a finger over her lips.

“But I understand I have a duty to my family. This is what my mother would have wanted, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, that settles that,” Britney threw her hands up, “Now why’d you make a Hephastian mirror?”

“What?” the girl cocked her head, “Oh, yes, well, I would like to know what happens to this place in the future. Is it worth staying here, devoting my life to this place? Giving up my dream?”

Lorelei looked on the girl as she gently sat on the edge of her bed, her face downcast, her hands placed gently in her lap, cradling the apple. Her concerns were much too big for her tiny frame.

“Okay, great, well, everything in the future is amazing,” Britney rolled her eyes, “Space travel, Wi-Fi, green smoothies.” Alice’s face twisted in bewilderment. “And the manor is doing great, guests out the wazoo. Now, where’s the other one?”

“Other what?”

Britney took a breath, appearing to be at least trying to restrain herself, “Mirror. To send us back?”

The girl looked between the two of them, her eyes glazing over. She lifted the apple to her mouth, took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. “I didn’t think of that.”

Lorelei felt her stomach flip, “You only made one?”

“Well, it took eight months!” At Alice’s words, Britney looked like she might have a coronary, so upset no words came when she opened her mouth–a first. Alice seemed to be able to sense that, “I think I can shave some time off,” her voice cracked, “I can probably get it down to four.”

“Unacceptable,” for once Lorelei was keen on Britney’s no-nonsense attitude, “We’ll finish in time for your ceremony or whatever. Between the two of us it shouldn’t be difficult.”

Alice’s eyes were bouncing back and forth between the two, “Well, the part that took the longest was gathering the ingredients. I needed a feather from a thunderbird.”

“Whatever, she can do that,” Britney gestured to Lorelei who did not like the sound of the plan at all, “In the meantime, we’ll check in as guests.”

“Guests?”

“Here. Of the manor.”

Alice tipped her head to the side, “This is my home. Tis but me, my father, and grandmother living here.”

“You mean this place isn’t a hotel?”

She looked like she didn’t know the word. Lorelei groaned: of course she didn’t.

“Do you ever put up traveling witches?”

She shook her head.

Britney glanced at Lorelei and sighed, “Time to start a tradition.”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment – 11/12/18

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Vacancy – 2.05 – The Search

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

v 2.05

If there truly were seven hells, as Ziah so frequently swore about when miffed, Lorelei was sure she’d entered at least the fifth circle.

“Ew, ew, ew, EW!” Britney’s voice echoed out into the long hall of the basement. “I just walked through another spiderweb,” she leveled her light at Lorelei, blinding her, “Don’t you ever clean down here? It’s disgusting!”

Calm down, Gwen Stefani, why did you even want to come? was what Lorelei wanted to say, but instead she offered her the sickeningly sweet smile she gave to guests who were beginning to get on her bad side, “Actually it’s the faeries in charge of the housekeeping.”

She couldn’t see Britney’s reaction, but imagined a hefty eye roll.

Conrad had stared at her dumbly for far too long when Britney quizzed him about what he and Lorelei were discussing in hushed whispers at the Harvest Festival. His brain seemed to land on the truth, and Lorelei supposed she was appreciative of that in a friend, but she was surprised to find that Conrad hadn’t told Britney anything else up until that point–not even about his brother. She was slightly less surprised when the woman declared she would be accompanying them on their search for the deed.

Arista had insisted there was no deed, and Conrad’s only clue that it might exist was the contention of his homicidal, prodigal brother, but he was more determined than ever to find it that night. Determined enough to take both Lorelei and Britney into the depth of Moonlit Shores Manor’s basement to search.

There were plenty of store rooms and closets to hunt, including doors that Conrad would point out and remark he didn’t remember which instilled very little confidence in Lorelei. But at the same time she felt a certain excitement at crossing over unknown thresholds and rummaging through unmarked boxes. Anything could be inside, even if they didn’t find the deed, and if they did, well she had no idea what that even meant.

Still empty-handed, the three entered a room down a dead end corridor that Lorelei swore hadn’t been there moments before. Inside, the walls were rough stone and there was no light to be flicked on, not even candles, ever-flickering by the manor’s magic. Their steps became more careful, scuffing quietly against the dirty stone beneath their feet, and they each inched toward a different wall.

Lorelei found a small cabinet and crouched down before it. The wood was coarse and hand-carved, but the doors fit together tightly. She pulled at the brass knob, and it gave after a hearty tug. She shone the light of her phone inside, but could see almost immediately it was empty. The sides and base of the cabinet were the same rough wood, but the back of it had been painted black, though–she cocked her head–her light didn’t reflect the way she had expected. The blackness of the back of the cabinet seemed to swallow up the light instead, and she reached out to touch the paint, intrigued to find the back was much farther from her than she perceived.

“What do you think this is?”

Lorelei turned at Britney’s voice to see her standing before a tall object draped in a heavy canvas cloth. “Not the deed,” Lorelei half whispered, though she wasn’t entirely sure of that what with everything she’d seen at the manor, but it was intriguing enough to get her to stand beside Britney and stare up at it.

Conrad circled the thing, his lips drawn into a pout and brow furrowed. It towered over even him, and Lorelei wondered how it was maneuvered down the hall and into the room in the first place. “I guess we need to see it,” he said, coming up to its side and pulling off the cloth with a great heave.

The canvas kicked up dust and Lorelei inhaled a mouthful of it. Her lungs stung and she exhaled so sharply, she lost her balance. At her side, Britney was sputtering and waving frantically at her face, and Conrad’s voice was saying something but was muffled and distorted as if he might have pulled the canvas over his own face.

Before them was a frame, as wide as the two of them standing beside one another. Polished and smooth, the wood spiraled up on both sides to meet at the top far above their heads in a point, and the bottom was flat, the whole piece suspended on a rack of sorts. Lorelei would have thought it was a massive mirror, but neither she nor Britney were reflected in the glass, and instead, she saw Conrad stepping into the frame on the other side.

“Uh oh.” His eyes were wide, his face illuminated by the dull blue of his phone.

Britney coughed once more, her tongue sticking out, “What?”

“This might be a problem.”

Lorelei squinted at him on the other side of the frame. The wall behind him was dark, even with his own light, but the room she was in felt brighter, and she thought her eyes had gotten used to the darkness. But something was…off.

The urge took her before she knew why, and Lorelei reached out, her hand stopping abruptly in the air between them, hovering just inside the frame. There was something there, a barrier, hard and smooth, and it didn’t give at all when she pushed.

“What are you doing?” Britney scoffed, her hands on her hips.

Conrad reached forward as well, rapping his knuckled solidly against the invisible barrier.

“You two,” Britney shook her head and walked around to the other side of the frame, “I just don’t–”

The woman’s voice caught in her throat. She should have appeared beside Conrad, but instead his face turned more panicked as Britney disappeared. She popped back up on the other side with a gasp, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Lorelei swallowed, taking her hand away from the barrier and peering around the frame. As she expected, there was nothing but a small sliver of space between it and the wall.

“I’ve seen this before.” Lorelei came back around the mirror at Conrad’s words. “But not this one specifically.”

“How are you there, but not there,” Britney’s lips were pursed tightly, but she managed to growl, “And why are we here?” When she gestured to the room, Lorelei glanced around. It was not the place they had just been, but a bedroom, small and sparsely decorated, and she could smell something distinctly sweet coming from the hall.

“Hephaestian mirror,” Conrad sighed, “Happened to Seamus when I was thirteen. Apparently the manor’s home to a few.” He ran a hand along his side of the frame, inspecting it, “Problem is they only have one good jump in them at a time.”

“We’re stuck here?” Britney shrieked, throwing up her hands.

“No,” Conrad was quick to answer, then screwed up his face, “Well, I don’t think so. Seamus got back he just had to find the other one.”

“Well, where the hell is it?”

Conrad stared back at them sheepishly, “We destroyed it.”

“Oh my gods!” Britney crossed her arms, stomping away.

“Wait, I’m sorry,” Lorelei found her voice, glancing back from Britney to Conrad, “What exactly is going on?”

“Hephaestian mirror,” Conrad repeated, his face a bit more shadowed than a moment earlier, “They work sort of like…like the portals at the train station, but with time instead of space.”

“Like the portals? So why can’t we come back through?”

Conrad scratched the back of his head, “Way stronger magic, really complicated, usually just one way.”

Britney came storming back to the mirror, jabbing her finger into the glass, “And they destroyed our only way back!”

“No!” Conrad’s features were getting blurry, “This wasn’t the one Seamus fell into. There’s a second one somewhere on your side that will get you back, you just need to find it.”

“We don’t even know where our side is!” Britney snorted.

“Technically you do know where,” Conrad’s image was almost completely gone, “You just don’t know when.”

When I get back there, I swear–”

“Shh!” Lorelei grabbed Britney’s arm to quiet her. From beyond the bedroom, there was a creak, footsteps on floorboards, coming toward them, and they froze.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

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!

For updates, you can follow the blog or my Twitter or Instagram for reminders of new posts.

Vacancy – 2.04 – Harvest Fest (Part 3 Final)

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

v 2.04

Waves broke on the rocks, the spray cold on Lorelei’s ankles. The sun was just disappearing on the horizon, and a gust swept down the coast making her stop in her tracks. Beyond them, she could see the walkway narrowing as the rocky ledge curved, and the beach was far off behind them. A handful of boats bobbed in the waves just off the rocks, the water below black and who knows how deep.

“Are you sure this is right?” she called ahead to Grier at the lead. He was skillfully stepping over the craggy landscape while not even looking at it, his eyes glued to the map in hand.

He shouted something back, his words lost in the wind. With a deep sigh, she continued on behind Hotaru who had surprised her with her own surefootedness, so different than when back at the manor.

Finally they came to the peak’s end, barely wide enough for the three to stand alongside one another. A grey, choppy ocean reached out in all directions, cutting into the reds and purples of the sky. She wrapped her arms tightly about herself and stood very still, trying to bury the thought that it might be nice to jump in.

“The island.” Grier turned from them and headed back, but only so far, stopping at the small dock and untying one of the dinghies.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Lorelei slipped against the rocks as she went for him, falling onto her knees. Hotaru helped her up just as Grier was stepping into the boat, “That’s not yours, you can’t just steal a boat!”

“The end of the map, X marks the spot,” he waved the map overhead as he sat, “And we’re just borrowing it. Nobody’s around to stop us. Are you coming or not?”

“I absolutely cannot believe we are doing this.”

Lorelei could feel the tightness of the frown on her face, her arms crossed. She wasn’t going to help row, but Grier didn’t seem to need assistance. In fact, he seemed to be doing better than she could have ever expected, taking all three of them out further from the shore.

“There better be something good out there,” she grumbled, “If this treasure ends up being the friendships you made along the way or some shit, I am going to be pissed.”

With the blackness of the water all around them, Lorelei shifted to center herself in the tiny vessel. When she saw the spit of land and the lighthouse atop it, she relaxed until she realized they weren’t headed exactly for it.

There was an even smaller mass, rising up from the water just beyond where the lighthouse’s island stood. It, like so many other things they’d seen that day, couldn’t have been seen unless you knew it was there. And of course Grier did.

He was quick to scuttle out of the boat and up onto the rocks, and they lost him almost immediately as he crested the small hill. “Hotaru,” Lorelei huffed, pulling herself up next to the girl, “Can you rein him in?”

“Probably,” she craned her neck up over the rocks and smiled, “but I don’t really want to.”

Grier was kneeling at the top of the hill. The sun had finally disappeared, and the darkness had come upon them quickly, but the sky was cloudless, and his form was lined in a silver light. He had the map spread out on the ground, a hand against it.

“Is this the X?” Lorelei ventured, hoping to be done.

He said nothing for a long minute then sat back, “Yeah. This is it.”

The sudden somberness to his voice struck Lorelei harder than the chill in the air.

“So, no treasure?” Lorelei could tell Hotaru felt silly saying it.

He glanced around at the spot, bare and surrounded by water, then shrugged.

Waves crashed against the rock, and the wind blew in strong, constant gusts against their ears, and the three were quiet. No one was ready to say they had to go back yet.

“He said I’d find it,” Grier turned up a lip, “if I was worthy.”

Lorelei hadn’t heard the words the man had whispered to him at the booth, but she’d been afraid of what it might have been. A scam, she thought, was most likely, with danger a close second, but now, she realized, this was much worse.

“Well,” Hotaru took a step closer to him, “aren’t you?”

He raised his eyes to hers, and she grinned knowingly back. For a second, it looked like Grier was glowing.

A light burst forth from the map so bright they all reeled back from it. There was a cracking sound, somewhere below them, and Lorelei again fell to her knees knowing full well it would do no good if they were about to be plunged into the blackness of the ocean. But instead, the little isle shifted just enough so that they could feel they weren’t in the exact spot they’d begun in, and then the light was gone.

In place of the map sat a box, no bigger than Grier’s palm, but he was quick to take it up and hold it out to them. With little hesitation, he threw it open, and Lorelei held her breath when he peered inside.

From its shallow insides, he held up an oval pendant just before his face and squinted. In the dark, Lorelei had to come close, but when she saw the familiar outline of the chipmunk, she quickly covered her mouth.

“What is it?” Hotaru cocked her head, peering up at Grier’s hand.

“No clue.”

Hotaru giggled, “It’s kinda cute.”

“You want it?” Grier motioned to hand it off to the girl.

“No!” Lorelei shouted, her breath catching, and the two stared at her blankly. Her mind raced. Could she tell them about the brooch, the letter, Conrad’s family? She swallowed, “That man. He said it was yours, Grier. You need to keep it.”

He flipped the pendant over in his hand, “I wouldn’t have even found it without Hotaru, though.”

“She’s right,” the girl said quickly, “It’s yours.”

Back on the mainland, they reached the festival grounds just as the first firework burst in the sky. Grier was purportedly ravenous and ran off for food before, Hotaru following after, and both were gone before Lorelei could get her bearings again. She sighed and sauntered toward where their booth was when Conrad suddenly popped up in front of her. “You’re alive!”

“Barely,” she rubbed at her face, feeling a gritty, sandiness across her skin.

“Ziah was getting nervous,” he chuckled, “but I told her you’d be fine. She’d probably feel a lot better if you let her know you’ve not been eaten by chupacabras though.”

“Of course, but first, I need to tell you something,” she looked about for a second to ensure they were alone, “It’s been a long day, but basically Grier was given a brooch, like the one I got from Ms. Pennycress. I’m almost certain it’s the same symbol.”

Conrad’s brow darkened, “Like my father’s?”

She nodded. “Do you think it’s possible that your brother was here tonight?” Her stomach turned at the thought.

“No,” he shook his head fast, then screwed up his face, “Well, maybe. Do you think this has to do with the deed?”

Lorelei’s heart jumped. She had been wanting to bring up the deed for what felt like forever, from the moment they returned from his parents’ house, but the right time hadn’t come. Finally, she thought, and sighed, opening her mouth to speak.

But from behind Conrad, Britney’s voice was clear and piercing, “What deed?”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

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!

For updates, you can follow the blog or my Twitter or Instagram for reminders of new posts.

Vacancy – 2.03 – Harvest Fest (Part 2)

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

v 2.03

“I can’t believe you!” Lorelei touched her forehead, a vein pulsating beneath her fingertips.

Grier’s mouth was hanging open excitedly, the paper clenched in his fist. She’d managed to drag him away from the booth before Ziah or Conrad could count the rest of the supply or the money gathered as one shift ended and the other began, and they ended up in a quiet spot just at the edge of the festival grounds. “I know,” he was grinning stupidly, ear to ear, “This is amazing!”

Lorelei sighed, squeezing the bridge of her nose. It absolutely was not amazing. Grier had traded one of their most expensive ciders for not legal tender, but a piece of parchment, aged, torn, and with an almost illegible writing scrawled over and even less recognizable drawing. Evening was settling in around them, lamplights flicking on, and shadows were growing tall in the setting sun. She only had a few hours to rectify this.

“That man, where do you think he went?”

Grier shrugged, “I dunno, home? He’s not got the map anymore so why would he hang around?”

“That’s what that is? A map?” She pointed to the paper.

“To treasure!” He was eighteen now, but acting more like a child than she’d ever seen.

“You think that’s a legitimate treasure map? And someone just handed it off to you?” Crossing her arms, Lorelei sighed, “Was he wearing an eye patch too?”

“No. And he didn’t just give it to me, we did a trade,” he rolled his eyes, “He said the treasure is worth more than the bottle, don’t worry, we’ll be able to pay it back. Come on!”

He turned from her, unfolding the paper and burying his nose in it as he walked.

“You realize how ludicrous this sounds, right?” She was watching him as he started across the street.

“What’s ludicrous?”

Lorelei jumped at the sound of Hotaru beside her. The short girl winced and offered her an apologetic look.

“Treasure hunting,” she snarled, the hurried after him.

They were headed down a wide sidewalk along Main Street, the buildings packed together tightly, but their doors and shutters close; it seemed everyone was at the festival. Lorelei and Hotaru were rushing to keep pace with Grier, until he stopped suddenly.

He looked up and spun around, “I don’t understand. This is it. That was…short!”

Lorelei glanced up at the building they were in front of. It was painted a bright magenta with yellow awnings and flower boxes spilling over with pansies. A kettle-shaped sign hung above the door reading Eleanor’s Tea Room, and another in the window read Closed.

Even with the nagging thought that the man had give up the map too close to the end to be a coincidence, Lorelei found herself poking around the flower boxes alongside Grier, though she had no idea what they were looking for. Then Hotaru plucked the paper from Grier. “No, it doesn’t stop here, not exactly.”

She wandered away from them for a moment, down the sidewalk, then back and turned sharply toward the building, disappearing into the hedge. At the edge of the sidewalk, there was a small arch, drowning in ivy and white flowers, and Hotaru had dipped under and through it. Grier followed, and Lorelei found herself alone on the sidewalk, her question of “Should we be doing this?” left unanswered before she ducked under the ivy as well.

The walkway between the tea room and its neighbor was just wide enough for her to squeeze through, though it was dark and stray vines tugged at her sweater. There was light at its end, from the back of the building, and she stepped out onto a patio scattered with mismatched tables and chairs, surrounded by a fence covered in the tendrils of rose bushes just at the beginning of their hibernation.

Hotaru stood at the center of the space where an oak tree was growing, its branches spread out above them, adorned with lanterns and twinkling in the darkness the tree created. “You have to get to the right spot before it will tell you where to go next,” she reached a hand out and placed it on the tree, and as Lorelei came up behind her, she saw a line crawling itself across the map.

“Of course! That man didn’t know Moonlit Shores well enough to use this,” Grier grabbed her upper arm and spun her toward him, “You’re so smart!” Then he snatched the map from her and headed out. Hotaru’s face flushed deep red, and she smiled for just a second until her eye’s met Lorelei’s, and she hurried off into the darkness after Grier.

The sidewalk took them down away from Main Street, and the smell of the ocean intensified. Grier led them like a hound–though Lorelei would never say that–to a big, square building with shaker shingles and a high mansard roof. When Lorelei stepped inside, she paused, feeling how cavernous the place was immediately. She faltered on the threshold then pulled her head back out, glancing at the facade of the place, how at sat on a corner lot looking ordinary and unobtrusive, and then popped back in. It was definitely bigger on the inside, but she’d come to realize that pointing these things out didn’t seem to matter.

The library smelled like she’d fallen between the pages of an old book. Each row of tomes was lit from overhead by an orangey bulb nestled into a stained glass lampshade, casting warm blocks of color all over the leathery spines. Their footsteps echoed into the otherwise empty place, floating off into the impossibly high ceiling.

“Where in here?” Grier’s voice pierced the quiet.

Lorelei shushed him, but wondered if it mattered in the emptiness of the place.

“Probably something old,” he stopped and looked around, “That doesn’t narrow it down.” Then his face lit up and he bolted across the room and out of sight.

Hotaru looked after him, then turned back to Lorelei, “Where did he get that map?”

“Some man at the booth,” she ran a finger along one of the books and thought she heard a giggle. She jerked her hand back and shuffled away from the stacks.

“Was he dressed in a black cloak?”

“Yes,” Lorelei narrowed her eyes at the girl, “Why?”

“Kind of tall and skinny?”

The anxiety on Lorelei’s face told her the answer.

“I saw him following you around this morning. Ren even seemed kind of interested, but the man disappeared before you two took over for us, so I didn’t think much about it after that.”

Lorelei felt a queasiness in her stomach, “What do we do?”

“Found it!” Grier came thundering back to them with the map held high over his head, “It was the archway into the old record’s room. Made of reclaimed wood from the Argo. Next stop!”

They watched him march past and back out the door.

“I don’t think he could be convinced to stop,” Hotaru bit her lip, “There’s really only one thing we can do–”

“Knock him out.”

“Protect him.”

Lorelei grimaced, “Oh, okay, yeah, protect him. That’s a good option too. Let’s do that.”

Grier was almost sprinting as he headed down the road. Barely keeping up, Lorelei turned the corner to finally see it: the ocean. Out past a line of red and white stilted houses, the smokey blue of the water reached up and melted into a hazy, yellow sky. The clouds were resting against the water like long swaths of cotton candy in pinks and blues, and the sun was slipping down behind the sea.

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been standing there when she remembered she was meant to be following Grier and Hotaru. She saw them bustling along a stone retaining wall ahead and hurried passed the stairs that would take them down to the beach, catching up with them near a thicket.

It looked especially dark beyond the treeline, and again Lorelei stopped, “Grier, are you sure you’re going in the right direction?”

“Oh yeah,” he forged ahead to the edge of the trees, “Next spot is the old fishing shack.”

“Isn’t that over there?” Hotaru pointed back the way they’d come to a sort of terrifying, but admittedly less terrifying than the wood, dilapidated hut at the edge of the beach.

Grier shook his head, “I don’t think it means there.”

He disappeared amongst the trees, and with a little groan, Lorelei went in after with Hotaru. The girl was muttering to herself about what else the old fishing shack could possibly refer to, but her voice was swallowed up in the branches.

Sinking into the ground, Lorelei pulled each foot after another, bending over and pushing old branches away from her face. She came upon Grier before she realized in the dark, finding him kneeling in the muddy sand beside a few planks, broken in a small stack. There in the shadows she could just make out the outline of a foundation of what was once, long, long ago, something one might have called a fishing shack.

“How did you know this was here?”

Her voice seemed to pull him from a bit of a trance. “Oh, you know, it’s part of Moonlit Shores. Got it!” He popped back up and hurried past them, shouting after himself in the dark, “Come on, ladies, we’re near the end, I can feel it!”

She looked to Hotaru for clarification, and the girl smiled in the dark, “He made this place his home. I’ve lived here almost my whole life, but I think he’ll always know more about it than I do.”

With a sigh, they pressed on.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

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!

For updates, you can follow the blog or my Twitter or Instagram for reminders of new posts.

Vacancy – 2.02 – Harvest Fest (Part 1)

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

v 2.02

The cart bumped along in the forest’s heart to the sounds of stag hooves on crispy leaves. When a breeze managed to wind its way through the dense branches, Lorelei pulled the sleeves of her chunkiest sweater down over her hands and wrapped her arms around her knees. She was finally on her way to Moonlit Shores.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” From the front set of the cart, Ziah turned back to the others. Ren raised an eyebrow in the seat beside her where he held the stags’ reins. From her small bag, she pulled four matchsticks, “We’ve got to draw babysitting straws.”

“Ugh, why you gotta call it that?” Grier snarled at her, crossing his arms with a pout.

“Because that’s what it is,” Ziah looked to Lorelei with a smirk, “Those two can’t man the booth alone. Age restrictions.”

Hotaru, who’d been sitting just next to Lorelei, sighed but said nothing. They would be taking shifts in twos at Moonlit Shores’ harvest festival selling the manor’s house-made mead and cider which was clinking gently along in crates beside them, but the rest of the day was free for them to explore. Lorelei was surprised Arista and Seamus were so keen to let them go, but Ziah advised that most guests would be at the festival themselves, and the two would likely spend the day by the fire unbothered. Regardless, Lorelei had never been to the town from which her workplace derived its name, and she nearly shivered with anticipation.

“Anyway,” Ziah went on, “If you get the short straw, you’re with Hotaru, and if you get the shortest straw, you’re stuck with Grier.”

“Hey!” the boy who, if Lorelei was honest with herself, could barely be called that anymore, snorted, “I’m taller than almost all of you!”

Ziah looked thoughtful for a moment then grinned, “You’re right, you have had a weird growth spurt recently. Well, congrats on finally hitting puberty. Conrad?” she offered the sticks to him, their ends hidden within her fist, reaching past a very visibly insulted Grier. Lorelei pulled second and held hers up, but she didn’t need to compare them to know she had the shortest.

“Could be worse!” Grier rolled his eyes at the front of the cart–he certainly didn’t hate her anywhere near as much as when she started–and pointed at Ziah, “But we get the midday slot, yeah?”

“Fine,” Ziah shrugged and turned back.

The cart emerged from the wood and crested a hill, the path widening. There were signs of life here, the outskirts of a town, fencing and farm animals, mailboxes and gravel driveways, but one paved a brilliant white, caught Lorelei’s attention. She followed the winding drive to its end where a house sat high on a hill, boxy and a bit out of place with its perfectly straight lines, and massive rectangular windows. Lorelei had never seen such a large, modern house, as if it were out of some magazine that had slipped backwards in time to them. It glowed oddly in the dull morning lights, half of the exterior a bright white stone, the other half black slate.

“Blackburn Estate,” Hotaru whispered next to Lorelei’s ear, and she recognized the name. This must be where Britney lived. “One of the oldest houses in town. Well, oldest foundations, at least.”

Past the farms, the homes sat closer together, and the road straightened. Set off from the main road, atop another hill, a low stone fence surrounded a patch of gravestones, a mausoleum flanked by statues in its center. There was more order here, but still a sense of whimsy. Nothing was exactly right, nor was it exactly wrong. They passed others carting in their own goods, and Lorelei wondered where on earth these people could possibly be living, but then realized that answer might not be earth–her idea of it anyway–at all.

Lorelei was hit with the salty smell of the nominal shore as the road narrowed and dipped between two rows of tightly packed buildings. If you didn’t know better, you may have thought Moonlit Shores was just like any sleepy, seaside town, but on closer inspection the pharmacy beside the coffee shop was actually an apothecary, and it wasn’t a therapist, but a palm reader set up between the tavern, where absinthe was notably served per the front sign, and the daycare, which accepted children as young as two and with up to seven limbs only.

At the center of the town, a park had been decorated for the occasion, lampposts strung with violet lights, stacks of bright pumpkins and rough-skinned gourds at their bases, and the people milling about were dressed in jewel-toned cloaks and flowing dresses, though Lorelei thought perhaps the attire wasn’t significant.

As they unloaded the hefty crates of cider, the vendors around them were lighting fires in small wood stoves and cinnamon breads and roasted corn mingled with the salty air, though Lorelei still hadn’t glimpsed the ocean. When the table was set, she finally sidled up to Ziah, “How does this stay…private?”

“From humans?” she dropped her voice low, “Well, they sort of just…don’t show up? On occasion there’s a story about a lost traveler or a vacationing family gone astray, but the forest that surrounds this place, well, it’s got an aura about it. Kind of wards them off.” She gave her a wink. The forest did have a distinct eeriness to it that set Lorelei’s stomach on edge, but she’d managed to ignore it this go around.

Relieved immediately by Ren and Hotaru who had the first shift, Ziah grabbed Lorelei’s arm and guided her from booth to booth inside the sprawling park. Grier trailed behind, eating absolutely everything he could get his hands on, and Conrad kept suggesting they visit areas outside of the grounds, but was shut down by Ziah each time much to his confusion until Britney showed up and whisked him away. The morning passed in a blur of handcrafted athames and purportedly ancient spell books, and eventually Lorelei found herself behind the cider-laden table with Grier just as the sun reached its midpoint and warmed the park.

The boy unwrapped foil from the roasted, bright-red leg of what Lorelei assumed was a turkey and sunk in his fangs, pink juices trailing down his chin.

“Lord, you’re a mess,” Lorelei pressed some of the paper they’d used to buoy the bottles into his hands and gestured to his face, “How are you even still hungry?” Her own belly was bloated from a stop at a candied apple booth and cheese from an animal she’d never heard of before, and he hadn’t stopped stuffing his face since they’d arrived.

“You’re not?” he looked genuinely confused, but it only lasted a second, “Eh, you know, it’s lunch time!”

She watched him devour the meat quicker than he should have been able to then quickly denied him when he begged to run across the grounds to grab another, “I need you to help me. Someone’s bound to say something I don’t understand.”

“Oh, you need me, huh?” he smirked at her and moved his chair closer, “Well, I’m at your service, milady.”

She curled a lip at him, “Ew.”

The mead and cider proved to be quite popular, and the customers proved to be quite engaging, keeping them both busy. Ziah had been right about babysitting, however, as of the two of them, Grier turned out to be more apt to say the wrong thing, but he couldn’t be watched the entire time. As Lorelei closed a sale with a group of very chatty old witches–she guessed by their wide-brimmed hats though they were the only ones around donning them–she caught Grier in a deep conversation with a lanky man in a black cloak. The man hurried off with a bottle before Lorelei could free herself of the women and their discussion about which equinox their mead choices were best suited.

“What’d he get?” she leaned over to watch what Grier did with the cash he’d been handed, but gasped when she saw what he held.

“The la pomme noir,” the boy butchered the name.

“That’s the most expensive!” she yelled at him in a whisper, her heartbeat quickening, “He didn’t give you any money?”

Grier held up the scroll he’d accepted, “Oh, no. He gave me something much better.”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

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!

For updates, you can follow the blog or my Twitter or Instagram for reminders of new posts.

Vacancy – 2.01 – The Box

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

v 2.01

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.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

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!

For updates, you can follow the blog or my Twitter or Instagram for reminders of new posts.

Vacancy – 1.25 – Promise

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

v 1.25

“They’re dead, idiot.”

Conrad winced, and thunder cracked across the sky as the third floor landing lit up. “I know. But have you been to their graves?” He was still staring out the window though it was pitch dark beyond the torrents of rain.

Byron was silent, and Lorelei studied his face in the darkness that her eyes had become used to. His lips moved, but he said nothing, as if the words were trying to come but he wouldn’t let them. His eyes softened, and for a moment she saw a striking resemblance to Conrad and almost felt sorry for him until she remembered the wooden spike hovering inches from her throat.

“You think it’s there?” Byron finally broke the steady sound of the rain on the roof.

Conrad glanced at him, his eyes flicking over Lorelei and back, then nodded.

“Would make sense,” his brother snorted, “taking it with them.” Byron snapped his head to Lorelei, and she instantly straightened, “Ladies first.”

Following his gesture, she took to the stairs, the splintered wood toying with her as she had to move toward it with each step, but it managed to leave the smallest of gaps so as to not turn her into a vampire’s fantasy. She was annoyed, but equally impressed, especially as she listened to the nonchalance in Byron’s voice, “Maybe it’s better you never joined the Omphalos; they wouldn’t appreciate how easy you made this.”

“Omphalos,” Conrad’s voice repeated behind her, “You mean the order?”

“What else would I mean?”

Lorelei saw in her mind the hilt of the sword Conrad had shown her in his office and its engraving of “OoO.” Order of Omphalos? she questioned silently, though it meant nothing to her. She ran a hand over her pocket to feel that the brooch was still there. Ms. Pennycress had signed her name with the same acronym.

Off the kitchen there was a back door that emptied them out onto a porch. The air was heavy and cold and smelled of the ocean, and when Byron’s elbow nudged her off the edge, Lorelei’s breath caught in her throat at the freezing rain. They marched across the field, the storm raging over them, until they reached the tall hedge that encircled the garden.

Conrad entered first, and Lorelei followed, keeping her eyes on his back, the shadows of the foliage and statues eerie in the distorted darkness. Deep in the garden, a set of headstones stood at the base of a thick tree trunk. Overhanging branches staved off a bit of rain, and Lorelei pushed her hair away from her face before quickly recrossing her arms to hold her own body still. She could see both brothers were staring uneasily at the stones.

“What are you even going to do with the deed?” Conrad had to shout over the rain, “Arista’s not going to just hand anything over.”

Byron’s face changed, and he eyed his brother, “It won’t be up to her.”

Conrad sneered at him then pointed to one of the stones, “There, on the back, there’s a compartment.”

Byron took wide steps around the graves, not treading directly in front of them, and leaned down behind one of the stones.

“Wait!” the urgency in Conrad’s voice made Lorelei jump. He was staring intently at his brother, and thunder cracked across the sky. They locked eyes for a long moment until Conrad sputtered, “Can you just…just tell me what happened?”

Byron put a hand on the stone and bit his lip, then let out a long sigh, “Maybe when you’re older.” Then he dipped back behind the headstone, and Conrad made a quick move to Lorelei’s side, grabbing her arm. There was a spark and Byron yelped, then a squish as he fell back against the wet earth. The spike dropped from the air at Lorelei’s feet and she instinctively threw a hand up around her throat, taking a deep breath, but was immediately back on edge when Byron shot up to his feet.

But his eyes were different, wild, and his hands were out in front of him as if he were searching in the dark for a light switch, “What the hell was that?” he cried, spinning around and looking up into the branches of the trees, “Who’s there?”

Conrad took a long step back, pulling Lorelei with him, “It’s not safe,” he shouted over the sound of the rain.

Byron swore, looking left then right and left again, crouching low and gasping for air. He backed into the tree, then cried out, jumping forward. Lorelei covered her mouth to keep from laughing.

“We gotta get outta here,” Conrad insisted, but didn’t move, his eyes locked on his brother, “They’re coming!”

Cursing, Byron eyed him, grimaced, then turned and fled into the darkness. When his figure disappeared, Conrad did the same, pulling Lorelei back out in the full brunt of the storm and through the garden in the opposite direction.

“What just happened?” she shouted after him after they’d cleared the hedge, trying to keep up with his long strides in the mud.

“Paranoia.” Lorelei could see the house through the torrents of rain and her own hair. “Arista set it years ago. I’m just thankful it still worked.”

Conrad bypassed the manor entirely on his bike, riding up to the cottage and coming to a sharp stop across three rows of what were once dahlias. He dismounted, instructing Lorelei to follow him in a voice she dared not question, and before she knew it, they were inside the cottage’s front office entryway, and he was banging on the door the lead to the rest of the house, shouting for Arista.

Lorelei had not been inside the cottage since Arista had okayed her to work at Moonlit Shores, and on a temporary basis at that so she could get rid of her easily, as Ziah had said. She glanced down at the floor and what appeared to be a very expensive carpet she was dripping mud and rainwater onto just as the door opened.

“Conrad, what on earth?” Arista’s voice was nothing like she expected, concerned and even shaking, and when she caught sight of the woman hurrying in, bleary-eyed and pulling a robe tightly around her as she reached out for Conrad’s arm, she thought she even looked motherly.

Seamus was on her heels in bright green boxer shorts and nothing else, scratching his belly and blinking out at them. He ran a hand through his fiery beard and beamed at Lorelei, “Good evening, lass!”

It was then Arista noticed Lorelei was even there, and her mouth creased into a tight frown. She stood straight and lifted her chin, “Explain. Now.”

“Is there a deed?” Conrad never blinked as he tried to catch her eye.

“A…a what?” she faltered, her eyes pingponging from Conrad to Lorelei.

“A deed. Byron said he wants the deed, but I’ve never even seen the damn thing. Is there a deed to Moonlit Shores Manor, and do you have it somewhere safe?” He somehow looked taller than normal, his green eyes intense, his jaw tight. Lorelei had never seen him like this, and she suddenly felt like she needed to sit down.

“Byron?” Arista appeared to crumple, “You spoke to Byron?”

He sighed, blinking slowly, then finally nodded.

“He’s…he’s alive?” She began to stagger backward and Seamus pushed the desk chair under her just before she fell blindly backward. “Byron’s alive.”

“And trying to take the manor from you,” Conrad lowered his voice, “So where’s the deed?”

Arista’s lip quivered then just as quickly she sat up, “We cannot discuss this in front of strangers.”

Conrad grunted, “Considering Byron just tried to kill her, I think she’s earned hearing whatever you have to say.”

“Tried to kill her? Bryon?” her mouth fell open, and then she frowned, “Well, what in the world did she do to make him try something like that?”

Lorelei sucked in a sharp breath, and Conrad stared at his aunt blankly, “I’m not my father, you know.”

Arista rolled her eyes, “Nothing like that exists.”

“He seemed pretty convinced. He tore up dad’s office looking for it.”

“He got into the house?” she squinted up to the ceiling, “The spells must have worn off. Or he’s not one of them–”

“That doesn’t matter,” Conrad slapped his hand on the desk, and they all jumped, “Is this place safe or not?”

“Yes!” she shouted, coming to her feet, “There is no paper deed, Conrad. Nothing he can get his hands on. You, on the other hand,” she crossed her arms, but softened slightly, “You know this place is yours. You just have to–”

“I know,” he relented then, turning away from her, “Listen, he’s out there, somewhere. I had him trigger the psychosis trap at the headstones so we could get away, but who knows how far he’ll run.”

“We’ll take care of it,” Seamus put a hand on Arista’s shoulder before she could say anything more. She looked like she wanted to reach out to him, but instead touched her hand to her own face.

Conrad’s eyes flickered over to Lorelei then. She had been trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, but under his gaze she felt completely exposed. He strode up to her and opened the door, nodding for her to walk out with him.

Outside, the rain was still coming down hard, but their walk to the manor was not hurried. They entered through the back, and Lorelei remembered the first time she walked into the manor, soaked to the core and afraid, but for wholly different reasons. She followed Conrad into the kitchen, the swinging door plunging them into an even deeper silence when it finally stopped. An orange light from the hood vent was all that illuminated the space, but it was enough.

Conrad’s voice cracked when he finally spoke, “I am so, so sorry, Lorelei, I–”

“It’s fine,” she stopped him with a raised hand then wiped at her face and flicked the water in the sink, “It’s not your fault. But are you okay?”

“Oh, uh, yeah,” he studied the floor.

“I’m serious,” she dipped her head to try and see his face better, “That was…a lot.”

He looked up at her then took an awkward step, closing the space between them. She stiffened as he put his arms around her, but when her chest filled up with warmth and the realization that any immediate danger was gone kicked in, she felt herself melt against him. It was nice, she thought. Very, very nice.

When he pulled back, she sighed, then caught herself. She’d stopped shivering, and lifted up her arms, completely dry, “Magic?”

He half smiled.

“How expensive was that?” she chuckled, “I could have just grabbed a towel, you didn’t really need to do that.”

“No, I definitely did.” She couldn’t be sure under the warm orange glow, but she thought she saw the color of his face change. “Anyway, I’m okay. You’re the one who almost got, well,” he ran a finger across his neck.

“I’m used to it,” she waved him away, “You can pay me back in answers.”

“Maybe tomorrow?”

“Or next week, next month,” she grinned, “We’re here, we’re safe, we have plenty of time.”

“Right,” he nodded as if he were assuring himself, “Right. Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

Lorelei watched him as he hesitated at the door then gave her a little nod before heading off for the basement. She felt dreamy as she headed for her own room, as if her feet took her there, but her mind was somewhere else. She’d almost died tonight, she thought, but that seemed like a distant memory in the wake of the brief moment in the kitchen, and her core was still warm.

The sound of the rain reached even her bedroom, in the heart of the manor, as Ziah had called it, and though she knew the man who had threatened her life was somewhere out there with plans to get into and take over Moonlit Shores Manor, she felt as safe as she did her first night there when she’d been lulled to sleep by low rolling thunder. But this time, she thought, slipping the brooch from her pocket and pressing it against her chest, this time she wanted to return the favor, and as both good sense and dumb luck would have it, she spoke this thought out loud, “I promise I’ll protect you too.”

 

Table of Contents | Season Two – Episode 1

Thank you so much for reading the first season of Vacancy! After a short month, the second season will be posted again on Mondays right here on my blog. For updates, you can follow the blog or my Twitter or Instagram for reminders of new posts.

If you enjoyed the first season, 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!